Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Optics of Thánatos

As I left the museum and library, it began to rain. This was probably a good thing, as it kept me from stopping every five seconds to photograph random building details.

I made my way to 6th street. As I neared the corner, I noticed a MAX train. It was yellow. If I missed it, I'd have to wait about 15 minutes for the next one. I ran. I think the engineer saw me. In any case, just as I neared, I saw the amber lights by the doors flash. I jumped through them as they began to slide closed and landed in the relatively empty coach. Yay! Pegasus Rangers Ride the Rails Again!

Karma-girl was not on this train. Nor were there knots of disheveled youth looking like they were creeping home before it got too light. No, behind me was a clean cut young man having a cell phone discussion about two strung-out friends, and across the way was a scruffier looking guy who decided he needed to comb his wavy dark hair with a brush that was attached to a ring of keys. He seemed agitated, and whisked the brush over his head with a jingly rattle.

It turned out we were exiting the train at the same stop. I made sure to give him enough personal space, as he continued to jingle-rattle-brush his hair. He was impatient for the doors to open even though the train was still in motion, and he beat on them with the handle of his comb like a rat deprived of food pellets in an extinction phase of a random reinforcement experiment.

I stepped out at 6th and Davis. Although it was only something like ten to five in the afternoon, I scanned the parking lots and sidewalks around me, half-expecting to see roving gangs of strung-out Xanax abusers searching for easy prey. I squared my shoulders; asked myself, "What would a Pegasus Ranger do?" and heaved a huge sigh of relief when I noticed various touristy types clambering into their SUVs.


I met Jay Lake for pizza. Jay and I are the same age. We are both writers. I haven't had time much to see Jay since he (understandably) stopped making the commute from Portland to visit the Wordos table in Eugene. We did real-life catching up. I think the images from our visit which stick with me the most are the stream of people coming up out of the pizza parlor's basement on a haunted underground tour; how large children transform into small adults in sudden, startling ways; and how Jay is sitting with Death hovering over his shoulder.

He has stage IV colon cancer, and has come through a chemotherapy session. His oncologist recently "upgraded" his chances for survival to 50 percent over the next five years (which is good news). Jay's hair has recovered from the chemo and is longer than mine; he doesn't look frail or sick. But how he looks and feels in this moment is only for this moment. Blood-work or some other medical screening may signal the beginning of another ride on the cancer roller-coaster. Or not.

Sometimes we look at Death with a magnifying glass; other times, opera glasses; sometimes a telescope. Mostly I think we don't look. Jay is certainly looking. I wanted to say something helpful, but I wasn't sure what or how. My head was too full of images from art history. Maybe those French and medieval miniatures of Death and the Dance Macabre did have a useful social role. Maybe the Greeks had something going when they made Eros, Thánatos and Hypnos so alike.

[Editor's note:  Jay Lake died June 1, 2014.  I only saw him once or twice after this.]
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