The Dais

Bixby pads into the kitchen, head down, paws advancing. I, making an espresso from my home machine, watch. Something of note occurs with me and Bixby and the kitchen. I am particularly aware of his fixations. Being a dog, his world is smaller, more primitive, and one might argue, more pure. I am tuned into this canine event, the one transpiring on the kitchen linoleum. For I have seen it many times, and it speaks to me. It may be saying the wrong things, or I may be hearing the wrong things. Nonetheless, I observe.

There is a bowl of dog food sitting in one corner of the kitchen. It’s only a few doggy steps from the living room to this spot. But Bixby has his own way. He approaches the bowl, grabs a mouthful of kibble, then exits the kitchen. He swallows his food in the living room. Then returns to his bowl in the kitchen. He is wary. Grab the food, then run to safety. Wary of what and safety from whom? Here the facts grow murky. Bixby was rescued from some nut who kept a house full of dogs. One of 25, he emerged from this particular doggy nightmare, virtually blind and afflicted with mange, to find himself in the care of a foundation…and then in the care of Jane. As for the latter, he is extremely lucky. More on this later.

So Bixby and food. His grab-and-eat approach must reflect the experience of surviving as one of 25 neglected dogs. That he is stuck in this strikes me as extremely poignant. I identify with this particular little doggie, that is the thing. I am stuck too. So I watch Bixby, watch for any changes. I do see them, see slight improvement. For some reason, Bixby has been afraid of coming into the kitchen when I am there. I will motion with a familiar leaning forward in my wheelchair and wave of my hand that I want to pet him. In any other room, he generally responds. But not in the kitchen. He will not come in the kitchen when I am there. But there is change. He will now snatch food from his bowl when I am in the kitchen. This heartens me. He is getting better. And am I?

Lately, Bixby has been changing in other ways. First, he is much more open to petting. Now and then he will even jump on the bed in the morning. Yet when I reach to pet him, Bixby is cautious. He waits, while slightly withdrawing his head as though he is going to be hit. As a dog, he is something of a mystery. Paralyzing fear or confusion or both can easily overcome him. I have seen Jane lead him out to her car, open the door in the very familiar drive Bixby has known much of his life. Only to see things stop. Bixby freezes in place. He will not advance, not climb into the car…but only on certain occasions. Most of the time, events like this one occur without incident. But I have seen times when Jane must pick him up, Bixby’s four limbs straight and rigid, and place what looks very much like a stuffed animal on the front seat of her car.

In absent moments, I will stroke Bixby and murmur ‘Espresso.’ This was the name of a little cat from my first marriage. Long after the marriage had dissolved, I had occasional dreams about Espresso. The kitty seemed to represent an object of pure love. Of lost love in my case. Not the love of the wife, for that was always convoluted. Put simply, the love of the mother. Even more convoluted. Enough to make one very fond of a small, always responsive mammal.

But Bixby is not Espresso and I am not Bixby. What I do retain is a guardedness regarding human closeness. I do not easily trust, readily open up. And I see the world in some most peculiar ways.

Hurdles. To illustrate, let us take the current three-day sequence. The whole thing looms like a sort of steeplechase, one hurdle after the next. Yesterday there was the evening concert. Having no van at the moment, I would have to get a ride…then sit in my uncomfortable folding wheelchair for a musical stretch…which might include a long pre-musical stretch waiting at Jane’s church. This being the concert setting. Followed by a reception, then a ride home. Looming, it was. Although when reality push came to shove, the answer was simple. Bin it. I didn’t go. Fine, a long-overdue evening with Michael Frayne. The hurdle of this next day being the gun control meeting in Mountain View. The intimidating part? How I would fare in front of a group…whether the whole exercise was futile…and the danger element. Too many crazies in America. Too many gun crazies, to be specific.

So off I went to Mountain View. With Jane vowing to meet me there, right in the City Council chambers. Good setting for a gun control meeting. John Donohue, Stanford law professor, was the first to speak. I listened most attentively. And gradually began to feel safe. This appeared to be a meeting of the converted. And small enough to be overlooked by gun crazies. Just some middle-class liberals out for an afternoon. Who cares? I did, of course. Donohue reassured everyone that the silly statistics so often cited by the National Rifle Association are just that. Be wary, that was his message.

The afternoon’s moderator had asked me to be on the second panel. But as the first was making its collective way on stage one of the participants urged me forward. She urged me on again, so what the hell. I followed. Making my way down the aisle, up the wheelchair ramp and onto the dais where counselors normally sit.

We were asked general questions about political and social effectiveness. The woman seated next to me, a representative of the inveterate Brady Campaign, urged passage of new laws. It’s the culture, I said. New laws won’t do much unless we address the nation’s collective madness around arming itself. We had a disagreement. No, she said, look at seatbelts, drunk driving. Legislation changed the culture around highway slaughter. She had a point. I had a point. I liked this exchange. Who knows what people in the audience thought. It’s what I thought. I could feel it, how I had come a long way in life. I spoke respectfully. I listened respectfully. I didn’t debate, because this wasn’t about making a point. And I kept myself within bounds. For I am irate, furious and not very tolerant when it comes to the nation’s macho gun culture. But this was about something else. It was about sharing perspectives, remembering we were all on the same side…. And crash. Bam. I was off the side of something…tilting out of my wheelchair onto my side. My right side. And almost simultaneously checking to make sure I was conscious. That everything moved. Particularly my left foot. Then swimming back to the moment as people rushed to the accident.

For it was an accident scene, albeit minor. I had driven a 100 kilo wheelchair off the dais, missing the wheelchair ramp entirely. In my mind it was straight ahead. On the Council chambers architect’s diagram, it was to the right. The chair tilted and I skidded onto the carpet. Blood, someone said. There was lots of blood. Help him up, someone said. Someone did. Meanwhile, there was Jane. Perhaps most important in terms of anchoring the whole moment. One could depend on the kindness of strangers, no doubt about it. But as I was extremely fortunate. There she was. Supporting, guiding and keeping the event, and me, in perspective. People were trying to lift me. I explained that my feet weren’t in the right position…this being a good sign. Conscious and compos mentis. Blood. Someone gave me a paper towel. It wasn’t that big a deal. An abrasion.

The paramedics were on their way. Oy fucking vey. I must have broken up, or at least badly interrupted, the meeting. Definitely another panel after mine. And, yes, in no time at all there they were. Three paramedics and, count them, two Mountain View police officers. The small crowd that had gathered in the lobby was already thinning out. Did I want to go to the hospital…when was I born…what was I feeling in my head…any pain in my neck…why was I born. These and other questions kept coming. And I had to be sensible. Hospital? Well there are reasons for hospitals. But, I decided, not many. I was already getting angry at myself. Filling with humiliation. For look at how things had gone. One moment, up on the dais, holding forth as the esteemed expert. The next moment sprawled, brought low.

A metaphor for life? Oh, doubtless. A useful reminder. Of many things. One being that when you lead a robust life, rolling all over creation in a wheelchair, eventually something is going to go wrong. Getting hit by an Audi driver engrossed in his mobile phone…well, that would be considerably worse. The only alternative being…stay home. Humiliation? To quote that former president, Bush the Lesser: bring it on.

Out to the City Hall lobby. I tilted the wheelchair back in the position. It worked fine. I seemed to be working fine too I headed home, Jane followed. And tomorrow there would be another hurdle…my annual physical exam. Good news or bad news, I would turn up. And, as had long been the plan, so would Jane.

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