Saturday, September 29, 2012

It Is Time

To quote Rilke:

Herr: es ist Zeit.

I have a daydream that I use to usher myself into sleep. In that dream I am walking in a forest at night, alone. It is winter, and beginning to snow. I am walking toward my hermit's cabin, and, when I get that far before night dreams take over, I enter, light the lamp, light the stove and (sometimes, if I am lonely) greet the cat. I have yet to get farther than that.

Apropos of what ?

It's time to stop parading the messy spectacle of my metaphysical life in public. If there is anything to be salvaged from my various circlings and sojourns, it's humility and this display has been humility's antithesis. That's not to belittle the exquisite pleasure of words, of "finding what will suffice" or the companion pleasure of being read and appreciated. And it's not to dismiss the joy of having found kindred spirits of uncommon graciousness, eloquence and generosity along the way. But (I think) it is time to enter the dream cabin, and continue my (inner) pilgrimage (for it is far from finished) in private. At least for now.

Thank you all for your companionship-in-wandering. You have been lamplight, moonlight and starlight along the way !

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Self-Portrait In Nightshade

There are, I am told and and have indeed witnessed, people of perpetually sunny dispositions -- ebullient, resilient, optimistic, sanguine, cheerful folks for whom the various disasters of life are indeed (as my workplace loves to say) challenges, not catastrophes.  

Then there are folks like me. "Don't call me folks," I snarl. "Shut up," I snarl back.

It's all neurological. Neuroanatomical and neurochemical. And whether so by nature or nurture matters not a whit. There's not much to be done, short of lobotomy, about the anatomy. It is, as Freud said elsewise, destiny. The chemistry is more pliable, subject to myriad interventions from psychopharmaceuticals, to vast arrays of other proposed mood-elevating interventions such as meditation, jogging, hyperventilation, affirmations, worship, shopping, ice cream, electroshock, opiates, gambling and sex. But let's face it:  if the bile is black, there's no real way to turn it sunny yellow.  The black roots will show soon enough.    

"Mood," said the philosopher, "is prior," and he was correct. I have bought another camera, a used Nikon D90, which illustrates this nicely. I love my D70, and have felt vaguely disloyal about upgrading while it still draws light. It, like me, tends to see the world as drab and underexposed, often requiring not a little post-processing to lift its images out of the mud. 

The D90, on the other hand, is a sunny little critter, avid for light, and I find myself dialing down the EV of the camera and pushing the histogram to the left in the images to get at the essential photogravity of things.

Before my recent rather extended sojourn among the Godly I would sometimes find myself reflecting on the nature of gratitude. Not of simple thanks to someone for something, but of the overarching, generalized sense of gratitude that sometimes steals over one, for -- for what ? -- it all ?  It seemed primal, reducible only with difficulty to component parts -- relief, pleasure,   happiness, astonishment, and a sense, perhaps, of not truly meriting the good in question. Religion simplified the experience of gratitude by giving it an object: thank you, God, for the blessings of this life, chiefest of which, of course, being the redemption through and in your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ,  which was the part of the General Thanksgiving that always rankled, that I rushed through, muttering yeah, yeah under my breath. There, finally, was the source from whom all blessings flow, and in exchange for this, well, there was a certain tribute due the Source's Son.

Who would, in exchange, grant unmerited forgiveness for the blackest, bleakest ingratitudes that fester there in the filthy dunghill of our other sins -- original sin, sins of omission and commission, sins of thought, word and deed, mortal sins, venial sins, the seven deadly sins -- the whole nasty lot of sin by which we, hourly, renail the ever-suffering, ever-forgiving Christ to His Cross.

And despite that -- despite the clear message that without the absolutely unmerited, salubrious grace of Trinity, MD I was doomed to perish in my utterly crapulent and leprous wickedness -- I persisted in a kind of frenzied Pelagianism of the three T's of churchgoing -- time, talent and treasure -- as if I could somehow earn a vague and unspoken salvation by altar guilding, pledging, being helpful and crossing myself at precisely the correct moment of the liturgy.

All the while being told that God "loves me more than I can ever know," in a positively Alice Millerian example of psychotogenic parenting. I am a little fiend and they love me anyway. Go figure. 

Where was I going with this ? Oh, yes. Disposition.

D70 vs. D90, nightshade vs. sunshine, introvert vs. extrovert, shy vs. gregarious, pessimistic vs. optimistic. There are born that ways that are deemed anathema in the most liberal of churches, that doom aspirants to failure (or at least exhaustion) from the start. This begs the question of doctrine and faith, both bad and good. I am talking about the mood that is ever prior, I am talking about original doom. Or, at least, gloom.

And I am still licking my self-inflicted wounds, grateful (whatever that means) to have survived.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Adieu, Blogger

So Blogger has made good on it's promise to make it's "new improved" (trans: byzantine and impossible) interface mandatory. The images fly around on the composing pages and the text wraps around them in bizarre ways. This is not an demon with which I am prepared to wrestle. Must find a new house for my toast.

Saturday, September 08, 2012


When, a good trillion years ago, I ill-conceived the notion of becoming a doctor, I had an image in mind, an image constructed out of assorted bits gleaned from books and movies: a white-coated scientist, alone in a lab at night, peering down the barrel of a microscope. Always alone, always at night, always gazing at the microscopic world of tissues and microbes and sometimes even doing so in a primitive grass hut in Africa -- an image so vivid that it has surely been lifted intact from some long-forgotten movie.

The closest I got to this doctorly ideal was pathology class in the second year med school, and internship, on call, doing gram stains of pus in the deserted basement micro lab.

The very first hospital patient ever assigned to me (third year med school, Worcester, Mass, 1976) was an occasion of abject terror. I tiptoed into the room and meekly introduced myself. The patient promptly and angrily informed me that he was passing a kidney stone and I should leave immediately.

I should have gotten the message. Could it have been any clearer, any more providential, more oracular ? I should have tossed my little black bag out of the window of the now defunct Worcester City Hospital, and headed west, down Route Nine, into the sunset.

Mais non. Heaven forbid I should have listened to my heart.

Now, decades later, I am reflecting on how absolutely, unremittingly excruciating everything since then has been. A whole new set of images arises, culled from Catholic hagiography -- swarms of flaming arrows, drawings and quarterings, crucifixions, burnings-at-the-stake. Oh, sure, I'm being histrionic. But turn it around: picture a gregarious extrovert, a hale and hearty "people person," sentenced to 30 years in a solitary cell with nothing to do but peer down the barrel of a microscope.

He rests my case.

And, insult to injury, I have been at this game long enough to witness the invasion of the management consultants. Is there a more chilling sound than the clatter of the stilletoed women in power suits -- consultants -- striding down the clinic hallway ? Or a more dislocatingly absurd sight than one of their company seated all all day in the same corridor plying a stop watch (reading, between times, Fifty Shades Of Gray.)

You can't make this stuff up.

I am in a new world now. A world where there are no disasters, only "challenges." A world of market share, decanting, cannibalization and backfill. The world of the Studer Group. Of Leadership Academies. Of the "Achieving Excellence Journey," and its companion trip, the Journey To Magnet Excellence™,Of Kaizen Muda and Gemba. Of LEAN. Of "hardwiring AIDET." Of acronyms such as TEAM (Together Everyone Achieves More) -- to which I have added my impotent, whispered cavil, SOLO (Some Obvious Loners Object.) And of that most seductive siren of universal allure and acclaim, Virginia Mason, who will, by all accounts, make everything right.

Yeah, yeah, sure, healthcare is a mess, something needs to be done, but heave forbid it should include embracing the proven efficiencies of single payer and abolishing the absolute chaos of the competing, contradictory, expensive, administrative demands of hundreds of insurance companies, where profit rules and care takes a back seat. Why shouldn't enterprising consultants flock to feed off this rotting carcass ? It's the capitalist way !

Where is the white-coated night doc and her microscope in all this, besides cringing in her office ?

Because of issues of market share, decanting, cannibalization and backfill, and due to her reluctance to be "leased" to a competing department, she is being deracinated from her 18 year perch in the Clinic of Little Miseries where she had hoped to finish out her waning doctor days, and is being sent across the river (AKA Route 93) to Siberia.

Causing her to reach back into the place from which she has recently apostasized (which is not untainted by The Managerial Invasion ) and pray --

For I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner.
Spare me a little, before I go hence and be no more seen.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Cold Case

Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.
-- Ludwig Wittgenstein

The genre has conventions, not the least
concerning the Inspector. He is smart,
world-weary, hurt by life and love. He burns
with curiosity, if not outrage,
(that fire went out a million lives ago)
and always there's this one, big unsolved case
that's dogged him for decades, eye-mote and craw-
sticker, that taunts him from the dustiest
far reaches of the basement dead file room,
accounting for the cigarettes and booze
he knows will be the death of him someday.

It was no simple whodunit. The scale
of it might lead a lesser man to doubt
himself and every other thing, but not
our hero, the Inspector. He is used
to the abyssal gaze, the rising stench,
the screech of nail and board, the icy touch
of something on the sweating nape, the lapse
of bile down the clenched chest. The whitest nights
are blackest. All he asks is coffee, time
and world enough to lead him to the Who
of Whos, the mastermind, the biggest wheel.

Oh, sure the DA's harping on the lack
of corpus delicti, insisting that
a simple missing persons case should not
consume such overtime. The absconder
would show, sooner or later, and if not,
well, who cares anyway ? There is enough
embezzling, grand theft auto and public
lewdness to occupy the force -- forget
the Mystery, unsolvable, occult.
Such matters are best left to other men --
the French Foreign Legion or MI-6.

Or that Private Eye whose fate, unspeakable,
still haunts his waking and his sleeping dreams --
forsaken in the grip of a failed state,
and tortured, left to die, and crying out
(or so the story goes) with his last breath
his final question -- Why ? -- the evidence
(perhaps) that he had solved that bitter Who
that's hounded the Inspector down the years.
Or not. Another coffee, hot and black,
he's drinking brimstone, trying to forget
that rockwalled tomb, the graverobbers, the lies

that seemed to close the case once and for all.
But did they ? The eyewitnesses were each
crazier than the next, contradicting,
hallucinating, trying to cash in
on the whole sad, sordid episode and now
whatever truth there was has vanished, too,
and with it hope for an exciting end
to this procedural. The dusty clues,
lost bags of evidence, the general
detectively acedia: what last
gunblazing alleyway does this portend ?

None, that's what. Straight to the epilogue.
Our hero, after dark, by some canal
of louche repute, discards the evidence
of failure. His. Into the water go,
tossed one by one, his trade tools -- the service
revolver, notepad, bullet-stopping vest,
items of inquiry -- who, what, where, when,
the why and how -- all swallowed by the thick,
black water. One more smoke, and then the last
of them follows. Himself. His faithless leap.

(Rats' midnight. Taunting from the bank ? The that.)


Saturday, September 01, 2012


I had a church anxiety dream last night.

I had returned to churchgoing and I was vested and in the altar party. My role was unclear. The rector was there, welcoming me and encouraging me. The location was a large, hangar-like space with pews that was (somehow) also the old shadowy, intimate church of my recent sojourn. I had strayed from the center-aisle procession, and was making my way down a side aisle past a crowd of small boys with 1950's haircuts wearing matching short-sleeved plaid shirts, a gaggle (come to free-associate to it) of living Howdy Doody puppets.

"Odd choir," I thought, and woke up.

The dream seems to have created the ecclesiastic love-child of an anglophilic lefty Episcopal parish and an evangelical megachurch. It suggests that beneath the cool and reserved aesthetic of surplice and cassock and the interstellar cerebral expanses of liturgy and lovely prayerbook diction there lurk madras-sporting, Good Book waving, come-home-to-Jesus-braying Elmer Gantrys.

I wondered, lately, whether my recent sojourn (forgive my over-delicate circumlocution, this is a painful topic) was to establish a legitimate cover for my desire for hermitage. One becomes, or so it seems, a legitimate hermit only after establishing oneself within a community. Otherwise it's simply a question of a wild-haired loner for whom it's only a matter of time before the grainy Evening News mugshot and the astonished neighbors saying, "She always seemed to keep to herself." The community gives the hermit legitimacy and, who am I kidding to say otherwise, community. If only (and most blessedly) at a distance. The idea of community, much like Glenn Gould's idea of North -- an intellectual lodestone, a guiding metaphor, not a dangerous reality -- the icy rail, the stuck tongue, the approaching train.

There was a book published recently called "Introverts In The Church," by a self-professed introverted pastor, Adam McHugh. It seemed somewhat germane to my situation, and I was pleased to see that the plight of the ungregarious churchgoer was being acknowledged, but it made me realize that within the category of "introvert" there are subsets, a veritable balkanization of the Quiet, complete with folks who will pointedly insist that "I am an introvert -- not shy ! Not a loner ! THOSE are the creepy maladjusted ones over there, DSM-V material !"

So those of us at the bell-curve's antipodal extremes are not much comforted by Pastor McHugh's well-intentioned acknowledgments and ideas for accommodation. Or perhaps it was, in my case, a rather moot point. Parallel to my ongoing neuralgic collisions (think funny bone) with structured, fellowshipping churchgoing, was the increasing realization that my "faith" was a precarious house of cards of language and metaphor, or, to quote scripture as filtered through the Coen Brothers' brilliant "Raising Arizona," that, with respect to Jesus, I was a

a rocky place where (his) seed could find no purchase.

And I can't begin to tell you what a relief it is to be speaking, again, in my native tongue, and to stop using the words "God" or "Christ" for what Albert Einstein described without recourse to either word --

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms- this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the rank of devoutly religious men.