On being nagging, self-righteous and preachy, or “Do you think my mind is maturing late. . .” (Ogden Nash)

Which frivolous woman is it she wants to disenfranchise?

Which frivolous woman is it she wants to disenfranchise?

Wisdom does not necessarily come with age. Some of us will simply never be wise. That’s particularly sad if we’re (or so we’ve been told too often in our lives) above average in intelligence. Then we think we have all of these great ideas that are, in fact, small ideas grown large in our own mind.

And they do not add up to wisdom.

The poet Ogden Nash was 61 years old when I graduated from high school. My Junior English teacher in high school had introduced me to his poetry (along with that of e. e. cummings, and I have had the two of them intertwined in my mind since then). Eight years later (1971) Nash died. He was the age I am now. (e. e. cummings died while I was in high school at age 68, a year younger than I am now. He smoked too much—try to find a picture of him without a cigarette.)

I can recite from memory more of Ogden Nash’s poems than those of any other poet (with the possible exception of Charles Wesley, but he doesn’t count because I learned all of his poems to hymn tunes which are what I in reality remember—he lived to be 81).

Celery raw
develops the jaw,
but celery stewed
is more easily chewed.

The cow is of the bovine ilk
one end is moo, the other milk.

One would be in less danger
from the wiles of the stranger
if one’s own kin and kith
were more fun to be with.

Three Nash poems of the many that often float unbidden to the surface of my mind when I wonder why they appear. No, I know exactly why they are there. I want to be clever and funny like Ogden Nash. Celery raw or chewed. Pure (unproductive) genius.

I learned the word “senescence” from Ogden Nash.

Senescence begins
And middle age ends
The day your descendants
Outnumber your friends.

I don’t know for sure when I memorized that one. Probably while I was in high school and Mr. Simpson was guiding my intellectual development. Mr. Simpson, by the way, committed suicide the year after I graduated and went off to university.
Until a couple of years ago (see the title of this blog) I gave the word “senescence” little thought. For one thing, I knew I’d never have any descendants, so I was safe. My descendants will never outnumber my friends, so I must not be in danger of my middle age ending.

He knows who the Anti-Christ is--listen to him.

He knows who the Anti-Christ is–listen to him.

One of my favorite “presentations” as one (presumably) with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy is “viscosity.” I have no idea what that means, applied to personality traits. Gooey? Sticky? I have a sticky, gooey personality? (Look up Norman Geschwind, the teacher of my first neurologist, and you’ll find the word.) I write here about other more fun “presentations” often. Hypergraphia, increased religious interests—others. I don’t like to think about “increased aggression,” although that could give me some solace about my anger issues.

But I will take solace in—whether or not it’s true—the idea that TLEptics tend to be serious, with a certain lack of humor.

Read my blogs!

I’m serious to the point of being “nagging, self-righteous and preachy” when I think I am right—when I wonder why the hell the rest of you don’t see things my way. I wish it were not so. I wish I could be cheerful and happy and invite pleasant banter about ideas, and exchange ideas freely and joyfully with others.

Sorry. It ain’t going to happen.

Take my posting here yesterday. What a grouch! I said on Facebook that I need a marketing firm to make my little campaign palatable to everyone and get a real movement going. Look! I know most people who read my stuff agree that the Voter ID laws are horrendous. But the laws have been passed, and all that’s left to do is let the ‘Publicans running the states know we don’t approve. In Texas you can do that EASILY by simply filing a protest when you go to vote and they ask you for some form of ID you either can’t produce or that seems superfluous.

I don’t have a clue how to say all of that so that is seems inviting or fun or even like a good idea. There’s not a gimmick or a jingle or a “hook” in my entire mental arsenal.

I hope that’s because I’m TLEptic and not simply an opinionated, unbending old grouch (the old isn’t applicable because I’ve been this way all my life).

Ogden Nash has a poetic gem titled “Lines on Facing Forty.” When I first discovered it, I thought 40 was obviously over-the-hill. The mind of anyone over 40 must be rotting.

I have a bone to pick with fate,
Come here and tell me girly,
Do you think my mind is maturing late,
Or simply rotting early.

Now I’m facing 70 (in three months; Nash didn’t get there). I’d say my irascibility is a measure of my approaching senility except I’ve always been querulous.

So if you’re going to vote for some Republican who thinks gays shouldn’t serve in the military because they would need a massage before going into battle; or if you agree with some pseudo-Conservative talking head who thinks young women should be disenfranchised; or if you go to church to be taught that President Obama has prepared the way for Armageddon,  I will, as a curmudgeon whose senility has reached the edge of asperity, frankly tell you that you are an idiot.

Period. And I don’t have a funny or endearing way to say it. I’m both senile and TLEptic. Wait til I’m really old.

If that pisses you off or makes you pity the over-the-edge old grump, well, I’m too senile to understand.

He knows how to please gay soldiers!

He knows how to please gay soldiers!

“. . . a partial temperature drifts down from the sky. . .” Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973)

Meaning or actuality?

Meaning or actuality?

The last few days my writing has been bits and pieces, attempts to get something started that fizzle into nothing. That’s important only because it may be evidence of something shifting in my inner life, a “sea-change.”

For several days I’ve been in the grip of a physical anomaly that’s familiar yet new. It may not be physical at all. It may be in my mind, not in my brain.

If it’s in my mind, I think it’s not unusual for someone my age. That is to say, the disconcerting sense that “the center will not hold” (William Butler Yeats, 1865-1939, “The Second Coming”). If it’s in my brain, Drs. Agostini, Bret, and Daly better figure it out soon!

Dizzy. Dissociated. Disoriented. Dreamlike.

Am I alone in the experience of suddenly realizing I’ve not actually been “there” for the last (how long?) hour? That I chat for with a friend on my way out of the tutoring center, and, by the time I get to the elevator I’m pretty sure it never happened? That I was not physically there at her desk?

What’s that all about, anyway? A normal sense to anyone who stops to think for one moment? Especially anyone who has reached older age than many of the famous personages whose deaths are in the news. Wondering not only about the “meaning” of life, but also about the “actuality” of life?

One of my father’s favorite Bible verses comes to mind. “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:19). I don’t precisely think there’s such a thing as “sin.” And, if there is, I have no idea what it has to do with what I’ve written so far. The injunction, “Come now, and let us reason together,” I suppose.

Let’s be reasonable about this.

He knows what's "only"

He knows what’s “only”

I know dissociation is a common symptom of TLEpilepsy (back to that old song). It means “disoriented” and “dreamlike.” It’s an easy leap of logic from that feeling to one of intense religiosity, or at least spirituality. [What a ridiculous word! Even the bigoted and viciously fundamentalist atheist Sam Harris has written about it.] TLEptics know the experience. Not all of us see visions and dream dreams, but we all know the sense of the “other-worldly.” It’s right here. In our brains. Every day.

It may be, I think, what drives us to write, to try to make sense of the way we feel.

Make sense.

Very little veritably makes sense to me.

Not obvious things. Calling the Koch Brothers “libertarians,” for example, when everyone knows they are simply the greediest sons-of-bitches on earth. Or thinking Ebola or ISIS are a threat to the people who live in my apartment complex, when anyone with half a brain can see both are fear-mongering constructions of big business, the media, and complicit governments. Obvious things which, when one says them, immediately give one the aura of insanity.

Perhaps a certain insanity is a mark of TLEpilepsy. Cassandra (see The Trojan Women) was TLEpileptic? Amos (see the Bible) was TLEpileptic? John Brown (see American history) was TLEptic? Makes sense to me.

Supposed insanity is simply a mark of someone who has non-conformist ideas but is not smart enough to say them in any comprehensible or useful way (perhaps because they live in a haze of dissociation).

Or someone whose medications are out of whack or who has an as-yet-undiagnosed inner ear disorder. Or simply, as all gay men would say of each other, “A dizzy old queen.”

Not-so-obvious things don’t make sense to me, either.

I wonder how (if) Sam Harris would make his fundamentalist pronouncements differently if he were TLEptic.

But the reality of consciousness appears irreducible. Only consciousness can know itself—and directly, through first-person experience.” (Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion).

Damn! I wish I knew what he means!

Sam Harris sounds a great deal like John Hagee to me.

Now, people who believe the Bible believe in this [that God established Israel because ‘Salvation is of the Jews’] too, and therefore their support for Israel is not a political issue, but rather a matter of obedience to the Word of God.” (Hagee, John, John Hagee: ‘If You’re Not for Israel, You’re Biblically Ignorant or Not Christian.’ Charisma News. 9/24/2014. Web.)

“Only consciousness. . .” “. . . obedience to the Word of God.” How, exactly, are “only” and “obedience” different?

So I’m back to my opening gambit here—wondering not only about the “meaning” of life, but also about the “actuality” of life.

In about 1995 I was in a seminar in translation at the University of Texas at Dallas. Because she was working in the UTD translation center, Edith Grossman, translator of Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, talked to the class a couple of times. She introduced me to the poetry of Pablo Neruda. We used the book Translating Neruda by John Felstiner. I don’t know. It’s all mixed up in my memory. Perhaps Grossman didn’t actually introduce me to Neruda. I associate her with him because both were important to that class. And that’s not because it’s been nearly 20 years. It was mixed up in my memory while it was happening.

You see, Harris is wrong that “Only consciousness can know itself.” I know, I know, I’m quoting him unfairly out of context. And Hagee is wrong that some sort of “obedience” is necessary. That they are equally misled may be evidenced in that their ideas about Israel’s relationship with Muslims is exactly the same.

But, based on my experience—whether it’s born of TLEpilepsy or incipient old age or a simple inability to understand—I’d say Pablo Neruda has the question of reality about right. Perhaps I’m not in the middle of a “sea-change.” Simply a recognition.

“Unity,” by Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973)

There is something dense, united, settled in the depths,
repeating its number, its identical sign.
How it is noted that stones have touched time,
in their refined matter there is an odor of age,
of water brought by the sea, from salt and sleep.

I’m encircled by a single thing, a single movement:
a mineral weight, a honeyed light
cling to the sound of the word “noche”:
the tint of wheat, of ivory, of tears,
things of leather, of wood, of wool,
archaic, faded, uniform,
collect around me like walls.

I work quietly, wheeling over myself,
a crow over death, a crow in mourning.
I mediate, isolated in the spread of seasons,
centric, encircled by a silent geometry:
a partial temperature drifts down from the sky,
a distant empire of confused unities
reunites encircling me.


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

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

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

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

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

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

I wish they had never happened.

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

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

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

This round of unwritten letters.  . .

This round of unwritten letters. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

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

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

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

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

A lack of hunger, perhaps.

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

To attend the Paris Opera

To attend the Paris Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you confused yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The organ on which I auditioned.

The organ on which I auditioned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRB 140419A – “My heart leaps up when I behold” (William Wordsworth)

GRB 140419A - reality circled in blue.

GRB 140419A – reality circled in blue.



The headline on SMU’s website reads, “Huge 12 billion-year-old explosion in space spotted from Earth.”

One of the biggest and hottest explosions in the universe –a rare event known as a gamma-ray burst (GRB) –has been spotted on camera. [The] event . . . occurred shortly after the Big Bang about 12.1 billion years ago (1).

SMU owns the telescope that took the first picture of the explosion, the Rotse-IIIB at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of West Texas.

I want to know about GRB 140419A. How do the astronomers know it “occurred shortly after the Big Bang about 12.1 billion years ago?”

I ask, not as a science-denier. I don’t doubt astronomers know GRB 140419A happened shortly after the Big Bang. I don’t doubt the Big Bang happened. It’s not a matter of belief. It’s a matter of accepting the unfathomable body of research and practice of scientists over the last five hundred years. The correctness of the science does not depend on me

I’m not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but I have some sense. My lack of knowledge does not carry me off into disbelief—the arrogant disbelief of climate-change and evolution, for example. Arrogant because that disbelief assumes either that one knows more than all scientists since Galileo, or that god has given one special insight into the workings of the universe. I’d be terrified of claiming a special understanding directly from god about the physical laws of the universe. Or anything else, for that matter.

But then, I’m neither a Southern Baptist nor a member of the Taliban.

Being in my 70th year with little time left on this planet (and somewhat diminished brain capacity), I can’t make up for the studying I haven’t done. I’ll never know how astronomers know when GRB 140419A happened. “. . . gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the universe since the Big Bang,” Farley Ferrante, a graduate student in Southern Methodist University’s Department of Physics, who monitored the observations, said. “These bursts release more energy in 10 seconds than our Earth’s sun during its entire expected lifespan of 10 billion years. . .” (1).

I have no idea why many things are the way they are. Why, for example, after decades of selling blueberries in plastic boxes with slots in them so the berries could be washed by running water through the box, has Kroger suddenly begun selling blueberries in solid boxes so they have to be taken out of the box for washing?

Trivial, you say? Well, then back to the cosmic. Since the Big Bang started everything, what caused the Big Bang? What banged? One molecule of something banged? Well, where was it when it banged if there was no there there? What made it bang? Had anything ever banged before? Do scientists think about these things and have answers for them?

Probably, but I don’t know.

Some of the stuff of my reality?

Some of the stuff of my reality?

. . . [In certain patients] . . . psycho-sensory symptoms of epileptogenic nature occur . . . These symptoms, likely closely related to dissociative tendency and experienced traumatic events, normally belong to characteristic manifestations of temporal lobe epilepsy . . . Characteristic symptoms are very similar to certain dissociative symptoms. . . memory gaps, confusion spells, staring spells, episodic irritability . . . (2)

I’ve concluded my temporal lobe epilepsy is a fortunate preview of the impossibility of apprehending the nature of reality. When I was a child and went into dissociative states for which I had no explanation, I concluded that I didn’t really exist and neither did you. I concluded we are all a figment of the imagination of someone or something that we can’t possibly know.

What is real?

Do you know for sure? Is Wall Street real? Are HD “smart” TV’s real? Is the war in Syria real? Are the dresses movie stars wear on the red carpet real? Are the dresses you wear real? Is Ted Cruz any more real now that he has renounced his Canadian citizenship? Is your religion real? Is SMU’s physics department real? Is my computer real?

I know, I’m being sophomoric again. I need to study Nietzsche, or Heidegger, or Kant, or Foucault, or Baudrillard, or Dick Cheney, and I will have plenty of answers to my silly questions. The silly questions I’ve been asking all my life.

The stuff of my life has nothing to do with reality. I’m not saying the cup of morning coffee, the Wi-Fi router, the four or five thumb-drives, the magnifying glass I use to read the writing on most packages of stuff I buy these days, the 1,000 books on the shelves behind me, Groucho the cat sitting beside me—all of that stuff I can see and touch right now—is not “real.”

But at the moment of my death will any of it matter? Will the billions in my bank account matter? Will my latest tattoo matter? Will Eric Cantor matter? Will the surplices and reserve sacrament at my church matter? Will clothes for sale at Traffic LA downtown or Walmart in the suburbs matter? Will the gender of my spouse matter? Will my right to own a gun matter? Will saving the whales matter?

Is there a First Cause? an Unmoved Mover? a God, if you will?

I have no idea what William Wordsworth meant by “natural piety.”

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

However, I know this. The question of “when my life began,” my personal Big Bang or the universal Big Bang, is the same question as “when I shall grow old or let me die.”

Anyone my age or older who isn’t absorbed in thinking about these things is perhaps substituting “stuff” for reality.
(1) Quoted from: O’Callaghan, Jonathan. “Huge 12 billion-year-old explosion in space spotted from Earth.” The London Daily Mail. June 5, 2014.
(2) Bob, Petr, et. al. “Dissociation and Neurobiological Consequences of Traumatic Stress.” Activitas Nervosa Superior 50 (2008): 9-14.

If this be reality, make the most of it

If this be reality, make the most of it

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light . . .” (Dylan Thomas)

Thousands of Names, one Quilt

Thousands of Names, one Quilt

In about 1981 when I had finished giving the young son (about 5 years old) of dear friends his piano lesson at their home in Brookline, MA, his dad insisted we have a conversation. We were long time close friends and often talked. This seemed different–important somehow.

Jim worked in research at the Harvard School for Public Health. He wanted to tell me about the “gay disease.” He was convinced it wasn’t the “gay disease,” but whatever it was, gays seemed to be the only victims for reasons no one had yet figured out. He wanted to be sure I had a better understanding of the disease than I might read in the papers, and he wanted me to be careful–although he didn’t know exactly what that meant.

Our conversation took place shortly after I had begun treatment for temporal lobe epilepsy. The world had begun to feel even less safe than I had always thought it was although I did everything I could to avoid thinking about it.

By the mid-‘80s the “gay disease” was taking a terrifying toll. I had stopped keeping count of the men I knew who had died from HIV/AIDS as we knew it by then. Keeping a list was overwhelmingly depressing.

The psychiatrist I saw as part of my TLE treatment suggested in the late ’80s that I do something to confront my ongoing perplexity that I had not contracted HIV even though I had done very little to change my behavior in the time since the spread of the disease became understood.

I became a volunteer at the AIDS Hospice in Boston. “If it’s wet, wear gloves,” was the first and only non-negotiable rule. The work was intense. My guess is that anyone spending ten hours a week with people who are dying would see their own view of the world change dramatically and permanently.

Volunteers changed beds, helped patients shower, brought meals to the bedside of patients unable to go to the dining room, read to patients, talked with patients, and sat—some days for the entire time we were there—often holding the patient’s hand, more often simply sitting beside the bed saying and doing nothing.

Twice in those four years I was with a patient at the moment of his death. Several times I aided the nurse in the few moments immediately after a patient died.

I don’t know how to describe those experiences. I don’t have the language to express the gratitude which I hold in my heart for every hour I spent at the Hospice, especially those moments around patients’ deaths.

He raged against that good night

He raged against that good night

Those men (and one woman) gave me the highest honor one can give—to be with them as they approached the last moments of their life or, even more awe-inspiring, to be with them at the moment of their death.

Explaining is impossible. Undeserved and incomprehensible, the (unexpected) privilege of witnessing the most important moment of another’s life (each time as an intruder) changed my worldview forever. Whatever words I can find to say this are inadequate and seem dramatic or sentimental in a way I do not (cannot) intend.

Dies irae, the opening Latin words of the Medieval Sequence Hymn (to be sung between the readings from scriptures—“Day of wrath” is the most common translation) from the Requiem Mass of the Roman Rite, are tattooed on my left arm as of last week. Nearly everyone who has seen the tattoo has asked me why those words.

Ultimately I do not believe that the day one dies is a day of “wrath.” And I do not believe in the “Day of Judgment” the hymn describes. When I attend a church service in which the Nicene Creed is used, I cannot say the words, “He [Jesus] shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

I have often thought that, were I either a comic or a philosopher (perhaps a philologist), I could write something memorable noting the visual sameness of “Dies” (day) in Latin and “Dies” (dies) in English. Many people must have tried to say something clever about that sameness over the years.

But that cleverness is not the reason for my tattoo.

The most famous poem of Dylan Thomas (who lived only 39 years) is “Do not go Gentle into that Good night.”

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The film, The Normal Heart, directed by Ryan Murphy and written by Larry Kramer—an adaptation of Kramer’s play written at the height of the AIDS crisis about gay men raging against the dying of the light—was recently released on HBO. I saw it last week after my arm was tattooed.

Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning. . .

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. . .

Those of us gay men who lived through (were in our “prime” during) the worst of the AIDS epidemic, before any treatment for HIV was discovered, understand Thomas’s “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” not, ultimately differently from anyone else, but as a community. We watched our friends die in numbers that should be common only to people who are my age now.

My tattoo is a reminder (is it healthy to have a constant reminder?) that the most important task I have left is to discover for myself what the “day of wrath” means, what it means “not [to] go gentle into that good night.” Perhaps I should have Thomas’s line tattooed on my right arm so I have a constant reminder that we live in the tension between the day of “wrath” and that “good” night.

We can barely sit through "The Normal Heart"

We can barely sit through “The Normal Heart”

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. . .” (Robert Herrick)

rosebudsOne of my students is on the cusp of failing because she has not submitted the longest essay of the semester. The essay is a 10-page expository essay on the work of the French performance artist ORLAN (I’m not shouting—that is legally her name, not Orlan).

I have written many times about ORLAN. I think she’s one of the most fascinating people in the world, and, while Paris is not one of the places I’m anxious to see before I die, I would buy ticket there if I knew I could meet her. The best of my writing about her is from three years ago—best because I am going to get my tattoo either today or tomorrow.

I’d guess most people think ORLAN is crazy or at least has some deep-seated psychological issss-ues that cause her to want to hurt her body. I don’t know. I’d also guess that anyone who is invited to lecture at the University of Nebraska—Nebraska?—can’t be publically certifiable.

I can’t imagine why my student has not finished her essay—she has written one almost-spectacular essay about ORLAN already, and she’s the only one of my students fluent enough in French to read ORLAN’s writings in the original.

I plan to become an authority on ORLAN—perhaps write a book about her after I’m sure I understand Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Maurice Merleu-Ponty, and all of the other (mostly French) thinkers who’ve influenced ORLAN according to C. Jill O’Bryan.

But back to my student. For some reason as I was trying to elicit an email response from her (six of mine to her—with notice requested that they were read) the cliché “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” popped into my head. Not that my class is rosy nice or anything, but she has a chance to get a grade in Discourse 1313 or she will have to take it over. Every student at SMU has to get through a section of Discourse 1313, and I can guarantee her none of the others are as fun as mine (except perhaps the one taught by one of my colleagues with Bart Simpson as its main research topic).

At any rate, I’ll bet almost everyone who might be reading this will be as surprised as I was to discover that “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is the first line of a bona fide poem that could be studied in a section of Discourse 1313 in which students research 17th-century English poetry. What, I’d guess, most people would assume being an academic is all about. Ugh!


But back to my student. Music academia has an honorary fraternity for graduating student musicians. Pi Kappa Lambda. I don’t hold it against Linda that she was the one person from my college graduating class inducted into the fraternity. I think it was because the university knew Frederick Loewe would rather have dinner with her than with me. That’s right. He attended the University of Redlands—never graduated—and gave the School of Music lots of money, and the Pi Kappa Lambda inductee went to Palm Springs for dinner with him.

The Chairman of the School of Music told me one of the reasons they chose Linda over me was that, even though my GPA was high enough to graduate with honors (I didn’t because I didn’t finish my honors research project—do you see where this is going?), the faculty was distressed because they thought I had never worked up to my potential. The example he used was the Advanced Counterpoint class in which all of my work was A-quality, but I earned a B because I submitted nearly every assignment late.

So here’s my very bright, talented student getting ready to blow her chance to be inducted into Pi Kappa Lambda (well, she can’t be because she’s not a musician), and all I can do is sit helplessly by and wish it were not so, and beg her to “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

I, of course, am only now submitting her class’s grades because I’m still in the process of grading those essays on ORLAN. I have a reason—I was sick enough to go to bed for four days the week before finals, so I started the process a week behind. I have a good excuse. I wonder what hers is.

I’m not going to get into an orgy of self-flagellating for my regrets. I’ve never been able to get myself organized. There are at least three reasons for that—which I’ve also written about here. Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Bipolar II Disorder (diagnosed before it became the disease du jour), and simple lack of understanding the need to be organized Johnny-on-the-spot in this world. Pi Kappa Lambda isn’t the only honor I’ve not been awarded.

What most people probably don’t know (unless they were English majors) is that Herrick’s poem is titled “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” It’s about sowing wild oats—pretty explicitly sexual oats.

Well, I sowed my wild oats—sexual and otherwise—when I was in college. And that’s why I am so grieved by my student’s incipient failure. She would be the last person in my classes I would expect to fail. Bookish. Smart. Inquisitive. Bilingual. Has everything in the world going for her.

One aspect of teaching I will not be sorry to leave behind is the grief—I’m not being hyperbolic or maudlin—I feel every time a student fails. Surely an 18-year-old has plenty of time left to find out how difficult it is to be a human being on this planet. Especially to live in a society in which enough is never enough and too much is simply the incentive to get more.

“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” Robert Herrick, (1591 – 1674)

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying,

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

The prize for winning the prize

The prize for winning the prize