Month: February 2013

Satan’s Sleeping Eight

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My friend Sydney forwarded a video clip circulating on the net which makes clear we – who have only two eyes, one body, and one brain, seldom –or never- understand the implications of large numbers.  In the case of the video, the number is not infinity, but merely the relatively tiny population of China, which Wikipedia lists as 1,354,040,000 in 2012.

Watch the video clip: DANCE OF 1000 HANDS  *   


Who might predict that among 1.35 billion Chinese are so many deaf and mute women of similar age, size, and body type, who could and would devote so much of their lives to a dance group? Yet the number of Chinese says so!  What do larger numbers say – a trillion – a quadrillion,  Avogadro’s number?  Infinity?

The closest I have come recently to a big number – for me big – was reading Victor Hugo’s 5000 page Les Miserables.   And that’s a lie-that I read it all – I kindled and scanned much of Hugo’s many long digressions, of interest only to those for whom life had not yet been limited, like mine, by access to limitless electronic information. The movie was   long enough, even as a re-statement, in a different medium, about a remote culture, and age, and I felt not miserable at all. But that number-5000  pages – is a miniscule. Unlike large numbers it’s easy to understand its implications.  While I try, though, I can’t  grasp the  meaning of numbers that reflect, say,  the population of China, nor what they imply – beyond the  tangible evidence of  (how many, 100?  1000 fingers sounds more reasonable, but poetic license can be excused.) deaf and voiceless dancing young women, I can’t guess what else that moderately big number suggests- let alone what  really big ciphers might tell say.

To my tiny mind, infinity– the sleeping eight -– seems to require there is an infinite number of me; of you; of earths, of Victor Hugos. But do I really hear that infinite voice? No.  Even dark matter, strings, the Beginning, the End, and ‘life everlasting’ are more real to me than infinity.  
I can only cloyingly confine infinity to a mathematical symbol, the sleeping eight. There, like any unreal number, it can be manipulated, squared and so on. But I don’t hear its words. And maybe that’s just as well. What it seems to want to do to me — at the least — is to ruin my indefensible joy at being one, myself, alive, here, and now. So get thee behind me Satan, Don’t whisper at me with your infinite lie about infinity and knowledge. No wonder SHe kicked you out of heaven.


* The Dance of the Hands first major international debut was in Athens a the 2004 Paralympics.  But it had long been in the repertoire of the Chinese Disabled People’s Performing Art Troupe and had traveled to more than 40 countries.  The lead dancer, Tai Lihua, has a BA from the Hubei Fine Arts Institute. 


Go Away, Dad

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My father claimed that movies were senseless

Only rarely would he agree to watch one

when coaxed by an attractive woman

because he was a man above all else.


When TV first began to reshape humanity

he announced the end of civilization;

“ An end to reading, doing, living fully;

The death of imagination and communication.”


“Not so.” Said I. “ It’s access

to people, places, and learning;

A unifying force for language,

to culture, and limitless knowledge.”


Held by austere and fiercely focused ways,

he studied and underlined documents,

buried himself in the files and papers

of his dusty crowded little  office.


Over troubled years his deep earth
mining projects lived only on paper.

He never lost a moment at all

To senseless entertainment or TV.


His isolation grew by loss of hearing

Which he desperately tried to hide

pretending, nodding quickly, alertly,

but refocusing on some urgent task.


Stubborn dissimulation and isolation

worsened his mind’s deterioration,

progressive loss of independence

and episodes of humiliating confusion.


He lost professional connections,

Lost his right to drive,

Lost his bright charm for women,
Lost athletic grace and skill,
and suffered bouts of rage.


His wife of sixty years left him.

Anger was replaced by more withdrawal.

and surrender to a quiet survival.

He was unable to care for himself

In his lonely old three-story home.


I visit in the rest home when he is 93.

Gazing at a 42 inch screen from his recliner

Smiling constantly, pretending he knows me;

I reflect on the cyber world outside,

and suspect he was always right about TV.

We set free a cyber genie’s power to serve,
mastered his universe, but never ourselves;
starved of wisdom, fatted by suspect knowledge,
we wait in that genie’s bottle to to devolve
and be thrown back in the seminal sea.


This decade is as joyful as those gone by;

Fortune and loss, forgiveness, and forgiving,

failure and success, have come and gone

by chance, perhaps, more than merit.


Empowered by word processing and browsing
with instant infinite access to electronic books,
I do only  what I really want to do
as allowed by a forgiving wife;
I teach, read and write shamelessly;
Travel, and can often visit family.


I  walk the mountain though not fast
and a sturdy llama carries my pack.  
I drive easily but warily at night.
I think, perhaps, this the best of worlds.
But a familiar voice  speaks to me: It says:


 ‘ Pangloss! What are you trying to prove? .

It’s His time, not yours. Haven’t you noticed?

 You used to have no time for movies or TV.

 Now you find this the golden age of Cinema.


All things sedentary rule your life.
Your mirror and sphincters– low and high–,

complain of the years gone by.

You rest for hours after exercise,
and sleep nine hours at night.’


“ Nonsense! I can’t hear you.”  I say.
“ Go away! I don’t see you.
And if I do, I don’t understand. ”  

“Then why answer me?” the pesky voice replies.

“ Ah! It’s you, Dad.” I say. “ Please be still.”

The Volunteer

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An aged man, wasted yet tall,

volunteered for the operation.

We surgeons, four in all

were standing at our station.

He revealed no history

of ills or operations,

and made a  mystery

of past and occupations.

If one who’s lived so long’s

a treasure trove of time,

to hoard it ‘til it’s gone

must be a sort of crime.

What had he seen or done;

That never should- or will –

be known  to anyone

the day his voice  is still?

Did he like to choose

truthfulness to lies?

And when he was accused,

make amends, not alibis?

He didn’t say.

Yet he gave permission

to cut his body,

through limitless incision

as if it were his duty.

We scanned the manual

for detailed instructions.

Naomi chose a scalpel

for the hand dissection.

And on his wrist we read

words and numbers in a line.

In faded black they said:

USArmy ‘42-‘69

His cadaver stiff and thin

taught Anatomy that day

though soaked in formalin.

Why? He didn’t say.


For most freshman med students the first day with a cadaver is unforgettable. Mine was. I wrote this little poem in appreciation of our U Minnesota donor.

Body Donation appeals to me the same way driver’s license organ donation authorization does.  Both these options make me potentially useful to others after I lose my packaging.

I suggest that consideration of Body Donation should usually be made after age 65, because an earlier death can be more traumatic for survivors. It is reasonable, however, to introduce the idea beforehand, allowing for comment by family.

I can’t claim original thinking in this matter, because my father’s parents did that before me. They made the decision at age 65, and went to Stanford medical school in their 10th decade.