“. . . as we gather losses, we may also grow in love. . .” (Julia Spicher Kasdorf)

Salome - a moment of reality

Salome – a moment of reality

In about 1986 my friend (in some ways my dearest friend) Gina told me that her 30th birthday had been wild and fun; that on her 40th birthday she threw herself the biggest party of her life, remembering the old book, Life Begins at Forty by Walter B. Pitkin; that she and David had a quiet dinner on her 50th birthday; that she had had another wild party on her 60th birthday; that none of those “milestone” birthdays had bothered her one bit. “But my 70th—this is hard. I can’t imagine being 70.”

In 77 days, assuming nothing untoward like my being run over by a Mack truck, I will endure my 70th birthday. I will have completed my 70th year with only minor (perhaps) disappointments. I wish Gina were still around to assure me it will be OK. She lived to be much older.

Julia Spicher Kasdorf was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, December 6, 1962. She has published several books of poetry and two widely acclaimed works of non-fiction. She teaches creative writing and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University.

I’m not sure how someone who is only 52 years old can write a poem about getting old, or—perhaps—about dying. However, that was Shakespeare’s age when he died, and he wrote a great deal about aging and dying. Of course, as I understand it, 52 would not have been thought of as an early death in Shakespeare’s time.

For the past ten days I have been trying to write to no avail. That’s not exactly true. I have written a great deal, none of which I would put here both because of the incomprehensibility of the writing and because of the subject matter.

Happy Birthday, old timer

Happy Birthday, old timer

Gina was about my parents’ age. I’ve forgotten exactly when she was born, but she was of my parents’ generation. I remember my father’s 40th birthday, August 21, 1954. Our church, the First Baptist Church of Scottsbluff, NE, of which he was pastor, had a picnic—a large gathering—at Pioneer Park just north of the high school. Someone gave my father a copy of Pitkin’s book as a joke (but he read it and found it interesting after he stopped laughing about it).

The other memorable event at the picnic was that, when everyone else sang, “Happy Birthday, Pastor Knight,” at the appropriate point in the song, my brother sang (shouted, rather), “Happy Birthday, old timer,” and cracked up the crowd.

How, how on earth, do I remember that?

I don’t remember my 40th birthday. Probably because it was just another drunken evening. I have no idea. My partner Frank had bought his house in Beverly, MA, by that time, and we were living there in splendid inebriated isolation. My PhD was on hold while I tried (several times unsuccessfully) to get sober. A couple of months after my birthday, I got it together enough to travel to Los Angeles to play an organ recital at the Wilshire Avenue Methodist Church, where a dear friend was the music director, marking the 300th birthday of J.S. Bach.

Now I’m approaching the end of my 70th year.

Everything I’ve written for the past 10 days has been about the process of becoming an old person. I’m not hating this. I’m not depressed by it (any more than normal). There’s little in my life that is not OK. I’m tutoring my guys (SMU football and basketball players—what fun that is!). I’m teaching my little ESL class for adults at the Aberg Literacy Center. I’m substituting as organist now and then. I’m keeping too busy and making enough money that I haven’t yet had to dip into my retirement funds.

I think—at least it’s my experience, and I can speak for no one else (I haven’t talked with friends about it)—my feelings about things in general are more intense than they ever have been. I thought as one aged, one had less emotion. I have more.

It’s not my clinical depression that makes my feelings about, for example, the genocide of the Palestinian people being perpetrated by the Israelis while the world stands by doing nothing—no, actually assisting—more heightened as time passes.

It’s not my clinical depression that makes me care more about the racism and classism that surrounds and stifles my guys, and all college athletes who happen to be black.

It’s not my clinical depression that nearly makes me weep over the idiocy of the American public’s conviction that we have an “Ebola crisis,” when the entire fixation is trumped up by the news media and politicians who will use racism to influence votes.

It’s not my clinical depression that grieves my own personal losses of my job, my balance when I get up too fast, my parents (even if that was three years ago), my partner (even if that was 11 years ago), and my ability to think of any word I need at the moment I need it. Or—perhaps most important—my ability to rely on the permanence of loving relationships.

No, I feel grief—and also pleasure and joy—more acutely than ever. I need to begin asking my friends if this is their experience, too. When I was 40, I could imagine that eventually the problems of the world I care about would be fixed. I could imagine that, when a dear friend moved away I could easily find another. I knew that everyone would die eventually, but it was eventually, not soon.

So here’s my reaction to all of this. I have my tickets to the Dallas Opera productions of The Marriage of Figaro on October 29, and of Salome on November 6. I’ll watch the Countess forgive her philandering husband and Herod’s daughter dance with John the Baptist’s head on a platter, and lose myself in reality.

“First Gestures,” by Julia Spicher Kasdorf (b. 1962)

A long-ago performance

A long-ago performance

Among the first we learn is good-bye,
your tiny wrist between Dad’s forefinger
and thumb forced to wave bye-bye to Mom,
whose hand sails brightly behind a windshield.
Then it’s done to make us follow:
in a crowded mall, a woman waves, “Bye,
we’re leaving,” and her son stands firm
sobbing, until at last he runs after her,
among shoppers drifting like sharks
who must drag their great hulks
underwater, even in sleep, or drown.

Living, we cover vast territories;
imagine your life drawn on a map–
a scribble on the town where you grew up,
each bus trip traced between school
and home, or a clean line across the sea
to a place you flew once. Think of the time
and things we accumulate, all the while growing
more conscious of losing and leaving. Aging,
our bodies collect wrinkles and scars
for each place the world would not give
under our weight. Our thoughts get laced
with strange aches, sweet as the final chord
that hangs in a guitar’s blond torso.

Think how a particular ridge of hills
from a summer of your childhood grows
in significance, or one hour of light–
late afternoon, say, when thick sun flings
the shadow of Virginia creeper vines
across the wall of a tiny, white room
where a girl makes love for the first time.
Its leaves tremble like small hands
against the screen while she weeps
in the arms of her bewildered lover.
She’s too young to see that as we gather
losses, we may also grow in love;
as in passion, the body shudders
and clutches what it must release.

“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.

“. . . the world in my head Confusing me about the messy World I have to live in. . . “

If you are in the Dallas area—whether or not you are an opera buff (or have never seen an opera) — you need to get yourself to the Dallas Opera production of DEATH AND THE POWERS this weekend. Especially if you think you are au courant with the world of technology. A futuristic opera (the jury is out on whether or not it’s actually an opera) encompassing

Simon Powers joining "the system"

Simon Powers joining “the system”

computers/robots/electronic music/Simon Powers/and death.

It’s (groovy, bitchin, far out, amazing, cool, or stunning—whatever word your generation uses to describe something that is) exceptionally fine and exciting. Libretto by Robert Pinsky (former U.S. Poet Laureate); music by Tod Machover.

My making that announcement is evidence of something. Something I’m going to call “put-that-in-your-pipe-and-smoke-it.”

That phrase, by the way, has nothing to do with your bong. I’ve found several web sources quoting Eric Partridge (the authority on phrase origins) that the phrase is from the early 19th century. One source says that Dickens uses it in The Pickwick Papers, which I’ve never read and don’t intend to read simply to find the phrase. It means something like, “Take that!” or “So there!” or “Think about that even though you’re surprised I have the brains to say it.” (Partridge, Eric. Dictionary of Catch Phrases: American and British from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day. Updated and edited by Paul Beal. Lanham, MD: Scarborough House, 1992).

What I mean for you to smoke is my realization that I need to stop apologizing for my ancientness. Not so much for my hoariness as for my (rather constant) feeling that I’m not keeping up very well with society, with the “information age” and all of its absurd and dehumanizing “devices.” Or with pop culture.

Take this computer I’m using to put these words down in a form which I can upload here in this blog. Both the computer and the blog are mysteries to me. I simply use them. And, from time to time rather well, I think. This computer is a spiffy Lenovo that I’ve had for a few months. It has myriad apps and programs and uses I can’t even find, much less use. I’d say I use about 1% (if that) of its capabilities. I use it pretty much as I used the first word processor/computer I owned in 1988.

That should give you a hint how au courant I am/have been. It’s possible 90% of the people reading this weren’t even born in 1988. I’ve had a computer of some sort since then (I bought it so I could write my dissertation—PhD, University of Iowa, 1988—without having to use carbon paper). I first logged onto the internet at about Thanksgiving, 1992. Again, it’s possible many people reading this weren’t even born then. I was a college professor, so I had access to email long before hoi polloi did. Email was intended for government, industry, and academic (because our research supported the other two) use only. It should have stayed that way—you wouldn’t have to worry about the NSA knowing whom you’re having an affair with. (First old-fartism.)

All those people in books
From Krishna & the characters
In the Greek Anthology
Up to the latest nonsense
Of the Deconstructionists,
Floating around in my brain,
A sort of “continuous present”
As Gertrude Stein called it;
The world in my head
Confusing me about the messy
World I have to live in.
Better the drunken gods of Greece
Than a life ordained by computers
     —(Laughlin, James. From Byways: A Memoir. (Long, unfinished biographical poem). New Directions
Publishing, 2005.)

So Put that in your pipe (or your bong, I don’t care) and smoke it! (Second old-fartism.)

Put it in your pipe or your bong

Put it in your pipe or your bong

Or see an opera that opens with this little discussion among a bunch of robots.

                         robot leader

Units assembled for the ritual
Performance at command,
As the Human Creators have ordained,
In memory of the Past.

                         robot two

This concept I cannot understand,
At the center of the drama—
What is this
“Death”—Is it a form of waste?

                         robot three

I cannot comprehend, I cannot understand:
If the information of one unit might be lost
It is backed up by any other unit at hand:
What is this
“Death”—Is it an excessive cost?

                         robot four

How can information end?
Is it a form of entropy?
Why did the Human Creators
Before they departed intend
To require a performance on a theme
Impossible to comprehend?

Is it the data rearranged,
As in an error, in a dream?
A real jumble?
Data in memory misplaced
In a random scramble—
Dream-data, the order changed;
That would be something
I could comprehend,
If only the form was changed.
Is that the meaning of this
“Death”—data rearranged?
A dream of something lost
That was meant to be saved?
An unrecovered past?
   —(Pinsky, Robert. “Death and the Powers: A Robot Pageant.” Poetry, July/August 2010.
Web. Libretto of opera by Tod Machover.)

I suppose my writing above sounds petulant, like an angry tirade by a befuddled old man who wants desperately not to be left behind in the modern world.

Well, no, it’s not. I’m ruminating about myself, about my connection to a society that is leaving me in the dust—as it should! I’m still thinking about my friend Thomas J. Hubschman’s  An Elder’s Manifesto.

Who but ourselves, then, the old who know confidently what the rest do not about what it means to be elders in the best sense—matured and yet still maturing, not like fruit that has had its day and drops rotten to the ground, but like old whiskey that keeps getting more complex and offers more possibility the longer it is around?

Even given my (our) insecurity and fumbling with computers, robots, iPads, and all of those things, we elders (yes, my students, at least, think that’s what I am) have not simply “something” to contribute. It is more than “something.” It is all there is. Robert Pinsky, born 1940, understands. Tod Machover, born 1953, is beginning to.

This concept I cannot understand,
At the center of the drama—
What is this
“Death”—Is it a form of waste?

I don’t care if it is your Constitutional right, carrying a gun is. . .

You can't yell "fire," but you can fire.

You can’t yell “fire,” but you can fire.

The last time I attended The Dallas Opera (their production of Carmen on November 10, 2013), I was distracted by the woman in front of me who was texting on her smartphone. Granted, she never turned it on at a time when something was happening onstage. She lit up the theater only during breaks in the action. I never heard the phone make a noise.

But it bugged me. Why should that woman think she—of all those 2,000 people—had the right to disrupt my immersion in the operatic experience? She paid about $200 to be there, as I did, so you’d think she would have arranged her life so nothing would disengage her from her expensive three-hour experience.

I can’t imagine being such a control freak that I would have to be able to control my business, my children, or my friends even from the opera house.

Perhaps she simply felt she had to let the people sitting around her know how important she was, so she responded immediately to the Tea Party request from Ted Cruz for money to work to defund the National Endowment for the Arts which gave a grant to make the opera possible. There’s more than one way to destroy culture!

Curtis Reeves has shown us how to deal with people who text in theaters.

Unfortunately, I have some hurdles to jump. (Question: if the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to mean the freedom of speech does not extend to yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, does the Second Amendment freedom to carry a gun extend to packing firepower in a crowded theater? Apparently so. We are inconsistent, aren’t we?)

I have a right to choose to kill you

I have a right to choose to kill you

Assuming I have the Constitutional right to carry a gun within murdering distance of a couple of thousand people who would be trapped within my firing range, I’m not sure I could buy a gun in the first place. The laws of Texas are pretty vague about who’s allowed to endanger two thousand people in a theater. I don’t know if the state is aware of the psychological disorders for which I have been treated in the past. Does it know I’ve been hospitalized for depression resulting from Bipolar II disorder? I take some pretty high-powered psychotropic drugs. But I’m a college professor and respected (I hope) church musician. Which aspect of my character would win out in an application to buy and carry a gun?

Then there’s this matter of my little (and I mean little—only complex partial) seizure disorder. About once every ten years I have a blackout seizure—you’ll have to ask the assistant manager of the Target store where I had my last one eight years ago how I act at those times. I don’t know if the fact there’s a—what, one minute out of ten years—chance I might black out during the opera and do something I’m unaware of will prevent me from buying a gun in Texas or not. (It will now!)

Judging from some of the wackos I know who own—and a couple of them carry—guns in Texas, I’d say even with these little abnormalities I could probably talk the gun authorities (whoever they are) into letting me buy and carry one. And in Florida it seems to be a universal right—kill a kid wearing a hoodie or the beloved father of a three-year-old daughter, on the street or in a theater. Doesn’t seem to matter.

I know, I know. Curtis Reeves was simply obeying the law, standing his ground. After all, someone (no one seems to remember who) had thrown popcorn at him. Surely, popcorn in your face is equal to a bullet to the chest.

Here’s my deal. If I knew for sure one person—it would take only one—in the Winspear Opera House was packing heat, I’d be out of there—and demand my money back. How could the Dallas Opera put me in a position where I could be stuck in a crowd and at the mercy of a psychopath like Curtis Reeves?

And, Kimball, my friend, don’t tell me the problem is the psychopath, not the gun. No, the problem is not the psychopath—or, assuming Curtis Reeves is perfectly sane, the idiot—the problem is the gun. Chad Oulson would be alive today were it not for the gun. He might have some popcorn salt in his face, or a smashed phone, or even a black eye from an alpha male fistfight, but his three-year-old daughter would have a father.

I don’t believe in “evil” the way most people do—no evil force stalking the world in the form of “The Beast” or any other religious nonsense. But I do believe it’s possible for an act to be evil.

Carrying a gun—for whatever reason—is evil.

I don’t have the same religious conviction as St. Augustine, but I understand this. “For when the will abandons what is above itself, and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil–not because that is evil to which it turns, but because the turning itself is wicked” (St. Augustine, City of God, XII, Chapter 6).

". . . the turning itself is wicked."

“. . . the turning itself is wicked.”

Guns are evil not of themselves. They are evil because the person who carries one has turned to that which is lower than human thought or decency. But one carries a gun because one has already turned, and as long as the gun is present, there is no turning back.

What is a bucket list, and why is this so weird?

A few catfish friends

A few catfish friends

Who would have thought the origin of the term “bucket list” is from the phrase “kick the bucket.” You know, things I want to do before I “kick the bucket.” Die.

Never occurred to me until I did a Google search for the term.

I found many strange sites looking for the origin of “kick the bucket.” One is now on my list of all-time favorite internet grotesqueries. The MLA citation:

“Death” (redirected from “Kick the Bucket”). The Free Dictionary by Farlex. encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com. 2014. Web. 4 Jan. 2014. (Copied from the Wikipedia article on “death”).

The article begins, “Death is the cessation of all biological functions . . .”

There’s nothing particularly odd or grotesque about that. At the top of the page was the link to an ad. That’s not odd—advertising is the purpose of free sites. However, this one, I’m sure, was individually chosen for me, The Free Dictionary by Farlex’s page defining “death” (redirected from “kick the bucket”) is sponsored by, are you ready for this?

Villagio of Carrollton. “Assisted Living & Memory Care: Beautiful and Active Lifestyle.”

Beside the ad was the illustration for “Death.”

Retirement Living?

Retirement Living?

The description of “Villagio of Carrollton” begins, “Villagio’s vibrant Life Enrichment program features new adventures, exciting opportunities to learn, and wellness activities. Our programs help build meaningful friendships, allow freedom of choice . . . “ It’s a “Senior Living” facility.

I don’t know if these ads stay on pages, but I’ll bet this one appeared especially for me because my computer (and, therefore, Google) knows I’ve been writing about getting old. You probably won’t see it if you click on the link because such ads are individualized (big brother IS watching you!).

More Catfish Friends

More Catfish Friends

I was thinking about my “bucket list” because last night at my birthday party (what a GREAT party – thank you, my friends) a couple of people asked me about my list. Here is part of my list—not really in order of importance except the first two.

  • First or second is a trip to Easter Island. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know. I’ve been fascinated by it since childhood, that’s all. I want to see those big heads! And I also want to see the Andes, which one almost has to do to get there, going through Santiago, Chile.
  • The second or first is to teach for a semester or a year or some length of time at either Dar al-Kalima College in Bethlehem or Birzeit University in Birzeit (just north of Ramallah in the Central West Bank). This is not an unrealistic pipe dream

I have a particular reason from history or philosophy or music or some “discipline” for wanting to see each of these. Some are obvious, some are not—and some may not be for any reason anyone would guess. In no particular order:

  • attend the entire Wagner Ring Cycle at Bayreuth;
  • see the Angkor Wat in Cambodia;
  • see the Valley of the Kings in Egypt;
  • see the Emperor Penguins in Antarctica;
  • return to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and spend a week there;
  • visit Japan (no particular destination);
  • attend Christmas Eve services at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London;
  • play one of the Silbermann organs J.S. Bach is known to have played;
  • play the organ at St. Sulpice in Paris;
  • see lions, tigers, elephants, etc. in Kenya;
  • see all of the musicals playing on Broadway in one season (any season);
  • attend an opera at the Sydney Opera House;
  • see Machu Picchu.

I don’t have much to say about any of this except that the list has not changed over the years. And most of the list falls in the category of pipe dream. I have another list of activities I would like to participate in that don’t necessarily involve travel I can’t afford.

The reality of my bucket list, however, is that it has one item on it that outweighs all of the others together. And achieving it will make all the rest into nice fantasies, unnecessary ever to achieve to be happy.

I have a favorite poem about friendship. It worries me that I like it because Richard Brautigan was such a troubled person (a successful suicide). But the idea that a friend can drive lonely thoughts from a friend’s mind and, at the same time, the friend might not even know it is happening is comforting to me.

“Your Catfish Friend,” by Richard Brautigan

If I were to live my life
in catfish form
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by
one evening
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge
of my affection
and think, “It’s beautiful
here by this pond.  I wish
somebody loved me,”
I’d love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be
at peace,
and ask yourself, “I wonder
if there are any catfish

in this pond?  It seems like
a perfect place for them.”

I’ve arrived at one of those places in my thinking and writing where I cannot pull together or finish what I intended to say. Some connection between “bucket lists” and friendship. My bucket list is really friendship. Relatedness. If Machu Picchu or Bayreuth, or even Dar Al-Kalima College ever become realities, that’s great. But at this advanced age (here I go again) what I really want is to be a catfish in a pond where you think one ought to be and vice versa.

How corny is that? Weird?

So I experienced that last night. Here’s a Christmasy little song for the 11th Day of Christmas while I show you the wonderful simple gifts my friends gave me for my birthday. My Catfish Friends.

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Call up the butler of this house,
Put on his golden ring.
Let him bring us up a glass of beer,
And better we shall sing.

God bless the master of this house
Likewise the mistress too,
And all the little children
That round the table go.

“. . . like a pronoun out of step with all the other floating signifiers . . .”

PLEASE, before you read this, I would appreciate your reading an important writing by my friend Samia Khoury in Jerusalem. Thank you.

They won't repeat it just for me.

They won’t repeat it just for me.

(Note: proofreading this I realized it makes no sense whatsoever. I will try to fix that and post it again—or something like it.)

The Twelve Days of Christmas are always nostalgic for me, not because I love Christmas or because I remember Christmases past, but because they somehow mark the progression of my life.

Such times mark the progression of everyone’s lives if they think about it. (Don’t get all stuffy with me and tell me “they” is wrong here—the old nonsense promulgated by high-brow prescriptivists—until you have studied epicene and generic uses of “they.” If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me: Arise; one knocks. / … / Hark, how they knock!  — Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.)

The first Christmas I remember as a professional organist was Christmas 1967 at Christ Church (Episcopal) in Ontario, California. I’d never seen anything like it. Midnight Mass in the most vivid color with candles by the hundreds, flowers everywhere (poinsettias in abundance, but not the main offering). The infant Jesus finally in the crèche. And the music I was in charge of. I don’t remember exactly what the choir sang or I played, but I know it was glorious (that’s not my ego talking—it is possible for amateurs and non-world-class professionals to make glorious music).

I could write a progression of tales of Christmas past for the past 46 or so years, but I won’t. That’s because it’s the First Sunday in Christmas (there will be two this season), and I am going to play the organ at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Richardson, Texas.

This will be the first time in more than a year I have played for a service. That’s difficult for me to believe because my whole life has been centered in my understanding that I am an organist and that my failure to preside at the console and in the aisles and choir stalls of an Episcopal cathedral today is the result of their failure to recognize my talent. Of course, that’s not true. My failure is my failure (except “failure” is the wrong word—I’ll let you know when I find the right one). I have not worked hard enough to develop my considerable but also limited talents to achieve such a position.

This writing is neither sour grapes nor feeling sorry for myself. I have had and directed glorious musical experiences. But I know my limitations. They begin with the fact that there is absolutely nothing about me that is “driven.” I have no clue what it’s like to pursue a goal with energy and concentration, letting nothing get in my way. I have too many innate obstacles—beginning with limited intensity and strength (both physical and mental).

So back to this nostalgia for (or centered in) the Twelve Days of Christmas. These days always used to give me, when I was making music for churches, a sense that I might be able to do the Christmas Eve service over and get it perfect. After all, it is still Christmas and all of that music is still appropriate, so let’s try it again.

I’m grown up enough (and have been for many years) to know that’s not the way it works. They’re not going to back up and pretend Santa hasn’t come yet and repeat the process until I get it right. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

This is related. I'll tell you how later.

This is related. I’ll tell you how later.

It’s all a matter of belief. Do you believe time passes or not? Well, yes and no. I’ve written about my understanding of (or lack of) the passage of time (quite recently, as a matter of fact).

What might have been is obvious. I might have directed the music and/or played the organ at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. I might have directed the Boston Opera’s production of Hansel and Gretel. Or the choir of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco might have sung an anthem I wrote.

Of course. I can play Walter Mitty with the best of them (perhaps not as well as Ben Stiller).

But I prefer these days to think about what is. I’m not important to the world, but I am important to a few people. I will remember this Christmas, I think, several reasons. I can walk without a cane. My arm is not in a sling (although reaching for the stops on the left panel of the organ I’ll play today is a bit of a challenge still). So I’m grateful for progress for myself—for recovery and healing.

Some of the sources of the word “nostalgia” include “homecoming,” and “to return safely home” and “to recover,” and “to heal.” The modern sense of yearning for the past is a recent 20th-century usage. To “recover,” to “heal.” One of the people who was present at that Christmas Eve in California 46 years ago, when she died, left me in charge of her estate—to make grants for writers. I get to make a grant this week not to a writer but to someone who daily influences the lives of children with various limitations. She is a music therapist. Her guitar was stolen. I get to pay for a new one tomorrow.

Will I ever again in my life have the experience of participating in “recovery” or “healing” as I will during these Twelve Days? I hope so. But if I don’t, it is enough. It’s a “quick one before I go.”

“A Quick One Before I Go,” by David Lehman        

There comes a time in every man’s life
when he thinks: I have never had a single
original thought in my life
including this one & therefore I shall
eliminate all ideas from my poems
which shall consist of cats, rice, rain
baseball cards, fire escapes, hanging plants
red brick houses where I shall give up booze
and organized religion even if it means
despair is a logical possibility that can’t
be disproved I shall concentrate on the five
senses and what they half perceive and half
create, the green street signs with white
letters on them the body next to mine
asleep while I think these thoughts
that I want to eliminate like nostalgia
0 was there ever a man who felt as I do
like a pronoun out of step with all the other
floating signifiers no things but in words
an orange T-shirt a lime green awning

The organ I get to play today. St. Luke's Lutheran, Richardson, TX

The organ I get to play today. St. Luke’s Lutheran, Richardson, TX

“. . . Fourteen angels watch do keep . . . “

Fourteen angels? Just add wings.

Fourteen angels? Just add wings.

I learned all the readily singable melodies (arias, I suppose they are) from Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in elementary school. I don’t remember what year it was—perhaps as early as kindergarten (I’ll write about that amazing school someday).

If Sarah Caldwell had had the foresight to mount her production of the opera every Christmas time the way dance companies (mostly amateur, but some professional) mount their productions of the silliness of Nutcracker every Christmas time, the Boston Opera might still be in business. Crowds would have fought over tickets, and she could have made enough money with a week of performances of her production to subsidize her company for the rest of the year.

Not many of the opera productions I’ve seen over the years live in Technicolor (or any other way) in my memory. You’d think anyone who will spend the money I do for opera tickets would pay closer attention (or develop enough memory power to relish productions later). I remember the first time I heard Beverly Sills (before she became reigning diva) in her opera, Ballad of Baby Doe (Los Angeles, New York City Opera touring company, 1973). I remember the third time I saw the Ring—and was finally moved to the core of my being (Seattle, 2004). I remember the Dallas production of Moby Dick. And I remember a score or so productions I have been a part of (yes, even a real role standing on the stage and singing—me!).  I remember seeing “he’s a hunk” at the Met in Lohengrin in about 1980 (but it’s the hunk I remember, not the production). I’m sure I’ve blogged about Peter Hoffmann in the past, but I can’t find it. “He’s a hunk” was the cover headline on Opera News the week he made his Met debut—I’m not the only one who saw that Lohengrin for not the purest of motives.

Angels and Shepherds, Govaert Teuniszoon Flinck, 1639

Angels and Shepherds, Govaert Teuniszoon Flinck, 1639

I can’t name the singers I heard in Carmen a month ago. It was one of those must-see productions with “the” new Carmen debuting in Dallas. She was splendid (whoever she is), but the best part of the production was Micaela’s aria Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante, sung by a soprano whose name I should certainly remember, but don’t. I know this aria because I accompanied it on the piano for a graduate student in recital at the opera theater at the University of Iowa in about 1975. In most productions, a soprano is chosen for Micaela who cannot possibly outsing Carmen. Not so Dallas six weeks ago. I should look her name up so you opera fans will know. You can do it yourself.

See? I have a different approach than most opera queens. I don’t wallow in the details so I can talk about them at cocktail parties. I go to the opera to hear the music and see the production, not to remember the stars. That’s pretty much the way I attend any musical production. I’ve learned some pretty awesome music sitting through dreadful performances.

So back to Sarah Caldwell. One of the greatest theatrical geniuses of all time. And a nonpareil megalomaniac. No one could do anything as well as she—including destroy the company she built. If only she had dragged out her Hansel and Gretel every Christmas.

It’s not a Christmas story, of course. Except for the gingerbread house. But that production! That witch getting what she deserved was to die for. And the simplicity of the staging was elegant beyond words.

But the angels. Oh, my. During Gretel’s little two-minute aria, which everyone knows but few know it’s an opera aria, suddenly for no apparent reason a grand circular staircase appeared on the stage. And in two minutes, fourteen angels dressed in costumes any 1956 prom queen would have given her trousseau for descended the staircase. Each a different pastel color, and all with enormous gossamer wings and a star-scepter. To die for. Now that’s opera! Make a two-minute sort of dippy little sentimental aria (now go back and listen to it at the hyperlink in the first sentence) into something that everyone who ever saw it remembers as the essence of Christmas (even though it is totally unrelated).

Sandman is here!
    Let us first say our evening prayer!
When at night I go to sleep,
Fourteen angels watch do keep:
    Two my head are guarding,
    Two my feet are guiding,
    Two are on my right hand,
    Two are on my left hand,
    Two who warmly cover,
    Two who o’er me hover,
Two to whom ‘tis given to guide my steps to heaven.

I don’t know about angels, but I know theater. I don’t know voices, but I know opera.

I don’t know much, but this is, I believe, worth thinking about.

Art is nothing tangible. We cannot call a painting ‘art’ as the words ‘artifact’ and ‘artificial’ imply. The thing made is a work of art made by art, but not itself art. The art remains in the artist and is the knowledge by which things are made (Ananda Coomaraswamy. The Dance of Shiva).

Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains.
Gloria, in excelsis Deo! Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be
Which inspire your heavenly song?