Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom

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A new-fangled cream bottle dressed in environmentally dangerous plastic, nearly impossible to tear into.

There’s a funny thing about getting old(er). Just one for today, at any rate.

For 35 years of teaching college writing, whenever a student began a sentence with “there,” I patiently asked them if they knew about Richard Nixon. An expletive, I would explain, is “an interjectory word or expression, frequently profane; an exclamatory oath.” Anyone old enough to remember 1975 knows why I always used Richard Nixon as my opening example for a lesson about writing expletives. What many people (most people, even college graduates) don’t know is that “There is” and “It is” and their various tenses are “expletives.” They hold the place of a real subject in a sentence. That is, they are profane substitutes for telling your reader what you’re talking about. I told students that they did not need to vent their frustration at the writing process by swearing at me.

What is the subject in my sentence about a funny thing?

My subject is “a funny thing” although it is obscured and delayed so you would hardly know it by my use of the expletive.

Never mind. There’s a funny thing about getting old(er). The subject at hand (pun, I suppose, intended as you will see below) is what happens to your fingers as you senesce. They begin to balk at doing small jobs that they have done all your life. Buttoning the top button on a dress shirt, for example. This morning it was getting hold of the “pull here to open” tab on the half-and-half bottle to cream my coffee. Turning pages while playing the organ is simply impossible. And pages in books present a challenge, too (Nook Books are cheaper, anyway).

And then there’s the iPhone keyboard or whatever you call those little squares with letters on the screen of my phone. But I won’t even begin with that frustration.

There’s a theory that fingerprints wear off as you age, and you don’t get as much traction when you try to do something requiring dexterity. My dermatologist said he didn’t think that was true, and then he looked at the ends of my fingers. He wasn’t convinced, but he wasn’t so certain he was right, either. The ends of my fingers are pretty smooth.
There’s also a theory that your joints get creaky―not necessarily arthritic, but not as flexible as they once were. I don’t believe that. Last Sunday I played the big Bach chorale prelude (really a fugue) on Wir glauben doch all’ an den einen Gott, and my fingers moved just fine; my musical brain may be slowing down, but if I practice, my fingers aren’t.

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My smooth old fingers.

There must be lots of other theories.

I have my own theory. (Subject, “I,” verb, “have,” direct object, “theory;” no swear words.)

My theory: almost always when I have trouble doing some little task because my fingers won’t cooperate, the trouble is really caused by my mind. Not that my mind is slowing down (it is, of course, but that’s not the problem here). My mind goes immediately to someone’s idiocy. To put it plainly, opening the half-and-half bottle should not be difficult. I mean, it SHOULD NOT BE difficult. What idiot made these things so you have to have either an 18-year-old brain to figure out or 18-year-old fingers to cope with it?

Milk is supposed to come in glass bottles that the milkman picks up when you’re finished with them. And they are supposed to have little paper stoppers in them with cute little tabs that you pull to open it. And the whole affair―for all you young environmentalists―is biodegradable. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

I know I am turning into one of those crotchety old men who just wants to Make America Great Again―great as in uncomplicated, easy, natural.

Natural. It’s not natural to know all about the billionaires in our midst. It’s not natural that there ARE billionaires in our midst. It’s not natural to think you’re better than someone else just because of your skin color. It’s not natural to want to keep out of the country people who have lost everything they own to a war they didn’t start and don’t want. It’s not natural to substitute fake news for real news. It’s not natural to think your religion is better than someone else’s religion. It’s not natural to hate someone who loves someone of the same sex. It’s not natural for you to hate people for any of these reasons (and a lot more) because, actually, who they are and what they need and want is none of your goddam business.

There. You were waiting for my expletive, weren’t you? Well there it is. It’s none of your goddam business. Hardly anything that someone believes or thinks is any of your business unless they’re family. Oh, and if you happen to be a Christian (or some other religion―Christian is the only one I know about), and they need something like food or a decent place to live, then it’s your business. Then the king will say unto you if you take care of them, “Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom. Because you took care of those refugees, and those homeless folk, and those kids without enough food. That’s the only way you inherit the kingdom” (whatever that is, but it sounds like something I might like).

Choose your battles. Stop fuming because you can’t open the milk bottle. Be thankful you have one. And stop getting mad because someone wants to move in here after their home is bombed. Be thankful you have a home. And share. “Inasmuch as you do it for one of the least of these”― one of these whom you despise the most ― “you do it for me,” says the King.

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Milk bottles the way milk bottles are supposed to be.

Note: I would be pleased and honored if you would check out one of my other blogs. Thank you.

“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

“Live in the layers, not on the litter. . .” (Stanley Kunitz, 1905 – 2006)

My Big Horn Mountains - tectonic uplift

My Big Horn Mountains – tectonic uplift

Stanley Kunitz was 73 (three or four years older than I am now) in 1978 when he wrote his poem “The Layers.” He lived another 28 years and died in 2006 at 101. Remarkable by almost any family’s stats.

My mother lived to be 92, my father lived to be 97 and His father lived to be 92. I could continue the list of my close relatives who lived to be nonagenarians.

By the laws of averages and statistics, it seems to me that I may be hanging around here for some time (I’m only 69). Given simple genetics, I have some time left to enjoy myself—or do something, at any rate.

I want to spend more years in the mountains. The real, majestic, overwhelming mountains. Mountains like the Big Horns in Wyoming, at the western slope of which I lived my first five years. Or the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California, in whose shadow I lived for 11 years.

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

I am not who I was though some principle of being myself remains.

Of his poem Kunitz said,

“I wrote ‘The Layers’ in my late seventies to conclude a collection of sixty years of my poetry. Through the years I had endured the loss of several of my dearest friends. . . I felt I was near the end of a phase in my life and in my work.”

He went on to say that the lines “Live in the layers, not on the litter” came to him in a dream. I suppose if one is a poet, lines appear in dreams.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!

If I think about the tribe of friends and family I’ve had in my life so far, I understand the notion of the tribe scattered. I’ve been watching a TV program about the geological history of Australia. I’m fascinated that the geologists and zoologists and anthropologists can look at layers of rock and decipher the ages of fossils they find there (I’m fascinated that they can pick up what appear to be scattered rocks and put them together to form a dinosaur fossil).

My beach at Winter Island

My beach at Winter Island

The earth has—apparently world-wide—a layer of what used to be soot (it’s black, at any rate) that has been compressed into rock. Geologists find it almost anywhere on the earth they look. The residue of earth’s crash with an asteroid caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Anyone who knows even the little I know science/evolution/geology knows about the great Yucatan Asteroid Smash, a cataclysmic event. And one which is revealed through the constant movement, the uplift, of the earth’s outer shell (made up of the “layers”), the tectonic plates.

Stanley Kunitz (as poets do) gave me a new way to think about the layers of the earth—the layers of my life. Childhood. Teen years. College. Floundering. Graduate school. Failed marriage. First partnership with him. Second partnership. College teaching career. Third partnership. More graduate school. University teaching. Topsoil. Retirement/whatever.

My favorite geological wonder is the uplift of mountains. How do the tectonic plates move? Is the uplift sudden and earth-shattering, or slow and deliberate (apparently it’s slow—the Andes, I’ve read somewhere, are getting taller by a milli-inch every year)? I want to know the mountains.

The uplift, the earth-shattering experiences of my life (yes, I am a drama queen). Moving from Nebraska to California for college. Getting married. Moving to Iowa for graduate school. Getting divorced. Moving to Massachusetts to be with him. Then the next him. College teaching. The real him and moving to Dallas.

The uplifts, the layer-shattering experiences of my life seem to have involved moving from one place to another.

Or simply visiting one place or another.

The greatest tectonic uplift of my life was my first trip to Palestine in 2003. Nothing about my life was unaffected by that experience. All of the layers were dislodged.

OK. I’ll stop with the (by this time over-done and corny) metaphor.

I understood there for the first time how costly, how inestimable human life is. I realized for the first time the meaning of one sentence I learned from the foundational “layer” of my life. The way I learned it first was something about losing your life to find it. I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 16:24-26. I met people in Palestine who

Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. . . Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way. . . to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?

I met people in Palestine—Beit Sahour, Bethlehem, Rafa, Gaza City, Ramallah, Jenin, Hebron—who know about keeping themselves but losing everything. I’ve purposefully left out the phrases in the quotation that make it explicitly “Christian.” I know some of my friends would have visceral negative reactions to that. They’re missing the point.

I’m not saying people who know about losing everything (the shattering crush of the “tectonic plates” of their lives) and saving themselves don’t live elsewhere. But most of the people I met in those places, especially the Salsa family in Beit Sahour, showed me (I still have not learned the lesson well) what little is worth “. . . trad[ing] your soul for.”

Of course, the Palestinians have been forced to learn. But they have learned. Those whom I met in 2003 and again in 2009 know about the value of life in a way almost no one else I know does. They know how to live in the layers of their lives, not in the litter around them—even the cataclysmic earth-shattering events of their lives.

“The Layers,” by Stanley Kunitz, 1905 – 2006

Know how to live in the layers, not the litter

Know how to live in the layers, not the litter

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

“. . . You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city. . .” (Alberto Rios)

The secret of my happiness

The secret of my happiness

Five years ago I wrote about one of my most formative experiences. I’m writing about it again today because I’ve been thinking about “my last lecture” (everyone remembers the famous one by Professor Randy Pausch at Carnegie-Mellon University—also about five years ago). As I said this morning on Facebook, I ain’t no Randy Pausch, and I ain’t dying (that I know of).

But I have to mark the end of this important part of my life. My “career” if I can call it that. My gainful full-time employment.

If genetics have anything to do with longevity, I’m far from marking the end of my life (my mother died at 92—having survived colon cancer—and my father died at 97—having survived much, including being my father).

Perhaps this will be my last lecture. Probably the only time in my life I will get to deliver the valedictory address. “The secret of happiness?”

Ladies and gentlemen, honored guests,

I have a deep dark secret (except for writing about it in my other blog, of course).

Secretively, I carry a folded twenty dollar bill in my wallet at all times. I cannot, on pain of severe punishment, spend it. It’ is not mine.

It’s not my last hedge against being broke. It is not “mad money.” It is not for emergencies. It is not mine. I cannot, may not, will not ever spend it.

The secret began in Oakland a few years back. I was there for a family visit, staying in a hotel because other out-of-town family filled all the relatives’ spare beds.

I was up at my usual hour (about three hours before anyone else). After the necessary writing time, I needed breakfast and went out. I approached a Denny’s where under normal circumstances I wouldn’t stop. I don’t have elegant or particularly healthy eating habits, but there are limits.

I'll probably always need them, too

I’ll probably always need them, too

I sat in a booth where I could see the waitress’s station—where they poured coffee and did what waitresses do behind the scenes (they were not a mixed-gender “wait staff”—they were waitresses being bossed by the male manager).

My waitress was a small frail woman, apparently the oldest of the group and the shortest, of Asian heritage (obvious both by her appearance and her speech). I watched the other waitresses abuse her. Catty remarks, picking up cups of coffee she had poured for her tables, actually bumping into her trying to make her spill things. She was too old and frail (I suppose she was close to 60—not too old for anything except taking abuse) or gracious to fight back.

Here’s where the story gets tricky. I said the title is “The secret of happiness?” I’m afraid I’ll seem to be looking for praise. I’m afraid someone will think I’m such a nice guy. I’m afraid I’ll seem to be thinking more highly of myself than I ought to think. None of that is true. This is a story about my selfishness, about my desire to be happy—even for five minutes.

When I finished my breakfast, I counted out the exact amount of the check and left it on the table. And then, weighted down a little by my empty coffee cup, I left a $20 bill as a tip—three times the amount of the check. I simply got up and walked out.

I was halfway across the parking lot when I heard, “O Sir, O Sir!” I turned around, and there was the waitress running toward me, frantic. “O Sir, you make mistake. Not twenty dollars.”

“No,” I said, “it’s not a mistake. It’s for you.” “Too much, too much.”

She burst into tears and threw her arms around my neck. She could barely speak but managed “thank you.” I told her she was welcome and simply continued walking. I could not believe how happy I was.

I quote myself from my previous writing about this moment. “At that moment, I decided if that’s all it takes to make me happy, $20 is little enough.”

Since that time I don’t have any idea how many $20 bills I have given to their rightful owners. About one a month I suppose. When I hear people talking about how foolish it is to give panhandlers money, I shrug. Maybe. Probably. I don’t give panhandlers money. I can tell if I pay attention which people asking for money at the 7-11—or at the corner of Ervay and Main or while I’m waiting for the train at Mockingbird Station or anywhere else—probably really need it. Or can I? Is it any of my business? So what if a guy takes my money and buys booze? If he’s an alcoholic, the cruelest thing I can do to him at the moment is to refuse him a drink. If it’s a little lady panhandling for the two or three men across the parking lot, she needs the money to keep them from beating her up.

Most of the time the homeless people I pass on the $20 to need psychiatric care. We force the mentally ill onto the streets and then blame them for the massive gun violence we are willing to put up with in this country to protect our right to carry a gun. They’re not carrying guns.

If a scroungy guy talking to himself in the parking lot of Kroger on Cedar Springs asks for a buck and I give him his twenty and he sits down on the curb and cries, I know pretty much for sure he’s hungry.

I’ve gotten used to getting hugs from dirty, smelly, unsavory characters (and some desperate little old ladies).

I need to be hugged. If I have to pass along a $20 bill that isn’t even mine for a hug, it hardly seems fair. I’m getting the better end of the deal. The secret of my (often momentary in the midst of severe depression) happiness.

“The Cities Inside Us,” by Alberto Ríos, 1952

For a good time. . . .

For a good time. . . .

We live in secret cities
And we travel unmapped roads.

We speak words between us that we recognize
But which cannot be looked up.

They are our words.
They come from very far inside our mouths.

You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city
Inside us, and inside us

There go all the cars we have driven
And seen, there are all the people

We know and have known, there
Are all the places that are

But which used to be as well. This is where
They went. They did not disappear.

We each take a piece

Alberto Alvaro Ríos was born on September 18, 1952, in Nogales, Arizona. He received a BA degree in 1974 and an MFA in creative writing in 1979, both from the University of Arizona. He holds numerous awards, including six Pushcart Prizes in both poetry and fiction, the Arizona Governor’s Arts Award and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Since 1994 he has been Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University in Tempe, where he has taught since 1982. In 2013, Ríos was named the inaugural state poet laureate of Arizona. In 2014.

“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

“. . . made real by the existence of others and the casual way a crowd pauses together on a concrete curbside. . . “

I make coffee the old fashioned way

I make coffee the old fashioned way

One mystery solved. I know one thing for sure I will do when I retire. I will drink coffee, lots of it. And I will write.

I make coffee the old-fashioned way, not-quite-boiling water through a filtered cone, not on a timer set so I don’t have to think about what I’m doing but can stumble still asleep to pour a cup of coffee. The process wakes me up, not swallowing the first cup.

I’ve been writing early in the morning so long I hardly ever think about how important it is to me—except when I’ve been doing it hypergraphically and can’t not do it. Then, when it’s over—or I have to stop because I will lose my job if I don’t—I think about what I’ve been doing. Sometimes I find great joy in it. Sometimes it’s simply absurd. Sometimes I’d do almost anything not to have to do it.

The fact is, writing is more important to me than anything except playing the organ. And these days it’s easier.

I sent a poem to a friend for her critique. She wrote back, “Omit the maudlin words—tears, love, ‘feel of the thing’—and use words that convey alienation. Fumbling.” The poem is about my frustration with modern instruments of composition, computer, iPad, iPhone.

“Omit the maudlin words.” Oh my god! Omit the maudlin words? I wouldn’t have many words left if I did that!

Take “weeping,” for example.

I assume “weeping” is one of those old-fashioned maudlin words only someone my age would use instead of one that might be used in a Tweet. I don’t know what that word might be, so I will use “weeping.”

Here’s the progression of “weeping” events from yesterday.

Lately I’ve been singing hymns (or anything for which I can remember both melody and words—which means, for the most part, hymns) as I walk to and from my office or do the dishes or clean the cat boxes or any such daily task. Sometimes I think them, sometimes I hum, sometimes when I’m alone, I sing them aloud. I sing them to keep my mind from spinning out of control.

Yesterday shivering from my car to my office in the cold, I found myself humming my mother’s favorite hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” The refrain is

Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided;
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

My mother said the hymn is based on Psalm 30. She quoted verse 5 of the Psalm, “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Or sometimes, verse 11, “Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness” (King James Version).

Thomas Hubschman, a cyber-friend (we’ve never met but we carry on an exchange of ideas on FB and here) wrote in 2011,

Who would have thought old age would be such a riot of strong feeling? We look like dried-up fruit, most of us, past our sell-by date, too juiceless to be up to anything more than maintaining our precarious vital signs. Who would guess that inside these parched exteriors torrents of emotion are rushing like spring floods?

Last night as I was watching “Antiques Roadshow” on PBS, I was weeping. If I find a less maudlin word, I will use it. Not weeping consistently, but an occasional outburst sobs and tears. I don’t know why.

Stability and grace of a homeland

Stability and grace of a homeland

This is not an unusual event.

For some time I have thought this weeping is part of my Bipolar II cycling of mania and depression, or emotions made fragile by TLE, or more recently because I realize the pain of being alone.

But I have begun to think not.

I weep for the children of Palestine who do know the stability and grace of having a homeland.
I weep for my students who are convinced that the purpose of education is to make money.
I weep for the racism evidenced by so many people’s irrational hatred of President Obama.
I weep for my own aloneness.
I weep for the homeless man asleep in the doorway of Neiman Marcus on Sunday morning.
I weep for my friends who are convinced owning an instrument of murder is their God-given right.
I weep that I don’t have a plan to maintain a sense of usefulness in my retirement.
I weep that love is so difficult to find.
I weep that California is running out of water.
I weep that my Caucasian neighbors think my Asian-immigrant neighbors are not worthy of notice.
I weep that all of my family does not live in real love for one another.
I weep for the twenty would-be-suicide bombers killed by accident in Iraq yesterday.
I weep for leaders who are moral cowards—and those of us who keep electing them.
I weep for the pain each of us inflicts on the rest of us.

If a less maudlin word than “weep” is available, I hope someone will point it out to me. And if I should have more faith that “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning,” I trust that I will discover my weeping is maudlin and stop.

Thomas Hubschman says, “We are the grownups society so desperately needs to lead it to better things and stop wasting its time, effort, money, and lives on the boogeymen under the bed. It’s time we started acting like grownups.” I wonder if it takes being grown up to have enough sense to weep. My weeping is not maudlin. And it’s neither helpless nor hopeless.

I’m not sure what has given Tessa Rumsey the insight to say poetically something, I think, of what I mean. She’s only 43 years old. But I love her poem about our lives together. About the occasion for weeping.

“More Important than the Design of Cities Will Be the Design of Their Decay,” by Tessa Rumsey.

Where did you grow, before your roots took hold in the garden?
Curiouser and curiouser, this allegiance you seem to have with rocks.
Bluish blooms bathed in perfection, the moon shines fresh as you melt away.
 **
Loneliness is a laboratory; its territory is forever defined; for reasons beyond our conviction
It cannot be lessened; only redirected and made to resemble a crumbling heaven or the year’s
Grand delusion: I shall no longer want for that which left me long ago—go slow, said the soul,
That you may know the streets of your abandoned city more intimately than any joy
Or cherished season. We were in collusion, this city and I, creating a mythology of desolation;
Feeling utterly evacuated; yet methodically structured; in a post-Roman Empire; previously
Doomed sort of way—and what did the soul say, but know it better, then in a fever, go deeper.
There are days, I told the translator, when the veil drops and I am no longer inside the No-
Place most familiar, built by me long ago, and I walk through the world as if made real
By the existence of others and the casual way a crowd pauses together on a concrete curbside—
Perhaps one of them is weeping, perhaps another will gently reach out and twist a knife
Into my heart and we will lock eyes, and I will fall to my knees, and for a moment
He will hold me. What will I remember? The cold blade’s cruel demeanor? My body
As it seizures? Or the gesture of my destroyer, showing me that in this life, I was not alone.

(Rumsey, Tessa. “More Important than the Design.” The Return Message by Tessa Rumsey. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005.)
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“. . . how scary it is to be part of the 1%. . . “

Pass through the eye of my grandmother's needle?

Pass through the eye of my grandmother’s needle?

.
Just when I think I can withdraw from the stinking world of, well, “politics” (for want of a better word — “public morality,” perhaps), an event, an idea, a message of some sort draws me back in, and I must respond.

My perception is that a person can do two things that make them fully human. The first is to father or mother a child, and the second is to do an act of generosity or kindness at the most basic level of human need, that is, to help someone find food, shelter, or physical (perhaps medical) care. I’m pretty sure the first is not absolutely necessary (although at my rapidly advancing age I’ve been thinking it might have been fulfilling to try). The second, on the other hand, seems to me to be the unavoidable prerequisite for giving oneself permission to consider oneself fully human.

Anyone whose life is void of such acts or—worse by an order of magnitude almost incomprehensible— whose actions in any way deprive another of basic needs doesn’t share at the most basic level in the project of living as a human being.

I heard recently on TV that 85 persons worldwide own as much of the wherewithal to stay alive as the rest of us billions all together. Even if that number is incorrect—if it’s 85 hundred, or 85 thousand, or even 85 million—we have it in our power to give those people the chance to be fully human.

The basic text of the religion most people reading this follow (or at least know about) says that it’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. That’s supported by the saying in that same text that the way one gets into heaven is by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and taking care of the sick.

I don’t give much credence to the “heaven” talk, but I think it’s at least sensible to use that idea as a metaphor for fulfillment as a human being. My guess is that a majority of those 85 (or 85 thousand) give at least lip service to the idea they are going to heaven.

But they obviously are not. Haven’t seen any camels passing through eyes of needles lately. Surely such a phenomenon would go viral on YouTube and Facebook.

However, we have it in our power to give them a chance at heaven (or simply to live fully as human beings here on earth). Caring about our fellow human beings, we need to help them divest themselves them all of that money that’s going to prevent them from getting into heaven when they die–or to live fully as human beings before they die.

I was naked, and you clothed me.

I was naked, and you clothed me.

We can’t, obviously, do anything for that guy from Mexico they say is the richest of the 85 or 85 thousand, but we could help some people in this country with names such as Gates and Walton. Or Thomas Perkins.

According to the webpage “Richest 250 People in the World” (the richest.com. 2014. Web.) Mr. Perkins is the 148th-richest person in the world. I don’t know how anyone calculates this, but where he is in the ranking doesn’t matter. He’s up there somewhere. Since he’s not in the top 85, I suppose quoting him is a bit unfair. However,

‘. . . the super-wealthy venture capitalist [Mr. Perkins] who once owned the largest private yacht in the world as well as multiple mansions, penned a letter to the editor to the Wall Street Journal this week about how scary it is to be part of the 1%, so scary it brings to mind how the Jews must have felt in Nazi Germany . . . “I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich’ . . . This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?”’ (Allon, Janet. “10 Most Absurd Right-Wing Lunacies This Week: Pity the 1% Edition.” AlterNet.com. January 25, 2014. Web.)

I have to admit, I’m one of the “progressive [radicals]” he’s thinking of. There isn’t a drop of camel’s blood in me. What I want to do is give Mr. Perkins a chance to get into heaven. For example, all the nations of the world could levy a 90% tax on both the income and the holdings of everyone who makes, say, $1,000,000,000 per year or more. Either 90% or an amount that would leave them $1,000,000.

I’d guess that money could give every hungry person in the world something to eat. For a long time.

Mr. Perkins, accustomed as he is to having $8,000,000,0000 (that’s billion with a “b”) would find it difficult to live on a mere $1,000,000 (with an “m”) per year. I would, too—what on earth would one do with that much money?

I can hear some of my readers complaining bitterly already. Mr. Perkins’s billions are what keeps the economy moving, his money creates jobs. I’m not saying that’s not so. Because I don’t have a degree from Cox School of Business at SMU where students learn how this works, I really have no right to an opinion.

But I do have one question that lots of Progressive Nazis (now there’s an oxymoron for you!) must be asking. If Mr. Perkins’s billions are helping the economy by making more jobs, where are they? Why are so many people jobless around the world?

And if it’s OK for 85 people to own half the world’s goods, why am I worried that when my contracted salary ends on May 31 and I retire, I won’t have enough money to live on? Me with a PdD and 35 years of college teaching experience? Worried, even while I know that I, too, am better off than an enormous percentage of the people in the world.

My home away from home,

My home away from home,