Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Art vs. Nature

            At the zenith of The Winter’s Tale, the wronged queen Hermione, believed dead by her once pathologically jealous husband the king Leontes, is revealed on the stage as a statue of herself.   In the production staged by the Utah Shakespeare Company, the statue of Hermione is presented in a completely spectacular way, standing erect and motionless beside a pedestal, clothed in the white of innocence, her pale hair and face made luminous by a direct flood of light overhead.  She stands as still as the marble of which she is believed to be made, as Leontes gradually comes to see how lifelike she is, how the sculpture is so real as to seem to breathe, as his full repentance is expressed in his overwhelming desire to see her alive even though it was he who had condemned her to death.  But then she moves, ever so slightly; she lowers the arm that had been resting on the pedestal, her face shows the dawn of a smile, and she descends slowly into life and into the embrace of her transformed husband.

            It is as a magical a moment as the theatre can offer.   This is perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest statement about the relationship between art and nature, as perhaps the highest work of art, the statue of Hermione (attributed by the participants in the unfolding drama to a famous Italian sculptor), is, however, revealed as a living, breathing human being,  the creation of a power of even more completely consummate artistry.   And it is among the most remarkable moments a viewer of the plays of Shakespeare can hope to witness, especially when brought to life in such a superb performance as this one.

            This was a high moment for both of us, especially for Brooke, who a decade ago published an essay on The Winter’s Tale and who’d taught a full course on that single play last winter.  It’s his favorite Shakespeare play, the one that means the most to him.  And when we’d learned that the Utah Shakespeare Company would be performing it this fall, he decided he wanted to see it.


            That seemed completely impossible.  The Utah Shakespeare Company performs in Cedar City.   That’s a four-hour drive south from Salt Lake, straight down the interstate that goes through Provo, Nephi, Fillmore, almost all the way to St. George and out the bottom of the state.  But a four-hour drive is a challenge we didn’t know whether Brooke could meet, since veering in and out of traffic and hitting road-bumps make spasms more acute, since frequent stops are necessary, and there’s the whole problem of staying in a motel when you get there along with all his transfer apparatus and respiratory equipment.   We practiced a couple of weeks ago by going to Vernal for a night, a town about three hours to the east where there’s a new and interesting dinosaur museum near the famous dig sites, but that was easy compared to this trip.


            Here’s a list of some of what we needed for this trip (we keep this on our computer):






            at the moment, requires two trained caregivers



            Care logs

            Medications logs

            Reservations, tickets

            Addresses, directions, etc.

            Contact information for physician, staff, etc.



            Regular meds + 1or 2 extra days, just in case

            PRN meds:  Klonopin, Baclofen, Midodrine, Advil, Norco, etc.

            Bacitracin antibiotic ointment

            Suppositories, etc.



            Diaphragm pacer box and extra batteries

            Ventilator and charger

            Cough assist machine and charger

            Suction machine and charger

                        Extra sucky bucket

            Backup ballard, cap

            Flutter valve


            Oxygen tanks (just in case)  + nasal cannula

            Inner cannulas

            Trach sponges

            SAT monitor




            Blood pressure cuff

            Dressings for pacer site


            Baby monitor and powercord

            TENS unit and pads


                        Toothbrush, paste

                        Razor, shaving cream



                        Go-betweens for teeth

            Hand splints

            Anti foot-drop boots for night



(take enough for extra days, just in case)

            straight catheters

self-contained cath kits




            blue pads

            yellow pads


            male guards


            garbage bags


            XL gloves or plastic cups for voluntary voiding





clothing protector

hand gel

breakfast food

            Be sure to take straws along all the time.



            tearaway pants


            longsleeved shirts


            gown for sleeping


            outdoor jacket



            Theraband for knees



            Wheelchair charger

            Portable overhead lift (note: 65 lbs.)

            Motor for lift, plus powercord



            Ramps: 3’, 5’

            Foam wedge for bed

            Tape, CD player, tapes, disks

            Headphones and iPod


Heating pad

            Water bottles

            Mister, spray bottle if weather is hot

            Surge protector, power strip

                        (very important for hookups in hotel room)





            Bug repellent

            Camelback or equiv.

            $$$ cash money

            laptop and powercord

            stick drive

            cellphone and powercord



            Power bars


            Big umbrella  (good for sun, too)

            Camp chairs


            Picnic stuff, cooler, water

            Have cathing, suction equipment, etc. handy at all times





It’s a lot of stuff, especially for two people who’ve hardly ever checked any luggage and have been happiest when traveling lightest, but we managed to fit it all into the van.  And we managed thanks to the help of the two caregivers who went with us and a pair of friends who also accompanied us.   Here’s the important part: We saw the play.  We saw the play.   Imagine.

Then we had a quite delightful dinner in very nice restaurant, new in Cedar City, with some friends associated with the Shakespeare Festival.   It was almost like real life, except of course for the wheelchair, the everpresent caregiver trained in respiratory support always at Brooke’s side, and the almost but not quite always everpresent pain.  Just the same, we saw the play, though as recently as a couple of months ago we wouldn’t have believed it was possible.

            The next morning, when Peggy came down from a brief hike in the early-morning chill in the foothills above the town, wearing a bright red jacket to distinguish herself from the elk and coyotes the locals were hunting, she found Brooke reclining rather happily in his chair, basking in the sun.  We’d stayed in an extremely modest motel those two nights because it was the only place we could find, a motel so modest that it counted thin coffee and a packaged donut as breakfast, didn’t provide shampoo, and offered to clean your room but obviously hoped you’d say no.   Its grounds consisted entirely of a walled-in, completely paved parking lot, not a tree or a blade of grass anywhere.   But, sitting with Brooke, we could see over the wall to the foothills and the first snow of the season on the mountains beyond, and the sun heated the asphalt pavement enough so that you could almost bask in its warmth. This isn’t like basking in the sun in St. Tropez; it’s the parking lot of a really cheap motel in southern Utah.  Just the same, some small pleasures have become way bigger than they ever were before, even just seeing the mountains over a wall and feeling the touch of the late-season sun.


            We took the long way home, avoiding the interstate in favor of an empty, two-lane road to the west, Route 130 at first and then other equally obscure routes, out through the basin-and-range country.   The road is so straight for so much of the time that you notice the few curves when they come.  The emptiness of this road—almost no traffic, no buildings, no billboards or signs, hardly any evidence of farming and barely even any cattle--this emptiness is what gives us extraordinary pleasure, that utter emptiness, that landscape we’ve driven around in so much in the past.   We’d explored that empty territory for hot springs, for obscure mountain ranges to hike in, or for little abandoned towns or isolated ranches where you might always meet someone with an entirely sense of the land.


The landscape is almost perfectly flat, with low mountain ranges every fifty miles or so stretching to the west—ranges like the Cricket Mountains, or the Confusion Range, or the House Range, mountains almost no one from outside the small circle of west desert aficionados have heard of.  We drove through partly boarded-up towns like Minersville and Milford.  Normally there isn’t much traffic in these towns anyway, but since it was Sunday and, we assume, nearly everyone was either in church or out on the elk hunt, no one was in the streets, no cars were on the road, there wasn’t any movement anywhere.


During the drive north to Delta, Brooke said, he wondered on occasion whether he wished he had brought a book on tape to while away what would turn out to be an eight-hour drive, but every time he wondered it he dismissed the thought when he realized how much sheer pleasure came moment-to-moment just looking out at this richly empty landscape:  vast expanses of late-fall desert grass and sagebrush, an almost colorless dried-grass brownness.  This is nature.   These are places most people wouldn’t consider worth looking at for a second, but there’s an extraordinary calm that comes with them, as if the sediments that had settled in between the upended crustal blocks that formed the mountains during the emergence of basin-and-range topography had conveyed to us as we traveled over them their sense of geologic repose. 


            In the old days—that is, before the accident—we used to pursue a running argument about Art vs. Nature.  We played with an evil-genius argument, like this: Suppose there were an evil genius capable of arranging things this way:  He could transport you to any art museum anywhere, or concert hall, or theater, or library full of superb literature:  you could see the Mona Lisa (without the hordes of visitors or protective bulletproof glass) or the Parthenon, or the Ballet Russes, or to a reading by the extraordinary poet W. S. Merwin (whom Brooke just heard here in Salt Lake), or whatever you wish of art; or this evil genius could take you to any natural environment anywhere: to  waterfalls, to lush tropical forests, to astonishing rock formations, to seacoasts, anywhere in nature.   But not both:  that’s what makes him an evil genius, that you have to choose between art and nature.    We’ve had a lot of fun over the years playing with this thought experiment, never able to decide for one or the other, a life without art, or a life without nature.  But this little trip to Cedar City brought us both, just when we hadn’t been sure either would be possible:  a spectacular performance of the most sublime Shakespeare, and a view of such enormous natural expanse that it changes your sense of living on this planet and almost takes your breath away.



            You might think we’re getting back to normal, sort of.  But actually, we’re seeing more in our world than ever before.   Once again, this is one of the paradoxes of Brooke’s injury: it has brought both of us an even deeper appreciation of both art and nature, something we can’t take for granted anymore.  As we write this, we’re looking out our living room window as orange-red light from the late-season setting sun illuminates the trees, trees framed by our Craftsman-vintage windows, and it almost looks as if we’re seeing a painting of a magical but completely evanescent moment in nature.