“. . . an angel who flew in midair with one eternal gospel to proclaim. . . “

Michael Blumenthal says "Be Kind"

Michael Blumenthal says “Be Kind”

Sometimes the way things happen in tandem is almost too bizarre to bear. Or so much fun not to rejoice. New Age folks call it “synchronicity.” Old Age folks might give it some religious connotation that makes me equally uncomfortable.

Yesterday I was searching on B&N’s website for an eBook version of one (any one) of Michael Blumenthal’s collections of poetry (apparently none is in eBook format yet, so I ordered a hard copy of his No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012). I’ve written about Mr. Blumenthal’s work before—his “Be Kind” (at the hyperlink) is one of my favorite poems. We should be kind not simply because Henry James said so.

Blumenthal’s work is so compelling I couldn’t help writing to him awhile back. He answered my note, and then he put me on the distribution list for his Christmas letter. I’m not sure why I woke up this morning thinking I should get one of his newer collections—and get in touch with him again.

When I logged on to B&N, I discovered three books in my “cart.” I had forgotten about them, of course. One was Blumenthal’s book of short essays, Three Minutes, Please, essays he has written to read on NPR—an eBook, which I ordered. It showed up on my iPad almost immediately, and I read the first of the three-minute essays. It is about Blumenthal’s first surgery (to repair a herniated disc which had given him excruciating pain for many months) when he was something over 60 years old. He says,

The first surgery of one’s lifetime is a kind of loss of virginity: There is, of course, the anticipation of relief and future pleasure, but it is commingled with uncertainty, dread, and, yes, the fear of ineptitude as well (page 16).

Blumenthal was born in 1949, younger than I am by four years.

Is pain anachronistic?

Is pain anachronistic?

The second book in my cart was Save the Last Dance: Poems, Gerald Stern’s 2008 anthology (he won the National Book Award for poetry in 1998—you can look up his other many honors). I had decided to order it because of his poem “Apocalypse” about making and losing contact with people who are important in ways that are difficult to describe—a phenomenon everyone his age and mine understands. He was born in 1925, 20 years before I was born—and he’s still publishing poetry.

“Apocalypse,” by Gerald Stern
Of all sixty of us I am the only one who went
to the four corners though I don’t say it
out of pride but more like a type of regret,
and I did it because there was no one I truly believed
in though once when I climbed the hill in Skye
and arrived at the rough tables I saw the only other
elder who was a vegetarian–in Scotland–
and visited Orwell and rode a small motorcycle
to get from place to place; and I immediately
stopped eating fish and meat and lived on soups;
and we wrote each other in the middle and late fifties
though one day I got a letter from his daughter
that he had died in an accident; he was
I’m sure of it, an angel who flew in midair
with one eternal gospel to proclaim
to those inhabiting the earth and every nation;
and now that I go through my papers every day
I search and search for his letters but to my shame
I have even forgotten his name, that messenger
who came to me with tablespoons of blue lentils.

Remember a Scots vegetarian?

Remember a Scots vegetarian?

The third book in my B&N cart was ORLAN: A Hybrid Body of Artworks. It’s the newest (2010) study of ORLAN, the French performance artist and was compiled with her help. ORLAN’s work has consisted largely of surgeries (cosmetic?) to change her appearance. Michael Blumenthal might be interested in her assertion after her first surgery (which was to abort an ectopic pregnancy) that, “I wasn’t in pain and what was happening to my body was of profound interest to me. Pain is an anachronism. I have great confidence in morphine.”

She took a film crew with her for the surgery, and that began her series of plastic surgeries which she made available to audiences on closed-circuit TV. She has spoken and written about her work extensively.

I have a great (probably irrational) fascination with ORLAN.

ORLAN was born in 1947.

ORLAN’s life and her work are the subjects of the research projects for my students this semester as they have been several times in the past.

So here we have a synchronous morning of random events all of which point toward one reality. Age is not a predictor of anything. 1925, 1945, 1947, 1949. Not bad years to have been born. I’ll toss myself into the lineup with those famous old folks. We all know stuff that younger folks can’t possibly know. We know to be nice, we know about surgery (some odder than other), and we know about keeping track.

Keeping track of those vegetarians we meet in Scotland. Or those other old folks we exercise with at the fitness center. Or our nieces and nephews. Or those folks we went to church with thirty years ago. Or the kids in our classes today. It’s important “. . . now that as [we] go through [our] papers every day [and] search and search for [their] letters . . . [we will not] have even forgotten [their names].”

OK. Enough of the maudlin. Synchronicity may yet save us from our old selves.

Too synchronous to ponder

Too synchronous to ponder

 

“. . . his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.”

The unknown citizen does not have to be ignorant.

The unknown citizen does not have to be ignorant.

For days now I’ve been trying to write a piece about education. You know, the purposes, the grand design, the hoped-for-outcome. All of those high sounding ideas that all educators and most selfish and amoral “conservative” politicians and their followers want us to think about. Who’s left behind and who’s not. Will we use the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) test or some other means to beat teachers into submission?

Beating teachers into submission seems to be the most important desired outcome of education (both public and private—although it’s a bit less obvious at the Hockaday School and St. Mark Academy). How can we beat students into submission if their teachers aren’t servile?

I had never heard of Stephen Leacock until I came across the poem “Arts & Sciences,” by Philip Appleman. Leacock was, according to Wikipedia, a Canadian social scientist, educator, and humorist. One has to be a humorist to be an educator in America these days. If a teacher really thinks there’s a job to do that resembles molding young Americans to think, to understand society, to be ready to take their place as responsible (or at least not gullible and idiotic) citizens, then the teacher needs to get into a profession where they might be allowed to make a difference.

I’m being forced to retire at the end of this semester (I was depressed and angry about it for about six months, and then I realized I will no longer be in any way responsible for the train wreck we call education in this country, and I can hardly wait—in fact, if someone offered me about $15 to do it, I’d call the department chair this morning and tell her I’m not coming back).

It is unconscionable that a teacher of first-year (remember when we had a system of nomenclature that made sense, and we called them “freshmen?”) writing should be the one to introduce a brilliant young woman—in one private conference—to Miss Havisham, Steam Punk, and Dracula. And this college teacher is really a musician (PhD in organ literature) masquerading as a writing teacher. Which he is able to do because he knows about Miss Havisham and other things only peripherally related either to playing the organ or teaching “Discovery and Discourse.”

Any brilliant 18-year-old young woman should already know about at least one of those subjects. And it’s not her fault. At least she—I know because we have since had a chat about Great Expectations—is curious enough and has been given enough freedom to want to know. Very few students are.

One idea of which I am absolutely certain is that education has nothing to do with training the “work force.” It has nothing to do with the United States’ ability to compete in the “global economy.” If we were educating young people, preparing them to be citizens in a free country, we would not have to worry about training the “work force.”

I have no suggestions how to make sure kids get educated (or, for that matter, adults who don’t know Miss Havisham) so they understand anything other than how to pass their time in grubby jobs (even Mayor Bloomberg—with all his billions—was in a grubby job, then another grubby job, and now back to his original grubby job of being a “robber baron”) doing mind-numbing things (if they weren’t, how could Ted Cruz ever have been elected to anything?) in hopes of elevating their grubbiness to the point of being part of the oligarchy of grubbiness that runs all the other grubbiness in this country?

Monument to the unknown citizen

Monument to the unknown citizen

I shouldn’t complain if I don’t have a solution.

By the way, can you make a connection between Visi d’arte (yes, preferably with Maria Callas singing) and rewriting an essay? (Visi isvision.”) Try Re-Visioning rather than rewriting. That’s what all “authorities” writing about education need to learn to do.

We don’t need to revise our thinking about education. We need to Re-See the whole bloody process before it’s too late (or is it already? ask the NSA or Rush Limbaugh).

Two poems that say all of this far better than I can.

“The Unknown Citizen,” by W.H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

“Arts & Sciences,” by Philip Appleman

“Everyone carries around in the back of
his mind the wreck of a thing he calls
his education.” —Stephen Leacock

SOLID GEOMETRY Here’s a nice thought we can save: The luckiest thing about sex Is: you happen to be so concave In the very same place I’m convex. BOTANY Your thighs always blossomed like orchids, You had rose hips when we danced, But the question that always baffled me was: How can I get into those plants? ECONOMICS Diversification’s a virtue, And as one of its multiple facets, when we’re merging, it really won’t hurt you To share your disposable assets. GEOGRAPHY Russian you would be deplorable, But your Lapland is simply Andorrable So my Hungary fantasy understands Why I can’t keep my hands off your Netherlands. LIT. SURVEY Alexander composed like the Pope, Swift was of course never tardy, And my Longfellow’s Wildest hope Is to find you right next to my Hardy. PHYSICS If E is how eager I am for you, And m is your marvelous body, And c means the caring I plan for you, Then E = Magna Cum Laude. MUSIC APPRECIATION You’re my favorite tune, my symphony, So please do me this favor: Don’t ever change, not even a hemi- Demi-semiquaver. ART APPRECIATION King Arthur, betrayed by Sir Lancelot, Blamed the poets who’d praised him, and spake: “That knight’s nights are in the Queen’s pantsalot, So from now on your art’s for Art’s sake.” ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM I couldn’t do Goyas or Grecos, And my Rembrandts had zero panache, But after I junked all my brushes, My canvases made quite a splash. PHILOSOPHY 1. Blaise Pascal Pascal, reflecting tearfully On our wars for the Holy Pigeon, Said, “Alas, we do evil most cheerfully When we do it for religion.” 2. René Descartes The unruly dactyls and anapests Were thumping their wild dithyrambic When Descartes with a scowl very sternly stressed: “I think, therefore iambic!” 3. Thomas Hobbes Better at thinking than loving, He deserved his wife’s retort: On their wedding night, she told him, “Tom, That was nasty, brutish – and short!”

You might have to die for asking too many questions

You might have to die for asking too many questions

“. . . the cable that connects the one to the many.”

Of her poem “Acts of Mind” Catherine Barnett (b. 1960) says it’s “a celebration of solitude and desire and is suspended on the cable that connects the one to the many.”

As city icons go. . .

As city icons go. . .

“. . . the cable that connects the one to the many.”

Her inspiration came from riding the Grande Roue, the 197-foot high Ferris wheel on the northern edge of Jardin de Tuileries and rue de Rivoli in Paris. The wheel was built in 2000 for the millennium celebrations, dismantled and reassembled in several cities around the world, and finally reassembled in Paris where it is permanently part of the New Year’s Celebrations in Paris, and a new “icon” for the city.

One of the delights of getting old is forgetting more than most people will ever know. That’s what Dr. Pratt Spelman told me when I was a sophomore organ major in the School of Music at the University of Redlands in 1964. I thought he was nuts then, and I still think that statement coming from almost anyone else would be the height of egoism, “the habit of valuing everything only in reference to one’s personal interest” (dictionary.com). Dr. Spelman valued everything in reference to his own personal interests—not his self-interest—art, the study of “beauty” (he was president of the American Society of Aestheticians), the anti-war efforts of the Society of Friends.

“. . . the cable that connects the one to the many.”

I think—although I don’t know for sure—my friends wouldn’t believe I am a “shy person.” That is, however, true. Even though I talk all the time. I stand in front of groups of 15 college students 12 times a week and make jokes (they don’t understand) and try to get them to figure out something about writing. For 50 years I sat at organ consoles in churches and played and directed choirs and thought up activities for those groups to help them cohere as communities.

Never once, not once, not ever was I comfortable doing any of those things. I love teaching in my office conferencing with students one-on-one about specific writing projects. Sometimes I love having coffee with one person, sitting at Starbucks (not my favorite, but the most readily available) for an hour talking about this, that, and the other. But most often I can’t even keep up a conversation with my closest friends. If they’re not in a chatty mood, coffee can be pretty silent.

I tell myself now that, like Dr. Spelman, the problem is simply I’ve forgotten more than I (and most people) used to know, and I have nothing to talk about.

I’ve joined the gay square dance group in Dallas, the Pegasus Squares (if you’re gay and in Dallas, give us a try). “Pegasus,” for those who don’t know Dallas, is the flying red (neon) horse atop the old Magnolia building—the symbol of, what else in Dallas? The Magnolia Oil Company. It was erected in 1934 and immediately became a symbol for the city. It’s really quite lovely in the night sky. As commercial icons go, it’s one of the best.

But my mind wanders. (Always.)

Please not in front of the class. . .

Please not in front of the class. . .

I joined the square dancers, and I go to the lessons on Sunday afternoons, and during the breaks between “tips,” I sit at the end of the row of chairs by the wall and don’t have conversation with anyone unless another dancer sits beside me and begins chatting. I took lessons three years ago at a “straight” group and loved it—the dancing, that is. But it was the same deal with sitting alone on the folding chairs during breaks. That is, until the single old women (they were maybe 68 or 70—and I was 66, but they were old) realized I was single. No more being alone. But that’s one of the reasons I stopped dancing. The widows and I were not meant for each other.

So you’d think the Pegasus group would be easy. You can tell from the picture on the website that the “demographic” is right for me. “Mature” men—gay, friendly and not pretentious, some professional guys—at least one other English teacher—all the kinds of guys I should be completely at ease with, and if they have ulterior motives, they’re probably the same as any I might have. And I sit alone during the breaks because I don’t have a clue what to say to anyone. Chat. Small talk. Social intercourse. Whatever you want to call it is—and always, that is always has been—a mystery to me.

I should try (once again as I have so many times) to explain why. I have this TLE problem that makes me wonder when there’s noise and motion if I’m even there. I live in my mind so much it’s hard to know which of the things going on in there I should say. I’m a self-centered perfectionist and can’t abide the thought of saying the “wrong” thing. Let’s pathologize it—I’m a “social anorexic.” Oh, fuck it. There’s no “reason.” I’m just terrified. Sometimes even of my friends.

And I’ll bet that most people, if they admitted it, if they followed their basic instincts, are terrified, too. And if you all followed your own basic instincts there’d be a lot less chatter in the world and a lot more communication.

For starters, the internet would be about 1/3 its size, and most politicians would be forced to shut up. Maybe I should be grateful that some few of us, at least, are shy persons.

Catherine Barnett’s little poem registered with me for the lines

mine usually the little void
of space I call honey . . .

The little void of space I call honey. My make believe friend. My void of space. I’m comfortable with him. “A celebration of solitude and desire.”

“Acts of Mind,” by Catherine Barnett

What’s funny about this place
is us regulars coming in with our different
accoutrements, mine usually the little void
of space I call honey, days
I can barely get through I’m laughing so hard,
see? In the back a woman squeezes oranges,
someone presses the fresh white bread
into communion wafers or party favors.
In the window the chickens rotate blissfully,
questioning nothing–
Sometimes I flirt with the cashier, just improvising,
the way birds land all in a hurry on the streetlamp across the street,
which stays warm even on cold nights.
Guillaume says humor is sadness
and he’s awfully pretty.
What do they put in this coffee? Men?
No wonder I get a little high. Remember
when we didn’t have sex on the ferris wheel,
oh that was a blast,
high, high above the Tuileries!
__________________
Barnett is an instructor at New York University and The New School and has been the Visiting Poet at Barnard College. As poet-in-residence at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, she teaches writing to young mothers in New York City’s shelter system. “This poem is a celebration of solitude and desire and is suspended on the cable that connects the one to the many.”  If you’d like to read stuff I wrote about square dancing when I was taking lessons before, your can migrate here and/or here.

. . . not meant for each other . . .

. . . not meant for each other . . .

 

“. . . now limp, now divided, or its traditionally honorable career. . . “

Talking with the HR Benefits Specialist about the the decisions one has to make at the time of retirement. The face to face with the truth I’ve dreaded for months. Even if the specialist is a good friend and has been my main connection with university reality for the past ten years or thereabouts.

Egyptian Onions, now limp, now divided

Egyptian Onions, now limp, now divided

It’s telling that I refer to it as “work” rather than “my position,” or some other term that indicates pride, joy, fulfillment.

I wonder if I was ever suited for professoring, for trying to help young people who are interested in studying and learning in a university setting. Did I fall into college teaching because that was, for reasons I never fully examined, what I had always “expected” to do. “Expected” of myself, and/or “expected” by others.

Age 69 is no time to be wondering about that sort of thing.

Every day I get in my email a couple of “meditation” thingies. Most days, I think they’re just silly. To wit:

I will look at a situation in its highest light today. I will turn it and turn it in the kaleidoscope of my mind, seeing it slightly anew each time, finding a way to view it that allows me to see it in a light that leaves room for acceptance, growth, and movement, while still remaining connected to my authentic self.

I’ve spent most of my life in the presence of positive ideas and of people who espouse them, so I ought to be one of the 1% by now. I kid you not. What could be more positive than the constant teaching of love, repentance, and eternal life of the Baptists—both preached and lived out by my father? What could be more positive than twelve-step programs? What could be more positive than a professional academic faculty urging one on, cajoling, and challenging one to finish a PhD? And so on.

Why do daily doses of advice that I should find “a way to view [any situation] that allows me to see it in a light that leaves room for acceptance, growth, and movement” make me cringe? Why have I not absorbed all of that positive energy over my life to blossom at some point into one of those Coveyites with seven highly effective habits?

My late partner bought me one of those Covey “planners” to get me organized. I could not master the first requirement—learn to keep the damned thing with me. The only usefulness it ever had was the address book, which I’ve used for at least 15 years. But about six months ago in a fit of cleaning and organizing I put it in some logical safe place which I have forgotten, and every time I need the zip code for my brother’s address I have to look it on the USPS website up again. A friend, one of the few people in the blogosphere I know in person—have known since before blogging—was also one of the few friends who understood my dilemma of carrying the planner in order to plan. Most of my friends thought it was funny—funny “peculiar,” not funny “ha-ha,” as we used to say.

Most of my close friends accept the funny “peculiar’ in me (the lion’s share) as part of me (part that they apparently, for which I am grateful, seem to love).

But there’s this thing that happens in my mind whenever I read something like, “The good news is no one can be me as well as me. Being me builds on who I already am. It uses and optimizes my own human and cultural capital. It’s exercise for my personality and my spirit” from today’s meditation thingy. Exercise for my personality and my spirit?

Covey, through and through—although he’d say, of course, that I should develop seven habits that would, besides helping me be me, make me highly successful.

LA Traffic in Dallas: as real as it gets?

LA Traffic in Dallas: as real as it gets?

So it’s really no secret why I am not highly successful. I’ve never developed those seven habits. I couldn’t even, when presented with the possibility of development, remember to carry the book.

So do you want to know what I think? I think there’s something about me that knows that all of that positive thinking (remember Norman Vincent Peale?—he died, by the way, in spite of The Power of Positive Thinking) isn’t really what being human is all about. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I know it’s what gets us into the alpha male and now alpha female race to have billions of dollars and be able to own the politics of a (our) country. You know David Koch and Alice Walton.

When was the last time you took off your ten dollar Merona (produced by the Israeli alphas of the Middle East) clothes from Target, or you Billion Dollar clothes from LA Traffic (made by alphas from Los Angeles and sold to alphas in Dallas) and took a walk through a forest or lay on your back in a prairie grassland in Texas at night looking at the galaxies? Felt and saw the source of our “reality”?

Rhonda in HR has been “my main connection with university reality” since the beginning of my “working” at SMU. What does that have to do with, uh, reality? Nothing.

What does developing “acceptance, growth, and movement, while still remaining connected to my authentic self” have to do with reality? What does growing and moving in the system of alpha males and females have to do with reality?

Nothing, that I can see. I may be “funny peculiar.” And I may be stuck at about 15 years of age asking the sophomoric teenage questions of “What’s it all about” (you know, reading On Walden Pond and that stuff)?

But, really, when I ask these questions am I not simply raising issues we don’t wanna think about. You’re gonna die in spite of your LA Traffic clothes. And we should think about that all the time.

“The Traveling Onion,”by Naomi Shihab Nye  

“It is believed that the onion originally came from India. In Egypt it was an
object of worship —why I haven’t been able to find out. From Egypt the onion
entered Greece and on to Italy, thence into all of Europe.” — Better Living Cookbook

When I think how far the onion has traveled
just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise
all small forgotten miracles,
crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,
pearly layers in smooth agreement,
the way the knife enters onion
and onion falls apart on the chopping block,
a history revealed.
And I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,
disappear.

Naomi Shihab Nye. She has it about right.

Naomi Shihab Nye. She has it about right.

 

“. . . as if the whole day were sighing, ‘Let it go’ . . .”

In 2010 the people of Oklahoma approved a law barring Oklahoma courts from considering Islamic Sharia law as part of any decision in state courts under any circumstances. On the face of it this is absurd.

"Let it go. Let it go."

“Let it go. Let it go.”

Absurd.

Evil.

Disgusting.

Bigoted.

Xenophobic (to say nothing of ignorant—of what Sharia is for starters, and of how their own penal and civil codes work to continue).

Unconstitutional, which U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange ruled on August 16 last year.

Today a friend emailed me the link to a study I find a little difficult to believe in my most rigorous thinking (which, as we all know is hardly rigorous at all). People who are actively homophobic take 2 ½ years off their lives. There’s a mean-spirited little part of me that wants that to be true.

On May 15, I will walk away from my office for the last time as a fully employed faculty member, not because I want to, but because—for reasons that have nothing to do with my teaching—a dean who long ago reached his level of incompetence by the Peter Principle decided I am more of a nuisance than an asset. This is not merely sour grapes on my part. I can document many other decisions of administrators there indicating the truth of my observation. But then, universities—at least the second tiered ones—thrive on such incompetence. They can raise a billion dollars one year and be forced to cut budgets the next. Seems pretty Peter Principlish to me. But what do I know?

I’ve been told that senility brings out the worst qualities in a person, not the best. If that’s true, people who are close to me in 20 years (yes, there’s a family-statistical chance I could live to be 90) better prepare themselves to cope with a quarrelsome, irascible, cantankerous, unpleasant old queer.

If ____phobia shortens the lifespan, perhaps no one will have to put up with me. After all, those forbears of mine who lived into their 90s (an overwhelming number of my parents—both—grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, and uncles) were, for the part jolly positive folks who never smoked or became alcoholics. I’ve probably queered (to queer; verb trans. “to spoil; ruin”) my chances from the get-go. (Don’t you just love the arcaneness of our language?)

It’s a good thing the wind blows in the spring as well as the fall. According to poet Jeffrey Harrison, I may have a chance.

A poet of honesty.

A poet of honesty.

Enough, by Jeffrey Harrison

It’s a gift, this cloudless November morning
warm enough for you to walk without a jacket
along your favorite path. The rhythmic shushing
of your feet through fallen leaves should be
enough to quiet the mind, so it surprises you
when you catch yourself telling off your boss
for a decade of accumulated injustices,
all the things you’ve never said circling inside you.

It’s the rising wind that pulls you out of it,
and you look up to see a cloud of leaves
swirling in sunlight, flickering against the blue
and rising above the treetops, as if the whole day
were sighing, Let it go, let it go,
for this moment at least, let it all go
.

(My goodness, it’s a real sonnet! written in 2010. I trust Mr. Harrison will not mind my introducing my thousands of readers to his work.)

In an interview for Smartish Pace, Harrison discussed the responsibilities of a poet, noting that “perhaps honesty is the primary responsibility—honesty about oneself and about what the world is like.” (“Jeffrey Harrison.” Poetry Foundation. poetryfoundation.org. 2014. Web.)

[If you wonder why I try to be careful about citations, consider this. My students are writing about the 1956 movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I found a statement by Don Siegel, the director, I wanted to share with them. I found the quotation on about 10 web pages before I discovered its source. You have to be careful and honest. Oh, one other thing. Don’t you wish you’d had a freshman composition course in which you wrote about Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Seems to me any professor who requires that should be put out to pasture! Oh, my, what a prickly old man I’ve become.]

I’ve not become a prickly old man. I’ve become old, but I was always prickly. Cross me once, shame on you. Cross me twice, shame on me. Cross me three times, watch out!

Yes, I have this temper. It’s generally reserved for the voters of Oklahoma, homophobes, and incompetent deans, but sometimes it targets other people, places, and things. I’m not going to write about the gravest instance of my flying out of control. Almost 40 years later, it makes me weep even though I have made formal amends for it.

“. . . honesty about oneself and about what the world is like.” Damn, that’s hard. What the world is like is pretty easy if you have either objectivity or brains (I may have objectivity, but certainly not brains). It is true that the world is slipping into tyrannies that I will be glad to leave behind. David H. and Charles G. Koch are the most obvious examples of one kind of tyranny. The voters of Oklahoma are another. The tyranny of the majority. (All the years I lived in Massachusetts I secretly voted Republican because I was disgusted that, for example, mobster Whitey Bulger’s brother was president of the State Senate simply because he was a Democrat in Massachusetts.)

So the older I get, the more honest I try to be. It’s hard after a lifetime of not being honest about who I am. But I don’t want my irascibility to keep me from receiving kindness and consideration when I’m in the home for seniors with reality problems. Which, of course, you will be paying for because my retirement funds are likely not to last as long as I do.

Another reason to be cantankerous.

The source of honesty? Probably not.

The source of honesty? Probably not.

“God’s gonna trouble the waters”

About 20 years ago I was in a graduate seminar at UTDallas on the history of Dallas. Dr. Harvey J. Graff was the professor.

God's gonna trouble the waters

God’s gonna trouble the waters

That semester my newly-discovered allergies to the junk in Dallas air settled in my lungs and, after I passed out in a UTD parking lot and was ambulanced to the Baylor health center in Richardson, I spent two weeks in bed with pneumonia and failed Harvey’s class. Some sleight-of-hand by the Dean kept that off my transcript, and I took the same seminar the next semester.

Except it wasn’t the same course. I had begun my first course project of interviewing several old gay men in Dallas with the purpose of writing an oral history of the gay rights movement in Dallas pre-Stonewall. I don’t remember what my paper was the second time around (it’s on a 3 ½ inch floppy disk somewhere), but I have my recorded conversations with a half dozen of those old guys. Old guys! About the same age I am now. I did not finish that project. I wish I had.

One of the old (?) men I interviewed lived in Dickinson Place, a retirement facility run at least nominally by the Methodist Church. Dickinson was minister of the prestigious University Park Methodist Church, nestled at the corner of Southern Methodist University. I’ve written about the old guy before (back when I was a young 68). He, too, was a (retired) Methodist minister—who had lived the oh-so-common double life of a gay man which my generation is about the first to find unnecessary.

I wrote then mainly about the circumstances in which he was living. I felt sorry for the old guy. He was living in a safe and affordable apartment with his own (very nice antique) furniture, among about 200 other folks his age (even some gay men, he told me), with meals and transportation provided when he wanted them, with pictures of his children and their children decorating the small apartment. But I felt sorry for him in my forty-five-ish way.

I see Dickinson Place a couple of blocks over from Washington Street every time I go to exercise at the Landry Fitness Center at the downtown Baylor Hospital. Yesterday doing my exercise (walking in the “therapy” pool) I realized I should probably be exercising in some more strenuous way. That’s a switch! I’ve been exercising at Landry since approximately March 23, 2013, the day of record for my first physical therapy appointment for “fixing” the pain in my right hip. PT almost weekly (sometimes twice) for eleven months.

It’s time for me to be out on the Katy Trail jogging (even though I’ve been told by all of the professionals that I will not be able to jog again—as if I ever did!).

Every time I walk these days, at some point in the hour I sing to myself (or hum if there’s no one close enough to think the old man has lost his marbles) the Slave song, “Wade in the water.” It’s become my water-walking theme song. I’ve linked to my favorite YouTube recording of it.

I’m amused when I go there to listen to it by the “comments” (comments on YouTube videos are often more interesting than the videos themselves). One popped up a few weeks ago that is particularly inane:

Randy Banks:   The comments on here are so far from reality. . .  Firstly, this is not a SLAVE song, nor inteneded solely for Black people.  This is a Christian song.  Given the soul by Southern Baptist.  This song is not telling a story of slaves people. . . The course a lot of you traveled in your responses to this video is an embarrasment to the Southern Baptist Convention and Christianity in general.  Everything isn’t about race folks, regardless of the American norm to make it appear that way.

I, of course—you can guess—want to shout at the ignorant christianist that his self-righteous arrogance is unbecoming a Christian. Randy has no access to scholarship, so he would never have read the article By Bryan T. Sinclair, “Merging Streams: The Importance of the River in the Slaves’ Religious World.” Journal Of Religious Thought 53/54.2/1 (1997).

It is, I think, a truism that commenters on YouTube videos tend not to be scholars. Here’s my own unscholarly comment. Bryan Sinclair says that when

. . . these songs were sung so ecstatically at river baptisms, it seemed almost as if the slaves were invoking an ancient African river spirit or deity to “trouble the water” in preparing the young neophytes for their initiation bath. As the slaves sang on the Georgia Sea Islands,

Wade in nuh watuh childun,
Wade in nuh watuh childun,
Wade in nuh watuh,
Gawd’s go’nah trouble duh watuh,
(
From Lydia Parrish’s, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands, 1942)

River personification might also indicate an African influence. . . These slave songs may be seen as evoking river image of a distant religious past.

My logic is taking a sharp turn to the left (or right) here, so I hope someone (anyone) can follow me. There’s a connection among all these disparate thoughts. Graduate seminar. Dickinson Place. Baylor Hospital and the Landry Fitness Center. Baptists. Retired (closeted) gay Methodist ministers. My own getting old (hip and shoulder surgery required by wearing-out parts of my body and my immanent day to retire). Water walking therapy.

I feel daily as if the waters are troubled. The waters of my life are being troubled, and the troubling is evoking river image of a distant religious past. Randy Banks, in all his racist Christianist ranting does not (I think) understand one reality. He’s right that the slave song isn’t about race. The troubled waters are an almost universal image (google the Bible and troubled waters, for example). An image of the end of slavery, an image of healing, an image of birth. Or an image of aging and dying.

My pool, but not my exercise

My pool, but not my exercise

“. . . the old fellow in front of me dropped his glasses . . .”

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) wrote my kind of poetry.

My kind of poet.

My kind of poet.

Not very elegant. Crass, even, by many poetry lovers’ standards. Doesn’t rhyme, doesn’t have a rhythm recognized by the regular repetition of “feet” either iambs or amphibrachs or dispondees, and it often doesn’t even have images either similes or metaphors or personifications. Almost seems like, as far as what we learned about poetry in high school goes, we should pay no attention to the man behind the INK SPOTS.

Why on earth should I remember this song when I remember so little pop culture? (Not a “rhetorical question.” There’s no such thing. I tell my students if they know the answer to the question, it’s disingenuous to ask it, and, if they don’t, they have no business asking it to make a point.) My mother must have sung it. Several covers of the song exist, but this is definitely the version I remember. Somewhere along the line I knew (because some vocal-major friend sang it when I was in college, perhaps) the tune was the semi-classical song “Mattinata” by Leoncavallo, composer of the opera Pagliacci, which everyone knows.

I did not remember all of these details, I will confess. I had to look them up. I remembered the song, but the rest were vague 69-year-old’s snatches of memory. Some years ago researching them was what musicologists did, but nowadays with Google and Wikipedia, anyone can do this kind of arcane research.

Dr. Robert Nelsen used to refer to “the squiggles on the page.” That was when he was a professor of creative writing at the University of Texas at Dallas and not a college president. I don’t think Robert ever had us read any of Charles Bukowski’s work. Right. We were studying fiction writing with Robert.

ink spots—squiggles on the page—“You’re Breaking My Heart”—MattinataPagliacci—Robert Nelsen—Charles Bukowski. How’s that for a train of thought?

“Helping the old,” by Charles Bukowski

I was standing in line at the bank today
when the old fellow in front of me
dropped his glasses (luckily, within the
case)
and as he bent over
I saw how difficult it was for
him
and I said, “wait, let me get
them. . . “
but as I picked them up
he dropped his cane
a beautiful, black polished
cane
and I got the glasses back to him
then went for the cane
steadying the old boy
as I handed him his cane.
he didn’t speak,
he just smiled at me.
then he turned
forward.
I stood behind him waiting
my turn.

(Bukowski, Charles. “Helping the Old.” You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense. New York: HarperCollins: 2002.)

If I were a real English professor, I’d have you analyze first—uh, I don’t know where we’d start. Here’s where I’d start by myself. When the old fellow in front of me.

when the óld

féllow

in frónt

of mé

Well now, it does have a regular rhythm. de-de-dum, dum-de, de-dum, de-dum. If Bukowsi had used the first word that came to mind—as you and I would have—“man,”—the stanza would not scan. Read it with “man” instead of “fellow.” OK, class, that’s boring as hell. Let’s get on with the analysis. Oh! That’s all. That’s the extent of my analysis.

You’ll say that any writing or speech in English has a regular meter. Yep. And the best writing unintentionally follows something like unrhymed iambic pentameter (which we all know from Shakespeare). Why do you suppose all those Renaissance and Elizabethan poets used it? It’s the way we talk. Prove me wrong.

But not all writing or speech creates an image. That’s what makes poetry.

The old fellow in front of me. I’ve seen that old fellow—as you have—a thousand times. I see him in the mirror every time I brush my teeth. Fortunately my hip has healed perfectly, and I no longer have the cane. I bought You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense some time ago because the Publishers Clearing House blurb said it was poems about Bukowski’s cats and his childhood. Some are, some aren’t.

But here’s the deal. This poetry is not simply prose put into short lines. I’m moderately good at writing prose, but here’s my sorry attempt (and I’m not fishing for compliments like,

The banks are supposed to look

The way banks are supposed to look

“Oh, no, your attempt is not sorry”) to answer Bukowski’s poem from the old man’s POV. This entire post is a stream of (almost) consciousness that’s old man thinking. I’ve probably thought this way all my life, but I’m here to tell you that the older you get (at any rate, the older I’ve gotten) the more you (or I) hold onto these strings of ideas. They may not go anywhere, but they’re mine, and it’s comforting to be able to encapsulate them in writing. I’ve been working at this “poem” for three days. Hardly seems worth it.

“Being helped when old,” by Harold Knight

That young blade
watches every
move. 
He doesn’t think
how it is
to be old.
Damn! The
floor.
Why the fuck
can’t you be careful,
old man?
Break those glasses
and pay for more.
Don’t help much
anyway.
Thanks, man.
The cane!
That damned cane.
Does he guess
how mortifying
this is?
Struck dumb.
Get that idiotic grin
off
your
face.

I’m not yet at the point of thinking about what it’s like to die (at least not thinking about it all the time). But when I’m ready, it’ll probably go something like this. Poem with cats.

“1990 Special,” by Charles Bukowski

year-worn
weary to the bone,
dancing in the dark with the
dark,
the Suicide Kid gone
gray.

ah, the swift summers
over and gone
forever!

is that death
stalking me
now?

no, it’s only my cat,
this
time.

(Bukowski, Charles. “1990 Special.” The People Look Like Flowers at Last. New York: HarperCollins Publishers [Echo], 2007.)

only my cat, this time

only my cat, this time