“Home Alone” by Richard Sale


My wife, Carol, got up at 3:15 Thursday morning for a 6:30 fight to Denver. It’s the first time in over 30 years that one of us went to visit while the other stayed home.

I have two sons, one by Carol, and the two other children by my ex-wife. My son by my ex-wife, James, is turning fifty, and my daughter, Tandis, also half-Iranian, is thirty six, divorced and raising two young girls. Carol’s son, Chris, forty-seven, (I think), did me the honor of adopting me a few years ago. At a gathering in Denver last October, his father and I were in the same room, and Chris introduced his dad and turning to me he said, “And this is my father.” My son James and Chris, share the same generous nature.

Chris and I grew up together. He was a very impish, mischievous, willful, and a brilliantly intelligent child. His mother and I fell in love right away, and I soon moved in with her. But being newly in love is fraught with its own uncertainties, ignorance, vivid fear, and widespread touchiness because the lovers are so vulnerable. I feared that Carol was not lost in my love the way I was lost in hers, and her deepest fear is that I didn’t belong to her the way she belonged to me. When I would blow up at Carol, or she at me, I would grab some clothes and books, and leave the house, but no sooner had I reached the front door, then I would find Chris at my side, “I’m coming too,” he said. And that was always the case. He provided a steadying ballast for that tempestuous sea of early passion and early love, and we grew very close.

Chris, like James, is a single father who has proved an amazingly competent and loving parent. He is kind, encouraging, very strict when he has to be (but only when he has to be) and has raised by himself two teenage boys who are everything a father could wish: they are thoughtful, generous, honest (most of the time,) alive to life and receptive to new ideas and new experiences. Their minds are sound and sympatric. They read because they know that to know more is to be more. They remember. They reflect. They build our hopes along with theirs. They are achievers.

There is a passage in the Ethics by John Dewey, which quotes William James: “When I am moved by self love to keep my seat whilst the ladies are standing or take the biggest portion to cut out my neighbor, what I really love is that comfortable seat. It is the thing itself that I grab. I love them primarily like a mother loves her babe, or a generous man his heroic deed. Whenever, as here, self-seeking is the outcome of a single instinctive propensity, it is but a name for certain reflex acts. Something rivets my attention fatally and fatally provokes the selfish response. In fact, the more I am utterly selfish in this primitive way, the more blind my absorbed thought will be in the objects and tendencies of my lusts and devoid of any inward looking glance.”

(My memory is declining a bit. My ability to remember complicated passages has been a bit compromised by time.)

One phrase in particular passage stands out, “In fact, the more I am utterly selfish in this primitive way, the more blind my absorbed thought will be in the objects and tendencies of my lusts and more devoid of any inward looking glance.”

“The more I am utterly selfish in this primitive way” is a startling and scary phrase. It stirs misgiving deep down inside us because it’s true. We are born utterly selfish, and only insight or inducements or penalties curb such vicious things in us. Even as an adult, some of that selfishness remains. We have a three- man yard crew, who cut our grass of our lawn in Durham. I drink Gatorade during the day to stay hydrated, and one morning, my wife came in and said she was going to bring the crew Gatorade because of their hard work on such a hot day. And my immediate instinctive reaction to ask that by giving them Gatorade, will I still have enough on hand for me to get through the day?

First of all, such a thought is infantile and entirely shameful. And your conscience instantly flinches at even having such a selfish thought, and you strive to correct it and do the thing you should do –give them men the Gatorade that they have worked so hard to earn.

But that inborn, instinctive selfishness is alive in each of us and must be corrected or crushed. For example, one of the most despicable acts to panic when a mishap or a dangerous situation occurs. Panic basically tramples flat all your moral obligations while saying, “Me, Me, Save Me” at the top of its voice. Panic ignores what other people might feel or suffer. Whether they live or die, you see, is not your problem. Your only duty is to save yourself by any means, no matter how self centered or ruthless. But what sort of self do you end up saving? It has little moral worth,, little spiritual value; it displays little nobility or charity. It isn’t noble . Selfishness objectifies the worst defects or ordinary human nature.

When my wife and I experience turbulence during a rough flight, I never waver in my vow not to panic, not to scream or alarm others, but to stay calm and not behave shamefully. I have always told my wife that if our plane is really going to crash, the last sensations she will feel here on earth, will be me kissing her, kissing her for all the love she gave, for all the help and steadiness she impacted to me, for all of her efforts to lighten my bodily burdens; I will be kissing her in order to honor for all of her kindness, her decency, generosity and all the passionate intimacy and pleasure I have enjoyed at her hands. She was my reason for living. That is what will be in my kiss.

But every family a small child has parents that either instruct them to attempt to have an ideal self or it allows them be run of the mill. Every human being’s soul is a battleground. Education is but another name for ethical struggle. Primitive selfishness is the horror that parents must avoid in their children.

And once a parent has successfully raised a child, there remain uncomfortable questions that a parent must answer. How well did I do in life, taking into account my now proven lack of talents and deficiencies of temperament? Did I succeed with our children. To what degree? As parents we, of course, poured precepts f fairness, honesty and charity over the heads of our children, but what innate selfish impulses did we ourselves go to war with before they were born? How did we fare in extinguishing them? What does a loving parent instill in a child that makes him want to have an ideal self?

The lives of our children give us a partial answer. It is clear they did not, for the most part, repeat our mistakes. They did better. They corrected and improved and stayed clear of our errors most of the time.


Home Alone 

My day has a new routine. In the early morning I have to go and put out the light on the front porch, then put out the light on the back porch, then put out the light burning in the garden. I basically can’t walk very well, thanks to three surgeries and two strokes, but I am also quite determined.

My companion is my male cat, Honey Bear who has adopted me an my wife. He was with a family next door. His foot has been run over in the street, and they found him and took him in. The father was allergic to cats. They kept him in the garage, even in winter. The young boy there called the cat, “Gimpy.” When we moved in next door in January of 2010, I had so much Post traumatic Stress that the world was unrecognizable, and I could not bear to go outside until April. In private, I was, unsure of everything. I used to take a dull knife and practice slitting my throat, it was that bad. What prevented me was my love for my wife. So one day, I sat in the porch chair, dazed, when a little animal suddenly walloped up into my lap. It was Gimpy. You see, cats read people’s hearts. Take warning when a person boasts that they aren’t “cat people.” Cats not only are kind, but they are loyal to any kindness shown them. My wife, Carol, soon began to feed Gimpy, and I promptly renamed him, Honey Bear, replacing the heartless, Gimpy. I knew he was abused if you raised a hand over his head, he cringed and fled. That first year, I was on a walker, and the cat feared the walker and stayed away. But on my birthday the next March, a year later, as I sat in the living room, Honey Bear suddenly leaped into my lap, rubbing his head against my leg. Soon, I was able to dispense with the walker, and he was no longer afraid of me. And we became chums.

With my wife away, Honey Bear and me are constant companions. This morning, he climbed up in my chair in the family room, wedged his body close to mine, stretched out fully, and then began to twist his head back and forth, purring with a loud sound. A cat needs a lot of affection. They are like the rest of us. 

The first thing I did when my wife left for five days was to turn off the TV news. There is no worthwhile news in TV news. TV news is an incessant repeating of what already is well known. It never provides insights or illustrations or examples. There is a smug arrogance about TV news plus the people discussing the news bring the news down to their own level, and that level is in insult to the history of intelligence. In addition, there are disconcerting interruptions. Every few minutes of broadcasting brings on a blizzard of commercials that are repeated so often, so loudly, that they remind you of the regularity of the sunrise except they never set. They are repeated so many times every hour that they produce a stupefying effect.  We Americans have become used to being shouted at by slick pitchmen who have been hired by ruthlessly commercially greedy people who told them to repeat endlessly some advertisement, no matter how stupid, as long as it brings in a new customer. God!

So I shut off the TV. The silence was full of rest and peace. My house contains between, 3000-2500 books. They are stored in different rooms. In the living room, are the biographies and studies of the Greeks and Romans; at the west end of the room are histories of the Civil war and World War II. Then they are the political biographies, an eight volume set of Lincoln, a gift from my wife, plus memoirs that range from FDR, to Johnson, to Kennedy to Reagan.

In my sitting room, there is a sloppy miscellaneous of things I am trying to read. Most are in progress.

My office is also crammed with books of history and philosophy, some of which I’ve read, others I haven’t. Seeing them unread always brings a twinge of regret to my heart.

But yesterday, I did a freeing thing. In my wife’s make up room, there are a lot of books that for me, being half crippled, are difficult for me to get to. So yesterday, I toddled in and let my eyes scan the riches. Several things got the dogs of ambition barking in my soul, a biography of Talleyrand books by Maritain, the French philosopher. But then I reached up and found "The Lives of the Artists" by Vasari, and Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson. I first read Johnson in 1971, and I reread him, but had not entered he date where I’d read him last. I’ve learned to enter that last date.

But what an exhilarating and vivid intelligence of language and powerfully insightful ideas Johnson displayed. In Vasari, I read a wonderful portrait of the Renaissance artist, Giotto who was such a hard, careful, incessant worker. As I went about the house, I felt like a hungry child who knows exactly where the cookies are and yet don’t have the means to reach them. I can’t savor them because, as I am now, they remain beyond my reach. Reading people like Johnson or Dewey who are so spacious of soul and who display such wide breadth of intellect is exhilarating, but it also acts to depress. I ask, why wasn’t I more fortunate, more gifted, and more articulate than I turned out to be?. Why was I never able to reach their level? Their great works stand like peaks in the distance. They are there. I can approach them, but to reach them and enjoy their summits is beyond my capacity.

Phone Calls

The most delicious moment of my day is the calls from my daughter, Tandis, and my wife. My daughter treats me with such love that I revere her. My wife’s calls reunite us in pleasure and appreciation. I am thrilled that she with her son, our son, among his friends and some of her old her friends from high school who live there in Denver — all of whom admire and love her. The things she recalls and savors and treasures always lift my spirits. We may be apart but she is with me. And I am with her.

Last night our son made a fire in the fire pit in back of his house, and Chris, one of his boys, and my wife sat by the fire and started to sing, “Cats in the Cradle,” “Piano Man,” and others. Old Times. Is anything better?

William James said, “There is an ideal self to which we must be true, no matter what we suffer,” Our marriage has made us try to keep us true to this vow, and our children have chosen to honor it as well.

As I write this, the cat is asleep, curled up next to me, his paws crossed over his face.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to “Home Alone” by Richard Sale

  1. BabelFish says:

    Richard, there are times when I believe you have been sitting in my mind, then to spring out and write thoughts and reflections I have felt in words that I could not ever hope to assemble with such feeling, skill and craft.
    Thank you, again, for the eloquence of your sharing.

  2. F5F5F5 says:

    2500-3000 books…
    I probably would have as many by now, but I have a tendency to lend the books I’m excited about to friends, and my friends have a tendency to never return them. Not that I ever ask, nor do I even mind.

  3. Tidewater says:

    Tidewater to Richard Sale,
    You are writing something very beautiful.
    But about cats. As I have said here from time to time, I am on a learning curve about animals, particularly dogs and cats. It seems that I saved on the vet fees early on, and now, frankly, going into old age (if I am lucky), the fees are scary as hell. (So, hey!, I’ll sell something.) I was whinging about this with an old friend who dropped by the other day on his way out to a family place in western Virginia. He looked at me and smiled. He had spent five thousand dollars on his big, young Australian sheepdog just recently.
    Still, about cats. Just in case you might need to know this. You have to pay close attention to cats. This means watching their eyes. The cat is partially wild, which means among predators (as in New York city) it is important not to admit a weakness. Cats don’t show weakness. They go down with terrifying speed. The Cossack is constantly on red alert; fortunately, often enough jumping the gun. When there is a little bit of bloody cat stool on your desk, they are not necessarily mad at you, for say, not cleaning out their litter box and installing new horse stall pellets from Southern States or Tractor Supply–they might be trying to tell you something. You’re in a damn emergency is what it means!
    Do not give Honey Bear dry food! Only wet food. Also, pay constant attention to the canned food and try to find a natural food every now and then to add to it. I am trying salt free sardines for now, as a secondary part of a meal, but I am not sure. At Thanksgiving time I try to pick up some extra turkeys, keep them in the freezer. I am about ready to upgrade to those Whole Foods thirty-dollar organic turkeys. Cossack doesn’t trust the cheap supermarket brand labels for her cats. (“But it’s for people,” I say. She shrugs.)
    There is also a new Australian/ New Zealand cat food sold here in C’Ville that just changed its name to Maui. Kangaroo and venison! Maui is sold here at Crate and Marrow out at the new Stonefield store complex. They could tell anyone in the area here what they think about good cat food. They have a web-site. There are others sold at places like Rebecca’s here or Integral Yoga where I think the owners may think a bit more about what is good and what is not. Most recently I am trying Pet Guard. It’s an ongoing question. The Cossack can discipher the ingredients list, which is an interesting little mystery story, actually.
    Most of the catfood sold in supermarkets is shit.
    Now here is something we have just have been experimenting with and it seems good. There is a young holistic vet new here in C-Ville from Holland named Dr. Marlise Vonck. She will actually make house calls. My place is so bad I am trying to work out a visit for my three out in the driveway under a pavilion, but Cossack won’t let me. Feels it is inappropriate and the house has fleas.) I am afraid to poison my cats by poisoning the house, I have some interesting art that doesn’t need to be “misted”, and fleas don’t bother me particularly. But fleas are very dangerous to cats, so something has to be done. I had no idea that they carry, among other things, typhus, and that thousands and thousands of German POW’s–like so many others elswhere in those days– died in Siberia from a simple flea bite. Daniel at Crate and Marrow would be glad to give anyone interested here contact information for Dr. Vonck.
    Dr. Vonck introduced the Cossack to an all-in-one supplement for cats. It is recommended by vets. It can be found on Amazon, but, of course, the manufacturers have their own web site. They are: 4LIFE. One of their products is called “Transfer Factor Feline Complete”. There are others for cows etc. I’ve started to read up on this. It is not cheap. I think it is good stuff. You just scoop a little powder from the can and add it. They supply the scoop.
    Far more important is the following: I think it’s revolutionary. I have just been through an emergency episode with Filip, or as I call him, Felix, con permiso from the Cossack.(She doesn’t like her cat’s names to be changed, so when I dubbed him Felix (The Cat), she paused, hearing this, frowned, thought about it, then graciously compromised, and now calls him “Filusha”, thus avoiding the issue. Like that lightbulb in the Jerusalem shrine.) Felix had been dropped off at the Cossack’s driveway. (She has a rescue-rep among the yeomanry.) She heard a car come by, stop, then speed away, went out to look, and found this utterly friendly and charming little character with permanently surprised eyes (whom the vets call a “tuxedo cat”) looking around at this brand new wonderful world he was in, and no idea he had just been criminally betrayed. He and Ilya, the big old road warrior, named for a legendary figure in Kiev (Ilya Muromets), struck up a friendship. Ilya came up the raiload tracks that are not far away, I surmise. His fur was torn off behind his ears down to the bone. (Dr. Mouser –orig. Mauser?–told her this was from the lady cat(s) during sex, which outraged the Cossack (as bad veterinary science, or was it a little joke?) until she realized she was revealing that she had too much knowledge of cat sex, or so I suspect. (They have always had furious arguments. ) (Incidentally, I think he fought on Iwo Jima.) The Cossack has these steel traps that are also cages. She trapped him but could do no more with him–he saw a real threat and was fighting desperately–until she rolled up a tarp and some towels and forced them into the cage with a rake handle, jamming him into the back of the cage. Girl is good with a needle. And had some animal tranks she had gotten from another remarkable rescue friend who has horses and a pack of dogs, all quite old. It took two jabs with Ilya. First one didn’t faze him, and could it have been for a horse? , and he has long claws, which I approve of, since the west wasn’t won with a registered gun. She was amazed one day when I picked him up. She spent hours cleaning the ear mites and other black stuff out of his ears. She used up three boxes of Q-Tips.
    That’s another thing I didn’t know about. Ear mites!
    The internet has a lot on cat urinary and kidney problems. I never even heard about things like the incredible and horrible PARVO and FIV, or the risk to cats of kidney and urinary disease. Bragg(‘s) (raw, organic) apple cider vinegar is a miracle drug. Carefully put 1/4 of a measuring spoon full of apple cider vinegar into wet food, mix it carefully, perhaps by testing, finding out whether salt-free, organic chicken broth, or some sort of tuna oils and liquid, just anything to disguise the vinegar flavor will make your cat not cock a snoot. (Though I notice that sooner or later they will eat it.)
    Now, of course, this is based on a diagnosis given by a vet that there is an existing, or even chronic, urinary tract problem! But even if not, I think a little apple cider vinegar is good for not only a cat from time to time, but for a person. One surprising thing I have just read, which may not be quite true, though there are testimonials. A dose of apple cider vinegar–best to get the dose right– will help or even cure GERD. Acid reflux. As the person discussing this remarked, it seemed to him to be counter-intuitive. I know that black folk in South Carolina, particularly older women, will routinely take a small drink of apple cider vinegar every day, with or without water. One thing it will do is knock out an infection, I suspect. But it will do more. This is a very interesting subject! Minerals and more.
    The Cossack, feeling a cold coming on, will get ahold of a bottle of Yukon Jack. Frankly, I am an old booze hound but I never heard of Yukon Jack, and I find it kind of funny. I would have thought she would like “Wodka”, but no. A thimbleful of red wine will knock her out. She’s exhausted all the time anyway, so I am glad when she feels a cold coming on; sometimes she phones and is a little high. She then says it is working! The Yukon Jack is a kind of liqueur and will line the throat, she thinks, killing germs.
    Another thing, a good basis for soup is Bragg’s liquid aminos.
    I kid you not, there are miracles within reach. One is aspirin. The other is raw, organic, Bragg’s apple cider vinegar. I always liked White House, apple cider vinegar, by the way.
    I still have not gotten your Blackstone Rangers book. I am going to. I bet they would chop you up into little pieces these days, serve you up as barbecue with a good ball-field style mustard sauce, wouldn’t they? (None of this Deejonais.) I once knew a Dell Viking, but he was more or less safely behind bars. Their sign was “Chiddy, chiddy, bang bang. Come on Vikings, do your Thang.” (Help!)
    Though I guess the ones your knew are all dead. So, too, the Dell Viking I knew. He once sent me part of a broken tooth he had gotten when he was thrown bodily into a cell at Red Onion. I’ve still got it somewhere in my grandmother’s old desk in a little envelope.

  4. LeaNder says:

    “I still have not gotten your Blackstone Rangers book”
    got it. But a while ago realized it wound up on a pile nearby.
    “You have to pay close attention to cats. This means watching their eyes.”
    yes, or not pay attention to them, or touch them in any superficial way to please the owner. They seem to sense, if it is not about you. Was my impression once. But that concerned only Fritz. And every cat I met was a bit special. But yes, tiny little Fritz could turn into a ferociously hissing monster, keeping every dog at a distance. Ironically enough, he seemed to be most irritated by the little ones with ribbons. Or a mouse, since you mention food, made him jump onto the highest cupboard watching the thing from up there.
    Dogs, it feels, respond to fear. They seem to smell it. I didn’t find any other explanation watching some friend’s troubles with dogs. But I have to admit, I also met a dog, I preferred to keep a big distance to.
    Fritz didn’t have a mother training him, but was brought up by a friend.
    “When I would blow up at Carol, or she at me, I would grab some clothes and books, and leave the house, but no sooner had I reached the front door, then I would find Chris at my side, “I’m coming too,” he said. And that was always the case. He provided a steadying ballast for that tempestuous sea of early passion and early love, and we grew very close.”
    I like this image.
    But I prefer to not go further into it. My youngest daughter brought a dog into my parents house. After she moved out the dog remained there, becoming something like my mothers youngest kid.
    Whenever there was some type of verbal strife, he wouldn’t tolerate it too long. He arrived baring his teeth and snarling (growling?) and if it didn’t stop he started to bark. …

  5. jonst says:

    I was sailing around Boothbay Harbour, in Maine, this past weekend. Glorious weather. Saw the Great Cormorants in nests, and in flight, skimming the water and was reminded of that old Maine saying, ‘ ‘cormorants mate for life…but take their annual migration south separately.’ So goes the saying, anyway. Me personally? I must have alone time.

  6. Henshaw says:

    The body composition of a mouse is a good guide for a cat’s diet: 45-50% protein, 40-45% fat, and 3-5% carbohydrate.
    With all-wet diets, dental hygiene can become a consideration. Small quantities of ‘tooth diet’ dry food can provide provide the necessary tooth-cleansing abrasion without adding too much plant matter.

  7. RetiredPatriot says:

    “I ask, why wasn’t I more fortunate, more gifted, and more articulate than I turned out to be?. Why was I never able to reach their level? Their great works stand like peaks in the distance. They are there. I can approach them, but to reach them and enjoy their summits is beyond my capacity.”
    I think you greatly underestimate your own abilities. This wonderful essay is but one of many proofs. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  8. Richard Sale says:

    wonderful. Amazing information as well. Thank you.

  9. Richard Sale says:

    Thank you.

  10. Richard Sale says:

    I’m afraid I’m like you. I am a reclusive personality. I would have more friends but so often, the conversation of the people I see hardly raises above the level of chit-chat.

  11. Richard Sale says:

    thank you for this. I hope you are right. but to me, life is a ceaseless struggle against one’s own mediocrity.

  12. Richard Sale says:

    You are very kind. I try to be honest and write from the heart.
    Thank you so very much.

  13. Tidewater says:

    Tidewater to LeaAnder,
    Yes, in my parent’s life was a wonderful dog who was part lab and part Chesapeake Bay retriever. He was much loved. There came a point when I was long gone. But I would go home every now and then. When it started–the quarrel that was really something else, something that came out of a serious personality disorder and which finally crushed my mother — once he stood up on his hind legs and placed his front paws on my father’s chest. There was a pause, and some smiles, even a little laugh among the three of us. (There were others, not there on that occasion.) There was peace for a few moments. A year or so later my father had the dog killed.

  14. MH says:

    Fortunately (as a minimalist) I was able to donate all of my hard-bound books now that I have ebooks on a Kindle and ipad.

  15. Tidewater says:

    Tidewater to LeaNder, Richard Sale, All,
    Henshaw’s comments about dental hygiene for cats are very important. And it is a hard problem to solve. I haven’t solved it.
    About the dear old family dog. It was only two weeks later! Something said here triggered those memories. Time for closing arguments. (Metaphorically.) Someone gave the key to it a while back: You cannot use emotional intelligence to deal with psychopathy. You will always lose. And you might as well realize that a psychopath is always one step ahead of you for the longest time. They spend a lot of time thinking about you.
    Some time later he got a new dog, a little black lab. I liked him. Next visit –they were starting to be spaced out a little bit longer each time– I asked, “Where’s Josh? I want to say hello to him.”
    Josh was gone. He had had all kinds of pedigree papers. He had gone down the drive and out on the road, and a duck hunter had recognized that he was a potential champ and had stolen him. That was the theory. Who knows, maybe Josh fulfilled his destiny out on the water. But what I thought the moment I heard this was: ‘What goes around comes around, and payback’s a bitch.’
    I think he was studying me carefully. He was thinking the same thing. After I got the letter from my mother, which itself revealed yet other problems–how could such an intelligent person try to run a deception that was so weakly and improbably designed? Was this, strangely, her intent? Or was it more simply that she was in pre-Alzheimers? (Maybe it was both.) Though I knew that she was lying pathetically, it didn’t matter. She was closing the subject. What a happy death it had been! Just realize, there is nothing you can do.
    So noone ever spoke about it again. This very special companion for years. Kind of like a child, a family member, suddenly disappearing one day– and not a word. We were getting rather Poeish, now that I think about it.
    He was studying me. I think he was puzzled. I was truly sorry Josh had been stolen. So for a moment he was a bit emotional. A catch in the voice or something. The always useful Celtic emotion. Which is in its own way sincere, of course, for the seconds of its half-life. Very characteristic of Scottish psychopaths. ‘Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde’. The great parable of Scotland.
    The thing is: all along, when I never said anything, he knew that I knew. And by not even saying anything, he could enjoy it. I was weak. (Empathy is weakness.) So he had won again. He needed some revenge for some rather hard and accurate things I had said to him just about two and one half weeks before I got the letter. A first instalment. You could see it in his look. (There is a psychiatric term for this look.) And he knew that there was a lot more in the pipeline. I didn’t know he was stealing from my mother.

Comments are closed.