Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
He’s one hundred years old and his long hands, once strong, are growing translucent. He does not so much sit in his wheelchair as he is held upright and at a slight slant by straps. Even awake his eyes are shut against the glare and the blur of the florescent lights in the roof of the home.
His meals of pureed food are spoon fed to him by attendants who speak to him in the tones he once used, long ago, on his infant children. When the drapes in his room are partially opened they reveal a view of a gravel roof, exhaust fans, and the brick facade of the opposite wing of the home. It’s not a view but he doesn’t mind. His eyes are shut against the glare and the blur of the present, and he’s gone off on a fishing trip in the summer of 1949 where he will say to no one in particular, “Jesus, the fish are thick on the ground.”
Don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s not in the here and now, because he’ll surprise you now and then. He’ll come out for a bit if it is worth it, but it seldom is. And then only for a moment.
He’s my mother’s brother, my uncle, and his life has now spanned a full century.
In the year of his birth, 1909, the NAACP was founded as was Tel Aviv while the keel of what was to become the Titanic was laid in Belfast. Taft took over the Presidency from Roosevelt (Theodore) and “Alice Huyler Ramsey, a 22-year-old housewife and mother from Hackensack, New Jersey, became the first woman to drive across the United States.” Airplanes were only six years old but the Germans were already working on the anti-aircraft gun. Wisely so since the United States Army Signal Corp Division purchased the world’s first military airplane from the Wright brothers in that same year. Not to be outdone, the US Navy decided it needed a central base in the Pacific and thought Pearl Harbor made strategic sense.
In the year of his birth Geronimo died, Barry Goldwater was born, and Guglielmo Marconi received the Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of radio. There’s a radio in his room next to his bed but it’s never turned on. Neither is the television that hangs from the ceiling and if his phone rings, it’s a mistake. But in his mind, there are signals still coming in from elsewhere, from elsewhen, from out there, and if you sit with him quietly, without trying to engage him and without expectation; if you sit with him “where here and now cease to matter” you can sometimes sense where he really lives in this his hundredth year.
C. S. Lewis observed “You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.” Live long enough and your body slowly betrays you and sometimes takes your mind and soul with it.
Many of my uncle’s relatives seem to think that’s what has happened to him. And perhaps they are correct. Alzheimer’s, senile dementia, and other associated afflictions are the terror of the elderly and their families. Indeed, they are the things we fear most about growing old next to unremitting pain from a degenerating disease. As one of my cousins said, “It’s about ‘quality of life.’
Dementia might well be the overriding problem that afflicts my uncle as he waits in his room with his name on a card in a slotted holder next to the door. “Dementia” is what we all assume when the elderly become less and less present to us as we perform our dutiful visits. We reintroduce ourselves and then carefully monitor how long they can hold who we are (son, daughter, sister, brother, friend) in their minds, and measure that against how long they held that knowledge the year before. It is almost always for a shorter time and that calculation distresses us.
So we call for more care, for more or different drugs. After all, their care is expensive and we need to get the value for money spent on our aged relatives knowing. We want them to know at least, who we are for more than five minutes. Their forgetfulness distresses us because it cuts us off from them just when our need to remind them of our love is greatest. It also upsets us because it is a portent of what waits for us when it is our name on the card in the slotted holder next to the door. Dementia.
Maybe. Maybe not.
I’d escorted my then 94-year-old mother from her home in California to her childhood home in Fargo for my uncle’s 100th birthday. My mother is still active and present and, all those who know her agree, inspiring. But her knees have betrayed her recently and long flights that change planes in Denver are something that can no longer be done without a dutiful son whose firm motto is: “There will be no falls on my watch.”
In the same home, just down the hall from my 100-year-old uncle, is my mother’s other brother who is 96. He sleeps a lot but still reads, or seems to read, the daily paper. She’d spend time with him too. During those moments I’d sit with my uncle aslant in his wheelchair with his eyes shut against the glare of the lights and the blur of the common room. It was mostly a quiet time but, now and then, he’d speak to the air. He’d say things like, “Well, Barbara, what are we going to do about the tree this year?” and, after a minute or so, “Biggest damn Walleye I ever saw.” Fragments and scraps of thoughts. As the poet says, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
It came to me that perhaps we sometimes mistake senile dementia for sanity in the elderly; that we are so impressed with our slivers and crumbs of knowledge about the workings of the human mind we mistake them for insights into the terra incognita of the human soul. It seemed to me, as I sat with my uncle, that maybe what I was hearing from him was a sane man’s sane reaction to his circumstances.
If you knew to a certainty that every single day for the rest of your life, you’d be dressed in diapers and confined to a wheelchair with blurred eyesight in a small brick-walled room what would you do?
If you knew to a certainty that at every meal for the rest of your life a woman who talked to you as if you were a baby would spoon three flavors of baby food into your mouth, what would you do?
If, opening your eyes, you knew that all you would see would be a bright fluorescent glare and the blurred shapes of dozens of others, mostly women, lolling about in wheelchairs, what would you do?
If you knew to a dead, solid certainty that you were never going to be released from your room until you were released, at long last, from your body, what would you do?
If you were a sane man, just what would you, at long last, do?
I don’t know about you, but I would figure a way out of that prison. And if that way out was only deeper in, that’s where I’d go. I’d go deep into my Palace of Memory and I’d use all my energy to construct a world inside that was made of the most vivid moments of all the years I’d lived.
In my Palace of Memory I’d be building the world’s worst sandcastle on the beach in Balboa as my father and uncle tossed a football back and forth on the hot sand. I’d be waking up in the back seat of our 1951 Chevy and seeing my grandparents’ faces pressed against the glass as the first snowflakes I’d ever seen fell softly behind them in the twilight. I’d be with my first wife on my wedding night at the Pierre Hotel in New York City. I’d be at my book-editing job on the better days. I’d be in a taxi in New York going downtown to Studio 54 at three in the morning making all the lights. I’d go back to a warm field in a California twilight and listen to the breath and laughter of a young girl heard once and never again. I’d sit in the sun in front of a rose-covered cottage in Big Sur. I’d be laughing on the Spanish Stairs in Rome or weaving drunk along a cliff road on the Greek island of Hydra under a bronze moon and above a wine-dark sea. I’d be high up in a hotel in Paris looking down at the Seine in the rain. I’d hold my one-year-old daughter over my head while lying on the grass in the Boston Public gardens in the spring and see her face framed with cherry blossoms.
All those and a thousand other rooms in my Palace of Memory I’d visit over and over again until they all ran together in a blur as the train of my life, accelerating, finally left the station and leapt towards the stars and beyond and, finally forgetting all of that, I saw for a fleeting moment the mystery complete.
More than anything else, I would not be in that brick-walled room in the old folks’ home any more than I absolutely had to.
I like to think that is what is going on in the soul of my uncle. It’s not only “pretty to think so,” but it has the added advantage of possibly being true. Because he is not always “away.” He will come out into the present if the moment is right.
When my mother came in to see him the first time and said, “Mac, it’s your sister, Lois,” he said, without a pause, “Oh, my irritating little sister. How are you doing?” What followed was a pretty lively back and forth until he tired and left again before being wheeled downstairs for his lunch purees.
Then, a few days later, at the hundredth birthday party his family had arranged, the special presentation involved about thirty Barbershop Quartet singers. Both he and my uncle had been half of a barbershop quartet for decades and every Barbershopper for miles around showed up to honor both of them who sat in the front and listened to a cascade of songs.
At the end, of course, the singers launched into “Happy Birthday” which was taken up by the 150 other friends and family at the party. The last extended “Youuuuu…” faded and in the moment of silence that came after, my uncle opened his eyes and in a clear strong voice sang, on key, “Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.”
Then he closed his eyes and left again taking with him, I hope, one last room to add to his Palace of Memory.
[First published June 24, 2009. Arthur Warner McNair, passed away peacefully in his sleep in his 100th year on October 8, 2009]
Justine and my Mother
in another place, in another time.
I saw you first as some small prized gem
Passed between white-masked men
In rooms ablaze with light, and laid
Wrapped and so precious in my hands,
That I felt then I had somehow stolen
Some full measure of fire from heaven
And held it now on earth forever,
As firm as stone, as light as breath.
In all my days, of all my days,
No gift was given me but you,
And this I knew as we first met
In that bronze-bright room
Where, draped in white, I heard
The music of your newborn’s heart,
And knew you’d stand the first in mine
For all the moments mine would mark,
And those moments all of yours beyond.
Since then the separate rooms enclose us now.
Still in the meadows of my heart,
In that first moment, all my circles close,
Like runners rounding third at dusk,
And safe, at last, come loping home.
That moment was the best of life,
Held in my heart where distance dies,
Yet I am trapped in these thin lines
That cannot paint a love so wide,
And all my mind and meager art
Lies stunned and speechless struck. [click to continue…]
Via my good buddies at | Western Rifle Shooters Association
[“Shouldn’t you give a language warning?”
“Nope, don’t have one to give.”]
No longer a problem in the way-new America.
We are a “Can-Do! Yes, we can.” society. One of the really amazing upticks in American society, as I noticed in a brief walk around various neighborhoods in sodden Seattle, is that we have almost completely cleaned up the streets of our cities.
How well I remember those tours through the other skid roads** of the cities I have lived in — Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and San Francisco –in days of yore. Gone now. All gone. And their wretched refuse along with them.
Take a walk in any sizable American city and you will see that it is true.
Nowhere in today’s brighter and more-caring American cities will you see those terrible social wrecks of yesteryear on the streets. Yes, no longer will you find “Bums,” “Junkies,” “Drunks,” “Bull-Goose Raving Lunatics,” or “The Hard Core Unemployed” on our sidewalks. Gone. They are all gone; all a fading memory.
Indeed all that are left, strangely rising up from the background noise of the streets, are the blameless and harmless; the “Homeless.”
The “Homeless” are the last social class left to be saved by our loving and caring society. Billions have been poured into the hands of the Homeless and yet they persist. Indeed their continuing expansion in our cities after we do and we do and we do for them is a mystery which yearns for a caring social solution.
My own cure is simple and solves two lingering social problems at once: “Feed the homeless to the hungry.”
Problem solved and it is a twofer. Paging Dr. Swift!
**The first skid row was Skid Road (Yesler Way) in Seattle, where logs were skidded into the water on a corduroy road for delivery to Henry Yesler’s lumber mills.
Luckily for me, everything on this taco is on my New Year’s Resolution Diet!
I was accused of pride by my peripheral friend; my new unfriend – people who with a click of a mouse are excluded from your life forever, with no impact except perhaps a sigh of relief and a nagging, irritating question “why didn’t I do that sooner?” Pride because I dare to write thoughtfully. I am not a mocker by nature, an idiot jester or buffoon. And while I do rage, I try not to write those thoughts down; they do me no good at all, much less anybody who stumbles onto one of my reflections. Plus when I am angry, without the tranquility I so crave, my words become poison. Best not to let out that dross. Yes, I suppose I do suffer from pride – is that not the case for all of us who love the things we do? Does not a baker believe they should be baking for the table of the king? Does not the inventor believe his gadget would change the world? Is not a coder certain they have found a better algorithm? And if so why not a writer; one who has paid so dearly for the lessons learned after twenty years in the camps, to be easily dismissed? No, nobody does what they do without pride – unless they are a cynic or perhaps a nihilist. A Reason, A Season, or a Lifetime
What do you do if your life’s ambition – to become a pilot with the US Air Force – gets shot down by poor eyesight? If you’re Larry Walters, you take matters into your own hands. In 1982 the California truck-driver, unperturbed by the stringent recruitment standards of the USAF, decided to take to the air in his own unique way: by attaching a large cluster of weather balloons to a lawn chair.
First, Larry and his girlfriend forged a requisition slip from his employer, Filmfair Studios, enabling them to purchase the 45 8-foot (2.4 m) weather balloons by saying they were to be used in a commercial. They then set about inflating the balloons and attaching them to Larry’s patio chair. He put on a parachute, strapped himself in and took off, carrying with him only the absolute essentials – a pellet gun (to shoot balloons if he went too high), a CB radio, a camera, sandwiches and, most essential of all, a four-pack of beer.
The plan was to float 30 feet (9 m) above the Mojave Desert for a few hours, then effect a pleasant and gradual descent. To Larry’s horror, however, the chair rose from his yard in San Pedro much faster than expected – he was eventually to reach a maximum altitude of 15,000 feet (4,600 m) – and was soon drifting over Los Angeles and into the primary approach corridor for Long Beach Airport, where he was spotted by several commercial airliners.
By this point, Larry had achieved his primary aim – to fly – but now faced the problem of how not to fly. Floating in LA airspace was not, he knew, going to make him very popular. Initially, though, he was too scared to shoot any of the balloons in case he unbalanced and fell from his madcap contraption. He tried getting in touch with REACT – a citizen’s band radio monitoring organization. As he put it to them:
‘… the difficulty is, ah, this was an unauthorized balloon launch and, uh, I’m sure my ground crew has alerted the proper authority. But, uh, just call them and tell them I’m okay.’ The Odysseum: Larry ‘Lawnchair’ Walters (1949-1993) [click to continue…]
Apple without Steve Jobs at the core is not Apple.
The consumer electronics business seems to have run out of road, as far as cool new ideas. This is apparent in the troubles Apple is suddenly facing. It makes a cool looking toy, but there’s nothing unique about an iPhone. It does what all the phones do now. The gap between it and the low-end brands is not enough to warrant a premium. This is an issue turning up all across the consumer electronics space. There’s just no new technology to make any of it “must have” or any brand unique. — The End Of The Line
The most enduringly prophetic Dylan song juxtaposed with images found in the Life Magazine Image Library, and supported by the extremely strange but somehow successful “Desolation Row – The Marionette Performance” by Vlamik, in two parts.
[click to continue…]
With the government shut down it’s time to ask the really important questions such as Should The Government Stop Dumping Money Into A Giant Hole?
Photographer David Nevala has a way of capturing things that are quintessentially American. Here’s his look at the Amish Farm
“Being perpetually plagued, from the mistakes made among the illiterate, by the similitude in the sound of the words Character and Caricatura, I ten years ago endeavoured to explain the distinction by the above Print; and, as I was then publishing Marriage a la Mode, wherein were characters of high life, I introduced the great number of faces there delineated (none of which are exaggerated) varied at random, to prevent, if possible, personal application when the Prints should come out… “Characters and Caricaturas by William Hogarth (1743) – The Public Domain Review
The search engine is no longer a model of human knowledge, It is human knowledge. What began as a mapping of human meaning now defines human meaning, and has begun to control, rather than simply catalog or index, human thought. No one is at the controls. If enough drivers subscribe to a real-time map, traffic is controlled, with no central model except the traffic itself. The successful social network is no longer a model of the social graph, it is the social graph. This is why it is a winner-take-all game. Governments, with an allegiance to antiquated models and control systems, are being left behind. Childhood’s End | Edge.org [click to continue…]
The tumbril creaks and rumbles on
Upon the road of Slate,
Retracing rutted years of sand
Whose Distance storms Debate.
Its passengers stand fixed as stone
While faces cheer from Snow.
The Blade awaits its midday meal,
When Above becomes Below.
Innovations carved from clouds
Give despair and dance New measures.
The Blade reflects its evening meal
When kings slake lower pleasures.
Arrived at Hope they gaze on mist
Where granite horses roam.
Their schedules as fixed as Dark.
Their future — White as bone.
The head within the basket sees
Vast Parliaments of sky.
Its ears hear only fading surf
Where the past lost years reply.
** The Ancien R馮ime was the monarchic, aristocratic, social and political system established in the Kingdom of France from approximately the 15th century until the latter part of the 18th century (“early modern France”) under the late Valois and Bourbon dynasties. The term is occasionally used to refer to the similar feudal social and political order of the time elsewhere in Europe. The administrative and social structures of the Ancien Regime were the result of years of state-building, legislative acts (like the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterets), internal conflicts and civil wars, but they remained a confusing patchwork of local privilege and historic differences until the French Revolution ended the system.
A stunning video interpretation of Tennyson’s poem as sung by the living angel, Loreena McKennitt. At full screen with speakers turned up this will transport you to the gone world and make your day as it breaks your heart.
[click to continue…]
Of the Traveling Wilburys Petty, Harrison, and Orbison are now departed but their melody lingers on. No matter, we’ll see them all a little further down the road.
“Handle with Care” came about through Warner Bros. Records, which distributed George Harrison’s Dark Horse record label, pressing Harrison for an extra track for the European release of his “This Is Love” single. Having arrived in Los Angeles in April 1988, Harrison discussed the request over dinner with Jeff Lynne, his co-producer on the Cloud Nine album, and Roy Orbison, whose album Mystery Girl Lynne was producing at the time. Lynne agreed to help him record the track the following day, and Harrison invited Orbison to attend the session, after Orbison had said he “would like to come along and watch”. With no professional studios available at such short notice, Harrison phoned Bob Dylan, who agreed to let them use his garage studio in Malibu. Tom Petty, who had also been working with Lynne in Los Angeles, was invited the following day, when Harrison went to retrieve his guitar from Petty’s house.
In a 1990 interview for the Dutch television show Countdown, Harrison said that he started writing “Handle with Care” – with a section in mind for Orbison to sing – on the morning of the session. Lynne helped Harrison complete the music for the song when they arrived at Dylan’s house; according to Petty, Harrison had the chord sequence “pretty much” completed beforehand. In another contemporary interview, Harrison recalled that he had the opening line, “Been beat-up and battered around”, but otherwise, the lyrics were the result of a group effort. Harrison asked Dylan, who had been tending a barbecue for the musicians, to “Give us some lyrics, you famous lyricist.” When Dylan asked for a title for the song, Harrison looked around the garage and said, “Handle with Care”, after a label on a box.
All five musicians assisted in writing the song’s lyrics, and sang and played acoustic guitars on the basic track. Harrison said that having already planned Orbison’s segment, he decided to include portions sung by Dylan, Lynne, and Petty.– La Wik
[click to continue…]
Today I am retiring the “After the Paradise Fire” wishlist on Amazon. It was started before I got an apartment after the Camp Fire disaster blew up my home in Paradise. I had never had an Amazon “wishlist” before and there were several false starts before a reader showed me how to do it. After it was up I was stunned at how responsive all of my readers were. Wish after wish, my needs for various items were being granted at light speed.
Last night I finally built the last item I needed ( a desk on which I am writing this post) and this morning when I looked at the list I saw only a chair, and since I had just gotten a chair down at Office Depot, I deleted that final item. Then turning around inside this apartment I saw that I did have every needful thing necessary to go forward with this new stage of life after the fire. I saw that I now live, not in The House That Jack Built, but in The House That My Readers Built.
It is strange to live in a home in which everything is new except me, but that’s the case. It’s a home that I never could have managed on my own after the fires since, to recover from the fire, what you have to do is attach a firehose to your bank account and blast away. My readers have saved me from a very tight financial squeeze in both money donated and wishlist wishes granted.
If I have three wishes left in this life they would all be, first, second, and third, that God bless and keep all my readers.
“In the early days of the world, the discovery of a fact of natural history was immediately followed by the realization of it as a fact of poetry. When man awoke from the long fit of absent-mindedness which is called the automatic animal state and began to notice the queer facts that the sky was blue and the grass green, he immediately began to use those facts symbolically. Blue, the color of the sky, became a symbol of celestial holiness; green passed into the language as indicating a freshness verging upon unintelligence. If we had the good fortune to live in a world in which the sky was green and the grass blue, the symbolism would have been different.
“But for some mysterious reason this habit of realizing poetically the facts of science has ceased abruptly with scientific progress, and all the confounding portents preached by Galileo and Newton have fallen on deaf ears. They painted a picture of the universe compared with which the Apocalypse with its falling stars was a mere idyll. They declared that we are all careening through space, clinging to a cannon-ball, and the poets ignore the matter as if it were a remark about the weather. They say that an invisible force holds us in our own armchairs while the earth hurtles like a boomerang, and men still go back to dusty records to prove the mercy of God. They tell us that Mr. Scott’s monstrous vision of a mountain of sea-water rising in a solid dome, like the glass mountain in the fairy-tale, is actually a fact, and men still go back to the fairy-tale.
“To what towering heights of poetic imagery might we not have risen if only the poetizing of natural history had continued and man’s fancy had played with the planets as naturally as it once played with the flowers! We might have had a planetary patriotism, in which the green leaf should be like a cockade, and the sea an everlasting dance of drums. We might have been proud of what our star has wrought, and worn its heraldry haughtily in the blind tournament of the spheres. All this, indeed, we may surely do yet; for with all the multiplicity of knowledge there is one thing happily that no man knows: whether the world is old or young.” — G.K. Chesterton
It seems like yesterday
But it was long ago
Janey was lovely she was the queen of my nights
There in the darkness with the radio playing low
And the secrets that we shared
The mountains that we moved
Caught like a wildfire out of control
‘Til there was nothing left to burn and nothing left to prove
And I remember what she said to me
How she swore that it never would end
I remember how she held me oh so tight
Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then [click to continue…]
Over the next few days, I’ll be helping my mother manage her transition from rehabilitation back to her own apartment. Posting may be light.
When you walk along this beach
You take all that you can carry —
Dog, shoes, shadow — even,
If you are not very selective,
“The Ride of the Valkyries.”
And you think because
You walk this beach
So Easy and so Free
That you will always
Stroll upon this sand,
This land of Liberty.
Look up. A large Black Dog
Shambles and sniffs
Along this wet, Black strand,
And Eight Black Ravens
Settle at the surf line,
Where the drunken Crone
Draws her sign in the sand;
A sign where there are no signs.
You’re weary of all you carry,
So you leave it behind
Heaped in a pile on the beach,
Heaped with the Crone,
The Ravens and the Dog,
Hoping it will fade
Forever out of reach,
Becoming just one more
Behind you on the beach.
Watch him listen and wait for it.
Neo found this. Her remarks and especially those of her commenters are a quick survey of pop in the dying decades of the 2oth Century.
To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified. — Isaiah 61:1-3
More from me on the Camp Fire and Paradise in the coming months. For now, this is where I came from and am coming from. On that day, the only thing bigger than the fire were the heroes that appeared from everywhere in Paradise as the flames called forth the better angels of their souls.
Two months from that day, in this small apartment looking out on the cold rain with a small black cat sleeping on the sofa behind me, you’d think that the emotions of the day have receded into the rearview mirror of life, but watching this made me weep with loss of that day and rise with the hope of the following few weeks all over again.
What can one say except that Scott Wadsworth and his friends are damn good men?
First written and recorded by the saccharine naif James Taylor from 1968 to 1970, Fire and Rain has gone from being deeply autobiographical to something more prophetic; even an epitaph for blighted Boomers sodden with therapy and privilege. When released it sparked all sorts of speculation about the various psychic trials and tribulations of Taylor and his entire privileged Martha’s Vineyard clan. In time an entire bogus narrative was invented by fans to explain the death in an airplane crash of his once upon a time girlfriend. In reality, the backstory of the song remains, as does its singer, entirely self-centered.
But of course, the song has gone beyond its creator and remains as an artifact whose meaning is gleaned more and more from the approach of a generation’s mortality than from the facts of its origin. [click to continue…]