“. . .headlights pick my shadow up and spread it out along the wall. . .” (Robert Gregory)

Johnny Ott's finest

Johnny Ott’s finest

For the last ten days I’ve been cleaning my apartment. Not cleaning. Piling up stuff by the front door to take out and carry off to the thrift shop that helps fund The AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Dallas.

The stuff I’m piling up is stuff I don’t need. Probably haven’t needed for years. It’s a daunting task. One that most likely anyone who is not 70 years old cannot comprehend. This is not “spring cleaning.” It’s fall cleaning, winter cleaning, moving-toward-the-end cleaning.

My young friend thinks I’m terribly forgetful and disorganized. That’s true. But not in the way he thinks.

It’s traumatic to divest oneself (at least myself) of the comforting stuff that’s been around for years. The Johnny Ott Pennsylvania Dutch “Hex” barn decoration, for example. For 11 years I’ve had it leaning against the back of the bookcase separating my living area from my sleeping area in my loft. It’s been a familiar of comfort every night as I’ve turned out my lamp to get into bed.

Johnny Ott was the premier barn decoration painter in Pennsylvania before he died in 1999. I have the painted circle because my late partner acquired it in about 1975 when he was teaching at the Phelps School in Malvern, PA. When Jerry died, his stuff became mine. I’ve never figured out a way to display the Ott piece in this apartment except as my private remembrance of things past.

It was Jerry’s, and I had it for 11 years. I’m finally ready to let it go.

My parents decided when they were not much older than I am now that they wanted to live in a comfortable retirement in a community. Soon after their 50th wedding anniversary in 1987 they began clearing out their home in Sacramento, CA. My dad was 73 years old.

I probably don't need The Interpreter's Bible

I probably don’t need The Interpreter’s Bible

Our parents gave my siblings and me a helpful example of divestiture. Not in the legal or economic sense, but in the private getting-rid-of sense. They began giving us stuff they knew we wanted, and selling stuff, and giving stuff to charities several years before they knew they were going to move to the community.

By the time they moved they had a large three-bedroom house of stuff whittled down to a small one-bedroom (plus office for Dad—later he sent his library to a seminary in the Philippines) apartment sized amount. I need to go from a large open loft amount of stuff to a one-bedroom efficiency amount before I can move. Or be really comfortable. I have one major obstacle. The pipe organ in my living room. (There are no elephants. I ran them out long ago.)

Now the stores are closed and locked. In this window lies
a fat old cat asleep inside the small remaining shadow
underneath an old lost table from elsewhere with graceful
skinny curving legs. As I walk away along the place
with no windows, headlights pick my shadow up and
spread it out along the wall, fatten it and give it wings
for just a second. Then they’re gone and it’s gone too. (Robert Gregory)

I have a practice of emailing poets whose work moves me. Not many, you understand—five to date. I’m not collecting emails from poets because I get a kick out of it. In his gracious answer to my message, Robert Gregory said,

I wish you good luck in your task also. I’m very close to your age and confess I find the task more difficult and complicated and interesting than the simple “decluttering” people like to prescribe.

Back when I was a young man of 64, I wrote extensively about all of this. I am rather fond of calling myself an “old man” these days. I am old. When I was 10 and my grandfather was 70, I knew he was old. He died about twenty years later.

Referencing myself as “old” is not admitting or claiming decrepitness. It’s claiming my station as having lived a long time—the Biblical limit.

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away (Psalm 90:10 KJV).

Sometimes when I’m using my cane (hip problems and a propensity to fall), I ask young men (it’s particularly fun at the gym), “Are you planning to get old?” The universal response is, “No!” If I ask, “Are you planning to live a long time,” the answer is universally, “Yes!” Either way, I tell them to be careful of their hips, especially in the weight room. They don’t get it, of course; they’re living in a real-life version of Fame and are going to live forever.

The task is more difficult and complicated and interesting than “decluttering.”

And it’s even more difficult and complicated and interesting than taking care of my hips.

It’s the meaning of my life (that’s not a cliché or high school angst—it’s the absolute truth). And probably anyone else’s who’s willing (has the guts) to think about it. What, of all the stuff in my apartment, is important? What is either useful or helps me understand who I am?

Not much, it turns out. I am not my father’s set of the New Interpreter’s Bible. Not a few old gay porn films. Not the blue vase I bought from the glass blower in Hebron, Palestine. Not the leather jacket I bought with my first partner. Not the 150-year-old highboy I bought with my ex-wife. Not the souvenirs of four productions of the Wagner Ring. Not even the organ music I’ve collected for 50 years or the shelf of poetry books behind me as I write just now.

I’m an old man, and it’s time to sort this out. This: what’s important?
. . . headlights pick my shadow up and
spread it out along the wall, fatten it and give it wings
for just a second. Then they’re gone and it’s gone too.

“Things I found and left where they were,” by Robert Gregory

A slow summer morning:
new light through a veil of green leaves, young leaves
that vibrate and tremble. The shadows are blurred in this light—
shadows once ourselves, they say. Clouds and a girl in
green trousers, three birds on the blacktop confer, between two
buildings a vacant lot, a concrete slab for some old
vanished building surrounded by a few dry rags of grass.
A little local dove in shades of brown and black investigating,
looking for food. A buzzard floating high above the Marriott,
up above the former Happy Meals and a blue discarded shoe.
A splash of bird shit and a splash of old blue paint together
on a picnic table side by side, sea grape in blossom overhead,
long green spikes and tiny blossoms, two fat bees intrigued so
though a breeze from off the ocean pushes them away they
come back and back. Now a girl floats by on skates, a pretty,
haughty face, unwritten on. She flies her naked skin like a
pirate flag, a big tattoo across her shoulder blade. At first
it looked just like a gunshot wound (I saw them sometimes
in the barracks on some ordinary guy in a towel walking
toward the shower). Shrapnel makes all kinds of shapes:
sickle moons and stickmen, twigs and teeth. Bullets always
make a perfect circle (for entry anyway) and make the
same two colors: blue-black and a purple like raspberry sherbet.
Up ahead, a man in a dirty shirt, his eyes turned inward, his hair
and thoughts all scattered, just awake from sleeping in a field
someplace. At every house the dogs come at him roaring,
not just barking as they do to everyone who passes by
but raging and fierce, they really want to tear him open, him
or the things he thinks he’s talking to. I’m remembering
as I walk along a ways behind him the ladies in the office
talking about the new widow: Is she cleaning? Yes. The first one,
the questioner, nodded. “Right after Frederick died,” she said,
“I got down on my knees and scrubbed that kitchen, places
I had never ever cleaned. For that whole month I did nothing
but scrub that floor.” It gets dark here very slowly and gently.
Now the stores are closed and locked. In this window lies
a fat old cat asleep inside the small remaining shadow
underneath an old lost table from elsewhere with graceful
skinny curving legs. As I walk away along the place
with no windows, headlights pick my shadow up and
spread it out along the wall, fatten it and give it wings
for just a second. Then they’re gone and it’s gone too.

Siegfried and I can part company

Siegfried and I can part company

“. . . They will inherit the earth only when the final pilgrimage is done. . .” (Ellen Hinsey)

I’ve missed my calling. I should be a geneticist. I have much odd material to work with.

My mother’s family are prone to Rosacea. Red skin, appearing to be flushed with embarrassment or heat most of the time. The nose eventually swelling to look like W. C. Fields (whose nose was misshapen by Rosacea, not by booze).

It's all in the genes.

It’s all in the genes.

My father’s family are prone to barnacles, growths on the skin that serve no apparent purpose. The least fortunate of us have a plethora of them. My family and—more especially—my friends are kind to ignore the encrustments on my head. I imagine some people when they first meet me are put off. I’ve been asked by a couple of men who wanted to date me if there is something wrong that should be taken care of.

Well, yes, there is something wrong. Icky blemishes on my skin. If I were a billionaire, I’d have a private dermatologist to fix them. But, since I’m not, anyone who wants to be my friend will simply have to get over them. None of them are cancerous or otherwise dangerous, and they are mine to keep—not in any way communicable.

I’m not a billionaire, and that means (as all Americans know) I am lazy, or unfocused, or defective in some other way, because in America, under capitalism, I should be a billionaire simply by dint of my hard work and cleverness (I’ve worked pretty hard most of my life, and I’m moderately clever).

The truth of the matter is that genetics have prevented me from amassing great wealth. Unless one’s genetic makeup is white-European, male, and (not actually genetic, but a large essential component of the process) Christian, one has little chance of becoming a billionaire. Why, then, am I not a billionaire?

According to Forbes magazine’s annual listing, of the 400 richest Americans, 358 are men (42 women). Of those, only 14 are of racial/national backgrounds not thought of as white-European, and only one is a woman of color. Whether or not any is gay, the listing does not say. (There are actually 513 American billionaires, but Forbes lists only the top 400 in their statistics, so it is possible that some of the other 113 are people of color and/or women or gay.)

My genetic pre-disposition to skin blemishes must be the cause of my poverty. I am white-European and male, moderately hard-working, and clever, but with blemishes.

The other reason I am not wealthy is, since one’s genetic makeup can insure great wealth, only a certain evolved few can be billionaires. If one has the last name Getty, Perot, Nordstrom, Sacks, Carlson, Ziff, Kaiser, Cargill, Rockefeller, Kraft, Kohler, Kellogg, or Murdock, for example, one is almost guaranteed to be genetically predisposed to be on the list.

The Pritzker family: Secretary of Commerce, third from right.

The Pritzker family: Secretary of Commerce, third from right.

A few other family names make billionairehood even more likely. Among those 400 richest Americans, at least three have the Koch family genes, five the Walton, four the Hunt, two the Bass, four the Pritzker, and three the Mars. Of the 400 richest Americans, at least 37 were born with genes that guarantee wealth regardless of hard work or cleverness.

At least one, Penny Pritzker, was guaranteed not only wealth, but political power. As the 263rd-wealthiest American (at $2.5 billion) she is the Secretary of Commerce, the head of all of the genetic wealth-regulating agencies of the government.

I think it’s fair to ask those billionaires who talk about the “American dream” and other religious mythologies to acknowledge their genetic predisposition to wealth. My genetic pre-disposition to obvious skin deformities might not have prevented me from having great wealth if I had had, for example, some of the Koch family genes.

Even though there is one person of color among the 400, we cannot extrapolate from there that other people of color have the same genetic predisposition to wealth as, say, the Hunts and the Waltons.

The genetic predisposition to wealth is not exclusively an American phenomenon. Forbes’ list of the billionaires in the world is now 1,645 worldwide. And remarkably enough, nine of those billionaires are people of color, disproving the theory that people of color never have the pre-disposition.

Aliko Dangote, $25 billion – Nigeria
Mohammed Al-Amoudi, $15.3 billion – Saudi Arabia
Mike Adenuga, $4.6 billion – Nigeria
Isabel Dos Santos, $3.7 billion – Angola
Patrice Motsepe, $2.9 billion – South Africa
Oprah Winfrey, $2.9 billion – America
Folorunsho Alakija, $2.5 billion – Nigeria
Abdulsamad Rabiu, $1.2 billion – Nigeria
Mohammed Ibrahim, $1.1 billion – Britain

0.5% of the billionaires of the world are people of color. (Nigeria seems to be rich in the genes.) Two of the nine are women. Isabel Dos Santos is the daughter of Angola’s President José Eduardo dos Santos. In some few cases the genetic predisposition to wealth also predisposes one to political power (see Penny Pritzker above). Everyone knows who Oprah is.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the genetic predisposition to billionairehood is that one of the most common concurrent genetic predispositions these people have is to being, at least nominally, Christian. Which is strange because, according to at least one explanation of the tenets of their religion, perhaps they should not be rich at all.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
• Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
• Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
• Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
• Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
• Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
• Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
• Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
• Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
• Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I’m not suggesting that the genetic predisposition to wealth means a priori that one cannot be “poor in spirit,” or “meek,” or “peacemakers,” or “persecuted,” only that I, in my limited experience, have seen little evidence of it. I don’t mean to judge, but to question. How does all of this fit together?

The Christ of the Christian religion is recorded as saying the “meek” (can I equate them with those who are not genetically predisposed to wealth and power) will inherit the earth. Ellen Hinsey says that will happen only when “the final pilgrimage is done.” I wonder when that will be.

“The Multitude,” by Ellen Hinsey (born 1960 in Boston)

Standing at the edge is the great Multitude.

They inch forward in their rags and hunger.
Their movement along the ground lifts
the sound of ancestral migrations.

They are carrying the dark water of need
in their eyes; they are carrying the first
vowels, the first consonants,

But their mouths are silent, and watchful.

And the great scavenging wings hang over them;
the raven eyes hunting among the muteness
of the winding cortege.

Beside them are the pools filled with the specters
of famine, civil war, drought—

They become one body, a muscle of need.
A testament of want.

And night—which is always upon them—rides them
like the wild horses of the storm-filled plains.

They will inherit the earth only when the final
pilgrimage is done.

For in this life, the crystal lake and the great sword
of understanding, raised high, will not show
them mercy.

Far off, in the West, a light burns brightly. But
it is not for them.
(written 2013—not yet published)

An interesting field of study, genetics.

when the final pilgrimage is done

when the final
pilgrimage is done