Saturday, March 31, 2012

Coffee, Tea or Energy

It’s Saturday morning, and I’m sitting at the computer drinking coffee and thinking I should write something: maybe a poem, maybe an essay, maybe a short story, maybe a lengthy e-mail to an old friend. That’s the extent of my activity: thinking. There’s this poem – a bit of doggerel, really – I’ve been thinking about. “The fair young Millicent/Was not so innocent,” is an auspicious start, but I need more rhymes, and frankly, that is an awful lot of work for a silly verse. I mean, why knock myself out?
   Essays are cool. All I need are a few hundred words, but they can be any words. A dictionary and maybe a thesaurus are helpful but not necessary, and I don’t have to worry about things like does “steep decent” rhyme with “Millicent.”  Or is that an example of assonance? And does the definition of assonance really have to do with words that almost rhyme? Or is assonance the technical term for a writer in the act of making a fool of himself?
   To write an essay, I need a topic.  Any dolt can dream up a topic. But if I’m going to sit down and write, it should be a topic of interest to other people. That isn’t easy, you know. People are so fussy; if the essay isn’t on a subject that intrigues them, they’ll treat it like so much blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And they’ll only go as far as blah, blah before they stop reading. Then there are those sticklers for facts. They seem to think the world is littered with facts, and all you have to do is go to the park and wait for somebody to toss one or two aside along with his empty Coke can. But finding real facts is work. It entails reading books, going to the library, getting on line and other stuff. Making up facts is a more efficient use of a writer’s time, and it allows the writer to create facts that support his conclusions. Do you realize how frustrating it is for me to go in search of actual facts that support my preconceived notions and find out there aren’t any? Then I have to reconsider things, and that’s an awful lot of work, especially if no one else is interested in the topic in the first place. I don’t think it’s worth the effort.
   A short story should be easy, you say. It’s fiction, and I can make up the whole thing. But the story has to make sense, and it needs to have plot, and description, and characterization, and all sorts of other literary doo-dads. And who reads short stories these days? Hardly anyone, that’s who. Sure I could write a short story, and maybe I’d get a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment from the experience. But what would I do with a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment? As for a long e-mail, refer to the comments on essays.
    I should have more ambition; I slept well last night, ate a good breakfast and have had a gallon of coffee this morning. But I’m just going to sit here and play solitaire and meander around the Internet. Well, maybe I’ll get another cup of coffee first.
    I get the last of the coffee, start another pot and go back to the computer to see what’s on This is interesting; it says “Coffee makes you lazy.” Apparently, some scientists with nothing better to do have discovered that when hardworking rats – the rats that willingly undertake more difficult tasks in order to get greater rewards – are given amphetamines they become lazy. But when lazy rats get amphetamines they turn into hardworking rodents. Coffee also makes the hardworking rats lazy, but it doesn’t do a thing for the lazy rats.
   Maybe I should give up coffee. But why put myself through the pains of caffeine withdrawal when there is the possibility I’m naturally lazy and the whole thing would be an exercise in futility. I’ll get another cup of coffee and think about it. No, I’m not going to worry. I bet the study is a bunch of hooey.
   Here’s another item: “Conservatives losing faith in science.” Thirty or forty years ago, the article says, around seventy percent of those who called themselves liberals and those who called themselves conservatives said they had a great deal of faith in science. In a recent poll, the percentage of liberals who said they had faith in science remained about the same, but the percentage of conservatives who did had fallen to around thirty-five percent.
   I knew it. How lazy can those coffee-drinking rats be if they’re dragging me across the political spectrum? Believe me, I’m not easy to move these days.
   I think I’ll have another cup of coffee.

Descarte Before the Horse

According to The Writer's Almanac, today is the birthday of Rene Descartes.

I wonder if Descartes’s a sham,
Less thoughtful than he’s said to be.
He says he thinks, therefore he am.
I wonder if Descartes’s a sham,
Why not, “I am, ergo I’m Sam.”?
It’s all a Frenchman’s fantasy.
I wonder if Descartes’s a sham,
Less thoughtful than he’s said to be.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Tricky Rick

Full of himself, Rick Santorum
Says the nation is bound for hell,
Unless, of course, we vote for him,
The godly one, Rick Santorum,
Who says lefties lack decorum –
They are the reason Adam fell.
Full of himself, Rick Santorum
 Says the nation is bound for hell.

Notes from the Home

   A week ago, in Ashtabula, I was looking out the window and wondering what it said about a man that all his earthly possessions could be stuffed into a five-by-eight U-Haul trailer. It took a tremendous amount of work to get everything in the trailer, and Nancy and Aaron did all the work. I will be eternally grateful for their effort and for the many, many things they have done for me over the last six years. But, I couldn’t shake the feeling that an estate that fits into a small U-Haul trailer isn’t much of an estate.
   On Monday, here in Columbus, Georgia, I watched Russ and Karen unload the trailer and deposit its contents in my new apartment at Covenant Woods. “Where the hell did all this come from,” I wondered. Nancy must have used every ounce of her ingenuity to get it all in the trailer, and there was no way it was all going to fit in the apartment. But Russ and Karen uncluttered the clutter – and reassembled my bed and kitchen table – so  I now have a comfortable, almost roomy place to live – along with two more people I’ll spend eternity being grateful for.
   The trouble with being dependent on others is that you’re so damn dependent. When you’re able bodied and let someone else do what you should do, there is a feeling of roguish pride, like Tom Sawyer convincing his chums to whitewash the fence. But when you’re unable to do the work that needs to be done, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re an inconvenience and that the people you’re inconveniencing have better things to do. And that is why I am eternally grateful to Nancy, Aaron, Russ, Karen and so many others.
   So here I am on the eastern bank of the Muskogee River. Phenix City, Alabama, is on the other side, a place Chuck, my writing buddy, says he wasn’t allowed to go when he was stationed here at Fort Benning years ago. I have yet to find out if sinning is still rampant in the town.
   As a child I watched too much television, and as a result, my view of facilities such as Covenant Woods is colored by the laxative commercials of the fifties and sixties. Those of a certain age will recall the scenes of happy oldsters gathered on the veranda discussing their bowel movements. If such things are grist for the conversation mill at Covenant Woods, I haven’t noticed.
   Covenant Woods isn’t set deep in the woods, but it is surrounded by enough tall trees to give the impression that it is. It really is a beautiful setting. The weather has been fabulous this week, and I’ve enjoyed taking a lap or two around the place after meals. There are two nearby strip malls. One is accessible by wheelchair thanks to a paved path. There is a supermarket, a Family Dollar, a soon-to-be-closed K-Mart, a Subway, a Chinese restaurant that Karen said is pretty good and a small Italian place Russell and I tried yesterday and enjoyed.  The other shopping center is a long block or two down the road. But the road has four lanes and no berm or sidewalk. I’ll have to become braver or more foolhardy to venture down there.
   The food here isn’t bad. Based on three dinners, the entrees – I’ve had shepherd’s pie, veal parmesan and baked chicken – are very good. The vegetables are flavorful but a little over cooked and soggy. Eggs, oatmeal, bacon, sausage, toast, juice, coffee and fruit are on the breakfast menu, and I think I heard someone say you can get pancakes or French toast on Sundays.
   According to Richard, my next-door neighbor, I am the third youngest resident. Richard is a year younger than I, and William, a muscular ex-Marine, is in his late fifties. Evelyn is a fit-looking woman who tells you right away that she has trouble remembering things. I talked to her for a while yesterday, and she said she was 91; a few minutes later she said she was going to be 93 next month. No matter. She still drives; in fact she drove Richard and William to the store Wednesday.
   Eleven years ago when my nest suddenly emptied I assumed that in 2012 I would still be heading off to work at Ash/Craft every morning and to the Star Beacon every evening. Perhaps, if I was still working I’d be anxious to retire, but as it is, I’d rather have my jobs back. Still, Covenant Woods isn’t a bad place to be. And the best part is that Russ and Karen are but two or three miles down the road. Having family close by sure beats being several hundred miles from my nearest relative.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Middle Age

Because I am too old to be young and too young to be old, I usually think of myself as middle aged. It has a respectable ring to it, an aura of dignity, seriousness and maturity. I think of middle age as that time in life when a person still has the ability to raise hell and sow wild oats; and the wisdom not to. With its melding of youthful strength and exuberance with prudence and judgment, middle age seemed to be a great age.
   Then Anthony Trollope came along. The other morning I was being my self-satisfied, middle-aged self, sipping coffee and reading Trollope’s He Knew He was Right. The title appealed to me. I too know that I am right. But somewhere in the second chapter, I lost all interest in Louis Trevelyn, the protagonist, and whether or not he was right. It wasn’t Mr. Trevelyn’s fault; the problem was his father-in-law, whom Trollope describes thusly: “[Lord Marmaduke] had become at fifty what many people call quite a middle aged man. That is to say, he was one from whom the effervescence and elasticity and salt of youth had altogether passed away. He was fat and slow, thinking much of his wife and eight daughters, thinking much also of his dinner.”
    Well, that’s a heck of a note. Here I am thinking that middle age is what I want to be, and Trollope tells me it’s just euphemism for fat and slow. I’m not as elastic as I used to be, but I am still as effervescent as Coca Cola. Shake a can of Coke, open it and it gushes all over the place. Shake me enough and I’ll gush too, and I’ll make a bigger mess. The salt of youth? I can be darn salty when the need arises. And the things I said about Mr. Trollope at that moment were salty enough to make a sailor blush.
   After a few minutes, I was calmed by the thought that life expectancy in 19th Century England was considerably shorter than it is for the adequately insured in 21st Century America. Trollope was obviously vain about his age, and he expanded the bounds of what was then considered middle age in order to make himself feel less old. Fifty in Great Britain at the time was probably the equivalent to 117 today.  No wonder Lord Marmaduke was short on elasticity, effervescence and salt; he wasn’t middle age, he was ancient.
   Saturday morning, however, as I scanned the Earthweek feature in the Plain Dealer, I let loose a triumphant shout of, “I knew I was right.” The item that caught my eye was headlined, “Middle-aged humans are nature’s most evolved.”  That message is delivered by Cambridge professor David Bainbridge, in his book Middle Age: A Natural History. A sentence in the second paragraph of the article read, “This means older men and women have become perfectly adapted to help their families and society without the burden of raising children.”
   The second paragraph of a newspaper piece is usually a very good place to stop. By then you know the gist of the story, and all the details and qualifiers that complicate things are yet to come. But I soldiered on to the third paragraph, which read in part, “ important attributes such as brainpower are at least as keen in a person’s 40s and 50s as they were decades earlier.” Conspicuous by its absence is any mention of people no longer in their forties and fifties. Does that mean middle age ends as sixty? And where was Mr. Bainbridge a few years ago? It would have been nice if he had mentioned this when I was standing atop the evolutionary mountain. Now he comes along to what? To tell me I’m over the hill? To tell me I’m no longer elastic, effervescent or youthfully salty?
   According to Wikipedia, however, Mr. Bainbridge will be forty-four in October. How convenient. He’s declared himself to be one of nature’s most perfect creations and that he will be one for the next sixteen years. Maybe not in those words exactly, but it’s there between the lines. I hope he comes across Trollope’s book; that will bring him down a peg or two.
   I know I’m right about that.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Hell with Homage

 Next week at this time - 9:45, Saturday morning - Russell and I will be heading to Georgia with all my possessions in tow. In order to properly embarrass me on my last day in writing class, Suzanne, among her other assignments, has directed the class members to write a homage or ode to me. To double my embarrassment, she turned to me and said, "Tom, you write one too." So I did.

Please write an homage, ode or triolet.
To me? I wouldn’t do it on a bet.
Instead I’ll opt for something easier
And pen a ditty much more cheesier.
In doing my duty, I’m not derelict
You see, I wrote this too true limmer-ict.

Tom’s prose is all tangled and dense,
Mangling the past and present tense.
His poetry crass,
A guy with no class,
Who writes this claptrap and nonsense.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Youthful or Childish?

“You look awfully young to be a grandfather,” the younger woman said.  Although she wasn’t all that young – my age, give or take a couple years. We were in the retinal specialist’s waiting room, and she was with her mother, a chatty soon-to-be-eighty-nine year old, who told us about her pet parrot.
   “If he’s perched on my finger,” the older woman told Nancy, “and I tell him to shake hands, he’ll lift one foot and take your finger if you let him.”
   The parrot and the older woman are in assisted living. To pass the time, she said, the parrot will perch on a small electric train for a few trips around the track. But the parrot is looking a little ragged these days, she said. It’s losing its feathers and has a few bald spots. Nancy asked if it was molting. The woman’s daughter said she wasn’t sure, but the parrot seemed to be getting some new tail feathers.
   The older woman went on to tell us about herself. She had lived in Florida for many years. That’s where she got the parrot. Her son lives in Ashtabula, on South Ridge East. She remembered his last name, but had to ask her daughter for the first name. “Andrew, that’s right,” she said, “Andrew, he lives in Ashtabula.” About four months ago, because of problems with her hips, she moved into the assisted-living facility. She had been on her own until then. “Why don’t you drop in sometime?” she said. “I’m in room 136. Did I tell you, I have eight great-grandchildren?.”
   Nancy asked the woman’s daughter if some of the great-grandchildren were her grandchildren. The daughter said yes, and asked if Nancy had grandchildren. “No,” Nancy said. No one asked me, but braggart that I am, I told her I did. That’s when she said, “You look awfully young to be a grandfather.”
   Gray hair on my head, my butt in a wheelchair, and I look awfully young to be a grandfather? Perhaps there is an air of youthfulness about me. Or maybe it’s my air of immaturity.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

There's no Diva in Divagate

   Learning new words in a writing class is hardly remarkable, but I’ll remark on it anyway. The other day, one of Mary’s poems included the word “peplum.”  “What’s peplum?” I asked. It is, I was told, a ruffle attached to the waistline of a coat or blouse. Thus enlightened, I left class with a new word in my vocabulary; a word I was sure I had never seen before and would never see again. Never turned out to be about five hours and twenty minutes.
   After supper, I fired up the computer to read a few essays in Of All Things, by Robert Benchley. It’s funny, until a couple months ago, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to read a book on a computer screen. Then I got a new computer with Blio included in the software package. It lets me download books. I don’t pay attention to the books it wants paid for, but I can’t get away from the books it offers for free. 
   It reminds of going to the book rack at Goodwill. There were always books I “should” have read by authors I “should” have been familiar with, and once-popular books fondly remembered by those who had read them. And the books, usually battered, dog-eared paperbacks, were cheap. If I enjoyed the book, it was a bargain. If I put it aside after a few pages, I was out fifty, maybe seventy-five cents. Downloading for free sounds like a better deal, but most of the “serious” or “literary” books at Goodwill were donated by college students disposing of required reading. Often, key passages were underlined, and sometimes there was a note in the margin explaining why the passage was important. But if you were really lucky, the book was peppered with unkind comments about the professor or the young lady who had jilted the book’s former owner. You don’t get that stuff in downloaded books.
   But, back to Benchley. In the piece I read that evening, “When Genius Remained Your Humble Servant,” he writes, “Of course, I really know nothing about it, but I would be willing to wager that the last words of Penelope, as Odysseus bounced down the front steps, bag in hand, were: ‘Now, don't forget to write, Odie. You'll find some papyrus rolled up in your clean peplum, and just drop me a line on it whenever you get a chance.’”
   Chances are Benchley was not a seamstress, and peplum wasn’t always, and perhaps still isn’t, an arcane term known only to the needle-wielding set. I’d probably come across it many times before I noticed it in Mary’s poem. I bet English authors delight in using peplum in the middle of those excruciating twenty-five-page descriptions of the heroines’ outfits. And I bet most of them haven’t any idea of what a peplum is. It’s just a word they picked up somewhere, and they’re counting on the reader being too dazed by the onslaught of fashion minutia to look it up.
   The next day, because I am a conscientious student, I discovered “divagate,” although I cheated just a bit. The assignment was to count the number of times you could stroke your pet before it noticed. We were to add 110 to that number, go to that page in the dictionary, and count down eleven entries and write a poem that included that word. Unfortunately, Cuddles the Cat will hardly let me touch her, except when it suits her purpose. When it does suit her purpose, she will let me stroke her for the better part of an hour, maybe longer. My choice seemed to be going directly to page 111, or waiting for her to plop in my lap, in which case I would need three or four volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. Pulling out my literary license, I decided Cuddles would let me stroke her four times, and I turned to page 414 of The American Heritage Dictionary: Second College Edition. I counted down eleven words in the left-hand column and found disulfide; a boring word without poetic value, if ever there was one. Then I tried the right-hand column and found divagate.
   At first blush – and I did blush – I thought the word referred to scandals involving temperamental, conceited female vocalists. But the “I” in divagate is a long “I” and the word means to wander or stray. In reference to speech, divagate means to digress or ramble.
   Having divagated long enough, I’ll stop.

                     But I Divagate
           To divagate is to wander or stray,
           But Cuddles the Cat will not go away.
           In speech, divagated means you’ve digressed
           So perhaps it’s time I give it a rest.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

'Fraid So

  Why are my nerves frayed?
   There’s a bill unpaid,
   And I am afraid
   That it got mislaid
   When I went and weighed
   Myself – so dismayed,
   The number displayed
   Which really portrayed
   A man who had strayed
   And had not obeyed
   The doctor he paid
   For advice purveyed
   To make the pounds fade.


Alisha, the activities director, asked me to play Reader's Digest editor and condense an article on spring health tips she'd found ...