Monday, January 20, 2014
"Transcendent time, or time as it exists in nature, is a continuous moment of the present. When one sees and operates within that time and space, it is the unity of all things that is perceived.
The idea of time that people generally accept came into being with the invention of the calender and the clock. But a clock, with its needle going around a series of numbers, is just a means of counting.
Time does not simply flow mechanically in a straight line in a fixed direction. We could think of time as flowing up and down, right and left, forward and backward. As time develops and expands, multifaceted and three-dimensional, the past is concealed within the instant of the present, and within this instant of time is concealed the eternity of the future." Masanobu Fukuoka
So strange things happen sometimes. In the fall, we had some trees cut down in the garden; they had to be climbed to be removed, and since I can't do that, we hired someone who could. The next day, as I surveyed the piles of logs and sawdust, I was nearly blinded by the white light of an intense feeling that my father was flowing through me, as though the ash tree that for 37 years had been sucking up the carbon dioxide expelled from his lungs now coughed it back up in the carbon of chips and chunks of wood.
Then, perhaps two weeks ago, as I walked down the hill from the house through the garden, I had the sudden feeling of being turned inside out, of feeling as though I was trapped inside my father's body, and that I was looking through his eyes at a body that moved the same way I watched his body move through my eyes when he was alive.
Which brings me, apropos of none of the above, to this part of a letter he wrote 50 years ago to his friend Bill Newkirk when my Dad decided to pack up the typewriter in Islamorada and head back north to his future life:
"When you see me, Newk, please don't comment on the tiny drops of blood that occasionally seem to ooze, tear-like, from my eyes. I need not caution a less attentive observer who would assume them to be tears but you, Bill, trained in the school of human observations will know them for drops of blood so again I caution you, don't mention them. It would only disturb my wife. That wife is the same one, Terry as you'll recall, who has somehow survived my sporadic fits of creative genius and who gave one loud "whoop" yesterday when I told her we'd "better go home". So be it. We'll get out of here around the first of May and locate ourselves with my folks in Cleveland while I hunt for the breadline.
What's in a year anyway? Or rather 10 months. Let me tell you buddy, blood, sweat and tiny whimpers. How much have I written? Some 50,000 finished words or some 100,000 unfinished words. Enough for a novel. How well have you fared financially? Not one sou, brother, not one sou. Well then, you've certainly kicked that year in the ass, haven't you? Not so my friend, though there are those who would argue the point. What have you learned then? Have you learned to write? I've made a start brother, only a start. Someday...And what do you do now, sir? I go back to work, my friend, I go back to work--happily methinks."
When did he write this letter, how many years since he died, when was he sitting on the bench in the yard, how long will I hear his voice inside my head...?
Sunday, January 20, 2013
XXV. What a small portion of vast and infinite eternity it is, that is allowed unto every one of us, and how soon it vanisheth into the general age of the world: of the common substance, and of the common soul also what a small portion is allotted unto us: and in what a little clod of the whole earth (as it were) it is that thou doest crawl. After thou shalt rightly have considered these things with thyself; fancy not anything else in the world any more to be of any weight and moment but this, to do that only which thine own nature doth require; and to conform thyself to that which the common nature doth afford. Marcus Aurelius, Book XII, Meditations
My dad was a Stoic, of that I am sure. I remember a conversation about pain and the idea of "mind over matter" when we were in a doctor's office once when I was perhaps 11 or 12. It stuck with me, and has underscored my reading the past few years of Stoics like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. I am reminded of this aspect of my father's character because I spent much of the past week in bed, felled by the flu, visited often by my son, and it takes me back to one of the few times I recall my dad being sick in bed when we were boys, perhaps our first or second year in Ridgefield. My dad was sick in bed, and what a strange thing that was! I remember padding, with my brother Matt, into his room in the afternoon upon our return from school. Autumn afternoon light washed though the window…we chatted, and then he gave us each an assignment; mine was to write a five page paper on ducks! I recall a weekend of watching the mallards on the marsh, and then a trip to the library for books on the subject. But most importantly, this: sickness comes, get through it, carry on. Only we can defeat ourselves.
Three years of a vast and infinite eternity have passed. I still hear his voice everyday.
There are Stoic principles running through this piece I dug up in his papers:
"It's November 28th and the winter's first snow is on the ground. It began late last night and accumulated several inches overnight. I decided to work out of home today and avoid complications getting around on my crutch. I'm three weeks into recovery from a fall down the stairs that left me with a fractured pelvis so I'm unwilling to take a chance with the snow. Looking out from my office I can see the roads have already melted and look no worse than if a good rain had just passed through. Still, it's snow and I can't help but begin thinking about Montserrat. We've booked a flight for mid-February and will be staying for a month, returning in early April. We're going despite the still-active volcano on the island that is, apparently, unpredictable. We heard yesterday from Frank Edwards who manages our condo for us that the seismologists say that they will be able to give "ample warning" if and when the big blow occurs. We've already made up our mind that we are going to spend time there anyway even though there appears to be no well defined escape route for getting away should the volcano erupt. That's what you call a life-style choice and we made it rather easily. Just so long as it's just the two of us.
It's not as though we want to give up any of our last quarter allotment but we've seen enough recently to know that there are worse things than Going suddenly. The long term, mindless, sans dignity of old age appears as no great attraction either. We went to see Al Timpanelli in a "rehab home" on Sunday. He's so enfeebled by past and recent bouts with arthritis, fractured pelvis, crushed ribs and the like that he just keeps drifting in and out of reality. He relies totally on his wife, Jean, but doesn't have the mental resource to understand that and so berates here every time she doesn't cater to his ever changing whims. He is 85 years old and has had a good life, enjoyed good health, and a prestigious career as a Park Avenue doctor. So rather than feel sorry for him as the clock begins to wind down, better to remember that he had it good for a long time and now is in the payback period.
Everybody pays. If you don't pay at the end then count on having paid in one of thousands of ways when you were younger. Long way around, but maybe things like the volcano or a sudden plane crash are not such tragedies but just ways of paying earlier. The beauty is you avoid the late stuff; the downside is you lose some years, have some regrets while you're going down and maybe you'll experience some intense pain or terror. Either way, you pay.
This is no exercise in morbidity--just an exercise to capture the thought so that I can remember it."
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
"Daily occurrences lean every day into history. Both a human being and a thing turn one side to what is now, while with the other they look toward us or our successors out of the depth of past time.
Scraps of paper, telephones, meetings--i.e., daily routines--quickly become merely ridiculous, but later on grow to a monumental size, as they are parts of a totality carved out of the whole of experience in which many details irrevocably perish.
People, dependent as they are upon little things, are undefined and elude their own grasp or the grasp of others yet with time they, together with little things, acquire traits that can be described, characters, like the surface of the earth, which only from a distance shows the folds of its mountain chains and the nervous systems of its rivers."
The picture above is from July 5th, 2009. Harlan saw the town fireworks the night before with us down at the high school. In an otherwise cold and rainy summer, it was a rare sunny stretch ; my dad took full advantage of it. On his lap sits his folder of research topics. What was his chief topic of interest that day? I'm sure it's still relevant today, two years later.
As the summer turned, each morning I picked tomatoes in the hoop house while the rain battered the plastic covering overhead. Late blight wiped out the crop all along the eastern seaboard, but our plastic covering spared our plants and I picked long into fall, past the first light frost.
I don't recall the last time my dad drove out into the garden in his golf cart. I see him often like this, in early summer, when the light is right, even now.
Perspective…by Traug Keller
Long ago he had become a news junky. No apologies, no regrets. He just liked the news. Had always liked the news. Liked it now. In fact NOW was better than ever.
Anyone following the Democrats and their agonizing march toward selecting a nominee for the party’s presidential ticket knew what he was talking about. The news coverage of two candidates locked in a titanic battle for their party’s prize has been never ending. Driven by what is called a 24-hour news cycle, the news media has turned on its head to find enough copy to feed the ravenous 24 hour beast.
The candidates vilify each other. So do others. Not only is nothing they do private but also nothing their supporters do that may be about the candidates stays private for long. Throw in vitriolic bloggers who ease their own souls with harsh words and near-slanderous criticism and chaos rears it’s frightening head.
All of it Delicious. To his news junky soul, it was Nirvana revisited. Except…
Pessimism had crept in. Hugely. There was no hiding. Certainly, he understood the game. Clearly, nobody was going to get nominated on good news. If it was all good news who would need a change. So the litany of woes spilled out 24 hours a day. Nothing works. Health care is a disaster. Fuel costs are a calamity. Global warming hangs there like the sword of Damocles. Al Gore chuckles in the background like Mephistopoles come for Faustus’ soul. The Polar Bears drop like flies. The war will never end. Armageddon sits on the foot of his bed. We are all doomed.
And yet…He remembers the old Nova show on television with the host of the show in front of a background of huge mountains of snow to represent the ages of earthly cycles. There was the Precambrian age some four billion years ago, the Eocene Epoch, a mere 55 million tears ago the Cretaceous Age where the dinosaurs roamed some 64 million years ago. It was an awesome sweep of Geologic time with each age lasting for many millenniums and the snowy backdrops filled the screen.Way down in the corner of the screen almost hidden by the great sweeps of history was a tiny red dot representing the amount of time that mankind has existed. “Christ, we’re just beginning he thought, “we’ve still got time.”
Saturday, March 5, 2011
My older brother Traug tells me that yesterday, March 4, my dad's birthday, the flag over the U.S. Capitol was raised in the name of young Traug Keller for recognition of his achieving the rank of Eagle Scout. That would have made for 3 proud Traugs! Maybe Emma would have gotten an extra treat out of the deal.
In my dad's journal he kept on a late and ill-advised trip he and my mom took to Antigua, he notes the great feeling he had on March 4 when all his sons called to wish him a happy birthday. It is rare for me to follow through on such social obligations, and I'm happy I did.
I have felt my dad's palpable presence lately. Most recently, in our living room, for several minutes I could all but see him in his wheel chair in the exact spot where he would sit when he'd be over for dinner. The next day I felt compelled to hunt for the following piece of my dad's, and hadn't felt right until I finally found it.
Survival, by Traug Keller
When a condo my wife and I owned on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat was made worthless by a 1995 volcanic eruption, I quickly found myself drawn into the subject of past volcanoes in the Caribbean islands. I found way more than I bargained for and wondered at how naïve I was in using so much retirement money to buy an interest in a piece of real estate that like all the Caribbean islands had been formed by volcanic eruptions over the centuries. Still, I did find many interesting stories in volcanic lore, not the least of which was the explosion of Mt Pelee on the French island of Martinique on May 8,1903. Here is that story..
The volcano that buried the tiny French resort Town of St, Pierre on the island of Martinique in 1903 left a single known survivor out of the more than 30,000 natives and tourists in the town who perished that fateful night in August. He was a husky 25 year old day laborer named Louis Auguste Cyparis who had been confined to prison after stabbing a tourist in a fight that erupted in a tavern filled with locals and tourists.
On the night of August 3, 1903, Louis was in solitary confinement in a dungeon deep in the bowels of the town’s prison, a tiny air grate his only source of light and air. His cell suddenly went midnight black and he was overcome by gusts of hot air and gas. He tore off his tunic and, burying his face in it, was able to breathe. He experienced intense pain but though severely burned managed to survive until rescued three days later by one of the many disaster crews that had come from around the world following reports of the tragedy.
When Louis Auguste recovered, he received a hasty pardon for his barroom brawl and joined the Barnum and Bailey circus, touring the world as “The of .” Once, the circus people found that he had told an interviewer for a local paper that he had seen another man also loaded into a solitary confinement cell that night, but, of course, never knew what had become of the man.. He said in the interview that he often wondered about the man and his fate. The circus people warned him against such statements, lest he lose his billing as “Lone Survivor.”
The other prisoner was Pierre Jacques, a French tourist, and he did not die either. Those huge blocks of prison stones that had once confined the likes of Bluebeard and his crew served as retaining wall against the volcano’s fury. Trapped air fed in through volcanic fissures kept him breathing and later rain water that seeped into the cell sustained him. He fed on protein-rich kelp that violent storms washed in. He used wet sand to brush his teeth.
He grew old in the tiny confined space. Brown hair, tousled and thick, thinned and grew white as the years crawled by. He marked time, scratching days on the walls of his cell. He counted each day by his own bodily rhythms. He heard sound only from the dull thud of waves and the fury of the hurricanes in the Fall. Always an opera buff, he composed concertos in his head to the sound and fury of storms He had been an engineer in France. He designed tires and spent his days scribbling intricate algorithms that played with the coefficient of friction to design skid-proof treads. He had worked in a huge room with dozens of other engineers engaged in the same pursuit. Mathematics for him then had been the way he earned a living; now it was life itself and became a way to describe his universe.
He used his belt buckle to scratch on the face of the stone algorithms that measured air volumes in his given space, learned the extremes to which he could put his intake and outflow of air by controlling his breathing. He designed exercises to build his cardiovascular capacity and strength. He strode the 6 X 6 ft. space in tiny, mincing steps, endlessly walking the various islands in the Caribbean he had once visited. He had always been an opera aficionado and sang great arias endlessly. He wrote a complete opera to the external cacophony of the storms. He inscribed each note for each instrument in scratches on the stone block.
In the year 2000, a visitor to the island, Pierre Deschan, a professor in at the university in , was walking the beach with his oldest son, , an oboe player with the Paris Symphony considered by many to be a musical savant as well as a fine practicing musician. Pierre stubbed his toe on the protruding edge of what turned out to be a very large stone block, much like the huge blocks that had once been used to build the island’s jetties and the town’s old jail house.
Scraping the face of the stone further, the two men discovered what appeared to be an intricate and complete musical score. Young Simone was flabbergasted. He used his cell phone to shoot several pictures of the musical notations. He sent them over the internet to musical colleagues in Paris and the two men left for their rented villa.
The two men speculated over dinner that night about their afternoon’s discovery. They were at a loss to explain it and concluded that it may have been the work of some visiting photo engraver who had been bored by the island’s natural charms and had spent time etching the musical notes on the stone face as a way of passing time. When Simone received a text message on his phone’s screen that night he and his father were even further confused. It seems that the musical notations he’d sent to Paris were part of a movement in Stravinsky’s complex Rites of Spring. A second message from Simone’s friend begged Simone for more information about the origin of the photos Simone had sent.
Simone and his father talked long into the night but could reach no conclusions. They promised each other they would do additional research. They never did, and over the years the sea again buried the great stone the two men had stumbled across.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
“Though fast youth's glorious fable flies,
View not the world with worldling's eyes;
Nor turn with weather of the time.
Foreclose the coming of surprise:
Stand where Posterity shall stand;
Stand where the Ancients stood before,
And, dipping in lone founts thy hand,
Drink of the never-varying lore:
Wise once, and wise thence evermore.”
The above Melville poem is called "Lone Founts". Melville originally thought to call it "Giordano Bruno", after a 16th century monk burned at the stake for his skepticism and for both his belief in the unity of all things, and in that the universe revolved around neither earth nor man. The last e-mail my dad ever pecked out was to make sure I'd forwarded to Matt a video of the universe he watched over and over again.
This is from a little IBM binder my dad kept back in the 70's. It's full of short, thoughtful pieces, like this one:
May 7, 1971
Once, in 1971 I got to be 38. It has stayed with me forever. A doctor who examined me said that I "just got to be 40 two years early." It astounded me. What it meant was that everybody had certain kinds of problems and that these were associated with middle age. I never knew that.
Sometimes I think we worry about the kids too much. We've already got them started so that their character is pretty much determined. The years ride by and it's silly to worry about the kids and how they will cope with the short years they'll have left after their childhood ceases. St. Augustine wasn't very wrong when he talked about giving him the kid 'till he was seven.
There's a book that can be written called "How They Paid" and if it's thought out carefully can be very good. I need to think about it. Everybody, it seems to me of late, pays for his tour here. I don't understand yet why some pay more than others. This touches on the equity thing that disturbs me badly. I am rationalizing my way around it but I really haven't found the answer yet. That bleeding guy in East Pakistan and me--where's the equity? My rationalization goes that we all pay--me as well as the Pakistani because of an intellectual awareness on my part that he does not have. Thus I am able to be tortured by things that roll off his back. Every time I see an older guy now I find out that he's paying in some way. Years of physical discomfort and pain. Mental anguish of some sort. A beloved wife who's died and he has to hang around life without her. How they paid. Everybody pays.
Monday, October 25, 2010
As always, especially later in life, my dad would have been enthralled by this past baseball season. I regret the times I drove by the house in the evening, saw him through the front window watching the Yankees on tv, and did not walk over to watch a few innings together. We would talk about the games, however, and I kept current only so I could. Now that he is gone, I have absolutely no interest, but note that his beloved Yankees have fallen.
It would have made for a lively conversation.
Here's one of my dad's takes on the baseball season:
Bart Giamatti would have loved it, the scramble down to the wire, a pair of titans locked in mortal combat, sun drenched afternoons holding off the cold rains as perennial to New England as the glory of its foliage. Heroes all over the lot. Boston and New York at it again.
He thought often of Giamatti as he watched the Yankees and the Red Sox extend their torrid race for a divisional championship down to the final two days of the season. A. Bartlett Giamatti, the Renaissance scholar and former president of Yale, who gave up his brilliant academic career to take on the turbulent job of commissioner of major league baseball, would have loved the drama of it, if not the outcome. He never successfully hid his love of the Red Sox but screened it with his love of the game itself.
He had written eloquently of the game he loved. “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything begins again and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone."
“You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high sky alive , and then, when the skies are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. It stops and summer is gone.”
He would have liked to reassure Giamatti, who sadly enough died from a heart attack in 1989, that none of it had stopped this year, at least. The Yankees won their division and thus qualified for the playoffs but the Red Sox also qualified by beating New York the next day and qualifying as the “wild card” entry as a result of their having he highest win/lost percentage outside the leaders in each of the league’s three divisions.
So now he had at least two more weeks of the extended season to look forward to. He fully expected the New York team to ultimately win back the championship they had lost to Boston the previous year. If they do, he fully expected to hear the ghostly voice of Giamatti cry out in anguish while he derided himself for caring so much while others could pass on without a whimper.
“There are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough ones who can live without illusion or even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.”
He could hardly wait for the playoffs to start.
Sunday, September 12, 2010
Out of the blue, our boy Harlan turns out to be a thrill seeker. Well, at least a seeker of thrills at the Dutchess County Fair and nearby Lake Quassy and Lake Compounce. Unfortunately, he's still so small there's no way he's riding these things alone...which means either Ilsa or I must ride with him...guess who wins that one!
I kept my eyes closed and my thoughts calm while regretting the recently consumed deep fried pickles and milk shakes. I wasn't sure I'd survive some whirling, spinning, plunging ride at Quassy, and then I looked over to see the look of pure joy on Harlan's face. I wish I hadn't, because then I wouldn't have given in to his cries of "Again, Papa, again!!!" when it was mercifully over.
Anyway, during this summer of thrills, I often thought of this piece from my dad, and am hit with regret once again at all the questions I never asked:
MEMORY IS TRICKY
I had a call recently from Dick Abel, an old friend and classmate. He and I had been in grade school together and later at St. Ignatius, the Jesuit high school in Cleveland. Dick had gone on to become a decorated general in the Air Force, retired last year and had just published a book on Leadership. He said he had run into a mutual friend who told him I was having some trouble and he was calling to see how I was doing. The last time I’d seen Dick was in Cleveland in 2006 at our 45th high school reunion when I was still mobile. That’s a funny story.
We had once been close friends. In the summer of the year before we went into the eighth-grade he and I had been allowed to take a trip together to New York to visit my grandmother, a stern old gal whose attraction for me was her two grown daughters who lived with her in her Brooklyn brownstone on East. 12th St. Patricia and Josephine, Patty and Bo we called them. They were lively and funny with lots of stories to tell about life in Brooklyn. Patty was the older of the two and had been in the Navy during the war. She was sharp witted and irreverent and kept us in stitches most days, not an easy task given the somber mood of my grandmother who had never fully recovered from her husband’s tragic death under a subway train nearly 20 years earlier.
It was pretty exciting for the two of us, a couple of eighth graders going alone to the big city. It was a great train ride in those days. There were Porters who guided us and seated us for lunch in a dining car with crisp white tablecloths and gorgeous glasses and silverware. The whole scene left us speechless though we weren’t about to admit it. We were a couple of cool dudes on our way to Big Town and it would have taken a lot to deflate our balloon. We managed to find our way through the menu with some help from a smiling waiter .We both had fried chicken and agreed it was the best we’d ever had. We showed our appreciation for the great help the waiter had given us by leaving him a 15-cent tip, after haggling back and forth about maybe being too generous.
The ride had been so grand we were almost sad to see it end. The porters saw us off the train and made sure we were headed in the right direction. We figured that the word must have gotten out from the waiter in the dining room about our generosity.
Patty and Bo met us at Grand Central and they were so welcoming we knew we were in for a great time. They took us to Prospect Park one day; to Ebbets field another day and that was fun but mostly we stayed around the neighborhood and soaked up a lot of the things that were different between Brooklyn and Cleveland. It was fun just listening to people talk. “Brooklynese,” Patty called it.
Other things, too. Like a wagon selling vegetables that would pull up in front of the house, and another one for sharpening knives and one that kept calling for trash. They didn’t have things like that in Cleveland. We hung around the house mostly for the first several days and then asked about going to Coney Island, which we had both heard about We asked the girls if we could go and they agreed. The next day they put us on a subway heading toward Coney Island with careful instructions about when to get off and how to get to the amusement park from the subway stop. The last words from the gals before we left my grandmother’s were to enjoy ourselves but not to go on the parachute jump because the ride was frightening.
The first thing we did at Coney Island was to look for the parachute jump. What a sight! It was higher than a football field is long and towered above us like some steel-ribbed giant. We watched as people came down off the ride screaming and hollering and looking as though they’d had a wonderful time. We couldn't wait to go on and so we did.
We sat in the same canvas chair wedged together and were hoisted up and up and when we were close to the top I remember looking around and you could see all of Brooklyn and the ocean and it was for a few seconds a place like no other in this world . Then we hit the top and started down and our stomachs disappeared. We were in free fall for the first 60 feet that lasted at least an eternity. We both knew we’d never stop falling and I remember thinking, God what have we done and then the cables caught hold and we began to drift down toward earth. The sun still shone, the ocean was still beautiful and blue off to the east and we were alive. Alive. It was so peaceful. Except…
Next to me Dick was shrieking like someone had done him grievous harm and there was no one around to help. I had to shush him and nudge him in the ribs a couple of times before he stopped and then we landed and Dick climbed off the chair and regained his old cocky self. I asked him about his tizzy fit later but he was quick to change the subject and I left it alone.
A couple of days later we again climbed aboard the New York Central train and were whisked back to Cleveland. Dick and I remained friends but we were never as close. He was on the football team and I played 00 basketball. We hung around with different crowds.
Then in 2006, I ran into him at our 45th high school reunion. He was kind of the toast of the group, a tall, tanned still sandy-haired, still youthful looking general in the Air Force. A Vietnam hero. Everybody was showering him with accolades. He was being praised to the rafters. It was getting downright tacky.
I stood up, quieted the crowd, and told the Coney Island story. Hell, I embellished it. The group broke up. There were catcalls, cries to have him stripped of his medals, jeers about his manhood.
Then the general stood up. He looked like he could still run 100 yards in full gear in under 10 seconds. The crowd quieted and he began to talk. “Hell, Traug,” he said. “Memory certainly does play funny tricks. The way it was, you were doing so much screaming, the attendants came rushing over to calm you down. They were afraid you’d drive people away.”
The class erupted again. No question who they believed. They heaped shame on me. I slunk away.