The inevitability of mortality


I realized, around the age of seven, that I was going to die someday. I spent some awful sleepless nights around that time. I assured myself that, by the time I was an adult, I’d have figured out a way around it.

Well, I’m fifty-five years old, and I still haven’t figured out a damned thing.

What a pity that we have to die. What? You don’t like me mentioning it? I know. I don’t like thinking about it.

But I think it bears thinking about.

Here are some important philosophers on the topic of the inevitability of death:

From “Through The Looking Glass,” by Lewis Carroll:

`Crawling at your feet,’ said the Gnat (Alice drew her feet back in some alarm), `you may observe a Bread-and-Butterfly. Its wings are thin slices of Bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.’ 

 

 

`And what does it live on?’ 

 

 

`Weak tea with cream in it.’ 

 

 

A new difficulty came into Alice’s head. `Supposing it couldn’t find any?’ she suggested. 

 

 

`Then it would die, of course.’ 

 

 

`But that must happen very often,’ Alice remarked thoughtfully. 

 

 

`It always happens,’ said the Gnat. 

Then there’s Bart Simpson: “You gotta get murdered someday.”

But here’s my very favorite, which actually comforts me a little, taken from Ogden Nash’s “Carnival of the Animals”:

At midnight in the museum hall,
The fossils gathered for a ball.
There were no drums or saxophones,
But just the clatter of their bones,
A rolling, rattling carefree circus,
Of mammoth polkas and mazurkas.
Pterodactyls and brontosauruses
Sang ghostly prehistoric choruses.
Amid the mastodonic wassail
I caught the eye of one small fossil.
“Cheer up, sad world,” he said, and winked.
“It’s kind of fun to be extinct.”

I certainly hope so. I expect to be extinct for a very long time.


 

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Becoming a writer

becoming a writer


Sometimes I ask myself: What do I want to be when I grow up? And the answer is always: I want to be a writer.

Writers are great. They lounge around in smoking jackets and smoke and drink, and somehow – magically – they produce poetry and prose and dramas. And then they smoke and drink some more.

Who doesn’t want that kind of life?

When I was younger, I wrote and wrote. I wrote bad short stories and abortive novels and really atrocious poetry. Worse: I got a few things published in small (very small) publications when I was in my twenties, which convinced me that it was only a matter of time. Smoking jacket, here I come!

But then I discovered that writing is hard work. Also, a little talent doesn’t hurt, and I began to wonder if I had any talent at all.

I have a friend who is a real writer, with several books (real books!) to his credit. He does not generally wear a smoking jacket. He works at a regular job, and has a family. He writes when he can: late at night, during odd moments in the day. But he never really stops.

Aha! I thought. I can do that, at least! I may not have any talent, but I have a huge amount of stubborn perseverance!

So I began this blog in 2010: one page a day. I have never missed a day yet. I’m a writer at last! Who needs a publisher? I can publish myself! I can edit myself! I can write about any damn thing I please, no matter how silly or irrelevant!

And here we are. I’m still producing the blog, a page a day, silent and grim as death.

I must be a writer by now, right?

Right?

Here’s Frank O’Hara’s “Autobiographia Literaria”:

 

 

When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
all alone.


I hated dolls and I
hated games, animals were
not friendly and birds
flew away.


If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out “I am
an orphan.”


And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!
Imagine!


Wanda

wanda


I discovered lately that a co-worker’s middle name is Wanda. “It was my Polish grandmother’s name,” she said. “I told my mother: why did you name me Kathleen Wanda? And she said: just be glad I didn’t name you Wanda Kathleen.”

I had an aunt Wanda. She was full-blooded Polish. My grandmother was Polish, and her first husband was Polish, so her first three children (my half-aunts and half-uncle) were full-blooded Polish too: Maryann, Wanda, and Tony.

Great-aunt Wanda I met only once or twice. She was a handsome Polish woman who lived in northern California, and she has many descendants in the current generation.

Does anyone name his/her children Wanda these days? It’s an evocative name.

The only famous Wanda I can think of is Wanda Toscanini Horowitz. She was the temperamental daughter of the temperamental orchestra conductor Arturo Toscanini, and she married the pianist Vladimir Horowitz.

Here is a brief YouTube video of Vladimir Horowitz playing a Rachmaninoff prelude. As the camera circles, you can see Wanda lounging on the couch, listening:

Who says Wanda isn’t a pretty name?


Movie review: “Zero Dark Thirty”

zero


Partner and I have not seen many of the Oscar-nominated movies this year. We wanted, however, to see “Zero Dark Thirty,” and we finally saw it yesterday.

It is excellent. It is beautifully filmed, and tense, and moves along like lightning. I saw in the notes that it was more than two and a half hours long, and my heart sank a little bit, but don’t worry: it’s 160 minutes very well spent.

It is about (as you no doubt already know) the CIA’s search for Osama bin Laden, culminating in the Navy Seals’ attack on the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan where bin Ladin lived.

So: it’s one of those movies like “Titanic” and “From Here to Eternity” in which you know the outcome.

And yet you will sweat heavily along the way, wondering if everything is going to go right.

The movie is notable for its lack of human interest and warmth. Its focal character is a CIA operative named Maya (no last name), who comes to Afghanistan in 2003 to join the hunt for Al Qaeda commanders. She becomes convinced that one man – a courier – is the link to Osama himself, and follows that link singlemindedly for almost ten years.

She is proven right.

We know nothing about Maya (played by an excellent and Oscar-worthy Jessica Chastain), except that she was recruited by the CIA when she was very young, and seems to have no personal life. We know nothing of her motivations. There’s one teasing scene halfway through the movie in which a fellow operative nudges her to open up about her life; the scene is interrupted by a terrorist bomb-blast.

The climax of the movie is the Abbottabad raid itself. There’s an eerily beautiful nighttime helicopter flight, followed by an almost-real-time recreation of the raid on the compound. When the Seals are wearing night-vision goggles, that’s how you see the action; when they take the goggles off, suddenly you see the action the way they do. You’re there, with them, inside the compound, every moment, from landing to escape.

The cinematography is unexpectedly beautiful. Pakistan’s cities – Rawalpindi, Peshawur, Islamabad – overflow with color and life. The helicopters flying through the night are gorgeous, like huge silent birds.

Does this sound humorless? There are moments of incongruity which almost made me laugh: a Muslim CIA director praying in his office; a cheerful-looking German shepherd riding in one of the Seals’ helicopters on the way to the Abbottabad raid; an almost-comical scene in Kuwait City, in which a CIA operative buys an informant by giving him a bright-yellow Lamborghini.

Now let’s talk about the politics of the movie.

Critics have been greatly at odds over the movie’s message. Is this a defense of torture as a method of gaining information? Is it “triumphalist”? Is it a subtle criticism of the US’s methods?

Well, it’s all of the above, and none.

War movies used to be easy, right? If John Wayne was fighting, you knew which side the good guys were on. There were “pacifist” movies like “All Quiet on the Western Front,” but they were long ago and far away. Then there were the Vietnam movies like “Hamburger Hill” and “The Deer Hunter” and “Platoon,” full of contradictions and personal angst.

This is none of the above. “Zero Dark Thirty” shows Americans torturing Middle Easterners for information, unapologetically. It rubs our nose in it. It shows a shift in 2009, after Obama became president. “The president is thoughtful,” one of the characters says in the latter half of the movie. “He needs proof.”

The movie mentions one solution: a bomb could have easily been dropped on the Abbottabad compound, killing all residents, including all of the women and children.

But the administration chose to go another (riskier) way.

This movie says: Osama bin Laden’s death doesn’t solve everything. War is horrible, and it never ends.

Go see it.


For Sunday: the Gap Band invites you to board the “Party Train”

party train


This is a cute little song / dance video from the 1980s. I like the different kinds of dancing, and the way it shows everyone being equal: black people, white people, Buddhist monks, children, adults, policemen, bodybuilders, crazy Uncle Sams on roller skates.

 

 


The miracle of Xanax

 


I have spoken before about my use of brain medicine: specifically, that I take a daily pill that makes me just a bit calmer and more – well, human.

But wait! There’s more!

Long before I went on my current medication – back around 2000 – I was going through a rough patch: a stressful period at work, my mother’s illness and death. I talked to my doctor, and he gave me a wonderful little prescription for alprazolam, also known as Xanax. The prescription reads (to this day): “Take one to three tablets daily, as needed.”

Over the last twelve years, I have availed myself of this medication, as needed.

Xanax, when used correctly, is wonderful. It creates perspective. You know, when you’re worried about something, how it becomes obsessive and nasty and threatening? Xanax takes the threat away. You’re confronting the same problem, but without the accompanying angst. You can look at the world calmly, without freaking out.

The problem, of course, is that you really can’t take it every day. It’s not a narcotic, but it’s addictive in its own way; you begin to rely on it. I’ve always tried not to take it more than two days in a row.

Since 2010, when my doctor prescribed the Wonder Drug Citalopram, I have not used Xanax much. I was worried, at first, that they might interact and send me into a coma. “No,” my doctor reassured me. “They don’t work that way. You can take both in the same day.”

I actually tried, one day, just to see. He was right. Nothing happened.

Lately, I’ve been having some stress. Nothing world-shattering, but it’s been making me nervous and cranky.  So I dipped into the Xanax reserves again.

Oh my! I’d forgotten how it felt!

I took one just the other day, at seven-thirty in the morning, anticipating a tense active day. By eight I was Jesus and Gandhi in one cheerful package, and I think I could easily have cured scrofula with a touch of my hand. The day passed in a glow of benevolence. “You know,” my student assistant Gunnar said around four forty-five in the afternoon, “you were in a really good mood today.”

“I confess,” I said. “I took something this morning.”

“Muscle relaxer?” he asked.

Brain relaxer,” I said.

He laughed explosively. He wasn’t expecting that.


The ACHOO gene

photic sneeze


Years ago, my mother used to hang her laundry out on the line in our backyard to dry. She wore sunglasses, even in the weak Northwest sunlight, because the sunlight made her sneeze.

It makes me sneeze too. Not every time, but often.

This is the “photic sneeze reflex.” It has a couple of other names, including (seriously) the Autosomal-dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst reflex (ACHOO!), as well as the Peroutka Sneeze Reflex.

Why? I’ve read many explanations over the years. First, it was said that blue-eyed people were prone to this, because (somehow) our pale irises let more light into the eyeball, which was somehow irritating. Well, I’m blue-eyed, so fine. But my mother was brown-eyed. So let’s try again.

How about this one? When you look into bright light, your pupils contract very suddenly. The muscles which control this don’t usually work that fast or that hard, and they twitch. This feels like a tickle inside your nose, and – achoo!

This theory doesn’t hold up experimentally either, apparently.

The reflex appears to be genetic. 23andMe, the genetic-assay project which both Partner and I joined recently, tests for this, and – guess what? – I have the gene.

So it’s genetic. So what?

What else can you think of that’s genetic and caused by sudden exposure to light?

How about epilepsy?

(And this, brothers and sisters, is what genetic research is all about.)

(And – you see? – I’m a mutant after all.)


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