2361) The Problem of Ignorality

Michael Perry

Don’t bother looking for ‘ignorality’ in the dictionary.  It’s not in there yet, and probably won’t ever be.  It is a word Michael Perry made up to use in his book Population: 485:  Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time (2002).  It appears to be a combination of two words, ‘ignorance’ and ‘mortality;’ as in “ignorance of our mortality” (see below).

Michael Perry grew up in New Auburn, Wisconsin (population 485), and then moved away to go to school and attempt a writing career in the big city.  Ten years later he moved back to his little home town, joined the local volunteer fire department and ambulance service, and continued to write.  This book is one of the results of that journey.  You can read more about Perry and his work at his website http://www.sneezingcow.com (as in Don’t Stand Behind a Sneezing Cow, another one of his books).

In Population: 485 Perry writes a little bit about going back to his small home town, and quite a bit about what it means to be on the fire department and ambulance crew.  He describes in the book his experiences, and, his ponderings on those experiences, as in these paragraphs taken from his chapter on “The Call.”  What he says here makes me grateful to God for the gift of each day, reminds me to be prepared for the end of my days, and it gives me an appreciation for the people who respond to the call when you dial 911.


     The calls blindside you, always.  You will prepare and prepare, and you will never be prepared.  We are never ready, and our patients are never ready.  Over the years, I have developed a visceral reaction to families and victims expressing surprise at tragedy.  Why are we surprised?  Why do we forget we are mortal?  Bad, bad things happen everywhere, every day.  Humans, for better or worse, harbor this feeling that we— individually— are special.  A patch of ice or a pea-sized blood clot makes a mockery of that illusion in a heartbeat.  We are not special at all…

     My brother John made a call, he came busting in the kitchen, and the first thing that hit him was a palpable wave of cigarette smoke and bacon grease.  A man was spilled backward on the floor, his chair upended.  His plate was mounded with half-finished eggs and sausage links.  His cigarettes had slipped from his shirt pocket.  His white belly protruded like risen dough.  And his wife looked at my brother, and she said,”I don’t understand… he’s never been sick a day in his life.”

     And John says he remembers his first thought was, Well, he’s sick now.  (pages 150-1)


     What a profound thing it is to call for help.  How astounding, the number of people fate allows to float through this life never once confronting their own mortality.  One of the benefits of the fire and rescue business is a near-constant sense of vulnerability.  A recognition that at the cellular level, or the speeding freight train level, we are but a particle removed from chaos.  I have carried my kit in to find tattooed tavern-clearing monsters weeping in bed, hairless from radiation, leaking soupy feces from a colostomy, skin like mottled pate, and on the walls beer mirrors and bellicose biker trinkets, and I think, how do we ever forget this sort of possibility?  How do we lapse into what you might call ‘ignorality?’  In part, I guess, because you simply can’t function if you are always feeling the scythe pressed to your neck.  I have knelt beside a wrecked car, seen a burly forty-year-old shaking with pain and fear, and realized the last time I saw him he was steaming under the bright lights of the hometown football field, running his body like a weapon.  I super-impose the image in my head over the image before me, and try to keep the new one from displacing the old one, so that later I can ponder the contrast and see what it might teach me.  The lesson never concludes, but I’m getting parts of it.  I understand that what you’re doing when you dial 911 is announcing to strangers that you are losing the battle.  I no longer have the strength, I no longer have the answer, the trouble is winning, and won’t you please come help?   (pages 153-4)


     The pager is on my hip right now, even as I type.  It will go off, perhaps in the next five minutes, perhaps next Tuesday when I am in the bathroom.  My heart will jump.  If I’m getting something from under the sink, I may crack my head on the grease trap.  I’ll listen for the details, find out where, begin forming a half-baked picture in my head.  I’ll run across the backyard, headed for the hall.  Whoever’s out there needing help, they’re getting me, for better or worse.  Me, and a handful of my neighbors.  We’ll do what we can.

     There was this old man, we used to get called to his apartment almost on a weekly basis.  He had a heartbeat like a broke-down roller coaster, and every once in a while he’d just check out, and his wife would dial 911.  He was usually mildly dazed but smiling and conscious by the time we got there.  We answered call after call until finally his old heart cashed in.  But I remember walking in his bedroom at two a.m. toward the end there, and seeing this little man looking up at us with such trust, and I thought one day I will be the little old man on the bed.  And I hope my neighbors come when I call.   (page 160)


     Back home, when I step through the door and toss my keys on the chair beside the door, I notice the house has an echo and a chill to it.  The call came in at 2:45 a.m., and now it is after five a.m., and I have friends coming to visit at nine a.m.  I want to get what sleep I can.   All the way up the stairs and into my bedroom, even as I shuck my clothes and roll into the sheets, I keep seeing the figure in the granary (of a man who committed suicide).  It’s a healthy and natural part of the accommodation process, I imagine, this constant reviewing of the image.  But it just kept presenting itself, and I found myself reacting the way I always have after one of these calls:  pondering the irrevocable nature of death, and fighting the desire to call loved ones, wake them up and ask them, Do you realize how thin the thread is?  That maybe tomorrow we don’t wake up?…  I wasn’t terror-stricken or freaked out, just unsettled.   (page 180)


Job 21:13  —  They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment go down to the grave.

James 4:14  — You do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

Isaiah 55:6  —  Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.


Teach us to number our days, O Lord, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

–Psalm 90:12