Excuses, excuses, excuses (explanations?)

Temporal_Lobe_Epilepsy-3(You probably won’t think this is in the least bit funny. But it is. And I’m back to the Oprah-style confessional I’ve talked about before. I’ve written this experience here before. Well, it’s interesting enough—to me, at least—to bear repeating.)

Back in 1981 the rector of the church where I was organist sent me to talk to a psychiatrist who worked exclusively with alcoholics even though there was no indication that I was one. There was good reason for me to see him, but it wasn’t my problem.  It was someone else.

My insurance paid for six psychiatric visits. On the last visit it was obvious to the doctor that we had beat that horse to death and needed something else to talk about (this was back when psychiatrists were therapists, not pill-pushers). I decided to talk about my deepest darkest secret.

I knew that at times I could walk through walls. Yes, my mind was unconnected to my body, and it could pass through the wall to the next room. Several times in my life I had experimented to see if it was, in fact, true and had discovered it was not. But that did not lessen the very real belief based on the way I felt that I would eventually be able to do it.

He asked about other oddities of my mental experience which led me to tell him about the high b-flat pitch I sometimes heard, followed by white noise, followed by the sensation that I was looking down on myself and knew what was about to happen next because it had happened before. The good doctor told me he had been in medical school with neurologist whom he thought I should see. Dr. Norman Geschwind of Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Geschwind was too busy to see me, but one of his protégés, Dr. Donald Schomer, had time for me, and I very soon began my weekly treks into Beth Israel Hospital. The diagnosis was that I suffered from (suffered?) Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. Of course, CTScans and MRIs and sleep-deprived EEGs and all other manner of testing has never revealed any of the lesions in my brain that are thought to cause TLE, so I could be making the whole thing up simply for my own entertainment.

But I’m not. It’s too spooky and scary (especially as a kid sitting in Mrs. Hall’s second grade class at the Longfellow School in Scottsbluff, NE, in about 1953 when I first experienced it) to make up. And fantasy would not explain the last time I knew for certain I had a seizure—at Christmastime about five years ago when I approached the assistant manager of a Target store and told him I didn’t know where I was or why I was there and the next thing I knew I for sure, I was sitting in their Burger King and a policeman was down on one knee in front of me asking if I needed to go to the emergency room. In the meantime—well, I won’t tell you where I went in the meantime. You wouldn’t believe me, anyway.

geschwindDr. Geshwind posited what has become known as the “Geshwind Syndrome.” It’s weird:

Hyperrelogosity, Hyposexuality, Humorlessness and Hypergraphia with increased concern with philosophical, moral and religious issues, and extensive writing on religious or philosophical themes. Other features include aggression, pedantic speech, a “sticky” or compulsive personality. . . (1).

Three out of four ain’t bad. But then, other features apply, so who knows? About me, that is.

Is my extensive writing about “philosophical, moral and religious issues?” Well, yes, except I’m not as brilliant as Joseph Smith or Ellen White or Ann Lee. Do 110 posts here since January 31 (180 days ago, minus 16 in Europe when I wrote in pages on my iPad, minus the 50 or so I wrote and didn’t post) count as extensive writing? How many of them are about . . . issues? Aggression. Have I written about smashing my cane in the cathedral in Helsinki? Pedantic speech? Duh. Compulsive personality? Who, me? My friends might tell you that I have a pretty good sense of humor, but my basic outlook on life is essentially humorless (look at the description of this blog and tell me how many postings are humorous).

I have spent a good part of the last 32 years running away from the idea that God sent me to that psychiatrist for the very purpose of my meeting Dr. Schomer so that God could provide me with a name for those weird things that happen in my head. I don’t even believe in God.

Now don’t get all weird on me. I’m not claiming spiritual insight. I’ve never had a Near Death Experience, and I don’t feel the presence of God in my life. Many such experiences are connected with TLE. Read the Comings article if you want to know about them.

Here’s what I really want to say. TLE has many other co-presentations. Depression, sleep disorders, memory problems, inattentiveness.  It’s the memory problems and inattentiveness that are eating my lunch right now.
I forgot the appointment with my primary care physician that was necessary to prepare for the arthroscopic surgery scheduled for tomorrow to fix my hip. It’s caused problems for, well for everyone. I’m not saying TLE is to blame. I’m just saying that there are many things about my life that I wish were not so. I am senescent. But that kind of inattentiveness has been my lot at least since second grade. ___________
(1) Comings, David E. “The Neurobiology, Genetics and Evolution of Human Spirituality: The Central Role of the Temporal Lobes.” Neuroquantology 8.4 (2010): 478-494.

All is vanity and striving after wind, and goodness am I vain

OK. So this is the height of exhibitionism. Don’t read it if that bothers you.

I am in the beginning of my senescence.

I’m fond of the second (scientific) definition of the word—the word comes from the Latin senēscere (“to grow old”) which comes from senex meaning “old.”

Cell Biology . (of a cell) no longer capable of dividing but still alive and metabolically active.

Whatever characteristics have fallen by the wayside these days, I am still alive and metabolically active. However, I have several challenges that may test my activity. This morning I have a marathon appointment with a neuro-ophthalmologist. I see double. Well, mainly at distances. Whether I’m covering one eye or not. There are, for example, always two moons.

Then there’s this hip thing going on. For six months I’ve had sharp pain in my right hip when I do almost anything. A torn cuff, a bone spur, and arthritis. So on Wednesday, cute young Dr. Steven Thornton is going to stick his camera and scalpel in there and clean things out. Crutches for a couple of weeks. Care for three months. A pain in the, well, yes, the ass.

So these things are part of my version of getting older. I expect to live to 90 if my genetic heritage plays itself out in spite of my smoking for 20 years, drinking alcoholically for a not completely simultaneous 20 years, and being overweight for a majority of my 68 years.

I want to say with the Teacher (although my silver cord is far from being snapped):

Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”;  before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain;  in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly;  when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low;  when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets;  before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern,  and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8, NRSV).

So I’ve been collecting my vanities. This is, of course, the height of vanity. So don’t look at these pictures (I bet you will). Me, from not quite the days of my youth. The odd thing is that the days of my trouble were my youth. I’m happier, and in some ways healthier, than I’ve ever been. Go figure.

So while I’m waiting for my friend to come to pick me up to go to the neuro-ophthalmologist, I’ll ust upload some random pictures from over the years.

About 1983. The days of my youth.

About 1983. The days of my youth.

1987. The days of my greatest creativity. Off of booze and onto work.

1987. The days of my greatest creativity. Off of booze and onto work.

About 1990. A program of 19th-century music at the Beverly Historical Society I organized.

About 1990. A program of 19th-century music at the Beverly Historical Society I organized.

About 2005 playing an organ program in Fresno, CA, with my sister turning pages. Some spirituality in my playing, finally.

About 2005 playing an organ program in Fresno, CA, with my sister turning pages. Some spirituality in my playing, finally.

2012 An old man joking around remembering 1990 and his students' production of a bizarre play.

2012 An old man joking around remembering 1990 and his students’ production of a bizarre play.

2011 On a solitary getaway in Oregon. Finally having learned to "invite my soul."

2011 On a solitary getaway in Oregon. Finally having learned to “invite my soul.”

2001 With my parents at the top of Scotts Bluff, all of us remembering the '50s.

2001 With my parents at the top of Scotts Bluff, all of us remembering the ’50s.

2012 Playing the way an old man plays. Again, finally.

2012 Playing the way an old man plays. Again, finally.

My 67th birthday. Finally relaxing.

My 67th birthday. Finally relaxing.

I am much too easily entertained

St. Catherine Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg. Don't ask me who built it!

St. Catherine Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg. Don’t ask me who built it!

In about 1975 when I was a doctoral student in the University of Iowa School of Music in Iowa City, a friend from Muscatine, IA, where I was music director at Trinity Episcopal Church, asked me if I didn’t think it was wonderful that we were part of the “intelligentsia.” She was the program director for a foundation that presented educational forums at a center they owned in Taos, NM. She was well educated (an MA from the University), and I was supposedly becoming even better educated than I was. We were both moderately intelligent persons.

At the time I told her I thought her description of us was a bit of a stretch.

Over the years many other people have asked me similar questions, usually in the form of “Do you consider yourself an intellectual?” or some such. (Or, worse, they state it as a fact!) My answer has always been without reservation, “No, I do not.” I am intellectual enough to know that I have been in the company of—have close friends who are—“intellectuals.” Most of those friends are much too modest to say they are.

That one has a PhD is no indication one is an intellectual. It merely indicates a certain kind of perseverance, a willingness to play the trained seal and jump through a certain number of hoops. That one teaches in a university is no indication one is an intellectual. I hardly even need to give evidence for that. Usually what passes for “intellectualism” in university faculties is the ability to focus on one tiny aspect of one tiny subject and carry out arcane research to the point that one knows more about that tiny subject than (almost) anyone else.

The fact is, I am too easily entertained to be an “intellectual.”

I go to the opera to be entertained, not to analyze either the work itself or the production. I cannot now, and could not the day I saw any of the operas, tell you the name of one singer I heard at the Dallas Opera last season. Two of the three productions were entertaining, as far as I was concerned. The other was bizarre, hard to follow visually, and confusing. That’s all I know about them.

Sunrise over UNT Dallas

Sunrise over UNT Dallas

I have been to Palestine (and therefore to Israel because you can’t get to Palestine without going there) twice. I have read, I think, three books on the history of the current plight of the Palestinian people. I have Palestinian friends—both in Dallas and in Bethlehem. I am committed to helping Americans understand the real situation there as opposed to the one our government and the news media present. But I have absolutely no scholarly ability to discuss the situation and no “intellectual” prowess with which to convince anyone of anything.

I have now been to three of the four Scandinavian countries and St. Petersburg in Russia. I went with the choir of Calvary Lutheran Church in Richland Hills, TX. One of my friends loaned me a very large book, a biography of Catherine the Great of Russia, to read before we went. I cannot imagine reading such a tome. I learned half a dozen short pieces of organ music by American composers to play on the instruments we used in the performances we gave. I also had the Bach G Major Prelude under my fingers. I don’t have a single recording of my playing any one of those works on the glorious instruments I was privileged to play. Snippets, yes, complete works, no. I can’t tell you the history of any of those organs—or even the makers of all of them. Any of my real organist friends would have recordings of each and know exactly the specifications and history of all of them. I was entertained playing them.

Yesterday a group of workmen using a huge crane and a “cherry picker” attached signage to the front of the building across Main Street from my inamorato’s apartment. The building is now marked “UNT SYSTEM” and is the home of The University of North Texas at Dallas. I watched them lift the “T” up from the street and attach it. I want to know if the workmen were sign makers or employees of the construction firm that remodeled the building. I want most, however, to know how they attached the letters to the building. From our vantage point across the street there was nothing on the wall with which to hang the letters. I think they used crazy glue.

I have now been entertained for 24 hours by three big green letters—not the stuff of the intellectual life.

Why I’m writing this I don’t know except that I’ve been thinking more and more often (is it possible to think more often than always?) since I’ve become senescent about what’s important in my life. I don’t think it’s “Human Rights and a Post-Secular Religion of Humanity” (1) or “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions” (2).

I’m not saying someone shouldn’t explore those ideas. Just not me.

(1) Calo, Zachary R. “Religion, Human Rights, And Post-Secular Legal Theory.” St. John’s Law Review 85.2 (2011): 495-519.
(2) Paul, Gregory. “The Chronic Dependence Of Popular Religiosity Upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions.” Evolutionary Psychology 7.3 (2009): 398-441.

Happy 97th to Elizabeth May Knight

Mother, please, I'd rather do it myself.

Mother, please, I’d rather do it myself.

Today my mother would have been 97 years old. I’ve never read (at least don’t remember) any writing about his mother by any man that seemed easy, unforced, matter-of-fact. I think it can’t be done. Perhaps the truth is that my feelings about, my relationship with my mother are so ambiguous and conflicted that I simply assume (I hope? I don’t want to be alone in this) every man’s feelings about his mother are the same.

The last home my parents owned before they moved to the retirement community where Mom died was in Sacramento, CA. This is important at the moment only because place is such an important part of any memory I want to write about. We were standing in the kitchen on one occasion when I was visiting when she announced that she had made arrangements for me to play something on the organ on the following Sunday at their church.

That I love to play is obvious. What may not be so obvious is that performance of any kind must be on my terms. I’m not, as my mother was, a natural musician. When she was young, playing the piano was second nature to her. Even when she was 90 years old and in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease, she could sit down at the piano and play her favorite hymns when she had only the vaguest notion that she was in the lounge in the assisted living unit of the retirement community because it was next to the dining room where she had just eaten breakfast.

Unlike my mother, I don’t simply sit down and play. I regret that. Standing in the kitchen of my parents’ home in Sacramento was not where I wanted to hear offhandedly that my mother had arranged for me to play in public. And the place was, of course, only the smallest part of the problem. She had arranged for me to play without consulting me first.

If you were around in the ‘60s and paid attention to pop culture, you remember the TV commercial in which an over-sensitive woman virtually screamed at her mother—who merely made a suggestion about cooking, as I recall—“Mother, please, I’d rather do it myself!” The commercial was for Anacin and was meant to convince us that Anacin would eliminate the pounding headache that was causing us to come unglued and be rude to our mothers.

That day in my mother’s Sacramento kitchen I did not have a pounding headache. I simply wanted, by myself, to make any arrangements to perform. “Mother, please. . .” For the first time in my life, I was able to tell her so. I did so with as much vehemence as the woman in the commercial. I was about 42 years old at that time. I know because my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary during the three or four years they lived in Sacramento. And I got sober during that time.

Mom in a pensive moment at her 50th wedding anniversary party.

Mom in a pensive moment at her 50th wedding anniversary party.

So it took 42 or so years, when I was chairman of the music department at a college, living a continent away (in Beverly, MA) in a committed relationship with a man whom my parents knew, before I was able to make clear to my mother that I did not want her to make arrangements for me to make music in a public place simply because she wanted to hear me.

OK. Petty.

Or the sort of thing a healthy man in a grown-up relationship with his mother would have managed to communicate long before he was 42 and she was celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary. Oh, come off it. Your relationship with your mother is just as complicated.

The fact is, of course, that much of what is important in my life today comes directly from her musical talent—and her pushing me to develop my meager ability. That’s almost as obvious as reporting that the earth is going to rotate far enough for me to see the sun in about fifteen minutes (it’s a few minutes after 6 AM as I’m writing this). Half of my nature and probably more than half of my nurture comes directly from her. Or whatever the psychological cliché is these days.

I still have the toy xylophone she bought me for my fifth birthday. Fortunately in those days such instruments had brass tone-bars and no computer components. I had to learn a melody in order to play it. No little stars twinkled simply by virtue of my pushing one key. My mother was my first piano teacher. She taught me until I was in first grade and could read “Silent Night” in four parts to play it, and then—with some wisdom about my learning more proficiently if making music were not simply doing what my mother did—my parents sent me to a “real” teacher (whose musicianship was probably eclipsed by my mother’s).

So the conundrum is that I’d rather have done it myself, without my mother’s meddling, but I couldn’t have done it at all (and still could not) were it not for her. And I’m reporting nothing that anyone reading this doesn’t already know about her relationship with her mother.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Salustiano Sanchez-Blazquez, just crowned the oldest man in the world, said a daily intake of bananas and six Anacin tablets contributed to his longevity.

Salustiano Sanchez-Blazquez, just crowned the oldest man in the world, said a daily intake of bananas and six Anacin tablets contributed to his longevity.

It’s all just a pain in the butt!

Laura - Will the '70s last forever?

Laura – Will the ’70s last forever?

Yesterday on Facebook I wrote,

Walking for an hour up and back in a swimming pool by oneself might seem excruciatingly boring. It’s not. Today only two other people were exercising, so each of us was in his own little world. And I fell into meditating on the reality that I just don’t “get it.” Anything. I have incipient senility to blame these days, but it was ever thus. I never did get it. I’m clueless. But my glutes sure are getting strong.

Yes, dear reader, I write on Facebook. I read my Newsfeed and look at and comment on my friends’ postings. I find it both great entertainment and a sure-fire way to keep at least superficial awareness of their lives.  As I do here, I tend to be more “confessional” than I should. But I took the age of Oprah more to heart than most people did, I guess. Besides, I am a frustrated and unsuccessful writer, so spilling my guts in public seems to be pretty natural for me.

Here’s one of the things I don’t “get.”

I don’t understand—and this is as factual a statement of my perception of the world as I can muster—how all of you concentrate on the details of living in society. How on earth do you actually remember to pay the rent on the first of the month? I know people who have never once in their lives paid a late fee—on anything! If there’s a late fee to be paid, I’ve paid it.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, all you people who understand and live within the “rules of the road” of our social contract (don’t get me wrong—I do obey the rules of the asphalt road except for speed limits), I’d have enough desire for self-preservation and comfort that I’d remember after about 50 years that the rent is always due on the first of the month. It never changes. I think our entire economy is based on this massive exchange of monies on the first of every month. It’s the American way (and I suppose it’s the Finnish and the Palestinian and the Chinese way). It never changes. For you that might be true. About every other month it never occurs to me either that it’s the first of the month or that my rent is due.

Read Dostoyevsky. The Idiot. Then we’ll have a conversation about this. I don’t know if all my life I’ve used my seizure disorder as an excuse for simple inattention to details, or if my inability to pay attention to details is one of the presentations of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. I’m pretty sure Dr. Agostini would say the latter. I know Dr. Schomer did. Gave me the first respite from self-flagellation about it I ever had, and that was not until I was 38 years old.

I live, for the most part, in this fuzzy world between awareness and not awareness, memory and not memory. For years when I was at home alone and bored, I watched reruns of “That ‘70s Show.” Someone was telling me about the new Netflix program “Orange Is the New Black.” He mentioned that Laura Prepon is one of the stars. I had no clue who she is.

Tut, tut, you will say. Lots of people could say the same thing. How many TV shows do you watch every day and can’t say the name of one of the actors? How often have you missed the rent on the first of the month? When was the last time you missed an appointment with your tax accountant, your psychiatrist, and your dentist—in the same week? After making post it notes and sticking them on your computer? These, of course, are the most obvious, the least important (except, perhaps for the tax accountant), the most trivial, the most universal kinds of forgetting. I’m not going to go into the important ways my mind does not connect—Oprah hasn’t got all of me yet.

Is confession good for Oprah?

Is confession good for Oprah?

I don’t—as, I am told, most people do not in theirs—live in my body. I don’t pay much attention to it or anything else until I have a pain. Pain gets my attention when paying the rent or Laura Prepon’s name can’t. And I’ve had a constant pain in my butt (actually, my hip) for six months. Next Wednesday I’m finally going to have arthroscopic surgery to fix it (now that the pain has become tolerable, that is, gone for hours at a time). I’ve been walking with a cane for four months.

I’ve noticed three kinds of reaction from other people when I refer to the pain (in any way). There are those who are concerned, who would (and often do) step forward when I need help to do something that I know is going to cause more pain than I can cope with. There are those who express concern but don’t think about how they might help—or even understand that help is possible. And there are those who wish I’d just take my pain and go away.

The pain in my butt is not important in the big scheme of things. And I know I’m a wuss (what’s going to happen if in my dotage I get a real pain?). Perhaps I use it as an excuse the way I perhaps use the misfirings in my brain to make excuses for not filing income tax on time simply because I don’t want to be bothered. I don’t know.

But I do know this. The pain in my butt raises interesting philosophical questions. Who’s living in reality? Me with my awareness of the pain in my butt but my inability to remember the first of the month? Or people who rush to connect with someone who has a pain in his butt? Or people who don’t? Or all of us. Or none of us?

What kind of wuss will I be on crutches?

My one and only teaching “success”

Some years ago the semester’s topic of student writing for my classes was “Homelessness in Dallas.” I don’t remember why I constructed the assignments for argumentative writing around that topic. I think the topic had been in the forefront of political bickering in the city for some reason, and I realized it inhered enough apparently insoluble problems and enough seemingly irreconcilable differences of opinion that the students would have no problem writing rhetorical pieces of different types about it. Arguments to inform, arguments to explain, arguments to persuade.

Helping out - the 24-hour Club

Helping out – the 24-hour Club

I made contact with the director of the “street-zine” program in Dallas, whose name I do not remember and who moved from Dallas shortly after that semester, and asked her to speak to my classes. She did so twice—the first time simply as an authority on the problem of homelessness. The second time she brought with her a man and a woman, both of whom were homeless, to tell their stories. And yes, before you jump to any stereotyped and judgmental conclusions, both were quite sane and remarkably articulate about their circumstances.

He was an alcoholic who had recently become sober and was attending AA meetings regularly at the Twenty-Four Hour Club but was not living there. The woman had been divorced some time earlier; her ex-husband was in default on their financial settlement, and she had lost her job and, consequently, her apartment. She was living at one of the Dallas shelters. Her children were in the care of Texas Child Protective Services pending her finding work and a permanent living arrangement.

He was white and she was black. The director of the Street-zine program explained carefully that they were somewhat atypical of the homeless population in that neither of them—but for his alcoholism—was in any way mentally ill.

My classes were the typical mix of SMU students. Except for several members of the football team and a couple of students at the Meadows School of the Arts, they were white, almost 100% from upper-middle- or upper-income families. Several of them were from the Dallas area and were at least peripherally aware of the “problem” of homelessness in Dallas.

I have regrets about the semester: I did not keep any kind of journal (or student papers), and I did not write an academic article about our experience together.

At the risk of stereotyping all of my students, I will say that many of the white students from privileged communities such as Highland Park had the idea that, if “those people” would only get jobs, they would not be homeless and a drain on society, i.e., wasting their parents’ taxes.

The other AA's 24-hour Club

The other AA’s 24-hour Club

At the beginning of the semester an icy chill had settled over all my classes. The students who were not interested were hostile, and the students who were interested were intimidated. I cannot correctly recount the story of the change that occurred in all four of my classes. The change was gradual and subtle—that is, until the end. I am not exaggerating or boasting when I say that virtually all of my students had a change of attitude about the “problem.” A few of the more privileged students did not come to a new understanding, but they were definitely a small minority. Perhaps one or two in each class.

However, I clearly remember one of the classes. A young woman from Dallas who had attended the Hockaday School and was both uncommonly intelligent and articulately vocal took it upon herself to prove that all that I was presenting to the class was biased, liberal, and incorrect. One of the members of the football team was also uncommonly intelligent and—when he found his voice in the class—articulately vocal.

I’ll cut to the chase. Toward the end of the semester the young black man had had as much of what he saw as the sanctimonious and judgmental pronouncements of the young woman as he could take. He commandeered the class one day and—I don’t know any better way to say it—let her have it. He spoke with more passion than I have witnessed before or since in a classroom about his experience as a poor black boy from South Dallas. He talked about racial profiling. He explained that he had always been conflicted about his talent as a football player because he knew it was his way out of his family cycle of minimal income (he was not really a “star,” but his brother was a “star” of the team at TCU), but he also knew that first his high school and then SMU used him to enhance their own reputations while refusing to take him seriously as a student—or as a person.

I won’t say the class experienced some kind of conversion, but they did become a group. His passion and honesty gave all the students permission to be honest. They did not come to some great happy meeting of the minds, but all of their minds changed. All of them were suddenly aware of each other and each other’s realities as they had not been before.

The young woman never again mentioned “if they would only get jobs” and wrote in her final argument that the “problem” of homelessness was far more complex than she wished it were, and that perhaps the problem had to be confronted on a person by person basis.

On the last day of the semester she stood and asked permission to speak. She thanked me for helping her see the subject differently. I, of course, had done nothing except present material and then try to get out of the way. At that point the member of the football team jumped up and rushed over to me and—in the presence of that group of college students including three or four of his football colleagues—planted a kiss—smacked me loudly—on my cheek so squarely I was dumbfounded. And everyone in the room cheered.

He then told me that was the first class he had ever been in, either high school or university, where he had been allowed to talk about himself honestly and without fear. And the class applauded.

I don’t know what your definition of personal freedom and/or academic freedom is, but that’s mine.
Jeffries Street homeless

A bit of simple (or simplistic) writing

Leader and cousin

Leader and cousin

People who know me well enough to know my sleeping/writing/working habits ask me from time to time if I already know what I’m going to write about when I can’t keep from sitting down to write because—what is the reason? TLE, desperation, addiction to words, habit, uncontrollable compulsion (isn’t that a redundancy, I’d ask my students).

Whatever the reason, the answer to the question is, “Yes or no.” Often I have an idea caroming around in my head when I wake up (in those instances I think it’s the idea itself that wakes me up) so I know it’s time to get up because I can’t put the idea out of my head. It’s seldom an idea I remember thinking about as I fell asleep. So I have no idea why it’s there. Oh, I usually know where the germ of the idea came from.

On Friday, for instance, I heard on PBS a scientist talking about the expansion of the universe and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Pretending I understand it was what woke me up today—or, at the very least, it was the first idea that came into my head, even before I poured my first cup of coffee. Why that law (which I have no chance ever of understanding) instead of wondering where the cat was or anything useful is beyond me. But I knew I had to write about it even though I don’t have a clue.

The problem is that I also have to write about the pictures I’ve inserted here because—because. They have been bugging me for a couple of days as the germ of an idea about friendships, relationships, meeting people. So The Second Law of Thermodynamics and friendships have to come together in these 800 or so words.

Siw and Carl-Axel Engstad

Siw and Carl-Axel Engstad

First, my understanding of the “problem” of The Second Law. When you drop a bunch of ice cubes into your lemonade, does the lemonade heat up the ice and make it melt, or does the ice make the lemonade colder? I’ve read that heat (energy) cannot pass from a colder object to a warmer one. Then why does my lemonade get cold?

Those of us who slid around the edges of Scandinavia and St. Petersburg, Russia, together last month had experiences that most tourists don’t. I’m speaking of our meeting with and developing fleeting relationships with people whom most tourists would never meet. We dropped into these generous souls’ lives and out again almost immediately.

The top photo is of our leader and his cousin (Viktor is wearing the Midsummer garland, his cousin sitting with her back to the camera, and her husband beside Viktor). Their family relationship was the original impetus for our trip. They were with us for the better part of two days.

Siw and Carl-Axel Engstad, owners of the ENGarden art museum and conference center near Arvika, Sweden provided us with a scrumptious luncheon at their museum, prepared by Carl-Axel, the chef of the center.  It’s fairly obvious (although I don’t know this for sure) that we were there because of Viktor’s family and their knowledge of the area. Certainly the ENGarden is not a normal tourist destination.

Ville Niittynen

Ville Niittynen

Our guide at Rauma, Finland, was Ville Niittynen, one of the priests of the Church of the Holy Cross, where we sang a concert.  Ville and his wife Paula were our hosts for a dinner at the church’s cabin on Lake Narvi, with a sauna experience for the brave ending with a jump in the lake.

Cookouts and picnics together as the guests of hosts from the cities where were staying and singing were the norm. At the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Novosaratovka, a suburb of St. Petersburg, we were treated to another barbecue (not Texas style!) cooked by members of the seminary community. Our host was the director, Dr. Anton Tikhomirov, who is also the pastor of St. Catherine’s Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg where we sang an evening concert. The seminary was the recipient of the monies we raised on our tour.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that mechanical work can be derived from a body only when that body interacts with another at a lower temperature; any spontaneous process results in an increase of entropy.

Lutheran Seminary Cookout

Lutheran Seminary Cookout

Relationships are like the Second Law of Thermodynamics. That is, the energy cannot pass from the colder participant in the work of being together to the warmer. Ever. Energy always passes from the warmer object to the colder and leads to an increase of entropy. There, see? I said I absolutely do not understand physics.

My point here is not only simple, it’s simplistic, I fear. We received warmth from people in each place we stayed, and in each church where we performed. We experienced those places not as tourists but as recipients of generosity and grace. I hope my understanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is incorrect. I hope some energy passed the other way, that we, less involved in the relationships we developed because we were there for so short time, managed to return at least a bit of the warmth and grace we received.

ENGarden Art - very little exchange of warmth

ENGarden Art – very little exchange of warmth

Oh, to be “unobtrusive, modest, subdued”

Diner. 1956 or 2013?

Diner. 1956 or 2013?

In a shopping mall in expansive building at a major intersection in the center of city with a population of 4,000,000 (the mall is adjacent to a hotel with 825 rooms) is a hamburger joint that recreates a 1950s diner with red faux-leather chairs and booths, black-and-white checkered tiles on the walls, and large photographs of iconic entertainers such as Elvis Presley, Patti Page, and Bill Haley and The Comets. The diner serves the “Texas Burger,” the “Double Cheese Burger,” the “Bacon and Swiss Burger.”

I ordered the “Texas Burger.” It was very much like a burger one might get at Smash Burger in Dallas except the fries were potato wedges, not French fries, and I had to pay extra for ketchup (Heinz in small packets).

The "Baltic Princess" - too crowded for comfort.

The “Baltic Princess” – too crowded for comfort.

The city intersection where the mall, hotel, and diner are located is the end of the Nevsky Prospect where it connects with the main bridge across the Neva River into the center city of St. Petersburg, Russia. Across the street from the hotel is the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.

Elvis Presley’s first RCA hit single was “Blue Suede Shoes” in 1956. I was eleven years old and could sing it from start to finish (if my parents were not nearby). I’m (obviously) 86 today. I can’t even get the melody well enough in my mind at the moment to start it, much less finish it.

The etymology of the word “retire” is not to tire of something and then tire again. We use the word in such a way that it might seem that’s where it came from. I tired of working when I was about 50 (or 35, or 25), and now I have again tired of working. It’s time to stop.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “retire” comes not from some form of getting tired but from the Middle French verb meaning retirer “to withdraw.” That’s a transitive verb, meaning it needs an object, so it must be used (the Middle French, that is) in the construction “to retire something.” The first use in English was “to withdraw oneself,” specifically “to withdraw oneself and go to bed.” By 1640, the word had come to mean “to withdraw oneself from business.”

By 1766 the adjective form of the word had come to mean “fond of retiring, disposed to seclusion,” hence “unobtrusive, modest, subdued” (1766), as in “he is the retiring type.”

My friends on the upper deck.

My friends on the upper deck.

I am somewhat disposed to seclusion.

This will be a somewhat trying week for me. I went to a party two nights ago with the kind and gracious group with whom I traveled in Europe last month—a group of which I have grown enormously fond, and of which I am delighted to be a part. Today I will attend a birthday party for someone of whom I am exceptionally fond. He is—dear me, can it be?—less than half my age, and he is attached to and understands the cultural world in which he lives and in relation to which I often find myself an outsider looking in and wondering what the hell is going on.

My primary goal as far as parties and such occasions is to be “unobtrusive, modest, and subdued.” This is not a new phenomenon for me. Even when I could sing “Blue Suede Shoes,” both words and music, from memory and not only knew who Bill Haley was but could sing “Rock Around the Clock Tonight” and “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” as vociferously and flawlessly as any of my junior high school friends, what I really wanted was to be in a corner (or preferably in the next room) singing by myself. Or, better yet, to be listening from the private world in my mind.

The enervating crowd disembarking

The enervating crowd disembarking

I’d guess that few people who know me as an acquaintance would expect me to say that about myself. After all, I have supported myself all my life in two very public professions, music and teaching. An “unobtrusive, modest, and subdued” person can hardly manage those two professions. Perhaps I haven’t. The common pop definition of “introvert” applies to me, that is, a person who feels energy sapped by being with too many people, as opposed to the “extrovert” whose energy is increased by being with groups of people.

I want to retire in at least two senses of the word. I want to “to withdraw [my]self from [the] business [of teaching]” because I’m old, and I want to make myself “unobtrusive, modest, subdued.”

Don’t misunderstand. I love teaching. And, if student evaluations are reliable evidence, I’m very good at it. And I love such experiences as running off to Scandinavia and Russia with a kind and generous group of people.

But I love being retired from too much social interaction more. “Unobtrusive, modest, subdued.” Ah, yes.

I may be as confused as a picture of Elvis Presley in a ‘50s-style diner in St. Petersburg in 2013.

Finland's coast: modest, subdued. My kind of place.

Finland’s coast: modest, subdued. My kind of place.

A subject I know next to nothing about

Not exactly joyful: stranded at the railway station in the rain.

Not exactly joyful: stranded at the railway station in the rain.

Yes, I’m writing about something of which I am ignorant (do you recognize hyperbole?).


It’s patently obvious I know quite a lot about joy. I’ve already had two weeks of (mostly) joy this summer. A few dicey moments, but mostly unadulterated joy. Even when we were stuck at the St. Petersburg train station and the churlish bus driver wouldn’t let us on his bus because his instructions were to pick up a group arriving an hour later and it was raining and Russians seem to speak Russian, I didn’t get depressed. I wasn’t exactly joyful, but I wasn’t depressed. I do know something about at least having equilibrium of feeling.

I’ve written about my lack of joy (perhaps it could be called “despair”) before, but that darkness comes and goes. (I stopped that blog because it was way too serious—this blog is my humorous look at getting older. Got that? Humorous.)

Our dreary first impression of St. Petersburg looking up the street from the station.

Our dreary first impression of St. Petersburg looking up the street from the station.

Perhaps I need to find a lover named Joy (C.S. Lewis was surprised by Mrs. Right—I doubt I’ll find a Mr. Right named “Joy”).

I began seriously trying to find joy in 1987 when my psychiatrist (his clients were exclusively Temporal Lobe Epilepsy patients at Harvard Medical School—one of the few times I could honestly claim to be an elite) first prescribed Prozac. It did not then, and does not now—having it prescribed again by one of my doctors at UTSouthwestern Medical School—bring me “joy.” But it has kept me out of the depression hospital for several years. (This is my blog, and I’ll be as exhibitionist narcissistic as I want. We live in the age of Oprah, the age of public confession. If you’re reading this from the link on Facebook, you’re part of the exhibitionist culture.)

On a new day in St. Petersburg

On a new day in St. Petersburg

If I had had such a doctor, oh, say in 1950, I might have spent more of my life living in something that approached “joy.” At least I didn’t get hooked on Valium in the ‘70s!

Now you know all of my secrets.

I’m waiting to be surprised by joy.

I’m not saying I live in despair. I try to keep my wits about me and remember Rev. John Claypool’s words,

Despair is always presumptuous. It is saying something about reality we simply don’t know enough about to say. Therefore, the way to live in hope is to live above “see” level, that is to recognize that because of what we don’t know, we cannot give way to despair.

I don’t live in despair. I have a lot of fun. And I don’t feel lonely and isolated (except on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings—when I am).

What’s my point?

Yesterday I wrote on Facebook,

Yesterday on KERA radio on “Think” (the local interview-talk show) Krys Boyd interviewed Chuck Klosterman, about his new book, “I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)”. In the conversation he said he had turned the ripe old age of 41 and that he can’t understand why he is sure of so much less now than when he was 21. I tried to call in to tell him, “Wait until you’re 68. See how little you understand then!”

My point is, the older I get, the less sure I feel about anything.

A glory of St. Petersburg: the high altar at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

A glory of St. Petersburg: the high altar at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

Don’t feel sorry for me (or nervous that I talk about these things in public). I really do mean for this to be, if not humorous, at least not too serious. Because these days, my lack of joy is finally, I think, appropriate to my age.

What do you know for sure? Do you have enough money to retire—that is, do you have the $300,000 our investment advisor says we need salted away JUST FOR MEDICAL CARE? Do you know (or at least have a certain faith about) what happens to you when you die? Do you have someone to keep you company when you are 90 and living in “the home?” Do you know for sure if God exists or not? Do you really think the political system of the United States is designed to make your life better and better? What is the ridiculous “social contract” we all believe so steadfastly we live under? Do you have friends that you will be able to talk with about any damned-fool thing that comes to your mind? Do you know for sure you won’t have Alzheimer’s? Do you really have better things to do than play Sudoku for the next twenty years?

So I’m going to give up despair because my situation is at least as good as yours if you’re 68 or older.

Buffalo Bill ‘s
. . . . . . . . . . who used to
. . . . . . . . . . ride a watersmooth-silver
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Jesus
he was a handsome man

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

(Note: The . . . .’s are not in e.e. cummings’ original poem; WordPress won’t let me format it his way without them.)

The sun also rises

The sun also rises

I have a RIGHT!!!!! (This is moderately offensive; you’ve been warned.)

Let's move to Nevada!

Let’s move to Nevada!

I have the right to mutilate myself with razor blades.

I have the right to marry someone who will beat me senseless.

I have the right to drink myself into a drunken stupor every day.

I have the right to quit working and live on the streets.

I have the right to masturbate with pornography every day.

I have the right to have plastic surgery to make me look like a tiger.

I have the right to gain a hundred pounds and die of diabetes.

I have the right to go for a year without bathing.

I have the right to move to Nevada and have sex only with prostitutes.

I have the right to believe in Santa Claus.

And the Easter Bunny.

I have the right to believe everyone who is not of my race is evil.

I have the right to say any damned-fool thing I want to here.

I have the right to have a meeting with Whitey Bulger in attendance.

I have the right to work for the legalization of methamphetamine.

I have the right to be addicted to methamphetamine.

I have the right in Texas to have sex with a horse.



I have the right to publish instructions for making Molotov cocktails.

I have the right to hate you.

I have the right to form a PAC to keep Buddhists from being elected to public office.

I have the right to burn everything in my house that is not insured.

But most important,

I have the right to carry a gun and kill you if I think you are “suspicious.”