“. . a lantern, burning in the midst of parenthetical opaqueness. . “ (1)

Do you know your temporal lobe  from a hole in your head?

Do you know your temporal lobe
from a hole in your head?

But I use memory differently. I use memory to fortify an idea. These . . . are meditations on subjects in which I use my childhood as information to support the theme, the thesis of the meditation. But it’s not a . . . memory of my life. I use my life for other purposes (2).

Two friends have prodded me to write today. The first responded to my post yesterday in which I wrote I’m often the bull in china closet (if I had any artistic sensibilities, I would find a poetic rather than a clichéd way to say that). That was in response to my reporting that my shrink told me I’m “fragile”—??

Judith said, “Yes. I find you often fragile, and often a “bull” who goes “where angels fear to tread . . .” and then, “Add to the above. ..reference ‘bull’…see Turku Cathedral…wooden cane. What happens in Scandinavia stays in Scandinavia. Reference ‘fragile’…see also Turku” (3).

The second friend asked me why “Temporal Lobe Epilepsy” is always a tag for my posts here.

A word about TLE. I have written about my experience of the condition here before. I won’t repeat myself except to say that a certain emotional intransigence (that is not to say, obstreperousness brought on by confusion) is one of the “presentations” of the condition.

The cathedral in Turku, Finland.

       The choir of Calvary Lutheran Church in Richland Hills, TX, was  traveling in Scandinavia this past summer. A wonderful time in Sweden, equally delightful time in Finland, and then out of Scandinavia to St. Petersburg. I was blessed, thrilled, to be asked along to play the organ and piano. I have pictures of all of the places we went except Turku, Finland.

What I am about to write is none of the following:
an attempt to garner pity or engage in psychological exhibitionism
my playing doctor
excuse-making for a man behaving badly.

My psychiatrist, Dr. Mary Bret, of whom I wrote yesterday (doesn’t it sound so ‘70s and ‘80s to say “my psychiatrist”), tells me more often than I want to hear that unseemly anger is symptomatic of at least two of the two neurological disorders with which I have been diagnosed.  Temporal lobe epilepsy, and Bipolar II disorder. The jury is still out on the second. It was, after all, the designer disease of the decade of 2000, so diagnoses are suspect.

We avoided the front staircase.

We avoided the front staircase.

However, my bag of behavioral and affective tricks includes most of the symptoms of the diagnosis. So we’ll go with it, neither stating with certainty that it’s true, nor wanting to make anyone squeamish. If it’s true, it’s no big deal, and if it’s not, I probably simply need some anger management classes.

Back to Turku. We got off our bus at the cathedral to visit on our way to the Medieval Market, simply because it is so splendid.

I was walking with a cane because I needed hip surgery. The woman who was showing us the cathedral kindly took the two of us with canes aside to let us in a door which did not require climbing stairs. But she left us waiting while she took the others in. By the time she got back to us, everyone else was having a grand time looking at the magnificent church. Including our director who, by the time I arrived, was already playing the organ.

The old church’s organ was, of course, in a loft accessible only by climbing a daunting spiral staircase. I went creeping and stumbling up with my cane and arrived at a balcony snuggled under the eaves of the building. I could see my friend at the same level playing the organ perhaps fifty feet away in the loft—to which I could find no means of approach other than a flying leap across the nave.

I was already out-of-sorts because of the cane, but as I stood trapped, watching Viktor play the organ which I knew I should be doing, I became enraged. It was blind fury. The loft was a sort of museum, glass cases filled with treasures of the 1,000-year history of the place. I was ready to smash one of the cases. Instead I brought my cane down to the floor with all of my force, smashing it into many lovely pieces.

Whatever trouble I was having getting around with the cane was now going to be exacerbated trying to walk in pain without the cane. The rest of the story is sweetly strange. The group thought I had somehow broken my cane stumbling up the stairs, and that’s why I was angry.

Remarkably, one of my friends found a store (a drug store?) and bought me a replacement cane.

I finally calmed down enough to tell my friends that I had simply lost it, that I was sorry for causing them concern, and more grateful than I could say that my cane had been replaced.

This writing is not a meditation in Roger Rosenblatt’s sense (I’m not self-deluded enough to pretend to write with his impact and precision). This is not a “lantern burning in the midst of opaqueness.” But I can use the memories of “my life for other purposes.”

It is immaterial whether or not my tantrums are, as Dr. Bret tells me, a symptom of my manic disorder. I don’t know. Those moments feel like mania. That’s not important. It is also not important if such outbursts result from the lurking fearful confusion of TLE. That could be also.

A flying leap across the nave.

A flying leap across the nave.

If this were a “meditation,” it would be about my continually and undeservedly being cared for by others. Yesterday I wrote that Dr. Bret told me I seem to “have trouble finding people to be kind” to me. She is absolutely right. I don’t, I can’t find those folks.

They simply appear.  A cane will materialize when I least deserve it.

______________________
(1) Alexander, Will. “On Anti-Biography.” Poets.org.  Academy of American Poets, 2011. Web.
(2) Rosenblatt, Roger.  “In ‘Boy Detective,’ writer Roger Rosenblatt investigates his Manhattan childhood.” Transcript of interview with Judy Woodruff. PBS Newshour (October 30, 2013). Web.
(3) Palmer, Judith. Comment on Posting by Harold Knight. Facebook. October 30, 2012.

A river runs through it (my life, that is)

Laramie Peak - from a shorter distance than my childhood vantage

Laramie Peak – from a shorter distance
than my childhood vantage

.
On a bookshelf in my apartment, next to the two histories of our family my dad wrote and published, are three books (1).

Yesterday I was nostalgic—no, feeling a tad sorry for myself because here at 68 when I should be seeing the world with my husband and joying in the company of my grandchildren, I am alone with three cats. My mild nostalgia/self-pity is not a big deal. But I saw the books and my mind wandered to Dad’s work when he was my age.

At that time my parents lived in Sacramento. He was semi-retired, doing interesting work as an interim pastor sent to various places to work with churches without pastors. One of those places was Spokane, WA. My then partner and I visited my parents, and the four of us made a trip to Glacier National Park. A delicious outing.

For some time before he died (until he could not physically or mentally maintain his concentration—he was, after all, 97), Dad was writing a memoir tracing his life’s journey along the Oregon Trail.

He was born in Kansas City, MO, and lived (after five years in Wyoming) in Kearney, Scottsbluff, and Omaha, NE, all on the Platte River—and the Oregon Trail. Eventually he moved to California, that home in Sacramento—the ultimate goal of many pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail.

I am, as I said, in a nostalgic mood (or something related to that), so I will do a bit of river-remembrance of my own. And in the process, some Oregon Trail thinking which will be of interest to my siblings and about two other people.

My brother and I were born in Douglas, WY, on the North Platte River. Douglas is a small town nestled at the foot of Laramie Peak.

Later, we lived for two years in Kearney, NE, where my sister was born. The city is on the Platte River which is formed by the confluence of the North Platte and South Platte Rivers about 100 miles west of there. From Kearney, we moved to Scottsbluff, NE, which is (once again) on the North Platte River. “Nebraska,” by the way, is an Anglicized version of the name French explorers gave the river as a transliteration of the Omaha Indian name meaning “Flat Water.” Folks in Western Nebraska say the river is “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

A mile wide and an inch deep

A mile wide and an inch deep

Scotts Bluff, a siltstone outcropping (once under the water of the great inland sea) which has remained intact because limestone deposits harder than the sandstone kept the soil beneath them from eroding away, looms over the city Scottsbluff. From the top of the Bluff, Laramie Peak, 120 miles west, is visible on a clear day. That as I was growing up I could look west and see the (to a kid, faraway) place where I was born gave me a kind of comfort. Two promontories, both beside the Platte River.

We used to say ruts on the south side of the Bluff were made a hundred years before by wagons on the Oregon Trail. I doubt that, but I’ve never looked into it seriously.

We moved from Scottsbluff to Omaha, about 10 miles north of the confluence of the Platte and the Missouri (the city may have expanded that far south by now, for all I know).

The romance of the river ends there for me. I boarded a Greyhound bus in the fall of 1963 and headed to Redlands, CA, to go to college, and except for the following summer never lived in Nebraska or by the Platte River again. I was, however, in the state that was the destination of those pioneers on the Oregon Trail. I’ve lived all over the country since then, but I did complete the “westward ho!” as my father did.

Somewhere I have pictures of Laramie Peak faintly visible on the horizon from the top of Scotts Bluff. I took them before I had digital photography (the last in 2001). I, of course, can’t find such pictures on the Internet because people look east where the towns are when they are on top of the Bluff.

If you read my blog regularly (thank you) you know that you have to tolerate a great deal of sappy sentimentality and a lot of self-revelation no one should make in public. Yesterday I saw my psychiatrist whose job is to help my neurologist keep my meds in balance. [Note to myself: write someday about the “entitlement” that makes me eligible for this incredible care that I can’t afford. Hmmm. ACA anyone?]

At any rate, Dr. Bret. She always schedules me at the end of the day so we can talk for an hour instead of the 15 minutes my insurance (without co-pay) pays for. She understands all of my “issues” better than anyone else. Depression.

The chasm I cannot cross

The chasm I cannot cross

She said, “I think you have trouble finding people to be kind to you.” What? And then, “You know, you are fragile.” What? Ho, ho, ho! you’re saying to yourself if you know anything about me and co-dependency and addiction and all of those ways in which I’m screwed up.

I do have trouble finding people to be with who are kind to me. I’ll write about that the day after I write about my “entitlement.”

But fragile? I’m the bull in the china closet most of the time (not to be confused with other closets). I do not have a delicate nature. And I do not have one of those fine, sensitive “artist’s” minds.

From the time I was six years old until I was fifteen, I was regularly in a place (not figuratively, literally) from which I could see, staring over a chasm of 120 miles, the place where I was born. The chasm was (is) the earth. I don’t have pretty language for this. But I have known my whole life that I’m caught in that space, that I can see the place from which I came. But I can’t get there from here.

Yet.

________________ (1)

•             Franzwa, Greory M. The Oregon Trail Revisited, 4th Edition. Tucson, AZ: Patrice Press, 1988.
•             Haines, Aubrey L. Historic Sites along the Oregon Trail. Tucson, AZ: The Patrice Press, 1981. (Foreword by Russell E. Dickenson, Director, National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior.)
•             Mattes, Merrill J. The Great Platte River Road, Second Edition. Lincoln, NE: Nebraska State Historical Society Publications, 1979.

Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins: conspiracy theorists extraordinaire

His explanation IS the evidence.

His explanation IS the evidence.

University writing students’ most frequent error in judgment is their assumption that for any given literary work, or any social or political problem, or any theory (about any subject) their explanation of the meaning is evidence that their explanation is correct. That is, the explanation itself is evidence for the truth of the explanation.

The so-called “History” channel on TV is replete with programs that make that exact error in judgment. Watch one of their programs such as “Ancient Aliens.” These programs are based on the writings and blatherings of a handful of “scholars” who believe their explanations for all manner of mysteries are, in fact, evidence for their explanations. Say, for example, they are studying an Egyptian monument that could not possibly have been built without enormous cranes and machinery even more powerful than we have today. Never fear, they have found a hieroglyph on a stone in the frieze of the structure in the shape of the nose cone of the US space shuttle, and that proves that aliens from outer space came here and constructed the monument. Why? Because they say so. Their explanation has become the evidence that their explanation is correct.

Or let’s come closer to home. Dallas is awash in programs and exhibits and all manner of memorabilia of the assassination of JFK fifty years ago next month (as it should be since the city never dealt with it when it happened–sweeping it under the rug and pretending it somehow did not happen here). The assassination has generated more conspiracy theories than any other event (save, perhaps, the events of September 11, 2001) in history.

All of the theories are, of course, based on someone’s explanation. Here’s a film by Zapruder. I see x, y, or z in it. Therefore, x, y, or z must be true. Or we know Kennedy’s brain was handled this way or that; therefore, he must have been shot from the front, not the back, because that’s the way I explain it, and my explanation is the evidence that my explanation is true.

I do not mean to imply that the explanations of such mysteries cannot be true (except for space aliens building Machu Picchu). The absurd explanation by some crackpot of an historical event may, with proper scientific investigation, turn out to be true. But it is the investigation, not the explanation by the crackpot, that eventually proves it to be true. Even then the crackpot has no cause to say, “I told you so.”

Recently I saw Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” which I watch whenever I have the opportunity. On the panel that night were The Rev. Al Sharpton, Valerie Plame, and Michael Moore. His guest “star” was Richard Dawkins. What a great time that promised to be! “Real Time” is one of the very few hours on TV that I consistently think is both intelligent and entertaining. Irreverent and stick-it-to-the-Tea-Baggers-and-all-they-stand-for.

I have noticed that conspiracy theorists consistently use the shouting match as their favorite means of communication. Just try to get a word in edgewise when someone is explaining that George W. Bush not only knew about but planned the attacks on September 11, 2011.

The only possible explanation for a father's anger is his religion.

The only possible explanation
for a father’s anger
is his religion.

I’m no TV host, and I have not written a bunch of best-selling books or movies, so I suppose I would be a little intimidated by Sharpton, Plame, and Moore. But even if I weren’t, I would not invite them to my home for a conversation and then shout them down every time they tried to make a point. I would think that would be something other than a discussion.

I would be wary of seeming to say that my explanation for whatever topic was under consideration was the evidence that my explanation was true.

Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher are so convinced that their explanation of the evils of Islam is the evidence for the evils of Islam that they cannot carry on a civil or fact-based discussion of Islamic beliefs.

On this subject they are crackpot conspiracy theorists. Their explanation is true no matter what evidence anyone can bring to bear on the discussion. The sadness is that they obviously have no idea what they are talking about.

. . . the same theory can be subsumed under mentally inconsistent background beliefs. . . [Such beliefs] can be separated from scientific explanations by changing the specifying assumptions. . . This conclusion applies to background beliefs at all levels of generality . . . [Even with such “liberals” as Maher and Dawkins] this conclusion includes the highest level of generality or ultimate beliefs (1).

Maher and Dawkins are convinced that 1) all religious belief is childish and dangerous (which may well be true), and 2) some Muslims are terrorists (which is obviously true), and 3) there can be no motivation for terrorism other than religion, which is absurd on the face of it—which is “changing the specifying assumptions.” That is to say, they have changed underlying assumptions about both religion and terrorism so any other explanation than their own is “childish” and “dangerous.” They believe their explanation of the evidence is evidence for their explanation that Islam is evil.

Evidence for the explanation is the explanation.

Evidence for the explanation is the explanation.

And they are so convinced of their explanation that they apparently cannot listen to any other idea, even direct evidence that their explanation is at the very least questionable.

Even an immensely important scientist and an articulate and intelligent liberal comedian can be conspiracy theorists. And deluded.
________
(1)  van der Meer, Jitse. “Background beliefs, ideology, and science.” Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith 65.2 (2013): 87-103.

What is an author (anyway)?

Still blowin' in the wind.

Still blowin’ in the wind.

Sometimes it’s fun to show off how much one knows—NO! what one has read, obviously not the same. When I was taking classes at the University of Texas at Dallas, I was in a seminar every semester in which we pursued ideas about language, rhetoric, and teaching. We read piles of books on the subject.

My background in topics such as linguistics and rhetoric and philosophy was limited (virtually nonexistent), so I had to struggle to understand any of it—even the assigned readings. The first semester we started with Michel Foucault’s “What Is an Author?”

Unlike everyone else in the seminar, I had never heard of Michel Foucault.

A lively discussion ensued debating the fine points of Foucault’s theories. All of us were graduate teaching assistants in the Rhetoric (first-year writing) program under the careful supervision of Professor Cynthia Haynes. For the most part, I had no idea what they were talking about (and, truth be told, don’t to this day).

The discussion had progressed only as far as the first paragraph of What Is an Author.”

The coming into being of the notion of “author” constitutes the privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas. . .  Even today, when we reconstruct the history of a concept, literary genre, or school of philosophy, such categories seem relatively weak, secondary, and superimposed scansions in comparison with the solid and fundamental unit of the author and the work (1).

My only even oblique reference to any of this was the curious musicological fact that the first music composer whose name can be, with any certainty, attached to specific musical compositions is Léonin, one of the composers of the Notre Dame school of polyphony who lived about 1150-1200. Exactly why I have remembered that fact since university music history class I do not know.

In the 1995 seminar at UTD, I asked what I thought was a direct and simple enough question. “Is Foucault saying that knowing a piece of writing is ‘by’ a given author instead of its being ‘anonymous’ changed the position of writing in culture in the same way attributing a musical composition to one person changed music from an amorphous communal effort to a personal artistic expression, as happened with Léonin in the 12th century?”

What is an author?

What is an author?

All I had in mind was that, in the 60s when we sang “Blowin’ in the wind” by Bob Dylan, I think our purpose was different from singing “Good night Irene.” An overtly political statement by a single known composer was (is) much different from a song people have been singing around campfires for decades (centuries) just for the fun of it. Understanding that is not rocket science (you see, I know this is not a profound statement because I use a cliché to explain it).

But you would have thought I had just stated the Theory of Relativity for the first time. I immediately became the “authority” on rhetoric in music or music as rhetoric or some such absurdity. I want to quote that awful line from “Gone with the Wind,” I don’t know nuthin’ about rhetoric or music history.

I really don’t.

Whatever it may seem I know about anything is dilettantism.

In 1964 I met Joan Baez. I had no clue who she was. She had released perhaps three enormously popular albums by that time, but we serious music students couldn’t be bothered. She came to the University of Redlands to give a concert, and my organ teacher, Leslie P. Spelman, Director of the School of Music, made a fuss over her and planted me in the audience with a bouquet of flowers to rush up on the stage and hand her when the concert was over.

Her singing, of course, was spell-binding. She sang folk music I knew and “American folk” (not really “folk” music but composed songs), even songs she had written herself. I was duly and properly impressed and intimidated when Dr. Spelman introduced me to her after the concert.

OMG. You’d think this blog has become my memoirs, and I’m stuck in university days. I’ll get on with it soon.

A couple of years later I came to understand why Dr. Spelman was solicitous of this non-classical musician. He had known her all her life because her father was a professor at the university, and they were neighbors.  As a senior, I lived with nine other “honors” (which is not to say “honorable”) students in an off-campus “dorm,” which was a house where Baez had lived.

So I’m back where I began. Is this writing my memoirs? I don’t have a clue. I’ve never really gotten past that first paragraph of Foucault’s (I’ve read his History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish without, I must hasten to say, understanding much of them). And I was aware of his death from AIDS in 1984.

All I mean to say here is that “when [I] reconstruct the history of a concept, literary genre, or school of philosophy, such categories seem relatively weak . . .  in comparison with the solid and fundamental unit of the author and the work.” Don’t worry, I’m not claiming to have created any concept, literary genre, or school of philosophy.” Yikes! But I do know that if I ever have had an idea worth thinking about, it happened because I wrote it down.

I don’t write because I have an idea. I get ideas from my writing. Whether or not anything I’ve ever written is a “solid and fundamental unit,” all of my writing helps me understand this “author.” If you want to go along for the rocky ride, I’m honored and pleased.
________
(1) Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author.” The Foucault Reader. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1984 (101).

The most beautiful campus in America

The most beautiful campus in America

“We’ll have an old fashioned wedding”

"We'll have an old fashioned wedding"

“We’ll have an old fashioned wedding”

.

Somewhere in my apartment is a CD box set of Fred Astaire movies. Most are with Ginger Rogers, of course, but I’m pretty sure You Were Never Lovelier with Rita Hayworth is part of the set. I don’t remember which songs are in which of those movies—and I have no head for remembering lyrics wherever they are from. However, I remember “I’m old fashioned, I love the moonlight” from You Were Never Lovelier because the lead-in dialogue includes Fred saying to Rita, “I’m a plain, ordinary guy from Omaha, Nebraska.” He says “Nebraska” with an accent he didn’t learn in the first six years of his life (in Omaha). His odd pronunciation is beside the point, except it’s one reason I remember the song.

I think that set of CDs is here somewhere, but a couple of weeks ago I got the urge to watch You Were Never Lovelier and couldn’t find it. That was for the better because I hate watching movies on my old TV set –and I steadfastly refuse to watch movies on my laptop. The TV is enormous—a 29-incher—and old fashioned, not flat-screen or digital or plasma.  Its worst attribute is that it is not “shoebox” shape, and it cuts images off on both sides of the screen.

My late partner and I bought the TV about 15 years ago when old fashioned TVs were dirt cheap, and a flat-screen anywhere near that size would have cost too much not to seem obscenely self-indulgent.  Now the flat-screens are as cheap as the old fashioned ones were then. We intended to replace the monster when the prices of flat-screen came down. But he died 10 years ago, and I’ve never had any thought of spending that kind of money on myself.

For most of the time since he died, I have not cared. Shoebox shape didn’t matter for watching “Antiques Roadshow” or reruns of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” or “Criminal Minds.” And once in a while “Masterpiece Theater.”  Any show with a continuing story line that needed watching regularly was frankly impossible. For years I would not have remembered what night a show was on even if I had decided to keep up with it. I have basic dish network, provided as part of my rent, and can’t see spending money on TV. (Remember the old Tom Lehrer song with the line, “Now there’s a charge for what she used to give for free in my home town?”)

My urge to watch You Were Never Lovelier originated with my reading about New Jersey’s fight over same-sex marriage (two weeks ago Governor Christie was still planning to sue to keep them from happening). For some reason I had a vision of the governor standing in court singing, “We’ll have an old fashioned wedding” from Annie Get Your Gun. You know, “We’ll have an old fashioned wedding Blessed in the good old fashioned way.”  Old fashioned weddings are definitely two-sex affairs.

An ordinary boy from Omaha Nee-braska

An ordinary boy from Omaha Nee-braska

From “old fashioned wedding” to “I’m old fashioned, I love the moonlight” was a simple mental step and then to You Were Never Lovelier (I did have to look up the name of the movie even though I remembered the song).  I like Ella Fitzgerald’s singing “I’m old fashioned” better than Hayworth’s version. I don’t suppose Ella ever danced while she sang.

That I remember a song simply because in the dialogue leading to it someone says he’s from Omaha, Nee-braska, seems at this moment absurd.

I’m old fashioned.

That has nothing to do with loving the moonlight or wanting a wedding. I had an old fashioned wedding once—yes, in a church with bridesmaids and everything. I even have pictures, but they’d be harder find here than You Were Never Lovelier. I think there are fewer and fewer old fashioned weddings.

Or perhaps gays and lesbian weddings are bringing old fashioned back. I don’t know. I’ve been to only one, and it wasn’t very old fashioned.

But there’s a whole lot of me that, were I to marry, would want an old fashioned wedding. It wouldn’t matter that I’d be marrying a man. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to get or be married. But old fashioned sounds good to me.

I’m not going to make a list of the old fashioned things I’d like to see, but can you imagine John Boehner inviting President Obama to come to his Congressional district and help him plant a tree?

The fact is I never saw Astaire and Hayworth or Rogers movies until I was older than 50, except for the odd late-night TV showing here and there. I had never really paid attention to them. I first took Ella Fitzgerald seriously when a fellow graduate student was writing his dissertation on her in the 70s. Even then I didn’t pay close attention to her music until 1990 (I was 45) when Red, Hot and Blue, an album of Cole Porter songs by various performers, was released to raise money for AIDS research. That led to my buying one of Ella’s Cole Porter albums.

Cole Porter never sounded so wonderful

Cole Porter never sounded so wonderful

I have to remind myself of the convoluted details of my discovery of music (and much else) that I love. One’s understanding of “culture” doesn’t simply happen. It takes effort. I never thought, “Now I’m going to set out to understand something I didn’t understand before.” Or did I? A great part of my being old-fashioned is not simply longing for the way things used to be. More importantly, it’s longing to understand some of what has made me who I am. Before it’s too late.

And that’s not Katy Perry or The Hunger Games.

“. . . some right to be here and that there is value in it . . .”

 

I'll sell you this tree.

I’ll sell you this tree.

Ron Padgett is my brother’s age. Three years older than I. He writes poetry. His poetry is mostly of the kind that, when I read it, I say to myself (or out loud), I wish I’d said that. I stumbled upon this one early this morning trying to find a poem (a boring poem compared with Padgett’s) of which I could remember one paltry phrase. Yes, this popped up in a Google search—I did not have it in mind. I own two of Padgett’s collections and have read them, but, as anyone can tell you, I don’t remember such things as poems. (I don’t remember my purpose in going to the Kroger up the street was to buy paper towels when I pass the cheese counter and get sidetracked. “Sidetrack” was the name of a gay bar in Cedar Rapids, IA, when I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa thirty miles away. It was a relatively tacky bar in an old warehouse neighborhood built, yes, beside the railroad tracks.)

There is a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Cedar Rapids. I thought there were a couple, but I can’t find them in a Google search. I’ve seen this one because a professor at the University with whom I had something of a fling was into architecture and took all of his boys to see the Grant House. He was a singer and I was young and thin and recently divorced at that time. For one week I thought the singing professor (the professor of singing) was Him, but it turned out not to be so. He probably didn’t like the fact that I was so appallingly “out” and a drunk.

Oh, yes. I was writing about Ron Padgett. His poetry is the kind that almost anyone can relate to except people who think poetry has to have a regular rhythm and a certain rhyme pattern. I first discovered him when I started to read his memoir of Joe Brainard, his childhood friend who was also, I think, a poet—or a painter. Or some such. They were both part of the “New York School,” I think, but I’m not sure about that since I’m not a literary scholar and don’t know how to categorize poets. At any rate, they grew up together, and when Brainerd died of AIDS, Padgett memorialized him a biography. It’s one of those books I bought and started to read but couldn’t get into enough to finish. It actually wasn’t that long ago, or I wouldn’t remember it so clearly. I have about a thousand books like that. Perhaps if I had finished reading more of them, I would be a literary scholar. Who knows?

Joe Brainard loved pansies

Joe Brainard loved pansies

The Memoir of Joe Brainard is apparently one of those books I got rid of in my “great book give-away” last year.

At any rate, when I discovered the Memoir of Joe Brainard, I looked Padgett’s poetry up and bought a volume or two. The one I see on my shelf at the moment is How Long. I think there are some of his poems in the Norton Anthology of Post-Modern American Poetry, which is, of course, at my office helping me to pretend to look like a literary scholar. I guess my pretense has finally caught up with me because, as I may have mentioned in this blog before, SMU is putting me out to pasture at the end of this academic year. Oh well.

When I was in high school, I was a poet. That is, I wrote poetry. I entered one poem in a contest (probably the National Council of Teachers of English). It was called “Swinging Sam’s Sexy Sister,” and it was a direct result, I think, of my having read Ginsberg’s Howl or some other work of some other “beat” poet. The poem came back from the contest without a mark on it except some silly judge had scrawled across the top, “Plagiarized from e.e. cummings?”  Of whom I had never heard. So Mr. Simpson loaned me a collection of cummings’ poetry, and I immediately fell in love with “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” I used to be able to recite it from memory, not because I “understood” it (which I still don’t) but because I think it sounds yummy, scrumptious, lovely, beautiful. cummings is my brother’s favorite poet, which is why I mentioned my brother at the beginning of this writing. And if you believe that, I have pecan tree up on Preston Avenue at the entrance to University Park that I’ll sell you for less than a million dollars.

So now, if you’re still reading, you know perhaps why like Ron Padgett’s poem so much. Because I love the way it sounds, and because I do have “the sense that [I] have some right to be here and that there is value in it” even though I have definitely lost my god(s). My cats aren’t quite as humanoid as Padgett’s dog, but they do get to play with me –on their own terms. The poem:

Lost and Found
by Ron Padgett

Man has lost his gods.
If he loses his dignity,
it’s all over.

I said that.

What did I mean?
First, that the belief
in divinity has almost
disappeared.

By dignity
I meant mutual
self-respect, the sense
that we have some right
to be here and that
there is value in it.
(Values are where
the gods went
when they died.)

My dog Susie doesn’t seem
to have any values, but she does
have Pat and me, gods
she gets to play with and bark at.

About this poem:
“In the pile of miscellaneous papers always on my desk I found a scrap that contained the words in this poem’s epigraph, and I vaguely remembered having scribbled them down. That triggered the poem’s beginning: ‘I said that.’ I liked the unusual idea of quoting oneself in an epigraph. By the way, the corny play on god/dog was unintentional.” ––Ron Padgett

e.e. cummings explained here

e.e. cummings explained here

“. . . extensively careful to give no offence. . .”

William Penn, Founder and FRIEND

William Penn, Founder and
FRIEND

At important times I have been influenced by members of The Society of Friends (Quakers). The first was Leslie Pratt Spelman. Dr. Spelman was Director of the School of Music at the University of Redlands. Another was my dear friend and mentor at the time my life was being pulled together (notice I did not say I was pulling my life together) in the late 1980s.

Members of the Boston Meeting of the American Friends Service Committee—the cook and a couple of the nurses at the AIDS Hospice in Boston where I volunteered in the early 90s—also set for countless others examples of selflessness and charity.

Recently I tried to explain to a friend the Quaker concept of “equality” so he could find a way to address a letter to a famous person whom he greatly admires. I found this explanation online.

The Quaker testimony of equality has its origins in the spiritual experience of Friends that each person has . . .  equal access to God through the provision within each person of a measure of God’s own light. . . Quakers are [historically involved in] reform movements: abolition of slavery, women’s rights . . .  civil rights. This work arises out of a . . . desire to remove the impediments to fully realizing our God-given potential. . . [and] the biblical injunction of equality, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. . . Friends avoid the use of titles that designate artificial rankings of superiority. . . [such as] “Dr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Mr.” (1).

The website cites Robert Barclay and John Woolman as two historical leaders of the Friends on whose writings these ideas are based.

When I was in junior high school, our family had great admiration for Dr. Arthur M. Clarke, Executive Secretary of the Nebraska Baptist Convention (2).

Dr. Clarke was as sophisticated and refined as anyone we knew, and we stood in some awe of him. His degree was D.D., an honorary Doctorate of Divinity. But somehow that made it even more important, that a college chose to honor him, not that he had earned the degree by hard work.

One day my mother and I were in our kitchen (she was cooking, I was washing dishes). Dr. Clarke was to visit us soon. I commented to my mother that I’d go to school and someday people would call me “doctor,” too. Mother drew herself up into her most corrective full height and said, “People will call you ‘doctor’ when you deserve to be called ‘doctor.’”

This is not the place to discuss (because my mere mention of it will be enough for those who understand) the effect her comment had on me as it became a tape loop in my memory. (It took me 14 years during which I got sober to finish my PhD.) I will be called “Dr.” when I deserve to be called “Dr.” The humor—or sadness—of this little vignette is that to this day if anyone calls me Dr. Knight, my response is to wonder to whom they are speaking, and then to be embarrassed. I have deserved to be called Dr. Knight since 1988 (because I did the work—jumped through all the hoops—to get the degree; it is not “honorary”).

Will it ever be deserved?

Will it ever be deserved?

John Woolman (1720-1772), described by Wikipedia (don’t tell my students!) as “a North American merchant, tailor, journalist, and itinerant Quaker preacher, and an early abolitionist in the colonial era.” I don’t remember which of my Quaker friends first told me about John Woolman, but when I read about him on the Guilford College website, I knew immediately who he was.

In purity of heart the mind is divinely opened to behold the nature of universal righteousness, or the righteousness of the kingdom of God. “No man hath seen the Father save he that is of God, he hath seen the Father.” The natural mind is active about the things of this life. . . [a]nd so long as this natural will remains unsubjected, so long there remains an obstruction to the clearness of divine light operating in us; but when we love God with all our heart and with all our strength, in this love we love our neighbour as ourselves; and a tenderness of heart is felt towards all people . . . even those who, as to outward circumstances, may be to us as the Jews were to the Samaritans (3).

As long as our will is not subject to universal righteousness, our mind is obstructed from the clearness of divine light. But when we love God with all our heart, we love all people.

It’s disingenuous of me to use a quote about subjecting my will to universal righteousness because I really have no clue what that means. As I have made abundantly clear in previous posts here, I have lost all understanding of “religious” language.

I am, however, intrigued by the biblical question, “Who is my neighbor?” Woolman says that when we follow the famous answer of Jesus to that question, that is

The American Friends Service Committee, "a tenderness of heart  is felt towards all people"

The American Friends Service Committee,
“a tenderness of heart
is felt towards all people”

manifested in a full reformation of our lives, wherein all things are new. . .  the desire of gain is subjected . . . [and] When employment is honestly followed in the light of truth . . . [people] are so separated in spirit from the desire of riches, that in their employments they become extensively careful to give no offence, either to Jew or Heathen or to the Church of Christ (4).

I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be called “doctor.” But more important, I wonder what it means to be “extensively careful to give no offense, either to Jew or Heathen or to the Church of Christ” in one’s employment.

I end as I will not allow my writing students to do by asking a question. What would happen if the goal of all of our economic life together were to “honestly [follow] in the light of truth. . . [and] give no offence?”
__________
(1) “Equality.” Guilford College, About.  guilford.edu, 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2013.
(2) Mention of Dr. Clarke from the Lincoln Sunday Journal and Star  from 26 September 1954 is online at
http://www.newspapers.com/newspage/46058033/ . For my friends in the ELCA, this is interesting because the story about the Nebraska Baptist Convention is mixed with a story about a meeting to discuss the merger of four Lutheran Synods. Hmmmm. 1954.
(3) Woolman, John. The Journal of John Woolman.  Christian Classics Ethereal Library. E-text. Web. (p.122).
(4) Woolman, ibid.