Foggy will do, but slow might be better. It is what happens when one begins a day with the effects of Walgreens sleeping tablets wearing off. The good news is that this has been preceded by adequate sleep. The bad news? The fogginess, of course. But above all, the night from hell that sparked it all.
That night being preceded by a day that left stuff behind the way election flyers, free bags of soap or breakfast cereal, not to mention coupons for the local pizza joint, tend to appear on my apartment door handle. All because the Psychologist I Happen to Bump into on Mondays asked a simple question or two about my day-to-day experience of disability. Suggesting that I might have a constant feeling of falling behind, not keeping up and so on. Which sent me down another road of thought…the continuous frustration that I cannot do the manly household things. Taking out the rubbish, pulling up weeds from the flower beds, putting a new light bulb in a ceiling fixture. None of which is exactly news. But this is the strange thing about everyday life. How we miss the obvious. We miss it, because we want to avoid it.
And because nothing gets avoided at night, damned if I wasn’t groggily reaching for the urinal on the bedside table about 1 AM…when my hand missed, and the thing went toppling. Spilling its contents on, of all things, my pillow, along with the mattress. Altering bed conditions considerably.
Altering everything, in fact, for now I am not only awake, but lying in a wet and odoriferous night world of shame. Not to mention incompetence. Which is more or less the same thing…. The latter judgments only serving to distract from that other thing slowly rising, which defies understanding, and so continues to rise…or one might say, fester. For the ensuing hours. The latter spent on the edge of sleep, the viewing area where visitors observe rest, but cannot participate. The clock advances. Life retreats. Long night’s journey into…more night. There comes a time, somewhere south of 3 AM, when I drop my legs over the edge of the bed, sit up and consider next steps. Both of them, the two steps it takes to get into my wheelchair and out of this horrible room.
Changing space, we call it in California. Out to the other part of the apartment where we share space, my psyche and I. And so it drifts back, this message from the day about disability and its frustrations. Not to mention disappointments. Burdens. And simply a sense of loss. As if loss is ever simple. Oy. And what does it take to get back to sleep under such circumstances? For a two thirds-paralyzed person, being out of bed comes first. Lying down only adds to the sense of physical helplessness and being trapped. And once in the wheelchair, wheeling out in search of a piece of Belgian chocolate. Who knows why the latter is just what the doctor ordered? Endorphins, some say. That and a few minutes of staring into the living room darkness, seeing what drifts in from the day. And, yes, it does not take long for the psychologist’s chitchat about falling behind in the race to be able-bodied, tangentially on to the failures to accomplish the tasks of a suburban householder. After which something settles, bed seems possible – and a couple of hours of either light, or disturbed, sleep ensue. Until the alarm sounds.
Which alarm? They are going off all over. The debt ceiling. Haven’t I been staring at it for hours? No, that’s the other one, in Washington. Good thing I am now sitting in San Francisco opposite my friend Phila. We do this occasionally, and not without considerable effort…which neither of us considers, or appears to. There is my wheelchair, of course. And Phila’s 80+ years. Fuck it. Here we are, having our belle epoque breakfast at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, feeling like I’m in the Gare de something or other in Paris, such is the 100-year-old skylight decor. And despite our mutual penchant for introspection and psychological self-evaluation, we are talking about that other thing, the outer world.
For it is there, and Phila is the living proof. First, there is birdwatching. Which is actually Phila’s personal window on a larger natural world. It is also of point of connection with a diversity of human species that never ceases to astonish me. Northumberland? Phila already knows a thing or two about it, including the tidal flats. It turns out that I don’t really have any sort of personal patent on Budle Bay, whose depths are revealed to be tidal shallows. Birders, Phila explains, love such areas. I don’t recall noticing birds whether the tides were in or out at Budle Bay, but I also don’t recall looking. The larger point being that birdwatching must be all about looking. Not to mention waiting. Absorbing, being in the moment, noticing. Phila has chronicled the face of nature in the East Bay hills for years. She is one of those people who recognizes the unrecognizable, sees the odd in the predictable and can even make one sit up and take notice of the seasons.
We are into the crab omelette stage of things now, and this might be the midpoint of our brunch, but Phila has an appointment. Actually, she has had a succession of these. Phila is not only a nature writer, but a surprisingly effective advocate. What is ‘surprising’ about such a combination probably says more about me, but this isn’t about me. It is about Phila. And I am taking in the details of her role in a checkered, seemingly doomed effort to save the last semi-wild reaches of a canyon above the Berkeley campus. She and a small group of fellow elders, all apparently women, somehow blocked development of a corporate research center slated for a scenic hillside. Incidentally, researchers do not require scenic hillsides to do their work. They are renowned for doing rather astonishing things in dark and dusty corners of warehouses. But never mind. Like so many things, this is not about the apparent topic, research, but about corporate America and what it wants. It wanted a scenic, clubby spot with spectacular views of San Francisco Bay. Incredibly, it didn’t get this.
Instead, among other things, it got Phila testifying before the University of California Board of Regents. Regents? I was never entirely clear who they were, but I do recall picketing them in protest of whatever antediluvian policy was theirs in the 1960s. As a late adolescent, the regents always seemed a faceless and intimidating set up power mongers. According to Phila, my youthful experience was entirely accurate. The regents listened, or appeared to listen to her testimony, then immediately voted against her. Only to have the vote effectively overturned by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Which is still run by genuine researchers not corporate moneybags. At least not yet.
With Phila in her mid-80s, and me in my mid-wheelchair, neither of us has a lot of tolerance for sitting. Brunch is over. Phila does have a meeting. But even without the meeting we would be more or less on our way. I follow Phila up to Market Street. A hug, a goodbye, and we are both off. In the days that follow, I get in touch with my inner cripple. I become more vulnerable in the relationship, and then I become anxious. I deal with my degree of self revelation. Or lack of it. And the beat goes on. But there is another beat. It has to do with something Phila said near the conclusion of our action-packed brunch. I said, more or less, that despite the pressures of age, the gradual decline of her pa
rtner Les and the general facts of introverted life, Phila’s degree of public involvement is admirable. The response was immediate. Under the circumstances, what else?