The Coffee Cantata—A Fond Personal Remembrance

RhinocerosAs I was pouring my first cup of coffee this morning (4:47 AM), I had one of those delightful flashbacks that pop into one’s head, uninvited and mysterious. I was remembering a cup of coffee. It may well have been my very first cup. At minimum, it was the first important cup of coffee, the first that meant enough for me to file it away for further reference.

My friend Ann and I were at a coffee shop in Redlands, CA, late at night. We were students at the University of Redlands. It must have been 1965 or 66. We were great friends. Truth be told, we had been (somehow) friends since we were toddlers. Our parents had been, that is. Her father became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Douglas, Wyoming, when my father left that position to become pastor of the First Baptist Church of Worland, Wyoming. I was six months old and she was 18 months old at the time.

Later on, when my father was an executive in the Nebraska Baptist Convention and we had moved to Omaha (1960), her father became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Wahoo, about thirty miles west of Omaha. Our parents had been friends since 1945, and they renewed their friendship. Ann and I were (somewhat long-distance) high school friends.

Sitting in that coffee shop in Redlands, Ann ordered a cup of coffee, and I said I didn’t understand why people drank that bitter stuff. She ordered me a cup, poured about half a cup of cream into it, and said I should taste it—that I’d be glad I’d learn to drink the stuff when it came time to study for finals. I had already had the study-for-finals experience at least two semesters at that point, and I couldn’t imagine why coffee would help.

But I drank it, and the rest—I will not resist the clichéd temptation—is history. We were married May 28, 1967. Our marriage lasted until July of 1975, but I still, obviously, drink coffee. She married the Canadian novelist, William P. Kinsella a couple of years after our “no-fault” divorce in Iowa, and I’ve been serially monogamous since then.images

Ann died in 2002.

I am grateful to Ann for much more than teaching me to drink coffee. As a small but non-trivial example, she taught me to appreciate (no, love) contemporary theater. Her M.A. was in theater directing. In 1970 she directed Jean Genet’s The Maids and Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano as her thesis at California State University at Los Angeles (where I was working on an M.A. in music composition). Ann was so fascinated by Ionesco’s work that she produced and directed his Rhinoceros at Colton, CA, high school where she taught.

Ann was indomitable and fearless. We were traveling in Massachusetts in 1972 and were at Tanglewood to hear a Boston Symphony concert. We were having—what else?—a cup of coffee at a hotel in Lenox when Ann jumped up and accosted a total stranger. “Mr. Ionesco, won’t you join us for coffee?” Yes, it was he, and, yes, he did join us for a cup of coffee.

A huge chunk of my autobiography someday will be about my relationship with Ann. I won’t even mention here her glorious soprano voice and the role music played in our lives from high school almost to her death. One of our hopes was someday to perform together the soprano aria Ei! Wie schmeckt der Coffee süsse from the Bach “Coffee Cantata.”  We worked on it in private, but never had the time or discipline to perfect it.

The last cup of coffee I had with her was in 2002 in a mall café in Edmonton, Alberta. I won’t detail that experience except to say that after we had coffee, we went to the church where she was a member, and I played the piano for her to sing the “Holden Vespers” by Marty Haugen.

For most of our married life—and during our rekindled friendship after her divorce from Kinsella—we had a favorite bit of nonsense music. The words are from The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, published 1896 by Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), sung to the tune of the Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” We learned this hymn from Fr. Jon Hart Olson of Christ Episcopal Church in Ontario, CA.

Rhinoceros, your hide looks all undone,
You do not take my fancy in the least:
You have a horn where other brutes have none:
Rhinoceros, you are an ugly beast.
Rhinoceros, you are an ugly beast;
You do not take my fancy in the least.

I intended to write about Ann on our anniversary May 28 but couldn’t figure out how. Coffee. From one cup of college student coffee to Rhinoceros.  Fitting metaphors for one of my most complex relationships.

The most beautiful college campus in America

The most beautiful college campus in America

Memories that serve us well

The Platte River at Kearney, NE

The Platte River at Kearney, NE

Today is my sister’s 63rd birthday. I can’t say I remember the day she was born, but I have many memories of the time leading up to her birth and the momentous events in our family with her as one of us in the two or three years following.

The day our parents told my brother and me we were going to have a baby brother or sister (in that misty past we could of not, of course, know which), he and I were piled on our parents’ bed early in the morning. A wondrous and mysterious time.  And then the months of waiting—my first awareness of the passage of time. In the middle of that time we moved from Worland, WY, to Kearney, NE, it seemed to me in order for the baby to be born there.

When she was born, we already had a girl’s name chosen. I don’t remember what name we had chosen if the baby was a boy, but we knew that a sister would be named Bonnie after our next-door neighbor in Worland (perhaps my brother’s true first love), Bonnie Bailey. The Baileys were our best friends. They had a cabin at Meadowlark Lake up in the Big Horn Mountains they let us use so Dad could fish—of course before Bonnie was born. But she did see Meadowlark Lake at least once when our family went there on vacation when she was five or six years old.  I don’t know for how much of their lives our parents kept in touch with Bonnie Bailey’s parents. I think it was one of those longtime friendships that gave stability to our parents’ lives.

Meadowlark Lake reality in memory

Meadowlark Lake
reality in memory

Memories. Funny things, they. I have not seen Meadowlark Lake for perhaps 60 years, yet I know what it looks like. When I googled “images,” I knew immediately which were Meadowlark and which were some other Wyoming mountain lake erroneously labeled. Memories. How can I know that?

I’m not going to travel down the path of “Kids today don’t have the same wonderful experiences we had—they are too enmeshed in virtual reality to understand real reality.” I could. I have done so before. However, I wonder—I have no way of knowing, so even my wondering may be missing the mark. Do families today have time together doing nothing as we did? I remember distinctly walking by the water at the edge of Meadowlark Lake and simply whiling away the time. And having fish for dinner, caught and cleaned by my father and prepared by my mother. The cabin was simple. Plain. Not very comfortable, as I recall. And I was not comfortable. I did not like camping. I am not and never was the “outdoors man” type.  And we squabbled. However. . .

My sister is a cancer survivor. She is not finished with the ordeal. I don’t know how she or any other cancer survivor does it. I have a hip injury that has been a pain in my ass for three months now. The pain depresses me and makes me even grouchier than normal. I don’t know what I would do if I had a significantly debilitating condition.

Here comes my usual leap of logic, the one that I’d tell my students to avoid, as I say here often.

I have written before in greater detail than I intend to here about my experience of (shall I go all the way and say it?) the ineffable, that which I cannot explain and you could not understand if I did. The few times I have ever felt at one with that which I cannot explain were in some way connected to being (usually alone, but not always) in some beautiful place away from the noise of the city.

Our parents, Bonnie’s, and our older brother’s, and mine, made sure we had time when we were kids to do nothing. To notice. To simply be in the world. Especially in the natural world. I don’t want to make this seem idyllic or rapturous or blessed with any other “spiritual” condition. We were not a family living together in lofty awareness of anything.

But tucked away in the backs of our minds are pictures of beauty, are experiences of simply being. Being close to the world as it is without the layers of stuff we humans construct to keep us all chugging along together. My sister’s late husband was dedicated to helping others make that direct connection. And I’m pretty sure having experienced that direct connection is at least part of the explanation for my sister’s ability to go on in the face of odds that would have defeated me long ago.

Or, perhaps, that connection will serve me well someday, too.

Looking east from Worland, Wyoming

Looking east from Worland, Wyoming

“I’d like to swim in a clear blue stream. . . “

Richard Bloch

Richard Bloch

The center city of Dallas is a mystery to most Dallasites. A few decades ago the center city was decimated by “urban renewal.” What an oxymoron that turned out to be as city after city was virtually destroyed in the 1950s through the 1980s or so, usually for one of two reasons: to provide big oil companies and automobile manufacturers unending sources of profit by making cars an essential part of city living, or to provide other giants of capitalism inexpensive prime locations to build cathedrals to commerce.

My first knowledge of urban “renewal” was the system of freeways built barely north of the center of Kansas City, MO, that divided the city in half and destroyed the perfectly functional streetcar system. Streetcars did not run on gasoline. Their replacement was the ubiquitous automobile and the system of diesel powered buses built largely by General Motors. The collateral damage was the destruction of a swath of buildings (mostly homes) about a half mile wide.  I understood urban “renewal” because my family spent time in Kansas City, KS, with my grandparents when we were kids (in the 50s). I remember the day my dad and my uncle gathered all us kids up for a trip by streetcar from Kansas City, KS, “overtown” to Kansas City, MO, and all the way out to the end of the line beyond Swope Park, so we would experience the streetcar before its immanent destruction.

One manifestation of this craze for destruction in the guise of “renewal” in Dallas is—as in most cities—a system of freeways (I-35E, I-30, I-635, the Central Expressway, the Dallas North Tollway, I-45, and many others). Most of these freeways are named for dead white men, captains of industry and politics—Woodall Rogers, R.L. Thornton, Tom Landry, Lyndon B. Johnson, Julius Schepps, Leslie and John M. Stemmons, and George H.W. Bush (still with us). A section of the Central Expressway is about to be re-named for George W. Bush (also still with us).

The other manifestation of the destruction-in-the-guise-of-“renewal” craze in Dallas is an unseemly number of huge empty spaces

(conveniently made into ugly parking lots) where block after block of two-and-three-story apartment and retail business buildings used to be.

Hidden among the concrete of the freeway (free? built at the cost of humane living, I’d say) system and the unsightly and bizarre patchwork of emptiness are many lovely and inviting “urban spaces”—parks and monuments, and even buildings.

Yesterday I joined the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center. Of all of the options available to me for exercise, it seems to be the best. I must do water walking to get some of the cardio exercise I need so desperately but have been unable (unwilling?) to do since I injured my hip almost three months ago. The center is just south of Baylor Hospital on Washington Street.

Richard Bloch (alternate spelling, Block), one of the brothers who founded H&R Block, grew up in Kansas City. Bloch was a cancer survivor. He beat cancer twice and died from heart failure when he was 78. His wife, Annette, is still living. The Blochs, in order to provide education and care for cancer patients and survivors, founded the R.A. Bloch Cancer Foundation.

On several occasions, I have walked past a small park in Dallas built on land that was cleared for urban “renewal” sometime during that craze. The park is the Richard and Annette Cancer Survivors Park. It is at the corner of Bryan and Pearl Streets, a few blocks from the Myerson Symphony Center and the Arts District and across the street from the Plaza of the Americas. I discovered recently it is one of 24 such parks in cities around the country. (See a description of the parks.)

Do I need to make the obvious connection between the destruction of “urban renewal” and the beauty of Richard and Annette Bloch’s  real renewal of this space?

I awoke this morning with swimming and cancer on my mind. Both are immediate concerns of mine (no, I do not have cancer).

Last Sunday walking to the opera at the Winspear Opera House in the Arts District, I stopped and took pictures of the Richard and Annette Cancer Survivors Park as I have meant to do in the past. I found the pictures today, and prepared this one to upload here.

Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors' Park, Dallas

Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors’ Park, Dallas

 Thinking about cancer survivors, and about my foray into swimming, and about – oh, about so much that is bittersweet, so much that is overwhelmingly sad juxtaposed with so much that is joyful in my life, I was reminded of my favorite song from the Fantastics. Melancholy and joy at the same time.

I’d like to swim in a clear blue stream
Where the water is icy cold.
Then go to town
In a golden gown,
And have my fortune told.
Just once, Just once,
Just once before I’m old.

I’d like to be not evil,
But a little worldly wise.
To be the kind of girl designed
To be kissed upon the eyes.

I’d like to dance till two o’clock,
Or sometimes dance till dawn,
Or if the band could stand it,
Just go on and on and on
Just once, Just once,
Before the chance is gone!

I’d like to waste a week or two
And never do a chore.
To wear my hair unfastened
So it billows to the floor.
To do the things I’ve dreamed about
But never done before!
Perhaps I’m bad, or wild, or mad,
With lots of grief in store,
But I want much more than keeping house!
Much more! Much more! Much more!