The old man is back – with poetry!

In the year and a half since I last posted here, I have arranged my life so it is insanely more hectic but absolutely the same as it was.

Today I posted on Facebook after a quiz about the NCAA rules governing our work required semesterly for all tutors in the center where I work (if you’re awake, you realize it’s a university athletic academic center; if you’re not awake, it doesn’t matter). I failed the quiz (after tutoring there for five years), and my comment on Facebook was, “Here’s the deal: Senescence is now the excuse for the ditzyness that has always been my lot in life.”

I have no idea (my neurologist has tried many times to explain it, to no avail) why one’s brain does what it does – or doesn’t do what it doesn’t do – when one reaches age 74. It never entered my mind that my father’s brain was slowing down when he was 74, but then he had never been ditzy like me, so I don’t suppose it’s a fair comparison. He lived to age 97, so I have some apprehension and/or intrigue about the role of genetics in longevity — but apparently not in ditzyness.

If you’re paying attention, you will know instantly that either ditzyness or simple ordinary lack of logic and mental discipline is my lot in life. None of the above follows anything like a line of reasoning or rhetorical cohesion. That’s OK with me because I’ll bet anyone who reads this can follow it with no trouble at all.

One of the ways I’ve arranged my life to be more insanely hectic than it used to be is that I am trying to learn to write decent poetry. I’ve been taking classes with an up-and-coming poet, Dr. Ashley “Mag” Gabbert (who teaches at the institution where I tutor). I have immersed myself in poetry, and I try to write a few lines of something resembling the poetic every day.

Most surprising about this new discipline is that DO read ten poems every day. Well, nearly every day. And I have found some favorite poets. One of them is Christian Barter. I decided it’s ridiculous to post printed poems here (or anywhere). The music of poetry may be (at least for me) its most important quality. So I’ve taken to reading and recording poetry. I’m going to make this old man blog into a poetry blog. (I’ve posted some of my poems here in the past – long before I began to study writing poetry. Don’t bother with them.) Some days I’m going to read poetry instead of copying the words. These readings are virtually unrehearsed, certainly not staged. Sitting at my desk, no special lighting or wardrobe, made with my phone. Just me reading some poetry.

Today I begin — the poem is “The Final Movement of a Late Quartet,” by Christian Barter. “On Beethoven’s Opus 131 in C-sharp minor.” (The teacher in me wants you to find one of the recordings of the Beethoven Quartet and listen to it.)

Here’s Barter’s poem. (I don’t know why the video looks like I’m lying down. When you click on it, WordPress lets me sit up straight.)

 

 

 

 

 

“. . . small nightmares that I hope will develop into great dreams. . .” (Mourid Barghouti)

Ali Hassanein, a 54-year-old oud maker works in Ramallah. Every day life in Palestine. (Photo MaanImages)

Ali Hassanein, a 54-year-old oud maker works in Ramallah. Every day life in Palestine. (Photo MaanImages)

I’m going to stop saying I’m retired except as part of my quirky attempt at a sense of humor. It’s not true.

Dictionary.com:
retire v.
1. to withdraw, or go away or apart, to a place of privacy, shelter, or seclusion
2. to go to bed

Yesterday morning I played the organ at First Presbyterian Church in Plano, TX, went to lunch at a famed Dallas barbecue spot with a friend, saw the exhibition of “The Abelló Collection: A Modern Taste for European Masters” at the Meadows Museum in the afternoon, had dinner at my favorite Mexican restaurant, and spent the evening packing and preparing for my week-long excursion to North Carolina with my friend.

We have movie and museum and other loosely-formed plans to spend the week “out and about.”

Because I’ll be in the Great Smoky Mountains, I will miss tutoring at the university Academic Development of Student Athletes where I do the most important teaching of my 35-year career I’ll miss my regular schedule with my trainer, and square dancing next Sunday, and my meetings of that anonymous secret society I belong to, and playing the organ next Sunday, and. . .

Hardly seems like going “away or apart, to a place of privacy, shelter, or seclusion.”

In a sense, however, in my mind I live in a place of privacy. I privately reject doing anything I don’t want to do. I’m learning to say “No” when that’s what I want to say and to say “Yes” to the activities I want to participate in.

Most of us don’t worry about leaving a “legacy.” If I had children and grandchildren, I’d have a somewhat different take on that idea. However, the legacy of family is a personal matter that has little to do with what anyone else thinks. I do have a few interesting, if not valuable, things I hope my nieces and nephews will enjoy having to remember me by, but that’s about it. I’m not the rich uncle.

Then there’s all this stuff I’ve written and posted for the past 12 years that’s floating around out there in cyberspace. I’m told it’s there forever, or at least until climate change finally does human society in.

All this stuff I’ve written is one of the most important aspects of my not going “to a place of privacy, shelter, or seclusion.” This is, however, not as obvious a statement as it might seem. I’ve written recently about all of this and posted it in “the cloud.”

I’m 70 years old. Never in my life have I been ambitious, physically fit, “driven” accomplishing much with my time here. No, I’m basically meek and weak and (perhaps?) lazy. That I am not the rich uncle is testimony in itself to my being a part of Henry David Thoreau’s “mass of men [who] live lives of quiet desperation.” I feel desperation from time to time―but I’m too often not quiet about it.

A couple of “causes,” however, inspire me to work and participation. They keep me from going to a place of privacy and seclusion.

One of those is the Aberg Center for Literacy in Dallas, about which I’ve written here several times.

The Aberg Center offers ESL classes and GED preparation to adults. The Center is, I believe, the most important place where I practice being neither secluded nor desperate. I feel more joy as a volunteer teacher there than in anything else I do (with the possible exception of tutoring football players). Sentences that are not a “run-on” sentences that students from Aberg write 20 years from now are part of my “legacy.”

The stuff I’ve posted in Cyberspace is part of my legacy. That is not obvious.

Preparations are underway in the Old City of Jerusalem for the holy night of Laylat al-Qader on Monday.

Preparations are underway in the Old City of Jerusalem for the holy night of Laylat al-Qader on Monday.

I have other blogs than this one. One is an exercise in what might look like futility or grandiosity. Perhaps that is more than a perception.

However, I post it―almost daily―for the sole purpose of posting it. That blog is not really my own. It’s a small collection of news stories other people have written brought together in a digest often related (at least tangentially) to a poem I have discovered.

I spend the time (up to a couple of hours daily) compiling that blog simply for the sake of doing it. Simply because someone must do it.

The poems the news stories (peripherally) relate to are by writers from Palestine or who are Palestinians living in the Diaspora of displaced Palestinians.

I collect the poetry and the news stories because it has to be done. It is necessary that there is a tiny edge of Cyberspace devoted to telling daily real-life stories from the point of view of Palestinians and trying to relate them to expressions of the inner life and experience of the Palestinian people, i.e. relating news about life in Palestine to snippets of the 1,000-year literary tradition of the Palestinians.

Someone has to do this, and I have the time and skill for the job. (I hope you will check the blog, Palestine InSight .)

It does not matter if no one or one person or a thousand people read it daily. It must exist in Cyberspace. On the day someone needs it, for whatever reason, it will be there. If I do not do it, no one will. It’s that simple.

I spend a few minutes (nearly) every day not being secluded or desperate by simply giving myself to a necessary task and having no desire or belief that I am accomplishing something. I don’t know. What I do know is that it has to be done because some day in some way I can’t know, someone will need it.

“Retirement” could well be going “away or apart, to a place of privacy, shelter, or seclusion.” Or it can mean going away or apart to do one’s most important lifework.

“I Have No Problem” by Mourid Barghouti

I look at myself:
I have no problem.
I look all right
and, to some girls,
my grey hair might even be attractive;
my eyeglasses are well made,
my body temperature is precisely thirty seven,
my shirt is ironed and my shoes do not hurt.
I have no problem.
My hands are not cuffed,
my tongue has not been silenced yet,
I have not, so far, been sentenced
and I have not been fired from my work;
I am allowed to visit my relatives in jail,
I’m allowed to visit some of their graves in some countries.
I have no problem.
I am not shocked that my friend
has grown a horn on his head.
I like his cleverness in hiding the obvious tail
under his clothes, I like his calm paws.
He might kill me, but I shall forgive him
for he is my friend;
he can hurt me every now and then.
I have no problem.
The smile of the TV anchor
does not make me ill any more
and I’ve got used to the Khaki stopping my colours
night and day.
That is why
I keep my identification papers on me, even at
the swimming pool.
I have no problem.
Yesterday, my dreams took the night train
and I did not know how to say goodbye to them.
I heard the train had crashed
in a barren valley
(only the driver survived).
I thanked God, and took it easy
for I have small nightmares
that I hope will develop into great dreams.
I have no problem.
I look at myself, from the day I was born till now.
In my despair I remember
that there is life after death;
there is life after death
and I have no problem.
But I ask:
Oh my God,
is there life before death?

Translated by Radwa Ashour
From Barghouti, Mourid. MIDNIGHT AND OTHER POEMS. Trans. Radwa Ashour. Todmorden, UK: Arc Publications, 2008.
About Mourid Barghouti

Israeli forces raided Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem early Monday and threatened locals, witnesses said. Every Day Life in Palestine.

Israeli forces raided Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem early Monday and threatened locals, witnesses said. Every Day Life in Palestine.

“. . .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

“. . . I could be a man who cares about cars. . . ” (Aaron Smith)

The first time I ever drove a car, I was in my dad’s fire-engine-red 1957 Chevrolet Impala. Pretty spiffy transport for a 15 and a half year old novice. Dad and I had gone over the river from Scottsbluff to Gering to the county court house to get my learner’s permit, and when I emerged a legal but totally inexperienced driver, he handed me the keys and said, “Well, do it.” Or some such no-nonsense direction in his style.

With no driver’s ed or instruction from him–we had gone to a parking lot a few times so I could drive around and get used to the feel of it–I drove home. I think back on that and can scarcely believe it. So unlike my dad. Nothing ever left to chance or done without proper preparation. But with his careful guidance, I drove home. No problem until I got to our street, Dineen Avenue, driving west on one of the major streets in town, 27th Street.

I began turning and Dad said, calmly but firmly, “Turn faster.”

I took him to mean “go faster,” so I accelerated. What he meant was, “turn the steering wheel faster.” Up I drove, over the far curb and into the stop sign for traffic coming onto 27th Street from Dineen Avenue. I plowed it over.

I have no idea how much all of that cost–the car was only slightly damaged, and this was back in the day when it was not necessary to replace an entire plastic bumper, but dents in real steel bumpers could be easily mended. I do know that stop sign lay in the weeds for much longer than I wanted it to in my embarrassment every time I passed by the corner–whether I was driving, riding, or walking.

Dad ordered me to get back in the driver’s seat after the policeman left–he had also insisted I walk the two blocks home to call the police in these days when only Dick Tracy had a cell phone–and drive the rest of the way home.

I won’t say it’s because of that first slightly disastrous experience, but my driving needs to be investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (is there still such an entity?). That is to say, my attitude toward driving is un-American. I hate it. Always have, always will.

A few months ago, November 14, 2014, I wrote here about my desire to get an apartment in downtown Dallas and get rid of my car. I don’t need to rehash what I said then, but I need to say that I was not strong enough in my explanation why I want to do that.

It’s only peripherally because of the expense, or my age, or any of those things. I do resent the amount we pay for “insurance” (that insures nothing–why do we use that word? it assumes disaster, it does not “ensure” anything–from which the word was bastardized). I resent the mental, physical, and financial energy it takes to care for a car.

And the loss of personal freedom! Under what other circumstance would anyone I know willingly strap themselves onto a seat in restraints fit for the kinkiest sexual encounter? Under what other circumstances would anyone I know willingly put themselves in the position of being totally at the mercy of people in a line–each of whom is in charge of a ton of moving steel and plastic with the potential of killing or maiming anyone in its path?

No thanks.

The boy who drove the car.

The boy who drove the car.

Then there is this matter of climate change. Except in Florida where it apparently is not happening, we are all suffering from the results of each of us spewing into the air tons and tons and tons of chemicals over our driving lifetimes, chemicals that are killing the planet and life as we know it.

Please do not tell me you are concerned about the environment if you own a car.

I have my own very personal reasons for not wanting to drive. The tendency toward spaciness caused by my seizure-prone brain (my neurologist wishes I would not drive at all–that ought to be enough reason in itself). My sporadic lack of emotional equilibrium caused by other irregularities of brain function [sic]. You probably don’t want to be around if I miss a turn and can’t immediately figure out how to get back on track. For me, nothing about an error like that is ever amusing, silly, or inconsequential.

And don’t tell me to use the GPS on my phone. If I could figure that out. . .

I was not intended by my maker to drive. It’s as simple as that. I don’t like it, I am frustrated by it, I don’t want to do it, I resent living in a society where such an unnatural, dangerous, and self-serving activity is not only the “norm,” but perceived to be “necessary.”

This is not septuagenarian thinking. I’ve had this opinion of driving for decades. It is, however, a septuagenarian way of talking/writing. I’ve finally arrived at the place where I don’t care what anyone thinks of my thinking.

Stay tuned for more idiosyncrasies to be revealed.

This poem by Aaron Smith reflects his gay-boy relationship with his father. My relationship with my father was not like his, but there is similarity to the way I felt about nearly everyone else as a kid (and in some unshakable ways still do).

“LIKE HIM,” BY AARON SMITH

I’m almost forty and just understanding my father
doesn’t like me. At thirteen I quit basketball, the next year
refused to hunt, I knew he was disappointed, but never

thought he didn’t have to like me
to love me. No girls. Never learned
to drive a stick. Chose the kitchen and mom

while he went to the woods with friends who had sons
like he wanted. He tried fishing—a rod and reel
under the tree one Christmas. Years I tried
talking deeper, acting tougher
when we were together. Last summer
I went with him to buy a tractor.
In case he needs help, Mom said. He didn’t look at me
as he and the sales guy tied the wheels to the trailer,
perfect
boy-scout knots. Why do I sometimes wish I could be a
man
who cares about cars and football, who carries a
pocketknife
and needs it? It was January when he screamed: I’m not

a student, don’t talk down to me! I yelled: You’re not
smart enough
to be one! I learned to fight like his father, like him, like
men:
the meanest guy wins, don’t ever apologize.

The city of the cars, 1963.

The city of the cars, 1963.

“. . . the land comes near me in my dream. . .” (Rashid Hussein)

The Desert of the West Bank, near Jericho, in Palestine; photo by Harold Knight, Summer, 2008.

The Desert of the West Bank, near Jericho, in Palestine; photo by Harold Knight, Summer, 2008.

I have chosen the poem by the Palestinian Poet Rashid Hussein (1936-1977) to introduce my new blog that is about the land of Palestine and the people who live inextricably in relationship with the land. The blog:
photo(1)-002Palestine InSight (we have Palestine in sight, and we hope to gain insight about Palestine) is at
https://palestineinsight.wordpress.com/

Besides posting (mostly) news and opinions from well-established websites, I include poems by Palestinian poets and poets of Palestinian heritage. I have been collecting this poetry for about a year, and I think this is a perfect way to share the works with others.

I am also collecting an ever-expanding bibliography of websites of organizations both secular and religious, news sites, opinion sites, and blogs to make finding resources for Palestinian study unproblematic.

I hope you will follow Palestine InSight and, if you know sources or articles I should include, let me know.

“With the Land,” by Rashid Hussein

The land comes near me
drinks from me
leaves its orchards with me
to become a beautiful weapon
defending me

Even when I sleep
the land comes near me
in my dream.
I smuggle its wild thyme
between exiles
I sing its stones
I will even sweat blood
from my veins
to drink its news
so the land comes near me
leaves a stone of love with me
to defend it
and defend me

When I repay it
I will embrace it a thousand times
I will worship it a thousand times
I will celebrate its wedding on my forehead
on the rubble of exiles
and the ruins of prisons

I will drink from it
It will drink from me
So that the Galilee would remain
beauty, struggle, and love
defending it
defending me

I see the land;
a morning that will come
and the land will come near me

Rashid Hussein (1936-1977) was born in Musmus, Palestine. He published his first collection in 1957 and established himself as a major Palestinian poet and orator. He participated in founding the Land Movement in 1959. He left in 1966 and lived in Syria and Lebanon and later in New York City where he died in February, 1977. He was buried a week later in Musmus. His funeral was attended by thousands of Palestinians.
Rashid Hussein

“I cannot be trusted to tell them how I am. . .” (Jason Shinder)

A moment of reality or an Old Queen's bling?

A moment of reality or an Old Queen’s bling?

On the last day of the last classes for the course work leading to my PhD (1978), I drove from Iowa City to Cedar Springs and purchased a ring. It cost far more than I should have spent on anything at that juncture—as a poverty stricken graduate student. On the internet rings that look similar to mine run from $300 to $1750.

If mine is worth $1750, I ought to sell it today. I never wear it because the last time I did, a couple of friends made fairly unkind comments about it. The ring looks like either a gangster’s pinky ring or an old queen’s bling. Ostentatious. It’s a large garnet set in high-quality gold. Garnet is my birthstone.

A couple of days ago I found the ring in a box with some other small valuables while sorting through a pile of stuff in the process of cleaning out the detritus of my life (I’m one step and a few dollars away from hiring a “professional home organizer” who specializes in helping old folks downsize.)

Yesterday I changed my Facebook picture (yes, I participate in “social media”). The new picture was taken when I was a senior in college (1966), in the surplice and cassock the choir and organists wore for chapel services at the university. I found it, too, in a pile of stuff I’m sorting. The picture immediately garnered many “likes” and a few comments.

Earlier in the day yesterday, driving home from the fitness center (“Nearer my God to thee,” anyone?) I listened to NPR’s “TED Radio Hour.” It was about “success.” I heard two segments of the program, the last was Guy Raz’s interview with Alain De Botton. His most memorable one-liner was, “We have made in the United States a meritocratic society where success is deserved, but failure is also deserved.”

Before talking to De Botton, Raz interviewed Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” and played clips of his TED talk about success. Yes, I’m a Mike Rowe fan. I’ve said it many times: I’m easily entertained. He’s certainly one of the sexiest men on TV—and I’ve also worked in a place like those where he’s hung out with workers in dirty jobs. I worked at Kaiser Steel in Fontana, CA, for two years, not in a dirty job, but in one of the least healthy environments possible—I can’t imagine what it took to make that huge area ecologically safe when the plant closed. Disposing of the slag heap alone must have been a herculean job.

Talking about some of the people he’s worked with over the last 8 years, Mike Rowe said, “You don’t follow your passion, you

One of the sexiest men on TV

One of the sexiest men on TV

always bring it with you.” He was referring to a PhD former psychologist who was working cleaning out septic tanks, who said he tired of listening to other people’s crap.

“You don’t follow your passion, you always bring it with you.”

Lately I’ve been thinking a great deal about what my passion is.

I write every day. That’s not really a passion, however; it’s a compulsion. Is there a difference? I can (but I don’t let myself) go days on end without playing the organ. When I think about that, I am mystified. I’ve done that all my life (since 1954). I have a pipe organ in my living room. The largest pile of “stuff” I need help sorting is organ music. That 1966 picture of myself is important not least for the professional “costume” I’m wearing.

That TED Radio Hour fascinated me because I do not consider myself to be a “successful” person. I have never written a book (scholarly or otherwise, fiction or non-fiction). I have never played a commercially-recorded organ concert. I’m retired on about $2100 per month. I don’t have a husband. I suppose the list of “I don’t” or “I haven’t” is infinite.

The fact is, I have no “passion” in the terms I think Mike Rowe meant.

I’d love to be a world-famous scholar or fiction writer or concert musician. I really would. I think any one of those would be a kick-ass accomplishment. But I obviously don’t need any of those things, or I’d either have it, or I would have spent my life and my energy trying to get it.

My passion is really quite simple.

I have to insert a disclaimer here. Many years ago I knew a flute player named Kristen Webb. She played a recital at my church in Salem, MA. When we were taking a break from rehearsal, we were chatting about performance, and I mentioned that an organist friend/mentor, Professor Sam Walter of Rutgers University had recently died. I said Sam told me that in performance one enters an “altered state of reality.”

Kristen immediately expanded on that thought, saying that when she performed, she had something of an “out-of-body” experience.

The only moments of performance when I’ve ever been aware of an “altered state of reality” was when I knew I was having a seizure and performed nonetheless. A fairly frequent occurrence until then—Sam died in 1987, and I had begun treatment for seizures only about three years before that.

My passion is really quite simple, and some might think it trivial or even silly.

I want for one moment—longer if possible, but one moment would satisfy me, I think—to know, to be absolutely certain that I understand or feel or experience—I don’t know what the verb should be—without a scintilla of doubt or dissociation or despair the essence (the reality?) of my own existence.

How do a ring, and old photograph, a remembered conversation, a radio program from yesterday pile up to make my reality? Or do they—

Sounds like arrested development, doesn’t it? Teenage angst.

Or the fervent hope and desire of every person 70 years old. And for some of us beginning when we were seven.

“How I Am,” by Jason Shinder (1955–2008)
When I talk to my friends I pretend I am standing on the wings

of a flying plane. I cannot be trusted to tell them how I am.
Or if I am falling to earth weighing less

than a dozen roses. Sometimes I dream they have broken up

with their lovers and are carrying food to my house.
When I open the mailbox I hear their voices

like the long upward-winding curve of a train whistle

passing through the tall grasses and ferns
after the train has passed. I never get ahead of their shadows.

I embrace them in front of moving cars. I keep them away

from my miseries because to say I am miserable is to say I am like them.

Jason Shinder was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1955. He was the founder and director of the YMCA National Writer’s Voice, as well as the director of Sundance Institute’s Writing Program. He taught in the graduate writing programs at Bennington College and the New School University. His awards and fellowships include serving as Poet Laureate of Provincetown, MA, and a 2007 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He divided his time between Provincetown and New York City. Shinder died in April 2008.

One moment of reality

One moment of reality

“. . . When that which drew from out the boundless deep . . .” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

Sunrise at Port Orford, July 15, 2011

Sunrise at Port Orford, July 15, 2011

My first lessons in literature came from playing the card game, “Authors” as a child. I grew up knowing the names Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Mark Twain, and more.

In about 7th grade I decided to read something by each of them. Little Women, Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island—wonderful! But some of them I could not wade through. I didn’t understand anything by Sir Walter Scott. His language was, simply put, incomprehensible.

Harp of the North! that mouldering long hast hung
On the witch-elm that shades Saint Fillan’s spring
And down the fitful breeze thy numbers flung,
Till envious ivy did around thee cling,
Muffling with verdant ringlet every string,—
O Minstrel Harp, still must thine accents sleep?
(The Lady of the Lake.)

Show me a 7th-grader who can understand that, and I’ll show you one weird little boy. Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, on the other hand, seemed like a Saturday-morning Roy Rogers movie at the Bluff Theater.

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them . . .

When I was in 10th grade, I made a great literary discovery.

I had my first permanent paying church organist gig at Trinity Baptist Church in South Omaha. They didn’t use the American Baptist hymnal I was used to, but one of lesser quality, according to my dad and the organist at the First Baptist Church whom I was able, out of my organ-playing income, to pay for lessons (for which I am most grateful). The Service Hymnal, 1960—here on my shelf, embossed “Trinity Baptist Church, South Omaha, Nebraska.”

At number 468 I discovered one of the poems from “Authors” — “Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). The music is by Sir Joseph Barnby (1838-1896), the through-composed rather than strophic tune composed specifically for this poem—words and music a marriage made in Victorian heaven.

I tried to get Trinity’s Pastor Weigel to schedule it for singing in the Sunday service, but he said since it didn’t mention God, the Holy Spirit, or Jesus, it was not appropriate. I tried to argue that the “Pilot” in the last stanza means Jesus to no avail.

“Crossing the bar” is one of the few poems I memorized as a kid that remains even partly in my memory. Others include such gems as, “I think that I shall never see/ a poem lovely as a tree.” We were not into Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams in Western Nebraska. I remember the Tennyson poem because I was mesmerized by that tune. My taste in both poetry and music has (perhaps) matured over the years.

Yesterday I was looking through pics on an external hard drive. Ocean scenes from Port Orford, Oregon, my favorite hideaway. I’ve written about Port Orford more than once and posted pics of the place here (in my previous post, for example).

Going through the hard drive led me to look up some of that writing about Port Orford. I recognize a subtle but unmistakable change in my thinking since 2011 when I took the photos.

I must have 100 shots of sunsets and sunrises taken from the beaches at Port Orford. I remember taking the pictures because I was fascinated by differences in the appearance of the morning sky and of the evening sky. A couple of years before that in 2009 I wrote a piece about being on those same beaches.

[I] felt the hardened molecules under my feet and the molecules of and suspended in water. And out to the horizon, shrouded in fog. I knew the same molecules were pulsating together to make the waves, and the waves were conjoined with every other undulation of H2O, Ca, Mg, Na on the earth in one unbroken moving, life-filled, mass that seemed to my mind to be an enormity, but is in reality a speck in the eye of the universe. All one, including . . . my own body, and my mind somehow made up of the elemental universe undulating as far as I could see. And I was the focal point of the entire experience and at the same time unconditionally insignificant standing as an elemental part of the reality of the one water covering the face of the deep. . . I weep . . . for the joy I knew then and in the sorrow to know that one day I will simply be a part of the reality—not with a consciousness to love it and be sustained by it, but part only of the elemental structure.

A tad overblown, but in that writing six years ago, I found it necessary to nod in the direction of a belief that “God” or some other creative force was in charge of all of this. I was willing—no, anxious—to allow for the “hope to see my Pilot face to face” when I cross the bar (“a long ridge of sand . . . at the mouth of a river . . . an obstruction to navigation”).

Wonder wher the guy is--the only other person on the beach--who took my pic?

Wonder where the guy is–the only other person on the beach–who took my pic?

The subtle but unmistakable change in my thinking since 2011 is that I no longer need to comfort myself thinking I will see the Pilot face to face when I cross the bar (I love the metaphor of death as “crossing” –and I don’t mean it as the nonsensical popular “transitioning”).

I am agnostic about whether or not my life will continue in some form after I die. I think not, most days. But I’m beginning to understand it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because, perhaps—and I don’t want to sound like a preacher or a guru or other sort of spiritual (or any other kind of) authority, sheesh!—figuring out in the few years I have left how to live simply as “a part of the reality” (to quote myself) is enough.

That’s all I’ve ever wanted.

“Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

The musical setting by Joseph Barnby.

Sunset, July 12, 2011. Paradise Point, Oregon.

Sunset, July 12, 2011. Paradise Point, Oregon.

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“No one else is around to drink with you from the watery fog. . .” (Edward Hirsch)

"Now you’re walking down to the shore. . ."

“Now you’re walking down to the shore. . .”

These days there’s a lot of prattle by the talking heads on TV from FOX to MSNBC about President Obama’s “legacy.” Usually the topic is what the President is doing to shape (or reshape or create or change or . . .) his legacy.

The other day Diane Rehm’s guest on her NPR interview show was the British actor David Thomson. I didn’t hear the entire program, but I heard a few moments of his speaking to the idea that all of us are to a certain extent acting—acting out the role in which we want others to see us.

Don’t jump to conclusions. He was not saying we’re all phonies. Far from it. His point was that we all decide (maybe several times in our lives) how we want the world to see us—what our role is in the drama of our lives. I think that’s a powerful idea.

I’ve been thinking lately about that concept. My legacy. That, of course, is a luxury. For anyone who is simply and constantly trying to keep warm or figure where the next meal is coming from, a legacy is the last thing they have to worry about. And that’s—what?—90% of the world’s population. That I have the time, the awareness that anyone might think of me when I am gone—the luxury of knowing who the “leader” of my nation is—places me in the tiniest minority of the people now living or who have ever lived.

I heard only a few minutes of David Thomson’s discussion with Diane Rehm, and I have not read his book. I can hardly claim to understand his ideas. No matter. My legacy. My acting. My acting as if.

We’re all “method actors,” I’d say. We feel the feelings, we immerse ourselves in our experience, in our real and perceived worlds, and then “act” accordingly. Somewhere along the line my experience, both real and perceived, took me down several conflicting paths. I suppose that’s universally true. I don’t need to rehearse mine—it’s pretty much in evidence throughout this blog.

Yesterday I saw my new talk-therapist for the second time, and I began revealing as best I could why I was there. First, I was having a minor version of what I have heard described as a “panic attack.” It’s just the way I live—and my guess is everyone else does, too. I didn’t want to be there. I suddenly was aware of my heart (I don’t know if it was racing or pounding or what—I was simply aware of it). I could not sit still. I seldom can except when I’m at my computer keyboard or working a Sudoku puzzle. I was acutely aware that I did not want to be there.

". . .but the sea and the sky were also yours. . ."

“. . .but the sea and the sky were also yours. . .”

So we talked. I talked a little about me. He talked a lot about anxiety. My skin crawled and I had to rub my head, and I wanted to scream. He sat calmly in his chair wearing his tie with his handsome gray beard immaculately trimmed and prattling on, and I slumped in the easy chair in my t-shirt with my hair and beard that have not been groomed for two weeks. At one point he was talking about the experience of the victims of the Holocaust (he’s not Jewish—his father was a famous Methodist theologian) and the numbers tattooed on their arms, “Not like the impressive ones you have.” I wore a long-sleeved shirt the first time we talked, so he hadn’t seen them before. At one point I saw the skinny young intern—did I say skinny?—(my therapist teaches at UTSouthwestern Medical School—I see six doctors there, lucky me) staring at my tattoos, and I knew they were both curious about them. Why does a retired church musician/college professor have all those tattoos? I think—although I may be projecting or hoping—that was the unasked question of the hour.

So then he asked me something—I forget what—that the answer was logically to tell him about tutoring college athletes. Specifically about the one last semester that I bonded with in a way the NCAA says we’re not supposed to, but which—I am pretty sure (because he told me so)—has helped keep him in school in the midst of a situation I would not have been able to handle when I was 19 years old. And then the one this week who told me the story of his (for me, literally, unbelievable) growing up, and his violent high school years, and his landing in college with almost no preparation and no skill for staying there. And the words of the director of the program as I left at the end of the day were, “Have you gotten through to another one of the boys?”

So President Obama and I are worried about our legacies. I wonder what the most important thing is that he’s ever done. Bet it has nothing to do with being President. I’ll bet it has to do with his making a connection somewhere sometime with someone—someONE—who could barely connect with anyone. And it makes the fact that he has not written the great American novel or been a concert organist or published books and books of poetry or any of those other things he MIGHT have done pretty much irrelevant.

And in those days in 2031 when he’s 70 and looking back on his life and alone—of course, he’ll never be alone, but he’ll be lonely—it’s that minute when some kid who’s had a rough, even violent, life said to him, “But I’m going to do this,” and admitted he could use his help along the way, that will make him weep in a way no actor on stage has ever done.

“What the Last Evening Will Be Like,” by Edward Hirsch (b. 1950)
You’re sitting at a small bay window
in an empty café by the sea.
It’s nightfall, and the owner is locking up,
though you’re still hunched over the radiator,
which is slowly losing warmth.

Now you’re walking down to the shore
to watch the last blues fading on the waves.
You’ve lived in small houses, tight spaces—
the walls around you kept closing in—
but the sea and the sky were also yours.

No one else is around to drink with you
from the watery fog, shadowy depths.
You’re alone with the whirling cosmos.
Goodbye, love, far away, in a warm place.
Night is endless here, silence infinite.

(About Edward Hirsch.)

"No one else is around to drink with you from the watery fog, shadowy depths."

“No one else is around to drink with you
from the watery fog, shadowy depths.”

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“. . . more life and more adventure for the brave. . .” (Godfrey Fox Bradby)

Gibbons  and hymnal gibbons

Gibbons and hymnal Gibbons

I’m a coward.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. But then, most people who know me well are cowards, too. The people I hang with are pretty run-of-the-mill, don’t bother me I’m busy making a living kinds of folks.

If I had even a modicum of courage, I would be living in Bethlehem or Freetown or Mosul or Lake Providence. I’d at least be volunteering at the North Texas Food Bank or The Stewpot.

My default earworm is a tune by Orlando Gibbons (1583 –1625) published in 1623, his “Song 1.” It’s the tune for a strange hymn in the Episcopal Hymnal 1940 (number 470, I will remember ‘til I die).

The hymn is strange because it begins with a heretical statement,

Where is death’s sting? We were not born to die,
Nor only for the life beyond the grave.

It’s heretical because, even though people think Christians believe we will die and then immediately go to heaven or hell, and that’s the purpose of life, true Christian theology is that when we die, we’re good and dead! St. Paul says we will be raised “incorruptible” when the trumpet sounds, but until then we’ll be dead. No Rapture there!

The statement, “We were not born to die,” is heretical.

I don’t care one way or the other what anyone believes about death. I think the orthodox Christian theology is correct—at least that we’ll be dead when we die—and I expect in 14.07 years (by the Social Security actuarial table) to be dead.

As earworms go, mine is pretty strange. I’ll bet no one reading this can sing it. No one who didn’t grow up Episcopalian between 1940 and 1982 has ever heard it . Not more than 5% of those folks can sing it.

I learned the tune when I was a junior in college, 1966. Dr. Spelman, Director of the School of Music, gave me his copy of the complete works of Orlando Gibbons from the Tudor Church Music collection. He bought it when he was a student in Paris in 1931. In 1966 I thought it was a venerable antique. He gave it to me because the University Choir, for which I was one of the organists, was singing the little Gibbons anthem, “O Lord Increase My Faith.”

The book was (and is) one of my prized possessions, a hefty tome. In order to show me it was not simply a historical relic, Dr. Spelman showed me “Song 1” from the volume was used in The Hymnal 1940, which the University Choir used. It immediately became my favorite hymn tune.

When I was pursuing my MA in composition four years later, my first extended work was a brass quintet, and the second movement is essentially a chorale prelude on “Song 1.”

The hymn may have been omitted from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 as much because it is confusing as because it is heretical. After beginning with the statement that we were not born to die, it closes with the stanza,

Fullness of life, in body, mind, and soul:
“Who saves his life shall lose it,” thou hast said.
A great adventure with a glorious goal;
Nothing that lives in thee is ever dead:
Brave living here: and then, beyond the grave,
More life and more adventure for the brave.
“Beyond the grave, more life?”
Nothing that lives in God is ever dead?

Wait! We are—according to the most orthodox Christian theology—dead until the trumpet shall sound and we shall be raised. Now, lest anyone think I worry about the fine points of Christian theology, I must get back to my original topic. Bravery. Or was it earworms?

Brave living here: and then, beyond the grave,
More life and more adventure for the brave.

So, according to Bradby, if you want life and adventure beyond the grave, you must live bravely here. Sounds vaguely like something a “Jihadist” suicide bomber would say, no?

It probably means Bradby would say I’m not going to heaven because I don’t live bravely here.

My favorite autograph

My favorite autograph

I’ve thought a lot about that for 50 years. Because of my earworm. Really. I’ll bet five days out of seven I hum at least the first three or four bars of the tune, and I have to consciously substitute some other earworm to take its place. That often turns out to be not much better, the hymntune “Salzburg,” with the original words, Alle Menschen müssen sterben (“all people must die”).

I’m a big baby. Scared of everything. Scared I’m going to hurt my hip again, so I walk with a cane (actually, about every 10th step does hurt, so that may not count). I never do anything dangerous. Never have done.

And, for the most part, my friends haven’t either. I have one friend who climbed some mountain in Tibet, but that’s not danger, that’s foolhardiness. I know a guy who races stock cars. Again, foolhardiness.

I am acquainted with a woman who travels all over the world saving girls from sexual slavery. She’s brave. A close friend has been in an Israeli prison for helping to feed kids in Palestinian refugee camps (Gaza and Lebanon). She’s the bravest person I know.

I saw on the PBS Newshour a couple of nights ago the attorney Nancy Hollander, whom I have met several times, who is representing Mohamedou Ould Slahi whose book about his imprisonment at Guantanamo has just been released. Nancy is brave. So is Mohamedou.

I hope it’s evident where I’m going with this. I don’t have much use for people who climb mountains or worry about heaven or hell—whether or not there are such things and/or whether or not they’re going there.

Bravery, in my book is doing something FOR someone else—probably someone you don’t even know—that might (probably will) make other people hate you and probably harm you.

Where is death’s sting? We were not born to die,
Nor only for the life beyond the grave.
All that is beautiful in earth and sky,
All skills, all knowledge, all the powers we have,
Are of thy giving; and in them we see
no dust and ashes, but a part of thee.

Laughter is thine, the laughter free from scorn,
And thine the smile upon a cheerful face:
Thine, too, the tears, when love for love must mourn,
And death brings silence for a little space.
Thou gavest, and thou dost not take away:
The parting is but here, and for a day.

Fullness of life, in body, mind, and soul:
“Who saves his life shall lose it,” thou hast said.
A great adventure with a glorious goal;
Nothing that lives in thee is ever dead:
Brave living here: and then, beyond the grave,
More life and more adventure for the brave.

I’m pretty much chicken-shit.
photoApropos of almost nothing. This photograph was in the Gibbons volume when I opened it. Three of the players in as production of the Wakefield Cycle of Mystery Plays, the play for the Feast of the Ascension, produced my my choir at Grace Church Episcopal in Salem, MA, 1983. Jesus (not pictured) was played by a Cabot (yess one of THE Cabots), and God sat on the high altar throughout the drama. Some people didn’t like that she sat on the high altar. Some people didn’t like that she was African-American. Hardly anyone complained that God was she.

“. . . Through a lyric slipknot of joy . . .” (Yusef Komunyakaa)

Without thinking about it.

Without thinking about it.

Most of the time when I write—here or elsewhere as anyone who has read any of my stuff can readily see—my idea is only sketchily formed when I begin, and it may not be any more complete when I finish. I often follow the directive, “We write to know what we think.”

It’s unusual for me actually to be thinking about an idea long before I write it. I organize my thoughts as I go along. However, I have an essay (or a blog post or something) brewing in my mind that I don’t know how to finish. My mind was jogged into thinking about it during the every-semester tutor-training session at the Academic Development for Student Athletes Center at Southern Methodist University, where I tutor student athletes. My essay might begin something like this.

Listeners, if they happen to be where they can watch me playing the organ, often ask me (and I’m sure every organist gets the question), “How do you do that with your feet?” My answer is usually a flip, “I don’t know because if I think about it, I can’t do it.” What I thought about for the first time in that training session was the other necessary step in that answer, “But if I think about anything else, I can’t do it.”

If I think about my grocery list while I am playing the Bach E minor Prelude and Fugue, my playing will be either mechanical or full of errors, or both. On the other hand, if my imagination is not running wild when I am reading The Goldfinch, I may as well stop reading. I will not only miss the imaginary world Donna Tartt has outlined for me, but I will also, at the very basic level, not be able to connect the visual stimulus of the squiggles on the page (or the Nook screen) to words that have definite sounds that carry socially-constructed discreet meanings.

I don’t know how to research topics related to how we learn, how we train our different kinds of intelligence, what makes us good at some things and not at others. I have found one that has succeeded in confusing me—which means it is probably exactly the article I need to begin with.

Stevens-Smith, Debbie, and Deborah Cadorette. “Coaches, Athletes, and Dominance Profiles in Sport: Addressing the Learning Styles of Athletes to Improve Performance.” Physical Educator 69.4 (2012): 360-374.

Here’s the question I’d try to answer if I were half my age and looking for a career:

Is it possible that student athletes are trained to use their brains with so much focus that they learn not to multi-task mentally? Or that only students who are able to learn in that way become great athletes?

I was watching an SMU basketball game on TV last night (I would not have enough interest to watch any other). At one point the members of the SMU team passed the ball enough times preparing to make a basket that every player on the team had possession of the ball at least once—a couple of them three or four times. All of this passing was going on seemingly miraculously right through the arms of the opposing team. Finally one of the players wove himself between two of the opposing team, jumped up to the basket and dunked the ball.

An absurd focus

An absurd focus

That’s the way good teams play, of course. Nothing special about that. But I was thinking about focus. Obviously those guys have a kind of focus on what they and four other men are doing to tune out everything, from the noise of the cheerleaders chanting, “Defense! Defense! Defense!” to the chatter of the other team, to the lights, to their teammates sitting on the bench, to the other team trying desperately to hit the ball as they pass it around.

Focus! What kind of training does that take? If they think about it, they cannot do it. If they think about anything else, they cannot do it.

Because I’m so un-athletic and have turned into a fat old man with a “bad hip” and a “bad shoulder,” I really don’t like sports (never did, truth be told). But I think I’m hooked—not on the game, but on what basketball players do.

I’m mystified, bewildered, dumbfounded by the focus of those guys. How does one concentrate that way? Concentration that borders on the miraculous, on the improbable, the absurd. What percentage of the population can do what those guys do? It seems statistically impossible.

It is a kind of intelligence that I can only imagine—no, let’s be honest, I can’t imagine it.

Of all the organists I have ever known (and it’s a passel of them, let me be clear), those few who have had the ability to focus most completely have given up much in their determination to “do that without thinking” and to “think about nothing else” when they are performing. Social skills and wide knowledge of the world around them have in some instances passed them by.

Or perhaps they belong to a special group of people who are “wired differently” than the rest of us and are somehow naturally able to memorize a Widor Organ Symphony in a week (yes, I know an organist who did that—and a conservatory pianist who memorized and performed with orchestra the Rachmaninoff “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” in less than a month).

How are those few organists (and other “world-class” classical music performers) like the 450 men playing in the National Basketball Association this year? Something about all of them is different from all the rest of us.

I am not one of them (Duh!). I have no clue how it feels to have that kind of focus. And I have about a dozen ideas for writing on the subject—most of which I will not finish in the 14.07 years the Social Security Actuarial Table predicts I have left to write. Focus!

Slam, Dunk, & Hook, by Yusef Komunyaka
Fast breaks. Lay ups. With Mercury’s
Insignia on our sneakers,
We outmaneuvered to footwork
Of bad angels. Nothing but a hot
Swish of strings like silk
Ten feet out. In the roundhouse
Labyrinth our bodies
Created, we could almost
Last forever, poised in midair
Like storybook sea monsters.
A high note hung there
A long second. Off
The rim. We’d corkscrew
Up & dunk balls that exploded
The skullcap of hope & good
Intention. Lanky, all hands
& feet…sprung rhythm.
We were metaphysical when girls
Cheered on the sidelines.
Tangled up in a falling,
Muscles were a bright motor
Double-flashing to the metal hoop
Nailed to our oak.
When Sonny Boy’s mama died
He played nonstop all day, so hard
Our backboard splintered.
Glistening with sweat,
We rolled the ball off
Our fingertips. Trouble
Was there slapping a blackjack
Against an open palm.
Dribble, drive to the inside,
& glide like a sparrow hawk.
Lay ups. Fast breaks.
We had moves we didn’t know
We had. Our bodies spun
On swivels of bone & faith,
Through a lyric slipknot
Of joy, & we knew we were
Beautiful & dangerous.

Use that uncanny focus.

The most focused performer I ever met.

The most focused performer I ever met.