A welcome to readers

As a resident of this planet for more than four fifths of a century, I have enjoyed both successes and disappointments in a wide variety of vocations, avocations, and life experiences. This blog satisfies my desire to share some thoughts and observations--trenchant and prosaic--with those who are searching for diversions which are interesting, poignant and occasionally funny. I also plan to share recommendations about good/great movies I've watched and books and articles which I've found particularly mind-opening, entertaining, instructive. In addition, I can't pass up the opportunity to reflect publicly on how I am experiencing the so-called Golden Years. Write anytime:

Friday, July 29, 2011

Political Interlude

My old friend, Don Gordon, Yale '56, Penn '58, author and educator extraordinaire, sent me a copy of his letter to Representative Cantor which I think merits the attention of a broader audience.  Don gave me his permission to reprint it here. 

Rep. Kantor:

I am old enough (77) to be your father and, as an American cultural historian with two Ivy degrees, am neither  as stupid and ignorant 
let alone rabid as many of your  Tea Party supporters.     You are a child of Reaganism and know nothing better than that so you are 
now willing to  hold hold more than half our population hostage to the Great Republican God of ideological purity uber alles.   

You are doubtless aware that  section 4 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution does indeed bind the US to honor--to pay--its debts,
 thus maintaining the "full faith and credit" of the US established largely by Hamilton in Washington's first term.    The inherent corollary 
 to this is that  presumably this must be accomplished--in extremis--by finding a way, over time, of  securing a  manageable way to  
pay down debt which threatens the overall economy, not solely by placing your desire to defeat a sitting president, for ideologically
 pure reasons,  in the upcoming election.

In short, your duty is to country first, then party, and only then your ideological biases.     You are reversing  these three and trying 
to sell that despicable inversion to the nation at a time of national emergency.     

This is a good time for you to consider the words of two pre-Reagan notables...   First, the great jurist Leaned Hand , who in 1944 
spoke to a crowd in Central Park, NY, noting that "the spirit of liberty is the spirit of  those who are not sure they are right."   
(Italics mine)      And also, in another desperate time, in England in the 17th century, Cromwell's advisory to Parliament:  
"I beseech thee, in the bowels of Christ, consider that ye may be mistaken."

Your lust for purity betrays a deeper flaw in your character: namely, that of certitude, the ultimate weakness  of the terminally 

You are a servant, surely, of your  ambition, namely to use the country's health--however recklessly--to unseat a president 
and in so doing establish in his place a narrow--but pure!--vision of  plutocratic rule over the lives of 300 million + citizens.       
You don't need to wake up--for you are already awake--but you surely do need to grow up.

Don Gordon
in Santa Fe
Amen: Mark in Denver

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What Is My Water? I--Work.

Let me set the stage for this self-exploration ny giving you a frame of reference. The environment where my "default settings" (see my last blog) were imprinted on my operating system (psyche, values, preconceptions etc.) has several characteristics. I was most vulnerable to input from one or so to the end of junior high, roughly to age 16, or from my birth in 1936 to 1952.  This puts my ages-of-greatest-impression in a period spanning the end of the Great Depression, the whole of World War II,  and the start of the Korean Conflict, nominally FDR through Harry Truman, the pre-and post-War years and the beginning of the Cold War.

The location of the imprinting was the upper south (as defined by a geographer) but quintessentially The South as defined by the area's residents who, to a man (deliberate sexist remark), identified himself as Southern. However, women did too. We were all Southerners, Kentuckians. We knew we bore no resemblance to the "Yankees" across the Ohio River in Indiana or Ohio.

My parents and their friends, born in the first decade of the 20th Century,  were nominally Christian (Protestant), white, mostly Anglo-Saxon types, middle and upper middle class professional folks who had attended college, owned their own homes, a car or two, went to white collar jobs five days a week, spent Sundays in church, and usually belonged to one of the local service organizations such as the Kiwanis, Lions, or Rotary, and almost without exception never to the Masons, Knights of Columbus, or B'nai B'rith.

It was clear to me at an early age that my parents and "their type" were the "real" Americans and "real Christians." So was I. Others weren't. The standards that my parents followed and set for us children were accepted my me as True, and people who deviated from those standards were somehow less desirable and not to be mingled with and certainly not dated or married.  They were not Our Type (hereafter OT).

When I told my mom, one day, that I was on the verge of asking Betty Sue Atkinson out for a date (she was an absolutely beautiful, bright, curvy red head who attended Sacred Heart Academy), my mother turned an even paler shade of white than usual as she tried to explain to me, with her own style of convoluted logic, why that was a bad idea.  (It had seemed like a great idea to me given the standards I knew about up to then--Betty Sue was religious, smart, college-bound, attractive, clean (big points), and her father was a well-known surgeon who enjoyed a membership at the most fashionable local country club.) However, as mother explained it to me,  Betty Sue's family was Catholic and that meant a load of negative stuff (Pope, children raised Catholic, no birth control, meatless Fridays,  St. Christopher on the dashboard, and cheering for Notre Dame...) blah, blah, blah. So, since mother controlled the car keys and my allowance (the iron matriarchal hand clothed in the velvet Southern glove), I decided it would be a better idea for me to relinquish my dreams of lust and glory and go with the guys to a movie or ball game and then the local drive-in restaurant for a burger.

It was in this atmosphere that my earliest "default settings" concerning work and labor were imprinted. To begin with, as an indicator, there was the matter of clothing. The men who came to work at our house doing heavy cleaning or mowing the lawn were usually dressed in blue jeans, khakis, or blue or green khaki work clothes, suits and pants. Almost all wore blue and white cotton work gloves and high top work shoes or boots.OT never owned such clothes as far as I knew. The only exception were a few fathers, ex-GI's,  who wore their old army khakis when doing weekend projects or fishing.

Likewise, the women who came to work at our house wore black dresses with white aprons or, in the summer, white dresses with black or white aprons, heavily starched, and they clomped around in well-worn black or white leather shoes which were usually down at the heel. Many wore hair nets, and occasionally for formal serving occasions, they would sport a little, white, stand-up cap to match their formal, starched aprons and dresses.

"He does manual labor" was a pejorative condemnation irrespective of the type of work or the pay received (hourly bad, salary good). So I came to associate manual labor with not only the clothing worn (above), but also by what kind of work was done (with hands not brain) and with the location
(usually outdoors).  Other negative hallmarks of work not acceptable to OT were rough or calloused hands (unless you played a harp or were a sculptor), red and/or sunburned skin (the darker the worse), physical exertion (except in sports), sweating, bodily odors caused by same, sweat stains on clothing--especially armpits, dirt, over-developed muscles, safety glasses, dirty clothes and body parts (especially hands and face which OT scrubbed assiduously on a regular basis), beer drinking from cans or bottles and/or in a bar, Chevrolets, Fords, Plymouths, riding the bus anywhere. Sears, J C Penney, and Montgomery Wards were not places to be patronized and, in the the early days, neither were supermarkets

My "defaults" were set to appreciate, approve, and associate with "OT"  professional men, of men who worked in offices (not stores); to respect those who hired, fired and supervised others,  doctors, attorneys, bankers, ministers,  educators. high level politicians (can you imagine??), musicians, artists, and journalists. I was rock solid certain that here and here only, with these kinds of people, would my future lie.

As I engage in some serious introspection at this point in my life, I, like David Foster Wallace, see how much of what I automatically took as true-- was and is pure balderdash ( a polite, British-sounding family synonym for bullshit). I am astonished as I think and write this blog just how thoroughly my early environment affected the way I have automatically viewed ("default to") virtually everything, even though I have only dealt here with the issue of work so far. I am appalled at the people and opportunities I passed by just because I actually believed that they were not worthy of my attention or affection--or even my notice, that they were inferior as humans or as ways of making a living.  These prejudices run deep and they are old and, as discussed, they have operated outside of my deliberate intent, informing many of my actions and judgements and attitudes for a good part of my 75 years. 

Fortunately, I have known and dealt with (excised) many of defaults along the way, so at least my internal responses are not as automatic as they once were. There's still work to be done, investigations to be pursued, stock to be taken. The process is a mixture of the  excitement of self-discovery combined with genuine sorrow about what I have allowed to control pieces of my past life. I am genuinely surprised, even shocked  at how arrogant I have been, but  more on all this in the next blog...after I discuss what and how I learned and changed over the years.

Can you imagine that I was once embarrassed to have my executive-type father shake the rough calloused hand of my scoutmaster, a professional carpenter, a wonderful human being.  Shame on me!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Parable of the fishes: what's my water?

I have learned from Jungian analysis that there is such a thing as synchronicity, the meaningful juxtaposition of two people or events or ideas, striking coincidences. For example, I take notice when I read about a book or author or poem in several very different sources within the time span of a couple of days.  Inevitably, when I check out the material I've been repetitively made aware of, 99% of the time, I find a new reservoir or wellspring of insight or truth, an author to be explored in depth, an idea or concept to be massaged, or a person to get to know.

Such was the case with my discovery of David Foster Wallace and his brief commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, three years before his death by suicide in 2008. This man and his commencement address at Kenyon were referenced three separate times in wildly different sources in less than a week, so I pursued this blatant synchronicity in hopes of discovering something important. And, as expected, I did.

Wallace was obviously an internally troubled soul, yet we know that sometimes those with the greatest internal pain give us the most relevant, honest, and trustworthy ideas and insights. Such is the case, I think, with Wallace--his unfortunate self-inflicted demise somehow lends a sort of additional validity to ideas which are so obviously correct as to almost "go without saying" (we do know the danger of "not saying" what we think is obvious, right?).

Wallace begins his address with a parable of sorts, a joke, which really made me think (ponder) about the way I have lived, about my life and the forces which have shaped it.  The story goes like this:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swam on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"
...The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about....A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded...[Why?] ...Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realist, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It's our default-setting hard-wired into our boards at birth...
---[Life therefore]...is not a matter of virtue--it is a matter of my choosing to do the work of someone altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting[s]...

I certainly agree with Wallace's notion about self-centeredness being hard-wired in all of us as a default-setting; but I would argue that (in my case at least) a significant number of default-settings were added to my boards after my birth, very early on, by my parents, extended family, community, my friends, my gender, color, race, etc. Said another way, my predispositions to think about lots of stuff in certain automatic ways accumulated in my psyche without my knowledge or approval (more like a process of osmosis) long before I was capable of rational discrimination, judgement, and self-understanding. These "predispositions" or "biases" have been largely unconscious and have the unfortunate attribute of operating automatically and outside of any process of ratiocination or deliberate making of choices.

In my next few writings, therefore,  I plan to examine several of my own default-settings (biases, predispositions) and try to understand their origins and the impact they have made on the way I have lived and viewed my life, made choices, and on the way my living has affected those around me--often, as said above, without me even being conscious of the reflexive nature of my thoughts and actions--certainly evidence of  a default-setting in action.

I will begin with the topic of vocation and work,  and then move on to other subjects such as gender and sexuality, race, religion, sectional loyalties and prejudices, leisure activities, education, food, money and economics, sports, government and the like.  I look forward to this exploration as an opportunity to discover more about myself--what I really believe and think and why, and where all this comes from. I suspect and hope that in the process lots of my unexamined certainties about myself and my life,perhaps about life and the world in general, will be blown out of the water ("totally wrong and deluded")  by the time I complete my list. I wonder how successful I have been "altering and getting free" of my default-settings.

I find that undertaking this process is exhilarating, though somewhat daunting. Onward!

[To read Wallace's full commencement address, go to:  http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words]

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Have you heard this one? (this blog not what it seems...)

From Blanche Knott, author of the multi-volume "Truly Tasteless Jokes" collections:

A drunk walks out of a bar and spots a nun standing at a bus stop. He walks up to her and punches her in the face. When she falls to the ground, he screams, “Not so tough after all, are ya, Batman?”........OR.......Little girl: "Daddy, daddy, my toes are in pain."  Father: "Shut up or I'll nail your other foot to the floor."

You must remember these incredibly unsavory jokes which circulated wherever sophisticated folks met in the 80's.  The jokes were horribly gross, yet we all laughed and shared them at cocktail parties, the water cooler at work, and even in the church vestibule after the service. I'm not bringing the jokes up  in my blog to remind you of former gleeful times  (Q: What's the black stuff between an elephant's toes? A: Slow natives),  but to introduce you to another side of the famous--clearly intelligent--collector of those awful jokes, a woman who published multi volumes of them which sold many hundreds of thousands of copies. Now she's speaking to a different audience in a more mature way

Blanche Knott is the pseudonym of an incredibly brilliant, articulate writer, Ashton Applewhite,  who currently is authoring a blog which I highly recommend. Its title is: Staying Vertical: Dispatches From the Old Old on Work and Happiness.  As a Senior "with tenure" it pleases me to read about folks who are even more senior than I am who are still making waves in this incredible journey called life. One glance at Applewhite's blog will tempt you to put her on your "bookmark" list to read regularly. 
She presents a wide variety of very human stories in a brief, often humorous way.  I promise you, there are no tasteless jokes included--such as one of my favorites:

Q. What do you find in a clean nose?
A. Finger prints.

Seriously, give Applewhite a try; you won't be disappointed.  <www.stayingvertical.com>

Friday, July 1, 2011

Sentimental Journey at Home: Faberge, Raspberries and Crayons

I don't need a car for trips. All I need to do is to keep alert to my senses here at home, and then fuel up the old brain and memory and re-experience "trips" I've taken in the past. Sometimes mental trips "occur" quite by accident, but other times, I take them deliberately. Many, but not all,
of my accidental trips are initiated by my olfactory acuity which, as you may know, is legendary.

For example, not long ago while walking through Macy's on my way to the mens' department, I was brought up short by intense stabs of something like nostalgia, or a deep sense of loss, a little fear, combined with  a split second of sexual arousal. On its own, my mind filled up with memories of hot Southern nights, soft skin, insistent kisses, apprehension,  and the thrill of a novice's exploration of forbidden territory.

I stopped in my tracks and wondered what in the world could pull me up so short in the middle of a Department Store, especially when my mind was focused on the sale I was about to scout out in the shoe department. I looked around for the stimulus; nothing obvious in sight. Then I became aware that I was standing in the midst of the ladies' cosmetics department which was rife with a kaleidoscope of scents, to mix a metaphor. Knowing myself pretty well, and being used to the impact that odors have on me, I began to sniff.  Incredibly, in the midst of literally thousands of fragrances, my nose had picked out one, an ancient one which had once had particular meaning for me-- picked it out from a multitude of perfume scents of flowers, spices, herbs, resins, barks, etc. Incredible! Sniffing helped me find that whole experience again,  drawing with it some disdainful looks from the designer-clad soccer moms walking nearby. My gut also reminded me of how sadly that original encounter had ended.

The scent which my nasal apparatus had selected from a vast menu of thousands of aromatics was "Tigress." an older perfume, made by Faberge, and difficult to find these days. It was the perfume worn by my first college "love," we didn't have "lovers" in those days. It was she who taught me, within very strict limits,  of course, that having a sensual side was OK for a man. Tigress, um. I hadn't  smelled that perfume in 50+ years, yet there it was in Macy's, in my nose/brain, and apparently in my heart as well.That was an unplanned trip for sure.

Here's another. When I taste raspberries, red ones, I am taken immediately back to the side of Pine Mountain in Kentucky, to my grandparents' home perched there under the tall sycamores, walnuts, maples, and Buckeyes looking out over the Cumberland River and L+N Railroad tracks in the valley below. In my mind's trip, I can see the flock of chickens out back, smell their feed stored  in the drawers of an old ice chest on the slanty-floored back porch, and hear Grandma Stone, on our way to her large berry patch,  beating her boiling pot with a metal spoon and shouting out her warning: "Now get outa here you rattle snakes and copperheads.  Here comes Grandma Stone to pick berries."

The sight of raspberries growing on that hot mountainside was blissful, but nothing compared to the treat that Grammy prepared for us when we returned to the house. The raspberries, still a little warm from the sun, were covered with cold Jersey cream which Grandma Stone  had separated earlier by placing a quart Ball canning jar of fresh milk on the moving  treadle of her ancient Singer sewing machine. I can still see and taste it all.

The  treat was finished up with a pinch of sugar as light "frosting" for the berries, a precious gift in wartime rationing. As a city boy, this red and white mixture was as close to heaven as I figured I'd ever get. To complete this picture with all my senses firing, I would need to add the aroma of stale Camel cigarette smoke and lamp kerosene to the olfactory mix. I have both in my memory bank.

Red raspberries have just been on sale in the local market here in Denver and so Liz and I have eaten many pints with yogurt, on cereal, in smoothies, or just plain; but alas, no Jersey cream. Makes no difference.  All I have to do is bite or smell a red raspberry and I take a sensuous mental trip back to the Kentucky mountains. Not the real thing to be sure, but those berry memories are a worthy substitute for the real thing when all I can take is a sentimental journey.

Then there's the Crayons.  Ah yes; I have a collection of Crayolas displayed on a special bookshelf in the entry hall of my apartment here in Denver. On it are unopened boxes of crayons. Some are commemorative or yearly anniversary collections, some feature old colors while others show-case new ones. I have boxes with as few as six crayons, and modern assortments, in see-through plastic cases, one with 120 and and another that claims 200. "What's the big deal with the crayons? you ask. Well, here's the story.

I began my fascination with color even before kindergarten. The colors I found in nature had always intrigued me. I was blessed by being born in an area of the country which had high humidity and a long growing season and so the variety of colors displayed for me by Nature was extravagant, bordering on excessive. Unfortunately,  those colors,  I learned,  were only temporary, coming and going with the frosts and seasons. But when I went to kindergarten, I discovered a source of colors which was more permanent: crayons.  The boxes of fanned-out, paper-covered,  blunt-pointed, pencil-size and quaintly-named little sticks of color really caught my attention. As I used them,
I memorized many of their names, and some, like baseball players, became my favorites: turquoise blue, violet, magenta, cornflower, blue green, and even their strange cousins the siennas and umbers.

During my early years I amassed a fair number of crayon stubs--no crayon sharpeners on the boxes then--some protected by shreds of their original protective wrapping,  but most just short, unclothed tag ends showing little of their former elegant size and shape. The color of each one, however, was still electrifying, singly or in combination, I couldn't throw away even the smallest of my little friends. I kept my  growing collection in a round cake tin with a snap on lid (which could also be spun like a modern day Frisbee).

One day, after coloring, I dutifully put away my crayons, out of the way on the living room window sill. When I returned to take them up the next day, I discovered that I had unthinkingly put the cake tin on a sill which received the full force of the morning summer Kentucky sun, and when I peered inside the box, all I saw was a melted mass of color, now hardened as it cooled,  into a flat pancake of blended together color resembling a lava flow. I  wailed in mourning,but assuaged myself with the certainty that my benevolent mom would "feel my pain" and head to the store for replacements. I was wrong.  It was an occasion for her to "teach me a lesson" about responsibility. "You will get no new crayons because you have showed me that you are not responsible enough to keep them safe." "Crayons are expensive; money doesn't grow on trees." "When you earn your own money, you can buy crayons yourself." "Maybe your sister will let you borrow hers." And, "Big boys don't cry about melted crayons; now go to your room and don't come out until you have put on your 'sunshine suit.'"

From that day to the present, the waxy scent of crayons or a display of a variety of colors of various hues and shades of anything, brings me to a fever pitch of excitement--of desire, of the urge to buy and have "for my own" these tangible pieces or fragments of beauty. I want to have them and to control their destinies. The combination of sight and smell of crayons, specifically crayolas by Binney and Smith, even at my advanced age, take me on such a wonderful interior sentimental journey that I can hardly stand it. To preserve thos feelings,  I have my crayon collection displayed in the front entrance hall where I have to pass them, see them, and smell them many times a day.

Fortunately, I have less opportunity these days to smell "Tigress" and live through that trip again. But, "hey," there are always raspberries and crayons to take me far from home,  or maybe back home, most anytime I want to go,  on yet another sentimental journey. That's an easy way to avoid the financial costs associated with real travel, and there are no State Troopers along the way to monitor my direction or speed.