Truth is a Moving Target

I don’t know much about dying, because I’m a bit inexperienced. So far, I’m unable to recommend the experience.

Until I grew up and became a person wearing loan applications on my outer clothing, I would be concerned with two numbers from the used cars on offer: frequency of repair and cost of repair. If the seller asked my plans for the vehicle, I expressed my intent to “drive it until the wheels fall off.”

That expression sounded to my rural Oklahoma ears much spiffier than most of the cars on offer to my income level appeared, but I learned later it was as common as horny toads in West Texas, particularly around college campuses and the main gates of military installations.

The way the metaphor played out in the real world involved keeping a list of needed repairs. When I started, I considered a dead engine, transmission, or rear end to be evidence of a dead car, because the cost of needed repairs exceeded the “book value” of the car, assuming it was new enough to have a book value.

In those days, there was no automobile part called “the computer,” the demise of which meant what a heart attack means for the human body. The list of needed repairs would soon look like an inventory from a boneyard, with a heater core here and brake shoes there and purely cosmetic stuff giving up on the same schedule, without regard for whether the grandkids had spilled anything from Sonic on the upholstery.

My body is dying the same way, parts crapping out without regard for any relationship to each other beyond what their function provides to keep me going.

Going where? I feel closer to answering that question every day, and that brings me to the other metaphor that feels right to me.

Some Indian tribes call it ka and I mean the Indians for whom Columbus was looking rather than the ones he found. I won’t touch the Cherokee word that used to suffice because I’m of an age that in my world the Cherokee Baptists had already hoovered up every wisp of meaning that might have been useful and tossed it into a word sausage with English that closed in meaning rather than drawing it out.

The Chinese are certain enough of qi that they form their medical practice around it.

Yoda just called it “the force.”

It has not introduced itself to me by name, but I can say it causes me to visualize a pipeline into the core of my emotional being and the leak in that pipeline gets bigger every day. The feeling of that leak is more real than the sound and that may be why the effect on my verbalizing is less serious than it might otherwise be.

Seriousness was very much a relative term when I was an undergraduate. Existentialism was the dominant philosophical turn and sometimes absurdity seemed to be the coin of the realm. I’ll tell you now what I tried to tell those who were appalled at the time: If you are determined to seek out what is true, you can swim through oceans of absurdity and barely get wet.

Absurdity, thy modern name is World Wide Web. An unintended consequence of democratization of publishing on the Web is that form can prevail over substance. Anyone can publish anything and all statements fall into a rough — very rough — equality that devalues truth.

I lost my precarious grip on public school education in the third grade…but I did not lose my interest in what was true and how to tell. I could already read in the first grade and the written word was magic to me. I cannot imagine how I would have handled the Web.

When I started ditching classes to hang out in the public library I attacked the books by a method that sounds absurd now. I undertook to read every book on each shelf in the order dictated by Mr. Dewey’s system, starting with the shelves that enabled me to be out of sight of the librarian.

That method did not take me far but it made sense because I was convinced it was possible to learn everything. While I did not know the word, I could name historical figures I considered to be polymaths. By the time I grew up, Nikola Tesla had replaced Thomas Edison on my list — the elementary school from which I was playing hooky was named after Mr. Edison and it was hard to give him up after learning that Edison had in common with Albert Einstein that they did about as well in the public schools as I did.

Other persons I took to be polymaths retained their status: Aristotle, Leonardo Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin. For the most part, though, people who revolutionized one or two disciplines got the attention formerly reserved for those who dreamed of a general theory of knowledge. Those who did not specialize might today attract a less prestigious term than “polymath,” such as “quidnunc.” Knowing everything has not been an option on the table for a long time.

Serious people no longer pretend, although they might take up the quest for artificial intelligence.

“I’m dying.”

“You don’t say? Well, when you get there, give my regards to Leroy.”

We are all dying, and that is the only truth of it that is — pardon the expression — dead certain.

Enrolled Cherokee, 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus, and (so far) cancer survivor. Memoir: Lighting the Fire (Miniver Press 2020)

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