“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of a passionate intensity.”
— from “The Second Coming”, by William Butler Yeats
© 2014, 2015 By Bob Litton
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Some things you’re better off not looking at too closely. One of them is Thanksgiving.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re Christian, Jew, Muslim, or pagan. How can you count your “blessings” without their being contrasted with somebody else’s “lacks”? If you are blessed, are they therefore condemned?
How can we keep from choking on our turkey when we know people are starving here and across the world? Still, it is not, strictly speaking, our fault. We have tried to get food to war-torn areas as well as to places where natural disasters have rendered people homeless and even isolated. Even to share our “bounty” has sometimes become such a problem as to require diplomats, as was the case in Cambodia in 1979, when I published the original version of this essay.
And yet I wouldn’t have Thanksgiving not be. It has always been my favorite holiday — based on a religious origin yet not as heavily saccharine as Christmas, nor as ridiculously extended.
Many of us will be taking off to distant places (if we can afford the gasoline or plane tickets) in order to spend a few days with our relatives, whom we may not have seen for a year or more.
We’ll all disappear into warm houses and have a cordial meal. We’ll look at photos and watch three or four football games. If we’re wise and not too lazy, though, we’ll walk a few times around the park to aid digestion before we bury ourselves in those easy chairs.
That’s what I like about Thanksgiving, getting all muffled up with only the face exposed to get a red nose from the frosty air. It will be dusk, with just enough daylight to create an orange-red horizon as though there were a forest fire going on over the nearby hill.
The trees, without a single leaf left, will lose their definition as we observe them from trunks to twigs, and they become a mousy gray mass at the top, where they meet the golden and purple sky.
All the field of grass will be brown and quiet, not a breath of breeze to disturb it. But no, a rabbit just jumped out of a clump of bushes we were passing and darted in a triangular pattern into another hedge.
Down the road a ways, some little boys will be playing football in the park, in their imaginations identifying with their NFL heroes of the time. As they fall and roll they collect bits of the brown grass and dead leaves on their coats and stocking caps.
The next day we can return to the concerns of Iraq and our own stumbling democratic discourse. Just for this day it is better to forget it all and to lose one’s self in a revery of the scene of frost and trees and boys playing. That’s what I can be thankful for.
© 2015 By Bob Litton
“You find the beauty in ordinary things. Do not lose this ability.”
— Note from a fortune cookie
I love serendipity. It has played such a prominent role in my adult life that I have granted it mystical powers, for the things I find while looking for something else have often spoken eloquently to my mind, my heart, my soul. Sometimes the messages have not been as positive as the epigraph above: sometimes they have been melancholy, but more often they have indeed been enlightening and even funny.
That cookie fortune, for instance, I came upon serendipitously just a few days ago while clearing my computer table of the mass of larger papers on it. Of course, I obtained the fortune months ago when I ate lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. I saved it for some reason I have forgotten; I would surmise, however, that I liked its assessment of me and the sentiment attending that assessment. Even the imperative sentence that follows is appreciable: it both exposes the fragility of the attuneness and enjoins me to nurture it. Not the sort of “fortune” I expect to find in such cookies; it does not predict anything.
So, how does that relate to the above photo of leaves? Well, the more obvious connection should not be difficult, dear reader, for you to perceive. Most people, I believe, look forward to the few weeks when the crisp air causes the leaves of the many trees to change from green to russet, gold, yellow, maroon, brown and even combinations of those colors within the same leaf. The last mentioned aspect is typical of the non-bearing mulberry trees on my apartment’s campus. I have been fascinated and amused by the color combinations in some of the leaves on the sidewalk and the driveway: one leaf, for instance, was a perfect imitation of a soldier’s camouflaged field jacket — tan and olive; another leaf was yellow with small brown dots, almost uniform in size and shape, that reminded me of a ladybug. I picked up four of the leaves the other day and laid them on my computer desk, where I am admiring them now even as they curl with dryness.
I have always enjoyed the color changes of autumn, but it seems that only this year have they meant so much to me that I practically adore them. This sudden acuteness to the sight of leaves is akin, I believe, to the vividness that the sounds of the acorns falling and rolling down my roof revealed; remember that I wrote about the acorns a few blog posts ago (Oct. 3). All the senses participate in this miracle of perception.
You remember, don’t you, Karen Carpenter’s song “Where Do I go from here?”? The early lines are:
Autumn days lying on a bed of leaves
Watching clouds up through the trees
You said our love was more than time.
It’s colder now;
The trees are bare and nights are long;
I can’t get warm since you’ve been gone….
Well, without the evocative music — not to mention Karen’s voice — some of the point I wish to make loses some of its emphasis. Those words remind me of my youthful days in Dallas, during the early winter, when the skies were a solid gray, with sagging clouds promising snow. The darkness of such a day was paralleled by the stillness of it. Someone unattuned to the fall season might imagine that such a scene would be depressing, but it did not strike me that way; as long as there was not a strong, cold wind I felt comfort in that setting. Now that the seasons are vanishing, the romance has diminished also.
Another old song — from ancient days when lyricists actually said something worth paying attention to in their lines — is “Autumn Leaves”, one of Andy Williams’ first hits:
The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold.
I see your lips, the summer kisses,
The sun-burned hands I used to hold.
Since you went away the nights grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song,
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall.
Now, I will concede that these two songs do reflect melancholy, but it is a melancholy of gentle love…of the yearning for coziness which only two bodies hugging each other can provide…which a fireplace cannot.
We also view the color-changing and falling leaves as symbolic of the transiency of Life itself. The curse in the fruit of Eden’s tree is not just new awareness of nakedness and fear; it also includes more momentously the anticipation of death. While fore-knowledge of death is not restricted to humans, we do seem to have a more lifelong curiosity and occasional fear of it; perhaps what sets our knowledge of death apart from that of other creatures is that we can visualize it, to an extent, as pre-existing within ourselves.
But then, after the leaves have been swept away and a few snowfalls have bonneted the bare limbs for a few months, the buds of new leaves appear. I wonder how many people, like me, are a bit disconcerted by this cycling from chartreuse and forest greens to a multitude of fiery tones. And then their disappearance. Yes, it is a topsy-turvy world where winter symbolizes our giving up the ghost, and then the spring interrupts our acceptance with a “Hey, hold on there! Don’t give up just yet! There is more to this show!”
And so, we start all over again…a bit surprised, a bit amused, a bit perplexed.
To add a little seasoning to the above essay, readers, you might want to check out the YouTube presentations of the two songs I mentioned. Try the URL’s below:
“Where Do I Go From Here?” (Karen Carpenter)
“Autumn Leaves” (Andy Williams)
©2014 By Bob Litton
PROLOGUE: Fifteen years ago I was sitting at the breakfast room table in my sister-in-law’s Dallas home. My brother Vernon, the eldest of us three male siblings, sat facing me on the other side of the small table. Our conversation about cars was interrupted when Vernon’s wife answered the door’s chimes and returned, leading in an acquaintance, a scion of one of the oldest families in the area and a member of the school board. He sat on a nearby couch, looked at Vernon and me with a curious grin, and said apropos of nothing, “Ah, the Brothers Karamazov!”
I had read Dostoevsky’s work of that title too many years previously to recall much of it at the moment, but I did understand, I believed, the point of his allusion; for there was some correlation between us Litton boys and the three sons of Fyodor Karamazov, a sly buffoon and an indifferent father in Dostoevsky’s philosophical novel. Fyodor’s off-handed off-spring, who grow to manhood almost entirely separately, are Dimitri, a sensualist and profligate; Ivan, an alienated rationalist; and Alyosha, a spiritually-inclined monastic novice, whose Elder sends him into the world to learn to cope with its seediness. Roughly considered, the parallel had its accuracies, just not totally, of course. The reader of this essay and of a future one about my other brother, Elbert, can determine for himself/herself if our visitor’s comparison was justified. I do not intend to write a similar mini-biography about myself; this whole blog series has been mostly about me; enough is enough.
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One of the funniest ironies I ever heard in my life was that Vernon, the elder of my two brothers, was birthed on a pool table in Mexico…and that he grew up to become the most notorious pool hustler in Dallas. He gained that reputation by hustling nightly at the Cotton Bowling Palace.
I am not certain now who related to me the story of Vernon’s strange nativity: it might have been my other brother, Elbert; or it might have been Vernon’s wife, Loretta. It definitely was not Vernon or either of my parents. The surprise birthing reportedly occurred during our parents’ shopping excursion to Matamoros, Mexico, in May of 1928. (At the time, they resided in the hamlet of Combes, Texas, a short drive north of the Rio Grande.) Pappy and Mother were in a hotel in Matamoros when labor activity began. For whatever medical reason, a hard surface, not a bed mattress, was needed; so whoever attended Mother used a pool table there in the hotel. I wish now that either of my parents had told me of this incident; I could have elicited more details. I wonder if a birth certificate or its Mexican equivalent was ever completed. Considering what the future held in store for Stanley Vernon Litton, I find the anecdote hilariously prophetic.
There are many basic questions I never asked any of my family members, one of which was how my parents decided on their children’s names. My own name “Robert Carl…” I could plausibly surmise because I had one maternal uncle named Robert. And another of Mother’s brothers was named Carl Lee… (their father was called Carl Anton….). Pappy had an older brother named Elbert, and Pappy’s own middle name was Barnett (I have no idea where that originated). But “Stanley Vernon”? Where did that come from? Certainly not from any of our relatives. Loretta told me recently, by the way, Vernon hated the name “Stanley”. I don’t understand that; it seems like a perfectly masculine, connotation-free name to me. When I ponder all the instances when I failed to make such pertinent inquiries, I wonder if I really was a born-journalist or not.
Pappy severely abused Vernon at least once, as my brother related to me at least three times. (Vernon had poor memory concerning matters about which he had already informed me.) The one episode he so often recounted occurred before I existed. Vernon said that our sister, Frances Vivian, whom I never knew because she died nearly two years before I was born, had accidentally locked the door to an outhouse and Pappy yelled at her, maybe even struck her. Vernon spoke up, screaming, “Daddy, don’t hurt her. She didn’t mean to do it.” Thereupon, Vernon recalled, Pappy kicked him in the chin. The first time Vernon related that anecdote to me, when we were both middle-aged, I pondered the possibility of that scene, and responded, “Pappy never hit or whipped me. To me, he wasn’t a bad daddy, just a no-daddy, since he was seldom around.” But Mother’s youngest sister Mary buttressed Vernon’s story a couple of years ago when she told me, “Bill Litton was a brutal husband and a brutal father. That’s why Vernon started lifting weights, because he wasn’t going to let Bill do that to him ever again.” (“Bill” was a moniker Pappy — whose actual name was “Haywood Barnett…” — picked up somewhere. That is another of the strange family facts for which I never sought an explanation.)
Vernon did in fact take up weight-lifting as a quasi-hobby; he did it too much for it to be classified as an “exercise routine”. Weight-lifting became an art form for him, almost a religion. Initially, taking into account that our family was borderline-poor, Vernon made his own barbell by pouring concrete into two large tin cans and sticking a steel bar between them. I have a small photo of Vernon and Pappy holding a barbell — one end held in the air by a teenaged Vernon and the other resting on Pappy’s head. That photo is suffused with a tint of irony. Vernon used to stand in front of the dressing table mirror and flex his arms, admiring his developing biceps, much as I would stand there whisking a cap pistol out of my scabbard, imagining myself to be Gene Autry.
Another of Vernon’s favorite activities was motorcycle riding, maintenance and, eventually, sales. In his later years especially, he had a motorcycle retail store out near the White Rock Lake spillway in Dallas, where he sold not just the vehicles but accessories as well. However, considering the paucity of walk-in customers, I believed that shop was just a cover for his sports bookmaking avocation. Still, he was pretty busy trading in luxury cars and high-end recreational vehicles.
Ironically, that motorcycle shop was positioned almost exactly where Vernon had a serious accident about three decades earlier. He was taking me to the junior high school. We were eastbound on Garland Road which lay beside the spillway. Suddenly a woman in a car darted out in front us from a side road. Vernon did not want to stop suddenly, for that might have thrown us into a spin and no telling how much harm. He slowed down as carefully as he could so that we were going only fast enough to keep upright: I was even able to dismount on my feet before the impact. Vernon would have been unhurt, too, except when the cycle overturned, the kick-starter gouged the calf of his left leg. Vernon cried out through excruciating pain, “Bobby, get this damn thing off me!” I lifted the cycle off him, and somebody in the crowd that had gathered went to a nearby business to phone for an ambulance.
Both of my brothers garnered reputations as ruffians in their teens and twenties, but Vernon was the one who made a regular avocation of it. He was, I have been told by others, a founding member of a neighborhood gang called the “Lakewood Rats”. I have no notion what those guys did; I didn’t even know they had existed as a gang until two decades after they had disbanded. It was, I imagine, just a way for a group of males, with not much else other than muscles, to explore their own identities. However, one day when I was in high school, I was walking down the sidewalk of Abrams Road, right in the middle of Lakewood, when I saw Vernon crossing the street with about a dozen fellows following him toward a parking lot behind a building that abutted the country club’s golf course, and I assumed they were seeking a secluded spot where Vernon and one of the others could engage in a fist fight. Also, after joining the Coast Guard in his late teen years, Vernon punched out a non-com officer; and, as the officer fell, his head struck a pipe, killing him. My brother spent two years in a federal prison in Louisiana for manslaughter.
As for my personal relations with Vernon, they never were very close, for I usually found it difficult to have a relaxed conversation with him. He would always approach our talks as contests of will rather than as exchanges of experiences and knowledge. You see, he had a developed case of the alpha male syndrome. He felt that he always had to be right; he could not stand even good-natured ripostes. It was usually easier just to listen to him or to leave him. However, it was not for that reason that there were extended gaps between our times together; there were several other conditions that kept us often separated, but they mostly did not have anything to do with our affections toward one another; so I won’t take up space with them here. And, weirdly, it wasn’t until I was into my middle years that I realized that Vernon’s problem was the alpha male syndrome: He always had to be the top dog, with his paw on top of everybody’s head.
On a couple of occasions Vernon embarrassed me in front of my friends in the coffee shop: once when he reacted violently to my disagreeing with him about what I should do with my wrecked car, and once when he was declaring to some people at another table that I had a college degree but didn’t know how to do anything. (While there was much truth in that, it wasn’t necessary to loudly proclaim it as he did.) Also, he tried — and to a certain extent succeeded in — cheating me and Elbert out of our inheritances. And (this is the rottenest instance of all) he either sold or gave away the books I had stored in one of eight boxes filled with my little library, some of which were irreplaceable and all of which were invaluable to me, only because he needed a cardboard box in which to store some car parts.
He would get almost insane with rage when he perceived me as saying something that was intellectual: “I’m smarter than you are Bobby, even if I didn’t finish high school.” Eventually, though, near the end of his life, he softened and allowed, “You’re more intelligent than I am, Bobby.” And all through those years I never really cared whether my brothers were more intelligent than I; they both, having had to learn to live on the streets at very early ages with little formal education to arm them, had developed high levels of what are commonly called “street smarts” — and that’s what it takes to really survive in this world, if simply surviving is what is most important to you.
On the other hand, Vernon paid my $1,500 fine after I had pleaded nolo contendere to driving while intoxicated. He helped me out with much smaller amounts on several other occasions. Also, he helped me change residence twice; and I stayed in his wife’s home for over a year during a financially embarrassing time in my life. And I believe, although there is no way to prove it, that being the little brother of Vernon and Elbert Litton protected me from no telling how many bullies at school. So, you see, Vernon did bad things to me and good things for me, a situation which was archetypically ambiguous.
On a couple of occasions since Vernon’s death, my sister-in-law has described him as “mean”. That is a concomitant of his alpha maleness, I believe. He had developed an underlying mean streak, combined with an almost funny sentimentality, from childhood on. He liked to keep dogs, particularly pit bull terriers, as pets; and he would encourage the development of their natural tendency to threaten, if not fight. I don’t believe he ever put his dogs into fighting pits; he didn’t want them to be hurt; it was just that, if anybody else had mean pit bulls, he wanted his own to be meaner, at least potentially.
Vernon was mated with Loretta for dozens of years, yet I couldn’t tell if he actually loved her. He admired her, sure, and bragged about how nice she was; but I never saw him embrace or kiss her. Also, on two occasions he said to me, on the phone, “Bobby, I love you.” I didn’t respond to those words; I just paused a few seconds and then changed the subject. I had no idea what “love” meant to him, and I wasn’t sure what love meant to me either. Nor did I want to ask him to define it for me, for I suspected that my invitation to a colloquy would end up in a shouting match.
One day, while Vernon and I were sitting on the couch in Loretta’s living room watching a movie on cable TV, Vernon asked me, “What is your favorite movie, Bobby?”
That question took me by surprise; I needed time to think about it, but I rushed myself. “Jeez, Vernon, I have several favorite movies. I’ve never taken time to determine which I liked best. It kind of depends on the genre and what mental space I was in when I saw them.”
“Mine is My Fair Lady,” Vernon calmly declared.
“Well, I’ll be, Vernon! That is certainly one of my favorites, too. How odd that it is your favorite!”
I would have thought his favorite would be Rocky.
There is no way to fully understand people, especially one’s own family…when they are self-contradictory and dysfunctional.
POST SCRIPT: I intend to write and post a mini-bio of my other brother, Elbert, in the near future…not for a little while, however. I just do not think it would be wise to publish so much family history very close together. The bios need to be near enough, though, for readers to readily gauge how much the Litton brothers and the Karamazov brothers are similar and how much they are different. Stay tuned!
Text: Bob Litton
Photo: Courtesy of Mike Howard
In contrast with my self-description as a flaneur, I seldom go out at night anymore. Most of my sauntering about town is done during the morning and late afternoon.
One recent evening, though, I roused myself to venture to a local venue called “Brown Dog Gardens” where native plants and large crystal rocks are sold, and where small social fetes are sometimes conducted. The reason for my outing was that my friend Chris Ruggia and the two women who have joined him in a group they have dubbed “The Swifts” were slated to hold their first “gig” at BDG.
The crowd wasn’t huge — only twenty to thirty persons, several of whom I hadn’t seen since I quit the night-time bar scene a few years ago — but they comfortably filled up the available area. Most of the folks stood, sipping their wine or water and supping on chili con queso; but a half dozen folding chairs were there, and I seated myself on one near the small stage.
Nearly a year ago, Chris (at my request) brought his guitar over to my apartment and sang a song. I can’t recall which one, but it was an old pop song or maybe a folk song…one I knew. His voice at that time was soft and seemingly hesitant, and his playing appeared the faltering effort of a new guitar student. The other night, however, he came on strong vocally during the three numbers in which he was the singer. His fingering on the strings was likewise much more professional, it seemed to me. In one rendition, especially, he reminded me of Paul Simon doing one of his more energetic vocals. The heavy-set woman did most of the singing — very powerful lungs.
I really enjoyed the performance, which extended for only about an hour, beginning at 6 p.m., with a brief break. I guess they played and sang a total of approximately twelve songs, none of which was recognizable to me. The genres were a mixture of blue grass, American folk, and New Orleans blues. Chris told me this morning that one song was a slightly modified version of Elvis Costello’s “Blame It On Cain” (Post Punk Rock). A few others were “How Dark My Shadow’s Grown” (a contemporary blue grass borrowed from The Bad Livers), a rendition of Doc Watson’s “Lone Journey” (old time country), “Three Is A Magic Number” (an educational TV song from School House Rock), and the Depression era song “One Meatball”.
I regret that I don’t have a recorded file of any of the The Swifts’ songs to share with you, but maybe one day soon they will produce an album, and we can return for an encore.
The Swifts debut was very enjoyable! I wish them much success!
Above is a photo which one of my other acquaintances — Mike Howard, a former NYC fashion photographer — took at the musicale.