Posts Tagged ‘Aging’

Life Among the Ancients

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Bingo chip> Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶Well, it’s December 29 again. That day of the year when I change the digits while filling out some questionnaire on the line that asks for my age. The numbers now are “77”. Isn’t that supposed to be a lucky number? No, no, I’m confusing Double Seven with “4” plus “3”, “2” plus “5”, or “1” plus “6”.
¶Ignorant as I am, I Googled “77” to see if it has any meaning besides a highway sign, a TV show, or a whiskey concoction; and, lo and behold, what did I find in a numerology blog but this supposed personality trait: “77 → Intelligent, inventive and spiritually wise.” Wow! That’s awfully flattering, but such spiritualistic readings usually are. And in Dawna Hetzler’s blog I found this explanation: “Seven is the number of completeness and perfection (both physical and spiritual). It derives much of its meaning from being tied directly to God’s creation of all things. According to Jewish tradition, the creation of Adam occurred on October 7th, 3761 B.C. (or the first day of Tishri, which is the seventh month on the Hebrew calendar)…. (He) turned seventy seven—double sevens. (He) must feel exuberant knowing (his) age is the number of completeness and perfection (both physically and spiritually).”*
¶Decades ago, I learned that there is a lot of difference between intelligence and common-sense. Intelligence might be an admirable attribute, but common-sense is more likely to put a roof over one’s head and food into one’s tummy. By the time I had graduated from high school I suspected I was sorely lacking in the latter, so, while I was studying Chinese at Yale, I went to the campus bookstore and bought a paperback biography of Alexander Hamilton. In a letter to my girlfriend back in Dallas, I mentioned that I was reading about Hamilton; and she responded, “It’s nice that you’re reading that book, but why?” I was too embarrassed to explain that I was hoping some of our country’s first Treasury Secretary’s touted common-sense might rub off on me.
¶“Inventive” is, to me, an ambiguous adjective. In its most common use it means able to create something uniquely useful out of raw materials: I never saw myself as an inventor. However, “inventive” can also be used as a synonym for “resourceful”, which denotes the ability to apply one’s wits toward solving a problem with extraordinary elements, material or non-material: now, that I can honestly claim to have done a few times.
¶“Spiritually wise” perhaps might be a positive attribute, but to apply it to one’s self seems, to me, a bit arrogant. I will acknowledge that much of my thinking time is spent on spiritual matters, particularly my relationship with the Holy Spirit. And some people in the past have characterized me as “an astute observer”, “insightful” and “wise”; but their perceptions were based on really minimal evidence; they had not witnessed the moments of my folly. Anyway, I freely and gratefully acknowledge that any “spiritually wise” comments I have uttered proceed not from me but from the Holy Spirit, which I hold dwells within anyone who accepts him/her/it. Sometimes, H.S. surprises even me.

* * * * * *

¶As the late comedian George Carlin noted in one of his sketches, children, eager to be older so they can be taller and supposedly freer from parental constraint, will push their age by saying “almost six” when they are only a few months past their fifth anniversary. And a rather tired old joke is that line about “she’s still 29 and always will be”.
¶We can have all the facelifts we want. They won’t change our internal structure or the way we emotionally react to the passing of time. Some of us manage to stay “happy” or at least “content” for many years beyond the point when others of us falter under regrets and diminishing horizons.
¶I am one of those who have been melancholic almost from childhood. Actually, melancholy can be a pleasant emotion sometimes. I remember how I used to get spiritually inebriated on a winter day when the sunlight pierced the ether at an angle lower than at other times of the year. Emily Dickinson was also affected by that “certain slant of light”, although she received its effect much more negatively than I. Strange, but then, Emily was weirder than I am.
¶As for the diminishing horizon, that has struck me particularly hard. Part of the problem is that I have too many interests: art, poetry, philosophy, theology, history, politics.  Every once in a while, I get excited about a sub-topic of one of those fields and say to myself, “I’ll read up on that (or engage in that) and become a notable expert, ‘blowing away’ every observer with my brilliant performance.” I have a bad habit of hopping from one interest area to another, hardly ever finishing a project to the degree it deserves. Then I am struck between the eyes, so to speak, by the realization that I don’t have the years needed to accomplish such sublime goals.
¶Then there are the regrets connected to personal relationships. Someone I read recently (but can’t recall who) said that indulging in regrets is destructive to the psyche. That well may be, but it’s practically impossible to retard the sudden bolts of regret that strike one’s mind. What is odd about them in my case is that many are about piddling slights, such as not replying to a letter when a reply would have been a deserved courtesy to the correspondent. Many other regrets, of course, relate to psychological or financial injuries I have inflicted; in most cases it is no longer possible to make amends because the hurt ones are no longer alive, or I don’t know where they are. As John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in “Maud Muller”,

For of all sad words from tongue or pen,
The saddest are these, ‘it might have been’.

* * * * * *

¶The worst of aging is “ageism”. This is a current issue in the United States, not exactly on a par with racism or sexism but still controversial. Now is not the time for delving into the general debate, which has more to do with jobs than with socializing. Since I am retired, the job issue holds only an academic interest for me; I am affected more by the social impact of aging, such as those occasions when I irritate customers behind me in the grocery store or café  while I try to count my dollars and coins.
¶There are a few positive benefits in graying. Most young folks will hold a door open for you, especially if you have a cane. They will also surrender a stool for you at a bar if the place is crowded. The problem with that is, in my case at least, they will try to herd you to a stool next to some other old codgers — to corral you in with your generation. I use the terms “herd” and “corral” on purpose because the two other elders at my favorite “watering hole” are a retired Border Patrol agent in his late 90’s and a retired cowboy in his late 80’s. Don’t interpret me amiss: both these fellows are decent, well-mannered gents. The problems are that neither one can hear very well, so talking with them is a chore from the get-go; and I have begun to resent being ushered to a stool beside or between them as though nobody else will be interested in my conversation. It could be that, in fact, no one will be interested, but I’m not ready to face that possibility yet. I will never forget the first time, during my early 30’s, when a young man in a Dallas pub addressed me as “sir”; it was like a flick of cold water in the face.
¶Well, I have to go see if that cake over there can support seventy-seven candles.
¶Happy New Year!

Finis

 ∗ Ms. Hetzler used the feminine pronoun (without mentioning any antecedent). Since I am male, I have changed the pronoun to masculine for context’s sake. Thus the parentheses.
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Another Twist of the Kaleidoscope[1]

Greek Amphora

An ancient Grecian amphora: Image Source > Bing Images

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I am in a strange position right now. On the one hand, I have three topics in my noggin, each deserving extended composition. On the other hand, they all require more research than I have devoted to them thus far, if they are to be “done up” right. Yet it has been eleven days since I published my last post, and my ego is supposing that some regular — but non-“Following” — readers are getting a bit antsy after returning often to my blog site and finding nothing fresh. So, my only recourse is to compose a potpourri of short opinions/insights. (Well, actually there are a couple of other options, but I don’t want to go down that “rabbit trail” right now.)

I

About twenty years ago, in Dallas, I bought a set of classical Greek language texts published by Cambridge University Press. I purchased them because I had been reading translations of the early Greek tragedies and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and wanted to read them in the original language. I had noted some editors’ comments that the playwright Euripides, the historian Thucydides, and the philosopher Plato, were superb stylists. I had been a good student of Spanish, French, Chinese, and Old English (Anglo-Saxon), so I did not anticipate much difficulty with Greek, although I figured that the Greeks’ odd-ball alphabet would annoy me for a while. By Zeus, was I wrong! All the diacritical marks, the dizzily varying declensions and conjugations, and the swamping mass of vocabulary to learn frustrated me. I got as far as Section VII (out of XIX), laid my books aside, and went on to other interests. Twice over the next two decades I started the Greek again — at Section I. (I got that one down pat, by the way!)

A couple of months ago, I dove back into the translation of Thucydides and was freshly astonished by the parallels with current events. If you read the Greek statesman Pericles’ oration at the memorial service for the first Athenian warriors killed during the Peloponnesian War, you too, I believe, will be struck by the similarity of Pericles’ claims for Athens’ “exceptionalism” to American politicians’ claims for our homeland’s superior qualities. Thucydides also lays out in bold yet unbiased descriptions the virtues and faults not only of Athens but of Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Corcyra and other city-states as well. He also analyzes the characters in their actions and their motives. The people as a whole are scrutinized with equal clarity. The acts of heroism and of treachery are rendered vividly.

I possess the first two (of four) volumes of Harvard University Press’ Thucydides, with Greek printed on the left-hand pages and English on the right. However, I have delved into the first volume only as far as the first 70 pages. The version I read all the way through, years ago, and am perusing for the second time is the 1874 translation by Richard Crawley, heavily abridged by Sir Richard Livingstone for the Oxford University Press in 1943, during the hottest period of World War II. It is only 388 pages long (not counting two maps and an index) with the pages measuring 9×15 cm. Still, condensed though it is, Livingstone’s offering provides a full sense of the flavor and drama of that conflict — the “world war” of its time. Especially perspicacious is Thucydides’ analysis of the class warfare between the aristocrats and the democrats, which led into the general war. I have excerpted the sentences below from his commentary:

Revolution brought on the cities of Greece many calamities, such as exist and always will exist till human nature changes, varying in intensity and character with changing circumstances. In peace and prosperity states and individuals are governed by higher ideals because they are not involved in necessities beyond their control, but war deprives them of their very existence and is a rough teacher that brings most men’s dispositions down to the level of their circumstances. So civil war broke out in the cities; and the later revolutionaries, with previous examples before their eyes, devised new ideas which went far beyond earlier ones, so elaborate were their enterprises, so novel their revenges. Words changed their ordinary meanings and were construed in new senses. Reckless daring passed for the courage of a loyal partisan, far-sighted hesitation was the excuse of a coward, moderation was the pretext of the unmanly, the power to see all sides of a question was complete inability to act….

The cause of all these evils was love of power due to ambition and greed, which led to rivalries from which party spirit sprung. The leaders of both sides used specious phrases, championing a moderate aristocracy or political equality for the masses. They professed to study public interests but made them their prize, and in the struggle to get the better of each other by any means committed terrible excesses and to still greater extremes in revenge. Neither justice nor the needs of the state restrained them, their only limit was the caprice of the hour, and they were prepared to satisfy a momentary rivalry by the unjust condemnation of the opponent or by a forcible seizure of power….[2]

Appear familiar? Of course, history does not repeat itself in a symmetrically balanced manner; there are some differences from that situation in ancient Greece and today’s world; but I believe there are more analogous than non-analogous elements, both in our Congress and in the world entire. In fact, I am so enamored of Thucydides’ work that I believe our senators and representatives should be required to take a month-long course with this book as their text before they assume office, or perhaps even before they run for office, and attain a passing grade.

II

 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought for a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
                                                                                                — I Corinthians 6:19-20

If there are any anti-spiritual types out there in Cyberland, I beg your pardon, but I feel a calling to preach a bit here. Oh, don’t worry overmuch; it’s not a fire and brimstone message; really more of an extended pet peeve with an ounce of theology sprinkled on to give it some authority. Although I matured in the Methodist Church and even considered a few times becoming a minister, I argued myself out of it by pointing at the Apostles’ Creed and grunting at the several elements I could not honestly adhere to. But that is all fodder for some later blog post; not now.

The above passage from Paul of Tarsus, however, resonates with me for two reasons. Firstly, it brings forward the image of my favorite pastor during those young years, Clark Calvert: he was my mentor, even a sort of father figure for me, and he used that verse to counsel me. Secondly, I appreciate the image conjured by the verse itself: my body as the eternal residence of the Holy Spirit. To be perfectly frank with you, dear reader, the Holy Spirit is the only Person of the Trinity I feel that I can comprehend and be comfortable with. God the Father is too abstract and paradoxical, especially when I consider the old conundrum about Evil; and Jesus of the New Testament — “The Son” — has too many faces and does and says self-contradictory things, like some protagonist in a Jacobean tragedy. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is definitely comprehensible to me; he has a definite, singular role to play: to act as our guide, comforter, and advocate. And I believe He/She/It has done all that for me many times. Naturally, I don’t always respond positively to the nudges, but I recognize my responsibility when I recalcitrantly plunge ahead at the suggestion of my impulses.

But let’s return to the image of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. Lately, like within the past couple of years, I have become inordinately conscious of my appearance and, even worse, of the appearance of others. Of course I realize that, aging as I have, I would become more aware of the changes in my body, particularly in my face; giving up three molars during the past twelve months certainly highlighted those changes! I really do not take good enough care of myself, and I cannot fathom why. Is it just laziness or perhaps a self-contempt expressing itself physically?

But it is my view of others that really bothers me. I judge people constantly, especially young people, who, to my way of thinking, have an almost moral obligation to keep themselves in shape and definitely to avoid tarnishing their features with rings in their noses and lips, and with tattoos all over their bodies. What are they going to do, I wonder, when they get older and suddenly realize how tacky they look. One can erase only so much. Enough people are ill-favored, even downright ugly, and I look on them with pity, thinking that Nature has been too unkind to them; but, ironically, many of them found mates, while I remained single.

Then there is the obesity epidemic which is affecting all generations. I am overweight myself but am gradually losing some of it; I can now get into half a dozen pants that wouldn’t fit six months ago. However, I can’t see myself as readily as I can others; and the external scene is downright shocking. Especially ridiculous is the sight of the many fat nurses — people whose jobs are to help other people get well and stay healthy. And now, in our small town at least, we have a number of peace officers and criminal justice students who look like balloons. Those people are supposed to be able to chase malefactors, aren’t they? Our modern mode of working is the central villain here: most of our jobs involve a lot of sitting; when I went into the county tax office recently to renew my license tag I was at once both shocked and amused at the sight of a dozen female clerks who looked like walruses on a beach.

I feel guilty judging others as the above remarks evidence. I can’t change the world to fit my aesthetic and moral values; yet the impulse to judge is almost constant. Sometimes I wish I were blind.

— BL

Postscript:  Parenthetically speaking, Paul of Tarsus was not commenting on the Corinthians’ appearance. He was chastising them…actually even condemning some… for the immoral physical actions, such as fornication, that they were guilty of. I think Paul was a bit harsh with the Corinthians, when you consider what he confessed to the Romans:
I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.
                                                                                                                    — Romans 7:15

Finis

[1] If you are interested in my first “kaleidoscope” post, look in the archives for “Off My Head”, July 29, 2015.

[2] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, ed. Sir Richard Livingstone, (Oxford University Press:1943), Book III, ¶83.

NOTE TO READERS: For some reason I don’t know, WordPress.com (WP) does not allow non-WP bloggers to register “Likes” on my or other WP bloggers’ posts. However, anyone can enter a comment in the “Comment” box and it will be published, after I have “moderated” it. I am inviting non-WP bloggers to comment. And, although I prefer positive comments, disagreeing or critical remarks are fine, too, especially if they might help me improve my writing; but no snarking, please: that’s rude!
— BL

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.
When a person reaches the 76th year he can develop the notion that, because he has lived through — even studied — much history, he has accumulated a dense patina of knowledge in his brain; yet he also feels afflicted by the suspicion that he does not know how to apply it. I recall in my youth enduring various puzzling illnesses and mechanical problems which, after healing or correcting by learning the causes and applying the proper treatments or techniques, I have said to myself, “There now, in the future when I come across this situation again, I will know what to do!” The only problem with that assumption is that the illness or mechanical failure  seems never to repeat itself. There is always a new puzzle to ponder. Because of a few such episodes in my recent past, the idea of composing this essay flowered in my brain.

Past:

Einstein said that time and space are the same. I take that remark to mean that if I get up from this chair and walk over to my bookcase, about fifteen feet away, I will be walking into the future; and that if I turn around and walk back to my chair, I will be walking into the past, because I am going the same distance, over the same area, over the same period of time, only in reverse — just like the “rewind” device on my VCR. But I don’t feel that to be the case, for I have aged infinitesimally during both transits. (I wonder, to render this example valid, would it be necessary for me to retrace my steps backward rather than doing an about-face and proceeding forward again but in the opposite direction?)

I’m a very time-sensitive person, and the only place I feel that I am delving into the past is in the memory sections of the brain (the pre-frontal lobe [short-term] and the hippocampus [long-term]). Of course there are extant, exterior entities, such as an old photo or a “golden oldie” sound recording, even a scent, that can stir and augment memories.

A strange aspect of some memories is that they have made me imagine that the events which they relate still exist. Those particularly vivid memories, though very transient, are so palpable as to make their events’ extinction seem improbable. When I had such a memory unfold in my mind one day recently, I wondered where I would have to search to recover the event itself; but I quickly shook off that notion after realizing that every event has preceding and subsequent events, and I could not bring back that singular, desirable scene without also summoning its past and future. That enterprise would require a time machine.

Before you summon the guys in white coats, consider a few sentences from an article in last January’s Harper’s magazine. Titled “WHAT CAME BEFORE THE BIG BANG?”, the essay was written by MIT physicist and novelist (what a combination) Alan Lightman. Actually, in the sentences I will quote here, Lightman is referring not to his own cosmological theory but to one being investigated by another MIT scientist, Alan Guth, and California Institute of Technology physicist Sean Carroll. Their hypothesis, known as the “Two-Headed time theory”, according to Lightman, proposes that the order of our universe, then much smaller than an atom, “was at a maximum at the Big Bang; disorder increased both before and after…. (T)he forward direction of time is determined by the movement of order to disorder. Thus the future points away from the Big Bang in two directions. A person living in the contracting phase of the universe sees the Big Bang in her past, just as we do. When she dies, the universe is larger than when she was born, just as it will be for us. ‘When I come to understand that the reason I can remember the past but not the future is ultimately related to conditions at the Big Bang, that was a startling epiphany,’ said Carroll.

Lightman compares the expansion and contraction phases of the universe to that children’s toy, the “Slinky”, which, as he points out, “reaches maximum compression on impact, and then bounces back to larger dimensions. Because of the unavoidable fluctuations required by quantum physics, the contracting universe would not be an exact mirror image of the expanding universe; a physicist named Alan Guth probably did not exist in the contracting phase of our universe.” Still, there is always that wiggle room left by “probably”.

Lightman describes a few other theories of the “origin” of the universe, none of which allow for the notion of time and therefore do not consider “before” and “after” and therefore are outside the province of my essay here. However, I do want to bring in one more analogy that Lightman uses to characterize the expanding/contracting phases of the universe: a movie of a glass dropped on a tile floor, shattering, then recombining and flying back up to the table top from which it fell. If I think of the glass shards as events in my life, and of the possibility that they are scattered now out there in the vastness of space/time, and that they might someday in the far-off future recombine to become those events again, then my dream, as I related above, of summoning memories is not so absurd as you readers might have judged earlier. Heh?

Present:

We are frequently advised by gurus of various varieties to “live in the moment” in order to be happy. Who am I to argue with that formula? Only it doesn’t work for me. Why?

Well, I think it’s partly a function of Fate: I don’t have any choice but to live in the moment, yet the present seldom smiles on me, definitely not for more than a few hours. The present, in fact, seems like the target on a dart board where missiles are continually bombarding. I keep looking for that day when I can proceed from arising to retiring without some, at the least, irksome or, at the most, catastrophic encounter. I can’t recall the last time I gamboled through such a day, although I feel certain there have been some, quite likely many such. They were just too long ago. (And here, I see, I can’t even write about the present without bringing in the past and the future: depending on one’s definition of “the present”, it seems impossible to separate it from those periods. Is the present this day, this experience, or really just this “moment”? )

Another problem with the “live in the moment” prescription, not just for me but for every adult, I believe, is that even in our most positive moments we have to consider future events: college, career, possibly marriage, elections, and retirement funding. A host of other, smaller concerns requiring decisions are scattered through our lives. As one old humorist expressed it, “Why does any man examine the teeth of a horse he is thinking of buying and yet forgo checking out his prospective bride’s teeth?”

Laying all that aside, just how do I confront the present? That is too big a question. I mean, in this time I cannot ignore the fact that many of the problems I have to face also stand before almost everybody else: crazy politicians rattling their sabers, oncoming weird weather disasters and famines, fanatical gun toters, out-of-control medical and housing prices, etc. I can’t limit all those problems to myself. The conundrum, then, for me is: How can I separate out what affects only me from what affects everybody else? I cannot totally and sensibly demarcate those boundaries. Yes, there are a few somewhat private health issues which I have, but even they, as types, also afflict at least some small portions of the population; how I weary of hearing a “comforting” friend utter, “Oh, that’s just part of getting old!” or “Yeah, that stuff has been going around lately!” Why cannot my current problem be mine…individual…alone?

Future:   

My, how the calendar has shrunk! It used to be the case that when someone reminded me that some event took place last year, I could imagine an expanse of time with body to it. Now “last year” seems like what we once-upon-a-time called “last month”. I’m not sure whether this change is due to aging in me or to a more encompassing phenomenon which Alvin Toffler described as the perception of “too much change in too short a period of time” in his book Future Shock back in 1970. If the latter, then it is really weird how external events can cause one’s notion of a calendar period to shrink. There is now a whole “scientific” field of people — called “futurists” — who gather data from a large array of sources to predict what the future holds. Simple crystal balls and astronomical charts are passé.

When one reaches an age as advanced as my own, he or she is confronted with the reality that their options have greatly shrunk. There is no point in our seeking another academic field or degree, although we might have fun and benefit from taking a “continuing education” course occasionally. And we might look at our overloaded bookshelves, count the books we haven’t read, and resolve for the nth time never again to enter that bookstore a few blocks away. I swear! I must have bought all those books just because they are so decorative! Oh me, oh my!

Nor are we to get married…not sensibly anyway. Oh, if we are very wealthy and are seduced by a beautiful, young “honey-pot” into being her “sugar-daddy”, we might find ourselves wandering down that church aisle or into that Las Vegas drive-thru wedding chapel. Or, if we are much less affluent, we might marry someone nearer our own age just because we each anticipate the other will at least nurse us through our final days. The latter case is a little less contaminated by folly or predatoriness but does retain some of the strategical about it: no hot romantic blood there certainly.

But there are other issues that affect not just me and my ilk but many, many other Americans. The news media daily reminds us that we have several potential, horrifying fates lying in wait for us — climate change disasters; the threat of religious and political radicalisms; dissolution of welfare programs, including Social Security; Alzheimer’s disease; and Donald Trump as president. And those are just the severest ones. Although we should not let them overwhelm us to the extent that we can prevent them from doing so, we still have to pay attention to them in order to prevent, or at least defend ourselves against, them. So, in that very deep sense we are attached to the future.

Finis

 

 

How a childhood trait became an adult habit

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I believe I have written elsewhere in this blog’s archives that major reasons for engaging in it were to analyze my own personality and to obliquely write my autobiography. What I mean by “obliquely” here is that, although the primary topic of any particular essay might seemingly be far removed from the notion of personality traits, some of the illustrative experiences as well as the attitude revealed therein could add tone, form, color and dimension to the hidden autobiographical theme of the blog site as a whole. (I want any future biographer to have access to the most reliable resource imaginable: this blog.)

Some traits, however, cannot be easily presented in such a camouflaged manner. The trait of which I am thinking here is parenthetical remarks, i.e., comments inserted into a scene or conversation that have nothing directly to do with that scene or conversation. Some, in my case, were naïve remarks I made as a child, and some were “zingers” I made as an adult. The only real difference between them was that the youthful ones were simply expressions of curiosity without any intent to be hurtful, while the adult ones were simply attempts to be comical in a stinging way but still not really hurt. Zingers are, I lamentably admit, a regrettable, deeply ingrained aspect of my personality; for laughter-inducing humor usually comes at the expense of somebody’s self-image. My only partial defense here is that I often try to pull the joke out of my own hat, i.e., at my own expense.

What brought this topic to mind at the present is that I have done a lot of reminiscing about Mother lately, particularly of my childhood years when we were closer to each other than during later years. Much of the youthful time, I was what has become classified as a “latch-key kid”. Mother worked as a silk-finisher at a Dallas dress factory called Lorch’s, so, when school was not in session, I was often left to mind myself. However, she did occasionally find someone to keep me in tow.

For a while there was a next door neighbor named Mrs. Woodruff (family and friends called her “Woody”). I don’t remember much about her other than I loved her, that she liked to listen to soap operas on the radio, that she described for me a road that wound around a mountain, and that she had false teeth which she would suddenly stick out at me: it was one of those tricks that kids love, the kind that both scares and makes them giggle.

Also, for a while I stayed at Mrs. Lybrand’s house a couple of blocks away. Mrs. Lybrand and her husband had a large back yard that was a very pleasant place to play. She also was a great cook and she liked to listen to gospel songs on the radio much of the day. I didn’t appreciate gospel music and one day asked her, “Why do you listen to those ol’ god songs instead of Gene Autry or Bing Crosby?”  I don’t recall her answer, if there was one. I liked Mrs. Lybrand and certainly did not mean to offend her; and I do not believe she was offended. She most likely viewed the incident as a child being innocently too curious and too honest.

Last May 9, I published here an essay for “Mother’s Day” in which I discussed attending a kindergarten in Dallas and how a cab came to pick me up and carry me downtown to Lorch’s, where Mother was still at work. I did not mention in that post an interesting incident at Lorch’s which I don’t recall personally but which Mother related to me many years later. “My supervisor,” said Mother, “was a very tall German woman of whom I was afraid. You looked up at her and asked, ‘Are you a giant?’” Mother said she was “scared to death” because she didn’t know how the big supervisor would respond, but there was no reaction.

Another episode Mother had to relate to me many years later happened on a streetcar. (Many readers won’t know what a streetcar was: it was a vehicle about as long as a modern bus but more strictly rectangular in appearance and it was powered by a wire strung above the roadway that fed electricity to the streetcar by movable antennas extending upward from each end of the vehicle.) Now, back to the incident. One day while Mother and I were on board a streetcar bound for downtown (she told me) I noticed a very old lady across the aisle, with deep wrinkles; I turned to Mother and asked, “Mama, why is that lady’s face all wadded up?” I have no memory of the incident nor any recorded continuation of Mother’s anecdote to regain the consequence of that comment.

So, you can see how early my bad habit of spouting “zingers” began. As an adult, the tendency became more conscious and pronounced. Most targets know me well enough to realize I am just trying to be funny…in a fairly blood-thirsty way. A local bar-maid and a waitress here have put up with me long enough now that they have practically developed rhinoceros hides. And, like I said above, I try to balance the cajolery out by occasionally making myself the target, usually uttered in a manner that hints they should reply by saying, “Oh no, you shouldn’t say or even think that way about yourself!” They don’t swallow the bait.

Oddly enough, I don’t recall many of the adult zingers, I guess because there have been so many. There is one, however, that I do recall only too clearly and which I wish I could go back in time to expunge. One noon-day, I was sitting in a “blue-plate-special” café in Dallas that I had recently begun to frequent when I heard the main waitress relate to another regular customer how she needed new tires on her car and that she didn’t know how she would cope if she had a flat someday. “Don’t worry about it, Jane,” I called out. “You’ve got a spare around your waist.”

Jane looked over at me kind of sad-like and, after a few seconds of bewildered silence, replied, “I can’t believe you said that, Bob.”

I should have apologized then and there, but I didn’t. And to this day I don’t know why I didn’t apologize. Perhaps the additional stress that an admission of impropriety added to the impropriety itself was too much for me. I don’t know. But Jane, although she was indeed slightly plump around the waist, was not obese, and she was pretty and one of the most pleasant people I have ever known. Oh, how I wish I had an operable time machine!

So, you can see how a childhood capacity for curiosity can develop into an adult habit of zingering.

Finis

Blossoms, Death Watch, Bread & Circuses

Trees Blossoms Full View

NON-BEARING PEAR TREES with their snow-white blossoms started their annual decoration of the drive at my apartment complex in late February. (Photo courtesy of Chris Ruggia)

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

It’s one of those days, people, one of those days when I have nothing solid enough in my noggin to offer as a single, coherent essay or poem. But I have to prove to you that I am still alive, even though each morning I am filled with wonder when I rise out of my bed that I am still here.

Death becomes a preoccupation for many of us humans when we pass the 70 mark, which is probably a primary reason for my current interest in American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), many of whose 1,775 poems were meditations on death and immortality. I bought a paperback volume of Emily’s poems last month and a much smaller hardback volume of selected letters she wrote. I am absolutely determined to learn to understand her poems, some of which even Dickinson scholars acknowledge are tantalizingly obscure.

Tree Blossoms Closeup

BLOSSOMS IN MORE INTIMATE VIEW will soon entice the bees, who will loudly hum among them. And in a few days the blossoms will begin to fall, covering the ground like snow. (Photo: Courtesy of Chris Ruggia.)

Mortality is always closely evident in this housing complex, where all of us are either aged or severely disabled. The neighbor on my right, a blind fellow who writes a witty column for one of our local weeklies, has dubbed the complex “Mausoleum Manor”.

The neighbor on my left is dying very slowly of lung cancer. All of his meals have to be created in a blender because his esophagus has shrunk. Last night, just after I had settled in my bed, I heard a racket out on the front porch. I could guess what was going on, because similar noises — rollers passing over the rocks under the evergreen hedge — have happened three times before. The sound of a police radio-phone cinched it. They were wheeling my neighbor off to an ambulance and then to the hospital, probably because he was having trouble breathing again. But then, they might have been taking him off to the funeral home or to a distant hospice, which I consider a better option than the hospital because he had turned away from chemotherapy weeks ago. He needed to go somewhere that he could get attention day and night; otherwise he would die of suffocation.

The only other tenant in this unit (each of the nine units has four apartments) is a woman at least a couple of decades younger than we three males. Her affliction is fibromyalgia. I haven’t really met her; she stays in her apartment practically all of each day’s twenty-four hours, so I have only saluted her on the sidewalk a few times as one of us goes to our vehicle or the mailbox. I don’t make any special effort to introduce myself to people who live so near to me, for there is always the strong likelihood that some event, attitude or word will eventually cause an argument. As one of Robert Frost’s characters in his poem “Mending Wall” says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” (I don’t believe Frost himself held that view, but I do.)

So many things on my mind, so many that I have a difficult time focusing on more creative ideas and projects. Politics also beleaguers me, as I imagine it presently does most adult Americans. Many of us are worried that some of the candidates would make a dangerous president either by becoming a totalitarian tyrant in the style of Hitler and Mussolini or by chopping away at the socio-political structure that has taken more than three hundred years to build, and institute a theocracy.

But perhaps we deserve such a collapse, since, without even being totally conscious of it, we have weakened the substructure of our national unity. For too many years most of us have been so secure and comfortable that we have become complacent. We ordinarily have exceptionally low voter turnout.

Also, since 1968 at least, we haven’t had any presidential candidates that struck us as either crazy or extreme; now we have a passel of them. I hate to admit this, but one of my primary criteria for gauging a presidential hopeful is his/her demeanor…his/her stage presence. And remember, folks, we are going to have to watch the next president on TV often during the next four years. It is incredible how obnoxious in their various ways most of the Republican candidates were. I won’t take space here to caricature the top three vote-getters, but I will acknowledge that John Kasich is the least objectionable. Kasich is not handsome, certainly, but he doesn’t pose or bellow or whine or over-talk his opponents’ remarks.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has good stage presence, immense experience in government, and acute intelligence. On the other hand, she has associational baggage, a taint of dynasty, and an FBI investigation dogging her: I have bad mental images of her being led away from her inauguration stage in handcuffs.

Still, I agree with as many of Hillary’s proposals as I can understand, just as I approve of Bernie Sanders’ socialistic bent. But Bernie has a slight problem with stage presence, too: he stands up there with his shoulders bent, waving a finger in the air like a scolding school teacher; he needs to modulate some. Also, Bernie is only two years younger than I; I don’t think he realizes how the presidency ages a person; just look at photos of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush from the days of their first and last years in office; ditto for Barack Obama. I doubt that Bernie could survive four years.

But it is we the people that worry me most. If the crowds at Republican primary debates and the number of their voters going for Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are a true indication of the mood and intelligence level of Americans overall, we are in for a major disaster.

Too many Americans are believers in “pie-in-the-sky”. They are addicted to get-rich-quick gimmicks such as the various lotteries. The politicians — of both parties — frequently use the phrase “hard-working Americans”, when the fact is that few of us work hard enough to break into a sweat, and too many young people dream of becoming rock stars or outstanding athletes (which I concede will bring up the sweat for a few fun hours) because that is where the big money is. We import Latinos and Asians to do the truly menial work and then we accuse them of stealing our jobs. What we want for ourselves, just like the ancient Romans, is bread and circuses.

♦ ♦ ♦

P.S.:  I went to visit my neighbor at the hospital this afternoon. He appeared to be in much worse shape than the last time I saw him, in his apartment two days ago. Moreover, it was difficult to understand what he said because his head was enveloped in a complicated device to aid his breathing; it was similar to that nosebag that Hannibal Lecter wore in “Silence of the Lambs”. But I did get enough out of our conversation to discover that the hospital will keep him there as long as necessary and that he can shorten the period by telling them to “pull the plug”. Not a good prognosis, of course, but certainly better than one of us entering his apartment to find him in his bed, dead from suffocation.

Finis

 

On Words

©2016 By Bob Litton
There were periods in my life when I earned a living employing words. And I have read many more words through a lifetime, a lot of which I never have used in my own compositions. I had to look too many of them up in a dictionary or guess their meanings from the contexts; one such term is “fascicle”, which I came upon yesterday in a book about the poems disguised as prose in Emily Dickinson’s letters. That word was used in this sentence: The poem follows a progression found in some of Dickinson’s other nature poems of the fascicle years: first a simple description of nature and then, in a later stanza, the leap to the transcendental level.” And that is followed by an ambiguous use of the word transitive in one of her briefer poems:
         That a pansy is transitive,
          is its only pang.
          This, precluding that,
          is indeed divine.

Like most English words, the above two terms have more than one meaning. Looking them both up in my dictionary, I inferred that fascicle, as intended by the critic, refers to Dickinson’s habit of bundling several poems together, punching a couple of holes through the pages, and running strings through them—making her own books; for, one of the meanings of fascicle is “one of the divisions of a book published in parts.”

As for transitive, I sensed while reading Emily’s poem that she was using that word in the same sense I would have used transitory or transient, meaning “of brief duration/temporary.” I wondered if her choice had been dictated by a concern for meter and connotation, since transitory contains one syllable more than transitive, and transient summons an image of physical movement, particularly of hoboes, as much as it does of time passing. That poem, a virtual brain-teaser, is difficult enough in its composition and content without adding ambiguous acceptation to the puzzle.

It is not just in academic and poetical works that I find words that halt my reading pace. Recently I was escape-reading in an omnibus volume of Nero Wolfe novels and novellas by Rex Stout. Twice in a single day up popped a word that I had seen before, but long ago, and I could not recall its exact meaning. No dictionary was at hand. I thought I would remember the word and look it up later; I kept on reading; I didn’t remember the word. Such occurrences have  happened too many times.

Before I leave Rex Stout’s works, I want to mention an example of how Stout never passed up an opportunity, even in his Nero Wolfe novels, to castigate organizations such as the FBI and even the G. & C. Merriam Company, publisher of Webster’s New International Dictionary, whenever they breached his principles. The first chapter of Gambit (1962) opens with a scene of Wolfe sitting in front of his fireplace, tearing out pages of the new dictionary, and tossing them into the fire. He explains his activity to a new client, who has just entered the room, thus:
          ‘Do you use ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ interchangeably, Miss Blount?”
          She did fine, She said simply, “No.”
          “This book says you may. Pfui. I prefer not to interrupt this auto-da-fe. You wish
           to consult me?”
I agree with Nero Wolfe’s, i.e. Rex Stout’s, judgment about infer and imply absolutely.

Another problem I have with words, and even proper names, is that I often forget the most common ones — not just the rarely used or more difficult ones — the frequently used ones. And worse still, often I have thought of the word I needed within the previous hour. Naturally, this problem is directly related to my transformation into an old man. If  I were not a compulsive writer, perhaps such a weakness would not be as exasperating as it is; but when I have to pause  in my typing several minutes — perhaps even pull up an Internet dictionary or call a friend — to recover the desired word, well, that’s just maddening.

And that is one of the reasons I don’t produce as much for this blog as I would like.

Finis

 

Acorns, etc.

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

 Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
 — Luke 2:19

The fairies’ berets

Well, it’s the first week of October, although you can’t tell it by the daytime temperatures around my town; it is already scoring 92 degrees today (10/01/15) at 3 p.m. I don’t recall it getting that warm in July and August, maybe last June, which for some reason I can’t fathom has the reputation of being our hottest month. I know the steering wheel in my truck told me on several June days that hell was nearby. But we have only ourselves to blame, what with our carbon emissions history since the Industrial Revolution started.

Still, we always expect October to be a kinder month, even a time when donning a windbreaker is ordinarily the normal thing to do. In spite of the broiling heat, though, there are a few signs by which Nature is letting us know that Fall is nigh, such as a slight hint that the leaves want to change color from green to yellow, scarlet and purple. In our case here, however, the most telltale sign, that I have noticed, is the drumming of the acorns on my back porch’s metal roof. I see those nuts on the grass and sidewalk when I leave each morning for the coffee shop: they seem unusually large this year. And why have their loud tumbles never drawn my attention in the past twelve years? Yes, they simply must be larger this time.

As a child, influenced by some illustrations in fairy tale books, I would wonder if there were any “little people” around wearing parts of acorns for their caps; I was entirely ignorant at the time that what I was looking at was called a “cupule”. That was way before the age of the Internet, and my curiosity was stifled by a sense of futility until today.  I also used to occasionally wonder why we don’t eat acorns as we do pecans, walnuts and other nut delicacies. I assumed that acorns must be different from other nuts by being poisonous, but somebody told me that, no, the acorn is just bitter to the taste.

I read in Wikipedia today, though, that the ancient Greeks ate them after pounding them into a grain and that the Native Americans and Koreans still do favor certain dishes prepared using acorns. The processes involved, however, look formidably complicated and time-consuming to me. For the rest of us, grains have superseded any comparable meal ingredient. One would have to be near starvation, I suppose, to gather acorns. Yet, some of our media sites are recommending that we consider munching on various insects for sustenance: a hardly subtle reference to the likelihood of famines if climate change develops to its greatest extent.

But we want to believe that Fall is imminent, even though there seem to be no “four seasons” any more, only Summer and Winter. Autumn, like Spring, is being squeezed down to a week. Why is Fall also called “Autumn”? I wonder.

Out of balance

A Methodist minister told me, when I was about sixteen, “Life is going to be hard on you, Bob, because you are mature beyond your years.” I wasn’t sure what he meant at the time, and I have pondered his assessment often since then. I now do not believe he was saying that my IQ was above average or that my store of common-sense was abundant: both of those qualities would, I believe, be very useful coping skills, not stumbling blocks. No, I think his point must have been that I do not have much tolerance for ambiguity, ambivalence, and the smaller details in life. I expect the world to be much more plain and decipherable than it is. The pastor’s remark was uttered not many days after I had opined, during a meeting of our church’s governing board (of which I was an ex officio  member), that I believed we needed to do away with Santa Claus. I won’t expound on the Santa Claus issue here any further than to explain that the persona of Santa I perceived was that of a caricature of God — an image that I thought confuses children and might eventually lead them spiritually astray.

No, the issue I wish to dilate on is what personality characteristic my comment reflected. My intolerance for ambiguity and small fictions became, I think, an obsession within me, an obsession that cannot be contained now, if it ever could, even though I am aware of the discomfort it causes for me. When (at age 20) I started reading philosophy, particularly Bertrand Russell’s discussion of Zeno’s paradoxes, I sententiously declared it my ambition to resolve all paradoxes; I wasn’t going to leave any room for an ounce of doubt.

Of course, most of my readers will be aware of how naïve was my goal. As the years multiplied, so did the paradoxes and dilemmas. Even Bertrand Russell, I read later, retreated into symbolic logic to discuss rather basic matters because he saw the plain old vernacular as being the cause of many philosophical rabbit trails¹. I did not have the mathematical ability to follow his lead, so I simply gave up and tried to close my eyes and ears to insoluble problems.

But the questions attacked me anyway, very surreptitiously via my observations of Nature and the people I encountered — nay, viewed, even if I did not meet them. Why is that young man, for instance, wearing a ring in his nostril and two rings in his lower lip? Why do two people not get to know each other better before they get hitched into a relationship that leads to an acrimonious and expensive divorce? Why does a group scream, beat loudly on drums and guitars, set off explosions and claim they are making music? Why does a season of the year have two names: Fall and Autumn? All such questions invade my mind unbidden, and I don’t think I have enough life span left to research such matters. (I know, by the way, that “fall” and “autumn” are not usually capitalized, but I prefer to capitalize them for two reasons: (1) Since “fall” has two meanings, the capital “F” prevents confusion; and (2) since the words are names for seasons of the year, I consider the capitalization better etiquette.)

Subtle biases in our vocabulary

The turbulence in my brain, however, is not all perturbing; sometimes amusement results from the roiling. I often find in it fodder for my teasing humor. One evening, for instance, when I was a guest in the home of former friends — a college professor and his wife — I mentioned, almost as an aside, that I thought it peculiar there are no terms for a hectoring man (except of course “hectoring man”), while there are several for a hectoring woman: harridan, shrew, termagant, virago, harpy, vixen, and nag. Whew! I half-expected the wife to jump out of her chair and attack me, but she disappointingly remained calm, recognizing, I suppose, that I was simply being impish, not sardonic.

And then, returning my spotlight to Nature, it occurred to me this morning, as I was driving to the coffee shop just before the sun rose above Hancock Hill, when the sky was just beginning to glimmer, that we have only two words for the sun’s rising: “sunrise” and “dawn” (basically the same stage), but three for its different stages of setting: “dusk”, “sunset”, and “twilight”. There is something poetically disconcerting about that imbalance.

Many other odd imbalances have occurred to me over the past half century, but I don’t recall any of them right now, which is a good thing, because enough is enough, for the time being. It is time to say good night, dear readers.

Happy pondering.

¹”Rabbit trails go here, there, and everywhere, and pretty much tend to lead nowhere. (Have you ever watched a dog sniff out a rabbit trail? It wanders in small then wider circles, around and around, feverishly looking for the rabbit – literally, a meal and, figuratively, the point of one’s argument.) No one knows what’s at the end of a rabbit trail (the point of one’s argument). Is there even an end to it? It’s a confusing maze of pointless leads. In short, a rabbit trail leads (us) nowhere. It serves only to confuse the prey/the reader. It keeps them preoccupied and confused.”  (“Cassiopea” at UsingEnglish.com.)
²Of course I recognize that “curmudgeon” can be used to describe a man, as can the colloquial “grumpus”, but they are not gender-specific, being applicable to a habitually complaining woman as well.

Finis

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