Oh My Nerves

I have been meaning to post for some time now, on the theme of entropy, or how Things Fall Apart unless we continually strive to make them better, or put energy into the system. The pandemic; the four ruinous years of a hideous tyrant who came unthinkably close to gaining four more years; the increasingly loud drumbeat of history; the assault on the Capitol by a bunch of unimaginably spoiled and entitled white people. It’s enough to make a thoughtful person grip her forehead. Every morning, I drink a thermos of dark roast and listen to the birds, avoid any type of digital media, read venerable old books by people who know how to write and think, walk the dog, and try to sally forth verily, but for months now I have been unable to eke out a word on digital paper.

Except today. I will post today about my cousin Barbara, who was in violent agreement with me concerning all the things I am perennially concerned about, and which I have referenced above. We lost her last Wednesday, April 21st.

She was born in Brooklyn, and she died in North Carolina. a place which can be severely disappointing, bagel-wise, during that difficult interval wherein a transplanted Brooklynite tries to take root. Nonetheless, in her stoic way, she carried on in Cary through years of illness and disability, often dreaming of an Everything Bagel with Cream Cheese, and wistfully acknowledging that it just wasn’t gonna happen.

Barbara Lynne Yurgel Nespoli was ten years older than me, and she often reminded me that she changed my diapers. I lived in her room for about a year when I was ten going on eleven, and with my brother, and with my other two cousins (her two younger siblings), we definitely made her tear her hair out on more than one occasion. In the late 1960s, she worked at the Empire State Building as a secretary, fresh out of high school, and once took me to her office, which was somewhere in vicinity of the 40th or 50th floors, the girthy mid-section of the ESB.

Barbara hosted many Christmases and Thanksgivings and non-holiday visits, and my children have great memories of the freedom of Brooklyn. Entenmann’s cake! Coca Cola! Unlimited cartoons! Nok-Hockey in the basement. Largely free from parental interference, my kids and their three cousins roamed her house like sugar-crazed wildebeests, and woe betide the parent who got in the way of their fun, because Barbara would give them what for, and woe betide the family member who unfailingly messed up the VCR programmed to record Barbara’s programs. It wasn’t me, just sayin’.

Barbara made acres of lasagne and metric tons of turkeys. Even in the leanest years of our childhood, Sunday was pot roast day, and I still make mine according to Barbara’s recipe. She was the designated gift-buyer for her family and could wrap a present like nobody’s business, her carefully guarded sharp scissors gliding through paper. Each Christmas, her brother Glenn would videotape her reaction to generous gifts (she wept easily), while adding annoying voiceover commentary (Hey Barbara, need a tissue?). She was an affectionate person. She taught my son to hug properly (You call that a hug? What’s wrong with you? Come back here and hug me again). I can still feel how she would completely envelop me in her arms, coming or going.

Barbara was a busy aunt who performed many unsung hours of niece and nephew oversight, and she knew how to make a kid behave with merely a glance. All those kids learned how to clean dishes and sweep up a floor and set a table, when they weren’t busy reprogramming the VCR. Oh My Nerves became her catchphrase (believe me, your nerves would be shot, too), and she had the t-shirt to prove it.

When we got together in our later years, we would reminisce about our collective pasts, lives winding in and out of each others’ as time passed, attempting to confirm or deny certain facets of the truth, fact-checking, teasing, laughing uproariously, and sometimes falling silent from the overwhelming weight of everything we’ve been through, alone and together.

I spoke to Barbara just a few days before she passed away, never thinking it would be the last time. She had been in intense pain for weeks, and on that day she simply was unable to converse for more than a brief moment. I had been planning to visit her, and then she was suddenly hospitalized, and then she was gone.

Goodbye, Barbara. You were my friend as well as my cousin, and I will miss you very much.


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Not a Mat. A Raft.

I’ve always had a conflicted relationship with my brain. Seat of volition and sensation, engine of motion, generator of images, sprinkler of thoughts. When I was very young I soaked up impressions at a visceral and exhausting pace, and I had a nearly photographic memory. I was a solitary kid, often lost in daydreams, nose in a book, and content in my own little world. When my family split up and we moved from the quiet, grassy suburbs to concrete-lined, disruptive Brooklyn, I was entering the fifth grade. As it was a new environment and a new school district, I was subjected to a battery of tests, and it turned out I was 6 grades ahead in language arts, and 3 grades ahead in math. I started attending a “gifted” class that was an intellectual awakening which paralleled another, more social awakening. Shy and mortified much of the time, I was nearly suffocated by the scrutiny of my peers, who seemed at first to be a barking, braying pack of monkeys that were intent on tripping me up and embarrassing me every chance they got. These new, gifted city kids were a rambunctious lot, relentless, talkative, witty, cynical, and hilarious. I didn’t fit in at all. I was way inside my head, and they were decidedly exterior, swinging from the roof beams.

I blushed and sweated my way through most schooldays, unable to speak above a miserable whisper. To make things worse, our teacher was a giant, polyester-wrapped Gorgon who turned me to stone with every one of her very pointed, often disdainful glaring judgments. When I turned in a book report on Orwell’s 1984, she accused me of both not reading the book and of plagiarizing other sources for the report. Yeah, at 11 it was a tough read, and obviously I absorbed much more of its import when I re-read it in my twenties. But also at 11, I was way too catechized and fearful of the priest’s confessional to have ever done such a dishonest thing as to lie about reading a book. That would have been a venial sin, but a sin nonetheless. Back then my worst penance was ten Hail Marys (every week) for calling my little brother a big dope. Mrs. R’s accusation was the first time I felt really stung by deliberate, malicious blindness in a school setting, a place that I had thought to be sacrosanct and ideal, the seat of knowledge. She had some bad points. Those points constituted a separate lesson in the art of thought, to which I was now an adherent, and barely hanging on. Here I was, a little kid in love with reading and daydreaming, and now she was forcing me to think about what I read. How rude!

This above all was her finest point: Rigor. She was demanding and unapologetic. She made many of us extremely uncomfortable, and she clearly reveled in her power to do so. We were required to read the Op-Ed essays of Russell Baker, parse the front page of The New York Times, and write full reports on the pressing topics of each day. Every day. Here among the restless howler monkeys is where I learned the pillars of critical thinking. Why did I persist in thinking “a” when “b” was right in front of my face? Where is the evidence? What is the evidence? Is the source reliable? Does the source benefit from the information? Why is Gary torturing me with paper airplanes? Why can’t Mrs. R see him? And how does he make them fly so well?

There was duality in the lesson. While Mrs. R taught rigor, her actions showed me plainly that allegiance would frequently influence what I had once thought of as “pure intellect.” Even the frostiest human has an amygdala, and is therefore ruled by the fear, loathing, favoritism, and loyalty emotions that shape a person from birth.

Why didn’t she ever see Gary launch his latest supersonic paper creation? Because she liked Gary’s fractious personality, and it also cracked her up to see him target me. She resented little old me for some reason. She had a mean streak that surfaced when least expected, and she had a classroom of captives on which to practice her lesser arts. Maybe I reminded her of her annoying younger sister. Who knows? Some people are just naturally nasty, and their nastiness is easily propagated when enough of their fellow jerks congregate, proliferate, profit, and protect each other. And that’s when the power of the jerks becomes accepted and amplified, to no one’s benefit but theirs, and they roll over the Earth.

Bacteria behave in this way. Individually they are not much to fear, but in mats and biofilms they become more than the sum of cells, and their very physical structure will change due to the awakening of genes that are activated only when the bacteria reach a critical mass. Suddenly they feed differently, change actual shape, grow or discard cilia, alter their metabolic pathways. The genetics of these conversions is interesting to evolutionary scientists, some of whom argue that DNA itself calls the shots in an exquisitely balanced, naturally occurring, unsupervised molecular battle between selflessness and selfishness. When it’s a mat of bacteria, the battle is tiny and invisible. When it’s a mat of us, the battle is colossal and beyond understanding. The battle is won when one side overcomes. But what of the aftermath? Once that mat of bacteria has consumed its purines and pyrimidines, its trace minerals, its essential nutrients, there is nothing more to be consumed. It is then that the biofilm becomes completely useless, a mere sponge for its own toxic waste products, and it is then that the bacterial colony dies.

We are not bacteria. Maybe.

In the Trumpiverse, no careful thought process ever occurs. Instead we get treated to knee-jerk rage, the “why should I pay for free-loading immigrants,” the “stand for the anthem or be punished,” the cries of the absolutist gun nuts, the evangelists who see doom around every corner and need someone to blame, the crush-the-women crusaders, the “ignore Puerto Rico now that I have failed to establish a profitable Trump golf course” apologists, all of whom have supported the demented creature in the Oval Office. The disavowal of those who regularly practice oppression, sexual cruelty, wholesale murder, crimes for which they never pay, because they can pay off everyone. Despicable lies hiding the even more despicable truths. Willful imperception, day after day, is a grind. For the past four years, I have had persistent knots in my muscles, a sign that I am unconsciously tense much of the time, all from conscientiously reading a few minutes of news in the morning, before I take the dog and obtain my (still so incredibly beloved and savored) cup of coffee and try to keep on doing what I do. There are still my kids to think about, and my grandson and granddaughter to teach, to read to, to gather in my arms. There are still dahlias of lavender and white and tangerine in my garden and bulbs to plant for the winter. There are stories to write.

There are still endless opportunities to take in all the disparate sources and try to make them talk sense, and to keep considering the bases for the “other” arguments in reaching an acceptable conclusion for as many people as possible.

That howling pack of fifth-grade monkeys is never far from my mind.  A goodly number of that pack ultimately shielded me from many harms, engaged as we all were in surviving the streets on a daily, and sometimes hourly basis. Because that’s what we were all taught, from the get-go. Take care of each other out there, even that shy little kid who rarely speaks above a whisper.

The monkeys have dispersed and grown up, have become adults in the wider world, and I am fortunate enough to know to which places some of them have far-flung, like welcoming and bright stars in the increasingly murky firmament. It often amazes me, although really it should not, that their lines of development did not take them very far from who they were at eleven years of age. They have become musicians, artists, family-makers, district attorneys, musicians, doctors, teachers, software developers. Those I have managed to keep in touch with have this irreversible, irrepressible trait of outgoing agency, care, love; a capacity for looking forward and bringing their fellows with them, maybe (almost assuredly) due to the hurdles they had to leap over early in life. The Big Raft/Mahayana concept of Buddhism holds that the surviving boddhisatvas gather, cobble together a rickety and temporary craft, and pull up the stragglers in the raging river as they bob past, pull them onto a dry platform where they, we, you, can be safe from drowning, all while this mud-tinged flood of hate rages past our disbelieving eyes.

Not a mat. A raft.


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Little Drops, Big Rivers

Climate change- a tiresome topic for some. And you know who you are.  Not talking to you.

It is a real and deadly topic for some others. While it barely skirted the local news over the last two years, the story of Ellicott City, MD has suddenly burst its banks, just as its swollen Tiber and Patapsco Rivers did, making headlines in the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. My talented significant other, Howard Fletcher, has created a series of podcasts on this very subject as part of his Masters program in journalism.  He sought out many viewpoints and interviewed, among many others, city councilpersons, shop owners, historical preservationists, and a woman who barely escaped with her life during one of the flash floods that hit Ellicott City in 2016 and 2018. While eight of the podcasts are now complete, the story is not over, and H expects to follow more leads as they arise.

This is a fascinating series. Give it a shot.

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Dirty (White) Power

beerbatteredbros_web-1I have spent a number of days digging out a large colony of Bermuda grass that has invaded my flower beds. The nasty stolons are snaking under my well-established edging of flowering stonecrop, and strangling the roots of multicolored echinacea (coneflower). The goldfinches visit the flowers’ seed heads at this time of year, thus I am loath to use a targeted herbicide to kill the grass. I have completely banned herbicides and pesticides from my fenced yard, which will host my grandson in the very near future.

The grass is now everywhere in the front flower bed. It had shown its evil face in a place or two previously, and I thought I had dug most of it out every time it popped up during the spring and summer, but my two weeks’ absence, vacationing in Cape Hatteras, came with a price. Unchecked, and away from the eyes of my daily vigilance, the grass got totally out of control and took over. So it’s just my 61-year-old, shovel-armed carcass, versus this invader. And I really, truly, deeply hate this invader, in the way that only a gardener, dedicated to careful nurture, can hate weeds and invasive plants. It will take the better part of another week to dig it all out, and hopefully, destroy it. My gloves are off. My nails are dirty and splitting. I have plenty of time to rue the consequences of my inattention. But I keep going.

As I worked away in the garden one hot afternoon, after putting in 20 miles on my bike, I got a little dizzy and nauseated. Age, heat, dehydration. Then a pickup truck came roaring down my street, its unmuffled engine startling me badly. This was the same pickup that had come roaring down my street the day after Trump was elected, flapping dual Confederate flags. A little show of white-guy force in our liberal Vienna. How sweet. Making a lot of noise and letting us know he was rough and tough and that his fossil-fueled, smoke-belching contraption could run us over. A few minutes later a compatriot of his followed in a low-slung antique Beemer, an old fart with a stogie jammed in his mouth and a white swath of hair on his fat white head, enforcing his point by speeding along at 45 mph on our 25 mph-limited road, because, you know, he can. Earlier that morning on my 20-miler, I passed a carefully jerseyed and clipped-in old fart on an expensive bicycle, and watched incredulously as he flipped off a car that had not stopped for him in the crosswalk. The old fart had not stopped at his own stop sign, as he is required to do by the laws governing our fair nation. He had simply barreled through because he felt the world owed him this favor. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen this phenomenon. In my 25 years of biking the W&OD Trail, it’s always a young-to-middle-aged white guy, i.e. old farts in training, pissed off at the terrible inconveniences of red lights and stop signs, waving a middle finger at injustice, at the daily stabs at white male pride that have every Tom, Dick and Jethro up in meaty arms these days. I got so nauseated by these last two events, finally, that I went inside and washed all the grime away in a refreshing hot shower.

Digging out Bermuda grass requires sweat, vigilance, and dirty fighting. Bending to the task, you must take off your garden gloves in order to directly feel the steely ropes of underground runners that lie in wait to spring up when you take your attention elsewhere. The grass looks like fescue when it first comes up; it looks like something you’re familiar with, it looks almost friendly, but then it sprouts up in a disorienting onslaught of unhinged malignancy, mowing down flowers that have been carefully sown and tended.

Years ago, when my husband and I first met, I had one of my many experiences of two very separate worlds colliding. He grew up in an environment that was de facto segregated, with a full shelf of encyclopedias, tennis lessons, in a series of increasingly spacious and comfortable homes. I grew up in an undulating and multiethnic, multicolored arc of comfortable home/crowded apartment house/decaying beach community, and the one encyclopedia volume we did own came from an A&P supermarket, because I had begged my mother to buy it. The volume covered Pa through Pi, thus I became exceptionally knowledgeable about the Mexican volcano, Paricutìn, which rose up in a farmer’s field one fine day. And paraffin, penny dreadfuls, and pitchblende. Definitely no tennis lessons. Everything I learned, I had to work very hard to learn.

On that day years ago, Chris and I were walking through a somewhat downscale neighborhood in my hometown, New York, and he mentioned to me that he hoped we wouldn’t get mugged. I laughed and said, Don’t worry. You’re with me. I can bite and scratch and kick. Well. He was utterly horrified at this suggestion, and engaged me, quite earnestly, in a 30-minute argument as to why I should not fight dirty, insisting that gentleman’s rules should always apply to a “fair fight,” and that I must accept this fact as a given. In his world.

To the two or three of you readers who are not now rolling on your floor laughing: lemme explain. When your life is in danger, you do what you have to do. Gloves are off. Rules, the rules that have been laid down by the “gentlemen” who enjoy all the privileges of their dirtily won perches, do not apply. Complacency must go out the window. It is a narrow road to walk, living and working in a society that is by many lights, successful, but also hypocritical and murky and unjust and secretive and resting on the enforced, helpless silence and miserable labor of billions.

Here we are today, in a society that is even more de facto segregated than when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. In the seats behind a Supreme Court justice candidate, a woman flashes a white power sign, accompanied by that recognizable, obnoxiously self-satisfied smirk. Now on the Internet, we get to see policemen flashing those same signs, hands resting on their automatic weapons. They think supremacy is their due, that this vast beautiful continent is all theirs because they are white, because they somehow define America. This highly emotional Mr. Kavanaugh, a man at the furthest antipodes of judicious calm, thinks he has the authority to invade the privacy and circumvent the will of the only human beings who are physically capable of producing other human beings. He also thinks he can get away with sexual depravity. He does so with the complicity of the Orange Blob Who Shall Not Be Named, who rages on in his imbecile’s slash-and-burn smear campaign, continuing a pattern of gleefully abusing whomever he pleases.

White men are pissed off. They don’t like the fact that their millennium-old ability to abuse and abase is being called into question. Everyone who is not a white male should know exactly what that means. It means they will use increasingly dirty tactics to keep their power. They are doing that right now. And it means that we, the people they want to control, must do the same. It means it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But it also means that power is power. People with power want very badly to retain that power, and if we want to change the situation, to prevent them from making laws and crowding courts with individuals that do not represent us or our best interests, we must get down and dirty. It means that more of us have to vote. And shout out the truth whenever possible, no matter how uncomfortable. All the time. And loudly.

It means that we also must take off our gloves to rip out, without mercy, the invader that so obviously wishes to harm us.


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Porcelain from the Wreckage


For a dying friend


He grasped my hand hard before I left

A shrinking giant in a heaven of skylights

High on the vapor of morphine

His eyes were hooded but clear

Said he was square with the Man upstairs, 

Though I cannot imagine but this square 

Could have used some rounding

With the Man’s more amusing emeries

Instead the Man rewarded kindness with cancer

The Man can be that way


I told him I’d be back

That I would bring him images of autumn

That we would look at them together in a few days’ time

His wife may be a widow today, tomorrow

Like me


I see pictures

In the mountain gaps filled with smoke

In the leaves curling fast before winter blasts them

Off the talus slopes

In the black bear that leaps up on stone walls

To lure the idjits in for a close-up

I wrote that poem in October 2012, for a neighbor of mine named Dave. He was a very good guy. He was a writer, like his wife. He was gentle, very learned, and completely devoid of authoritarian impulses. I wrote the poem for him just before I headed out on a solo trip to the Shenandoah to watch the autumn cover the fields and mountains, because he couldn’t do what I was doing. I wrote it so he could see what I hoped to see, sort of like an internal document we could share intra-office. I write poetry very seldom these days. But there is a term—“beautiful inner seams”— that I discovered recently, that has started to resonate with me suddenly. The term refers to fine tailoring that is not carried out for the purpose of being seen, but simply for the sake of doing the work as well as possible, for making something beautiful that someone else may never see, for creating an epitome. Something for which you will never get credit.

I wrote a lot of poetry when I was younger before some people convinced me that literature was a waste of my intellect, and moreover, that a concentration in literature would surely not make me rich (some of these people had ulterior motives and concerns for their particular futures). I took those pieces of stupid advice to heart for a long while, switched to the sciences, and in the doing lost much of my inclination to noodle around the dictionary and thesaurus. There’s no doubt the sciences brought me more certainty and a type of real joy, but they did not bring me sublimity.

The arts are no less dogmatic than the sciences. Both suffer from the plagues of celebrity culture, popularity contests, and knee-jerk resistance to change. I first encountered the dogmatism of art in a Shakespeare class, where the top student, well-read but somewhat sycophantic, mouthed the platitudes of the professor at every opportunity, thereby dominating most discussions and mocking with dismissive, annotated commentary any alarming signs of original thought. His presence, and the tired hierarchical establishment, grated on me. Recognized and demonstrated laws in chemistry, say, or mathematics, gradually erode any possibility of riffing on previous criticisms. Science moves forward in fits and starts, and does indeed suffer from its personality cults, but move forward it does (I exclude the present idiotic attempts to prove that the Earth is flat, and the ubiquitous Facebook trolls with their antic crappy video “facts” that serve as brainless retorts to complex problems). We had to throw out the books on alchemy once it was graduated to empirical methods and became chemistry. Not so in literature or philosophy or psychology. Old themes crop up like fashion colors- one season’s burgundy is the next season’s merlot. Adding to the cacophony. Human themes repeat themselves endlessly like spirals in natural growths or fractal patterns in the tree tops. These products of an extraordinarily simple yet complex self-replicating molecule are not inherently harmful or harmless. It is the self-awareness of the human that facilitates harm, or good. And sometimes that human awareness latches on to malignancy and does not let go. That is a mystery. One worth plumbing and monitoring.

I am re-reading Saul Bellow’s Herzog. I read a lot of Bellow as a teenager and young adult, dazzled by his language. This go-round, I am struck by how much the protagonist dwells on the physical failings of his characters- receding hairlines, hairy ears, paunches, the early signs of age on the faces of the women that Herzog loves. All of this frantic description is punctuated by discourses on philosophy and history that don’t exactly get anywhere or make any lingering points. It strikes me more like furious name-dropping or brand-flashing, or something, a look-at-me exercise. The protagonist is in his forties, the age of disenlightenment. A silverback who rescues himself from his personal disappointments by concentrating on the flaws of others. I am admittedly only halfway through so I have not yet made an accounting. But the self-congratulatory blatting is noteworthy. Compare it to Carol Shields’ Stone Diaries, a magnificent account of an “ordinary” woman’s life, or to any of Willa Cather’s dazzling and incisive character tales, and you notice the absence of the writer’s ego. I didn’t notice this when I was younger, plowing through books at speed. Largely because I accepted the status quo as normal.

On my way home from Pasadena a while back, I lugged my suitcase through the cavernous LAX terminal in the company of many TV monitors. I looked up and saw the talking heads, all male, all the time, all over the airport. All yammering away. They say: Listen to me. Only me. Give me your time, your money, your sovereign souls. Because we want to profit off your backs. We want to control it all. We want to shove our opinions down your gullet.

And this pervasive strain in our society struck me at once as so loudly, horribly, disgustingly abnormal, that I had to shake myself.

I am not anti-male. Far from it. The people I work with at NASA are largely male, but most of them are beyond enlightened, to my great relief. Anyone with enough “knowledge” comes to know just how much a human cannot know or understand. The knowledge the truly learned carry around tends to make them tentative, humble, inclusive, and welcoming, by and large. They are a contemplative oasis in this continuing Trumpian nightmare. But I am so incredibly tired of the male fixation on guns, the corrosive anger, the sexual repugnance, the entitled stances, the power hunger, all the timeworn factors that brought an unthinkably monstrous cretin to an office he does not remotely merit. I think of the “great” literature I have read through the years and that caustic drip of the braggart voice, the effect it has had on me and the behavior I tolerated for decades. The many powerful people who have tried to silence women and other disenfranchised humans. The many people who looked the other way. The many petty disingenuous avowals and disavowals. The many ways we all end up silencing ourselves in the fight we must fight every day. I am just one woman, but every single woman I know has a similar story, a trove of sickening tales. Just think of the factorial summation, the implication of just one of us and what we have each experienced, and the branching numbers are hard to believe. Each day, when I wake up and see that an odious criminal is still sitting in the White House, I must actively seek goodness to counteract all that palpable badness, a strangely rotten touch that can be heard as well as felt.

Carry on the work, love your kids and your friends, bake cookies, create objects with care, read, write, think, think, think. Be like Dave. Learn and adjust your antennae, every day. Be generous with your time and attention. Do good. Erase that snotty, wretched, selfish, whiny, infantile thought— “But why should I have to pay for someone else’s problems?”—from your brain. Please. My two cents for the day.

We still have those “beautiful inner seams” to look forward to, seams that good people are always working away on, seams that we will re-discover eventually, after these dark days are over. It’s the only thing to do. That phrase, by the way, lest *anyone* mock it or attempt to devalue it for being distaff, was coined by a male designer.


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Guns and Savage Reason

Below, in quotes, is a response to a Facebook post I recently shared; the post contained information on how to contact our representatives to address gun safety, for obvious reasons. Because the response contained arguments that inevitably appear when yet another shooting in the good old US of A occurs, I felt it was time to address these perennial arguments with some specificity. Most urgently, however, I have a very specific response to having been accused of “standing on the bodies of freshly injured and murdered people to push a political agenda,” and having been accused of using emotion, and not logic, in my post.

Here is the response:

“I’d rather have a gun and not need it, than need it and not have it. Not only that, but we have a right to bear arms, to defend ourselves. The guns used by the shooter were already illegal, so what would more gun laws do? All they do is disarm law abiding citizens, making them (or better read, us) more vulnerable not only to criminals who don’t care about laws, but to a government that becomes increasingly more corrupt and power hungry.

Now, let’s stop standing on the bodies of freshly injured and murdered people in order to push a political agenda please. Let’s wait, get all the facts, try to figure out what happened, and use logic rather than emotions to decide on a good course of action.”

Yes, we have a right to bear arms and defend ourselves. No one is disputing this. Were the Las Vegas murderer’s guns legal? Why yes, a good number of them were. The jury is out on the rest of them. But while we are “waiting for facts,” it is now known that he altered at least one legal gun to make it automatic. He altered a legal gun with a legal device to make it more lethal. American citizens are barred only from purchasing automatic weapons that were manufactured after 1986. But the law still allows for devices that virtually any gun aficionado can obtain, to alter a gun into an automatic weapon that can burp out more rounds than you can easily duck and cover from. These laws allow, effectively, the possession of automatic weapons. Automatic weapons therefore are still fully available to anyone who wants to use them. Freedom! Fact!

If you want a gun, fine. They are legal and they are now freaking ubiquitous. Where exactly do you see the threat to your gun ownership? I only wish I could see evidence of that threat. But don’t fume about gun laws. The control that now exists in our country when it comes to guns is in fact truly inadequate, and on the face of it, criminal. Criminal because the injuries and murders, which are crimes, are being committed with high-powered, highly efficient guns that can kill more people per unit time than ever before. And these weapons are obviously not controlled enough to keep them from being used against innocent, law-abiding people. The laws which govern modern guns have proven to be neither effective nor realistic, and this fact manifests itself with each mass shooting.

And by the way, exactly which law had or has the effect of disarming you, law-abiding citizen? Which laws, exactly, have prevented more than 300 million guns passing into private ownership in this country? Where is the privation you fear and militate against?

And finally, as to “standing on the bodies of freshly injured and murdered people,” what, dear responder to my post, did you just do? You pushed me aside, off those very same bodies, so that you yourself could climb atop them in order to be heard making a louder plea to hang on to your precious firearms, to protect yourself from “criminals who don’t care about laws,” and your increasingly corrupt government. You are in fact trading on, and pandering to, the emotion of fear, when you do this.

Yes, criminals don’t care about laws. This is why they are called criminals. Years ago, I lived in one of the worst neighborhoods in NYC. If guns had been as prevalent in the 70s as they are now, there’s a good chance I’d be pushing up daisies right now, instead of typing this post. Each time I was assaulted, my attackers only had their hands (and rocks, in one case). More guns, legal or illegal, equals more access to quicker and more widespread death, period. More high-powered weaponry, being sold to large numbers of law-abiding or non-law-abiding citizens, has unquestionably fed the precipitous rise of mass shootings in the US, following a regression line as exact as I have ever seen, and its result is also reflected in the clear numeracy displayed in my post, which depicted the comparative incidence of gun deaths per 100,000 in Western countries. (Guess who won). I no longer live in a crime-ridden neighborhood, thankfully. In my 60 years, in neighborhoods good and not-so-good, I have never felt the need to carry a gun. Nor have I ever been accosted by a gun-toting human. I might want to carry a rifle if I lived in bear country. No one is stopping me from doing that, and no one, in fact, is stopping you.

Yes, our government is increasingly corrupt. But our government, no matter how many guns you possess, can and will blow your heinie into the next dimension if it wants to. That is a fact. No gun or arsenal or carefully maintained personal stockpile will ever save you from your government if it decides to target you. Why are we in this predicament? You could debate that for weeks. Or forever. Sure, you could hole up for a few months (particularly if you are white), maybe even occupy a wildlife refuge if you felt particularly irked because you couldn’t graze your beasts on land that belonged to your hated government. Wild idea, right? But you would lose, hands down. Don’t believe me? Try fomenting revolution. Just once.

And if you think your government is out to get you, and that this government is so corrupt and monumentally powerful that it puts you, personally, in so much danger that you only feel safe when you have a gun, then why in the world do you stay in this country? It would be far more logical for you to take your guns and leave immediately, to escape the imminent exercise of malignant governmental will upon your person.

Accusing me of standing upon the bodies of freshly shot persons to push my agenda is like me accusing you of mashing your shoes further into the raw wounds of the injured, all to trumpet your concern about a completely nonexistent threat that you, personally, will soon be divested of your guns. And, to boot, you have inexplicably characterized reasonable discourse on this serious crisis, which exists right now, as an “emotional” reaction.

Interesting approach.


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Another Angry White Guy

Last night I awoke a number of times. I did what I was not supposed to do and checked the news on my iPad at about 3am. This time, I found yet another angry white guy standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before him:

Another angry white guy screams at his gentle, bookish son to “man up” and emulate his father. Another angry white guy pushes his wife into a wall because she walked away from him while he was yelling at her. Another angry white guy walks into a school and murders a classroom full of young children, and in response other angry white guys insist on maintaining their rights to buy more guns. Some other angry white guys invent the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory, and lots of other angry white guys support the theory and torment the parents of dead children with their angry messages.

Another angry white guy rapes a girl on a college campus and gets away with it, while other angry white guys complain about false accusations. Another angry white guy gets drunk and beats up his wife, for the hundredth time, on a Monday night. Another angry white guy releases the other angry white guy on bail and allows him visitation rights with his children. Another angry white guy sets his newly estranged wife on fire because she wants to leave him, because she is afraid of him and what he will do to her and her children.

A Congress full of angry white guys mills around the halls of the capital, planning on inflicting more misery on a populace they care nothing for. Another angry fat white guy tweets unhinged messages into the night, instead of caring for the citizens of this country, something he swore to do with his hand on a Bible, a pledge he fails to carry out every day while he advertises the colors of his evil mind and rank incompetence, while “leaders” pretend to see nothing amiss about his behavior.

Another bunch of angry white guys invades a country and tortures, murders, vilifies; eradicating a nation. Another bunch of angry white guys enslaves and kills millions in concentration camps.

Another angry white guy mows down a crowd with his personal cache of easily obtained automatic weapons. Another angry white guy inflicts pain and misery in response to his pathetically self-centered and childish wants.

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By the Time I Get to Venus


There are days when it seems that the entire world has turned into a Facebook-style maelstrom of attention whores, information wars, dishonest boors, and facile mores. Ok, I concede that this rhyme is a stretch. I’m more a technical writer than a poet. But that feeling dogged me as I drove down to Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, earlier last week, to restore myself by spending quality time with NASA. And lo, a week later, after five days of work (and minor junk food intake) among the scientists and engineers and civil servants that the Orange One so loves to disparage in his astonishing, clinging, and indolent ignorance, I have re-crossed the Valley of Death (with my dog in tow) and I have returned home refreshed and renewed.

Driving back home on Friday afternoon, as a nor’easter  of sorts began to envelop Northern Virginia, I entered familiar space just as a low curtain of rain descended on the Beltway. A wide span of dry pavement became lanes of rivulets in a mere second, and the 70 mph traffic slowed by a factor of two in a slightly higher quantity of seconds. Mo, a veteran traveler, glanced up at me from her four-hour slumber in the passenger seat and stretched her paws. She sensed she was not far from her dog bed at home. She had been my boon companion since the previous Sunday, inhabiting a small suite while I covered NASA science meetings during the day, injecting welcome waves of serenity into each eventide.

Venus came to my mind as emergency signals brayed from the car radio, warning of flash flooding, which quickly materialized as we sailed over a flying ramp onto 495. Those signals came from metallic birds that fly high above us each day, gleaning important data from lidar, laser, and IR sensors developed by many concerned brains that have been shaped by boring, uncool discipline and supported by, dare I say it, tax dollars. So I slowed down in preparation, along with hundreds of other drivers. Thanks to NASA and NOAA and NSF. Venus especially leapt to mind when I saw the dense clouds over my home ground, as this planet is thought to represent the nth degree of the terrestrial greenhouse effect, which could someday produce swirls of dense fog that will drive mighty cyclones over our planetary surface, heated by the sun, boiling with energy. Our summers are getting hotter and wilder. But, you know, the Earth is only 6000 years old, and we must drum up a new and satisfyingly violent Crusade to stamp out infidels, and also, clams have legs, and… oh, sorry.

I will stick to observations of this world, to the patterns of our days, which many deliberate and thoughtful people been studying for centuries.

After hundreds of years of mental effort, education, and accumulation of experience and knowledge, we are still battling innuendo, superstition, willful ignorance, and fear. Greed. Well, I guess I’m old enough to know better about greed. But the wise ones always come back to the late lament. I remember my dad quizzing me as a teenager, testing me one Sunday afternoon to see if I knew the source of his quote about modern youth: their frivolity, their disrespect for their elders, their lack of constraint, and their obnoxious sureties. He had introduced me to New Yorker magazine a few years before, which by that time we both read regularly. I responded instantly (naming either Aristotle or Hesiod, I forget) because we had both read the same article that week. He smiled a wry smile and said nothing. The point of that exchange, communicated by his pleased expression, was that old farts have been complaining about young upstarts for 2000 years. Longer. If Neanderthals had had language, you may be sure some parent had barked the same sentiment to an offspring, while arguing over some unfinished portion of dried flounder in a dim, smoky cave.

He had passed on to me, by example, a useful warning against automatic, cyclical thought, and back then he was still treading that worn-out pathway, but he was also still checking to see that I was heading in the same direction, with my eyes open, with my skepticism alive and in place. He was doing his parental duty as a learned man.

With my skepticism fully intact, I carry that same duty every day for my kids, for my grandkids, and some day perhaps, for some frightened and forgotten compatriot who will require the attention of a compassionate citizen. A citizen who refuses to be part of a festering idiot’s horrifying, self-serving agenda, a citizen who values substance over shadow and soul over flesh. Thank you, NASA, for restoring my faith in the careful path forward. It is alarmingly easy to drown in popular and lazy thought patterns, and it is difficult to struggle upward to fresh, enlivening air. But when that breath is taken, oh what oxygen can do!


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I rode my bike earlier today, for 20 miles, with Richie on my mind. Not a happy morning. But I came home and went through my numerous photos, where Richie can always be found. I plan to do a better job scanning all the photos I have, however I need to post what I’ve got for now, just to feel him near me. Since I was the first kid, there are many singleton photos of me until I was 2 or so, but thereafter, we were together whenever we could be.

I am grateful to all the people who have contacted me with their memories of my brother. Please feel free to contribute more memories here or on Facebook.



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Brother Mine

My little brother, Richard Joseph Yurgel, Jr., is gone from my sight. The tragic circumstances of his death bear no telling here. I can only hope that he has found the peace he had long sought. All I want at this moment are for his remains to be returned home to me, and to set down what it meant for me to be his big sister.

He was born on October 11, 1959. My parents adopted him from the New York Foundling Hospital, from which they had adopted me two years earlier. I distinctly remember holding him in my lap on the car ride home. He had “black Irish” hair that later became wildly curly, and dark-lashed green eyes that tended to change color to reflect his clothing, or the seawater that he loved. He grew into a big man, a consummate surfer, and an ice hockey player who could skate sideways and backwards with ease. He used to hold up his skinny-shanked sister at the public rinks while she shut her eyes and let him lead her. Back when he was shorter, he also used to sit on her chest and torture her with intentional halitosis attacks. His sister once nailed him with a hairbrush in the back of the head, from 20 feet away, never dreaming she would possibly connect with her target. She got a tremendously good spanking for that one. In penance for her old ways, she offers here a photo of her buck-toothed 14-year-old self alongside his 12-year-old handsome mug.


Our lives took wildly divergent paths. Through his many trials, however, he maintained an upbeat attitude and rarely asked me for assistance, as much as he needed it. The both of us expended a tremendous amount of energy trying to move forward and away from the difficult circumstances of our childhood. Not everyone succeeds at this, as hard as they try, and nobody, and I mean nobody, survives unscathed by their troubles, particularly if they are encountered at a tender age.  That old “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” theory is a bucket of shit for most people who are struggling. I know this because I was there and I stared into that void. That void yawns forever, and anyone can fall into it if they are not protected, or careful, or both.

As we moved on in time, and in parallel, I wrestled with survivor guilt, always wondering whether I should have helped more, or if any of my help indeed might have borne the fruit I wished it to bear. And while all this internal turmoil scalded me from the inside, Richie, from the outside, almost always managed to call me on my birthday and at holiday, and in the presence of others would brag about his big sister to anyone who would listen. Thankfully he called me this past Mother’s Day. We always endeavored to say “I love you,” usually multiple times, before we finished our phone conversations, and this last time was no different.

Gone with him is his capacity to resurrect any one of our relatives, living or dead, in facial expression, tone, voice, mannerism, or weird quirk that only we could recognize and guffaw about. Gone are his native generosity and his ability to strike up a conversation with anyone. Gone are the nights we would play guitar together on the veranda that abutted his room, Jamaica Bay ebbing and flowing just feet away from our apartment, the weighty summer breeze moving about us. Gone are the opportunities to repeatedly remind him that he played The Dark Side of the Moon about 750,000 times during the summer I came home from my freshman year in college, and that consequently I can no longer listen to Pink Floyd. Gone forever are our shared memories— he is no longer here to help me fact-check my alibis. He was acquainted with the entire peninsula of Far Rockaway. He could make the Statue of Liberty laugh, and convince you that yes, the Brooklyn Bridge was for sale and it had been for weeks, you idiot, so you’d better buy it immediately, before someone else snaps it up.

Richie leaves behind him a wife, twin daughters, two sons, four granddaughters, and a grandson who was born this very day. And he leaves behind his sister, Joan, who loved him with a love that was painful and sweet, with a love that is like no other.


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