Regarding One’s Image of Death

Eva and I recently visited Glyptotek Art Museum in Copenhagen. Here is are two views of “Todesfigur,” by sculptor Christian Lemmerz (b. 1959), completed in 2012.

From his online webpage:

Seen from an elevated position in the museum:

I don’t have a personal image of Death. Do you?

Although I don’t welcome it at this stage of my life, I don’t fear Death. Do you?

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“Youth and Old Age are Two Separate Kingdoms”

Richard Zimler

The quote is from the bottom of page 71 of “The Gospel According to Lazarus,” by Richard Zimler.

This statement struck me with enough power to make me stop reading. Why? I can only use more words.

I am in my 83rd year on earth. I am old, but I have been young. In the last few decades I have learned that an old person cannot teach a younger person except, possibly, by example—assuming the younger one is actively watching at all.

I certainly do learn, or rather re-learn, by watching even the youngest of us, currently my wife’s first grandchild. By observing him I am reminded of the vital forces contained in everyone; it is invigorating to engage with a new, whole, completely unrestrained human being who happens to be much smaller and temporarily physically dependent.

But this palaver delays my expressing the immediate perception I had upon reading the phrase: yes, we are in separate kingdoms, each with its desires and objectives.

Those younger than I cannot know what I have learned and value, if they have not yet had similar experiences. Memo to self: avoid negative feelings if the young are  inattentive, even dismissive of my offerings. Corollary: don’t offer unless asked.

Conversely, I know what it is to be young, if I have not allowed myself to forget, and, therefore, should be understanding and, if necessary, forgiving, even generous. My father had a saying which I heard often: “youth will be served.”

In the event that younger people may have read this far, I offer more words, to show an important aspect of being old. This is from another novel, “Death Comes to the Archbishop, by Willa Cather:”

Sometimes, when Magdalena or Bernard came in and asked him a question, it took him several seconds to bring himself back to the present.  He could see they thought his mind was failing; but it was only extraordinarily active in some other part of the great picture of his life–some part of which they knew nothing.

Curmudgeon

“Dear, will you take care of the hotel reservation? I’m trying to deal with my hair right now.”

“Oh, all right Jane, but I hate talking with anonymous people I can’t see, especially nowadays. I can’t understand the dialect these younger people seem to have developed, from God knows what influence.”

“It’s MTV and Southern California, Fred. You’re just going to have to get used to it.”

“Umphh.”

(pause while dialing)

“How, mmyool, nry sping, myelhyoo?”

“Is this the Miyako Hotel in San Francisco?”

“Yer, nry sping, myelhoo?”

“I’d like a reservation for tomorrow night, a double room, no smoking, please”

“Serny sir. Naympeez?

“Did you want my name?’

“Yerm”

“Fred Pape, Pee Ay Peee Eee.”

“Thyoo Mr. Pace …”

“No, that’s P as in Peter, A as in Apple, P as in Peter, E as in easy.”

“Willoopay wa credcurd?

“Yes, it’s a ServeCard: 123 -456-7890”

“Wenotooferfisennonoo?”

“Look, Nuri, or whatever your name is, I am old, I don’t hear well, you speak very fast and I don’t understand most of what you say. Please speak slower and more distinctly”

“Ok, sir, whad yoo wan now?”

“I want to know that you have my credit card number correctly. Please repeat what you recorded.”

“OK, sir, Wan, doo, dree, fi, sits …”

“No, no, you left out the four, after the three.”

“Dree? Four?”

“Yes, Three, four.”

“OK sir.”

“Do you have the rest of the numbers?

‘Yeah.”

“What are they?”

“Fi, sits, sem, nine, oh.”

“No, No, No. You left out the eight after nine. It’s one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, zero.”

“OK, sir.”

“Would you please confirm this reservation by email?”

“Ok, sir.”

“My email address is ‘fredpape@stuff.us.’ Please repeat that.”

“Fredpace at dufus”

“I give up!” (hangs up).

“Dear, you were so rude!”

“Jane, dammit, you take care of it. Maybe you can understand people with marbles in their mouths and iPods in their ears.”

“You’re turning into an old curmudgeon.”

“Get used to it.”

Loquacity

I was the kid that certain adults needed to tell things to. I guess I seemed educable. The result was endless hours of tedium with little reward, except the questionable attention.

Somewhere I got the notion that I should treat my elders with respect, no matter how nutty or boring they might be. This, I suppose, was at the root of my troubles. My compliance was probably taken as interest.

Also, having had adults as my sole companions until around age five, and almost all of them with intellectual interests that daily washed over me, I was at home in the adult world. I spoke like an adult, comfortable with abstractions, with full sentences and a broad vocabulary. I read books; I played the piano.

So, I got trapped at large family-social events where an adult new to the family orbit would discover me. I got cornered. I was helpless. I felt as sort of a surrogate for the whole family as this new adult (it was always a man) poured out his life’s observations and advice on how to succeed in the world.

I did occasionally meet the temporarily interesting older man. In fact, there was almost always something new to learn, but most of the time the nugget was quickly revealed and the rest was ordinary, sometimes pathetic. I learned it was a mistake to show that the little nugget was a thing of interest—it tended to encourage the one-sided conversation, sometimes beyond the limits that I had previously experienced.

So, let us say I was a good listener in my early days.

I’m afraid now that I catch myself being the loquacious old fool that I long ago could not avoid.

The manner in which one endures what must be endured is more important than the thing that must be endured.
Dean Acheson

 

 

Sinfonia Concertante

June, 1971

I was as lonesome and low as ever I had been. Here I was in Fresno, of all remote places—remote from the big cities I was used to and the people I knew there. Fresno means “ash” in Spanish, the town being named after the Fresno River that flows from the Sierra Nevada and nourishes the groves of fig trees and other agricultural treasures of the Great Central Valley of California.

My life was in ashes. I lived three Volkswagen Beetle-hours away from my two young children whom I visited every weekend. My marriage had crumbled. I had a job in “Fresno County Mental Health.” My belongings, other than clothes and necessaries, fit into two wooden orange crates—mostly books and records. I had no disposable income after giving most of my paycheck to my soon-to-be former wife.

My father said Beethoven brought him through The Great Depression when he was struggling to hold the family business together after all his senior relatives died, and then jobless for a year until the day I was born in January, 1937. We had music in the house, always— not only Dad’s Beethoven and Brahms, but Aunt Angie’s Tchaikovsky and Chopin, Mom’s Bach (“Ave Maria”), Aunt Bee’s and Uncle Harry’s more eclectic selections, and Grandpa’s popular Greek ballads and dances.

I was the one, much later in life, who “discovered” Mozart. It was Mozart who rescued me.

I don’t know how I came upon his Sinfonia Concertante, but there it was and I played it on my portable turntable and speakers of barely adequate fidelity. It was a warm and clear Sunday morning, the first weekend since I moved to Fresno that I had not visited my two children some 200 miles away.

The first movement began in the major mode quite cheerfully, but not yet extraordinarily, but then … as the introduction concluded with the string section approaching then lingering in the upper registers, out of the sky came a sublime violin voice that soared like a bird down to earth to play for me.

My heavy heart began to stir. I opened the door to my apartment to let in the sun and warm morning air. I eased myself to a sunny spot on the floor, let the music wash over me, and was taken by Mozart to a place where, after daily playing of the piece in all its movements, I recovered my natural optimism and my life began again.

The music eventually attracted a woman a few doors away on the second level overlooking the communal swimming pool, but that’s another story…

The Facts

I was raised as a city kid, in San Francisco, then Brooklyn, by the time I learned about “the facts” when I was 11 years old. This was 1948.

As a city kid I had no experience observing animals mating to procreate, so I had nothing to help me correlate what little I did know about male and female coupling to get to the answers I was looking for.

I was advanced for my age in logical argument, by nature, through reading, and by having a father who was well educated and verbal. I knew that men and women were built differently, a discovery made at age 5½ when my sister was born. It was easy to correlate this visible difference with the street knowledge gained from older boys to understand that men and women could couple, physically. I also knew, after a few years in a Brooklyn slum, that one didn’t have to be married to couple with a female, if you were lucky enough.

And I, in those naïve days and time, did “know” that babies followed the marriage ceremony by observing family and watching the movies of the 1930s and 1940s.

So, I knew that males and females could couple, and sometimes did before marriage, but that babies didn’t appear until after marriage. This presented a logical dilemma for me. What was it about the marriage ceremony that allowed the female to become pregnant after coupling (all right, I did use the word “fucking,” a common enough word on the streets of Brooklyn.)

Further, to prevent my more fully understanding things, I was not yet producing anything from my body to give me clues to the insemination process, although I was engaging in plenty of practice.

I imagined some sort of mechanism inside the woman that prevented pregnancy before marriage, despite the possibility of having coupled before marriage. This mechanism was some kind of switch which, when the minister declared the man and woman married, automatically activated to allow coupling to produce babies.

That’s as far as I got with this stream of logic.

I can’t remember what stimulated my father to start the conversation with me about “the facts of life”, a phrase often heard but always to be explained later. It was a wonderful day—the sun was streaming in the living room window of our third-floor railroad apartment, the top floor of our ancient tenement building on the corner of Third Avenue and 48th Street. I was practicing the piano, with Dad sitting beside me to make sure I was completing my exercises. We started to talk, and the subject somehow came up. Dad was uncomfortable about subjects relating to the body and sex, but he had a great sense of duty and he was concerned about the street knowledge I was gaining.

I let him know about my theory, which relieved him of having to tell me about the preliminaries and we quickly got to the heart of the matter.

He explained the physiology and biology of it all, very thoroughly and succinctly. It was a wonderful revelation! I felt elated and excited about this knowledge, and it opened a new intellectual interest in the life sciences. I could hardly wait to tell my friends who were still wallowing in ignorance.

I can’t remember whether it was Gerry Nelsen, Richie Larson, or Ginky Carnes whom I excitedly told, but the response was: “who gives a fuck, Four-eyes?”

A Visit to the Old Neighborhood in Brooklyn

Diane, my younger sister, had a chance to accompany me to a hospital convention in Philadelphia in 1981. My wife, being pregnant with our second child, didn’t want to travel from Anchorage to the east coast of the “lower 48.” My board’s president, Ray, who loved to travel with his wife at the hospital’s expense to these annual meetings, insisted I bring a companion to round out the party; I could think of no better person than my sister who then lived in San Jose, California.

By prearrangement, Ray and I were to meet some financial people in Manhattan, a short train ride from Philly, and we had some free time before the meeting. Diane and I decided to visit the old Brooklyn neighborhood in a taxi. Dad had moved the family there from San Francisco on New Year’s Day, 1946, where he had gotten a job at his cousin’s printing company to replace his shipyard job which ended after the War.

It had been 30 years since the family had left the awful neighborhood in Brooklyn and escaped back to California. Dad got what he needed for himself and the family, his printer’s union card, but we all paid a dear price for it. We were orphaned from our California family and were surrounded by dirt, disorder and occasional savagery, as I matured from boy to teenager in these five-and-a-half years.

Third Avenue and 48th Street, we told the driver—Bay Ridge—between the Third Avenue Elevated and the docks to the west. As we neared the old neighborhood I felt a wave of dread wash over me, old and submerged memories struggled to the surface. I was in fight or flight mode again. There: where our rickety, roach infested three-story tenement stood on the corner was now a rather modern and efficient-looking auto repair shop. I was trembling.

There was no objective cause for my fright: no armies of children roaming the street or playing stickball, no angry young men gathered in front of the corner candy store, no matrons on the stoops gossiping and cursing, no drunks staggering out of the flophouse—no people at all.

We drove a bit further down the street where 48th Street’s four main tenements, all with a common basement area, used to stand side by side. They were filthy rubble now and I could see over the top of it all to glimpse some 47th Street buildings, foreign territory when I was a youth. Diane leaped out of the halted taxi to take pictures, but I was rooted by ancient fears and couldn’t leave the taxi follow her.

Brooklyn-08

Diane took her pictures and, after another look at the corner where we had lived (no more candy store, the flop-house on the opposite corner seeming to be abandoned), we left to look at our old school a few blocks away: Public School Number Two: P.S. 2. What used to be a three-story brick building with tall iron gates was now a plastic modular building decorated with graffiti. I was disappointed not to see the old building which, to this day, occasionally appears in my dreams.

Two more places to see, nearby: The Fourth Avenue Methodist Church where I went to Sunday school and won first prize for my essay on Moses, and Dewey Junior High school further down Fourth Avenue. We couldn’t find the Norwegian Hospital where mom had sometimes worked as a nurse’s aide.

As Diane took some final pictures of an old, graffiti-covered wall, a woman passerby sneered at Diane accusing her of “slumming.” When Diane told her that we used to live here, the woman dropped her angry mask and merely uttered “Oh,” and moved away.

The taxi could not, for me, get back quickly enough across the bridge to Manhattan.