"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, February 20, 2015

Falling Apart–Coming To Grips With Broken Gutters And Existential Angst

Sandy Biggs knew there was something up when his left turn signal didn’t work.  Things always go wrong when it comes to mechanical objects, but this breakdown seemed more serious.  Although all it would take to fix it was a new bulb or relay switch; and since he had been going to Green Valley Exxon for over thirty years, they would get him in and out in a few hours, he still felt anxious.

The other day his blender stopped working.  At first he thought that he had put in too many pine nuts in his pesto; but rebooting the thing – unplugging, plugging; switch on, switch off – did nothing.  The Sunbeam had died.  There it sat on the kitchen counter filled with half-blended basil leaves, garlic, and olive oil; inert and useless. He would have to buy another; and since it was over 15 years old, Sandy knew that he would have to deal with new interactive models requiring programming.  No more On-Off; but a graded spectrum of speeds, blending power, and timing options.

Image result for image old blender

When the blender stopped working, he looked at it dumbly; hoping that giving it a rest might bring it back to life. Metal fatigue from too much use; but not really inert but in transition.  It was no use.  The blender was as dead as a doornail.

He looked around the kitchen and noticed all the other things that were about to go.  The wobbly ceiling fan that rocked on its moorings. The water on the linoleum after every cycle of the dishwasher.  The flickering fluorescent light. The grinding and groaning of the furnace.

Whenever there was a wind he listened for loose shutters and tree limbs scraping on the tile roof.  After a storm he walked gingerly down the basement stairs afraid of what he would find.  After the last heavy rain, water had seeped through cracks in the foundation and leaked onto the floor for days.  Last winter his new magnolia trees had suffered bad freeze damage and had to be replaced.  The weight of the wet, heavy snow of a late February storm had broken his front gutters off their hinges.

Image result for images magnolia trees

Most homeowners would have taken these incidents in stride. “Gutters”, his father had said to him when he bought his first house. “The bane of the householder”; and had he paid attention to the old man’s advice perhaps he would not have had water in the basement. Most houses in his neighborhood were kept shipshape – refinished floors, new kitchens, track lighting, landscaped yards – but he simply didn’t have the energy to even keep his house kept up. “You have no gumption”, his father said when he saw the hanging gutters after the snow storm; and he was right.  The very thought of a step ladder, a hammer, screwdriver, or shovel made him wince.

Image result for image modern kitchen

The problem was not with the house or the car; nor the bad luck with brutal winters and unseasonably hot summers.  It was with Sandy himself.  He was breaking down just like his appliances. He was barely 20-40 in both eyes no matter how strong the correction when he once had been eagle-eyed.  Distinctions between ‘F’ and ‘S’  had long disappeared. His big toe ached at night.  He spent more time on brushing, flossing, and interstitial digging than reading the Sports Section.  “Fifteen and sixteen still have some life in them”, said his dentist. “Maybe a year, maybe two, maybe more.  Who knows?”.  Sandy had joked with him about getting a set of wooden choppers like George Washington, but the dentist said that the remark wasn’t funny.  He was in the business of saving teeth, not pulling them.

“You’re getting obsessive”, said his wife who noticed that Sandy’s comments were increasingly about things falling apart – the potholes on Massachusetts Avenue; the cracks in the sidewalks in Georgetown; broken streetlights in Adams Morgan. Power outages, low water pressure, indifferent snow removal, abandoned cars – these were only some of his irritable complaints. “Nothing works any more”, he said.

Image result for images potholed street

Even signs of renewal and renovation depressed him. Multistoried buildings had gone up so fast in Clarendon that before he knew it all his favorite Thai and Vietnamese places were gone. Driving to the Shenandoahs was no longer a leisurely trip through the Virginia countryside.  Cheap thrown-up housing developments crowded Route 66 for 50 miles; and they were already weathered beyond their years.

Image result for images clarendon virginia

“I have an existential problem”, he said to himself.  He would never admit such a pompous-sounding and self-important thing to anyone else; but nevertheless it was true. He was having a tough time with getting older, and the cracks in his own foundation were showing.

He was surprised that none of his friends were suffering from the same terminal angst. They were falling apart just like he was.  They saw the same disrepair and unstoppable decline of people and things that he did. What was wrong with them? he asked.

Perhaps it was time to give God a chance, he thought. He remembered reading Tolstoy’s A Confession, his intimate memoir about coming to faith after a lifetime of nihilistic atheism.  Tolstoy woke up one morning after decades of struggle with the meaning of life and death, unsatisfied with both rationality and irrational belief and suddenly realized one absolute fact.  Ninety-nine percent of those living today believe in God, he thought, as did untold billions before him.  What was the big deal?  He took a deep breath, his moment of epiphany past, and spent his last years converted, calm, and untroubled.

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Easier said than done, thought Sandy, who had spent the greater part of his life expunging the last traces of Father Brophy, the Carmelite Sisters of the Little Flower, and years of parochial school. “Sunken costs”, he reminded himself.  Too much invested in anti-clerical agnosticism to go back to church.

What about nihilism? OK, Tolstoy had his conversion, but Nietzsche, Sartre, Machiavelli, and Shakespeare never doubted for a minute that the world simply clattered with the sound of random billiard balls, “sound and fury” and all that. He sort of believed in a purposeless, meaningless universe; and was tempted by Nietzsche’s Superman; but could never ‘embrace’ the idea.

Image result for images nietzsche

A few years ago he had had a passionate affair with a young woman thirty years his junior.  She did the trick.  For those four years he never thought once about falling apart or cycles of deterioration.  Lucy was invigorating, rejuvenating, and validating.  The downside, of course, is that when these December-May relationships end, life for the older man looks even bleaker than before.  As much as Sandy dreamt of another such liaison, he knew that he was just whistlin’ Dixie.

“Wait till you have grandchildren”, his coffee mate told him one Sunday. “That’ll raise your spirits.” Sandy supposed so, innocence and all that, but grandchildren were just a deus ex machina – dropped into his life through no doing of his own.  Resolution to his dilemma had to come like Tolstoy’s – through intelligence, effort, persistence, and desire.

Image result for images cute two year old girls

I lost track of Sandy a few years ago; but I hear from mutual friends that he is surviving, in good health, and teaching at American University.  He looked ‘bright’, remarked one; and by that I supposed that he had gotten over his existential crisis and had, like the rest of us, simply accepted the inevitability of our demise.  I certainly hope so, because now it’s my turn to like awake at night.

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