“Little is certain, other than the tide. . .” (Amy Clampitt)

Birthday number 2 - NOT un-satisfactory

Birthday number 2 – NOT un-satisfactory

This is it! The first day of my 71st year. I’m either bummed out or excited, depending on the hour of the day.

One of the few regrets (but perhaps the major-est) I have at this moment is my lack of discipline in writing. I’m a damned good writer from moment to moment, but I have no ability to sit four or five hours a day and pour over what I’ve done and make it better, make it cohere, make it either beautiful or rhetorically sound. Writing is, as, Pete Hamill, pointed out, “The hardest work in the world that doesn’t involve heavy lifting.” For many years as a professor in writing classes at several colleges and universities, I copied Hamill’s adage at the bottom of my syllabuses. My ulterior motive was to try to convince my students to “do as I quote, not as I do.”

Amy Clampitt (1920-1994) was a poet who either was or was not a “formalist” (whatever that is) according to which literary critic you’re talking to. She either did or did not write poetry with a proper “narrative.” Her work either is or is not too wordy, too descriptive.

I dunno.

I don’t know what an educated, literary person is “supposed” to think of the last stanza of her (longer than it needs to be, I suppose) poem, “A Hermit Thrush,” published in a collection of her work in 1997.

. . . there’s
hardly a vocabulary left to wonder, uncertain
as we are of so much in this existence, this
botched, cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing.

This botched, cumbersome, much-mended, not-unsatisfactory thing. I suppose the academic literary types who think her poetry is too wordy, too descriptive, would say this string of adjectives is a primary example. But I think it’s both charming and right on the money.

Botched. I’m not going there. But I can remind myself of a failed marriage, several relationships ended without much grace, a PhD instead of a DMA, insufficient savings to live the “lifestyle” I’d like in retirement. Cumbersome. So much left undone because I simply don’t have the will or the energy to finish all I’ve started. And the heaviness of still (at this advanced age!) trying to figure out how to life with freedom and joy. Much-mended. Two messages already this very morning apologizing for insensitivity and inattention to friends.

But all of this is not un-satisfactory. Clampitt doesn’t say “satisfactory” but the double negative “not unsatisfactory.” Does a double negative make a positive or simply imprecise writing? I used to tell students who wrote double negatives they were being needlessly wordy and confusing their rhetorical project by trying to express two contradictory ideas at once. (Speaking of wordiness.) I, however, being no longer an “academic” can say I like the idea: not un-satisfactory.

My life is and has been not un-satisfactory for the most part. I have a photograph of myself on my second birthday (January 3, 1947). I’m sitting outside at a small table with my birthday cake in front of me. Outside because my father’s camera didn’t have a flash so sunlight was necessary. I’m bundled up in a snowsuit and hat that nearly covers my face. Bundled because it’s January in Wyoming. Snow.

Here we have two negatives, darkness and cold. But the picture exists. My mother made a cake, and my father set up the picture to record the day. Our family was as dysfunctional as any. But that picture is proof enough to me that I was loved in every necessary way. Life has not been and is not now un-satisfactory.

Dad, brother, and little me - how I know life is more than satifactory

Dad, brother, and little me – how I know life is more than satifactory

I could write seventy years of not un-satisfactory examples, but I don’t need to. Anyone who has any imagination can imagine, can extrapolate a gazillion examples from my life and their own. Mine even includes Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and Bipolar II Disorder. And falling into a tub of boiling water a year after the second-birthday picture was taken. And. . . there’s no reason to belabor the negatives.

I’m having a little party tonight, and a few of my closest friends will attend. About 40. Who has 40 friends? Someone whose life is not un-satisfactory. And to try to keep it that way, my party will include a silent auction for the benefit of the Aberg Center for Literacy in Dallas.

I think the best way to keep my life not un-satisfactory is to remember that I am a white, male, (not-straight), highly educated American, and whatever I think might be unsatisfactory about my life, it’s better than the lives of about 99% of the people in the world—through no goodness or achievement of my own.
Happy Birthday – EVERYONE!

(Here’s Amy Clampitt’s poem. It is wordy, but to heck with the critics: it’s wonderful.)

“A Hermit Thrush,” by Amy Clampitt

Nothing’s certain. Crossing, on this longest day,
the low-tide-uncovered isthmus, scrambling up
the scree-slope of what at high tide
will be again an island,

to where, a decade since well-being staked
the slender, unpremeditated claim that brings us
back, year after year, lugging the
makings of another picnic–

the cucumber sandwiches, the sea-air-sanctified
fig newtons–there’s no knowing what the slamming
seas, the gales of yet another winter
may have done. Still there,

the gust-beleaguered single spruce tree,
the ant-thronged, root-snelled moss, grass
and clover tuffet underneath it,
edges frazzled raw

but, like our own prolonged attachment, holding.

The Hermit Thrush knows

The Hermit Thrush knows

Whatever moral lesson might commend itself,
there’s no use drawing one,
there’s nothing here

to seize on as exemplifying any so-called virtue
holding on despite adversity, perhaps) or
any no-more-than-human tendency–
stubborn adherence, say,

to a wholly wrongheaded tenet. Though to
hold on in any case means taking less and less
for granted, some few things seem nearly
certain, as that the longest day

will come again, will seem to hold its breath,
the months-long exhalation of diminishment
again begin. Last night you woke me
for a look at Jupiter,

that vast cinder wheeled unblinking
in a bath of galaxies. Watching, we traveled
toward an apprehension all but impossible
to be held onto–

that no point is fixed, that there’s no foothold
but roams untethered save by such snells,
such sailor’s knots, such stays
and guy wires as are

mainly of our own devising. From such an
empyrean, aloof seraphic mentors urge us
to look down on all attachment,
on any bonding, as

in the end untenable. Base as it is, from
year to year the earth’s sore surface
mends and rebinds itself, however
and as best it can, with

thread of cinquefoil, tendril of the magenta
beach pea, trammel of bramble; with easings,
mulchings, fragrances, the gray-green
bayberry’s cool poultice–

and what can’t finally be mended, the salt air
proceeds to buff and rarefy: the lopped carnage
of the seaward spruce clump weathers
lustrous, to wood-silver.

Little is certain, other than the tide that
circumscribes us that still sets its term
to every picnic–today we stayed too long
again, and got our feet wet–

and all attachment may prove at best, perhaps,
a broken, a much-mended thing. Watching
the longest day take cover under
a monk’s-cowl overcast,

with thunder, rain and wind, then waiting,
we drop everything to listen as a
hermit thrush distills its fragmentary,
hesitant, in the end

unbroken music. From what source (beyond us, or
the wells within?) such links perceived arrive–
diminished sequences so uninsistingly
not even human–there’s

hardly a vocabulary left to wonder, uncertain
as we are of so much in this existence, this
botched, cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing.

“. . . as we gather losses, we may also grow in love. . .” (Julia Spicher Kasdorf)

Salome - a moment of reality

Salome – a moment of reality

In about 1986 my friend (in some ways my dearest friend) Gina told me that her 30th birthday had been wild and fun; that on her 40th birthday she threw herself the biggest party of her life, remembering the old book, Life Begins at Forty by Walter B. Pitkin; that she and David had a quiet dinner on her 50th birthday; that she had had another wild party on her 60th birthday; that none of those “milestone” birthdays had bothered her one bit. “But my 70th—this is hard. I can’t imagine being 70.”

In 77 days, assuming nothing untoward like my being run over by a Mack truck, I will endure my 70th birthday. I will have completed my 70th year with only minor (perhaps) disappointments. I wish Gina were still around to assure me it will be OK. She lived to be much older.

Julia Spicher Kasdorf was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, December 6, 1962. She has published several books of poetry and two widely acclaimed works of non-fiction. She teaches creative writing and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University.

I’m not sure how someone who is only 52 years old can write a poem about getting old, or—perhaps—about dying. However, that was Shakespeare’s age when he died, and he wrote a great deal about aging and dying. Of course, as I understand it, 52 would not have been thought of as an early death in Shakespeare’s time.

For the past ten days I have been trying to write to no avail. That’s not exactly true. I have written a great deal, none of which I would put here both because of the incomprehensibility of the writing and because of the subject matter.

Happy Birthday, old timer

Happy Birthday, old timer

Gina was about my parents’ age. I’ve forgotten exactly when she was born, but she was of my parents’ generation. I remember my father’s 40th birthday, August 21, 1954. Our church, the First Baptist Church of Scottsbluff, NE, of which he was pastor, had a picnic—a large gathering—at Pioneer Park just north of the high school. Someone gave my father a copy of Pitkin’s book as a joke (but he read it and found it interesting after he stopped laughing about it).

The other memorable event at the picnic was that, when everyone else sang, “Happy Birthday, Pastor Knight,” at the appropriate point in the song, my brother sang (shouted, rather), “Happy Birthday, old timer,” and cracked up the crowd.

How, how on earth, do I remember that?

I don’t remember my 40th birthday. Probably because it was just another drunken evening. I have no idea. My partner Frank had bought his house in Beverly, MA, by that time, and we were living there in splendid inebriated isolation. My PhD was on hold while I tried (several times unsuccessfully) to get sober. A couple of months after my birthday, I got it together enough to travel to Los Angeles to play an organ recital at the Wilshire Avenue Methodist Church, where a dear friend was the music director, marking the 300th birthday of J.S. Bach.

Now I’m approaching the end of my 70th year.

Everything I’ve written for the past 10 days has been about the process of becoming an old person. I’m not hating this. I’m not depressed by it (any more than normal). There’s little in my life that is not OK. I’m tutoring my guys (SMU football and basketball players—what fun that is!). I’m teaching my little ESL class for adults at the Aberg Literacy Center. I’m substituting as organist now and then. I’m keeping too busy and making enough money that I haven’t yet had to dip into my retirement funds.

I think—at least it’s my experience, and I can speak for no one else (I haven’t talked with friends about it)—my feelings about things in general are more intense than they ever have been. I thought as one aged, one had less emotion. I have more.

It’s not my clinical depression that makes my feelings about, for example, the genocide of the Palestinian people being perpetrated by the Israelis while the world stands by doing nothing—no, actually assisting—more heightened as time passes.

It’s not my clinical depression that makes me care more about the racism and classism that surrounds and stifles my guys, and all college athletes who happen to be black.

It’s not my clinical depression that nearly makes me weep over the idiocy of the American public’s conviction that we have an “Ebola crisis,” when the entire fixation is trumped up by the news media and politicians who will use racism to influence votes.

It’s not my clinical depression that grieves my own personal losses of my job, my balance when I get up too fast, my parents (even if that was three years ago), my partner (even if that was 11 years ago), and my ability to think of any word I need at the moment I need it. Or—perhaps most important—my ability to rely on the permanence of loving relationships.

No, I feel grief—and also pleasure and joy—more acutely than ever. I need to begin asking my friends if this is their experience, too. When I was 40, I could imagine that eventually the problems of the world I care about would be fixed. I could imagine that, when a dear friend moved away I could easily find another. I knew that everyone would die eventually, but it was eventually, not soon.

So here’s my reaction to all of this. I have my tickets to the Dallas Opera productions of The Marriage of Figaro on October 29, and of Salome on November 6. I’ll watch the Countess forgive her philandering husband and Herod’s daughter dance with John the Baptist’s head on a platter, and lose myself in reality.
__________

“First Gestures,” by Julia Spicher Kasdorf (b. 1962)

A long-ago performance

A long-ago performance

Among the first we learn is good-bye,
your tiny wrist between Dad’s forefinger
and thumb forced to wave bye-bye to Mom,
whose hand sails brightly behind a windshield.
Then it’s done to make us follow:
in a crowded mall, a woman waves, “Bye,
we’re leaving,” and her son stands firm
sobbing, until at last he runs after her,
among shoppers drifting like sharks
who must drag their great hulks
underwater, even in sleep, or drown.

Living, we cover vast territories;
imagine your life drawn on a map–
a scribble on the town where you grew up,
each bus trip traced between school
and home, or a clean line across the sea
to a place you flew once. Think of the time
and things we accumulate, all the while growing
more conscious of losing and leaving. Aging,
our bodies collect wrinkles and scars
for each place the world would not give
under our weight. Our thoughts get laced
with strange aches, sweet as the final chord
that hangs in a guitar’s blond torso.

Think how a particular ridge of hills
from a summer of your childhood grows
in significance, or one hour of light–
late afternoon, say, when thick sun flings
the shadow of Virginia creeper vines
across the wall of a tiny, white room
where a girl makes love for the first time.
Its leaves tremble like small hands
against the screen while she weeps
in the arms of her bewildered lover.
She’s too young to see that as we gather
losses, we may also grow in love;
as in passion, the body shudders
and clutches what it must release.

“. . . to ease distance to fetch home spiritual things. . .” (Susan Howe)

My sister's art moves into my mind

Bonnie Knight Sato, 2014. My sister’s art moves into my mind

The poetry of Susan Howe is as mysterious and as obvious as any language art can be. I get it completely at the same time I have no understanding of it at all.

I suppose my intellectual life would be more satisfying and complete if I had studied the great movements in art of the 20th and now the 21st centuries. Structuralism. Post-structuralism. The imagists, the objectivists, the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat generation. I don’t know. I am ignorant of the parameters of these styles or “schools,” and a great deal of 20th –century poetry I simply can’t comprehend.

An example of the writing about this mysterious writing that is even more mysterious than the writing itself is a critique of a couple of books about Howe’s work, and of one of Susan Howe’s own books available online.

Why is there so much interest in a writer whose works are so difficult to fathom? Perhaps it’s just that. They present a challenge to the reader who has grown tired of the usual fluff that passes itself off as literature these days. In the process, the works of Susan Howe extend our concept of what poetry (and writing in general) is, creating new dimensions, new problematics and techniques to be understood and mastered by the adventurous writer (Cunningham, John Herbert. “Write Through This: The Poetry of Susan Howe.” Rain Taxi. Spring 2011. Web.)

That’s the easiest to comprehend paragraph in the critique—if you don’t already know how critics have pigeon-holed Howe’s poetry. Or, perhaps, simply the most interesting.

I don’t want to read those books about Susan Howe. What a bore. On the other hand, I might be able to arrive at some understanding of her work if I did.

Or perhaps her work is somehow “prediscursive” (a word from an article about ORLAN I had my students read). Can poetry exist before the possibility of talking about it or the ideas it represents? Of course. So, as far as I am concerned, Howe’s poetry is “prediscursive.”
Bonnie 3 blog left

I found that online critique of critiques of Howe because I came across her poem “That This” (or rather the first of five poems with that title). It’s somehow about music. Don’t ask me.

But I love the way the words go together. The poem has the lines

The way music is formed of
cloud and fire once actually

concrete now accidental as
half truth or as whole truth

Is light anything like this
stray pencil commonplace

copy as to one aberrant
onward-gliding mystery.

Mysterious. But lovely. Is light anything like this stray pencil commonplace copy? You’ll think I’m joking when I say it gives me goosebumps. I’ve read it aloud probably ten times since I began writing this little attempt to say something.

I’d give anything to be able to put together nine words like that—I wouldn’t care what they meant.

Today is my sister’s birthday. I was five when she was born, and I remember the family excitement and activities around her birth. She and I are close in a way that only a brother and sister can be. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years, perhaps, but she is, in a way that I shouldn’t have to explain to anyone, my best friend.

Are my birthday wishes for my sister connected in any way to Howe’s poetry? Well, yes. The question, “Is light anything like this stray pencil commonplace copy?” is an exact metaphor (in my mind—I have no idea what Howe means by it) for the question I ask about the love of siblings. Is light anything like the stray commonplace pleasure of a life of in-jokes no one else understands, of a life of caring for and about each other in a way one does about no one else, of bearing one another’s burdens even when separated for decades by thousands of miles, of knowing pretty much without thinking how any given thought, idea, or creation will affect the other? No, light is not “like” those things. It is those things.

So I’m off into some space where no one can follow me, I’m sure. Even my sister will scratch her head and say to herself, “What is he talking about?” It’s prediscursive. It’s before conversation. Some things are best not “understood.” Simply known.

Is one mind put into another
in us unknown to ourselves
by going about among trees
and fields in moonlight or in
a garden to ease distance to
fetch home spiritual things

I’m glad Susan Howe will never see what I have done to corrupt her meaning. But one mind (my mind, my sister’s mind, your mind, any mind?) moves into another mind without our knowledge, our minds move among trees in moonlight or gardens in the daylight, or anywhere we might be. We come together without knowing ourselves how it happens. And this easing of distance is the spiritual reality of our lives.

My sister’s spiritual reality has recently moved into painting. You don’t have to know my sister to see the beauty in her work. But it simply moves into my mind. My enjoyment of it is prediscursive. I don’t need to–I can’t explain it.

There, you see, I can write a critique of Susan Howe’s poetry. And in the process, odd and incomprehensible as it seems, wish my sister a Happy Birthday.

“That This,” by Susan Howe      

Susan Howe

Susan Howe

Day is a type when visible
objects change then put

on form but the anti-type
That thing not shadowed

The way music is formed of
cloud and fire once actually

concrete now accidental as
half truth or as whole truth

Is light anything like this
stray pencil commonplace

copy as to one aberrant
onward-gliding mystery

A secular arietta variation
Grass angels perish in this

harmonic collision because
non-being cannot be ‘this’

Not spirit not space finite
Not infinite to those fixed—

That this millstone as such
Quiet which side on which—

Is one mind put into another
in us unknown to ourselves
by going about among trees
and fields in moonlight or in
a garden to ease distance to
fetch home spiritual things

That a solitary person bears
witness to law in the ark to

an altar of snow and every
age or century for a day is

“Meaning appears on the edge of consciousness, unable to break through. This is Howe’s magic—to make you, the reader, reach for something you feel is there, and to keep you returning to the page in hopes that, at some point, the boundary will be breached” (John Herbert Cunningham).

“. . . and their dim moan is wrought / Into a singing sad and beautiful.”

A metaphor for something wilted

A metaphor for something wilted

.
On Christmas Day at my brother and sister-in-law’s home in Baton Rouge, LA, they and my sister and I were together. We were joyful and nostalgic and hopeful and silly and loving and lazy. Our average age was 69 years. We are, as they say, “of a piece,” that is, belonging to the same class or kind. Even with our obvious differences, we are all more alike than not.

My sister lives in California and has children and grandchildren within shouting distance. My brother and his wife have each other and grown children in various places.

I live in Dallas.

Each of us has many friends and acquaintances and activities.

My sister-in-law planned to provide Christmas cheer to a friend who was alone. The day before Christmas she had taken her friend to a doctor’s appointment and knew she was not in good health. On Christmas Day, she went to her friend’s home but could not get her friend to answer her ringing at the door or on the phone. I don’t remember all of the details of the situation for certain. What I do know is that my sister-in-law called 911, and they agreed to check on her friend, saying, of course, that if she was conscious, they could not do anything if she was not willing to be helped.

My sister-in-law had emergency telephone numbers for her friend’s brothers. She contacted them (one in Chicago or some such place, and one in Mississippi). The brother in Mississippi decided to drive over to Baton Rouge to check on his sister. I’m not sure how the situation played out because I came home to my cats in Dallas the next day.

Came home to my cats in Dallas.

Before anyone yawns or reproaches me for feeling sorry for myself, or points out (correctly) that I have many friends (I’ve already invited 45 people to the party I’m throwing for myself when my obligations to SMU are finished in May), I’ll try to state my thesis for this little essay clearly to avoid doomsaying or self-indulgent negativity.

Perhaps since I’m in Texas, I should quote the Bible for my thesis. “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’” (Genesis 2:18, NRSV). Even God, to say nothing of every psychologist, psychiatrist, health-care professional, and preacher, knows that it is not good for us to be alone.

Maya Angelou says it as clearly as it can be said.

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone
(see below).

Nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone. I’d guess that means there are millions of Americans—and billions world-wide—who aren’t making it. And I don’t mean not getting enough to eat or enough exercise or good enough hygiene or enough entertainment.

I mean not making it.

I have plenty to eat. I exercise four or five times a week in the therapy pool at the Landry Fitness Center at Baylor Hospital. I shower every day, carry my garbage out, eat off of clean dishes, and wipe the counters of my kitchen (laundry is another matter, but was always so). I watch a certain amount of TV (I’m actually keeping up with Downton Abbey this season). For goodness’ sake, I have a pipe organ in my living room if I need entertaining! Most important, I have friends with whom I regularly see movies, attend concerts, and go to museums.

If an organ in the living room is played, and there's no one to hear it, does it make a sound

If an organ in the living room is played, and there’s no one to hear it, does it make a sound?

Without those friends, I would be relegated to TV because, for me, movies, concerts, museums, and Christmas parades are social events I cannot—no matter how hard I try—get used to seeing/hearing by myself. But I will still be entertained. Perhaps.

Just before Christmas, I bought myself two bouquets of inexpensive super-market roses to add to the color of my Christmas decorations. Nearly a month later I still have them. I am neither a hoarder, nor too lazy to throw them out, nor torturing myself with dead flowers.

They are some kind of metaphor that I can’t quite develop. I bought them for myself. Nothing wrong with that. I also bought myself new diamond earrings for Christmas. But the diamonds won’t dry out and droop and lose their color. I don’t know why I don’t throw the roses out. They are saying something to me about my situation—something I haven’t quite figured out yet.

I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want a friend to have to call my brother to drive over here to Dallas from Baton Rouge to see what’s wrong that I don’t answer a knock at the door or a ring of my phone. I know I have many friends who would set things in motion to take care of me just as my sister-in-law did for her friend.

The fear that might not happen is only a surface fear.

“It is not good that [one] should be alone.”

Do I need a spouse, a partner? Do I need to move closer to my brother or my sister? Do I need to find a nice retirement community (on my income?)? What do I need?

I’m one of those old gay men. Anyone can fill in the description after that. And anyone (nearly everyone does) can ask, “What’s wrong with being alone?” And I’ll ask you to read the poem below by Robinson Jeffers. Magnificent, strong, and self-sufficient mountain pine trees “In scornful upright loneliness [ ] stand, Counting themselves no kin of anything.” But in relationship with an eagle, the wind, the fog, the moon “They find a soul, and their dim moan is wrought into a singing sad and beautiful.”
white-pine-mountain-and-forest
This picture of mountain pines is from the blog by Scott at seekraz.wordpress.com and is copyrighted. I have used it without his permission, but have asked him if it’s OK. I will remove it if he asks me to (Scott has given me permission–see his kind comment), but I absolutely suggest that you click the link and visit his blog. This picture is but a tiny sample of his glorious photography.

Mountain Pines, by Robinson Jeffers

In scornful upright loneliness they stand,
Counting themselves no kin of anything
Whether of earth or sky. Their gnarled roots cling
Like wasted fingers of a clutching hand
In the grim rock. A silent spectral band
They watch the old sky, but hold no communing
With aught. Only, when some lone eagle’s wing
Flaps past above their grey and desolate land,
Or when the wind pants up a rough-hewn glen,
Bending them down as with an age of thought,
Or when, ‘mid flying clouds that can not dull
Her constant light, the moon shines silver, then
They find a soul, and their dim moan is wrought
Into a singing sad and beautiful.

Alone, by Maya Angelou

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

What is a bucket list, and why is this so weird?

A few catfish friends

A few catfish friends

Who would have thought the origin of the term “bucket list” is from the phrase “kick the bucket.” You know, things I want to do before I “kick the bucket.” Die.

Never occurred to me until I did a Google search for the term.

I found many strange sites looking for the origin of “kick the bucket.” One is now on my list of all-time favorite internet grotesqueries. The MLA citation:

“Death” (redirected from “Kick the Bucket”). The Free Dictionary by Farlex. encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com. 2014. Web. 4 Jan. 2014. (Copied from the Wikipedia article on “death”).

The article begins, “Death is the cessation of all biological functions . . .”

There’s nothing particularly odd or grotesque about that. At the top of the page was the link to an ad. That’s not odd—advertising is the purpose of free sites. However, this one, I’m sure, was individually chosen for me, The Free Dictionary by Farlex’s page defining “death” (redirected from “kick the bucket”) is sponsored by, are you ready for this?

Villagio of Carrollton. “Assisted Living & Memory Care: Beautiful and Active Lifestyle.”

Beside the ad was the illustration for “Death.”

Retirement Living?

Retirement Living?

The description of “Villagio of Carrollton” begins, “Villagio’s vibrant Life Enrichment program features new adventures, exciting opportunities to learn, and wellness activities. Our programs help build meaningful friendships, allow freedom of choice . . . “ It’s a “Senior Living” facility.

I don’t know if these ads stay on pages, but I’ll bet this one appeared especially for me because my computer (and, therefore, Google) knows I’ve been writing about getting old. You probably won’t see it if you click on the link because such ads are individualized (big brother IS watching you!).

More Catfish Friends

More Catfish Friends

I was thinking about my “bucket list” because last night at my birthday party (what a GREAT party – thank you, my friends) a couple of people asked me about my list. Here is part of my list—not really in order of importance except the first two.

  • First or second is a trip to Easter Island. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know. I’ve been fascinated by it since childhood, that’s all. I want to see those big heads! And I also want to see the Andes, which one almost has to do to get there, going through Santiago, Chile.
  • The second or first is to teach for a semester or a year or some length of time at either Dar al-Kalima College in Bethlehem or Birzeit University in Birzeit (just north of Ramallah in the Central West Bank). This is not an unrealistic pipe dream

I have a particular reason from history or philosophy or music or some “discipline” for wanting to see each of these. Some are obvious, some are not—and some may not be for any reason anyone would guess. In no particular order:

  • attend the entire Wagner Ring Cycle at Bayreuth;
  • see the Angkor Wat in Cambodia;
  • see the Valley of the Kings in Egypt;
  • see the Emperor Penguins in Antarctica;
  • return to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and spend a week there;
  • visit Japan (no particular destination);
  • attend Christmas Eve services at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London;
  • play one of the Silbermann organs J.S. Bach is known to have played;
  • play the organ at St. Sulpice in Paris;
  • see lions, tigers, elephants, etc. in Kenya;
  • see all of the musicals playing on Broadway in one season (any season);
  • attend an opera at the Sydney Opera House;
  • see Machu Picchu.

I don’t have much to say about any of this except that the list has not changed over the years. And most of the list falls in the category of pipe dream. I have another list of activities I would like to participate in that don’t necessarily involve travel I can’t afford.

The reality of my bucket list, however, is that it has one item on it that outweighs all of the others together. And achieving it will make all the rest into nice fantasies, unnecessary ever to achieve to be happy.

I have a favorite poem about friendship. It worries me that I like it because Richard Brautigan was such a troubled person (a successful suicide). But the idea that a friend can drive lonely thoughts from a friend’s mind and, at the same time, the friend might not even know it is happening is comforting to me.

“Your Catfish Friend,” by Richard Brautigan

If I were to live my life
in catfish form
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.”

I’ve arrived at one of those places in my thinking and writing where I cannot pull together or finish what I intended to say. Some connection between “bucket lists” and friendship. My bucket list is really friendship. Relatedness. If Machu Picchu or Bayreuth, or even Dar Al-Kalima College ever become realities, that’s great. But at this advanced age (here I go again) what I really want is to be a catfish in a pond where you think one ought to be and vice versa.

How corny is that? Weird?

So I experienced that last night. Here’s a Christmasy little song for the 11th Day of Christmas while I show you the wonderful simple gifts my friends gave me for my birthday. My Catfish Friends.

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.

REFRAIN:
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Call up the butler of this house,
Put on his golden ring.
Let him bring us up a glass of beer,
And better we shall sing.
REFRAIN

God bless the master of this house
Likewise the mistress too,
And all the little children
That round the table go.
REFRAIN

“. . . we will remember every single thing, recall every word, love every loss . . .”

Today is the day. My 69th birthday. I’m voraciously accepting best wishes from anyone and everyone. So don’t be shy.

The boy she married

The boy she married

I guess it’s time for Lumosity and my trainer. Get mind and body working out and staying (getting) healthy.

The brain exercise rip-offs I can do without. And working with my trainer is on hold until my surgeries are healed (especially the three-inch gash in my tummy). But I will be back to training very soon—if only because it’s so much fun to spend an hour with a cute young thing like Mason.

I have the remaining six weeks of physical therapy for my shoulder. Dr. Miracle Worker is pleased with my progress and says we’ll wait six months before we decide whether or not to fix my right shoulder.

The best thing I can do for my brain is to begin again to read voraciously. I haven’t been reading for about fifteen years. Oh, I read a lot, but mostly academic articles about arcane subjects that serve little useful purpose. I was looking around my “office” (or whatever this disheveled part of my apartment might be called) the other day and realized I have enough unread books here to last me the rest of my life. I don’t need to buy any books.

Or, perhaps, the best thing I can do is learn new music. I started learning a little piece every day a while back, and then I had all of this surgery, and that ended that. I should get back to it. Or simply play a little work by Brahms that I first learned when I was in high school. I’d like to play a recital at, perhaps, Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, CA, where I’ve done so before. But I’m not sure I can manage myself well enough to get it ready. I could do a program of my own old favorites. That would require less self-management than self-indulgence.

Growing old(er) is a curious affair. There’s no preparation for it. No one can tell you what it’s like. Suddenly you’ve been around for as long as those old people you thought were so venerable (or mysterious) when you were a kid. I remember when my dad’s dad turned 70. It was 1955. My dad was 40, I was 10. I thought Granddad was about as old as a person could be. Eight years later (1963), he and Grandmother celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and I was sure no one had ever been married that long. He was, of course only 78. And then in 1987, my parents celebrated their 50th anniversary.

And now many of my married friends (at least the ones who’ve had only one spouse) have been married 50 years or close to it. And I am one year away from that mysterious 70th birthday of my grandfather.

Yesterday I was in the bank to deposit a check. I had to show the teller my ID, and she said with great excitement, “We have the same birthday!” I replied that she had a long way to go to be as old as I am. Neither she nor the other teller not the branch manager (with whom I have worked a great deal over the past ten years) believed I’d be 69 today. “You can’t be that old!” But she was glad to find another Capricorn (we always are—together we could rule the world such as, for instance two who tried it, Richard Nixon and Mao Zedung).

That old.

Let me tell you about the disconnect between mind and brain when you are “that old.” My brain is that old. It’s slowing down.

I have all of those problems of memory in the Billy Collins poem I included in my blog yesterday. And more.

Will I ever look like my trainer again?

If I keep training, will I look like Mason some day?”

The disconnect is that my mind doesn’t seem to understand what’s happening to my brain. I am exactly the same person I was thirty, forty, fifty (perhaps not fifty) years ago. I am I. This is he. I think everyone who gets to 69 or older must have this strange experience of wondering who they’re talking about. Old? Me? I look in the mirror, and I’m not quite sure what I’m seeing. Just me. And it’s obviously physically a different me than I saw thirty years ago (or, perhaps, even last year).  But I am who I am.

I doubt that ever changes.

When my father was 97 years old, if I arrived soon after breakfast time at the medical facility of the retirement community where

he lived, I would find him sitting in the hallway shaving with his electric razor. He had found the only electric outlet he could use to do what he, Glenn Knight, always did, that is, keep himself groomed. Daily. Habit? Perhaps, or simply his understanding that, with all the change in his life, he was still Glenn Knight, and that’s what he did every morning. Looking sharp was part of who he was.

I’m beginning to understand the disconnect between what my brain thinks of what’s going on around me, what I’m doing, what I know and feel, and what my mind thinks is going on. My mind thinks “The Boy She Married,” as my late ex-wife was fond of saying, is still bebopping around here planning weird stuff to do and trying, at the same time, to appear to be intelligent and scholarly.

So I want to debunk a myth. Sixty is NOT the new forty, and forty is NOT the new twenty or any of that nonsense. If you are determined to think and act as if that were true, you are determined to deprive yourself of the most mysterious experience of being Homo sapiens.

A favorite growing older poem (written when Ammons was 71)

“In View of the Fact,”by A. R. Ammons

The people of my time are passing away: my
wife is baking for a funeral, a 60-year-old who

died suddenly, when the phone rings, and it’s
Ruth we care so much about in intensive care:

it was once weddings that came so thick and
fast, and then, first babies, such a hullabaloo:

now, it’s this that and the other and somebody
else gone or on the brink: well, we never

thought we would live forever (although we did)
and now it looks like we won’t: some of us

are losing a leg to diabetes, some don’t know
what they went downstairs for, some know that

a hired watchful person is around, some like
to touch the cane tip into something steady,

so nice: we have already lost so many,
brushed the loss of ourselves ourselves: our

address books for so long a slow scramble now
are palimpsests, scribbles and scratches: our

index cards for Christmases, birthdays,
Halloweens drop clean away into sympathies:

at the same time we are getting used to so
many leaving, we are hanging on with a grip

to the ones left: we are not giving up on the
congestive heart failure or brain tumors, on

the nice old men left in empty houses or on
the widows who decide to travel a lot: we

think the sun may shine someday when we’ll
drink wine together and think of what used to

be: until we die we will remember every
single thing, recall every word, love every

loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to
others to love, love that can grow brighter

and deeper till the very end, gaining strength
and getting more precious all the way. . . .

To express the “inner children” of a bunch of grownups

Not that innocent

Not that innocent

My siblings and I have many traditions together that are perfectly silly and would make sense to no one but us. For example, one might assume the three ice cream cone ornaments on my brother and sister-in-law’s Christmas tree are cute flights of fancy. What could be better to express the “inner children” of a bunch of grown-ups than ice cream cone decorations on the Christmas tree?

It’s not quite that innocent.

In 1985 our dad found descendants of our grandfather’s siblings (Granddad was one of nine brothers and sisters) from all corners of the country and organized a Knight Family Reunion at the ancestral home in Buford, Arkansas. All together, we were a crowd larger than the population of the town had ever been, even when people actually lived there.

My brother and sister-in-law lived in Wichita, Kansas. I flew there to drive to Buford with them, and our sister and her family drove from California to meet us so we could drive in a little two-car caravan from Wichita to Buford. We extracted from our brother, who was driving in the lead, promise to stop soon for a break to get a drink and use the facilities at a Dairy Queen. We had agreed–for some reason–a Dairy Queen would be a good place.

We passed one a fairly good distance from Wichita, and he did not stop. Then, down the road, another, then another, then another. He did not stop. Ever.

In retaliation, my sister and I began giving him Dairy Queen memorabilia for his birthdays, for Christmas, for any occasion that seemed appropriate, and eventually just because. It is a habit that brings us much enjoyment and laughter. So ice cream cones hanging from his Christmas tree are a nod to, a continuation of mutual tradition tying us together in the same way making snicker-doodles from Mom’s old recipe and countless other rituals based on our common private heritage do.

A little birthday jaunt?

A little birthday jaunt?

Sometimes I think about my professional colleagues and wonder what kind of silliness they participate in with their siblings. And I am embarrassed. Their family traditions probably have to do with Milton or Shakespeare, Charles Dickens or Annie Proulx, post-Structuralism or Bauldrillard’s Simulacra. We are so common compared with academics, writers, and other highly professional folk.

The traditions of my friends with more money than they need (I do have a few of those) involve giving white elephant gifts of Alexander McQueen fashions or season tickets to the Cowboys games or birthday trips to the Iguazu Falls in Argentina. At least birthday dinners at the new Joule Hotel in downtown Dallas. (Oops! I did take a friend to Stephan Pyles’ “Stampede” for his birthday last year and had one of Stephan’s Heaven and Hell cakes for my birthday, but I assure you those will not become “traditions”).

If my friends had contacted Nate Berkus to come and work his gay boy magic in my apartment, the transformation would have been so dramatic his show would not have been cancelled. I don’t even know the “traditions” of my own kind of people.

I cannot imagine myself–in the first place I don’t have the wardrobe for it–having dinner at the Dallas home of the friend of my friend where President Obama dined (the President didn’t actually eat because that would have required another level of security that her home was not equipped to handle–he only talked and socialized). My friend has both the wardrobe and the credentials for such an Important Event. More importantly, he knows which fork to use for each dinner course.

I am, I realize, stuck in a groove. The 33 and 1/3 rpm disc in my brain is scratched, and the needle cannot move on past this infinite loop, this interminable repetition. I’m stuck in place and can’t move on.

My perennial question is, it seems to me, so simple that someone ought to be able to provide an answer that would allow me to move on to some other pressing issue. It’s a two-part question. First, how did we humans, over dozens of millennia, get ourselves organized into societies with, on the one hand, people who give each other trips to South America and get to invite the President to their homes (even in Dallas) for dinner, and the rest of us who give each other plastic Dairy Queen ice cream cone Christmas presents? Second, which of us when we die, based on our relative comfort and importance in this life, is going to be closer to or more of a part of the ground of being, the God particle, the Lamb on His throne, however you want to describe it.

Or are we all going to be equally dead, so being rich and famous or even a hot-shot academic is ultimately meaningless?

A once-in-a-lifetime birthday cake?

A once-in-a-lifetime birthday cake?

If the last question is the right one to ask, then I have one further question that is probably un-American, un-Christian, and simply not nice. Why do we let those people (you know who they are) own so much of what should belong to all of us to allow us to get through this life with the same amount of ease, of comfort, of opportunity to think about it and enjoy ourselves? Why do we let this continue century after century after century (and become a more and more pronounced discrepancy in the United States hour by hour)?

I wouldn’t give up my family’s Dairy Queen tradition for anything. But I wonder when the time will come that all of us, all 7 billion of us, have the the opportunity to develop whatever family traditions we like–besides traditions like hunger and oppression generation after generation.