Assumptions and Peace of Mind

When something really bad happens to someone we barely know, like unexpected death for instance, engaging in a conversation with the men I occasionally socialize with starts at the bottom of the social-correctness register and rarely rises above gallows humor which is the only thing we can hide behind in public without looking like frightened and curious little boys straining to see a hanged man over the shoulders of adults in the Old West.  We joke to keep the bite of reality at a safe distance when the cold fingers of death brush our daily lives and remind us of our mortality.

A man named Charlie, who we as a group only knew well enough to smile at and say hello to, passed away unexpectedly. Here Friday, gone Monday. That’s not unheard of. Death happens. But he was only thirty years old. At that age a man can usually get away with being out of shape or smoking and drinking too much for quite a few more years. The unusual thing in this instance was that nobody knew how Charlie died. There was no mention of the cause or manner of death in his obituary and if anyone knew how he died, they weren’t talking. That is as it should be I suppose, but the fact that none of us knew him well did not nullify our need for closure and a sense of safety from a similar end—whatever it was.

When a man that young dies suddenly and no cause of death can be added to the collective necrology of still-living men who at least knew of him, the gravity of the implications of the event must be side-stepped in favor of the false comfort of speculation. The last time someone we all barely knew died, when the cause was left out of the obituary, we found out through the rumor mill that he committed suicide. Unsettling as it was, suicide gave us some sense of the event which made it still-tragic, but less scary because, we agreed, the guy had some control over the situation. That made it seem less like sudden death–like getting fired from your job–and more of a choice–like quitting your job. Quitting is better than getting fired, though you are unemployed either way. But we didn’t know which analogy applied to Charlie; the rumor mill was mute as a brick.

Our discussion about the cause and manner of Charlie’s death went almost straight to the idea that he may have had a heart attack at the acme of sexual congress, the agreed upon fantasy-death for most of us. That would have been Aggravated Death by Heart Attack or maybe Aggravated Natural Causes. Aggravated because the death occurred in such a way that the details of it would compound the loss for the family if they were made public. But, we reasoned, if that was what happened to Charlie, the cause of death would have been reported simply enough as heart failure or natural causes. Still, the obituary, if any of us wrote it, would most likely have said he died of a heart attack for the sake of public peace of mind.

Generally, we in this group, care and feel compassion for others as much as anybody else we know. But by the time our compassion reached our social surfaces in Charlie’s case, it had passed through our layers of unconscious fears and our thoughts were filtered through our internal emotional survival mechanisms. As a by-product of that process, we dealt with the tragedy by talking it out. The conclusion we came to is that Charlie’s must have been death by Autoerotic Asphyxiation–AEA, Paraphilia, scarfing. There was no information that indicated Charlie left the world of the living in a less embarrassing (therefore more frightening) way. In the AEA scenario, there was room for us to assume it was an accident caused by risky behavior. That put the matter in a completely different arena for us. It was and still is sad, but it wasn’t his choice or a random event. It was an accidental strangulation suffered in pursuit of pleasure which we thought to be a thing we could reasonably assume the rest of us could still avoid.

We all knew of one famous person who allegedly died in the throes of AEA, David Carradine, whose death was the only reason we knew AEA is a thing. He was found in a Thai hotel with a cord around his neck in a closet amid evidence of ejaculation. David Carradine’s ex-wives claim that self-bondage was one of his sexual interests. They must have felt left out. Other fatal erotic asphyxiation practitioners, or choke-and-strokers, listed in the Wikipedia article we read, are people we had never heard of. The circumstances of their deaths are similarly embarrassing, though and mildly interesting.

Reports of death by erotic asphyxiation go back to the eighteenth century. In 1791 a Czech composer and violinist, tied a rope to a doorknob then used the other end as a ligature around his neck and proceeded to have sex with a prostitute who had, moments before the fatal event, refused to cut off his testicles. When the sex was finished, the article said, the violinist was dead. Reading about that incident prompted a discussion among us about what the advantages of having our testicles cut off just before orgasmic bliss could possibly be. We couldn’t think of any and nobody wanted to look that up.

In 1936 a geisha and prostitute in Japan erotically asphyxiated her lover to death, then cut off his penisu to teesticles, as they call them in Okinawa, and carried them around in her kimono for several days. There is a photograph of her surrounded by men in suits, all of them smiling like she had just won the lottery. She was being arrested for murder and mutilation of a corpse. We guessed that the men were smiling because they were relieved it happened to someone else. She was sentenced to six years in prison, served five of them, then wrote a book.

A few Paraphilia-ists submitted to scientific scrutiny. Scientists found that people can become addicted to the very final moment of the AEA experience because chemicals are released in the brain during asphyxiation that cause hallucinations and intense sexual arousal. That explains why some men who have been hanged for their crimes were witnessed to have sprouted erections as they struggled at the end of the rope. In some cases, the hanged men had orgasmic experiences right there in front of everybody. So, all that jerking may not have been struggling after all.

AEA related deaths in the US involve men at a rate of fifty to one versus women. I’m not sure if that means women are less likely to engage in AEA or less likely to perish in the act. I think women are generally more patient and careful than men, so it could be either, or both. Most AEA practitioners are left-handed men who tend to have more older brothers than average and long fingers. For the record, I am totally right-handed and an eldest child. I don’t think that bit about the long fingers really means anything.

I don’t know Charlie’s birth order or if he was left or right handed. I don’t remember noticing whether his fingers were long, but I do remember that he seemed friendly and smiled warmly when he said good morning, like he meant it. That makes me hope that, if our speculation is true, Charlie had a happy ending.

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Hummingbirds

I was told once that hummingbirds never rest. That they beat their wings constantly and that’s why they need so much sugar for energy. This was when I was a little kid. I probably misunderstood what I was told. I had never seen a hummingbird in person. So, I grew up thinking that those poor little birds never got to rest until they died. I felt bad for them. I wondered how hard it is to be constantly flying, always moving. How did their little shoulders not get tired? I assumed they didn’t have feet. I wondered how they could sleep.

Unlike other flying animals, hummingbirds don’t “flap” their wings at all. They move them real fast in a figure eight-pattern. That’s why they can perform maneuvers like alien space craft. The figure eight motion is the secret to their incredible maneuverability. That soft fluttering sound that you can hear when a hummingbird flies past you is the sound a fast figure eight makes.

Even if I could make my arms both do a figure eight at the same time and even if my legs were very, very light and even if I had feathers to lift me up in the air, you wouldn’t hear a soft fluttering sound when I flew by. You would only hear me breathing heavy, coughing and panting as I moved slowly along looking for a place to rest and a fountain of Red Bull.

I have observed with my own eyes and to my relief that hummingbirds can and do rest. They have little legs and feet which they use to perch. But that’s all their feet can do. Grab something and hold it while the little bird catches his or her breath.

I tried to make both of my arms do a figure eight at the same time. I couldn’t do it. Whichever arm I was not concentrating on just made a wobbly oval. I can only make one figure eight at a time. The best I could have done as a hummingbird would have been to skitter around in a circle until something came along and ate me just to stop the annoying one-wing fluttering, and the screaming.

Hummingbirds probably have the best (but possibly the quickest) sex life of any creature on Earth because they have no limitations on position. They practically have total immunity to gravity because the figure eight is a motion that works in any position.

I’m so glad they get to rest.

single hummer b&w

Rumination

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Ruminating calms me and pulls my mind far enough from reality to enable me to process something that has left me uneasy. Sometimes I have conversations with people who aren’t there, like it’s a rehearsal for a conflict that I expect to have with someone. Or I want to have answers ready for a conversation that will likely never happen. for instance when I want to tell a person what I think about what she or he did or said. Other times, I try to redo a conversation to come up with a better answer than “Oh, Yeah?” I also ruminate to try to explain things I’ve seen, like an old lady with a pierced tongue. I spoke with a woman recently who could have passed for Mrs. Claus. Her tongue was pierced. That isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but it was unexpected.

As she spoke to me, the sixty-something seemed to carefully choose her words to enhance my viewing experience, as if she knew I was staring at it. Which I was. I watched for it as her lips parted and her language made it appear and disappear like a marble on a Mobius strip.

I realize now that, after the first glimpse of it, I didn’t hear a word she said. It was like when your wife comes home after a girls’ night out and you ask her how it went and, as she’s telling you about what Kathy did with some guy she met at the bar, you see her reflection in the dining room mirror as she pulls her wedding ring out of her purse and slips it back on her finger before she turns around to face you and you lost track of everything but that.

After I walked away, the image of  the bobbing black bean riding her tongue lingered and looped in my memory, the same way watching someone covertly replace her wedding ring might be the only lasting impression of that moment.

I vaguely remember the conversation. I think the conversation went like this:

“I’m sorry to disturb you, but is — here today?” She licked her lower lip with the bottom of her tongue as if she had to think about my question for a few seconds then said she,

“Oh, I’m sorry, she is working from home today. Can I help you with thomething?”

“No thanks,” I said, “I’ll thee her later.”

 

 

The Bell

This guy  has a motorcycle, a twenty-nine-year-old Kawasaki. He’s not a biker. He’s just a guy who rides his motorcycle on nice days to get his rebel on. He bought it cheap and for years it ran great. He rode it to work and all-around town on weekends when the wife and kids didn’t need him around.

He started to have intermittent problems. Mysterious problems. He told me about them: “It ran okay until I went over forty, then it started to miss or something, the next day it ran okay up to thirty-five, then it seemed to run out of gas and it wouldn’t idle, the next day it ran great, but I had to jump start it, then it just cut out.” He did his best to figure out what the problem was and he tried to fix it. Sea Foam in the fuel, new spark plugs. bigger spark plug gap. smaller spark plug gap, racing fuel. Leave the gas cap off. Put a new gas cap on. Bypass some fuses. He replaced the battery twice. He YouTubed the shit out of the problem for months and read and reread every Kawasaki forum he could find, but nothing worked.

He gave me updates during the course of the summer on what he had done most recently to fix the bike and what the results were. His problems persisted through the summer. He wasn’t able to find a shop that would work on it. They were all too busy or didn’t want to work on that particular bike–too old. I finally finished a large project I had been working on and offered to see if I could find and fix the problems for him.

He got half-way to my garage before the bike died.

“It’s dead, man. It won’t even turn over!”

I told him I would come get it with my trailer. As we began to load the bike, light rain began to fall. I didn’t pay much attention to it. Then just as I was holding the bike up with one arm and trying to attach the strap to the handlebars with the other, it poured. Iwas the torrent was perfectly timed. As if God said, “Hey Pete! Hold my beer. Watch this!” All of my Jeep’s windows were down. My phone was face up on the hood. I wasn’t wearing underwear beneath my white athletic shorts. I looked up to the sky and asked, “Are you enjoying this?” Lightening flashed and thunder rolled and the sound undulated. The rain stopped as we got the bike into my garage.

I began to check for electrical faults and tested for voltage here and there. I realized what the root problem was when I followed the wiring harness under the motorcycle. He had no bell. My but tightened and the hair on my neck stood at attention. This Kawasaki was in the clutches of a gremlin.

According to the Oxford Living Dictionary, a gremlin is “An imaginary mischievous sprite regarded as responsible for an unexplained mechanical or electronic problem or fault.” Obviously, whoever wrote that definition has never owned a motorcycle or flown a World War II military airplane, which is when gremlins were first identified and given a name.

Gremlins are known by other names: “petite tête de merde,” in France or “kleiner Scheißkopf,“ in Germany both of which translate to “little dick heads” in English. The most compelling proof of gremlins is in the absence of their mischief when the proper measure is taken to keep them away. which is a bell. All of my bikes have bells and my problems are all strictly wear and tear. There’s the proof.

The Bell is not a symbol of guardianship like a Crucifix tattooed over the heart or a necklace made of garlic. The Bell is as necessary to a motorcycle’s reliability as clean gasoline and leather handlebar streamers. It doesn’t need to be made of silver. It doesn’t need to be blessed or subjected to any kind of ritual to be activated. It only needs to hang from the bottom of a motorcycle in such a way that it can ring. The ringing keeps the gremlins away from the bike.

Like a newly erected scarecrow can’t put corn back on the stalks, a bell installed on a broken motorcycle doesn’t fix problems that were preexisting. I still had to figure out what was wrong with the bike and fix it. Eventually I found what the gremlins did. They burnt a wire, slowly so it didn’t completely fail right away, deep inside a connector where it couldn’t be seen. That’s was the original problem. I repaired the wire, then followed the trail of symptoms and resolved the rest of the problems one-at-a-time, a screw missing here, a nicked O-ring there, a little slobber from the float bowls drooling on a vacuum hose. Some of it was age related. Some of it wasn’t.

I got it running. Not like new. It still has a few problems, but it moves under its own power with both cylinders firing most of the time, which is the equivalent of going from a walker to a cane  for someone who broke both legs.

An argument could be made that the bike was just old. It had run it’s race. It was pooped. It’s kickstand was on a banana peel. I fixed everything I could find. Then I installed a Bell to keep the fucking gremlins away.

My Way

 

I felt listless and unaccomplished when I woke this morning. Dominated by a vague sense of failure, I felt like I had not achieved my life goals, like I hadn’t even clearly defined them. I must have had dull dreams. I was struck, as I drank my first cup of coffee, by my ordinariness. No matter what came before this day, I was still an ordinary person in an ordinary house with an ordinary dog in an ordinary little city.

I felt disappointed. “Are these thoughts triggered by the feeling I woke with, or do I feel this way because my life is mundane and boring?” I wondered. I finished my plain black coffee and decided to take my ordinary dog for a walk through my ordinary neighborhood.

As the dog and I approached a pond, I saw three beautiful birds with only their feet and ankles in the water, waiting motionless for something to happen. “What a tedious life,” I thought, “Standing around all day, only part way into the pond, waiting for a meal to appear. Every day must be the same as every other day.” Right then, those birds represented every missed opportunity, every unremarkeable moment of my life.

My past rushed forward so quickly it took me by surprise. The scene before me combined with the warmth of the sunshine, the feel of soft wet grass underfoot, the songs of the Birds and the smell of warm earth to trigger Deja vu. I tried to process the feeling. I searched my memory to put this moment in perspective. My mind searched through thousands of similar sensory events.

I’ve experienced many sunny September mornings. The days flashed like a blurred side show of time snippets. An engagement broken in a park near a library, a funeral with military honors, a wedding, a car crash, a wrong turn into a beautiful garden, lost innocence.

That compression of experience came as I looked and felt and smelled and listened. I realized I have come a long way to get to this moment in this place. I have seen many beautiful things in many beautiful places.

“I’m not ordinary,” I thought, “I’ve lived a life that’s full and I’ve traveled every highway.” But there’s so much more to my life than that. “Much more than this,” I thought, looking at the pond and the birds. Sure, I let a few fish get away. Everyone has. That’s what these birds represented to me, missed opportunities. But missed opportunities are only a part of the picture.

Egrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention. I did what I had to do. I paved my roads with good intention.

 

 

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