There’s a Pony in Here Somewhere

An old joke: a kid asks Santa for a pony, goes out to the barn on Christmas, but doesn’t find it. He grabs a spade. Dad comes along and asks, “Why are you shoveling manure on Christmas morning?” The boy doesn’t stop but grins as he says, “I know there’s a pony in here somewhere!”

Another joke: “My dad was tough, really tough. He was the toughest dad ever. But he showed how much he cared by giving me swimming lessons. He’d row out into the middle of Lake Erie, toss me overboard, and then pull at the oars until the boat became a distant speck…Now let me tell you that reaching shore wasn’t easy. That was tough, really tough…But the hardest part was getting out of the bag.”

On one hand, a boy lives in a world of unconquerable optimism. He doesn’t mind standing knee deep in muck because he’s sure it’s just a temporary obstacle. He can’t imagine that his dream won’t come true. In the second joke, the boy convinces himself that, despite blatant evidence to the contrary, his dad has good intentions.

Both jokes use a twist at the end to spring the punch line. Both feature a kid who cannot face the truth. And in both, the boy refuses to give up.

I think about endurance sometimes, about how we carry on in the face of troubles, disappointments, and struggles. Some carry heavy loads for long distances, while others lay down lighter burdens before they hit the first turn in the road. Is self-deception a necessary tool in our survival kits? Do we need fairy tales to bolster will and courage?

Most forms of religion and philosophy provide stories designed to enhance endurance. Their selling points lie in providing comfort and encouragement. Even Existentialism, a bleak school of thought asserting that life is essentially pointless, urges each individual to create a meaningful life for him/herself.

Perhaps the kernel of any joke lies in frustrated expectations. We want to have our dreams fulfilled. We want to be loved. We want to reach the end of our days with an intact sense of personal decency and self-worth. But we remain the punch lines of our lives as long as we continue fruitless struggles to find satisfaction. Even if I finally get hold of my heart’s desire, there’s no way to permanently grasp it.

Is it possible to keep on keeping on while carrying no illusions? Is there a bare-bones way of living free from magical thinking and false hope?

Perhaps these last two questions are just another way of looking for a pony. There might not be answers. But the need to keep digging remains.

Comings and Goings

Judy and I took a two-week trip to visit my son, Alan, and his wife, Amy, in Durham, North Carolina. Tony and Victoria, my brother and his wife, came down from Ohio with their Great Dane, Mokka. We spent time together visiting art museums, going to parks and gardens, playing with Mokka, and sharing conversations. Our visit went well but thoughts drifted often to our very pregnant daughter. She lives in Qatar with her husband and daughter. Annie gave birth to Lyla in a Doha hospital on the night before we returned. Relief and happiness made the long trip home much easier.

Tony and Victoria left a day before we did and found their AC unit out of commission. Mice had chewed through some wires. When I got in the car today to start the final leg of our return to Orlando, I began to worry about what we’d discover.

We found the bird feeder on the ground fallen from a newly split branch of the backyard elderberry. Did a scurry of squirrels jump on the branch until it snapped? Oddly enough, little of the birdseed had been eaten. And odder still, the iron rod used to attach the feeder to the tree has gone missing.

The middle garden in the backyard sprouted tall grasses in our absence with stalks shooting four feet high. Years ago, I over fertilized that patch. Nothing wants to grow there besides these turf mutants.

On the other hand, a house plant that survived our 2020 five-week stay in Tennessee decided to embrace its mortality with extreme prejudice. There are times when the expression of a death wish can be overdone.

The crepe myrtle at the end of the driveway bloomed pink flowers while we lingered in North Carolina. Other crepe myrtles in the neighborhood had already begun blooming weeks before, and I had wondered, before the trip, whether something had stifled ours. Not to worry.

The sight of a dead cockroach greeted me as I hauled bags into the house. He lay on his back near the hall closet a foot away from my clothes hamper. His desiccating body stretched an inch and a half, not that large for a Florida specimen. The poor thing died young…perhaps from overexposure to fermented armpit vapors.

Trouble and Joy

TROUBLE

The Individualist’s Viewpoint

Trouble is as trouble does. We earn hard times as paybacks for wrongdoing. And we sometimes invite difficulties into our lives. A weak-willed victim grants a vampire permission to enter. The patsy greases the downfall skids.

Decisions have consequences: one thing leads to another in a chain of causality. If your life becomes hell, you made it that way through direct actions or by losing control of your affairs.

The Random Luck Viewpoint

Things just happen. Those born into easy circumstances receive love, support, and an economic starting point well ahead of the unfortunate. The sun shines brightly for the lucky, and occasional dark clouds pass swiftly. The happy few, for no knowable reason, receive an exclusive deal.

Those born into shaky situations can count on neither love nor money. The hard knocks tend to multiply. And when things begin to look better, unexpected trials undermine any progress made. Life sucks, and then you die.

Those in the middle hope to join the elect while fearing a descent. Good and bad things come and go, and the middles become gamblers hoping for a lucky streak.

The Believer’s Viewpoint

All periods of suffering and joy have purposes. Life provides opportunities for growth and for finding communion with God. We are here to follow a true path regardless of current conditions. God doesn’t give us more than we can handle and stands ready to offer assistance. Even those who die young and miserable, through no fault of their own, serve as divine messengers. God’s mercy, if not apparent in this life, triumphs in the next.

JOY

More theories abound about trouble than about joy. We seek strategies to avoid, explain, and defend against trouble. But some have a greater talent for finding joy. They walk on a clearer path with fewer twists and dead ends.

I’m not gifted in that manner. Best moments are like finding a new spring burbling out of a rocky outcrop. I realize as I eagerly drink that I hadn’t known how deep my thirst was.

Some say that abiding joy can be cultivated through meditation and prayer, through communion with God. Minds tuned to the right frequency receive the voices of angels. Moments come when the fog of daily strife lifts to reveal a shining landscape. Even a pile of garbage glows with inner light.

Peaked Shadow, Catherine Murphy, oil on canvas.

Some artists have an ability to capture these transformation moments. Catherine Murphy finds hidden delights in mundane subjects. Paintings of a pile of leaves, of a blanket, and of a nightstand crowded with medicine bottles evoke a state of heightened awareness. Under the treatment of Murphy’s brush, ordinary scenes exult in their existence. The painter honors the idea that merely being here is cause for celebration.

Recovered Painting

Penelope, oil on canvas, 1990

My brother, his wife Victoria, and I recovered a lost painting around 2016. We found it in a pile of debris and trash, and its surface had scattered dirt speckles across the whole canvas. Gunk stuck to remaining broken bits of the frame. His first wife, Judy, never let Tony hang my work in their house finding it disturbing, and when she vacated the premises, she discarded “Penelope” without consideration.

I had painted “Penelope” in 1990 months before my son’s birth and gave it to Tony a few years later. I arranged the composition by pushing around objects on a table until a pattern of light, color, and shapes felt right. I had no idea about the painting’s meaning but gradually thought of it as a spoof on the Penelope/Odysseus story. She stayed home and tried to hold her household together while her husband sailed from one misadventure to another.

I volunteered to take it back to Florida, to clean it, and to reframe it. Six years later, I finally managed to get the job done. I decided not to use solvents to clean the surface but simply painted over the embedded dirt. I didn’t have much trouble mixing matching paint but fought the urge to “fix” passages that could still use editing. 32 years have gone by since I completed “Penelope”, so my tastes and abilities have changed. I knew that if I made “improvements”, I would destroy its original character.

Coincidentally, I’ve gotten interested in painting still life again after largely abandoning the genre for twenty years. Walter Murch’s oils have drawn me back. He and Chardin created mysterious spaces that subtly convey emotions. Their objects have a sense of life and presence. Perhaps the magic lies in sensitive rendering of light, color, and texture, and in mindful manipulation of paint.

Car Repair Purgatory

I got to the dealership ten minutes early.  None of the mechanics, valets, and managers wore masks, so I sat on an outside bench in the shade.  I read a mystery while waiting for an oil change.  After I got tired of the plot twists, I took a walk and passed men wearing green vests and facemasks. They sprayed the weeds and bushes in front of the dealership. I went beyond the Wawa and took a cut-off to a medical building lot.  A man wearing a grimy coat sat on the ground near a rusty grocery cart.  A cluster of palms hid him from view from the road.  He said hello as I passed by.  “Morning,” I replied. 

I returned to the dealership, took a spot on a different bench, and tried to read.  I felt a sharp pinch on my calf, looked down, and flicked a green bug off my leg.  A red welt swelled on my forearm.  Chiggers?  The sprayers must have missed a spot.  I scampered to another bench.

After I saw several cars drive off, I went inside to find Drew, my repair manager.  Before I opened my mouth he said, “I just checked on your car.  There are two or three ahead of you.”  I answered, “It’s been an hour and a half.”

I took a walk in the opposite direction.  When I returned hot and sweaty, I found all benches occupied.

I finished the book while standing in a shadow alongside the showroom wall.  The heat had risen into the nineties.  I felt lightheaded.  A shaded bench opened, so I sat and slumped.  At the three-hour mark, a message appeared on my phone.  My car was ready.  I went inside to pay, but they wrote off the charge.  Drew said, “You shouldn’t have to wait that long…We had a couple mechanics call in sick…Covid.”

I felt punchy on the drive home.  I needed lunch and a cool drink.  When I pulled into my driveway, I checked the oil life reading.  It hadn’t changed to 100% as expected.  It was as if nothing had been done.

I told Judy not to talk to me.  After I cooled down, I explained what had happened.  Then I called the repair department.  A receptionist said, “They didn’t reset it?!  Go to “settings” on the main screen.  Follow the prompts.  If you can’t change it, bring it in.”  “Will I have to wait?” I whined.  “No,” she said, “We’ll take care of it right away.”

The car interior had heated up to about 100 degrees.  I opened two doors for a cross-breeze and followed the receptionist’s directions. But “settings” didn’t offer the right options.  I fished the manual out of the glove compartment and found different instructions.  After two tries, I reset the oil life reading.

After recovering from heat exhaustion, I considered raking leaves and mowing the lawn.  Judy said, “No!”  I took a nap instead.

Preaching to the Plants

St. Francis Preaching to the Animals, Stanley Spencer

A monk name Bob watched St. Francis preach to the animals.  He grew jealous as a deer, a bird, and a squirrel bowed before the saint.  Bob wanted to glow with Francis’s divine spirit, to bring all creation into harmony with God. 

Bob practiced preaching to animals.  A grasshopper spit tobacco juice on his finger as soon as Bob quoted scripture.  A worm squirmed on his palm and remained inattentive.  A snake hissed and bit Bob just as he reached the climax of his sermon.

Bob decided to redirect his efforts.  He began to proclaim God’s word before the monastery’s kitchen garden.  He didn’t notice any effect at first but eventually saw that the green bean plants and carrot sprouts bowed slightly toward him if he raised a cross between two hands held in prayer.  Potato sprouts, kale, and radish plants finally began to join the circle of faith. The faithful bows grew more pronounced as Bob gained in spiritual power.  But one plant, self-satisfied in its convictions, refused to heed Bob’s exhortations.

One day, Bob decided to show his fellow monk’s his accomplishment.  But he worried that the one hold- out would diminish his glory.  In the end, after a sleepless night upon his knees before the crucifix in his cell, he became convinced that the freethinking vegetable would convert in the presence of his gathered brother monks.

The garden prayer service began with a performance of the top three hits on the Gregorian Chant Charts (anno domini 1222). Then Bob read two psalms and some intimidating passages from the Book of James. He called for a moment of quiet contemplation.  Bob’s fellow monks glanced amongst themselves in amusement as Bob took a deep breath and began to preach.  They assumed that Bob’s claims had been nothing more than egotistic boasting.

But then the carrots, radishes, potatoes, green beans, and kale bowed low after Bob grasped his cross between two hands held in prayer.  The monks gasped in astonishment.  Bob decided to go for broke.  He glared at the one hold-out in the patch and commanded, “Lettuce, pray!”

Needles and a Screw

Found out last fall, after a filling-pocked molar shattered, that I needed the remnants pulled. A bone graft to replace lost jawbone, the insertion of a base, and the mounting of a crown would follow. A periodontist completed the second step last Tuesday.

I opted for no anesthesia while knowing that most folks choose oblivion. I needed to drive myself home after the procedure, and the medical profession frowns on letting groggy patients wander around in motorized vehicles.

The periodontist stuck my gums with Novocain around the work site. That stung. Then she scraped away at the target area, used various tools to push and prod, then hammered a small chisel to lift the jawbone upward into the nasal cavity. She crammed bone meal graft (cadaver sourced and sterilized) into the gap then began to drill. She checked several times via x-rays to make sure that the bore hadn’t penetrated into the narrowed nasal cavity. Then she took a glorified electric screwdriver and turned a glorified screw into my jaw. I could feel the movement of something slowly spinning and pushing inward. The screw, apparently, was the base for the crown.

After that, she packed more bone meal around the screw and began to sew mesh into my gums. (The mesh holds the graft in place.) The threads sometimes crossed over my lips as she weaved her knots. I found that sensation more unnerving than the turning of the screw (take that, Henry James).

The procedure lasted more than an hour. Some of the hardest parts were holding my mouth open wide for long periods, keeping my head turned at an awkward angle, drawing my tongue out of the way, and suppressing an urge to gag and choke. And towards the end, I began to feel dull pain at the work site earning my gums another needle stick.

The periodontist blew through a set of post-op instructions after the ordeal. She gave me a two-sided sheet of reminders, four prescriptions, and a sample bottle of sterilizing mouthwash. Then she told me to come back in two weeks.

That evening, my mouth throbbed as expected. But I also felt a burning sensation on the outer edge of my elbow. My osteopath checked me over the next day and discovered distressed areas in my neck. He turned, pulled, and prodded, but my elbow still hurt. He told me that the neck-twisting position held during the dental procedure had irritated a line of nerves running down my arm. He asked if I’d like a steroid shot, told me to lie on my stomach, and injected several sites along the left side of my neck.

When I got home, I downed an analgesic, collapsed in bed, and took a nap. I did the bare minimum after I awoke. The next morning, I told my wife that the day looked promising. She asked why, and I replied, “No needles.”

Never Letting Go

Narcissists feed off devotion.  They do anything to maintain control and domination, to keep their sources of nourishment flowing.  They’re like mosquitos sucking blood.  Dr. Denning warned me that narcissists and sociopaths breed more of their kind.  According to him, I could become next in a long line of monsters.

The doctor doesn’t know that while he watches and analyzes, I’m returning the favor. I can read my therapist.  I can tell when he thinks that I’m fooling myself:  the corners of his mouth draw up slightly in a suppressed smirk.  I know when I’m repeating complaints:  his eyes take on a hooded quality.  I can predict when he’ll interrupt to say, “Now wait.”  He straightens up in his chair and twists his neck slightly to the left.  The following lecture starts off with, “You should have given Lisa more.”

Dr. Denning comes back to my last girlfriend often.  I’m trying to get beyond her even if he thinks it’s too soon.  But I’ve decided to let him work out his issues with Lisa.  I think that he may be falling in love.  With her memory, of course.  I wish it were that simple for me.

I sometimes play a push and pull game with women.  I flatter and pamper.  Then, I disappear.  Not forever.  But just long enough to make them wonder what happened, to raise a few doubts.  I choose a timely moment to glide back.  I bear gifts and a contrite, sympathetic attitude.  I always agree that I should have called.  I tell them that I missed experiencing unique qualities only they possessed…

The game typically lasts two or three cycles.  The smart ones, or the damaged/experienced ones, turn on me immediately.  I eventually drop the dull and needy when their addiction becomes burdensome.  I get bored knowing that they’d come back for more no matter how badly I behave.  Lisa became one of these.

I finally had to take a job in another city.  She kept calling.  She haunted the steps outside my building.  She once interrupted a work meeting.  I had to usher her out as she wept into a half-shredded Kleenex.  Her swollen eyes and running mascara embarrassed me.

Two months after I unpacked my last box in my new apartment in a new town, I got a letter from her roommate, Louise.  Lisa didn’t kill herself, thank God, but she let herself go after I fled.  Lisa stayed up late, worked too much, drank, and began to smoke.  Wasted away.  And then pneumonia got her.  She refused to go to a doctor until it was too late. 

Louise didn’t blame me.  We always had a good time when Lisa left town on business trips.  Louise understood why I ran away.  She said, “I would have moved out if Lisa could have found someone else who could stand her.  She was like an open wound.  I got tired of changing the bandages.”

I considered visiting Louise after a prudent amount of time passed.  (I had to allow for a plausible mourning period.)  If we started a romance, Louise would challenge me.  We would dance a tango instead of a slow, clingy waltz.  And the distance between our homes made excuses easy to invent.  But Lisa intervened.

At least I think it’s Lisa.  I never see her face.  If I turn on a light, she’s gone.  Sometime around 3 a.m., I wake up.  I feel her breath on my face.  Her fingers ruffle my hair.  Thin, familiar lips press a kiss onto my lips.  Her weight pushes down on my hips.  Tears fall on my chest.

I roll out of bed the next morning with a little nasal drip, a slight hitch in my breath.  And I feel hungry like I started a meal but didn’t finish.  I anticipate our next encounter but can never predict when she’ll appear.  Three nights in a row, then nothing.  One night, followed by a gap of two weeks.  Just as I’m starting to think about calling Louise, she shows up.

I know what she’s doing, but she’s effective.  She puts on a better performance than I ever did.  I’ve begun to accept that she’s never letting go.  The Doc is right.  I should have given her more.  I should’ve stopped playing games.  Because once you start, it’s hard to quit.

Right Action Right Time

Children train parents to react in a split second. My baby daughter used to tip backward while sitting on the floor. I could catch and sit her upright before her head hit the carpet. I got to the point where I could hold a conversation while keeping my daughter’s cranium unbruised. She also leapt headfirst off my lap, at random moments, toward the floor. I caught her by the shoulders just before her nose hit the kitchen tiles on numerous occasions. The danger/quick alert radar eventually extended to other children. I once intercepted a baby rolling down a flight of steps. I had been sitting on a sofa at a party when I heard an odd noise. Before I knew how I got there, I caught the child at the halfway point. His mother arrived at the same time, and we felt quite relieved that the runaway roller had no injuries.

Children eventually grow up and become less inclined to find unexpected ways to hurt themselves. But other factors still demand swift reactions.

When encountering surprises or sudden acts of aggression, our crocodile brains kick into gear. I once leapt backward five feet after I met a six-foot gator at the turn of swampy path. His response was quicker hitting the water in a nearby canal before my feet landed. It took a few seconds, while my heart raced, for higher mental functions to place what had happened.

Crazy drivers such as the death wish-road rage commandos and the reality deniers (who believe that laws of traffic and physics do not apply to them) train motorists to act first and think later. I’ve learned to anticipate sudden multiple lane changes and homicidal cut-offs. In three instances in the last year, I reacted with hard braking swerves as high-speed blurs swept across my path.

Less abrupt confrontations give us time to consider options. I make better choices, when provoked, if I let an initial wave of rage pass through me before acting. If I give into the short-lived satisfaction of acting on an aggressive impulse, then unfortunate consequences and unexpected ramifications follow.

(However, I still regret that I didn’t punch a college roommate in the mouth. I asked him one morning, after coming home from a third shift, to pay past due rent money. He called me a shithead. I saw red but clenched my fists and turned away, as he knew I would. He retreated, wallet unopened, wearing a smirk on his face. He had played me.)

Other actions need even longer consideration. Relationships work better at slower speeds. I’m learning, for instance, to pause before speaking even when two or three ideas bubble on the backburner. Giving Judy time to consider enhances communication. If I let her respond instead of rambling on, unexpected avenues open, and the conversation becomes sweeter.