“. . . We don’t know whether these rules preexist our universe . . .” (Karl Giberson)

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The Golden Gate, Jerusalem. Ha Rachamim (Gate of Mercy). Built (perhaps) 810 AD, opened 1102 AD, closed 1540 AD to wait for the coming of the Messiah (Ezekiel 44:1-3). Reality? Why does it go to the bother? (Photo: Harold Knight, Nov. 2015)

For about a week I’ve been writing my magnum opus. I’m delving into everything I think/feel/believe about life, death, thought, unconsciousness, physical fitness, eating, making love, and generally being on the face of the earth. It will probably take me another day or two to finish it.

No, really. All of that stuff.

Should be quite a tome, don’t you think?

I started because I finally (after 60-70 years) got around to trying to write a description of my experience of what I’ve always called dissociation. The description asks in part,

I feel my brain. Physically. That gives me a weird sensation of awareness of my entire body — but especially my head — that makes it feel very close and real, but at the same time distant and as if I have no control over it. . . How am I supposed to do anything, accomplish anything, be close to anyone when I feel as if my mind and my body are at war with each other. These are the times I come the closest to wanting to die. Why can’t I just feel “normal?” Every cell in my body is tingling, but it’s as if someone else is feeling it, not me ― I am happening in someone else’s mind.

I’m right in the thick of my magnum opus. What do I think/feel/believe about life, death, thought, unconsciousness, and all of those other things?

Mostly I think none of it is real.

Turns out there are names for the way I think/feel/believe ― straight from the APA black book. When I read my description to my psychiatrist, she obliged me by opening the APA book handing it to me to read.

Depersonalization disorder is marked by periods of feeling disconnected or detached from one’s body and thoughts. The disorder is sometimes described as feeling like you are observing yourself from outside your body or like being in a dream. However, people with this disorder do not lose contact with reality. An episode of depersonalization can last anywhere from a few minutes to many years.

Derealization is a subjective experience of unreality of the outside world, while depersonalization is unreality in one’s sense of self. Although most authors currently regard derealization (surroundings) and depersonalization (self) as independent constructs, many do not want to separate derealization from depersonalization because these symptoms often co-occur. Feelings of unreality may blend in and the person may puzzle over deciding whether it is the self or the world that feels unreal to them.

Oh, and just to clarify what the black book says, depersonalization might be a symptom of other disorders, including some forms of substance abuse (), certain personality disorders such as bipolar disorder (), and seizure disorders ().

So writing out what I think/feel/believe is quite simple.

Mostly, none of it is real.

I read a lot of weird shit. You know, about the Big Bang and all that stuff. Of course I read only dumbed-down science because I don’t know enough to read real science. The other day I read,

One thing we do know now about that mysterious beginning is that it proceeded according to a precise set of rules. We don’t know whether these rules preexist our universe. We just know that they are there “in the beginning” and that they constrain what can and cannot happen. (Karl Giberson, “Cosmos from Nothing?” Christian Century June 10, 2015.)

I’m not in the habit of reading Christian Century. I think if anyone knows what’s real and what’s not, it’s not likely to be someone writing in a journal with “Christian” in the name.

However, Giberson does ask some nifty questions like, “Why does the universe go to the bother of existing?” And in part of his discussion of that question, he says

Our remarkable universe is just the lucky one among stillborn trillions incapable of hosting life. In The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, cosmologist Brian Greene identifies no less than nine independent ways to produce an infinity of alternate worlds, any one of which can produce a universe like ours without a superintellect monkeying with the physics.

But Giberson is skeptical because, “A scientific drawback to these theories is that none of these posited realities have any empirical connection to our reality—at least at the present time.”

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The sky over the Bedouin town of Sousia in Palestine. Why does it go to the bother? (Photo: Harold Knight, Nov. 2015)

All Giberson or Greene or any of those guys need to do to get a glimpse of the posited realities that have no empirical connection to our reality is find a way to experience what an epileptic experiences with regularity.

If what I feel, see, hear, smell, and taste is, in fact, happening to someone else and they don’t know it, does that reality have any empirical connection to our reality? Do I even have an empirical reality?

I know what you are thinking. I’m making up word games or something to try to explain a weirdness in my life for which no explanation is obvious and which is crazy-making to me (in the sense that it drives me crazy, not that I am crazy).

One thing we do know now about that mysterious beginning is that it proceeded according to a precise set of rules. We don’t know whether these rules preexist our universe.

We don’t know whether these rules preexist our universe. What if―just what if?―some of us are given a glimpse of the reality that nothing is real? What if it’s possible to live in a place where the reality we all take for granted slips away in “an episode of depersonalization [that] can last anywhere from a few minutes to many years?”

“Why does the universe go to the bother of existing?”

If I feel depersonalized, why should we assume that I’m the odd one? I may be the only one who has a grip on things, who knows there’s no grip to be had.

Mr. Descartes, doesn’t it make exactly as much sense to say, “I think, therefore I am not?”

Just sayin’.

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The Damascus Gate, Jerusalem, built 1541. Entrance to the Old City. Arab Quarter. Why does it go to the bother? (Photo: Harold Knight, Nov. 2015)

“. . . 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

“There are trout that die of old age and their white beards flow to the sea” (Richard Brautigan)

brautingan blogWho remembers Trout Fishing in America? That kinky out-of-step-with-the-normal book that helped shape the thinking of a couple of generations of American wannabe drop-outs. It was published in 1967, the year I graduated from college. Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) was one of the “Beat Generation” writers.

I read Trout Fishing when I was working in the 1972 George McGovern Presidential campaign. Our Campaign Guru from the East, gave it to me. The same way he gave me “Manassas,” the new (1972) album by Stephen Stills. (He said as he handed it to me—and this I remember exactly—“Don’t you listen to any music at all?”) All of this to make sure the McGovern Campaign in San Bernardino County, CA, was staffed by people who knew what was going on in the world (and to lighten his load a bit by finding me something to talk about besides Bach, Karl Barth, and Beverly Sills). He also arranged for a group of us to see Harold and Maude on a night off.

Poor Al. He not only worked with me 14 hours a day 7 days a week, but he rented a room in my house.

I wonder why I remember Trout Fishing in America. I recently came across a reference to the novel and had to look it up to find one of the sections I have carried around in my memory all these years, the chapter “Trout Death by Port Wine.” Probably because when I read it I was perilously close to dying by, not port wine, but some other “strong drink,” as my father would have said. I couldn’t quote it exactly, but for years I’ve remembered the sentence, “It is against the natural order of death for a trout to die by having a drink of port wine” (a snippet of the chapter is printed below to give you a flavor of the writing).

For some time I’ve been keeping an eye out for poems about friendship. Probably because I’d like to write a poem about friendship that doesn’t sound like a Hallmark card. I have nothing against Hallmark cards, but I would hope my poetry—if I knew how to write any—would be of a different variety. You know, post-postmodern, not rhyming, maybe not even sentences that make sense, but sounding beautiful with a sudden and unexpected profundity or sweet image at the end (that’s my description, not one garnered from a graduate seminar in wacky literature or anything like that).

That’s also something of a description of my personal writing, I think. Wandering around discussing some memory or current state of my affairs or the world’s, not making a whole lot of sense, and then suddenly at the end I get to the point (sometimes out of the blue), and I understand it whether anyone else does or not.

Back to Richard Brautigan. He was a tormented soul. Bipolar with a vengeance, or so all the biographical sketches say. A drunk (or was it heroin addict?). He shot himself in the head, and his body wasn’t found until it had pretty much decomposed—he was living off in the woods somewhere so he could go trout fishing. A tormented soul, as I said. I remember being aware a few years back (more than a few) that he had died. That was pre-Google, so I couldn’t research him easily, but I knew about the bullet to the head—sort of like Hemingway.

This is a cheery little piece, isn’t it? (Funny thing about writing. I wouldn’t dare to write about someone shooting himself in the head—I’ve said that about enough times now—when I am depressed myself. It would be too hard, too close to home.)

But I’m quite serene and unstressed this morning. I ought to be. This is my third day without a job—retired, remember.

Really, four plus 27

Really, four plus 27

And in my retirement (is that a weird thing to say, or what?) I’ve been thinking a great deal about friendship. I had a big retirement party last Saturday, and 31 of my closest friends (that’s not a joke or hyperbole but the honest truth) showed up to eat and talk and sing (seven songs from the ‘50s with me at the Steinway grand) and give me more hugs than I’d had total in the six months previous. Most of them knew only four or five of the others, but I knew everyone. With every person there I have shared a moment at one time or another when one of us managed to do just what was needed for the other—with some of them, that moment of giving/receiving has been reciprocal time after time.

So I’ve been hoping to find (or—not likely—write) the perfect poem about friendship. Then I remembered it’s been only a couple of months since I wrote about one of my favorite friendship poems, “Your Catfish Friend,” by (who else?) Richard Brautigan.

Louisianans and Texans like to think they have a special right to catfish. Perhaps they do, at least for eating. But I remember the catfish people snared from the North Platte River when I was a kid in Western Nebraska. I don’t remember that we ate them, but we knew what they were. Pretty nasty sorts of things.

I need to remember Brautigan’s poem as I think about friendship. It’s sad to think he perhaps didn’t understand it himself, or perhaps, living in the woods alone he didn’t have enough people around him to throw a party and get 31 times oodles of hugs.

But the idea that a friend can drive lonely thoughts from my mind even (or perhaps especially) when I don’t know my friend is near and/or thinking about me is a stunning idea. Even a friend I might not think capable of such thoughts, One of those ideas that keeps me sane and safe.

“Your Catfish Friend” Richard Brautigan (1935 – 1984)

If I were to live my life
in catfish forms
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by
one evening
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge
of my affection
and think, “It’s beautiful
here by this pond. I wish
somebody loved me,”
I’d love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be
at peace,
and ask yourself, “I wonder
if there are any catfish
in this pond? It seems like
a perfect place for them.”

TROUT DEATH BY PORT WINE
It was not an outhouse resting upon the imagination.

It was reality.

An eleven-inch rainbow trout was killed. Its life taken forever from the waters of the earth, by giving it a drink of port wine.

It is against the natural order of death for a trout to die by having a drink of port wine.

It is all right for a trout to have its neck broken by a fisherman and then to be tossed into the creel or for a trout to die from a fungus that crawls like sugar-colored ants over its body until the trout is in death’s sugarbowl.

It is all right for a trout to be trapped in a pool that dries up in the late summer or to be caught in the talons of a bird or the claws of an animal.

Yes, it is even all right for a trout to be killed by pollution, to die in a river of suffocating human excrement.

There are trout that die of old age and their white beards flow to the sea.

All these things are in the natural order of death, but for a trout to die from a drink of port wine, that is another thing.

No mention of it in “The treatyse of fysshynge wyth an angle,” in the Boke of St. Albans, published 1496. No mention of it in Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream, by H. C. Cutcliffe, published in 1910. No mention of it in Truth Is Stranger than Fishin’, by Beatrice Cook, published in 1955. No mention of it. . .
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“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. . .” (Robert Herrick)

rosebudsOne of my students is on the cusp of failing because she has not submitted the longest essay of the semester. The essay is a 10-page expository essay on the work of the French performance artist ORLAN (I’m not shouting—that is legally her name, not Orlan).

I have written many times about ORLAN. I think she’s one of the most fascinating people in the world, and, while Paris is not one of the places I’m anxious to see before I die, I would buy ticket there if I knew I could meet her. The best of my writing about her is from three years ago—best because I am going to get my tattoo either today or tomorrow.

I’d guess most people think ORLAN is crazy or at least has some deep-seated psychological issss-ues that cause her to want to hurt her body. I don’t know. I’d also guess that anyone who is invited to lecture at the University of Nebraska—Nebraska?—can’t be publically certifiable.

I can’t imagine why my student has not finished her essay—she has written one almost-spectacular essay about ORLAN already, and she’s the only one of my students fluent enough in French to read ORLAN’s writings in the original.

I plan to become an authority on ORLAN—perhaps write a book about her after I’m sure I understand Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Maurice Merleu-Ponty, and all of the other (mostly French) thinkers who’ve influenced ORLAN according to C. Jill O’Bryan.

But back to my student. For some reason as I was trying to elicit an email response from her (six of mine to her—with notice requested that they were read) the cliché “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” popped into my head. Not that my class is rosy nice or anything, but she has a chance to get a grade in Discourse 1313 or she will have to take it over. Every student at SMU has to get through a section of Discourse 1313, and I can guarantee her none of the others are as fun as mine (except perhaps the one taught by one of my colleagues with Bart Simpson as its main research topic).

At any rate, I’ll bet almost everyone who might be reading this will be as surprised as I was to discover that “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is the first line of a bona fide poem that could be studied in a section of Discourse 1313 in which students research 17th-century English poetry. What, I’d guess, most people would assume being an academic is all about. Ugh!

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But back to my student. Music academia has an honorary fraternity for graduating student musicians. Pi Kappa Lambda. I don’t hold it against Linda that she was the one person from my college graduating class inducted into the fraternity. I think it was because the university knew Frederick Loewe would rather have dinner with her than with me. That’s right. He attended the University of Redlands—never graduated—and gave the School of Music lots of money, and the Pi Kappa Lambda inductee went to Palm Springs for dinner with him.

The Chairman of the School of Music told me one of the reasons they chose Linda over me was that, even though my GPA was high enough to graduate with honors (I didn’t because I didn’t finish my honors research project—do you see where this is going?), the faculty was distressed because they thought I had never worked up to my potential. The example he used was the Advanced Counterpoint class in which all of my work was A-quality, but I earned a B because I submitted nearly every assignment late.

So here’s my very bright, talented student getting ready to blow her chance to be inducted into Pi Kappa Lambda (well, she can’t be because she’s not a musician), and all I can do is sit helplessly by and wish it were not so, and beg her to “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

I, of course, am only now submitting her class’s grades because I’m still in the process of grading those essays on ORLAN. I have a reason—I was sick enough to go to bed for four days the week before finals, so I started the process a week behind. I have a good excuse. I wonder what hers is.

I’m not going to get into an orgy of self-flagellating for my regrets. I’ve never been able to get myself organized. There are at least three reasons for that—which I’ve also written about here. Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Bipolar II Disorder (diagnosed before it became the disease du jour), and simple lack of understanding the need to be organized Johnny-on-the-spot in this world. Pi Kappa Lambda isn’t the only honor I’ve not been awarded.

What most people probably don’t know (unless they were English majors) is that Herrick’s poem is titled “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” It’s about sowing wild oats—pretty explicitly sexual oats.

Well, I sowed my wild oats—sexual and otherwise—when I was in college. And that’s why I am so grieved by my student’s incipient failure. She would be the last person in my classes I would expect to fail. Bookish. Smart. Inquisitive. Bilingual. Has everything in the world going for her.

One aspect of teaching I will not be sorry to leave behind is the grief—I’m not being hyperbolic or maudlin—I feel every time a student fails. Surely an 18-year-old has plenty of time left to find out how difficult it is to be a human being on this planet. Especially to live in a society in which enough is never enough and too much is simply the incentive to get more.

“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” Robert Herrick, (1591 – 1674)

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying,

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

The prize for winning the prize

The prize for winning the prize

The Last Lecture in Highland Park

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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.

“. . . if my bubbles be too small for you, Blow bigger then your own. . . “

`bubblesYesterday’s newscasts included notice that the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez had died. He was 87.

He was but 18 years older than I. That’s on my mind because I’ve been talking to advisers about how to use the pittance I have put away for retirement, and I hope that, if I live to be 87, my money doesn’t end before I do. I’m sure his didn’t.

I distinctly remember Dean Anne Minton of Bunker Hill Community College telling me I MUST read Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. I tried. The closest I ever came to finishing it was meeting Edith Grossman, the translator, at the Center for Translation Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas a couple of years later when I was a graduate student there and took a course in translation

The copy I tried to read disappeared from my library at the great book giveaway I had a couple of years ago. As a faculty member at SMU, I can get an online copy. I will see if I can finish reading it.

This has been a week of much contemplation of what my life might have been. So many accomplishments such as reading Love in the Time of Cholera have simply slipped through my fingers that I am grieved by what I have not done. I know, I know, everyone my age experiences that discomfiture. If one does not have regrets, one is probably living in some sort of la-la-land.

I am not a concert organist (although I have given concerts), I have not written the great American novel (although I have two unfinished on 3 ½ inch floppy disks I can’t open), I am not a poet (although there’s plenty of what might be some stretch of imagination be called poetry on this computer), I am retiring not from a full professorship but from a 15-year fulltime lectureship, and in these golden years I am going to have to go looking for the gold to support myself..

There’s a whole lot of coulda shoulda woulda mighta in my life. Of course, if I had the ability to do any of those things, I probably would have, so I have no need to complain. I simply don’t have the brains or talent to have accomplished any more than I have.`love in the time of cholera

That’s not true. I’m pretty sure. Or is it? I’m confused. I’m unsure. I don’t know. My scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the SAT and the GRE all indicated that I would be more than marginally successful. I do have a PhD after all (proof of only one thing—the ability and willingness to jump through more hoops than the average citizen).

It’s no secret—or great discovery on my part—that hardly anyone who is 69 has no regrets. For example, I assume what is intended when PBS announces at the end of programs supported by the Carnegie Foundation, established by Andre Carnegie to do “real and permanent good,” that we’re supposed to think, “Isn’t that wonderful. He used all of his money to do Good and he can’t have any regrets.” It’s easy to give all of your money to do Good. Even you and I can do that with our pittances. His money is doing Good because in life he was a ruthless “robber baron” bastard for whom we should have little respect. Carnegie was able to assuage his conscience from “regrets” by thinking at the time of his death that his “Good” would live after him. I don’t mean that to be harshly judgmental, but a morality tale.

I’ve known a few people who lived to be 69 or 70 who seemed to have no regrets. I’m not going to make a catalog of them here. They were (are) all people for whom I have the highest regard, not for what they have done, but, more often, for what they have not done.

They are people who have managed not “To praise the very thing that [they deplore]” (E.A. Robinson). I could write a sentimental tribute to poverty, obedience, love, kindness, and so on. But I don’t need to. Anyone who reads this can fill in those blanks.

I’m not even going to write a sermonette about humility and graciousness and caring-for-one’s-fellow-man. I don’t need to do that, either. Except for a few people who are so far gone in self-centeredness they hardly seem to live on the same planet as the rest of us, we all give lip service to the sentiment expressed in the Bible, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8, NRSV). Would anyone who reads anything I write say they are against justice, kindness, and humility? I don’t want to associate with such a person.

Real and Permanent Good?

Real and Permanent Good?

I don’t know what I might have done with my life if I had not been an active alcoholic until I was 46, or if I didn’t have lots of other quirky obsessions that take up my time. Or if I didn’t have two little oddities in the way my brain works (not my mind—it has many more than two). Or if I were not simply lazy at the core. That’s probably why I didn’t read Love in the Time of Cholera when Anne gave it to me. Pure laziness, or obsessing about some other dumb thing.

No one else I know will admit to me that they can simply sit for an hour and do nothing—not watch TV, not play electronic games, not read, not—not anything. I can. Because I’m lazy?

What those people whom I respect can (could) do was to do nothing creatively and with a purpose. Somehow those people have (or had) a quality of simply being.

I’m not even sure what I mean by that.

“Dear Friends,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson
Dear friends, reproach me not for what I do,
Nor counsel me, nor pity me; nor say
That I am wearing half my life away
For bubble-work that only fools pursue.
And if my bubbles be too small for you,
Blow bigger then your own: the games we play
To fill the frittered minutes of a day,
Good glasses are to read the spirit through.  

And whoso reads may get him some shrewd skill;
And some unprofitable scorn resign,
To praise the very thing that he deplores;
So, friends (dear friends), remember, if you will,
The shame I win for singing is all mine,
The gold I miss for dreaming is all yours.

“. . . the forest beast could not abide the holy booming of Cybele. . .”

Cybele and her ox-eating lion

Cybele and her ox-eating lion

When I was a kid my Baptist preacher dad gave a Wednesday evening prayer meeting Bible study on Galatians. When he explained Galatians 5:12, my ears perked up and my memory went into high gear.

“I would they were even cut off which trouble you” (Galatians 5:12, KJV). Dad explained that “they” were exactly two in number. How could a pubescent (gay) boy ever forget Dad’s further explanation that it meant “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves” (NRSV)?

He explained the New Testament debate whether or not a man had to be circumcised to become a Christian. I’ve remembered ever since the New Testament version of “Go f- – – yourself,” which is “Go castrate yourself!” The Baptist preacher in the ‘50s explained this to the small but faithful band at Prayer.

These days, I don’t remember much, but I remember Dad’s Galatians lesson. Years ago I discovered the NT debate took place in the context of the cult of Cybele in Galatia with the earth-mother goddess Cybele and her cadre of “Corybants” dancing around her, men who were castrated (“eunuchs”) so nothing untoward could happen between them and the earth mother even if they were out-of-control.

One of the dangers of trying to write about one’s inner experience is that such writing can quickly degenerate into exhibitionism, self-pity, self-loathing, terror—a few of the less than desirable outcomes of self-revelation.
I question my motives when I write about what proper people do not talk about in public. Am I trying to shock? Am I looking for pity? validation? because I’m willing to expose myself and try to be honest? I continue to write here about my experiences in a way that could be described as exhibitionism or a confusion of immodest self-display for candor. I might be a Corybant dancing wildly in “licentiousness” (a word Dad taught us from the Bible).

Much as I would like it to be so, I don’t have Greek poetry floating in my head to pull out whenever I need it. I was trying to find a word to use for being wild and out-of-control, and my thesaurus recommended the old word I hadn’t thought of for years, “corybantic” (frenzied; agitated; unrestrained).

So, just for fun, I tried to find a hymn to Cybele—thinking there must be Ancient Greek ritual texts that would say something close to what I wanted to write.

An ox-eating lion came to the cave-mouth;
with the flat of his hand he struck the great timbrel he was carrying,
and the whole cave rang with the din:
the forest beast could not abide the holy booming of Cybele
and raced quickly up the forested mountain,
afraid of the goddess’ half-woman servant—
who hung up for Rheia these garments and yellow locks.
— —Stesichorus, Fragment 59 (trans. Campbell, Greek Lyrics Vol. III) (7th to 6th B.C.)

(Note: “half-woman servant” is a eunuch; “Rheia” is a more ancient name for Cybele.)

You see, it’s like this. Last Sunday I played the organ for the evening Eucharist at the church I belong to (and which I attend when they ask me to substitute at the organ). I was on something of a high when I finished. I love the chapel organ at the church, and I played extremely well, and all the music was wonderful stuff.

Her eunuchs, wild and out-of-control

Her eunuchs, wild and out-of-control

Monday morning I had an appointment with my orthopedic surgeon at 8:10. Before I left home, I had to give my cat Groucho his twice-daily insulin injection. He hates it—of course—and knows somehow, no matter how sneaky I try to be, when it’s coming, and he runs away. We had a tussle just before I left home, and I was nearly in tears. I hate that he is afraid of me. I grieve it.

I should have known being elated Sunday evening and frustrated less than 12 hours later was a recipe for disaster. I had allowed plenty of time but got caught in traffic on the way to the doctor’s office and when I tried to call to say I was on my way the answering machine said they didn’t open until 8:30 but I was supposed to be there at 8:10 who the fuck were they jerking around and I passed the exit to the hospital and took the wrong one then I was lost—how do you lose a hospital?—and ended up driving through Texas Instruments and realized I was in trouble when I was going 70 MPH on a residential street that was a dead-end and I had no idea where I was.

Screaming, crying blindly. Over the edge. Wild and out-of-control.

I won’t belabor the point. It ended without my injuring myself or others, and with my doctor’s care. But it took me two days to calm down, and writing about it now, I have tightness in my chest and want to cry again.

One of my projects of the last fifteen years has been to try to discover how my moods are coupled and what happens to send me into a wild and out-of-control state. I try never to think about these things on my own. My mind is like a bad neighborhood—I should never wander in there alone.

So my psychiatrist tells me anger management classes will not help me. That I must learn to understand that my “manic states [are] predominantly characterized by an emotional coupling between happiness and anger/fear” (Carolan, Louise A., and Mick J. Power. “What Basic Emotions Are Experienced In Bipolar Disorder?.” Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy 18.5 (2011): 366-378).

I know no one wants to hear about this, but I must time and time again wrestle this demon. It seems as mysterious as

. . . the whole cave rang with the din:
the forest beast could not abide the holy booming of Cybele
and raced quickly up the forested mountain . . .

Ancient Greek religion can be as useful as any other.

How can you lose a hospital?

How can you lose a hospital?