The Last Emperor Sands and Stains His Deck

My beloved, newly stained deck. We pulled an old beat sofa out of my man cave and parked it here. It’s a great place to sip tea and gaze at the sunset.


The reason I wrote so much about my dog was I was afraid I’d write about myself.

I’d rather not embarrass myself. I don’t want to pinpoint my problems on the page, only to squirm on the hook of other people’s knowing about me. All I’m left with is the feeling I’d rather have kept it to myself. Rather than being cauterizing or providing closure, these psychic unveilings made me feel worse.

I was also leery of writing about others. Other humans I mean. That threatened to be just another way of writing about me. “But enough about me. How about you? What do you think about me?” It’s like that old joke. Self-consciousness is a hell offering spurious delights. (For more on this, read Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky.) Alone too long, I developed a habit of anticipating slights and reckonings in the minds of others, of erecting preemptive barriers against intimacy. What I wrote about others shone a light on a monstrous, lonely egotism.

There was something safe and consoling in writing about the dog. It grounded me. That’s what I’m into, grounding myself, resigning myself to life as a plain, ordinary guy with all the normal emotions, fears, and desires.

I do chores around the house to escape the head noise.

My garage needed to be de-cluttered so I could find the attachments to the compressor a friend gave me, without which I can’t fill up the tires on my wife’s bicycle or the wheelbarrow I got at a flea market. It took all day. Had to pull everything out of the garage and look at it before putting it back, in a new place, a better place. Of course, the first time I get a tool out of my pristine new tool shack to go fix something — it’ll be a mess again. I’ll try to stay on top of it. I’m an avid cleaner. Kitchens have always been my métier. My office is next; there’s probably a den of baby rabbits in here somewhere under a pile of papers.

Feeling useful is a dread, dull term, but it occurs to me more and more. You must feel useful. Otherwise, you’ve been taking up space on an already cluttered and tormented planet.

I felt useful when I sanded down my big deck and applied penetrating oil to the bare wood, an ordeal that required the intervention, indeed the supervision, of a friend, a talented handyman whom Barb and I paid well. The first day was torture for me but I got the hang of it. Those days of eight-to-five labor, wearing kneepads to strip that wood, then brush each riser and floorboard with stain, expanded my self-esteem. The deck gleams more day by day as those bare, hot planks and rails drink up that oil.

“To do a job well you have to be patient,” said my guide.

Most of my adult life I lived in Shaker Heights apartments. I didn’t learn much about home maintenance.

Better late than never.

Do you remember Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 film The Last Emperor? The last appointed divine emperor of imperial China, Pu Yi, tumbles out of his pampered aerie into a new nation ordered by the Communist Revolution. This guy was breastfed well past infancy. Eunuchs smelled his poop to determine alterations to his diet.

Austerity came hard.

He must learn to live all over again. Our hearts reach out to him as his old world is smashed. Manipulated by Japanese politicians, he becomes a dupe for machinations that overreach him, including the atrocity known as the Rape of Nanking, a horror that is ascribed to him and, in his mounting guilt and self-hatred, he does nothing to quell. It takes a sympathetic mentor, The Governor, to defend Pu Yi from false allegations during Pu Yi’s internment and investigation into his past.

Pu Yi does change. After losing his identity as a demigod, he finds himself anew.

There’s an interesting exchange between him and this mentor tasked with indoctrinating Pu Yi into a chastened, reformed life.

Pu Yi says something cynical, scoffing, about being made “useful” to the new order.

“Is that so bad, feeling useful?” says The Governor, who, in an ironic ending twist, will come under the gun of the Party himself, and Pu Yi, who loves him, will try to defend him.

One of our final images is of Pu Yi in his plain wool worker suit, pruning a plant. We sense he is happy as a gardener, happy riding his bike home at the end of a day with all the other workers.

I work at Walmart, a jaw-dropping bastardization of all the ideology I “should have” marshaled into action, having been raised by leftist union lovers, even taken over my father’s moonlight gig as PR guy for a local that picketed the retail juggernaut. In the knockdown, drag-out battle that was life, I lost all my old, supposed signposts. Having run my course as a bedraggled high school English teacher, I had to earn.

And I’m here to tell you: as I’m stocking shelves and helping customers find the vinegar or the peanut butter or the ant traps or the Family Size Frosted Flakes, I feel useful.

As I clean the garage, I feel useful.

There are no larger meanings.

Hey, I’ve got two big monkey wrenches. Anybody need a monkey wrench?

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