Thursday, December 2, 2021

True or False

 

      Half of the following statements about me are true. Identify 15 of the true ones and win a prize.

 

1.     Tried out for Survivor and made it to the semi-final interview in Chicago before being cut.

2.     Bungee-jumped in New Zealand.

3.     Tried out for the Olympic ice hockey team and was cut very early in the process.

4.     Had a date with Miss North Carolina a year after she relinquished her crown.

5.     Slept with the coach of the Miss Michigan pageant.

6.     Published a poem in The New Yorker.

7.     Appointed Poet Laureate of Antrim County.

8.     Was thanked by Robert Frost for suggesting a revision in one of his poems.

9.     Rode an elephant.

10.  Achieved a score of 700 in Words with Friends.

11.  Made a white sauce without assistance or instruction from Kim.

12.  Wiped my butt with poison sumac.

13.  Finished second in a 10-mile swimming race.

14.  Spent a summer working as a model.

15.  Was selected to be King of St. Clair, Michigan.

16.  Swallowed a live bee.

17.  Slept through the night in the cemetery of the Great Swamp Baptist Church in Georgia.

18.  Learned how to reboot my modem and router.

19.  Won my college’s “Ugly Man” contest.

20.  Successfully cleaned my bathroom.

21.  Floated down a major midwestern river with a guy named Jim.

22.  Received an A in a college English class.

23.  Dated the same girl that Ken Howard was dating, and asked her to choose between us.

24.  Read War and Peace twice.

25.  Changed the oil in my car.

26.  Died, briefly, but made a comeback.

27.  Streaked across the University of Michigan’s Diag (at night).

28.  Enjoyed regular breakfasts with the author, Dan Brown.

29.  Had two vasectomies – the second one free.

30.  Taught three classes in a row with my fly unzipped.

31.  Bicycled from Ann Arbor to the Mackinac Bridge.

32.  Met Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

33.  Hunted for whales in the Atlantic off the coast of Cape Cod.

34.  Shot and killed a deer.

35.  Spent a summer working as a dishwasher.

36.  Trapped a skunk.

37.  Learned the names of all the trees on our property.

38.  Without Kim’s help, picked the house we were going to live in.

39.  Auditioned unsuccessfully for Dancing with the Stars.

40.  Tended a small cannabis garden for personal use.

 

By the way, I had much more fun writing this than any of you had reading it. So: Make your own lists – and feel free to share. You might want to start with 5 and 5 – good for holiday gatherings.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Useless Skills

 

            In this computer age I am daily confronted by skills that I lack. It’s too depressing to list them here, but you know what I mean. On the other hand, there are a number of skills that I have that are now uselessly out of date, unless I get a job in some sort of museum.

 

Among them:

 

tying a necktie – It’s been years since I wore a necktie. I pretty much stopped wearing ties when I was teaching. I do have a few hanging in my closet, somewhere between belts and pajamas. I may have occasion to wear one in the future, so I probably should practice to keep my skills sharp.

 

coordinated independence – My drum teacher tried to teach me this so I could play half-note triplets with one hand and quarter notes with the other, while my feet did something else with the bass drum and high-hats. Now the only use I have for this skill is brushing my teeth at the same time I’m looking for dental floss. Like many men, I’m a mono-tasker.

 

adjusting rabbit ears – This was an important talent, though I sometimes got stuck holding them. Never again.

 

applying white-out – When I was teaching one of my students came into my office for help. He had to fill out his college application on a typewriter, but all he had was a computer. I let him use our English Department unit. He asked me where the delete key was, and I handed him a bottle of White Out. The stuff does not work well on my computer screen.

 

juggling – When in high school I thought juggling would help what was called then my “coordination.” I mastered juggling three balls (over my bed) and occasionally could do five. Now I have trouble juggling one.

 

driving stick shift – I’m pretty sure I can still do this. A few years ago I test-drove a vintage VW beetle, bringing back memories of my first bug, named The White Streak (not really white, nor did it streak). I did OK but did not buy the car.

 

throwing a curve ball – I never did this well, but I did teach David Eisenhower how to do it when he was on my club baseball team at Exeter. I have not had an occasion to throw a curve ball since then, and I do not see it happening in the future. Knowing how to do it is not the same as actually doing it.

 

making leather link belts (Kamp Kill Kare, 1956) – I doubt I’ll ever use this skill again, unless the belts come back into fashion. If it does, I’m ready . . ..


What are your useless skills?

 

 

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Drumming


            I was never very good at playing the drums.

 

            I’d been taking drum lessons from Tony Chirco, culminating in a “Drum Recital” attended by dutiful parents who would leave as soon as their kid performed. As one of the older kids – I was maybe 14 – I got to play with a real jazz combo that Tony had somehow persuaded to come to Connecticut. My performance featured what’s called “trading fours,” where the band would play four bars, then I would solo for four bars, back and forth. I was terrible, embarrassingly terrible. I recall the guys turning to look at me with a “Who’s that honky?” look on their faces.

 

            I never liked to solo, probably because I couldn’t do it very well.

 

            When I got to college I lied about having been in a combo in high school, so I became part of a group that included some real musicians. One advantage of attending a small college is that there were no other drummers who applied for the position – though I later learned that we had one other very accomplished drummer in our class.

 

            Playing with our group was a gas. We could shift from jazz to rock, and we played most of our gigs on campus or at nearby Smith College, mixed in with a few weddings. I recall one gig at a fraternity where I accompanied a blind Black blues guitarist. I was surprised and pleased when he told me he thought I was black. It was years later that I realized he was mocking my white ass.

 

            A lot of the fun, for me, was coming up with names for our group. Among ourselves we were “Moby Dick and the Seamen,” though we did not use that in public. For a while were “The St. Elmo’s Firemen” (we had a very heavy fire-proof helmet thing that was sometimes worn), “John Hart and the Hartbeats” (John was our sax player), and “The Route 2 Tooters.”

 

            During my senior year I paused briefly at one of those crossroads in life when a serious rock group asked if I would join them to play gigs all over New England and eastern New York. I thought about what this would mean to my ice hockey (I was captain of the team) and my commitment to the college’s demanding academics. I declined the invitation, figuring it was better to say I was invited than to actually do it.

 

            When I started teaching in Ann Arbor, I hooked up with another jazz group, a quartet that played Thursday nights at a local bar and restaurant. The only problem was that we finished playing at 11:00, so by the time I packed my stuff and hauled it home, it was after mid-night. Then I had to unwind. Then I had to get up at 6:00 the next morning to make it to school on time. On a number of Fridays I would give my students an impromptu writing assignment while I put my head down on the desk. The gig ended when our sax player graduated and our bass player found better musicians. My drum set sat idle for several years until I sold it to a former student after I was divorced and moved into a small apartment. Kept the sticks.

 

            I owe my musical success to avoiding drum solos. My real pleasure, and this gave me some of the most joyful moments of my life, was helping my fellow musicians sound better – picking up a rhythm the piano guy was doing, and responding to it, or transitioning out of the sax solo into the piano solo. Listening was a big part of my playing. It’s important to listen – or so I’ve been told.

 

            

  

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Growing Old with Grace

 

            I started to write a piece about Growing Old with Grace (not a woman’s name), but then I recalled that last summer I posted the piece below. Kim’s pain and fatigue continue to deepen, as does her grace, most days, in dealing with her condition. I’m (temporarily) at a loss for new words, so here’s what I wrote in July 2020:

 

Grace

 

            Forgive me, please, for my ongoing focus on mortality. While I, of course, remain immortal, Kim has been experiencing increasing levels of pain and fatigue, even, on her worst days, “I don’t want to live any more” pain. And this past week, an occasional feeling of tightness and pain in her chest. It’s been a year since she had her mild heart “incident,” and she says this is even milder. The pain and fatigue suggest her body’s response to the possible return/growth of her cancer. We’ll find out more when we learn the results of next week’s various scans and tests.

            We’ve discussed our mortality. For the last several months we have been very cautiously practicing social distancing because Kim’s cancer treatment leads to, among other things, a compromised immune system, so we have family members tested before they visit us. But Kim has speculated, might it be better to die from Covid-19 than to die of her cancer? Death is death, of course, but the process of dying would be different with the two assaults, right? And then a few evenings ago, with some chest pain, Kim said that maybe a heart attack would be the best way of all to go – quickly, like a snap of the fingers.

            Maybe. Dying in our sleep has some appeal, true, though the Greeks preferred dying heroically in battle, followed by living on in fame (provided, of course, someone is there to notice and celebrate your heroism). But next to a heroic death, maybe a peaceful passing in sleep.

            Provided, of course, that everything has been taken care of. I told Kim that she really shouldn’t die just yet. Yes, we have taken care of our wills, etc., and sent endgame instructions to Kim’s kids. But we have planted some trees that are not yet big enough, and Kim has not yet taught me how to cook (she says I should marry someone who cooks) or clean (ditto) – though she has been trying. There’s laundry to be done. Sunrises to be witnessed and photographed. Baby ducks. The Great-crested Flycatchers need to return to be photographed. Kim is not one to quit until things are taken care of. And there a lot of people who would want to say good-bye in person, social distancing be damned, and dying suddenly would deprive them of that honor. Now is not a good time.

            Yes, being dead is tough on the person who ends up dead, largely because of all the pleasures of life that will no longer be experienced. But it can be even tougher on loved ones who confront and then live with the emptiness left when the beloved departs. As W.H. Auden put it, writing about the death of his beloved:

 

He was my North, my South, my East and West, 

My working week and my Sunday rest, 

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; 

I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong. 

 

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; 

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; 

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; 

For nothing now can ever come to any good.

 

This is what I have to look forward to? Best if we stay here, together, for a while longer. I can’t tell if Kim’s pain and fatigue have improved after her “I don’t want to live any more” moment; she does not like to talk about how she is feeling, and she spends several hours per day doing gardening and/or housework. Yesterday she overdid it in the heat, and I found myself googling “heat stroke.”

        After we learn the results of next week’s various tests will we know more about how we stand with mortality. Meanwhile, Kim continues to live, day by day and week by week, with grace, a wonderful word, don’t you think? Hemingway’s definition of courage, or guts, as “grace under pressure” seems to apply to my wife.

 

 

            We have more tests, scans and medical appointments coming up this month. Today we see our doctor to find out if there is more to be done about her pain and, what she says is worse, the fatigue that prevents her from doing all she wants and needs to do – what she compares to wearing sandbags or being a marionette whose strings get cut mid-afternoon. I am confident that Kim will come through with her usual grace – her delight in life’s daily pleasures, her appreciation of friends and family, her good will toward the universe (most of it), and her unfailing courage. 

 

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Sky


            Today, my followers, we shall consider the sky. By “sky” I don’t mean outer space, and all the infinities that go with it. Nor do I mean the relatively nearby (inner-outer?) space where we place satellites and such.

 

            No, the sky is what we see when we look up. It’s visible, whether with stars, clouds, clear blue, lightning, kites, northern lights, the moon, etc. Think of it as a canvas or a screen, there for us to see. Yes, there is sky on the other side of the planet, but that’s their good luck, not mine. The sky is a visual experience. I know this because Kim has photographed it.

 

            Even without thinking about infinite space with more stars than I can count on both hands, looking at the sky makes us feel insignificant. That’s what we need, right – more insignificance? If that bothers you, just go post something about yourself on Facebook, giving yourself the illusion of significance.

 

            Paying attention to the sky gets us to lift our eyes – generally a good thing unless you are driving. For many people, religion also gets them to lift their eyes – in a way that’s vastly more complex. But I’ll go for the superficial similarities.

 

            The sky also has an emotional life. My personal favorite is “sullen clouds” – what a great word “sullen” is! A rainbow is joyful, even without the pot of gold. Northern lights are exhilarating, even when we miss them as we did a few nights ago, for just knowing the sky can do that reflects or expresses something like joy, the way watching magically talented dancers does. The sky helps those of us who are not in touch with our emotions.

            Here are a few samples: 


    You might notice that, just as you can see your face better when you look at it in a mirror, you can often see the sky better when seeing it reflected in a lake.

Just Another Torch Lake Sunrise




You may notice that several shots were taken moments apart.



Sandhill Cranes in the Sky

Sullen?




Sometimes the sky looks best when framed by land.















Better with shore showing?


    And some days, as happened this week, the sky sends down gifts in the form of snow. 

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Transplant


            I recently read that doctors have successfully transplanted a kidney from a pig to a human being. This is good news, especially if you already enjoy pushing your way toward the food trough.

 

            I also read, in the surprisingly amusing Stiff by Mary Roach, that in the early days of heart transplants, recipients felt that they were taking on characteristics of the person whose heart they received. She recounts cases where a macho firefighter is convinced that he received the heart of a gay man because he suddenly had the urge to wear dresses and other feminine attire. And a woman was convinced that she received the heart of a prostitute because she had a post-operative desire to have sex all the time. The author has doubts about the scientific basis of such claims, though there are a few lingering unexplained phenomena.

 

            This idea, she explains, may have been derived from the notion that the human soul resides in the heart, so a heart transplant is really a soul transplant. Roach describes several other location candidates in our quest to understand what is this thing called “soul,” including the brain, liver and pineal gland. Incidentally, in the Middle Ages priests did an experiment to learn whether animals had souls. They weighed a live fish, killed it, and weighed it again. Since the dead fish weighed less, they knew it had a recently departed soul, and they knew how much it weighed. The experiment was repeated using human beings in 1907, with similar results – though the subjects were not murdered to answer the weighty question.

 

            Roach even describes the work being done on brain transplantation, where you remove the living brain from a failing body and install it into a healthier body. Whether this is a “brain transplant” or a “body transplant” is up for debate, though I doubt anyone is actually debating it.

 

            But for the sake of argument, let’s just assume that doctors of the near future have figured out how to hook up the wiring and plumbing in order to make numerous kinds of transplantation work.  They are, after all, now doing face transplants. And while we are at it, let’s also assume that we can do transplants using donors from throughout the animal kingdom. And let’s assume, for the sake of our entertainment, that recipients do, in fact, receive qualities from the donors beyond the medical functions of the heart, kidney, liver, cornea or whatever. (I know, that’s a lot of assuming, which is one reason why it’s more fun being a writer than being a doctor.)

 

            So, the question is, whose organs would you want to get? I don’t just mean out of medical necessity. Would you want the disguising skin of an octopus? The owl’s ability to rotate its head? Jennifer Anniston’s hair? Donald Trump’s? But it’s more than getting this person’s great hair or biceps or running speed. Since it’s been proven (see above) that animals have souls and, perhaps, that those souls might possibly be transplanted with a donated heart, what heart do you want? Mother Theresa’s? Or would you want to get the heart of a rooster so you would become more cocky? How about the heart of a lion – preferably a male lion who gets to lie around majestically while the females do all the work? How about the tranquil heart of a cow – one who came from a good home? You may own a dog whose heart you would want. Or perhaps a playful otter.

 

            You probably don’t think this is a serious question, but it is . . ..

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Deconstructing an Owl Pellet

 

            Owl Pellet

 

Your artist’s fingers work

needle-nosed pliers into

brown fibers of an owl pellet.

 

You are at a table in

the natural history museum.

A girl sits with you, pellet

 

before her. Her brother stands

behind her. You tweezer out

a white toothpick of bone,

 

one end curved like

a fingernail. “And this is?”

“Shoulder?” “Yes.” You place it

 

with like bones. A dozen

piles on the table. The girl

probes the pellet. Finds what

 

might be a beach-worn shell.

Worries it free. Smiles. You

smile back. Pieces of mouse

 

assemble on the table. You

become the mouse, the owl

who ate it, the pellet

 

ejected to be found beneath

an oak tree. Such is

the power of love. The mouse – 

 

its fragments probed, grasped,

known – quivers to its feet,

scurries from the table.

 

You hear its quick heart,

sense behind you the deadly

hush of wings.

 

 

            I’m not sure who the “you” is in the poem. “Artist fingers” suggests it’s Kim, but I don’t recall her teaching or demonstrating at the Natural History Museum in Gainesville, though she has probed owl pellets, and she might be able to identify a mouse’s shoulder bone. Doesn’t matter. But then, as we approach the end of the poem, “You / become the mouse.” “You” also becomes me speaking the poem, and also you, the reader, becoming mouse and owl. As I watched this deconstruction of the owl pellet, I imagined the owl catching and eating the mouse, and the brief terror of the chase. The owl is now behind us, and I hope you enjoy the mouse’s terror.