February 22, 2021

The World’s Annus Horribilis – and Mine

By Kenneth Ring

Not to be born at all
Is best, far best that can befall,
Next best, when born, with least delay
To trace the backward way.
For when youth passes with its giddy train,
Troubles on troubles follow, toils on toils,
Pain, pain forever pain;
And none escapes life's coils.
-- Sophocles

It’s now been a year that we have all lived under the threatening COVID cloud, fearful that its pestilence would rain down on us – as indeed it has during this time. Just in the United States, half a million people at the time of this writing have died of COVID, and about 28 million Americans have been infected. And the deaths and infections will continue, even if their incidence will diminish during the coming year. This is a dark anniversary that marks a year of national mourning and unbearable heartache and suffering for so many in our country, and indeed, for the world.

And of course it has not only been the pandemic that has brought so much sorrow to us. Just to focus on the U.S., all of us remember the wave of protests that followed the shocking death of George Floyd and other Black persons killed by wanton police cruelty as the Black Lives Matter movement brought home the longstanding stink of racism that has affected and infected our country since before we were a nation. This was followed by a fractious and tumultuous election campaign that went on for months, and once the election was over, it wasn’t. It was during this time that then President Trump continued his delusional claim that he had actually won (by "a lot," he said) and went on to stoke the flames of insurrection among his more rabid followers that led to their assault and invasion of our capital on January 6th of this year. And these are just a few of the lowlights that made this past year one of almost ceaseless woe, worry and sporadic mayhem and unchecked violence. An annus horribilis, if ever there were one.

Compared to the traumas of this past year, my own sufferings hardly deserve mentioning, though as you can anticipate, that won’t stop me from disclosing some of them to you. Like many, I had a tough year, though my difficulties weren’t due to COVID as such, but to the terminal disease with which I am afflicted – aging. It will kill me in the end, but in the meantime it is content to inflict Jobbian indignities to a body that has clearly outlined its expiration date. At 85, I have reached the stage of life where my telomeres are breaking off and my body is breaking down. At night, I imagine I can hear it creaking, and in the morning, I could sometimes swear that rigor mortis must have already begun. In any case, I am in a daily battle with my enemy, decrepitude.

I realize that an old man’s complaints about his bodily infirmities are as trite as they are tedious. After all, everything that lives will suffer eventually; it’s just my turn now. So what? Big deal….

Still, if you’ll indulge me for a paragraph or two, you should know that I’ve had a severe case of spinal stenosis for several years now, so that I can barely walk down my block and back, and live like a virtual shut-in, shuffling around my house like a zombie at times. I have a torn right rotator cuff, too, that makes it difficult to lift my right arm. Dressing myself in the morning can sometimes take twenty minutes or more. In August, after I had done a lot of typing, I developed a cervical problem on my right shoulder that became progressively worse and before long resulted in severe pain. That went on for four months during which I could no longer write or even read books, either by hand or on my computer. All my professional work and almost all of my e-mail contact had to be shut down. During those months, I felt I had come to the end of the line as I was no longer able to work and write. At night, the pain was often so intense, I wished I could die. I knew I would not take my own life; I just wish it would be taken from me. Decrepitude I could handle; despair was harder.

I have no talent as a poet; I am not even a lowly poetaster. All I can do is write doggerel, and since my life in those dark days was going to the dogs, anyway, I banged out the following one morning:

On Growing Old

It is a misfortune to grow old
You will learn that soon enough
Eventually if not soon
Unless you are one of the lucky ones
And get to leave before your time

It is a myth that with age comes wisdom
Quite the contrary, my friend
With age, as you will see, comes decay
The body and its parts begin to falter
And then, one by one, begin to fail

And the mind, too, will start to shred
Its rich storehouse of memories
What gives you a sense of your identity
Begins to unravel and fall apart
Forgetfulness instead will be your lot

But you remember the days when you
Could run and hike with lively tread
Those days, too, are gone.  Instead
You go from striding to walking, and then
To sauntering, shuffling until you can only just sit

You recall the days, or, rather, the nights
When you could sleep straight through
And dream of siren women and foolish things
But now you piss the nights away, spending
More time in the bathroom than in bed

And what of all those romances past that
Kept your loins aflame with desire
They, too, have begun to fade from view
And the faces of your lovers likewise dim
Even their names you can’t quite recall

You have lived beyond your expiration date
But your body has failed to expire
So you remain immured inside your 
Body’s fortress, a prisoner of its
Capricious will, waiting for release

Yet each day brings you closer to death
Which means a time without a future
But each day you must live lashes you 
To that unwanted future – when will it end?
Like the Sphinx, it remains stonily silent

So you wait, powerless to control your fate
Though that doesn’t mean that
You don’t think about how to end it
The nights are long, but the stars still shine
And people love you – you live for them

Eventually, I found some relief from an epidural injection, but it wasn’t until I had a second one in January that was a special targeted epidural that I was finally free of shoulder pain and could write again. I’m "in remission" now since I was told that, with luck, I could expect it to last about three months. I could then have another injection, but because of having to get vaccinated, that will have to be postponed. So I can write without (much) pain now, but who knows for how long? And even tonight, I can feel some discomfort. Nevertheless, I’m grateful beyond words to have my life, such as it is, back now.

However – and this is the last thing in my litany of woes – two days after my second epidural, I had a sudden series of diarrhea episodes, followed by constipation, and back and forth it has gone, with stomach distention and lots of crap (literally) you don’t want to know about. During this time, I have lost seven pounds and have tried everything to get it under control. It’s been six weeks now, and the end is not in sight. Oh well, what the effing hell – it’s always something! You have to laugh.  

I guess I could say that I’ve lost everything but my hair and my sense of humor, and I hope to hold onto both until the end. And these days, I am actually feeling more cheerful than I have in a long time. This may have been a grim, and indeed, a ghastly year, but we must all find ways not to succumb to the gnawing fear that the COVID cloud will never lift. It will, and most of us to live to see that day. Meanwhile, I recommend that we pursue the kind of distractions that give us pleasure.

For example, some of you may remember that I am an ardent tennis fan, and particularly a proud Fedhead – a follower of the great Roger Federer. But you may know that not only has this year been a dismal one for us sports fans, especially for those of us for whom life has become a spectator sport, yet it has been worse for Federer himself. He has not played in a year owing to two knee surgeries, and at 39 his career is pretty much history. Hard as this year has been for me personally, to live without being able to watch Federer play was a thought that I could hardly bear to contemplate.

Still, I have found that there is still pleasure to be had by watching the Australian Open this month, even without Federer. Maybe Naomi Osaka, who just won her fourth grand slam title, will be become my new tennis raison d’etre. Maybe there’s tennis life post-Federer after all.

I’m still writing doggerel about the trials of aging, but now with a lighter touch.  I try not to take myself too seriously. I enjoy what I can, and the hell with the rest. I’m lucky to be here, and my body ain’t me, is it?

When You’re Old

Everything hurts
And nothing works
When you wake
You only ache
As for sleep
There’s nothing deep
Too many bathroom trips
Just to see how your penis drips
And when you dream
You hear Munch’s scream
At night, you feel the chills
By day, you try to avoid more spills
Even when you go to talk
What comes out is just a squawk
Your hearing is going, too
Your vision? Think Mr. Magoo
You are no longer bold
Just do as you’re told
And that, my friends,
Is what it’s like
When you grow old!

Finally, harking back to Sophocles’ lament about the sorrows of aging, the late George Carlin had a brilliant solution, which I think someone should bring to the attention of our Creator. Let George have the last word:

I want to live life backward
You start out dead and get that out of the way
Then you wake up in a nursing home feeling better every day
Then you get kicked out for being too healthy
Enjoy your retirement and collect your pension
Then when you start your work, you get a gold watch on the first day
You work for 40 years until you are too young to work
You get ready for high school: drink alcohol, party, and you are generally promiscuous
Then you go to primary school, you become a kid, you play, and you have no responsibilities
Then you become a baby, and then...
You finish off as an orgasm.
I rest my case.

4 comments:

  1. Brian Anthony KraemerFebruary 22, 2021 at 11:09 AM

    Hi Ken! Nothing's worse than not being noticed so I shall share my thoughts. As you know, my father and you are nearly the same age, he being only two and a half months older. We have had several times when we thought he was going to die, but each time he has recovered and returned to enjoy his two squares of Belgium chocolate, 72% cacao, from Trader Joe's, his glass of red wine, and sitting on the south end of the house in the sunlight. He still prunes the grapevines and occasionally drives his riding lawnmower around either cutting the lawn or pulling the small wagon behind it filled with pruning clippings or such. I enjoy talking with him every single day and we seem to have more to say as time goes on. I am confident that you and I, and all that is, are eternal beings, pure consciousness that is neither created or destroyed by always, always transitioned. I don't know why we need to grow old and die, but I like to believe that since the entire universe is doing it, it must be a very good thing. Thank you for letting me be part of your experience on this planet and sharing yourself with me. My life is definitely richer for knowing and loving you and I hope that if I'm still around when you make your transition, I hope you will consider dropping in on me and giving me a hug or a smile or whatever seems like the right thing at the moment. I have recently chosen to believe that whatever takes me out of this world and into the next one is my friend and not my enemy. Whatever it is, be it cancer or a heart attack or something that results in a slow demise even with pain, I am choosing (at least for the moment) to see it as a friend ushering me, holding my hand, accompanying me like a guardian for a small child, to further realms of pleasure and pain, cold and heat, abundance and scarcity, intimacy and solitude. My heart is with you and always will be. Thank you for sharing yourself not only in the airport, but on the tarmac, and even to the moment of your plane's departure.

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    1. "I am confident that you and I, and all that is, are eternal beings, pure consciousness that is neither created or destroyed by always, always transitioned. I don't know why we need to grow old and die, but I like to believe that since the entire universe is doing it, it must be a very good thing" WHAT A THOUGHTFUL COMMENT.

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  2. Oh Ken,

    Your description of this phase of your life is honest and real, but still your underlying sense of humor comes through.

    I wish you were not in pain or discomfort and I admire that your spirit is still strong enough to come through in the choice of your words.

    None of us knows what our end-of-life experience will be. But I know one thing… Ken Ring will soar through the universe with a sense of wonder and joy. You will know all things and you will know that your life has held such meaning for so many people.

    You body may finally come to a rest, but the essence of your being will find wonderous new things to explore. And I know that when it’s my turn, I will find you in the great beyond we will say to each other, “There you are, so nice to see you.” Your friend, Dyann

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  3. What an irony, Ken, for you to spend your life learning about the amazing and inspiring experiences on the other side of death, yet being dealt this most challenging hand that you have to play out before you get there. Thanks for sharing so eloquently and with humor your process. And a big congratulations on being able to write again. Much love and a warm, pain-free hug to you!

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