A Desultory Diary, Episode 4, At Sea

October 7, 2019

From dining on them with the aesthetic deliberation of a gourmet to merely snacking on them like a couch potato, words have been the comfort food of my mind for as long as I can remember. The happy transition from carrying around a teddy bear to carrying around a book took place almost seven decades ago; happily there is as yet no inclination to reverting to carrying around a stuffed animal again, this time  while roaming the confines of a nursing home; at least for now. Well, here I was aboard Queen Mary 2 without a book; I thought I had packed one, but apparently hadn't. After briefly getting lost again on this huge ship, we finally arrived at the library on deck 8, on which a funny-sad incident occurred.

I wanted to get a book in a different language. I noticed that a guide to the colored-coded sections was posted: a black patch for non-fiction, a yellow one for thrillers, etc., and, finally, a white one for books in other languages than English. I approached the librarian, a dark-skinned black man in his 40s, with a shaven head gleaming in the light like a harvest moon. "Where is the white section?" I asked him. His puzzled expression seemed to convey, "O God, here comes another one. How long do I have to go until I can retire?" "I beg your pardon," he said out loud. In all innocence I repeated the  question, "Where is the white section?" "What do you mean by the white section, Sir?" he asked, with more than a hint of annoyance.  "The section with books in foreign languages" I replied. He pointed down the corridor. "See that white woman there? Follow her." 

The selection of books was quite limited. I finally chose, "2084: La Fin du Monde, by Boahem Sansal, which received Le Grand Prix du Roman de l'Acadédeme Française, 2015. It is a dystopian novel which takes place in a fanatically religious community in which everyone must submit and not think. The book is a combination of Orwellian nightmare and a (deadly serious) parody of Islamic fundamentalism. The epigraph of the novel is noteworthy. I will provide it in the original French along with my translation:

La religion fait peut-être aimer Dieu, mais rien n'est plus fort qu'elle pour faire détester l'homme et  haír l'humanité. (Religion can, perhaps, make one love God, but nothing is stronger then it to make one detest human beings and to hate humanity.)

This quote reminds me of one by the physicist Steven Weinberg which I discussed in a previous essay: "With or without religion,  good people can behave well and bad people can do evil--but for good people to do evil--that takes religion."

Both quotes, I think, miss the mark. Religion perhaps can make one love God? What about Martin Luther King. St. Francis, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among others? Their faith certainly made them better people. Religion can certainly add a considerable dose of fanaticism to politics, but so can politics without religion, e.g Stalin, Hitler and Mao. The practice of politics has been flawed throughout history; it's not surprising, given the state of humanity, that the practice of religion has been deficient as well. It all comes down to love and wisdom, the still small voice within, which we all heed with varying degrees of success. It is the betrayal of religion and politics by religion and politics that is the problem.

Eight persons, four couples, including Nirmala and me, ate at a common table every night during the cruise. 

As everyone who reads my blog regularly must know by now, politics and religion, subjects one is not supposed to bring up in polite company, are among my favorite subjects.  I shouldn't have broached these topics, but I did. First night: I discovered that the other six were all Trump supporters; end of discussion. Next night: they turned out to be fundamentalist Christians as well. One young couple from Indiana grew irate--at least the man did--when I stated, politely but with conviction, that I found it impossible for an educated person to deny the validity of evolution. I was told that it is "only a theory." I explained what the scientific definition of theory is. I told them that the mechanics of gravity is also constitute a theory. Would they like to demonstrate its invalidity by jumping out a window? I also denied that the gospels, written by committed Christ-centered persons long after the death of Jesus, wee accurate historical records. The husband grew even more irate and said I was dead wrong. I countered that he believed both that 2 and 2 equals 4 and that Jesus was literally the Son of God; if chance had had its way and they had been born in Mecca, however, they would still believe that 2 and 2 equals 4, yet deny that Jesus was divine, but a prophet and a man, and that the Koran was an infallible  message to Mohammad directly from Allah via the angel Gabriel. Obviously, 2 and 2 equals 4 must represent a qualitatively different form of knowledge. No, he replied, the Muslims and the Jews are just plain wrong. 

His wife, a Marine, was kinder and more polite. I told them not to worry if they ever came to doubt what they believed so ardently now: a life of love and wisdom will always be possible, and that's all that matters. After all, Jesus himself indicated that he, unlike rabbits who have hutches. was virtually homeless. I tried my best not to sound self-righteous, since, God knows, I have no reason to be. 

I shouldn't have said all this, although I was respectful throughout; I think I was a bit nervous, because I did't know what to say. It was either an attempt at friendly polemics or eating dinner in silence while everyone else talked about the glories of the Second Amendment. I want to make clear that the young couple, as well as everyone else, were fine people, albeit with views very different from mine. 

Facts, facts, facts! Pastor Gradgrind is apparently still doing very well in Indiana--yet going beyond facts is essential if one is to have a vigorous inner life; going beyond facts is also the exclusive domain of poetry, in the broadest sense of that word.

The problem with poetry is that in its visible, outer form it remains largely unread, while in its more important invisible, inner form, it remains wildly and spitefully unpracticed.  If you doubt this, read a newspaper, or do what is most difficult of all, look into your own heart. 

Inside wormholes into outside. The invisible rises to the visible; consciousness is a Möbius strip! 

And, after all this, a final metaphor:

Each one of us is a satellite revolving, whether we like it or not, around a brilliant sun. We must revolve, but it is our decision whether or not to rotate, to revolve around our own axis. If you choose not to; if you choose to spend your life always facing the void like the dark side of the moon, that is your choice. If you rotate, however, you will certainly be well acquainted with the night, but will also know that day follows night: you will also spend a good portion of your time basking in the light while choosing life.  Choose life.


A Desultory Diary, Episode 3

October 5, 2019

A motto for our second day aboard Queen Mary 2: Don't just do something, sit there.

We attended a show at The Britannia Theatre last night, featuring a doo-wop group named The Four Flashbacks. Most of us onboard remember, I think, when the songs sung were new, which means that we are, well,  old. The Flashbacks were good; not exactly my cup of tea but a winsome brew nevertheless, with just the right amount of sugar.

Today we're off on a tour of colonial Providence R.I.,  The weather is good.

Providence, we're told, has more colonial buildings than any other place in America. They are, as one would expect, centrally located; they are also beautifully preserved. 

What distinguished the colony of Rhode Island was that its founder, Roger Williams,  permitted those of all faiths, (that is, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews) to practice their religions freely. (For the Puritans, religious liberty meant that one was indeed free--to be a Puritan). The question of Islam, not to mention that of the as yet almost unheard of faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism, apparently never arose).

We saw a fine synagogue:

Jews must have welcomed the opportunity to stand proudly on the island of their faith in a hostile sea, which was still the spiritual geography of most of the West at that time. 

We also saw a very large Quaker Meeting House:

The Quakers, always fine businessmen, excelled, alas! in the slave trade.  Around 1740 they decided that to be a Quaker and to be involved in slavery was a dismal oxymoron. They came to this decision late when one considers the cosmic law of loving one's neighbor, which had been around for centuries, but not so horribly horribly late as in the Southern states. After the decision to eschew the slave trade, many left the community and continued the abomination of selling human beings. The large Meeting House was subsequently no longer filled with Quakers on First Day meetings, and was soon sold.

Roger Williams permitted everyone to practice their specific religion, which everyone apparently did, at least for a while. Only since the nineteenth century did the zeitgeist permit the good citizens of Rhode Island and elsewhere to believe in the Nobodaddy of the current age. (That's as close as I'll ever get to sounding like a Christian evangelical!)

The fault lies in both fundamentalism and in atheism; the fault lies in prose; the solution lies in poetry.

"O my Luve is like a red, red rose," wrote Robert Burns ecstatically. This is poetry. A fundamentalist interpretation of this would assert that since my love is really a rose, she therefore must have aphids and thorns. 

Once it was possible to believe, without denying reason, that God ruled the external universe. Science and the Enlightenment have since taught us that the universe is absolutely indifferent to human needs. (I express this fact with the statement, "There is no smiley face beyond Arcturus").

The dualist creation myth asserts that God created the universe out of nothing; the true creation myth is that something arises from deep within ourselves. Fundamentalism since the Enlightenment, has been losing ground and will continue to do so. The ground, however, is still there. 

The answer to the eternal question cannot be answered with prose. The prose answer--that everything is connected, as science teaches, and that we must practice love for our neighbor, is as far as prose goes, which is very far indeed. It is a prose poem.

Is it sad that so many of us live lives of distraction, following the progress of mechanical butterflies in ever expanding gyres? Yes, but real butterflies surround us as well, delighting all those who are able to see.

End of sermon. Time for high tea.

A Desultory Diary Episode 2

October 3, 2019

We spent a very pleasant two days in New York. As my inner German would say, "Ich habe mir die Füsse wundgelaufen"--I wore myself out walking! Nirmala, too, but she is apparently more fit than I am. 16-17,000 steps a day, however, ain't bad.

On our first day in New York we saw the musical "Come From Away," which received a Tony award. Everybody apparently likes it; for us, however it was just so-so.  Very little characterization; the music was good, but not outstanding. An excellent feel-good choice for tired businessmen. (We are still trying to recapture our experience of the wonderful "The Band's Visit;" no comparison here).

After this, we headed for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We saw da Vinci's great unfinished painting, St. Jerome, on loan from the Vatican. The face of St. Jerome, which da Vinci completed, reminds me of the face of Nicodemus in a late sculpture by Michelangelo, The Deposition, or the Florentine Pietà. That face illustrates the power and dignity of human suffering better than any other work I know. 

Da Vinci knew a thing or two about this as well, to say the least. 

Both depict the difficulties (and transcendence) of old age. Yes, Bette Davis, this time of life is not for sissies. Maybe not as intense as in these two depictions; if your face, however, is old and is as yet unacquainted with the night, it might well be that of an arthritic Cheshire cat.

In da Vinci's painting, Jerome is looking to the side at a crucifix--the eternal symbol of hope in a world after hope in this one is no longer possible. (That other world, alas! is sure taking its time to arrive). How da Vinci was able to capture in painting what Bach captured in music, say, in the opening chorus of The Saint Matthew Passion, is nothing short of astounding.

After this, we headed for the Asian section to visit an old friend, the statue of Kwan-Yin, The Buddha Who Looks Down With Compassion (Avalokiteshvara). Sculpted in China over 1500 years ago, this face knew about suffering as well, yet has completely transcended it.

In the evening we attended a performance of Harold Pinter's "Betrayal."  I must say I was exhausted after walking all day, and might have dozed off for a few moments. This was certainly not Pinter's or the actors' fault. The playwright's characteristic train-of-thought dialogue has aged well. The theme of the play is that everyone betrays everyone else including, perhaps primarily, oneself. 

Our two days in New York were the beginning of a twelve day vacation. I expected to have a few days largely free of dealing with Trump's daily betrayals--emphasis on the 'largely.'  The play somehow reminded me of Trump's duplicitous attempts to darken America's inner core, the light within. Once, when asked if he had ever asked God for forgiveness, Trump replied with something like, "Of course not. I never did anything wrong."

Yeah, right. If it were possible to add a bit more anguish to St. Jerome's face, Trump would be a good candidate to do it. There were Trumps in da Vinci's day, however, no doubt having added a few wrinkles onto the saint's face, painted by an old man of astonishing genius, who saw.

(On October 4th, we began a week's cruise, followed by two days in Quebec City. Our ship was the fuel-guzzling Queen Mary 2. Greta Thunberg, forgive us!  Give us more time, O Time, to be more compassionate and to act more responsibly; support us awhile, O Time, before you decide, without a tick of conscience nor a tock of compassion,  to recycle us. Further desultory observations will follow).


A Desultory Diary, Episode 1

I don't like it, I admit it. I don't like it at all. (Man muss sich fügen, says the German philosopher inside me. Ja, I reply, das muss man).

We live in a world of ostriches. The younger birds live in a different world; they have no need to stick their heads in sand, for sand is all around them. Chicks unreflectingly think they are immortal parts of an immortal world; what they lack is power. Once they have that, they imagine, they will live forever.

Mature ostriches spend their time running around in order to stay in the same place. This takes considerable effort; they have time for little else. What about the 'old birds?'

Only they realize that they've been sticking their heads in sand since chickhood? 

No use to bend down and bill out a hiding place--the joke, of course, is that ostriches with heads in sand think they've found shelter, they think they're safe. Upright ostriches are able, however, to see their neighbors' naked and ridiculous exposure. Ha ha. Uprightness, however, never lasts long.

No need to bend down, for invisible sand, as it were, is the very air ostriches breathe. Irony of ironies: older ostriches, despite decreasing visual acuity, are sometimes, albeit briefly, able to see.

Seeing and not believing, however, can be dangerous.

Yes, you too shall die, my love, you too shall die.

I don't like it, I admit it. I don't like it at all. (Man muss sich fügen, says the German philosopher inside me. Ja, I reply, das muss man).


Primary and Secondary Racism

I am old. I really notice the difference the past few years have wrought: still in (relatively) good shape, I am  nevertheless growing weaker. No complaints; this was and is to be expected. However, I did not expect our democracy to grow weaker along with me.

Unfortunately for us and for the world, our current president neither understands nor cares about democracy. How else can one interpret, say, his indifference to the protests to maintain freedoms which are taking place in Hong Kong?

A rational person can have no doubts about the dangers of Trump’s fondness for dictators and autocrats. Similarly, no objective person can doubt that Mr. Trump is a racist. His racism is the subject of this article, in which I introduce a new concept, secondary racism.

1. Primary Racism

This is the classic form of racism, which has plagued our country since its founding—and before—and is still present in a vehement way, albeit in a less vehement way than in the past. Racism was a key ingredient of the milk on which Uncle Sam grew up to be tall and powerful. Only relatively recently has decency taught the decent that prejudice is a sickness; those affected by it must fight for their health; those afflicted by it must fight for their rights.

Not every non-minority member, however, is aware of this disease; some, like a TB patient deliberately and joyfully coughing in a doctor’s face, even flaunt it. Trump is one of these.
His assertion that he ‘hasn’t a racist bone in his body,’ is perhaps the most egregious of the thousands of lies he has told since taking office. Here is a (partial) list of his animus against African Americans, as recounted by the late Nobel-prize winning author, Toni Morrison:

On Election Day, how eagerly had so many white voters—both the poorly educated and the well educated--embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company had been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama had been born in the United States, and also seemed to condone the beating of a Back Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos.The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

(To this sad list I would add his having called for the death  penalty, in a full-page newspaper ad, of five minority kids who were railroaded by the police into confessing a crime they did not commit. When, years later, they were proven innocent by DNA analysis, Trump insisted that they should remain in jail because the police should never be doubted. What could be more racist than that?)

To his obvious racism against blacks, his more recent behavior has given us many examples of prejudice against browns as well. He might not have originated the crisis at the border; he has, however, made it a lot worse.

Examples abound. He has referred to Mexicans as rapists and murderers; he has attempted to build a wall separating the (mostly) white North from the (mostly) brown South. He has referred to those seeking asylum from violence and chaos in their home counties, as an “infestation;” it is no accident that the white supremacist who recently murdered and injured many in El Paso used the same term. Another example of Trump's animus against Latino immigrants is his policy of separating children from parents, which has affected many families. This cruel practice will go down in the history books, I think, along with other shameful deeds such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War ll.

It is hard to think of something more callous than the recent ICE raid in Mississippi, during which hundreds of undocumented Latinos were arrested while many of their children had no one to pick them up from school. Yes, it is hard to think of something to match this cruelty, but, knowing Trump, something worse will probably follow.

No doubt about it, Trump is a racist. But is he a secondary racist as well?

2. Secondary Racism

Before we define secondary racism, let us define the pathology of its primary practitioner.

I have no problem classifying Trump as being mentally ill, suffering from a severe personality disorder. This is not a liberal or conservative issue, or at least, it shouldn’t be. His pathology speaks and tweets for itself everywhere. The president is a classic case of narcissistic personality disorder, so severe that he and he alone has been considered by several clinicians to be a malignant narcissist. I am not a psychiatrist, but I am a physician; I am aware that one is not supposed to diagnose without a clinical examination, but Trump's is such an extreme case that the diagnosis screams out to us merely by observing his behavior.

Trump’s moral world is simple. For him, what is good is that which supports him; what is evil is what opposes him. He has stated that  a good day for him is a day  in which he trounces all opponents and comes out on top. This is one of the chief characteristics of narcissism: extreme egotism.

Another characteristic is a near-total lack of empathy. A good example of this is a photo taken during his trip to console the people of El Paso after the terrorist attack, a trip which turned out to be a debacle. It shows Trump in a photo with an infant whose parents were killed in the massacre. The infant is held by his wife, Melania, far off to the side. Trump beams at the camera, with his thumbs pointing upwards in a gesture of triumph. He shows absolutely no concern for the infant. Contrast this with the clip of Beto O’Rourke hugging a desperate man crying over his loss.

Another characteristic of narcissists is extreme neediness; the narcissist needs constant praise to cover up, at least temporarily, the desperate insecurity of his inner life. During that same visit to El Paso, Trump, instead of consoling victims, bragged about the crowd size at a recent rally.

A narcissist like Trump thinks that he is so special that he can do everything himself. This is why his White House is so chaotic; this is why Trump ignores experts.

What, then, is secondary racism? Secondary racism is selective racism used as a tool to vanquish  enemies. A good example of this is the president's severe criticism of Elijah Cummings, a black politician, who dared to vigorously protest the treatment of children at the border. Trump excoriated Cumming’s record in Baltimore, and, to boot, excoriated the city of Baltimore as well. Yes, Baltimore has its problems, but it has many advantages as well. (I have lived in Baltimore for many years.) It has a high murder rate; St. Louis’s rate, however, is even worse. Note that Trump has never criticized St. Louis, which lies, at least most of the time, in a Republican state. St. Louis has a large black population as well. That Trump singles out Baltimore and a politician who vociferously opposes him and  ignores similar or worse problems in red states, is an example of secondary racism.

Most African Americans oppose Trump; they are well aware of his primary racism. Let us now imagine a thought experiment. Imagine that blacks were as deluded about Trump as  the whites of his base are; let us imagine that he had the support of the black community. If this were so, I have no doubt that Trump’s narcissism would trump his primary racism. That people adulate him is even more important to him than the ethnicity of his adulators.

Trump characterized his undereducated white working-class supporters, before he needed them, as losers. Whoever praises him is good in his wretched book, the color of their skin, if I am correct, is less important. This I call secondary racism, extreme prejudice against any member of the human race  who opposes him.

Trump, whose malicious racism is apparent to every objective person, is mentally ill; perhaps he can’t help what he’s doing. We, however, elected him; in addition, he still has, God help us,  many supporters. What’s wrong with us?


I'm Still Here!

After a brief vacation, I resumed my weekly visits with a hospice patient, Clifton White, who had become my friend. I had been visiting him for months; we had lively conversations.

This time, however, his physical condition had become much worse. Cancer had already ravaged his body, and was beginning to ravage his mind. No longer eating regularly, he slept through much of the day. After the visit, I decided to return the next day, fearing that that visit would be my last.

And so it was. He now had difficulty breathing. His state of consciousness flickered like a desk lamp with a faulty connection. He could still hear me most of the time; I was sure of that.
The time for conversation was over. He had turned on his side; I put my hand on his emaciated hip and sang. Amazing Grace, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, etc. His occasional beatific smile made me realize I couldn’t stop. After an hour or so, I noticed that the death rattle had begun. It was very faint; very gentle, just like Cliff.

I continued to sing, especially Swing Low Sweet Chariot. (Cliff had told me he was a nominal Baptist; I was sure that he knew this gospel song). 

I couldn’t let him die alone. After inviting the angels to come forth and carry him home for the umpteenth time, he opened his eyes a bit, took in a deep breath, exhaled, and was gone.

Clifton White (1953-2019) gave me permission to write “whatever I wanted" about him: He had been born poor in Philadelphia. He had an older brother and five younger sisters; by the time I got to know him, he had lost all contact with his family. He never did drugs, he never got into trouble. If you got to know Cliff, you would know that he was telling the truth.

Cliff was a remarkably kind man. Envy, greed, bitterness—I must say that I never found a trace of these in him during all my visits.
His life certainly had not been easy. One day, when he was a teenager, while walking home form his grandmother’s house, he was shot—an apparent victim of a stray bullet. He was almost killed. He woke up in the hospital with “tubes everywhere.” He had no idea of what happened. His hospital stay was lengthy, but he eventually recovered fully.

The worst event in his life occurred when he was eighteen: his drunken father murdered his mother while Cliff and other siblings were present. Needless to say, this moment was the subject of nightmares for the rest of his life.

He had loved his mother dearly. Even in the nursing home, so many years later, he would look through the window at the sky and talk to his mother, while his favorite song, The Temptations’ 'How Do You Heal the Broken Heartedplayed over and over in his mind. His last wish—he wan’t vociferous about it—was to visit his mother’s grave in Philadelphia. It remained unfulfilled.

The most difficult year of his life occurred many years after his mother’s death: he spent the year 2000 homeless in Baltimore. At one point, during the very cold winter of that year, he wanted to die. He was rescued by a social worker who eventually found housing for him. He had never been homeless since. What an easy client he must have been! He never got into trouble; his apartment was always neat and clean.

Cliff was obviously able to keep to himself for long stretches. He apparently never had many friends. This struck me as odd, since he was quite gregarious with me. He earned his money painting houses.

One of Cliff's favorite expressions was "Go with the flow." He was not an assertive person, but this did not limit his happiness. It reminds me of a saying of Cicero: in life we are, as it were, chained to a moving chariot. We have two choices: either fall and be dragged or to run with the chariot as long as we can. This is what Chris meant. I can attest that he ran with the chariot as long as he was able. How many of the dying--or of the living--would assert that they have been completely satisfied with their lot in life? I don't know, but Cliff could certainly be counted among them.

Did he ever get lonely? Yes. On two occasions, he invited a “streetwalker” to stay with him; both times his invitations “ended in disaster.” I didn’t press him for details.

He planned to celebrate his 66th birthday with me, but this was not to be. 

About ten minutes after he died, I informed the nurse. He came into the room, accompanied by two aides who were very somber; one was almost in tears.

Everyone loved him. 

When I began visiting him several months ago, I would occasionally read poetry out loud. Cliff was black, so I thought he might relate well to the poetry of Langston Hughes. (Cliff was smart, but undereducated; he read well, but he was not a reader).

On one occasion I read the following poem to him.

Still Here

been scarred and battered
My hopes the wind done scattered,
Snow has friz me,
Sun has baked me,

Looks like between 'em they done
Tried to make me

Stop laughin', stop lovin', stop livin',
But I don't care!
I'm still here!

Cliff’s eyes lit up. “That’s me!’ he said, “That’s me!” He was delighted, so much so that I had the poem printed and framed for him. He referred to it frequently. It remained by his bedside till the day of his death.

What an extraordinary person Cliff was! Nothing could keep him down for long—not homelessness, not murder, not even a bullet. Cancer was able to wipe him from the face of the earth, but it failed to wipe the smile off his face till the very end.

I learned a lot from Cliff—and maybe he learned a few things from me as well.

We were different. Cliff never complained;  I must admit, that I had been a glass-half-empty kind of guy. Yes, I had been known to kvetch about difficulties. After all, I hadn’t had it easy, either. (Oh, stop complaining! And I have).

I vaguely remembered having written a poem that contained the phrase that delighted Cliff so: I’m still here. I didn’t think the poem had ever been published; something made me google the poem's title anyway. And there it was. (First published in Wild Violet, an online literary magazine).

The Garden of Ramanatom

I tell them about entropy--March buds ignore me--
Boltzmann's equation nobody believed,
it killed him. Lawns growing verdant new hair--
New strands shall wave at admiring chicks;
the bald spot will vanish by June.

(That's not how it worked with me.)
Each crocus emanating from old roots;
morning glories shall hang from the trellis
like a bunch of resurrecting kids--
Rip van Winkle is a katydid,

an old bug renewed by spring's copy machine;
even if a meadowlark devours him,
his kin will look exactly like him;
no rose would notice the difference.
Like Dorian Gray, I've recaptured youth==

After flitting around blossoms like a bee,
I'll seduce a sensuous woman
who'll find me sexy as Hercules--
I'll still have time and energy for love
after jogging for six hours--

Yeah, right. It's already dusk for this lark;
wings pass the face of a luminous clock
in a darkening sky. Yet I'm still here,
tending my garden. Despite you, I thrive,
entropy! Chervil is old as I feel.

When I wrote this poem, I doubt if I had really believed its upbeat message. No doubts now. 

I see in my mind's eye Cliff's gentle face, the eyes of which convey to me an important message: Go with the flow and never take life for granted again. Good advice. Thank you, Clifton White! May you rest in peace.


Can Cuttlefish Get ALS?

Did you hear about the cuttlefish with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease? No, this is not a joke. This is what the late, great neurologist, Oliver Sacks, heard a colleague say. It set him thinking. The class of cephalopods, (phylum mollusca), is a very intelligent group of animals. 

Maybe it’s possible for an organism as complex as a cuttlefish to be ravaged by ALS, who knows?, Sacks thought to himself. But he had his doubts, so he asked his colleague to repeat what he had said. The latter laughed. He had mentioned a publicist who had recently been stricken with this terrible disease. Sacks was approaching the end of his life when this incident occurred; his ability to hear was no longer acute. (He mentioned this anecdote in his excellent book, The River of Consciousness, which unfortunately was also his last).

Does entropy always win? It does indeed; things fall apart, the center eventually no longer holds.

I read in a recent edition of The New Yorker about a researcher who devised an apparatus which, when worn, would give a young person some idea of what it means to be old. The weight of this unshining armor hinders  movement; the apparatus thus allows a thirty-something to experience what a seventy-something goes through every day, such as having difficulty rising from a seated position, or, among the more fit septuagenarians,  maintaining the downward dog position in yoga for a long time. (Trust me on that one.)

I thought, however, that this old-age suit was incomplete. One would need to stuff cotton in the subject’s ears to give her a good idea of how well—that is, how poorly—old ears hear. In addition, for an average thirty-something to imagine how the average seventy-plus-something sees, the former would need to wear a beaten-up pair of dark glasses. (In my case, alas! I feel sometimes that the dark glasses in question would need to have been dipped in a vat of maple syrup,  then be liberally sprinkled with sugar, and left to dry in an attic for at least a month.)

I’m not asking for sympathy. Visual problems caused by bilateral cataracts and bilateral macular degeneration, however, will not be ameliorated by chomping on carrots. I’m in the process of figuring out what to do, while the vision of my youth approaches the upside-down world of a disoriented bat.

As a man d'un certain age, I reluctantly admit that my hearing isn’t what it used to be, either. A recent example: a few days ago, a neighbor called out to me from across the street. “Semiramide!” he exclaimed. Semiramide? I didn’t know he was an opera fan. Besides, is that the way opera buffs great each other these days? I doubted it. “What?” I replied. “Semiramide! Semiramide!” Rossini’s overture to that piece began to play in my head. I doubted whether I had heard him correctly, however, and expressed my confusion with a shout, WHAT? My neighbor kindly crossed the street and said once more what he had apparently been saying all along: “Happy Father’s Day!”

Mishearing, though, is not, at least as yet, as significant a problem for me as “misseeing.” The latter isn’t even a word! (The word "misreading" indeed exists, but it usually refers to a faulty interpretation of a text, not to an error in decoding the letters of a word). Oliver Sacks gave a good deal of attention to mishearings in his last book, but not a mention of “misseeings.”  My aging brain, typical of many, felt left out.

A great humorist and cartoonist of the past century, James Thurber,  can help set the record straight. (An example of his humor: a rather dismissive critic told him that his cartoon women were unattractive. “Not to my cartoon men!” Thurber replied.)

Decades before the advent of the digital age, Thurber would write his articles on a large, yellow notepad. Unfortunately, his vision was so poor that he was unable to read what he had written. Thurber, thank goodness! frequently managed to find humor in his impediment. (What would an old man be if he couldn’t laugh? Sad).

I remember having read an article of his about the benefits of poor vision. One’s imagination is free to see, at last, whatever it wants to see. Walking down a street while observing the world with the visual acuity of a mole has, according to Thurber, undeniable advantages.

Who are walking down the street? The walrus and the carpenter, trailed by gaggle of jejune oysters! At last, the nearly blind man tells his inner child, you’ll be able to ask a walrus how it feels to have left the confines of a humorous poem for the prose of a (mostly) humorless world! True, as one gets up close, the oysters turn out to be scotomas, as the walrus and the carpenter become the Mutt of a lamppost and the Jeff of a mailbox; no matter: one now sees Bonnie Annie Laurie waving seductively from the distance. One happily moves on.

I now approach a favorite book armed with a strong pair of glasses and a magnifying glass. Misreadings continue, which have taught me something about the brain: it does its best to make sense out of what it reads, and, regarding a word it has difficulty in decoding, it fills in the gaps between letters, and "sees" a familiar word. 

When I read now, I gloss over common words, a method which usually works. But if a more difficult word appears, this system breaks down. For instance, while recently rereading David Copperfiled, I came across the not-too-common word, defalcation. I knew what it meant—that is, if I had been able to decode the letters. My brain probably saw something like de—blur, blur-f--blur blur, followed by ation. How did Dickens know about deforestation, I thought to myself, which was hardly a concern in 1840s London? After much squinting, I finally figured out what Dickens had written.

A final example. Our book club is now reading The Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende.  It is the story of Zarité, a slave who somehow manages to triumph over adversity. In one of the beginning chapters, I came across the following sentence, spoken by a beautiful, sexually experienced mulatto slave to her master, who has decided to marry a Spanish woman and bring her back to his plantation located in what would become Haiti:

“Is it true that Spanish women live in a men’s nightmares with a hole cut in front for making love?”

Weird, I thought, and read on. After a page or two, however, I had to come back to that sentence; I was sure I had misread it, and so I did. With mush squinting I was able to determine what the slave, perhaps somewhat jealous, had actually said:

“Is it true that Spanish women sleep in nuns' nightdresses with a hole cut in front for making love?”

No comment.

Old age, with its inevitable approach to absolute zero, is, however, not all bad. Behind those cloudy glasses beams, as it were, a self-illuminating lens which transports a bright message: perspective. It is hard to imagine oneself as a king of his castle, when much of the castle is already  beyond repair. One learns, hopefully sooner rather than later, the life lesson behind the cogent words of Mr. Rogers: “It’s all about love—or the lack of it.” Once one loves and accepts not only oneself and others as they are, but life as it is as well, serenity follows.

Still, as Bette Davis once said, old age is not for sissies. Increasing aches and pains; decreasing acuities of hearing and vision; the sorrow of leaving behind so many acquaintances and friends whom one will never see again; decreased energy and increased forgetting, etc. etc., are certainly not my idea of a divertissement.

No, this is no country for old men. Or as my brain might misread this sad sentence: this is no chutney for nolled wrens, either. Ha ha.