Sunday, March 13, 2016

Mick McKellar Update -- Day +1847

Magical Mind Mentors

I was daydreaming about with whom, among Americans, I would like to spend a day, just talking. If I had to choose two -- three-way conversations stay fresher and flow better -- who would I choose?

After thinking long and hard about my own penchant for gloominess and love of stories, as well as a slightly oblique sense of humor, I chose Abraham Lincoln and Robin Williams. Let me explain why.

Why Abraham Lincoln?

"If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?"
"I don't like that man. I must get to know him better."

In my heart of hearts, I truly would love to have known the man from whom such wonderful, powerful, and succinct phrases flowed. His mind was not hampered by the iron bands which bound the minds of those educated by the leading institutions of the day, but grew free and untamed. He spoke the common man's language with the perspective of one whose voracious appetite for learning was never sated.

Lincoln knew adversity and weathered failures. He had a singular capacity for cutting through the erudite fog of seasoned purveyors of horse hockey with tightly focused homespun wit and just a touch of wisdom. He understood the intrinsic value of honesty: "No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar."

I am not certain what I would ask him, as Lincoln's quotes and writings sound self-contained and complete; he leaves nothing more to say, but everything more to do. His level of equanimity seems unrivaled. However, given that opportunity, I suppose I would tell him a bit about my own life and ask him to share his own experiences that might parallel them or offer insight. Mostly, I would want to listen because…

Lincoln was a storyteller.

Why Robin Williams?

I was fascinated by Robin Williams from the first time I saw him perform on television. Without a doubt he had what must have been the fastest mind on the planet. At one time, Jonathan Winters held that spot for me, but Williams was even faster. He could be frenetic and laser focused.

James Lipton's interview with Williams on Inside the Actor's Studio, was a tour de force -- Williams at his best. Lipton said: "His gift was the most mysterious of all gifts, it was genius. Genius is inexplicable. … You can't teach genius."

I would have loved to just talk with him about life. He was from Detroit, as am I and there might be some shared experiences to help us relate. The zaniness was not consistent, as he remarked several times in interviews -- the energy level was simply too high to maintain. And he wasn't afraid to talk about death. He said, "Death is nature's way of saying, 'Your table is ready.'" I would want to listen because…

Williams was a storyteller.

As my fantasy ended, it dawned on me that the next generations of humanity will also be searching for storytellers, but will be hampered by the noise of the Internet and social media. How will young minds, overstimulated by constant input from such a diverse selection of competing sources ever develop the capacity to sort, to select, and to synthesize what is important and meaningful for themselves? Will they be as fast as Robin Williams? Will they be as grounded and honest as Abraham Lincoln?

Both men coped with tragedies. Both men pushed themselves beyond normal physical limits. Both men looked long and hard into the abyss. Both men achieved extreme fame and made their contemporaries think about the human condition. Both men paid with their lives, though in vastly different ways. Perhaps they might have offered some hope, some perspective on how to swim in the ocean of noise.

I would have liked that.


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Mick McKellar Update -- Day +1843

A Tale of Two Teeth

I've been de-fanged. Both of my upper canine teeth are gone. The first broke while eating oatmeal and blueberries for breakfast at Rochester Methodist Hospital. Oddly, I ordered blueberries instead of brown sugar in a misguided attempt at eating a healthier breakfast. The de-fanged part of my tooth dangled for five days, falling out into a plate of food at a crowded dinner table. No one fainted, but there were concerned looks at the meatloaf resting innocently on my plate.

The second fang also began to wiggle while in Rochester, but rattled about, loosening incrementally until yesterday morning at my dentist's office. She was asking if I needed Novocain when the remarkable thing popped off into her hand. I felt I had been abandoned, as though I was a sinking ship.

I find it ironic that, as I become less and less physically able, I grow more and more to resemble a hockey player when I smile.

Both teeth broke at or below the gum-line so the roots had to be capped. All drilling and filling was done without Novocain. This was not my first anti-painkiller rodeo: I had seven teeth drilled and filled while a student at MTU, by Dr. Aldrich in Hancock. He charged $7 each if you didn't require Novocain. As a student suffering dental problems, the price seemed right -- and I had a secret weapon -- my white room.

As a very young child, I learned to go to my white room, where I could observe intense pain, even sense it, but would not be directly impacted by it. The white room is in my Great Library and has seen a great deal of use in the last five years. The white room preexisted my Great Library. I first went there when, at 18 months old, my hands and feet were badly burned by boiling water. I go there now when the powerful medications I take cause distress or when the pain in hands and feet from peripheral neuropathy grows too intense to be blunted by a single 500mgTylenol.

It's not a perfect solution, of course. Graft vs Host Disease has managed several times to generate levels of pain that pushed past my defenses, and left me screaming until multiple injections of morphine and, later, fentanyl gave me peace. Fortunately, those instances are rare, but they have given me perspective to let me relegate daily aches and pains to their proper levels.

What, if anything can you take away from my toothy tale? Consider this: After the last couple of weeks, my bark is truly worse than my bite…

Good night and God bless!


Sunday, March 6, 2016

Mick McKellar Update — Day +1840

Are We Forgetting How to Remember?

I saw a notice of the death of Umberto Eco, a semiotician, philosopher, essayist, and novelist. He wrote The Name of the Rose. Something he said in a 2011 interview with the Guardian resonates with me.

"I think a book should be judged 10 years later, after reading and re-reading it. I was always defined as too erudite and philosophical, too difficult. Then I wrote a novel that is not erudite at all, that is written in plain language, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, and among my novels it is the one that has sold the least. So probably I am writing for masochists. It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged."

I've been accused, perhaps deservedly, of writing difficult poetry and prose. I remember being told to write at 8th grade level or below, to allow for readers to have better comprehension. Of course, it seemed prudent when writing documentation to use simple, straightforward language. However, like it or not, technical language and jargon creep into documentation; indeed must be there to coordinate with processes and choices based on those ideas. It cannot be avoided.

In my poetry and prose, I search for and try to use the right word for the meaning I am trying to convey. At times, I will delve into the realm of archaic words and resurrect a seldom-used, but succinct word. For example, I like Cerulean blue. It's not azure. It's not sky blue. It is darker than both, yet not simply blue. If it fits, and the color is important, I will use it. My father's eyes were not simply blue, or even ice blue, but glacial blue — the pale, watery, chill, ancient derivative of sea water blue. They could chill your mind and freeze your soul. That's why I use specific words.

Although I agree with Eco that people want to challenged, I take it one step further. People need to be challenged. Eco once commented (from an online essay: Letter to my grandson), that people are losing their memory because of the Internet and storage on computers. They no longer need to remember. They no longer want to remember.

I want to remember.

I attended a Lutheran grade school. We were required to memorize five Bible verses every day and be prepared to recite them when classes started. Now, that might have been a religious exercise, but it taught me how to memorize quickly and efficiently. More importantly, it challenged me to find a way to remember.

Building and maintaining a memory palace became part and parcel of my everyday practice. A memory palace or mind palace is a method of loci or mnemonic device to store and retrieve information. At the time, I didn't know about the Roman and Greek development of the practice. I built my Great Library over time and as it grew, it became increasingly grand. The walls shone with the burnished beauty of mahogany panels and walls of crystal that shimmered with sunlight and moonlight. The floors of onyx and walnut travertine were polished and dust-free. The ceilings were sky blue paintings of the skies high in great mountain ranges. In many ways, it looked a lot like the Ford Rotunda that burned to the ground in 1962. I remember the great glass dome, the steel and marble walls, and the wood panels around displays. My Great Library was as huge and even more glorious!

In school, I found information in brick and mortar libraries, from books and periodicals printed on paper — or I saw and heard it first hand or from those who knew and told me. Nothing was instantaneous; and with my lousy handwriting, little that I wrote down was clearly legible. I had to remember. Now, like nearly everyone else in the modern world, I can type in a search term and information flows across the screen of my computer. So, why remember?

My recent adventure in hospitalization reminded me why it is so important to remember things. I was put on an air ambulance to Rochester, MN without time to reference my records. I had to remember important things about my medications and my recent medical history. The Internet could not help me, nor could my (now dead) desktop computer. My Grand Library is still mostly there, but because of chemotherapy and high dose medications, I can barely find anything.

I also believe that the Internet, which should have been a boon to the storytellers among us, is actually a bane. A friend of my mine once defined the Internet as "an ocean of information — one inch deep." Of course, one can still drown in an inch of water and up-wellings of bad water are still dangers lurking upon that ocean. The ease of the search, the speed of the response, and the volume of information (good and bad) have lured folks away from the sonorous voice of the storyteller and the carefully crafted word images of the poet.

If we don't use our own, incredibly powerful, totally free, super computers (our brains) we may lose the ability and the skill to use them. That frightens me.

Eco also said something that echoed with my own experience:

"All the stories I would like to write persecute me when I am in my chamber, it seems as if they are all around me, the little devils, and while one tugs at my ear, another tweaks my nose, and each says to me, ‘Sir, write me, I am beautiful’."

I've had a lot to think about today. I hope you will also think about it.

Good day and God bless,