“When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter. . .” (W. H. Auden)

Defense against a peaceful demonstration, Bethlehem

Defense against a peaceful demonstration, Bethlehem

With even a modest ability to consider objectively the barrage of “information” overwhelming us hour by hour by hour by minute, one can see that any media—any format—presenting information about the current attempt of Israel to obliterate Palestinian Gaza assumes a priori that Israel’s actions are justified.

The common—no the absolute overwhelming majority—wisdom is that “Israel has the right to protect itself.”

This is a “truth” so often repeated that it sounds as if it came from, Oh, I don’t know, perhaps the Holy Bible. Or the United States Constitution. Or the United Nations Charter. Or the Bhagavad Gita. Or the Qur’an. Or Shakespeare. Or SNL. It is simple truth, not to be questioned. It is as universal belief as the made-up science of economics.

Belief in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is no less pervasive than that “Israel has a right to protect itself.”

Hardly anyone (at least hardly anyone in public) thinks about whether or not the proposition is true. And almost no one wants to hear any information that might contradict the received wisdom.

The wisdom began to be received, I would guess, during and immediately after the 1967 War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. I have, in fact, read about the process whereby the Israeli Cabinet decided to use Madison Avenue tactics, if not a Madison Avenue firm, to begin to persuade the American people that the belief, “Israel has a right to defend itself,” is simply true, is simply to be accepted without thought. I will plow through the stuff I have and find that article (or reread the book, whatever it takes).

Until then, trust me. OK, don’t trust me. There’s no reason for you to do so until I have located the evidence that I am correct.

So in lieu of trusting me, trust yourself.

Ask yourself why the massive destruction of cities, the horrifying murder of civilians Israel is perpetrating right now is in any way an expression of the “right to self-defense.”

Do you think Russia’s annexation of Crimea was an act of self-defense?
Do you think Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait in 1990 was an act of self-defense?
Do you think the genocide of the Tutsi by the Hutus of Rwanda in 1994 was an act of self-defense?
Which side in the Bosnian war of the 1990s, the Serbs or the Croats was exercising its “right of self-defense?”

Think. Simply think about it.

Defense against a child

Defense against a child

My guess is that anyone who might be reading this can quote the last sentence of

Perhaps someone might say, “Socrates, can you not go away from us and live quietly, without talking?” Now this is the hardest thing to make some of you believe. For if I say that such conduct would be disobedience to the god and that therefore I cannot keep quiet, you will think I am jesting and will not believe me; and if again I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me still less. Socrates speaking Plato’s Apology [37 (e) to 38 (a)].

The unexamined life is not worth living.

“As I’ve said repeatedly, Israel has a right to defend itself from rocket attacks that terrorize the Israeli people,” [President] Obama said.

What on earth does that phrase mean—and what are its implications? Its implications are that Israel has a right to continue the ethnic cleansing of all “Arabs” (read “Palestinians”) from the territory Israel claims as its own—the ethnic cleansing that began during the war that led up to the declaration of the founding of Israel in 1948.

The constant repetition of an idea for decades does not make it true.

Ad populum: This is an emotional appeal that speaks to positive (such as patriotism, religion, democracy) or negative (such as terrorism or fascism) concepts rather than the real issue at hand.

Much writing is available to anyone who wants to think about the “received wisdom” that “Israel has a right to defend itself.” One might—after reading any or all of such writing—decide that the proposition is correct.

The question remains, however, where did the idea originate, and why was it first stated? Is it, in fact, the “truth,” or is it an Ad populum logical fallacy used to justify aggression and the subjugation of one people by another?
I said above there is much writing available. My project over the next few weeks is to gather a bibliography of such material and publish it on my other blog as a resource for anyone who believes that

talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man,

and that the unexamined life is not worth living includes questioning our received beliefs about atrocity. The link to the first installment of the bibliography is below Auden’s explanation of tyrannical speech.

“Epitaph on a Tyrant,” by W. H. Auden (1907 – 1973)
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

http://sumnonrabidus.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/when-he-laughed-respectable-senators-burst-with-laughter-w-h-auden/

Defense against a worker returning home

Defense against a worker returning home

 

 

“. . . love with no need to pre-empt grievance. . .” (Elizabeth Alexander)

A British travel poster from the 1930s - to visit a place that didn't exist?

A British travel poster from the 1930s – to visit a place that didn’t exist?


Elizabeth Alexander
wrote her poem “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s first inauguration. In the foreground, the poem is, of course, about the event which few of us had imagined would happen in our lifetimes—the inauguration of our first African American President.

I’m appropriating the poem because I think its background “meaning” is infinitely more complex than simply a marker for one event.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

For the past ten days I have been depressed in a way that is both familiar and unfamiliar to me. I have not managed to write anything organized well enough to warrant posting here or anywhere else. I have written and written, but all of that stuff is either in Word documents with bizarre names on my desktop or—mercifully—in the “recycle bin.”

Most of the depression is, I think, a normal reaction that even those of you who do not have to take Prozac feel. It’s separation anxiety. Some of it is already here (retirement), but some of it is projection. Three of the people I depend on for emotional stability are going away, one temporarily, one permanently, and one either temporarily or permanently. I’m feeling ordinary sadness and fear at being left alone, albeit projected fear because their departures are in the future.

Augusta Victoria Arab (Lutheran) Hospital in Jerusalem

Augusta Victoria Arab (Lutheran) Hospital in Jerusalem

Ordinary sadness.

Then there’s a small item of difficulty in being hired for sure for the part time tutoring job I am already doing at the university. That there can be a problem with my application to teach part time at a university where I have been teaching full time for fifteen years is terrifying to me. What if they don’t, after all of this, hire me? Is my next step applying at Walmart for a job? (After all of my criticism of Alice Walton, that’s not a likely prospect.) I spent three hours sitting in the waiting room at the Social Security office yesterday to get a new Social Security card (I haven’t had one for 30 years at least) to insure the solution to part of the problem, but the rest of it is still uncertain.

This is ordinary fear.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

It is all about words.

Ordinary words.

Goodbye. Employ. Security.

Fear.

And the one I have not mentioned.

I have not mentioned it because I don’t know for sure which it is.

Dismay.

Anger.

Or Grief.

In any world of logic (which I seldom inhabit) events taking place 5500 miles from home should not cause depression. Anger, dismay, grief, perhaps, but not depression.

The Israeli project of genocide and the destruction of the Palestinian culture and society in Gaza is, I think, the background meaning of my depression. I cannot fathom it. I cannot accept it. I cannot believe it.

“God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed. . .”

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Elizabeth Alexander is, I know, speaking directly of the experience of African Americans. But every day the experience of the people of Gaza corresponds more closely to the historical experience of African Americans.

The version of Niebuhr’s prayer we all know is, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

There is an enormity of difference between “the grace to accept with serenity” and “the serenity to accept.” I will never have “serenity,” but I can try to find “grace”—or (in Christian theological terms) to accept “grace” [see note below] that is freely given (by whom or what, I do not know, but I believe it’s possible).

I cannot accept with serenity the vicious, warmongering, uncivilized assertion that “Israel has the right to defend itself”—with the extension of that logic to the end that Israel has the right to obliterate an entire society.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

Americans must—yes, I will moralize and even preach—“reconsider” the words that are too easy to repeat as if they were fact.

A shirt purchased in 2003 for the weekly vigil in Jerusalem of the Women in Black

A shirt purchased in 2003 for the weekly vigil in Jerusalem of the Women in Black

Israel’s right to defend itself does not include killing hundreds of children in retaliation for the murder of three teen-agers. Or even retaliation for an almost-completely-nonlethal bombardment with rockets. Israel has experienced nothing to warrant genocide and the destruction of entire cities.

That is, nothing but the words that declare God has given Israel the land that belong(s)(ed) to the Palestinians, and the Palestinians must either leave or be killed. Words for us, as Americans, to REconsider. Because they make no sense for us as the protectors of equality and democracy.

We need to find a place where we are safe—where the ideas of equality and democracy that we want the world to believe define us are safe.

We are duplicitous enough for the entire world to see. We pride ourselves in holding “these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” while we give aid in the amount of $2,000,000,000 per year to a nation that is determined either to subjugate another people in toto or drive them from their land. Are the Palestinian people created equal to the Israeli people or not?

Are we caught in a self-contradictory lie of “words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,” or are we so self-deceived that that we are willing to ask for “serenity,” when what we need to seek is “grace?”

We might not need the Prozac of “homeland security” if we stopped lying to ourselves. We are, I think, suffering from separation anxiety—our own separation from the ideals we say we believe.

[Note:  I trust if you listen to this hymn, you will be able to sort out the mild sectarianism and get to the words of the last stanza, “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.” The evils we deplore are our “warring madness,” from the third stanza.]

“Praise Song for the Day,” by Elizabeth Alexander (b. 1962)
A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

Limited Options

Gaza Beach, before Israeli blockade, 2007. Families together.

Gaza Beach, before Israeli blockade, 2007. Families together.

Two days ago a friend (a friend of 20 years, well before FB) posted on my FB wall a piece written by one of her FB friends.

Sheba Siddiqi has given me permission to post her writing here.

About fourteen years ago, before I met my husband, I considered myself, a happy and blessed American. I didn’t pay attention to world issues because simply put — it didn’t affect me. Why should I care about what’s going on in the world? I’m happy, safe, free to do what I want, go where I want, whenever I please. International affairs were irrelevant in my life. But then I got married to a wonderful Palestinian man… And it’s amazing how my world view changed! He’s not just Palestinian, he is from Gaza.

I didn’t understand that my husband’s people in Palestine were forced out of their home… out of their country when he was very young. I didn’t understand that their livelihood was taken away, so much so that there was no way of income, no way to provide for the family. This is still the case in Palestine now, many years later.

For the past several days, I have watched the media coverage of Gaza, both US and Arabic media— and I realize there is so much that we as Americans don’t see and understand. Did you know that there have been over 600 people killed, mostly civilians— just sitting in their homes, looking for shelter? Hundreds of those killed were children. Did you know that the hospitals/morgues are full, and out of supplies? Did you know that the Palestinian people have been told to evacuate— but their city is surrounded by walls, and they can’t get out?! The one way place they could go is Egypt, but Egypt has closed its borders and will let no one in? Is this not genocide? I’m not going to comment on who is doing the killing, nor shall I mention where they get their weapons… As a people, if you are being beaten up, if someone is holding a gun to your head, your options are— to run to safety (of which there is none in Gaza), or to fight back.

My heart is breaking for the people of Palestine. I see the faces of my children in those children who will never see freedom because they were hit by gunfire or their home crumbled on top of them. I see the face of my beloved mother-in-law in every grief stricken woman who loses their family. People think that I have changed? Well they are right! I stopped being that “happy American” who thinks it doesn’t affect me. It DOES affect me. When I married my husband, his people became my people. So it is MY people who are being killed– and have no options. I say this because once, I, too, had no reason to care. But as one of my friends, family, acquaintances, I ask you to care—pray for the people of Palestine, communicate with your political leaders, give generously to Gaza.

It’s not about religion, it’s about humanity.

(HAK: it’s not about “politics” or “strategic interests,” either.)

Closed crossing into Egypt - the only escape.

Closed crossing into Egypt – the only escape.

“. . . outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert. . .” (Galway Kinnell)

. . . how little flesh is needed to make a song.

. . . how little flesh is needed to make a song.

Enough of politics! of ballots rolled into joints and smoked. Let’s talk about sex.

The old Boston Garden. North Station. From the North Shore train into the city, I headed down to catch the Orange Line out to the college for my day of teaching. About 1990. We residents of Boston’s North Shore were “green” way back then. We rode the train the 25 miles to work rather than drive.

In the station I met an acquaintance headed out to catch the train out to Salem. He lived in the city and worked for Essex County in Salem. I’ve forgotten his name even though I was only 45, with my mind as intact as it had ever been. I was a relatively attractive dude. He was more than relatively attractive.

He walked straight toward me, and I said “Hello.” He was with a woman, both of them dressed for the office and carrying brief cases, and I assumed she was a work colleague. He looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, said nothing, and walked past me.

I found out later my assumption was correct, that since he didn’t know my last name, he didn’t want to have to introduce us or explain to her how we knew each other, so he ignored me. Any gay man—and lots of other folks—knows this scene. He was a “trick,” not a friend. Different from most tricks. I had been with him several times and absolutely sorta kinda fantasized we’d be real lovers or partners or something. Delusional, of course.

That morning I was rejected as well as delusional. Funny how certain moments, unimportant in the scheme of things, stick in one’s memory.

The giant billboard in the station displayed a photo of Steven Tyler clutching a microphone to his incredibly wide open mouth, his hair swirling about him—if you’re older than 30, you know the picture—announcing an Aerosmith concert later that week at the Garden. Boston’s own Aerosmith.

In my rejection, I decided I must buy a ticket. I knew Aerosmith’s recent releases of “Dude” and “Janie’s Got a Gun.” One of my students who fancied himself the next Steven Tyler insisted I listen to the album, and then I saw the video of “Janie” on M-TV.  “Janie’s Got a Gun” lodged under my skin in a way few pop songs do, for reasons I will write about some day.

I had a much-too-sensorially stimulating evening as a wanna-be teenager (except, as I recall, many in the audience were about my age—Aerosmith had been around for quite a while). I was into Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll (minus the Drugs—I was clean and sober by then—and minus the Rock ‘n Roll—I was, after all, an elitist classical musician).

Funny. Of all the concerts, both classical and not-so-classical, I’ve been to since then, the sensory memory of that evening is still clear. I think—no, I know—that’s because I attended the concert to assuage my hurt.
Isn’t that what sex is all about? The ultimate drug of escape?

Aerosmith "Dudes"

Aerosmith “Dudes”

No, you say?

Of course I know better. I’ve been through enough therapy and 12-step meetings and retreats and seminars and—you name it—to know that’s not what sex is all about.

So why am I writing now with an Aerosmith concert as the central theme of the piece, an Aerosmith concert I attended with sexual fantasies not as merely an overtone but as the raison d’être?

Like all so-called “rhetorical questions,” that one is disingenuous. If I know the answer, why not simply say it, and if I don’t know the answer, I have no business asking the question as part of an “argument.”

Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of the wren
and how little flesh is needed to make a song. . .

My “argument” now takes a sharp ninety-degree turn. Forget about becoming emaciated. Don’t worry about eating. Doesn’t (what, sex? love? companionship?) “outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert?”

The rhetorical question again. Kinnell’s poem is a litany of images of eating (my favorite is “book lice clicking their sexual dissonance inside an old Webster’s New International, perhaps having just eaten out of it izle, xyster, and thalassacon”).

[NOTE: “Izle” – ember; “xyster”-- surgical rasp or file; “thalassacon”—this must be a real word, too, but I can’t find it anywhere]

Here the connection between eating and sex is explicit. But with the wren, Kinnell is piling image upon image. Don’t worry about not eating because even the wren, tiny as it is, can sing. In the middle of the contemplation of eating and sex comes the contemplation of music and– and what? Sex? And back to eating? Casanova throwing his spaghetti out the window because—apparently—eating spoils love-making?

Now I am as confused as ever I hope to be. These wonderful images—Monarch butterflies in their migration from—from where? Ohio, Wisconsin?—to Mexico. To the exact forest where they were born. Singing, eating, migration, sex, love, death, rebirth?

What did you imagine lies in wait anyway
at the end of a world whose sub-substance
is glaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck?

[NOTE: “glaim”-- viscous substance; “gleet”-- discharge, as from a wound; “birdlime”—a sticky material smeared on trees to catch birds]

. . . navigate, working in shifts, all the way to Mexico. . .

. . . navigate, working in shifts, all the way to Mexico. . .

Now I’ve written myself into a corner where I don’t know what I’ve been trying to say, or where logic (there is none here) will take me next. “Why regret?”

Doesn’t it outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert
to wake in the night and find ourselves
holding hands in our sleep?

The brilliant concert. The wren. Aerosmith. I don’t know what the poem means or what I meant to say here. Except I want no regrets about any of it.

About anything. Missed love. Concerts. Eating. Not eating. Anything. The memory of waking in the night holding hands with someone in my sleep?

Oh, yes. I nearly forgot. I’m going to a Lady Gaga concert next week.

“Why Regret,” Galway Kinnell (b. 1927, Providence, RI)
Didn’t you like the way the ants help
the peony globes open by eating the glue off?
Weren’t you cheered to see the ironworkers
sitting on an I-beam dangling from a cable,
in a row, like starlings, eating lunch, maybe
baloney on white with fluorescent mustard?
Wasn’t it a revelation to waggle
from the estuary all the way up the river,
the kill, the pirle, the run, the rent, the beck,
the sike barely trickling, to the shock of a spring?
Didn’t you almost shiver, hearing book lice
clicking their sexual dissonance inside an old
Webster’s New International, perhaps having just
eaten out of it izle, xyster, and thalassacon?
What did you imagine lies in wait anyway
at the end of a world whose sub-substance
is glaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck?
Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of the wren
and how little flesh is needed to make a song.
Didn’t it seem somehow familiar when the nymph
split open and the mayfly struggled free
and flew and perched and then its own back
broke open and the imago, the true adult,
somersaulted out and took flight, seeking
the swarm, mouth-parts vestigial,
alimentary canal come to a stop,
a day or hour left to find the desired one?
Or when Casanova took up the platter
of linguine in squid’s ink and slid the stuff
out the window, telling his startled companion,
“The perfected lover does not eat.”
As a child, didn’t you find it calming to imagine
pinworms as some kind of tiny batons
giving cadence to the squeezes and releases
around the downward march of debris?
Didn’t you glimpse in the monarchs
what seemed your own inner blazonry
flapping and gliding, in desire, in the middle air?
Weren’t you reassured to think these flimsy
hinged beings, and then their offspring,
and then their offspring’s offspring, could
navigate, working in shifts, all the way to Mexico,
to the exact plot, perhaps the very tree,
by tracing the flair of the bodies of ancestors
who fell in this same migration a year ago?
Doesn’t it outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert
to wake in the night and find ourselves
holding hands in our sleep?
(From Strong Is Your Hold.  2006)

“The perfect voter has a smile but no eyes . . .” (Denise Duhamel)

The perfect symbol

The perfect symbol

In the fall of 1968 I wandered into the Democratic Party Headquarters on Euclid Avenue in Upland, CA, headquarters for the western part of San Bernardino County. Hubert Humphrey was the Democratic nominee for President. Even though he was part of the Johnson Administration responsible for the war in Viet Nam, against which I was one of those irreverent “hippie” types who demonstrated, I could not imagine voting for Nixon. My candidate, Robert Kennedy, had been assassinated a few months earlier.

The election of 1968 was the first in which I voted. It was the first of five in which I worked as a volunteer for the Democratic candidate, except for the 1972 election when I worked for a pittance of a salary for the McGovern campaign. In the election of 1976 I met Jimmy Carter at a neighborhood party in Iowa City when he was “Jimmy Who?” and decided to volunteer for his campaign when he answered a question from one of my neighbors with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man in an Immoral Society. That he even knew the book was enough for me—his quoting it was the icing on the cake.

After Ronald Reagan was elected Acting President in 1980, I never again participated in “politics.” I was mildly interested in supporting Michael Dukakis. (I had, after all, met him three times and met his cousin Olympia at a concert of the Boston Classical Orchestra conducted by his father-in-law Harry Ellis Dickson for which I wrote the program notes because the chairman of their board of directors was a colleague of mine on the faculty at Bunker Hill Community College—there, I’ve dropped all the names I can possibly drop.)

Looking back on my dabbling in politics, I’d say having some kind of personal knowledge of a candidate is the best reason to vote for or against her. Every other reason—party affiliation, philosophical agreement, religious compatibility, is dangerous. In fact, it’s absurd.

While I was toying with the idea of working for Dukakis, one of my friends was toying with the idea of working for George Bush the Elder because her family’s summer home was in the same exclusive neighborhood of Kennebunkport, and she rubbed elbows with the Bush family as part of the social elite of Maine (I suppose she still does).

Politics is a slug copulating in a Poughkeepsie garden.
Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth
of a king. I voted for a clump of cells,
anything to believe in . . .

My disillusionment is not quite as complete as Denise Duhamel’s seems to be, but it’s close. Her poem says “a slug,” not two slugs. In the slug kingdom it’s possible for one slug to copulate—and thereby reproduce. It’s not masturbation. They don’t often fly solo—usually it takes two slugs, but what happens to the slug playing the part of the male when they are finished is pretty gross.

I think it’s an apt description of American politics. Devouring parts of (or, more likely, ALL of) one’s opponent is the name of the game. And—excuse the extended metaphor—we all seem to slither around in the garden dirt when it comes to politics or even talking about (I won’t say “discussing”) any of the problems that are in the process of tearing American society apart.

I carried my ballots around like smokes, pondered big questions,
resources and need, stars and planets, prehistoric
languages. I sat on Alice’s mushroom in Central Park,
smoked longingly in the direction of the mayor’s mansion.

We all carry our ballots around and ponder big questions—what to do with 52,000 starving, frightened, unmoored children knocking at our doors seeking shelter, safety, and a way to survive as human beings; how to prevent the next mass killing with licensed guns of school children; what to do about the absoluet certainty that the NSA, the NRA, every bookseller and garden supply seller in the country knows you’re reading this—and then instead of finding an answer to any of these questions, we light our ballots on fire, inhale the smoke, and blow it toward whatever politician we think should have helped solved the problem long ago.

Politics: Wonderland or La-La Land?

Politics: Wonderland or La-La Land?

We make ourselves the perfect voters, smiling our way to the ballot box with eyes closed to the realities we are voting on. We accept without investigating that banks and billionaires are the oppressed in America. We accept without investigating that Hamas is a “terrorist” organization. We allow demagogues to convince us that changes of world-wide power structures are the fault of one man rather than the inexorable result of our own materialistic “globalization.” We allow the interpretation of human life that a corporation is the same as a living, breathing body. And so on.

We set ourselves up in armed gated communities prepared to make war on anyone who is not “like us.” STAND YOUR GROUND!

I doubt I will ever again walk into a “party headquarters.” I may never vote again. I don’t want the shame of being a slug slithering in the garden copulating with myself.

My advertised purpose in this blog is to write light-hearted pieces about the process of growing old. I don’t know if this is light-hearted or not.

Slithering in the dirt

Slithering in the dirt

Well, here’s some jollity. Since I “retired,” I’ve taken some actions that might be seen as out-of-character because they are frivolous and odd (perhaps “odd” is not out of character). Only one is obvious and public—the bold and conspicuous tattoo on my left arm. Its Latin phrase, by the way, is the first words of the Medieval hymn,

Day of wrath, O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,
heav’n and earth in ashes burning!

So last Thursday evening did you watch fireworks with glee and patriotism? Heaven and earth with ashes burning. Has that become the best symbol of our “democracy?” Firepower?

“Exquisite Politics,” by Denise Duhamel (b. 1961)
The perfect voter has a smile but no eyes,
maybe not even a nose or hair on his or her toes,
maybe not even a single sperm cell, ovum, little paramecium.
Politics is a slug copulating in a Poughkeepsie garden.
Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth
of a king. I voted for a clump of cells,
anything to believe in, true as rain, sure as red wheat.
I carried my ballots around like smokes, pondered big questions,
resources and need, stars and planets, prehistoric
languages. I sat on Alice’s mushroom in Central Park,
smoked longingly in the direction of the mayor’s mansion.
Someday I won’t politic anymore, my big heart will stop
loving America and I’ll leave her as easy as a marriage,
splitting our assets, hoping to get the advantage
before the other side yells: Wow! America,
Vespucci’s first name and home of free and brave, Te amo.

Just because. Another patriotic poem. From Like Thunder: Poets Respond to Violence in America, edited by Virgil Suárez and Ryan G. Van Cleave. University of Iowa Press, 2002.

“Patriotics,” by David Baker (b. 1954)
Yesterday a little girl got slapped to death by her daddy,
out of work, alcoholic, and estranged two towns down river.
America, it’s hard to get your attention politely.
America, the beautiful night is about to blow up

and the cop who brought the man down with a shot to the chops
is shaking hands, dribbling chaw across his sweaty shirt,
and pointing cars across the courthouse grass to park.
It’s the Big One one more time, July the 4th,

our country’s perfect holiday, so direct a metaphor for war,
we shoot off bombs, launch rockets from Drano cans,
spray the streets and neighbors’ yards with the machine-gun crack
of fireworks, with rebel yells and beer. In short, we celebrate.

It’s hard to believe. But so help the soul of Thomas Paine,
the entire county must be here–the acned faces of neglect,
the halter-tops and ties, the bellies, badges, beehives,
jacked-up cowboy boots, yes, the back-up singers of democracy

all gathered to brighten in unambiguous delight
when we attack the calm and pointless sky. With terrifying vigor
the whistle-stop across the river will lob its smaller arsenal
halfway back again. Some may be moved to tears.

We’ll clean up fast, drive home slow, and tomorrow
get back to work, those of us with jobs, convicting the others
in the back rooms of our courts and malls–yet what
will be left of that one poor child, veteran of no war

but her family’s own? The comfort of a welfare plot,
a stalk of wilting prayers? Our fathers’ dreams come true as nightmare.
So the first bomb blasts and echoes through the streets and shrubs:
red, white, and blue sparks shower down, a plague

of patriotic bugs. Our thousand eyeballs burn aglow like punks.
America, I’d swear I don’t believe in you, but here I am,
and here you are, and here we stand again, agape.

“. . . memories are not retrieved but are formed; narratives are actively reconstructed. . . “ (Siân E. Lindley)

My first organ memories - Baldwin Model 5

. My first organ memories – Baldwin Model 5

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If Siân E. Lindley has done her research correctly, and if scientific inquiry (in the United States this is always a matter of debate) can be trusted,

. . . we can surmise that memories are not retrieved but are formed; narratives are actively reconstructed (and co-constructed with others); a life story is interpreted and retrospectively reinterpreted; and narrative truth and belief, rather than objective truth, is bound up with identity. (Lindley, Siân E. “Before I Forget: From Personal Memory To Family History.” Human-Computer Interaction 27.1/2 (2012): 13-36.)

Lindley is a professional researcher; therefore, her conclusions are suspect to Americans. She is

a social scientist with an interest in how technology can be designed to fit, and how it is shaped by, the social context in which it is used (Lindley, “Before”).

Nevertheless (in spite of, not because of, her scientific methods) I find what she says fascinating. We don’t retrieve our memories, we form them so we can retrospectively interpret them to ourselves and to others. Wow! My memory of playing the piano for a wedding for the first time is what I form it to be, not the details of what happened. (If I remembered every detail, it would take as long as the wedding did—I don’t have time.)

I remember distinctly, hauntingly so, a meeting of a graduate seminar studying the writings of Hemingway and Fitzgerald (about 20 years ago). The half-dozen or so of us were seated at a table in a small classroom in the Jonsson Building at the University of Texas at Dallas. The professor (whose name I do not remember) was tall—6’ 3” or something—muscular, swarthy, black-haired, handsome (it’s part of my narrative that I remember what he looked like but not his name). The students in the seminar were mostly graduate assistants teaching in the freshman rhetoric program.

One of my friends said something about the “epistemological” something or the other of the story we were studying, and I knew—precisely at that moment—what I had been thinking for quite a while, that I did not belong in that graduate program. I had been trying to figure out what they meant by “epistemological” for some time—it’s a favorite word among scholars—with no success. “Epistemology” means, according to dictionary.com, a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.” I don’t have a clue what that means. I wouldn’t use “epistemology” in a sentence for any reason.

I would, however, show you the short stories of Hemingway that seem to have gay themes. My paper on the subject earned a B from the handsome professor, not because it was poorly written, but because he didn’t like the subject or agree with me.

For quite a while, my reconstruction, my re-interpretation of that memory was that I’m just not very smart. That is true, of course. But not knowing what “epistemology” means is not what proves that. Not being able to explain why people who irrationally hate President Obama ought to be ashamed of themselves—that’s evidence that I’m not very smart.

Or not being able to sort the flatware in my silverware drawer.

Or not being able to figure out how to get my “smart TV” hooked up to my router so I can watch Netflix movies on the big screen instead of on this computer, which I hate.

The first First Baptist Church

The first First Baptist Church

So what do I remember about playing the piano for a wedding for the first time?

In the far southeastern area our town in Western Nebraska in the 1950s was a small church known as La Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana (I think that’s right—my memory may not be reconstructing that correctly). It was a small but not tiny frame church structure, and Pastor Raymundo was the pastor. He had a wife and one son, Sammy. Our family shared dinner with the Raymundos quite regularly, and—more fun—we went to events at the church, most of which were followed by dinners of Mexican food made by the women of the church.

Sorry, all of you Texans. You don’t know what real Mexican cooking is.

During the summer, La Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana had overflow crowds on Sundays. This was at the height (I think, although I should look it up) of the brasero program, and Mexican workers came to work the sugar beet fields and create the economy of our county.

The Mexican Baptist Church has now—I believe (you’d think I’d do some research and know these things for sure)—joined with the First Baptist Church. The membership is constant because all of the Mexican-Americans are permanent residents, probably citizens.

They created the economy of Western Nebraska

They created the economy of Western Nebraska

My organ teacher gave me a book of organ pieces to learn that included both the Mendelssohn “Midsummer Night’s Dream” Wedding March and the Wagner “Here comes the bride.” I learned to play them (I was in about 6th or 7th grade) just in case someone would want me to play for their wedding.

A young couple from La Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana were getting married, and they wanted the American traditional music instead of the music their church generally used. My father suggested I could play the two wedding marches. My first wedding gig.

I don’t know if the couple or their families were Braseros or American citizens or illegal immigrants. We didn’t ask questions like that—at least we middle schoolers didn’t. The adults may have been concerned with such things, but they did not include us in their conversations if they did.

We just went to their church, and they came to ours, and we got to share in glorious (real) Mexican dinners, and Sammy Raymundo and I were buddies, and things were just fine.

I don’t know what happened.

The epistemology about the nature of the immigration crisis in this country may have to do simply with our collective memory. Somehow we’ve come to the point where our narrative, our reconstruction of the meaning of immigration has gotten really fucked up.

I wonder where Sammy Raymundo is.

“. . . Above the eagle a serpent was coiled about a shield and in the spaces between. . .” (Flannery O’Connor)

. . . interested in] what we don't understand rather than in what we do . . .

. . . interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . .

A couple of days ago when I showed up at Tigger’s Body Art studio in Dallas to have my tattoo finished, the young clerk greeted me by name. Two tattoos, and they know me because I’m the only person they’ve ever tattooed with a snippet of medieval music on his arm. A 69-year-old codger at that.

As I have told students repeatedly through the past fifteen years, one cannot conflate a writer’s discussion of (or creation of) fiction with what one knows from real life—either one’s own or someone else’s.

However,
. . . if the [fiction] writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious . . . then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself . . . pushing [fiction’s] own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because . . . the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. . . . [The writer is interested in] what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . . in possibility rather than in probability. . . in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves–whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not. (O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” Mystery and Manners.)

In O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back,” Parker is a young man covered in tattoos.

Parker was fourteen when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot . . . a single intricate design of brilliant color . . . [The] arabesque of men and bears and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes. . . Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed . . . a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed. (O’Connor, Flannery. “Parker’s Back.” Everything that Rises Must Converge, 1964.)

This is tricky. Merely three weeks ago I was tattooed for the first time. I did not see a tattooed man in a fair. I first read “Parker’s Back” in the summer of 1973 (give or take a year). I have read the story probably 25 times since then. I don’t know why I wanted a tattoo. It’s not Flannery O’Connor’s fault.

I first contemplated a tattoo in the late ‘80s. A friend had tattoos I thought were exceptionally attractive—Greek key designs covering his shoulder and biceps. The day I had my ear pierced, I was with him, and somehow my “body modification” has always felt incomplete without a tattoo. Don’t ask me why. I wrote about it on February 16, 2011.

Like my friend's Greek keys

Like my friend’s Greek keys

Again, don’t ask me why. I don’t know why. I am not, like O’Connor’s Parker, “filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes” when I think of having one myself. I do live most of the time with a sense of “wonder in [my]self,” with an understanding that there is something “out of the ordinary about the fact that [I exist].”

It is possible that a church organist, a college professor, or a steel worker (another secret—no, I’ve written about it several times here) would want a tattoo. (I first read “Parker’s Back” sitting hour after hour in the Kaiser shipping office.)

Life imitating art. “The meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology . . . have been exhausted.” Writing such a story “a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . . in possibility rather than in probability. . .” For such a writer “what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself.”

We engage ourselves in therapy, study Frankl and Heidegger, Freud, Jung, and Dr. Phil, attend 12-step meetings, and try myriad other analytical or self-help activities to discover “who we are.”

Or we avoid that complicated and not-very-fulfilling process altogether and simply adopt a belief, religious or otherwise, to explain our existence to ourselves and to others.

And we are left with—I think, if we’re really being honest—the nagging suspicion (no, the absolute certainty) that we don’t know where we came from, why we do what we do while we’re here, and where we will go when we die.

Let’s say my getting a tattoo serves the same purpose as someone else believing for the sake of political expedience that human life begins at conception. The anti-abortion crowd have invented a belief that explains to them where they came from. They hang onto that belief so they don’t have to think about where they will go when they die. It’s all tidied up.

Perhaps I have discovered a way to feel as if I have some control over my body, to shape it in my own image, to help me think about or avoid thinking about where I came from and where I will go. If one knows with absolute certainty where they came from, one can assume one knows where they are headed. You believe absolutely that life begins with conception, and I’ll be interested in “what we don’t understand rather than in what we do.”

One thing seems undeniable: the human desire to fight death wherever possible is too deeply rooted to be eradicated in any way. Body modification, plastic surgery, and the attempt to shape our bodies in the image of our desires to me seems one of the more benign manifestations of the denial of death compared with the horrors of war and subjugation of those who think differently (Strenger, Carlo. “Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death.” Studies in Gender & Sexuality 10.3 (2009): 166-171).

Besides, my tattoo looks groovy.

A Medieval snippet

A Medieval snippet

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