“Rage, rage against the dying of the light . . .” (Dylan Thomas)

Thousands of Names, one Quilt

Thousands of Names, one Quilt

In about 1981 when I had finished giving the young son (about 5 years old) of dear friends his piano lesson at their home in Brookline, MA, his dad insisted we have a conversation. We were long time close friends and often talked. This seemed different–important somehow.

Jim worked in research at the Harvard School for Public Health. He wanted to tell me about the “gay disease.” He was convinced it wasn’t the “gay disease,” but whatever it was, gays seemed to be the only victims for reasons no one had yet figured out. He wanted to be sure I had a better understanding of the disease than I might read in the papers, and he wanted me to be careful–although he didn’t know exactly what that meant.

Our conversation took place shortly after I had begun treatment for temporal lobe epilepsy. The world had begun to feel even less safe than I had always thought it was although I did everything I could to avoid thinking about it.

By the mid-‘80s the “gay disease” was taking a terrifying toll. I had stopped keeping count of the men I knew who had died from HIV/AIDS as we knew it by then. Keeping a list was overwhelmingly depressing.

The psychiatrist I saw as part of my TLE treatment suggested in the late ’80s that I do something to confront my ongoing perplexity that I had not contracted HIV even though I had done very little to change my behavior in the time since the spread of the disease became understood.

I became a volunteer at the AIDS Hospice in Boston. “If it’s wet, wear gloves,” was the first and only non-negotiable rule. The work was intense. My guess is that anyone spending ten hours a week with people who are dying would see their own view of the world change dramatically and permanently.

Volunteers changed beds, helped patients shower, brought meals to the bedside of patients unable to go to the dining room, read to patients, talked with patients, and sat—some days for the entire time we were there—often holding the patient’s hand, more often simply sitting beside the bed saying and doing nothing.

Twice in those four years I was with a patient at the moment of his death. Several times I aided the nurse in the few moments immediately after a patient died.

I don’t know how to describe those experiences. I don’t have the language to express the gratitude which I hold in my heart for every hour I spent at the Hospice, especially those moments around patients’ deaths.

He raged against that good night

He raged against that good night

Those men (and one woman) gave me the highest honor one can give—to be with them as they approached the last moments of their life or, even more awe-inspiring, to be with them at the moment of their death.

Explaining is impossible. Undeserved and incomprehensible, the (unexpected) privilege of witnessing the most important moment of another’s life (each time as an intruder) changed my worldview forever. Whatever words I can find to say this are inadequate and seem dramatic or sentimental in a way I do not (cannot) intend.

Dies irae, the opening Latin words of the Medieval Sequence Hymn (to be sung between the readings from scriptures—“Day of wrath” is the most common translation) from the Requiem Mass of the Roman Rite, are tattooed on my left arm as of last week. Nearly everyone who has seen the tattoo has asked me why those words.

Ultimately I do not believe that the day one dies is a day of “wrath.” And I do not believe in the “Day of Judgment” the hymn describes. When I attend a church service in which the Nicene Creed is used, I cannot say the words, “He [Jesus] shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

I have often thought that, were I either a comic or a philosopher (perhaps a philologist), I could write something memorable noting the visual sameness of “Dies” (day) in Latin and “Dies” (dies) in English. Many people must have tried to say something clever about that sameness over the years.

But that cleverness is not the reason for my tattoo.

The most famous poem of Dylan Thomas (who lived only 39 years) is “Do not go Gentle into that Good night.”

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The film, The Normal Heart, directed by Ryan Murphy and written by Larry Kramer—an adaptation of Kramer’s play written at the height of the AIDS crisis about gay men raging against the dying of the light—was recently released on HBO. I saw it last week after my arm was tattooed.

Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning. . .

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. . .

Those of us gay men who lived through (were in our “prime” during) the worst of the AIDS epidemic, before any treatment for HIV was discovered, understand Thomas’s “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” not, ultimately differently from anyone else, but as a community. We watched our friends die in numbers that should be common only to people who are my age now.

My tattoo is a reminder (is it healthy to have a constant reminder?) that the most important task I have left is to discover for myself what the “day of wrath” means, what it means “not [to] go gentle into that good night.” Perhaps I should have Thomas’s line tattooed on my right arm so I have a constant reminder that we live in the tension between the day of “wrath” and that “good” night.

We can barely sit through "The Normal Heart"

We can barely sit through “The Normal Heart”

“However carved up or pared down we get . . .” (Kay Ryan)

Playland: I can't believe I found this picture.

Playland: I can’t believe I found this picture.

Probably everyone has imagined the intrigue of intimacy that takes place in dark gay bars after midnight, so reading a true story can’t shock anyone.

In about 1982 I touched the arm of a man with a “tattoo sleeve” for the first time in a disreputable gay bar in the “Combat Zone” in Boston, the area where the city let porn shops and gay bars and other unsavory businesses be concentrated and pretty much left alone.

In those days being covered with tattoos was seen as unsavory indeed. Having one tattoo—except for sailors who had crossed the equator—was frowned on in polite society. When I was a kid, I knew one man who had a tattoo, the father of one of my friends. Most gay men who had chosen to be outliers even in the gay world by being heavily tattooed had inked parts of their bodies that could be easily covered.

That night at Playland, a bar that necessitated wiping one’s shoes on the doormat on the way out rather than on the way in, I managed to embrace a man who was virtually covered with tattoos. (This is not a “tell-all” about what went on in gay bars before gay liberation and AIDS changed the culture. We did things in those dark private places we don’t want people to know about, but which everyone has already imagined. Secrecy about merely being in those places was the better part of wisdom.)

Finding myself being hugged by a tattoo-covered man in a tank-top and jeans was excitement not unlike the protagonist feels in Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Parker’s Back.” Not nearly as intense or life-changing, but memorable nonetheless.

Parker was fourteen when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot . . . a single intricate design of brilliant color . . . the arabesque . . . on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes . . . Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself . . . it [had never entered] his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed . . . a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.
(O’Connor, Flannery. “Parker’s Back.” Everything that Rises Must Converge. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1964.)

I have been intrigued by the possibility of having a tattoo for most of my life—one of those hidden desires (or at least something to consider now and then) such as returning to Salvador, Brazil, and attending an entire Candomblé. Something to ponder without really having any concrete idea of doing it.

This past semester I told my students—after they read and wrote essays about “Parker’s Back” that I planned to get a tattoo before the semester ended. I didn’t do it, and now that I will not have another chance to show students my reaction to O’Connor’s story, I wish I had done it. Some of them would have thought I was a sorry old man trying to do something cool in his dotage. But a few would have thought it was GR8—gutsy and entertaining.

One of my realizations of getting older is that the breadth of experience I used to assume was possible shrinks both in imagination and in fact. I have thought often about my return trip to Brazil. In fact, I have said many times if I knew how to make a living, I’d move to Salvador in a heartbeat. I’m now having trouble imagining moving out of my apartment to be closer, for example, to any of my family. My possibilities have narrowed from Salvador, Brazil, to 1200 square feet in Dallas, Texas.

Day of wrath!

Day of wrath!

The Best of It,” by Kay Ryan
However carved up
or pared down we get,
we keep on making
the best of it as though
it doesn’t matter that
our acre’s down to
a square foot. As
though our garden
could be one bean
and we’d rejoice if
it flourishes, as
though one bean
could nourish us.
(from Ryan’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning collection, The Best of It)

However pared down my hopes and expectations and experience become as I get older, I can still make the best of it. Perhaps over and over again, I simply have to find that one bean that will nourish me.

The one bean I have to find may seem insignificant, silly. Instead of a trip to Brazil on Thursday, I got a tattoo. Lying there while Joe at Tiggers-Body-Art on Main Street in Dallas worked on me it did not, for the first time enter my “. . . head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that [I] exist . . . “ I didn’t rejoice as if this “one bean” could nourish me. I did not find myself back in the sultry reality of a bar in the “Combat Zone.”

No. I just had a little twinge of fulfillment, of doing something I’d wanted to do for a long time. And had a little fun in the process. My tattoo is not an arabesque of color.

It’s a sort of old man joke—a reproduction (exact—Joe is a genius) of the first four notes of the Gregorian hymn, Dies Irae. “Day of wrath! O day of mourning!” the Medieval hymn before the Gospel lesson at Requiem Masses. Seems as good a way as any for me to remember that “it doesn’t matter that [my] acre’s down to a square foot. As though [my] garden could be one bean.”

I still have lots of beans left, but I can see where things are headed.

Day of wrath, O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophet’s warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning.

Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth,
All before the throne it bringeth.

Lo, the book, exactly worded,
Wherein all hath been recorded
Thence shall judgment be awarded.

Ah! that day of tears and mourning!
From the dust of earth returning,
Man for judgment must prepare him;
Spare, O God, in mercy spare him!

Lord, all-pitying, Jesus blest,
Grant them thine eternal rest. Amen.

“It was, as it always has been, a choice” (Michael Blumenthal)

Baboon-matters-2A serious question: What on earth would make a grown man take a month out from a busy career as a widely respected poet (at that time he’d published 6 books of poetry and a novel), teacher, and legal scholar (when he was much younger a law clerk to Justice David Souter) and run off to South Africa to save orphaned chacma baboons? I can’t imagine, but I intend to read his account as soon as I finish this writing.

Last night at the birthday dinner for a dear friend one of the other guests and I suddenly found ourselves in a conversation that seemed as if we had stumbled into the middle of it and didn’t quite know what we were talking about. Our own private micro-version of the “Burkean parlor.” It was much too serious for a party, and the subject was much too important simply to toss it off as party small talk.

All of us at the party were of an age—in our 60s. I was the oldest, but only by a year. The host and I had a slight disagreement when I said I am in my 70th year. “But you’re only 69!” she said. Think about it. Until a person’s first birthday, they are in their first year, right? So once I’ve passed my 69th birthday, I am in my 70th year.

The guest and I were chatting about why we don’t go to church or synagogue (she is Jewish) these days. I think we were both trying to say the same thing. I was trying to explain that going to church, comforting as the Episcopal liturgy is, seems somehow so ephemeral, so otherworldly (Duh!), so removed from the immediacy of my day to day life that it feels like both a waste of time in the moment and somehow a deception. Especially since I don’t think I believe in God.

For goodness’ sake, Maya Angelou died last week—one of the constants in my life since I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in about 1975. Maya Angelou was only 86 years old, only in her 87th year, 17 years older than I. Seventeen years! My father was in his 98th year when he died, 28 years older than I am now. Twenty-eight years!

You there, dear reader, you think you’ve got all the time in the world. Well, you don’t, and the guest at the birthday dinner and I were trying to talk about that, but we didn’t quite know how to fit it into party talk.

I’m going to be a shameless name-dropper. Michael Blumenthal told me a few month ago that if there is a “Michael Blumenthal fan club,” I must be the only member. Yes, he told me that in an email after I told him I wanted to be a member of his fan club. He’s a youngster—only 65—but he has done all of these strange and wonderful things.

He and I have had a brief exchange of emails. I found his address when I read and was inspired (? I have no idea what the correct word is here?) by his poem “Be Kind.”

Tucked away in the back of my mind is the useless idea that I want to have lived the way Blumenthal has lived. Just read about the (almost bizarre) variations of “career” he has had. Lawyer, poet, professor, and savior of baby chacma baboons. This is not—as much as it may seem—a paean to Michael Blumenthal. He and I are so much different I suspect we could hardly be friends if we met face to face (that’s probably not true—we’re both too old to worry about each other’s foibles).

It’s OK for someone like me who wishes he had published 8 books of poetry (or had some lasting “creative” legacy) to look at someone like Michael Blumenthal and think, “Now there’s the guy who’s done the sorts of things I wish I’d done.” As long as thinking that does not either make of him some sort of hero that he would be embarrassed to know about or make of myself some sort of failure living with regrets too numerous to contemplate.

Nope. Michael Blumenthal and I are at exactly the same place. We have done what we have done—he perhaps with more energy and brains and discipline than I have—and we are both, according to Maya Angelou’s example, about 18 years from the end. It’s OK to find his accomplishments fascinating. And it’s OK for me to find my own life fascinating.

Or perhaps not!

Or perhaps not!

I’ve played the organ for more hours than most of my readers have been alive (even some who are dangerously close to being old farts). I’ve traveled the world—small portions of it—not for pleasure but for understanding. I’ve been married and divorced and had long-term relationships with men.

Do you want to know what’s really important? A young man, 30-something, whom I’ve known since he was about 10 came to me recently, not knowing what to expect, but needing an “adult” to talk to about his growing acceptance of himself as a transgendered person. He came to me. He didn’t know that one of the most significant friendships of my life is with a transgendered man. He simply thought he could trust me. That’s not as immediately exciting as going to Africa to save the baboons, but it’s pretty damned miraculous.

So the Burkean Parlor conversation the party guest and I were trying to have is the same one everyone has. What’s going on here? What is my life all about? Am I ready for it to end, or are there yet baby baboons I want to save? Or young friends I want truly to befriend when they need it?

OK. So here’s a sample Michael Blumenthal poem. And it fits at this point. See why I like his almost-old-man stuff so much?

“Self-Help,” by Michael Blumenthal

It was, as it always has been, a choice
between Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
and The Story of O, so I picked up The Story of O

knowing it would be more interesting
and, in the long run, better for me. I’d lived
the compassionate life for years— it had proved

far better for those around me than for myself.
Now, I figured, it was time for The Story of O,
Tropic of Cancer, Philosophy in the Boudoir, all

the books that had inspired me in my youth,
before altruism gave pleasure a bad name.
We all go back to our origins, somehow, I think,

ordering a cappuccino and flirting with the waitress,
probably young enough to be my daughter. Isn’t
it, after all, pleasure we truly want, and decency

the back road we use to get there? Why not, rather,
speak our desires straight out, perhaps obliquely,
as in a poem, but nonetheless without shame, so that

pleasure will ultimately reach those who deserve it,
and the books that once gave us so much bad feeling
toward our happier selves can go on doing their work

in the deeply literate darkness underground.

—Blumenthal, Michael. No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012. Wilkes-Barre, PA: etruscan press (2012) 68.

David Souter. Perhaps law clerking isn't that much different from saving baby baboons.

David Souter. Perhaps law clerking isn’t that much different from saving baby baboons.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. . .” (Robert Herrick)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sans-titre-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The prize for winning the prize

The prize for winning the prize

“. . . the fire of the sun has tricked you blind. . .”

eagleA friend with whom I agree probably 90% of the time on matters of art (especially theater), politics, philosophy, self-care, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, posted on Facebook the trailer for documentary film, The Brainwashing of my Dad, which is in production to be released August, 2014.

His posting will stretch our friendship almost to the breaking point.

The film, it appears, describes what happened to my mother. My dad, too, in a minor way. Mom listened to Rush Limbaugh daily for the last few years of her life (until Alzheimer’s). She changed from being basically non-political to being a somewhat rabid conspiracy theorist. The conspiracy being the liberal left out to destroy the country.

My parents came to visit Jerry and me in Dallas. How Mom could listen to Rush regularly and think nothing of coming to my home and sleeping in the bed I shared with my partner while he and I slept together in the next room still boggles my mind. This was the late ‘90s before same-sex marriage was legal anywhere, and Rush was ranting and raving about the “gay agenda” that was destroying society as we knew it.

Of course, he was also ranting and raving about the incipient salvation of the world when that philandering liberal stooge, Bill Clinton, was no longer President, and a true patriot like—well, we weren’t sure yet which Republican it might be—would be President and things would settle back into the paths God intended America to take.

While my parents were with us, I came home from class to discover Rush’s voice blaring through the apartment. I turned the radio off and

The liberal media? Huh?

The liberal media? Huh?

announced that I would not allow that lie-based trash in my home. Sometime later I was in my parents’ home in California when my dad announced (for reasons I don’t remember because I never watched it) that he would not allow CBS’s lie-based show “60 Minutes” in his home. It was part of the “liberal media” that had almost succeeded in brainwashing America.

America brainwashed by liberals?

That is such an absurd concept I don’t know how to think about it, much less write about it. Americans—especially Rush Limbaugh’s devotees—have no clue what a liberal takeover of this country would look like. I feel an urgent need to explain. That’s why my friend’s Facebook posting is going to stretch our friendship almost to the breaking point.

I have enough imponderables in my old age. What will happen to me the moment I die? for one small matter. Anyone my age who is wasting his or her time thinking that government is in the hands of either the liberals who are destroying society or the far-right who want to destroy it is simply a coward. That is, all of that political nonsense is a way to avoid the absolute non-political essence of thinking about one’s life. Neither Rush Limbaugh nor Al Sharpton can help me or anyone else face the final moment of truth—the moment of death.

Thinking with any kind of emotional intensity about politics is a smokescreen to hide the real issues of one’s life: what happens when I die? Is living alone an unnatural state or the best way to ponder the mysteries of life? Do I need to be in love to feel complete (how much are human beings like apes, elephants, and dolphins)? How can I be sure I have achieved the right balance of taking care of myself and working to care for the poor, homeless, and hungry? Does it matter if I leave no “worldly goods” to anyone, if I use up every penny I have? Does it matter how I use up whatever I have? Does it matter if I’m contentious or nice? What’s the use?

“Exquisite Politics,” by Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton

The perfect voter has a smile but no eyes,
maybe not even a nose or hair on his or her toes,
maybe not even a single sperm cell, ovum, little paramecium.
Politics is a slug copulating in a Poughkeepsie garden.
Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth
of a king. I voted for a clump of cells,
anything to believe in, true as rain, sure as red wheat.
I carried my ballots around like smokes, pondered big questions,
resources and need, stars and planets, prehistoric
languages. I sat on Alice’s mushroom in Central Park,
smoked longingly in the direction of the mayor’s mansion.

Someday I won’t politic anymore, my big heart will stop
loving America and I’ll leave her as easy as a marriage,
splitting our assets, hoping to get the advantage
before the other side yells: Wow! America,
Vespucci’s first name and home of free and brave, Te amo.

“Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth of a king. . . America, Vespucci’s first name and home of the free and the brave.” How free am I?

It seems to me right here, right now, sitting alone, recovering from a horrendous week-long cold for which I received not one single hug or delivery of chicken soup (I’m not feeling sorry for myself—simply stating the truth about aloneness most people don’t know yet, but will someday) that we Americans have been brainwashed—one and all—into a trance, a coma, in which we truly believe we are (living in) the land of the free and the home of the brave, that if we believe we are right strongly enough and argue strenuously enough, we will leave this life “as easy as a marriage, splitting our assets.”

And I say, with Daniel Mark Epstein that “The fire of the sun has tricked [us] blind.”

Epstein. I hope I look that good when I'm that old. Oh, yeah, I am that old.

Epstein. I hope I look that good when I’m that old. Oh, yeah, I am that old.

“Heading Home,” by Daniel Mark Epstein

I watched the miles, I saw my life go by,
A drumbeat of bare trees and frozen ponds,
Forlorn stations, ruined factories.
I must have dozed, my head against the glass.
Women I dreamed I would have died for once
Mourned me in a dream. South by southwest
Our train cleaved the horizon, pushed the sun
Toward somebody else’s sunrise, while
Heaven and earth denied my day was done,
Painting a fantastic continent
Of cumulus and ether, air and mist,
Real as any land to a waking man.
A wall of purple hills sloped to the shore
In fluted cliffs; cloud archipelagos
Edged with golden beaches jeweled a sea
Bluer than our sky. Had I missed my stop?
Now was I on my way out of this world,
Alone on the express to Elysium,
Lotus trees, the lost woman of my dreams?

Shadows deepened and the speeding train
Rolled on into twilight. Slowly then
I came to myself, cold, woke to the thought:
This is how it must be at the end of the line.
You cannot tell the water from the sky,
Mourners from the dead, or clouds from land.
The fire of the sun has tricked you blind,
And earth, air and water join in one.

“. . . an angel who flew in midair with one eternal gospel to proclaim. . . “

Michael Blumenthal says "Be Kind"

Michael Blumenthal says “Be Kind”

Sometimes the way things happen in tandem is almost too bizarre to bear. Or so much fun not to rejoice. New Age folks call it “synchronicity.” Old Age folks might give it some religious connotation that makes me equally uncomfortable.

Yesterday I was searching on B&N’s website for an eBook version of one (any one) of Michael Blumenthal’s collections of poetry (apparently none is in eBook format yet, so I ordered a hard copy of his No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012). I’ve written about Mr. Blumenthal’s work before—his “Be Kind” (at the hyperlink) is one of my favorite poems. We should be kind not simply because Henry James said so.

Blumenthal’s work is so compelling I couldn’t help writing to him awhile back. He answered my note, and then he put me on the distribution list for his Christmas letter. I’m not sure why I woke up this morning thinking I should get one of his newer collections—and get in touch with him again.

When I logged on to B&N, I discovered three books in my “cart.” I had forgotten about them, of course. One was Blumenthal’s book of short essays, Three Minutes, Please, essays he has written to read on NPR—an eBook, which I ordered. It showed up on my iPad almost immediately, and I read the first of the three-minute essays. It is about Blumenthal’s first surgery (to repair a herniated disc which had given him excruciating pain for many months) when he was something over 60 years old. He says,

The first surgery of one’s lifetime is a kind of loss of virginity: There is, of course, the anticipation of relief and future pleasure, but it is commingled with uncertainty, dread, and, yes, the fear of ineptitude as well (page 16).

Blumenthal was born in 1949, younger than I am by four years.

Is pain anachronistic?

Is pain anachronistic?

The second book in my cart was Save the Last Dance: Poems, Gerald Stern’s 2008 anthology (he won the National Book Award for poetry in 1998—you can look up his other many honors). I had decided to order it because of his poem “Apocalypse” about making and losing contact with people who are important in ways that are difficult to describe—a phenomenon everyone his age and mine understands. He was born in 1925, 20 years before I was born—and he’s still publishing poetry.

“Apocalypse,” by Gerald Stern
Of all sixty of us I am the only one who went
to the four corners though I don’t say it
out of pride but more like a type of regret,
and I did it because there was no one I truly believed
in though once when I climbed the hill in Skye
and arrived at the rough tables I saw the only other
elder who was a vegetarian–in Scotland–
and visited Orwell and rode a small motorcycle
to get from place to place; and I immediately
stopped eating fish and meat and lived on soups;
and we wrote each other in the middle and late fifties
though one day I got a letter from his daughter
that he had died in an accident; he was
I’m sure of it, an angel who flew in midair
with one eternal gospel to proclaim
to those inhabiting the earth and every nation;
and now that I go through my papers every day
I search and search for his letters but to my shame
I have even forgotten his name, that messenger
who came to me with tablespoons of blue lentils.

Remember a Scots vegetarian?

Remember a Scots vegetarian?

The third book in my B&N cart was ORLAN: A Hybrid Body of Artworks. It’s the newest (2010) study of ORLAN, the French performance artist and was compiled with her help. ORLAN’s work has consisted largely of surgeries (cosmetic?) to change her appearance. Michael Blumenthal might be interested in her assertion after her first surgery (which was to abort an ectopic pregnancy) that, “I wasn’t in pain and what was happening to my body was of profound interest to me. Pain is an anachronism. I have great confidence in morphine.”

She took a film crew with her for the surgery, and that began her series of plastic surgeries which she made available to audiences on closed-circuit TV. She has spoken and written about her work extensively.

I have a great (probably irrational) fascination with ORLAN.

ORLAN was born in 1947.

ORLAN’s life and her work are the subjects of the research projects for my students this semester as they have been several times in the past.

So here we have a synchronous morning of random events all of which point toward one reality. Age is not a predictor of anything. 1925, 1945, 1947, 1949. Not bad years to have been born. I’ll toss myself into the lineup with those famous old folks. We all know stuff that younger folks can’t possibly know. We know to be nice, we know about surgery (some odder than other), and we know about keeping track.

Keeping track of those vegetarians we meet in Scotland. Or those other old folks we exercise with at the fitness center. Or our nieces and nephews. Or those folks we went to church with thirty years ago. Or the kids in our classes today. It’s important “. . . now that as [we] go through [our] papers every day [and] search and search for [their] letters . . . [we will not] have even forgotten [their names].”

OK. Enough of the maudlin. Synchronicity may yet save us from our old selves.

Too synchronous to ponder

Too synchronous to ponder

 

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

"Flowers," by Joe Brainard

“Flowers,” by Joe Brainard

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

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

See “about” above.
See above about.

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

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

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

Chaos? by Joe Brainard

Chaos? by Joe Brainard

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Life,” by Joe Brainard

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

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

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

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

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

More flowers by Joe Brainard

More flowers by Joe Brainard