“. . . 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.

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

“. . . delete with my own hand what isn’t needed . . .” Péter Kántor

Where did you get them, and why do you keep them?

Where did you get them, and why do you keep them?

This is not really writing. It’s spewing forth a lot of nonsense that only 70-year-olds can possibly understand. Sometimes I just have to put this kind of stuff down to get it out of my mind.

Yesterday I woke up (as usual) at about 4:30 AM. I wrote. I fiddled around. I read some poetry. I cleaned the cat boxes. I took a shower. I didn’t do the two loads of laundry that were my goal. I didn’t do much of anything worth talking about.

At 10:00 I left home to go to a lecture by Robert Ashmore. I asked my friend if I was going to learn anything or just be angry when I left. Poor deluded old man talks about ethics and morality in relation to Palestine and Israel instead of politics, self-protection, manifest destiny, and the non-Biblical so-called theology espoused by members of at least two of the “Abrahamic” religions.

I didn’t learn much because he was, of course, preaching to the choir.

But I digress.

I got home from the lecture after stopping off at Kroger—where I’m going to stop going because they refuse to deny entrance to anyone carrying a gun—and had a little lunch. Lunch was some almonds, a bit of Greek yogurt, some left over Brussels sprouts, and one square of 90% cocoa chocolate. I sat down about 1:30 to take a little nap and woke up about 3, having missed square dancing.

The rest of the day was a waste. Nothing on TV worth spending a whole hour concentrating on. I did those two loads of laundry. I puttered and sputtered trying to get the day going, and when it didn’t happen, I went to bed at about 11 PM.

The last thing I did before I went to bed was to send the following email to a friend:

It isn’t unwillingness to try to make contacts on “Our time.”
It isn’t not wanting to date.

It is being at a time in life when those things should not be necessary. When I should be settled with someone or a community of someones with whom I am already comfortable, who already know me. When I should not be having to wonder what anyone I am with thinks of me — because the people I am with already know me.

I could say, “It isn’t fair.” But I don’t know whether that’s true or not. It is what it is.
And it’s just being old and alone and lonely, and I don’t think there’s any way to change that.

Looking for a date, or a fuck buddy, or a partner, or a husband, or . . . is not the point. The point is that anyone 70 years old should not be alone, but he should be living with and sharing his life with old friends, with family. He should not be looking for someone “new” in his life.

This was engendered, of course, by my feeling alone and lonely and depressed. Well, not, depressed. I didn’t land in a good funk. Just the painful truth (once again) that I am, for all practical purposes, alone in this little world I inhabit. Siblings in Baton Rouge and Sacramento. Lots of friends who would probably take turns visiting me in the hospital or the old folks’ home or such a place should I end up there. They’d come every day for three months, then every other day, then once a week, then once a month, then—by then I’d be dead.

My friend answered my email by pointing out all the times I said “should.” I know what he meant, that I shouldn’t beat up on myself by telling myself what I “should” or “should not” do.

Here’s the other exegesis of what I said. It isn’t about what I “should” or “should not” be doing. It’s about what, in a world that made sense, would be true simply because that’s the way things work.

No 70-year-old should feel (or be) alone. We all should not live such mobile (which is a euphemism for “scattered” or “shattered”) lives that we end up so far from our loved ones that we can hardly stay in contact. Texting is a pain in the thumbs.

We should not live such fragmented (which is a euphemism for “busy” and “frantic”) lives that we end up without close friends. I mean the kind who can come to your apartment when you haven’t vacuumed for a week and neither of you be embarrassed. Or bring you chicken soup when you are sick.

Such a huge percentage of the gay men my age should not have died from AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Which is a euphemism for nothing, it just is.

What if I do pay attention to “OurTime.com” and follow up on the flirts and messages and find some guy I really like who is attractive enough to me to want to have sex with him—see, I said at the outset this is not for everyone. If that upsets you, you need to get a life.

So I find Mr. Right. How the hell are we going to have a “relationship” or even a “friendship” long enough to find out where we both were when Neil Armstrong took his famous step or where I got (and why I keep) those funny “women’s circle” dessert and coffee sets. Or anything else that makes people comfortable with each other.

And why would someone I meet tomorrow want to take care of me when I fall again and break my hip instead of damaging it?

Come on. Give me a break (no pun intended). It ain’t going to happen. And no matter how many lovers I have or how many people I find who will go to Easter Island with me, there’s no time left to be husband and husband.

So I’m feeling sorry for myself. So what?

The point is that a 70-year-old should not be alone, but he should be living with and sharing his life with old friends, with family. He should not be looking for someone “new” in his life.

How did we arrange our society so that so many of us (both gay and straight) are in this place?

“Little Night Prayer,” Péter Kántor (b. 1949)
Lord, I’m tired,
the bunion on my right foot is throbbing,
I worry about myself.

Who is this anguished man, Lord?
it can’t be me,
so woeful and sluggish.

I would like to trust quietly,
but like waves in the ocean,
tempers bubble up in me.

I try a smile,
but some hairdespair
impedes me.

This isn’t all right, Lord,
feel pity for me, be scared,
reward my endeavors.

Evaluate things with me,
delete with my own hand
what isn’t needed.

Taste with me what needs to be tasted,
and say to me:
this is sweet! this is sour!

Remind me
of the small red car,
of something that was good.

There was a lot that was good, wasn’t there?
a lot of sunken islands,
crumbled glamour.
Place a net into my hands
to fish with, in the past
and in the present.

I’m a fish too, in the night,
puckering silver,
bubble-lifed.

Turn me inside out, freshen me up,
throw me up high and catch me!
What’s it to you, Lord?

If you must,
lay down your cards,
show me something new.

How your leaves fall!
your sun scorches
your wind whistles.

Speak to me!
Talk with me through the night,
it’s nothing to you, Lord!

From Unknown Places: Selected Poems of Péter Kántor. Copyright © 2010 by Michael Blumenthal and Pleasure Boat Studio. Péter Kántor (born 1949) is one of Hungary’s foremost poets of the day.