“. . . They will inherit the earth only when the final pilgrimage is done. . .” (Ellen Hinsey)

I’ve missed my calling. I should be a geneticist. I have much odd material to work with.

My mother’s family are prone to Rosacea. Red skin, appearing to be flushed with embarrassment or heat most of the time. The nose eventually swelling to look like W. C. Fields (whose nose was misshapen by Rosacea, not by booze).

It's all in the genes.

It’s all in the genes.

My father’s family are prone to barnacles, growths on the skin that serve no apparent purpose. The least fortunate of us have a plethora of them. My family and—more especially—my friends are kind to ignore the encrustments on my head. I imagine some people when they first meet me are put off. I’ve been asked by a couple of men who wanted to date me if there is something wrong that should be taken care of.

Well, yes, there is something wrong. Icky blemishes on my skin. If I were a billionaire, I’d have a private dermatologist to fix them. But, since I’m not, anyone who wants to be my friend will simply have to get over them. None of them are cancerous or otherwise dangerous, and they are mine to keep—not in any way communicable.

I’m not a billionaire, and that means (as all Americans know) I am lazy, or unfocused, or defective in some other way, because in America, under capitalism, I should be a billionaire simply by dint of my hard work and cleverness (I’ve worked pretty hard most of my life, and I’m moderately clever).

The truth of the matter is that genetics have prevented me from amassing great wealth. Unless one’s genetic makeup is white-European, male, and (not actually genetic, but a large essential component of the process) Christian, one has little chance of becoming a billionaire. Why, then, am I not a billionaire?

According to Forbes magazine’s annual listing, of the 400 richest Americans, 358 are men (42 women). Of those, only 14 are of racial/national backgrounds not thought of as white-European, and only one is a woman of color. Whether or not any is gay, the listing does not say. (There are actually 513 American billionaires, but Forbes lists only the top 400 in their statistics, so it is possible that some of the other 113 are people of color and/or women or gay.)

My genetic pre-disposition to skin blemishes must be the cause of my poverty. I am white-European and male, moderately hard-working, and clever, but with blemishes.

The other reason I am not wealthy is, since one’s genetic makeup can insure great wealth, only a certain evolved few can be billionaires. If one has the last name Getty, Perot, Nordstrom, Sacks, Carlson, Ziff, Kaiser, Cargill, Rockefeller, Kraft, Kohler, Kellogg, or Murdock, for example, one is almost guaranteed to be genetically predisposed to be on the list.

The Pritzker family: Secretary of Commerce, third from right.

The Pritzker family: Secretary of Commerce, third from right.

A few other family names make billionairehood even more likely. Among those 400 richest Americans, at least three have the Koch family genes, five the Walton, four the Hunt, two the Bass, four the Pritzker, and three the Mars. Of the 400 richest Americans, at least 37 were born with genes that guarantee wealth regardless of hard work or cleverness.

At least one, Penny Pritzker, was guaranteed not only wealth, but political power. As the 263rd-wealthiest American (at $2.5 billion) she is the Secretary of Commerce, the head of all of the genetic wealth-regulating agencies of the government.

I think it’s fair to ask those billionaires who talk about the “American dream” and other religious mythologies to acknowledge their genetic predisposition to wealth. My genetic pre-disposition to obvious skin deformities might not have prevented me from having great wealth if I had had, for example, some of the Koch family genes.

Even though there is one person of color among the 400, we cannot extrapolate from there that other people of color have the same genetic predisposition to wealth as, say, the Hunts and the Waltons.

The genetic predisposition to wealth is not exclusively an American phenomenon. Forbes’ list of the billionaires in the world is now 1,645 worldwide. And remarkably enough, nine of those billionaires are people of color, disproving the theory that people of color never have the pre-disposition.

Aliko Dangote, $25 billion – Nigeria
Mohammed Al-Amoudi, $15.3 billion – Saudi Arabia
Mike Adenuga, $4.6 billion – Nigeria
Isabel Dos Santos, $3.7 billion – Angola
Patrice Motsepe, $2.9 billion – South Africa
Oprah Winfrey, $2.9 billion – America
Folorunsho Alakija, $2.5 billion – Nigeria
Abdulsamad Rabiu, $1.2 billion – Nigeria
Mohammed Ibrahim, $1.1 billion – Britain

0.5% of the billionaires of the world are people of color. (Nigeria seems to be rich in the genes.) Two of the nine are women. Isabel Dos Santos is the daughter of Angola’s President José Eduardo dos Santos. In some few cases the genetic predisposition to wealth also predisposes one to political power (see Penny Pritzker above). Everyone knows who Oprah is.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the genetic predisposition to billionairehood is that one of the most common concurrent genetic predispositions these people have is to being, at least nominally, Christian. Which is strange because, according to at least one explanation of the tenets of their religion, perhaps they should not be rich at all.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
• Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
• Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
• Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
• Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
• Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
• Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
• Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
• Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
• Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I’m not suggesting that the genetic predisposition to wealth means a priori that one cannot be “poor in spirit,” or “meek,” or “peacemakers,” or “persecuted,” only that I, in my limited experience, have seen little evidence of it. I don’t mean to judge, but to question. How does all of this fit together?

The Christ of the Christian religion is recorded as saying the “meek” (can I equate them with those who are not genetically predisposed to wealth and power) will inherit the earth. Ellen Hinsey says that will happen only when “the final pilgrimage is done.” I wonder when that will be.

“The Multitude,” by Ellen Hinsey (born 1960 in Boston)

Standing at the edge is the great Multitude.

They inch forward in their rags and hunger.
Their movement along the ground lifts
the sound of ancestral migrations.

They are carrying the dark water of need
in their eyes; they are carrying the first
vowels, the first consonants,

But their mouths are silent, and watchful.

And the great scavenging wings hang over them;
the raven eyes hunting among the muteness
of the winding cortege.

Beside them are the pools filled with the specters
of famine, civil war, drought—

They become one body, a muscle of need.
A testament of want.

And night—which is always upon them—rides them
like the wild horses of the storm-filled plains.

They will inherit the earth only when the final
pilgrimage is done.

For in this life, the crystal lake and the great sword
of understanding, raised high, will not show
them mercy.

Far off, in the West, a light burns brightly. But
it is not for them.
(written 2013—not yet published)

An interesting field of study, genetics.

when the final pilgrimage is done

when the final
pilgrimage is done

“. . . push aside the needy in the gate. . .”

Boy, do I have a Ponzi scheme for you!

Boy, do I have a Ponzi scheme for you!

My dad was 78 years old when Bill Clinton was elected President.

Dad had an interesting take on that election. He was glad the unprincipled socialist Democrats had won. That meant when the Republicans ousted them, the GOP would have a mandate to get the country back on track because people would be tired of the insanity.

He was not surprised Bill Clinton was caught in a sex scandal and all the side-circuses that went along with it. He was, however, dumbfounded at the invasion of Iraq by the Republicans a short six years later. Barack Obama was the only Democrat he voted for in 19 elections. He cast his last vote for President in 2008.

I’m less than two months from my 70th birthday, as anyone who knows me or reads my stuff knows. I’m quite vocal about it. I’m going to have the party to sum up all parties. January 3, 2015. Mark your calendar. I’ve voted for president 11 times. I’ve never (and, if I continue to vote, can’t imagine that I ever will) voted for a Republican. That means I’ve voted for the winner only 5 times. Yes, but for the loser only 6—a much better ratio than my father.

Just as my father was glad the unprincipled socialist Democrats took over the government in 1992, I’m glad the Republicans won both houses of Congress this week. I hope they keep that majority and win the Presidency in 2016.

That will hasten the day when the poor and the lower middle classes and the hand-wringing ineffectual “liberals” or “progressives” or whatever we call them these days actually band together to throw the Kochs and the Waltons and Karl Rove and such people out of power.

“Let them eat cake.”

When the American people (at least those who know that the whole system has been taken over by the snobs—the Lexus-driving, sushi-eating, materialistic rich and wannabees) come to their senses and realize that the myth of the American Dream applies only to those whose parents already dreamed the American Dream, they will rise up. This is not sour grapes or incitement to riot. The rising up probably won’t take place in my lifetime, but David Koch’s disingenuous (well, no, it’s worse than that—it’s hypocritical lying) insistence that we throw out our social contract and let everyone get rich will eventually be seen for what it is: using his enormous INHERITED wealth to move the political system to protect his enormous INHERITED wealth. If I had INHERITED a billion dollars, I’d want you all to keep your grubby hands off of it, too.

Me, for President

Me, for President

I know a brilliant, handsome, talented member of a college football team who—as you have already guessed because it has become a cliché of American life—is an African American who was recruited by the Division I college football programs when he was in high school. The high school from which he graduated was not the same one he had attended his first years in public secondary school.

It was, as he told me, “A white school.” In fact, it was the crème de la crème of the white schools—a private school that gave him a $50,000 scholarship to attend and play on its undefeated football team. He also had to work a total of 420 hours for the school during his senior year mowing lawns, washing windows, and cleaning up after his classmates in the cafeteria. He was one of a half dozen black students in the same situation.

His purpose in submitting to that humiliation was to insure that he received at least one year of education of high enough quality to enable him to enroll in college. The “black high school” he would have attended would not have provided enough background learning no matter how hard he worked.

Washing windows and cleaning up after his peers, he said, he learned that, without a college football scholarship to get him to college, he’d work that way the rest of his life. His forced labor taught him both humility and anger.

“Let them eat cake,” Alice Walton says.

Give them an hourly wage that doesn’t quite pay their bills, and then let those who are a little better off pay taxes to provide the millions working for her with food stamps to buy their cake. But for God’s sake, don’t give them health insurance. Let the middle class folks pay for their health care in expensive emergency rooms, or just let them die.

All in the name of the capitalist American Dream. It’s working for Alice Walton and David Koch, so why shouldn’t it work for those of us who didn’t inherit a billion dollars?

Our elected leaders have bought into the scam, the Ponzi scheme that is our government. Or, rather, Alice and David have spent so much money convincing so many of the people who are eating cake that they, too, can be rich that they have elected men (almost all straight—presumably—white men) who are willing to sell their public trust in order to cash in on a few of the crumbs Alice and David are willing to throw.

My football-playing acquaintance is working harder than you or I or Alice or David ever have or ever will work to succeed both athletically and academically because he knows if his dream of playing in the NFL doesn’t work out, he will need some other way to survive. And he doesn’t want to clean up after you in restaurants all his life. (He is, by the way, one of the tiny, tiny percentage of young men trapped in his situation who probably has the skill for his dream to come to fruition.)

So in 2016, if I vote, I will probably vote for Ted Cruz for President. Because I think that may be the only way to hasten the day when justice will roll down.

I hate it when someone quotes the Bible to tell me I’m filthy and going to hell because I have sex with men instead of women. So I really do wish there were another way to say this. But since most people in this country believe that the God of Israel inspired the life that Alice and David want us to provide them with, I will remind you that one of the prophets who most closely (apparently) predicted what would happen to the people of ancient Judea said some pretty scary things about the American
Dream. From the fifth chapter of Amos:

Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate. . .
Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord:
In all the squares there shall be wailing;
and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! alas!’
They shall call the farmers to mourning,
and those skilled in lamentation, to wailing;
in all the vineyards there shall be wailing,
for I will pass through the midst of you,

says the Lord.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Let them earn a real living. Forget the cake (or the wonderful art museum in Arkansas, or the Cancer research center at MIT).

In the white high school

In the white high school

The Last Lecture in Highland Park

Joseph-Campbell-Quotes-1

May, 5, 2014
Southern Methodist University
MY LAST LECTURE
to the students in Discovery and Discourse 1313, Sections 27, 28, 29, and 30
Harold A. Knight, PhD

The academic year 1963-1964, was momentous in a way that few others have been since. The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated here in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Less than three months later, on February 9, 1964, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, their first live appearance in the United States.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy changed American politics forever, and the arrival of the Beatles changed American music—both popular and classical–forever. But my intention is not to talk about music or politics.

That academic year was also momentous because it was my first year in college. I left home late in August, boarding a bus at the Greyhound terminal in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, and riding three days to San Bernardino, California, where a station wagon (not an SUV!!!) from the University of Redlands was waiting to take me the twenty miles to Redlands.

I had been to California once on a family vacation in 1953, but I had never been to Redlands.

That back story is necessary for me to make sense of what I want to tell you. My choice of the University of Redlands was virtually the roll of the dice. I had been accepted other places, but my senior English teacher told me that I needed to go to Redlands because it was the farthest from Omaha.

Until that time, I had planned to enroll at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where I was guaranteed a full tuition scholarship because of my scores on statewide exams. I was going to major in English and concentrate in creative writing. I planned to take organ lessons on the side to progress in my favorite hobby.

But here’s what really happened. When I registered to take organ lessons at the University Of Redlands School Of Music, I had to audition to be assigned a teacher. I played the G major “Gigue” fugue by Bach from memory. Immediately the Chairman of the School of Music and head of the organ department offered me a scholarship to make up the difference between what I had already been given and full tuition if I would be an organ performance major. My ego could not refuse. And so I became a music major instead of a creative writing major.

What bliss to play the organ here.

University of Redlands Chapel: What bliss to play the organ here.

It might seem that I let others, authority figures, make important decisions for me. I don’t think I did so any more than 18-year-olds generally do. In 1963 I had no driving passion. I did not know—in terms I later learned from the great teacher of spirituality, Joseph Campbell—what my “bliss” was, much less how to follow it. By “bliss” Campbell meant that which fills one with joy and gives meaning and purpose to one’s life.

I want to read Joseph Campbell’s admonition.

“Follow your bliss.
If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”

For much of my life I have not followed my bliss.

I have not followed a straight-forward path. My life has been mostly a great series of detours. In that academic year 1963-1964 I think it is fair to say I had no concept of a trajectory for my life. I had no idea what I wanted to be if I ever grew up.

I still don’t.

I do not regret any of the decisions I have made that led me to the place where I am now. I do—even though Charles Schwab says I should not—ask myself, “How did I get here?”

We all have to figure out how certain personal idiosyncrasies affect our decisions and our lives. Now is not the time to talk about mine, except to say that I’ve done pretty well considering some difficulties I’ve had to overcome—all centered in my brain. The particular demons of my life are Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Bipolar disorder, and alcoholism. That’s all I will say about that except that discovering and naming them so I could deal with them took too much of my energy until I was forty years old. In some ways I allowed them to keep me from discovering my bliss so I could follow it.

When I was twenty-nine years old, I finally made the decision to try to fulfill the promise of my undergraduate education and earn a PhD in Organ Literature at the University of Iowa. That meant quitting a well-paying but tedious job that I hated–how I hated it!–selling my house in Upland, California, and moving with my (late ex-) wife halfway across the country.

Shortly after I made the decision, I had a conversation with an uncle in which we talked about my pending move.
He asked me, “Do you mean you think you have the right to give up everything and move to Iowa so you can make a living doing what you want to do?” He had been stuck in a high-powered, enormously lucrative job that he hated his entire life and could not imagine chucking everything to follow what I thought at the time was my bliss.

I thought I could, and I did.

The convoluted story by which I ended up teaching First-year writing at Southern Methodist University in Dallas is too boring to tell here, except to say that it involved a seventeen-year sojourn in Boston—for which I am grateful—a story which began by my thinking that having found HIM, and I would be happy divorcing my wife and moving the rest of the way across the country to live with him.

It was neither the first nor the last time I made a life-changing decision based on my confusing fun, momentary happiness, and self-centeredness for my BLISS. My move to Dallas to be with my partner (not the HIM of my first move) was fortunately a rational decision that set me on a path much more likely to help me follow my bliss. I came to Dallas in 1994 both to be with my partner and to work on another PhD, this one finally in creative writing. I discovered after passing the comprehensive exams that I did not need a second PhD, but that work enabled my being hired to teach English at SMU.

When I moved to Dallas, I also found a position as music director at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmers Branch.

My partner died in 2004—five years after I began teaching at SMU. St. Paul Lutheran closed in 2010.

Today marks the end of my formal teaching career. My 3 PM class today will be my last at SMU.

I’m giving this lecture for a couple of reasons. The first is purely selfish. I believe that changes like the one I am making today need to be marked, to be celebrated, definitively. I need to put a period on this chapter of my life.
That’s not quite as self-centered as it may seem.

The second reason is to say something to you that you probably can’t really hear today, but that you may remember sometime along the path and know that you are not alone on that path.

Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.
Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.
Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.

I’m sure that for most of you, finding your bliss means making piles of money, or being famous, or both. Making piles of money is not a bad thing, but it cannot be your bliss. Your bliss has to be something that goes on in your head, and in the life of your emotions.

Money, even billions of dollars, cannot be your bliss.
Period.

I love Alice Walton—you know, owner with her siblings of Walmart. She is, according to Forbes Magazine, the eighth richest person in America, worth $33.5 billion. She’s taken a few millions of her dollars and created the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, a truly wondrous place with a breathtaking collection of American art—free and open to the public. And you can take pictures of the art—unlike all other museums.

But the most famous photograph of Alice is the mug shot taken one of the times she was arrested for drunk driving in Ft. Worth. I think I can say—being a drunk in recovery myself—with some authority that I doubt her billions have insured that she’s following her bliss.

Money, even billions of dollars, cannot be your bliss.

Poetry might be a good bliss to follow.
Or the symphonies of Mozart.
Or the music of the Beatles.
Or the eternal attempt to answer once for all whether or not JFFK’s assassination was a conspiracy.
Or building a robot that will give the blind their sight.
Or singing in the opera Fidelio.
Or finding the “God particle.”
Or living passionately with the love of your life for fifty years.
My bliss is partly reading weird stuff about strange subjects such as ORLAN, the role of American fundamentalist Christians in the shaping of the absurd US policy toward Israel and Palestine, or Abraham Lincoln’s speeches.
My bliss is playing the organ. (I have a pipe organ in my living room).
My bliss is trying to help college students discover something they might never have known if I hadn’t helped them along the way.

And that brings me to my real bliss.

My bliss is loving other people. I don’t know how to show it most of the time. I’ve really botched most of my relationships. I haven’t had a primary relationship for ten years—whatever that says. But in two weeks I’m going to have a retirement party, and thirty people will be there, most of whom will know only five or so of the others. And they are all people I love. Christians, Muslims, atheists. Intellectuals, scholars, plumbers, office administrators. Old people, young people.

You can do much worse than making your bliss simply trying to feel and think positively about everyone you meet. And being kind. Always being kind.

My long-distance cyber friend, the poet Michael Blumenthal, wrote a poem which I’m going to pass out to you when I finish. It’s called simply, “Be Kind.” Here’s a bit of it.

Abe and Me

Abe and Me

Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness and uncertainty of
its recompense. . . why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squiggles to prevail?
. . . in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled. . .

By following my bliss I have learned something about poetry, and I know you have to know what a hedgehog is to understand this poem. Hedgehogs are furry little mammals who, when they are threatened, roll themselves up into little balls, and their fur becomes almost as prickly as a porcupine.

You will not find your bliss by rolling yourself into a ball and hurting anyone who tries to come too close.

Do you want to know why I love the work of Flannery O’Connor and ORLAN so much? O’Connor wrote stories about what happens when people become hedgehogs—or, conversely, when they refuse to become hedgehogs or learn not to be.

ORLAN has lived her life doing things that no sane person would do, we think. But she is the farthest thing from a hedgehog. She’s out there on the edge showing us how to be both narcissistic and totally transparent at the same time.

As all of you know, Don Siegel warned us, talking about his wonderfully bizarre little film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers,

People are pods. . . They have no feelings. They exist, breathe, sleep. To be a pod means that you have no passion, no anger, the spark has left you. . . of course, there’s a very strong case for being a pod. These pods, who get rid of pain, ill-health and mental disturbances are, in a sense, doing good. It happens to leave you in a very dull world but that, by the way, is the world that most of us live in.

It’s easy to be judgmental. Donald Stirling is a pod. Alice Walton is a pod.
Oh, come on. We all have the potential to be pods.
Just don’t.
Find your bliss.

That’s the best I can do—quote someone else. But I have only a few years left to find my bliss. I’m still trying to make sure, as Joseph Campbell said, that “the life [I] ought to be living is the one [I am] living.” If I can be on that path in my 70th year, I beg you to start now.

You’ve got only 50 years left to find your bliss.

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

“. . . by dividing the shame among them, it is so little apiece that no one minds it.” —Benjamin Franklin

Are you ready to eat some cake?

Are you ready to eat some cake?

Benjamin Franklin thought an absolute monarchy was preferable to an oligarchy:

The arbitrary government of a single person is more eligible, than the arbitrary government of a body of men. A single man may be afraid or ashamed of doing injustice; a body is never either one or the other, if it is strong enough. It cannot apprehend assassination, and by dividing the shame among them, it is so little apiece that no one minds it  (“Political Observation.” Franklin’s Sayings. Ebook available from Google Books).

It’s a good thing to be sick now and then to keep us humble. I wonder what David Koch and Alice Walton do when they get a cold that lasts with a fever of 100 degrees for four days. Do they have access to doctors and medications better and more effective than rest of us, or do they suffer, too? I can’t imagine David Koch with a cold.

So I’m writing almost nothing today because I can’t write more. I haven’t written for four days. That in itself is enough to make me sick – crazy, at any rate.

My purpose today is very simple. If I can get one person to listen to the Bill Moyers/Paul Krugman discussion of Tomas Piketty’s book on capitalism in the 21st century, or—better yet—buy the book and read it, I will have done my part in bringing about the beginning of the revolution we need in this country.

Here are hyperlinks to Picketty’s seminal book and the discussion by Bill Moyers and Paul Krugman.

That old rabble -rouser!

That old rabble -rouser!

If you want to understand the world in this necessary new way, you might look for and read the following academic articles (I realize that academics are suspect and seen as rabid commies or something in the anti-intellectual milieu of this country, but I’ll make the suggestion).
________________

Fukuyama, Francis. “Left Out.” American Interest 6.3 (2011): 22-28.
(Francis Fukuyama is Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute of Stanford University.) This article is available online.

“Scandalous as it may sound to the ears of Republicans schooled in Reaganomics, one critical measure of the health of a modern democracy is its ability to legitimately extract taxes from its own elites. The most dysfunctional societies in the developing world are those whose elites succeed either in legally exempting themselves from taxation, or in taking advantage of lax enforcement to evade them, thereby shifting the burden of public expenditure onto the rest of society” (Fukuyama).

“Another set of ideas was of even more direct help to the wealthy: Reaganomics. Supply-side economics provided a principled justification for the rich paying lower taxes on the grounds that entrepreneurial incentives unleashed by lower marginal tax rates would not merely trickle but pour down both via public finance and through the creation of employment. This argument was likely true at the near 90 percent marginal rates that prevailed after World War II, but those rates were reduced in several waves beginning in the 1960s. Clinton’s tax increases of the early 1990s brought rates up only slightly, and didn’t have the growth-killing effects widely predicted by Republicans—just the opposite, they preceded one of the great economic expansions of recent memory. The benefits of the Bush-era cuts flowed overwhelmingly to the wealthy, and yet were promoted on the grounds that lower rates would redound to everyone’s benefit. This is still a gospel that many people continue to believe, including, oddly enough, all too many of those left

Nothing to fear but George Lucas's money

Nothing to fear but George Lucas’s money

behind” (Fukuyama).

________________

“Too Important for Clever Titles — Scientific Study Says We Are an Oligarchy (Update).”
Daily KOS (Mon Apr 14, 2014)
________________

Piketty, Thomas, and Emmanuel Saez. “Top Incomes and The Great Recession: Recent Evolutions and Policy Implications.” IMF Economic Review 61.3 (2013): 456-478.
This article is available online.
________________

Spitz, Janet. “Intentioned Recession: An Ideologically Driven Re-Structuring.” New Political Science 33.4 (2011): 445-464.
This article is available online.

“. . . Street urchins make more than me. Water tastes funny without cups. . .”

"Flowers," by Joe Brainard

“Flowers,” by Joe Brainard

Michael Rohrer is a poet. A published poet. A respected poet. A poet whose poetry I happen to like. And not only because he is gay.

I’ve been reminded by a couple of friends lately the stated purpose of this blog (as opposed to my serious blog, Sumnonrabidus—my pidgin Latin for “I am not crazy”—which has been around for a long time) is to write “a light-hearted look at my experience of getting old” (see “about” above).

See “about” above.
See above about.

(I think if I were a poet, I could make something quite lovely out of “about above.” Say it over and over and see what happens to your tongue and your mind.)

I’m pretty sure I don’t “get” Michael Rohrer’s poem, “Jangling” completely. Starting with the problem that poetry.org says it was written by Rohrer and Joshua Beckman. I wonder if they are simply two poets who put poems in the same book and then say they both wrote all of them or they work together on writing poems (which doesn’t seem fair somehow) or if they are lovers/partners/married and Rohrer thinks he has to put Beckman’s name on his work, too (I hope he’s not that “co-dependent”). Rohrer is also a blogger whose work I read quite often.

“Jangling,” by Matthew Rohrer and Joshua Beckman
Money cannot find me.
I try to be reasonable but money is horridly banal.
Money, blow and blow is what I think about you.
Street urchins make more than me.
Water tastes funny without cups.
How far will I go?
Jingle jingle jingle.
Despite holes that compromise living rooms, friends visit.
Money money and more holes to look into.
You are dangerously close to falling.
The money said nothing.
The neighbors called up to us, “Your whole system sounds cockeyed!”
They suck the life from each other and we pay the bill.
Money always whispers,
“You pathetic humans don’t know my true name.”
I know my own name.
It is something exaggeratedly French.

Chaos? by Joe Brainard

Chaos? by Joe Brainard

 

So I like the first line. “Money cannot find me.” It’s true. Whatever I do, money seems to slip right by me without even noticing I’m there. “Well,” you’re probably saying, “anyone who writes so disparagingly about capitalism shouldn’t care whether money finds him or not, so stop being hypocritical.” You’d be right in saying that. I think capitalism (at least as it’s played out these days) is gross. Terrible. Unspiritual. And designed to keep the poor at the same level of poverty they’re at while making the rich richer by the day. Alice Walton, don’t you see, needs the money. I’ve been to Crystal Bridges. I’ve seen what too much money can do to a person. (That’s a cheap shot because I actually loved Crystal Bridges and can’t wait to go back. Oh, yes. Alice paid for it. The whole thing. Doesn’t absolve her for anything, but it’s a great place.)

Joe Brainard isn’t one of my favorite poets—because he wasn’t really a poet. But “I’d walk a mile for” an exhibition of his art (you get that reference only if you remember when cigarettes were advertised on TV).

I think Joe must have been my kind of guy, and I must get back to Ron Padgett’s memoir of him. I don’t mean he was my kind of guy because he was gay or because, if he were still alive, he’d be about my age. No, I can tell by the picture of his studio he and I had something in common. He obviously was inspired somewhat by living in (immediate physical) chaos. I, on the other hand, just live in immediate physical chaos. He was a successful gay artist. I am a gay dilettante, not quite successful at anything.

Here’s the deal. “Street urchins make more than me.”

And that bothers me a little. It’s a conundrum. I think our national religion of capitalism is inhumane and (I hate to use the word because I don’t want anyone to say it about me—especially about my being gay) sinful. But here I am about to retire (in less than a month), and I’m not sure how I’m going to continue to pay the rent until—when? like my father until I’m 97?—I die.

I try to be reasonable but money is horridly banal.
Money, blow and blow is what I think about you
.

So on the one hand there’s this gay poet (or these two working in tandem?) writing cleverly about money. And then there’s the really clever gay artist writing about “life.” And I think he’s got it about right. I don’t know when he wrote, “I suspect that each of us is going to wake up some morning to suddenly find ourselves old men (or women) without knowing how we got that way. Wondering where it all went.” Was it before or after he learned he was dying of AIDS?

And I think he’s got it just about right here, too. “We are all a bit fucked up, and here lies the problem. To try and get rid of the fucked up parts, so we can just relax and be ourselves.”

Money, AIDS, poetry, art for Matthew and Joe.

And for me, so much more stuff I can’t even begin to list it. But I want “To try and get rid of the fucked up parts” so I can just relax and be myself. I don’t know how to do that yet. Never have. But if I figure out the paying the rent part, I’ll keep you posted on how I learn to relax and be myself.

There. Is that “a light-hearted look at my experience of getting old?” It’s about as close as I can get, most likely.

“Life,” by Joe Brainard

When I stop and think about what it’s all about I do come up with some answers, but they don’t help very much.

       I think it is safe to say that life is pretty mysterious. And hard.

       Life is short. I know that much. That life is short. And that it’s important to keep reminding oneself of it. That life is short. Just because it is. I suspect that each of us is going to wake up some morning to suddenly find ourselves old men (or women) without knowing how we got that way. Wondering where it all went. Regretting all the things we didn’t do. So I think that the sooner we realize that life is short the better off we are.

       Now, to get down to the basics. There are 24 hours a day. There is you and there are other people. The idea is to fill these 24 hours as best one can. With love and fun. Or things that are interesting. Or what have you. Other people are most important. Art is rewarding. Books and movies are good fillers, and the most reliable.

       Now you know that life is not so simple as I am making it sound. We are all a bit fucked up, and here lies the problem. To try and get rid of the fucked up parts, so we can just relax and be ourselves. For what time we have left.

More flowers by Joe Brainard

More flowers by Joe Brainard

 

 

“. . . he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

In the two days since I wrote about “pimping merchants” several people have contacted me. None of them got my point. They all turned what I said into a political statement which it is not. Some applauded, some did not.

The Bible

The Bible

Apparently none of them read my sentence, “I am not writing about government or capitalism or regulation or anything political. I’m writing about greed—corporate greed, small business greed, your greed, government greed, and yes, my greed.”

The fact that billions of people on the planet do not have enough of the basic necessities—food, clothing, shelter, water, safety—is not a political problem. It is not a problem of capitalism versus socialism. It is not a philosophical conundrum.

It is a matter of morality.

Do we Americans have ability to think about anyone but ourselves? Especially those of us who think we’re in what used to be the middle class and those above us on the economic ladder.

Some people are so brainwashed by the “American dream” that they think it is reality. That God or the Bible or some mystical power invented capitalism, and if we just believe hard enough and fight for it consistently enough, God or that mystical power, or we ourselves will cast down the non-believers from their thrones and the world will be saved.

At least you and I will be saved. And rich.

I don’t know why understanding the morality of money and its possession is so difficult. I’m not very smart (I know smart people, and I ain’t one), but I get it. If anyone is hungry, we’re all responsible.

Period.

The Gospel According to Luke begins with the declaration that what God does is all about equalizing resources.

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53, NRSV).

He (God) has sent the rich away empty. That’s how it begins.

Go ahead, explain that away. Tell me I’m proof-texting, cherry-picking, using one little sentence from the Bible to prove a point. Tell me I’m as bad as the ante-bellum  Americans who used the Bible to justify slavery.

It may come as a surprise to many christians, but the Bible is full of stuff about bringing the rich down and helping the poor. Read the parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).

The Quran is likewise adamant about serving the poor. “Those who spend (in the cause of Allah) privately or publicly, by night and day, have their reward with their Lord. And (on the Day of Resurrection) they shall neither fear nor grieve” (Al-Baqarah 2:274). “Allah eliminates usury (i.e. deprives usurious profits of prosperous growth) and multiplies alms gifts (i.e. increases blessings of clean wealth manifold through charity donations). And Allah does not like anyone who is ungrateful and disobedient” (Al-Baqarah 2:276).

I don’t know much about Hinduism, but I have read articles offering Hindu ideas similar to “. . . Hindu temples continue to promote charitable and community activities. Still, the highest praise in Hindu history is not reserved for the generous but for those who regard wealth with indifference and are able, when the proper stage of life arrives, to renounce all their belongings” (“Hinduism on Wealth and Poverty.” Resources. Georgetown.edu. Web.)

I don’t know if there is a religion on the planet that extols wealth—besides Joel Osteen’s “Prosperity Gospel.” Perhaps some do. But those that are easily researched certainly don’t.

The wonder of magical thinking

The wonder of magical thinking

“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. . .’” (Matthew 25:34, NRSV). This is definitely not a parable. It’s a prophecy or—if you believe Jesus is the Son of God—a statement of what will happen. “Then will (God) say to them. . .” Those on his right hand are those who took care of the poor, the sick, the weak.

I’m not preaching Christianity. It’s the religious tradition I know and from which I am an apostate (but not a very committed one). Whether or not I believe the fine points of the theology, it has shaped my thinking.

I’m not sure how anyone who accepts religion can believe that the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer is in any way congruent with any religion.

And for those who do not believe,

Will and feeling should keep pace with thought if man is to grow as his knowledge grows. If this cannot be achieved – if, while knowledge becomes cosmic, will and feeling remain parochial – there will be a lack of harmony producing a kind of madness, with disastrous effects (Bertrand Russell, Basic Writings, page 370).

Parochial will and feeling—looking after oneself—will produce a kind of madness. Russell goes on to say that, having more than one needs produces “rivalry.” I would say that rivalry takes shape best in capitalism.

Capitalism is a religion. It is a religion in every sense of the word. It “works” only if people believe in it. It has a mythology (beginning with “the invisible hand”), and it requires sacrifice. Just as surely as the Incas at Machu Picchu offered up their children as sacrifices to placate the gods, societies devoted to capitalism offer up the poorer classes to placate the gods of poverty. The religion is based on magical thinking. The explanation for the necessity for the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer has become the evidence. Those who believe in capitalism are convinced that it’s necessary for Alice Walton to hire 1.4 million people at below-subsistence wages in order to keep making her billions of dollars so she can hire more people to live in poverty to support her lavish lifestyle and her political power. Capitalism is as primitive a religion as any human society has ever dreamed up. And, for reasons which I don’t understand (remember I know smart people, and I know I ain’t one of them) it’s the basic American religion. Or magical thinking.

Children and poor sacrificed here.

Children and poor sacrificed here.

“. . . 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.