Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Thou Swell

There is now a cholera outbreak spreading in Iraq. 3,300 cases. Among other issues.

"It is estimated that 28% of children are malnourished, compared with 19% before the 2003 invasion. In 2006, more than 11% of newborn babies were born underweight, compared with 4% in 2003. Malnutrition contributes to death from other conditions such as intestinal and respiratory infections, malaria and typhoid. The lack of food is affecting not only children. It is estimated that four million Iraqis - 15% of the total population - regularly cannot buy enough to eat and are now dependent on food assistance."

Leave it to our president to find a way to spread cholera and democracy at the same time. Not that smart, really. Dumb. Katrina dumb. And profoundly disdainful of other people. Bush is not a man. He's a tumor.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sunday Plath: Yaddo Mushrooms


Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.

Sylvia Plath

This is one of Plath's "Yaddo" poems, written while she enjoyed a quiet stay at that Saratoga Springs artist retreat in 1959.

The mansion's grounds are riddled with all manner of ponds, gardens (particularly the wonderful rose gardens) and statues. Plenty of moist shady patches among the old pines where mushrooms were sure to take hold.

"Mushrooms" was included in her first published collection The Colossus and Other Poems.

At first this poem just seemed to me to be a formal exercise. But after reading about Plath I now realize how it effervesces with the possibilities and genius then rising up out of her. It was here that her nascent "Ariel" voice began to emerge. Like mushrooms do. Invisibly, from the earth.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A By No Means Exhaustive Five For Wunelle


She was almost seventy years old. Secondary to diabetes she'd had a below-the-knee amputaion of her right leg many years ago. A stroke had left her dysphagic so she was fed via a PEG tube though sometimes she could tolerate oral fluids if we thickened these to nectar consistency.

Because of Alzheimer's disease she was unable to say where she was. She knew her name and could sometimes speak accurately about family members. She had great grandchildren of whom she was very proud and quite fond, but she could not always remember their names. If you asked her something like "Muriel, who is the president?" she might name one of her grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

I thought it was best to ask her about some of the antics of her younger family members: getting into things, climbing, tormenting their lovable old Labrador retriever, and such. Her smile, though toothless, was infectious and sweet.

Though she would never walk again, her mind was bound by dementia, the taste of foods were mostly unavailable to her, and she was poor and uninsured, she was recovering from a four-vessel cardiac-artery-bypass-graft surgery. We call these "cabbages," for the acronym CABG.

We'd lift her fully, against her lazy protestations, to get her up to a chair.

At the nurse's station sometimes I'd hear people wondering aloud why this woman had undergone the surgery. With her comorbidities of diabetes, stroke, and Alzheimer's it seemed to many that the costly surgery would not prolong her life nor even provide comfort. So why was it even performed in the first place?


I began to study classical guitar many years ago when, as a teen, my family moved. I had been playing bass guitar in a nascent blues band which we called, somewhat energetically, "True Acid." Like we knew. We didn't.

Back then my junior-high friend Mike was our lead guitarist. He went on to assume an important voice in the Woodstock jazz guitar world. That's something else.

Anyways, suddenly I found myself without band-mates and I was forced to do music by myself. Then the window to the world of solo guitar music was opened to me. I guess I had no choice.

I had no real classical guitar. When I auditioned for music school at Crane, I played a Mexican twelve-string guitar my grandmother had bought used in Nogales for twenty dollars. I'd sanded the crummy refinish off it and fitted it with six nylon strings. It was awful. A joke really. I have no idea how I passed the audition. They accepted only one guitarist that semester.

But I made it.

Later I got a guitar made by a local jazz guitar luthier. It had a jazz-narrow neck unlike a real classical instrument. But at least it was made from good woods and it had the proper number of strings! Decades afterwards I bought two nice classical guitars. We couldn't afford these things when I was younger. As a nurse at least sometimes I have some extra income. I'd saved for decades.

For my audition I played Tarrega's "La Cajita de Musica" which has a wonderful sequence of harmonics which I'd sound with my right-hand pinky finger and thumb while my left hand slurred a descending passage. My parents had an old Chet Atkins LP on which he played this and the famous little "Lagrima." Tarrega was the "Chopin of the guitar." I love his music deeply.

I didn't get the practice of scales back then. It wasn't until much later that I added these to my routine. It's not about playing the notes of the scale. It's about relaxing. Well...not even that. It's about noting the jaw, the legs, the shoulders and fingers. It's about letting your mind roam while your fingers go up and down, or not. Sometimes it's about concentrating. It's about listening to yourself. Or dreaming. Tone. Shifting.

Anyways, it's not about playing scales, even though that is exactly what you are doing.

And I suspect that is why Muriel got her cardiac-artery-bypass-grafts.


Paid for by your insurance premiums and tax dollars. Thank you. Thank you very much.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Evolution of Good and Evil

The bible story of the Tree of the Forbidden Fruit is total nonsense, but in it there is a grain of interest. The fruit most likely tasted good. For knowledge of good and evil is evolutionarily advantagious. If the food you eat is good for you, then you and your mate are likely to produce healthy offspring.

By extension your tongue then becomes an arbiter of morality and aesthetics.

The ability to discern healthy foods from dangerous ones must have been something of a concern to early humans. Rotten fruits and meats are foul to the taste, and also responsible for disease, so we developed tastes that are critical of things we might eat.

Then we developed a way of discerning that which is bad for us overall. Trauma: bad. Emotional abuse: bad. Conversely we came to appreciate that which is good: Healthcare. Providing nutrients for our offspring and friends . A sense of collective safety.

Then we extended this to appreciation of things that merely make us happy, for happiness induces secretion of brain chemicals that foster healing and good health.

Your sense of beauty, if you are not a psychopath who is incapable of such feeling, comes from your tongue ultimately. If you are a nurse and service in the care of others is important to you as a person, then it is because your senses have become refined to detect this mysterious and innate sense of goodness which unfortunately can elude a few others.

If you are a musician or artist, then your sense of beauty derives from your evolved ability to get at the goodness in appropriate foods and behaviors.

So speaks the plate of shrimp.

When One Reads

Henrietta and I would ride together. We used to joke, at maybe thirty miles into a forty-mile ride, that we could make a mint by marketing a line of energy bars that included ibuprofen. "Sore-Ass Bars" or something like that.

Because in the winter road cycling was impossible we tried to make the best of it in the warmer weather. As soon as the road crews had cleared the winter sand-deposits from the back mountain roads we'd be off at every chance. We'd change into ridiculous cycling shorts in the bathroom at work and then get our bikes off our cars and just go there from the hospital parking lot.

But this is not a nurse-bicycling-off-work-stress post. This is about the decline of reading books. Don't the two go hand-in-hand?

Most people do not read books. Few buy books. Magazines, okay. Computer text, sure. A lot of that is total bullshit, of course.

From the NEA report cited in the CBS News link:

"The drop in reading was widespread: among men and women, young and old, black and white, college graduates and high school dropouts. The numbers were especially poor among adult men, of whom only 38 percent read literature, and Hispanics overall, for whom the percentage was 26.5.

The decline was especially great among the youngest people surveyed, ages 18 to 24. Only 43 percent had read any literature in 2002, down from 53 percent in 1992."

I'm habitually in a few books at a time. My current reading:

Founding Myths, Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past, by historian Ray Raphael. Paul Revere didn't do that. Oh well.

Star of the Storm, by Joan Hiatt Harlow. My kid insisted. And I luuurrves me dogs.

All You Really Need to Know to Interpret Arterial Blood Gasses, by Lawrence Martin. Sheesh. What can I say?

Johann Sebastian Bach, His Life in Pictures and Documents, by Hans Corad Fischer. For my latest birthday my spouse got me a set of recordings of all the known works of J.S.Bach. There are sixty CD's just of the Cantatas. That represents about half of those he wrote because a good bunch of them are lost. The set contains one-hundred-fifty-five CD's of Bach's known production.

Typically a "cantata" for Bach meant about twenty to thirty minutes of church music. Often more. He composed one for every Sunday for a couple decades. That's like churning out an "album," in rock-speak, every two weeks. It's an incredible output. Each is like a little opera on liturgical themes. That's probably why he never got around to writing and actual opera; he wrote the equivalent monthly.

The freaking bastard. You have to envy that kind of genius.

But now only about five percent of recording sales go to classical music in general, and I worry that a good amount of that goes to pure dreck like... well, no need to cite names here. (Ahem! Sarah, the blind Italian, and that asshole Rieu, for example.)

So people don't read books. That's too bad. They don't listen, either.

I like knowing about drugs that I give people. For example, I've blogged about the centuries-old origin of morphine.

Maybe I'll do one on digoxin, or beta-blockers (which are only about forty-five years old.) Some guy called Sir James Black had a hand in their development.

Digoxin of course, like morphine, comes from flowers.

It's good to read different things.

Books are very good for long forms like essays, novels, poetry collections, histories, or biographies. Magazines are good for short illustrated articles. Computers are good for just about everything except long forms. I would not want to read Paradise Lost by scrolling through web-pages.

Paradise Lost is where the term "pandemonium" originated. Milton invented it to describe the loosing of all the ruined angels, malcontents, nascent Irishmen, and others that made up the hordes gathered in rebellion against god by archangel Michael.

Such are all children.

Such is my child, and I could not be happier.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Sunday Plath: The Title Poem


Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.

God's lioness,
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees! ---The furrow

Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,

Berries cast dark
Hooks ---

Black sweet blood mouthfuls,
Something else

Hauls me through air ---
Thighs, hair;
Flakes from my heels.

Godiva, I unpeel ---
Dead hands, dead stringencies.

And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child's cry

Melts in the wall.
And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies,
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

Sylvia Plath

Ariel is one of the many known moons of Uranus. I think it is beautiful. Discovered by William Lowell in 1851, I doubt this figures importantly in Plath's poem.

Ariel means "lion of god" and the angel, though originally male, is often depicted in female form.

But there was a real "Ariel" in Plath's life, even at the time of the writing of this poem in 1962 most likely: a horse. By all accounts a rather slow and gentle old horse, upon which Plath occasionally rode for her lessons when she was living in Devon.

A "tor" is a hill, usually with an outcropping of rocks at its summit. This is a picture of Vixen's Tor in Devon, and I think it's possible Plath was familiar with it.

I love how the poem starts out motionless and then accelerates to a wild ride towards the sun.

All on a horse that very likely could not outrun a houseplant.

Because the "Ariel" voice had sprung so full-formed and quickly into her poetic imagnation, often allowing Plath to write two and sometimes three fully accomplished poems in one day, I think the speeding-up depicted in this represents what she was going through at the time. Mania, perhaps. That's probably why she chose it as the title poem for what posthumously became her greatest collection.

And the irony of naming this for such a quaint, mild, and assuredly pedestrian old animal.


Friday, January 18, 2008

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Travel Agency: A Nursing Story

Manuel was about forty years old and he had a colostomy from a previous gunshot wound. His family had a few retail businesses in the valley and he'd been behind the counter at his dad's paint store a couple years ago when robbers shot him and made off with the cash register contents. He said they didn't get much because his brother had taken the receipts and cash out an hour earlier. So he took a bullet for about eighty dollars.

He was with us because he'd been shot again, this time high enough up to require a chest tube to drain a right-side hemothorax. His XRay looked something like this one:

Bullet and colostomy. I ran antibiotics and gave him a little morphine or percocet once in a while. I didn't need to remind him to do incentive spirometry. That always makes us nurses happy. That, and he'd ask me to unhook his wall suction occasionally so he could walk. I never had to kick his ass like I usually have to, to get people to ambulate.

He was a really nice guy and when his wife brought in his kids his face lit up. Aside from making about fifty glove balloons they were perfectly-behaved young people.

A week earlier she had been backing their car, a late-model Corolla, out of their driveway when a passing van caught the rear corner of her vehicle. She pulled up into the driveway and the van parked. Two men came out and apologized profusely.

They were all exchanging insurance information when a bunch of people started to exit from the back of the van. The two men immediately rushed over and hustled them back into it and then they insisted that they give Manuel's wife enough cash to cover repairs. The police were not notified.

Manuel and his spouse suspected that the van driver gave false insurance information and they were right, but a friend of theirs who had a shop was able to repair the car for less than the money the two men had given her.

Manuel had gotten shot this time when he was stopping off at the grocery store on his way home from work. He'd driven his wife's car so she could use their SUV to haul their children and some of their friends around after she picked them up from school that day.

Two men stepped out of a nearby-parked white dented van as Manuel loaded groceries into the back seat of the car. They came up to him and said "don't say anything, any of you bitches," and shot him. It was over in a moment.

Other people coming out of the store called for help and he was quickly taken to our emergency department.

I am what you might call "pro-immigration," as if there were anything like an actual debate going on about this issue. I think the border should be controlled but open. Let anyone who wants to cross either way, just do a little documentation. It's what we always did when we used to travel to Canada.

The so-called war on drugs has just created a huge underground market for illicit substances, driving up profits for criminals. Same thing for the war on immigration, I suppose. Take the profit out of it and things might be better for everyone.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

To Untell

We navigate through vast seas of stories. It's all narrative therapy: to tell and retell until you get it right, or at least closer to it. Your life's unfolding in various languages. Everything is a language.

Someteimes to get a little deeper into it, stories must be untold.

Like religious stories. Or patriotic tales. Emergency room anecdotes. For some people this has posed no special difficulties. Snopes. For some it can be profoundly uncomfortable. For example:

God is dead. That bothers some people. Many just refuse to accept it.

From Nietzsche's The Gay Science, an examination of moral psychology that he published in 1882.

Nietzsche himself does not say this. Those words come from a madman walking around the streets with a lantern during daylight hours.

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: "I am looking for God! I am looking for God!"

As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

"Where has God gone?" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent?

Well, he wrote that before the establishment of commonly held cosmological facts. The universe is expanding. We are moving away from all suns. There is no up or down, there are only infinite ups and downs.

This was also written before, but the madman's questions certainly presage, development of evolutionary psychology. Not exactly a sacred game. Just another way of applying scientific enquiry.

The madman (who really isn't) continues:

Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us - for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto."

Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling - it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars - and yet they have done it themselves."

It has been further related that on that same day the madman entered divers churches and there sang a requiem. Led out and quietened, he is said to have retorted each time: "what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?"

The Bible, Koran, book of Mormon, whatever, are not the arbiters of morality that many of us have been told. Sam Harris speaks to this succinctly in the 2006 best-seller Letter to a Christian Nation.

It's simple really and you can do it yourself, assuming you're not a total psychopath. If you'd never ever heard of Jesus or god or Allah or the covenant of Baha-u-llah, no matter, you'd still know it was wrong for the Nazis to cremate millions of Jews. That sense of morality came to humans long ago, before any of the holy scriptures; before any scriptures.

Even lower primates abhor murder, stealing, and disruptions of family life like adultery. These moral abilities evolved. Chimpanzees have moral systems.

Evolution is narrative therapy, written in the language of all of nature. That's the story. The real one, the one that will be left when the others are unspun.

Plan 9 From Outer Space, however, was absolutely true. You can take that to the bank.

Sunday Poetry: How Plath Ended It

Plath's father Otto was a biologist who taught at Boston University. He had expertise on bees and in 1934 (when Sylvia was two years old) he had published Bumblebees and Their Ways, still a highly regarded work.

He mistakenly self-diagnosed cancer when in fact he was in the end stages of diabetes. He could have controlled this. Instead he died in 1940 when Sylvia was only eight. She published a poem for the first time less than a year later.

Young Sylvia used to marvel at her father's ability to hold bees in his hands without being stung. He was able to determine which were males and had no stingers; he only held those.

This is the poem that Plath intended to be the last in the Ariel manuscript she was compiling at the time of her death in 1963:


This is the easy time, there is nothing doing.
I have whirled the midwife's extractor,
I have my honey,
Six jars of it,
Six cat's eyes in the wine cellar,

Wintering in a dark without window
At the heart of the house
Next to the last tenant's rancid jam
and the bottles of empty glitters--
Sir So-and-so's gin.

This is the room I have never been in
This is the room I could never breathe in.
The black bunched in there like a bat,
No light
But the torch and its faint

Chinese yellow on appalling objects--
Black asininity. Decay.
It is they who own me.
Neither cruel nor indifferent,

Only ignorant.
This is the time of hanging on for the bees--the bees
So slow I hardly know them,
Filing like soldiers
To the syrup tin

To make up for the honey I've taken.
Tate and Lyle keeps them going,
The refined snow.
It is Tate and Lyle they live on, instead of flowers.
They take it. The cold sets in.

Now they ball in a mass,
Mind against all that white.
The smile of the snow is white.
It spreads itself out, a mile-long body of Meissen,

Into which, on warm days,
They can only carry their dead.
The bees are all women,
Maids and the long royal lady.
They have got rid of the men,

The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.
Winter is for women--
The woman, still at her knitting,
At the cradle of Spanis walnut,
Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think.

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

About eighty percent of insect pollination of plants is dependent upon bees. We have them to thank for much of our global food supply.

Friday, January 11, 2008