These days as I cope with a condition I have sorrowfully come to realize is one from which I shall never recover – I am referring to old age, which I don’t recommend (though I am still searching for a reverse gear on eBay) – I have come to realize that I am also living on a kind of island. Around me are the waters of my own incapacity comprised of all the things I used to enjoy doing or at least could do that are now off-limits to me. Mostly the terra firma of my daily life is located in my own home and the nearby bike path where I still occasionally saunter, sometimes with a tread of steely determination, though more often with a sullen trudge.
Even at home, where on occasion of an evening, I entertain myself with a movie on streaming video (praise be to Netflix and Amazon Prime), I am reminded of my island. For example, when I see a film that is situated in a city abroad, I am aware that I will never see one again and even if I could travel there, I couldn’t deal with the crowds and the hurly-burly of swarms of pedestrians. And with my poor vision, I would be a candidate for my instant demise if I were ever able to attempt to cross a busy intersection. Can you imagine me trying to traverse the streets circling the Arch of Triumph on the Champs-Élysées? Monsieur Magoo would soon be a pancake.
Most men my age, or at any age, might amuse themselves with a hobby of some sort – woodworking, golf, having a clandestine love affair, etc., but being Jewish I have never been clever with my hands. You know what they say about Jews – they only use their hands to point. So much for being Homo faber – man the maker. Tools and I have always been strangers to each other; with Thomas Carlyle, I find them completely alien and manifestly dangerous. There must be some kind of psychiatric term for an unreasoning phobia of tools. Whatever it is, I have a bad, incurable case of it. Some people fear spiders or heights; I become frightened whenever I see someone using an electric saw.
Maybe it’s because I am descended from a long line of Lithuanian rabbis (that is actually true, and it makes a great excuse). These were men who spent their lives obsessively reading Torah and Talmud, and never lifting a finger while their wives ran the business, raised and scolded the kids, and shushed them when the great man was trying to study. Even my Aunt Mary, who was really my mother in many ways, would shoo her husband away from my bedroom, whispering, “Be quiet, George; Kenny is studying.”
Of course, by the time I was a young teenager, I found that I could actually use my hand for various purposes, including that of auto-eroticism, which although I was no Portnoy, I decided would be good to cultivate. (Girls came later, and there I could use both hands.) But eventually, I found what my hands were really suited for, and this was just about the only thing that has lasted: writing. So what if I couldn’t be a member of the species, Homo faber? I had found my own species where I belonged: Homo sematicus.
So I became a professor and learned to write for a living. And after having written nearly a score of books and maybe a hundred articles or so, I looked at my still serviceable hands and asked them, “What now, old friends?” They considered the matter and eventually they had an answer for me.
“Write letters,” they said.
So, thanks to the mixed blessings of e-mail, that’s what I’ve been doing while remaining on my island waiting to die. It’s just me and my trusty desktop iMac. I am passing the time by writing to my friends as well as to various professionals who find their way to my inbox. It’s one of the few things I can still do, and I expect to keep writing, even on my deathbed. William Blake sang on his; I hope to be tapping on my keyboard until I croak.
So here are some samples from my life as Kenneth Letterman.
Lately, I’ve been writing to a new friend who turns out to be a farmer on the East Coast. I don’t have much experience with farmers, and the last time I can remember being on a farm was when I was fourteen and working on a peach farm in central California, illegally, to be sure. I remember my foreman telling me in pretty much these words, speaking of the “winos” (as they were called in those days), “Well, kid, now you’ll see how the other half live.” I was not sure I wanted to know. Fortunately, my boyhood buddy, Lorry, who was sharing this illicit adventure with me, soon developed a nosebleed after which there was an earthquake, after which my parents and Lorry’s decided they had better rescue us before something worse happened.
So I wrote to my new friend: Of course, we Jews were mostly not allowed to farm, so we became urban people and specialized in growing money. (Unfortunately, I never got the gene for the latter.) I think I’ve been on a farm once or twice, and found it completely alien to my spirit and smelling of manure. On this score, I’m with Woody Allen who said “nature and I are two.”
I have another friend (I actually have perhaps five or six friends at last count) whom I'll call "Jack." Jack’s about my age and lives up in Oregon where he manages an apartment complex. He is one of my few — or perhaps my only — gay friends. He is also the funniest man I know — his letters, which usually come once a year around the time of my birthday, when he also sends me very thoughtful presents, invariably crack me up. They are side-splittingly funny. I have often told him that he missed his calling by not becoming a stand-up comedian to which he usually retorts with a quip to the effect that these days, he can no longer stand up at all, and even has to squat to urinate. And that’s no joking matter, he will add.
I first got acquainted with Jack when I was living back in Connecticut and still active as an NDE researcher. At that time, I was considering undertaking a research project having to do with NDEs among gays, and I as I recall, somehow I was put in touch with Jack in that connection.That research never got very far, but Jack and I became devoted friends in the course of our correspondence. He was also very interested in NDEs and spiritual matters, and we had a lot of deep discussions about those topics in our letters, which were fairly frequent in those years.
After I moved to California, Jack was finally able to come to visit me here (he arrived with “a rent boy”), and we had a bang-up time together. If I were able to turn gay, Jack would be my kind of guy. Despite meeting only that one time, I regard Jack as one of my most precious friends. His letters to me are not only hilarious and clever, but full of expressions of appreciation — and almost reverence — for me. How can you not love a guy like that?
These days, we also write about what we are reading, often talk about mathematics (I am keen to read about mathematicians, even though my mathematical ability is roughly that of an ape), and of course as befits old men, about our ailments.
Here’s just one of my letters to Jack I wrote a couple of years ago, just to give you a feeling for the pleasures his letters always give me.
I can always count on you for the veritable “barrel full of laughs” whenever I receive a letter from you. I know I’ve said that you missed your calling by not being a stand-up comedian, but since you seem to spend most of your life sitting on your local commode these days (and nights), maybe you should consider just becoming a sit-down comedian and save your feet for break dancing. On the other hand, I remember learning from the film, “My Favorite Year,” starring the ever-dazzling Peter O’Toole, that one should never tell a joke sitting down. Just why that was, was never made clear. There’s also a really funny scene in that film when Peter O’Toole is swinging like Tarzan on a rope just before he is to land on stage and shouts to contradict an admirer, “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!” Well, maybe you had to be there. I suggest you go directly to Netflix, order the damn film, and watch that scene. Then you’ll be able to laugh.
But as we are old and doddery, not to say dingy, why shouldn’t we dwell on our urinary trials? Some of my greatest recent adventures have had me diving into ditches by the roadside on trips down the coast when a toilet wasn’t handy. Passing motorists would toot me on as I dribbled urine down my pant leg. And going to the toilet only two of three times a night would be a good night for me, Jack. Just wait until you reach my age as you approach what I am pleased to call “advanced middle age.”
Your Retirement – Who Cares? clock and I are still ticking away, though I seem to be ticking at a somewhat slower rate these days, as befits an aging though newly minted octogenarian. And aren’t you (characteristically) clever to find such a wonderful mathematical way to express my age. Here I had been content merely to say that I was now 9 squared minus one (I wish I knew how to create numerical superscripts on this computer, but it is clearly just another one of my 613 failings, the exact number of laws that an Orthodox Jew needs to obey in order to bring down another messiah into our midst, who is unlikely to prosper any better than the last one). Anyway, I was charmed to get a birthday greeting from you again this year, and by sending it late you actually didn’t have to contend with the crowd, most of whom have now left me in peace or is it pieces? Possibly both.
Actually, I had an early 80thbirthday bash in mid-August last year. It was attended by all the members of my less than illustrious family – my three kids, their spouses, and all five of my grandchildren – the first time that my entire family had been assembled in one place, ever! And of course it was supplemented by a motley assortment of my ne’er-do-well friends who pretended to admire me exceedingly. No, really, I had a great time getting roasted, toasted and embarrassingly drunk, and they tell me I had the time of my life, though frankly I can’t remember anything that happened after I started to eat that spiked chocolate cake.
Now for true confessions. (Is there any other kind?) I have already read quite a bit about this mathematical wunderkind, Ramanujan, and his relationship with Hardy (though I never knew Hardy was gay – leave it to you to know such arcana), but Jack, my vision is now so bad that I simply can’t deal with that tiny Tim font. I’m almost blind as it is and this book, were I actually to try to read it, would certainly render me Samson-like without the muscles. Besides, it is too technical for a mathematical doofus like me. I really prefer my mathematicians without the math, to be honest. But if it’s the thought that counts, even if I can’t count beyond my finger limits, it was a hit. Still, would you like me to return it so that you can give it to someone who actually has 20-10 vision and a thing for Indian mathematicians, whether they be gay or not?
But, don’t worry, Jack. That doesn’t mean I am going to return your presents or send back that raucous birthday card. On the contrary, I’ve found the perfect place for that hilarious “retirement clock” of yours – no, not in my toilet – and will also look forward to reading that humorous book you sent me, assuming my eyes last that long. Anyway, your antic gifts were much appreciated.
Otherwise, just to re-assure you, except for not being able to see, always asking people, “what was that you just said?”, having more false teeth than ever, living on smoothies, and not being able to travel, life is peachy keen.
And with that, along with your other assignment from the Netflix archives, I will mercifully release you to other pleasures, not excluding those of the urinary kind, of course.
Take care of those eyes of yours, Jack, and your other body parts. And thanks again for making me a happy Ken, as I always am when I hear from you.
My friend Jan, a Norwegian playwright and author, and I met in the mid-eighties in California when we were both interested to pursue an amatory relationship with a woman named Leah who introduced us. We met in a little restaurant in Storrs, where the University of Connecticut is located, and I was immediately smitten — with Jan (who got and married the girl). He was cultivated, with the kind of courtly charm that only Europeans appear to have, was very literate, and interested in many of the same subjects — NDEs, psychedelics, consciousness studies — in which I was then absorbed. We became friends almost immediately — friendship at first sight, one might say — and have remained the best of friends ever since.
After that first meeting, we managed to see each other frequently. He lived for a while in the States with Leah, so I saw him frequently during those years. But after they divorced, I visited him many times (five altogether) in Norway, and also spent some time traveling with him and my fourth wife, Barbara, in Italy, where we spent three weeks together one winter. In those days, I was using psychedelics and taking Ecstasy, and as Jan was, too, we sometimes took our journeys together.
Both Jan and I have had many lovers and each us of has been married four times. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, we were both involved in a series of romantic adventures, so that when we got together, we would usually spend a lot of time ruing some of the unwise decisions we had made — or were still making! — in our love lives. During those years, Jan became my dearest friend and male confidant.
But after our lives settled down — Jan has now been married for a long time to his Norwegian wife Astrid — and we became older, it was more difficult to arrange to see each other, so we naturally started to write to each other, and we continue to do so fairly frequently to this day.
Jan is now 92, and is still active writing his plays (three in the last two years!) and reading. These days, we mostly write about what we are reading when we are not discussing our most recent health trials. (Jan has had to have a pacemaker implanted and also suffers chronic pain from spinal stenosis, of which I have a mild case myself.). But mostly it’s “the reading life” that occupies our attention.
Although I’ve just heard from Jan, who is still dong well, here’s one of my typical letters I wrote to him just when it was clear that Donald Trump would receive the nomination for President.
Always happy to hear from you, mon frère, and glad that you enjoyed reading Augustus. Before I started that book, I had read a long narrative history called Dynasty about the first five emperors of Rome, and by far the longest section dealt with Octavius/Augustus. From reading that account of his life, I could tell that Williams had been pretty faithful in his depiction of Augustus, but of course he used his skill as a novelist to blend history with plausible invention. I found the book very compelling.
Meanwhile, I just started another book, and a classic, about a famous Roman emperor of a different era, Hadrian. The book is called Memoirs of Hadrian and it may well have inspired Williams to write his book for all I know.
Here, for what it’s worth, is a brief summary of the other books I am currently reading.
I may be straighter than a Euclidian line, but I seem to be fascinated to read about gay life. Right now, I’m reading a book called Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World. It basically tells the story of the rise and dominance of gay culture beginning with Oscar Wilde. I have already spent a lot of time in the gay subculture of Russian ballet (mostly in France, actually), in Paris, especially in the period between the wars, and Berlin during the Weimar Republic. I’m convinced that every important artist was either gay or bi-sexual. Heterosexuals like me are dull fare compared to the people I’ve been reading about. I have obviously missed out on a lot, Jan. Anyway, I recommend the book if you are at all interested in this sort of thing – it’s well written, not gossipy, but the author, a poet himself, seems to be familiar with every gay liaison that ever was.
Another book that I’ve been listening to (Lauren has been reading it to me) is a counter-factual novel by Philip Roth called The Plot Against America. It imagines what life in America would have been like for Jews had Charles Lindbergh, a well-known Nazi sympathizer, been elected President after which Hitler wins the war. The book has very clear resonances to what’s going on in America today with the rise of our next President, Donald J. Trump, who just last night received the nomination by the Republican Party, which has clearly taken a Trumpian turn toward a kind of Mussolini-like fascism. The only good news about this is that I will soon be moving to Norway. Do you think you can put me up for a few days until I can get settled there?
Finally, I have a book to recommend to you, even though it’s not fiction. Check out When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi on Amazon. It's extremely moving and, again, beautifully written. It deservedly was the number one bestseller on The New York Times Booklist. You won’t be disappointed.
Oh, wait. I just remembered a wrote a brief review of it for Amazon. I’ll paste it in here….
When Breath Becomes Airis easily the best book I’ve read in the last year. The man who wrote it, a neurosurgeon at Stanford named Paul Kalanithi, died just about a year ago on March 20th. In his book, he tells the story of his life and of his (facing) death. He has written a poem. A brave man, rigorously honest, deeply feeling, and a literary man to his core, who was also a dedicated and highly honored neurosurgeon, he has written a book of searing beauty and unsparing self-revelation about what it’s like to die. It has quickly and deservedly become a bestseller. His wife, Lucy, contributed a very affecting epilogue that almost made me cry. Paul died of lung cancer at thirty-seven and received many moving eulogies from his friends, family and colleagues. This book completes his life and gives it its ultimate meaning. His writing is a source of joy, which is only one of the many gifts to be derived from this jewel of a book.
Well, that should keep you busy for a while, mon vieux. In the meantime, keep writing those plays, keep writing to me and please tell Astrid to prepare a bed for me. I’ll be arriving soon.
Like me, most of my friends now are old, and quite a few of them with whom I enjoyed lively e-mail exchanges have gone on to better things. Ultimately, we old guys find ourselves not only with diminishing resources but subject to becoming a kind of amity-based orphan, abandoned by friends and stuck on a small island while the wider world whirls on without us (how’s that for an alliterative riff?). Still, it’s not bad. As long as my fingers still work and a few friends remain – and the electricity stays on – you will find me happily typing away on my little island writing my letters and, when my hands are quiet, dreaming of the life I once had and yearning for the life to come, still waiting to die.
Dr. Ring is Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Connecticut where he researched near-death experiences. He designed scientifically structured studies of 102 near-death survivors that further developed Dr. Raymond Moody's early NDE findings. He is well-known for his ground-breaking research of investigating NDEs among blind persons in his book Mindsight. Ken Ring is the co-founder and past president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) and is the founding editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies. He has published several near-death experience related books, including Life at Death (1980), Heading Toward Omega (1984), The Omega Project: Near-Death Experiences, UFO Encounters, and Mind at Large (1992), and his most well-known and celebrated NDE book, Lessons from the Light (2000).
CHECK OUT KENNETH RING'S NEW BOOK: