August 27, 2023

A Threnody for a World That Was

The world I grew up in is passing away, and soon enough, I will be passing away with it. My vision, never good, is starting to deteriorate rather alarmingly, and of course you know that I can barely walk anymore. Indeed, as a sign of the times, I just received a walker today, something that I swore I would never want to resort to since those were for old people. But I have no wish to recount here the litany of all of my bodily woes. Nothing is more tedious, even to me, than the complaints of old men nattering on about their troubles. Suffice it to say my body also has had its day, and the sun is beginning to set on it.

The real subject of this blog, however, is not me, but the world I grew up in whose days are also numbered. I am in anticipatory mourning for a vanishing world which I had loved.

Take classical music, for example. Probably most of you know that classical music has been one of my passions ever since I was a teen-ager. But now, with my bad hearing, when I listen to it, the sound is distorted. I sometimes can’t even recognize works I know very well until they are identified afterward. But, then, as I’ve said, I don’t really mean to write about my own losses in this regard, but the waning of interest in classical music itself.

Case in point: The Mostly Mozart summer festivals in New York. I remember going to one of those concerts with my then girlfriend in the mid-1980s. In those days, the motto was “Mostly Mozart, barely Bach, and neckties never.” 

Well, as of next year, the Mostly Mozart concerts will be no more. And, generally speaking, after a good run of more than two centuries, interest in classical music is not only ebbing, but its audiences have long been primarily made up of old fogies like me, members of the walking walker brigade. Other music forms are now in ascendant. Hell, even Hip-hop is fifty years old now. Roll over Beethoven before somebody steps on you.

Of course, classical music will continue, but its glory days, which probably reached their zenith in the first half of the 20th century, are clearly the things of nostalgic memories for people of my taste and vintage.

But of course there are many far more worrisome things in this troubled world of ours and surely the greatest of these are the mind-paralyzing effects of climate change. Just consider what has been going on in the last week at the time of my writing, which is the second half of August.

Perhaps the worst of these recent events was the terrible devastation that was visited on Maui (and also the Big Island) as a result of the fires that ravaged the island and utterly destroyed Lahaina. I don’t think it is possible for those of us who could only witness that inferno on television to imagine the horror suffered not only by those who perished, including the birds and other animals, but that of the survivors. We didn’t smell what they did, didn’t see up close what they did; we didn’t lose our homes and everything in them, or our loved ones or our animals.  

And yet this is the world we are now living in, isn’t it? At the moment, Los Angeles and other parts of the west in the United States are still recovering from the floods unleashed by Hurricane Hilary while up north in Washington, the state has been plagued by widespread fires that have ravaged towns and wildlife and likewise for parts of British Columbia. And of course there are still hundreds of fires burning away throughout the rest of Canada whose smoky air eventually drifts down to pollute and darken our own skies.

And I need hardly remind you of this summer’s prolonged scorching temperatures throughout the southwest and other parts of the country, the frequent destructive tornadoes that have been spawned, and the fears of a catastrophic series of hurricanes later this summer.

And of course, the damage hasn’t wreaked only the Western hemisphere. It’s been global with many countries in Europe burning up this summer (so much for the pleasures of the summer tourist season – you can kiss those goodbye, too, baby), and China and India as well (it’s not the time to visit Beijing or Delhi either).

And, surely you all know that this July was the hottest on record, and there’s little doubt that the year will end that way, too, with another record smashed. And not just on earth, but in the oceans, too, with the waters in the Gulf or around Florida reaching and even exceeding 100ºF.

You think it’s gonna get better? Dream on, friends, though what we are experiencing is more like a nightmare from which we only wish we could awaken. 

I have a cartoon in mind, which I wish I had the skill to draw, but maybe you can picture it. On the left side of the panel, we see a bunch of teen-agers glued to their iPhones while on the right side, we see a towering fire of which the teen-agers remain, at least for now, unaware. The caption reads: “Kids fiddling with their phones while the earth burns.”  

Unfortunately, I need to continue with this song of lamentation, which is what a threnody means, of course, by taking at least a few minutes to mention one of the most painful aspects of our present condition, which is the calamitous erosion of the natural world. As I’ve mentioned in some of my previous blogs, in recent years there have been sharp and worrisome declines in population of the birds and bees of our world, of the insects generally, and on the other end of the size scale, in our megafauna, all of which are doomed and will probably disappear by the end of the century. You can also mourn the loss of the iconic polar bears, as the Arctic glaciers melt. They will eventually be replaced by the grizzlies as long as they can last.  

According to the environmental journalist, Elizabeth Kolbert, we are currently witnessing the sixth extinction, another great die-off of many of the species of the planet like that which happened to the dinosaurs sixty-six million years ago. This is life in what has been called the Anthropocene, the geologic era in which we humans now find ourselves. This is the age when destructive human activity has become the dominant determinant of life on the planet. There are many wonderful and good people on earth, but as a species we have been ruinous to our only home. Instead, we have become the alpha-predator on the planet as we continue to destroy the habitats of other creatures, if we haven’t already killed them outright. We are guilty of ecocide, and we will be paying a heavy price for our sins.

It didn’t used to be this way when I was growing up. Nobody had heard of “global warming” then. We were innocent, most of us having no idea of the harm we were doing to the earth even then. It was the age before computers, mobile phones and social media. Kids like me used typewriters, slide rules, and paper and pencils, and when we were old enough to drive, gas was cheap (29 cents a gallon) and the open road called. Nature, too, was abundant and animal life flourished. That was then.  

I recently saw a commercial on TV that advised us consumers that “we have only one body,” and urged us to take care of it (by using the right lotion on our skin). Likewise, we have only one earth, and how have we taken care of it? A rhetorical question, obviously. Nothing more need be said. We can only weep. It is too late to repent.

But let me turn, finally, just to what is happening in our own country, the good old U. S. of A.

Certainly, one of the most disturbing developments in recent years has been the increasing incidence of mass murders, which for a while earlier this year seemed to be almost daily occurrences. Commentators were quick to point out that these mass murders were being committed so often that they exceeded the number of days in the year. In other words, on average, more than one a day! What was happening to America?

I don’t need to tell you that when I was growing up, it wasn’t this way. Life was not perfect – I am not idealizing it – but no parents worried then that their children might be killed in another senseless rampage at their school. There was no need for “safely drills” (only for fires, not firearms) or to have armed policemen guarding their schools. So different from these days when so many parents must have these niggling fears in the back of their minds when they send their kids off to school in the morning.

I think particularly of the fears that Black mothers must have when they say goodbye to their kids, especially if they have boys. It’s just not safe, and probably never was, really, to be a Black kid in America, and now, never more so. And when that boy becomes a teen-ager, does he have to be especially vigilant when on the streets of his neighborhood? Or when he grows up and happens to be caught speeding, what then? When a white cop pulls him over and says, menacingly, “Please step out of your car, sir.” Such a man would be expected to have a level of fear that few white men would.

I’m lucky. I’m a white guy. When I could drive, I never worried about such things. But I have a Black grandchild. It’s fortunate both for her and me (and her parents) that she’s a girl. But, still, despite the views of a certain Southern governor, who seems to believe that slavery was a benign form of vocational training, this country, born in violence and still permeated by racism, is now even more perilous for Black people. It’s sickening.

Of course, the easy availability of guns, and the fact that our country has far more guns per capita than any other country – and some of the laxest laws permitting their use – makes America a particularly dangerous place for all of us to live, regardless of our race or ethnicity. I don’t need to tell you that it didn’t used to be this way despite our history of racial violence and “race riots,” as they used to be called. But they were occasional, if shocking, eruptions of racial tensions; they didn’t suffuse our culture the way they do now. Now, we live in a climate of violence and mayhem and sometimes seem to be on the brink of another civil war.

I usually try to avoid political subjects, but now that I’m very old and likely not to be around much longer, perhaps you’ll indulge me this one time. (Trump partisans would be best advised to skip this next section.) This is just my personal opinion, but ever since the advent of the Trumpian age in America, our ex-president (and would-be next president) has stoked violence and inflamed his followers with his poisonous rhetoric. He has made it legitimate to hate and to mock non-white people and immigrants. He even mocks and disparages his opponents by calling them insulting names like a five-year-old bully on a schoolyard. One well-known socialite who knew Trump well during his New York days, said “he was always a horse’s ass.”  Touché.

As odious and hateful as I find Trump to be, and as dangerous as I know he is, I still find him essentially a buffoon, a kind of cartoon figure. Even his name and title: President Trump. It makes me smile. He reminds me of that English cartoon character, Colonel Blimp. I can’t help laughing when I see his plane with its big sign on top, TRUMP. Just to prevent someone from stealing it, I suppose. You may have noticed that his umbrellas are also emblazoned with his name. I suspect the same is the case with his underwear and hankies.

What a laughable narcissist, albeit a thuggish one. To me he is an absurd figure, incapable of telling the truth and with a serious character disorder that prevents him from ever acknowledging what everyone else knows – that he lost the last election. Trump can never admit that he’s lost anything, even his keys, because that would make him “a loser,” like all those competitors for president he is so quick to malign.

I remember reading years ago that by the time a man lives to be fifty, he will have the face he deserves. You look at Trump’s face, his jutting jaw, his Mussolini-like swagger, and what do you see? Trump is a man who can easily “lash out” and leer, though he can also smile. But have you ever seen this man laugh or tell a joke? How anyone can take him seriously, much less vote for him, is beyond me.

Still, he has fomented an atmosphere of violence in this country unlike any other president. And we saw what all that led to on January 6th of 2021. Of course, we have had venal presidents before, and we have had outright crooks and other unhinged presidents, too (does anyone remember Nixon?) But we have never had a president who was twice impeached and is currently facing four indictments for alleged criminal behavior in both federal and state courts. 

And worse, he has now captured and taken over the Republican party, has cowed his craven Republicans into slavish fealty, and convinced his “base” of committed Trumpists that he has never done anything wrong, never lost the last election, and that Biden is not our legitimate president. He has become the deranged leader of a personality cult that used to be the Republican party. Trump uber alles.

Am I the only one who thinks we are all now living a nut house where people have just gone berserk? Am I the only one who doesn’t recognize this country anymore? We seem to be living in an era when “alternative facts” parade as truth and civility is a virtue to be sneered at. The wild west has returned, and lawlessness and insanity reign. Shoot ‘em up, cowboy! And if you see someone who is dumb enough to post a gay pride flag outside her store, kill her.  

No, it didn’t used to be like this when I was growing up. And though I know the world wouldn’t be perfect if everyone had a near-death experience, I only wish that were possible because then love and kindness would rule and compassion would be an everyday virtue. That at least is the kind of world I would like to live in, not this doomed madhouse, and with any luck, that’s where I’ll be heading soon.

August 1, 2023

The Day I Turned a Thousand – Months – Old

Some of you who read my book, Waiting to Die, or my blogs from a few years ago may remember that I spent a lot of time writing about how I was hoping to reach the age of a thousand – months. Indeed, that was the very conceit of my book and gave it what little suspense I could instill in it. The question, which I left open until the very end, was whether I would reach my goal, and if I did, what would happen then.

Well, obviously, I made it and survived, but none of you knows what happened to me that day. You are about to find out, and I think you will be shocked to learn what actually took place on that fateful day.

I don’t know just when this somewhat whimsical notion occurred to me. Of course, I regarded it as a joke, just a larkish bit of folderol meant to amuse. But all the same, the idea did appeal to me and my proclivities both for numerical games and death dates. For example, I’ve always had a fascination with prime numbers as well as the death dates of various famous people, particularly composers. You name a well-known composer, for example, and I can probably tell you the year of his death. And since if I were to die at the age of 1000 months, I would have been 83 years old. I remember writing about this in one of my blogs and mentioned a long list of illustrious men who ha d died at that age. I would never belong in such company of course, but I could still aspire to join them in my longevity at least. I also remember thinking that 83 would actually a good age to die – I’d be old then, but not ancient, and what, really, would be the point of living longer, anyway? As it was, and as I remarked more than once, by the time I had reached my early 8Os, I already thought I was living in my afterlife. The story of my life had by then played out; I was merely coasting through my epilogue, waiting to die. So my story – and me – would finally come to an end if I managed to kick the bucket when I reached my goal of a thousand months of age. 

But of course my life didn’t end on the day I turned 1000 months old, on exactly April 13, 2019. Nevertheless, something extremely significant and uncanny did take place on that day, and I am, at last, about to tell you what that was. But first I will have to set the scene.


In late spring of 1985, I spent several weeks at Esalen Institute during which time I was initiated into the heady and erotically-tinged culture of Esalen, which for me also included the beginning of my usage of MDMA, later popularly known as “Ecstasy.” It was during that same period that I was also introduced to a town that would soon become my very favorite place in all the world. It was called Pacific Grove, but to locals of whom I was shortly to aspire to become one, it was just “PG.”

Since most of readers of this blog don’t live in California, I need to say something about this town and the distinctive atmosphere that one finds there.  

To begin with, PG is located near Monterey, but is really off the proverbial “beaten track.” To get there, you actually have to get off the freeway and descend a long grade of about four or five miles until you hit the beginning of the town. But on a clear day, what you see ahead of you is not just the stores and gas stations in that part of town, which is charmless, but the sparkling waters of the blue Pacific. In later years, I would always experience a frisson of excitement at that wondrous view. And the “real” part of PG that I was to know so well and love so deeply was that which was located on the shores of the Pacific.

What struck me immediately when I first arrived in PG was that it was such an old-timey sort of town, not only quiet and appealing, but as if it were stuck in time, say, around 1950. The main part of town along Lighthouse Avenue consists of only about eight blocks or so. They are festooned with cafes and other eateries, a marvelous bakery, small shops, galleries, a little bookstore, etc., but life is slow there. PG is not crowded with tourists; most the people you see on the streets are locals. No one is in a hurry. People don’t stride purposively through town; they amble.  

And nothing really goes on there. There are no night clubs, very few bars, and only a somewhat dilapidated movie house. The town seems to close down early at night. After nine o’clock or so, there’s hardly anyone on the streets. Everyone has seemingly gone home to one or another of the charming brightly colored wooden houses, some old Victorians, that PG is famous for.

For me, and I know this has been true for some other first-time visitors, it was love at first sight. I immediately knew this was the town for me.

Over the many years since my serendipitous discovery of PG, I’ve been there many times with various girlfriends and even with one wife I acquired along the way whom I took there on our honeymoon. I loved being there so much that on one visit, I thought I might well want to retire there. I figured I could join the library board or something and otherwise enjoy the pleasant easygoing life there, wandering in the morning along the bike path that borders the ocean which affords spectacular views of the Pacific and the abundant sea creatures who cavort there. And occasionally feasting at my favorite restaurant, Peppers, with its sumptuous Mexican fare and always lively and joyous atmosphere. 

The possibility of that kind of life stuck with me so strongly that on one visit, I shocked my then current girlfriend, a woman named Harrie, by telling her that I had unilaterally decided to spend a month there with her. She was certainly nonplussed at the time, but since Harrie loved PG as much as I did, including the perfect house we had been able to rent there on 16th Street, she quickly expressed enthusiasm for the prospect.

So the following summer when I had time off from teaching, we drove there for the month. Harrie was an artist and loved visiting the galleries and shops and eating with me at Peppers and PG’s other fine restaurants. I spent most of my time walking along the ocean, reading at Lover’s Point or inside our house, or going for ice cream (Harrie did not eat sweets), but she was a delightful and frolicsome companion. And of course, we also enjoyed our time together at night in our king-size bed.

Here are a few photos of us mostly from our month-long stay that summer. First, there’s one of a fat Ken standing outside the house we loved, which was just a block away from the ocean and Lover’s Point and few blocks from town.

Then one of me engrossed in a book inside the house:

And finally one of Harrie and me on an earlier visit to PG:

Now, let me fast forward a dozen or so years to the time when my thousandth day birthday (or deathday) was fast approaching. By the sheerest synchronicity, there was going to be a transpersonal psychology conference in PG at that very time. Not only that, but I was to be one of the honorees at the conference for my work on NDEs, and I was now slated to be there on the very day that I would turn a thousand. How perfect, I thought! Clearly, an act of providence. So, naturally, I told my present and surely my last girlfriend, Lauren, that we were going to PG for the occasion.

But things didn’t quite work out the way I had imagined. I had felt fine the night before, but when I woke up, after a troubled night’s sleep, on the morning of the 19th, I found that I was so wretchedly sick, I couldn’t even get out of bed!

Now, here’s one thing you should know about me. Since I’m old, I suffer the usual fate of the elderly: Nothing works and everything hurts. But I hardly ever actually get sick and I virtually never have to stay abed on those rare occasions when I don’t feel well. But this time, I was feeling so terrible, I could scarcely take myself to the toilet. As a result, I had to stay in bed all day and never was able to make it to the conference. Needless to say, I was bitterly disappointed, and at a loss to explain what had happened to me.

But the worst was yet to come. By the next day, I had somewhat recovered, though I still felt weak. But to compensate for my disaster, Lauren and I decided we should at least console ourselves by walking up to Peppers in the late afternoon for an early dinner.

I still remember what happened when I stepped off the porch.

I couldn’t walk.  

Well, I could, but only with difficulty. At first, I thought and hoped it was only because I had been so violently ill the previous day. But I still figured I could make it up to Peppers. PG is a hilly town and we only had to walk two blocks to the restaurant, and just the second hill was fairly steep. Nevertheless, I had to stop several times on the way there before making it up to the restaurant.

I was really puzzled at my sudden infirmity. It was like waking up and finding that one had contracted polio.

In fact, the sad news is, it never got better. It’s from that very day when I turned 1000 that, although I didn’t die, my legs did. And not only did they never recover, but in the more than four years since, things have only got worse. Now my legs are weaker than ever, so I am a virtual cripple these days.

Strange, eh? I mean, that I should suffer this calamity on the very day I turned a thousand months old. Makes one wonder about the power of thought and the mischievous ways of the Lord.

Well, I’m still a happy guy most of the time all the same, but my only consolation now that I’m working on my second thousand-year cycle is that I won’t live to complete it!