A Sorry Week
Beware of paying off your foolish debts.
Freed of the hack creditor, your anxiety will rove to serious contenders for your attention so long eclipsed by the anguish over that stupid debt. The shift confirms two notions: severe pain is an anodyne that masks all lesser pains; and bondage begets ignorance. With the stupid debt shed, genuine problems rear up, and they are enormous: personal inadequacy, poverty, unemployment, obesity, cancer, retirement, insomnia, aging, death. Better to incur rash debts and demonize predatory creditors consoled in the knowledge that it’s a burden to be cast off if we but choose. So much better than twisting fully conscious in the grip of implacable destiny.
I only say all this because I had a bad week.
My father came out of the hospital after a short stay for a very predictable malady for a 98-year-old, pneumonia. His return home required flustered family members to make household changes to accommodate his weakened condition. During the scuffle those changes precipitated, I meddled in family affairs most obnoxiously. Not there to deal with the situation myself but judging it from 4,000 miles away, I exercised little sensitivity for the efforts and worries of those involved. I invaded their privacy, rebuked what I considered bad decisions, disappointed their trust. One of my emails was so abrasive as to alarm even me. I emailed apologies immediately afterwards, but could not patch up the wounded feelings and outrage my assault had caused.
Shortly thereafter, a publisher I had been in very hopeful contact with decided my book did not fit into its portfolio after all. My freelance workload level remained at zero, auguring another month of no income. My back went out. And a procession of inconveniences followed so trivial they could be considered mere snubs, yet I had reached the tamping point. The fallout from every one of those tiffs fed a growing charge of existential resentment. One moment of redemption did occur, an incident that filled me with serene insight, I thought, and assurance, but from that summit, I fell like a stone.
While swimming on Wednesday, I ran into the same woman twice, when I usually run into no one. Both times I was clearly at fault, but then again, I wasn’t; it was the man swimming breaststroke who was the problem. His lateral reach was prodigious, his movements powerful, his progress sluggish. To get around him, I had to swim for some meters on the side of the lane reserved for swimmers coming the other way.
Normally I know how many swimmers are in the lane, their pace, and generally where they are. There had been only three of us in the lane that day – a good day. But this woman had slipped in without my noticing, not hard to do in a 50-meter pool. As I shot out to overtake the breaststroker, there she was. I swerved, causing no greater mishap than the transient ramped-up pounding of my heart.
After several laps, the breaststroke man was in front of me again. Again I surged out to pass him. And there was the woman. There was no swerving this time. I got a great jab from the man now behind me, and my arm collided painfully with the woman’s. I slithered limply away in the froth and traffic returned to normal. But as I approached the wall on my return lap, I could see the woman resting there and sensed she was waiting to speak to me.
I stopped and apologized for the collision. She responded reasonably, but bewildered: “You did that twice.” Well, yes. Twice. “It really hurt,” she said, holding up her arm. “You should look out. You could get hurt, too.” Yes, I agreed, I had gotten hurt, lifting up my arm. I apologized again, reassured her I would certainly look first from now on, and continued my swim. Oddly though, I was much stronger after that talking to, felt vigorous in the water, picked up my pace. Her gentle reaction to my injudicious swimming behavior had been a tonic. She had allowed me to face up gracefully to a wrong I had committed. I had somehow gained in the exchange, was improved by it, more responsible, a little dignified, and would certainly lift my head out of the water to look before passing that breaststroker again. And did. But the woman was no longer in the pool.
That afternoon I had to print out a letter, but my printer wouldn’t work because it said it was out of ink. I had put in a $20 ink cartridge just two days before because the printer said it was out of ink. Now, it said it was out of ink again, which meant the printer was probably defect, which meant it might not print even if I did go out and get another ink cartridge. But I needed to print that letter. So I made another trip to the ink cartridge store, bought another $20 ink cartridge (Epson must jump for joy each time this happens), installed it, and yes! printed out that letter. And felt good about it. Through the mature exercise of patience and perseverance in the face of cheap technical failure, I experienced another small victory. Perhaps it was not to be such a bad week after all. Perhaps I could redeem all my sins. All of them.
My gauntlet had not been fully run. Early that evening I received shoddy customer service at a bookstore.
I wanted to know the name of an author of a particular book, so I approached the cordoned-off area beneath the Service/Checkout sign and waited by an opening near the checkout counter to ask my question. After a moment, I spied an opening nearer the service desk and wondered if I should wait there. Since no one was waiting anywhere in the area, it was impossible to tell. I made the move and waited until the single customer at the service desk left.
As I approached, the woman leaned forward solicitously. “You’ve jumped the queue,” she said politely. “You’re supposed to stand there,” and she pointed left to the spot where I had initially waited. To give her accusation edge, four people now stood there, people that I had, in her eyes, butted in ahead of, people I sure didn’t want to have to wait for while they got served first. “I was standing there,” I said. “And,” attempting to resurrect my dignity, “no one was there. I just want to ask a question.” The woman shifted nimbly for her second assault on my judgment. “You’re at the wrong counter,” she said. “But it says service,” I gestured to the sign. “This is for wrapping packages,” she explained with a smile exceedingly gracious for having to instruct a two-time offender. “Info is over there.” She leaned forward and pointed to her right this time, into the vast interior of the store. I burned like a cinder as I made my way over there, annoyed beyond expression to have been told I had jumped the queue.
At the Info counter, the single Info man was attached to his single Info customer as fast as a climber to the granite face of Half Dome. There was no shaking him loose and no end to the climb, it seemed. I stalked out, knowing I could answer my own damn question my own damn self in my own damn home. Which I did.
Early the following morning, I made a trip to the post office to buy the 10¢ stamps I needed to stretch my old postage stamps to cover the recent postage hike. After a long wait, I approached the counter and made my simple request. The postal clerk told me they were sold out, but more, he reassured me proudly, had been ordered. I stalked out empty-handed and made my lengthy way to a particular bakery where I had a standing order for a certain kind of walnut roll that sold out fast. After another long wait in line, the bakery clerk told me there were no walnut rolls that day, that they hadn’t been delivered, that she was very sorry about it. Instead of just leaving with a “Thank you, I’m sure I’ll manage,” I was reprehensible enough to grumble “Me too” as for the second time that morning I stalked out of a place of business.
What I might mention is that before starting out on my simple errands that morning, I had drunk an entire pot of tea. The long waits and long walks had been accompanied by increasingly intense discomfort.
The Real Collision
On the steps leading up to the entrance of my apartment house, a homeless man huddled against the wall, his head in his hands, a carton of fruit juice placed squarely in the middle of the step. Instead of walking up the steps and entering the building quietly – I had plenty of room to do so – I erupted.
“Do you have to put that right in the middle of the steps?” I scolded, jangling him unpleasantly from his stupor. Sliding the container over toward him with my foot, I showered on him the highest concentration of verbal abuse possible: “I ask you!” The man wailed then collapsed back into his misery, putting his trembling hand on the juice container and pulling it closer to him.
That feeble gesture shattered me. I rode up in the elevator, hauling up with me all the failures of the week, when I could have left them on the steps with that poor man and his juice had I only treated him charitably, in this case by leaving him in peace. So much for the sublime lesson in charity I had learned in the swimming pool just two days before.