“. . .headlights pick my shadow up and spread it out along the wall. . .” (Robert Gregory)

Johnny Ott's finest

Johnny Ott’s finest

For the last ten days I’ve been cleaning my apartment. Not cleaning. Piling up stuff by the front door to take out and carry off to the thrift shop that helps fund The AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Dallas.

The stuff I’m piling up is stuff I don’t need. Probably haven’t needed for years. It’s a daunting task. One that most likely anyone who is not 70 years old cannot comprehend. This is not “spring cleaning.” It’s fall cleaning, winter cleaning, moving-toward-the-end cleaning.

My young friend thinks I’m terribly forgetful and disorganized. That’s true. But not in the way he thinks.

It’s traumatic to divest oneself (at least myself) of the comforting stuff that’s been around for years. The Johnny Ott Pennsylvania Dutch “Hex” barn decoration, for example. For 11 years I’ve had it leaning against the back of the bookcase separating my living area from my sleeping area in my loft. It’s been a familiar of comfort every night as I’ve turned out my lamp to get into bed.

Johnny Ott was the premier barn decoration painter in Pennsylvania before he died in 1999. I have the painted circle because my late partner acquired it in about 1975 when he was teaching at the Phelps School in Malvern, PA. When Jerry died, his stuff became mine. I’ve never figured out a way to display the Ott piece in this apartment except as my private remembrance of things past.

It was Jerry’s, and I had it for 11 years. I’m finally ready to let it go.

My parents decided when they were not much older than I am now that they wanted to live in a comfortable retirement in a community. Soon after their 50th wedding anniversary in 1987 they began clearing out their home in Sacramento, CA. My dad was 73 years old.

I probably don't need The Interpreter's Bible

I probably don’t need The Interpreter’s Bible

Our parents gave my siblings and me a helpful example of divestiture. Not in the legal or economic sense, but in the private getting-rid-of sense. They began giving us stuff they knew we wanted, and selling stuff, and giving stuff to charities several years before they knew they were going to move to the community.

By the time they moved they had a large three-bedroom house of stuff whittled down to a small one-bedroom (plus office for Dad—later he sent his library to a seminary in the Philippines) apartment sized amount. I need to go from a large open loft amount of stuff to a one-bedroom efficiency amount before I can move. Or be really comfortable. I have one major obstacle. The pipe organ in my living room. (There are no elephants. I ran them out long ago.)

Now the stores are closed and locked. In this window lies
a fat old cat asleep inside the small remaining shadow
underneath an old lost table from elsewhere with graceful
skinny curving legs. As I walk away along the place
with no windows, headlights pick my shadow up and
spread it out along the wall, fatten it and give it wings
for just a second. Then they’re gone and it’s gone too. (Robert Gregory)

I have a practice of emailing poets whose work moves me. Not many, you understand—five to date. I’m not collecting emails from poets because I get a kick out of it. In his gracious answer to my message, Robert Gregory said,

I wish you good luck in your task also. I’m very close to your age and confess I find the task more difficult and complicated and interesting than the simple “decluttering” people like to prescribe.

Back when I was a young man of 64, I wrote extensively about all of this. I am rather fond of calling myself an “old man” these days. I am old. When I was 10 and my grandfather was 70, I knew he was old. He died about twenty years later.

Referencing myself as “old” is not admitting or claiming decrepitness. It’s claiming my station as having lived a long time—the Biblical limit.

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away (Psalm 90:10 KJV).

Sometimes when I’m using my cane (hip problems and a propensity to fall), I ask young men (it’s particularly fun at the gym), “Are you planning to get old?” The universal response is, “No!” If I ask, “Are you planning to live a long time,” the answer is universally, “Yes!” Either way, I tell them to be careful of their hips, especially in the weight room. They don’t get it, of course; they’re living in a real-life version of Fame and are going to live forever.

The task is more difficult and complicated and interesting than “decluttering.”

And it’s even more difficult and complicated and interesting than taking care of my hips.

It’s the meaning of my life (that’s not a cliché or high school angst—it’s the absolute truth). And probably anyone else’s who’s willing (has the guts) to think about it. What, of all the stuff in my apartment, is important? What is either useful or helps me understand who I am?

Not much, it turns out. I am not my father’s set of the New Interpreter’s Bible. Not a few old gay porn films. Not the blue vase I bought from the glass blower in Hebron, Palestine. Not the leather jacket I bought with my first partner. Not the 150-year-old highboy I bought with my ex-wife. Not the souvenirs of four productions of the Wagner Ring. Not even the organ music I’ve collected for 50 years or the shelf of poetry books behind me as I write just now.

I’m an old man, and it’s time to sort this out. This: what’s important?
. . . headlights pick my shadow up and
spread it out along the wall, fatten it and give it wings
for just a second. Then they’re gone and it’s gone too.

“Things I found and left where they were,” by Robert Gregory

A slow summer morning:
new light through a veil of green leaves, young leaves
that vibrate and tremble. The shadows are blurred in this light—
shadows once ourselves, they say. Clouds and a girl in
green trousers, three birds on the blacktop confer, between two
buildings a vacant lot, a concrete slab for some old
vanished building surrounded by a few dry rags of grass.
A little local dove in shades of brown and black investigating,
looking for food. A buzzard floating high above the Marriott,
up above the former Happy Meals and a blue discarded shoe.
A splash of bird shit and a splash of old blue paint together
on a picnic table side by side, sea grape in blossom overhead,
long green spikes and tiny blossoms, two fat bees intrigued so
though a breeze from off the ocean pushes them away they
come back and back. Now a girl floats by on skates, a pretty,
haughty face, unwritten on. She flies her naked skin like a
pirate flag, a big tattoo across her shoulder blade. At first
it looked just like a gunshot wound (I saw them sometimes
in the barracks on some ordinary guy in a towel walking
toward the shower). Shrapnel makes all kinds of shapes:
sickle moons and stickmen, twigs and teeth. Bullets always
make a perfect circle (for entry anyway) and make the
same two colors: blue-black and a purple like raspberry sherbet.
Up ahead, a man in a dirty shirt, his eyes turned inward, his hair
and thoughts all scattered, just awake from sleeping in a field
someplace. At every house the dogs come at him roaring,
not just barking as they do to everyone who passes by
but raging and fierce, they really want to tear him open, him
or the things he thinks he’s talking to. I’m remembering
as I walk along a ways behind him the ladies in the office
talking about the new widow: Is she cleaning? Yes. The first one,
the questioner, nodded. “Right after Frederick died,” she said,
“I got down on my knees and scrubbed that kitchen, places
I had never ever cleaned. For that whole month I did nothing
but scrub that floor.” It gets dark here very slowly and gently.
Now the stores are closed and locked. In this window lies
a fat old cat asleep inside the small remaining shadow
underneath an old lost table from elsewhere with graceful
skinny curving legs. As I walk away along the place
with no windows, headlights pick my shadow up and
spread it out along the wall, fatten it and give it wings
for just a second. Then they’re gone and it’s gone too.

Siegfried and I can part company

Siegfried and I can part company

“T’aint funny, McGee!”

So after my last posting here, I was reminded that I started this new blog to be different from my old blog, which has an even less common name, Sumnonrabidus, which is my attempt at the Latin for “I am not crazy” all run together into one ridiculous word.

Fibber McGee and Molly

Fibber McGee and Molly

This blog is supposed to be humorous. Funny stuff about getting to be an old man.

OK. When I was told that, my first thought was, “T’aint funny, McGee.” Now that thought came out of left field. (Hey, Grant and Martha, why do we say “Out of” left field when obviously the ball goes “Out into” left field?)

For you old folks (that is, those of you 69 or older—next year, of course, the old folks will be those 70 and older, if you get my drift), that is hardly a term out of left field. You know as well as I do that it’s Molly responding to one of Fibber McGee’s really awful jokes.

Fibber McGee and Molly are prehistoric creatures whose habitat was a strange place called radio. Not radio like you youngsters know it, but a place where real people lived and worked and talked to each other and mainly were really really really funny (making real humor) together. People like Our Miss Brooks, and Amos ‘n Andy, and The Great Gildersleeve, and Jack Benny. Radio in those days was not filled with Big Fat Liars like Rush Limbaugh, but with people who were genuinely funny and entertaining, not just stupid and mean and didn’t care whether what they said was true or not.

What they said most certainly was true. Even if none of it ever happened except in the marvelous imaginary land of radio. I don’t think you young’uns have any idea about using your imaginations to create a world. You’ve got all these gadgets and electronic games and . . .  (don’t get me started!).

Nate's House (really!)

Nate’s House (really!)

One of the great gags of all time (before the ubiquitous use of television and then iPads, and soon god-knows-what to entertain everyone without ever having to imagine what’s going on) was Fibber McGee’s closet. Fibber (another running gag was that he refused to tell anyone his real name) and Molly were a typical (Yeah, right!) American middle-class family trying to make a go of things in the modern world. And Fibber had this closet – Fibber McGee’s Closet – where everything that he wasn’t using right at any given moment was kept. And he kept saying he had to “straighten out this closet one of these days.” The gag isn’t nearly as good if you see it as it was when we had to think it up for ourselves so everyone had her own version of the closet.

Now most of you will not think my version of Fibber McGee’s Closet is funny. You’ll want to send me right off to Nate Berkus or someone (Oh, please, send me right off to Nate Berkus [shudder with delight]) for a makeover. Or you’ll want me to be seeing Dr. Mary Bret at UTSouthwestern/ Parkland geriatric psychiatry (she really is my psychiatrist) on a daily basis for a while. Because anyone whose “closet” looks like mine can’t possibly be sane. Or at least must have a really cluttered mind.

Guilty as charged.

And I have one word for that (actually two, obviously): Fuck it.

I know. I know. I don’t want my office/ computer room/ cat’s bedroom/ whatever this corner of my loft apartment is to look like this. I genuinely do wish that somewhere along the line I had become one of those people (like most of you) who didn’t live in a cluttered space both inwardly and outwardly. It would be really nice to be normal and to understand how one fits into society—into some manifestation of society.

But I can’t. Period. It’s been my Sisyphistic struggle all my life. I know that being a regular human being requires tidiness. But, as Camus summed it all up, “The struggle itself . . . is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

My own version of Fibber McGee's closet - not imaginary.

My own version of Fibber McGee’s closet – not imaginary.

OK, this is supposed to be funny. “Me, senescent” with humor and all of that. But I just don’t get it. I don’t know how to manage my time or always be sure where my keys are. I’m picking up a replacement passport this very afternoon because my unexpired one is somewhere in Fibber McGee’s closet.

And you know what? All of you people who are “organized” and “tidy” and “get it” and have been with Nate Berkus will be in exactly the same state I’m in when we “shuffle off this mortal coil.” I will have the last laugh. “Tis funny, McGee!”

“All I want Is a Room Somewhere. . . “ or do I look like Audrey Hepburn?

Bought in Wisconsin, shipped to California, dragged to Iowa, Boston, Dallas

Bought in Wisconsin, shipped to California, dragged to Iowa, Boston, Dallas

Fifteen years ago my late partner bought a sofa. An ugly sofa. It was not one of those we had looked at together in furniture stores. I did not like it from the moment I opened the door and the delivery men asked where to put it, until I took it to the dump last year. My cats, on the other hand, loved it. Their claws sent it to the dump.

The cats did for me what I could not do for myself.

My late partner also bought a coffee table. Ersatz French Provincial with a glass top. Just the thing for some old queen’s home, but not mine. Two days ago I finally found the ottoman I’d been wanting for years to replace it. The curved legs are on their way out (if the Genesis Benefit Thrift Store truck ever arrives).

“The harmless spray solution is undetectable to you, but keeps most cats from scratching furnishings.”

“The harmless spray solution is undetectable to you, but keeps most cats from scratching furnishings.”

The ottoman is—I suppose—a bit flamboyant. RED. Red and overstuffed. Probably not less queenly than French Provincial, but—it’s mine!
I’m obviously asking for trouble from cats with claws. They ruined the sofa. Think what they can do with a small overstuffed ottoman.

The solution? ScratchNotTM Training Spray.  An all-over application. “The harmless spray solution is undetectable to you, but keeps most cats from scratching furnishings.”

My apartment is more graduate student thrift store modern than anything Nate Berkus would design. It hardly has the look of royalty. That’s partly because I’ve never thought it seemly to spend enough money on myself to make a place “mine.” I have the leftovers from my failed marriage (1967-1975—stuff I’ve dragged from California to Iowa to Boston to Dallas), my second “relationship” (1980-1988), and my third relationship (1992-2003) scattered all ‘round (not true—not “scattered” but at the core). And a few family heirlooms, including my paternal grandmother’s sewing machine. I also have about 1,000 books, many from my father’s library.

I’m a bit like Audrey Hepburn. No, not Eliza Doolittle, but Audrey herself. What you see is NOT what you get. Marni Nixon, as everyone knows, wanted the room somewhere. Marni did for Audrey what she could not do for herself.

All I want is an ottoman somewhere.

All I want is an ottoman somewhere.

What’s done is done for Audrey, but not for me. A new sofa and ottoman. Rid of chairs I moved from Boston to Dallas—chairs I never liked—and books (a giant giveaway a few months ago), Laser Disk recordings (200, including “My Fair Lady”), and more. On my new sofa is a needlepoint pillow my sister gave me that says, “The Queen has spoken” (by that decorator M.E. every gay boy in the country knows, but whose name I can’t remember). The queen has spoken:

“All I want is a room somewhere (here) with one enormous chair” I bought myself.

Oh, and, by the way, if you think ScratchNotTM Training Spray keeps cats off furniture, have a look. Groucho obviously thinks it’s loverly.

All I want is a room somewhere,
Far away from the cold night air.
With one enormous chair,
Aow, wouldn’t it be loverly?
Lots of choc’lates for me to eat,
Lots of coal makin’ lots of ‘eat.
Warm face, warm ‘ands, warm feet,
Aow, wouldn’t it be loverly?
Aow, so loverly sittin’ abso-bloomin’-lutely still.
I would never budge ’till spring
Crept over me windowsill.
Someone’s ‘ead restin’ on my knee,
Warm an’ tender as ‘e can be.
‘ho takes good care of me,
Aow, wouldn’t it be loverly?
Loverly, loverly, loverly, loverly.