The Ol’ Pearly Gates Ain’t What They Used toBe

Stubborn Denial

Bill ignored the early symptoms of the major coronary event that did him in. After all, he was only in his early 50s[1].

Yet, the googleable telltale signs were there, both in his body and on WebMD: cold night sweats, stentorian snoring, tightness in his chest, and then, on the day of his departure, a horrifying feeling of impending doom, like a star collapsing, sucking life’s light into a black hole of sudden despair.

He had hoped for the best, had ignored a week’s worth of symptoms, but as he pressed the button to engage the garage door opener on a clear, crisp late April Monday, two of his heart’s arteries slammed their doors, the pain Psycho-shower-scene stabbing horror show.

Clutching his chest, he thought of his children.[2]

Neither his biological offspring nor stepchild would mourn his death because he had been an aloof inconsiderate cigar-puffing malcontent who thought of his sons and daughters, which was rarely, only as abstract extensions of himself.

Jesus Christ!

The two last words screamed silently in his skull as he fell against the BMW and onto the concrete.

Interlude: A Short, Contrarian Meditation on Birth and Death

After it is all said and done, if atheism is correct, death is cessation from pain, both mental and physical, whereas birth is the commencement of suffering, of fardel bearing, of grunting and sweating, etc.

Unlike Bill, many decedents pass quietly, transitioning gently from a room of loved ones into that good night.[3]

On the other hand, no successfully born baby has ever come into being quietly, whether he or she was born in a hovel or a mahogany paneled birthing room.

Nestled in the uterus, lulled by a maternal heartbeat ­– bump-bump, bump-bump – a fetus enjoys womb-service, as it were, but with its mother’s water, all hell breaks loose.  An excruciating passage through a way too tiny portal transpires. The fetus experiences pain for the first time as it is smushed through a fleshy wringer.  Finally, when the head emerges, it encounters blinding light, sudden cold, unpleasant odors.[4]

Like a turd, the baby plops out, suffers a slap, and wails in abject horror.

The horror, the horror!

Post Death

For Bill, there was no tunnel of light with loved ones reaching down but a sudden transition, as if God had suddenly shut the venetian blinds, then immediately opened them.

Just like that he found himself alone on a cloudy plain dressed in his Tommy Bahama resort casual get-up: loud parrot-printed party shirt, cargo shorts, tasseled loafers without socks, in other words, what he had been wearing when he pressed the garage door opener and met his doom.

He looked down, and, as in a cartoon, he found himself standing on a cloud. He took a step on the soft mushy surface of what appeared to be congealed water vapor, and spritzy mist plumed upwards around his loafer. He took another step and then another.

Looking up, he saw twenty or so meters ahead a woman wearing nothing but a hospital gown, walking in the same direction, her plump exposed buttocks jiggling with each soft step. Back in the beforelife, this sight would have excited him, altered his metabolism, but here and now, here and now, here and now, it didn’t matter, and now, now, very now he could see up ahead a white walled edifice glowing beneath the blank azure of the deepest of skies, and now he could discern others walking ahead and behind, dressed in various guises, many in hospital gowns. He continued moving forward, his footprints disappearing after each step.

The Pearly Gates

It was like the heaven of a New Yorker cartoon, complete with a Northern European St. Peter with a Santa-like beard and white robe. He was running his index finger up and down a prodigious tome propped open on a golden, downright gaudy, rococo easel.

Avoiding direct eye contact, nodding quickly, St. Pete waved him through, and Bill sighed a sigh of profound relief. Despite his sloth, those hungover sabbaths in the hammock, despite his serial adulteries, his envy, greed, anger, and pride, he had somehow made it into heaven, had escaped the fiery furnace of pain everlasting.

Woo-hoo!

A Gospel Jamboree Meets O Henry Meets Jean-Paul Sartre (or Wasting Away in the Opposite of Margaritaville)

A native of Trenton New Jersey who had spent most of his adult life in central Florida, Bill had never acquired a taste for gospel music, especially hillbilly gospel, but now without transition he stood among a sea of hayseeds in white robes wearing crowns listening to a praise band plucking banjos and yodeling hallelujahs.

Good God, how long would he have to listen to this shit? [5]


[1]Although “coronary event” is effete, I thought I’d avoid triggering readers who may have lost a loved one via heartattack.

Oops, never mind.

[2]I.e., to the two sets of children from his first two failed marriages and the one stepchild from his third marriage.

[3] Or, to keep the motif going, “that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns.”

[4] My apologies to homeopathic midwives and Third World babies.

[5] A business major, Bill rarely read literature assignments, but instead opted for CliffsNotes summaries. He remembered nothing about No Exit, so had no clue of the concept of an existential hell, that his hell could be the hillbilly’s heaven whereas a never-ending Jimmy Buffett concert would be hell for these teetotaling worshipers who surrounded him.

Jean-Paul Sarte

The Uncertainty of Setting Forth

Jean-Paul Sartre

Allow me to wax metaphysical for a moment.  Life doesn’t begin at conception (the sperm and ova are alive after all) but began 3.5 billion years ago.  Life is a continuum through which beings may or may not replicate their DNA.  Randomness, not God, is the determinate in the clusterfucked process known as evolution – mutative, extinction-plagued, indifferent.

My grand transition from the birth-cave to the here-and-[not now]-now[1] occurred on a rare snowy day in Dorchester County, SC, on 14 December 1952, a leap year, an election year.  Thanks to my paternal grandmother’s terminal cancer, Clemson class-cutter meets student nurse, they elope, eschew contraception, and B-I-N-G-O!

In other words, I owe my existence to a 40-year-old woman’s terminal cancer.  If she had lived to a ripe old age, my father wouldn’t have met my mother.  He would have mated with someone else and produced a different Wesley Lee-Edward Moore III, and my mother, no doubt, would have produced other children with different surnames.  Rather than sitting here flailing away at the keyboard, the matter that constitutes me would be distributed elsewhere, and the not-I-and-I would be as oblivious to the Orwellian chicanery of Trumpworld as it was to Oliver Cromwell’s right-wing Interregnum, as oblivious to tonight’s World Series Game 5 as it was to Shoeless Joe Jackson’s stellar .375 batting average in the 1919 Black Sox series.

My not being would merely be a matter of indifference.   

What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

                    WB Yeats “Among School Children”

the author with 68 winters on its head

[1] That phrase, by the way, should be sung aloud to the tune of “Papa Oom Mow Mow.”

Tales of the 1%: Paradise Lost

Typical Sabbath at our home

Typical Sabbath at our home

My wife Judy and I are the worst type of snobs and look down our noses at such gauche cultural artifacts as Cadillac Escalades and house brand whiskeys.

We read our Dostoyevsky in Russian, our Kierkegaard in Danish. We couldn’t agree more with Sartre: “L’enfer, c’est les autres.”

Not surprisingly, then, we have always craved our privacy, have bought homes off the beaten path or that possessed either tree-and-shrub sheltered backyards or expanses of marsh as borders.

For example, here’s the backyard of our first home in Rantowles circa 1980.

wes and Judy Rantowles

We chose the lot on Folly Beach where we built our current house to accommodate the neuroses of even the most reclusive agoraphobe, shifting the footprint of the house so it does not face head-on toward the river, but, rather, looks out obliquely to undeveloped Long Island so our eyes aren’t assailed by the unfortunate aesthetic choices of the nouveau riche.

Looking out the front yard you see this:

front view

And from foyer you see this:

backyard 1.0

And until this summer our westward side yard was a forest, but no longer. Now instead of a thatch of tropical foliage, we see this, another house!:

new house

I know what you’re thinking. You entitled piece of shit. Ever seen a favela for Christsakes?   Don’t you realize that you still have more privacy than 99% of the world?

Rocinha-Favela-5

Yes, but, it’s not about the 99%; it’s about me. Now my entire lifestyle has been jeopardized. No more naked Twister on the side porch with Meryl Streep and Don Gummer, no more enjoying the glint of sunlight on my arc of urine streaming in golden splashes from the deck.

These people who have moved in look like squares. They tool around in golf carts and wear Masters golf caps. For all I know they’re going to be blasting Barry Manilow and the Ray Conniff Singers at all hours of the night. How could a loving God have punished me so? What have I done to deserve this?

The horror, the horror!

Undergraduate Existentialism Circa 1973

Rick Borstelman 2003

Rick Borstelman 2003

Existentialism was all the rage in the 60’s and ‘70’s when I intermittently attended classes in high school and college. The philosophy of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus must have hit its peak then, because the authorities allowed students to smoke — in high school in certain outdoor designated areas, and in college, right there in class. If existentialism is about anything, it’s about the rights of the individual, as we shall see.

kierkSøren Kierkegaard

Where I went to college each desk in the Humanities Building had a disposable cardboard ashtray. Students bogarted their Marlboros as they took notes, scrawling as best they could the professor’s explanation of Kierkegaard’s exegesis of the Abraham and Isaac story, scrawling (in my case, illegibly) observations like

Faith is precisely the paradox that the single individual as the single individual is higher than the universal, is justified before it, not as inferior to it but superior—yet in such a way, please note, that it is the single individual who, after being subordinate as the single individual to the universal, now by means of the universal becomes the single individual who as the single individual is superior, that the single individual as the single individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute. This position cannot be mediated, for all mediation takes place only by virtue of the universal; it is and remains for all eternity a paradox, impervious to thought. And yet faith is this paradox…

The fact that you couldn’t follow the argument, that you couldn’t figure out what the fuck the subject of the third “is” was wasn’t* important because professors didn’t test you on the material; they had you write essays just as unintelligible as the texts you couldn’t understand, which represented a triumph of subjectivity over objectivity because who has the authority to tell an individual that his reading of the text is incorrect. That would have been so fascistic.

For example, here might be my undergraduate explanation of the passage I quoted above:

See, the individual smoker who is superior to the rest of the class who doesn’t smoke gets to smoke because the smoker’s subjective universe is paradoxically the only universe because if it weren’t for him, the individual smoker, there would be no universe, the way there was no universe as far as he was concerned in 1492 because he was not as yet a sentient being who possessed the autonomy to light up a Marlboro, despite that the individual who sits behind him, who, once again, would not exist for him if not for his being able to perceive her, or, in this case not perceive her, as she suffers an asthma attack because of the smoke that would not exist except for him.

You got A’s for this type of shit — at least I did.

Meanwhile, next door, in the poetry class you might have students reading this poem by Emily Dickinson:

Abraham to kill him
Was distinctly told—
Isaac was an Urchin—
Abraham was old—

Not a hesitation—
Abraham complied—
Flattered by Obeisance
Tyranny demurred—

Isaac—to his children
Lived to tell the tale—
Moral—with a mastiff
Manners may prevail.

Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi)Now, this poem, despite its implicit criticism of the All Mighty, poses dangers for the existentialist because it doesn’t exactly offer a multitude of defensible readings. The poem rather obviously suggests that Abraham agreed to kill his beloved son Isaac because Abraham was afraid God was going to sic a big ferocious dog on his ass.

These were the types of classes existentialists should avoid because the professors tended to dismiss the right of the individual to spell words whichever way he wanted. These fascist bastards took off points when you spelled “p-a-i-d” “p-a-y-ed.”

*Verbs of being rule in existentialism; the fact that I strung three in a row suggests I get it.

new-nietzscheFredrich Nietzsche

In the progression of existential philosophers, Nietzsche comes next chronologically, and back in 1973, he was a lot easier and more fun to read than Kierkegaard. Plus, Nietzsche was quotable, the king of the aphorism. You’d even heard of some of his sayings before, like

And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

All things are subject to interpretation.

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

God is dead.

The problem with Nietzsche, though, is that these killer quotable quotes are imbedded in long, rambling essays that lack structure and sometimes seem to contradict themselves, so by the time you get to the end, you’re not sure what his main point is.

Once you got to Nietzsche in your 1973 existential survey, all that was necessary is that you kept your mouth shut if you were a Christian and not try to exercise your first amendment freedom-of-speech right because chances are your professor was an atheist who would rip you to shreds because, after all, the universe would not exist except for him.

In other words, he’d sic his rhetorical Mastiff on you.

Jean Paul Sartre

sartre-jp-728x485Although Sartre’s masterpiece On Being and Nothingness makes Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling read like a Hemingway story in comparison, the ideas themselves are not that hard to understand.

What you got is a consciousness and whatever the consciousness is perceiving, and because this consciousness has a negative power of nothingness that can create a lack of self-identity, you, the individual, need to exercise your freedom by bringing into being and acting upon your individual spontaneous choices, and if you fail to do so, if, say, you decide not to run off to Best Buy and purchase a TV monitor the size of a drive-in movie screen and instead grade those sophomore essays, you have committed “bad faith,” which leads to “nausea,” which is really stupid of you because life is meaningless, and you’ll be dead in no time and therefore kiss good-bye the universe that only exists because you perceive it be.

On on that happy note, it’s DVD time.