Tuesday, February 28, 2012


How can we think the dead persist somewhere ?
A face breaks the surface of the crowd then sinks back
before we can cry Wait ! Hey you !

That should be proof enough, but then a glove,
inside out, the fingertips cut off,
appears on the sidewalk, rehashing its deathbed scene.

I used your brain for my death mask.
I knew you'd mind.
That was the point.

Even so, we shouldn't summon them. Here hurts them
like eczema, tic doloureux, tinnitus.
They whang like funny bones on the world's edge.

Just think of your own bad mornings, your very worst,
when you plunge from sublime weightlessness
into someone's weird idea of you, probably your own,

then leave the dead to incandesce in their rare unearth.
You know how words are lies ? The dead are, too.
Beautiful in their own way, but what a rip-off.


Saturday, February 25, 2012


I was kneeling at the altar rail waiting for ashes, contemplating the dead. I was thinking about my mother, who died on Ash Wednesday 5 years ago, when suddenly another ghost muscled in -- the ghost of a fellow I'd known over a period of many long months in 1973 and who (I'd learned earlier that day) had died last August at the age of 72.

I could not imagine two more disparate life influences -- one life-giving the other death-dealing, one nurturing, the other exsanguinating. I had also learned in the obituary that his calculating, pig-eyed brother -- whom I'd met once briefly, nauseatingly, infuriatingly -- was also dead.

I have no photo of HNF. Mostly, I can't summon a visual memory of him. There is one image, an extraordinarily partial one, that I will never forget no matter how hard I try. I have other less anatomical and more narrative images that are easier to review: A man on the wrong side of a bridge rail. A coffee mug into which 5 teaspoons of sugar are being stirred. A midnight rooming house with a loud elevator. A wet puppy in the shower. A baseball bat in my bed. A lost glove in a gutter at 5 am. The terror occulted in the word "co-extensive." A black briefcase full of cans of macaroni and cheese.

These two reading lists of his, tucked into one of my journals from that awful year, my first year in med school, offer a remarkably accurate portrait of the man.

My own journal account of that time, spanning 5 volumes of speckled lab notebooks, is obsessively thorough, written in a crabbed, shrinking and increasingly deranged hand. I was in therapy with a psychoanalyst whom I called "The Alienist," and my account of my time with HNF is interspersed with accounts of dreams, dream analysis, therapy sessions. I can barely bring myself to read it. I have no stomach for it. I have few words for what it documents: folie a deux, stupidity, naivety, helplessness, paralysis. There are also words that describe what I have felt through the years, looking back: shame, rage, fury, embarrassment. Sorrow.

I have often reflected on how the whole thing might have played out differently, if only I had -- had what ? Chosen what ? What I would, today, counsel anyone to do ? What my shrink could have but didn't counsel me to do ? Forensically, legally, it was cut and dried. Interpersonally, humanly, not so much. Did I apply the wrong hermeneutic ? Could I have changed everything for both of us by uttering, aloud, on that very first day, one simple anglo-saxon four letter word ? Should I have uttered it ?

Now, almost forty years later, I was kneeling at an altar rail waiting for ashes, waiting for the reminder that I come from and will return to dust. HNF, dust. Alienist, dust. My mother, dust. Three ghosts surrounded me, my own personal cloud of witnesses, as I felt the gritty cross being traced on my forehead. A small shower of ash sifted down onto my nose as I listened to the familiar words.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Sorrow. It lives in the chest, rises into the throat, into the eyes, overspills, floods the world. HNF was a man of sorrows, fucked by nature, fucked by nurture, fucked by the world, fucked by his brain. What was that he once said about Eisenhower and the snow falling through the light of a streetlamp on Belmont Hill in Worcester ? Or how dogs, barking in the worst hour of the longest night, meant someone had entered the area. Intending, of course, nothing but harm.

It's funny, how one type of brokenness attracts its complement. What shall I call what bound us together for those long months ? What shall I call the fact that I did not utter that one, simple word that could have summoned -- what ? Help ? Harm ? Justice ? That could have named what happened for all time, and defined our roles -- perpetrator, victim -- in an agreeably clear manner ? What shall I call my silence ? Fear, love, forgiveness, compassion, self-loathing, shame, cowardice, complicity, exploitation ? All of the above ? None of the above ?

And now HNF is dead. The obituary, as one might imagine for such a marginal personage, was brief. Our lives had intersected for some months decades ago. It's a story whose details I have told no one except the Alienist -- who took so many ghosts of me into the underworld with him. May they and he rest in peace.

I wonder how HNF would have written about this episode. I would imagine our accounts would be nearly irreconcilable. And I wonder whether the Alienist kept process notes from our sessions ? I would imagine they would contain a great deal about the Mother-sized hole in his young, acting-out, medical student's psyche, and about how she strove to fill it by projection, identification and displacement.

"What," asked Pilate, "is truth ?"

Sorrow. And then, maybe, repentance and forgiveness. And then, dust.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Letter of Resignation

The disconcerting thing about tomorrow's upcoming birthday is not so much its unspeakable (I mean it!) number, but the fact that I seem to have managed to go from childhood to senescence without an intervening adulthood.

It has only lately become apparent to me that young 'uns of whatever stripe and source are looking at me as parentoid, or even grandparentoid and not as pal material. Or, even worse, looking at me as usurper of the goodies that are rightfully theirs, would I mind terribly moving on ? And leave the keys on the table, please ?

A Big Birthday tends to jam the old retrospectoscope into one eye socket and the even-more-chilling prospectoscope into the other, creating a stereoscopic 3-D totentanz of Brueghelian proportions.

A Big Birthday tends to dredge up those old warnings that have lodged like a rusty nail in the hippocampus where even the components one's breakfast or one's cellphone number can no longer find reliable purchase. Take for example this titular nugget from the late psychoanalyst Erik Erickson's "Eight Ages Of Man," Stage Eight to be specific --


preceded by seven other opportunities for "a man" to fail (stagnation, isolation, role confusion, inferiority, guilt, shame& doubt, and basic mistrust), leaving the rest of us to wonder what categories of psychological catastrophe apply to us.

Only in him, declaims Erickson, obviously describing himself and his pals, who in some way has taken care of things and people and has adapted himself to the triumphs and disappointments adherent to being, the originator of others or the generator of products and ideas -- only in him may gradually ripen the fruit of these seven stages.

And for the rest of us ? The eighth step, in the dark, avec banana peel ?

The past decade's thematic list, in no particular order, uncategorized: Camera. Weeds. Being churched. Some ugly deaths. An ill-chosen career. A well-chosen marriage. Friends. Family. And, as always: words, words, words. A Big Birthday, rather like New Year's Day, invites us to make resolutions and issue manifestos. So I review my messy, thematic list and consider. How's this for a start:

Minimize mauvais foi.

Now there's a ringing battle cry for endgame, or, if you prefer, le fin du temps.

If I had bolted up the correct version of Erikson's staircase --over the gleaming golden risers of trust, autonomy, initiative, identity, intimacy and generativity -- pumping my fists in the air to hymns of Rocky Balboan triumph, I'd be a considerably different person -- or, if you will, "man" -- today. More hale, more happy, more full of faith, more convivial, more satisfied, more apt to claim what I deserve. Well, Erik, it's not gonna happen. The stairs have rotted and fallen away, all except the eigthth, leaving me here, stuck as a stylite, teetering on "ego integrity vs. despair," and guess what side of that step has just fallen away --


Deadline 3