“This is a light-hearted look at my experience of getting old . . .”

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Parkland, the new reigning architectural monarch of our neighborhood. (Photo: Harold Knight, Jan. 7, 2016)

. . . or that’s what the “about” tab above says.

Recently a friend of mine heard gunshots close to his home in San Bernardino, CA. His home of over 40 years is a long way from the scene of the terrorist attack, but hearing gunfire is hearing gunfire. He went outside just in time to see the police arrive and surround a young man who had been shot in the leg lying in his neighbor’s driveway.

Last year my friend was the victim of crime when a man who had been shot in a fight on the street behind his house broke into his house (he was not at home, fortunately) and used the bathroom to try to stop his bleeding. It took my friend days to clean up the blood splattered about his house.

My friend’s home is in what used to be a quiet but not upscale suburban neighborhood which has been annexed by the city of San Bernardino.

He no longer feels safe there. Obviously with some reason.

My apartment is not upscale. The building is the dowager queen of the neighborhood. Built in the ‘50s. Solid concrete, six floors. Somewhat decrepit. In a neighborhood that is coming back after many years of decline with the completion of the new Parkland Hospital, the construction of new apartment complexes, and an upgrade in the businesses coming into the mixed-use zone neighborhood.

My possessions and décor are of a piece with the building. Aging graduate-student eclectic, the kind of stuff I’ve had all my life. Even if I were part of “the 1%,” I would probably live here with my stuff that has sentimental value. The two chairs in my living room, for example. Not comfortable. Not beautiful. But one was my father’s desk chair and the other was his grandfather’s desk chair. Old (and not particularly valuable) wooden chairs in the living room and a portrait of Lincoln on the wall? How not gay-friendly! Hardly seems like I’m gay at all.

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My 71st Birthday Cake. (Photo: Harold Knight, Jan. 5, 2016)

So you’d think all the problems facing aging gay men would pass me by.

Not so. A prevalent problem facing older gay men and women is beginning to stare me in the face: living alone without a support system close by enough to be able to help me instantaneously in a crisis. Although I have fallen with unpleasant results (hip surgery and walking with a cane for nearly two years), I have been very lucky never to have been in that “help me―I’ve fallen and can’t get up” situation. And I’ve never been criminally attacked in any way.

The most difficulty I have is my daily (hourly?) problem of not being able to find my glasses. Or my shoes. (My organ-playing shoes have been missing for a week.)

Or forgetting to pay the rent.

That’s not the sort of problem that concerns me.

For the most part I am healthy (blood pressure yesterday 135 over 80). I take meds strong enough to kill a horse for seizures and mood swings. I asked my doctor if there’s a study on the long-term effects of Carbatrol―does it ruin the liver or kill brain cells or. . . . His answer, “You’re it!”

Not 100% reassuring.

Since my hip surgery I’ve been in the care of a PT and a trainer who have helped me strengthen my hips and legs. I’ve learned important practices that should help me stay upright and safe. (Old Folks take note!) I ALWAYS hold the handrail on stairs no matter how silly I feel. I NEVER get out of my car on one foot―I swing around on the seat and put both feet on the ground before I stand up. I always change positions from sitting to standing and vice versa as if I’m wearing a tight skirt (no, not drag).

I’m beginning to know how to be an old man safely.

I have a plan for maintaining my independence. I hope in the near future to move to a high-rise downtown where I will have people living close by and a concierge to keep at least minimal track of me.

I have ideas for many of the eventualities I can plan for.

However . . . .

If someone breaks into my apartment to clean up the blood of his wounds from a gunfight―or for any other reason; or if I am ever the direct the victim of gun or any other kind of violence; or if I develop Alzheimer’s disease, as happened to my mother, or any other chronic debilitating condition; it is not at all clear what I would do―or more likely what would be done to/with/for me.

Everyone my age thinks about these eventualities.

As a society we are not very good at taking care of people who cannot care for themselves. But we older Americans who are alone are in a precarious situation.

Without family or a strong “secondary” support to advocate for us, to make decisions for us, to carry out our wishes, we are at the mercy of a system, and often of people, who do not have our best interests in mind.

The plight of LGBT persons who are alone is almost certain to be exacerbated.

The reality is that both personal and institutional homophobia is still the rule rather than the exception, especially in places where poorly educated workers predominate (aids in nursing homes, for example). To assume that the 2012 firing of one homophobic nurse at the Dallas VA hospital has made a significant inroad into the problem is quixotic.

I have written letters of inquiry about moving to several retirement communities in Dallas. In each letter I made it clear that I am an out gay man and have no intention of going back into the closet to avoid discrimination from care givers.

NOT ONE OF THOSE FACILITIES EVER ANSWERED MY INQUIRY.

Friends have asked me why I thought it necessary to say I am gay. That none of those facilities even answered my inquiry is the reason. They do not want gays. If they were places I wanted to live, THEY would have asked, “Why did you think it necessary to say you are gay?”

And the fact that my friends asked me the question is an indication that they do not understand the situation of elder LGBT persons.

Would my friends move into a facility where they would be treated with less dignity than others simply because of who they are unless they hid who they are?

I doubt it.

Please watch the trailer and then find a way to see all of the film
Gen Silent.

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30 years after graduate school still living in grad-school eclectic décor (Photo: Harold Knight, Jan. 7, 2016)

“How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?” (J. S. Bach)

Warm-fuzzy North Park Center

Warm-fuzzy North Park Center

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I had a couple of problems this morning.

First, I wanted to look at my copy of the piano-vocal score in (a stultified) English translation of the J.S. Bach Christmas Oratorio. I can’t find it. It’s on a shelf or in a box or in some other place I put it for safe keeping when I moved to this apartment 11 years ago. I probably have not looked at it since then.

I wanted the English words of the 5th movement of the first section. I could reconstruct them from memory except the 5th and 6th lines. I must have looked at 20 websites before I found the words. I found one recording of a (not professional) choir singing it in English, but I can’t make out the words as they sing.

Searching for the score did accomplish one thing for me. I put a whole bunch (more) CDs and DVDs of operas, extended musical works, and movies (the complete Godfather, for example) into boxes to take out of here. Any such recording I have not listened to or watched since I moved here 11 years ago is going! I obviously don’t need them.

The words of that chorus of the Christmas Oratorio are warm-fuzzy words about Christmas, particularly about the faithful’s response to the birth of the Baby Jesus.

How shall I fitly meet Thee
And give Thee welcome due?
The nations long to greet Thee,
And I would greet Thee, too.
O Fount of light, shine brightly
Upon my darkened heart,
That I may serve Thee rightly
And know Thee as Thou art.

Lovely Christmas sentiment, No? Yes, of course. The words have been sung from the 17th century onward to a lovely and sweetly introspective tune by Johann Crüger. Similar to “Away in the Manger.”

Aye, there’s the rub, as Hamlet might say.

Bach used a different tune. The tune everyone in America who uses a church hymnal knows as “O Sacred Head, now Wounded,” by Hans Leo Hassler, contemporaneous with Crüger.

Black Friday, greeting him

Black Friday, meeting him?

These words traditionally go with that tune—or some similar translation.

O sacred head, now wounded,
defiled and put to scorn;
O kingly head surrounded
with mocking crown of thorn:
What sorrow mars thy grandeur?
Can death thy bloom deflower?
O countenance whose splendor
the hosts of heaven adore!

My guess is 99% of the people who attend a performance of the Bach Christmas Oratorio in the next two or three weeks will think the tune is just lovely, a nice way to sing about the Baby Jesus. Even those who recognize the tune will not be jarred by it. How could J.S. Bach compose anything other than grandeur and elegance?

So it’s not jarring to sing about meeting the baby to the tune most of us know for words about the baby’s eventual murder?

Let’s not belittle Bach’s power as thinker and composer. I don’t know if he was the first composer to marry those sentimental words with that gruesome tune, but I know that to anyone listening with anything other than their most uncritical and unconscious ears and mind, that movement of the Christmas Oratorio is shocking. Just shocking.

Who sings songs about an unjust execution as a lullaby to their children?

The other problem I had earlier today was the news that Kourtney Kardashian had a baby. Who gives a (insert your own word here) that Kourtney Kardashian had a baby? Well, there, I’ve cheapened whatever argument I was making. And what does it say about us that anyone other than her family even knows her blessed news?

And now I wish I were a philosopher or a great preacher or theology professor or even one of those people who gets to speak ad infinitum helping PBS raise money. Or perhaps a TED speaker. I want to preach. If I had standing to do so, I’d say something like this.

Isn’t it sad that—taken as a whole—we as a people are more interested in how we should fitly meet the Baby Kardashian than how we should meet anything related to truth, goodness, beauty, or other noble pursuits. I won’t speak about theology or religion because I frankly can no longer get my head around those kinds of ideas.

Old Sebastian Bach knew a thing or two about us. We have this elaborate ritual of warm-fuzziness and camaraderie (“mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together”) that makes us feel more generous than we have any right to feel about ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we actually believe in the [original] “reason for the season.” We all participate in the orgy of “spending and pretending.” Pretending we love everyone, when what we really want is to keep our economy on track. I don’t need to say all of this.

Everyone who has more than 30 seconds to be reflective knows it.

So Old Sebastian Bach stuck this hymn into his Christmas Oratorio, right in the first section. The choir (and presumably the congregation at St. Thomas, Leipzig) sang these heart-warming, goose-bumpy words about meeting the Baby Jesus (or the Baby Kardashian).

But if you’re paying attention, you realize he’s tricking you into singing also about police brutality in Ferguson, MO, about our desire to change the law so we can carry murder weapons openly in Texas, about the estimated 300,000 kids in North Texas who live in food insecurity. And I won’t mention (because most people—even those who might agree we need to sing about murder and hunger—absolutely do not want to think about it) the racism that so pervades our culture that we who are in charge of things can’t even see it.

In place of the words to the Christmas Oratorio I find news of Kourtney Kardashian’s baby—at least partly because those words are lost in piles of stuff I don’t need. Stuff that makes me feel warm-fuzzy, protected, successful, while I ignore the homeless black man sitting yesterday a couple of yards from the gate to my apartment complex.

“O sacred head. . .”
BigHeartMinistries

“. . . Becoming an imaginary Everyman . . .” (John Koethe)

A Studebaker with back-up camera?

A Studebaker with back-up camera?

Yesterday driving home I understood why I want to get rid of my car. That will necessitate moving to the Lone Star Gas Lofts on St. Paul Street between Wood and Jackson in downtown Dallas. Or some such place. Downtown is the operative word.

Getting rid of my car is top priority. I could do it today and survive, but it would be more complicated than I want it to be. I’m a four-acre parking lot away from the DART train station, but the bus service around here is arcane at best. Maple Avenue, Inwood Avenue, Cedar Springs—which buses go where, and when?

My desire to be rid of my car is simple. Yesterday when I pulled out of my parking space after tutoring, a little blue light came on under the speedometer. I had no idea what it meant, and thought perhaps I was in trouble. It went off shortly, and I decided it meant that 35 degrees was as unpleasant for the car as it was for me.

Cars—even my simple little not-quite-two-year-old Honda—are too complicated these days. What are these electronic gadgets? Like the back-up camera on the car a friend just leased. I know it’s painful to twist this old spine around and look out the rear window, but really. Sheesh! If you can’t do that, should you be driving?

I can’t figure out how to get my “smart TV” hooked up to my Wi-Fi, and it’s stationary. How can I possibly cope with electronic gizmos attached to a 2597-pound body-in-motion?

Home, Sweet Home, in downtown Dallas

Home, Sweet Home, in downtown Dallas

Don’t give me the Newspeak Party Line. I know these things make life easier. If my car had a back-up camera, it would also have a “blind-spot” detector, and would stop on a dime if it sensed a bumbling pedestrian stepping out in front of it. I know these things are doubleplusgood, and that I’m engaging in oldthink verging on crimethink, but I can’t cope.

Really. If you can’t drive the car, what are you doing driving a car?

Over 50% of the cars on Dallas streets are SUVs of some variety—or even larger—and it is not safe, even with danger sensors, to drive a real car on Dallas streets.

So you youngsters go right ahead driving your electronic toys, but count me out. The sooner I figure out how to live without a car, the better. And, by the way, I’d rather spend the insurance money on travel to Brazil than on a car. To say nothing of gasoline.

When we look at the image of our own future provided by the old we do not believe it; an absurd inner voice whispers that will never happen to us . . . When that happens, it will no longer be ourselves that it happens to. We must stop cheating. The whole of our life is in question in the future that is waiting for us. If we do not know what we are going to be, we cannot know what we are. Let us recognize ourselves in this old man or this old woman. It must be done if we are to take upon ourselves the entirety of our human state. (Simone de Beauvoir)

If we do not know what we are going to be, we cannot know who we are.

Try to explain that to a 20-year-old basketball star.

The fact is, I have tried. Just yesterday. And he understood. He understood better than most people ten years younger than I am understand. Many of them are pretending to be his age. Of course he has plenty of good examples of people who do understand. For one, his coach who is 74 years old.

I can hear it now, all of your protests that a person in his 70th year is not “old.” You are wrong. A person in his 70th year IS old.

The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Psalm 90:10, NRSV)

What’s wrong with admitting you’re “old?” I never knew my grandfather, Archie James Knight, when he wasn’t old. My dad was 30 and he was 60 when I was born (1945). Granddad was 92 and I was 32 when he died (1977). Longevity runs in our family (Dad lived to 97). But neither Granddad nor Dad ever pretended to be younger than they were. And I never saw either of them living in any way other than fully.

Age is not “only in your mind.” Age is in your body. When I was 30, I had a fairly good example of what I might be when I was 60 and what I might be if I reach 90. I remember my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary party when Granddad was 78 and Grandmother was 68. It was a celebration of longevity. Not a party for kids.

My grandfather drove a Studebaker pickup (he was a contractor, built and remodeled homes). It had no radio or turn signals or back-up camera. I don’t know what Granddad thought of cars with radios and turn signals. But I do know he had no problem being the patriarch of our family. He had no problem with acting his age. He had no problem caring for his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, without meddling in our lives. He had dignity and integrity. And wisdom and generosity.

My purpose in writing today was not to praise my grandfather. It was simply to remind myself that I know what I am today partly because I have some sense of what I will be. And that includes the example of an old man who always knew who he was and didn’t need Comcast or Facebook or Blogspot or any other foolishness to explain it to him.

By the way, I don’t think John Koethe’s poem is sad or depressing. It simply says what is.

“Fear of the Future,” by John Koethe (b.1945)
In the end one simply withdraws
From others and time, one’s own time,
Becoming an imaginary Everyman
Inhabiting a few rooms, personifying
The urge to tend one’s garden,
A character of no strong attachments
Who made nothing happen, and to whom
Nothing ever actually happened—a fictitious
Man whose life was over from the start,
Like a diary or a daybook whose poems
And stories told the same story over
And over again, or no story. The pictures
And paintings hang crooked on the walls,
The limbs beneath the sheets are frail and cold
And morning is an exercise in memory
Of a long failure, and of the years
Mirrored in the face of the immaculate
Child who can’t believe he’s old.

back up
If you can’t drive, why are you driving?

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. . .“ (Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

For sale in Dallas

For sale in Dallas

A couple of days ago I was walking along St. Paul Street in downtown Dallas. A homeless man was rifling through the trash receptacle at the corner of Elm and St. Paul. He pulled out one soda can and put it into the clear plastic bag of cans he held over his shoulder. I’ve seen him on the street before, but always at a distance.

As we approached each other, we looked AT each other, not past each other. Our eyes met, and I said, “Good morning.” He said, “Good morning. It’s hard today.” I asked him what was hard, and he explained that, with all the construction on the downtown streets, he was having trouble making a living.

Streets are torn up for construction of the free trolley from downtown to West Village, and the DART rail is being repaired between the St. Paul and Ackard Street stations. I was out of sorts because I had to get off the train at the American Airlines Center and take a bus to St. Paul Station. Five extra minutes, and two extra blocks to walk. This gross inconvenience is going to last on weekends until November 30.

My new acquaintance explained the construction had reduced foot traffic on St. Paul Street, and that meant fewer soda cans in the trash. He usually collects about ten pounds a day, but these days he’s getting only about six pounds.

He said he was down about $20 a day in income and things were tight. I, of course, had my “give it forward” $20 bill in my wallet. I gave it to him. He offered his hand to shake, and said—as every person I’ve passed the money on to has said—“God bless you.” With the Ebola Crisis, I should not have touched his grimy hand, but I did.

Not to single anyone out, but how much does a liberal TV host make a year?

Not to single anyone out, but how much does a liberal TV host make a year?

From THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMN RIGHTS. (I challenge you to read it)

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people. . .

. . . Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom. . .

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 1.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Article 6.
Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person. Before the law or otherwise, I would say.

For those who think the United States should not be a member of the United Nations, that we somehow are giving up our independence by trying to be members of the world community, here’s what our Constitution says about $20 bills.

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Or, if you must,

“. . . for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

I suppose all along when I’ve been wondering about, terrified of, the “meaning of life,” and about my (incipient, it seems to a 70-year-old) death, that about sums up what I need to be worried about.

Please be a good friend and remind of that the next time you read my kvetching about anything.

The Stewpot, Dallas

The Stewpot, Dallas

“. . . ordination in the ordinary. . .” (Stephen Cushman)

He got around to it.

He got around to it.

I wonder. I wonder if all people in their 70th year begin to work at projects they had not imagined attempting in their younger lives—or, conversely, stopped working at activities they have previously thought were important and rewarding.

How many careers can one be retired from—or begin—at age 69?

In the heart of the California Gold Rush country a replica of the cabin Mark Twin lived in for a year just after the Civil War (he was about 30) was built after the original cabin burned down. It is a California Historical Landmark because it’s where Twain wrote “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, if you must) was born in 1835. He published his greatest work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in 1885—when he was 50. Of course, he had published a half-dozen novels before that, and numerous short stories, opinion pieces, and a biography of Ulysses S. Grant.

I’m sure many academics have written densely obtuse articles about the importance of “place” in Twain’s novels and short stories. Living in Calaveras County, California, when he wrote “Jumping frog;” in Connecticut when he wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, etc. And a return in memory to the scene of his childhood and young man-hood, the Mississippi River, for Huck Finn.

But one does not need to play academic mind games to appreciate “place” in Huck Finn. The physical setting is obvious. Mark Twain, as a steamboat captain, knew the Mississippi “like the back of his hand” (sorry I can’t be obtuse but simply use clichés). And having grown up in the South, he knew obvious and blatant racism and discrimination, knew it to the core of his being.

And then, when he was 50, he wrote a magnificent story of love and respect. Love and respect between two men who should not have, according to the mores of their society, had anything to do with each other. Everyone knows that except for the idiots who get the novel banned from use in high schools because they know nothing of love and respect. That the sense of place in the novel is important—the Mississippi and the culture along it are characters in the story—is so obvious I’m not sure why I’m even thinking about it.

Oh, yes. Back to what I was thinking about.

About 15 years ago I was in the thick of writing my best unfinished novel. It takes place mainly in Texas, but with strong ties to (and some scenes in) Iowa and Boston. I was living in Dallas, having moved here from Boston, and I had moved to Boston after living in Iowa for my PhD work. I can’t think an original or fresh thought to save myself.

The protagonist of that shelved novel is gay. What a surprise.

There’s some damned good writing in my novel. Damned good! It would have been the dissertation for my second PhD if I had finished it. Sigh. Too late.

When I had written about 2/3rds of it, I finished my PhD exams and was about to be thrown jobless out into the big bad world. Fortunately my little non-tenure-track full-time lecturer job fell into my lap. I took it largely so I could finish my novel.

Non-tenure track faculty don’t have to attend meetings, serve on committees, or “publish or perish.” I was going to write in all that spare time. Of course, I was also Music Director at a small church and had many other obligations.

A sense of place

A sense of place

Chief among them to keep myself out of deep depressions, which I’ve managed to do most of the time.

I’d like to finish that “on-the-shelf” novel, or at least use some of the writing in another one. But it’s on 3½-inch floppy disks I have no way to use. Stuff happened. New job. Ex-wife died. Went to Palestine and had a life-changing introduction to the real world. Partner died. Mother died. Brother-in-law died. Father died. You know, stuff. I tried to go back to the writing about ten years ago and realized the person who had written all of that stuff no longer existed.

I’ve lived in Dallas almost 21 years. The longest I’ve lived anywhere. That was not my plan. A few years tops, then a professorship somewhere beautiful with my partner, and retirement in style and ease. My sense of place is so centered here I find it hard to remember Nebraska, California, Iowa, and Boston. Not really. But I remember them in ways that no longer exist.

Next month is “National Novel Writing Month.” Accept the challenge of the organization NaNoWriMo. Write a 50,000 word novel in November. Let’s see, that’s 1666.666666666667 words a day. When I’m not so distracted I can’t do anything that makes sense, I write at least 1500 words every morning. I could write 1666.666666666667 a day, but this blog would go into hibernation.

a-round-tuitI have something of a plot in mind. A gay 70-year-old retired writer of sociological works about racism who lives in Dallas has a family crisis with his younger brother, the owner of a small business, and his best friend, a 50-year-old woman (not a fag-hag) professor of sociology at a local university gets dragged into the middle of it all, and his other best friend, a gay 60-year-old artist steps in to save the day, and unexpectedly the protagonist and the artist discover they’ve been in love for the 20 years they’ve known each other and suddenly drive over to New Mexico and get married.

Trashy enough?

Well, stay tuned. I may write a 50,000-word novel in November, and I may not. Would that be returning to an activity I once thought was insanely important? or giving up sanity for something different? What if I have a stroke next week and can’t use words anymore?

I may get around to it, and I may not. Around to it.
Today: exactly 1,000 words.

“No Place Like Home,” by Stephen Cushman
My ocean’s the one bad weather blows out to.
To face the other, waves all driven
by prevailing winds, I have to turn
my back on my family. May they forgive
this westward spree, my losing my head
to ravens that ride the thermals in circles,
to the shrub-covered bluffs of coastal scrub
and chaparral, to coons in the avocado trees;
may they not worry that I see signs
warning Great White Shark Area,
Rutting Elk May Be Aggressive,
and Hazardous Surf, or that one night two
quick earthquakes burped through the ground;
and may they repeat, when I return
slightly burned from the land of poppies,
all the lessons they ever taught me
about ordination in the ordinary.

Stephen Cushman has published several collections of poetry. He is Professor of English at the University of Virginia.

“Dust’s certainly all our fate, so why not make it the happiest possible dust . . .” (Michael Blumenthal)

Everybody loves Saturday night on Main Street

Everybody loves Saturday night on Main Street

A cousin, a year younger than I, lived in London for many years as a (seemingly) hot-shot powerfully successful corporate lawyer for some big American company. I remember hearing the tales—and now and then seeing pictures—of his and his family’s life in London from my aunt and uncle after they would visit him. I haven’t seen or heard directly from my cousin since about 1985, the last time I was in the same city he was when he was studying for the LSAT. A little late in life, wouldn’t you say? Yes. He had been an English professor at some small college in far west Kansas but decided he wanted to make a real living as well as, with Dorothy, not be in Kansas anymore.

His late father told me once the only person he knew who writes better than I do is my cousin—and that’s why his lawyering was so successful. (One might wonder how much writing my uncle had read that we were his two favorite writers. But that’s another story.) The practice of law is all about writing, he said. And the practice of being successful in this world was all about being his son, in his eyes.

In about 1985 I was at my aunt and uncle’s home in suburban Kansas City with my partner, and my cousin refused to come to dinner.

Yes, I am miffed. Don’t like my cousin. Don’t ever want to see him again. I have my reasons. Homophobia.

He’s unkind. I’ll be unkind in return.

The other night Stephen Colbert interviewed George Saunders who was promoting his book on kindness, Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. It’s now one of those books on my Nook that I haven’t read yet. George Saunders was pretty entertaining talking about kindness, how easy it is to be kind instead of mean, and how seldom we all choose to do so. Even Stephen Colbert managed to be kind a couple of times during their conversation.

Through their entire conversation I kept wondering if either of them had read the poem, “Be Kind,” which was the first of Michael Blumenthal’s poems I read. It came in a poem-a-day thing I subscribe to. I’m not educated enough to go looking for such work. I’ve written about Michael Blumenthal and that poem before (the text is at the link). After I did so, I wrote to Blumenthal, and he not only replied with a kind and funny little letter, but also put me on the list to receive his holiday (Christmas) greeting. I told him I am a member in good standing of his fan club.

Michael Blumenthal is an attorney turned poet. He is not, as far as I can tell, homophobic.

Last night (Saturday) a friend and I were walking on Main Street in Dallas. The traffic was heavy, and people were strolling about and sitting in restaurants have a grand time. I saw only one homeless person in the four blocks up and back we walked. (We were on a mission to have a Fluellen Cupcake.)

As little as three or four years ago there would have been virtually no traffic on Main Street on a Saturday night. Things have changed. I think, not being a social scientist or city planner or demographer, the change finally tipped over into city life when the Joule (boutique) Hotel and its (ridiculously upscale and expensive) restaurant finally opened across the street from the small sculpture garden the developer also owns, with its one sculpture, the big eye—and the center of upscale socializing shifted to Main Street (from wherever it was before).

Immediately the city was flocked with the beautiful people and the wannabes. It’s the happening place again. Minus the poor and the homeless, of course.

Sculpture for the beautiful people

Sculpture for the beautiful people

I do not want to sound unkind. I like the bustle as much as anyone. I think it’s fun. Cool. Groovy. Bitchin’ (how many old fashioned words can I dredge up?). If anything I say sounds unkind, it’s probably because I am jealous. No way can I afford to eat at the Joule restaurant (or have my car parked for $25 by their valets—they park on the same level where I park for $2 in the public garage over on Commerce Street a block away). And there’s not much left of me that would be one of the beautiful people even if I could afford to shop at LA Traffic clothes, also in the Joule.

I do not want to sound judgmental. Michael Blumenthal wrote a poem he titled “Suburban.” The first line, “Conformity caught here, nobody catches it,” came to mind last night as we walked. One can catch conformity anywhere, I think. Conforming is likely to be unkind if one is a gay elitist pseudo-intellectual like me; or an English professor turned homophobic lawyer; or one of the beautiful people; or a suburban golfer clutching his putter; or a lawyer turned poet; or a valet at a fancy hotel; or a clerk at a cupcake shop; or a homeless person invisible in the happening city.

It seems to me conformity is the first sign, the first sign of unkindness. Are we unkind because we conform, or—worse—do we begin to conform because we are unkind?

“Suburban,” by Michael Blumenthal
Conformity caught here, nobody catches it,
Lawns groomed in prose, with hardly a stutter.
Lloyd hits the ball, and Lorraine fetches it.

Mom hangs the laundry, Fred, Jr., watches it,
Shirts in the clichéd air, all aflutter.
Conformity caught here, nobody catches it.

A dog drops a bone, another dog snatches it.
I dreamed of this life once, Now I shudder
As Lloyd hits the ball and Lorraine fetches it.

A doldrum of leaky roofs, a roofer who patches it,
Lloyd prowls the streets, still clutching his putter.
Conformity caught here, nobody catches it.

The tediumed rake, the retiree who matches it,
The fall air gone dead with the pure drone of motors
While Lloyd hits the ball, and Lorraine just fetches it.

The door is ajar, then somebody latches it.
Through the hissing of barbecues poets mutter
Of conformity caught here, where nobody catches it.
Lloyd hits the ball. And damned Lorraine fetches it.

TRAFFIC LA - a shop for the men at the Joule

TRAFFIC LA – a shop for the men at the Joule

“. . . the cable that connects the one to the many.”

Of her poem “Acts of Mind” Catherine Barnett (b. 1960) says it’s “a celebration of solitude and desire and is suspended on the cable that connects the one to the many.”

As city icons go. . .

As city icons go. . .

“. . . the cable that connects the one to the many.”

Her inspiration came from riding the Grande Roue, the 197-foot high Ferris wheel on the northern edge of Jardin de Tuileries and rue de Rivoli in Paris. The wheel was built in 2000 for the millennium celebrations, dismantled and reassembled in several cities around the world, and finally reassembled in Paris where it is permanently part of the New Year’s Celebrations in Paris, and a new “icon” for the city.

One of the delights of getting old is forgetting more than most people will ever know. That’s what Dr. Pratt Spelman told me when I was a sophomore organ major in the School of Music at the University of Redlands in 1964. I thought he was nuts then, and I still think that statement coming from almost anyone else would be the height of egoism, “the habit of valuing everything only in reference to one’s personal interest” (dictionary.com). Dr. Spelman valued everything in reference to his own personal interests—not his self-interest—art, the study of “beauty” (he was president of the American Society of Aestheticians), the anti-war efforts of the Society of Friends.

“. . . the cable that connects the one to the many.”

I think—although I don’t know for sure—my friends wouldn’t believe I am a “shy person.” That is, however, true. Even though I talk all the time. I stand in front of groups of 15 college students 12 times a week and make jokes (they don’t understand) and try to get them to figure out something about writing. For 50 years I sat at organ consoles in churches and played and directed choirs and thought up activities for those groups to help them cohere as communities.

Never once, not once, not ever was I comfortable doing any of those things. I love teaching in my office conferencing with students one-on-one about specific writing projects. Sometimes I love having coffee with one person, sitting at Starbucks (not my favorite, but the most readily available) for an hour talking about this, that, and the other. But most often I can’t even keep up a conversation with my closest friends. If they’re not in a chatty mood, coffee can be pretty silent.

I tell myself now that, like Dr. Spelman, the problem is simply I’ve forgotten more than I (and most people) used to know, and I have nothing to talk about.

I’ve joined the gay square dance group in Dallas, the Pegasus Squares (if you’re gay and in Dallas, give us a try). “Pegasus,” for those who don’t know Dallas, is the flying red (neon) horse atop the old Magnolia building—the symbol of, what else in Dallas? The Magnolia Oil Company. It was erected in 1934 and immediately became a symbol for the city. It’s really quite lovely in the night sky. As commercial icons go, it’s one of the best.

But my mind wanders. (Always.)

Please not in front of the class. . .

Please not in front of the class. . .

I joined the square dancers, and I go to the lessons on Sunday afternoons, and during the breaks between “tips,” I sit at the end of the row of chairs by the wall and don’t have conversation with anyone unless another dancer sits beside me and begins chatting. I took lessons three years ago at a “straight” group and loved it—the dancing, that is. But it was the same deal with sitting alone on the folding chairs during breaks. That is, until the single old women (they were maybe 68 or 70—and I was 66, but they were old) realized I was single. No more being alone. But that’s one of the reasons I stopped dancing. The widows and I were not meant for each other.

So you’d think the Pegasus group would be easy. You can tell from the picture on the website that the “demographic” is right for me. “Mature” men—gay, friendly and not pretentious, some professional guys—at least one other English teacher—all the kinds of guys I should be completely at ease with, and if they have ulterior motives, they’re probably the same as any I might have. And I sit alone during the breaks because I don’t have a clue what to say to anyone. Chat. Small talk. Social intercourse. Whatever you want to call it is—and always, that is always has been—a mystery to me.

I should try (once again as I have so many times) to explain why. I have this TLE problem that makes me wonder when there’s noise and motion if I’m even there. I live in my mind so much it’s hard to know which of the things going on in there I should say. I’m a self-centered perfectionist and can’t abide the thought of saying the “wrong” thing. Let’s pathologize it—I’m a “social anorexic.” Oh, fuck it. There’s no “reason.” I’m just terrified. Sometimes even of my friends.

And I’ll bet that most people, if they admitted it, if they followed their basic instincts, are terrified, too. And if you all followed your own basic instincts there’d be a lot less chatter in the world and a lot more communication.

For starters, the internet would be about 1/3 its size, and most politicians would be forced to shut up. Maybe I should be grateful that some few of us, at least, are shy persons.

Catherine Barnett’s little poem registered with me for the lines

mine usually the little void
of space I call honey . . .

The little void of space I call honey. My make believe friend. My void of space. I’m comfortable with him. “A celebration of solitude and desire.”

“Acts of Mind,” by Catherine Barnett

What’s funny about this place
is us regulars coming in with our different
accoutrements, mine usually the little void
of space I call honey, days
I can barely get through I’m laughing so hard,
see? In the back a woman squeezes oranges,
someone presses the fresh white bread
into communion wafers or party favors.
In the window the chickens rotate blissfully,
questioning nothing–
Sometimes I flirt with the cashier, just improvising,
the way birds land all in a hurry on the streetlamp across the street,
which stays warm even on cold nights.
Guillaume says humor is sadness
and he’s awfully pretty.
What do they put in this coffee? Men?
No wonder I get a little high. Remember
when we didn’t have sex on the ferris wheel,
oh that was a blast,
high, high above the Tuileries!
__________________
Barnett is an instructor at New York University and The New School and has been the Visiting Poet at Barnard College. As poet-in-residence at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, she teaches writing to young mothers in New York City’s shelter system. “This poem is a celebration of solitude and desire and is suspended on the cable that connects the one to the many.”  If you’d like to read stuff I wrote about square dancing when I was taking lessons before, your can migrate here and/or here.

. . . not meant for each other . . .

. . . not meant for each other . . .