“. . . You gave me What you did not have. . .” (Alberto Ríos)

If everyone lit just one little candle on WABD (now Fox WNYW) TV

If everyone lit just one little candle on WABD (now Fox WNYW) TV

In 1952—the year Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected President, defeating Adlai Stevenson—Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) defeated Edward R. Murrow, Lucille Ball and Arthur Godfrey for the Emmy for Most Outstanding Television Personality. He was a televangelist before there were such things.

I remember the show because my father belittled the good Bishop, not (overtly) because he was Catholic but because he was sentimental and entertaining. I also remember ad nauseam the last phrase of his show’s theme song, which swelled in the background as he gave his blessing, “And if everyone lit just one little candle, what a bright world this would be.”

That song was not the stuff of my father’s Baptist preaching. The actions of human beings, no matter how noble or well-intended, were not going to make the world a better place. That job was for the deity.

The good Bishop was recently on his way to Canonization as a saint, but the process came to a halt last year when the Archdiocese of New York refused to give his body to the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, for the examination—and taking the “relics”—required for sainthood. New Yorkers know the value of an Emmy-Award-Winning Personality.

Most of us believe we have award-winning personalities (caveat: assuming most of “us” have the time and wherewithal to be thinking about ourselves, as opposed to most of “them” who are struggling simply to survive). If we don’t assume we have award-winning personalities, we have plenty of clothes from Ross-Dress-For-Less or Nordstrom-Dress-For-More, and apps for our iPhones, and Rear-View-Monitoring Systems for our cars to make up for it.

I used to worry about my personality. I began worrying when I began to understand (in about 4th grade) I’m an odd duck. I’ve never quite fit in. That’s not sour grapes, it’s not trying make excuses for myself, and it’s not wishful thinking. In 4th grade I was the teacher’s pet, overweight, an organ student rather than a Little Leaguer, and often wore clothes my mother made. The preacher’s kid, too. And gay. And knew it.

If you didn’t worry about your personality in 4th grade, you were either one of the in-crowd and knew it, better adjusted than any 4th-grader I’ve ever known, or hopeless.

The odd duck

The odd duck

I’ve written several times about the $20 bill I keep folded and hidden in my wallet for the purpose of giving it to a (homeless, street, needy, crazy) person. I began the practice when I received a tearful, grateful hug from a small elderly Asian waitress for whom I left a $20 tip at a Denny’s restaurant in Seattle about 15 years ago. It’s no big deal. It’s not generous or gracious or altruistic on my part. I’m the one, this odd duck who almost always feels out of place, who got the hug—the assurance that I’m still part of the human race and not an Anas discors.

If I am making the world bright, the light’s falling on me, not on the recipients of my $20 bill. But it’s not because I’m doing something so wonderful that I deserve it.

So now I drift off into the same kind of sentimentalism my father found in the teaching of Bishop TV Personality.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll probably say it again. If you want to stop feeling like an odd duck, or even a Cygnus buccinators, give someone who needs it a $20 bill. I know most everyone who might be reading this gives a beggar on the street corner a quarter now and then, mostly to assuage guilt for all the times we have “passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:25-37).

Advice: It’s a lot more assuaging to drop a $20 bill in the woman’s hat. You can not only feel noble, but you might—if you’re lucky and the world’s truly becoming a “bright place”—get an unmerited hug out of the deal. You know, physical human contact, probably contact you’ll remember all day because you’ll worry that you’ve picked up some of her odor. You’ll remember it because you don’t deserve it

I have a couple other suggestions. If you’re worried about, terrified of, disgusted by “illegal immigrants,” go teach an ESL class at, say, the Aberg Center for Literacy in Dallas. Or send Judge Clay Jenkins an email offering to help take care of some of the illegal kids down on the border (his program turned out to be unnecessary, but you’ll be on his distribution list and learn about all sorts of stuff on the other side of Dallas you didn’t know about).

Or get yourself a meager-paying job as a tutor for athletes at some college who are being abused by “the system” of school athletics and help them find their true potential (or if you don’t want to be grandiose, just help them pass College English 101).

Or the next time your church sends you an email asking you for a donation to help Syrian kids in refugee camps in Lebanon, send them the $20.

Or tell your friend who puts racist comments about President Obama on your Facebook page to cut it out. Tell them. In public.

Want to see the jolliest moment of your day? Watch the instant and oh-so-real communication between a guy with a cane holding the door for a guy with a walker. You’re not going to get a ray of the brightness of the world any better than that.

This sentimental old fool has two words of advice for you youngsters. If you plan on being old, take care of your hips. And, if you plan on being old, cut out living as if you’re the only non-odd duck in the world and start carrying a $20 bill.

This is not new advice. I just keep discovering its aptness day after day. And I am more grateful than I can say for all the people who light candles to light my way.

“When Giving Is All We Have,” by Alberto Ríos (b. 1952)
One river gives
Its journey to the next.

We give because someone gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.

We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.

We have been better for it,
We have been wounded by it—

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,
Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,
But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,
Mine to yours, yours to mine.

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you
What I had to give—together, we made

Something greater from the difference.

The Ugly duckling grown up.
Trumpeter-Swan_B9H7775

“Little is certain, other than the tide. . .” (Amy Clampitt)

Birthday number 2 - NOT un-satisfactory

Birthday number 2 – NOT un-satisfactory

This is it! The first day of my 71st year. I’m either bummed out or excited, depending on the hour of the day.

One of the few regrets (but perhaps the major-est) I have at this moment is my lack of discipline in writing. I’m a damned good writer from moment to moment, but I have no ability to sit four or five hours a day and pour over what I’ve done and make it better, make it cohere, make it either beautiful or rhetorically sound. Writing is, as, Pete Hamill, pointed out, “The hardest work in the world that doesn’t involve heavy lifting.” For many years as a professor in writing classes at several colleges and universities, I copied Hamill’s adage at the bottom of my syllabuses. My ulterior motive was to try to convince my students to “do as I quote, not as I do.”

Amy Clampitt (1920-1994) was a poet who either was or was not a “formalist” (whatever that is) according to which literary critic you’re talking to. She either did or did not write poetry with a proper “narrative.” Her work either is or is not too wordy, too descriptive.

I dunno.

I don’t know what an educated, literary person is “supposed” to think of the last stanza of her (longer than it needs to be, I suppose) poem, “A Hermit Thrush,” published in a collection of her work in 1997.

. . . there’s
hardly a vocabulary left to wonder, uncertain
as we are of so much in this existence, this
botched, cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing.

This botched, cumbersome, much-mended, not-unsatisfactory thing. I suppose the academic literary types who think her poetry is too wordy, too descriptive, would say this string of adjectives is a primary example. But I think it’s both charming and right on the money.

Botched. I’m not going there. But I can remind myself of a failed marriage, several relationships ended without much grace, a PhD instead of a DMA, insufficient savings to live the “lifestyle” I’d like in retirement. Cumbersome. So much left undone because I simply don’t have the will or the energy to finish all I’ve started. And the heaviness of still (at this advanced age!) trying to figure out how to life with freedom and joy. Much-mended. Two messages already this very morning apologizing for insensitivity and inattention to friends.

But all of this is not un-satisfactory. Clampitt doesn’t say “satisfactory” but the double negative “not unsatisfactory.” Does a double negative make a positive or simply imprecise writing? I used to tell students who wrote double negatives they were being needlessly wordy and confusing their rhetorical project by trying to express two contradictory ideas at once. (Speaking of wordiness.) I, however, being no longer an “academic” can say I like the idea: not un-satisfactory.

My life is and has been not un-satisfactory for the most part. I have a photograph of myself on my second birthday (January 3, 1947). I’m sitting outside at a small table with my birthday cake in front of me. Outside because my father’s camera didn’t have a flash so sunlight was necessary. I’m bundled up in a snowsuit and hat that nearly covers my face. Bundled because it’s January in Wyoming. Snow.

Here we have two negatives, darkness and cold. But the picture exists. My mother made a cake, and my father set up the picture to record the day. Our family was as dysfunctional as any. But that picture is proof enough to me that I was loved in every necessary way. Life has not been and is not now un-satisfactory.

Dad, brother, and little me - how I know life is more than satifactory

Dad, brother, and little me – how I know life is more than satifactory

I could write seventy years of not un-satisfactory examples, but I don’t need to. Anyone who has any imagination can imagine, can extrapolate a gazillion examples from my life and their own. Mine even includes Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and Bipolar II Disorder. And falling into a tub of boiling water a year after the second-birthday picture was taken. And. . . there’s no reason to belabor the negatives.

I’m having a little party tonight, and a few of my closest friends will attend. About 40. Who has 40 friends? Someone whose life is not un-satisfactory. And to try to keep it that way, my party will include a silent auction for the benefit of the Aberg Center for Literacy in Dallas.

I think the best way to keep my life not un-satisfactory is to remember that I am a white, male, (not-straight), highly educated American, and whatever I think might be unsatisfactory about my life, it’s better than the lives of about 99% of the people in the world—through no goodness or achievement of my own.
Happy Birthday – EVERYONE!

(Here’s Amy Clampitt’s poem. It is wordy, but to heck with the critics: it’s wonderful.)

“A Hermit Thrush,” by Amy Clampitt

Nothing’s certain. Crossing, on this longest day,
the low-tide-uncovered isthmus, scrambling up
the scree-slope of what at high tide
will be again an island,

to where, a decade since well-being staked
the slender, unpremeditated claim that brings us
back, year after year, lugging the
makings of another picnic–

the cucumber sandwiches, the sea-air-sanctified
fig newtons–there’s no knowing what the slamming
seas, the gales of yet another winter
may have done. Still there,

the gust-beleaguered single spruce tree,
the ant-thronged, root-snelled moss, grass
and clover tuffet underneath it,
edges frazzled raw

but, like our own prolonged attachment, holding.

The Hermit Thrush knows

The Hermit Thrush knows

Whatever moral lesson might commend itself,
there’s no use drawing one,
there’s nothing here

to seize on as exemplifying any so-called virtue
holding on despite adversity, perhaps) or
any no-more-than-human tendency–
stubborn adherence, say,

to a wholly wrongheaded tenet. Though to
hold on in any case means taking less and less
for granted, some few things seem nearly
certain, as that the longest day

will come again, will seem to hold its breath,
the months-long exhalation of diminishment
again begin. Last night you woke me
for a look at Jupiter,

that vast cinder wheeled unblinking
in a bath of galaxies. Watching, we traveled
toward an apprehension all but impossible
to be held onto–

that no point is fixed, that there’s no foothold
but roams untethered save by such snells,
such sailor’s knots, such stays
and guy wires as are

mainly of our own devising. From such an
empyrean, aloof seraphic mentors urge us
to look down on all attachment,
on any bonding, as

in the end untenable. Base as it is, from
year to year the earth’s sore surface
mends and rebinds itself, however
and as best it can, with

thread of cinquefoil, tendril of the magenta
beach pea, trammel of bramble; with easings,
mulchings, fragrances, the gray-green
bayberry’s cool poultice–

and what can’t finally be mended, the salt air
proceeds to buff and rarefy: the lopped carnage
of the seaward spruce clump weathers
lustrous, to wood-silver.

Little is certain, other than the tide that
circumscribes us that still sets its term
to every picnic–today we stayed too long
again, and got our feet wet–

and all attachment may prove at best, perhaps,
a broken, a much-mended thing. Watching
the longest day take cover under
a monk’s-cowl overcast,

with thunder, rain and wind, then waiting,
we drop everything to listen as a
hermit thrush distills its fragmentary,
hesitant, in the end

unbroken music. From what source (beyond us, or
the wells within?) such links perceived arrive–
diminished sequences so uninsistingly
not even human–there’s

hardly a vocabulary left to wonder, uncertain
as we are of so much in this existence, this
botched, cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing.

“A smile. Ink from a chop. He’s become his own map. . .” (Ron Strauss)

Athlete

Athlete

(Please note: I realize I have written about tattoos—my tattoos—recently; however, that post is one I inadvertently deleted. This is not, however, a replacement for that post.)

In the summer of 1972 I lived and worked at the Robert and Francis Flaherty farm in Brattleboro, VT. At that time it was the center of study for Flaherty’s films (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran, and Moana), administered by the School of Theology at Claremont (California), under the direction of Professor Jack Coogan.

I was assigned to catalogue and file still photos from Moana. The work was tedious, but the situation was intellectually stimulating, and the farm, located at the foot of Black Mountain, was idyllic and naturally inspiring.

Moana would be seen as even less appealing than “quaint” to modern film-goers. It would be almost impossible to endure for most of the students I’ve taught in colleges. Black and white. Silent (with subtitles—and, in versions available online, with theater organ accompaniments). Naive, I suppose—Polynesian kids running around in a blissfully innocent idyll playing and cavorting in the least sophisticated (by 21st-century styles and rituals) activities imaginable.

It was made before rock ‘n roll was invented, an eternity before rap or any of those other new musics. The film has not a single “special effect” or murder or explosion in its entire 60-some minutes.

Last week, a conversation with a young man from Tonga (the South Pacific islands) jogged my memory about Moana.

He asked me about my tattoos. He was fascinated and wanted to know if they “mean” something. He explained that his parents had asked him not to get any tattoos until he considered the “rite of passage” tattoo of many Polynesian Islands.

Tattoo.

Published in 1769, James Cook’s memoirs of his travels to the South Sea Islands introduced the word tatau into the English language from the Polynesian word referring to the practice of inscribing the skin with indelible ink. This word quickly morphed into ‘tattoo’ in English and spread through other European languages. . . (Fisher, Jill A. “Tattooing the Body, Marking Culture.” Body & Society 8.4 (2002): 91–107.)

When I was in 3rd grade, a new boy joined our class. He was also the new boy at church, the nephew of one of the pillars. My parents insisted I play with him even though everyone at school thought he was weird (I knew most of the kids thought I was weird, too). I was willing as long as it was at home and no one saw us together. David had an older brother, out of high school, thin, muscular, wearing t-shirt and jeans like James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. He was not handsome, but he was so sexy I could hardly bear to be in his presence. He had several tattoos. They were not socially acceptable in 1955.

My being tattooed may be a case of arrested development. I still think of Casey now and then when I consider the history of my emotional development. I know the image of his tattoos (I do not remember what they were exactly) is one of those from childhood that inhabits my most private memory.

So I have tattoos because, when I was 10, I was in love with a playmate’s 19-year-old-brother who had tattoos? I’ll admit that’s possible. Arrested development.

It’s also possible that it has something to do with my life-long search for my true identity—and my (limited by creativity but nonetheless real) unwillingness to fit my life to some pattern some unidentified power would prescribe for me. I’m a shy, introverted (unspectacular, even meek) non-conformist. That I knew at age 10 I wanted to be tattooed but waited until I was 69 to do it does not speak well for my being a rebel, with or without a cause.

All of my life I have been in professional positions in which it would have been out of the question to be tattooed unless one were a far more extroverted non-conformist than I.

Many of the student athletes I work with now have tattoos—not simply a few scattered about their bodies, but elaborate swirls of ink over large parts of their bodies. I’m not sure when that became fashionable. My guess is Dennis Rodman made it popular; I don’t know.

Is it possible that these young athletes and I have the same motivation for our “body modifications?”

My tattoo in Arabic

My tattoo in Arabic

(Ernest)Becker has argued that one of the ways of dealing with the terror of death is to take a heroic attitude. Even though we know we will fail, we try to fight death by all means. (Strenger, Carl. “Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death.” Gender and Sexuality 10 [2009]: 166–171. Referencing: Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press [1974].)

In his poem “Tattoo,” Dr. Ron Strauss tells of meeting a patient covered with tattoos, one of which the doctor thought said “J.S. Bach.” He was mystified until he discovered the tattoo read “S.S. Beech.”

A smile. Ink from a chop. He’s become his own map.
You were either “on the boat” or “on the beach”
explains “SS Beach” himself.
He’s become his own map, his own guide to what he will become.

Will he die or live forever through the permanent marks he has made on his body.

. . . as society focuses increasingly on the material body, individuals feel alienated from their own commodified bodies. This alienation stems from experiencing the world with rather than through the material body. Identity is fixed on what we are, rather than what we are becoming. The tattoo can serve as an indelible identity marker inscribing the boundaries of possibility for the body (Fisher).

The boundary of possibility is death. Even though we know we will fail, we try to fight death by all means. . . Identity is fixed on what we are, rather than what we are becoming.

I doubt any of this was in my consciousness as I sat for my first tattoo. The truth is, I could not have told you, had you asked, why I was in that chair letting Joe work on my arm. I have read many times and absorbed Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Parker’s Back.” I have studied and taught Orlan’s body modification of. I have read Becker, Strenger, and Fisher.

Perhaps I’m struggling against death. Perhaps I’m expressing non-conformity. Perhaps I’m trying to be as sexy as Casey (and the students I work with). Perhaps I like my tattoos.

Finally, the fourth function of tattoos is decorative. Regardless of their particular psychosocial function for the individual, tattoos are images (even words become images as/within tattoos). By modifying the body with tattoos, the individual has chosen to add permanent decoration to his/her body. (Fisher)

Soon I’ll tackle tattoos as “denial of death.” Stay tuned.

“The Tattoo,” by Ron Strauss
Pushing aside the nursing home curtain that’s come within reach,
a diehard sailor flexes a biceps.
For an instant we see “JS Bach” instead of “SS Beach.”

Down the street, the usual kvetch
of speed-metal pours from the local reptile shop
as if to further tattoo the curtain of his skin. The sweeping reach

of aquamarine vines and blue-green rosettes. Pitch
black nipples. A smile. Ink from a chop. He’s become his own map.
You were either “on the boat” or “on the beach”

explains “SS Beach” himself. Or in the clutch
purse of the deep. If only that crepe
of a curtain which Shelley calls “the painted veil” could come within reach

of the hand that would lift it. If only such
a hand were not itself caught in the grip
of the inching histiocytes that had blurred the distinction between “JS Bach”
and “SS Beach.”
From all across the map
a chorus of twenty-some-odd kids warms up
behind a scrim curtain, beyond his reach,
JS Bach instead of SS Beach.

Mine isn't Bach, but it's music

Mine isn’t Bach, but it’s music

“You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill. . . “ (Ogden Nash)

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

American poet John Brehm was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1956. I was in 5th grade in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, at that time. One of his poems includes the stanza,

The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: “Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.

American poet Ogden Nash was born in Rye, New York, in 1902. One of his poems includes the lines,

. . . about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn’t as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forget to pay a bill . . .

I wish they had never happened.

That is, my six sessions of therapy (before insurance had to treat mental illness the same as physical) with a psychiatrist whose practice was exclusively with substance abusers. About 1982. Beverly, MA. The meddling in my affairs by an Episcopal priest whose wife had been in recovery from alcoholism for ten years at that time.

They got me to see the good doctor under the pretense he would help me cope with a couple of nearly disastrous situations in my life over which I had no control. The real reason, obviously, was their desire to get me to quit drinking alcoholically. (Disclaimer: You may have read or heard about some of this before. Sorry, but the demons are not yet exorcised.)

The good doctor, seeing he was getting nowhere in helping me understand the possible problems my drinking (only about a quart of vodka every day—what’s the big deal?) was causing me, gave up, and in the last of the six sessions asked me if I had any other problems to talk about. I’ve written about this before—ad nauseam—but I launched into what he thought was a classic description of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. He had been a medical school (Harvard, of course) chum of Dr. Donald Schomer, by that time heir apparent to Dr. Norman Geschwind, pioneer of work on TLE. The good doctor set up an appointment for me with Dr. Schomer, and the rest, as they say, is diagnosis.

This round of unwritten letters.  . .

This round of unwritten letters. . .

I first read Ogden Nash’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man” in high school and was particularly drawn to the lines,

You didn’t slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let’s all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of things you haven’t done. . . .

Perhaps that appealed to me when I was 17 or 18 years old because I was already too familiar with the sins of omission.

The real question is whether or not TLEpilepsy has (had) anything to do with my inability to follow through on much of anything in my life. (Well, there is that PhD dissertation.) TLEpileptics have certain problems of memory and focus. I’ve read a lot about us.

For example: Theodore, William H., et al. “Serotonin 1A Receptors, Depression, And Memory in Temporal Lobe Epilepsy.” Epilepsia (Series 4) 53.1 (2012): 129-133.

But the condition is so amorphous I’m never even sure I have it—I can’t be positive even though Donald Schomer said so.

My symptoms are pretty regular. Auditory hallucination (b-flat 4 ringing in my ears and exploding into white noise) followed by extreme sense of dissociation, followed by exhaustion and depression. So how would anyone know?—I’m mostly depressed anyway.

And then there’s this round of unwritten letters that’s on me. And those unwritten poems.

Is it TLEpilepsy, bipolar II disorder, or common clinical depression that has given me my sense of unfilled purpose, my absolute understanding that

. . . the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.

My sins are most decidedly sins of omission. Nash is right. They are no fun.

Yesterday I had opportunity to talk with a couple of college football players about the commencement speech the late Steve Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005. Talk! What conversations we had. I said on Facebook they were introspective. That’s only the beginning. The athletes understood Jobs’s remarks.

. . . Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. . . . Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. . . [Quoting the last issue of The Whole Earth Catalog]:

“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

A good friend is in Paris for several weeks. He has invited me to come over there and sleep on the extra bed in the apartment he’s renting. It’ll be the only time I ever have a chance to go to Paris and not have to pay for a hotel room.

I told one of the guys about it yesterday and asked him if I should take a week off from my tutoring and go.

“Hell yes,” he said. “Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Don’t worry about us.”

Can it be that TLE has nothing to do with my unwritten poems?

A lack of hunger, perhaps.

(You’re lucky today, dear reader; you get two poems.)

To attend the Paris Opera

To attend the Paris Opera

“The poems I Have Not Written,” by John Brehm (b. 1955)
I’m so wildly unprolific, the poems
I have not written would reach
from here to the California coast
if you laid them end to end.

And if you stacked them up,
the poems I have not written
would sway like a silent
Tower of Babel, saying nothing

and everything in a thousand
different tongues. So moving, so
filled with and emptied of suffering,
so steeped in the music of a voice

speechless before the truth,
the poems I have not written
would break the hearts of every
woman who’s ever left me,

make them eye their husbands
with a sharp contempt and hate
themselves for turning their backs
on the very source of beauty.

The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: “Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.

please strike me dead at once,
destroy my works and cleanse
the earth of all my ghastly
imperfections.” Trees would

bow their heads before the poems
I have not written. “Take me,”
they would say, “and turn me
into your pages so that I

might live forever as the ground
from which your words arise.”
The wind itself, about which
I might have written so eloquently,

praising its slick and intersecting
rivers of air, its stately calms
and furious interrogations,
its flutelike lingerings and passionate

reproofs, would divert its course
to sweep down and then pass over
the poems I have not written,
and the life I have not lived, the life

I’ve failed even to imagine,
which they so perfectly describe.

“Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man,” by Ogden Nash (b. 1907)
It is common knowledge to every schoolboy and even every Bachelor of Arts,
That all sin is divided into two parts.
One kind of sin is called a sin of commission, and that is very important,
And it is what you are doing when you are doing something you ortant,
And the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.
I might as well give you my opinion of these two kinds of sin as long as, in a way, against each other we are pitting them,
And that is, don’t bother your head about the sins of commission because however sinful, they must at least be fun or else you wouldn’t be committing them.
It is the sin of omission, the second kind of sin,
That lays eggs under your skin.
The way you really get painfully bitten
Is by the insurance you haven’t taken out and the checks you haven’t added up the stubs of and the appointments you haven’t kept and the bills you haven’t paid and the letters you haven’t written.
Also, about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn’t as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forget to pay a bill;
You didn’t slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let’s all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of things you haven’t done,
But they are the things that I do not like to be amid,
Because the suitable things you didn’t do give you a lot more trouble than the unsuitable things you did.
The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing,
Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.

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

Morrissey. You can't go on forever

Morrissey. You can’t go on forever

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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.

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

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

Yep. Never.

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

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

My poem might begin with a grey dawn.

My poem might begin with a grey dawn.

My poem might begin with a gray dawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My poem might begin with a radiantly blue morning glory.

My poem might begin with a radiantly blue morning glory.

My poem might begin with a radiantly blue morning glory.

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

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

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

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

 

“When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter. . .” (W. H. Auden)

Defense against a peaceful demonstration, Bethlehem

Defense against a peaceful demonstration, Bethlehem

With even a modest ability to consider objectively the barrage of “information” overwhelming us hour by hour by hour by minute, one can see that any media—any format—presenting information about the current attempt of Israel to obliterate Palestinian Gaza assumes a priori that Israel’s actions are justified.

The common—no the absolute overwhelming majority—wisdom is that “Israel has the right to protect itself.”

This is a “truth” so often repeated that it sounds as if it came from, Oh, I don’t know, perhaps the Holy Bible. Or the United States Constitution. Or the United Nations Charter. Or the Bhagavad Gita. Or the Qur’an. Or Shakespeare. Or SNL. It is simple truth, not to be questioned. It is as universal belief as the made-up science of economics.

Belief in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is no less pervasive than that “Israel has a right to protect itself.”

Hardly anyone (at least hardly anyone in public) thinks about whether or not the proposition is true. And almost no one wants to hear any information that might contradict the received wisdom.

The wisdom began to be received, I would guess, during and immediately after the 1967 War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. I have, in fact, read about the process whereby the Israeli Cabinet decided to use Madison Avenue tactics, if not a Madison Avenue firm, to begin to persuade the American people that the belief, “Israel has a right to defend itself,” is simply true, is simply to be accepted without thought. I will plow through the stuff I have and find that article (or reread the book, whatever it takes).

Until then, trust me. OK, don’t trust me. There’s no reason for you to do so until I have located the evidence that I am correct.

So in lieu of trusting me, trust yourself.

Ask yourself why the massive destruction of cities, the horrifying murder of civilians Israel is perpetrating right now is in any way an expression of the “right to self-defense.”

Do you think Russia’s annexation of Crimea was an act of self-defense?
Do you think Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait in 1990 was an act of self-defense?
Do you think the genocide of the Tutsi by the Hutus of Rwanda in 1994 was an act of self-defense?
Which side in the Bosnian war of the 1990s, the Serbs or the Croats was exercising its “right of self-defense?”

Think. Simply think about it.

Defense against a child

Defense against a child

My guess is that anyone who might be reading this can quote the last sentence of

Perhaps someone might say, “Socrates, can you not go away from us and live quietly, without talking?” Now this is the hardest thing to make some of you believe. For if I say that such conduct would be disobedience to the god and that therefore I cannot keep quiet, you will think I am jesting and will not believe me; and if again I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me still less. Socrates speaking Plato’s Apology [37 (e) to 38 (a)].

The unexamined life is not worth living.

“As I’ve said repeatedly, Israel has a right to defend itself from rocket attacks that terrorize the Israeli people,” [President] Obama said.

What on earth does that phrase mean—and what are its implications? Its implications are that Israel has a right to continue the ethnic cleansing of all “Arabs” (read “Palestinians”) from the territory Israel claims as its own—the ethnic cleansing that began during the war that led up to the declaration of the founding of Israel in 1948.

The constant repetition of an idea for decades does not make it true.

Ad populum: This is an emotional appeal that speaks to positive (such as patriotism, religion, democracy) or negative (such as terrorism or fascism) concepts rather than the real issue at hand.

Much writing is available to anyone who wants to think about the “received wisdom” that “Israel has a right to defend itself.” One might—after reading any or all of such writing—decide that the proposition is correct.

The question remains, however, where did the idea originate, and why was it first stated? Is it, in fact, the “truth,” or is it an Ad populum logical fallacy used to justify aggression and the subjugation of one people by another?
I said above there is much writing available. My project over the next few weeks is to gather a bibliography of such material and publish it on my other blog as a resource for anyone who believes that

talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man,

and that the unexamined life is not worth living includes questioning our received beliefs about atrocity. The link to the first installment of the bibliography is below Auden’s explanation of tyrannical speech.

“Epitaph on a Tyrant,” by W. H. Auden (1907 – 1973)
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

http://sumnonrabidus.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/when-he-laughed-respectable-senators-burst-with-laughter-w-h-auden/

Defense against a worker returning home

Defense against a worker returning home