Pitching Out Sales Pitches

Yesterday two men knocked at our door.  They represented an auto glass replacement company.  I pointed to the car in our driveway and said, “See the windshield.  There’s nothing wrong with it.”  One of the salesmen opened a binder and showed me pictures of chipped car windows.  He explained that my car might have micro fractures and chips that would gradually expand until the windshield collapsed.  I found the magic words to make him leave.  I said, “I just bought that car in November.  It’s new.”  My wife Judy asked me what I was doing as I stood by the door and watched the men cross our lawn and head down the street.  I turned away after they walked out of sight and told her, “They want to sell me a new windshield.  I watched them leave to make sure we won’t need one.”

Years ago a man surprised me as I swept leaves off the driveway.  He told me that he represented a pest control company and asked me if I had any problems.  I told him that carpenter ants invaded from time to time.  They congregated on the kitchen ceiling.  He offered to treat my house, but I told him that my wife didn’t want poisons sprayed inside.  We had small children.  The man paused for a moment to size me up, and then faked hysteria.  He cried, “But what are you going to do if you find ants in your house??!!”   “Squish ’em,”  I deadpanned.  He laughed, gave me his card and walked away.

Another man strode up to my porch–big gait, expansive gestures, everyone’s buddy.  I saw a pick up idling at the curb behind him.  A large cooler rested on the truck bed.  I knew this bit:  guys drove around town with steaks, lobsters, and shrimp on ice and sold them cheap door to door.  I never bought anything off a truck, so I tried to cut to the chase.  I met him before he could pound on my door and said, “We don’t want any.”  “But sir!” he cried.   “You don’t even know what I’m selling.  I’ve got the finest steaks, filet mignon and–”  “I don’t care what you’re selling.  I’m not buying.”  I  said.  “Hey, buddy.  That’s just rude,” he sputtered.  I could see him building up self-righteous rage–it was bad form to not let him deliver his spiel.  “Okay, I’m rude,” I conceded.  “But I’m not buying anything and it’s time for you to get off my property.”  “Mister, that’s just–that’s just—” he stammered.  “Go,” I said.  He balled up his fists and took a step toward me.  Then he thought better of it and stalked off across the yard.  He yelled to his friend in the truck, “Go to the next one.  This jerk ran me off!”

A teenage girl rang our doorbell one night right after we cleared the dinner table.  She belonged to an organization that helped disadvantaged youths better themselves.  She tried to sell us magazines and told us that the kid with the best sales record won a prize (cash, a scholarship?). When she saw that we had lost interest and sympathy she threw back her shoulders and declared, “Someday I’m going to be somebody.  I’m going to succeed!”  She studied us as she waited for a reaction.  She hoped, apparently, that we would feel pressured into helping her achieve her ambitions.  We didn’t.  I walked outside a few minutes after she left and saw teenage boys and girls canvassing homes along the street.  A school bus parked down the road had a sign on it that read, “American Dreamers”.  A man with a money bag and clip board stood by the front bumper.  He collected checks and cash from his crew, clipped order forms to the board, and directed out going kids to new targets.

I got a call several months after we moved into our home from a woman offering a free water quality test.  A middle aged salesman with a frizzy brown mustache came the next evening.  He set up a display case of powdered chemicals, beakers and test tubes in our living room.  He poured tap water and orange crystals into a test tube, and the mixture turned yellow.  A white precipitate fell to the bottom.  He held up the “test results” and said, “See?”  We didn’t.  My wife Judy and I had taken chemistry in college and could recognize a Mr. Wizard flim-flam routine.  The salesman saw that he hadn’t impressed us and said, “You know that there’s an EPA Superfund site just up the road on Forsyth.”  I knew that our water company pumped out of the Florida Aquifer, not out of a shallow well nearby.  The salesman shifted gears and told us that the expensive water filtration system his company sold would save us money because…BECAUSE his company threw in jugs of super efficient laundry detergent as a bonus.  We didn’t bite.  Then he held up the test tube with the white precipitate again and glared at my wife as she held our son in her lap.  “What about the kids?” he seethed.  “Don’t you care about your kids?”  Judy started to cry.  I squared up to him and told him to leave.  He packed his case in a hurry.  But before he left he said, “You’ve got a gift coming for letting me test your water.”  I said, “We don’t want anything from you, ” and shut the door behind him.  The next day we got a call from his company.  A manager asked, “Why didn’t you accept your gift?  Was there a problem with the salesman?”

Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and assorted evangelicals frequently make the rounds in our neighborhood.  They want to know if I am saved, believe in the Bible, know what will happen to me after I die, and whether I’d like to join their happy fellowship.  The brightly colored illustrations in their pamphlets show Jesus curing the sick, happy clusters of believers breaking into song, and throngs of ecstatic souls gathered on flowered meadows in heaven.  I sometimes tell missionaries that I have a faith of my own and am satisfied with it.  If they follow up and ask, “What faith is that?” I say, “Religion is a private matter.”

But sometimes I don’t answer the door and let them mill around on my front porch.  They peer into my picture window and spot me going about my business.  They knock again determined to save me regardless of my indifference.  (How far would they go if I did open the door?)  They eventually leave with defeated looks on their faces, but their visit has not been fruitless.  They’ve inspired me to reach out and communicate with the Beyond:  as I watch them retreat I offer a prayer of thanksgiving.  I pray, “Thank you Jesus for the steel bars on my front door.”

The Sanctity of Guilt

Religions elevate different emotional states or personality traits to the highest standard of moral behavior.  Christians praise self-sacrificing love.  Readers of the Bhagavad Gita learn that they should not be concerned by the results of their actions, but that they should make sure that every step taken is one of devotion to God.  Quakers believe that an Inner Light is available for guidance, and if it is consistently followed the believer will live a life in harmony with the whole of humankind and nature.  All of these core beliefs are powerful tools for setting social mores, to leading people toward happier and more productive lives as well as to spiritual peace.

The interesting but sad history of nearly every faith is the perversion of their core beliefs into repressive, rigid codes that are used by a hierarchical structure to garner and maintain power and wealth.  Secondary tenets are usually added onto the original inspirational teachings of the founders of a religion, ones that aid and abet the franchise building of current spiritual leaders.

I grew up in the Roman Catholic faith.  The power structure of the church, at times, was emphasized from the pulpit more strongly than the Sermon on the Mount.  We weren’t encouraged to read the Bible in our spare time as we might get ideas that ran contrary to the teaching of our parish priests.  Certain passages of the New Testament were ignored (Jesus had brothers and sisters and a mother who was worried that He would embarrass the family in front of the neighbors.), while others were heavily underlined (Mary’s miraculous state of virginity when she became pregnant and gave birth to Jesus).  Loving sacrifice, when it was taught, was usually tied to giving generously to charities sponsored by the church and to the church itself.

Secondary tenets were added on to ensure our docile acceptance of church doctrine and its hierarchy.  Obedience was emphasized, as was humility in the face of God’s amazing power.  God’s representatives on earth were the priests, bishops, cardinals and the Pope, so kneeling before them and accepting their direction without question was an act of piety.

Guilt was a big thing too.  We were taught to feel guilty for merely existing.  Baptism released us from an original sin passed down to us from Adam and Eve that we had acquired simply by being born.  Jesus died for our sins, even the ones we had only imagined.  We were told that we constantly sinned in thought, word and deed, and by acts of commission and omission.  From one sunrise to the next we were actively engaged in fouling our souls, and only by rushing to confession to seek out church sponsored forgiveness could we expunge a few stains.  The agonies of our Savior on the cross were described in detail to reinforce the idea that we, the faithful, were a bunch of miserable shits requiring an extreme sacrifice to square our debts with God.  And, of course, if we were ingrates and failed to toe the (church) line, then Jesus would act as our judge and condemn us to eternal hell….So much fun.

Guilt became an act of piety.  If folks had moments when they felt a little too good about themselves they would be reminded of their faults.  A “big head” meant that one had forgotten about his or her innate fallibility.  It was better to counter any moment of satisfaction with a self reminder that one had screwed up in the past and would do so again.  If persons felt that they had made some strides in conquering a bad habit they kept it to themselves, or even suppressed any thoughts of accomplishment.  She had been taught not to trust in herself–only God (and a priest) could really recognize the true state of her soul–and God might be tempted to throw harder challenges at him if he got cocky.

In recent years the child abuse scandal has finally exposed the depths of corruption in the church.  The revelation that the organization was designed mostly to promote and protect its own, namely the clerics  and not the lay people, was a heartbreaking surprise to those who had spent their lives revering the official caretakers of the church.  The faithful parishioners had hoped that there really leaders more chaste and holy than themselves, that all those years of guilt-tripping had been a meaningful exercise in becoming more like the clergy if not like Jesus Himself (the unattainable goal).

The truth has come out, but the question is, “Will it set us free?”  Can we go back to the original teachings of an avatar, saint, or savior and discern their core message?  Can we put divine inspiration into effect in our own lives without guidance from a teacher who may or may not be corrupt?  Is there a church that hasn’t debased the revelations of its founding prophet?  And if we rely solely on ourselves will be fall prey to self-delusion?

I’ve been left to wander after leaving behind the Catholic church.   The faith into which I was indoctrinated still has a lingering influence, and my fall back stance whenever I am praised or criticized is an uneasy mix of humility and guilt.    I meditate and have dabbled in studying Buddhism and Hindu belief systems, but have never found a true spiritual home.  As far as I know there have been no organizations created by human beings that can ever establish a heavenly space here on earth.

Perhaps the most that we can hope for is to see occasional glimpses of a better way of existence.

 

REBEL REBEL

I wasn’t much of a rebel when I was a little kid.  I had strict parents who made sure that the consequences of defiance were costly.  They were good at “shock and awe”.  I was also given the impression (with continual reinforcement) that my opinion about any matter wasn’t the only one, and that my viewpoint was likely to be faulty based on my youthful inexperience and stupidity.

When I got a bit older I began to notice personal flaws in the folks in authority in my extended family, and while I usually kept my observations to myself and didn’t act on them, I began to give some value to my thoughts.  If my relatives weren’t perfect and got some things wrong, it meant that my opinions might be just as valid as theirs.  My aunts and uncles gradually understood that I was a quiet, observant child, and they seemed a little uncomfortable when I was lurking nearby.  They could see the wheels turning in my head as I studied their faces and listened to their talk.

My experiences in the Catholic church followed a similar route:  at first I was cowed into obedience by the supposed power of the nuns and priests over the fate of my soul;  then I started noticing that some of the priests were at times cruel, wrathful, self-indulgent, and that many of the nuns were frustrated and bitter living in the narrow confines of their rigid routines.  By the time I was fifteen I also figured out inconsistencies in church teachings.  When I was told that some things were inexplicable and best left to God, I realized that the faith was just a house of cards.  At some point a person had to choose to blindly accept the back story and fables of a religion, or strike out on their own and see what they could see.

I carried my habits of skepticism and close observation into art school and developed a strong dislike for those moments when instructors fell back on their professional mystique when their teaching got muddy and confused.  Some professors spoke in vague, enigmatic terms about their theories and practice as artists, and they reminded me of the priests.  Both sets of professionals appeared to be practitioners in cults.  And the art world in the 80s was divided into so many opposing camps that no one could claim any final authority.  If a professor looked down his nose at my realistic paintings, then I could find about twenty things to say about the weakness of his thickly painted, expressionist abstractions that looked like a knock off of Bill Jensen’s work.  There wasn’t any high ground.  We were all posers busy promoting our pet ideas.

Now I am an art professor.  In order to be effective I have to speak with authority and teach from an organized, logical syllabus that leads from one idea and technique to another.  I give students direct examples to look at and demonstrations on how to use media.   I try to avoid drifting into mystical artspeak.  I don’t want to be that hand waving, gobbledygook spewing professor who hides behind esoteric theories like the Wizard of Oz creating illusions of power and mastery from behind his curtain.

I’m fully aware that the creative process is impossible to codify and fully explain, but I create a bubble of certainty while my students are still trying to figure out how to draw an apple using a stick of charcoal.  I’m like a music teacher who sticks to the basics of classical music when teaching beginners while being aware that jazz and Indian ragas are valid, alternative forms of music.

At the end of every semester I usually point out that there are lots of other people in the art world who take a different stance from mine, that what I’ve taught them isn’t the only way of approaching art, that other instructors will contradict me and preach a different chapter and verse.  It’s up to them to choose what works best for them and means the most.  I invite them to rebel against me.

But there are semesters when I don’t give that speech.  I sometimes have classes with several students who seem to be questioning my directions and follow up instruction.  They watch me carefully and enjoy those moments when I say something garbled and awkward, when I appear frustrated and overwhelmed by the multiple demands on my attention.  I know that they’ve already taken me for something of a fool, as an illustration of the kind artist and human being they hope that they will never become.  These upstarts have an influence on the students around them, and by the end of the semester there is little chance that I can inadvertently brainwash any of them into believing that I am the sole authority concerning artistic matters.

At the end of the final class I watch the rebels trail out of the art room with smug looks on their faces.  They’re thinking, “I’ll never have to listen to that asshole ever again.”  And I think, “Karmic payback is such a bitch.”

 

 

Snapshots: donating a kidney circa 1984

My brother is in intensive care. He was admitted to Miami Valley Hospital early this morning suffering from shortness of breath and severe fatigue. His skin was yellowish gray. He is diagnosed with kidney failure and a staph infection in his blood.

The next day Tony’s urologist allows us to stay in the room while he hooks his new patient up for a dialysis treatment. Muthiah lifts the sheet and takes a needle connected to a clear, plastic hose connected to a complicated machine and inserts it into Tony’s groin. Tony winces in pain from the stick; blood starts to flow into the hose. Muthiah leads us, my father and mother and sister and I into the corridor and tells us about Tony’s condition in detail. He can get by for a while on dialysis, but Muthiah proposes a kidney transplant as the best option for long term survival. He asks us to consider being tested for tissue compatibility. We are all somewhat stunned by the doctor’s speech. And while the doctor doesn’t direct any attention to me more than the others, I know in my gut that I am the best candidate.

I’m in my apartment overlooking Irving Ave. staring out the window. It’s a gray day in late February and I’ve just gotten off the phone having received the news that I’ve been waiting for for two months. The date of the surgery has finally been set, and I’ve got a couple of weeks to get things squared away at home and at work. I’ve been preparing for this moment ever since the test results came back in December telling us that Tony and I are nearly perfect matches. I’m surprised, however by a chill, numbing sensation that is spreading from the center of my chest outward. The phone call brought with it a premonition that I would die on the operating table, and the fear that I’m feeling is different from the hot flush of wavering dread I usually get when facing a physical threat. This kind of fear feels cold and heavy, and it eventually settles deep in my guts where I know it will stay until this whole thing is over.

I’m sitting in a hospital bed in a double room on a floor of Miami Valley Hospital dedicated to kidney cases and pre-op patients waiting for abdominal surgery. My roommate was taken in for gall bladder surgery earlier in the day, and I watched as he prayed intently with his minister to prepare himself for whatever eventuality his operation would bring. I am an agnostic, but find myself envying the man his faith. I have been beset throughout the day by Catholic priests of the unctuous variety who have decided to pray over me (at my mother’s behest) without my consent. I feel that I’m doing them a favor by listening to them drone on and on. A former army chaplain wanders into my room that evening after supper and he is looking at a list. He has just visited my brother in a room across the hall, and he is confused by my last name. He thinks that I’m another kidney patient, and can’t believe that two members of the same family are suffering from the same malady at the same time. He laughs when I set him straight. He speaks to me in a straight forward manner for a few minutes and says a simple prayer. I am comforted.

A young nurse’s aide comes into my room early the next morning and shaves off my pubic hair. She appears to be embarrassed. My penis looks forlorn and ridiculous without its mane and I am embarrassed too. I am hooked up to an IV and a nurse starts a drip of a sedative that is supposed to calm my nerves. My parents and fiance are with me in the room and they look grim and nervous when they think that I’m not looking at them. Another nurse comes into the room just as they begin wheeling me out to the hall. She is the mother of a woman that I had dated for about a year, and although the relationship with her daughter ended acrimoniously, she is here to see me off. I’m touched and comforted by the sincerity of her concern. My gurney is pushed down several branching hallways and my family and fiance are left behind. I am left alone (without any explanation from the orderly who abandoned me) in an old, cluttered room off a deserted corridor that looks like it had once been a laboratory of some kind. Several minutes pass by and the sedative is no longer working. I’m eventually collected by a nurse who wheels me into a cold, white tiled room where I will be given anesthesia. I am told to lie down on a hard metal table that feels like it has been chilled to near freezing. The anesthesiologist walks into the room and discovers something amiss and starts to throw a tantrum. He yells and tosses sheets of paper around, and the nurse standing by my side looks distraught. I’m terrified that this man will be administering drugs to me, but manage to lean over to the nurse and whisper, “This guy is a real asshole.” Her face breaks up for a moment as if she’s trying to suppress a smile. The doctor calms down and walks over to me with the biggest needle I’ve ever seen in his hand. He tells me to lie on my side and curl up in a ball. He injects my spine. The needle stick feels uncomfortable, but not all that painful, and then there’s blackness.

I wake up in a recovery room. The room is full of people lying on gurneys, moaning and crying out in pain. There’s a bag of blood and a bag of plasma on an IV pole by my bed, and I watch the plasma drip, drip, drip down a hose and into my arm. I’m in intense pain. My guts feel as if they’ve been torn up and clumsily sewn back together with strands of barbed wire. A male nurse appears above me and says something to me that I can’t quite follow. My attention is focused instead on my rapidly filling bladder. The pressure from its expansion is causing fresh, new sensations of pain at the base of my guts. I ask for a urinal, but can’t manage to pee. I ask for a catheter because I much prefer to have something shoved up my dick than to continue feeling that my bladder is about to explode. The surgeon, who is somewhere else in the hospital, has to be found and consulted before I can be given relief, and ten or fifteen long minutes pass as I watch the plasma drip and feel my bladder expand. The nurses finally get approval, and when the urine is finally released the relief is so intense that I feel that I’ve died and gone to heaven. I’m still in a lot of pain, but I’m getting somewhat used to it. But then three nurses approach my bed and tell me that it’s time to change the linens. When I roll on my side as ordered my bruised intestines shift inside my abdomen and the pain becomes excruciating. I scream. I’m aware that the scream is making everyone else feel uncomfortable, but while I’m inside that noise and that release of emotion I feel all right. It’s worse when I stop screaming and I hear them tell me to roll on my other side. I know what’s coming.

They leave me alone for a while after the bed has been changed, and the pain returns to normal levels of hellishness. There’s a clock on the wall that’s broken. It is 3:00. It is always 3:00. One could get the impression that one has been condemned to a world where time stands still and suffering never ends. The patients around me are still groaning and crying out, and they appear to corroborate that impression. My fiance Judy and my mother visit me and I vaguely register their looks of concern. They appear to be suffering just as much as I am. A male nurse comes by after they’ve left and asks me if I want a sponge bath. He gives it to me, and the bath turns into a massage, and I’m disturbed by the little smile that creases his lips as his hands work their way over my body. I’m completely helpless and I begin to question his intentions, but the pain and the medications are probably driving me a bit loopy and paranoid. Later on the nurses decide to change my linens once again, and I suspect that they’re rolling me around for some other purpose. My sheets are fresh and clean once more after I’ve given them another round of screaming. A female nurse who looks like an angel leans over my bed and tells me that she admires me for what I’ve done. I think that this is one hell of a way to meet good looking women.

I am taken from post-op late that evening and put into a bed on the same floor where I had previously been. Nurses come into the room and take my vitals every hour or so, and I can’t get much sleep. I’ve been given some morphine and am resting in a warm cocoon of comfort for as long as the dose works its charms. An older nurse, an LPN, comes in around three in the morning and takes my pulse. She rearranges my blankets and pillow and makes me feel much more comfortable. I give her a smile of thanks and she warmly smiles back at me. I fall asleep and the day is finally over.

*My operation went amiss and I almost died on the table. The pain I felt went beyond normal levels because of surgical complications. Surgeries today are done using laparoscopic techniques and are much less traumatic.