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Lucky Dogs.

Several years ago I answered phones at a company that provided money to truck drivers on the road. Whenever they had trouble they’d call a 1-800 number and I was one of two dozen or so people who’d help them out, or try to anyway. After about a month I got to know a few of the drivers and even if we had to keep it brief we’d chat a bit, usually about the weather, although I did learn that two different drivers, working for different companies, were anthropology professors. Were they doing research? No. They both told me the pay for driving a truck was just better.

I never thought to ask if any of them had pets. It’s not something I thought about at all until I just read an article about truck drivers and their pets—mostly dogs, it seems, but some have cats, even birds, and at least one hedgehog. And it makes sense. Most of the drivers I talked to were solo operators and having a pet come along for companionship could make the ride at least a little easier. When my wife and I have been on long road trips our dogs, who always come with us, help keep us awake and remind us to stop regularly because for them when nature calls it really calls. How they feel about travel varies, of course—they’re individuals too, although for some the destination is more important than the journey. Some are content to sleep, some really don’t like to get in the car. My wife took her first Dalmatian with her everywhere and he loved to ride along. She described him as a dog “who’d rather go to Hell than nowhere.”

For more than a year now our dogs have been work companions, reminding me to take regular breaks and just providing general support. I know that’s going to change sometime soon and I’m going to be back at work with people. I kind of envy the truck drivers who travel with their pets but I’ve also talked to enough truck drivers that I’m okay with spending a few hours away so I can come home to be greeted by our dogs.

Getting Poetry.

Source: Arts Council, Greater New Haven

As another National Poetry Month draws to a close I’m reminded that I majored in English in college with a focus on poetry in spite of the fact that in high school I had one of the world’s worst English teachers. That’s the kind of irony someone like Ogden Nash or, hey, me, could turn into a poem, and maybe I will one of these days, but decades later it still rankles me a little. What made her so terrible is how she’d go on and on about poetry as a high rarefied art that mere high school students couldn’t understand. She focused on William Carlos Williams’s The Red Wheelbarrow:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

And she’d go on at length about how this was a deeply meaningful and profound poem but that it would be futile for any of us to try and understand it because we didn’t have the education, and, now that I think about it, she obviously didn’t have the education either because she wasn’t sharing any insights.

I understand if you’re thinking that maybe she was being clever and trying to get us to seek out information on our own by using reverse psychology. Maybe she wanted us to do some independent study and find that Williams was emphatically reacting against the difficult and obscure poets that had come before him. The French Symbolist Stephane Mallarme, for instance, felt that poetry should be difficult to understand; he even said that poetry, like music, should require special training to be read, but he was missing the fact that while it takes training to read music anyone who can hear can listen to it.

Anyway the sad fact my teacher just happened to be a terrible teacher who didn’t know what she was talking about. A few years after I graduated from high school, after I’d gone to college and studied poetry, I met her and we started talking about William Carlos Williams, and she insisted that The Red Wheelbarrow was full of deep and obscure meaning, and that This Is Just To Say was borderline pornographic. I kid you not.

What also got me thinking about this is an article in The New Criterion that starts with this:

A subscriber to this magazine writes with a problem: “Although I have advanced university degrees, I have never ‘gotten’ poetry.”

And I get it. A lot of it is the way poetry is taught. It’s taught as though it’s some rarefied art and if you don’t get it you’re either uneducated or you’re deficient in some way or maybe you’re just stupid. Let me be blunt: you’re not. Most poetry is not as hard to understand as some teachers and literary critics would like you to think, and I’d even argue that none of it should be. Poetry may use language in unusual ways, or it may not, but it shouldn’t be out of anyone’s reach. Yes, there are a lot of layers and nuances to poetry but you don’t necessarily need to know your iambs from your anapests or the difference between metonymy and synechdoche to appreciate poetry.

Let me put it another way: if you have a smartphone, or, as most people now call them, a phone, you probably know how to use it. You don’t need to know how it works, how it’s made. You don’t need to know how to build one yourself. There are ways you could learn all that if you wanted to but, again, it’s not necessary to get your phone to do what you need it to do.

The same is somewhat true of poetry. The barrier to entry is just much lower. If the words on the page or, if it’s a spoken poem, that you hear are meaningful to you, if you enjoy them, then you get it.

Kids.

I was sitting by myself on the school bus and feeling pretty good about it. Most of the time I hated riding the school bus because it was always packed and I might end up sharing a seat with two other kids I didn’t know or, worse, didn’t like. So I was happy until Annabeth walked down the aisle and plopped down next to me. Annabeth and I moved in very different circles. People who grew up in Nashville will understand what I mean when I say she was from Antioch, but for outsiders the best way to put it is that she was a little bit country and I was a little bit rock and roll. To fine tune the illustration even more she was wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt with the sleeves cut off and I had at least one Weird Al cassette in my backpack. In spite of these divisions we had a bit of a history. She had a boyfriend who was a year older and who shoved me around sometimes. Annabeth and I were also in gym together and she’d briefly played this game of pretending she liked me and trying to get me to go under the bleachers with her. I ignored it and after about a week she gave up. I still felt my hackles go up when she sat down next to me on the bus.

“You’re a smart guy,” she said, “maybe you can help me with a problem I’ve got.”

I’m a sucker for flattery but I still thought she might be setting me up for a joke so I kept my guard up. And then slowly let it down as she explained that her mom and her mom’s boyfriend had gone out Saturday night. Sometimes when she was left alone, which happened a lot—sometimes they’d stay out all night—Annabeth would take her mom’s car out and just drive around the back roads. She’d grazed a hydrant and scratched up the right front corner of the car.

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” she said. “My mom will probably understand but her boyfriend’s gonna kick my ass. Can you think of anything?”

I couldn’t. And I know this is the point where most responsible adults, and even some responsible teenagers, would say she shouldn’t have been driving her mother’s car in the first place. She was fourteen—too young even for a learner’s permit. I wasn’t smart enough to come up with any advice but I was smart enough to know saying that wouldn’t help, though. I could even understand why she did it. Stuck out in the sticks, bored and alone and feeling just on the edge of adulthood taking the car out must have provided a sense of freedom, of control over her life she couldn’t get any other way. And we all do stupid things as teenagers. Most of us also learn, even if we don’t get caught, from our mistakes. T fine tune the point I’m making she needed a sympathetic ear, not a judgmental asshole. So I was sympathetic. It’s ironic that for once Annabeth wasn’t trying to make me feel bad but she succeeded at doing just that. I felt bad about the situation she was in and I felt like a schmuck that I couldn’t offer anything useful.

I don’t know what got me thinking about Annabeth’s problem lately. It’s just one of those things that bubbles up from the depths of my mind once in a while. Decades later I still don’t know what advice I’d give her, although I have an idea that she should have told her mom what happened, quietly, without the boyfriend around. If the boyfriend was a serious threat—and it sounded like he might be—she needed her mom to, well, be responsible.

Maybe that’s what ultimately happened. Annabeth and I never talked again but she didn’t miss any school and she seemed to be all right. Or maybe things worked themselves out some other way. But after that her boyfriend left me alone, and if she and I passed each other in the hall she’d smile at me. In the end I’m pretty sure she liked me.

Getting It All Wrong.

Source: Wikipedia

The importance of Vincent Van Gogh to art history can’t be overestimated. He didn’t just leave behind a massive and profound body of work that includes several iconic paintings. He’s also the archetypal misunderstood and starving artist. He’s the painter all the critics and collectors—especially the collectors—got wrong in his lifetime. I remember in the early ‘80’s hearing about a Van Gogh being sold in an auction for a “disappointing 13 million dollars” and I thought, yeah, I bet Vinnie wouldn’t have been disappointed. And to get back to the critics, well, the 1996 film Basquiat sums it up pretty well in its opening lines: “Everybody wants to get on the Van Gogh boat. There’s no trip so horrible that someone won’t take it…No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another like Van Gogh.”

I’ve always taken it as a given that Van Gogh’s reappraisal was gradual and the work of a lot of different critics who gradually came around to seeing his work differently, but really I was wrong. Or at least I was missing a big part of the story. Vincent’s brother Theo was extremely important but until recently I had no idea—and most people don’t seem to know—how important Theo’s wife Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger was. There’s a lengthy article on her in The New York Times Magazine and the title, “The Woman Who Made van Gogh” is not an exaggeration.

In short, when Theo died—just six months after his brother—she started teaching herself art history and criticism and spending time in artistic circles while also promoting Vincent as a genius whose paintings deserved to be seen and valued. Without her we wouldn’t have the myth of Vincent Van Gogh, and paintings like Starry Night might be packed in an attic somewhere or, worse, destroyed, instead of hanging in major museums.

Still I think this reappraisal gets some things wrong. I’m not sure Van Gogh’s paintings are the first to be viewed with the artist’s psychology being such an important part of how they’re interpreted. Van Gogh may be the most dramatic example of a shift in art criticism toward more personal interpretations, but there had been artists’ biographies published since at least Vasari, and I doubt any critic could honestly claim to look at, say, Michelangelo’s work without thinking about his life or the times in which he lived. Art criticism really started as a way for writers to promote their friends work—or take down their enemies.

The magazine article also, I think, gets Jo van Gogh-Bonger wrong too. She was married to Theo for less than two years and it was a transformative time for her. The article concludes that promoting Vincent was her way of “keeping alive that moment of her youth, and allowing the rest of us to feel it.” I think she was more complicated than that. Her diaries show that she was ambitious, that she had a desire to change the world, long before she met Theo.

The idea that Vincent Van Gogh was plucked from obscurity is also at least partly wrong. He met and hung around with prominent painters of his day, including Toulouse-Lautrec who made a portrait of Vincent. There’s a great scene in the 1956 film Lust For Life in which Vincent, played by Kirk Douglas, meets Seurat, played by David Bond, who gives a lecture on how to arrange colors on a palette. Sure, it’s fiction, but it seems plausible.

Then there’s the overarching issue: art history isn’t fixed. How do we judge Vincent Van Gogh’s importance, really? Most people think his paintings are great—including me—but we can’t say, objectively, what exactly makes them great. We can’t even say if his life story is part of what makes them great. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Inter-office Memos: National Poetry Month Edition.

Because I could not stop for work—

They sent it to my room—

No one could tell I had no pants—

Because we met in Zoom—

–E. Dickinson & Associates, Amherst

From: elsa.hildegard@ passaicgen.com

To: All Staff

Subject: Plums!!!

I left a bag of plums in the break room refrigerator. Someone ate them even though the bag was clearly marked with my name on it. They were there for after my morning run. THIS WILL NOT BE TOLERATED. Show some respect, people. I don’t want to place blame unfairly but I think whoever did it left their red wheelbarrow out next to the chickens.

From: bill.c.williams@ passaicgen.com

To: elsa.hildegard@ passaicgen.com

Subject: RE: Plums!!!

This is just to say

I’m sorry. I have eaten the plums

That you were probably saving for breakfast.

Forgive me. They were delicious,

And I thought they were like the Girl Scout cookies

You brought last week.

From: elsa.hildegard@ passaicgen.com

To: elsa.hildegard@ passaicgen.com

Subject: RE: Plums!!!

Okay, Bill, I forgive you, but seriously learn to indent.

 

From D. Thomas, in the cubicle next to yours:

A Refusal To Mourn Your Departure From The Office

 

Do not go gentle into retirement,

It’s still too soon for your 401(k).

Now, now, go tell the boss he should get bent.

 

Your final e-mail has been typed and sent,

You’ve had a cake, and it’s the end of day.

Do not go gentle into retirement,

Now, now, go tell the boss he should get bent.

Coming Up:

Charles Dodgson, L.C., offers advice on wooing celebrity investors in “The Hunting Of The Shark”

Elizabeth Bishop’s instructions on dealing with corporate bankruptcy with “The Art Of Losing”

Walt Whitman contains multitudes, because he’s offering sweet deals on office space.

Where The Bee Sucks.

The honeysuckle is in bloom which always takes me back to a day in my childhood when my friend Troy and I were waiting for the bus to go to school and he picked a honeysuckle flower and showed me how to pull it apart, gently grasping the green base and tugging it until the stamens came out revealing a single glistening drop of nectar. It was sweeter than any sweet drink I’d ever had. I started wondering if it would be possible to fill a glass, or even a small bottle, with honeysuckle nectar, although the drops were tiny and it would take a lot and I couldn’t resist just sucking up each one as it came out, like it was a drug. We also tried to figure out if there was a difference between the white blossoms and the yellow. There wasn’t, but together we probably destroyed a hundred honeysuckle blossoms waiting for the bus, which I now realize because honeysuckle is a terrible invasive weed that can destroy forests. Not that I necessarily have anything against invasive plants. Some can even be good. Dandelions are invasive, technically, and they aren’t bad—they’re great for bees, and it’s really fun to go into other peoples’ yards and blow seeds all over them, but that’s another story.

Anyway I was out clearing the honeysuckle in our backyard. I know it’s futile. I’ve spent more than one volunteer weekend at Radnor Lake pulling up small honeysuckle plants and even cutting it down where it’s turned into looming trees that block the sunlight and prevent other plants from growing, but at least I can sort of hold it back, and by taking it out while it’s blooming I can prevent it from producing seeds.

And while I was cutting it back I stopped and pulled out some of the blossoms and pulled them apart, trying to get that sweet hit of childhood once again, but they were all dry. We’ve had more than enough rain lately so that shouldn’t be the problem. Maybe my hands are too big now and I’m damaging them as I pull them apart so I can’t get that sweet drop of nectar. Or maybe something’s changed about honeysuckle and it doesn’t have that drop of nectar anymore. Or I was just unlucky and not getting it right. Whatever the problem was it really sucked.

When We Go…

Source: Dying Art

So I knew a guy who decided he wanted a tattoo, and his girlfriend suggested—really strongly, I think—that he should get her name, which was Linda, tattooed onto his arm. He wasn’t so sure and finally came up with a compromise: he got “Love Is Not a Dying Art” tattooed inside a heart on his arm. And even though I lost touch with him years ago I’m pretty sure that relationship didn’t end well. This is also almost entirely unrelated but I thought of him when I ran across the website for Dying Art, a company that makes creative caskets.

Source: Dying Art

They’re based in New Zealand and, well, I can’t think of a nicer place to die.

It does seem a little strange to me that someone would want a personalized casket because, well, it’s not like they’re still around to enjoy it. Although I also think, hey, if in the end you want to blow all your money on a glitter casket, go for it.

Source: Dying Art

There’s no better time to do something that makes you truly happy. As Mark Twain wrote in “At The Funeral”,

If the odor of the flowers is too oppressive for your comfort, remember that they were not brought there for you, and that the person for whom they were brought suffers no inconvenience from their presence.

Most of what they offer is a standard coffin shape with a personalized outer design but looking through their gallery there are some absolute gems, especially this memorial plaque:

A Hazy Shade Of Spring.

When I was a kid I would call Spring “the second Fall of the year”, because, like fall, it was a time when some days were warm and some were cool, the mornings were often misty, and the few leaves that had managed to hang on through the winter finally drifted down, although the reason was that they were being pushed out by new growth. And, yes, I know, it would have made more sense to call Fall “the second Spring of the year”, but give me a break—I was six or seven and was still grappling with the concept of the “school year” which was not only not a whole year but started in late August of one year and ended in late May the following year and I’m still not sure who thought that up.

I also just liked Fall better. I wasn’t sophisticated enough yet to think of it as, well, the end of not just the year but the time of the harvest, the time for reaping all that had been sown in the spring. I didn’t know what “reaping” was, or “sowing” for that matter. In kindergarten the beans we stuck in soil-filled egg cartons in March had produced a handful of beans that we added to a giant pot of soup in early May, so we were doing the whole farm-to-table thing on a highly condensed timeline.

One spring a few years later some friends and I were looking through a volume of poetry when we ran across the poem “Annus Mirabilis”. I don’t remember whether it was the Dryden poem that kind of shrugs off the Great Fire of London with an attitude of “Aside from all the fire and death and destruction it wasn’t such a bad year”, or the Philip Larkin poem about the year he lost his virginity, which he kind of shrugs off with an attitude of, “Aside from that and the fact that you could now buy a copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and The Beatles hitting big it wasn’t such a bad year.”

The thing is we never read either poem because we were so stuck on the word “Annus”—but give us a break.  We were thirteen and terrible spellers.

A few years later I’d go and read both poems. It was in college and I’d long since gotten over being bothered by the “school year”. Instead I was being hit hard by the feeling that time was accelerating—that years weren’t as long as they used to be, and that Spring, supposedly a time of new growth and renewal, was just another end: the end of the school year, the end of Winter.

Every year that same feeling comes over me, always in the Spring. No other season reminds me of mortality the way the season of rebirth does, and the older I get the faster the Springs come back around. And then, even before Summer’s in full swing, I forget about it and go on. Give me a break. At my age I forget a lot of things.

 

 

In-Flight Entertainment.

I haven’t got any immediate plans to fly anywhere but the other day something popped up that reminded me that whenever I do fly I’d take British Airways if I could. It wouldn’t matter where I was going. Even if it were some ridiculously short flight, like from Nashville to Dickson, Tennessee, which I’m not sure is even possible since it would take less time to drive there than it would just go through security, but that’s another story.

I’m not trying to promote them or do a commercial—I’m certainly not being paid, and, well, for me flying is like getting my teeth cleaned. I don’t hate it but there are other things I’d rather do. Thirty years ago I went to Britain for the first time I flew British Airways.  What stayed with me most, aside from the fact that drinks were free, was the in-flight radio. This was before airlines put video monitors on the backs of seats but they did have a headphone jack in the armrest and a dial with a selection of channels. Most other airlines only offered this, like free drinks, in first class but British Airways made it available to everyone. I had my Walkman with me so when I got tired of listening to my cassettes of Kate Bush and David Bowie I could plug my headphones into the armrest and listen to, well, Kate Bush and David Bowie. But they also had a comedy channel. Since it was a transatlantic flight it was like getting my teeth cleaned for eight hours, so I guess they figured I needed a laugh. The channel only had about an hour of material it would cycle through, but, oh, what great material it was. There was Bob Newhart and Allan Sherman, and I was also introduced to Jasper Carrott and Tony Hancock’s “Blood Donor”, and I’m pretty sure I listened to it at least five times, finally falling asleep to Steve Martin’s “Grandmother’s Song”.

Anyway here’s what popped up on some feed or another of mine that reminded me of that. Why it popped up now is a mystery. I guess someone figured I needed a laugh.   

 

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