“. . . the world in my head Confusing me about the messy World I have to live in. . . “

If you are in the Dallas area—whether or not you are an opera buff (or have never seen an opera) — you need to get yourself to the Dallas Opera production of DEATH AND THE POWERS this weekend. Especially if you think you are au courant with the world of technology. A futuristic opera (the jury is out on whether or not it’s actually an opera) encompassing

Simon Powers joining "the system"

Simon Powers joining “the system”

computers/robots/electronic music/Simon Powers/and death.

It’s (groovy, bitchin, far out, amazing, cool, or stunning—whatever word your generation uses to describe something that is) exceptionally fine and exciting. Libretto by Robert Pinsky (former U.S. Poet Laureate); music by Tod Machover.

My making that announcement is evidence of something. Something I’m going to call “put-that-in-your-pipe-and-smoke-it.”

That phrase, by the way, has nothing to do with your bong. I’ve found several web sources quoting Eric Partridge (the authority on phrase origins) that the phrase is from the early 19th century. One source says that Dickens uses it in The Pickwick Papers, which I’ve never read and don’t intend to read simply to find the phrase. It means something like, “Take that!” or “So there!” or “Think about that even though you’re surprised I have the brains to say it.” (Partridge, Eric. Dictionary of Catch Phrases: American and British from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day. Updated and edited by Paul Beal. Lanham, MD: Scarborough House, 1992).

What I mean for you to smoke is my realization that I need to stop apologizing for my ancientness. Not so much for my hoariness as for my (rather constant) feeling that I’m not keeping up very well with society, with the “information age” and all of its absurd and dehumanizing “devices.” Or with pop culture.

Take this computer I’m using to put these words down in a form which I can upload here in this blog. Both the computer and the blog are mysteries to me. I simply use them. And, from time to time rather well, I think. This computer is a spiffy Lenovo that I’ve had for a few months. It has myriad apps and programs and uses I can’t even find, much less use. I’d say I use about 1% (if that) of its capabilities. I use it pretty much as I used the first word processor/computer I owned in 1988.

That should give you a hint how au courant I am/have been. It’s possible 90% of the people reading this weren’t even born in 1988. I’ve had a computer of some sort since then (I bought it so I could write my dissertation—PhD, University of Iowa, 1988—without having to use carbon paper). I first logged onto the internet at about Thanksgiving, 1992. Again, it’s possible many people reading this weren’t even born then. I was a college professor, so I had access to email long before hoi polloi did. Email was intended for government, industry, and academic (because our research supported the other two) use only. It should have stayed that way—you wouldn’t have to worry about the NSA knowing whom you’re having an affair with. (First old-fartism.)

All those people in books
From Krishna & the characters
In the Greek Anthology
Up to the latest nonsense
Of the Deconstructionists,
Floating around in my brain,
A sort of “continuous present”
As Gertrude Stein called it;
The world in my head
Confusing me about the messy
World I have to live in.
Better the drunken gods of Greece
Than a life ordained by computers
     —(Laughlin, James. From Byways: A Memoir. (Long, unfinished biographical poem). New Directions
Publishing, 2005.)

So Put that in your pipe (or your bong, I don’t care) and smoke it! (Second old-fartism.)

Put it in your pipe or your bong

Put it in your pipe or your bong

Or see an opera that opens with this little discussion among a bunch of robots.

                         robot leader

Units assembled for the ritual
Performance at command,
As the Human Creators have ordained,
In memory of the Past.

                         robot two

This concept I cannot understand,
At the center of the drama—
What is this
“Death”—Is it a form of waste?

                         robot three

I cannot comprehend, I cannot understand:
If the information of one unit might be lost
It is backed up by any other unit at hand:
What is this
“Death”—Is it an excessive cost?

                         robot four

How can information end?
Is it a form of entropy?
Why did the Human Creators
Before they departed intend
To require a performance on a theme
Impossible to comprehend?

Is it the data rearranged,
As in an error, in a dream?
A real jumble?
Data in memory misplaced
In a random scramble—
Dream-data, the order changed;
That would be something
I could comprehend,
If only the form was changed.
Is that the meaning of this
“Death”—data rearranged?
A dream of something lost
That was meant to be saved?
An unrecovered past?
   —(Pinsky, Robert. “Death and the Powers: A Robot Pageant.” Poetry, July/August 2010.
Web. Libretto of opera by Tod Machover.)

I suppose my writing above sounds petulant, like an angry tirade by a befuddled old man who wants desperately not to be left behind in the modern world.

Well, no, it’s not. I’m ruminating about myself, about my connection to a society that is leaving me in the dust—as it should! I’m still thinking about my friend Thomas J. Hubschman’s  An Elder’s Manifesto.

Who but ourselves, then, the old who know confidently what the rest do not about what it means to be elders in the best sense—matured and yet still maturing, not like fruit that has had its day and drops rotten to the ground, but like old whiskey that keeps getting more complex and offers more possibility the longer it is around?

Even given my (our) insecurity and fumbling with computers, robots, iPads, and all of those things, we elders (yes, my students, at least, think that’s what I am) have not simply “something” to contribute. It is more than “something.” It is all there is. Robert Pinsky, born 1940, understands. Tod Machover, born 1953, is beginning to.

This concept I cannot understand,
At the center of the drama—
What is this
“Death”—Is it a form of waste?

One Response to “. . . the world in my head Confusing me about the messy World I have to live in. . . “

  1. toscaskiss32 says:

    Thanks for posting this; I hadn’t heard that the libretto of this piece was written by Robert Pinsky; seems to me they’ve been touting the composer and not mentioning Pinsky, but maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention (a very strong possibility). Anyway, I’m glad you reminded me about this, as I am really interested to see it if I’m able to. I had kind of wondered whether it was actually an opera, since I noticed there are at least two performances scheduled for consecutive days–what opera singer is going to put up with that kind of schedule?!

    Glad to have stumbled upon your other blog, which led me to this one, and I’ve enjoyed the little bit I’ve read of both. I’ll try to check back in as often as possible; it’s particularly interesting to me, living in Dallas also. Aloha.

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