30 June 2010

Echocardiograms and Twelve Million Years

I was lying on my left side on the medical bed while the technician performed an echocardiogram on me. An echocardiogram is a ultrasound of my heart. I was hooked up with wires and pads while she poked and jabbed at my ribs under which beat my heart. It was that she meant to be visible. Usually, I kept my eyes closed⎯the room was dark, there was little sound⎯and I didn’t really know what to look and listen for anyway. But occasionally I would peek up and look at the screen on which my heart was displayed. I could actually watch it beat, and I think I saw those pesky valves opening and shutting, albeit not as effectively and efficiently as might be. Hence, the echocardiogram.

And as I lay there I thought of the complexity of the mechanism—the heart that is⎯and the millions of years it took to develop. I lay on that table hoping at least for my three score years and ten, and considered the twelve million years of evolutionary foreground to this moment, and I felt a powerful sense of awe. I know it happened—I think we even know how it happened—but why did it happen . . . well, that is where I got lost. I have no teleological motive or answer for human existence, not even a religious sense for it. But today I was awed by the complexity of the human body, and overwhelmed by its development. And when I tried to consider my life—how central that is to my consciousness—and I put it in the context of the entire human history that goes back at least twelve million years, and I understood how insignificant the moment is. And I wasn’t afraid.

21 June 2010

Chick flicks

These romantic chick-flick movies make me unhappy. (Somewhere in my memory I hear the song, “Sad Movies Make Me Cry”). Of course, the plots of these films are transparent, and almost twenty minutes into the film the ending is apparent. As my daughter says, “This is too cheesy,” though exactly what that means I am very unclear. Despite our affection for a variety of cheeses, I am certain my daughter’s judgment is not a compliment.

So what I think makes me so sad is that everything works out exactly as the audience expects; nothing is left incomplete or unresolved. In a good chick-flick (I am not clear if my language is sexist here) there are no unhappy endings, and even if the heroine’s mascara runs, that, too becomes part of the resolution and doesn’t at all detract from the spotlessness of the conclusion.

And my life just hasn’t worked out that way at all. Not even close. And so tonight’s film with Vanessa Redgrave (I do adore her—see her film, Evening—it is magnificent!) as an aging British upper class lady who is drawn back to Verona, Italy by Sophie, who discovers a letter Claire had left fifty years ago in the wall of Juliet’s house, in which Claire regretted a meeting she did not keep with a lover, Lorenzo Bartolini. Sophie is in Verona on her pre-honeymoon with her fiancé who is scheduling all of their time meeting with suppliers for the new restaurant he is opening up in New York City (no concern for financing, it would seem—though when we finally see the place it is definitely an upscale establishment). In any case, Sophie is not his focus.

Sophie is a romantic, (upon arrival in Verona she walks immediately to the wall of Juliet’s house. But, let us remember: the house is a fiction because Juliet is a character is a play by William Shakespeare! There is no house and no wall!!), and she joins a group of ‘Juliet’s secretaries,’ whose job it is to write advice to the women whose letters about love have been placed on Juliet’s wall. It is Sophie’s response that draws Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) to Verona to search for her lost love. She brings her handsome but stuck-up British grandson, Charles, to accompany her on her search for Lorenzo Bartolini, and Sophie, who really wants to be a writer gets herself invited on the journey. Perhaps you can see where this is going . . . by film’s end, everyone has found her one true love—Claire her Lorenzo (each of whom have lost their first spouse), and Sophie her Charles, (the latter even climbing the balcony at the finale to propose marriage to his Juliet). Sophie writes her (first!!) story, and the editor of the New Yorker accepts it for publication: her future as a writer is effortlessly and romantically assured. They all lived happily ever after.

I know life isn’t like the movies, and that is its tragedy. But damn, why am I so tormented?

15 June 2010

How Does It Feel?

So I’m sitting out here confused in the too-early morning, a bit uncomfortable, chilled, and not all that pleased thus far with the day, when the disc jockey on WUMB out of Boston runs through the significance of June 14 in American History. Of course, two hundred thirty-two years ago the current flag was adopted as the official colors of the United States, and so today is Flag Day. And on this day in 1965 Paul McCartney recorded “Yesterday.” However, said the announcer, that was not the song we were about to hear, because on this very same day in 1965 Bob Dylan recorded this song, and through my speakers like fresh air came the opening drum crack and organ notes of “Like a Rolling Stone,” and I was miraculously restored to some equilibrium. That song changed the world and I was never the same. And the notes of that song this morning helped me recover the life that Bob Dylan helped me create. I have sat daily at this screen and chart my life in attachments to particular Dylan songs. These days I think about Time Out of Mind, and particularly these lines in ‘Trying to Get to Heaven:’ “I’m going down the river/
Down to New Orleans/
They tell me everything is gonna be all right
/But I don’t know what “all right” even means.” There is a desperate pain in these lines, a questioning that for me has sat at the center of Dylan’s work since the very beginning of it. I think we’re always trying to figure out what ‘all right’ even means. I learned to ask questions in part from listening to Dylan.

A tale is told:

A man tormented by doubts about the meaning of life and the nature of truth decided to make a pilgrimage to the home of the rabbi known as the wisest man in the entire country. And so the man packed whatever possessions he thought he might require for this journey into his car, said good by to his family and friends, and drove off on a very long and very exhausting drive. Finally he arrived at the doorstep of the Rabbi, but when he begged for admission, he was refused. “The Rabbi has been working on a particular problem for years and to see him one has to make an appointment a long time in advance and have good cause. Besides, we do not know you. I’m sorry, you cannot see the Rabbi.” And so the man was sent away very disappointed. But not vanquished.

The next day the man returned and again asked for a meeting with the Rabbi, this time offering a large sum of money, for the man had been very successful in business, if the Rabbi would meet with him for just one hour. But he disciples laughed contemptuously and again showed the man the door.

On the third day the man avoided the front door altogether, but went around to the rear of the house, and when all seemed quiet he climbed in like a common thief through the window. He hid himself in a closet but left the door open just a crack so that he might observe the activities in the house. He saw right away that one door not too far down the hall remained open just a crack, and from inside he could hear the Rabbi studying, turning pages, mumbling some inaudible words seemingly in conversation with someone not readily observable to the man hidden in the closet. At times the Rabbi even seemed to hum joyously a short niggun. At other times, the Rabbi would moan as if in some kind of distress.

The man stealthily moved out of the closet and toward the door to the Rabbi’s room. Holding the knob in his right hand for force, he placed his left hand on the weathered wood for balance, and pushed gently on the door. It oopened without a creak, and there, sitting at his desk with his back to the door, sat the Rabbi dwarfed by the mountains of books piled on all sides of him, hunched over one specific book open wide before him.

“Rabbi,” the man whispered, leaning his head through the crack in the door. But of course, the Rabbi was too immersed in his study to hear the man, and so he spoke a bit louder. “Rabbi, excuse me, please.” And this time the old man heard the imprecation, and he turned and looked toward the door. For about a minute, the Rabbi stared at the man, and then he motioned with his arm feebly for the man to enter.

“Why are you here? For what have come?”

The man slowly entered the room. He held his hat in his hand. He said, “I have come a great distance with a question that has troubled me greatly. I know that you are the wisest of men, and have studied many of the great books, and I was hoping that you would give me answer. I have been so sorely troubled”

The Rabbi looked at him silently for another minute. At last, he said quietly, “Well, what is the question?”

“Rabbi,” the man started almost in sobs, “I want to be a good person and always do the right thing. Tell me, please, what is the Truth? How should I live?”

The Rabbi got slowly up out of his chair, walked over to the man and looked him directly in the eyes. And then he slapped the man across the face.

Well, the man was terribly upset and left the room blinded by his humiliation and his tears. He headed down the stairs and was there confronted by the Rabbi’s students. They were alarmed that he had managed to elude their guard, but when they saw that the man wept so bitterly, they asked him to sit down at the table and drink a glass of tea until he became less agitated. At first they remained silent, observing the bereft man as he cupped his shaking hands about the hot glass filled with the dark liquid. Finally, after several minutes, when he had become somewhat calmer, one of the young men asked why he had been weeping. At first, he didn’t speak, and the only sound in the room was shifting of his glass on the table as he nervously spun it about, and the heavy sounds of his heart-broken sighs. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose, and then, stuffing the handkerchief back into his pocket, he took a deep breath and staring down at the table, narrated what had occurred in the Rabbi’s study. When he had finished, he looked up and around at the students about him.

“Why,” he asked, “why did the Rabbi treat me like that? Why did the Rabbi slap me?” he demanded. “I only wanted him to tell me what was the Truth?

Of course, the men and women about the table were puzzled as well; they knew their rebbe as the most gentle of men who treated everyone with the utmost kindness.

For a while there was silence, and then standing behind the man at the table, a thin and pale young man spoke up: “Ah,” he said quietly, “the Rabbi slapped you so that you would learn never to trade a good question for an answer.”

How does it feel
To be on your own
/With no direction home/
Like a complete unknown/
Like a rolling stone?

09 June 2010

Be Patriotic and Boycott Tea Parties

Tuesday primaries yield Wednesday results.

For years now I have purchased my coffee beans at J&S Beanery, a local coffee establishment on Randolph Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota. Though not a connoisseur, I am knowledgeable enough about coffee, and enjoy a rich cup once or twice a day to know that the purchase there is well-made. I love my morning brew.

And in the past year I have begun to purchase loose teas at a very fine establishment in St. Paul, Tea Source. I started the practice when I took to drinking a cup of tea in the late morning or afternoon, after the coffee and before the beer. And I figured that if I went out of my way and expense to purchase fine coffee beans, then perhaps I should also make the effort to discover the finer tea leaves than those which get packed into the tea bags and brew my teas with greater attention than was ever required by Lipton.

And so I have been lately brewing and enjoying my teas.

The story may be apocryphal, but I don’t really care; it is nevertheless believable. Apparently, the attachment of the colonies to coffee began during the boycott of tea in the years just prior to the revolution. Objecting to the tax the British placed on this seemingly essential item, the colonists took to drinking coffee, which I suppose the British couldn’t tax because it did not derive from a country then occupied or even owned by the British crown. Hence, two hundred or so years later, we have coffee emporiums popping up in our communities like mushrooms.

What with all the talk of tea parties and the Tea Party, and the absurdities that pour out of that basically empty pot, I have decided to boycott tea until those fools disappear. I refuse to be associated with such drivel, or to be even reminded of them as I sip my hot afternoon beverage in the quiet of my study.

I intend to return to our Revolutionary roots: Boycott Tea and Tea Parties.

05 June 2010

Please Give

It was almost a sad film, but not quite, really. Actually, it was film about crisis: everyone in the film experiences existential doubts. What is an existential crisis? One in which the individual confronts existence. What am I doing here? Is there a purpose to existence at all? If I am only for myself, what am I? How can I go on relatively content with all of the misery when I daily confront the misery that exists in the world? I am all that I can look to for an answer, but I don’t know where or even how to begin?

These are basic questions, I think, and I don’t have an answer to a single one of them, though I do often pretend to know something. I think for those of us who think about these questions we mostly survive by repressing our ignorance. Though I suspect that our repression is mostly unsuccessful, or else we wouldn’t really care about the questions at all. Even Abby, who is only fifteen years old and is consumed by her image, suffers from existential crisis: is this horrible acne all that there will ever be of me?

It was painful to watch each character live through their crisis, probably because the questions they face are so basic to my understanding of life. That is, I live the questions daily—have lived them every day of my life, even when I was not conscious of the questions. And I do work too hard at repression. We often feel along in our doubts, and the film comforts me to know I am not alone.

And yet the resolution of the film was so reassuring. By the conclusion, every character seems to arrive at some understanding of his/her place in the world. And from that knowledge there occurs some reconciliation with existence and the possibility for some happiness in the future. The film does not end happily but it does conclude contentedly.

For a long time I have thought about the contradiction between the Stones’ statement, “You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need,” and Dylan’s assertion, “Your debutante just knows what you need, but I know what you want.” For a long time I have thought the sentiment in the Stones’ statement was the truer one, but tonight I think I have traded sides. What I want exists on the existential level, and what I need remains on the superficial. When my need is satisfied I still have want. But when I get what I want, then I have no need.

In the film, the characters discover what they want, because pursuing their needs gets them no satisfaction.

01 June 2010

Just a thought, perhaps

This is one of those blogs wherein I speak about that which I know not enough. And the grammar of that sentence is some indication of my ignorance, though at least I didn’t end it in a preposition.

Of course, I’ve been following the news from the Middle East and the obvious failure/mistake of the Israeli commandos to accomplish whatever mission upon which they had been sent by someone who has so far remained nameless. But the din from the world community intrigues me. The almost universal condemnation of Israel’s actions stands in stark contrast to the silences of the world regarding say, the collateral damages caused by the United States during its bombing of you name it, or the Administration’s decision to assassinate one of its citizens; the continued occupation and oppression of Tibet by China; the sinking of the South Korean boat by the North Koreans; the egregious destruction of the environment by the gushing oil well owned and operated by BP, or a host of other recent events and wars and invasions that do not differ all that significantly from the recent events in the Middle East. Of course, on the radio this morning I did hear a government official say that the United States, at least, will not talk to Hamas until they acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.

It is not a two party state that is the issue, then, is it? Hamas wants Israel and its people gone. Disappeared. I’ve heard this story before, actually. Too much criticism of Israel these days smacks of a not too cleverly disguised anti-Semitism, and I for one, resent it.