Joan Didion mourning a middle-aged child

My kids are old enough, I mentioned in a conversation with a friend, that increasingly I see my job as just getting out of their way. Each generation rides roughshod over the bones of the dead. Let's hope this won't happen for several more decades, but eventually I'll be among the peat caught in a younger generation's tank treads.

And with the deaths of acquaintances, family, friends, and celebrities — reaching the midpoint of life will mean that more people I know of will have died than are still living. Cheery? No. But practical, and helps keep the ego in check that maybe a late order in a restaurant isn't the hugest matter in the world.

Joan Didion, from an interview on NPR's Fresh Air. Click on the photo to listen.

Joan Didion, from an interview on NPR's Fresh Air. Click on the photo to listen.

Flipping that, what's it like to outlive your child? Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking writes about the death of her spouse. Just a few weeks before the publication of that book, Didion's daughter died at the age of 39. She wrote about the experience in Blue Nights. A poem excerpt from the book:

Vanish.

Pass into nothingness: the Keats line that frightened her.

Fade as the blue nights fade, go as the brightness goes.

Go back into the blue.

I myself placed her ashes in the wall.

I myself saw the cathedral doors locked at six.

I know what it is I am now experiencing.

I know what the frailty is, I know what the fear is.

The fear is not for what is lost.

What is lost is already in the wall.

What is lost is already behind the locked doors.

The fear is for what is still to be lost.

You may see nothing still to be lost.

Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.

Immortality via PowerPoint slides

The election year has me thinking of rampant egos, hubris, and whether the comedy of today will become tragedy tomorrow then become comedy again where it will stay as we fade into history. Do you think historians will scrutinize our PowerPoint slides and other tedious artifacts to judge what was important to us, as they do a desiccated bill of sale found on papyrus? Imagine the future graduate teaching assistants click-click-clicking through our memos proving their mettle in order to progress in academic esteem.

Please, everyone. Out of courtesy to the people of the future, let us aspire to make all our memos vibrant and worthy of posterity. Whether a book report, or an explanation to others about how to do that thing that we find so easy, make it profound and beautiful. Or at least add something funny.

Ozymandias
By Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

PowerPoint slide that I have made, just for you (and future cyber-archaeologists).

On Bootyliciousness, jelly, jealousy

This came on the iPod, and I wondered whether the chorus goes: "I don't think you're ready for this jelly" (I have jelly you may not be prepared for) or "I don't think you're ready for this. Jeally?" (You lack preparation for "this", and are jealous of it).

A typical contemplation for me during a long drive. Don't look up the answer on any CD booklet lyrics you have, or, heaven forfend, any of those sloppy song lyrics websites. Ponder this as a koan.

David Bowie: head, heart, girls loving horsies

As a teenager, many of the girls around me who had a rabid (libidinous?) fetish for horses later had a rabid, libidinous fetish for David Bowie. It seemed best to not intrude between girls and their horses or their David Bowie. So I mostly ignored him.

David Bowie favors the U.S. flag and milk.

At age 18, on the sly, I bought The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Marvelous stuff, of course. But at age 20 I bought probably the best bunch of CDs in my life: David Bowie Sound + Vision.

The packaging was marvelous. For 1989, it contained three great CDs that ran a gamut of his career up to Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) including familiar tracks and alternate takes. It had a video CD with the video for "Ashes to Ashes" saying goodbye to his pre-1980 personas when hardly anyone had a player to do anything with it.

Bowie described himself as "synthetic". Before I closely listened, when I was a teenager he came across as always viewing his own work from a distance. Never fully engaged, but pulling a trick of some kind and watching to see everyone's reactions rather than being in the moment.

What is easy to miss, for all the hairstyles and colors and external trappings, is his voracious curiosity for music. He put a great deal of heart into his work, often getting far further in than trying on genres, but studying and expressing himself from the genre's center.

Over time I bought all his albums up through Never Let Me Down. His recordings at the BBC. For all this intense time of catching up, all his changes and playfulness had the safety of the past. It didn't offend or challenge me in the way it would have had I caught it at the first. The daring stuff struck me as wonderfully funny and clever. I could see things as they were meant and did not have to deal with the contemporary "What is he doing?"

Sound + Vision. Terrific packaging. Great music.

When strapped for cash at various times, I ended up selling a few of his albums I didn't listen to very often (Farewell, Never Let Me Down). I haven't purchased every album he released after 1987. I did like Tin Machine. Yes, really. And Black Tie, White Noise. And I especially liked Outside. And like much of his mid-level fans I had heard whispers about his ailing health in recent years, and was delightfully surprised when The Next Day came out, viewing it in 2013 as a final album emerging after ten years of retirement.

In 2016, with Bowie dead, I now drum my fingers, awaiting delivery of his final album Blackstar. I saw the video for his song "Lazarus" when it was released and knew he was near death. Not only tipped-off by the title of the song, and the prolonged shots on a sick bed, but most especially the black and silver-striped harlequin going into the chest/coffin at the end. This was goodbye.

And three days after the video's release, he was dead.

The news bummed me out, intermittently, for a couple of days. And I still shake my head a few times at the news. I don't associate a wide range of his songs with emotionally laden relationships or memories. But playing random tracks from the 25 albums of his that I still own evokes specific times in my life when listening and getting engrossed in his music was an experience distinctly (this is absurd) mine, even listening a decade or two behind others. His hunger to try things, his love of music and bending of forms all generated an impressive body of work. Yet, it feels like a chill has settled on all of those accomplishments for now. Once Blackstar arrives, his space on my CD shelves will not get much wider.

When thinking of an example of Bowie deploying both a sense of play and a clear drive to get into the center of a song, his cover of "Wild is the Wind" came immediately to mind.

Many of us will take solace in the work he left behind, even though listening to it for a while will be hard because we will sorely miss him.

I got sad writing this. Headed up the stairs. Then I started thinking of "TVC15" and Bowie's performance on Saturday Night Live with Klaus Nomi and started laughing. Had I seen this in 1978, at age 9, I would have wondered what was going on. Seeing it much later, it is so wonderfully fucking funny. Pink poodle with a t.v. screen. Stick around for the second number in the video of David Bowie acting like a puppet for "Boys Keep Swinging". Yes, that is Martin Sheen introducing him.

Rhetoric v. poetry. Rhetoric + poetry.

Not Bernie Sanders, but W.B. Yeats

"We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry. Unlike the rhetoricians, who get a confident voice from remembering the crowd they have won or may win, we sing amid our uncertainty; and, smitten even in the presence of the most high beauty by the knowledge of our solitude, our rhythm shudders." - William Butler Yeats, "Anima Hominus"

Goddamn, I have got to get away from dunking my head in the politics bucket, and from the politics commentary bucket, then commenting on the politics commentary bucket, and put pen to paper on wrapping up the dirty book project.

Writing is progressing, but done in isolation. Commenting on political rhetoric is in the open and full of commiseration and wit and friends amusing each other. Maybe misanthropy would lead to more spans of time to tune things out and focus?

Is Frank Burns the true good guy of M*A*S*H?

As a nation reevaluates Atticus Finch - a purported hero in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and revealed to be a racist in the sequel Go Set a Watchman - we should take a closer look at Frank Burns. While binge-playing M*A*S*H in our household, familiar sitcom dialog from childhood coming to the fore, it occurred to me: what if Hawkeye is meant to be an unreliable narrator, unfairly maligning Major Frank Burns?

Think of it: Burns wants order and protocol to be followed in a dangerous wartime environment. Chain of command is essential to reliable operation. Safety is essential in a hospital. Emergency life & death issues emerge on a regular basis. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce is an agent of disruption with deep contempt for authority. Yet the story of M*A*S*H centers on Pierce. The camera angles in The Swamp tent always favor Pierce, not Burns. Through Pierce's eyes, Burns is reliably the ninny and appeaser to those in authority.

Consider a couple things:

  1. There is only one prominent female in the entire M*A*S*H cast for its full run, Major Margaret Houlihan. She is a woman in power, outranking Pierce and his sidekick-of-the-day, whether Trapper John or B.J. Yet, save for the last few seasons, Pierce and his toadies regularly hold the powerful, self-assured Houlihan in deep contempt. Burns manages a longterm relationship with her for many years.
  2. Pierce and Trapper John had a black tentmate the first season. A doctor, just like them. They called him "Spearchucker".

Even trying NYT? Sometimes the daemon evokes tedium.

Note to the New York Times Book Review: if your cover review has "bestrides [...] like a [...] colossus" in its second sentence my self-preserving cliché survival mechanism kicks in and I cannot retain anything farther.

Now, I hardly read. At all. But the few things I do read I often re-read multiple times. Harold Bloom's 80s & 90s books, especially The Western Canon (which I wrote about here) among them, and to a lesser extent The Book of J and the The Anxiety of Influence. So far as I can tell, the last few decades Bloom has largely been rehashing the same approach: encomium to classic/canon literature and comparing one established author to another even if he has already compared them to each other in other works. This new book, The Daemon Knows, appears to be more of the same. Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolator.

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Ultron, the Emily Dickinson-quoting supervillain robot

Ultron would like you to look at his Dickinson-themed journal and let him know what you think.

The New York Times reports that Joss Whedon wrote a line in the upcoming Avengers Age of Ultron movie where Ultron quotes Emily Dickinson (Huzzah as the Venn diagram of comic nerds and lit nerds fizzes with glee...). James Spader, who voices Ultron, was later given a line from Pinocchio about not having strings for the final version (Bo-ring...)

I have tried to find out what the Dickinson quote was. However, after multiple minutes of Yahoo, Bing, and Google searches have yielded no answers, I am snatching the internet speculation license and claiming it mine.

Let's assume that Whedon would go broad and choose one of Dickinson's most recognizable poems. While her buzzing flies would work in many ways for an action film, let's go instead with a scene where Ultron, the fate of humanity seconds from ruination, decides to regale Hulk, Black Widow, Captain America, Hawkeye, Iron Man, Thor — and, hell, let's add Loki — with a recitation that causes each of them to close their eyes and imagine sitting in a Carriage with Death and Ultron, the giant robot.

Imagine yourself, dear reader, watching a montage of soft-dissolve film edits as each brightly colored muscle-bound oaf, blood trickling down the forehead just so, gasping final breaths, ponders the point of it all.

I grew up on DC comics and don't know what the deal is with Ultron from Marvel comics, but I am eager to pretend James Spader as the preppie from Pretty in Pink has converted to robot form and aspires to more destruction than making fellow preppie Andrew McCarthy feel bad for dating someone trashy like Molly Ringwald.

Fingers crossed Walt Whitman and Hulk are combined in the next movie. DOES HULK WHITMAN CONTRADICT MYSELF? THEN HULK WHITMAN CONTRADICTS MYSELF!

Because I Could Not Stop for Death (479)
By Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity –

The male gaze & Paul Blackburn: The Once-Over

"Persimmon" by Robert Rauschenberg (1964). Taken in the Art Institute of Chicago... by ME!

The "male gaze" is an important concept. However, the phrase often diminishes the sense of power held by the person being gazed at. Beauty and social hierarchy has its privileges, and its nuisances. "The Once-Over" by Paul Blackburn from the late 1950s holds that sense nicely.

"Stirring dull roots with spring rain" alludes to "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot (which I wrote about here), putting Eliot in the role of Blackburn's "preacher". While attending a religious service with T.S. Eliot holds some novel appeal ("Hey, that's T.S. Eliot!" would be my recurring thought), I'm not sure Eliot would hold my heathen attention for more than a few minutes on the topic of religion. Maybe if he talked about his banking instead I'd be rapt for longer.

The Once-Over
By Paul Blackburn

The tanned blonde
                                    in the green print sack

in the center of the subway car
                                                          standing

tho there are seats
                                    has had it from
I           teen-age hood
I           lesbian
I           envious housewife
4          men over fifty
(& myself),     in short
                                    the contents of this half of the car

                                     Our notations are :
long legs, long waists, high breasts (no bra), long
neck, the model slump
                                    the handbag drape & how the skirt
cuts in under a very handsome

                                                      set of cheeks
“stirring dull roots with spring rain”, sayeth the preacher

            Only a stolid young man
with a blue business suit and the New York Times

does not know he is being assaulted.

So.
She has us and we have her
all the way to downtown Brooklyn
Over the tunnel and through the bridge
                                    to DeKalb Avenue we go
all very chummy

She stares at the number over the door
                                    and gives no sign
Yet the sign is on her

Fog

April is National Poetry Month, here's a short one to fire up the writing pistons:

Fog
By Carl Sandburg

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

There's a recording of Carl Sandburg reading the poem. I came across it during a long drive while listening to an anthology of poets reading their own work - part of an effort to make myself smarter by choosing literature over listening to podcasts of comedians talking to other comedians about that one time they did that one thing.

Anyway, the recording is on several videos people have posted on YouTube, but here's an adorable reading that appealingly has images of cats throughout. Including a photo of a cat in the fog!