OF UNDERLINGS AND OVERLINGS

“Harry, why do you howl like that?”

“Like how, Aussie?”

“Each time a firetruck or a police car pass the car with the siren going, you sit back and howl.”

“I’m doing what my ancestors, the wolves, did long ago, Aussie. They howled, too.”

“Harry, you’re descended from wolves like I’m descended from elephants.”

“How come you’re so hoity-toity, Aussie?”

“Because I am top dog in this family. In case you didn’t notice, who gets served breakfast and dinner first?“

“You do, Auss.”

“Who’s the first one to get treats?”

“You do, Aussie.”

“Who’s the first to get the weekly marrow bone?”

“You do, Aussie.”

“Know why, Harry?”

“No. Why, Aussie?”

“Because you, Harry, are an underling.”

“What’s an underling?”

“The opposite of overling, Harry. I am an overling. Look at me and weep. An overling has everything going for her. She’s smart, enterprising, gets all the food she needs, and has your basically great life.”

“And an underling, Aussie?”

“Underlings are not as cute or good looking, and certainly not as smart. They often don’t get enough food and they can’t run around. The best they can do is follow overlings around and benefit from their generosity.”

“What about humans, Aussie? Do they have underlings?”

“You bet your cute white chest, Harry. Lots of them.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Fairness has nothing to do with it, Harry. There are always going to be underlings in this world.”

I listened to the dogs’ daily musings about life and wondered, as I do almost every day, how I ever got such a bossy, obnoxious dog like Aussie.

Yesterday I woke up and remembered that Peter Matthiessen had died 6 years earlier on yesterday’s date, April 5. I thought of how Bernie and I had decided to get up in the early morning to get out to Long Island, but neither of us could sleep that night so instead we were up at 2 and drove down to Connecticut, took the ferry across the Sound, and met up with his family and Zen group that morning. We saw his body in the funeral house before it was cremated.

I looked up what Wikipedia had to say about him: Peter Matthiessen was an American novelist, naturalist, wilderness writer, zen teacher and CIA officer. Zen teacher and CIA officer, I thought. How cool is that?

He worked for the CIA for only a short time when he was in Paris, quickly realizing that he felt more comfortable with those he was supposed to report on than with his peers in the Agency. But he led an extraordinary life, traveled to isolated tribes, searched for mythical animals, swam with great white sharks, bore witness to the tragic extinction of native cultures and species. In some way, he was bigger than life.

We traveled with him a little bit; he encouraged me to write, was generous with his praise.

I went downstairs and was about to light incense for him, as I do on memorial days, when I remembered someone else who’d died on April 5. Adam was the son of a dear, long-time friend. He died on April 5 around 2000 or 2001. He had been born with brain damage and at the age of 9, exhibiting daily fits and seizures, he was put in a residential home, where he stayed for the rest of his life.

I once went to visit him in Kentucky with my friend, his mother. We had Thanksgiving dinner at Denny’s, which was a big treat for him, and he stayed in a motel room with his mother and watched television till late at night. We tried to take him to a movie but he got antsy so we had to leave. We met his roommates and his counselors, saw the new basketball court, got good reports about him. He was on strong medications otherwise he would go into violent fits.

He told his mother that he decided to become a Born-Again Christian.

“But you’re Jewish,” she reminded him. “Should I not send you anymore Chanukah gifts?”

He thought long and hard about that.

He seemed basically happy till he died on the evening of April 5, almost going on 50. He’d been given a snack of crackers with peanut butter before bedtime and choked to death.

Standing in front of Kwan-Yin, I saw Adam in my mind from that Kentucky visit long ago. His mother, who told me she thought about him every day, is no longer living and I wondered who thought of him now; I was glad I still remembered.

Adam and Peter, I thought. I should light two sticks, one each. They were so different: one traveled all over the world, writing great books and articles, loved and admired by many, the other living his life in a Kentucky residential home, sedated, waiting all week for the Sunday morning call from his mother in New York.

Is one more valuable or important than the other?

Virginia Woolf wrote: “While fame impedes and constricts, obscurity wraps about a man like a mist; obscurity is dark, ample and free . . . Over the obscure man is poured the merciful suffusion of darkness. None knows where he goes or comes.”

I lit one stick of incense for both.