Open Eyes

I don’t get out much.  Even before the pandemic, being unable to walk and confined to a wheelchair since 2007 shrunk my world to my immediate surroundings.  I understand the massive feelings going around of “cabin fever” that are spreading in unison with the coronavirus, a sense that the world has shrunk.  But for me, that happened years ago.  And it took some getting used to, I won’t deny.  So in reality, I’ve taken “lockdowns” and restricted access to the community where I live in stride.

Billy Reed’s is a very unassuming coffee shop located about a block from me,
close enough that I can get there on my own on my motorized wheelchair

Not much has changed, for me; if I’m honest, the only thing I miss is my weekly Sunday evening trip to a local coffee shop for the best fried chicken dinner on the planet and their homemade “creamy house Italian” salad dressing with sun-dried tomatoes that is so good I would drink it from a glass if I didn’t think someone might call Adult Protective Services and have me put on a 72-hour 5150 psych evaluation hold in a padded room with no windows and a spiffy jacket with long sleeves that tie behind the back.  But alas, that restaurant is closed, indefinitely, and anyone leaving the grounds of the long-term care facility where I live (except staff, obviously, who rotate through on three, 8 hour shifts, providing 24/7 care to myself, 20 other gay men, 1 lesbian, 1 transgender woman, and 1 breeder) is subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine on their return.

Billy Reed's Fried Chicken Dinner

Billy Reed’s Honey Stung Chicken Dinner
w/baked potato (butter, sour cream, and chives), string beans, and cornbread

The most important item I own is my recliner, because from the moment I wake up in the morning until Jonathan the NOC (“nocturnal" or overnight staff) helps me into bed for sleep that is where you will find me.  I’m in it right now!  And for the first time in five years, I just got a new one.  Of course, cost is always a concern when you’re trying to budget long-term care, medical expenses, prescription drugs, and fried chicken dinners for the next thirty years without a job in light of my personal credo that one should live simply but not penitentially.  And I did get a good price, but my new recliner is, as they say, “fancy.”  First of all, it is powered — I can recline at the push of a button!  Actually, the push of two buttons!  An interesting feature of my new chair is that separate mechanisms raise the footrest and lower the back, so I can more or less “sculpt” the exact position I want to be in; for example, at the moment, I have the footrest raised parallel to the floor to create a suitable surface on my lap for my MacBook Pro (which came in second in the “what’s the most important thing you own?” sweepstakes), but the back perpendicular to the floor so I’m sitting upright to write this.  Later, I will lower the back to about a 30 degree angle to the floor so I can rest, and if I’m tired after doing my gardening, I’ll lower it even further allowing me to stretch out even more for a nap.

Dennis approved!  Dennis tries out the new recliner...
 I’m still getting used to the buttons, which are located just under the right armrest.  There are four.  My old recliner only had one. 

If all this sounds like much ado about nothing, let me get to my point, thoughtful reader.  There has been a lot of talk of how we are living in a “new normal,” but I think most commentators see this as passive:  something happened — 9/11, Trump’s vulgarity, COVID-19 — and we have no choice but to accept it and adapt.  But what if that’s wrong?  What if adapting to our circumstances is the active pursuit of happiness and contentment?

I am currently re-reading Alain de Botton’s analysis of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.  de Botton is an eminent Swiss-born English philosopher who sees philosophy (and literature, and art) as a practical guide to life, not just an academic or aesthetic pursuit.  One of my favorite of his books (among many) is How to Think More about Sex, which I mention here to demonstrate that he is not some ivory tower egghead.  In his book on Proust, I came upon this life-changing passage:

Proust once wrote an essay in which he set out to restore a smile to the face of a gloomy, envious, and dissatisfied young man. He pictured this young man sitting at table after lunch one day in his parents’ flat, gazing dejectedly at his surroundings: at a knife left lying on the tablecloth, at the remains of an underdone, rather tasteless cutlet, and at a half-turned-back tablecloth. He could see his mother at the far end of the dining room doing her knitting, and the family cat curled up on top of a cupboard next to a bottle of brandy being reserved for a special occasion. The mundanity of the scene would contrast with the young man’s taste for beautiful and costly things, which he lacked the money to acquire. Proust imagined the revulsion the young aesthete would feel at this bourgeois interior, and how he would compare it with the splendors he had seen in museums and cathedrals. He would envy those bankers who had enough money to decorate their houses properly, so that everything in them was beautiful, was a work of art, right down to the coal tongs in the fireplace and the knobs on the doors.

To escape his domestic gloom, if he couldn’t catch the next train to Holland or Italy, the young man might leave the flat and go to the Louvre, where at least he could feast his eyes on splendid things, grand palaces painted by Veronese, harbor scenes by Claude, and princely lives by Van Dyck.

Touched by his fate, Proust proposed to make a radical change in the young man’s life by way of a modest alteration to his museum itinerary. Rather than let him hurry to galleries hung with paintings by Claude and Veronese, Proust offered to lead him to a quite different part of the museum, to those galleries hung with the works of Jean-Baptiste Chardin.

It might have seemed an odd choice, for Chardin hadn’t painted many harbors, or princes, or indeed palaces. He liked to depict bowls of fruit, jugs, coffeepots, loaves of bread, knives, glasses of wine, and slabs of meat. He liked painting kitchen utensils, not just pretty chocolate jars but saltcellars and strainers. When it came to people, Chardin’s figures were rarely doing anything heroic: one was reading a book, another was building a house of cards, a woman had just come home from the market with a couple of loaves of bread, and a mother was showing her daughter some mistakes she had made in her needlework.

Yet, in spite of the ordinary nature of their subjects, Chardin’s paintings succeeded in being extraordinarily beguiling and evocative. A peach by him was as pink and chubby as a cherubim; a plate of oysters or a slice of lemon were tempting symbols of gluttony and sensuality. A skate, slit open and hanging from a hook, evoked the sea of which it had been a fearsome denizen in its lifetime. Its insides, colored with deep red blood, blue nerves, and white muscles, were like the naves of a polychrome cathedral. There was a harmony, too, between objects: in one canvas, almost a friendship between the reddish colors of a hearthrug, a needle box, and a skein of wool. These paintings were windows onto a world at once recognizably our own, yet uncommonly, wonderfully tempting. After an encounter with Chardin, Proust had high hopes for the spiritual transformation of his sad young man.

Why...? Because Chardin had shown him that the kind of environment in which he lived could, for a fraction of the cost, have many of the charms he had previously associated only with palaces and the princely life. No longer would he feel painfully excluded from the aesthetic realm, no longer would he be so envious of smart bankers with gold-plated coal tongs and diamond-studded door handles. He would learn that metal and earthenware could also be enchanting, and common crockery as beautiful as precious stones. After he had looked at Chardin’s work, even the humblest rooms in his parents’ flat would have the power to delight him.

Proust’s message was that if we can open our eyes to the beauty and wonder in front of us, rather than longing for some ideal, we will not only be satisfied with our lives, but we will live well.  Applied to the situation we find ourselves in today because of the pandemic, instead of bemoaning restricted movement and the loss of scrumptious chicken dinners, might we instead rejoice that we’re not confined to a hospital bed on a ventilator being fed intravenously?  Some might call this perspective.  Others might call it wanting what you’ve got instead of getting what you want.  I call it the only way I’ve found meaning and happiness in a life turned upside down by illness and progressive disability.

Those of you who knew me during my seventeen-year career in the entertainment industry know that my weakness was cars.  I got a new one every year.  It was silly and wasteful, I know, but as vices go still better than drugs, or golf.  Two days before I took my last step, I had just purchased a new car; I only ever drove it twice.

And now I’m so excited about a new piece of furniture I skipped breakfast this morning to tell you about it!  I could wallow in self-pity and catalogue all the things I don’t have or can’t do now, but when I survey my apartment and my garden, when I realize that against incredibly long odds I am still on this side of the grave, when I scratch my dog's belly and see him looking at me that way he does, and each time I fill my lungs with air, I realize I’m happier now than I ever was.  My world got smaller, I have less, but that is only negative if I shut my eyes.

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