“This is a light-hearted look at my experience of getting old . . .”

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Parkland, the new reigning architectural monarch of our neighborhood. (Photo: Harold Knight, Jan. 7, 2016)

. . . or that’s what the “about” tab above says.

Recently a friend of mine heard gunshots close to his home in San Bernardino, CA. His home of over 40 years is a long way from the scene of the terrorist attack, but hearing gunfire is hearing gunfire. He went outside just in time to see the police arrive and surround a young man who had been shot in the leg lying in his neighbor’s driveway.

Last year my friend was the victim of crime when a man who had been shot in a fight on the street behind his house broke into his house (he was not at home, fortunately) and used the bathroom to try to stop his bleeding. It took my friend days to clean up the blood splattered about his house.

My friend’s home is in what used to be a quiet but not upscale suburban neighborhood which has been annexed by the city of San Bernardino.

He no longer feels safe there. Obviously with some reason.

My apartment is not upscale. The building is the dowager queen of the neighborhood. Built in the ‘50s. Solid concrete, six floors. Somewhat decrepit. In a neighborhood that is coming back after many years of decline with the completion of the new Parkland Hospital, the construction of new apartment complexes, and an upgrade in the businesses coming into the mixed-use zone neighborhood.

My possessions and décor are of a piece with the building. Aging graduate-student eclectic, the kind of stuff I’ve had all my life. Even if I were part of “the 1%,” I would probably live here with my stuff that has sentimental value. The two chairs in my living room, for example. Not comfortable. Not beautiful. But one was my father’s desk chair and the other was his grandfather’s desk chair. Old (and not particularly valuable) wooden chairs in the living room and a portrait of Lincoln on the wall? How not gay-friendly! Hardly seems like I’m gay at all.

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My 71st Birthday Cake. (Photo: Harold Knight, Jan. 5, 2016)

So you’d think all the problems facing aging gay men would pass me by.

Not so. A prevalent problem facing older gay men and women is beginning to stare me in the face: living alone without a support system close by enough to be able to help me instantaneously in a crisis. Although I have fallen with unpleasant results (hip surgery and walking with a cane for nearly two years), I have been very lucky never to have been in that “help me―I’ve fallen and can’t get up” situation. And I’ve never been criminally attacked in any way.

The most difficulty I have is my daily (hourly?) problem of not being able to find my glasses. Or my shoes. (My organ-playing shoes have been missing for a week.)

Or forgetting to pay the rent.

That’s not the sort of problem that concerns me.

For the most part I am healthy (blood pressure yesterday 135 over 80). I take meds strong enough to kill a horse for seizures and mood swings. I asked my doctor if there’s a study on the long-term effects of Carbatrol―does it ruin the liver or kill brain cells or. . . . His answer, “You’re it!”

Not 100% reassuring.

Since my hip surgery I’ve been in the care of a PT and a trainer who have helped me strengthen my hips and legs. I’ve learned important practices that should help me stay upright and safe. (Old Folks take note!) I ALWAYS hold the handrail on stairs no matter how silly I feel. I NEVER get out of my car on one foot―I swing around on the seat and put both feet on the ground before I stand up. I always change positions from sitting to standing and vice versa as if I’m wearing a tight skirt (no, not drag).

I’m beginning to know how to be an old man safely.

I have a plan for maintaining my independence. I hope in the near future to move to a high-rise downtown where I will have people living close by and a concierge to keep at least minimal track of me.

I have ideas for many of the eventualities I can plan for.

However . . . .

If someone breaks into my apartment to clean up the blood of his wounds from a gunfight―or for any other reason; or if I am ever the direct the victim of gun or any other kind of violence; or if I develop Alzheimer’s disease, as happened to my mother, or any other chronic debilitating condition; it is not at all clear what I would do―or more likely what would be done to/with/for me.

Everyone my age thinks about these eventualities.

As a society we are not very good at taking care of people who cannot care for themselves. But we older Americans who are alone are in a precarious situation.

Without family or a strong “secondary” support to advocate for us, to make decisions for us, to carry out our wishes, we are at the mercy of a system, and often of people, who do not have our best interests in mind.

The plight of LGBT persons who are alone is almost certain to be exacerbated.

The reality is that both personal and institutional homophobia is still the rule rather than the exception, especially in places where poorly educated workers predominate (aids in nursing homes, for example). To assume that the 2012 firing of one homophobic nurse at the Dallas VA hospital has made a significant inroad into the problem is quixotic.

I have written letters of inquiry about moving to several retirement communities in Dallas. In each letter I made it clear that I am an out gay man and have no intention of going back into the closet to avoid discrimination from care givers.

NOT ONE OF THOSE FACILITIES EVER ANSWERED MY INQUIRY.

Friends have asked me why I thought it necessary to say I am gay. That none of those facilities even answered my inquiry is the reason. They do not want gays. If they were places I wanted to live, THEY would have asked, “Why did you think it necessary to say you are gay?”

And the fact that my friends asked me the question is an indication that they do not understand the situation of elder LGBT persons.

Would my friends move into a facility where they would be treated with less dignity than others simply because of who they are unless they hid who they are?

I doubt it.

Please watch the trailer and then find a way to see all of the film
Gen Silent.

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30 years after graduate school still living in grad-school eclectic décor (Photo: Harold Knight, Jan. 7, 2016)

“. . . Becoming an imaginary Everyman . . .” (John Koethe)

A Studebaker with back-up camera?

A Studebaker with back-up camera?

Yesterday driving home I understood why I want to get rid of my car. That will necessitate moving to the Lone Star Gas Lofts on St. Paul Street between Wood and Jackson in downtown Dallas. Or some such place. Downtown is the operative word.

Getting rid of my car is top priority. I could do it today and survive, but it would be more complicated than I want it to be. I’m a four-acre parking lot away from the DART train station, but the bus service around here is arcane at best. Maple Avenue, Inwood Avenue, Cedar Springs—which buses go where, and when?

My desire to be rid of my car is simple. Yesterday when I pulled out of my parking space after tutoring, a little blue light came on under the speedometer. I had no idea what it meant, and thought perhaps I was in trouble. It went off shortly, and I decided it meant that 35 degrees was as unpleasant for the car as it was for me.

Cars—even my simple little not-quite-two-year-old Honda—are too complicated these days. What are these electronic gadgets? Like the back-up camera on the car a friend just leased. I know it’s painful to twist this old spine around and look out the rear window, but really. Sheesh! If you can’t do that, should you be driving?

I can’t figure out how to get my “smart TV” hooked up to my Wi-Fi, and it’s stationary. How can I possibly cope with electronic gizmos attached to a 2597-pound body-in-motion?

Home, Sweet Home, in downtown Dallas

Home, Sweet Home, in downtown Dallas

Don’t give me the Newspeak Party Line. I know these things make life easier. If my car had a back-up camera, it would also have a “blind-spot” detector, and would stop on a dime if it sensed a bumbling pedestrian stepping out in front of it. I know these things are doubleplusgood, and that I’m engaging in oldthink verging on crimethink, but I can’t cope.

Really. If you can’t drive the car, what are you doing driving a car?

Over 50% of the cars on Dallas streets are SUVs of some variety—or even larger—and it is not safe, even with danger sensors, to drive a real car on Dallas streets.

So you youngsters go right ahead driving your electronic toys, but count me out. The sooner I figure out how to live without a car, the better. And, by the way, I’d rather spend the insurance money on travel to Brazil than on a car. To say nothing of gasoline.

When we look at the image of our own future provided by the old we do not believe it; an absurd inner voice whispers that will never happen to us . . . When that happens, it will no longer be ourselves that it happens to. We must stop cheating. The whole of our life is in question in the future that is waiting for us. If we do not know what we are going to be, we cannot know what we are. Let us recognize ourselves in this old man or this old woman. It must be done if we are to take upon ourselves the entirety of our human state. (Simone de Beauvoir)

If we do not know what we are going to be, we cannot know who we are.

Try to explain that to a 20-year-old basketball star.

The fact is, I have tried. Just yesterday. And he understood. He understood better than most people ten years younger than I am understand. Many of them are pretending to be his age. Of course he has plenty of good examples of people who do understand. For one, his coach who is 74 years old.

I can hear it now, all of your protests that a person in his 70th year is not “old.” You are wrong. A person in his 70th year IS old.

The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Psalm 90:10, NRSV)

What’s wrong with admitting you’re “old?” I never knew my grandfather, Archie James Knight, when he wasn’t old. My dad was 30 and he was 60 when I was born (1945). Granddad was 92 and I was 32 when he died (1977). Longevity runs in our family (Dad lived to 97). But neither Granddad nor Dad ever pretended to be younger than they were. And I never saw either of them living in any way other than fully.

Age is not “only in your mind.” Age is in your body. When I was 30, I had a fairly good example of what I might be when I was 60 and what I might be if I reach 90. I remember my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary party when Granddad was 78 and Grandmother was 68. It was a celebration of longevity. Not a party for kids.

My grandfather drove a Studebaker pickup (he was a contractor, built and remodeled homes). It had no radio or turn signals or back-up camera. I don’t know what Granddad thought of cars with radios and turn signals. But I do know he had no problem being the patriarch of our family. He had no problem with acting his age. He had no problem caring for his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, without meddling in our lives. He had dignity and integrity. And wisdom and generosity.

My purpose in writing today was not to praise my grandfather. It was simply to remind myself that I know what I am today partly because I have some sense of what I will be. And that includes the example of an old man who always knew who he was and didn’t need Comcast or Facebook or Blogspot or any other foolishness to explain it to him.

By the way, I don’t think John Koethe’s poem is sad or depressing. It simply says what is.

“Fear of the Future,” by John Koethe (b.1945)
In the end one simply withdraws
From others and time, one’s own time,
Becoming an imaginary Everyman
Inhabiting a few rooms, personifying
The urge to tend one’s garden,
A character of no strong attachments
Who made nothing happen, and to whom
Nothing ever actually happened—a fictitious
Man whose life was over from the start,
Like a diary or a daybook whose poems
And stories told the same story over
And over again, or no story. The pictures
And paintings hang crooked on the walls,
The limbs beneath the sheets are frail and cold
And morning is an exercise in memory
Of a long failure, and of the years
Mirrored in the face of the immaculate
Child who can’t believe he’s old.

back up
If you can’t drive, why are you driving?

“You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill. . . “ (Ogden Nash)

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

American poet John Brehm was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1956. I was in 5th grade in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, at that time. One of his poems includes the stanza,

The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: “Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.

American poet Ogden Nash was born in Rye, New York, in 1902. One of his poems includes the lines,

. . . about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn’t as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forget to pay a bill . . .

I wish they had never happened.

That is, my six sessions of therapy (before insurance had to treat mental illness the same as physical) with a psychiatrist whose practice was exclusively with substance abusers. About 1982. Beverly, MA. The meddling in my affairs by an Episcopal priest whose wife had been in recovery from alcoholism for ten years at that time.

They got me to see the good doctor under the pretense he would help me cope with a couple of nearly disastrous situations in my life over which I had no control. The real reason, obviously, was their desire to get me to quit drinking alcoholically. (Disclaimer: You may have read or heard about some of this before. Sorry, but the demons are not yet exorcised.)

The good doctor, seeing he was getting nowhere in helping me understand the possible problems my drinking (only about a quart of vodka every day—what’s the big deal?) was causing me, gave up, and in the last of the six sessions asked me if I had any other problems to talk about. I’ve written about this before—ad nauseam—but I launched into what he thought was a classic description of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. He had been a medical school (Harvard, of course) chum of Dr. Donald Schomer, by that time heir apparent to Dr. Norman Geschwind, pioneer of work on TLE. The good doctor set up an appointment for me with Dr. Schomer, and the rest, as they say, is diagnosis.

This round of unwritten letters.  . .

This round of unwritten letters. . .

I first read Ogden Nash’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man” in high school and was particularly drawn to the lines,

You didn’t slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let’s all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of things you haven’t done. . . .

Perhaps that appealed to me when I was 17 or 18 years old because I was already too familiar with the sins of omission.

The real question is whether or not TLEpilepsy has (had) anything to do with my inability to follow through on much of anything in my life. (Well, there is that PhD dissertation.) TLEpileptics have certain problems of memory and focus. I’ve read a lot about us.

For example: Theodore, William H., et al. “Serotonin 1A Receptors, Depression, And Memory in Temporal Lobe Epilepsy.” Epilepsia (Series 4) 53.1 (2012): 129-133.

But the condition is so amorphous I’m never even sure I have it—I can’t be positive even though Donald Schomer said so.

My symptoms are pretty regular. Auditory hallucination (b-flat 4 ringing in my ears and exploding into white noise) followed by extreme sense of dissociation, followed by exhaustion and depression. So how would anyone know?—I’m mostly depressed anyway.

And then there’s this round of unwritten letters that’s on me. And those unwritten poems.

Is it TLEpilepsy, bipolar II disorder, or common clinical depression that has given me my sense of unfilled purpose, my absolute understanding that

. . . the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.

My sins are most decidedly sins of omission. Nash is right. They are no fun.

Yesterday I had opportunity to talk with a couple of college football players about the commencement speech the late Steve Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005. Talk! What conversations we had. I said on Facebook they were introspective. That’s only the beginning. The athletes understood Jobs’s remarks.

. . . Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. . . . Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. . . [Quoting the last issue of The Whole Earth Catalog]:

“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

A good friend is in Paris for several weeks. He has invited me to come over there and sleep on the extra bed in the apartment he’s renting. It’ll be the only time I ever have a chance to go to Paris and not have to pay for a hotel room.

I told one of the guys about it yesterday and asked him if I should take a week off from my tutoring and go.

“Hell yes,” he said. “Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Don’t worry about us.”

Can it be that TLE has nothing to do with my unwritten poems?

A lack of hunger, perhaps.

(You’re lucky today, dear reader; you get two poems.)

To attend the Paris Opera

To attend the Paris Opera

“The poems I Have Not Written,” by John Brehm (b. 1955)
I’m so wildly unprolific, the poems
I have not written would reach
from here to the California coast
if you laid them end to end.

And if you stacked them up,
the poems I have not written
would sway like a silent
Tower of Babel, saying nothing

and everything in a thousand
different tongues. So moving, so
filled with and emptied of suffering,
so steeped in the music of a voice

speechless before the truth,
the poems I have not written
would break the hearts of every
woman who’s ever left me,

make them eye their husbands
with a sharp contempt and hate
themselves for turning their backs
on the very source of beauty.

The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: “Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.

please strike me dead at once,
destroy my works and cleanse
the earth of all my ghastly
imperfections.” Trees would

bow their heads before the poems
I have not written. “Take me,”
they would say, “and turn me
into your pages so that I

might live forever as the ground
from which your words arise.”
The wind itself, about which
I might have written so eloquently,

praising its slick and intersecting
rivers of air, its stately calms
and furious interrogations,
its flutelike lingerings and passionate

reproofs, would divert its course
to sweep down and then pass over
the poems I have not written,
and the life I have not lived, the life

I’ve failed even to imagine,
which they so perfectly describe.

“Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man,” by Ogden Nash (b. 1907)
It is common knowledge to every schoolboy and even every Bachelor of Arts,
That all sin is divided into two parts.
One kind of sin is called a sin of commission, and that is very important,
And it is what you are doing when you are doing something you ortant,
And the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.
I might as well give you my opinion of these two kinds of sin as long as, in a way, against each other we are pitting them,
And that is, don’t bother your head about the sins of commission because however sinful, they must at least be fun or else you wouldn’t be committing them.
It is the sin of omission, the second kind of sin,
That lays eggs under your skin.
The way you really get painfully bitten
Is by the insurance you haven’t taken out and the checks you haven’t added up the stubs of and the appointments you haven’t kept and the bills you haven’t paid and the letters you haven’t written.
Also, about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn’t as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forget to pay a bill;
You didn’t slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let’s all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of things you haven’t done,
But they are the things that I do not like to be amid,
Because the suitable things you didn’t do give you a lot more trouble than the unsuitable things you did.
The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing,
Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.

“A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral fruit.” (Amy Gerstler)

Eating it meant you embraced tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.

Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.

When you get to be my age memories pop into your mind from nowhere and arrest your attention, sometimes with startling vividness.

This morning I stumbled onto the poem “Fruit Cocktail in Light Syrup” (2014), by Amy Gerstler (b. 1956). Suddenly I was remembering a trip to Kansas City in 1973. I stayed with my mother’s brother and his wife, and we spent a day with my father’s father. The memory is confused. Sometime after my grandmother died (1973), my grandfather sold his home and moved to Abilene, TX, where his youngest child, my aunt, cared for him until he died (1977).

I was on my way to audition for the organ department at the University of Iowa to be accepted into the DMA program in organ. My maternal uncle took me to visit my paternal grandfather (my parents’ families had known each since long before my parents married), and the three of us went to my uncle’s church so I could play the organ for my grandfather.

Are you confused yet?

For some reason I played the Bach “Little” Prelude and Fugue in B-flat Major. It certainly was not one of the works with which I was planning to impress Professors Krapf and Disselhorst. It does, however, have a pedal solo, and I remember my uncle was so amazed that he made me stop in the middle of the Prelude and play it again. He had never seen such a thing. It’s really quite simple (the work isn’t called “little” for no reason).

Why? Why does reading a poem about fruit cocktail drag into my consciousness my uncle’s amazement at my playing a passage for pedals alone in the middle of a Bach organ work?

That trip to Kansas City was fraught with import, with meaning. I was beginning the process of giving up my old life to strike out on a new one (and I was not altogether certain I would be accepted). That meant quitting a job and selling our house and moving with my wife to a place neither of us had ever been. I was alone on my “audition” trip, and I already knew in some unconscious way that it also carried with it the distinct possibility that our marriage would end when I was immersed in my new life. That may, in fact, have been one of the reasons I wanted to strike out on this new path.

Fruit cocktail’s
colorlessness, its lack of connection to anything
living, (like tree, seed or leaf) seemed
cautionary, sad. A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral
fruit.

I had another (ulterior, I suppose one might say) reason for arranging my trip to be with my uncle. I won’t explain here because it is too painful for me and not fair to him, but I had a score to settle with my uncle. At the time I thought I could engage him in a way that I had needed to since I was in junior high school. It was not possible. I didn’t know how, and he would have rejected my attempt, I am sure. It could not be part of this memory-tale.

Somehow playing that pedal passage and astounding him was enough at that moment.

The next time I saw my uncle was at my paternal grandfather’s funeral. The Peck family was, of course, there to support and be with the Knight family. I remember clearly standing with my father and my mother’s brother beside my grandfather’s casket in that stilted and phony funeral home scene we all know so well and hearing my uncle say to my father, “Well, Glenn, now we are the older generation.” My father was 63 at the time, nine years younger than I am now.

Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.
It meant you’d pretend semblances,
no matter how pathetic, were real, and that
when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth.

Faded funeral fruit that meant you embraced tastelessness . . . and that when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth. Not until about 1985 did I confront in my mind the reasons I knew I needed to visit my uncle. Ten years after that I visited him in a nursing home where he was cared for as an Alzheimer’s patient, of which both he and my mother died.

The organ on which I auditioned.

The organ on which I auditioned.

Memories—vivid memories, important memories—do not necessarily equate with the “truth.” In fact, they might well help you spurn the truth.

The day I visited my uncle in the nursing home and his brother explained who I was by trying to bring up memories of childhood—“You know May, our sister—her son”—I had determined to confront my uncle, to bridge the enormous chasm between us.

Fortunately, I did not need to. Even I, the wounded party, the self-righteous actor in the drama in my head, could forgive a man in such dire and pitiable condition.

Self-righteousness, I think, is a more or less useless attitude. I think it actually comes from thinking of oneself as a victim—“how dare he do that to me, righteous as I am?”

Two days ago I was in the grips of what I thought was either the “hangover” from a massive seizure or a day-long series of tiny seizures. Intense dissociation mentally and dizziness physically. My neurologist made time in his busy schedule to see me early yesterday morning.

Blood work. Are your meds in balance? What else is going on in your life?

Retirement, separation anxiety, worry about taking care of yourself in old age. I want you to keep in contact by MyChart, but I’m also going to arrange for you to have regular talk therapy with one of the psychology faculty here at the medical school. At my age? I’ve been in therapy much of the time for fifty years!

You need to put these demons to rest. Anti-seizure meds can’t help depression.

“Fruit Cocktail in Light Syrup” (2014), by Amy Gerstler (b. 1956)

Rocket-shaped popsicles that dyed your lips blue
were popular when I was a kid. That era got labeled
“the space age” in honor of some longed-for,
supersonic, utopian future. Another food of my
youth was candy corn, mostly seen on Halloween.
With its striped triangular “kernels” made
of sugar, wax and corn syrup, candy corn
was a nostalgic treat, harkening back to days
when humans grew, rather than manufactured,
food. But what was fruit cocktail’s secret
meaning? It glistened as though varnished.
Faint of taste and watery, it contained anemic
grapes, wrinkled and pale. Also deflated
maraschino cherries. Fan-shaped pineapple
chunks, and squares of bleached peach
and pear completed the scene. Fruit cocktail’s
colorlessness, its lack of connection to anything
living, (like tree, seed or leaf) seemed
cautionary, sad. A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral
fruit. No more nourishing than a child’s
finger painting, masquerading as happy
appetizer, fruit cocktail insisted on pretending
everything was ok. Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.
It meant you’d pretend semblances,
no matter how pathetic, were real, and that
when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth.
Eating fruit cocktail meant you might deny
that ghosts whirled throughout the house
and got sucked up the chimney on nights
Dad wadded old newspapers, warned you
away from the hearth, and finally lit a fire.

A resident of Los Angeles, Amy Gerstler has taught at Antioch West and the University of California at Irvine’s graduate writing program. She teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars program at Bennington College in Vermont, and at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Gerstler won the 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry for Bitter Angel (1990).

About This Poem
“A friend showed me a reproduction of a 1964 painting by James Rosenquist called Fruit Salad. The painting (you can Google it) is a close-up, bright, garish portrait of fruit cocktail. Seeing it released a flood of memories of the ’50s and ’60s for me, so I decided to try to make a picture of that time period via this popular food of my childhood.” —Amy Gerstler

The flood of 2008, Iowa City. Even the organ was destroyed.

The flood of 2008, Iowa City. Even the organ was destroyed.

“. . . to prove we were still among the living. . .” (Simon Armitage)

Morrissey. You can't go on forever

Morrissey. You can’t go on forever

.

.

I managed to delete ten of my postings here. I thought they were “drafts”  —in the “drafts” folder. But, alas, they were the final “draft,” kept for some reason I can’t figure. I was able to reconstruct the last post , but the others will take some doing. Now I know why I save the Word documents on my desktop.

“Are we dead yet?” someone would ask.
Then with a plastic toothpick
I’d draw blood from my little finger
to prove we were still among the living.

A week ago I had blood drawn from my little finger (I assume there was blood although I was in la-la-land—they said I wasn’t asleep from a general anesthesia but didn’t know what was going on because they gave me that other stuff that doesn’t really knock you out). Not my finger, but the palm of my right hand where the finger tendons attach to the hand bones. If I’ve already written about it, that’s a post I deleted. The pinky “trigger finger” surgery was almost negligible.

I wore the dressing for three days, Band-Aids for several days, and today nothing to protect the healing incision.

But—there’s always a “but,” isn’t there—the surgeon said I should not get into a swimming pool until after my follow-up appointment (tomorrow). And I mustn’t go to yoga class (no hands on floor).

I know why old people get stiff and begin to hobble. One thing leads to another to another to another. I can’t do my accustomed exercise—walking in the therapy pool at the Landry Fitness Center. So, rather than take a walk around the neighborhood, I do nothing. And my lower back has a knot from sitting and writing at my computer too many hours, and I’m beginning to hobble. Damn!

It’s been too hot to walk outside. And my tutoring schedule is inconvenient. And I’m depressed. And. . . How many excuses can I think up?

The real reason is I don’t want to do it alone.

At the Landry Center, I have made friends. We barely know each other’s names, but we talk and make jokes and know all of the ailments that bring us there, and gossip like a bunch of little old ladies, which we mostly are.

We get acquainted. One of the women and I discovered she’s the next-door neighbor of and best friends with an organist for whom I substitute regularly. Are we going to socialize outside the pool? I’d bet Linda and I and her neighbors will eventually. The organist and his partner must know some other old fart looking for an old fart to be with (that is interpreted, date).

So I’m not going to run into Linda for a few more days, and I certainly wouldn’t run into anyone I know walking out on Maple or Hudnall streets.

My parents walked every day until they moved to assisted living (they were both about 90). Together. If genetics has anything to do with it, I could be walking another 20 years. Of course, neither of my parents ever drank, smoked, or was 35 pounds overweight, so I’m not sure my prognostication should be for 20 years (I haven’t drunk or smoked for 28 years).

Me--before three surgeries, lethargy, weight gain, and hobbling

Me–before three surgeries, lethargy, weight gain, and hobbling

However, the outlook for hooking up with someone (I mean that in all popular senses of the phrase) grows, I think, dimmer by the day.

Armitage writes, “Are we dead yet?” someone would ask. He was born the year I graduated from high school. Does he even have standing to ask that question?

If you want to know the worst case scenario about how old gay men (and women) live out their years, you can watch the movie Gen Silent. Another instance–a gay couple in Arizona who had been together 45 years went to California to marry. Recently, one of them died, and Arizona refused to put on his death certificate that the other was his spouse. It took a Federal judge to force Arizona to accept their marriage.

In case you think I’m whining, I’m not. I’m simply trying to be realistic. Even if I were not gay, my late-life prospects are not rosy. I’ve chosen to be a low-ranking college professor for most of my sober life, so my Social Security is only about $1300 a month. (The SSA has decided that, if you were poor in your working life, you will be poor in “retirement.” I wonder if the mega-wealthy 1% return their SS checks. One of them could help me out quite a bit.) My “pension” from SMU is about half that. Can you live on $2000 per month?—especially if you are in any way infirm?

I’m not whining.

I’ll be a helluva lot better off than most people, I’d guess. Armitage’s poem is a projection of what one does in old age WITH ONE’S FRIENDS AND ASSOCIATES.

As almost an aside, I have to quote The Guardian from Friday 3 September 2010:

For 30 years, poet Simon Armitage’s admiration for Morrissey has bordered on the obsessive. But could his love survive an encounter with the famously sharp-tongued singer-songwriter?

That’s part of the introduction to an interview between Armitage and Morissey in which Morissey says,

Simon Armitage: we're not dead yet

Simon Armitage: we’re not dead yet

The ageing process isn’t terribly pretty… and you don’t want yourself splattered all over the place if you look pitiful. You can’t go on forever, and those that do really shouldn’t.

(I don’t think Armitage is gay, and I don’t know any of Morrissey’s music. When he was in his heyday, I was a drunk, and since then I’ve not kept up with popular music except for Lady Gaga and a few others.)

I’m not sure where I meant to go with this writing. I’ve been interrupted too many times. But I think this is where I was headed when I began.

All of my favorite sayings about getting old are true. “Getting old is a full-time job.”

Job. And I’d really like to have someone to come home to after work.

“Dämmerung,” Simon Armitage, (b. 1963)

In later life I retired from poetry,
ploughed the profits
into a family restaurant
in the town of Holzminden, in lower Saxony.

It was small and traditional:
dark wood panelling, deer antlers,
linen tablecloths and red candles,
one beer tap on the bar

and a dish of the day, usually
Bauernschnitzel. Weekends were busy,
pensioners wanting the set meal, though
year on year takings were falling.

Some nights the old gang came in –
Jackie, Max, Lavinia,
Mike not looking at all himself,
and I’d close the kitchen,

hang up my striped apron,
take a bottle of peach schnapps
from the top shelf and say,
“Mind if I join you?”

“Are we dead yet?” someone would ask.
Then with a plastic toothpick
I’d draw blood from my little finger
to prove we were still among the living.

From the veranda we’d breathe new scents
from the perfume distillery over the river,
or watch the skyline
for the nuclear twilight.

“. . . even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees. . . (Nazim Hikmet)

The only tree I've ever planted.

The only tree I’ve ever planted.

Martin Luther (the first Martin Luther, not MLK), according to legend was out in his yard planting a tree (presumably apple, which he loved) and proclaimed, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant an apple tree today.”

According to legend. No record of Luther’s remark exists—according to the website Luther 2017, the official state-operated site of the “Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt” preparing for the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, October 31, 1517.

Perhaps Minnesota or Iowa has a state-operated website for the anniversary—or Fredericksburg, TX, has a city-operated site. The German Lutherans who founded Fredericksburg came there in the early 19th century to escape using the new “Service Book” being forced on all Protestants in Prussia, whether Lutheran or Reformed.

In his poem “On Living” Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963), “the first modern Turkish poet” proclaims

I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees–
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

Who would have guessed that the great 16th-century German church reformer and the 20th-century Marxist Turkish/Russian poet would come to the same conclusion about how to live one’s life?

I don’t plant trees. The only one I ever planted, at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmer Branch, TX, in memory of my late partner Jerry Hill, was uprooted when the church closed and the city bought the property to build a new fire station.

Since I retired (I won’t be, in fact, retired until August 1), I have had a hankering to play an organ recital. I have the program in mind. (Except for one work. I want to play an organ piece by a Palestinian or Palestinian-American composer, but I haven’t yet found one.)

It’s going to be a fairly simple program: one Bach work, a Mendelssohn Sonata, a couple of Brahms chorale preludes, and either two of the “Fantasies for Organ” by Ross Lee Finney, or the mystery work by a Palestinian composer.

This “retirement” business is, so far, unsettling. How does one keep oneself in some sort of trajectory toward—well, toward what? What do I need to do? What do I want to do? What does anyone else need or want me to do?

These are, in reality, questions I’ve been asking myself for 68 of my 69 years.

I’ve never been quite sure the way I’m living—what I’m doing or what I’m not doing—is “right.” I don’t need any philosophical or theological or self-help or 12-step recovery answers to the question, “Am I living right?” I’ve read Nietzsche, I’ve read Heidegger, I’ve read Baudrillard, I’ve practically memorized the Bible, I’ve listened to Dr. Oz, I’ve learned about the Third Wave of Behavioral Therapy, I’ve read Waking the Tiger, I read Bill Wilson and company all the time. I draw the line at The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People—that requires remembering to carry a planner everywhere you go.

I have to leave religion out of trying to answer the question. At least for now. I know that puts some of my friends off, but I can’t please everyone. And I’m not going to be as jihadist about that as Bill Maher is.

“Am I living right?”

Nazim Hikmet’s answer is

Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example–
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.

“Living must be your whole occupation.”

I know all together too well that living is no laughing matter. My goodness, if I read my post from yesterday—meltdown number 1001 (or more)—I have no doubt I understand “living with great seriousness.”

". . .living must be your whole occupation. . ."

“. . .living must be your whole occupation. . .”

I’ve been living with great seriousness all my life. Oh, I know how to have a good time—a genuine good time for the last 27 years since I started reading Bill Wilson and company (their writings are not, by the way, philosophy, theology, or “self-help”). But basically life seems to have been no laughing matter for me.

Or perhaps not. “Living must be your whole occupation.”

Much (most?) of the time I don’t remember that. But there are times that I do. When I sit at the organ and play, for example, the Brahms Chorale Prelude Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (“Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness”), I realize there are (have been) a few times when living has been my whole occupation, when I have not been “looking for something beyond and above living.

I’ve thought through what I’m going to say next, and I know it sounds contradictory. But it is not.

Much of the time when I play the organ, my experience is like the rest of my experience—not quite meltdown 101, but not exactly living as my whole occupation. I don’t have the physical acumen to play complicated works easily, but I keep trying. But once in a while I discover a work that fits my fingers, my mind, and my spirit so that playing it can be my “whole occupation.” A listener might not think that’s true, but for me it is.

Thank goodness for Brother Martin.

Thank goodness for Brother Martin.

I can extrapolate from that experience to my daily struggle to figure out if “I am living right.” If I can give myself to whatever it is I am doing, not looking “for something beyond and above” any given action at any given moment, perhaps I can “live as if we will never die.”

Yikes! That’s about as spooky as anything I’ve ever written. Thank goodness for Brother Martin, whether he said it or not. I’ll keep planting that tree—or whatever I’m doing—even if the end is near.

(Note: I have copied Nazim Hikmet’s entire poem here. It is not short, but I think you will find it rewarding to read.)

“On Living,” by Nazim Hikmet, 1902 – 1963
(Translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, 1994)
I
Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example–
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
in your white coat and safety glasses,
you can die for people–
even for people whose faces you’ve never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees–
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.
II
Let’s say we’re seriously ill, need surgery–
which is to say we might not get up
from the white table.
Even though it’s impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we’ll look out the window to see if it’s raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast. . .
Let’s say we’re at the front–
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
we might fall on our face, dead.
We’ll know this with a curious anger,
but we’ll still worry ourselves to death
about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let’s say we’re in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
before the iron doors will open.
We’ll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind–
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.
III
This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet–
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space . . .
You must grieve for this right now
–you have to feel this sorrow now–
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived”. . .

Nazim Hikmet was born on January 15, 1902 in Salonika, Ottoman Empire (now Thessaloniki, Greece). . . Raised in Istanbul, Hikmet left Allied-occupied Turkey after the First World War and ended up in Moscow, where he attended the university and met writers and artists from all over the world. Hikmet died of a heart attack in Moscow in 1963. The first modern Turkish poet, he is recognized around the world as one of the great international poets of the twentieth century.

“. . . we must lift the sail And catch the winds of destiny. . .” (Edgar Lee Masters)

A minority report.

To be “the man”

The Melungeons are (were) a mixed-raced ethnic group who live(d) in small communities in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. Their origins are mysterious. Conflicting theories attempt to explain how they came to reside in Appalachia.

The most widely-accepted theory is that they are the descendants of female slaves and white males, who were able to flee to the mountains where they inter-married with the Native Americans and the Anglo Americans who had begun to settle in the mountains.

In the 1990s, Brent Kennedy, who identified himself as a Melungeon, proposed the theory that the Melungeons are descendants of Muslim Arabs who, after they were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, arrived in the New World in 1566 as part of the doomed Spanish settlement of Santa Elena in South Carolina, the settlement destroyed by the English in 1587.

I want to identify myself as Professor of the Year. I want the award as the most inspiring, most knowledgeable, most organized professor in the university.

I want to have published three or four books since my tenure appointment. I want to be a “talking head” on NPR when they need an authority in my field.

I want to be, if not a true intellectual, at least a thorough-going scholar.

On “Rate your Professor” I want high accolades from students that entice so many students to take my classes that the registrar has to turn students away.

Dear me, I forgot. It’s too late. (“Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.”)

Whatever their origins, most of the Melungeons (for reasons long forgotten) refer(red) to themselves as Portuguese (or, as they said, according to Kennedy, “Portyghee”). The thesis of Kennedy’s book is that the Melungeons were, over the centuries, so reviled that they did everything they could to blend into society and no longer exist as a subculture.

The five young men, athletes at SMU, whom I work with as tutor in my retirement had the assignment to read the Kennedy article linked above for the summer school writing class they are taking. The purpose is ultimately for them to write essays about marginalization in American society.

These guys are going to take their places as “my boys”—I know I shouldn’t call them that. They are not “boys” (or are they?), and they certainly are not “mine.” All of them are star athletes.

I’d like to file a perhaps unusual report on college athletes here.

These five guys (and all who have preceded them as “my boys”) are respectful, interesting, socially competent young men who know something most (yes, most) college students do not know: self-discipline. In the fall semester 2013 eleven members of SMU’s football and basketball teams were in my classes. Not one of them was a slacker. Several of them knew they were under-prepared for college writing, but they worked hard to overcome their disadvantage.

Now I am a paid tutor for several student athletes in the Academic Development of Student Athletes program at SMU. I know—I’d be willing to bet—more about the regulations of the NCAA than any of my jock friends. I know exactly what the limits are on what I may do for these guys. And I follow the rules. And so do they. And they work hard. (I may not, for example, put a mark their papers or put a keystroke to them if they are digital).

A couple of these guys have had great difficulty getting where they are now in many ways—ways more daunting than academic. But whatever their success as athletes might ultimately be, they will have a real education when they graduate from SMU. I’m there to help see to that.

Many years ago I blew my chance to be Professor of the Year (first by accepting a non-tenure-track position, and in many other ways as well). But I’m not like the Melungeons. I have not been ridiculed and marginalized (professionally, that is). I know something about marginalization because I am a gay man, of course.

Was Nancy Hanks a Melungeon from Kentucky?

Was Nancy Hanks a Melungeon from Kentucky?

Here’s what I do instead of being Professor of the Year. One of the young men was having difficulty getting his mind around the Kennedy article. Almost anyone would. It’s a five page condensation of myriad historical facts that require an enormous amount of background knowledge to comprehend.

The student and I were discussing it. I was trying to help him see the big picture—that the article is not about those details, but about marginalization. From somewhere (where do these ideas come from?) I thought suddenly of telling him I never shook a black person’s hand until I was in fifth grade. He was—as he might well have been—shocked. I asked him pointedly if he hadn’t felt the pain of racism. And we talked about marginalization.

He said after a few minutes I was the first white man with whom he had ever had such a conversation. “Professor Knight,” he says every time we finish an hour together, “you’re the man!” And I say to him, “No, you’re the man!” And we do a fist bump. But that’s not enough for him. He reaches out to shake my hand.

So I am the Professor of the Year. At least for “the man!” I am the Professor of the Summer.

He will never know—because I will never figure out how to tell him, and, by NCAA rules I probably am not allowed to—that I’m getting more out of our two hours a week together than he is.

George Gray, whoever he was, seems to be one of the less admirable folks in Edgar Lee Masters’ town Spoon River. I used to think he was somewhat pathetic, and feared I was like him. But one could find a much less worthy “meaning in my life” than being told by a young man who seems to be on the verge of fame and fortune (or abject failure?)—but who is still a twenty-year-old kid—that one is “the man.”

“George Gray,” by Edgar Lee Masters (1868 – 1950)
I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

A Kentucky Portyghee family

A Kentucky Portyghee family

“It was, as it always has been, a choice” (Michael Blumenthal)

Baboon-matters-2A serious question: What on earth would make a grown man take a month out from a busy career as a widely respected poet (at that time he’d published 6 books of poetry and a novel), teacher, and legal scholar (when he was much younger a law clerk to Justice David Souter) and run off to South Africa to save orphaned chacma baboons? I can’t imagine, but I intend to read his account as soon as I finish this writing.

Last night at the birthday dinner for a dear friend one of the other guests and I suddenly found ourselves in a conversation that seemed as if we had stumbled into the middle of it and didn’t quite know what we were talking about. Our own private micro-version of the “Burkean parlor.” It was much too serious for a party, and the subject was much too important simply to toss it off as party small talk.

All of us at the party were of an age—in our 60s. I was the oldest, but only by a year. The host and I had a slight disagreement when I said I am in my 70th year. “But you’re only 69!” she said. Think about it. Until a person’s first birthday, they are in their first year, right? So once I’ve passed my 69th birthday, I am in my 70th year.

The guest and I were chatting about why we don’t go to church or synagogue (she is Jewish) these days. I think we were both trying to say the same thing. I was trying to explain that going to church, comforting as the Episcopal liturgy is, seems somehow so ephemeral, so otherworldly (Duh!), so removed from the immediacy of my day to day life that it feels like both a waste of time in the moment and somehow a deception. Especially since I don’t think I believe in God.

For goodness’ sake, Maya Angelou died last week—one of the constants in my life since I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in about 1975. Maya Angelou was only 86 years old, only in her 87th year, 17 years older than I. Seventeen years! My father was in his 98th year when he died, 28 years older than I am now. Twenty-eight years!

You there, dear reader, you think you’ve got all the time in the world. Well, you don’t, and the guest at the birthday dinner and I were trying to talk about that, but we didn’t quite know how to fit it into party talk.

I’m going to be a shameless name-dropper. Michael Blumenthal told me a few month ago that if there is a “Michael Blumenthal fan club,” I must be the only member. Yes, he told me that in an email after I told him I wanted to be a member of his fan club. He’s a youngster—only 65—but he has done all of these strange and wonderful things.

He and I have had a brief exchange of emails. I found his address when I read and was inspired (? I have no idea what the correct word is here?) by his poem “Be Kind.”

Tucked away in the back of my mind is the useless idea that I want to have lived the way Blumenthal has lived. Just read about the (almost bizarre) variations of “career” he has had. Lawyer, poet, professor, and savior of baby chacma baboons. This is not—as much as it may seem—a paean to Michael Blumenthal. He and I are so much different I suspect we could hardly be friends if we met face to face (that’s probably not true—we’re both too old to worry about each other’s foibles).

It’s OK for someone like me who wishes he had published 8 books of poetry (or had some lasting “creative” legacy) to look at someone like Michael Blumenthal and think, “Now there’s the guy who’s done the sorts of things I wish I’d done.” As long as thinking that does not either make of him some sort of hero that he would be embarrassed to know about or make of myself some sort of failure living with regrets too numerous to contemplate.

Nope. Michael Blumenthal and I are at exactly the same place. We have done what we have done—he perhaps with more energy and brains and discipline than I have—and we are both, according to Maya Angelou’s example, about 18 years from the end. It’s OK to find his accomplishments fascinating. And it’s OK for me to find my own life fascinating.

Or perhaps not!

Or perhaps not!

I’ve played the organ for more hours than most of my readers have been alive (even some who are dangerously close to being old farts). I’ve traveled the world—small portions of it—not for pleasure but for understanding. I’ve been married and divorced and had long-term relationships with men.

Do you want to know what’s really important? A young man, 30-something, whom I’ve known since he was about 10 came to me recently, not knowing what to expect, but needing an “adult” to talk to about his growing acceptance of himself as a transgendered person. He came to me. He didn’t know that one of the most significant friendships of my life is with a transgendered man. He simply thought he could trust me. That’s not as immediately exciting as going to Africa to save the baboons, but it’s pretty damned miraculous.

So the Burkean Parlor conversation the party guest and I were trying to have is the same one everyone has. What’s going on here? What is my life all about? Am I ready for it to end, or are there yet baby baboons I want to save? Or young friends I want truly to befriend when they need it?

OK. So here’s a sample Michael Blumenthal poem. And it fits at this point. See why I like his almost-old-man stuff so much?

“Self-Help,” by Michael Blumenthal

It was, as it always has been, a choice
between Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
and The Story of O, so I picked up The Story of O

knowing it would be more interesting
and, in the long run, better for me. I’d lived
the compassionate life for years— it had proved

far better for those around me than for myself.
Now, I figured, it was time for The Story of O,
Tropic of Cancer, Philosophy in the Boudoir, all

the books that had inspired me in my youth,
before altruism gave pleasure a bad name.
We all go back to our origins, somehow, I think,

ordering a cappuccino and flirting with the waitress,
probably young enough to be my daughter. Isn’t
it, after all, pleasure we truly want, and decency

the back road we use to get there? Why not, rather,
speak our desires straight out, perhaps obliquely,
as in a poem, but nonetheless without shame, so that

pleasure will ultimately reach those who deserve it,
and the books that once gave us so much bad feeling
toward our happier selves can go on doing their work

in the deeply literate darkness underground.

—Blumenthal, Michael. No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012. Wilkes-Barre, PA: etruscan press (2012) 68.

David Souter. Perhaps law clerking isn't that much different from saving baby baboons.

David Souter. Perhaps law clerking isn’t that much different from saving baby baboons.

“There are trout that die of old age and their white beards flow to the sea” (Richard Brautigan)

brautingan blogWho remembers Trout Fishing in America? That kinky out-of-step-with-the-normal book that helped shape the thinking of a couple of generations of American wannabe drop-outs. It was published in 1967, the year I graduated from college. Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) was one of the “Beat Generation” writers.

I read Trout Fishing when I was working in the 1972 George McGovern Presidential campaign. Our Campaign Guru from the East, gave it to me. The same way he gave me “Manassas,” the new (1972) album by Stephen Stills. (He said as he handed it to me—and this I remember exactly—“Don’t you listen to any music at all?”) All of this to make sure the McGovern Campaign in San Bernardino County, CA, was staffed by people who knew what was going on in the world (and to lighten his load a bit by finding me something to talk about besides Bach, Karl Barth, and Beverly Sills). He also arranged for a group of us to see Harold and Maude on a night off.

Poor Al. He not only worked with me 14 hours a day 7 days a week, but he rented a room in my house.

I wonder why I remember Trout Fishing in America. I recently came across a reference to the novel and had to look it up to find one of the sections I have carried around in my memory all these years, the chapter “Trout Death by Port Wine.” Probably because when I read it I was perilously close to dying by, not port wine, but some other “strong drink,” as my father would have said. I couldn’t quote it exactly, but for years I’ve remembered the sentence, “It is against the natural order of death for a trout to die by having a drink of port wine” (a snippet of the chapter is printed below to give you a flavor of the writing).

For some time I’ve been keeping an eye out for poems about friendship. Probably because I’d like to write a poem about friendship that doesn’t sound like a Hallmark card. I have nothing against Hallmark cards, but I would hope my poetry—if I knew how to write any—would be of a different variety. You know, post-postmodern, not rhyming, maybe not even sentences that make sense, but sounding beautiful with a sudden and unexpected profundity or sweet image at the end (that’s my description, not one garnered from a graduate seminar in wacky literature or anything like that).

That’s also something of a description of my personal writing, I think. Wandering around discussing some memory or current state of my affairs or the world’s, not making a whole lot of sense, and then suddenly at the end I get to the point (sometimes out of the blue), and I understand it whether anyone else does or not.

Back to Richard Brautigan. He was a tormented soul. Bipolar with a vengeance, or so all the biographical sketches say. A drunk (or was it heroin addict?). He shot himself in the head, and his body wasn’t found until it had pretty much decomposed—he was living off in the woods somewhere so he could go trout fishing. A tormented soul, as I said. I remember being aware a few years back (more than a few) that he had died. That was pre-Google, so I couldn’t research him easily, but I knew about the bullet to the head—sort of like Hemingway.

This is a cheery little piece, isn’t it? (Funny thing about writing. I wouldn’t dare to write about someone shooting himself in the head—I’ve said that about enough times now—when I am depressed myself. It would be too hard, too close to home.)

But I’m quite serene and unstressed this morning. I ought to be. This is my third day without a job—retired, remember.

Really, four plus 27

Really, four plus 27

And in my retirement (is that a weird thing to say, or what?) I’ve been thinking a great deal about friendship. I had a big retirement party last Saturday, and 31 of my closest friends (that’s not a joke or hyperbole but the honest truth) showed up to eat and talk and sing (seven songs from the ‘50s with me at the Steinway grand) and give me more hugs than I’d had total in the six months previous. Most of them knew only four or five of the others, but I knew everyone. With every person there I have shared a moment at one time or another when one of us managed to do just what was needed for the other—with some of them, that moment of giving/receiving has been reciprocal time after time.

So I’ve been hoping to find (or—not likely—write) the perfect poem about friendship. Then I remembered it’s been only a couple of months since I wrote about one of my favorite friendship poems, “Your Catfish Friend,” by (who else?) Richard Brautigan.

Louisianans and Texans like to think they have a special right to catfish. Perhaps they do, at least for eating. But I remember the catfish people snared from the North Platte River when I was a kid in Western Nebraska. I don’t remember that we ate them, but we knew what they were. Pretty nasty sorts of things.

I need to remember Brautigan’s poem as I think about friendship. It’s sad to think he perhaps didn’t understand it himself, or perhaps, living in the woods alone he didn’t have enough people around him to throw a party and get 31 times oodles of hugs.

But the idea that a friend can drive lonely thoughts from my mind even (or perhaps especially) when I don’t know my friend is near and/or thinking about me is a stunning idea. Even a friend I might not think capable of such thoughts, One of those ideas that keeps me sane and safe.

“Your Catfish Friend” Richard Brautigan (1935 – 1984)

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

TROUT DEATH BY PORT WINE
It was not an outhouse resting upon the imagination.

It was reality.

An eleven-inch rainbow trout was killed. Its life taken forever from the waters of the earth, by giving it a drink of port wine.

It is against the natural order of death for a trout to die by having a drink of port wine.

It is all right for a trout to have its neck broken by a fisherman and then to be tossed into the creel or for a trout to die from a fungus that crawls like sugar-colored ants over its body until the trout is in death’s sugarbowl.

It is all right for a trout to be trapped in a pool that dries up in the late summer or to be caught in the talons of a bird or the claws of an animal.

Yes, it is even all right for a trout to be killed by pollution, to die in a river of suffocating human excrement.

There are trout that die of old age and their white beards flow to the sea.

All these things are in the natural order of death, but for a trout to die from a drink of port wine, that is another thing.

No mention of it in “The treatyse of fysshynge wyth an angle,” in the Boke of St. Albans, published 1496. No mention of it in Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream, by H. C. Cutcliffe, published in 1910. No mention of it in Truth Is Stranger than Fishin’, by Beatrice Cook, published in 1955. No mention of it. . .
catfishp

“He who kisses the joy as it flies. . .” (William Blake)

Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking

Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking

Richard Chase, one of the preeminent American folklorists (how he would have disliked that kind of description of himself), owned a copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. It was an early edition with the plates colored by an unknown hand. It was one of his prized possessions. I’m not being grandiose when I say there was a time (many, many years ago) I would visit him so I could look at that wondrous book.

This is not a “name-dropping” exercise. Several people who are likely to read this post knew Chase as well; we knew him as “Uncle Dick” before we had any idea of his importance to American culture. I own his copy of William Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time, one of the 20th-century reprints, not valuable except that it has Uncle Dick’s notations. One of my favorite memories of Uncle Dick is walking with him, naked, at midnight one full-moon night into the surf on the beach at La Jolla while he recited Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” The next day I decided the least I could do to keep that memory alive was to memorize the section

Yes, when the stars glisten’d,
All night long on the prong of a moss-scallop’d stake,
Down almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer wonderful causing tears.

He call’d on his mate,
He pour’d forth the meanings which I of all men know.
Yes my brother I know,
The rest might not, but I have treasur’d every note,
For more than once dimly down to the beach gliding,
Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the
shadows,
Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds
and sights after their sorts,
The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing,
I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,
Listen’d long and long.

Listen’d to keep, to sing, now translating the notes,
Following you my brother
.

I can’t recite it these days, but always, when I think of that night, I remember I’m basically an illiterate “bull-in-the-china-closet.” I have known true education, elegance, and kindness.

One of William Blake's visions of eternity

One of William Blake’s visions of eternity

Uncle Dick also explained to me his understanding of the poetry of William Blake. He served, Uncle Dick said, as the antidote to the Age of Enlightenment swirling around him. His poetry exists in the heart rather than in the mind. Newtonian physics and reason were fine for solving the world’s physical problems, but they were useless for understanding the human heart.

That is obviously my “spin” on Uncle Dick’s guidance and the way I remember it 40 years later. Whatever it was, in fact, that Uncle Dick said to me, what I took from it was that the life of the mind I was embarking on by going back to graduate school would serve me well only so far. Much of my life I have forgotten his wisdom.

I have not, however, forgotten the poetry of William Blake. Such wild, such odd, such emotional stuff. I came across this short poem the other day.

“Eternity,” by William Blake (1757 – 1827)

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy

He who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise

Last night I said to a group of friends that, as I retire, I realize I am in the process of giving up perhaps the most joyful activity of my life—working with young students. At the same time I’m giving up one of the most odious of tasks—the paperwork and institutional nonsense that weighs down the academic world.

I have nothing profound or academic or, most likely, even interesting to say about Blake’s poem except that I hope, I trust, I can kiss the joy as it flies and begin living in the sunrise. Whatever that may be. Even, perhaps, another way to experience my joy.

Sunrise at Port Orford, Oregon

Sunrise at Port Orford, Oregon