This summer has been a test of character. The fields crack from lack of rain, and stillborn cornstalk leaves that normally saturate August air in southcentral Iowa with humidity continue to wilt. We are dry as Nebraska, though the thunder has begun to speak.
Our public leaders complain how journalists are defaming their character. That could only be a sound argument if they possessed character. In my daughter Jasmine’s favorite movie Moana, a wizened grandmother steadied by cane, whom the tribe thinks is crazy, whispers, “We have forgotten who we are.”
I recently discussed with a friend how in Great Britain, if a person is diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, better known as sociopathy—incapable of knowing the difference between right or wrong—the subject would be institutionalized for life. In America, we make those people our CEOs, and place them in charge of providing health insurance. In some native cultures, the tribesmen recognize these imposters, and take them on one last seal spearing trip. These demons mimicking the human form do not return to their village. They have hunting accidents. But in the United States, sociopathy is considered good business sense.
At one point in mid-June, I spent an evening lying on my back staring at the sky. That was just after I told some cows, “I broke my _______ leg.”
Longhorn cattle grazed nearby. Every few minutes I studied the grotesquerie of my right ankle, with one bone by a mere centimeter from not breaking through skin, my foot bent at a 45-degree angle outward.
When I attempted to crawl back to my parents’ house, my own skeleton stabbed into muscle and flesh like a blade. What had supported me throughout my life had become torturous
The gate I had climbed leaned above, now at the same angle as my ankle, suspended by rusted chain. I attempted to lift the gate over me to slide under, but the wire kept it securely fastened to the weight of the earth. This is how my mother found me when she drove Jasmine and my son Grant out to circle the cattle pond.
Grant began crying, and I told him I was fine. Concern for my own body faded into the dregs of May, night lights assaulted by June bugs. I assured Grant that the doctors would fix me.
As I waited for the ambulance, my mind wandered to my meeting with Charlie Company and the men who slogged through the jungle and dropped the Ace of Spades on enemy soldiers after killing them. I empathized with the dead. I imagined my mother never finding me, or the medic taking his time to crawl to my position. The whole of human suffering became aware of me, and I was aware of human suffering.
One day, a few weeks later, I sat in my cast in a downtown suite with a view of the Capital of the State of Iowa gilded by the sun and held in place by scaffolding. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes:
“The more laws and order are made prominent, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”
I wondered when that golden bubble would pop, as an actuary, obviously an important entity, bragged he had been performing his duties for 12-and-a-half years—the same way a child who was six-and-a-half years old would boast of those extra six months. It’s all in the half life, just like for uranium.
But even a man who’s been an actuary for twelve-and-a-half years can break his leg and say insane things under the influence of dilaudid, morphine, a synthetic form of morphine and whatever else the doctors administered before they snapped my ankle back in place. I imagine the actuary would also tell Tony Funk he loved him more times than is considered socially acceptable.
The morning after the surgery, Funk stopped in my hospital room. I informed him my wife and stepdaughter Haley had given me a play-by-play of the crazy things I said before they snapped my leg back into place. Apparently I spoke of the Indian caste system, hunting with my father, how important it was when Funk described my father’s skill with a shotgun, and somewhere in-between I told my audience of family, ER doctor, surgeon, EMTs and nurses that this was the most difficult lecture I had ever delivered.
“There is a difference between ‘like’ and ‘love,’” Funk joked.
“We love you,” my nurse told him.
In the aftermath of the accident, I could not make a guarantee to my family we would be able to stay in Wayne County. A job in Winona, Minn. opened up, and it would have been a difficult opportunity to turn down. It is where my brother and I traveled and lodged on vacation, cradled in bluff country and bald Sugar Loaf cliff over the Mississippi River, where we watched the fireworks spread across placid water one Fourth of July.
All of my children wanted to stay in school here. Therefore I began The Wayne County Independent. I needed a push to get it started, and apparently all that was necessary was getting my ankle snapped by gravity and a rusted gate. On my first Fathers’ Day without my father Wes Selby, who died of cancer last October, I could not even leave the first floor of my own house. Now I can take my son Wes outside without a cane and pitch to him. He hits a baseball to the opposite field. I tell him how my father was always too busy working in the fields to play catch. When he drags his feet and whacks the bat against one of our pecan trees, I tell him he is lucky. He shouldn’t complain.
My father was a good man disturbed permanently by war. Therefore he was not the greatest boss. There was violence, sweat and God’s name taken often in vain. I toiled through some of the hottest, most humid summers with him, and it taught me a work ethic. Bowed by PTSD and alcohol, he also taught me how not to treat other people. Being abused is not an excuse to become abusive. It should inform our existence.
Just because you’ve killed someone already, it does not mean you must become a killer.
I would ask my father again if he were here—so what if you killed a man wearing a Christian cross with a Savage 12-gauge shotgun? We still could have at least played catch.
I go forward with The Wayne County Independent attempting to be a wiser and more tolerant person than before this summer. Even one of the fonts I used in this newspaper’s design, unbeknownst to me, was identical to a font style of a book I began reading later upon the life of the Buddha, who was probably the greatest psychologist who ever lived. He suggested people learn to live as though they had no ego, no self.
The most miserable people are full of ego and sell-importance. Often, they are also the most powerful. It’s time to find new leaders. Dutiful citizens must follow some older code built deeper into us than the caprice of the marketplace.
I begin my business this way, as the Tao Te Ching tells me. It echoes the Book of Ecclesiastes, because they both emanate from the same sacred, primal source:
“Build your house on firm foundations. Let the depth of your heart be as the ocean. Be a friend who is caring and genuine. Speak sincerely, rooted in compassion. Wise leaders are ethical and just, loving peace and competence, skill, ability, effectiveness. There is a time and season, for the success of every action, a time to sow, a time to reap, a time to wake, a time to sleep. Let your way be as the way of water, running deep and filled with peace. Do not struggle or compete. Go with the flow and be serene.”