It’s one of those days where I’d rather play horseshoes with hand grenades than write something that will be read by other people. Uninspired: check. Driving down a bumpy road in a cart with a bum wheel and a squeaky axle: check. Sloshing around my house in the backed-up sewage resulting from a clogged septic tank: check.
Yep, that’s what I woke up to. A septic tank that had reached its limit. It was fed up. Full. Tired of all the shit we’d been giving it. Whoever said that owning an old home in a rural neighborhood was the best way to forget I was living in Orange County was entirely too optimistic about satisfaction’s foundation. Unfortunately, that who was me; it’s what I told myself when we bought our house–with an obscene amount of help from my future in-laws, who are as generous and supportive as they come.
When I put it that way, though, listening to myself complain is about as agreeable as listening to a chorus of mewing cats. “Oh, poor me. I have to live in a nice house, while the largesse of family burdens my delusions of self-sufficiency and boot-strap independence.” What’s the word for someone who complains about having it good? Oh, that’s right. Dick! And the word for someone who’s preoccupied with minutia when the Japanese population is facing multiple nuclear meltdowns? Dick, again! It really bunches the boxers when you can’t feel properly self-indulgent about self-pity. But I don’t want to waste your time, so let me try and turn this malaise into something palatable.
Disclaimer: this might not work. If you’d like to bounce over to, say, my friend Thad’s astronomical observations of M81, you’ll probably have a better time. Seriously, those photos are homegrown.
When the sewage-treatment gods arrived this afternoon with their “honey wagon” to empty the pit of waste in my front yard, I was understandably relieved. Not two hours before, I had been told it would cost several thousand dollars to diagnose and repair our plumbing problem. By the way, calling Roto-rooter is a way to watch your money go down the drain, not your troubles. Anyway, after a good twenty minutes of mining my front lawn for tank access, the waste workers found the hatch that, once dug out, led down to the clock that kept my house firmly anchored in the 21st century. The septic tank was, in ways only fully understood by my subconscious, like the hidden glade to which Parsifal is led in Wagner’s same named opera in search of the Holy Grail, and it is there, behind the curtain, that he watches “time turn into space.” There, below me, was time turing into space, the waste of my days. Every food processed and magazine read–piled in an anti-corrosive tin.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen 1,500 gallons of shit, but after today, I have. The grizzled Mexican next to me, who owned the company and still drove the “honey wagon” on busy days, smiled while he churned my family’s stool. His weirdly youthful arms were thin and panther-tattooed and belonged to the body of a wiry thirty-year-old soccer player, not the fifty-something heavy-set bald man saving my hardwood floors. He said, “beef stew,” as he worked the waste into the suction hose, and gave me a pirate’s sneer to boot; undoubtedly amused by my curiosity and the size of my tiny house. He owns one of the largest plumbing companies in Orange County–a multi-million dollar enterprise, if Google is to be believed.
The odor perfuming my front yard was not quite what you would expect; it smelled something like a sulfurous mineral bath, which, if you’ve ever stayed near a natural hot springs, you get used to. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t mineral richness that I was tracking, but mineral loss. It was a depressing sight. The leftovers of life’s slow boil.
I hung around the workers as long as possible, both because I was genuinely curious and also because I wanted to show them I could be as jocular about the situation as they were. I wasn’t some pampered bourgeoise white guy uncomfortable with the slimy realities of our plumbing; I was a hard-boiled man. Ready to take on the shit that needed taking. Strangely, however, while I was watching them leach the last of the loaves, I thought of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s idea of the pharmakon.
Pharmakon is a Greek word that means at once poison and cure; it is the illness for which a remedy might be prescribed and the remedy itself. Derrida argues that it is untranslatable, but not simply because languages cannot be fully translated, but because language’s meaning is always shifting. Think of the word, “shit.” It can mean a lot of things. The substance, the act, the production, “stuff,” the metaphor for a problem–like when a septic tank overflows. In fact, in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, writing–such as, I don’t know, The Rambler–is described as a pharmakon, a remedy to forgetfulness, but it is a remedy that is refused by King Thamus, to whom it is offered, because it produces the very thing it seeks to alleviate. If you write it down, it helps you forget, because you don’t have to remember. Round about? Sure, but that’s the point. We’re always rounding about the world. Never really getting at what’s there. When I say, “shit,” you hear it and get it, but you can’t get at that 1,500 gallons festering underneath my house–of course, in this case, I’m not sure why you’d want to. The word itself is “overdetermined”; it has too many meanings to settle on one. It’s the ruin in my wake and the future of my ruin–you know, fertilizer and worm food and that whole existentialist bag.
The real mind bend is, even standing there I was already writing this: the pharmakon and Parsifal were waiting. I was self-consciously writing my experience. No way I was actually coming to terms with all that shit. Not in front of “the guys.” No way I was actually looking at what it all is. No way I was seeing the less than perfect exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen that is slowly strangling the planet–producing more deserts than flowers. No way I was smelling the second law of thermodynamics’ terrible equilibrium.
No way I was peaking behind the curtain to see “where time turns into space.”