I woke up early, decided it was too early, and went back to sleep. I seem to have had a lot of dreams, none of which I remember. But I have vague memories of a dream involving my mother, during the years she had dementia. My mother died twenty-five years ago this month, and for the last few years of her life had gradually increasing dementia associated with supranuclear palsy, Parkinson’s, and the side effect of the drugs she was taking. She didn’t know who I was for the last couple of years of her life, and I didn’t have much in the way of real conversations with her for a couple of years before that. The mother who appeared in my dream last night was the person who had dementia — not always making sense, sometimes hallucinating. It’s funny how vivid my memories of that time still are, vivid enough to reappear in my dreams from time to time.
I awakened this morning in the grip of an unpleasant memory.
The memory was from the end of the last semester of my last year of undergraduate study. I had majored in philosophy because it had the least amount of required coursework. That meant I had plenty of time to take classes in fine arts and music, and do lots of reading on my own.
Even if I had taken more philosophy classes, I knew I was a mediocre and uninspired philosophy student. I knew it, and the department chair knew it, and I knew he knew it. But I didn’t think I was anything worse than mediocre and uninspired. So I was a little taken aback when the department chair pulled me aside one day and said that sometimes the philosophy faculty needed to talk a little more with one of the seniors….
At first I had no idea what he was talking about. He seemed to be talking around in circles. Then it became clear he was saying I had to meet with philosophy faculty for some kind of oral exam. The exam would take place in two days.
Two days. Holy shit. I still didn’t understand what was going on. I felt too burned out to study.
By the time of the oral exam, I was terrified. I have a vivid memory of walking into an office and confronting the entire philosophy faculty. As soon as they started questioning me, though, I realized I had been mistaken about the purpose of the oral exam. Apparently someone had proposed me for academic honors. That’s what they were going to examine about. This was not at all what I had expected. I froze, and could barely speak. Some of the faculty looked disappointed and even disdainful. It was humiliating. At least they had the kindness to let me go quickly.
Of course I didn’t get honors. Nor did I deserve them — I had done as little coursework as possible in philosophy. I was pretty sure that the department chair also felt I didn’t deserve honors, which helped explain why he couldn’t bring himself to tell me that I was being considered for honors. He and I had clashed a number of times — I thought he was a pompous ass who had coasted on a brilliant PhD dissertation but never published anything — and he thought I was intellectually immature and needed his special guidance. He cornered me at breakfast on graduation and insisted on telling me that he knew I was a prejudiced New England Yankee who hated French Canadians like him and that’s why we never got along. Actually, in my town there were no French Canadians, and that just happened to be the one form of New England ethnic/racial hatred that I had not learned. But I knew what he meant. No wonder he found me distasteful. And recognizing the justice of his opinion of me didn’t change my opinion of him: that he was a pompous ass and an intellectual pretender.
At graduation, we had to sit through an incredibly boring commencement speech about the glories of capitalism (I’m not making this up). I hadn’t wanted to attend graduation, but my parents insisted. Since they had paid for a third of my college degree, I knew they deserved something for their investment, so I bought the robe and the funny hat and sat there through the boring ceremony. We had been instructed that when it came our turn to walk across the stage and receive our diploma, we were supposed to shake the hand of the college president first, then take our diploma from his other hand. I grabbed the diploma first, then shook his hand — I wasn’t taking a chance on them yanking it away from me at the last minute on some pretext or another.
A couple of footnotes: After failing miserably in that oral exam, I was asked to apply for the department prize in philosophy by submitting a list of books I had read on my own, outside of coursework, during my final two years of college. It was an impressively long list, and I got the prize — a gift certificate for $40 worth of books (worth $120 in 2022 dollars). Those books probably were worth more to me than honors, because after graduation I spent 12 years in the residential construction business where no one cared if I went to college, let alone whether I got honors or not. And I met a fair number of former philosophy majors working construction who didn’t use their degrees, either.
Ed died this morning, peacefully in his sleep. Here’s a picture of him when he was 32, sitting next to his four year old daughter:
His daughter doesn’t like this photo. She said: no one should be allowed to give little girls hair cuts like that. But since she never looks at this blog, I can get away with posting this. I think it’s a nice father-daughter photo.
For the past month, we’ve been living in Westport, Mass., and I’ve been commuting to my new job in Cohasset, Mass. It’s at least an hour and a half drive, more if there’s traffic. By the time I come home, I’m often tired of driving. Fortunately, there’s a rest area almost exactly halfway between the church in Cohasset and our temporary place in Westport. I often find myself pulling into that rest area to stretch my legs and clear my head.
It’s not much of a rest area. The parking lot is too small for the amount of truck traffic, with big rigs everywhere. By contrast, the lot for cars is usually mostly empty. Inside the building, there’s a Burger King and a Dunkin Donuts. But they seem to sell most of their food at their drive-through windows, because there’s hardly ever anyone sitting in the dining area. In spite of all the tractor trailer rigs, the whole place feels oddly deserted.
I stopped there on my way home today. It was lunch time, and the dining area was as deserted as usual. A memory forced its way to the surface of my consciousness. Back in 2008, I was working in New Bedford, and once a month I’d drive up to Newton for Sacred Harp singing. Ted, whom I sang with in another choir in New Bedford, started getting into Sacred Harp singing, too. So we’d drive up together to sing Sacred Harp. But I’d often have missed dinner in order to sing, so on the way home we’d stop at this exact same rest area to grab a sandwich. We’d spend the long drives talking, and we’d sit in that deserted rest area — even back then, it was always deserted — and talk some more while we ate. Mostly we talked about music. I still remember how he said he used to sing with five different ensembles when he lived in San Francisco, one for each night of the week.
When I moved to California, I lost touch with Ted. I’m not a good correspondent, and neither was he. A few years ago, I learned from one of his siblings that he had died.
Ted and I both sang bass. He was a pleasure to sing next to, not just because he was a good musician and a good singer. Some choral singers are on an ego trip, wanting to show off how good they are. That kind of singer is not fun to sit next to. Ted was the other kind of singer, the singer who’s there for the music, who subsumes their ego in the music. Marge Piercy talked about something similar in her poem “To Be of Use”: “I want to be with people who submerge / in the task … / who are not parlor generals and field deserters / but move in a common rhythm / when the food must come in or the fire be put out.” Piercy was talking about work, not music, but you see the same kind of thing in music. As it happens, I did actually do physical work with Ted on several occasions, and he worked the way he sang: submerged in the task, rather than a parlor general. That’s the kind of person I like to spend time with.
When I was in the rest area today, I got to thinking about Ted. I guess for me, that’s now the Ted memorial rest area. Not a bad thing to think about while I’m stretching my legs and getting a sandwich.
Update, October 10: Turns out when I wrote this, the anesthesia was still clouding my brain — my prose is even more confused and incoherent than usual. I’ll leave it up as written, so to show what anesthesia can do to you.
In college, I took a class with Lucius Outlaw, Jr., in which we read Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations. Husserl’s book opened up the possibility of observing the stream of one’s own consciousness, something I’ve been interested in, and have practiced, ever since. So when I went in for a colonoscopy yesterday, I decided to take the opportunity to try to observe what happened as I was given anesthesia, and later how I came out of anesthesia
Thinking back to a previous colonoscopy, I realized that I simply couldn’t remember some things I knew had happened after coming out of the anesthesia. I couldn’t, for example, remember getting dressed, though I knew I had done so. Before I underwent anesthesia yesterday, I wanted to see what I could retain in memory from the time I went under anesthesia until I arrived back at home.
I have a clear memory of when I lost consciousness. One of the nurses asked me to settle myself slightly differently on the gurney, which I did, and then — nothing.Continue reading “Anesthesia”
Forty-five years ago today…Nixon announcing on national television that he was resigning…what a strange moment….
Fifty years ago today I was eight years old, and it was a summer day in Concord, Massachusetts. I have vague memories of watching the moon landing on our black-and-white television set. But did we watch it while it was happening, or did we watch it on the news later on? I think we watched on the news later in the day.
What I do remember is that it was a big topic of conversation among kids my age. Kids in my neighborhood also talked about how we were going to have to leave Alcott school and go to a new school in the fall. We probably also talked about the new split in the American League between the East and West divisions, and my hero Jim Longborn was still pitching for the Red Sox. But the moon landing had the biggest impact on my imagination, by far.
In fact, it would be hard to overestimate the impact the moon landing had on my imagination. I was so sure there would be regular travel to the moon by the year 2000. When I studied physics in college and understood how much energy it takes to lift humans out of earth’s gravity well, regular travel to the moon began to seem far less probable.
These days I am far more cynical. Before I get excited about moon travel, I want to know where the energy is going to come from, and what the carbon footprint of moon travel will be. These days, I’m more interested in how we might reduce carbon in the atmosphere, to lessen the impact of global climate change. Which means that I’m far more interested in the Trillion Tree Campaign that perhaps “could capture 25% of global annual carbon emissions.” I guess you could say that self interest has prompted a greater interest in ecological science than in astronomy or astrophysics.
A follow-up post to Illness.
A big recovery milestone: on Monday, they had me stop taking anti-coagulants. I say “they” because whoever called to tell me to stop wasn’t from my primary care physician’s office, it was some person from the health plan’s anti-coagulant group. Every time someone has called about the anticoagulant drug, it’s someone different; they all seem to be reading from a script, and I imagine these people sitting there in a windowless office wearing headphones making call after call after call: “Hi this is So-and-so from Kaiser mumblety-mumble anti-coagulant mumblety, and I want to confirm that you have stopped taking your mumble-bumble.”
I was glad to confirm that I had stopped taking the anti-coagulant on schedule. And I was glad to be no longer taking that drug. Some of the fog cleared out of my head within twelve hours of taking the last pill, and suddenly I only needed nine or ten hours of sleep each night, instead of eleven hours of sleep plus an hour or two nap; I have suddenly gained two or three hours of waking time. It’s a good thing, too, because vacation ended on Sunday, and with the end of vacation I needed all my energy and all my waking hours to go to work and come home and recover enough to go to sleep and get up the next morning to do it all again.
It continues to astonish me the extent to which my energy has been sapped by this illness. Yesterday, I started organizing our tiny storage room, something that has never gotten done after we moved in November. I worked away for a couple of hours, and it wasn’t particularly strenuous work, and suddenly I was done. I had to sit down. Part of the problem, Carol pointed out, is that I’ve lost a lot of muscle tone — I just didn’t have the energy to exercise. I lost five or ten pounds, and it’s not like I had a lot of extra body mass before I got ill.
Mostly I’m writing this to remind myself that I have indeed been ill — not really ill, it’s not like I had cancer or major surgery — but ill enough to affect most aspects of life, ill enough that it’s going to take a long time to get back to normal.
Oddly enough, I don’t feel this illness is a waste of time. I certainly have lost a lot of time to sleep and lack of energy. But it has been good to slow down. I tend to work fifty or so hours at my job, and another ten or twenty on projects that relate to work but that aren’t part of my actual job, and then another ten or twenty hours on hobbies and volunteer activities that sometimes feel like jobs. Because I cut back on everything, and because I haven’t had a lot of energy, I actually have had time to sit out in our tiny little back yard and just stare into space.
It’s been a very long time since I spent any amount of time doing nothing, and it turns out to be quite enjoyable. While I can’t recommend developing a pulmonary embolism, I certainly can recommend doing nothing.
1. Go to Labrador and take the mail boat up and down the coast: I grew fascinated with Labrador in my teens when I read an old book I think once belonged to my father, or maybe his father: The Lure of the Labrador Wild by Dillon Wallace. At 19, my first full time job was yardman in a lumberyard, and on coffee breaks I used to sit and talk with the dispatcher, Robin R., about where we wanted to travel; I always wanted to go to Labrador. I even went so far as to get a road map of Labrador, but there was no way I ever could have afforded to travel that far.
I still can’t afford to go to Labrador, but even if I could I’m not sure I want to go, not now. Now Labrador is far less remote: there’s a road to Goose Bay, and the coastal communities have much more contact with the outside world. I still want to go to the Labrador of 1980, but that’s impossible.
2. Live in Paris for six months: In my mid-twenties, I was still working at the lumberyard, now as a salesman. I was making more money by now, and arranged to spend one vacation in London and Paris. I took French classes to prepare for the trip, but when I got to Paris I realized how little of the language I knew. A friend of mine, William J., was living in Paris then. I dreamed of saving up my money and living there myself and studying French.
The unexpected ending to this story: When I went to Europe, I flew on Icelandair, and the flights stopped in Rekjavik. There was no jetway in those days, so you walked down those rolling stairs and across the tarmac to the terminal while they serviced the plane. I told a friend, Eddie J., how beautiful Iceland looked — and how beautiful the women were. At that time, Eddie worked seven days a week for six months each summer and fall painting houses, then spent the other six months of the year skiing in the Alps. The next winter instead of going skiing in the Alps, he went to Iceland, met an Icelandic woman, fell in love, married her, and as far as I know still lives there.
3. Publish a science fiction story: I met Mike F. in my first year of college. We were both science fiction fanatics, and we started a science fiction club. Mike was a good friend, but I felt competitive with him because he was a better writer than I; we talked about who would publish a science fiction story first, though I was pretty sure it would be him. A decade later, in an abortive attempt to get a master’s degree in writing, I learned that I am unable to write convincing fiction; I dropped out of that graduate program and went to work for a carpenter (working as a carpenter was then a dream of mine), and have never bothered to try to write fiction again.
The unexpected ending to this story: Mike and I both wound up working as clergy, and we both wound up doing a lot of online writing. In the 1980s, Michael became a rabbi and by the 1990s was known as the rabbi who wrote on America Online; I finally got ordained in 2003, and started this blog in 2005 (Michael always was more talented and driven than I). I now suspect that writing sermons and writing science fiction stories require a similar kind of imagination: both science fiction and sermons need to be firmly rooted in the here and now, and both need to be connected with infinite possibility.
So there are some things I’ve always dreamed of doing, but have never done; dreams that never quite let go of me, no matter how irrational or impossible.
On March 21, 1924, in Reading, Pennsylvania, 27 year old Dorothy Fassnacht Harper gave birth to her first child. The new baby was named Daniel Robert after his father, though he was called Bobby.
Bobby’s father, Dan, had gone to college to study for the ministry, and while he was in seminary served for two years as a minister in the Evangelical Association, a German-language Methodist group. But Dan found out that ministry was not for him, so he became a newspaperman, starting as a sportswriter, and then moving into other jobs in local newspapers in Scranton, Reading, and Hazelton, Pennsylvania. Bobby’s mother, Dorothy, was the daughter of a minister in the Evangelical Association, and her father officiated at her wedding to Dan in 1921. She completed the eighth grade, then worked as a dressmaker before her marriage. Bobby’s younger brother, Lee, was born in 1928.
The Great Depression hit the year after Lee was born. Dan found it hard to find steady work. In 1932 he got a job as a rewrite man with the Staten Island Advance, Staten Island, New York, far from Pennsylvania Dutch country where he had and Dorothy had always lived. He went by himself at first, not wanting to move his family until he was sure the job was going to last. It turned out to be a good job; according to his obituary in the New York Times: “Within four years, he was promoted successively to night editor, city editor and editor.” For the rest of the Depression, and until his retirement, Dan had a steady, secure job.
Dorothy, Bobby, and Lee followed Dan to Staten Island later in 1932. When Bobby started school in Staten Island, he ran into a problem with his name. He later wrote that his “name was changed from D. Robert to Robert when the New York City school system refused to allow any student to have an initial before a name.”
While Bobby did reasonably well at school, he had a lot of outside interests, too. Both he and Lee joined his father on fishing trips, and to the end of his life he kept photographs of fishing trips and strings of fish the three of them caught. He once wrote that the point of fishing was not necessarily to catch a lot of fish: “I remember my great uncle Spencer Fassnacht saying, after four of us had fished all day without catching anything, that seeing a kingfisher catch a fish had made it a good day.”
By the time he was ten or twelve, he started a neighborhood newspaper. Although some issues of this newspaper, “The Raven Call,” didn’t have much content, there were some real stories, too. The front page headline for the August 18, 1935, edition screamed, “WOMAN BURNED TO DEATH,” and the next story arrested your attention with the headline, “ONE CASE OF TYPHOID REPORTED.”
Bobby liked to read, and I have a few of his childhood books. On the title page of one of them, “Mark Tidd in Business,” part of a juvenile series by Clarence Budington Kelland, he wrote in pencil, “THIS BOOK BELONGS TO ROBERT HARPER GRADE 6B5”; above that I’m a little surprised to see that I inscribed my own name when I was a child; I have a vague recollection that my grandmother gave me the book. Another book he gave me when I was young was “Ken Ward in the Jungle,” a book from a juvenile series by Zane Grey, and though he didn’t write his name in it he told me it was his when he was a boy. I also have his tattered copy of Ernest Thompson Seton’s “Two Little Savages,” which I took from his condo when we were getting rid of all his books just before he died. Other books of his I remember seeing when we went to visit my grandmother in Staten Island include Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “Their Island Home.” None of these is what you’d call a serious book.
He did not remember rebelling when he was a teenager. He later wrote: “In the middle of the Depression we were thankful that my father had a job. So many of my friends had fathers who had been employed in the shipyards on Staten Island before the Depression. Now they were lucky if they occasionally found jobs as carpenters or laborers…. I seldom heard of any teenagers rebelling. I do remember two of my acquaintances who rebelled. Norman Schaeffer, whose father was a doctor, had enough money to buy an old model A Ford in which he and several others would ride around in defiance of the law (the legal driving age in NYC was 18 at that time). Perhaps rebellion is a luxury that is more likely to occur among those who are well enough off to be bored and then resent the adult world. I and most of my high school friends simply tried to keep our noses clean.”
When he got into high school, Bobby got interested in physics and electronics. He doggedly did the work required of him in school, and at home wrapped himself up in his hobbies of model railroading and radio. He was thrilled the first time he heard the sound of a distant radio station come out of a radio he had built. After graduating from Port Richmond High School, he entered Haverford College, an obscure Quaker college in southeastern Pennsylvania, in September, 1942, intending to study physics.
Two weeks into his second semester, he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps. He served overseas, in the European theatre, as a ground-based radio operator mechanic in the 437th Troop Carrier Group. He was part of the Headquarters Battalion, and was stationed in England and France during the invasion of France and Germany.
He didn’t talk much about his war years, though he did say that he never saw a shot fired in anger, and that those three years in the service were almost entirely unpleasant. He was fortunate to be part of the ground crew; he told us how he’d be talking (using Morse code, not voice) with a returning bomber when suddenly their signal would disappear; they had been shot down. He told us of another time when a plane came back carrying paratroopers returning from a mission; when they got off the plane, they just kept walking past their officers, and they walked right off the base. When he told this story towards the end of his life, he said the paratroopers told their officers to fuck off.
His mother saved his letters home, and I read them all not long before his death. I read some of the letters aloud to him, while he was still capable of understanding them. One of the last conversations I had with him, before he became unable to speak, was about how he finally realized at the end of his life that he had post-traumatic stress disorder from the war. Unfortunately, his letters from the war years disappeared when we were cleaning out his condo, but I remember the tone of the letters growing darker as the war dragged on. He had some kind of romance, or maybe more than one, and I’m pretty sure he lost his virginity in England. When I was in my forties, he gave me a self-published book by a friend of his from Haverford College, which he said accurately reflected his experiences; a significant part of that book concerned the sexual experiences of the protagonist. By this point in his life, I can no longer think of him as “Bobby,” so I’ll start calling him Bob.
After the war ended in Europe, Bob was put on a ship across the Atlantic, the first leg of a trip that was supposed to take him to the Pacific theatre. While he was in transit, the atom bombs were dropped and Japan surrendered, and he was discharged from the Army on September 25, 1945. Two days later, he was back at Haverford College, having received special permission to start school at the last minute.
To be continued…
[Updated Feb. 10 to remove errors.]