Demon Ship

November 26, 2016

demon-2

Demon Ship

Last Sunday I’d been rereading D H Lawrence’s “Ship of Death” with the slow careful reading I lavish on revising. Revision is a peculiar human act, I don’t think any other creature revises its past to effect its present. I awoke that Sunday hearing Lawrence reciting from an unbidden memory I carried from a recording I used to listened to in 1975. Reading Lawrence on line during travel in the mountains of New Mexico near where his ashes are buried briefly felt apropos enough to disguise my unconscious attraction to the voice asking “Have you built your ship of death…?”. It’s been a year of changes.

It began in January with a family death. For most of my life I’ve been estranged from my relatives, so when we share passages the distance is more apparent and unforgivable, the summer family reunion was only a little less awkward than the wake. Then came an unusually despairing spate of manuscript rejections. The top of the guitar I played for thirty years split. I began the frenetic task of opening another new second chance campus in a defaulted church community center. Happily and tearfully, I walked my daughter over a rough bridge to the meadow where she was married. I turned sixty-five. Donald Trump was elected. A water leak changed my library into the room that used to contain my library. Erasure/revision has directed me to re-think what I believed I knew in different, sober directions.

 Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul // has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises. “The Ship of Death”, D.H. Lawrence 1929 [41-42]

Some days I’m lucky enough to stay in a house on a mesa road above an abandoned cloister. It possesses enough quiet I can pretend to hear the hiss of the earth rotating. I spend the days in a few chores, walks in the cold, arranging visits, and preparing meals. Without the distraction of paid work, the days feel pleasant, refreshing, but fraudulent. Learning to re-think emptiness borders on the barely possible. I failed at my first retirement, the burden of filling the hours with myself was too exhausting. That effort also taught me to recognize that the dream I carried of being a writer was probably only going to make me an interesting correspondent, a private poet, and romantic author of blogs a few people read. Still, adjusting to leaving dreams behind seems nearly impossible too.

The dreams of writing and literature I’ve carried unquestioned since I was an altar boy, in turn they have carried me to quiet, to repose. They give me license to disengage and observe the world. In payment I dutifully provide a few decomposed sentences that have been revised, rewritten, questioned, tortured for more information, and then filed as magnetic data. It’s something like religion. Writing has been my monastery. A near silent lifetime of reading and writing has been the defining and confining discipline of my life.  And still its secretive possessive revelations, archane processes, and continual self-criticism attract me. It rewards me with spiritual struggle and a community of phantoms, living and dead. It sounds pompously creepy.  I go there to serve; ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.

But my days of confession, redemption, or therapeutic explanation are past. In this cold now, the signal traumas of my personal past mean less and less, whether Freud, Jung, Maslow, Bill W., or Dr. Phil was right, doesn’t matter. There are plenty of drugs to help me not feel any specific discomfort I choose. Even if I were more cured, more self-actualized, or even more published, it will do little to change the day to day of my future. I will write. I will die. We don’t have to talk about the why of it anymore. It seems a fitting time to consider the captain of the Ship of Death.

For many of my generation the shock of the election of Donald Trump has been like encountering a Tibetan Demon in person…or more accurately, on social media. The Internet is a distant image of a nearby world, constantly scrolling, infused with confession, anger in minutiae, religious and poetic imagery, mendacity, and a menu of fears d’jour. Many of my FBBFs are negotiating anxious apocalypses, released depressions, moral catastrophes, and dooms writ large and small. Many are writers,  I understand their stylish flourishes of dismay.Many are defriending. I will allow my age to permit me to declare much of this, illusion. Maya. Mara. Mirage. Mr. Trump may be as horrible a demon as some suppose, perhaps worse. He should be credited for the intellectual and spiritual havoc that surrounds him already. But the specific and social versions of our responses are our own projections. Those are our own orange headed demons. I read a woman’s post describing being overwhelmed, “I have to see it on social media to know if it exists.” A Twenty-first century variation of reality.

Mr. Trump’s projections are presently beyond my ken. Saying nothing ameliorative about the politics of the moment, Mr. Trump won’t be on my ship; I doubt I’m on his. He’s an active symbol in this depressive moment, but I don’t want him to possess my moments. He’s just one more part of the struggle for me to revise personal change. As I grow older, most change is revising losses. So I use some of the accreted wisdom from writing about being conscious for fifty years to attempt to write and revise this experience into a meaningful nothing special, a not inspired, a commonplace. Right now I need to write a vehicle of perseverance and appreciation to travel into these moments.

I need to see them in writing to be sure they exist. At the same time, drawing on my recent experiences I know any and  every one of the pieces I create, revise and complete can be washed away in plumbing mishap, bagged in black plastic at the curb awaiting heavy trash day, or just kicked around like any other thing in the material world until it falls to nameless ruin. Although it’s  years of invention, concentrated self-criticism, re-revisons and labor unfulfilled or completed, I know my work is already traveling in the continuum of the random past. It’s a ventriloquist’s dummy in a suitcase I carry to tell you my life. It’s already on board the ship of death.

darkness at one with darkness, up and down // and sideways utterly dark, so there is no direction any more // and the little ship is there; yet she is gone. “The Ship of Death” [68-69]

However, encountering a demon is both illusory and real. Demons serve a transformative purpose in our world.Random annihilation exists for all things. I have no notion if inanimate objects know fear or pain. There are quite beautiful experiments showing clear water possesses the molecular capacity to reflect both serenity and distress. My cosmological universe begins with Ovid and Lucretius and finds its ceiling at chapter five of “A Brief History of Time”. I can’t conceive of the fractal my sixty some light years of motion would delineate in the space/time continuum without feeling dazed. Theoretical physics has the same effect on me as Zazen. For me the nature of being alive is to continue on in the arc of life for as long as we can endure. At a friend’s suggestion, I read The Hidden Life of Trees, an account of the consciousness of the arboreal world. According to Peter Wohleben trees have prescience of their impending demise and flower abundantly. Most humans don’t possess the prescient grace of trees; that’s why we need apparitions of demons like D. H. Lawrence and Donald Trump.

Ages ago as a species we internalized the herd instinct to flee into intellectual worlds of panic and anxiety. We evolved internal migration clocks into obsessions with mechanical timekeeping. We continue to travel in migratory urges in a proud variety of vehicles, in rigid commutes, and vacation pilgrimages. But more essential to our character, we can translate personal death into abstraction. We’re not the only creature that understands or mourns death; we are the only creature that mourns its own death before it happens. We also belong to a species that has learned to distract itself from death by fixating on revising its world. We defer the simple processes of living and species procreation to construct abstract tasks. It’s as selfless and self-serving as building a church or writing an essay. I abandon living my life temporarily to write about my life. Writing is like reading only better, it empowers writers to slowly revise the tenor and details of our existence. But we always read and write in a burning library.

So…One evening I’m walking towards a labyrinth and as a bell sounds I see a Tibetan Demon.

If I revise this sentence enough times the factual details blend with what the reader needs to have happen. For instance, the labyrinth and bells do exist in my neighborhood, but the bells didn’t ring. Those realities don’t matter. But when I wrote I live near a labyrinth, readers began to doubt me more than when I wrote I saw a demon. However, for the sake of the one line story it’s imperative a Demon arrive,  although it’s the most improbable of the three  events. More fantastically I have chosen a demon that bears a passing resemblance to Donald Trump, and that fabrication makes all of it more credible. Writer and reader create an imagined bond of shared veracities in the process of writing and revising.  Not everyone lives near a labyrinth, but everyone lives near a demon.

Recall initially I was writing about “The Ship of Death”, contemplating my mortality by stanza. Instead you and I now seem to have strayed off task pursuing a Tibetan Demon that vaguely looks like the President elect. We will collaborate on this distraction only for as long as it provides us the shared pleasure of belief. Belief allows us to endure absurdity. I contemplate sad nuances of my demise and you enjoy it. What holy demonics are we looking at?

Tuesday afternoon I met friends for lunch in Santa Fe. New Mexico’s capital prides itself on being spiritually hegemonic. As we strolled around it was impossible not to see the borders of belief are constantly crossed. Posada style skulls embroidered on linen aprons, Ganeshes molded in local beeswax, milagro embossed crosses made of dried chiles, clan totems and fetishes in silver and turquoise laid on the sidewalk, prayer rugs hung in display windows next to crocodile boots, santos night lights, sandalwood malas, gemstone malas, greeting card prayers to the patron saints of domesticity, a three foot polished brass Shiva surrounded by earrings, cartons of scented votives, hand knotted Persian Qoms stacked in rolls as makeshift office walls, Kachinas scaled human and rendered in glazed ceramic and gold, mandala coloring books, calavera coloring books, sitting Buddhas in garden stone, sitting Buddhas of hardened clay, Our Lady of Guadalupe marking a ladies room, illuminated Mughal manuscript pages, imported Polish painted wood crèches, pinon incense in miniature pueblo houses, gold pendants of Gaia, prayer flags hanging above a tamale cart, Palladium prints of Angkor Wat, a startled Mexican peasant hand carved on a crucifix, bundles of white sage next to an image of the Dali Lama, nazar amulets in blue glass, Mudra broaches, nazars by Swarovski, Quan Yin standing on a sea of cashmere pashminas and, of course, windows and walls decorated with brilliant demons from Tibet in a variety of formats.

Some of this artwork is genuine, some religious replicas pretending questionable provenance, and some mere decoration, but all of it is for sale. It’s an ironic market of distractions designed to help a supplicant overcome worldly distraction. Negotiable memento mori. Visiting spiritual bazaars like these I feel at ease, floating, as if I’m almost at home, arm and arm in the company of friends. I saunter in raw weather surrounded by iconography.

A gypsy refrain played by a band of itinerant musicians drifts across the plaza. Probably I’m not much different from a medieval peasant daydreaming during services in an unheated cathedral. It was near the eve of a holiday for me, the secular-religious feast of Thanksgiving. Walking down San Francisco street, I found myself devoutly grateful to be back in love with the world. Pleased to wander through this reconstructed city of commercially celebrated death, not yet surrendering to Lawrence’s silent sea of abandon, or enduring Trumpian rule, but still alive, looking for my car along the transcendent backstreets of holiness. The lesson of the demon is always to make one see the virtues of the ordinary life, to appreciate a sip of water, a shivering afternoon drifting past silver breath by silver breath.

The flood subsides, and the body, like a worn sea-shell // emerges strange and lovely.    “The Ship of Death” [97-98]

Advertisements

uimg_20160925_145431836-2

This is what he told me when we were sitting in one of the office chairs by way of an explanation of how he came to be in one of the office chairs in the office I had been borrowed to sit in with him who I had no relative idea of why I was watching over or why he too was sitting one of the office chairs fortunately no one was bleeding unfortunately I wanted to be somewhere else and had it not been for the incident of the two people in the hallway and a 36” set of headphone wires I would have been on my way to return from the airport via the gym and into my specific sense of a personal envelope of purposeful balanced  existence instead I was sitting in an office chair and in forced companionship with the bored curiosity that opens genius to view I listened to him tell me he had been in a history classroom when he was told to leave and then another person deliberately stood in his way blocking the hall and he said I’m not trying to hit you it was a linguistic misunderstanding at that point as well as a situational misunderstanding if he were an armed person threatening to fire a warning shot it would be interpreted to mean stop or the situation will become even more violent deadly force it would in that situation have a tone of malevolence over what was formerly referred to as much a veiled threat such as adjusting a jacket to reveal the pistol nodding to a gun rack or a NRA decal in a car window the prelude to or worse violence issuing from unassailable power justified and mimetic of  myth, a threat of a petit divinity’s retribution from a tradition of secrets the old world of breaking a child’s spirit breaking a slave’s spirit I’m not trying to hit you is a creole grammar determined by the placement of the negation the inflected “not” could be misinterpreted as I’m trying not to hit you which implies  the potential for violence is eminent, more so than I’m not trying to hit you which is colloquial I’m not trying to is an expression used to introduce an activity one is attempting to refrain from engaging in as I’m not trying to sell a call when LeBron James explains a contested foul call, he is both sports sophisticated and grammatically and mildly dominant culture transgressive it is an act of self-expression my friend at school was following roughly the same model LeBron James who is the highest paid athlete in the world NBA  Champion hero of Cleveland my friend is not LeBron any more than my Uncle Joey was Phil Michelson because he played golf left-handed imitation this is a form of attaching to a perceived symbol of power and a sixteen year  old person does little else but imitate it’s reasonably appropriate behavior to try to learn how to continue living in the world it’s a fundamental survival activity in any culture it would be over obvious to describe our culture as confusing and fluid that cellphone that was originally about to be refused to be confiscated is the current instrument of cultural fluidity currently capable of disposing the tasks the expensive history text  attempt to accomplish passively remaining in the room my friend was sent out of for engaging with a computer an ironic exaggeration nonetheless the point is made flexibility is a social elitism depends on your class  you’re skipping school to wait on line for a new iPhone or texting in class the consequences aren’t the same they aren’t equated equally even in a school of second chances like the one where we sit in the office and discuss what happened as if it happened to someone else in another  life a miniature version of a movie watched on a cracked cell phone screen something heard faintly on cheap earphones.

Persona Bones

June 29, 2016

KaTa See

KA TA SEE

Persona Stories

Last Saturday was Persona Day in the Jemez Valley. Two of my favorite poets, Leslie Ullman and Veronica Golos came to support the Friends of the Library. Veronica is excited about her new book Rootworks. Leslie has a new volume Oblique Strategies in galleys. It was the type of casual weekend that only English teachers imagine might be part of their vacations. Bright, skilled writers talking about their experiences writing as other people, everyone on their better behavior, cookies in abundance and literary discourse without having to call on that person who wasn’t paying attention. Genuine poets and home baked cookies I don’t expect much more from life.

Both poets were insightful and responded with the kind of spontaneous interplay that make these type of discussions worth preparing for and having. Veronica and Leslie discussed the complicated ethics, individual techniques, and their personal experiences inhabiting other voices. Then there was snack break and the listeners wanted a writing exercise. It fell to me to provide one. As I gave directions and allowed time for responses, a momentary blank came, and then I heard a voice say “Write down what you want to leave behind.” The voice was mine. It was the kind of unconscious burble that happens under social pressure. You adjust and deal with it, it’s a writing exercise, some disorientation is expected. Forty minutes later we were at a buffet dinner. By noon on Sunday everyone had dispersed. Carol and I had an appointment with a traveling shaman for an afternoon of Ka Ta See, Peruvian bone reading, and soaking in the pools at Giggling Springs.

Growing up Roman Catholic visiting a fortune teller was regarded as a Mortal Sin. It was demonic, Satanic and, the priest added, probably a con. We weren’t even supposed to put coins in the Madame Fortuna machine in the Penny Arcade at the amusement park. I felt guilty if I read the fortune in my cookie. There were some gypsies in town, but they didn’t act like Maria Ouspenskia in the werewolf movies. Religion seemed determined to prevent any contact with spiritualism.  However, when I was twelve my grandfather got lost driving the family to visit the shrine of St. Anne Beaupre. Unexpectedly I had a waxy vision and told my grandparents and cousins in a few minutes we would see a man on a tractor wearing a green shirt and red hat who would give us directions in French, but we would understand them. It happened; everyone shut up about it immediately. After all it was a religious pilgrimage, visions were appropriate for saints, but apparently not as a backseat activity. Silence was my Grandmother’s default setting for children, especially on car drives. She had had experience from the end of the Golden Age of Spiritualism at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

Mediums and the Spiritualism Movement were as popular in the Modernist Period following The Great War as “Game of Thrones” is today. In the world just before radio and movies, performance was the only kinetic art form. Magicians like Harry Houdini were the equivalents of rock stars. Vaudeville, tent shows, circuses, carnivals and even riverboats were still the vehicles that brought entertainment to cities and towns. Even simple acts (or complicated ones like Houdini’s) had to be ‘put over’ in person. The actors and musicians may have been bored, but their performances were regarded as genuine by those who watched. For the most part Houdini only pretended to struggle in order to manipulate his audience. He could get away with this because there were no recordings of his act other than gossip, still photographs, newspapers and advance publicity. Each new town was allowed to believe what they were seeing was death defied in their presence. It was harmlessly exploiting the naiveté of the age. Mediums fell into that category of symbiosis, but not perhaps as harmless.

For one preternaturally hot summer I was involved a married woman. The romance was ending badly in final sweaty assignations and denial. She took me to visit a psychic she knew who lived in Kentucky. Not backwoods Kentucky, but a trailer park, a little north of Independence. By night he was a short order cook at the truck stop off the Interstate, by day he would swipe at flies and have visions for $15. He put three small black stones on his head and kept them in place with a stocking cap. He fluttered his eyelids and talked about giant yellow winged Venusian angel creatures whom we would soon contact, he saw a desert where life could breathe ammonia. He didn’t answer my friend’s question about leaving her husband. Opening his eyes, he looked at me as if he knew me. “You’re an only child. You’re the only male heir. You are the last of your line.” Nothing he should have known, nothing I wanted to hear. She asked about my future, looking to see if she were there. “I see arc carbon.” was his reply.

We stopped seeing one another. The following summer, I had a job managing an old cinema. One night I was visiting with the projectionist up in the soundproof, fireproof booth. In a tray next to one of the projectors I asked about the bronze lined stubs the size of bullets. “They make the light…electricity arcs through carbon.”

Sensitives speak things they shouldn’t know into a world that might understand them. It’s an old tradition in nearly every culture. People want to converse with spirits and get their advice about the future. Both literally and figuratively it’s a marginal world. I’ve made a long sporadic study of seeking out practices, seers, healers, spiritualists, card readers and sacred locations. I found it ran in my family. I’m respectful but skeptical, one never knows where lightning will strike.

So Sunday afternoon I sat on the grass beneath an enormous cottonwood and watched a woman toss a double handful of bones onto the woven rug of the world. She held an owl’s wing and walked around in and out of the shade. She began, “This is about what you want to leave behind.”

Time Enough at Last

June 14, 2016

 

IMG_Glasses

I had my vacation reading packed for travel, the last Umberto Eco, the newest Murakami, several volumes of poems I wanted to reread without distraction, and my new travel companion, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a novel I read only in places other than my home. Literature has developed specialized contexts for me. When I think of myself, I think of myself as ‘the reader’, one writers imagine, engaged, articulate, and active. In spite of my handicap of reading slowly, I am patient and willing to stay in a literary relationship. I’m a cash customer, I purchase the books I read. I ask no mercy from my authors and in turn demand they deliver sophisticated thoughts and ideas, not merely kill time or invent thrills. Beach reads and murder mysteries annoy me. The farthest I’ve gone down that path was Sherlock Holmes, but only as self-required reading in my Victorian period. A fascination that actually started as a teaching project when I was working in Galveston Alternative Center for Education. I wanted to connect the curriculum with preparing students to visit and participate “Dickens On the Strand”.

It was an edgy, complicated social and literary endeavor. Thestudents were ‘alternative’ to being thrown out on the streets for the greater good of their high school, but still required by law to have a school placement. ”Dickens On the Strand” is the traditional celebration of Charles Dickens imaginary visit to Galveston. Nine blocks of the old historical district fit themselves out for hand bells, charming parades and an open street costumed party. It’s the beginning of Christmas. Quaint shops, twinkling lights, buskers and carolers. It was less racist than Victorian England, but it was de facto segregated (as much of Galveston was). Although the majority of the students I taught lived no more than ten blocks from the Strand district, none of them had ever attended. To my belief they were far more Dickensian than the folks who rented gowns, capes and canes to stroll the fantasy laid out in Galveston’s historical district.

My students believed they lived in G-town and they were G4Life.

When fantasies collide they best one often hopes for is irony.

Sherlock Holmes, even in film version, was incapable of holding our collective attention. The dialog was too overwrought, the restraint of the English class system too condescending, and Sherlock himself was just too annoying for us to battle through, and any essay topic from a Sherlock Holmes story is constantly doomed to explanation rather than interpretation. Dickens we could bring to life, a bowdlerized version of Jekyll & Hyde and by way of Internet “Jack the Ripper” these fired synapses and made connections. I made the same bargain with my students that I make with the books I read. I won’t waste precious reading effort with foolish practice exercises. If they’re going to work hard, they’re going to get paid. Freshman read A Christmas Carol, sophomores took on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Juniors and Seniors combined to work through Oliver Twist.  As we wrote we explored Dickens’ works and life, life during Queen Victoria reign, websites in England, the US and Japan, and the wonderful Brown University Victorian Web. They wanted the real literature, the same as other students. We all swam in Victorian literature and history. As the Strand date approached they knew more about our reading than anyone in the school that expelled them. They knew why gentlemen didn’t button the bottom button on the waistcoats, why ladies walked on the inside of gentlemen, where treadmills came from and what the staves in “Christmas Carol” were. On the day we attended “Dickens On the Strand” they recognized what was portrayed and they in turn were recognized as apropos portraits. It’s the type of genuine relationship more and more frequently denied students and teachers. It was one of the possiblitites teaching literature can provide. Reading was life changing.

In spite of burgeoning MFA Writing programs, there is a painful decline in the appreciation of capital L literature. There are many inter-related explanations for this, increasingly moderated curricula, focus of standardized testing, social media hive mind, loss of program funding, CAI lessons, the decline of libraries, anti-intellectualism, data driven values, and like philosophy, there’s not much money in reading literature. Beyond these cultural forces reading faces much more competition than it did when I was young. As I grew up it was books, senseless TV, family movies, church,sports or go to your room and build models. But now television and movies have transformed their forms from a half an hour or forty-five minutes of instantaneous gratification into long, brooding, completive inventions.

In spite of my predilection for bound books, I try at least, to remain neutral and open about the current and future states of reading. Consider the classic “The Untouchables” versus “The Sopranos” or “The Wire”, or the brilliant use of real time aging and realized fiction of the Harry Potter film/book franchise, or compare Batman as he appeared in Detective Stories #27 with Batman: Year One, Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke , or the variant toned film versions. I laud the collective genius of modern forms. I can divert myself to a binge of series, excellent graphic novels, thoughtful blog communities, complex multiplayer video games, Netflix, Tennis Channel, Hulu, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, e-mails and e-versions of magazines and newspapers, and constant texting to distract me from my chosen struggle to enforce my attention on a device that is a remnant of the end of the Middle Ages.

On vacation I can read or watch any of this without leaving my favorite chair…unless.

Unless something happens to my glasses. I’d been meaning to visit Dr.K., my longtime friend and Optometrist to have an exam and adjustment. It seemed my glasses weren’t clear no matter how often I cleaned them. But the school year and domestic events unexpectedly demanded days and suddenly I was gratefully driving to New Mexico. Except my eyes bothered me. They watered. They ached. Something seemed to be on my lenses. It was overcast and breezy on the drive, generally a blessing driving across west Texas, which in summer can be like driving on a brilliant griddle. Instead it was twelve hours of driving through sharp, gray glare. By the time we arrived in Amarillo I had a headache, a short temper and was an hour too late to get to the gym. The motel I used to have an ugly dog affection for had taken a few steps deeper into the surreality that makes a good story but a terrible night’s sleep.

It took fully twenty minutes of grimacing for the computer to yield a room number, a key and a registration to sign. Our room had been selected by the manager to be a recently renovated one, with wood floors, a queen bed and a flat screen television.  The door was the first one at the end of makeshift stone pathway near the empty swimming pool. After changing the air conditioner setting from frigid din to din, I looked up and noticed the smoke detector near the ceiling had been skillfully covered with a towel. When I attempted to call the desk to inquire about this anomaly, I noticed there wasn’t a phone. Fortunately, I didn’t sit down in the room’s single chair to make my non-call. It had been sloppily employed for other things, fluid things, terrifically non-hygienic things. The flat screen television the manager had proudly promised had indeed been recently screwed into the wall. Judging by the residue, patch and spackle work, it had put up a struggle.  After multiple trips to the lobby, it was clear the Internet was free, but didn’t work. I stood in line at the desk behind a dazed tourist from Germany whose room was flooded by the air conditioner and a man on his way to Missouri who had just spent two hours traveingl two miles on I-40 because a wreck closed the freeway. Waiting in line I recognized my situation could have been worse, and there was nowhere else to go. Cheerfully I mentioned to my wife that the dishabille of the room reminded me of our honeymoon room at The Chelsea Hotel; some things are better left… So I took an aspirin and sang myself to sleep trying to remember all of the lyrics to “King of the Road”.

In the morning I felt much better as I was the only person in the lobby who seemed to know how the waffle maker worked.  Any day that starts with a waffle shaped to resemble the State of Texas is bound to get better. In New Mexico it did. Miraculously there was an Optical Shop in a warehouse store open on Sunday afternoon. I took a number and surveyed the unfortunate selection of frames. In the past twenty-five years I’ve only had two pair of frames, number three was not going to come from their collection. I’m obsessive and my prescription is complicated and easy to get wrong. With the exception of sleeping I do everything with my glasses on. It’s been that way as long as I can remember. I feel about my glasses the way Vikings did about their swords. I want to be cremated with my glasses.

When Maggie called “#95” she looked around and hoped I wasn’t there. She was already tired out by the previous ninety-four. She straightened my wife’s frames and told her not to use the soft needlepointed case. We agreed on something; I liked Maggie already. She took my glasses, surveyed them and looked at me.

“I can’t get them clean.”

Immediately she seemed to know what that meant.

“The coating is coming off. What kind of coating do you have on these?”

None I knew I had paid for, but coatings are already applied to most lenses, so I had no genuinely useful information. I did however; possess a copy of the prescription. Presenting my prescription, I asked if she could use it to make me a pair of contact lenses without my reading correction so I could drive. We still say “make” in a nostalgic sense. No shop “makes” lenses in that they manufacture or grind them anymore. It’s too expensive to fight the economy of scale. I can buy glasses on the Internet from e-businesses that already know who I am, what I want and sells cheaper than Walmart. Most optometric offices examine your eyes, order your lenses and frames, and make sure they’re correct. They provide expertise and relationships. It’s why I visit Mark, both because he’s careful and competent, and because his father was my optometrist and we’ve know each other longer than my last two sets of frames. We call each other by our first names. In Maggie’s world I was the ninety-fifth person she’d seen on a Sunday afternoon in a crowded store that was still grabbing numbers. She wouldn’t even unfold the prescription. But about the coating…

“Dawn.” She said handing back my glasses. “Clean them with Dawn. It will take a long time and then they’ll get cloudy, but Dawn.”

I know I have Dawn at the place in New Mexico. I love Dawn.

So I’m in the mountains of New Mexico slowly, gently washing my glasses, coating them with Dawn, soaking them, waiting and repeating. Little by little they’re getting clearer. Mark called back. He didn’t know about Dawn. I asked him about an Internet hack I read of using SP30 sunscreen as a cleaning solution. It took over twenty years of building our relationship for him to be able not to sound like he thought I was vacationing next door to a meth lab. He’s sending me an emergency set of contact lenses. When I return we’ll make a new set of glasses. Neither of us want to think about finding new frames.

 

 

PART FOUR Let Some Caterwauling Commence

In 1966 along with Donavon’s “Sunshine Superman” and The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”, Billy Stewart had a hit with “Summertime” http://youtu.be/Mr7Qq_qUKb0 . It reached 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and eventually became the biggest selling single for both Mr. Stewart and “Summertime”. It joined the legion of warm weather choruses that casually accompany vacations, graduation and summer romances like best friends. The Beach Boys and other surf bands, The Drifters, and Nat King Cole were all part of the transistor radio soundtrack that for three months accompanied Bermuda shorts, burnt hot dogs and the peculiar scent of Coppertone. Generally there was a song rotation of 2’30” songs lauding the bright brief season of navel gazing, and hopefully not only at one’s own.

 

Like secular Christmas carols, summer songs possessed shared cultural pleasures, magical optimism, and the promise of emotional acceptance. When the Summer of Love came along its musical precedence was well established. With that “Why not?” spirit “Summertime” has been recorded with, Theremins, twin guitars, twangy guitars, reggae skanks, jazz orchestras with strings, Hammond B-3 organs, angry pianos, every type of wind instrument from pan pipes to gold inlaid flutes and vocals ranging from smokey to saccharine. Many were experiments that for the promised eternity of the Internet might have found a quiet oblivion. Each interpretation brings its special palette, but perhaps not as much in the way of enlightenment.

In the legion of questionable recordings of “Summertime” here are some of the more eccentric starting with Clara Rockmore’s Theremin version and ending with the esteemed, but angry, Duke Ellington. Some “Summertime”:

http://youtu.be/j0c7p5geJZs  Clara Rockmore,

 

http://youtu.be/fNAFClBagfs Santo & Johnny,

 
http://youtu.be/LFWDpxqrOWU The Ventures,

 
http://youtu.be/JbWg_xKyi-M Herbie Mann,

 
http://youtu.be/j1bWqViY5F4 Charlie Parker,

 
http://youtu.be/q6L34MhPRak Ricky Nelson,

 
http://youtu.be/YlxxmNP2MKw Billy Preston,

 
http://youtu.be/e1nXeaE9og8 Eumir Deodato,

 
http://youtu.be/D7J4YWrZa80 The Zombies,

 
http://youtu.be/mPGG4SL7aFE Lloyd Clarke,

 
http://youtu.be/4JesgKVLqrA Johnny G Watson,

 
http://youtu.be/Tk90QyrkRTY Friends of Dean Martinez,

 
http://youtu.be/fGGJoTmlmAg The Walker Brothers,

 
http://youtu.be/0Rr_6VNF2To Booker T & the MGs,

 
http://youtu.be/5lAQltfRLfM Lawrence Welk, and

 
http://youtu.be/JzG3G4C8jMY Duke Ellington.

 

I’m indebted to John Tangari for his research on variant versions of “Summertime”. If you find you’d like more “Summertime” variations I suggest you visit his site, after that seek your own salvation diligently. http://everygreatsongever.tumblr.com/post/5767727618/30-versions-of-summertime .

IMG_20140308_141334025 Summertime

 

It is, as some say on the Gulf Coast, “hotting up”. Not quite change your shirt twice a day hot, but already stay in the shade hot. Among other things hot weather is good for ripening tomatoes, iced coffee and arguments over small things. My college roommate and I have been arguing out the fine points of topics like Victorian adversaries for decades. Over time we’ve become familiar with one another’s tastes, beliefs and exaggerations. Not long ago, quite unexpectedly he proclaimed an affection for Julie Andrews, Broadway musicals, professionally trained voices and proscribed all else to the exile of “caterwauling”. Late in ones’ life I expect a certain amount religious retrenchment, dietary conversions, even divorces, but a Pauline conversion to musical theater surprised me. Broadway repertoire has charms, but deleting the astonishing range of 20th Century recordings we had shared for years set me wondering.

 

In my life I’ve enjoyed friends who could sing long selections of musicals a cappella, who were dogmatic collectors of recordings of chanteuses, and others who had framed “Playbills” on their walls. I admire obsession. I get it, at the same time I confess too much of my childhood was tortured by overexposure to “The Sound of Music”. Julie Andrews did nothing culpable: she remains Maria Rainer. Her soprano was lovely and expressive; whatever problems I have with the singing are mine. So I did find myself taking less exception to the canonization of Broadway, but more the loss of so much music to the lesser realm of caterwaul.

 

To my ear, the rigid tonal structures of western music, while pleasing, seem an artifact of a lost age I often appreciate as a tourist. It requires little from me but a credit card, suspension of disbelief and a cultural predisposition to sit still for three acts. That’s not derogatory; it’s in the nature of Western art forms. “The Sound of Music” is entertaining. It pits romance and the diatonic scale against Nazis and monastic vows. While reinterpreting history is one of the basic mythic devices of western theater, the more complex differentiation isn’t about historical melodrama and artistic interpretation, but between attractive and beautiful. Attractive has a broader range, or conversely beautiful has a deeper, narrower range. Both are noble human endeavors. What is easy or pretty draws us away from the unpleasantness of our lives; what is demanding and transformative takes us back to something that may be less pleasing, but more a more demanding useful truth.

 

I have lived in a fortuitously peculiar period. The sonic variety of our collective musical mind has been infected by recordings. People like me, born in the 1950s, have heard more different types of music than perhaps any other generation before us. We have heard it and responded to it, but been physically present for proportionally very few actual performances. Radios, records, CDs, tapes, television, movies, MTV, iPods, download and YouTube provide a constantly changing kaleidoscopic soundscape possessing both novelty and historical delicacy. As with most things, we know more than we have experienced. The Nazis came and went before I was born. Race, jazz, poverty and class struggle have remained part of the conversation of my lifetime; I’d like to consider “Summertime” from America’s first major opera “Porgy and Bess” and the notion of expressive caterwauling.
Like the performance of most operas, a performance of “Porgy and Bess remains precious. More people have seen Lady Gaga perform “Monster Ball” in its two years of touring than the combined audiences for every performance of “Porgy and Bess”. “Porgy and Bess” is another of America’s awkward masterpieces. It has an unaccountably erratic history of productions, enjoying limited runs in 1935, 1942, 1952 and notably 1976 as a revival by Houston Grand Opera. The 1959 film version was a production melodrama nearly more dramatic than the script. It too is assumed to be well known, but also seldom seen. The film was never given wide theatrical release and was shown only once on network television in 1967. Like many, I claim to having seen it and recall scenes and songs, including “Summertime”.

 

Most operas exist in the repertoire of storage. They are an antithesis of ‘popular’ music, to most people there are musical fragments or costumes that are almost recognizable. Mel Blanc may probably be the most recognized voice of the Valkyrie for the overwhelming majority of Americans. By nature opera is caricature; in America opera is an intellectual cartoon. It represents pure music with extensively trained performers and a demand for educated attention that is expensive in many ways audiences are not often willing to purchase. Nonetheless Americans assume operas will exist whether or not they like them, understand them, or attend their performances. As an opera George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” has struggled to find an audience identity outside of its composer’s roots in Tin Pan Alley, the Jazz Age and Broadway shows.

 

George Gershwin published his first hit song at seventeen. He had some classical piano lessons and positive experiences in that realm, but found his immediate future and fortune in popular music. He wrote Al Jolson’s black face signature “Sewanee” in 1917. He wrote songs for theatrical productions that were primarily musical reviews, song and dance, chorus, comics and hits. He understood his audience, the task of the song, and wrote to its commercial potential. The term “selling a song” came from this Tin Pan Alley period.

 

The piano industry reached its peak in the 1920s then declined with the Great Depression. Until the crash, pianos were the most common ‘must have’ item for every household, school and public business. Even today, a hundred years later, that prevalence of pianos remains part of our cultural memory. We aren’t surprised if a piano player appears in Western movie, in fact they’re cliché. Nor does it strain our imaginations when the Little Rascals rescue someone from piano practice to play football, when Mickey Rooney sits down to write the show to put on, or in the background music for tenement scene, dive bars, or cocktail parties comes as the trebly sound of a nearby piano player. We not surprised to find a piano anywhere. Legendarily in the 1920’s there were so many composers sitting at pianos picking out so many different songs at the same time on West 28th Street that it sounded like beating tin pans as opposed to music, Tin Pan Alley. Pianos and sheet music were a profitable industry, those without a trainable daughter or son purchased player pianos. Gershwin both wrote songs families could sing around a piano and arranged songs for piano rolls. He was extraordinarily successful at it.

 

Like all people of ambition he aspired to something more without the knowledge of what shape that would take. Like many from immigrant families, he recognized it would demand acculturation, invention and energy. He flourished with the jazz age, studied in Paris, and saw his “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris” performed at Carnegie Hall. The music he composed for “Porgy and Bess” was in some aspects the culmination of his successes. It possessed sweeping themes and singable tunes. Gershwin’s seasonal “Summertime” was composed for “Porgy and Bess”.

 

“Summertime” was originally set to a poem by DuBose Heyward from the novel Porgy by Mr. Heyward.” “Porgy and Bess” was initially described by George Gershwin as a “folk opera”, that is, inspired by common songs and rhythms and interpreted in classical musical form. No different from works by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartok, or Aaron Copeland all contemporaries of Gershwin. It’s generally assumed “Porgy and Bess” drew melodies from spirituals and other tunes Gershwin heard traveling in the South. In preparing the music he made an extended visit to a North Carolina barrier island. (There is an alternative interpretation asserting that “Summertime” is based on Yiddish and Ukrainian lullaby melodies.) The style of symphonic composing that was Gershwin’s forte was a style of musical interpretation and invention with a long history in Western classical music dating from Bach and certainly Beethoven. It was, as Ezra Pound wrote “…what the age demanded.” [Hugh Selywn Mauberley]. The age demanded overblown nationalistic symphonic music for growing radio audiences, American music sanitized from the jazz of the Jazz Age. Unquestionably the most popular and resonant song from Gershwin’s American opera was “Summertime”.

 

Many summers ago I was driving in Austin and a local disc jockey spent a silly and obsessive two hours playing nothing but different renditions of “Summertime”. I was fortunate to have escaped that easily; there are between 25,000 and 30,000 recorded versions. But I did came away wondering what “Summertime” could mean, even to me. Today Catfish Row is like the village Pagliacci’s wagon arrives in. The Harlem Renaissance is archived, along with Vachel Lindsey’s “Congo”, the St. James Infirmary and the Cotton Club. The roar of the twenties retains perhaps an academic allure, but in its moments it was quite the wild party. Stocks soared, religion was booming business, evolution was on trial, people seemed blissfully surrounded by a bubble of debt too big to burst, and sex, race, gangsters and music met for cocktails in glamorous lounges. It was summertime as the Depression arrived in its own wagon.

Here is the first recording of “Summertime” Abbie Mitchell sings and George Gershwin plays the piano and conducts:
http://youtu.be/x0g12TrSnIE
Why this version is heard so seldom surprises me. It’s gorgeous, and not just for 1935. It feels both human and ethereal. It seems to speak in an almost ambient religious tone. However this is not the version that Gershwin decided to finally employ. Perhaps it was too ethereal to attract investors, or not in the swing fashion. He continued re-working the setting as he worked on “Porgy and Bess” making adjustments, although he clearly was pleased with the basic “Summertime” as a piece and employed it three times in the opera.

 

The next oldest recording I could locate of “Summertime” was recorded in 1936 by Billie Holiday about seven months after the show opened in New York. http://http://youtu.be/9xpq1pLk-sA . There are echoes of tawdry jazz age colors in the introduction. Then Billie Holiday’s vocal moves the song from a lullaby into an ironic despair tinged view of life and the false oblivion of childhood. The insistent tom toms and Artie Shaw’s clarinet bring a kind of faux jungle decadence that speaks to both the Porgy story and the political oblivion of the times, simultaneously containing the guarded slumber of a child and the monsters of Jim Crow and worse. By comparison to the 1935 recording this isn’t as fully realized, but it possesses qualities of expression that allow the singer and song to engage. The band allows itself to become an shorthand of clichés and within the vocal I sense a hesitancy and inexperience, which lend to the recording’s the overall effect of singing to an infant amid jostling. If that was the intended effect or not, I can’t exactly determine. The band was between styles, the singer young, but already abused, and the recording hurried in order to take advantage of what publicity there was surrounding the opening of” Porgy and Bess”. It arrives more as an etude for something larger and later, which is how the song is initially employed in the opera.

http://youtu.be/IG4nPM9uxwg

Sidney Bechet recorded “Summertime” June 8, 1939 with Teddy Bunn on guitar. Summer is the character; there may be a baby and it may or may not be sleeping. Mr. Bechet’s interpretive soprano voices some sense of an alley between Montmartre and Basin Street as the afternoon’s heat is abating. Mr.Bunn’s blues-influenced guitar counterpoints the free musical extrapolation with a feeling of languor and restraint. Already the song has traveled some distance away from Gershwin into the hands of the interpreter, and Sidney Bechet was seldom shy about taking possession of a song. “Summertime” was well on its way home from the opera.

End of Part One

Washing the Corpse

July 17, 2010

  

 

“and since they knew nothing about his life

  they lied till they produced another one.”

                                    Washing the Corpse, Rainer Maria Rilke

                                                            [translated by Edward Snow]

Tuesday my friend, Michael Silver Dragon died. He had been fighting his illnesses for as long as I knew him. He had been in hospice care for nearly a year. He was lifelong motorcycle rider; two summers ago he sold his motorcycle because he couldn’t ride anymore. A couple weeks ago he wanted to take me out for drive in his Tiburon. Over the last months he had taken up driving the mountain roads by himself and smoking little cigars while using his oxygen respirator. “I’m going to die soon” he told me” so cigar smoke isn’t going to kill me.” I suggested the exploding tank might; he laughed. It was a hacking laugh that suggested he was whacking things with a hatchet. I went on the condition that he wouldn’t smoke cigars while he was using oxygen. He took the curves and hills a little too fast, and drifted over the  line a bit while telling me what once was down this dirt road, or what Fenton Lake looked like before the highway went through. We laughed a lot with the loud laughter you sometimes hear in bars—that vague coughing sound that usually has little to do with what’s been said, but is releasing something that isn’t being said, but wants to. The paved road ran out and we decided to turn back. He was tired, but wouldn’t let me drive. We stopped in Seven Springs and visited a friend. We sat in her kitchen drinking tea and listening to the brook that runs outside her back door. It was a painterly moment…maybe a little too restless to be Romantic or Impressionist.

A silence fell into our conversation as our friends ate lunch. I looked at Michael and saw suppressed surprise in his eyes. He was lost, but I didn’t know where I should look to find him. Eventually the tea and honey found him and brought him back. Like most return trips we don’t remember many details, that was true of us and soon we were saying good-bye in the library parking lot where we left my car. By chance his wife and friend, Berta, was parking her car to attend a meeting. We all stood hugging and thankful. It would have been a kind perfection for things to have just evaporated into those instants of affection and fullfillment.

But they didn’t.

That is the kind of vignette that makes genuine human character rhetorical. It’s warm, sentimental and allows itself to be contrived by the pathos and a hinted knowledge of death. At this point Michael Silver Dragon is really dead. But in these scenes I have replaced him with my desire to produce an elegiac fictional Silver Dragon. I’m not writing an obituary; rather contriving a sweet eulogy intended to make my reader abstrusely sad, but also to engage in my fictionalization as a form of easy belief. You as my reader must believe this, in order for it to grow to be the truth. I confess to knowing practically nothing factual about Michael. For me he had little history other than our private shared adventures on my holidays and vacations. He could have been my Great Uncle Johnny. The day after he died I was asked to write the obituary. Those dictated facts were a series of revelations, which I suppose a certain amount any obituary actually is, but an obituary is also a symbolic punctuation indicating when the dead receive a new life as adjuncts to those of us who remain and construct memories. They belong to us, like movie characters or pop stars. We build the dead out of need. We shape them as the  poetic corpse washers shape the lies they need to tell one another. This is more about me, about my need to remember and forget the same thing. 

“Not all truth comes in beautiful words; not all beautiful words are truth.”

 Last Saturday morning Berta called from her panic. Michael wouldn’t wake up. Again. He had died several times in the years I’d known him. Yet he returned from the hospital again and again. He had fallen and hurt his neck, he had  pneumonia and he didn’t want to eat. When I arrived I found him twisted awkwardly on his bed. Berta was trying to support his neck. He moaned and pulled at bed clothes and the neck support pillow until his head drooped forward in a posture that made me cringe. Together we lifted and shifted him in their bed. He made noises, but not to us. Then he fell back to heavy sleep. Berta had hospice on the telephone. They were suggesting a hospital bed and neck brace. They were willing to bring them out that afternoon.

Things were collapsing too quickly.

Berta and Michael had scheduled respite care in a facility in Albuquerque so she could go to her father’s birthday party. I was supposed to spring Michael from the rest home the following Saturday. We would eat dim sum, find some mischief, then I’d bring him home. Berta and I surveyed the available space in their home. It would take some significant rearranging, but we could squeeze a hospital bed in somewhere, shifting out her study and furniture .

Things were spinning apart.

We tried giving Michael his medications. It took two of us to try to open his mouth. The pills drooled out on the wild goatee he’d been growing for twenty-five centuries. He was thrashing weakly. He was moaning. The medication took effect, he seemed quiet. I drove 30 miles to the Walgreens in Bernalillo for a foam cervical brace. We got it on him. The collar didn’t provide him any comfort. The hospital bed didn’t seem such a good idea. There were no beds available at the hospice hospital unit.

We’d have to wait for someone to die. 

The next morning Berta called.  A hospice bed on the unit was available. Michael would be transported by ambulance to Albuquerque. It would take most of the day to transport him and get his paperwork checked at the hospital. She wanted to do it by herself. She said she done it so many times, that alone was better. She suggested I come

later in the afternoon.

I drove to Santa Fe to the International Folk Arts Festival for diversion. I wanted to get lost in the crowds and ersatz open market of rugs, jewelry and carvings for a couple of hours. I had a couple of artists I wanted to see specifically. One made fantastic painted resin dioramas of Bolivian peasant life crossing barriers into other realms where they might be suddenly drinking or dancing with devils, angels or skeletons. The other was a Mexican muertos artist from D.F., who carved intricate calaveras on matchsticks. It was the last day of the festival; many of the artists were tired of listening to English. They sat sullenly painting, or dully detailing metalwork with small hammers. I couldn’t find the two artists I wanted to see. By chance I ran into Jacobo Angeles, a wood carver whose studio I had visited in Oaxaca. He was exhausted from shaking too many hands. His English met my Spanish and he turned me over to his nephew. “We have a website.” He handed me a card angeles@tilcajete.org. I bought a glass of iced tea made with all renewable resources. It had rooibos leaves, beet roots and ginger; I had a stomach ache, albeit a healthful one. It served to keep me from being dulled by the early afternoon sun.  There was drumming and dragon dancers were leaping on the plaza as I boarded the bus to the parking lot.

Driving back I found the World Cup final on the radio. It was being broadcast on a Spanish station. With the score zero, zero and cinque minutos left in regular time I spotted my favorite used bookstore in Santa Fe and a place to park. I found a used CD of the master copy of “John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard” and Edward Snow’s translation of Rilke,  A Head of All Parting. These items seemed essential in my immediate future. When I returned to World Cup the game was in extra overtime. Although I, along with the entire Spanish speaking Western Hemisphere, had waited for the elongated scream of “G-o-o-o-o-a-l!” when it happened I wasn’t much relieved. I stopped at the Santa Domingo reservation for gas. $2.59 a gallon. I chewed a few berry flavored Tums and drove towards the hospice hospital in Albuquerque.

Berta called on my cell phone, room #1029.

In Lovelace Hospital if you press the elevator button for the tenth floor any employee on the elevator, or getting on later, first is suddenly silent, tries to smile, then looks blankly away. Modern hospice care is a hospital service, not a dread Hotel Dieu, but quiet, orderly and intensely humane. What judgments the staff makes, they keep to themselves. They don’t use euphemisms; it’s death and dying. They look at you when speaking with you. When I asked at the desk, they knew who Michael was and that Berta was in the room with him.

Michael looked worse than the day before.

He was restless and more jaundiced,

He appeared to be suffering less.

We had had our last conversation.

I smoothed his hair and sat down.

Berta was exhausted and dazed.

We went out to find some dinner,

it turned out to be salads we pushed

with our plastic forks and then threw away.

She drove back home and I returned to #1029.

I sat as the sun was starting its slow summer setting. The hide-a-bed love seat sunk me deeper than was comfortable, but there was nowhere else to go. As distraction I wondered about Walt Whitman’s days as a nurse. How he must have learned, as these nurses had, how to intimately diagnose each detail of approaching death. I wondered how he was able to keep experiencing the buzz and yarp of the world. I wondered what that change meant to him as he walked home, or worried about enduring his persecutions and keeping his position a little longer. Did he still see the great cosmic body transcendent…or like me in this golden evening, seeing it struggling minute by minute, breath by breath, cell by cell, system by system, moving towards absence.

 Four years ago Michael completed translating The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. Having no Chinese, only his ambition translated the notion of wei wu wei.

[ http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/tao-te-ching-of-the-way-and-integrity/856790?productTrackingContext=search_results/search_shelf/center/1 ]

At the party when he finished it, I imagined, he’d discretely disappear along the huts at the Great Wall. But he didn’t, he continued living inside his dying.  Less than a century after the man who was the original author of the Tao Te Ching died, no one knew precisely when or where he disappeared along the frontier of the Empire. There were arguments over his family name, afterwards he was just called Lao Tzu, Old Man.

Michael Silver Dragon McKain (1939-2010)

 

 

P1000883.JPGPOE3Being Ill with Romantic Music

 

I can’t begin equivocating abstract good from diseases.

 

Saturday I was in an elevator with a sick woman who coughed and sniffled. I hadn’t slept well the week before and went out that rainy evening to listen to Mendelssohn and Beethoven string quartets. For me that is part of my complicated formula for coming down with a cold or influenza. Romantics put me in a mood for illness. Illness finds me welcoming viral decadence.

 Several autumns past I had a lovely toxic bout of fever connected with reading Andre Gide’s “The Immoralist”. For a few weeks in the afternoons I would collapse on the love seat in dreamy naps and wake up physically adrift in my psychic malady. Then I believe it was Richard Strauss and Chet Baker who accompanied my hypnogogic drift. Too many people I loved were dead, or ill, seemed to be hopelessly injured or addicted to something. Mine was a sympathetic disease of indolence, guilt and affectation…and some opportunistic virus. It was a form of intoxication that let me appreciate the willing thrall of Gide’s fiction. It was an especially gorgeous autumn, the afternoons were marked by feckless blue skies, and in the early evening breezes bent north from the Gulf Coast that were still faint with Africa and the decay of low tides.

 Now I stagger through Borges’ “Labyrinths”  It’s one of my favorite collections of rare dreams and the type of thinking that constructs thoughts both large and enveloping enough for a reader to wander around fragmenting their own life in the Borgesian mirrors. Tedium and twists of language build a tale designed to entrap the reader, and what is Borges if not a diversion in diversions? Like Daedalus himself, Borges creations seem so little concerned with his self expression that he is another near perfect visitor for the sickroom. Along with Borges, Poe’s prolix Auguste Dupin exchange opinions near my night table, advising me about the clues of my experience of captivity and exotic alienation.

 So many hours of my life have been lost to the tedious pursuit of money, of what needs to be done (and ignored) in order to earn a living. That world plans our days as its agenda commands, squeezing minutes to task, making time for this meeting, returning calls while driving on the freeway. Even our days off are crushed by lists of duties and pleasures fit together with chronological severity. It’s no wonder sickness is such a lucrative industry in our country, it’s the only place left to be oneself. There is a mysterious liberty in sickness.

 Our culture seems obsessed by sicknesses. Sickness requires a higher level of civility and forbearance from those around it. Dressed in our most comfortable pajamas we are permitted to sleep, speak, or be as silent as we wish, doctors and relatives will stop to speak with us, folk cures and patent medicines get passed along as forms of affection. Except for the distraction of discomforts, we are permitted to think whatever our imagination chooses to indulge in—wistful longing, fevered monstrosities, memories, or poetic meditation. That the quality of these considerations may be maudlin and forgettable is secondary to the intensity and novelty of their appearance. 

 I have flu symptoms. By the latest H1N1 virus television terror alerts I’m encouraged to take my medications at home—expend my sick days for the good of the healthy. I went in to work accomplished a few tasks and left just before noon. I had finished and awakened from my first nap by 2:00. We’re all much more expendable than we would like to believe.

So, if I have to reread the same paragraph several times, it feels as if it were a string quartet passing its theme from movement to movement until it’s resolved.  Borges and Poe are seldom direct or well served by speed reading. They seem like suggestions and invitations. Invitations I recieve in a borderland somewhere short of delirium by importune medication where I temporarily reside. In younger, stranger, days it was my desire to build a home there, but now a few days vacation suffice—just as now the mere taste of sweets brings satisfaction. When we are ill in some ways we are spiritually closer to our lost selves.

My dear and beloved friend Billy Parker was diagnosed with AIDS in what seems a century ago, when no one knew about the diagnosis, and treatment was a guess in a cataclysm. He lost everything. I write that as casually as if those three words were no more than two pronouns and an intransitive verb. In the first twenty four hours of his hospitalization for pneumonia, and the subsequent secondary diagnosis, he lost his home, his ability to work, his lovers, and the last years of his youth. But in a strange way he found a second life, not one anyone would have wished for him (or anyone), but a spiritually pitiless and inevitable life. A naked life most of us pretend we’ll never have to live.

Wednesdays we went to the Thomas Street Clinic. It was the place in Houston gay men without insurance turned to for HIV/AIDS treatment when there was no treatment. It was the waiting room on the living edge of a nightmare where doctors and nurses faced hour after hour of patients who deteriorated day by day. Men disappeared watching one another smoke under the covered walkway. I lit too many cigarettes for men with tremors. Last weeks’ friend appeared in a wheelchair this week…didn’t appear the next.  Any rumor of a cure or treatment was surrounded by a dozen rumors of paranoia and terror. Patients didn’t know if they were receiving experimental drugs or placebos. Behind the cheerfully astute receptionist were mazes of brad and bracket manila files compiling clues about victims pursued by an unknown killer.  Beneath the scent of disinfectant, tobacco and burning coffee was  panic, death and love pressured beyond convention. It was from there that Bill recieved his second life. A life removed from ambition or the fool’s paradise of fame, or wealth…it was an uncertain fixity of one day, and perhaps…

His medications seemed to be tentatively working; our visits to the clinic became less frequent. We entered the more intimate world of T-cell counts and the wary watch for skin lesions Does this seem larger to you? I piled up a fantasy rock wall between HIV and AIDS. The frantic clinic waiting room gave way to long lunches on Wednesday. Each week we found a budget exotic lunch, and then we went grocery shopping. Bill was an alcoholic and I had learned I couldn’t give him money (another mystery disease). Bill joined a PWA writing workshop. He began throwing pots. We went to museums, or shopping. He lectured me on nihilist post punk music or  we discussed the Beats while driving around the city. Bill tired easily, so often we sat and talked. We had our history together, but we seldom reminisced. In good weather we sat on the back stoop, or at the kitchen table on wet days. As the afternoon wound down, we talked about the strangeness of love, or the peace of autumn arriving, our mothers, or exchanged recipes. All of these moments were left off the calendar of ordinary days.

One afternoon Bill showed me a story he’d been writing—pages of purple prose murders committed by a dyed blonde barmaid who took violent revenge on her sex partners. The familiar block letters of his handwriting styled their way into a savage melodrama where the heroine’s only salvation was the writer’s procrastination and incompletion. He watched me read it. I knew what it was. He didn’t. It was raw fiction, unpolished expression, not literature, but the force beneath literature—dreaming, desperate, swimming into a fevered world where death is controlled by logic and form and not random viruses.

So many of us fall asleep reading murder mysteries.

 Having recovered some energy and bored enough, I wander downstairs. Television is just as boring on a larger screen. I’m getting better. I  try listening to the re-released Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but it makes the past seem too pretty even for pop. Looking around the house I take one of those hangover inventories—where this picture or that figure has come from, what they may have meant when I bought them—if they’re showing cleaning damage.  I’ve traded most of my life for this private second hand store of petit obsessions. I need to have these thoughts and probably wouldn’t without my sickness. My medication has reached that level where I feel dizzy and about to sweat all the time…not quite drunk, certainly not euphoric. Removed.

Beethoven String Quartet in C-sharp minor.

The invisible microbes that tied me to my pillow tie me to the other chaotic world. An unlovely world, where earthly pleasures can be reduced to stalling off a fit of coughing, or keeping the afternoon light from piercing the sides of my eyes….or a sip of tepid water. I’m there alone—lost to my family, my work, my FaceBook page, abandoned by the thousands of joys and procrastinations that were supposed to keep me from dying…yet.

In the dreadfully serene storms raging in the one city where all of us survive, it takes illness to sit me in the rocking boat of my own soul.

The little house

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homes

My mother died last Christmas. I sold my parent’s house in Youngstown, Ohio this July. The process of selling the house entailed several trips back to my hometown. Most of my life there for eighteen or so years seemed to be mixed states of paralysis, acquiescence and rebellion. Time has been extraordinarily cruel to the former Steel Capital of the Mahoning and Shenango Valleys (also Murdertown, USA).  For three shifts a day it was artificially brilliant, genuinely crazy and the food was extraordinary. I still have a few friends there, but for the most part my visits are like wandering through my own fallible memory. As I drive through town I find only the places where things should have been that are now empty lots, or worse. The criminals I knew have been replaced with criminals I recognize, but don’t know. Only the violence doesn’t seem to have diminished. Homicide has always been one of the town’s parochial talents.

Youngstown was where I was born and raised, and where most of my family lived out their lives. It was predictable as the mill whistles, but it didn’t feel much like home. Probably I have the most feeling of familiarity on a tennis court, but that’s just a lifetime of habit, long afternoons and the reliability of painted lines. I’ve lived in quite a few places since I left my hometown, slums, communes, townhouses, apartment complexes, basement rooms, dormitories, sublets, suburbs and the neighborhood I live in now. I’ve traveled around, tried my hand at being a slumlord, been hustled on land contracts, bought and sold vacation properties, actually paid off a couple of mortgages—even returned to visit my Grandfather’s village in Italy.  But home has been elusive. For the last twenty-five years home has been wherever my wife was; the location still doesn’t matter much to me. Home is where I’m responsible for the repairs, or at least waiting around for whomever I’m going to pay to do them.

There always seems to be something nervous and obligatory about my entire concept of home.

 It’s a concept or feeling that seems to be made of unequal amounts of desire, memory and geography…more like Never Never Land than the house in Houston (which has more than a dusting of Peter Pan about it) where I keep my books, nap with the cats and have my bills sent. Kitchens feel most like home to me. Places where I’ve simmered winter soups, cleaned fish, rolled out pastas, or turned out a five or six course meal speak back warmly to me. I genuinely long to cook for people I’m fond of…I embrace all of it from the shopping through to the putting away leftovers. Some of my qualities of home begin there. There’s something about a crowded, slightly frenetic kitchen filled with laughing and shoving that resonates the best of home from childhood and has not abated as I’ve aged. The old expression is ‘hearth and home’. But my hearth also needs a dishwasher, a Kitchenaid mixer, German knives, stainless steel pots, cast iron pans and specialty devices my mother used to shake her head at amusedly.

I never knew anyone who actually had a familyhome. As I grew up no one’s home ownership extended beyond their childhood. Even the wealthiest of my friends could only drive me past where their grandparents used to live. It was Eisenhower’s America, people wanted to get out to the suburbs, away from where they worked, into tract neighborhoods with matching trees and ornamental fences. Unexpectedly housing developments appeared that adapted bits of Victorian culture and mores, like the obligations of appearances and denying any reference to the physical existence of work. Salesmen in polyester ties and short sleeve shirts sold split level dream parlors and promised garden terraces reminiscent of Jane Austen whom they’d never read. Suburban communities aspired to be a constructed existence of manners and denial, where all the stains and embarrassments of the working class were simply willed away.  Much of the tragic current real estate collapse began with those sales pitches—not the convoluted intricacies of subprime derivatives, but the belief that with the right property you could leverage your way out of your own life.

Although the war in Viet Nam and rebellion marked my generation, what defined the people I knew in high school was raw ambition. I didn’t know anyone who was satisfied. Everyone expected to go to college. Everyone would leave home as soon as they could—even if it meant running away, getting married or joining the army. Not because our parents were bad people, most of the parents I knew growing up were kind and worked terribly hard. But they demanded their children do better than they had.  In spite of the variety of languages, customs, religions and ethnicities each family translated that message—and we got it. We weren’t escaping anything as much as going somewhere else. The differences between our collective bus and Ken Kesey’s infamous Electric Kool-Aid International were ours wouldn’t say “Further” it would say “Better”. It would be driven by a realtor instead of Neal Cassady, and the key to expanding our mind would be in the lockbox hung on the back door. There wasn’t much separation anxiety in our generation. I got luggage as my high school graduation gift—and I was glad to use it.

The year I was born there were 186,000 people in Youngstown, the year I graduated high school the population had dropped to 139,000, currently there are 73,000. The cities of Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Albany, all show similar (but not as drastic) declining demographic trends. During that time period while the US gained nearly 120 million more people, many citiesin the East and Midwest appeared to have been evacuated. Not to dismiss the realities of the recessions, changing economy, and psycho-sociological cultural shifts—a great many of us just left home.  We put down payments on seemingly aboriginal suburbs springing up where you could get “more home for your money”, be near beaches, mountains, deserts and drink in the clubhouses of thousands of ubiquitous new golf courses. We went off to college, or moved away for work and couldn’t bear to come back—except to visit.

For a while during this Spring I owned three homes, in three states Texas, New Mexico and Ohio. I lived in a realm of overextended worry, that an unobserved roof leak or random band of drug addicts could lurch me into scenario after scenario where subcontractors continually ask “Sir, could you come here and take a look at this…”.  For those few months I had exceeded even my own wildest dreams of property ownership, and like most wild dreams it turned dsitorted, tricky and wierd. I didn’t sleep through many nights, I ground my teeth and stopped shaving regularly. I gathered caches of hand tools in each house and shambled regularly through the nuances of product location in Home Depots in all three locales.

 The chief signal of my existence was a lamp attached to an automatic timer.

By mechanical illusion I could simultaneously awaken at 5:55 AM in three time zones and later begin switching off lamps between 9:30 and 10:20. I arranged for people to park in driveways, trim trees and in other ways pretend they were me, or my simulacrum living there. I was constantly somewhere else and relaxed nowhere.

Now I’ve sold my mother’s house. When she and my father purchased it in 1964 they could have traded it for 10 brand new Oldsmobiles. The selling price I was happy to accept would hardly purchase a single new car now, even if Oldsmobiles still existed. Where I’ve been living and traveling between, I have  favorite motels, melancholy private routes and some particularly dreaded restaurants on the road. I’ve learned to live within the light of my own illusions. Like hypnogogic Dorothy Gale spinning between the lessons of one world and the next I recite my affirmation.

”There’s no place like home. There’s no place…”

Desert Reformation

July 11, 2009

P1000773

The lives of Georgia O’Keeffe have been one of the Twentieth Century myths that nearly surpass her work as a source of speculative interpretation. Her dramatic relationship with Alfred Stieglitz (among others) flavors our view of her early paintings. Her desert blooming beginning in 1929 leads us in a different direction of interpretation. Currently the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is celebrating the return of “Jimson Weed” from its loan to the Bush White House. “Jimson Weed” is a painting made near the end of her first great outpouring of work reflecting Northern New Mexico. Celebrating both the loan and the return bring a new vision of Georgia O’Keeffe as a de-re-constructed American is still another appellation added to a complex artist who both profited by and denied definition.

 Santa Fe is an old, cantankerous and flexible city, having been a Tewa pueblo, the Spanish capital of the Kingdom of New Mexico, a Mexican territorial city, a US territorial city, a Confederate fortress and currently the State capital of New Mexico.  It’s older than Boston and has enjoyed and endured many more rebellions.  Now it seems to have become an imported re-vision of Southern California—a gorgeous artsy retirement community to contemplate the Zen of well invested power, without many distractions of urban responsibility.  It has all the pretentiousness of a second marriage or an imported suit. I like it a lot. The police are civil, the street people are colorful and not odiferous and nearly everything is so expensive I hardly buy anything but, postcards, books and lunch.  

Indeed it was after lunch that I found a parking citation on my car, “Flipper” with 17 minutes left on the meter. By good fortune a passing Traffic Enforcement patrolman helped me resolve this injustice to everyone’s satisfaction, which brought Carol and me to the O’Keeffe Museum in good mood for a promenade. One of the admirable things about the O’Keeffe Museum is it’s small and relatively expensive. Enormous museums, while an art bargain, are so demanding on my eyes, memory and patience that I seldom visit without either headaches or disorientation.  My $10 admission worked out to roughly twenty-five cents a painting—peep show prices. But I find that admirable—show me anyone paying more attention to an image than a person watching a peep. I’m not prudish—I’d appreciate that level of attention and pleasure for my work.

I spent the largest share of my time in the last gallery studying the newly returned “Jimson Weed”.  First to put it into my private perspective, then wondering what subconsciously attracted the Bushes to request this particular painting for their private dining room in the White House. “edges of verdigris—pale green at the center—sharp edges  away—darkening bloom—edges hint at withering—bloom about to begin rotting—thick fragrance” Those were the notes I cribbed on my admission ticket stub.

The difference between a high quality art print and the original is viewer’s inter-relationship with the color and scale. I studied O’Keeffein books, museums and under the tutelage of a wonderfully affectionate roommate in another decade. Perhaps more than any modern artist other than Frida Khalo, it’s important to share the same air as a Georgia O’Keefe painting. Her scale (particularly her flowers) and painterly qualities are lost even in the best reproductions. By chance I saw a show “Carr, O’Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own” on a break from a conference in Canada. This presented the three artists (Emily Carr, a Canadian Modernist nature painter) as contemporaries and developed a visual conversation by proximity. Lovely. In that close gallery context the difficult, seeming redundant struggle of these three artists to establish an independent geography of self in which to operate became apparent to me. Not a where, but a where they were.

Which brings me back to the prodigal “Jimson Weed”.

I can appreciate the desire and opportunity to live with great art, even temporarily. If could borrow art from any American museum I’d do it to0.  But there is the latest version of Georgia O’Keeffe, returned from the White House slightly altered—even more G-Rated, sexually redacted, PTA approved—a painter of the still life of the purity of the Western Myth—an abstractionist of “Little House on the Prairie Chapel”—an image at once appropriate and sincere as the prayers of a reformed Texas land man harvesting the high plains desert—more purified than President Carter’s sister, Ruth Stapleton, who converted Larry Flynt. Things change. After six years of near kitch in the private dining room, Georgia returns to Santa Fe more docent friendly for her term of government service.

Now the brochure blurbs and little museum film point out, “sometimes a flower is just a flower” and remark that there has been too much confusion about sex and Georgia O’Keeffe…perhaps you’ve never really looked at a flower. Defensive and accusatory.  Although feminist criticism made a similar claim, that O’Keefe’s paintings were merely projected with sexual undertones by Patriarchal Freudian art critics like Edmund Wilson and Lewis Mumford. (For a more detailed study I recommend “Georgia O’Keeffe” by Roxana Robinson.)  Now the work has been PoMo Christian sanctified by belief and public policy.  Myopic gardeners and school boards are safe to be in the same parlor with the once scandalous Ms. O’Keeffe—even dress up like her (tastefully).

 But I’ll strop Ockham’s razor and suggest that a person who posed for over 300 nude photographs for Alfred Stieglitz (who was married to another woman at the time), had affairs during her marriage to Stieglitz (who also had numerous affairs), traveled easily in the relatively bohemian art world of both Jazz Age New York City and the Mabel Dodge Luhan salon of Taos may have had at least a subconscious sexual dimension in her art.  Perhaps it’s not as pornographic as Wilson and Mumford inferred, maybe not Freudian patriarchy—but at least Jungian dreamy. And what’s wrong with that? Why does Georgia O’Keefe need to be neutered? Who could think that denying the libidinous drive of her contemporaries like Pablo Picasso or Diego Rivera would improve the value and appreciation of their work? As the thousands of galleries in Santa Fe attest, fine art is a free marketplace—not a museum. Meaning is calculated by what a salesperson can convince the buyer to believe it’s worth, not aesthetic orthodoxy—and that’s still a relatively intimate relationship. And in the end I’ll have to defer to Ms. Bush’s taste, if “Jimson Weed” matched the newly redone wall covering, I hope she enjoyed it.  Pleasure is pleasure.

So now I’m not sure if the celebration is about “Jimson Weed” being in or returning from the White House…I think that ambiguity might have annoyed and amused Georgia O’Keeffe as well—even if she has been child proofed.