Name Time

'La Otra Navidad (The Other Christmas),' by Oiluj Samall Zeid on Flickr

[Image: “La Otra Navidad (The Other Christmas),” by Oiluj Samall Zeid; found on Flickr and used here under a Creative Commons license. The site is a mausoleum in León, Spain, commemorating Republicans killed in the Spanish Civil War. Each nameplate represents one victim.]

From whiskey river (italicized portion):

[Interviewer Terry] Gross: I’d like you to read another poem from your book “Book of Longing.” And this is called “Titles.” Would you tell us when you wrote this?

[Leonard] Cohen: I’ve been writing it for a while. But I finished it last winter in Montreal. It’s a poem called “Titles.”

(Reading) I had the title Poet. And maybe I was one for a while. Also, the title Singer was kindly accorded me even though I could barely carry a tune. For many years, I was known as a Monk. I shaved my head and wore robes and got up very early. I hated everyone. But I acted generously. And no one found me out. My reputation as a Ladies’ Man was a joke. It caused me to laugh bitterly through the 10,000 nights I spent alone. From a third-story window above the Parc du Portugal, I’ve watched the snow come down all day.

As usual, there’s no one here. There never is. Mercifully, the inner conversation is canceled by the white noise of winter. I am neither the mind, the intellect nor the silent voice within. That’s also canceled. And now, gentle reader, in what name — in whose name — do you come to idle with me in this luxurious and dwindling realms of aimless privacy?

(Leonard Cohen [source])

and:

The secrets to living are these:
First, the past cannot be improved upon.
Acknowledge what was and move on.
Next, the future cannot be molded.
Then, why bother?
Last, nothing can ultimately be controlled;
Not the past, nor the future, nor the present.
Accept this moment as it is.
Honoring these three,
One lives without shackles.

(Wu Hsin [source])

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To Be in the World, Yes — Just Not Quite of It

'Here and Now,' by Dako Huang on Flickr

[Image: “Here and Now,” by Dako Huang. Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river (italicized passage):

I for one am resolved to mind or not mind only to the degree where my point of view is no larger than myself. I can thus have a great number of points of view, like fingers, and which I can treat as I treat the fingers of my hand, to hold my cup, to tap the table for me and fold themselves away when I do not wish to think. If I fold them away now, then I am sitting here, not because I am thinking. It is all indeed, I admit, rather horrible. But if I remain a person instead of becoming a point of view, I become a force and am brought into direct contact with horror, another force. As well set one plague of cats loose upon another and expect peace of it. As a force I have power, as a person virtue. All forces eventually commit suicide with their power, while virtue in a person merely gives him a small though constant pain from being continuously touched, looked at, mentally handled; a pain by which he learns to recognize himself. Poems, being more like persons, probably only squirm every time they are read and wrap themselves around more tightly. Pictures and pieces of music, being more like forces, are soon worn out by the power that holds themselves together. To me pictures and music are always like stories told backwards: or like this I read in the newspaper: ‘Up to the last she retained all her faculties and was able to sign cheques.’

(Laura Riding [source])

and:

A Path In The Woods from A New Name

I don’t trust the truth of memories
because what leaves us
departs forever
There’s only one current of this sacred river
but I still want to remain faithful
to my first astonishments
to recognize as wisdom the child’s wonder
and to carry in myself until the end a path
in the woods of my childhood
dappled with patches of sunlight
to search for it everywhere
in museums in the shade of churches
this path on which I ran unaware
a six-year old
toward my primary mysterious aloneness

(Anna Kamienska [source])

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Real-Life Dialogue: Men Are from Illinois, Women Are from Manhattan Edition

[The setting: a Saturday morning at a suburban home in North Florida, USA. He has been experiencing back pain for a few days; she approaches him in the kitchen, question marks in her eyes.]

She: How’s your back?

He: Still not normal.

She: Where is it? What sort of pain is it?

[He has been expecting and preparing mentally for this line of questioning, but hasn’t quite nailed down his metaphors yet.]

He: I don’t know — it’s hard to describe…

She: Try anyway.

He: It feels, well, wobbly. It’s like when you take a… a dozen Lincoln Logs, say, and they’re stacked end-to-end in a, like, a tower, and you’re trying not to let ’em topple but—

[She holds up the palm of her hand, stopping him.]

She: Wait.

He: But—

She: Wait. You need to use terms I can understand.

He: Such as—?

She: Well, say my martini glass is too full, up to the brim, and you’re carrying it to me while holding the base of the stem…

[A momentary pause, giving him time to recognize his confusion as such.]

He: [rolling his eyes] Yes. It’s exactly like that.

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Le Mot Exact

[Image: Cartoon by James Thurber, originally published in The New Yorker December 3, 1932. Caption there: “Touché!” One story about this drawing — I have no idea how accurate — says that the magazine’s editors came up with the cartoon caption first, but needed a cartoonist to illustrate it. They assigned it to Thurber because they didn’t want to gross out the squeamish: no one could possibly believe Thurber-drawn characters would bleed.]

From whiskey river (italicized portion):

It’s not that poetry reveals more about the world, it doesn’t, but it reveals more about our interactions with the world than our other modes of expression. And it doesn’t reveal more about ourselves alone in isolation, but rather it reveals that mix of self and other, self and surrounding, where the world ends and we begin, where we end and the world begins. That’s the terrain of poetry, and I think that if we experience the world through our senses, or what we recall of the world in memory, or of our experience in memory, poetry has more to say about that than anything else.

(Mark Strand [source])

and:

In Our Woods, Sometimes a Rare Music

Every spring
I hear the thrush singing
in the glowing woods
he is only passing through.
His voice is deep,
then he lifts it until it seems
to fall from the sky.
I am thrilled.
I am grateful.

Then, by the end of morning,
he’s gone, nothing but silence
out of the tree
where he rested for a night.
And this I find acceptable.
Not enough is a poor life.
But too much is, well, too much.
Imagine Verdi or Mahler
every day, all day.
It would exhaust anyone.

(Mary Oliver [source])

and (in a slightly different translation):

How charming it is that there are words and sounds: are not words and sounds rainbows and illusive bridges between things eternally separated?

(Friedrich Nietzsche [source])

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Perfectly Mistaken

'D1 / typo incident,' by Zoolette Des Bois on Flickr

[Image: “D1 / typo incident,” by Zoolette Des Bois on Flickr.com. Used under a Creative Commons license. Edit to add: the sign seems to be a marker at this location in London, on a particularly bad day I guess.]

From whiskey river (italicized portion):

if i have made, my lady, intricate

if i have made, my lady, intricate
imperfect various things chiefly which wrong
your eyes (frailer than most deep dreams are frail)
songs less firm than your body’s whitest song
upon my mind—if i have failed to snare
the glance too shy—if through my singing slips
the very skillful strangeness of your smile
the keen primeval silence of your hair

—let the world say “his most wise music stole
nothing from death”—
you will only create
(who are so perfectly alive) my shame:
lady whose profound and fragile lips
the sweet small clumsy feet of April came

into the ragged meadow of my soul.

(E.E. Cummings [source])

and:

Based on my experience of life, which I have not exactly hit out of the park, I tend to agree with that thing about, If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And would go even further, to: Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you’ll probably make it worse.

(George Saunders [source])

and:

Descriptions of Heaven and Hell

The wave breaks
And I’m carried into it.
This is hell, I know,
Yet my father laughs,
Chest-deep, proving I’m wrong.
We’re safely rooted,
Rocked on his toes.

Nothing irked him more
Than asking, “What is there
Beyond death?”
His theory once was
That love greets you,
And the loveless
Don’t know what to say.

(Mark Jarman [source])

and:

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self…

I wind my experiences around myself and cover myself with glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.

But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed, I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me I am my own mistake.

(Thomas Merton [source])

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A (Not So) Particular Place, a (Not Very) Particular Time

'The Crossing - Downpatrick Head'

[Image: “The Crossing: Downpatrick Head, County Mayo, Ireland,” by architect Travis Price, his students, and numerous local craftsmen. For more information, see this PDF and the Catholic University of America site.]

From whiskey river:

Between where you are now and where you’d like to be there’s a sort of barrier, or a chasm, and sometimes it’s a good idea to imagine that you’re already at the other side of that chasm, so that you can start on the unknown side.

(David Bohm [source])

and:

All Winter

In winter I remember
how the white snow
swallowed those who came before me.
They sing from the earth.
This is what happened to the voices.
They have gone underground.

I remember how the man named Fire
carried a gun. I saw him
burning.
His ancestors live in the woodstove
and cry at night and are broken.
This is what happens to fire.
It consumes itself.

In the coldest weather, I recall
that I am in every creature
and they are in me.
My bones feel their terrible ache
and want to fall open
in fields of vanished mice
and horseless hooves.

And I know how long it takes
to travel the sky,
for buffalo are still living
across the drifting face of the moon.

These nights the air is full of spirits.
They breathe on windows.
They are the ones that leave fingerprints
on glass when they point out
the things that happen,
the things we might forget.

(Linda Hogan [source])

and:

After an old Hasidic master died, his followers sat around, talking about his life. One person wondered aloud, “What was the most important thing in the world for the master?” They all thought about it. Another responded, after a time, “Whatever he happened to be doing at the time.”

(Susan Murphy [source])

and:

Sayings from the Northern Ice

It is people at the edge who say things
at the edge: winter is toward knowing.

Sled runners before they meet have long talk apart.
There is a pup in every litter the wolves will have.
A knife that falls points at an enemy.
Rocks in the wind know their place: down low.
Over your shoulder is God; the dying deer sees Him.

At the mouth of the long sack we fall in forever
storms brighten the spikes of the stars.

Wind that buried bear skulls north of here
and beats moth wings for help outside the door
is bringing bear skull wisdom, but do not ask the skull
too large a question until summer.
Something too dark was held in that strong bone.

Better to end with a lucky saying:

Sled runners cannot decide to join or to part.
When they decide, it is a bad day.

(William Stafford [source])

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Container, Meet the Thing(s) Contained

'A true photograph need not be explained, nor can it be contained in words,' by sk.fotography

[Image: “A true photograph need not be explained, nor can it be contained in words,” by sk.fotography. Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river (italicized lines):

Dancing

It was my father taught my mother
how to dance.
I never knew that.
I thought it was the other way.
Ballroom was their style,
a graceful twirling,
curved arms and fancy footwork,
a green-eyed radio.

There is always more than you know.
There are always boxes
put away in the cellar,
worn shoes and cherished pictures,
notes you find later,
sheet music you can’t play.

A woman came on Wednesdays
with tapes of waltzes.
She tried to make him shuffle
around the floor with her.
She said it would be good for him.
He didn’t want to.

(Margaret Atwood [source])

and (italicized passage):

It is, of course, we who house poems as much as their words, and we ourselves must be the locus of poetry’s depth of newness. Still, the permeability seems to travel both ways: a changed self will find new meanings in a good poem, but a good poem also changes the shape of the self. Having read it, we are not who we were the moment before… Art lives in what it awakens in usIt is a triteness to say that the only thing to be counted upon is that what you count on will not be what comes. Utilitarian truths evaporate: we die. Poems allow us not only to bear the tally and toll of our transience, but to perceive, within their continually surprising abundance, a path through the grief of that insult into joy.

(Jane Hirshfield [source])

and:

Joy

Don’t cry, its only music,
someone’s voice is saying.
No one you love is dying.

It’s only music. And it was only spring,
the world’s unreasoning body
run amok, like a saint’s, with glory,
that overwhelmed a young girl
into unreasoning sadness.
Crazy, she told herself,
I should be dancing with happiness.

But it happened again. It happens
when we make bottomless love—
there follows a bottomless sadness
which is not despair
but its nameless opposite.
It has nothing to do with the passing of time.
It’s not about loss. It’s about
two seemingly parallel lines
suddenly coming together
inside us, in some place
that is still wilderness.

Joy, joy, the sopranos sing,
reaching for the shimmering notes
while our eyes fill with tears.

(Lisel Mueller [source])

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Those Happy-Go-Lucky Poor Folks: “A Couple of Swells”

Schell's Hobo Band

[Image: “Schell’s Hobo Band,” formed in 1948 as a side project of Schell’s Brewery in New Ulm, Minnesota. The band itself has been successful enough that it now has its own Facebook page.]

[Don’t know what this is? See the series introduction here.]

Pop culture has always offered plenty of examples of our “Happy-Go-Lucky Poor Folks” theme. Some of these examples cross over into racial stereotyping, for obvious reasons: race and social class (at least in the U.S.) are all bound up together. What better way to assuage our cultural guilt about slavery than to claim that its victims are somehow not doing that badly after all?

But then there’s the old image of the hobo — the tramp — as a figure of fun. And it had nothing to do with race, only with the character’s hilariously déclassé lot in life. He (it was almost always a he) just seemed so unsophisticated, so silly, y’know? This stereotype was reinforced by much older cultural symbols, particularly that of the circus or stage clown.

Think Emmett Kelly, both father and son: even though they appealed to the audience’s sympathy, their first objective was laughter (however soft and gentle). “Look at the hobo,” the subtext went, “trying to sweep the spotlight off the stage! Doesn’t he know you can’t do that?”

'Saturday Evening Post' cover by Norman Rockwell (August 18, 1928)A little weirdly to our eyes and ears, maybe, one thing which seems to have struck people as especially amusing “back in the day” was the very fact of the hobo’s poverty. That they didn’t have two coins to rub together — gosh, how could we possibly take them seriously?

Consider Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover at right (click to enlarge to full cover). This tramp probably (despite his belly size) hasn’t eaten pie for years. But look — he can steal a freshly baked one! And look — the baker’s dog will bite him on the bottom! What fun! (You could almost imagine this fellow sitting at fireside in a clearing in a forest, sharing the pie with his friends and regaling them with the comical story.)

(Yeah, I know: the geometry/physics here seem more than a little off: the dog shouldn’t be perfectly horizontal, even if he’s holding on tightly enough to be flying along behind the running tramp.)

Critically, though, this cover appeared in the Post in August, 1928 — just a little over a year before the onset of the Great Depression. Thereafter, with “real people” suddenly reduced to the social stature of hobos, coincidentally the jokes fell flat. These weren’t random outliers in the populace: they were friends and family…

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Real-Life Dialogue: Time Warp Edition

Real-Life Dialogue[The setting: a suburban home in North Florida, USA, late on a Sunday afternoon. He has just returned from grocery shopping. The dialogue occurs as they’re placing things he’s bought into the pantry and refrigerator.]

She: The time really got away from us today — we’ve still got so much to do for the company coming tomorrow. It’s already almost five-thirty.

[He looks down at his watch.]

He: What are you talking about? It’s barely past four o’clock.

She: [hope dawning in her eyes as she looks down at his watch, held up for her inspection] Really?!

He: Yeah, really. I mean I thought it was a little weird, maybe you—

She: [looking down at her cell phone, hope dying] No. It IS almost FIVE-thirty.

[She holds up her cell phone for his inspection.]

He: Wha— huh? [looking down at his own cellphone, checking his watch again] Damn it. Watch battery must have died. And I’m off work tomorrow, without a car—

She: Well, I could take your watch to work with me, and run it over to the mall at lunch for a new battery. But I won’t have time to—

He: [confused, but dismissive] Well, that wouldn’t work anyway. I mean, if you’ve got my watch all day then how am I gonna know what time it is?

She: [her brain whirs, audibly]

He: [his brain whirs, audibly]

[Both crack up laughing.]

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Monday Senior Moment

[Video: selected scenes of beauty from an episode of Seinfeld]

I had an appointment for a routine visit to my doctor’s office in the morning. As with many doctors, I guess, every time you interact with the people at this office you’re expected to present proof of ID (driver’s license generally) and proof of medical coverage (Blue Cross/Shield, HMO card, whatever).

I figured I’d minimize the fumbling with my wallet while actually at the check-in counter, by getting the two cards out of my wallet in advance, and putting them in my shirt pocket. So before going inside, I pulled my wallet out of my hip pocket…

Like many men’s wallets, mine includes not just a cash compartment but multiple “slots” into which you can insert credit cards, various forms of ID, wallet photos (if anyone still carries them), and so on. And like many men — think George Costanza, as in the video above — I probably consider these little cubbies waaaay too convenient for our own good. (I think I finally threw out my Borders Rewards card last year. I’d held onto it because, well, the company may have gone under but You Never Know!)

Anyway, I do try to keep the wallet organized, roughly speaking. Of course, I’ve got the driver’s license in the only slot with a transparent plastic window (I don’t know why; everyone always asks me to remove the license from the wallet before they’ll inspect it). I’ve got a slot reserved for local-business discount cards. There’s one for my debit card and a couple of others which I use regularly, and of course one for credit cards. My Costco and Walgreen’s membership/discount cards are in a slot by themselves. And so on. The point being: I got the driver’s license out immediately, and then flipped to the slot where I keep my Blue Cross card.

Panic, confusion: my Blue Cross card was not in my wallet!

Mentally, I ran back through the last few days, picturing where I’d been, all the occasions on which I transferred the wallet from one pair of jeans to another, all those on which I’d handled the wallet at all. I went back weeks, and then months — just looking at moments when I might’ve handled my Blue Cross card. Had the pharmacist asked for it for some reason. (Answer: no.) The dentist? (Ditto.)

How the hell could I have lost my Blue Cross card?!?

And then I move on to consider the possibility that it had actually been removed by someone else, for some reason. Would there be some kind of… some kind of value to a health-insurance card? Maybe I was caught in some kind of not-very-sophisticated caper to steal expensive medical treatments — or prescriptions?!? — from a hospital or drugstore. Could I be arrested or otherwise held accountable for someone else’s use of the card? I couldn’t could I? And…

How the hell could I have lost my Blue Cross card?!?

All of that occurred mentally, as I said, within the space of about four to five seconds. In the meantime, I was rifling all the other compartments in my wallet: like, Jeezus, am I still carrying that goddam thing around? and like, Why do I have two discount cards from that department store?

I finally began to accept the inevitable. I was going to have to call The Missus to ask if for some arcane reason, she’d needed (and hence borrowed) my Blue Cross card — not a conversation I was looking forward to, because, well, (a) “Why would I have taken your Blue Cross card?” and (b) How the hell could I have lost my Blue Cross card?!?

And suppose — as was all but 100% certain — the Missus did not have my Blue Cross card. What then? Should I try to get the doctor’s staff to accept my status on a provisional basis? Maybe I could just breezily assert, “I don’t have my card with me but there’s no change since last visit” — head off the uncomfortable question (How the hell could you have lost your Blue Cross card?!?) before it even got asked.

Oh, I’ll tell you — I ran the gamut of four-letter words, sitting there in the car with the contents of my wallet scattered like autumn leaves around the front seats. No, really: How in the HELL

I looked down at my wallet. Actually, it wasn’t empty — I hadn’t bothered to look in that one slot because I wouldn’t possibly have put the Blue Cross card there, behind my debit card…

And then a moment later — patting my shirt pocket in satisfaction — I gathered up all my other cards and notes to myself and other wallet detritus, reloaded the ammo dump so to speak, and proceeded inside… having discovered my Blue Cross card right where really always keep it: in the slot behind my debit card.

I’d been outside in the car for fifteen minutes. But boy, am I smart: I didn’t have to fumble with my wallet at all!

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