(from an e-mail and a journal)
I miss J on so many levels, whether as a problem, challenge, or joy — it was all one. I feel sort of shrunken and diminished. My nervous system is used to being stretched almost beyond its limit, my heart stretched wide — passively. I didn’t have to go seeking challenge and stimulation, I didn’t have to generate it — it was plopped down in the middle of my life. My life force was entirely a response to one which was so outsized. My nervous system is just dead in the water in the absence of that. It doesn’t know what to do with itself, except put itself in the way of trouble, and there’s no kind of trouble it likes worth a damn. J was some high-class trouble.
More about the Egyptian protests, including the immensely touching role of women.
This is one of those stirring, spirit-rousing moments, like 1956 and 1968 and 1989, and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Let’s hope and pray it doesn’t meet the fate of Iran’s green one. But even when such surges are beaten back, as at Tiananmen, they are not broken.
More. I wonder why Secretary Clinton is speaking out forcefully in support of the rights of Egypt’s protesters, as no one in the Obama administration did for the Iranians. Well, clearly the difference is strategic. But it also underscored, rather than helping to undermine, the Iranian regime’s power, no? I am notoriously naïve about these things, please enlighten me.
Apologies to Flaubert, or to anyone sick of my occasional complaining about co-workers; all quotes guaranteed authentic.
ART – must express political indignation or offend local sensibilities to be any good. Art has a duty to not merely explore and express the wounds in the nation, but to create new ones.
BLACK REPUBLICANS - only can be explained by reference to Uncle Tom or some sort of self-loathing complex that requires therapy. Fair game for every sort of hateful stereotype and epithet. Anti-Israel Jews, however, are proof that being anti-Israel is never the same as being anti-Semitic (see JEWS).
CANADA – has no crime, no poverty, no racism, no militarism. “I would move there in a minute if it wasn’t for _______.”
CHILDREN – your progressive views about public education, diversity, tolerance, SUVs, and affirmative action do not apply in situations that involve your children.
CHOMSKY – God. Only Stephen Colbert outranks him.
CHRISTIANITY – only idiots and bigots believe in it. Westboro Baptist is a typical church. Any public expression of faith is aimed at intimidating atheists and other non-Christians. The world won’t improve till people stop listening to preachers. None of the above applies to black denominations.
COMMUNISM – ancient history. Dismiss it quicky and move on. “Real communism was never tried.”
CONDI RICE – not really black, of course, but really a war criminal. Bad example to young minorities. The only public political woman it is legitimate to call “ugly.” All taboos against race-baiting are suspended in her case, provided they are uttered by people of sterling liberal Democratic credentials.
DEATH PENALTY - immoral and a sign of America’s hopeless cowboy culture. Unless the subject is Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, or Rice.
DEMOCRATS – never do any of the mean political tricks and underhanded stunts that are the basis of any Republican success. Until they actually are convicted of them, in which case everyone does that.
DICK CHENEY - shout “war criminal,” flush red, and swear every time you see his face on television. Or else just say, “shot a guy in the face.” Hypocrite because he has a lesbian daughter yet remains a Republican.
EUROPE – proof that socialism is better. Workers get 2 months of vacation and 4-day work weeks. Any European is smarter than every American. Anything that goes wrong in Europe is a result of American policies or pressures.
EXCEPTIONALISM – American exceptionalism is a myth. Unless you mean America is exceptionally violent, ignorant, racist, and militaristic in comparison to the rest of the world. In which case American exception is an ironclad truth.
FASCISM – use it often; change the definition to fit the target. The real definition is, “whatever it is about my enemies that most reminds me of what little I think I know about fascism.”
GAY REPUBLICANS - see BLACK REPUBLICANS.
GAYS and LESBIANS - always more enlightened, intelligent and sensitive than those who aren’t. Improve property values by their mere presence. Anyone who makes generalized statements about them is a homophobe.
GEORGE W. BUSH - “Where’s Lee Harvey Oswald when we need him?” Responsible for a climate of intolerance and personal violence in America, and even for road rage. “If I had a gun, I’d shoot him” (see GUANTANAMO).
GOD – see CHOMSKY.
GUANTANAMO – after you say something nasty about GEORGE W. BUSH (q.v.), say, “I better shut up or they’ll send me to Guantanamo.”
HUGO CHAVEZ - a leader of the people and an honest socialist. “At least he was fairly elected, unlike George W. Bush.”
ISLAM – they just want to be left alone. If anyone points out that it involves everything that makes liberal secularists loathe Christianity, and in greater degree, as well as many worse things not found in Christianity, shout “SARAH PALIN.”
JESUS – never existed, and if he were alive today he would be one of “us.” Everything Christians do is contrary to his teaching.
JEWS – always excluded from any demands for more “diversity” or “multi-culturalism.”
JOHN BOEHNER – Orange crybaby. Don’t take seriously.
KARL ROVE - tried to kill Valerie Plame.
KURDS – run them down if someone brings them up; ignore them otherwise.
MICHAEL MOORE - sensitive, independent documentary film-maker, not an grandstanding propaganda hack. Defend everything he says and does, repeat his assertions as fact, claim that everyone who aspires to have an opinion about anything can’t really know anything about it without first viewing Moore’s work. Then deny that he is at all influential or representative of “progressive” opinion.
MILITARY – blacks who enlist are falling for the recruiters’ trap in a desperate bid to escape poverty. Whites who enlist are knuckle-dragging, crypto-fascist gun-nuts.
NON-PARTISAN - always claim to be this. Prove it by saying something balanced and bad about both parties, such as, “Republicans are granny-starving, soul-less, totalitarian hypocrites and the Democrats are too disorganized to beat them.”
OSAMA BIN LADEN - shout “SARAH PALIN.”
PRESIDENTS – if the incumbent is a Republican, all troubles in the world are his fault. If the incumbent is a Democrat, all troubles in the world are the fault of the previous Republican incumbent.
RECYCLING – conservatives and Christians never do it.
REPUBLICANS – always preceded by “evil” or “fat-cat.”
RICH – got that way by cheating the poor or rigging the system with the help of their GOP friends. Unless they are Democrats, in which case they earned it honestly by their talents and prove their entitlement to it by their political philanthropy.
RONALD REAGAN - whenever his name comes up, say, “Ketchup is a vegetable.”
SARAH PALIN - whenever you’re stumped in a debate or cornered in an argument with anyone measurably rightward of you, and you don’t have a response, just shout her name like a magic incantation to banish your opponent to a lower plane of existence, then walk away triumphantly. In general be obsessed with her and never let her name go unuttered for more than half an hour.
SEAN PENN - shout “SARAH PALIN.”
SEPTEMBER 11 - a tragedy, but we deserved it for lack of universal health care, not signing Kyoto treaty, etc. Unless we did it to ourselves. We’ll get back to you on the conspiracy theories when we figure out whether they’re right-wing (dismissable) or left-wing (plausible).
SOUTH – “We should have let them secede. I wish they would leave again.”
SPORTS – always hate the Dallas Cowboys (“America’s Team”) and the New York Yankees (“Yankees”). Anything else is up to you. Never like NASCAR.
TAXES – are good, because they take wealth from those who have it and distribute it in ways that are useful to those who do not have it. Deny strenuously that this involves wealth redistribution.
TERRORISM – “Terrorism, schmerrorism; it’s all Bush’s fault.”
TRANSGENDER – should not be treated as anything but what they say they are. To think about the details of this and ask practical question like “ought the plain definition of ‘woman’ include ‘man who wishes he was a woman?'” is to be homophobic.
UNIONS – answer to all this country’s past, current, and future economic troubles.
Headline of a Citibank email sent to millions of customers:
Your Credit Score Can Effect Your Finances
Mary Poppins with a Rolleiflex.
Charles I. Jones, an economist at Stanford University, has “disassembled” American economic growth into component parts, such as increases in capital investment, increases in work hours, increases in research and development, and other factors. Looking at 1950–1993, he found that 80 percent of the growth from that period came from the application of previously discovered ideas, combined with heavy additional investment in education and research, in a manner that cannot be easily repeated for the future. In other words, we’ve been riding off the past. Even more worryingly, he finds that now that we are done exhausting this accumulated stock of benefits, we are discovering new ideas at a speed that will drive a future growth rate of less than one-third of a percent (that’s a rough estimate, not an exact one, but it is consistent with the basic message here). It could be worse yet if the idea-generating countries continue to lose population, as we are seeing in Western Europe and Japan.
(The quote is from Cowen’s soon to be released eBook, The Great Stagnation.)
If I hadn’t read this set of symptoms in a book on grieving, I might think I was coming down with a neurological disease:
Bewilderment, confusion, indecisiveness, clumsiness, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, a reduced attention span.
I am so unbelievably disorganized. (I only notice this when I am home alone, back from distracting and engrossing visits, trying to take care of business.) I stagger around here, tripping over my own feet, completely defeated by mounds of unsorted papers, unable to find documents I could swear I put away carefully, unable to remember what I just set out to do. All tasks, regardless of size and urgency, seem to have the same bland proportions, so I can’t prioritize, I can’t put them in any kind of order or hierarchy. I mean, I do — I get things done — but it’s a senseless, blundering process, like wading blindfolded through a warehouse full of empty cardboard boxes.
I’ve lost my habits.
Given the high energy cost of running the prefrontal cortex, the brain prefers to run off its hard drive, known as the basal ganglia, which has a much larger storage capacity and sips, not gulps, fuel. This is the part of the brain that stores the hardwired memories and habits that dominate our daily lives.
“Most of the time the basal ganglia are more or less running the show,” says Jeffrey M. Schwartz, research psychiatrist at the School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. “It controls habit-based behavior that we don’t have to think about doing.” . . .
The interplay between the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex helps explain the resistance [to change]. . . . Doing [something] the way [you've] always done it draws upon the basal ganglia and burns less fuel than making a change and involving the prefrontal cortex.
What this passage doesn’t quite capture, but what I’ve read elsewhere, is that the basal ganglia are not only incredibly pervasive in our lives, but incredibly good at running things. Not all habits are bad. In fact, getting actions down pat and then hooking them to the brain’s automatic pilot enables us to function smoothly, gracefully, and efficiently much of the time, and frees up the prefrontal cortex to deal with novelty, beauty, and trouble. The habit system is what we call “second nature.” How almost unconsciously you drive a car (usually coming off autopilot in an instant if there’s a threat), how briskly you run through your daily routines, how nimbly you navigate the familiar terrain of your house and neighborhood (probably tending to take the same paths day after day), are all examples of the huge role habit plays in our functioning. Unconsciousness gets a bad rap, but you really wouldn’t want to try to drive a car on the highway with just your conscious mind.
I could intone “Habit is a good servant but a bad master,” and talk about bad habits and addictions and our power to break them (the subject of Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding’s forthcoming book You Are Not Your Brain), but that’s another post. This one is about clumsiness, disorganization, and grief. Are you starting to put the pieces together?
Fortunately, I’m not trying to drive a car with just my conscious mind. Driving and editing are among the few activities in which I still feel competent and collected. I don’t want to do anything but work because that’s the one place (other than behind the wheel) where I still have a sense of mastery and orientation.
Getting around my apartment and neighborhood, through my errands and my day, on the other hand, are all new. I have no habits that aren’t bent around taking care of Jacques, and those habits are now useless, severed, their loose ends trailing on the ground and tripping me, often into wells of pain. Here’s where I used to . . . this is when I used to . . . The emotional part of it is that relationships, once they settle in, are about habit, and habits are about relationship. There’s safety and familiarity and companionship and an almost sacramental ritual repetition in the routines you share with or perform for the other person. You inhabit those habits, and all you need to be conscious of is how comfortable and dear they are. When they’re gone, they are much of what you miss and the way you miss the other person, the way he or she is built into you.
Then there’s the neurological part.
I am trying to get through my days without habits. That’s why I’m getting through them so badly. My prefrontal cortex is really cranky at having no routines to rest on and rely on. It doesn’t want to handle all those petty decisions itself any more than the head of the household wants to mop the floor or the CEO wants to do the filing. For years my life was organized by the imperative urgency of taking care of Jacques and, if I ever did anything else, rushing it so I could get back to Job One. Outside of work, I have as yet no other driver or organizing principle for my actions, no governor on my time.
So, like a beginning driver, I lurch around spasmodically, in fits and starts, grudgingly and intermittently putting my skittish thoroughbred prefrontal cortex to the brute task of mapping out workable pathways and rhythms — making lists, having “bright” ideas like “Clean out one drawer a day.” It doesn’t help that this is not going to be my home, this place strewn with the raw ends of amputated habits like downed live wires. Any structures I set up will be strictly temporary, soon to be struck like circus tents.
It certainly is a time between.
Disorienting . . . and thought-provoking. (click twice to enlarge)
It’s surprising to me to discover how many people seem to hold, in a low-key, vernacular way, certain beliefs about the dead, or at least speak as if they believe these things to be true: that when people die they’re reunited with the people they love who died before them; that when you dream about someone who’s died, they are making contact with you.
It’s not that I disbelieve these things. I’m neither a believer nor a disbeliever (which to me is another kind of believer); I am a rigorous agnostic. To me, the more we learn about life and the universe, the less we realize we know. To me, the findings of science about the complexity of the cell and the dimensions of the universe throw both past science and past religion into a cocked hat. We’re growing up into the realization of our ignorance, of the complete mystery our existence is. We don’t know what we are, why we’re here, where we come from, or where we go. Well, anyway, I don’t.
So I’m surprised to hear these childlike, comforting, almost greeting-card-level beliefs from otherwise thoroughly modern people. They’re evidently part of the folk culture, the generic spirituality of our time. Not that I dismiss them. I would love them to be true. I hope they are. I sometimes go along and talk as if they are. I just can’t fool myself that I know for a fact they are. I don’t know where J went. I’ve felt his presence once since he died, about three weeks after. I know that he had a lot of busy conversation with ghosts the last weeks of his life. I have no idea whether this was the thinning of the veil or just the hallucinations of dementia. I’m very curious about what he was experiencing, but there’s no way to find out except to die myself. (And even then, maybe every death is as unique as the inward experience of being oneself. One of J’s favorite quotes was from Céline: “Experience is a muffled lantern that sheds light only upon the bearer.”) As he was dying, I sang out to him the names of the people and cats who would be waiting for him on the other side — if there is another side. It’s always “if” with me. I don’t believe or disbelieve, I entertain. I’m the Martha Stewart of agnosticism.
From a road notebook:
I was having such a sad dream when Ruth Anne woke me this morning. I don’t remember the early part, but I was in a dim house with some people. I was alone, while the others were talking in the kitchen. I had to go out — for food? or cash? or to mail a letter? As I was getting ready to go out, I looked out the glass corner door and saw J’s wheelchair, and some winter-coat-bundled guy helping him into it. Apparently I’d been unable to take care of him any longer and had abandoned his care to strangers. I hesitated for a moment, then decided the happiness of seeing me would outweigh the sadness, and darted out the door. J was settling himself uncomfortably but stoically in the back seat of what looked like a horse-drawn carriage (but no horse), squeezed in among 3 other old people, mostly befuddled old ladies. I saw his face twist as he tried to fit his shoulders in. I called his nickname, and he smiled at me, sweetly and without blame. His beard and eyebrows had been allowed to grow out to the point where his face was covered with an inch or two of soft brown fur — they weren’t even bothering to shave him! After another moment’s hesitation I called out, “Come over tomorrow and I’ll give you a shave!” Then Ruth Anne woke me.
Does this dream reflect my state of soul, or his, or an interface between them? Ruth Anne’s free association was that J is in Purgatory. (“Evangelicals think there’s a vacuum tube to heaven.”) Of course, that’s not folk belief, it’s Catholic dogma (using that word in the technical, not the pejorative, sense). But its sense of an in-between place or state or spell of time was echoed by my brother:
Maybe the same thing, not stated Biblically: he’s on his way, in the company of ancestors and the care of impersonal angels, to a place where personal care of the physical self is starting to be beside the point.
Chris said, “Well, at least he’s coming ’round.”
Then there’s my side of it. Someone, maybe also Ruth Anne, said that I feel guilty for feeling relieved of the burden of his care. But I don‘t feel relieved. I miss taking care of him, even though I don’t know how I could squeeze myself back inside that life (as much as I don’t belong out here in this one, either) if I had the power to turn the clock back. That is what the dream says to me most clearly: I feel as if I’ve abandoned him, not to strangers, but to death (what could be stranger?); and I long to turn the clock back — the Victorian motif is resonant of a book I love in which that becomes possible, Time and Again. His grown-out eyebrows and beard remind me of the way hair and fingernails keep growing in the grave — even though J is not in a grave — a perfect representation of the space between life and death. Maybe the departure of death is not as abrupt as it looks. I don’t know.
The relief was in waking up and realizing that, in fact, I saw it through, as I had pledged to. I did not become unable to cope and abandon him to strangers — except for those four respite days in the hospice facility, which may (or may not) have triggered his shingles. I steel myself against the pang of regret, against thinking if only I could have kept him at home he might still be here, by acknowledging that nothing much good awaited him here. It was better to go while he was still himself, and aware, and able to savor things, than to outlive himself and lie there in a coma for a year (as my grandfather, with a related dementia, did).
I don’t know.
Here’s what I do know: There is love. There is also hurt and accident and evil (destruction is one thing, reveling in destruction is a whole other thing). Love is just that much stronger. It wins by a nose, world without end. And that’s about it.