“. . . seeing the Nothing from which he was made . . .” (Pascal)

1-IMG_4991College writing teachers face an impossible choice between allowing free thought and insisting on a despotizing formalism.

I wish I had a dollar for every student essay I’ve seen in the tutoring center that had an inverted triangle at the top drawn in conference by the professor with the instructions, “begin with the general and move to the specific as the thesis for your essay.”

I have never formally studied logic. My understanding of what such instructions mean is guesswork, but I think they are aimed at getting a student to write an essay using inductive reasoning, that is, “the process of estimating the validity of observations of part of a class of facts as evidence for a proposition about the whole class.” The student is invited (well, no, ordered under pain of a low grade) to demonstrate through their observations of a “class of facts”―ideas of their own or ideas they have gleaned from approved sources―that their proposition is valid, that their thesis is plausible.

Okay. So my thesis (proposition) here is that it is better for me to have contact with other people―friends, relatives, neighbors, anyone―than to spend a 24-hour period at home alone. I could have begun with general statements about the way one can spend time (or specifically the way I might spend time), or found a clever quote from some psychologist about the necessity for social creatures to be in contact with other social creatures. Then I might have moved carefully step by step to the proposition that  I  should not have been alone for the past 24-going-on-48 hours.

But I’ll jump right in, a flat line instead of a triangle. I will use as evidence first the class of facts around the tasks I have not performed today because I had no deadlines. My breakfast dishes are not yet washed. My laundry is not done. The floors are not vacuumed. I didn’t take a walk (for that I have an excuse: thunderstorms were moving through the area). If I were a college English student, all of that would be the first of the three obligatory “body paragraphs” before the conclusion.

I might use my second body paragraph to estimate the validity of what I did accomplish. I spent about six hours researching International Humanitarian Law on Collective Punishment in a given territory by an occupying power. (You can read the result of that work HERE. ) I read a couple of chapters in my current in-progress book, Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson (which I highly recommend). I played Sudoku. I took a nap. All of these things are worthwhile, but I didn’t need to spend the entire day at them.

I’m not sure my third body paragraph “estimate(s) the validity of a part of the class of facts” or fits my argument. While I was having lunch, I turned on CNN for company as I often do. I’ve never watched an episode of “The Voice,” so I’d never heard of Christina Grimmie until today. I had to search for her online when the news turned to an item about the man who killed her last night. And yet I wept at the news. Yesterday I heard on the radio and saw on TV much of Muhammad Ali’s funeral. I wept. I heard Lonnie Ali and others say with apparently absolute certainty that the Great One is now in heaven. I’ve been thinking about death today. Calmly, but not with detachment. The truth is I think quite a lot about death, trying to get my mind around the idea. I’m going to be dead soon. Even if I live the 97 years my father lived, I will be dead soon. If you’re 50, you’re thinking, “Why does he say ‘soon’? That’s 25 more years.” A 50-year-old thinks that’s logical. It’s not. We’re all going to be dead soon. This is not cocktail party conversation. Or a chat on Instagram. Many (most) people reading this will think either I’m some kind of Goth or I need psychological help. When I was in about 7th grade and finding my feet as an organist, I played and sang with great gusto and conviction

This world is not my home I’m just a-passing through
my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
the angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore

I can still sing the first line with gusto and conviction. The rest, not so much. Some time ago I read an article (I did not save the reference) that quoted a passage from Blaise Pascal (of “Pascal’s Wager” fame). I saved the passage.

For in fact what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up. (Pascal, Blaise, 1669, Pensées, Sect. II, 72. trans. W. F. Trotter. The Harvard Classics. New York: P. F. Collier & Sons, 1909–14).

This third body paragraph has all of the problems a student paragraph could have: too many ideas, not a logical progression, straying away from the topic. Too long. Disorganized.

I will make my mandatory conclusion strong since the body is hopeless (even though I have, in fact, provided “a class of facts as evidence for a proposition about the whole”). It is obvious that I should not spend 24 hours alone. I cannot keep my mind from wandering to topics like being dead. I’m pretty sure my “audience” (another despotizing college writing idea) doesn’t like thinking about my thinking about being dead. It’s not healthy for me to sit at home alone contemplating death. Or to end an essay with a sentence fragment. Even though that’s the topic of the essay. A fragment.

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“. . . and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up . . .” (Pascal)

“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.

 

“. . . 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or perhaps not!

Or perhaps not!

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

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

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

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

“Self-Help,” by Michael Blumenthal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

in the deeply literate darkness underground.

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

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

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

“. . . if my bubbles be too small for you, Blow bigger then your own. . . “

`bubblesYesterday’s newscasts included notice that the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez had died. He was 87.

He was but 18 years older than I. That’s on my mind because I’ve been talking to advisers about how to use the pittance I have put away for retirement, and I hope that, if I live to be 87, my money doesn’t end before I do. I’m sure his didn’t.

I distinctly remember Dean Anne Minton of Bunker Hill Community College telling me I MUST read Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. I tried. The closest I ever came to finishing it was meeting Edith Grossman, the translator, at the Center for Translation Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas a couple of years later when I was a graduate student there and took a course in translation

The copy I tried to read disappeared from my library at the great book giveaway I had a couple of years ago. As a faculty member at SMU, I can get an online copy. I will see if I can finish reading it.

This has been a week of much contemplation of what my life might have been. So many accomplishments such as reading Love in the Time of Cholera have simply slipped through my fingers that I am grieved by what I have not done. I know, I know, everyone my age experiences that discomfiture. If one does not have regrets, one is probably living in some sort of la-la-land.

I am not a concert organist (although I have given concerts), I have not written the great American novel (although I have two unfinished on 3 ½ inch floppy disks I can’t open), I am not a poet (although there’s plenty of what might be some stretch of imagination be called poetry on this computer), I am retiring not from a full professorship but from a 15-year fulltime lectureship, and in these golden years I am going to have to go looking for the gold to support myself..

There’s a whole lot of coulda shoulda woulda mighta in my life. Of course, if I had the ability to do any of those things, I probably would have, so I have no need to complain. I simply don’t have the brains or talent to have accomplished any more than I have.`love in the time of cholera

That’s not true. I’m pretty sure. Or is it? I’m confused. I’m unsure. I don’t know. My scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the SAT and the GRE all indicated that I would be more than marginally successful. I do have a PhD after all (proof of only one thing—the ability and willingness to jump through more hoops than the average citizen).

It’s no secret—or great discovery on my part—that hardly anyone who is 69 has no regrets. For example, I assume what is intended when PBS announces at the end of programs supported by the Carnegie Foundation, established by Andre Carnegie to do “real and permanent good,” that we’re supposed to think, “Isn’t that wonderful. He used all of his money to do Good and he can’t have any regrets.” It’s easy to give all of your money to do Good. Even you and I can do that with our pittances. His money is doing Good because in life he was a ruthless “robber baron” bastard for whom we should have little respect. Carnegie was able to assuage his conscience from “regrets” by thinking at the time of his death that his “Good” would live after him. I don’t mean that to be harshly judgmental, but a morality tale.

I’ve known a few people who lived to be 69 or 70 who seemed to have no regrets. I’m not going to make a catalog of them here. They were (are) all people for whom I have the highest regard, not for what they have done, but, more often, for what they have not done.

They are people who have managed not “To praise the very thing that [they deplore]” (E.A. Robinson). I could write a sentimental tribute to poverty, obedience, love, kindness, and so on. But I don’t need to. Anyone who reads this can fill in those blanks.

I’m not even going to write a sermonette about humility and graciousness and caring-for-one’s-fellow-man. I don’t need to do that, either. Except for a few people who are so far gone in self-centeredness they hardly seem to live on the same planet as the rest of us, we all give lip service to the sentiment expressed in the Bible, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8, NRSV). Would anyone who reads anything I write say they are against justice, kindness, and humility? I don’t want to associate with such a person.

Real and Permanent Good?

Real and Permanent Good?

I don’t know what I might have done with my life if I had not been an active alcoholic until I was 46, or if I didn’t have lots of other quirky obsessions that take up my time. Or if I didn’t have two little oddities in the way my brain works (not my mind—it has many more than two). Or if I were not simply lazy at the core. That’s probably why I didn’t read Love in the Time of Cholera when Anne gave it to me. Pure laziness, or obsessing about some other dumb thing.

No one else I know will admit to me that they can simply sit for an hour and do nothing—not watch TV, not play electronic games, not read, not—not anything. I can. Because I’m lazy?

What those people whom I respect can (could) do was to do nothing creatively and with a purpose. Somehow those people have (or had) a quality of simply being.

I’m not even sure what I mean by that.

“Dear Friends,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson
Dear friends, reproach me not for what I do,
Nor counsel me, nor pity me; nor say
That I am wearing half my life away
For bubble-work that only fools pursue.
And if my bubbles be too small for you,
Blow bigger then your own: the games we play
To fill the frittered minutes of a day,
Good glasses are to read the spirit through.  

And whoso reads may get him some shrewd skill;
And some unprofitable scorn resign,
To praise the very thing that he deplores;
So, friends (dear friends), remember, if you will,
The shame I win for singing is all mine,
The gold I miss for dreaming is all yours.

“. . . A type of that twin entity which springs From matter and light . . .”

Hungary or Ukraine

Hungary or Ukraine

My students are writing this semester on my favorite class topic, “Writing about the grotesque.” Flannery O’Connor’s essay on the subject, her story “Parker’s Back,” the Robert Louis Stevenson story “The Body Snatcher,” the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the work of the French performance artist ORLAN.

It occurred to me the other day when I heard a news story from Odessa (not Texas) that I might have used Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin which I studied years ago in a graduate seminar on the language of film instead of Invasion. Could we have discussed the “grotesque” in a film based on an historic event? We might have discussed the grotesquery of propaganda. Or of the slaughter of innocents. Or of Tsarist totalitarianism. Any of those things. The over-acting of silent films?

That occurred to me for the same reason I’ve listened several times recently to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 –the “Little Russian.” A colleague at Bunker Hill Community College told me (20 years ago!) the “Little Russia” the title refers to is the Ukraine. The Symphony makes elaborate use of Ukrainian folk tunes. My colleague had relatives living in Kiev. How I’ve remembered this bit of musical trivia all these years I don’t know.

For a couple of months I’ve been trying to explain (to myself) my aversion to hearing about the events in the Ukraine. I cannot hear the news from Kiev or Crimea without cringing.

That radio piece about Odessa began with the Potemkin Stairs.

Potemkin stairs

Potemkin stairs

My thinking is circuitous at best. From classes today back to a graduate seminar in the language of film and Battleship Potemkin, forward to my teaching at BHCC, to the present and my desire to hear no more news from the Ukraine.

The “situation” in the Ukraine has taken on a significance for me far beyond what is warranted. I grew up in the ‘50s when Russia (the Soviet Union) was the arch-enemy. The Soviets sent tanks into Hungary in 1956 to quell an uprising. The Hungarians were willing to remain part of the Soviet “empire.” They simply wanted autonomy.

Right or wrong, that’s the way I remember it. My parents were particularly interested because many of the radio news reports we heard from Budapest were by a reporter with whom, I think, my dad had attended high school. Why I remember that (whether or not it is fact) after all these years is even more mysterious than my remembering Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russia.” However, some memories that seem far-fetched are, I think, too strange to be imagined.

Not long ago I rediscovered and wrote about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet “The Soul’s Expression.” The poem ends with an image I can’t get out of my mind: If I were to manage to express myself in words, just as thunder tears apart the cloud from which it comes, so my words would tear apart my body.

But if I did it,—as the thunder-roll
Breaks its own cloud, my flesh would perish there,
Before that dread apocalypse of soul
.

A student asked me the other day if, when I spoke in class—as part of my introduction to Invasion of the Body Snatchers—I spoke with some resentment about the ‘50s. I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to answer that question. It was my childhood. I was in sixth grade when Russia put down the uprising in Hungary. At almost the same time Britain and France were involved (with American support) in the “Suez crisis.”

It seemed to me our country should have helped the Hungarians who wanted freedom (a vague concept to me, but one that I had learned in school and at home was the basis of our society). I could not see what the Suez Canal had to do with that. I remember standing in our kitchen with my dad while he explained both crises to me. I don’t remember anything he said except that there was a possibility that the US would go to war in the Suez, but not in Hungary.

(Another inexplicable memory: In the background of this conversation Vic Damone was singing “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. Neurologists who study the workings of memory might find this fascinating. The radio most likely was not on during that conversation, but “The Street Where you Live,” Hungary, and the Suez Canal are run together in my mind inextricably.)

I don’t want to hear the news about the Ukraine because my feelings about that situation mirror so closely the feelings I had about the danger of the loss of freedom in Hungary—the bedrock of everything we believed about the political world—and the inability of our country to protect the Hungarians while supporting Britain and France in a war to keep the flow of oil uninterrupted through the Suez Canal.

How much of that I put together in 1956 I don’t know. I put some of it together now. The reason to be concerned about Ukraine is the flow of natural gas through the country to Europe. The 1956 tension with the Russians is resurrected—and in some bizarre way for the same reasons.

Now the longest stretch in my thinking. In his poem “Sonnet—Silence” Edgar Allan Poe juxtaposes two qualities of humankind, the “double life.” First is the physical, that in death

. . . dwells in lonely places,
Newly with grass o’ergrown; some solemn graces,
Some human memories and tearful lore,
Render him terrorless: his name’s “No More.”

By this quality no “power hath he of evil in himself.”

The other quality, the “shadow. . . haunteth the lone regions where hath trod No foot of man.” Whatever is going on in Ukraine, whatever our response to it, we are perilously close to the lone region where has “trod no foot of man.” We are looking squarely at death.

“Sonnet—Silence” —by Edgar Allan Poe            
There are some qualities—some incorporate things,
   That have a double life, which thus is made
A type of that twin entity which springs
   From matter and light, evinced in solid and shade.
There is a two-fold Silence—sea and shore—
   Body and soul. One dwells in lonely places,
   Newly with grass o’ergrown; some solemn graces,
Some human memories and tearful lore,
Render him terrorless: his name’s “No More.”
He is the corporate Silence: dread him not!
   No power hath he of evil in himself;
But should some urgent fate (untimely lot!)
   Bring thee to meet his shadow (nameless elf,
That haunteth the lone regions where hath trod
No foot of man,) commend thyself to God!

The stairs in fiction

The stairs in fiction

 

“. . . his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.”

The unknown citizen does not have to be ignorant.

The unknown citizen does not have to be ignorant.

For days now I’ve been trying to write a piece about education. You know, the purposes, the grand design, the hoped-for-outcome. All of those high sounding ideas that all educators and most selfish and amoral “conservative” politicians and their followers want us to think about. Who’s left behind and who’s not. Will we use the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) test or some other means to beat teachers into submission?

Beating teachers into submission seems to be the most important desired outcome of education (both public and private—although it’s a bit less obvious at the Hockaday School and St. Mark Academy). How can we beat students into submission if their teachers aren’t servile?

I had never heard of Stephen Leacock until I came across the poem “Arts & Sciences,” by Philip Appleman. Leacock was, according to Wikipedia, a Canadian social scientist, educator, and humorist. One has to be a humorist to be an educator in America these days. If a teacher really thinks there’s a job to do that resembles molding young Americans to think, to understand society, to be ready to take their place as responsible (or at least not gullible and idiotic) citizens, then the teacher needs to get into a profession where they might be allowed to make a difference.

I’m being forced to retire at the end of this semester (I was depressed and angry about it for about six months, and then I realized I will no longer be in any way responsible for the train wreck we call education in this country, and I can hardly wait—in fact, if someone offered me about $15 to do it, I’d call the department chair this morning and tell her I’m not coming back).

It is unconscionable that a teacher of first-year (remember when we had a system of nomenclature that made sense, and we called them “freshmen?”) writing should be the one to introduce a brilliant young woman—in one private conference—to Miss Havisham, Steam Punk, and Dracula. And this college teacher is really a musician (PhD in organ literature) masquerading as a writing teacher. Which he is able to do because he knows about Miss Havisham and other things only peripherally related either to playing the organ or teaching “Discovery and Discourse.”

Any brilliant 18-year-old young woman should already know about at least one of those subjects. And it’s not her fault. At least she—I know because we have since had a chat about Great Expectations—is curious enough and has been given enough freedom to want to know. Very few students are.

One idea of which I am absolutely certain is that education has nothing to do with training the “work force.” It has nothing to do with the United States’ ability to compete in the “global economy.” If we were educating young people, preparing them to be citizens in a free country, we would not have to worry about training the “work force.”

I have no suggestions how to make sure kids get educated (or, for that matter, adults who don’t know Miss Havisham) so they understand anything other than how to pass their time in grubby jobs (even Mayor Bloomberg—with all his billions—was in a grubby job, then another grubby job, and now back to his original grubby job of being a “robber baron”) doing mind-numbing things (if they weren’t, how could Ted Cruz ever have been elected to anything?) in hopes of elevating their grubbiness to the point of being part of the oligarchy of grubbiness that runs all the other grubbiness in this country?

Monument to the unknown citizen

Monument to the unknown citizen

I shouldn’t complain if I don’t have a solution.

By the way, can you make a connection between Visi d’arte (yes, preferably with Maria Callas singing) and rewriting an essay? (Visi isvision.”) Try Re-Visioning rather than rewriting. That’s what all “authorities” writing about education need to learn to do.

We don’t need to revise our thinking about education. We need to Re-See the whole bloody process before it’s too late (or is it already? ask the NSA or Rush Limbaugh).

Two poems that say all of this far better than I can.

“The Unknown Citizen,” by W.H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

“Arts & Sciences,” by Philip Appleman

“Everyone carries around in the back of
his mind the wreck of a thing he calls
his education.” —Stephen Leacock

SOLID GEOMETRY Here’s a nice thought we can save: The luckiest thing about sex Is: you happen to be so concave In the very same place I’m convex. BOTANY Your thighs always blossomed like orchids, You had rose hips when we danced, But the question that always baffled me was: How can I get into those plants? ECONOMICS Diversification’s a virtue, And as one of its multiple facets, when we’re merging, it really won’t hurt you To share your disposable assets. GEOGRAPHY Russian you would be deplorable, But your Lapland is simply Andorrable So my Hungary fantasy understands Why I can’t keep my hands off your Netherlands. LIT. SURVEY Alexander composed like the Pope, Swift was of course never tardy, And my Longfellow’s Wildest hope Is to find you right next to my Hardy. PHYSICS If E is how eager I am for you, And m is your marvelous body, And c means the caring I plan for you, Then E = Magna Cum Laude. MUSIC APPRECIATION You’re my favorite tune, my symphony, So please do me this favor: Don’t ever change, not even a hemi- Demi-semiquaver. ART APPRECIATION King Arthur, betrayed by Sir Lancelot, Blamed the poets who’d praised him, and spake: “That knight’s nights are in the Queen’s pantsalot, So from now on your art’s for Art’s sake.” ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM I couldn’t do Goyas or Grecos, And my Rembrandts had zero panache, But after I junked all my brushes, My canvases made quite a splash. PHILOSOPHY 1. Blaise Pascal Pascal, reflecting tearfully On our wars for the Holy Pigeon, Said, “Alas, we do evil most cheerfully When we do it for religion.” 2. René Descartes The unruly dactyls and anapests Were thumping their wild dithyrambic When Descartes with a scowl very sternly stressed: “I think, therefore iambic!” 3. Thomas Hobbes Better at thinking than loving, He deserved his wife’s retort: On their wedding night, she told him, “Tom, That was nasty, brutish – and short!”

You might have to die for asking too many questions

You might have to die for asking too many questions