“. . . small nightmares that I hope will develop into great dreams. . .” (Mourid Barghouti)

Ali Hassanein, a 54-year-old oud maker works in Ramallah. Every day life in Palestine. (Photo MaanImages)

Ali Hassanein, a 54-year-old oud maker works in Ramallah. Every day life in Palestine. (Photo MaanImages)

I’m going to stop saying I’m retired except as part of my quirky attempt at a sense of humor. It’s not true.

Dictionary.com:
retire v.
1. to withdraw, or go away or apart, to a place of privacy, shelter, or seclusion
2. to go to bed

Yesterday morning I played the organ at First Presbyterian Church in Plano, TX, went to lunch at a famed Dallas barbecue spot with a friend, saw the exhibition of “The Abelló Collection: A Modern Taste for European Masters” at the Meadows Museum in the afternoon, had dinner at my favorite Mexican restaurant, and spent the evening packing and preparing for my week-long excursion to North Carolina with my friend.

We have movie and museum and other loosely-formed plans to spend the week “out and about.”

Because I’ll be in the Great Smoky Mountains, I will miss tutoring at the university Academic Development of Student Athletes where I do the most important teaching of my 35-year career I’ll miss my regular schedule with my trainer, and square dancing next Sunday, and my meetings of that anonymous secret society I belong to, and playing the organ next Sunday, and. . .

Hardly seems like going “away or apart, to a place of privacy, shelter, or seclusion.”

In a sense, however, in my mind I live in a place of privacy. I privately reject doing anything I don’t want to do. I’m learning to say “No” when that’s what I want to say and to say “Yes” to the activities I want to participate in.

Most of us don’t worry about leaving a “legacy.” If I had children and grandchildren, I’d have a somewhat different take on that idea. However, the legacy of family is a personal matter that has little to do with what anyone else thinks. I do have a few interesting, if not valuable, things I hope my nieces and nephews will enjoy having to remember me by, but that’s about it. I’m not the rich uncle.

Then there’s all this stuff I’ve written and posted for the past 12 years that’s floating around out there in cyberspace. I’m told it’s there forever, or at least until climate change finally does human society in.

All this stuff I’ve written is one of the most important aspects of my not going “to a place of privacy, shelter, or seclusion.” This is, however, not as obvious a statement as it might seem. I’ve written recently about all of this and posted it in “the cloud.”

I’m 70 years old. Never in my life have I been ambitious, physically fit, “driven” accomplishing much with my time here. No, I’m basically meek and weak and (perhaps?) lazy. That I am not the rich uncle is testimony in itself to my being a part of Henry David Thoreau’s “mass of men [who] live lives of quiet desperation.” I feel desperation from time to time―but I’m too often not quiet about it.

A couple of “causes,” however, inspire me to work and participation. They keep me from going to a place of privacy and seclusion.

One of those is the Aberg Center for Literacy in Dallas, about which I’ve written here several times.

The Aberg Center offers ESL classes and GED preparation to adults. The Center is, I believe, the most important place where I practice being neither secluded nor desperate. I feel more joy as a volunteer teacher there than in anything else I do (with the possible exception of tutoring football players). Sentences that are not a “run-on” sentences that students from Aberg write 20 years from now are part of my “legacy.”

The stuff I’ve posted in Cyberspace is part of my legacy. That is not obvious.

Preparations are underway in the Old City of Jerusalem for the holy night of Laylat al-Qader on Monday.

Preparations are underway in the Old City of Jerusalem for the holy night of Laylat al-Qader on Monday.

I have other blogs than this one. One is an exercise in what might look like futility or grandiosity. Perhaps that is more than a perception.

However, I post it―almost daily―for the sole purpose of posting it. That blog is not really my own. It’s a small collection of news stories other people have written brought together in a digest often related (at least tangentially) to a poem I have discovered.

I spend the time (up to a couple of hours daily) compiling that blog simply for the sake of doing it. Simply because someone must do it.

The poems the news stories (peripherally) relate to are by writers from Palestine or who are Palestinians living in the Diaspora of displaced Palestinians.

I collect the poetry and the news stories because it has to be done. It is necessary that there is a tiny edge of Cyberspace devoted to telling daily real-life stories from the point of view of Palestinians and trying to relate them to expressions of the inner life and experience of the Palestinian people, i.e. relating news about life in Palestine to snippets of the 1,000-year literary tradition of the Palestinians.

Someone has to do this, and I have the time and skill for the job. (I hope you will check the blog, Palestine InSight .)

It does not matter if no one or one person or a thousand people read it daily. It must exist in Cyberspace. On the day someone needs it, for whatever reason, it will be there. If I do not do it, no one will. It’s that simple.

I spend a few minutes (nearly) every day not being secluded or desperate by simply giving myself to a necessary task and having no desire or belief that I am accomplishing something. I don’t know. What I do know is that it has to be done because some day in some way I can’t know, someone will need it.

“Retirement” could well be going “away or apart, to a place of privacy, shelter, or seclusion.” Or it can mean going away or apart to do one’s most important lifework.

“I Have No Problem” by Mourid Barghouti

I look at myself:
I have no problem.
I look all right
and, to some girls,
my grey hair might even be attractive;
my eyeglasses are well made,
my body temperature is precisely thirty seven,
my shirt is ironed and my shoes do not hurt.
I have no problem.
My hands are not cuffed,
my tongue has not been silenced yet,
I have not, so far, been sentenced
and I have not been fired from my work;
I am allowed to visit my relatives in jail,
I’m allowed to visit some of their graves in some countries.
I have no problem.
I am not shocked that my friend
has grown a horn on his head.
I like his cleverness in hiding the obvious tail
under his clothes, I like his calm paws.
He might kill me, but I shall forgive him
for he is my friend;
he can hurt me every now and then.
I have no problem.
The smile of the TV anchor
does not make me ill any more
and I’ve got used to the Khaki stopping my colours
night and day.
That is why
I keep my identification papers on me, even at
the swimming pool.
I have no problem.
Yesterday, my dreams took the night train
and I did not know how to say goodbye to them.
I heard the train had crashed
in a barren valley
(only the driver survived).
I thanked God, and took it easy
for I have small nightmares
that I hope will develop into great dreams.
I have no problem.
I look at myself, from the day I was born till now.
In my despair I remember
that there is life after death;
there is life after death
and I have no problem.
But I ask:
Oh my God,
is there life before death?

Translated by Radwa Ashour
From Barghouti, Mourid. MIDNIGHT AND OTHER POEMS. Trans. Radwa Ashour. Todmorden, UK: Arc Publications, 2008.
About Mourid Barghouti

Israeli forces raided Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem early Monday and threatened locals, witnesses said. Every Day Life in Palestine.

Israeli forces raided Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem early Monday and threatened locals, witnesses said. Every Day Life in Palestine.

“. . .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

“. . . the land comes near me in my dream. . .” (Rashid Hussein)

The Desert of the West Bank, near Jericho, in Palestine; photo by Harold Knight, Summer, 2008.

The Desert of the West Bank, near Jericho, in Palestine; photo by Harold Knight, Summer, 2008.

I have chosen the poem by the Palestinian Poet Rashid Hussein (1936-1977) to introduce my new blog that is about the land of Palestine and the people who live inextricably in relationship with the land. The blog:
photo(1)-002Palestine InSight (we have Palestine in sight, and we hope to gain insight about Palestine) is at
https://palestineinsight.wordpress.com/

Besides posting (mostly) news and opinions from well-established websites, I include poems by Palestinian poets and poets of Palestinian heritage. I have been collecting this poetry for about a year, and I think this is a perfect way to share the works with others.

I am also collecting an ever-expanding bibliography of websites of organizations both secular and religious, news sites, opinion sites, and blogs to make finding resources for Palestinian study unproblematic.

I hope you will follow Palestine InSight and, if you know sources or articles I should include, let me know.

“With the Land,” by Rashid Hussein

The land comes near me
drinks from me
leaves its orchards with me
to become a beautiful weapon
defending me

Even when I sleep
the land comes near me
in my dream.
I smuggle its wild thyme
between exiles
I sing its stones
I will even sweat blood
from my veins
to drink its news
so the land comes near me
leaves a stone of love with me
to defend it
and defend me

When I repay it
I will embrace it a thousand times
I will worship it a thousand times
I will celebrate its wedding on my forehead
on the rubble of exiles
and the ruins of prisons

I will drink from it
It will drink from me
So that the Galilee would remain
beauty, struggle, and love
defending it
defending me

I see the land;
a morning that will come
and the land will come near me

Rashid Hussein (1936-1977) was born in Musmus, Palestine. He published his first collection in 1957 and established himself as a major Palestinian poet and orator. He participated in founding the Land Movement in 1959. He left in 1966 and lived in Syria and Lebanon and later in New York City where he died in February, 1977. He was buried a week later in Musmus. His funeral was attended by thousands of Palestinians.
Rashid Hussein

“. . . and everyone else falls on top.” (Humberto Ak’Abal)

Indigenous Guatemalan poet, Humberto Ak’Abal

Indigenous Guatemalan poet, Humberto Ak’Abal

I detest ideas showing up in my mind that seem improbably judgmental either of myself or of others. Especially of others. I grew up in a household and a community where lip-service at the very least was given to John 8:8, ““Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

This is a story from the Bible in which Jesus was hanging out in Jerusalem preaching and teaching when some people brought him a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They wanted to stone her to death (did that practice in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other places Americans like to judge so harshly come directly from the Bible?). Jesus said it would be OK, provided that the first stone was thrown by someone who had never sinned. The would-be executioners sneaked away with their tails egos between their legs.

I most often reserve my judgmentalism for people who are doing bad things or thinking evil thoughts as the result of being stupid (at a given moment, not inherently). Like anyone who voted for Ted Cruz, or anyone who thinks the 2nd Amendment is license to kill. Or anyone who thinks school vouchers and charter schools are anything other than means to destroy equal-opportunity education.

I would never judge anyone for a simple little human foible like committing adultery. I’ve done it myself. I think Jesus had it about right when he said, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28, NRSV). He probably would have said “looking at a man with lust,” too, if any of the gay men in his audience had been “out.” Obviously, from the story I began with, he would have meant it for women looking at men, too.

My stuff, waiting to go to the Goodwill.

My stuff, waiting to go to the Goodwill.

I’m having a terrible time getting my ass in gear (as we said in the 60s) to clean out the stuff in my apartment. Hardly anyone I know would be able to live in this mess. It’s not that I’m one of those troubled “hoarders” on TV. I don’t have litter on my floors. I have clean sheets on my bed, a clean kitchen, and a living room area that is neat and tidy. It’s just all these books and DVDs and CDs and pictures and clothes and . . . like most people’s I suppose.

The problem is, I don’t know how to sort. I don’t know how to put things away. I don’t know how to tidy up. There’s always something more important to do than fold the clean sheets and put them away (if I can remember where I decided at some point they should live).

My lawyer friend tells me that more files are always better than fewer files. Little does he know.

So I wonder how much time in a week the normal, middle-class, neat, organized American spends sorting and folding laundry, washing dishes and putting them away, emptying waste baskets, vacuuming, washing the bathroom mirror, shopping for groceries and putting them away. . .

It’s the putting way that is the problem, as I said. I wonder if anyone has ever kept track of the time they spend in a week putting stuff away. A place for everything and everything in its place.

There are other ways of thinking about stuff.

“The bread that is in your box belongs to the hungry; the coat in your closet belongs to the naked; the shoes you do not wear belong to the barefoot; the money in your vault belongs to the destitute” (St. Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea, c. A.D. 370).

The coat in my closet belongs to the naked. I have three sport coats in a clothes hamper waiting to go to the dry cleaners. They’ve been there for about three months. Do I need them? Obviously not. I know, I know, normal people don’t live quite this way. You there, yes you, dear reader, you would take your sport coat to the cleaner the morning after you realized it needed it. You certainly would not have three of them that needed cleaning at once.

Now, someone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but when someone fails to clothe the naked, while he is able to do this, is such a man deserving of any other appellation? . . . the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear moldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. (From St. Basil the Great, Homily on the saying of the Gospel According to Luke, “I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones,” and on greed, §7 (PG 31, 276B – 277A).

I don’t know where I’m going with this, but it seems to me the Church Fathers—at least on this point—have it about right. If I’ve got so many clothes that I can leave three sport coats in the clothes hamper for three months, isn’t that too many clothes? I’m not rich and I see this dilemma. I don’t have much of anything compared to lots of people I know—and especially to a few people I don’t know.

But I’m looking for help to sort and divest myself of the stuff I don’t need. The question is, where is the line? How much stuff is enough? How much is too much? I am, by any measurement, pretty low on the totem pole as far as wealth and owning stuff is concerned.

But there are those three sport coats I don’t need.

Let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone.

“The Dance,” by Humberto Ak’Abal
All of us dance
on a cent’s edge.

The poor—because they are poor—
lose their step,
and fall

and everyone else
falls on top.

I think we’re a people of too much stuff. And we’re falling on top of the poor.

Titian, The Woman Taken in Adultery

Titian, The Woman Taken in Adultery

sum link for other blog

“. . . Through a lyric slipknot of joy . . .” (Yusef Komunyakaa)

Without thinking about it.

Without thinking about it.

Most of the time when I write—here or elsewhere as anyone who has read any of my stuff can readily see—my idea is only sketchily formed when I begin, and it may not be any more complete when I finish. I often follow the directive, “We write to know what we think.”

It’s unusual for me actually to be thinking about an idea long before I write it. I organize my thoughts as I go along. However, I have an essay (or a blog post or something) brewing in my mind that I don’t know how to finish. My mind was jogged into thinking about it during the every-semester tutor-training session at the Academic Development for Student Athletes Center at Southern Methodist University, where I tutor student athletes. My essay might begin something like this.

Listeners, if they happen to be where they can watch me playing the organ, often ask me (and I’m sure every organist gets the question), “How do you do that with your feet?” My answer is usually a flip, “I don’t know because if I think about it, I can’t do it.” What I thought about for the first time in that training session was the other necessary step in that answer, “But if I think about anything else, I can’t do it.”

If I think about my grocery list while I am playing the Bach E minor Prelude and Fugue, my playing will be either mechanical or full of errors, or both. On the other hand, if my imagination is not running wild when I am reading The Goldfinch, I may as well stop reading. I will not only miss the imaginary world Donna Tartt has outlined for me, but I will also, at the very basic level, not be able to connect the visual stimulus of the squiggles on the page (or the Nook screen) to words that have definite sounds that carry socially-constructed discreet meanings.

I don’t know how to research topics related to how we learn, how we train our different kinds of intelligence, what makes us good at some things and not at others. I have found one that has succeeded in confusing me—which means it is probably exactly the article I need to begin with.

Stevens-Smith, Debbie, and Deborah Cadorette. “Coaches, Athletes, and Dominance Profiles in Sport: Addressing the Learning Styles of Athletes to Improve Performance.” Physical Educator 69.4 (2012): 360-374.

Here’s the question I’d try to answer if I were half my age and looking for a career:

Is it possible that student athletes are trained to use their brains with so much focus that they learn not to multi-task mentally? Or that only students who are able to learn in that way become great athletes?

I was watching an SMU basketball game on TV last night (I would not have enough interest to watch any other). At one point the members of the SMU team passed the ball enough times preparing to make a basket that every player on the team had possession of the ball at least once—a couple of them three or four times. All of this passing was going on seemingly miraculously right through the arms of the opposing team. Finally one of the players wove himself between two of the opposing team, jumped up to the basket and dunked the ball.

An absurd focus

An absurd focus

That’s the way good teams play, of course. Nothing special about that. But I was thinking about focus. Obviously those guys have a kind of focus on what they and four other men are doing to tune out everything, from the noise of the cheerleaders chanting, “Defense! Defense! Defense!” to the chatter of the other team, to the lights, to their teammates sitting on the bench, to the other team trying desperately to hit the ball as they pass it around.

Focus! What kind of training does that take? If they think about it, they cannot do it. If they think about anything else, they cannot do it.

Because I’m so un-athletic and have turned into a fat old man with a “bad hip” and a “bad shoulder,” I really don’t like sports (never did, truth be told). But I think I’m hooked—not on the game, but on what basketball players do.

I’m mystified, bewildered, dumbfounded by the focus of those guys. How does one concentrate that way? Concentration that borders on the miraculous, on the improbable, the absurd. What percentage of the population can do what those guys do? It seems statistically impossible.

It is a kind of intelligence that I can only imagine—no, let’s be honest, I can’t imagine it.

Of all the organists I have ever known (and it’s a passel of them, let me be clear), those few who have had the ability to focus most completely have given up much in their determination to “do that without thinking” and to “think about nothing else” when they are performing. Social skills and wide knowledge of the world around them have in some instances passed them by.

Or perhaps they belong to a special group of people who are “wired differently” than the rest of us and are somehow naturally able to memorize a Widor Organ Symphony in a week (yes, I know an organist who did that—and a conservatory pianist who memorized and performed with orchestra the Rachmaninoff “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” in less than a month).

How are those few organists (and other “world-class” classical music performers) like the 450 men playing in the National Basketball Association this year? Something about all of them is different from all the rest of us.

I am not one of them (Duh!). I have no clue how it feels to have that kind of focus. And I have about a dozen ideas for writing on the subject—most of which I will not finish in the 14.07 years the Social Security Actuarial Table predicts I have left to write. Focus!

Slam, Dunk, & Hook, by Yusef Komunyaka
Fast breaks. Lay ups. With Mercury’s
Insignia on our sneakers,
We outmaneuvered to footwork
Of bad angels. Nothing but a hot
Swish of strings like silk
Ten feet out. In the roundhouse
Labyrinth our bodies
Created, we could almost
Last forever, poised in midair
Like storybook sea monsters.
A high note hung there
A long second. Off
The rim. We’d corkscrew
Up & dunk balls that exploded
The skullcap of hope & good
Intention. Lanky, all hands
& feet…sprung rhythm.
We were metaphysical when girls
Cheered on the sidelines.
Tangled up in a falling,
Muscles were a bright motor
Double-flashing to the metal hoop
Nailed to our oak.
When Sonny Boy’s mama died
He played nonstop all day, so hard
Our backboard splintered.
Glistening with sweat,
We rolled the ball off
Our fingertips. Trouble
Was there slapping a blackjack
Against an open palm.
Dribble, drive to the inside,
& glide like a sparrow hawk.
Lay ups. Fast breaks.
We had moves we didn’t know
We had. Our bodies spun
On swivels of bone & faith,
Through a lyric slipknot
Of joy, & we knew we were
Beautiful & dangerous.

Use that uncanny focus.

The most focused performer I ever met.

The most focused performer I ever met.

“. . . They will inherit the earth only when the final pilgrimage is done. . .” (Ellen Hinsey)

I’ve missed my calling. I should be a geneticist. I have much odd material to work with.

My mother’s family are prone to Rosacea. Red skin, appearing to be flushed with embarrassment or heat most of the time. The nose eventually swelling to look like W. C. Fields (whose nose was misshapen by Rosacea, not by booze).

It's all in the genes.

It’s all in the genes.

My father’s family are prone to barnacles, growths on the skin that serve no apparent purpose. The least fortunate of us have a plethora of them. My family and—more especially—my friends are kind to ignore the encrustments on my head. I imagine some people when they first meet me are put off. I’ve been asked by a couple of men who wanted to date me if there is something wrong that should be taken care of.

Well, yes, there is something wrong. Icky blemishes on my skin. If I were a billionaire, I’d have a private dermatologist to fix them. But, since I’m not, anyone who wants to be my friend will simply have to get over them. None of them are cancerous or otherwise dangerous, and they are mine to keep—not in any way communicable.

I’m not a billionaire, and that means (as all Americans know) I am lazy, or unfocused, or defective in some other way, because in America, under capitalism, I should be a billionaire simply by dint of my hard work and cleverness (I’ve worked pretty hard most of my life, and I’m moderately clever).

The truth of the matter is that genetics have prevented me from amassing great wealth. Unless one’s genetic makeup is white-European, male, and (not actually genetic, but a large essential component of the process) Christian, one has little chance of becoming a billionaire. Why, then, am I not a billionaire?

According to Forbes magazine’s annual listing, of the 400 richest Americans, 358 are men (42 women). Of those, only 14 are of racial/national backgrounds not thought of as white-European, and only one is a woman of color. Whether or not any is gay, the listing does not say. (There are actually 513 American billionaires, but Forbes lists only the top 400 in their statistics, so it is possible that some of the other 113 are people of color and/or women or gay.)

My genetic pre-disposition to skin blemishes must be the cause of my poverty. I am white-European and male, moderately hard-working, and clever, but with blemishes.

The other reason I am not wealthy is, since one’s genetic makeup can insure great wealth, only a certain evolved few can be billionaires. If one has the last name Getty, Perot, Nordstrom, Sacks, Carlson, Ziff, Kaiser, Cargill, Rockefeller, Kraft, Kohler, Kellogg, or Murdock, for example, one is almost guaranteed to be genetically predisposed to be on the list.

The Pritzker family: Secretary of Commerce, third from right.

The Pritzker family: Secretary of Commerce, third from right.

A few other family names make billionairehood even more likely. Among those 400 richest Americans, at least three have the Koch family genes, five the Walton, four the Hunt, two the Bass, four the Pritzker, and three the Mars. Of the 400 richest Americans, at least 37 were born with genes that guarantee wealth regardless of hard work or cleverness.

At least one, Penny Pritzker, was guaranteed not only wealth, but political power. As the 263rd-wealthiest American (at $2.5 billion) she is the Secretary of Commerce, the head of all of the genetic wealth-regulating agencies of the government.

I think it’s fair to ask those billionaires who talk about the “American dream” and other religious mythologies to acknowledge their genetic predisposition to wealth. My genetic pre-disposition to obvious skin deformities might not have prevented me from having great wealth if I had had, for example, some of the Koch family genes.

Even though there is one person of color among the 400, we cannot extrapolate from there that other people of color have the same genetic predisposition to wealth as, say, the Hunts and the Waltons.

The genetic predisposition to wealth is not exclusively an American phenomenon. Forbes’ list of the billionaires in the world is now 1,645 worldwide. And remarkably enough, nine of those billionaires are people of color, disproving the theory that people of color never have the pre-disposition.

Aliko Dangote, $25 billion – Nigeria
Mohammed Al-Amoudi, $15.3 billion – Saudi Arabia
Mike Adenuga, $4.6 billion – Nigeria
Isabel Dos Santos, $3.7 billion – Angola
Patrice Motsepe, $2.9 billion – South Africa
Oprah Winfrey, $2.9 billion – America
Folorunsho Alakija, $2.5 billion – Nigeria
Abdulsamad Rabiu, $1.2 billion – Nigeria
Mohammed Ibrahim, $1.1 billion – Britain

0.5% of the billionaires of the world are people of color. (Nigeria seems to be rich in the genes.) Two of the nine are women. Isabel Dos Santos is the daughter of Angola’s President José Eduardo dos Santos. In some few cases the genetic predisposition to wealth also predisposes one to political power (see Penny Pritzker above). Everyone knows who Oprah is.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the genetic predisposition to billionairehood is that one of the most common concurrent genetic predispositions these people have is to being, at least nominally, Christian. Which is strange because, according to at least one explanation of the tenets of their religion, perhaps they should not be rich at all.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
• Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
• Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
• Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
• Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
• Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
• Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
• Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
• Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
• Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I’m not suggesting that the genetic predisposition to wealth means a priori that one cannot be “poor in spirit,” or “meek,” or “peacemakers,” or “persecuted,” only that I, in my limited experience, have seen little evidence of it. I don’t mean to judge, but to question. How does all of this fit together?

The Christ of the Christian religion is recorded as saying the “meek” (can I equate them with those who are not genetically predisposed to wealth and power) will inherit the earth. Ellen Hinsey says that will happen only when “the final pilgrimage is done.” I wonder when that will be.

“The Multitude,” by Ellen Hinsey (born 1960 in Boston)

Standing at the edge is the great Multitude.

They inch forward in their rags and hunger.
Their movement along the ground lifts
the sound of ancestral migrations.

They are carrying the dark water of need
in their eyes; they are carrying the first
vowels, the first consonants,

But their mouths are silent, and watchful.

And the great scavenging wings hang over them;
the raven eyes hunting among the muteness
of the winding cortege.

Beside them are the pools filled with the specters
of famine, civil war, drought—

They become one body, a muscle of need.
A testament of want.

And night—which is always upon them—rides them
like the wild horses of the storm-filled plains.

They will inherit the earth only when the final
pilgrimage is done.

For in this life, the crystal lake and the great sword
of understanding, raised high, will not show
them mercy.

Far off, in the West, a light burns brightly. But
it is not for them.
(written 2013—not yet published)

An interesting field of study, genetics.

when the final pilgrimage is done

when the final
pilgrimage is done

“. . . those angels, forever falling, snare us and haul us. . .” (Sherman Alexie)

Mechanical Action, Goodwin Opus 1

Mechanical Action, Goodwin Opus 1

In the fall semester of 1963 at the University of Redlands in California, Steuart Goodwin—a senior composition major—arranged for and directed the process of moving an organ built in New England in the mid-19th century by George Stevens into Watchorn Hall of the School of Music.

The organ arrived in (thousands of?) pieces shipped in wooden crates. The good-clean-fun of helping unload the organ from the truck and carry it into the Hall made for lifetime memories. Over the next months, Steuart reassembled the organ.

The impact of that uncommon event on organ students varied. The organ was the first mechanical action (tracker) instrument most of us had ever seen. Some of us hardly ever again practiced on any other organ on campus. Some would not venture into that studio. For me, mechanical action instruments became absolutely preferable to others—at least in theory. I’ve played many awesome organs with electric action and some ugly tracker organs. (See this article for an explanation.)

In the fall of 1964 Steuart went off to The Netherlands on a Fulbright Fellowship to learn to make organ pipes at the Flentrop factory in Zaandam. When he returned home, he began his life’s work as an organ builder.

Coincidentally, the University installed a modern tracker-action organ in the recital hall the next year, built by Hermann Schlicker. I played my junior recital (a “half” recital of the Hindemith Second Sonata for Organ and the Bach E Minor “Wedge” Prelude and Fugue) on it, the first student recital on that organ.

Steuart’s Opus 1 is a small instrument of two keyboards and pedals with six stops. He built it as a “house organ.” I—in my dotage—have forgotten its full history, but it spent many years as a practice instrument at Redlands. In a reshuffling of teaching space, the University needed to divest itself of the organ, and once again I helped Steuart move, unpack, and rebuild an organ—this time his Opus 1 in my living room.

I cannot overstate the personal and emotional, as well as musical, importance of the Goodwin Opus 1 for me. It has been a constant in my life for 50 years—as has been my friendship with Steuart. Ours is the most lasting friendship of my life.

In the last few weeks I have become fascinated by music by various composers over the centuries based on a tune by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612). The tune is a love song from Hassler’s courtly collection, Lustgarten neuer teutscher Gesäng (“Pleasure garden of new German songs). The opening lines of the words:

Mein G’muth ist mir verwirret,
Das macht ein Magdlein zart.
(My comfort is confounded. A maiden is the cause.)

In 1613 Christoph Knoll (1563-1621) set his funeral text Herzlich tut mich verlangen to Hassler’s tune. Henry S. Drinker (1880-1965) translated the words to English:

My heart is ever yearning for blessed death’s release.
From ills that here surround me and woes that never cease.
The cruel world to banish would be a blessed boon;
I sigh for joys eternal, O Jesus, Lord, come soon.

Most people know this tune as the melody for the 1656 Good Friday hymn, “O Sacred Head, now Wounded,” by Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676).

I began to be interested in organ settings of this tune (with the Knoll text) when I rediscovered a setting by Johann Kirnberger (1721-1783) in a collection I’ve had since Redlands days. I was looking for simple (simple!) pieces I can memorize to help keep my old brain functioning.

A frieze over the door of Watchorn Hall.  If I ever knew what it is, I've forgotten.

A frieze over the door of Watchorn Hall. If I ever knew what it is, I’ve forgotten.

I’ve found ten settings of Herzlich tut mich verlangen. This is not a longing for death. It is a musicological exercise in finding music I can easily play and perhaps memorize. The fact that all of the pieces I’ve found so far are perfectly suited to the Goodwin Opus 1 gives the process purpose and delight.

A word about playing and recording on the Goodwin, and uploading the results online. It is not false modesty for me to say I am not a “natural” performer. Anyone who doubts that has only to listen to my playing. And Opus 1 is not representative of Steuart’s mature work as an organ builder—especially as a tonal finisher. I think he probably cringes at some of my uploads, especially when I have not had Ross King tune the organ recently enough.

My musical purpose is simple. It’s probably too personal to discuss here. However, I’ve come to a place (remember this when you reach 70) where I have little concern about criticism. My playing is my most immediate means of communicating the delicacy and the mystery of life as I know it. If anyone finds it lacking, I can say only that what anyone thinks of me is none of my business.

A “sea-change” has come over me in the last year or so (see Ariel’s song in Act I, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest). I am not afraid of death, and I have nothing to prove. I have only myself to share as best I can with anyone who wants to know me. I have some loose ends I’d like to tie up while I have time.

Lack of civility and violence and purposeful ignorance still roil me. And my own foibles—both the purposeful ones and those caused by neurological mishaps in my brain—make me sometimes want to start over again 50 years ago. But I don’t say (or think) with Christoph Knoll, “My heart is ever yearning for blessed death’s release.”

I hope, I yearn (isn’t that a funny old-fashioned word?) for some peace, here and now. And I wish I could communicate that to others. My halting playing on this wonderful unusual little organ will have to do.

I read a great deal of poetry, and I found this poem that, even though the poet is only 49 years old, seems to fit what I’m trying to say. The connection may not be clear to anyone but me, but the poem is lovely.

“Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World,” (2009) by Sherman Alexie
The morning air is all awash with angels . . . – Richard Wilbur

The eyes open to a blue telephone
In the bathroom of this five-star hotel.

I wonder whom I should call? A plumber,
Proctologist, urologist, or priest?

Who is most among us and most deserves
The first call? I choose my father because

He’s astounded by bathroom telephones.
I dial home. My mother answers. “Hey, Ma,

I say, “Can I talk to Poppa?” She gasps,
And then I remember that my father

Has been dead for nearly a year. “Shit, Mom,”
I say. “I forgot he’s dead. I’m sorry—

How did I forget?” “It’s okay,” she says.
“I made him a cup of instant coffee

This morning and left it on the table—
Like I have for, what, twenty-seven years—

And I didn’t realize my mistake
Until this afternoon.” My mother laughs

At the angels who wait for us to pause
During the most ordinary of days

And sing our praise to forgetfulness
Before they slap our souls with their cold wings.

Those angels burden and unbalance us.
Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.

Those angels, forever falling, snare us
And haul us, prey and praying, into dust.

Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, was born on October 7, 1966, on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington.


My recordings of the organ are obviously less than professional. The camera is too close to the organ, so the movement of the “trackers” is audible. The camera also does not record bass sounds well. And then there is the occasional airplane noise (in the flight pattern of Love Field).

None of that gets in my way. I hope it doesn’t yours.