Tag Archives: tragic

That day Spaz tried to kill me

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It was spring break, we were at the movies,
and I was laughing so hard that it hurt
with the “hands-around-my-throat, I can’t-breathe” type of hurt.
Finally, I managed to get air enough to gasp pleadingly
for him to stop—and that is when he flicked
his box of popcorn in my face. If it had been funny before,
it was hilarious then and I remember ending up
on the dirty, ticky-tacky floor of the theater,
wheezing and wondering:
is this it?/am i dying?/what will everybody think?
And as God is my witness, that only made it funnier.

It turns out that at that point Spaz had already lived over
half of his life, while I only a third (thus far) of mine.
What fairness is that?
Perhaps that is the point—my point, or his point to me—
or at least someone’s point to someone.

Because the funny thing is, I can hear him laughing as I write this—
my little buddy, laughing—and all I want to do is laugh with him.
And as God is my witness, I’m still not sure what we’re laughing about.

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Tony told me at our first meeting (we were in university together, taking our engineering degrees) that ‘Spaz’ was his nickname. I could go on and on about him, but the simple truth is that he was a wonderful person and I loved him very, very much. He was a good and dear friend and I cherish all those years we were together.

The tragedy is that we had not spoken since shortly after we graduated; my moving to Africa did that to many relationships. And yet, when I recently heard from a fellow classmate that he had died at the very young age of 40, still, I was very saddened by it. As my mother often said, “Only the good die young.” That’s not true, of course, but what is true is that we get to regret their passing for far longer than if they had not.

And that story about us going to a movie and me feeling I was going to die from laughing? Absolutely true. That was Spaz.

Thank you for reading That day Spaz tried to kill me. I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain, and as always, I look forward to your comments.

The photograph was taken at Wolf Den state park in Connecticut.  To see my photography, please visit the Book of Bokeh  blog.

john

Photograph, notes and poem © John Etheridge; all rights reserved. The poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original written work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © John Etheridge,  https://bookofpain.wordpress.com. The photograph is not licensed for use in any way without the expressed consent of its copyright owner.

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The sad, dark tragedy of Fritz Haber

Take blood from kith and kin
and add nitrogen, chlorine and gold
and you’ll have all the elements
of a wicked good story, tears included.

Lift up, fall down, cut and combine,
put the pressure on and never let up;
push for this, grasp for that
angle to be arrived at,
to be more than just ‘me’, a ‘him.’
As for the rest,
dulce est decorum est
the darkest of the darksome roads.

He thought it was about knowledge,
I can hear him now:
Only Eden matters, it’s where I am going
and taking me and mine—
just there, just now, just watch me, see?
I made it, me alone, I made it…that’s me!
That’s him.

This poem was written in response to the tragic and horrific Fritz Haber story, told in brief below. It deals with the consequences of being willing to pay any price for knowledge and for personal advancement and recognition. True in the Book of Genesis, true in Faustus, it is still true today.

Dulce est decorum est pro patria mori (DOOL-kay eh de-KORum eh pro PAtree-ah Mor-ee) is Latin and means, it is sweet and right to die for one’s country; they are the opening lines of an ode by Horace. Widely quoted in Britain in the run-up to, and during, World War 1 (and with derision thereafter) Dulce est Decorum Est, which deals with the utter horror of chemical warfare, is a brilliant and moving poem by Wilfred Owen, a young British poet who experienced it first hand and sadly, did not survive through to the Armistice.

The Sad, Dark Tragedy of Fritz Haber

At the beginning of the 20th century, the world was in a quandary: where would it get the food to feed its exploding population? Plant cell walls need nitrogen to grow, but there just wasn’t a sufficient natural supply of the element available. Haber, a German physicist, developed a process to synthesize nitrogen from the air, where it is abundant, by using a high pressure containment vessel. The product, ammonia, in turn went on to be the base for both the agricultural fertilizer business and the manufacture of explosives.

It is fair to say that at least half, and perhaps up to 70%, of the current world’s population could not be fed without this process for the production of artificial fertilizer. One hundred percent of all ammunition gunpowder also uses it. For this work, Haber was awarded the Noble Prize in Chemistry in 1918.

Both Fritz Haber and his wife, Clara, were Jewish-German and born in what is now Poland. They converted to Lutherism early in their careers (Clara was also a physicist and one of the first women to be awarded a PhD in Germany) to open up academic opportunities. For his work, and despite his rather nondescript personality, poor social connectivity and religious background, Haber was appointed the head of a prestigious research institute.

It was the advent of World War 1 (1914-1918) that turns the Fritz Haber story so dark. Passionately patriotic and wanting to grow into his new social status, Haber convinced the German High Command—in contravention of the Hague Convention of 1907, to which Germany was a signatory—to implement chemical warfare. He not only developed the chlorine gas used in the first chemical warfare attack at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, but personally played a role in its release. Caught unawares, six thousand Allied troops died a horrible, sickening death and opened a series of tit-for-tat chemical attacks and counter attacks (for the Allies quickly retaliated in kind) that saw tens of thousands on both sides die horribly.

For this act, Haber was personally awarded the rank of captain by the Kaiser, a rare honor for an aging, non-military academic. However, returning home for a day of rest, Haber had an argument over his actions with his wife Clara, who accused him of losing all moral credibility. Late that night, in grief over his actions, she committed suicide with his new service revolver. She was found the next day by their only child, Hermann, a 13 year old boy. Hermann would later immigrate to the United States and would himself, in 1946, also commit suicide over the shame of his father’s chemical warfare work. Unrepentant, and despite his wife’s suicide, Haber left that same day for the Eastern front, there to again participate in a test chemical attack on Russian troops.

If only the story ended there, but it doesn’t. Haber returned to work after the war, and in an attempt to quickly re-pay the humiliating German reparations demanded by the Allies, worked on a process to purify gold from seawater, a scheme which was held out with great hope at the time but which was eventually proven to be a total failure. Later, in protest over the firing of Jewish academics under his patronage, and also because of his own own heritage, Haber was forced out of his academic position and leadership by the Nazis. Haber left his homeland and immigrated to England, where, owing to his background in chemical warfare development, he received a cold reception. He died in 1934 of a heart attack in a Basel, Switzerland hotel while en route to taking up a teaching post in Israel.

It was after this that the final chapter of Haber’s full legacy played out. In the 1920s, at his research institute and under his direction, his team had developed Zyklon A, a cyanide (chlorine plus nitrogen compound) gas pesticide used as a fumigant. Years later, and because of its high toxicity, the Nazis requested that this gas be reformulated to remove its artificial, warning smell. It was, and Zyklon B went on to precipitate the Holocaust as the gas used in the concentration camps and was, in the end, responsible for the death of millions of people, mostly Jews, but also Slavs, Gypsies and some political dissidents. Many of Haber’s relatives from his home region, and certainly many of his friends, were part of the roundup and sent to the camps.

All because what Haber really wanted, I suspect, was to be accepted.

Thank you for reading The sad, dark tragedy of Fritz Haber. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

john

© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2013 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

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Sullivan Ballou letter

Not a poem today, but a letter that is the essence of love and sacrifice. Written during the American Civil War, it is by Sullivan Ballou, a Major in the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers and to his wife Sarah, at their home in Smithfield, RI. I first heard it in the award winning Public Broadcasting Systems (PBS) series The Civil War by Ken Burns.

July 14, 1861
Camp Clark,
Washington DC

Dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. And lest I should not be able to write you again I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I am no more.

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence can break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly with all those chains to the battlefield. The memory of all the blissful moments I have enjoyed with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you, that I have enjoyed them for so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes and future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and see our boys grown up to honorable manhood around us.

If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I loved you, nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name…

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have sometimes been!…

But, 0 Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be with you, in the brightest day and in the darkest night… always, always. And when the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath, or the cool air your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again…
——————————————————————————–

Sullivan Ballou was killed a week later at the 1st Battle of Bull Run.

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Recovery’s a bitch

Life is pain,
misery, choice.
Rhyme that, Sunshine!

Thank you for reading Recovery’s a bitch. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

john

© 2012 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2012 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

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The calculus of feeling

The integral part of the nerve flux is pain
when the curve stays mute no more,
and when it’s summed up for all that you’re out—
pay later, pay now, but pay—
it’s not supposed to matter, except that it does,
because now it’s not the instant, it’s the whole.

This is the way that the curve wends its way
through the range of emotions it finds,
and if it’s hard at the end it wasn’t at the start
when the twisting had just begun.
I recall at the time that the values were mine
and there was something to be said for that,
but that was then and this is now, and tomorrow,
it will all fall down upon me again.

One of the things that most struck me in trying to understand addiction is the mathematical nature of its roller coaster emotional curve.

What follows is a very readable and understandable short description of a mathematical subject. Even people who “don’t get math” will get this. You’ve been warned.

Calculus is a branch of mathematics co-developed in the mid 1600s by Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. If you take a graph of the changing speed of an object, differentiating it at a point means finding out exactly what is happening at that instance: that is, either your acceleration, that “push you back into the seat” feeling, or your deceleration, the “push you against the safety belt straps” feeling that you get when an automobile starts off quickly or stops quickly. If, however, you integrate the graph, you are trying to determine how much area is underneath its shape; in the notion of speed, integrating it gives you the total distance that you have traveled.

It is as simple as that: the math of calculus and its two halves—differentiation and integration—tell you exactly what is happening in the part or in the whole.

What struck me, and was the impetus to this poem, was the parallel between these very physical activities and the emotions of addiction. If you think of a plot of a person’s emotional state over time, you can think of differentiating at any one spot as the degree of happiness (like acceleration) or suffering (like deceleration) experienced by that person at that moment; and integrating that emotional arc over some time period—that is, determining the area “under the emotional curve”—will tell you the amount of joy, if there was more happiness than suffering, or the amount of pain, if there had more suffering than happiness. An addict’s curve is assuredly negative and will have been that way for a long time.

A “flux” by the way, is a wave that moves through something. A current of electricity is a flux of energy moving through a wire. The “nerve flux” is the amount of emotional pain that can no longer be dulled or quieted through addiction. I was drawn to use it as “flux” was the word that Leibniz used when he first described his version of calculus.

Thank you for reading The calculus of emotion. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

john

© 2012 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2012 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

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That terrible lover

I hear it better now than ever I did before,
you did that. It howls now loud
in the quiet of every street;
anyone can hear it, anyone can have it,
anyone can see the ruin of every home—
that comfort, that love, that need.
God, how long?
It starts, they say, low and muted
a mere whisper, a softer caress, a first kiss: so kind.
And then it’s part of you,
closer than a heartbeat,
dearer than a lover,
and bound to you as you are to it, forever.

He’s here now, you know, in your poem—
at the table with the Scotch cookies and Polish cakes
and the tea to serve to friends.
And all the while he’s waiting,
itching to play with matches,
staring at the covered cage and snarling,
Sing, damn you, sing!
He’s here.

Few people realize how prevalent drug and alcohol addiction is. It truly is the “elephant in the room” that just doesn’t seem to get talked about enough.

The tragedy of addiction is like an onion: thickly layered from the inside out. The toll on the addict and everyone around them is heartbreaking. And what is doubly sad is that many addicts are, at their base, trying to self medicate their emotional pain away.

Thank you for reading Itching to play with matches. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

john

© 2012 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2012 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

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