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

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Checking On What Makes Us Human

Before Harold Blythe had fully opened his eyes in the morning, he thought of his age and knew that yet one more day had been scratched off the calendar.  As he stood over the toilet bowl, he wondered for how much longer his urinary tract would keep working.  After all, he had been pissing for more than seventy years, and eventually even the best-designed systems fail.  His heart, for example, which had beat for hundreds of millions of times per year or almost a billion times in his lifetime. What a miracle of biological engineering! Or his kidneys which had flushed waste from his system for decades, day in and day out; or his liver which eliminated all the impurities he ingested and kept up the job with little variation in performance.  And this was all without counting his brain which was more powerful than the best of computers and had been processing information ever since he came out of the womb. All would fall apart eventually.

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. (Hamlet)

Harold was no Hamlet, but every morning as he timed his stream, assessed his steadiness over the bowl, and ran his tongue over his teeth, he wondered about the human condition. Actually his human condition – the working order of his organs – and then the human condition.

He thought first of Konstantin Levin, Tolstoy’s alter ego in Anna Karenina, who wondered at the cruel irony of Man who was created with intelligence, wit, insight, humor, and talent; lived for a few decades, and then spent the rest of eternity in the cold hard ground of the Russian steppes. Why did God even bother, thought Levin?  And if he took the time to create mankind, why did he play such a bad joke on him?

On most days Harold’s angst passed quickly enough, only a fragment as he made his bed tea and gone completely by the time he settled in with his morning newspapers; but recently the angst was lingering.  As he smoothed the last wrinkles out of the bed cover, he thought, “I just did this.  How could a whole day have passed without me knowing?”. As he measured his tea and poured the boiling water, his déjà vu continued. “Perhaps if I make coffee a few times a week, it will break the rhythm”, he thought; but to no avail.  Whether it was coffee or tea, it was there every morning just like the one before.

“You have the mind and body of a fifty-year old”, said his doctor when he shared his concerns. “What are you so worried about?”

“Numbers don’t lie”, Harold replied.  The clock kept ticking; and despite his wife’s citation of actuarial tables which predicted many more years, he knew he had only a few left. Ten, twenty, what did it matter? He had far fewer years left than he had lived even if he made it to 100 like his mother.  A drop in the bucket.

"Resistance is impossible!" he said to himself.  "If I could only understand what it is all for!  But that too is impossible. An explanation would be possible if it could be said that I have not lived as I ought to.  But it is impossible to say that," and he remembered all the legality, correctitude, and propriety of his life.  "That at any rate can certainly not be admitted," he thought, and his lips smiled ironically as if someone could see that smile and be taken in by it.  "There is no explanation! 

Agony, death....What for?" (The Death of Ivan Ilyich)
Harold Blythe was no Ivan Ilyich either, but wondered – like most men, he supposed – about what it all meant.  Ivan Ilyich had constructed his life to keep out the unexpected and the unfamiliar; and he ignored the niggling bits that came through the cracks.  So the disease that struck him came as a complete surprise.  Things were not supposed to turn out this way, he thought.  He resisted, denied, and fought till the end, going through self-recrimination for his stupidity and ignorance, periods of guilt, and moments of terror and panic. 
Harold often quoted the Yiddish expression “Too soon old, too late schmart”.  The Jews knew what Ivan Ilyich meant when he said, “If I could only understand what it is all for”; but no matter how he hurried up and re-read every philosopher and major literary figure on his bookshelf; studied the Bible, the Vedas, and the Koran; and meditated in the garden, he always came up empty. Tolstoy himself backed into faith as he describes it in A Confession.  After years of pondering the absolute, he simply concluded that if billions of people believed in God, why shouldn’t he. 
Harold checked his eyes at 10 o’clock when he went for a walk. No matter what the correction in his lenses, the street signs were still blurry around the edges.  It took seconds for his eyes to refocus from near to far; and more and more floaters drifted across his field of vision.  They too were wearing out. 
There would come a time when all human organs would be replaceable – bionic eyes, livers, hearts, and kidneys.  As long as these prosthetics were properly maintained and replaced at regular intervals, we could live forever.  What an interesting thought! Did that mean that God would also disappear? Or would we get so bored with life that we would unplug ourselves not many years past our present pull-date? 
For the first time in his life Harold had bought a new car.  He was used to buying used, and as the cars began to rattle, cough, and shimmy, he identified with them. Listening for engine-knock, transmission noise, or sticky tappets was no different than registering joint pain, palpitations, or tinnitus.  

Ivan Ilyich

        The Death of Ivan Ilyich

His new Camry had no character. It didn’t grow old with him. Things did not fall apart, and ever since Edwards Deming taught the Japanese quality control, their cars lasted forever.

All of Harold’s friends were falling apart as well.  Age was indifferent to character.  Many were not unlike Ivan Ilyich and defied balky joints, imbalance, and increasingly flaccid muscles; and like Ivan stared blankly at the hospital walls when the wheels fell off.

Others were quite accepting of this natural fate – too much so, thought Harold. It was better to be resolute and defiant.

Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at the close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light…(Dylan Thomas)

Still others whinged, whined, and complained.  Their infirmities replaced Shakespeare, Kant, and Merton. “The brain is not a liver”, Harold said to them.

Of course it is, he knew; and Harold checked his mental functions every morning just as he did every other. Ironically he worried less about senility than he did failing kidneys. Alzheimer’s erased the fear of death; and he – like Ivan Ilyich – would trade in all his memories of skiing at Gstaad, summering on the Vineyard, or sex with Lisa Martin for that.

At one point in his life Harold worried very much about losing his marbles. If he couldn’t remember the past, then the past never existed; and if the past didn’t exist, neither did he.

His father, a doctor who treated patients at the St. Jude Convalescent Home in New Brighton, told him that distant memories are the last to go. “Old people forget where they put their teeth, not their love affairs.”  Some consolation then, many years ago, none now. People with Alzheimer’s lived long enough for even love affairs to disappear.

“So far, so good”, his wife said to him one morning at breakfast. “You’re still here.”  She did not share his concern about the measure of a man or about the flickering light at the end of the tunnel.  “Today”, he replied; but no wifely levity could derail him from tracking his downward trajectory.

“Horny toenails”, he laughed as he prepared to cut them one morning. “What next?”

That was a turning point he later realized.  It wasn’t so much Tolstoy’s irony about a short life that made sense, but the ridiculousness of it all. “Horny toenails”, he repeated. “Horny toenails.”

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