I had an argument with the rain this morning. I didn’t raise my voice. I didn’t say anything out loud. I didn’t get wet.
I sat in my kitchen safely dry and warm, with my breakfast and a newspaper before me on a small table. I looked up from the newspaper and noticed droplets clinging to the kitchen windows.
I confess I have learned not to pick fights with that combination of forces and phenomenon called Nature. It’s not just that Nature always wins (even if we see vast areas of the world changing because of human habitation). It’s more that, after a while, I feel foolish having directed my animosity at a target that so rapidly alters its shape and character that I can’t help but give in.
Consider the act of shoveling snow. I used to do this with gusto, rushing out after the last flakes fell, brandishing my overpriced shovel (bought at the last minute, like those umbrellas so carefully positioned near the front door of convenience stores as dark clouds gather) like Neptune’s Trident. I confronted the suddenly quiet, smoothly white topology. I felt the cold touching the kin on my wrists and ankles that wasn’t quite insulated by my winter gear. The insufficiency of my clothing led me to contemplate my dumbed down version of Bertrand Russell’s paradox: what is greater, the set of all things, or the set of all things that are not quite?
Then I put the shovel’s blade into freshly fallen powder, and with a scraping sound loud enough to alert that neighborhood, I pushed back against the snow drift’s gentle curl to restore freedom of movement to a three-by-fifteen food stretch of concrete between the brutally plowed street (and the wall of packed snow at the bottom of the driveway) and the respectable Williamsburg colonial brick facade of my home-sweet-home.
I paused occasionally to change my stance and my grip so as not to stress one hip more than the other. I gazed at the warm glow from the windows of other houses. Behind the curtains I saw the blue flicker of a widescreen television. Why was I alone in the not-so-great outdoors? Shoveling snow was a civic duty! You can’t shirk it, you can’t ignore it, even if you’re watching a sports game, quaffing microbrews, gobbling microwaved leftovers, dribbling special sauce on your pajamas!
With heroic scrapes, hoists and dumps I pushed forward, slowly and steadily revealing the buried truth of the sidewalk. When I finished, I exulted in my aching back and hips and thrust the the blade of the shovel into a mound of snow. I felt eminently superior to those who had tossed table salt from the front doors. I imagined myself back in my house, where I’d peer through the window and look down on those who only removed a shovel-blade’s with, reducing the sidewalk to a narrow chasm passable only for knock-kneed squirrels.
But before I could march back in, the winter sky grew murky again as a new flurry swirled down from above. In less than an hour, the sidewalk was once more concealed beneath a flowing, frosted landscape.
Nature wins. The joke is on me. In the cosmic game of Tag, I’m “it.”
Having had two heart attacks (neither while doing anything physical), I am forbidden from shoveling snow. I must wait for the neighbor’s kid, or entrust the task to strange beings from other worlds who bang on my front door and demand scandalously high fees.
And I wonder, was it Nature that blessed my parents and me with a genetic predisposition to heart disease? Or was it all that cheese I ate when I assumed avoiding meat would keep me healthy?
Where did I end, and Nature begin? Where is the line with a failed Sierra Club type on one side (a bad experience on a Boy Scout and horrible Delaware River canoe trip have soured me forever on camping) and, on the other, the guy on the couch watching PBS nature programs while eating industrially derived, bargain-priced solids and liquids whose only purpose is to make me consume until I can’t consume anymore?
I asked that question this morning as I noticed the rain on the window. The droplets had arrayed themselves in rows and columns that were not quite uniform (Russell’s paradox again!). They reminded me of the spangled glimmer of sunlight on open water when a breeze ruffles the surface. The light from the droplets was not only fascinating to see but reminiscent of the blinking electro-zits on the front of old science fiction computers. The lights signified that something profound was happening inside the machine.
I see the same blinking diodes on the gadgets our cable company has rented to me. These devices are gatekeepers to the Internet. They flicker at rates that appear to be not quite random, but not enough to form a recognizable rhythm.
What else, I asked myself, does that? What else appears to the uninitiated as markings that don’t quite resemble a recognizable image?
Bertrand Russell’s paradox revised: what’s more important, the things in our lives that are what they appear to be, that function sufficiently so we can experience life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; or the things that are not quite, that draw our attention because they don’t fit our expectations, that interrupt our routines for reasons we cannot explain, that are extraneous, or annoying, or upsetting, or embody something that has to be trimmed, shoveled, pruned, clipped, painted over, removed, swept under the rug?
Or, to make things even more interesting, what shows us more about what the real world? The things that are what they appear to be, or the things that are a little bit something else?
My eyes went back to my newspaper, with its headlines and photos illustrating the latest outrage in our nation’s capital. I don’t read newspapers to put myself in a rage about people and institutions that are wealthier and more powerful than I. Nor do I want to pity, or feel pathos, for those who are victims of those same people and institutions, or had the bad luck to be in their way. As a former journalist, I read three daily newspapers because I enjoy finding things out about my neighborhood, my town, my region, my nation and the world, generally and specifically. A newspaper (or, as the pundits prefer, The Media) is not a substitute for experiencing reality directly, but it can give you a sense of what’s going on here and there. I’m addicted to that buzz I get from finding things out that are interesting, exciting or merely cool. The buzz is similar to the feeling I get when I hike a trail up the side of a mountain, and then turn around and catch the view through a break in the trees.
Similar, but not quite.
So I sat in a chair and looked at the black and white markings on the newspaper’s page, not as letters that form words that form sentences that clump up into paragraphs that should flow together sufficiently so you open the newspaper and see a few advertisements that pay for most of it. Most, but not all.
No, I looked at the black and white markings as areas of light and dark, similar to the way the light played among the droplets on my kitchen window. I thought of those poems I’d read in high school and college about gravestones in churchyards, a Grecian urn, the landscape of Britain’s Lake District, moonlight on the water, a frog motionless on a lily pad and then a watersplash!
I asked the rain (silently, of course–I didn’t want my dog assuming I was nuts, though I suspect my dog already thinks this and is just being polite when I insist on picking up her poo with a plastic newspaper wrapper and then deposit the contents in dedicated receptacles that appear like punctuation marks along our town’s sidewalks and bike trails)if it was trying to tell me something, if it was offering information, if it was about to help me discover what was not on the thin, broad, dry pages of a newspaper.
The rains aid nothing and I went back to the newspaper for about thirty seconds. I saw black and white, light and dark, patterns that almost cohered.
No, I wasn’t having a stroke or a cognitive difficulty. I was slightly caffeinated. I had ingested anything alcoholic or hallucinogenic. I was just looking at my newspaper as something that wasn’t quite what it was.
That’s when I had my argument with the rain. Was it possible, as some Zen people claim (not to mention the 19th Century Romantics, cf. John Keats and his urn: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”), that all information we truly need is contained in what we may perceive from nature? Thomas Hobbes imagined at an idealized “state of nature” and determined it was filled infamously with “continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” He experienced the English Civil War, which wasn’t quite short enough. Jean-Jacques Rousseau came later and famously disagreed with him, insisting that people would get along just fine if government and organized religion left them alone. In high school I learned that the U.S. Constitution is based on the ideas of Hobbes and Rousseau, and this other guy named John Locke, who felt that people have a contract with their government, and the government had better not let the people down.
I demanded (silently, of course) what the rain might teach me that I didn’t get in high school, college and all the years up to know. If there was something it could tell me that was better than what was in the newspaper, would it please tell me now?
I waited. The rain had stopped. The dog wanted to go outside. The vibration from the kitchen door opening and closing shook most of the droplets off the window.
Most, but not all.