Archive for December, 2013

Adieu, 73!

By Bob Litton
     Well now, after all that jabbering about retiring my blog (“this is my last post!”…“this is absolutely my last post!”), here I am again sending, as the Meg Ryan character, Kathleen Kelly, did in You’ve Got Mail, my cosmic message to the Void.
     But perhaps I have a good excuse — at least temporarily. You see, today is the anniversary of my birth 74 years ago. So, why don’t I just term it my “birthday”?, some wannabe critics (“snarks”) might ask.  We do, in fact, commonly say “birthday” year after year, but as a long-ago drinking buddy once explained to me, “You only have one birthday: all the rest are anniversaries.” That seemed so obvious to me after I heard his distinction, that I wondered why it had not occurred to me before.
     Also, I have asked myself all week, Why do you want to celebrate it? Nobody is going to give you a party or even any presents. And cards? Pish! One! Our mayor even turned down my request for a parade of the ticker tape variety. However, I did get a donut at one café, a cinnamon roll at another, and a piece of pecan pie with vanilla ice cream at a restaurant — all gratis — after repeated hints. It was a bit like a Halloween trick-or-treating excursion.
     But, seriously, why does anybody celebrate a “birthday”? Especially after the age of sixteen, when girls cease being jail bait; eighteen, when boys become eligible for the draft; twenty-one, when both genders can legally drink booze in my state. Are those milestones really worth celebrating? Stand-up comedian George Carlin (some of whose material I cannot stomach) did a masterful piece on the way people’s attitudes toward their advancing years change from childhood to old age. In a minute, I am going to give you URL’s to two websites — one a video of a live performance about aging by Carlin, and the other a beautiful photo slide show accompanied by comments from the same man; but first I want you to read the meditation on aging that I wrote back in December 1979, when I turned forty:

Just Between You and Me
By Monahans News Editor Bob Litton

Birthday Reflections

End of the year, end of the decade, end of my youth.  It’s all a bit too much.
     Today’s my 40th birthday.  Beginning my 41st year, as one of my sardonic friends would say.  Some might interject I left youth a long time ago.  The year 30 is the real transition point — 35, at the latest — they would say.  But, youth is an attitude, not any particular span of years.  Some of us manage to play legerdemain with that attitude longer than others.
     Our first and shallowest conception of maturation is derived from physical changes.  I had five gray hairs when I was fifteen years old.  Consequently, I was able to pretend that each additional strand of white since then was just another of those premature gray hairs.
     Wrinkles, too, are supposed to herald decline.  Much of that problem has been spared me, I think, because I was born with an excess of baby fat.  The experts, however, claim that men do not wrinkle as early or as harshly as women do because men shave every day, and the exercise of the cheek and chin muscles involved in shaving keeps the face in tone.
     At this point I willingly relinquish such superficial qualities as unpeppered hair and smooth skin.  The attribute of youth I really regret giving over is the sense of continual prospects.  More than ten years ago, a philosophy professor warned me the day would come when my options would be severely circumscribed.  “You’ll wake up one morning and realize you have hardened in the mold,” he said.
     I’ve dreaded that day ever since he described it.  Only it wasn’t a single day.  The hardening took several months, but the total effect was just as momentous as if it had occurred in a single day.  Suddenly, so to speak, one realizes his old freedom to break loose from unpleasant situations and try something new no longer can be credibly rationalized.  Also, the time for training and preparing for some great — but conveniently vague — enterprise is over; the time to perform arrives.  Finally, one feels an overwhelming longing to have a stake in society.
     The change was most eloquently described in a poem titled “The Drunken Boat” by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud.  In that poem, a barge on the Mississippi finds itself suddenly free to drift after its haulers are killed by Indians.  The boat comes out onto the sea, enjoys a period of fantastic visions as it gets tossed about on the tumultuous waves, then becomes exhausted and longs for an existence tamer even than the one it had experienced under the bargemen’s dominion.
     Now, of all the waters in the world, the barge yearns for a puddle in the street where a young boy sets the sail of a little boat “…as frail as a butterfly in May.”
                                                   — The Monahans News, December 29, 1979

Now I will invite Mr. Carlin onto the stage to entertain and enlighten us with his own thoughts on the aging process and our reactions to it:

And finally, here are Carlin’s more philosophically poignant comments about aging, presented in a written format along with some pleasing and relaxing nature photos:

     Well, that’s it. I intend to publish this post a couple of hours before 7:40 p.m. Central Time here in the U.S. That is the time I was born on this day in 1939, according to my birth certificate (and we all know that birth certificates never lie). So, at that time (or its equivalent in your homeland), if you have any wine in your house, please raise a glass of it and say, “Happy birth anniversary, Bob, you old curmudgeon!” Then drink.



The Pet Artist

©1995 By Bob Litton; ©2012 By Bob Litton

Old Mildred Heatherington, dressed in a royal blue bathrobe and pearl grey slippers, stood on the cobblestone walk behind her ranch house, grabbed handfuls of cracked corn out of the wickerwork plate she hugged against her belly, and tossed them out onto the scraggly lawn of bermuda and buffalo grass.  A wild goose and a white domestic duck stood together ten feet away, now watching her, now dipping down to peck at the corn, now preening their wing and breast feathers nonchalantly.  Their stillness, their near indif­ference, gave Mildred an opportunity to feel irritated and thus justified in speaking to dumb animals.
     “What’s wrong with you stupid birds, anyhow?  Can’t you show more gratitude?  You seem to think you planted this corn and watered it and harvested it.  Do you believe this stuff is your birthright?  Have I spoiled you, heh?  Answer that!  Have I spoiled you?”
     She smiled, pleased with her mock-angry homily, a sermon she heard only in her head, since she hadn’t put on her hearing aid yet this morning.  Her hair—mousey grey, only long enough to indicate her femininity, uncombed—fluttered wispily over her temples in the light early morn­ing breeze.  At eighty years, she was short, slightly stooped and slow of movement, but all her limbs worked well enough for what she needed to do.  Her eyelids slanted away from the center of her forehead over grey eyes that were still quick to evaluate. Many a horse had she bought and sold, many a calf.
     As Mildred dumped the residue of corn out of the plate, a stray cowdog—part blue heeler and part German shepherd—appeared out of the sagebrush, catsclaw and cacti that bordered her chainlink fence.  He had thick grey fur with some brown and black mixed in; and a cravat of white circled his throat, widening in front where it pointed down toward his chest.  He looked well-fed, but his tongue dangled over his lip and then licked in the manner of dogs who want to announce they are hungry.
     “What?  You again?  Three days in a row you’ve crept out of that pasture to bum table leavin’s offa me.  Who are your owners anyway?  I’ve asked all around and nobody wants to claim you.  What’s your name?  Any dog as old as you are is bound to have a name!  All I can call you is ‘Dog’.  Oh well.  And so, let me go see what’s left of my supper.”
     She paused a few moments, gazing over the heads of the fowls and the dog, over the empty horse stall, over the mesquite trees, at what was left of the West Texas sunrise.  There had been a light rain during the night and the clouds had moved eastwards.  They had been bloody red only twenty minutes earlier; now they were mostly slightly coral with some purple shades down near the horizon where they were thickest.  Closer to the middle sky, they became ever pinker until the few small wisps that trailed from the west had their regular cotton white.  The sun was nearly above the horizon now, erasing the painting it had created. Mildred, a Sunday artist herself, sighed at the evidence of Nature’s prodigality.  She had seen such sunrises all her life, for her father had moved his family here when she was still sleeping in a bassinet, but they continued to take her breath away.
     Turning finally toward the door of her screened-in porch, she opened it slowly only a few inches and peered in.  “Okay, you two, get back in there.  It’s not time for you to come out yet.”  She was addressing two male Siamese cats, brothers and alike in their tan-and-black coloring, but very different in attitude.  One was large, soft, and lazy, and always ready to rub his side against Mildred’s leg.  The other was slightly smaller and much leaner; he was also more independent, more tiger-like, usually causing the quarrel whenever there was one between them.
     Squeezing herself through the barely open door, Mildred stepped over her cats and ambled into the kitchen.  On the sink counter her little stack of unwashed dishes lay in a jumble.  Among them, she managed to gather together a couple of pork chop bones, a sauce spoon full of cream corn and a half-eaten biscuit.  She also scraped some smears of apple sauce off the plate into an old skillet she had converted into a dog’s food dish.
     “Get off that table!” Mildred yelled at the leaner of the two cats as she passed back through the screened-in porch where she spent nearly all her waking time.  The cat leaped to the floor, its tail causing the beige tassels on the table lamp shade to ripple and its claws pulling some pages of the newspaper down with it.
     Shaking her head with the irritation that gave a mean­ing to her existence, Mildred carried the skillet out into the yard, partly shaded now by the two large mulberry trees that grew near its center.  The goose and the duck were waddling about, dipping their beaks regularly into the sparse grass to pick up bits of cracked corn.
     The dog was standing at the gate that opened into Mildred’s carport; he knew where one was supposed to enter.  His tail wagged and his forepaws pulled at the fence links when he saw Mildred approaching with the skillet.  Mildred opened the gate, set the pan down on the concrete drive, and then stepped back into her yard, securing the gate.  “You’ll have to stay out there,” she said to the dog.  “I can’t have you scaring my birds.”
     As Mildred started walking back to her white frame house, she noticed a young man in faded blue denims and a brown-and-red plaid shirt standing at the corner of her front fence.  He held a small olive-colored knapsack over his right shoulder and rested his left hand on a fence post.  His lips were moving when Mildred’s gaze met his, but she couldn’t hear anything.  She frowned briefly not only be­cause she couldn’t hear, but also because he was a stranger who had startled her, if only a little, and because he had caught her in a candid moment, had invaded her private world.
     She waved at him to shush-up and pointed at her right ear: “Wait!  Let me go fetch my ears.”
     The young man looked quizzically at her a moment and then nodded his head, smiling, as he understood her refer­ence to a hearing aid.  She motioned to him to come into her yard and sit on a white wrought iron patio chair, then she went back into the house.  When she returned, adjusting the large hearing contraption over her skull, she found the young man sitting on the chair, as she had directed, and the duck standing in front of him, its beak nestled underneath a wing.  The man was scratching the duck’s back, running his fingers like a currycomb up and down through the feathers.  Mildred felt a momentary smart of jealousy; the duck had never let her touch it that continuously, that sensuously.
     “Well, young man, I’m Mildred Heatherington.  And what is your name?” she said, taking a seat in another of the half dozen wrought iron chairs scattered about her back yard.
     “Francis Reed,” he replied, “but you can just call me Frank, if you prefer.”
     “Oh well.  And so, what do you want?  Or did you just want to admire my duck as you were passing down the road?”
     “It’s a nice duck, at that, but really I came by look­ing for a job.”
     “I don’t have one for you.  I suppose you thought this was a working ranch when you saw my house from the highway, heh?  Well, it is, but I don’t work it.  All this range around here is leased out.  Has been since my husband died seven years ago.  I just kept this house and that horse pen over there.  Only reason I kept the horse pen is that I don’t want’em to put horses in it.  Draw flies, you know, big flies.”
     “No, no,” the young man said, chuckling.  “I didn’t expect to be hired on as a ranch hand.  I don’t know how to do that.  I came here to be an artist.”
     “A what?” asked Mildred, peering more closely at the young man as she adjusted her hearing aid.  He had reddish-blond hair, rather full down to his collar.  He kept having to pull some of it, on the left side, back away from in front of his eye.  His eyes were as blue as the water she had seen on the Pacific coast in Mexico where the divers are.  His nose was straight and even with rather small nostrils for a man, especially for a man his size, for he must have been six-one or six-two in his stockinged feet.  His lips were of moderate thickness and curved in a perpetu­al near-smile, like the Mona Lisa.  Mildred doubted he could frown even when angry or sad.  Besides the plaid shirt and the faded denims, the only other observable garb he had were a brown leather garrison belt and some work boots with low tops.  Then there was his knapsack, which, Mildred gauged, might contain a change of shirt and pants, some underwear and socks, and a can or two of soup, but not much more.
     “An artist, your artist,” he was saying.
     “Are you well, young man?  Did you just get released from an institution?  Are you simply wandering in the road­way, alone, no one, no relative anywhere to take care of you?”
     Mildred wasn’t being sarcastic, though her words so baldly presented might seem to indicate that.  She was genuinely concerned—curious and concerned—about his mental health and his physical safety.  Maybe she was a little concerned about her safety, too, since many mental patients released in recent years were committing crimes all over Texas, though mostly in the big cities.  She had read a lot about them.
     “I am alone in the world,” the young man said, “but I’m not insane.”
     “Oh well.  And so, I’m certainly glad to hear that, though it’s perhaps not wise for me to take your word for it.  Still, although what you say makes me wonder about your stability, the way you say it, and your other behavior seem quite normal to me.”
     “Good.  Then is it settled?  May I be your artist?”
     “Phew!  There you go again!  Look here, young man…”
     “Okay.  Look here, Frank.  I don’t hire anybody to do anything, except for repairmen every once in a blue moon to fix my plumbing or the roof.  I don’t have any money to spare on luxuries and I definitely don’t need any art works around here.  I’m something of an artist myself, at least good enough to do my own decorating.”
     “How about your pet?”
     “My pet?”
     “Your pet artist.  Look at what a menagerie you have!  Remember, I was watching as you fed them a while ago.  You have a wild goose, which looks like it must have been wound­ed some time or other.  You have this duck I’m scratching.  You have the stray dog you just couldn’t turn away.  And you have something in the house…”
     “Two cats.”
     “…two cats in the house you were talking to.  Why not a pet artist?  You can not only talk to me.  I can talk to you.”
     “They’re animals.  You’re a human being.  They have to be taken care of, but you can take care of yourself.  I like them because they can’t talk.  Why should I appreciate you because you can?”
     “Very well, I won’t talk then—after I’ve persuaded you that I, too, deserve to be your pet—your pet artist.  I need no more than those still meaty bones and broken corn you throw to the animals, and you will be delighted with all the works of my hands.”
     “What kind of work do you do?”
     “I’m a sculptor.”
     “No, I mean what kind of subject matter?  What kind of style?”
     “Oh!  To glorify God and to reveal Him to people.  Anything I see that will contribute to those goals, that’s what I will do.  I don’t really know how I will treat a subject until I do it.  I hope that answers your question.”
     “Oh well.  And so, I guess that’s the best answer you can give under those criteria.  Can’t say much more, I suppose.”
     “There now.  There won’t be any money involved.  Just let me eat table scraps and sleep in that horse shed…that manger…over there for three months.  That’s all I ask!”
     “Well, for three months then.  I guess I can stand it that long.  Anyway, I’m intrigued with the idea, with what you might do.  Three months, not a day longer, mind you.  And no talking.”
     In the distance, coyotes yelped in hungry unison, banding for the day’s hunt.
     Frank put his right hand’s forefinger against his lips, signaling thereby that the agreed upon term of silence was beginning immediately.  Mildred turned about and walked toward her front door, shaking her head and saying to her­self, “How do I get into these messes?  What did I do to deserve this?  Why am I doing it?  Why, O Lord?”

          

     It was mid-September when Francis Reed first appeared at Mildred’s quiet old ranch house, which faced southwest toward the small town of Saints Roost and on to Big Bend.  The road from her ranch house wound downhill through sage­brush and cacti to the state highway.  After the five-minute bumpy drive down from her place to the paved road, it took yet thirty more minutes at the posted speed limit to reach town.  Ordinarily Mildred drove into town each Saturday, but this time she waited until the first of October.  She had plenty of provisions to see her through that extended peri­od, and she had become fascinated by the activity of her new “pet”.
     As soon as Mildred had gone into the house on that first day, Francis had taken a scythe from the tool shed in her carport and started mowing down the huge tumbleweeds that had grown up in her horse pen, which stood about fifty yards northeast of Mildred’s house.  The rattlesnakes had gone into hibernation, so there wasn’t much to fear from them.  It had taken Francis nearly all day to clear out the brush, haul it down to a broad, dry creek bed, and burn it.   The work had been rough, too, because the tumbleweeds were dessicated just enough to harden their thorns, yet not enough to break up easily.  All day, the dog trotted and loped around him as he worked.
     When dusk came, Francis and the dog walked up to the yard fence.  There on the carport slab they found the skil­let and a blue china plate—a concession to Francis’ human­ness.  The contents, however, were not similarly distin­guishable: each had a bit of some meat resembling chopped steak (rather undone) or corned beef hash (rather too done), and a sort of mush concocted apparently of mashed potatoes, corn and some kind of small brown beans.  But Francis, and certainly the dog, did not view the menu before them thus critically; they were of a single mind in seeing the sub­stances as capable of filling irritating pits in their stomachs.
     Through the diaphanous screen around her porch, Mildred watched the two gobble up the luncheon leavings she and Adeline Burroughs, her 60-year-old neighbor of ten miles away, had abandoned after satiety.  Adeline, short and plump, was Mildred’s most frequent visitor. Dropping in once every week or two, she would talk about goings-on in town and the latest buffoonery emanating out of the county courthouse—today she had reported how one of the commis­sioners had been caught switching price tags on a fishing reel at a sporting goods store in a neighboring county—and to see how healthy Mildred was.  Adeline was indeed always curious about things.  For that reason, Mildred had kept her in the fore part of the house during her whole visit, claim­ing that the back porch was too big a mess for anyone to be allowed to see.  One day Adeline was bound to find out about Mildred’s pet artist, but better later than earlier, Mildred thought.  No telling what crazy notions Adeline would hatch in town were she to glimpse the man in the plaid shirt out in the horse pen.  Good thing Francis was over at the creek bed virtually the whole time of Adeline’s visit.  Mildred needed time to come up with some explanation for his pres­ence or to make certain he stayed well hid.  For the time being, the latter appeared the more feasible tack.  Lies, even white ones, have a way of multiplying beyond control.
     The sun had already set, but the lingering twilight, aided by the gradual entree of heaven’s brightest stars, still rendered the whole back yard scene visible.  Mildred watched as the man and the dog finished their meals.  The man then opened the gate, set the plate and the old skillet just inside the yard, and walked out to the manger.  The dog ran ahead of him a ways, came back, reared up against the man’s denim-covered thigh, and then took off running again, running toward the manger as though he knew that was the man’s destination.
     Mildred reflected a bit, one forefinger against her lower lip.  Fall was here.  Although the days were still warm, the nights were chilly—sometimes, to some people, downright cold.  Mildred knew there was some hay out in the manger; it would suffice as a bed of sorts.  But what of cover?  She couldn’t imagine anybody sleeping out there all night long without a blanket, unless their sleep was that of the frozen dead.  She had some blankets of her own, of course, but their quality was too fragile, not one of them of a grade she wanted to abandon to the harshness of the elements.  There was, however, on the wall above her sand­stone fireplace a deer hide, the hide of a five-point whitetail buck her husband had shot—O lands! —years ago, when he and she were in their thirties, still in the blos­somtime of their love.  In its own way, then, the deer hide was precious—nay, more precious—to her than any of the blankets folded neatly in the linen closet; but it was definitely designed for outdoor use and not for hanging over a fireplace, getting all smudged by smoke.
     Mildred went to her utility closet in the hallway and pulled out her aluminum four-step ladder.  Returning to the fireplace, she looked up briefly at the deer hide, shook her head in disgusted wonderment, and climbed up to take the hide down.  She rolled it up on the floor and then, carrying it over her shoulder, ambled down the hall, through the kitchen and the back porch, over the cobblestone walk to the gate, up the path to the horse pen, and to the manger.  It was pure night by now, although early by the clock; the stars and the half moon in the expansive West Texas sky lit up all creation with a silvery blue light.  By the celestial gleaming she could discern the young man asleep on scattered hay, exhausted from his day’s labor.  His body was on the hay; but his head, wreathed in tousled locks, rested on the rib cage of the dog, which lay crosswise beneath him, its deep rhythmical breathing providing a kind of rocking cradle for the man.  The dog heard Mildred’s approach and lifted its head momentarily to look at her, but then laid it back down again, yet keeping its eyes open.  Mildred unrolled the deer hide and spread it out gently over the man.  She stood there a moment, her hands folded in front of her, looking in puzzlement at the youth and then in satisfaction with what she had done with the hide.  Then she walked back, through the cool, starry night, to her house.

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     The next day, shortly after sunrise, Mildred awoke and put on her hearing aid to listen to the “Farm and Ranch Report” on her radio.  As she was listening, she suddenly heard the sound of something large moving noisily through the brush just beyond her back fence.  She got up and lifted a slat of the venetian blind on her bedroom window.  Outside, in the faint dawn light, she saw Francis Reed, or whoever he was, pulling the trunk of a cottonwood tree through the pasture to the horse pen he had cleared the previous day.  She recognized the tree trunk as one that had fallen over across the creek after a flash flood sent a torrent of brown water down the creek bed a year ago and more.  Similar torrents in previous years had so denuded and weakened the tree’s root structure that it finally could no longer with­stand the water’s insistent hammering, and it fell.  Now here was the young stranger dragging it, minus most of its limbs, across a pasture and into Mildred’s horse pen.  “Has he cleared it out only to clutter it up?” she said to her­self, letting go of the blind’s slat.
     On the porch later that morning Mildred sat watching her pet artist carving away at the cottonwood trunk with a chisel and hammer, possibly items he had carried in his knapsack, since Mildred didn’t recognize them as hers.  Sitting in her wing chair, cheek supported by palm, her elbow supported by the chair’s arm, she gazed entrancedly the greater part of the morning out through the screen wall at the man, now shirtless, lifting the hammer over his ear and bringing it down against the chisel’s head.  After each stroke with his right hand, he would bend his left wrist, twisting the wood chip loose from its last tenuous grasp on the trunk.  Swing, twist; swing, twist.  The rhythm of his actions was reflected in his bare back, where his muscula­ture continually contracted and expanded in a flowing rip­ple.  Every minute or so, he would pause and lean back a little to gauge the broader progress of his work, then he would return to the swing and twist motions.  And the dog was there, no more than ten feet away, lying in the shade of the manger, his nose between his paws, his eyes watching the sculptor at his work.
     When the sun had reached the edge of Mildred’s roof, so that she was sitting almost entirely in chilly shadow, she arose and went into the kitchen to prepare some lunch.  “Shoo! Get down from there!”  she said to the lean cat, who was on the sink counter biting into the cellophane packaging of a bread loaf.  The cat hopped onto a chair and thence to the floor.
     “What’ll I do?” Mildred asked herself agitatedly.  “I don’t want to make more than enough…just because he’s out there.  I wish I had known it would lead to all this bother.  I wouldn’t have consented to it.  I just wouldn’t!  I know what: I’ll make less than enough, even for me.  There won’t be anything for the dog—poor dog—but he’s not supposed to be here anyway.  Needs to get back where he belongs.”
     She made some chili macaroni, a small potfull, as little as the recipe would allow.  She also chopped up a quarter head of lettuce and a tomato and some green onions for salad.  Then she sat down to eat, to gorge herself if need be; she wasn’t about to go hungry herself for the sake of a couple of wayfarers.  Let them go catch a jackrabbit as the honest coyotes did.  And she ate and she ate until her stomach felt bloated and her jaw ached.  But there was still nearly half a pan of chili mac left and not a small amount of salad.  Mildred shook her head almost despairingly.  Then she scraped the leftovers, in equal portions, into the old skillet and the blue plate.  “Impossible!” she said. “Impos­sible!”

          

     Frank was a slow, meticulous artist, but by the third week the piece began to take shape, to reveal some kind of recognizable coherency to Mildred as she stood near the corner of her fence in the back yard sprin­kling corn about for the duck and the goose.  The composi­tion’s subject seemed to be a man sitting, apparently on the ground.  Mildred, pausing in her pet-tending chore and shading her face from the bright morning sun, surmised that the figure must be some biblical character, for he was wearing one of those headpieces that always reminded her of a towel bound to the head with the bottom ring of a wicker­work basket.  A rather clever touch, Mildred thought, was the way Francis had used the bases of real branches to carve out a kind of plant that grew behind and bent over the sitting man.  The figure was hugging his knees and staring off into space with an expression of angry indignation.  The only biblical character Mildred could think of who was consistent with such a scene was Jonah—Jonah, with God’s special plant shading him, waiting to see whether Nineveh would ever be destroyed as he had prophesied.
     In her bedroom that night, Milded took her small Bible from its dusty place on a headboard shelf and reread the brief story of Jonah, of how the prophet had sat for days painfully annoyed because he couldn’t limit God’s mercy any more effectually than he had limited the horizon of God’s presence.  Most of the artworks she had seen that depicted the troubles of Jonah had shown the incident of his being swallowed by a big fish.  She couldn’t recall any previous work that emphasized the prophet’s sullen anger and the role of the heavenly-ordained plant.  What was her pet artist trying to say?  She couldn’t ask him: she had obligated him to silence, and her pride wouldn’t let her override that obligation, even if curiosity was driving her crazy.  She had never been as knocked about by the desire to know, the reluctance to enquire.  Why did he have to pop into her life?  Why didn’t he just vamoose out of it?  An eighty-year-old woman shouldn’t have to put up with such nonsense, should have only peace and quiet around her, not an insane artist creating an angry statue in her horse pen.

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     By the first of November, Francis was through with the Jonah piece.  At least, he quit doing anything to it that Mildred ever saw.  Another sign that the work was finished was that the artist had collected all the wood chips and shavings on the ground around it, put them in some old apple crates retrieved from the storage shed, and set the crates near Mildred’s stack of firewood: kindling.
     Then he started collecting tin cans and any other refuse of light weight metal he might find.  Developing a sizeable stash of such items did not take many days because the creek bed in some places was littered with cans discard­ed by cowboys.  If he had not been so highly selective in the cans he picked—of a relatively uniform size and their silver gleam still free of rust—and had he not so carefully removed all the paper labels glued around their circumfer­ences, Mildred might have launched into a tirade over what certainly would have appeared to her as a trash heap in her back yard.  Well, in fact it was a trash heap, only a rather pretty and neat one, like a silvery cone.
     One chilly night in early November, when the moon was full and high in the navy-blue heaven, Mildred walked out into the back yard to clear her head of a headache created by the hot stuffy house and to call in the cats.  She saw the moonlight gleaming on Francis’ pile of tin, silver on silver compound­ing in brightness, without any other distracting otherness visible.  The tin pile was near the stable, and Mildred ventured toward it, clutching the collar of her blue house coat close for warmth, to see if a nearer inspection might divest the pile of its mystery, of its hold on her.  She looked at it a few minutes before her peripheral vision detected a movement in the manger.  Turning her direct gaze that way, she was surprised to see her two Siamese cats lying near Francis on the straw.  As usual the young man’s head was cradled on the dog’s rib cage.  Behind him in the deepest recess of the manger stood the duck and the wild goose, their heads tucked under their wings.  Francis lay still in the center of them.  Mildred’s deer hide covered him from neck to calf.  He had his boots on.
     Mildred shivered and ambled back toward her house.

          

     As the days grew more wintry, Francis took to wearing the deer hide as a sort of cape while he worked.  He looked somewhat like a caveman from certain angles.  His hair had gotten longer, of course, hanging down below his shoulder.  With his locks falling over the brownish-grey fur of the buck’s hide, the total effect was to render him rather wild-looking.
     He had pulled an old engine block out of the tool shed and was using it as an anvil on which to beat the bits of tin into malleable condition.  Working up louvers here and clamps there, he fashioned the tin pieces together, like scales over scales or, more aptly, feathers over feathers.  For, as it turned out, what he was creating was a bird.
     But what kind of bird?  Again, Mildred was hindered by her pride from obtaining a direct answer.  She watched from inside her screened-in porch as the wild artist cut and pounded and chipped and twisted away at the bits of trans­formed tin.  In a week’s time, Mildred could discern some­thing of the design of the composition, something more than the fact that it was simply a bird.  By the angle of the bird’s head—off to its right and bent slightly upward as though it were serenading God—the figure gave a primary clue as to its identity; although further clues were not lacking, in the extent of its tail feathers relative to body length and in the peculiar shape of its head and spoon-like beak.  Partly through familiarity with those features but also through intuition Mildred guessed that it was a mock­ingbird.
     All Mildred knew about the mockingbird species at that point was that it was the state bird, that it had a strong sense of “territorial imperative”, and that it could mimic other birds. Again retiring with a book, in bed she read up on mockingbirds, just as she had studied Jonah’s saga in the Bible.  This time it was an old birdwatcher’s book her husband had enjoyed reading.  Therein she discovered that the mockingbird also performs some acrobatic ritual dances no one has been able to interpret.  But what intrigued her most was that the mockingbird, with more than thirty songs in its repertory, has no song of its own.
     She lay in much of the next morning.  For some reason she couldn’t put her finger on, she felt unwilling to face the reality of the day.  Why? she wondered, as she lay studying the swirled patterns in her antique ceiling.  She didn’t feel ill and she had retired the previous night unaware of any external cause for anxiety.  She had even felt then a sense of  accom-plishment because of her new knowledge, however minute and inconsequential, about the mockingbird.  Yet there was something that bothered her about what she had learned.  Was that it, that the mocking­bird, although the most glorious of songbirds, was denied a private melody?  The young man had told her his goals were to glorify God and to reveal Him to people.  How did the mockingbird reveal God to people?  Was Francis saying God has no direct voice of His own, that He can speak to us only through other humans, other creatures? Otherness manifest­ing.  And she had bound the young man to silence for three months; she had tried to gag God.  And the three months were up.  Her pet artist would be leaving, probably today.  Now anxiety did indeed invest her.  She must get up and go out to the horse pen to release the young man from his bond, to ask the pet artist to tell her all he can about God.

          

   The next afternoon, as the sun was beginning to squat down over the buttes above Saints Roost, Joe Vandenburg was just turning his grey pickup from Aspen Street onto Main on his way to the “Country Kitchen” when he saw an old blue station wagon careening down the state highway out of the mountains.
     “That looks like Adeline Burroughs’ car,” the heavy, bearded rancher said to his foreman, Alberto Juarez, a short, wiry man seated next to him.
     Joe delayed his turn.  “But Adeline don’t usually drive that fast,” Alberto said as she whizzed by in front of them.
     The truck followed the car as it proceeded five blocks west on Main and pulled in at the “Country Kitchen”.
     “Guess we’ll find out what’s up now,” said Joe.  “That woman’s a talker if ever there was one.”
     Upon entering the warm, half-crowded cafe, the two men saw Adeline standing in the middle of a group of five or six cowboys and oil field roughnecks.  She was gesticulating and talking fast, almost hysterically.  The men standing about appeared uncertain whether to wrestle her to the floor and forcibly calm her down or to let her go on raving.
     “Help me!  Help me!  For God’s sake, come with me out to Mildred’s!  She’s gone crazy, I tell you, and I can’t spend all evening here explaining it to you!”
     “We’ll go with you,” Joe said calmly, and spat some of his chaw into a paper cup he carried with him everywhere.  “These fellas can stay and finish their suppers.”
     Adeline turned, looked at Joe and Alberto hopefully, and ran out the door.  The two men again found themselves following the blue-black exhaust fumes of Adeline’s station wagon, this time back up the highway and the winding road to Mildred’s ranch house.  By the time they arrived the sun had set on the mountains behind them, but they couldn’t see it, hid as it was by a curtain of red and purple and mauve clouds.  Some golden rays beamed through a gap in the clouds and illuminated a distant valley.
     Mildred’s front door was wide open, left that way by Adeline when she went for help.  Joe and Alberto caught up with Adeline at the doorway.  She was standing there staring quietly into the living room.  Over her shoulders they saw Mildred coming from the hallway toward them.  She had an unconscious, beatific smile on her face, rather like the Mona Lisa, and she was murmuring to them as she stamped across the room, “I’m a mouse.  Can you hear me?  I’m a very loud mouse walking across this floor.  Can you hear me?”
     Alberto took a coverlet off the couch and wrapped it around Mildred’s shoulders.  “Why don’t you just lie down over here a few minutes, Mildred?” he said, hugging her and gently nudging her toward the couch.  After he had persuaded her to lie down, he said to Adeline, “I think she’ll come out of it.  She’s had some kind of shock.  Do you know what caused it?”
     “Not really.  Something out in the horse pen, I think.  Go look out in the horse pen.”
     Leaving Alberto to watch after the two women, Joe went through the house and the screened-in porch.  Twilight had firmly settled in by now, but Joe could see well enough as he strode over the cobblestone walk and out to the horse pen.  There, facing him at the open gate, stood something that looked like part of a tree trunk, about four feet high, that had been sculpted into the form of a man sitting under a large-leafed plant of some sort.  At the base of the plant, a worm almost as large as a snake appeared to be gnawing.  Inside the pen, Joe noticed a foot-tall tin bird—its beak pointing at the pinkish sky—perched on an old engine block.  “Humph!” Joe muttered to himself.  “Ol’ Mildred must’ve been cleanin’ out her attic and settin’ up for a yard sale.”  Then a crunching noise and a sudden movement in the darkened horse stall startled him, and he looked up quickly to see a five-point whitetail buck, its head bent down, calmly chewing some hay.


So Where’s The Wisdom?

©2013 By Bob Litton

I will reach — perhaps peak at — seventy-four next Sunday. Let that announcement be a warning that you can expect a heavy dose of “navel-gazing” in this, my last post of the year, maybe last post ever.

I was sitting in one of the two rocking chairs at Judy’s Bread and Breakfast cafe this morning, sipping my honey-sweetened coffee and reading D.H Lawrence’s Women in Love for about the fourth time. I had read it first back in the 1960s. The novel had enthralled me, mostly through what I perceived to be its perfectly balanced structural architectonics. I was a history major at the time, and when I returned to the university for a master’s degree in English literature, I chose Lawrence as the subject for my thesis largely because I had admired that particular novel. Naturally, I had to reread it a couple of times, along with other of Lawrence’s novels, stories and essays, to complete my thesis. Although I liked some of the other writings, Women in Love remained preeminent in my estimation.

Now here was I forcing myself to finish the last thirty pages of that novel. Why? Why did I have to force myself? Forty-two years of changes in the world and my own maturation is the only answer I can offer. I can no longer perceive the “architectonics” of that novel; rather, mostly what I see is a drum-beat of repetition and a whole cast of characters obsessed with their own ambivalences, their alternations between hate and love. It is a very dreary world: but Lawrence’s attitude can be understood, I believe, when one considers that the book was written during World War I and that Lawrence and his German wife, Frieda, were hounded all over England.

But neither Lawrence nor Women in Love is my primary topic here: change due to aging is.

In an essay I published here on December 2, “Looking Backward”, I noted how many items and experiences we had enjoyed in our youth lose their luster over the years. I still do not understand why that should be the case, especially to the extensive degree that it holds true: I mean, the degrading of some items and experiences I can understand, but a massive load of them? Give me a break!

Surely, I thought as I sat in that rocking chair this morning, surely we should be able to retain something of value and true to the fact as it first appeared; it should not all be flushed away. If the face of everything fades or gets distorted over time, then what is the point of ever liking something in the first place?

That thought led me to wondering if I could point to anything — hopefully, many things — I had learned during my seventy-four years that was still valuable. One possibility was a comment that I had heard from two people, at different times but still similar almost verbatim. One young lady, speaking to her mother in my presence about a boy in her high school class, said, “He is brilliant, but he hasn’t got any common sense.” On another occasion about thirty years later, an elderly woman, speaking of her daughter, told me, “She’s brilliant but she hasn’t got any common sense.” Since that second instance, by its exactness and remoteness in time, seemed to strongly support the first, I deduced that such a quality in humans must be at least somewhat common. I even could see the quality in myself; for, even though several people through the years — from one of my Chinese professors at Yale University to a tradesman in a Dallas pub — have remarked that I was very intelligent, others have been exasperated by my inability to perform the most common of everyday tasks.

While I was sitting there in the rocking chair pondering that and similar episodes, a customer, who was standing in line, waiting to make his order at the counter, addressed me, “What are you reading?”

Women in Love…by D.H. Lawrence,” I replied, with a rather doleful smile on my face.

“Do you like it?” the customer asked.

“I can’t stand it now, although at one time…many years ago…I enjoyed it very much; I can’t imagine why now. I am forcing myself through it. It’s awfully cynical.”

The man smiled and said, “My son says I am cynical. He’s twenty-four. ‘Just wait a few years’, I tell him.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll be turning seventy-four in a few days, and I’ve been trying to recall whatever I’ve learned during all those years, but it seems that the lessons I’ve learned…well, there never is an occasion to apply them. The problems that develop are never the same; they are different.”

“That’s true,” the customer said. “I’ll have to write that down.”

Many people over the centuries have asserted that aging and experience foster wisdom, but all I can say is I am still waiting: So where is the wisdom?



catastrophe type model

Unidentified Catastrophe Model Type from Google Images

“It is an intriguing thought that the same mathematics may underlie not only the way the genetic code causes the embryo to unfold but also the way the printed word causes our imaginations to unfold.”

                                                 — E.C. Zeeman, “Catastrophe Theory”,
                                                     Scientific American (April 1976), page 83

©2013 By Bob Litton

Most of us Earthlings consider “catastrophe” a synonym for “disaster”. Not so do the mathematicians, in whose abstract realm a catastrophe is just a way of describing an abrupt change in the world of things and events. For, they say, discontinuous or divergent events are simply another aspect of continuous and stable events.

The way these theories manage to come about is apropos. The system for describing continuous phenomena mathematically — called “differential calculus” — was invented concurrently by an Englishman and a German in the 17th century. It took a Frenchman, René Thom, to come up with a way of describing divergences in 1968. The suitableness arises out of the common notion that the British and the Germans are staid, while the French are spontaneous. The general tendency of differential calculus was to lob off imaginative bypaths, to make the universe into a safely circumscribed, predictable clock.

And yet, catastrophe theory is, in a fundamental sense, as deterministic as differential calculus. Using it, one supposedly could predict the moment a dog will bite (by measuring the space between his lips) or when he will tuck in his tail and run (by measuring the angle between his ears and skull). In another and just as basic sense, however, catastrophe theory does relate positively to the imagination: It not only serves practical ends when it is applied through continually multiplying ramifications to diverse aspects of Nature and human society, but it also may serve as a model to explain, as catastrophist E.C. Zeeman says in the article cited in the epigraph above, how our imagination itself works. Let us speculate as to what implications catastrophe theory might have for at least two of the humanities: dramatic criticism and ethics.

Thom devised seven basic mathematical formulas with accompanying diagrams —some quite visually pleasing* — to explain his theory; and he gave them colorful names such as “butterfly” and “swallowtail” due to their resemblance to natural phenomena . Thom’s “laws” have supposedly become diffused throughout educated society by now; at least, that would seem to be the case, since a term, “tipping point”, an essential element in the catastrophe theory, has appeared in news reports on a variety of subjects during the past decade. Most of those reports have concerned the weather and economic predictions, but I would not be surprised to see the theory affect dramatic criticism; for, one of the basic facts of psychological catastrophes is that a person cannot be neutralized by two contrary emotions of equal intensity. “…(T)wo controlling factors are then in direct conflict,” says Zeeman. “Simple models that cannot accommodate discontinuity might predict that the two stimuli would cancel each other, leading again to neutral behavior. That prediction merely reveals the shortcomings of such simplistic models, since neutrality is in fact the least likely behavior.”[1] It is conceivable then that a theater critic of the catastrophe school could chop Hamlet all to pieces.

Interpretations of Hamlet the character are multiple (e.g., straight forward: his search for certainty before committing a distasteful act; influence of the Reformation: contemporary debate about the existence of Purgatory; Freudian: Oedipus-Complex; Mirror: other characters’ interpretations of Hamlet’s motives and actions as concentrated on their selves, and the audience’s interpretations). Heretofore, the variety of the interpretations has been held up as a sign of the superiority of Shakespeare’s psychological perspicacity. The “straight forward” interpretation — the one most generally adopted — maintains that the prince represents the ineffective intellectual (of reason divided against its self). Perhaps because of Shakespeare’s literary stature, the nearly flawless classical structure of this play, and the poetic quality of the lines the playwright puts into Hamlet’s mouth, such inaction has been considered a weakness in the character and not of the characterization. But what if someone eventually analyzes Hamlet the character through the lens of catastrophe theory and discovers that the prince is really just a poked bag full of contrary ideas and not of contrary emotions.

What would be necessary to accomplish this, of course, would be measurable parameters, something that could be graphed so that, say, a “butterfly” or a “swallowtail” catastrophe would develop. Each stage in Hamlet’s psychological development would have to be given some numerical value. However, it should not be more difficult to “measure” Hamlet’s speeches than it was to measure the lip-span of an enraged dog. Something of the sort has already been done with self-pity, which Zeeman declares can be measured directly. Self-pity, he says,

is a defensive attitude commonly adopted by children, and it often seems that sympathy is powerless to alleviate it. A sarcastic remark, on the other hand, may provoke a sudden loss of temper and, by releasing tension, may open a pathway back to a less emotional state. It is unfortunate that sarcasm should succeed where sympathy fails, but the cause of that irony is apparent in the model. The sarcasm brings an increase in frustration, and as a result the point representing mood travels across the behavior surface as far as the fold curve; having reached the extremity of the bottom sheet, it is forced to make a catastrophic jump to the top sheet, and self-pity is transformed into anger.[2]

Once the parameters as scales have been worked out, the catastrophic analysis should be applicable to the protagonist in any play, at least in any play purporting to fit the mold of a play having a protagonist who undergoes some sort of “recognition of self” event. If the protagonist does not measure up to the criteria (i.e., if his change is not adequately justified by the cumulative causes) then he might be declared an “incomplete protagonist”; and the play, a “flop”.

Many people — of the anti-behaviorist sort — would hate to see such a development, for the same approach could be applied to living beings. In fact, this is already being done in England, where doctors have used catastrophe theory in conjunction with trance therapy to cure girls of anorexia nervosa. It is one thing, of course, to say that a certain behavior has had sufficient precedent cause and quite another thing to create behavior because one knows what will be sufficient cause. The latter action is what essentially terrifies the anti-behaviorists, although they waste no time in transferring their distaste to the former.

The problem is at least as old as Socrates, who advised “know thyself”, and his fellow Athenians, who killed him because self-knowledge was exactly what they did not want. In the ethical sense, however, the unpleasant prospect is not that individuals might be manipulated by some scientist who knows how to “cue” them through catastrophic determinants, but rather that proof irrefutable might evolve out of such research that individuals have no free will — not any more than has a beaker of mercury.

Now, let us lower the level of our discussion from the abstract to the concrete and the particular, where I, at least, feel more comfortable. Take the instance of a young man in the military during the early 1960s — at the height of the Cold War: the Cuban missile crisis. This young man, who had previously accepted the world pretty much as he found it, began to read philosophy books for lack of anything better to do on a small island. Because of his reading, he started to question the beliefs he had taken for granted. Particularly, he began to see his country’s role in the world in a different, less idealistic light. All of a sudden he came to consider that the world might come to an end — and he with it — without his ever having had a chance to do something creative. He felt a strong impulsion to act; but he could not determine the right, the highest mode, of action.

It was not only that the problems were multifarious and overwhelming, but also that he did not feel secure about the sincerity of his own motives. He wondered how he could be certain he was not simply reacting to his environment, which was rather desolate and lonely, after all. He had had no problem joining the service; he felt that the four years he had signed up for was a small price to pay for all the past and potential opportunities he did and would enjoy. Nor did he feel strong animus against any of the other servicemen, not even those who outranked him, not any more anyway that he had felt toward civilians; they were serving their country as well as he, only with what he conceived to be a blindered dedication.

He wanted to be truer to himself than that: if only he could determine what his true self was. What if he committed some irreversible act on the basis of a strong but transitory faith and on the morrow became convinced that he had acted selfishly and foolishly? The poor fellow got so strung out that he began to analyze the motives behind his own thoughts.  He constructed little schematic problems for himself to solve, hoping in that way to abstract the issue to such a point that he could logically answer it in only one way.

For instance, he considered the possibility of a man who regularly craves candy bars discovering one day that he is a diabetic. The imaginary man tries to quit eating candy bars, and as long as he is active doing something else he does not even think about them. Occasionally, however, when he is alone and a candy bar is within easy reach, he is strongly tempted to eat it. The instant he thinks about how the candy bar would taste, that can be the only image occupying his mind. When he thinks about the diabetes, on the other hand, then that disease is the only subject uppermost in his mind. He knows, however, that he will have to act, for he cannot sit there forever, mentally hopping back and forth between desire and fear.

Therefore, the young man wondered, how can we say this fellow had any choice, since in the one second in which he has to act there can be only one thought in his mind? It seems simply fortuitous which thought happens to be there when he makes his move; and yet, whichever one it is, is the one that will “dictate” his choice. What “mechanism” is it that causes one thought to displace the other? Where does that displaced thought “go”? And what is the engine of the final, over-riding impulse that propels action?

The result was a nervous breakdown.

This seems to me to be at least partly how catastrophe theory relates to our artistic and ethical lives.


*(The reader can find more detailed information and illustrations on the seven elemental catastrophe graph forms on the Internet if he/she wishes to delve that deeply into the subject.  My purpose in this essay is not to discuss the mathematical aspects of catastrophe theory, but to explore the theory’s potential applications to dramatic plots and to ethical quandaries.)

[1]E.C. Zeeman, “Catastrophe Theory”, Scientific American (April 1976), page 65.
[2]Ibid., page 69.


Continue reading

O, For A Quieter, Saner Christmas

By Bob Litton

In my last blog post, I did some heavy reminiscing. I will have to do a little of the same here, gentle readers; but, I promise, not nearly as much.

Someone, way back when, declared emphatically that “Christmas is for children!” I find that remark a bit hyperbolical, yet I can accept its basic meaning as notably insightful. For, you see, when one steps on the porch of his 74th year, as I have done this month, all that is left of Christmas are a few pallid, cheerful memories of Christmases Past, several aggravating perceptions of a noisome Christmas Present, and a blurry outlook through oblivion’s window toward any Christmas Future: hardly a prospect to encourage joining Christmas carolers.

One feels some urge to remedy the shabby state of Christmas, but time bears down harder on us each year to such an extent that we are pressed just to plan improvements, much less perform them. And all the previous efforts to purify the day seem to have come to naught; consider as an example Stan Freberg’s satirical record of 1958, “A Green Christmas”*, where the “green” represented the color of money, not of pines and wreaths. The greed of that time was low-keyed compared to this generation’s, where ballyhooing and decorating for Christmas has encroached backward to Halloween and the phrase “Black Friday” is anomalous.

I wonder when the idea was born that a store’s whole solvency was dependent on a few weeks — now a couple of months — of shopping madness. As a child, of course, I was hardly aware of any issues connected with Christmas; it was just a point near year’s end when I got some toys in my stocking and hoped there would be snow that day. But even as a preteen, I paid little heed to it. It is only Freberg’s record and a few others like it on the radio that brought the matter to the surface by the time I reached the age of eighteen. And now, when I am more attuned to the economic cycle, after having experienced directly the effects of two recessions, I look askance at the retail industries.

Why, I wonder, naively perhaps, cannot the merchants simply modify their calendars and expectations so that they can match their balance sheets with a calmer rhythm throughout the year, one without any rush to promote? Of course there will be surges during the usual gift-, card- or candy-giving times such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Christmas; but they need not be expanded by an exerted push from the advertising agencies. Again, of course, such an idea is still naïve; although every balloon has its bursting point; and I think that when we have stretched the Christmas shopping season as far backward as Thanksgiving and even Halloween, then we have just about reached that bursting point. This year the merchants whined because the store-openings on Thanksgiving Day ate into their “Black Friday” sales totals: it is their own fault. They are like roulette addicts who place all their chips on the red December 25.  Someday, I hope, the people will awake and say, “Enough!”

Now, leaving the commercial aspect of Christmas and moving on to the religious aspect, current American attitudes towards Christmas are changing. This change is in line with the decline in adherents among all Christian denominations, although the line is blurred because of, for instance, the influx of immigrants who identify themselves as Catholics, and the switch-overs from one denomination to another. Also, I think, even among the faithful there is a developing sense of the mythical elements in religion, especially those related to the Nativity events. And, too, I think some of the fair-minded Americans feel that, although they enjoy the season, there is no logical reason to impose its observance on the entire body politic by all the hoopla that ushers it in each year. That is why we have more and more legal battles over crèches and “political correctness” demands that such small elements as the greeting “Merry Christmas!” be disallowed, to be substituted by “Happy Holidays!”.  I myself, as the teenage president of a Methodist Youth Fellowship in my small church, once asserted to our church’s Official Board that we should do away with Santa Claus because he is simply a caricature of God — a caricature which does not always fade away with age in the minds of simple people. That is why many people have an after-image of God as an old man with a wavy, white beard.

As I write, the Satanists are seeking the right to erect a symbol of their “religion” on the Oklahoma statehouse lawn; their purpose is to counter the recent placement of the Ten Commandments there. I suspect that this sort of shenanigans will continue until either the Supreme Court declares that the United States is solely a Judeo-Christian nation, or the born-again Christian groups give up out of exhaustion. Oddly, the court justices (what a misnomer!) seem oblivious of the magnitude of this issue.

Although I no longer adhere to the basic tenets of the religion of my youth, it still is part of my cultural heritage, and I would like to see some form of it — as a tradition — continue for others in a slimmed down form. Is there any way we can dispense with the Virgin Birth nonsense and the cradle in a manger, at least in their literal sense? Much of the attraction of Christmas that continues to appeal to me resides in several of the carols such as “O Holy Night” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”. (I like the music, not the mythology; the music hangs onto one’s brain like the memory of a favorite stuffed animal or baby blanket.) The Gene Autry hits, “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” and “Here comes Santa Claus”, however, annoy me, despite my childhood adulation of “the Singing Cowboy”. But the worst of it is that the radio stations and the speaker systems in stores start blaring out the “holiday cheer” more than a month before Christmas day. If it all started two weeks before December 25th, I could find it tolerable, provided I could avoid hearing most of the “music”.

No, I fear that modulation of the Christmas season as I envision it is chimerical. The whole event will become a law-wrapped mummy of itself or die away entirely.

* To listen to Stan Freberg’s “A Green Christmas”, try this URL:


Looking Backward

By Bob Litton

I cannot prove it, but I believe each generation suffers from a slowly declining appreciation curve when it comes to the past. More concretely, what we enjoyed immensely several decades ago no longer appeals to us, at least not as much as it once did.

I know that such is true for me. Over the past couple of years, in order to develop something more substantive and whole out of my life, I have gathered books, CDs and DVDs of radio dramas, novels, movies and music that at one time really had me hooked (Bill and Coo, Walt Disney’s Song of the South, Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah, Mondo Cane, Erroll Flynn’s recording of The Three Musketeers, a Roy Hamilton album, etc.). None was completely disappointing, but they naturally had lost the luster that had remained many years in my memory. The memories were more substantial than the actual works, as they can be attended now.

Those items I could retrieve; albeit finding them, in most cases, was surprising and can be attributed only to our new era of electronics and antiquarianism. Other elements in our memories are more definitely lost forever — except in our memories. Here, I am thinking of those buildings, vehicles and devices which were once common. Of course, some old items can be obtained, such as early cars and telephones, but usually only by people with a lot of money and mostly for the purpose of producing period films. The rest of us are not interested enough in obtaining such things for keeps, even if we could afford them; we just enjoy reminiscing about them. They are closely associated with the atmosphere and events of our youth.

At least one current magazine concentrates its editorial material on the long ago: Nostalgia. I flipped though it, or one like it, a few years ago with minimal interest; for I considered it a bit silly and time-wasting to read about old places and traditions. Even today I doubt that I could read one of those articles all the way through, but my reason would be slightly different. That magazine issue contained articles about such things as butter churns, out houses and button-up shoes; subjects which (except for the out houses) had disappeared from the daily scene before I came along. However, now there are elements from my world which have disappeared forever, and I find I am curious about them.

Most of my early life was spent in Dallas and the surrounding countryside — a countryside which has disappeared along with many of the restaurants, stores, theaters and vehicles of my youth. Is it not strange? At the time you are there, in that life period, and all those places and things are there also, it never occurs to you that one day they will not exist. So, now I am at the age when looking backward seems the only thing to do: toward the past is the only view that is tangible. I do what I once looked askance at when I saw older folks doing them. I reminisce. I become nostalgic. And that, dear reader, is what you are in for if you continue beyond this period.

When I was in the five- to ten-year age range, I and my mother lived in a duplex apartment on Noble Avenue in what at that time would have been called East Dallas but now is described as Old East Dallas, for the city limit has subsequently extended far beyond that point. It was just a couple of blocks south of the McKinney and Haskell intersection, where North Dallas High School still stands. There were houses and modest apartment buildings all along Noble then. When I drove through that area a couple of decades ago, I discovered that the Noble Avenue homes had been transmuted into multi-story office buildings or luxury apartments and a huge parking lot. Our old apartment was now a parking lot! It was a shock to me and a little bit depressing because, although I would not have been surprised to see the old residences gone and some newer homes in their places, to find the street itself so radically altered that I could not identify a single structure was like having one of my legs torn away.

Over the decades I was vaguely aware of other changes taking place in the city, but they did not affect me as much as the “new look” of Noble Avenue. That was because I watched the changes as they happened. Even when I was a preteen, I had witnessed the construction of Central Expressway (US75) where there had been a railroad track; my playmates and I used to gambol amid the large clods of dirt on the slopes of that construction site.

I also lived through the disappearance of the ice and milk deliverymen. We children used to feed the milkman’s horse with handfuls of grass wrenched from our yards. And I wondered how much the leather protective piece, along with the large block of ice, on the iceman’s back weighed.

During my high school years, I noted how the old street cars had been transformed, first into electrically-powered buses (with electric cables on their roofs connected to a power line, just like the former street cars except without the rails in the streets) and then into gasoline-powered buses.

The major changes, however, occurred downtown. Once upon a time, the sidewalks had been crowded with shoppers and movie-goers and littered with the trash people heedlessly tossed. There were the major department stores: Sanger Bros., A. Harris, Green’s, Titche-Goettinger…and, of course, Neiman-Marcus. During the 1950s and 60s, shopping in downtown Dallas declined as shoppers began to prefer the closer and supposedly safer shopping centers that had developed in various corners of the city. In 1961, Sanger Brothers and A. Harris, both owned then by Federated Department Stores, were merged as Sanger-Harris. By the 1990s, about the only major department store still open downtown was Neiman-Marcus. And, although many people still worked in the inner city, there was much vacant office space, and not many folks lingered after 5 p.m.

As for the theaters, I remember “Theater Row” on Elm Street. I was not around, of course, during the 1910s-1920s, when several of those theaters were built in the heyday of vaudeville. However, I remember the lineup in the 1940s and 1950s. From the east facing west, one could walk along the opposite side of the street and view the colorful façades of the movie houses: Majestic, Melba, Tower, Palace, Rialto, Capitol and Strand. The old theaters generally had colorful decors, especially the Palace, which was unique in that it also had a grand organ which would rise out of the floor at one end of the stage, with delightful music being played, just before the movie started.  But, as with the department stores, the downtown movie houses were victims of the movement to the suburbs, where new theaters multiplied, and where, of course, television became less a novelty and more of an entertainment necessity. I remember when even the neighborhood movie houses began to go under, especially the Casa Linda theater, which closed in 1999 after showing its last film: Titanic. Now, that’s a prophetic film to show as one’s finale, is it not?

Dallas was also particularly gifted with plentiful and varied dining spots, both high dollar and low dollar — as well as the moderately priced, of course. I am not asserting that such is no longer the case; I haven’t resided there in more a dozen years; I am only saying that the restaurants and cafes that I enjoyed are mostly gone now.

The less upscale but still colorful and popular eateries included Roscoe White’s Easy Way on Lover’s Lane and then on Lemmon Avenue, a restaurant with attached bar, that specialized in barbecue but sold American blue plate specials as well; the China Clipper on McKinney near Haskell, where I learned my first Chinese words; Little Gus’ diner on Lower Greenville (a fun greasy spoon spot).

Downtown near the Dallas Times Herald building and “Big Red” (the old county courthouse) was a cozy German restaurant called the Blue Front. The heavy-set German who owned the place worked the register while customers were served cafeteria-style. The walls were covered with framed photos of celebrities who had eaten there.

Then there was the mysterious eatery that fascinated me: the Pirate’s Cave. You entered that place down a short flight of stairs from the sidewalk. It was owned and operated by a couple of Greek brothers, Basil and George Sedaris.

Well, all those places are gone now, and I am doubtful that I would experience the same delight I took in them all those many years ago even if they could magically materialize and I could go back to them. Nostalgia is a fun but skinny mistress.


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