Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

Mixed signals

Posted by boakley59 on July 10, 2009

Ah, for the days of energy and discipline, when I could sit down and pop off an essay, a tall tale or just a journal entry in a few short minutes. Not only could I do it, but I insisted on doing it, because words are my favorite toys and thoughts are my favorite games. An examined life is the only life, and sharing the results of the examinations is a kind of bursting forth in song.

But time wounds all heels and we learn some things ought not be said, some songs ought not be sung. Truth sometimes hurts, and even given that it’s a sign of respect to speak plainly or that speaking truth to power or telling hard truths in tough love are brave and noble enterprises, doing it with appropriate grace is seldom easy.

So, I have been lamenting most of this year that I have lost the capacity to simply sit down and share, because it turns out that these days I cannot say gracefully what is on my mind. I see and hear all sorts of foolishness (the past presidential election campaign stands as exemplar), but most of the things I can think to say only add to the noise and mean-spiritedness.

I see I have seven posts so far this year, which works out to one a month. Insufficient. I have not stopped examining life; rather I have been ashamed of my ability to talk about it in a meaningful, interesting or gracious way.

I’m going to try again today to kick-start the engine, so with your forbearance, here are some news bits and unpolished thoughts accumulated since last I wrote.

Things are looking up around the Oakley house, as my disability checks have taken a lot of the worry out of the budget. Credit cards that had been strained in the struggle to pay the mortgage and keep food on the table are now paid off and seldom used. The plunging interest rates allowed us to refinance the mortgage and cut more than 20 percent off our monthly payment, so that even if my disability benefits end at next review, we will be able to hold onto the house for a time as we search for alternatives (we would have had to give up the house quickly had benefits been denied just six months ago).

Small repair and remodeling projects that had been on hold for years are getting done: A new floor in the laundry room and entryway from the garage, new kitchen countertops (and dishwasher, disposal and sink), new paint in a few places (rooms, door frames, touch-ups), new order in the garage (shelving for supplies, pegboard for tools — a place for everything and everything in its place) and our stereo system moved back to the living room from our mostly unused front sitting room, which is now seeing regular use as my guitar room (and we hope that Suzy will again find time to play the piano sitting there as well). Little things, so many and so long in disarray, slowly falling into place, making life easier and more enjoyable.

The satisfaction of each little project feeds the energy to tackle the next, and often points either to easy ways to handle the next or of the great gains that might arise from finally getting the next item in order after years of enduring the clutter or incompleteness or whatever.

My health, too, has been reasonably stable for quite some time. My weight has held steady at its new historic high for nearly eight months, and my energy has been high in recent months. I even managed to jog five minutes a day for most of a week not so long ago. Then I got to doing some of the home projects instead and those were wearing enough, thank you.

It seems silver linings come with clouds, though. As we got excited about finally getting our new flooring, I pushed it a bit painting the laundry room and starting to paint the garage. I knew that I couldn’t paint all day, so I tried about a three-hour stretch. In fact, two hours of concentrated effort (physical, mental, emotional), is really all I can tolerate, but I thought if I went leisurely enough I could manage three. Then one day the painting was only about half done in the three hours, so I thought I would take a rest of three hours and then come back and finish, which took another three hours. Comes the cloud: Two days later I was in the emergency room with a fever pushing 103 and a new infection. The infection will have to clear before I can get my next injection of one of my maintenance medicines, which is due in a few days.

Again and again my body makes it plain that it is nothing like I remember it. All my life I have lived by “mind over matter” and “never give up, never surrender,” but I am no longer that Bruce. I may not have to give up, exactly, but I certainly cannot merely will myself forward or rely on apparently unusual endurance. In the best of times now, I have limited resources and no reserve tank. I must scale back what I expect of myself and learn to settle for stopping before the gauge reads “E.” This is much more difficult than it sounds.

I mentioned that strain can be mental or emotional, too. I have told the story before of reading two disturbing books and losing five pounds in that stretch when nothing else in my routine changed. This recent episode with the painting was fueled in part by the extra emotion of having people in the house — I forgot to mention I also helped a friend put out a newsletter and we had to have the upstairs air conditioner repaired on floor installation day, so the dogs and I were all aflutter with lots of extra two-legs around. Before that, I had a wonderful Father’s Day weekend, as Courtney was able to visit. He took us to a movie that had some heart-wrenching father-son moments for several of the characters, and we had quite a nice time that evening sitting at the card table and playing games. That was Saturday, and boy it was good to see Courtney. But Sunday I was wiped out and napping most of the day.

I have no reserve tank. Even the highs are draining, and I have to be careful. We’re traveling the first week of August to see Mom, who is flying with my cousin to vacation in Tennessee. Mom’s “baby brother” (now in his 70s), my aunt and another cousin are also coming to meet us, as are my sister and nephew. It will be a glorious time, recalling summer vacations in a more innocent, happier age and taking me back to golden days of childhood. How does one dare not embrace such moments and still claim to be living? I suppose the sensible among you will say there is a difference between an embrace and a death grip, and I will be alert to that distinction, but again this is much more difficult than it sounds.

I am slowly learning to think smaller, at least when it comes to me. Meanwhile, Suzy is thinking bigger enough for the two of us, I suppose. She is going back to school to increase her expertise in her new job. School and job are both going well. As the house continues to take shape, morale is pretty good around here. If I will watch myself and keep out of the hospital for another good stretch, we’ll be okay.

I have some thoughts to share in coming days on recent readings, world events and (again) hospital stays, so perhaps now that I have started the flow of words, there may be at least a trickle instead of infrequent drips.

This self-examination thing sometimes gets in its own way. One of my recent readings is from a Nobel laureate who notes that the ever-quickening advance of technology means that people are freer than ever to focus on quality instead of quantity. It seems to me that the more time we have for quality, the less we devote to it. Most of us simply aren’t committed to excellence. By forcing myself to write, am I throwing quality by the wayside and joining the vast mediocre mass, or beginning the drive to return to and renew the best work of my life?

I hope that I may gracefully share my thoughts on that soon.


3 Responses to “Mixed signals”

  1. Ben said

    A quote from San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll: “Always give somebody else the good lines. Otherwise, you look like a jerk. … Maybe something didn’t happen exactly the way you write it. But only you and the other person [in the story] know that.” I want to read what you’re reluctant to write, Bruce. Well, maybe I don’t if it’s too hurtful. But if you draft then revise to make it a better story by reversing roles or changing names to protect the guilty? Combine anecdotes so a real bad one is in the background while the pretty one appears dominant?

    Yet, I refuse to be deliberately cutting, myself. When I do it, accidentally, I feel terrible and I write timidly for quite some time. Very well, I contradict myself.

    You’re literally not a journalist anymore so you can give yourself freedom if you like. (That’s hard for me even though I tell myself Brick can soar.) Memoirists take liberties, even if they don’t they they are. Did they take notes every hour from 10 years ago or back in school? Nope. If they did, by the time they reviewed the journals they’d be old if not dead! (I have tried to review my college journals. I really thought they’d have more good stuff in them, profound events I still recall.)

    I’ve been reading Roy Reed’s book on the Gazette. Edited versions of so-called oral histories. Transcripts of which are available, unedited, . We know a lot of these people. Some are trying to remember accurately, others are terrific storytellers, and others are “spinning,” the jerks. But the book presents all of it as what-really-happened.

    Write it, color it up if that’ll get the copy out and, heck, if some recriminations come, delete that post — after you save it on your hard drive for some other use!

    Just my opinion. — Your friend, Ben

  2. boakley59 said

    I’m getting over my reluctance slowly. The main thing is I find myself getting worked up and being more like the problem than the solution — I hear echoes of bigotry in attacking bigots, say, or I’m whining about whiny people. You may remember the old days when my motto for a stretch was “People are stupid.” Well, mostly they are, but it’s not something you can continually point out without being a certain kind of stupid yourself.

    I used not to mind being stupid or angry or just plain mean once in a while, as long as it didn’t become a habit. I’ve gone a little timid. It’s partly because “being right” destroyed my first marriage and now most of the time I would rather just “be quiet.”

    Anyway, thanks for the continuing encouragement. I’m heading in the direction you point. Oh, and congratulations on your honorable mention for online column writing.

  3. Stacy said

    Hey Bruce, it’s nice to hear that you and Suzy are doing better and that the struggles have eased a little. If there is ever anything that I can help with, around the house or making a meal for you all here and there, let me know.

    Bruce sez: Thanks. We have some new things to look at with this latest infection and maybe we can wrestle the last lingering symptoms into submission and get back to a more nearly normal life. We appreciate the overwhelming support we have had throughout this all from all of our friends.

    And congratulations to you and your darling on your wedding. We wish you all the best always.

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