Saturday, April 25, 2009

Dead Bird

What is the cure for loneliness? (And why don't rhetorical questions get answers?) I am sure I have never felt it as I do now, but then I remember I make a habit of fooling myself; I was, after all, once twenty-four and living in a big city alone. Of course, every other of those eight million in the same place were happily enmeshed with others, and all wore their bright badges of affiliation with self-satisfied smiles.

The admission of loneliness is not tolerated well by those I know. They hasten to tell me they are sometimes alone, too. Hey, occasionally their partners go away on business or work late; they are alone for an entire day or even week. This makes me smile. For sixteen years I too was left on my own for a weekend or a week, and I loved it. No loneliness in that whole span of time, ever. One must be alone on occasion in order to be together with oneself.

This, this is different.

I was driving home recently from a public place in which I was both alone and lonely. I suddenly knew in that deep pit of understanding why someone might rush to the liquor cabinet, to find a fast friend in a clear bottle. Someone who would stay right beside you until tingling numbness replaced the ache of loneliness. When they can't cure you, they give you an anesthetic, right?


The days are filled with stuff: volunteer work (in which you do not get to speak anyone but rather stare at Dewey Decimal numbers, or desperate dogs straining at the end of a leash; and when you do this, you think, Why am I here? All this serves to do is increase the frantic feeling that you should be at home, taking step after step up that Sisyphean mountain of work). More stuff: the daily root through the schoolboy's backpack, filled with papers from school to review and sign and mark down on the calendar; the computer, with its endless illusions of togetherness. And then you fall into bed at night, exhausted from the loneliness, which is like a sack of stones you drag everywhere behind you.

Your dog is there, and in some measure she allays the feeling that you are standing on the edge of a precipice whose bottom cannot be fathomed but is felt, by the whistling of a cold wind you are not entirely certain is below you and not inside your chest.

You look it up online. The word "loneliness" generates 13,400,000 hits. Ah, so there are a few others interested in the same subject. The day's first laugh escapes your lips as you wonder how tough it might be to connect with just one or two of these millions--surely you both could take care of the problem with a single stone. Come on, just one or two!

In the online encyclopedia entry, you read the following: "Loneliness is a feeling where people experience a powerful surge of emptiness and solitude. . . . [It] is not the same as being alone. . . . To experience loneliness, however, can be to feel overwhelmed by an unbearable feeling of separateness at a profound level. . . . It is often a very common though normally temporary consequence of divorce or the breakup or loss of any important or long-term relationship. . . . Chronic loneliness (as opposed to the normal loneliness everyone feels from time to time) is a serious, life-threatening condition."

Powerful. Surge. Emptiness. Overwhelmed. Unbearable. Profound. Loss. Chronic. The bell tolls, a sound you know. How temporary is "temporary"? Separateness feels like death for some animals.

What is the cure for loneliness? Your child plays upstairs, alone.

Then, the phone rings. A friend calls. Dinner? Quickly, you make herbed deviled eggs, assemble a salad, then trundle the kid into the car and drive down the hill. The sun is preparing to set. While the children run and catch frogs from the swamp and muddy their pants legs, you sit on the back porch of a lovely, serene house and look out over thirty acres of wildflower meadow and wetlands and rock gardens, a drink in your hand, and talk and talk. You swallow it whole, conversation, like sustenance, and you haven't eaten in days. Then you and your friend drive to get the wood-fired pizzas, the four children running around back there god knows where but safe, because it's only nature. It's people and their cars (and guns) you have to worry about, not stones, sticks, or skinned knees. They're fine; anyway, the father is there. So you drive and talk some more, this time about other people's problems, not your own, and it's far better than a drink to relieve what was pulling at you. You don't feel it at all anymore, that which was crushing you earlier. A friend, some talk, citron vodka, and pizza outside while the clouds go orange-pink--restored to humanity, and restored.


The other day a bird hit the upstairs window in the sunshine, right into the reflection of a sky that was not there. He fell to the earth like a rock, and for a while lay there, his heart thumping visibly in his chest. He was a yellow-bellied sapsucker. His gorgeousness lay exposed.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Borne Away

Why does some music, entering the ear, seem to launch itself directly to the lachrymal glands? In other words, make you powerless not to weep? By what strange physiology does this occur?

[Actually, it's not all that strange--contrary to some of my previous assertions, science has taken a bit of the literary magic out of this by studying how music affects us, e.g., here. The seat of the emotions is the amygdala, the most "primitive" part of the brain, so this is what lights up when we listen; also when we eat, have sex, or fear, not necessarily in that order. It is also a part of the brain all other higher animals possess, so so much for the naysayers who would deny other species emotions like ours.]

I am asking myself these questions as I wipe the tears from my cheeks during a concert in the Old Dutch Church in Kingston, after a performance of the famous Largo from Handel's Xerxes (transcribed for flute and piano) . I simply cannot hear this air without feeling that upwelling of--what? It's not sadness, but it is; it's not regret, but it is; it's not yearning, but it is.

The theme music that rises and falls behind the logo of New Line Cinema movies does something even more profound to me, even more ungraspable. Does this mean it was written by a better composer than Handel? I won't say that. Only that whoever it found a way to transport the heart in a fifteen-second clip.

Our brains live in our bodies. Our bodies experience nothing without our brains. Some people want to forget this. Indeed, much of human culture is based on efforts to try to forget this. But I can't. Not when thoughts are loosed by action, and vice versa.

Thoreau knew it, without the latest findings in neurobiology: "In my walks I would fain return to my senses. . . . I do not know of any poetry to quote which adequately expresses this yearning for the Wild. . . . My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant."

And (since you knew I was going to get here eventually, good Saunterer to the various mileposts of my life as I am) riding a motorcycle makes the amygdala positively glow red. A fascinating book about the physiology of riding, Bodies in Motion by Steven L. Thompson, details why our emotional and hormonal selves are fed by riding.

If there were a little window in Nelly's brain, I would see more clearly the feedback loop that is triggered when she, too, takes her physical and artistic pleasures: out in that Thoreauvian Wild, moving, crashing through the undergrowth, catching a scent, sinuously, athletically exploding, running on the very edge between control and abandon. The flow of brain chemicals would limn neon paths, both provoking her further action and streaming stronger in turn by it. Ah, life.

Now let me go bathe my head.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Thoughts on Watching a Nutty Movie Called "The Five Thousands Fingers of Dr. T"

* Isn't it about time to resurrect saddle shoes?

* Where can I get one of those beanies with a hand sticking up from the top, along with the legend "Happy Fingers"?

* The song about adults--who keep their wallets "near their hearts"
and grow up to push kids around because they've only gained pounds but not a sense of compassion--should be made the national anthem.

* Would this movie be immeasurably improved by taking some hallucinogens
first? (My generation obviously thought so; or at least that's what I suspect most of the audience in the back room of Maxwell's in Hoboken had done when it was screened there in 1985.)

* Perhaps our economy would be a lot sounder if it was based on the Fistoola rather than the dollar.

* I think I need that raw silk, A-line, cocktail-length coat Heloise wears, in jewel tones of topaz, turquoise, and emerald. It looks like it has the power to change lives.

* Is it really possible I heard "Percy Granger" used as a rhyme in a chorus? And I am sure in fact they quoted from Hamlet.

* That's because they don't make films like this any more, the kind that has no purpose other than to exercise the imagination, and see if it can come up with something weird, mixing high, low, and everything in between. Like sardonic political commentary and such lyrics as "Dress me up in Bock beer suds"--a cri de coeur if ever I heard one.

* A nuclear threat really can end it all, especially in 1953. And again in 2009.

* Was it all just a dream?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Answer, Part XXVIV

Why did I not realize, like in high school, how utterly fantastic, mind-blowing, and richly consuming biology, evolution, behavior, were? To me, it was a lot of . . . science. Science had charts, and numbers, and lines on graphs. Real flowing blood: that was in novels, stories, poems (though I confess at least to getting the appeal of bunsen burners). Science was dry. Science had none of the electric charge of Shakespeare, of Faulkner.

I persisted in this gross misapprehension for a significant piece of my life. But then came the revelations of science, and suddenly it bloomed open for me, sang operas, wove tapestries from threads in colors that made my eyes vibrate. The truth of what we are made of. Before, I had tried for the big picture by jumping dot to dot in the words of poems' lines, listening to the meaning of silence in the caesuras. I thought this was big stuff; Eliot and Stevens making my head hurt in a very pleasant way.

But what I mistook for the big picture was merely brushstrokes in it, and evolution, ethology, and biology revealed themselves as All Ye Need to Know. Every motet, cathedral, sculpture, ballet, is captive to the all-encompassing work called Survival of the Fittest. It is so complete, so magisterial, so intricate that I cannot imagine a god more staggering to contemplate than one single aspect of this wonderment that is us (and the rest of animal creation): pheromones, or the muscles in the face that telegraph our emotions, or the broken-wing display of the piping plover. Put it all together, all the billions of tiny gears and bolts, and you are standing under one overarching organizational principle to the whole--the symphonic theme--and that is what works. What works for our cells will cause those cells and not these to survive; what works for organisms will survive (thanks, Darwin); what works to the aims of language will survive as words; what works in behavior, gets us the cookies, will survive (thanks, Skinner). Art-making is a subset of language--that which can be expressed no other way than this--and is subject to the laws of its own evolution. But laws nonetheless: that which defines science.

Survival of the Fittest. Not a musical title, certainly, but the single reason why. The reason we are here (which is, um, to be here), the reason at the bottom of everything we do. Art written by science.

Perhaps I may be excused my teenage excursions in the wrong direction, anyway. My dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, the seat of wise decisions, was as yet not completely developed. But how was I to know?