Friday, January 2, 2009

I am not a time lord

When I talked to J. on the phone, I attributed his raspy voice and half-coughs to the dust he must have kicked up while he's been cleaning his apartment. Wrong again. It seems he has a half cold—the condition that feels like the beginnings of a cold but that never quite advances to full-fledged, stuffed-up misery. Now I've started sneezing and feeling that tell-tale tingling in the sinuses—a happy way to start the year. I'll keep reminding myself that calendars and dates are human fabrications.

J. met me at Bonjour New Year's eve, ordered sandwiches and treats to go, then trotted off to Homemade Pizza for a menu, trotted back to discuss, then trotted back to order a large spinach pie and cookie. I stood corrected. Their pizzas are not frozen or ready made. When I joined him after he'd returned to check on our order, there were a half dozen people watching as three employees scrambled to put all their orders together, from rolling out the crust to sprinkling on the spices. We had not been the only ones to think of pizza at home for New Year's eve dinner.

After a detour to Treasure Island and Walgreens, we came here to confront the question of what to do with ourselves. I picked an uplifting movie on demand, Journey Into Fear (Orson Welles), then puttered around so much with tea, pizza, cookie, sparkling cider, wine, and coffee that I missed most of it. Why it doesn't occur to me to relinquish control of the remote I will never understand.

For the big moment, the two primary choices seemed to be a party at a casino in Hammond, Indiana, with an awful band, or the scene at Times Square. Times Square it was, then. Ten seconds before the ball dropped, suddenly I recalled the bag of noisemakers and toys in my closet, where they remained. With that kind of lapse in my cognitive ability, I don't think I'm ready to return to work.

At least I thought (after I heard them) to look for the fireworks at Navy Pier. They remind me of a Fourth of July party I went to many years ago in Washington, D.C., hosted by a friend of my aunt's. A retired government accountant, the friend lived in a comfortable condo on a hill overlooking the capital's big fireworks display. It was an amazing opportunity and a tantalizing taste of the gregarious urban life I'm too reclusive and too foreign to Chicago to experience every day for myself. As the youngest person with only one connection present (my aunt), I also felt strange and more out of place than usual, but not unwelcome.

On New Year's morn, while most people were recovering from hangovers or rolling in from the night's festivities (debauch), we took it into our heads, around 9:00 a.m., to put together a magazine rack I'd received a few months ago as a birthday gift. J. wanted to do it for me, but—I'm not proud of this—I couldn't just let him. After a little warm discussion about which side out and which side up, we got the rack together and forgave each other's impatience.

I puttered around some more—I've developed an incapacitating inability to get up and go in the morning—and started a Silly String fight, then we took off for Mellow Yellow a little before noon. We've gone there before on New Year's day and found it comfortably busy but uncrowded. This day, however, it was jammed. And jamming with the sounds of a excellent jazz quartet. We enjoyed them, and the little girl next to J. whose crayons kept flying at him somehow. When she rejected her French toast out of hand and it ended up next to me, I said, "Oh, is that for me?" Her dad sighed. "At least someone would eat it."

We stopped at Borders for coffee and found that, as is not unusual there, timed chess games had broken out. This gave J. not only an opportunity to watch something that he enjoys (compared to, say, Journey Into Fear), but the chance to comment to on the style of play of each participant. Who doesn't like to be the expert?

When we returned, I landed on "Unforgettable Elephants," a Nature episode featuring the work of Martyn Colbeck. I can't explain why, but I've gotten away from watching the type of wildlife programs that my parents and I used to love. It's unfortunate because this one was amazing. Spoilers follow.
  • Echo, the matriarch of a family in Ambolesi, gave birth to a calf who couldn't straighten his front legs to stand. I didn't think I could watch this, as I thought I could guess the outcome. At some point, Echo's daughter, the calf's aunt, was clearly torn between helping with the calf and joining the rest of the family to head for food and water. When the calf issued a distress cry, the wavering aunt thundered back to him at a run. By day 2, he was sunburnt and dehydrated and was gamely trying to walk on his bent knees, risking injury, infection, and a painful death. On day 3, Colbeck was there to record an inspiring moment—the calf straightened his front legs and began to walk normally. Apparently he's been too large for Echo's womb and unable to straight or stretch his legs. By somehow surviving his first couple of days, with the encouragement of his mother, aunt, and family, he was able to resolve the problem. Years later, he was left behind by Echo's family to fend for himself, as is the fate of young elephant bulls. It was an incredible survival story.

  • Another elephant gave birth prematurely and managed to lift the tiny white calf between her one tusk and her trunk. At one point, she dropped it accidentally, but, as I told J., that didn't kill it—like any premature infant, it was too undeveloped and frail to live without intensive care. The mother's anguish at not being able to provide it seemed palpable.

  • Echo gave birth to another calf that amused Colbeck with its goofy looks and antics. One day, however, she was kidnapped by another family. Echo rallied hers, and Colbeck captured the moment when they formed an unbroken line of outraged elephant flesh and bulldozed their way in, extracting Echo's little clown.

  • An adult daughter of Echo was seen to be in pain, struggling to walk. Suspecting human culpability, the Kenya Wildlife Service tranquilized and treated her for two deep, septic spear wounds. It was too little too late. She died, leaving a calf too young to take care of itself. Echo and family were there at the end, When they returned from their migratory travels, they visited her bones, gently feeling them with their trunks as though, as Colbeck said, to try to understand what had happened.

  • Colbeck also filmed and photographed forest and desert elephants, noting that the latter do not have the chance to play because of the demands of their harsh environment.
Think of the variety of life, miracles, and tragedies going on all around us, with most of us oblivious to almost all of it.

When J. left, the same feeling came over me that has hit me the evening of every New Year's day of late, when I am left alone—a sense of anxiety about odd things, alienation, strangeness, and sadness. I can't describe it, nor can I explain its source. It could be partly post-holiday blues, but it seems to be something deeper, as though the variation in routine has stripped naked a part of my soul that I need to keep covered at all costs. Within a few days, I will feel better, and within a week or so, normal.

Or as close to normal as I can feel.

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