“. . . Pressure, responsibility, success. Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries . . .” (Jim Daniels)

Thirty cheeseburgers! Thirty fries!

Thirty cheeseburgers! Thirty fries!

My trigger finger is back.

Trigger fingers are more common in women than in men, they occur most frequently between ages 40 to 60, and they are most common in people with certain medical conditions such as diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis.

There is no reason I should have a trigger finger. It’s the little finger of my right hand, if you must know.

I’ve had two cortisone injections which are supposed to cure it. They worked for awhile

So, you might as well know. The last time I had a complete—almost complete—meltdown was the day I went to see Dr. Miskovsky, hand specialist, for my second injection. About three months ago. I thought his office was on Forest Lane, so I passed the Walnut Hill exit from Central Expressway. When I got to Greenville and the hospital wasn’t at the corner, I went north and was soon in the TI campus and had no idea where I was. I began to cry and shout about why they had moved the hospital, and then I was on a dead end residential street so I turned around and was going 50 MPH up another residential street that hooked to the right, and then I was in another neighborhood and didn’t know which direction I was going. Crying and screaming at god and the city for moving the fucking hospital. I got back to Greenville and turned south and called the office because I was 15 minutes late, and they said to come ahead. I did and sat in the waiting room about 2 minutes trying not to cry. Dr. Mislovsky sat down and wanted to know exactly what was wrong. I told him and was embarrassed that I, a 69-year-old man, am still likely to lose it over nothing. He said, “I know. Did you take your meds this morning?” I’d never told him about my meds, so I wondered how he knew, and he reminded they’ve had all of my information in their computers since my hip surgery. Oh.

I could say right here I don’t know how to live in society (which is true) and what I really want is a Walden Pond (in Texas?) where I can move with enough stuff to protect me from the elements and spend the rest of my life in in the real world, not the made up world we homo sapiens have constructed as if it were either real or important.

According to one writer, Richard Zacks, if I want to live in the natural world, I’ll have to do better than Henry David Thoreau.

Most Americans have an image of Thoreau as a rough-hewn, self-educated recluse, who . . . disappeared into the solitude to commune with nature. We picture his little shack far off in the woods, the man a voluntary Robinson Crusoe, alone with his thoughts and the bluebirds. Nothing could be further from the truth. . . Thoreau’s mother and sisters, who lived less than two miles away, delivered goodies baskets every Sunday . . . The more one reads in Thoreau’s unpolished journal of his stay in the woods, the more his sojourn resembles suburban boys going to their treehouse in the backyard and pretending they’re camping in the heart of a jungle.

I don’t know how true this is (and I’m not interested enough to find out), but I did read that

. . . poet John Greenleaf Whittier had a conflicting reaction, saying that the message in Walden was that man should lower himself to the level of a woodchuck and walk on four legs. He said: “Thoreau’s Walden is a capital reading, but very wicked and heathenish… After all, for me, I prefer walking on two legs. (This is from Reference.com, so I can’t vouch for its authenticity either.)

A replica is as good as the rel thing

A replica is as good as the rel thing

Back to trigger finger. I’ll have to call Dr. Mislovsky’s office and make the appointment to have him cut into my pinky. I’m scheduled to substitute as organist at a church on August 29, so I better do it soon.

That reminds me that I have an appointment at SMU’s HR tomorrow to sign the papers that will officially end my status as faculty member as of August 1.

There’s a fine howdy-do!

What I really want is not to find Walden Pond (unless it’s as comfortable as Thoreau’s was) but to figure out how to do what I need to do to stay connected enough to keep out of the rain and have enough to eat until I die.

Does that sound defeatist or depressed or sad or something else negative to you? I hate to be brusque, but that’s your problem, not mine. I didn’t say I want to be cut off from human interaction and fellowship (as Thoreau was not).

I’m looking for a soul-mate. (Do you know a 70-year-old gay man who’d like a soul mate? Leave a comment telling me how to find him.) I mean some old guy like me to whom I can say anything—talk about how America used to be the land of the free; talk about how scary it is to think about the probability that we’ve got 10, 12, maybe fifteen years before we won’t be wondering what death is; talk about trigger finger; talk about Lady Gaga; talk about Frescobaldi; talk about the absurd necessity of religion. Say anything to him and he say anything to me that will not upset or bore the other.

And a little warmth and closeness (physical?) to go with it and comfort each other or rejoice with each other as appropriate.

I’m not sure why reading Jim Daniels’ poem, “Short Order Cook” brought all of this up in my mind, but it did. I guess I’d like to be able to fry 30 burgers, slap some ice in my mouth, and return to work. Without a meltdown. But it would be so much more fun not alone.

“Short-Order Cook,” by Jim Daniels (b. 1956; Professor of Creative Writing, Department of English, Carnegie Mellon University)
An average joe comes in
and orders thirty cheeseburgers and thirty fries.

I wait for him to pay before I start cooking.
He pays.
He ain’t no average joe.

The grill is just big enough for ten rows of three.
I slap the burgers down
throw two buckets of fries in the deep frier
and they pop pop, spit spit. . .
pssss. . .
The counter girls laugh.
I concentrate.
It is the crucial point–
they are ready for the cheese:
my fingers shake as I tear off slices
toss them on the burgers/fries done/dump/
refill buckets/burgers ready/flip into buns/
beat that melting cheese/wrap burgers in plastic/
into paper bags/fried done/dump/fill thirty bags/
bring them to the counter/wipe sweat on sleeve
and smile at the counter girls.
I puff my chest out and bellow:
Thirty cheeseburgers! Thirty fries!
I grab a handful of ice, toss it in my mouth
do a little dance and walk back to the grill.
Pressure, responsibility, success.
Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries.

Trigger happy

Trigger happy

“. . . We wanted words to fit our cold linoleum . . .” (Vern Rutsala)

Master of the [King's] Wardrobe

You, too, can be Master of the [King’s] Wardrobe

June 28, 1660, was a day of Thanksgiving in England for the return of King Charles II. He had been in exile since the Glorious Revolution and beheading of his father, Charles I, on 30 January 1649.

The “glorious” revolution was a religious war carried out by Protestist Terrorists against the king who had sealed his doom by marrying a Catholic. The Protestists under Oliver Cromwell began liberating great swaths of land in the north and west of England and eventually overran London and the monarchy was declared abolished.

Charles I was executed by a “headsman” with one mighty sword-chop to his neck. The Protestists immediately began ransacking cathedrals and abbeys and other places sacred to Church and nation, and ensconced themselves as the rightful government of the United Kingdom.

Their reign of Protestist terror lasted only 11 years, however, because the people tired of the autocratic rule of Cromwell and his thugs (and his son, who took over when he died, was weak and stupid).

June 28 was only a half-day of Thanksgiving. The real day of Thanksgiving, “Oak Apple Day,” had been declared by Parliament on May 29, the day Charles II returned to London (he was not formally crowned King until April 23, 1661).

One of the most important purposes of the “glorious” revolution had been to establish once-for-all the United Kingdom as a Protestist Christian nation, with full freedom of religion for all Protestists. British law to this day requires that the monarch be a Protestant (a not very committed Protestist) and be married to a Protestant. The Royal Family recently passed the “no-marriage-to-a-divorced-person” test, so someday the monarch will be granted full religious freedom.

On the Day of Thanksgiving, Tom Pepys visited his brother to show him possible fabrics for a new suit. Tom’s brother visited Sir Edward Mountagu, who, even though he was a member of the aristocracy had supported the Protestists. Sir Edward was in hiding and in the process of changing his loyalties back to the royalists. He eventually became a member of Charles II’s Council of State and, for his loyalty to the king, was made Mountagu the first Earl of Sandwich, Knight of the Garter and Master of the Wardrobe.

Tom’s brother and his wife went to dinner that evening at Clothworkers’ Hall, invited by Mr. Chaplin, where they were treated to an entertainment by an opera singer who, of course, had had to sing behind a curtain for eleven years because the Protestists didn’t allow entertainment.

Tom’s brother, Samuel Pepys (pronounced “peeps”) kept a detailed diary of his own activities and the social and political life of London, in which he was intimately involved, from 1660 to 1669. His diaries are one of the most important first-hand accounts of many of the important events of the Restoration period (see his entry for June 28, 1660 below).

In 350 years will anyone be reading my blog or any of the other millions of personal blogs in cyberspace?

Probably not. All of us are simply living in the age of public confessionalism—spill your guts in public and hope everyone reads it because what you have to say is worth the attention of everyone. It’s either profound or interesting, or you are repeating the Truth with a Capital T about the world—and society would be much better off if everyone would listen to you.

My writing today has two inspirations.

First, for the fun of it and coincidentally, I looked up Samuel Pepys’s diary entry for June 28, which I do from time to time simply to get some perspective on the day’s news. (The more things change, the more they stay the same).
Then I began research (which I also do from time to time because I’ve not yet found the answer) on the etymology of the word “Islamist.” Yesterday I heard it used in a most bizarre way that I won’t repeat here.

The “Glorious Revolution” was carried out by Protestist terrorists. That’s what we’d call them today. That Sir Edward Mountagu, the first Earl of Sandwich, Knight of the Garter and Master of the Wardrobe was in hiding on June 28, 1660, because of his role as a Protestist terrorist shows that the more things change the more they stay the same.

Protestist, or what?

Protestist, or what?

He was one of the clever (lucky) ones because he managed to hide his Protestist activities (or be forgiven for them) enough to ingratiate himself with Charles II and become part of the new king’s inner circle of advisors. So much for rabid fundamentalist religious beliefs.

So here’s the deal today. I wanna know who first used the word “Islamist.” It’s a dreadful word. I’ll bet most people who might happen to read my profound confessionalism here today are, if not offended, at least put off by my word “Protestist.” Well, what are those folks who believe so much that abortion is murder that they will kill someone who provides abortion services? Protestists or Catholicists. Who are those people who want the law to allow them to refuse to serve an LCBT person in their public businesses? Protestists.

It’s so easy to call someone a name without having any idea who they are, what they believe, or why they do what they do. Mea culpa.

And then to get on the internet and spill your guts as if you knew what you were talking about and as if everyone ought to listen to YOUR truth as opposed to THEIR truth. Mea culpa.

Sticks and stones many break my bones, but words – words are designed to kill. And they do.

Here’s a poem about that. Listen up, all you Protestists, Catholicists, Atheistists, and the rest of us who call people made-up names we don’t understand but sound hateful.

(Vern Rutsala, by the way, was a much-loved professor—reason enough for some Protestists to reject him—at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and poet, who died just two months ago.)

“Words,” by Vern Rutsala (b. 1934)
We had more than
we could use.
They embarrassed us,
our talk fuller than our
rooms. They named
nothing we could see

dining room, study,
mantel piece, lobster
thermidor.
They named
things you only
saw in movies

the thin flicker Friday
nights that made us
feel empty in the cold
as we walked home
through our only great
abundance, snow.
This is why we said ‘ain’t’
and ‘he don’t.’
We wanted words to fit
our cold linoleum,
our oil lamps, our
outhouse. We knew
better, but it was wrong
to use a language
that named ghosts,
nothing you could touch.
We left such words at school
locked in books
where they belonged.
It was the vocabulary
of our lives that was
so thin. We knew this
and grew to hate
all the words that named
the vacancy of our rooms

looking here we said
studio couch and saw cot;
looking there we said
venetian blinds and saw only the yard;
brick meant tarpaper,
fireplace meant wood stove.
And this is why we came to love
the double negative.

Obviously a Liberal Conspiracy

Obviously a Liberal Conspiracy

“. . . we must lift the sail And catch the winds of destiny. . .” (Edgar Lee Masters)

A minority report.

To be “the man”

The Melungeons are (were) a mixed-raced ethnic group who live(d) in small communities in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. Their origins are mysterious. Conflicting theories attempt to explain how they came to reside in Appalachia.

The most widely-accepted theory is that they are the descendants of female slaves and white males, who were able to flee to the mountains where they inter-married with the Native Americans and the Anglo Americans who had begun to settle in the mountains.

In the 1990s, Brent Kennedy, who identified himself as a Melungeon, proposed the theory that the Melungeons are descendants of Muslim Arabs who, after they were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, arrived in the New World in 1566 as part of the doomed Spanish settlement of Santa Elena in South Carolina, the settlement destroyed by the English in 1587.

I want to identify myself as Professor of the Year. I want the award as the most inspiring, most knowledgeable, most organized professor in the university.

I want to have published three or four books since my tenure appointment. I want to be a “talking head” on NPR when they need an authority in my field.

I want to be, if not a true intellectual, at least a thorough-going scholar.

On “Rate your Professor” I want high accolades from students that entice so many students to take my classes that the registrar has to turn students away.

Dear me, I forgot. It’s too late. (“Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.”)

Whatever their origins, most of the Melungeons (for reasons long forgotten) refer(red) to themselves as Portuguese (or, as they said, according to Kennedy, “Portyghee”). The thesis of Kennedy’s book is that the Melungeons were, over the centuries, so reviled that they did everything they could to blend into society and no longer exist as a subculture.

The five young men, athletes at SMU, whom I work with as tutor in my retirement had the assignment to read the Kennedy article linked above for the summer school writing class they are taking. The purpose is ultimately for them to write essays about marginalization in American society.

These guys are going to take their places as “my boys”—I know I shouldn’t call them that. They are not “boys” (or are they?), and they certainly are not “mine.” All of them are star athletes.

I’d like to file a perhaps unusual report on college athletes here.

These five guys (and all who have preceded them as “my boys”) are respectful, interesting, socially competent young men who know something most (yes, most) college students do not know: self-discipline. In the fall semester 2013 eleven members of SMU’s football and basketball teams were in my classes. Not one of them was a slacker. Several of them knew they were under-prepared for college writing, but they worked hard to overcome their disadvantage.

Now I am a paid tutor for several student athletes in the Academic Development of Student Athletes program at SMU. I know—I’d be willing to bet—more about the regulations of the NCAA than any of my jock friends. I know exactly what the limits are on what I may do for these guys. And I follow the rules. And so do they. And they work hard. (I may not, for example, put a mark their papers or put a keystroke to them if they are digital).

A couple of these guys have had great difficulty getting where they are now in many ways—ways more daunting than academic. But whatever their success as athletes might ultimately be, they will have a real education when they graduate from SMU. I’m there to help see to that.

Many years ago I blew my chance to be Professor of the Year (first by accepting a non-tenure-track position, and in many other ways as well). But I’m not like the Melungeons. I have not been ridiculed and marginalized (professionally, that is). I know something about marginalization because I am a gay man, of course.

Was Nancy Hanks a Melungeon from Kentucky?

Was Nancy Hanks a Melungeon from Kentucky?

Here’s what I do instead of being Professor of the Year. One of the young men was having difficulty getting his mind around the Kennedy article. Almost anyone would. It’s a five page condensation of myriad historical facts that require an enormous amount of background knowledge to comprehend.

The student and I were discussing it. I was trying to help him see the big picture—that the article is not about those details, but about marginalization. From somewhere (where do these ideas come from?) I thought suddenly of telling him I never shook a black person’s hand until I was in fifth grade. He was—as he might well have been—shocked. I asked him pointedly if he hadn’t felt the pain of racism. And we talked about marginalization.

He said after a few minutes I was the first white man with whom he had ever had such a conversation. “Professor Knight,” he says every time we finish an hour together, “you’re the man!” And I say to him, “No, you’re the man!” And we do a fist bump. But that’s not enough for him. He reaches out to shake my hand.

So I am the Professor of the Year. At least for “the man!” I am the Professor of the Summer.

He will never know—because I will never figure out how to tell him, and, by NCAA rules I probably am not allowed to—that I’m getting more out of our two hours a week together than he is.

George Gray, whoever he was, seems to be one of the less admirable folks in Edgar Lee Masters’ town Spoon River. I used to think he was somewhat pathetic, and feared I was like him. But one could find a much less worthy “meaning in my life” than being told by a young man who seems to be on the verge of fame and fortune (or abject failure?)—but who is still a twenty-year-old kid—that one is “the man.”

“George Gray,” by Edgar Lee Masters (1868 – 1950)
I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

A Kentucky Portyghee family

A Kentucky Portyghee family

“. . . rising from the water with my black feathers wet. . .” (Brigit Pegeen Kelly)

. . . the Arab musician Plucks the lute strings With an eagle quill . . .

. . . the Arab musician
Plucks the lute strings
With an eagle quill . . .

.

.

.

.

For the last four days I have been trying to explain to myself in writing my (almost) constant preoccupation with what I suppose many people (my psychiatrist among them) would say is death. This is not a new writing struggle. No, many friends have told me that I need to stop thinking about it, that my preoccupation is not healthy, that I just need to get on with life. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Several people have reminded me that my stated purpose when I began this blog was to write in a more light-hearted vein than I write on my other blog.

A few days ago, I posted on Facebook the poem “Musical Instrument,” by Luis Cernuda (September 21, 1902 – November 5, 1963).

“Musical Instrument,” by Luis Cernuda, translated by Stephen Kessler
If the Arab musician
Plucks the lute strings
With an eagle quill
To awaken the notes,

What hand plucks
With what bird’s quill
The wound in you
That awakens the word?

(From Desolation of the Chimera, 2010)

Cernuda is one of those shadowy figures whose name—and some vague information about him—I have known for years. Heard about him in one graduate seminar or another, noted him as someone I ought to research, promptly forgot.

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile from 1938 until his death. My guess is—although I have no knowledge of this—he traveled the 9 miles across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco when he was a young man in search of a kind of exoticism that Spain did not afford him (see the stories of Paul Bowles if you need an explanation). Pure speculation.

Or perhaps there is (or was) more residue of Arab music in Spain in the 1930s than I know about. More likely.

At any rate, he knew the oud, the Arab-style lute plucked traditionally with a “pick” made of eagle feathers. Oud comes from the Arabic word for “wood.” A real oud is made of a single piece of wood, carved into the shape of a lute. Cernuda was an openly gay Spanish poet, literary critic, and political activist living in exile in Mexico who wrote a poem about making music with an Arab instrument, translated by (another openly) gay California poet.

The day before I posted Cernuda’s poem, I had my six-month check-up with my neurologist. After pleasantries, the first question always is, “Have you had any seizure activity since you were here?” If I hadn’t, why would I maintain our friendship? I told him about the little incident a couple of weeks ago when a student I was tutoring left the room to print out his essay and I was surprised to find him sitting again at the table because, in my experience, he never came back into the room. If that’s ever happened to you, you know the difference between checking out and nodding off.

So, yes, I have had “seizure activity” in the past six months. Nothing to worry about, though. Maybe blacked out for30 seconds? A minute?

“I think it’s time for you to consider not driving.”

Oh, right. Living in Dallas, car and SUV capital of the world (after Beijing, of course).

Clinical observations during the past 150 years support an association between religious experiences during (ictal), after (postictal), and in between (interictal) seizures. In addition, epileptic seizures may increase, alter, or decrease religious experience especially in a small group of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). (Devinsky, O. “Spirituality and religion in epilepsy.” Epilepsy Behavior 12.4. May 2008. nih.gov).

I don’t know if any of that medical jargon describes accurately anything that happens (or has ever happened) to me. Most of the time I’m pretty sure my TLE is made up. It never happened. My brain is just fine, thank you. Some oddities that everyone has experienced but most people simply ignore.

But then there’s this matter of religion. I don’t believe any of it. Honest. I don’t rant and rave and hate people about it the way Bill Maher does, but I don’t get it. My limited intellect simply doesn’t understand. So my sins are forgiven and I go to heaven when I die and I’m met by St. Peter at the Pearly Gates before the Streets of Gold, or I’m ushered into a Seraglio and presented with 47 virgins for my pleasure (I hope they’re men).

For eternity? Boring!

I don’t believe any of it, but I can’t shake it. Learning? Family training and heritage? Social norm? Well, no. It’s a matter of experience. I don’t mean to get all spooky here. But when I’m playing the Brahms Chorale Prelude Herzlich tut mich erfreuen (“My heart abounds with pleasure”) I experience something besides the physical act of playing and hearing or the mental act of understanding. It’s most present when I’m playing here by myself. If you’re around, it’s more present if someone else is playing. There’s a back story that I can’t quite hear or tell.

And I know I am most present to myself—it’s an order of magnitude away from self-centeredness—when, in a moment that feels remarkably like a seizure and/or a musical performance, I am absorbed (total absorption) in wondering what it is (or will be) to be dead. The absorption is overwhelming grief and joy simultaneously. It’s

the wound in [me]
That awakens the word

Or, from another poem that represents the back story I can’t quite hear or tell, but I know,

. . . What I
wished for is not as I understood it to be, I have still

not seen an angel, unless that red cloud passing beyond the trees
when my leopard went for a walk was one. And though

there are no gates here, no locks or keys, there is also no way
to leave–no way in this lion’s heart to desire to do so.

The back story haunts me daily. It’s nothing Dr. Agostini can fix.

“The Peaceable Kingdom,” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly (b. 1951)
from To the Place of the Trumpets, 1988

The leopard is mine, the snow leopard with the face
like a dinner plate, and I am the boy in blue knickers

staring as fiercely as any warrior in any sheepskin
ever stared, but I have no arrows and my leopard will scare

no one. Now, there are only the tulips and the swans unfolding
their soft wings, and the green stream along whose banks

harps are strung in the acacias, over whose waters
the sun passes like a silver hand carrying a cup of wine.

I had not thought enough of death, of entering the black canal,
of rising from the water with my black feathers wet.

and my ears open “like the mouths of babes for milk” to drums
and cymbals, gongs and horns, and that song the stars

sing just before dawn, where there is a night for them
to leave behind and the loss of it growing. Now our hearts

are lions’ hearts, golden in our breasts, and if we spit
it is Solomon and the silver of all his temples. Not Solomon

Grundy. Nothing is Grundy here. And though my sandals
do not quite fit, and though the little gray lambs will never

leave me alone, there is only Good morning in all this,
and How do you do? And how do you do again? My mind

is like the harp strings, with a breeze blowing always
and no rest in sight. It is a mind that belongs

to the four winds, and a body that is only the thought of a thought,
a reminder of something the mind tries to gather into a pile

like wheat, but the pile blows away, and I watch gold fragments
turning on the wind. Here the lilies lie down at your feet.

Here everyone wins the prize so you don’t know where to look,
whose elbow to softly touch. And there is always

in this liquid air the song my mother sang to me, but now
it is for everyone and my heart, which is a lion’s heart

no longer rolls over and weeps at the sound. What I
wished for is not as I understood it to be, I have still

not seen an angel, unless that red cloud passing beyond the trees
when my leopard went for a walk was one. And though

there are no gates here, no locks or keys, there is also no way
to leave–no way in this lion’s heart to desire to do so.

"The Peaceable Kingdom," Edward Hicks, 1848

“The Peaceable Kingdom,” Edward Hicks, 1848

“. . . why bother to get in a car and pretend you are going a different place . . .” (James Tate)

Concrete surrealism?

Concrete surrealism?

On the floor of the parking garage between the stairway and my car is a penny. The penny has been there for several days. It appeared the day before the city of Mosul in Iraq was taken over by the “militants,” the “terrorists,” the “Sunis,” or “ISIS”—whoever they are. I’m pretty sure most Americans think they know who they are, depending on their political party.

The penny may have fallen from my pocket when I pulled my keys out of my pocket. It may be someone else’s penny. It doesn’t matter. I check the penny when I go to my car to make sure it is still there. Last night it was.

I could describe my thinking about the penny several ways. Serendipity. Absurdity. Chance. Fate. Funny. Weird. Perhaps Surreal.

André Breton (1896-1966), the first proponent—at least the first explicator—of Surrealism in art, described it as “thought expressed in the absence of any control exerted by reason, and outside all moral and aesthetic considerations.” Although he was describing a movement in the arts, I can play with the idea. Make it as concrete as—well—as a penny on concrete.

Surrealism is most likely best known through the paintings of Salvador Dali. “The Persistence of Memory.”

I’ve been thinking about that penny on the parking garage floor. My thoughts have no “control exerted by reason,” and the penny is certainly outside all moral and aesthetic considerations.

What can be moral about a penny on a slab of concrete? I know, I know. It’s not art.

Just now a bird that had been sitting on the sill of the window of my fourth-floor apartment took off flying and hit a wing against the window. My three cats ran to the living room.

The United States should destroy all pennies. No one cares about a penny. A penny saved is apparently not a penny earned. Restaurants have changed their menus these days to read $12 instead of $11.99. The penny is headed toward obsolescence.

When I next go down to my car, if the penny is gone, does that mean someone has finally decided a penny earned is important? Does it mean the ISIS forces have relinquished their hold on Mosul? Does it mean the bird on my window sill has returned and the cats are under the bed?

Imagine a town where, on the 27th of June every year, the citizens gather to draw lots from a black box a hundred years old. The person who draws the slip of paper with a black dot on it is stoned to death without remorse or questioning on the part of the citizenry. It is done every year because it has always been done. No fuss, no guilt, no excitement. Mrs. Hutchinson is stoned to death before lunch, and all go back to their daily activities without another thought.

I’m working with some young men who are, to an extent, illiterate—“showing lack of culture, especially in language and literature” (dictionary.com). They can read but they have not, through no fault of their own. Never during their education has anyone challenged them to figure out, for example, a short story. And so, they read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and cannot figure out what is happening.

I helped the young men understand the facts of the story—that Mrs. Hutchinson is going to be killed randomly and unapologetically, that everyone will participate in killing her—and the young men understand it completely. What, I hardly need to ask, in their experience is done simply because it has always been done with no thought of the consequences?

The young men I work with are black.

I will ask them—now that they understand the story—what they think of the news this morning about three executions carried out in the United States in two days.

". . . free mankind from the bourgeois shackles of logic and reason . . ."

“. . . free mankind from the bourgeois shackles of logic and reason . . .”

Obviously, I am not writing in the style of Surrealism because—in case you can’t tell—I am not expressing my thoughts “outside all moral and aesthetic considerations.” We use “surreal” to refer to actual events as well as a style of art; that is, “having the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream; unreal; fantastic” (dictionary.com).

The execution of three men in two days is “surreal”—and can be carried out only by ignoring “all moral and aesthetic considerations.” I know exactly what the push-back against my thinking will be. It will be akin to the thinking of the townspeople in “The Lottery.” That is, ultimately, no thought at all.

The three executions will join the penny on the pavement, the bird against the window, Americans’ dangerous lack of comprehension of the situation in Iraq, the illiteracy of five young men who have high school diplomas, and more of the common ordinary unquestioned realities of our day-to-day.

André Breton was doctrinaire and uncompromising. He

aimed for . . . a total transformation of the way people thought. By breaking down the barriers between their inner and outer worlds, and changing the way they perceived reality, he intended to liberate the unconscious . . . and free mankind from the bourgeois shackles of logic and reason which thus far had led only to war and domination (“Surrealism.” Encyclopedia of Art History. visual-arts-cork.com. Web.).

Perhaps we need to break down the barriers between our inner and outer worlds so we can “find the ultimate in the ordinary horseshit.” Or at least begin to understand that a penny on pavement, another war in Iraq, a bird flying against the window, and executing black men are not the ultimate, but they may lead us to the ultimate if we can ever get over thinking we are acting reasonably when we are not.

James Tate, an American poet influenced by Surrealism, is the poet “. . . of possibilities, of morph, of surprising consequences, lovely or disastrous. . .” according to his friend and fellow poet, John Ashbery.

“South End,” by James Tate
The challenge is always to find the ultimate
in the ordinary horseshit why bother

to get in a car and pretend you are going
a different place to live each day as if

in ignorance of each other’s desires
betrayals are not counted Saturday night

when it was real warm read the paper and fell
off early in a hot flea-infested building

one must pass by the simple objects suitcase
coffee cup tennis shoe to take account of

life which passes by I sit here and stare
watch a ball game or tease the crazy kid

sunday afternoons are worse everything is
closed nobody drops in they all have

families and places to go so I walk
a straight line from this chair to

that table so what I paid fifteen dollars
for that table the dues and still

I’m foiled in every dream some folks
sit out on the front stoop all night

slowly they roll through the dead plum
trees and fill the air with a numbing moan.

Our best-known work of surrealism.

Our best-known work of surrealism.

“Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere. . .” (Naomi Shihab Nye)

For only the few.

For only the few.

Cookies! COOKIES! COOKIES!

I’ll admit it. I’m addicted to cookies. Store-bought, purportedly home-made cookies, preferably from Kroger. Albertson’s will do in a pinch, but Kroger’s are better. I don’t know about fancy cookies. Some um tut sut bakery (how did that phrase pop into my brain?) probably sells fancy cookies I’d like, but I doubt it. Middle-class-not-very-good-for-you cookies are what cookies are all about.

I know what fancy over-the-top cupcakes are all about and where to get them. (Fluellen’s on Elm Street in downtown Dallas, if you must know.) But I don’t want any hoity-toity cookies. I want your basic fattening and addictive cookies.

Every day.

This is quite strange. Except for chocolate (the very best chocolate—Mast Brothers or Harbor Sweets or some such), I have never been much addicted to sweets—my extra 30 pounds are the direct result of too much cheese and too many salty crackers (nuts, chips—well, you know).

So one day awhile back, I was walking through Kroger, and a table of cookies got in my way and I had to take some. “Private Selection,” the nice little brown box said. How could I pass that up? I took one of the boxes (assuming that was all there were in the entire world—“private,” don’t you know?) feeling very smug that I was in on something almost no one else would get to share.

The box had four cookies, four different kinds. The macadamia nut with white chocolate chunks were the best, followed closely by the chewy brownies with chocolate chips.

I know I would never have been tempted if I were not an old retired man living alone and never being invited to parties or movies and feeling sorry for myself. If I could get used to watching Netflix movies alone or binge-watching “Orange Is the New Black,” the time might pass faster in the evening without my having to eat cookies to make bedtime come sooner. Or be afraid.

There are some elegant cookies I’d like to have more of. A friend brought a plate of “sugar cookies” to my retirement party, but they were not Kroger quality. High-brow cookies these were, and he had had them inscribed with my retirement mantra, “Find your bliss.” I do know an elegant cookie when I taste one. (Of all the “pot luck” contributions at the party, only the cookies inspired questions about their source.)

More elegant than my usual fare.

More elegant than my usual fare.

My taste for cookies (and most foods) that are simple and common, not elegant or gourmet, is matched somewhat by my taste in music. But there is an enormous difference. The simple music I love is elegant, not common. For many people (most people?) it is music that exists in an atmosphere so rarefied that it has never caught on as “popular.” I realized many years ago that when I am singing a tune as if on a tape loop in my mind, it is quite often Gregorian Chant.

For about the last week, for example, I have had Victimae paschali laudes, the Roman Rite Sequence hymn for Easter in mind. I’ve sung it probably 1,000 times this week. It should come as no surprise that I know, without looking them up, the hymn’s numbers in the Hymnal 1940, The Hymnal 1982, and the Lutheran Book of Worship are 97, 187, and 137 respectively.

I wrote a few days ago to explain why I have had the incipit of the Gregorian Sequence hymn (Dies irae) for the burial office tattooed on my left arm. “Day of wrath, O day of warning! See fulfilled the prophets’ warning.” Grim. Or not.

Yesterday I had the letter “h” in a sort of Gothic style tattooed on my left shoulder. That will become (when it is healed and more can be added) not only my initial, but the beginning of the Gregorian Gradual hymn for Easter, Haec dies quam fecit Dominus (“This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it”).

I’ve given in to my new addiction to cookies. I hope I’m not also developing an addiction to tattoos. If I have, I hope I will be as careful in selecting them as I have been so far. Is it not (or am I simply thinking myself too clever) at least interesting to contemplate that, in my 70th year, I have had indelibly inscribed on my body Christian symbols for death and, conversely, for life? I’m somewhat puzzled by it because I cannot (would not) say I any longer believe in that theology.

But a loss of belief does not mean a loss of rooted meaning. Those two Latin phrases incorporating “day”—Dies irae, and Haec dies, wrath and rejoicing—have meaning for me that is so deep it almost feels part of my genetic makeup. Perhaps it is.

My conscious tension between the two gives the rest of my life possibility if not meaning. At least it helps me stay rooted—“always stay rooted to somewhere”—and not fear being a retired old man living alone—or any other possibility.

Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian-American poet who lives in San Antonio, TX, embodied the tension between fear and rejoicing in her poem “Gate A-4.” Lucky for me—so I don’t have to try to explain any further—it’s also about cookies.

“Gate A-4,” by Naomi Shihab Nye (b. 1952)

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning
my flight had been delayed for four hours, I heard an announcement:
“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please
come to the gate immediately.”

Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. “Help,”
said the flight service person. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly.
“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-
se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly
used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is
picking you up? Let’s call him.”

We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to
her–Southwest. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while
in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I
thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know
and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and
nuts—out of her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the
lovely woman from Laredo—were all covered with the same powdered
sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free beverages from huge coolers and two
little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend
—by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag,
some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi-
tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other
women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

Strangely - "staying rooted to somewhere"

Strangely – “staying rooted to somewhere”

 

“O Brother Man, fold to thy heart thy brother. . .” (John Greenleaf Whittier)

The Quaker Abolitionist Whittier

The Quaker Abolitionist Whittier

Well, Phooey!

I can’t put my hands on my copy of the hymnal Christian Worship published jointly by the Northern Baptist Convention and the Disciples of Christ in 1941.

It’s the hymnal I first played hymn tunes from. Somewhere in the mess of books in my apartment is my mother’s copy of the hymnal from the ‘50s.

By the time I used it, the Northern Baptists had changed their name to the American Baptists, thinking that 90 or so years was long enough for Christians to carry on the polarization of the Civil War.

Christian Worship was (is) a fine hymnal. Very few “gospel hymns,” and many tunes and hymns that don’t immediately come to mind as part of the Baptist tradition. For example, I remember when I was in junior high school discovering and immediately learning to play “O Sacred Head now Wounded” to the Lutheran tune O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden with a harmony by J. S. Bach. I don’t remember if we sang the tune in church services, but it was a favorite of mine long before I realized the importance of the Bach harmony.

I learned other hymns and tunes from that hymnal that are perhaps unfamiliar to Baptists today. Perhaps unfamiliar to any churchgoers today.

A random example, apropos of nothing except that I was humming it today for some reason, one of my favorites was one of my father’s favorites. The tune is a stirring, visceral Welsh traditional tune, Blaenhafren. An unusual tune for Baptists to be singing—and not widely used in other hymnals. Even more unusual is the hymn itself—“We are living, we are dwelling,” by the second Episcopal Bishop of Western New York, Arthur Cleveland Coxe (1840).

We are living, we are dwelling, in a grand and awful time,
In an age on ages telling; to be living is sublime.
Hark! the waking up of nations, Gog and Magog to the fray;
Hark! what soundeth is creation’s groaning for the latter day.

The words have been altered in Christian Worship to omit Gog and Magog, an obscure Biblical reference to the “end times.” My father was not a “dispensationalist” (neither pre- nor post-millennial) and would not, I think, have been nearly so fond of the hymn with those references. He thought of the hymn, rather, as a call to Christian faithfulness, which is undoubtedly its meaning.

Another of my favorite tunes was Acadia, composed by W.T.C. Morson and sung with the hymn “O Brother Man, hold to thy heart thy brother,” by John Greenleaf Whittier, the second most important 19th-century American poet (after Longfellow, of course).

I loved Acadia because about the time my voice changed and I could sing bass, the church choir sang an anthem setting of the tune. The tune is obscure. It’s not in any of my collection of hymnals from the ‘50s, and neither the Cyber Hymnal nor hymnary.org has it in midi format. The hymnary.org has one record of it—as hymn number 515 in the Christian Worship hymnal.

On June 11, 2014, the Pew Research Center published the results of the largest political survey it has ever undertaken, interviewing over 10,000 Americans. The title is

Political Polarization in the American Public: How Increasing Ideological Uniformity and Partisan Antipathy Affect Politics, Compromise and Everyday Life.

I heard the discussion of the survey on PBS Evening News on June 12.

Frankly, I was shocked. I’m one of those polarized Americans. In fact I do believe Republicans in the form of Ted Cruz, Antonin Scalia, and the Koch Brothers are dangerous—are in the process of destroying the “American way of life.” With the cooperation of the NSA, of course.

My political views are, I fear, polarized from nearly everyone either conservative or liberal. They are even farther left than most of my friends, all the way to (shall I say it in public?) socialist. Where is Eugene V. Debs when we need him?

Most Americans, when they hear the word “socialist,” immediately jump in their minds—without any logical progression of ideas—to “godless communism.” The concept of the European “Christian Socialist” parties is impossible for Americans to comprehend, I think.

Polarizing.

Polarizing.

In every way I’ve been able to discover, I am an old style European “Christian Socialist,” except that it’s a little strange for someone whose belief in God is as tenuous as mine these days to self-identify as a “Christian” anything.

For reasons I don’t understand—but for which I am enormously grateful—after listening to the PBS report of the Pew Trust survey, what came to my mind was the hymn “O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother.” In my mind I was singing it to Acadia.

Because I’ve been unable to find a copy of Acadia and can’t quite play it out of my head by ear, I researched the text and found it as a hymn in the Southern Baptist Hymnal of 1951, The Baptist Hymnal. The tune is Ilona by Joseph W. Lerman (1865-1935).

So here is a tune by a 19th-century American organist, immigrated from England, and a text by one of America’s great Quaker Universalist Abolitionist writers, played by a sort-of Christian Socialist Texan on an organ built by a California organ builder. Several missed opportunities for polarization.

Many Americans will have a problem with the text from the very beginning because we don’t use the quaint masculine to mean both brothers and sisters. Perhaps being willing to take Whittier’s language for what he meant it to be would be a first step in trying to “fold to our hearts our brothers” and work on ending our personal participation in polarization. The Pew Trust survey was true yesterday, but I, for one, hope the time comes soon when it is no longer true.

O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother;
Where mercy dwells, the peace of God is there;
To worship rightly is to love each other,
Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.

For he whom Jesus loved has truly spoken:
The holier worship which He deigns to bless
Restores the lost, and binds the spirit broken,
And feeds the widow and the fatherless.

Follow with reverent steps the great example
Of Him Whose holy work was doing good;
So shall the wide earth seem our Father’s temple,
Each loving life a psalm of gratitude.

Then shall all shackles fall; the stormy clangor
Of wild war music o’er the earth shall cease;
Love shall tread out the baleful fire of anger,
And in its ashes plant the tree of peace.