Thursday, December 3, 2020

Thanksgiving

TO OUR CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN: DO NOT READ THIS UNTIL CHRISTMAS!

 

Thanksgiving

 

            I remember learning about a piano term called a rolled chord, where the notes of the chord are not played all at once, but one at a time in succession. I’d heard them played before, but I did not know the term. I just thought it was a jazz thing.

            This year Kim and I are having a Rolled Thanksgiving. We decided not to invite anyone to dinner because of our vulnerability to the pandemic, and for the same reason we declined Scott’s invitation for a large Thanksgiving event, one that ended up including 19 people in what appeared, from the photos, to be a super-spread.

            Instead, we had an elegant candlelight chicken dinner about a week before Thanksgiving. Just the two of us. We toasted with wine and thanked each other. Then, the day after Thanksgiving, we picked up a gourmet turkey dinner prepared at one of our favorite Traverse City restaurants, S2S (Sugar to Salt). We took it home and reheated it, and the leftovers will keep on giving. On Thanksgiving Day itself we reheated some frozen pasties, a Northern Michigan specialty that will probably not become our new Thanksgiving tradition.

            But that’s just about food. Thanksgiving is really about thanks and giving. Yes, we made a donation to a local foodbank after watching news reports on the long lines of people who could not afford food. And no, we did not volunteer to work there – the pandemic, etc. And though I’ve given blood regularly for years, these days I have stopped, guiltily, because of the risks I might bring home. How else to give?

            As I write this, I hear Kim pounding nails in her studio. She is making a piece of sculpture for a friend. And we spent last week making Christmas cards to send out, cards featuring a photograph of a wreath Kim designed and made. (I say “we” because I printed and licked the envelopes.) And she designed and built gifts for her kids and grandkids – “treasure boxes” for them to store stuff that will give them pleasure when they are having a bad day, reminding them that they are loved. And she has started to design and assemble her annual ornaments made from wooden clothespins, angels with wings made of closely folded sheet music.

             Kim is giving by radiating her love out into the world through what she creates, in addition to what she radiates in her role as Mama Kim, accomplished, these days, mostly on the phone. I write stuff. Not what Bill and Melinda Gates are doing, but it’s what we are doing. Giving Tuesday is a great idea, but the problem is the temptation to say, on Wednesday, “glad to have that out of the way – let’s go shopping.” It is nice, however, to see spending money as stimulating the economy and creating jobs.

            When you are experiencing a Rolled Thanksgiving, every day is Thanksgiving. So, thanks. And find a way to be giving . . .. 

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Ecstasy


            When I was teaching, back in the ‘80s, we had someone give a talk for teachers about the danger of drugs for our students. He used a chart that I believe was called something like an Ecstasy Scale, where different experiences received a rating from 0 – 100. I don’t recall all his examples – he had about a dozen— but they were something like: Christmas morning surrounded by happy family might get 75. Getting a promotion (although teachers don’t get promoted) might get an 80. Getting a puppy when you were a kid maybe 85. He did say that having sex with your preferred partner under a blazing sunset might get a 95. But a shot of heroin, he warned, for some folks gets a 99. That’s what we were up against.

            All of which is beside the point. I came up with my own scale for teachers, where a snow day off would get an 80, school millage passes 75, a cancelled faculty meeting 85, your most troublesome student transferred elsewhere a 90, plus a few more. I passed my list around until the principal told me to stop.

            All of which is beside the point. I think it’s useful to have a scale. Let’s make it a 10-point scale since that’s how Kim is asked to describe her pain (usually about an 8). Here’s what I experienced that led me to this meandering blog post. When we lose power in a windstorm, that gets a – 6. But when the power comes back on, it’s a +8. Similarly, when I experience a computer problem (yesterday it was a router problem) that’s maybe a – 7, but when I fix it, usually by turning stuff off, waiting, then turning it on again, it’s a +9, the self-congratulation providing some of the boost.

            Several years back I did some writing for a consultant, Tom Cates, who specialized in creating customer loyalty. One of the many things I learned is that the single biggest driver of customer loyalty is how the organization deals with the inevitable screw-ups. If you do something wrong, bend over backwards to fix it. I remember telling my manager at Starbucks that my job was to help create customer loyalty: I would screw up the drink I was making, and she would give it to the customer for free, leading to customer loyalty. My manager nodded and told me to make the drinks right – but my point still stands. And I believe it’s true for individuals as well as organizations.

            But that’s beside the point – if I even have a point.

            What would your Ecstasy Scale look like? Simply listing high positives on your Ecstasy Scale is itself a positive (so do it), much like watching a sunrise or eating one of Kim’s scones. 

            More interestingly, what are the ecstasy negatives that turn into even higher positives? For many of us, this election season provides some examples (remember late night “results” on November 3?). And then – how do you create that reversal? Is it a matter of waiting for something to happen (God, or perhaps the Great Lakes Energy crew, to the rescue), or seeing things differently (shoveling snow – but I can still do it!), or fixing something that you didn’t think you could fix (router malfunction, above, or more recently, a printer malfunction)?

            I’m thinking, of course, of Kim’s health, which has led, most days, to a greater appreciation of each other and each sunrise. And Kim is still baking scones, with an apple pie in the near future. And the pandemic, which has led to a greater appreciation of the friends and family we are missing. Soon may it end . . ..

            When I asked Kim about her ecstasy scale, she was not interested in the numbers, focusing instead on “small ecstasies” – though getting the giggles with her kids and grandkids would score very high. She mentioned the color of leaves, the way the wind moves the trees, the stones on our beach, the wind patterns on the lake surface, her granola with maple syrup, and the perfect cup of coffee (our Bark House Blend) with cinnamon toast just a little burned on the edge.

 

 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Time


            Some quantum physicists argue that time is an illusion. While I don’t quite know enough about quantum physics to agree or disagree (almost enough, but not quite), my own experience tells me that there are different kinds of time.

            First of all, there is a difference between Clock Time and experienced time (also known as “Real Time”). Clock time is steady and useful when you need to bake something. Real time is more elastic – just picture a kid in school watching the minute hand (remember them?) creep toward 12 when the bell will free him. Real time slows.

            When I was teaching, I lived in circular time. Every year I’d meet my new students in September, we’d go through our chronologically organized Humanities curriculum, from The Odyssey to T. S. Eliot, and they’d leave in June. Then in September we would repeat the cycle, with new faces. I was always the same, circling, unchanged, back to September-time. I wrote about it years ago in a not very good poem:

 

    September Again

 

September again. Time’s wheel

Groans enthusiasm into place

And me into place at the head

Of the classroom’s returning space.

 

Same script every year, new actors

Lined in desks now, waiting, unsure

Of the earth’s collective spinning

About to continue. You’re

 

Each to blink at Plato

In October, and then to ride

Raskolnikov’s axe in April:

Feelings come and go like tide.

 

The recurrent ache of winter

Will be reborn in you late in May,

And I share with you, my class,

A turn of the year today.

 

And yet these chains will make me

Free from time, for the play

Never ages; the students are always

The same age, and I stay.

 

Like Keats’ unravished bride

Expecting, but never learning,

Young but not quite anything

You hold me by your turning

 

Out of the fall, the sag,

The downward drift of time,

By the force of rhythms, the pattern

Of human seasons. I’m

 

Discovering my own children

In your faces gathered here:

My sons will soon wheel in cycles

Unaware that their pattern is clear.

 

You, poised at your desks on the edge

Of summer, all ready to know,

You see time as progressing, unfolding

From beginning to end as you grow.

 

And of course you are right, and you’re wrong

For the dancer is less than the dance.

You are still, and advancing, and turning,

And I pause for a moment, entranced.

 

            Time did not always happen that way. When I was growing up, I lived in linear time. One thing led to the next different thing. I progressed through school. I got older. My life kept changing. I could look back at the past and forward to the future when I would be grown up. After a couple of years of teaching, however, I entered circular time – though my sons’ growing up ran a parallel in linear time.

            And now, having been retired for more than a few years, I have re-entered linear time. But it does not have the regular tick-tock of clock-time, its regularity an illusion. There’s an old and not very good poem called “The River of Life” by Thomas Campbell that describes how our dawdles along when we are kids but speeds up as it approaches The Falls.

            True dat.

            Time certainly slowed up during the campaign, but it is now speeding up as we approach The Falls. Maybe that’s why I put a paddleboard on my Christmas list – as long as I’m on The River of Life, I might as well enjoy it.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Now, What?


            Tuesday night of Election Day, the result far from clear, Kim asked me, “What are you going to do if he loses?” Good question, whoever the “he” refers to.

 

            My answer, spoken from a position of privilege that I have only recently come to understand, appreciate, and feel guilty for not seeing before:

 

·      Rake leaves.

·      Shovel snow.

·      Dry the dishes.

·      Feed the birds.

·      Read novels.

·      Enjoy my second cup of coffee in the morning.

·      Enjoy an evening cocktail while watching something on Netflix or Amazon Prime.

·      Greet Kim each morning with a lingering hug.

·      Say goodnight with a kiss.

·      Contribute a few dollars to environmental organizations.

·      Contribute a few dollars to political organizations.

·      Speak and listen to people who disagree with me politically.

 

Let me insert a true story here. A friend of ours, let’s call her Beth, a single lady, was waiting in line in a grocery store when she noticed the woman behind her, standing close, was not wearing a mask. Beth was able to break down in tears and confront the maskless woman.

            “My husband is in the hospital, dying of Covid (sob)! And I am very susceptible to it! And here you are, standing so close, and without a mask! I feel so vulnerable – how could you do this to me?”

            It worked. The lady apologized and put on her mask. Sometimes you have to operate one person at a time.

 

·      Plant trees.

·      Vacuum.

·      Gather cool stones from the beach while the weather holds (above freezing).

·      Eat.

 

Or as the Zen saying goes: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

 

            But there is more. Matthew Arnold’s beautiful poem, “Dover Beach” the speaker notes, in the cadence of the waves, “the eternal note of sadness,” hearing “its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” which echoes what the tragedies of Sophocles saw as “the turbid ebb and flow/ Of human misery.”

 

            The poem concludes:

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

            You might not share Arnold’s gloomy assessment of the world – though if you were on the losing side of the election, you might feel that way. In any case, with all that’s going on in the world, how can anyone disagree with “Ah, love, let us be true to one another!” I should note that the “one another” does not necessarily refer to a romantic relationship. It could be friendship. It could be family. Good advice, whether you won or lost.


            Here’s the entire poem, which some of you may find better written than my summary:

 

Dover Beach 

The sea is calm tonight.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

Upon the straits; on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.

 

Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought

Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery; we

Find also in the sound a thought,

Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

 

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

                                                                --Matthew Arnold

 

 

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Courses

With over a half-century of hindsight, I look back on courses I wish I had taken in college. These selections, of course, do not mean that I wish I had not taken other courses to make room in my schedule. What you read below is just a self-indulgent exercise of imagination.

 

Geology – Kim and I spend a lot time on Michigan beaches, looking for Petoskey stones and seeing all kinds of other marvelous rocks, each of them with a geological story that I can’t read. I had a roommate who was a geology major, and he said he loved it because he got to play outside, roaming nearby hills and mountains while I was in my room reading War and Peace. He went on to make money locating oil, while I taught high school English. I probably had a better life, come to think of it, but I do wish I knew more about the rocks we bring home.

 

Spanish – OK, I did take Spanish at Amherst. One semester was enough for me to pass my language requirement, which I doubt they have now. I quit my study of Spanish just as I was beginning to understand what I was reading or hearing without translating it into English. I believe that we understand through the lens of language, and I wish I knew what it felt like to experience a different quality of life through a Spanish-speaking lens. (I do remember learning, years ago, that the Burmese language rarely uses pronouns, perhaps a reflection of the prevalence of low-ego Buddhism.) I did use my Spanish once, in Italy, where my Spanish was so bad they thought it was bad Italian and understood what I was saying.

 

Astronomy – My memory is not clear here, but I think the college offered an astronomy course not open to physics majors. (A glance at my old college catalog mentions no such course, but sometimes courses would pop up with willing professors. I recall taking an unlisted “reading course” on James Joyce – there were two of us in the class, and we met at the professor’s house.) My college classmate Phil, a physics major, recalls no such course. Maybe I just overheard people talking about how nice it would be to have such a course, and if the college didn’t offer one, they should have – so it’s on my list. I don’t actually do much stargazing and don’t own a telescope, but I’m intrigued by some of the weird physics that I hear is going on out there. Probably no weirder than what goes on in my head . . ..

 

Light – Sometime after I graduated, the college dropped most of the requirements in the “New Curriculum” that I experienced, and they started offering team-taught interdisciplinary courses, I think to Freshmen (still men, then), perhaps Sophomores. I remember reading in the Alumni News about a course on Light, taught by professors of English, physics, and, I believe, philosophy. Or maybe no such course ever existed, and I’m indulging in creative memory. Doesn’t matter –  I wish I’d taken the course whether it existed or not. Physics for poets? I’m especially interested in light as I live in northern Michigan with winter approaching.

 

Ethics – I’m fascinated by the subject. I taught two-week mini-courses to my Humanities students, and I enjoyed the Socratic give-and-take, leading to many unanswered questions. My goal was to make my students as uncertain as I was and still am. A college course on Ethics might have solidified my uncertainty.

 

The Psychology of Women – No comment, except that Amherst was all male, and my first teaching job was at an all-male prep school. Here I am at age 77, still pretty much in the dark – or so I am told. If I’d taken such a course, my grade would be “Incomplete.”

 

It is, of course, possible for me to take all of these courses now, with much of education being “remote,” Zoom and YouTube all too common, and books still widely available. But taking those courses, or even just one of them, sounds like a lot of work. No, I prefer to imagine the self-improvement such courses would stimulate.

 

Anything you wish you had studied? Are you, unlike me, going to do anything about that wish?

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Collateral Beauty

Collateral Beauty is the name of a not-very-good-despite-the-cast movie, but I am nevertheless intrigued by the title. Most of us, I think, are familiar with the phrase “collateral damage,” referring to such things as accidental civilian casualties in a military operation, side effects for medications, or perhaps tooth decay as an unintended consequence of eating too many sweets.

 

In the movie, the main character (played by Will Smith), following the death of his daughter, learns profoundly obvious lessons about Love, Death and Time. Not much, as I recall, about Beauty. I’m more interested in the way an appreciation of beauty can be triggered as a collateral reward to getting old.

 

Here’s what Shakespeare thought about it:

 

        Sonnet 73

 

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see'st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire,

Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.

This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

 

Forget, for a moment that he was only 33 when he wrote it. He’s saying, “I’m gettin’ old, baby, so you better love me now, before I’m gone.” But let’s turn the camera around: If the speaker is getting old, he’d better “love that well which thou [or he] must leave ere long.” The love that he experiences is collateral beauty, a side effect of aging.

 

In other words, pay attention, and appreciate, while we can. We can look where “yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang,” and maybe even take a photo.

 


Visual Metaphor


Me with Yellow-Leaf Age-Mates

And we can capture where the sweet birds sang:

 

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, singing "Thanks for loading the feeders."



Stunned by the Beauty of Fallen Leaves and Birdseed


We don’t see “sunset fadeth in the west” because our view is to the east,

but the sunsets can still be spectacular.

 

 

Is the world more beautiful because it is collateral to our getting old?

Is our love more appreciative?


I think so. Thus: collateral beauty.

 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Nope

            A Sixty Minutes piece on the Lincoln Project featured a poster image of President Trump with the word “Nope” in large print. The image led me to think about the difference between “no” and “nope.”

 

            Both words are a consequence of making a yes/no choice, but there’s more to it. At its simplest, “nope” has more swagger. More than just saying no, “nope” rejects the whole universe to which the nope-speaker is responding. As in:

 

            “So, are you going to get off your lazy ass and get a job?”

 

            “Nope.” 

or:

            “I dare you to take off all your clothes and go outside to feed the birds naked.”

 

            “Nope.” (Except I actually did this – on Kim’s dare. I was younger – much younger.)

or:

 

            “Let’s all us guys sit down together and discuss our deepest feelings about each other, no matter how hurtful that might be.”

 

            “Nope.”

 

When you respond with “nope,” you are rejecting a whole system of values, not just a specific choice.

 

            So, now is the time for a moral gut-check. To what do you say “Nope”? It’s easy, by the way, to come up with a list of affirmatives to which you say “yes” – nature, love, peace, etc. – ho-hum. Negatives, I think, are more telling. Let me get started.

 

What I say “no” to:

·      liver (though Kim has a way of disguising it with onions)

·      most assholes (some have compensating virtues)

·      horror movies (with very few exceptions)

·      smoking

·      threesomes (not that I’ve had an opportunity to say no)

·      lies (with very few exceptions)

 

What I say “nope” to:

·      bungee jumping (had a chance, in Auckland)

·      heroin (“Just say nope.”)

·      fist fights (so far)

·      torture

·      malicious lies

·      malicious truth-telling

·      bow ties (except for bow tie pasta)

 

            Is there an equivalent super-affirmative version of “yes”? Here in Northern Michigan we have “Heck, yeah,” but it’s usually said so flatly that it comes off as about 5% more intense than a simple “yes.” In some parts of the country you have “You betcha,” which carries the same low weight.

            “Yep?” No, that word does not have the intensity of “nope.” It has some sort of rural overtones to it as well, without “nope” swagger. “Yep” feels a bit more tentative.

 

            How do I know this? Have I conducted extensive research? Nope.