It’s Not Rocket Science

Do you recognize this expression? It’s one of two synonymous questions referencing complex activities that are beyond the grasp of the average person.   The meaning is therefore that the issue under investigation is so familiar to everyone already that any discussion about it can only reach obvious and therefore superfluous conclusions.   But it is the other variation on this phrase where I propose to focus here, so that for our purposes, if it’s not rocket science, then it is brain surgery.

This discipline, carried out by trained specialists using precision instruments, aims to cure bodily malfunctions by applying invasive procedures to the most vulnerable and least understood organ in the body, the human brain. Brain surgeries are undertaken for a wide variety of purposes, but I will restrict the discussion here to their application for the purpose of alleviating the scourge of mental illness.  This medical condition manifests itself in two distinct problems: first, mentally ill individuals suffer from inexplicable, psychotic mood disorders, which interfere with their ability to function normally around others; and second, these disturbed people engage in a variety of antisocial behaviors, sometimes violent, placing the society at large in the position of needing to protect itself from their behavior.

A few decades ago, brain surgery in the form of frontal lobotomies was hailed as the miracle cure for certain extreme varieties of mental illness. Patients that suffered from psychotic episodes would find themselves committed to asylums where board-certified physicians would surgically remove the white matter in their brain’s frontal lobe, which was deemed to be the source of their antisocial behavior. Worldwide, the procedure was performed on thousands of troubled individuals, including a small number of musicians and the sister of President Kennedy.   The developer of the technique was a Portuguese doctor named Egas Moniz, who performed a number of lobotomies himself and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his achievements in 1949.

Was Lobotomy an effective cure?   The answer depends on the perspective from which the question is asked. As an expediter of social control, it unquestionably transformed hyperactive, sometimes violent offenders into passive, well-behaved citizens. For the lobotomized subjects, though, the operation brought good news and bad news: it served to neutralize the inner demons, which tormented them, but it also left them in catatonic stupors, unable to live productive lives. Over time, this form of brain surgery came to be seen as overly invasive, and the harm to the individual was deemed to outweigh any benefit to the rest of society.

The larger question the lobotomy procedure was attempting to address is at what point does merely nonconformist behavior become more serious and enough of a problem for the larger society that authorities feel justified in the need to intervene medically. Individuals are encouraged to express themselves freely in their speech and actions, so long as they don’t impinge on others’ right to do likewise. Accordingly, the line along which justifiable interventions might divide is the internal-external one. The argument can be made that when an individual’s antisocial actions present a threat to others, forcible restraint seems reasonable, but if that individual merely suffers mental anguish, it is not the authorities’ business to apply remedial measures, unless the individual petitions for assistance.

The phasing out of the use of brain surgery to perform frontal lobotomies was further facilitated by the paradigm shift within the medical community that held that mental illness originated from a chemical imbalance in the brain. One implication of this growing awareness was that, in addition to their other shortcomings, lobotomies represented an imprecise tool for alleviating such an imbalance. Preferred approaches that emerged included the direct intervention in the chemical composition of the patient’s brain through a course of medication drugs (meds) and the external approach of altering that internal chemistry through the application of electro convulsive therapy (ECT), popularly known as shock treatment (ST).

There have also emerged other treatment alternatives to the application of brain surgery to address mental illness. The two most prominent are psychotherapy (the talking cure, not to be confused with behavioral therapy, which seeks to positively reinforce socially desirable behavior and discourage non-acceptable behavior through a regiment of rewards and punishments), and meditation (ohm). With regard to the former, almost by definition, sessions with psychiatrists to explore patients’ feelings about their perceptions of damage incurred from mothers obsessed with the need to inflict guilt on their offspring cannot be an effective means of altering the brain chemistry of those afflicted with mental illness. But, although the latter treatment comes no closer to explicitly addressing chemical imbalances than psychotherapy, there seems to be some evidence that the rigorous pursuit of the practice of meditation can produce positive results in this regard. Although the transmission mechanism is not clear, there seems to be a connection between the calming effect of relaxation exercises and the production of healthy brain chemistry.

Having discussed the advantages current medical research accords to the methods of meds, ECT, and meditation over the default option of brain surgery, it might be worthwhile to evaluate whether these alternative therapies, like lobotomies, also contain negative aspects that might serve to undermine their effectiveness.

With regard to drug treatments, the issue is contained in the existence of side effects. Any substance powerful enough to alter a patient’s brain chemistry enough to change their disposition from self-destructive to optimistic or their behavior from antisocial to constructive, must also admit the possibility that the treatment could be accompanied with unanticipated consequences. The most common side effects are ancillary chemically induced illnesses stemming from either the rejection of the meds by the body’s immune system, chemically-induced dependencies, or interaction effects among the various specific drugs.

ECT presents a different problem. The same jolt of electricity aimed at realigning the body’s brain chemistry could also have the capacity to damage that same brain, and indeed, the entire nervous system. Although not as invasive as brain surgery, it is safe to say that shock treatment is the next most intrusive cure.

That leaves only non-invasive cures as safe forms of therapy, unless drug therapies or ECT can be administered in more measured doses that are more readily absorbed by the individual patient. Unfortunately, while psychotherapy might be safe, it is not very effective in attacking the root cause of mental illness.   The one remaining course of treatment, which holds out the possibility of safe and effective therapy, is meditation. Its shortcoming is that it does not enjoy widespread use in modern societies, because most human beings are not temperamentally suited to utilize this form of therapy effectively.   Instead, they are compelled to rely on more traditional methods, which is unfortunate, because some of these people might find that their road to sound mental health might lie in meditation rather than in medication.

I will conclude with a case study to apply these concepts to the situation of a fictional mentally ill individual. The raw material is provided in a song by Kenny Rogers entitled, “I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.”  While the literal circumstances that generated the narrator’s thoughts might well have been the ingestion of one or more psychedelic drugs, the resulting lyrics could certainly be consistent with the ramblings of someone exuding the symptoms of mental illness. They are as follows:

I woke up this mornin’ with the sundown shinin’ in
I found my mind in a brown paper bag within
I tripped on a cloud and fell eight miles high
I tore my mind on a jagged sky
I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in

I pushed my soul in a deep dark hole and then I followed it in
I watched myself crawlin’ out as I was crawlin’ in
I got up so tight that I couldn’t unwind
I saw so much that I broke my mind
I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in

Someone painted ‘April Fool’ in big black letters on a ‘Dead End’ sign
I had my foot on the gas as I left the road and blew out my mind
Eight miles outa Memphis and I got no spare
Eight miles straight up downtown somewhere
I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.

The narrator of this song certainly qualifies for assignment to the category of“mentally ill”. He describes his surroundings in nonconventional terms, but is he a danger to society or is he merely an artistically inclined nonconformist with a fanciful way of expressing himself? Like many artists, he comes across as very self-absorbed, but is that a crime? If 99% of the society can only express itself through conventional means, surely there must be room for the 1% which sees the world through a fresh pair of eyes.

The only remaining question, if expressing himself freely doesn’t adversely impact anyone else, is whether he is a danger to himself. On this point, the jury is still out. At the very least, he should be encouraged to attend a course in driver’s education, but would society be made better off by restricting his access to psychedelic drugs, or would conventional thinkers merely be deprived of a refreshing exposure to a new way of understanding the world around us?


I’m Breaking Down


Hi! Booboo DiStefano here. Well, actually, my real name is Barbara, but my parents gave me the nickname “Booboo” because my mom’s pregnancy wasn’t something she and my father had planned for. At first I really didn’t like it, but later I grew to love it as a name that set me apart from other girls. I work in this Connecticut real estate agency with my mother, who had been employed here for several years before me and is a member of the office’s management committee.   One of the fun things that my mother and I did together was to make a video on the Internet in which we took turns advertising some of the houses we have listed.

Although everyone here works for the same company, there is a fair amount of competition among the individual salespeople. In my case, I was the 2015 agent of the year for the most housing units closed, which made me a director’s council member, a platinum circle member, and earned me the president’s bronze circle award. I also won the most housing units sold award in 2012, which got me the president’s silver circle award that year. In recognition of my achievements here, my mother arranged for the management committee to present an actual medal to the most successful salesperson each year, and because I had received so many honors, the medal was called a Booboo.

About a week ago, the strangest thing happened to me. I had spent the morning showing houses to a prospective buyer who was looking to move here from another city, and we had gone to a restaurant for lunch after a full morning of looking at possible homes. I was sitting at a table facing the front window when I looked up from my lunch to see someone who looked very familiar walking down the street holding hands with a woman as they ambled past the restaurant. Then I recognized him: it was my old boyfriend, Paul Galvin, who I hadn’t seen in years. More importantly, I was under the impression that Paul was dead. My father, who was about the same age and had always liked Paul, was the one who broke the news to me back in 1989.

“I don’t know if you heard, but your old boyfriend shot himself at work this morning,” he telephoned to tell me one evening. “He made quite a splash on the evening news. One of his doctors was on television, explaining that Paul had been suffering from some obscure neurological disorder, and rather than struggling with an incurable illness, he apparently elected to end his own life”.

I was in shock. I had met Paul when we both worked in the Economic Research group at a large commercial bank in midtown Manhattan, where he was responsible for the domestic interest rate forecast, and I was a support analyst in the Gross National Product forecasting group. My father had a job at one of the large brokerage firms in the city, and one of his colleagues was able to arrange an interview for me in the Economic Research group at the bank. I had just graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Simmons College, where I majored in both Economics and Italian, the language of my grandparents.

I became friendly with Paul at work. He was very knowledgeable about all sorts of economic issues, so I always learned a lot from talking with him. He had accomplished a lot in his life. He had a Ph.D. in Financial Economics from an Ivy League university and he had been a professor at a major university in the Midwest before leaving to work as a bank economist. So, you might ask, what did I bring to the table that would interest him? The answer is, and there’s no easy way to say this without giving the misleading impression that I’m conceited,  but I was the prettiest girl in the whole department. In fact, most men think I look a lot like Natalie Wood.

Well, Paul had always behaved very professionally toward me, although I could tell he (like all the rest of them there) found me very attractive. It was close to the Christmas holiday, and I mentioned to Paul that it would be nice if we could have a departmental Christmas party. Just as I hoped he would, Paul offered to host a party at his apartment in the city. After everyone had left, we were alone together, and he must have thought I was getting ready to leave too, which I thought was a little insulting, so I asked him why he didn’t take me seriously. We wound up kissing, but Paul remained a perfect gentleman.

After that, we started dating. I knew he was in love with me, but although I liked Paul, there were at least three reasons why I didn’t lose my head over him: first, he was fifteen years older than me; second, he wasn’t Italian; and third, he always treated me a little too respectfully, so I never got the feeling that that I awakened any strong passions in him. I hope he didn’t get the idea I was leading him on when I impetuously concluded a letter I sent him with the assertion, “I love you more than my life.”  Anyway, one day, he asked me to marry him, but I had to tell him that, although I was very flattered, I had to turn him down, and I heard he later married someone else. Meanwhile, I needed to turn my attentions to finding a serious marriage partner while I was still of childbearing age.

My parents had three daughters, and I was the middle one. Both of my sisters were already married, and each one had three children. My older sister had three girls, while my younger sister had three boys. I knew I needed to shake a leg if I didn’t want to fall too far behind my siblings. There was a mixer dance at the local community center, and I thought I would go just out of curiosity. I met a boy there who worked in the county government, and we started talking. He didn’t seem to be very excited about his work, but he spoke passionately about his artistic hobbies, which I thought was a good sign, since my father had a big interest in opera. This boy was my own age, and although he wasn’t Italian, I figured two out of three wasn’t bad. We began dating, and later, when he asked me to marry him, I accepted his offer.

We didn’t waste any time, and I got pregnant almost right away. The baby was a girl, and following my urge to give girls more traditional names than my own, I named her after a female movie star. Later, I got pregnant a second time, and this time, the baby was a boy. Not having any guidelines for boys, I named him after an old boyfriend. My third baby was also a girl, so I thought it was only fitting that I name her Natalie.

It was a couple of months after Nat’s birth that my husband casually mentioned to me over dinner that he could no longer remain dishonest about our marriage. At first I thought he had discovered and was referring to one of my various secret extramarital affairs, but he surprised me by disclosing that he needed to get in touch with his softer feminine side. After delivering this body blow, he informed me that he had made a connection with another man at work with whom he had created a bond, and he wanted a divorce so that he could be with his true love. “I can no longer continue living a lie,” he said after finishing his coffee and dessert.

Naturally, I sent him packing, allowing him exactly twenty minutes to gather his belongings and get out. But here I was now, with three small children to support, to ensure their education, their health, and their social skills, all on my salary at the real estate agency. I knew I’d need to sell a lot of houses to be able to afford college tuition for all of them. When I remember how cavalierly I treated Paul, I could just cry! Oh, What a fool I was!

But now, with Paul’s reappearance, maybe all is not lost. I left the restaurant to go to look for him, but he had already left the area. I resolved that I would return to this spot every day around this time until I saw him again. We’ll have a big laugh over that crazy rumor erroneously reported on the evening news that time. And I’ll tell him about the many important events in my life. How it looks like I’ll be on track this year to win yet another Booboo medal. And I’ll tell him about my three children and how my example will be an inspiration to make sure they graduate from college, and go on to have successful careers and satisfying marriages. They’ll all be very happy, smart, well adjusted, successful, and kind adults.   It will be a very tough transition for me, and afterwards, I’ll be an empty nester.

But that’s where Paul will come in. I sent him an email to alert him to the fact that I saw him here, and I am looking forward to seeing him here again soon. I know he’s already married right now, but as I know from my own experience, that’s no guarantee of anything. And he may be my last chance for happiness. As I was thinking these thoughts, the lyrics from that Crystal Gayle song, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” came into my mind:

Don’t know when I’ve been so blue
Don’t know what’s come over you
You’ve found someone new
And don’t it make my brown eyes blue

I’ll be fine when you’re gone
I’ll just cry all night long
Say it isn’t true
And don’t it make my brown eyes blue

Tell me no secrets, tell me some lies
Give me no reasons, give me alibis
Tell me you love me and don’t let me cry
Say anything but don’t say goodbye

I didn’t mean to treat you bad
Didn’t know just what I had
But, honey now I do
And don’t it make my brown eyes blue

It’s now a week later, and I still haven’t received a reply to my email. Of course, that by itself doesn’t mean anything. He may no longer have the same email address, or his computer program may not recognize my email code, screen out the message, and trap it in his program’s junk mail file. I’ll just have to be patient. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a —

Suddenly, I spot him. Paul Galvin is striding purposefully down the street, holding hands with that same woman. I can see them coming, and I fall in a few paces behind them. I walk a little faster so that now I’m directly behind them.

“Paul? “ I ask hesitantly. Upon hearing my voice, he spins around to face me, and I can see at once that it’s not Paul. He has some of the same facial features, so that from a distance there’s definitely a resemblance, but it’s not him. He looks at me questioningly, and the woman also stares at me as she turns back to her companion.

“There are so many mentally ill patients in this part of town that make it their business to harass law-abiding citizens,” she said with the self-assurance of someone who neither knows nor cares what the impact of her malicious words will have on me. She was so mean.

After returning home, I sat and reflected on these new developments for a long time. I knew I just needed to take stock of the situation. There was no percentage in panicking and losing perspective on these matters. After all, the only thing that’s breaking up is my marriage, so there’s no need for me to go breaking down.

“Well, that’s all right,” I said to myself, “I never really cared about Paul anyway. I’m sure there are lots of others who would be thrilled to meet me”.


Have you ever had the experience of anticipating a critically acclaimed artistic presentation – the unveiling of a new collection of paintings by a famous artist, or attending the premiere of a new play, a motion picture or an opera – only to be bitterly disappointed by the actual performance?   Or, what about an event which the critics panned but which you obstinately attended anyway, only to be pleasantly surprised?   Upon reflection, we understand the reason for such occurrences to lie in the nature of artistic expression itself.  Whether it be in the form of painting, sculpture, the various categories of music, the different forms of creative writing, architecture, or any other form of creative endeavor, the artist aims to create something profoundly beautiful, and an essential property of beauty itself is its very subjectivity.  Accordingly, in contrast to mathematics or the sciences, the effectiveness of an artistic creation depends upon the reaction of the individual experiencing it.  Alternatively stated, beauty is understood internally, as an emotional experience, while the external environment is susceptible to analysis through analytical methods.

Although some artistic creations are merely decorative, beautiful works that the perceptive observer finds inspirational must embody an implicit element of truth about human experience. In “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” the poet John Keats argues that not only is beauty identified with truth, but so too is the converse true, that truth calls forth the idea of beauty.   That beauty is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for truth, though, is somewhat controversial, precisely because of beauty’s subjective nature.  As a result, standards of beauty can change over time, from, say, haunting landscapes to redundant soup cans, as artistic movements in vogue at one moment may find themselves out of fashion at some later time, just as an individual’s tastes may change with maturity.  On the other hand, the content of truth itself may change over time with new scientific discoveries, creating a stochastic relationship between beauty and truth.

One scholar who contributed to our understanding of these issues was Marcel Proust.  In the fifth book of his epic masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past, entitled The Captive[1], he highlights one of the most important truths in our lives, namely the disconnect between our behavior in everyday life and our finer impulses.  Proust discusses this paradox in the context of the death of his friend Bergotte, who learns that an art museum is displaying the painting by Johannes Vermeer, “View of Delft, “ and decides to go to see it despite his poor health.  He is mesmerized by the perfection with which Vermeer had painted a little patch of yellow wall, and, comparing it to his own work (Bergotte was the author of nine books,) he admitted that his life’s work came up short.  “That’s how I ought to have written,” he thinks.  “My last books are too dry.  I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of color, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.”

Meanwhile, Bergotte collapsed on the floor of the museum and died from his illness, prompting Proust to theorize about these events.  He wrote “ Everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted for in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an artist to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be forever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer.  All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one which we leave in order to be born on this earth before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts”.

Several insights emerge from this episode:  First, human beings carry within them the potential for good behavior, which they temporarily suspend in order to avoid being placed at a disadvantage in the harsh real world.  Second, good artists apply these high standards to their work, and their efforts can provide a good example for other human beings, causing them to reflect critically on their own artistic efforts in the world.  Third, unlike other human beings, good artists perform their work in a professional manner, without expectation of wealth or fame (as it turned out, Vermeer was revered by the world after his death, but he didn’t know that would be the case when he was alive.)  And fourth, Proust offers the speculative possibility that the attraction of these otherworldly values is so strong that human beings will willingly return to them after their lives on earth are concluded.

Another important art form that encapsulates these concepts is music, and this auditory expression of beauty can manifest itself in many different genres.  The unorthodox musician Ron Johnson famously expressed his belief that music was his pathway to truth.  But perhaps the most poignant examples of stirring music can be found in the operas of Giacomo Puccini, who created a total of nine operas during his career, a number of which are standard offerings in most opera companies’ repertoires.    One of his lesser-known operas is “La Rondine” (The Swallow), and in the first act, a poet and the female lead sing the aria “Chi bel sogno di Doretta”  (Doretta’s Beautiful Dream).  An English translation of the lyrics from the Italian is as follows:

Who could know the beautiful dream of Doretta?
Why her search for happiness ended?
One day a student kissed her lips
And that kiss was a revelation!
It was passion!
Mad love!
Unimaginable happiness!
Who will ever be able again
To describe the light caress
Of a kiss so passionate?
Oh!  My life!
Who cares for wealth
If at last happiness flourishes?
Oh golden dream!
To love like that!

In this aria, Puccini introduces another element closely associated with beauty and truth, namely that of love.  When one hears a musical composition or views a painting or attends a play or reads a poem of the quality that combines truth with beauty, its effect can awaken in that person strong feelings of love for that work of art.  People debate whether some art forms are more prone to induce such intense feelings than others, but the general response, like beauty itself, seems to be of a subjective nature and varies not only from person to person, but for any particular person, it varies at different times, depending on his or her mood.

Introducing the subject of love raises the obvious question of how well these feelings about artistic creations are transferable to relationships between human beings.   Reflecting beauty’s property of subjectivity, it’s been said that beauty in another person is the quality that makes someone else love that person.  Of course, since beauty only manifests itself in the realm of appearances, the translation of the appreciation of beauty from artistic creations to human beings may be less than perfect.  But while the desire for happiness seems eminently reasonable, a right endowed in the constitution, is it really so innocent that it contains no hidden consequences?  A number of the world’s great religions warn against desire, especially for wealth and material things, as the preoccupation by which human beings can lose sight of what is important in life, and what is not.  Moreover, the desire for the possession of material objects can easily become a slippery slope in relationships between people, especially when one party is dependent financially or in other ways on the other.

Relationships between adults are obviously complex and contain many facets, each of which may take precedence at various times.  While there may always be concern for the wellbeing of the other, this feeling is often consummated within mutually acceptable periodic episodes of arousal and tranquility.  But against the backdrop of the desire to possess material objects, a relationship based upon love and mutual respect may gradually drift into one of selfishness, in which the dominant partner comes to view the dependent one as a possessed object to be consumed.  And in defense, the beautiful partner may easily adopt a dishonest and untruthful manipulative approach to the relationship, prompting relationship counseling meddlers to wonder how matters could have deteriorated so badly.

Is there a civilized approach to relationships capable of balancing beauty, truth, and love with the potentially deleterious effects of desire?  One obvious answer is that both partners should be cognizant of the potential ill effects arising from an obsession with materialism.  Beyond that, some guidance may once again emerge from the realm of music.  In 1928, a song was composed with music  by Neil Moret and lyrics by Richard A. Whiting called “He’s Funny That Way.”  Billie Holliday recorded several versions of it, beginning in 1937.  The lyrics to the 1952 version are as follows:

Once he dressed in tweeds and drapes
Owned a Rolls Royce car
Now he seems quite out of place
Like a fallen star
While I worry plan and scheme
Over what to do
I can’t help feeling it’s a dream
And too good to be true

I’m not much to look at
I’m nothing to see
I’m glad I’m living
And lucky to be

I’ve got a man
Crazy for me
He’s funny that way

I can’t save a dollar
And I ain’t worth a cent
He wouldn’t holler
He’d live in a tent
I’ve got that man
Mad about me
And he’s funny that way

Though he loves to work and slave
For me every day
He’d be so much better off
If I just went away

But why should I leave him
Why should I go
He’d be unhappy
Without me I know
I’ve got a man
He’s crazy for me
And he’s funny that way

This song provides a cogent summary of these issues.  The female narrator is frankly puzzled by her situation.  By her own admission, she is neither physically attractive nor adept in financial matters.   Nevertheless, she has attracted the attention of a male admirer who is wealthy enough to afford all the luxuries of life, but he has renounced them all to devote himself to this unpretentious woman.  Her initial response is to utilize feminine wiles to manipulate the situation to her benefit, but eventually she realizes that it is her very dearth of those manipulative skills that has brought about this change in his life, and that her demeanor of genuineness has been the cause of it.  By the end, these events have had a positive impact on her sense of self-worth:  while in his previous life, she might have represented a potential conquest to him, now, in his eyes, she is his source of joy.

Artists endeavor to expend energy to create works of beauty, which transform their intrinsic limitation of subjectivity for each individual experiencing them.  Once that work is completed, however, it remains frozen in time, as the artistic creation does not respond to the artist’s further behavior.  In contrast, although some of the same idealistic characteristics of beauty, truth, and love can also inspire everyday human beings to appreciate these properties in others, human relationships are intrinsically interactive, so that they do not remain static but can evolve over time.  Specifically, the emotion of love, which can be inspired by the recognition of beauty and truth in the beloved, can be undermined by the desire that grows out of it.  Only through the continual recognition of the greater truth underlying the daily strengths and motivations of both parties may this vulnerability be overcome.

[1] Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin and Andreas Mayor. Page 186 First Vintage Books Edition.

The Lonesome Death of Alexander Niltab


I am the aforementioned Alexander Niltab, and I was born into a pre-revolution Russian family in June of 1914. I grew up in New York City, and I attended a high school that specialized in the sciences, so when I went away to a university in Baltimore, Maryland in the middle of what turned out to be the Great Depression, I focused my studies in that area, principally in chemistry and biology. It had been my hope to apply my skills to gain admission to a good medical school, so I transferred to the university’s pre-med program. Unfortunately, despite my desire to become a medical doctor and in spite of my good grades in the program, not a single medical school accepted my application, and I was left at loose ends for the first time in my life.

The university had required all male students to attend two terms in Reserve Officer’s Training College (ROTC)). Without other job prospects and cognizant that I would be entitled to enter the service as a First Lieutenant, I decided to enroll in the armed forces, and because of my background in science, I was assigned to the Chemical Corps. I found myself stationed close to my home in New York City doing mostly administrative work.

One evening as I was walking home after my day shift, I practically walked right into a girl who was an absolute vision of loveliness. Due to my preoccupation with my studies during that failed attempt to become a doctor, I hadn’t spent much time around girls other than my mother and my two sisters. In fact, it would be fair to say that I was afraid of girls, believing they possessed some special property which made them qualitatively different from us – more sensitive, and more skilled at navigating the finer aspects of life. This girl was quite vivacious, laughing over my clumsiness with her friend who was accompanying her.   I was embarrassed by the mishap and tried to stammer out an apology. She smiled, putting me at ease, and we began talking. I told her my name, what I did for a living, and where I lived. She laughed and told me she literally lived right next door, and that her name was Elissa. I observed how lucky I was and that if I wanted to speak with her again, I could just lean out my window and shout, to which she responded with peals of laughter.

I was pretty ignorant about dating, so I asked my older brother, who was married, what the protocol was for getting to know someone better. He suggested that I ask her if I could take her out for dinner, and if she answered in the affirmative, I should call for her at her house and introduce myself to her parents. Well, it all went according to plan. We dined at a neighborhood tavern, I had a Pastrami sandwich, and she ordered a salad. She could have had anything she wanted.

When we arrived back at her house, she asked if I’d like to kiss her goodnight. Well, the only thing I knew about that activity was what I’d heard on the weekly radio drama I occasionally listened to, and it sounded pretty unsanitary to me. On the other hand, she was standing right there, and it occurred to me that maybe I should broaden my horizons. “What the heck,” I thought.

That kiss was a revelation. My heart was pounding. My knees got weak. Let me slow down, I thought to myself. What was I getting myself into here? She was breathing pretty hard herself, and her face was flushed. Did this mean I’d have to marry her? What about my responsibility at my Army job? I worried.

Now that I was an old hand at it, I continued to take Lish, as I called her, out on dates on the weekends when I didn’t have to be working. We went to a variety of restaurants and occasionally to the motion pictures at the local Palladium. But mostly I looked forward to the end of our meetings when we would kiss. Lish was 6 years younger than I was, and she was not only beautiful, with delicate features and wavy chestnut hair, but she had this earthy quality that I found very stimulating, especially when we were kissing.

The next important event in my life arrived courtesy of the Empire of Japan on December 7, 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This action prompted the United States to declare war on Japan. I was transferred to the Pacific theater, and the country was soon engulfed in the Second World War. With only a few days before I was to ship out, I asked Lish to marry me, and she agreed, so we tied the knot in January of 1942. I won’t go into the details of our brief honeymoon, but I’ll tell you it was a transforming experience for both of us.

We were separated for the next 4 years, as I was involved in combat in the Philippine Islands and New Guinea. By virtue of having a college degree, I headed a battalion, and Company E of the First Platoon of that Battalion presented me with an etching of me and my adjutants when I left that read “We Miss You Captain Niltab.”  And I don’t like to blow my own horn, but the War Department saw fit to award me the Bronze Star for valor. Anyway, by August of 1945, the war effort was not progressing as hoped, but two Atom Bombs later, these difficulties were satisfactorily resolved, and I was shipped home. During my time abroad, I was promoted several more times and left the hostilities as a Lieutenant Colonel. I had gone deaf in one ear from the shellings but the Army compensated me by volunteering to fund graduate school training in any field of my choosing.

I thought long and hard about this offer. I had wanted to earn an M.D. degree, but that had not been in the cards for me. As I reflected on it, though, I realized that my true interest was in using my skills to perform medical research, which more appropriately required a Doctor of Philosophy degree in biochemistry and bacteriology. Accordingly, at war’s end, I applied to and was accepted in the Ph.D. program of a university known for its outstanding faculty in these areas.

Lish and I relocated to Wisconsin to begin my new studies, and we agreed not to have children until I finished my degree. Of course, that decision didn’t prevent us from rehearsing for the blessed event, but we were always careful in how we applied our efforts. Meanwhile, we endeavored to make ends meet on my meager army salary, so we enjoyed fewer nights out on the town than we used to when I was courting her. She suggested we could go out dancing, but I wasn’t confident that I was capable of guiding her around the dance floor without stepping on her toes and embarrassing myself.

I began my doctoral studies in the fall of 1945 and was trained in the techniques of applied scientific research. I remained in residence at the university until one of my professors arranged an interview for me to head a research laboratory back in my old stomping grounds of Baltimore. It meant working long distance on my dissertation, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The logistics required us to move to rural Maryland, from where I could commute to the laboratory in the new used car I had acquired.

It took a little longer than I had hoped, but in the winter of 1946, I successfully defended my dissertation on the characteristics and behavior of the Vibrio Fetus Bacterium. After I had returned to our new home with the good news, I reminded Lish that the true significance of my achievement was that we then had some unfinished business to attend to, and we proceeded to get busy. Linda Viable Niltab was born nine months later in the spring of 1947. Though pleased as punch with our newest addition to the family, we also wanted a son, so we went back to the drawing board to try again, and Paul Niltab was born nine months later, in the spring of 1948.

Both Linda and Paul were accepted as legacy children in the university where I had earned my Ph.D. While Linda completed her four-year curriculum to earn her baccalaureate degree in French literature on time, Paul dropped out of college after his first year to travel around the country, later completing his B.A. degree in Economics. After college, Paul got a job doing economic research in a government agency but found the environment somewhat bureaucratic, even though all his supervisors had Ph.D.’s. He asked me about my experience with the doctoral degree, and I explained how its purpose was to train candidates in the skills of performing research. This observation came as something of a surprise to Paul, who had been employed in something of a “faux” research capacity in the bureaucracy.

Linda began working in the government agency in charge of overseeing the country’s weather services, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and moved to Colorado, where she lived her life separate from the other members of the family. Meanwhile Paul earned his own Ph.D. from a university in New York City, and went on to become a professor at a university in the Midwest. Lish and I once travelled out there and sat in on one of his classes. I was so proud of him. It was just after that trip that I began to lose track of Paul and then everything else. I remember Lish suggested that we attend a revival of “Oklahoma!”; and I remember one song that the lead actress sang. It felt as if Lish were singing it to me. Here were the lyrics:

Out of my dreams and into your arms I long to fly
I will come as evening comes to woo the waiting sky
Out of my dreams and into the hush
Of falling shadows
When the mist is low
And stars are breaking through
Then out of my dreams I’ll go
Into a dream with you 1

That was the last clear memory I have. After that, I started forgetting things. At first, Lish was puzzled about it and then became angry, losing her temper with me. But at some point, she became concerned that I might really have something medically wrong. I know she took me around to see many doctors, but none of them could give us a clear idea of what the problem was. I remembered from my science journals that there was an illness called Alzheimer’s disease with many of the same symptoms, and that the medical community was just starting to analyze it scientifically. But much of the research about it at that time was only anecdotal. No one knew that it could turn you into a stranger to yourself and to everyone close to you. And since no one really understood its causes, no one knew it could kill you.

After that, everything seemed to change. I don’t know what happened to my beloved Lish, but she was no longer there in our house. Instead, an old woman with white hair, who bore a slight resemblance to Lish, had replaced her. And this person was nothing like Lish. I’d try to have a conversation with her, articulating some ideas I had developed on something, and she acted as if I had been speaking gibberish. After a while, we just didn’t say anything to each other. Hours would go by in silence until it was time for dinner, and we would both eat in silence. In addition, this person put locks on all the doors, so I could never leave the house. Then, one morning I had a meeting I had to go to, and fortunately, she had forgotten to lock the front door, enabling me to escape to my meeting. It was raining out, so I opened an umbrella and started walking to my meeting. I hadn’t gotten too far when suddenly, the old woman appeared in the car telling me she was taking me back to that prison with the locks on all the doors.

After that, everything changed again. This time, the old woman drove me back to Baltimore, but rather than delivering me to my old university or my laboratory, she had me admitted to a hospital. She spent some time talking with some doctors there and told me to go to the room I had been assigned. I had just drifted off to sleep when I woke to find a strange man standing over my bed talking to me. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. “Are you my father? I asked him. “No,” he answered, “ you’re my father. I’m your son, Paul.” Later, Paul, the old woman, and a couple of doctors took me to a restaurant near the hospital for lunch, but I’m afraid I wasn’t very hungry. I never saw Paul again, but the old woman visited me often in the hospital.

I wonder how serious this medical condition of mine is. I know, for instance, it has had a deleterious effect on my brain, and I know the brain directs all the other functions of the body. But, I mean, could I die from this problem? And that idea of my own death, of the negation of my being, I’m having trouble absorbing it. I mean, I know it’s not the negation of my existence. I had a good life. I achieved a few things in my day. I had love in my life and I had two children. But, will I be remembered? My wife was not that much younger than I am, so, even if she remembers, for how long will that be?   I hope my children remember, but neither of them had children of their own, so in one generation, my existence will have been forgotten.

I must say, I am getting sick and tired of this inability to speak coherently. As you can see, there is nothing wrong with my ability to reason through an issue. It’s frustrating that my memory is so damaged, but what are all these doctors doing to earn their salaries? And what about this old woman with white hair? Every time I turn around, she’s here, looking at me.

It’s now the end of March in 1983, exactly three months before my sixty-ninth birthday. I’m feeling more and more confused every day. I was feeling all right a few minutes ago, but now, I’m feeling really sick. I don’t know what it is, but I have this really intense headache. That woman with the white hair is looking at me in a peculiar way. It looks like she’s getting ready to say something to me. But I can’t make out what she’s saying. She’s being drowned out by some noise coming from the hallway outside my room. It’s a radio. The announcer says they are going to play a song by someone named John Prine, called “Hello in There.” I can just make out the lyrics: 2

We had an apartment in the city,
Me and Loretta liked living there
Well, it’d been years since the kids had grown,
A life of their own left us alone.
John and Linda live in Omaha,
And Joe is somewhere on the road
We lost Davy in the Korean War,
And I still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore.

You know that old trees just grow stronger,
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day
But old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say,”hello in there, hello.”

Me and Loretta don’t talk much more,
She sits and stares through the backdoor screen
And all the news just repeats itself
Like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen.
Some day I’ll go and call up Rudy,
We worked together at the factory.
But what could I say if he asks “What’s new?”
“Nothing, what’s with you? Nothing much to do.”

You know that old trees just grow stronger,
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say,” hello in there, hello”.

So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes,
Please just don’t pass them by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say hello in there, hello.

1 “Out of my Dreams” from Oklahoma! Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Music by Richard Rodgers. Copyright 1943 by Williamson Music.
2 “Hello in There” written by John Prine ©Warner/Chappelle Music, Inc.

Smoke and Mirrors

What’s wrong with this picture? A billion years ago, two Black Holes collided in outer space more than a billion light years away from the Earth. In 1916, Albert Einstein, the greatest physicist of all time, predicted, as a corollary to his general theory of relativity that this collision would cause ripples in “space-time” — his term for the melding of the concepts of space and time – which he termed “Gravitational Waves.” A hundred years later, astronomers from the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology claimed to have found evidence corroborating the existence of these black holes and gravitational waves, whose importance stemmed in part by their leveraging off Einstein’s imprimatur.

To ferret out the evidence to support their claim, these teams of scientists relied on a tool known as LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational – Wave Observatory. It consists of two huge sets of vacuum-filled mirrors, each four kilometers long and outfitted with powerful lasers. One set is located in Hanford, Washington, and the other is in Livingston, Louisiana. They were designed to detect gravitational waves by searching for a very faint “chirp” about a second long from the passing of an infinitesimally small gravitational wave, while at the same time filtering out the extensive amount of background noise in the form of interstellar dust, known as Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Since the origin of these waves was so distant from Earth, the astronomers reasoned that the evidence would just be reaching us now. The LIGO mirrors were funded by the National Science Foundation for a cost of around a billion dollars (isn’t it interesting how often that number “a billion” crops up in this narrative?) The website Space.Com reported that the deeper significance of the discovery of gravitational waves is that it is the “smoking gun” of the “Big Bang,” the scientific alternative to the creation myth recounted in the Book of Genesis in the Bible.

Black holes are formed in space by objects whose gravity is so dense that no light is able to escape them. As a result, they are not directly observable, but their existence may be inferred from their effect on other celestial bodies such as stars or planets. These black holes are so massive that they typically measure many multiples times the mass of our sun. In the case of the two black holes in question, the story goes, they were attracted not to any planets or stars, but to each other, and they circled one another many times, at ever increasing speeds until they crashed together to release of an amount of energy comparable to that of many atomic bombs.

All research consists of two components: the development of a reasonable theory to explain the phenomena in question, and the design of empirical tests to see if the observed evidence is consistent with the hypotheses implied by the theory. There are several generally accepted criteria with which to evaluate the validity of any scientific research findings. With regard to the theoretical component, it is important to be aware that the plausibility of the conclusions is not necessarily one of these requirements. Many now well-accepted ideas that comprise our understanding of how the world works began as ideas that were certainly counterintuitive. It is also necessary to bear in mind that empirical results that are not grounded in a theoretical foundation constitute little more than a fishing expedition and are therefore to be rejected. Having said this, however, there is still a world of difference between a counterintuitive theory and a collection of tall tales. Good theory must possess the qualities of logical consistency and reasonableness of assumptions. On both counts the LIGO adventure fails as adequate theory. It simply does not make sense, and it rests on a series of arbitrary and unobservable assumptions.

With regard to the empirical side of things, the LIGO efforts are also sadly lacking. An important concept in scientific research is the principle of replication: Can the researchers perform the same experiment under the same initial conditions at different points in time or on different data samples at the same point in time, and obtain the same result. The LIGO researchers apparently detected a second “chirp” a few months after the first one, and they claim that they expect to discern more of them more frequently in the future (in recognition of the importance of the replication principle), but their actual achievements on this score to date have not been forthcoming.

Perhaps an even more serious deficiency of the LIGO findings is the failure to determine an appropriate standard against which to measure the findings’ level of significance. This requirement is especially crucial in light of the three properties that characterize the nature of the data: they originate long ago, they are far away, and they are very small (less than- one-one thousandth the width of a single proton). Under these circumstances, it is a fortiori true that without such a standard, the researchers could easily misread the data, and either incorrectly conclude that they had detected a gravitational wave which wasn’t really there (a false positive), or they could wrongly infer that there wasn’t a gravitational wave when indeed there was (a false negative). The reason these mistakes could occur is that the researchers are actually sampling from a probability distribution characterized by its mean, or central tendency, and its standard deviation, or degree of variability. Only when the observation is a conservative number of standard deviations from the mean of the distribution can the researchers have confidence that they are measuring a real phenomenon and not just an optical, or in this case an auditory, illusion. With the acknowledged extensive amount of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation present in the data, this oversight reflects an inexcusable inattention to detail.

One of the three lead researchers on the LIGO project boasted, “We did it” after hearing the first chirp and then “We did it again” after the second one. News reporters picked up on this theme and expressed surprise when this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded a team of three Topologists instead of to the LIGO team, almost as though this oversight were a direct denial of Einstein’s genius and an affront to his memory.  Just for the record, though, no one should be questioning Albert Einstein’s place in the pantheon of individuals who have made important contributions to our understanding of the nature of the universe in which we live and our place in it. In his role as a discoverer of truth, it is no surprise that he is revered as significant, in the sense that he is remembered in history for his contributions long after his death by people who did not know him personally. He is best known as the author of his theory of general relativity, of which the material on Gravitational Waves was something of an afterthought. Furthermore, the shoddy work of the LIGO team was unworthy of Einstein’s memory.

Although the theory of general relativity is best known for its famous conclusion that the amount of energy released by a phenomenon can be measured by the product of its mass, or absolute size, and the square of the speed of light, or 186,000 miles per second (E=mc2), this popular shorthand fails to convey the intuition underlying Einstein’s seminal idea. Perhaps, examples from the following two thought experiments will better illustrate what Einstein was after: In the first case, imagine an observer is sitting in a stationary railroad car while the train on the other track is traveling in the opposite direction at high speed. At the moment the other train passes in the opposite direction, the stationary observer cannot distinguish if he has seen the train in which he is seated moving forward or if he has not moved and he only imagines the forward movement because of his vantage point relative to the other train. A similar thought experiment is as follows: Imagine someone is standing in an elevator and suddenly the force of gravity causes the car to drop precipitously. Relative to his stationary position, he cannot tell the difference between what has actually happened and the opposite sensation of accelerating upward in the elevator car.

These counterintuitive ideas were first explored in Einstein’s 1905 paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” which, interestingly, formed the foundation for his more limited Theory of Special Relativity. Some of the building blocks of this theory may not seem surprising to people today (e.g., two events, viewed simultaneously by one observer, may not be simultaneous for another observer if the observers are moving relative to each other.) Nevertheless, some of the implications of this theory are not so intuitive: Time dilates, so that moving clocks are measured ticking more slowly than an observer’s stationary clock, and length contracts, so that objects are measured as being shorter in the direction in which they are moving.  These concepts were in stark contradiction to those of classical mechanics such as those espoused by Isaac Newton.

In conclusion, I hope I have made a convincing case for three claims: First, Albert Einstein was unquestionably a genius. Second, relative (no pun intended) to his other work, his thoughts on gravitational waves bordered on the trivial. And third, the LIGO attempts at empirically testing that work are primitive at best. My recommendation is that the LIGO astronomers should return to school for refresher courses in Basic Statistics and Logic 101.

Pavane for a Dead Princess

“Greetings Students. I am Ed Choochoo (Ed like the horse, Choochoo like the train) and I will be teaching this course on classical music with special emphasis this term on the works on Maurice Ravel.” This is how I began the first class at my day job in the continuing education department of Midtown University. I then laid out for those twenty students my qualifications in the form of my credentials, that I had earned a D .t. M. (Doctor of Tasteful Music) degree from a prestigious university and that I had been working here ever since. My style has always been to impart my extensive knowledge to the students through my lectures, supplemented by musical excerpts from my extensive compact disk collection. It is important for the students to understand that all music can be reduced to its analytical structure, and that there is a very respectable school of thought that literally analyzes music in terms of its mathematical patterns. I don’t know to what extent this generalization holds for modern music, which, since it isn’t tasteful, I have no experience with, but I suspect that the same principles would apply there as well.

As I say, I understand my role to be to share my insights with the students and their role to be to listen and to take notes. I therefore found it disturbing when one of them, who identified himself as Paul, appeared to think that the class was some sort of discussion forum, and he interrogated me about some of the facts I had presented concerning particular Ravel melodies. Of course, on matters outside of my area of expertise, such as factual matters on unrelated issues, I am very open-minded about permitting class participation. In particular, one of my pet students is always quick to research any ambiguous issues on his cell phone by accessing Google. I informed Paul that instead of interrupting my lectures to make smart-aleck remarks, he would do well to learn to sit on his hands, keep his mouth shut, and listen, rather than continue to believe that his opinions are more valid than what I have articulated.

And, to his credit, Paul did exactly that. I didn’t hear from him again until almost the end of the term, when he approached me timidly about some noncontroversial point I had made about Ravel’s life.

“Doctor?,” he said before he asked his question.

“You may call me Ed,” I replied magnanimously before dispensing with his question.

“What about the role of subjectivity in music? “ he asked. I must confess, I didn’t understand what he was driving at, so I asked him to clarify his question.

“Well music, like all art forms, is subjective, so that’s why two people can disagree about whether a particular piece of music is any good or not.” I smiled at his naivete.

“Well, those disagreements can always be settled when both parties present their arguments, and it will turn out that one of the two parties is mistaken.”

“But that suggests there are right and wrong answers. Don’t we make a distinction between disciplines like mathematics, where it is not a matter of opinion, so individual views are falsifiable, and the arts where views are subjectively determined”? he countered.

“No, we don’t,” I said, and I reiterated my previous point that our understanding of good music can be improved by an appreciation of the underlying mathematics to which it corresponds.

He left with a puzzled expression on his face, and I didn’t give the matter any more thought. Later, I saw Paul speaking with my pet student, who expressed his appreciation for Sergei Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto (the so-called “Rack Two). Paul was explaining that the movie” Brief Encounter” had used the Rack Two as background music when the film listens in on the actress Celia Johnson’s private thoughts, and my pet student seemed quite appreciative of this information.

Ravel was quite a prolific composer, especially during the first half of his career, and he wrote music in almost every genre, including symphonies, string quartets, concertos, and even an opera. Every week I covered a different work and included musical excerpts in addition to my elucidations. My pet student, assisted by Google, would fill in such trivia as the dates of particular pieces, and it was my impression that the entire class appreciated the opportunity to benefit from my expertise. I was therefore shocked when I later discovered Paul and my pet student laughing together in the hallway and singing a song that I recognized as a parody of the1927 Broadway production of “Old Man River,” composed by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. They sang:

Old Man Choochoo

That old man Choochoo

He must know something

But he don’t say nothing

He just keeps rolling

He keeps on rolling along.

Well, I wouldn’t expect anything better from Paul, but I was stung by the disloyalty of my pet student and I told him how disappointed I was in him after all I had done for him. He looked pretty sheepish about it, so I decided not to formally punish him, since I’m sure Paul had incited him to stray. Later, I overheard Paul telling him he would really enjoy a composition by someone named Donald Byrd called “Cristo Redentor.” I guess he must have learned his lesson, because when Paul asked him the following week how he had liked it, he laughed and said he had been too busy to listen to it.

In the final class of the term, I played and lectured on Ravel’s only opera. I thought it went pretty well, and I thought the opera itself was pretty interesting and quite representative of the other selections I had covered throughout the term. Paul stayed behind to speak to me after the rest of the class had left, this time approaching me not so timidly, in fact somewhat angrily. He informed me that what I had played was not opera, but “mere drivel,” as he put it, and that true opera, such as the works of Verdi and Puccini, must inspire us by exposing us to great beauty. He then went on to say that the one piece that Ravel had done which was inspiring, but which I had chosen not to include in the course was “ Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte,” which translated from the French, is known as “Pavane For A Dead Princess.” Now, I’ve heard that particular composition, and I never paid it much heed, as I judged it to be overly sentimental, reminding me of Ralph Vaughn Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” which, in my opinion, is more appropriately used as the ringtone on one’s cell phone. In contrast, Paul described it as a luxurious, nostalgic and ceremonial dance for orchestra and solo piano, in which the soaring melody evokes feelings of inspirational courage and freedom. He added that if he had known that I had no intention of covering it, he would have never taken my course.

As I listened to him, I began to realize that, while music was clearly important to him, he understood it in very different terms than I did. I also realized that I knew very little about him, so I asked him about his background.

“You and I have actually been in the same racket,” he said, telling me that he had been a professor at the same university where I earned my doctoral degree. Afterwards, Paul had moved to Wall Street, where he had worked first as an economist, and later as the head of new product research in a derivatives trading business. I responded with what I thought was the self-evident observation that those later jobs must have been something of a letdown after having been a professor, but he denied this, telling me that those positions in the private sector were much more challenging than the academic world, where the professional journals were managed by very unimaginative editors. His observation prompted me to ask what field he had been in, and he answered Finance. When I told him my impression that the subject consisted of largely descriptive material, Paul corrected me again by pointing out that Finance was actually a branch of Economics, whose literature was very mathematical.

“Just like Music,” I ventured.

“Not really,” he answered.

That afternoon, I asked Paul where he had acquired his propensity for his strong opinions, and he told me he had always been that way, but he was also taking another course that term on film studies, which was organized very similarly to mine in that it covered a different film each week; and the professor had encouraged class participation. He told me the man’s name and asked how well I knew him, but I had to confess I had never heard of him.

Several weeks passed uneventfully, but then one day I received a registered letter in the mail from the Board of Regents of the university which had granted my doctoral degree, explaining that they had reviewed my course evaluations from Midtown University and they were now instituting recall proceedings against me. The letter listed a twenty- count indictment of the form and content of my teaching style, and it ordered me to show cause why they shouldn’t revoke my doctoral degree on the serious charge of demonstrating bad taste in music. “We don’t want our good name sullied by characters like you,” the letter concluded.

Talk about your worst nightmare coming to pass! I tried to imagine what could have been the source of this miscarriage of justice, and then I remembered that last conversation with Paul. Was he somehow connected with this misfortune? I know he was resentful of me, but how would he have been able to wield such influence with the Board of Directors so as to produce this result? I tried to reconstruct in my mind that final conversation we had. I remember he had been upset that I hadn’t included that silly, overemotional Ravel piece on the syllabus. What was the name of it? Oh yes. “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” He talked about it inspiring courage. Who knows? Maybe I should listen to it.

Here’s the thing, though. If the charges are valid, this isn’t just a criticism of the way I taught a class or two, but an indictment of my whole being. Am I arrogant, self-serving, high-handed, and resistant to constructive criticism from others? If so, this isn’t something I can just “fix” by making a few small changes in the syllabus. Maybe it goes to the heart of how I understand the nature of music and my relationship to it. Do I really have bad taste in music? I remember another verse of that sendup of “Old Man River” that Paul and my pet student were singing that time:

I get weary

And sick of trying

I’m tired of living

And scared of dying

But old man Choochoo

He just keeps rolling along.

I’m fearful I may have a lot of self-reflection and soul-searching to do.   But the thought of all that honest self-criticism just defeats me, even though I know in my heart there’s no avoiding it. So, it seems that whether I feel like it or not, I’m going to need to get on with this unpleasant task. But I’m really just not in the mood to deal with this matter today.

Maybe I’ll revisit it tomorrow.




The Last Living Survivor of the Great Lucca Inchworm Disaster


I don’t mean to impose myself on your time; after all, I am only a lowly inchworm, and I don’t even have a name of my own, like all you human beings do. I assume I must have had a mother and a father, although I don’t have a close, personal relationship with them: I don’t even know who they were or whether they are still alive. I can only picture my father leaning back after an anonymous night of passion with my mother, smoking a cigarette, and saying to her “So, you come here often?” or “Was it good for you, baby?”

Do you know much about us inchworms? No? Well, we’re a pretty hearty species, known principally for our distinctive gait. Despite the name, we’re actually only about a quarter of an inch long, and we tend to swarm, especially around sources of food. When we’re not engaging in swarming activity, though, we find sleeping accommodations almost anywhere, but our favorite place to hang our hats is in your bathrooms, preferably under the rim of your toilet seats. In fact, I myself own one such glass-enclosed condo over in Lucca, Italy.

We’re not fussy about what we’ll eat, like some of you human beings are. Just give us access to some organic garbage in that narrow time slot between when it’s put in the can and when it’s taken out to the curb, and I’ll tell you we’re as happy as a pig in a blanket. In fact the more rancid and odorous it is, the more we like it. Not that we’re picky eaters, mind you, but if I could speak on behalf of the whole inchworm community, I would venture to say that our favorite dish is leftover rotten orange slices. Hey! I see you out there rolling your eyes and turning your noses up at such delicacies, thinking, “I wouldn’t eat such garbage.” And that word “garbage, “ suggesting it’s some lesser form of nutrition – I mean, like what’s up with that? Listen, I’m frankly nauseated by the thought of steak and potatoes, but I don’t tell you what to eat.

Even though we’re a peace-loving organism, we’re persecuted tirelessly by you human beings and since there are more of us than there are of you, I guess that makes us the Persecuted Majority. There are always random, isolated killings of us inchworms every day based solely on our membership in the inchworm species, but that, by itself, isn’t what gets me riled up. Sometimes bad things happen to good inchworms, and we just need to accept that as part of life. What I’ve got a problem with, though, is the lack of accountability. I mean, how many human beings ever stand trial for their murderous deeds? Are their murders even investigated?   Some human beings appear to regard inchworm hunting as a spectator sport.

In the absence of adequate protection by law enforcement authorities, we’re forced to develop self –defense mechanisms of our own. Every adult inchworm is naturally endowed with two such mechanisms. First is the Rope-A-Dope feature, whereby a fellow inchworm, inching along, minding its own business, can respond to any disturbance in its immediate surrounding area by instantly curling up into a ball, going limp, and falling to the floor. The obscure location of its fall can then usually restrict its accessibility from the probing fingers of any meddlesome human being. And second, we can implement supernatural defense by exercising our reincarnation option, trading in our physical beings as earthbound inchworms and coming back as inchworm moths. As each of us is endowed with only one such option, we will usually choose to exercise it only when facing the prospect of our imminent demise, since the transformation option is irreversible. The other relevant aspect of the reincarnation option is that, although we are called inchworm moths, conjuring up an image of graceful flying entities with lofty elegant wing structures, we would more accurately be characterized as inchworm gnats, a prospect much less tantalizing.

Sometime in August, the owners of the apartment that encloses my condo entered into a lease with two American human beings. We inchworms have always had a love-hate relationship with those owners: On the one hand, they enclose orange slices as artwork in our rectangular community center. But then, they expose us to grave danger by leasing out their digs to a long line of possibly psychopathic human beings.

The exact date of the attack is indelibly etched in my memory: On September 2, 2016 – a date that will live in infamy – the inchworm community center was suddenly and deliberately attacked by these two lumbering human beings. While a sizable number of unsuspecting inchworms were lounging around the toilet, they conspired to flush the entire contents of our community center – a cache of orange slices and all those innocent inchworm bystanders in the prime of their lives—down the toilet to perish as collateral damage in that great tomb that knows no sound.

Most of those poor lost souls were playing possum, relaxing and resting their eyes when those cowardly human beings launched their attack, so the inchworms never had a chance to implement either of our defense strategies. Of course, Rope-A-Doping would not have had a chance to be effective in the wake of such a sudden, willful wholesale slaughter; and there wasn’t time to implement the reincarnation option, even if those lost souls didn’t mind being transformed into gnats.

That reminds me: How about you? Do you believe in reincarnation? I know I do, not just because I own that option by virtue of being an inchworm, but I believe in the concept of reincarnation and have faith in its reality. It was the underlying theme of the song called “The Highwayman”, written and performed by the singing group called “The Highwaymen.” This group of four human beings, each a big singing star in his own right, each sang one stanza –a highwayman murderer and thief, a sailor, a dam builder, and a starship flyer – and each recounts the circumstances of his death and asserts that he will come back again. There is also the idea that these four human beings are connected to each other so that although the first one was the highwayman, the fourth one speculates that he may become a highwayman again. He also hypothesizes that he may even be a single drop of rain, which strikes me as less satisfying, because of the ephemeral nature of such an incarnation, unless that single drop is the early warning indicator of an approaching thunderstorm.

In any event, the concept holds out the possibility of engineering a separation of our physical bodies from our immortal souls, usually only the hope of elderly human beings suffering from incurable illnesses (the so-called Geezer community), but we inchworms also have a vested interest in seeing such a solution implemented as well. It should be apparent to everyone that reincarnation is not just wishful thinking. It’s just simple arithmetic: There have been virtually an infinite number of physical bodies living relatively short lifetimes since the beginning of time, but there are only a finite number of souls or personality types. The only logical conclusion is that there must be a significant amount of soul recycling going on. Under these circumstances, our souls would be freed from the constraints of their immediate physical reality and thus be free to relocate invisibly to other locations and other time periods. My only concern arises from the inherent intra-species restrictions imposed on the process. Why couldn’t there be inter-species reincarnation, so that I could come back as a human being and Donald Trump could come back as an inchworm? I intend to lobby the powerful Rules Committee of my legislature, the Diet of Inchworms, to have this rule amended so that this new modification becomes the law of the land.

When that human being duo launched its assault, I was out of town and didn’t witness the actual bloodbath, but reliable eyewitnesses later testified to the cause of the vacant community center. And afterwards, the deadly pair set about hunting down and eliminating the handful of us brave inchworms on whom they had not yet satisfied their blood lust. They augmented that murderous surgical strike which dispatched so many of our companions to inchworm heaven by staking out our usual toilet seat hangouts to lay traps for us. Why, just yesterday, they cornered my close associate, IW, and squished him with a rolled-up magazine, and this morning, I spotted a handcrafted wanted poster with my picture on it. I hear voices and footsteps. I know they’re coming for me next.

“You’ll never take me alive, you dirty human beings!” I cried just before pulling the ripcord on my reincarnation option.

Editor’s note: the corpse of an anonymous inchworm “moth” was discovered in Lucca, Italy on the afternoon of September 6, 2016.