In 2010, a handsome little volume was published by the German firm, Suhrkamp Verlag. The book is called Dezember. Consistent with its theme, the slender volume has a simple white cover lettered in blue showing an image of a woods covered with snow. The book contains a short story for each day of the month of December, that is 31 tales none longer than two and a half pages. The stories are by the writer, Alexander Kluge, and they are strangely dispassionate miniature narratives presented in an objective, even icy, style. Although some of the tales take place in the remote future or distant past, most of the stories are set during World War Two or the first decade of the new millenium. Generally, Kluge’s narratives are unsentimental – he presents himself as a strict materialist, although in some of the accounts, the writer also seems critical of dogmatic materialism as well. His vignettes of the war are amoral – Kluge doesn’t focus on suffering or atrocities, although these topics receive a glance, now and then. Rather, he is interested in logistics, economic issues, machines and devices. In the first story in the book, Kluge describes a Siemens engineer on the East Front. The soldiers have encountered torsos of wooly mammoths extruding from the steppe. The engineer studies those freshly exhumed, but prehistoric, corpses to determine that the animal’s possessed a circulatory system specially evolved to keep blood warm in frigid conditions. Adapting this circulatory design to the tanks and jeeps operated by the Wehrmacht, the engineer creates a double fluid and water-pump system in these vehicles, thus, making them winter-proof. The second story in the book is set in 1991 and argues in a dry and acerbic manner that decisions made in the month of December are generally flawed – why is this? Because too many holidays, parties, and feast days are crammed into the month and politicians, like everyone else, have inadequate time to deliberate on their decisions. Thus, Kluge argues errors made by Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders in December 1991 as their empire was collapsing. (Although the design of the book is subtle, everything is linked – near the end of the book, Kluge asserts that Hitler showed poor judgment and was gelaehmt (that is, paralyzed)with respect to decisions that he made in December 1941.)
I have said that Dezember is a "handsome" little book – in fact, this is an understatement: the book is spectacularly beautiful. The volume’s beauty lies in its origin. In December 2009, Alexander Kluge, an important German filmmaker and writer, and Gerhard Richter, probably the most famous of all contemporary artists, met in Engadin, a resort own in the Canton of Sils Maria in the Swiss Alps – this was the place where Nietzsche wrote many of his books. As it happens, both men were born in February 1932 and so the same age. Engadin and Sils Maria are places famous for their snowfall – indeed, German mountain films and features about winter sports were filmed in this German-speaking region of Switzerland in the thirties (one of Kluge’s stories concerns a 1932 comedy about winter sports in Engadin). While Kluge composed his short stories, interpolated with tiny abstract essays, Richter hiked around the countryside taking photographs of the forests buried in deep, fluffy-looking snow. Thirty-nine of Richter’s pictures are printed adjacent to Kluge’s narratives. These photographs are extraordinary. Richter fills the frame with densely interlocked masses of foliage. The foliage is heavily burdened with fresh-fallen snow and so the pictures are diagrams of energy – the weight of the snow bears down on the tensile springs of the evergreen branches. At first glance, the pictures look abstract, field paintings in black and white by Jackson Pollock, a series of arcs and zigzag branches against a powdery white background. (The schematics of force and weight implicit in the pictures also reminds me of the zen-like images of Brice Marsden’s "Cold Mountain" series of paintings.) The pictures are austere but fascinating, wintry labyrinths of snow and branch, and, except for the final two photographs in the portfolio, they show no trace of human activity. At first, the reader assumes that the pictures were taken in black and white, but, then, upon closer inspection it appears that the photographs have color – they simply appear monochrome because of their subject matter. The experience of looking closely into these pictures is disorienting, puzzling – the longer you look, the more you see very subtle colors. The bark of some of trees is rust-red; there are faint amber tints in some of leaves, a haze of red sumac hovers in front of a black and white thicket. In the last picture in the book, the camera shows a road sliding black and slick downhill through a wintry forest to a barricade – no access is permitted beyond that point. And, thus the book ends.
Dezember represents a genre of book unfamiliar in the United States. The volume is a compilation of Kalendargeschichten – that is, "Calendar-stories." When I learned to read German, my grandmother, a Lutheran pastor’s wife and organist, was still alive. Among her belongings were a few old books, printed in thorny Fraktur type, that I discovered to be compilations of Kalendargeschichten. I translated a few of the stories – they were trite, simply written tales, about a page long, culminating in a short moral. The stories were pious, conventional, and not very interesting. But, apparently, these compilations of "calendar stories" were characteristic of a form of literature that flourished in Germany after the Protestant Reformation.
The word "calendar" derives from the Latin for "an index or schedule of debts." In Europe (prehistoric Meso-America had completely different ideas about calendars), a calendar was initially a list of dates annotated to identify when payments were due from debtors. After the Protestant Reformation, literacy was encouraged in German-speaking countries – it was hoped that families would read the Bible together, hence, the motivation for Luther’s translation of scripture into German. Peasants were intensely interested in calendars. Calendars were printed with dates for planting marked as well as religious holidays and feasts. These farmer’s almanacs, as is the case today, also featured prognostications, compilations of proverbs, and citations to Bible texts for home study. In the mid-18th century, the publishers of farmer’s almanacs began to accompany the calendar notations with short stories, anecdotes, accounts of strange and amazing events. All of this material was presented with didactic motives – that is, to encourage literacy among peasants through publication of moralizing or educational texts.
Gradually, the concept of the Kalendargeschichte leaked into high culture. The author, Johann Peter Hebel, was famous for his collections of "calendar stories," writings for an almanac called the Rheinlaendisches Hausfreund (the Rheinland Home Companion – a tradition referred to in Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion; indeed, Keillor’s spoken monologues with their sententious morals are a part of the tradition of the "calendar story") Later, the form was adapted by another didactic German writer, Bertolt Brecht. Brecht published a book of short stories entitled Kalendargeschicten, pointing morals espousing Marxist ideals.
Here are two examples of Kalendargeschichten from Hebel’s Rheinlaendisches HausFreund published between 1807 and 1819. The translations are my work:
A Variety of Murders
The city of Naples is the capital of the Kingdom of Naples and the part of the land where this important city is located is called Terra di Lavoro. Although this city is not yet the largest in the world, nonetheless, it boasts 400,000 inhabitants of which one-tenth are without home or job, without their own bed and board, and must live and sleep, day in and day out, on the streets. In this city and the surrounding land of Terra di Lavoro, beginning about 100 yearsa ago, at least 70 murders have been committed annually, with 230 murders occurring on a yearly basis throughout the territory. Although this is terrible, the number of murders continues in increase. Indeed, this evil worsens from year to year in such an awful way that in 1780, the number of murders in the entire kingdom reached 1200. In the year 1805, however, there were 1522 murders and other offenses against the public safety. One might be tempted to believe that in such a place, only the wildest and most blind heathen could live. But, in fact, these murders occur in one of the most beautiful parts of Europe, a city that has 71 churches. In the year 1806, when a new regime assumed power in this area, the sum of such crimes reduced to 617. Thus, we learn by hearing or reading how important the protection of a virtuous nobility and wise laws are to instituting calm and order in a land.
A Death from Fright
In a tavern, where writers sat together engaged in a lively dispute, one of them pushed another from the table. "Of course, there’s no such thing!" the man said, "that is, no ghosts or apparitions." He continued: "And you’re an old woman if you let yourself be sacred by such fables." The other man took him at his word and said: "You’re wrong, Mr. Bookkeper. I’ll bet you six bottles of Burgundy wine that I can spook you. Will you take the bet?" The bookkeeper replied: "Of course." So the writer went to a doctor: "Mr. Surgeon, next time you have a corpse delivered for dissection, I want you to detach the for arm from the elbow joint. Let me know when this happens." After a some time, the surgeon told the writer: "A suicide is being brought to my surgery, he drowned himself. The miller fished him out of the millrace." And he handed him the corpse’s forearm. "Are you sure there aren’t any apparitions, Mr. Bookkeeper?" "No, of course not." So the writer secretly crept into the accountant’s bedroom and hid under his bed and, when the bookkeeper laid himself down and fell asleep, the writer touched him with his own warm hand on his face. The bookkeeper woke up and said, since he was, indeed, a rational and brave man: "What kind of a trick is this? Do you think, you’re going to win this bet so easily." The writer was a quiet as a mouse. When the bookkeeper fell asleep again, the writer tapped him on the face again. The bookkeeper said: "Now, this is enough. You better get out of here or you’ll see how your served." The third time the writer ran his fingers across the bookkeeper’s face and, this time, the man grabbed for him. And, just as he was about to say: "I’ve got you now," he found that he was clutching a cold, dead hand and an amputated arm in his hands and a cold, deadly fear pierced him through the heart so that he felt his life abandoning him. When he regained his composure, he said in a weak voice: "You’ve won the god-forsaken bet!" The writer laughed merrily and said: "On Sunday, we’ll drink the good Burgundy together." To which the bookkeeer replied: "I won’t be there." Early the next morning, the bookkeeper suffered from a fever and, on the seventh morning, was a corpse. "Early yesterday," the doctor said to his friend, "they carried him to his grave in the churchyard cemetery and put him in the very grave I showed you last week."
3. Aus Dezember
December 31, 2009 – Appearance of Impenetrability
In the tale collected by the Brothers Grimm, we learn that there were only 12 place settings, one for each of the "twelve wise women of the land." The 13th fairy was not invited. Like the calamity at Chernobyl or the fall of the banking dynasty of the Lehman Brothers, facts established parameters that, not much later, would bring misfortune. The 13th fairy revenged herself by putting the castle and kingdom asleep for a thousand years. At the same time, she encircled the castle with a hedge of trees and thickets, twigs entwined with twigs to form an "abatis." Snow covered the branches. This hedge gave the impression of impenetrability. But, practically considered, a way could be found through the light snow on the ground. One must merely peruse the picture to the bottom of the frame to find a few inches of soil through which millions of midges migrate all the time.
The Power of Time
What is "time"? I am a calender-researcher, not physicist, the monk, Andrei Bitow answered. I say it is the DIVIDER between the times in which it appears, therefore the transition from year to year, the change from night to day, succession (for instance, of kinds of weather), the division of hours and minutes (even seconds, each an instant in which one can die) into generations and lifespans: time enough to be afraid: time to love.
You believe, therefore, that time won’t tolerate a pretentious meaning. Time is autonomous? Bitow answered: To whom does time belong? To this the biologist replied: it belongs to cellular life, in all cases to the planet itself, never to individuals. Here ends, he continued, any guarantee of freedom.
Therefore, it is particular dangerous, Bitow said, to manipulate to our ends December 31, the last day of the year. In nature, there is no year to bring to an end. Six-thousand years of prehistory were required to ripen time into a "year", that is into a slice of time conceived as a moment of transition. Without religion, it couldn’t have happened.
Calendars are Conservative
Until 153 B.C., December was the 10th month in the Roman lunar calendar, a method of time-keeping that counted 304 days to the year. After 153 B.C., the new year began only after the intervention of two more months. But no one dared to change the name of the month ("deci" or 10th) that marked the end of the year.
The most extreme form of Inequality: the time-corset
In the French revolutionary calendar, years are divided into "decades," that is, units of 10 days that are named for the seasonal events observed in the natural world. By this reckoning, "December" was eliminated. From the 21st of November to the 20th of December, time was bridged by the three "decades" of Frimaire ("month of freezing fog"). The month, Nivose, followed from the 21st of December to January 19 – the calendar omitting holy days and not marking the end of the year. Holidays were sequestered in September – September 17 (after 1800, the 18th of September) was the Day of Virtue (Jour de la Vertu), the 18th of September (after 1800, the 19th of September) was the Day of Genius (Jour de Genie), September 19 (after 1800 September 20) was the Day of Work (Jour du Travail), September 20 (after 1800, September 21) was the Day of Opinion (Jour de l’Opinion), the 21st of September (after 1800, September 22) was the Day of Recompense (Jour des Recompenses) and, only in Leap Years, the 22nd of September 1795, 1799, and the 23rd of September 1805 was called the Day of Revolution (Jour de la Revolution).
It was easy enough for the inhabitants of France to invoke their own autonomous sense of time to displace the revolutionary calendar decreed by the State. First, people maintained a "dual reckoning" of days and months, later the new calendar was simply ignored, and, as one of Consul Napoleon’s first legislative measures, abrogated.
An Accidental Accomplishment ("Fehlleistung") of Vladimir Lenin is belatedly manifested in December 2009 (and January 2010).
On the 14th of February in 1918, the Council of the People’s Commissars decreed the introduction of the western calendar to Russia. But how imperfect is the power of state institutions! The new reckoning of days never fully replaced the old calendar. For a long time, without paying this decree much heed, Russians kept time as legislated by the two principal confessions in the country – the Byzantine calendar prevailed in some areas and in other places the old western or Roman calendar ruled.
This confusing situation led to the "economic moratorium" arising during the transition from 2009 to 2010 – an inconvenience that Prime Minister Putin vainly attempted to combat. Following the example of western markets, Moscow, and the regions beyond the Urals, imported the Christian holidays. Thse holidays concluded (as far as popular sentiment and work schedules were concerned) 13 days later than was previously the case, thus enlarging the scope of time for the enjoyment of booze and reciprocal invitations to various feasts and parties. This 13 day extension encroached upon Epiphany, an even more essential holiday as far as the people were concerned, that festival beginning on the 6th of January (with its attendant 13 days of celebration). Thus, superimposed on this transition between 2009 and 2010: a rich quota of holidays.
This substitution of a (seemingly) never-ending series of special days for reality ("reality" defined by work and professional responsibilities) invigorates equally body, soul, and the economy – at least so maintained, Andrei Bitow, the monk. And, all of this occurred because a provisional revolutionary government once set for its goal the regulation of time itself, a realm over which only God and the People possess any authority.
On Calendar Reform
Between the modern-day republics of Kirgistan and Khazakistan, a small strip of land surrounded by mountains exists undocumented by the maps made in 1917 and, therefore, exempt from the administration of any state. When the Soviet Union was demolished, this strip of land remained unclaimed. An orthodox cloister is located in that territory, a place that was later hastily vacated. A single monk remained there to watch the buildings and continue the work of the brotherhood.
For hundreds of years, this cloister was charged with the official ecclesiastical office of establishing accurate dates and maintaining the calendar – that is, with the study of chronometry. The solitary monastic brother, occupied with this work and forgotten by the outside world, did not remain isolated for long. By internet, he established connections with other fraternal and monastic organizations, both orthodox and scientific. The Muslims in the environs of this monastery paid no attention to the stranger in their midst and did not molest him.
The most recent time period, Brother Andrei Bitow maintained, should be divided in the following way:
From the peace of Westphalia (1648) to 1789 = 1 century
From 1793 to 1815 = 1 century
From 1815 to 1870/1871 = 1 century
From 1871 to 1918 = 1 century
From 1918 to 1989 = 1 century
Thus, 341 years were, in substance, five centuries or 500 years.
Thereafter: our current time.
The additional years necessary to balance the ledger with respect to this new time system, Bitow retrieved from the medieval era, effecting a critical reevaluation of time lapsing in that period. In the medieval era, there were epochs that were simply invented – for instance, there exists no evidence of the actual existence of Charlemagne. About 300 years hitherto believed to exist were simply erased. Thus, Bitow, without any difficulty worked his way back to the birth of Christ, posited to be 20 centuries ago, thereby synchronizing cloister chronicles with his reckoning of time.
In academic circles in the USA, Brother Bitwo was hailed as the inventor of TIME COMPRESSION. The qualitative designation "century" possesses a distinct morphology, that is, a "century" forces its years into a either a circular or elliptical orbit around a central point. It is arbitrary to parse time chronometrically into conventional days and years. In fact, the three years comprising the great French Revolution have a "different structure," Bitow argued. They comprise "a century" in themselves. Thus, THE RIGHT OF SELF-DETERMINATION MUST BE RECOGNIZED AS MUCH FOR TIME AS FOR PEOPLE.
How, then, could the same time apply to Russia as to England and France, places with different histories? Brother Bitow zealously proclaimed the incommensurate nature of time between nations. All times are different – a British and Russian century can certainly not be compared. The times observed by continents and those who dwell on those continents, Bitow said, can, nonetheless, be reconciled through their morphological fields. In this dimension, TIME-STREAMS are once again synchronized. In this light, it is not even entirely clear that the Great French Revolution was actually of French origin. A new time reckoning can have its origin in an entirely different place than where that time system (superficially) is applied. We have souls in Russia, in central Germany, in Tashkent, and located in east Asian colonies that vibrate in a common temporal motion.
Heating material in Bitow’s barren mountains is scarce. Often, in winter, Bitow would warm his hands by pressing them firmly against the housing of his computer.
That which I represent in my (his)stories, the (his)stories of a living person is not the COMPLETED PAST(that which was because it is no more), nor even the perfect tense of that which once was what I am now, but the OTHER, that which I once would have been anticipating as that which I will, in theory, become.
– – If I understand you correctly, there is some sorrow arising in connection with "that which I will in theory become." – I see it this way: "I will have been a criminal, something which I didn’t really desire. I travel in one of the first trains into occupied Paris after the cease-fire, dressed in civilian clothes, my passport approved, I belong to the most elite and confidential circles in the government’s primary security office, I am delegated and dispatched to organize an understanding with France that the stony barons of that nation in their time could not achieve. I still don’t know that a year later, I will have supervise mass executions by firing squad in south Prussia, activity for which I will receive my full recompense five years later.
– And this you can’t express in future anterieur because you will already have been executed in Krakow. Your future is cut off, like a head by the guillotine.
– I have, indeed, installed myself within a certain imagined person, a man who will become a criminal. I sit right here before you. My drink in front of me.
– It will have to do with the notion that I WILL ONCE HAVE BEEN, one of the strongest projections of willpower. And not be to be transposed with, or confused with, that which I really do, or will do.
– But what is the efficacy of this grammatical tense? It creates problems for us in German. The tense seems complicated, but, in reality, it is actually simple enough. What do you think?
– That’s a point on which I can’t make up my mind.
– To the extent human beings busy themselves with these issues at all. As they say: That’s something that thou may’st not prophesy, thou, thou gracious angel.
– It is mainly the capacity to make prophecies and the determination that I will encounter the fulfillment of these as I look forward. "Choose only that future that you can endure."
– Grammar is a dangerous weapon, a murderous tool.
– And the only weapon that orders consciousness.
Siberian Time Reserves
During the time in which Comrade Andropov (his health continuously threatened and, therefore, essentially immobile and incapable of travel) led the KGB and prepared himself for the tasks of General Secretary of the Soviet Union, there was, in one of the major divisions of the Russian Secret Service, a boss haling from Kirghiz who was named Lermontov, a fellow who counted among his forefathers heathen priests, Siberian animists. During his hours of service, Lermontov composed a collection of historical sketches – in these internationally organized administrative agencies, time accumulates in a powerful mobs of minutes and hours, a trickle at first, a trickle that flows more slowly than anywhere else in the world from the windows of towering concrete structures. A series of Lermontov’s sketches concerned "paralysis in the decisive moment."
It is a strange fact that the greatest actors in world history are often seized by paralysis and, indeed, at decisive moments. Lermontov said: it would be dogmatic to maintain that there are no gods in light of this phenomenon. Most obviously, the gods appear as strength or paralysis. Do you really believe, Lermontov asked his listening comrades, that it was a case of the common cold that was responsible for Napoleon not undertaking the flanking assault that his generals had advised and that would have assured a successful outcome? Do you really want to explain this masterpiece of failure in terms of a cold?
No, it was the emperor’s lack of faith in his mission, answered one of the scholarly secret service assistants, a man who daily labored on educating himself. (They were all in training for perestroika, a thaw whose coming they predicted without having any clue what new relationships and connections this new freedom would institute.)
Debatable, replied Lermontov. The divinity that crippled him is the same god who hurled lightning bolds between the Trojans and the Greeks.
And you say that you are a materialist!
Indeed, that’s exactly what I say, answered Lermontov. A materialist is never dogmatic: he doesn’t exclude with cause, or deem impossible, any forceful influence that may exist in the world. Particularly, those influences that might enhance the acuity of our perspective on things. Consider the peculiar paralysis that beset Hitler, his blindness (at the very moment of another fiasco at the Moscow Front.) In December, 1941: "as if snowblind," he declares war on the USA. There was no compulsion among his alliances to mandate this declaration of war. So, he sealed the fate of the Reich. I am very much wondering, one of those attending upon Lermontov said reproachfully, a man who had just joined the circle around the Boss: What have you been busying yourself with, Comrade?
The empire, intact in those days, ruled over all of Siberia’s time reserves. And, also, controlled its thought-reserves: an armored cabinet of inner lives. In the KGB bunker, the academic elite of the land were gathered.
I thought of Lermontov’s notions when I (acting as Gorbachev’s final assistant) observed the president’s paralysis. This seized him after our return from the Madrid conference. We had gone there as beggars. Never again would Gorbachev be what he had once been. A spiteful Mediterranean god from ancient times, a god that had helped to destroy the Trojans, had forced his way into the President (the way that a virus or the sting of insect, or poison or a great disappointment insinuates itself into a man so as to confound him.) So he sat in his room, unable to act. While the "bushwhackers from Minsk," forged their plot to misappropriate the common wealth. Shouldn’t he have arrested them for high treason? He had complete authority to take this measure...
Shortly after the disaster at Chernobyl, we carried Lermontov, our Boss, to this grave. "Abandoned by all of the gods," he had shot himself.
Tempus, Aevam, Aeternitas
We Islamists, said Jamal Islam, an astrophysicist from Bangladesh and expert in Sufi texts transmitted only orally since 1150 (God willing), conceive of three sorts of time. When I glance at my watch, I read TEMPUS, the type of time that connects me to with the atomic clocks in the scientific world. By this measure of time, the earth and the sun move themselves against the background of the Milky Way, everything rotating in perfect unity to make a revolution around the central core of the galaxy in a mere 250 million years.
AEVUM must be distinguished from TEMPUS. AEVUM is incorporeal angelic time. I direct my inner vision toward the center of things. From that place, Allah’s black sun radiates beams extending outward. The origin of this BLACK LIGHT is just a little to the West of the Solar Plexus. Heresy informs us that the feelings that originate between diaphragm and solar plexus when we are angry or experiencing pleasantly exciting events correlate to this angelic radiation. From this initial central core, comprised of millions of believers, the AEVUM radiates its beams on which souls travel.1
The third type of time, AETERNITAS – that is, the duration that God alone experiences. It is heretical to confuse (or even relate) this universe of time with TEMPUS or AEVUM.
A European ambassador who heard Jamal Islam’s proclamations questioned the scholar. The interlocutor was a medievalist.
– You use the Latin concepts of Origen. Why?
– We are continuing a discussion that has lasted since the year 1080. He relates to Spanish Islamic texts. We read them in Latin translation. The Arabic version may be transmitted only by oral means.
– And so changes with time.
– This can’t be avoided.
– In Latin translations from the early Middle Ages can’t you measure the effects of the verbal peregrinations of this tradition that is orally recited by the Islamic scholars?
– Don’t speak with disrespect about something that is holy.
– So the slips of the pen, errors, and the, often, senseless substitutions by which monks have altered our occidental texts – these things aren’t holy?
– Just as is our oral tradition to us.
– Which allows even more errors.
– Not errors, changes. Allah prevents error.
One can not, the Islamic scholar explained, comprehend from one of the three universes by which we define time other realms – that is, aroma or Necessity for example – although these realms access other types of universe. It’s a matter of incompatibility. And a believer becomes lost as soon as he, without proper ritual observance, switches from one type of time to another. From the universe of black radiation, he glances down at his wristwatch. And this bewilders the senses indeed. And coming forth AETERNITAS into clock-time. Unheard of.
– So you’re speaking about a physical theology?
– What else?
This conversation was in French. The medieval scholar, serving his country as a diplomat, could converse frankly with the learned man from Bangladesh because they had spoken this way to one another for forty years. Islamic imperialism, the diplomat said, reminds me of the old Soviet Union. They had invented the airplane before the first aircraft ever existed anywhere else. They search in south Russia for traces of the first man; they overtake all other industrial nations in the race to the stars. As materialists, the comrades embodied the world and didn’t trouble themselves about religion. But, you, my friend (and, understand that I’m not trying to separate you from your phalanx of believers – we’re friends, and can be friends even though we each regard the other as a heretic)...you must explain to me this movement in Islam that appropriates to itself everything valuable in the world so that soon Siberia and the American Midwest will become Islamic. That’s what you say without any consideration of the actual, material circumstances.
Remarkable, answered the Islamic scholar. Right now, I’m working on a translation of Friedrich Engels The Dialectic of Nature from a Russian text since, unfortunately, I can’t read German.) There is the subject of THE VITALIZATION OF THE TOTALITY OF INTERSTELLAR SPACE. All forms of matter, Engels maintains, possess a kind of rudimentary life. Insentient life is the matrix of the Biosphere. And from this material, lightning strikes from the Noosphere. You mean in the year 1080? the diplomat said with reproach. On this theme, the Islamist answered, I’m now exhausted.
Fellow travelers for many years, the two men sat in their wicker chairs, timeless each in their own way, that is occupying a neutral zone between epochs of TEMPUS, seated in the lobby of a grand hotel that itself signified that this terrestrial terrain, now imperilled, had once been subject to British rule. Like the embassies of an antediluvian world, these hotel-ships found themselves stranded –but their interiors reflected a spiritually comforting notion, illustrating the premise that all men from all parts of the world might somehow come to understand one another. That is, sipping cool drinks equally cool minds might compare, side by side, all questions of philosophy, and all aspects of the practice of life, in order to select (as in the medieval watering places such as the urbane Damascus or Cordoba) the best and brightest for contemplation. Just as the merchant might bright gifts from faraway lands to his beloved daughter so these storytellers travelled far and wide, collecting the most interesting and newest things from remote parts of the world. To the extent that there were walls separating the two very different scholars, walls of imperial origin, nonetheless, at that moment, no empire was founded nor expanded. The new imperium was afoot as feared by the diplomats but seven kilometers away in the slums. And this all-devouring gorge of AEVUM would swallow up first of all the no longer youthful astrophysicist, a consequence of this particular WILL OF THE PEOPLE emerging from the AEVUM and penetrating into TEMPUS.
The differentiation between the Old and New Year according to Deusche Industrial Norms (DIN)
On the 6th of December, 2009, in Geneva, negotiations between the Federal Republic of Germany and mainland China collapsed as a result of disagreements over reciprocal recognition of industrial norms. Among other things, this failure may be attributed to China’s refusal to acknowledge any of the general rules established by DIN norms. Thus, the trade relationship between a great nation, China, and the German federation in the context of business (but, also, possibly diplomatic communiques and even declarations of war) remains uncertain.
According to German law, December begins with the same of the week as September – if, therefore, September 1 is a Monday so also is December 1. If the 29th, 30th, or 31st of December is a Monday, ensuing days in the first calendar week of the following year will fall after Monday. According to the DIN norm, in this case, the last calendar week of the year will end with the last Sunday in December. So people may experience up to two week-days that are outside of time. But, organizations, must move steadily through 52 intact weeks.
Notes on the translation
the 13th fairy – a reference to the Maerchen of "Sleeping Beauty." Only 12 place settings are set for the 13 wise women of the land at the christening of the King’s daughte. The spurned fairy curses the King’s daughter, indicating that she will prick her finger on her fifteenth birthday and pass into a coma. Everyone in the castle will also fall asleep and an impenetrable hedge will grow around the royal compound. Kluge’s reference to the hedge refers to the pictures made by Richter depicting a similarly impenetrable terrains of branch and bush – but his words, like the midges, move through the subsurface.
Chernobyl – a nuclear catastrophe that occurred in the Ukraine in April 1986 – a power surge caused a reactor to rupture resulting in a large radioactive plume. The Chernobyl catastrophe is referenced again in the .... section of the text.
December 31 – a preoccupation with counting days and weeks that re-occurs in the final section of the book.
13 days – like the 13 fairies and the 13 disciples: one is left-over. The problem with the "left-over" is crucial to Kluge – that is, time that doesn’t fit in the calendar.
undocumented / exempt – like the left over time, Kluge focuses on terrain that is excluded from maps, space that falls outside of geography. In a space outside geography, the mad monk, Bitow (I can find no reference to a real figure) devises time systems that are outside of ordinary calendar time.
century – the efficacy of defining an epoch by a term of 100 years has been contested by historiographers. An example is Juergen Osterhammel’s survey of historical accounts of the 19th century: some use a "long century" beginning with the American Revolution in 1776 and continuing until the end of World War One (1914); other historians define the 19th century with a ‘short century’ beginning with Napoleon’s defeat and ending with the destruction of the Paris Commune.
Future Anterieur – a grammatical verb tense in French, sometimes called "French Future Perfect". This tense is used to describe actgions that will have been completed at some future time. For instance: "I will have escaped from this prison by midnight tomorrow" or "how many countries are going to have visited before you come home?" The future perfect tense is used in prophecy: "By the year 2400, poverty will have been eliminated and the kingdom of heaven will have been established on earth."
Andropov – Yuri Andropov, General Secretary of the Communist Part of the Soviet Union beginning in November 1982. He succeeded Brezhnev. His successor, after a fifteen month term (most of it spent in the hospital), was Chernenko who was, in turn, succeeded by Gorbachev. Andropov was in fact chairman of the KGB when the Prague Spring was crushed in 1968.
Lermontov – the name of this KGB officer invokes the Russian Romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov (1814 - 1841). Lermontov wrote several important works in his short life including A Hero of Our Time. He was killed in a duel.
The Madrid Conference – Gorbachev attended a peace conference involving the Palestinian and Israeli conflict in Madrid in late October 1991. President George H. W. Bush was also in attendance. An attempt was made to broker a peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Soviet Union was collapsing at that time and had lost its international prestige.
Minsk Bushwhackers – obscure. However, Kluge may be referring to the conference in the Belovezh Forest near Brest in Belarus that occurred on December 8, 1991. The capitol of Belarus is Minsk. At the conference, the breakaway Baltic republics were formally acknowledged to be no longer part of the Soviet Union. Efforts were made to form a loose federation of affiliated States. Gorbachev angrily denounced the resolutions adopted in the Belovezh Forest accords as "illegal."
Tempus – Aevum – Aeternitas – terms designating different realms of time derived from the Scholastic Philosophers, most notably Albertus Magnus.
Origen – Patristic writer. Kluge is referring to his essay Peri Archon ("On the First") about the beginnings of things and time. Peri Archon dates to 220 A.D.
The Dialectic of Nature – Friedrich Engel’s attempt to apply dialectical materialism to the study of nature, a set of essays written between 1872 and 1882, but not completed. The most famous of these essays is Engel’s consideration of evolution "The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man". In these essays, Engels argues that nature progresses through dialectical processes and that the "hand evolved simultaneously with the brain." Engels notes: "Let us not flatter ourselves overmuch on account of human victories over nature. For each such victory, nature takes revenge on us."
Noosphere – the zone of human thought, a term coined by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in 1922.
DIN Norm – this passage references DIN 1355-1, an industrial norm relating to computation of time and calendar date. This standard has been withdrawn. The German standard has application to the way that computers measure time. According to DIN 1355-1, the first week of the new year is counted as week one if that week contains four or more days. This is different from the Chinese standard – and, also, differs from the calendar standard employed in the United States and Mexico. In the U.S. and Mexico (and, apparently China), the week counted as the first in the year is the week containing January 1. So, if January 1 falls on a Saturday, the preceding Friday will be part of Week One of the new year although that day’s calendar date falls in the old year. These sorts of issues are substantive in computer programming, astronomy, and technical fields in which the weeks in the year must be counted.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
I scan newspaper obituaries comparing the dates of birth and death with my own age. Sometimes, I recognize the names of people that I once knew. Recently I saw an obituary lodged next to a photograph of N.A.B. The picture was recent and I had not seen this woman for thirty years, and, therefore, didn’t recognize her. But the name was familiar and aroused my memories and, by squinting a little, at the small color photograph I could picture again the woman that it represented.
N.A.B. was ninety when she died. In the photo, a handsome-looking older woman with pale, smooth skin tilts her head inquisitively toward the camera. Her shoulders are only partially visible, clad in a leopard-skin print. N.A.B (I’ll call her Nadine) is wearing large pearls like Christmas tree ornaments under her ears. Her eyes are small and black and they have a mannequin-like aspect, dull buttons sewn to the face of a child’s toy replica of an adult woman, her features a bit caricatured, plastic, like a Barbie doll that has inexplicably aged. Most remarkably, however, Nadine looks out at the world from under a lavish crown of chemically blonde hair, a golden halo that entirely envelopes her face and extends upward to the very top of the picture frame. The hair is lustrous and artificial and invokes for me the smell of powerful reagents, sour acidic chemicals and bitter alkali bleaching agents, explosive peroxides that might be used to power a rocket into orbit.
I met Nadine when I was 24. She was the landlady of the apartment complex where I lived when I first came to Austin in 1979 to practice law It was never clear to me whether Nadine owned the long narrow structure fronting the campus of the Community College or whether she was merely an employee managing the property, but it was obvious that on this premises she exercised exclusive dominion and control. As it happened, I had been assigned the apartment immediately across the stagnant, malodorous corridor from the rooms that she occupied with her husband, Bob, and her daughter, Toni. Bob was a bulky, square-shaped mail-carrier. His face was red with booze and rage. In those days, Nadine was immensely fat, a great pillowy Hindenberg of a woman inflated to the point that neither seam nor crease was visible anywhere on face or exposed portions of her body. Jeweled rings were buried in her pneumatic paws and she moved with a stately waddling gait. Her vast crown of blonde hair overspread and shadowed her small eyes, displayed in the rhinestone-embedded frames of her glasses and she was immensely colorful – Nadine wore tent-like mumus printed with acres of pink and yellow and red flowers or bright orange frocks, cut like pajamas, that made her seem an improbable escapee from some small-town lock-up.
Nadine’s daughter, Toni, took after her father – the family resemblance was unfortunately obvious. She was a rectangular, hulking brick of a girl, like her father entirely without neck or waist. Toni glared out at the world with savage hostility. It seemed to me that her fists were always clenched. In this respect, she was similar to her father as well. Each night, he got drunk, quarreled loudly with Nadine, and, then, beat her. When she was punched, Nadine yowled like a cat. Toni went outside through the sliding door that opened onto the parking lot behind the apartments – although she was only 14 at the time, she stood by her father’s pickup truck morosely smoking a cigarette. After a while, Bob got tired of beating Nadine and passed-out. Then, Toni went inside the house and began shrieking at her mother who screamed back at her. A microwave hummed, although there was also the smell of fried food infiltrating the shabby hallway leading between doors opening into equally shabby apartments. Separate meals were being prepared to be eaten alone, in different rooms. In the summer, the sun set over the campus of the community college, a red ball of fire ensnared in the broadcasting towers standing out on the prairie between the buildings and the freeway. Open land, hissing with grasshoppers in the weeds and heavy with the colossal weight of row-crop corn and soybeans extended beyond the freeway to the small, sad villages, each fastened to the horizon by the white blunt spike of a grain elevator. Trucks shifted on the freeway with a sound like a dog howling at the moon. I came to Austin in July a week after taking the bar, a refugee from the big city where I had gone to college, had some unhappy love affairs, and been bullied out of a job as a law clerk. I was skeptical about my future as an attorney. My passion was literature and writing. In my memory, Nadine stands always in the humid summer, under a setting sun, embittered, bruised, and censorious, a sentinel protecting her long, white apartment building like a marooned and cut-rate cruise ship with its tiny terraces fenced with cast-iron, its sliding doors, its mingled smells of sweat and fried food and mildewed carpet suffused with cigarette smoke, the home of Arabian princelings come to the United States for an indifferent education at the College, recently divorced police officers and accountants and school teachers, working stiffs who drove truck or tried unsuccessfully to sell cars or appliances or musical instruments, and, of course, elderly widows or disabled couples whose rooms were always fluent with the sound of televisions tuned to game shows or nature documentaries.
During my increasingly hectic and frenzied studies for the Bar Exam, administered in late June at the hockey arena in St. Paul, my parents had gone to Austin and located the apartment for me, negotiated the transaction with Nadine, the landlady, and, then, driven the two hours back to Eden Prairie, the Twin Cities suburb where I lived with them. They brought with them several racks of ribs purchased at the Hy-Vee grocery store on the edge of town, a busy place next to a huge pitted parking lot that rolled out to the county highway and the farm land where thunderstorms were scouring the grey-green rim of the world. The ribs were very sweet and meaty, with just the right marbling of fat, and, when I think of my first summer in Austin and my loneliness and the strangeness of my new job, the resentful secretaries, my panic at appearing in Court for the first time, I recall Hy-Vee’s ribs and the fact that, once, a week, for a special treat I bought a rack for my supper with potato salad and baked beans and ate my supper on the formica table in my semi-furnished apartment, a sound like a cat in heat sobbing somewhere beyond the hallway and remote thunder pealing across the land, a faint roar that I could hear over the whisper of the window air conditioner.
Nadine perceived that I was arrogant and, possibly, considered myself superior to her and her mail carrier husband and the others at the apartment. Presumably, she longed for me to cross her formidable and cruel husband and suffer a beating at his hands. But, of course, I was polite, paid my rent on time, and rarely had female company spending the night in my rooms. When I saw Bob half-naked, grunting on his riding lawn mower as he mowed the apartment lawn – a narrow ribbon of green the length of a football field – I was cordial and nodded to him. He had no reason to assault me and, probably, like many wife-beaters, was a congenital coward. Nadine kept track of who was keeping company with whom, and. like all small-town people, she knew everyone and their families and the reputations of their families and disapproved of most of the single women remaining in town. The virtuous girls had been married immediately after High School and were now tending to their babies and the smarter, more ambitious ones had left for college in the Cities where, of course, they were now up to no good, although this was no longer Nadine’s concern since they no longer lived in Austin. She monitored those who came and went through the stale corridors of the apartment, threatened vagrant cars in the parking lot with towing, and, because she was a woman, and, indeed, the most feminine of all women in the town and, probably, the world, understood the seductions and guiles of women, knew them inside and out in all their deceit and filthy tricks. She patrolled her apartment looking for evidence of immorality, clawed up the used condoms that the college kids left on the asphalt behind the building, and haunted the corridors listening at doors. She knew everything about everyone and, although she didn’t like me, Nadine had no evidence on which to lodge any charges against me, no basis for her dislike, and so, from time to time, she would confront me in the parking lot and ask for free legal advice, probably hoping that I would turn away from her and decline to answer her questions and, thereby, put myself in the wrong. But, in fact, I assisted her on unlawful detainers against tenants who had to be evicted and filled out conciliation court forms for her when she had to sue for rent. Sometimes, she even asked me to represent her, or her daughter.
I can recall three cases. In the first, Nadine’s scalp had been scalded by caustic chemicals at a hair salon. Something had gone wrong during a perm, and the potion massaged into Nadine’s already chemically stressed hair had been left to set for too long. Upon returning home, Nadine’s hair fell out in clumps and her scalp was covered with red, weeping blisters. Nadine was a licensed beauty operator herself and, often, she fixed the hair of the old ladies residing in the apartment, no doubt charging them a hefty fee for the convenience of her ministrations and part of the intricate bad smell in the hallway outside her rooms was the stink of chemicals used in hairdressing. She was able to explain to me in exquisite detail the error made by the hapless hair stylist that had injured her and I made a claim against that stylist’s insurance and won for Nadine a few thousand dollars. She was a disgruntled, difficult, and unrewarding client – no settlement was ever enough for her and she regarded the errors of others as serious moral failings for which a reckoning had to be made and was never satisfied with the outcome.
A year later, Nadine’s daughter Toni was hit by a negligent motorist while riding her bicycle on some mysterious mission after dark. Toni was with a retarded boy named Willie, who was also on his bicycle, and, also, knocked to the ground by the errant car. The accident happened late at night and there was some question about where Toni and Willy were heading at the time that the car sideswiped them both and deposited them bloody and bruised in the ditch. Nadine wanted revenge against the driver who had injured her daughter, indeed, might have killed her but for sheer good luck, but, of course, the law provides compensation, not revenge, and pays for what actually happened, not what might have happened and Toni’s injuries were relatively slight. In Minnesota, as a matter of statutory law, injuries to a pedestrian or bicyclist trigger no-fault coverage in the insurance on the vehicle owned by the pedestrian or bicyclist or by their parents in the case of a minor. Accordingly, Toni’s medical charges had to be submitted for payment to Nadine’s insurance coverage on her own vehicle, a magnificent Lincoln Continental. This embittered Bob, the mail carrier, and he was so angry about having to submit the charges to his own insurance when, in his view, Toni as not at fault that he came to my office with Nadine and threatened me, albeit obliquely. It seemed that I might at last earn the beating at the hands of Bob that Nadine had long wished upon me. But Bob backed down when I explained the law to him. Later, at another meeting, a bad quarrel erupted when I suggested that the retarded boy, Willy, was Toni’s "friend."
"I don’t know what you mean by that," Nadine said angrily. "What are you implying?"
"He wasn’t my ‘friend,’ not at all," Toni snarled.
Toni had hurt her back and shoulder and said that she was in constant pain.
"I’m not implying anything," I said.
Willy was a debonair, suave retarded man and he was known to have many girlfriends. Indeed, he was the father of four or five children having impregnated most of the mentally ill women at the sheltered workshop where he labored. All of his children were retarded as well, developmentally delayed, and some of them were deformed.
"He’s never been my ‘friend,’ no way," Toni said again.
"Understood," I said.
Although Toni treated extensively with a chiropractor, she had no real objective symptoms of injury and the settlement that I negotiated for her was a disappointment to Nadine and her husband. Willy was also injured, a fractured fibula, and I got him more money than I could secure for Toni. This inequity also infuriated Nadine.
A few months later, one of the tenant princelings from the United Arab Emirates or, possibly, Qatar got drunk and lost control of his vehicle in the parking lot. The Princeling drove the front of his car right through the wall of the apartment so that the vehicle was embedded in the building, its engine and, even, front door inside someone’s apartment. I was called to investigate the loss and took many photographs. I was shocked to see that Nadine’s apartment building, where I had lived for eighteen months, was made of something like cardboard – the walls were fragile shells of drywall, brittle as glass, and where the projectile of the car was rammed through the building I saw the pink insulation like strips of fat furled around the battered chrome. Of course, I started a lawsuit against the Princeling, but he decamped back to the Arabian deserts whence he had come and, since the car was uninsured, there was nothing I could do to recover any money for the required repair of the building. Nadine’s only consolation was that the Princeling abandoned his Buick and, somehow, she seized it – the apartment walls were so insubstantial that the car was only slightly battered by the crash and she was able to have it repaired and, then, sold for twelve-thousand dollars at the auto auction in Shakopee.
Of course, after a couple years I moved out of the apartment that Nadine managed. After the disappointing outcome in the case involving the negligent Arabian prince, Nadine became even more disenchanted with my legal abilities and no longer sought my advice. Perhaps, I saw her shopping for groceries from time to time, but don’t recall any other encounters with my former landlady.
The old Hy-Vee moved to a new location, only a hundred yards from its old site. The supermarket deli no longer featured BBQ ribs – on most nights, you can’t buy them there any more, a shame, I think. I was married and divorced and married again. There were children. My children grew up. My youngest daughter now works at the only Hy-Vee that she has ever known, the business that I call the new Hy-Vee. In Austin, real estate costs very little and so we don’t tear down failed enterprises to build something in their place. Extinct businesses are simply left standing in their fractured and weed-overgrown parking lots, prey to vandals and an embarrassment to the city. The old Hy-Vee can still be seen, big black windows like the entrance to a cavern on the edge of the cratered parking lot.
About fifteen years after my last contact with Nadine, I pulled into town after a long drive and stopped at a gas station on the edge of the freeway. It was a raw, blustery day with a scrotum-tightening edge to the cold wind. After pumping gas into my car, I hustled into the service station. A fat man was sitting on metal stool behind the cash register. He looked at me with a dour, vacant expression. Something about the fat man seemed familiar to me. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. The man was probably about 35 and he had pale, almost opalescent skin pierced over his soft upperlip with a few bristly black whiskers. The fat man took my money and regarded me curiously, a faint glimmer of recognition showing in his eyes. At first, I couldn’t place the resemblance, but, then, I made the connection – the fat cashier looked very much like Nadine’s brutish husband, Bob. He was a bit more delicate and his hands, puffy with a ring or two embedded in them, were smaller and less suitable for wife-beating, but, nonetheless, there was a strong resemblance. I looked at the name sewn into the pocket above the cashier’s breasts – it said "Anthony". "Toni," I said. "I thought I recognized you," the man said to me. "You look –" I said, but didn’t know how to complete the sentence. "I’m a man now," Anthony said. "I changed my sex." "I see..." I said. "Good for you."
"Has it been all okay?" I asked.
"I’m still not happy," Tony said.
"How are your parents?"
"I don’t see them any more," Tony told me.
"If there’s ever anything I can do for you..." I said.
"See you around," Tony said.
But I didn’t see him around. And a couple years later, I learned that Tony was dead.
Nadine’s obituary mentioned Tony and said that he was her son. In a way that is probably obsolescent today and, perhaps, even atavistic, Nadine was the most feminine woman that I have ever met. Her daughter was less successful, I suppose, as a man. But, then, we are all failures in one way or another with respect to the gender that we have selected.
In the obituary photograph, Nadine looked tiny. She had lost more than hundred pounds. If we live long enough, we all become skinny again in the end.
Sunday, May 10, 2015
A couple days ago, I encountered a ghost. The revenant was a word, an expression returning from the dead to recapture a significance long lost.
The word-ghost appears in the center of the 10th line of a poem by John Donne, "The Apparition." The poem was written between 1603 and 1614 and is part of a series of intricate lyrics on the subject of love. In "The Apparition," the poet imagines himself as a ghost. He has returned to haunt his faithless lover whom he finds in the arms of another. His apparition is contrived, it seems, to extinguish the sexual ardor between his former mistress and her lover. The poem’s tone is rueful, but sardonic, an exercise in irony playfully feigning bitterness. Seeing his "feigned vestal, in worse arms" – that is, embraced by her new lover – the poet’s ghost tinkers with the bedside candle so that "thy sick taper will begin to wink". ("The sick taper" is a metonym for the lover’s phallus.) Worn out by his amorous exertions, the woman’s paramour remains asleep and, although his mistress "pinches" to wake him, he remains in a "false sleep." The poor fellow is also "feigning" – he is afraid that the woman will make more demands on his exhausted "taper":
Thou call’st for more,
And in a false sleep will from thee shrink;
"Shrink"? Donne’s meaning here is obvious.
Forced to confront the vengeful spook alone, the faithless lover is described in these terms:
And, then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bath’d in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie.
A verier ghost than I.
Donne ends the 17-line poem with a threat. I no longer love you, the poet proclaims, and so I won’t commit to this verse the imprecations that I will visit upon you when I am dead. The poet asserts that his vengeance will be better, and more complete, if the faithless woman must "painfully repent, / Than by my threat’nings rest still innocent."
On reading this poem, the word that puzzled me was the adjective "aspen". Confronted by the embittered ghost, the poet’s mistress lies helpless, a "poor, aspen wretch" weltering in a "quicksilver sweat."
It is the fate of modern people to know the world through our enterprises and things that we have built and not through the natural world. Therefore, to me, Aspen is primarily a town, a ski-resort in the center of Colorado beneath a high and barren mountain pass. Aspen is a place where everything is expensive and where you might glimpse a movie star hidden behind sunglasses holding a cup of coffee at a sidewalk café. In Aspen, the people are all hip and beautiful; the movie stars are not the most beautiful inhabitants of the colony – after all, they still must labor for a living; the most beautiful are their consorts and mistresses, those who live on their beauty alone. Aspen is the site of a famous conference and, I think, the idea of the annoyingly zealous and self-important TED talk originated there. In the fifties, Malcolm Adler sought to repel Communism from our shores by sponsoring a series of conclaves between management and labor, those meetings quixotically devoted to the study of the Great Books – that is, Plato and Aristotle. Aspen lies along the Roaring Fork River and, when I have been there, I recall mostly the rocky heights of the mountain passes standing sentinel over the town, the condominiums in the pine trees, and the big vertical meadows cleared for skiing on Aspen Mountain. Of course, the place has an even more elite character in the winter-time when the wealthy swarm to the mountain and, nearby, Snowmass for the powder snow. But I have never been there in that season.
I know of other Aspens – there is Aspen Lodge near Grand Marais, Aspen Waste Management, a company that hauls garbage, Aspen realty, and Aspen Dental. And, then, there is a kind of tree native to cold climates, several related species of the genus "Poplarus" or poplar. Aspen trees have pale bark and small leaves that tremble in the wind. The trees grow in stands originating in a single seed – that is, aspen groves are "clonal." This means that each individual specimen is connected underground, that all the plants share a common root system. Fire is the aspen’s friend, obliterating competitor trees. When a forest fire burns and makes the pitch in adjacent pines flare like torches, the aspens also burn. But below ground, the clonal root system preserves the colony. When the fire is past, and life returns, the aspens return as well. Because of this system of growth, some groves of aspen trees are thought to be very ancient. The so-called "Pando" grove in Utah is said to be over 60,000 years old.
Robert Graves, a poet himself, thought that all original knowledge revolves around an understanding of trees. In northern Europe, at least, people once worshiped trees. The varieties of trees in our environment provided the categories of thought. Each tree signified a different relationship to the world and, therefore, a different poetic understanding of reality. Trees provided the primordial structuring principle in the world – the trees were gods, different kinds of women, varying systems for survival, imposing, even, different meters on the verse that poets made. A book is a beech – in Germanic languages, Buch means "beech." Everything that we know is written in the language of the trees.
A thousand years ago, "aspen" trees were also known as "quaking poplars". This appellation derives from the tremulous leaves of the aspen, the bright flickering that the trees make when the wind blows among them. Thus, "aspen" came to mean "trembling," or "quaking." In Old English, the aspen tree was also called the Cwikbeam ("Quick-baum) or "living and shivering tree." By the fifteenth century, the word "aspen" is attested as an adjective meaning "trembling." Thus, Donne’s faithless lover, described as a "poor aspen wretch" is a "poor trembling wretch." She is "aspen" because shaking with fear at the apparition of her dead lover. Note, also that Donne captures the ancient Old English concept of the aspen as the "quick" tree in next line of the poem. The cruel lady is bathed in a "quicksilver sweat" – thus, Donne explicitly links aspen as an adjective to the word’s original source: the "quicksilver" oscillation of an aspen’s leaves in the wind remains as a mark or trace in the poem’s diction. The woman herself is not only "aspen" or trembling, but also covered in a quicksilver film that imitates the tree’s appearance when stirred by the wind. (Lurking in the poem’s diction, as well, is another word descriptive of a tree: "ashen" – in other words "grey" and here grey with fear. The fickle lover may be imagined as not only "aspen" but, also, perhaps "ashen" – great poets invite misreadings productive of meaning. When I first read the line with the word "aspen," I saw instead the adjective "ashen" – it was only a closer reading that disclosed to me my error.)
In light of these meanings, I would suggest "Aspen Dental" rethink its corporate name – do you really want to go to a dentist who promises to make you shiver and tremble in terror?
Saturday, May 9, 2015
My youngest son was hospitalized for 96 days. That hospitalization was under judicial commitment. At the intersection of the legal and medical systems, where my son was trapped, there is a zone of brutal indifference and staggering incompetence, a listless Sargasso sea without currents or outlet. My son is eloquent and an excellent writer and I won’t purport to speak for him with respect to this experience. From my perspective, the ordeal warrants a book of a thousand pages. Since I don’t intend to write that book, it is best to be silent on that subject.
Since I am a lawyer, I set my focus on legal issues relating to my son’s hospitalization. I wrote memos and emails and letters. I corresponded with judges. These activities allowed me to sequester my grief and anxiety and prevent those emotions from seizing, and, then, debilitating me. I consoled myself with the notion that my correspondence was ameliorating my son’s confinement in the hospital. In fact, it was not – everything I did merely added to the Kafkaesque immobility at the place where the tectonic plates of law and medicine collided.
My wife is a psychologist and therapist. She was less successful ousting her sorrow from the center of her imagination. My son’s circumstances filled her with horror, guilt, and unrequited rage.
When my son was released from the hospital, I hoped that my wife, Julie, would feel better, that her anxiety and worry would lessen, and that she would return to something like normal function. But, in fact, the opposite occurred: Julie began to cry uncontrollably and became increasingly reclusive. She complained of intolerable pressure in her chest – as if an elephant were squatting over her ribs – and she said that something "was broken inside" of her. Julie told me that she sometimes felt a burning sensation in her throat. She was insomniac at night, tossing and turning with worry, and, therefore, fatigued during the day. Her work counseling mentally ill people became increasingly intolerable to her. After supper, it became her custom to go upstairs to her bedroom where she would read paperback mystery novels, weep, and pet the dog that obligingly rested in the bed beside her. She refused to leave the house except to go to work.
After a month of this suffering, Julie felt herself enveloped in the aura of a migraine headache. The aura congested her thoughts and occluded her speech while she was counseling a patient. After the session, she hurried home to inject herself with Imitrex. The medicine arrested the headache, inducing a soporific pre-migraine state that lasted for a half day and, then, over night. Julie said that she was exhausted, as if she had run a marathon – she felt limp and weak and her legs were wobbly and she said her thoughts were confused.
Of course, I urged my wife to seek treatment for symptoms that I interpreted as indications of deep and unremitting depression. My wife has taken anti-depressant medication for many years, most recently something called Lexipro. It seemed evident to me that her medication was no longer effective and that she was suffering from a severe mood disorder. Although my wife is a psychologist herself, she harbors significant distrust of the profession – to some degree as a result of her intimate acquaintance with the practice. We agreed that Julie should consult with a psychiatrist and have her medication regiment adjusted.
But we have the misfortune of living within the malign sphere of influence of Mayo Clinic Health Systems. The Mayo Clinic has been allowed to operate as a monopoly over an area comprising half of two states. From Eau Claire, Wisconsin in the east to Fairmont, Minesota, south of Mankato in the west, all licensed medical doctors are employed by the Mayo Clinic and its network of affiliated clinics. The Mayo Clinic has ruthlessly taken advantage of this situation, raising its charges for services while systematically reducing the quality and scope of services provided. In some areas, including Austin where I live, there are almost no doctors. Services are provided through nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants, paraprofessionals on a quota who see patients for five to ten minutes one after another and mostly administer comforting bromides and copious amounts of antibiotics. It is well-nigh impossible to secure an appointment with any kind of specialist. A variety of gatekeepers and minor functionaries zealously protect access to these doctors and it is almost impossible to secure an appointment. Under the Mayo regimen, people with serious medical conditions must go into the emergency room or perish while waiting for scheduling to allow them to see a physician three to six months in the future. When the privilege of an audience with a doctor is finally allowed, you are granted a five minute consultation by a harried physician operating under assembly-line conditions. For this five minute consultation, you will be charged 280 to 500 dollars and told to have tests and, when those tests are accomplished, the results will likely not be reported to you, or, if reported, misrepresented.
Initially, it was thought that Julie might see a psychiatrist practicing where she works in Austin. But this idea was vetoed, possibly due to some obscure internal regulation – the Mayo Clinic’s operations are governed by byzantine policies that materialize and dematerialize at the whim of the administrator involved in decision-making. (Written policies regulate everything but there is no central repository for them and, as is the case with all statutory rules, the policies have spawned vast Talmudic commentaries written and unwritten, authoritative or merely aspirational, mandatory in some cases and precatory in others, a labyrinth that exists to confound and intimidate.) Of course, seeking an appointment with a medical doctor, particularly a psychiatrist, is a daunting process and, in fact, functionally impossible. Unless you aver actual suicidal intent, consultations with psychiatrists are scheduled four to six months in the future. In some instances, even suicidal ideation doesn’t circumvent delays – it depends upon the health care provider and his or her inclination to take seriously statements of this kind. In general, it must be said that most doctors, as a reflex, are skeptical about the existence of mental illness. Physicians, I think, are selected for their wholesome mediocrity and excess is foreign to them – whether it be excess of caloric intake (most physicians are depressingly lean) or excess of passion, the outlook is the same: many people, doctors think, are gluttons and gluttons should be punished whether the gluttony arises in the form of substance abuse, nicotine intake, eating, or indulgence in morbid of emotionality. Of course, every doctor that I know would vigorously contest the aspersions I cast in this paragraph and, further, would wholeheartedly give lip-service to the notion that alcoholism, depression, and other forms of mental illness are, indeed, disease entities, pathologies that are beyond good or evil. But to grasp with clarity, the profession’s real attitude toward mental illness, one must measure what physicians (and their administrative lackeys) do and not what they say. If your blood didn’t properly clot, or if you had a tumor on your liver, or if your leg was broken, would your appointment to see a physician for mere evaluation of the problem, and not even treatment, be deferred for four to six months? To pose the question is to answer it.
So Julie quite properly understood that her depression was thought to be manageable, that she should simply "buck up" and face life’s challenges, that a proper and healthy mental outlook would allow her to pull herself up into the light by her bootstraps, and so her despair only deepened. The most terrible despair is that suffering that accompanies being wholly misunderstood, your misery ignored, or minimized, the sense that no one is willing to help you because no one really believes you need help, a sentiment shared even by the very psychiatrists trained to address these problems as evidenced by their complicity in this system. Julie was told that she could have an appointment with a psychiatrist but that this was a half-year in the future and, therefore, no appointment at all.
Mothers are expected to manage the household. This duty is imposed upon them not least of all by other mothers. But Julie couldn’t manage the house because she could barely get out of bed and because she spent hours each day helplessly sobbing. She could no longer see patients to counsel them and applied for Family Medical Leave, departing the workplace one afternoon in a spasm of convulsive weeping. Because she felt herself a burden on other family members, Julie withdrew to Albert Lea where she stayed with her widowed mother. Each day, we expected her to come home and, each day, she called, a sobbed into the telephone to tell me that she could not come home because her heart was irreparably broken and that it was impossible for her to do anything at all. So a week passed and, then, part of another week.
Julie called me on a Saturday. She was resolved to clean her bedroom. On Monday mornings, a cleaning lady attends upon our house, rearranging the clutter in the living spaces in neat stacks and piles of books, magazines, and other items. The cleaning lady sweeps dog hair into bundles and dusts those surfaces that are not buried in detritus that we have hoarded. Generally, she does not enter the bedrooms, places that are stacked with clothing and books, and, since Julie’s illness, congested with windrows of sodden kleenex, candy wrappers, flamboyant nests of letters, cards, potato chip bags and plastic trays that once held cookies or other edibles – Julie had been eating in bed for several weeks and the scraps of her meals had fallen in the crevasse between tottering bookshelves and the bed, a place where the dog rooted around in the debris. Employing a cleaning lady involves certain responsibilities and one of those duties is to be solicitous of the cleaning ladies own sensibilities and not to expose her to any kind of calamitous mess so awful that it would disgust her – thus, the obligation to clean before the cleaning lady can clean. Julie’s improbable resolution was that she would come from her mother’s house and spend the afternoon cleaning her bedroom so that the cleaning lady could, then, properly attack the dust and other clutter in the room.
Around noon, Julie came home from Albert Lea, a drive of 20 miles, and set to work cleaning her bedroom. She worked furiously, ruthlessly throwing away things and filling several garbage bags with detritus. Piles of books were hauled to the basement or put in sacks to be given to the library for its Spring fundraising sale. The carpet of the floor emerged from beneath the talus fields fallen from the bed and, then, the surfaces of furniture. Outside, a sour-looking rain sputtered and hissed in the gutters. Julie seemed haggard and pale and, when the job was finished, she collapsed, weeping uncontrollably. After unsuccessfully attempting a mid-afternoon nap, she went to her car and drove back to her mother’s house in Albert Lea. On the dining room table, she left a note detailing her instructions to the cleaning lady with respect to the upstairs bedroom.
A few more days passed. The bedroom carpets were vacuumed so that they had the manicured look of a freshly mown lawn. The tops of dressers and bookshelves had been dusted and polished and the room smelled of lemon.
Julie called twice a day and was usually crying when we spoke. She told me that she felt helpless and that nothing could reach the core of her sorrow and that she would be condemned to misery for the rest of her days. A family practice physician in Faribault had told her to systematically reduce her dose of Lexipro and begin taking a new medication. This new medicine was said to be highly efficacious but, also, nausea-inducing – "it is hell on the gut," the doctor told Julie. She was apprehensive about weaning herself from the anti-depressant that she had taken for many years. It seemed to her that the ground under her feet had suddenly evaporated and that she was suspended over an infinitely dark abyss without anything to protect her from falling.
On the upcoming Saturday, Julie planned to meet her daughter in a Twin Cities’ suburb so that they could shop together for a wedding dress. (Julie’s daughter, Sena, will be married in September). This task weighed upon Julie’s mind and caused her all sorts of anxiety. First, she was unfamiliar with the roads and traffic in the suburb where she planned to meet Sena and fearful that she would get lost or delayed. Second, acquisition of a wedding dress is a transaction fraught with emotional peril of all kinds. No wedding dress can possibly be resplendent enough for the occasion which it celebrates and, even a beautiful woman like Sena, believes that there are certain defects in her form and figure that the dress should disguise, a concern that might well induce mother-daughter conflict since Julie, of course, believes Sena to be flawless in all respects. In any event, Julie was brooding about this imminent expedition, imagining hardships and calamities, and fearing that what should be a happy occasion might somehow be ruined by her mood disorder. Every time that I spoke with her, she fretted about the wedding dress. I told her that the wedding months in the future and that the excursion to buy the wedding dress could be deferred. But buying a wedding dress for an accomplished and much-beloved daughter, of course, is securing that daughter’s future happiness and this is every mother’s obligation and, without the purchase of an appropriately splendid wedding dress, of course, Julie would not have done everything possible to guarantee that her daughter’s wedding was special, indeed, even, perfect and, therefore, the guarantee of a perfect marriage and a happy future. In some sense, the whole of Sena’s life was at stake – at least, Julie seemed to harbor this belief although she is perfectly rational in most respects. But weddings implicate irrationality in every culture and every person and so there was nothing she could do to think herself out of this dilemma whichshe had set herself: what was most important for her to accomplish at this moment in her life was also the most difficult and consequential task that she could possibly have been assigned.
On Tuesday, April 14, Julie called me at noon. She was crying and said that she had been prostrate with misery all morning long. She told me that her mother was holding her but that nothing helped. I told Julie that she could not possibly go shopping for the wedding dress on the weekend. "It will have to be postponed," I said. "But it can’t be...it can’t be," she said.
Julie handed the phone to her mother. Julie’s mother is 82. She said that she was baffled by Julie’s sadness. "It doesn’t get any better," she told me. I said that I would drive over to Albert Lea at 3:30 to pick Julie up and take her home. I wondered if, perhaps, I should simply drive her to the emergency room in Rochester.
Julie took the phone back. She said that she couldn’t be hospitalized because she had to help Sena select a wedding dress. She told me that Sena was coming over to visit her around 2:00 pm. "You must explain to Sena that you can’t go this weekend to buy that dress," I told Julie. She continued to cry and her words were wet and shattered: she told me that she had awoken with a feeling of terror in her belly and that there was something badly wrong with her. I said that I would drive over to Albert Lea to pick her up mid-afternoon. "I can drive home," Julie said. "I don’t want you to drive," Julie’s mother said, words that I heard in the background. "I will pick you up and we can get your car later," I said.
At 3:30, I left my office and was walking down the corridor in my law firm when a secretary called out to me: "Sena is on the phone and says it’s an emergency."
I went back into my office. It was a bright day and the sun was filling the concrete-walled window well above my desk and computer. Sometimes, if you are lucky, small and delicate birds will perch on the rim of the window-well, silhouetted against the radiant sky that I can see from my basement office. The iron-grey trunk of a tree extends upward, column furrowed as if with worry, and overhead branches, skeletal and leafless dangle down and, beyond, the heavens are striated with three cables crossing my field of vision from right to left, spaced at intervals that suggest the tones of a chord sounded in equal temperament.
I put the phone to my ear. Sena said that Julie had collapsed in her mother’s kitchen. She had fallen forward against a counter and was unresponsive, seemingly in some kind of coma. Sena and her grandmother shouted at Julie and stroked her face and, she opened her eyes, gasped and turned her head to the side to vomit bright red blood all over the kitchen tiles. An ambulance had been called. Sena said that Julie had been taken to the ambulance and that she was about to follow her to the emergency room at the Mayo Clinic hospital at Albert Lea. I said that I had been on my way out the door and that I would come immediately to meet Sena and her grandmother at the hospital.
The Spring was wet and mostly ten degrees colder than normal and the days had been grey and suffused with icy rain. But, on this day, the sky was clear and the sun was cheerfully shining over a landscape still ravaged by winter – scuffed muddy fields and twigs blown by blizzards from the trees scattered everywhere in the grime that is the distillate of drifted snow after the snowbanks have melted.
I drove west to Albert Lea, speeding a bit. I wonder what degree of excess speed might be allowed under these circumstances: officer, my wife is very possibly dying and so can I drive 80 miles an hour, or, even, 85 to reach her bedside. The freeway was bare as a dance floor from which all the people have departed and the distant steel silos caught the sunshine and reflected it in spears and lances of light. A few days before, a corpse had been found just north of the freeway where it passes Albert Lea. The corpse was a skeleton, disjointed bones flat against the winter-killed grass in a matted tangle of rotting fabric. On the corpse’s finger, there was a big ostentatious ring bearing a big and pompous red stone. The ring was heavy and, in the pictures in the newspaper, looked vaguely medieval, a fretwork setting that seemed to be bronze or copper-colored gold. The report said that the ring was possibly a clue to the identity of the dead person: Did anyone recognize that ring?
I looked north of the freeway to where I thought the body had been found. Anonymous fence lines crisscrossed the meadows and the prop of a small ornamental-looking wind turbine spun overhead. In such situations, your mind is cold, remote, rambling through various outcomes without fixing on any one scenario as more probable than another – after all, the future is inherently unknowable...I had not expected Julie to collapse vomiting blood when I woke up in the morning. All sorts of possibilities occurred to me – some benign, some horrific, but I felt no emotion. A great silence and calm spread across the landscape and the horizons were blue and the clouds impossibly remote. Sounds reached me as if from a great distance. I have a terrible phobia about blood and I wondered if I would faint while driving and crash my car at high speed into one of those ditches irrevocably deep and filled with the debris of winter. Maybe Julie would be sitting up in the emergency room and smiling with shy embarrassment at me when I came to the hospital – "So sorry," she might say, "to cause you all this worry." Or, perhaps, she would be as dead as the skeleton found in its rotting clothes under the fence-line built to keep deer and domestic animals from running across the freeway.
I put the car in a lot to the west of the emergency room of the old hospital in Albert Lea, a grim-looking brick building occupying the ridge overlooking Fountain Lake. Sena met me at the emergency room door and we went into a small, close and brightly lit room, a tight space about the size of walk-in closet. The emergency room seemed chaotic to me with cops strutting around and enormous elderly men wheeled in various directions on great industrial-looking carts.
Sena said that she had followed the ambulance toward the hospital and that it was proceeding in a most leisurely manner at first but that, then, suddenly, the vehicle had flashed its red lights and engaged the howl of its siren, lunging forward in violation of all of the rules of the road, surging across intersections against red lights and driving at high speeds.
We sat for awhile. Julie’s mother came. She sat with us in the small room. Outside, we heard old men groaning and someone who had gone mad speaking in a language none of us could recognize.
Several times, I ventured into the corridor of the emergency room. Julie was at the end of the hall in a bay that was closed with a hanging fabric that looked like a broad shower curtain. The curtain was attached to a groove in the ceiling by metal hooks. It was impossible to see beyond the curtain. The bright cubicles on both sides of the corridor swarmed with activity. Big machines like sentinels loomed over altar-like beds were people were squirming or writhing or lying immobile as statues.
Each time, I went into the emergency room corridor I was rebuffed. I went back to small room to make my report. Time dilated around us. Finally, a nurse said that we could see Julie. We went to the end of hall where the shower curtain was slid aside theatrically, as if making special presentation of the victim to us. Julie was lying on her back with her eyes closed. Her face was drawn and looked like a pale, indifferent mask. At first, I thought that she was sleeping. "Are you awake?" I asked. She said that she could hear me. "I am keeping my eyes closed because of the light," Julie said. I looked over my shoulder and saw that the lens of a big compound light, multi-faceted like a dragonfly’s eyes, was staring down at her, irradiating her face and shoulders. She was in a hospital gown with a blanket thrown irregularly over her mid-section.
A little doctor appeared. The doctor was wearing pale blue scrubs, a light garment that looked like a pajama on him. When I looked down, I expected his feet to be bare. The doctor told us that Julie had experienced an internal bleed and that the source of the hemorrhage was uncertain. The little doctor was mildly reassuring. "She doesn’t need a transfusion at this point," he told us. Two intravenous ports had been carved into each of Julie’s arms and saline solution was infusing to rehydrate her. A nurse came and injected an anti-acid into the stent in one of the IV lines. Julie said that she couldn’t believe that this had happened to her. She took my hand and said that there was no need for me to linger around the emergency room and that I should hurry home to walk the dog and, then, go to my book club. On that Tuesday night, we were planning to discuss that last section of Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz.
A fat matronly nurse appeared and had Julie sign a number of documents. The documents were clipped to a clip-board. Of course, there was no way that Julie could read those documents and the nurse presented them to her as a matter of fact, proffering a pen before she could even decipher the titles on the pages that she was presented. It is characteristic of modern medicine that its practitioners believe in informed consent, not as a principle of communication with patients, but, rather, as a defensive bulwark against malpractice suits. The ritualized presentation of consent documents to be signed, even by patients who are essentially comatose (or, at best, severely disinclined at that instant to parse a complex legal document), has a theatrical aspect. In this setting "consent" is signified by a gesture without any meaning of actual consent at all. It is like the lines of people numbly passing through security at an airport – of course, TSA is without any real ability to stop terrorists and, indeed, the accumulation of a big passive crowd in an area of the airport where there has been no security screening at all, merely presents a more efficient killing ground to potential terrorists if they were to attack the airport in its unguarded annex and not the planes at its protected core. The various documents presented for execution in an emergency room are talismans – they don’t have anything to do with the well-being of the patient and, instead, are intended for the protection of the doctors and the institutions which the doctors serve. But, of course, the sheer contempt that the medical system has for legal doctrine is embodied in the manner in which these quasi-contractual releases and authorizations and consent forms are treated. To doctors, law makes no sense and is a absurd and arbitrary system – therefore, anything of legal import is treated as an arbitrary form, something without substance; asking a patient suffering pain and in fear of her life to execute a legal document is the very essence of coercive duress, the epitome of a bizarre elevation of form over substance that characterizes medicine’s contempt for the legal system.
Julie signed the sheaf of releases. I discretely looked away – it was an indecency.
Now that Julie was stable and no longer in danger of bleeding to death, this question presented itself: What should be done with her? Clearly, she required hospitalization. A dire emergency had just passed and, perhaps, without medical intervention she would have perished. But now what?
The little doctor told us that there were no beds in Albert Lea. Julie said that she was not willing to be hospitalized in Austin. The Mayo Clinic facility in our community has a sinister reputation for negligence and haphazard incompetence – and, in any event, the place has almost no doctors. "We will need to transport you to St. Mary’s hospital in Rochester," the little doctor said.
I stepped into the corridor and, then, went outside to contact Angelica, my daughter. I needed to call her to provide updated information. The afternoon was unchanged, bright and sunny with the bare trees opening their arms to the warm sky. Everything shimmered and glittered and the lake was brilliantly blue.
More ambulances arrived at the ER portico, a robust cavalcade of misery. Sirens sounded in low places in town, among the disorderly lawns and the neglected backyards and alley ways and the dogs began to howl mournfully. In the hospital, nurses were ministering to groaning people in beds shoved against the walls of the corridor. Every treatment bay was occupied. Bodies huge and swollen with agony were everywhere gurgling and hissing. Wheeled carts laden with casualties zoomed over the tiles. The entire population of Albert Lea, it seemed, had succumbed to desperate illness. People were having panic attacks in the lobby. Officious cops were everywhere moving among the hurt and sick. Radios stuttered out commands and the automatic doors at the entry to the hospital opened and closed like hands haplessly trying to clap but somehow missing one another. More people were admitted and the place was chaotic with nurses and technicians running in all different directions.
A nurse came into Julie’s bay and asked her if she could stand. "My legs feel wobbly," Julie said. Careful to not dislodge Julie’s intravenous fetters, the nurse urged her to the edge of the bed and, then, had her stand up. The back of Julie’s hospital gown was open and I felt sorry for her – it is humiliating to have your buttocks exposed to the insect eye of the overhead examination light, but she didn’t seem to notice. The nurse brushed at the garment to slide it over her nakedness. We all looked up to the monitor on the stanchion beside the bed. Numbers that I interpreted to be Julie’s blood pressure readings precipitously declined. Would something arrest the descent of those numbers flashing in green digits on the monitor? Down and down the numbers went until Julie’s blood was no longer pumping, until she was dead, until she was not only dead but long dead and buried. I expected her to fall over. There was a sharp intake of breath, a hiss of air withheld. "How do you feel?" the nurse said. "Faint, a little faint," Julie said. But she didn’t wobble and didn’t collapse and, although her blood pressure was now in the negative numbers, reading at the square root of a negative one, nothing really happened and, so, perhaps, after all, we had misunderstood the meaning of the display on the console.
"There is no ambulance crew that can take you to Rochester," the little doctor told Julie. "Every crew is engaged right now, picking up patients." He shrugged. "We will have to use the air ambulance," he said. "The air ambulance?" Julie asked. "Helicopter," I said. "The helicopter," the small doctor said. "I don’t want to ride in a helicopter," Julie said. "I’m afraid of them." The doctor said: "We will give you Ativan, through the IV."
The doctor told us that the helicopter would have to come from Mankato. It was not an emergency and so the helicopter dallied in its flight across the rolling prairie. Perhaps, it hovered over the wooded gorges and fern-filled dells of the Blue Earth River, then, toured the great swamp at the headwaters of that stream, the shallow, cold lakes full of migrating birds, big pelicans and geese flying north to enjoy summer on the banks of Hudson Bay. The helicopter explored the lacy clouds drifting overhead and paused to inspect the filigree of a con-trail and, then, leisurely descended on Albert Lea, coming to earth like a fat, tethered balloon. "They are ten minutes away," the nurse told Julie. This was after we had waited for an hour and a half. But this ten minutes, of course, was really another half-hour, and, then, someone announced that the helicopter had landed and I carried Julie’s purse and another bag to the car. Julie’s mother wanted to follow the ambulance to the landing pad so that she could watch the helicopter ascend into the sky, climbing the bright ladder of the day with the precious cargo of her daughter – I suppose she thought that Julie had attained a kind of celebrity and glamor, that she was now the sort of dignitary that is ferried through the sky in her own private helicopter. I went to the home of Julie’s mother, picked up her things, put them in the car and drove back to Austin.
Once, I took the deposition of a man who was badly burnt in an electrical accident. The man was flown by helicopter from Austin to the burn unit at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. I asked the man what he recalled about the helicopter ride. He told me that he didn’t remember anything except that there was a vibration and the helicopter was open to the sun so that it was very bright. He said that he felt the rays of the sun as very close to him, pressing against his raw burned face and that this was painful. Beyond that, he had no recollection.
In Austin, I picked up Angelica and we drove east on the freeway to Rochester. On the Dexter ridge, the great wind farm stretched from horizon to horizon. The turbines were turning and, in the sunset, the shadows of their rotors swept across the yellow and brown fields like vast black scythes. I wondered what the innumerable wind turbines looked like from overhead, from a helicopter scuttling through the sky above those vast spinning blades.
Rochester is in a hollow place between wooded hills where there is a river regulated to run in a concrete gutter. The center of the town is a plateau of low skyscrapers with marble escarpments, the main campus of the Mayo Clinic. Ten blocks from the downtown, the old buildings of St. Mary’s Hospital stretch along a hillside where the decaying mansions of once-famous doctors ride the crest of the ridge overlooking the facility. The hospital was built before there were cars and so, I suppose, the surgeons and other consulting specialists lived on the slopes of the hill nearby so that they could walk to work. Everything is tightly configured, the buildings squeezed together to fit the long narrow site and, since there was no place for a parking ramp, cars have to be tucked underground in big dank galleries beneath the hospital. All of the parking spaces close to the elevators that open into the hospital are reserved for "consultants" – the term the Mayo Clinic uses for its doctors – and, so, if you arrive during the day, there will be no place convenient to park. After six o-clock, the reserved spaces are released to the general public and, since it was now about 7 pm, I was able to find a spot near the elevator. A consultant of Turkish or Armenian origin was trudging to his car, a duffle bag in hand and his lanyard identification still swinging from his neck. He looked bemused and resigned. A boy in a wheelchair was playing with automatic doors near the elevators, causing them to flap open and shut as if agitated.
Julie was on the 6th floor in Intensive Care. We met Julie’s sister in the elevator and she turned around to lead us through the corridors to the entrance to the ICU, a long corridor like a hallway in an orbiting space station, pale tile and pastel walls equipped with glistening rubber-like bumpers to keep the wheeled gurneys from gouging them. Walking down that hallway, you have a sense of dread and the pit of your stomach feels as if you are weightless, as if the corridor is spinning through a black and empty outer space.
Everyone whispers in the ICU and there is a rustling sound of ventilators and the nurse’s stations, to continue the space station metaphor, look like mission control at NASA. In glass cubicles, motionless forms seem embedded in white crates pierced from all sides by tubes and data collection sensors. A red balloon-like head, features swollen beyond recognition, rests in a bower of white bedding. Urine pools in exposed plastic bladders under the beds. In a place like this, I suppose, it’s best not to look too closely and, if you look, not to see.
Julie’s room was dark. Some monitors blinked and, sometimes, a battery chirped. A beautiful Indian woman with a very faint accent was standing over Julie’s bed speaking in a low voice. The Indian woman was also wearing pajama-like scrubs. Another woman, black with an elaborately spiky hairdo, was entering data into a computer located a few feet away. Outside it was now dark. It didn’t matter because there was nothing to see anyway – the window opened into a concrete and brick airshaft.
The Indian woman introduced herself and extended her cool, tiny hand for me to shake. She also introduced her colleague, the African doctor with the braided pinnacles of hair extending in all directions around her face. The African doctor didn’t seem to understand English. Both of the women had names that sounded outlandish to me.
The Indian doctor’s voice was soothing, like the ripple of water through a cool stream bed. She said something about "bleeding from the mouth and bottom." Her message was clear: all would be well. I wasn’t sure to whom she was speaking. Julie said that she was horribly exhausted and that she just wanted to be left alone to sleep and it wasn’t clear to me that she was listening to the beautiful Indian consultant. The consultant looked at Julie while she spoke but, perhaps, she intended that I listen and note her words. The African doctor’s fingers clicked on the keyboard and the digital screens glowed with gem-like emerald colors. It was apparent to me that no one had any idea why Julie had suffered the hemorrhage. It was also clear to me that, as far as the doctors were concerned, what was past had been survived and what is survived is only faintly relevant for future treatment and so they expressed a casual indifference to what had transpired – all of this had happened before Julie entered their care, had been the outcome, no doubt, of incompetence in other lesser doctors not working at the Mayo Clinic’s headquarters in the marble towers and glass skyscrapers at Rochester, no earlier opinions mattered in these hushed halls – now, it seemed, help had come and the patient had been retrieved from not only the travail and peril of her illness but also from the threat of malpractice committed by other less effective physicians. This was the domain of silence and the beautiful Indian doctor had come to command and direct; she was not here to listen and react, rather, her role was to create the reality in which the patient would reside until healed. I said something about Julie’s unremitting depression and expressed my hope that she could be treated for this condition while hospitalized. The Indian doctor tilted her head as if I were speaking a completely unintelligible language, words that were not in her vocabulary or, indeed, partially comprised of obscenities.
The two physicians finished their work and, bowing slightly, glided away from the cubicle crammed with machines and monitors, two IVs infusing simultaneously so that Julie was pinioned by both arms. "You know why you are in here," I said. "Because I almost bled to death," Julie said. "No," I said, "You came by helicopter and so that has to be justified by keeping you in ICU." "But I almost bled to death," Julie said. "That too," I said.
Angelica and I retraced our way to the lobby with its green, veined marble floors and flat, glistening pillars. Two women shrouded in black burkhas were sitting on a bench by the door, princesses, I supposed, of some Yemenese royal family. With dark slender fingers, they were tapping text messages into their phones. The black covering them was a featureless and incommunicative as the darkness at the bottom of a well.
"Interesting," my daughter Angelica said.
"Disgusting," I replied.
"You don’t’ need to be racist," she replied.
"I’m not racist," I said. "Someone should take their fucking phones away from them and, then, smash them in the face with those things. It’s disgusting. It’s disgusting and hostile."
"I don’t know why you would say that," Angelica said to me as we rode the elevator down to the gloomy underground parking.
"What’s the point of getting stuck in the 9th century?" I said. "If you want to get stuck, get stuck in the nineteen-fifties or something like that. You’re interested in them and tolerant, of course. But do you know what they think about you?"
"I don’t know," she said.
I told her. But, of course, who knows what such people think about anything. Probably, they never noticed me nor did they see Angelica and, if I had passed through their field of vision, circumscribed as it was by that black cloth, I doubt that they would have given me even a passing glance – women dressed in that fashion are remarkable and intimidating, but, contrary to what I had told Angelica, I assumed that we were, to all intents and purposes, invisible to them.
Across the street from the big hospital, small cafes looked toward the building, a great, foreboding ark marooned on the side of the hill. The cafes looked old, bedraggled, exhausted with sadness. In them, people sat next to cups of coffee and plates of stale pastry and the dread in those places was so dense you could cut it with a knife.
Back on the prairie, the tips of the wind turbine towers twinkled with red lights, constellations of them in the darkness like buoys tossing on a turbulent sea.
The next morning, I saw Julie in the ICU. Nurses were cheerfully washing exposed parts of her body. I went outside and walked to the outer corridor, away from the atrocity exhibition of the other ICU rooms, each of them displaying some unique, and possibly, irrevocable calamity. The hallway was irradiated with sunshine, bright, with wholly forgettable pictures lining the walls. From the elevators, one of the hallways led to a pediatric wing. At that hallway, there was a color print of a jolly pirate ship crammed with black-bearded villains, many of them clenching sabers in their jaws. It is the only picture that I saw in the Mayo Clinic that was the least bit interesting and, apparently, intended to amuse desperately ill children. But the corridor, and the elevators running up and down in their pneumatic tubes, was completely empty – I never saw a child anywhere near this place.
When I returned to the ICU, nurses were attempting to position Julie in an uncomfortable-looking chair. This was an intricate task involving much repositioning of IV stanchions and the various tubes and monitors attached to her body. One of the IV incisions was leaking bright red blood onto Julie’s hand. I felt momentarily faint and stood by the window looking into the brick and concrete air shaft where several tiny sparrows were playing.
Julie told me to go to the pharmacy at the Mayo Clinic in Austin and pick up some medication for her. It seemed that she would be released the next day and that these medicines would be necessary for her continued treatment. One of the drugs was Effexor, a new and different anti-depressant. The other was some kind of medication intended to control the production of acid in Julie’s stomach.
In Austin, I went to the pharmacy, identified myself, and, then, was ushered into a small room where there was a steel desk and another entry into the area behind the counter. An earnest-looking pharmacist appeared and explained to me in detail the malign effects of the drugs that Julie was about to take. It was like watching a commercial on TV for some new medication except that the pharmacist’s list of lethal or horrific side-effects was not accompanied by shots of well-tanned men and women strolling idyllic forests or combing picturesque beaches in the tropics where their handsome dogs frolicked in the surf. In those advertisements, the neatly coiffed and well-maintained patients, people suffering from bowel disorders or crippling depression, always have the glittering and artificial look of an expensive golf-course. In this small room, the only place to look was at the pharmacist in his white coat and he looked back at me as he recited all the ills, it seemed, that flesh is heir to.
At the end of his litany, the pharmacist asked me what had happened to Julie. I gave him a brief account. He told me that people who have taken Lexipro for many years are prone to bleeding and that the medication can be erosive to the gut. This was the first, and, indeed, only explanation that was made for Julie’s internal hemorrhage, a casual, even off-hand comment, by a pharmacist. No doctor explained why Julie had bled or what triggered the episode or how the damage caused to Julie’s stomach and esophagus occurred or what that damage meant nor did anyone provide any useful prognosis, any guess as to the future, or any other information at all. The interaction, if any, between Julie’s depression and her emergent symptoms of a massive internal bleed was never explored nor, even, mentioned. But, of course, this is a consequence of the medicine’s generalized contempt for those suffering mental illness and, indeed, the profession’s skepticism, shared, it seems, by some psychiatrists, that there even is such a thing as depression and that if such an ailment exists, then, the person so afflicted needs to "buck up" and exercise proper mental hygiene, perhaps, the psychic equivalent of regularly brushing and flossing your teeth. In any event, a fog of unknowing wrapped itself tightly around the event of Julie’s nearly fatal hemorrhage. In medicine, it seems that causes and effects are always profoundly occult.
When I came to the hospital after work that night, Julie had been moved to a new room, one of the general wards in a much older building. This part of the hospital maintained the sepulchral character of a Victorian institution managed by sinister nuns. There is an empty, echoing chapel hidden in one corner of the building and a statue of St. Francis beset by pigeons, both real and bronze, standing in a wholly enclosed courtyard among tombstone-shaped air-conditioning and ventilation equipment. The floors are polychrome marble and the elevators enclosed in dark oak panels crafted like expensive bookshelves in an English manor house. Crucifixes adorn the walls and, as you enter the place, the visitor runs a gauntlet of tinted portraits of deceased nuns, women with iron faces and set jaws wearing steely glasses over their small and cruel eyes.
Julie had to share a room with another patient, an elderly ex-nurse with a UTI (Urinary Tract Infection). The woman was Catholic and hard-of-hearing and she spent the entire day, Julie reported, assigning her hapless husband tasks and managing her eight or nine grown children, tirelessly transmitting demands to them on her cell-phone. Like all old women, she enjoyed Fox News and watched that station continuously, the sound turned up to accommodate her inefficient ears. Julie looked exhausted. (In a hospital, the staff labors around the clock to pester and persecute the patient – the intent is to murder the afflicted person with sleeplessness.) She told me that she had endured a painful endoscopic procedure. "What did they find?" I asked. It was just as expected – an ulcer that might have bled, although it was not bleeding currently, and some erosion to her esophagus. "Why did it bleed?" "They don’t know," Julie said.
The hospital room was gloomy with an old, discolored tile floor and wooden walls spiked with another crucifix. The fixtures seemed like something out of a novel by Charles Dickens. Everything about the room seemed dirty, although I’m sure it was impeccably clean – the ambience of general and ancient filth had something to do with the dim light, the chattering TV set, the window onto a grey and desolate courtyard, the hallways with their wooden door thresholds opening onto tableaux of only modest misery (this being a general ward and not the ER or Intensive Care Unit.) It seemed to be a place where people might howl and howl and be ignored, where bedpans would be ignored, where wheels would inevitably squeak as people were transported by gurney to oppressive and painful medical procedures.
"I can’t wait to get out of here," Julie said. She sat in her bed in a pool of light. The IV that had earlier leaked was still producing a pudding of blood on Julie’s arm. Beyond the curtain, the unseen ex-nurse spoke loudly on the phone, compensating for her poor hearing. She said that her priest had visited her and that she had said some prayers with the pastor and that he had administered the sacraments to her, even, all the while gossiping about events in the parish. Julie said: "I hear everything she says. I wish I had my own room. She runs the TV all night long. She asked the nurse if she had to shut off the TV at a certain time and the nurse said – no, no, it’s a semi-private room. I just wish I had my own room."
Beyond the curtain, the unseen old woman with the UTI blathered on about her priest. I said to Angelica: "Should we help your mother get a private room?"
"How?" Angelica asked.
I said loudly: "I have brought the Devil Worshipers hymn book and breviary. I think we should say some prayers to Lord Satan."
"All Hail Lord Satan!" Angelica said loudly.
"All Hail Lord Satan!" I said. "We implore you to heal our Sister in Satan."
Angelica said: "Go in peace. Serve the Goat-Boy!"
The old lady was still talking on the phone and said that her priest had brought her a prayer-book. Of course, she had heard nothing.
Several times before Julie was released, I told the doctors who periodically visited her – always someone different with a bemused, baffled look on their face – that Julie’s most pressing problem was her depression and that I thought it imperative that a consultation be scheduled as part of her discharge plan. The doctors to whom I told this nodded in agreement. But treatment at the Mayo Clinic is administered through a "team of physicians," a model for the delivery of health care that is touted as efficient and beneficial – the more eyes observing and minds diagnosing, the better the care, at least, this is the theory. In practice, of course, "team" delivery of medical services is a calamity. First, by definition, most doctors are prima donnas, and, therefore, congenitally incapable of acting cooperatively with others. Particularly at the World Famous Mayo Clinic, the physicians are all Olympians, god-like personages superior to ordinary mortals and, therefore, each superior to every other doctor. Accordingly, if a team were to be comprised of such individuals it would be highly fractious. But there is no worry on this point. No team even exists. Mayo doctors are fabulously busy and so they don’t have time to confer with one another. Thus, there is no continuity of care, no follow-through even with respect to the most fundamental medical tasks. The patient is entrusted to the care of a group of individuals who seem entirely ignorant of anything that has occurred before their entry into the sickroom and that are, also, blissfully uninterested in anything that the future holds. Because no one doctor is ultimately responsible for any patient’s care, no one is accountable. Of course, this is comforting to Mayo doctors – it is a pleasant thing to practice medicine, earn high salaries, participate in cutting edge research, and not, ultimately, be responsible for the care of any individual patient. And, in any event, in the Babel of foreign tongues spoken by Mayo Clinic consultants, it is unlikely that anything could be successfully communicated even if an effort were made – something that doesn’t seem to happen much anyhow. (The construction of a tower to probe the entrails of heaven is a relatively simple task compared to the care of a gravely ill human being.) Each time, Julie was seen by a new doctor, and they were legion, the physician seemed puzzled, even surprised – what was going on here? "It is depression’s work," I said. "She must have a out-patient consultation scheduled." But the doctors to whom this was said seemed obscurely confounded: mental illness is a matter of the mind, indeed, it is all in the mind, and so why would a consultation be necessary with respect to an imaginary ailment.
After two nights in the hospital, Julie told me that she was going to be released at 3:00 pm on Thursday and that I should come to bring her home. I knew that she was very anxious to escape the hospital, and, so, I made haste to reach Rochester and be in her room ten minutes before the time of her proposed discharge.
When I came to the hospital, Julie was sitting in a shabby chair beside the hospital bed. She was no longer connected to the IV equipment but had fistulae cut into her veins on both arms. The problem with blood leaking from one of those venipunctures that I had seen the previous day, and that had made me somewhat queasy, had not been corrrected. Her arm was all stained with half-congealed blood. An officious nurse was beyond the curtain wall separating Julie’s bed from that of the overbearing retired nurse. The woman and the nurse were arguing with one another. "She’s being discharged also," Julie said.
It took a long time for the old lady with the UTI to be retrieved from the room. One of her sons stood in the hallway carrying an old piece of blue luggage, the sort of trunk you might see in a movie filmed in the late thirties. The old woman and the nurse continued to bicker. At last, a porter appeared with a wheelchair to cart the retired nurse down to the car-port so that she could go home. The porters at the Mayo Clinic all seem to be middle-aged recovering alcoholics, cashiered real estate agents or used car salesmen. These wheelchair jockeys are all men, all of them sleazy with slicked back hair and little pencil-thin moustaches, scrawny, affable, dishonest-looking fellows whom you expect to speak with a slight Southern accent. These porters don’t exactly look like Elvis Presley, though they sound like him when they greet you and roll you through the corridors; rather, they look like Vernon Presley, Elvis’ convict, truck-driver daddy. Of course, the old lady had probably been an admirer of Elvis Presley and, so, she was very pleased to see a porter vaguely looking like the King of Rock and Roll (or one of his disreputable kin) appear in the hospital room. He squired her away down the hallway whistling a cheery tune and, then, the nurse turned her attention to Julie, using a sharp, tiny scissors to clip off the identification bracelet on her wrist, and, then, stooping to detach the IV ports still embedded in Julie’s arms. I went to the window and looked down to see the courtyard and the statue of St. Francis with the bronze birds on his shoulders.
The nurse handed Julie a sheet of paper containing discharge instructions. "Is there an appointment for her to see someone about her depression?" I asked. Julie scanned the sheet of paper anxiously. "No," the nurse said. "There is supposed to be," I said. The nurse was puzzled. Why would someone need to see a doctor for depression? Isn’t that some kind of mental problem? The nurse said: "Well, it usually takes four to six months to see a psychiatrist." Julie said that it was okay and that she simply wanted to go home.
"You can get the car and bring it to the entry," the nurse said. "Julie will be ready to go in a couple minutes."
I went into the parking lot and pulled the car out of the darkness and into the bright sunlight. Arab princelings were ushering their harems into limousines. A couple of Elvis impersonator porters were fingering the cigarettes in their breast pockets well aware that if they smoked anywhere on the Mayo Clinic campus they would be summarily fired. A man with a broken leg sunned himself like a turtle on a rock in the bright light outside the door.
It took forty minutes for Julie to be delivered to where I was waiting. She called me twice, whispering into her cell-phone: "I can’t believe how long this is taking." And, then, "they called again for someone to bring a wheelchair."
But, at last, she appeared. The crisis was over. She was going home.
At home, Julie slept for a couple days. The stay in the hospital had exhausted her.
Some days, she cried and cried and cried. Other days, she was cheerful.
She took her medication and, gradually, her mood improved to some extent, although it is still very fragile. To date, there has been no reoccurrence of her internal bleeding.
Why did this happen? As far as I can determine, no one knows.
Is there a moral to any of this, anything to be learned? If there is a lesson in this story, I don’t know what it is.
Human life is very uncertain. Something unknown, inexplicable and deadly awaits us all. Perhaps, the aspect of fate that is most disheartening is that it is inexplicable – when doom comes for you, no one will be able to explain it.
Today is a bright day with clouds crisply sculpted by the cool breeze. The trees are clad in their bright early-Spring leaves. Tomorrow will be the same.
Or it will be different.
May 9, 2015