August 3, 2020

What We Don't Want to Think About


In order to delay my seemingly inevitable slide into terminal torpor, I have taken up a new form of exercise that I commend to you all: reading. Of course, you may have heard of this delightful avocation: I can't claim that it is an original discovery. But if my life has entered a stage where dullness is my daily bread, I can tell you that lately I have been feasting on some books that are anything but dull. They are the fuel for my mind that happily distracts me from the sorrows of my body and also keeps me from over-indulging in the unpalatable pap that the cable news networks feed us every day to induce gloom and despair.

Just last night, for instance, I finally finished another tome – this one ran to more than 700 pages – by one of my favorite authors, Mark Helprin, whose books I have extolled in previous blogs. This novel, which he called In Sunlight and in Shadow, is not one of his best – I would give it four stars – but it has plenty of excitement and, like all of his books, is beautifully written, as you would expect from such a master stylist as Helprin. Perhaps too beautifully written in some ways, but then this is not meant to be a book review. Nevertheless, I need to tell you a little about the story in order to lay the groundwork for what will follow. 

The novel is set in 1946 in New York – the book is in part a rapturous hymn to the city where the author was born – a year after the ending of World War II. The hero of the story, Harry Copeland, spent four years in the war, in Europe, as a paratrooper. The book has a complex plot, which I won't attempt to summarize, but the chapters that deal with Copeland's time in battle are incredibly gripping; the author makes you feel you are there with Copeland, surrounded not just by ever-present danger, but with death all around as he sees some of his buddies die. Helprin's writing about war (and he has been a soldier himself), especially in his greatest novel, A Soldier of the Great War, is, to my mind, supreme among contemporary American novelists. You don't just read Helprin's novels; you live them.

So, yes, reading and living in Helprin's world for so long did bring a great deal of excitement, however vicarious, into mine. And the effects linger. After you put his books down, they leave their mark on you.

Still, it is not Helprin I want to write about here. Instead, I want to introduce you to another writer who I suspect not many of you have ever heard of, much less read. His name is Gregor von Rezzori. (I do not hear many bells ringing.)   

Gregor, as I shall call him (though he was Gricha to his friends), was not just an outstanding novelist; he was a phenomenon. In addition to his work as a novelist, he was a memoirist, author of radio plays, screenwriter as well as a film actor (he appeared in films with such well known actors as Jeanne Moreau, Brigitte Bardot, Anna Karina, Marcello Mastroianni and the French singer, Charles Aznavour), journalist, visual artist, art critic and art collector. He was fluent in many languages, too, including German, Romanian, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish, French and English. 

What a guy, eh? Apparently, the only art he didn't master was that of archery.

He was born in 1914 – the year World War I began – in a little town near the Carpathian Mountains in what is now Romania, but not far from Ukraine. (Before the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, he and his family thought of themselves as Austrians.) As you can tell by the "von" in his name, his family was reasonably well-to-do, though not wealthy. But they had servants, and little Gregor grew up with a nanny, a peasant named Cassandra, to whom he was very close.

I will not take the time to trace his career, which took him to Vienna, Bucharest, Berlin (where he was during World War II), Paris, and, ultimately, to Italy where he died, much beloved, in 1998. 

I first heard of him when reading about him in an essay by  a charming French writer, Emmanuel Carrère, of whom I am a fan. It was in that essay that I read about an article that had first brought him international fame when it was published as a story in The New Yorker in 1969. Subsequently published as a book entitled Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, I was intrigued by its title, so I immediately ordered it.

It's not what you think. Gregor is not an anti-Semite. His book consists of an interlocking series of five very powerful stories in which the main character (never the same person) has a fateful and often devastating encounter with a Jew. The book packs a wallop and is really designed to show how the kind of casual everyday anti-Semitism that was rife in Europe between the wars, and so quietly but fatally insidious, was the tinder that would soon be ignited and cause the Holocaust that was to follow. Knowing what was to come, as the characters in the book do not, one reads it with a shudder.

That book got me hooked on Gregor, so I ordered one of his autographical books, and it's really that book, or rather one incident in that book, that I want to focus on now. It's one that will also finally begin to put this essay into focus for you and give you your second clue as to what it's all about.  

When Gregor was about eight something happened to bring his childhood to a close. I will let him describe just what occurred to him at that time. It concerns his magpie.   
My magpie died. One afternoon she lay dead in her cage. That very morning she had been hopping around gaily as ever. I could not believe that this cold and rigid piece of rubbish that lay in the sandy gravel at the bottom of her cage was she. I trembled with sorrow. My sister was all eagerness to arrange a funeral, but Cassandra with bewildering roughness forbade any such un-Christian nonsense and saw to it that the little corpse was discarded with the garbage. In doing so, she was seconded by my mother, who thought the magpie died of tuberculosis and might possibly infect us; this only increased my grief. For the first time, Cassandra was not my ally. My lamentations were for naught. Cassandra remained peremptory, as if faced by the unavoidable fact of life and death, her unbroken peasant sense of reality revolted against citified fussing. "Dead is dead," she said gruffly. "One day you will be dead."
Had she said what surely I had heard before – "You too will have to die one day" – it would have remained abstract. When hearing such sentences, comprehension glanced off from the purely verbal, but "being dead" meant what was clearly manifest by the bird's corpse on the garbage heap. I understood.
Terror struck at me like a dead weight. I saw myself stretched out on my bed, rigid and cold, rubbishy in my cements, rotting underneath, something to be discarded as quickly as possible, like the dead magpie. Around me stood my sobbing family. I saw the hearse carrying me away and, behind, my sister in black veils, triumph in her eyes dutifully red from crying. I saw my grave and my dog refusing to leave it. All this was unavoidable, inescapable. It could happen tomorrow or many years on – but it had to happen, and against that no revocation or merciful exception was possible. I was overcome with great fear … Wherever I would go, this fear would go with me. This death fear would henceforth be with me, inextinguishably and forever, and would hollow out my whole being.  
In my utter despair I asked Cassandra whether this was truly so. Cassandra was incorruptible. "Everything has to die," she said. "Your father, too, and your mother and your sister, and I too, we all have to die one day!" And I knew she was telling the truth: Cassandra, the seeress.
And, of course, it's just that that we don't want to think about. Not just death in the abstract, but the ineluctable fact that that we – that you – are going to die. And with the doomsday cloud of COVID hanging over us, maybe sooner than you had ever thought. Sure, no one wants to think about death, especially dying as a result of contracting COVID, which, from all we have heard and seen, is an absolutely horrible and frightening way to die. Why think about such a terrifying specter? Things are bad enough without frightening ourselves – pardon the black pun – to death.

But, be honest, how can we avoid doing so when every day on MSNBC or CNN or the nightly national news we are bombarded with the latest number of people who have died in the U.S.? Every day now, another thousand or so, as the number of the dead climbs beyond 150,000, with no end in sight. As I wrote in my last blog, "Death is all around us and, literally, in the air."

Obviously, there is no way we can really avoid this subject, but there is another way to think about it. And in the rest of this essay, I would like to offer one for your consideration. In effect, it is my reply to little Gregor's anguished cry of despair after he learns that he, too, will die. 

Two Perspectives on Death

Consider the way most of us over the age of thirty were socialized, consciously or not, to think about death. Perhaps our first exposure to death was like Gregor's – the death of a beloved pet. Or to human death by overhearing a whispered conversation about the death of a family member. Or to take a more traumatic example, we might have been involved in an automobile accident in which one of our companions was killed. As a result, the searing memory of this person's shattered and bloodied body, lying partially covered by a blanket on the roadside, might thereafter be the origin of a powerfully charged image of death.

It is hardly necessary to resort to further such situations to appreciate how we are typically educated to understand death. Plainly, we learn to view death from the outside. We are always spectators to death; obviously, we think, we can never experience our own death – we can only imagine it. Thinking of death in this way, as our example from little Gregor shows, it is natural to fear it, even to be repulsed by it, and to avoid the subject as if it were still under some kind of dreaded cultural taboo.

Consider next, however, the understanding of death suggested by near-death research. This is an interior view of death. It is based on the direct experiences that many thousands of people have reported when they almost die, or when they do die clinically. The great unanimity of these testimonies means that there is now a consensus emerging concerning what it is like to die. And what these near-death experiencers are telling us is that the external view of death is only a part of the story, and hardly the whole picture. What death looks like to an external observer is not what it feels like when you go through the process of dying.

Let's pause to consider a couple of representative illustrative accounts of what it's like to experience death.
This INCREDIBLE feeling of peace [came] over me ... All of a sudden there was no pain, just peace. I suppose it's because it's so completely unlike anything else that I've ever experienced in my life that I've got nothing to compare it to. A perfectly beautiful, beautiful feeling ... to me, there's a definite feeling of sunlight and warmth associated with this beautiful feeling. But when this feeling of peace came over me, I was warm. I felt warm, safe, happy, relaxed, just every wonderful adjective you could use ... This was perfection, this is everything anyone could possibly want and everything I could possibly want.
... the thing I could never – absolutely never forget is that absolute feeling of peace, joy, or something ... I remember the feeling. I just remember this absolutely beautiful feeling. Of peace ... and happy! Oh! So happy! ... The peace ... the release. The fear was all gone. There was no pain. There was nothing. It was just absolutely beautiful! It was a feeling that I think everybody dreams of someday having. Reaching a point of ABSOLUTE peace.
The literature on NDEs is now replete with many accounts of the kind I have just quoted. You can find them in any number of books on the subject. Some of the best collections of NDE cases that I know are in books like David Sunfellow's The Purpose of Life or Jeff's Janssen's 10 Life-Changing Lessons from Heaven.

Again, it is not necessary to multiply such testimonies to understand how this interior view of death can become a potent anodyne to many people who are either facing death themselves or who have to cope with the death of a loved one. To know that there is indeed more to death than meets the eye and that what cannot be seen is a kind of perfection that must be understood is to have great peace of mind in the presence of death.

Of course, all this does not banish the undeniable fact that the process of dying itself – which we know in cases of COVID-caused death can be ghastly beyond words – can often be difficult to bear for the dying person. The interior view of death supplements – it does not supplant – the external perspective. But when death finally comes, if we can trust the accounts of NDErs, all the pain vanishes, and the person is then suffused with a feeling of peace, joy and homecoming that even the greatest poet would be unable to capture in the net of words, however sublime.   

What NDEs Teach Us About What Life Is

There is more, much more, we can learn from accounts of NDEs, and not just about death.  Consider the implications from one NDEr, Joe Geraci, whom I knew well when I was teaching at the University of Connecticut. During Joe's NDE he recounts that for him it was...
A total immersion in light, brightness, warmth, peace, security ... I just immediately went into this beautiful bright light. It's difficult to describe; as a matter of fact, it's impossible to describe. Verbally, it cannot be expressed. It's something which becomes you and you become it. I could say, "I was peace, I was love." I was the brightness, it was part of me ... You just know. You're all-knowing – and everything is a part of you – it's just so beautiful.

It was eternity. It's like I was always there and I will always be there, and my existence on earth was just a brief instant.
I have often reflected on these last words of Joe's. I have now lived well into my eighties – much longer than I had ever expected. I have had a long and very full life. And yet from the perspective of NDEs, I have just descended from an eternal realm to dip my toes into the sands of time for what seems to be all these years, only to return to that eternal realm, my true home, from which my life will seem just like a blip in time.  

Whoa! When I think about my life from this perspective – or when you think about yours – what is life, and what is death? It's not just that death is not what it seems, but  neither is life. From this point of view, death is an illusion and life is a kind of dream from which physical death awakens us. According to NDErs like Joe, we are living in a dream world.

Consider these testimonies from other NDErs. I know most of these people myself, or in the cases of all but one am very familiar with their writings. But I am indebted to David Sunfellow for extracting these excerpts for me.
When I recovered, I was very surprised and yet very awed about what had happened to me. At first all the memory of the trip that I have now was not there. I kept slipping out of this world and kept asking, "Am I alive?" This world seemed more like a dream than that one.


I knew that I'd been underwater too long to be alive, but I felt more alive than I've ever felt. It all felt more real than anything has felt on earth.


And yet the more I went over my medical records and my experiences with my doctors, the more I came to realize that there is no way that this brain, so devastated by bacterial meningitis, could have manufactured any of that. It should have been a state of nothingness, with the near-destruction of my neocortex. And yet it was much more like the blinders coming off and an awakening to a far richer, more vibrant and alive reality than the one in this world.


It is impossible to convey the beauty and intensity of emotion during those visions. They were the most tremendous things I have ever experienced. And what a contrast the day was: I was tormented and on edge; everything irritated me; everything was too material, too crude and clumsy, terribly limited both spatially and spiritually. It was all an imprisonment, for reasons impossible to divine, and yet it had a kind of hypnotic power, a cogency, as if it were reality itself, for all that I had clearly perceived its emptiness.


Suddenly, not knowing how or why, I returned to my broken body. But miraculously, I brought back the love and the joy. I was filled with an ecstasy beyond my wildest dreams. Here, in my body, the pain had all been removed. I was still enthralled by a boundless delight. For the next two months, I remained in this state, oblivious to any pain.

Although it's been 20 years since my heavenly voyage, I have never forgotten it. Nor have I, in the face of ridicule and disbelief, ever doubted its reality. Nothing that intense and life-changing could possibly have been a dream or hallucination. To the contrary, I consider the rest of my life to be a passing fantasy, a brief dream, that will end when I again awaken in the permanent presence of that giver of life and bliss.

In this short essay, we have traveled a long way from the writings of Mark Helprin and Gregor von Rezzori that treat death as something vividly and frighteningly real after which we came to the findings of NDE research from which death can be seen from still another perspective in which it has the face of the Beloved. Such a view can, I believe, be profoundly reassuring in these days of COVID because it makes it clear that however terrible death may appear, it is not what it seems, or, more accurately, not only that.

But, finally, when we arrive at testimonies like that of Joe Geraci and the other NDErs I have cited, we find that life is apparently not what it seems either. However "real" it appears to our senses, we are victims of a kind of delusion. In fact, we are living in a dream world and it is only when we die that we awaken from the dream into true life.

July 27, 2020

Remembrance of Friends Past


I haven’t been in a blog-writing mood of late. And why?

Well, for one thing, what else is there to say about life under COVID? Surely, by now most people are tired of hearing about it, and of course the news concerning the increasing spread of the virus is depressing, even frightening. Who needs more of that? But I’ve had my own personal reasons. I’ve seemingly lost the knack of sleeping and have been exhausted most of time. Instead of writing blogs, I mope. But who wants to read about Ken’s troubles? You have enough of your own, and probably in many cases, they are worse. Besides, I am loath to inflict upon you what I call TOMS: Tedious Old Men’s Syndrome.  

So let’s talk about something else, although to begin with, you might find this a bit depressing, too. But, hang on, it won’t remain that way. 

The other day I found myself thinking about Boccaccio's The Decameron. As you probably remember, he wrote it during the period of the Black Death in Europe when so many people were dying. Our situation isn’t anything nearly so dreadful as that time, of course, but for most of us it is bad enough. But whether we are talking about a plague or a pandemic, we are haunted by the specter of death. Death is all around us and, literally, in the air. Just in the United States as I write this, almost 150,000 people have died, and many more will die before this pandemic subsides, even if – unlike President Trump’s roseate make-believe fantasy -- it will probably never disappear altogether.

Well, alas, as you may have noticed, I ain’t no Boccaccio. I wish I could distract you from all this by telling you ribald tales of randy men, sportive ladies and fatuous priests, but regrettably, I no longer move in these circles. And as you may remember, because of my spinal stenosis, I hardly move at all. Instead, these days I am mostly a barely ambulatory insomniac. 

But I can at least tell you what you can look forward to if you attain a venerable age as I have. First, you will become an orphan because your parents will die. And then, you will find your friends and relatives disappearing as they take up residence off-planet and no longer text you or answer your e-mails. And even those friends who remain will be, like mine, riddled with disease and other infirmities while they diligently work toward their own mortality.  

I remember years ago reading a short story by John Updike in which the elderly commentator laments to his wife that when they were young and zesty, the gossip was all about who was sleeping with whom and who was the latest couple to split up. Now, he went on to say, it was who had landed in the hospital or had just died. From weddings to funerals until it was time for one’s own.

Well, friends, that’s life – and death. Nothing new there, but when you’re old, it has a certain poignancy. Which is why these days, I like to remember certain of my friends who have died in recent years. I miss them, sure, but it makes me happy to recall our friendships and the times we spent together. And it beats complaining about one’s lack of sleep and other troubles.  

Can I share some memories of a few of my now dead but not forgotten friends with you? I hope you might enjoy meeting them, in absentia, of course, before you have to return to your own quotidian concerns. 

Sukie

Her real name wasn’t Sukie either, but that’s what everyone called her. We were the dearest of friends for almost thirty years. Sukie was the funniest person I ever knew. She was a riot. She could have made her living as a stand-up comedian, but she settled for being a therapist.

At one point, when we were both living in California, Sukie had to have a kidney transplant. It was a very fraught time for her, and the next year of recovery was hell for her. But she survived and lived for some years afterward, spending the last years of her life in Brazil.

As I mentioned, Sukie was a therapist and workshop leader whose work affected many people and who was widely loved. After her death, many tributes poured in, including one from the woman who had donated one of her kidneys to Sukie.

I wrote her this letter:
Dear Cynthia,

I knew Sukie a long time. I first met her in New York, probably in the late 80s, at the suggestion of Michael Murphy, the co-founder of Esalen. I was then a professor at the University of Connecticut. At that time she was living on 63rd St., and we hit it off immediately and became great friends. We spent most of our time gossiping and laughing and talking about death — she was into her afterdeath research then and since I had specialized in doing research and writing about near-death experiences, we had a lot to discuss. She was one of the funniest persons I had ever met, and she often had me splitting my gut (not necessarily spilling them) listening to some of her anecdotes. In those years, she would often put me up when I was visiting New York and we had a ball.  

After she moved to California, we didn’t see each other that much of course, but I sometimes came to California to give talks and to see some of my own other friends and family and would see her then. But she encouraged me to move back here (I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area) and eventually I did — in late ’96 — so our friendship resumed then. At that point, she was living up near Petaluma. We continued our gossip, this time mostly around her pool, and talked about our work, too, of course. To welcome me to California, she was kind enough to give me one of Amos Ferguson’s paintings, which still hangs in my bedroom. She was a great connoisseur of Caribbean art, and Amos was one of her discoveries.  

I remember when she got sick with her kidney problem and how she mobilized everyone in the world to search for one that could be donated. I never knew who did (perhaps she told me, but I don’t think so). But obviously it was you who gave Sukie so many more years to live. But that time, as you must know, was hell for her, and afterward, it was hell of another kind for a long time. Nevertheless, she never lost her sense of humor, and she was a fighter all the way. So eventually she got better and became more or less her old self. Our contacts continued until she left to live in Brazil. Her life here had come pretty much to a standstill and, though she had some trepidation, naturally, about moving to Brazil, we all wished her well. I think I only saw her once or twice afterward on her visits back. But, as you know, Sukie, who was dyslexic, wasn’t a writer. So gradually we pretty much lost touch with each other once she was settled into her life in Brazil and I didn’t hear again from her for some years.

She is someone I will never forget — a colorful, wonderful, funny-as-hell inimitable person, and a gossiper nonpareil. It was a blessing to know her, and I’m sure once she recovers her wits she will have them laughing in the aisles in her new residence.

Thank you again for all you did to keep her in this world for so long.
Bill

I hardly have any friends from "the days of youth." Even most of those I knew in college or graduate school disappeared long ago from my life or have died. But Bill was one that I actually reconnected with after I moved back to California. By then, we had almost nothing in common, but, still, it was good to see him and he actually looked much the same except for having lost his hair. And, alas, it was clear to me that he had lost something underneath it as well. A few years later, he died.  I was unable to attend his memorial service, but I did write this tribute to him that was read on that occasion. 
I can’t remember when I first met Bill – it must have been in high school in Oakland – but we became good friends when we were at Cal together and shared many adventures in those days. Once, some friends of ours wanted to get married against their parents wishes, so six of us, including Bill and me, contrived to deceive our own parents and drove off to Reno with the bridal couple to be, and then had to get home that night to pretend, "it was just another day at school." (And fifty years later, with the couple long since married, all six of us did it again – without having to deceive our parents this time.)  

But my biggest adventure with Bill was going to Mexico City after our sophomore year at Cal. It was the first time either of us had been out of the country, and we were not used to the attitude either. I remember during our first day there, we suddenly both felt so sleepy and oxygen-deprived that we simultaneously collapsed in Chapultepec Park and took a snooze, oblivious of whoever had to step over us. But we eventually recovered, went to Sanborn’s to get something to eat and had to consume a gallon of water with our meal because we weren’t used to those hot peppers either. Ay, caramba!   

I don’t have time to tell you about all the other things we did there – climbing the pyramids, almost getting killed by maniac Mexican drivers, learning how useless our high school Spanish was, etc. But our adventures continued after we got back when we managed to drive our car into a ditch in Baja California and had to be rescued by some very good-hearted braceros who had a good laugh at these young useless gringos.

But this tells you nothing about Bill in those ancient days of our golden youth. Bill was not only extremely handsome (we all envied his looks), but one of the sweetest, most even-tempered and humorous fellows one could imagine.

He was really one of a kind and we all loved him.  

I have one image of him now that seems to capture his gaiety, light-heartedness, and puckish sense of fun. I remember his penchant for spontaneously leaping over parking meters, laughing, with the grace of a Michael Jordan. Bill, too, could float. He was lighter than air. 

What a beautiful soul he was. He enriched my life and though we didn’t have much contact in recent years, I will always remember him with gratitude and the deepest affection.

Leap on, dear Bill. You are really weightless now….

Kenneth Ring,
Cal, class of ‘58 
Joke 

She was Dutch, and her real name was Johanna, but everyone called her Joke (pronounced Yo-ka). She had had a near-death experience, and I had first met her in connection with a talk I gave on the subject while in Amsterdam. She was also a talented singer. I was asked to contribute a eulogy which was read at her memorial service.
As I write, I look off to my right, and a few feet away me, on the wall of my study, is a large framed color photograph. In the background, we see Patmos on a sparkling clear day, with the cerulean waters of the Aegean Sea providing more atmospheric beauty to the scene. In the foreground, there is a woman seated on a white ledge who is holding aloft in her right hand a bouquet of white flowers. On her face is a smile that radiates pure joy.

It is of course an image of Joke – Joke on her wedding day. Beside her stands her husband, Robert, in a dark suit, much older than beautiful Joke, with his shock of white hair.  I can’t tell if he is looking bemused or perplexed or simply with indulgent affection at his new bride.

This has always been my favorite photo – of many that I have – of Joke. It expresses so well her joie de vivre as well as the beauty of her spirit. It has been my daily companion for many years now, and it will continue to remain on my wall as long as I am here.

I first met Joke about twenty-five years ago on my first trip to Amsterdam. Quite by chance, at the last moment, one night she impulsively invited some friends and me to her apartment after dinner, and I still remember how astonished I was to find it lined with thousands of books, from top to bottom, along all of its walls. I was immediately enraptured; I felt that I could be very happy there for months exploring her many books – notwithstanding the fact, of course, that most of them were not in English. But what happened next was really what bonded Joke and me for life, as it turned out. While others were talking, she was speaking to me and happened to put on a recording of Fritz Wunderlich singing Tamino’s aria from The Magic Flute. I happened to love Fritz Wunderlich (as did Joke) and recognized his voice immediately. The rest of the evening was passed in a mood of enchantment; I have never forgotten it.

Joke and I stayed in touch ever after, and we saw each other again, too. On a subsequent trip to Amsterdam, I returned to her apartment and was very happy to meet Robert who impressed me very much with his scholarship and courtly manners. Joke and I wandered among the canals of Amsterdam that time – she always keeping a sharp eye out for her glaucomic friend to make sure he wasn’t run down by a mad cyclist – and we wound up talking one day about Ovid, so she decided to take me to a café – as a surprise – called Ovidius. (I still have a napkin I had saved from that occasion and came across it recently in a book about Ovid.)

Joke came to California once, perhaps ten years ago now, to visit me. She had spent some time here when she was young and wanted to re-visit her old haunts in Berkeley, which she thoroughly enjoyed, telling me many stories in the process. One was about the man who founded Peet’s coffee shop whom she had known personally. She wanted to see if he was still alive, so we went to the very first store that he established and found out that he was – and was living, I believe, in Oregon at the time. But Joke managed to re-establish contact with him and later told me how much it had meant to him since by then he was very old and somewhat infirm.

Joke spread her joy whenever she went. 

But you know what I particularly remember about that trip? It may surprise you; it certainly did me. She loved to shop, so we went shopping together. She tried on clothes and I either nodded or shook my head. We had a ball together.

Otherwise, we maintained contact over the years by e-mail. She would write me funny letters in her quixotic English, and some that were not so funny, but more serious, as when she was having troubles, either physically or emotionally. But I was always happy to see her name in my inbox.

I kept in touch with her until almost the very end when she was no longer able to write. She would sometimes ask me to send her jokes, which I did. I was happy to give her something to make her laugh while she still could. 

In just about her last note to me she wrote:

"I would like to stay in a beautiful hotel and look at the blue sea. And I would like to talk with you and go shopping with you one more time ... etc.

Meanwhile my friends take so good care of me.

I get much love and attention, I am very grateful for them.

I live day by day now. Have no idea how long this will last  — This life as Joke.

Please keep sending your thoughts.

I love you."
I love you, too, dearest Joke, as I gaze again at your photograph and beaming smile. You will always be alive to me and perhaps are already adding your voice to the music of the spheres.
It’s sweet to remember these departed friends of mine. When you’re old and nothing of interest is happening in your life, you spend lots of time living in memory. It helps to recall the life you had when you could travel the world, see friends, have adventures and think that they would never end, even though you knew someday you would. And now, all of us, of whatever age, are living in a mostly isolated COVID-dominated world, away from friends, and waiting for the world to start again. It will. I may not be here to see it, but maybe some of you will remember me and recall the times we spent together in these blogs I’ve inflicted on you.

June 17, 2020

Moving On


Goodness, what a time and tumult for the country during these past few weeks, particularly with all the wide-ranging and seemingly endless protests following the horrific death of George Floyd (and of course the other African-Americans who have recently lost their lives owing to clearly wrongful and deadly police action). Of course, as you would imagine, I am four-square in support of these protests, even though these days I am so infirm because of my spinal stenosis I am unable to join the marchers in my local area. Indeed, I can scarcely walk down my street these days without difficulty, but there I go again, writing about me, when I mean to be writing about what’s happening to our country. Mea culpa, not for the first time. 

Because of these massive protests, not just here but throughout the world, the COVID pandemic has been shunted aside for the time being as far as the primary focus of the news is concerned, but of course it is still very much with us. I’ll say a bit about that later, but right now I have some personal things to tell you that will set the tone for the remainder of this blog, which will surely turn out to be some kind of a potpourri.

Frankly, my friends, I am growing a bit tired of writing about the pandemic, as I’m sure you are tired of reading about it. And I have no wish to comment on the protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, even though I wholeheartedly endorse them. But since there has already been so much coverage of this matter over these past weeks in the media, there’s no need to me to add any of my own verbiage to the subject.

Many commentators and pundits have remarked that they believe that with these protests, the country has reached a turning point, and they are probably right. But for me, personally, as far as these blogs are concerned, I think I have reached a turning off point, and I’m quite sure I am right about that. As the French say, ça suffix. I am going to take a break from the blogging life for a while and devote myself to paring my fingernails, which have suffered from a malign neglect all these months. People are beginning to say that in that respect, if in no other, I am beginning to resemble Howard Hughes.

Actually, my fingernails notwithstanding, I have been doing other things with my fingers lately. For example, I find them quite helpful in reading books, so to distract myself from the world’s troubles as well as my own, I have employed them in returning to some of my favorite authors. May I take a few moments to share since I have already announced my departure, for now at least, from further commentary on the coronavirus? What I am about to tell you may turn out to be the only thing of value in this blog.

One of my favorite authors (besides Mark Helprin whom I have already raved about) is the French-born Belgian writer with the formidable name of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. Although he is not so well known in the United States, he is one of the most popular authors and playwrights in the world. I just love this guy, and I would marry him if he ever offered. Lately, I read a book of his short stories called Invisible Love (he often writes about love), and am currently reading some of his early plays, one of which is about Freud. Other books by Schmitt that I have read and hugely enjoyed are, first of all, one called modestly enough, The Most Beautiful Book in the World. Others I’ve read are The Carousel of Desire; The Woman with the Bouquet; Concerto to the Memory of an Angel; and the book that first got me hooked on Schmitt, Three Women in the Mirror. My advice: stop reading this blog now and check him out on Amazon. You will thank me.

As some of you will now know, I am one of the vanishing breed of classical music lovers who are soon, I fear, likely to go the way of the dodo. I just wrote a blog about two very eccentric composers that some of you may have read and have others in my blog queue that will be inflicted on you over the next couple of months. But I’ve also been reading in this area, particularly about the astonishing relationship between one of the most remarkable women of the 19th century, the singer, Pauline Viardot, she of gypsy blood but a supreme artist, and her decades-long romance, while married, with the celebrated Russian writer, Ivan Turgenev, who was wild about her. If you have any interest in such cultural icons as these worthies, get ahold of a book called The Price of Genius by April Fitzlyon. It is absolutely riveting.

OK, enough about books I have been reading. I’ve also been involved in some serious professional work having to do with LSD and NDEs, which has taken a lot of my time lately. Earlier this week, a long commentary by me and a colleague was published in Medium. I later expanded it and, as a parting gift that probably very few of you will be interested to open, I will give you a link to it here:

It comes with a warning, however, or perhaps I should say, with a friendly advisory. It’s very long. If you should want to read it, be prepared to tax your eyeballs for a while; it will probably take you about a half hour to get through it. Most of you won’t be interested or interested enough to bother. But if you should read it, you will see that my friend, Chris Bache, has some very complimentary things to say about me. Don’t you believe him. He must have been on LSD himself when he wrote those words….

Before I leave you for better things, I would like to add a few personal notes in addition to my book endorsements, musical enthusiasms and accounts of my wanderings in the exotic lands of LSD.

For the last three months, I have been hunkering down and have not gone anywhere other than down and back my local street doing my imitation of a mobile fig tree or, if you prefer, a tiny version of the leaning tower of Pisa. But as of this week I will finally be venturing out to see a round of doctors and my dentist, among other daring encounters. I may even have to go grocery shopping again, suitably attired with mask and other accouterments of our time. I am looking forward to my adventures in the outer world with some fair measure of dread, and hope I will manage to survive to tell the tale. Wish me luck!

But quite apart from my own survival, what I am really worried about is the survival of our democracy as it seems to teeter ever more closely toward an autocracy governed by an indisputably corrupt and unstable President, abetted by his slavish and fawning epigones. Forgive me – after a mostly light-hearted blog, I didn’t really plan to end on such a somber note. But like everyone, I have been following the news, not just about COVID and the protests, but about our President and his band of malefactors. I’m sure that most of us -- and I apologize if there are any fervent Trump supporters reading this (you may wish to avert your eyes from what follows) – suffer not only from COVID-fatigue but from Trump-weariness after nearly four years of his reign. And here we go again: At this writing, Trump still apparently plans to go ahead with his Tulsa rally, in search of satisfying his unquenchable thirst for adulation, in the midst of a raging outbreak of COVID infections there. What’s wrong with this picture? What’s wrong with this country of ours? To my mind, we have more to worry about than COVID, as bad as it has been and as long as it threatens to remain with us.

Ah me, but why go on with this jeremiad? You have heard it all before from the many members of the political chattering class. Many of us of course, now that the election is drawing nigh, wonder, with fear and trembling, what drama awaits us come November?

I have a dear friend who, the night that Trump was elected in 2016, resolved to leave the country and did; she is still living in Mexico. If Trump remains President in 2020, a truly annus horribilis already, I think I will leave the planet, period.   

Well, I told you this blog would be something of a potpourri. But I hate to leave you with such gloomy thoughts. Be assured – I am not really feeling gloomy myself. Despite everything, I am still happy, still grateful to be alive, still glad I can write and enjoy life – and to crack jokes. As we’ve seen during this pandemic, humor flourishes, and that’s a good thing. And, let’s not forget – good things are happening in our country, and if some of the current protests lead to the kind of long overdue structural changes that will bring about social and racial justice, we will be a better country in the end. Let us hope so. With all our hearts.

Meanwhile, my monthly blogs will continue until the end of the year. I just hope they won’t be posthumous ones! And eventually I may pop back with another blog or two in this coronavirus series. We’ll see. For now, however, I have a date with my fingernails that just can’t wait.

June 7, 2020

A Hospice Doctor’s Message of Hope for Our Time

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

[I prepared this blog on May 29, intending to post it on June 1, but postponed it because of the George Floyd protests. But as these demonstrations are still going on, I’ve decided to post it today, and hope you will be able find time to read the short introduction and watch the video.]

Today I have a special treat for you -- an inspiring message of hope for the potential of a planetary transformation that could emerge once the worst of the pandemic is over.

Zach Bush, MD is a physician who is triple board certified in Internal Medicine and Endocrinology and Metabolism from the University of Virginia Health System, and in Hospice/Palliative Care. He is also is an internationally recognized educator and thought leader on the microbiome as it relates to health, disease, and food systems.

Recently, a friend sent me a video of the last ten minutes of an interview with Dr. Bush, and after I saw it, I knew I would want to share with you for several reasons. But one of them was that Dr. Bush, when he was involved in hospice care, discovered what all of us NDE researchers have found, but he puts it into a context that speaks with a special urgency for our time. I think you will agree that his is a message that has the power to awaken us to the unique opportunity humanity has at this time that could literally change the world.

Just CLICK ON THIS LINK to hear what Dr. Bush has to say.

May 26, 2020

Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Normally, I am not the kind of guy who begins to blog by making reference to the Bible, much less to one of the ten commandments, so I have to tell you at the outset why this one starts with a title from Exodus. It's because I think I have to make some amends for an earlier blog.

I'll get to that in a moment, but first a little prologue is necessary.

In my last blog, I discussed some of the baneful effects of the pandemic on college-age or college-bound youths. In this one, I mean to consider some of the challenges faced by the elderly in coping with COVID. The young have had their future, at least in the short term, and possibly longer, blighted. But the old have no future save for the grave. Yet for far too many elderly people, COVID is only expediting their passage toward terrestrial oblivion. Some wags have even started to call COVID a boomer remover.

In traditional cultures, or even in former times in our own, elders were revered. However, nowadays in America, it's not exactly that they are reviled, but they are often disparaged, dismissed and neglected, which is in fact a type of elder abuse. It's not that the treatment of the old, especially the very old, constitutes a pandemic in its own right, of course, but it is rife, and seems to be becoming increasingly so. And now the tensions associated with COVID that health care workers have to endure on a daily basis may be making life for the elderly even more fraught and dangerous.

Consider: There was a time, and it wasn't even so very long ago, that the elderly continued to live in an extended family setting and when they became frail and infirm were cared for in the home until they died. In such homes, they were honored and sometimes even venerated. But with the decline of extended family homes in favor of isolated nuclear family arrangements, we typically no longer care for our own elderly loved ones ourselves. Instead, increasingly, they live alone; or when they get old enough or infirm or demented, we warehouse them until they die. That's the new American way of death for so many now because we have come to de-venerate the old. They are surplus people who no longer count for much. 

And these days, in the age of COVID, nursing and old age homes and other such facilities for the aged are among the worst places to live because COVID can be so easily transmitted there. Thus, the most vulnerable are also the most at risk because we already know that COVID is a disease that disproportionately targets the old. People like me. 

Now to return to my wish to make amends, let me remind you that in one of my earlier blogs, I jokingly made what I called my own "modest proposal" -- that it would be better if we could bump off people when they reached the age of three score and ten. I made the point that once you hit 70, you've joined the surplus generation; you mostly just take up valuable space and ultimately require vast sums, especially in the last years of your life, to sustain yourself until you die.

I still think a lot of needless suffering and medical expense could be eliminated if so many people didn't live so long, as more and more of us do these days, but of course I am not really proposing anything so monstrous as the institution of widespread mandated mercy killing. I am not a Nazi! On the contrary, the more I read and hear about what COVID is doing to the old, the more sorrow I feel. Life is hard enough when you get old; COVID is just making it orders of magnitude more difficult for them and many are dying once they get infected.

And at least some of their suffering can be traced to still another factor -- "elder abuse." You see, the old just don't matter as much as younger people or children. In a time of limited resources, the old get short shrift. As one geriatrician, Louise Aronson, recently observed in an article in The Atlantic:
"The problem is that when the impact of disease in a population is unknown, there's little incentive to develop treatments tailored to that group's needs. When the affected population is elders, the problem is especially bad: As we've already seen with the current crisis, many people say that elders are dying anyway and tend to blame old age itself for their deaths -- not a flawed system."
Aronson, who is also the author of a highly regarded book, Elderhood, about the problems of and discrimination against the old, goes on to delineate various ways in which the elderly are second-class citizens when it comes to medical treatment, a state of affairs that has just been exacerbated by the pandemic.

For example, protocols for the treatment of COVID have been developed for children and adults, but so far, not for the elderly, who constitute the most vulnerable demographic.

Furthermore, she points out this:

"Medical schools devote months to teaching students about child physiology and disease, and years to adults, but just weeks to elders; geriatrics doesn't even appear on the menu of required training. The National Institutes of Health mandated the inclusion of women and people of color in medical research in 1986, but it didn't issue a similar mandate for elders until 33 years later, in 2019. "The bias is so implicit, it goes unnoticed," one of my colleagues said of ageism in the American COVID-19 response and in medicine generally. But when you start to pay attention, you see it everywhere."

There are other, sometimes less obvious, problems that the old are more likely to have to deal with than younger people. For instance, although many older people have learned to use computers and other technological devices of our time, they, and especially the very old, often fall on the wrong side of the digital divide, making it harder for them to arrange for video visits with their doctors.

And doctors are beginning to see that older people often don't have the typical symptoms of COVID, but quite different ones that make it more difficult to diagnose and treat them. For younger people, the usual symptoms indicative of COVID are fever, an insistent cough and shortness of breath. But older adults may have none of these. Instead, they may just be sleeping longer or not eating. They may become apathetic, confused or disoriented -- or get dizzy and fall. In extreme cases, they can stop speaking and collapse. And when they come to the hospital and are tested, they have COVID. Older bodies just don't respond to illness and infection the same way younger people do, and drugs don't work the same way for older adults either. All this means that older people, the most susceptible to COVID, may be misdiagnosed and more at risk to die on that account.

And let's not forget what I already alluded to above -- the perilous situation many elders face who live in nursing homes or other facilities that are designed to care for the aged. Dr. Kathleen Unroe, a geriatrician at Indiana University, has observed that seniors living in such settings are going to get weaker because of greater immobility and may become confused on account of changes in routine. Plus, of course, living in close proximity to vulnerable others just increases the risk of uncontrolled COVID outbreaks, as we have seen.

All these factors just make the lives of older people more onerous and the likelihood of successful diagnosis and treatment much less than for younger adults. The result is that more older people die than would have been the case if modern medicine was not structured so as to de-value the elderly.

And even though the death rate from COVID is, relatively speaking, quite low, older people -- those 65 or older -- seem to account for about 80% of all COVID-related deaths, according to the figures I've seen. They may not be entirely accurate, but at any rate it is already clear that the great preponderance of deaths from COVID is taking place among the old.

Let's delve into this further by drawing on some more specific statistics. I'll begin with the area where I live, Marin County in California.

Our COVID cases are continuing to rise quite steadily and by the time you read this, they will exceed 400. We old timers make up about 20% of the population here, which is slightly higher than the national average of 15%. And so far my age group represents our fair share of COVID cases, also about 20%. But once you move to the number of hospitalizations, nearly half are old folks and when you come to death, old people comprise all of them -- 100%. Everyone else so far has survived; only the old have died here.

And the news is even worse if old people become so sick that they have to be put on ventilators. I don't want to numb you into insensibility by deluging you with more statistics, so let me just quote a one more set -- the mortality rate for older adults who have had to be put on ventilators. In one study, 70% of those over 70 died; in another study, 80% of those over 80 died. The death rate for younger people on ventilators is very much lower.

In sum, COVID is no friend to the old; it is often literally their mortal enemy.

Of course, statistics are bland fare. But when we are talking about death by COVID we are often talking about your grandfather or perhaps your aunt or even your mother. Or the dear relative of someone you know. As I write this, close to a hundred thousand people -- most of them old -- have died of COVID-related infections in the United States. And more will die in the future, and many more throughout the world have already died. Cynics might claim with some justification that they were due to die soon anyway. But still, many who died should not have had to die -- and why not? Because in medicine, as in life, we do not honor our fathers and mothers. Instead, we often abandon them or simply do not want to take the time to give the attention to them that we devote to younger people. So many old people these days die alone with no one to hold their hand, no one to ease their way into death, no one to weep at their bedside. All we can do is to take a moment to feel pity for those who have had to perish under the worst of circumstances -- and to remember them.

And maybe to resolve to make some changes in how medicine deals with the old. Louise Aronson has some hope for this, so to end this lachrymose blog on a positive note, let me conclude with some of her suggestions for how things may be made better for our elders:

"Everyone can help create a less ageist culture and improve individual institutions. Aging experts like myself are (for now, digitally) collaborating to devise elder-specific protocols for managing COVID-19. These protocols include essential information, such as the fact that body temperature runs lower in many elders, so a thermometer reading of just 99 degrees Fahrenheit in an 80- or 90-year-old might signal fever. In hospitals, these guidelines would include other, less obvious recommendations, such as also allowing patients with dementia or delirium -- whether or not they have COVID-19 -- to have a loved one by their side to limit terror, agitation, and the need for drugs proven to increase the time they will take up a much-needed bed. Such steps can boost early COVID-19 diagnosis and decrease suffering and complications in elders, thus benefiting all Americans by reducing the strain on our health-care system."

May 18, 2020

School's Out

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.
SACRAMENTO -- In the most sweeping sign yet of the long-term impact of the coronavirus on American higher education, California State University, the nation's largest four-year public university system, said on Tuesday that classes at its 23 campuses would be canceled for the fall semester, with instruction taking place almost exclusively online.
That was the opening paragraph of an article I read a couple of days ago, and it brought up a welter of troubling thoughts and poignant memories for me.

I spent most of the first sixty years of my life in universities. I attended Cal-Berkeley as an undergraduate before heading off to graduate school at the University of Minnesota for work on my Ph.D. During that time I also spent a year at U.C.L.A., prior to taking a job as an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut where I remained on the faculty for the next thirty-four years. (I am still a professor emeritus at that University.) Even after I retired and moved back to California, without being aware of it, I found myself living cheek by jowl next to a community college, and within a month of my settling here, I was lecturing there. So I am intimately acquainted with life on college campuses; it's in my blood. Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco; I left mine at UCONN.

I have vivid memories of life on my campus, and what came back to me the other day after reading that article about the shuttering of college classes in the fall in California was the period in late August just before students returned for the fall semester. For at least some of us academics, we parted company with T. S. Eliot because for us, it was August, not April, that was the cruelest month. Our summer idyll was ending; it would soon be time to get back to work and the sometimes drudgery of teaching. But for the students, it was different -- they were generally excited to get back to school, to connect with their old friends, to party (our school had a reputation as great party school), and to look forward to another thrilling basketball season. Parents bringing their kids to UCONN for the first time also added to the joyful atmosphere on campus. And, before too long, despite our own earlier crotchety grumblings, we academics were happily back in the swing of things. The energy that students brought back to campus was infectious and we all felt it.

But now? Now, to spare students, faculty and administrators from becoming infected, many campuses will effectively be closed for business this fall. The campuses will be silent and the students will have nowhere to go, nowhere to congregate, still stuck at home and obliged to continue their education as best they can by online learning.

Even if -- and this is still an if -- this condition doesn't persist beyond this year, it is nevertheless a devastating blow both to college students and to their institutions. So much will have been lost, has already been lost, and a number of colleges themselves may simply not survive. The psychological and economic impact of this pandemic on collegiate life can not be overestimated.

Besides, even if online learning has become more of a factor in college education in recent years, college is more than going to classes and taking courses. It is an entire experience made up of many things as well as an important rite of passage. High school students entering college for the first time enter a new world and by the time they leave, they will have been shaped by that world and by the people -- students and faculty -- they will have encountered while there. Life in fraternities and sororities is important in its own right. Collegiate sports are a vital part of college life and often an important, sometimes crucial, source of financial revenue. College is the one period between high school and the world of work that will follow which allows a person time to grow in important ways that he or she will never have again -- and that growth can only come from engagement with others. We humans are an affiliative species. Of course, we can learn many things on our own, but there are some things we can only learn from being with others. Without schools being open, this kind of learning cannot take place.

Nor can there be any way for students to gather in crowds -- to go to football games or basketball tournaments or soccer matches -- or even to their favorite pubs. Social media and zooming are no substitute for human contact, and that's what will be missing this fall on many campuses throughout the country.

I also think of all the high school students this year who were prevented from going through their graduation ceremonies with their friends and whose proud parents were therefore unable to witness and share in their children's moment of celebration. And for those students who had been looking forward to attending college in the fall, they now face only uncertainty. Colleges were already suffering declining enrollments before the pandemic hit, but tuition fees were not decreasing, and now colleges and universities are facing even more potentially calamitous futures.

According to one article on the effects of the pandemic on higher education:
The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the finances of colleges and universities, a large number of which were already struggling before virus-related closures. Many are concerned about growing signs that a large number of students will choose to sit out the fall semester if classes remain virtual, or demand hefty cuts in tuition.
Lucrative spring sports seasons have been canceled, room and board payments have been refunded, and students at some schools are demanding hefty tuition discounts for what they see as a lost spring term. Other revenue sources like study abroad programs and campus bookstores have dried up, and federal research funding is threatened.
Some institutions are projecting $100 million losses for the spring, and many are now bracing for an even bigger financial hit in the fall, when some are planning for the possibility of having to continue remote classes.
Administrators anticipate that students grappling with the financial and psychological impacts of the virus could choose to stay closer to home, go to less expensive schools, take a year off or not go to college at all. A higher education trade group has predicted a 15 percent drop in enrollment nationwide, amounting to a $23 billion revenue loss.
Yes, this is really a grievous time for college education in this country. One can only hope that with time it will recover, but what can't be recovered is what has already been lost as well as the losses and deprivations still to come.

Before I wound up studying near-death experiences, I was a social psychologist, and even though that was long ago and far away, I still can see things from that perspective. So I also worry not just about the future of colleges in this country, but about broader concerns stemming from our inability to gather with others. The lack of social contact on many college campuses this year is only an aspect of a much larger social deprivation that we are all experiencing, of course.

We are used not only to ordinary social contact, but to gathering in crowds -- to attend football games or tennis matches or rock concerts. But now, I read, major league baseball might resume in late July only to play in empty stadiums. Seriously. But without cheering crowds, that seems a literally empty gesture. It may provide more entertainment for sports fans at home and revenue for the players and owners, but it will do nothing for our need for social contact. And will tennis matches also be played without spectators in the stands? How about football stadiums with only phantoms in empty seats?

Quite apart from the lack of social contact is the lack of physical contact with people. As a one time social psychologist, this problem, it seems to me, has not received the attention it deserves. We humans also need physical contact with others. Of course, we can still get it from our pets -- and thank God for that -- but the costs of isolation from others can be severe, especially where the lack of touch is concerned. I remember early on during the pandemic reading about one woman who was found crying in a grocery store. When she was asked what was the matter, she sobbed that she had not been touched in ten days.

And it's worse. Nowadays, other people are sometimes regarded as phobic objects -- not only to be avoided for fear we can catch the virus from getting too close to them, but from fear that they may touch us. But we need touch and hugging; we need our daily dose of oxytocin.

Before the pandemic, I was used to seeing a longtime woman friend of mine for lunch every two or three weeks. We usually greeted each other with a warm hug. But now? I wonder whether we will ever be able to hug again. Instead will we merely bow like the Japanese do? Or perhaps just say "namaste" to each other? And what about handshakes? A simple pat on the shoulder? Where has all the touching gone?

Of course, one day the campuses -- at least on those colleges that remain -- will open again, and some surely will even hold in-person classes this fall, and one day we will be able to hug our friends and have other customary forms of physical contact with them. But for now -- and who knows how long "now" is? -- we will continue to live mostly isolated from one another, forced to rely on social media for contact, instead of our hands. We are social animals unable to socialize, stuck in our own homes, living in limbo, longing for contact, yearning for the end of our confinement but can only wait to live again in the world with our fellow humans.

May 5, 2020

In Praise of Idleness

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

In Praise of Idleness is the title of a little essay the English Philosopher Bertrand Russell penned in 1932, three years before this idler made his debut into this world, which of course is neither here nor there, like this blog itself. But when this idler had turned into an indolent teenager and needed to find a way to pass his long summer vacation without having to resort to the indignity of working, he discovered the pleasure of reading books by Bertrand Russell, who quickly became his favorite philosopher, not that there was much competition as in those years I had barely heard of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche was simply beyond this Ken's ken. But Russell didn't write in the knotty prose favored by many modern academic philosophers; he wrote in a stylish accessible English, blessedly free of jargon and sprinkled with dashes of lively, wry humor.

I can still remember sitting on the outside steps of my parents' house one summer reading Russell's marvelously entertaining A History of Western Philosophy, which was my introduction to this vast treasury of Western thought. Russell's own erudition was obvious, but he was never pedantic; he was witty. He loved characterizing certain philosophers as "wicked," a charming way of describing their personal foibles and forays into what Russell thought was nonsense. He joked about Thales cornering the grape market, but also falling into some kind of a pit while thinking abstract thoughts, a humble and certainly ignominious beginning, Russell allowed, to Western philosophy. About such misadventures, Russell was fond of adding the stock exculpatory phrase, "That was not my fault." I picked up certain of Russell's other verbal tics, too, such as beginning my sentences with the phrase, "For my part," which was pure Russell-speak. (I always felt I should be smoking a pipe when using that phrase, but when I tried it as a young professor, I found that its pleasing aroma was far different from its acrid taste and soon gave it up for hard drugs.) And I loved the fact that Russell, who was a small man, was called by all his friends, "Bertie."

Of course, Russell was far more than a wit. He may have been small in stature but he was a giant figure in Western philosophy and mathematics for most of the 20th century and lived to the improbably great age of 97. He was even awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature. If you were to read books like his classic history of Western philosophy, his absorbing autobiography or his famous essay, Why I am Not a Christian, you can see why. He wrote books for the general public as well as fiendishly difficult books on the logical foundations of mathematics. He liked to joke that because he could write books like Principia Mathematica (with Alfred North Whitehead), which showed off his brain, he was entitled to write such popular potboilers as Marriage and Morals (he knew a bit about both having had four marriages and numerous affairs, some of them quite scandalous).

Well, clearly, I could write about Russell well into the night, but I haven't yet said why I am spending so much time on him to begin this blog. The answer is simple: Russell is in vogue again because of COVID. What is COVID but a period of enforced involuntary idleness? So, naturally, I find that people are rediscovering Russell's little essay on the virtues of idleness. I was seeing so many references to it in articles I was reading, I felt compelled to order the damn thing myself. It's on its way from Amazon, but, like everything else these days, and true to its title, it is taking its time. I am certainly looking forward to idling away my time with it soon. It'll be just Bertie and me again, like old times.

And, frankly, idleness is my both my middle name and my métier during this caesura in time. As far as this pandemic goes, I have -- so far -- been one of the fortunate ones, as I well realize. Not only have I managed getting to avoid getting infected -- knock on silicon -- but I spend my days being busy doing nothing. It's not exactly what the Italians like to call the dolce far niente life -- a time of sweet indolence -- but it veers dangerously close. I used to have an extensive e-mail life of correspondence with a wide assortment of friends and professional colleagues, but after an initial flurry of feverish notes and inquires to make sure I was all right, my correspondence has dried up more quickly than a creek in August. No one has anything to say anymore because nothing is happening. So I have to find things to do to entertain myself. My girlfriend reads books aloud to me. She's just knocked off the whole of Pride and Prejudice (all 490 pages) and now she is reading the stories of Alice Munro to me. We watch films -- usually adaptations of Jane Austen's books -- or Netflix series like Unorthodox, or watch operas streaming from the Met. I have my own reading to do, too, of course -- anything by Mark Helprin and lately a horrifying book about a Polish member of the resistance during World War II who volunteered to enter Auschwitz in order to foment a resistance movement there. You really don't want to know more about that book. We all have enough to deal with these days -- except for me, of course -- to divigate into that hellish cauldron of unspeakable bestiality. For my part (ahem), I have nothing to deal with but the decay of my body and nothing do but wait along with everyone else.

But now I have suddenly found a new avocation. Inspired by Bertrand Russell's example, I am determined to use this time nonproductively to cultivate the arts of idleness. 

To begin with, I've been compiling a kind of bibliography of idleness -- a miscellany of books on the subject as well as some pithy quotes on the virtues and uses of idleness. Not long ago, a friend sent me an article in The New York Times by one Dwight Garner, the headline for which immediately appealed to me: "Celebrating Literature's Slacker Heroes, Idlers and Liers-In." Turns out there is already a fairly extensive literature devoted to the pleasures of idleness by those who ardently advocate the practice while lying in bed eating bonbons.

Garner begins by reminding us of a famous character in a 19th century novel by the name of Oblomov, a young nobleman who was incapable of taking any significant action. Instead, he simply stayed in bed. I've never read this novel, but from what I have learned about it, the only movement by this character in the first fifty pages take place when he moves from his bed to his chair. My kind of man.

Apparently, lying in bed has appealed to more than a few would-be sloths, some of whom managed to become quite famous nonetheless. There was G. K. Chesterton's essay, "On Lying in Bed," for example. Then there was Dr. Johnson's unassailable contention that "the happiest part of a man's life is what he passes lying awake in bed in the morning." And of course everyone knows that Proust wrote his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, while lying in bed. Another celebrated Frenchman, the philosopher, Jacques Derrida, was reputed to spend all day in his pajamas unless he had an appointment.

These days I would be inclined to alter Dr. Johnson's dictum to aver that my happiest hours are in the early morning while still dreaming in bed. The day usually goes downhill from there once I try to move, a mistake I hope soon to correct as I slide into deeper levels of slothfulness. And, according to what I've been told, lying in bed is also recommended for sex, though I gather that may require some exertion.

Getting back to Garner's article, he mentions a number of books that deserve to be in any aspiring idler's library. Among the titles he has made me aware of are: Robert Morley's In Praise of Obesity, Adam Phillips's On Being Bored, Eva Hoffman's How to Be Bored, Jenny Odell's How to Do Nothing, and Patricia Hampl's The Art of the Wasted Day. And for variety, you have Keith Waterhouse's primer The Theory and Practice of Lunch. Garner advises that you may want to provide plenty of time to nap between savoring these delectable how-to-do-nothing books. Moderation all things, even laziness, it seems, is the ticket.

Garner refers to still other books, but apparently, if you are really going to be lazy and want to read only one book, then it is the indispensable 2005 Tom Hodgkinson classic, How to Be Idle. According to what I've read, it was a near best seller in its day, spawned an almost cult-like following among dedicated idlers, and is regarded by many as the definitive book on the subject.

Here is a bit of what Garner has to say about this Bible for the idling class:
"This book seeks to recover an alternative tradition in literature, poetry and philosophy, one that says not only is idleness good, but that it is essential for a pleasurable life," Hodgkinson writes in his preface. "Where do our ideas come from? When do we dream? When are we happy? It is not when staring at a computer terminal worrying about what our boss will say about our work. It is in our leisure time, our own time, when we are doing what we want to do." He recommends not clicking on news radio upon waking. He nails me entirely when he writes, "A certain type of person feels it is their duty to listen to it, as if the act of merely listening is somehow going to improve the world." He is the laureate of sleeping in. "The lie-in -- by which I mean lying in bed awake -- is not a selfish indulgence but an essential tool for any student of the art of living, which is what the idler really is. Lying in bed doing nothing is noble and right, pleasurable and productive."
Although many people have condemned idling as a mere waste of time rather than as a resource for using time well, Hodgkinson can find considerable support from some eminent personages who, like Russell, have touted its value and even its necessity. Consider some of these quotes I have assembled from just a quick cursory perusal of what you can find for yourself on the Internet:

Idleness is an appendix to nobility -- Robert Burton

The condition of perfection is idleness: the aim of perfection is youth -- Oscar Wilde

The exquisite art of idleness, one of the most important things that any university can teach -- Oscar Wilde

One of the commonest characteristics of the successful man is his idleness, his immense capacity for wasting time -- Arnold Bennett

It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top -- Virginia Woolf

As peace is the end of war, so to be idle is the ultimate purpose of the busy -- Samuel Johnson

Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good -- Soren Kierkegaard

Well, I think I have provided enough here to convince you that, if your circumstances permit, the cultivation of idleness may be one of the best ways for us to navigate our way through this pandemic. As bad as it is and will be, it still provides us with a golden opportunity to savor life in the slow-mo lane. For my part (sorry!), I know I am looking forward to my reunion with Bertie Russell once his book arrives and I can get cracking on my idleness curriculum, which I plan to follow rigorously while in bed. And once I've finished Russell's primer, I feel I will then be ready to move on to the essays of the man G. B. Shaw called "The Incomparable Max," the peerless Max Beerbohm whose life of dilatory idleness set such a high standard that one can only marvel at but never hope to achieve. Still, as Browning said, a man's reach must exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for? Even we idlers are not without our own aspirations and idler heroes.

But that's enough for now. It's time for my nap.