“. . . the fire of the sun has tricked you blind. . .”

eagleA friend with whom I agree probably 90% of the time on matters of art (especially theater), politics, philosophy, self-care, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, posted on Facebook the trailer for documentary film, The Brainwashing of my Dad, which is in production to be released August, 2014.

His posting will stretch our friendship almost to the breaking point.

The film, it appears, describes what happened to my mother. My dad, too, in a minor way. Mom listened to Rush Limbaugh daily for the last few years of her life (until Alzheimer’s). She changed from being basically non-political to being a somewhat rabid conspiracy theorist. The conspiracy being the liberal left out to destroy the country.

My parents came to visit Jerry and me in Dallas. How Mom could listen to Rush regularly and think nothing of coming to my home and sleeping in the bed I shared with my partner while he and I slept together in the next room still boggles my mind. This was the late ‘90s before same-sex marriage was legal anywhere, and Rush was ranting and raving about the “gay agenda” that was destroying society as we knew it.

Of course, he was also ranting and raving about the incipient salvation of the world when that philandering liberal stooge, Bill Clinton, was no longer President, and a true patriot like—well, we weren’t sure yet which Republican it might be—would be President and things would settle back into the paths God intended America to take.

While my parents were with us, I came home from class to discover Rush’s voice blaring through the apartment. I turned the radio off and

The liberal media? Huh?

The liberal media? Huh?

announced that I would not allow that lie-based trash in my home. Sometime later I was in my parents’ home in California when my dad announced (for reasons I don’t remember because I never watched it) that he would not allow CBS’s lie-based show “60 Minutes” in his home. It was part of the “liberal media” that had almost succeeded in brainwashing America.

America brainwashed by liberals?

That is such an absurd concept I don’t know how to think about it, much less write about it. Americans—especially Rush Limbaugh’s devotees—have no clue what a liberal takeover of this country would look like. I feel an urgent need to explain. That’s why my friend’s Facebook posting is going to stretch our friendship almost to the breaking point.

I have enough imponderables in my old age. What will happen to me the moment I die? for one small matter. Anyone my age who is wasting his or her time thinking that government is in the hands of either the liberals who are destroying society or the far-right who want to destroy it is simply a coward. That is, all of that political nonsense is a way to avoid the absolute non-political essence of thinking about one’s life. Neither Rush Limbaugh nor Al Sharpton can help me or anyone else face the final moment of truth—the moment of death.

Thinking with any kind of emotional intensity about politics is a smokescreen to hide the real issues of one’s life: what happens when I die? Is living alone an unnatural state or the best way to ponder the mysteries of life? Do I need to be in love to feel complete (how much are human beings like apes, elephants, and dolphins)? How can I be sure I have achieved the right balance of taking care of myself and working to care for the poor, homeless, and hungry? Does it matter if I leave no “worldly goods” to anyone, if I use up every penny I have? Does it matter how I use up whatever I have? Does it matter if I’m contentious or nice? What’s the use?

“Exquisite Politics,” by Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton

The perfect voter has a smile but no eyes,
maybe not even a nose or hair on his or her toes,
maybe not even a single sperm cell, ovum, little paramecium.
Politics is a slug copulating in a Poughkeepsie garden.
Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth
of a king. I voted for a clump of cells,
anything to believe in, true as rain, sure as red wheat.
I carried my ballots around like smokes, pondered big questions,
resources and need, stars and planets, prehistoric
languages. I sat on Alice’s mushroom in Central Park,
smoked longingly in the direction of the mayor’s mansion.

Someday I won’t politic anymore, my big heart will stop
loving America and I’ll leave her as easy as a marriage,
splitting our assets, hoping to get the advantage
before the other side yells: Wow! America,
Vespucci’s first name and home of free and brave, Te amo.

“Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth of a king. . . America, Vespucci’s first name and home of the free and the brave.” How free am I?

It seems to me right here, right now, sitting alone, recovering from a horrendous week-long cold for which I received not one single hug or delivery of chicken soup (I’m not feeling sorry for myself—simply stating the truth about aloneness most people don’t know yet, but will someday) that we Americans have been brainwashed—one and all—into a trance, a coma, in which we truly believe we are (living in) the land of the free and the home of the brave, that if we believe we are right strongly enough and argue strenuously enough, we will leave this life “as easy as a marriage, splitting our assets.”

And I say, with Daniel Mark Epstein that “The fire of the sun has tricked [us] blind.”

Epstein. I hope I look that good when I'm that old. Oh, yeah, I am that old.

Epstein. I hope I look that good when I’m that old. Oh, yeah, I am that old.

“Heading Home,” by Daniel Mark Epstein

I watched the miles, I saw my life go by,
A drumbeat of bare trees and frozen ponds,
Forlorn stations, ruined factories.
I must have dozed, my head against the glass.
Women I dreamed I would have died for once
Mourned me in a dream. South by southwest
Our train cleaved the horizon, pushed the sun
Toward somebody else’s sunrise, while
Heaven and earth denied my day was done,
Painting a fantastic continent
Of cumulus and ether, air and mist,
Real as any land to a waking man.
A wall of purple hills sloped to the shore
In fluted cliffs; cloud archipelagos
Edged with golden beaches jeweled a sea
Bluer than our sky. Had I missed my stop?
Now was I on my way out of this world,
Alone on the express to Elysium,
Lotus trees, the lost woman of my dreams?

Shadows deepened and the speeding train
Rolled on into twilight. Slowly then
I came to myself, cold, woke to the thought:
This is how it must be at the end of the line.
You cannot tell the water from the sky,
Mourners from the dead, or clouds from land.
The fire of the sun has tricked you blind,
And earth, air and water join in one.

“. . . I long for scenes where man has never trod . . .”

Not everything in its place

Not everything in its place

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and J.S. Bach (1685-1750) were contemporaneous. Let’s see how many connections I can make. Pope, a shriveled little man with a bone disease that prevented his growing up to five feet, wrote his Essay on Man in 1734. J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was first performed in 1734 (one chorus of which will be my funeral someday—not performed at my funeral, but be my funeral, it and only it, no speaking, no liturgy, only Fallt mit Danken).

It’s difficult—especially for someone who has studied music rather than poetry most of his life—to decipher which of Pope’s poems are serious and which are satire.

In 1725 Alexander Pope published an edition of the complete works of Shakespeare, edited and “corrected” to reflect British “enlightenment” thinking. Tom Stoppard was born in 1937 and wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1966. I was Rosencrantz in a production of R&G in 1972.

One might ask what connection 1725 has with 1734 and what connection either of them has with 1937, 1966, or 1972.

None, obviously. I’m trying to get from point A to point B logically, and I’m grasping at straws for connections.

Connections are supposed to be made. Things are supposed to be tidy. The new set of glassware for my kitchen is supposed to be in the cupboard and the old unmatched glasses for sale at the Genesis Thrift Store behind the barber shop where I intended to get a haircut last Saturday.

What a piece of work is man

What a piece of work is man

Tom Stoppard knows how to make connections. In R&G Hamlet delivers his “What a piece of work is man” soliloquy (Hamlet, Act II, scene ii) to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are dead but flitting around trying to get Hamlet to come to his senses and kill his mother. (You’ll notice there’s a gay double entendre between Hamlet and Rosencrantz at the end of the soliloquy.)

In 1967 Galt MacDermot’s Hair was all the rage with its version of the soliloquy—almost a connection with R&G, but not quite (they were on Broadway at the same time). I saw the Los Angeles production in 1969, right after I was asked to withdraw as a student at the School of Theology in Claremont because, through A Series of Unfortunate Events (Daniel Handler, AKA Lemony Snickett, 1999), they had discovered I am gay, and the Methodists weren’t very forgiving. Things were much different then. Right!

Back to Alexander Pope (see how cleverly I make all of these connections?). His Essay on Man, Epistle II, begins

Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man
.

Know, then, thyself. TV commercials agree, and try to sell you on a way to “take control” of your life. The proper study of mankind is control. And the point of taking control—or, more precisely, giving Charles Schwab control—is so you can Own your tomorrow. What a piece of work is man! how infinite in faculty! in apprehension how like a god, owning our tomorrow!

John Clare (1793-1864) was known as the country bumpkin poet. He celebrated nature and mourned the loss of the natural in human society.

And yet I am! and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys. . .

“Into the nothingness of scorn and noise” is not exactly where Charles Schwab wants me to go.

Today I’m going to a “retirement workshop” at the university. I probably won’t understand any of it. But I need to know how to “own my tomorrow” after the first of July. I know how to live now. What a piece of work is man. The proper study of mankind is man.

Here’s what mankind (or people, or womankind, or whatever) does. People spend about 3/4ths of their time cleaning up after themselves and tidying and arranging to “make the house fair as you are able” (from a Christmas carol saying Love the Guest is on the way). People (at least people I know) live orderly lives with all the loose ends tied up. A place for everything and everything in its place. Every Libby glass, every pair of undershorts, every book, every feeling, every thought. Every thought. Manage those thoughts.

If you have a thought for everything and every thought is in its place, you can “Own your tomorrow.” It all depends on clean towels in the bathroom, never missing an appointment, going to the retirement seminar to learn once again when you must, by law, begin drawing money out of the pittance they call your retirement fund.schwab-big-2-opt

I can’t. I can’t own today, much less, tomorrow. This writing was inspired by yet another friend telling me about yet another “self-help” book I need to get myself organized. It seems to me—because I’m too lazy or too prideful to do menial work, or some other obstreperousness—we spend most of our energy trying to be that piece of work. Trying to be

Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Not keeping all of my dishes washed every day, and not putting the new glasses away in the cupboard, and not dutifully checking my mail every day, and not noticing that my car’s yearly registration has expired, and not keeping up with the Kardashians does not make me either a good person or a bad person.

I don’t long for death—or whatever John Clare hoped for. I’m not sure about his God. But I would like right now, not after I die, right now to be

Untroubling and untroubled where I lie.

If the proper study of mankind is man, I should think mankind is not doing too well on the untroubling and untroubled side of things. We’re all troubled and troubling each other—with tidying up, with

Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by [ourselves] abused, or disabused
.

Hamlet, Act II, scene II, by William Shakespeare (or Alexander Pope, or Tom Stoppard, or Galt MacDermot)
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

“Essay on Man,” Epistle II, by Alexander Pope
Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

“I Am!” by John Clare
I am! yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest—that I loved the best—
Are strange—nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

“. . . hearty Laugher and name rememberer, Proud me . . .”

Stuart Dischell was born in 1954, which makes him 60. Hardly old enough to be thinking about what he used to be.

My little job as shipping clerk

My little job as shipping clerk

When people say they miss me,
I think how much I miss me too,
Me, the old me, the great me,
Lover of three women in one day,
Modest me, the best me . . .
(1).

Poor guy. Wait nine years and see how much he misses of himself. He won’t remember half his list. In some box of the stuff I’ve kept over the past 45 or 50 years, I have a photo of myself lying on the floor on an oriental rug. My late ex-wife took it to haunt me. I fell asleep drunk. Again. The photo is one of my favorites, not because I remember the rollicking good time but because it’s not possible to tell I’m drunk. I look like a healthy 25-or-so-year-old graduate student.

We had not yet entered the phase of love beads and hair/beard not trimmed for a year and brownies that now would be legal in Colorado. When people from California, Iowa, or Boston or St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmers Branch, TX, say they miss me, that boyish guy lying on the floor is whom they miss, in my mind. Never mind he was drunk and sans PhD. Or many other accomplishments I’ve learned to value over the years.

Note I did not say the accomplishments were valuable, but that I valued them. Some were of value, but most of less value than I paced on them.

Fortunately, I don’t remember—I assume—much (most?) of what I’ve done that is of real value. If I did, I’d “think of [myself] more highly than [I] ought to think, [rather than to] think with sober judgment,” as frumpy old St. Paul said in Romans 12. I remember–not as “accomplishment” but as simple experience—too much scripture for my own good. My mother quoted that Bible sentence to hold over my head so it would not swell inappropriately. Thanks, Mom.

A bit of sarcasm. I thank her for that in the same way I thank her that whenever someone says “Dr. Knight,” I look over my shoulder to see to whom they are speaking. My PhD still sits uneasy.

Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a [PhD]

(Shakespeare, William. History of Henry IV, Part II. III.1)

Lest anyone think I think I don’t deserve my PhD, I hasten to say that’s not what I mean. Those three years of seminars, that intense study for qualifying exams, and the 367-page dissertation were my accomplishments, no one else’s, and they are the required hoops through which one jumps to be called “Doctor.” Just as getting old is now my full-time job, so were those hoops between 1974 and 1988. Fourteen years? you ask incredulously.

Helping people live by testing their blood

Helping people live by testing their blood

I wish I knew the name of the Dean of the Graduate College at the University of Iowa in 1987—and if he is still alive. I’d like to say “thank you” to him F2F. By the time I was ready to take my qualifying exams, I had been away from the program physically—I was in Massachusetts by then—and chronologically—it had been more than the seven years allowed to finish after residency without taking many seminars again.  The Dean allowed me to finish—to write my dissertation and defend it—because I told him I’d finally sobered up, and several people—including the Rector of the church where I directed the music—wrote letters of support. I did the work, but my PhD is something as a gift.

I don’t remember if I’ve written about that before. After all, this is the 633rd posting I’ve made in my two blogs since September, 2009 (about one every other day). I read those earlier postings now and think, “Who wrote this?” Not because they are such bad (or good) writing, but because I can’t believe I ever knew or thought most of what’s in them.

This morning at 4:30 when I got up, a small group of men were down in the street finishing a job they began yesterday. Apparently repairing a water main leak or some such heavy, unpleasant (and thankless) work. Last night water gysered from the hole they had dug in the street for quite awhile. When I looked out this morning, the gushing had stopped and the hole was nearly filled. In the time I’ve been writing they have finished the job and taken away the machinery.

I wonder if those workmen will bring their grandchildren to this corner and say, “This is where I helped keep the water supply of Dallas flowing on March 1, 2014.”

I’m not someone who flails about talking about the value of good hard work. I’ll leave that to Bill Maher (whose job hardly keeps Dallas—or any other city—in running water). However, I know that my little jobs as shipping clerk at the (now disappeared!) Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana, CA, and as a night shift technician in a lab at L.A. County Hospital, while I hated them at the time, are an important part of “Me, the old me, the great me.” Not the kinds of things Stuart Dishell calls up from his memory. I’ve had plenty of those, too. (Three men, however, not three women, and never handsome and hirsute In soccer shoes and shorts.)

Those jobs, as clearly as my PhD studies, are my preparation for being a

Fellow trembler to the future,
Thin air gawker, apprehender
Of the frameless door.

I’m nine years closer to the “frameless door” than Dishell. Who, by the way, also has a graduate degree from the University of Iowa.

Days of Me,” by Stuart Dischell

When people say they miss me,
I think how much I miss me too,
Me, the old me, the great me,
Lover of three women in one day,
Modest me, the best me, friend
To waiters and bartenders, hearty
Laugher and name rememberer,
Proud me, handsome and hirsute
In soccer shoes and shorts
On the ball fields behind MIT,
Strong me in a weightbelt at the gym,
Mutual sweat dripper in and out
Of the sauna, furtive observer
Of the coeducated and scantily clad,
Speedy me, cyclist of rivers,
Goose and peregrine falcon
Counter, all season venturer,
Chatterer-up of corner cops,
Groundskeepers, mothers with strollers,
Outwitter of panhandlers and bill
Collectors, avoider of levies, excises,
Me in a taxi in the rain,
Pressing my luck all the way home.

That’s me at the dice table, baby,
Betting come, little Joe, and yo,
Blowing the coals, laying thunder,
My foot on top a fifty dollar chip
Some drunk spilled on the floor,
Dishonest me, evener of scores,
Eager accepter of the extra change,
Hotel towel pilferer, coffee spoon
Lifter, fervent retailer of others’
Humor, blackhearted gossiper,
Poisoner at the well, dweller
In unsavory detail, delighted sayer
Of the vulgar, off course belier
Of the true me, empiric builder
Newly haircutted, stickerer-up
For pals, jam unpriser, medic
To the self-inflicted, attorney
To the self-indicted, petty accountant
And keeper of the double books,
Great divider of the universe
And all its forms of existence
Into its relationship to me,
Fellow trembler to the future,
Thin air gawker, apprehender
Of the frameless door.

A hard night's work

A hard night’s work


“Which way does your beard point tonight?”

The other day driving home from my (surprisingly for an old man) regular exercise at the Landry Fitness Center at

Which way is his beard pointing?

Which way is his beard pointing?

Baylor Hospital (I walk in the “therapy” pool) I heard Krys Boyd on her “Think” program on KERA Radio say to the writer she was interviewing, “Since human beings can logically expect to live seventy years . . .” I have no idea how that sentence ended.

Logically expect to live 70 years! I’ve been here for 69 of the 70. Is it time for me to be preparing to shuffle off this mortal coil (Hamlet)?

When my Grandfather Knight died, I walked through the parlor of the funeral home where his body was in place for “viewing” at the moment my uncle (my mother’s brother) said to my father, standing by the casket, “Well, Glenn, we’re the older generation now.” Both of them were younger (my dad by six years and my uncle more) than I am now. I’ve been part of the “older generation” since my dad died two and a half years ago.

Funny thing about that. Almost everywhere I go, I am the oldest person there. By default I apparently am part of the older generation. I’m not sure if my dad or uncle ever thought much about being the older generation of our family. They both reached old age—my father, as I’ve said here many times, lived to be 97.

Subject shift.

This morning standing briefly in front of the bathroom mirror, I noticed my beard. Seeing myself with a beard after many years of shaving completely or allowing only stubble to grow on my face was a surprise even though I’ve had the beard for several months now.  Even more of a surprise is taking in, seeing and understanding and remembering that my beard is an old man’s beard. Mostly gray, but with this odd patch of brown almost as dark as it was thirty years ago.

I could, if I shaved around it very carefully, leave a brown moustache.

The scraggliest President

The scraggliest President

Don’t ask. I have no idea why I’m thinking about my beard this morning. Well, yes I do. I meant to ask a couple of friends last night where they get their hair cut. I need to find a barber who knows how to shape a beard. Not simply cut it. Shaping a beard is a fine craft. The guys at Super Cuts don’t know how.

When I was a kid (my apologies to a blogger I read yesterday who said one shouldn’t tell personal stories in their blog), my uncle (gay brother of my mother and of the uncle at my grandfather’s funeral) gave me a boxed set of plastic figures of all of the Presidents (up to Eisenhower, who was President at the time). Playing with those figures, I not only learned to recite the names of the Presidents in order, but also learned to identify each of them.

Many of them I recognized by their beards. My favorite was Martin Van Buren. He looked somehow wild and unkempt. Chester A. Arthur had a scraggly beard, too, but I was not nearly as enchanted by his.

Allen Ginsberg wrote,

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking
among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops?
What price bananas?  Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you,
and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy
tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the
cashier.

At first I thought this somehow belittled Walt Whitman. Ginsberg was only 29 when he wrote it. Brash young thing. But as I contemplated, I realized the poem is a fond—no, more than fond—picture of the “lonely old grubber” who helped Ginsberg find his voice, not among lofty ideas and magnificent natural wonders, but in the ordinary. At the grocery store.

It’s not so bad to be a lonely old grubber. Walt Whitman had a scraggly beard, too.

In Leaves of Grass Whitman answers the child who asks (in part 6) “What is the grass?”

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

I’m not sure I understand the image of the grass “darker than the colorless beards of old men.” Ginsberg’s poem continues as an obvious ode to Whitman’s influence in his own work.

      Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in a hour.
Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and
feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The trees add shade
to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automo-
biles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher. . .

We are the older generation now

We are the older generation now

Human beings can expect to live seventy years. I am the older generation now. Ginsberg’s question for us old guys, poets, Presidents, or me is “Which way does your beard point tonight?” Whitman answers that the grass, new sprouts of grass are new life.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;
And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
____________________
I urge you to follow the links to the Whitman and Ginsberg poems below so you have something worth reading instead of my disconnected thoughts.

A Child said, What is the Grass, by Walt Whitman (scroll down to number 6)
A Supermarket in California, by Allen Ginsberg

Nietzsche, the Fantasticks, and all that jazz. . .

Permission granted

Permission granted

The drama group at the School of Theology in Claremont, CA, presented The Fantasticks about 1970. I was rehearsal pianist, played just enough of the accompaniment for the singers to learrn their songs. I could not play that kind of music although I wanted to so intensely that I was heartbroken when a real pianist came in for the performances. (I could do it now, by the way.) But the producer/director (a close friend) didn’t want a production that sounded like a cross between bad Bach and bad jazz.

Last night, for reasons too complex to try to explain here, I sang in my car all the way home after dinner, “I’d like to swim in a clear blue stream where the water is icy cold . . . just once, just once before the chance is gone. . .” I couldn’t play the piano in the style of the show in 1970, but I did learn all of the songs, for which I am grateful (why do the kids put beans in their ears, anyway?).

Like every gay boy in America, I knew “Much more” before I played it. Barbra Streisand recorded it in 1963. One of my university voice-major friends sang “My Name Is Barbra,” by Leonard Bernstein in a student recital, and that gave us (the “serious” music students) permission to listen to Streisand’s albums. After all, if she sang music by Bernstein. . .

So last night I was singing “Just once, just once”—because I had been talking about what I’m going to do for the rest of my life as a lonely old man.

When I talk about these things, my friends (none of whom are yet 69) think I’m complaining or being depressed, which I am—wait until you’re 69 and see how you talk. Or, perhaps I’m not. Perhaps it’s all a put-on. I love being old. Well, no, I don’t love it. I am surprised by it and intrigued about how one is “supposed” to act and feel. I don’t feel 69, so it’s hard to believe I am. If I’m going to act my age, I’ll have to join the Prime Timers, and I don’t want to run around with those old guys (unless one of them is single and looking).

“Just once, before the chance is gone. . . “

Can you play me now?

Can you play me now?

I published my “bucket list” (sorry, Kay, that seems from this vantage to be a good name for it) here a couple of weeks ago. One of my favorite daydreams is not on the list. I’d like to put into words—just once!—my perception of my life, and, by extension, your life, too. “I’d like to be not evil but a little worldly wise.”

The preceding sentence is so sophomoric—no, teen-agerish—I wish I hadn’t written it.  I should delete it and recast my thinking. But I am sophomoric (always have been), and I’m afraid my thinking is more and more teen-agerish all the time.

About 20 years ago when I was taking courses for my second PhD (none of my friends, I remind you, is old enough to talk about starting their life [1] over twenty years ago), I was bewildered and befuddled by such important philosophers as Nietzsche and Heidegger and Lyotard.

So the other day I decided to try again to read some of that stuff. I found Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil in the Gutenberg Project, and I began to read. I sailed through the first three paragraphs thinking I understood them, and came to the sentence in the fourth paragraph,

. . . we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions (to which the synthetic judgments a priori belong), are the most indispensable to us, that without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely IMAGINED world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live—that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life. TO RECOGNISE UNTRUTH AS A CONDITION OF LIFE. . . [2]

Whoa! Perhaps I get it. “Without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live.” That’s exactly what capitalism, for example, is. A counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers. We make this stuff up. Here, trickle down some numbers so a few people are counterfeited to be better or more deserving or—something! Who knows what?—and we’ll make up a society based on those numbers. And everyone else will internalize those numbers and try to figure out a way to get in on the equation.

Or throw some numbers around about, say, the national debt. All that means is we’ve figured out how to numericalize the way we do business so that we always keep (what? 40% of?) our friends poor so we can keep a few rich, and we structure our “national” (another counterfeit number) life around not taking care of that certain number. Or global warming. Or war in Afghanistan. Or the latest iPhone apps. Or—whatever it is you think is real today.

Dementia? Brilliance?

Dementia? Brilliance?

We have a set of ideas about “the absolute and immutable” that we know in our heart of hearts is “purely imagined,” but admitting that would be “a negation of life” as we know it.

Nietzsche was crazy—went crazy. Mad. Insane. Did he think this stuff up because he was insane, or did his thinking this stuff drive him crazy?

And if I keep trying to sort out the real from the counterfeit in the way I live for the two or twenty years I have left, will I be (or am I already) crazy, too? Before the chance is gone.
__________________
[1] Apropos of nothing, I’ve been meaning to comment on the epicene “they.” It is perfectly acceptable in English. Only the most traditionalist academics will refuse its use. “Epicene” comes from the Greek epíkoinos, meaning “of both sexes.” My saying, “None [singular] of my friends . . . their life [plural]. . .” has roots as elevated as saying “his life” would be here. “’Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o’erhear the speech.” — Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act III, Scene 3, line 2311). That’s the example from Shakespeare I know best because I played Polonius once.
[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Helen Zimmern in The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche (1909-1913). Project Gutenberg. February 4, 2013. Web.

“. . . I pretend I am standing on the wings of a flying plane. . . “

Lara Flynn Boyle in her newsworthy dress

Lara Flynn Boyle in her newsworthy dress

Drive yourself crazy. Try to remember all the conversations you have in one day. On top of that try to think about everything you’ve heard or read that someone thinks is “newsworthy” for the day—news headlines on the hour on NPR or news briefs on Yahoo when you log on—items in the news that keep you au courant. “’Catching Fire’ Catches, Passes ‘Iron Man’ as 2013’s Biggest Movie.” “Top 6 Playoff Quarterbacks’ Pre-Game Meals.” “Designer Breaks Silence over Infamous Lara Flynn Boyle Tutu Dress.”

Three conversations I’ve heard or participated in during the last couple of days have stuck with me. KERA’s Krys Boyd talked on “Think” with Darrin McMahon whose new book is Divine Fury: A History of Genius. A conversation interesting and off-putting at the same time. McMahon says an essential ingredient of genius is “drive.” I’ve never been driven by anything except love of chocolate. Right away it’s obvious I’m no genius. ORLY!

I had a conversation with my sleep doctor. It boiled down to his gentle warning that as one gets older, one will naturally sleep less. Less than the 5 or 6 hours I’ve been getting per night for 50 years? Oh, PLZ!

A friend and I had a conversation about match.com. How many people on match.com admit to being interested in anyone 69 years old? None. Zero. At least not gay men. But if I don’t find someone in 6 months, they’ll give me another 6 months free. By which time, of course, I’ll be 70. BFD.

I don’t come close to being a genius, I’m going to be sleepier as the years drag on, and I’m already over the hill. None of these flashes is surprising news. None is news as big as Lara Flynn Boyle’s tutu dress.

When I was in high school a group of us from the First Baptist Church of Omaha went to a conference at the American Baptist Assembly at Green Lake, WI. It was one of the most important weeks of my young life (not hyperbole) for several reasons.

At a worship service the staff organist played three “Intermezzi” by Hermann Schroeder. I’m not sure I was ever more taken with music at church. I raved about it. My good friend with whom I was sitting couldn’t believe I liked the music. “It’s not fit to be played in church.”

When we returned home I asked my teacher if I could get the music and learn the “Intermezzi.” He not only knew them but he played them and had an extra copy. I still use the copy of that score from 1962—with Mr. Wischmeier’s performance markings in it. Four years later I played Hermann Schroeder’s Organ Sonata I for my senior recital in college.

It takes no particular genius to play the Schroeder “Intermezzi.” They’re technically quite simple. A bit of inspiration may be necessary to play them so they sound “musical” rather than intellectual. Eugene hated them because the melodies are angular and they are mildly (not crushingly) dissonant. They are not hypnotic enough to be appropriate for most church services—in which no one wants to be challenged beyond their comfort zones.

I’m not sure why I was thinking of the “Intermezzi” yesterday. I miraculously found the score—I never put a music score away afterPrentend I'm walking

I use it, and my apartment is stacked with piles of music as if I were an old man who can’t keep things in order—and played through them.

Or tried to.

One would think a short (one minute 40 seconds to play) technically straightforward piece of music that I learned 50 years ago would present no problem. It did. I had to practice—it almost seemed as if I’d never played one line of the piece because it was so difficult (time consuming!) to get it right. I was obsessed. I wanted to record it.

It seems unfortunate that I think of Eugene when I play those intermezzi. They soon passed through my conscious world into my unconsciousness. They brought with them a small repertory of music by Schroeder I love. I’d like to think I would have learned that music even without Eugene—but I needed to prove to him that the music is expressive of something important (the older I get the less certain I am what that might be).

When I talk to my friends I pretend I am standing on the wings

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

than a dozen roses
(Shinder, Jason. “How I Am”).

I knew I’d have to “sleep on” the music before I could record it. The sleep of all these years was not enough. I’d have to sleep with it in my conscious mind. Is that weird or what? Today I played it just fine. Recorded it in one take. The drivenness of my youth took over.

This business of longevity, this accumulation of experience and feeling and thought is more confusing—rather than less—every day. I can re-play, probably with much more musicality now, music I learned fifty years ago. I’m somehow musically (my hands may not agree) in my prime. And yet I can’t find a date because no one is looking for someone 69 years old.

“How I Am,” by Jason Shinder (1955-2008)

When I talk to my friends I pretend I am standing on the wings

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

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

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

like the long upward-winding curve of a train whistle

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

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

from my miseries because to say I am miserable is to say I am like them.
—Shinder, Jason. “How I Am.” The American Poetry Review (November/December 2005).

“. . . like a pronoun out of step with all the other floating signifiers . . .”

PLEASE, before you read this, I would appreciate your reading an important writing by my friend Samia Khoury in Jerusalem. Thank you.

They won't repeat it just for me.

They won’t repeat it just for me.

(Note: proofreading this I realized it makes no sense whatsoever. I will try to fix that and post it again—or something like it.)

The Twelve Days of Christmas are always nostalgic for me, not because I love Christmas or because I remember Christmases past, but because they somehow mark the progression of my life.

Such times mark the progression of everyone’s lives if they think about it. (Don’t get all stuffy with me and tell me “they” is wrong here—the old nonsense promulgated by high-brow prescriptivists—until you have studied epicene and generic uses of “they.” If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me: Arise; one knocks. / … / Hark, how they knock!  — Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.)

The first Christmas I remember as a professional organist was Christmas 1967 at Christ Church (Episcopal) in Ontario, California. I’d never seen anything like it. Midnight Mass in the most vivid color with candles by the hundreds, flowers everywhere (poinsettias in abundance, but not the main offering). The infant Jesus finally in the crèche. And the music I was in charge of. I don’t remember exactly what the choir sang or I played, but I know it was glorious (that’s not my ego talking—it is possible for amateurs and non-world-class professionals to make glorious music).

I could write a progression of tales of Christmas past for the past 46 or so years, but I won’t. That’s because it’s the First Sunday in Christmas (there will be two this season), and I am going to play the organ at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Richardson, Texas.

This will be the first time in more than a year I have played for a service. That’s difficult for me to believe because my whole life has been centered in my understanding that I am an organist and that my failure to preside at the console and in the aisles and choir stalls of an Episcopal cathedral today is the result of their failure to recognize my talent. Of course, that’s not true. My failure is my failure (except “failure” is the wrong word—I’ll let you know when I find the right one). I have not worked hard enough to develop my considerable but also limited talents to achieve such a position.

This writing is neither sour grapes nor feeling sorry for myself. I have had and directed glorious musical experiences. But I know my limitations. They begin with the fact that there is absolutely nothing about me that is “driven.” I have no clue what it’s like to pursue a goal with energy and concentration, letting nothing get in my way. I have too many innate obstacles—beginning with limited intensity and strength (both physical and mental).

So back to this nostalgia for (or centered in) the Twelve Days of Christmas. These days always used to give me, when I was making music for churches, a sense that I might be able to do the Christmas Eve service over and get it perfect. After all, it is still Christmas and all of that music is still appropriate, so let’s try it again.

I’m grown up enough (and have been for many years) to know that’s not the way it works. They’re not going to back up and pretend Santa hasn’t come yet and repeat the process until I get it right. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

This is related. I'll tell you how later.

This is related. I’ll tell you how later.

It’s all a matter of belief. Do you believe time passes or not? Well, yes and no. I’ve written about my understanding of (or lack of) the passage of time (quite recently, as a matter of fact).

What might have been is obvious. I might have directed the music and/or played the organ at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. I might have directed the Boston Opera’s production of Hansel and Gretel. Or the choir of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco might have sung an anthem I wrote.

Of course. I can play Walter Mitty with the best of them (perhaps not as well as Ben Stiller).

But I prefer these days to think about what is. I’m not important to the world, but I am important to a few people. I will remember this Christmas, I think, several reasons. I can walk without a cane. My arm is not in a sling (although reaching for the stops on the left panel of the organ I’ll play today is a bit of a challenge still). So I’m grateful for progress for myself—for recovery and healing.

Some of the sources of the word “nostalgia” include “homecoming,” and “to return safely home” and “to recover,” and “to heal.” The modern sense of yearning for the past is a recent 20th-century usage. To “recover,” to “heal.” One of the people who was present at that Christmas Eve in California 46 years ago, when she died, left me in charge of her estate—to make grants for writers. I get to make a grant this week not to a writer but to someone who daily influences the lives of children with various limitations. She is a music therapist. Her guitar was stolen. I get to pay for a new one tomorrow.

Will I ever again in my life have the experience of participating in “recovery” or “healing” as I will during these Twelve Days? I hope so. But if I don’t, it is enough. It’s a “quick one before I go.”

“A Quick One Before I Go,” by David Lehman        

There comes a time in every man’s life
when he thinks: I have never had a single
original thought in my life
including this one & therefore I shall
eliminate all ideas from my poems
which shall consist of cats, rice, rain
baseball cards, fire escapes, hanging plants
red brick houses where I shall give up booze
and organized religion even if it means
despair is a logical possibility that can’t
be disproved I shall concentrate on the five
senses and what they half perceive and half
create, the green street signs with white
letters on them the body next to mine
asleep while I think these thoughts
that I want to eliminate like nostalgia
0 was there ever a man who felt as I do
like a pronoun out of step with all the other
floating signifiers no things but in words
an orange T-shirt a lime green awning

The organ I get to play today. St. Luke's Lutheran, Richardson, TX

The organ I get to play today. St. Luke’s Lutheran, Richardson, TX