The World Changed

I recently read an article by a person whose “world changed” at a young age by the event of “9/11” in New York City. My reading of her well-written memoir initiated a memory search for that moment in my life when the perception of the world may have changed — that is, to have shaken me loose from the unexamined feelings of comfort and safety that childhood, for some, allows.

After pondering, I found that my awakening was gradual, with punctuated moments of fear, despair, horror and, in the case of “9/11,” anger.

I was one month away from becoming age five when the Japanese Air Force bombed Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. I don’t have a memory of the actual day of the invasion. What I have is the memory, subsequently developed, of all the pictures and commentary since that time. It didn’t affect me at age five — this was just the way the world was.

My first memories are of living with my parents and my mother’s family in the top flat of a Victorian house on Arguello Boulevard in San Francisco, around three miles from the Pacific Ocean. None of the men in the house were called to military service, but Dad and Uncle Harry were ‘war workers’ in the shipyards of San Francisco, and in Richmond across the Bay. Grandpa was too old for service.

Uncle Harry was also a block warden for the times when ‘blackouts’ were called by the civil defense organization. He was to assure that we and the neighbors had pulled down their blackout curtains and shades so that no light could be seen by possible invaders from off the coast of San Francisco. These were the times the whole family, seven of us, would gather by candlelight in the living room to listen to news on the radio, or to music on the big Victrola. I imagined Japanese planes and submarines searching, searching, but finding nothing because we were so good at hiding. It wasn’t scary.

Later in my youth, I would play with other kids, boys, in building a small fire and throwing into it stick figures of Japan’s General Tojo, Italy’s Dictator Mussolini, and Germany’s Fuehrer Adolf Hitler. Then the war was over, and I was eight years old.

My dad got a job in Manhattan with his cousin, a printer, and found a railroad flat in Brooklyn for us, a few blocks from the docks. Mom, sister Diane, and I followed later to arrive by train on New year’s Day, 1946. I learned to live with fear and uncertainty in this neighborhood, more and more as I grew toward adolescence.

When I got to junior high school, we learned how to act when the sirens went off, signaling a nuclear bomb attack from the Soviet Union. These felt weird, and I always felt that such preparations were useless because everything would be wiped out anyway.

Toward the end of the 1940s, many people from Puerto Rico started arriving in New York’s boroughs, including Brooklyn. One summer day a car full of Puerto Rican immigrants was circling around 48th Street, looking for a destination, the occupants unfamiliar with the neighborhood. They had interrupted the stickball game of the older guys too many times, so they stopped the car, bounced on it, rolled it, and beat up the guys in the car, using pipes and other things as clubs. I ran away to our tenement up the street, feeling as if I had been beaten up.

Not long after this we moved back to San Francisco and, later, to Berkeley. We felt safe again.

Until, ten years later, October, 1962. This is when the world changed for me: the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was living in Berkeley, attending the University. I often awoke, sweating, having dreamed a nuke had exploded over the whole Bay Area.

Then, then in 1963 President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and began a horrible period of uncertainty and anger and disbelief in the authorities which the ‘Warren Commission’ could not quite damp down.

The civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, then Senator Robert Kennedy gunned down within months of each other in 1968. I didn’t care that much for the Kennedy brothers or family, but upon “Bobby’s” death I felt America was coming apart.

Then the horrors of the Vietnam War, in which I was too old to directly participate, but I saw and felt the havoc it wrought on the young people and their elders.

I was present, in 1964–1965, at the ‘Free Speech Movement’ on the Berkeley campus, which began as a righteous protest and devolved into a battle between well-organized radicals and the State. It was warfare on campus and, in my mind, began the destruction of universities everywhere in the USA.

Time passes, wounds are layered over while one continues to do what humans tend to do, make families, go to work to support them, try to enjoy life occasionally. The horrors are buried, then… 9/11.

I could not believe, at first, I was not seeing a video-fiction, a story. My guts roiled, at age 64, wanting to go to battle with the hidden perpetrators.

I felt I finally understood the anger of the nation upon the bombing attack on Pearl Harbor.

The general anger and concomitant madness have not dissipated. I cannot now imagine what life will be like for my five children and, especially, my four grandchildren.

In grade school we used to sing “God Bless America.” Is there any singing in grade school these days?

Brahms’s Requiem: “All Flesh is as Grass”

As I age I think more about death, especially as I see relatives and friends dropping away. I am blessed with good health and with genes that indicate continuing longevity, so I am not morbid about myself in these ruminations.

I still feel the absence of my father, my sister Diane, my life-long friend Fred Pape, and, quite recently, I thought of Uncle Harry (died in 1993)  whose oft-repeated phrase suddenly popped into my head at the proper occasion: “take it easy.” To indulge and assuage these thoughts and feelings I listen to music: most often Chopin and Grieg, occasionally Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff to evoke my mother.

I recently ‘discovered’ liturgical music, primarily the Mozart “Great” Mass in C Minor and his Requiem; and, the Stabat Mater of Pergolesi. Although I will never tire of them, I play them less often now, as I can conjure elements of each in my head when I wish. What I most recently have discovered that my favorite “classical” composer, Brahms, also wrote a requiem, about which more below.

einstein-visualized

A requiem is an act or token of remembrance. The word is from the Latin requies, ‘rest’, as in requiescat in pace—‘rest in peace’.

The “act or token” is most often conducted as a Christian ceremony in recognition of someone’s death (also groups of people).

The “act” in church is often accompanied by music written specifically for remembering the dead. In this setting, the requiem takes the form of a liturgical mass.

Simply stated a ‘requiem’ is an occasion to remember someone upon his or her death, and to wish her or him a peaceful “rest.”

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) wrote a magnificent piece of music for such an occasion, Ein Deutsches Requiem (1868), “A German Requiem.” And, even though he used text from the Old and New Testaments of the Lutheran Bible (in German, not the traditional Latin, hence the “German” in the title), it was not written to be performed in church, although there is nothing to prevent this. Nowhere in the text of the vocal portion of the music is there mention of Jesus Christ as is required for a liturgical mass.

He did use “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” of chapter 3, verse 16 of the Gospel of John (King James Version cited here). But, as he told conductor Karl Reinthaler, “As far as the text is concerned, I confess that I would gladly omit even the word German and instead use Human; also with my best knowledge and will I would dispense with passages like John 3:16. On the other hand, I have chosen one thing or another because I am a musician, because I needed it, and because with my venerable authors [the Old and New Testaments] I can’t delete or dispute anything. But I had better stop before I say too much.” (Source).

Before discovering this piece, I was unaware that Brahms had written what could be termed ‘religious’ music. In researching this article I found he was not formally a religious man, but has been described as a ‘humanist,’ a term and concept I find almost abhorrent. I hasten to add I am not a member of any church or religion, and do not proselytize anything. I have written elsewhere on this, so will refrain from explaining further.

Nonetheless, I find that the second movement of Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem, “All Flesh is as Grass,” grabs me and moves me as well as any of the liturgical music mentioned above. I perceive Brahms having been inspired by a power greater than man, just as with Pergolesi, Bach, Mozart and countless others who have written liturgical and secular music.

Here is the translated text of the second movement of Ein Deutsches Requiem, “All Flesh is as of Grass” (Source):

1 Peter 1:24
For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.

James 5:7
Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandmen waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.

1 Peter 1:25
But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.

Isaiah 35:10
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

The words speak for themselves. The music contains a death march, but ends in the glory indicated by the words.

einstein-visualized reversed.jpg

So, I think of those who have departed, immersed in music which celebrates death, becoming spent of sorrowful emotions and filled with strength for the journey which continues.

Tinnitus

I met a man around 15 years ago who, a week after we met, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge to his death.

We had a mutual friend, Kelly, who asked me to meet with him after I had told Kelly about my tinnitus. Kelly was interested in how I dealt with the constant low hum and high-pitched hissing, and the occasional but temporary loud, clear tone. He said his friend, whom I later met, was depressed about his tinnitus. Kelly thought my meeting with him and talking about our shared affliction might help him.

Upon meeting his friend in San Jose I learned he was, indeed, depressed about his tinnitus, but it was different from mine. He said that, when in conversation, whatever he heard echoed and reverberated.

~1438120515~what did you sayI told him what I had told Kelly—I have found a way, both voluntarily and involuntarily, to ignore the constant hissing and humming. I don’t ‘hear’ my tinnitus unless I consciously think about it, or unless I am in a place where there is almost complete silence. Kelly’s friend was not impressed, saying this way of dealing with it was not available to him.

Kelly’s friend had other problems as well. He had lost a critically important client for his business, and his wife had left him. So, I can’t blame the tinnitus for his unfortunate demise, but it seems a contributing factor.

I began to notice the sounds in my head around twenty-five years ago, when in my early fifties. At first it was the hissing which masked all sibilants and stridents: s/z/f/v. Also, I found myself reading lips, needing to see my interlocutor’s mouth to understand some of the emanating sounds, both heard and unheard. I finally bought hearing aids at around age sixty, but even as the technology has improved (I’m on my third pair) nothing can make me hear s/z/f/v. Except for a few distorted tones in the upper ranges (typically played by flutes and violins), I hear music well-enough to enjoy it fully. I can fill in the blanks when listening to familiar music, just as I interpolate much of the speech directed toward me.

One’s hearing deficit is hard for others to understand, much less be empathetic with. A blind person, or a person with an impairment of the limbs or other parts of the visible body, more naturally evokes sympathetic reactions. The confusion of a deaf person is often perceived as humorous, and it serves one (me, at least) to go along with the humor and even build upon it.

My mother, in her eighties, was concerned about her tinnitus. She took medication to control her paranoid tendencies, so the sounds in her head would evoke confusion and concern. I reassured her that I had the same affliction and, thus, it was a family trait.

I wonder if Kelly’s friend had paranoid or other psychological tendencies which the tinnitus exacerbated. Maybe it was the tinnitus which pushed him over the edge.

An excellent novel and story to read if you want to enter the world of the partially deaf: Deaf Sentence, by David Lodge.

Intimations of Mortality

My sister Diane died on July 8 of this year, not quite two months ago. She was 68.

I am past the major grieving, I believe—several weeks have passed since my tears have welled up unexpectedly.

I may still be surprised by some sudden emotion, but there are now only persistent evocations of times shared with Diane, and of her forceful and positive spirit.

I no longer can forward to her a YouTube presentation of a popular singer or a clip from a TV comedy show of long ago, nor receive any from her. When I experience something that evokes a time we shared, I can no longer email or telephone to her about it.

She is really gone, but my sympathetic nervous system has not yet absorbed the fact of her permanent absence on this side of the great divide between life and death.

I have read and written and spoken occasionally on the subject of death, always in the abstract—for I haven’t yet experienced it, nor had anyone whose writing I have read.

With the extinguishing of Diane’s earthly presence so suddenly and completely, I feel closer to death. It is not as abstract to me as before.

When our parents died at advanced ages, these deaths were expected and even welcomed, for their last few years were difficult in each separate circumstance.

Not so with Diane’s death. She was younger than I by five- and-a-half years.

I have begun to imagine my spirit suddenly being extinguished. What can it be like? It is a very strange feeling or perception. Will the soul survive and, if so, in what manner?

I have known people who dwelt on the subject of death overly much in my view, or for my continuing interest. Will I now become such a person?

As I write this I wonder what lesson there may be in this new feeling or perception. What comes immediately to mind are the several aphorisms I have read and quoted, all tending toward this conclusion:

Death is always at your left hand (as Don Juan Matus remarked to Carlos Castaneda), so accept it and live life as this were your last moment.

Granddaughter Sydney learned a variant of this recently in Bible camp; she repeated it at the memorial we held for Diane in Sydney’s home.

To me this does not mean to become a pursuer of transient pleasures. Rather, it is to continue to act and build upon values that will have some lasting usefulness, at least for a few generations beyond.

I wrote the following during a low period, some 16 years ago:

Will It Be a Good Death?

When all the patterns close around me,
As my spirals play out all their energies,
When the sun no longer burns inside me,
And the waters cease coursing through me,
Will we cry good tears and say goodbye without regret?

Will it be a good death?

I pray it will be a good death
For the sake of my soul,
And the souls of my children, and of their children,
And of others who love me.

I pray my life will warrant a good death.

Will those with whom I am love-connected say,
“It was a good death: There was honor and completeness”?
Will they peacefully help my spirit to reunite with
The Great Everything?

To die a good death I must live a good life:
Be brave, be true, my soul;
Help me toward that good death.