Vernon The Hustler

Stanley Vernon Litton May 15, 1928 - January 16, 2011

Stanley Vernon Litton
May 15, 1928 – January 16, 2011

©2014 By Bob Litton

PROLOGUE:  Fifteen years ago I was sitting at the breakfast room table in my sister-in-law’s Dallas home. My brother Vernon, the eldest of us three male siblings, sat facing me on the other side of the small table. Our conversation about cars was interrupted when Vernon’s wife answered the door’s chimes and returned, leading in an acquaintance, a scion of one of the oldest families in the area and a member of the school board. He sat on a nearby couch, looked at Vernon and me with a curious grin, and said apropos of nothing, “Ah, the Brothers Karamazov!”

I had read  Dostoevsky’s work of that title too many years previously to recall much of it at the moment, but I did understand, I believed, the point of his allusion; for there was some correlation between us Litton boys and  the three sons  of Fyodor Karamazov, a sly buffoon and an indifferent father  in Dostoevsky’s philosophical novel. Fyodor’s off-handed off-spring, who grow to manhood almost entirely separately, are Dimitri, a sensualist and profligate; Ivan, an alienated rationalist; and Alyosha, a spiritually-inclined monastic novice, whose Elder sends him into the world to learn to cope with its seediness. Roughly considered, the parallel had its accuracies, just not totally, of course. The reader of this essay and of a future one about my other brother, Elbert, can determine for himself/herself if our visitor’s comparison was justified. I do not intend to write a similar mini-biography about myself; this whole blog series has been mostly about me; enough is enough.

* * * * * *

One of the funniest ironies I ever heard in my life was that Vernon, the elder of my two brothers, was birthed on a pool table in Mexico…and that he grew up to become the most notorious pool hustler in Dallas. He gained that reputation by hustling nightly at the Cotton Bowling Palace.

I am not certain now who related to me the story of Vernon’s strange nativity: it might have been my other brother, Elbert; or it might have been Vernon’s wife, Loretta. It definitely was not Vernon or either of my parents. The surprise birthing reportedly occurred during our parents’ excursion to Matamoros, Mexico, in May of 1928. Pappy and Mother were in a hotel there when labor activity began. For whatever medical reason, a hard surface, not a bed mattress, was needed; so whoever attended Mother used a pool table there in the hotel. I wish now that either of my parents had told me of this incident; I could have elicited more details. I wonder if a birth certificate or its Mexican equivalent was ever completed. Considering what the future held in store for Stanley Vernon Litton, I find the anecdote hilariously prophetic.

There are many basic questions I never asked any of my family members, one of which was how my parents decided on their children’s names. My own name “Robert Carl…” I could plausibly surmise because I had one maternal uncle named Robert. And another of Mother’s brothers was named Carl Lee… (their father was called Carl Anton….). Pappy had an older brother named Elbert, and Pappy’s own middle name was Barnett (I have no idea where that originated). But “Stanley Vernon”? Where did that come from? Certainly not from any of our relatives. Loretta told me recently, by the way, Vernon hated the name “Stanley”. I don’t understand that; it seems like a perfectly masculine, connotation-free name to me. When I ponder all the instances when I failed to make such pertinent inquiries, I wonder if I really was a born-journalist or not.

Pappy severely abused Vernon at least once, as my brother related to me at least three times. (Vernon had poor memory concerning matters about which he had already informed me.) The one episode he so often recounted occurred before I existed. Vernon said that our sister, Frances Vivian, whom I never knew because she died nearly two years before I was born, had accidentally locked the door to an outhouse and Pappy yelled at her, maybe even struck her. Vernon spoke up, screaming, “Daddy, don’t hurt her. She didn’t mean to do it.” Thereupon, Vernon recalled, Pappy kicked him in the chin. The first time Vernon related that anecdote to me, when we were both middle-aged, I pondered the possibility of that scene, and responded, “Pappy never hit or whipped me. To me, he wasn’t a bad daddy, just a no-daddy, since he was seldom around.” But Mother’s youngest sister Mary buttressed Vernon’s story a couple of years ago when she told me, “Bill Litton was a brutal husband and a brutal father. That’s why Vernon started lifting weights, because he wasn’t going to let Bill do that to him ever again.” (“Bill” was a moniker Pappy — whose actual name was “Haywood Barnett…” — picked up somewhere. That is another of the strange family facts for which I never sought an explanation.) Vernon and Barnett Vernon did in fact take up weight-lifting as a quasi-hobby; he did it too much for it to be classified as an “exercise routine”. Weight-lifting became an art form for him, almost a religion. Initially, taking into account that our family was borderline-poor, Vernon made his own barbell by pouring concrete into two large tin cans and sticking a steel bar between them. I have a small photo of Vernon and Pappy holding a barbell — one end held in the air by a teenaged Vernon and the other resting on Pappy’s head. That photo is suffused with a tint of irony. Vernon used to stand in front of the dressing table mirror and flex his arms, admiring his developing biceps, much as I would stand there whisking a cap pistol out of my scabbard, imagining myself to be Gene Autry.

Another of Vernon’s favorite activities was motorcycle riding, maintenance and, eventually, sales. In his later years especially, he had a motorcycle retail store out near the White Rock Lake spillway in Dallas, where he sold not just the vehicles but accessories as well. However, considering the paucity of walk-in customers, I believed that shop was just a cover for his sports bookmaking avocation. Still, he was pretty busy trading in luxury cars and high-end recreational vehicles. Maryann and Vernon

Ironically, that motorcycle shop was positioned almost exactly where Vernon had a serious accident about three decades earlier. He was taking me to the junior high school. We were eastbound on Garland Road which lay beside the spillway. Suddenly a woman in a car darted out in front us from a side road. Vernon did not want to stop suddenly, for that might have thrown us into a spin and no telling how much harm. He slowed down as carefully as he could so that we were going only fast enough to keep upright: I was even able to dismount on my feet before the impact. Vernon would have been unhurt, too, except when the cycle overturned, the kick-starter gouged the calf of his left leg. Vernon cried out through excruciating pain, “Bobby, get this damn thing off me!” I lifted the cycle off him, and somebody in the crowd that had gathered went to a nearby business to phone for an ambulance.

Both of my brothers garnered reputations as ruffians in their teens and twenties, but Vernon was the one who made a regular avocation of it. He was, I have been told by others, a founding member of a neighborhood gang called the “Lakewood Rats”. I have no notion what those guys did; I didn’t even know they had existed as a gang until two decades after they had disbanded. It was, I imagine, just a way for a group of males, with not much else other than muscles, to explore their own identities. However, one day when I was in high school, I was walking down the sidewalk of Abrams Road, right in the middle of Lakewood, when I saw Vernon crossing the street with about a dozen fellows following him toward a parking lot behind a building that abutted the country club’s golf course, and I assumed they were seeking a secluded spot where Vernon and one of the others could engage in a fist fight. Also, after joining the Coast Guard in his late teen years, Vernon punched out a non-com officer; and, as the officer fell, his head struck a pipe, killing him. My brother spent two years in a federal prison in Louisiana for manslaughter.

As for my personal relations with Vernon, they never were very close, for I usually found it difficult to have a relaxed conversation with him. He would always approach our talks as contests of will rather than as an exchange of experiences and knowledge. You see, he had a developed case of the alpha male syndrome. He felt that he always had to be right; he could not stand even good-natured ripostes. It was usually easier just to listen to him or to leave him. However, it was not for that reason that there were extended gaps between our times together; there were several other conditions that kept us often separated, but they mostly did not have anything to do with our affections toward one another; so I won’t take up space with them here. And, weirdly, it wasn’t until I was into my middle years that I realized that Vernon’s problem was the alpha male syndrome: He always had to be the top dog, with his paw on top of everybody’s head.

On a couple of occasions Vernon embarrassed me in front of my friends in the coffee shop: once when he reacted violently to my disagreeing with him about what I should do with my wrecked car, and once when he was declaring to some people at another table that I had a college degree but didn’t know how to do anything. (While there was much truth in that, it wasn’t necessary to loudly proclaim it as he did.) Also, he tried — and to certain extent succeeded in — cheating me and Elbert out of our inheritances. And (this is the rottenest instance of all) he either sold or gave away the books I had stored in one of eight boxes filled with my little library, some of which were irreplaceable and all of which were invaluable to me, only because he needed a cardboard box in which to store some car parts.

He would get almost insane with rage when he perceived me as saying something that was intellectual: “I’m smarter than you are Bobby, even if I didn’t finish high school.” Eventually, though, near the end of his life, he softened and allowed, “You’re more intelligent than I am, Bobby.” And all through those years I never really cared whether my brothers were more intelligent than I; they both, having had to learn to live on the streets at very early ages with little formal education to arm them, had developed high levels of what are commonly called “street smarts” — and that’s what it takes to really survive in this world, if simply surviving is what is most important to you.

On the other hand, Vernon paid my $1,500 fine after I had pleaded nolo contendere to driving while intoxicated. He helped me out with much smaller amounts on several other occasions. Also, he helped me change residence twice; and I stayed in his wife’s home for over a year during a financially embarrassing time in my life. And I believe, although there is no way to prove it, that being the little brother of Vernon and Elbert Litton protected me from no telling how many bullies at school. So, you see, Vernon did bad things to me and good things for me, a situation which was archetypically ambiguous.

On a couple of occasions since Vernon’s death, my sister-in-law has described him as “mean”. That is a concomitant of his alpha maleness, I believe. He had developed an underlying mean streak, combined with an almost funny sentimentality, from childhood on. He liked to keep dogs, particularly pit bull terriers, as pets; and he would encourage the development of their natural tendency to threaten, if not fight. I don’t believe he ever put his dogs into fighting pits; he didn’t want them to be hurt; it was just that, if anybody else had mean pit bulls, he wanted his own to be meaner, at least potentially.

Vernon was mated with Loretta for dozens of years, yet I couldn’t tell if he actually loved her. He admired her, sure, and bragged about how nice she was; but I never saw him embrace or kiss her. Also, on two occasions he said to me, on the phone, “Bobby, I love you.” I didn’t respond to those words; I just paused a few seconds and then changed the subject. I had no idea what “love” meant to him, and I wasn’t sure what love meant to me either. Nor did I want to ask him to define it for me, for I suspected that my invitation to a colloquy would end up in a shouting match.

One day, while Vernon and I were sitting on the couch in Loretta’s living room watching a movie on cable TV, Vernon asked me, “What is your favorite movie, Bobby?”

That question took me by surprise; I needed time to think about it, but I rushed myself. “Jeez, Vernon, I have several favorite movies. I’ve never taken time to determine which I liked best. It kind of depends on the genre and what mental space I was in when I saw them.”

“Mine is My Fair Lady,” Vernon calmly declared.

“Well, I’ll be, Vernon! That is certainly one of my favorites, too. How odd that it is your favorite!”

I would have thought his favorite would be Rocky.

There is no way to fully understand people, especially one’s own family…when they are self-contradictory and dysfunctional.

Finis

POST SCRIPT:  I intend to write and post a mini-bio of my other brother, Elbert, in the near future…not for a little while, however. I just do not think it would be wise to publish so much family history very close together. The bios need to be near enough, though, for readers to readily gauge how much the Litton brothers and the Karamazov brothers are similar and how much they are different. Stay tuned!
–BL

Interlude: Thank You, Everybody

From Bob Litton

This blog site, The Vanity Mirror, was inaugurated on January 3, 2013. Since then I have published 84 posts, attracted 105 “Followers” who are (or were) WordPress bloggers themselves, as well as five non-blogging friends who became “Followers” by signing on via their email addresses. Even more exciting has been luring readers (or at least “glancers”) from more than sixty flag-bearing entities around the world. (I write “flag-bearing entities” instead of “nations” on purpose because not all are independent nations; some are colonies, territories or city-states.) It is flattering to think of oneself as, if not a “world-renowned writer”, at least a “world-perused writer”.

I believe the time has come for me to issue a blanket “Thank You” to all my readers, even those who visited my site only once. (Was that really enough?) Now, I realize that it is customary among many in the blogging community to thank every individual reader/follower for clicking on the “Like” button and/or signing up as a “Follower”. However, I have chosen not to do that. In fact, as of right now, so late in my blogging career, I have declared myself a “Follower” of only one site, and even that was more from impulse than determined choice. (I won’t take up space explaining that today.)
Although I have clicked the “Like” button on several other bloggers’ posts over the past twenty-two months, I commented only four times, and most of those comments were responses to other folks’ comments on my posts.

Yes, part of the reason I have been slightly indifferent to other writers’ intentions is pure-dee laziness, albeit a justifiable laziness, I believe. Several bloggers boasted hundreds, even thousands, of “Followers”: How could anybody find time to keep up a correspondence with such a kite’s tail?

I have always checked out each new “Follower”, as WordPress recommends, to see if I could feel any connectedness with them. Did we have the same interests? Were they talented enough themselves to be judges of my writing? I discovered that I simply did not have any great interest in the blog sites of a few (culinary arts, auto-racing, military history, etc.) About a dozen others, mostly people in their twenties concentrated in Canada, were trying to push what I considered a pyramid scheme: I didn’t want any part of that. I was really surprised to find that several others just didn’t have anything on their blog to read! From reading many comments on other blog sites, I have concluded that much of this “Like”/”Follow” routine is just a way of getting other people to visit your blog and maybe even follow it out of a sense of quid pro quo: No, thanks! But, returning now to a more positive tone, I have noticed — especially recently — that some bloggers’ sites have been substantive and related to my interests; and I have clicked the “Like” button on those and even followed the one I mentioned above.

An odd anecdote here: While I was contemplating this “blanket thank you” letter, I noticed a similar situation in Tuesday’s “Sally Forth” comic strip. I wish I could feel safe implanting the strip itself here, but I am leery of copyright infringement; so, I will just have to make do with the URL:

http://www.seattlepi.com/comics-and-games/fun/Sally_Forth/2014-10-14/

Enjoy!!!

I certainly hope I haven’t ruffled any sincere readers’ feathers with this “thank you”. Rest assured, I did not intend to appear snooty, just honest.
Bob Litton

Great-grand-pappy Sevald O. Lund, the Painter (1852-1939)

One of Sevald O. Lund’s Western frontier paintings. Of the same generation as Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, Sevald liked to depict cowboys, Indians and loggers as much as he had the fishermen of his home country, Norway.

©2014 By Bob Litton

I have perhaps made it more than enough clear in previous posts that I aspired in my early youth to be an artist, particularly an author who illustrated his own writings. Well, it should also be obvious from those posts that I let my artistic talent wither, damn near atrophy. For several reasons, during my university years, I decided to concentrate on writing. From time to time, I returned to my paint brushes and clay, but mostly I just left them alone.

However, muscles notwithstanding, the blood within me still carried as much in the way of pigments, figuratively speaking, as it did ink. And one of these days, I am going to run away from this computer keyboard and employ those water colors I bought just over a month ago. It is difficult to elicit a true sense of color tones from words.

It could be all a delusion, but I believe I inherited my visual art talent from my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, Sevald Olsson Lund, a Norwegian immigrant whose family settled in Wisconsin in 1865, when he was thirteen years old. He was my maternal grandmother’s father. Since he died almost three months before I was born, I obviously never had any opportunity to meet Great-grand-pappy; yet what my mother related and what I have read[1] about him written by Carlin Hibbard, a gallery manager and art consultant in Wisconsin, has almost convinced me that his “timorous nature” and “community artist” genes have descended into my nature. I have always abhorred confrontations, and my work as a journalist was always devoted to “community newspapers” and a radio station. Also similar to Sevald’s nature was the natural, simple emphasis in my few artworks and my inclination to produce them primarily for my own enjoyment and that of acquaintances. And, finally, I never anticipated — and therefore probably never deserved — making much money from them: my ancestor was more of a self-promoter than I (he had to be to make a living), but not much more. He had to earn a good portion of his livelihood from farming (for a while) and painting houses and coaches.

Ms. Hibbard sums up her evaluation of Sevald Lund as artist this way:
“Lund painted for his own enjoyment, but also with an eye toward the desires and interests of those around him. His works varied according to their use and according to their prospective owners, be they businessmen, Norwegian relatives, or grandchildren. It is, therefore, not surprising that Lund is difficult to describe stylistically. His repetition of motifs and the flat schematic manner in which he painted some of his large early works…gave them something of the primitive flavor of work by artists who had developed their own personal techniques and ways of solving pictorial problems. However, Lund cannot be classified as a truly naive painter because he, at the same time, showed an acquaintance with such academic techniques as modelling…, perspective…, balance in composition…, coordinated color, and the ability to portray atmospheric light effects. Furthermore, if one were to look only at his Norwegian farm paintings one would probably classify him as a folk artist nostalgically depicting scenes from his past. These pieces, painted primarily for friends and relatives, were executed with the sort of straightforward simplicity and sincerity that is typical of folk art while lacking its flat and linear quality.”[2]

Although Sevald did not study art in a school, he did work for several years as assistant to German immigrant Jacob Miller, who had studied and been credentialed by the Royal Academy in Munich. Hibbard, in her essay, tried to link Lund to other 19th century artists of note, comparing him stylistically and/or thematically to Herbjørn Gausta (1854-1924) for his “quiet realism” and to Edward Hicks (1780-1849), whose “painting procedures were a mixture of the primitive artist’s personally achieved methods and knowledge he had gained in the handling of pictorial space and depiction of figures from his work as a sign painter. Like Lund he cannot be really classified as a pure primitive or as an academic painter….What they have in common is being artists of the people, satisfied with serving their immediate community.”[3]

Although Sevald painted at least one religious painting, for a Lutheran church, most of his paintings were landscapes (especially of farms and logging camps), marine scenes (wharves, fishing boats, and ships at sea), bucolic scenes (cows and sheep), still lifes, and cowboys and Indians. Readers can get a good idea of the scope and quality of his works at this URL site:
http://picasaweb.google.com/slund5/SevaldOLund#

There are also a couple of home movies accessible on YouTube showing Sevald and his immediate family about to depart on an excursion; but what they are celebrating, I have no idea. The main reason I mention it here, since I doubt that many readers will be interested in visiting those films, is that they were filmed by one of my great-aunts, Aunt Kristine (“Kit”), who also had some artistic talent, which she developed enough to coach me. Another of my grandmother’s sisters, Aunt Jo, was a commercial artist who did fashion drawings for a newspaper and illustrated at least one youth novel (which I no longer possess).

Ms. Hibbard notes that Sevald gave many of his paintings to relatives, especially to his grandchildren, of whom my mother was one. Mother gave me the one she had: a water-color scene of some sheep resting in the shade of a beech tree; and my great-aunt Jo gave me a water-color of a steam ship…with masts (?) docked at a wharf. My sister-in-law has one of his seascape-with-boats water-colors.

I have instructed my heir and power-of-attorney friend to send my Lund pictures to the Chippewa Valley Museum in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, after I am released from this “vale of sorrows”. That museum already has a large permanent collection of Sevald’s artworks. Knowing that many of his paintings are scattered now throughout the United States, particularly in California and Texas, they have requested that any present owners donate theirs to the Chippewa Museum.  They also had a special retrospective of his paintings and carvings during the period June 16, 1990 through January 6, 1991. Wish I could have gone to view it.

* * * * * *

[1] Carlin Hibbard, “S. O. Lund, A Community Artist from Norway”, in Marion Nelson, ed., Material Culture and People’s Art among the Norwegians in America, (Northfield, Minn., Norwegian-American Historical Assn.: 1994), pp. 176-198.

[2] Ibid. p. 193.

[3] Ibid., pp. 194-5.

S. O. Lund

Finis

.

Which One Are You?

Young-Old Woman

©2014 By Bob Litton

I am going to have to admit something to you folks: I have no notion…yet…what I am going to say in this post. Sometime last evening, the theme of “how does what we see determine or reveal our personalities and values?” invaded my noggin. I did not know the answer then and I do not know it now, but I was willing to think and write on the wing. Let us see where that tactic leads us.

I suppose most of my readers have had enough life experience to recognize the above optical illusion of a woman, the age (old or young) of which the viewer is asked by some psychologist to declare. It was reportedly created and published in 1915 by cartoonist W.E. Hill, so you can see that the attire is not the throwback you might have imagined it to be. The majority of us, I believe, see only a young woman first and then have to focus and concentrate to perceive the old woman; or vice versa. I have seen it so many times by now that I can isolate either quite quickly.

I do not know whether Hill was trying to develop a serious psychoanalyzing tool or simply drawing an ambiguous image for people to have fun with. I like to consider it as serving both purposes. As for a psychological tool, it is comparable to the old bromide about the glass of water being half full or half empty: either interpretation supposedly reveals a characteristic within the viewer’s personality; he/she is either an optimist or a pessimist. Of course, a complication in this test might arise if the viewer possesses a quirky fondness for old women, or just lost his/her home in a flood; then what is less appreciated by most people would be desirable to this viewer. Another goal of the psychologists might simply be to test people’s various abilities to compare and distinguish.

I have discussed perception in the arts in previous posts: “Chaos of Taste…” (May 1, 2013); “McGuffey…” (Nov. 23, 2013), and “O Beauty…” (September 27, 2014). I have also held many conversations with an artist friend concerning our different modes of depicting a subject in our productions: I emphasize volumes; he emphasizes lines. Of course, neither of us is absolute in these approaches; it is just that the first quality we look for in any other artist’s work is one of those two. Recall that in my essay on “McGuffey…”, I praised the 19th century illustration of a cat for its furry detail created by a multitude of lines; and in my essay “Bob’s Wee Art Gallery, Part I” (June 22, 2014) I cited cowboy artist Andy Adams as an influence in teaching me the value of texture through lines. Nonetheless, I hold up as my model of supreme artist N. C. Wyeth, whose precision modeling made his illustrations of several young people’s classics visually palpable.

But my friend is almost religious in his devotion to the “line” artists, that is, those who through their thick and thin lines connect this portion of a work with that portion, so you can understand his concentration on comic book art and the graphic novel, particularly those by Jeff Smith. He much appreciates Walt Kelly, the late creator of “Pogo”, for his “flow, grace, rhythm and simplification.” Among the fine arts figures, he favors Paul Klee and Leopoldo Santos-y-Mendez for their “strong geometry” and Edgar Degas and Norman Rockwell for their “draftsmanship”. (I am with him on Degas and Rockwell.) We do not argue about our contrasting values, although I believe we each feel a slight urge to convert the other. *(See note below.)

So, where do these diverging lanes originate and where do they lead in our psyches? I cannot speak fully for my friend, although I can generalize from observation and describe him as an optimist. His viewpoint has been heavily affected by Zen Buddhism, so he sees nothing in the external world as really touching him either harmfully or helpfully; everything is simply there. Also, excepting his personal preferences, he believes almost totally in the principle that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and that anything can be classified as an art object to somebody.

As for me, I definitely am a pessimistic depressive. After nearly seventy-five years, I feel that I have seen more than I need to see in this world — from trolley street-cars to the landing on the Moon, from the party-line phone system to the proliferation of cell phones, from tent revivals to the emergence of ISIS. Stop the world! I want to get off! And yet, I have read recently that pessimists both live longer and are calmer in crises than other people: the movie Melancholia, wherein the people of Earth are fatally faced with an oncoming planet, has as its primary theme the second of those attributes. I sure hope the first attribute is untrue. As though I haven’t already seen enough of a changing reality, I now feel convinced that I will live long enough to see the end of the world. Consequently, I reach back mentally and artistically to my childhood, to grasp the solid elements that made it cheerful. I crave the bold, shadowed forms in N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations. I search and search through my bag of childhood memories, like a pig after truffles.

But this pig has already eaten all the truffles.

*After I first posted the above, my friend sent me an email in which he asked me to add a few more artists to his favorites list. I thought that inserting them within the body of the essay would be too crowded, so I am appending his email message here:

When you’re listing Degas and Norman Rockwell, put Toulouse-Lautrec in between them.

And you can add Rockwell Kent on the graphic arts side next to Leopoldo Mendez.

Regarding Mendez, he had a “late” or “mature” (or whatever) style where he worked the whole surface of the wood block with flowing textures. It was a big influence on me when I was studying printmaking in college. Here’s a good example:

Finis

O Beauty, Where Art Thou?

©2014 By Bob Litton

The Purpose of Canyons

Three men who had been classmates in high school greeted each other joyfully at a school reunion. They had been good friends all the way through their public school years but had since moved to separate sections of the country and had lost contact with one another. Now in their thirties, all had entered different career fields: one was a college science professor; one, an artist; and the third, a cowboy.
They decided they wanted to spend more time together, so they agreed to meet a couple of months later at an Arizona resort town near the Grand Canyon, which none of them had ever seen. The day following their arrival in Arizona, they spent several hours drinking wine (the scientist and the artist) and beer (the cowboy). Although a bit woozy after that binge, they nevertheless wobbled late in the afternoon out to the canyon’s rim.
The science professor, wide-eyed with awe, exclaimed, “Just imagine how many eons are evidenced in the strata of that wall across the chasm!”
The artist, observing the purple, red and golden hues of the sunset as the fiery globe rested upon the canyon, said dreamily, “What a beautiful painting I could create here!”
The cowboy, squinting and gazing, gazing and squinting, as he tried to fathom what his friends were talking about, finally sighed wearily and muttered, “What a hell of a place to lose a cow!”
After pausing a few seconds to guess what was going on here, the three friends began to quarrel over which man’s vision was actual. Then they fought. Then they rolled in a wild knot to the canyon’s rim. Then they fell.
— BL’s extended version of an old joke of unknown origin

I just wrote a check donating a small amount of money to an FM radio station in Arizona that plays classical music twenty-four hours a day. The station ended their fund drive yesterday. However, I did not pledge anything during that drive because I don’t like making pledges I might not be able to live up to and because I shrink from surrendering my bank account information to Cyberspace. I will, though, continue to contribute occasionally what I think I can afford to the station because I have been listening to it for several months now and feel guilty about receiving and not giving.

Any of my readers who share with me an appreciation of classical music are probably as aware as I of the threat to that genre on the radio because of its relatively small audience and its resultantly minimal sponsor roll. While residing in my hometown of Dallas, Texas, I listened nearly every day to WRR-FM, the City-owned station at Fair Park which played classical music all the time. Every other year, it seemed, the City council’s agenda included an item regarding the possible sale of WRR. The sale proponents’ argument was that the City should not be sponsoring a radio station in competition with other radio stations, all of which were rock-n-roll, C&W, or talk show sites. The local intelligentsia always loudly retorted that WRR did not survive on tax money but on its own advertising and sponsorship incomes.

Concert hall venues are in about the same condition; some orchestras have disappeared. I don’t know if that is because there are too many orchestras for the population or because classical music is too incomprehensible for mass audiences. (Classical country has experienced a similar decline.) It occurs to me that, as with modern rock-n-roll, modern C&W is indifferent to the production of the poetic and often humorous lyrics that used to spice them (e.g., “Ode to Billy Joe” and “The Race is On”).The “moderns” prefer unintelligible mumblings about the cliches of dusty roads and tractors that are supposed to attend a repetitive beat designed for the “Texas Two-Step”. Beat conquers melody!

Even I do not enjoy the works of some classical composers as much as I used to enjoy them. Gioachino Rossini and Richard Wagner were early favorites of mine — back in my early twenties — for the obvious reason that they were often boisterous and manly, but Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune, a very quiet piece, was also a favorite. I guess whatever was a favorite with the crowd was a favorite with me. Debussy still ranks high on my list of admirable composers, but Wagner has declined considerably; and I am not quite sure why, although I have my suspicions. Whenever they play Ride of the Valkyries — a piece I used to thrill to — I now can hardly wait for it to conclude. The Russian composers, especially Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Borodin, have since monopolized my sympathies; but I appreciate several others almost as much. And I have become a fanatic for adagios, regardless of the nationality of the composer.

This slide from one style and mood to another has been cause enough for me to ponder the shapes and tones of beauty. Well, let me be honest: I have almost always wondered what are the attributes which excite the response within our minds and/or souls which we denominate the aesthetic sense “beauty”. In elementary school we were warned by our teachers to avoid words like “beautiful”, “wonderful” and “interesting”, because they are “worn-out adjectives”: the alternative for our written compositions (restricting the present remarks to “beautiful”) are words like “poignant”, “seductive”, “comforting”, “colorful”, “charming”, etc.; that is, more particular, pointed terms.

Most of us are cognizant of the supposedly emotional associations of colors, particularly red (anger, anxiety) and blue (cold, melancholy). Yet, red roses are often considered delightful gifts of appreciation and a blue sky is usually seen as a welcoming invitation to joyfully stroll down some country lane. Nearly three decades ago, the Dallas Fire Department changed the color of its fire trucks from cherry red to amber because the latter color reputedly grabs people’s attention more immediately. It has been supposed that the “beautiful” colors set in flower blossoms are meant to attract pollinators; but are the insects really appreciative of beauty per se, or are those blossoms’ colors perceived merely as glyphs designating the species beneath? How do the various colors of objects and scenes get emotionally separated and catalogued in our minds? I wondered.

As for myself, while still using crayons in grade school, before the era of “political correctness”, my favorite color was Indian red. Next in line was a sort of blue-green: cannot recall its name now. Somewhere along the path to adulthood I took to pastels, virtually all of them. Why did that change occur? The nearest I can fathom is that as I aged I became mellower — much less aggressive; I had learned the cost of belligerency.

I also learned that the generally preferred form for illustration was the human body, not tanks and airplanes. Animals and trees of various species could be rendered to appeal as well. But what was there about any of those that justified their characterization of “beautiful”?

I have discussed directly — and slantingly — in previous blog posts some of the issues concerning aesthetics, particularly the question of whether beauty is in the eye of the beholder or whether there is some abstract, socially accepted, ideal beauty that is relatively eternal (pardon the oxymoron). We humans have, I believe, an irritating urge to want demarcations in various areas of life, e.g. aesthetics: lines that will set off against each other the ways of viewing any phenomenon. (We do seem to be evolving into a blurrier manner of seeing in the areas of race and sexual orientation; there is now a budding debate over what is called “asexuality” to confuse matters even more.) Now I have reached a point where I can intellectually accept the non-reality of such strict borders, although I still cannot repress the emotional desire to draw them: consequently I keep returning to this issue of whether distinguishing palpable appearances is possible or whether they in fact slide into and blend with one another. Is there a sufficiently valid scale of perfecting to justify the careers of critics, or are we all just marooned on our little islands of individual preferences, each as valid — and as invalid — as the other? Does what we classify as beautiful occur to us out of an innate knowledge or have we been taught what is beautiful for so long that we now accept it as the “real beauty”? And why does anything have to be beautiful anyway?

That is as far as I have gotten in my cogitations to date. I apologize if any of the above leaves my readers frustrated; it could well be argued that I should have waited until I have some persuasive resolutions of these questions before sending them out into Cyberspace. However, I am beginning to doubt that that day will ever come. Anyway, more than half the fun from such musings derives from the questions, not the answers.

Finis

NOTE TO WORDPRESS BLOGGERS: If you would like to comment on this post you need to click on the words “Leave A Comment” in small bold print just above the by-line. That will open a box down at the bottom for your comment. I welcome comments, even critical ones, as long as they are polite and related to the essay, story or poem within the post.
Thank you for reading.
BL

NOTE TO NON-WORDPRESS BLOGGING READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to hear any helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page (see button above the title of this post). Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it.
Thank you for reading.
BL 

Blurry Innocence

©2014 By Bob Litton

A certain word I have heard and read used strangely over the past thirteen years is “innocents”. During that period I have been tempted to write a column about its illogical application but refrained because I anticipated that my point would not be understood. All I would accomplish would be to call down a frenzy of rebuke upon my head. Now, however, I believe sufficient time has passed that I might, with at least a modicum of safety, venture to state my perspective on that term’s proper and improper utterances.

Definitely excluding the relatives and close acquaintances of the 9/11 victims, the horrific fate of all those people appalled me as much as most of my fellow citizens. Yet I did not feel as much sadness as I thought I should. Angry, now that I was; but I was as angry at the official guardians of our nation as I was at the unknown suicidal militants. My employers cancelled work that day. I walked the short distance from my apartment to White Rock Lake and sat upon a concrete picnic table and tried to figure out how I felt, how I should have felt. A policeman drove slowly down the narrow roadway at the lake’s verge and looked up toward the low hilltop where I was brooding; he, like all the law officers in the country, was probably looking at everyone suspiciously that day, but he didn’t stop.

What I finally concluded was that it is difficult for me to get tearful over any tragedy involving a mass of unknown humans, while I had choked up and my eyes had dampened a few years before when I happened upon the obituary of one of my former Food Stamp clients. I guess in that single trait I am similar to Ronald Reagan, who, one of his former aides had revealed, could not comprehend the hardships endured by a blurry populace but could sincerely and deeply empathize with a suffering individual in front of him. (I sure hope I don’t share any other traits with that nincompoop.)

As the following days succeeded and more information became available, I grew even angrier with those responsible for the disasters, and admiring of those passengers on United Flight 93 who managed to thwart the hijackers’ attainment of their primary objective; I tried to imagine if I could have had the courage they had shown.

But another element that reappeared over and over again during the following months grated on me: the continual use of the word “innocent” to describe the victims. Perhaps that was the first time I had ever heard the word used so frequently; if it had been previously uttered after any similar occurrence — say, on December 7, 1941 — I could not recall it (I was only one year old at the time). Why were the news people and politicians using that word? I wondered. Yes, the victims — the vast majority anyway — could be described as unarmed noncombatants. Yes, all of them had been unwarrantably defenseless. But “innocent”? Such a description leaves our military and police forces open to the aspersion of “guilty”! What else could it mean?

Recently I viewed a VHS tape of the 1942 Academy Award-winning film (six Oscars) Mrs. Miniver, which starred Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. It is the story of an English middle-class family, residents of an idyllic village, who find themselves unexpectedly becoming involved, both as participants and as victims, in the start of World War II.

There are two scenes in that film that impressed me as very pertinent to the argument I presented above: an encounter between Mrs. Miniver and a wounded German pilot whose plane had been shot down near her village, and a sermon at the film’s end that eloquently expresses the view that no one is exempt from the duties and harms of war.

Concerning the first scene, while her husband is away with other local men rescuing the soldiers at Dunkirk and her eldest son is off flying a mission against German positions in Europe, Mrs. Miniver happens upon the injured pilot hiding under a shrub.  The German, pointing a Luger at her, commands her to take him to her home. She offers to take him to the village clinic. He refuses, demanding only food and a coat. During their conversation in her kitchen, Mrs. Miniver asks him why he and his comrades want to harm innocent people in their homes. He retorts “maniacally” that the English are the enemies of the German people and that, regardless of his own fate, other German pilots will appear and give the weak British their just deserts for resisting the power of the Third Reich. None of the British are innocent, he exclaims, because they are all enemies of Germany.

After feeding the German pilot and then disarming him after he has fainted, Mrs. Miniver calls in the police to haul the fellow off. Later, Mrs. Miniver’s daughter-in-law of only two weeks is killed by a bullet from a German plane while the two are returning from a flower show. (This is the weakest scene in the film because there is no indication of the shell hitting their car or causing any physical injury to the young lady.) Other beloved local citizens are also killed in the German attack.

A few days later, presumably the following Sunday, the village’s survivors meet in the now roofless church for worship and memorials. The vicar  gives what has been recognized as an inspiring talk, not just for the characters in the film but also for all the peoples of the various Allied nations. I am going to quote it in full here, for, as I said, it speaks more eloquently on the points I related at the first of this post:

We in this quiet corner of England have suffered the loss of friends very dear to us, some close to this church. George West, choirboy. James Ballard, stationmaster and bellringer, and the proud winner only an hour before his death of the Beldon Cup for his beautiful Miniver Rose. And our hearts go out in sympathy to the two families who share the cruel loss of a young girl who was married at this altar only two weeks ago. The homes of many of us have been destroyed, and the lives of young and old have been taken. There’s scarcely a household that hasn’t been struck to the heart. And why? Surely you must have asked yourselves this question? Why in all conscience should these be the ones to suffer? Children, old people, a young girl at the height of her loveliness? Why these? Are these our soldiers? Are these our fighters? Why should they be sacrificed? I shall tell you why. Because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is the war of the people, of all the people. And it must be fought not only on the battlefield but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman and child who loves freedom. Well, we have buried our dead, but we shall not forget them. Instead they will inspire us with an unbreakable determination to free ourselves, and those who come after us, from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down. This is the People’s War. It is our war. We are the fighters. Fight it then. Fight it with all that is in us. And may God defend the right.

I encourage all my readers to peruse the fuller synopsis of Mrs. Miniver at Wikipedia. Here is the URL to that article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mrs._Miniver_(film)

Now, with all that said, I will acknowledge the existence of some categories of true innocents. They are babies, incarcerated criminals, retarded persons, and lunatics.

Finis

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BL

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Morning Thoughts

©2014 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READER: My muse was full of it this morning — that is, full of topics I do not want to write about because they are depressing, and other topics that are so jejune I fear my readers would not advance beyond the first paragraph, if that far. But I had to write something; otherwise those few regular perusers who flatter me by almost daily knocking at my blog’s door would imagine my death. So, I resolved that an end run around the invisible muse-wench was called for: random thoughts.

Have you ever been discomfited upon realizing that you think constantly — even, in a way, while you are asleep (they are called “dreams”)? Have you ever wished you could turn your brain off for a while because the notions there are too multitudinous or fraught with the distasteful that you are wearied?

Being a bachelor and most often alone, I frequently enough yearn for at least a quarter hour of silent, still mental status. Calm down, cool down, O Cerebrum! But it cannot happen, not unless I suffer such a head injury as to become comatose. Since I do not relish any injury, least of all the physical sort, I just tolerate the surge of random, hardly connected images which fluctuate — like a kaleidoscope — looking for the precise words to describe themselves. Here is an example of what I mean from this morning’s mental flooding.

Well, it’s almost eight. About time for the weather report. Already three days of expansive cloudiness and yet only half an inch of moisture, most of it in the form of mist and drizzle. Remember that phone call one man decades ago made to the TV weatherman? “I want to let you know that I have just shoveled six inches of ‘partly cloudy’ off my sidewalk!”  Speaking of ‘partly cloudy’, what does that mean anyway? Will the day be cloudy for twelve or so hours and then clear for the rest? Or does it mean that all day long there will be clouds in some of the sky, while the rest will be clear? Phooey!!! Those weather guys are always predicting stuff that doesn’t happen. Wonder why they even try to serve us with five- to ten-day forecasts. Hmmm. The radio weatherman is saying we got three-tenths of an inch of precipitation during the past 24 hours and it’s supposed to be cloudy the entire coming week. Bummer! But they always contradict themselves the next day or the day after that, so we can probably expect sunshine. Why don’t they just forecast for the next day and leave it at that?

Have to shower now and change into clean clothes. Used to love showering; now it’s a chore. Wonder why? Ahhh! That warm stream relaxes my neck. How could I possibly weary of this? Guess it must be my concern for water conservation. After all, I do live in a desert and the whole western third of the country is in a drought. Also, that article I read a month ago argued that we should not bathe every day because it is not healthy for the skin; the dead skin cells are needed to protectively cover the new cells. And when we do bathe we would do well to not dry off with a towel, but shake ourselves as the dogs do, because rubbing with a towel wipes the old cells off with the water. But, if we are in a rush and use a towel anyway, we should just pat ourselves dry, not rub.

Time for breakfast. Think I’ll just eat some cereal here and then maybe a couple of biscuits with coffee — lots of coffee — at the coffee shop. But first, I’ve got to take my pills. Those doctors sure like to cram pills down your throat. Look there now! I’ve got six bottles of pills, one of which pills I must split in two; it is so small already that cutting it in two is like a surgical operation; fitting it into the little triangular splitter is a damnable chore! They ought to issue laser cutters for these things.

Ah, now for the cereal! Wonder if this sugar substitute is really good for me; I’ve read conflicting reports about this stuff; wish those scientists wouldn’t say anything until they have got all their dominoes in a row. Heard this raisin bran is more fattening than that frosted flakes I used to like as a kid. Can’t believe it! No sirree, just can’t believe it.

Settle in before my computer so I can read the CNN news while I eat. Why do I do it? It’s always depressing. The only thing that is really new is the increase in the level of dangers and horrors and absurdities: beheadings in the Mideast, inadvertent slaughter of millions of birds by wind turbines and solar panels, athletes beating or killing their girlfriends or wives, earthquakes, volcanoes erupting, celebrities showing off their latest sexy bathing suits. Yuck!

Well, time to show myself in society. Off to the coffee shop. Pick up my paperback copy of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling/The Sickness Unto Death and head out the door. Yeah, still heavily overcast. Real wintry looking. Oh, look! There’s my neighbor’s new used car. Just think, only a couple of years ago he was begging for money to pay his doctors’ bills; had lip cancer; a heavy smoker; better now, but he still smokes. And now he’s got a huge TV set, a computer, a sometime maid, and this decent-looking sedan. His old mini-SUV had broken windows that, for years, he would drape towels over when rain was predicted. I asked him the other day if he had come into an inheritance, to be able to make all these, to me, expensive purchases. He smiled and said, “Oh, I have some friends who make me offers I can’t refuse.”

Driving south a block I find myself behind another mini-SUV, newer and larger than my neighbor’s. It is sitting at a stop sign, but no traffic is coming from right or left. I am impatient. Maybe the driver is a tourist unsure of which direction to take. But I encounter this situation all the time in this town. What is it with these people!!!??? I’m about to honk fiercely when the vehicle starts turning left: the same way I want to go. Oh, good grief! Three blocks later it turns right: again the direction I want to go. I might not ever get to the coffee shop. They turn right again and pull into the coffee shop’s potholed parking lot, but I get closer and park near the door. I get out and look behind me. Oh, my goodness! It’s the lady who lives in the mini-mansion just a couple of blocks north of me, the one who goes to the coffee shop every day and studies — I think, memorizes — her huge study Bible. In certain areas she is quite intelligent, but she has a primitive view of theological matters. However, I do not argue with her; I’ve already revealed my views on that subject; and that was the end of it, for both of us. We just say “Hi!” now and smile at each other’s retardation.

In the coffee shop, the waitresses and kitchen staff greet me loudly, as usual. We tease each other a lot. I jocularly complain to the waitresses about silly things, but I also assure them they will always have a superior numbered spot on my list of girlfriends. It dawns on me suddenly that the coffee shops and restaurants are the only places I smile, even laugh.

Finis

  

NOTE TO WORDPRESS BLOGGERS: If you would like to comment on this post you need to click on the words “Leave A Comment” in small bold print just above the by-line. That will open a box down at the bottom for your comment. I welcome comments, even critical ones, as long as they are polite and related to the essay, story or poem within the post.
Thank you for reading.
BL

NOTE TO NON-WORDPRESS BLOGGING READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to hear any helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page (see button above the title of this post). Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it.
Thank you for reading.
BL 

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