It’s Life. Period. Goodbye

Jake Greenfield brought in the mail. Careful not to let his cats out.

Among the bills and flyers was a green square envelope.

He shut the door firmly and ran his finger under the envelope flap. He removed a note card.

“Dear Jake, My dearest brother Sam, passed away suddenly last Tuesday.” No further details, except that a memorial was planned at Sam’s home in Essex on the coming Sunday afternoon.

It was signed “Rebecca, Sam’s Sister, PS, I would love to hear from you.”

Jake sat on a chair beside the kitchen table. He took a long slow breath. Holding the card in his lap.

“Sam,” he said.

In high school they called Sam “the Russian.” He was not Russian. His last name was Rudski. So, they called him the Russian. His family was Polish. Maybe. Maybe Slovak. Maybe Latvian. Nobody knew or cared. Neither did he.

He was quick to smile. Quick to say, “Do what you guys want, I’m going home,” and the only one who saw no reason not to eat the last slice of pizza. 

There were three of them back then. Jake, Bob, and Sam, who hung out together. Played ball together. Driver’s licenses. First legal beers. College.

When Kennedy was shot, they watched the TV together. Then Oswald. Jack Ruby raising his right arm straight out from his shoulder, with the Dallas police and the reporters in black felt fedoras standing around, and he shot Oswald square in the belly with a pistol he’d pulled out of his overcoat pocket. Oswald winced.

They drove down to DC in Sam’s VW and waited in the dark cold wind outside of the Capitol to walk past the quiet coffin and then over to Lafayette Park, to sit on a blanket under the trees on the curb across from the White House. They watched Bobby, Jackie, Caroline, and John John walk behind the casket.

What they were seeing was unfathomable. They were nineteen. It was something never to be forgotten.

Sam was the first among them to fall in love. The girl lived up in White Plains. He sent her flowers and after he paid for them, he called Jake to say, “alea iacta est,” like Caesar crossing the Rubicon. The die was cast, he said.

Everything they did or said back then was concrete, momentous, consequential, black and white, final, irrevocable. Neither good nor bad. It just was. They never gave a thought to any time beyond the present. Who they were was who they’d always be. There were no thoughts of the future beyond which shirt you would put on in the morning or which classes you had the next day.

Then there were weddings. First jobs. Children. They each moved away. None of them went to Vietnam. They grew beards and long hair. Bob worked for a big Pharma company. Jake got teaching job. Sam got a job working for Anaconda Copper right out of Fordham.

One day he showed up at Jake’s house. “I quit,” he said. “They are just fucking up Chile, paying people shit wages, mining the crap out of the ground. Capitalist shitheads,” he said. “They don’t give a shit about anything other than screwing people for profits. I can’t do that anymore.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I got a teaching job in Roxbury.”

“Where’s that?”

“Boston,” he said.

“A good job?”

“Boston’s all fucked up. Desegregation. Bussing. Crazy racists attacking school buses. Throwing rocks and bottles at kids. Retrenchment. Poverty. I’ll teach in one of the schools.”

“Oh.” Jake knew nothing about Boston or Roxbury. He was teaching in the Bronx. The South Bronx. High school biology. Things were not good there either.

They all moved around again. Grad schools. New jobs. Not necessarily better jobs but jobs they liked to think were better.

After another move, Jake got a call from Sam. “I moved to Essex. I found your number in the phone book.” They went out for burgers and beer at a place called the Farm or the Barn and talked about work and their new hearing aids.

When Jake got laid off in 2008, he started doing freelance work. Writing. Sam became a psychologist and stopped selling sandwiches and DVDs. They kept in touch.

One afternoon, Sam rode his new Yamaha 500 over to Jake’s. They sat in folding chairs on his back porch. They wore warm jackets and drank hot coffee.

“You look sad,” Sam said.

“Sad? I don’t know. You know I had a heart attack a year ago.”

“You told me.”

“I did?”

“Yeah, and you said you were doing fine.”

“I was.  I still am. A lot of stuff going on. I’m okay.”

“Listen, Jake,” said Sam. “I see patients all day long, and they say, ‘yeah, I’m okay,’ and I look at them and I know they’re not. We both know they’re not. I look at them. They look at me. Their eyes. The way they sit all folded up, looking out the window. They start talking and in three minutes tops, I get the whole picture. I’d love to say to them, ‘Look, we can drag this on for a few months or years and neither of us wants to do that. So, give me the word and I can tell you right now exactly what your problem ia and what you can do to change it. Period. Goodbye.’”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying. I know you. You lost your job, and you had a heart thing, and you have a hearing problem. It’s life. You had a lousy marriage and that’s over, and now you have great one. Something’s bothering you but it’s not the job or money or your heart, or your hearing. You think I don’t have shit going on? You think the guy next door doesn’t? Look around. See the trees. You have food in the refrigerator. You have a woman who loves you. I’ll tell you right now, what your problem is. You haven’t told her how you’re feeling. You’re holding it all in. Like your father. Go in there and tell her what’s going on, how you’re feeling, what you’re worried about. And twenty minutes from now, guaranteed, she’s going to grab you and hug you and the sun will come out and light up your sorry-ass face like high noon on the goddamn equator.”

That day on the porch was the last time Jake saw Sam.

The letter surprised him. He never expected, never thought, that one day he’d be sitting in a chair by his kitchen table holding a letter saying, “Dear Jake, My dearest brother, Sam, passed away suddenly last Tuesday.”

Just like that.

“Jake,” he could hear Sam saying, “it’s life. There is no secret. Nothing to figure out. It’s life. Period. Goodbye.”

Umi, Annunziata, and String Theory

Umi and Annunziata. Side by side. No earbuds. No Beats. The Harvard Bridge. Sunny. Warm. Late October afternoon. Cross breezes push ripples upstream.

Umi, I didn’t mean that I don’t really believe in string theory. I do, but…

… But Nuzzi, that’s exactly what you said, like in front of the whole class. I was like totally freaked. I never heard you say anything like that before.

I know. But I think I was just trying to say that it has no physical or philosophical relevance to me or to life, fundamentally. To actual life. Here and now. To you and me or anyone on the planet or in the entire universe.

In Theoretical Physics? Saying you don’t believe in string theory. Space-time. The event horizon. General relativity. The most basic theories of totally everything?

No, Umi. I was just like ‘Ok, so that’s how everything got created and all.’ As if that explains everything like life and all. But I mean it just doesn’t. It doesn’t have anything to do with real life.

What do you mean? Doesn’t it? The origin and expansion of the universe? The elemental seeds of all life?

It’s not that. It’s that it has no relevance to the lives we live. I mean I think of my grandparents and their lives. They got along great living in only three dimensions

Of course, and their life was good or maybe it wasn’t, maybe it was terrible. But the world changes and we learn new things, face new problems that need new answers.

I know that. The mathematics. The theories. They’re quantitatively and empirically provable theoretical concepts. But pragmatically and humanistically? They’re real and measurable and you can believe in them but ultimately, they have no relevant meaning, philosophically or practically. They are barren terms with no influence how we live or how we might choose to live. To me, at least, and possibly to you too, if you think about it.

You think I don’t think about things like that? You think I’m a basic geek?  

No, yes, Umi, but I don’t mean it like that. I mean take gravity. Nobody knows what it is, but you trip on a crack in the sidewalk and you break your arm. That’s gravity. Human relevance. Pragmatic. Philosophically, too. You make life decisions based upon your understanding of gravity. You teach your children about it. You don’t say, ‘Oh sweetie, stay away from the event time horizon, do you?’

You sound like a narrow nihilist, Nuzzi. I mean thinking that there is nothing that means anything except eating, sleeping, shitting, and fucking. There is no greater good, nothing more than our lonely finite selves in a vast infinite universe.

Umi, I am so not a nihilist. I believe totally in life. Life is the center of all meaning. That is why the end of time personally, is the only meaningful philosophical concept for us. Nothing is even close. What we do as human beings, how we live, how we treat others each day, is inherently, genetically, socially, and culturally imbedded in our biological being. The impermanence of life, finite time, knowing that at some point it all ends. That’s the only relevant event horizon with any pragmatic and philosophical meaning, not what may or may not happen billions of years from now.

Is that where all this is going? Giving more meaning to death than to life? You’re totally contradicting yourself. Life has joy, mystery, adventure, discovery, creativity, doesn’t it? Our brains, our consciousness, evolved because we have the capacity to know that there is more to life and being human than what you are saying. More to finding meaning in life than painting the side of a barn, having babies, and doing the dishes.

I’m not talking about doing the dishes.

Yes you are, Nuzzi. You’re missing what is essential in being human. Sitting at the edge of the sea and looking out and wondering what is beyond the horizon, and the next horizon. Imagining the things that we can’t see, the things only humans can imagine. That’s what being human is.

I feel like I need to choose one or the other.

Nuzzi, it’s not one or the other unless we choose to make it that way. Our brains are big enough for both philosophy and theoretical physics. But I have to say, what problem has philosophy ever solved for us? Name one. What can we learn about life from a philosopher that affects anything of meaning. Has it ever prevented or ended a war or poverty, racism, genocide, misogyny, or… ………….. stop, don’t look at me. Just walk over to the rail and let those two old people with ski poles walk by. Don’t look around, just look out at the crews practicing down there, and, like, maybe point to one and laugh out loud or something.

Umi, are you okay?

I have this weird feeling, like someone has been listening to us, and it’s not like just listening but actually writing what we are saying, like not just writing but like writing dialogue for us, like making us say what we are saying, like right this second when I am saying what I’m saying, and I don’t even know what I’m going to say next and it made me say that I don’t know… It’s like someone is writing a story I’m in and putting words in my mouth. Both of us.

That’s so totally weird. You’re not making this up, are you?

Or maybe it’s like someone with a high-tech AI content-generator app is using like a universal, multilingual, transducer, computer dialog algorithm listening to us, with like a long-distance, uni-directional tele-focus microphone using voice recognition on us to grab our voices on re-synthesis software feeding it back to us make us say this stuff? I don’t even talk like this. Have you ever heard me talk like this before? Either way, I bet they’re going to publish this in some podcast or a short story collection, totally co-opting and commodifying us without our permission, making us like not real people but just made-up words.

Or maybe he’s just writing that too, and making me say that, and isn’t it weird that there are no quote marks around anything we’re saying.

… Nuzzi…what’re you doing? Get down.

HEY, YOU, LISTEN TO ME, WE KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING … “so cut the crap, you creepy piece of cow caca.”

Notes on the Celebration in Honor of The Essayist on his Ninetieth Birthday

The celebration in honor of a well-known essayist’s ninetieth birthday was held on the Saturday following his birthdate. A Saturday amidst the blistering heat of a northeastern July, an uptick in Covid-19 infections, fires in the west and in Europe, reports of a monkeypox outbreak among gay men, and news of the Pope’s visit to Canada to apologize for the church’s treatment of indigenous children.

Lily, the essayist’s wife, planned the celebration, addressed, stamped, and mailed the invitations, using names she gathered from the essayists address book.

Full vaccination required. No gifts. Regrets only. The invitation said and was signed simply in a firm hand, Lily.

At four, the room had filled with guests. The invitation had said, ‘four ‘til seven.’ Anyone who knew the essayist for any length of time had surely known that he was punctual and expected punctuality. He always made his expectations clear. He was a Marine.

He often told me, “If you’re on time, you’re late.” I took him figuratively though he meant it quite literally. “How does that work?” I’d ask him. “It just does,” he’d say.

No one spoke about the heat, or the pandemic, or the hearings on television, wearing masks, abortion, inflation, gasoline prices, Ukraine, or the media. All of that, they knew, was the essayists bailiwick. They found other things to talk about.

Prosecco in stemware and small hors d’oeuvres were passed on silver trays by young men and women wearing collared white shirts and black pants. The music from the speakers in the dining area set aside for the gathering was loud and conversation became difficult. Names were hard to hear.

“Guernsey?” I repeated, not really believing that could be the woman’s last name.

“No, it’s Gert Seavey,” she said.

I nodded.

I sat in a seat beside Lily. The essayist sat next to her at the head of the table. His three sons were there, sitting at another table. He looked over at them often.

After the dinner plates were removed, Lily stood and nodded to her three boys. The first one, the oldest, the one who had come in late, was the first to stand and speak.

““I just flew in from Paris, and the plane was late.”

“We all can see that,” said his father.

“I’m happy to be here, Dad,” said his son. “I have only one word to say to all of you that epitomizes my father best. Forgiveness.” Then he sat down. There was applause.

“Thank you,” said his father, so softly that only those of us closest to him could hear.

The second son spoke anecdotally, and then the essayist’s granddaughter raised her hand. “I love you, Boppa,” she said, “you are the smartest, funniest, and greatest man ever in the world.”

Her grandfather bowed his head. “Thank you,” he said to her.

Lily looked to the third son. He shook his head and didn’t get up, and so she walked to the end of the room, where it was the quietest. She asked the waiter to stop pouring wine.

She stood in front of the floor-to-ceiling window, and, because the curtains had not been drawn, she appeared briefly in silhouette surrounded in a halo of white light and seemed like a dark apparition in a dream or an afterimage following the sudden appearance of the Madonna.

She asked for quiet in a voice as soft as a dove and she turned to her husband, whose smile we all could see. From a pocket in her light-colored flowered dress, she read from notes she had written. She recounted how they had met and all of her husband’s many accomplishments in life and then she asked the essayist to come forward, and she kissed him on the cheek as they passed and returned to her seat at the table.

“That’s my first wife,” he said. “I always say that.”

The room quieted.

“You all know I have a tendency to be somewhat long-winded.”

“Nooohhh, Dad,” his sons said in unison.

“Please put your phones down and pay attention,” he said to us all.

He spoke without notes.

“There’s a line from Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe, with an “E”, it goes something like ‘we can’t turn back the days that have gone. We can’t turn life back to when our lungs were sound, our blood hot, our bodies young. We are a flash of fire–a brain, a heart, a spirit.’”

“I dreamt last night that there are two paths forward for humans on earth. This earth, where we were born, where we live, and where we will die. The two paths are not mutually exclusive. And neither path is one that does our species credit.

“The vast majority of us are on a path we have no control over. Nine-nine percent of us, are on a path headed back in time to life at its most basic. Sweating in toil, planting the crops that will grow in the narrowing bit of land suitable for them, hunting what animals survive, and gathering the little water we need to live.

“Our disregard for water will be our undoing. Drought and flood and fires have already begun. You see it all around you. While corporations and governments husband our most essential natural resource for whatever profit they can make and power they can wield. We are watching the demise of most of what is human existence. We have set a rapidly degenerative system in motion by our lack of regard for the needs of society. One another. We have lost our social conscience.

“We had long survived as a species because we evolved as social animals. We need one another. But what we have done in the last two hundred years, as a result of our self-centered greed and avarice and our disregard for one another, has set us on a downward spiral which will consume us. Through starvation, drowning, unbearable temperature extremes, and the wars that will erupt and eliminate the rest of us, along with almost every other living species.

“We have brought this upon ourselves because we have not paid attention. We saw what was happening and we said that was somebody else’s problem and we kept on making plastic and burning oil and coal. How brutally ironic is it, is it not, that the lives of past plants and animals that inhabited this earth for millions of years before us, their very carbon souls, are what we are burning, and which will bury us and crush us under intense heat and unimaginable pressure back into carbon chains again, and that is all that will be left of us.

“It did not have to be this way. We have willfully disregarded the wisdom of the past generations who lived in concert with the land and the water and who were swept away by our greed and our guns and the rape of our natural resources. We laughed at their ignorant simplicity. Their traditions. We failed to learn from them and their respect for the mysterious power of nature.

“On the second, more narrow path, some few will survive. They will be the ones who had the privilege and resources unavailable to the rest. They may survive in small enclaves into a temporary future, perhaps using advanced AI computing and multidimensional printers to engineer some semblance of artificial nutrition and a livable environment.

But, surely, around them both, the earth and nature will heal itself, perhaps creating a natural re-arrangement of our DNA with the DNA and RNA from which we all came, and life on earth will go on. The Anthropocene epoch will end and surely, with it, other species will fill the gap.

“As Wolfe once said, you can’t go home again, and we cannot. Not when you have burned your home to embers and released the fumes into the atmosphere to smother you.

“So, pay attention. Love your family. Love one another. Love the life you have while you have it. Heal the earth in any way you can. Return to the simple life on the earth that created us in any way you can. Honor it. Eschew the false and artificial and disingenuous.

“That’s all there is and that’s all I have to say. Thank you for coming.”

And then the cake was plated and served. Coffee was poured. The essayist sat beside his wife and drank a glass of milk and then we said our goodbyes and went to our cars and drove back to our homes.