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Moment of Truth: The Monarch's Migration

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the curse that is the drink.

I’ve been feeling pressure to be optimistic lately. My friends encourage. A listener, a communist mailman in New Jersey, insists. Henry Giroux opines. My mother sent me a book by Jane Goodall called, “Hope.” It’s a lot of heat.

I have no choice but to go to my happy places to seek out this elusive optimism. The happy places in my mind, of course. I can’t bring you to my happy places in the material world. I could so endeavor with words, but those words would be the product of the experiences of my happy places cycling through my mind as I compose them. So, one way or the other, you’re stuck with the happy places in my mind.

Here’s an amusement: a friend told me, “People can now eat pig hearts or get them as transplants, but they must choose only one of the above.”

I replied, “What if you get the transplant, dine for a couple years on aromatic herbs, truffles, and oils, and then have it removed, prepared, and served to you?”

He suggested that some scientists, more hungry than ethical, have been urging pig-hearted transplantees to eat a lot of basil and to be sure to leave their organs to science. He also said that the restaurant he’s creating the new menu for wanted to do a pig heart dish, but due to the new demand for pig hearts the price has skyrocketed.

Hearts are notoriously rubbery and full of cartilage. He and I once made calf’s heart soup in a medieval convent converted to a residence for social workers in Kilkenny, Ireland, and that sucker took hours and barely became remotely chewable. As for his restaurant menu, I told him he’d be better off with a softer organ. “Although that’s not what she said,” I quipped at the end.

Speaking of tender organs, recently a friend of ours, an old writer almost exactly twenty years my senior, by the name of Jay Wolpert, passed away. He wrote the 2002 version of “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean, the Curse of the Black Pearl.” He loved cinematic sword fights in a swashbuckling vein. He was a big fan of Stewart Granger in 1952’s “Scaramouche,” which he screened for us back when he still could remember who I was. I don’t know what a swashbuckle is, and I don’t think he ever told me.

I met him in the last few years of his life. We eventually had a lot of friends in common from the place in Laurel Canyon where we all used to get coffee before the Covid scourge. I’ve talked about this place on the show before. Jay would share his apple Danish with his large dog Levi and give everybody hell in that funny Jewish old guy way. The coffee place has since been overrun with fascists calling themselves libertarians, who took over while sensible people were staying away. Now the coffee place in Joni Mitchell’s canyon is lousy with fascists.

During the first big lockdown, when things were taken a tad more seriously than they are now, at least by some of us, we canyon coffee people would meet on Zoom every other day and chew the fat. Only a few of us. One aged but lively couple lives in London but has a daughter in the canyon they fly here to visit. It’s the same situation with another aged but lively couple in New Zealand. And there’s one woman who’s Irish yet somehow works in Munich but lives in Atlanta. Time zones are an issue, but we make it work.

Anyway, Jay, the old writer, was a real Jewish show-biz character. He could’ve been in Sid Caesar’s writers’ room if he’d been born early enough in the last century. But he began to deteriorate due to old people’s delirium, even before the time we defaulted to Zoom, during which his Alzheimer’s got far worse, and it was very sad, and eventually, as I say, he died. Last week. And we in the canyon Zoom coffee club watched his funeral, it seemed like a reform or conservative Jewish funeral, definitely not Orthodox.

The funeral was this past Sunday. His widow, Roz, his two daughters, I think, and his best friend, Tom or Bob, all gave excellent eulogies. They were all heartbroken but expressed vividly how he’d made their lives happy.

The woman in New Zealand, we’ll call her Parvati, is a unique character herself, and the story goes that after meeting Jay at the canyon coffee she told her husband, Rex, “I’ve fallen in love,” and she and Rex, who’s still her husband, both still tell that story. This woman was raised in an orphanage in India, was adopted into a Kiwi family and became a flight attendant and dresser of hair. And she’s one of those people, I don’t know how you become one of these people, but she has become one of these people who just thinks everything she comes across that’s wonderful is just soooooo wonderful. She will say this. “Jeffrey, I’m the type of person who when I meet someone I adore, I just treasure that person,” anyway, she gushes about beauty and marvelousness and sometimes I make fun of it because, of course, I’m emphatically not that type of person. But you should really make friends with that type of person. Don’t make friends with too many people like me, because I will, well, I don’t really want to tell you what I will do, let’s keep a little mystery in this relationship, shan’t we?

So, this Kiwi woman, Parvati, as Jay’s cognition was deteriorating – it hit her very hard. And when Roz, now his widow, would come on Zoom or relay through someone else the way Jay was deteriorating, now physically as well, Parvati was very unhappy. The day we found out he died, she was engulfed in sorrow. She took Jay’s life and marriage and career and children and grandchildren and wife’s burden and dog into account, filling an ocean with the tragedy of the loss of all that, and engulfing herself in the deluge.

As I say, the funeral was broadcast for people who couldn’t come, because that’s world we live in now, and we all in the canyon coffee club watched it live on Sunday. And Monday we were all on Zoom and this Indian-Kiwi woman, Parvati, seemed to have processed it all. And she brought into the room so we could look at it a tiger lily plant, which she’d chosen because it was sturdy, and she’d tied a small piece of wood to it as a crosspiece. She’d done this quite a while ago, and she’d found all these monarch butterfly chrysalises in her garden. She’d been observing the monarch caterpillars all summer, and she later found their chrysalises on fennel stalks. And she’d cut the fennel stalks and fastened them to this tiger lily cross, and some of the chrysalises she had fastened to the wooden crosspiece with what we persist in calling Scotch tape, but what people in other English-speaking countries call cello-tape or something, or at least they do in New Zealand.

And Monday morning, she brought before us this tiger lily cross with all these chrysalises dangling from it, and some of the butterflies had emerged and were drying their wings. About five had come out and were in various stages of recovery from their metamorphosis. And it looked like there were at least twelve more to go, and she expected all of them to come out by the end of the day, and I’m sure they did.

As she held the cross, she described what she could see, looking so closely at them, the butterflies’ abdomens inflating and contracting, pulsing to push their wings open, pulsing to push them to new life, and crystal drops of fluid dripping off of them, as the orange and black and white mosaic wings slowly opened and closed.

I’d seen people keep one chrysalis in a jar or a terrarium and protect it until it “came to term,” so to speak, but I had never seen anything like this and couldn’t have imagined it. As she described what she was seeing, and we saw what we were seeing, she also threw in some remarks about loving nature and how marvelous and how she was protecting these creatures from the wasps in the garden that wanted to turn them into food. There she held this Charlie Brown Christmas tree- like cross with chrysalises and butterflies, sun-colored wings slowly fanning.

The monarchs, you know, were reported declining on the Mexican end of their migration, in the central highlands. The eastern monarch migration is the big one, the long one, the one during which four generations of monarchs pass their torches. A lot of people in the US started planting milkweed, and encouraging others to plant milkweed, to fatten up the monarch ranks, milkweed habitats in the US having been shriveled by an array of effects from our world’s being dominated by a salivating, rabid menagerie of profit interests. No one knows for sure if the milkweed helped, or even if it was necessary, forest depletion south of the border and climate change consequences in Mexico and Texas possibly causing the decline. Even the decline is debatable, thanks to the difficulty of counting butterflies and the many competing agendas pushing and pulling at the data here in the Golden Age of warped narratives.

The monarch migration means a lot to a lot of people. It has meant a lot to me. I was with a girlfriend up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan back in the 1980s. We were camping near a place I’d gone once before and enjoyed, it was part of Great Lakes maritime history, and we were also in search of a small green wooden booth called Clyde’s Hamburgers, which we found no longer existed, but the camping and swimming were excellent, and we were treated to a majestic squall line rumbling over the lake, over us, flashing its lightning, dragging behind it a heavy thunderstorm. And in the morning, as we were walking out of the woods, millions of orange, white, and black stained-glass butterflies were floating around us like autumn leaves.

With that firm organ, my sturdily-constructed heart, rubbery, and not unlike that of a pig, happy in its happy place as a pig in its own, I am doing the work again, because I’ve tried this more than once. Like planets and suns do with gravity, the massive inhumanity of humans toward everything good stretches dents in the fabric of spacetime. But gravity is considered an extremely weak force, compared to the other forces. Even a butterfly can defy it, temporarily. I hope no one expects more from me than they would a butterfly.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!

Moment of Truth


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