Archive for the ‘Daily life’ Category

Attitude adjustment

April 21st, 2017

It is amazing how many people tell me, without being prompted or asked, that they wish he would die.  I’m not going to say his name, but you know exactly whom I am talking about.  Admit it, you have felt this way, too.  Just this morning I was talking to a friend and she dropped it into the conversation with about the same degree and type of emphasis that she might have used in confessing that she doesn’t like cats.  I had to admit that practically every morning when I wake up I check the news right away hoping to read of a popcorn choking incident or myocardial infarction. This does not make us better people, I said.  She said, well, but so long as it’s just him we’re thinking about, it’s not so bad. I suppose that’s one approach. For a while I tried imagining myself inside his head, so that through the magic of empathy I might be able to see him as a human being, like me, deserving of compassion the same as I am. I thought of him as severely emotionally crippled, isolated, unable to connect effectively with other human beings, suffering the pain that goes with that. I’m not that kind of person, but at least that gave me something to work with.  I know something about loneliness.  I was aware that there was a certain amount of schadenfreude in trying to connect with him this way, but it seemed to make him more real and less of a malevolent fantasy.  But then a friend I respect, a psychologist highly experienced in working with criminals, told me that he is a psychopath and he doesn’t feel any pain, at least not the kind of pain I was imagining. I pretty much believe her.  So there goes any basis I can find for relating to him, bringing him within my world of experience, and now what do I do? Empathy doesn’t work if it’s fantasy.  I still don’t want to be the kind of person who wakes up every morning wishing that somebody were dead. Maybe the answer comes out of meditation. There’s no point in repressing a thought. That just attaches you to it and gives it power. Instead you allow the thought to happen, acknowledge that it is happening, and then say goodbye to it. I wish it were that easy to deal with him: allow him to happen, acknowledge that he is happening, and then say goodbye to him. I am impatient. I want to get to the goodbye part without going through the rest. I must remember that “going through the rest” constitutes most of what we call living, and that wishing to cut to the end, the goodbye part, is in that sense a wish for one’s own death to come closer. Am I large enough to live in a world that also contains incomprehensible evil? I hope so. Remember to breathe.

In Praise of Water Purification

June 13th, 2013

I hesitated to share this poem, because I’m unsure how good I think it is, as a poem, but I think it might at least be an interesting expression of some thoughts I’ve had.  It is one of the many fruits of the years I’ve spent pondering something my mother said one Thanksgiving: “It didn’t begin with me and it doesn’t end with me.”  In some sense this seemingly obvious observation has become central to my outlook.  One aspect of these reflections is captured in To Join the Lost, where the essence of hell is belief in the opposite proposition.  Goldfish Rising, the next volume in the trilogy, will carry the thought forward.  Geniuses tell us things that look simple but contain the world.  My mom was like that.  But this isn’t a poem about my mom.  It’s more about dads:

Yesterday, while scrubbing the sink to a

depthless, flawless white the chrome tap

hung across like a space vehicle (that’s

the kind of thing I think about while

scrubbing sinks) it struck me: my death,

if my son holds for me what I held

for my dad, will rip the poor kid a

hole in his guts, the same as my dad’s

ripped for me; and this is the cost the

love that I want now for us imposes.

Would it be better not to be beloved,

than to inflict that daily absence?

Then (this being the kind of thing

I think about while scrubbing sinks)

I saw, in the dimensioneless whiteness

above which swam the tap, the hole that

runs through my son’s life connected

to the hole that runs through mine,

and that ran through my father’s life,

and that pierced (I believe) the core of

his father’s before him, all the way

back to… when?  To some miserable

bastard, lost in heartlessness, whose son

greeted his last departure as merely

or less than just another sunset?  Could

indifference cap such a pipe-line?  Then

I thought of what might flow through such a

conduit, what umbilical nourishment

besides what filth and waste, and I knew,

it does not begin or end with me.


Childhood Illness

August 11th, 2012

The thing is, it makes the skin look thin
as the scum of fat on a pot of broth
simmering, red holes through which you fear
he’ll escape like steam.  Of course it’s nothing
like that at all, blows over almost
as quick as breezes cool night sweats, though
his mama warns he’ll scar where he rubs,
foreseeing the afterburn, the aura
of his hitherto perfect body passing.

It’s the one on the right, Jack!

June 18th, 2012

As I was sitting at the intersection this morning, waiting while the good citizen in front of me tried to remember which pedal to push to make his wheeled cage move forward, I perused the bumper stickers and vanity plates proclaiming his fandom for various sports teams and thought about what herd animals we humans are, always seeking some group to grant our allegiance in contradistinction to all other groups.  Why this allegiance rests so rarely with the species as a whole and so often with some more-or-less arbitrary subset thereof, what Kurt Vonnegut called a granfalloon, is a mystery for greater Darwinians than me to figure out.  It just is that way.

I recalled an occurrence at that same intersection the day before.  Due to repaving work, two lanes narrowed to one just to the east of the crossing, a right turn from where I was.  At this busy commuting hour, the merging traffic moved sluggishly, when it moved at all.  If you wanted to turn right, you were S.O.L.  I was among those who wanted to go straight through.  Instead, I sat through cycle after cycle of the traffic lights, as people drove into the intersection from the left and were stopped there by the unmoving traffic to the right, creating a blockage.  When the cars ahead of them crept forward a little bit, they might make it out of the crossroads, there to be replaced by the next idiot who couldn’t wait for room to open on the other side before entering and who was consequently caught there when the lights changed.  And so it went.  

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Talking like a real human

May 29th, 2012

This guy has my vote.  He so totally gets it.  Try to imagine Mitt Romney, or for that matter ANY national Republican, speaking with this degree of humanity, honesty, openness, compassion, understanding, and wisdom.

Gaudeamus Igitur, Baby

May 23rd, 2012

This past weekend I enjoyed the spectacle and ritual of a friend’s graduation from a doctorate program – her “hooding,” as they call it.  Instead of the usual recorded “Pomp and Circumstance” blared through an overtaxed PA system, a live bagpipe trio led the processional, which made it far more invigorating.  The pipers were dressed in red regalia and marched at the head of the faculty, whose gowns were accented with the cheery colors of a tulip garden.  All those colorful medieval-style robes!  Each of the newly minted doctors of philosophy and education wore three velvet stripes on the sleeves of her gown to distinguish her from the lesser scholars and, crossing the stage to receive her diploma, knelt before a functionary who draped around her neck a bright and decorative hood, kind of like a baby sling worn backwards.

The speeches were mercifully short.  Two stand out in my memory.  The first was an invocation, of sorts, by an elderly mathematician who, perhaps motivated by determination to dispel the common notion of his discipline as dry and inhuman, spoke in a pastiche of the flowery diction associated with nineteeenth century translations of troubadour poetry.  He began with math-based metaphors and proceeded from there to ransack the catalogue of commencement cliches.  Young lives blossomed.  Talents burgeoned.  Inspiration took wing.  The high point for me was one sentence which contained the words “verily,” “perchance,” and “pixels.”  It might be thought that I am mocking him.  Not a bit.  His speech was utterly appropriate to the occasion, a quasi-liturgical invocation of the ancient and enduring themes of this rite of passage, and despite whatever lack of literary merit those of us in the audience who care about such things might have detected, the tone he struck, the solemnly joyful mashup of archaic and modern, though bizarre, could not have been more apt.  Okay, I’ll admit that it did bug me later when a friend praised this speech for its “poetic” quality.  I am that much of a prig and snob, and I am personally wounded by our culture’s universal incomprehension of my chosen art form.  But upon reflection I have to admit that she was right, if by “poetic” you mean the use of metaphor to depict the heart’s reality.  At this time, in this place, he nailed it.

The featured commencement speaker was former Vermont Governor, former Ambassador to Switzerland, former Deputy Secretary of Education – my, how the titles roll on! Flower of Umbria, Imperator of the Three Realms, Defender of the Faith, Thane of Cawdor, Votary and Adept of the Sacred Three-Fold Divagation – and Fightin’ Liberal Madeleine Kunin.  She, too, struck time-honored themes, principally “make the world a better place,” but in words that seemed prosy and pallid compared to the mathematician’s linguistic abandon.  Still, urging students to engage in political activism, she contributed an epigram that I will remember a long time.    Perhaps it gained impact because it came from this elegant, rather patrician, and highly artful wielder of power, who has sat at the highest tables:

If you’re not at the table
you’re on the menu.

Charles Cheeryble Speaks

May 13th, 2012

“Parents who never showed their love, complain of want of natural affection in their children – children who never showed their duty, complain of want of natural feeling in their parents – law-makers who find both so miserable that their affections have never had enough of life’s sun to develop them, are loud in their moralizings over parents and children too, and cry that the very ties of nature are disregarded.  Natural affections and instincts, my dear sir, are the most beautiful of the Almighty’s works, but like other beautiful works of His, they must be reared and fostered, or it is as natural that they should be wholly obscured, and that new feelings should usurp their place, as it is that the sweetest productions of the earth, left untended, should be choked with weeds and briars.  I wish we could be brought to consider this, and remembering natural obligations a little more at the right time, talk about them a little less at the wrong time.”

– Charles Cheeryble, speaking on behalf of Charles Dickens, in Nicholas Nickleby

Burning Issues of the Day

April 20th, 2012

I was walking along Pearl Street the other day, by the liquor store.  Just ahead of me was a skinny, pimply, late adolescent in bermuda shorts and a white teeshirt on a skateboard.  Coming towards us was a big fat kid in a hoodie, about college age but something told me he was a townie, and his friend, a kid only slightly less weedy than the skateboarder.  As they passed me, the big guy said to this friend, “Whenever I see a kid on a skateboard, I want to punch him.  Is that weird?”

Please discuss among yourselves.  For extra credit, what would Dante have to say about this impulse?

Testimony from the edge

February 27th, 2012

This past weekend I visited two old and dear friends, one of whom is expecting to survive cancer.  The other is not.  It was a sad visit, but not depressing.  I don’t think I’m quite ready yet to write about why that should be so, but it has something to do, I think, with my friends’ courage, decency, and gentleness, and also something I noticed when my mother was facing her extremity, that is, a lack of fear on the part of the dying about what we who fortunately are not yet in that situation find most terrifying about it.  There is something fortifying about being in the presence of a person who, having achieved a reasonably unflinching acceptance of what must be, is liberated to become more fully herself in the face of it.  It creates a space in which intimacy is easy, intimacy from each person’s core, while at the same time spontaneity and playfulness are encouraged.  People around the sick person relate to her and to one another in a manner which, in other circumstances, except for the unhappiness, we would look back upon as “having a really great time.”  We take joy in each other.  It is a reminder that joy and happiness are two very, very different things, of which joy is by far the greater because it is a species of love.  It’s hard to talk about these things without one’s cadences becoming biblical and one’s vocabulary becoming highflown.  When that happens, as it just now did in the last sentence but one, I feel I’m losing the real sense of what it was like, of what that sacred space was all about and what made it sacred.  It’s important to focus on particulars.  So… the conversation turned at some point to the question of an afterlife, as conversations tend to do in these circumstances, not so much because the dying person can bring any particular authority to bear but because it is presumed by the onlookers that it is as much on her mind as it is on theirs.  As if a dying person didn’t have plenty of more pressing things to think about.  My friend quickly and offhandedly said that she thinks it “remains to be seen.”  Someone asked her if she believes at all in any kind of deity, or higher spiritual power, or transcendent reality.  She got very quiet and thoughtful.  We all waited for her, while her oxygen machine flumped away in the background.  After a long, long pause, she said, “I think it’s very important to be nice.”


UPDATE: R.I.P. Jane Weed, 10:30 p.m. Sat. 9/1/12

Paging Dr. Kubler-Ross

February 16th, 2012

Due to current events in my personal life, I have been thinking again about how poorly our culture prepares us to deal with death and with people who are dying.  Not strange, I guess, for a nation founded on the pursuit of happiness.  People wonder why I put Thomas Jefferson in hell in To Join the Lost.  Mostly, it’s because of his hypocrisy as a slave-owner who not only knew that he was doing wrong, but knew the degree of evil that it involved.  But I could have put him there for this seemingly benign phrase as well, which shackles the body politic to a warped, limited vision of the human condition, easily subverted into greed, lust, and the quest for satiation.  A people dedicated to the pursuit of happiness is not going to have a lot of time and thought to spare for such unpleasant things as death.  They’re going to shove it aside into hospitals and nursing homes; prettify it in funeral parlors; hide it in closed caskets that no one is allowed to welcome home from Afghanistan and Iraq; have broadcast journalists censor it from Syrian twitter feeds as too upsetting for the average viewer.  We have no emotionally satisfying

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