“. . . seeing the Nothing from which he was made . . .” (Pascal)

1-IMG_4991College writing teachers face an impossible choice between allowing free thought and insisting on a despotizing formalism.

I wish I had a dollar for every student essay I’ve seen in the tutoring center that had an inverted triangle at the top drawn in conference by the professor with the instructions, “begin with the general and move to the specific as the thesis for your essay.”

I have never formally studied logic. My understanding of what such instructions mean is guesswork, but I think they are aimed at getting a student to write an essay using inductive reasoning, that is, “the process of estimating the validity of observations of part of a class of facts as evidence for a proposition about the whole class.” The student is invited (well, no, ordered under pain of a low grade) to demonstrate through their observations of a “class of facts”―ideas of their own or ideas they have gleaned from approved sources―that their proposition is valid, that their thesis is plausible.

Okay. So my thesis (proposition) here is that it is better for me to have contact with other people―friends, relatives, neighbors, anyone―than to spend a 24-hour period at home alone. I could have begun with general statements about the way one can spend time (or specifically the way I might spend time), or found a clever quote from some psychologist about the necessity for social creatures to be in contact with other social creatures. Then I might have moved carefully step by step to the proposition that  I  should not have been alone for the past 24-going-on-48 hours.

But I’ll jump right in, a flat line instead of a triangle. I will use as evidence first the class of facts around the tasks I have not performed today because I had no deadlines. My breakfast dishes are not yet washed. My laundry is not done. The floors are not vacuumed. I didn’t take a walk (for that I have an excuse: thunderstorms were moving through the area). If I were a college English student, all of that would be the first of the three obligatory “body paragraphs” before the conclusion.

I might use my second body paragraph to estimate the validity of what I did accomplish. I spent about six hours researching International Humanitarian Law on Collective Punishment in a given territory by an occupying power. (You can read the result of that work HERE. ) I read a couple of chapters in my current in-progress book, Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson (which I highly recommend). I played Sudoku. I took a nap. All of these things are worthwhile, but I didn’t need to spend the entire day at them.

I’m not sure my third body paragraph “estimate(s) the validity of a part of the class of facts” or fits my argument. While I was having lunch, I turned on CNN for company as I often do. I’ve never watched an episode of “The Voice,” so I’d never heard of Christina Grimmie until today. I had to search for her online when the news turned to an item about the man who killed her last night. And yet I wept at the news. Yesterday I heard on the radio and saw on TV much of Muhammad Ali’s funeral. I wept. I heard Lonnie Ali and others say with apparently absolute certainty that the Great One is now in heaven. I’ve been thinking about death today. Calmly, but not with detachment. The truth is I think quite a lot about death, trying to get my mind around the idea. I’m going to be dead soon. Even if I live the 97 years my father lived, I will be dead soon. If you’re 50, you’re thinking, “Why does he say ‘soon’? That’s 25 more years.” A 50-year-old thinks that’s logical. It’s not. We’re all going to be dead soon. This is not cocktail party conversation. Or a chat on Instagram. Many (most) people reading this will think either I’m some kind of Goth or I need psychological help. When I was in about 7th grade and finding my feet as an organist, I played and sang with great gusto and conviction

This world is not my home I’m just a-passing through
my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
the angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore

I can still sing the first line with gusto and conviction. The rest, not so much. Some time ago I read an article (I did not save the reference) that quoted a passage from Blaise Pascal (of “Pascal’s Wager” fame). I saved the passage.

For in fact what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up. (Pascal, Blaise, 1669, Pensées, Sect. II, 72. trans. W. F. Trotter. The Harvard Classics. New York: P. F. Collier & Sons, 1909–14).

This third body paragraph has all of the problems a student paragraph could have: too many ideas, not a logical progression, straying away from the topic. Too long. Disorganized.

I will make my mandatory conclusion strong since the body is hopeless (even though I have, in fact, provided “a class of facts as evidence for a proposition about the whole”). It is obvious that I should not spend 24 hours alone. I cannot keep my mind from wandering to topics like being dead. I’m pretty sure my “audience” (another despotizing college writing idea) doesn’t like thinking about my thinking about being dead. It’s not healthy for me to sit at home alone contemplating death. Or to end an essay with a sentence fragment. Even though that’s the topic of the essay. A fragment.

IMG_4990

“. . . and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up . . .” (Pascal)

“. . . We wanted words to fit our cold linoleum . . .” (Vern Rutsala)

Master of the [King's] Wardrobe

You, too, can be Master of the [King’s] Wardrobe

June 28, 1660, was a day of Thanksgiving in England for the return of King Charles II. He had been in exile since the Glorious Revolution and beheading of his father, Charles I, on 30 January 1649.

The “glorious” revolution was a religious war carried out by Protestist Terrorists against the king who had sealed his doom by marrying a Catholic. The Protestists under Oliver Cromwell began liberating great swaths of land in the north and west of England and eventually overran London and the monarchy was declared abolished.

Charles I was executed by a “headsman” with one mighty sword-chop to his neck. The Protestists immediately began ransacking cathedrals and abbeys and other places sacred to Church and nation, and ensconced themselves as the rightful government of the United Kingdom.

Their reign of Protestist terror lasted only 11 years, however, because the people tired of the autocratic rule of Cromwell and his thugs (and his son, who took over when he died, was weak and stupid).

June 28 was only a half-day of Thanksgiving. The real day of Thanksgiving, “Oak Apple Day,” had been declared by Parliament on May 29, the day Charles II returned to London (he was not formally crowned King until April 23, 1661).

One of the most important purposes of the “glorious” revolution had been to establish once-for-all the United Kingdom as a Protestist Christian nation, with full freedom of religion for all Protestists. British law to this day requires that the monarch be a Protestant (a not very committed Protestist) and be married to a Protestant. The Royal Family recently passed the “no-marriage-to-a-divorced-person” test, so someday the monarch will be granted full religious freedom.

On the Day of Thanksgiving, Tom Pepys visited his brother to show him possible fabrics for a new suit. Tom’s brother visited Sir Edward Mountagu, who, even though he was a member of the aristocracy had supported the Protestists. Sir Edward was in hiding and in the process of changing his loyalties back to the royalists. He eventually became a member of Charles II’s Council of State and, for his loyalty to the king, was made Mountagu the first Earl of Sandwich, Knight of the Garter and Master of the Wardrobe.

Tom’s brother and his wife went to dinner that evening at Clothworkers’ Hall, invited by Mr. Chaplin, where they were treated to an entertainment by an opera singer who, of course, had had to sing behind a curtain for eleven years because the Protestists didn’t allow entertainment.

Tom’s brother, Samuel Pepys (pronounced “peeps”) kept a detailed diary of his own activities and the social and political life of London, in which he was intimately involved, from 1660 to 1669. His diaries are one of the most important first-hand accounts of many of the important events of the Restoration period (see his entry for June 28, 1660 below).

In 350 years will anyone be reading my blog or any of the other millions of personal blogs in cyberspace?

Probably not. All of us are simply living in the age of public confessionalism—spill your guts in public and hope everyone reads it because what you have to say is worth the attention of everyone. It’s either profound or interesting, or you are repeating the Truth with a Capital T about the world—and society would be much better off if everyone would listen to you.

My writing today has two inspirations.

First, for the fun of it and coincidentally, I looked up Samuel Pepys’s diary entry for June 28, which I do from time to time simply to get some perspective on the day’s news. (The more things change, the more they stay the same).
Then I began research (which I also do from time to time because I’ve not yet found the answer) on the etymology of the word “Islamist.” Yesterday I heard it used in a most bizarre way that I won’t repeat here.

The “Glorious Revolution” was carried out by Protestist terrorists. That’s what we’d call them today. That Sir Edward Mountagu, the first Earl of Sandwich, Knight of the Garter and Master of the Wardrobe was in hiding on June 28, 1660, because of his role as a Protestist terrorist shows that the more things change the more they stay the same.

Protestist, or what?

Protestist, or what?

He was one of the clever (lucky) ones because he managed to hide his Protestist activities (or be forgiven for them) enough to ingratiate himself with Charles II and become part of the new king’s inner circle of advisors. So much for rabid fundamentalist religious beliefs.

So here’s the deal today. I wanna know who first used the word “Islamist.” It’s a dreadful word. I’ll bet most people who might happen to read my profound confessionalism here today are, if not offended, at least put off by my word “Protestist.” Well, what are those folks who believe so much that abortion is murder that they will kill someone who provides abortion services? Protestists or Catholicists. Who are those people who want the law to allow them to refuse to serve an LCBT person in their public businesses? Protestists.

It’s so easy to call someone a name without having any idea who they are, what they believe, or why they do what they do. Mea culpa.

And then to get on the internet and spill your guts as if you knew what you were talking about and as if everyone ought to listen to YOUR truth as opposed to THEIR truth. Mea culpa.

Sticks and stones many break my bones, but words – words are designed to kill. And they do.

Here’s a poem about that. Listen up, all you Protestists, Catholicists, Atheistists, and the rest of us who call people made-up names we don’t understand but sound hateful.

(Vern Rutsala, by the way, was a much-loved professor—reason enough for some Protestists to reject him—at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and poet, who died just two months ago.)

“Words,” by Vern Rutsala (b. 1934)
We had more than
we could use.
They embarrassed us,
our talk fuller than our
rooms. They named
nothing we could see

dining room, study,
mantel piece, lobster
thermidor.
They named
things you only
saw in movies

the thin flicker Friday
nights that made us
feel empty in the cold
as we walked home
through our only great
abundance, snow.
This is why we said ‘ain’t’
and ‘he don’t.’
We wanted words to fit
our cold linoleum,
our oil lamps, our
outhouse. We knew
better, but it was wrong
to use a language
that named ghosts,
nothing you could touch.
We left such words at school
locked in books
where they belonged.
It was the vocabulary
of our lives that was
so thin. We knew this
and grew to hate
all the words that named
the vacancy of our rooms

looking here we said
studio couch and saw cot;
looking there we said
venetian blinds and saw only the yard;
brick meant tarpaper,
fireplace meant wood stove.
And this is why we came to love
the double negative.

Obviously a Liberal Conspiracy

Obviously a Liberal Conspiracy

“The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less. . .” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Tom Wagner, NASA: not to be trusted because he studies Antarctica

Tom Wagner, NASA: not to be trusted because he directly studies Antarctica

I am not an environmentalist. I’m not a member of the Sierra Club. I don’t have a “Save the Whales” bumper sticker on my car. “Greenpeace” is much too warlike for my taste.

In the news yesterday were two “stories” that reaffirmed my suspicion that humankind, and especially Americans, are so addicted to their (our) hubris that it has taken over our ability to live successfully on this little planet.

Yesterday U.S. Senator Mark Rubio of Florida announced, “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it. I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy.”

He is correct about one part of his announcement: “the laws that they propose we pass will [not] do anything about it.”

“They” refers to all of those members of the Sierra Club and those scientists and those radical Democratic politicians (oh, for just one Radical Politician!) who want to save the planet.

Yesterday also, scientists (who take measurements over decades and have some understanding of the physical phenomena of planet Earth) announced they have evidence of at least one effect of “dramatic changes to our climate” that cannot be reversed. This “dramatic change” will take place in the lifetime of my grandnephews. These scientists, as far as I know, have no fiduciary or political interest in letting the evidence speak for itself.

The new finding that the eventual loss of a major section of West Antarctica’s ice sheet “appears unstoppable” was not completely unexpected by scientists . . . The study, led by glaciologist Eric Rignot at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. . . and the University of California, Irvine, follows decades of research and theory suggesting the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is inherently vulnerable to change. . .

“Unstable,” wrote Ohio State University glaciologist John Mercer in 1968. It was identified then and remains today the single largest threat of rapid sea level rise.

When it's gone, it's gone

When it’s gone, it’s gone

 

You can (as I did) hear about it from a mass media outlet instead of reading the scary scientific evidence. Senator Rubio is wagering his political career on his (pretty certain) understanding that a majority of Americans don’t want to read scary stuff and wouldn’t believe the truth if they read it.

All that’s necessary to discredit any idea or research for an enormous segment of the population of the United States is to associate it with “scientists,” particularly from universities.

Never mind that this study consists of actually measuring ice and water and temperatures for decades. Too many Americans practice anti-intellectualism and are convinced of the status quo of ignorance, just as the Church before 1492 believed the world is flat. Otherwise, no one could stake his political future on the claim that NASA, the University of California at Irvine, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Ohio State University are making things up.

I have almost—that’s almost—arrived at the place in my senescence that I really don’t give a damn what the rest of you do to your planet. If you all want to let Mark Rubio announce that God is in charge of the certain sinking of Miami into the sea and then elect him President, go for it! I’ll be long dead by the time Miami disappears, so what do I care?

I care a lot, it turns out. What grieves me is the pride required to remain ignorant when knowledge and information that could save your grandchildren is available.

It takes real heels-dug-in pride to remain ignorant. Ask Donald Skilling.

It takes the pride of absolute certainty that you deserve what you have and the rest of the world can go to hell to preach, teach, and give support to ignorance. Ask David Koch.

I say ask those guys because they are the poster-boys for ignorance, not because they are any worse than anyone else.

The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less;
The times are winter, watch, a world undone:
They waste, they wither worse; they as they run
Or bring more or more blazon man’s distress
.

The times, as they run, as they bring about the waste of our lives, announce man’s distress.

“The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less
,”
by Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844 – 1889

The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less;
The times are winter, watch, a world undone:
They waste, they wither worse; they as they run
Or bring more or more blazon man’s distress.
And I not help. Nor word now of success:
All is from wreck, here, there, to rescue one—
Work which to see scarce so much as begun
Makes welcome death, does dear forgetfulness.

Or what is else? There is your world within.
There rid the dragons, root out there the sin.
Your will is law in that small commonweal…

Neville F. Newman, a post-doctoral fellow at McMasters University in Ontario, Canada, (obviously not to be trusted because he is an academic) says

For Hopkins, the squandering of the world of which we are stewards is the root cause of our alienation from God. By requiring humankind to observe the earth’s destruction, Hopkins demands an acceptance of responsibility both for the action and the remedy. . . .

The fragment’s deepest sorrow emerges with Hopkins’s recognition that he is unable to effect change, “And I not help.”

That’s my deep sorrow. I cannot help. I care about destroying the earth and feel helpless in the face of ignorance and politics. Mark Rubio will feed voters’ pride of ignorance by pretending he’s advocating saving the economy when what he is really advocating is not offending the PACs of the enormously wealthy who have the power to get him elected—and whose enormous wealth depends on the pride of ignorance.

Pride, not ignorance. The certainty that “I know more about science than the scientists do.”

I don’t know about Hopkins’ and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s God-talk, but. . .

“God’s World,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is—as
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.
—1917

When it's gone, will this be gone?

When it’s gone, will this be gone?

“It is at the edges that time thins.” (Kay Ryan)

". . . amber suspending attention . . ."

“. . . amber suspending attention . . .”

On January 9, 2014, I wrote a bit about a poem by Kay Ryan. Kay Ryan was Poet Laureate of the Library of Congress 2008-2010. She’s also a lesbian, not that that makes any difference one way or the other. It just obviously makes me feel a special kinship with her. No, we’re not elitists or exclusivists or anything like that. And we’re not in a conspiracy to take over the world. Don’t be ridiculous. Just because you and Neil deGrasse Tyson can wink at each other knowingly when someone says, “It’s not rocket science,” the rest of us can’t assume you’re in some sort of conspiracy to take over the world.

Of course, I wish he were—and you would help him—to end the hoodwinking of so many fundamentalist christians and poor republicans by powerful financial and oil interests to make them believe both evolution and climate change are conspiracies of evil liberals just so the oligarchs can tighten their stranglehold on politics and the economy.

Just see how far off course I can get in the first 144 words of writing.

This started out to be a silly little piece on one of the items on my list of accomplishments before I kick the bucket—I won’t say my “bucket list” because my old buddy Kay might read this and be offended.

One of my first goals in retirement is to jettison the word “just” from my vocabulary—both written and spoken.

“Just” is a harmless little word unless you are using it in Jean-François Lyotard’s (1924-1998) sense of Just Gaming, his 1979 book about the language games we play. (Two observations: Lyotard lived to be only five years older than I am now, the sort of thing I notice with greater regularity every day; and his “language gaming” theory is one of those seminal 20th-century French ideas I somewhat understand, all about how the language we use is much of the time intended to wield whatever power we are personally able to muster over everyone around us.)

I need to ask Grant and Martha if “just” has some regional history or if it’s just one of those (almost) meaningless words that all English-speakers use.

You don’t know Grant and Martha? You’re admitting you don’t know the only really literate social/mass media left in the United States? Well, almost literate. NPR, of course, and specifically Grant and Martha’s show “A Way with Words.” They actually, believe it or not, answer listeners’ questions about etymologies of words. There. How’s that for my being snooty and elitist?

Off on another tangent, I see.

So I was in a very serious mood a couple of days ago (as I seem to have been most of the time here at the experience of letting go of my teaching career) and remembered Kay Ryan’s little poem (she says it’s pretty long for her, which it is).

“The Edges of Time,” by Kay Ryan

I claim a special kinship

I claim a special kinship

It is at the edges
that time thins.
Time which had been
dense and viscous
as amber suspending
intentions like bees
unseizes them. A
humming begins,
apparently coming
from stacks of
put-off things or
just in back. A
racket of claims now,
as time flattens. A
glittering fan of things
competing to happen,
brilliant and urgent
as fish when seas
retreat.

(Kay Ryan. “The Edges of Time.” The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. New York: Grove Press, 2010. This collection won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2011. )

I’m astounded when a great poet makes a simple but magical and powerful image like insects trapped in amber—frozen in time—and then the insects “unseized” when the amber melts. My God, it’s the sort of image you think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Because it’s so obvious only a poet, only Kay Ryan would think of it.

She says, “Time which had been dense and viscous as amber suspending intentions like bees unseizes them.” Time solidified in place like amber, freezing all of my intentions, my desires, my hopes in to be dealt with or realized another day, has suddenly liquefied (as in amber’s original liquid form—tree resin). All of those intentions, desires, hopes are released to be finished now! There, how’s that for a wordy flat-footed explanation of a poetic image? Sorry.

That’s what I was thinking about a couple of days ago sitting at my desk at the university waiting for students to appear for conferences over their last work.

And the whole experience of contemplation was nearly destroyed by my discovery of Ryan’s use of one word. A humming begins, apparently coming from stacks of put-off things or just in back.

Just a few days before I had told my students they need to expunge words such as “biggest,” “best” and (most of all) “very” from their writing. I told them I’ve been in a years-long battle to expunge “just” from my writing. I’ve nearly succeeded in my writing, but in my speech, it just won’t go away.

And then Kay Ryan canonizes it. Just in back of the stacks of things I’ve put off there is a buzzing, beginning to be a hubbub of those bees let loose from the sticky amber. There is a racket of stuff still waiting to be done. That trip to Easter Island. That unwritten book. That last will and testament. That pile of stuff I don’t want anyone to go through when I’m dead (they will be shocked).

claims“A racket of claims now, as time flattens.”

‘Living is no laughing matter. . . “ (Nazim Hikmet)

He knows where his nuts are

He knows where his nuts are

Every morning I sit down and intend to do my work (grading papers, checking my retirement fund balance, writing that recommendation letter for a student applying to transfer—you know, those things). But then I get sidetracked because I simply have to write.

Sorry. Another rant about having to write.

Please read my explanation of that.

And I haven’t been able to for the last five days because I’ve been too sick to think. Well, thinking isn’t always a part of this writing. But this cold or whatever it is has made it pretty much impossible for me to do anything. I start something and immediately want to take a nap.

But it may be winding down, the cold, that is.

At any rate, I’m not cancelling my classes today. Let them eat cake. No, let them get sick. My gift to them. I’m sure one of them gave it to me.

Enough ranting.

One of the reasons I want to get back to the university is to check on my squirrels. A whole colony of them who live between McFarlin Auditorium and Perkins Administration Building. I watch them bury their acorns in the summer and fall and dig them up in the winter and spring. I know they remember where they are. How?

Where the family lives

Where the family lives

The most interesting mystery I know. Who cares about the Big Bang, or the New American (all-powerful) Oligarchy, or who won March Madness. I want to know how those squirrels know where their nuts are. Watch them if you don’t believe me. They bounce along over the ground, stop, dig for a couple of seconds, and come up with an acorn and start nibbling on it. How do they know?

I love this poem. I don’t know anything about Nazim Hikmet except that he was born in 1902 in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire, but which World War I turned into part of Greece (see, the Ukraine is only the continuation of European boundary changes). Hikmet may have been something of a socialist radical. So much the better. I’ll have to research. You’ll easily see at least one of the reasons I love the poem so much.

I don’t know what any of the above means or says, but I’ve written. That’s all that matters.

“On Living,” by Nazim Hikmet
translated by Mutlu Konuk and Randy Blasing

Living is no joke,
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel for example,
I mean expecting nothing except and beyond living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.

You must take living seriously,
I mean to such an extent that,
for example your arms are tied from your back, your back is on the wall,
or in a laboratory with your white shirt, with your huge eye glasses,
you must be able to die for people,
even for people you have never seen,
although nobody forced you to do this,
although you know that
living is the most real, most beautiful thing.

I mean you must take living so seriously that,
even when you are seventy, you must plant olive trees,
not because you think they will be left to your children,
because you don’t believe in death although you are afraid of it
because, I mean, life weighs heavier.

II

Suppose we’re very sick, in need of surgery,
I mean, there is the possibility that
we will never get up from the white table.
although it is impossible not to feel the grief of passing away somewhat too soon
we will still laugh at the funny joke being told,
we will look out of the window to see if it’s raining,
or we will wait impatiently
for the latest news from agencies.

Suppose, for something worth fighting for,
suppose we are on the battlefield.
Over there, in the first attack, on the first day
we may fall on the ground on our face.
We will know this with a somewhat strange grudge,
but we will still wonder like crazy
the result of the war that will possibly last for years.

Suppose we are in the jail,
age is close to fifty,
supose there are still eighteen years until the iron door will open.
Still, we will live with the outer world,
with the people, animals, fights and winds
I mean, with the outer world beyond the walls.

I mean, however and wherever we are
we must live as if there is no death…

III

I hope he was a socialist radical

I hope he was a socialist radical

This earth will cool down,
a star among all the stars,
one of the tiniest,
I mean a grain of glitter in the blue velvet,
I mean this huge world of ours.

This earth will cool down one day,
not even like a pile of ice
or like a dead cloud,
it will roll like an empty walnut
in the pure endless darkness.
You must feel the pain of this now,
You must feel the grief right now.
You must love this world so much
to be able to say ‘I lived’…

“. . . if my bubbles be too small for you, Blow bigger then your own. . . “

`bubblesYesterday’s newscasts included notice that the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez had died. He was 87.

He was but 18 years older than I. That’s on my mind because I’ve been talking to advisers about how to use the pittance I have put away for retirement, and I hope that, if I live to be 87, my money doesn’t end before I do. I’m sure his didn’t.

I distinctly remember Dean Anne Minton of Bunker Hill Community College telling me I MUST read Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. I tried. The closest I ever came to finishing it was meeting Edith Grossman, the translator, at the Center for Translation Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas a couple of years later when I was a graduate student there and took a course in translation

The copy I tried to read disappeared from my library at the great book giveaway I had a couple of years ago. As a faculty member at SMU, I can get an online copy. I will see if I can finish reading it.

This has been a week of much contemplation of what my life might have been. So many accomplishments such as reading Love in the Time of Cholera have simply slipped through my fingers that I am grieved by what I have not done. I know, I know, everyone my age experiences that discomfiture. If one does not have regrets, one is probably living in some sort of la-la-land.

I am not a concert organist (although I have given concerts), I have not written the great American novel (although I have two unfinished on 3 ½ inch floppy disks I can’t open), I am not a poet (although there’s plenty of what might be some stretch of imagination be called poetry on this computer), I am retiring not from a full professorship but from a 15-year fulltime lectureship, and in these golden years I am going to have to go looking for the gold to support myself..

There’s a whole lot of coulda shoulda woulda mighta in my life. Of course, if I had the ability to do any of those things, I probably would have, so I have no need to complain. I simply don’t have the brains or talent to have accomplished any more than I have.`love in the time of cholera

That’s not true. I’m pretty sure. Or is it? I’m confused. I’m unsure. I don’t know. My scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the SAT and the GRE all indicated that I would be more than marginally successful. I do have a PhD after all (proof of only one thing—the ability and willingness to jump through more hoops than the average citizen).

It’s no secret—or great discovery on my part—that hardly anyone who is 69 has no regrets. For example, I assume what is intended when PBS announces at the end of programs supported by the Carnegie Foundation, established by Andre Carnegie to do “real and permanent good,” that we’re supposed to think, “Isn’t that wonderful. He used all of his money to do Good and he can’t have any regrets.” It’s easy to give all of your money to do Good. Even you and I can do that with our pittances. His money is doing Good because in life he was a ruthless “robber baron” bastard for whom we should have little respect. Carnegie was able to assuage his conscience from “regrets” by thinking at the time of his death that his “Good” would live after him. I don’t mean that to be harshly judgmental, but a morality tale.

I’ve known a few people who lived to be 69 or 70 who seemed to have no regrets. I’m not going to make a catalog of them here. They were (are) all people for whom I have the highest regard, not for what they have done, but, more often, for what they have not done.

They are people who have managed not “To praise the very thing that [they deplore]” (E.A. Robinson). I could write a sentimental tribute to poverty, obedience, love, kindness, and so on. But I don’t need to. Anyone who reads this can fill in those blanks.

I’m not even going to write a sermonette about humility and graciousness and caring-for-one’s-fellow-man. I don’t need to do that, either. Except for a few people who are so far gone in self-centeredness they hardly seem to live on the same planet as the rest of us, we all give lip service to the sentiment expressed in the Bible, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8, NRSV). Would anyone who reads anything I write say they are against justice, kindness, and humility? I don’t want to associate with such a person.

Real and Permanent Good?

Real and Permanent Good?

I don’t know what I might have done with my life if I had not been an active alcoholic until I was 46, or if I didn’t have lots of other quirky obsessions that take up my time. Or if I didn’t have two little oddities in the way my brain works (not my mind—it has many more than two). Or if I were not simply lazy at the core. That’s probably why I didn’t read Love in the Time of Cholera when Anne gave it to me. Pure laziness, or obsessing about some other dumb thing.

No one else I know will admit to me that they can simply sit for an hour and do nothing—not watch TV, not play electronic games, not read, not—not anything. I can. Because I’m lazy?

What those people whom I respect can (could) do was to do nothing creatively and with a purpose. Somehow those people have (or had) a quality of simply being.

I’m not even sure what I mean by that.

“Dear Friends,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson
Dear friends, reproach me not for what I do,
Nor counsel me, nor pity me; nor say
That I am wearing half my life away
For bubble-work that only fools pursue.
And if my bubbles be too small for you,
Blow bigger then your own: the games we play
To fill the frittered minutes of a day,
Good glasses are to read the spirit through.  

And whoso reads may get him some shrewd skill;
And some unprofitable scorn resign,
To praise the very thing that he deplores;
So, friends (dear friends), remember, if you will,
The shame I win for singing is all mine,
The gold I miss for dreaming is all yours.

“. . . 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