The View From Fifty-Two

Because the past has a script, we think it is easier there.

* * * *
In an informal survey that I have conducted my entire life, there are no popular songs about the experience of life at fifty-two years of age, which is too bad because today I am fifty-two.

Fifty-two is of course the same number as a full deck of cards, which is something that I had not noticed until it was pointed out to me, I am ashamed to tell you. Thus: not a full deck here.

I relate to certain lines in some songs a bit more closely than I may want to admit (Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” has the pithy, “I ache in the places I used to play,” for instance), but what is fifty-two? There is no answer to that any more than there is to the same question about the round-number ages, about which society deems it okay to be dramatic and sing songs about the significance of one’s body and the number of revolutions around our star it has made.
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Pandemic Diary: Just a Box of Rain

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry.
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
—T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,”
Four Quartets

* * * *
One day, he decided to read the pages that I’d left next to my typewriter. I was a literature major in graduate school, and I had just pounded out some pages about “The Waste Land” for a summer T. S. Eliot seminar. “I don’t understand anything you wrote, but it sounds like you know what you’re taking about,” my dad said with a chuckle.

My dad had a pretty good chuckle, just so you know. Chuckles are difficult to rank because they receive little attention in the universe of laughs, but they are worth a note. My dad’s chuckle was never one that claimed he knew more than the person with whom he was speaking, or more than anyone else, for that matter. It was an honest assessment of how amused he was at the moment, which I realize now was one way that told us his full-bodied laughter was true and truly felt.

I did not appreciate my dad’s chuckle that summer day so long ago, though. “The poetry of T. S. Eliot is more important than a laugh,” I am certain I thought. (I was insufferable, I assure you. My insufferable self, so convinced of his own importance, still is around here somewhere, but does not show up often.) Well, Eliot’s poems have plenty of laughs and chuckles available, as I now know, and I also know now that my dad’s message to me was a sort of baffled pride in a son so different from and yet so similar to him.

As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate Eliot’s volume Four Quartets and its deeply considered meditations on time, man’s role in the cosmos, eternity, and the permanent immanence of eternity in any possible moment, never at any individual’s bidding. With my father’s death from COVID-19 on Sunday, May 10, those themes become that much more important to me, and since he chuckled at my Eliot paper (“your report” he called it), perhaps a start with Eliot (“East Coker” opens with “In my beginning is my end”) today would have earned a chuckle from him.
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Pandemic Diary 7: A Memory of a Friend

Six years ago today, a friend of mine passed. Charles F. Brennan, III—my friend Charlie (November 2, 1960–April 7, 2014)—was my recovery sponsor for a time.

On this date, some of us remember him—not for his departure, but for his presence. What follows are my handful of memories from the brief three or so years that I knew him at the end of his all-too-brief fifty-three years. The departure was difficult enough, but a community grew closer for a moment and thus a beauty came out of it. That was my first experience of beauty within grief, and it was a testament to the lives Charlie had touched and influenced.

At the top is a copy of The Serenity Prayer in Irish, which we found in his apartment:

An Phaidir Suaimhneas
A Dhia,
deonaigh dom an suaimhneas
chun glacadh le rudaí
nach féidir liom a athrú,
misneach chun rudaí a athrú nuair is féidir,
agus gaois
chun an difríocht a aithint.

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For Those Left Behind: Memorial Day 2017

“Their life consisted wholly and solely of war, for they were and always had been front-line infantrymen. They survived because the fates were kind to them, certainly—but also because they had become hard and immensely wise in animal-like ways of self-preservation.”—Ernie Pyle, World War II journalist, writing about what he saw at the front. Killed in action April 18, 1945.

I do not come from a family that talks much about its military service. My father was drafted in 1958, served his two-year-long tour, and then came back home to a job that had been held for him. This was during the Cold War, so he did not see action but he did see more of the world than he had up till then, or since. He served in the U.S. Army in Germany during the Cold War as a calculator tasked with determining missile flight paths. (I believe he worked with the Atlas missile, an early ICBM model.)
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In Memory of a Fallen Friend

Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.
 
Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise
.
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam A.H.H.”

* * * *
Six-foot-four. If you asked him, and people often did while gazing up at him, “How tall are you,” he would reply, “6-4,” as if someone had once told him that “6-5” (his obvious actual height) sounded like a brag and he did not want to add a brag to his already imposing height. The man bent his head to pass through door frames. He was tall.

Modesty was the virtue he most cherished. It was not a false modesty or a virtue-signaling; I have learned that you will sometimes meet people in life who radiate modesty because they know that life cuts all of us down and they have learned it in the hardest of ways. Mickey J. was one of those people, and when I went to bed last night, I still thought I lived in a world shared with my friend, but he had died yesterday. I woke to the news on my phone.
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Goodnight, Sweet Prince

Even in his later years, hunched over a cane, age did not appear to de-fang him. Don Rickles was still quick with his quips, even if the quips came quickly to him because he shot them out every day for six decades, quick with his many facial expressions of disgust and disappointment.

His reactions to audience reactions often brought his jokes from the barely memorable to the legendary. Rarely has a performer conveyed so much with the mere flicker of a expression change.

Don Rickles died today. The stand-up comic was 90, a month shy of his 91st birthday, but he was rarely shy. (I’ll be here all night folks, thanks.)

His stand-up act, till his last days, was remarkable, for someone past age 90 or not even 19, really: it was always unscripted. Yes, he knew what “insults” he was most likely going to deploy “against” audience members, and he knew that somehow he was going to convey that he was on the audience member’s side and not punching down at them. That was the extent of the notes he carried on stage with him. It was a tightrope act.

“If I were to insult people and mean it, that wouldn’t be funny. There is a difference between an actual insult” and doing that, he often stated.
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Snow Falling on Everything

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.—James Joyce, the conclusion of “The Dead,” Dubliners

Cemeteries are cram-packed full with people who had other plans that day. Reservations for dinner, a movie ticket in the pocket. A refrigerator with new groceries. A sink with dirty dishes.

We all know this deep down, but the occasional reminders can nonetheless surprise. “Always wear clean underwear,” a cliché cartoon version of a mother tells a cliché cartoon version of ourselves in a cliché cartoon version of a conversation that never happens in real life. But the end comes in a moment, and it is always dramatic, even when it is mundane.

(I suppose it is never mundane for the person who experiences it, but I have not yet been there, not even been near it, and no one who has had the end moment has made a verifiable report about it. Tsk-tsk. Where are their priorities?)
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Remembering Pete Seeger

In 1996, in my job of assistant editor at a weekly newspaper, I awarded myself the title of music reviewer for a single issue and attended a concert given at a local high school by Pete Seeger, who died three years ago today at age 94. (Our newspaper’s actual music reviewer was only interested in attending and writing about rock concerts. This was a stroke of luck for me.) I wrote a review, even though I knew that a review is not what one writes about a Pete Seeger concert. An appreciation. A thank-you note. But not a mere review judging aesthetic merits.

It was a great concert, by the way.
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