“Dust’s certainly all our fate, so why not make it the happiest possible dust . . .” (Michael Blumenthal)

Everybody loves Saturday night on Main Street

Everybody loves Saturday night on Main Street

A cousin, a year younger than I, lived in London for many years as a (seemingly) hot-shot powerfully successful corporate lawyer for some big American company. I remember hearing the tales—and now and then seeing pictures—of his and his family’s life in London from my aunt and uncle after they would visit him. I haven’t seen or heard directly from my cousin since about 1985, the last time I was in the same city he was when he was studying for the LSAT. A little late in life, wouldn’t you say? Yes. He had been an English professor at some small college in far west Kansas but decided he wanted to make a real living as well as, with Dorothy, not be in Kansas anymore.

His late father told me once the only person he knew who writes better than I do is my cousin—and that’s why his lawyering was so successful. (One might wonder how much writing my uncle had read that we were his two favorite writers. But that’s another story.) The practice of law is all about writing, he said. And the practice of being successful in this world was all about being his son, in his eyes.

In about 1985 I was at my aunt and uncle’s home in suburban Kansas City with my partner, and my cousin refused to come to dinner.

Yes, I am miffed. Don’t like my cousin. Don’t ever want to see him again. I have my reasons. Homophobia.

He’s unkind. I’ll be unkind in return.

The other night Stephen Colbert interviewed George Saunders who was promoting his book on kindness, Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. It’s now one of those books on my Nook that I haven’t read yet. George Saunders was pretty entertaining talking about kindness, how easy it is to be kind instead of mean, and how seldom we all choose to do so. Even Stephen Colbert managed to be kind a couple of times during their conversation.

Through their entire conversation I kept wondering if either of them had read the poem, “Be Kind,” which was the first of Michael Blumenthal’s poems I read. It came in a poem-a-day thing I subscribe to. I’m not educated enough to go looking for such work. I’ve written about Michael Blumenthal and that poem before (the text is at the link). After I did so, I wrote to Blumenthal, and he not only replied with a kind and funny little letter, but also put me on the list to receive his holiday (Christmas) greeting. I told him I am a member in good standing of his fan club.

Michael Blumenthal is an attorney turned poet. He is not, as far as I can tell, homophobic.

Last night (Saturday) a friend and I were walking on Main Street in Dallas. The traffic was heavy, and people were strolling about and sitting in restaurants have a grand time. I saw only one homeless person in the four blocks up and back we walked. (We were on a mission to have a Fluellen Cupcake.)

As little as three or four years ago there would have been virtually no traffic on Main Street on a Saturday night. Things have changed. I think, not being a social scientist or city planner or demographer, the change finally tipped over into city life when the Joule (boutique) Hotel and its (ridiculously upscale and expensive) restaurant finally opened across the street from the small sculpture garden the developer also owns, with its one sculpture, the big eye—and the center of upscale socializing shifted to Main Street (from wherever it was before).

Immediately the city was flocked with the beautiful people and the wannabes. It’s the happening place again. Minus the poor and the homeless, of course.

Sculpture for the beautiful people

Sculpture for the beautiful people

I do not want to sound unkind. I like the bustle as much as anyone. I think it’s fun. Cool. Groovy. Bitchin’ (how many old fashioned words can I dredge up?). If anything I say sounds unkind, it’s probably because I am jealous. No way can I afford to eat at the Joule restaurant (or have my car parked for $25 by their valets—they park on the same level where I park for $2 in the public garage over on Commerce Street a block away). And there’s not much left of me that would be one of the beautiful people even if I could afford to shop at LA Traffic clothes, also in the Joule.

I do not want to sound judgmental. Michael Blumenthal wrote a poem he titled “Suburban.” The first line, “Conformity caught here, nobody catches it,” came to mind last night as we walked. One can catch conformity anywhere, I think. Conforming is likely to be unkind if one is a gay elitist pseudo-intellectual like me; or an English professor turned homophobic lawyer; or one of the beautiful people; or a suburban golfer clutching his putter; or a lawyer turned poet; or a valet at a fancy hotel; or a clerk at a cupcake shop; or a homeless person invisible in the happening city.

It seems to me conformity is the first sign, the first sign of unkindness. Are we unkind because we conform, or—worse—do we begin to conform because we are unkind?

“Suburban,” by Michael Blumenthal
Conformity caught here, nobody catches it,
Lawns groomed in prose, with hardly a stutter.
Lloyd hits the ball, and Lorraine fetches it.

Mom hangs the laundry, Fred, Jr., watches it,
Shirts in the clichéd air, all aflutter.
Conformity caught here, nobody catches it.

A dog drops a bone, another dog snatches it.
I dreamed of this life once, Now I shudder
As Lloyd hits the ball and Lorraine fetches it.

A doldrum of leaky roofs, a roofer who patches it,
Lloyd prowls the streets, still clutching his putter.
Conformity caught here, nobody catches it.

The tediumed rake, the retiree who matches it,
The fall air gone dead with the pure drone of motors
While Lloyd hits the ball, and Lorraine just fetches it.

The door is ajar, then somebody latches it.
Through the hissing of barbecues poets mutter
Of conformity caught here, where nobody catches it.
Lloyd hits the ball. And damned Lorraine fetches it.

TRAFFIC LA - a shop for the men at the Joule

TRAFFIC LA – a shop for the men at the Joule

To express the “inner children” of a bunch of grownups

Not that innocent

Not that innocent

My siblings and I have many traditions together that are perfectly silly and would make sense to no one but us. For example, one might assume the three ice cream cone ornaments on my brother and sister-in-law’s Christmas tree are cute flights of fancy. What could be better to express the “inner children” of a bunch of grown-ups than ice cream cone decorations on the Christmas tree?

It’s not quite that innocent.

In 1985 our dad found descendants of our grandfather’s siblings (Granddad was one of nine brothers and sisters) from all corners of the country and organized a Knight Family Reunion at the ancestral home in Buford, Arkansas. All together, we were a crowd larger than the population of the town had ever been, even when people actually lived there.

My brother and sister-in-law lived in Wichita, Kansas. I flew there to drive to Buford with them, and our sister and her family drove from California to meet us so we could drive in a little two-car caravan from Wichita to Buford. We extracted from our brother, who was driving in the lead, promise to stop soon for a break to get a drink and use the facilities at a Dairy Queen. We had agreed–for some reason–a Dairy Queen would be a good place.

We passed one a fairly good distance from Wichita, and he did not stop. Then, down the road, another, then another, then another. He did not stop. Ever.

In retaliation, my sister and I began giving him Dairy Queen memorabilia for his birthdays, for Christmas, for any occasion that seemed appropriate, and eventually just because. It is a habit that brings us much enjoyment and laughter. So ice cream cones hanging from his Christmas tree are a nod to, a continuation of mutual tradition tying us together in the same way making snicker-doodles from Mom’s old recipe and countless other rituals based on our common private heritage do.

A little birthday jaunt?

A little birthday jaunt?

Sometimes I think about my professional colleagues and wonder what kind of silliness they participate in with their siblings. And I am embarrassed. Their family traditions probably have to do with Milton or Shakespeare, Charles Dickens or Annie Proulx, post-Structuralism or Bauldrillard’s Simulacra. We are so common compared with academics, writers, and other highly professional folk.

The traditions of my friends with more money than they need (I do have a few of those) involve giving white elephant gifts of Alexander McQueen fashions or season tickets to the Cowboys games or birthday trips to the Iguazu Falls in Argentina. At least birthday dinners at the new Joule Hotel in downtown Dallas. (Oops! I did take a friend to Stephan Pyles’ “Stampede” for his birthday last year and had one of Stephan’s Heaven and Hell cakes for my birthday, but I assure you those will not become “traditions”).

If my friends had contacted Nate Berkus to come and work his gay boy magic in my apartment, the transformation would have been so dramatic his show would not have been cancelled. I don’t even know the “traditions” of my own kind of people.

I cannot imagine myself–in the first place I don’t have the wardrobe for it–having dinner at the Dallas home of the friend of my friend where President Obama dined (the President didn’t actually eat because that would have required another level of security that her home was not equipped to handle–he only talked and socialized). My friend has both the wardrobe and the credentials for such an Important Event. More importantly, he knows which fork to use for each dinner course.

I am, I realize, stuck in a groove. The 33 and 1/3 rpm disc in my brain is scratched, and the needle cannot move on past this infinite loop, this interminable repetition. I’m stuck in place and can’t move on.

My perennial question is, it seems to me, so simple that someone ought to be able to provide an answer that would allow me to move on to some other pressing issue. It’s a two-part question. First, how did we humans, over dozens of millennia, get ourselves organized into societies with, on the one hand, people who give each other trips to South America and get to invite the President to their homes (even in Dallas) for dinner, and the rest of us who give each other plastic Dairy Queen ice cream cone Christmas presents? Second, which of us when we die, based on our relative comfort and importance in this life, is going to be closer to or more of a part of the ground of being, the God particle, the Lamb on His throne, however you want to describe it.

Or are we all going to be equally dead, so being rich and famous or even a hot-shot academic is ultimately meaningless?

A once-in-a-lifetime birthday cake?

A once-in-a-lifetime birthday cake?

If the last question is the right one to ask, then I have one further question that is probably un-American, un-Christian, and simply not nice. Why do we let those people (you know who they are) own so much of what should belong to all of us to allow us to get through this life with the same amount of ease, of comfort, of opportunity to think about it and enjoy ourselves? Why do we let this continue century after century after century (and become a more and more pronounced discrepancy in the United States hour by hour)?

I wouldn’t give up my family’s Dairy Queen tradition for anything. But I wonder when the time will come that all of us, all 7 billion of us, have the the opportunity to develop whatever family traditions we like–besides traditions like hunger and oppression generation after generation.