‘. . . your old men shall dream dreams . . .’

The real prophet by Michelangelo  (not Osteen)

The real prophet by Michelangelo (not Osteen)

A few minutes ago I sent a Facebook message to the daughter of  a woman who—were I ‘straight’ – I could well have asked to marry me. Except I think being soul mates and using the same language for just about any old subject that pops up in conversation are not necessarily the best bases for marriage. Even if my sexual orientation were different [at least farther in another direction on the scale of mammalian possibilities], I doubt that Anne and I would have improved our communication or deepened our relationship by getting married.

We simply thought alike on almost every issue and idea we ever talked about. She was almost as committed to progressive politics as I am, and I was almost as dedicated to understanding the fine points of rhetoric as she was. She is one of my dear friends who has died. I miss her almost unbearably from time to time, especially when I want to have a serious conversation about a subject important to me.

I messaged her daughter because she lives in Santiago, Chile, and I want to see Easter Island.

I’m pretty sure there is no ‘tour’ with Easter Island as its destination that I could afford. Almost the only way to get to the island is by going first to Santiago or one of the other major cities in Chile. So I’ve been thinking that Anne’s daughter should—for the sake of her late mother’s and my friendship—offer me a place to stay in Santiago on my way to Easter Island. How’s that for self-centered thinking? The fact is, she and I would have been great friends if she had not spent her adult life in places like Turkey and Jordan and, well, Chile.

Exactly why I want to see Easter Island is something of a mystery to me.

some fascination for me that I can’t quite figure out

some fascination for me that I can’t quite figure out

(By the way—apropos of nothing—I’m using my new computer to type this—but not ‘dragon’—because I discovered its msword here is set to make more letters upper case—or at least give me some red squiggles indicating it wants to—than my old computer, so my typing looks less like one of my students did it. I’m still in the damned sling; 20 more days and counting; believe me, counting!)

Easter Island holds some fascination for me that I can’t quite figure out. I think it has more to do with the people who built those enormous and bizarre statues than with the statues themselves. Those Easter Islanders more or less killed themselves off by not taking care of their island. They over-farmed, they let rats take over, and they just let the whole place go to pot.

That is, of course what will happen to all of us eventually, but Easter Island is one of the few places where we can see that process complete. Most of what we know about the Easter islanders is speculation even though they never completely vanished. And how they built those statues is lost in the dim memory of the few Rapa Nui people who remain. Even they don’t have a real concept of how the statues got planted on the rim of the island –or why.

The question I want to ask is whether or not they, as a group, as a society, knew they were dwindling almost to the point of extinction and why they didn’t do something about it.

They seem to me to be pretty much like Americans. We’re just standing around watching our continent go to hell in a hand basket and don’t really give a rip. If we did, the abominable Koch brothers would no longer be in business. But that’s the question for future generations to ask. The Kochs and their ilk are the equivalent of the rats of Easter Island. And we have our statues that some future generation a thousand years from now will marvel at—you know, the Ballpark at Arlington and the American Airlines center in Dallas.

The Hebrew prophet Joel said a startling thing.

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit (Joel 2:28-29, NRSV).

I don’t have a clue what “my spirit” refers to. I think it might have to do with having common sense and treating everyone equally. Joel goes on to talk about the “portents.” If I were like some fundamentalist (those who think the Bible is both accurate history and good science), I could tell you how Joel has predicted what’s going on today. You know, some citizens of the current state of Israel (not to be confused with the ancient kingdom of the same name) will join “Jews for Jesus” and get out alive, because, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape.”

But it’s the old men dreaming dreams that interest me. I won’t be around here even for the complete automatonization of our society, much less for the disappearance of all but 111 Americans (the population of Easter Island in 1877).

Like the rats that destroyed Easter Island

Like the rats that destroyed Easter Island

But I have a dream that the American people will wake up before the rats take over completely.

If someone can help jog my memory, I’d appreciate it: on NPR not too long ago I heard an atheist philosopher (a real atheist, not an idiot like Richard Dawkins who uses his “atheism” as a cover for the most virulent forms of racism and xenophobia) explaining his view that the way we can understand our immortality is that we know other human beings will carry on our work (whatever that is) after we die.

I love that idea. I dream that dream. And I don’t want the Koch brothers and the Tea Baggers mucking it up.

‘. . . Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. . .’

my powers lying wasted

my powers lying wasted

Yet another [well-meaning, I’m sure] friend emailed me to ask if I am ok based on my posting of last night. She was certain I am obsessed with death, and that cannot be healthy.

I have two primary struggles at the moment. The first is the sling which I am sentenced to hold/ rest/ immobilize my left arm until December 20, my next appointment with the surgeon, dr. Steven Thornton [that’s 21 days and 6 hours from this moment].

The other is this wonderful new Lenovo computer a good friend helped me buy a week ago. I will love it when I figure some things out. Like all new laptops these days, it has touch-screen. I don’t have a clue how to use it. Mysteries abound. It has no ‘start’ icon, so I don’t know how to power it up and down.

The first struggle is related to the second, obviously, because I have to type with one hand [typos such as missing upper case letters are the result of that inconvenience, and such niceties happen when msword makes them happen automatically—deal with it].

I purchased Dragon and the computer help desk at smu installed it on the Lenovo. Dragon is a voice recognition program which works wonders for grading papers but which is useless for writing. I can think no faster than I can type, so speaking is not writing. It’s blathering. Besides, what I deal with daily is hypergraphia, not hyperdictia [my invented word for ‘running-off-at-the-mouth’].

So this writing is slowed down to a crawl, and it’s impossible that I’m obsessed with anything, death or anything else, except hunt-and-peck typing. So the following is probably hunt-and-peck thinking.

Not too long ago I was involved in a conversation which, in retrospect, seems more like that of two college sophomores [can you spell ‘sophomoric?’] than two old grumps in their 60s. we were talking about ‘the meaning of life,’ and I was saying that I don’t see much reason to believe in an afterlife. He’s a somewhat devout roman catholic, so his view is a bit different from mine [although, of course, ‘gay’ and ‘roman catholic’ are mutually exclusive, so his logic is a priori suspect].

He quoted [almost correctly] Goethe’s statement that, ‘It is quite impossible for a thinking being to imagine nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life. In this sense everyone carries the proof of his own immortality within himself.’ It took me awhile to find that the aphorism is attributed to Goethe by Johann Peter Eckermann, in Conversations with Goethe, 1852.

I suppose that’s close to the intellectual underpinning of Faust—the only way to be certain to live forever[hence negating the need to imagine one’s ‘nonbeing’] is to sell one’s soul to the devil. Or something. I’m neither philosopher nor literary critic enough to make that kind of pronouncement.

At any rate, my friend said that, because it’s ‘quite impossible for a thinking being to imagine nonbeing,’ one [that is, I] should stop thinking about death and get on with life, ‘living in the moment.’

Of course, his logic is as fallacious as the logic of essays I read daily by college sophomores.

A thinking being might be able to imagine nonbeing more than to imagine being. I’m willing to admit this may be the [somewhat specialized] thinking of a TLEptic, a child suffering the dissociation of temporal lobe epilepsy, but my great youthful question to myself was, ‘how do I know I exist; how do I know I’m not the figment of someone’s imagination?’ There, Goethe, put that in your pipe and smoke it!

So I’m not obsessed with death. I’m obsessed with life. Not the life of getting and spending and laying waste our powers. I have not become a wordsworthian romantic.

THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.     
—–Wordsworth, William, 1770–1850.

But I want to avoid the world too much with me. I get and spend with the best of them. Well, not quite. Alice Walton and I are hardly in a ‘getting’ contest, much less a ‘spending’ contest. I expect her wealth is her attempt to hedge her bets against ‘nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life.’ But if Goethe is right, she shouldn’t worry because the mere fact she chooses not to think about being dead means that she’s immortal. Really?

Rather, she chooses, like all of us, not to think about it. In Rosencrantz’s words, ‘I wouldn’t think about it if I were you, you’ll only get depressed” (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, tom Stoppard).

So I don’t know where I meant to go with this. Only to say I think if you’re 68 years old and aren’t thinking about these things, you’re gonna run up against nonbeing without having been in the most crucial way. If we’re the only animals who know we’re going to die, then pretending not to know it is avoiding—no, denying—the very reality that makes us human.

“. . . the fiery sun now goes his way; shed thou within our hearts thy ray. . .”

Sunset over Paradise Beach, Oregon

(Sunset at Paradise Beach, Port Orford, Oregon. Photograph by Harold Knight, 2010)

Some people have the songs of Sondheim musicals in their minds. Some have Gilbert and Sullivan. I have one friend who claims to be able to sing every John Lennon melody. I know a pianist who studied with Rosina Lhévinne and at any moment of any day or night can play from memory any movement of any Beethoven Sonata. I tested him.

When I was a kid, we sang a (shall I say, ‘banal’) little tune, of which the “chorus” is the most memorable part. I often sing it yet. Not exactly. I think it when I have some unbidden tune caroming around in my head. I often try to supplant the unwanted tune with another unwanted tune.

In my heart there rings a melody,
There rings a melody with Heaven’s harmony;
In my heart there rings a melody,
There rings a melody of love

Many of America’s finest musicians grew up in the same musical milieu I did—composers Virgil Thomson and Gardner Read come immediately to mind, and more church musicians than I could count. I’m afraid unlike them in many ways, I never really rose above the musical level of “I have a song that Jesus gave me.”

That is not to say I have not lived with, loved, and performed great music all of my life. I’ve written before about the near sanctity in our home of Monday evenings and the “Bell Telephone Hour,” the “good music” (as my parents called it) program. I wrote recently about the operas I heard as a child. I grew up hearing the very best and the very worst in music.

The hymn tune Bromley was composed by either Jeremiah Clarke or Franz Joseph Haydn. It seems each of them left a trio version of the tune, identical but for a couple of notes in the last line. Musicologists are in some debate which came first—obviously Clarke lived first. His version is, however, in a manuscript which is of uncertain origin. The Haydn manuscript is undoubtedly authentic. Did Haydn copy Clarke, or did some third party copy Haydn and put Clarke’s name on it. Oh, the arcaneness of musicology.

This evening on the way home from my friend’s home where I had a delicious but sensible Thanksgiving dinner, I found that “in my heart there [rang] a melody, there [rang] a melody with” –Bromley, with either Jeremiah Clarke’s or Joseph Haydn’s harmonies.

The text I sing to Bromley is the evening hymn, “O Trinity of Blessed Light.”

O Trinity of blessed light,
O Unity of princely might,
the fiery sun now goes his way;
shed thou within our hearts thy ray.

To thee our morning song of praise,
to thee our evening prayer we raise;
O grant us with thy saints on high
to praise thee through eternity.

Words: Ambrose of Milan, fourth century; trans. John Mason Neale, 1851

The tune sounds Haydnesque to me. It trips sweetly along in F major for the first eight bars, but in the ninth it moves to F Minor on the word “fiery,” and moves to a B-flat minor sub-dominant on the word “sun.” One does not need to understand this musical jargon to hear the startling result. It’s one of those tiny moments (nearly unnoticeable) that carries with it the entire cosmos. It is one of those rare events in the music I know wherein I would be willing to posit a connection with “heaven’s harmonies.”

Few music theorists or musicologists or composers, I daresay, would use such important sounding language to describe this tiny two-chord, almost millisecond harmonic progression. They would say I need to get a life, that only the Mahler Sixth can be said to carry with it the entire cosmos. Or the David Diamond Ninth. Or the Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata.

I learned Bromley singing the Office of Compline with the Chapel Singers of the University of Redlands Choir in 1966. We sang without conductor, standing in the darkened chapel at 9 PM on Sunday evenings. I have in my heart, and do not have to conjure it, the physical, mental, and spiritual—to say nothing of emotional—effect those minor chords had on me every time we sang the hymn, the fourteen of us breathing and vocalizing together in as perfect harmony as it is possible for any group to experience.

If I have not spoiled my genetic heritage by smoking (years ago), drinking alcoholically (years ago), and being overweight, I could possibly live another twenty years. In that time, the fiery sun will go its way approximately 7300 times. I have already experienced slightly fewer than 25,000 sunsets.

As best I can remember, the Service of Compline begins:

READER: The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.
CHOIR: Amen.
READER: Brethren, be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour; whom resist. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us.
CHOIR: Thanks be to God.

Later the Service continues:
CANTOR: Keep me as the apple of an eye.
CHOIR: Hide me under the shadow of thy wings.
CANTOR: Preserve us, O Lord, while waking,
CHOIR: and guard us while sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we rest in peace.

Whenever for the last time I see the fiery sun go its way, whether the seventh or the seven thousandth time from now, I will carry into the void with me that minor shift in harmony in Bromley. I will know that the Lord Almighty will grant me a quiet night and a perfect end. I will be kept as the apple of an eye.

Truth be told, I don’t believe any of that. Or do I? My one certainty is this. Every time I sing (or play) that F minor to B-flat minor progression in the middle of that F Major tune, I have already experienced that quiet night and that perfect end.

“. . . fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it. . . “

That my left shoulder is healing and my arm in a sling may be what some of my friends would say is, ‘God doing for me what I cannot do for myself’ – that is, I must  listen to others instead of publishing my unruly palaver.

Here, then, are two of my favorite Thanksgiving texts. The first one ought to read. The second, one will take joy in having read.

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

HD_LincolnA8Nov1863zc.previewThe year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln


Be Kind 1324405259_md
by Michael Blumenthal

Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness  and uncertainty of
its recompense, a bird may yet  wander
into a bush before our very houses,
gratitude may not manifest itself in deeds
entirely equal to our own, still there’s
weather arriving from every direction,
the feasts of famine and feasts of plenty
may yet prove to be one,  so why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squiggles to prevail? Why not inundate
the particular world with minute particulars?
Dust’s certainly all our fate, so why not
make it the happiest possible dust,
a detritus of blessedness? Surely
the hedgehog, furling and unfurling
into its spiked little ball, knows something
that, with gentle touch and unthreatening
tone, can inure to our benefit, surely the wicked
witches of our childhood have died and,
from where they are buried, a great kindness
has eclipsed their misdeeds. Yes, of course,
in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled, with only your sweet little claws
to defend yourselves, and your wet little noses,
and your eyes to the ground, and your little feet.

“. . . Wop bop a lula wop bam boom. . .”

sheb in 'high noon'

sheb in ‘high noon’

In 1991 I was teaching a music appreciation course—a general survey of American music—at bunker hill community college in Boston.  Several of my students were older émigrés from the Soviet Union, given entrance to the u.s. because adult children of theirs were already permanent residents here. Their main goal at BHCC was to learn English.

One unit of the course plan was on film scores and TV theme songs. I thought the immigrant students especially could “relate” to music they might have heard on TV.

I began the unit with quintessentially American music, the theme song to “Rawhide,” which all Americans – at least all I knew – watched devotedly every Friday evening, 1959 to 1966. The score was composed by one of Hollywood’s most honored composers, Dimitri Tiomkin, with lyrics by another Hollywood legend, Ned Washington.

Imagine my surprise—no, shock!—when the Russian students began singing along in Russian.

It was, they assured me, a Russian folk song. I had read many secondary sources about Tiomkin which said he was “influenced by” Russian folk music, but I have yet to read anywhere that the “rawhide” tune is a Russian folk song. All I can say is my students were singing some Russian words to a tune they all knew, and it—apparently by coincidence was the same as TV music composed by another émigré from the soviet union—this barely a decade after McCarthy! I could compose a hit theme song, too, if I knew a body of folk music no one else knew

–note: I’m giving up on capital letters right now; I’m typing with one hand because my left arm’s in this sling from shoulder surgery; if Word makes a cap automatically, fine. capital letters are an affectation, anyway. After today I’ll be using dragon and talking to you. We’ll see if that can satisfy my tle writing compulsion. Is talking the same as writing? doubtful–

Clint eastwood (rowdy Yates), the star of the show, sultry, macho, and handsome as he was, did not capture my imagination as did his drover sidekick, sheb wooley (Pete Nolan). Eastwood was too sexy, too perfect a male image for me. I couldn’t go for his stellar qualities. His less flamboyant, more realistic—but equally seductive—friend was just hot enough for me.

We all knew sheb before rawhide. He was a pop singer. Country western, that is. Except for his one great hit, ‘the flying purple people eater,’ from 1958. This song sounds the way popular music should sound! Memorable tune, steady rhythm, not so loud and filled with electronic tracks you can’t hear the main melody. Oh, yes, and sensible words.

sheb wooley typifies much of the understanding of culture—both real and pop—that floats unbidden in my mind, of course, and my grandnephews might not say it, but they would think, ‘eeeeeeeeeeeeeew’ if they knew how much there is—and how much lingers also in their parents’ minds.

sheb with  Sharon Leighton Joyner- watch out for the bees!

sheb with Sharon Leighton Joyner- watch out for the bees!

Hair styles, for example. Need I say a word of explanation about the sensible coif of wooley’s friend, Sharon Leighton Joyner?

And blue jeans. Does anyone really think sagging your pants is sexy? As sexy as sheb with his tight jeans and chaps? Does anyone in the world –anyone with brains or normal sexual urges—really want to see Justin bieber’s bare ass? Certainly not his mother.

So I think I’m an old bore without a lick of pop culture sense. A fuddy-duddy –the smu students I spend so much time with surely have an au courant word for it—who can’t possibly have anything to say to the Millennials or their successors.

Then why are my o-so-up-to-date and technologically ept and sophisticated students unable to handle their assignment to research and write about the French performance artist ORLAN? unable to decide if they think her work is grotesque? Unable when their old professor who is unbearably lonely and immanently terrified of the death he is looking in the face can not only handle it but seeks out to ponder the questions ORLAN wants to raise.

My work is a fight against nature and the idea of God… the inexorability of life, DNA-based representation. And that’s why I went into cosmetic surgery; not looking to enhance or rejuvenate, but to create a total change of image and identity. I claim that I gave my body to art. The idea is to raise the issue of the body, its role in society and in future generations, via genetic engineering, to mentally prepare ourselves for this problem (Orlan, from ‘Synthetic Pleasures’) (1).

ORLAN’s ‘fight against nature and the idea of God… the inexorability of life’ is ‘anti-conformist’ enough to captivate the mind of the old professor.

Carnal Art loves the baroque and parody; the grotesque, and the other such styles that have been left behind, because Art opposes the social pressures that are exerted upon both human body and the corpus of art. Carnal art is anti-formalist and anti-conformist (2).

no se  no sagging here (thank goodness!)

no sagging here (thank goodness!)

The flying purple people eater. Bee-hive hairdos. A Russian folksong as the theme for an American western. My inability to type capital letters. Sagging pants.

One thing seems undeniable: the human desire to fight death wherever possible is too deeply rooted to be eradicated in any way. Body modification, plastic surgery, and the attempt to shape our bodies in the image of our desires to me seems one of the more benign manifestations of the denial of death. . . . (3)

Watch out! you purple people!
(1) ‘Orlan and Body Art.’ Imaging the Body. The Evergreen State College, Olympia Washington. Winter 06. Web.
(2) Akman, Kubilay. ‘Orlan and the Work of Art in the Age of Hyper-mechanical Organic Reproduction.’ International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 3.1 (January 2006). Web.
(3) Strenger, Carlo. “Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death.” Studies in Gender & Sexuality 10.3 (2009): 166-171.

‘ . . . you float free into a cloud of sudden azaleas. . . ‘ -or amaryllis-

archy and friend

archy and friend

when i was in high school, I read with great relish about the adventures of archy and mehitabel.

archy was a fictional cockroach, a free verse poet in a previous life, who took to writing stories and poems on an old typewriter at a newspaper office when everyone in the building had left. archy would climb up onto the typewriter and hurl himself at the keys, laboriously typing out stories of the daily travails of a cockroach. archy’s best friend was mehitabel, an alley cat. The two of them shared a series of day-to-day adventures that made satiric commentary on daily life in the city during the 1910s and 1920s. (1)

I loved archy because I’d never seen anyone in literature named ‘archy’ before I met him –even though he spelled his name wrong. The main reason I liked him was that he broke rules with impunity, not because he wanted to, but because he had to. Writing rules, that is, he never capitalized anything because he typed by hurling himself at the keys of the old royal typewriter and could not hold down the ‘shift key’ at the same time.

Mehitabel had paws instead of fingers and was of no use in typing.

I am reduced to typing like archy –archy, meet archie – one hand at a time. The only upper case letters you will see here for the next five weeks will be the ones Microsoft automatically inserts – and most of the time they are a pain in the guzica.

Here’s the story as I posted it on facebook:

The simple clean-out-the-mess in the shoulder arthroscopy and get back to normal in two days turned into let’s-repair-the-tendon-that’s-holding-on-by-5% and keep your arm immobilized in a sling for five weeks. The last five weeks of the semester. Sheesh! What a pain in the ass!

I said in my next post that I’d put on a shirt if I knew how.

But I’m trying to be positive and at least be grateful that I was referred to Dr. Steven Thornton of Texas Orthopaedic Associates. He’s the best and kindest in the field. Cute, too, but I shouldn’t say that in  public. Someone might think I’m a lecherous old queen—I wouldn’t mind if alec baldwin called me that.

Someone give that guy a break. I suppose if I called a straight guy a ‘mother-f—-r’ because he was chasing my family down the street, that would make me heterophobic. some of my best friends are straight. I even let a couple of them give me a knock-out potion yesterday and go to work on my body.

So here I am typing with one hand and trying not to exacerbate the pain in my shoulder and to be grateful about all of this. I will be soon. ‘no pain, no gain,’ and all of that. So the gain will be that, soon enough I’ll be back to yoga and stronger than ever, thanks to dr. miracle worker –sorry I can’t do upper case. He deserves it.

And in the meantime I’ll try to remember to keep my kvetching to myself and remember that friends will go out of their way to help me. do things such as give an amaryllis to break into full bloom yesterday.

Ok, no more whining. –perhaps –I’ll try at any rate.

Oh, yes. The poem that’s the source of the title. by the way, i found this poem three days ago. naomi shihab nye’s interview on the pbs newshour was repeated last night. things do fall together, don’t they. . .

The Rider
by Naomi Shihab Nye

A boy told me
if he roller-skated fast enough
his loneliness couldn’t catch up to him,
the best reason I ever heard
for trying to be a champion.
What I wonder tonight
pedaling hard down King William Street
is if it translates to bicycles.
A victory! To leave your loneliness
panting behind you on some street corner
while you float free into a cloud of sudden azaleas,
pink petals that have never felt loneliness,
no matter how slowly they fell.

(1) “Archy and Mehitabel.” WIKIPEDIA (GOT THAT, RON PAUL?). 26 August 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

“. . . the questionable quality of light on her face. . . “

Mrs. Matisse's Hat

Mrs. Matisse’s Hat

An old friend (she was old then, and 1985 was the last time I saw her) used to say, “There’s no accounting for taste.” She was usually wondering why some young stud was (apparently) coupled with a woman who was not his equal. She never bothered to wonder why a beautiful young woman was with a bubba.

She had been secretary to the president of a New England university (I won’t say which one on the infinitesimal chance someone might know her). In fact, she had been secretary to more than one president of the institution.  She loved to say she “had served under five presidents” with the twinkle in her eye that could mean only that she thought she was making a double entendre. By the time I knew her she was no catch, believe me, except for her razor-sharp tongue.

Of course, she’s right that there is no accounting for taste.

The Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth—I’m always amazed (still, after nearly 20 years here) that one of the premier art museums in the country is in “cowtown”—currently has an exhibition, “The Age of Picasso and Matisse.” It’s a tiny percent of the paintings of that time from the Art Institute of Chicago. Of course, I went to see it and plan to go back and spend an entire afternoon looking at about a half dozen of the paintings.

I have no idea where I got my taste for Matisse. It seems highly unlikely. His work is so brash and colorful that it hardly seems an introvert and living-in-his-head type like me would find his stuff interesting at all. My taste for Matisse began sometime in the far distant past, and his “Woman with a Hat” is the painting I always think of when I hear his name. I think I must have seen it decades ago at the San Francisco Art Institute when I wasn’t paying attention to much of anything because I was a young(ish) gay drunk.

Shall we "Dance?"

Shall we “Dance?”

At any rate, the “Woman with a Hat” was not in the Kimbell exhibit because she lives in San Francisco and not Chicago.

The more’s the pity. When I was at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg this summer (there, is that impressive, or what?) and the guide told us we had an hour (or some length of time) to see the museum on our own—right, The Hermitage in an hour (a year might do)—I went directly to the Matisse room. The best Matisse the Hermitage has is “Dance.” OMG, I love that painting!

At any rate, I was Googling Matisse and “Woman with a Hat” sometime after my visit to Cowtown a couple of months ago, and I found the poem  “Why knowing is (& Matisse’s Woman with a Hat),” by Martha Ronk. I’ve been meaning for a long time to Google Martha, but haven’t had time. I don’t need to Google the woman with a hat because I’ve looked her up before. My favorite thing about her (besides her hat) is that Gertrude Stein once owned her. That and the fact she’s actually Matisse’s wife.

Two days ago my surgeon’s assistant said to me in an email, “But if it is affecting your quality of life, Dr. Thornton can surgically repair the problem.  We can proceed either way you choose.  Let me know what you think.” He had reason to say it because the minute we scheduled surgery on my left shoulder, the pain began to lessen. That was, I suppose, predictable. I’ve lived with this pain through all through 2013 (and before). It was one reason I stopped going to yoga classes (just do a Down Dog when your shoulder feels like it’s ripping out of the socket). And much else—working out with my trainer using only my legs and core (what there is of it).

So finally I scheduled surgery with Dr. Miracle Worker (his name after he fixed my hip—and I mean fixed it: the pain was gone when I woke up and has never returned, and I never took one of the pain pills they gave me), and immediately my shoulder began feeling as if it was all a big mistake and there’s no reason even to poke the little arthroscopic holes in it that Dr. Miracle Worker makes.

So his assistant says “quality of life,” and I don’t know what that means. I suppose picking up a 20-pound container of kitty litter in Kroger with my left hand without thinking and dropping it because of the shooting pain in my shoulder is a tiny diminishment of the quality of my life.

I don’t know for sure.

There’s no accounting for taste.

And somehow I remembered Martha Ronk’s poem (I don’t remember anything these days, so my taste for Matisse must have over-ridden my “sometimer’s disease”) because she poetizes about “quality.” I guess it’s because I copied the poem into a Word document for safe keeping (on this old computer?) and have read it several times. “. . . and not remembering who knows or recognizing the questionable quality of light on her face. . . “ The questionable quality of light on her face somehow morphed into the questionable quality of life on my shoulder.

What one does at the Hermitage. At least these folks are my friends.

What one does at the Hermitage. At least these folks are my friends.

So if the surgery were scheduled for Tuesday, I’d insist on talking to Dr. Miracle Worker on Monday to see if the quality of life on my shoulder is questionable enough to go ahead. But since it’s Monday at 7 AM, I guess the only way to stop it is to not show up.

The poll is open. What do you think?

If you followed me from serving under the president of the University of Maine to wondering whether or not to show up for surgery, you are exactly the person whose opinion I trust.

“Why knowing is (& Matisse’s Woman with a Hat)”
by Martha Ronk

Why knowing is a quality out of fashion and no one can decide to
but slips into it or ends up with a painting one has never
seen that quality of light before even before having seen it
in between pages of another book and not remembering who knows
or recognizing the questionable quality of light on her face
as she sits for a portrait and isn’t allowed to move an inch
you recognize the red silk flower on her hat
and can almost place where you have seen that gray descending
through the light reversing foreground and background
as the directions escape one as the way you have to
live with anyone as she gets up finally from her chair
having written the whole of it in her head as the question
ignored for the hundredth time as a quality of knowing is
oddly resuscitated from a decade prior to this.

“The Past—it was a feverish dream”

on the margins of the sea remember. . .

on the margins of the sea remember. . .

[Note to those who’ve asked: the pictures are mine taken at Paradise Beach and then early morning in the cove at Port Orford, Oregon—my favorite hideaway.]

In 1986 Thanksgiving fell on Thursday (November 27); Christmas also fell on Thursday (December 25); New Year’s Eve fell on Wednesday, of course (December 31). In 1987 my birthday fell on Saturday (January 3); Presidents’ Day fell on Monday (February 16); Mardi Gras fell on Tuesday (of course), March 3—it was late that year.

A few weeks ago I came across this delicate poem. In addition to thinking it is a lovely (dare I use such a pedestrian word) I thought, “This is going to be useful sometime.”

by Robinson Jeffers

Drink deep, drink deep of quietness,
And on the margins of the sea
Remember not thine old distress
Nor all the miseries to be.
Calmer than mists, and cold
As they, that fold on fold
Up the dim valley are rolled,
Learn thou to be.

 The Past—it was a feverish dream,
A drunken slumber full of tears.
The Future—O what wild wings gleam,
Wheeled in the van of desperate years!
Thou lovedst the evening: dawn
Glimmers; the night is gone:—
What dangers lure thee on,
What dreams more fierce?

But meanwhile, now the east is gray,
The hour is pale, the cocks yet dumb,
Be glad before the birth of day,
Take thy brief rest ere morning come:
Here in the beautiful woods
All night the sea-mist floods,—
Thy last of solitudes,
Thy yearlong home.

When I read the poem, I remembered reading Robinson Jeffers’ work in high school. I can’t for the life of me remember what poems of his we read. I know he was one of the “modern” poets we read. He died while I was in high school, 1962. I know virtually nothing about him except what I have looked up online just now. So this is not some long-lost poetic love of mine. The only reason I read this poem was that I knew I had heard of Robinson Jeffers before. My, that’s a long way ‘round to some point!

Drink deep, drink deep of quietness. . .

Drink deep, drink deep of quietness. . .

So now I know why the poem haunted me.

Drink deep, drink deep of quietness,
And on the margins of the sea
Remember not thine old distress
Nor all the miseries to be.

On Sunday, November 9 (I’m pretty sure that’s the date although I can state very little about my life at that time with any certainty—I used to say I know the ‘70s happened because I’ve read about them, but the same is true for much of the ‘80s) I went to play for Sunday morning services at Grace Church (Episcopal) as usual.

The evening before, my partner and I had thrown a birthday bash for a good friend (bash? – the three of us). I started drinking wine that day in the middle of the afternoon as I was cooking and continued with vodka, more wine, and then some Drambuie after dinner.  When I arrived at the church, I thought I had a really bad hangover. Then I realized I was still drunk.

The following Saturday (November 15) I did not have any alcohol to drink, and I have had none since. I made it through Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, my birthday, Presidents’ Day, and Fat Tuesday without drinking. I knew by that time that I really did not need to get drunk again. And I never have.

Remember not thine old distress.

That is, in some ways, bad advice for someone like me. I need to remember the old distress, or I might not be able to drink deep of quietness. . . on the margins of the sea.

This seems (as I’m thinking about putting it down here in writing) to be too sentimental to express the deepness of my gratitude that, with other demons that I have to fight on an almost daily basis (depression, seizure disorder, old age?) I do not have the demon rum hanging around my neck.

Be glad before the birth of day,
Take thy brief rest ere morning come:
Here in the beautiful woods
All night the sea-mist floods,—
Thy last of solitudes,
Thy yearlong home.

Jeffers is, I suppose high school English teachers would tell their students, using the sea as a metaphor for death –thy last of solitudes. I take it differently. It is a song of quietness, of knowing that today, even though this was not true yesterday or the day before, I can take brief rest ere the morning come. Simply be quiet. And be grateful for twenty-seven years of sobriety.

Be glad before the birth of day, Take thy brief rest ere morning come

Be glad before the birth of day,
Take thy brief rest ere morning come

Will beauty save the world?


No idiot he.

No idiot he.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s most often-quoted line (at least in the circles in which I run—and I do run in circles) is, “Beauty will save the world” (Prince Myshkin in The Idiot).

Dostoyevsky was epileptic.

The Idiot is my favorite novel. I’ve seriously contemplated learning Russian simply to be able to read it in the original. How’s that for grandiosity (see Google search for Bipolar II disorder)? I have The Idiot as a Nook book, as an eText on both my computer and my iPad, and, best of all in a BOOK, the miraculously compelling 2004 translation by David McDuff. I’ve read The Idiot at least four times and am about 1/3 of the way through the McDuff translation.

I first read The Idiot in 1987 in preparation for teaching an “Introduction to World Literature” course as an adjunct in the English Department at Salem State College in Salem, MA. Why I was teaching that course, I’m not quite sure, but by the third semester I had some idea what I was doing. I used The Idiot because one of the Professors in the department suggested when I told him—because the fluorescent lights in the classroom were killing me—I am epileptic. He thought I would enjoy it for myself, and, as long as I was going to take the time to read it, I might as well use it in class.

Lest you think in some way I am comparing myself to Dostoyevsky—don’t. Your Google search above may have listed grandiosity as one of the presentations of Bipolar II Disorder, but even I am not that daft. Not even my epilepsy is the same as Dostoyevsky’s. He had full seizures. Mine are tiny, half-seizures, little storms in my head that have no physical manifestation. Partial seizures, they are called. Temporal Lobe Epilepsy is my diagnosis (neurologists call it something else these days).

Prince Myshkin, the protagonist of The Idiot, is a full-blown, full seizure epileptic. I love the guy. While I have nothing in common with Dostoyevsky, I have a kinship with Myshkin that simply is.

He was thinking, incidentally, that there was a moment or two in his epileptic condition almost before the fit itself . . .  when suddenly amid the sadness, spiritual darkness and depression, his brain seemed to catch fire at brief moments . . . His sensation of being alive and his awareness increased tenfold at those moments which flashed by like lightning.  His mind and heart were flooded by a dazzling light.  All his agitation, doubts and worries, seemed composed in a twinkling, culminating in a great calm, full of understanding…but these moments, these glimmerings were still but a premonition of that final second . . . with which the seizure itself began.  That second was, of course, unbearable. . . (The Idiot, Section V).
My experience used to be of the same quality, but of an order of magnitude so much smaller that it hardly seems the same. I knew that “sensation of being alive [with my] awareness increased tenfold at those moments which flashed by like lightning.” My moment was a high pitched ringing (always B-flat) and then an explosion into white noise, and then the seizure, which was (is—very rarely now) a sense of dissociation, of otherworldliness, of being-there and not-being-there. When I was a kid, the feeling could go on for days. Wandering around certain I could pass through walls because I had no body.

So then, in 1984, that all changed. I was diagnosed with TLE, the medications (heavy doses of Carbatrol and Depakote) began, and I zoned out. Have done ever since. I’ve had one real seizure in Dallas—a complete black-out doozy. In Target. Police called and everything. Very dramatic.

I asked my neurologist a few years back if anyone had a study of the long-term effects of Carbatrol (I’ve been taking the same massive doses for 29 years). He said, “You’re it!”

So enough about me, already. Here’s what I want you to think about as you look for a way to support to the Epilepsy Foundation this month.

. . .  Myshkin is the embodiment of an insolvable conundrum. . . [that] has to do with the fact that Dostoevsky’s ideal “I” can never be achieved because to reach it, one must annihilate one’s actual “I” and join “in a blissful synthesis with the all,” where the “I” no longer exists. . . .this conundrum perfectly reflects what happens during Myshkin’s epileptic attacks. In the moments before a seizure, Myshkin achieves a sense of “a lofty serenity, filled with pure, harmonious gladness and hope, filled too with the consciousness of the ultimate cause of all things” (an intimation of the ideal “I”). But a moment later, “stupor, spiritual darkness, and idiocy” follow—the annihilation of the self in the seizure and its aftermath . . .Yet epilepsy can only take us so far as an exegetical device by which to understand . . . what happens to Myshkin at the end of the novel. . .  epilepsy with the “destruction of personality” that accompanies it is pointedly rejected by Dostoevsky as the reason behind Myshkin’s relapse into idiocy. The triggering event must be sought elsewhere.
(John Givens . “Dostoevsky’s Idiot and the Christology of Comedy.” The Russian Review 70 [January 2011]: 111. )

NEAM-Facebook-LogoYou have to read The Idiot to understand this, obviously—and probably much more Dostoyevsky than that (I think the same conundrum is present in the other Dostoyevsky novels I’ve read—especially Crime and Punishment, which you have no doubt read).

But when a kid is sitting in his second grade class and have a feeling of “a lofty serenity, filled with pure, harmonious gladness and hope, filled too with the consciousness of the ultimate cause of all things,” it’s more terrifying than anything else. And he probably will not have worked out what it means—or even for sure what the feeling is—by the time you’re 68. But it’s fun trying (no, it’s not—it’s crazy-making).

I just wish they’d turn off all fluorescent lights in the world.

“There was no reason behind it; it was just the way things were.” In which I say way too much.

pillsYesterday I heard Terry Gross interview Allie Brosh whose blog, “Hyperbole and a Half” is one of the most popular blogs in the world. A million followers. She’s even published a book of her postings. Wow! I’m jealous.

In her postings she tackles (and in her interview with Gross) depression. I know how dangerous it is to write about depression here. Lots of people get upset and think I’m about to off myself or something. I get loving and caring messages from friends and loved ones—I am not being in the least sarcastic: they are loving and caring, and I love and care for them in return, and I am grateful for them.

I was put off a bit by Ms. Brosh. Why should she get rich and famous off of her depression when I just struggle? I heard her driving home from an appointment with my psychiatrist.  An appointment Dr. Bret had shuffled her schedule to accommodate because I sent her an email that began, “I am so fucking depressed I can’t work. . .”

Ms. Brosh said (in the midst of a long conversation—which you know was fascinating because Terry Gross was guiding it),

I think there’s a common misconception that depression is about something or depression is sadness or some form of negativity. It can represent a sadness or a self-loathing . . . [my depression] circled back on itself and made me dislike myself more because I was so sad and I didn’t know why and I felt like I needed a reason. … It took me a long time to figure out that something was broken on a fundamental level. There was no reason behind it; it was just the way things were. (Brosh, Allie. “Even When It Hurts ‘ALOT,’ Brosh Faces Life With Plenty Of ‘Hyperbole’ .” Interview with Terry Gross.  Fresh Air.  NPR. Nov. 12, 2013. Web.)

At that point I ceased being put off by Ms. Brosh. “There was no  reason behind it.” Let me tell you the reasons behind my depression: yesterday was the 10th anniversary of my partner’s death (12 years we were together); I have agreed that, after a 30-year career, my teaching will end next spring; I am about to have (next Monday) surgery on another joint (first my right hip, now my left shoulder); the person with whom I have shared for five years the most arcane and shocking of my political views and he his with me—and we have loved and respected each other deeply—died last Thursday; my health insurance issues and paperwork for the year have piled up and become so complex that I cannot figure the mess out; I can’t figure out how to be in love and have a relationship at the same time (the two are, I’ve decided, mutually exclusive); and I am so far behind in my work that I’ll never catch up and feel total failure and incompetence as a result.

I hope this isn't copyrighted.

I hope this isn’t copyrighted.

Now listen. It is not in any way dangerous for me to say these things here. I said them in email yesterday so we all know the NSA and God-knows-what-other federal agency has record of it although I am probably not a person of interest to them except for my continuing friendship with many Palestinians, who, because they want their land back and want to be free are—by virtue of the US indenturedness to Israel—the next best thing to terrorists, and a bunch of them are probably reading this right now. Oh, speaking of depression.

So Dr. Bret upped the dosage of my SSRI anti-depressant to see if that will do anything to make it so I’m not so fucking depressed I can’t work. Thank the gods for this writing stuff that I have to do so I can feel every day like I’m accomplishing something, even though it’s just spilling my guts out here in public. But more important than the massive doses of Prozac (there are, of course, other drugs involved in the cocktail) she has cleared a weekly hour for me to see her even though she’s not a talk therapist.

Now if you are still reading, you know more about me than even my sister or my AA sponsor should, and you’re probably thinking, “What’s wrong with him? Doesn’t he have good sense?” Well, no. He doesn’t. Listen to Ms. Brosh. She’s the now-published authority on the subject (if that sounds like sour grapes, it is except that I thank her for saying what every clinically depressed person in the world knows), that “. . . It took [us] a long time to figure out that something was broken on a fundamental level. There was no reason behind it; it was just the way things were.”

Dr. Bret reminded me yesterday of a few things about myself. First, I do remarkably well for a guy who is saddled with both Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and (presumed, although who the fuck knows for sure?) Bipolar II Disorder. Boy, I really shouldn’t say that in public. I do remarkably well. I may not be the chair of an English department (I used to be chair of a music department), and I haven’t published the great American novel (yet). And I’ve never played an organ recital at Notre Dame in Paris (or even at Highland Park Methodist Church in Dallas).

I thought taking pictures when I was crying would make me laugh. Not.

One evening I thought taking pictures when I was crying would make me laugh. Not.

But through all of this shit, I have pretty much supported myself, made a few friends, stayed sober for three days short of twenty-seven years, and learned how to get eleven black members of a university football team to sit around a table with me and talk about such things as what is “conformity” and how do we all buy into it, and how does that show up in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher,” and how are they related. Not bad for a 68-year-old white faggot about to lose his job because he can’t teach any more.

So fie on depression! If I have to sit at home and cry alone on my sofa while I watch “Project Runway” or “America’s Funniest Home Videos” in order to summon the courage to face the world, so be it. This too shall pass. Or perhaps not. And I have to write this or go through the day like a madman wondering why I’ve got all these pent-up feelings, and if that happens, you better watch out or you’ll be on the receiving end of some explosion.