Is everything all right?

is everything all right

So much has gone wrong over the past few weeks: the Boston Marathon bombings, the ensuing manhunt, the Texas factory explosion, the terrible floods in the American Midwest.

It makes you think.

Natural disasters – floods, tsunamis, storms, earthquakes – are awful, and take a terrible toll. But they’re not intentional. They just happen. The universe doesn’t care very much about human beings (sadly enough), and sometimes we get in the way.

Human disasters, like the Boston bombings, are another thing. They make us think about human folly, and insanity, and how easily our lives can be overturned by a backpack full of black powder and shrapnel.

They make us realize that, though we might feel comfortable in our lives, there’s always an unknown element. An asteroid might hit. A fire might break out. A madman might open fire.

Back in my freshman year of college, I was assigned to read a book by Michael Novak. In it was the following passage (I paraphrase):



“Your child wakes up in the middle of the night, crying from a bad dream. You come into his bedroom and cradle him, and say: Everything is all right.



“Are you lying?”

Yes, of course. We’re all lying to ourselves. We’re in peril every moment, and death is just around the corner.

But maybe that’s the silver lining in tragic events like the Boston bombing: they remind us not to be too secure in our daily lives, and to live fully.

Here’s the last line of a classic Latin poem, “Copa,” written maybe by Propertius, maybe by Virgil, maybe by someone else:

Mors aurum vellens, “vivite,” ait, “venio.”



Death tugs you by the ear. “Live it up,” he says. “Here I come.”



A childhood friend of Partner’s passed away recently. We went to the wake.



I’d met a lot of the people before, as a brother of the deceased had passed away some years ago, and we’d gone to that wake too. But I was amazed that everyone seemed to remember me. “Are you kidding?” Partner said later. “Of course they remembered you. We were the talk of the place the first time. We were the only gay couple there.”



The deceased was in his coffin, looking as if he’d just drowsed off. His daughter told us: “We made sure he was wearing his casual clothes. We wanted him to be comfortable.” Partner touched his arm as we knelt by the coffin, to say goodbye. A few weeks before, when we’d visited him, the deceased told Partner: “You were my first friend.” I thought that was an extraordinarily wonderful thing to say to someone.



The family (there were five living siblings, and some spouses, and children, and cousins) were all very warm, and glad to see Partner, and very nice to me. The funeral home was full of laughter: people reminiscing, people telling stories (about the deceased and about all kinds of other things), people reconnecting with one another.



“We never see each other except at funerals!” people say.



Ain’t it the truth.



Wakes and funerals always make me realize how important my friends are.



Have you said hello to your friends lately? Email, snail mail, Facebook, telephone?



Get on it.



Life is shorter than you think.


Famous last words

famous last words

Funny how someone’s always hanging around to jot down the last words of well-known people.



These last words fall into (many) categories:



Incomprehensible: “Moose Indian” (Thoreau).



Moral / religious: “See in what peace a Christian can die!” (Addison).



Visionary: “Mozart . . .” (Gustav Mahler).



Egotistical: “What an artist dies with me!” (Nero).



Mysterious: “More light!” (Goethe).



Sardonic: “Are they lighting the fires already?” (Voltaire).



Stoic: “Livia, remember the days of our married life” (Augustus Caesar).



But let’s face it: the moment of death is probably very scary.



So let’s think of the boxer Buddy Baer, who sat up in bed a moment before he died, and said, simply:



“Oh my god, here I go!”


Radio scripts, 1939 – 1942


While browsing through the (unpeopled and lonely) stacks of the Providence Public Libraryrecently, I found a couple of gems: “The Best Broadcasts.” They are collections of the best radio scripts aired between 1939 and 1942.



Oh my god what nostalgia! George Burns and Gracie Allen (Gracie was running for President in 1940, as the nominee of the Surprise Party). Fred Allen, doing a spoof of Clifton Fadiman’s “Information Please” showDame May Whitty doing a grim little dramatic monologue written byW. H. Auden. Bette Davis as Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s sponsor / imaginary girlfriend. Clark Gable in a very funny romp about an adventurer marring a wealthy woman.

And Jack Benny!



(Now listen, Jack Benny was before my time, but he was still around in my childhood; he died when I was seventeen years old, and I remember feeling very solemn when I heard the news. I think I realized then, for the first time, that there was an older generation and a younger generation, and that one of these days I’d be promoted into the older generation. And then – uh-oh!)

The Jack Benny show had everything. He had his regulars – Don Wilson the announcer (who also read the commercials for Jell-O, which were part of the show, and are included in the script), and the young goofy singer Dennis Day, and Jack’s wife Mary Livingston, and Jack’s black butler Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and the singer / bandleader Phil Harris, who was too cool for words (in the 1960s he was Baloo the bear in Disney’s “Jungle Book” movie).  Also Jack’s polar bear Carmichael who guarded his safe in the basement, and his ostrich Trudy in the back yard, who ate all of the bills Jack received. (Rochester: “Trudy ate so many bills yesterday that she’s laying eggs in her sister’s name.” I don’t even know what that means exactly, but it’s pretty funny.)

Hysterical, right?

Then there was a radio script about childbirth, from 1939 or so. I was a little startled that it actually mentioned having a Wassermann test (for syphilis). And there was this tender dialogue after the birth of the child:

Mary: Hank, do you care that it’s a girl?

Hank: No, Mary, that’s swell, I don’t care a bit.

Also there’s some talk in the preface to the 1939-1940 book about “the German race” and “the British race” and (get ready) “the American race.” Is there such a thing as the “American race”? If so, I don’t know of it. But, you know, I dimly remember in my 1960s childhood hearing and reading that same expression.

The most sobering volume is the 1939-1940 book, which covers a period in which Europe was at war, but America hadn’t entered the war yet. It includes an FDR speech in which he talks about the need for neutrality and pacifism, but also the need to be prepared for – hm – eventualities. (There’s a note in the book about Senator Borah of Idaho, who said that FDR was too convincing when you listened to him live; Borah insisted on reading FDR’s speeches in the paper the next day, to get them unemotionally. I know what Senator Borah meant. I don’t like to listen to political discourse; I prefer to read it. It’s less inflammatory.)

Also in the 1939-1940 book was this note about why so many comedy shows were included in the text: “It is a hard year, and it is going to get worse.”

And it did.

But there were still comedies on the air.

Coming up next: “Fibber Magee and Molly”!

Never, never, never, never, never


I made contact with an old friend recently, and she informed me that she intends to climb Kilimanjaro in 2013. Imagine!



My first thought was: I’d love to do that.



My second thought was: I’ll never do that.



And, for the first time in my life, the word “never” suddenly took on a new and terrible meaning.

I will never use up those stupid greeting cards I bought six years ago.



I will never see Timbuktu (though I certainly had the chance a long time ago), or Nepal, or Kazakhstan.




I will never conduct a real symphony orchestra, or win a Nobel Prize, or even a Pulitzer Prize.





Never, never, never.






That’s from “King Lear,” isn’t it? The lines that Lear speaks, holding the dead Cordelia in his arms:



Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,

And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,

Never, never, never, never, never.



I will never return to the house I grew up in; it’s been sold and belongs to strangers now, who have almost certainly changed it beyond recognition.



I can never revisit my old elementary school; it  burned down a few years ago.





I will never speak to my late mother or father again, nor to my late sister Darlene from whom I was estranged at the time of her death, nor to my late sister Susan of whom I was very fond.




Never, never, never, never, never.



When we’re young, we are full of hope.



Later, we come to terrible realizations.

From paradise to parking lot


You know I have a great affection for weeds. I grew up on the edge of a National Forest, and we had more land than we could use (my parents started with twenty acres of woods and pasture, sold half, and still couldn’t figure out what to do with the remaining ten acres). There was one small patch of weeds, probably twenty feet square, just off to one side of our house, on a little hill. My mother insisted that it be mowed from time to time, but I resisted. I rejoiced in it. It had everything: dandelion, chess, quack, vetch, three kinds of clover, plaintain. I literally used to roll in that weed patch on sunny days. It was a miniature jungle, just right for a little boy.

I visit my old home on Google Earth from time to time. The house is still there (though greatly changed). But I see that my old patch of weeds is all plowed up now, made into useful ground.

What a pity.

Even here in Providence, where people have been building and ripping up and building again for over three hundred years, there are still little patches of chaos. One of my favorites was on Angell Street, a few blocks from where I’m writing this. In summer it was practically tropical; it featured a couple of gigantic trees-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), that fabulous fast-growing weed tree, bigger than any I’d ever seen in southern New England, and at least two dozen smaller species.

Then, about ten years ago, the bulldozers moved in, and they plowed it under, and they built a Starbucks.

Another piece of paradise gone.

There’s another little patch close to our apartment, a hill with trees and flowers. Huge mullein thrive there, and weedy maples, and Queen Anne’s lace in summertime.

The backhoe was there this morning, ripping it all up.

Sing it, Joni Mitchell!

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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