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My Year in Review

I know this has been a miserable, horrible year for the majority of the world, and yet for me it has been an amazing spiritual journey, which I would like to share in summary (no extra charge for survivor’s guilt). Since I’m trying to devote the column now more to my mind than my life, I’m leaving out a wedding, my grandson, and quotidian life with the world’s  best woman.

The bottom line is that this year, through a combination of forgiveness, psychotherapy, meditation and spiritual growth and awakening, I have lost weight, improved my posture, stopped committing the sin of hatred, and improved my marriage, by learning to be more explicitly grateful for the amazing 41-year journey my wife has shared with me. Nine months spent in quarantine with the woman I love most in the world has been a gift from God. (The plague is making good relationships better, bad ones worse).

Details of my experiences  have been scattered throughout my revived column this year. Suffice it to say that the following events took place:

  • I started writing poetry (90 poems so far). Mostly love poetry, some of which I paid to have turned into love songs (see note in right column).
  • Through an exchange of forgiveness, I stopped committing the sin of hatred.
  • I restarted this column, with more of a focus on my thoughts and feelings, rather than my quotidian activities. (and sharing the ideas/news/memes of my contributors).
  • I experienced a) healing and a vision during a crystal bowl concert, b) a soul retrieval, c) brainspotting and emdr, d) hacking reality, e)  the opening of my heart chakra, f) samadhi while standing in line at Safeway.
  • I have discovered my purpose in life: to give loving kindness to others, including friends, family and the world. I have already done this on numerous occasions I am aware of, and, I suspect, numerous occasions of which I am not aware. I have always been overflowing with life force; now I am trying to deliberately share it.
  • I lived out this parable:
    “A child tells her grandfather, ‘There are two wolves fighting inside me. One is bitterness and hatred. The other is love and compassion. Which wolf will win?’”

    "The one you feed," is his reply.

    I stopped feeding the wrong wolf after 43 years and it was a blessing. I think it explains the weight loss. I am now feeding only the right wolf.
  • I began meditating regularly. I am calmer. I move more slowly. I do everything more deliberately. I hunch my shoulders less.

KLondike5: Stupid Stuff I Know

I have been playing around with phones since I was 12, installed the phone system at MIT Student House in 1970, and worked for MIT’s Dormitory Telephone System (Dormphone). As a result, I’ve actually dusted Strowger switches, inserted updates in a copy of Bell System Practices, and have since maintained an interest in all things telephonic. Well, I’m here to tell you that after 40 years, my wife no longer finds it amusing when a telephone number flashes on the screen during a television show or movie, and I say, “Oh, they’re in the Klondike neighborhood.” She has joined me in the group that’s “In the know” about fake phone numbers in the media (details at Wikipedia).

The second biggest pile of useless (but to me, fun) information I know comes from Judith Parker, a screenwriter and producer and sister of my late best friend Richard Parker. From Judith, I learned:

  • You can tell when the movie or TV show is about to start, because the last opening credit, by union rule, is “Directed By.” If there are no opening credits, it is the first of the closing credits. (See the details in this article about George Lucas’ Opening Credit Dispute)
  • If the writers credit says “and,” the writers worked separately. If it says “&” they were a team.
  • I guess the entire universe knows this now: Allen Smithee was the pseudonym directors used from 1968 to 2000 when they didn’t want their real name on a film.
  • “A John Smith Movie” is called a “possessory credit.”

Obviously, you can now find all this stuff on Wikipedia. But I’ve known it (and been irritating people with it) since before there was an Internet.

My deficiencies

While appreciating the analytical minds of the women I have known, I found myself contemplating the deficits in my generally pretty good mind.

Mathematically, I found arithmetic, algebra, geometry and trigonometry to be trivial. Then I hit calculus. My advisor told me it was a well-known fact that a portion of the population falls at each level of increasing abstraction (his term) in that list. That is, algebra is more abstract than arithmetic, geometry than algebra, and so on.

My dearly beloved mother couldn’t make the jump from arithmetic to algebra. After 12 years of cruising in math, understanding it the first time every time, imagine my surprise when I got to MIT and hit differentiation in first-term calculus. I barely got it. Then integration in second-term calculus. I never got it. I passed the course by doing “monkey math” and through rote memorization.

Then there is the more general intellectual skill of deduction and induction. I suspect my deficit there is related to my mathematical deficit. As I understand it, deduction is the ability to create specific instances when you know the general rule, while induction is the ability to see the general rule after witnessing multiple instances. Deduction has always been easy for me. Induction: not so much. I have never been able to look at a bunch of trees and see a forest.

The only time in my life it really held me back was when I covered conventions as a technology reporter. All my colleagues would look at the show floor and the dozens of product announcements and proclaim: “This year’s Comdex was about…” something. I, on the other hand, could tell you what happened but not what the overall theme was.

A final note; one day on the subway to Boston, a well-meaning friend of mine asked “How can you waste your fine mind on a trivial pursuit like journalism.” (She reads this column; will she remember saying it?)

At that moment, I realized why I loved journalism and always would. “It is a challenge, even to my fine mind. You witness disordered reality, and impose order on it. You are presented with a mélange of facts too large merely to record and regurgitate. So, you impose order on disordered reality, and do so in the correct written form within the time allotted. I believe that is a challenge I will wish to accept, the accomplishment of which will satisfy me, for a lifetime.”

At the age of 21, I was right.

The Tech Alum fights Covid / Clinical Trials

There are many illustrious alumni of The Tech in journalism, as well as a number of other fields, including the law, science and technology. It tends to undermine my self-image that my academic career didn’t cover me with glory because of the time I spent at the newspaper. Turns out others spent time at the paper AND went to class and did their homework. Go figure.

One such is Emanuel Goldman from the Arts staff, who is an expert on the low risk of Covid on surfaces.

Speaking of Covid and The Tech staffers, sports and business staffer Steve Kirsch ‘78 (4 years behind me, but we’ve met a handful of times since) is a tech hectomillionare, and is funding research into what existing drugs might ameliorate COVID-19 effects.

One he’s funding a look at is an SSRI called Fluvoxamine which has the side effect of blocking a receptor Covid needs in order to kill you with a cytokine storm.

If you or someone you know has Covid, he suggests you get into a contactless clinical trial.

This Covid work is of a piece with his lengthy history of philanthropy. And he invented the optical mouse.

This and That

Meditation Advice
This from folk singer Tom Rush:
“I recently took up meditation. Figured it was better than sitting around doing nothing.”
–– Anonymous, k/o Jim Berger
Or, as I was once told, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

Respecting Doctors
Some condescending pig in the WSJ attacked Dr. Jill Biden, Ed.D. for calling herself Dr. Jill. It that phrase, the “Dr.” is known as an honorific or courtesy title, to which all people with academic doctorates are entitled. Which reminds me… I sniggered about my high school mentor, Dr. Patricia L. Swenson, Ed.d., who insisted on being called “doctor.” I can see now that my sniggering (I was young and stupid) was a form of put down of a woman who worked hard for the title. We didn’t snigger about Dr. Blanchard (a guy). Dr. Swenson’s gone now, but I still owe her an apology. 




Sex and love

“Love is blind and sexual attraction is irrational, which is why people fall in love with sheep and steamer trunks.”

—unknown; probably NY magazine circa 1970s (Gail Sheehy?)


Christmas Message

In the fine old tradition of journalists who recycle their holiday messages year after year, here's the 16th rerun of my Christmas message since Dec. 21, 1998 (with a few slight modifications); the first since 2014.

Season's greetings to one and all. Apologies to those of you who feel oppressed by the season. I know Christians, atheists and Jews who feel the seasonal oppression in equal parts. Oppression and depression. I'm sorry. This message isn't going to cheer you up, much.

This is a time of year that has inspired some of the most brilliant writing in the English language. It ranges from Dickens' A Christmas Carol (which single-handedly revived the celebration of Christmas as a major holiday in the English-speaking world), to the sturdy newspaper editorial entitled Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus. In more modern times, we have, among other things, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and the unforgettable Bill Murray as Scrooge in the Dickens adaptation, Scrooged. (Not to mention Olive, The Other Reindeer. Never seen it. Love the pun).

This item ends with some lines of Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas In Wales which Fr. Harrison West and I recited several times at Benson High School assemblies (long before he was Fr. West).

What is Christmas about? It can be about the birth of Jesus, but for most of us it isn't. It's about many things.

Christmas is about singing (or listening to) Christmas carols. My favorite annual Christmas party, bar none, is the Christmas Caroling party held annually by our best friends. They're Jewish, and so are many of the party goers. Joyful voices raised together. Doesn't matter if they're not in tune. Doesn't matter if some of the lyrics are Christian claptrap. Jingle Bells, White Christmas and Here Comes Santa Claus, along with the rest of the secular Christmas liturgy are just plain fun. I love doing “Five Golden Rings" every year (new partners, as my friend Norm has passed away) when we sing The 12 Days Of Christmas. Not this year, for obvious reasons. Next year? I hope!

Christmas is about family and friends. It is about Egg Nog (or fat-free "Holiday Nog") and all the rest of the seasonal food. It is about the children.

It's about traveling, at the worst travel time of year, to be with your family. (Again, not this year).

Christmas is about family traditions when you're a kid, and the blending of family traditions when you marry. In childhood, my family stayed at home on Christmas, my wife was always a Christmas runaway. My lights went up the Saturday after Thanksgiving each year and came down the Saturday after New Years. Vicki's went up on Christmas Eve and came down on Boxing Day.  There aren't as many lights as when the girls were little. That's OK.

We've had artificial trees for years. M asked for a big real tree her freshman year at college, so we put a 14-footer in the library in 1999; then R asked for one and got it in 2003. This year -- just a little tabletop tree with Chinese decorations. But it's a fancy artificial tree, prewired with two kinds of lights and a remote control, modeled after a White Vermont Spruce. We bought it in January 2008, at an after-Christmas sale in an artificial tree store. The lights are starting to burn out; I don't know how long it's got.

Christmas is about giving thanks. Thanksgiving is the official holiday to give thanks for our good fortune, but nothing says you can't do that at Christmas as well. Every Christmas morning when I wake up with my health, my wife and my children as part of this world, I count my blessings. Mine are beyond counting. I hope yours are too. I have adult-onset diabetes, but there are lots of worse diseases in the world. Mine, at least, is under control. I almost died in a car crash in January 2007, but I'm still alive. My wacky ticker made me faint, and now I have a defibrillator/pacemaker. Beats the alternative.

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

--Dylan Thomas

Theater Vs. Movies

San Francisco Chronicle film editor Mick LaSalle recently wrote: “movies and theater, at their best, are equally great. But at their worst, theater is much worse. This is why: When a movie is bad, it’s usually because it’s imitative. It’s cheap. It’s trying to please in obvious ways and not succeeding. When theater is bad, it represents the collective effort of people to say every single thing they’ve ever wanted to say. It doesn’t try to please an audience; it begs the audience’s indulgence. Bad theater assumes that sincerity gives it the right to bore an audience to death for 2½ hours.”

I quote him only in order to disagree, and to express my long-held personal view of the difference between the two media. I have always found films to be entertainment first/about something second, and theater to be about something first/entertainment second.

And, although the hundreds of movies I’ve seen in my life don’t match Mick’s output from last year, I must say I’ve seen a lot more rotten film than rotten theater. Ask me to gamble on an unknown movie versus an unknown play, and I’ll pick the play every time.

This and That

A muse by any other name…
Apparently creative people need to personify the mysterious source of their ideas. Regular readers know I call her my muse. Here’s another, from a profile in The New Yorker:
“Ideas are almost like aliens trying to come into the real world, and we’re just pregnant with them.”
― Francis Pedraza, Invisible’s thirty-one-year-old C.E.O.

Yiddish Humor
Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe has some funny holiday observations: How To Write For Yiddish Publications.

Feminist Icon
On Linked In, one of my contacts posted an item from The Female Lead, retweeting this event from 2017: VIDEO Kathrine Switzer Finishes Boston Marathon 50 Years After Being First Woman To Run. At 70, Switzer is an author and activist. She was clearly the spiritual mother of all the fine third-wave feminists I have been privileged to have in my life, including the one I married, and the fourth-wave feminists I raised.

A Poem about Parents

Thank God and Amma I am secure in the knowledge that my daughters will never write this about me:

[In honor of the 2020 Nobel Prize winner of Literature]

As I saw it,
all my mother's life, my father
held her down, like
lead strapped to her ankles.

She was
buoyant by nature;
she wanted to travel,
go to the theater, go to museums.

What he wanted
was to lie on the couch
with the Times
over his face,
so that death, when it came,
wouldn't seem a significant change.”
― Louise Glück, Ararat

She also wrote, accurately (up to a point):
“Intense love always leads to mourning.”
― Louise Gluck, Triumph of Achilles

More on the Past

Robert Malchman commented on The Past and What Is Life, an item of dueling quotes. It turns out the issue of “do we need to know about the past” or “the past is a dead letter” arouses passion.

“I cannot tell you how much I disagree with the first quotation. Understanding the past is absolutely critical to being the best we can in the present. At an individual level, understanding why one reacts as one does (hint, it often relates to past emotional trauma) is essential to reacting appropriately to what is in front of us *now*, as opposed to what was in the past, but unresolved.

“At a macro level, I subscribe to Santayana's view that those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them. To give one current example, to understand race relations and the scope and effect of institutional racism today, one has to understand the history of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights struggle, the legislation of the 1960s, Nixon's Southern Strategy, dog-whistles from Reagan and the Bushes, and the megaphone of Trump. I agree with Faulkner: The past is not even the past.”

If I may oversimplify Rob Nelson’s book Hacking Reality: Upgrade Your Life From the Inside Out, he says, among other things, that many of our emotional reactions of today are not reactions to the events of today, but to events of the past. He offers some therapeutic techniques to resolve unresolved issues. In short, he agrees with Robert.

So, it seems to me, if the past calls, maybe you should answer. While it may have nothing new to say, it may offer some useful explanations.