“T’aint funny, McGee!”

So after my last posting here, I was reminded that I started this new blog to be different from my old blog, which has an even less common name, Sumnonrabidus, which is my attempt at the Latin for “I am not crazy” all run together into one ridiculous word.

Fibber McGee and Molly

Fibber McGee and Molly

This blog is supposed to be humorous. Funny stuff about getting to be an old man.

OK. When I was told that, my first thought was, “T’aint funny, McGee.” Now that thought came out of left field. (Hey, Grant and Martha, why do we say “Out of” left field when obviously the ball goes “Out into” left field?)

For you old folks (that is, those of you 69 or older—next year, of course, the old folks will be those 70 and older, if you get my drift), that is hardly a term out of left field. You know as well as I do that it’s Molly responding to one of Fibber McGee’s really awful jokes.

Fibber McGee and Molly are prehistoric creatures whose habitat was a strange place called radio. Not radio like you youngsters know it, but a place where real people lived and worked and talked to each other and mainly were really really really funny (making real humor) together. People like Our Miss Brooks, and Amos ‘n Andy, and The Great Gildersleeve, and Jack Benny. Radio in those days was not filled with Big Fat Liars like Rush Limbaugh, but with people who were genuinely funny and entertaining, not just stupid and mean and didn’t care whether what they said was true or not.

What they said most certainly was true. Even if none of it ever happened except in the marvelous imaginary land of radio. I don’t think you young’uns have any idea about using your imaginations to create a world. You’ve got all these gadgets and electronic games and . . .  (don’t get me started!).

Nate's House (really!)

Nate’s House (really!)

One of the great gags of all time (before the ubiquitous use of television and then iPads, and soon god-knows-what to entertain everyone without ever having to imagine what’s going on) was Fibber McGee’s closet. Fibber (another running gag was that he refused to tell anyone his real name) and Molly were a typical (Yeah, right!) American middle-class family trying to make a go of things in the modern world. And Fibber had this closet – Fibber McGee’s Closet – where everything that he wasn’t using right at any given moment was kept. And he kept saying he had to “straighten out this closet one of these days.” The gag isn’t nearly as good if you see it as it was when we had to think it up for ourselves so everyone had her own version of the closet.

Now most of you will not think my version of Fibber McGee’s Closet is funny. You’ll want to send me right off to Nate Berkus or someone (Oh, please, send me right off to Nate Berkus [shudder with delight]) for a makeover. Or you’ll want me to be seeing Dr. Mary Bret at UTSouthwestern/ Parkland geriatric psychiatry (she really is my psychiatrist) on a daily basis for a while. Because anyone whose “closet” looks like mine can’t possibly be sane. Or at least must have a really cluttered mind.

Guilty as charged.

And I have one word for that (actually two, obviously): Fuck it.

I know. I know. I don’t want my office/ computer room/ cat’s bedroom/ whatever this corner of my loft apartment is to look like this. I genuinely do wish that somewhere along the line I had become one of those people (like most of you) who didn’t live in a cluttered space both inwardly and outwardly. It would be really nice to be normal and to understand how one fits into society—into some manifestation of society.

But I can’t. Period. It’s been my Sisyphistic struggle all my life. I know that being a regular human being requires tidiness. But, as Camus summed it all up, “The struggle itself . . . is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

My own version of Fibber McGee's closet - not imaginary.

My own version of Fibber McGee’s closet – not imaginary.

OK, this is supposed to be funny. “Me, senescent” with humor and all of that. But I just don’t get it. I don’t know how to manage my time or always be sure where my keys are. I’m picking up a replacement passport this very afternoon because my unexpired one is somewhere in Fibber McGee’s closet.

And you know what? All of you people who are “organized” and “tidy” and “get it” and have been with Nate Berkus will be in exactly the same state I’m in when we “shuffle off this mortal coil.” I will have the last laugh. “Tis funny, McGee!”


A book I know well says, “We will not regret the past, nor wish to close the door on it.” I have tried for years to come to terms with that concept. To make it part of my self-perception. Internalizing the idea is pretty difficult for me because much in my past I wish had been otherwise than it was.

With big brother, well before third grade

With big brother, well before third grade

I know, I know. Everyone can say that—and would if she were being unabashedly honest. But whether wishing it were not so is the same as regretting, I’ll let keener minds than mine decide. My distinction is that I can regret only those choices I made consciously and willingly, while I can wish experiences over which I had little or no control had not happened.

When I was in third grade, I gained an inordinate amount of weight. Miss Marcy of Longfellow School in Scottsbluff, NE, said in front of my classmates as she weighed me for my report card, “One hundred and sixteen pounds. What have you been eating, lead?” If I had had any understanding of my situation, I would have fired back at her, “No, bitch. I’ve been raped by a highly respected straight Christian man, and you, bitch, would do well to track him down.” I don’t hold many grudges at this point (I know how unhealthy they are for me and how little influence they have on their object), so I’ll simply say Miss Marcy should never have been turned loose on a bunch of third graders.

There, you have two for the price of one—two experiences I had NO control over when I was in third grade.
I am now, at 68 years old, living out one of the results of that straight Christian man’s abuse. I don’t give him the power that might appear to bestow on him. He was a cowardly and hypocritical bastard, and I have long since put to rest my hatred of him (my description of him is not hatred—it is simply accurate). However, the residual effects of his violence are with me yet.

As of last week, I walk with a cane. This is, I have instructed my physical therapist, to last one more week, and by then he will have fixed my hip so it is no longer necessary. Oh, come on, it’s the joke we have together. I know it will take as long as it takes. But those 116 pounds Miss Marcy so ignominiously announced to the class were one of the lasting effects of Mr. Straight Christian Man’s abuse. I have had a difficult time ever since loving or even taking care of my body.

That time in college

That time in college

Only once in my life have I taken off enough of that extra weight and exercised enough to be really healthy and attractive. That was when I was a sophomore in college and had just announced to the world that I was gay. I’ve taken on and put off that weight—as everyone who has ever struggled with weight—several times since then, but I have never had enough care for myself to strengthen the muscular core of my body enough so it can cope with injuries to my extremities.

Is this Mr. Straight Christian Man’s fault? That’s not what I’m saying. Other factors influenced my less-than-healthy choices for my whole life (I’m lazy?). But at the center, at the core of my emotional being is the knot of pain that—as more than one psychiatrist has told me—can never completely heal.

So three months ago I fell and hurt my hip and didn’t take care of it or even tell a doctor or a PT or anyone who might have done anything about it. I’m not strong enough to hold myself upright to keep my full weight from landing on that hip every time I take a step, and those ligaments just keep getting bruised over and over again.

So I walk with a cane.

But I do not regret the past. So I am also taking classes at the Tom Landry Fitness Center at Baylor Hospital in Dallas to strengthen my core—and “water walking” to get the exercise I need. And walking with a cane. Taking care of myself.

I take care of myself

I take care of myself

There’s an old Christian idea that “death has no dominion over us.” I don’t have a clue what that means. But I’m trying (still) to learn that neither Mr. Straight Christian Man nor Miss Marcy has any dominion over me.

I hope if you know a kid who suddenly changes in some drastic way, you won’t make fun of him.

Memories that serve us well

The Platte River at Kearney, NE

The Platte River at Kearney, NE

Today is my sister’s 63rd birthday. I can’t say I remember the day she was born, but I have many memories of the time leading up to her birth and the momentous events in our family with her as one of us in the two or three years following.

The day our parents told my brother and me we were going to have a baby brother or sister (in that misty past we could of not, of course, know which), he and I were piled on our parents’ bed early in the morning. A wondrous and mysterious time.  And then the months of waiting—my first awareness of the passage of time. In the middle of that time we moved from Worland, WY, to Kearney, NE, it seemed to me in order for the baby to be born there.

When she was born, we already had a girl’s name chosen. I don’t remember what name we had chosen if the baby was a boy, but we knew that a sister would be named Bonnie after our next-door neighbor in Worland (perhaps my brother’s true first love), Bonnie Bailey. The Baileys were our best friends. They had a cabin at Meadowlark Lake up in the Big Horn Mountains they let us use so Dad could fish—of course before Bonnie was born. But she did see Meadowlark Lake at least once when our family went there on vacation when she was five or six years old.  I don’t know for how much of their lives our parents kept in touch with Bonnie Bailey’s parents. I think it was one of those longtime friendships that gave stability to our parents’ lives.

Meadowlark Lake reality in memory

Meadowlark Lake
reality in memory

Memories. Funny things, they. I have not seen Meadowlark Lake for perhaps 60 years, yet I know what it looks like. When I googled “images,” I knew immediately which were Meadowlark and which were some other Wyoming mountain lake erroneously labeled. Memories. How can I know that?

I’m not going to travel down the path of “Kids today don’t have the same wonderful experiences we had—they are too enmeshed in virtual reality to understand real reality.” I could. I have done so before. However, I wonder—I have no way of knowing, so even my wondering may be missing the mark. Do families today have time together doing nothing as we did? I remember distinctly walking by the water at the edge of Meadowlark Lake and simply whiling away the time. And having fish for dinner, caught and cleaned by my father and prepared by my mother. The cabin was simple. Plain. Not very comfortable, as I recall. And I was not comfortable. I did not like camping. I am not and never was the “outdoors man” type.  And we squabbled. However. . .

My sister is a cancer survivor. She is not finished with the ordeal. I don’t know how she or any other cancer survivor does it. I have a hip injury that has been a pain in my ass for three months now. The pain depresses me and makes me even grouchier than normal. I don’t know what I would do if I had a significantly debilitating condition.

Here comes my usual leap of logic, the one that I’d tell my students to avoid, as I say here often.

I have written before in greater detail than I intend to here about my experience of (shall I go all the way and say it?) the ineffable, that which I cannot explain and you could not understand if I did. The few times I have ever felt at one with that which I cannot explain were in some way connected to being (usually alone, but not always) in some beautiful place away from the noise of the city.

Our parents, Bonnie’s, and our older brother’s, and mine, made sure we had time when we were kids to do nothing. To notice. To simply be in the world. Especially in the natural world. I don’t want to make this seem idyllic or rapturous or blessed with any other “spiritual” condition. We were not a family living together in lofty awareness of anything.

But tucked away in the backs of our minds are pictures of beauty, are experiences of simply being. Being close to the world as it is without the layers of stuff we humans construct to keep us all chugging along together. My sister’s late husband was dedicated to helping others make that direct connection. And I’m pretty sure having experienced that direct connection is at least part of the explanation for my sister’s ability to go on in the face of odds that would have defeated me long ago.

Or, perhaps, that connection will serve me well someday, too.

Looking east from Worland, Wyoming

Looking east from Worland, Wyoming

In which I prove myself to be a spooky un-American kook

First, let me say—although you may not think this is true if you read to the end of this piece—I believe any killing of one person by another is immoral, despicable, and reprehensible. I include in “any” the killing of “any” other person by “any” law-abiding citizen with a permit to carry a lethal weapon in a “Stand-Your-Ground” shooting (or in any other situation). If one abhors murder and abortion and terrorist bombings, then it is only logically consistent that one abhors carrying any lethal weapon for the purpose of killing someone even in the noble act of “self-defense.” Do not, if you carry a gun, speak to me of your hatred or fear of “terrorism.” You are a terrorist—your purpose is to instill terror in the heart of another human being.

Military-Industrial-anti-Terrorism complex

Military-Industrial-anti-Terrorism complex

The Boston Marathon bombings were as despicable as any act can be. I spent day after day at the Boston Public Library when I was researching my dissertation in 1987. I stood virtually where the first bomb exploded day after day waiting for the bus. I love that place. I am horrified and distraught and weep for the victims. I cannot imagine the courage and selflessness of the people who ran toward the victims of the bombing.

That said, I offer the spooky kooky opinion that will make nearly everyone who might have stumbled onto my blog stop reading: The “lock-down” of Boston was totally unnecessary, an exercise in mind-control over the general public of Massachusetts and, by extension, the entire population of the United States.

Police chases (even police chases with “fire fights”) occur in this country every day. How could they not with the per capita ownership of guns in the US standing at .89. That is, for every 100 people, there are 89 guns. The only country that comes even close is Yemen (where the US is convinced the remnant of Al Qaeda is flourishing) with 55 guns per 100 people (1).

So we live in the most violence-prone society in the world. Murder and police chases after suspected murderers are popular in movies because they are absolutely believable. There is nothing fantastic about them. We thrive on the “news” of yet another police chase. (Oh, come on, don’t be holier-than-thou!)stand-your-ground-law1

If the two young men who are accused (probably correctly, but who knows at this point?) of detonating the bombs at the Boston Marathon did, in fact, perpetrate that unspeakable act of violence, injury, and death against totally innocent and unsuspecting persons, they (the remaining man) deserve the full force of the justice our society can bring to bear.

Professor John Mueller of Ohio State University, who holds the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies, says in an article published by International Studies Perspectives it has been

. . . common, at least since 1945, for the United States to exaggerate foreign threats, and then to overreact to them, something that seems to be continuing with current concerns over international terrorism(2).

And overreact the FBI, the National Guard, the Massachusetts State Police, the Watertown Police, and the Boston Police did.

Now, this morning, the headline in the Dallas Morning News is, “FBI had talked to suspect: Kremlin asked U.S. about man in 2011 before his trip to Russia.” The entire story is innuendo. Congress members are frantically “express(ing) concern about the FBI’s handling of a request from Russia before [Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s] trip to examine the man’s possible links to extremist groups in the region.” There is not, in the DMN story, a single fact about the (alleged) Marathon Bomber except that the Russians—because he was an ethnic Chechnyan and a Muslim—were concerned that he went to Russia to renew his passport so he could stay in the United States. The Russians, one might point out, are concerned about Chechnyan Muslims in general. Because Russia maintains its control over Chechnya only by force.

. . . to exaggerate foreign threats. . .

. . . to exaggerate foreign threats. . .

Whatever the Tsarnaev brothers’ connection to Chechnya or its separatists, the US government will, if it finds any link at all, succeed in convincing Americans that we are about to be destroyed by Chechnyan separatists. Tsarnaev may well have been radicalized by going home to Russian (never, one might point out, to Chechnya). I have no way of knowing.

But if we are suddenly told, warned, bamboozled into believing that Chechnyan separatists are a threat to the United States and, for example, the minute relaxations by the NTSB of restrictions on what may be carried onto a plane are reversed, we will have made President Obama a liar. He said yesterday that, “Americans refuse to be terrorized.”

In 1961 President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans not to be taken over by the Military-Industrial Complex. Those are not the rantings of a delusional old man (he was only three years older at the time than I am now—perhaps all old men are delusional). I’m pretty sure he’d add the “anti-Terrorism Industry” to that today.

Were Watertown and Boston terrorized by one 19-year-old college boy or by the entire police apparatus of the Federal and State and City governments and the insatiable sensation-seeking media? Think about it.
(1) Please don’t tell my students that my source for this is “Number of guns per person by country.” Wikipedia. (2) Mueller, John. “Simplicity And Spook: Terrorism And The Dynamics Of Threat Exaggeration.” International Studies Perspectives 6.2 (2005): 208-234.

“I’d like to swim in a clear blue stream. . . “

Richard Bloch

Richard Bloch

The center city of Dallas is a mystery to most Dallasites. A few decades ago the center city was decimated by “urban renewal.” What an oxymoron that turned out to be as city after city was virtually destroyed in the 1950s through the 1980s or so, usually for one of two reasons: to provide big oil companies and automobile manufacturers unending sources of profit by making cars an essential part of city living, or to provide other giants of capitalism inexpensive prime locations to build cathedrals to commerce.

My first knowledge of urban “renewal” was the system of freeways built barely north of the center of Kansas City, MO, that divided the city in half and destroyed the perfectly functional streetcar system. Streetcars did not run on gasoline. Their replacement was the ubiquitous automobile and the system of diesel powered buses built largely by General Motors. The collateral damage was the destruction of a swath of buildings (mostly homes) about a half mile wide.  I understood urban “renewal” because my family spent time in Kansas City, KS, with my grandparents when we were kids (in the 50s). I remember the day my dad and my uncle gathered all us kids up for a trip by streetcar from Kansas City, KS, “overtown” to Kansas City, MO, and all the way out to the end of the line beyond Swope Park, so we would experience the streetcar before its immanent destruction.

One manifestation of this craze for destruction in the guise of “renewal” in Dallas is—as in most cities—a system of freeways (I-35E, I-30, I-635, the Central Expressway, the Dallas North Tollway, I-45, and many others). Most of these freeways are named for dead white men, captains of industry and politics—Woodall Rogers, R.L. Thornton, Tom Landry, Lyndon B. Johnson, Julius Schepps, Leslie and John M. Stemmons, and George H.W. Bush (still with us). A section of the Central Expressway is about to be re-named for George W. Bush (also still with us).

The other manifestation of the destruction-in-the-guise-of-“renewal” craze in Dallas is an unseemly number of huge empty spaces

(conveniently made into ugly parking lots) where block after block of two-and-three-story apartment and retail business buildings used to be.

Hidden among the concrete of the freeway (free? built at the cost of humane living, I’d say) system and the unsightly and bizarre patchwork of emptiness are many lovely and inviting “urban spaces”—parks and monuments, and even buildings.

Yesterday I joined the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center. Of all of the options available to me for exercise, it seems to be the best. I must do water walking to get some of the cardio exercise I need so desperately but have been unable (unwilling?) to do since I injured my hip almost three months ago. The center is just south of Baylor Hospital on Washington Street.

Richard Bloch (alternate spelling, Block), one of the brothers who founded H&R Block, grew up in Kansas City. Bloch was a cancer survivor. He beat cancer twice and died from heart failure when he was 78. His wife, Annette, is still living. The Blochs, in order to provide education and care for cancer patients and survivors, founded the R.A. Bloch Cancer Foundation.

On several occasions, I have walked past a small park in Dallas built on land that was cleared for urban “renewal” sometime during that craze. The park is the Richard and Annette Cancer Survivors Park. It is at the corner of Bryan and Pearl Streets, a few blocks from the Myerson Symphony Center and the Arts District and across the street from the Plaza of the Americas. I discovered recently it is one of 24 such parks in cities around the country. (See a description of the parks.)

Do I need to make the obvious connection between the destruction of “urban renewal” and the beauty of Richard and Annette Bloch’s  real renewal of this space?

I awoke this morning with swimming and cancer on my mind. Both are immediate concerns of mine (no, I do not have cancer).

Last Sunday walking to the opera at the Winspear Opera House in the Arts District, I stopped and took pictures of the Richard and Annette Cancer Survivors Park as I have meant to do in the past. I found the pictures today, and prepared this one to upload here.

Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors' Park, Dallas

Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors’ Park, Dallas

 Thinking about cancer survivors, and about my foray into swimming, and about – oh, about so much that is bittersweet, so much that is overwhelmingly sad juxtaposed with so much that is joyful in my life, I was reminded of my favorite song from the Fantastics. Melancholy and joy at the same time.

I’d like to swim in a clear blue stream
Where the water is icy cold.
Then go to town
In a golden gown,
And have my fortune told.
Just once, Just once,
Just once before I’m old.

I’d like to be not evil,
But a little worldly wise.
To be the kind of girl designed
To be kissed upon the eyes.

I’d like to dance till two o’clock,
Or sometimes dance till dawn,
Or if the band could stand it,
Just go on and on and on
Just once, Just once,
Before the chance is gone!

I’d like to waste a week or two
And never do a chore.
To wear my hair unfastened
So it billows to the floor.
To do the things I’ve dreamed about
But never done before!
Perhaps I’m bad, or wild, or mad,
With lots of grief in store,
But I want much more than keeping house!
Much more! Much more! Much more!

The thread of one’s life (pretty corny, huh?)

The Maddeningly Meticulous Wordsmith

The Maddeningly Meticulous Wordsmith

Sixteen of my students will appear in my office today for individual conferences on the direction of their research and writing for the final research project the course requires. The subject in general is a comparison/ contrast of FDR’s “Date that Will Live in Infamy” speech and a speech by Sen. Robert A. Taft, “Let Us Stay out of War” from 1939.

I assign this topic because I am fascinated by presidential rhetoric in general and specifically the rhetoric of war and peace. My students will ultimately write, based on their research, an essay arguing the importance of Americans’ ability to understand presidential speechifying. The other two writing subjects for the semester, by the way, were the Gettysburg Address and Reagan’s Challenger Address.

Writing is, and always has been, my passion.

When Prof. Robert Nelson, then teaching creative writing at the University of Texas at Dallas where I was a doctoral student in the humanities with my concentration in creative writing, asked in a class if I had written that morning and I said, “Yes,” he said, “Then you are a writer.”

I write because I can’t not write (it’s my passion as well as a trait of those of us with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy—see Alice Flaherty’s book, The Midnight Disease; my version is the 4 o’clock in the morning disease). I also write because I grew up in a household in which words were the stuff of every day work and wonder. My father was a scholarly Baptist preacher, and a (maddeningly) meticulous wordsmith both in writing and in speaking. (How I ended up with a West Nebraska twang and somewhat slovenly patterns of speech is a fit subject for the study of the conflicting influences of one’s parents and their families.)

Writing has always been my (sometimes ignored and dormant) chief means of self-fulfillment (go ahead and laugh at the cliché).

I won’t recount the path by which I came to study music (I earned a Bachelor of Music—not Arts—with a major in Organ Performance) instead of writing in college and launched myself on a career in church music for which I was not particularly well suited, by either temperament or talent. Suffice it to say I was seduced by praise at a time when I was terrified of my limited intellectual abilities and of my socially unacceptable sexuality (I graduated high school in 1963).

Yesterday one of my students in conference asked me how I, a musician, ended up teaching Discovery and Discourse (the latest fancy name for first-year English composition) at SMU. Obviously the real question is how I, a writer, spent so much of my life pursuing a music career that could, at best, be competent but never brilliant.

Competent but never brilliant

Competent but never brilliant

I do not mean to imply that I would have been any closer to brilliant in a writing career. I would, however, have had (perhaps) and easier life, and might have been more stable and “successful,” whatever that means.

But I don’t mean to pout or second-guess myself, or to imply that I regret my choices. On the contrary, I have been able to be with, perform with, live with, travel with a lifetime full of remarkable talented and interesting—and, I must admit, attractive—people. I have worked for half-dozen faith communities, people whose understanding of “God” I have never quite been able to comprehend but whose love of music gave me always the opportunity to plan, direct, and perform wonderful music, without which I cannot imagine having lived—or without those people.

But this is not my point.

Perhaps I’ve come to see that for each of us there is a strand, a path, a direction—I don’t know what to call it—that, if we discover how to follow it, will lead us to where we are supposed to end up. This sounds so corny, so “inspirational” to me I can scarcely bear that I’ve written it. And, for once, I’m almost embarrassed to upload it even into my personal blog, the space where I can say anything I damned well please and no one can stop me.

But here I am, sitting in the home of my inamorato early in the morning, watching a Texas downpour, writing because I simply must, and thinking positively—a highly unusual event for me—about the fact that I’m doing what I want to do, pursuing the activity that gives me the most satisfaction of anything I might occupy myself with. And realizing—because I had to think about an answer to a question posed by a nineteen-year-old only now beginning to form his life—that this was where I was headed from the beginning.

No grand finish here.  Merely a bit of self understanding.
A former life

Let’s amend the Constitution

I propose a 28th Amendment to the Constitution reading:

“Neither Congress nor any State Legislature shall pass any law limiting any person’s right to be free from violence at the hands of those who bear arms.”

A book I know well says, “We will not regret the past, nor wish to close the door on it.” I have tried for years to come to terms with that concept. To make it part of my self-perception. Internalizing the idea is pretty difficult for me because much in my past I wish had been otherwise than it was.

I know, I know. Everyone can say that—and would if she were being unabashedly honest. But whether wishing it were not so is the same as regretting, I’ll let keener minds than mine decide. My distinction is that I can regret only those choices I made consciously and willingly, while I can wish experiences over which I had little or no control had not happened.

The sweep of my [clock’s] hands

Even though my first-year writing classes meet in a computer lab, and students do all of their writing electronically, I sometimes need to write notes for them on the white board.

This is problematic. Some of the students cannot read cursive script—because they can’t write cursive script. Their elementary schools did not teach them.

I spent hours in third grade honing the art of penmanship. My writing has devolved somewhat in the past few years. My control over some micro-movements of my hands has stiffened. But everyone my age can make at least an educated stab at writing a thank-you note by hand.``printing 009

Every semester I give my classes a quiz over the syllabus for several reasons. It makes the students responsible for knowing the class goals and guidelines (they can’t say to me, “But I didn’t know. . .”).  It gives me a snapshot of the students’ study habits. And it allows me to see who uses (and therefore can read) cursive writing. Almost none of them uses cursive writing on these quizzes. I ask about that, and it is—to me—shocking that more and more students say they have never been taught.

Like cursive writing, clocks with hands are becoming anomalies. Don’t let the Rolex commercials on PBS fool you. The only reason to wear a Rolex is to show you can afford a $15,000 watch. People who wear them certainly have all the electronic gizmos.

I don’t own an analog clock—except my watch (which is about as far from a Rolex as it’s possible to be). I wear a watch because I like to see the now time in relation to other times. I intensely dislike “digital” clocks.

People in twelve-step programs, and Buddhist gurus, and followers of Rumi, and all manner of well-meaning inspirational speakers advise us to learn to “live in the moment.” Well-meaning friends remind me often.

???????????????????????????????Everyone knows George Santayana’s famous adage (most often misquoted and always quoted out of context) from his Life of Reason, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Of much more interest to me is his assertion that “A man’s memory may almost become the art of continually varying and misrepresenting his past, according to his interests in the present.”

I think living “in the present” is impossible. The past is always one step back—and is always influencing the present moment. Santayana elaborates on our inability to live in the present because whatever we are doing at the moment, we have our memory, both short and long term, and

Even what we still think we remember will be remembered differently; so that a man’s memory may almost become the art of continually varying and misrepresenting his past, according to his interests in the present. . . .  Things truly wear those aspects to one another. A point of view and a special lighting are not distortions. They are conditions of vision, and spirit can see nothing not focused in some living age. (Santayana, George. Reasons and Places, Vol I., “The Background of My Life.” New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944.)

Writing by hand. Hands on clocks. Memory. “Conditions of vision.”

It seems to me that one of the results of the immanent loss of the ability to write by hand or to see and understand the movement of the hands of a clock is that we will lose the art of varying and misrepresenting our past according to our interests in the present. If we can no longer visualize the passage of time but are always trapped in a digital moment, we have no ability to absorb the past—even the immediate past—and make of it what we need in order to move to the future.

I don’t need to live in the past. But if I forget that standing on the toilet seat to put up a shower curtain is likely to end in a fall onto the bathtub, the next time I will most likely break my hip instead of simply crushing a few ligaments.

If all I know Is that it’s 7:57 instead of,
hand time 0
then all I can remember is three groups of seven LED bars, not that my arm is in process of writing or that those spots on my hand were not there ten years ago or that I can use my hands to communicate. I’ve lost something I love more than “living in the moment.” My “spirit can see nothing not focused in some living age.” The age spots on my hands and the imperfections in my script and the sweep of the dial of my watch help me remember that “Things truly wear [ ] aspects to one another.”

Ah, sweet mysteries (read certainties) of life

My dad used to say that Democratic presidents start wars. In his experience that was (at least marginally) true. Woodrow Wilson presided over the US entry into WWI, FDR presided over the US response to Pearl Harbor, and Harry Truman was responsible for the still-ongoing hostilities in Korea. JFK and LBJ got us into the quagmire of Viet Nam from which Nixon took so long to extract us.



I’m sure I’m forgetting some US wars/invasions/”police actions” in my lifetime, but “Operation Urgent Fury” (Grenada), “Operation Just Cause” (Panama), and “Operation Desert Storm” (Iraq I) were the brainchildren of Republican presidents. And the current quagmire of Afghanistan, with its collateral damage in Iraq, was Dick Cheney’s idea (oh, he wasn’t president, was he?).

My guess is that until he was 90 or so (2004)—and this seems to be some sort of insult to or criticism of him, but it certainly is not—my dad would have said, if asked, that Democratic presidents start wars and Republican Presidents are men of peace. I don’t mean to say that as any negative reflection on my dad’s beliefs or intellectual abilities. This was one of very few over-simplified ideas he ever expressed.

In two weeks the SMU campus will host Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barak Obama as the most honored guests at the opening of the “shrine” (yes, that’s how WFAA TV referred to it the other day) to George W. Bush, his Presidential Library on the SMU campus. Five Presidents at one occasion. Funny thing, that. Of the five only two presided over wars/invasions/police actions, and both of them are named Bush.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some military action Carter and/or Clinton trumped up, and Obama has yet to extract the US from the Afghanistan swamp, so my characterization is probably not true.

The first-year writing course I teach is titled “Discovery & Discourse.”  I’m supposed to try to get students to discover interesting ideas and write comprehensible discourse about those ideas. My assumption is that’s an impossible goal. Discovering ideas may be possible. Teaching a student to write coherently about them is not.

The reason is simple. They already know too much that may or may not be correct. Like my dad’s certainty that Democratic presidents start wars.

I have a favorite example. Students are taught (and I use passive voice purposefully here—note it’s the only passive verb in this piece) to begin an essay with a general idea and move to the specific (with some sort of “hook” for the reader at the point of the specific). I can’t remember if that’s inductive or deductive reasoning, but whichever, it makes for ridiculous student writing:  “In the history of the world. . . “

My students write in one semester about the rhetorical means used in three presidential speeches. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Conceived in Liberty

Conceived in Liberty

begins, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” That seems pretty specific to me.

Ronald Reagan’s Challenger Address (written mostly by Peggy Noonan) begins, “Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger.” That one’s pretty specific, too.

And Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech asking Congress to declare that, because the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a state of war existed between the US and Japan (note, he did not ask Congress to declare war) begins with one of the most famously specific sentences in all of political discourse, “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Shock and awe

Shock and awe

As an example of writing, the last is my favorite, not because it’s the best writing, but because the most famous word in the speech was a revision (oh, to get students to understand that good writing is re-writing). Roosevelt’s first draft was, “a date which will live in world history.” If he had not changed “world history” to “infamy,” how famous would the speech be?

I’m not saying high school instruction in writing is wrong, but that it’s inadequate just as simplistic ideas about politics and history are not necessarily wrong although they often are—Democrats are not more likely to start wars than Republicans.

The gathering of Presidents in Dallas in two weeks, it seems to me, is designed to enshrine a simplistic idea that a friend of mine posted on Facebook yesterday. The entire presidency of George W. Bush is legitimized in many Americans’ minds by saying, “I learned all I need to know about Islam on September 11, 2001.”

Ashley Judd for Senate—but why waste her time?

Mr. Republican?

Mr. Republican?

Ashley Judd for Senate! I hope she changes her mind. I’m not from Kentucky, and I’ve pretty much sworn off political involvement (my Afib heart and my old man memory won’t allow it). But if everyone in Kentucky who has ever dealt with depression voted for her, she’d win in a landslide.

If I’ve ever seen one of Judd’s movies, I don’t remember it. So how do I recognize her so readily? I guess from seeing news reports about her constant work on behalf of many charitable organizations, chief of which is YouthAIDS.

And there’s the problem of her residence. She lives in Tennessee. But moving into a state in order to run for Senate is a well-established tradition. Robert Kennedy and Hillary Clinton come to. At least Judd was born in Kentucky.

I’m not much of a country music fan (I loved Patsy Cline when I was in high school, but I didn’t realize she was a country singer), so I don’t know much about the other Judd women, either. I saw five minutes of “Dancing with the Stars” flipping through TV channels, and it happened to be Wynonna Judd’s final dance on the show.  But I can’t think of any of her songs.

So I really have no basis for thinking Ashley Judd should run for the Senate. None but her statement yesterday after the tape of Mitch McConnell talking about her depression came to light.

“This is yet another example of the politics of personal destruction that embody Mitch McConnell and are pervasive in Washington, D.C. We expected nothing less from the Mitch McConnell and his camp to take a personal struggle such as depression, which many Americans cope with on a daily basis, and turn it into a laughing matter.”

When I was in high school and college, Everett Dirksen was Republican leader in the Senate. Those were the years my political ideas changed from Nebraska Republicanism to California liberalism (?) or whatever they were (are). Like so many other people my age, the Viet Nam War was the catalyst for my seeing the world differently. I’m not knowledgeable or smart enough to be a real liberal. I just follow a different crowd than I would if I had lived in Nebraska beyond high school.

I had (have) an odd view of politics. Everett Dirksen said or stood for very little that I agreed with. But I liked the guy. He had a gravelly voice

Does granfatherliness count?

Does granfatherliness count?

that made him seem more like a grandfather than a Senator, and a shock of unruly hair that made him seem unkempt and a bit wild. One of his legislative accomplishments was helping to write the Civil Rights Act in 1964. How could you disagree with that?

So now I engage in a bit of ad hominem attack exactly like the attacks on Ashley Judd I think were so reprehensible. Mitch McConnell looks, as my mother would have said, “Greasy.” He has a shiny complexion, a permanent scowl, and—OMG—have you ever seen a mouth drawn tighter in an emotionless line? And there’s nothing grandfatherly about his voice. There, I’ve said it. He frightens me. How’s that for a grown-up intelligent way to form one’s political opinions?

Monday night I was home alone. Yes. Alone. The most dangerous place for me to be at certain times. Home alone.

If I continue describing this little vignette, a certain percentage of those who might accidentally stumble onto this posting will be uncomfortable. They would be the people who don’t like to think about difficult stuff as well as people who care about me and don’t want me to talk about these things (in private or public).

The little vignette is pretty simple. I was sitting on my sofa with my iPad playing Sudoku, my three cats nestled around me, all of us watching “Antiques Roadshow,” and I was crying. I guess that Confederate Civil War canteen really touched me somehow. Well, no. I was depressed (perhaps I am depressed—sometimes it’s hard to tell).

That’s the point. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. And for most of us who are depressed, that’s one of the problems. We cope with it so well we don’t feel it until it overwhelms us. Fortunately I get it. I understand what’s happening and can generally—these days—roll with its punches. But not always.

Ashley Judd In Conversation With The United Nations Office On Drugs And CrimeSo Mitch McConnell’s joking about depression or determining to use it against Ashley Judd is simply despicable. That’s all. It’s “greasy.” Want someone like that determining whether or not Social Security benefits will be cut? Well, he’s the one who will decide. Run, Ashley, run. No, don’t. You have much more important things to do than be caught up in that mess. Really.