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Category: Reading

Enlightened Ancestor: Dr. Benjamin West

I can thank my migraines for Dr. Benjamin West.

When I am anxious or don’t feel well, I often do genealogy research to take my mind off things. I have always enjoyed learning about family history, but really got bitten hard by the bug the first time I had cancer, in 1994. I was at home recuperating, on painkillers and other drugs that made concentrating difficult, and I found message boards on AOL that were all about genealogy. And my ancestors were there! I connected with some very distant cousins and compared notes. I started learning more and more about my origins.

It occurs to me that we are all the products of our parents, who are the products of their parents, who were the products of theirs, and so on. Our parents don’t just pass genetics on to us. Even when we disagree about things like politics or religion or how to raise our children, the values of our parents are distilled into us, just like the values of their parents were distilled into them. We find that professions tend to run in families -a  certain branch of the family may tend to be lawyers, writers, preachers, doctors, architects, artists, military, etc.

An obituary notice in a newspaper from 1822 led me to him. He was named as the father of one of my 5th great-grandmothers, a woman whose origins were completely unknown to me before that moment.  The man was phenomenal, and I don’t understand why every generation after him hasn’t continued to hold him up as the pinnacle of the Enlightenment. This guy’s brain was so huge and active I don’t know how it managed to stay confined in his skull.

benj-west

Benjamin West, from the Brown University Portrait Collection

Benjamin West was born in Bristol, Massachusetts in March 1730. I think of him as the Stephen Hawking of his day. His accomplishments in math and science are truly remarkable because he was an autodidact – his formal schooling lasted a whopping three months of his childhood. He was poor and had to borrow every book he read until about 1758, when he managed to find some backers to open a dry goods store. A couple of years later, he opened the first bookstore ever to grace the commercial avenues of Providence, Rhode Island. He managed to pay for the books he so desperately wanted by selling them to other people.

He married Elizabeth Smith, daughter of Benjamin Smith, in 1753 when he was 23.  They were married for 53 years and had eight children, only three of whom survived Benjamin. The 1822 death notice for his daughter, Mary Smith West (wife of Oliver Pearce), in a Providence newspaper, alerted me to him. The death notice that mentioned her father was “Dr. Benjamin West of Providence.” Mary West Pearce died in Fayetteville, NC. Her daughter, Eliza West Pearce, married Dr. Benjamin Robinson, that guy from Vermont who tested out that newfangled smallpox vaccine on his little brother and his brother’s friends and basically got run out of Bennington for his efforts. The science is strong in my family!

Benjamin West was a brilliant mathematician and astronomer. His buddies were the founders of Rhode Island College, which later became Brown University. He loved mathematics and astronomy, and conferred with some truly fantastic minds of his day. He published annual almanacs for Halifax, Nova Scotia and Providence, Rhode Island for nearly 40 years. He didn’t have the formal schooling necessary for good academic chops, though, and before he opened that dry goods and book store, he failed at operating a school. He tutored students privately for all of his adult life.

Astronomical Genius

In 1766, something would happen that ultimately would reverse his fortunes and open some gilded doors for him. A comet appeared in the constellation of Taurus on the evening of April 9. Being a good astronomer, Benjamin took careful measurements. The next day wrote a letter to an astronomer named John Winthrop who was at Cambridge College (now known as Harvard University). He had never met or corresponded with Winthrop, but was so excited about his observation he simply had to share it.

Providence, April 10, 1766

Dear Sir:

For the improvement of science, I now acquaint you, that the last evening, I saw in the West, a comet, which I judged to be about the middle of the sign of Taurus; with about 7 degrees North latitude. It set half after 8 o’clock by my watch; and its amplitude was about 29 or 30 degrees. Nothing, Sir, could have induced me to this freedom of writing to you, but the love I have for the sciences; and I flatter myself that you will, on that account, the more readily overlook it.

I am, Sir, yours,

Benjamin West

He and Winthrop became great friends and continued to write each other. For the rest of their lives they would share observations about the night sky.

1769 Transit of the Planets

Johannes Kepler and Edmund Halley figured out how to apply the theory of parallax to determine the distances between astronomical bodies.  With both Mercury and Vanus predicted to pass between the Earth and the Sun in 1769, astronomers world-wide were anxious to test the theory . Since this was the first really good opportunity to view the transits of both inner planets since Kepler’s original accurate prediction in 1627 of the 1631 transit, everyone in the field of astronomy was excited. Captain Cook would famously observe the 1769 transit of Venus from Tahiti while on his ill-fated circumnavigation and while bringing European diseases and disharmony to the South Pacific. At the time of the last transit of Venus in 1761, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who had just finished their survey of the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, had traveled to the Cape of Good Hope to observe it. All of these men used astronomy as an important part of their lives – navigating the oceans and surveying the land required precise measurements, and measurements started with the stars.

benjamin-wests-1769-telescope

Telescope used by Benjamin West, at Providence, Rhode Island, to observe the 1769 transit of Venus. Ladd Observatory, Brown University

There was no telescope in Providence in 1769. Benjamin West, Stephen Hopkins (the signer of the Declaration and great-grandson of the Mayflower passenger) and the Brown brothers – founders of Rhode Island College, later known as Brown University – were determined to see the phenomenon, though, so they managed to import a telescope from England at the incredible expense of 500 pounds.  They set up on the outskirts of Providence. Transit Street in Providence is named after the spot where they viewed the transit on June 3, 1769. There are photos of the telescope on the Brown University website – the school still has it.

benjamin-wests-diagram-of-the-1769-transit-of-venus

Benjamin West’s diagram of the transit of Venus, 1769, from the Ladd Observatory, Brown University

As was his habit, Benjamin West made careful measurements of the transit. He published a tract (and dedicated it to his friend Stephen Hopkins) about the event. A copy of the tract made its way to John Winthrop at Harvard, and on July 18, 1770, Benjamin West – the man with only three months of formal education – was awarded an honorary Master of Arts from Harvard. Here’s the text of the notification letter from John Winthrop:

Cambridge, July 19, 1770

Sir —

I have the pleasure to acquaint you that the government of this college were pleased, yesterday, to confer upon you the Honorary degree of Master of Arts; upon which I sincerely congratulate you. I acknowledge the receipt of your favour, and shall be glad to compare any observations of the satellites.

Yours, &c.

John Winthrop

 

American Academy of Arts and Sciences: the American Philosophical Society

That same year, Benjamin West was unanimously elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia – the American colonial version of Great Britain’s Royal Society. He would meet another author and publisher of almanacs there: a fellow named Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin West was still primarily a merchant at this time, and the Revolution was on its way. When full-blown war finally arrived, commerce dried up. He went to work manufacturing clothing for the American troops. He continued his studies and his correspondence with the other great minds, though.

Mathematics was Benjamin’s first love. In 1773 he wrote to a friend in Boston of a theorem he had developed to extract “the roots of odd powers” that was probably his greatest contribution to the field of mathematics. That’s right – he discovered a math formula that I can’t even begin to hope to understand, but other really smart people who could math really well understood it and lauded him for it. When he finally explained his theorem to other math geniuses in 1781, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences not only published it in one of their earliest journals, but unanimously elected him to membership and awarded him a diploma. It was his second honorary academic degree, and he still supported by only three months of formal education. The theorem caught the attention of the European mathematical geniuses, who, giddy with discovery, also published it. Benjamin West, already pretty cool, became seriously hot stuff.

He didn’t stop at math and astronomical observations, though. One of the biographies I found explained a physics problem he cogitated upon for more than two years in conjunction with John Winthrop and a Mr. Oliver. It had to do with the properties of air in a copper tube that was then put into an otherwise airless container. The qualities of invisible gases – basically, the scientific understanding of the very concept of the physical nature and properties of “air” – was in its infancy. Our ancestor speculated about the attractive and repulsive nature of the tiny particles that made up the matter of air – what we now call its molecules – and how they would behave under different conditions. Gravity, matter, magnetism, and ultimately the behavior of the tails of comets played into his understanding of the question. This is stuff my brain simply isn’t big enough to handle.

Benjamin West’s mind was at the peak of its illuminating brilliance as the world around him heaved. His most important discoveries and writings happened as the American Revolution was about to explode.  By the end of the Revolution he had returned to academic pursuits. He tutored students in math and astronomy. He still wasn’t rich; despite his prominence in academics he never became particularly wealthy. The well-endowed founders of what would become Brown University had not forgotten their friend, though. In 1786, he was elected to a full professorship there.

For some reason he did not begin teaching at Brown for a couple of years. Probably because of his honors and his friendship with Ben Franklin and the rest of the gang at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Benjamin West was invited to teach at the illustrious Protestant Episcopal Academy there. The name of that school is familiar to members of my father’s family.  Although Benjamin West was the direct ancestor of my Arkansas-born mother, my dad, an Irish-Italian kid who grew up in the Philly suburb of Gladwyne, went to school at Philadelphia’s Episcopal Academy while his dad coached its sports teams. (Insert refrain from “Circle of Life” here.)

Brown University awarded Dr. West his first non-honorary degree, his Doctor of Laws, in 1792. He taught mathematics and astronomy there from 1788 until 1799. Then he opened a school of navigation and taught astronomy to seafaring men. Like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, this man loved to teach other people the wonders of the universe.

I’m proud of him for another reason, too: Benjamin West was a member of an active abolitionist group in Providence.

I’ve found several contemporary biographical accounts for Benjamin West. They are typical of their time: purple prose and flowery metaphors abound. They all reach one conclusion: Benjamin West was a genius. He was a determinedly self-educated man who contributed considerably to the arts of science and mathematics during his lifetime. He was truly a product of the Age of Enlightenment: a self-educated, self-made man whose gifts and prominence considerably exceeded his bank account.

This discovery of my ancestor Benjamin West is exactly why genealogy research is so rewarding. And given the anxiety-provoking events of November 8, I expect to be doing a lot more of it – in between my stepped-up schedule of political activities, that is.

______

Bibliography:

American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Book of Members  (2016 edition), p. 252. Entry for Benjamin West, elected 1781, Fellow. Residence and Affiliation at election: Providence, RI. Career description: Astronomer, Educator, Businessperson, Book of Members; American Academy of Arts & Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Leonard Bliss, The History of Rehoboth, Bristol County, Massachusetts:  Comprising a History of the Present Towns of Rehoboth, Seekonk, and Pawtucket, From Their Settlement to the Present Time (Boston:  Otis, Broaders, and Company, 1836). Google Books

Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment, Entry for Benjamin West (1730-1813), pp. 1096-1097. https://books.google.com/books?id=qZ2yBwAAQBAJ&lpg=PA1096&dq

Louise Hall, “Family Records: Newby Bible”, New England Historical and Genealogical Register 122 (Apr 1968):  125-128, 125.

Martha Mitchell, “Benjamin West”, Encyclopedia Brunoniana (1993). https://www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/Databases/Encyclopedia/search.php?serial=W0170

John Chauncey Pease, John Milton Niles, A Gazetteer of the States of Connecticut and Rhode-Island:   (Hartford:  William S. Marsh, 1819), 331-333. Biographical entry for Dr. Benjamin West.  Google Books.

Unattributed, “Biography of Benjamin West, L.L.D.  A.A.S.:  Professor of Mathematicks, Astronomy and Natural Philosophy, in Rhode Island College – and Fellow of the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, &c.”, The Rhode Island Literary Repository Vol I, No. 7 (October 1814):  137-160 (337-360), http://books.google.com/books?id=HLQRAAAAYAAJ.  Google Books.

Benjamin West Papers; Rhode Island Historical Society Library, 121 Hope Street
Providence, RI 02906. http://www.rihs.org/mssinv/Mss794.htm.

On Costain, the Plantagenets, and History Books

I love all these things. I love reading, period. There is so much to learn, so much to know. If I can come away from a few minutes of reading with one real fact to share at a cocktail party, the magazine rack in my bathroom library is worth the small investment.

I like science books explain concrete things that we don’t ordinarily think about. They engage us in subjects that aren’t essential to our survival or even to our happiness, but that simply interest us and send us off on a quest to know more. They may be the books that explain innovations, technologies, or practices that controlled the civilizations of their time, from the development of agricultural practices to the economy of the Silk Road. They may examine animal behavior, linguistics, migrations, burial practices, or art. They may be the history books that examine the politics and personalities of an era that led to a revolution. The books that stick with us are the books that teach us something.

I know which books kicked open my love of English medieval history. I know when I read them and why. Sometime in the mid-1970’s, my dad was re-reading one of his favorite authors. As he often did, he read the fun parts aloud to whichever of his children happened to be in earshot – he loved sharing his books as much as he loved reading them.

That day, he was reading Thomas B. Costain’s Below the Salt.  I remember asking him what the title meant, and he explained that in medieval times salt was still a precious commodity. Only the wealthy had much access to it. Even in the dining halls of royalty or nobility, only the head table was allowed free access to a salt cellar. At the other, lower, tables sat the hired hands, the retainers, the working people, and the less influential members of the noble house. They sat “below the salt,” or at tables without access to valuable salt.

below the Salt

Salt? Cheap, ordinary salt? I was incredulous. Dad read me more passages from the book about heroic William Marshal, the beautiful and tragic Maid of Brittany, and King John, perhaps the most depraved of the Plantagenet kings of England.

“The stories are true,” he told me. “Mostly.”

Thomas B. Costain wrote historical fiction that was so well researched that even experts found it difficult to discern what was truly history and what was not. When Dad finished Below the Salt, I picked it up and read it for myself. Then I asked for more. Dad didn’t just give me Costain’s novels, though. Costain had written four nonfiction books about medieval England’s Plantagenet rulers. These works are his true gifts to his readers. Those four books about the very real, larger-than-life descendants of William the Conqueror absolutely riveted me. I couldn’t put them down. I was only about 14, and I was fascinated by the battles, the swordplay, the tournaments, the lust, and the alliances.

And I had so many questions! Why was the Count of Anjou called “Plantagenet”? (Because he wore a sprig of blooming broom – “planta genêt” in French). Why were the kings of England named for a French Count? (Because he was their father, and married their English princess of a mother, who used to be an empress before she had to settle for a mere count.) How did the counts from France get to be English kings? (Read the books!)

Then I asked for more. Dad didn’t just give me Costain’s novels, though. Costain had written four nonfiction books about medieval England’s Plantagenet rulers. These works are his true gifts to his readers. Those four books about the very real, larger-than-life descendants of William the Conqueror absolutely riveted me. I couldn’t put them down. I was only about 14, and I was fascinated by the battles, the swordplay, the tournaments, the lust, and the alliances.

A History of the Plantagenets Boxed Set (1962)

Costain’s writing led me on a romp from one English civil war (with the death of Henry I and the usurpation of the throne by his nephew Stephen of Blois) to the next (the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses). I credit these books with making medieval English history roar to life for me. Costain’s vivid descriptions of the personalities and actions of the Angevin kings, their nobles, and their enemies launched my lifelong fascination with this era.

And the writing! These are not dull history books. Engaging, fluid prose exposes the mysteries, romances, political posturing, and betrayals. Anyone who can tell stories like this really should be a history teacher. No one can possibly come away from these books without a new fascination for the Conqueror’s family and their unique brands of turmoil and governance.

I realize that all this sounds like hyperbole, but truthfully, I don’t have enough words to explain how wonderful these books are and how they made such a difference in how I viewed history – and not just English history, but all of it – for a lifetime.

When I looked on my mother’s shelves for these beloved books a few years ago, I couldn’t find them. I set about the business of locating replacements. The books were out of print and resellers charged a premium for them. Apparently no one who owns them really wants to give them up, and others who want them can’t find them.

I finally came across a boxed set of the books online and I ordered it. When it arrived, I devoured every word just as I had done years ago. Costain’s writing and storytelling are every bit as good as I remember. Some of the stories were missing, though, especially those about the fractious, ruthless sons of the Conqueror. In particular I remember a story of a very suspicious hunting accident that brought down King William Rufus…no, dear readers, George R.R. Martin wasn’t the first to think of a boar hunt as cover for regicide. I realized that the first book of the set I now own was edited rather heavily before its inclusion.

The boxed set holds Costain’s own explanation as to the revision:

A HISTORY OF THE PLANTAGENETS

I began these books of English history with the hope of carrying the series forward, under the general title of The Pageant of England, to a much later period than the last of the Plantagenet kings. Pressure of other work made it impossible, however, to produce them at the gait I had hoped to achieve. And now the factor of time has intruded itself also. Realizing that my earlier objective cannot be reached, I have decided to conclude with the death of Richard III and to change the covering title to A HISTORY OF THE PLANTAGENETS.

This has made necessary some revision in getting the four volumes ready for publication. The first five chapters in the initial book, which began with the Norman Conquest and covered the reigns of William the Conqueror, William (Rufus) II, and Henry I, had to be dropped. The first volume in this complete edition of the four begins with the final scenes in the reign of Henry I, whose daughter married Geoffrey of Anjou and whose son son succeeded in due course to the throne of England as Henry II, thus beginning the brilliant Plantagenet dynasty. The title of the first volume has been changed to THE CONQUERING FAMILY. In addition to the deletion of earlier chapters, a few slight cuts and minor revisions have been made throughout the series. Otherwise the four books are the same as those published separately under the titles, THE CONQUERORS, THE MAGNIFICENT CENTURY, THE THREE EDWARDS, and THE LAST PLANTAGENETS.

 

The boxed set of the four Plantagenet books is available at a premium – it’s out of print and only available in the secondary market. The lowest price I found a full set for was $175.00 at Amazon, although a seller on Facebook is offering it at a bargain for only $164.99.

Barnes & Noble doesn’t even have the full set, but does have then as eBooks and is even offering free downloads of the first two volumes – the first volume is the original title of the first book, so I downloaded it and have hope that it contains the missing parts that were edited from this final version contained in the boxed set. I’ll be reading it tonight, looking for clues as to who killed William Rufus. (Spoiler: the culprit was likely a minion of his brother Henry, grandfather of those fascinating Plantagenets.)

How Did You Arrive at Non-Belief?

Sometimes I am asked how I came to be atheist. The short answer is that I was born that way.

No one is born with a religious belief system – our parents and others have to tell us the stories and indoctrinate us with their religion. That’s why there are so many Hindus in India, so many Jews in Israel, so many Muslims in Arabia, and so many Christians in America. We are indoctrinated into the religion of our parents. No Buddhist kid surprises his Christian parents with his full-blown understanding of the sutras as soon as he can talk, just like no Christian preschooler tells his Hindu parents that the only way to heaven is to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior. We all have to be taught religion.

I think some kids are born skeptical. I think I was, and I see those traits very strongly in my oldest and youngest nephews and in my oldest niece. My youngest niece and middle nephew are plenty smart, as is my son, but they don’t have the attitude of “Nuh-uh, you’ll have to prove that to me!” and the excitement inherent in “That’s so cool! How’d that happen?” that the other three do.

DA Presbyterian Church

Presbyterian Church, Des Arc, Arkansas (Source: Kevin Stewart)

My mom is Presbyterian and my dad was Catholic. There was no Catholic church in Des Arc, Arkansas, where I grew up. The Presbyterian Church had been founded by my mother’s ancestors when they first came to Prairie County in the 1800’s, so naturally, that’s where we were taken as kids. The ceiling was pressed tin, and I cannot begin to guess how many times I counted those decorative squares out of sheer boredom.

In Sunday school, we were taught all the usual stories. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the Sunday school classroom coloring a picture of Daniel in the lion’s den and listening to the teacher explain that God had closed the mouths of the hungry lions so they wouldn’t eat Daniel. I remember thinking, “Nuh-uh. They just weren’t hungry, or there was some other reason.”

By that age (probably by about 6), I already knew the truth about Santa, and had ruined it for my sister and one of our friends. My sister and our friend Mischelle will say how mean I was – truthfully, I think I was just so delighted and excited to have my suspicions confirmed that I couldn’t wait to tell them. They were about 4 or 5 when I ruined Christmas for them forever, and neither one has ever, ever forgiven me.

When I was a little older, I realized that the weekly sermon was supposed to be based on the Bible readings that were part of each church service. I started opening the Bible and reading the verse along with the minister, then reading the passages that led up to it and beyond it. So many times I wanted to raise my hand and tell the minister that he was wrong – if he had read the verses that came just before or just after, he would realize how off-base he was. He was taking the verse out of context and building a brand new story around it, and assigning it meaning it didn’t have.

Then I started reading other parts of the Bible in church just so I didn’t have to listen to the inane ramblings from the pulpit. I came across Judges 19, and at that point I could not accept that there was anything good about these stories at all. A few years ago, I reinterpreted the atrocities of that chapter in a short story set in the modern era. It won a scary short story contest.

Concordant readings and the hymns were excruciating. Eventually, I decided I wouldn’t say or sing the words I thought were silly or that I didn’t agree with. I refused to say out loud that I was a worthless sinner (I didn’t think I was) or that I wanted divine intervention in anything (because I didn’t think it would happen). Then I realized that the whole thing was vapid and insipid. It was just another Santa Claus story.

Illustration by Dori Hartley

Illustration by Dori Hartley

When I was about 9 or 10, I threw a major hissy fit over church. It was a Sunday morning. We were ready to walk out the door for Sunday school and I had had enough. I remember screaming at my mom, telling her that the whole thing was stupid, that God wasn’t real, that God was really mean and horrible, and that going to church was pointless because praying was stupid and the words we were supposed to repeat every week were stupid and made no sense – hey, I was 9 or 10, so everything I didn’t like was “stupid,” right?

My Catholic dad stepped into the middle of my meltdown and suggested that Mom go ahead to church with my brother and sister. He said that he’d have me watch church on television while they were gone. After I calmed down, he started telling me about the Mover of the First Part. (It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized he was teaching me Aristotelian philosophy and basically regurgitating Thomas Aquinas’s apologetic Summa Theologica.) Of course, my question was, “Who made the Prime Mover, then?” Dad didn’t have an answer, but he said we had to watch church on TV since he had promised Mom.

Oral RobertsHe told me that there was a TV preacher named Oral Roberts who started every broadcast by saying, “Something GOOD is going to happen to you!” That’s who we would watch. Sure enough, he turned on Oral Roberts, and sure enough, those words came out of the preacher’s mouth the very first thing.   As soon as the words were said, Dad switched the channel over to a John Wayne movie.

John Wayne Maureen Ohara

Dad and I spent many Sundays watching John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda while mom and my siblings were at church. I developed a great appreciation for Westerns (including the spaghetti variety), and was introduced to all-time favorites like the Cheyenne Social Club and Paint Your Wagon, World War II standards like Mister Roberts and Donovan’s Reef, and straight-up classics like The Quiet Man.

fonda-kelly-stewart-social-club I still had to go to church fairly regularly, but after that I always sat next to my dad, and we always found something to giggle about during the hymns and whisper about during the rest of the service. We made an effort to twist things to the absurd. Having a secret, fun co-conspirator made me feel better about having to go in the first place.

I don’t think Dad was atheist. He may have been agnostic, but I suspect he made Pascal’s Wager, because he always told us to get him a priest if we knew he was dying. Not a Presbyterian minister, even though he eventually joined the church and even became a deacon – he wanted a Catholic priest. As it turned out, my father died very suddenly, and there was no time to get a priest. Atheist me insisted that we call one, though, just to satisfy that need he had – because that’s what he had always said he wanted. It was a matter of respect.

When I was about 12, Mom insisted that I take Catechism classes – part of the training for joining the Presbyterian church, even though I insisted that there was no way I would do that. I dutifully memorized the Bible verses and the doctrinal responses. The Presbyterian Church in Des Arc had a tiny congregation, and I was the only student at that time. I spent more time questioning the sense of the verses and the responses to the doctrinal questions, asking “Why?”, and demanding answers to the unanswerable than anything else. The minister’s answers never satisfied me, mostly because things like “God’s ways are mysterious” and “We aren’t meant to know” are completely unsatisfactory answers to someone whose brain thrives on and revels in knowledge. When I was given an answer that rested on convoluted or circular reasoning, it drove me further away from belief, not closer. I never joined the church.

ASES Green Hall

Green Hall, All Saints Episcopal School, Vicksburg, MS

My sis and I were sent to an Episcopal boarding school for high school. During the course of the curriculum, and especially in our senior year, we had to take a class that entailed reading the Bible and being tested on it. I actually looked forward to having this class, because the priest who taught it, Father John Babcock, was very approachable, friendly, and related well with all of us kids.

Unfortunately, a different priest taught that class my senior year. He was more academic than Fr. Babcock, and had us write long, college-like essays on exams. For the midterm, he asked a question that started, “Why do you think…?” Silly me took the bait. I told him exactly what I thought about whatever the topic was. I got a C, which, if you know anything about perfectionist me, you will understand really upset me. When I went to talk with him about it, he told me that I was wrong, so he couldn’t give me a better grade. I was totally pissed – my opinion was only worth a C because it didn’t match his ridiculous opinion.

fearandtremblingAt Colgate, one of the first classes I took my freshman year was the Philosophy of Religion. Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, Aquinas – this is the class where I read about the Prime Mover and remembered my dad’s explanation from a decade before. None of the explanations that any of the religious apologists offered were satisfactory. The reading selection in that class that hit me the hardest was Kierkegaard’s explanation of the Isaac story in Fear and Trembling. It seemed to me to be the stuff of tortured logic. If religion was the source of morality, then how could Isaac’s sacrifice be morally wrong but religiously right? There was no answer to this except the “leap of faith.” Nope – not only was that answer not good enough, it was ethically reprehensible.

If none of these religious stories and doctrines made sense to me, how could they make sense to other people? WHY did they make sense to other people? I decided to try to find out. I went to different religious services on campus, both Catholic and Protestant. I talked to a friend who went from Colgate to Harvard Divinity School to be a rabbi. (He told me a few years later that the rabbi thing didn’t work out, because anyone who pays attention in Divinity School ends up atheist. He’s a doctor now in Springfield, Massachusetts.) I spoke with a cousin who is a Presbyterian minister. I’ve spoken with friends who have strong faith.

When I ask people why they believe, they tend to get defensive instead of explaining their rationale. My asking them why they believe is not meant to be antagonistic – I really want to know, because to this day I don’t understand why normally rational, compassionate people would buy into this whole faith thing. “You’ve just got to believe,” they tell me. No. No, I do not.

My mother once remarked that because I went to Catholic and Episcopalian services, I must like the ceremonial flavor of the more ritualized  “high church” sects. I wasn’t going to church so I could get religion. I was going to try to figure out what other people got out of it. What I concluded was that the ritual seems to calm and comfort the people who attend these churches. Ritual is comforting. We know what to expect, we know what we are supposed to do. Ritual, like meditation, has a calming effect on the human psyche.

Rituals need a purpose, though, and I have never found purpose in a purely religious ritual. I see the point of the ritual in a wedding. I can see the point of ritual when it comes to memorial or funeral services. I see the point of other rituals that mark life transitions, like the naming of a baby or graduation or the passage to adulthood. I understand why human beings want these rituals to formalize life transitions. It doesn’t mean they are any less real if there is no ritual, but it does recognize the transition publicly, and we all want our major life changes to be recognized by others. Recognizing those life transitions is one of the main reasons I got ordained with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and filed my credentials with the Pulaski County Clerk. Those rituals need to be recognized regardless of religious persuasion or non-belief.

When I got married, I agreed to a church wedding. Mostly that was because a church wedding was important to my beloved mother-in-law, who has a very strong faith. She knew this was the only wedding either of her children was likely to have, and it needed to be right for her. Skip and I would have been perfectly happy – and just as married – to have a judge say the words and sign the certificate on our front porch, followed, of course, by a kegger for our law school buddies. Instead, we were married in a giant church and had a reception at a country club.

We had our child baptized for the same reason – not because I wanted to do it, but because it was important to his grandparents. We took him to church when he was about 5 or 6 because we thought he needed to have had that experience. In retrospect, that was an exercise we didn’t need to put him through. I enjoyed the young adult Sunday school class that we went to there, though, and a few of those classmates I still call friends.

I’ll never forget the Sunday the minister of that church decided to teach our class. We were reading something attributed to Paul, and I was challenging at least half of what the blessed apostle wrote.

“Good! It’s good to question your faith!” the minister said to me, and the entire room erupted into laughter. My Sunday school classmates all knew I was atheist, but evidently word had not filtered up to the pulpit.

“I’m not questioning my faith,” I answered. “I’m questioning yours.”

So, I never “arrived” at non-belief. Truthfully, I didn’t have to. I never found a reason to leave non-belief in the first place.

Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi

There actually was an upside to being assaulted in my own home and held at gunpoint while thugs ransacked my house.  By being a victim of crime, I met neighbors I had not encountered in the seven years I’ve lived here. Oh, I’ve known the neighbors who live immediately next to me. Jean, who lives across the street, was my friend long before I moved here.  But beyond one house on all sides of me, and the dread Townhouses in the Park below me, I really haven’t encountered any other of my neighbors.

Until disaster struck, of course. Then I met all kinds of great people I didn’t know I shared a neighborhood with. One of these new friends, Andy, happens to be a reader. A couple of nights after the robbery, we had a conversation on Facebook that ended up with me over at his house and us talking about books. He thrust three into my hands before I left a couple of hours later. I’m very glad to have met this neighbor, because his taste in fiction is wonderful. I can’t wait to find more books from his shelves.

The three books he gave me were Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi, The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross, and Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. I’m about to give up on the nonfiction Godel, Escher, Bach – which is fascinating, but I’m getting bogged down because I don’t know enough about music, and I keep taking breaks to listen and learn more. It’s taking me forever to read, and I’m not sure I’m taking it all in. The other two I finished in really short order – they were both so good I couldn’t put them down.

The first of the three that I read was Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi. Scalzi wrote this book on his website in 1999, just to see if he could actually write a book. In 2005, a literary agent found it and offered to publish it. The original version is still available online.

The story is a campy take on first contact between humans and alien intelligence. I have never bought the notion that alien life forms are going to resemble us or any living creature we think of as having sentience. Enter John Scalzi and his eminent good sense. (He agrees with me.)

The aliens in this book are described essentially as amorphous gobs of snot. No, make that morphous gobs of snot.  The snot morphs into the shape of an aquarium, the shape of a water bottle, the shape of … other things. Its morphability (is that even a word?) and its uncanny resemblance to that which comes out of our runny noses (or what is left behind in the wake of a snail) form the backbone – the completely invertebrate backbone, yes – of the plot of this story. The aliens recognize that we humans will find their appearance disgusting, so in the interest on good inter-species relations, they decide to hire an image consultant to break the news to humanity of their existence.

Not just any image consultant will do, of course. As we all expect, the aliens have learned all about our species and civilization from the cacophonous roar of radio waves and television signals emanating  from our planet. They already speak idiomatic English fluently, they know how our culture is organized, they know how we interact with each other, and they know how we are likely to react to them. These aliens are smart.

Being beings of higher intelligence, the aliens have recognized that the very best image consultants are those who successfully sell vacuous people to the rest of the world. These consultants expertly package their clients in such a way as to persuade the public to overlook their flaws. Knowing that they will appear to us a snot-based life forms, these aliens decide to hire the best for their public relations. The aliens bypass Madison Avenue for the true experts in the field. The aliens bypass Madison Avenue for the true experts in the field: Hollywood agents.

I can’t talk too much about the story without giving away important plot points that, when revealed through the natural course of the book, will literally leave you laughing out loud and searching for someone to share it with.

What I can do is tell you to find this book and read it. It will buoy your mood, make you think about things as heady as the ethics of eugenics and things as light as the stuff encrusting the tissue of your winter cold. And when you blow your nose while reading it, you will suddenly find yourself examining the results for sentience.

The story is original, mind-bending, heartwarming, and hilarious.

Seriously, find it. Read it.

 

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho: Pondering the Soul of the World

It’s no secret that The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is one of my favorite books. I’m leading the discussion in my book club this month, and The Alchemist is the book we’re discussing. I feel fortunate, but overwhelmed at the same time.

I’ve re-read the book during the past week to get ready for the book club discussion. Reader’s Guides are readily available for The Alchemist. The tenth anniversary edition, which I have, contains one after the epilogue. Its discussion topics seem so obvious to me. There is so much more to this book than those canned study guide questions point out.

For instance, there are two different types of alchemy: scientific alchemy and spiritual alchemy. While the gold that scientific alchemy yields is tempting, Coelho’s beautiful fable teaches us that the spiritual aspect of alchemy is the important one. The tale of Santiago the shepherd boy underscores that without achieving the Master Work of spiritual alchemy, no one can attain the Magnum Opus of scientific alchemy.  The discussion of both types of alchemy is a discussion of the book itself, as well as a philosophical discussion that may never end.

Santiago’s quest for his Personal Legend is full of lessons. Santiago’s wisdom, and the wisdom of the people he meets in his travels, must have been sound bites that Coelho collected for years then wove seamlessly into this tale. All of Coelho’s books seem that way, though. But the wisdom and joy of The Alchemist makes it the only one of Coelho’s books that literally makes me cry.

Each time I’ve read this book I’ve cried, and each time I’ve cried at the same point. For me, the climax of the book comes twice. The first is not when Santiago finds the physical treasure of his dream, but when he first lays eyes on what fabulous wonders men can achieve.  Yes, this is when I cry, and I’m crying with the profound joy the book has given me.

At the moment when Santiago thinks he should find his treasure, he is attacked by several refugees from the tribal wars he has dodged all across the Sahara. One attacker announces that it is stupid to cross a desert to look for buried treasure  just because of a recurring dream. The attacker doesn’t know it, but Santiago has done exactly that, and is at the point of realizing that dream when he is beaten bloody and left nearly dead by these attackers. As outside observers we readers laugh, knowing that whether or not Santiago finds his material wealth in the desert, his journeys have resulted in a spiritual wealth beyond most people’s imagining. He has learned that if he wants to, he can become the wind.

Coelho uses phrases and terms of his own making, but they are philosophical terms necessary to understanding the spiritual alchemy he presents in his book. The Soul of the World, the hand that wrote all, the Language of the World, and one’s Personal Legend are concepts Coelho deftly teaches us with this story of a shepherd’s quest, undertaken because of a recurring dream. Without initially understanding those terms, though, we struggle along with Santiago to grasp the concepts of spiritual alchemy.

Fear hampers our quests for our Personal Legends. The fear presents itself in different ways. First, it is a fear of leaving the familiar comforts of what we know to go in pursuit of a dream. But when we take those first few tentative steps toward our dream, beginner’s luck encourages us to keep pursuing the dream. Eventually, though, our initial success creates another fear within us. We have achieved so much. No, it’s not what we set out to achieve, but it is enough. We can die happy because we got this far and we are comfortable. But, if we listen to our hearts, we know that this temptation to settle for less than our Personal Legend is really a fear: a fear that we have had so much success that we are bound to fail soon.

The fear of failure prevents many people from realizing their Personal Legends. Settling for “good enough,” these people stop listening to their hearts and listen instead to the comforts of having come this far and achieved this much. They feel blessed to have done so much; to try to do more tempts fate, does it not?

Yes, it does.

That’s part of the pursuit of the Personal Legend, though. We aren’t rewarded with the realization of that legend unless we show that we have truly learned the lessons along the way to achieving it. Proving that we’ve learned the lessons means we have to be challenged, and the challenges aren’t supposed to be easy. If we want something enough, if our goal is our dream, and our dream is our Personal Legend, the path gets harder, not easier, the closer we get. Nevertheless, if we step carefully and read the omens sent to us, we will achieve success. We will recognize and live our Personal Legends.

I’m making four presentations to make on this book this month. In each, I want to examine a portion of the story, and a portion of the philosophy of spiritual alchemy. I don’t know if I can limit myself to just four!

I’ve come up with a list of omens Santiago notices in his adventures. Some of them have layers of meaning. I want to talk about them.

Throughout the book, Coelho sprinkled concepts from the three Abrahamic religions. I want to talk about each, yet I know that those in my audience who know me not to be a follower of this religious tradition will want time to challenge me on my interpretation, and will want to offer their own. There must be time for that.

There are mystical elements that defy being categorized with something else, so must be treated separately.

Each major character, plus a couple of minor ones, have wisdom to share. I want to examine their profound observations – ALL of them!

Then there are the literary aspects of the book. Coelho’s writing style, the format of the story, foreshadowing and other literary devices, character development . . . I’m babbling already and I haven’t even begun my presentation.

And then there is alchemy, both scientific and spiritual, to tackle. To be fair to each, they should be dealt with separately, then addressed together so as to underscore the similarities. There are specific alchemists mentioned in the book whose biographies might be interesting to my audience, yet I fear boring the masses with my enthusiasm.

But wait: Santiago’s strengths were his courage to do what he wanted, and his enthusiasm in the process.

His strengths were what enabled him to become the wind.

The Mote in God’s Eye – 35 Years Later

The Mote in God s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I have always considered The Mote in God’s Eye a seminal book about initial contact between humans and another sentient, advanced species.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, both true masters of hard science fiction, collaborated on this book in 1974. I read it in high school – so sometime shortly after it was written. I remembered it clearly as cutting edge stuff. In one scene that has popped into my mind on multiple occasions throughout the years, the humans react with horror to the speeding vehicles used by the Moties for individual ground transportation. I was glad to know my ever-unreliable neurons hadn’t messed with my memory when I found it on pages 252-253 of the new copy I bought recently:

Tall, ugly buildings loomed above them to shoulder out the sky. The black streets were wide but very crowded, and the Moties drove like maniacs. Tiny vehicles passed each other in intricate curved paths with centimeters of clearance. The traffic was not quite silent. There was a steady low hum that might have been all the hundreds of motors sounding together, and sometimes a stream of high-pitched gibberish that might have been cursing.

Once the humans were able to stop wincing away from each potential collision…

Motie, found on Rocket Ship Pajamas

Motie (source)

 

The first time I read that passage, many years ago, I imagined the reaction of an 18th century sophisticate to riding in a modern New York taxicab or merging onto an urban freeway at rush hour. I thought about how a Cro-Magnon might respond to riding in a car down a quiet street in a small town. What if the Cro-Magnon was on a motorcycle?

Thirty-something years later, as someone who writes speculative fiction – sure, merely as a hobby, but, hey, a girl’s going to dream – I noticed this classic story didn’t seem so cutting edge any more. I realized that a book written during my own lifetime, a book that blew me away when I first read it, has become dated.

I’ve noticed this a time or two before. Robert Heinlein’s books about Lazarus Long, for example, are very dated in some of their sexist, chauvinistic attitudes, even though the stories and the science are not. Heinlein makes multiple references to the pleasing shape of his female characters’ anatomy, but never to the sexual attributes of male characters. The worst offenders of these books were written near the end of Heinlein’s long, prolific career. Oddly, the character noticing the anatomy didn’t rub me wrong, perhaps because we all are capable of noticing pleasing physical characteristics of the opposite sex; the author himself struck me as a dirty old man. (I know, I know. I have no basis other than my gut for even saying that. And I revere Heinlein as one of the everlasting gods of the genre. Really, I do.)

Something similar struck me on a number of occasions while rereading The Mote in God’s Eye. For instance, when Sally explains human birth control methods to a Motie, she says that “nice girls” don’t use birth control. She explains that they simply abstain from sexual relations if they don’t want to become pregnant. Her words shock the Motie, but not for the same reason they shocked me.

Even of those I know who are relatively prudish, I doubt very many, at least the people I know, would actually think that “nice girls don’t take birth control.”  Nope, not even my devoutly Catholic best friend. (Of course, to hear the abstinence-only sex education crowd talk, that’s all it takes for birth control. I submit that those folks are completely unrealistic, and statistics belie their position. But that is a topic for another day.)

I guess I’ve become accustomed to the progressive social portrayal of the future that modern speculative fiction tends toward. Except for futuristic dystopias such as The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, which feature government-imposed sexual repression, sexuality’s treatment in speculative fiction over the last half century seems fairly universal – all sex, all the time, anything goes. Certainly that was the case by the mid-70’s.

The sexual revolution was in full swing in 1974. Attitudes and social mores toward sex heaved and groaned in those years. Roe v. Wade had been decided the year before. The Equal Rights Amendment had passed both houses of Congress two years before, the same year that the Joy of Sex, which was still in the top five bestsellers in 1974, became a sensation.  Birth control was in wide use, and the Summer of Love was almost a decade in the past. In 1961 – thirteen years before the Mote sun gleamed in the middle of the Coalsack, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land paved the way for these attitudes when Valentine Michael Smith created a new religion incorporating free love.  By 1974, co-ed college dorms commonly dotted campuses across the nation. Penicillin cured everything but herpes and hepatitis; no one had heard of AIDS or HIV.  Hair was six years into its run on Broadway, complete with full nudity.

The attitudes that dated The Mote in God’s Eye extended to the personnel on the two ships that visit the Mote world. With the exception of Sally and the perpetually pregnant Moties, every single character in the book is male. But, there’s more. I remember this book as one of the truly inspirational ones in my adolescent library, packed with action and tension. Reading it this week, it hasn’t felt the same. At first, I couldn’t figure out why the book just didn’t hold my attention the way I remembered it doing 30-something years ago. Now, less than a hundred pages from the end, I think I may have figured it out.

Olivetti Typewriter


Poster issued by Olivetti Typewriter Co. featuring the Olivetti Lexicon 80 typewriter, Marcello Nizzoli, about 1953. Museum no. CIRC.634-1965
Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum
(source)

The book needs red ink. Had Niven and Pournelle not banged out this novel on an Olivetti typewriter, if they had used a word processor, they probably would have tightened their prose and eliminated things like lists, awkward scene transitions, jerky dialogue, and other things we can now avoid by revising a million times without rewriting the whole darn thing page by tortured page. Editing just isn’t what it used to be, for which we probably should be grateful. Otherwise our eyes might still cross, reading post-Victorian verbosity.

And then there’s the passive voice. The book doesn’t read like a scientific treatise, but still, a lot of the descriptions employ the verb “to be.” Characters interact actively, but they tend to observe their surroundings in a list. I wonder if I noticed this only because I’ve been writing more myself, and try to use E-Prime unless it just sounds silly. I wonder if I notice it because I have critiqued the work of other writers in recent months.

I hope critiquing hasn’t led to this. I like reading what other people write, making suggestions for improvement, and getting good feedback from them on my own work. If critiquing means the joy of reading suffers, then I’ll have a big hole in my life.

But now, now I have a book to finish. And even if it isn’t as good as I remember, it’s still good.

 

Another Day Gone

This is My Brain on Migraine
(source)

I wake up; the pounding in my head forces me to. I drag my sandy eyelids up and try to focus on the clock. 4:45 a.m. My mouth tastes like dirty socks and my stomach wants to heave. I make myself sit up and the room reels. The telltale rush of saliva into my dry mouth warns me that I don’t have much time. When the room stops moving I put my legs over the side of the bed. Somehow I’m vertical and staggering toward the bathroom.

I keep the shots of Imitrex ready to go. Finding the injector in the dark is not a problem. The container is on the bottom shelf of the bathroom cabinet, right where it’s supposed to be. My fingers fumble and pry up the lid on one of the twin ampules. The only reason I can do this now is years of practice. When my doctor first gave me the shots I was slower. The novelty meant I sometimes couldn’t prime the injection device properly and a spray of precious triptan would shoot across the room instead of into my flesh. When the headaches are really bad, sometimes that still happens. Migraines steal fine motor coordination. Gross motor skills are pretty much out the window, too, but it’s the fine motor I need now. And the dismay of seeing an injection that costs over a hundred dollars wasted into thin air has no equal. This morning I manage to load the syringe and press it to my flesh. My thumb hits the button on the end of the device and I can’t help but hiss as the sting of the medication hits my intramuscular tissue. It takes a couple of tries, but I manage to cram the injector into its holder and prime it for the next shot. Then I stagger a couple of steps to the sink.

Surely I will feel better if I get those nasty gym socks off my teeth. My hands tremble as I load my toothbrush. Applying toothpaste to my toothbrush takes extra time and effort. It’s hard. I turn the water on and wet the brush, then bring it to my objecting mouth. No sensation is good, because every sensation is amplified with a migraine. The sharp taste of minty-fresh explodes in my mouth and I rinse the brush again. I just want to peel off the cotton that coats my mouth, not breathe on anyone. I don’t want to sanitize myself yet. I just need to get rid of the grimness of first waking up.

Afterward, I grip the sink with both hands. The Imitrex still isn’t working, and even the slightest head movement is agony. Maybe if I lean here for a moment the drug will kick in. But not yet. The jack hammer in my skull subsides with stillness. When I think I can bear it, I move tentatively toward the toilet. Whether or not I really need to go, I need to sit down, and, at a distance of twenty feet, my bed is too far away. I miss the three-foot-tall stacked cube shelf that I used to have in my bathroom. I could sit on the toilet, pull it close, and rest on it, my head lying on my folded arms. Sometimes I would drift into unconsciousness that way and my husband would call to me, asking me if I was all right. If I had assumed that position, I was never all right. Now, though, the shelf lives at his house and the twelve-inch distance to the tiled wall is to far to lean, no matter how good the cold tiles might feel on my skin. I sway as I sit there.

My eyes are closed. I lose track of the minutes. I beg the drug to start working. I wait for the sensation at the back of my neck that signals its effectiveness. Nothing happens.

Eventually, I think I can make it back to bed. The nausea is a reminder that the meds aren’t working, and I know that on my way I need to get the Phenergan. Dr. Archer has prescribed it in a cream. Philip at the Drug Store compounds it and puts one dose into a syringe without a needle. A plastic cap at the tip of the syringe keeps the cream from drying out. It’s hard to get those caps off. I dread the effort, but I know it is necessary. If I start throwing up, I won’t stop. Vomiting with a migraine doesn’t make anything better.

I stand before the door of the medicine cabinet again, reach into the Ziplock bag that contains the Phenergan cream syringes, pull out a syringe, and start wrestling with the cap. Not only do I lose coordination with migraines, I lose strength. It takes me more than a minute to pry the cap off. With a grateful sigh I push the plunger and spread the cool cream on my wrists. I aim the syringe at the trash can and let it go. Of course I miss. I’ll pick it up later. Now it’s time to stagger back to bed and hope that the combination of drugs will stave off the nausea.

Too late, I forget that I have a bead of blood on my skin from the Imitrex injection. I know I smear the sheets with red as I lie down. I hope it has dried and I can brush off the crumbs of blood easily. I washed and changed the sheets just yesterday, using strong spot remover on the blood stains from last week’s migraines. They never seem to come out completely unless I use bleach. I care, but not enough to do anything but pull myself into a fetal position. My pillow is too hard. There’s nothing I can do about it except keep very, very still. My body is covered in a sheen of sweat from the nausea. I don’t want under covers yet. Warmth amplifies the pain. When the Phenergan kicks in, the sweat turns clammy, then evaporates, leaving a salty residue. Once my skin is dry, I find the coolest spot on the smooth sheets. I tug the top sheet over me, and a few minutes later pull up the quilt, too. The Imitrex still isn’t working. I am grateful for Phenergan’s fortunate side effect of drowsiness. I lie there, waiting for the Imitrex, and waiting for sleep.

Sleep evidently came. I am wake again. It’s 7:40 now, and the Imitrex has only dented the migraine pain. The nausea is mercifully gone, but even though every shift of my head doesn’t bring waves of agony, a full-blown migraine still actively assaults my head. I try to sleep again, lying still and letting my mind drift hypnotically. It’s no use. I’m awake and alert, pain and all.

I can dose myself with Imitrex again. After two hours, if I don’t have relief I can take one of the tablets. I carefully leave my bed and make for the bathroom. The blackout curtains in my bedroom don’t close completely, and the shaft of daylight stabs my eyes as I pass through it. I need a ladder to reattach the last drapery hook to the rod.  Not now, though. I can barely walk steadily. Climbing a ladder is out of the question.

Imitrex’s packaging is intended to be impossible to open. Insurance only pays for nine pills a month, and they come in paper and foil-backed blister packs. Normally I take all the pills out of the blister packs and transfer them to a pill case as soon as I get home from the pharmacy. Stupidly, I neglected to do so this time. It’s a new box of pills, and I fumble even to tear away the box top to get at the blister pack. I still have no fine motor coordination, and tearing away the paper and foil backing is beyond me. Finally I stab the back of the pack with tweezers to get it open. The pill breaks as I extract it. It will leave a horrible taste in my mouth because of that. I swallow it anyway, and take a long drink of water to wash away as much of the residue as I can. Now for the other weapon in my migraine arsenal.

Hydrocodone. I hate it. I love it. I hoard it. Dr. Archer allows me twenty pills a month, but I rarely use them all. It scares me. The last thing I need is an opiate addiction. My tolerance to it is high. For all I know, I’m already addicted. I don’t know. What I do know is that hydrocodone is an extra lifeline for when the triptans don’t work. Today, I need it. Maybe I can go back to sleep. It will be an hour before either it or the Imitrex tablet will take effect. I shake the fat tablet into my palm and wash it down with water. I go back to bed.

I doze, but I don’t go back to sleep completely. After an hour, there is no change. I am tired of my bed. The cats have been anxiously head-butting the door and crying. They’re hungry. Their water dish is probably empty, too. I debate taking another hydrocodone tablet, but decide to wait. I want to see how the effort of climbing the stairs affects me, and if I take one now it will make me itch. Of course, I can always take Benedryl with it. The antihistamine will help with the itching and make me drowsy again. No, I’ll wait.

I should have taken the second pill. In my kitchen, I sink onto a stool at the breakfast bar and lay by head on my arms. The cool granite of the counter feels wonderful. The pounding in my skull does not. When it subsides, I reach for the bottle of hydrocodone I keep on my lazy Susan. The cats are sitting next to their empty food bowls, expectant. “Just a minute, guys,” I whisper. I run water into a dirty glass sitting in the sink and swallow the pill. I stand at the sink for a moment, waiting for the pounding to start again because of the movement. Thankfully, it does not.

The cats’ food dishes are on the floor. I squat slowly, not wanting to bend or even tilt my head for fear that blood will rush into it and the throbbing will begin again in earnest. I nearly lose my balance, but I’ve thought to hold the edge of the counter to ease myself down, so I have a lifeline. I’m shaky as I rise. The three steps to the bin of cat food in the pantry go well. I scoop food into one of the bowls. No wet food this morning, kitties. Sorry. I can’t bend over to get the can, and the smell of it would destroy me. I can smell the litter box across the room, and I know it needs attention, too. There’s no way. Not now. Not yet. Please understand and don’t do your business in the house plants, I beg them silently.

I sit on the stool again to recover from this round of activity. I need to eat something. Lack of food will only make things worse in the long run. I keep coffee in the fridge. Caffeine sometimes helps, sometimes hurts. As bad as this headache is, I decide to give it a try. Iced coffee with a bit of hazelnut-flavored sweetener and a dollop of milk. It isn’t as sweet as Starbucks, but then nothing really needs to be. My sister says those sweet coffee drinks from Starbucks are “a candy bar in a cup.” She’s not far wrong. I sit and drink. It tastes good. I feel stronger after sustenance. I mix myself another iced coffee, and munch on a few strawberries. The carbs will give me strength and energy.

It’s 8:25 now. I move to my computer, which sits in an alcove off the kitchen. I bring my coffee with me. I can sit relatively still, reading blogs and news, and wait for the hydrocodone to do its magic. Eventually, the itching starts. I keep a back scratcher next to the computer because my perpetually dry skin always itches. Itching from too much opioid  is not satisfied as easily. I read. I sit. When I get up to forage for more food, my head reminds me that I need to stay still. I return to my computer chair with a small chunk of Havarti cheese and rice crackers.

A little after eleven, my phone rings. It’s Jan, wanting to go to The Full Monty at the Weekend Theater. She’s not sure we can get tickets. Tonight is the last night. Even though I tell her I am not up for it, she is determined to go. She will have to drive in from Hot Springs, so if the show is sold out then she’ll have a wasted trip and an hour’s drive home. I turn down the volume on the phone, because the conversation is unnaturally loud. I tell her I’m not feeling well, but that she is welcome to come by if she can’t get a ticket. I hope the show is not sold out. I hope she can go. I realize I need to go back to my bed. We hang up, and I take a deep, slow breath to steady myself. The phone call has brought back the raging throb.

I get a glass of ice water before descending the stairs to my bedroom again. I climb into bed. The sheets are smooth and cool, and I think again that I need to rehang that drapery hook so the curtains close completely. The shaft of midday sun coming through the opening stabs my eyes. My head hurts too much for me to turn my back to the windows. Besides, the light bounces off the wall; it doesn’t really go away if my back is to it. I close my eyes and hope for sleep.

I haven’t yet started to doze when I hear the garage door open. Jack is home. Lora is with him. They’re going to hang out in the basement. He brings me an icepack. I’m glad he’s come home, because I can really use that icepack. I drape it over my forehead, pressing its ends to my temples. The kids go to the basement. They know to be quiet when I have a migraine. Poor Jack. His whole life, his mother has been sick. Sometimes, she’s sicker. Like today. He has told me that by the time he was eight, he could read the labels on my meds and even spell hydrocodone. I don’t doubt it. I sent him to get them from the cabinet often enough.

I doze, and finally I sleep. It’s almost 5:00. The migraine has receded to the back of my brain. It’s still there, but right now it’s not attacking me. It doesn’t hurt. I go upstairs again. If I don’t eat a meal, I’ll suffer for it. I need protein, vegetables. I make a sandwich and chew it slowly. I don’t really want it. I’m not hungry. The consequences of not eating will be worse than forcing myself to eat now. I sit at the kitchen counter and read a  magazine while I take unenthusiastic bites. I hear the kids come upstairs. They’re leaving. They chat cheerfully. Their good moods and the sandwich have combined to lift me up. Lora tells me she’s reading The Princess Bride, and I am delighted. It has been my favorite book since I was sixteen. I refused for years to see the movie, because I was so afraid that Hollywood would ruin it. I shouldn’t have worried. William Goldman wrote the screenplay for his own great book, so everything was as it should have been. Miracle Max and Valerie. Fezzik and Inigo Montoya. The Man in Black. Buttercup. Prince Humperdink. The Six-Fingered Count. Talking about it with Lora, I feel animated for the first time today.

The kids leave and I return to the computer. I need to sit still. If Jan comes tonight, I need to be functional. I’m functional now, but I don’t know how long it will last. I start writing this blog post. I feel myself tiring, but Jan calls at 7:30 to say she could not get a ticket to the play. For the last hour I have been checking the clock, wondering if she will call. About fifteen minutes ago I had decided that she must have gotten in, or I would have heard from her. “No, no, it’s fine,” I tell her. “Come on by.” I go downstairs to get the skirts I need to alter for my niece’s school uniform. They are hand-me-downs from her sister, who is shaped differently. As Jan and I visit, I rip out the hems. By 9:30, she says she’s tired and is going to get back on the road. I’m glad, because I’m fading, too. The headache isn’t back, but it’s skulking in the recesses of my skull, waiting to strike. And all those meds exhaust me. I’m happy to have seen Jan, though.

After Jan leaves, I rip the hem out of the last skirt, and I head downstairs with a fresh glass of ice water.

I read a little in Sacré Bleu, the newest book by Christopher Moore. I’ve had it since its greatly anticipated release, and I keep getting distracted from it. I love Chris Moore’s books. I wish I had his wild imagination. I want to keep reading, but my brain won’t let me. I’m too tired.

Another day sacrificed to migraine. Another day, gone.

 

 

 

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