Stars

Imagine a young man, raised a city boy in San Francisco, Brooklyn, and Berkeley between the years 1937 and 1954. That’s me or was me. (Am I still that young man?).

The stars I saw through the urban atmosphere were relatively few and dim, although I was able to imagine more of them from having read picture books on astronomy and having visited planetariums in San Francisco and New York several times. Stars were mostly fictional places for me, from my avid reading of science fiction in my teen tears.

Being footloose after high school and not ready for college, or anything, it seemed at the time, I was strongly encouraged by my father to join the US Navy at age 17. I did. This was 1954.

After the usual basic training at U.S. Naval Training Center in San Diego (now a housing and recreation development), I was assigned to further training to be minimally competent aboard an aircraft carrier, then being upgraded at the now defunct US Naval Shipyard, Hunter’s Point, San Francisco.

Our ship was finally ready in mid-1955 for sea trials off the coast of California, from San Francisco to San Diego and back. There was the usual coastal fog and cloud cover, and I was busy learning to be a sailor aboard a vessel actually at sea, so I did not notice things like stars that lay beyond what needed my attention immediately at hand.

We eventually were ready for the regular trip from our home base at Alameda Naval Air Station (now defunct) to Japan and the Far East, via Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where “shapes” were brought aboard. Translate that as “nuclear weapons.”

The first leg of the trip, to Hawaii, was 2,400 miles. Steaming between 20 and 25 knots, 24 hours per day, this took less than a week. Our division was busy all this time, below decks—that is, not where we could see the sky.

After a week or so in “Pearl,” I was excited to know that within two weeks I would be in Japan. I was then age 19.

There was more leisure time now and, as an electronics technician, I had access to all parts of the ship. When I was not on duty or asleep, I would explore everywhere that was not “officer country” or restricted to those with the unnamed clearance that meant “nuclear.”

In the great western Pacific, midway between Hawaii and Japan, I had the watch duty ending at midnight. Before retiring to my bunk, I wandered the forward catwalks, just below the flight deck, for some fresh salt air.

There were no air operations that night, so I sat in a gun tub just below the level of the flight deck and observed this new universe without haste for the first time. At night the ship displays only red lights, to be invisible to passing ships and aircraft.

As I began to perceive the horizon that separated the vastness of the sea from the even greater vastness of the sky, it seemed as if I was about to covered by a blanket of velvet in which there was an infinitude of holes through which the light of the universe was shining. My right hand involuntarily reached toward that blanket, trying to touch the soft velvet, to taste it with my fingers. My head seemed to merge with the blackness between the myriad points of light and I felt surrounded by the light of the universe.

I felt as if I was about to float along a stream of light points when I was jolted back to what passes for reality on earth by a harsh voice barking: “You got business out here, sailor?”

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Thoughts on Aging and Death

Tim McMurdo and I worked together in the mid-1980s and have kept in contact, periodically, to this day. He has stayed in California; I have moved to Stockholm, Sweden.

Late last year Tim and his wife were on a Baltic Sea cruise and stopped in Stockholm for part of a day, so we met to look at each other, now thirty-five years since we first met. I had not yet met his wife, but we have been ‘friends’ on Facebook, so we were not strangers.

I have always enjoyed Tim’s way of perceiving and reacting to the world. It was a treat to be with him and his wife for several hours. We talked about “life, the universe, and everything,” before, during, and after lunch, until they departed.

Oaks on Bernal Hill, San Jose, California

Tim later sent this to me from California:

Ron,

Some thoughts on aging.

I’ve been thinking lately that the older I become the more life seems to be a dream, an illusion, like being unstuck in time. It passes and I don’t know where it has gone or whether I’ve really been there.

I recently looked at a slew of family pictures and saw the differences in all of us that have taken place so rapidly. We live in an extended moment but time collapses everything and we are not aware of how fast it takes place.

Pictures of Mom and Dad, Jim, Galen, Nana, Aunt Alice, Auntie Mim, Uncle Hal, Jan and Burke, Snoozie, all of those we loved, now gone. Weren’t they just here yesterday? Where did they go? Did they ever really exist? Do we exist?

I don’t feel like things have changed that much, but they have. My children are 27. I just held them at birth. This is not a dissociative reaction state. I am centered in person, place, and time. But somehow, I feel like we are hurtling toward some end—some final climax of life and I haven’t the slightest idea of what it has really meant.

I did my job in nature’s eyes. I leave two children in the world. Putting my genetic material into the future generation means I’m a howling success to nature. But as an individual, I’m not sure whether I really matter or whether a little piece of my consciousness will survive death. To nature, none of that matters.

Maybe our perceived ‘higher’ level of human existence is just a self-deception. Just a way to convince oneself to stay alive. And it takes living long enough and without day to day distractions like looking for a mate, navigating a marriage, raising and supporting a family, having a career, to realize there is really nothing external that gives our lives value.

With all of these gone now, I wonder what the purpose is?  Is there some level of spiritual enlightenment that we are now supposed to reach?  Some intuitive understanding of existence beyond our superficial acknowledgments of what a good life should be?  If so, how do we find it?  I’m not really sure.

Slainte and Happy New Year.

Ron to Tim

Tim, deep and worthy thoughts. What is reality, really?

May I post these ponderings, either for attribution or anonymously, in my “Being Old” blog?

Tim to Ron

Yes, of course, with or without attribution, ok by me.  I’m thinking more about these things although as you can see, I have no clear ideas about them. Just thinking.  Would appreciate your thoughts and perspectives as well.

But death is what I can’t make sense of.  Just for our lives to end, and that’s it?  Never to know that we even existed?

A paraphrased line between a Bolshevik revolutionary and a Russian nobleman in a novel I recently read goes like this: “Count Rostov, why are we afraid of the darkness? After all, from the darkness we came, and to the darkness we shall return”.

So simple, and just to accept those words would make our struggle to understand so much easier. That there is nothing, other than this sliver of light we come into and then leave, that life has no intrinsic value.  But, this is unsettling to me. I have some intuitive sense that it’s not that simple.  It’s much bigger than anything my feeble mind can understand so I trust myself to it. A childlike belief that there is something more. Probably wishful thinking but it makes me feel better. Just faith in some greatness of nature that is hidden behind a veil.

Interesting…  how similar our thoughts are about the relentless onslaught of time [I had included this poem in my email to him]. With it comes wisdom, humility, beauty, peace, and love of life. The clarity of mind compliments of the entropy of the body.

Well, Chris is calling me to go out and work in the yard. Back to reality.

Best,

Tim

Ron to Tim

Subject: Death, where there are no taxes

Tim,

A worthy subject, one I admit I think more about these days, but without any sense of dread, just impatience—so much yet to experience!

I read books which touch on the subject. D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and others who bring to us the Eastern way of looking at things. As Suzuki points out, we in the West are always engaged in subject/object, dualistic perceptions, and answers.  My growing perception is that there are no edges to anything, including ourselves, except by convention so we can move around in the world for our various purposes. Where do “I” physically begin and end? One nanometer beyond my skin? No, I say, and here is a metaphorical approach to the answer.

Take the great oak tree which has been “alive” for two hundred years. It was previously alive as an acorn that fell from an older tree. It will eventually fall and enrich the soil as it decomposes with the help of various smaller organisms, including the slime-mold, for which it is food, or lumber, or other useful stuff.

While it was “alive” It produced countless acorns, some of which successfully took root; most of the others became food for animals or the small, hungry organisms in the welcoming earth. While “alive” it shared its body and branches and leaves with other living things: birds, insects, mosses, fungi, some of which were in a symbiotic relationship with it.

Without taking this picture further, I see life as a continuum, not an either/or proposition. You are blessed to have participated in the creation of children. Other who don’t so create still have a role to play. Here’s an article I wrote that is somewhat congruent on the topic: The Holy Zygote.

Back to the “I” who will “die.” Who is this “I?” You know that Buddhists and others have a different view of this than do we westerners. Alan Watts asserts: “there is no ‘I’ which can be protected.”

I may write a haibun on the subject, using the oak as the focal point. Thanks for the stimulus.

Ron

Fallen oak, Bernal Hill

Leaving the Cocoon of Childhood

I am currently in California to participate in celebrations for the birth of a new family member. Some of my family are in their ‘teen years, reminding me of my own youth with its uncertainties and terrors.

I am so reminded, constantly, in observing youths in the public places of Stockholm who dress, preen, pose, and behave to attract others of their age. But to be in the same house with a relative of this age brings forth echoes of my own youth more forcefully. My heart suffers for them, but to a much smaller degree than they suffer, to be sure.

I have no doubt–I can say that I know–what Nature intends for these young people, the same as she intends for the newly fecund members of all Her living species: “be fruitful and multiply.”

But such an imperative is more complicated for those humans who no longer live in circumstances where the newly fecund can successfully procreate at the youngest possible age, with the expectation that their issue will also successfully survive for the long term. We are “civilized.” We need to get an education; we need to gain the knowledge and skills to support oneself economically, and to garner sufficient assets to provide a home for oneself, one’s mate and one’s children.

Thus, the mating and procreating are delayed well beyond the time Nature prepares us, physically, for it.

But, the hardest part of being this age is not in contemplating the future, but in how to deal with the newly arrived emotions of the present. I think any parent will attest to the metamorphosis that takes place in their offspring upon the onset of puberty. Each young person is learning about her- or himself without a built-in instruction manual. Advice from older people is usually unwelcome, or not sufficient to the need. One learns about oneself from one’s own experiences. So, the loving parent will do her and his best to protect and guide the youth through self-discovery, which will often include dangerous experimentation and impulsive behavior.

Sigh—Oh Parenthood!

While pondering in this realm, I remembered a favorite “Star Trek” episode of many years ago, “Amok Time,” written by science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, first aired September 15, 1967

The First Officer of the Starship “Enterprise,” Commander Spock, had been exhibiting unusual behavior and requested that he be granted leave to go to his home planet, Vulcan. Captain James T. Kirk orders Spock to Sick Bay, where Medical Officer McCoy finds evidence of extreme physical and emotional stress, a condition that will kill him within eight days if not treated. Spock explains that he is undergoing pon farr, a condition male Vulcans experience periodically throughout their adult life, and that he must mate or die.

At Vulcan, Spock invites Kirk and McCoy to accompany him to the wedding ceremony. He explains that Vulcans are bonded as children so as to fulfill the pon farr commitment, and that T’Pring is to be his mate. T’Pring arrives with Stonn, a pureblood Vulcan, whom she prefers to Spock [who is half-human]. T’Pau, a matriarch…, prepares to conduct the ceremony. However, T’Pring demands the kal-if-fee, a physical challenge between Spock and a champion she selects. To everyone’s surprise, she chooses Kirk instead of Stonn. Spock begs T’Pau to forbid it as Kirk is unaware of the implications, but T’Pau leaves the decision to Kirk; another champion will be selected if he refuses. Kirk accepts the challenge, only to learn that it is “to the death.”

(Of course, none of our heroes dies, but I’ll leave it to the reader to pursue the plot in the source for this information.)

Spock, his pon farr ended, returns to the Enterprise, but not before warning Stonn, T’Pring’s mate to be, that “having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting.”

Yes, we are full of wanting, but never so intensely as when having newly emerged from the cocoon of childhood.

 

Words to Describe My Path  

When age fifty-eight I found myself, once again, at a crossroad in life. A constellation of major events had coincided to release me, temporarily, into the world, living alone and without a job.

Newly based in San Jose, California, I wandered, in a 1988 Honda for around a month throughout the US southwest. In Arizona, I met, separately, two people who were friends of a friend in the place I had just left. The first had the promise of a possible romance, the second was a place, near Kingman, to rest and recover.The romance didn’t ignite, so I traveled to Kingman.

Looking over the mountain forest from a spacious living room, I began to ponder my life’s path. I perceived recurring patterns. Try as I might, to go in direction A or B, I seemed always to revert to C.

After some thought-less viewing of the forest, I found myself at peace and wrote this:

Words to describe my path

To let go; to not-cling

To accept; things are as they are

To be open; to learn about the universe/my-“self”; to reveal the spirit residing within

To live simply

To nourish loving relationships

To create and maintain a private space

To contribute to useful processes

To avoid negative people and processes

I have revisited these words many times in the ensuing twenty-three years, just as I have this morning in Stockholm and find no reason to add to, or subtract from, what I wrote in Kingman more than two decades ago.

Now, enough of words, and back to the weekly laundry…

 

Nothing New Under the Sun

When one is old, as I am, one learns to remain silent on certain things, except when in the company of close friends of a similar age.

One’s physical complaints, of course, are never to be mentioned, or only in a mildly joking manner. One often lives with constant pain, certainly with discomfort, in one or more joints or sinews, or perhaps in an organ or two, most of the time masked by one’s wonderful brain which commands, “carry on.”

An old person’s musings about: “yes, that also happened to me when I was younger, and this is what I learned…” evokes glassy eyes and body language signaling a yearning for escape. And, of course, the younger ones are right: experience is the master teacher, along with pain and suffering.

Recently, I have been musing, mostly silently to be sure, about the vast store of knowledge and experience I have accumulated and remember during the four score years since before the United States entered World War Two.

I met a man a few evenings ago, the husband of a writing colleague—a charming, engaging, and accomplished fellow. Our conversation was wide-ranging, chronologically, geographically, and philosophically, a real treat for me (and my poor hearing required my interlocutor to work hard for me to understand him in the noisy room). At one point in the conversation, he realized that I was much older than I originally appeared to him (a family trait) and interjected to remark that I must have been present or aware of certain well-known historical events. Yes, I was, and briefly gave details of a few.

This pleasant experience remains with me to savor for a while. But the rarity of such an experience reminds me that I and my cohort have knowledge, or at least information, largely untapped, which will expire with us.

I feel that the main motivation for my writing is to leave a record, necessarily incomplete, of what I have seen and learned, at least as interpreted through my biases and prejudices.

I remind myself of “The Diary of Samuel Pepys,” which was more fully appreciated by later generations and stands currently as a valuable historical document.

My musings observations are not as important as those of Pepys, but I fancy (the word is based in the concept of fantasy) that there will be at least some minor value, perhaps entertainment, to people in later generations if they are made generally available (which, thanks to the Internet, already are). In addition, if they survive and are made available after I achieve room temperature, I have retained decades of correspondence with friends and family, both in digital and hard copy form. (Oh, yes, I am obsessive about certain things).

How full of myself I am to think, or at least hope, that my scribblings have and will retain value. As the wisdom contained in the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us:

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Scholars may learn from history, but it seems the rest of us do not. My father tried to impart to me what he had learned, which was much, and I did listen and record what he said. Nonetheless, I had to live a full life, making my mistakes, to fully understand what he was trying to help me learn and avoid in life.

Thanks for trying, Dad.

Me ‘n’ Dad

Gone is the child

Gone is the child
That young man
I remember so well

Eighty years of living
Some of it hard
Some of dangerous

Much loving
Much heartbreak
Much fear

Music
Marriage
Children

Schools
Jobs
Betrayals

Successes
Failures
Recoveries

Years fall into the abyss
Friends, family disappear
Leaving tearful memories

But new friends, family appear
I cherish them and every moment
Even as the memories travel with me

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 was 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, 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 was 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 came 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?