This morning, early, before I’d even had my first cup of tea, and in the wake of news that the stock market was caught in a death spiral — the worst day in its history and tanking on wholly unfounded global anxiety and media driven perfidy — I received an excellent text from my daughter. She wrote: “At an autopsy with detectives for a potential homicide.” Which was proof again that life in the twisting alleyways of Rome goes on, flame lit and gruesome, whether trading in the plaza has been suspended or not.
More to the point, and even hundreds of miles away, I could hear the bonesaws whining.
Some years ago, hours into a flight to England with my father, he tapped me on the shoulder, pulling me out of a deep walk through Thomas Berger’s masterpiece “Little Big Man” to have a look out the window. We were flying into the purpling horizon but the sky was clear, and far below, in an endless and slate-gray stew, churned the forbidding waters of the North Atlantic.
Raised on tales of pilots and sea captains who braved that crossing in wooden boats or strapped aboard flying gas cans, navigating by sunstone and stopwatch, I understood perfectly well what my father wanted me to imbibe from that vision, which had everything to do with properly framing the scale of human bravery against the elements. My father’s wry smile – he was an accomplished pilot familiar with visions into the abyss — suggested something else as well, something cold and briny as the sea, which was the truth we must all eventually embrace: we are not, in fact, in this together.
There was, I see now as I lean forward into the second act of my life, something of Ahab in my father’s way of thinking, and he often retold the story of the White Whale at bedtime, making the sounds of the wind and the sea and throwing his voice to the dark corners of the room, and he would bang on the wall to mark the restless, peg-leg pacing of Ahab on the midwatch decks of the Pequod. It was storytelling at its finest — both terrifying and sublime.
Another text, just in, from my own child: “So gross. I’m glad I’ve skinned a few animals before.” The motor in an autopsy saw is – in case you were wondering — the same motor that drives a malted milk mixer.
Last week a friend and neighbor hit a deer on the way to work. She was shaken by the incident because the victim was a yearling doe — from a herd of deer that frequent all of our properties and are often seen cruising the yards and sidewalks of Sisters town. We all know this gang of deer and see them about, crossing the road, or bedding down in the ponderosas outside our kitchen windows. What made the moment even tougher was that the rest of the herd had stopped on the other side of the fence, and were lingering there in the frosty dawn, looking back, waiting for their dead friend to join up and head off again into the fields. In the event I gave Judy a hug and eventually grabbed the little doe by her feet and dragged her off the road — in a perfectly crystallized moment familiar to readers of William Stafford:
Traveling through the dark I found a deerdead on the edge of the Wilson River road.It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the carand stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;she had stiffened already, almost cold.I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,alive, still, never to be born.Beside that mountain road I hesitated.The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;under the hood purred the steady engine.I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,then pushed her over the edge into the river.
The market crash this morning has real, and painful, consequences. It has exploded like a giant depth charge against the hull of my little submarine. Concurrent with a North Korean missile launch and a burgeoning fight between the Saudis and the Russians over oil production, this crash serves as an excellent reminder that we must maintenance our faith and choose our saviors carefully. And it’s also evidence that the new religions are as weak against the momentums of a virus, or fossil fuel extraction, or the yield curve, or solar flares, or Asian megalomaniac dictators, as any of the old ones.
In fact, the new religions are hardly different from the old religions at all – those of Odin and Zeus, of Huitzilopochtli and Mohammed and Christ. These newer faiths are dressed up for modernity, and they come promising the same visions of eternal salvation, of powering the sun through another eclipse, or of virgins in paradise in some distant future none of us will ever see. Carbon dispensations can be bought on the open market, and the same warnings of woe apply to apostates, unbelievers, or outright deniers. Because even if you believe nothing else, believe this: the Priestess Thurnberg of Sweden is no less devout than was the good Friar Savanarola of Spain, and would likewise burn both the vain and the vanities.
So I’m taking on water this morning, and sinking into the sandy bottoms off Gibraltar while the destroyers carve out a search pattern and ping my hull and drop their tons of ordinance in on top of me. But I’m also aware that no one on earth, not a single soul, is out there crying for the fortunes, won and lost, of merest Citizen Rullman.
We walk this earth ultimately alone although each of us seems to yearn for, on some scale, a last word or even a triumph, that grandest of all illusions of permanence, even when those fantastic parades can go awry. Caesar suffered embarrassment during his first triumph when the axle on his chariot broke and nearly spilled him into the street, and Pompey – who tried to have his chariot pulled by captured elephants – managed to wedge the elephants in the triumphal arch. Some 20 other elephants went rampaging around causing what Pliny described as “trouble in the crowd.” Pompey was stuck in the arch but no matter, a gigantic likeness – made from pearls seized from the treasury of Mithradates – marched ahead through the fawning crowds without him.
Not everyone was pleased with Pompeys pomp. Plutarch wrote, “He got a triumph before he grew a beard.” Which is something of the spirit of our own day, when we are routinely lectured and scolded by rap artists, known liars in the Senate, angry journalists, and teenaged climate crusaders on our various sins and follies.
I was burning slash piles Sunday, pumping carbon into the atmosphere like an absolute madman, and invited Jim Cornelius to come hang out and peer into the flames — because warriors and writers often do excellent thinking in front of fires. We talked about many of these issues – the new religions and the old, the roman carnival of our politics, and concluded that we don’t have many conclusions. We seem to have faith but its precise nature is elusive and mostly we agree that our system is attempting to do too many things at once. We are ungovernable at this scale, which is a fact we’d benefit from addressing — but we can’t, not really, because we are fundamentally dishonest with ourselves. We lie and call it the truth and that has become so routine nobody knows the difference anymore.
The kind of people who should win our elections cannot survive the process.
I am intrigued by the resurgent candidacy of John McAfee because he represents the perfect emblem of our age: a paranoid coprophiliac who made his fortune in tech and is now at sea and something of a monk in the temples of cryptocurrency. He is once again afloat on his yacht, surrounded by naked women and bags of cocaine and bouncing his signals through various VPNs to avoid capture and imprisonment by the empires who’ve banished him. He is, one thinks, a pirate tailor-made for the modern White House, where he might deputize his horse or mint a coin with a turd on one side and a Jolly Roger on the other.
What made our fireside chat enjoyable, for me, was in part that it was a kind of surfacing of subs in the North Atlantic. We came up from the deeps, flying high through the rolling black seas streaked with foam, howling into the wind, flashing semaphores and hoping to find some kindred Captain in all of that darkness and wind and weather.
Like those U‑boat commanders of yore we too are wolves hunting in a pack, but every wolf knows that in the end — no matter how long he lived as an alpha — he will some day struggle off to die alone. Caesar would finally triumph over Pompey, who was executed in the sands of Egypt, but Caesar would soon be assassinated at the feet of Pompey’s great statue in the Senate. Beware the Ides.
In the end this market too, will settle down. It will right itself and go bobbing along as the clouds break up and the wind dies off, and we can hope for all of that to pass before too many people jump over the side in panic. The virus too will rage and pass. The roads to Rome will reopen. The sun will set and rise again without the need for blood sacrifices. But it’s sometimes hard to remember these things when the elephants are stuck in the arch, when the mainmasts are snapped and the rudder is lost, and when the panic and hysteria are driven so relentlessly by so many in media who have never been told by an adult, not even once in their lives, to just sit down and shut the fuck up.
And elsewhere, because we truly die alone, the body on the coroner’s slab this morning was zipped open by an oscillating blade in the bowels of an antiseptic government building. Under a professional hush its brain was removed and weighed in a stainless steel pan, its liver exhumed and handled in the buzzing fluorescent light. And in the end its death was ruled to have come by natural causes — if such a thing even matters in a godless world. And this served too as a perfect description of the era, because while it was natural, the body nevertheless presented as badly battered and covered with defensive wounds — from ear to ear, and head to toe.