“. . . his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.”

The unknown citizen does not have to be ignorant.

The unknown citizen does not have to be ignorant.

For days now I’ve been trying to write a piece about education. You know, the purposes, the grand design, the hoped-for-outcome. All of those high sounding ideas that all educators and most selfish and amoral “conservative” politicians and their followers want us to think about. Who’s left behind and who’s not. Will we use the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) test or some other means to beat teachers into submission?

Beating teachers into submission seems to be the most important desired outcome of education (both public and private—although it’s a bit less obvious at the Hockaday School and St. Mark Academy). How can we beat students into submission if their teachers aren’t servile?

I had never heard of Stephen Leacock until I came across the poem “Arts & Sciences,” by Philip Appleman. Leacock was, according to Wikipedia, a Canadian social scientist, educator, and humorist. One has to be a humorist to be an educator in America these days. If a teacher really thinks there’s a job to do that resembles molding young Americans to think, to understand society, to be ready to take their place as responsible (or at least not gullible and idiotic) citizens, then the teacher needs to get into a profession where they might be allowed to make a difference.

I’m being forced to retire at the end of this semester (I was depressed and angry about it for about six months, and then I realized I will no longer be in any way responsible for the train wreck we call education in this country, and I can hardly wait—in fact, if someone offered me about $15 to do it, I’d call the department chair this morning and tell her I’m not coming back).

It is unconscionable that a teacher of first-year (remember when we had a system of nomenclature that made sense, and we called them “freshmen?”) writing should be the one to introduce a brilliant young woman—in one private conference—to Miss Havisham, Steam Punk, and Dracula. And this college teacher is really a musician (PhD in organ literature) masquerading as a writing teacher. Which he is able to do because he knows about Miss Havisham and other things only peripherally related either to playing the organ or teaching “Discovery and Discourse.”

Any brilliant 18-year-old young woman should already know about at least one of those subjects. And it’s not her fault. At least she—I know because we have since had a chat about Great Expectations—is curious enough and has been given enough freedom to want to know. Very few students are.

One idea of which I am absolutely certain is that education has nothing to do with training the “work force.” It has nothing to do with the United States’ ability to compete in the “global economy.” If we were educating young people, preparing them to be citizens in a free country, we would not have to worry about training the “work force.”

I have no suggestions how to make sure kids get educated (or, for that matter, adults who don’t know Miss Havisham) so they understand anything other than how to pass their time in grubby jobs (even Mayor Bloomberg—with all his billions—was in a grubby job, then another grubby job, and now back to his original grubby job of being a “robber baron”) doing mind-numbing things (if they weren’t, how could Ted Cruz ever have been elected to anything?) in hopes of elevating their grubbiness to the point of being part of the oligarchy of grubbiness that runs all the other grubbiness in this country?

Monument to the unknown citizen

Monument to the unknown citizen

I shouldn’t complain if I don’t have a solution.

By the way, can you make a connection between Visi d’arte (yes, preferably with Maria Callas singing) and rewriting an essay? (Visi isvision.”) Try Re-Visioning rather than rewriting. That’s what all “authorities” writing about education need to learn to do.

We don’t need to revise our thinking about education. We need to Re-See the whole bloody process before it’s too late (or is it already? ask the NSA or Rush Limbaugh).

Two poems that say all of this far better than I can.

“The Unknown Citizen,” by W.H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

“Arts & Sciences,” by Philip Appleman

“Everyone carries around in the back of
his mind the wreck of a thing he calls
his education.” —Stephen Leacock

SOLID GEOMETRY Here’s a nice thought we can save: The luckiest thing about sex Is: you happen to be so concave In the very same place I’m convex. BOTANY Your thighs always blossomed like orchids, You had rose hips when we danced, But the question that always baffled me was: How can I get into those plants? ECONOMICS Diversification’s a virtue, And as one of its multiple facets, when we’re merging, it really won’t hurt you To share your disposable assets. GEOGRAPHY Russian you would be deplorable, But your Lapland is simply Andorrable So my Hungary fantasy understands Why I can’t keep my hands off your Netherlands. LIT. SURVEY Alexander composed like the Pope, Swift was of course never tardy, And my Longfellow’s Wildest hope Is to find you right next to my Hardy. PHYSICS If E is how eager I am for you, And m is your marvelous body, And c means the caring I plan for you, Then E = Magna Cum Laude. MUSIC APPRECIATION You’re my favorite tune, my symphony, So please do me this favor: Don’t ever change, not even a hemi- Demi-semiquaver. ART APPRECIATION King Arthur, betrayed by Sir Lancelot, Blamed the poets who’d praised him, and spake: “That knight’s nights are in the Queen’s pantsalot, So from now on your art’s for Art’s sake.” ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM I couldn’t do Goyas or Grecos, And my Rembrandts had zero panache, But after I junked all my brushes, My canvases made quite a splash. PHILOSOPHY 1. Blaise Pascal Pascal, reflecting tearfully On our wars for the Holy Pigeon, Said, “Alas, we do evil most cheerfully When we do it for religion.” 2. René Descartes The unruly dactyls and anapests Were thumping their wild dithyrambic When Descartes with a scowl very sternly stressed: “I think, therefore iambic!” 3. Thomas Hobbes Better at thinking than loving, He deserved his wife’s retort: On their wedding night, she told him, “Tom, That was nasty, brutish – and short!”

You might have to die for asking too many questions

You might have to die for asking too many questions

“The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest. . .”

People are all the time giving me books to read or suggesting the book I must read next in order that my life be complete.

I make my own reality?

I make my own truth?

Every academician—or anyone who wants to be thought of as literate and intelligent—knows one is supposed to read books. Lots of books.

I don’t get it. I don’t like to read. I find it very difficult to read. I used to read. I used to read a lot. I have hundreds of books behind me on homemade shelves to prove it. I’ve read (at least parts of) almost all of them.

I find the thought of plowing through a book daunting. I can’t concentrate. I can’t keep a story in my mind (if it’s fiction), and I can’t absorb huge amounts (or even small amounts) of information (if it’s non-fiction).

If this is a sign of old age, my old age began when I was about 55. The last time I read lots of books was 1999 when I was preparing for the qualifying exams for my (2nd—unfinished) PhD. I passed the exams after I finished reading 30 novels in one summer. Mostly 20th-century American, so—if there had not been so many of them—it would have been fun (Madison Smartt’s Washington Square Ensemble was my favorite).

In the last week I have bought the Nook versions of:
Rottenberg, Jonathan. The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic. New York: Basic Books (2014), 272 pages.
and
Gardiner, John Eliot. Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2013), 672 pages. (672 pages! Yikes!)

I usually won’t even look at—much less purchase—any book over 300 pages. It seems impossible that anyone can write 672 pages worth reading. I don’t know why reading is such a chore.

I’ll bet most people who tell me I must read such-and-so book (or what? I won’t go to heaven?) have read that one book and not another in the last year. Not “all” — “most.” I know people who read all the time. Most of them watch a lot of movies and listen to music, too (unless they’re academics, in which case they live somewhere the rest of us don’t even want to visit).

Jo Nesbo. My kind of guy?

Jo Nesbo. My kind of guy?

Here’s the truth. The books I read these days are Stieg Larsson’s novels (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest –I’ve read the entire trilogy); Jo Nesbit’s trilogy (The Bat, Cockroaches, and The Redbreast—I’m on the second one); John Morgan Wilson’s “Justice” trilogy—which I started, but—as so often happens with gay literature—being gay is more important than being a good story, so I didn’t finish even the first of those.

So what’s with this? Crime, mystery, serial novels. Right up my alley these days. None of them is as good as Raymond Chandler, of course (who is?), but they keep my mind occupied and hold my interest. I suppose Danielle Steele is next. Or, HORRORS! J.K. Rowling. (No, even in my dotage I can’t stoop to that level of BAD writing. Shudder. What insults to the English language.)

I don’t understand. I’m supposed to be at least a “pseudo” intellectual. I remember 35 years ago having a conversation with a friend in Muscatine, IA, when I was in graduate school (for my first PhD, which I did finish). She was the go-getter director of a foundation that did lots of educational stuff, and she said to me, “Isn’t great that we’re part of the intellectual elite?” Well, no one who was would say so, and I knew we certainly were not.

As Rosencrantz says, “I like a good story with a beginning, a middle, and an end” (Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Act II, line 322).

You see, I’m at an age when pretense and obfuscation (in the name of whatever intellectual game) are just silliness to me. If a writer can’t say what they mean in plain English and spin a good yarn, I don’t want to be bothered. I tell my students to write for their 6th-grade siblings, that Poor Dumb Reader is just that, “dumb.”

And then I come across a passage in one of those low-brow books that I think is worth not only reading, but making note of.

Truth is relative. . . We have forensic psychiatrists who try to draw a line between those who are sick and those who are criminal, and they bend and twist the truth to make it fit into their world of theoretical models. . . and journalists who would like to be seen as idealists because they make their names by exposing others in the belief that they’re establishing some kind of justice. But the truth? The truth is that no one lives off the truth and that’s why no one cares about the truth. The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest, balanced by the power they hold.  [Nesbo, Jo. The Bat. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2013) page 200. I think it’s unfortunate that the detective’s name is Harry Hole, but. . .]

OK. I know it’s Nesbo slipping not-very-intellectual “big ideas” into his fiction. Preaching even. Not subtle. But an idea I can get my mind around. The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest, balanced by the power they hold.

My interest is in getting through this life with some grace and dignity. I hold almost no power. The sum of my self-interest and my power diminishes every day. And so I stop trying to make “the truth for myself” and care about truth. That’s what Nesbo’s cop is trying to say, I think. Without obfuscation. girl dragon

“Until you speak Arabic, you will not understand pain.”

Bedouin Mother, John Singer Sargent, 1905

Bedouin Mother, John Singer Sargent, 1905

Nearly every day I want to write about the greatest conscious mystery I’m aware of. Conscious=aware, I know. I know. That’s a sentence I would ask a student to rewrite. It’s circular reasoning with a vengeance. Of course one is “aware” of a mystery that’s “conscious.” If one were not aware, it would not be “conscious.”

However, nearly every day I want to write about this incongruity, this absolute illogical thinking, this conundrum that I cannot resolve in an attempt to make sense of it.

I often do write about it, but privately—that is, I don’t put the writing here because it is a mystery to me, a riddle I cannot solve. It is so mysterious that I can never come close even to describing my bewilderment, much less explaining it away. Other than the obvious mysteries all of us have to grapple with—why were we born; where did out “consciousness,” our “soul” come from; and what happens to our consciousness, our very being, when we die, those mysteries so few of us want to think about—it is the most inexplicable incongruity I know.

The nature of the mystery, the resolution of the logical fallacy, eludes me. I have searched for the etymology of the word mystery itself, but have found only “from Greek mysterion (usually in plural mysteria) “secret rite or doctrine,” from mystes “one who has been initiated” (The Online Etymology Dictionary). Mystery is a religious or theological idea. I cannot find a meaning that does justice to my frustration over the idea I want to think through for myself—if not explain to anyone else.

Before the US invasion of Iraq (“Shock and Awe”), I wrote somewhere—not on a blog because I wrote my first blog in about 2004, after “shock and awe”—about a photo I saw on the Internet way back before our lives were controlled by our thumbs. The photo’s caption was (is)

 Shaking Hands: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein greets Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy of President Ronald Reagan, in Baghdad on December 20, 1983.

Rumsfeld was in Baghdad signing an agreement to provide Saddam Hussein with all the munitions he needed to fight his war against the dirty rotten Iranian Islamic fundamentalist regime. I knew about the picture from some pointy-headed, no doubt basically-unAmerican liberal organization that was asking the question (which has never been answered to my knowledge), why were we getting ready to invade Iraq because of its Weapons of Mass Destruction which, if they existed, we sold to Saddam Hussein in the first place—the agent of our sale being the same man who was then leading the push for the invasion?

I also remember being roundly criticized for writing about the “Project for the New American Century” before the invasion of Iraq—being told that I was a conspiracy theorist. That such a project, if it existed, was on the fringe and could not possibly be taken seriously. We Americans (and most of the rest of the world) still live in the monstrous shadow of that project.

Some years ago I wrote about these guys from Kansas (I had read about them on some crackpot liberal website I really should stop looking at) who seemed to be spreading their money around to the most allegedly Conservative groups in the country in order to help elect ultra-reactionaries to state legislatures and Congress. I remember being told I was an alarmist, even Chicken Little, that no one could have that kind of influence over American politics. That was, of course, before Citizens United and the flooding of the coffers of the most oligarchical “conservative” groups by the Koch Brothers of Kansas.

I’m not claiming any special position as seer or Johnny-come-early. I simply pay attention to some (popularly-thought-of-as) radical left-wing (that is to say, realistic) material when everything anyone thinks about is available at the click of a mouse on the internet. One might try clicking on James Petras instead of Molly Cyrus or Justin Bieber or Ted Cruz to learn something about left-wing conspiracy theories–so many of which have actually turned out to be true, unlike idiocy brought to us by the “swift-boaters” and the “birthers” and the “Benghazi-ists.”

The insolvable mystery about which I cannot write is a very simple question. How can Americans who are so fanatically dedicated to “rights,” to “freedom,” to “democracy,” who give constant lip-service to “the right of self-determination,” continue, after 60 years, to assume that the displaced and subjugated people of Palestine are totally at fault in the violence that continues in the land they once called their own?

Bethlehem, John Singer Sargent, 1905

Bethlehem, John Singer Sargent, 1905

THIS IS NOT A RHETORICAL QUESTION! Yes, I am shouting. I want to know the answer to this question. I do not want political posturing. I do not want palaver. I do not want parroting of ideas given the prestige of “U.S. Policy.” I want to know how this can go on and on when clearly the Palestinians are a people who have been deprived of their homeland and treated with as much brutality as any other conquered people in the family of nations today. How can it be?

Naomi Shihab Nye was born on March 12, 1952, in St. Louis, Missouri, to a Palestinian father and an American mother. During her high school years, she lived in Ramallah in Palestine, the Old City in Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas, where she later received her BA in English and world religions from Trinity University. She has received numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship for her several books of poetry and non-fiction. She lives in Austin, Texas.

“Arabic,” by Naomi Shihab Nye

The man with laughing eyes stopped smiling
to say, “Until you speak Arabic,
you will not understand pain.”

Something to do with the back of the head,
an Arab carries sorrow in the back of the head,
that only language cracks, the thrum of stones

weeping, grating hinge on an old metal gate.
“Once you know,” he whispered, “you can
enter the room
whenever you need to. Music you heard
from a distance,

the slapped drum of a stranger’s wedding,
well up inside your skin, inside rain, a thousand
pulsing tongues. You are changed.”

Outside, the snow has finally stopped.
In a land where snow rarely falls,
we had felt our days grow white and still.

I thought pain had no tongue. Or every tongue
at once, supreme translator, sieve. I admit my
shame. To live on the brink of Arabic, tugging

its rich threads without understanding
how to weave the rug…I have no gift.
The sound, but not the sense.

I kept looking over his shoulder for someone else
to talk to, recalling my dying friend
who only scrawled
I can’t write. What good would any grammar
have been

to her then? I touched his arm, held it hard,
which sometimes you don’t do in the Middle East

and said, I’ll work on it, feeling sad

for his good strict heart, but later in the slick street
hailed a taxi by shouting Pain! and it stopped
in every language and opened its doors.

A BIBLIOGRPHY FOR BEGINNING UNDERSTANDING.

Bedouins, John Singer Sargent, 1905

Bedouins, John Singer Sargent, 1905

(I can provide a copy of any of the scholarly articles. If you would like one, simply let me know.)

Israeli killing of Palestinian children
Clear analysis from Rosemary Sayigh on the Nakba’s
Exclusion from the extensive writing on “Trauma Genre”
Latest killing of Palestinians
Rev. Naim Ateek’s Statement on Israeli law separating Muslim and Christian Arabs
Gaza Blockade
Olive trees
Hebron settler violence
Bin Laden’s father owned a home in Jerusalem
Right of Return

Manna, Adel. “The Palestinian Nakba and Its Continuous Repercussions.” Israel Studies 18.2 (2013): 86-99.
The article discusses the impact of the 1948 Nakba, or defeat, of the Palestinian Arabs on the collective memory and experiences of the Palestinian people. The author emphasizes that the term Nakba is used to describe the continuous experiences of Palestinians from the mid-20th century into 21st century and is viewed as a contemporary reality rather than a historical event. It is suggested that the Israeli state has rebuffed offers by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to divide Palestine into two independent states. Other topics include Palestinian nationalism, Zionism, and the social and economic conditions of Palestinian refugees.

Masalha, Nur. “Remembering the Palestinian Nakba: Commemoration, Oral History and Narratives of Memory.” Holy Land Studies: A Multidisciplinary Journal (Edinburgh University Press) 7.2 (2008): 123-156.
This year Palestinians commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Nakba – the most traumatic catastrophe that ever befell them. The rupture of 1948 and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Nakba are central to both the Palestinian society of today and Palestinian social history and collective identity. This article explores ways of remembering and commemorating the Nakba. It deals with the issue within the context of Palestinian oral history, ‘social history from below’, narratives of memory and the formation of collective identity. With the history, rights and needs of the Palestinian refugees being excluded from recent Middle East peacemaking efforts and with the failure of both the Israeli state and the international community to acknowledge the Nakba, ‘1948’ as an ‘ethnic cleansing’ continues to underpin the Palestine-Israel conflict. This article argues that to write more truthfully about the Nakba is not just to practice a professional historiography; it is also a moral imperative of acknowledgement and redemption. The struggles of the refugees to publicize the truth about the Nakba is a vital way of protecting the refugees’ rights and keeping the hope for peace with justice alive.

Bedouin Camp, John Singer Sargent, 1905

Bedouin Camp, John Singer Sargent, 1905

Nasrallah, Ibrahim. “Palestinian Culture before the Nakba.” Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics & Culture 15.1/2 (2008): 206-209.
The article focuses on the works of author Walid Khalidi in Palestine. The photographs of Khalidi’s book “Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians, 1876-1948” depict a vital society active in all areas of life on farms, factories, and construction sites. Moreover, many renowned artists and writers of the Arab world visited or performed in pre-1948 Palestine, testament to the existence of a well-established society to a rare dynamism, in spite of the historical context and the looming disasters. The pioneering figure in Khalidi’s book was Jamil al-Bahri, a Palestinian dramatist who died in 1930 and has 12 plays in his name.

Nets-Zehngut, Rafi, and Daniel Bar-Tal. “Transformation of the Official Memory of Conflict: A Tentative Model and the Israeli Memory of the 1948 Palestinian Exodus.” International Journal of Politics, Culture & Society 27.1 (2014): 67-91.
Collective memory of an intractable conflict is an important determinant of the psychological and the behavioral dynamics of the parties involved. Typically biased, it de-legitimizes the rival and glorifies the in-group, thereby inhibiting peaceful resolution of the conflict and reconciliation of the parties. Therefore, the transformation of this memory into a less biased one is of great importance in advancing peace and reconciliation. This article introduces for the first time a tentative model of that transformation, describing the seven phases of the transformation process and the five categories of factors that influence it. Methodologically, this is done using a case study approach, based on the empirical findings regarding the Israeli official memory from 1949 to 2004 surrounding the causes of the 1948 Palestinian exodus. This memory is represented by all of the publications produced during the 56-year research period of the Israeli army (IDF), the National Information Center, and the Ministry of Education. While until 1999 this inclusive memory was largely Zionist (i.e., all the Palestinian refugees left willingly in 1948), since 2000, it has become partially critical because the Ministry of Education has begun adopting the critical narrative (i.e., some left willingly while others were expelled)

RAM, URI. “Ways of Forgetting: Israel and the Obliterated Memory of the Palestinian Nakba.” Journal of Historical Sociology 22.3 (2009): 366-395.
Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-6443.2009.01354.x/abstract
This study analyses national ways of forgetting. Following the eminent British Anthropologists Mary Douglas, I relate here to “forgetting” as “selective remembering, misremembering and disremembering” (Douglas 2007: 13). The case study offered here is that of the Israeli-Jewish forgetting of the uprooting of the Palestinians in the war of 1948. This paper discusses three facets of the collective forgetting: In I analyze the foundations of the Israeli regime of forgetting and discern three mechanisms of removing from memory of selected events: narrative forgetting: the formation and dissemination of an historical narrative; physical forgetting: the destruction of physical remains; and symbolic forgetting: the creation of a new symbolic geography of new places and street names. I look at the tenacious ambiguity that lies in the regime of forgetting, as it does not completely erase all the traces of the past. And finally, I discuss the growth of subversive memory and counter-memory that at least indicates the option of a future revision of the Israeli regime of forgetting.

“. . . mordere means to take a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.”

Christmas Eve 1970 (give or take a year). The faithful of Christ Church Parish (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, were making their communions during the Midnight Mass.

One more chorus of "Happy Christians"

One more chorus of “Happy Christians”

In the tiny choir loft, our choir of about a dozen or so, accompanied by a string quartet, a couple of oboes, a French horn—and not many other instruments, with me playing the rest of the accompaniment on the organ—performed the opening chorus from the Bach Christmas Oratorio.

The motley crew of the congregation ranged from single mothers on welfare to professors at the Claremont Colleges, to Miss Ruth Milliken (Google Milliken Avenue in Ontario to discover her family’s importance—I mention it only to indicate the bizarre mixture of folks at the Parish). One of those was a curmudgeonly old guy who attended services only to make his old girlfriend (I mean, they were even older then than I am now) happy because he was an atheist. After Mass, he said to me, “One more chorus of ‘Happy Christians,’ and I would have had to get in the communion line!” Our performance was—in reality—pretty strange and rag-tag, but the music came through.

I’ve been meaning for quite a while to look up Debra Nystrom to find out the background to her poem “Floater.” I assume Dan is her husband, and it’s a (sad) poem about his going blind (it’s also a personal, erotic poem). But it has everything to do with “Happy Christians.”

. . . listen to our daughter practicing, going over and over

the Bach, getting the mordents right, to make the lovely
Invention definite.  What does mordent mean,

her piano teacher asked—I was waiting in the kitchen
and overheard—I don’t know, something about dying?

No; morire means to die, mordere means to take
a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.

Playing a mordent is taking a bite out of the music. Only a bite. It is not “to die.” One of the best-known mordents in music is on the first note of the first variation on the “Aria” from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

A motley crew of communicants

A motley crew of communicants

I cannot play Bach. Really. I’m no good at it. My personality and mind and body are much more suited to Mendelssohn or Reger or Widor. More suited, but often I don’t have the technique in my hands to play those hefty works. But I want to play Bach. Because Bach knew when to take a bite out of the music and when to give the aesthetic, the compositional technique, the mystery of it all over to thoughts of dying. “Happy Christians” (Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage) translates:

Celebrate, rejoice, rise up and praise these days,
glorify what the Highest has done today!
Abandon despair, banish laments,
sound forth full of delight and happiness!
Serve the Highest with glorious choruses,
let us honor the name of the Supreme Ruler!

Bach was 48 when he composed the Christmas Oratorio. (He would be 329 today, were he alive in any form other than his music.) But already he knew about the difference between dying and taking a bite out of something. The glue that holds the six sections of the Oratorio is the hymn tune most modern Christians sing with the words “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” But the tune was first sung to the hymn “My heart is filled with longing for blessed death’s release.” Bach has the congregation sing texts asking how we are to greet the one who came to die.

“. . . praise these days . . . sound forth full of delight and happiness . . .” Take a bite out of the apple, but remember, it’s a good mistake. Mordere is precariously close to morire.

Happy Birthday, Sebastian!
_______
“Floater,” by Debra Nystrom
—to Dan

Maddening shadow across your line of vision—

Debra Nystrom gets it

Debra Nystrom gets it


what might be there, then isn’t, making it

hard to be on the lookout, concentrate, even
hear—well, enough of the story I’ve

given you, at least—you’ve had your fill, never
asked for this, though you were the one

to put a hand out, catch hold, not about to let me
vanish the way of the two you lost already

to grief’s lure.  I’m here; close your eyes,
listen to our daughter practicing, going over and over

the Bach, getting the mordents right, to make the lovely
Invention definite.  What does mordent mean,

her piano teacher asked—I was waiting in the kitchen
and overheard—I don’t know, something about dying?

No; morire means to die, mordere means to take
a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.

Not to die, to take a bite—what you asked
of me—and then pleasure

in the taking. Close your eyes now,
listen. No one is leaving.

“. . . the cable that connects the one to the many.”

Of her poem “Acts of Mind” Catherine Barnett (b. 1960) says it’s “a celebration of solitude and desire and is suspended on the cable that connects the one to the many.”

As city icons go. . .

As city icons go. . .

“. . . the cable that connects the one to the many.”

Her inspiration came from riding the Grande Roue, the 197-foot high Ferris wheel on the northern edge of Jardin de Tuileries and rue de Rivoli in Paris. The wheel was built in 2000 for the millennium celebrations, dismantled and reassembled in several cities around the world, and finally reassembled in Paris where it is permanently part of the New Year’s Celebrations in Paris, and a new “icon” for the city.

One of the delights of getting old is forgetting more than most people will ever know. That’s what Dr. Pratt Spelman told me when I was a sophomore organ major in the School of Music at the University of Redlands in 1964. I thought he was nuts then, and I still think that statement coming from almost anyone else would be the height of egoism, “the habit of valuing everything only in reference to one’s personal interest” (dictionary.com). Dr. Spelman valued everything in reference to his own personal interests—not his self-interest—art, the study of “beauty” (he was president of the American Society of Aestheticians), the anti-war efforts of the Society of Friends.

“. . . the cable that connects the one to the many.”

I think—although I don’t know for sure—my friends wouldn’t believe I am a “shy person.” That is, however, true. Even though I talk all the time. I stand in front of groups of 15 college students 12 times a week and make jokes (they don’t understand) and try to get them to figure out something about writing. For 50 years I sat at organ consoles in churches and played and directed choirs and thought up activities for those groups to help them cohere as communities.

Never once, not once, not ever was I comfortable doing any of those things. I love teaching in my office conferencing with students one-on-one about specific writing projects. Sometimes I love having coffee with one person, sitting at Starbucks (not my favorite, but the most readily available) for an hour talking about this, that, and the other. But most often I can’t even keep up a conversation with my closest friends. If they’re not in a chatty mood, coffee can be pretty silent.

I tell myself now that, like Dr. Spelman, the problem is simply I’ve forgotten more than I (and most people) used to know, and I have nothing to talk about.

I’ve joined the gay square dance group in Dallas, the Pegasus Squares (if you’re gay and in Dallas, give us a try). “Pegasus,” for those who don’t know Dallas, is the flying red (neon) horse atop the old Magnolia building—the symbol of, what else in Dallas? The Magnolia Oil Company. It was erected in 1934 and immediately became a symbol for the city. It’s really quite lovely in the night sky. As commercial icons go, it’s one of the best.

But my mind wanders. (Always.)

Please not in front of the class. . .

Please not in front of the class. . .

I joined the square dancers, and I go to the lessons on Sunday afternoons, and during the breaks between “tips,” I sit at the end of the row of chairs by the wall and don’t have conversation with anyone unless another dancer sits beside me and begins chatting. I took lessons three years ago at a “straight” group and loved it—the dancing, that is. But it was the same deal with sitting alone on the folding chairs during breaks. That is, until the single old women (they were maybe 68 or 70—and I was 66, but they were old) realized I was single. No more being alone. But that’s one of the reasons I stopped dancing. The widows and I were not meant for each other.

So you’d think the Pegasus group would be easy. You can tell from the picture on the website that the “demographic” is right for me. “Mature” men—gay, friendly and not pretentious, some professional guys—at least one other English teacher—all the kinds of guys I should be completely at ease with, and if they have ulterior motives, they’re probably the same as any I might have. And I sit alone during the breaks because I don’t have a clue what to say to anyone. Chat. Small talk. Social intercourse. Whatever you want to call it is—and always, that is always has been—a mystery to me.

I should try (once again as I have so many times) to explain why. I have this TLE problem that makes me wonder when there’s noise and motion if I’m even there. I live in my mind so much it’s hard to know which of the things going on in there I should say. I’m a self-centered perfectionist and can’t abide the thought of saying the “wrong” thing. Let’s pathologize it—I’m a “social anorexic.” Oh, fuck it. There’s no “reason.” I’m just terrified. Sometimes even of my friends.

And I’ll bet that most people, if they admitted it, if they followed their basic instincts, are terrified, too. And if you all followed your own basic instincts there’d be a lot less chatter in the world and a lot more communication.

For starters, the internet would be about 1/3 its size, and most politicians would be forced to shut up. Maybe I should be grateful that some few of us, at least, are shy persons.

Catherine Barnett’s little poem registered with me for the lines

mine usually the little void
of space I call honey . . .

The little void of space I call honey. My make believe friend. My void of space. I’m comfortable with him. “A celebration of solitude and desire.”

“Acts of Mind,” by Catherine Barnett

What’s funny about this place
is us regulars coming in with our different
accoutrements, mine usually the little void
of space I call honey, days
I can barely get through I’m laughing so hard,
see? In the back a woman squeezes oranges,
someone presses the fresh white bread
into communion wafers or party favors.
In the window the chickens rotate blissfully,
questioning nothing–
Sometimes I flirt with the cashier, just improvising,
the way birds land all in a hurry on the streetlamp across the street,
which stays warm even on cold nights.
Guillaume says humor is sadness
and he’s awfully pretty.
What do they put in this coffee? Men?
No wonder I get a little high. Remember
when we didn’t have sex on the ferris wheel,
oh that was a blast,
high, high above the Tuileries!
__________________
Barnett is an instructor at New York University and The New School and has been the Visiting Poet at Barnard College. As poet-in-residence at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, she teaches writing to young mothers in New York City’s shelter system. “This poem is a celebration of solitude and desire and is suspended on the cable that connects the one to the many.”  If you’d like to read stuff I wrote about square dancing when I was taking lessons before, your can migrate here and/or here.

. . . not meant for each other . . .

. . . not meant for each other . . .

 

“. . . something difficult lifted, pressed or curled, Power over beauty . . . “

the light left turned on all night across the parking lot below on the wall around the swimming pool is supposed to have a partner but it burned out last week and they didn’t replace it. . . .

Two lights

Two lights

I know because I look out the window many nights some time between midnight and four-thirty or five when I get up because I am awake and get up not to pee like most old men but to take an Ambien. it’s not every night and I am not addicted so don’t worry about that and I’m hardly addicted to anything anymore. maybe sugar cookies the unhealthiest kind at Kroger or Albertson’s which has now bought Safeway and my grandmother used to take us with her going to “the” Kroger down on “The” Avenue (Minnesota) in Kansas City and when we were growing up almost everything we ate that mom didn’t grow came from Safeway. but I can avoid buying one of those plastic trays-with-the-fold-up-top with eight Kroger sugar cookies except about once every couple of weeks when I just have to have one and eat them all in one day to get them out of the house

but sometime yesterday when I wasn’t at home Blaine replaced the burned-out bulb in the parking lot and it’s on now at four-fifteen and I’m up because I woke up and can’t go back to sleep which is what often happens. it’s too late to take an Ambien because then I’d sleep too long instead of not long enough and I wonder what the staff people will do who –I hate to say it because it sounds elitist or bigoted or self-centered in the extreme but we all know it’s true –will be taking care of me when I am in the assisted living or medical unit in the run-down geriatric public housing facility who don’t have enough education to get my jokes –see I said it would sound elitist—and have no clue how to relate to an old faggot. they will probably try to get me to accept Jesus as my personal savior and get over being gay before it’s too late and I can go to heaven. and they certainly won’t let me have my computer because when I wake up at four in the morning and need to write they will think I need to pee and when I can’t because I don’t need to they’ll assume I’ve got one of those old man conditions and need a catheter. all I need is my computer which they have taken away because the people who have my medical power of attorney are in California or some other god-forsaken place and the care givers here in the public run-down old folks’ home in Dallas would never think of asking them what I might really need a computer or a catheter

no it’s going to be grim since I don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars salted away to take care of me in my old age not that I’m not already old. seventy which I’m just ten months from being and I know I talk about it too much but only because I have to get used to the idea. it sort of crept up on me unawares and I don’t know what to do about it but I don’t suppose anyone does. I certainly didn’t plan for the three hundred and fifty thousand dollars the retirement gurus say an old queen needs in the bank to pay medical expenses in his old age so the pittance I have will be gone in about a week if I get really sick sometime instead of just needing hip or shoulder repair. I don’t know what they do with poverty-struck old gay used-to-be-college-teachers who don’t have enough money salted away

At 4:30 this may be what I see

At 4:30 this may be what I see

so when Joanie was in my face purring thirty seconds after I woke up—she sits at the foot of my bed waiting for my breathing to change and then charges she doesn’t wake me up but she knows the minute I am awake—after I checked the parking lot lights I was immediately thinking about the problem of getting enough exercise when I am snowed under with papers to grade and knowing that if I don’t keep exercising regularly and quit eating sugar cookies even once every two weeks and lose the fifteen pounds I’ve been trying to lose since I lost the fifty pounds two years ago I will be unhealthy enough to end up in that assisted living or medical care facility that everyone else’s taxes are paying for. I better not be in Texas when it happens because the fucking republicans have managed to make this the worst state in the union to be taken care of whether you are a helpless child or a helpless old faggot and Mark Doty explained what we need to do better than I can and I read his poem and think that’s it and I need to contact my trainer that I haven’t seen since my shoulder repair surgery and get back to the gym

. . .  where men
lay down their heads,
back to the bench,

and hoist nothing
that need be lifted
but some burden they’ve chosen
this time: more reps,

more weight, the upward shove
of it leaving, collectively,
this sign of where we’ve been:
shroud-stain, negative

flashed onto the vinyl
where we push something
unyielding skyward,
gaining some power

at least over flesh . . .

Though there's something more tender, beneath our vanity

Though there’s something more
tender, beneath our vanity

I need to gain power at least over my flesh so when they want to give me a catheter instead of a computer I will have the physical strength to resist and then they’ll call in the men in the white coats and they’ll be “coming to take me away to the funny farm” and getting power over my flesh right now. I’m sorry Mark it has nothing to do with the “will to become [an object] of desire” it is only self-protection and self- preservation and anyone who doesn’t understand this isn’t seventy years old and alone in the world and a dirty old gay boy faggot queen which is what the less-than-well-educated care-givers will think of me regardless of the new same-sex marriage laws

.
This salt-stain spot
marks the place
where
men lay down their heads,
back to the bench,

and hoist nothing
that need be lifted
but some burden they’ve chosen
this time: more reps,

more weight, the upward shove
of it leaving, collectively,
this sign of where we’ve been:
shroud-stain, negative

flashed onto the vinyl
where we push something
unyielding skyward,
gaining some power

at least over flesh,
which goads with desire,
and terrifies with frailty.
Who could say who’s

added his heat to the nimbus
of our intent, here where
we make ourselves:
something difficult

lifted, pressed or curled,
Power over beauty,
power over power!
Though there’s something more

tender, beneath our vanity,
our will to become objects
of desire: we sweat the mark
of our presence onto the cloth.

Here is some halo
the living made together

—Doty, Mark. “At the Gym.” Source. New York: HarperCollins. 2002.
Mark Doty has won the Lambda Literary Award for his collection Atlantis (1995), and the National Book Critics Circle Award and Britain’s T. S. Eliot Prize for other collections. He has taught at the University of Houston and is currently Distinguished Writer at Rutgers University.

. . . an almost comminuting blow . . .

I’m indulging in a surreptitious pleasure. Not “pleasure.” Necessity.

Is the the alterer of reality?

Is he the alterer of reality?

I’m supposed to be grading student essays. I have no choice. I must finish them today. But the writing must come first. This writing. I have no choice.

A couple of days ago I was driving home from a satisfying workout at the Landry Fitness Center at Baylor Hospital where I walk for an hour in the therapy pool as often as I can. (Thank goodness for Tim Berners-Lee. He, of course, made it possible for me to get on with whatever I’m writing at the moment without having to go back and explain everything in detail, and I can simply link to it. I’ve already this hour been spared three essays—three hyperlinks to Berners-Lee’s WWW.) I heard a snippet of a conversation with Berners-Lee on NPR’s “Science Friday” as I was driving home—recorded in 1999—because this past week was the 25th anniversary of the worldwide web. The interview had been recorded on the 10th anniversary of the worldwide web.

My first use of the internet—email—was in 1993. My partner had moved from Boston to Dallas to work for Hewlett-Packard. Out of the blue one day he called to tell me I should check the computer of one of my colleagues. I can say without hyperbole that I was dumbfounded by mystery to see a message to me on her monitor. I replied, and the rest . . . My life changed forever in that instant. By the time I moved to Dallas, Jerry had internet at our apartment, and a magician from Hewlett-Packard came to do whatever was necessary to hook my computer to the internet. I don’t need to tell anyone who was born before 1989 what an astounding change came over our lives—shall I say an almost comminuting blow (not almost) to the way we (at least I) thought about our place in the universe.

Suddenly I could be connected to everyone in the world who had access to a computer. My ability to “search the web” for information it would have taken me hours (days) to find the day before I hooked up to this worldwide phenomenon was more astounding. My experience is not unique and hardly interesting. I need, however, to remind myself of the person I am that I wasn’t the day before Roseann’s computer at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston received that message from Jerry at Hewlett-Packard in Dallas.

I ask myself if I am in fact a different person.

My selfie is blurred

My selfie is blurred

Affirmative. One example: Were it not for the internet my world-view would not have been shattered by my first trip to Palestine in 2003. On the WWW I researched the possibilities for that trip. I received the information that led me to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, with whom I toured Palestine, by email from Ann Hafften—who through email became my friend and colleague.

(If Yahoo can interrupt news stories with links to related stories, so can I. If you ever ask, “What can I do to make the world a better place,” go to this website – on the miraculous WWW –and make a donation.)

One might think that pondering the miraculous change in human activity that has occurred in my lifetime (the first computer that stored data instead of punching cards was built the year I was born) would bring wonderment and joy. I have to admit it was fun listening to Ira Flatow reminiscing for all of us about the history of the WWW.

And then grief.

Why should listening to Ira Flatow and Tim Berners-Lee talk in excited and at the same time almost reverent terms about the enormous changes in our lives brought about by computers and the internet cause me grief?

It’s grief that is not unhealthy or debilitating. It’s a joyful kind of grief. It’s knowing that I am already unable to keep up with “technology.” I can’t figure out how to download the app for my “senior pass” for DART onto my iPhone. I can’t figure out how to edit pictures on this computer (I’ve had it for three months now). I don’t have any idea how to use the “rubric” function in the Blackboard program to grade student essays. I who love music and used to listen to CDs all the time cannot for the life of me figure out how to use iTunes. And please don’t tell me—if I call you and ask me how to drive to where you are—to use the Google maps on the iPhone with which I am calling you. Much of the time I feel out of focus. My “selfie” is not clear.

This is not frustration (OK, it is) or sour grapes from an old man who sees the world passing by. It’s deeper than that. Not being able to use all of these devices that I used to see as playthings but which have become essentials to living in our society (if not in the entire world—I’m not sure about that) is a constant reminder, a daily, hourly reminder, an inescapable reminder that I am mortal—not simply mortal, but living on borrowed time.

Anyone my age who doesn’t understand needs more ROM. Or is it RAM.

I'll never figure it out

I’ll never figure it out

Three (piano) pieces in the shape of a what!!??

Everyone (I’d mark as unacceptable a student essay beginning with “everyone,” but I happen to know this is true of everyone) knows that experience of getting an idea in mind that will

John F. Francis (American, 1808–1886), Still Life with Pears

John F. Francis (American, 1808–1886), Still Life with Pears

not go away.

I’ve been wondering why Dr. Leslie P. Spelman, Director of the School of Music at the University of Redlands way back in the ‘60s, with whom I was lucky to study organ, chose The Mass of the Poor by Erik Satie for me to learn. Odd. But then, most of the music he chose for me was—as far as the standard repertoire for a college organ major goes—strange. He loved strange music himself. He had studied organ with Joseph Bonnet in Paris (I know he was there in 1934 because I have music of his inscribed “Paris, 1934”).

I have forgotten the details of the stories he told. He did not, of course, know Erik Satie (1866 – 1925), but he knew and studied with musicians who did (perhaps Bonnet himself). At any rate, the Satie Mass was in Dr. Spelman’s repertoire. He assigned it to me, he said, because it would give me a somewhat uncomplicated introduction to training a small choir and then playing and conducting from the organ console.

He also told me (as he quite often did when he assigned me an “out-of-the-mainstream” work) that someday I would understand.

The fact is, I’ve performed the Satie perhaps ten times since then. I love it.

I woke up this morning with the Mass of the PoorMesse des pauvres (orgue ou piano)—firmly in my mind, and it would not go away until I found the score and played a bit of it. Of course that made it worse. Now I believe I shall have the Kyrie in my mind until the day I die.

Satie was a wonderfully eccentric man, to all accounts. He lived in the pre-World War I Paris of artists and musicians such as Debussy, Braque, Picasso – and so on. He was somewhat older than that generation of innovators, so his music was seen (heard) mainly as strange. The (true) story is well-known that when critics complained his music had no form, he immediately composed “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear” for two pianos.

I intended to record a couple of movements of the Messe this morning, but it would have taken longer than I have time for to work out how to make it sound well on the Steuart Goodwin Opus 1 in my living room. Here’s the first recording made of it, by Marilyn Mason. I was going to record the 4th and 5th movements.

A few days ago I went with a friend to Houston to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the exhibition of paintings of Georges Braque (1882-1963). Braque was a close associate of Picasso at the time the two of them were “inventing” cubism. I have loved his work for many years. I don’t remember where I first saw a work of his. But I have been fascinated by the paintings in which he included words. My favorite, of course, are those with the name “Bach” inhem. None of them is in the Houston show. It would be hard to say which of the paintings is my favorite. One of those is certainly “Violin and Pitcher.”

Braque. Guitar with Pitcher.

Braque. Guitar with Pitcher.

But the painting which haunts me still is his last. A painting of a piece of farm machinery, “The Cultivator.” He painted it in the year before he died. It is stark, dark, and hopeful. Don’t ask why I describe it as “hopeful.” I don’t know. But that’s the way I experienced it.

Satie wrote the Messe des Pauvres about 25 years before he died. It was not, however published until after his death. I don’t know why.

I seem to be saying “I don’t know” more often than usual. I don’t know why.

Except that I am finding I don’t know much about anything. Dr. Spelman used to tell me that someday I would understand. I think I am beginning to understand the Messe des Pauvres (as a matter of fact, I’m looking for a church where I can give a small recital and play it).

A wondrous mystery surrounds the last work of many artists and composers. Brahms, for example. His last work is unlike anything else he composed. Opus 122 is a collection of eleven chorale preludes for organ—about half of which are settings of hymn tunes having to do with death. Or Mozart. His last two works are The Magic Flute—an opera unlike any other he wrote, either in subject matter or in the style of the music. And his unfinished Requiem is his last work.

Bach’s last composition is an unfinished chorale prelude the title of which can be translated into English. “I am standing before God’s throne.”

The last four Beethoven String Quartettes have an intensity and a musical language more advanced than anything before them. And Verdi came out of retirement to compose Falstaff, his only comic opera.

I am not saying I think these artists had a premonition they would die soon. The mystery is far greater than that. I think it’s what Dr. Spelman meant when he kept telling me I would understand some day. I don’t understand yet. I’m only just beginning to understand what needs to be understood. Those artists and musicians understood. Ask me in a few years if I can explain what they understood.

Braque. The cultivator.

Braque. The cultivator.

“Auntie . . . told me I should travel slowly or I would see too much before I died . . .”

Delores De Rio. Size 4?

Delores De Rio. Size 4?

Being eternally and overwhelmingly ignorant has compensations. For example, every time I discover a poet I whose work I didn’t know, it seems as if they wrote a poem that morning, for me alone.

Case in point. I’ve been following Sandra Alcosser’s Auntie’s advice most of my life and didn’t know it. I do travel slowly. I have not travelled the world. I suppose by most people’s reckoning I’ve done quite a bit of travel. Mexico, Canada, Great Britain, the Channel Islands, France, Spain, Brazil. Jordan, and Palestine. All 48 of the “continental” states.

But as gay men go, those who have worked all their lives and have no one to care for except themselves so they have plenty of “disposable income,” I’ve been almost nowhere. I have friends who take two or three cruises a year.

I’ve never been on a cruise. For two reasons. I can’t imagine being on a ship in the middle of the ocean and unable to get off when I wanted to. Once the idea got into my head I wanted off the ship—NOW!—they’d have to sedate me or send a helicopter to airlift me out.  

And I’ve never had the money to travel. I’m not complaining or regretting (that’s not quite true) the particulars of my life. I’m solely responsible that I was a drunk until I was 41 and never had full-time work in my profession until I was 42. Exactly what Dean Anne Minton saw in me that allowed her to hire me to teach music at Bunker Hill Community College in spite of my résumé I will always wonder and be grateful.

I have “travel[ed] slowly [and] I [have not seen] too much.” I’ve spent almost a month in Palestine (including Gaza—not many Americans can say that). I spent three weeks in Brazil (one week in the Amazon Rain Forest)—4th of July on the Beach at Ipanema. I wrote about that a year ago, so I suppose I should simply make a link to that posting and be on my way writing about something else.

However, it’s amazing what a difference a year makes.

For one thing, Sandra Alcosser wrote “Hats” for me this morning. She’s a year older than I am, and was the first Poet Laureate of the State of Montana. Anyone who lives only 481 miles from Worland, WY, the first place I remember living, has to be OK. (Driving between the two small cities, you pass within about 40 miles of Yellowstone National Park—where I have also spent some slow travel time.) Especially when she was up early enough to write a poem for me this morning.

Auntie lies in the rest home with a feeding tube and a bedpan . . .
Surely this is not the place of women in our world, that when we are old and curled like crustaceans, young girls will laugh at us, point their fingers, run as fast as they can in the opposite direction
.

When I turned 30 years old, I was so cocky and pig-headed (and, well, drunk) I hardly noticed except that at some time earlier I had gotten it into my head that I’d die when I was 27, so I was surprised to be hitting 30. When I hit 40, I was in the deepest point of drinking and barely noticed—wanting to finish my PhD and have a good job like all of my friends.

I had a grand party at Jaxx Steak House in Farmers Branch, TX, for my 50th birthday, living with the man I loved, in graduate school again, this time studying writing, and playing the organ for a small church. I could hardly have imagined a better life. I had a grand party with friends for my 60th birthday under much different circumstances. I was professoring at SMU, still playing the organ for the small church, but alone because my partner had died of melanoma. It was a difficult birthday because I was lonely, not because I thought 60 was old or in any other way unpleasant.

My next birthday will be my 70th. I’m not particularly looking forward to it. I won’t, most likely, be like Sandra Alcosser’s Auntie, lying in the rest home with a feeding tube and a bedpan . . .  old and curled like [a crustacean]. No, if I follow my family’s genetic pattern, that won’t happen for about 20 more years.

I will be, however, “eternally and overwhelmingly ignorant.” By my next birthday I will have been retired for about six months. As that time approaches, it seems no matter what I do I’m travelling too fast, seeing too much before I die—but remaining ignorant of what much of it means or, more importantly, what to do about it.

Ginger Rogers in her Lilly Daché

Ginger Rogers in her Lilly Daché

It’s more important to decide what not to see than what I should see. I don’t need to see women’s health clinics in Texas closing because of the unscientific belief perpetrated on the American people about when human “life” begins. I don’t need to see the ignominy that 19% of Texans are functionally illiterate while state officials trumpet an “economic miracle.” I don’t need to see 27% of Texas children living in food insecurity while Senator Cruz rails about cutting government budgets.

I don’t need to see wars, rumors of war, and both imperialism and apartheid still (in the age of enlightenment?) basically controlling the world.

I don’t need to see climate change deniers winning seats in the US Congress.

“. . . would see too much before I died . . .” I suppose nearly everyone will. If we all see these things, why don’t they change? That’s not a “rhetorical question.” It’s the sad—and getting sadder—question of an almost-old man (Auntie will, I’m sure, share the idea with an old man) who has already, perhaps, seen too much.

“Hats,” by Sandra Alcosser

Auntie lies in the rest home with a feeding tube and a bedpan, she weighs nothing, she fidgets and shakes, and all I can see are her knotted hands and the carbon facets of her eyes, she was famous for her pies and her kindness to neighbors, but if it is true that every hat exhibits a drama the psyche wishes it could perform, what was my aunt saying all the years of my childhood when she squeezed into cars with those too tall hats, those pineapples and colored cockades, my aunt who told me I should travel slowly or I would see too much before I died, wore spires and steeples, tulled toques. The velvet inkpots of Schiaparelli, the mousseline de soie of Lilly Daché have disappeared into the world, leaving behind one flesh-colored box, Worth stenciled on the top, a coral velvet cloche inside with matching veil and drawstring bag, and what am I to make of these Dolores del Rio size 4 black satin wedgies with constellations of spangles on the bridge. Before she climbed into the white boat of the nursing home and sailed away–talking every day to family in heaven, calling them through the sprinkling system–my aunt said she was pushing her cart through the grocery when she saw young girls at the end of an aisle pointing at her, her dowager’s hump, her familial tremors. Auntie, who claimed that ninety pounds was her fighting weight, carried her head high, hooded, turbaned, jeweled, her neck straight under pounds of roots and vegetables that shimmied when she walked. Surely this is not the place of women in our world, that when we are old and curled like crustaceans, young girls will laugh at us, point their fingers, run as fast as they can in the opposite direction.

Her Elsa Schiaparelli mini top

Her Elsa Schiaparelli mini top

 

“. . . it is the movement that creates the form. “

A reference librarian at Fondren Library at SMU and I have been known to argue about my contention that, in doing research, students need to learn to be lazy. She says students must learn to be efficient. We both mean that students should keep track of their findings in research so they never have to retrace their steps—never have to look anything up more than once.

it is the movement that delays the form while darkness slows and encumbers

it is the movement that delays the form
while darkness slows and encumbers

Recently I discovered the poetry of Richard Howard (born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929; professor of Writing at Columbia University in New York). His poem “Like Most Revelations (after Morris Louis)” is copied below.

I am going to drive to Houston this afternoon for an overnight stay to go to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts tomorrow for the exhibition of the paintings of Georges Braque (1881-1963). Braque was a close friend and associate of Picasso. His work was somewhat forgotten in the shadow of his preeminent friend. I learned about him at some time I’ve forgotten, and I’ve seen a couple of his paintings (perhaps the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Or I’ve seen reprints in books. At any rate, I have visual memories of several of his paintings, and I want to see his work. Houston is the only American venue for this exhibition.

Looking online for information about the exhibition, I came across a bunch of stuff about previous exhibitions at the Houston MFA, and from there went looking online for paintings by Louis Morris (American, 1912-1962). I’m not sure why.

It may be that I remembered the poem by Richard Howard. I doubt it although I’ve read the poem several times trying to figure out what it is “about.” At any rate, I located pictures of some of Morris’s work online, and suddenly Howard’s poetry made perfect sense. Ah! Research.

It is the movement that incites the form,
discovered as a downward rapture—yes
. . .

The poem is hardly mysterious at all—the subject matter, at any rate.

Yesterday I went to Target for a bit of shopping. Don’t get squirrelly on me about shopping there. At least I didn’t give Alice Walton any of my money. Target is on my way home from the Landry Fitness Center. I needed cat food, and it’s the only place I can get the medium sized bag I like. I picked up a few “non-perishable” groceries I needed so I wouldn’t have to go to Kroger after I got home.

Georges Braque, Musical Instruments

Georges Braque, Musical Instruments

I was at the register, and the clerk and I chatted. The bill came to $70 and change. I slid my card “quickly” in the reader and entered my PIN. The little screen announced I’d entered the wrong PIN. I tried again, and the register told the clerk it could not complete my transaction. I tried again. Not. So we went to the next register with the same result. I was baffled (and getting more than a little annoyed) because I (for once in my life) had checked my balance online, and I knew my account had plenty of money.

I was thinking out loud what to do. Go home, check the balance, come back? go to the bank, get the cash, and come back? leave and go to Kroger to get cat food and not come back? I was, I suppose, obviously upset—but trying my level best to take the situation in stride. Anyone who knows me knows this is the sort of situation that simply baffles me, and I don’t take with aplomb.

The young woman behind me had her credit card in her hand, and said, “Here, let me do it.” No. I know there’s plenty of money on this card. “But it will be a hassle for you. Let me do it.” She handed her card to the clerk, and the transaction was done before I could protest again. I began crying and saying thank you, and she took my hand and said, “I’m happy to do it. Just pay it forward when you can.”

I’m sure the young woman thought I was a poor old man who suddenly didn’t have money to buy his groceries and was too proud to admit it. I’m sure she would have done the same thing for anyone in my situation.

(I drove straight to the bank and found out my account had plenty of money, but after the second ineffective attempt to enter my PIN, my account was automatically frozen. I am obviously an old(er) man, but I did—and do—have enough money to buy cat food and Grapenuts—by the way, did you know you can buy Peets coffee at Target?)

It is the movement of our lives that creates the form.

The movement of my life is altogether too often upset, and I’m seldom grateful.

The movement of that young woman’s life is to be generous—at least at times. My guess is she has done what she did before and will do it again.

I know I will—again and often—be inefficient or lazy about taking care of myself (I don’t know if I entered the PIN correctly or not, but I know I will be upset over nothing again).

. . . in fact
it is the movement that betrays the form,
baffled in such toils of ease, until
it is the movement that deceives the form,
beguiling our attention
. . .

Baffled in such toils of ease I am apt—no, guaranteed—to deceive the form I want for my life, calm, kind undeceived. I am vexed that I will, even as a old man—never learn to give (give up) [myself] to this mortal process of continuing.

The young woman, whose name I will never know, has already learned. Her graciousness, I am sure, touches the lives of many people—even those who don’t need or deserve, it . . . –yes, it is the movement that delights the form, sustained by its own velocity. 

“Like Most Revelations,” by Richard Howard      

(after Morris Louis)

It is the movement that incites the form,
discovered as a downward rapture–yes,
it is the movement that delights the form,
sustained by its own velocity.  And yet

it is the movement that delays the form
while darkness slows and encumbers; in fact
it is the movement that betrays the form,
baffled in such toils of ease, until

it is the movement that deceives the form,
beguiling our attention–we supposed
it is the movement that achieves the form.
Were we mistaken?  What does it matter if

it is the movement that negates the form?
Even though we give (give up) ourselves
to this mortal process of continuing,
it is the movement that creates the form.

. . . beguiling our attention--we supposed it is the movement that achieves the form.

. . . beguiling our attention–we supposed
it is the movement that achieves the form.