This Absurdity

Marius van Dokkum

What shall I do with this absurdity —

O heart, O troubled heart — this caricature,

Decrepit age that has been tied to me

As to a dog’s tail?

Yeats, “The Tower”


Although I’m old enough to qualify for Medicare A, I don’t think of myself as “a senior citizen.”   Nevertheless, manufacturers of walk-in tubs, wheel-equipped walkers, and adult-diapers have increasingly targeted me as a potential consumer.

It’s time I faced it: I am a senior citizen, a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, a demographic corpse-a-coming whose limbo-winning-contest days are way, way over. Now, catching a wave is a major accomplishment; riding my skateboard sends my heart rate into machine-gun blast parameters. Although I’d like to think my sons don’t “curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum, /For ending [me] no sooner,” [1] it’s obvious we’re in the last ten minutes of the feature film of my life.

However, the “senior dating sites” haven’t written me off as semi-incapacitated yet. They’ve discovered I’m a widower and think I’d probably prefer to avoid a desolate, lonely, sciatica-ridden senescence sitting in my drafty garret filling in crossword puzzle books, compulsively checking my dwindling net worth, trying in vain to decipher the misshapen letters/symbols/numbers of passwords in my late wife’s address book that look as if they may have been scrawled by Woody Guthrie in the last stages of Huntington’s.

Just yesterday, SeniorMatch came on to me, in hopes whupping up some post-menopausal passion between me and a soon-to-be-discovered other, seductively pumping me with compliments, assuring me I’m “experienced” and that I “know what I like.”

We’ll have fun fun fun until the offspring take the car keys away.

Well, they’ve already gotten something wrong: I’m not experienced. Until this year, I hadn’t had a date since 1976, and on that one, she, my late wife, did the asking under the pretense I would be dining with her and her roommate, a fellow bartender. Before then, I was a serial monogamist. I think I’ve only asked someone I didn’t know well out twice.

And until this year, I didn’t realize that certain times a day held certain implications for singles meeting for a drink, that 4 pm meant something different from 7.

I do, however, know what I like: the sound of my own voice.

 

 

And what I don’t like: most people.

However, if I were to sign up, this would be my profile picture:


[1] Measure for Measure, 3.1

A Short, Rambling Treatise on Lying

 

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Andrzej Mazur, “The Liar

I grew up down the street from a pathological liar. He was a year or two younger, friends with my brother. To give you an example, one time he told me that outside his house he had thrown his baseball glove through his bedroom’s second story window, and the glove landed in his toy chest, which I guess is possible, but then he said he tossed a baseball into the air and swatted it with a bat and the ball arced through the same window and landed in the glove in the toy box.

In those days the word “bullshit” was not in my vocabulary – I was eight or nine — and in fact, I didn’t call him out on his lies because I didn’t want to embarrass him. However, his lying made me want to avoid him because not calling him out made me feel as if I were complicit, a liar by proxy. At that age, I didn’t contemplate what compelled him to construct such outrageous tales. Now it seems obvious that he found something lacking in himself and needed to compensate.

However, don’t we all sometimes “stretch the truth” to make our experiences seem, well, more notable?

Richard Wilbur assures us that

To claim, at a dead party, to have spotted a grackle,

When in fact you haven’t of late, can do no harm.

Your reputation for saying things of interest

Will not be marred, if you hasten to other topics,

Nor will the delicate web of human trust

Be ruptured by that airy fabrication.

However, he implies that embroidering reality shouldn’t be necessary, given the wonders surrounding us:

In the strict sense, of course,

We invent nothing, merely bearing witness

To what each morning brings again to light:

Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment

Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law

Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof,

Then grass and grackles or, at the end of town

In sheen-swept pastureland, the horse’s neck

Clothed with its usual thunder, and the stones

Beginning now to tug their shadows in

And track the air with glitter. All these things

Are there before us; there before we look

Or fail to look.

But we do fail to look. And our memories can be faulty: there may or may not been tiny swastikas tattooed between each finger of the man I worked with in 1974, but details enhance verisimilitude, and I can see those jailhouse tats as I’m retelling the story. I could pass a polygraph I’m so sure he had a tiny little swastika between each finger.

* * *

In Heart of Darkness, Charlie Marlow confesses, “You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world – what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do.”

Marlow does, however, end his narrative with a whooper-and-a-half when he tells Kurtz’s fiancée that his last words were her name.

Let’s have Brando playing Kurtz deliver his actual dying words.

As the Kurtz’s “Intended” collapses into tears, Marlow gets the hell out of that house with its grand piano and its ivory keys:

It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn’t he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn’t. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark—too dark altogether….”

Of course, we forgive Marlow that lie. Not lying in that situation would be like Stephen Dedalus’ not praying for his mother when she asked on his deathbed.

In that case, to hell with integrity!

* * *

That leaves us with two more categories, the lie to try to get out of trouble (been there, done that) and the despicable lie, for example, impugning someone’s integrity for spite.

Our president is, of course, guilty of this type of lie mongering when he calls Comey “a liar” and “sleezeball,” words of projection I think. Trump’s a terrible role model for sure, what Marlow would call “a papier-mâché Mephistopheles,” hollow to the core.

Does this sound like someone we know:

He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. [. . .] He had no learning, and no intelligence [. . .] He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going – that’s all [. . .] Perhaps there was nothing within him.

Like the boy with the magic baseball glove and ball, it seems obvious that Trump finds something lacking in himself and needs to compensate.

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EBENEZER SUNDER SINGH

Good Advice, Take It or Leave It

Hendrik Jacobus Schotten, Good Advice

Don’t be in a hurry. Who cares if you’re late? Well, a few might: your employer might, your date might. The judge at your preliminary hearing.

On the other hand, oblivion is fine with it.

Norman Rockwell

Learn how to hold a fork. Note the difference between how Nick and Nora Charles deftly handle silverware as opposed to how prisoners in Russian movies fist wooden spoons as they slurp their swill. You don’t want to be eating like that in a cafeteria. Or maybe you do. Maybe you’re antisocial. If so, at least in the privacy of your lonely kitchen, mind your manners.

Nick and Nora Charles in After the Thin Man.

Don’t leave your Bo Diddley Beach Party LP (recorded live at Myrtle Beach) unsheathed, naked on your dormitory floor. Crunch.[1]

If you’re going to purchase Costa sunglasses, be mindful. Don’t perch them on the top of your head on the roller coaster ride. Buy cheap shades instead. Only the most shallow of consumers, like me, pay attention to the quality of your eyewear.

***

Never wash your hands more than four times a day – and that seems excessive to me. Cultivate immunity. Make friends with Mr. and Mrs. Germ.

Pilate Washing his Hands 1663 by Mattia Preti

When you read, slow down. Pay attention to the sound of of words.

***

Try not to lie unless you’re in dutch deep. Say vague things like you can’t come after all because “something’s come up.” If there’s a follow up question or remark, like, “I hope everything’s all right,” say, “Well, not really, but I’ll be okay.”

***

Floss your teeth before you go to bed. Then brush them again, this time with Listerine. Those receding gums will make you look creepy, predatory, Nosferatu-ish.

Don’t engage in political arguments on social media. Don’t post what you eat on social media. Don’t smugly say not a bad seat when you’re sitting at ringside.

 

***

Avoid advice dispensing know-it-alls.


[1] Thornwell Tenement, University of South Carolina, 1972.

 

In All His Tuneful Turning

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View from my classroom window

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
                                              Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”

 

Is it merely my morbid imagination, or has this been a dreary spring weatherwise?

Today, for example, like yesterday and the day before, a leaden sky darkens the land, muting nature’s first green.  And, since nothing gold can stay, it also follows that neither can gray, that the leaden sky and dank, chilly air won’t stay around forever.  Obviously, weather is constantly moving from west to east as the earth spins, so we can look forward to bright days ahead, and dark days, sickness and health, until death slams the door and the picture making machine shuts off, which doesn’t faze me one iota.  As the poet sez, “I don’t remember any problems I had before I was born.”

I do remember, however, it was a bright sunny but below-freezing day when I repeated after the pastor those words “in sickness and in health” and that Judy’s, my bride’s, expression seemed beyond earnest as she stared me in the eye, looking beyond sincere, and her ardor sort of surprised me, and I felt sort of guilty, abstracted there at the altar, thinking not about the vows but about how she looked and wondering what my expression looked like. In other words, I was distracted, out of time.

judy-the-bride

The good news is that we got to enjoy thirty-nine-and-a-half earth revolutions before death did us part, and it’s almost been a year since then, eleventh-twelfths of a revolution, a quick year, eventful, often lonely but not always.

I’m sitting here at school between conferences with someone else’s advisees (their advisor’s on maternity leave), and it’s the last time I’ll ever do so (mine or all seniors, and I won’t be assigned any new ones). Even though I’m not at all adept at negotiating the byzantine grids of requirement, I am good at engaging parents in small talk, playing the Yeatsian role of sixty-year-old smiling public man (what he calls “a comfortable kind of old scarecrow”).  Nevertheless, I won’t miss having advisees next year, the way I might miss teaching “Among School Children.”  Will I even come to school on conference day or instead practice at being retired by riding my bike to the Lost Dog for a croissant?

I find myself less and less in a hurry nowadays, and when I eventually do retire, I hope to never be in a hurry ever again. Old age can have its compensations, educated offspring, paid mortgages, free time.

So c’mon, sun, break through; match my mood. I’m done with school for today. I get to hang out with Walker Percy for the rest of the early afternoon and then look forward to whatever.

Easter 2018

photo credit Caroline Traugott

I guess from now on, I’ll always associate spring with death, Mother’s Day especially, the day my sons’ mother passed, a word I don’t use in this context. It’s probably such a popular euphemism because it suggests travelling, passing through death’s dark door into another realm, the undiscovered country, Hamlet calls it.

Although I don’t believe in an afterlife, I’m not arrogant enough to think I could not be wrong about my disbelief. Once again, Hamlet, to his pal Horatio, after having conversed with the spirit of his father:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.[1]

As it turns out, my younger son Ned has recently conversed with his mother Judy, though in a dream. Aglow, Ned said, with golden light, she told him she was fine, and that things were more important where she was now, that she was busy.

At any rate, any rational person perceives the ubiquity of death — the fallen leaf, roadkill in the medium, swatted mosquito, ill-tended orchid — with a measure of dispassion.  The not-so-sad fact is the last thing that dying or grieving makes you is special.

Of course, we’re all destined to die – the blight that man was born for, Hopkins calls it in “Spring and Fall.”

Márgarét, áre you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! ás the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you wíll weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

On the other hand, more importantly, we’re born to live, and spring, of course, is all about resurrection. Look at Good Friday’s full moon at the top of this page, perched in a tree above the Pour House porch. How beautiful!

Now it’s waning, melting away, obliterating fewer stars as it progressively disappears, and, of course, our favorite star continues to do its thing.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”

Yesterday, Caroline and I picked up two six-day-old peeps as an Easter present for her daughter. Downstairs in Ned’s vacated room, growing seemingly in time-lapse fashion before our very eyes, downy little dinosaurs pecking away, stretching their tiny embryonic-looking wings, lucky to be alive.

To me, this seems enough: to be able to breathe, to taste, to fall in love again, to read Hopkins out loud backed by wind chimes as the melting moon makes her way towards the horizon to be reborn.

Happy Easter.


[1] Philosophy here could entail science.