December 21, 2023

Scribo, Ergo Sum

You don’t have to know much Latin (I myself am a Latin dunce, never having studied it in school) to figure out the meaning of my title. “I write, therefore I am.” Whether I write to live or live to write, or possibly both, writing is what I’ve been doing for most of my life. But as I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find things to write about, especially during these dark times for our world, I’m beginning to wonder whether if I stop writing my blogs, will I continue to exist? Maybe I think that as long as I write, I can stave off my death. I’m not ashamed to admit I will cleave to any superstition I can get.

As some of you know, I recently managed to survive my 88th birthday, a three-day extravaganza during which I received many kind greetings from my family, friends, ex-students, and even a few of you fans of mine for which I belatedly thank you. I gained several pounds in the process, as I had also received a chocolate cake and other sweets, and am now in recovery (and on a diet!). Anyway, here I am at 88.

As we approach the nadir of the year and Christmas, now a week away as I write, this should be a joyous and celebratory time, but apart from my birthday festivities, I don’t find I have much joy in my heart, only sadness and dismay about the present and apprehension about the future. So it’s hard for me to write the kind of upbeat and humorous blogs I like to craft at such a downbeat time for our sorry and imperiled world.

Case in point: Gaza.  

If you’ve read any of my blogs about Israel and the current war, you will know that my sympathies lie with the Palestinians now crowded and trapped like rats in a cage in Gaza while being subjected to relentless attacks by Israel, which so far have killed a number fast approaching twenty thousand, many of them children.

I think of them at night, in the cold and rain, shivering without food or shelter, and without hope, many of them on the verge of starving, fearful about the next attack, wondering if they will live or die or, if they survive, whether they will be maimed for life. And even if they do survive, all of them will suffer from post-traumatic stress, probably for most of their lives.  

And where will they go, once the carnage finally stops? Their houses are destroyed, Gaza is quickly turning into a mountain of rubble and reeks of stench, and the Gazans have no outlet. They are refugees, millions of them, with nowhere to go.

Can one die of heartbreak? That’s how I feel most of the time, and certainly whenever I think of those poor souls, huddled together, with mothers screaming and weeping over the death of their children.

Still, these are abstractions, statistics, nameless persons we can never know. But there’s one man whose misfortunes I have been following from the outset. His name is Mosab Abu Toha. He is a 31-year-old award-winning poet, married, with two children. 

I first came across him by reading one of his articles in The New Yorker, which was heartrending. At the time, he had just discovered that his house in Gaza had been destroyed, and his precious library of books that he had spent years collecting and gone to great lengths to preserve, had all gone up in smoke. I felt so terrible about that, knowing how much my own books mean to me, I immediately tried to send him some money to replace his lost books. I tried to do so through a poetry foundation to which Mosab belonged, but it was all in vain.  

Later, I read that he had been detained, imprisoned and tortured, having been (falsely) accused of being connected with Hamas. He was eventually released, but the damage had been done.  

This morning, over my breakfast, I began listening to a podcast of an interview with Mosab that was conducted by the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick. In the first part, Mosab tells how he was detained, forced to strip naked before a young solider, beaten, kicked in his face, sworn at and brutalized before being arrested. Horrible. (I couldn’t listen to the rest; I had to take a break.)

But I don’t only think about people like Mosab and his fellow Gazans. I also think about the Israelis who were killed in the October assault by Hamas and of all those families waiting in fear about the fate of the hostages that Hamas abducted, some of whom we now know have been killed, including, most recently, three by mistake by IDF soldiers. The Israelis, too, are suffering grievously and many of them are still enraged with Netanyahu and his government. Israel, too, will be a long time recovering from this.

Hard to be full of good cheer when one is mindful of what’s going on the Middle East. And, there is still Ukraine, too, whose hopeless war, stalemated and stuck in trench warfare like that of the First World War, has almost been forgotten. From all that I’ve read and seen, there is no chance that Ukraine will survive intact as a country. Their soldiers fought and still fight valiantly, but it seems clear that Putin’s forces will outlast them and that Putin has already won, even if he hasn’t been able to conquer and subdue the Ukrainians.

I was only two years old in 1938, but it seems like 1938 to me, the year before the world was engulfed in the conflagration of the Second World War that would last six years, during which sixty million people died, and which wasn’t even over when it was over.  I really fear what lies ahead in the years to come.

And then there is all this turmoil on our nation’s campuses, including some of our leading universities, which has caused such difficulties for university presidents who are trying to walk a fine line in contending with all the forces that seem to be raging on our campuses, including my own university, UCONN, where I taught for many years.  

On many of these campuses, an organization called Students for Justice in Palestine has been very active and vocal in pressing the case for Palestinians, and many Jewish students are involved in this movement, too. But other Jewish students, who support Israel, are often afraid to wear a kippah on their heads lest they be assaulted or otherwise threatened. Fear and turmoil and unrest continue, though these may abate during final periods and then the holidays. But they will not stop. It’s hard to see where this will go, and meanwhile rancorous debates continue about settler colonialism and Israel’s savage warfare.   

When we look at the dismal and depressing state of politics in America, we find no relief from the dark clouds that hover overhead that also presage worse times to come.

I’ve never been a fan of Biden, and for many reasons, but in the next election, we seem to have a choice of a doddering and etiolated President, a wacko conspiracy theorist with a famous name, and a would-be dictator with a foul mouth who is bent on vengeance and who, if elected, would probably sound the death knell for democracy. To say nothing of the obstructionist and mostly delusional Republicans in Congress who seem like fractious children playing in a sandbox. Is this what America has come to? A land of mass murders every week, mendacious and ineffectual politicians, and an electorate, half of whom, seemingly in thrall to a deranged cult leader, have gone off the rails?

I grew up during a very different time in the fifties when my cohort was called “the silent generation,” as we slept through the Eisenhower years. I did go to Berkeley, but that was before the sixties broke out all over and Berkeley had its moment with the Free Speech Movement. How different things seem now when mayhem and raucous dissension threaten to turn into violence as the fabric of democracy continues to unravel.

Didn’t the great historian, Arnold Toynbee, say something to the effect that most empires start to rot from within after a couple of centuries or so? Perhaps that is what’s happening to our country even before we mark the 250th anniversary of its founding. Sit transit gloria mundi.

I used to take solace in my reading, but lately even there, I find myself reading about even worse times and people even more vile than those who vie for our attention on the stage of our dysphoric times.

I’m currently reading two books (and various articles) about the Congo, both written about twenty years ago.  One is a book called King Leopold’s Ghost. Do you know about the Belgian King who raped the Congo beginning in the mid-1880s, and over more than twenty years enslaved millions of Blacks and in the process of extracting ivory and rubber, killed about ten million people? Leopold, who oddly enough never set a royal foot in the vast region he plundered, was motivated by an overweening amount of cupidity. He was a moral monster of almost unparalleled brutality. And he had many others whose help he enlisted who also enriched themselves of the spoils to be extracted from the Congo’s rich resources, including the famous explorer, Henry Stanley, who discovered Dr. Livingstone to whom he definitely didn’t say, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” He is another odious and hateful figure in this mostly now forgotten genocide.

The other book is actually a novel written by Barbara Kingsolver, who lived in the Congo as a child. Her book is called The Poisonwood Bible. I’m only partway through it, but so far, it deals with a later period of the Congo’s history, but one still marked by the effects of Leopold’s malign legacy. It, too, is a sad tale of what that stricken land and its people have suffered.

And the suffering goes on today. There is still an on-going war that is being waged by various contending forces during which it is estimated that as many as six million people have died. Today others toil to scratch out a living.  The Congo, you see, is still rich in copper and especially cobalt, which is used in your smart phones and in the batteries for your electric vehicles. Exploitation is still the name of this wretched game, long after King Leopold went to his grave. The West still profits while the Africans suffer and die. 

What a world. Please let me off at the next stop. I don’t really want to continue to live in such a benighted and doomed planet, which has far too much toxicity and not nearly enough love.  

Well, sorry for this rant, my friends. I hate to be such a downer at this time of year when we are all supposed to be cheerful and whoop it up at new year’s when the ball falls and the confetti flies. But, at least for me, and perhaps for some of you, this does not seem to be the time for rejoicing and seasonal hoopla.  

Please pray for peace, and for those who continue to suffer from the tragedies and horrors of our own time. 

But for now, I will leave you with this image of hope:

December 5, 2023

On the Art of Kvetching

Since I turned out to be a flop as a Zen practitioner, I have decided to return to and cultivate a spiritual practice I know I am good at – the art of the kvetch.

Even if you are not Jewish, as, until my recent decision to become a Jewish apostate, I was for many years, I can assure you that you don’t have to be Jewish in order to learn to kvetch. Anyone of any religion or none (actually, some of the world’s leading kvetchers are atheists) can become a kvetch adept with a little practice.

I’m assuming that you already know what it is to kvetch.  Basically, it is to complain with humor. For example, when you wake up with a backache, as I often do, you could just mutter, or, if you are an Episcopalian, you could pretend to feel fine since talking about one’s body is thought to be unseemly – or you could kvetch by saying something along the lines of “Oy vey, my aching accursed back. If this keeps up, I’m gonna have to take myself to the nearest body shop and demand a backectomy!”

You get the idea. Jews are particularly good at this because, if you know anything about Jewish history, and who doesn’t, Jews have had a lot to complain about. Which is one reason why during the 20th century, about eighty percent of comics were Jews.

Of course, Jewish humor often has a hostile edge to it and sometimes it is not even subtle, as, for example, the nasty humor Don Rickles, if anyone remembers him. And, yes, it can be cruel to joke about other people, but to lampoon oneself, ah, that’s the way many comics make a living. That’s their shtick, as we Yids (or in my case, erstwhile Yids) like to say. Consider Woody Allen, who before he became a well-known film director (and an alleged pedophile), was a standup comic who amused audiences by making fun of himself. (And, by the way, is there any other kind? Have you ever heard of a sitdown comic? Besides, if you ever saw the film, “My Favorite Year,” which is actually one of my favorite films, you might remember being taught that you must never attempt to tell a joke sitting down.)

But back to kvetching. Several years ago when I was in my early eighties and still in my prime, I wrote a humorous piece, with a lot of kvetching in it, and it got such a good response that it actually led to my becoming a blogger in what I continue to regard as my advanced middle age (I am about to amass as many years as the number of keys on the piano). And since I am now running out of both time and things to write about, I thought it might be worthwhile to share that blog again with you. I figured that in these incredibly sad, dark and dystopian times, you might appreciate a little levity, if only as a distraction from the news about wars, mayhem and Republicans.

Of course, some of you may have already read this blog, but so what? A good blog, like an erotic billet-doux, is worth re-reading. Why should a good blog be read only once and then be, like Don Rickles, forgotten? And if you haven’t read it, well, you’re about to. I hope you enjoy it and learn something about the art of kvetching in doing so. Who knows, it might induce you to take up the art itself. The world, after all, could use all the kvetchers it can get.

As for me, I plan to continue to hone my kvetching skills by delving into a new book that just arrived at my door, courtesy of Amazon. Its title (and I’m not making this up; this really happened just as I was finishing this prologue): Born to Kvetch. Some things are just too good to be false.

Waiting to Die

The bright realization that must come before death will be worth all the boredom of living.

What’s it like, waiting to die? Of course, it’s different for everyone. I can only say what it’s like for me. On the whole, it’s rather boring. 

Don’t get me wrong. I still have many pleasures in life and – knock on silicon – I’m lucky not to be suffering from any fatal illness, though if I were, that would certainly add some drama in my life. I could then follow the example of the poet Ted Rosenthal, who after contracting leukemia, joyfully called his friends and said, “Guess what’s happened to me!” Well, no thanks. I’ll take my boring life any day and intone a hymn of gratitude every morning I wake up with only the ordinary indignities of an old man – coughing, wheezing and sneezing, and, oh, my aching back!

But still….I’m used to having productive work -- writing books, helping other authors with their books, being involved in various professional pursuits, and so forth. But recently I published my last book, which I puckishly entitled, Pieces of My Mind Before I Fall to Pieces, which was a kind of potpourri of stories and interests from my later years, and just after that I wrote what I expect to be my last professional article, the foreword to a colleague’s memoir. Now what? More precisely, what do I do with my time now that I have clearly entered the epilogue to my life? Honestly, I feel as if I have stepped over the threshold into my afterlife before dying. 

Of course, I can watch films – I’ve become quite a “film buff” in my later years; I still have interesting books to read. I am blessed with a wonderful girlfriend. Still, since life has become a spectator sport for me, and I can no longer travel, except locally, I find that I am spending more time on my sofa, honing my couch potato skills, watching sports. Yet I must confess that even they have lost a good deal of their allure for me. My home town baseball team, The San Francisco Giants, finished in the cellar last year; in golf, Tiger has gone away; in  basketball, Michael Jordan is long gone; and in tennis, which is now the only sport I follow with some avidity, it is chiefly because of the great Roger Federer. Nevertheless, I can only wonder how long he can at 36 continue to produce one miracle after another? Surely, he, too, will begin his inevitable decline soon, and with his descent from the heights of glory, my interest in tennis will also flag. So what will be left then? I will tell you.

The body. Mine. It has already become my principal preoccupation and bĂȘte-noire. These days, I can’t help recalling that St. Francis referred to the body as “brother ass.” It seems I now spend most of my time in doctors’, chiropractors’ or dentists’ clinics, as they strive to preserve my decaying body parts by inflicting various forms of torture on me that would even impress Torquemada, or doing physical therapy in what is most likely a vain attempt to delay the encroaching onset of wholesale physical deterioration. Really, is this any way to run a navy? There are many days when I think the only surgery that will preserve me would be a complete bodyectomy.

Well, okay, I realize this is only par for the course of the everyday life of an octogenarian. Wasn’t it Bette Davis who famously said “old age is no place for sissies?” It isn’t for wimps like me either, it seems. (I can often be heard crooning, “turn back the hands of time….”) Still, I wouldn’t go so far as the saturnine Philip Roth who said that old age is “a massacre.” I guess at this point I find myself somewhere between Davis and Roth, but the waiting game still seems to be a losing proposition and I might very well come to think of my current boredom as the halcyon days of my decline.

Nevertheless, consider a typical day in the life of this old wheezing geezer. 

It begins with the back. Every day does. In the morning, you get up, but your back doesn’t. It hurts. Even though you take a hot shower before bed, by the time you wake up your back has decided to take the day off. When you try to use it, as for example, when you bend over to pick up the comb you’ve dropped into the toilet, it begins to complain.

And finally, it gets so bad, you have to lie down on your once neatly made bed, remove half your clothing, and apply some ice to it while listening to mindless music and cursing the day when some enterprising hominid decided it would be a good idea to change from the arboreal life to a bipedal one. Big mistake. The next one was the invention of agriculture, but never mind. We were talking about the back and its vicissitudes.

Nevertheless, a little later, you decide to take your body out of a spin. “Don’t look back,” the great Satchel Paige advised, “something might be gaining on you.” In my case, it’s the man with the scythe whom I hope to outstrip for a few more years.  

Of course, the back, which had only been moaning quietly before now begins to object vociferously, asking sourly, “what the hell are you thinking? Nevertheless, you press on, thinking your will will prevail, and your back can go to hell.  

\But the next dispiriting thing you notice are all these chubby old ladies whizzing by you as if they are already late for their hair appointments. How humiliating – to be passed by these old biddies! You think about the days in junior high when you were a track star, setting school records in the dashes and anchoring the relay races, which you used to run in your bare feet. Then you ran like the wind. These days, you are merely winded after trudging a hundred yards. 

When you can go no further, you turn around only to become aware of still another distressing sight. Actually, it is your sight – or lack of it. It ain’t working. You could see pretty well after your corneal surgery last year, but now you can’t see worth shit. What is that ahead of you? Is it a woolly mammoth, a Saint Bernard or merely a burly ex-football player? Where are the eyes of yesteryear? Gone missing. Well, they didn’t give me any guarantees as to how long my vision would last before it decided, like my back, to begin to object to its continued use outdoors. The way of all flesh doesn’t stop with the flesh; it continues with the cornea, so now I am cursing the darkness in the middle of a miasmal morning.

I finally arrive home in a disconsolate mood, but now it is time to hop onto my stationary bike, which is the only kind I have ever been able to ride since my balance is worse than that of an elderly inebriate on New Year’s Eve. I used to be able to pedal reasonably fast and for a long time. But lately someone must have snuck in to affix some kind of a brake to the bike since suddenly it seems that I am pumping uphill at an acute angle. Heart rate is up, speed is down, my old distance marks are a treasured memory, which I can only mourn. All I am aware of now is the sound of someone huffing and puffing.

At last the torture is over, but now I really have to piss. That damn enlarged prostate of mine has no patience – it must be satisfied now! I race into the bathroom, unzip my fly before it is too late, and make sure, because I have my girlfriend’s admonitions in my ears as I piss that she will behead me if I continue to treat the floor as an auxiliary pissoir, I am pissing very carefully into the toilet bowl. Of course, these days, my urinary stream is a sometimes thing. It starts, it stops, it pauses to refresh itself, it pulses, stops, dribbles, starts up again with what seems to be its last mighty effort to produce something worthwhile and finally drips itself into extinction.

I’m relieved, however, because at least I haven’t soiled my pants this time. But wait. What is that? Pulling up my pants, I can feel some urine on my left thigh. How the hell did it get in there? Is there some kind of silent secondary stream that runs down the side of my leg when I am otherwise preoccupied with trying to keep my penile aim from going astray?

Now I have to find a towel to wipe off the offending liquid and just hope my girlfriend won’t say, when I return to the kitchen, “what is that funny smell, darling?”

Well, you get the idea. Life is no longer a bowl of cherries, or if it is, some of them are turning rotten. And naturally I can’t help wondering how long I have to go before I really cross that final threshold into the unknown. For years, I’ve joked that I’ve wanted to live to be 1000 – months – old.  Now I’m at 984 and counting. I’m getting close, and it’s no longer just a joke.  

And of course I now also have to wonder what will be next? I mean, after I die, assuming I will ever get around to it.   

Well, in my case, I have some inklings because I’ve spent half my life researching and writing about near-death experiences and in the course of my work I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who have told me what it was like for them to die – at least for a few moments – before returning to life. And what they have told me has been, I am frank to admit, profoundly reassuring.  

I remember one woman who said that in order to grasp the feeling of peace that comes with death you would have to take the thousand best things that ever happened to you, multiply them by a million and maybe, she said (I remember her emphasis on the word, “maybe”), you could come close to that feeling. Another man said that if you were to describe the feelings of peace that accompanied death, you would have to write it in letters a mile high. All this might sound hyperbolic, but I have heard such sentiments from many near-death experiencers. Here’s just one more specific quote from a man I knew very well for many years, telling me what it was like for him to die: 
"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 … 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."
After listening to so many people describe what it was like for them to die, it is easy for me to imagine what it might be like for me – for anyone – to take that final journey. And many great writers have said much the same thing as those I have interviewed have told me about what is in store when we die. Walt Whitman, for example, who wrote “And I will show that nothing can happen more beautiful than death.” And Herman Melville, with even more eloquence, said, “And death, which alike levels all, alike impresses all with a last revelation, which only an author from the dead could adequately tell.” It seems that in our own time, these authors from the dead are today’s near-death experiencers, and the revelations they have shared with us appear fully to support the claims of these famous 19th century American authors.

So having immersed myself in the study of near-death experiences for so many years, I’m actually looking forward to my passage when my time comes. Still, I’m not looking forward to the dying part. In that regard, I’m with Woody Allen who quipped, “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” I just hope that all those stories I’ve heard about how wonderful death itself is aren’t some kind of a spiritual trompe l’oeil, a cosmic joke played by a malevolent god. Or as that marvelously antic diarist and composer, Ned Rorem, whimsically jested, “If, after dying, I discover there is no Life After Death, will I be furious?”

Of course, when I am faced with the imminence of death, I hope I’ll be able to comport myself with some equanimity, but who knows? Think of Seneca who wrote so eloquently about suicide, and then horribly botched his own. Well, naturally, I’m not planning to hasten my death by such extravagant means, though I wouldn’t refuse a kind offer of a little help from my doctor friends to ease me on my way if I’m having trouble giving birth to my death. It can, after all, be a labor-intensive enterprise. I just hope I can find myself on that stairway to heaven I’ve heard so much about and can manage to avoid a trip in the opposite direction.   

Meanwhile, when did you say Federer will be playing his next match?