Life and Death

My mother is dying.

This isn’t an easy concept to come to terms with. The woman who gave me life is coming to the end of hers. She has Alzheimer’s, which for those who have never experienced such a thing is utterly incomprehensible. You can learn about Alzheimer’s, you can read about it. But the only way to know it is to go through it.

It’s probably one of the worst diseases of all. Here in Australia there used to be a TV series called “Mother and Son”, in which Ruth Cracknell played Maggie Bear, a woman with senile dementia. Her son, played by Gary McDonald, spent many “hilarious” episodes dealing with his mother’s affliction in such ways as caused much laughter.

Fuck off.

Alzheimer’s is a shit disease. There’s nothing funny about it. Nothing at all. While we’re at it, let’s laugh about cancer. Let’s laugh about 89 people killed in a Paris nightclub by terrorists. That’s the amount of fun Alzheimer’s disease is.

My mother is dying, and there’s nothing I can do about it. And it tears me apart, because the disease causes disruption between myself and my mother. I’m not angry at her, I’m angry at the disease which is killing her mind. But she does things which make me angry, things neither of us can do anything about.

The worst thing is, my father had Alzheimer’s too. And my mother had to look after him for the last four years of his life. Now she has it, and while I would willingly give my life for hers, that is a totally useless gesture in the face of this killer disease.

My mother is dying.

I will be the one to discover her corpse. That sounds horrible, doesn’t it? One morning I will walk in to discover my mother dead in her bed. That’s not something I’m looking forward to, but it’s going to happen. Each morning I wake up and check on my mother sleeping in her bed and make sure she is still breathing.

Life and death. And love. Because that’s all I have left.

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

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Why Nothing Works

I’m going out on a limb here. I’m going to say something totally radical and see who tells me I’m a complete moron. I’m also going to see who agrees with me and who says ‘Yes, you have a point, but…’

Because all of those points of view are valid.

So this is what I’m going to say: No one is right.

That’s right. No one is right. Right?

As we grow up, various people tell us what is right and what is wrong. Most of the time, at least during our early years, these people are relations. Parents, uncles and aunts, well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) brothers and sisters and cousins unto the fourth and fifth generations. Later on, these people are teachers, and friends, and then celebrities and even later on, they are our own children and then grand-children and basically the rest of society telling us do it this way or get out of town.

But in the end, the only person you should listen to is yourself.

And here’s the rider on that last statement that completely throws caution to the wind: not even you are right.

You’re wrong, ok? And so am I. And so is my mother, and your mother, and Kanye West and your favourite teacher in primary school and that man up on the pulpit telling you what you have to believe, and your favourite song and that inspirational meme you found on Facebook this morning.

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None of them (us). Because none of them (us) has the slightest idea what they’re (we’re) talking about. And they (we) never have.

You see, life doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Every single one of the 108 billion people who have ever lived has had to wing it. That isn’t to say we haven’t looked for guidance, or embraced life lessons with a fervour that has often led to misunderstanding. Religion has brought comfort to billions of those billions, and yet has also caused divisiveness on a global and catastrophic scale. Worldly wisdom is both comforting and self-contradictory. Science strives to give us answers and yet produces more questions. Even your mother (sorry to bring her up, but she is important) has changed her mind about how best to raise you. But none of them, I venture to say, has the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

And this is perfectly natural. Because every one of those 108 billion people has been an individual. Unique. As a teacher, I try to instil the art of critical thinking in my students. ‘Question everything!’ I demand. ‘Even what I’m saying to you now!’ The ability to ask questions is the single greatest ability of the human mind, which is the single greatest and most complex organ in the known universe. ‘The worst reason for believing something,’ I continue, foam often frothing in the corners of my mouth, ‘is that someone told you it was so!’

I have no idea if any of my students have ever done what I have implored. It may well be a good thing if they haven’t. Because knowing that life is basically a make-it-up-as-you-go scenario and nothing anyone has ever said actually means squat is not the most comforting way to live one’s life.

Let me give you an example. Maybe more than one.

I’m a writer. I’ve had books and short stories published. This makes me feel good. I enjoy knowing that people are reading what I’ve written. I have so far made a bit of money from my writing. Not much, but making money isn’t why I write.  If I was slaving over a hot computer in order to make money I’d be in the IT industry or something to do with computers that actually made money. That’s my conscious decision and I’m fine with that. But I’ve read a lot about how to write books, and how to promote what I’ve written and how to make sales and I’ve also read a lot about how what I read about promotion actually doesn’t work and even the Big Five publishers have no idea what they’re doing and if I listened to both sides of the argument my head would explode. So nobody knows what they’re doing.

Take elections. Any elections. Nothing divides people more completely than politics. Except maybe religion. Both politics and religion have been responsible for an immense amount of human suffering, possibly to the same degree. But let’s take politics, because if you started me on religion my head would explode, and it’s already done that once so far since you started reading this. It doesn’t actually matter what politics a particular candidate wants to follow. Because all politicians are united in one way: a politician is utterly useless unless he or she is in power. So a politician’s whole agenda is geared towards getting into power, by whatever means possible. Once in power, he or she has the sole agenda of staying in power as long as possible, because otherwise they have no meaning. So politics is pointless, because ultimately nothing they do makes any point, because their whole agenda is self-centred.

Take science. I love science. Science has put people on the Moon and created this computer I’m typing on now and even saved my life when I was nine years old and was very, very sick. I have nothing against science personally. But it really does make life difficult. It’s got hard mathematics and big words and forces people to think and let’s face it, most people don’t want to think. They want answers, and all science does is provide ones they don’t want to know about. Global warming? Way inconvenient! Vaccines are safe? But that means the ‘research’ I did on the internet about how it causes autism is wrong! Evolution? But that means God may not actually exist! Excuse me, but I’m not sure I want to know that! And then you get scientists who don’t agree with each other. Where is that going?

Take human relations. I’m divorced. I got married and it lasted less than a year before my wife and I separated. I’m not casting blame here; it was the fault of both of us. We applied for a joint dissolution of marriage and were quite amicable about it. I even remember that after the divorce we both went to lunch together to celebrate. Human relations (love, romance, sex) are so unbelievably difficult that people like me just have no idea what is going on. There are a million how-to books and websites on obtaining a mate, and dating services and copious amounts of advice from friends and relations. And in the end we end up (or don’t) with someone. They may be the person of our dreams, Most often they aren’t. But most of us end up pretty much more or less happy. Usually. Or not. Because in the end, no one has the slightest idea about how to go about finding the right person to wake up next to forever.

Take diets. No, actually, don’t. Literally.

Look, I could go on. But basically, the point I’m making is that in every field of human endeavour there is a large number of people who spout all sorts of wisdom and how-to suggestions and tell us what it’s all about and what works and what doesn’t and what we must do in order to succeed or at least not fail or avoid fiery pits of eternity and in the end none of them actually have something that necessarily applies to us. We are all individuals.

What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for you. Or me. Or anyone else. In the end, we’re all just making it up as we go.

I’m sorry if that’s depressing. But there’s nothing I – or you – can do about it.

Just do your best. That’s all anyone can ask of you.

 

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

 

 

 

 

I Want a Real God

It would be so cool if God existed.

I mean a real God, not one of those crazy guys we have at the moment.

I mean an obvious god, one that reveals itself unambiguously to all. One that doesn’t need interpretation, or faith. One that gives us a holy book we can understand without going round in circles, and we don’t have to argue with others about what it means. One that rewards sensibly those who are genuinely good and punishes fairly those who are bad. One that doesn’t lay down a moral code that denies unselfish pleasure. One that is tolerant of all, even those who don’t wish to believe in it. One that is beyond gender or race or sexual orientation.

That would be so cool.

Wouldn’t it be great of God was a law, like gravity? Have you noticed that gravity exists even if you don’t believe in it? Gravity works everywhere, all the time, not just only with certain people who want to believe in it or surrender to it. We can’t help but surrender to gravity. If God was like that, we wouldn’t have to fight wars over how we believe in it.

But we don’t get that. All we get is a washed-out god, one that reflects the fears and jealousies and hopes and dreams and selfishness of human beings. We get a god that looks so lame, that is almost powerless, that can’t even get the universe right or design a sentient creature that doesn’t run a fairly good risk of destroying itself. Noah’s Ark? We don’t need a god to punish us for our sins, we are doing a great job all by ourselves.

We get a god that doesn’t accept its own creation, that has to fit science into the cracks in the faith it is supposed to have in itself, like a sort of apology.

I’d love to be able to pray and zap! – what I prayed for happens. No problem – just suspend the laws of physics for my own benefit. It would be awesome if miracles actually happened without the need to test whether they really are miracles or just that damned science getting in the way again. If I lost a limb I could just ask for another one, a real one, as good as before. What if Muhammad really had split the moon? No problem: he fixed it up again, but it would have been so amazing to see that.

It would be fantastic if that face I think I see on my slice of toast or in that tree bark or in the clouds really is the Lord. How wonderful it would be to know that god is there, watching me always, caring for me. Really, really concerned for my welfare. Not just some other person telling me that’s what god is doing.

The god we have at the moment – the gods we have – are such a disappointment. They’re so…well, just so human. Like they were invented by people. That’s a shame.

If God existed, it would be something really, really, cool. And I’d love to meet it.

Until that happens, I guess we’re stuck with our imaginings.

For the Love of Cats

I had to apologise to the cat last night.

It was my fault. I arrived home late from work. I’d been out tutoring and spent some extra time with a student and then had to go to the shop on my way home, and I got in about half an hour after I was supposed to. He was at the door, waiting for me. He had a few words to say, which I took on board and then apologised and promised to let him know in future if I’m going to be late.

His name is Humphrey. He’s a nine-year-old Rag Doll, which is the largest breed of domestic cat.

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He isn’t the most active cat I’ve ever seen. In fact most of his time is spent horizontal. If he were to have an appointment diary, it would probably look something like this on a typical day:
4.00 am Wake up human. Demand food.
4.05 am Refuse to eat food given. Go back to sleep.
6.00am Wake up human. Lie on his chest. Purr.
6.10 am Eat breakfast set out at 4.05 am.
6.15 am Wash.
7.00 am Morning nap, outside under steps.
9.00am Enter house. Check food bowl. Complain.
9.10 am Look for sleeping spot for the day, preferably one most inconvenient to human.
9.20 am Sleep
5.00pm Wake up. Demand dinner.
5.30pm Join human watching TV. Wash.
7.00pm Check outside to make sure grounds are secure. Avoid neighbour’s dogs.
7.30 pm Enter house. Check human for possibility of being patted. Purr.
8.00pm Sleep.

As you can see, he spends a lot of time contemplating the mysteries of the universe while giving the appearance of being sleep. At least, that’s what he’d like us to believe.

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He’s what you might call “high maintenance”. He needs a lot of grooming – Rag Dolls grow a lot of long hair. And despite his rigorous schedule, he does find time to get dirty, too: his work in the garden seems to involve a lot of digging and looking under things and exploring the bushes. He has a patch of lavender that he spends hours in, and we have to prune the lavender carefully to maintain his “special spot” in the middle where he can see out but passing people and dogs can’t see in. He is inordinately fond of tummy rubs. He is fussy about his food: won’t touch chicken, prefers room-temperature kangaroo meat, likes the more expensive brands of canned fish (shredded tuna with crab is a big favourite). And he only drinks water out of the tap. I have to turn the tap on and let it run into the kitchen sink so he can lap at it. If I put a bowl of water on the floor he won’t go near it.

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Of course, he doesn’t get it all his own way. He’s not allowed on the table when there is food there. He’s not allowed to sit on my crossword puzzle so I can’t read the clues. And he has to climb down the ship’s ladder to my office – I’m in the basement – all by himself. (He’s good at climbing ladders, and going down them is a complicated procedure of twisting and turning a complete circle on each step.)

But what is it about a cat that makes people go silly? Why do I climb out of bed at 4am to feed Humphrey, rather than tell him to go away or close the door so he can’t come in in the first place? Why do I tolerate his luxurious lifestyle?

Well, I love him, of course. Silly question, really. Don’t know why I even bothered to ask.

I have had other cats, or my family has. In fact, I can’t remember a time when our family didn’t have at least one. One of mine I remember fondly was named Groucho. He was white with brown eyebrows and a brown moustache (hence “Groucho”). He is immortalised in my novel Plato’s Cave  http://www.russellproctor.com/pages.php?tabid=12&pageid=2052&title=Plato%27s+Cave as Bruno, the cat of remarkably similar looks, owned by the main character. Phoebe was a Burmese owned by my parents. She survived a fall of four stories one night when she went for a stroll on the window ledge. Went on to live to ripe old age. Then there was Pinky, a stray that Dad found in a hospital one night and brought home. Never quite tame, she nevertheless found an eternal place in our hearts. And, of course, Rosie and Lucy and Wedl and Linus and Tup Tim and all the others.

Let’s face it, we love cats. And whilst Humphrey may be demanding and lazy and tends to walk across my laptop keyboard when I’m trying to write, I wouldn’t want him any other way.

There are many quotes about cats, but one of my favourites is from Jules Verne: “A cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through.”

Any cat lover would understand.

In My Face

I went to the dentist today. I think dentists are brave people. I imagine myself not only looking into, but putting my hand in, someone else’s mouth – someone I am not intimately acquainted with – and it isn’t a pleasant thought. Kissing a lover is different – I guess it’s because you can’t actually see where you are putting your tongue. But staring directly into a gaping maw is a bit like being eaten by a shark, I guess. There’s just something unnerving about it.

Older_barber-dentistI prepared myself before I went. There are people who will scrub and degrease their house before the weekly cleaner arrives, presumably so the person engaged to do the actual cleaning doesn’t realise how messy they let the place get. I was like that. I worried about what I would have for breakfast – I didn’t want any tell-tale breath putting the dentist off his game. I brushed and flossed and gargled assiduously. 

I even trimmed my nose hairs. Very important that last one. Let’s face it, the dentist spends a lot of time staring right up your nose. I’m sure he or she is not especially interested in seeing a forest up there. It’s not fair that the dentist is wearing a face mask, so you can’t see what undergrowth they may be cultivating. Truth be told, they probably wear masks not for hygiene purposes, but so they don’t have to mow the lawn every second day.

Actually, while we are on the subject: it is harder to trim your nose hairs than you think. I presume you’ve had to do it sometime, especially if you are male. I did know a woman once with rather long nose hair. We dated a few times but every time I looked at her there were little tufts protruding from her nostrils and I knew that it wasn’t going to work out. There are no tactful words to use when telling someone they have hirsute nares – (or maybe they are the words to use, then make a quick exit while they reach for a dictionary).

Anyway, trimmed and ready, I went to the dentist. I hadn’t been to this one before. I had moved into the area a couple of years ago and had neglected finding a new dentist for that long, so it was high time. He was pleasant, we got on well. But he seemed to dig around for an awfully long time in my mouth. I got a bit ashamed at the amount of cleaning he had to do, scraping away with that hooked thing, and applying polish that tasted like the strongest toothpaste ever. I knew it had to be good stuff, it tasted like it.

What amazes me about dentists is the wonders they can accomplish with only a small orifice to work in. Although there are tighter spots one can go, especially when it’s time for that prostate exam – hey, guys? That’s fun! They also manage to do it upside-down and back-to-front, looking in a tiny mirror. Up is down and left is right in the dental care world. I don’t know how they do it.

So now I sit here with sparkling clean teeth and a sense of moral cleanliness. I’ll be back in twelve months to do it again. I am 55 years old and have all my own teeth, and I intend to keep them.

Time and Age

One of the best things I enjoy about being 54 years old is that I’m moving out of my middle-life years and into seniority.

I am not afraid of old age. I am looking forward to it.

I had to start wearing glasses when I was 18. That was fine, my eyes needed them. My hair turned grey in my thirties, I started to go bald, and I embraced that, too. I have never used hair dye or tried to hide my scalp under a hat. I love the fact I don’t have to comb my hair so much!

Maybe my body is not as fit as it once was, but I’m not bad.  When I was 49 I climbed the highest mountain in Africa. When I was 51 I walked the Kokoda track in Papua New Guinea, which is a gruelling physical challenge. I am 168cms tall and weight 60 kgs (for any Americans out there who have not yet gone metric, that’s 5 feet 6 inches and 132 pounds).  I am fit enough for my age without getting silly about it.

But the best thing about getting older is time. I find the older I get the more time I have.

That may seem odd, given that every birthday I am another year closer to death. Shouldn’t I have less time? Shouldn’t I be running around (“like a chook with its head cut off” as my grandmother would have said) trying to cram in some sort of “bucket list?” Shouldn’t I be despairing the passing years?

I have no compulsion to make the rest of my time on Earth a mad dash for anything. I am not afraid of death. I have no belief in an after-life, I think that once you are dead, that’s it. Being dead is exactly like not having been born yet, and I wasn’t complaining then, so why start now? But I don’t fear death. When it happens, it happens. But I do know that I am not going to spend my remaining time alive regretting anything.

What I have found about getting older is that time slows down. I feel I have more time on my hands now to do things. As a teacher, I have had a lot of conversations with younger people, especially students. I have found teenagers, in particular, find it difficult to accept that when you get older, you have more time.

I think the reason is this: As you get older, you realise that some of the things you thought important no longer are. So you don’t have your days filled with unimportant things.

Maybe you are my age or older. Maybe you have paid off the house, or nearly so. Maybe the kids have grown up (finally!) and left the nest. Maybe you and your partner are thinking about retirement in a few years, and maybe you’ll go on that holiday you always talked about. Maybe these are important things to you.

I have found that I can now distinguish between what I need to do and what I think is important to do. And more and more, I realise that there are a lot of things I don’t need to do anymore. So I have fewer things to fill my day with, and time consequently seems to slow down.

I would try to tell  you what you might find important as opposed to what is important. Everyone is different, everyone has different priorities. Perhaps your children have left home, but now they are bringing back grandchildren to show you and it’s important to you to be with them. That’s perfect. But maybe at the same time you realise that it isn’t so important to do other things that were once vital to you.

A lot of teenagers I know find having friends and being socially accepted is important. And it is. For them. But I have few friends now, which means I don’t have to constantly keep up and try to stay popular. The friends I do have are very solid and loyal. The ones that weren’t fell by the wayside. I don’t feel any compulsion to replace them.

We change as grow older. Priorities change as well. Some things, I have found, become less important or even unimportant. When I was a teenager or in my twenties, there were so many things I had to do. Now, there are not so many. Some I achieved, some I just decided I didn’t need to do. So I have more time to do the things I want. I can make a better job of them.

I have more time.

A past acquaintance of mine hated turning forty. She cried. I myself loved turning forty. For the first time in my life, I felt that I owed no one anything, that no one could tell me what to do (or, to be more accurate, I didn’t feel compelled to listen to what people told me I should be doing). When I turned fifty, it was a bit anti-climactic. I was perhaps expecting some sort of divine wisdom or insight to suddenly kick in because I had passed the “Big 5-O”, the half-century. But it didn’t. But fifty was good too, and I have sixty to look forward to.

Sure, the kids these days don’t understand. How can I have more time as I get older? But they will get it one day. There will be a wonderful time when they realise (some of them, at least) that there are more important things they could be doing with themselves.

And hopefully, they will set out to do them.

Age is a wonderful thing. I embrace it happily.