“. . . to prove we were still among the living. . .” (Simon Armitage)

Morrissey. You can't go on forever

Morrissey. You can’t go on forever

.

.

I managed to delete ten of my postings here. I thought they were “drafts”  —in the “drafts” folder. But, alas, they were the final “draft,” kept for some reason I can’t figure. I was able to reconstruct the last post , but the others will take some doing. Now I know why I save the Word documents on my desktop.

“Are we dead yet?” someone would ask.
Then with a plastic toothpick
I’d draw blood from my little finger
to prove we were still among the living.

A week ago I had blood drawn from my little finger (I assume there was blood although I was in la-la-land—they said I wasn’t asleep from a general anesthesia but didn’t know what was going on because they gave me that other stuff that doesn’t really knock you out). Not my finger, but the palm of my right hand where the finger tendons attach to the hand bones. If I’ve already written about it, that’s a post I deleted. The pinky “trigger finger” surgery was almost negligible.

I wore the dressing for three days, Band-Aids for several days, and today nothing to protect the healing incision.

But—there’s always a “but,” isn’t there—the surgeon said I should not get into a swimming pool until after my follow-up appointment (tomorrow). And I mustn’t go to yoga class (no hands on floor).

I know why old people get stiff and begin to hobble. One thing leads to another to another to another. I can’t do my accustomed exercise—walking in the therapy pool at the Landry Fitness Center. So, rather than take a walk around the neighborhood, I do nothing. And my lower back has a knot from sitting and writing at my computer too many hours, and I’m beginning to hobble. Damn!

It’s been too hot to walk outside. And my tutoring schedule is inconvenient. And I’m depressed. And. . . How many excuses can I think up?

The real reason is I don’t want to do it alone.

At the Landry Center, I have made friends. We barely know each other’s names, but we talk and make jokes and know all of the ailments that bring us there, and gossip like a bunch of little old ladies, which we mostly are.

We get acquainted. One of the women and I discovered she’s the next-door neighbor of and best friends with an organist for whom I substitute regularly. Are we going to socialize outside the pool? I’d bet Linda and I and her neighbors will eventually. The organist and his partner must know some other old fart looking for an old fart to be with (that is interpreted, date).

So I’m not going to run into Linda for a few more days, and I certainly wouldn’t run into anyone I know walking out on Maple or Hudnall streets.

My parents walked every day until they moved to assisted living (they were both about 90). Together. If genetics has anything to do with it, I could be walking another 20 years. Of course, neither of my parents ever drank, smoked, or was 35 pounds overweight, so I’m not sure my prognostication should be for 20 years (I haven’t drunk or smoked for 28 years).

Me--before three surgeries, lethargy, weight gain, and hobbling

Me–before three surgeries, lethargy, weight gain, and hobbling

However, the outlook for hooking up with someone (I mean that in all popular senses of the phrase) grows, I think, dimmer by the day.

Armitage writes, “Are we dead yet?” someone would ask. He was born the year I graduated from high school. Does he even have standing to ask that question?

If you want to know the worst case scenario about how old gay men (and women) live out their years, you can watch the movie Gen Silent. Another instance–a gay couple in Arizona who had been together 45 years went to California to marry. Recently, one of them died, and Arizona refused to put on his death certificate that the other was his spouse. It took a Federal judge to force Arizona to accept their marriage.

In case you think I’m whining, I’m not. I’m simply trying to be realistic. Even if I were not gay, my late-life prospects are not rosy. I’ve chosen to be a low-ranking college professor for most of my sober life, so my Social Security is only about $1300 a month. (The SSA has decided that, if you were poor in your working life, you will be poor in “retirement.” I wonder if the mega-wealthy 1% return their SS checks. One of them could help me out quite a bit.) My “pension” from SMU is about half that. Can you live on $2000 per month?—especially if you are in any way infirm?

I’m not whining.

I’ll be a helluva lot better off than most people, I’d guess. Armitage’s poem is a projection of what one does in old age WITH ONE’S FRIENDS AND ASSOCIATES.

As almost an aside, I have to quote The Guardian from Friday 3 September 2010:

For 30 years, poet Simon Armitage’s admiration for Morrissey has bordered on the obsessive. But could his love survive an encounter with the famously sharp-tongued singer-songwriter?

That’s part of the introduction to an interview between Armitage and Morissey in which Morissey says,

Simon Armitage: we're not dead yet

Simon Armitage: we’re not dead yet

The ageing process isn’t terribly pretty… and you don’t want yourself splattered all over the place if you look pitiful. You can’t go on forever, and those that do really shouldn’t.

(I don’t think Armitage is gay, and I don’t know any of Morrissey’s music. When he was in his heyday, I was a drunk, and since then I’ve not kept up with popular music except for Lady Gaga and a few others.)

I’m not sure where I meant to go with this writing. I’ve been interrupted too many times. But I think this is where I was headed when I began.

All of my favorite sayings about getting old are true. “Getting old is a full-time job.”

Job. And I’d really like to have someone to come home to after work.

“Dämmerung,” Simon Armitage, (b. 1963)

In later life I retired from poetry,
ploughed the profits
into a family restaurant
in the town of Holzminden, in lower Saxony.

It was small and traditional:
dark wood panelling, deer antlers,
linen tablecloths and red candles,
one beer tap on the bar

and a dish of the day, usually
Bauernschnitzel. Weekends were busy,
pensioners wanting the set meal, though
year on year takings were falling.

Some nights the old gang came in –
Jackie, Max, Lavinia,
Mike not looking at all himself,
and I’d close the kitchen,

hang up my striped apron,
take a bottle of peach schnapps
from the top shelf and say,
“Mind if I join you?”

“Are we dead yet?” someone would ask.
Then with a plastic toothpick
I’d draw blood from my little finger
to prove we were still among the living.

From the veranda we’d breathe new scents
from the perfume distillery over the river,
or watch the skyline
for the nuclear twilight.

“. . . Above the eagle a serpent was coiled about a shield and in the spaces between. . .” (Flannery O’Connor)

. . . interested in] what we don't understand rather than in what we do . . .

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

A couple of days ago when I showed up at Tigger’s Body Art studio in Dallas to have my tattoo finished, the young clerk greeted me by name. Two tattoos, and they know me because I’m the only person they’ve ever tattooed with a snippet of medieval music on his arm. A 69-year-old codger at that.

As I have told students repeatedly through the past fifteen years, one cannot conflate a writer’s discussion of (or creation of) fiction with what one knows from real life—either one’s own or someone else’s.

However,
. . . if the [fiction] writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious . . . then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself . . . pushing [fiction’s] own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because . . . the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. . . . [The writer is interested in] what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . . in possibility rather than in probability. . . in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves–whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not. (O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” Mystery and Manners.)

In O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back,” Parker is a young man covered in tattoos.

Parker was fourteen when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot . . . a single intricate design of brilliant color . . . [The] arabesque of men and bears and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes. . . Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed . . . a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed. (O’Connor, Flannery. “Parker’s Back.” Everything that Rises Must Converge, 1964.)

This is tricky. Merely three weeks ago I was tattooed for the first time. I did not see a tattooed man in a fair. I first read “Parker’s Back” in the summer of 1973 (give or take a year). I have read the story probably 25 times since then. I don’t know why I wanted a tattoo. It’s not Flannery O’Connor’s fault.

I first contemplated a tattoo in the late ‘80s. A friend had tattoos I thought were exceptionally attractive—Greek key designs covering his shoulder and biceps. The day I had my ear pierced, I was with him, and somehow my “body modification” has always felt incomplete without a tattoo. Don’t ask me why. I wrote about it on February 16, 2011.

Like my friend's Greek keys

Like my friend’s Greek keys

Again, don’t ask me why. I don’t know why. I am not, like O’Connor’s Parker, “filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes” when I think of having one myself. I do live most of the time with a sense of “wonder in [my]self,” with an understanding that there is something “out of the ordinary about the fact that [I exist].”

It is possible that a church organist, a college professor, or a steel worker (another secret—no, I’ve written about it several times here) would want a tattoo. (I first read “Parker’s Back” sitting hour after hour in the Kaiser shipping office.)

Life imitating art. “The meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology . . . have been exhausted.” Writing such a story “a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . . in possibility rather than in probability. . .” For such a writer “what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself.”

We engage ourselves in therapy, study Frankl and Heidegger, Freud, Jung, and Dr. Phil, attend 12-step meetings, and try myriad other analytical or self-help activities to discover “who we are.”

Or we avoid that complicated and not-very-fulfilling process altogether and simply adopt a belief, religious or otherwise, to explain our existence to ourselves and to others.

And we are left with—I think, if we’re really being honest—the nagging suspicion (no, the absolute certainty) that we don’t know where we came from, why we do what we do while we’re here, and where we will go when we die.

Let’s say my getting a tattoo serves the same purpose as someone else believing for the sake of political expedience that human life begins at conception. The anti-abortion crowd have invented a belief that explains to them where they came from. They hang onto that belief so they don’t have to think about where they will go when they die. It’s all tidied up.

Perhaps I have discovered a way to feel as if I have some control over my body, to shape it in my own image, to help me think about or avoid thinking about where I came from and where I will go. If one knows with absolute certainty where they came from, one can assume one knows where they are headed. You believe absolutely that life begins with conception, and I’ll be interested in “what we don’t understand rather than in what we do.”

One thing seems undeniable: the human desire to fight death wherever possible is too deeply rooted to be eradicated in any way. Body modification, plastic surgery, and the attempt to shape our bodies in the image of our desires to me seems one of the more benign manifestations of the denial of death compared with the horrors of war and subjugation of those who think differently (Strenger, Carlo. “Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death.” Studies in Gender & Sexuality 10.3 (2009): 166-171).

Besides, my tattoo looks groovy.

A Medieval snippet

A Medieval snippet

“It was, as it always has been, a choice” (Michael Blumenthal)

Baboon-matters-2A serious question: What on earth would make a grown man take a month out from a busy career as a widely respected poet (at that time he’d published 6 books of poetry and a novel), teacher, and legal scholar (when he was much younger a law clerk to Justice David Souter) and run off to South Africa to save orphaned chacma baboons? I can’t imagine, but I intend to read his account as soon as I finish this writing.

Last night at the birthday dinner for a dear friend one of the other guests and I suddenly found ourselves in a conversation that seemed as if we had stumbled into the middle of it and didn’t quite know what we were talking about. Our own private micro-version of the “Burkean parlor.” It was much too serious for a party, and the subject was much too important simply to toss it off as party small talk.

All of us at the party were of an age—in our 60s. I was the oldest, but only by a year. The host and I had a slight disagreement when I said I am in my 70th year. “But you’re only 69!” she said. Think about it. Until a person’s first birthday, they are in their first year, right? So once I’ve passed my 69th birthday, I am in my 70th year.

The guest and I were chatting about why we don’t go to church or synagogue (she is Jewish) these days. I think we were both trying to say the same thing. I was trying to explain that going to church, comforting as the Episcopal liturgy is, seems somehow so ephemeral, so otherworldly (Duh!), so removed from the immediacy of my day to day life that it feels like both a waste of time in the moment and somehow a deception. Especially since I don’t think I believe in God.

For goodness’ sake, Maya Angelou died last week—one of the constants in my life since I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in about 1975. Maya Angelou was only 86 years old, only in her 87th year, 17 years older than I. Seventeen years! My father was in his 98th year when he died, 28 years older than I am now. Twenty-eight years!

You there, dear reader, you think you’ve got all the time in the world. Well, you don’t, and the guest at the birthday dinner and I were trying to talk about that, but we didn’t quite know how to fit it into party talk.

I’m going to be a shameless name-dropper. Michael Blumenthal told me a few month ago that if there is a “Michael Blumenthal fan club,” I must be the only member. Yes, he told me that in an email after I told him I wanted to be a member of his fan club. He’s a youngster—only 65—but he has done all of these strange and wonderful things.

He and I have had a brief exchange of emails. I found his address when I read and was inspired (? I have no idea what the correct word is here?) by his poem “Be Kind.”

Tucked away in the back of my mind is the useless idea that I want to have lived the way Blumenthal has lived. Just read about the (almost bizarre) variations of “career” he has had. Lawyer, poet, professor, and savior of baby chacma baboons. This is not—as much as it may seem—a paean to Michael Blumenthal. He and I are so much different I suspect we could hardly be friends if we met face to face (that’s probably not true—we’re both too old to worry about each other’s foibles).

It’s OK for someone like me who wishes he had published 8 books of poetry (or had some lasting “creative” legacy) to look at someone like Michael Blumenthal and think, “Now there’s the guy who’s done the sorts of things I wish I’d done.” As long as thinking that does not either make of him some sort of hero that he would be embarrassed to know about or make of myself some sort of failure living with regrets too numerous to contemplate.

Nope. Michael Blumenthal and I are at exactly the same place. We have done what we have done—he perhaps with more energy and brains and discipline than I have—and we are both, according to Maya Angelou’s example, about 18 years from the end. It’s OK to find his accomplishments fascinating. And it’s OK for me to find my own life fascinating.

Or perhaps not!

Or perhaps not!

I’ve played the organ for more hours than most of my readers have been alive (even some who are dangerously close to being old farts). I’ve traveled the world—small portions of it—not for pleasure but for understanding. I’ve been married and divorced and had long-term relationships with men.

Do you want to know what’s really important? A young man, 30-something, whom I’ve known since he was about 10 came to me recently, not knowing what to expect, but needing an “adult” to talk to about his growing acceptance of himself as a transgendered person. He came to me. He didn’t know that one of the most significant friendships of my life is with a transgendered man. He simply thought he could trust me. That’s not as immediately exciting as going to Africa to save the baboons, but it’s pretty damned miraculous.

So the Burkean Parlor conversation the party guest and I were trying to have is the same one everyone has. What’s going on here? What is my life all about? Am I ready for it to end, or are there yet baby baboons I want to save? Or young friends I want truly to befriend when they need it?

OK. So here’s a sample Michael Blumenthal poem. And it fits at this point. See why I like his almost-old-man stuff so much?

“Self-Help,” by Michael Blumenthal

It was, as it always has been, a choice
between Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
and The Story of O, so I picked up The Story of O

knowing it would be more interesting
and, in the long run, better for me. I’d lived
the compassionate life for years— it had proved

far better for those around me than for myself.
Now, I figured, it was time for The Story of O,
Tropic of Cancer, Philosophy in the Boudoir, all

the books that had inspired me in my youth,
before altruism gave pleasure a bad name.
We all go back to our origins, somehow, I think,

ordering a cappuccino and flirting with the waitress,
probably young enough to be my daughter. Isn’t
it, after all, pleasure we truly want, and decency

the back road we use to get there? Why not, rather,
speak our desires straight out, perhaps obliquely,
as in a poem, but nonetheless without shame, so that

pleasure will ultimately reach those who deserve it,
and the books that once gave us so much bad feeling
toward our happier selves can go on doing their work

in the deeply literate darkness underground.

—Blumenthal, Michael. No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012. Wilkes-Barre, PA: etruscan press (2012) 68.

David Souter. Perhaps law clerking isn't that much different from saving baby baboons.

David Souter. Perhaps law clerking isn’t that much different from saving baby baboons.

“Life, like a marble block, is given to all. . .” (Edith Wharton)

The erotic moment

The erotic moment

Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1921 for her novel The Age of Innocence (the first woman to be so honored). If you want to see the single most erotic moment in all of filmdom, watch Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film of the novel with Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer taking off their gloves in the back of a carriage. Yep. Their gloves. You don’t have to get naked to be erotic.

Edith Wharton wrote poetry for which she is not well-known. One has to be careful not to try to find more in a poem than is there. For example, in her poem, “Life,” Wharton speaks of a sculptor working with a marble block who “shatters it in bits to mend a wall.” Wharton and Robert Frost were contemporaries living in the same part of the country and publishing poetry in the same journals and magazines (“Life” was published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1894). Frost’s “Mending Wall” was published in his collection North of Boston in 1914. So it’s obvious that Wharton’s “shatter[ing] it in bits to mend a wall” is not an allusion to Frost’s poem—likely as that might seem upon first reading.

By the way, the point of my writing this is not eroticism. That was just my “hook” to get you interested (that’s what many teachers of composition in universities call an irrelevant but interesting beginning to an essay). But you might as well fantasize about Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer. . . No, you’ll be irretrievably distracted.

So on with the point of my writing.

When I first stumbled upon Wharton’s poem, I thought I understood all of the allusions. “Mending Wall,” by Robert Frost. Parian, the finest Greek marble, so white and flawless that it’s almost translucent. And Lesbia’s gaze. We all know what that means. Well, no, most of us don’t, I think.

I gave up a long time ago trying to piece together the meanings and origins of the poetry by Catullus which is the basis of all its ideas about romantic love we carry around in our heads. You know, Lesbians, daughters of Sappho. I’ve intended for years to read the scholarship on the matter. As nearly as I can tell, Catullus was a man who used the pseudonym Lesbia to write poetry to the woman he loved, so it seems as if the poetry is one woman writing to another. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I do know that Edith Wharton was not a lesbian. She didn’t like lesbians, according to the New York Review of Books.

Oh, dear. Perhaps my “hook” about eroticism was more to the point of what I want to say than I thought. Never mind. I’ll get there. So the allusion to mending a wall was not to Robert Frost, and I don’t have any idea what Wharton’s allusion to Lesbia means.

The poem.

“Life,” by Edith Wharton
Life, like a marble block, is given to all,
A blank, inchoate mass of years and days,
Whence one with ardent chisel swift essays
Some shape of strength or symmetry to call;
One shatters it in bits to mend a wall;
One in a craftier hand the chisel lays,
And one, to wake the mirth in Lesbia’s gaze,
Carves it apace in toys fantastical.

But least is he who, with enchanted eyes
Filled with high visions of fair shapes to be,
Muses which god he shall immortalize
In the proud Parian’s perpetuity,
Till twilight warns him from the punctual skies
That the night cometh wherein none shall see.

The first observation should be that this writing borders on the sentimental, from which Wharton’s language began almost immediately to evolve. The Age of Innocence, for example, has not one sentimental sentence. It is unadorned storytelling, whose style encompasses satire and unflinching critique of the upper-class society in which Wharton grew up. (See below for a sample of the writing, in case you’ve forgotten.)

She lost her innocence in Paris

She lost her innocence in Paris

I don’t mean “Life” is sentimental except that it follows conventions of 19th-century romanticism with its dependence on Greek literary allusions and the like. The language seems stilted compared with the voice Wharton developed for her fiction. But that’s not what I meant to write about either.

So on with the point of my writing now that I’ve done my best imitation of the literature professor I never was.

“The night cometh wherein none shall see.” Death, almost certainly.

The professor in my undergraduate Shakespeare class said all poetry is about “kissin’ or killin’.” He said that could be “lovin’ or dyin’,” but it’s not nearly so poetic.

That is, however, the version I’m using. “Life” could be seen (obviously) as a poem about figuring out one’s life before it’s too late, before one is dyin‘. Wharton was only 32 when she wrote it, so some frustrated old man might ask, “What could she have known about such things at her age?”

Exactly. That’s why the poem sounds so sentimental, doesn’t have the clarity of Wharton’s mature writing.

However, even in Wharton’s youthful (that is, trying too hard to create a poetic image) language, the lines “with enchanted eyes / Filled with high visions of fair shapes to be, / Muses which god he shall immortalize” give me pause. I rather expect I’m one of those who has spent enough time musing about what god I might immortalize that I’ve frittered away my time. It’s most likely too late for me to learn to be a poet.

On the other hand, when a young man whom I have known for 20 years (since he was 10) needed an “adult” in whom to confide the secret of his life, he came to me. Perhaps we could do little better than to muse on immortalizing Ἔλεος, Eleos, the goddess of pity, mercy, and compassion. One ancient Greek source says that she “among all the gods [is] the most useful to human life in all its vicissitudes.”

Eleos, goddess of mercy

Eleos, goddess of mercy

__________________________________
From The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton.
Book 2, Chapter XXV.
The day, according to any current valuation, had been a rather ridiculous failure; he had not so much as touched Madame Olenska’s hand with his lips, or extracted one word from her that gave promise of farther opportunities. Nevertheless, for a man sick with unsatisfied love, and parting for an indefinite period from the object of his passion, he felt himself almost humiliatingly calm and comforted. It was the perfect balance she had held between their loyalty to others and their honesty to themselves that had so stirred and yet tranquillized him; a balance not artfully calculated, as her tears and her falterings showed, but resulting naturally from her unabashed sincerity. It filled him with a tender awe, now the danger was over, and made him thank the fates that no personal vanity, no sense of playing a part before sophisticated witnesses, had tempted him to tempt her. Even after they had clasped hands for good-bye at the Fall River station, and he had turned away alone, the conviction remained with him of having saved out of their meeting much more than he had sacrificed.

. . . an almost comminuting blow . . .

I’m indulging in a surreptitious pleasure. Not “pleasure.” Necessity.

Is the the alterer of reality?

Is he the alterer of reality?

I’m supposed to be grading student essays. I have no choice. I must finish them today. But the writing must come first. This writing. I have no choice.

A couple of days ago I was driving home from a satisfying workout at the Landry Fitness Center at Baylor Hospital where I walk for an hour in the therapy pool as often as I can. (Thank goodness for Tim Berners-Lee. He, of course, made it possible for me to get on with whatever I’m writing at the moment without having to go back and explain everything in detail, and I can simply link to it. I’ve already this hour been spared three essays—three hyperlinks to Berners-Lee’s WWW.) I heard a snippet of a conversation with Berners-Lee on NPR’s “Science Friday” as I was driving home—recorded in 1999—because this past week was the 25th anniversary of the worldwide web. The interview had been recorded on the 10th anniversary of the worldwide web.

My first use of the internet—email—was in 1993. My partner had moved from Boston to Dallas to work for Hewlett-Packard. Out of the blue one day he called to tell me I should check the computer of one of my colleagues. I can say without hyperbole that I was dumbfounded by mystery to see a message to me on her monitor. I replied, and the rest . . . My life changed forever in that instant. By the time I moved to Dallas, Jerry had internet at our apartment, and a magician from Hewlett-Packard came to do whatever was necessary to hook my computer to the internet. I don’t need to tell anyone who was born before 1989 what an astounding change came over our lives—shall I say an almost comminuting blow (not almost) to the way we (at least I) thought about our place in the universe.

Suddenly I could be connected to everyone in the world who had access to a computer. My ability to “search the web” for information it would have taken me hours (days) to find the day before I hooked up to this worldwide phenomenon was more astounding. My experience is not unique and hardly interesting. I need, however, to remind myself of the person I am that I wasn’t the day before Roseann’s computer at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston received that message from Jerry at Hewlett-Packard in Dallas.

I ask myself if I am in fact a different person.

My selfie is blurred

My selfie is blurred

Affirmative. One example: Were it not for the internet my world-view would not have been shattered by my first trip to Palestine in 2003. On the WWW I researched the possibilities for that trip. I received the information that led me to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, with whom I toured Palestine, by email from Ann Hafften—who through email became my friend and colleague.

(If Yahoo can interrupt news stories with links to related stories, so can I. If you ever ask, “What can I do to make the world a better place,” go to this website – on the miraculous WWW –and make a donation.)

One might think that pondering the miraculous change in human activity that has occurred in my lifetime (the first computer that stored data instead of punching cards was built the year I was born) would bring wonderment and joy. I have to admit it was fun listening to Ira Flatow reminiscing for all of us about the history of the WWW.

And then grief.

Why should listening to Ira Flatow and Tim Berners-Lee talk in excited and at the same time almost reverent terms about the enormous changes in our lives brought about by computers and the internet cause me grief?

It’s grief that is not unhealthy or debilitating. It’s a joyful kind of grief. It’s knowing that I am already unable to keep up with “technology.” I can’t figure out how to download the app for my “senior pass” for DART onto my iPhone. I can’t figure out how to edit pictures on this computer (I’ve had it for three months now). I don’t have any idea how to use the “rubric” function in the Blackboard program to grade student essays. I who love music and used to listen to CDs all the time cannot for the life of me figure out how to use iTunes. And please don’t tell me—if I call you and ask me how to drive to where you are—to use the Google maps on the iPhone with which I am calling you. Much of the time I feel out of focus. My “selfie” is not clear.

This is not frustration (OK, it is) or sour grapes from an old man who sees the world passing by. It’s deeper than that. Not being able to use all of these devices that I used to see as playthings but which have become essentials to living in our society (if not in the entire world—I’m not sure about that) is a constant reminder, a daily, hourly reminder, an inescapable reminder that I am mortal—not simply mortal, but living on borrowed time.

Anyone my age who doesn’t understand needs more ROM. Or is it RAM.

I'll never figure it out

I’ll never figure it out

“. . . it is the movement that creates the form. “

A reference librarian at Fondren Library at SMU and I have been known to argue about my contention that, in doing research, students need to learn to be lazy. She says students must learn to be efficient. We both mean that students should keep track of their findings in research so they never have to retrace their steps—never have to look anything up more than once.

it is the movement that delays the form while darkness slows and encumbers

it is the movement that delays the form
while darkness slows and encumbers

Recently I discovered the poetry of Richard Howard (born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929; professor of Writing at Columbia University in New York). His poem “Like Most Revelations (after Morris Louis)” is copied below.

I am going to drive to Houston this afternoon for an overnight stay to go to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts tomorrow for the exhibition of the paintings of Georges Braque (1881-1963). Braque was a close friend and associate of Picasso. His work was somewhat forgotten in the shadow of his preeminent friend. I learned about him at some time I’ve forgotten, and I’ve seen a couple of his paintings (perhaps the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Or I’ve seen reprints in books. At any rate, I have visual memories of several of his paintings, and I want to see his work. Houston is the only American venue for this exhibition.

Looking online for information about the exhibition, I came across a bunch of stuff about previous exhibitions at the Houston MFA, and from there went looking online for paintings by Louis Morris (American, 1912-1962). I’m not sure why.

It may be that I remembered the poem by Richard Howard. I doubt it although I’ve read the poem several times trying to figure out what it is “about.” At any rate, I located pictures of some of Morris’s work online, and suddenly Howard’s poetry made perfect sense. Ah! Research.

It is the movement that incites the form,
discovered as a downward rapture—yes
. . .

The poem is hardly mysterious at all—the subject matter, at any rate.

Yesterday I went to Target for a bit of shopping. Don’t get squirrelly on me about shopping there. At least I didn’t give Alice Walton any of my money. Target is on my way home from the Landry Fitness Center. I needed cat food, and it’s the only place I can get the medium sized bag I like. I picked up a few “non-perishable” groceries I needed so I wouldn’t have to go to Kroger after I got home.

Georges Braque, Musical Instruments

Georges Braque, Musical Instruments

I was at the register, and the clerk and I chatted. The bill came to $70 and change. I slid my card “quickly” in the reader and entered my PIN. The little screen announced I’d entered the wrong PIN. I tried again, and the register told the clerk it could not complete my transaction. I tried again. Not. So we went to the next register with the same result. I was baffled (and getting more than a little annoyed) because I (for once in my life) had checked my balance online, and I knew my account had plenty of money.

I was thinking out loud what to do. Go home, check the balance, come back? go to the bank, get the cash, and come back? leave and go to Kroger to get cat food and not come back? I was, I suppose, obviously upset—but trying my level best to take the situation in stride. Anyone who knows me knows this is the sort of situation that simply baffles me, and I don’t take with aplomb.

The young woman behind me had her credit card in her hand, and said, “Here, let me do it.” No. I know there’s plenty of money on this card. “But it will be a hassle for you. Let me do it.” She handed her card to the clerk, and the transaction was done before I could protest again. I began crying and saying thank you, and she took my hand and said, “I’m happy to do it. Just pay it forward when you can.”

I’m sure the young woman thought I was a poor old man who suddenly didn’t have money to buy his groceries and was too proud to admit it. I’m sure she would have done the same thing for anyone in my situation.

(I drove straight to the bank and found out my account had plenty of money, but after the second ineffective attempt to enter my PIN, my account was automatically frozen. I am obviously an old(er) man, but I did—and do—have enough money to buy cat food and Grapenuts—by the way, did you know you can buy Peets coffee at Target?)

It is the movement of our lives that creates the form.

The movement of my life is altogether too often upset, and I’m seldom grateful.

The movement of that young woman’s life is to be generous—at least at times. My guess is she has done what she did before and will do it again.

I know I will—again and often—be inefficient or lazy about taking care of myself (I don’t know if I entered the PIN correctly or not, but I know I will be upset over nothing again).

. . . in fact
it is the movement that betrays the form,
baffled in such toils of ease, until
it is the movement that deceives the form,
beguiling our attention
. . .

Baffled in such toils of ease I am apt—no, guaranteed—to deceive the form I want for my life, calm, kind undeceived. I am vexed that I will, even as a old man—never learn to give (give up) [myself] to this mortal process of continuing.

The young woman, whose name I will never know, has already learned. Her graciousness, I am sure, touches the lives of many people—even those who don’t need or deserve, it . . . –yes, it is the movement that delights the form, sustained by its own velocity. 

“Like Most Revelations,” by Richard Howard      

(after Morris Louis)

It is the movement that incites the form,
discovered as a downward rapture–yes,
it is the movement that delights the form,
sustained by its own velocity.  And yet

it is the movement that delays the form
while darkness slows and encumbers; in fact
it is the movement that betrays the form,
baffled in such toils of ease, until

it is the movement that deceives the form,
beguiling our attention–we supposed
it is the movement that achieves the form.
Were we mistaken?  What does it matter if

it is the movement that negates the form?
Even though we give (give up) ourselves
to this mortal process of continuing,
it is the movement that creates the form.

. . . beguiling our attention--we supposed it is the movement that achieves the form.

. . . beguiling our attention–we supposed
it is the movement that achieves the form.

 

“. . . the world in my head Confusing me about the messy World I have to live in. . . “

If you are in the Dallas area—whether or not you are an opera buff (or have never seen an opera) — you need to get yourself to the Dallas Opera production of DEATH AND THE POWERS this weekend. Especially if you think you are au courant with the world of technology. A futuristic opera (the jury is out on whether or not it’s actually an opera) encompassing

Simon Powers joining "the system"

Simon Powers joining “the system”

computers/robots/electronic music/Simon Powers/and death.

It’s (groovy, bitchin, far out, amazing, cool, or stunning—whatever word your generation uses to describe something that is) exceptionally fine and exciting. Libretto by Robert Pinsky (former U.S. Poet Laureate); music by Tod Machover.

My making that announcement is evidence of something. Something I’m going to call “put-that-in-your-pipe-and-smoke-it.”

That phrase, by the way, has nothing to do with your bong. I’ve found several web sources quoting Eric Partridge (the authority on phrase origins) that the phrase is from the early 19th century. One source says that Dickens uses it in The Pickwick Papers, which I’ve never read and don’t intend to read simply to find the phrase. It means something like, “Take that!” or “So there!” or “Think about that even though you’re surprised I have the brains to say it.” (Partridge, Eric. Dictionary of Catch Phrases: American and British from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day. Updated and edited by Paul Beal. Lanham, MD: Scarborough House, 1992).

What I mean for you to smoke is my realization that I need to stop apologizing for my ancientness. Not so much for my hoariness as for my (rather constant) feeling that I’m not keeping up very well with society, with the “information age” and all of its absurd and dehumanizing “devices.” Or with pop culture.

Take this computer I’m using to put these words down in a form which I can upload here in this blog. Both the computer and the blog are mysteries to me. I simply use them. And, from time to time rather well, I think. This computer is a spiffy Lenovo that I’ve had for a few months. It has myriad apps and programs and uses I can’t even find, much less use. I’d say I use about 1% (if that) of its capabilities. I use it pretty much as I used the first word processor/computer I owned in 1988.

That should give you a hint how au courant I am/have been. It’s possible 90% of the people reading this weren’t even born in 1988. I’ve had a computer of some sort since then (I bought it so I could write my dissertation—PhD, University of Iowa, 1988—without having to use carbon paper). I first logged onto the internet at about Thanksgiving, 1992. Again, it’s possible many people reading this weren’t even born then. I was a college professor, so I had access to email long before hoi polloi did. Email was intended for government, industry, and academic (because our research supported the other two) use only. It should have stayed that way—you wouldn’t have to worry about the NSA knowing whom you’re having an affair with. (First old-fartism.)

All those people in books
From Krishna & the characters
In the Greek Anthology
Up to the latest nonsense
Of the Deconstructionists,
Floating around in my brain,
A sort of “continuous present”
As Gertrude Stein called it;
The world in my head
Confusing me about the messy
World I have to live in.
Better the drunken gods of Greece
Than a life ordained by computers
.
     —(Laughlin, James. From Byways: A Memoir. (Long, unfinished biographical poem). New Directions
Publishing, 2005.)

So Put that in your pipe (or your bong, I don’t care) and smoke it! (Second old-fartism.)

Put it in your pipe or your bong

Put it in your pipe or your bong

Or see an opera that opens with this little discussion among a bunch of robots.

                         robot leader

Units assembled for the ritual
Performance at command,
As the Human Creators have ordained,
In memory of the Past.

                         robot two

This concept I cannot understand,
At the center of the drama—
What is this
“Death”—Is it a form of waste?

                         robot three

I cannot comprehend, I cannot understand:
If the information of one unit might be lost
It is backed up by any other unit at hand:
What is this
“Death”—Is it an excessive cost?

                         robot four

How can information end?
Is it a form of entropy?
Why did the Human Creators
Before they departed intend
To require a performance on a theme
Impossible to comprehend?

Is it the data rearranged,
As in an error, in a dream?
A real jumble?
Data in memory misplaced
In a random scramble—
Dream-data, the order changed;
That would be something
I could comprehend,
If only the form was changed.
Is that the meaning of this
“Death”—data rearranged?
A dream of something lost
That was meant to be saved?
An unrecovered past?
   —(Pinsky, Robert. “Death and the Powers: A Robot Pageant.” Poetry, July/August 2010.
Poetryfoundation.org.
Web. Libretto of opera by Tod Machover.)

I suppose my writing above sounds petulant, like an angry tirade by a befuddled old man who wants desperately not to be left behind in the modern world.

Well, no, it’s not. I’m ruminating about myself, about my connection to a society that is leaving me in the dust—as it should! I’m still thinking about my friend Thomas J. Hubschman’s  An Elder’s Manifesto.

Who but ourselves, then, the old who know confidently what the rest do not about what it means to be elders in the best sense—matured and yet still maturing, not like fruit that has had its day and drops rotten to the ground, but like old whiskey that keeps getting more complex and offers more possibility the longer it is around?

Even given my (our) insecurity and fumbling with computers, robots, iPads, and all of those things, we elders (yes, my students, at least, think that’s what I am) have not simply “something” to contribute. It is more than “something.” It is all there is. Robert Pinsky, born 1940, understands. Tod Machover, born 1953, is beginning to.

This concept I cannot understand,
At the center of the drama—
What is this
“Death”—Is it a form of waste?