“Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same. . .” (Mark Strand)

Never. That’s when I was in the peak of physical condition, able to do what I wanted to do and feeling healthy and sexy.

Yep. Never.

And for a gay man, that’s a somewhat sad statement. We’re supposed to ooze sex and health and attractiveness. I guess so other gay men don’t have to think twice about hooking up with us. And life is fun and frolicsome.

I think I’m basically a poet who does not know how to write poetry, so my poems come out in these somewhat (absolutely?) disjointed 1000-word “essays” full of bizarre connections and metaphors and similes and other poetic devices, the names of which I don’t know.

My poem might begin with a grey dawn.

My poem might begin with a grey dawn.

My poem might begin with a gray dawn.

If I can’t write poetry, perhaps I can write about poetry. I want to write a little piece about “Monocle de Mon Oncle” by Wallace Stevens, but it’s long (longer than my attention span can follow), and I don’t have any idea what it “means.”
Here’s the second stanza. I dare anyone to read it and not be simply transfixed by the words, whatever they mean.

A red bird flies across the golden floor.
It is a red bird that seeks out his choir
Among the choirs of wind and wet and wing.
A torrent will fall from him when he finds.
Shall I uncrumple this much-crumpled thing?
I am a man of fortune greeting heirs;
For it has come that thus I greet the spring.
These choirs of welcome choir for me farewell.
No spring can follow past meridian.
Yet you persist with anecdotal bliss
To make believe a starry connaissance.

I’d love to be able to put some words together as mysteriously and exquisitely (I think I have never typed “exquisitely” before) as Stevens did. Even if neither I nor anyone else knew what they meant.

The “About” page in the masthead on this blog says,

This is a light-hearted look at my experience of getting old (I’m 69). I’m a (soon-to-be-retired) college professor. You can read more about me at my very serious blog, http://sumnonrabidus.wordpress.com/
I will post silly stuff I find elsewhere, and I will write original stuff. I will tell stories and expound my opinions. So, welcome aboard.

It’s a lie in at least two ways. I’m not a “soon-to-be-retired” college professor. I am officially retired (ask Medicare). And I very seldom post silly stuff, either my stuff or stuff I’ve ripped-off from someone with a more obvious sense of humor than I have. (Unless, of course, all of my stuff is silly.)

I do tell stories and expound my own opinions. Seldom do either seem to be light-hearted. As it happens, when my thoughts about getting older materialize, they are seldom “light-hearted.” Here’s where I’d like to be a poet. I’d like to be able to express my not-light-hearted thoughts about aging without sounding as if my thoughts are depressed or dark. I’d say they’re pensive or earnest or sober—like my general personality. That’s not exactly what I mean, either. Anyone who knows me well would say that, if my ideas are like my general personality, they will at least lean toward the depressive. However, it is possible to be depressed and think in a way that is not depressed. I suppose that seems like a logical impossibility, but it’s not.

I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets.
I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road.
At night I turn back the clocks;
I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to say I know what Mark Strand’s poem “means.” Mark Strand is a Canadian-born American poet, born 1934. He has received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and was appointed Poet Laureate 1990. He is, by the way, 80 years old and still teaching at Columbia University.

I empty my pockets, too. I’m trying to divest myself of the stuff of my life that is no longer meaningful—all that stuff in my pockets that I might as well pitch. And that includes even some people who are not good for me. I don’t know about turning back the clocks. I have little desire to be young again—but I do open the family albums and look at myself as a boy. Trying to put my mind at ease about how I came to be the man I am.

A blog I found looking for information on him says Mark Strand is one of the 10 manliest poets. Wallace Stevens is on that list, too. I think the blogger guy has a problem with his own manliness. I don’t have such a problem. Because I don’t know what “manliness” is. If I don’t know what the Second Law of Thermal Dynamics is, how can I have a problem with it?

I don’t suppose “manliness” has much to do with the physical. I don’t have to worry about never having been “in the peak of physical condition, able to do what I wanted to do and feeling healthy and sexy.” Even in order to be attractive to other gay men.

And I don’t need to worry about being “manly” (or write a blog in which I list my ten nominees for manliest poet—does that strike anyone else as a sad enterprise?).

I would indeed find it strange—ironic? (probably not in the actual literary sense of the word), lightening of heart—to discover here in my incipient old age that I’ve known myself, my “manliness,” my (in)ability to write poetry, all of those things that used to perplex me.

Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.

My poem might begin with a radiantly blue morning glory.

My poem might begin with a radiantly blue morning glory.

My poem might begin with a radiantly blue morning glory.

“The Remains,” by Mark Strand
I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets.
I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road.
At night I turn back the clocks;
I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.

What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
I say my own name. I say goodbye.
The words follow each other downwind.
I love my wife but send her away.

My parents rise out of their thrones
into the milky rooms of clouds. How can I sing?
Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.

Mark Strand was born on Canada’s Prince Edward Island on April 11, 1934. He received a BA degree from Antioch College in Ohio in 1957 and attended Yale University. In 1962 he received his MA degree from the University of Iowa. He is the author of numerous collections of poetry. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1990 to 1991. He is 80 years old and teaches English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

 

“. . . Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.”

A very thin place.

A very thin place.

Seeing the natural world and understanding how it fits together (either as the random result of the Big Bang or as the handiwork of a god) and having the experience of “otherness” or “oneness,” or of the “numinous,” or of “eternity,” or some such mystical comprehension is not my style. My mystical experiences are infrequent, and they are often (like so those of so many other people) dependent on nature or the cosmos or some such grandiosity. I write about them fairly often—sometimes even in public—and when I do, they are usually tied in with some experience of nature. Most often they are connected somehow to my being at the edge of the ocean.

(The hyperlinks to other of my writings more or less on the subject are not for my reader, but for me to have them all together. That may be annoying to anyone trying to read this, but I have to do it.)

The natural world and I have a “come here/stay away” relationship. I have had some remarkable experiences in nature.

The truth is, I have to admit, that my obsession with talking about “mystical” or “religious” or “spiritual” experiences is something of a smokescreen for my inability to believe in God. One might ask how I can write all of this stuff more-or-less about God (at least the numinous or inexplicable) and say I don’t believe in God.

Two daily “meditations” arrive in my e-mail. I subscribed to them, hoping they would help me focus my thinking for the day. One is hardly ever helpful. The other occasionally presents an idea that arrests my attention.

One of those came today.

There is in me something mysterious that nothing is able to grasp, something that no thought or feeling can help me know. It appears only when I am not caught in the web of my thoughts and emotions. It is the unknown, which cannot be grasped with what I know. (Jeanne Matignon de Salzman, 1889 – 1990)

Madame de Salzman, I found in Wikipedia (don’t tell my students), was a musician, a dancer, and a disciple of G. I. Gurdjieff. All I know of him is that he was an “influential spiritual teacher.” Forty years ago when I was in graduate school trying to find my way in the world and rejecting almost everything anyone said, an older man with whom I had just had a “fling” gave me a copy of Gurdjieff’s most famous book, Meetings with Remarkable Men, and I promptly gave to a library book sale. I have come across mention of Gurdjieff many times since then but have never bothered to investigate his work.

Can this be a thin place?

Can this be a thin place?

Many times throughout my life someone—a plethora of someones—has presented me with a book, with an idea, with a “retreat,” with a spiritual course of some sort to help me on my—my what? my spiritual quest? Is that what I’m writing about? The most helpful notion I’ve received was years ago when Sue Mansfield, rest in peace, from the church I still consider my “home church,” Christ Church (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, said, “You don’t have to believe; you just have to believe that we believe.”

If my Holy Week cold is less obtrusive tonight than it is right now, I will attend the Maundy Thursday Service at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal) Church, of which I am a member. For about two years I have not been to a service except those for which I have substituted at the organ. I’m not 100% certain why I will attend tonight, except that some inner voice is telling me I need to. It’s a lovely service with foot-washing and stripping of the altar in preparation for Good Friday. I like the name—Maundy Thursday. It’s one of those churchy mysteries—Maundy is probably from the Latin mandatum, “commandment” from the injunction Jesus gave at his “last supper,” the new commandment that they love one another.

I’ve never been able to bring together in my mind those words and the experience I had on the beach near Port Orford, Oregon, a few years back.

As I walked in the edge of the ocean, the ocean began to extend itself out to the horizon. I know, I know, you will say that it already did. That’s what oceans do. But the ocean unfolded itself, rolled itself back as I watched. The undulation of the surf was exactly the necessary disruption of the view. The motion was not, as surf had always seemed before, an unending series of discreet waves crashing offshore a few yards and the foamy edges washing up around my ankles. The ocean was all one. . .

Something about the ocean that day, something about the box work formations of Wind Cave in South Dakota, something about the service for Maundy Thursday at St. Michael (at any church that “performs” that liturgy with a certain “style”) is a “thin place” for me.

A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened. They are places where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts and we behold (the “ahaah of The Divine”)….all around us and in us (Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2004). I didn’t discover Borg’s language on my own. My friend Lee suggested I read Borg.

I’m not certain, but I think what I struggle with is the thin places. Daily.

The thinnest place for me

The thinnest place for me

There is in me something mysterious that nothing is able to grasp.

I don’t know about God. I don’t accept the theological/religious language I will hear tonight and on Sunday. But I know the space between me and that something mysterious will be very, very thin—as it has been on the beach in Oregon and deep under ground in South Dakota. And the space is thinnest when I love. Someone. Anyone, I think.

“A Noiseless Patient Spider,” by Walt Whitman
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

Three (piano) pieces in the shape of a what!!??

Everyone (I’d mark as unacceptable a student essay beginning with “everyone,” but I happen to know this is true of everyone) knows that experience of getting an idea in mind that will

John F. Francis (American, 1808–1886), Still Life with Pears

John F. Francis (American, 1808–1886), Still Life with Pears

not go away.

I’ve been wondering why Dr. Leslie P. Spelman, Director of the School of Music at the University of Redlands way back in the ‘60s, with whom I was lucky to study organ, chose The Mass of the Poor by Erik Satie for me to learn. Odd. But then, most of the music he chose for me was—as far as the standard repertoire for a college organ major goes—strange. He loved strange music himself. He had studied organ with Joseph Bonnet in Paris (I know he was there in 1934 because I have music of his inscribed “Paris, 1934”).

I have forgotten the details of the stories he told. He did not, of course, know Erik Satie (1866 – 1925), but he knew and studied with musicians who did (perhaps Bonnet himself). At any rate, the Satie Mass was in Dr. Spelman’s repertoire. He assigned it to me, he said, because it would give me a somewhat uncomplicated introduction to training a small choir and then playing and conducting from the organ console.

He also told me (as he quite often did when he assigned me an “out-of-the-mainstream” work) that someday I would understand.

The fact is, I’ve performed the Satie perhaps ten times since then. I love it.

I woke up this morning with the Mass of the PoorMesse des pauvres (orgue ou piano)—firmly in my mind, and it would not go away until I found the score and played a bit of it. Of course that made it worse. Now I believe I shall have the Kyrie in my mind until the day I die.

Satie was a wonderfully eccentric man, to all accounts. He lived in the pre-World War I Paris of artists and musicians such as Debussy, Braque, Picasso – and so on. He was somewhat older than that generation of innovators, so his music was seen (heard) mainly as strange. The (true) story is well-known that when critics complained his music had no form, he immediately composed “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear” for two pianos.

I intended to record a couple of movements of the Messe this morning, but it would have taken longer than I have time for to work out how to make it sound well on the Steuart Goodwin Opus 1 in my living room. Here’s the first recording made of it, by Marilyn Mason. I was going to record the 4th and 5th movements.

A few days ago I went with a friend to Houston to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the exhibition of paintings of Georges Braque (1882-1963). Braque was a close associate of Picasso at the time the two of them were “inventing” cubism. I have loved his work for many years. I don’t remember where I first saw a work of his. But I have been fascinated by the paintings in which he included words. My favorite, of course, are those with the name “Bach” inhem. None of them is in the Houston show. It would be hard to say which of the paintings is my favorite. One of those is certainly “Violin and Pitcher.”

Braque. Guitar with Pitcher.

Braque. Guitar with Pitcher.

But the painting which haunts me still is his last. A painting of a piece of farm machinery, “The Cultivator.” He painted it in the year before he died. It is stark, dark, and hopeful. Don’t ask why I describe it as “hopeful.” I don’t know. But that’s the way I experienced it.

Satie wrote the Messe des Pauvres about 25 years before he died. It was not, however published until after his death. I don’t know why.

I seem to be saying “I don’t know” more often than usual. I don’t know why.

Except that I am finding I don’t know much about anything. Dr. Spelman used to tell me that someday I would understand. I think I am beginning to understand the Messe des Pauvres (as a matter of fact, I’m looking for a church where I can give a small recital and play it).

A wondrous mystery surrounds the last work of many artists and composers. Brahms, for example. His last work is unlike anything else he composed. Opus 122 is a collection of eleven chorale preludes for organ—about half of which are settings of hymn tunes having to do with death. Or Mozart. His last two works are The Magic Flute—an opera unlike any other he wrote, either in subject matter or in the style of the music. And his unfinished Requiem is his last work.

Bach’s last composition is an unfinished chorale prelude the title of which can be translated into English. “I am standing before God’s throne.”

The last four Beethoven String Quartettes have an intensity and a musical language more advanced than anything before them. And Verdi came out of retirement to compose Falstaff, his only comic opera.

I am not saying I think these artists had a premonition they would die soon. The mystery is far greater than that. I think it’s what Dr. Spelman meant when he kept telling me I would understand some day. I don’t understand yet. I’m only just beginning to understand what needs to be understood. Those artists and musicians understood. Ask me in a few years if I can explain what they understood.

Braque. The cultivator.

Braque. The cultivator.

“Carpathian sheep men are dancing tonight. . . “

Dallas, 4 AM sleet

Dallas, 4 AM sleet

.

.

It’s one of those memories that makes one crazy. Did I dream it? Did it happen? Did it happen in a former life? Somewhere in the inner folds of my brain I can hear a women’s chorus singing what I think is a Christmas carol that ends (point of fact—the ending is all I hear) with an ascending melody on the words, “to the Christ of the snow.”

A few short years ago, when I was still thinking about church Christmas parties, I bought yet another collection of “all the Christmas songs everyone wants to sing and then some.” In the collection is the carol “Christ of the Snow,” a traditional Hungarian carol, or so the book says, arranged after a setting for three-part women’s chorus by Harvey Gaul. It makes perfect sense that at some point in my musical life I accompanied—or at least heard enough times to remember—such a setting.

The mystery is that my carol book gives the Hungarian (I presume) title of the carol, Posjtarolo Arvendezna. I can usually find an inkling of information about almost anything, but this phrase, whatever language it is, has only one mention I can find—the Harvey Gaul anthem from 1932. The Carpathian Mountains are a large range that cuts across Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia, and Poland, so I think the phrase could be from one of several languages

I was humming “to the Christ of the Snow” at 4 this morning as I was up taking a picture of the snowy parking lot beneath my 4th-floor window (I shouldn’t need to mention by this point that I’m always up at 4 in the morning). Turned out pretty well, I think. And then I was pondering snowstorms I have known.

Snowstorms I have known.

There was the blizzard of ‘49 in Western Nebraska. I don’t exactly remember it (we lived in Wyoming then) except that the legend was recounted often by ’52

The Blizzard of '49

The Blizzard of ’49

when we moved there. I wished as a kid we’d have another Blizzard of ’49. Don’t get me wrong. We had some pretty fierce blizzards, but apparently none equaled ’49.

And then there were the regular snowstorms in Iowa City. Snow. Simply lots of snow. I don’t remember any particular storm while I was there, 1974-1977. But, then, I don’t remember much about Iowa. Straight vodka by the quart will do that to a person.

In the fall of ’77, I moved from Iowa to Methuen, MA, to be with him. You know, that one that I was not complete without. His house was pretty much in the country (Methuen is on the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border). Cross country skiing is big there.

On February 6, 1978 (a Monday), the Nor’easter that had been building up let loose on Massachusetts. It snowed for pretty much two days, and we were trapped in the house. Literally could not open the doors. That Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, and services at my church in Salem (25 miles away) were cancelled (we had Ash Sunday the following Sunday). He was from Stowe, VT, and this was simply an inconvenience for him. And off he went on a work trip as soon as he could get out of the house, leaving me stranded in the Massachusetts countryside. At that time, my only means of support (besides him) was a half-time church music job. I had almost no friends and certainly no family anywhere near. The only thing keeping me in that snow-bound place was him. You’d think I would have packed up by the end of the week and headed to my old stomping grounds in California. But I had even less sense then than I have now.

The Blizzard of '78

The Blizzard of ’78

Eventually I did get out of New England (after 17 years).  I came to Dallas because my partner (he was more than just a him) got a job here. The difference between my moves across the country was that this time I knew I how I was going to support myself before I moved. And I was also following my lifelong dream of studying creative writing. I didn’t move here just for him. In fact, I waited almost a year to follow him—waited until I had the possibility of a “life.”

But the day I left Massachusetts there was a foot of snow on the ground, and there was an ice storm on top of that. I drove all the way to Waterbury, CN (perhaps 150 miles) before I stopped for the night. I’d say I got out of Massachusetts just in the nick of time.

Now this morning it’s snowing/sleeting/icing in Dallas. We’re not having classes today, so I’m here at my desk writing. And as soon as I put the period here, I will start grading papers. The weather forecasters got this one right, and they say it’s not going to get above freezing for a couple more days. Well, that’s OK with me. I have food in the house and lots to do, and if I want to go anywhere—

—why would I want to go anywhere? The cats and I know when to sing, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.” Well hang out here and watch a few people try to

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

get out of the parking lot and be glad neither SMU nor anyone else expects an old man like me to appear anywhere today.

I did manage to make a little video. If anyone knows for sure the origin of this tune, I’d love to hear from you.

“The Christ of the Snow”
Posjtarolo Arvendezna
(presumably) Hungarian traditional
After an arrangement by Harvey Gaul (1932)

Carpathian sheep men are dancing tonight,
Carpathian hill folk now follow the light.
They’re coming from highlands, they’re coming from low,
To the shrine in the village, to the Christ of the Snow,
To the Christ of the Snow.

Sing fathers and mothers, sing daughters and sons,
Sing shepherds and gentry, your glad orisons.
The Christ child is born now, the shrine is aglow,
Carol hill folk and town folk to the Christ of the Snow,
To the Christ of the Snow.

‘. . . your battery is running low. . .’

I want a computer with balls.

I want a computer with balls.

Of course it is! You told me yourself that it was charged 100% of the time and that’s not good for it, that I need to change the ‘settings’ to keep it charging at 70% so it won’t be damaged. Naturally, I couldn’t find the ‘setting’ to do that [such things are a mystery that only the illuminati can understand], so I unplugged it. You’re worse than a boyfriend. Passive aggressive. I unplug it and the next time I turn you on, you tell me the battery is running low.

MAKE UP YOUR MIND!

I’ll stop with the talking to my computer. What I’d really like to do is throw all electronic devices into the Trinity River and go back to—at the most recent—a Selectric typewriter with balls.

I have an embarrassment of riches of computers. Two here on my desk. The old one that I can trust power-wise because its power supply is defunct, and it has to be plugged in to work at all, and this new $1200 passive-aggressive arrogant Lenovo monster. At least with the old Dell I know the screen will go blank, or the cursor will jump to a previous line, and suddenly I’ll be typing gibberish.

This Lenovo is a ‘touch-screen’ device. Let me tell you how confusing that is. I can’t figure out how to get back to the desktop after I’ve touched an icon [like the picture of ‘email’ that doesn’t take me to my email]. How passive-aggressive is that? Or try to change my password for some built-in function on some ‘app’ I’ve downloaded when it says I’ve entered the wrong one.

On a ten-year-old Dell there’s no, ‘I told you to do thus-and-so, but if you don’t know how, I’m not going to tell you.’

These two computers on my desk aren’t the only ones I have: two desk-top computers in my closet waiting for the important documents on the hard-drives copied somewhere useful so when I die the biographers will have the minute records of my life since about 1995.

You can guess I have a TV remote with which, if I inadvertently push the wrong one of its 200 or so buttons, I can’t watch TV for two hours until I inadvertently push the right one. And a DVD player I can’t figure out how to use even though my young friend Janette wrote out the instructions for me. Of course, if I’d do as everyone I know does and binge-watch movies and TV programs on my laptop, I wouldn’t have that problem. Except, then I’m back to this passive-aggressive digital monster. I’m between a screen and a ‘cloud’ space.

And then there are the iPhone and the iPad—which will need a long posting by themselves.

An embarrassment of riches - and my cat.

An embarrassment of riches – and my cat.

I’ve become my father. The last couple of years of his life he fussed and fumed about not being able to use his computer, or watch TV because he couldn’t figure out the remote. He was 95 at the time, and I’m only 68, so that tells you something right there. He got his first computer when he was about 80 and wrote three books of his and the family’s memoirs on it. I did not inherit his deliberative and logical genes.

I’d like a typewriter with balls. A machine that won’t play games with me, mess with my mind, and thumb its nose at my having been born before the first functional computer (the ENIAC, which became operational in 1946) was built. A green ’52 Plymouth coupe and an IBM typewriter will do me just fine. And I’ll go to the theater to watch my movies (even though buying popcorn and a Diet Coke brings the cost to 40 bucks for two).

There are a few modernities for which I am grateful. In 1970 I had a complete reconstruction of my right shoulder (chronic dislocations) called a ‘shoulder capsulorrhaphy.’ Major surgery, major recovery, major rehabilitation. About three weeks ago I had arthroscopic surgery on my left shoulder. Relatively simple surgery, in this ridiculous monster-sling for five weeks, PT already started, and good as new by Christmas.

More than perhaps anything else, I want to write one good poem. One poem that will be in an anthology somewhere for decades after I die. I won’t, of course, because I am not a genius, or, on the other hand, I did not enter the [lifelong] process of learning a technique, a style, that might have overcome my lack of talent and given me the tools to write poetry in spite of my limitations.

And now my battery is running low. It’s too late for me to change my password or my settings so I can write poetically. Understanding all of the electronic apparatuses and gizmos at my disposal will not make me a poet (or an artist of any kind).

Just a '52 Plymouth for me.

Just a ’52 Plymouth for me.

[French performance artist] Orlan . . . [claims] that the natural human body is not at all natural in our age, therefore in the age of technology the body must be adjusted to the technological, political, and social milieu wherein we live . . . interpreting her work as a peculiar kind of existential criticism. For Orlan the primary boundaries are not the social determinations; what she is not satisfied with is the human body’s nature of ‘being given’ once and for all (1).

I’m afraid my body is ‘given’ once for all. It is what it is. None of the Orlan-style reconstructions will adjust me—or reshape me for the technological milieu in which I live. Or make a poet of me.

Donald Hall was born in 1928. That makes him 85. My favorite of his collections of poetry is The One Day (1988) which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.  That was when he was 60. He had written lots of poetry before that, and has continued to write since then. He was U.S. Poet Laureate in 2007. Hall understands the given.

Affirmation (2)
by Donald Hall

To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes,
and nod our heads when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond’s edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.
_________________
(1)  Andras, Lajos. “Human Nature as a Social Construction.” Philobiblon  XIII (2008), 185.
(2)  Hall, Donald. “Affirmation.” Without. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

“I Go For Joe” or Adlai or anyone else who speaks truth to power

Adlai and Estes "going for Joe"

Adlai and Estes “going for Joe”

Growing up in a small city hundreds of miles from the nearest large cities (Denver, 208 miles southwest, and Omaha, 474 miles due east) we were not exactly cut off from the world, but our connection was somewhat tenuous.

TV reception came to Scottsbluff in 1955 in the form of a “booster” station broadcasting one channel from Cheyenne, WY, about 80 miles west. (My parents purchased our first TV set in 1957.)

TV reception came to Scottsbluff just in time for citizens of our city to follow the Presidential campaign of 1956. At the Republican convention that year (back when political conventions were actually political and not simply giant media advertising events), our State Senator Terry Carpenter made history (rather, provided a tiny footnote to political history) when he nominated Joe Smith for Vice President from the floor of the convention. (You really ought to click the link and watch the video. It’s more entertaining than any political event since then.) Joe Smith, if he existed at all, was a resident of the planned community Carpenter owned nestled between Scottsbluff and its neighbor across the North Platte. Terrytown.

Carpenter was, or so we gathered from all the adults in our lives, a perfectly objectionable character. Rich, powerful, beholden to no one, and a “loose cannon.” His purpose in nominating Joe Smith was to make sure the re-nomination of Eisenhower and Nixon was not unchallenged or unanimous. Even unbending Republicans like my father were aghast at Carpenter’s antics. I wish he were active in politics today. He was, in fact—see the link at his name above—champion of the kinds of causes progressives espouse today.

My father, the staunch Republican, and Emily Wilks, one of my  parents’ closest friends, a member of the local school board and active in Democratic politics, were part of the forces united against Carpenter in the only local political fight I remember from childhood. The school board had placed a bond issue on the ballot, and Terry Carpenter opposed it with all of his wealth and political influence. Carpenter lost. If I’m not mistaken (which I very well might be), that bond issue eventually resulted in the construction of the city’s new high school building (still in use today).

I remember the bumper sticker

I remember the bumper sticker

Mrs. Wilks owned a Lincoln Continental which was, according to legend among junior and senior high school students, the first car in Scottsbluff that cost more than $5,000. Mr. Wilks was a sheep-feeder and, while they lived modestly, we knew they had plenty of money.  Her car is important only as a point of reference for my memory of the 1956 presidential campaign. I don’t know if her car sported bumper stickers, but I remember bumper stickers from 1956. The Democratic stickers said, “I go for Joe,” and “Adlai, Estes, and Joe Smith.” Carpenter provided campaign material for Adlai Stevenson and his running mate, Estes Kefauver. Along the lines of “anyone but Eisenhower and Nixon.”

Mrs. Wilks had a lasting influence on my political thinking although it didn’t really take hold in my mind for several years. When John F. Kennedy was running in 1960, she and I had a conversation that changed my attitude toward politics. She noticed the Nixon button I was wearing. Funny, I even remember where we were. Our church had finished building a new parsonage where my family, of course, lived, but the new church building was not yet finished, so Sunday School classes were held in the parsonage basement (it was built with an outside entrance for that very eventuality). Mrs. Wilks and I were readying a room for a class, and she asked me why I was in favor of Nixon (brave woman to take on the Republican preacher’s kid).

One of the reasons (perhaps the only one I could think of) was that Kennedy was a Catholic. I had not heard my father judge Kennedy directly for that—but it was in the background of the campaign. Kennedy was so liberal, my father would have voted against him if he had been a Baptist (he voted against Truman in 1948).

With no judgment or attempt to change my mind, Mrs. Wilks asked simply, “Is a person’s religion any reason to vote against him or for him?” She planted the seed of an idea that, when it grew in my mind, changed my attitude toward politics and to this day guides the best of my thinking. Superficialities do not matter in politics. Speaking of the President derisively by his last name is not politics. It is simple personal, bigoted, ad hominem attack. Period.

Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower’s opponent in 1956 (as he had been in 1952)—my father must have been almost as put off by his Unitarianism as by Kennedy’s Catholicism—would be, for some of us, a welcome voice in today’s acrimonious political polemics:

Looking north toward Scottsbluff from the Wildcat Hills, courtesy Mary Kalen Romjue-who also knew Mrs. Wilks

Looking north toward Scottsbluff from the Wildcat Hills, courtesy Mary Kalen Romjue-who also knew Mrs. Wilks

I think one of our most important tasks is to convince others that there’s nothing to fear in difference; that difference, in fact, is one of the healthiest and most invigorating human characteristics without which life would become meaningless. Here lies the power of the liberal way. . .  in helping ourselves and others to see some of the possibilities inherent in viewpoints other than one’s own; in encouraging the free interchange of ideas; in welcoming fresh approaches to the problems of life; in urging the fullest, most vigorous use of self-criticism.
——Quoted in John A. Buehrens and Forrest Church, A Chosen Faith, Boston: Beacon Press (1998) 81.

The tragedy of our day is the climate of fear in which we live, and fear breeds repression. Too often sinister threats to the bill of rights, to freedom of the mind, are concealed under the patriotic cloak, of anti-communism. [Perhaps he’d reference Islamophobia or anti-terrorism today].
——Speech to the American Legion convention, New York City (27 August 1952); quoted in William Safire, “Democratic Candidate Adlai Stevenson Defines the Nature of Patriotism.” Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (2004) 81.

Many of the world’s troubles are not due just to Russia or communism. They would be with us in any event because we live in an era of revolution—the revolution of rising expectations. In Asia, the masses now count for something. Tomorrow, they will count for more. And, for better or for worse, the future belongs to those who understand the hopes and fears of masses in ferment. The new nations want independence, including the inalienable able right to make their own mistakes. The people want respect—and something to eat every day. And they want something better for their children.
——Look (22 September 1953) 46.

N.C. Wyeth and I cry at TV commercials (and Youtubes of cats or marriage proposals)

wyeth_1886_1936_cokeIt’s amazing to me that, in an age when critics and intellectuals who pontificate about art** seem to say that our post-post-modern society can’t comprise sentimentality much less empathy, we are bombarded with images on our electronic devices that are designed to elicit sentiment, or sympathy, if not empathy.  [**See truncated list below of articles I’ve read recently.] 

Say you see a lost dog who needs some TLC. Take a picture with your iPhone and put it on Facebook with a caption about loving animals. Want to make a spectacle of your proposal of marriage to your partner? Get your friends to learn a dance and show up at Home Depot and pop the question as the finale of a musical production. Then put it on Youtube.

And then there are the TV commercials that go right for the ventricles. Some of them are so emotional (sympathetic, empathetic) that I can’t figure out what their message is. You know, ads like these:

http://unrealitymag.com/index.php/2010/02/11/eight-surprisingly-touching-commercials/

I’m mystified that when everything is frenetic and images on screens move as fast as possible, with overwhelming color and fantastical shapes, and with background music so pulsating and loud as to be basically noise pollution, some companies still use commercials that attempt to draw people in, to invite emotional reactions, to induce (or seduce) one to pay attention.

I’ve always cried at commercials, that is, at those designed to pull at our heartstrings and arouse so much empathy that we don’t even notice we’ve succumbed to an ad for Pantene (see the link above).

Remember the phone company commercials several years ago with dad and mom or granddad and grandmom talking to the family scion off at college somewhere and everyone misty-eyed with the pleasure of hearing each other’s voices? Well, they were clumsy experiments at inducing sentiment alongside the tear-jerker Extra Gum has recently produced!

I have become more susceptible to such emotionalism as I have aged. I think, however, it is not simply emotions that get to me. I think—I hope—I have become more empathetic as the years wear on. My capacity for empathy grows as I become more and more aware of the reality of the end of my life. And this awareness allows me to be aware of the realities of others’ lives. (That, of course, may be self-delusion because I may simply be a sentimental old fool.)

OK. I’m not trying to be scholarly here (I don’t know how). I just think this is interesting.

Do you "feel with" Anthony McQueen at Neiman Marcus?

Do you “feel with” Anthony McQueen at Neiman Marcus?

“Empathy” is an English 1909 translation of the German word Einfühlung by the psychologist , Edward Titchener. It’s interesting because he translated the German syllable for “one” [ein] as if it were the Greek “em” that means “with.” In other words, “empathy” is “feeling with.”  Carolyn Burdett details this history as well as the use of the word by the British writer Vernon Lee (1856-1935) who

explains this awareness [of feeling “with” someone] as “the essential nature of all sympathetic movement because it grasps the fundamental fact that our pleasure in an object or another person is animated and lively. That liveliness is founded on the fact that the states we perceive as qualities of another person or thing “are our own states” (1).

We are able to feel “with” someone only as we are aware of our own feelings.

I repeat Lee’s assertion that empathy

grasps the fundamental fact that our pleasure in an object or another person is animated and lively. . . [because]  states we perceive as qualities of another person or thing ‘are our own states. . . that is to say, the attribution of our [feelings to another] is accompanied by satisfaction or dissatisfaction because it takes place in ourselves.

We are pleased or displeased by feeling “with” someone else because we intuit that the feelings are the same as are our own. And we respond to art (TV commercials?) because it somehow embodies our feelings “with.”

That may seem obvious. But it isn’t.

Art critics and historians are (at any rate they used to be) disdainful of paintings by such people as N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) because, it was said, they were mere illustrations of sentimentality. Illustrations made for profit. So Wyeth paints a picture of an old man with his granddaughter sharing a Coke. We respond to it because we have the “feeling” ourselves of the warmth, security, love—whatever it is—of that kind of sharing. Does the fact that Wyeth painted it for money, to advertise Coke, diminish our empathy?

Maxfield Parrish. Another one of those "feel with" artists.

Maxfield Parrish. Another one of those “feel with” artists.

Nope.

Everything else in our society is for sale, so why not our feelings.

Oh, harsh. No it’s not. Let’s be real.

If Johann Sebastian Bach had not been employed to make music that advertised Lutheran theology every Sunday, the history of Western music would be far different than it is. If Franz Josef Haydn had not needed to make a living, our symphony orchestras would have 106 fewer works to play. It seems to me it doesn’t matter what the purpose of a work of art was at its inception (of course I know there are exceptions). What matters is that it captures something of our “feeling with” someone else.

The “feeling with” is what’s important. Empathy may be the most important of human experiences. When you get as old as I am, perhaps you’ll understand. And cry at even more commercials.
______________
(1) Burdett, Carolyn. “Is Empathy the End of Sentimentality?” Journal of Victorian Culture 16.2 (August 2011), 259-24.

THE TRUNCATED LIST OF ARTICLES I’VE READ RECENTLY. (You don’t have to have empathy with me about them.)

Kaufmann, David. “Archie Rand’s ‘The Eighteen and Postmodern (Mis)Recognition’.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 21.2 (2003): 120.
Mason, Julia. “Light for Light’s Sake: Thomas Kinkade and the Meaning of Style.” Journal of Popular Culture 45.4 (2012): 807-827.
Roberts, John. “Art and Its Negations.” Third Text 24.3 (2010): 289-303.
Robinson, Emily. “Touching the Void: Affective History and the Impossible.” Rethinking History 14.4 (2010): 503-520.
Townsend, Christopher. “The Future of Futurism.” Art Monthly 329 (2009): 5-8