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Just Started

ISSUE:  Spring 1984

On a hot August morning, the kind when the heat lies hazy and blue, a countryman sat on his front porch and gazed across his yard toward the road. A neighbor came walking along the road, and, so the story goes, seeing his friend, stopped and said, “What are you doing?” “Thinking,” the man on the porch answered slowly. “What about?” asked the neighbor. “Don’t know, just started,” the man replied. The story ends here and for me is wonderfully satisfying. If I spent all my time getting started thinking, life would be much easier. My problems begin after I start. Ideas invigorate me, and before I know it, I am off the porch and across the yard. Soon, though, I am entangled in a thicket of thought. Like false analogies, briars snag my arguments while buts, neverthelesses, and on the other hands cling to my assumptions like cockleburs. Thorny questions block my path, and pressing forward to a conclusion is impossible; still, when I turn back toward the porch, green associations wrap around me, and the more I struggle to escape the worse entrapped I become, until finally I collapse exhausted in a heap of confusion.

Thoughts that lead nowhere are more tiring than those that go somewhere. This past winter I was so run-down from thinking that I quit sitting on the porch until my neighbor Harold suggested putting up a bird feeder. “Birds will distract you,” he said; “you will be able to sit for hours without a single thought.” For a while Harold was right. As birds darted from sunflower seeds to the thistle and suet, I dozed blissfully free from ideas. I had even begun to put on weight until one day I noticed that in fluttering about birds resembled the guppies I had raised as a child. Without realizing it, I had gone beyond just starting to think. The bird feeder, I soon decided, was the country dweller’s aquarium, while the aquarium was the city dweller’s bird feeder. Not only that, but a little thought showed that birds and fish were remarkably alike. When a bird died, it fell down from the sky to the earth. When a fish died, it floated up from the sea to the surface of the water. Within each fish, there was obviously a bird struggling toward the sky. Within each bird, there was a fish longing for the stream. “How bright,” I thought and wondered what came next. Suddenly something scratched me; nothing came next, and I was hopelessly entangled in briars.

My thoughts often concern animals. When I was small, I had many pets. None lasted long. The Sunshine Bread man flattened Horace, my terrapin, as he dozed in the driveway. In trying to climb out of his box and onto mother’s begonias, William, the chameleon, fell behind the radiator and was cooked. Two boxers ate Mrs. Brown the cat, and during the winter of 1952 the guppies froze when the electricity went off. I buried my pets in the back yard behind the garage and put rocks around the graves. I also clipped the grass over the graves. Father insisted that I do this after he pushed the lawn mower over Horace’s grave. The mower threw out a stone, and father had to have two stitches in his calf. In time the backyard resembled a gravel pit. After Oscar, my dachshund, ate a poisoned chicken and died, pets disappeared from my life. So that I would not grieve over Oscar, father bought me a chemistry set, and five weeks after I buried him, I dug up Oscar to investigate the reaction. Only a fisherman would have found the results pleasing. Since then, I have not owned a pet. I have often wondered why, but each time I start thinking about pets, my thoughts lead me to a world as rocky and as barren as the backyard.

At times I feel bewitched. Even mindless occurrences provoke thought. On the street last fall, I heard a man say, “Far out.” Suppose, I started to think, he had said, “Close in.” How different would people on the fringe be if their in sayings were turned inside out. Instead of saying “right on,” suppose they said, “wrong off.” The “with it” people, I thought, would suddenly be “without. . . .” Alas, my thought went no further, and no word followed without. Usually this would have pleased me. Words cause thoughts. If people around me did not speak, I would have fewer thoughts and be happier. At times I think about not using words myself. Unfortunately that idea doesn’t get me very far, and I still use words. At dinner two months ago, when my little boy was playing with his food, my wife Vicki told him to “eat up.” “Don’t be silly,” I said; “if he eats up, the food will go to his brain and his skull will explode. Tell him to eat down.”

In the beginning, the Bible says, was the word. What appears at the end is left unsaid and, for me at least, is mysterious. In the middle, though, is thought. When the word stops, thought begins and leads to confusion. Not only did “far out” focus my attention on words but it made me think about people who use such expressions. Good manners and formal language are closely related, and people who pay little attention to the one usually pay little attention to the other. Dressed in a worn suede jacket and blue jeans patched with astrological signs, the man I overheard looked like a wilted flower child. What this country needed, I thought, was not urban but urbane renewal. “Manners not mortar” should be the slogan, I decided, as I sat down to write my congressman. Woe is me; I only got so far as “stone walls do not a gentleman make” before the cockleburs became irritating.

Vicki knows that life becomes difficult when I start thinking. For Christmas she gave me a color television and urged me to turn it on and watch athletics whenever I felt a thought approaching. “Nothing,” she said, “is more meaningless than sports.” For six weeks Vicki seemed right as I sat comatose and happy through long evenings of football, basketball, and hockey. Then suddenly I began thinking. Sex, I decided, one night after watching the New Orleans Saints, was the sublimation of the sports instinct. Normal American boys were born with a hearty appetite for sports and indulged in them promiscuously until they graduated from high school and then found little opportunity to participate in athletics. As a substitute, they took up sex. By their thirties, few American males played organized athletics, but a great many were married. Sublimation, of course, is finally not satisfying, and this unnatural behavior led to nervous breakdowns, mental illness, divorce, and then to jogging, as newly single men tried to get their priorities right. The relationship between sports, sanity, and sex seemed clear to me. Participation in sports, I explained to Vicki when I woke her, reached its peak in males age 10 to 17.Few males in this group got married or had nervous breakdowns, although, of course, some boys at the upper end of the group unfortunately imitated their elders and seemed interested in sexual matters. After 17 when participation in sports declined, sublimation and marriage began.

Vicki called me a sports maniac and rolled over and went back to sleep. The next morning she said if I didn’t clean up my thoughts she would sell the television, and she suggested that I watch religious programs. I followed her advice and, instead of pregame shows, began to watch preachers. One Sunday morning I turned on a block and tackle Christian who believed in casting the first clump of dirt. Like a middle line-backer meeting a halfback on the goal line, he lowered his head and let fly at other denominations. The preacher didn’t believe in rules and committed personal fouls in every sentence. How, I began to think, could the Great Coach in the Sky let this man on his team? Was there no way, I wondered, to make muscular Christians play by the rules? Suddenly, I thought of the National Religious Athletic Association. If religions struggled against each other on playing fields rather than from pulpits, they would grow rich and genteel from the proceeds of television collections. Advertisers would beat each other over the head with bats in order to purchase time when the Baptist nine with its 15 million supporters met the Catholic Kings of Swat with their 50 million supporters.

To insure a fair deal for all, the National Council of Churches could become the governing body of the NRAA. Many problems would arise, but these, I thought, could be worked out to the satisfaction of all right-minded people. Divisions like those of the NCAA would have to be established. Of course, there could not be a second or third division as each denomination believes that it has a unique understanding of the truth. Still, it would not be fair for the Episcopal Church with three million members to play in the same league as the Catholic Church. Perhaps divisions could be named after angels, and while Catholics played in the Michael Division, Episcopalians could play in the Gabriel Division. On the other hand, the Episcopal Church is wealthy and through its booster clubs, formerly called vestries, could offer great incentives to athletes to become members. Split churches would also create problems; games, for example, between conservative and liberal wings of the Lutheran Church could not be scheduled as they would lead to a rash of unsportsmanlike conduct and tarnish the reputation of the NRAA. In certain sports, some faiths would have great advantages. Pentecostals would excel in gymnastics, while those denominations that practice total immersion baptism would be far superior to all other denominations in swimming. During the first years of the NRAA’s existence, in basketball the AME would always defeat the Congregational Church, whose members live in small towns and suburbs. Over the long run, however, establishment of the NRAA would foster greater mixing of races and nationalities than now exists in churches. Few Chinese belong to the Nazarene Church, but once table tennis appeared on television, Nazarenes would certainly begin to recruit Chinese in order to become competitive. The benefits to society from the founding of the NRAA would be immense. Reformation of inner cities would take place almost immediately as droves of preachers pounded sidewalks recruiting athletes.

The number of small problems to be worked out would be so large that current administrators of the NCAA could all be given jobs—provided, of course, that they belonged to or were converted by one of the association’s denominations. Former officials of the NCAA would certainly be adept at dealing with religious teams that already exist, those, for example, at Wake Forest and Notre Dame. Some changes in half-time entertainment would be necessary. Mascots would be forbidden; few teams would play Snake Handlers if they brought tubfuls of their pets along. Cheerleaders might disappear, particularly in games played by the Amish or Mennonites. Much attention would have to be paid to injuries to prevent faith healers from sending players with broken legs and arms back on the field. Minor adjustments would have to be made in scheduling. While fundamentalists, as I explained to Vicki, would always want to play hardball, latitudinarians would insist upon softball.

“Think how exciting games would be,” I said to my neighbor, Harold, “players who were born-again or believed in deathbed repentance would never give up.” “All well and good,” Harold answered; “but since you don’t have a television anymore, you should give up the idea. Vicki was right. You have thought enough. What you need is a trip.” “Oh, Lord,” I started to think, “not like my last train trip.”

I lived in Vermont at the time. I was invited to Washington and decided to ride Amtrak. At 12:30 at night I boarded the train at White River Junction and, finding an empty seat, fell asleep. Toward morning I dreamed I was caught in a thunderstorm and woke up. A seven-year-old boy was spitting in my face. Just as I reached out to cut off his spigot, a large woman in gray dress said, “Johnny, stop that and come here.” “I hope,” she added, “he hasn’t bothered you.” “No,” I said as I reached for my handkerchief. “Oh, well,” I thought as I wiped my forehead and looked at my watch, “things could be worse.” It was seven-thirty and we would soon be in New York. Suddenly I realized the train was not moving. I looked out the window and saw the sun rise over the Absorbine, Jr. factory in Springfield, Massachusetts. The engine had broken down, and we were on a siding. Those things which could have been worse got worse. The heat went off, and I unpacked my suitcase and put on a sweater and another pair of socks. At 2:30, after seven cold hours, the train finally reached New York. On arrival, an official told me Amtrak had been canceled and directed me to the regularly scheduled New York to Washington train. Unknowingly I had gone from the icehouse to the nuthouse.

I sat down across from a pleasant man with a cigar box in his lap. After I settled in, he leaned over and asked, “Would you like some refreshment?” Then he opened the box; pills of all sizes and colors were crammed inside. After I refused, he said, “I hope you don’t mind if I have some. They make the trip easier.” With that he swallowed a handful and shut his eyes. Too polite to change my seat and apprehensive that he might do something irrational if he found me staring at him, I watched people entering the car. In the aisle ahead a small man struggled to push a cardboard suitcase onto the rack above a woman wearing green pants and a pink blouse. The man stood on his toes, and when the train suddenly lurched, he dropped the suitcase, and it fell on the woman’s head. She jumped out of her seat and looking around angrily, strode down the aisle and grabbed me. “You saw it,” she yelled; “should I sue him for brain damage?” If my traveling companion had opened his cigar box just then, I would have been thankful. Unfortunately he was in another world, and all I did was say, “No ma’am, the suitcase was cardboard and you’ll be fine.” “You think so,” she said; “feel this.” And with that she grabbed my hand and pressed it on her head. My trip was not for the fastidious; there was enough grease on her hair to baste a 20-pound Christmas turkey. I slipped my hand across her head and reassured her that she was all right. “No thanks to that jackass,” she said, pointing at the little man whose suitcase had fallen on her. “Get off this car,” she shouted. The little man moved quickly; before the train was out of the station, he and his suitcase had disappeared.

For a while all was peaceful. I noticed, though, that a man across the aisle repeatedly went to the lavatory. Each time he got up, his wife tried to stop him. “What a dreadful woman,” I thought, “torturing a poor man with a bladder problem.” Still, the man’s difficulties were not my concern, and I started to fall asleep. Suddenly someone shook me and yelled in my ear, “Is this Jacksonville?” “You,” I heard, “is this Jacksonville?” The man with the bladder problem had left the car, not for medicine but for a more powerful tonic. “Not yet,” I answered, hoping he would be satisfied; “we are not in Jacksonville yet.” For ten minutes he was quiet; then he turned and looking at me yelled, “Is this Jacksonville?” All hope of sleep vanished and until we stopped at a commuter station on the outskirts of Washington, I was an authority on Jacksonville. When the train stopped in the station, the man glared at me, and after shouting, “you don’t know anything,” got off the train. As we left the station, his wife shrieked and rushed down the aisle toward me. Pushing me over, she sat down and cried, “We were going to Jacksonville.” She had sampled her husband’s tonic and her sobs woke the man with the cigar box. Gazing at her benevolently, he said, “I feel sorry for you. But worse things happen. Last month I was stabbed. Let me show you the scar.” When he started pulling out his shirttail, I headed for the lavatory in the forlorn hope that the traveler to Jacksonville had forgotten his bottle.

Like an idea the trip had started easily. But the events, resembling examples in a poor inductive argument, jumbled chaotically together and left me worn out and almost as confused as if I had been thinking. I could not decide what to think about the trip. All I knew was that I did not want to take another one. “No, no,” I said to Harold, “I can’t take a trip.” “Well, then,” he said, looking out the window; “let’s go to the beach. It is a beautiful day. The rest will do you good, and tomorrow you will feel like a new man.” Harold was right; on the beach people bake instead of think. Occasionally soccer players kick sand about, but little happens to provoke thought. Even the colors are dull; the sky and water are blue; the sand, white, and the bodies, brown—or so they used to be.

Even before I rubbed on suntan lotion I noticed the tattoos. Although roses and daisies grew on shoulders and hips, honey bees settled near navels. Hearts and “Mother” appeared on arms while eagles nested on chests and snakes curled about ankles. People who were never noticed, I thought, got tattoos to call attention to themselves. If they really wanted to stand out, instead of having a mermaid or lion tattooed on them, they should, I thought, have their pictures tattooed on lions or mermaids. “Harold, imagine,” I exclaimed, “what a sensation there would be if a man showed up at a tattoo parlor with a lion or mermaid on a leash. Better yet,” I continued; “suppose he brought his mother on a rope and demanded that his picture be tattooed on her back.” “Far out,” Harold answered. Then I said . . .but, of course, you know what I said. Harold then said I gave him a headache and asked me if I had any aspirin. That reminded me of my trip on Amtrak. After I described it to him, Harold became angry and told me to “shut up.” I told him that he should have said “shut down,” explaining that machines became silent when they were shut down. Harold glared at me and then said I was “for the birds.” That reminded me of the relationship between birds and fishes. By the time I had finished describing the pets I had owned Harold had left.

I telephoned Vicki and she came for me. She asked what upset Harold. I told her, and she said he wasn’t a good sport. “Ah,” I said; “that’s it” and explained that Harold’s sex and sports lives had obviously been confused since adolescence. “Jesus,” Vicki said. That reminded me of the NRAA, and if Vicki had not been an urbane woman of the world, I would still be at the beach. Instead, here I am on the front porch. I am not doing anything, but I see someone coming along the road.


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