The world turns, the sun sets and rises and sets again, seasons come and go, the rain settles in, the afternoons go dark and then, bit by bit, the days start to glow around the edges, the rain gets warmer, the sun peeks from behind a clouded arch, and the world outside erupts into life, everything green pushing up from the earth—but in our small basement room the ER keeps on playing, the dramas keep on unfolding, the plot twists keep on building and resolving, the characters keep on striving for—well, for what exactly? What keeps them going, anyway? “A paycheck” is the short answer since, I have to remind myself, these are actors working at a job, not doctors working their way through life. Actors act. They do it because they need to work. Because writers keep cranking out scripts and networks keep greenlighting season after season and audiences keep tuning in to see them pretend to save lives and lead lives.
But, cast that bit of reality aside because what makes this show so great—yes, great—is that despite the melodrama, the heavy-handed moralizing, the ridiculous coincidences that power the plot—or maybe because of it all—the show is fundamentally believable. Ok, maybe that’s not so high a bar to hold a show to—that it be believable. But in one sense, at least, it’s enough—when you watch this show and find yourself, in the off hours, asking yourself questions about what you’ve seen, you aren’t simply asking questions about ER. You are asking questions about life.
So, I ask again: What keeps these doctors and nurses going, day after day after day?
For that matter, what keeps me and the missus watching them day after day. It’s been almost a year now since that fateful evening, adequately documented in an earlier post, when I stepped out on a limb and off the limb, and as the world seemed to spin away from beneath my feet, I found, as it were, salvation in surrender to the healing power of the men and women of ER. I gave myself to the basement room and the 36” CRT and the silver discs that took me out away from my problems and out of myself for a time.
Since that day we have watched seasons one through ten of ER. Ten seasons in a little more than ten months—this, my friends, is a lot of thoracotomies, chest tubes, banana bags and gastric lavages. A lot of love and heartbreak, a lot of bad news and tears and, honestly, not nearly enough laughter.
And isn’t that, too, just like life.
Personally, I’m hanging in there but over the last year I’ve watched as a friend of mine struggled with the grind of it all. The simple necessity of piloting his craft through the straits and shoals of daily life proved a terrible task. It kind of wore him down to the point where he’d lost sight of why he did what he did; he wondered if he was making any difference in the world. Beyond that, he wondered if he was even really any good at what he did. “Do my coworkers accept me for who I am?” “Do they respect me?” “Do they care for me?” “What is the point of it all?” These questions swam before him every day—multiple times a day—and became such a heavy burden that it began to affect his demeanor, his ability to do his job, his ability to command the respect and deserve the affection of those around him—in short, it was a really tough time for my friend, Luka. Have I mentioned him before? Luka Kovac? You know, Dr. Kovac—he works down at the Country General ER.—the tall, dark, Croatian man with so much sadness in his eyes.
Anyway, he came pretty close to rock bottom when he improperly intubated that patient, and by the time anyone noticed it was lights out. There were extenuating circumstances, to be sure, but in the end it was a terrible mistake which Luka compounded by jumping in his car and driving it in a dark rage through the city, eventually crashing it and badly injuring his med student passenger and a couple of civilians in the other car.
Luka reacted by withdrawing into himself, avoiding the ER, not answering his telephone, drinking a fair amount, and—the most obvious sign of his decline into turpitude—paying for sex.
At any rate, just when it seemed he might disappear into a deep, dark depression, he suddenly switched course and disappeared instead into deep, dark Africa. He took a leave of absence from County and went to work for the Alliance Des Médcins, where he worked in conditions so difficult, with supplies and medications so scarce and sanitation so basic, that suddenly good ol’ County looked like the pinnacle of public health.
It’s not all fun and games in the Congo. Yes, Luka has a brush with death. Yes, his salvation requires the dramatic intervention of Dr. John Carter and his dead president friends. But in the end, Luka Kovac returns to the ER with a renewed sense of himself and his purpose. He has been to the other side and come back a more confident, more compassionate and more complete man who does not question but rather acts.
That is not to say he’s got it figured out—not at all. It’s not that he’s answered the question we posed a few paragraphs back, but he’s found a satisfying way to hold it at bay, and that is, as the ad campaign says, as good as it gets.
Meanwhile, here in the real world, the days are getting long now, so sometimes as we’re down in the basement watching the men and women of ER struggle with mortality and morality, outside it is still bright and sunny. Now and then one of our chickens will pass by the foundation window and we’ll get a glimpse of her, scratching and pecking, scratching and pecking—a kick of the left foot, a kick of the right foot, cock the head, peck and repeat. That’s the chicken’s life. All day long they go at it, covering the yard robotically, completely, thoughtlessly, like organic, egg-laying Roombas. Do they ask why they are here? Do they ask why they do what they do? Do they wonder if they are particularly good at it? Do they look for respect? Do they question the ceaseless toil?
No, they do not. They carry on.
Looking at these chickens, it suddenly seemed pretty obvious. We’re not here to do this work. We’re here because we do this work and only the chickens that are able to work the yard and get their grub—only those chickens are still with us at the end of the day. If some chicken thought better of herself and declined to make the effort—or even despaired at the pointlessness of it all and drowned herself in the birdbath—well, that chicken would cease to be a part of the whole conversation, her point of view subtracted from life’s argument.
So, that’s it then. We’re here because we work to be here.
Then a couple days ago, a raccoon came in the night and killed three of our birds. Mitch got pretty much torn up and spread across the neighbor’s yard. Silver Heekeetaw got decapitated and split open, her entrails pulled out, her body dumped by the compost bin. And Duff—good ol’ Duff, simple, dumb Duff—was just murdered, her golden body broken and stiff but otherwise whole, lying by the gate.
For some reason—maybe the warmer weather of late—the birds had, one by one, stopped going into the coop at night, instead climbing up onto a ladder that hangs on the side of the garage, letting the automatic door slowly shut them out as the sun set.
At first I was pretty good about going out before bed and stuffing them back into the coop, but after a bit I let it go. They seemed so happy lined up together in the cool night air.
And then the netting that forms the top of the coop had pulled away from the garage along a four-foot length. I totally had that on my to-do list, especially after we saw the raccoon poking around the yard one night. I tried to trap him a couple of times but he didn’t take, and, after a bit, I stopped worrying. And then, disaster.
In the aftermath, as I was cleaning up the coop and the run, I could see the signs of panic and flight. These birds are nearly helpless at night but they had done what they could to escape—Duff had run to the gate where she was pinned and killed; Silver Heekeetaw struggled to get in between the wall and the compost bin before being brutally dispatched; Mitch made it as far as the neighbor’s yard. When death came, they showed that they wanted to live and wanted it badly. I took some grim consolation in this. Surely it’s a sign of something.
But now that I’ve been thinking on it a while, it all just seems like more chemistry to me. Is the will to live evidence that there’s value in life? Or is it just another necessary condition—like the drive to eat and fuck—without which creatures do not linger long enough to serve as examples? These birds who wanted so much to live are resting now in a row by the back fence. Their lives are easier now, by far. And the world does not seem much diminished. Maybe, when you ask a question as broad as, “why are we here,” the answer isn’t about what’s right or what’s true, but merely about what persists.
That next night, using a peanut butter sandwich soaked in rendered fat, I trapped that raccoon. Once I had him in the trap, I gave some thought to lightening his metaphysical burden as well, easing his load the way he’d eased that of my chickens. But in the end, I lacked the sang-froid and told myself it would be easier to dump him somewhere than to dig the hole, so I decided to drive him across the tracks to the industrial area and release him in the woods by the Columbia Slough.
He was furiously angry when I first picked the trap up. He snarled and spat and threw himself from side to side. But as we drove along he got very calm and all I heard was a quiet click and clink of metal, as if he were patiently working on the lock. And suddenly, without looking, I knew that he’d picked the lock, lifted the gate and gotten free in the car, that he had made his quiet way forward and was just now poised behind me, about to slit my throat with a razor-sharp claw. And in that moment, I cried out, “I want to live!”
Well, the attack never came. My voice echoed and died away in the cabin of the car and after a moment, when he’d recovered from the shock of my outburst, the raccoon began tinkering with the cage again. Turns out the latch was more than a match for his little brain and it was merely my imagination that had escaped its cage. We drove quietly the rest of the way, a matter of several miles, to a patch of woods between the DEQ and the State Correctional Facility where, without ceremony, I lifted the gate and let him go. He paused a moment and then shot out and in three quick bounds was at the wood's margin. I watched ‘til his tail disappeared into the undergrowth and then, with nothing more to be done there, carried on with my life.