Lassitude

Titian, Danae

Me rather all that bowery loneliness,
The brooks of Eden mazily murmuring . . .

Alfred Tennyson: “Milton”

I’ve always sort of envied the industrious. My former neighbor Dale Petite, for example. Whether his compulsion for constant upgrading stemmed from a virulent strain of Protestant Work Ethic Syndrome, a wish to be alone, or an inability to relax, I cannot say. All I know is that while I lay on our deck in a hammock flipping through Victoria’s Secret catalogueshe could be heard hammering or chainsawing or pile-driving for hours on end. I can’t hope to reconstruct an epic catalogue of the projects he completed in the 7 years he was my neighbor; however, among those wonders were an industrial grade boat lift he erected on his self-built dock and a 1500 square foot bunker-like underground workshop[1] he burrowed into his back yard.

Thomas Hart Benton: Boomtown

Except for a few wretches afflicted with bipolar disorders, members of my family on both sides tend towards lassitude, and I myself do sorely suffer from a prevailing passivity that yields mildewed porches, un-replaced flood lights, income tax extensions, and never-sent manuscripts.  One might hope (or at least John Bunyan would) that with the ever-widening vistas of retirement opening before me, I would use my ample free time productively, but already I sense that this hope is probably a vain one.

My trifling nature I consider genetic. My maternal grandmother was so lazy she paid a boy to retrieve her paper from the driveway each morning. On the other hand, her son Jerry (whose ashes[2] rested next to a bowl of ticket stubs on a shelf to my right for over a year) was the Dale Petite type, though not as successful in his grand schemes (e.g., attempting to transplant 80 year-old house-high camellias from his backyard to the front).

So, in the nature/nurture argument, I give the nod to nature – certainly Jerry’s parental units were not go-getters, and his industriousness must have been the product of some recessive gene.

Gustave Courbet:  Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine

Of course, given the Protestant bedrock upon which this mighty nation stands, idleness is the devil’s workshop (i.e., if like Milton, you consider every non-Christian deity demonic).  The Buddha – though not a deity – never seemed much in a hurry, nor did, come to think of it, Jesus himself.

When [Jesus] had heard therefore that [Lazarus] was sick, {Jesus] abode two days still in the same place where he was.

snip

Now Jesus was not yet come into the town, but was in that place where Martha met him.

The Jews then which were with her in the house, and comforted her, when they saw Mary, that she rose up hastily and went out, followed her, saying, She goeth unto the grave to weep there.

Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying unto him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.

snip

And some of them said, Could not this man, which opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man should not have died?

from John 11

Uh-oh. I see a malpractice suit coming.

Duccio Di Buoninsegna: The Raising of Lazarus

Chill thy selves.  No problem, brothers and sisters.

* * *

Of course, we ain’t got the get-out-of-jail-crypt-free card that Jesus had up his sleeve. Laziness is not our friend. Nor is, by the way, compulsive project completion. It’s the Middle Way we should be seeking, but nowadays technology has amped up the exchange of communication so profusely and instantaneously that seemingly every work minute is spent juggling a proliferation of disparate responsibilities that require further bureaucratization to harness, which, of course, creates even more avenues of endeavor as self-inseminating bureaucracies breed ever more complex matrices of responsibilities because it’s not enough for a corporate entity to be competent but it must also be forever improving, soliciting feedback, raising standards . . .

Yawn.

John Bonner: Waiting in Mass Ave T Station

As my erstwhile pal Ed Burrows pointed out one happy hour, human beings’ nervous systems, which are essentially identical to the nervous systems of our earliest ancestors, are not equipped to be bombarded by a never-ending barrage of flashing lights, honking horns, quick-cut images, thumping basses, distant sirens. In our pockets and purses we carry tiny devices with which we can communicate but which detonate like little time bombs throughout the day and night.

[cue blood-freezing scream]

Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Wordsworth, “The World Is Too Much with Us”

 

William Holman Hunt: Our English Coasts

I do wish we could relax a bit more in our workplaces. This never-ending ascent in effectiveness defies the arc of aging. No way could I summon in my last years at Porter-Gaud the energy I possessed in 1985 when I greeted my first class there, nor in my latter years did names and places come to me as quickly, and I’ve been around long enough to know that the latest pedagogical hula hoop is destined someday for the attic. It was just as well to let me muddle along pushing active verbs and introductory subordinate clauses. You can’t do much harm there.

And, while I’m at it, allow me one more desire. May my lassitude never devolve into ennui, may my lassitudinous expression be that of Titian’s First Danae (this week’s covergirl) rather than the expressions of the women below (nor, come to think of it, the expressions of the dogs).

Vittore Carpaccio: Two Venetian Ladies

 

“This is the curse of our age, even the strangest aberrations are no cure for boredom.”

Stendhal


[1]also suitable for surviving a nuclear winter

[2]My mother didn’t want Jerry’s remains in her house, so my late wife Judy Birdsong placed them in the back of her Highlander and toted them around for a week or two but finally hauled them upstairs into my study where they languished until my brother Fleming came by one afternoon, hauled them into one of my kayaks, and spread them in the tidal creek behind my house.

 

Summer Solstice Musings

Ah, after the pyrotechnics of last night’s lightening strikes and Aeolian blustering, the longest day of the year has arrived with its magical moon that will drive the devotees of Dionysius from their dorms into frothing streets of the Holy City – but, no, wait, hold on; it’s the summer solstice! The College is out until August.

Praise Zeus!

That’s right, those dim-witted imbibers and garden urinators have returned to wherever in Off they’re from – Jersey City, Peoria, Cincinnati, Charlotte – and we say good riddance, especially if we live on Warren or George or Society Streets, where those sons and daughters of Belial are wont to dwell, reverberations from their self-indulgence echoing into the wee hours, disturbing the sleep of respectable burghers who live a life of not-so-quiet desperation, thanks to Bacchanalian cries of the inebriated.

In Courts and Palaces [Belial] also Reigns
And in luxurious Cities, where the noise
Of riot ascends above their loftiest Towers,
And injury and outrage: And when Night Darkens the

Streets, then wander forth the Sons
Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.

Paradise Lost, Book 1 497-502

Jacobus de Theramo, Das Buch Belial. 1401.

Happily, Caroline, Brooks, and I-and-I live far from that madding crowd in our little jungle paradise on the backside of Folly Island, 10 blocks away from the front-beach Center Street shit show. Things have quieted since the alcohol ban seven years ago – a half-ton less of detritus is strewn about the sands, according to officials. And Folly Gras is a thing of the past, and a recent city ordinance has banned outdoor music after ten.  It seems our city government is trying to change Folly from “The Edge of America” to “The Beige of America.”  Whatever the case, I’m certainly in favor of less litter.

Hit it, TS Eliot:

The [beach] bears [fewer] empty bottles, sandwich papers,

Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends

Or other testimony to summer nights.[1]

“The Waste Land” 176-9

our front yard

trash from the past

Yet, there’s something about the ripeness inherent in the summer solstice that cries out for revelry – the shedding of clothing, purple-stained mouth[s], ecstatic exclamations of pure joy.

It’s a day to celebrate Paganism – those all-too-human gods and goddesses – and their tolerance of the wild hair, their sanctioning of frenzy, their cult of fertility – latitude not afforded us via Hebraic mythology.

Santorini

Susya, a Palestinian Village

So beware, neighbors.  This evening you might hear some moon-howling, some blaring Zydeco music, the thumping of crazed dancers doing the Wa-wa-tusi:

Wow!

Ow!

Uh!

You know I feel alright?

Hah!

Feel pretty good, y’all

Uh-hah!


[1]Not to mention beer cans, dirty diapers, used condoms, discarded panties, fast food bags, abandoned flip flops.

 

How to Talk Mac Rebennack’s Oola-Ma-Walla-Malla Argot

 

Here’s a brief glossary of perhaps unfamiliar words and phrases from Mac Rebennack’s autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon.


ax a musician’s instrument, derived from Mafia lingo, according to Rebennack

B drinkers – uncool bar customers

belly rub – a dance

bomolatchee –  a huge reefer, e.g. a Rasta spliff.

bonnaroo – cool, great, swell

boost, booster – to shoplift; a shoplifter

Chang Moi rocks  – a type of heroin

companfonkilation  – merging two songs and pulsing them with syncopation

Of all the songs on the album, the one that probably gave me the greatest kick was “Litanie des Saints,” my compafonkification of two pieces of music, Louis Gottschalk’s classical “‘Bamboula, Danse des Negres” and the chants I heard at various gris-gris churches over the years.

 

decks of gage – stacks of rolled up joints

desitively – positively, absolutely

dope sick – needing a fix

When we started working on the record, Wayne told me, “I can’t work no more like this.  I’m dope sick.  I need some serious money.”

down-goings – a play on “what’s going down” but in the sense of the process of sinking into further trouble

dry hump – a dance

ear bead – a blind man locating someone’s bodily presence

Ray [Charles] got an ear bead on him [and] knocked Charley on his ass.

Fess – Professor Longhair

Professor Longhair

fessee – the argot of professor Longhair (see propedeller, propelacter, e.g.)

festoon – Professor Longhair’s term for fun

flusturations – incidents that frustrate and fluster

One of the flusturations of this job was that when I delivered something I thought was good, many times Johnny didn’t put it out.

FonkLiterally, “a syncopation on or around a beat.”

 Fonky, fonked– a derivation of funky, but more emphatic, more positive, having the positive vibe associated with fonk.

In the bat of an eye, I’m out on the fonky streets of Fort Worth, smelling rawhide and cowpies, headed for the airport and blue skies.

This approach fonked up the more abstract northern jazz sound.

funksterators – funk creators, musicians that play funk

forever-and-one-year – a long prison sentence

frolic presto – to play music fast

Come on, boys.  Let’s frolic presto.

funky – the music of funk, cool, but less emphatic than fonky.  Rebennack uses both spellings, but fonky seems richer then funk.

get a sick off  –  score narcotics to counteract withdrawal

He needed to get his sick off.  His habit was an oil burner.

goofer dust – a hoodoo concoction

a combination of dirt from a graveyard, gunpowder, and grease from [church] bells; if you throw it into somebody’s eyes, it’ll blind them, and throwing it behind them while they’re walking will put a curse on them.

gris-gris – New Orleans styled voodoo, magic

hang paper – forge checks

hipped – turned on to new information

He hipped him to the fine points of hustling gigs.

in need of a little brain salad surgery – needing to get high

jingle jungle – the business of writing jingles for advertisements

junk-a-dope-a-nals – any intoxicatingy pharmaceutical ending in “nal”

A lot of them went for goofballs: Nembutal, Seconal, tuinal, phenobarbital.  The nals we used to call them – the junk-a-dope-a-nals.

lushing – drinking, doping

making cake – earning money

marble-lized – immortalized

“I think I marble-lized you.” Rebennack to Queen Julia Jackson after dropping her name in a song.

marygeranium– of or relating to marijuana

The truth was, I think my mother unconsciously dug reefer, or at least enjoyed the idea of a marygeranium high.

methodonian – an addict who has transitioned from heroin to methadone

ministrations – technical applications

We were all loaded and Rose was screaming and the doctor was doing his ministrations and it looked like the child was just about to come out when the doctor turned to us, real annoyed, and said, “Man, y’all can’t be smoking and doing all that shit in here, Get out!”

mootahs – reefers

muscle – bouncers

They had their own muscle working in the clubs or out on the street.

oaks and herbs – splendid, irie, as the Jamaicans say

And the second one said, “Everything’s oaks and herbs” – which means everything’s cool because they had smoked lots of herbs.

ofays – white people

The source of their bigotry seemed to be that the West Bank ofays were scared that black guys would take off with their women.

 

one-to-too-long-a-time –  any prison sentence

Now he’s in Angloa Penitentiary doing one to too long a time.

oola-ma-walla-malla language – specialized argot created by cats to confuse squares

‘plexed out – seriously frustrated by

They were truly down characters and kept me from getting ‘plexed out behind all the changes.

pluck – booze

He was a garbage head, a cat who would drink cheap pluck, smoke a bag of reefer, pop all the pills he could pop, then chase it all down with a shot of dope.

propedeller, propelacter – a drum pedal

“John, that ain’t what I want you to play on your foot propedeller.”

John said, “Whaaat?”

Fess said, “You know, I want you to propel the groove with your foot propelacter.”

rum-dums – winos, sots

One night a couple of rum-dums got into a fight and started throwing cans of corn and tomato juice around and busted up the store, making a hell of a gumbo in the process.”

shucker – a pretender

My voice was low and froggy; Shine had a husky voice, too, but was a real singer, not a shucker like me.

slotted – transitioned into a niche

I slotted into a different musical groove.

spew – a drum fadeout

stone – solid, set in stone, unalterable

There was a whole language and lifestyle that went along with being a stone dope fiend.

Leonard just didn’t have the stupidity to become a dope fiend or a weed or pill head; he was never anything but a stone character.

Cutting the album [Gumbo] was a stone kick from first to last.

tighten – to pay back owed money

Tomming – being an Uncle Tom

tragic magic  – heoin addiction

trashers – rock stars who wreck hotel rooms or ballrooms

traumatical – traumatic

All of this was very traumatical for me.  I’ve seen friends’ throats slit, my partner on the morgue table, kids getting turned out – it’s all very heavy, and a lot of it was stuff I’d forgotten until just recently when I went through rehab.

tricknology, tricknologists – the act of conning, fooling someone; con men, scam artists

 

 

 

 

The Lighter Side of the Apocalypse

Crumbling civilizations and apocalyptic doom are all the rage.  I should know. They’ve been my shtick for the 8 years I’ve been publishing blogs.  As I decline into the vale of years, what could be more natural than to project my own serotonin-starved vision of bleakness onto the world at large, to float like a dark cloud above the carnival, to cast a shadow on the festivities?

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees –
Those dying generations – at their song . . .

I suspect that this tendency of the aged to proclaim hell-n-handbaskets is a biological imperative as old as agriculture.  Remember the Greek myth of the Golden Age? Grandmama’s tales of the good ol’ days back on the farm?  How the Coca-Colas of your youth tasted so much better hissing from the fountain with a dollop of cheery juice?  [I suspect that Great Grandmama’s was even more pleasurable packing that eponymous ( i.e., not-so-secret) ingredient].

[cue Abner Jay]

As my aging body slouches towards dissolution, the world fast forwards beyond my capabilities and understanding.  As I carefully negotiate the crowds, pedestrians rush past staring into boxes the size of cigarette packs, manipulating buttons with their thumbs.

Honk honk!

Pouring pollution from their tail pipes, vehicles the size of city states shimmer like mirages in the gridlock.  Tinted windows obscure whoever inside has jacked up Jay-Z so loud that the bass lines sound like King Kong pounding on war drums.

Back home, my television offers more channels that I have the strength and/or attention span to cycle through: kung fu movies, costume jewelry emporiums, forty-year-old quiz shows, twenty-year-old football games, infomercials on ab-crushers, propagandists posing as news anchors.

Not to mention the kids these days, tattooed and pierced, playing the exotic dancer on Instagram, fantasizing about vampires, ending every statement with an interrogative lilt, sounding all alike whether they hail from Harlan, Kentucky or Exeter, New Hampshire.

An electorate with the attention span of a muscle spasm.

Well, if biologically I’m in decline, then the world must be in decline.  Some corporate evil force is somehow manipulating us!

***

Back in my g-g-generation’s swaggering youth, we shrugged off atomic annihilation the way we did parking tickets.  Wisely, we didn’t fret over scenarios of nuclear winters and genetic mutations because it was more fun (and made more sense} to devote our springtimes engaging in the lovedance beneath batik bedspreads in hippie vans, dormitories, and/or seedy apartments.  The future existed as merely an abstraction.

In the immortal words of the Tams: Be young, be foolish, but be happy.

All too imminent horrowshow scenarios (e.g., getting drafted and sent to Nam) relegated more speculative disasters to paranoia’s hinterlands.  Our elders – as I do now – articulated the Roman analogies, only targeted the bacchanalia of Woodstock rather than the Trimalchio’s Banquet of conspicuous excess that characterizes Late Empire capitalism (my favorite whipping child).

Despite their self-decorations, today’s youth strike me as more concerned about our planet and future generations than we proliferates.  They wisely love their planet and understand the delicate balances that sustain existence.  They fear not the sudden nuclear explosion (which may be naive given proliferation) but the gradual erosion of resources and climate change.

I say bravo! Live for today as you think ahead,  mindfully turning down the AC before you climb the stairs with your lover. Tune out the hyperbolic curmudgeons (like me) and cultivate your gardens.

Be young, be wise, but be happy.  And save the planet!  Vote!

Commiseration Via Poetry

antidepressant-Mirjana-Veljovic

Antidepressant by Mirjana-Veljovic

In college, back in the fall of 1972, my sophomore poetry teacher assigned our class the task to compile an anthology of contemporary poems that revolved around a common theme.  I chose despair because I reckoned that depression might be a common theme for poets, a notoriously withdrawn and navel-gazing lot.  I figured poems of despair, unlike, say, political poems or poems dealing with domestic bliss, would make for easier harvesting because they would exist in greater abundance.

So, I checked out anthologies and skimmed poem titles and promising poems hoping to amass thirty or so specimens to satisfy the minimum requirement. In 1972, Auden and MacLeish were alive, Sylvia Plath less than a decade dead, Anne Sexton about to kill herself in a couple of years, so many of the poems I looked at had been written mid-century.

Of course, I have lost my anthology, which was hand written and received a B (likely the lowest grade given), but I do remember two of the poems I included.  One was Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” whose rhymes and rhythms I liked and whose rather childish message was right up my cynical alley:

I walked out one evening,

Walking down Bristol Street,

The crowds upon the pavement

Were fields of harvest wheat.

 

And down by the brimming river

I heard a lover sing

Under an arch of the railway:

‘Love has no ending.

 

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you

Till China and Africa meet,

And the river jumps over the mountain

And the salmon sing in the street,

 

‘I’ll love you till the ocean

Is folded and hung up to dry

And the seven stars go squawking

Like geese about the sky.

 

‘The years shall run like rabbits,

For in my arms I hold

The Flower of the Ages,

And the first love of the world.’

 

But all the clocks in the city

Began to whirr and chime:

‘O let not Time deceive you,

You cannot conquer Time.

 

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare

Where Justice naked is,

Time watches from the shadow

And coughs when you would kiss.

 

‘In headaches and in worry

Vaguely life leaks away,

And Time will have his fancy

To-morrow or to-day.

 

‘Into many a green valley

Drifts the appalling snow;

Time breaks the threaded dances

And the diver’s brilliant bow.

 

‘O plunge your hands in water,

Plunge them in up to the wrist;

Stare, stare in the basin

And wonder what you’ve missed.

 

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,

The desert sighs in the bed,

And the crack in the tea-cup opens

A lane to the land of the dead.

 

‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes

And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,

And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,

And Jill goes down on her back.

 

‘O look, look in the mirror,

O look in your distress:

Life remains a blessing

Although you cannot bless.

 

‘O stand, stand at the window

As the tears scald and start;

You shall love your crooked neighbour

With your crooked heart.’

 

It was late, late in the evening,

The lovers they were gone;

The clocks had ceased their chiming,

And the deep river ran on.

 

 

auden

WH Auden

The other poem I remember including, a much better poem, is Archibald McLeish’s, “You, Andrew Marvell.”  As it turned out, the very next year I would hear MacLeish read the poem in person, he who was born the year that Tennyson died.

You, Andrew Marvell

And here face down beneath the sun

And here upon earth’s noonward height

To feel the always coming on

The always rising of the night:

 

To feel creep up the curving east

The earthy chill of dusk and slow

Upon those under lands the vast

And ever climbing shadow grow

 

And strange at Ecbatan the trees

Take leaf by leaf the evening strange

The flooding dark about their knees

The mountains over Persia change

 

And now at Kermanshah the gate

Dark empty and the withered grass

And through the twilight now the late

Few travelers in the westward pass

 

And Baghdad darken and the bridge

Across the silent river gone

And through Arabia the edge

Of evening widen and steal on

 

And deepen on Palmyra’s street

The wheel rut in the ruined stone

And Lebanon fade out and Crete

High through the clouds and overblown

 

And over Sicily the air

Still flashing with the landward gulls

And loom and slowly disappear

The sails above the shadowy hulls

 

And Spain go under and the shore

Of Africa the gilded sand

And evening vanish and no more

The low pale light across that land

 

Nor now the long light on the sea:

And here face downward in the sun

To feel how swift how secretly

The shadow of the night comes on …

 

Unknown

Archibald MacLeish

Sometimes, like this morning, when sleep has stood me up and I don’t feel so hot mentally, I seek a dark poem with which I’m not familiar as a way to commiserate with a stranger who might have it worse than I-and-I.

And lo and behold I discovered this poem by Jane Kenyon a couple of hours ago. Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia, was the subject of the superb book-length elegy Without by her husband Donald Hall.  I read the poem in the New Yorker in the mid-Nineties right after I had recovered from a serious case of clinical depression. You can read one of the poems from the collection here, but I would love to share with you Jane’s poem, which I find profound and beautiful:

HAVING IT OUT WITH MELANCHOLY” BY JANE KENYON

  1. FROM THE NURSERY

When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linen in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.

And from that day on
everything under the sun and moon
made me sad — even the yellow
wooden beads that slid and spun
along a spindle on my crib.

You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
“We’re here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated.”

I only appeared to belong to my mother,
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours — the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls.

  1. BOTTLES

Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax,
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
The coated ones smell sweet or have
no smell; the powdery ones smell
like the chemistry lab at school
that made me hold my breath.

  1. SUGGESTION FROM A FRIEND

You wouldn’t be so depressed
if you really believed in God.

  1. OFTEN

Often I go to bed as soon after dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep’s
frail wicker coracle.

  1. ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT

Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time

I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors — those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few
moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist

Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
“I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear
ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.

  1. IN AND OUT

The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.

Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life — in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . .

  1. PARDON

A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
beyond measure.

We move on to the monoamine
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night
I feel as if I had drunk six cups
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.

  1. CREDO

Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
but I believe only in this moment
of well-being. Unholy ghost,
you are certain to come again.

Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet
on the coffee table, lean back,
and turn me into someone who can’t
take the trouble to speak; someone
who can’t sleep, or who does nothing
but sleep; can’t read, or call
for an appointment for help.

There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I awake, I am still with thee.

  1. WOOD THRUSH

High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.

Unknown-1

Jane Kenyon

Happy Hump Day!

 

 

 

Retirement

“My Lonely Room” by Jerry Cordeiro

My mother’s family has produced an uncanny number of recluses.  For example, my Aunt Virginia spent three-quarters of her youth holed up in her room in a rocking chair listening to the same Barbara Streisand albums over and over and over again.  Eventually, she transitioned into a halfway house for mentally ill, which required her to coexist with others, but she later was liberated to a subsidized apartment where she resumed her Emily Dickinson like existence. Three people besides her immediate family attended her funeral. [1]

Virginia at a New Years Eve party in 1964

Her father, whom we called Kiki, also retreated almost full-time to his bedroom.  There he listened to the radio (Paul Harvey, baseball games) or played the ukulele while crooning Hawaiian songs and/or yodeling. In his later years, he took his meals in that room where he stacked dirty plates on the floor next to the door for my grandmother to retrieve and wash after he had consumed the country meals she prepared and delivered.

In his sixties, Kiki began acting oddly, putting his alarm clock upside down on his bedside table, mowing the lawn at five a.m.  Eventually he was placed in a home in Columbia called Crafts-Farrow.  I was in college in Columbia at the time, so I borrowed my girlfriend’s car to visit him.  I met him in a large room where other patients and family members milled around.

He immediately recognized me and started relating hard-to-believe tales of the abuse he was suffering.  He said, “Rusty, help me escape. Ask them if we can go for a walk; then we can ride away.  Just let me out on the side of the road.  You’ll never have to see me again.”

I explained that he’d get better if he stayed there. As I was leaving, I asked a fat lady at a desk near the door to keep an eye on him, explained that he was planning to escape, and she let out a maniacal, unhinged laugh.  Ends up she was a patient herself.

The good news is that he did get better and returned to Summerville and the house and [mocking cough] enjoyed a much better attended memorial service.

His son, my Uncle Jerry, worked on a spy ship tracking Soviet missile launches and had purchased the house where they lived.  When he retired, he also spent the majority of his time alone in his room, which was more like a suite, on the opposite end of the house from his father.  My grandmother had her own room, so essentially, you had this nuclear family who had little to do with each another living together in their separate cells.

My grandmother was the exception.  She spent her days in the living area watching television from dawn until the Indian test pattern shut things down after The Tonight Show starring Jack Paar and later Johnny Carson. One spring when I was in grad school, I visited and was almost blown out of the door by the hotness blasting from a gas heater even though the temperature outside was in the seventies.  Obviously, though not ensconced in her room, she didn’t get outdoors very often.

My mother, on the other hand, was extroverted and vivacious. She was the only sibling to have children. In the summers, she took us to the Curve In Pool or the beach and loved yard work.

Although I’m not geared for extended periods of solitude, I can appreciate its appeal. In my case, I’d opt for a darkened room with no radio and no Streisand, just a grandfather clock and a never-ending supply of camphor-soaked handkerchiefs in honor of Faulkner’s Mrs. Caroline Compson. I’d lay the handkerchiefs upon my furrowed forehead as the clock audibly ticked away seconds and marked with chimes the quarter hours and knelled away the hours — one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve — while the planet rotated and revolved its way into my oblivion.

“Hey, Wes, have any plans for retirement?”

“Yeah, I plan to take it easy.  Hey, know where I might be able to cop some camphor?”


[1]You can read about how he disposed of her ashes here.

 

No Spaghetti, Thank You: Adventures in the Classroom and Vienna

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For the very last time, I’ve delivered my background lecture for my British Literature survey course on the 20thCentury, a multimedia extravaganza of a presentation that covers everything from the French Symbolists, the Educational Act of 1870, Woman’s Suffrage, the Boer’s War, the Irish Question, the impact of WWI, psychoanalysis, quantum mechanics, poetic revolution, new methods in fiction, and the literary movement of Modernism.

 [pant, pant]

Students (I hope) see how cultural components manifest themselves in literature produced in a specific time and place, in this case in Great Britain between 1898 and 1939.

They learn that the Educational Act of 1870, which resulted in universal literacy, gave rise to a large unsophisticated reading public. In addition to highbrow and middlebrow readers, another category emerged – lowbrow readers.

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highbrow

 

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middlebrow

 

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lowbrow

 

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lowerbrow

World War I shattered naïve Victorian beliefs in perpetual progress as the great stained-glass window of Western Civilization lay in pieces.  Modernists like Eliot started picking up those pieces and rearranging the shards into chaotic mosaics that reflected reconsidered notions of time and space transmitted to us via Freud and Einstein. The Freudian past, at least subconsciously, coexists in our present; Einstein’s time is relative: a moment can be excruciating long, a lifetime flash by in an unconsidered instant.

The most fun I have is explaining how psychoanalytical analysis is supposed to work, using myself as an example in a concocted narrative that I bring to life by adding specific details that create verisimilitude despite the outrageous events related.  Many of the students actually believe what I’m about to relate.*

[I say] Let me explain how psychoanalysis works, and I should know, because in the early 1980s I actually underwent psychoanalysis after suffering from a series of debilitating panic attacks.

Bear with me.  Relating these events is painful for me, but because they are so personal, I think telling my story will help you see clearly how psychoanalysis works.

Okay, Freud argued that the mind consists of three divisions, the consciousness, precociousness, and unconsciousness. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to ditch precociousness and reduce the mind to consciousness and unconsciousness.  According to Freud, things that happen to us when we are young remain active in our unconsciousness even though we think we have forgotten them, and sometimes painful unconscious memories affect our behavior even though we’re not aware of it.

For example, in my case [here I pause, feign emotional overload, then continue with a quavering voice]. Okay, this sounds really weird, but I’m just gonna come out and say it.  When I was being diaper trained, my mother stabbed my backside with uncooked pasta, and what’s worse, while stabbing me she made horrible screeching noises like soundtrack screech in the movie Psycho.

[Occasionally a naïve student will ask why, and I’ll reply something like, “God, I wish I knew”].

I pretend to control my breathing and continue.

Of course, I repressed these memories. According to my conscious mind, they never occurred, and for a long time, I wasn’t affected by them. I graduated from high school, college, met Judy Birdsong in grad school. We married and moved into a downstairs apartment at 17 Limehouse Street.

[Sometimes a student will say, “I live on Limehouse Street” or “I used to live on Limehouse Street,” and if they do, I try to establish where their house was in relation to our apartment.

Anyway, [I continue] in those days there was a Piggly Wiggly on Broad Street right around the corner.  Of course, it’s gone now, but we could walk there from our apartment. That Piggly Wiggly was a weird supermarket with wooden floors, which has nothing to do with anything.  Anyway, one night I walked there to pick up a couple of things when I suffered a terrible panic attack.  This is embarrassing, but I actually fainted. I came to in a second, wasn’t taken to the hospital, was able to walk home, but I did have some tests run. Nothing came up.

For a while, everything was okay.  I was teaching at Trident Technical College, enjoying the life of a newlywed until one evening while Judy and I were watching TV, during a commercial, I had another attack.  We didn’t note it at the time, but later Judy remembered it was a Chef Boyardee ad.

To make a long story short, these attacks started coming in greater and greater frequency, and finally I had to take a medical leave of absence.  Judy’s parents, who were wealthy, insisted I receive the very best medical care, so that meant flying to Vienna for psychoanalysis.

My analyst’s name was Clarita von Trott. She was 60-something at the time. Anyway, she began with a Rorschach test, you know, those ink blot tests.  Well, she showed me one, and I screamed “Lasagna!”

We did word association.

Dr. von Trott: boots

Me:  Italy!

She asked that I write down my dreams.

I’m in a city surrounded by mountains, bowl-like, and as I’m walking down a sidewalk, thousands of white snakes come out of doors and wrap around my legs, slithering the up my torso, up to my head, smothering me . . .

Then one day, as I was lying on the couch in her office, the memory emerged. I was lying on my back on the layette when I heard a cabinet door open and something rattling.  There was my mother in her nurse’s uniform, the little white cap, and she rolled me over, and the pain, the screech.

Pop!

The excavation of the memory cured me.  I was cured!

And that’s how psychoanalysis works.

I go on and explain how Stephen Dedalus in a Portrait is pushed in the ditch how that memory returns as he’s walking on the strand in Ulysses.

By this time, most of the students realize the story’s an invention, but I can see by the expressions of a few, they don’t know what  to think. A brave one might ask “Did that really happen,” and, of course, I say no.

I add, “You don’t get teaching like this at the Magnet.

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*It occurs to me that I should have cast this paragraph in the past tense