Saturday, October 25, 2014

Peggy's Week That Was

Every evening for 10 years Peggy and I have read books aloud to each other. Usually ones that we missed when everyone else had read them. We can count Thomas Hardy, Thomas Mann, Thomas Wolff and Thomas Pynchon and 40-50 other authors not named Thomas. Back before the Ebola scare we decided on Camus’, The Plague.  So here I am reading it to her as she lies in bed at St. John’s Hospital. Certainly not the best choice but who knew?  We have about 75 pages to go and must return it to the library. My words are causing her to nod off.

I’ve been here for nine hours watching Peggy sleep on and off, or chasing after the nurses to remind them what they promised to do twenty minutes ago or trying to reconcile what her eleven medical professionals are saying. We have the voices from the admitting doctor, internist, cardiologist, gastroenterologist, infectious disease doctor, oncologist, wound specialist, pulmonologist, respiratory technician, physical therapist and occupational therapist. They all concur there is fluid around her left lung. They don’t know the cause of it or how to account for her malaise and loss of appetite. Pneumonia? Yes & No. Pleurisy? Not quite. Congestive heart disease? Not typically, wrong side. An auto-immune event? Possibly. T. B.? No, test was negative.

Illness can be the greatest unsolved mystery of all. What went wrong with this body of 93.5 years, this micro-universe of cells and organs beyond all imagining? Who dunnit, this malfunction, this dis-ease?  We want to give it a name as if it matters. 

Now the chaplain walks in with his halo of silver hair. Father Paddy carries Ireland on his tongue channeling Beckett and Yeats. No Jesus... thank God. Just talk of literature (our religion) and the mother country. Our kind of guy.

Care-giving is, for me, just another way of being there as a nurturing presence. It’s an opportunity to find a new, deeper dimension for our love by anticipating her needs and aligning myself with her emotionally. 

Peggy is an inspiration for everyone who knows her. An irrepressible spirit and indomitable optimism are fed by her faith in the creative source within. She is a person who dares. In her person and in her poetry. Her imaginative power continues to stretch into the far reaches. Her poetry is inspired. It’s fair to say she is still in her prime even as I watch her fall asleep inside her poem with her head dropping onto her open notebook and the pencil still in her fingers.

And now the operative word is aspiration as the pulmonologist walks in the room to aspirate around her pleural cavity. His needle goes in through her back and slowly he draws out the yellow-brown fluid, almost a pint of it.

She has now been here six days and we just got word she can leave tomorrow. Still a hung jury as to the cause of her illness. Maybe we’ll know, maybe not.

In a recent poem Peggy wrote, How the unseen affects the seen… So much of us remains hidden even to ourselves. Let the sleuths keep probing. It’s enough to find our resources and live in the astonishing now. I learned that from Peggy.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Between Upheaval and the A-B-C

The word, overthrow, just got my attention in the newspaper.  It was never in my vocabulary but in the fevered minds of fear-mongers back in the 50s who stood as sentinels at the gates. They railed against those Commies who advocated the violent overthrow of the government….or so they proclaimed.

My father was a card-carrying one and he couldn’t even overthrow my mother in her noisy unease with the world. I was witness once to devil-grass overthrowing my dichondra lawn. Their victory was celebrated by yellow flags of dandelions. I’ve always had a soft spot for weedy things.

The word popped up in today’s Sports section about a pitcher who overthrows. Translation: he hits 98mph on the Radar gun but has no idea where the ball is going. This is why they have protective screens for folks seated behind home plate. His wildness would send him packing as a menace to the fragility that baseball is.

The operative word is control. Some of us require it more than others. Conservatives have a nose for disorder. It’s as if a smoke alarm goes off when early signs are detected of disarray, dysfunction or dis don’t look familiar. They try to make life tidy. Everything in its place (including people). Gated communities, Law & Order. Documentation. Republicans also have a knack for mischief on their own. Consider the suppression of voters to correct voter-fraud where none exists.

Too bad humanity is messy, random and, to some extent, inexplicable. When we are called to step up into the batter’s box better be prepared for some chin music (high & inside pitch). The hard stuff can come at us from any angle.

I once Googled my name and up came a namesake who famously ran a half-marathon but got lost en route. When he arrived at the finish line from the wrong side, a dozen others were right behind him. He not only upset the order but he gathered a following along the way.

Out of the mud, a lotus but not always. Some mud brings Mussolini’s who got trains to run on time even if they ran into an abyss. Hitler seized power out of the chaos of Wiemar Germany with hyperinflation, unemployment and the weight of reparations.

The divide is seen in parenting as permissive or strict. In gardening the English sprawl (sort of like this blog) stands in contrast to the Italian geometric design.  Even our Founding Fathers had their differences as articulated by Jefferson, who supported the French Revolution and John Adams who warned against the tyranny of the majority.

Artists are said to make order out of chaos. To do so they must be well- acquainted with disorder. They confront and embrace it while the rest of us live in the illusion of a tamed universe. Artists see a collage where we see a rubble. Out of the clash of opposites one either envisions something new or rushes in to re-establish a hierarchy. Enter ISIS. Sharia Law. In time that too will be overthrown when people remember the need to breathe. We meander the wide field between these poles as the pendulum swings.

I’ll have the club sandwich on rye toast instead of sour dough, with extra turkey but hold the bacon and substitute fruit for the fries. Sorry, Bud, no changes allowed on menu items. Don’t make trouble.

And I'd also like a side order of trouble.


Monday, October 13, 2014


 75 years ago we learned to fear and hate the Japs and Germans. I was so young I conflated Germans with germs. When I had a fever I imagined those Nazi germs attacking my body and in recovery I saw them in full retreat, swastikas and all. Five years later they were our new best friends.

Now we are frightened by ISIS. They scare the bejesus out of us and even those who have no bejesus in them to begin with. They raise their terrible swift sword and we loose our fateful lightning from thirty thousand feet. Their killing is loathsome, barbaric and up-close; ours is sanitized, targeted and distant.

Not to say any of these evildoers, then or now, are anything less than abominable. The carnage of the Holocaust and atrocities of the Japanese set new thresholds of bestiality. An Allied response was imperative. Whether fire-bombing Dresden and Tokyo and the nuclear incineration of civilians in Japan was defensible, is now a moot question.

In the case of ISIS the slaughter of Christians, Shiites and Kurds returns us a thousand years to a dark period in human history. We shudder at their ferocity, suppression of woman and disregard for human life. Yet it was the Holy Roman Emperor who turned out the lights in Europe. The Church presided over burnings at-the stake, inquisitions, slave labor building Missions and suppression of science. For the time Muslims were the ones who enjoyed a high civilization. Beheadings were an accepted form of capital punishment in Europe a couple of centuries back. The custom was to tip the guy with a cleaver to assure a short, sharp chop and quick departure.

The point is that under the aegis of religion horrific acts can occur with impunity. It has always been thus. The fervor whipped up by holy men or supreme leaders taps into the psyche of the faithful. It turned cultured Germans into first mindless sheep and then wolves and is turning dispossessed Sunnis into hooded thugs.

Religion is by nature divisive. It sets tent against tent splitting hairs and often heads. It diverts attention away from essential human needs. The pages of our Testaments and their Koran contain ample support for slavery, stonings and a variety of killings and coercion in the name of a higher power.

Islam has no exclusivity on such nonsense and excess. If it were inherently evil we would have been witness to jihads for the past sixteen centuries. We have not. The word infidel is a Christian notion. 

Yes, large numbers of Muslims have found their way into Europe. Is it not true that Pakistanis emigrate to the U.K. and North Africans to France as a consequence of their early colonization of these parts of the world? They have come home to roost; and while they roost they multiply at a higher rate than their hosts which furnishes a labor force to pay the pensions of the elders.

My sense is that the current spread of fundamentalist Islam has its appeal, not in religion, but as a unifying vessel in which to pour their grievances. They seem to have traded prayer rugs for masks. The Western world is a broad target easy to hate and we are there in the sky serving as a recruiting poster. The West has exploited the region most recently for that black stuff under the sand and before that for the Suez Canal as a gateway for the Brits to their Indian Raj and opium trade. 

If we were to withdraw they would confront their Internecine differences and might even discover their common denominator. Think of that. Protestants and Papists seem to have found their Kumbaya. And now look who loves the Jews. 

It would take great courage on our part to disengage. The vacuum created by our departure would remove their greatest object of derision and encourage the folks in the marauding army to stop and build a society that truly serves their needs. It is their call. Hatred is not sustainable. There is nothing holy about a holy war.

As for the phobia that Islam engenders perhaps it is our own shadow; that propensity for revenge, unforgiving righteousness and pernicious violence in our own culture. Indeed there are no Muslims in my muslin sheets.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Life Before Birth

If the Evangelical Teabertarians have their way in November personhood will be declared to begin at conception. Pregnant women shall drive in car pool lanes, Hallmark cards will have a new shelf-space and our entire population will have gotten nine months older over-night.

I’m preparing for this eventuality by focusing in on my early life. It was a sultry June evening when the light bulbs of my father's eyes was met by a coquettish welcome of my mother. Together they proved that night baseball would never replace sex. I was the consequence of Dad’s Y sperm which got to Mom’s egg with a tremendous sprint in the final straightaway. Whether all this was on the advice of their accountant I’ll never know. After all, times were tough and another exemption wasn’t a bad idea. Their union was accompanied by a unison shout, as I recall, that rattled windows in two boroughs of New York and caused complaints from the family living on the floor below.

It’s all coming back to me, those days as a fish-like substance, how I swam the back-stroke in that embryonic sea singing a medley of early Irving Berlin’s biggest hits. I never forgave him for, Mammy, particularly when sung by Al Jolson and it also didn’t take long to have my fill of, Alexander’s Ragtime Band. But I was in no hurry to leave my cozy umbilical life. Most of the time I just floated around biding my time and humming, How Deep Is the Ocean.

When I heard, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime, I knew all was not well in that outer chamber. Then, Stormy Weather, came along and I saw no reason not to stay put. I never got around to thanking my mother for tuning the radio on to the Hit Parade.

I could have told you then, had anybody asked, that ontology does not exactly recapitulate phylogeny but I came fairly close. Which is to say I did not go through all the stages of growth and development of our species. On the other hand it sure felt like Eden during my nine month lease. While attaining personhood I was indeed more like a fish... and I have no regrets. Some of my finest days were spent snorkeling and gurgling.

I carry a faint memory of being 4 inches long and weighing in at about an ounce. Like most kids on my block I was enveloped in a fine placenta. Nutrients in, garbage out, made me the chubby baby I was soon to become.

It was FDR’s inauguration speech that caught my fetal ear. Nothing to fear but fear itself didn’t make much sense but it had a certain ring to it. Seventeen days later I busted out down the canal into that etherized air and was greeted by the customary slap. Ouch. My first instinct was to make a U-turn but it was too late.

Had we’d known then what we know now I would have celebrated my first birthday three months later. But it’s never too late to mark the correction. Thank God for these God-fearing Right-To-Lifers, God knows, who hold prenatal life, God bless 'em, in high esteem and care little for existence after birth.