Tsunami Warning


        As January 2005 began unfolding, I thought I was about ready to devote a little time to some new poems again. You know, a few hours a week to draft what might become promising lines, which then might make further promises about fitting together in an absorbing, organic way. And I did manage to get started on a few useful fragments.

The experience of writing a poem has become for me the most longed-for of life’s pleasures. I guess a scientist could monitor the alternately relaxing and stimulating effects of poetry composition on the brain. Naturally, such monitors would pinpoint activities in the various synapses without providing any indication about the quality of the poem itself. But quality becomes irrelevant to a pre-posthumous writer. Any opportunity to live in words—even if only to escape into them—is one positive step in defense against the Grim Reaper.

As the first days of 2005 ineluctably became second and third episodes in a year that bodes as much evil as good, it was not a question of whether the little glasses (in this case representing various fragments of poetry) were half full or half empty. It was clear that the earthquakes and tsunamis that had come without warning to Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka the day after Christmas had put me in my own ways “on the run,” playing “mop up” right here at home. Unusually rainy weather began about the same time, and by the wee hours of the morning on January 3rd, I found myself driving my mother to the Emergency Room at Los Robles Hospital through a whopper of a downpour. Two weeks later, after time in the ICU and regular hospital, the rain quite relentless, she was resting again at our mini-hospital right here at home.

Things were starting to get back to normal. Hospice care began kicking in for my father. He had been further weakened by Parkinson’s during the last year, but he was able to celebrate his ninety-fifth birthday on January 10th by consuming several large slices of chocolate cake.

Nevertheless, in the intervening time, spyware viruses (along with the other assortments of “worms” and “Trojan horses”) had made it necessary for Steve Lewis, my mentor in website management, to change the software that allows me to upload these essays (and poems) into cyberspace. Not really computer literate, I rely on a kind of Pidgin English to negotiate my work on the web, and when the powers that be pass new laws and regulations for “security purposes,” I must work anew with any cognosciente who will deign to guide me through the new hoops.  Steve is very patient; but, though I managed to get “Pre-Posthumous Manifesto” onto my site, the link back to the main page is wrong and other typos and links need to be fixed on different pages. All of which must wait until I can comprehend and work out my way to understand the new system.

Having that material virtually inaccessible (no pun intended) to alternations, I could still scroll through and reread my documents, but couldn’t change or add anything. I was as detached from those texts, I think, as if I had been a reader on a distant planet discovering them for the first time. Of course, a poem or essay or story printed in a journal or magazine also creates a kind of distance in which the author can become an imagined reader and take pleasure or umbrage or whatever might happen in the process of reconnection.  But this was something new: a barrier of ignorance distanced me from my own work. Out there in the distance of cyberspace was my real life which the world has conspired to annihilate and cut me off from. Like P.B. Shelley, I want to be one with that world, to have access to it for the subtle additions and revisions I needed to make. I had the overwhelming urge to escape the mundane realities of life in the year 2005 and live in and for my art. Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore ! Is my New England countryman, Robert Frost, any help here in keeping me focused on the tasks at hand?


The woods are lovely dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.     (“Stopping by the Woods

                                                         On a Snowy Eve”)


Then I discovered some really bad news on the obituary page of the Los Angeles Times’ Sunday edition: my former English 1A student, Justin Barton, from a class in the Fall of 1999 had died suddenly on January 8th, and the funeral was scheduled for 2PM Monday, January 17th at Mount Sinai Mortuary, Forest Lawn. The announcement included a snapshot with his familiar smile and his head of thick black hair.

It didn’t take me long to remember when I saw Justin for what was to be the last time. After he started his on-line business, he had rented office space on La Brea, which he told me his friend Tommy had painted a pleasing Verona green. So Ben and I, when driving in the area, sometimes stopped in to see him—me to get caught up on his knowledge of the internet and the stock market (excellent information, but not of too much use to me), and Ben to ask questions about social skills, the Beatles, capital punishment, unfair treatment of “illegal immigrants,” nudity, and other subjects most people don’t have much time for.

That day Justin was in the middle of helping a friend with his website for a flower shop business in the Valley, but while he worked with his friend, he considered each of Ben’s questions and found time to answer as best he could. I was the one who eventually told Ben to call it quits. Then, maybe a few months later, when we happened to be in the area again, Ben asked about Justin, so we decided to drop in yet again, but by then the office was bare—the computers gone, the walls still painted that pleasing green color.

Knowing that his home number was still on my cell phone from the time he invited me to a Christmas party at his parents’ home off Laurel Canyon in the hills overlooking Studio City, I debated from time to time about giving him a call just to find out where he had moved the business, or what he was up to. It had even occurred to me before this Christmas to give him a call, but I didn’t want to appear to be seeking another invitation to what I assumed was an annual event.

Like so many others, I spend oodles of time in Los Angeles traffic—far more than is healthy and certainly more than is good for anyone who would rather be writing or doing physical labor. Connections with people and places in the sprawling landscape that is Los Angeles are forcibly brief—always cut short by the need to pay the parking meter or beat the traffic in one or another part of town.

What had our relationship really amounted to? Justin had been a brilliant and interesting student in a rather pedestrian English 1A class. Having taught for many years, I often remember students by their paper topics rather than their names, and Justin at first was no different, having written a good first paper, “A Day in the Life of a Day Trader,” and a second about the memory of his grandfather pointing out famous spots in New York City to a young Justin. But as the semester wore on, I recognized that he had plenty of intellectual curiosity. Since he chose to do his research paper on the life of John D. Rockafeller, we had debated the virtues and dangers of unbridled capitalism and free markets. Although he was a devotee of Adam Smith, he was open to exploring what that authority had meant when he discussed “enlightened self interest.” These discussions led to regular e-mail that continued well beyond the end of that class, which eventually led me to see him at “work” at his father’s business. There among busy dry cleaner he had a makeshift office full of computers. He was keeping up with his investments and already talking about the website business he was about to launch. My visits with him there, on Jefferson Boulevard in Culver City, led to an invitation to the Christmas party, but was that in December 2001 or 2002?  It seems now to have been in 2001, but maybe it was as long ago as the year 2000.

The funeral service was well attended. I got there too early and ended up driving in Griffith Park, getting out to use the bathroom near the Merry-Go-Round. It seemed like the right place to be while waiting for a funeral. I also had time to read a few inscriptions on the walls of the mausoleum and consider the kinds of lives the “dearly departed” might have had. Most were long lived, but a few, like Justin, had passed on in their early twenties, and these seemed to be the subjects of the most poignant messages of remembrance.

After the service I decided to exit via his open casket, mostly to thank the rabbi for his words and to share with him that I had had the same discussions with Justin that he had alluded to in his address, but then for the first time I understood the need for open caskets in some cases: I needed that last glance at the body to be convinced that Justin had died. There he was with his black hair combed back in a way he never would have combed it himself. His eyes, of course, closed. His body there as visible proof positive, but the Justin I remember always had a warm twinkle of friendship and caring in his eyes. Where had that gone?

Now as I drive in Los Angeles, it seems that every tenth car must contain a Justin behind the wheel. So many young men with dark hair on the road, for whatever reason, trapped like the rest of us in Los Angeles traffic. He lives on in many memories out there no doubt, but it is mine that is placing him behind those wheels, for reasons I can only begin to explore in words. I who have returned to Los Angeles, after leaving it in my early twenties, have sometimes imagined that there was something here I needed to return to in my own life, to pick up again where I left off at age twenty-two.  I think now that idea is mostly an illusion because the pace of life for one in his fifties doesn’t equate well with a twenty-something’s. I need to face it: whatever it was that I might have done to adjust to life in Los Angeles at that earlier age passed me by the moment I chose to leave.

 But perhaps the central message is Time itself wasted--in traffic, in money spent on spiffy cars and clothes, in the scheduled events and ritual exercises that we keep on doing merely to keep up appearances and establish meaningful routines.

One theme that came out in all the remembrances of Justin at the funeral was the double-edged sword of his devotion to others and of his high standards for himself.  As his friend Tommy said, until January 8th, his final day of life, he never gave himself a break.

Now I recognize that I had a sense of his vulnerability in this area without really knowing how to address it, or how as a teacher I might have offered some council. It’s easy when a student has skills as a writer and/or wants to teach. You can offer suggestions and clarify choices and sacrifices, but that was not Justin’s case.  He really didn’t seem to have time or the need to get a university education. It was too elementary, and he had better things to do. And unlike many students, he convinced me he knew whereof he spoke. But maybe not.

I am convinced that any attempt I might have made to follow any particular course of study would not have made much of an impression.

As I finish up this essay, January 2005 is slipping away minute by minute. I can barely hold on to consciousness as I recuperate from the flu and think about all that has already happened this month and all that still lies ahead for me. Fortunately there are moments when I get off to a concert (Schumann’s Piano Concerto at Disney Hall), listen to CDs in the car (the Russian National Orchestra’s fine recording of the Pathetique Symphony), go some distance with friends to hear a poetry reading (Robert Bly in San Jose), and then revisit a poet’s stone house built with his hands (Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House in Carmel). The countryside in California right now reminds me of “England’s green and pleasant land.”

Although I will not escape from Los Angeles easily or find as much time I would like to write poetry or learn fast enough to keep up with changes in the world of software for computers, I will at least find the time to drive by a billboard on Westwood Boulevard just south of Wilshire where Justin’s face has a brilliant sunset as a backdrop. There he is described as a good confidante, and that he was.

It is another expression of loving farewell to someone who always burned with a “gemlike flame” in other ways than the merely literary, and whose life meant a great deal to everyone who knew him.

My own miles ahead seem a little shorter when I think how much life he had to load in to his far briefer time in this planet. Cut off in his golden years! Nearly the same age as John Keats!