“. . . as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire. . .” (Billy Collins)

OCD - any table clth will do for hiding

OCD – any table cloth will do for hiding

The other day I Googled “poems about aging” just to see what I would find.

It was a pretty depressing lot.

Now look. I’m not any more depressed than I was 20 years ago. Which ain’t sayin’ much. Yesterday afternoon after I taught my funny little class of adult ESL students—our reading from the news for the day was about that absurd Burger King Japan “black burger,” and we laughed together for an hour—and exercised at the fitness center, and felt just fine, I went to the supermarket and halfway through my shopping, something squeezed itself into my mind, and I wanted to cry.

Now look. Don’t give up on me yet. This is not same-song-100th-verse.

Here’s what’s different. I realized there was so much I wanted to get done yesterday that accomplishment was hopeless. The day could not ever have had enough hours. And that prompted my mind (not my brain—that’s what’s depressed) to think about setting some priorities

that’s an absurd phrase: if something is a priority, that means it comes before everything else, the “first concern” or “taking precedence,” so you can’t set “some” priorities—there can be only one item, idea, task, one whatever that’s the “first”

for the rest of this semester. Still thinking in semesters? The seven athletes I will tutor today for their required “Discovery and Discourse” classes are in the middle of the “semester,” so I guess I am, too. Truth be told, most of them are in the middle of the football season, and that is the real organizing principle of their lives.

So organizing my thinking by the semester makes sense because my schedule for the week is organized around those athletes’ lives.

This week I’ve added the necessity for practicing the organ for playing three services at the second largest Episcopal church in America (it used to be first, but a church in Houston has surpassed it in membership). THREE services on one day. Fortunately, the music for two of them is identical, and the third I will play on my favorite little intimate tracker-action instrument.

All of that—I know—seems much too mundane to be writing about here. Boring. Who cares what my schedule is?

Anyone who is “retired” knows what I’m talking about, I think. There’s all of this stuff to do and no time to do it. That used to be called “stress” or something, and we all simply coped with it. Now it’s called “OMIGOD, what happens if I die tomorrow and all this stuff isn’t finished?” That was never of much concern until August 1, 2014. There was always next week. Some stuff could be delayed simply because it wasn’t that important. Some stuff could be delayed simply because it could be delayed.

Last week sometime I received a voice mail message from some guy in Arizona who identified himself as the representative for my retirement fund saying it is imperative that I call him so decisions can be made about how I want to use the money—annuity, reinvestment, monthly withdrawals. You know.

An old-guy poet

An old-guy poet

I haven’t called him back.

Which is not unusual for me. It’s the sort of thing I’ve always been able to ignore—no, it’s the kind of detail I simply can’t wrap my mind around and get done. I’m not making excuses but simply saying the day he called I was in a state not only of dissociation but physical dizziness. It’s a wonderful experience to feel out of body, creeping through the day feeling as if nothing is real, and then suddenly my head that isn’t real spins around while I’m walking, so the most real thing I feel all day is stumbling and not-quite falling. So he called me about taking care of myself for the rest of my life, and all I can do is tell myself that I really must call him back now that my head isn’t spinning.

But I have to do this (write) first today. Then I have to tutor straight through for 9 to 4. Then I have an appointment with one of my doctors to talk about this spinning, and then I have to practice the organ until it’s time to go to a meeting.

I could barely keep that kind of schedule when I was 40.

So here I am, too old to have any fun (that’s absolutely NOT true) and working harder and being busier than I was just three months ago before I retired.

My cat Chachi (the snowshoes) had to go to the vet yesterday because he’s been scratching fur off his legs. It’s happened before. Some skin irritation. A little prednisone and an antibiotic and he’ll be just fine. But this time the vet says he’s bit OCD. OCD?!

I guess living with me has become more stressful than it used to be. And I’m supposed to be enjoying life in my twilight years.
Right. Maybe all those sad poems about aging are right—not because it’s sad to think about the end creeping (or rushing) up on me, but because I really don’t have time to “invite my soul” (thank you, Walt Whitman) until then.

My favorite of those poems about aging. Not sad. I’ve posted it here before. It really has nothing to do with what I’ve written above. I just like it.

“Forgetfulness,” by Billy Collins (b. 1941 –a real contemporary)

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

No time to invite my soul

No time to invite my soul

“You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill. . . “ (Ogden Nash)

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

American poet John Brehm was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1956. I was in 5th grade in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, at that time. One of his poems includes the stanza,

The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: “Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.

American poet Ogden Nash was born in Rye, New York, in 1902. One of his poems includes the lines,

. . . about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn’t as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forget to pay a bill . . .

I wish they had never happened.

That is, my six sessions of therapy (before insurance had to treat mental illness the same as physical) with a psychiatrist whose practice was exclusively with substance abusers. About 1982. Beverly, MA. The meddling in my affairs by an Episcopal priest whose wife had been in recovery from alcoholism for ten years at that time.

They got me to see the good doctor under the pretense he would help me cope with a couple of nearly disastrous situations in my life over which I had no control. The real reason, obviously, was their desire to get me to quit drinking alcoholically. (Disclaimer: You may have read or heard about some of this before. Sorry, but the demons are not yet exorcised.)

The good doctor, seeing he was getting nowhere in helping me understand the possible problems my drinking (only about a quart of vodka every day—what’s the big deal?) was causing me, gave up, and in the last of the six sessions asked me if I had any other problems to talk about. I’ve written about this before—ad nauseam—but I launched into what he thought was a classic description of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. He had been a medical school (Harvard, of course) chum of Dr. Donald Schomer, by that time heir apparent to Dr. Norman Geschwind, pioneer of work on TLE. The good doctor set up an appointment for me with Dr. Schomer, and the rest, as they say, is diagnosis.

This round of unwritten letters.  . .

This round of unwritten letters. . .

I first read Ogden Nash’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man” in high school and was particularly drawn to the lines,

You didn’t slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let’s all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of things you haven’t done. . . .

Perhaps that appealed to me when I was 17 or 18 years old because I was already too familiar with the sins of omission.

The real question is whether or not TLEpilepsy has (had) anything to do with my inability to follow through on much of anything in my life. (Well, there is that PhD dissertation.) TLEpileptics have certain problems of memory and focus. I’ve read a lot about us.

For example: Theodore, William H., et al. “Serotonin 1A Receptors, Depression, And Memory in Temporal Lobe Epilepsy.” Epilepsia (Series 4) 53.1 (2012): 129-133.

But the condition is so amorphous I’m never even sure I have it—I can’t be positive even though Donald Schomer said so.

My symptoms are pretty regular. Auditory hallucination (b-flat 4 ringing in my ears and exploding into white noise) followed by extreme sense of dissociation, followed by exhaustion and depression. So how would anyone know?—I’m mostly depressed anyway.

And then there’s this round of unwritten letters that’s on me. And those unwritten poems.

Is it TLEpilepsy, bipolar II disorder, or common clinical depression that has given me my sense of unfilled purpose, my absolute understanding that

. . . the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.

My sins are most decidedly sins of omission. Nash is right. They are no fun.

Yesterday I had opportunity to talk with a couple of college football players about the commencement speech the late Steve Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005. Talk! What conversations we had. I said on Facebook they were introspective. That’s only the beginning. The athletes understood Jobs’s remarks.

. . . Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. . . . Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. . . [Quoting the last issue of The Whole Earth Catalog]:

“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

A good friend is in Paris for several weeks. He has invited me to come over there and sleep on the extra bed in the apartment he’s renting. It’ll be the only time I ever have a chance to go to Paris and not have to pay for a hotel room.

I told one of the guys about it yesterday and asked him if I should take a week off from my tutoring and go.

“Hell yes,” he said. “Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Don’t worry about us.”

Can it be that TLE has nothing to do with my unwritten poems?

A lack of hunger, perhaps.

(You’re lucky today, dear reader; you get two poems.)

To attend the Paris Opera

To attend the Paris Opera

“The poems I Have Not Written,” by John Brehm (b. 1955)
I’m so wildly unprolific, the poems
I have not written would reach
from here to the California coast
if you laid them end to end.

And if you stacked them up,
the poems I have not written
would sway like a silent
Tower of Babel, saying nothing

and everything in a thousand
different tongues. So moving, so
filled with and emptied of suffering,
so steeped in the music of a voice

speechless before the truth,
the poems I have not written
would break the hearts of every
woman who’s ever left me,

make them eye their husbands
with a sharp contempt and hate
themselves for turning their backs
on the very source of beauty.

The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: “Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.

please strike me dead at once,
destroy my works and cleanse
the earth of all my ghastly
imperfections.” Trees would

bow their heads before the poems
I have not written. “Take me,”
they would say, “and turn me
into your pages so that I

might live forever as the ground
from which your words arise.”
The wind itself, about which
I might have written so eloquently,

praising its slick and intersecting
rivers of air, its stately calms
and furious interrogations,
its flutelike lingerings and passionate

reproofs, would divert its course
to sweep down and then pass over
the poems I have not written,
and the life I have not lived, the life

I’ve failed even to imagine,
which they so perfectly describe.

“Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man,” by Ogden Nash (b. 1907)
It is common knowledge to every schoolboy and even every Bachelor of Arts,
That all sin is divided into two parts.
One kind of sin is called a sin of commission, and that is very important,
And it is what you are doing when you are doing something you ortant,
And the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.
I might as well give you my opinion of these two kinds of sin as long as, in a way, against each other we are pitting them,
And that is, don’t bother your head about the sins of commission because however sinful, they must at least be fun or else you wouldn’t be committing them.
It is the sin of omission, the second kind of sin,
That lays eggs under your skin.
The way you really get painfully bitten
Is by the insurance you haven’t taken out and the checks you haven’t added up the stubs of and the appointments you haven’t kept and the bills you haven’t paid and the letters you haven’t written.
Also, about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn’t as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forget to pay a bill;
You didn’t slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let’s all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of things you haven’t done,
But they are the things that I do not like to be amid,
Because the suitable things you didn’t do give you a lot more trouble than the unsuitable things you did.
The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing,
Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.

“. . . to prove we were still among the living. . .” (Simon Armitage)

Morrissey. You can't go on forever

Morrissey. You can’t go on forever

.

.

I managed to delete ten of my postings here. I thought they were “drafts”  —in the “drafts” folder. But, alas, they were the final “draft,” kept for some reason I can’t figure. I was able to reconstruct the last post , but the others will take some doing. Now I know why I save the Word documents on my desktop.

“Are we dead yet?” someone would ask.
Then with a plastic toothpick
I’d draw blood from my little finger
to prove we were still among the living.

A week ago I had blood drawn from my little finger (I assume there was blood although I was in la-la-land—they said I wasn’t asleep from a general anesthesia but didn’t know what was going on because they gave me that other stuff that doesn’t really knock you out). Not my finger, but the palm of my right hand where the finger tendons attach to the hand bones. If I’ve already written about it, that’s a post I deleted. The pinky “trigger finger” surgery was almost negligible.

I wore the dressing for three days, Band-Aids for several days, and today nothing to protect the healing incision.

But—there’s always a “but,” isn’t there—the surgeon said I should not get into a swimming pool until after my follow-up appointment (tomorrow). And I mustn’t go to yoga class (no hands on floor).

I know why old people get stiff and begin to hobble. One thing leads to another to another to another. I can’t do my accustomed exercise—walking in the therapy pool at the Landry Fitness Center. So, rather than take a walk around the neighborhood, I do nothing. And my lower back has a knot from sitting and writing at my computer too many hours, and I’m beginning to hobble. Damn!

It’s been too hot to walk outside. And my tutoring schedule is inconvenient. And I’m depressed. And. . . How many excuses can I think up?

The real reason is I don’t want to do it alone.

At the Landry Center, I have made friends. We barely know each other’s names, but we talk and make jokes and know all of the ailments that bring us there, and gossip like a bunch of little old ladies, which we mostly are.

We get acquainted. One of the women and I discovered she’s the next-door neighbor of and best friends with an organist for whom I substitute regularly. Are we going to socialize outside the pool? I’d bet Linda and I and her neighbors will eventually. The organist and his partner must know some other old fart looking for an old fart to be with (that is interpreted, date).

So I’m not going to run into Linda for a few more days, and I certainly wouldn’t run into anyone I know walking out on Maple or Hudnall streets.

My parents walked every day until they moved to assisted living (they were both about 90). Together. If genetics has anything to do with it, I could be walking another 20 years. Of course, neither of my parents ever drank, smoked, or was 35 pounds overweight, so I’m not sure my prognostication should be for 20 years (I haven’t drunk or smoked for 28 years).

Me--before three surgeries, lethargy, weight gain, and hobbling

Me–before three surgeries, lethargy, weight gain, and hobbling

However, the outlook for hooking up with someone (I mean that in all popular senses of the phrase) grows, I think, dimmer by the day.

Armitage writes, “Are we dead yet?” someone would ask. He was born the year I graduated from high school. Does he even have standing to ask that question?

If you want to know the worst case scenario about how old gay men (and women) live out their years, you can watch the movie Gen Silent. Another instance–a gay couple in Arizona who had been together 45 years went to California to marry. Recently, one of them died, and Arizona refused to put on his death certificate that the other was his spouse. It took a Federal judge to force Arizona to accept their marriage.

In case you think I’m whining, I’m not. I’m simply trying to be realistic. Even if I were not gay, my late-life prospects are not rosy. I’ve chosen to be a low-ranking college professor for most of my sober life, so my Social Security is only about $1300 a month. (The SSA has decided that, if you were poor in your working life, you will be poor in “retirement.” I wonder if the mega-wealthy 1% return their SS checks. One of them could help me out quite a bit.) My “pension” from SMU is about half that. Can you live on $2000 per month?—especially if you are in any way infirm?

I’m not whining.

I’ll be a helluva lot better off than most people, I’d guess. Armitage’s poem is a projection of what one does in old age WITH ONE’S FRIENDS AND ASSOCIATES.

As almost an aside, I have to quote The Guardian from Friday 3 September 2010:

For 30 years, poet Simon Armitage’s admiration for Morrissey has bordered on the obsessive. But could his love survive an encounter with the famously sharp-tongued singer-songwriter?

That’s part of the introduction to an interview between Armitage and Morissey in which Morissey says,

Simon Armitage: we're not dead yet

Simon Armitage: we’re not dead yet

The ageing process isn’t terribly pretty… and you don’t want yourself splattered all over the place if you look pitiful. You can’t go on forever, and those that do really shouldn’t.

(I don’t think Armitage is gay, and I don’t know any of Morrissey’s music. When he was in his heyday, I was a drunk, and since then I’ve not kept up with popular music except for Lady Gaga and a few others.)

I’m not sure where I meant to go with this writing. I’ve been interrupted too many times. But I think this is where I was headed when I began.

All of my favorite sayings about getting old are true. “Getting old is a full-time job.”

Job. And I’d really like to have someone to come home to after work.

“Dämmerung,” Simon Armitage, (b. 1963)

In later life I retired from poetry,
ploughed the profits
into a family restaurant
in the town of Holzminden, in lower Saxony.

It was small and traditional:
dark wood panelling, deer antlers,
linen tablecloths and red candles,
one beer tap on the bar

and a dish of the day, usually
Bauernschnitzel. Weekends were busy,
pensioners wanting the set meal, though
year on year takings were falling.

Some nights the old gang came in –
Jackie, Max, Lavinia,
Mike not looking at all himself,
and I’d close the kitchen,

hang up my striped apron,
take a bottle of peach schnapps
from the top shelf and say,
“Mind if I join you?”

“Are we dead yet?” someone would ask.
Then with a plastic toothpick
I’d draw blood from my little finger
to prove we were still among the living.

From the veranda we’d breathe new scents
from the perfume distillery over the river,
or watch the skyline
for the nuclear twilight.

“. . . someone who vanished into the end of seeing. . .” (Russell Edson)

Where the athletic tutors offer support (Ford Stadium at SMU)

Where the athletic tutors offer support (Ford Stadium at SMU)

The number of people I have kept in long-time communication with over the years is quite small. My parents’ Christmas card list was in the hundreds, recipients from as far back as their seminary days. Many of my friends have hundreds of friends on Facebook. Is that the same as my parents without having to address and stamp cards?

A couple of weeks ago the one friend from childhood with whom I’ve maintained friendship called to wish me a happy retirement. One high school friend and I have lunch together every three or four years in Oakland and read each other’s Facebook postings with some regularity. I have constant contact with two college friends and sporadic contact with two others. One friend from graduate school is a friend on Facebook. I’ve maintained friendships with a few friends from churches where I’ve been organist, and with a few former students.

My college friend, Steuart Goodwin, built the tracker-action pipe organ that resides in my living room. Anyone who can’t instantly think up every Middle Schooler’s joke about Steuart’s organ in my living room is far less creative more serious than all of my friends.

Steuart and I have carried on a language game of “can you top this?” involving spoonerisms, assonances, consonances, and malapropisms to make puns, often mixing English with parodies of other languages to make new words. I say it’s a “can you top this?” competition, but I’ve never won—Steuart simply thinks this way, and I have to work too hard at it. An example he coined decades ago is still my favorite. Our professor Dr. Spelman was president of the American Society of Aestheticians. Steuart announced one day that Dr. Spelman had a bad case of aesthete’s foot, that is, “Wherever I go, my feet simply ache for the beauty of it all.”

A couple of days ago, I emailed Steuart that I had taken the “orientation” for tutoring at the SMU center for Academic Development of Student Athletes. (Tutors must know and adhere strictly to the rules of the NCAA for helping student athletes. I’ll bet I know more about the NCAA than any of my jock friends.)

Steuart’s response to my email was
Are you going from being a classroom teacher to a new position as an athletic supporter?
Signed, Jacques Strappe

My stilted response to him was
Yes, my cup runneth over.
Signed, Shirley Goodness

I should not admit publicly to such silliness, and I certainly shouldn’t drag poor defenseless Steuart into it. I must hasten to say this is the only such spooneristic relationship I have—whereas Steuart is blessed with verbal adroitness in any and all situations.

Steuart Goodwin "voicing" a pipe.

Steuart Goodwin “voicing” a pipe.

In 1964 Steuart was a senior majoring in music composition at the University of Redlands and I was a freshman majoring in organ. He presented the required full recital of his compositions, including his Sonata for Organ. He asked me to play his Sonata—the first time I gave the first performance of a work.

In addition to our friendship, based on years of sharing important moments of our lives, on our love of the same music, on our understanding and knowing each other in a way reserved for a few relationships in a lifetime—even yelling at each other over ideas about which we disagree sharply—we share a mystery I’m not sure we have ever discussed.

I was too young in 1964 to understand the process of performing a composition by someone I knew. I admired Steuart in that way freshmen admire students preparing to graduate. I was at the same time full of self-importance at being asked to perform the Sonata and terrified that I would not, could not, perform it as Steuart wanted to hear it.

Frankly, the details of that performance have faded from my memory. I don’t remember if Steuart was pleased with my performance (I assume he was).

However, over these fifty years since, that performance has come to embody one of the enormous mysteries of my life. That I could translate the musical notation in Steuart’s own handwriting, squiggles on the page, into movements of my hands and feet guided by my best understanding of their meaning (itself a mystery) so the audience at the recital could hear what Steuart had imagined (or at least a fairly good facsimile)—while he sat in the audience!—is incomprehensible.

During these fifty years I have participated many times in the first performance of a new work, but my mind goes back to Steuart’s Sonata because that performance was the one that established the mystery in my mind and soul. How? How does it happen, this performance of another’s music, new or old?

Obviously all great performers have somehow answered that question for themselves. They could not continue if they had not. Or perhaps living in that mystery is the only way truly to perform whether the music was written by a friend or by César Franck.

Perhaps a friendship in which that mystery was shared at the beginning can survive even flirtation with the Tea Party on the one hand and virtual socialism on the other.

I may be wrong, but if “music” is substituted for “fiction” in the following third stanza, the poem is about the vanishing “vanishing point” between musicians.

“Of Memory and Distance,” by Russell Edson

It’s a scientific fact that anyone entering the distance will
grow smaller. Eventually becoming so small he might only be
found with a telescope, or, for more intimacy, with a
microscope….

But there’s a vanishing point, where anyone having
penetrated the distance must disappear entirely without hope
of his ever returning, leaving only a memory of his ever having
been.

But then there is fiction, so that one is never really sure if
it was someone who vanished into the end of seeing, or
someone made of paper and ink….

It seems appropriate to play something on the first organ Steuart built. Soon his Sonata again, but for now, an example of the kind of music I play these days (simple enough for the old man to learn) trying to understand the mystery. Is this, indeed, the melody César Franck had in mind? (from L’Organiste; Non troppos Lento in E Major)

César Franck, from L’Organiste; Non troppo Lento in E Major.

 

“. . . 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

 

 

It IS all done with mirrors and wires, after all.

Yesterday I realized that I know how to teach writing to 19-year-olds.

Wrapped in a mantle of communication

Wrapped in a mantle of communication

It’s all done with mirrors and wires.

I mean that literally, not in the sense that it’s stage magic.

The teacher has to see himself if he’s a man, herself, if she’s a woman (see how ridiculous our phony reliance on a grammar that never really existed is? I should have the courage of my conviction and say, “The teacher has to see themself. . .) mirrored in the face of the student. More important, the teacher has to be transparent enough to allow the student to see themself mirrored in the teacher’s face.

That is, of course, almost impossible, and it happens—if the teacher is lucky beyond belief—about once a semester. It is, however, the moment a real teacher lives for.

The wires part is simpler. The teacher uses wires (or something kinder and more esthetically pleasing) to hold the student up long enough for the student to figure out on their own what makes their writing good. Not what the MLA or some other surreal body says is good writing. No. How students can correctly use enough of the (stultifying) conventions of writing to gather about themselves the mantle of a clear personal voice with which they can tell the world (or their lover or the university or their parents or . . .) what they want those folks to know. The mantle of a clear personal voice.

How’s that for a figure of speech as surreal as a Dali painting?

One wraps oneself in a mantle, of course, so you might be thinking, “How can one possibly ‘wrap oneself’ in something that is intended to communicate, not to hide?”

One’s voice, whether spoken or written, is, in fact meant to hide. Old people understand that, I think. We understand that communication is impossible. I don’t have any intention of telling you what’s really swirling in my head.

OK. I will.

I am grieving. Grieving the ending of my job in which I get daily to try to let a student see himself (the best parts of himself and the parts of me that are worthy of mirroring) mirrored in me. Kindness (once in a while). Generosity. Humility. Curiosity. (These things almost never, except for curiosity). I want my students to know they can stop judging themselves and reject the judgment of others—even the grades they assigned in class (grades intended to insure the failure of a certain percentage of students). I am grieving my loneliness. I do not want to end my days in a ratty, unkempt apartment (any apartment where I live alone will be unkempt) without companionship, without someone to watch over and to watch over me. I joy in my cats—stinky as their litter boxes sometimes are. I rejoice and thank the universe for my students. I love my family. I am hungry at the moment and my Grapenuts are soaking. I’m afraid of the final paycheck. I want sex (I said you didn’t want to know what’s swirling in my head). I fear Barak Obama has become one of the powerful elite out of touch with reality. I fear the US is responsible for the mess in The Ukraine as much as anyone—going back way before this administration (it’s The Ukraine, indicating a region, not a country with logical borders). I think the Dean who asked me to retire is a mousy little man. I’d like to get to the Landry Fitness Center today, but I can’t.

There. You think this writing is supposed to communicate all of that nonsense?

Of course not!

My writing is meant to hide my innards and communicate with you some semblance of order, fitness, and ability to cope with the world.

But it is not meant to be untrue. Or deceptive. Or mean. Or hurtful. Or. . .

Some people mantle themselves with a voice of humor. I cannot imagine the world without Tim Conway’s mantle. Some are poets. Can you imagine the word without Maxine Kumin’s mantle? Some people are composers. Can you imagine the world without Krzysztof Penderecki‘s mantle?

Someone to watch over her.

Someone to watch over her.

These are famous, highly developed mantles. I can’t imagine the world without yours. We communicate by hiding. We make symbols for what we mean. We mirror each other. We mirror ourselves.

It’s what makes us human. We don’t have to strike out at each other. We don’t have to weep uncontrollably (although some of us do that more than others). We don’t have to assault anyone sexually. We don’t have to . . .

We wrap ourselves in the mantle of symbolic communication. It’s how we survive. It’s how we say “love.”

The greatest joy of my life, and my best accomplishment if there is one, is my helping a few nineteen-year-olds begin to weave the mantle which will at the same time protect them and allow them to participate fully in their lives.

I want, I demand, I need more opportunity for that. I do not want to retire. At least not to stop teaching.

It has always made us human

It has always made us human