The Greatest of These

August 30, 2009 § 2 Comments


Aldous Huxley

Teddy Kennedy’s funeral was very moving. It reminded me of the Catholic funerals I went to in my teens—my uncle and my cousin? I can’t remember. So many people died in those years—my cousin in a car crash on the night of his high school graduation, others by illness and suicide—but I do remember that two of the funerals were Catholic, long, beautiful, with music and incense.

None of us had fathers we could talk about as Teddy’s sons did about him. We all wanted to. We remembered the good things and tried to make them be more than they were, as well as sometimes exaggerating the bad. Then I grew up, sort of, and watched my husband be a less good father than he should have been, and felt complicit because I was.  I was distracting him with youth and sex and freedom, and felt like I deserved his attention because his kids at least had a father, and I didn’t. If I were Catholic I would have gone to confession over that.

I try to respect faith; it awes me sometimes. But listening to the priest talk about Teddy being in Heaven with Jesus, and being with his dead siblings, I think: how is that not more delusional than my beliefs about romance that make me feel so stupid and sad?

The obvious answer is that if Teddy’s wrong he’ll never know it and while he was alive he had the comfort of it. After all, if there is no God and we die into darkness, how does believing this help us bear it? All I have is my cat, jumping up here now to present me with his amber and white furriness, glistening and clean, not quite angelic but pleasingly tangible. His small head and swanlike neck. His stupid, beautiful, tawny eyes.

I suppose the purpose of God is to be pure. Nobody we love here is. God can betray only us by not existing, and then it’s not anyone betraying us. But I can only say so because I don’t believe. If I did—if I were absolutely certain there was a God who saw and spoke and could change things, if I were like my Aunt Vera or Teddy, thinking all the doctrine was absolutely true—I’d want to kill the crazy bastard in a nanosecond.

My friend Philip thinks I don’t understand religion. He thinks I’m a Godless Unitarian hippie nonbeliever. But I savored faith early on, studying Aldous Huxley’s collection of sacred writings The Perennial Philosophy, which remains the best of its kind. He made me understand the sweet potency of a belief no human power could shake. I remember especially (from another book of Huxley’s) a description of a martyr holding fast under torture. Huxley made me see that once you’re in the place of torture, faith is all that will keep your mind in one piece. To renounce it in order to stop the physical pain is a false bargain. Your soul splinters.

This doesn’t apply if your faith is slim and you’re not being tortured. Huxley’s words didn’t make me believe—not on that level—but they made me understand the mechanism.

Still, I had radiant months and days of a faith that didn’t know quite where to land, that was looking at the worlds’ doctrines like a girl looking to marry. Trying to choose wisely. I had love and devotion to spare.  But I was like Eve. I wanted to know what I wasn’t being told. I got kicked out.


But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

More About Six-Legged Soldiers

August 25, 2009 § Leave a comment


Maybe some of you read Ian Frazier’s New Yorker pieces about Siberia recently. He talks a lot about mosquitoes. In the book Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War, Jeffrey A. Lockwood writes that Siberian tribes used to execute people by tying them naked to trees. The mosquito cloud was so dense, a man could receive as many as 9,000 bites a minute—enough to drain half his blood in a couple of hours. Consider this if you’re lounging somewhere in the country, like the coast of Maine, bitching.

And King Richard the Lionhearted, after whom I named my most-beloved cat before the I knew the meaning of love Fitzroy-style, is one of the great men of history who used to catapult beehives…in his case into Moslem fortresses during the 3rd crusade. Greek warships routinely carried beehives for such purposes. The Romans used them so often for their endless warmaking that by the end of the Roman Empire, honey production had declined dramatically. Just another way we’re like the Romans, but worse.

These entries are going to be shorter from now on. I’m busier and I know you don’t have the attention span you used to have only a few months ago. Soon a headline will suffice. Our grandchildren, or somebody’s, will have a kind of “friending” that connects people brain-to-brain and neither writing nor speech will be used. No, I haven’t worked out the details. But I do know that the downside will be that when you get tired of someone, you’ll have to use an icepick to remove him.

The Penis and the Beehive Grenade

August 21, 2009 § Leave a comment


Adrienne Westwood, Penis Pendant

One of the most often used search terms that end up directing traffic to my blog is “penis jewelry.” I don’t believe I have referred to this category of wealth, although “penis” and “jewelry” are both items of interest to me. I’d like to remedy that.

According to The Encyclopedia of Body Adornment by Margo DeMello, the most common forms of penis jewelry are Ampallang, Prince Albert piercing, and Apadravya. Those two funny “A” words you can look up for yourself. Wikipedia will tell you all about it. (According to New Scientist, my weekly science read, Wikipedia is on the wane—everybody’s moved on to Twitter—and as a result, will become less and less reliable. Remember this in the future.)

The alternative to piercing, especially if you happen to be female, is found in the photograph above. I don’t want one but maybe somebody does. It’s kind of pretty.

I subscribe to a weekly email newsletter that keeps me informed of new discoveries in medicine. I usually don’t read it, but when I do, there’s always something interesting. This week: a study in the UK, to determine whether the calming effects of a cuppa were due to its chemical makeup (since tea contains caffeine, not valium) has shown that having a cup of tea reduces stress because of the ritual of putting the kettle on. However the effect also held for those for whom the tea was made and served by another person: soothing in a different way.

I can attest that having a cup of tea made for me is very welcome, whereas having a cup of coffee isn’t; I assume you’ll fuck it up. I like brewing my own coffee. I’d think the British would feel that way about tea, but it all depends. When you’re in a research lab, you take your comfort where you find it. Further studies are needed to discover the psychological effects of refreshing one’s lipstick, cutting into a newly baked loaf of bread, and letting the cat out in the morning.

My friend Rachel calls New Age books “Metaphysical Porn,” a label that made me think there was a whole new genre out there for me to wallow in. Those books stress the meditative, Buddhist value of the ordinary moments of life, a sentiment found in many cultures at many times, and one that French priests of the 19th century excelled at when counseling noble ladies. They basically advised these yearning, intellectually-deprived women to focus on getting through the day with patience and good humor, regarding every boring duty as holy. It’s something humans can be good at. I used to be good at it. I consider trying it again, from time to time, but I lack a crucial enzyme.  I forget which one.

In other science news, researchers have harnessed bee venom to fight cancer—building “nanobees” to deliver the venom to tumors, killing cancer cells while keeping other cells safe. This nicely complements something I’m writing—a review of a book about insects used in warfare—beehives thrown at the enemy are one of the oldest kinds of grenade. Castles in Wales and Scotland have recesses in the walls where the bees were encouraged to build hives, the better to be ransacked in the course of a siege. It’s estimated that this weapon was first employed in Paleolithic times, and continued to be used through the Middle Ages. Even more nefarious was the use, in war, of poison honey—honey from bees who fed mainly on rhododendron blossoms.  Locals knew to be wary; outsiders didn’t. That’s another story. Takes place in Colchis, home of that famous poisoner, Medea.

You might also want to know that asparagus leaves seem to protect against liver disease from alcohol, and from hangover symptoms. That’s leaves, not the vegetable you eat for dinner, though perhaps the vegetable helps. According to the online salesmen, it also cures everything else that might trouble you, from urinary tract infections to cancer.

Those are my helpful hints for this morning, August 21, 2:30 a.m. as I write and I’m not tired yet. I miss the sleep of youth.

The River of Bees

by W. S. Merwin

In a dream I returned to the river of bees
Five orange trees by the bridge and
Beside two mills my house
Into whose courtyard a blindman followed
The goats and stood singing
Of what was older

Soon it will be fifteen years

He was old he will have fallen into his eyes
I took my eyes

A long way to the calendars
Room after room asking how shall I live

One of the ends is made of streets
One man processions carry through it
Empty bottles their
Image of hope
It was offered to me by name

Once once and once
In the same city I was born
Asking what shall I say

He will have fallen into his mouth
Men think they are better than grass

I return to his voice rising like a forkful of hay

He was old he is not real nothing is real
Nor the noise of death drawing water

We are the echo of the future

On the door it says what to do to survive
But we were not born to survive
Only to live

The Death Panel

August 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

jwdiehlHawaiiHawaiian Cemetery, J.W. Diehl

Sit down, dear lady, sit down.

You have trouble sitting? How old are you?

That is very, very old.

You’re older than Nancy Pelosi! Doesn’t that make you feel old? Do you have many cats? A car that makes funny noises, but only you hear them? Do your grandchildren walk right through you at family functions, tangling up  your nerves like wet spaghetti?

I see. You’ve never had children, and you’re retired, no pets. You don’t drive. You wouldn’t need much in the grave now, would you? We can spare a blanket. They have pills so that you won’t notice when the dirt is piled on top. Only two, though, we need to save some for the other septuagenarians. 70 is the new 99! Yes, we can!

You don’t have to worry about your mortgage anymore, or all those jury duty notices you stuck in the kitchen drawer. The plots are free. Isn’t it something that a sprained ankle can get you so much? Used to be an ace bandage, five minutes with the doctor: now you get personal, red-carpet service and a gently used pine coffin! Complete with the latest issue of The New York Times! Some call us socialists, but we like to think we’re being neighborly. Soon you’ll have Internet access and cable.

You’d prefer to not to be connected after death? You don’t want to hear Keith and Rachel, dear little Anderson? You don’t want to tweet all your demented, frail, wobbly, healthcare-gobbling sexagenarian friends?

America needs more like you. Michelle and I are going to pray you get on the waiting list for Heaven. Every year, they take a few who haven’t been to Harvard, according to Rahm. No, I don’t know what happens to Jews after death. Nobody does, not even Jews. That’s why they’re so active all the time.

And yes—since you ask—it’s true Rahm said Satan has a Sarah Palin pinup calendar. But don’t make too much out of that. I think they’re actually going to put her in Limbo with all the unbaptized babies. Just for laughs, you know. God has a wicked sense of humor. Rahm told me—well, never mind. Goodnight, dear lady, goodnight, goodnight.

Youth In Asia

August 13, 2009 § 3 Comments


Okay, we don’t need health care. We need genetic modification, so that future Americans will not be so stupid, plus a few courses in logic before anyone is allowed to vote or drive a car.

I’ve resisted writing a sentence like this for some time, because what does it help to call people stupid? The only other explanation I can think of is that the Bush era built up so much frustration, then ended with a bang and a whimper, and Obama’s getting the brunt. He’s the good parent you can misbehave around, the one who takes all the shit for the drunken, out-of-control one. I don’t like this either, politicians as daddies, voters as teenagers, yet it keeps coming to mind.

I’ve been reading Aravind Adiga who wrote the Booker-prize winning novel The White Tiger, about the angry underclass and mind-bending realities of India, and it casts an interesting light on America today. Adiga’s India is a crazy quilt of custom and corruption, made worse by the veneer of democracy. The book is hard-hitting but very funny and somehow sweet, as the best Indian fiction often is. Novelists can find a place for everything that has no place in justice, common sense, or intelligent governance.

Fiction reminds me that it’s always a mistake to expect too much clarity from human beings.  Kindness, maybe. Daring, even brilliance. Endurance. But clear, reasoned thinking is rare. It’s a tool all of us use sometime; it’s not the fallback. The fallback is fear of change and loyalty to whomever or whatever imprinted you at the right moment. There are all sorts of clever ideas—in the evolutionary psychologists’ lounge—as to why our ‘flaws’ helped to make us the great successes we are today, though of course tomorrow is another story. Not to mention the second half of this century.

My niece is in China, enjoying herself immensely. According the The New York Times, lots of recent graduates are going to China for jobs.  China is suffering from the recession—my friend Andree, who’s been living there for 14 months, says rents have been cut in half, but there are still a lot more jobs for young Americans than there are here, and it’s cheaper to live, not to mention being an adventure. Yet the pollution is so bad than even on the coast, it can make you ill. Every time I count up my credit card points, and realize I could visit everyone I know there (niece, cousin, close friend) in three different interesting cities for a net cost of whatever travel within China would be, I think of the pollution. It sounds wimpy, but there it is. I like breathing. If it weren’t for that, I’d probably be dreaming of living there in my poverty-stricken old age with all my other poverty-stricken friends. We could offer a taste of home to the young Americans having adventures. But the health stuff is just too spooky. I’d rather face Obama’s death panel any day. (Genteel, overeducated overachievers sipping green tea and munching cucumber sandwiches as they discussed my life, its pluses and minuses. I could get off on that.)

I don’t know why people want to keep living when they’re at the point of needing constant care, drugs for pain, have no mobility, and the end is in sight. It’s one thing if you’re young and disabled, or if you expect to recover, or if you get a fatal cancer in late mid-life and want time to prepare yourself, say goodbye, and so on, but at 80 or 90-something, once your systems start to go, once the slide’s gone on a while, and you’re in the hospital for weeks, then a nursing home—really, why? When you think how many people would risk their lives to save a strange child darting into the street, why not give up those last clouded months in exchange for a young family having health insurance for years? If it were possible—if people weren’t so paranoid—I would like that to be an option. Not a requirement, an option. You could cut a deal with your insurance company, one in which they’d save maybe 10% of your projected medical expenses and guarantee coverage for a needy family (unknown to you) for a set period.

And once the deal is done, the children come to the hospital and say hello and goodbye to you, if you’re not too ill; you enjoy the pleasure of seeing the faces of those you’ve helped—the glow of children’s flesh, their warm little fingers!—and they learn what death is, and that it doesn’t have to be only bad.

This reminds me of 9th grade, when we read “Utopia” and then were given an assignment to write our own. I had lots of clever ideas then, too. I got an A on the paper. A lot of good that does in our world.


The wind returns; my little courtyard is green and overgrown.
The willows have come back this spring.
I lean for a long time on the railings; alone, without speaking
The sound of bamboo and the new moon are like in days gone by.
The playing and singing have not yet ceased; the wine cups remain,
The ice on top of the pool begins to melt.
Bright candles and a faint fragrance are deep in the painted hall,
It’s hard to think I must allow my temples to turn white.

~Li YU, 937-978

Guns N Crazies

August 9, 2009 § Leave a comment


I read Bob Herbert’s latest column, which is about the misogyny of American society, as exemplified in the shootings of women in an aerobics class by the pathologically lonely George Sodini, with mixed feelings. Herbert writes that we are inured to the violence against women; that if a mass murderer had gone into a public place and separated out blacks or Jews for killing it would spark more outrage.

I’m not sure this is particularly helpful. The most pressing problem is gun control, and I think young white women work as well as any other victim group to spur outrage, which is to say, not enough. The only thing that would be more effective is if wave after wave of psychopaths targeted politicians and their families (which, by the way, I am NOT recommending).

“Some people are happy, some are miserable. It is difficult to live almost continuously feeling an undercurrent of fear, worry, discontentment and helplessness. I can talk and joke around and sound happy but under it all is something different that seems unchangable and a permanent part of my being…

“I like to write and talk. Ironic because I haven’t met anybody recently (past 30 years) who I want to be close friends with OR who want to be close friends with me. I was always open to suggestions to what I am doing wrong, no brother or father (mine are useless) or close friend to nudge me and give it bluntly yet tactfully wtf I am doing wrong…

“I no longer have any expectations of myself. I have no options because I cannot work toward and achieve even the smallest goals. That is, ABOVE ALL, what bothers me the most. Not to be able to work towards what I want in my life.”

The feelings Sodini describes are very familiar, though the only time I felt that completely isolated was in junior high, and I didn’t have the weight of 30 years of failure behind me. But even now, after plenty of friends, lovers, marriage—what to Sodini’s mind would be a divine feast of sex and intimacy—I’m capable of feeling lonely and miserable, angry that I can’t seem to change, etc. When I imagine feeling this way continuously, being utterly unsuccessful at intimacy of any kind, I have to wonder: would I resort to shooting people? Probably not, but on the other hand, I would have broken a lot sooner than Sodini did.

Meanwhile, In The Observer, Barbara Ellen writes, “The dark paradox is that if Sodini felt his social status was demeaned by his lack of success with women, he probably wasn’t even shooting at the correct gender. It’s men who tend to torture other men about status, just as women tend to torture other women about body image. Therefore, it’s men, not women, who were responsible for Sodini’s misery.”

I don’t think either “men” or “women” were responsible for Sodini. He was responsible for himself. You can look at his family and background for clues to his mental illness if you want to. But have we gotten so far away from perennial human truths that it isn’t obvious that his ‘misogyny’ was the flip side of deep longing for a woman’s love? Not just sex or conquest or status. He wanted love from women (and was scared to go after it) and he wanted help from other men (and was scared to ask for it). That he was too frightened to seek help from professionals is hardly surprising: therapy is intimacy too.

He killed women to be noticed, to say I was here and I suffered.  And he was noticed, and his blog was copied, posted and read, because his loneliness and anger strike a chord. THAT’S what causes all this flurry of denial. Either that or some people have no idea what loneliness tastes like.

I understand that people are afraid that paying attention to these killings encourages them. This is undoubtedly true. If none were ever reported, fewer would happen. But reacting with contempt and labels like ‘misogynist’ doesn’t make the next crazy guy any less likely to act out. After all, that sort of contempt is exactly what they’re used to.

As for outrage leading to gun control—sorry. Not enough dead yet. People would rather keep their guns and shoot anyone trying to give them “socialist” healthcare.

I murder hate by flood or field,
Tho’ glory’s name may screen us;
In wars at home I’ll spend my blood—
Life-giving wars of Venus.
The deities that I adore
Are social Peace and Plenty;
I’m better pleas’d to make one more,
Than be the death of twenty.

I would not die like Socrates,
For all the fuss of Plato;
Nor would I with Leonidas,
Nor yet would I with Cato:
The zealots of the Church and State
Shall ne’er my mortal foes be;
But let me have bold Zimri’s fate,
Within the arms of Cozbi!

~Robert Burns

Never attempt to murder a man who is committing suicide.

~Woodrow Wilson

Let Me Wander Over Yonder

August 6, 2009 § 1 Comment

MKD cat circa...

Grand Canyon, 1979

I’m imagining red arches of stone; the desert at night, cactus and stars; huge trees covered in vines and moss, the air thick with greeny-gold light. I’ve been looking at pictures of National Parks and wondering, for the 10,000th time, why I’ve haven’t been to one since Charles and I stopped with our cat Lucian at the Grand Canyon on our way to California.

There’s always a reason. In past years, the reasons were better: I had a country house to go to. A little, moth-breeding, mouse-occupied wood and stone house that wouldn’t let go in the summer, especially once I started gardening. If I still had that house, last night’s moon would have been close enough to climb to on a ladder, as in the wonderful story by Italo Calvino in Cosmicomics. I would sit in the kitchen doorway watching the parade of animals eating my lumpy yard, my own private Africa, and talking to the snake that lived under the doorstep and liked to pop its head up in the morning to say hello. I would make mint tea with my own mint and climb up the mountain to pick blueberries. (Okay, maybe drive up the mountain. You had to drive to get where the blueberries were. But I’d clamber over the big, uneven stones.)

This year there’s no house: the reason is money. I have to finish the novel, try to sell it, make a last, desperate attempt to stay in New York. If I fail and have to move to Florida, there will be many compensations, like being part of a couple again, swimming in a warm ocean, and maybe having time and money for car trips and camping. Plus Charles would get to be with Mouchette, for whom he feels a tragic, romantic love (at least that’s what he said in an email to Fitzroy). The cats would be happier in Florida. They could go outside, hang with the neighborhood cats (lots of them) and chase geckos. What’s not to like?

I love New York too much. So does Charles—he doesn’t want us to lose our grip on it, this rent-regulated apartment that once gone will be gone forever, like the country house. No living in Greenwich Village after that. I’d miss the museums, theater, restaurants, people, one in particular; and I’d miss walking around the city, especially my patch of it—from Soho to Chelsea, from the Hudson to the Tompkins Square Park.

But the city is not at its best in August. I feel cramped in my little apartment, and the cats are always watching me. When I think of the rest of my life, the pleasures that beckon are reading and nature. Passion—passion’s hard. It’s eaten holes in my brain. (It’s possible dementia did that, but passion and dementia are second cousins.) I’m even a little afraid of friendship. The idea of everyone I love getting inexorably older scares me. Getting older myself is no picnic either.

But arches of red stone. The desert at night, cactus and stars. They’re old already, vastly old, and still here and beautiful. And fireflies, moths, the moon, rabbits. Poetry.

A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur—

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is full

And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone—
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

~Wallace Stevens

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