“. . . the long and lonely lives of castaways thought dead . . .” (Kay Ryan)

jerry tree

Standing in front of the tree I planted at St. Paul Lutheran Church in memory of my late partner. What could be more permanent? The fire station that now stands in its place.

Ok. I should not write when I’m pissed off.

No, really. Pissed off.

It’s personal, not political. I think it’s a kind of pissed off that only someone who is going to have his 71st birthday tomorrow can understand.

It’s the kind of pissed off that can come only from hurt.

That probably means I’m being passive aggressive.

On Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2010, St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmers Branch, TX, held its last Sunday Service of Holy Communion. It was one of the saddest mornings of my life. I had been organist and choir director of the church since November of 1994. That was not the reason for my sadness. I can (and do as substitute) play the organ for about any church any time. I even play the organ in my living room.

The sadness was my knowledge―our knowledge even saying it would not be so―that our little family was dying, that we would never reconstitute ourselves as a community, good as our intentions were and hard as we might try (for a while).

I was 65 years old.

I was still teaching first-year writing at Southern Methodist University. They didn’t ask me to retire for another three years.

When I was 68, both of my most significant “communities” disappeared from my life.

The church community was more important because the raison d’être of a church found in the Gospel According to John is, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” From the first Sunday I played at St. Paul until the last, I had no doubt I was loved, and I loved the people. We prayed and played together, and in spite of the vast differences of circumstances and personalities among us, every member was supported by every other member. The church was family.

SMU, it turned out, was a place of employment. I don’t know if it was my attitude/personality that kept me from feeling “community” there or the nature of that beast. I suspect it was the latter.

If you read my post here yesterday, you are probably a bit skeptical of my understanding of that little church as family. If so, you misunderstood what I said. “. . . in spite of the vast differences of circumstances and personalities among us. . .” I doubt any of my friends there would be surprised to read yesterday’s writing. And if they did, they  would not reject me for it. I know how complex they are as persons, and they know how complex I am.

Even though we hardly ever see each other, I have no doubt that we love each other in that strange and wonderful way that church people can, and at their best, do.

Since the church closed and I was the old man eased out of his teaching job, I have had one small community of friends I know I can count on in the same way I counted on the St. Paul family for love and support. It is an indefinable and motley crew, acquaintances from 12-step groups. They are mostly gay men. Mostly. I love those guys. I’m pretty sure they love me, too, “in that very special way. . .” (go to a 12-step meeting if you don’t know that phrase).

I have a theory. I’ve done some research in scholarly journals (a perk of teaching at SMU for 15 years is lifetime use of the library), but I haven’t found much evidence to support my theory:

most 70-year-olds feel the loss of community as keenly as, perhaps even more than, the loss through death or distance of family of origin ties.

Your church closes. You retire. Friends and lovers move away. More friends die. Your parents die. Your partner dies.

If you happen to be pathologically shy (belying the appearance of your work and activity for the past 50 years) or, to use a term I find ridiculous but true, “socially anorexic,” your options for meeting people decrease in number daily.

For reasons I’ve discussed here too often, I physically dislike crowds―parties and such places where friends meet and new friendships are formed. I don’t dislike the people, simply the noise and the fact that large rooms where parties happen are lighted with deadly fluorescent lights.

That means I have to go looking for community. On a daily basis. With the mental and physical acumen of a 70-year-old who really just wants to be at home or having a quiet evening out with an age-appropriate friend or two. Or walking through the Dallas Museum of Art.

So here’s where being pissed off comes in. Am I pissed off because my communities have collapsed and my friends are scattered all around and I hardly ever see them? Is that because I unconsciously send out vibes of loneliness? Or is it simply that I have too high expectations?

I’m having a birthday party. A big strange event, that is―rather than being all about “me” a benefit for my favorite non-profit, the Aberg Center for Literacy. I did this last year, and my friends showed up and raised $800 for the Center.

From the 45 E-Vites I sent out a month ago (with reminders since), I’ve had 12 responses.

Maybe I’m not so much pissed off as curious, and neither as much as fearful, fearful that my communities have finally forgotten me altogether.

Fearful. Is that what happens to 70-year-old gay men who used to be professors and organists? Or straight women who were financial analysts  for Compass Bank? Or any 70-year-old?

Kay Ryan, one of my favorite poets, who is eight months younger than I, wrote this when she was 65. I think she gets it.

LOSSES

Most losses add something—
a new socket or silence,
a gap in a personal
archipelago of islands.

We have that difference
to visit—itself
a going-on of sorts.

But there are other losses
so far beyond report
that they leave holes
in holes only

like the ends of the
long and lonely lives
of castaways
thought dead but not.

From Kay Ryan. The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (New York: Grove Press, 2010).

At home alone playing music I used to play for my community.

“. . . delete with my own hand what isn’t needed . . .” Péter Kántor

Where did you get them, and why do you keep them?

Where did you get them, and why do you keep them?

This is not really writing. It’s spewing forth a lot of nonsense that only 70-year-olds can possibly understand. Sometimes I just have to put this kind of stuff down to get it out of my mind.

Yesterday I woke up (as usual) at about 4:30 AM. I wrote. I fiddled around. I read some poetry. I cleaned the cat boxes. I took a shower. I didn’t do the two loads of laundry that were my goal. I didn’t do much of anything worth talking about.

At 10:00 I left home to go to a lecture by Robert Ashmore. I asked my friend if I was going to learn anything or just be angry when I left. Poor deluded old man talks about ethics and morality in relation to Palestine and Israel instead of politics, self-protection, manifest destiny, and the non-Biblical so-called theology espoused by members of at least two of the “Abrahamic” religions.

I didn’t learn much because he was, of course, preaching to the choir.

But I digress.

I got home from the lecture after stopping off at Kroger—where I’m going to stop going because they refuse to deny entrance to anyone carrying a gun—and had a little lunch. Lunch was some almonds, a bit of Greek yogurt, some left over Brussels sprouts, and one square of 90% cocoa chocolate. I sat down about 1:30 to take a little nap and woke up about 3, having missed square dancing.

The rest of the day was a waste. Nothing on TV worth spending a whole hour concentrating on. I did those two loads of laundry. I puttered and sputtered trying to get the day going, and when it didn’t happen, I went to bed at about 11 PM.

The last thing I did before I went to bed was to send the following email to a friend:

It isn’t unwillingness to try to make contacts on “Our time.”
It isn’t not wanting to date.

It is being at a time in life when those things should not be necessary. When I should be settled with someone or a community of someones with whom I am already comfortable, who already know me. When I should not be having to wonder what anyone I am with thinks of me — because the people I am with already know me.

I could say, “It isn’t fair.” But I don’t know whether that’s true or not. It is what it is.
And it’s just being old and alone and lonely, and I don’t think there’s any way to change that.

Looking for a date, or a fuck buddy, or a partner, or a husband, or . . . is not the point. The point is that anyone 70 years old should not be alone, but he should be living with and sharing his life with old friends, with family. He should not be looking for someone “new” in his life.

This was engendered, of course, by my feeling alone and lonely and depressed. Well, not, depressed. I didn’t land in a good funk. Just the painful truth (once again) that I am, for all practical purposes, alone in this little world I inhabit. Siblings in Baton Rouge and Sacramento. Lots of friends who would probably take turns visiting me in the hospital or the old folks’ home or such a place should I end up there. They’d come every day for three months, then every other day, then once a week, then once a month, then—by then I’d be dead.

My friend answered my email by pointing out all the times I said “should.” I know what he meant, that I shouldn’t beat up on myself by telling myself what I “should” or “should not” do.

Here’s the other exegesis of what I said. It isn’t about what I “should” or “should not” be doing. It’s about what, in a world that made sense, would be true simply because that’s the way things work.

No 70-year-old should feel (or be) alone. We all should not live such mobile (which is a euphemism for “scattered” or “shattered”) lives that we end up so far from our loved ones that we can hardly stay in contact. Texting is a pain in the thumbs.

We should not live such fragmented (which is a euphemism for “busy” and “frantic”) lives that we end up without close friends. I mean the kind who can come to your apartment when you haven’t vacuumed for a week and neither of you be embarrassed. Or bring you chicken soup when you are sick.

Such a huge percentage of the gay men my age should not have died from AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Which is a euphemism for nothing, it just is.

What if I do pay attention to “OurTime.com” and follow up on the flirts and messages and find some guy I really like who is attractive enough to me to want to have sex with him—see, I said at the outset this is not for everyone. If that upsets you, you need to get a life.

So I find Mr. Right. How the hell are we going to have a “relationship” or even a “friendship” long enough to find out where we both were when Neil Armstrong took his famous step or where I got (and why I keep) those funny “women’s circle” dessert and coffee sets. Or anything else that makes people comfortable with each other.

And why would someone I meet tomorrow want to take care of me when I fall again and break my hip instead of damaging it?

Come on. Give me a break (no pun intended). It ain’t going to happen. And no matter how many lovers I have or how many people I find who will go to Easter Island with me, there’s no time left to be husband and husband.

So I’m feeling sorry for myself. So what?

The point is that a 70-year-old should not be alone, but he should be living with and sharing his life with old friends, with family. He should not be looking for someone “new” in his life.

How did we arrange our society so that so many of us (both gay and straight) are in this place?

“Little Night Prayer,” Péter Kántor (b. 1949)
Lord, I’m tired,
the bunion on my right foot is throbbing,
I worry about myself.

Who is this anguished man, Lord?
it can’t be me,
so woeful and sluggish.

I would like to trust quietly,
but like waves in the ocean,
tempers bubble up in me.

I try a smile,
but some hairdespair
impedes me.

This isn’t all right, Lord,
feel pity for me, be scared,
reward my endeavors.

Evaluate things with me,
delete with my own hand
what isn’t needed.

Taste with me what needs to be tasted,
and say to me:
this is sweet! this is sour!

Remind me
of the small red car,
of something that was good.

There was a lot that was good, wasn’t there?
a lot of sunken islands,
crumbled glamour.
Place a net into my hands
to fish with, in the past
and in the present.

I’m a fish too, in the night,
puckering silver,
bubble-lifed.

Turn me inside out, freshen me up,
throw me up high and catch me!
What’s it to you, Lord?

If you must,
lay down your cards,
show me something new.

How your leaves fall!
your sun scorches
your wind whistles.

Speak to me!
Talk with me through the night,
it’s nothing to you, Lord!

From Unknown Places: Selected Poems of Péter Kántor. Copyright © 2010 by Michael Blumenthal and Pleasure Boat Studio. Péter Kántor (born 1949) is one of Hungary’s foremost poets of the day.

“. . . Becoming an imaginary Everyman . . .” (John Koethe)

A Studebaker with back-up camera?

A Studebaker with back-up camera?

Yesterday driving home I understood why I want to get rid of my car. That will necessitate moving to the Lone Star Gas Lofts on St. Paul Street between Wood and Jackson in downtown Dallas. Or some such place. Downtown is the operative word.

Getting rid of my car is top priority. I could do it today and survive, but it would be more complicated than I want it to be. I’m a four-acre parking lot away from the DART train station, but the bus service around here is arcane at best. Maple Avenue, Inwood Avenue, Cedar Springs—which buses go where, and when?

My desire to be rid of my car is simple. Yesterday when I pulled out of my parking space after tutoring, a little blue light came on under the speedometer. I had no idea what it meant, and thought perhaps I was in trouble. It went off shortly, and I decided it meant that 35 degrees was as unpleasant for the car as it was for me.

Cars—even my simple little not-quite-two-year-old Honda—are too complicated these days. What are these electronic gadgets? Like the back-up camera on the car a friend just leased. I know it’s painful to twist this old spine around and look out the rear window, but really. Sheesh! If you can’t do that, should you be driving?

I can’t figure out how to get my “smart TV” hooked up to my Wi-Fi, and it’s stationary. How can I possibly cope with electronic gizmos attached to a 2597-pound body-in-motion?

Home, Sweet Home, in downtown Dallas

Home, Sweet Home, in downtown Dallas

Don’t give me the Newspeak Party Line. I know these things make life easier. If my car had a back-up camera, it would also have a “blind-spot” detector, and would stop on a dime if it sensed a bumbling pedestrian stepping out in front of it. I know these things are doubleplusgood, and that I’m engaging in oldthink verging on crimethink, but I can’t cope.

Really. If you can’t drive the car, what are you doing driving a car?

Over 50% of the cars on Dallas streets are SUVs of some variety—or even larger—and it is not safe, even with danger sensors, to drive a real car on Dallas streets.

So you youngsters go right ahead driving your electronic toys, but count me out. The sooner I figure out how to live without a car, the better. And, by the way, I’d rather spend the insurance money on travel to Brazil than on a car. To say nothing of gasoline.

When we look at the image of our own future provided by the old we do not believe it; an absurd inner voice whispers that will never happen to us . . . When that happens, it will no longer be ourselves that it happens to. We must stop cheating. The whole of our life is in question in the future that is waiting for us. If we do not know what we are going to be, we cannot know what we are. Let us recognize ourselves in this old man or this old woman. It must be done if we are to take upon ourselves the entirety of our human state. (Simone de Beauvoir)

If we do not know what we are going to be, we cannot know who we are.

Try to explain that to a 20-year-old basketball star.

The fact is, I have tried. Just yesterday. And he understood. He understood better than most people ten years younger than I am understand. Many of them are pretending to be his age. Of course he has plenty of good examples of people who do understand. For one, his coach who is 74 years old.

I can hear it now, all of your protests that a person in his 70th year is not “old.” You are wrong. A person in his 70th year IS old.

The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Psalm 90:10, NRSV)

What’s wrong with admitting you’re “old?” I never knew my grandfather, Archie James Knight, when he wasn’t old. My dad was 30 and he was 60 when I was born (1945). Granddad was 92 and I was 32 when he died (1977). Longevity runs in our family (Dad lived to 97). But neither Granddad nor Dad ever pretended to be younger than they were. And I never saw either of them living in any way other than fully.

Age is not “only in your mind.” Age is in your body. When I was 30, I had a fairly good example of what I might be when I was 60 and what I might be if I reach 90. I remember my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary party when Granddad was 78 and Grandmother was 68. It was a celebration of longevity. Not a party for kids.

My grandfather drove a Studebaker pickup (he was a contractor, built and remodeled homes). It had no radio or turn signals or back-up camera. I don’t know what Granddad thought of cars with radios and turn signals. But I do know he had no problem being the patriarch of our family. He had no problem with acting his age. He had no problem caring for his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, without meddling in our lives. He had dignity and integrity. And wisdom and generosity.

My purpose in writing today was not to praise my grandfather. It was simply to remind myself that I know what I am today partly because I have some sense of what I will be. And that includes the example of an old man who always knew who he was and didn’t need Comcast or Facebook or Blogspot or any other foolishness to explain it to him.

By the way, I don’t think John Koethe’s poem is sad or depressing. It simply says what is.

“Fear of the Future,” by John Koethe (b.1945)
In the end one simply withdraws
From others and time, one’s own time,
Becoming an imaginary Everyman
Inhabiting a few rooms, personifying
The urge to tend one’s garden,
A character of no strong attachments
Who made nothing happen, and to whom
Nothing ever actually happened—a fictitious
Man whose life was over from the start,
Like a diary or a daybook whose poems
And stories told the same story over
And over again, or no story. The pictures
And paintings hang crooked on the walls,
The limbs beneath the sheets are frail and cold
And morning is an exercise in memory
Of a long failure, and of the years
Mirrored in the face of the immaculate
Child who can’t believe he’s old.

back up
If you can’t drive, why are you driving?

“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.

 

“The perfect voter has a smile but no eyes . . .” (Denise Duhamel)

The perfect symbol

The perfect symbol

In the fall of 1968 I wandered into the Democratic Party Headquarters on Euclid Avenue in Upland, CA, headquarters for the western part of San Bernardino County. Hubert Humphrey was the Democratic nominee for President. Even though he was part of the Johnson Administration responsible for the war in Viet Nam, against which I was one of those irreverent “hippie” types who demonstrated, I could not imagine voting for Nixon. My candidate, Robert Kennedy, had been assassinated a few months earlier.

The election of 1968 was the first in which I voted. It was the first of five in which I worked as a volunteer for the Democratic candidate, except for the 1972 election when I worked for a pittance of a salary for the McGovern campaign. In the election of 1976 I met Jimmy Carter at a neighborhood party in Iowa City when he was “Jimmy Who?” and decided to volunteer for his campaign when he answered a question from one of my neighbors with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man in an Immoral Society. That he even knew the book was enough for me—his quoting it was the icing on the cake.

After Ronald Reagan was elected Acting President in 1980, I never again participated in “politics.” I was mildly interested in supporting Michael Dukakis. (I had, after all, met him three times and met his cousin Olympia at a concert of the Boston Classical Orchestra conducted by his father-in-law Harry Ellis Dickson for which I wrote the program notes because the chairman of their board of directors was a colleague of mine on the faculty at Bunker Hill Community College—there, I’ve dropped all the names I can possibly drop.)

Looking back on my dabbling in politics, I’d say having some kind of personal knowledge of a candidate is the best reason to vote for or against her. Every other reason—party affiliation, philosophical agreement, religious compatibility, is dangerous. In fact, it’s absurd.

While I was toying with the idea of working for Dukakis, one of my friends was toying with the idea of working for George Bush the Elder because her family’s summer home was in the same exclusive neighborhood of Kennebunkport, and she rubbed elbows with the Bush family as part of the social elite of Maine (I suppose she still does).

Politics is a slug copulating in a Poughkeepsie garden.
Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth
of a king. I voted for a clump of cells,
anything to believe in . . .

My disillusionment is not quite as complete as Denise Duhamel’s seems to be, but it’s close. Her poem says “a slug,” not two slugs. In the slug kingdom it’s possible for one slug to copulate—and thereby reproduce. It’s not masturbation. They don’t often fly solo—usually it takes two slugs, but what happens to the slug playing the part of the male when they are finished is pretty gross.

I think it’s an apt description of American politics. Devouring parts of (or, more likely, ALL of) one’s opponent is the name of the game. And—excuse the extended metaphor—we all seem to slither around in the garden dirt when it comes to politics or even talking about (I won’t say “discussing”) any of the problems that are in the process of tearing American society apart.

I carried my ballots around like smokes, pondered big questions,
resources and need, stars and planets, prehistoric
languages. I sat on Alice’s mushroom in Central Park,
smoked longingly in the direction of the mayor’s mansion.

We all carry our ballots around and ponder big questions—what to do with 52,000 starving, frightened, unmoored children knocking at our doors seeking shelter, safety, and a way to survive as human beings; how to prevent the next mass killing with licensed guns of school children; what to do about the absoluet certainty that the NSA, the NRA, every bookseller and garden supply seller in the country knows you’re reading this—and then instead of finding an answer to any of these questions, we light our ballots on fire, inhale the smoke, and blow it toward whatever politician we think should have helped solved the problem long ago.

Politics: Wonderland or La-La Land?

Politics: Wonderland or La-La Land?

We make ourselves the perfect voters, smiling our way to the ballot box with eyes closed to the realities we are voting on. We accept without investigating that banks and billionaires are the oppressed in America. We accept without investigating that Hamas is a “terrorist” organization. We allow demagogues to convince us that changes of world-wide power structures are the fault of one man rather than the inexorable result of our own materialistic “globalization.” We allow the interpretation of human life that a corporation is the same as a living, breathing body. And so on.

We set ourselves up in armed gated communities prepared to make war on anyone who is not “like us.” STAND YOUR GROUND!

I doubt I will ever again walk into a “party headquarters.” I may never vote again. I don’t want the shame of being a slug slithering in the garden copulating with myself.

My advertised purpose in this blog is to write light-hearted pieces about the process of growing old. I don’t know if this is light-hearted or not.

Slithering in the dirt

Slithering in the dirt

Well, here’s some jollity. Since I “retired,” I’ve taken some actions that might be seen as out-of-character because they are frivolous and odd (perhaps “odd” is not out of character). Only one is obvious and public—the bold and conspicuous tattoo on my left arm. Its Latin phrase, by the way, is the first words of the Medieval hymn,

Day of wrath, O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,
heav’n and earth in ashes burning!

So last Thursday evening did you watch fireworks with glee and patriotism? Heaven and earth with ashes burning. Has that become the best symbol of our “democracy?” Firepower?

“Exquisite Politics,” by Denise Duhamel (b. 1961)
The perfect voter has a smile but no eyes,
maybe not even a nose or hair on his or her toes,
maybe not even a single sperm cell, ovum, little paramecium.
Politics is a slug copulating in a Poughkeepsie garden.
Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth
of a king. I voted for a clump of cells,
anything to believe in, true as rain, sure as red wheat.
I carried my ballots around like smokes, pondered big questions,
resources and need, stars and planets, prehistoric
languages. I sat on Alice’s mushroom in Central Park,
smoked longingly in the direction of the mayor’s mansion.
Someday I won’t politic anymore, my big heart will stop
loving America and I’ll leave her as easy as a marriage,
splitting our assets, hoping to get the advantage
before the other side yells: Wow! America,
Vespucci’s first name and home of free and brave, Te amo.

Just because. Another patriotic poem. From Like Thunder: Poets Respond to Violence in America, edited by Virgil Suárez and Ryan G. Van Cleave. University of Iowa Press, 2002.

“Patriotics,” by David Baker (b. 1954)
Yesterday a little girl got slapped to death by her daddy,
out of work, alcoholic, and estranged two towns down river.
America, it’s hard to get your attention politely.
America, the beautiful night is about to blow up

and the cop who brought the man down with a shot to the chops
is shaking hands, dribbling chaw across his sweaty shirt,
and pointing cars across the courthouse grass to park.
It’s the Big One one more time, July the 4th,

our country’s perfect holiday, so direct a metaphor for war,
we shoot off bombs, launch rockets from Drano cans,
spray the streets and neighbors’ yards with the machine-gun crack
of fireworks, with rebel yells and beer. In short, we celebrate.

It’s hard to believe. But so help the soul of Thomas Paine,
the entire county must be here–the acned faces of neglect,
the halter-tops and ties, the bellies, badges, beehives,
jacked-up cowboy boots, yes, the back-up singers of democracy

all gathered to brighten in unambiguous delight
when we attack the calm and pointless sky. With terrifying vigor
the whistle-stop across the river will lob its smaller arsenal
halfway back again. Some may be moved to tears.

We’ll clean up fast, drive home slow, and tomorrow
get back to work, those of us with jobs, convicting the others
in the back rooms of our courts and malls–yet what
will be left of that one poor child, veteran of no war

but her family’s own? The comfort of a welfare plot,
a stalk of wilting prayers? Our fathers’ dreams come true as nightmare.
So the first bomb blasts and echoes through the streets and shrubs:
red, white, and blue sparks shower down, a plague

of patriotic bugs. Our thousand eyeballs burn aglow like punks.
America, I’d swear I don’t believe in you, but here I am,
and here you are, and here we stand again, agape.

“. . . even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees. . . (Nazim Hikmet)

The only tree I've ever planted.

The only tree I’ve ever planted.

Martin Luther (the first Martin Luther, not MLK), according to legend was out in his yard planting a tree (presumably apple, which he loved) and proclaimed, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant an apple tree today.”

According to legend. No record of Luther’s remark exists—according to the website Luther 2017, the official state-operated site of the “Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt” preparing for the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, October 31, 1517.

Perhaps Minnesota or Iowa has a state-operated website for the anniversary—or Fredericksburg, TX, has a city-operated site. The German Lutherans who founded Fredericksburg came there in the early 19th century to escape using the new “Service Book” being forced on all Protestants in Prussia, whether Lutheran or Reformed.

In his poem “On Living” Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963), “the first modern Turkish poet” proclaims

I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees–
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

Who would have guessed that the great 16th-century German church reformer and the 20th-century Marxist Turkish/Russian poet would come to the same conclusion about how to live one’s life?

I don’t plant trees. The only one I ever planted, at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmer Branch, TX, in memory of my late partner Jerry Hill, was uprooted when the church closed and the city bought the property to build a new fire station.

Since I retired (I won’t be, in fact, retired until August 1), I have had a hankering to play an organ recital. I have the program in mind. (Except for one work. I want to play an organ piece by a Palestinian or Palestinian-American composer, but I haven’t yet found one.)

It’s going to be a fairly simple program: one Bach work, a Mendelssohn Sonata, a couple of Brahms chorale preludes, and either two of the “Fantasies for Organ” by Ross Lee Finney, or the mystery work by a Palestinian composer.

This “retirement” business is, so far, unsettling. How does one keep oneself in some sort of trajectory toward—well, toward what? What do I need to do? What do I want to do? What does anyone else need or want me to do?

These are, in reality, questions I’ve been asking myself for 68 of my 69 years.

I’ve never been quite sure the way I’m living—what I’m doing or what I’m not doing—is “right.” I don’t need any philosophical or theological or self-help or 12-step recovery answers to the question, “Am I living right?” I’ve read Nietzsche, I’ve read Heidegger, I’ve read Baudrillard, I’ve practically memorized the Bible, I’ve listened to Dr. Oz, I’ve learned about the Third Wave of Behavioral Therapy, I’ve read Waking the Tiger, I read Bill Wilson and company all the time. I draw the line at The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People—that requires remembering to carry a planner everywhere you go.

I have to leave religion out of trying to answer the question. At least for now. I know that puts some of my friends off, but I can’t please everyone. And I’m not going to be as jihadist about that as Bill Maher is.

“Am I living right?”

Nazim Hikmet’s answer is

Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example–
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.

“Living must be your whole occupation.”

I know all together too well that living is no laughing matter. My goodness, if I read my post from yesterday—meltdown number 1001 (or more)—I have no doubt I understand “living with great seriousness.”

". . .living must be your whole occupation. . ."

“. . .living must be your whole occupation. . .”

I’ve been living with great seriousness all my life. Oh, I know how to have a good time—a genuine good time for the last 27 years since I started reading Bill Wilson and company (their writings are not, by the way, philosophy, theology, or “self-help”). But basically life seems to have been no laughing matter for me.

Or perhaps not. “Living must be your whole occupation.”

Much (most?) of the time I don’t remember that. But there are times that I do. When I sit at the organ and play, for example, the Brahms Chorale Prelude Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (“Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness”), I realize there are (have been) a few times when living has been my whole occupation, when I have not been “looking for something beyond and above living.

I’ve thought through what I’m going to say next, and I know it sounds contradictory. But it is not.

Much of the time when I play the organ, my experience is like the rest of my experience—not quite meltdown 101, but not exactly living as my whole occupation. I don’t have the physical acumen to play complicated works easily, but I keep trying. But once in a while I discover a work that fits my fingers, my mind, and my spirit so that playing it can be my “whole occupation.” A listener might not think that’s true, but for me it is.

Thank goodness for Brother Martin.

Thank goodness for Brother Martin.

I can extrapolate from that experience to my daily struggle to figure out if “I am living right.” If I can give myself to whatever it is I am doing, not looking “for something beyond and above” any given action at any given moment, perhaps I can “live as if we will never die.”

Yikes! That’s about as spooky as anything I’ve ever written. Thank goodness for Brother Martin, whether he said it or not. I’ll keep planting that tree—or whatever I’m doing—even if the end is near.

(Note: I have copied Nazim Hikmet’s entire poem here. It is not short, but I think you will find it rewarding to read.)

“On Living,” by Nazim Hikmet, 1902 – 1963
(Translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, 1994)
I
Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example–
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
in your white coat and safety glasses,
you can die for people–
even for people whose faces you’ve never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees–
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.
II
Let’s say we’re seriously ill, need surgery–
which is to say we might not get up
from the white table.
Even though it’s impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we’ll look out the window to see if it’s raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast. . .
Let’s say we’re at the front–
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
we might fall on our face, dead.
We’ll know this with a curious anger,
but we’ll still worry ourselves to death
about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let’s say we’re in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
before the iron doors will open.
We’ll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind–
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.
III
This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet–
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space . . .
You must grieve for this right now
–you have to feel this sorrow now–
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived”. . .

Nazim Hikmet was born on January 15, 1902 in Salonika, Ottoman Empire (now Thessaloniki, Greece). . . Raised in Istanbul, Hikmet left Allied-occupied Turkey after the First World War and ended up in Moscow, where he attended the university and met writers and artists from all over the world. Hikmet died of a heart attack in Moscow in 1963. The first modern Turkish poet, he is recognized around the world as one of the great international poets of the twentieth century.

“. . . Pressure, responsibility, success. Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries . . .” (Jim Daniels)

Thirty cheeseburgers! Thirty fries!

Thirty cheeseburgers! Thirty fries!

My trigger finger is back.

Trigger fingers are more common in women than in men, they occur most frequently between ages 40 to 60, and they are most common in people with certain medical conditions such as diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis.

There is no reason I should have a trigger finger. It’s the little finger of my right hand, if you must know.

I’ve had two cortisone injections which are supposed to cure it. They worked for awhile

So, you might as well know. The last time I had a complete—almost complete—meltdown was the day I went to see Dr. Miskovsky, hand specialist, for my second injection. About three months ago. I thought his office was on Forest Lane, so I passed the Walnut Hill exit from Central Expressway. When I got to Greenville and the hospital wasn’t at the corner, I went north and was soon in the TI campus and had no idea where I was. I began to cry and shout about why they had moved the hospital, and then I was on a dead end residential street so I turned around and was going 50 MPH up another residential street that hooked to the right, and then I was in another neighborhood and didn’t know which direction I was going. Crying and screaming at god and the city for moving the fucking hospital. I got back to Greenville and turned south and called the office because I was 15 minutes late, and they said to come ahead. I did and sat in the waiting room about 2 minutes trying not to cry. Dr. Mislovsky sat down and wanted to know exactly what was wrong. I told him and was embarrassed that I, a 69-year-old man, am still likely to lose it over nothing. He said, “I know. Did you take your meds this morning?” I’d never told him about my meds, so I wondered how he knew, and he reminded they’ve had all of my information in their computers since my hip surgery. Oh.

I could say right here I don’t know how to live in society (which is true) and what I really want is a Walden Pond (in Texas?) where I can move with enough stuff to protect me from the elements and spend the rest of my life in in the real world, not the made up world we homo sapiens have constructed as if it were either real or important.

According to one writer, Richard Zacks, if I want to live in the natural world, I’ll have to do better than Henry David Thoreau.

Most Americans have an image of Thoreau as a rough-hewn, self-educated recluse, who . . . disappeared into the solitude to commune with nature. We picture his little shack far off in the woods, the man a voluntary Robinson Crusoe, alone with his thoughts and the bluebirds. Nothing could be further from the truth. . . Thoreau’s mother and sisters, who lived less than two miles away, delivered goodies baskets every Sunday . . . The more one reads in Thoreau’s unpolished journal of his stay in the woods, the more his sojourn resembles suburban boys going to their treehouse in the backyard and pretending they’re camping in the heart of a jungle.

I don’t know how true this is (and I’m not interested enough to find out), but I did read that

. . . poet John Greenleaf Whittier had a conflicting reaction, saying that the message in Walden was that man should lower himself to the level of a woodchuck and walk on four legs. He said: “Thoreau’s Walden is a capital reading, but very wicked and heathenish… After all, for me, I prefer walking on two legs. (This is from Reference.com, so I can’t vouch for its authenticity either.)

A replica is as good as the rel thing

A replica is as good as the rel thing

Back to trigger finger. I’ll have to call Dr. Mislovsky’s office and make the appointment to have him cut into my pinky. I’m scheduled to substitute as organist at a church on August 29, so I better do it soon.

That reminds me that I have an appointment at SMU’s HR tomorrow to sign the papers that will officially end my status as faculty member as of August 1.

There’s a fine howdy-do!

What I really want is not to find Walden Pond (unless it’s as comfortable as Thoreau’s was) but to figure out how to do what I need to do to stay connected enough to keep out of the rain and have enough to eat until I die.

Does that sound defeatist or depressed or sad or something else negative to you? I hate to be brusque, but that’s your problem, not mine. I didn’t say I want to be cut off from human interaction and fellowship (as Thoreau was not).

I’m looking for a soul-mate. (Do you know a 70-year-old gay man who’d like a soul mate? Leave a comment telling me how to find him.) I mean some old guy like me to whom I can say anything—talk about how America used to be the land of the free; talk about how scary it is to think about the probability that we’ve got 10, 12, maybe fifteen years before we won’t be wondering what death is; talk about trigger finger; talk about Lady Gaga; talk about Frescobaldi; talk about the absurd necessity of religion. Say anything to him and he say anything to me that will not upset or bore the other.

And a little warmth and closeness (physical?) to go with it and comfort each other or rejoice with each other as appropriate.

I’m not sure why reading Jim Daniels’ poem, “Short Order Cook” brought all of this up in my mind, but it did. I guess I’d like to be able to fry 30 burgers, slap some ice in my mouth, and return to work. Without a meltdown. But it would be so much more fun not alone.

“Short-Order Cook,” by Jim Daniels (b. 1956; Professor of Creative Writing, Department of English, Carnegie Mellon University)
An average joe comes in
and orders thirty cheeseburgers and thirty fries.

I wait for him to pay before I start cooking.
He pays.
He ain’t no average joe.

The grill is just big enough for ten rows of three.
I slap the burgers down
throw two buckets of fries in the deep frier
and they pop pop, spit spit. . .
pssss. . .
The counter girls laugh.
I concentrate.
It is the crucial point–
they are ready for the cheese:
my fingers shake as I tear off slices
toss them on the burgers/fries done/dump/
refill buckets/burgers ready/flip into buns/
beat that melting cheese/wrap burgers in plastic/
into paper bags/fried done/dump/fill thirty bags/
bring them to the counter/wipe sweat on sleeve
and smile at the counter girls.
I puff my chest out and bellow:
Thirty cheeseburgers! Thirty fries!
I grab a handful of ice, toss it in my mouth
do a little dance and walk back to the grill.
Pressure, responsibility, success.
Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries.

Trigger happy

Trigger happy