I love to speculate about things I wonder about. I also love to wonder about things I speculate about. The two things are different, sharing some similarities, but ultimately the roots of wonder run much deeper than speculation. I have a penchant for speculation as all humans do when we don’t have all the facts, but the wonderful mental state of wondering comes from wonder, itself. Inspiration is the root of wonder. Speculation falls far short. Speculation leads to reckoning, and I love the Southern expression, “I reckon . . .” When I was younger and my skin was thinner, it used to bother me when one of my own sophisticated small-town Mississippi friends would point their finger and laugh when I used it. Now I never speculate about their motivations for that, but I often wonder about it. I wonder why my skin was so thin. I wonder why it bothered me. I wonder why anyone might think “I reckon” is not a perfectly colorful and excellent use of the English language. I don’t speculate about it any longer because I reckon my wondering about it has brought me a more satisfying answer, since wondering leads us to an internal investigation. Speculation is always about external things. If we speculate or wonder long enough, I reckon we’ll eventually come to a reckoning.
I have always been an avid reader and I never wasted much time on trash after I learned that the reason your literature teachers in school made you read those books was not some sort of punishment . . . they were good books. Before I learned that, I speculated on the motivations of those teachers. Then I wondered at my own reaction to those books. Then I reckoned that those were good books, worthy of a second, third, or lifetime of reading.
In all that reading, I have been slow to embrace fellow Mississippian William Faulkner, who has always been a hard read for me, though the world readily embraced him a long time ago. His having been embraced by the world does not make him any easier to read, but it makes me keep trying, with occasional successes. Having been slow on the uptake of Faulkner does not bother him, ’cause Faulkner is never in a hurry anyway. He takes his time, meandering through the most vivid scenery, describing the slowness of the pace of life in his Yoknapatawpa South with a version of slowness the number of printed words reveal in a way the descriptive nature of the words cannot solely achieve. I wonder about that. A Faulkner story was meant for a front porch in the pre-TV days. The pre-24/7 news cycle days. The days when people talked to each other for entertainment. I wonder if we think ourselves more refined because of the plethora of entertaining diversions we have nowadays. I wonder if they are better. I wonder if our imaginations have suffered. I wonder why our modern language has been reduced and condensed so that a few four-letter words with the occasional suffix thrown-in are all we need in the way of adjectives, adverbs, and nouns to describe nearly everything about our lives and each other: the exciting, the exhilarating, even the mundane.
Until last Thursday, I never had the opportunity to read a Faulkner novel that I could not easily put down. I was out mowing the grass on that hot Thursday afternoon, carefully and prayerfully negotiating the mower along the edge of the pond dam, the ground soft with recent rains dumped by Tropical Storm Isaac, in a place where the slightest miscalculation could result in me and the mower sliding off the dam’s edge and into the deepest part of the tepid, still pond water, perhaps filled with the dangerous naegleria fowleri amoeba, possibly resulting in all sorts of personal and mechanical tragedies to me and the mower, if not my death by drowning then certainly my death by the evil designs of certain nefarious members of the kingdom Protista, and most certainly the death and later resurrection of the mower even if my own death and resurrection were accomplished, which I earnestly hoped to avoid, when my cell phone rang. Of course, I could not hear it over the sound of the mower, but I could feel it vibrating in my sweat-soaked shirt pocket.
I seldom answer the phone when I am in the middle of a task requiring concentration, but for some reason I shut off the mower, reached for my phone and answered it. It was the sleep clinic at the hospital in Meridian. “Mr. Sharp,” said the lady on the other end of the wireless connection, “We have had a cancellation at the sleep clinic tonight, and we were wondering if you might be able to come in tonight rather than next week for your sleep study.” I thought about this for a few seconds. It did not require much of me . . . I would just go to the hospital and go to sleep, and I could get this over with now rather than later. There was no need to procrastinate since all I had to do was sleep, or rather try to sleep, which was the reason for this long-overdue follow-up to the first sleep study I had done twelve years ago. Dr. Mainmost had been trying to get me to take another one for years, and I kept pooh-poohing the idea. But after a recent spate of bone-wearying, mind-numbing sleep troubles I decided he was right, thus the sleep-clinic appointment.
“What time should I be there?” I asked.
“Oh! Wonderful! Be here at 7:30 this evening, and wear something comfortable to sleep in. And no more caffeine from this point until in the morning.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I lied, the lie rolling off my tongue as easily as the “Yes ma’am,” then ended the call, putting the wet phone back into the sweat-soaked shirt pocket. I was shocked at the ease with which I lied. I did not speculate about this, since this was an internal reflection; instead, I wondered about it. I wondered about it some more. I am still wondering about it. I am not dissatisfied with the lie, which leads me to additional wonder. I wondered about it all the way down the dam of the pond, simultaneously wondering if n. fowleri was lurking in its depths, or speculating if it chose the warm surface water to the cooler water at the pond’s bottom, and wondering how the result of a moment’s indiscretion, an errant movement of the joy-sticks that steered the mower, might compel me to wondering how long I might be able to hold my breath as I lay pinned beneath the mower in the deepest part of the pond, and should I survive, how many n. fowleri were likely to make a new home in my nasal passages until they traveled straight into my brain. I then decided I should concentrate on what I was doing and leave wonder and speculation behind for the time being. Since I cut the grass at the dam’s edge without incident, I reckon I made the right decision. I could still hear my old friends laughing at me about the use of the expression. Now I just laughed back at them. I wonder why I didn’t before.
After finishing mowing, I was covered with dust, grass seeds, bits of chopped-up grass, sweat, and several varieties of bugs that had sought to escape the whirling blades of the mower, and I suppose they reckoned the safest place for them to be was hitch-hiking on me since I offered them the surest respite from being run-over. After stowing the mower, I walked up to the house feeling every pulse-beat in my overheated head, shook the dust off my feet and the rest of my body at the door as best I could, and headed straight for the shower, setting the water to just a bit shy of warm, almost cool, wondering if n. fowleri was making a home in my hot-water pipes as it has been known to do in some places. I reckoned not, but couldn’t be sure, which is why one reckons to begin with. I wondered at the steady stream of dark water rolling off me as the shower water rinsed off all the dirt and debris from the mower that had clung to my sweated body, tried counting the number of bugs, but, perhaps thankfully, not wearing my glasses am sure that I could not see more than a third of them, at least none smaller than a pine beetle or a katydid. These would not go down the drain. I reckoned that I should remember to put on my glasses and look in the shower to get them out after I was done. My Debbie does not like bugs in the shower and would remind me, harshly. I can’t say as I blame her much.
I told my Debbie of the phone call and the change in my sleep study scheduling, packed my overnight bag, kissed her bye, then got in my pickup to head to town. One of the last things before I went out the door was to search for a book. I looked over several, perusing the titles, thinking of this, speculating about that, wondering about this, rejecting many tempting ones in favor of one that was not so tempting . . . one that was more likely to put me to sleep than to get me enthralled, thus be kept awake longer than would be good for my sleep study.
Peering back at me from one of the bookshelves were several Faulkner novels I have never read. I looked at them closely, and rejected them all out of hand. I turned to another shelf and restarted my title perusal, spying this one and then that one, reaching for a Will Durant book from his series “The Story of Civilization” but knew better, putting the 1,200 plus page Caesar and Christ back on the shelf. That would have been likely to keep me awake all night. Faulkner kept calling my name. I wondered about it, turned around and reached up and grabbed one, pulling down The Unvanquished. Nothing was more likely to put me to sleep than Faulkner, who takes his own sweet time to tell a story . . . any story . . . every story; even those stories filled sweeping, dramatic action occur at the pace of an approaching danger on a riverboat.
“He’s going way too fast to try to make this landing,” said the deckhand to me, the deck-mate. After about five to eight minutes of careful consideration of our displacement, the river current, the wind, our speed, and our current rate of deceleration, I decided the deckhand was right.
“Yep,” I said. Five more minutes later, after calculating that we would still be making about the same three to four knots when we arrived at the landing, I added, “We ain’t gonna make it without tearing something up.”
Ten minutes later the deckhand said, “Yep.”
Trying to quickly (or slowly) stop a four-thousand ton mass that is moving at three knots can be awfully difficult, and not without danger to life, limb, and property. If you have never speculated about it, you might give it some consideration. I no longer speculate about it since I am armed with the facts, though I still wonder about the pilot who insists on trying it, and wonder how it is that that he thinks the laws of physics don’t apply to him or the vessel he is piloting. Eight more minutes having passed, I threw the rope at the bit on the dock catching it the first throw, and wrapped a couple of coils around the bit on the barge so that the three-inch rope would slip rather than simply break. The rope tightened until the frequency of its groaning reached four hundred-forty hertz. I can pick out that “A” note at its first herald. The rope groaned with every hard slip around the bit. “Thump. Ak-ak-ak-ak. Thump.” The boat shuddered, but had not slowed more than a knot or so. After about two minutes of this, I was literally at the end of my rope. There was no more letting the rope slip, there was only letting it go, since to hold on for the next slip would bring my fingers right into the knot and the rope and boat would never notice what was once my hand as it went through the slip knot. So, I let the rope go. I looked back toward the wheelhouse and simultaneously the pilot and me threw our hands up in the airIf I could have seen his lips from six hundred feet away, I’m sure I could have read them, but that was not necessary since I did not really have to speculate about what those words might be. I thought a few of those words myself but did not say them out loud.
Still moving, with the bow of the barge now pulled towards the wharf, the boat encountered the first large creosote piling which shuddered, creaked, groaned, whined, and then snapped like a number two pencil. About a minute later, it encountered the second one, which shuddered, creaked, groaned, whined, and then snapped like a number two pencil. This repeated itself for about ten minutes and ten pilings, with me and the deckhand backing up as the nose of the barge when through them and further and further underneath the wharf, at which some point, with nothing being left underneath to support what was on top, must at least partially come crashing down to the deck on the barge.
“Want me to go back and get another rope,” the deckhand asked me, both of us retreating to a safe distance.
“Yes, but there’s no hurry. There’ll be nothing left here to tie her to,” I replied.
Eventually, the boat stopped just short of the pilings underneath a dragline perched atop the wharf, which would surely have come crashing down, boom and all, causing who knows what kind of havoc. I could no longer see the top of the wharf, being too close to it, but ten feet up there I’m sure that it was as deserted as a bad Chinese buffet on a Monday night, anyone formerly there by now having scurried to safety at the first shudder and sound of a piling’s crack.
The diversion above was just to show you how long it takes for action to occur in a Faulkner novel. If you get used to the slow pace it is still exciting, just like the towboat crashing into the wharf, but it takes a while to get there and the getting there is sometimes through something akin to thick creosoted-hardwood pilings, but the mass will eventually move through and then you have had the entire story; no more speculation is required. If you want action, and action in a hurry, try a Tom Clancy novel. If you want action at a more Southerly latitude, try William Faulkner; he could either enthrall you or put you to sleep. I figured he’d most likely put me to sleep, so I tucked The Unvanquished under my arm and headed out the door.
I arrived at the hospital, answered ten thousand questions for which they already had all the answers as once again they set up an entirely new account for me, as if I had never been there before. I challenged the young lady typing away at the computer screen. “You already have all this information in your system,” I said.
“Oh! Have you been here before?” she asked.
“Dozens of times,” was my reply.
“Hmmmmm!,” she said, doubtfully. “No, there is no record of you having been here.”
This filled me with indignant wonder. “That is not true. There are lots of records. You just asked me for my social security number. Why wouldn’t that, straightforward and simply, pull up my account?”
She tried that and up popped all the many and several of my various accounts. “Well, it seems you HAVE been here before,” she said, as if I must have been mistaken when I told her so before, but was now satisfied since she had independent confirmation of what I already knew. I was born in that same hospital fifty-five years ago, but not having a social security number at the time, I’m sure her records did not go back that far. She had no clue and wanted to tell her, “Young Missy, I’ve been coming to this hospital since before you were born! I was born here. I’ve had children born here. I’ve had parts and pieces removed here, and others put back in order. I’ve had deadly poisons delivered to me here and those poisons were the only thing between me and death. I am single-handedly responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars or revenue for this hospital,” but restraining the impulse, I did not. “Just use one of those existing accounts,” I simply said, “Any one of them.”
“I can’t,” she no doubt lied. “I have to register you under the name they have on the doctor’s orders.” I’m sure she lied because she had already started a new account and did not want to abort it. So now they have me under various names: John Sharp, John C. Sharp, J. Christopher Sharp, J.C. Sharp, Christopher J. Sharp, John Christopher Sharp, and now, finally, just plain-old Chris Sharp. The bookkeeping alone on so many separate accounts must cost a fortune. I wonder why, since they put in one’s social security number, one’s sole account does not just pop up on the screen. Apparently, it is easier to for the clerical staff to start a new account than to edit an existing one. Why clerks get to make these decisions is beyond me! I can speculate about it, but really, the whole process fills me with wonder at the tedious inefficiency of our entire medical system. I also wonder why I am required by law to show a photo ID to receive medical treatment but I don’t have to show one at the polls to vote. Why it is discriminatory for voting precincts to require the same government-issued photo ID that a disabled, ailing, elderly matron seeking medical treatment under Medicare or Medicaid is required to present before that treatment can be legally provided is a wonder of bureaucratic lunacy to me. Some say that having this view makes me a racist. My speculation leads me to declare that those who hold this view about me are themselves bigots. I reckon they are. I reckon the whole inconsistency of this is a source of wonder. I wonder how they define the word racist. I wonder how they define the word bigot. I might see how they exclude themselves from the former, but they surely don’t know the definition of the latter. I think that we are all capable of being either or both. I wonder about that. I wonder if anyone else wonders about it, too.
I show the young lady my photo ID when asked. She looks at it carefully, and I think she starts to mention that the name on the ID and the name she has just started registering me under are not the same; but I am speculating. Anyway, she looks at me, opens her mouth as if to speak, and I give her a look that says, “Don’t you dare!” She knew then that I would make her use the account that matched the name on my ID if she brought that up. She would rather have the wrath of the Department of Health and Human Services on her than to start over and abort an new account set-up menu, or at least, so I am speculating. But I reckon my speculations are not far from the truth. I wonder about that. At any rate, her supervisor would no doubt discover an aborted account set up far sooner than an auditor from the Department of Health and Human Services would notice an ID/Account Name Entry mismatch, choosing instead to look at the Social Security Number, which was my point to begin with. But again, I am speculating. I laugh at myself and wonder about that.
After getting checked-in and insurance verified, I am presented the guarantor-sign-and-promise-to-pay which everyone signs but precious few actually pay more than what their insurance pays anyway, except me, according to my hospital and physician friends. The guarantor form I sign says “Page seven of seven”, but I was only presented with the one sheet. “Where are pages one through six?” I ask the clerk, who adopts a completely blank look, then begins to squirm in her chair at this question.
“I don’t have them. I just have the form you are supposed to sign,” she says, a bit red in the face. I signed my name and scratched out the “Page seven of seven” and initialed and dated the edit.
“You’re not supposed to make any changes to the paper,” she said.
“Produce pages one through six, then, and let me read them. I can’t sign something that stipulates my agreement to pages you can’t furnish for me to read.”
She appeared to mull this over for a moment, not quite knowing what to do. I am much more than speculating about this, because I do this every time I go in there for any reason, even if it is just a simple x-ray. It looks like they would discuss this at one of their staff meetings, and at least keep a copy for folks to read when they reasonably ask to do so. I reckon they look at my account when this comes up and see that I actually pay, and decide not to rock the boat, since, no doubt, most people sign the form without ever reading it. I wonder about people who sign documents without reading them. I wonder why legal language intimidates them into doing so. I wonder why it is that the same language to which they were born is incomprehensible to them when it is honed to be extremely explicit in meaning. I wonder if people sign mortgages they don’t read, and if they do, why they sign them with horrific terms. I reckon they just want the money today: never mind what it costs tomorrow.
I wonder at the strange times we live in. I wonder at them, again. I also wonder at the fact that, after being all hooked up to the various sensors, looking reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man with all the wires hanging from the dozens of electrodes taped and glued to my body by the most helpful and kind Respiratory Somnologist Technician Lexa, that I got in the bed planning to read about two pages of The Unvanquished before falling asleep, and then found myself so engrossed in a book I simply could not put it down. This was a new thing, and a source of wonder to me. I finally decided that I must go to sleep, so I put the book away, turned out the light, and drifted off into dreamy descriptions of Southern landscapes and personalities that were simultaneously familiar and strange. I slept in Faulkneresque dreams for about twenty minutes before my legs went haywire with the Primary Restless Legs Syndrome that was causing me so much trouble sleeping, which had gotten significantly, even malevolently, worse since taking chemotherapy for my leukemia. I wonder why those neurons in my brain keep firing when I try to rest. I wonder about the misery they cause me, but I am glad I am in the place where they can record this and how it affects me. I can only speculate about what Dr. Mainmost can DO about it, since I have been through nearly every medicine made for its control.
After about twenty more minutes of this, Respiratory Somnologist Technician Lexa called to me over the intercom, since, even though I was laying there with my eyes closed, to all outward appearances asleep, she, watching the computer monitor and the brain waves fed to the the computer through the electrodes knew that I was wide awake, asked, “Mr. Sharp, do you need to get up?”
“Thank goodness!! Yes! I can’t stay here another minute,” I sighed.
“I’ll be right in to help you,” she said, after which the intercom gave an immediate click. I speculated that this is how Big Brother will watch us one day, with the Thought-Police monitoring every errant thought, even our dreams. I wondered about this as Respiratory Somnologist Technician Lexa worked her way towards my room. “You, there, 687315 Sharp, John C., stop fidgeting about and go to sleep,” Respiratory Somnologist Technician Lexa could have just as easily ordered through the equivalent of Orwell’s Telescreen.
Respiratory Somnologist Technician Lexa helped me out of the bed so I would not sunder the tangle of wires she had so carefully put into place, and then went and fetched me a bottle of water and some graham crackers. I took the second portion of a secondary medicine I take for the restless legs when the primary medicine does not work well, picked up The Unvanquished, and started to read again. I read on for about an hour and a half, which is far longer than I have ever been able to read Faulkner at one sitting, then finally started getting sleepy again. Respiratory Somnologist Technician Lexa could see me yawning through the video camera in the room. “Mr. Sharp,” she asked through the intercom, “Are you getting sleepy again?” I answered yes. She came in and helped me back into the bed, and I drifted off into a real sleep then. Actually, I slept better the rest of the night that I wished I had, because the test might be misleading to Dr. Mainmost . . . but I would speculate not. I’m sure it will reveal that the firing neurons were still causing me some trouble . . . though I do remember dreaming, which meant I was getting some REM sleep. I was dreaming of the smell of horse sweat, bridles, tack, and the smell of gunpowder, and nefarious people, and how I’d never trust anyone named Snopes. I was seeing my own grandmother in her loving stern-ness, and remembering the taste of Octagon soap she made me put in my own mouth after having used words within earshot that she did not think a young-un should be using. With my grandmother, those words did not have to be very far out of line since an errant dang, darn, durn, or gosh would get you at least a quarter of a bar, well chewed, and well swished in a mouth that was getting cleaner by the second. I wonder if someone, nowadays, would call child protective services after observing a good soap/mouth washing. I see kids all the time I think could benefit from one. The language we have chosen for ourselves as a nation is a source of wonder for me . . . but I already said that. I wonder when something becomes important enough that redundancy is allowable. When we learn something by rote, aren’t we using redundancy as the method of learning? Sometimes I am redundant intentionally and on purpose. Sometimes I am guilty of multiple redundancies, much like the hospital accounts. I am filled with wonder over the connection between myself and the clerk at the computer screen, so filled with wonder, I laugh out loud at myself. Maybe I laughed in my sleep, and if not out loud then internally, where only the electrodes attached to my head could pick it up. I wondered if the electrodes can record an internal, sleeping laugh. I reckon so, but I am speculating.
Out of the many stories in The Unvanquished, some delightfully funny, others poignantly indicative of the failure of men to be what it is that they WOULD be, I gleaned this jewel that is worthy of further consideration. Thanks, William Faulkner, for this. As I have gotten older, I have come to realize, most of the time, that life is simpler if men will just learn to do what the women tell them to do. Within reason of course . . . But, men are men, and men do what men do.
In the novel, Bayard Sartoris said this:
…maybe times are never strange to women: that it is just one continuous monotonous thing full of the repeated follies of their menfolks.
I started writing in speculative wonder about the import of this. I started out to write ABOUT it, but I have failed, today, to do so. Like William Faulkner, I will take my sweet time about it, and will take up the philosophy of the subject another day, but soon. I will not be rushed in my contemplation of this, since it most likely a lifetime’s worth.
Women certainly see things differently than men. Beyond that, I would be speculating about what women think; and I will do so at another time, bravely, perhaps with a foolhardiness that is inappropriate. Perhaps, recklessly. I certainly am continuing to wonder about it. I reckon I am not the first, nor alone in my reckoning.