A Broken Heart

Background

On May 2, 2018, I posted an article titled, The Tyranny of Conformity, in which I describe the struggle of an autistic man to obtain a Driver’s Permit. ‘John’ comprehensively knows the  answers to 100 driving questions in driving manuals, including that of the DMV’s Driver’s Manual. He is also able to pantomime the answers as he answers them. For example, if he is asked to do so, he can simultaneously speak an answer while using his hands to depict the meaning of the answer: For a wordless road sign like “slippery when wait,” ‘John’ uses his hands to represent snow, rain, and ice, and for good measure, holds on to an imaginary steering wheel while he sways from side-to-side to indicate the car is skidding. Yet, his quest for a driver’s license is on hold for a variety of reasons, none of which has to do with his ability to pass a DMV permit test.

Update

But this article refers to my far deeper concern for him, especially in terms of his future. That concern has grown since our relationship as tutor and student has become a relationship that resembles that of a grandfather and his grandson.

On my part, I see myself as the father in the film titled Life is Beautiful, in which a father shields his son from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp by pretending that he and his son are playing a game.

At twenty-five years of age, John is part man, part boy. When I interact with children, I enter into their world (as, in part, I often do with adults). From the beginning, I knew that to interact with John I needed to be two people: One, a loving grandfather who is irate because his grandson is stealing his cookies, and the other as myself when I speak to John about adult issues.  Playing the grandfather, I change my manner and even my voice.  Like a child, John goes along with my game. But a slight smile that John is unable to suppress betrays his understanding that we are just playing a game. When he comes to study or just visit me, I stop him at the door and, as the grandfather, sternly ask him:  “Are you going to be bad or good?” He cheerfully answers, “Goooood!” “Did you come to make trouble?”  He emphatically answers, “Nooooo!”

“Okay, now you may come in.”

On the Fourth of July about three years ago, I was sitting at my window watching neighbors celebrating the holiday. The aroma of grilled chicken, hot dogs, and hamburgers was deliciously pungent. Neighbors across the street gave John a shish kabob packed to the brim. Before John began to devour it, he came to my window, held the skewer vertically in front of him, and brandished a smile of total contentment.  I responded with cheerful laughter. But inside, I couldn’t dismiss the disheartening thought that this is the best my ‘grandson’ can look forward to in his life.

Like the father in Life is Beautiful, I shield John from the truth about negative events and circumstances he experiences. John is as innocent as the boy in Life is Beautiful. The boy’s father knows that he must not reveal the truth to his son. I know that in certain circumstances I must do the same for John. The most disturbing of those circumstances is the ambivalence associated with his potential ownership and use of a car. I’ve become entangled in a dilemma that was initiated by a misunderstanding a year or two ago when John brought me a Driver’s License manual.

I thought his father wanted me to teach John how to drive. So, within the parameter of tutoring him about the rules of the road and having him sit in the passenger seat as I demonstrated driving ‘live,’ I tutored John about driving skills. In the course of that tutorage, John’s expectations grew, fueled by the knowledge that a car has been donated to him and waiting for him in a relative’s garage! Coupled with all that, there is my empty garage which I’ve promised John he would have at his disposal when he gets his driving license.

On the surface, those circumstances seem unimportant. But underlying them is the prevailing pathos of John’s life as an autistic man. A part of the autistic spectrum compels him to repeatedly  ask the same question. I believe that his repetition is caused by the need for reassurance. For instance, when John asks me a question, he phrases it so that there can be only one answer: the one he was promised would be the answer. And his questions are often implied rather than directly expressed as a question. He’ll say, “I have a bike…” pauses, and expects me to say, “…and a car.”  During the pause, his expectation is clearly written on his face. Or, he’ll say, “I’ll get my license when…pauses, and expects me to say, …”when you pass the road test.” He’ll also directly ask questions: “Where will I put my car?” I respond, “In my garage.”

It saddens me when I cheer along with him while knowing that it’s a very, very long shot for him to get a driver’s license and park his car in my garage. I hope he doesn’t think I failed him when I die.

When John phones people they often don’t answer. He waits a very long time for them to pick up their phones before he sadly gives up. I always answer quickly. And when John calls me at a time when I can’t pick up my phone, I call him back as soon as I can.  He has a guarantee that one way or the other I will always respond to his call. I want him to remember that there was someone in his life who always fully responded to his calls or messages. He calls me every night before he goes to bed.  At the end of every phone conversation, I wait until he says ‘goodbye’ before I hang up.

John visits me often and we tell each other about our daily experiences, have soup together in the winter and ice-cream in the summer, and have our private jokes, one of which is bitter-sweet and encapsulates the essence of our relationship. I have a niece who sometimes calls me late at night. I’ve told John that if he gets a busy signal when he calls at night, it’s my niece who is on the phone and that her calls are lengthy. So, he should not wait until she hangs up, but just go straight to bed.

When I first asked John, “What do you do if you call me late at night and you get a busy signal?,” John answered, “Go straight to bed!” Lately, he has not waited for me to ask him that question. Instead, he more and more elaborately blurts out, “When I get a busy signal, I go straight to bed!” He gets very excited as he says that line and anticipates my response. When he delivers that ‘punch line,’ I laugh every time as though I hear the line for the first time. But while I laugh, I hold back tears.

Despite the popular belief that autistic people have no compassion John put his arm around my shoulder when I returned from the hospital after a bout with pneumonia. Apparently, he’s as concerned about me as much as I am about him. I believe that compassion is the greatest of all emotions.  It’s my good fortune to know my friend, ‘John.’

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The Ultimate Life Extinction

“There’s no shortage of ‘End of the World’ scenarios: Fire, Ice, Pandemic, Solar Flares, Supernova Gamma Ray Burst, Mega Caldera Eruption, Global Nuclear War, Giant Asteroid or comet Impact, Global warming. Rocks ominously whisper to us of primordial cataclysmic global events. Ancient bones sheathed in rock bring to mind the final deathblow to the dinosaurs. So far, all earth’s mass life extinctions have occurred prior to The Age of Man. But in addition to the threat of global warming, there looms a mass life extinction event that will certainly extinguish humanity forever in a geological heartbeat unless it is prevented.”

─ Me                           

When I was in high school, I first heard that the genesis of life occurred in a “primordial soup, probably energized by a bolt of lightning.” Well…that’s kind of vague. The ‘primordial soup,’ (with or without ‘lightning’) is better described as biospheric factors that played titanic roles during much of the dawn of life. Those factors include: Marine Anoxia, Freed Oxygen, Photosynthesis, Greenhouse Gases, Ocean Acidification, asteroid impacts, Volcanism, and ─ not the least of factors ─ the voracious appetite of methanogenic bacteria and their dinner habits. I’m not kidding. Methanogenic bacteria relish methane.

[Note: the hypothetical comet or asteroid cited above is not the one associated with the extinction of the dinosaurs only 65 million years ago when they had already been in decline for millions of years. The Yucatan asteroid ─ as I call it ─ ended the dinosaurs’ already weakened species as a result of various causes.]

End Permian ─ Triassic Period, also known as, The Great Dying.

There have been several mass life extinctions, the most devastating of which occurred at the geologic borderline between the Permian and Triassic Periods and whose global devastation lasted for about fifty million years (300-252 million years ago). Causes of that apocalyptic event include: 1) Two million years of massive volcanic activity, combined with the gluttony of methanogenic bacteria who convert carbon dioxide to methane, or 2) One million square miles of deep lava flows ─ the size of present Europe ─ packed with nickel-eating bacteria, or 3) A possible asteroid impact at the end of the Triassic Period that penetrated the bottom of the earth’s upper mantle, or 4) a nearby supernova, or 5) An overlapping of two or more of those cataclysmic events over time. In any case, there was a severe depletion of oxygen during the dark ages of geology.

Extinction statistics for The Great Dying vary but are generally described as “96% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial species.”  That apocalyptic event began at about 250 to 251 million years ago. All current life has descended exclusively from the 4% of species that survived The Great Dying. Trilobites, the dominant species at the time of the extinction, were obliterated forever. The same was true of almost all life: but…nooooo…not true for bacteria. They even thrived on methane while practically every other species choked to death during The Great Dying.

Rewind

The Cambrian Period, also known as, The Cambrian Explosion.

The Cambrian Period began 530 to 525 million years ago and lasted 53 million years. Despite its four mass extinctions, the period is distinguished by its geologically brief but incredibly prolific burst of diverse lifeforms. In stark contrast to The Great Dying, the Cambrian Period is the centerpiece for life’s tenacity, resilience, and exponential diversity. The period is often referred to as The Time of Ancient Life, especially because of a special timeline within that period that gives the period its descriptive identity: The Cambrian Explosion! It was then that life got its act together. 

Very Fast Forward                             

Human life made its debut about two million years ago. A few creationists and atheists continue tedious debates embodied by the expression, The Missing Link. The definition for that expression is: An intermediate evolutionary form between one animal species or group and its presumed ancestor [Meriam Webster, my favorite dictionary].

I don’t believe there is a missing link. I believe it has just been ‘overlooked’ or, more precisely, because intelligence cannot be found in the empty sculls of ancient fossils. The so-called ‘missing link’ is intelligent life.

Intelligence is aware of its self. It knows there is no phenomenon in the universe more enigmatic than its self. It thinks about thinking, as you and I do when we pause for contemplation. Even then, it’s not the content of our thoughts that’s necessarily enigmatic, but rather that the phenomenon of intelligent thought itself exists.

Bacteria activity is automatic, vegetative and insect life ‘talk’ to each other to warn, protect, and reproduce their kind, avian life communicates with vocal and flight patterns, marine fish communicate with movement and color displays, marine mammals communicate with vocal patterns, land mammals with an enormous range of communication patterns, including body language.

All those species existed long before humankind’s cue to enter earth’s parade of life. Our species’ distinction includes ─ but is not limited to ─ complex individuation, extensive habitat modification from pole to pole, complex language, science, art, and exponentially enhanced sense perception when it is combined with mind and technology that spans the microcosmic and macrocosmic worlds. A combination of those attributes has led us as a species to ponder the human species’ future, especially in terms of its survival.

Pause

On a personal note, I add my belief that mammals and primates brought love to the phenomenon of life.  Even individuals of different species bond despite the instinctive hostility they continue to feel against the species to which their bonded individual companions naturally belong. And who is there that can rival the love between dogs and humans or monkeys and humans or apes and humans or horses and humans, and a host of other improbable companions!

As a species, humans are the only lifeform on earth that knows there is a universe. Many of us also know that all life on earth, even bacteria, can be extinguished at the blink of a geologic Age ─ or, far quicker than that.

Or worse, will there be a Slow Dying? This time, no survivors. No life at all. No possibility of life. A dead planet. Or, will we fumble into a global nuclear war? Will carbon dioxide and ocean acidification do to us what it did to the trilobites? Or, will we have been too slow to technologically eliminate the possibility of a massive world-ending asteroid impact? Will the earth become absolutely sterile because of a supernova gamma ray burst that will instantly transform earth into a radioactive killer?

None of the mass extinctions included in this article is as certain to extinguish all human life as is the species that will become extinct by its own hand. That killer is humanity itself. That mass extinction will kill all humans at a geological instant when the level of artificial intelligence hits 51%. Will a future geologic period be named: AI-51%, also known as, The Great Suicide?)

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TEN DAYS

Requiem for a Grand Lady

DAY 1

One morning shortly after my sister died, I woke up and for the first time in my life I was terrified.  The shelves which surround my bed seemed empty of books that once had nourished my mind and served as a celebration of life The Cosmic Code…Masters of the Drama…Civilization, Past and Present.  These packages of thought, along with many others that cram my bookcase, had always been sturdy companions in my life, faithful sources of knowledge, understanding, and joy.  Suddenly, I thought of them as meaningless.  I looked toward my collection of operas Aida, Tosca, Turandot they too, had always fulfilled their promise of joy, no matter how often I had heard them. But, when, from time to time,  I unwillingly but presciently imagined what my life would be  without her, I knew that I would not be comforted by music we often heard together.

That morning was the first time in several months that I had turned attention to myself or rather, that thoughts about myself  had been forced on me by this overwhelming feeling of terror. That feeling compounded the profound grief I experienced because of the death of my incomparable companion.

On that dark morning, I realized that my profound grief would change my life.  But I also remember how my companion and I promised each other that we would somehow survive the death of the other for the sake of the other.     

DAY 2

Dear Prudy,

As I write to you I am reminded of my last words to you three months ago when death suddenly came to our dinner table. I remember shouting those words into your ear as you died in my arms.  I don’t know if you heard them.  I remember that while I said those  words I was concerned that if you did hear them you might be disturbed by the desperate tone of my voice.  Your death was instant, but time stood still as I tried to express a lifetime of love in just a few chaotic seconds.  Now I am writing a letter to you, and once again have no way of knowing whether or not you can ‘hear’ me. They are words which I have repeated daily these past three months, at times in the form of thoughts, at others in whispers “I love you…I love you…I love you.”

DAY 3

Several days have passed since I wrote to Prudy.  The terror continues.  My state of being may be described by a metaphor:  I imagine a brilliant night sky in which the stars suddenly disappear.  Morning never comes because there is no longer a sun a universe abruptly extinguished.

In my universe the metaphor is a reality.  It begins with a frantic 911 call when I already knew that my sister had died in my arms.  At that time reality had become more like a nightmare.  The paramedics arrived and attempted to revive her although I had urgently pleaded for them not to do so, as she wished.  Yes, I had instinctively called for them, as I had for previous emergencies, but this time I wished I hadn’t.  Prudy and I had made a promise which we thought would be honored through our health proxies the assurance that no attempt to resuscitate her. Apparently we hadn’t been specific about a DNR order.  As a result, the paramedics insisted on resuscitation and rushed her to a nearby hospital.  I followed the ambulance with the assistance of a neighbor who drove me there.

When we arrived at the hospital, Prudy was swallowed through forbidding swinging doors. I was ushered into an office where an “official” badgered me with the obligatory financial questions.  In the inexorable manner of hospital personnel, it was made clear to me that insurance matters took precedence over my need to prevent the physicians from keeping Prudy alive artificially. They put her on a damn machine.  I was handed a paper which was represented to me as certification that “heroic measures” would not be taken. The response to my pleas was, “You are not qualified to decide because you are emotional.   

I waited for hours.  Hospital personnel evaded my questions and avoided me.  Finally, I went home, not knowing whether or not I was correct about Prudy being already dead. I expected a phone call all through the night telling me that it was over.  The call didn’t come.  The next morning I went to the hospital. I was horrified to see Prudy on a lung/heart machine. To this day I am devastated when I recall that her eyes were open wide as though she were afraid.

I’ll never know why the physicians countermanded our wishes.  I have reason to hope that the decision was profit-oriented.  I’ll never know the truth, but as I looked into her eyes which gave the appearance of being startled, she seemed to be asking me, “What’s happening to me?”

DAY 4

I fought the authorities for one more day in order to free Prudy from her counterfeit animation.  They finally let her go.  At her wake, I was comforted to see her eyes closed.  I closed mine and remembered her eyes as they had always been always gentle, always understanding, always compassionate.  As friends and relatives extended their condolences, I had numerous flashbacks reminding me of her relationship to each of them.  She had encouraged and supported everyone who came into her life.

She came into my life when I was six years old.  She was born at home while I was playing in the back yard.  The doctor called me into the house and introduced her to me, “You have a little sister now.”  I wondered how she could have such little fingers and toes and then I went out to play again.

For the next four years she was just another fact of life.  Then, the day after her fourth birthday, she cried all day because her big party day was over.  She had experienced her first disappointment.  I failed to comfort her because even at that young age I had no illusions about life.  Birthday parties come and go.  I did not relate to disillusions because I already knew that a disillusion is engendered by an illusion.  Therefore, I thought, it is foolish to cry over the inevitable.  I didn’t know that I should have gone a step further and dealt with her suffering whatever its source.  I didn’t know that I should have comforted her.

Two years later I fared better.  I saw her sadly playing with a toy “tea set.”  She was patently lonely.  That I could relate to.  I joined her, and this time she had a party she had not expected.  When the party was over she didn’t cry because I promised her that I would come to tea again.  I was happy to be there for her.  This was to be the pattern for the rest of our lives together.  We were always there for each other.  Our tea party lasted  sixty years.

DAY 5

When we were adults, our tea party was elegant.  Our guests were the very best life could offer.  I invited Science, Theater, and Philosophy.  She introduced me to Poetry, Grace, and Love. We both discovered Loyalty, a constant guest at our table.  One day, an uninvited guest came to our table and the tea party was over.

Shattered fragments of our party are scattered throughout our home, jolting reminders of our abrupt separation.  Today, three months after Prudy’s death, I looked through a drawer in which she had preserved mementos.  I was profoundly moved by the discovery that she had saved every birthday card I had ever sent her.  She had also saved playbills and newspaper articles associated with my theatrical life.  How like her to have cared.

There were also special letters and cards from others in our lives which she had carefully kept.  Among these was a love letter from her deceased husband, my dear friend, Bruno.  He had written it before their marriage, when the three of us were young.  I hesitated to read it, thinking that I might be intruding on their privacy, but I was compelled to appreciate anything that was important to her, and I wanted to remember him too.  Mementos have a way of inextricably mixing delight and sorrow.  His words are beautiful and I know that their promise to her was kept throughout his life.  I know how important that letter must have been to Prudy when she first read it and lovingly placed it with her cherished mementos.  As I read it, the dusty paper on which it was written so long ago was moistened by my tears.    

Bruno had brought Architecture, Painting, and Sculpture to our tea party, and already knew our constant guest, Loyalty.  When he died, Prudy and I sadly placed one cup and saucer aside and gradually put our lives together again.  Eventually we turned our attention back to our guests, particularly Poetry and Theater.  I went on directing shows and Prudy went on writing lyrics and editing material for some of the outdated revues I directed.

For a variety of reasons, including her protracted struggle with the paralysis of both her legs and the lower middle-class struggle for survival, she did not persistently pursue a career as a lyricist.  In spite of that, she had once been commissioned to write the lyrics for a feature film. However, the film was withdrawn because of a union dispute.

Today I needed to hear her voice, so I opened a drawer in which she kept her writing files.  I selected one of her lyrics randomly and was startled by a fragment which seemed at once prophetic and timely:

…And the wind blew gently toying with her hair
Carrying our laughter for the world to share…
Suddenly the wind changed, sweeping through the sky
Making dust the green hills, turning rivers dry
We could feel our bright hopes slipping through our hands
And the wind blew coldly through the shifting sands

DAY 6

The shifting sands have thrown me into a chaotic landscape.  It is a universe of quantum emotions.  The same object simultaneously evokes severely contrasting emotions.  I see our favorite lamps set in our bay windows, and I at once feel poignant nostalgia and withering sorrow.  They had a special meaning for us.      

Two years ago I heard her urgently call me to join her at our television.  When I got there  she quickly explained that a series of lamps were for sale and she didn’t know which to choose as the limited supply was running out.  When the final choice of lamps was presented to us I said to her, “That’s the one!”  She agreed immediately but needed her credit card and the telephone, items she could not quickly reach given the limitations of her physical handicap.  I rushed to get our order in before the televised offer would expire.  I succeeded within seconds of the time limit.  We ordered two lamps, one for each bay window in our living room.  When they arrived, I placed them on the window sills and turned them on.  Her beautiful eyes lit with them, happy to see her dream become a reality.  In the lower middle class, events like these are great victories.  The lamps, along with their reflection on the side panes of the twin bay windows, helped cheer us throughout the year.  We were especially fond of them through winter nights when they seemed to protect us from the cold and dark.  They are still there.  I light them each night.  I glance at them from time to time and feel suspended between comfort and pain, experiencing a mixed emotion I never knew existed.  And when it is time to put them out each night, I whisper her name and wish her “Good Night.”

DAY 7

There are many other beautiful items in our living room.  Many of them were created by her husband.  They are works of art which, like Prudy’s lyrics, are counter to a culture which entered its first stage of Alzheimer’s Disease at about the time of our adolescence.  The three of us were weaned on Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and Aristotle at a time when those men were already fading from the collective memory of our society.  Our living room reflects the values of a civilization in its twilight.

I have left that room just as it was when Prudy died.  She loved the crystal and every other item in that room.  Each piece had a special meaning to her.  A few days after her death I washed the crystal as though to let her know that her precious collection and its sparkling memories would be lovingly preserved.

I’ve also gathered lyrics which she had scattered here and there.  The paper on which they were written is yellowed and has gathered dust but her words are still fresh.  I read them all and carefully placed them into a single folder.  A copy of them will be kept in my memory.   It is unfortunate that they have not been put to music, but I will keep them alive in me as poetry.

Prudy had saved items which Bruno had left behind.   I am keeping those along with hers until some disinterested person comes along and discards them after I die.  They include paintings and sculpture which grace our living room.  Most of them were created by Bruno.  They will remain here until that disinterested person comes along.

Like an earthquake, death has many aftershocks.  That bottle of perfume, that pair of slippers.  What do I keep? What do I discard?  When do I attend to that unfinished piece of business?   I dread dealing with legal documents which require financial closure.  I open Prudy’s posthumous mail and read words like “deceased,” “final,” and “a death certificate is required.”  The mailbox contains brochures offering her a cruise or enhanced health insurance.  The phone’s answering machine cheerfully announces, “Hello Prudy, how are you?”

DAY 8

Toward the end of each day I watch television for passive distraction.  Prudy and I used to do this together when there was nothing else to do or when we needed to unwind after a difficult day.  Television is generally a very good means for putting people to sleep without medication.  Because of this, I start to watch it at a very late hour just long enough to sense that I am ready for bed.  At times, I fall asleep while watching.

When I wake from this brief slip from consciousness, I turn to my left where she used to sit.  I take a breath to speak to her.  The emotion generated by sudden recall is shocking.  Because we often impulsively told each other of our experiences, this phenomenon also occurs during waking hours.  Although I halt my speech, I am jolted by the unspoken thought, “Prudy, look at that beautiful   And then I remember.

DAY 9

About three weeks before her death Prudy was besieged by a host of unfortunate circumstances.  The organization for which she worked decided to provide its membership with electronic management rather than servicing it with live employees (you know, downsizing, press 1, press 2, press 3).  Prudy was asked to wait for the board’s directive to prepare all office material in our home for transportation to a location in Manhattan.

She could have accomplished the task without pressure if the directive had been given to her in a timely manner.  But the directive was delayed for several weeks.  Suddenly, the shortsighted leadership considered the matter urgent.  This required a mammoth effort on Prudy’s part to ship a plethora of business items from home to the company.

At that time she and I were also engaged in preparing a show I was directing, so I was unable to fully support her.  As a result she was frantically sorting files and packing boxes during a period of unseasonably warm weather.  I saw the strain in her face and body movement.  I tried to help her, but she insisted that I concentrate on the show while she handled the transition herself.        

The one thing she asked me to do was search for a letter which was given to her four years ago that contained critical material through which she could make an important professional point to the lackluster board of directors.  We looked everywhere but could not find that letter.  She was desperate to find it.

She strained to dangerous physical limits as she raced against time.  She had a sense of urgency for closure that reached beyond the job termination.  A feeling of foreboding came over me as I saw a certain look on her face.  I had seen that look before.  I had seen it in Bruno three weeks before he died.  I knew that she did not have long to live.  She knew it too.  There was one terrible instance when without saying a word we communicated that knowledge to each other.  I looked away and had a vision of a tsunami coming our way.

During the next day or two I noticed that she had put many family papers in order.  She “casually” reminded me that she had an old $500.00 insurance policy in a particular drawer.  She obviously was quietly preparing for the tsunami.  But she went on with our daily business.  She went on with the costumes she was preparing for my show.  She even went on with reconciling our joint bank account.  I underplayed my response to her remark about a mistake she had made in the simple addition of figures.  Hoping she would not read my thoughts, I told her that neither of us was ever any good at figures, however simple.  She responded, “No, I’m losing it.”

An hour later, at dinner, the tsunami came.

DAY 10

It is winter now.   Everyday activities in the present are dreamlike while images of the past have an all too sharp reality.  They leap into my mind when I least expect them,

and they haunt me as if to punish myself for having been unable to make things better for Prudy when she was dying.

A week or so after her death, I found the critical letter that she and I had so desperately sought.  It was the last item beneath the very last folder at the bottom of a heap of business folders and other papers. By its appearance, I assumed it could not be the letter we were seeking.  It seemed to mock me.  Why couldn’t I have found it when it was so important to her?  Why had I not looked at that last item in that drawer? I was so close.  Had I turned over that last single sheet of paper, I would have discovered the letter she had so desperately sought.  I shouted in primordial rage, “I found it, Prudy, I found it, Prudy, I found it!”  The feeling of regret was overwhelming, and remains to this day.

But Prudy and I made a promise to each other that we would have no regrets,  that we would focus on survival because the other would want it that way.  I must find purpose again so that I may keep that promise.  The terror of having no purpose in life is another form of death.

Responding to her great concern about my survival should she die first, I promised her that if I lived through the immediate shock I would survive and that she should do the same if I were to die first.  Perhaps the promise itself is purpose enough for now.

This letter to you, Prudy, is my first conscious effort to keep my promise:

Dear Prudy,

Our tea party is over.  This time, I am the one who is crying.  One of the guests who has remained is Loyalty.  I am loyal to your memory.  I remember your courage, your brilliance, your unconditional love.  I wish you could know how others remember you as

well.  Perhaps I can best describe their feelings by reminding you of your favorite film, Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.  You were deeply moved by its premise that a man who was about to commit suicide because he thought that his life had been meaningless was made to see that his actions through the years had immeasurably altered the lives of others for the better.  Towards the end of your life, it saddened me to hear that you, like him, thought you were a failure.  You thought that most people were at best indifferent about you.  That is not so.  Many people remember you with love, Prudy.  They speak of you as a legend: the Capra legend.  And, contrary to what you told me during our last conversation, they do appreciate the affect you’ve had on their lives.  I wish you could hear them speak of you and read their letters telling me how you have forever touched their lives.  They are grateful to you.  So am I immeasurably so.  I am like one of those characters in the Capra film: I would not have known love if you had not taught me love.

I remember all the times that you were there for me when I needed you to help me through big problems.  I remember those all-important little things too.  I remember our rides through Long Island…our shared excitement over the lush green of summer and the brilliant pageant of fall…how we got ‘high’ on the fragrance of nature…how we drew each other’s attention to a special bunch of flowers and the sun coming through the trees.  I remember that little restaurant facing Long Island Sound where we used to watch those glorious sunsets.

I remember the ride when we stopped to buy the silk red flowers you admired.  We didn’t know that that was to be our last “perfect day” as we called them.  The flowers are still in our living room.  So are the lamps.  They will be kept burning as long as I live.

I remember your gentle eyes, your beautiful voice, and a smile that defies description although everyone speaks of it.  I am privileged to have known you, my love.  If there is a spirit universe, and if it’s okay with you, I want to spend eternity with you.

But, as always, you are better with words, so let me use your song lyric to tell you how I feel:

Who am I without you
My universe centers about you
If you go
Would I know
My way through this cold indifferent world…
I stumbled and blundered
And so often wondered
Who am I
Till I knew
That I am a part of you.

Love,

Mario

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Abortion

Birthing (a.k.a. gestation) is a constantly evolving biological process. For obvious reasons, there is no controversy more emotionally charged than that of induced termination of that process.

At the root of the seemingly unresolvable abortion issues is a gap between laws of government and those of the birthing process. Row/Wade partially succeeds in bridging that gap, but the bridge does not definitively span the second and third trimesters.    

[Before I continue, I’d like to tell you about an extremely unusual event I experienced in 1959 when I was 30 years old.]

At that time, most families often did things together, including shared entertainment. One day, my dad took the family to Radio City Music Hall to see the first-run film, North by Northwest, now a classic. When we entered the 5,900-seat theater I was in awe of its cavernous size. We soon found a row of seats that would accommodate all of us and filed into it.

I sat next to what I thought was a doll. When the lights came up for the stage show, I noticed that what I had barely seen in the dark was not a doll: it was a thalidomide baby. Her head was normal, but all four limbs were miniscule and motionless, like those of a doll. I also witnessed a warm and cheerful relationship between her and her family members. I was deeply affected by that event, but ‘pro-choice’ and ‘the right to life’ never occurred to me then.]

My memory of that Radio City event has since resurfaced from time to time.  Currently, that memory has been jarred by the approach of the upcoming general 2020 election. Once again, the relentless din of politicians, commentators, and social media will intensify; once again, acerbic placards will scream their terse messages; once again, there will be hair-splitting debates on federal and state abortion laws: and once again, visceral emotions will supersede reason

I wonder how many people on either side of the abortion issue are aware that “Jane Row” (Norma McCorvey) ironically converted to Catholicism, became a staunch pro-life advocate, supported the Roe No More Ministry (dissolved 2008), was the leader of a protest group of anti-abortionists who gathered in and around Nancy Pelosi’s office (2009), who expressed deep regret for her historic Supreme Court trial for legal abortion, and who said her abortion case was, “The biggest mistake in my life.”

As far as I know, Row/Wade was first to define abortion law by trimesters. Although that definition is generally useful in the monitoring of and caring for the mother and her preborn baby, it is not the principal legal factor in the development of abortion laws. Currently, it appears that whether to abort a preborn baby or not depends on its viability, i.e., when the preborn is able to survive outside of the womb. (Please humor me: though the word ‘womb’ is clinically called the ‘uterus,’ that is a word almost as objectionable to me as the word ‘entrails.’) Viability is generally attained at the last segment of the second semester, the 24th or 25th week of gestation.

Most people equate birth control pills or induced abortion within the first trimester as morally equivalent. Of course that is not true of the Catholic Church, which firmly holds that life begins at the instant of fertilization. (There is a Christian religious sect which sites an Old Testament scripture that at least implies that life begins before fertilization.  That Bible passage reads: “Before you were in your mother’s womb I knew you.” That ambiguous passage is interpreted by many as not necessarily literal or, by others, as a reference to God’s omniscience. In any case, many pro-life and anti-abortionists alike justify their position on abortion with very different answers to the question, “When does life begin?” But that question is a construct designed to accommodate just about any intact position on abortion.    

Until recently, the secular answer to that question was, “Life begins at birth” or, more  technically, “Life begins when an ovem and sperm unite” (fertilization). In the legal and medical world today, that almost universal answer has given way to several new answers, the principal one of which is, “When the baby is ‘viable,’ i.e., when the baby is able to survive outside of the womb.) It legally follows that viability forbids legal abortion, as do Row/Wade and other abortion laws—almost.

I suspect that many viable babies are aborted under somewhat furtive late term abortions that are purported to protect the health of the mother. But whatever guards may be in place to avoid that loophole (including restrictive abortion measures) the Partial Abortion Act is a feeble euphemism for irreversible abortion: a baby is either alive or dead. Often it is the mother and her doctor who decide whether or not the baby is ‘viable,’ or to be precise, whether or not the mother and doctor comply with the law or claim that the mother’s health is endangered.

It is difficult enough to adjudicate the ethical, medical, and moral ramifications of abortion without adding intrinsically chaotic politics into the mix of the abortion controversy. Politics reeks with misrepresentation, greed, and lies. Even Norma McCorvey lied to achieve her right to abort, but she had her baby anyway, after (!) the historic ruling for legal abortion. She later switched to an anti-abortion stance and even considered action to reverse the outcome of the 1973 Supreme Court decision. Those facts alone highlight the conundrum of the abortion controversy.

A little more than a decade ago, the United States Supreme Court upheld a federal law known as the Partial Abortion Act, which prohibits specific abortion procedures. That is a federal law, as opposed to a state law, because several procedures are now and in the future may be Draconian. The ruling is a departure from past High Court decisions which required that any restrictive abortion law include an exception to protect a woman’s health.

While surfing through state abortion laws on the Internet, I read that a judge was asked a question about the status of a preborn baby’s pain in the 5th week of pregnancy. The judge responded, “We don’t ask that question because the 5th week of pregnancy is prior to viability.”

The abortion controversy is exasperated by contradictions and fueled by fierce political partisanship; e.g., “A preborn baby is incapable of experiencing pain until its neurological cells are at a specific stage of prenatal consciousness!”…“No! You’re wrong, the ‘Silent Scream’ is not just an electrical reflex”…“The heart of the unborn is not destroyed, as you claim. Those pulsating cells have not yet coalesced into a heart!”…“You are parsing words and concepts, those cells are in the process of creating a heart!”  All of the above is heavily laced with expletives. Abortion laws don’t include expletives but most of them further obfuscate the abortion issue with the use of three legalistic double-u words: wherefore, wherein, and whereof.

Whatever rationalizations and arguments are made in defense of or in opposition to abortion, the days, weeks, and trimesters in pregnancy whiz by. Given the uncertainties associated with late-term abortions, I think a woman should decisively resolve her position on abortion apart from and before becoming pregnant, with or without her consent. Of course I agree with the axiomatic premise that a woman has a right to her own body, but it’s disingenuous to deny that there is a point of time in the gestation process when there is a sentient human being in her body. The hypothetical question, “When does a baby become a human being?” is irrelevant: human parents do not conceive gold fish or elephants.

Following are excerpts from the United States Code 1531.

A] Any physician who knowingly performs a partial-birth abortion and thereby kills a human fetus shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both. This subsection does not apply to a partial-birth abortion that is necessary to save the mother whose life is endangered by a physical illness, or physical injury, including a life-endangering physical condition caused or arising from the pregnancy itself.

B] …the person performing the abortion deliberately and intentionally vaginally delivers a living fetus until, in the case of a head-first presentation or, in the case of a breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother, for the purpose of performing an overt act, that the person knows will kill the partially delivered living fetus…

[I believe the mother is key to solving problems inherent to induced abortion. I also believe that when she becomes aware that she is pregnant but wants an abortion, her best action is to get an abortion as soon as she possibly can for the good of both the baby and herself. My suggestion is based on the fact that the baby is incapable of experiencing pain in the first semester. That is not so in late-term abortions. The later an abortion, the more likely are abortive complications.       

I suppose I over-identify with other people, including mothers and unborn children. But there is something profoundly disturbing about late-term abortion. I’m haunted by the thought that the last if not only feeling a baby may experiences in its fleeting lifespan may be the pain of abortion.]

Please note: Of course this article is simplistic when juxtaposed to the knowledge and opinions of fine gynecologists and obstetricians. But it is not guided by partisanship. I categorically think that abortion should not be sullied by politics.

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A Max Planck Moment

Sometime during the first decade of my life I wondered exactly what defined the absolute instant  of motion (or stillness) of an object at the microcosmic level. I first pondered about that while being driven in a car. At that time, I didn’t know about the fuzziness and jiggling of electronic ‘clouds’ that permeate matter at the microcosmic level of matter, but I intuitively sensed that an auto was not the proper vehicle for the answer to my ‘deep’ kinematic question. I also didn’t know that Planck had an answer to that question. And, not exactly at the caliber of Einstein’s ‘thought experiments,’ I also didn’t know that my question was the first instance of my lifelong cosmological speculations. There has since been a steady stream of speculation.

The Singularity of the Universe

A few years ago, I read an article that posited the universe would eventually slow down forever but never absolutely stop expanding. The theory is based on the assumption that any length can be divided in half infinitely. Ooops!…there goes Planck’s Constant, where anything beyond its limit is meaningless.

Of course I’m not thinking about an auto, or classical science or quantum mechanics, or a potential breakdown of physics as we know it. I’m thinking of what is usually called, the “fabric of space.” I have no difficulty understanding that we are unable to imagine the very large or very small, but the theory described above lacks reason.  Reason itself prevents me from accepting any theory that contradicts reason no matter what the mathematics. Mathematics can describe reality, e.g., E=MC2, but cannot create it.

Infinity

On January 15, 2012, I posted an article on my website titled Disambiguation (Part 3 of 3). A quote from that article reads: “Trying to [imagine] nothingness is like trying to remember a dreamless sleep.” You will find it impossible to imagine absolutely nothing. Try it.  

Darkness? ‘Nothing’ means no darkness, no anything. ‘Nothing’ is just as unimaginable as infinity.  Given that nothing means nothing, then there would be nothing beyond the fringes of the universe. That would make the universe finite whatever its size. Even an inch is infinite if there is absolutely nothing else other than that inch.

The same is true of infinite space or infinite ‘anything.’ That too, is unimaginable. Yet ─ to the credit of human thought ─ we engage in speculation about space, time, and life.  

By definition, speculation is open-ended, but it is also subject to the dictates of reason, the guidepost for reasonable speculation. It is reasonable to think that numbers are infinite: just add 1 to any number. But that is an exclusively mental construct that has no existence and no finite or infinite number.

However, space and matter are real. So is life. All three are open to speculation. Even if religion is excluded from valid speculation, there remains a plethora of definitions and explanations for the existence of space and matter, let alone their interactions.

Yet, there are those who claim that existence is merely a dream or a hologram of some other reality, as in Plato’s cave analogy. And there are those who claim that our senses intrinsically give us a distorted concept of ‘reality,’ even when enhanced by spectacular technology. In other words, we are blind because we have eyes and we are unable to perceive reality because our brains distort it. Others demand proof that existence exists even though that is the ultimate axiom!

The impulse to write this article was triggered by a graphic on the popular TV show (How the Universe Works) which depicted four separate universes birthed by a central, undefined cosmic progenitor (super universe?).

The concept of a ‘multiverse’ is implied in that graphic although the existence of multiple universes can never be proved. The purpose of the graphic was to posit the theory that the dark energy of the universe is caused by the combined gravitational pull of four separate universes surrounding and tugging ‘our’ universe’s expansion.

By definition, nothing proved about the universe is hyperbole. But theories that categorically cannot be proved, pale in the light of both proved and reasonable theories.   

One More Item

I apologize for my plunge into the excessive writing style of Germanic philosophers of the late 18th and 19th century. Paradoxically, while the Information Age is exponentially bursting with accessibility and distribution of knowledge at a global level, the art of reasoning continues to nosedive. More on that in my next posting.

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Bits and Tips from an Old Man

Eight years ago (2011) a dear friend, Amichai, read an article I wrote. On the basis of that article (and select others) he suggested that I should have a website featuring my articles. When I told him that I liked his suggestion but hesitated to create and maintain a website because of my lack of computer acumen he surprised me with a website a day or two later! He enhanced that surprise with the maintenance of the website for a decade since.

About five years ago he surprised me again. This time he had a book of my articles published! Since the website format is strictly a succession of ongoing articles, Amichai has provided two editions of the original book, each of which includes all past as well as new articles that had accumulated since their preceding edition.

The current edition has an exquisite cover depicting the Hubble Deep Field, that incomparable voice of the universe. Moments before I turned the cover of this new addition, the voice spoke to me: “This better be good!” (I’m always apprehensive when I read something I’ve written which is in print─ the bane of immovable type.) But, as I leaf through this latest edition, I am relieved to discover that I am not at all disappointed with it. It might have been written by a professional author. Certainly, the content is as valid as it was when I wrote it.

Instant electronic text is amazing, but a book exudes a quiet sense of intimacy between author and reader that can’t be rivaled by the Internet. I’m comfortable with the book replica of my website and am very grateful to Amichai for the realization of it in book form. Although I have “no name” (as they put it), I now have a ‘legacy’ (for want of a better word). The book is a faint whisper amid the turbulent din of social media, but will be slightly more visible in some corner of a bookshelf before bookcases are obsolete.

Having no “name,” I don’t expect more than a handful of readers at best. But my website often appears on the same page as a website maintained by an Italian (film) director who does have a name that is exactly the same as mine. The double coincidence of our sharing the same occupation as well as the same name has been a source of temporary confusion. The chances are that several seekers for his website have begun to read an article I’ve written before they’ve notice that I’m the wrong Mario Martone. On my home page that other director is referred to as “the other guy.”

The original purpose for the creation of my website was to write articles that provide readers with facts and opinions that are not necessarily reflected in mainstream media. More often than not, my articles are counter to the beliefs of most people. As events unfold and discussed on social media, I am often compelled to express my views about them in the context of larger issues that are incompatible with the current dominance of relativism. For example and despite the chagrin of militant determinists, I firmly adhere to the concept and inviolate reality of free will when making moral judgments.

The generic premise of my divergent articles is never intrinsically determinist. Determinism dominates the inanimate world (perhaps even within the chaotic inanimate counterintuitive quantum world), but free will prevails in the realm of intelligence. Consider the following.

I recently viewed an excellent documentary on Einstein, Hawking, and Black Holes. Despite the documentary’s excellence, the commentator’s culminating words powerfully implied that the universe is deterministic. Although there was no hint that human beings are an integral part of determinism, his tone and the author’s placing of that comment at the very end of the documentary powerfully imply that we too are deterministic. I’ve made this point many times in different articles that highlight science, art, and philosophy, the triumvirate of intelligent thought. Now, thoroughly satisfied by an exquisite book, I should probably consider quitting while I’m ahead, at least in my self-judgment.

But there’s a problem: At ninety-two, my synapses are still robustly firing. That compels me to go on with the website despite my obscurity in a colossal sea of words we call the Internet. (I hesitate to ask what the “cloud” does or is about to do!)

But now that I have a book as my ‘legacy,’ perhaps I’ll ask him if I might relieve him of his part in maintaining the site. I can just add new, dated articles that appear only on this document before each article and tuck it into my book, thanks to Amichai!

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Axiom vs. Ego

A masterpiece cannot be improved upon. That’s why it’s called a masterpiece, e.g., the film, The Wizard of Oz, the sculpture, Pieta, the opera Aida.

Yet, there are revisionists who unconscionably ‘create’ new versions of masterpieces. The latest of these is the current production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Reviews are glowing, money is rolling- in, but once again a masterpiece has been assaulted.

In this “adaptation,” the favorite moral axiom of relativists is celebrated. Yes, the crowd that tells us there are no absolutes, has its own absolute.  For just one but significant example, the principal character (Atticus Finch) is written, directed, and portrayed with less integrity than his original character.

The ‘reason’ for that change (and others like it) is that the auteurs involved wanted the play to be ‘contemporaneous,’ the conceit of our time. For them, that means, “we now know that no one can be as morally good as Atticus.” That is the moral absolute of relativists. In this case it is also in absolute compliance with the dominant drum beat of the time. That includes: “If you want approval, stress  racial injustice  beyond that of the original work.” (Or, if possible, beyond reality.)

The greatest injustice about this attitude is that younger people will never know the value of the original work. The same is true of the distorted ‘revivals’ of Fiddler on the Roof  and other great classic musicals. The essence of masterpieces is that they are timeless. Performers and musical conductors assist their longevity by their artistry (just as opera singers do). Changes for clarity are an insult to an audience. To Kill a Mockingbird speaks for itself.

So do The Wizard of Oz, Pieta, and Aida.

The glowing reviews and the money rolling- in for successful classic adaptations is a great injustice supported by unqualified reviewers (not all of them, of course), and audiences that have never seen ─ or even known ─ the original classics.

The ego of directors and producers fuel this cultural travesty. Shame on them.

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