Posted by: Bill Tracy | October 13, 2014

Beauty and the Beast

The industrial corporation is the natural enemy of nature.

-Edward Abbey

A beautiful flower on a sunny day.

A beautiful flower on a sunny day.

I was on my second cup of coffee when I saw the flower cut down. It was the only flower. Last year there had been hundreds of them. But last year my friends lived in the house across the street; this year they are gone and an impersonal “lawn service” keeps the vegetation in check while no one occupies the house. Yesterday was a sunny, pleasant day, and I had taken a picture of that lone flower. It was a beautiful flower. I don’t think anyone would argue otherwise. It’s purplish hue probably makes it more a favorite for me than otherwise. Perhaps some reader will know its name; I’m remiss in this regard. If I hadn’t been hopped up on caffeine I could have let it go. By the time the police came, I had to tell them I’m just an eccentric old man and didn’t mean to cause a fuss.

The flower yesterday along the sidewalk in front of the house -- and more flowers on the way.

The flower yesterday along the sidewalk in front of the house — and more flowers on the way.

Flowers are important, at least to me. They aren’t mere decorative items placed around by people with nothing better to do. We humans actually owe our lives to the evolution of flowers. Loren Eiseley, the renowned anthropologist wrote a scintillating little essay that should be required reading for everyone. It’s appropriately entitled How Flowers Changed the World. Here’s an excerpt making the point:

A little while ago — about one hundred million years, as the geologist estimates time in the history of our four-billion-year-old planet — flowers were not to be found anywhere on the five continents. Wherever one might have looked, from the poles to the equator, one would have seen only the cold dark monotonous green of a world whose plant life possessed no other color.

Somewhere, just a short time before the close of the Age of Reptiles, there occurred a soundless, violent explosion. It lasted millions of years, but it was an explosion, nevertheless. It marked the emergence of the angiosperms — the flowering plants. Even the great evolutionist, Charles Darwin, called them “an abominable mystery,” because they appeared so suddenly and spread so fast.

Flowers changed the face of the planet. Without them, the world we know — even man himself — would never have existed. Francis Thompson, the English poet, once wrote that one could not pluck a flower without troubling a star. Intuitively he had sensed like a naturalist the enormous interlinked complexity of life. Today we know that the appearance of the flowers contained also the equally mystifying emergence of man.

The slayer of beauty.

The slayer of beauty.

Blame it on a troubled star, or the caffeine, but I grabbed my camera and went outside. First, I took a picture of the “beast” who had slain the beauty with his monstrous string trimmer. Then I took a picture of the corpse. He asked why I was taking his picture. I told him I wanted a picture of the executioner of my flower. I showed him the picture I had taken of that flower in yesterday’s sunshine. He agreed it was beautiful. I told him I just wanted pictures of the execution. He said it wasn’t my flower — it wasn’t on my property. “Correct you are,” I said, “but the flowers belong to everyone.”

The executioner, of course, is just a young man doing his job. He’s not a bad person, and I didn’t tell him he was doing anything wrong. But he inherently knows the power of pictures. I guess that’s what scared him more than anything. It’s his practice to take a series of pictures of the property when he arrives. Then he takes another series of pictures after he has done his yard maintenance work. I don’t know if the owner requires that or if he simply wants proof in case of a dispute. But he is aware that pictures mean something.

The remains of beauty on a gloomy Monday.

The remains of beauty on a gloomy Monday.

“You have to delete that picture,” he told me. He couldn’t furnish a reason other than his belief that I do not have a right to take his picture. He told me if I didn’t delete it, “Someone will be around to talk to you.” I said fine, I like talking with folks. Then I went back inside.

A few minutes later he knocked on my door. Again he said I must delete the picture. I said I had no reason to delete it. I told him I took the picture when he was in public, standing on a public street next to his truck. He suggested I am not permitted to do that. I explained the law permitted pictures of anyone in public, and when he shook his head no, I said, “Don’t shake your head no, that’s the law.” He unhappily turned and walked away, muttering something about “old man.”

Into November last year, hundreds of flowers.

Into November last year, hundreds of flowers.

A few minutes later, the police officer knocked on my door. He said he had been called about a dispute with the yard worker. I told him my side of the story — and that I know I’m an eccentric old man, but I don’t mean to cause trouble. He laughed. He said he explained to the worker that I have a right to take his picture and that he had no authority to compel me to delete it. The officer asked me if everything was okay.

“Except for a loss of beauty on this otherwise gloomy day, yeah, everything is okay.”

Posted by: Bill Tracy | September 30, 2014

The Forbidden Screen Door

I live only because it is in my power to die whenever I want; without the idea of suicide I would have killed myself a long time ago.

-E.M. Cioran


“I’m in the train station, and I’m going to jump in front of the next train to kill myself.” That’s what I heard one day when I worked as a public safety dispatcher and asked a caller about the “emergency.” What do you say to that?

Suicide scares the sap out of most of us. We don’t understand it. We try not to think about it. But it has a persistent way of popping up, often at the worst times. September has been proclaimed “Suicide Prevention Month” by whoever proclaims such things. I’ve seen several mentions of this recently. I’ve also seen someone deeply troubled by the suicide of his friend last year. Culturally, we seem hell-bent on stopping people from killing themselves – whatever it takes, we say we’ll do it. Personally, I’m less adamant.

Perhaps some lives look like a dingy old prison cell block.

Perhaps some lives look like a dingy old prison cell block.

Like Cioran, I’m entirely charmed by the idea that we each have the absolute power of our own death. If I chose, I could be dead five minutes from right now. Tomorrow’s sunrise is at my pleasure. However, like Melville’s Bartelby, I would prefer not to. But, like well cut diamonds, suicide has many tantalizing facets, and the light is always eerily crooked. We humans have a powerful survival instinct that keeps us alive – or at least slows down any inclination to an early checkout.

Most folks, I suspect, don’t think a lot about the nuances of suicide. It’s just something you should never do they say. Even thinking about it (“suicidal ideation” in psycho lingo) can get you in trouble. Right or not, we all seem to agree it’s a form of mental illness. The Roman Catholic Church, at least when I had anything to do with it, declared it was the worst sort of Mortal Sin – the express train straight to eternal damnation, the fires of hell. Do not stop and chat with Saint Pete at the gates, do not pass Go, etc. Within the past couple of years I’ve had one Catholic priest tell me he now sees it like God simply saying to a child, “Oh, son, you’re home early.” Surely that would comfort a family when one of their own has decided to check out permanently. Times change, I suppose.

My fascination with suicide began over 40 years ago, oddly with an episode of the television program Kung Fu. The episode “Salamander” (aired December 6, 1973) begins with our exiled monk Kwai Chang Caine walking along a stream in the great American West. On a bridge over this stream, he sees a man about to slip a noose around his neck to commit suicide. Western culture would demand you yell at the man to stop, yet Caine only stands and watches. While he watches we view a flashback – a memory of his training days in the Shaolin monastery. One of the monks there has killed himself. A deeply troubled young Caine asks his Master why.

The old Master clasps his hands in a signal of yin/yang and says to Caine, “The yes and the no. In him the no conquered. He looked with his eyes, and we look with ours.” Caine again asks, “Why did he take his own life?” The old Master says, “Perhaps he looked down into our valley knowing that soon he would have to leave it. But instead of the beauty we observed, he saw ugliness. When old Master San looked out into our valley and saw ugliness he revealed something about himself to himself. He did not like what he revealed. Master San saw ugliness where nothing exists but a valley.”

Back to the suicide on the bridge, the man sees Caine watching and is puzzled why he does not try to stop him. Caine says nothing. Finally, the man tosses the rope away and tells Caine he’s not going to do this for his entertainment. A clever intervention? A few hours later they encounter one another in a nearby town. The man asks Caine why he did not try to stop him from killing himself. Caine answers with a question, “Perhaps you saw a world which I did not, a world you wished to enter?”

Lingering to the end.

Lingering to the end.

With our eyes, typically, we see visions of another world as only mental illness (or a “drug trip”). We see people pushed, pressured, mutilated to a point they cannot tolerate life for one more minute. One man told me he attempted suicide because he couldn’t stop drinking. The alcohol was causing so much pain for him and his family he desperately wanted it to end, but he saw no way out. So he was willing to enter a world where perhaps the pain would stop. Happily, I can report he did not die, and he got into a 12-step program. He’s been sober many peaceful and joyous years now.

Sometimes I wonder if people who commit suicide instantly enter another realm where they are roundly congratulated and celebrated for having the good sense to get out of here. Given our general abhorrence for suicide, such an outcome seems like juicy irony. Trouble is, you usually leave people here who are devastated by the suicide. People tend to take it personally. A man who gets hit by lightning on the golf course or who dies in a car crash doesn’t suggest he’s sending any sort of personal message. Life can end, sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly; we all understand that. It hurts the loved ones, but the grieving process goes forward successfully in most cases. Suicide seems like our fault. What did we do wrong? What could we have done to prevent this? Why and how were we inadequate? And the answers to those questions do not come, no matter the passage of time. Healing, rejuvenation, seem impossible.

I don’t know the statistics, but we now seem to have more suicides than ever in this country. I saw a guy running down the street the other day wearing a t-shirt advertising some kind of a running event to stop the 22 military veterans each day who kill themselves. I’m surprised there aren’t a lot more after what our government has done to rape our military forces the last 15 years or so. We seem mostly powerless to stop people from checking themselves out permanently, yet we keep trying.

There are those, I suspect, who see a world we do not, and sometimes their vision is superior to ours even when we want to think theirs is mental illness. Suicide can be like a screen door. We can all see through it, yet no matter what we see we are forbidden by culture from passing through to the scene on the other side. I’m not sure everyone should be dissuaded from early checkout. Jack Kevorkian, the “suicide doctor” used to say, “Dying is not a crime.” We’ve started to see that some terminally ill people may have a good case for suicide. That goes against our deep instinct for survival, and loved ones never find it easy to voluntarily say goodbye. On balance, maybe it does make more sense for some folks to leave. After all, if you find yourself at a lousy party, no one forces you to stay.

"With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. [From the poem, "Desiderata."]

“With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. [From the poem, "Desiderata."]

Suicide, as I see, takes many forms. I see people every day who are literally drinking or drugging themselves to death. “My life sucks,” one man tells me all the time. Then he buys a case of beer and drinks himself into a stupor. Same thing next day. How long will it be before he gets his ticket out of here? I saw many people in prisons who were “doing life on the installment plan” as we would say. “Career criminals” the social scientists call them – after eight terms and 20 or 30 parole violations, you find yourself 60 years old and having spent 45 or 50 of those years incarcerated. Is that life, or death?

Maybe if we were nicer to one another it would help all around. This world can be hard and mean, and it seems to be getting meaner. Helping one another, going out of our way to do it, would help make this a more pleasant, a more attractive world. Try to keep the party inside more fun, and then the picnic we see outside through that screen door won’t be so appealing. If you see someone sitting in a corner, a bit blue, let him know you care. Ask him to dance. Change the music if you need to. I don’t know what the mental health professionals advise, but I’d broach the subject of suicide if someone seems so inclined. Let the person talk it out a bit. Suggest they might be doing a lot of harm to folks who love them. Get some help for them if that makes sense. And don’t overlook the power of a simple, genuine smile. Maybe that should be the slogan for suicide prevention next September – Smile Away those Suicides!

Finally, to clear up the mystery I started with…. What do you say to the man who wants to throw himself in front of a train? He did not die, at least not that day. I was able to make railroad police aware immediately so there might be a physical intervention if needed. I also talked to the man long enough to find out he had been in a drug rehabilitation program and had a favorite counselor there. I got that counselor on the line with him. We’ll never know what he did the next day of his life, but at least on that day, he didn’t enter that other world only he was able to see.

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