Off My Head

© 2015 By Bob Litton
During the past 2-1/2 years I have written a few posts “off the top of my head” because I had no deeper topics ready for publication. That is the case again today, but I feel that old journalist’s demon — deadline — breathing hotly on my neck.

It is very odd for me to feel any deadline pressure, since this blog is not a job in the sense of working for somebody else and expecting remuneration; nor do I solicit advertising. The blog is supposed to be a labor of love, yet I often find it to be a spur in my side because I don’t want my regular readers to imagine I have tossed away my computer or died.

I do in fact have a couple of longer, more serious topics roiling in my noggin, but they need more time to develop; so I will let them simmer for a while.

In the meantime, I have pulled out my cylindrical kaleidoscope and will now twist, peer, and record.

Citizens’ Comments

Every year about this time, the city council of this little town (population: 6,000+) reviews the order and procedures for council meetings as published in the city charter. And each time they do that, some two or three council members, in concert with the order-fanatic titled “city manager”, connive to set tighter restrictions on citizens’ comments.

This year, a revised “order and procedures” ordinance has already been approved on first reading and is scheduled for its second, final reading next Tuesday (August 4th). The salient changes are (1) the “citizens’ comments” period would be restricted to early in the meeting — before items are discussed and acted on by the council; no citizens’ comments will be allowed during the “discussion/action” period as they have been allowed to date; and (2) only citizens who own property or a operate a business within the City limits will be permitted to comment. Non-property-owners will be allowed time at the mike only if there is enough extra time available, a decision that belongs to the mayor. Each commenter’s time to speak will be limited to three minutes, a limit that has been in effect for a long time.

I have no problem with the three-minute limit. I know it seems too brief in print, but actually I and most of the other citizens who have commented during those nights I was in attendance have managed to utter our opinions and suggestions unhurriedly within the three-minute period. Last year, however, the city manager wanted to reduce the comment time to two minutes. After a bunch of us citizens raised hell about that reduction, the proposal was dropped.

Other suggested changes last year — ones even more arbitrary and authoritarian than the time issue — included (1) requiring citizens who wished to comment to come into City Hall a couple of hours prior to council meeting time and sign a roster; (2) limiting the number of commenters to eight; and (3) reducing the periods open for comments from three to one. (In the past, citizens could comment prior to the discussion/action time, during the discussion/action time, and at the end of the meeting.

I and several other citizens complained about those proposed changes, pointing out how absurd and draconian they were: an acceptable compromise was worked out in which all the proposed add-on requirements were dropped, and only the end-of-the-meeting comments period was deleted. Such is the agenda we have today, which is threatened by the proposed ordinance revision.

Will any of my readers in the United Kingdom, Canada, India, France, Brazil, etc., be surprised to read that I am “mad as a wet hen(rooster)” about the suggested new restrictions on citizens’ comments? I wonder.  Well, I’ll tell you now, I intend to be present at next Tuesday’s council meeting and fuss at them. I just hope a bunch of other citizens will be there as well.

Twist the kaleidoscope again and peer:

Bird potties

The campus on which my apartment is located is dotted with a surplus of trees: scrub oak and non-bearing pear. The scrub oaks are scattered all over the place; the non-bearing pear trees line the drive and parking area.

The only positive things I can say about  the scrub oaks is that they provide welcome areas of shade and, like all other trees, clarify the air of some carbon atoms. The bad thing about them is that, when their old leaves fall, they get blown to, and collect on, my porch—right in front of my door. The leaves are devilishly reluctant to be swept off, too. (I swear they are sentient!)

As for the non-bearing pear trees, I will acknowledge their great beauty in the spring when they blossom in gorgeous white petals for a few weeks. Also, they attract honey bees, which I favor because I love honey and appreciate the good deed bees perform in pollinating our food plants. The bees’ survival is now threatened by some kind of virus and predator wasps.

The negative aspect of the pear trees, as such, is that they exude a sap after their blossoms fall, and that sap drips onto our parked vehicles: it is no fun to wash off. The fallen blossoms are a headache for the lawn keeper to sweep, but that is not my problem.

But the biggest nuisance of all when considering the pear trees is that, since their canopies are partly above the parking area, the pigeons, sparrows, swallows and even the occasional song birds bomb our cars and trucks with their blasted poop.

Now, you all know, I am sure, that bird baths and bird feeders have been around for a long, long time. We have a few bird feeders here on the campus, but no bird baths. Perhaps the apartment manager should invest in a couple of those. However, I wish somebody would invent a bird potty and train the birds to use it. It would take only a generation or so, I should think, for the birds to become accustomed to the innovation: It would become part of their nature.

Time for one more twist of the kaleidoscope:

Food and Drinks

Well, it looks like “Big Brother” is leading the way!

I have read recently that bathing every day is not a necessity; in fact, that it is bad for your skin cells. We need, they say, a layer of dead cells to protect the developing new cells. So, a bath only once or twice a week should be sufficient. I have been able, so far, to maintain the twice-a-week regimen; but I cannot stand my masculine aroma after a weekly regimen.

Moreover, they are saying now that the old recommendation of eight glasses of water a day to drink is too much. I did not pay much attention to that article, since I drink only about three glasses of water (with my pills) a day.

They are even searching for alternatives to water, such as treated urine. You recall, do you not, how NASA installed a urine-purification system on the space station. I have not heard yet how the astronauts and cosmonauts have reacted to that.

As for food, the new cuisine now apparently includes ants, crickets and grasshoppers. I recall a 1962 film, Mondo Cane (Dog’s World), in which an affluent couple dined on a $125-plate of chocolate-covered ants in some exclusive New York restaurant: The thesis of the documentary film was how foolish we humans—all over the world—are. Also, there was the 1960 film, The Savage Innocents, in which the Eskimo protagonist (played by Anthony Quinn) offered a small bowl of maggots to an intrusive missionary; when the missionary refused that food as well as an invitation to “laugh with” the Eskimo’s wife, the Eskimo became angry and cracked the missionary’s head against an igloo wall. I read somewhere years later that maggots are in fact rich in protein, although they are more readily accepted as food when transformed into insects.

And now it is time to put my kaleidoscope up. Good night!!!

Fin

Secular Epiphanies Revisited

© 2013, 2015 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: A few of you, I feel sure, will recognize the essay below, for I first published it on this site in April 2013. At that time, thanks largely to a fortunate connection with another writer’s article in a major newspaper, my post drew slightly more than 300 readers over a two-and-a-half-year period—a response that still occasionally resonates. For a blog that does not rely on social media publicity, that is a remarkable count.

Still, my blog has attracted a bunch of “followers” and no telling how many non-blogging, regular “visitors” since then who, I believe, did not have the experience of perusing it. That fact, in addition to a current dearth of readable topics in my brain, has spurred me to repeat “Secular Epiphanies” with a slightly adjusted title.

Anyway, I hope you gain some entertainment from reading it—even if you are reading it for the second time.

— BL


“Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself”
                                              — Wallace Stevens

 

In 1970, while preparing myself for the M.A. in English oral exam at Southern Methodist University, I bought the seven-volume set of Penguin’s Guide to English Literature.  One of my first desires was to read something about James Joyce.

Within the section on Joyce, I read some paragraphs discussing his theme of secular epiphanies.  I was fascinated by the example cited, something about the protagonist’s concentrated attention on a spigot.  For many years after reading that section I carried in my mind the memory of the protagonist (or author) intently observing a beer keg’s spigot in a pub as the bartender pulled a pint of the dark drink.  I found out only recently that the “spigot” was not a spigot at all but a “faucet” in Leopold Bloom’s residence in the novel Ulysses, and the liquid was only water.  However, the topic of this essay is not faulty memories but secular epiphanies.

Originally though, “epiphany” denoted a religious event: a manifestation, especially of a divine being.  The prime example of that meaning of the word was the appearance of the Magi at the nativity, as a preview of Christ’s reception by the Gentiles.  Later, “epiphany” took on a more secular connotation in literary theory, especially through the influence of Joyce and Proust, although it still retained a slightly mystical cast.  For Joyce, the critics inform me, the concept evolved from a sudden perception of some ordinary object’s essence, or an event, to an intuitive grasp of reality.  In both Joyce and Proust, the sudden recognition by a character of his or her condition is triggered by a brief occurrence which brings back the memory of a similar occurrence.  The example used by one critic is of the sound of a street organ heard by the young woman in Joyce’s short story “Eveline”, who, while anxiously pondering the wisdom of her planned elopement with a man she doesn’t really love, is reminded by the street organ of a similar sound the day her mother died.  Modern though this literary theory is, is it really all that much different from Aristotle’s remarks about anagnoresis (“discovery” or “recognition”) in his Poetics?  Joyce’s “aesthetic theory” of epiphanies seems more like a fine-tuning of Aristotle’s idea than an original idea; but that’s okay; not many ideas are original.

My fascination with the concept of “epiphany”, however, does not extend to any character’s recognition of his or her condition; I am entirely interested in the object or whatever is being focused on in an “epiphany of the mundane”.  The clock of Dublin’s Ballast Office in Joyce’s novel Stephen Hero is a good example of the mundane object, as is the faucet at Bloom’s lodgings.  Relying completely on my cursory reading about the “spigot” in the Penguin Guide, I wrote a brief essay which I titled “Epiphany on a Robin’s Egg”.   Although it was a fun exercise, however, I realized after completing it that my essay was not an epiphany at all, simply a closely imagined pondering of an object nowhere in sight.  I had simply listed and philosophized about the various qualities and purpose of an egg.  To write a valid epiphany about an object — to elicit its most intimate whatness — the writer needs to have the object before him.  (Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snowman” is an excellent example, I believe.)  I never got around to trying the exercise with a real egg.

Nonetheless, the idea of epiphanies remained deeply embedded in my consciousness.  When I became an adjunct instructor of English composition at one of Dallas County’s community colleges, the first assignment I gave to my students as soon as I entered the classroom was, “Take out a piece of paper and a pen and write whatever comes to your mind about that clock on the wall!  You have five minutes!”  The assignment had two purposes actually.  Firstly, it was a warm-up exercise to get them ready for our discussion on writing about the concrete, not the abstract/the specific, not the general.  Secondly, it was a first step toward my goal of getting them to pay attention to all that surrounded them every minute of the day: to recognize the essence of otherness.

Fortunately for me, the first time I assigned that writing exercise, one of my students did a superb job of writing an epiphany.  I had divided the class into five groups of about five students each, told them to share their papers with each other, and then agree on the best “essay”, to be read aloud to the whole class.  When the young man who had written the essay I mentioned above finished reading his paper, a woman in another group asked, “What are you doing in English 101?”

Of course, I didn’t grade those papers.  As I said, they were just a warm-up exercise: a practice I retained for the beginning of each subsequent class session — with different subjects, naturally.  Nonetheless, I really appreciated that young man’s excellent performance because he proved to the other students that the exercise was possible.

Now, although my own little essay on the imaginary robin’s egg does not legitimately fulfill the definitional criteria of an “epiphany” as discussed above, I’m going to share it with you below just to give you a sense of what I had in mind, if imperfectly:

Epiphany on a Robin’s Egg

There before us lies the egg.  Some wench-robin away from her nest — perhaps slaughtered while foraging by the whimsical marksmanship of a boy — has left us this half-incubated orphan.  I feel sure the mother won’t return now, since I have waited and watched the past two days, taking note of the egg’s condition within a bush outside my back door.  Before the scavenger ants could become troublesome I brought it inside and laid it on the dining-room table under a lamp.  I believe I can distinguish even now the faintest random tracery of cracks in its light blue shell: a holy object.

The shell seldom gets the reverential awe I think it deserves; probably because it is eventually cast off, and we ordinarily repudiate cast-offs.  And then again, eggs are generally so small that it is difficult for us to conceive the relatively heroic magnitude of activity maintained by the fragile-seeming cover.  But look at it this way: The shell, though not itself alive, is most essential to the gastrulating organism within.  It forms the boundary of the first universe and protects the embryo from many possible harms, including a mother’s weight.  The shell, by its porousness, is also the embryo’s only means of exchanging gases and fluids with the outer world.  Without the evolution of the egg shell there could never have been land animals.

But what particularly excites my admiration at present is the egg’s shape.  It is such a pleasant shape to sight and to touch and such a universal shape!  After being told for centuries that the Earth was flat — or, at the oddest, saucer-shaped — we were then converted by the scientists to the belief in a spherical globe, only to discover now that it is oval…like an egg.  No doubt any Mesolithic artist could have told us that in the first place.

Yes, there is something exhilarating to me in the percept of the egg and the Earth both being oval.  I think it is because, as a form, the oval is more aesthetically pleasing than the mathematically purer sphere or the precariously commonsensical saucer shape.  It is more philosophically absorbing, too.  You can say more about an oval in that what is said about one end cannot be entirely true of the other end; while each point on a sphere is typical of all other points.  On the other hand, anything which is intellectually stimulating stands more than an even chance of becoming the object of religious or political contention, as happened between the Big-Endians and the Small-Endians in Gulliver’s Travels.

In addition to their shape, birds’ eggs are often enhanced by little splotches of color.  The camouflage thing enters in, okay, but that must be mostly accidental, since some eggs, like the robin’s, are of a bright solid hue.  And besides, the predator must descry the nest first, not the eggs.  It seems, moreover, that the parent birds themselves are the ones most frequently fooled by the color of their eggs.  The cuckoo, which neither builds a nest nor broods its young, will mimic the pigmentation of another species and smuggle its own egg into the hosting birds’ nest, taking care to kidnap one of the legitimate eggs so that a head-count later on won’t reveal the discrepancy.

No, the coloring of birds’ eggs is just pretty, that’s all: that of most of them anyway.  I must admit that I have become slightly bored by the usual stark whiteness of chickens’ eggs.  But, some wild birds also lay white eggs, so the dullness of chicken productivity cannot be blamed entirely on the domesticity of our barnyard fowl.  Still, isn’t it in a way a commentary on civilization that the greatest variation any hen can manage color-wise is beige?

But hush!  Didn’t that crack in the robin’s egg just now extend a little more this way and…?

Finis

What I Learned About Girls: The Early Years

©2015 By Bob Litton

During a recent reverie I wished I could recall the moment when I realized the difference between boys and girls. Life has taught me, though, that such enlightenment is similar to another momentous event: exiting the birth canal. We repress the knowledge. At least did.

It had to be before kindergarten, because that was where I fell in love for the first time, with a girl who just happened to be the daughter of the woman who operated the kindergarten. My sweetheart stands on my left in the group photo below. Her home, in which we children gathered for our first taste of group dynamics, was just across the street and down a couple of houses from the elementary school we would be attending soon. Others in the photo were, I believe, younger and would follow us into grade school. I don’t recall that young lady’s name and indeed remember only one curious thing about her: In spite of the fact that she lived so near the elementary school, she was habitually late to the first class; while I, who lived just over half a mile away and walked to school, never was late.   I wonder now how that situation affected my future assessment of women’s dependability. Our “affair” did not extend beyond the first grade.

School Photo 1945

This was my kindergarten class of 1945.  My girlfriend and I are in the center of the back row, she to my left. A doll, eh?
                                                        

But I am getting ahead of myself. First there was Annette D. who, along with me, is featured in the two other photos in this blog post. Annette and her mother resided in the duplex apartment connected to the one where Mama and I—and occasionally one or the other of my two brothers—lived. When I was not playing with my friend Ronnie S. across the street or with a couple of other boys several houses down the block, Annette and I would play together. The “play”, as well as I can recall, usually involved listening to fairy tales on the radio program called “Let’s Pretend” and then reenacting the stories ourselves. One episode, which is the only one burned into my memory, was connected to “Sleeping Beauty”.  That story, of course, ended with an awakening kiss, which Annette insisted on. My first romantic kiss! I swear to you: She insisted on it!  I think the only fact of life I learned from that episode was that girls tend to sleep for a very, very long time; and the only way you can wake them up is to kiss them.

Another of Annette’s aspects I recall is her funny dance routines, when she would don one of her mother’s hats, a necklace, and maybe even her shoes (I cannot imagine now how that was possible, but the memory persists) and dance on their front porch.  I don’t recall how I reacted to such performances, but I certainly hope my comments were at least kind if not applauding.  Her “get-up”, I’m sure, was no more outlandish than my curling the brim of one of Pappy’s fedoras to transform it into a cowboy hat or attaching my cap pistol’s holster to one of Mama’s wide belts to create a “gun-belt”.  One evening, while Annette and I lay on a blanket out in the front yard, watching the stars, and our moms sat in folding chairs nearby, I heard the women discussing the possibility of our eventual marriage.  No way! I thought.

bob-photo-scan 4

Annette D. and I in a clinch circa 1944. I am certain the embrace was coached by our mothers, since my hand is comradely placed on Annette’s shoulder and her hand is hugging my arm in a firm grasp. Oh, how possessive girls can be!   By the way, you can tell that Dennis the Menace was patterned on me by the overalls and striped T-shirt I am wearing and the cottony hair.

Annette and I a few years later. You can see that our mothers were still hopeful

 Annette and I a few years later. You can see that our mothers were still hopeful. Oh, what a growth spurt I have made. And Mama got me all duded up. I feel certain she designed and made the two-tone coat with its weird collar and pockets, and the pleated pants. Nobody else would have done that. Annette looks like she can’t believe what she’s looking at.      
                                                                                        

I never met Annette’s dad, for he was killed at the beginning of World War II. I do remember accompanying her to a party for children of absent servicemen (I suppose as her guest, since my own father never served). Annette’s mother remarried; her second husband was an FBI agent. They moved into a house clear across town. The step-father, I found to be a pleasant person, but the only conversation I can recall sharing with him occurred when Mama and I went over to their home for a visit while I was en route to Okinawa and my first air force duty station. All I can recall of that conversation was his hypothesizing about what positive influence my being assigned to the USAF’s Security Service might have should I later seek employment with the government as a civilian. Before we sat down at the supper table, I glanced into one of Annette’s high school textbooks, which she had just plopped down on the coffee table, and recognized it as the same English Literature text I had studied my senior year; I deduced from that that Annette was one year younger than I. I had not seen her in more than a decade.

But back to grade school.

I must admit my affections ran madly rampant during those elementary school years. In the second and later grades I became accustomed to gauging girls by levels of prettiness.  Perhaps that was when I first realized that a girl could be something other than simply another brand of playmate.  Their variety and comeliness were as dizzying as that merry-go-round out on the playground.  I learned to be unfaithful. But, at the same time, I was shy and hush-hush about my amorous feelings.

Another of my silent girlfriends of that time, Lola V., was outstanding as far as dress was concerned.  I particularly enjoyed the days when she wore one of her brown, green and red plaid skirts and frilly-sleeved, white blouses.  I recall attending a party at Lola’s house on Hall Street, where we had to ascend several concrete steps to reach her door. It must have been a Valentine’s Day party, because one of the treats parceled out to Lola’s guests were those small heart-shaped mint candies with various, brief comments printed on them such as “I love you”. I recall sitting on one of the steps, holding a mint between my fingers, and wondering what it meant. That was the first time I ever saw such a candy, but I have encountered them quite often over the past sixty-eight years since then, and they always remind me of that day. I regret that I do not have a photo of Lola, nor of any of the girls I will mention from here on.

The only girl I really played with after school, though, was Alef B.  This girl’s home was within—or adjacent to—a cemetery about a third of a mile southwest of our apartment. I really cannot recall her home’s exact placement: my memory tells me that the house, with a flower shop attached, was only a short distance inside the main gate, but my memory, as I have since discovered, plays tricks on me.  Anyway, her father was a florist.  Alef and I walked home from school together at least once; I remember this clearly because we made a game of zig-zagging around some trees that had recently been planted in the verge beside Cole Park, Alef going in one direction, I in the other. Also, when I contracted measles and our apartment was quarantined for a week or more, Alef brought me some get-well letters from our classmates; it was the second grade and we were just learning to print on lined paper. The brief notes all said the same thing (probably copied off the blackboard where our teacher had written the original); but they pleased me anyway.

One really fun—and odd—adventure for Alef and me happened one day when I visited her at home. We listened to a couple of our favorite radio dramas and then decided to make some fudge. Unfortunately, there was no granulated sugar in any of the cabinets; however, Alef did find some brown sugar, so we tried it. Man, that candy was wild-tasting…and gooey!  She dipped out some on wax paper for me to take home. I ate some of it along the way, but it was too strong for me.

By the fourth grade, a girl named Betty T. caught my eye. Still, I was reticent, and before I could exit my shyness shell in Betty’s company, Mama had bought a small house out near White Rock Lake. As luck would have it, though, I did get to see Betty again the following year. It was at SMU’s McFarlin Auditorium, where I had gone to attend the annual “children’s day” as put on by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, with conductor Walter Hendl. A poem I had written won a school district-wide lyrics contest, and a class in Oak Cliff had garnered the music part of the competition.  As Mama and I were descending the auditorium’s steps after the performance, I heard someone shout out, “Look, there’s Bobby!”  Looking over to the right, I saw with delighted surprise Betty T. and one other girl whom I recognized then but cannot picture now. We exchanged greetings and the usual updates briefly and then parted. But I could not—actually did not want to—get Betty out of my mind. I called her a short time later and invited her to meet me at the Plaza theater—which was much closer to her home than to mine—the next Saturday for the children’s matinee. Her mother brought her to the show in their car and then left. It was a pleasant date…at any rate about as pleasant as any time sitting in a dark theater watching a serial episode, cartoons and a shoot-‘em-up can be pleasant. Not long after that I received a chrome-plated bracelet with my name printed on it at a shoe store where my mother had purchased some shoes for me. I sent it to Betty as a love token or perhaps as a “Let’s go steady!” signal, but she sent it back with a note saying her mother did not want her to accept gifts from boys. For whatever reason—most likely because of the miles that separated us—I did not call Betty again.

By the sixth grade, at my new school, competitiveness became the unexpressed law of the campus. Close friends became more important and close girlfriends even more important. Still, shyness hampered me. Perhaps our dancing lessons were partly responsible for that. I cannot recall if the square-dancing and the ballroom dancing were part of physical education classes or a separate part of the curriculum. Could it have been a “socialization” class, steering us toward the mating game?

Anyway, that was when I learned that some girls had warm, damp hands while other girls’ palms were cooler, drier. I much preferred to dance with the dry-hands maidens, one of whom was Evelyn M. She preferred me as a partner, too, although I cannot claim that my hand humidity was her reason. Evelyn’s looks were only average, and she was skinny, but she had one of the most out-going and caring personalities I have ever met. In addition to our frequent partnering during dance lessons, we went out trick-or-treating one Halloween night; and we also went as a date to some school party at White Rock Lake.

That party was the occasion for one of the most embarrassing moments in my life. I had a slight cold and had brought a white handkerchief with me. When we first arrived, Evelyn perceived that the bench she wanted to sit on was dusty, and she asked me if she could use my handkerchief to dust it off a bit; I let her have it. Later, when she came back to request the use of my handkerchief again, I was too reticent to let her know I had wiped my nose with it and I gave it to her. She came back shortly afterwards and, smiling, returned it to me while saying, “It’s been used.” O Mortification, how eternal you are!

Another of my favorite dance partners, for square-dancing, was Shirley C. This girl was pretty but was also a bit plump. However, that was okay, since I was not in love with her but appreciated her only as good company when the caller sang out, “A right and left around the ring/ While the roosters crow and the birdies sing” or “Everybody swing and whirl/Swing ’round and ’round with your pretty little girl”. Yeah, Shirley and I were good at that! Decades later, I saw Shirley at our 15th year high school class reunion. She was in fine physical shape and a true beauty. In fact, I noticed that day that there were a bunch of beautiful women in the class of ’58. It was a rare crop!

The only remaining memory from those elementary school years worth noting was the night I “fell in love at first (and only) sight” at a community room in Casa Linda Plaza. The place had only two rooms, I believe, not counting the restrooms; there were chairs placed around the walls, and the lighting was dim. On Saturday nights the place was transformed into a sort of junior nightclub. Somebody played 45 RPM records. We young folks sipped soda pop, chatted, and danced under the watchful eyes of a couple of adults. I went there only about three times, if my memory serves me well.

One of those nights I met a young lady whom I had never seen before. I do not know what school she attended; I did not even ask. But she was a beauty beyond compare, and I was fortunate enough to dance with her at least once, probably more. We left at the same time, each assuring the other we would be at the “club” the next Saturday night. As we approached the curb out in the parking area I saw a new, maroon, four-door car pull up, and the girl got into the back seat. The shopping center’s yellow lights gleamed on the car as it pulled away forever, and I thought of Cinderella’s pumpkin.

Finis

A Flight of Fancy

billy-goat-gruff-troll

By Bob Litton

I deserted my once favorite café, where I used to sit and watch the Amtrak trains halt and some of their passengers disembark for a chance to stretch and gaze at the strange surroundings while the crew-change proceeded. (See my blog post of May 14, 2015 [initially published in September of 2013]). I ceased going there because three of my favorite waitresses had quit. It was an act of protest, on my part at least.

I started roosting at a café near the university, where the waitresses are most affectionate. I don’t know why they treat me so royally, since I have an unbreakable habit of constantly teasing them. I simply cannot stop. This new roost is not as decorative as the other one and is really quite noisy inside. The noise results from some regulars, the sound of whose loud conversations is magnified by cinder tile walls and rubber tile flooring. A TV tuned to a sports or a news channel, and a radio playing in the kitchen, contribute their own shares to the hubbub.

After several months of bearing up under that, I began last week to sit at one of three small tables on the porch outside. One drawback to the porch is that the railroad track is a little further away, to the south, and is largely blocked from view by some buildings and trees across the highway. I can still see part of one train car but no passengers. However, it is generally quieter on the porch, except on the weekends, when tourists and other types descend and sometimes overflow onto MY porch.

Recently, a couple about my age, whom I really like, parked in the area out front and approached. When they arrived at the porch, the woman smiled and asked, “Are you guarding the door?”

“Yes,” I replied. “I am charging a toll to enter. I am a troll charging a toll, but I’ll let you pass on in, gratis.”

After my acquaintances went inside, I pondered my potential as a troll—actually playing the part. Of course, for me to do so would require some heavy-duty facial makeup and deflation of my normally poetic vocabulary, for trolls are noted for their ugliness and stupidity; and I am noted for just the opposite: I might even have to change my name.

Then it struck me that, actually, I remembered very little about trolls, only vaguely recalling that they hung around bridges and accosted passersby. I wondered where they originated and in how many fairy tales they were characters.

When I got home, I checked them out on Wikipedia, where I discovered that the first known story of the troll was in “Three Billy Goats Gruff”: one of the stories collected by Norwegian folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe between 1841 and 1844. There have been successive variations on the story, but the classic tale has each of the first two goats, in turn, persuading the stupid but hungry troll to wait for the next goat, which will be larger and thus more filling than they; and the third goat is large and stout enough to butt the troll off the bridge and into the river. The troll survives, but he doesn’t bother anyone after that.

In my estimation, the most amusing of the variants cited by Wikipedia is that found in the children’s book Timakistan by Andri Snær Magnason, summarized as follows:

The variant features a kid, its mother, and her husband. When the mother goat tells the troll to eat her husband instead of her, “the troll lost his appetite. ‘What’s the world coming to?’ he cried. ‘The kid tells me to eat its mother, and she tells me to eat her husband! Crazy family!’ The troll goes home leaving the goats uneaten.

I suppose this version appeals to me because it resonates with the current state of society—both political and cultural. Children and, by extension, we adults are supposed to extract lessons for living from such a tale. So, what have we here? The first—and most obvious—moral we can note is: In order to drive away hucksters and muggers, act like you are crazy; better yet, become crazy!

But there is more to be said about the goats and the troll.

First of all, I never did get the intent of the adjective “gruff” as applied in this story. According to the dictionary, “gruff” has two meanings: (1) abrupt or taciturn in demeanor; and (2) of a voice, low and rough in pitch. I suppose one could turn aside an accosting character with such a tone, but it seems to me more likely that the smaller goats would have employed more pathetic, smarmy tones. The persona of a lobbyist would be most apropos.

But the more important element here is the wiliness of the smaller goats, who deflect the troll by sic’ing him onto the next goat. If the goats do not have such a plan, however, then all we can assume is that the first two are treacherous, for the troll might have been able to capture and eat the second goat, at least.

As for the troll, he might be stupid but only to a degree. Why should he go to all the trouble and possible injury in overpowering a smaller goat, which may not in fact satiate his hunger, when he could venture all on a late arrival that surely will come the closest to filling his belly? He just didn’t foresee how mean and tough a grown billy goat can be. Moreover, Magnason, in his version, has granted the troll some amount of morality.

Well, dear reader, I have to go now. I must dig up something else to wonder about. But, before I leave, what does the tale of “Three Billy Goats Gruff” say to you about life, about people?

Finis

Ruminations

By Bob Litton

“But why, then, do you write?”
“Well, my dear sir, to tell you in confidence, I have found no other means of getting rid of my thoughts.”
“And why do you wish to get rid of them?”
“Why I wish? Do I really wish! I must.”
“Enough!  Enough!”
— Excerpted from Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, Book Second, §93, translated by Thomas Common (Nietzsche’s meaning of “gay” is “joyful”, not “homosexual”).

 ♦

 ♦

Solitaire

Wha’d I tell you? It’s been only a month and here I am again, typing out a blog post. And what have I been doing in the meantime? playing Solitaire, just like the indifferent lover in Karen Carpenter’s song. So, leaving off the blog did not equal leaving off the computer. I am gathering the notion that my only viable alternatives are chains or a lobotomy.

Actually, though, I did learn a few lessons through my time among the cards: that playing Solitaire-to-win requires perserverance, and that I am an impatient student; that although Solitaire is basically a game of chance—more so than Free Cell anyway—there often is some wiggle room for strategy; that it is extremely frustrating when a bunch of small-digit cards (2’s and 3’s) or the royalty cards dominate the bottom row when they are first spread (nothing more useless than a “2”, and yet two or three of them often appear face-up when the cards are laid out); that the prospect of losing is essential to enjoying the game; and that Solitaire is addictive, so much so that I ran back to my blog to escape it.

* * * * * *

Hail to thee, mockingbird and cicada 

Well, it’s summer now in my little hamlet. Most of the pecan, pear and oak trees survived a severe wind and rain storm here a couple of months ago; a few large limbs crashed, and even some old trees and a few young apple trees had to be put to sleep. But the vast majority of trees have leafed out fully. The daytime high temperatures range from the mid-eighties to the lower nineties so far; they will probably dance around the low one-hundreds before the summer is over.

A mockingbird croons occasionally—too seldom, as far as I am concerned. The mockingbird population in this part of the state is minimal compared to North Central Texas, where I come from. I love to hear the clear, varying notes of the mockingbird: it is the adopted mascot…of, say, my Solitaire team.

Perhaps I just never noticed the local cicadas before—though I find that hard to believe—but for the first time in thirteen years here I have been hearing their loud clicking, what we called the locust’s song during my childhood. You know, of course, that there is a big difference between the cicada and the locust, for the real “locust” is actually the grasshopper of biblical scourge fame. The cicada’s mating and alert calls are not “pretty” like the mockingbird’s, but they are amusing at least.

To us kids in Dallas, the cicada was one of the fun events of summer. They are funny to look at—though they can be scary under magnification—and they are easy to catch. We used to climb up a small tree and grab one off a limb, tote him to earth, tie a thread noose around him, and then toss him into the air, where he would swirl around to our great amusement, just like a tiny kite or a model plane. But, like I said, I had not heard one in decades until this summer; I had come to believe that the oil companies had exterminated them.

I had also come to believe that the oil companies drove the fireflies (a.k.a. “lightning bugs”) into extinction, for I haven’t seen any of those in decades either. However, a really dark night is required to see the alternating beams of a lightning bug, and, even in this remote place, we live in virtually endless light. Also, I am no longer a creature of the night, retiring about 9 o’clock each evening, provided the neighbors will allow it. And twilight lingers after nine.

* * * * * *

“Should” should be dropped from dictionaries  

You realize, don’t you, that with each year gained in age comes a complementary ability to spot flaws in individuals, in society…dang it!…in the world itself. Well, I haven’t escaped even that undesirable aspect of accumulating years. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to tell whether a particular flaw in our environment is new and truly awful enough to warrant castigating.

I am inclined to believe that one among many modern phenomena deserving of a good thrashing is our use of the word should and its synonyms: ought to and need to. Now, I admit that I use these terms frequently enough, especially when engaged in soliloquies about what I have failed to do, have overlooked, or am scheduling.

That is bad enough, but when I see the term used extensively and every day on the Internet programming sites, I get really annoyed by it all: “Ten foods you should not eat”, “Twenty places you should visit before you die”, “Why you need to explain to your children the reason they have no daddy but two mommies”, etc. Often, there is a whole page lined up with such article titles. It all brings to mind images of “Big Brother”.

Now, don’t chastise me! I know I have used in this post the very word I want everybody to expunge from their vocabularies. Just goes to show: I will never meet the qualifications for “Big Brother”, although there is still the opportunity open to me for the presidency of this great nation.

Finis

Au revoir, mes amis

You know what? It is darn near impossible to guesstimate how many people regularly visit my blog. (I like that word “visit”, by the way, because it does not absolutely imply reading…or reading all the way through, anyway.) So, I have no idea how many people this notice will affect: I assume at least a dozen, six of them my friends, and the remaining six being residents in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Germany, and France (from whence visitors’ flags most often appear when I post a new essay, poem, and other stuff). Over the past 2-1/4 years, 138 WordPress bloggers have signed up as “followers”, but I suspect that more than half of them have drifted away for any one or more of several good reasons. But it all boils down to this situation: I am addressing here the non-followers because, if I do not write some explanation, they might become curious—maybe even concerned—when they cannot view any new post after continual visits: I do not want them to waste their time.

Now, I know I have abandoned the blog at least twice in the past for brief periods, although on one of those occasions I at least covered my rear by saying I was taking a “sabbatical” for an indeterminate period. Let’s face it: I do not have much will power, and I confess I am addicted to blogging, in fact to the Internet itself, maybe even to this damn computer. However, all this sitting in front of a computer and typing is taking a toll on my body and my psyche: I need to get outside for exercise and sunshine. So, I am hoping I can be resolute this time.

I do intend to keep my blog operative for two reasons, the lesser reason first: (1) Once you shut down a WordPress blog, you cannot reopen it; and (2) some readers occasionally revisit certain older posts. A few of the most popular of the older posts are: “Secular Epiphanies” (a runaway favorite), “Favorite Bars” (rather long but vibrant), “Pocahontas’ Legacy: A Serendipitous Anecdote” (a surprising hit), “McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader vs. Dick and Jane” (everybody can relate to this one), “Surviving the Survivalists” (heavy stuff but brief at least) and the three posts about the young Dutch singer Amira Willighagen, starting with “A ‘Shout-out’ for Amira” (she, not my writing, was most of the draw for these posts). I would not want to deprive the world of those masterpieces.

I want my regular readers to be assured that I much appreciate them, and I really have enjoyed watching all those small national flags pop up on my blogsite (about 170 at last count). As I mentioned above, I do not know if I have the will power to leave off blogging for very long. I hope I can, for the sake of my physical and mental health.

Au revoir, mes amis,
     Le Flâneur

Le Flâneur (trans.: “Man-About-Town”)

Le Boulevardier

LE FLÂNEUR sitting at his favorite roost in the Bread & Breakfast Cafe and Bakery, Alpine, Texas. In this scene he is in his usual pose, holding a book and gazing out a plate glass window at an idling Amtrak train, which rests on a track 100 yards away. There is a definite parallel between him and the train: They sit to be seen. (Photo By Linsey Dugan)

©2013 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: Some of you might recognize this post which was initially published back in September of 2013, so I feel obliged to explain why I am publishing it again.

As you can see from the photo, I—as a type—am the core subject. You might understandably deduce from that clue that here is a case of egoism running rampant, the self begging for more attention. Well, such is not the case. While it is true that I focus on myself, it is the type—the “flâneur”—which is the true subject; I am just playing that role.

The reason I want to publish it again is that I feel this essay did not get the attention it deserves— only three “views” on the stats page in a year and a half. I discovered that fact last weekend, when the third viewer showed up on my stats page. I wondered why so few had bothered. And then it struck me that, since the title “Le Flâneur” is in French and is not a frequently used term, interest would possibly be diminished. So, what I decided to do was add an English translation to the title and republish.

Please give it a read, my friends, because I consider it one of the most humorous, entertaining and informative essays I have ever written—for this blog or anywhere else.
—BL

∗  ∗  ∗  ∗  ∗

One of my friends is always calling me names. They are not the good old-fashioned American names like “Son-of-a-Bitch” and…well, let’s leave it with that one. No, he calls me a “solipsist” and an “omphalopsychic”: the first word denotes someone who believes the only true and valuable knowledge is what we know of ourselves; the second word (which you won’t find in a modern dictionary) denotes a “navel-gazer” — someone who spends too much time in introspection. My friend intends neither term as flattery, but I accept them as such.

My friend also calls me a “boulevardier”, by which he does mean to flatter me. It is obviously a French term, and it denotes one, emblematically a male dandy, who “walks the boulevards”…or, in America, the central avenues and streets. A synonym for “boulevardier” is “flâneur”, which I prefer for the obvious reason that it doesn’t take as long to utter.

As for “solipsist” and “omphalopsychic”, I readily concede — as did Socrates and Michel de Montaigne — that the most trustworthy knowledge is what we know about ourselves, both in our outward behavior and, especially, in our inner selves. Everything in the external world is ephemeral and, even when it is directly in front of us, vague…ambiguous. Our inner selves, it is true, also change: our tastes, values, even memories. Nonetheless, they are more measurable and reliable than our social perceptions and our political conceptions. And, often, through introspection we arrive at surprisingly profound insights.

But I would rather talk today about my “flâneur” reputation. It’s not easy being a flâneur in my town…or in any other small town in the U.S. of A., I would imagine. You see, a flâneur’s primary characteristic is that of a stroller…a saunterer…an investigator of the streets. At least, that’s the way the Parisians view their flâneurs. In our American small towns, such ambling gents (or ladies) are more often looked upon as loafers…or worse.

As I mentioned, flâneurs, in the classic sense, are also “investigators”. I mean, just look at the implications of strolling: the habit of the mind, unlike the legs, is not to amble leisurely in the skull; it is, rather, to gauge, to judge. Thus, the flâneur might be observed turning his head after a young lady passes, to see if her rear appearance is as lovely as her front appearance. Or his turning might simply be to discover if she has turned her head as well: if so, a positive sign. But, ordinary, bustling Americans look upon such behavior as soliciting at best or as stalking at worst. Those people are usually married.

Another difficulty facing the American flâneur is the typical design of our towns. While many of them were originally established with town squares, where several inviting shops and cafes could be visited during a leisurely stroll around the central park and courthouse, with its ancient cannon prominently displayed, that Norman Rockwell scene has largely disappeared. The guilty engines of this transformation are, of course, the automobile and the strip mall. We have implanted in our brains the notion that the sole purpose of going into a shop is to buy a predetermined object, preferably during a clearance sale. And we go to eating places to gobble down a pre-cooked meal, again as cheaply as possible. That’s why the supermarkets and the convenience stores have replaced the neighborhood mom-and-pop groceries. That’s why we see more fast food chain franchises than colorful ethnic restaurants. We want to drive in and drive out, not stroll to a romantic café.

Still, I manage to retain some of the attributes of the historical flâneur. I am a man in the crowd but not of the crowd. I maintain my ironical indifference as much as I can. I have my favorite roost in one of our local cafes, where I can gauge the dress, demeanor, and physiognomy of those entering the place, to determine if they are tourists or merely more of the conventional denizens who talk of nothing but motorcycles, football and guns; or, not to ignore the opposite gender, the latest buzz on their iPads, whose daughter is the latest to get pregnant, or how they plan to get their husband to buy a certain color of carpet for the bedroom. Then there is that corner table where the local politicians and their followers gather to castigate their opponents. I used to join the politicos and hangers-on at mid-morning until I finally came to the conclusion that they knew less about themselves than the ladies with their iPads and carpet colors. These clannish discussions usually concentrate at particular tables, as a matter of fact, but I don’t see anything extraordinary in that. It’s a subliminally developed habit that began in grade school, where the children early on developed their cliques and gathered at the same spots on the playground during after-lunch recess.

I have much more fun at a couple of the high-end restaurants: one pretends to an Italian atmosphere, the other to a “cowboy cuisine”. What a curious conflation: “cowboy cuisine”!!! At the latter, I usually settle for the soup of the day, as long as it is not too spicy.  Oh, but the waitresses there are mostly pretty and all jolly and all diligent. It is fun to watch and listen to them describe any day’s special delicacies in detail; how they do ripple the terms off their lips! And they are always ultra-kind to me because, I suppose, I am old, walk with a cane, and therefore am not dangerous. I’m just a funny old flirt in their eyes, which is fine with me.

The Italian place is much less trafficked; thus employing only a third of the waitresses one will find at the cowboy cuisine restaurant. There I go for a decent meal of tuna salad over romaine lettuce, or a small pizza.

There is also a nice Chinese restaurant way down the road at the edge of town, way too far for walking; but I drive there occasionally for beef or pork chop suey.

The bars I have already written about (See “Favorite Bars”, published January 31, 2013). I used to be a bar or pub hopper in Dallas and later even here, but the atmosphere of such places has changed radically, and not to my liking. The “music” is too loud and repetitious, the decor is hideously funky and cluttered with TV sets turned on to sports events, and the bar tenders (many of whom are working below their educational levels) are often possessed of sour attitudes.

But, best of all is to sit at my favorite roost in the café and watch passengers disembark off an Amtrak train a hundred yards across the highway and a large parking lot. The passengers stretch and yawn and gaze about to study what burg they are stalled in now and whether to risk venturing across the road to “catch a bite to eat”.

And here I sit, waiting for them.

Le Flaneur, by Paul Gavami, 1842

Finis

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