A few months ago-okay, it was back in November but I remember it like it was yesterday—the radio in my car suddenly started talking about the death of Washoe the chimp at age 42. Washoe, you may remember, got a good deal of press decades ago when she “learned” American Sign Language, becoming the first chimp ever to do so. I put the “learned” in quotes because many scientists and linguists and concerned individuals questioned whether Washoe had in fact “learned” a language. To be clear—or clearer, anyway—I guess there is no doubt that she learned ASL. She could make all the signs and could use them to communicate all sorts of wants and needs. The question was more along the lines of did she learn it like a language or did she learn it like you might learn a card game or a magic trick. In this debate there are all sorts of subtle arguments that turn on points too technical and arcane for me to fathom, but it seems to boil down to the fact that a very famous linguist determined that the neural ability for language was developed after the genetic split of the humans from the apes and so, therefore, the chimp didn’t have language but had something else that looked and worked like language.
If that seems a little circular it is because I’m explaining it poorly, no doubt. I’m not a linguist but I know enough of them to say that they are a very precise and persnickety bunch of people who have put a lot of time and brain power into this language thing and are not going to let some chimp sneak in by the back door. I’ve even looked at some of their papers—the linguists, not the chimps—and I’m telling you, you can’t get three sentences in before you start to run into phrases and concepts that leave you wondering about your own mastery of language.
Basically, Washoe may appear to use language, but when she signs “I want banana,” is she entering into a social negotiation with another soul in hopes of getting sustenance, or is she just performing a trick which, she has learned, is rewarded with a banana? I don’t know and now there is no way to ask her, except, perhaps, through séance, which has also been disproved.
The amazing thing, though, is that, whether she actually learned it or not, Washoe went ahead and taught ASL to her children. They learned it as well as she had, so that they could ask for bananas, comment on the color of your shoes, make chit-chat about the weather and so forth. In fact, when Washoe died, one of her children asked, “Is she gone?”
“Yes, she’s gone,” was the answer.
“Gone away,” the chimp said, already knowing the truth.
“Yes,” was the answer.
At which point all the children appeared to be quite sad. But, the voice on the radio pointed out, there’s a certain amount of conjecture there.
“It’s very hard to know, do they understand death? Do they really have any kind of conception of God or the soul?”
And here is where I wanted to pull the car over and yell at the voice coming out of radio: “Do they understand death? Well, do you? Do you have any conception of God? Do you know what the soul is? If so, voice on the radio, could you take a moment and lay it out for me because, honestly, I’m struggling with it myself. I don’t understand God. I don’t understand the soul. I don’t even understand the radio. What do you mean ‘waves travel through the air’? What kind of waves? Oh radio waves. That must be why we use a radio to catch them. Clever. The radio catches them, using, uhm, a piece of metal, and then runs them through a box powered by electricity, which I also don’t understand, and sends them out though the incomprehensible speakers which create sound waves (also traveling invisibly through space but totally different from radio waves) which enter our ears and are translated by a flap of skin into vibrations that are picked up by tiny little hairlike things and then through the brain—entirely incomprehensible—and there it is, radio person: your voice, in my head, saying some bullshit about whether or not an ape understands God.
But instead of saying all that, I found myself turning to the radio and saying, simply, “Fuck you,” along with a little sign language of my own.
It’s strong, even vulgar language, but it is cathartic and it comes in handy these days, when the airwaves are so full of pomp and chatter. And, at the risk of offending you, this is something I counsel you—neigh, urge you—to try out for yourself the next time you hear something coming out of your radio speakers that strikes you as unlikely, ill-thought-through, slanted, sloppy or just personally displeasing: Look directly at the radio, extend the middle finger of your right hand and say, “Fuck you, radio person.” Do not take your eyes off the road too long—just the moment it takes you to say it. But do say it out loud—it’s not nearly as satisfying if you merely think it.
However, the reason I bring up Washoe and her kids is that their story highlights the massive gap between what we are able to feel and what we are able to express. I have long suspected that everything is connected to everything else, even if only in trivial, circumstantial ways but, a few weeks ago—okay, a few months ago, when I was at the height of my ER obsession—I began to feel like the pieces were falling together and I might actually get a glimpse of some pattern in the connection, or a theme to it anyway.
Then baby Wren arrived and the intensity of that experience and the lack of sleep combined to propel me for one bright instant, not to enlightenment, I’m not going to say that, but maybe to the scenic overlook where you pull off the highway and get a glimpse of enlightenment, away off over there, and you look at it and you read the little bronze plaque but you can’t get any closer and eventually you have to get back in your car and drive back into the valley.
And I remember the very moment: We were in bed, the missus kind of in a fog with this suckling pig drawing the life out of her as she drowsed. Seconds before she’d been conscious and we’d finished up a crossword puzzle. I’d reached down for the dictionary to check out one of our questionable answers and by the time I got the mighty volume up from under the bed, she was asleep. So, I looked up our word—correct!—and its definition got me thinking about another word I thought I knew, so I flipped forward to that word, but on the way the page fell open to a third word that seemed related and suddenly I was reading the dictionary, flipping from page to page, words springing up from the page and falling effortlessly into this amazing, elusive narrative that propelled itself forward, simultaneously revealing and obscuring the truth. I realized I was holding the prototypical novel in my hands—the best work of a million monkeys at a million typewriters, every story ever written and every story that ever would be written, but all mixed up and waiting to be found out and pieced together by a willing and receptive soul.
I have since been back to this book and, frankly, I don’t know what I saw in it. It is simultaneously tedious and rambling. But I fear this is my shortcoming. I have lost the thread and I suspect this sudden close-mindedness is somehow related to my inability or unwillingness to deal with the subject of Div Cvetic.
Yes, it’s far-fetched that a refusal to face up to the story of Season One’s most unpleasant Psychiatric Attending could some how derail this quest of mine. But is it more far-fetched than the whole radio wave thing? No, it is not. So I’m going to join in with the whole national zeitgeist and cast my vote for hope; perhaps if I tackle this Div Cvetic story once and for all, I can shake loose some of the doubt and cobwebs that cling to this blog of late and get back on the road to peace of mind.
The first time you see him, Div Cvetic is an angry slash of a man, a straight-razor in a linen suit who barks at the nurses, gets up in Jerry’s face and pretends not to be able to remember Malik’s name, calling out to him, “What’s your name there? Ma- malouk?”
“It’s Maleek,” Malik says. “Same as it was yesterday.”
Let me throw this out: Where does a guy named Div get off giving anybody crap for their name. Div Cvetik. It sounds like an aperitif made from fermented beets. Instead it’s this lanky, cocky, sharp-beaked doctor who lets it be known by any and all that he basically can’t be bothered to babysit these patients, so be damned sure they’ve got the charts ready and waiting for him.
And he says this in a voice that’s got just a bit of southern honey in it, but honey that’s been cooked and cooled so it’s brittle and sharp-edged. He knows he’s an asshole and he kinda seems to be getting off on it.
Susan Lewis chases him down and calls him out on his poor treatment of the staff. He just screws his face up like her comment doesn’t even make sense. “Yeah, right,” he says and then he blasts her for being too quick to call psych for a consult.
“That guy’s a medical problem, not a psych case,” he says. “I don’t have a bed for him.”
“He’s delusional,” Lewis says.
“He’s on the street, Div,” Lewis pleads.
“I don’t have a bed,” Div says. “Admit him yourself or turf him.”
“Okay,” Lewis says. We know what she’d rather be saying. We know what she’d say if this were a voice coming out of her radio. But she doesn’t. Instead, she utters the least likely phrase, given the context, in all of ER:
“So are you coming over tonight?”
She says this with a little schoolgirl lilt and he, of course, looks like he just bit down on a stone. He looks like he wants to spit. Well, he says, he’s not sure he can get away but, you know, he’ll try. Honestly, who knows what he said, I was so blown away by Lewis. Was she kidding? She’s sleeping with Div? This jackass? Where’s the attraction there? Physical? He’s all bones and angles; it’d be like bedding down with a scythe. Emotional? If one had deep-seated feelings of low-self esteem that needed constant reaffirmation, then sure, he’s your man.
Any woman who finds herself thinking, “why can’t I find a nice, normal guy?” needs to take a look at Div Cvetic and accept him as both a rebuke and a cautionary tale. There is great power in beauty and it is often misused. I am in no position to referee the battle of the sexes, nor am I qualified to say which came first, the flirt or the cad, but I am prepared to say this: Ladies, if the man who excites you turns out to be an asshole, don’t come crying to me. There are plenty of what you might call “nice guys” out there—they’re just hard to see when you’re standing on their throats.
That said, it is hard to take Div Cvetic as any kind of hero or even anti-hero of the sometimes-downtrodden male. In fact there are only a few more things to know about Div and then he will be out of our lives.
One night Susan wakes up and sort of pats the pillow next to her and then gets this worried look on her face. This is universal TV language for “my lover is gone.” Susan rises—she wears Chicago Bears sweats to bed!—and walks out to the living room, where she finds Div rocking back and forth and speaking into a handheld tape recorder. His voice has a kind of monotonous venom as we hear him unloading—the vile stink of the patients, the sameness of their problems, the relentless, mind-numbing stupidity of these whining, wheedling, drug-seeking imbeciles incapable of solving their own issues or even recognizing them, the obliviousness of the staff, the pointlessness of the work¬¬—
“Div?” Susan says.
“Oh, hey,” he says, snapping off the tape recorder. “Just finishing up some notes.”
“It’s three in the morning, Div,” Susan says. “Come to bed.”
Maybe it’s the Bears sweats, maybe chronic insomnia; either way Div brushes her off and promises he’ll be in soon. He’s lying.
The next time we see Div, it’s on the rooftop of the hospital where he’s been summoned to help talk a patient—a depressed transvestite, if you must know—out of jumping. He does not succeed, and when he turns away from the now empty ledge, the look on his face is that of a man who got the wrong drink at Starbucks. No room again? Ah Christ, what did I expect?
Later that night, though, he fails to show up for Thanksgiving dinner at Susan’s house. She calls him, she pages him: nothing. Cut to Div, just crazy drunk, in the pouring rain, walking into four lanes of traffic, waving the swerving cars on, begging them to hit him, like a matador who has tossed aside his cape and is offering up his body to the onrushing beast.
And that’s it for Div. He stops showing up at the hospital. When Susan goes to his place to check on him, the door is open and the rooms are empty except for some packing boxes and an upended lamp. We never see him again.
So, in other words, Div was deeply depressed and just getting by. Here he is, living and working in the same world as the rest of us. He’s got a career, he’s healthy, he’s got a girlfriend who is, you know, kinda hot even if she isn’t making the most of it. His circumstances, the ingredients in the soup of his life, are good but he cannot find a way to make anything palatable of them. Is he wired that way? Is he just weak? Or does he see something in life that the rest of us miss, something terrible and sad?
“Variety is the spice of life,” we say, and “It takes all kinds.” But do we know what we’re talking about? Do we know what the various kinds really are? Div presents as a classic asshole—narcissistic, rude, arrogant—but in fact he is lonely, desperate, miserable and lost and pretty much out of reach. How many people in our day-to-day lives are just like Div—they slot so easily into a ready category, we can’t see them suffer and they can’t find the words.
When my wife was pregnant with our first child, the ultrasound tech asked us if we wanted to know the baby’s sex. We had her write it on one of the ultrasound images and put it in an envelope so we could open it together later. And that night, in bed, we remembered the envelope and I went down and got it and brought it back up.
The missus had had this dream, years before, where we were walking down a road together, hand in hand, and she realized we were being followed. And when we stopped and turned around there was our daughter, a little girl named Olive. This had seemed, at a time when we badly needed it, like a portent of future harmony and happiness.
So she was hoping for a girl. And, from my amateur reading of the screen over the tech’s shoulder, I suspected we had a boy. I was not prepared for how terribly these two actualities would clash. The envelope, the flimsy slip inside, the big happy handwriting of the technician. The exclamation point with a heart for a period. The first picture of our first son.
It hit her all at once and a terrible sound came out of her and then she began to sob and she could not stop. What followed were three days of this unknowable sadness, my wife gone somewhere inside, and me dancing around the edges, sometimes consoling, sometimes reasoning, sometimes angry, but never really getting anywhere near what she was feeling. It was frightening and I didn’t know what would happen.
Then, on the evening of the third day, her brother called and they talked. I would guess that his experience of this sort of thing hovers near zero, but he is a remarkable man with this quality, it seems to me, of being born anew every day, which lets him see things that others have stopped noticing and say things that would be terribly misunderstood from another mouth.
“You know,” he said, after he’d listened a while, “I heard an expression the other day that I think might apply here and—I don’t know, maybe you’ve heard it before—it’s Get over it.”
At this point, I would be ducking for cover, but he was just getting warmed up.
“To me, that means that there are all these things in life you can control, like if you want to learn French, you take French lessons, or if you don’t like your house you can get a new one or paint it or whatever. And then there are all these things you can’t control, like the weather or, in your case, whether you have a girl or a boy, and these things you just have to get over. You know, get over it.”
And she did. It may have been her brother’s encouragement, it may have been that she’d just run through all her sadness and regret and was done. I don’t know exactly how or why, but she got over it and it made me proud of her and grateful. I remember wasting a little time worrying a little about this inauspicious beginning—not that I even believe in auspices, or karma or the like, but only that our son could never know how the early news of his arrival was received. Now of course, I see how wrong I was to worry. I would give anything—almost anything—to have the chance to tell him this story one day, to laugh gently together at his mother, whom we know to be kind and loving beyond measure, to wonder at the things we sometimes feel and the crazy way things work.
I guess I’ve known depression before. It’s a man in a hat and long dark coat who shows up at the front door unannounced. And sometimes he brings the overnight bag, sometimes he brings the trunk, but in any case he stays longer than you’d like. He is stupid, he is dull, he is heavy. And he is familiar. You know him and you can count on him. He moves right in, rearranges things to suit himself, but he never takes off his coat and he never takes off his hat and if you catch a glimpse of his face you see that it is your own.
After Lincoln died, after he was stillborn, what came then was not depression but something better. It wasn’t empty or dumb. It had a reason, the best of reasons. It was loss, but loss of something we’d never quite gotten hold of, not even in our imaginations. It was grief and sorrow, for sure, but it had a quality of joy, strong and irresistible. It was everywhere. And it was, in a way, a gift, as if we’d been given this hallowed ground to inhabit for a while.
And I have to say I’ve had some trouble leaving it behind. But life goes on. It needs to.
Also, I lied earlier. I said that Div’s drunken traffic incident is the last time he’s seen on ER, but that’s not technically true. It’s the last time we see him live and in the flesh. I know what you’re thinking, but hold on.
About a year later, this cab driver comes through the ER for treatment of some minor problem. He gets talking to Carter and reveals that he runs a dating service out of his taxi, where he photographs likely, single customers and keeps the polaroids in a folder to share with customers of the opposite sex. He tries to talk Carter into it.
“I have many success stories,” he says to the curious but skeptical Carter. “I even fixed up a doctor! Look.”
And there, on the page, is the couple in question—a pleasant-looking brunette on one side, and on the other, well, it’s Div Cvetic, wearing a Hawaiian print shirt and looking very happy if a little blurry.
Wow. So maybe Div found a way out. Maybe he changed his diet, took up yoga, started jogging. Maybe he met a woman he loved and he suddenly decided to pull his head out of his ass and stop wallowing. Maybe he looked at life and said, this is it, let’s start living. Maybe, in other words, he managed to get over it.