Deadwood and Dying

Man, the Deadwood mini-marathon tonight got awkward. Friends first took great efforts coax me out of a chair onto the couch. They then remarked that I looked tired and uncomfortable and was something the matter, Jeremy?

Instead of walking them through the long answer, I kicked up my feet on the coffee table, made a joke, and we went back to watching. They didn’t pry, yet it’s unlikely they bought it.

Not sure I would have bought it if I were in their socks either, but a lot of people can attest to the fact that I am never at ease when watching serious drama. The story sucks me in, and not in a relaxing way. My posture reflects that involvement. Often, as I get older, I simply stand while watching.

Yet they were right about a few things: I am tired and something appears to be wrong. I’m tired because I haven’t been sleeping well. The unrest is probably related to ongoing issues with my heart.

The short of it is that several weeks ago my heart took off running. Though it was eventually calmed, it hasn’t felt right in my chest since. It misses beats. It gets worked up over very minor things. It just feels odd. Odder still, it seems to handle major exertions just fine.

We’ve done some serious tests and, so far, nothing has bubbled up. Yet it does not feel right beating there, so more probing is called for after the doctor’s appointment Monday morning. And prayer, I suppose. If any readers are so inclined, have at it.


David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Commencement

Looking for a gift for a friend, I tripped over a small booklet by novelist David Foster Wallace titled This Is Water.

I’m quite late to the game here. The volume is an only slightly cleaned up transcript of a commencement address Wallace delivered to Kenyon College in 2005 and “went viral” on the Internet long before we had a term for it. Wallace killed himself in 2008 and This Is Water was published posthumously.

It’s a morbid interest of mine to see what writerly suicides had to say about ending it before they ended it. “No I don’t have a gun,” sang Kurt Cobain, but it turns out he did.

In the Kenyon speech, Wallace speaks of suicide. It is hardly a coincidence, he said, that most “adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.” (Though when the time came, he personally reached for the noose.)

Wallace used suicide as a pivot, telling the students that the “real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone…”

He didn’t suggest religion as a remedy, but he came close, telling the crowd “there is actually no such thing as atheism” in a practical sense. “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

He nudged them further. “The compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles,” he said, “is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

Exhibit A: “If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.”

Exhibit B: “Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”

Exhibit C: “Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear.”

Exhibit D: “Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

There’s more but, as I said, I’m late to this. Very well done and sad to digest this only after Wallace, a life-long severe depressive, finally chucked it all. You can read a transcript here or there’s always YouTube:

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How Would You Caption This Photo?

I’ll give you the picture, of my new niece Laney, and then my brother Andrew’s caption after the jump. Spoiler alert: I think it’s pretty good.

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Dr. Strangedeath

It’s hard to tell for sure about these things and perhaps if someone was waving a gun in my face it would be different, but I am not moved by a great fear of death. The early exit sign has flashed a few times to little effect.

Take a typical example: two months ago in Bellingham, a large truck turned the wrong way down a one-way street and charged my tiny Subaru. Had I slammed on the brakes instead of swerving, or had a car been in the lane I swerved into, that would have the end of the road.

The normal response after a close brush like that is a sort of mild shock. You pulse races, then you catch your breath. You steady yourself and try to find equilibrium as you come down from your body’s normal chemical responses. None of that happened to me. I saw, swerved and was mildly annoyed by the whole diversion. No sleep was lost that night over the fact that I was a fraction of a second away from over.

In fact, the only thing disturbing about that incident and the dozen or so times I’ve come close to death, quick or slow, was my lack of fear. It struck me that this was not bravery, it was simply unnatural. People facing death usually fear it for good reason, and that’s part of how they stay alive. That I didn’t worry over it — and couldn’t, really — seemed a real problem.

So I’m still trying to figure out what to make of these two bald spots on both sides of my chest, about an inch apart. A nurse from the doctor’s office made them with a razor Tuesday to make room for EKG sensors. She was apologetic about it. Some patients are just “fluffier” than others, she said, and that can be a problem for getting a good reading. It’s a constant reminder. When I am shirtless, this looks odd; when clothed, the stubble catches.

The tests were not routine. Last Saturday my heart took off at a gallop for no known reason. It felt like it was going to beat right out of my chest, and continued on like that, unrelenting, for hours. Deep breathing exercises finally calmed my ticker, but it felt thrashed from the overwork and, I speculated, perhaps worse.

Doctors as a whole are fine people, yet I usually avoid them professionally. I would have done so this time too but for the reason that I kept violating the no cellphone policy when doctors and nurses weren’t looking: that same day, my new niece was born in Dallas, Texas.

My brother Andrew was texting related news to family in Oregon and Washington. He and wife Laura had been on the fence between two names. On the way to the doctor’s office, I wrote in with a preference. There, I learned that Laura was recovering OK after some post-delivery complications and that they had named the baby Laney Grace Lott.

The familial pride was full to bursting. I became for once a little bit apprehensive the doctor might deliver bad news. He didn’t, but in that moment I got a visceral idea how the fear of death must taste.

Why Groomzillas Are Rare

Tucked into that Wellesley High School commencement speech/epic rant that people are talking about today — let’s call it the “you’re nothing special” speech –is a mini rant about weddings. English teacher David McCullough Jr. called commencement “life’s great forward-looking ceremony” and contrasted commencements with weddings, which are “one-sided and insufficiently effective.”

“Weddings,” explained McCullough, “are bride-centric pageantry. Other than conceding to a list of unreasonable demands, the groom just stands there. No stately, hey-everybody-look-at-me procession. No being given away. No identity-changing pronouncement. And can you imagine a television show dedicated to watching guys try on tuxedos? Their fathers sitting there misty-eyed with joy and disbelief, their brothers lurking in the corner muttering with envy.”

If weddings were a more masculine affair, McCullough argued, they would be “after limits-testing procrastination, spontaneous, almost inadvertent… during halftime… on the way to the refrigerator.”

He decided to take that sports metaphor and run with it: “[S]tatistics tell us half of you will get divorced. A winning percentage like that’ll get you last place in the American League East. The Baltimore Orioles do better than weddings.”

Nor was this an entirely throw-away opening. In the advice portion of the address, he tells the graduating class, “Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison.”

Now, I think the work part is actually pretty terrible advice, especially in this crap economy. Kids today ought to be grabbing for every advantage they can find, and, yes, that’s often going to include taking jobs they don’t “believe in” as they seek to improve their lot.

But a female friend added an interesting wrinkle about the wedding stuff that I’m embarrassed didn’t occur to me. After I read her that part of the speech, she said, “He’s obviously recently been divorced.” Are any readers familiar enough with Wellesley to know if that happens to be true?


Good News of Great Joy

Very few people remember where they were on this day in 1989, but I’ve got a pretty good recollection. I was in Tacoma, in the big family house on 42nd Street. I woke up along with my younger brother Andrew. Our parents were not there.

Instead, a friend of my mother’s had come. She told us Mum had gone into labor in the middle of the night. Dad had rushed her to the hospital. Everything was OK, she assured us, seeing the nervous looks on our faces. We had a new baby brother and, as soon as we’d had breakfast, she’d drive us there to see him.

I insisted on stopping on the way to the hospital at my school, Sherman Elementary, in the old L-shaped building. Rather than go in through the hall like a normal person, I made a beeline for Mrs. Bellmer’s 4th grade classroom and banged on the outside window. “Mom went into labor last night!” I yelled: “I have a new little brother! We’re going to the hospital to see him!”

His name is Christopher Bailey Lott, and he was just about the most beautiful thing I had ever laid eyes on.

Mum’s friend sensed worry on our faces because we’d seen this go sideways before. When I was 5 or 6, Mum had a tubal pregnancy. It almost killed her and it drastically cut down on the chances that there would be a third brother or sister Lott. But 23 years ago today, a full 10 years younger than his oldest brother, there he was.

I mention this for three reasons: 1) to wish my kid brother a happy 23rd birthday; 2) for you to see how pregnancies always make me nervous; and 3) to announce the latest addition to the the Lott lineage. Andrew’s wife, my sister-in-law Laura, gave birth this morning to a baby girl, Laney Grace Lott. June 5 is an astoundingly good day on the Lotts’ calendar.

It happened this morning in Dallas, around 7:30. I held off announcing it because there were some minor complications and so it took a while to name the kid. But she’s here, child and mother are now in good shape, and our familial cup runneth over.

Hail to Nat Hentoff

This weekend I did the heavy lifting for both Real Clear Books and Real Clear Religion, the latter so that RCR deputy Nick Hahn could celebrate his latest birthday in relative peace. When Mark Judge sent in a column celebrating the great critic Nat Hentoff of course I led with it.

Judge argues that Hentoff has fallen out of favor with liberals because he has gone over to the dark side and condemned abortion. There’s something to that, yet Hentoff has done many other things that enrage fellow progressives.

Most famously, the free speech activist Hentoff has campaigned against hate crimes laws. He argues that hate crimes are essentially thought crimes and has called out fellow civil libertarians for supporting laws that would chill speech.

Conservatives tend to like and respect the man not because he agrees with them on so many issues but because he is neither a snob nor a tribalist. Hentoff never hesitates to criticize liberals for abandoning their principles for partisan reasons and he’s willing to speak well of people who are are not normally spoken well of by those on the left. The liberal Jewish atheist went so far as to write a sympathetic biography of John Cardinal O’Connor.

Nat Hentoff is very far from perfect but America would be a lot better off if it had more liberals, and more conservatives for that matter, like him.