Archive for July, 2015

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 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 perching 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

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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

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