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.


  1. Dear Ken,

    Thank you so much for this heartfelt lament. I am completely with you. I was born in the 60s, and I have been watching my world change beyond recognition as well. It is so sad. I am sad but do not feel despair. I do, however know many people of my generation who do.

    Here, in the north of Scotland, we have been doing our best in our little space to look after our environment, and the many wild animals that visit us here. You would be happy to hear that earlier in the season our garden was visited by a huge number of honey bees, in addition to all the bumble bees. I was surprised and delighted, of course. We do not keep a manicured lawn but have ‘green manure’ instead with flowers that the bees can visit. We do not mow until it’s absolutely dire, and the bees have finished collecting pollen. I have managed to forage kilos of chanterelle mushrooms, which were much more plentiful this year than last year. Perhaps the combination of more sunny days and more rain that did the trick. But it felt so good to walk in the forest, talk to the trees and forage.

    I know and feel that things are bad everywhere, and my feelings are similar to yours. I feel sorry for teenagers living now, and even more so for babies and toddlers. They are inheriting whatever it is that the Earth is going to become. Climate change is well and truly upon us. I am just sad that your generation who will say farewell to this life at some point, have to watch the world you knew and loved, not to mention contributed to in a worse state than when you were born into it. It is very unfair and sad. You are not the only one who thinks we are living in a nut house. It has been clear to me increasingly, that humanity is in decline. We will survive as a species, albeit reduced in numbers, but I don’t know if we will ever fulfil the potential we have. I imagine that the US will change somehow. I hope to be wrong but the idea of a new civil war has crossed my mind. Certainly the country is going backward, with or without Trump. I have always thought of this narcissistic poor excuse of human being as a symptom, not the cause. And yes, he has no sense of humour. Good humour depends on intelligence, and he does not have much of that.

    Many thanks again Ken for you honesty and beautiful writing.

    Avigail xxx

  2. Right on in all respects, Ken, especially re the Trumpster (aka fraudster). He is everything you say and imply: narcissist, egomaniac, deranged, criminal, and no insight into himself. Please share you negative views of him widely lest we all leave the USA after the next election. Rudy G

  3. Dear Ken, I can relate to the sentiments you share regarding climate, politics and frustration with aging. Now that I'm 72 myself I find that quality of life has become the main focus. Most of my friends are gone, including many you knew, thus I periodically probe around to see who is still out there and kicking. Good to see you still writing and caring. Now for the question that brought me to you, do you still have contact with my old friend, Gracia Fay Ellwood? She lived a conscious, healthy lifestyle and was/is a vegetarian. I know because I stayed at her home a couple days a week some years ago to lighten my drive into work at the time. I was also wondering if you know what became of my old friend, Joe Green. He is a practicing clinical psychologist in Southern California and he presented a few times at IANDS conferences. You guys used to talk sometimes. Don't know if you stayed in touch. Besides the friends who have passed on, I lost touch with other friends after I moved back to Oregon 19-1/2 years ago.
    Many Blessings,

    1. Since I don’t have your e-mail address, I’ve had to ask my webmaster, Kevin Williams, to reply for me. First, thanks very much for reading and for your comments on my blog. Next, I remember Gracia Fay Ellwood very well, but she was quite old when we were in touch. I haven’t had any contact with her for many years; I assume she’s no longer with us. Ditto for Joe Green, though he may still be alive. But I haven’t had any contact with him of many years either. Like you, I’ve lost touch with — or just lost — many people who were once a vital part of my life. I will probably soon join them….

      All best wishes to you,


  4. How true is your "I only wish that were possible because then love and kindness would rule and compassion would be an everyday virtue." I am building a list of Peer Reviewers for an eventual manuscript (on OMEGA Journal of Death and Dying) which I hope will the results of my research project proving our continued existence after this physical one. If I could have the honor of listing you to reviewer, contact me on my gmail address at TheLifeSpiritProject. Respectfully, Kenneth Marshall

    1. Hi Kenneth. I am Ken Ring's webmaster and he wants you to email him your email address so that he can reply to you. You can send him an email at: Thanks.

  5. My dear professor, mentor, and friend,
    The only thing I can imagine now that could possibly make this world worse off is the loss of you. Your wisdom, love, compassion and humor have been a buoy for, no doubt, countless people. As one of them, I am forever grateful our paths crossed at UConn, and for the impact you have had on my life's trajectory. Always a brilliant spark, I will continue to think of you and ask "what would Ken say" and remember our talks and your guidance. Thank you for your friendship and sharing yourself in such a way that the world has needed for 87 years. It is indeed a better place of your having lived. If not in this lifetime, I am sure our soul paths will cross again!
    Much Love always,

  6. Dr Ring - I was one of those crazy UConn undergraduates you taught in the mid 70’s. I’ve often thought of your classes on altered states of consciousness and how much I enjoyed your lectures and exercises. You’ll never remember this but you assigned Stanislaus Grof’s book on altered states and psychedelics which no one could find. Being a Jersey scrounger I told you I’d find the books needed to supply the class. Searching in our immediate area in and around Storrs proved futile. Moving on to Hartford and New Haven bore similar results. Not wanting to let you down I cut classes, jumped in my 68’ Orange VW bug and drove to NYC and discovered enough books in Strand’s book store - the purveyor of last resort - in one of their upper floors covered in dust. I bought every copy they had. For some reason you, when I brought the books in, seemed to have no doubt that I’d succeed. I’ve always remember that trust, the $5 I made on each book and your sponsorship letter to help me get into some grad classes after graduation.

    Whenever I think of your classes it’s always with a smile.

  7. Bridging your comments on music and old people's physical complaints: "When old people meet, their usual conversation is an organ recital."