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?


  1. Ken-- you can't die looking to get to a stairway. Stop!
    You know it's got to be a tunnel!

  2. Brian Anthony KraemerDecember 6, 2023 at 3:16 PM

    Ken, I'm always encouraged whenever I read anything from you. I'm convinced that you are one of those people who know who you are, what you're feeling, what you're experiencing, and willing to share yourself with the rest of us. I always feel less lonely after reading anything you write.

    I so much wish I had the means to get myself to your home and enjoy a conversation about anything and everything that life has offered. We have spoken face to face before and you are one of those rare men in whose presence I am relaxed and comfortable and know I can say anything and you would thoughtfully ask for more details or share a tale of your own. I am sitting with you from here. I am having some tea with you from here. I am kvetching and laughing with you from my home a couple hundred miles north of you.

    How I wish I knew why we are all here on this planet experiencing the things we are! There must be some reason we are kept in the dark. Perhaps there is something gained from not knowing why things are the way they are. Alan Watts used to say that even God kept himself in the dark on things just for the fun of discovery. What would be the adventure if we knew everything?

    My question is, how can we find meaning, solace, comfort, even a little pleasure in suffering? Perhaps it's an odd question to ask, but is it possible to embrace even the most painful, lonely, miserable, itchy, irritating conditions? I am not a Christian, but when I suffer, I imagine myself hanging on a cross with Jesus and I imagine Jesus suffering with me. The two of us become One in my own mind and we hang on the cross of my own suffering together for a time, knowing that this suffering will come to an end and whatever finally brings me to that end is my friend, not my enemy. If it is sepsis or pneumonia or a heart attack or an aneurysm, this seeming "threat" is actually my personal ambassador, sent from the receiving "country" to make sure my journey is a safe one.

    I love you, Ken. I am here sipping tea with you as if we are in the same room together and indeed, someday we will all realize that we have always, and forever been, sipping tea in the same room together.

  3. In spite of everything, Ken, may your 88th be happy.

  4. Indigenous people do not have such back problems, and neither did Europeans and North Americans until the 1920s. Since I've been attending classes on how to mimic those people who do (did) not have such problems, my back has been getting steadily better.

    There are a lot of different branches of this movement. The one I participate in most can be found at I'm not getting paid to say this. Just want you to know about it, Ken. Sorry I have no advice about the prostate. Or maybe you are relieved that I don't -- who is this advice-giving schmuck, anyway?
    --Lloyd who can't figure out how to fill in the form to be anything other than anonymous. It keeps telling me "Invalid URL". Okay, be that way!