BY ERIC SPITZNAGEL
MONDAYS WITH MOE
(AN OLD FART, A YOUNG URBAN PROFESSIONAL, AND SOMETHING RESEMBLING LIFE'S GREATEST LESSON)
During my imminent rise to journalistic glory, I've known many great men who have influenced my life and career. But none have been quite so significant as Moe Schwertz. He isn't a professor at some prestigious academic institution. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, he's never worked a day in his life. He lives alone in a tiny, foul-smelling house next door to my parents. As a child, I would often see him out on his front porch, yelling at the neighbors to "leash their goddamn dogs," even though nobody in the neighborhood actually owned a pet. My parents said that Moe was crazy or senile, and they warned me to stay away from him.
I spent many a summer afternoon listening to Moe rant at his in-house nurse (or if she wasn't visiting, his television) on a variety of fascinating subjects. "Why do my ears hurt?" He would wonder aloud. "Somebody stole my socks!" He would protest. And on those days when he was in a particularly reflective mood, Moe would implore, "Stop yelling! Why is everybody always yelling!" To most people, it may have seemed like the inane ramblings of a feeble-minded simpleton. But to me, Moe was a modern-day philosopher pondering the Big Questions that too few of us give much notice to in this rat-race we call life.
I eventually moved out of my parent's home and attended college to study journalism. Although my professors were undeniably clever, they lacked the same intellectual curiosity that I had once admired in Moe. When my teachers lectured me about journalistic integrity and the pursuit of truth, I wanted to scream back at them, "Yes, but what about the socks? Who has stolen poor Moe's socks?"
Ten years later, I became a renowned columnist for the Detroit Reader, and all but forgot about Moe. Then one day I turned on ABC's "Nightline" and Ted Koppel was interviewing an elderly scholar named Morrie. I became convinced that the man on my TV screen was none other than the crazy old geezer from my hometown. I was surprised and saddened to learn that Morrie (an obvious pseudonym) was dying, and I decided to visit my mentor for one final lesson before his imminent demise. What began as a reunion of old friends turned into the project of a lifetime.
As it turned out, the old scholar on my TV was not Moe. What's more, Moe was in perfect health, and according to his nurse, was in no danger of passing on any time soon. But rather than bid adieu to this seemingly hostile old fart, I decided to extend my visit with Moe for the next few months. I met with him every Monday to explore the perennial value issues of everyday life: "Family," "Emotion," "Money," "What's Good To Watch on TV" and, of course, "My Children Are Stealing From Me." During my brief time with him, Moe offered up numerous pearls of wisdom that had a profound effect on me. His keen insights on the inconvenience of existence were so utterly inspiring and enlightening that I have decided to share them with the world.
"Mondays With Moe" is more than just a dying man's last words. For one thing, Moe is not dying. And he does not intend to shut up anytime soon. But Moe will die someday (or so his friends and family hope), and it was in this spirit that I embarked on my noble journey into the mind of a brilliant man.
"Sweet mother of mercy," Moe shrieked at me. "Who the devil are you?"
I had apparently caught Moe by surprise. I didn't intend to sneak up on him. I'd been standing in his living room for quite some time, quietly watching him from behind a curtain. I'd just assumed he knew I was there, and was waiting for the right moment to initiate a conversation. When he finally saw me, his face went so pale that I feared he might expire.
I was hoping it wouldn't come to this, but Moe had given me little choice. I'd been knocking on his front door for most of the morning, without success. I tried to force my way in, but the door appeared to be pad-locked. I wasn't sure if Moe just couldn't hear me, or if he had an ulterior motive in ignoring me.
As I banged on his door, I could distinctly hear Moe inside, yelling, "Go away! Leave me alone or I'm calling the cops!" I could only assume that Moe was challenging me to find my own solution. He seemed to be suggesting that getting into his house, like life itself, was a complex puzzle without easy answers. We can ask others to "open the door" for us, but then we miss out on the satisfaction of having found our own way.
I eventually decided to break one of the windows with a rock and crawl inside. Those unfamiliar with our weekly meetings might consider this breaking and entering. But I knew Moe would be proud of my ingenuity.
"Identify yourself," Moe continued to wail. "Answer me, or I swear to God, I'll shoot. Don't think I won't!"
I wasn't concerned that Moe would actually shoot me. Fr one thing, he didn't have a gun. He was holding a TV remote control, which is hardly the same thing as a firearm. I smiled warmly at Moe, understanding his symbolic gesture. Though his words threatened bodily harm, his choice of a weapon was telling. Moe, like all great philosophers, has a profound respect for the sanctity of life. His Gandhi-like commitment to non-violent protest is a rarity in this modern age, and we can only pray that our politicians possess even a fraction of his gentle spirit.
"Who are you?" Moe demanded. "What are you doing in my house?"
It suddenly dawned on me that Moe was not wearing any pants. His wrinkled body looked so tiny and frail under the harsh lighting of his inner sanctum. At first, I was repulsed by the sight of him. But then I began to ponder the meaning of his nudity. Yes, his crooked frame was shocking to me, but it was also quite beautiful. It was an admission of the fragile nature of mortality. By exposing himself to me, he was casting aside the "disguise" of clothing that masked his humanity. "Here I am," he seemed to be saying. "I am but a man, a creature made of flesh and bone. Though my mind remains vibrant, the body must age. But I am not ashamed."
And that, I supposed, was to be today's lesson.
"Why won't you answer me?" Moe implored. "Who are you? Tell me who you are!"
I did not understand Moe's question, and requested clarification. Did he mean who am I on a surface level, as in my chosen role in life? Or who am I in a metaphysical sense?
"Meta-who?" Moe stammered. "Who are you? What are you doing here? How did you get in my house?"
Moe was moving too quickly for me. His theological poser was intriguing, but I didn't feel qualified to debate the issue with him. I could sense that Moe wasn't going to let me off easy, so I struggled to find the words he was looking for.
I suppose that I am a man, I told him. A man looking for purpose.
"What the hell does that mean?" Moe screeched. "Why won't you tell me who you are? For the love of Christ!"
Before I could garble another poorly constructed response, Moe's nurse entered the room. She was just arriving for the day, and seemed as surprised as I was to find Moe naked.
"Moe, what are you doing?" She scolded him. "What happened to your pants?'
"I don't know where my goddamn pants are," Moe yelled at her. "Somebody's been hiding them. I wouldn't be surprised if you're responsible. You want me to get pneumonia and die so you can steal my money."
The nurse rolled her eyes and threw a blanket towards Moe. "Cover yourself up and I'll go find you something to wear," she said. "Are you ready for lunch?"
"I've been ready for lunch since noon. Where the hell have you been? Waiting for me to croak, no doubt."
The nurse retreated to the kitchen, leaving me alone with Moe once again. He looked at me and put a finger over his lips, silently beckoning me to approach. "Did you see that?" He muttered into my ear.
See what? I asked.
"That look in her eyes. Pure evil."
She didn't look unusual to me, I admitted.
"She's been poisoning my food," Moe informed me. "She wants me dead."
Why would she want you dead?
"She's in cahoots with my grandkids," he said, reclining into his couch. "I've seen them whispering in the hallway. And once I caught them handing her an envelope full of cash. They're paying her off to kill me, so they can get their greasy hands on their inheritance."
The true meaning behind Moe's words were not lost on me. Despite his obvious inner peace, there was still a part of him that feared death. But not because it meant giving up the precious gift of life. What really disturbed Moe was saying goodbye to his family and friends, who had come to depend on his presence. When Moe passed on, what would he have to offer his children besides money? While his financial assets were considerable, no amount of money could make up for the loss of their father's love.
"They're not gonna get a dime from me," Moe growled. "I've buried all my money where they can't find it. They'll have to torture me before I tell 'em where it is, and I wouldn't be surprised if that's what they had in mind."
Is torture the right word? I asked. I've heard that growing old can be painful, but is the discomfort of age really so unbearable that it can be compared with torture>
"Where the hell is my remote?" Moe screamed towards the kitchen. "I wanna watch the TV!"
It took me a moment to grasp Moe's metaphor, but I seen realized what he was insinuating. Old age can indeed be rife with suffering and regret, but it can also be an enriching experience. If you dwell too often on the bad, you will be consumed with misery. But by "turning the channels" of your perspective, you can see the bright side of any situation. The key is learning to control the inner remote control of consciousness, and thereby choose any reality you wish.
"I'm missing The Price is Right," Moe howled. "Get your ass in here, woman, and find my remote!"
I wished the path of my life could be as clear as Moe's. I too wanted to find my "remote," but I didn't even know what mine looked like. Moe had once again proven to be my intellectual superior.
"Calm down, Moe," the nurse called, walking into the living room with a bowl of soup in one hand and Moe's pants draped over her shoulder. "You could get up and turn it on yourself, you know."
"Yeah, and then fall and break a hip. You'd like that, wouldn't you? Then you'd have me right where you wanted me. I wouldn't be able to struggle when you put the knife in."
The nurse picked up the remote from the floor and turned on the television. She then placed the soup on the coffee table in front of Moe. "I found your pants in the oven," she said, dropping the pants on Moe's lap. "I don't suppose you know how they got there."
"Nice try, devil-woman. Hiding my pants and then blaming me. You probably thought I kept my money in the pockets, didn't you? Think again."
The nurse sighed, shot me a sympathetic glance, and then quickly left the room. Moe studied his soup for a moment before pushing it away. "This soup is cold," he declared.
"It's not cold," the nurse yelled from the kitchen. "Eat it."
"Fat chance. You're trying to put the juju on me. Well, it won't work. I'm too smart for you, missy!"
What about the physical effects of aging? I asked Moe. Doesn't it bother you to watch your body deteriorate while your mind remains active?
I waited for an answer, but Moe was strangely silent. He watched the TV and completely ignored me, despite my frequent poking. At first, I was annoyed by his blatant disregard, but then it occurred to me that Moe's rude behavior was far from unusual.
During my last few visits to his abode, Moe would often end our conversations abruptly to watch TV. At other times, he'd show signs of fatigue or disinterest that, to any other visitor, would have been mistakenly interpreted as discourteous. During our first meeting, his nurse had to violently shake him before he would sit up and take notice. Even then, I had to maintain constant eye contact with him, lest he should forget he was talking to me or, worse still, drift into a deep sleep from which he could not be revived.
But I learned not to be offended by Moe's tendency to tune me out. I soon realized that he was not sleeping or watching TV, but deep in thought. His mind was taking him on a visceral journey too fantastic for me to comprehend. He was contemplating theories, postulating equations, surfing vast intellectual planes unlike anything I could imagine. After minutes, sometimes hours, of mental gymnastics, he would almost always reward my patience with a profound observation.
"I can't feel my legs," Moe suddenly announced.
Once again, Moe proved to be full of surprises. I had all but forgotten the topic of today's meeting - growing old - but Moe insisted that there was still much to say on the subject.
For a young man like myself, old age was not something I'd given much thought. I did know, however, that I was not looking forward to it. From what I knew of it, growing old meant having to contend with the inevitable decay of the body. Your skin begins to wrinkle and sag, your hair falls out, and your bones become brittle. The very idea made me sad, so I decided not to dwell on it. I foolishly convinced myself that if I ignored the aging process, it wouldn't happen to me.
But Moe refused to live in denial. He had accepted long ago that his body was not a temple, that it was destined to crumble and fade as all living things must. But he also realized that the body was nothing more than a state of mind. His legs may be weaker than they were in his youth, but as long as his soul remained young, he would never become a victim of his age. "I can't feel my legs because my legs do not matter," Moe was telling me. "My spirit is dancing, and so I will always be a young man."
"I'm serious, I can't feel my legs," Moe continued. "Find my pills, will you?"
The road of life is filled with potential tragedy. We could be hit by a bus tomorrow, or fall into a coma, or get stabbed in the spine by some hooligan, if such a thing happened to us, we might feel that we'd been betrayed by the world. "What the fuck?" We'd scream at the heavens. "So now I'm paralyzed, is that it? Well, that sucks. I guess I'm gonna spend the rest of my life lying in bed, eating Cocoa Puffs."
But Moe would not greet such a misfortune with a heavy heart. "If this is to be my lot in life, then so be it," he would say. "If I cannot walk with my legs, then I will walk with my imagination. There is nothing I can't do, no exotic location I can't visit, so long as I have the will to do so."
What is the secret to your inner strength? I asked Moe. How do you find the courage to embrace life, when so many people feel compelled to accept defeat?
"Don't just sit there, help me!" Moe offered. "Oh my God! My entire body is going numb!"
I had to agree with Moe. The idea of growing old, and of death itself, can often leave us numb with fear. But if we, like Moe, would allow others to take care of us occasionally, the natural process of growing old wouldn't be quite so terrifying.
Moe's wisdom reminded me of a dream I had just days before. In the dream, I saw a beach with two sets of footprints. One of the footprints belonged to me, and the other belonged to Moe. The following night, I had a similar dream, but this time there was only one set of footprints. Although I never discussed the dream with Moe, I believe he might have said, "That was when I was carrying you."
"Oh sweet Jesus," Moe moaned, his face turning a bright red. "My heart's stopped! Why won't you get my pills? I need my pills! I'm dying, you selfish bastard!"
I was about to ask him another question when Moe interrupted my train of thought with a powerful belch. It was so loud that I could feel the floor shake beneath me. Moe smacked his chest with his fist, and then leaned back into the couch.
"Ah, that's better," he gurgled. "Guess it was just heartburn."
With the smell of his belch still heavy in the air, I said goodbye to my dear friend and promised to return next week. He had taught me enough for one day, and left me with much to think about.
"Who the hell are you?" Moe demanded as I walked towards the door. I hoped that one day soon, I would have an answer for him.