Good Morning Midnight: Life and Death in the Wild Riverhead Books (2003)
Award-winning literary journalist Chip Brown tells the story of the life and death of a brilliant, complicated man-an outdoorsman with a troubled soul, a pioneer of the New England wilderness, who sought rebirth in nature only to end his own life on a snowy mountaintop in a gesture of chilling premeditation. Guy Waterman checked out of his former life as a Capitol Hill speechwriter and father of three at midlife to pursue the passion that promised to deliver him from his demons: mountain climbing. Along with his second wife, he built a cabin nestled in the mountains of Vermont, without modern conveniences of any kind, in order to live purely on the land and for the land, and thereby to redefine himself in the extremes of frontier life. An accomplished jazz pianist who could recite hours of poetry, a genuine eccentric beloved by many, Waterman became the dean of the homesteading movement and the foremost historian of the mountains of the northeast. So when he methodically carried out his mountain suicide, those who loved him were left to wonder whether it was the action of a noble man, painfully aware of the encroachments of age and determined to die with dignity, or that of a tragic figure doomed by the code of the Hard Man-a man who could not find the strength to be weak and forgive his own limitations. Chip Brown writes with exhilarating clarity about the thrill of mountain climbing and with compassion and intelligence about the mystery that begins when a life ends. Good Morning Midnight is a gripping story of survival in nature, with an existential heart.
Afterwards, You’re A Genius: Faith, Medicine and the Metaphysics of Healing Riverhead Books (1998)
EXCERPT: Afterwards You’re a Genius
1. THE FLOWER OF THE DEAD
More than a few years ago, when I was in a bad way, wallowing in a sob story about an actress who’d exchanged me for a used-car salesman in California, I went to see a psychic. It was half a lark, or so I thought at the time. The heartache that inspired the visit was real enough, but I was not able to make any sense of it until much later, when I happened on Borges’s description of love as a religion organized around a fallible god. For the millions of us who press on in a secular age, under Darwin’s empty heaven, love may be all we ever know of religion, and the loss of love is that much more wrenching for its likeness to a crisis of faith. What else but a confusion of divine and human realms can account for the pain of misplaced devotion? Pain made worse by the ludicrousness of it all, the ersatz savior and the preposterous church and the disillusioned parishioner, who stumbles around in the aftermath—stupefied, in my case, by the sight of his highly beloved on Channel 7 in a Fruit of the Loom commercial. There she was! Dressed as a guava or possibly a passion fruit. Something tropical. I couldn’t see clearly. I was too busy gasping for air. She turned up again a few weeks later as a guest star on a cheesy detective show, but this time there was an offsetting, even therapeutic, consolation: She got shot in the head.
In those premillennial days, there were no psychic hotlines or $3.95-a-minute clairvoyants with has-been celebrities vouching for their skills, and the whiff of charlatanism that has always attended the guild of seers was not half as ripe as it seems now. There were shrinks, of course, but I wanted to look ahead to the future, where I imagined redemption was waiting, and not back, at the estrangement and misery of the recent past. A friend had given me the card of the Reverend Diane Nagorka at the National Spiritual Science Center, which was described as “an oasis of spirit in the Nation’s Capital.” I made an appointment, and on a mild February morning, I rode a bus up to the address in an old, middle-class neighborhood. At the end of a little path was a large house with a roomy porch. The receptionist who answered the door showed me into a living room where the walls were hung with paintings of saints. The shades were drawn, and in the Rembrandt gloom, the holy figures seemed almost luminous.
At length, Reverend Diane emerged. The mistress of the oasis was in her early sixties and resembled a scuffed-up Katharine Hepburn—a little unkempt but invincibly confident, and clearly not in the habit of suffering fools for more than three seconds. “I’ve been described as the no-nonsense psychic,” she said as she led me up the stairs to a candlelit, book-lined consulting room where an effigy of the laughing Buddha gleamed in the corner. After many years, Reverend Diane had completed her doctorate in religious studies. She said she considered herself both a “psychic” and an “intuitive healer.” She believed that universal energies unknown to science pervaded the human body; they contained information that could be read and used to promote health on any of the various tiers of a person’s being.
With the laughing Buddha looking on, we settled into chairs across from each other. She fastened a small microphone to the collar of her dress and scribbled the date on a blank cassette, which she then popped into a tape recorder. She closed her eyes. She took a deep breath. And then she raised her hands as if she had just come back from a fly-fishing trip and were regaling me with the tale of the big one that got away.
“Mother-Father-God we thank thee, for thou hast said when two or three are gathered together there thou will be also.” The invocation, spoken in her sandy voice, seemed to refine the air between us and impart a mood of ceremony and sacredness. You can work in Washington all your life and never hear anyone use the word “hast.”
Reverend Diane’s predictions can’t really be of much interest all these years later. She claimed only the ability to foresee the upcoming eighteen months. She talked nonstop, mostly with her eyes closed, speaking smoothly and articulately as she presented the scenes and images appearing in her mind’s eye. I later came to appreciate that she did not resort to the usual “cold reading” tactics of many so-called psychics; she did not fish for information, or pepper me with questions, or pursue themes on the strength of cues and confirmations gleaned from my responses. She said she would offer the highlights I might expect in the coming months, periods of excitement, transitions. And she stressed the provisional nature of her forecast, giving me the standard clairvoyant disclaimer that “all is chosen.”
I have to say that most of what she said seemed scarcely more interesting than newspaper astrology, general enough not to be instantly refutable, but hardly profound. Of course, I wonder now if I was ready to listen to any of it, as I didn’t have the foggiest idea where or how she got her information, or how anyone could envision events that hadn’t happened yet. The very idea seemed crazy: an affront to the laws of the universe, at least as I presumed to understand them, which is to say an affront to the received wisdom of the culture I was trained in, a culture that had established science as the ultimate arbiter of reality. Science—or the pop distillate of it—said that what can be objectively measured is intrinsically more trustworthy, more valuable, more “real” than what can be subjectively felt. Science had lionized matter at the expense of psyche and spirit, and imagined that its preference reflected the natural order of things, not a metaphysical choice. Bones before dreams.
I was jolted out of my reverie hearing Reverend Diane say I had a sort of ethereal aide de camp, a five-thousand-year-old Chinese man who acted as a spirit guide and who stayed mostly in the background but nevertheless entered my hand whenever I wrote or played the piano. How odd: I hadn’t told her I wrote; I hadn’t mentioned having a piano.
Altogether, she spoke for half an hour, and then abruptly broke off. “It’s like a movie on a screen, and when it’s over, that’s it,” she said, opening her eyes. She asked if I had any questions. Were there people I wanted to know about? Sure, I said. She was careful to advise that she would not be invading their privacy, only reading what she could see of them in the field of my being. I tossed out the names of siblings, my parents, some old friends.
Then I threw out the name of my mop-haired heartthrob, who had inspired so many fervent journal entries and whom I could still picture in the Off-Broadway play I first saw her in, singing a song called “Tiny Lily.” After the performance, when I’d recovered from my rapture in the back row, we’d gone to dinner at a fish joint in the East Village, and as we were leaving, I swiped a long-stemmed lily from a vase by the door and presented it to her. That night was the first night I stayed in her apartment. Lilies were carved on the mantel of her fireplace. Lilies in the song, lilies by the door, lilies on the mantel. It had always seemed that our affair was born under the sign of the lily, that we were wreathed in lilies, the flower of the dead.
Reverend Diane screwed up her brow for a moment—her eyes were closed again—and then shrugged, opened her eyes, and said offhandedly, as if she was sorry not to have more to tell, “Well, I see a lily.”
Well, I see a lily.
You could have knocked me over with a flower. No doubt she could have said a hundred things that would have been equally true, equally disorienting. A hundred things that would have disturbed me as much for lack of knowing how she came by them. She had a lot of material to work with. My highly beloved had been ahead of her time. She had tried hard to balance the material cravings that attracted her to my American Express card with nobler, more spiritual aspirations. She meditated. She followed a guru; she quoted pénsees about the “mystic traveler consciousness.” She resolutely maintained her practice of magical thinking even though she was disappointed when the five bucks she put in a coffee can never metamorphosed into fifty or when—the harder fate—her hopes for fame and success in acting never yielded more than a few bit parts and the Fruit of the Loom spot.
I can see now that she was one of those dream-drunk seekers in the vanguard of our disenchanted age for whom the great grail is simply to feel good about themselves. She was dedicated to healing herself—but of what, exactly, it was never clear. When the emollients of fame and money weren’t availing, she chased the chimera of perfect health as if it were some sort of Utopia that could be attained by effort and technique. She had her food allergies analyzed by an applied kinesiologist and steered clear of wheat. She launched juice fasts. She made appointments with a “white witch” to have her “aura brushed.” She was delivered of emotional blocks in sessions with a “rebirther” and had her colon periodically flushed with coffee enemas. (She kindly warned me never to use the earthy-looking towel on the back of the bathroom door.)
So had the reverend said, “I see a beleaguered AmEx card” or “I see some coffee, not for drinking …” I would have been just as flabbergasted. There was an immense volume of detail my clairvoyant apparently did not perceive or find fit to report. But all the same, how had she divined the significance of lily? Why lily? Why not zinnia, gardenia, or furbish lousewort, which all meant nothing when lily meant the world? Many of the scoundrels who staged séances in the nineteenth century used to keep crib books of pertinent information on the prominent families who might want their services. Reverend Diane might have surmised that I worked at the local newspaper, but there were only two people in North America who could have grasped the import of lilies in the context of my love life, and, actually, at that point, given how thoroughly and rapidly I had been eclipsed, I’m pretty sure there was only one. And that was me. And yet here was some old hast-speaking wisewoman pulling it out of the ether.
All these years later, I can still recall the peculiar urgency of that hour. “Our life is not so much threatened as our perception,” Emerson wrote. What was this country where science left off? Where the laws of ordinary existence seemed to be suspended and sacramentalizing crones could pinpoint the flower in a stranger’s heart? Again, this time in closing, Reverend Diane raised her hands and gave thanks to her mother-father-god for that wherever-two-or-three-were-gathered place. And by then it seemed to me that we were up to our keisters in lilies, all of them glowing like that glass of poisoned milk in Hitchcock’s Notorious. Ominous life-altering lily-light filled the room. It seemed to me my frame of reference had been broken. My assumptions had been undermined. There was a wound in my metaphysics.
Over the years, I have had but to murmur to myself “I see a lily” to bring back the depths of amazement and affliction I felt that day. Sometimes I would hear in the words a rebuke or a challenge to all the pretty, categories of good sense and sound thinking that we flatter ourselves are true simply because we have established them; sometimes I would hear a summons from across the border, the siren call of uncharted territory. I began to read about psychics and their counterparts in healing circles who attempted not just to see with clairvoyant sight but to induce changes on the basis of their strange vision.
And I began to wonder about that country. In an age when the gods have become diseases, could one travel there with no qualification but curiosity, or was more required—the visa of illness, the passport of faith? Was it possible to report intelligibly about a place where facts were half dissolved in myth, and no two maps agreed, and the light, the weather, the customs, and even the substance of the inhabitants were widely held to be indescribable by the seekers and screwballs who had been there already? I wondered, because someday I meant to go.
2. SHE STARTED TO DO BETTER
Shin, the snow leopard at the San Francisco Zoo, took a turn for the worse in early May of 1995. She was a month shy of her tenth birthday, and she’d lost a third of her weight. It was clear to the veterinarians, who had her on antibiotics, that she was exhausted and dangerously ill. Their tentative diagnosis: inflammatory bowel disease. By midmonth, Shin stopped eating. She refused further medicine and would not come down from her perch. The luster of her coat was fading. She had never seen the world she was produced for, having been born in the Bronx Zoo and having spent her whole life in captivity. But her native Asian habitat was reflected in her beautiful coat: The gray of her fur was the hue of its mountain mists, the brown of her camouflage spots was the color of its ragged earth. Shin’s secretive sisters were rarely seen in the wild, but their footprints were sometimes spotted as high as twenty thousand feet in the snows of Tibet.
As it happened, the third week of May, eleven Tibetan monks arrived in San Francisco from their home-in-exile in Tenzin Gang, India. They had been invited to perform their Gyuto Tantric chants by Mickey Hart, the drummer of the Grateful Dead. They asked the keepers of the San Francisco Zoo if there were any sick animals for whom they might offer a puja, a traditional prayer of purification, a prayer that Tibetans believe is not simply a petition for health but a way of actually strengthening the flow of life-energy in a sick creature. The sound itself rights the body.
And so the monks, dressed in their saffron robes, were shown to the Feline Conservation Center, where Shin was draped listlessly on her perch. They formed two rows in front of her cage. None of them had ever laid eyes on a snow leopard; like Shin, most of them had never even been to Tibet. But when they raised their voices in the droning overtone chant of their monastic tradition, Shin stirred. She climbed down the logs from her perch fifteen feet above the ground and came to the edge of her cage. Her whiskers poked through the wire mesh. She blinked and rubbed her face with her paws. And as the monks sang, Shin sat raptly as if she recognized some music she had never heard from a country she had never hunted. The puja lasted only five minutes, but it seemed much longer to the people in attendance—the keepers from the feline center, zoo staff, an Associated Press religion reporter. It seemed timeless and exquisitely beautiful. It was as if a bond had formed between the monks and the leopard, and with each minute that Shin remained at the edge of the cage, listening, some old kinship bound the wounds of exile in man and animal both.
When the chanting stopped, Shin turned and walked away. Later that day, her appetite came back, and for the first time in two weeks she showed some enthusiasm for her diet of horse meat and fortified meal. “She seemed so peaceful,” said Nancy Chan, the zoo’s publicist. “She started to do better.”
Alas, healing and curing are not the same. On the ninth of June, her tenth birthday, the snow leopard died.
3. FRIGHTS AND MARVELS
Healing, from the Old English word haelen: to make whole. Whole, as in stitch the gash, reduce the fracture, bind the wound, assuage the burn, slake the fever, ice the chill, purge the poison, drain the pus, pull the bullet, excise the tumor, check the bug, dissolve the clot, uncloud the eye, allay the pain, reflate the lung, restart the heart, replace the liver, repair the mind, revive the spirit, retrieve the soul, redeem the life. Long before healing was a science, it was an art, a piece of faith, a form of magic. The catalogue of frights and marvels compiled in its name is almost beyond imagining.
In Ireland in the seventeenth century, it was said whooping cough could be cured by drinking water from the skull of a bishop. For tuberculosis (which ravaged Mozart, Goethe, Emerson, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Keats, and Shelley) people hung cans of dog fat over their shoulders; they swallowed monkey gallstones and slime from snails; they lingered in barns, inhaling draughts of dung-tanged air. In many parts of Europe, the odor of semen freshly ejaculated into a handkerchief was thought to cure anemia in young girls, and to improve their looks too. Flu patients sucked holy pebbles and drank urine and sprinkled the dirt of graveyards on their doorways. In the late nineteenth century, one of the members of the Brahmin Crowninshield family carried a horse chestnut in his pocket for relief from rheumatism (and at the time he was overseeing curriculum reform at Harvard’s medical school).
Two years before he died in the eruption of Vesuvius, in 79 A.D., Pliny the Elder noted a Persian cure for headache: tightly bind your temples with a rope procured from the estate of someone who recently used it to commit suicide. For skin ulcers, apply goat dung kneaded with vinegar; for a chafed foot, ointment made from the ashes of an old shoe. For snakebite, apply one half of a severed mouse. (Which half? Apparently it didn’t matter.) Much later, an especially elaborate cure for syphilis was tendered to Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI: He was to find “someone of worthless estate” to suck out his sores, then have his lesions poulticed with live frogs chopped in half, and then get some rest inside the carcass of a freshly disemboweled mule. And on and on it went. Powdered Egyptian mummy was a popular ingredient in Renaissance prescriptions. People drank a purée of old shoe soles for dysentery. They found a cure-all in moss scraped from the skulls of executed criminals.
Lest you think the twentieth century can’t compete, there has been no shortage of mail-order panaceas available C.O.D. In 1928, after your morning coffee enema, you could hook up the “Vitalizer,” which consisted of two “Vitality” batteries, a long wire cord, and a six-inch bar of metal, which was to be carefully inserted in the rectum, where it could then distribute one and a half volts of life-affirming electricity and quickly cure diabetes, cancer, and TB. The perfect gift for the new graduate contemplating a career in the secret police. A few decades later, people bought “Z ray” generators at fifty dollars each, which were supposedly able to expand the space between their body’s atoms and thus relieve the pain of arthritis. In the 1950s, patients paid money to sit in old mine tunnels for some uncertain benefit. Seawater was advertised all over the U.S. in the 1960s for the treatment of pimples, gray hair, baldness, diabetes, and cancer. Those were the good old days of robust government intervention. Federal marshals fanned out across six states, seized two thousand bottles of Florida-packed seawater, and broke up a scam the Food and Drug Commissioner denounced as a “nationwide seawater swindle.”
If the desperation weren’t so pitiable, you could almost admire the inventiveness of the minds that saw healing remedies in chopped frogs and old-shoe ashes. “The history of medicine,” the medical novelist Richard Gordon once wrote, “is largely the substitution of ignorance by fallacies.” If Americans want to choke down unpasteurized seawater and possibly jeopardize their kidneys, why should they be restrained by their public officials? The real danger has always been the remedies that are worse than worthless, that wreak havoc in the name of healing. The American doctor Benjamin Rush, who had enormous influence on Revolutionary War-era medicine in America, thought the human body contained twice as much blood as it actually does and advocated draining four-fifths of that exaggerated quantity from sick patients. Given the treatment the English king Charles II got after toppling over backwards while being shaved one morning in February 1685—the victim of what may have been a stroke or a heart attack—he might have preferred a weekend in a gutted mule. As the king went into convulsions— his mouth foaming, his eyes rolling back—fourteen doctors rushed to his aid. They were all disciples of the medical approach that came to be known with thanks-but-no-thanks irony as “heroic medicine.” One, a Dr. Scarburgh, kept a record of their unmerciful assistance. (The often- cited account I’m indebted to was first published in 1929 in a book called Devils, Drugs and Doctors by the physician and Yale physiology professor W. Haggard.)
First a pint of blood was taken from His Majesty’s right arm. Then his shoulder was cut open and another eight ounces of blood were “cupped” out. He was given an emetic to make him vomit, two purgatives, an enema, another purgative, and two hours later, still another purgative. His head was shaved; his scalp was blistered. He was dosed with powdered hellebore root to make him sneeze and powdered cowslip flowers to fortify his brain. To soothe his system after the cathartics, he was given barley water flavored with licorice, and almonds; cups of absinthe and white wine also were provided. His feet were plastered with a mix of Burgundy pitch and pigeon dung. Again he was bled, and purged with a variety of medicaments prepared from flowers, spices, various barks, even dissolved pearls. “Later came gentian root, nutmeg, quinine, and cloves.” The king rallied the next morning, and bells were rung across London, but he again went into convulsions. Forty drops of extract of human skull were administered. Then, a “rallying dose of Raleigh’s antidote” was forced down his throat. It contained “an enormous number of herbs and animal extracts.” The king was given bezoar stone—probably not the bezoar stone which legend held to be the crystallized tears of a deer that had been bitten by a snake, but gallstones harvested from a goat’s stomach. “Alas,” Dr. Scarburgh noted. “After [another] ill-fated night his serene majesty’s strength seemed exhausted to such a degree that the whole assembly of physicians lost all hope and became despondent; still, so as not to appear to fail in doing their duty in any detail, they brought into play the most active cordial.” And, Haggard concludes, “As a sort of grand summary to this pharmaceutical debauch, a mixture of Raleigh’s antidote, pearl julep, and ammonia was forced down the throat of the dying king.”
A woodcut from the time depicts Charles on the throne—in better days—laying his hands on the head of a tubercular subject. Priests and courtesans look on; the king smiles serenely. It’s more than a little ironic that Charles was a practitioner of this much gentler form of healing, which was known as the “royal touch.” Certainly it might have served him better than his doctors, but then, as king, he had a monopoly on the practice and, short of abdicating and quickly crowning his successor, he would have been in the strange position of having to treat himself. In between fishing and hunting and playing tennis and riding horses out in the morning to watch hawks, and roughhousing with his King Charles spaniels and his pet monkey, and reigning over “one of the most tumultuous periods of English history,” not to mention attending to some thirty-nine mistresses—he left behind at least fourteen illegitimate children and was of the opinion that “God will never damn a man for allowing himself a little pleasure”— Charles II was an especially busy healer. Between 1667 and 1684, more than 68,000 people put themselves in His Majesty’s hands. The crowds were so large in 1684 that half a dozen people were trampled to death. The presenting complaint was mainly scrofula, or facial tuberculosis. (People with epilepsy went to see executioners, who strangely enough supplemented their income with a little hands-on healing.) “As far as the records go, [Charles] appeared to believe in his own powers;” writes the English osteopath Harry Clements in his 1952 book Magic, Myth and Medicine. Clements noted that the effort may well have been in vain as “mortality rates of the period showed no real diminution.” And when William III came to the throne, he made no secret of his dubious view of the royal touch, saying to patients, “God give you better health and more sense.”
Whatever the efficacy of royal touch—Sir Richard Blackmore, writing in 1726, said the credit for its success belonged to the “wonderful Power of Imagination”—a dose of hands-on healing would not have mauled the principle of First Do No Harm as badly as the official physicians did. Alas, as Scarburgh said; alas. There may be reasons to prefer life in the seventeenth century, but royal doctoring isn’t one of them. Before he died, in what may reign forever as the sovereign example of English civility, Charles II apologized to his medical team.
(C) 1998 Chip Brown All rights reserved. ISBN: 1-57322-113-9