The Edge of Sorrow

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“Providence sometimes foreshadows the future of men in dreams, not so that they may be able to avoid the sufferings fated for them, for they can never get the better of destiny, but in order that they may bear them with the more patience when those sufferings come; for when disasters come all together and unexpectedly, they strike the spirit with so severe and sudden a blow that they overwhelm it; while if they are anticipated, the mind, by dwelling on them beforehand, is able little by little to turn the edge of sorrow.”

Achilles Tatius in The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon

 

To say it less sublimely, —in the history of the individual is always an account of his condition, and he knows himself to be a party to his present estate.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life

 

DNA is a relatively rigid polymer, typically modeled as a worm-like chain.  It has three significant degrees of freedom: bending, twisting and compression, each of which causes particular limitations on what is possible with DNA within a cell.  Bending or axial stiffness is important for DNA wrapping and circularization and protein interactions.  Twisting or torsional stiffness is important for the circularization of DNA and the orientation of DNA bound proteins relative to each other. Compression or extension is relatively unimportant in the absence of high tension.

PART ONE: BENDING

July 17, 1996

New York City, Upper West Side

Life’s din diminished some in the small moment when he pulled open his apartment window with such expectation that the last few inches the window flew up knew only his eagerness.  But on this day, July 17, 1996, the window got stuck halfway up.  He stared at it, hands on his hips, perturbed at the window’s unexpected stubbornness.  He loved watching the window reach its conclusion without him.  Humidity, no doubt.  Summer in the city.

He smacked it with the heel of his hands and muscled it open the rest of the way.

He placed his palms on the external, coarse sill and exhaled his frustration and leaned into the horizon – the Hudson River and the Jersey Palisades across the way and the George Washington bridge just north beaming a dull evening gray.

He waited all day to tilt into the picture.  He loved the patience evening brought, especially in mid summer when the heat and humidity pressed against him.  He arched his back and stretched and inhaled the tide’s dank odor.

He panned down six stories and set his eyes on an incongruous dance of Poodles and Labradoodles and French Bulldogs and a Great Dane and a German Shepherd and a Chihuahua and a couple of Golden Retrievers held easily by a dog walker in a weathered Yankee baseball cap.

The dogs sniffed the smells coming from a square earth and lifted their legs to trees and squatted when they recognized something.   The dog walker was graceful, never entangled in the leashes held to one hand, then the other, the exchanges fluid and experienced as if it was all meant to be like this.

The Great Dane and the Chihuahua and the Bulldog dumped together, responding to some great secret unknown to man.  The rest waited, and the dog walker studied them.

A country dog doesn’t lift his leg to a tree, not always, not necessarily, thought Dr. Raúl Sicard.  There’s no reason to, no threat to its territory.  The country dog roams unencumbered across a larger earth and squats.

Dr. Raúl Sicard wanted to believe that there was some luck to his life.  That would be romantic.  But luck had little play.   His life was ordained, a design with some options guided by the instinct to survive.  He was sure of it.  He was certain Darwin was right.  Adaptation and creativity go hand-in-hand and life is one large adaptation atoning to the unforeseeable – otherwise extinction follows.

Dr. Sicard, Raúl, often thought about his responsibility – the study of gene-environment interactions and how selection evaluates these relations.   For over a year – since his doctorate in Genetics, Stanford University – Raúl examined ecologically important genes in a shimmering lab at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in the upper west side of Manhattan.

During his breaks, when he managed to will his head up from a microscope, Raúl strolled to the George Washington Bridge to study its scars.   He went to the bridge to be away from the lab’s sterility, its shiny evangelical promise, and smell the clammy mid summer air, feel the earth beneath his feet, perspire like everyone else pushing through lives.

He studied the wounds on the bridge’s underbelly to see if they said anything about the fifty-five forgotten men left to the silence of time.  He craned his head until his neck pained him and stiffened, and wondered.

It helped keep his head focused on where things come from and maybe he could make evolutionary predictions, establish principles.  At Columbia Presbyterian, Raúl wanted to understand what reproductive strategies must be used in the future to minimize stress on our tired biosphere.  He depended on histories.  He looked for stories in the smallest of things, cells.  He looked for sure signs.

But when he pulled open his apartment window and stepped into the frame he didn’t want to continue thinking about limitations and outcomes.  He was done with the censors and motivators that exist in the brain and that deeply and unconsciously affect ethical premises.  The day was over.   He wanted to leave it behind.

He wanted to lose himself in the dog walker – an adaptation, an offspring that survived it all so far.   A ancient herdsman, perhaps, like the ones we see on elysian fields in travel brochures to Scotland and Ireland and France, now a dog walker.

Haitian women rushed stately blue strollers with large white wheels around the dog walker scooping up the steamy remains with a hand gloved in a baggie.  The other held the dog web.

Up and down Riverside Drive and across Joan of Arc Park, in the promising glow of summer evening, went these intertwining objects – the dog walkers and the Haitian women and their stately strollers.

When the phone rang and the sadness arrived and pushed aside everything familiar to him and stopped him from stretching as far as he could into the picture of the Palisades knocking at him.

He held the grainy sill and turned to the ring that tempted the faith he found in his routines.

There was a weight in the room that came out of nowhere – yet it was old and familiar, in the pit of his stomach, a sense of things lost, gloom.

Raúl faced the phone.  He held the sill with his left hand, unable to give it up all the way, and leaned in.

The knots in his spine that would otherwise crack and unwind the fatigue that amassed from hours curled over a microscope deciphering the nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms tightened.

The sadness multiplied.  He had no explanation for it, dumbfounded.  He liked knowing where things came from, how they evolved, what changed them, how they appear.  How things appear even suddenly like the ring of the phone that hung in the air with the sadness.

He traced his steps for signs.  Just a few moments before the first ring he entered his apartment and dropped the keys in the bowl on the table beneath the mirror near the front door and draped his lab coat over the chair meant just for that otherwise it would be useless.  Grabbed a beer and turned on the TV for noise.   But at some point that day, the sadness must have begun to set in unnoticed.  Maybe the sadness had been there all along.

The phone rang again.

He could consider the ring’s origin or rather the origin of the intuition he had that came with the ring and told him that something happened and he was involved.  But that was too much, too far to go.

Something traveled the distance and found him and opened a black hole and he didn’t want to be present.  He didn’t want to be sucked in.  Know its spiral history.  This is what humans do, he thought, run for cover – and wait and adapt slowly, hopefully.  Those that can’t adapt don’t make it, ever.   They have no hope.  Hope grows from adaptation.  It’s the single most important characteristic of evolution, adaptation.  From here, all springs forth – but especially hope.  No hope, no survival.  And the end, the true end of everything.

Raúl looked out the window and off in the east the moon was already there.

“It’s always already there,” he said, pushing out a whisper, a way to test his voice and see if he wasn’t dreaming.  “Like everything else.  Six inches from our noses.  Always.”

The ring told him that events had unfolded and suddenly just like that he was in.  He had been on one side of the looking glass and now on the other side nothing was recognizable.  A chill ran up his spine.  He felt bound.  In the lab life laid down road signs, roots to instincts that he could quantify.  There was nothing to measure here.

He turned and inhaled again, just to take a final whiff of the thick, clammy air. Maybe, just maybe what he was feeling was all an illusion, a figment of his exhausted imagination.  But  nothing. He lost the scent.

He retraced himself.  But there was no way to revise the day, see it fully in memory’s half-light.  The phone pawed at him trying to get to where the heart is.

After working in the lab he and friends sat in a sidewalk café across from Lincoln Center and had Brooklyn summer ales and dreamt of things that may never come to pass.  On a  cloudless bright day, they descended into the murky subway station on 161st and took the train to 72nd Street and strolled to 64th.   It was a who cares and so what moment, he called it, because in the design of things, who knows – really – what the next moment can bring.  It was important to have a philosophy, something to hold him up.

When everything is touched by the human hand, he believed, randomness takes on a whole different meaning.  It conceals the real order.  It assumes a privileged place.  But randomness itself is part of the order of things.  He knew that – that’s what he saw swimming on a microscope’s stage.

Wednesdays are halfway moments between the noise that is and the noise that was.   And the noise that’s yet to arrive unannounced is always there too.  That’s how Raúl saw things.  But we never hear the noise that’s yet to come, ever.

He allowed himself a smoke on Wednesdays, a Marlboro Light.  Often more then one.  He dangled it from his mouth like his father did – “It’s just social,” his father said.  Raúl took his time with it, sat back and rubbed his right hand across his unshaven face all in one smooth motion. He liked nothing better than not shaving on days like this because it showed that he was in the thick of it, living.  He rubbed his hand across his face and chin a couple of times.  There was comfort in seeing himself like this, not saying anything of importance, pointing to interesting passersby, with each puff challenging alterations deep in the nomenclature of life in the helix.  But it didn’t matter.  Everything is already determined.  Everything.  We fool ourselves thinking that it’s not.

A Guatemalteco on the corner selling dolls with bouncing heads, a Jamaican next to him selling antique copies of Paris Match and Look and National Geographic in several languages, the skinny invisible woman with tattoos of crosses and peace signs on either hand and barely able to stand on the corner waiting for pedestrians to push by and she’d mumble spare some change as they forget her, a picture of an extinction, something that no one wants to see intimately, the end of an adaptation.  Someone’s daughter.  A failure to create.  She was being run over by the evolving.  She would not be.  It’s been determined like this, how it all goes. No second chances.  No overtime.

When the phone rang he was having a beer in his apartment and getting ready to meet friends again that night to ogle girls in a bar somewhere near Columbia University.  No commitments, just ogling.  Everyone on the same page gauging each other’s reproductive investments.

He tried ignoring the third ring, its persistence.  It came from somewhere deep in the coil, he was certain of that too.  All things do.  That’s the design.  Wednesday, July 17, 1996 was determined long ago.

He turned to the hum of the TV.  It helped him think and it distracted him, made his life noisier even though it wasn’t his.  Now it was his life.  He grabbed his beer, waiting for the phone to ring again, wondering whether to answer or to let the answering machine do the work and buy him time.  He gulped his beer.

On the TV, a voice over a static map of Long Island filled the room with sadness.  That’s when the phone rang a fourth time, its red flash igniting the papers on the desk next to it and the bills waiting for another week.   An inexorable eye looking back at him.

Nothing mattered now.  Except the fifth ring.  Its sound hung in the air, hollow.  The phone and the TV.  Wednesday’s safety was gone.

 

At 8:45P.M, eleven minutes after take-off from Kennedy International Airport, TWA flight 800, bound for Paris, France, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Long Island.  Witnesses say they saw a bright flash in the sky.  But nothing is certain.  There are no causes known at this time.  The Coast Guard responded immediately, dispatching numerous search and rescue vessels.  The New York City Police Department, the New York State Police Department, and the Suffolk County Police Department have all responded as well.  The National Transportation Safety Board has dispatched a team from New Jersey.  And we’ve been informed that numerous private vessels are also involved in this initial search and recovery effort…

 

The phone rang again.

“Papá,” he whispered.

Raúl said it just to hear himself say it, to test its feel and the emptiness that arrives with flashes from a life lived, rattles you and tempts your faith, a specter that arrives in the weak light of suffering memory.

“Papá,” he whispered again.

It filled the room, repeating itself, over and over again and again, dying to reappear, always.

“Papá.   Papá.”

It overwhelmed everything.  The sanctity of his routine, the lab, the dog walkers and their dogs crapping and the Haitian maids and their Cadillac strollers.

He picked up the phone and staggered.

He felt him there, the ghost of his father standing beside him as still as recollections tend to be where light suddenly is as darkness and the darkness is where we are and where we will be.  Where the problems of the heart live.  The sadness was new and full.

********************

Continue Reading:

Edge of Sorrow – Second Movement

Edge of Sorrow – Third Movement

 

“Abandon”, from our Getting Lost experiment, goes professional …

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“Abandon” was picked up by the great, supportive folks at the Community Works Journal.

She places her chin on my desk. She leans over, arms on her thighs and rests her chin on my desk.

“Professor, I don’t know.” “I… I don’t feel anything.” “I …I’m indifferent. I don’t feel anything. I don’t. I just don’t feel anything.” She walks into my office with a big smile.

She wears a white wool turtleneck and her silky black hair, parted off-center on her left, falls around her face and over her shoulders like a frame calling attention to her lively eyes—and her smile.
See more …

The Secret in the Mirror, from the Getting Lost blog

The beginning of Imagining Amsterdam can be found here.   Below is what follows, the second section, which I’ve titled, for this exercise, “The Secret in the Mirror,” to comply with our work/play/reading of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to  Getting Lost.

 

For Hannah and Leah, who brought this story to me.  And for Karen who has always been there, caring and interested and thoughtful.

 

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Some ideas are new, but most are only recognition of what has been there all along, the mystery in the middle of the room, the secret in the mirror.

Rebecca Solnnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005)

 

In a story such as this, the full view is necessary.  Otherwise it won’t work.  I don’t want false impressions.

I’ll start with a wide angle shot and push in so you’ll experience what I did when I finally got to Amsterdam in mid May, after I called him, and the city came to me.  As he did.  Slow like.  An animal crouched low.  And they rose up.  First this city that proved everyone wrong, which is what he used to say – and he not far behind.  They arrived together.

Read more here…

From Getting Lost: “Imagining Amsterdam”

— If I think back, I’d say that some of our most moving times together were when you thought you were about to leave behind something of yourself, he said over the phone.  And … I don’t know, maybe sometimes you couldn’t.  I don’t know.  Or wouldn’t.  You’d hold on.  Tight.  You’d hold on tight.  To everything you could.  Until you couldn’t.

I don’t know why I reached out to him after so many years.  But I did.  And here we were.

– There’s something of that now, I’m guessing, he continued in a soft tone.  He paused, and waited.

Read More … 

Fastened to a Dying Animal: Hot at 60?

“I don’t know if I can trust you,” says to me one day, this very tiny, witty and very wise 19 year old student, a young woman.

She’s in my office for our weekly, hour long meeting. It’s near the end of the fall term’s 12th week, 2013. We speak about her magnificent writing, about writers and their lives – until life itself comes into the fold, something that always happens with this particular student. She’s always digging deep, searching.

When speaking about life – her view of it based on her experiences – she likes resting her head on my desk, crossing her arms and resting her chin on the backs of her folded hands. She slows down, becomes more contemplative. The sides of her long, black silky hair, carelessly pulled back and held by a band, fall over one side of her face or another. She leaves it, as if she hasn’t noticed it cascading over the side of her mouth. From here, this position, she comes up with the most uncanny of things.

“I don’t,” she repeats – and grins sardonically, a hallmark of hers when she’s lining me up for something. “I don’t know if I can …”

“After all this time, this is what you say to me? Why not?” I ask somewhat confused, wondering where this was coming from – and where we’re going.

“Well, the other day the girls in our class, we were like talking, you know. We were talking about you. And one of them said that you’re hot,” the hot rolling off her tongue as if suffering from too much neon, almost an accusation. “I don’t know if I can trust a hot, old professor,” she says – and laughs, sits up and leans back, hair in her face, which she pushes back behind her ears.

What does one do with something like this? When I was her age it would have never occurred to me to speak to a professor like that – but the audacity of today’s students is incredible. No fear. They don’t hold back. Titles, status, age – nothing phases them. We, the gray-haired, old professors live in a world that doesn’t exist to them, the young students of today. What does hot even mean in her vernacular?

The Family

The Family

There I sat, somewhere between a momentary dalliance with vanity and the treacherous phenomenon of aging. And here I am. 60. That which has been kept at bay has leaped onto my back and won’t let go. Hot quickly dissolves into dark irony. “Old man,” my youngest son calls me. “El viejo,” say my kids  mirroring the term of affection that is so much the idiom of the Spanish and I used for my father. Like father, like son.

In Men Over 55 I lamented how we men exist in a kind of fog; in Coming to 60 (Reluctantly and with Some Help), I bemoaned the mathematical conundrum: there’s less time. Now 60, I’ve signed my AARP card, charmed by the organization’s promise: “Real Possibilities.” Another 30, 40 years? I’m reaching for anything – what the hell.

The young student rattled this old man.  Hot points back to time gone – if there ever was a time when hot was real – while signaling less time to come. A slow, long sunset. “An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick,” says W. B. Yeats in Sailing to Byzantium.

Paltry: ridiculously or insultingly small; utterly worthless; mean or contemptible – minor, slight, insignificant, inconsiderable.

Did the student tell me the story to make me feel small – to have me come face-to-face with my insignificance? Or was it to make me feel better about feeling slight, utterly worthless? Was it a kindness?

Tattered: ragged, torn to pieces – hanging loosely from the main part.

Is a 60 year old man a ridiculous thing barely hanging on – loosely – to life itself?  And so the “hot” problem doesn’t make you feel better or good, rather it accents the ragged part, the insignificance I’m becoming until, well, I am Nothing – a page left for posterity on Facebook.

A prayer at 60: Nothing who art everywhere hallowed be thy nothingness.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Nothing.  Give us this day our daily Nothing.  And forgive us Nothing as we forgive Nothing, who sin Nothing, and deliver us from Nothing for thine is the kingdom of Nothing, the power and the glory of Nothing.

“Once out of nature I shall never take/My bodily form from any natural thing,” Yeats says.  Of course not – how can that be possible today when we’re already so far from – and out of – Nature that we are confused – and battered – by mere snow storms and Arctic blasts, surprised by their voracity? We’re left pining for something else – something “Of hammered gold and gold enameling,” perhaps, that will take us into posterity and be worth something.

How far will hot take me – not even “hammered gold”?

The student’s story is “Of what is past, or passing, or to come,” as Yeats says. Once, maybe, you were hot, she may be saying; there’s an inkling of it, she says. Barely visible. But it’s the past and the fact that at least one of the students recognized this, it’s passing, transitioning towards the Nothing. The hallowed nothingness “to come.”

This is why men over 60 grab at straws – the end is near and the way there is a dramatic decline, a decay visible before our very eyes. Hot is not even a straw to grab at since vanity is fleeting and you’re left recognizing that the decline has come about slowly, assuredly, strong – a mysterious animal hiding in the high grass, waiting, time on its side. Until time no more.

Somewhere inside this confusing noise is the truth; somewhere here is the story of the hot, old professor, I think. Hot means virile, too, no? But uncovering the truth about one’s own sense of self while aging is difficult – and not just because the noise is deafening; it’s because no man raised in a culture like ours, where the male is privileged and lionized, can actually conceive himself unmanly, not virile. Hot.

Men’s virility is today’s problem du jour, says Marc Lallanilla, Assistant Editor of livescience, in “Low T: Real Illness or Pharma Windfall?”. My young student perhaps knew this, heard this in the noise, and she made light of it. Men are teased, even admonished, for having too much testosterone; now we’re told we don’t have enough T – either because we’re facing the winds of our misfortune or because of real biological challenges. Hypogonadism, testicular cancer. Not pretty.

I’m listening more intently to issues concerning us older guys. But when you hear hot, you lose sight – a momentary reprieve – of being “sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal” that “knows not what it is.” Yeats again, perfect on aging.

And perhaps that is the moral of the little funny story: I don’t know what I am. I don’t what “it is,” this “dying animal,” looking back, taking inventory, seeing what’s amassed – if anything.

Lost and Found in The Blue of Distance – on Getting Lost

The world is blue at its edges and in its depth. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water.

Thus begins the second chapter in A Field Guide to Getting Lost,“The Blue of Distance.” Is it the blue of creation? Of that always already first moment, repeating itself in the unknown (unknowable?) of time when we were yet to be? And like that blue end of the spectrum that disperses, is that what happens to us – we disperse? And at some point are we nothing? Is the greatest fear of all changing into nothing? Is this the why of Facebook – social media?

We move through space and time, but in a constant sort of scatter, picking up pieces of matter and sound, dispersing others through language, art, manifestations and epiphanies we’d like to share in the silence of it all.

Yesterday, Sunday, February 2, 2014 was a strange day in that silence of it all. As I write the date I’m cognizant of how distant it is; or rather, I am aware of how unsure I was, yesterday, lodged somewhere in the noise that carries us along somehow, mysteriously, as if we’re both a part of it and not.   Read more…

On Getting Lost, a new blog … and an invite

Several of us, motivated by Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, have created Getting Lost, a blog that asks a simple question found in Solnit’s book:  “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”

About Getting Lost tells the seed for this blog – and invites all of you to participate.  It’s indeed open to all and we want to see what kinds of stories, essays, images, etc., are generated around the notion of getting lost.  

Please visit us – an intro post is already up, “Lost in the Most Unlikely of Places…”  Enjoy.  A new experiment.  Take the plunge…