“. . . On Venus you and I are not even a year old . . .”

Surprising St. Petersburg

Surprising St. Petersburg

Today is the day we are habituated to pondering the successes and failures, the good times and bad, the ins and outs. . .

This year has been sideways and frontways, backwards and upwards—like every other year.

EXCEPT! —

I walked and ate and made music in Arvika, and saw Stockholm in Sweden. I reveled and ate and shopped and made music in Rauma, Finland, and saw Helsinki. I marveled and ate and walked in the cemetery where both Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky are buried and made music in St. Petersburg. And had a touristy whirlwind through the Hermitage.

I was in the company of a group of new friends-for-life, kind and gentle and loving folks for whom I have immense gratitude and to whom I offer my meager version of love. The choir and companions of Calvary Lutheran Church in Richland Hills, Texas.

I should stop right there.

The best of times with the loveliest of people

The best of times with the loveliest of people

BUT —

Two surgeries, one a complete and immediate success (the six-month pain in my hip was gone when I woke up from the anesthetic and never returned). The other is still in process of recovery. I’ve discovered what we do that requires BOTH of our shoulders and arms. Balance yourself getting up from a chair with one arm strapped to your chest. Put on your socks with one hand.

However, for nearly a month now I’ve been without a cane, crutches or sling. Gratitude is not my strong suit, but I am grateful.

In her lovely quirky poem “Fragments for the End of the Year,” Jennifer K. Sweeney lists many observations I could have made about this year.

On average, odd years have been the best for me.
I’m at a point where everyone I meet looks like a version
of someone I already know . . .
I am struck by an overwhelming need to go to Iceland. [For me, it’s Easter Island.]
Despite all awful variables, we are still full of ideas
as possible as unsexed fruit . . .
On Venus you and I are
not even a year old. (The entire poem is below the video.)

Odd years have been good for me—I’m not sure if, on average, they have been better than even years. This odd year has been odd but good.

I have an overwhelming need to go to Easter Island (don’t ask because I don’t know). I have been awestruck for decades by the fact we all eat fruit without seeds, which means there are more fruit trees pollinated in some way other than through the normal sexual life of fruit trees than I can imagine, and I wonder why—if we can do that—we can’t make a computer power cord that weighs less than five pounds. Or make peace in the Middle East.

But Venus. Oh, my, Venus is a great mystery. I remember reading about the planet years ago and being mystified by what I learned. And today Jennifer Sweeney reminds me of it. In the first place, Venus revolves on her axis the opposite way Earth does—so the sun comes up in the west and sets in the east. But that’s only the beginning. A day on Venus lasts 243 Earth days. A day on Venus is longer than a year on Venus, which lasts 225 Earth days. Now that’s weird.

Not really the worst of times

Not really the worst of times

The best part of that is what it does to one’s age. On Venus, I’d be only 104 days old rather than the approximately 25,000 days I’ve been here on Earth.

Gives a whole new meaning to “a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night” (Psalm 90:4—the “your,” of course refers to God). My guess is that even Richard Dawkins and other militant fundamentalist atheists have some concept of “before the mountains were brought forth” (if only because they were raised in the culture that believes in the concept and then, in their profound scientific wisdom, have rejected the concept—far braver than I am).

.
Lord, you have been our dwelling-place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night (Psalm 90:1-4).

Dawkins has a great time comparing Earth to Venus, I should think. What does time mean, anyway? Go ahead, tell me.

There’s an old German hymn Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, the text by Michael Franck (1652) and the melody melody by Johann Crüger (1661).

The best English translation I know is

O how futile, how inutile
Is our earthly being!
‘Tis a mist in wintry weather,
Gathered in an hour together,
And as soon dispersed in ether.

The hymn goes on for twelve stanzas with as many (or more) metaphors for the “inutility” (a great word meaning “of no use”) of life and does not mention God until the last, when it says merely that the person who relies on God will find purpose, or some such.

I take great comfort in this hymn. “On Venus, you and I are not even a year old,” so we have plenty of time to sort all of this out. It doesn’t have to be done before midnight today.

Georg Böhm (1661—1733), German baroque composer, wrote a little set of variations on the hymntune. Here’s his setting of the tune itself and then the first variation. Accompanied by inutility.

“Fragments for the End of the Year,” by Jennifer K. Sweeney

On average, odd years have been the best for me.

I’m at a point where everyone I meet looks like a version
of someone I already know.

 Without fail, fall makes me nostalgic for things I’ve never experienced.

The sky is molting. I don’t know
if this is global warming or if the atmosphere is reconfiguring
itself to accommodate all the new bright suffering.

I am struck by an overwhelming need to go to Iceland.

Despite all awful variables, we are still full of ideas
as possible as unsexed fruit.

I was terribly sorry to be the one to explain to the first graders
the connection between the sunset and pollution.

On Venus you and I are not even a year old.

Then there were two skies.
The one we fly through and the one
we bury ourselves in.

I appreciate my wide beveled spatula which fulfills
the moment I realized I would grow up and own such things.

I am glad I do not yet want sexy bathroom accessories.
Such things.

In the story we were together every time.
On his wedding day, the stone in his chest
not fully melted but enough.

Sometimes I feel like there are birds flying out of me.

“. . . the questionable quality of light on her face. . . “

Mrs. Matisse's Hat

Mrs. Matisse’s Hat

An old friend (she was old then, and 1985 was the last time I saw her) used to say, “There’s no accounting for taste.” She was usually wondering why some young stud was (apparently) coupled with a woman who was not his equal. She never bothered to wonder why a beautiful young woman was with a bubba.

She had been secretary to the president of a New England university (I won’t say which one on the infinitesimal chance someone might know her). In fact, she had been secretary to more than one president of the institution.  She loved to say she “had served under five presidents” with the twinkle in her eye that could mean only that she thought she was making a double entendre. By the time I knew her she was no catch, believe me, except for her razor-sharp tongue.

Of course, she’s right that there is no accounting for taste.

The Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth—I’m always amazed (still, after nearly 20 years here) that one of the premier art museums in the country is in “cowtown”—currently has an exhibition, “The Age of Picasso and Matisse.” It’s a tiny percent of the paintings of that time from the Art Institute of Chicago. Of course, I went to see it and plan to go back and spend an entire afternoon looking at about a half dozen of the paintings.

I have no idea where I got my taste for Matisse. It seems highly unlikely. His work is so brash and colorful that it hardly seems an introvert and living-in-his-head type like me would find his stuff interesting at all. My taste for Matisse began sometime in the far distant past, and his “Woman with a Hat” is the painting I always think of when I hear his name. I think I must have seen it decades ago at the San Francisco Art Institute when I wasn’t paying attention to much of anything because I was a young(ish) gay drunk.

Shall we "Dance?"

Shall we “Dance?”

At any rate, the “Woman with a Hat” was not in the Kimbell exhibit because she lives in San Francisco and not Chicago.

The more’s the pity. When I was at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg this summer (there, is that impressive, or what?) and the guide told us we had an hour (or some length of time) to see the museum on our own—right, The Hermitage in an hour (a year might do)—I went directly to the Matisse room. The best Matisse the Hermitage has is “Dance.” OMG, I love that painting!

At any rate, I was Googling Matisse and “Woman with a Hat” sometime after my visit to Cowtown a couple of months ago, and I found the poem  “Why knowing is (& Matisse’s Woman with a Hat),” by Martha Ronk. I’ve been meaning for a long time to Google Martha, but haven’t had time. I don’t need to Google the woman with a hat because I’ve looked her up before. My favorite thing about her (besides her hat) is that Gertrude Stein once owned her. That and the fact she’s actually Matisse’s wife.

Two days ago my surgeon’s assistant said to me in an email, “But if it is affecting your quality of life, Dr. Thornton can surgically repair the problem.  We can proceed either way you choose.  Let me know what you think.” He had reason to say it because the minute we scheduled surgery on my left shoulder, the pain began to lessen. That was, I suppose, predictable. I’ve lived with this pain through all through 2013 (and before). It was one reason I stopped going to yoga classes (just do a Down Dog when your shoulder feels like it’s ripping out of the socket). And much else—working out with my trainer using only my legs and core (what there is of it).

So finally I scheduled surgery with Dr. Miracle Worker (his name after he fixed my hip—and I mean fixed it: the pain was gone when I woke up and has never returned, and I never took one of the pain pills they gave me), and immediately my shoulder began feeling as if it was all a big mistake and there’s no reason even to poke the little arthroscopic holes in it that Dr. Miracle Worker makes.

So his assistant says “quality of life,” and I don’t know what that means. I suppose picking up a 20-pound container of kitty litter in Kroger with my left hand without thinking and dropping it because of the shooting pain in my shoulder is a tiny diminishment of the quality of my life.

I don’t know for sure.

There’s no accounting for taste.

And somehow I remembered Martha Ronk’s poem (I don’t remember anything these days, so my taste for Matisse must have over-ridden my “sometimer’s disease”) because she poetizes about “quality.” I guess it’s because I copied the poem into a Word document for safe keeping (on this old computer?) and have read it several times. “. . . and not remembering who knows or recognizing the questionable quality of light on her face. . . “ The questionable quality of light on her face somehow morphed into the questionable quality of life on my shoulder.

What one does at the Hermitage. At least these folks are my friends.

What one does at the Hermitage. At least these folks are my friends.

So if the surgery were scheduled for Tuesday, I’d insist on talking to Dr. Miracle Worker on Monday to see if the quality of life on my shoulder is questionable enough to go ahead. But since it’s Monday at 7 AM, I guess the only way to stop it is to not show up.

The poll is open. What do you think?

If you followed me from serving under the president of the University of Maine to wondering whether or not to show up for surgery, you are exactly the person whose opinion I trust.
.
.

“Why knowing is (& Matisse’s Woman with a Hat)”
by Martha Ronk

Why knowing is a quality out of fashion and no one can decide to
but slips into it or ends up with a painting one has never
seen that quality of light before even before having seen it
in between pages of another book and not remembering who knows
or recognizing the questionable quality of light on her face
as she sits for a portrait and isn’t allowed to move an inch
you recognize the red silk flower on her hat
and can almost place where you have seen that gray descending
through the light reversing foreground and background
as the directions escape one as the way you have to
live with anyone as she gets up finally from her chair
having written the whole of it in her head as the question
ignored for the hundredth time as a quality of knowing is
oddly resuscitated from a decade prior to this.

Will beauty save the world?

NOVEMBER: NATIONAL EPILEPSY AWARENESS MONTH

No idiot he.

No idiot he.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s most often-quoted line (at least in the circles in which I run—and I do run in circles) is, “Beauty will save the world” (Prince Myshkin in The Idiot).

Dostoyevsky was epileptic.

The Idiot is my favorite novel. I’ve seriously contemplated learning Russian simply to be able to read it in the original. How’s that for grandiosity (see Google search for Bipolar II disorder)? I have The Idiot as a Nook book, as an eText on both my computer and my iPad, and, best of all in a BOOK, the miraculously compelling 2004 translation by David McDuff. I’ve read The Idiot at least four times and am about 1/3 of the way through the McDuff translation.

I first read The Idiot in 1987 in preparation for teaching an “Introduction to World Literature” course as an adjunct in the English Department at Salem State College in Salem, MA. Why I was teaching that course, I’m not quite sure, but by the third semester I had some idea what I was doing. I used The Idiot because one of the Professors in the department suggested when I told him—because the fluorescent lights in the classroom were killing me—I am epileptic. He thought I would enjoy it for myself, and, as long as I was going to take the time to read it, I might as well use it in class.

Lest you think in some way I am comparing myself to Dostoyevsky—don’t. Your Google search above may have listed grandiosity as one of the presentations of Bipolar II Disorder, but even I am not that daft. Not even my epilepsy is the same as Dostoyevsky’s. He had full seizures. Mine are tiny, half-seizures, little storms in my head that have no physical manifestation. Partial seizures, they are called. Temporal Lobe Epilepsy is my diagnosis (neurologists call it something else these days).

Prince Myshkin, the protagonist of The Idiot, is a full-blown, full seizure epileptic. I love the guy. While I have nothing in common with Dostoyevsky, I have a kinship with Myshkin that simply is.

He was thinking, incidentally, that there was a moment or two in his epileptic condition almost before the fit itself . . .  when suddenly amid the sadness, spiritual darkness and depression, his brain seemed to catch fire at brief moments . . . His sensation of being alive and his awareness increased tenfold at those moments which flashed by like lightning.  His mind and heart were flooded by a dazzling light.  All his agitation, doubts and worries, seemed composed in a twinkling, culminating in a great calm, full of understanding…but these moments, these glimmerings were still but a premonition of that final second . . . with which the seizure itself began.  That second was, of course, unbearable. . . (The Idiot, Section V).
Dostoevsky_Grave
My experience used to be of the same quality, but of an order of magnitude so much smaller that it hardly seems the same. I knew that “sensation of being alive [with my] awareness increased tenfold at those moments which flashed by like lightning.” My moment was a high pitched ringing (always B-flat) and then an explosion into white noise, and then the seizure, which was (is—very rarely now) a sense of dissociation, of otherworldliness, of being-there and not-being-there. When I was a kid, the feeling could go on for days. Wandering around certain I could pass through walls because I had no body.

So then, in 1984, that all changed. I was diagnosed with TLE, the medications (heavy doses of Carbatrol and Depakote) began, and I zoned out. Have done ever since. I’ve had one real seizure in Dallas—a complete black-out doozy. In Target. Police called and everything. Very dramatic.

I asked my neurologist a few years back if anyone had a study of the long-term effects of Carbatrol (I’ve been taking the same massive doses for 29 years). He said, “You’re it!”

So enough about me, already. Here’s what I want you to think about as you look for a way to support to the Epilepsy Foundation this month.

. . .  Myshkin is the embodiment of an insolvable conundrum. . . [that] has to do with the fact that Dostoevsky’s ideal “I” can never be achieved because to reach it, one must annihilate one’s actual “I” and join “in a blissful synthesis with the all,” where the “I” no longer exists. . . .this conundrum perfectly reflects what happens during Myshkin’s epileptic attacks. In the moments before a seizure, Myshkin achieves a sense of “a lofty serenity, filled with pure, harmonious gladness and hope, filled too with the consciousness of the ultimate cause of all things” (an intimation of the ideal “I”). But a moment later, “stupor, spiritual darkness, and idiocy” follow—the annihilation of the self in the seizure and its aftermath . . .Yet epilepsy can only take us so far as an exegetical device by which to understand . . . what happens to Myshkin at the end of the novel. . .  epilepsy with the “destruction of personality” that accompanies it is pointedly rejected by Dostoevsky as the reason behind Myshkin’s relapse into idiocy. The triggering event must be sought elsewhere.
(John Givens . “Dostoevsky’s Idiot and the Christology of Comedy.” The Russian Review 70 [January 2011]: 111. )

NEAM-Facebook-LogoYou have to read The Idiot to understand this, obviously—and probably much more Dostoyevsky than that (I think the same conundrum is present in the other Dostoyevsky novels I’ve read—especially Crime and Punishment, which you have no doubt read).

But when a kid is sitting in his second grade class and have a feeling of “a lofty serenity, filled with pure, harmonious gladness and hope, filled too with the consciousness of the ultimate cause of all things,” it’s more terrifying than anything else. And he probably will not have worked out what it means—or even for sure what the feeling is—by the time you’re 68. But it’s fun trying (no, it’s not—it’s crazy-making).

I just wish they’d turn off all fluorescent lights in the world.

“. . a lantern, burning in the midst of parenthetical opaqueness. . “ (1)

Do you know your temporal lobe  from a hole in your head?

Do you know your temporal lobe
from a hole in your head?

But I use memory differently. I use memory to fortify an idea. These . . . are meditations on subjects in which I use my childhood as information to support the theme, the thesis of the meditation. But it’s not a . . . memory of my life. I use my life for other purposes (2).

Two friends have prodded me to write today. The first responded to my post yesterday in which I wrote I’m often the bull in china closet (if I had any artistic sensibilities, I would find a poetic rather than a clichéd way to say that). That was in response to my reporting that my shrink told me I’m “fragile”—??

Judith said, “Yes. I find you often fragile, and often a “bull” who goes “where angels fear to tread . . .” and then, “Add to the above. ..reference ‘bull’…see Turku Cathedral…wooden cane. What happens in Scandinavia stays in Scandinavia. Reference ‘fragile’…see also Turku” (3).

The second friend asked me why “Temporal Lobe Epilepsy” is always a tag for my posts here.

A word about TLE. I have written about my experience of the condition here before. I won’t repeat myself except to say that a certain emotional intransigence (that is not to say, obstreperousness brought on by confusion) is one of the “presentations” of the condition.

The cathedral in Turku, Finland.

       The choir of Calvary Lutheran Church in Richland Hills, TX, was  traveling in Scandinavia this past summer. A wonderful time in Sweden, equally delightful time in Finland, and then out of Scandinavia to St. Petersburg. I was blessed, thrilled, to be asked along to play the organ and piano. I have pictures of all of the places we went except Turku, Finland.

What I am about to write is none of the following:
an attempt to garner pity or engage in psychological exhibitionism
my playing doctor
excuse-making for a man behaving badly.

My psychiatrist, Dr. Mary Bret, of whom I wrote yesterday (doesn’t it sound so ‘70s and ‘80s to say “my psychiatrist”), tells me more often than I want to hear that unseemly anger is symptomatic of at least two of the two neurological disorders with which I have been diagnosed.  Temporal lobe epilepsy, and Bipolar II disorder. The jury is still out on the second. It was, after all, the designer disease of the decade of 2000, so diagnoses are suspect.

We avoided the front staircase.

We avoided the front staircase.

However, my bag of behavioral and affective tricks includes most of the symptoms of the diagnosis. So we’ll go with it, neither stating with certainty that it’s true, nor wanting to make anyone squeamish. If it’s true, it’s no big deal, and if it’s not, I probably simply need some anger management classes.

Back to Turku. We got off our bus at the cathedral to visit on our way to the Medieval Market, simply because it is so splendid.

I was walking with a cane because I needed hip surgery. The woman who was showing us the cathedral kindly took the two of us with canes aside to let us in a door which did not require climbing stairs. But she left us waiting while she took the others in. By the time she got back to us, everyone else was having a grand time looking at the magnificent church. Including our director who, by the time I arrived, was already playing the organ.

The old church’s organ was, of course, in a loft accessible only by climbing a daunting spiral staircase. I went creeping and stumbling up with my cane and arrived at a balcony snuggled under the eaves of the building. I could see my friend at the same level playing the organ perhaps fifty feet away in the loft—to which I could find no means of approach other than a flying leap across the nave.

I was already out-of-sorts because of the cane, but as I stood trapped, watching Viktor play the organ which I knew I should be doing, I became enraged. It was blind fury. The loft was a sort of museum, glass cases filled with treasures of the 1,000-year history of the place. I was ready to smash one of the cases. Instead I brought my cane down to the floor with all of my force, smashing it into many lovely pieces.

Whatever trouble I was having getting around with the cane was now going to be exacerbated trying to walk in pain without the cane. The rest of the story is sweetly strange. The group thought I had somehow broken my cane stumbling up the stairs, and that’s why I was angry.

Remarkably, one of my friends found a store (a drug store?) and bought me a replacement cane.

I finally calmed down enough to tell my friends that I had simply lost it, that I was sorry for causing them concern, and more grateful than I could say that my cane had been replaced.

This writing is not a meditation in Roger Rosenblatt’s sense (I’m not self-deluded enough to pretend to write with his impact and precision). This is not a “lantern burning in the midst of opaqueness.” But I can use the memories of “my life for other purposes.”

It is immaterial whether or not my tantrums are, as Dr. Bret tells me, a symptom of my manic disorder. I don’t know. Those moments feel like mania. That’s not important. It is also not important if such outbursts result from the lurking fearful confusion of TLE. That could be also.

A flying leap across the nave.

A flying leap across the nave.

If this were a “meditation,” it would be about my continually and undeservedly being cared for by others. Yesterday I wrote that Dr. Bret told me I seem to “have trouble finding people to be kind” to me. She is absolutely right. I don’t, I can’t find those folks.

They simply appear.  A cane will materialize when I least deserve it.

______________________
(1) Alexander, Will. “On Anti-Biography.” Poets.org.  Academy of American Poets, 2011. Web.
(2) Rosenblatt, Roger.  “In ‘Boy Detective,’ writer Roger Rosenblatt investigates his Manhattan childhood.” Transcript of interview with Judy Woodruff. PBS Newshour (October 30, 2013). Web.
(3) Palmer, Judith. Comment on Posting by Harold Knight. Facebook. October 30, 2012.

OK, professor, what happened to the “light-hearted” writing about getting older?

Light-hearted enough? Children at Klyde Warren Park, Dallas

Light-hearted enough? Children at Klyde Warren Park, Dallas

More than one reader here has reminded me that the purpose of my writing on this blog was stated to be to write light-hardheartedly about the nonsense of getting old. (Don’t you love using passive verbs to eliminate all responsibility for the indicated action? Since we don’t know who “stated” it, I am free to write what I want.)

I have two rules for writing: never, ever, under any circumstances use a passive verb; and never, ever, under any circumstances use the expletive constructions “there is,” “there are,” “it is,” “it was,” and so on. I have my students, as the last step in editing their own writing, do a word search for “there” and simply delete it and rewrite the sentence without it. Getting them to recognize passive verbs is like shoveling sand at the seashore.

My favorite passive construction, by the way, is one that more politicians than you can shake a stick at have used, “Mistakes were made.” The ultimate wiggle-room statement. Who made the mistakes? Obviously not me. Some unknown, unnameable force. They were made. By aliens. Not by anyone in MY office!

Listen to political speech. Politicians predicate their speech on the passive voice. “Ain’t no one responsible for mistakes here.”

Sheesh! Sometimes at 5 AM I find it difficult to be light-hearted. Especially if I really want to be asleep. Another writing rule I find hard to follow: never use an adverb that has fewer than four syllables. “Really” has only three, so if it were not 5 AM, I would not use it.

“It were not” is, of course, the expletive construction. Sometimes figuring out how to avoid the construction is too complicated to bother with. “It is raining.” “It is 5 AM.” Such constructions are simply too useful to avoid.

I do this because I must.

It’s the same as counting every step between the train station and Jerome’s apartment. Sometimes I have to struggle to keep myself

Light-hearted enough? Picnic in St. Petersburg, Russia

Light-hearted enough? Picnic in St. Petersburg, Russia

from going back and starting over if I lose count. Funny thing is, I don’t know exactly how many steps it is, and I’ve been doing it for 18 months. Hmmmm. A problem to solve.

I’m getting much better about that. I was seeing a psychologist for awhile whose only accomplishment was to suggest I read Getting Control by Lee Baer. The book was actually (four syllables) helpful in stopping things like counting steps.

My old office at SMU, by the way, is 99 steps from the men’s room door. I will have to figure out how many steps my new office is to the first-floor men’s room in Clements Hall.

I think these are the sorts of obsessions they (whoever they are) find out people have when they’re in first grade these days. Think how much less interesting my life would have been if “they” had given me some drug to make me normal in first grade.

How the *^’* did I get off on that tangent? I was going to write light-hardheartedly today. Well, too bad if you don’t want to know what goes on in my silly little brain. I’ll bet it’s not that much different from  what goes on in your brain. I like to talk about it, that’s all. Well, no, I have to talk about it. I have to write about something, and you don’t want me saying serious and objectionable things about Alice Walton and capitalism, so, since I don’t have anything to write about that isn’t serious, I’ll write about what’s going on in my brain—not in my mind, you understand. My brain. The two are different, after all.

What’s going on in my mind is thinking about finishing this in time to get ready to go and warm up to play the organ for the service at St. Michael and All Angels (substituting).

Gardner Read (1913-2005) was one of America’s premier composers and music teachers of the last century. He was, for many years, Composer in Residence at Boston University. Generations of conservatory students and college music majors studied the craft of orchestration using his book on the subject.

When I taught at Bunker Hill Community College, I had the great honor of meeting Professor Read and becoming friends. I played two organ recitals on which I included groups of his “Preludes on Southern Hymn Tunes.” He attended both recitals.

After the second, he gave me a copy of his “Prelude on Jesu meine Freude.” The copy was old–it was published in 1934.

So here’s what’s on my mind. I’m going to play Professor Read’s piece this morning. I made a recording of it with my iPhone yesterday as I was practicing. It’s s little bizarre–the recording, that is, because I didn’t know how to start and stop the camera and get it set up at the same time. But here’s the link (it may take awhile to open). Read-Jesu meine Freude

Who are all those people shopping at the downtown Neiman Marcus. . .

If only they had a sign! At least on the parking garage behind.

If only they had a sign! At least on the parking garage behind.

. . . and why isn’t it pronounced “ ī ” as in “ice” as any self-respecting “ei” word would be?

The summer is almost over, and I have only two accomplishments to show for it. A glorious trip to Scandinavia and St. Petersburg, Russia, and an arthroscopic invasion of my right hip. Which is more important (if either is ultimately important) I can’t say.

All of those people shopping at the downtown Neiman Marcus aren’t, that’s who they are. Most people in the Dallas area wouldn’t know the store from the Dollar Store on Maple Avenue if it didn’t have a sign. That’s NM’s problem!—they don’t have a sign! If they’d put up a sign, they’d have more business.

I walk past NM on the average, I’d guess, six times a week. I use the NM parking garage across Commerce Street from the store three nights a week. It’s cheap. $2 overnight. No meter-feeding (Dallas is insanely vigilant about parking tickets). That is, I use the parking lot on Commerce Street when my hip doesn’t allow me to take the train downtown.

Taking the train comprises a walk across the new Parkland Hospital employee parking lot to the DART station, a ten-minute ride, and a four-block walk to the Merc on Main. A total of about half an hour—ten minutes longer than it takes to drive, and there’s no parking hassle at the end of the trip.

A friend who has lived in Farmers Branch (the first suburb north of the city) for 25 years told me not too long ago he’d never been to downtown Dallas. He’s been to basketball and hockey games at the American Airlines center, but it’s possible to get there without setting foot in downtown.

I don’t think St. Petersburg ever did much to destroy itself in the form of renewing its urb. They’ve had a couple of pretty disastrous wars that destroyed big chunks of the city, but I didn’t see much evidence that they’ve willfully gone into the center of the city and torn down old buildings in order to make room for ugly new ones. Perhaps they have and I didn’t notice those places.

Dallas, on the other hand, is fixing to tear down the oldest building in downtown (for all I know, in the entire city) to widen a street. That kind of self-mutilation is endemic to Dallas. As it is to almost every other American city. You know, urban flight (a self-delusional term for racism) and all of that demographic mumbo-jumbo. Urban renewal. Destroy the heart of the city to make a few hundred billion dollars for a couple of “developers.” I’ve written about it before.

Klyde Warren Park - renew or rebuild?

Klyde Warren Park – renew or rebuild?

Everyone knows the process.  White flight, urban decay. Urban renewal, decimation of the city. Suburban growth. Freeways. Freeways. Freeways. Homelessness. Homelessness. Homelessness. Billionaires. Billionaires. Billionaires. Tear down a few more buildings. Gentrify. Gentrify. Gentrify. So predictable.

You know what you can’t do with your own body? Stop suburban flight or renew the urb. There’s this suburban flight going on from the day we’re born, I think. I’m not going to press this metaphor because it’s too obvious, and I don’t have the poetic skill to make it anything other than ridiculous. The metaphor has been around for at least 3,000 years. “Remember now thy creator in the days of thy youth. . .” (1)

You can have all the arthroscopic surgeries you want, and you can’t renew the urb of your own body. Can’t be done. You can work out at the gym three times a week from the time you’re 20 until you’re 80, and you are not stopping the process.

Neiman’s stayed in downtown until it was—quite literally—the only retail store left. How could it leave? It WAS Dallas, Dallas WAS Neiman’s. Shall I carry the figure to its (il)logical conclusion? Neiman’s was (is) in some way if not the soul of Dallas, at least an image for the soul of Dallas.

Now it’s having a facelift (literally, there’s a sign that says so). And a little cluster of retail stores and restaurants and such is growing up around it. And more than a few of the old empty buildings (both retail and high-rise) are being refurbished, completely gutted and rebuilt and made into new businesses and  apartments. Thousands of people (with their thousands of dogs) are moving back to downtown. Not the kind of people who were pushed out when old downtown was obliterated, mind you. Not the poor, the tired, the humble masses who huddled in the rooming houses and inner-city apartments.

The urb is, once again, being renewed. And I love it. I want to live there.

Neiman’s can have a facelift. Dallas can build the Klyde Warren Park. My hip can be fixed (at least temporarily).

But it’s that soul, or the image of that soul that won’t let my mind rest. Dallas can’t be renewed. It can be rebuilt, but it won’t be the same city. Renewal is not the process. Remaking is, finding a new soul is.

Do I need to push this metaphor to its limit? A human body cannot be renewed OR rebuilt. To say nothing of a human soul.

Damn! I wish that had worked out.
____________
(1) Ecclesiastes 12:1-8, KJV.  Hebrew Scriptures and Urban Renewal

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;
While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:
In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;
Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:
Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.
Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.

Towne Square Apartments; Employee Parking Lot; DART line rail (with yellow train); New Parkland Hospital. Can the urb be renewed?

Towne Square Apartments; Employee Parking Lot; DART line rail (with yellow train); New Parkland Hospital. Can the urb be renewed?

 

A bit of simple (or simplistic) writing

Leader and cousin

Leader and cousin

People who know me well enough to know my sleeping/writing/working habits ask me from time to time if I already know what I’m going to write about when I can’t keep from sitting down to write because—what is the reason? TLE, desperation, addiction to words, habit, uncontrollable compulsion (isn’t that a redundancy, I’d ask my students).

Whatever the reason, the answer to the question is, “Yes or no.” Often I have an idea caroming around in my head when I wake up (in those instances I think it’s the idea itself that wakes me up) so I know it’s time to get up because I can’t put the idea out of my head. It’s seldom an idea I remember thinking about as I fell asleep. So I have no idea why it’s there. Oh, I usually know where the germ of the idea came from.

On Friday, for instance, I heard on PBS a scientist talking about the expansion of the universe and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Pretending I understand it was what woke me up today—or, at the very least, it was the first idea that came into my head, even before I poured my first cup of coffee. Why that law (which I have no chance ever of understanding) instead of wondering where the cat was or anything useful is beyond me. But I knew I had to write about it even though I don’t have a clue.

The problem is that I also have to write about the pictures I’ve inserted here because—because. They have been bugging me for a couple of days as the germ of an idea about friendships, relationships, meeting people. So The Second Law of Thermodynamics and friendships have to come together in these 800 or so words.

Siw and Carl-Axel Engstad

Siw and Carl-Axel Engstad

First, my understanding of the “problem” of The Second Law. When you drop a bunch of ice cubes into your lemonade, does the lemonade heat up the ice and make it melt, or does the ice make the lemonade colder? I’ve read that heat (energy) cannot pass from a colder object to a warmer one. Then why does my lemonade get cold?

Those of us who slid around the edges of Scandinavia and St. Petersburg, Russia, together last month had experiences that most tourists don’t. I’m speaking of our meeting with and developing fleeting relationships with people whom most tourists would never meet. We dropped into these generous souls’ lives and out again almost immediately.

The top photo is of our leader and his cousin (Viktor is wearing the Midsummer garland, his cousin sitting with her back to the camera, and her husband beside Viktor). Their family relationship was the original impetus for our trip. They were with us for the better part of two days.

Siw and Carl-Axel Engstad, owners of the ENGarden art museum and conference center near Arvika, Sweden provided us with a scrumptious luncheon at their museum, prepared by Carl-Axel, the chef of the center.  It’s fairly obvious (although I don’t know this for sure) that we were there because of Viktor’s family and their knowledge of the area. Certainly the ENGarden is not a normal tourist destination.

Ville Niittynen

Ville Niittynen

Our guide at Rauma, Finland, was Ville Niittynen, one of the priests of the Church of the Holy Cross, where we sang a concert.  Ville and his wife Paula were our hosts for a dinner at the church’s cabin on Lake Narvi, with a sauna experience for the brave ending with a jump in the lake.

Cookouts and picnics together as the guests of hosts from the cities where were staying and singing were the norm. At the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Novosaratovka, a suburb of St. Petersburg, we were treated to another barbecue (not Texas style!) cooked by members of the seminary community. Our host was the director, Dr. Anton Tikhomirov, who is also the pastor of St. Catherine’s Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg where we sang an evening concert. The seminary was the recipient of the monies we raised on our tour.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that mechanical work can be derived from a body only when that body interacts with another at a lower temperature; any spontaneous process results in an increase of entropy.

Lutheran Seminary Cookout

Lutheran Seminary Cookout

Relationships are like the Second Law of Thermodynamics. That is, the energy cannot pass from the colder participant in the work of being together to the warmer. Ever. Energy always passes from the warmer object to the colder and leads to an increase of entropy. There, see? I said I absolutely do not understand physics.

My point here is not only simple, it’s simplistic, I fear. We received warmth from people in each place we stayed, and in each church where we performed. We experienced those places not as tourists but as recipients of generosity and grace. I hope my understanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is incorrect. I hope some energy passed the other way, that we, less involved in the relationships we developed because we were there for so short time, managed to return at least a bit of the warmth and grace we received.

ENGarden Art - very little exchange of warmth

ENGarden Art – very little exchange of warmth

A subject I know next to nothing about

Not exactly joyful: stranded at the railway station in the rain.

Not exactly joyful: stranded at the railway station in the rain.

Yes, I’m writing about something of which I am ignorant (do you recognize hyperbole?).

Joy.

It’s patently obvious I know quite a lot about joy. I’ve already had two weeks of (mostly) joy this summer. A few dicey moments, but mostly unadulterated joy. Even when we were stuck at the St. Petersburg train station and the churlish bus driver wouldn’t let us on his bus because his instructions were to pick up a group arriving an hour later and it was raining and Russians seem to speak Russian, I didn’t get depressed. I wasn’t exactly joyful, but I wasn’t depressed. I do know something about at least having equilibrium of feeling.

I’ve written about my lack of joy (perhaps it could be called “despair”) before, but that darkness comes and goes. (I stopped that blog because it was way too serious—this blog is my humorous look at getting older. Got that? Humorous.)

Our dreary first impression of St. Petersburg looking up the street from the station.

Our dreary first impression of St. Petersburg looking up the street from the station.

Perhaps I need to find a lover named Joy (C.S. Lewis was surprised by Mrs. Right—I doubt I’ll find a Mr. Right named “Joy”).

I began seriously trying to find joy in 1987 when my psychiatrist (his clients were exclusively Temporal Lobe Epilepsy patients at Harvard Medical School—one of the few times I could honestly claim to be an elite) first prescribed Prozac. It did not then, and does not now—having it prescribed again by one of my doctors at UTSouthwestern Medical School—bring me “joy.” But it has kept me out of the depression hospital for several years. (This is my blog, and I’ll be as exhibitionist narcissistic as I want. We live in the age of Oprah, the age of public confession. If you’re reading this from the link on Facebook, you’re part of the exhibitionist culture.)

On a new day in St. Petersburg

On a new day in St. Petersburg

If I had had such a doctor, oh, say in 1950, I might have spent more of my life living in something that approached “joy.” At least I didn’t get hooked on Valium in the ‘70s!

Now you know all of my secrets.

I’m waiting to be surprised by joy.

I’m not saying I live in despair. I try to keep my wits about me and remember Rev. John Claypool’s words,

Despair is always presumptuous. It is saying something about reality we simply don’t know enough about to say. Therefore, the way to live in hope is to live above “see” level, that is to recognize that because of what we don’t know, we cannot give way to despair.

I don’t live in despair. I have a lot of fun. And I don’t feel lonely and isolated (except on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings—when I am).

What’s my point?

Yesterday I wrote on Facebook,

Yesterday on KERA radio on “Think” (the local interview-talk show) Krys Boyd interviewed Chuck Klosterman, about his new book, “I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)”. In the conversation he said he had turned the ripe old age of 41 and that he can’t understand why he is sure of so much less now than when he was 21. I tried to call in to tell him, “Wait until you’re 68. See how little you understand then!”

My point is, the older I get, the less sure I feel about anything.

A glory of St. Petersburg: the high altar at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

A glory of St. Petersburg: the high altar at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

Don’t feel sorry for me (or nervous that I talk about these things in public). I really do mean for this to be, if not humorous, at least not too serious. Because these days, my lack of joy is finally, I think, appropriate to my age.

What do you know for sure? Do you have enough money to retire—that is, do you have the $300,000 our investment advisor says we need salted away JUST FOR MEDICAL CARE? Do you know (or at least have a certain faith about) what happens to you when you die? Do you have someone to keep you company when you are 90 and living in “the home?” Do you know for sure if God exists or not? Do you really think the political system of the United States is designed to make your life better and better? What is the ridiculous “social contract” we all believe so steadfastly we live under? Do you have friends that you will be able to talk with about any damned-fool thing that comes to your mind? Do you know for sure you won’t have Alzheimer’s? Do you really have better things to do than play Sudoku for the next twenty years?

So I’m going to give up despair because my situation is at least as good as yours if you’re 68 or older.

Buffalo Bill ‘s
defunct
. . . . . . . . . . who used to
. . . . . . . . . . ride a watersmooth-silver
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Jesus
he was a handsome man

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

(Note: The . . . .’s are not in e.e. cummings’ original poem; WordPress won’t let me format it his way without them.)

The sun also rises

The sun also rises

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Rembrandt

Madonna and Child, Da Vinci - one of fourteen

Madonna and Child, Da Vinci – one of fourteen

Last Sunday I attended the exhibit “The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece: Masterworks from the British Museum” at the Dallas Museum of Art. It is a comprehensive retrospective of the British Museum’s holdings of ancient Greek sculpture, with commentary about the development of the Greek artistic (and cultural) understanding of the human body. The exhibition is touring museums world-wide. Of course, all of the statues, all of the art, belong in Greece. That the British Museum “owns” these works is some kind of bizarre cultural and national hubris that I (just me, uninformed as I am) find difficult to justify.

A week ago I wandered away from our group which was making a mad dash through as much of The Hermitage, the Palace of Catherine the Great, in St. Petersburg, Russia, as we could manage in one afternoon (not much of it, let me say). I wandered into a large gallery of sculptures of human figures from ancient Greece. Two experiences of seeing somewhat overwhelming collections of statuary from ancient Greece in less than a week, both worlds away from Greece.

More statues than in Greece?

More statues than in Greece?

It may be (although I don’t know for sure) that in a week I saw more sculpture from ancient Greece than I could have had I been in Greece.

I wonder about the cultural integrity that allows that to be true. Surely neither the Russian Tsars nor the British Museum can (could) lay claim to “owning” that art. Why shouldn’t Cambodia come to New York and drag away the Statue of Liberty? Or Greece make off with the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London?

Of course, some benighted and totally discredited “communist” theorist would say these affronts to culture are the result of “imperialistic capitalism” or some such nonsense. I suppose “imperialism” accounts for the British carting off statues. I don’t know Greek history, but I do know that Britain had great influence (if not absolute control) over Greece during the 19th century and up to WWI, and that the German states also wielded power during that time (I don’t have time to do proper research). Catherine the Great of Russia was German, as was King George I of Greece, and they were both somehow related to Victoria of England. Boundaries of weaker European nations were pretty fluid, and there was no reason—is my guess—for the British not to have assumed that “your antiquities are my antiquities.” And Catherine the Great certainly had the money and power to buy up just about anything she wanted. Every country’s treasures were up for grabs by the countries with the strongest armies and monarchs and other venture capitalists with the most money.

I know, I know. I’m not a historian, and that may be all wrong, but it’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. (Not really. If anyone wants to bother to correct my theory, go ahead. I’ll post your correction.)

Should the Prodigal be returned?

Should the Prodigal be returned?

All of that is getting in the way of what I intended to write about.

The Hermitage is Catherine the Great’s private palace. At least the beginning of it was. She didn’t want to live a public life, so she built a small palace where she could hide away as a hermit. Of course it’s a lavish example of the most ornate styles of 18th-century architecture and decoration. And she (and her heirs) collected the greatest art of Europe. While I may be uneasy that these great works of art reside together in one place because it requires great wealth to “own” them, I have no un-ease at having the opportunity to get a tiny glimpse at a tiny percent of the works in The Hermitage.

Two of the fourteen extant paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci. “The Prodigal,” the intense and affective painting by Rembrandt, as well as his “Portrait of an Old Jew.” Two large paintings by Matisse.  To say nothing of the building (much expanded after Catherine’s day) itself. It’s overwhelming. I don’t have the words to explain the magnitude of the experience.

As a side bar, I point out that we have a parallel example of a collection of masterpieces gathered by a captain of capitalism, Alice Walton. Her Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. Alice Walton’s collection is smaller than Catherine’s, but the idea, the impetus, I’d guess is the same. Should I never see the art in Arkansas because of my feelings about Walton’s billions? I don’t know. I’ve been to both museums, and I would go back in an instant (to the Hermitage in February when thousands of Japanese, American, and Uzbekistani tourist would not be braving the St. Petersburg winter to see it).

The fact is, I was at The Hermitage as part of a group of people of whom, by the time we were there, I had grown exceedingly fond. Being with them mitigated my discomfort. Perhaps the only way to see—to  feel oneself part of—our shared cultural history is in the company of those with whom one shares a personal history.
group RR

Cultural or personal history?

How great

Our little band of singers and friends (taken in Rauma, Finland)

Our little band of singers and friends (taken in Rauma, Finland)

In about 1958 or 1959 my uncle, the Rev. Troy Noland, came to Scottsbluff, NE, to visit us. Uncle Troy and his family came to stay for a week (or more), and he was the main preacher for a week of services (I don’t remember what they were called—revival?) at our Baptist (not Southern) church, of which my father was pastor.

The visit is the stuff of family legend, more for the trouble the teen-age cousins managed to get into than for the number of souls saved in the nightly meetings.

The visit was more important to me than either the services or the teenage escapades (I was barely a teenager, but I was in on the escapades). Uncle Troy was married to my father’s younger sister Doris, one of the most naturally gifted musicians I have ever known. For the evening services at the church, I played the organ, and Aunt Doris played the piano. If I have any ability to accompany singing (hymn singing in church or operatic arias in the concert hall), I owe it to Aunt Doris and her working with me that week. All she said was that I had to learn to set the rhythm. And a new world opened to me because she showed me how to do that.

Mia Brodin and me

Mia Brodin and me

At the time, the hymn “How Great Thou Art” was everyone’s favorite because George Beverly Shea sang it at every Billy Graham Crusade. I still own the copy of the sheet music from which I played with Aunt Doris. It’s purple and has Shea’s picture on the front. (Shea, by the way, only recently died in April of this year.) For many years, I thought the hymn with its somewhat overly romantic description of the wonders of nature was beneath my dignity. The tune, however, a Swedish folk tune, is one of those that pops up in my unconscious and then presents itself to my conscious thinking on a regular basis. There is a reason the hymn is so popular, and it’s not really the words.

On Sunday, June 23, of this year, “How Great Thou Art” was sung (in English) at Eda Church (Church of Sweden) near Arvika, Sweden. The congregation and our little band of singers from the Ft. Worth/Dallas area of Texas belted out the hymn as if we were all native Swedes as the church’s organist Han Young Kim accompanied. It was a moment of grace and clarity as I have seldom experienced.

This is, I remind you, my personal blog. I am not trying to make the Calvary Lutheran Church Musical Mission Tour all about me. I simply need to put into writing something of the enormous importance of that moment for me. And it begins with Aunt Doris and “How Great Thou Art.”

Our concert at the church had been the evening before. We had spent Saturday sight-seeing and having the first of our amazing Scandinavian and Russian meals together. I was somewhat stranded in Arvika and needed to get out to the country church to acquaint myself with the organ. The priest of the church, Mia Brodin, agreed to come to fetch me and drive me to the church. She and I were almost instantly engaged in the kind of deep conversation one usually has only with one’s closest friends.

The heart of the conversation was her response to my explaining the current profoundly unsettled and unsettling place of my spiritual quest. Her response was simple. She told me of her coming to the priesthood only four years before after a long career in business. And her reason, she said, was that she understood and accepted her own need to be connected to the tradition, the 2,000-year tradition, of the church, especially the Church of Sweden.

I heard her. I understood the connection. I understood that belief, faith, all of that “religious” stuff is simply part of the connection. She does not know it (that’s not true-I’m sure she does) but she gave me permission to breathe deeply and simply accept the connections of my youth, the connections of my career, all of those paths that are greater than I am. And then we sang “How Great Thou Art” the next morning, and more paths connected than I can begin to say.

The tour to Scandinavia and Russia was, in my mind, supposed to be a great adventure, a musical highlight of my senescence, a chance to see part of the world I never imagined I would see. I did not expect, at the very outset of the tour, to find grace (not religion, not faith, not belief, but grace) in an out-of-the-way corner of Sweden. “Then sings my soul. . . “

A snippet of my iPad recording of “How Great Thou Art” with Mia Brodin’s speaking at the end.