Sunday, October 22, 2017

323. Famous Last Words and Gestures


      Anaphora Literary Press invites submissions of full-length manuscripts of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; there is no submission fee and it reads year round. For more information and guidelines for submissions, go here.  

*                 *                 *                 *                *                 *                 
       Recently I read that, for a final gesture, Mata Hari, the exotic dancer whom the French executed in 1917 as a German spy, blew kisses at the firing squad just before they fired.  Legendary femme fatale as she supposedly was, Mata Hari was perhaps not even a spy; needing money, she took cash from the Germans for useless information that was already known.  But what struck me about the anecdote was how charming and courageous her last gesture was, which in turn set me to thinking about last words and final gestures of other people, and what they said about those people and their society.  Hence this post.  Granted, many of these citations may be more legendary than factual; only those reported by trustworthy eyewitnesses are beyond doubt.

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In 1906, in all her glory.

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Statue of Nathan Hale at the CIA
headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
         I grew up on stories of heroic Americans whose last words were memorable.  Nathan Hale, the American schoolteacher hanged by the British as a spy in 1776, declared, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” But did he really say it?  Possibly, but the British officer who described Hale’s courage and composure did not mention it.

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         “Don’t give up the ship!” were the dying words of Capt. James Lawrence, whose frigate Chesapeake was disabled by fire from the British frigate Shannon in an engagement outside of Boston on June 1, 1813.  Yes, he really said it, but alas, a British boarding party overwhelmed his crew and captured his disabled ship.  A flag with the words “Don’t give up the ship” stitched in it was flown from the USS Lawrence, the flagship of Capt. Lawrence’s friend Oliver H. Perry, in Perry’s victorious fight with a British squadron on Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, and the original flag is now displayed at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum at Annapolis, Maryland.

         On his deathbed John Adams, second president of the U.S., murmured “Jefferson” or “Jefferson survives.”  Longtime political opponents, he and Thomas Jefferson, third president of the U.S., had later reconciled and carried on a lengthy correspondence.  Both had signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and both, the last surviving signers, managed to die on July 4, 1826.  In Massachuetts, however, Adams was unaware of Jefferson’s death in distant Virginia five hours prior to his own, and so thought Jefferson the survivor.

         While we’re dealing with politicians, how about Winston Churchill, who saw Britain through the darkest days of World War II?  What were his last words?  Rather different from those just mentioned: “What a bore it is!”  He was departing this earth slowly, and found prolonged incapacity alien to his temperament.  This is one of two Churchill quotes that I love.  The other came near the beginning of his career in Parliament: “But that’s detail work.  I don’t do detail work!”  How wonderful it must be, to hand detail work over to some obliging flunky.  He presumably did it all his life, while busying himself with grandiose policy issues and matters of state.

         The Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, on being shot by the young Serb assassin Gavrilo Princip at Sarajevo in 1914, remained sitting upright in the limousine while being driven to the governor’s residence for medical attention.  Mortally wounded, the archduke begged his wife to live for the sake of their children, and then, when asked about his injury, replied several times, “Es ist gar nichts” (It is nothing).  Which didn’t keep him from dying, or World War I from breaking out, triggered by his assassination.

File:Postcard for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.jpg
The Archduke and his wife leaving the Sarajevo guildhall, where he had 
made a speech.  They then left in the open car and, minutes later, were shot.
Karl Tröstl?

         Now how about the two famous Marxes, because, oh yes, there were two.  The last words of Karl Marx, author of the Communist Manifesto and so much more: “Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.”  And the other Marx, Groucho: “This is no way to live.”  As for his brother Harpo, the consistently mute harpist who spoke not a word in films, if he spoke any last words, I haven’t found them; hopefully, he kept in character and didn’t.

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One of the Marxes.




















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The other Marx.



















         Groucho wasn’t the only one to inject a note of humor.  Oscar Wilde, dying of meningitis, reputedly said, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death.  One or the other of us has got to go.”  The wallpaper, it seems, won out.  But the quote has been questioned, since it was reported later by friends; no one witnessed it at the time of his death.  (A familiar problem with reported last words.)

         Last words became something of a tradition in England back in Tudor times, when public beheadings were popular entertainment, and the scaffold provided a wonderful farewell stage.  Condemned for adultery, Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, humiliated Henry by announcing, “I die a Queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpepper.”  Culpepper, too, lost his heart and then his head.

         The French Revolution prompted many a memorable utterance either on the scaffold facing the guillotine, or in the tumbril en route to it.  The noblest of them all was probably that of Madame Roland, a Girondin  moderate among the revolutionaries, who was eliminated by Robespierre and his Jacobin crew:

            “O liberté, que de crimes on commet en ton nom!”

             Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!

         When betrayed and condemned by Robespierre, Danton, no innocent, conducted himself with dignity on the scaffold.  His last words were to Sanson, the executioner: “Show my head to the people; it is well worth showing.”  And Sanson no doubt did just that, it being customary.


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Maximilien de Robespierre, a portrait circa 1790.
The Incorruptible, elegant, his jaw still intact.

         Robespierre too, the so-called Incorruptible, was fed to Madame la Guillotine, for the Revolution ended by devouring its own.  In 1794 the day of his downfall came and he attempted suicide, but only managed to shoot himself in the jaw.  When he was delivered, bound securely, to the executioner, Sanson pulled his coat off and then, in a needless act of cruelty, snatched away the dirty linen binding his lower jaw, which then fell open, at which point Robespierre uttered a piercing shriek, hideous to hear: “Sanson, you cannot be too quick!”  With the fall of his head into the waiting basket, and its display to a cheering crowd, the Reign of Terror came at last to a bloody end.

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Robespierre's execution, July 28, 1794.  The executed man is not Robespierre, 
who, dressed in brown and wearing a hat, is seated in the cart nearest the scaffold..

         And the royal victims of the Incorruptible?  When the dethroned king, Louis XVI, mounted the scaffold and let his hands be tied, he addressed the crowd: “Frenchmen, I die innocent.  It is from the scaffold and soon appearing before God that I tell you so.  I pardon my enemies; I desire that France—”   At this point a general on horseback commanded, “Tambours!” and Louis’s voice was drowned out by a roll of drums.  Sanson’s blade fell, and the ex-king’s head was shown to the crowd, inciting shouts of “Vive la République!”

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Louis XVI's execution.  A German engraving of 1793.  
After this, for the Revolution there was no turning back.
        
         Marie Antoinette’s last words were of a humbler sort.  “Excuse me, sir, I didn’t mean to,” she said to Sanson, having inadvertently stepped on his toe.  Her head too was shown to the populace, likewise inspiring cries of “Vive la République!”

         What became of the executioner Sanson?  Did he too fall victim to the guillotine?  First of all, it must be stated that there were two executioners with the name Sanson.  The father, Charles-Henri Sanson, executed Louis XVI, Danton, and Robespierre, but his younger son and apprentice, Henri, executed Marie-Antoinette and later succeeded his father as the official executioner of Paris.  Father and son came from a long line of executioners that stretched back into the ancien régime.  The father, whose diary reveals a humane man usually anxious to spare his victims unnecessary suffering, survived the Revolution and died in 1806.  In 1792 his older son and presumed heir, Gabriel, died after falling off the scaffold while displaying a severed head to the crowd.  The father was obviously more sure-footed, as was his son Henri, who served as executioner of Paris for 47 years.

         And Napoleon and Josephine, who were spared the horrors of the scaffold and the niceties of the Sanson clan?  Josephine, divorced by him so he could marry the Austrian princess Marie-Louise and have a son and heir by her, is said to have murmured, “Napoleon … Elba … Marie-Louise …”  And Napoleon, dying in exile on Saint Helena?  “France … armée … tête d’armée [head of the army]… Joséphine …”  A true love affair, it would seem.

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Max von Schwartzkoppen in 1895.
         Another military man much involved in French history was Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen, the German military attaché in Paris in 1894, when Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of selling military secrets to the Germans and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Doubts about his guilt arose, and the nation was divided by the resulting controversy.  Years later, on his deathbed, von Schwartzkoppen exclaimed, “Frenchmen, Dreyfus is innocent!”  Knowing the real culprit was a Captain Esterhazy, he had longed to proclaimed Dreyfus’s innocence at the time of his trial, but was silenced by his superiors, who saw a France rent apart by controversy as in Germany’s best interests.  Only on his deathbed in 1917, with World War I raging, could von Schwartzkoppen at last proclaim the truth.

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         “I die a true American!”  There rings a noble sentiment, one that all loyal and patriotic Americans could cheer.   Was it uttered by a patriot like Nathan Hale or Captain Lawrence, or by a Founding Father of our great republic?  Not at all.  These were the last words of William Poole, known also as Bill the Butcher, founder of the Bowery Boys street gang and a leader of the vehemently anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party in New York in the 1850s.  A boxer and brawler, he was quite capable of assaulting a bartender and beating his face to jelly for having declined to serve him a third round of drinks.  On February 25, 1855, two friends of a rival boxer with whom he was feuding shot Poole in the back in a bar on Broadway near Prince Street.  Taken to his home on Christopher Street, he lingered, then died on March 8, telling his friends, “Good-bye, boys.  I die a true American.”  He was buried in an unmarked grave in Green-Wood cemetery, Brooklyn.  One of his murderers was apprehended and tried three times for murder, but each trial ended in a hung jury.

         Let’s move on to some less unsavory characters and their last words. 

·      The composer Gustav Mahler, conducting an imaginary orchestra: “Mozart.”

·      Goethe: “Mehr Licht.”  (More light.)  A plea for more enlightenment?  No, he just wanted more lamplight.

·      The emperor Augustus:  “I found Rome made of clay, and leave her to you made of marble.”

         Finally, we come to those dwelling in the higher realms of philosophy and religion.  Socrates, condemned to die by drinking hemlock, tells his friends how decent the jailor has been, and then, as recounted in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, having drunk the hemlock, says to one of them, “Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius.  See to it and don’t forget.”  But what does this mean?  Since Asclepius, the mortal son of Apollo, was a healer capable even of raising the dead, it is usually taken to mean that Socrates saw death as a cure that released the soul from the body. 


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         I have heard that Mahatma Gandhi, mortally wounded, blessed his murderer, but I haven’t been able to confirm this.
         The Buddha’s last words to the monks attending him:  “I exhort you: all compounded things are subject to vanish.  Strive with earnestness.”  He then entered the dimension of nothingness and finally was totally unbound, to fully grasp which would require a deep knowledge of the Blessed One’s teachings.

         Joan of Arc, being burned at the stake by the English: “Hold the cross high, that I may see it through the flames!”  Then, as the flames engulfed her: “Jesus … Jesus …”


File:Jacopo Tintoretto - Crucifixion (detail) - WGA22519.jpg
Tintoretto's Crucifixion (detail), the most dramatic interpretation of the Crucifixion 
I have ever seen.  In the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice.  For the full impact, 
you have to see the original.

         For Christians, of course, the supreme last words are those of Christ on the cross, as reported in the Gospel of John (19:30): “It is finished,” meaning that he had completed his sacrifice for humankind, following which he bowed his head and gave up the ghost.  In the Latin Vulgate this is translated from Greek as “Consummatum est,” which appears in many inscriptions and in sacred art.



BROWDERBOOKS
  

All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017.


Review 

"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World


2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


browder-cover-9781681143057-perfect-2
Reviews

"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

"This is an easy read about a hard life.  Interesting characters, a bustling city, poverty, privilege, crime, injustice combine to create a captivating tale."  Five-star Goodreads review by John Wheeler.

Available from Amazon.


3.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Release date January 5, 2018, but copies now available from the author.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. More excerpts to come.

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2
The back cover summary:

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?

Early reviews

"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.


4.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)

Reviews


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.  

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.





Coming soon:  Who knows?  Maybe kinds of execution: how we do away with one another.  Or big cities versus small, and who is thriving and who isn't.  ???


©   2017   Clifford Browder




Sunday, October 15, 2017

322. Fear of Falling


Anaphora Literary Press invites submissions of full-length manuscripts of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; there is no submission fee and it reads year round.  This is not a vanity press; it actively promotes its authors.  Its director, Anna Factorovich, does excellent cover illustrations, as I know from experience, having published two books with Anaphora.  There is one requirement: authors accepted for publication must take fifty copies of their book at a 25% discount from the retail price and dispose of them through sales, giveaways, or requests for reviews.  Small presses have to find a way to survive; this is Anaphora's solution.  But there is no time limit; one can take one year or ten or twenty to dispose of those copies.  And Ms. Factorovich is very clear and open about this requirement; if you don't think you can dispose of fifty copies, you'd better not sign up with Anaphora.  But Anaphora is fast: if your manuscript is accepted, you can have a book in hand within one month, if you choose not to have it edited (which I do not recommend), or within two months, if you do have it edited.  Here is a rare opportunity for writers willing to help market their works vigorously.  Once you're published, Anaphora may request contributions toward a catalog and other means of marketing, but these are optional.  Here are my two books:


browder-cover-9781681143057-perfect-2

Bill Hope: His Story.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.  In the last Goodreads giveaway, 492 people signed up, though only two books were offered.


Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2


Dark Knowledge.  (Release date January 5, 2018; copies now available from the author.)  New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled, and sets out to learn the truth, no matter what the cost.  Since many fear exposure, he meets denials, evasions, threats, and then a murder.  What price must Chris pay to learn the truth and proclaim it?  In the first Goodreads giveaway, 587 people signed up, though only one book was offered.

For more information and guidelines for submissions to Anaphora, go here

And now, on to fear of falling.



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Ever tempted to walk on stilts?  If so,
you have no fear of heights.

     We humans take for granted our erect position, perched high up on our legs like stilts, even though the rest of God’s creatures swim in the sea, fly in the air, or slither or creep on land.  We think it normal to have our feet grounded and our head aloft.  This posture gives us pretensions, a feeling of dominance and control, of being above earthy things, of being close to heaven.  But gravity dictates that things high up will come crashing down.  Maybe not right now, this minute, but sooner or later, hence our fear of falling.


     I have no special fear of heights, no acrophobia.  When visiting the medieval cathedrals of Europe, I thought nothing of huffing and puffing up circular stone stairs in a tower to an edifice’s superstructure, where I could see gargoyles barely visible from below, and enjoy a wide view of the city.  And when my friend Bill and I visited pre-Columbian sites in Mexico and clambered up the steep steps of pyramids to the very top, I found the whole experience thrilling.  And when I clambered back down again and looked back and saw Bill still way up near the top, frozen in fear, I realized he had a fear of heights that to me was alien.  He did get down again, but slowly, one step at a time.

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The George Washington Bridge, with a view from one of the towers --a view I've never had and never will, thank God.
     Am I ever afraid of heights and of falling?  Of course. When I walk across the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey, and pause midway and look down at the river far below, my knees go limp and I feel a momentary dizziness; the thought of plummeting all that way to the water, as many suicides have done, tenses me with fear.  Back in my opera-going days, when I went down to a seat in the front row of the Family Circle of the old Met (the Metropolitan Opera), I was only too aware of the steep descent before me, with only a low rail at the balcony’s edge separating me from the gaping emptiness of the theater’s vast interior, and the main floor far below.  And when today I visit the new MOMA – the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street – with its wide glass walls and plunging perspectives, I get nervous and move quickly to enter rooms with solid floors, relieved to be boxed in with thick walls adorned with works of art and not with views of empty space.

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An inside view at MOMA.  No thanks.
Colin Chia 

     Once, long ago, I had surgery in my right knee and after weeks of bed rest had to learn to walk again and regain, slowly, slowly, the use of my right leg, which at first bent only a little at the knee.  In the hospital I went from wheel chair to walker, and by the time I left there I was walking with a cane. The cane gave me support for many weeks and lessened my fear of falling, which was acute at the top of stairs, or when stepping off a high curb, of which there were many in those days, before the city lowered the curbs at intersections.  My fear of falling when stepping off a curb was so persistent that I carried the cane for weeks after I no longer really needed it; it reassured me, gave me confidence.  Then, once my leg muscles had toughened and my knee could bend to a right angle or more, letting me walk normally, I relinquished the cane and no longer nursed a fear of falling.

     Until recently, that is.  Now, on the cusp of my dynamic maturity, that fear has returned.  Not a fierce, nagging fear, just a sly, subtle one that from time to time flares up.  When? When clambering down stairs and stepping off a curb. Fortunately, most stairs – even those with only two or three steps – have a firm railing at hand, so negotiating them is no problem.  Stepping off a high curb is another matter, but as I step down I put blind faith in the muscles of my leg, which so far have seen me through.  But when I pass an open sidewalk entrance to the basement stairs of a store or an apartment building --  entrances usually marked with orange cones signaling danger – I get just a wee bit nervous, for the thought of plunging down into that darkness is unsettling.  I used to be fascinated by those stairs leading down into darkness, as if into some underworld of mystery, some Hades of the damned, but now I shrink from them in fear, or at least with a good dose of caution.

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Even in an old castle -- or especially there -- scary.
Dark Avenger-commonswiki 

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Inside a lighthouse is no better.   And barefoot?
hashi photo
     During the winters of 2014 and 2015, when the city was beset for days at a time with ice and snow and slush, I prudently clung to my hearth, and was assured by nurses and therapists, when they came to see my partner Bob, that I was wise to do so, since the hospitals were full of weather-related fractures and sprains.  Once, when I did venture out a very short distance to get a newspaper, I slipped on a thin sheet of ice and fell with a thump.  So it had finally happened, the thing I perennially feared.  Was I hurt?  No, not a scratch or a bruise.  So I just slid over the ice a few feet to a spot that seemed safer, laboriously got up, and tiptoed on. 

     Nothing is more threatening to us fragile humans, whether elderly or not, than the public transportation of the city of New York.  Our buses and subway trains lurch and screech and jolt.  If I don’t get a seat, I hold on to the nearest pole with one or both hands, preferably both, and when getting off, I wait until the bus or train stops with its inevitable jolt, and then, and only then, do I rise from my seat or let go of a pole to exit.  But caution is never enough.  Once, when a bus lurched away from a stop, it caught a  bunch of us with only a tenuous grip on a pole.  We all toppled, three or four or five, but the others managed to grab hold of something and right themselves, whereas I inelegantly went all the way to the floor.  Gasps of “Oh!” erupted, and five hands stretched out to help me up.  Get up I did, clumsily, laboriously, but when others asked if I was hurt, I could announce grandly, “Not a scratch!”  “You fell just right,” said one witness, and it was true enough; in spite of my fear of falling, I seem to fall just right and bounce back up without a bruise or a scratch. 

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Poles aplenty here, but I have never, never ridden in a subway car this empty.
     Still, that fear persists, even to the point of making me hesitate to return to one of my favorite local restaurants where, as you exit, you have to descend two steps without a railing or any other form of support.  To fall there would be catastrophic, since there are outside tables near those steps, and anyone falling would crash down on a table and disrupt someone’s genteel lunching – for me, the worst outcome of all, worse than a fracture or sprain.  What could one then say?  “Excuse me, dear people, I didn’t mean to smash up your tacos and enchiladas.”  Embarrassment, shame, guilt.  Could I ever show my face in that restaurant again?  Probably not.

     My fear of falling is justified.  Statistics tell us that one third of those over 60 fall each year, and over half of those over 80. And those who do fall are two to three times more likely to fall again.  And to make this cheery prospect even cheerier, we are told that these figures are an understatement, since many falls go unreported.  By way of confirmation of all this, my partner Bob’s nurses and therapists have told us horror stories of seniors living alone in the city who refuse to have a home care aide, and one day are found lying on the floor in a pool of blood.  So welcome to the Golden Years, that sweet retirement we have all been working toward and dreaming of, as we toil laboriously on through our lives.

     And to top the matter off, the December 2015 AARP Bulletin, which targets seniors, reports a growing but barely noticed epidemic of falls because people are living longer, and the aging Baby Boomers are joining the ranks of the vulnerable.  Older adults fall when inside, younger ones when outside.  Examples:

·      A 58-year-old man tripped over a dog leash while camping outdoors with his wife, bruised his spinal cord, spent three months in hospitals and rehab, and has now regained bowel and bladder function, but can’t walk or shower without help.
·      A woman of 67 lost her balance while carrying a small table down the stairs to her basement, was found by family unconscious on the concrete floor, suffered brain injury, and has now improved, but still has time talking in complete sentences.
·      Ex-President George H.W. Bush, 91, fell at his home in Maine, breaking a bone in his neck. 

My advice:  Don’t go camping with a dog, and don’t carry small tables up or down stairs.  AARP warns also of invisible ice on driveways, slippery bathroom floors, loose rugs, and high heels.  Personally, I’m not too worried about the first or the last, but the middle two are a concern, as well as clutter in the apartment.

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A 1764 edition printed and sold by
Benjamin Franklin.
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    Achieving heights and plummeting down from them are ingrained in the myths and traditions of the West.  “In Adam’s fall / We sinned all” is how The New England Primer, the most successful textbook published in the American colonies in the eighteenth century, introduced tender young minds to the letter A, presumably pronouncing “sinned” as two syllables to make the second verse have the requisite eight.  Adam’s fall, of course, was metaphorical, since it involved eating a forbidden apple at the prompting of mischievous Eve and the nefarious serpent (thanks to whom snakes have a bad press to this day), the serpent being none other than the wicked Tempter in disguise.  Far from plummeting, Adam and his guilty bedmate were driven from the paradisial Garden of Eden out into the hard, cruel world where we have all been laboring ever since, with death our inevitable end on this toilsome earth. 

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The expulsion from Eden, with and without fig leaves.  Masaccio,
1426-28; a 1980 restoration removed the fig leaves, a 1680 addition.

     But the real Fall affecting and afflicting our universe was the Fall of Satan, up till then known as Lucifer, and his rebellious cohorts, following their revolt against God, who smote them mightily and sent them plummeting down from heaven to the smoky regions of hell.  This grandiose myth is retold vividly in Milton’s Paradise Lost, though Milton, himself a rebel against the majesty of Charles I of England,  couldn’t help but make Satan and his allies more interesting than God and his Son, and hell a far more fascinating bit of real estate than the vague and airy regions of heaven.  But the Fall of that arch rebel foreshadowed that of Adam and precipitated it since, in Milton’s telling, it was Satan’s desire for revenge that led him to investigate this new creation, Earth, and wheedle Eve into wheedling Adam into the guilty act of eating an apple. (Fortunately, apples, unlike serpents, haven’t had a bad press ever since, New York State being rich in them -- apples, that is -- and apples a favorite fruit of us all; I gobble one daily.) Satan’s Fall has haunted us down through the ages, and inspired Gustave Doré’s magnificent illustrations of Milton’s work, showing Satan and the fallen angels dramatically en route to hell.

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Satan and his legions smitten down to hell by the Archangel Michael.  Gustave Doré, 1866.

     For all our fear of falling, we humans – some of us – are obsessed with climbing, with achieving perilous heights.  On my many hikes in an upstate wilderness, sometimes I would come across a rustic bridge or a shelter with a plaque commemorating a son who had fallen to his death while climbing rocks, perhaps near the very spot where I was standing; in his memory, the grieving parents donated funds for the bridge or the shelter. 

     We’ve all heard reports of mountain climbers scaling icy peaks in Nepal, and of avalanches sweeping them to their death.  These adventurers are obsessed with heights and the need to conquer them, no matter what the risk: an obsession that few of us share, an obsession that we admire from a safe remove, and that we admit baffles us.  Every summer there are reports of teen-age boys who, clad in light summer clothing, scale precipitous peaks, reach a ledge, look down at the ground far below, and panic; going down seems more perilous than climbing up.  Trapped up there, they often spend the night, shudder through the cold, are found by rescuers the following morning.  In one case one of the two boys was dead, and the other, close to death, whispered plaintively, “Please help me, I don’t want to die”; within minutes he too was dead. 

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Andy Beecroft
     The supreme fear of falling may come in a waking dream or a nightmare, often toward 4 a.m., when the night is longest and dawn seems far away, and the body’s numbed metabolism counterfeits death.  In this dream we plummet through eons of time and infinitudes of space, down, down, down  into the ultimate doom of extinction.  No wonder we have a dread of falling.  And yet, there is a sport known as skydiving, whose enthusiasts relish plummeting for a few delirious moments through the air before opening a parachute that brings them gently to earth. 

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The ultimate thrill … for some.
Arteaga Douglas


Coming soon:  No idea.

©   2017   Clifford Browder