“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
fruit.

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.

Someone whose mind works in mysterious ways

Tosh the cat

Tosh the cat

The cat loves Core Wellness™ chicken, turkey, and chicken liver formula food. There’s no doubt about that. I put out her usual amount of food, and she gobbled it down. Half an hour later, she was back at her bowl literally “lick[ing] the platter clean.” She seemed desperate to find more of the feast. So I got out a bit more—didn’t even nuke it to warm it up—and she has now licked the bowl clean again. Her name is Tosh, short for Natasha. She’s a sort of tortoise-shell, only not quite. You know, American Shorthair Alley Cat. Funny we don’t breed cats and make them purebred with the same fanaticism we do dogs. I’ll bet a cat could be bred that’s as “smart” as any dog. And she’d be a lot less trouble than a dog.

So that’s where my head is this morning. The cat. Up at 5 and ready to write, and my mind already working overtime on – on what? That’s the question. On June 13 I wrote about an aspect of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. I suppose I should go back over my five years of blogging and see how repetitive I’ve been. I’m pretty sure I’ve repeated myself ad nauseam about TLE. And then I should never again blabber on about the same stuff. Keep track of it. Index it. So I don’t bore anyone with it again. I’d bet that when I begin talking about it everyone’s eyes roll heavenward which means they stop reading because you can’t read with your eyes rolled up in exasperation or indifference. “There he goes again.”

Back to my mind. I’ve started three writings already this morning. We’ll see how far this one gets before I decide that even I can’t decipher what I’m talking about. I wonder sometimes how much of what I experience is a symptom of the way my brain works and how much is a cause of my (what seems to me to be) odd ways of thinking. There’s the rub. “Odd” describes my thinking much better than any celebratory word like “eccentric” or “creative” or (shudder at the idea) “brilliant.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again that I know brilliant people. Have done since high school. Mike, Tom, Betty, Steve, Nancy. Boy do I wish I had had their brains. High school and college would have been so much easier. And then in college Lance and Lowell and Mike and Pete and Carol. And then in graduate school Mike (seems like some “Mike” showed up everywhere I went—they are not the same person) and Rudy and Vicki and –you should have the picture by now. And all of those people were fellow-students. Then there’s the faculty. Most of them were not as smart or talented as many of their students, but there were a few along the way—Pratt, and Ted, and Jack, and Gerhard, and Cynthia, and several more. No Mike’s, however.  I know what it’s like to listen to, to try to converse with, to go to lunch with, even in a couple of instances, to sleep with someone whose mind works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform (oh, sorry, that’s God, according to William Cowper).

Will I ever wash that hand?

Will I ever wash that hand?

Besides all those folks I’ve dared to call “friend” over the years that I know are, in fact, brilliant, there are a plethora of others I’ve met who are both brilliant and famous. I refused to wash my right hand for a week after I shook hands with Zubin Mehta (not quite, of course—but I told people I wouldn’t).

So if I were brilliant or creative or even eccentric, this little project would have been so much easier. I would have dashed off some astounding bit of writing, or at least a bit that made sense, and had done with it. But it’s not that simple. There’s this little matter of hypergraphia. I don’t know for sure if I have it or not. It’s one of the presentations of folks with TLE. And I have a compulsion to write. All the time. I want to tell you or someone about all of these things in my mind, even when there is nothing in my mind. And I write ridiculous stuff and I write brilliant stuff and I write eccentric stuff and I write just stuff stuff and I even write really awful stuff. But write I will. I didn’t realize I had to write until I had written for years (minus the 20 years I was drunk). And then I tried to stop, and then came the computer. And the rest is history.

Sometimes I wake up with writing already in my mind. The writing wakes me up. This morning it was only a jumble. I still haven’t sorted it out.

Gerhard Krapf, genius

Gerhard Krapf, genius

Don’t read this if you’re skinny and immortal

‘You fool! This very night..." (Luke 12:20)

‘You fool! This very night…” (Luke 12:20)

Yesterday a friend announced on Facebook he has slowly “somehow” lost 14 pounds over the last year. That’s not huge news except it’s almost impossible at our age to dispose of weight and trivial to find it again. Two years ago I dropped about 50 pounds. In the last year I’ve picked up 15 of them again.

I can blame old age—or something over which I have no control—for part of the repounding. If you read my palaver often, you might remember I fell a couple of months ago and hurt my right hip. Bruised the ligaments is the two-out-of-three diagnosis of my doctor, my PT, and my trainer.

The fall was not the result of old age. It was sheer carelessness. I was trying to put up the shower curtain rod which I had somehow pulled down reaching too far to clean my bathtub. I added the injury to the insult by standing on the toilet to reach the other end of the tub to tighten the rod. It was not a “help-I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up” moment. It was a “help-sometimes-I-do-the-dumbest-things” moment.

I’ve been in nearly constant pain since February 1.

The pain has kept me from walking. It has kept me from yoga class. It is kept me from getting started with my trainer after one session to analyze my condition. It has kept me from sleeping many nights. It has kept me excessively grumpy (how could you tell?). So I’ve been sitting around nursing the pain and being physically inactive. Add to that my spending half of my time with my inamorato for the last year and two months—and we do not eat particularly healthfully because we’re enjoying ourselves. The recipe for finding those fifteen pounds.

The pain is almost gone. The physical therapist is the miracle worker. Today I’ll join the fitness center at SMU and begin “water walking” in the pool. (My only fear is I might run into students while I’m in my swimming suit—or, horrors!—the showers! Perhaps the T. Boone Pickens YMCA is a better idea even if it is five times as expensive.

So I was thinking about why I want to take those 15 pounds off. The first and most obvious answer is to be even more loveable for my inamorato.  And then so I don’t feel quite so much like a fat old man when I’m around my students. And those new clothes I bought after I had taken off the 50 pounds. You know. If you’ve ever struggled with weight, you know.

Scene of the crime

Scene of the crime

This morning I’m adjusting the belt around my butt—yes, it may be true that the way the PT works miracles is to have me wear this belt 24/7. It keeps my ass from moving in ways that reinjure the ligaments (wear it inside my jeans, of course). On March 29, I used this pain in my ass to talk about the horrific racism rampant in this country—especially targeted at President Obama.

Today I have a different question. Why do I (why does my friend) (why does anyone) think it’s a good idea to lose weight? So we can live longer?

Seriously. I want you to consider before you continue reading how strong you are. How able to think about things you don’t want to think about. How you will react to my writing (once again) about death. If you don’t want to think about it, STOP READING. If you’ll think I’m suicidal or depressed, you may continue reading—but keep your opinions about my mental, emotional, or physical health to yourself.

I’m 68 years old. My trainer says my body is that of a 75-year-old (because of my BMI). I don’t like having let my body get into this condition.

Let’s say I get over to the fitness center and get to work and lose fifteen or twenty or thirty pounds. Great. Let’s say I live to be close to my parents’ ages when they died (92 and 97). So when I die, will I be equally dead whether that’s next week or in 30 years? Will I remember the 30 extra years I’ve given myself? What difference does it make if my apartment is unkempt and has no “style?” When I am dead, am I going to remember a chic décor of clean lines and beautiful things and the impeccable style of a gay boy any more than I remember my early-graduate-student thrift shop mélange?

Is that fool Rex W. Tillerson going to remember his billions any longer than I remember my $1334 per month Social Security?

“For you could not know that which is not nor utter it; for the same thing can be thought as can be. . . . That which can be spoken and thought must be; for it is possible for it, but not for nothing, to be; that is what I bid you ponder” (Parmenides of Elea. The Pre-Socratic Philosophers. G.S. Kirk & J.E. Raven, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964. 269-270).

But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ (Luke 12:20).

Early modern graduate student mélange

“. . . 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.

Eat Fast, Live shorter

Wardie Willis, Plantation Scene

Wardie Willis, Plantation Scene

Last night PBS aired a program “Eat, Fast, Live Longer” about a new radical regime of some sort. I started watching it, but it made me so nervous I turned it off.

I don’t need to hear about a 101-year-old man running his first marathon.

Not when I have gained ten of the 50-ish pounds I lost a year ago, have not been able to attend yoga class since February, have had only one session with a trainer three weeks ago and have not been able to return, and am now in physical therapy twice a week to alleviate the pain in my hip from a fall onto (not in) my bathtub on February 1.

On March 8, I blogged the story of my discovery of “skinny”:

A couple of years ago I was sitting with Dad (he was 96) in the assisted living dining room of Piedmont Gardens in Oakland. I realized all those old folks had one thing in common—they were skinny. Either you get skinny with age or you don’t age unless you’re skinny.

Allen Sapp (born January 2, 1928) is 85 years old. I have three of his paintings hanging in my apartment.  Allen Sapp is not particularly skinny. He is, however, a prolific painter and (according to my late ex-wife) a fascinatingly intense man. I more or less inherited the paintings from her (a long story that I’ll tell you in private if you ask).

Allen Sapp, "Esquoio with Kids Comes Visiting"

Allen Sapp, “Esquoio with Kids Comes Visiting”

Wardie Willis (October 11, 1924 – February 23, 2011) was 87 when she died. She was a “folk art” painter (I guess that’s what you’d call her) in Louisiana. She has not reached any level of fame as an artist. I can’t get the Louisiana Art and Artists’ Guild to answer my email about her although I know she was a member and had her work shown in a New Orleans gallery at least once. I own five of her paintings.

Victor Gugliuzza (December 22, 1921 – June 29, 2011) was 89 when he died. He was a painter of enormous talent that was never realized because he became a “commercial” artist (design and advertising work for Western Auto for decades) before computers made it possible for every Tom, Dick, and Harry to get famous for his desk-top publishing. He was my Uncle Victor’s partner of 69 years. (My uncle is still with us at age 82.) Vic was not “skinny,” but he was healthy. The two Victors folk-danced several times a week for many, many years until he was about 80.

Here’s my question about being 85 years old.

Vic Gugliuzza, "Ancestral Church, Sicily"

Vic Gugliuzza, “Ancestral Church, Sicily”

(But first, my eternal questions about art. Do I love these paintings because I know—at least know first-hand about—the artists? Do I love them because they are beautiful? or because they have some innate quality that makes them loveable? Do I love them because they were gifts, and I’m glad to have any art at all hanging in my apartment? Do I love them because they are here, and I have grown fond of them over the years even though none of them is a work I would have bought myself? Do I love them because they are “great” art—which they may or may not be depending on whose theories you’re reading, Emmanuel Kant, Susanne Langer, or Jackson Pollack. Is there a difference between “art” and “great art?” or is there something about art that makes it “great,” and if a work does not have that je ne sais quoi, it is not even to be considered “art?” Why do many people consider Jackson Pollack’s work “great” but will not give the paintings of, for example, Maxfield Parrish the time of day when clearly Parrish’s work “speaks” to more people than Pollack’s does? The eternal questions.)

But back to my question about being 85 years old. Were those folks in my dad’s retirement community old because they were skinny or, perhaps—and here I’m grasping at straws and coming up with only one of the many possibilities I have thought of over the years—because they kept their minds active? That day I was with my dad at dinner, he had been writing a book until my mother died three years earlier. The 95-year-old woman sitting at the table with him had played a Chopin piano etude for the prelude music at her church the week before.  Wardie and Victor painted until they were in their 80’s, and Allen is going strong.

Skinny body, lively mind, genetics?

No more PBS programs telling me how to live longer. What’s the point of living longer if you’re not writing books, painting Italian churches, or playing Chopin? Living longer is not its own reward.


Siciliano, “Guide our feet into the way of peace, Luke 1:79.” From Five Biblical Prayers for Organ, by Gerhard Krapf. These pieces were published when Krapf was about 52 years old. He was chairman of the organ department in the School of Music of the University of Iowa, and I was a graduate student. He told me when he gave me a copy of the music that he was tired of writing music people found difficult to listen to. Shortly after that he moved to Canada to found the organ department at the University of Alberta.