The Use of Talking

There is no end of things in the heart.

Archive for January 2012

Lacerations

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This post is very hard to write. The only way into it is to say what has to be said at the beginning: My son is fifteen years old; since the age of six, he has suffered from a serious emotional illness. This has resulted in a number of hospitalizations, emergency room visits, and a stay in a group home. He has had years of therapy and special schools and medication.

I wrote, “he has suffered.” In fact, all of us have suffered, his mother and I, and his four siblings, along with him. This illness has cost us tears and time and money; it has cankered our relationships with each other; it has flayed us to the nerves and made us afraid. It has kept me skating around the edge of despair, for him and for us. It has reopened old wounds and made new ones.

Sunday mornings are not easy here on the mountain. Our son’s resentments and irritation and anger and boredom and depression, always there under the surface, often show themselves then. This morning his talk suddenly became hostile and unpleasant, and his mother and brother went on to church without him. A reason for his mood soon surfaced—he was angry about losing his Sunday video/computer game playing time the day before—and after a half hour or so he was feeling better.

Today everything settled down. But in the back of all our minds is the chance that it won’t, that he won’t, settle down, that he will go too far down the road he’s chosen. And that will mean a 911 call and police and paramedics and an ambulance ride to the emergency room and a struggle over insurance, because, as of right now, he doesn’t have any.

The wounds every member of our family bears are unique to him or her. For me, the most painful is the knowledge that when I look at my son I look at myself, my own weakness and anxiety and depression and fear and, worst of all, my own stubborn and cruel self-absorption blown up from sixteen millimeter to CinemaScope. And with it the thought that it was I who passed all this on to him.

There are nights when I go to bed dreading what might happen the next day; there are nights when I go to bed too tired to care. There are nights when all I can pray for is another day’s endurance; there are nights when I can’t pray at all. There are nights when I’m up half the night worrying about his future: Will he ever go to college? Will he be able to support himself? Will he manage to stay out of the hospital? Will he manage to stay alive?

After my son had calmed down, we went to church together, to the big parish church down one hill and up another. On the way back we laughed, and he sprinkled snow down the back of my neck. A father and his son, just like all the others, on a bright sunny winter afternoon.

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Written by hans castorp

January 22, 2012 at 6:43 pm

Posted in Autobiography

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The Way Out World

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Picture a small room, longer than it is wide, with a door leading into a kitchen. Two pine bookcases, stained brown, stand on either side of a window. Against the opposite wall is a bed, and in the bed a ten-year-old boy is lying in the dark pretending to sleep. Half under the pillow, half covered by the blanket is an old gray portable radio. His father is asleep in the big bedroom (he gets up at 5:30 to go to work). From the living room, on the other side of the thin wall by the boy’s bed, he can hear the sound of the television and his mother’s laughter. From the radio comes some music from Forbidden Planet and then a man’s voice.

Hi, neighbors. This is Long John once again. We’re around from midnight to 5:00 five mornings during the week, and of course on weekends we’re around till 5:30, and that means we’re on the air for some 36 hours. And during that time it’s my pleasure to talk with many interesting people.

The boy has stumbled on this show by accident, The summer before, in a camp infirmary, he had read an old issue of Mad magazine with an article in it titled “The Night People vs Creeping Meatballism.” Though it was illustrated in the typical Mad style, it was an essay, the sort of thing that usually didn’t appear in the magazine. The essay contrasted the Night People, who were hip and interesting, with the Day People, who were Creeping Meatballs. The author was a man named Jean Shepherd, described as a “disk jockey” on a New York radio station. The boy left camp with three resolves that August: he would never go back to camp, he would find Jean Shepherd on the radio, and he would make himself a Night Person.

Back at home, the boy took the family radio into his room and tuned in Jean Shepherd on WOR. It was obvious at first listen that he wasn’t a disk jockey. Oh, he played music, but it was short clips of songs like “The Sheik of Araby,” accompanied on the Jew’s harp. The music punctuated the stories Shepherd told, stories about his his boyhood in Hammond, Indiana, his work in the open hearth, his time in the army. Mixed with or instead of the stories, there were readings of George Ade or haiku, reflections on the iniquity of New Jersey, and commentary on the passing parade. The boy was well on his way to becoming a Night Person, but the end was not yet.

Then, one night, after a holiday spent with the relatives in Brooklyn, the boy lay exhausted in the backseat of the family car. It was very late; the boy asked his father to turn on the radio. Jean Shepherd was not there. Instead, there was a man with a born salesman’s voice interviewing a former prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. The boy was curious, and soon tried to stay up past Jean Shepherd to listen to this new program. One night the show featured a man who claimed he had ridden on a flying saucer. The boy was hooked. He was now a Night Person.

It was hard to smuggle the family’s radio into his room, and even harder to hide it under the pillow, but somehow he managed. And into his ears poured the strangest assortment of people he had ever heard: not just flying saucer contactees, but mediums, skeptics, radiesthesists, builders of psionic devices that operated even after their circuitry hadbeen replaced with schematics, a barber from Brooklyn with headgear that allowed him to communicate with the Space Brothers (the original tinfoil hat?), and the inimitable Otis T. Carr, the designer of the world’s first flying saucer with antigravity propulsion. When Long John’s book, The Way Out World , came out in the early ’60s, the  boy rushed to Brentano’s on Fifth Avenue to buy a copy. It was the first newly published book he had ever bought.

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I listened to Long John through the sixties and into the seventies. He moved from WOR to WNBC, where he had two or three shows running in different time slots, and when NBC switched to a music format, he moved to WMCA, where he co-hosted with his wife, the former model Candy Jones, and as the cancer that was to kill him progressed, spending less and less time on the air. When he died in 1978, I felt as if part of my life had died with him. I listened to other late-night talkers through the years—Barry Farber, the Amazing Randi (briefly), even, when desperate, Larry King—but none of them (nor Art Bell nor, heaven forfend, George Noory) could hold a hoodoo candle to LJN.

Now what, you may ask, did listening to Long John do for me? Well, it made me a Night Person, which only marriage to a morning person could ameliorate; it caused me to doze my way through first-period classes in high school; it filled my brain up with stuff that, as my wife will gladly tell you, is of less than no use. But useful or not, it’s stuff that remains with me all these years later, stuff that spills out of my mouth at the least opportunity, sometimes amusing for my listeners, but, I’m afraid, more often boring. And it introduced me to a way out world of wackiness that has given me hours and hours of good clean fun.

Since those long ago Long John nights, the paranormal has become mainstream; what used to be called the occult turned into the New Age and from there into a seemingly endless source of romance characters and “reality” TV shows. I’ve always seen “alternate spiritualities,” as they’re sometimes called, as ersatz religions, as me-centered substitutes for God-centered faith, and as such, they have never appealed to me. I’m not a believer in the influence of the stars or dowsing or spirit trumpets or incantations or visitors from Aldebaran. I do get a certain frisson from, if not suspending, then slackening my disbelief and imagining that Bigfoot is lurking in the forest and the deros are pursuing their evil experiments in the bowels of the earth. And I wonder how otherwise normal-seeming people can not so much suspend their disbelief as toss it away.

If I have my wish, the next time I wake up in the middle of the night there’ll be an old gray radio at my bedside. I’ll turn it on, tune over to the left of the dial, and hear the voice of Long John Nebel. In the meantime, there’s the Interwebs; you can listen to Long John here.

And check out The Paracast, where a few of those voices of yesteryear (plus a whole lot of new ones) can be heard weekly, at any hour you like.

Written by hans castorp

January 21, 2012 at 8:26 pm

Time Out for Reality

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Things have been a little hectic on the mountain this week, and I haven’t been able to post much. Without going into details, we’ve been having difficulty with health insurance for one of the junior Castorps, the one as it happens, who needs it most. I’ve spent a good deal of time over the last three weeks and a great deal over the last few days trying to negotiate bureaucracies of various kinds, climbing up telephone trees, visiting offices, conferring with doctors and social workers, trying to gather data and reconstruct previously submitted forms, etc, etc. In short, I feel as if I’ve fallen out of Herr Mann’s novel and into one of Herr Kafka’s.

If you’re the praying kind, prayers appreciated. If not, good thoughts will do. I hope to get back to blogging in the next few days.

Written by hans castorp

January 20, 2012 at 11:29 am

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Behind the Mask: The Confessions of a Viator Vagans 2

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We, who remember, look back to the blossoming May-time
On ghosts of servers and thurifers after Mass,
The slapping of backs, the flapping of cassocks, the play-time,
A game of Grandmother’s Steps on the vicarage grass—
“Father, a little more sherry?—I’ll fill your glass”

                                            —John Betjeman, “Anglo-Catholic Congresses”

I loved being an Anglo-Catholic. I loved the music, the ritual movements, the smoke, the Cranmerian and Jacobean prose, the deep but undemonstrative piety of seventeenth-century saints like George Herbert; I still relish the beautiful story Isaak Walton tells about Herbert:

In another walk to Salisbury, he saw a poor man with a poorer horse, that was fallen under his load: they were both in distress, and needed present help; which Mr. Herbert perceiving, put off his canonical coat, and helped the poor man to unload, and after to load, his horse. The poor man blessed him for it, and he blessed the poor man; and was so like the Good Samaritan, that he gave him money to refresh both himself and his horse; and told him, “That if he loved himself he should be merciful to his beast.” Thus he left the poor man; and at his coming to his musical friends at Salisbury, they began to wonder that Mr. George Herbert, which used to be so trim and clean, came into that company so soiled and discomposed: but he told them the occasion. And when one of the company told him, “He had disparaged himself by so dirty an employment,” his answer was, “That the thought of what he had done would prove music to him at midnight; and that the omission of it would have upbraided and made discord in his conscience, whensoever he should pass by that place: for if I be bound to pray for all that be in distress, I am sure that I am bound, so far as it is in my power, to practice what I pray for. And though I do not wish for the like occasion every day, yet let me tell you, I wou1d not willingly pass one day of my life without comforting a sad soul, or shewing mercy; and I praise God for this occasion. And now let’s tune our instruments.”

And on a less exalted level, I enjoyed the sense of being a member of a party in the church, secretly envying the nineteenth-century vicars persecuted and imprisoned for wearing chasubles and reserving the Sacrament on the altar. There was still back then a feeling of daring, of tweaking the establishment with our Corpus Christi processions and our Solemn Benediction on Sunday evenings. We tittered over the RCs who didn’t realize that ours was an Episcopal parish; we feigned outrage over reports of a low-church bishop who presented his Masonic ring to be kissed by the faithful.

There were less attractive things as well: a rather camp sensibility that sometimes flirted with cynicism., and snobbery, aesthetic, intellectual, and social. People would refer to the Catholic church as “the place where the servants go” and yet take a certain satisfaction in any sign of recognition from the “Romans.” (“Did you hear that so-and-so didn’t have to repeat any sacraments when they received her?”) We thought we could take what we wanted from Rome (and perhaps a bit from the Orthodox), including the beautiful things she was in the process of discarding, and leave what we didn’t like.

And we took a lot: fiddleback chasubles (though we preferred Gothic—ours were silk, theirs were polyester); incense (we mixed our own); Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament; auricular confession; the Rosary; Tenebrae (what a feeling of awe mixed with sensory pleasure when, after what seemed hours of psalms and lessons, all chanted, the last altar candle was extinguished and the choir—ours was professional—sang Allegri’s “Miserere” from the Lady Chapel); St. Blaise’s Blessing (we had the special candle holder and candles); the feasts of the Conception (we dropped the Immaculate, though the choir sang of our Lady, “there is no spot of sin in thee”) and the Assumption; and on and on.

As for what we left . . . “the bishop of Rome and all his enormities.” Many of our parishioners were refugees from those enormities, because they were gay or divorced or had problems with Humanae Vitae or had an unsympathetic confessor or got mad at the pastor or the bishop, or missed the decorum and beauty of the Old Rite. So we left the bishop of Rome’s Jesuitical casuistry, his unreasonable expectations for human conduct, his déclassé clergy, and his (in ICEL English at least) banal liturgy.

I owe many things to my Anglo-Catholic days: a love of the liturgy and its music, a respect for sound learning, a spirituality grounded in the mass and the daily office, a preference for unspectacular piety, and friends who have been and still are very important to me. But along with all that was an undercurrent of disquiet. There was always a buzz, now louder, now softer, about who had “Roman fever” and who was poised to become Orthodox. There is a built-in instability to the Anglo-Catholic position, caught as it has usually been between the real religion of its church body and its own Catholic aspirations. (See, for example, Newman’s Anglican Difficulties.) At the time, before the gender and sexuality wars that have since rent the Episcopal church, with the more Catholic tendency (as I viewed it) of the 1979 Prayer Book and the spread of vestments, candles, and crosses and other Catholic externals throughout the church, that was not as evident as it is now, but it was there. What I did with that disquiet remains to be told.

To be continued.

Written by hans castorp

January 14, 2012 at 8:29 pm

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