The Disney Version: Fooled Me

The Disney Version: Fooled Me

Reasoned civility is suggested in these troubled times, but decisions affecting millions of lives continue to boggle the mind. More and more again. How much outrage do I have left? How high can my blood pressure go? How much muck could a muck raker muck if a muckraker could rake muck? I’m trying to stay away from provocation, but the universe keeps dropping incendiary objects in my lap, and if that isn’t a troubling image, I don’t know what is.

Now, even now as I seek mindful unattachment, a story arrives with implications that are simply too hefty to leave unattended.Apparently the bold lie is nothing new in the American story.  I thought I knew something about betrayal. What a fool! What a patsy! But the truth will out and duplicity must be revealed for the perfidy it is.

Here goes.

Speaking of a partisan issue that will not be shared in this screed, my wife suggested that an unmentioned unfortunate propensity in human beings was analogous to that of lemmings, willfully seeking extinction by following each other over the edge of a cliff. She’s not wrong about the human analog, but the allusion to lemmings reminded me that I’d heard someone suggest that lemmings do not, in fact, leap to their death. My memory was that the story grew from a misunderstood segment of one of the nature films pumped out by the Disney studios in the 1950’s.

I remembered the film, one of the many in the True Life Adventure series, some of which remain highly regarded. In fact, as I stumbled upon a description of the series, three in the series won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film. Two of the three probably deserved to be highly regarded – The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie. Both left me with greater appreciation of the world around me, and both inspired something like a rudimentary sensitivity to environmental issues. The third, however, White Wilderness, was a fraud.

98% of the film presented a highly edited but essentially accurate picture of a wilderness most of us would never see. Climate change has guaranteed that the film remains one of the few opportunities to see the Arctic as it was, so much of the film has value. Later, nosy purists discovered that one of the most entertaining sequences, that of a polar bear cub sliding down an Arctic ice mountain, was actually filmed in a studio in Calgary. Disappointing, perhaps, but bottom line, as it were, the bear was an actual bear, and it actually slid. The image had sustained appeal, however, and perhaps was among the inspirations for the brilliant advertising campaign designed for Coca Cola by my friend, Ken Stewart. Polar bear cubs have been sliding down holiday setting since 1993 and I, for one, never tire of bear cubs, or Clydesdale horses, for that matter. There is not time enough today to address the bizarre rumor that the bears have been pulled from the shelves because they were “too white”. Let’s leave that one alone and return to the Lemmings.

By now you’ve jumped to the obvious observation that the mass extinction of lemmings was staged. It was, and I thought that was the extent of the polar lie, but, no, mes amis, it gets much darker.

Let’s start with the notion that contrary to every instinct in nature, an entire species decides to just give it all up, take the leap, and leave all worries behind. Unlikely at best, and problematical. Let’s say that lemmings do just as the Disney team alleges. Ok, where does the next generation of lemmings come from? Do they keep a spare set somewhere on ice? Is there a lottery? Do only male lemmings over the age of procreative power gather annually for the rite of final passage?

Then too, does virtual extinction happen at the same time of year in the same location? How does it happen that a camera crew is on hand just as the lemmings get the itch?

Well, clearly the lemming myth is piffle, and I have to wonder why it has had such staying power as an urban or polar legend? I bought it until I didn’t… because pictures don’t lie. I saw the critters in the air. I saw the heaps of extinguished lemmings. Man, what more did I need to tuck that reality away in the box of things not to be questioned?

Naturalists among us already know that the lemmings don’t even naturally exist where the scene was filmed. Want dark? In order to film in Alberta, a province without a coast, the Disney team had to import lemmings, buying the little cuties from Inuit children in Manitoba who gladly scooped them up for sale. Want darker? You can get lemmings to move, but if you want the off-the-cliff shot, you have to throw them over the edge, which is exactly what some sure-fingered Disney minions did. 

Do lemmings move in large groups? They do, and some do not survive immersion in cold water if they have to ford a river. I’m pretty sure, however, that “goodbye cruel world” is not their anthem as they scurry in search of food and shelter.

I’m grateful to my wife for using a phrase that pushed me into digging up some dirt on the Disney version. Some stories take on a life of their own, it seems, even when they are most unlikely to be true. Good to be reminded, and good to take a moment to honor the fuzzy little rodents, uprooted from their adopted Manitoban home, and flung from a cliff in Alberta.

Unruly Customer Behavior?

Unruly Customer Behavior?

Once able to wake, hear the birds, smell the flowers, pet the dogs,  I now wake, open the computer and scan the headlines shouting from the five news sources I continue to support.  Am I driven by fear or hope?  That’s a question I choose not to entertain, but I am occasionally surprised – by a story and by my reaction.

Today’s Boston Globe featured this headline :

“F-bombs, tantrums in front of children, making staff cry: Mass. restaurant owners describe unruly customer behavior.”

The article describes damage done to humans working in restaurants on Cape Cod, behavior that should be described as boorish, churlish, and downright dangerous.  The article describes restaurant owners trying to deal with pent up demand and shortage of labor, but finding that underpaid and over-abused staff have been treated with such ugly anger that trauma counseling may be as necessary as a jump in salary in order to keep working folks behind the counter.

The first observation I make in scrolling headlines today is that I jumped to the assumption that the story was about yet another of the former President’s outbursts in response to an inquiry into his business ventures, predatory behavior, or another case of perceived  lese majeste.  I almost skipped what I assumed was a familiar story, but I had just enough sensibility left to pick up the reference to unruly customers.

It’s an interesting example of a brain battered by scene after scene of deplorable behavior over a period of five years.  I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in recognizing that the geophysical climate may not be the only climate ravaged in our time. What might have been considered unacceptable behavior is in some quadrants, the norm.

The second observation is that the very sharp folks at the Globe did not feel the need to identify the literal elephant in the room.  

Pent up demand?

There is often pent up demand after a major upheaval or disaster; I may have missed the temper tantrums after the pandemic of 1918 to 1920, after the dust bowl, after World War Two, after Tornadoes, and hurricanes, and floods.  Did rationing of food and gasoline cause ordinary citizens to toss off F-bombs  at gas station attendants?

Nope.  What we have here is evidence of a cultural shift we saw coming but relegated to the arena of partisan politics.  Starting with “Lock Her Up,” what we used to call dialogue has become hyperbolic anger at forces some believe to be operating undercover. The cumulative effect of gaslighting at the start of the former president’s candidacy has simultaneously stimulated outrage and affirmed violent response to perceived insult or injury. In addition, the now familiar strain of Q-stained libertarianism which was the public face of the White House has seeped into everyday encounters.

Civil: It’s interesting and terrifying to see an essential word vaporise in one generation. Civility is a word used to describe behavior that is not simply polite or courteous but operational in showing regard for another person or another person’s ideas. Civility is a necessary attribute of civilization and the expedient that allows people to live next to each other. As far as I know, there have been louts, bullies, and yahoos around every corner for quite some time, but the culture, as a whole, found their behavior uncivil. 

The transition from “Lock Her Up” to the insurrection in January depended on an accretion of uncorrected incivility, in that instance, particularly dangerously contrived, delusive, manipulated sedition. On Cape Cod in July, incivility looks like swearing at a teenager whose orders for  ice cream cones have slowed their delivery. A customer telling a waitress that he hopes she will be hit by a car leaving work is not simply discourteous; that is not pent up demand.

Did the author of the article intend my interpretation of the events recorded? Maybe, but I expect that we’ve become so accustomed to living with ugly that we can no longer see the forest or the trees. This is an alarming article. Tip the person who serves you dinner; thank the person who hands you an ice cream cone. That’s all we have left – kindness, regard, civility.

Whose Flag?

Whose Flag?

It’s Complicated

The Patriot Front, a group of about two hundred white supremacists, marched through Philadelphia on the fourth of July weekend. Like the Klansmen they so admire, they wore white face coverings and carried American flags. In January insurrectionists determined to capture the Capitol and reverse the outcome of the Presidential election carried American flags, some of which were used to bludgeon the White House and District police.  American flags surrounded the noose and gallows intended for use in Vice President Pence’s last public appearance. Three Percenters, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and MAGA Civil War insurrectionists carried American flags.

That’s my flag.

Both political parties have traditionally wrapped themselves in stars and stripes, but over the past five years, the flag has become a particular symbol of support for principles and personalities I find dangerous and offensive. The flag, like the national anthem and patriotic holidays, has become so politically weaponized that those of us who do not subscribe to Trumpian rhetoric hesitated in flying our flag on the 4th.  The statement we intended to make was a celebration of our history and the struggle to secure democracy, but  those who walked or drove by our lawns are trapped in symbolic shorthand; in flying the flag, we worried, did they see support for the nation or for the insurrection?

It’s complicated.

I’m a veteran. I pay my share of taxes and give to charities. I worked as a Teamster in a steel slitting factory to earn enough to go to college. I was a teacher for forty five years. My wife and I raised three genuinely good children, now young adults.  They pay their taxes too. I love baseball, football, and corny movies. I am grateful for all those who risked their health to protect ours.  

I’ve voted in every election since 1968, not always for the same party, but always for the person I thought the best able to secure the democracy I believe in. If you had to give me a political label, I’d say I’m a progressive Democrat, an aging fan of the New Deal, of little guys getting a fair shake, of a country that believes in opening doors and feeding children.

As a child my brother and I helped my grandfather raise the American flag every morning. I marched in Memorial Day parades and placed American flags on the graves of those who had given their lives in service to the nation. I choke up when an American athlete receives a gold medal as our anthem plays and our flag waves.

That’s my flag.

It’s complicated.

I believe it’s my right and my duty to love and protect the nation’s founding principles and its flag. There’s too much at stake to let my lawn, empty of flags on the 4th of July, stand as evidence of my timidity in displaying my brand of patriotism, so I bought two emblems this July, both the same size, both standing together on my lawn – the American flag and a large Black Lives Matter sign. My support for that movement is not the only statement I need to make, but the statement I chose to make on the 4th of July as white masked bullies march through Philadelphia carrying my flag.  

For today, it’s not that complicated.

Covid 19, Jailed Celebrities, No Fans In The Stands – College Admissions Looks The Same

Covid 19, Jailed Celebrities, No Fans In The Stands – College Admissions Looks The Same

I wrote a book some years back, America’s Best Kept College Secrets, a guide to colleges that get overlooked in the annual rat race in college admissions. The book never got much traction, but I revised it every few years, adding another twenty or twenty-five colleges and universities to the list with each new edition. My hope was to provide high school seniors and their parents with excellent options beyond the relatively small group of colleges attracting the greatest number of applications. I had been a college counselor at several ambitious private schools and had seen the desperation with which families threw themselves at the Ivies, Stanford, Chicago, Georgetown, Williams, Pomona, Duke, Middlebury, and a few others. 

The most competitive of the bunch statistically don’t accept anyone. 

Before I trot out the acceptance rates, however, please understand that the rate of acceptance for ordinary superior students is even lower when legacies, athletes, donors, and special talents take up space in the freshman class. 

Without correction for considerations other than grades, scores, and character, the statistics regarding the most competitive admissions contests should be overwhelming, or at least I thought as much when I wrote my guide.

In the last admissions cycle, Harvard accepted 3.4% of applicants, Columbia 3.7%, Princeton and MIT 4%, Duke 4.3%, Yale 4.6%, Stanford 5.2%, Brown 5.4%, Penn 5.7%, and Dartmouth 6.2%. The next batch (Cal Tech, Vanderbilt, U. Chicago, Pomona, Swarthmore, Williams, Amherst, Johns Hopkins, Colby, Bowdoin, Annapolis, Northwestern, Rice, and Tulane accepted fewer than 10% of applicants.

Once again, a bit of context: The total number of applicants for the Class of 2025 at Harvard was 57,435.  Stanford only saw 44,000 applicants. A total of about 2,000 were admitted to Harvard; roughly 1700 to Stanford.  I thought the other 55,435 who didn’t get into Harvard might want to know about options other than Princeton, Stanford, Pomona, and Dartmouth.

But, I forget that there is some cachet in applying to Harvard.  Until the acceptances are posted, every applicant is equally unaccepted.

How much do special talents such as athletic ability affect admissions?  It depends, a bit, on what sport they play and in which Division they play that sport.  

Division One athletes are given considerable attention in major sports, by which, of course, I mean men’s sports, by which, of course, I mean football, to some degree basketball, and for a few ice hockey. We’ll get to Stanford’s admissions profile in a moment, but just to establish the place of athletics in one of the nation’s most esteemed universities, consider this: At least one Stanford team has won a national championship for the last 44 years. Stanford athletes have won 270 Olympic medals of which 139 were gold medals, putting Stanford the 9th all-time gold medal magnet, ahead of Canada, Japan, The Netherlands, and South Korea. 

There are some sports that are virtually regional.  Water Polo, for example, is a major sport in the PAC 12.  Ice hockey is a major sport for the colleges that play ice hockey. Williams, a perennially strong Division III school has about 23 hockey players suited up for game day, with another 20 who practice and might come off the bench. Of the 23, one is a graduate of a public high school, Duluth East, Duluth, Minnesota. Two are graduates of Shattuck St. Mary’s, the boarding school in Minnesota that produced 85 graduates drafted by the NHL, including Sydney Crosby, Zack Parise, Jonathan Toews, and Derek Steppan. Williams attracts athletes, but one former Director of Admission confided that some of the ice men were what he called a “Deep Stretch”. 

The recent and highly publicized college admission scandal uncovered the back doors, side doors, and trap doors, primarily with regard to faked athletic resumes, and the scale of the corruption at the athletic offices was startling, but really, nothing should surprise anyone who has had an eye on college admissions for the last fifty years. 

The only significant difference between the tumult of college admissions this year and every admissions season since the establishment of the first American university in 1693 (College of William and Mary) is that Division I coaches were paid to add applicants with no appreciable skill in water polo or crew or soccer or tennis or sailing (sailing?) to the list of recruited athletes at Yale, Stanford, Texas, USC, UCLA, Wake Forest, and Georgetown.  Some of the manipulation was unremarkable;  a name appeared on a list of students to be given a place as requested by a coach.  Other schemes were bizarre, including the photoshopping of applicants’ faces on the torsos of real athletes.  Yeah, and I have a picture of myself stepping out of the Saturn V on the surface of the moon.  That ploy just seems sadly embarrassing.  To be clear, the recruitment of athletes to Division I athletic programs has long been problematic, witness the FBI’s current and vigorous investigation of NCAA basketball.  The celebrity admission scandal breaks new ground in that coaches may have been (have been) paying recruits for generations, but applicants have not been paying coaches.

Well, not directly.

Creepy celebrity malefactions include buying or manufacturing diagnoses of particular sorts of disabilities that demanded special, and thus vulnerable, testing and the even creepier hiring of stand-in test takers to wallop an SAT or SAT score notably more impressive than the testing of the actual applicant would have been.  Test proctors were bought off, test sites may have been compromised, faked applications were certainly purchased and presented.

I’m just a simple consumer of popular culture, but photos of William Singer, founder and president of The Edge College and Career Network ought to have tipped folks off from the start.  Seriously, in every shot the slime shines from every pore.  Ok, maybe it’s just the haircut, but, come on, folks, this guy’s a bookie, a fixer, or a not-very-slick con man.  His appearance aside, the enterprise he established looked a lot like a number of entirely legit consulting services offering parents and students assistance in negotiating the college admissions process.

I was a college counselor for most of my career in secondary schools, advised thousands of students, occasionally worked as a consultant to families that did not have access to the sorts of counseling opportunities my schools provided.  I loved that work and have remained an observer of college admissions. I considered college counselling a privileged opportunity in that I met students, usually in their junior year, just as the school, colleges, parents, and the universe came at them with what were essentially impossible tasks.  All they had to do, aside from take on demanding course work, prepare for SATs ACTs, AP tests, and rigorous coursework, was to imagine themselves five years in the future, assess the sorts of qualities that reflected their capacity for intensive work in whatever hypothetical futurescape they imagined, touch the truest elements in their character, write with originality and unforced brilliance about themselves (in a page or less) conveying an appealing blend of modesty and self-assurance.

All of this, of course, directed in an application to colleges that appeared on sweatshirts of the coolest kids, that had a name parents and grandparents immediately recognized, staffed by counselors reading essays by the hundreds.

Simply put, the instructions were clear:  Give a compelling and comprehensive account of yourself, (in a page or less), address it to a nameless, faceless panel of judges who hold your future (and your family’s standing in the community) in their paws, and prepare to sit with increasing anxiety until decisions come your way in March or April, at which time, you will have something like three weeks to decide which of the remaining options are likely to match your sense of future self.

I worked in academically ambitious private schools which hired me to give individual attention to each of the students in my care.  I had the time to work through many of these challenges with students, to make sure that their applications were completed on time and sent to an appropriate range of colleges so that, in March or April, they actually had some good options to consider.  Most high school counselors do not have the resources that I did.

Every single kid I worked with started way ahead of the curve.

The statistic that is NEVER published, however, has to do with the relationship between what are known as “impact donors” and preferred admission.  The most prestigious colleges and universities are prestigious because they have trotted out highly successful and financially advantaged graduates for generations.  Without regard to a huge gift given in expectation of special consideration in admission, alumni have tossed fortunes into the coffers of a privileged few institutions of highest repute.

How much dough do these colleges have in the kitty?

Harvard – thirty-six BILLION dollars in endowment funds, Yale – twentyseven BILLION, Stanford – twenty-four BILLION, Princeton – twenty-three BILLION.  There’s a big drop-off after these megaliths as MIT, Penn, Michigan, and Northwestern are only in the teens.

Even by those standards a relatively modest endowment, such as Duke’s – seven billion, or Notre Dame’s – nine billion, is still sitting relatively pretty when it comes to day-to-day expenses.  I’m no expert at donating millions, but the rule of thumb I heard back in my college admissions days was that, in order for an otherwise less than equally qualified candidate to rise above the ordinary preference of a legacy application, we had to be talking “New Building Donor”.  That’s a lot of donation; by comparison, “ordinary” largesse seems mildly affordable, to some I’m sure.  Yale is remarkably up front about the endowment gifting procedure, allowing prospective donors to size up their gift before selling stock.

For example, currently donors may support financial aid for students in Yale College or the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences by creating an endowed fund with a minimum gift of $100,000. A named visiting professorship in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences or athletic coach’s position may be endowed with a gift of $1,500,000, an existing professorship with a gift of $3,000,000, or an incremental professorship, dean’s, or director’s position with a gift of $6,000,000.

Pretty heady stuff, this endowing a coach’s salary with a gift of a million five, but still waaaaay short of New Building impact.  I’ve had two New Building applicants in my forty years of counseling, each of which was admitted to programs ordinarily ignoring candidates with their academic profile.  In each case, some notably more prepared students were not admitted; they got it.  One later transferred and sent me an email with a picture of a new building named after her former classmate’s father.

So, nothing really new as the rich get richer and continue to find advantage on almost every playing field.

Honest conversation about college admission has to begin with the bottom line:  It isn’t about the applicant; it’s about what the college needs.  Snappy New England college takes care of alumni, brings about twenty percent of the class in as recruited athletes, wants very much to bring diversity to a rural campus, has to keep the male/female balance close to 50/50, and guarantees a stable admissions season by taking roughly forty percent of applicants by Early Decision.

Oh, and a new building or two is always welcome.

My Wife Lost Her Memory … For A While

My Wife Lost Her Memory … For A While

“I don’t know why I’m here.”

“”You’re here because you don’t know why you’re here.”

“Did you drive”

“I did.”

“I don’t know why I’m here.”

On Wednesday afternoon my wife, Mary,  woke from a nap unable to keep a memory for more than twenty seconds. 

I had asked her about an upcoming visit from her sister; she was puzzled, verging on angry, as she had no memory of that visit. After wrestling with that issue to no conclusion, I asked if she remembered calling her sister about the visit. Again, what the hell was I talking about?  I then asked if she remembered going out for lunch. Nothing. Did she remember the Memorial Day picnic with friends? Nothing. Blank. 

I’d seen movies and read case studies like Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”, but nothing had prepared me for an exchange with my wife, who was absolutely herself, sharp, funny, logical and at the same time unaware of anything beyond the most immediate conversation.

She quickly agreed to a trip to the Emergency Room, confessing that she felt somewhat muddled, perhaps half way between sleep and full consciousness. She repeated that observation throughout the trip to the hospital. Caught in a loop. On the other hand, when I said we were on our way, she immediately asked me to go to the more sophisticated of our local hospitals. When she had dressed, even as her condition was increasingly obvious, she took off her ring, apparently anticipating an MRI.

“Where’s my ring?”

That question joined the pronouncement of demi-sleep and hope for the better hospital. She couldn’t summon the name of the hospital she preferred, but recognized it when I identified it.

We were hustled into an examination space at the more sophisticated hospital’s Emergency Room and as I finished the paperwork, she was wheeled off for a CT scan. Mary was unruffled by the flurry of activity, frequently laughing at the absurdity of her inability to connect with the present moment. I was terrified that cancer might have returned and metastasized to her brain.

The scan was clear. A chest x-ray was clear. No answers forthcoming.

She was admitted to the hospital, but no rooms were available, so she was hooked up with wires and an IV port and left on a bed in a supply room at the back of the ER. We spent the next five hours repeating the same conversation again and again.

“I don’t know why I’m here.”

“Your memory seems to be impaired.”

Laughter. “No kidding.”

“Where is my ring”

“You took it off before we came.”

“Is there metal in my scrunchie?”

“No, it’s fine.”

“Don’t they want to test me?”

“You had a CT scan.”

“No, when?”

“When we first arrived.”

“Did you drive?”

“I did.”

“Is this the hospital?”


“Did you drive?”

And so on.

She was in a great mood. Joking with doctors and nurses. Telling a doctor she wouldn’t remember him the next time he came by. Telling another doctor she might remember his name because it was the same as an artist she admired. Forgetting that the doctors had stopped in.  Announcing that she used to be an EMT.  Apologizing then telling me that when she had a concussion as a girl, she apologized over and over.  Announcing she used to be an EMT.  Apologizing.

She was in every way herself, aware that her memory was compromised, but not anxious, simply perplexed. Amused. Smart.

A nurse checked her vitals and told us that her tests had revealed a urinary tract infection.

“How did they get my urine?”

“You walked to the bathroom with a nurse.”

“How did they get my urine?”

About five hours into our stay, a third neurologist stepped in to question Mary. I’d noticed what I thought was a slight improvement in that she referred to events and conversations with more fluency. The doctor took her through the stroke protocol again (“show me your teeth.”) and was quick to see that she had no symptoms.  

“What day is it?”


An hour earlier she could not have answered that question.

“What month is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“At the hospital.”

“What month is it?”  

Mary looked at me.

“Don’t look at him,” the doctor joked.  “His memory is fine.”

“Maybe June?”

Again not possible an hour earlier.

“We gave you an antibiotic about an hour ago.  There is a possibility the urinary tract infection is the issue. If we don’t see improvement, we’ll move to the MRI.”

The conversation with the doctor lasted about ten minutes, and I thought Mary might have been slightly more responsive than she had been when we arrived.

Hope.  Guarding against hope.

I left Mary at the hospital and returned home to take care of our two dogs.  Didn’t sleep much.  In a stunning turn of events, I woke the dogs rather than their waking me and spent some time feeding and exercising them before leaving for the hospital again.

I have a friend whose advice about worrying has always been, “Why don’t we wait until we get there?”  Great advice, but it’s not easy to keep from projecting a dark future. On the drive to the hospital I wept imagining Mary unable to do what she has loved doing.  She trains dogs, and owners, explaining dog language and gestures, helping owners connect with their dogs.  Many of her clients have found training for dog agility competition, a wonderful pastime and a great way to bring joy to their dogs while they become more skilled in handling their pets.  Mary’s always been a teacher, no matter what the situation might be, and she has a particular gift in her ability to understand how each student learns, adapting her instruction to each distinctive challenge.

I couldn’t imagine how she could do what she loved without memory.

I also couldn’t imagine not having our conversations.  I know a lot about where her feelings are, and she understands me in a way that allows me to share myself as I cannot with anyone else.

“Wait until we get there.”  Hope.

When I walked into the ER very early the next morning, Mary was back.  

There were a few glitches, very much like those of a person coming out of deep slumber, but she was able to remember everything I told her about the previous day, and able to remember which clients were due to arrive for training and how to make contact with each of them.

“Where’s my ring?”

“You took it off before we left the house.”

I must have worried about getting an MRI.”

“You took off your earrings too.”

“I wasn’t wearing earrings.”


“I hope I made you drive.”

“You did.”

“I’m glad we came to this hospital instead of the others.”

“You asked for the more sophisticated hospital.”

“I couldn’t remember the name, but I knew I wanted to be here.”  She looked around.  “This reminds me of the room the doctors on Gray’s Anatomy use for a quickie between operations.”

Mary is still taking the antibiotic.  She’s exhausted and physically a bit wobbly, but she is entirely herself with a memory now restored to minutes before we had the conversation that convinced me that something was wrong.  It happens that I had been teaching a course in which we spent some time talking about brain activity.  I’d made the point that we can put electrodes in a region of the brain and observe activity, but we don’t know how we fall asleep, why we sleep, why we dream, what sleep actually does.  I’d said that almost all of what we guess about the brain we guess because something has gone wrong; a man mistakes his wife for a hat.

It turns out that among women over the age of sixty, urinary tract infection and dehydration can bring on short term memory loss.  I say ,”over sixty”; articles describing the phenomenon use terms such as “senior” or “elderly”.  Mary is over sixty but not to my mind elderly.  Of course, I’m ten years older than she is, so my perspective could be skewed.  The good news is … well, there is a ton of good news, the most obvious being that although she had amnesia, Mary is not suffering from dementia.  It could have been much worse; I have discovered that in some cases, a person can hallucinate or become angrily paranoid.

Oh, and modern medicine cannot explain why the urinary tract infection affects the brain. The immune system system is compromised, they say.  Ok, but urinary tract to brain? 

Mine is not to wonder why but to simply be grateful that two tablets a day have returned Mary to me and to the many people who consider themselves lucky to know her.

Hibernation – Good News/Bad News

Hibernation – Good News/Bad News

Here we are in the first stages of post-covid overtures to normality and feeling a bit Rip Van Winkleish. Seriously.  Do any of us actually have a firm grasp of time spent away from the world?  It’s been a long hibernation.

Ask any bear; hibernation is full of good news and bad.  

The good news about hibernation is isolation from all the pesky issues that trouble us in our waking lives.  Remember that guy we ran into every morning at the coffee shop?  You know, the guy that shared the ending of novels and films at full volume?  How about the woman who works in the office next to ours?  We have seen her every day for fifteen years as we wait for the elevator to arrive.  We know a lot about her and her family.  We are almost friends, but we’re not sure if her name is Prudence or Priscilla, and it is much too late to ask.  Great movies are about to be released.  We don’t have to spend a hunk of change to sit in front of the sisters who smell like cabbage discussing their mother’s crusty skin issues while a baby squirms and yowls in the  lap directly behind us.  Unlike our friends the bears, we might not have lost the extra ten or twenty pounds in hibernation.  In fact, we’ve been loosening the drawstring on the old pajamas as we checked in on Zoom, and nobody knows or cares. Haven’t paid a dime for gym membership and don’t feel guilty. Watched the entire 327 episodes of Supernatural and don’t feel guilty. Haven’t cleaned the house since March, 2020 and don’t feel guilty.

One piece of bad news about hibernation is that we were immersed in a thousand enterprises that in the past we had no time to investigate or feel concern about. Had we spent 20 hours a day doom scrolling before Covid? Did we have a TikTok account or even know how to access TikTok? Could we have named the 32 species of orchids that went extinct last year? Would we have known that Kanye West’s bid for the presidency was endorsed by Elon Musk or that West gave Kim Kardashian a hologram of her dead father?

More bad news about hibernation comes around now, as we’re thinking about dropping the mask and watching the high school band march in the 4th of July parade.  When, exactly IS the 4th of July?  Time stopped, or got flattened sometime in the last year.  Has it been a year?  We did Christmas, right?  Right?  

And, bottom line, we’re about to enter the company of humans we haven’t seen since … whenever that was.  Do we shake hands?  Hug?  Tug at our forelock?  All the social cues we had spent a lifetime acquiring are in question.  How close is too close?  Do we need to see a vaccination card before breaking the six foot bubble?  And then, what do we say?  

I mean, really.  What do we say?

Long time no see?  Whatcha been up to?  How ‘bout those Mets?

Politics?  Off the table.  Who knows who has subscribed to what core set of improbable beliefs having to do with demon spawn in yogurt.  Health?  Also tricky.  In the best of times a health inventory makes for sluggish conversation.  In these troubled times, who knows what sorts of  medical events have transpired.  Finance?  Uh, no.  

I travel in several circles, some of which are ordinary, reasonably clever people, interesting in their own right but not much given to reading widely..  Seems to me I’m on pretty safe ground asking what they’ve been watching on Netflix, or Amazon Prime, or in my case, Acorn. The doors open wide and quickly.  During the past year (or whatever), some strong emotions have been attached to our virtual life on the couch.  Tiger King?  NXIVM?  Woody Allen?  How do we feel about Teenage Bounty Hunters being cancelled by Netflix?  Betrayed, right?

The reading folks I once knew, whenever that was, are likely to have taken on the authors they had always intended to read.  I’m reading a lot of Japanese novels in translation, but I remember reading pals talking about the Russians, or Rushdie, or Kafka, or Proust.  We’ll see, won’t we.

And, should all else fail, who hasn’t watched at least one season of the British Baking Show?  That ought to keep the conversational wheels turning for a while.

Then, shaking hands, or not, hugging, or not, we hustle home to watch Mare of Easttown or All Creatures Great and Small, or Survivor, and breathe a long sigh of relief in having found our way back to our solitary cave and a pair of forgiving pajama bottoms.

A Close Personal Friend Recommends …

A Close Personal Friend Recommends …

My daughter is alternately amused and netlled by my unquestioning eagerness to pursue whatever book, film, vacation, or adventure I find touted in the New York Times.  I speak with enthusiasm as if the Times had called me directly and with sweet concern for my well being curated a lifetime of experience just for me;I refer to the paper as I might to a neighbor or book club friend.  It’s personal.

There have been some notable treasures, of course, along the way, and a few very minor disappointments, but for the most part, the Times opens doors I had not thought to approach.  And yet, that legacy of good will and trust is hanging on by a thread this morning as I recoil from a novel that came highly regarded and I would have said, recommended.  

To be fair, I responded to one of the frequent “Books Update”, a list of books currently under discussion, rather than having read a review of the novel.  In the past it’s worked out well;  I’ve simply noted a title, opened my account at the local library, and jumped on the waiting list for the next hot copy.  Some have been my sort of book, others not so much.  I’ve taken a chance over the years and find that the Times (my friend) is running with about an 80% hot stuff rate.  Winners in the last year include The Aosawa Murders, The Beauty in Breaking, A Children’s Bible, Hidden Valley Road, How Much Of These Hills Is Gold, Marilynne Robinson’s Jack, Sisters, and the unexpectedly fabulous Nothing To See Here.  So-so or just not my cup of tea that week were other highly regarded books such as The Biggest Bluff, Blacktop Wasteland, Deacon King Kong, and The Glass Kingdom.  Nothing lost.  No harm, no foul. 

Fairness having been invoked, I ought to note that there are many books that were closed to me at one point in my life and richly enjoyed later.  Then too, I’m a writer without an agent, self publishing books that languish in the nether depths of Amazon’s vanity collection.  A book may have the resentment hurdle to clear, particularly if the genre is new or the portrayal of characters challenging.  That said, I’ve come to admire books that present characters who would drive me to madness were I to encounter them in real life.  Nick Cave’s Bunny Munro, for example, may be the most loathsome person I’ve encountered in print, but I couldn’t put the book down.

Had I read Joshua Ferris’ review of The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver, I suspect I would have cancelled my hold on the book at the library.  Ferris is amused by and sympathetic to unlikeable characters, citing Cormac McCarthy’s unrelenting portrayal of unredeemed characters as a refreshing antidote to a happy happy resolution for characters who have been misunderstood or mistreated.  By the end of the review, having lauded Shriver’s refusal to yield to the pity paradigm, however, he does acknowledge the book’s resolution left him thinking, “Who cares?” 

I didn’t get that far.  

I have a tall pile of books and who knows how many years to read them.  I’ll give a new book thirty minutes to reel me in.  If I’m eager to read the next page, I’ll generally stick with it all the way to the end.  I’m relatively easy to please, but a strong beginning goes a long way.  An author makes a choice in opening their world to us, in introducing a novel’s protagonists, for example,  I give Shriver points for chutzpah; her  characters presented on the first page are Remington and Serenata Alabaster.  Remington Alabaster.  Serenata Alabaster.  What am I to do with names such as those?  Bold choice by Shriverl, but “look-at-me” writing runs the risk of sliding into precious posturing, which in this case darkens as the Alabaster’s relationship is short on affection. Serenata’s reflexive contempt for Remington in particular wears thin.  Remington’s disregard for Sereneta’s feelings is almost as off-putting.

Shriver’s published fifteen novels, all of which have been well received; she’ll survive any quibble I might have about her latest. My greater concern is in repairing the pipeline so that the Jackson County Library and I are teaming up for a strong summer of reading.  The key, I think, is in finding a balance between the “sure things’ ‘ and the “strap on your seat belt” experiments that offer great reward or immediate disappointment.  I’ll keep reading the Mann Booker long list and following my favorite authors, but at the moment I’m sitting with Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, a compilation of forty new fairy tales by authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, Shelly Jackson, Neil Gaimon, and a host of others, Murakami’s IQ 84,and Moby Dick.  The Times didn’t have to recommend Melville or Murakami, but virtually every other choice this summer will come from the pages of the New York Times, who you will remember, is a particular friend of mine.

We All Smell The Same When We’re Dead

We All Smell The Same When We’re Dead

I’m an introvert and should remember that I’ll start to numb out somewhere in the first minutes of the second hour, but I forget just how forcefully I hit that wall even in the most pleasant social gathering,  I have no idea where my wife lands along the personality continuum, but she stays on the phone for more than 30 seconds per call, enjoys lengthy conversations with folks she has just met, and clearly has much more staying power at holiday picnics than I do.  I admire her social skill and wish I didn’t lose energy in the company of people I genuinely like and whose lives interest me.

Take yesterday, for instance.  We were invited to a lovely luncheon with interesting people in a comfortable setting.  I quite enjoyed the first hour.  I hadn’t realized how quiet I had become until a latecomer entered into the conversation.  Earlier in the afternoon I would have been fascinated by much of what she said and might have joined the discussion, but as she spoke I realized my mind had left the building.

I think the conversation had somehow slid into a comparison of the effectiveness of dogs versus pigs in hunting truffles.  I like the word truffle so had almost come to the surface.  I was on the way out again when the latecomer began to describe her experience of working with her dog in search and rescue.  It turned out that having mastered the complexities of searching and rescuing, her dog had gone on to become a certified cadaver dog.

I know!

She and her Flat-Coated retriever, Morgan, were off the next weekend for their first workshop with actual cadavers.  Apparently, donors had made their former bodies available for exercises such as these, and dog and owner were keen to get at the real thing.  She had my attention now.  Had I not lost the power of expression I would have asked many questions about the body farm they would be visiting and the logistical complications which might arrive with such a search.  I am pleased to report that someone did ask about the difficulty in finding articles of clothing or other personal possessions that would allow the dog to track.  My question exactly, or rather, one of my questions.  

Apparently, it doesn’t matter.  With a chuckle, the trainer advised us that a cadaver is a cadaver is a cadaver.  Her delivery did not falter as she passed on this tidy fun fact:

“We all smell the same when we’re dead.”

I am prone to the occasional existential crisis. To be completely transparent, that occasional crisis is actually quite regular.  I had just finished leading a six week virtual conversation on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and was up on Hinduism, Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism, and the practical and portable version of Zen Buddhism as it evolved in this country.  Dharma, Karma, the search for one’s Buddha nature were on my mind, but I was not prepared to take man’s search for meaning to the olfactory level. In other company, in another setting, I might have blurted out, “Whoah!  I’m looking forward to the transmigration of the soul,but I am not entirely happy to learn that for a while I may just be meat!”  Or something along those lines.  

Happily, however, I was distracted by more pedestrian thoughts, the first of which, I regret to say, had to do with how we smell as we’re walking around in our present state of being alive.  I moved past the questions about where our smells go after … you know … to a quick cataloging of people I know well and their respective odors.  I have encountered some distinctive bouquets along the way, but the more I thought about it, the more aware I became of my preconscious information about people and their emanations which must be part of the vocabulary in the interior language of dogs.

I use the term “preconscious” because although there is considerable scientific evidence to support the theory that scent is an important part of the attraction we feel toward particular people, it’s not something we’re aware of and certainly not the stuff of valentines.  It’s not a secret, exactly, but it’s a bit awkward to admit that you’ve found a life partner based, to some degree, on a quality that we hardly recognize and one that we can’t change.  Yes, we can mask the musk, splash on Dior’s “Hypnotic Poison Perfume”, spray on “Pheromone for Men”, bathe, stay away from garlic, onions, cumin and curry, but the base scent is ours and ours alone.  

Until we shuffle off this mortal coil.

In what may seem a digression, I have had to admit that although I love to write and knock off hundreds of words every day to stay in shape, my powers of invention are limited.  The thought of writing a daily column for a newspaper, for example, instantly reduces me to torpor; I simply have a limited number of ideas.  

Where do I find grist for the mill?  I’d be completely out of luck were it not for overheard conversions.  My faithful readers will remember “Not the First Dead Thing I Kept in the Freezer – Overheard at the Coffee Shop”.  Gold.  Pure gold.  What a gift it is to take a line like that and allow the questions to flood in. 

I’m not done with “We all smell the same when we’re dead”.  There are some profundities to explore and odd observations to make.  Smell Dating, for example, which I hadn’t known was a thing.  

It is.  

And more of this anon.

Memorial Day – 2021

Memorial Day – 2021

Some years ago, Ken Stewart, a longtime friend and filmmaker was kind enough to ask me what I was likely to take on in my next play. I’d just finished a play about trans-national adoption and wanted a subject that would absorb my attention for the next year or so. He’d recently wrapped up his documentary, The Richmond Rosies, an account of the contribution made by women working in the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, California turning out Victory and Liberty ships. He’d interviewed the surviving women who had been known as Rosie the Riveters or Welding Wendys and had pulled together some amazing footage. He’d also built a friendship with the Rosies, continuing to visit with them after the film had been released. A subject had been on my mind, but I feared it would be something he wouldn’t recognize although it is a significant chapter in race relations in the United States . With some care, I began to speak about Black sailors put on trial for mutiny during WWII. I hadn’t finished the sentence when he jumped in:

 “Port Chicago? That’s what I’m doing next.”

Ken’s focus is sharper than mine, and he has staying power as a writer, director, and producer. His new film, a documentary entitled The Port Chicago Incident, is in distribution. The synopsis of the film is straightforward, echoing the mission statement of the National Park’s Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Monument.

A violent and powerful explosion in July 1944 sent shock waves through Port Chicago, Ca and the US Navy. 320 sailors were killed instantly, and 50 sailors were charged with mutiny in the aftermath. It became the largest mutiny trial in US Naval history and was the tipping point for the desegregation of the U.S. Navy and ultimately the entire U.S. Military.

It is not surprising that the Park Service does not identify the personnel assigned to the loading of munitions at this isolated facility as Black stevedores, nor does it describe the triple shifts worked,the lack of instruction given the men loading munitions,the absence of safety measures, the poor maintenance of of the machinery used in loading explosives on ships, or the gambling on daily totals of pounds loaded by White officers who had returned to active duty or newly commissioned with no experience in handling munitions.  The Park Service doesn’t describe the contempt with which White officers held the men who worked with munitions.  A common supposition among officers was that the Black sailors assigned to Port Chicago were not capable of understanding procedural regulations or safety measures; neither were in place.

My play never came together, largely because I couldn’t decide what story I wanted to tell. As I set out to work on the project, I saw three separate and equally compelling chapters. The first would describe the conditions under which Black Americans served in WWII, at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in particular, a munitions depot and loading facility that provided the munitions needed by the Paciific Fleet. 160,000 Black Americans enlisted in the Navy during the war; they were permitted to serve as cooks, stewards, or stevedores.  An “Intelligence” test determined which would be assigned the most physically demanding job – loading explosives at Port Chicago.  One study found that  the Alpha Intelligence used by the Army after WWI designated 89% of Black enlistees as “morons”.  

The second story chronicles the ineptitude of White officers who operated the facility with no regard for the lives of the men in their command and a description of the explosion.  Three shifts operated around the clock, ordered to enter into speed contests; the officers amused themselves by betting in which shift would load the greatest tonnage; Blackboards were placed on the docks so that the tally was always visible. Given no instruction in handling the explosives, men working on the docks were told that large bombs, torpedoes, and shells could not explode without fuses.  Officers ordered the men to use crowbars to unpack the bombs, to roll the heavy bombs and shells to the docks, and to drop the munitions in nets into the hold of receiving ships. The winches used to deposit the over full nets were not maintained; their brakes often gave out.  The explosion which took place at 10:18 pm on July 17, 1944 sent smoke and fire almost two miles into the sky.  The effects were felt 30 miles away in San Francisco, and the blast was heard in Nevada.  All personnel working on the docks were killed and many at the station were killed or injured.  In the end, 535 Black sailors were killed or injured, roughly two thirds of the men assigned to the station.

The third story is the account of what was called a mutiny.

Following the explosion, White officers were given hardship leave, and 329 Black sailors were transferred to the Mare Island munitions facility.  On August 8th, the men were marched to the dock and ordered to load explosives on a ship in port.  The men refused; no measures had been taken to ensure the safe transfer of munitions. The 258 men who refused were taken by barge to a makeshift prison intended to hold no more than 70 prisoners. On August 11th, the prisoners were addressed by Admiral Carleton Wright and told that those who continued to refuse orders would be subject to the charge of mutiny.  He suggested that while fear of another disaster was understandable, death by firing squad was a worse option.  The 50 men who continued to refuse orders were declared mutinous.

Admiral Wright convened the General Court Martial which was held in Marine barracks at the Treasure Island Navy, charging the Port Chicago 50 with “a deliberate purpose and intent to override superior military authority,” a charge which in wartime could be punished by death.  The surviving records of the trial are appalling, filled with racial slurs and dismissal of the defendants accounts of the events.  The defense attempted to present the actions of the prisoners as insubordination rather than mutiny, a defense NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall endorsed and one that he continued to cite in the aftermath of the court-martial.  All 50 were found guilty.  They were given a 15 year sentence to be served at the Terminal Island DisciplinaryBarracks in San Pedro.  Marshall continued to advocate for the prisoners, filing an appeal, which was unsuccessful.  At the end of the war, the sentences were reduced, and by 1946 all but three had been released on parole to complete their enlistment.

The Navy had closed ranks in carrying out the court-martial and in imprisoning the Port Chicago 50, but the Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, had already begun the integration of Black sailors into service on all auxiliary ships.  The Navy, formerly the most segregated, was the first of the services to end segregation in all aspects of enlistment, including assignments, ranks, facilities, and housing.  The rest of the armed forces were not integrated until 1948.

Courtroom dramas always allow for great moments of passion and reckless histrionics, catnip for clumsy dramatists such as I am.  I was tempted for a few weeks, then I came against the hard truth:  Although there is a great deal of value in bringing the Port Chicago Disaster to public attention, as Ken has done so well, the very human dimensions of the mutiny trial are not mine to tell.  It has to be told in language and cadences that are not mine; the world does not need the Uncle Remus version of the mutiny trial.  

This story is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, that reveal a dark history we as a nation have been reluctant to face.  A cherished and carefully decorated idealization of ourselves as people more aware of justice, more capable of kindness, more worthy of admiration has started to crumble.  Story by story, voice by voice, we have an opportunity to see ourselves as we have been and as we are.  

Alive and unconscious … who doesn’t love sleep?

Alive and unconscious … who doesn’t love sleep?

Look, I’ve got a mind of my own, occasionally borrowed by one misguided enthusiasm or another, but still, mine.  I’m capable of change. I used to love Turkish Taffy; now I give it a wide berth.  I’m fond of wordplay and British humor and can’t watch what passes for comedy on broadcast television.

The point is, damn it, as I edge ever closer to the last frontier, I am still relegated to the class of human known as “Baby Boomer”.  I’ve never liked the term; “Boomer” is less infantilizing, but reeks of bonhomie and machismo.  I’ll admit that “The Pig in the Python” is clever until my over-active suggestibility kicks in, and I’m gifted with the image of an enormous snake roiling in discomfort as its distended belly is attacked from within by the frantic flailing of an undigested animal, in this case, “Babe”.

Apparently, that’s us, and before grammarians leave the room, please, nobody in their right mind would say, “That’s we”.  Don’t start questioning my use of “their” to modify a singular subject either; we’re over it.

“Is that it?”, you ask; “in a universe of grievances, you sat down to gripe about your generational nickname?”

Well, yes, but only in passing.  As you have probably guessed, this morning’s meditation has to do with the eternal questions: “What do we know, and how do we know it?”  

More precisely, “what the hell is wrong with sleeping through the night?”  See, that’s where the generational carping comes in.  Apparently, my generation has arrived at yet another of life’s check points, and I am not amused. I’m grumpy and mildly delusional, clumsy and thick witted, and it seems I’m not alone.  I’ve been informed that nobody cares, and that’s fine; I can maintain a full head of discontent without an audience.  

“Have you tried … ?”

Yep, not the cryogenic bath or rohypnol, but pretty much every other nostrum and sleep inducing practice.  The weighted blanket and banana tea were not terrible ideas; the jury is still out on making a to-do list, slathering myself with essential oils, and breathing through the left nostril.  After years in denial, I’ve gone through several sleep studies and now slap on my Respironics DreamWear mask, hit the switch, and hope nobody has to find me in the end, lifeless, looking like the star of 1907’s Le Cochon Danseur, a terrifying anthropomorphic dancing pig.  My two or three hours of “sleep” then ended, I check my AHI (apnea hypopnea Index) to see how many times I stop breathing per hour.  On a good night, my brain forgets to tell me to breathe about 25 times an hour; last night the needle was buried at 51, indicating that my apnea can be characterized as moderately severe.  I thought severity was a condition like uniqueness, incapable of modification, but again, nobody cares or wants to know.

Here’s what interests me, however, and what should be of interest to anyone who sleeps … or doesn’t:  We (and by “we” I mean anyone) don’t know what sleep is, why we sleep, how we fall asleep, why we dream, or why the same “we”, having evolved to the peak of mentation, spend about a third of a lifetime unconscious.

“Wait …” you interject.  “What about the four stages of non-Rem sleep and the four or five cycles of REM sleep?  What about that?  We know that/”

Uh huh.  This is a messy analog, but let’s say you leave a partially eaten melon out on the sidewalk.  Let’s say you do that under laboratory conditions, day after day.  You’ll gather a lot of facts about what melons look like on day one and day five, you have some information about who shows up to live in the rapidly decomposing melon, You’ll even be able to talk about the relative speed of decomposition based on temperature.  But if our understanding of melon half-life is based entirely on external observation, all we’ve got is description.  

It’s not easy to get beyond external description with regard to the brain. The temptation is to say that we’ve got a Schrodinger’s cat here; a paradox of quantum superposition in which a subatomic event may or may not happen in an arena we cannot see without affecting the outcome, but we’ve been slicing and dicing brains for quite a spell, mapping brain activities with magnetic resonance imaging, and from time to time carrying out what is gently called Deep Brain Stimulation, implanting electrodes in certain areas of the brain and turning on the juice.  We’ve zapped enough brains to deduce that the four lobes have specific jobs to do, finally able to say, for example, that the temporal lobe controls memory, speech, and sense of smell. 

Again, uh huh.  Got that temporal lobe business all wrapped up, do we?

I’m not prepared to say that everything we know about the operation of anything is really only available to us when it doesn’t work, but let’s agree that with regard to the brain, information arrives with dysfunction.  Ok, so let’s take a look at what happens when a temporal lobe is damaged.  Sure, we get impairments in auditory functions, visual functions, loss of language perception, impaired long term memory, and … altered personality and altered sexual behavior.  

So, where are dreams?  All over it seems, although there’s a little less activity in the frontal lobe during REM, leading highly trained researchers with postdoctoral expertise to suggest that paucity of frontal lobe activity may explain why we do not self-correct or criticize the wacky stuff that comes up in our dreams.  In other words, no idea.

I’m cranky this morning and inclined to hang the entire medical profession out to dry, but the truth is that nobody really knows what they are doing with regard to sleep, so I might just as well slip into my pig face, drink some banana tea, listen to the calming sound of a forest primeval, rub myself with extract of henbane, breathe through my left nostril, and make a to-do list.