Friday, July 31, 2009

Almost August

Were you a Carole King fan back in college days?
I loved her song:

"On the first day in August
I want to wake up by your side
After sleeping with you
On the last night in July."

At age nineteen or so, I thought those were just about the most romantic lyrics I had ever heard. As Dumbledore says in Harry VI: "Oh to be young. To feel love's keen sting!"


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Happy Five Audacious

Sam, age 9, Atlantic Ocean (Ocean City, New Jersey, May 2004)

A few months ago, one of my uncles got the whole family together via email and said, "Why don't we practice our creative writing and all compose something using the word audacious. I loved what my sister wrote about her childhood trip to the Pacific Ocean in 1964, and she gave me permission to share it here:

Miles and miles we drove. Grandpa driving. Peg and Dave my companions. Big old car, the front seat able to recline completely joining the back. Wow! the Grand Canyon! Way high on Dave's shoulders looking way down. Was there a narrow path? I think there was. On and on we drove. No headlights. Grandpa scaring some lady, not meaning to, he needed her lights. Dave's face twisted in pain, imprinted there on my mind. Leg broken. And still we rode on. Meeting cousins I never knew. Mark David . . . where are you now? Disneyland, awe . . . the wonder of such a place. Magical for real. Normal days of the Ice cream man. Soda machines in the middle of a park. Mmmm . . . Dr. Pepper. Oh and the wonder of the ocean. Waves breaking . . . sandy beaches. Unable to contain myself . . . running for the water. Mark David scared but on my heels. Jumping in. In love with it all. Only a vacation. Free for a moment. Happy. Five. Audacious.

by guest blogger, Diane Burrows
"Little girl---Big Pacific" June 1964

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Blueberries and Plums

This is just to say that over the weekend, we bought 30 lbs of plump, perfect Michigan Blueberries. I'd like to say they were from the local U-Pick -- sometimes we do that. But this time we picked them up at the grocery store. We ate 5 lbs on the spot (couldn't resist!) and froze the remaining 25 lbs. They'll be perfect for blueberry pancakes (better than Bob Evans!) and blueberry pie all winter long (who's coming for Thanksgiving dessert?). Best of all, however, is just reaching into the freezer for a handful (only 80 calories per cup). Delicious, so sweet, so cold!

Remember this book?

And this poem . . .

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

William Carlos Williams
American poet & pediatrician, 1883 - 1963)

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Wrong Answer

Statues Being Repaired, outside the Pergamon Museuem ~ Berlin

Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded walked the roads.
He smelled a familiar smell. It was the Sphinx.

Oedipus said, "I want to ask one question,
Why didn't I recognize my mother?"

"You gave the wrong answer," said the Sphinx.

"But that was what made everything possible," said Oedipus.

"No," she said. "When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning,
two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered Man.
You didn't say anything about Woman."

"When you say Man," said Oedipus,
"you include women too. Everyone knows that."

She said, "That's what you think."

by Muriel Rukeyser, 1913 - 1980
American poet and political activist

Oedipus did give the wrong answer. His general answer, "Man," should have been, more specifically, "Oedipus." Sure, everyone walks on four legs at first (crawling instead of walking), but even more so Oedipus because his feet were bound at birth. We all grow up to walk on two legs, but Oedipus even more so because in his prime, he strode the earth as King. And the elderly may require a cane in their twilight years, but Oedipus, having blinded himself, even more so. Tragically, Oedipus, figuratively, as well as literally, is blinded, incapable of recognizing his own fate.

Rukeyser, cleverly, finds his answer, "Man," wrong for an entirely different reason. According to the original myth, the Sphinx kills herself after Oedipus answers the riddle. But Rukeyser devises a latter day reunion, in which a defeated Oedipus confronts the Sphinx and she chides him for his gender exclusive language and blanket use of masculine nouns and pronouns, informing him that this failure to recognize women is the root of all his subsequent trials.

Would a revision of this blatantly subtle linguistic oversight have altered the fate of Oedipus? Perhaps not, but it could certainly alter ours, which is, of course, Rukeyser's point. That "familiar smell" -- is it the remains of the dead (remember, the Sphinx killed anyone who answered incorrectly), or is it the odor of sexism and exclusion (similar to the "odor of mendacity" that Buck and Big Daddy can smell in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)?

Such is the situation Rukeyser describes in her poem "Myth." I don't know that anyone has ever summed up the whole foul situation better than she does in this poem. If you don't have a word for something, how do you acknowledge its existence? How can you recognize your mother / daughter / wife if you don't have a word for her? Everyone needs a name! Everyone needs to be called by her name! If you can't do that, you diminish her existence.

Come to think of it, though, poor old Oedipus didn't recognize his father either. . . .

Not Oedipus, Not the Sphinx
Gerry in Berlin, 2003

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Another Good Poem
By Muriel Rukeyser

Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded walked the roads. He smelled a familiar smell. It was the Sphinx.

Oedipus said, "I want to ask one question, Why didn't I recognize my mother?"

"You gave the wrong answer," said the Sphinx.

"But that was what made everything possible," said Oedipus.

"No," she said. "When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered Man. You didn't say anything about Woman."

"When you say Man," said Oedipus, "you include women too. Everyone knows that."

She said, "That's what you think."

by Muriel Rukeyser, American poet and political activist, 1913 - 1980


Monday, July 20, 2009

All the Little Animals

Photo taken enroute by Anna Carriker

Sad," I said the other day, in a woeful voice, while riding along on a rural highway with a carful of my relatives.

"Why sad?" asked my brother - in - law Ron, who was driving.

"That little dead raccoon we just passed on the side of the road," I answered.

"If you're going to feel sad every time you see a dead raccoon on the road," Ron replied, "then this is going to be a really sad trip."

In fact, it wasn't a sad day; we were on our way to a picnic; and I have to admit that Ron's remark, though not in the least glib, was kind of funny. Without being dismissive, Ron -- who has the kindest heart ever and loves all animals -- put the sadness into perspective. We all laughed ruefully.

But it is sad.

The cult of the car exacts a relentless toll on our environment and drivers don't hesitate to exact a steep price, wittingly or unwittingly. These little creatures, just another casualty, lose their lives for our convenience. Look around, you see them everywhere, every day, sad.

Makes me think of the poem "All the Little Animals" by Muriel Rukeyser, in which she writes about the days when the "rabbit test" was used to determine if a woman was pregnant. Rukeyser pays homage to the fact that reading the results of these pregnancy tests required killing the lab rabbits.

Can she really be pregnant? The doctor thinks not, but "'Yes she is," said all the little animals, and laid down their lives for my son and me."

"I hear them: 'Yes you are,' say all the little animals.
I see them . . .
they lay down their lives in silence,
all the rabbits saying Yes . . . "

from the poem by Muriel Rukeyser

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Les Vieux

Great - Grandfather Beavers, in 2nd row, with hat on knee
Clinton, Arkansas ~ Cornet Band ~ late 19th Century

Occasionally when thinking of some small quaint detail from the long ago days with my grandparents -- such as the way they always put the Halloween candy in miniature brown paper bags or the jars of canned fruit in the attic, stored in an old pink kitchen cabinet -- I will suddenly feel so sad. Maybe because everything seems so different now from those homey times. The heart - breaking thought will cross my mind: "That was their life."

Then, I remind myself: if I can remember it, then it's my life too! After all, I ate the candy out of those little bags (miniature marshmallows and chocolate bits!) and played for hours in that very attic. And if those homely images are still in my head, then that life is not gone -- just very far away. It's the same sense of nostalgia that I feel looking at old black & white photographs or walking through an old house, or listening to John Denver sing this beautiful bittersweet song:

Old Folks / Les Vieux

The old folks don't talk much
And they talk so slowly when they do
They are rich, they are poor, their illusions are gone
They share one heart for two

Their homes all smell of thyme [time?], of old photographs
And an old-fashioned song
Though you may live in town you live so far away
When you've lived too long

And have they laughed too much, do their dry voices crack
Talking of times gone by
And have they cried too much, a tear or two
Still always seems to cloud the eye

They tremble as they watch the old silver clock
When day is through
It tick-tocks oh so slow, it says, "Yes," it says, "No"
It says, "I'll wait for you."

The old folks dream no more
The books have gone to sleep, the piano's out of tune
The little cat is dead and no more do they sing
On a Sunday afternoon

The old folks move no more, their world's become too small
Their bodies feel like lead
They might look out the window or else sit in a chair
Or else they stay in bed

And if they still go out, arm in arm, arm in arm
In the morning's chill
It's to have a good cry, to say their last good-bye
To one who's older still

And then they go home to the old silver clock
When day is through
It tick-tocks oh so slow, it says, "Yes," it says, "No"
It says, "I'll wait for you."

The old folks never die
They just put down their heads and go to sleep one day
They hold each other's hand like children in the dark
But one will get lost anyway

And the other will remain just sitting in that room
Which makes no sound
It doesn't matter now, the song has died away
And echoes all around

You'll see them when they walk through the sun-filled park
Where children run and play
It hurts too much to smile, it hurts too much but life goes on
For still another day

As they try to escape the old silver clock
When day is through
It tick-tocks oh so slow, it says, "Yes," it says, "No"
It says, "I'll wait for you."

The old, old silver clock that's hanging on the wall
That waits for us

Songwriters: Jacques Brel, Mort Shuman, Gerard Jouannest, Jean Corti

From the musical Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (trans. Eric Blau)
Also sung by Elly Stone

And by Michael Johnson [that's JOHNSON, not Jackson] on his album / CD, There Is A Breeze

P.S. A Sparrow!
Talk about Literary Connection & Coincidence! Yesterday, just shortly after I posted the Jacques Brel lyrics ("Les Vieux" / "Old Folks"), my brother Aaron sent me the following video: "What Is That? A Sparrow!" which conveys exactly the tone that I was trying to capture. The song has been in my life for thirty years, the video appeared only yesterday, but they are perfect for each other!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

No More Forever

When we lived in Philadelphia, my kids and I liked taking a walk to the National Liberty Museum, where one of our favorite exhibits was the stained glass "Voyage to Liberty Through Faith Gallery" (fourth floor, north wing), where we would always stop to read the words of Nez Perce Chief Joseph, a speech that gives me goosebumps every time:

"Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are--perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."
~ Chief Joseph's Surrender, 5 October 1877

translated, and perhaps embellished, by
~ Charles Erskine Scott Wood, close friend of Chief Joseph


See also: "Hominy, Horseradish, and Buffalo Bill"
Buffalo Bill's
who used to
ride a water-smooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

(poem by e. e. cummings)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Not Unworthy

Rebecca & Kitti, All Dressed Up & No Place To Go

"John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose" (Luke 3: 16)

I have been trying to track down another quotation that I recall reading awhile back, something along the lines of "When our shoelaces come untied, it's so that the gods can give us a kick in the behind when we bend down to tie them up" (very rough paraphrase). Does that ring any bells with anybody? I have searched all my saved files but just can't put my finger on it. I do remember that at the time it reminded me of the following poem, which has been one of my favorites for many years:


The life I could have lived,
that other, better one,
is also mine. Who else
can claim it?
Each morning, stooping down,
I know that I am not worthy
to tie my own shoelaces.

Ernest Sandeen, 1908 - 1997
Notre Dame Professor and Poet

I've always regretted that I did not take a photograph of Professor Sandeen and his wife Eileen when they came to an "All Dressed Up and No Place To Go" Party at my house in South Bend, back in April 1986. I can see now that he was legendary. I just wish I'd had the foresight to ask for his autograph while I had the chance.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

You were wearing your Edgar Allan Poe printed cotton blouse.
In each divided up square of the blouse was a picture of Edgar Allan Poe.
Your hair was blonde and you were cute. You asked me,
"Do most boys think that most girls are bad?"
I smelled the mould of your seaside resort hotel bedroom on your hair held in place by a John Greenleaf Whittier clip.
"No," I said, "it's girls who think that boys are bad."
Then we read Snowbound together
And ran around in an attic, so that a little of the blue enamel was scraped off my George Washington, Father of His Country, shoes.

Mother was walking in the living room, her Strauss Waltzes comb in her hair.
We waited for a time and then joined her, only to be served
tea in cups painted with pictures of Herman Melville
As well as with illustrations from his book Moby Dick
and from his novella, Benito Cereno.
Father came in wearing his Dick Tracy necktie: "How about a drink, everyone?"
I said, "Let's go outside a while."
Then we went onto the porch and sat on the Abraham Lincoln swing.
You sat on the eyes, mouth, and beard part, and I sat on the knees.
In the yard across the street we saw a snowman holding a garbage can lid smashed into a likeness of the mad English king, George the Third.

by Kenneth Koch, American Poet, 1925 - 2002

This humorous yet earnest sartorial poem reads like a shopping list of all the things you might like to pick up at the souvenir gift shop, especially if you were on vacation in Washington, DC.

I'm sure I could use a George III garbage can (to hold my recycling!), and some George Washington shoes would be trendy. John Greenleaf Whittier hair clips and Herman Melville tea cups would make great gifts for my girlfriends. And I'm pretty sure I had one of those Edgar Allan Poe blouses back when I was in 4th grade.

Shopping On The Streets Of Frederick, Maryland

As a matter of fact, on this trip, I did purchase some terrific "Savage Soaps" from Le Savon, The Soap Company. So many choices! I finally picked a bar of the politically correct "Whitehouse" soap and a bar of the inspiring "Barbara Fritchie Fromme Pear." The fragrance is mesmerizing and the packaging is irresistible! At airport security they double-checked my bag to get a closer look at my all-American soaps. Not to worry, it turns out you can transport them in your carry-on; and when you finally get them home, everyone will be delighted!

All I need now is a "Kenneth Koch" beach towel, and I think I'm set.

"How about a drink, everyone?"

Then we went onto the porch . . .

...and sat on the Abraham Lincoln swing.

Also in Frederick: The Barbara Fritchie House

"Shoot if you must this old gray head,
But spare your country's flag she said."

from the poem by John Greenleaf Whittier
American Quaker Poet, 1807 - 1892

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Thought For Independence Day

"What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour."

~ Frederick Douglass, 5 July 1852 ~

"I ask adopt the principles proclaimed by yourselves, by your revolutionary fathers, and by the old bell in Independence Hall."
~ Frederick Douglass ~
at the Southern Loyalists' Convention ~ Philadelphia, 1866

"Whatever else I may forget, I shall never forget
the difference between those who fought for liberty
and those who fought for slavery."

~ Frederick Douglass, 1883 ~

Thursday, July 2, 2009

That Was A Joke

Sometimes when you're teaching, you just have to entertain yourself. For example, you can try telling some classification jokes: There are three types of people in the world--those who can count and those who can't. Here's another related one: There are two types of people in the world--those who classify everything into two types and those who don't. A few years ago, I told both of these jokes to my Freshman English class just as we were finishing up a unit on classification as a rhetorical style. The collective response was one great big blank look. Oh, I take that back, I think a few students did ask, "What's the third kind?" Anyway, I gave up and said, "Well, does anyone else have a classification joke before we move on?" One totally confused student raised his hand and said, "Duh . . . I didn't know we were supposed to bring one in." Boy oh boy. That's when I knew it was time to teach them the four saddest words in the English language: "That was a joke."


Two Kinds of People

there are two
kinds of human
beings in the word
so my observation
has told me
namely and to wit
as follows
those who
even though they
were to reveal
the secret of the universe
to you would fail
to impress you
with any sense
of the importance
of the news
and secondly
those who could
communicate to you
that they had
just purchased
ten cents worth
of paper napkins
and make you
thrill and vibrate
with the intelligence

by Don Marquis, American Humorist, 1878 - 1937

Story People ~ Brian Andreas


I had finished my dinner
Gone for a walk
It was fine
Out and I started whistling

It wasn't long before

I met a
Man and his wife riding on
A pony with seven
Kids running along beside them

I said hello and

Went on
Pretty soon I met another
This time with nineteen
Kids and all of them
Riding on
A big smiling hippopotamus

I invited them home

by Kenneth Patchen, American Poet, 1911 - 1972