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Today's Story by Eugene H. Bales

Even Socrates had a teaching career

Whisper to Socrates’ Ghost

At fifty years of age, my vanity suffers a jolt when I look in the mirror. What happened to virile and sexy?  Puffiness has crept into my face, and my blue eyes no longer suggest the sky.  I see clouds and streaks of sunset.

My wife, Ann, misses my vitality and wishes to hear laughter instead of complaints.  She says all work and no play have made her Vic too sharp in his comments, too acid for the cloth of life.  An active hobby, such as fishing, would neutralize my bile.

In my work as a landscape architect I’m outdoors in all of the Midwest’s weathers which dries out youth.  As a team member in an expanding business, I have an increasing work load.  The slip of time I had to examine my life totaled to enough minutes for me to know I was leading an unexamined one.  Further, I was finding my work less satisfying, my results leaving me fuming and frowning.  Clients have demanded the effect of repose lately, in two cemeteries, for example.  How about mystery?  Have people forgotten it, and grandeur along with it?

I have clues to the answer.  I’ve worked too much lately for businesses and institutions with modest budgets that keep my imagination tethered and my hand drawing functional creations with square corners for small patches of land.  There’s also the attendant guilt about feeling that dollars earn top priority.  It’s hard working for a client with constipated sensibilities without some grunts of one’s own.

I had enough money saved to take a year off and asked for a year’s leave of absence to examine my life to make sure the rest of it was going to be worth living or unworthy and in need of change.  I would write of my efforts in a journal.

As I was cleaning out my desk on June 1, 2005, my friend, Glen, watched me.  Each morning, Glen’s beefy hand adds a one to the number on his desk.  He had just wadded up 3,114 on a green post-it note and replaced it with 3,115, the number of consecutive days he has worked.

“Vic, Buddy, we’ll miss you,” he said.  “We know you’ll do a great examining job.”  He giggled.

After three days of thought, I decided to examine my life while riding in my Volvo with its SAVE THE WHALES bumper sticker.   My audio tape of whales, those animals big-enough-to-live-in and their submarine sounds—rumbles, whistles, a music like bird song, seagulls crying, the rich notes of a brass baritone, have to put a man in tune with creation’s might, majesty, and mystery.

My unraveling of my psyche’s mystery started with a drive on a country road and my question about my identity.  Who’s the who I admire most about myself?  The landscape architect—the wizard who draws the magic.  Does that matter?  Yes.  Witness people’s faces when they’re satisfied with what I do for them.  However, do I ever work for anyone poor?  No.  Besides, the big families the poor breed kill the grass.  Further, the have-nots neglect the plantings in their yards.

In spite of these thoughts, when I go back to work, I’ll do a landscape design for the family Ann and I adopt for Christmas.  “Hey—the examined life has become more worth living during my first examination session!!!!!”  I wrote in my journal.

I spent a day on identity and two on maturity.  Besides being tired of car riding I needed to surface soundwise.  My whales sounded alternately like a squeegee on a window, a tuba underwater, or a child’s bowling ball rolling slowly down the alley.

I walked around a park, its grass a green blanket to hold its flowers.  I asked myself—Am I mature or still struggling to free myself from adolescence?  A squirrel chattered at me.  What does it mean to be mature?  You can love, work, play, laugh and cry.  I smelled cigarette smoke which reminded me I was grown-up enough to have quit smoking.

I’d like to quit thinking about high school embarrassments.  My basketball coach—head the shape of a shoe box—hollered at me from the bench during games.  “Perky, Perky. . .”. . .

All I could ever hear—my surname.  His frenzied commands I never executed.  I listened to my body.  “Panic!” it said.  I obeyed.  My muscles clenched.  I must have looked stuffed with hard rubber.

Old realistic Glen called and said he and Denise had made a sudden decision to go to England in mid-July and wanted Ann and me to go with them.  I told him we’d love to, but I still had unexplored inner terrain.

Back to riding in my Volvo, coffee cup in hand, whales beeping, creaking, burping, and groaning at me, I descended to the polluted pond of adolescence.  What’s wrong with me that when I try to fly to something profound to examine I flutter down to high school?

Midmorning the next day I stopped at McDonald’s for coffee.  Located in the yuppiest part of town, this particular store featured on its smooth, beige walls framed China pictures.  The Great Wall roped the hills together.  Rice paddies made steps down a hill.  In a monastery, Buddhist monks cleared the world out of their minds.  They had been told by a wise teacher who could sit statue-still in the lotus position, “Clear your mind of the world’s blathering and grabbing.”  On the other hand, maybe a few monks were thinking about how their bodies tensed when their meditation coaches hollered at them when they were still too young to sit still for five minutes, much less five hours.

On with my Volvo driving and life examination.  I stopped at a stop light and asked, Why am I so pleased, at age fifty, when I’m told that a woman has said I’m good-looking?  Does that indicate I’m shallow?  I turned that thought on my mental spit for three hours and concluded everyone else was shallow too except Mother Teresa, Ralph Nader, Elie Wiesel, C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Andrei Sakharov, Jonas Salk and Flannery O’Connor.

Although we turned down an invitation to go out to a movie, Ann and I ran one on our VCR at home.  Mindless Mafia creeps shot, knifed and strangled people through scene one to the final one.

The next day in my car with my whales, I asked myself if I had grown up in a Mafia-dominated neighborhood would I have had the courage to defy them?  A tired rear later I said no.  As for whales, I was beginning to wonder if I really wanted to save animals that sounded like pigs grunting, autistic humans, or a constipated person trying one more time.  I chastised myself for anthropomorphizing those aquatic marvels.

A vat of coffee, thousands of stop lights, and enough fast-food meals to gag a teenager later, I said no also to being able to endure Nazi torture.  I could see my Jewish friends being rounded up in the places I said they’d be after everything I knew had been strangled, squeezed, pierced, burned, shocked and watered out of me.

The examined life was proving to have a huge thumb mashing me into depression.  I almost said yes to a friend’s offer of a fishing trip, but hated the idea of another no to—Do I have the will to examine my life?  Moreover, once I have all the thoughts, will I have the courage, if necessary, to face the truth that what I’ve been doing, thinking and saying the last fifty years has failed to deliver a life worth living?

My whales’ tape went into my car stereo crooked and came out trailing two yards of brown tape.  I dusted off my Jazz at the Philharmonic tapes.

Ann turned down invitations for us to go to an art gallery, to eat at a new Thai restaurant, to hear Andre Michel Shub, telling our friends I had to have my rest to examine life well the next day.

In the middle of July, I examined what I was pecking at and decided it lacked the heft to make life more worth living.  I was shorting analysis and mounding worry.  I needed loftier thoughts.  Enter God.

Does she exist?  Maybe.  What if he exists but isn’t on our side?  Proof—the Iraq War, the Mafia, our love affair with destruction, predatory capitalists, married people who poison each other’s lives for years, the KKK.

Proof that she exists and is on our side—the Salvation Army, Ralph Nader, Mother Teresa, the Jerry Lewis Telethon, AA, jazz, art galleries, good books, the Grand Canyon and my wife.

My explorations loosened up, began to drift away from the deep-thinking mode, shook off their shackles and roamed free and whimsical.  If God has a face, what does it look like?  Weathered with age?  That’s silly.  Nothing eternal gets weathered.  A baby face?  No.  God’s got dignity to maintain.  Does he have a beard?  God has no reason to hide his identity.  On the other hand, maybe he has a different style beard every deity-determined time period.

Is he any fun?  Would I enjoy playing golf with him?  Would he mind my jokes based on how inadequate and stupid we are or would he lecture me on being judgmental?

Gasoline prices climbed, and my enthusiasm for riding and meditating got thumbed down for one more reason.

I aspired to sound to myself like a great theologian, to think the thoughts, write the words that would bring the Pope to my door.  Instead, I seemed like the adolescent boy the great theologians might use as their before-spiritual-and-emotional-maturity example.

What hobbies could save me?  Let me while engaging in them do some profound adult examining?  I considered bird watching, gardening, raising beagle hounds, jogging and serious reading.  I whittled them down one-by-one.

Bird watching—good, great probably for the summer in the Midland Empire, but what about winter?  It’s easy to promise yourself you’ll be standing in the snow with your eyes pressed into binoculars when you’re warm and comfortable but also easy to return to the warm and comfortable when you’re standing in the snow.

Gardening  — too much like what I do for a buck.

Raising dogs — I love them but the stench of dog excrement …

Jogging — easy to start but …

Reading –I already read, and I’m too old to write lists starting with Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury and deluding myself with the promise that my pencil will march down the column marking off classics uninterrupted by entertaining trash.

I settled on golf –after all isn’t it likely the profound and spiritual can be found on beautiful golf courses? — nature trimmed, tamed, and inviting you to walk on and in it instead of harassing you with sticktights and poison ivy.  On a good golf shot you take a miniature bite of turf, hear a satisfying click, watch the ball climb in the air seeming reluctant to descend.  It lands where you would have put it were you there.   Phil Michelson smiles and winks at you

Would you take John Paul Sartre golfing with you or anyone else you might have penned on your list of great authors?  My head droops at the question.  I whisper no.  However, I love playing golf and get more visits from profundities than if I focus on visiting them.

Ann and I would vacation in Greece.  I would roam Athens whispering to Socrates’ ghost the profundities that came to me on my backswing with a seven iron.  In my journal I wrote—A life should be examined on a part-time basis only.  Never compare your examination results with a professional writer who can scribble himself up to be a lot more mature than you by leaving out any mention of high school or how he wept at a Disney movie.   Socrates, even you had a teaching career.


Eugene H. Bales has published fifty-nine stories including a volume of humor and satire by Washburn University’s Press.

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