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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Holidays and Death

Shortly before Christmas I met for drinks three guys who I had once worked with.  Although I hadn't seen most of them in at least five years, we easily re-established our rapport, and laughter and banter flowed as readily as the beer we drank. 

A somber note arose as the recent death of another co-worker was discussed.  None of us knew his age, but we estimated it as late 50's or early 60's.  As the conversation continued, the others mentioned their ages which ranged from the late 40's to the mid 50's, and as they did I realized that I hadn't known their exact ages until then although I could have guessed each one fairly accurately.  Other names were mentioned of co-workers who had died because even in death they were part of the same bond. One of the guys also mentioned that he had recently lost his mother.

As we parted everyone said they had a good time, and it was suggested that we get together more often.  As I drove home, however, I reflected back and thought there was a certain sadness in the gathering.  This could be a misinterpretation, I realized, because unlike myself the others were still working and were busy, successful people who may have just been understandably tired or weighed down by their responsibilities at work and home.

The event has caused me to muse about the end of year holiday period and death, and it seems like an obvious time for people to think about mortality even though it is out of sorts with the jovial seasonal expectations.  After my brother died one mid-December, someone mentioned that a death so close to Christmas was especially difficult, but it was hard for me to think another time of year would have softened the blow.   For me, anniversaries of deaths are not necessarily significant because grief can hit anytime, sometimes long afterwards.  Yet I do think there's something about the end of year that causes many of us to remember those no longer with us.   After all, the traditional New Years song, "Auld Lang Syne", suggests recalling past times with old acquaintances, and these could be both living and dead.

That evening I reread the James Joyce story "The Dead" from The Dubliners, and I decided Joyce had reason to set the story at Christmastime:

"There are always in gatherings such as this sadder thoughts that will recur to our minds: thoughts of the past, of youth, of changes, of absent faces that we miss here to-night. Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living. We have all of us living duties and living affections which claim, and rightly claim, our strenuous endeavours."

However, just a few hours after the main character speaks these words, he discovers that a song has rekindled a memory of a lost love for his wife which she cannot escape brooding upon.  As he gazes out the hotel window at the falling snow, he ponders not just the death many years before of this young man but of all of the dead both before and after.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Only the Dead Know Brooklyn

"...Duh poor guy! Say, I’ve got to laugh, at dat, when I t’ink about him! Maybe he’s found out by now dat he’ll neveh live long enough to know duh whole of Brooklyn. It’d take a guy a lifetime to know Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo. An’ even den, yuh wouldn’t know it all."

This weekend we made our third trip to Brooklyn in the past two years. I don't hear that accent anymore that Thomas Wolfe caught in his short story written in the 1930's that is quoted above.

My daughter Rebecca met us at Pennsylvania Station in the snow, and we walked along the Highline on the Westside of Manhattan to Chelsea to visit her husband Sean at work before having lunch in the West Village. Then the three of us took the subway to Brooklyn where my daughter and SIL live in the Crown Heights neighborhood. We stopped so that Pam and I could check into our hotel in downtown Brooklyn. The first two visits we stayed with them, but that apartment becomes a bit crowded with four adults and two cats.  It was nice and cozy, though, for hanging out Saturday afternoon watching the snow and waiting for my SIL to get off work to go out to dinner.

Below is Rebecca, Sean, and Pam in front of the Brooklyn Art Museum where we went on Sunday after brunch:
The facial features on the people in the museum exhibit are actually digital projections, so they blink and change expressions, and some of them speak.  A video would have captured this.
   Then Pam and I got on the subway back to Manhattan. At home I studied on-line maps to get a sense of the new places we saw which are just a small chunk of the big area that is Brooklyn.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The woods are a winter wonderland

Alliterative title although not completely original.



Friday, December 6, 2013

Between Poetry and Science

When outdoors I'm not inclined to quantify.  I often say about catching fish that I lose count after three, and although said jokingly it's generally true and comes from this disinclination.  Since most of my fishing is catch and release, counting and measuring fish to comply with laws is generally not an issue.  When I plan to retain my catch it's usually on someone else's boat on the Bay, and because captains are conscientious about fishing regulations they keep track of size and number of fish without depending on the anglers.

In the business world where I worked for about 40 years, I quantified in order to make and justify decisions.  Time, money, output and other variables were tracked and analyzed constantly.  Doing so was an ingrained habit for me at work, but outdoors I behave differently. If I were a scientist systematically expanding our knowledge of nature, I wouldn't have this freedom.  A book I recently read, Why Birds Sing by David Rothenberg, contains a passage which describes this difference:

"The response of nineteenth-century naturalists to bird song falls somewhere in the valley between science and poetry.  A  naturalist spends long hours paying complete attention to nature, not to conduct experiments or derive a satisfaction in certainty, but for the sheer pleasure of awareness.  To look, listen, and learn, and to come home with that kind of knowledge that is closer to acquaintance, to gain a familiarity with the world of birds, to share in their experience, not necessarily to explain it."

Between a scientist and a poet seems like a comfortable place whether the focus is birds or fish or anything else in nature.  One accumulates data to test a hypothesis, and the other obtains inspiration for his art.  Those of us in the middle are free to experience the Now.