“. . . give up this life of mine and am not troubled about this. . .” (Johann Georg Albinus, 1652)

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Looking into Wyoming from the top of Scotts Bluff National Monument, Nebaska (Photo: Harold Knight, August 2016)

I was born 72 years ago today, January 3, 1945, in Douglas, Wyoming.

It’s cold in Wyoming in January, as in next-door Nebraska where I did most of my physical growing up and graduated from high school in 1963. In 1976 I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa, one state over from Nebraska and just as cold in January (I had been in California for eleven years in the interim). That year my friend Pat French from Muscatine gave me a copy of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death for my birthday. Based on our frequent late-night interminable discussions vis a vis “the meaning of life,” lubricated by much Scotch whiskey, she thought I should read Becker’s book which won the Pulitzer Prize the year before. I was 31, and she was about 50. I thought she was the smartest person I knew ―and, in fact, that was likely true then and likely never changed. She was also crass and irreverent, and self-identified as “black Irish.”

I lost contact with Pat about 20 years ago, and I often wonder how her life went on. Some time back I Googled Pat and discovered she died in 2012. When she died, no one thought to tell me since I was living first in Massachusetts (also cold in January) and then (as now) in Dallas (strange but not so cold in January) ―and no one remembered we were friends.

Note to self: Someday think about the many people who have been important to your growth and self-awareness who have simply disappeared from your life. Don’t think about it today, someday.

I have never met Ton Koopman, but in a strange way, I consider him an old friend. He was born October 2, 1944, three months before I was born. He is a Dutch organist and professor at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. In April 2003 he was knighted, receiving the Order of the Netherlands Lion. Whenever I want to hear an organ work of J.S. Bach’s played, I go to YouTube and look up Ton Koopman’s performance.

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Birthday number 2 – Worland, Wyoming, January 3, 1947.

A few days ago I was preparing for my annual birthday video (a small organ work recorded on my birthday for my own amusement) and was undecided between the Bach chorale prelude on Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (“The old year is passed away”) and the Bach chorale prelude on Alle Menschen müßen sterben (“Everyone must die”). I found Koopman’s YouTube of each of them. It was no contest. However I played or wherever I recorded it, I could not come close to the glory of Koopman’s “Everyone must die.  And that meant I would record “The old year is passed away.”   That’s OK because it is in a style more suited to my abilities.

The lovely melancholy of “The old year is passed away” is suitable to my ability and to our time.  “. . . Thou hast kept us through the year/ When danger and distress were near.” It’s not clear to me that God has kept us (the idea of God drifts farther and farther away from me as time goes on), but obviously something is keeping us in this time of danger and distress. But, as they say, I digress.

For many years I kept as my private motto, my personal inner explanation of “the meaning of life,” Ernest Becker’s assertion that, “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.”

My ideas regarding Becker’s statement were concentrated for many years on the “towering majesty” of being human. I thought the “blindly and dumbly rotting” was a great ironic statement of the obvious counter-balance to the towering majesty of our existence, our accomplishments. But then one day I realized my ex-wife, my brother-in-law, my life-partner, and many friends had died, and I began to understand the reality of disappearing forever. And then my parents died.

I took many years to understand the reality ―not the irony― of the completion of the circle of Becker’s understanding. He died of cancer during the year between his book’s publication and my reading it.

I would like to talk to Ton Koopman, about Bach, of course, but more about what it means to play music composed by a genius who lived a shorter life than either of us has already lived. Especially music based on hymns about the passage of time and the absolute certainty of death.

My guess is that anyone not close to my age―or older than I―who might happen to be reading this little meditation written on the anniversary of my birth considers this line of thinking sad or tragic or grievous or fatalistic. Well, it is fatalistic. Everything we do is headed toward fatality. We don’t need Ernest Becker or Aristotle or Socrates or St. Paul or Martin Heidegger or Johann Georg Albinus to tell us that.

I am weak and timid, a shy person. I am not a preacher or teacher (except for the instruction in the correct use of commas and verb tenses). I am not a moralist or a philosopher. I am certainly not a thinker or an intellectual. Or an artist. If I met Ton Koopman, I would be tongue-tied and feel amazed in the presence of his musicianship. His ability to recreate the “towering genius” of the music of Bach almost stupefies me.

What on earth, anyone reading this with the ability to think logically, whether my age or younger or older might well ask, are you trying to say? What’s your point? Where is your thesis? (I hope you’re asking, because it is not clear.)

Only this. Pat, and Ernest, and Sebastian Bach, and Johann Georg Albinus are all disappeared forever. Ton and I and you are not. And we’re all the same.  We tower, some of us much higher in human terms than others, and we go back into the ground. That is neither good nor bad, comforting or frightening, difficult or easy to understand and accept. It simply is.  “The old year now hath passed away,” and “Everybody must die, all flesh passes like grass.”

From January 3, 1945, until January 3, 2017, I have been in that process, and right now, today, I “am not troubled about this.”

Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom

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A new-fangled cream bottle dressed in environmentally dangerous plastic, nearly impossible to tear into.

There’s a funny thing about getting old(er). Just one for today, at any rate.

For 35 years of teaching college writing, whenever a student began a sentence with “there,” I patiently asked them if they knew about Richard Nixon. An expletive, I would explain, is “an interjectory word or expression, frequently profane; an exclamatory oath.” Anyone old enough to remember 1975 knows why I always used Richard Nixon as my opening example for a lesson about writing expletives. What many people (most people, even college graduates) don’t know is that “There is” and “It is” and their various tenses are “expletives.” They hold the place of a real subject in a sentence. That is, they are profane substitutes for telling your reader what you’re talking about. I told students that they did not need to vent their frustration at the writing process by swearing at me.

What is the subject in my sentence about a funny thing?

My subject is “a funny thing” although it is obscured and delayed so you would hardly know it by my use of the expletive.

Never mind. There’s a funny thing about getting old(er). The subject at hand (pun, I suppose, intended as you will see below) is what happens to your fingers as you senesce. They begin to balk at doing small jobs that they have done all your life. Buttoning the top button on a dress shirt, for example. This morning it was getting hold of the “pull here to open” tab on the half-and-half bottle to cream my coffee. Turning pages while playing the organ is simply impossible. And pages in books present a challenge, too (Nook Books are cheaper, anyway).

And then there’s the iPhone keyboard or whatever you call those little squares with letters on the screen of my phone. But I won’t even begin with that frustration.

There’s a theory that fingerprints wear off as you age, and you don’t get as much traction when you try to do something requiring dexterity. My dermatologist said he didn’t think that was true, and then he looked at the ends of my fingers. He wasn’t convinced, but he wasn’t so certain he was right, either. The ends of my fingers are pretty smooth.
There’s also a theory that your joints get creaky―not necessarily arthritic, but not as flexible as they once were. I don’t believe that. Last Sunday I played the big Bach chorale prelude (really a fugue) on Wir glauben doch all’ an den einen Gott, and my fingers moved just fine; my musical brain may be slowing down, but if I practice, my fingers aren’t.

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My smooth old fingers.

There must be lots of other theories.

I have my own theory. (Subject, “I,” verb, “have,” direct object, “theory;” no swear words.)

My theory: almost always when I have trouble doing some little task because my fingers won’t cooperate, the trouble is really caused by my mind. Not that my mind is slowing down (it is, of course, but that’s not the problem here). My mind goes immediately to someone’s idiocy. To put it plainly, opening the half-and-half bottle should not be difficult. I mean, it SHOULD NOT BE difficult. What idiot made these things so you have to have either an 18-year-old brain to figure out or 18-year-old fingers to cope with it?

Milk is supposed to come in glass bottles that the milkman picks up when you’re finished with them. And they are supposed to have little paper stoppers in them with cute little tabs that you pull to open it. And the whole affair―for all you young environmentalists―is biodegradable. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

I know I am turning into one of those crotchety old men who just wants to Make America Great Again―great as in uncomplicated, easy, natural.

Natural. It’s not natural to know all about the billionaires in our midst. It’s not natural that there ARE billionaires in our midst. It’s not natural to think you’re better than someone else just because of your skin color. It’s not natural to want to keep out of the country people who have lost everything they own to a war they didn’t start and don’t want. It’s not natural to substitute fake news for real news. It’s not natural to think your religion is better than someone else’s religion. It’s not natural to hate someone who loves someone of the same sex. It’s not natural for you to hate people for any of these reasons (and a lot more) because, actually, who they are and what they need and want is none of your goddam business.

There. You were waiting for my expletive, weren’t you? Well there it is. It’s none of your goddam business. Hardly anything that someone believes or thinks is any of your business unless they’re family. Oh, and if you happen to be a Christian (or some other religion―Christian is the only one I know about), and they need something like food or a decent place to live, then it’s your business. Then the king will say unto you if you take care of them, “Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom. Because you took care of those refugees, and those homeless folk, and those kids without enough food. That’s the only way you inherit the kingdom” (whatever that is, but it sounds like something I might like).

Choose your battles. Stop fuming because you can’t open the milk bottle. Be thankful you have one. And stop getting mad because someone wants to move in here after their home is bombed. Be thankful you have a home. And share. “Inasmuch as you do it for one of the least of these”― one of these whom you despise the most ― “you do it for me,” says the King.

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Milk bottles the way milk bottles are supposed to be.

Note: I would be pleased and honored if you would check out one of my other blogs. Thank you.

“. . . then the scaffolds drop Affirming it a Soul . . .” (Emily Dickinson)

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My strange little abode

When my partner died in 2003, I went apartment hunting almost immediately, not for any deep psychological reason or because it was part of the grieving process. That was November, and our lease was to be up in January. I did not want to pay another year’s rent on a huge apartment in North Dallas, wasting money and rattling around in that space by myself. No single man needs two bathrooms.

A friend who knew the city much better than I helped me look for rental ads and then drive around to look at various apartments.

After a half dozen tries we came to the one where I’ve lived since, and I knew immediately it was for me. It is not a cute cookie-cutter place ready-made for a gay-boy’s au courant possessions or valuable art work or trinkets bought with too much “disposable” income. What I have (my stuff and what I kept of my partner’s stuff) is not fashionable or valuable, so it seems to belong in the weird “loft” space I rent― one big room with no walls or doors (except the bathroom, of course). It has popcorn ceiling (how last-year), in the center the huge cement pillar holding the whole building up, ugly (I mean UGLY) apartment-cheap carpet, and a tiny galley kitchen no real cook would want to use.

It’s in the building I fondly call the “dowager” of the neighborhood―built in the ‘50s of concrete and glass, it would take an atomic bomb to tear it down. It’s tired, and it lost its upscaleness about three decades ago.

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My artwork: a painting by my uncle’s late parter, Victor Gugliuzza. Two paintings by the Canadian painter Allen Sapp.

In other words, it’s perfect for me and my odd assortment of furniture and decorations (really―so really you probably can’t imagine it). And for me. And for my cats (whose presence is ubiquitously obvious).

And since 2008, space for the pipe organ, Opus 1 of D. Steuart Goodwin Organ Builders of San Bernardino, CA. Yes, a pipe organ sits in the open space where my dining table once was.

I do not mean to imply, by the way, that I think only gays have finely appointed, stylishly decorated, and elegantly furnished living spaces. Nearly everyone I know does.

I’ve been thinking about my less than stylish surroundings because I have recently met several people who are of far different means and “lifestyle” than mine. I’m pretty sure I can guess that their digs are upscale. One of these folks and I are, I think, forging a friendship. The others I will probably have passing acquaintanceships with, if that. I’ve been thinking about whether or not I would invite any of those people to my home. I would not want them to think ill of me because of my less-then-stylish surroundings

Last night I was in a group in which we were talking about how one develops a loving relationship with oneself. Better late (at 71) than never, I suppose. I woke up this morning having been “warned in a dream” (Matthew 2:13) ―not warned exactly, informed, and not in a dream, in my rested mind―about a fact of my life that I often overlook. It starts with realizing that my apartment is an expression of who I am. I am not an expression of my apartment.

My apartment expresses a mind that is eccentrically organized―if it is organized at all. It expresses a spirit that has little interest in owning physical, worldly things. It expresses an understanding of the purpose of life as striving rather than accomplishment.

It may also be the result of depersonalization or dissociative disorder as symptoms of the wonderfully strange condition Temporal Lobe Epilepsy or something like it. All of that is so ephemeral as to render it impossible to talk about except with my neurologist and psychiatrist.

My apartment, if I could choose definitively what it expresses, is a manifestation of my caring little about what others think of me. That is not, of course, quite true. I care a great deal. But somewhere buried deep down inside me is a loving relationship with Me.

Not with what I own.

Not with my modest accomplishments.

Not with what I know.

With Me.

That relationship is not easy, and it is often obscured by fear and by doubt. I often mistake arrogance and self-righteousness for loving myself. And loving myself does not make me brave or strong. In fact, I most often want to cower in the corner and protect myself.

I’m not saying I am satisfied with Me. I wish I had done more and different things with my life. And I wish I could say I know myself completely. On the contrary, I keep discovering characteristics of Me, some of which I like and some of which I don’t like.

This afternoon I may not be able to say it, but right now I love myself, both what I like of myself and what I don’t like. Those friends I was in conversation with last night may not have heard what I said as an expression that I have a loving relationship with myself. (I said here at the outset I was told in a dream.)

Actually what happened was not a dream. Early this morning I was playing the organ for a few minutes as I often do for reasons of which I am often unconscious. The mystery of music is the same as the mystery of me. And of you.

Some people meditate. Some read inspirational literature. I play a simple organ piece.

“THE PROPS ASSIST THE HOUSE,” BY EMILY DICKINSON
The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter –
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life –
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul –

The little prelude by Friedrich Wilhelm Zachau (1663-1712) on Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr
(“All Gory Be to God on High”) which passed for my meditation this morning.

“. . . the long and lonely lives of castaways thought dead . . .” (Kay Ryan)

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Standing in front of the tree I planted at St. Paul Lutheran Church in memory of my late partner. What could be more permanent? The fire station that now stands in its place.

Ok. I should not write when I’m pissed off.

No, really. Pissed off.

It’s personal, not political. I think it’s a kind of pissed off that only someone who is going to have his 71st birthday tomorrow can understand.

It’s the kind of pissed off that can come only from hurt.

That probably means I’m being passive aggressive.

On Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2010, St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmers Branch, TX, held its last Sunday Service of Holy Communion. It was one of the saddest mornings of my life. I had been organist and choir director of the church since November of 1994. That was not the reason for my sadness. I can (and do as substitute) play the organ for about any church any time. I even play the organ in my living room.

The sadness was my knowledge―our knowledge even saying it would not be so―that our little family was dying, that we would never reconstitute ourselves as a community, good as our intentions were and hard as we might try (for a while).

I was 65 years old.

I was still teaching first-year writing at Southern Methodist University. They didn’t ask me to retire for another three years.

When I was 68, both of my most significant “communities” disappeared from my life.

The church community was more important because the raison d’être of a church found in the Gospel According to John is, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” From the first Sunday I played at St. Paul until the last, I had no doubt I was loved, and I loved the people. We prayed and played together, and in spite of the vast differences of circumstances and personalities among us, every member was supported by every other member. The church was family.

SMU, it turned out, was a place of employment. I don’t know if it was my attitude/personality that kept me from feeling “community” there or the nature of that beast. I suspect it was the latter.

If you read my post here yesterday, you are probably a bit skeptical of my understanding of that little church as family. If so, you misunderstood what I said. “. . . in spite of the vast differences of circumstances and personalities among us. . .” I doubt any of my friends there would be surprised to read yesterday’s writing. And if they did, they  would not reject me for it. I know how complex they are as persons, and they know how complex I am.

Even though we hardly ever see each other, I have no doubt that we love each other in that strange and wonderful way that church people can, and at their best, do.

Since the church closed and I was the old man eased out of his teaching job, I have had one small community of friends I know I can count on in the same way I counted on the St. Paul family for love and support. It is an indefinable and motley crew, acquaintances from 12-step groups. They are mostly gay men. Mostly. I love those guys. I’m pretty sure they love me, too, “in that very special way. . .” (go to a 12-step meeting if you don’t know that phrase).

I have a theory. I’ve done some research in scholarly journals (a perk of teaching at SMU for 15 years is lifetime use of the library), but I haven’t found much evidence to support my theory:

most 70-year-olds feel the loss of community as keenly as, perhaps even more than, the loss through death or distance of family of origin ties.

Your church closes. You retire. Friends and lovers move away. More friends die. Your parents die. Your partner dies.

If you happen to be pathologically shy (belying the appearance of your work and activity for the past 50 years) or, to use a term I find ridiculous but true, “socially anorexic,” your options for meeting people decrease in number daily.

For reasons I’ve discussed here too often, I physically dislike crowds―parties and such places where friends meet and new friendships are formed. I don’t dislike the people, simply the noise and the fact that large rooms where parties happen are lighted with deadly fluorescent lights.

That means I have to go looking for community. On a daily basis. With the mental and physical acumen of a 70-year-old who really just wants to be at home or having a quiet evening out with an age-appropriate friend or two. Or walking through the Dallas Museum of Art.

So here’s where being pissed off comes in. Am I pissed off because my communities have collapsed and my friends are scattered all around and I hardly ever see them? Is that because I unconsciously send out vibes of loneliness? Or is it simply that I have too high expectations?

I’m having a birthday party. A big strange event, that is―rather than being all about “me” a benefit for my favorite non-profit, the Aberg Center for Literacy. I did this last year, and my friends showed up and raised $800 for the Center.

From the 45 E-Vites I sent out a month ago (with reminders since), I’ve had 12 responses.

Maybe I’m not so much pissed off as curious, and neither as much as fearful, fearful that my communities have finally forgotten me altogether.

Fearful. Is that what happens to 70-year-old gay men who used to be professors and organists? Or straight women who were financial analysts  for Compass Bank? Or any 70-year-old?

Kay Ryan, one of my favorite poets, who is eight months younger than I, wrote this when she was 65. I think she gets it.

LOSSES

Most losses add something—
a new socket or silence,
a gap in a personal
archipelago of islands.

We have that difference
to visit—itself
a going-on of sorts.

But there are other losses
so far beyond report
that they leave holes
in holes only

like the ends of the
long and lonely lives
of castaways
thought dead but not.

From Kay Ryan. The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (New York: Grove Press, 2010).

At home alone playing music I used to play for my community.

“When ‘senescent’ approaches ‘senescence’”

Parry MY  LAST  FEW  POSTINGS  HERE  WERE  MISTAKES.  Literally! (a proper use of that word). I managed somehow to transfer the postings for my other blog to this one. Don’t ask. Perhaps the “process” of becoming old has become “being” old. I’m now setting things right with a post that is intended for this space.

In 1965 at the beginning of my junior year as an organ major in the School of Music at the University of Redlands in California, Dr. Leslie P. Spelman informed me that he could no longer be my teacher. I was too “unpredictable.” When he meant was that I was unruly, not genteel, too “out” as a young gay man (this was, after all, 1965—four years before Stonewall).

Anyone who knew both of us could have predicted this separation. I was furious, but took it in stride because the School was in the process of installing the new mechanical action organ (the first I had ever seen), and Professor Boese was responsible for it. Having studied in Europe he was anxious to have a tracker organ to teach on. I was excited to be one of the first students to play on the Schlicker. I gave the first student degree recital on it, my Junior Recital (Bach Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV 548; and Hindemith Sonata II for Organ).

Although I was unpredictable (unruly and undisciplined), Dr. Spelman hired me as a work-study student, and a great deal of my work became sorting and boxing his music and books. He was not far from retirement, and was clearing his office.

He and I spent a great deal of time together, and he tried his level best to instill in me something of his appreciation for the arts and some understanding of the simple and gentle way of life of his Quaker heritage. I fear he was not markedly successful at either.

He gave me music scores and books. His copy of the works of Orlando Gibbons from the monumental Tudor Church Music series, the large volume with his inscription, “Paris, 1924” on the fly leaf, a purchase from his years as a student of Joseph Bonnet in Paris. A copy of the Frescobaldi Fiori Musicali, the Bonnet edition. An assortment of little-known organ music, for the most part gentle, unassuming works that I, for the most part, thought were next to useless.

One score he gave me I have kept these 50 or so years. I’ve played a couple of pieces from it in the past, but I’ve always thought the volume was, while quaint with its gray cardboard cover, full of music too sentimental to be of any value. I remember distinctly his giving it to me with some other volumes, telling me that someday I might understand and be able to play the music.

The gray cardboard-bound volume is titled “A Little Organ Book.” It is a collection of 12 pieces by different British composers written to mark the passing of Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918), head of the Royal College of Music. The 12 composers represented were either faculty colleagues, or composition students of Parry, or church musicians who performed his works.

Recently I’ve been learning those works. I have, perhaps, begun to understand this music. Pieces written to honor the memory of a teacher and fellow composer, and written very soon after his death, some of them apparently composed for his funeral. Given to me by my teacher.

For the past several months I have been unable to write either for this blog or for any other purpose. At the risk of seeming as sentimental as I have thought “A Little Organ Book” to be for these many years, I will offer a simplistic explanation. I am depressed. I am 70 years old and alone. This is not how my “last years” were intended to be (intended by whom? one might ask). I will write soon about my flawed thinking. It’s enough to say now that I am not alone, and I have several fulfilling and beneficial activities to keep me both busy and in daily contact with other people.

But I have not yet come to terms with this situation that may last another week or, if my father’s genes have anything to do with it, another 27 years.

And then, when I least expected it, on the music desk of my organ opened a lovely little musical work that my most important mentor told me when he was only a couple of years short of 70 that I would someday know how to play.

I get it, I think. “IV” by Alan Gray (1855-1935), organist and director of the choirs at Trinity College, Cambridge. For his friend Hubert.