“Auntie . . . told me I should travel slowly or I would see too much before I died . . .”

Delores De Rio. Size 4?

Delores De Rio. Size 4?

Being eternally and overwhelmingly ignorant has compensations. For example, every time I discover a poet I whose work I didn’t know, it seems as if they wrote a poem that morning, for me alone.

Case in point. I’ve been following Sandra Alcosser’s Auntie’s advice most of my life and didn’t know it. I do travel slowly. I have not travelled the world. I suppose by most people’s reckoning I’ve done quite a bit of travel. Mexico, Canada, Great Britain, the Channel Islands, France, Spain, Brazil. Jordan, and Palestine. All 48 of the “continental” states.

But as gay men go, those who have worked all their lives and have no one to care for except themselves so they have plenty of “disposable income,” I’ve been almost nowhere. I have friends who take two or three cruises a year.

I’ve never been on a cruise. For two reasons. I can’t imagine being on a ship in the middle of the ocean and unable to get off when I wanted to. Once the idea got into my head I wanted off the ship—NOW!—they’d have to sedate me or send a helicopter to airlift me out.  

And I’ve never had the money to travel. I’m not complaining or regretting (that’s not quite true) the particulars of my life. I’m solely responsible that I was a drunk until I was 41 and never had full-time work in my profession until I was 42. Exactly what Dean Anne Minton saw in me that allowed her to hire me to teach music at Bunker Hill Community College in spite of my résumé I will always wonder and be grateful.

I have “travel[ed] slowly [and] I [have not seen] too much.” I’ve spent almost a month in Palestine (including Gaza—not many Americans can say that). I spent three weeks in Brazil (one week in the Amazon Rain Forest)—4th of July on the Beach at Ipanema. I wrote about that a year ago, so I suppose I should simply make a link to that posting and be on my way writing about something else.

However, it’s amazing what a difference a year makes.

For one thing, Sandra Alcosser wrote “Hats” for me this morning. She’s a year older than I am, and was the first Poet Laureate of the State of Montana. Anyone who lives only 481 miles from Worland, WY, the first place I remember living, has to be OK. (Driving between the two small cities, you pass within about 40 miles of Yellowstone National Park—where I have also spent some slow travel time.) Especially when she was up early enough to write a poem for me this morning.

Auntie lies in the rest home with a feeding tube and a bedpan . . .
Surely this is not the place of women in our world, that when we are old and curled like crustaceans, young girls will laugh at us, point their fingers, run as fast as they can in the opposite direction
.

When I turned 30 years old, I was so cocky and pig-headed (and, well, drunk) I hardly noticed except that at some time earlier I had gotten it into my head that I’d die when I was 27, so I was surprised to be hitting 30. When I hit 40, I was in the deepest point of drinking and barely noticed—wanting to finish my PhD and have a good job like all of my friends.

I had a grand party at Jaxx Steak House in Farmers Branch, TX, for my 50th birthday, living with the man I loved, in graduate school again, this time studying writing, and playing the organ for a small church. I could hardly have imagined a better life. I had a grand party with friends for my 60th birthday under much different circumstances. I was professoring at SMU, still playing the organ for the small church, but alone because my partner had died of melanoma. It was a difficult birthday because I was lonely, not because I thought 60 was old or in any other way unpleasant.

My next birthday will be my 70th. I’m not particularly looking forward to it. I won’t, most likely, be like Sandra Alcosser’s Auntie, lying in the rest home with a feeding tube and a bedpan . . .  old and curled like [a crustacean]. No, if I follow my family’s genetic pattern, that won’t happen for about 20 more years.

I will be, however, “eternally and overwhelmingly ignorant.” By my next birthday I will have been retired for about six months. As that time approaches, it seems no matter what I do I’m travelling too fast, seeing too much before I die—but remaining ignorant of what much of it means or, more importantly, what to do about it.

Ginger Rogers in her Lilly Daché

Ginger Rogers in her Lilly Daché

It’s more important to decide what not to see than what I should see. I don’t need to see women’s health clinics in Texas closing because of the unscientific belief perpetrated on the American people about when human “life” begins. I don’t need to see the ignominy that 19% of Texans are functionally illiterate while state officials trumpet an “economic miracle.” I don’t need to see 27% of Texas children living in food insecurity while Senator Cruz rails about cutting government budgets.

I don’t need to see wars, rumors of war, and both imperialism and apartheid still (in the age of enlightenment?) basically controlling the world.

I don’t need to see climate change deniers winning seats in the US Congress.

“. . . would see too much before I died . . .” I suppose nearly everyone will. If we all see these things, why don’t they change? That’s not a “rhetorical question.” It’s the sad—and getting sadder—question of an almost-old man (Auntie will, I’m sure, share the idea with an old man) who has already, perhaps, seen too much.

“Hats,” by Sandra Alcosser

Auntie lies in the rest home with a feeding tube and a bedpan, she weighs nothing, she fidgets and shakes, and all I can see are her knotted hands and the carbon facets of her eyes, she was famous for her pies and her kindness to neighbors, but if it is true that every hat exhibits a drama the psyche wishes it could perform, what was my aunt saying all the years of my childhood when she squeezed into cars with those too tall hats, those pineapples and colored cockades, my aunt who told me I should travel slowly or I would see too much before I died, wore spires and steeples, tulled toques. The velvet inkpots of Schiaparelli, the mousseline de soie of Lilly Daché have disappeared into the world, leaving behind one flesh-colored box, Worth stenciled on the top, a coral velvet cloche inside with matching veil and drawstring bag, and what am I to make of these Dolores del Rio size 4 black satin wedgies with constellations of spangles on the bridge. Before she climbed into the white boat of the nursing home and sailed away–talking every day to family in heaven, calling them through the sprinkling system–my aunt said she was pushing her cart through the grocery when she saw young girls at the end of an aisle pointing at her, her dowager’s hump, her familial tremors. Auntie, who claimed that ninety pounds was her fighting weight, carried her head high, hooded, turbaned, jeweled, her neck straight under pounds of roots and vegetables that shimmied when she walked. Surely this is not the place of women in our world, that when we are old and curled like crustaceans, young girls will laugh at us, point their fingers, run as fast as they can in the opposite direction.

Her Elsa Schiaparelli mini top

Her Elsa Schiaparelli mini top

 

“. . . ye, who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow. . . “

San Diego Food Bank, 2013

San Diego Food Bank, 2013

We go through life ignoring the major part of what we see and hear. If you couldn’t filter out the sounds you’re not specifically listening for, you’d hear the din. And if you’re driving down the street and can’t focus your eyes on the path ahead instead of taking in the entire panorama, everyone else on the road better be doing more than defensive driving.

I’ve often taught “music appreciation” classes with the goals of making listening to music consciously enjoyable for the students and helping them understand something of the history of musical style and the place of music in various cultures.

I always include lessons in singing various kinds of melodies—from medieval chant to folksongs to popular songs, to opera arias (anyone can sing a couple arias from Carmen). One of my favorite ways to teach such music is to help students hear dissonances and understand that in tonal Western music, dissonances propel melodies forward because they are set up with chord progressions and they resolve into other chord progressions. Dissonances are to music what “and,” “but,” “so,” “however,” “therefore,” “because,” “even so,” and hundreds more words are to language. Most English teachers call them “transition” words—if they mention them at all. I think, rather, they are “connection” words.

Because the Congress is useless” is not a complete thought. It’s a fragment—even though everyone knows what I mean and agrees with it. The bolded words are like dissonances in music—they make the writing complex and interesting, and they propel the ideas forward by connecting them together. Of course the “because” clause here is a fragment because it is not connected to anything (somewhat like the Boehner/Cruz Congress).

Connect musical ideas and make them interesting—that’s what dissonances do in tonal music. And, like the connecting words in writing and speech, they are so integral a part of our musical patterns that we hardly notice them or know what they are. I’d say—because I’m an elitist and a snob—most people would tell you they don’t like dissonant music. That’s tantamount to saying they don’t like music. Period. All music is (to some degree) dissonant. “Row, row, row your boat” isn’t. “Happy Birthday” has hung on as a cultural icon because it has one crucial dissonance—at the point where we stick in the celebrant’s name. A sort of mellow dissonance, but dissonance all the same, the dissonance for which the song exists, both musically and textually.

Unemployment line, Olympia, Washington, 2013

Unemployment line, Olympia, Washington, 2013

Take the Christmas carol “It Came upon a Midnight Clear,” one of those so ubiquitous this time of year that it might be said to be part of the collective unconscious of the entire English speaking (Christian) world. But a Muslim student told me once it was her favorite Christmas carol.

The standard accompaniment for the tune has dissonances (some so harsh that, if most people heard them in isolation, they would say they were noise) at the bolded words:

It came upon the mid –night clear, that glo –rious song of old; from an –gels bend –ing near the earth to touch their harps of gold. Peace on the earth, good will toward men, from hea –ven’s all gra –cious King. The world in sol emn still –ness lay to hear the an –gels sing.

This little chart does not include the greatest dissonance—the complete change of “key” at “Peace on the earth, good will toward men. . .” It’s almost as if for one sentence in her essay, a tenth-generation American English-speaking student wrote in Arabic for no reason other than to spice up her writing.

I would not try to teach this tune to a group of Russian émigré students again for anything. It’s impossible to comprehend if you didn’t hear it in utero. I know. I tried it once at Bunker Hill Community College.

But the overwhelming problem with the carol—the reason almost no one knows more of the words than the first stanza—is the shockingly harsh dissonance of the words. They are not, like well-constructed dissonance in music, prepared for. They strike out of nowhere and leave the singer horrified. They are not what Christmas, or any other materialistic, capitalism-praising holiday can be about. Members of Congress, for example, cannot—could not, if they ever got beyond the pabulum of the first stanza—believe their ears upon hearing these words. But don’t go feeling all self-righteous about that. If we could believe our ears, Congress would be made up of a much different sort of people, that is, not so much like us.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow,
Look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

For lo, the days are hast’ning on, by prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.

Nope, we don’t even hear the dissonance in that. It’s a hymn to, a prayer for, social justice. No member of Congress is bending low beneath life’s crushing load. Most of us aren’t either. But more and more of us are as the wealthy friends of Congress store up for themselves more and more of the stuff that makes people secure, such as food and clothing and health care and shelter (connecting words bolded).

I don’t know who the angels are these days. But they will eventually arrive. And when they do, those who rest beside the weary road will be able to send back the angels’ song of peace. If you can’t hear that, if it’s too dissonant for you, perhaps you need a course in music appreciation. Or ethical and socially responsible thinking and behavior. As opposed to unthinking militant christianism and capitalism.

I don’t know. Sermon over.

“About Strange Lands and Foreign Peoples . . . “

A historic street

A historic street

A friend is in Boston this weekend visiting Emerson College with an eye to enrolling there to finish his undergraduate degree.

Yesterday on PBS radio’s “This American Life” the producer’s mother, Mrs. Matthiessen, challenged the staff to find and record conversations about the “seven things you’re not supposed to talk about” in order not to be boring. One of them is “routes,” that is, the route you took to get somewhere. Sorry, Mrs. Matthiessen, you can stop reading because I’m going to bore you.

The first time I saw Boston my late ex-wife and I were on our way to the wedding of my college roommate in Massachusetts and arrived in Boston in the evening. It was 1970 or so, and we had been married about three years and still had a good time adventuring together.

We arrived in downtown Boston at rush hour—I suppose we took the exit from the freeway at the Prudential (the name of which I can’t remember). We drove on Bolyston and turned up Charles Street, turned left at Beacon Street, somehow made our way to Storrow Drive and hightailed it out of the city on Route 1a. We went all the way to New Hampshire—way out of our way—and found a motel to crash for the night.

We had planned to stay in Boston and see the sights, but we were so overwhelmed by the city and the traffic that we drove right on through. We were used to L.A. traffic, so it was strange that Boston unnerved us so. But that was my first experience knowing that Los Angeles drivers pay no attention to each other but obey the laws; whereas, Boston drivers watch each other like hawks and ignore the laws.

My career was never brilliant

My career was never brilliant

After being overwhelmed by the traffic, we were overwhelmed by the high society folks we were thrown in with for the wedding. Let me say only that the bride’s mother was a friend (college classmate for starters) of Julia Child, and the Larousse Gastronomique would not have been available in English but for her translation.

Ann and I were reduced to scrupulously watching other people in order to obey the rules of the kind of society down into the middle of which we were dropped. The whole experience reminds me still of the movie My Brilliant Career, with the young Australian girl playing over and over and over on the piano Robert Schumann’s “About Strange Lands and Foreign Peoples,” Kinderzenen Op. 15, No. 1.The one right move I made in the entire three or four days was to suggest that the groomsmen’s gift to the couple should be a weekend at Tanglewood.

So my young friend is in Boston this weekend looking over Emerson College and being looked over by them. Emerson is a fine school, and my friend is as bright and personable and talented as he can be, and I am sure they will be a fine fit if they decide they want each other.

But Boston is, for all of its charm and history and elegance and sophistication, a difficult place. I never lived in Boston proper (or is it Proper Boston?) but up on the North Shore. I was, however, chair of the music department at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, and I knew Boston very well in the years 1978 through 1994.

Here’s the thing about a place like Boston. You shouldn’t show up there at the time you’re trying to learn who you are. You should either grow up there and have no choice in the matter, or you should go there when you know what you’re about and are not in a position to be influenced (perhaps even molded) by such a city.

I moved to the Boston area (to Methuen, which may not be the Boston area—but soon to Beverly, which is much closer and more Bostonian. One of my acquaintances (I knew many Brahmin types who lived up on the North Shore, both Cabots and Lodges [really!]—but that’s another story) drew herself up to her full height once (when I told her I could not understand the message she left on my phone—as it turned out because an important word ended in “R”) and said, “My deah, I don’t have an “AHHH” in my entirah vocabulahry.” I was out of place from the get-go, and I knew it.

One of my friends (who happened to be drinking beer out of the can at that moment), told me that a brass bowl on her coffee table that I was admiring came from Tehran. Her friend Alice brought back for her. From the Tehran Conference. Alice had accompanied her father, FDR. How’s that for communication links away from the rich, famous, and powerful? My friend lived on Chestnut Street in Salem—the whole street on the National Registry of Historic Places because every house is perfectly preserved from the Federal Period. The condo I owned in Salem was in a not-so-prestigious neighborhood.

He knew about Strange Lands and Foreign Peoples

He knew about Strange Lands and Foreign Peoples

Here I am in Dallas, having come here as a poor student. The suburban church where I directed the music for fifteen years had no Cabots or Lodges as members. I know none of the Bass family or the Hunts or the Crowes. (A friend of mine did have dinner with President Obama the other night.)

I began this writing with a point in mind. I’ve wandered somewhat away from it, but not really. I simply want to say that Mrs. Matthiessen is quite wrong. The “route” by which I arrived here this morning is interesting.  My whole life is about “strange lands and foreign peoples.”

But it’s not the society to which I don’t belong that makes me feel out of place. That’s only a symptom. “Sometimes I always feel like a motherless child a long ways from home.”
________________
(1) “The Seven Things You’re Not Supposed to Talk About.” This American Life. thisamericanlife.org. Nov 8, 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.
(2) “McIntire Historic District.” Welcome to Salem, Massachusetts, The City Guide.  salemweb.com/guide. 1995-2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.

“. . . interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do. . . “

What we don't understand

What we don’t understand

Inception (1) haunts me. I didn’t follow it well when I saw it, and I don’t know for sure how the images in my memory fit together to make the story. The film won the AFI award as Movie of the Year, and it was nominated for oodles of Academy Awards including best picture, so I know it’s a great movie. No. I know it’s a great movie because I know it is.

I have a remarkably limited language for discussing movies. Because I haven’t seen many since about 1980. My former students will testify that the movies I “get” (sort of) are old black and white things that no one should bother to watch. Movies like Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948), The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn, 1962), An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (Robert Enrico, 1962), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956), The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962), Summer and Smoke (Peter Glenville, 1961), and Howards End (James Ivory, 1992). Oh, I forgot, Ivory films are not black and white. It appears the movies I think I understand tend to be from my high school days.

These are some of the movies I’ve used in class. The movies on the list have (at least) two things mostly in common. They are based on other literary works and/or they have some element of mystery that propels the stories. Or both.

I was thinking about Inception this morning (and hence, all those others) because it suddenly occurred to me that I should use it in class this semester. I won’t, but I should. It would not fit our semester’s topic (“Writing about the Grotesque”). But it would give me a lead-in to what I really want my students to think and write about, using the “grotesque” as a spring-board. I want them to think about mystery. Not as in Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, but as in “What’s the meaning of life,” or, “why do people act the way they do?”

In about 1990 I was living alone for the first time in my life. Yes, I was 45. I was working professionally at a real job (Professor of Music at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston) for the first time in my life, too. I was living in a condo I purchased, unfortunately, at the top of the Massachusetts real estate bubble of the ‘80s (and because of which I eventually lost not only my shirt but my hope of a comfortable retirement). I was able to read again as I had not been able to since college. And I had begun writing short stories (short stories that could barely be called stories).

The grotesque on a back?

The grotesque on a back?

A good friend gave me a copy of the complete short stories of Flannery O’Connor. My inner life changed. I discovered a new way of thinking about the mysteriousness of my life. I found the grotesqueries of all of the people I had ever known (myself included) presented in both harsh and loving reality. And—don’t assume I’m talking about religion—I discovered a way of thinking about the grace that allows us to continue to the end of our days in spite of our grotesqueries (or, O’Connor might say, because of them).

Most of the students in my classes will miss the point. They’re not at university to think about anything important except how to get rich. Their assignment for today after reading O’Connor’s story, “Parker’s Back,” is to contemplate (can they “contemplate,” or will I do well to get them merely to “think about”?) if and/or how the story is rooted in her explanation of writing that

. . . if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do (2).

If you’ve seen Inception, you may be able to see why I think it might be a way in to help the students think about O’Connor’s understanding that “the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted.” I don’t know. In the dream world of Inception all adequate motivations and psychology and determinations have been exhausted. At a depth. Mystery.

AOaOCB blogI suppose the students are lucky I’m not going to drop that idea on them half-baked (or the film, either—I would be surprised if any of them have seen it).

The problem is, of course, that I should not be trying to get university students to help me think about the mystery. I’m “interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do” these days. I have always hoped (even pretended) I was. These days it’s an obsession.

And teachers are supposed to be able to get students to understand, not to not understand.
__________
(1) Inception. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine. Warner Bros., 2010. Film.
(2) O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.”  Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do this because I must.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pardon me, My Paranoia Is Showing (to the NSA?)

I'm running away

I’m running away

If memory serves me correctly, I first sent and received an email message in 1993. If I had known I’d want to write about it this morning, I would have documented at the time it happened.

My late partner had moved to Dallas, but I was still in Boston.  He told me I could almost certainly use email at Bunker Hill Community College where I taught. The chair of the Office Services Department set up my first email account. I think at that time email was available almost exclusively to colleges and certain companies. I taught. My partner worked for Hewlett Packard.

I remember the incredulity with which I read my first message from him, replied, and received his reply. I don’t recall when I first searched the Internet search, but by that time my life had already been irreversibly changed. I bought my first computer in 1987 to write my PhD dissertation. Sometimes I have great fun telling my students the microchip was invented in my lifetime (Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments in 1957). At other times I am shocked and pained when I tell them.

I experience the same ambivalence when I tell them commercial airplane flight, television, talking movies, and many other markers of the genetics of 21st–century life came to be in my father’s lifetime. The atomic bomb; commercially available cars with power steering—Chrysler Imperial, 1951; MacDonald’s—1948; and Nike shoes—1964— all came into being in my lifetime.  There, I am officially an old fart telling kids how good their lives are compared with mine.

Back to email. The omnivorous cookie monster (are those tiny bits of information we leave behind in every electronic place we go still called “cookies”?) has been compiling data on me since 1993. Not just me—all of us, of course. I stopped worrying about “identity theft” and such things long ago. Anyone who has ever “logged on” has entered the world of electronic tracking. “I never,” a friend said in an email recently, “buy anything online because I want to protect my credit card information.” My answer was that she better close her credit card account. It’s too late to cover her email tracks (and I’m not sure she can delete her credit card information).

It’s no accident we use the word “log” to mean “to enter an electronic database.” A log is “any of various records. . . concerning a trip. . . with particulars of navigation. . . and other pertinent details.” “Logging on” is a record of pertinent details of one’s electronic navigation. Of course, we never really “log on” because it is impossible ever to “log off.” The log keeps perpetuating itself even when we are not using our computers.

The great sadness of our keeping track of everyone’s “pertinent details” is not that our 4th Amendment rights are being violated (which they most

Twilight of the shoe salesman?

Twilight of the shoe salesman?

certainly are). The sadness is that the very act of snooping on each other’s “logs”—yes, if you own stock in any corporation, you are snooping on my emails and tracking my internet use and vice versa—tears at the fabric of our society. It’s not terrorists who create a climate of fear and “terror.” We’ve done it to ourselves.

You wanna make money? You gotta be part of the great end-of-privacy society. That’s it.

I don’t know if you personally can get the records of my online purchase of a couple of “occasional” tables from Target, but if you own shares in Target—which your 401(k) is likely to— you are profiting from the record of my purchase. And if you think my purchase by credit card of a pair of Brooks running shoes yesterday at the exclusive Dallas-based family-owned Luke’s Locker store has gone unnoticed for further reference, you are—I assume—living in la-la-land. Even if the manager of the shoe department did notice my t-shirt and ask if I have seen all four Wagner Ring operas in Seattle or only Götterdämmerung.

Some years ago I saw in an FBI report attained by a Freedom of Information Act request the names of people (one of whom filed the request) who were at an anti-Viet Nam War demonstration in the early ‘70s. I attended the rally with the person named. I’ve wondered from time to time if my name might be in such a report. I don’t give a hoot. I never broke the law.

But if my friends’ names are in an FBI report from more than 20 years before I first used email and the internet, whose names do you suppose might be in NSA reports today? Someone whose email and phone records include many communications with Mufid Abdulqader? Am I being paranoid? Of course I am.
anti-Vietnam_protest

“. . . decay is the green life of change. . .”

nasatv2When I was working on my M.A. in music composition at California State College at Los Angeles—now University—in the early 70s—for most of that time I was working the graveyard (sic) shift at Los Angeles County Hospital as a technician in the blood gas laboratory (and trying to stay sober enough in the evenings to get to work at midnight), I became obsessed with the notion that I would not live beyond age 27. That would have been 1972.

I’ve obviously made it 41 years longer than that.

I like to watch the NASA channel. It has a more-or-less non-stop program called “Education Hour.” You can see the astronauts on the International Space Station puttering around doing experiments. I never know quite what’s going on (and I’m not sure if it’s live or old video). But that doesn’t matter. I like the fact that someone somewhere, without fanfare  or sufficient introduction is trying to teach me about the experiments being done in space.  I like it that the channel and the experiments are as mysterious as space exploration.

Sometime between 1987 and 1994 while I was teaching music at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, I became aware that the composer Gardner Read lived in Manchester-by-the-Sea, a stone’s throw from my condo in Salem, MA. I remember none of the particulars about how we became acquainted. However, I soon played an organ recital at my church in Salem including three or four of his settings of Southern hymn tunes. He and I had lunch together several times, and he came to my performance of his work. He was pleased at least by the recognition if not by my performance, and we kept in touch until I moved to Dallas.

I first learned of Gardner Read the way most wanna-be composers did/ do—through his magisterial book, Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice, which was (is) required as a resource for all composition students. The revised edition was published in 1972, the projected year of my death, but in fact, the year I wrote my Concerto for Organ and Orchestra as my M.A. thesis. When I look at it now, I wonder who on earth did all of that. It has never been performed, and I doubt that it could be or that anyone would want to listen if it were.

When I failed to die in 1972, I set about finding and studying poetry about death. I have dribs and drabs of notes here and there about that stuff, photoreadand much has ended up stored on my computer (I’ve never lost my interest in that kind of writing). Of course, as my Shakespeare professor in college said, quoting God-knows-who, all literature “is about either kissing or killing,” so I never want for poetry about my immanent death—or is it yours?

I recently came across one of my favorite such poems, “All nature has a feeling,” by John Clare (1793 – 1864).

All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal it its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.

My fascination with the NASA channel (or is it my need for a sleeping potion?) is pretty much summed up in “All nature has a feeling.” I think about it a great deal of the time. Is it true there’s “nothing mortal in” nature? Does that mean I’m not mortal? (yes, it’s all about me).

When I think about the current state of my existence, I sense that my mind is still very much alive. My body seems to be catching up with the abuse I’ve given it over the years. I don’t think I have much control over that. But I do have some control over my mind. Decay is the green life of change.

Now we come to my usual leap over a giant logical chasm.

An experiment in aging

An experiment in aging

Gardner Read and NASA. I’m trying an experiment. At one point in my life I found the easiest way to learn a new piece of organ music was to memorize the melody (or some part) in my mind before I ever played it.

Now I’m conducting an experiment. Can I still do that? Is decay the green life of change or simply decay?

My first attempt is with a short piece Gardner Read gave me twenty-five years ago that I’ve never played.  I’m also working on a piece of Gerhard Krapf’s in my mind. Stay tuned.