Saturday, November 26, 2022

 At the Rose

The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, circa 2010.  A more or less conventional exhibit displayed in a single large room.  Except that the floor of the room is made from a special glass-like material.  It cracks and shatters when you walk upon it.  Even if it has already shattered, it shatters still more when you put your weight on it again.

And so, from the center of the room, you are helpless not to contribute to the piece, and to contribute via decomposition.  Art is supposed to create order and meaning out of the natural world, but with every step you add to the ambient entropy.

The experience could be said to foreshadow COVID, insofar as the only way not to take apart the natural order of things was to stay home, not to show up.

But for me the unraveling arrived long before peak pandemic did.

A black woman executive, zaftig and bespectacled, would smile at me, in recognition, at the cafeteria coffee station in One Post Office Square.  When I held the elevator door for her, she would say brightly "Thank you young man!", but by "young man" of course she meant "old man," and it demoralized me.

Gone now.  Not only she but all of the context in which she appeared -- cafeteria, Dominican cashiers, picture windows looking down on the lobby below.

What big deal?  Zoom calls and passwords, endless passwords that must not be repeated.  A new embroidery in place of the old.

Thursday, November 24, 2022


The Ultimate "Bit Part" In An Epic Production

A young girl hikes up her skirt and pulls down her drawers, squatting in a small grove to relieve herself, only to be bitten on the butt by a rattlesnake.  In the next shot, she lies beside her grave alongside the Oregon Trail.

It's 1883, and "God doesn't care in the least about us," as we are told by our impossibly beautiful narrator/protaganist.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022


A Prayer for Evgeniy Nuzhin

Earlier in 2022, Evgeniy Nuzhin, a man in his 50s, was serving hard time in a Russian prison for a murder that he committed in his youth.  His life took a turn when another Evgeniy, Prigozhin, head of the infamous Wagner group of merceneries, arrived at the prison in a helicopter and encouraged the convicts to join one of his units at the Ukrainian front.  Their reward would be freedom if they survived the war; if not, a reward in rubles would be paid to their family members.

Evgeniy and about 90 others from his penal colony took the bait.  They were given rudimentary training, then flown to an area near the front.  By truck they were taken to an assembly point.  From there, their assignment was to walk or crawl to No Man's Land and to retrieve the bodies of the dead.  It was made clear to these men that any deviation would be met with immediate execution.  Some were shot just for "mouthing off."

Evgeniy worked in these conditions for only a few days before surrendering to the Ukrainians.  According to a long interview that he gave to the Ukrainians from a dungeon-like holding cell, he did this with a view towards joining a Russian legion that is fighting on the side of Ukraine.  According to him, his allegiance was based on who was right and who was wrong in prosecuting the war, but he claimed to have a sister and niece or nephew living in Ukraine as well.  (There are reasons to believe that his allegiance was entirely of convenience.)

Soon after the interview took place, it appears that Evgeniy was kidnapped off the streets of Kiev by Wagner men.  (An alternative theory is that he was given back to the Russians in a prisoner exchange.)  A few days ago, a new video was released, of Evgeniy in Wagner captivity, confessing his betrayal of the Russian cause.  He seems calm as he relates his story, but he must know that there is a reason why the left side of his head has been pressed against a heavy chunk of cement.  And then, nearly mid-sentence, a man behind him crushes his skull with a sledgehammer blow against the cement.  He falls immediately onto his back, and the execution is completed with another hammer blow to the head. Thankfully, miraculously, we don't see a lot of blood, brains or gore.   It all happens too quickly.  

Two things leapt out at me as I watched it:  the depth of depravity of the executioner and the fine, fragile line between "here" and "gone."  (It called to mind an essay that George Orwell wrote, about his own participation, as a policeman in Burma, in the execution by hanging of one of the locals.)  And of course I also thought that it is both a blessing and a curse that the ugliest scenes of contemporary life are brought into our homes courtesy of our precious devices.

Evgeniy would forgive me, I think, that his killing finally inspired a bitter joke, in Russian.   We might say, the Wagner men might say, «Евгений больше не Нужин,» which means "Evgeniy is no longer Nuzhin."  But if only one soft-sounding vowel is substituted in his last name, the expression becomes "Evgeniy is no longer needed."

Even some of the harder-core Russian nationalists were shocked at the cruelty of his killing.  But Prigozhin was not apologetic.  He waxed philosophical about "war being war," noted that more friendly means of execution like the electric chair are not much fun either, and concluded that "a dog must die like a dog."  May the Top Dog and his minions, when all of this is over, also die like dogs.

Monday, November 14, 2022


At the Hour of the Wolf Last Night

I invented a new word that does not stand up in the light of day.  It is "cur-tailed."

Perhaps in some other fevered dream I will come across a demon, and I will tell him to his face that he is "cur-tailed."  Demons being the epitome of bad, he will get the bad joke.

Thursday, November 10, 2022


Dies Irae

Stanley Kubrick opens "The Shining" with stunning aerial shots of a Volkswagen wending its way through the mountains of the West to the cavernous resort where Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson, will lose his mind.  Kubrick with trademark eccentricity chose for the music to accompany this opening a lesser-known version of the "Dies Irae," the "Day of Wrath."

The Day of Wrath is the Day of Judgment.  But whose judgment is it, and who is doing the judging?  By the end of the film, during which Jack rampages against his own wife and son, it seems clear that Jack is the instrument of judgment, not its object.  We are asked to ask of ourselves why the Wrath would be turned against the innocent, as it often is.

A recent study summarizes the results of serious medical research into the phenomenon of the "life review" during near death experiences.  A large number of people who were revived via CPR after complete heart failure reported having gone through the life review.  (Most of these people died permanently, as it were, soon after they were brought back from the heart stoppage.)

Somehow the laws of time are violated during the phenomenon, insofar as people report that their whole lives flash before them in what to the medical professionals is a matter of minutes.  

The purpose, or one purpose, of the review seems to be to allow the person in distress to evaluate the effect of his or her behavior on others, from the point of view of the other.  This makes one regret the bad things that one has done, but it seems that one does not fall into paroxysms of guilt, but rather has new empathy for the self as well as the others.

We know how Jack's life ends.  He is hopelessly lost in a winter maze, having failed to capture and kill his son.  He gives up on finding his way out of the maze, perhaps out of exhaustion, and he freezes solid in a sitting position, with his eyes open.  The culminating expression on his face illustrates rampage, not fear or regret.  (How many takes did Kubrick force upon Nicholson to achieve this one iconic shot?)

Jack's rage was triggered by his wife's invasion of the space in which he indulged his increasingly lurid literary ambitions on an old mechanical typewriter -- "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."  As the light was going out, his personal light, he did not forgive those who had trespassed against him.  And thus, perhaps, he consigned himself to Hell.

Saturday, November 5, 2022


Word of the Day

It is "ecstatic."  Not ecstatic as you would be if you were to win the Powerball, or if you had just thrown your hat in the air at the close of graduation ceremonies at West Point.  Ecstatic, rather, as St. Joan of Arc demonstrated herself to be on the pyre.

It's a very similar concept to "passion" -- not bodice-ripper passion but the Passion most classically of Christ -- a suffering, physical and emotional, so intense that it melds into a new form of bliss, and a new awareness.

In my life I have witnessed three people, all dear to me, as they passed through the "active dying" process.

In the one case, a case of brain cancer, he had been in a coma for some days, but there was, and I witnessed, a classic instance of "terminal lucidity," as he opened his eyes and spoke to my sister when he should not have been able to speak.

The second case was the terminal illness of that same sister.  She also became comatose, unexpectedly, as a consequence of an uncontrolled infection.  Before she lost consciousness she expected to recover; after she lost consciousness there was no hint, as far as I know, of her inner state.

The last case was a slow progression to death via cancer that metastasized to the bone.  He was, very close to the end, still able to hear, and even to speak from time to time with great difficulty, as if momentarily forcing himself to the surface while drowning.  It is in this case that I speculate that there may have been moments of such ecstacy.

Why does it matter?  It matters because it may offer a glimpse of our fate, a fate that notwithstanding the Complexity of It All resonates with the old time religion, with the man of constant sorrow who will meet us on God's golden shore, and with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Levon Helm who, during a long respite from throat cancer, sang with gospel-choir fervor that "the sun's gonna shine through the shadows when I go away!"

Tuesday, November 1, 2022


That Secret Space

Just this Halloween, a friend/former co-worker, let's call her "Dee Dee," quite young, sent me a photograph of herself and her husband in costume for a party.  He was dressed as a Pan American liquor cart from the 1930's, she as an aviatrix of the same period.  Of his outfit we could say that if you can't tell what it's supposed to be, it fails.  She, on the other hand, looked stylish and smart, having gone for authenticity and sporting high-waisted khaki pants and an expensive dark leather jacket.

But last night I dreamt that I shared the photo with my brother and my sister on some kind of Zoom call, and that both said, independently, the very same words upon seeing it -- "She's beautiful!"  This sent me into a mild panic, for in the technology of the dream, there was a "hot mic" phenomenon, according to which Dee Dee might overhear any words of the call that referred to her.  If this were to happen, what was said, even though spontaneously and not by me, might be ascribed to me because of my close association with my siblings, and the mere ascription might be characterized as per se harassment.

In the dream world, then, such things could be thought but not said, or if said, they had to be said in a Secret Space that grew more closeted as one aged.  The secrecy of the space was a kind of acid that eroded the surface sinews of my heart.