Archive for November, 2007

Dead child

November 24, 2007

These Cotswolds villages are all light brown river stone – the roofs, the walls, the barns, and the beautiful dry stonewalls, the fair fitting of which must be a dying art.  Rooted in the soggy but productive soil that once made them rich with wool, these villages now sport yuppies with foreign cars and Judi Dench types – smart but doubting, conventional but thoughtful, plain but beautiful in not trying to hide.

The Ramsden churchyard is the only place in this tiny village where you can get a phone signal, so there I repair at the end of the pub lunch to check in with my life’s center.

Among the mossy stones are the boys who died in World War I:

Life’s race well run,
Life’s work well done,
Life’s crown well won –
Now peace at last

and a little white marble:

Jesus called a little child
Susan Carole Holifield
Aged 6 years

A tiny flower,
Lent, not given,
To bud on earth
And bloom in Heaven

What a world of pain resides in this short residence of hope in the sure and certain promise of Christian afterlife!  The enduring Church of England – many of its churches near empty on a Sunday despite the soaring spires and patina-ed stained glass – offers that rock-hard assurance.  I think if my child had died that I would fall through any such comfort like an anvil through paper.

My child is one-third of the world away in Santa Fe, and the worst that can be gleaned from these churchyard shouting phone calls is how often she is acting as designated driver for her vodka-soaked boyfriend.

But whoever lost a child of six and retains such faith is either resting with that anvil on the ocean’s floor, or floating in the illusory world of a beneficent God where somehow all things will be made right.  New Englander that I am, I feel we must fight to deserve it, that randomness is part of God’s will, and – Quan will oppose me here – that life is simply not just.

Tell that to the English: the genteel outrage of injustice pervades every newscast, “Will the minister assure the public that …” because each night it is farmers in Shropshire, fishermen in Margate, single mums with inadequate pensions, leaked information from the National Health … Somewhere something unfair is happening to some other worthy social group, and something simply must be done about it.  The Nanny State is failing under Gordon Brown (nicknamed “Dear Prudence”) even as England thrives on gibblety goblets of North Sea oil.

So goodbye, old chum, muddle on without me for a while, and I shall be back to see your dowdy newshares (Fox and CNN have newsbunnies, the BBC has toffee-nosed twittering male newsrabbits and earnest frumpy female newshares) earnestly seeking justice and fairness, the mother of all Parliaments raucously seeking the truth by scoring points, and the hapless but articulate dissidents wittering on about how much damage the next government scheme will cause.

Nowhere else on earth …

Stately Home

November 17, 2007

Last weekend, I got to visit with the very rich, and no, you can’t know who they are; I want to talk about the house. Built sometime in the 1300’s and still marked around the door arch with the swords of the English Civil War – of course much has been replaced and added to – and continuously in one family since then, it seems an organic part of the earth from which it springs. Rounded brick and rainwashed stone climb unevenly, some covered in ivy, topped with twisting chimneys, softened by gnarly trees close to the house. The moat remains on one side to reflect the perfect harmony of the many different windows, all with a thousand tiny diamonds of glass criss-crossed with lead. Topiary and sweeping gardens as you climb the hill above the hollow where it lies, up to where the ground was flattened so that Henry VIII could play at jousting when he visited. See the smaller farmhouse and the chapel, graveyard for six centuries of old nobles and sickly children and lost daughters and dead soldiers, and realize as you top the hill that all the land for as far as you can see used to belong to the Lord of this house.

Like much of England’s nobility, the current Lord is much reduced in land and holdings, but still commands more money and concomitant responsibility for preservation (a castle, this house, a London landmark, 190 employees including a full-time roof thatcher) that showed up my own obsession with a single farm in Maine as a minor skirmish in a larger war.

It’s a long walk from my lush but chilly bedroom to the Great Hall, and the impressionist art on the walls is real. The sound system that fills that hall would probably have financed worldwide domination of KMI – and it has the additional disadvantage of spoiling you for anything else, listening to early jazz on vinyl with every instrument crisp and located. The wines flow, topped with a Taylor port from 1955 with the most complex set of tastes I have ever imbibed.

This weekend, teaching in Oxford, I am listening with amusement to my young assistant who is a font of information of the nefarious doings of the Freemasons and Illuminati, who are, according to him, undermining everything from the Twin Towers on 9/11 to the dollar bill to keeping us all in thrall to hidden forces of evil. Well, I don’t deny that the world is in a state, and undoubtedly there are people trying to manipulate it to their own ends, and conspiracies abound But evil has always been with us, and the banal kind is more distasteful to me than the Machiavellian.

I don’t have the heart to tell him that the world is more complex and meandering and hopelessly personal than these grand tales. I don’t have the heart to tell him that if this world is what God has made, I am ready to try a little Satan to see if he can do any better. I don’t have the heart to tell him that I spent the previous weekend with the head of world Freemasonry, and whether he is serving God or Mammon, feast or famine, priest or shaman, he is as extraordinarily ordinary as any of the rest of us. He would just like to save the beautiful organic stately home his family has tended for 28 generations, a refined but anachronistic expression of a fading way of life.

The Lord and Arch-whatever-he-is of the Freemasons feels neither rapacious nor scheming. He and Her Ladyship are homebodies, philosophical about the passing of English nobility, with a spiritual perspective that encompasses more than his 28 generations, clear-eyed, humorous, free of regret or grasping desire for reinstatement. He does say ‘hice’ when means house, but this can be forgiven.

I am not a socialist, but I am a democrat, agreeing with Churchill that it is the worst form of government, except for all the other ones. Like Christianity, democracy has not been tried and found impossible, it has been found difficult and left untried. I believe in the free market of ideas, though I don’t believe that we any longer live in a free-market economy. With these huge corporations making their own transnational laws, we are once again becoming feudal. Are my huge corporations just my substitute for my young friend’s Freemasons-taking-over-the-world conspiracy? Maybe, but someone has to run the world, and you can bet your shoes that those who are doing so currently (as ever) are not motivated by benificent feelings toward their fellow man, especially those at the bottom.

But is there not room, as the world descends into an American commercial blandness, for difference? Is there not room for the whimsy that nobility has always promised and delivered? Crazy and poor is insane; crazy with money is eccentric. The great thing about having a nobility or aristocracy is not that they always manage reasonably – the descent of the House of Windsor into tabloid triviality is proof positive of the losing battle aristocracy has with modern education – but that some among us are given a vote, the ability to follow an idea through without accountability. It leads to the excesses of Ludwig driving madly through the countryside in search of young boys, but it also leads to the ‘excess’ of this house – an event no socialist utopia could produce.

Doctor Zhivago’s house and China’s treasures fell to the Communist revolutions – proof that aristocracy tends to forget the bottom of the pyramid that supports the crowning stone. The huge stone Buddhas fell prey to the arrogant madness of the Taliban mullahs. Surely, we in what’s left of the Western world must save room for something so beautiful as this house – so whimsical, so purposeless, but yet so necessary to our sense of who we can be.

A Visit with Oliver Sacks

November 17, 2007

Driving through the streets of Oxford, England: Lined with all that grey stone in walls capped with the towers of ancient academe, these streets scream for quiet. But they’re not, they’re filled with traffic, and it’s slow going and no parking. James drops me so I can run and get a space in the basement of Borders. Yes, it’s the same Borders we have, all glitzed and overlit, except the audience slotted into the basement corner by the computer section is decidedly more eccentric and individualized than any you could find in America, even New York. Students dressed for another time – jersey skirts with horizontal stripes, a few scrinching their faces and muttering to themselves with the permission given the musically obsessed, old couples who have come to look like each other and the countryside they live in. But all polite, English craziness exudes none of the threat that pervades the American variety.

I am late anyway, and can only stand leaning against a rack of music videos across from all the Python and Assembly Language manuals, shifting from one foot to the other to keep from aching. Stacks of Sack’s new book, Musicophilia, sit on the table, along with the classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. He arrives on time, a short, broad man of 75 with a large balding head and neat white beard. He shuffles a bit on big sneakers worthy of a gangsta rapper. (His unsteadiness on his pins is the result, I suspect, of an old hip injury he suffered while being chased by a bull, described in the short but his most intensively relevant book for bodyworkers called A Leg to Stand On.) His pants are wrinkled from the train, or perhaps even the plane (he lives in NY and is in residence at Columbia), but his blue shirt bears the unmistakable wrinkles of the just-unwrapped.

He has a couple of minders who set him up with water in a Starbucks cup, but there is little to-do, and he begins his talk promptly. His hands are huge and beautiful (Quan would love him immediately for his hands), and they are frequently in odd positions around his wire-rim spectacles and face. He has a strong voice but a faltering way of speaking common to some writers. He will start down a road briskly for a sentence or two, think better of the way he’s come, um a little, cover his tracks by reaching stiffly for a sip of water, and return to begin again. His subject matter is fascinating – the power of music. He quotes (from memory) from William James and Steven Pinker, who both dismissed music as an addendum to human speech, providing no evolutionary advantage.

But as a young doctor, confronted with the gnarled victims of Parkinsons (as described in Awakenings), he noticed that the contractures that held these poor people motionless could be set free by music. He also quoted Auden, whom he had met as a shy young student at Oxford when Auden was poet-in-residence but got to know as a friend later in New York. Auden, himself a musician, came along to see the patients Sacks was working with and who in turn quoted Rousseau: “Every problem is musical problem, and every solution is a musical solution.”

The question of ‘what makes humans unique’ has haunted me for years, and Sacks too, in another field. We have all heard of homo faber – man the tool maker, or homo loquens or homo ludens or homo erectus or even our current classification homo sapiens sapiens – the one who knows he knows – but tonight I am pointed toward homo cantans – the only primate (how can we forget birds and humpbacks?) who sings and keeps a steady beat.

For the musical among us (he says intensive musicality can be seen in the brain, but no one yet knows if it is the brain that leads to musicality or that musical practice actually changes the brain), a beat and the harmony of tones seems so natural, so inbred, and so essential to human experience that it is hard to believe that there is no music in our nearest neighbors. While writing this, I’ve been listening to Lyle Lovett, who looks like some primatalogical poor relation of humans – but with an exquisite sense of sound (one can’t help but feel that that’s why he got to marry Julia Roberts).

Sack’s stories range through his usual catalogue of unusual neurology – people with amusia who can’t even hear music, others with musical hallucinations – and then he abruptly stops. Speaking to a crowd in this way is clearly painful for him, and answering questions isn’t much easier. I can’t resist: “In your first couple of sentences, you said that everything that goes on in the mind is recorded in the brain.  But there’s a thought abroad that perhaps the whole body thinks.  There are as many neurons around the gut as around the brain, and the indications that heart transplant patients sometimes ‘remember’ things from the experience of the donor – do you have any comment on the interactions between the brain and the rest of the body?”

Nope, he ain’t playing: All thinking happens in the brain.  I cannot follow up – his table is immediately crowded with the strange students and eager academics who want his signature from those huge arthritic hands in their clutched copies. I will get no chance to expand my thoughts, and will probably get nowhere in any case, because he’s right:  Despite my own mumbling obsession with the psychology of the body, the two pounds of custard between our ears is surely the seat (in the sense of coordinator or antenna, at minimum) of the complex consciousness we call human.

In spite of Quan’s low opinion of the state of human development, given our thoughtless treatment of animals and each other, people’s complexity and current dominance cannot be denied.  But with the glory of Beethoven, the mathematics of Bach, and the sly satiric lessons in humanity provided by Lyle and Randy Newman, there may be hope for us yet.  For better or worse, whether we ultimately populate the universe with art, or are reduced to a thin layer of plastic in the earth’s geology, the spongey custard white with fat and barked with cortex we call a brain has to be a central piece of the story.

The Trainer

November 8, 2007

Early on in my London practice, a trainer for a then-popular Western Zen weekend enlightenment course would visit my practice.  He had had an unfortunate accident where he walked into a moving airplane propeller, which had carved a scar down his face and mangled his shoulder.  Interestingly, no matter where you worked on him, he felt it in his shoulder.

As he left the last session I saw him, he said, “That’s what I like about you, Tom.  There’s so little of you left.”

I pondered that one for years.  Insult or compliment?

He later had the large welt of a scar removed from his face by plastic surgery, but unwilling to go unconscious about this event again, he agreed to do it only when the doctor agreed to do it without anesthesia.  He said that if he stayed right on the edge of the scalpel, he could control the bleeding, and there was a searing and tearing sensation, but no pain.  If he got an iota ahead or behind the moment, the very edge, the pain was intolerable.  I have used this technique since, but have never had any surgery.

Carolina Dawn

November 8, 2007

My fingers are clumsy with cold as I type this. The clocks ‘fall back’ this night, but since my body clock doesn’t know that, I set out for my morning run in total darkness – in a six o’clock that was really five. A little cup of moon provided what light there was, and orientation came courtesy of the Ursae and Orion.

You can rely on Rick to have the roads in good repair, so my feet lopped along the invisible dirt road with confidence, though my ankles are alert to the odd offsetting stone. I haven’t run for a couple of weeks – exercise has been provided by getting the docks in, the boats put away, the summer tied up and ended, culminating in the chain-saw extravaganza that produced our wood for the ’08 – ’09 season. Several hours of holding that noisy machine out in front of me, and my body feels fine. Every year in July the hay shows up, and we swing 500 bales into the loft for the horses and rabbits. I measure my physical aging by how much I feel it in the ensuing days. But this day of harvesting trees was great. And that reminds me of Misty, who stomped away in righteous protest at 7 when we cut down a pine in her presence. I have been in the company of a bunch of vegans last week, and I love to tease them about how the plants feel about being pulled out of the ground. You have to come to terms with eating, with making part of the universe into yourself …

I digress, but this is how your mind goes when you are running, easily down tracks of thought and memory. Reaching the road, I ran up the middle – no cars this Sunday morning. Dogs announced my progress, the cows at a nearby farm started lowing, and deer clicked across the tarmac and disappear into the woods with their high white asses.

As the pink started to glow above the line of trees in front of me, I came across two horses. Traveling, as great as the work is, and as much as I enjoy having all these different people in my life, is animal-free, for the most part. My home life is full of them thanks to Quan – rabbits to doctor, cats on the bed, horses to feed – but on the road, it’s just people, and they are a most unsatisfying animal. The black one will have nothing to do with me, but the paint comes over for a nuzzle and conversation. The warm sweet breath, the mobile lips exploring my hand, his curiosity about my shirt, his search for an apple but I have nothing. If I can I’ll steal an apple for tomorrow and make a new friend.

Going second

November 8, 2007

In London in the 80’s, it was impossible to afford both a flat and an office, so I worked from a spare bedroom the entire time. Eight different addresses in as many years – Maida Vale, Regent’s Park Road, Marlborough Place, Leicester Close, Antrim Mansions, Lancaster Gate, Belsize Park, and finally Croftdown Road.

Early on in these years, a young man showed up – handsome, alert, intelligent – but even with all these attributes, it was clear he would never be a leader.  I wondered why. He was a runner, but you just knew he would never win a race – if he were out front, he would be looking back to see if he was doing the right thing.

When we got to the head session – the intraoral work can often bring stuff up – he got agitated, and then started screaming, which quickly dissolved into laughing hysterically – nay, maniacally.  I was worried that such a strange noise in a residential block of flats would bring the p’licemen, but thankfully no one called them on this weekday afternoon.  Such are the risks of integrative practice, but it was my strong intuition that he simply but definitely needed to play this out without interruption.  I sat with my hand on his belly and waited it out.

This uncontrollable laughing (bordering on shrieking) continued for some 20 minutes, until he finally calmed down and fell into a deep sleep-like state.  When he came round, I asked what had happened.  He said, “I am a twin.  When we were born we were both distressed, and my sister went out first.  I learned that if I want to survive, I need to go last.”

It’s funny how the mind works – when we are threatened, when the adrenalin’s running, our tape recorder memory carves the memories deeper – this has been established by research.  And when we are again threatened in any similar way, we pull out the whole tape recording and run it, regardless of which elements of our response were the relevant ones.  In this case, it didn’t matter to his survival whether he went first or second, but in his mind, it does.

Such memories are not verbal – he had no words at that point – and pre-verbal memories lodge more deeply in the kinesthetic self.

And even a singular event like that can hold less power over the individual if it is indeed singular.  In this young man’s case, his ‘secondary’ status was confirmed by his family over the years – his sister was first in many things, and got the best for some reason.  When he was laughing hysterically, he said, “I saw a picture of my family before my mind’s eye, and the more I laughed, the smaller it got.  I had to keep going until it was entirely disappeared.

Once he had hold of this patterning within himself, he went on to head an IBM office in London.