Wednesday, November 22, 2017

November 22: Montana Wildhack, Thanksgiving Eve, Meltdown

Another clerk came up to Billy and asked him if he was going to buy the book or not, and Billy said that he wanted to buy it, please.  He had his back to a rack of paperback books about oral-genital contacts from ancient Egypt to the present and so on, and the clerk supposed Billy was reading one of these.  So he was startled when he saw what Billy's book was.  He said, "Jesus Christ, where did you find this thing?" and so on, and he had to tell the other clerks about the pervert who wanted to buy the window dressing.  The other clerks already knew about Billy.  They had been watching him, too.

The cash register where Billy waited for his change was near a bin of old girly magazines.  Billy looked at one out of the corner of his eye, and he saw this question on its cover.  What really became of Montana Wildhack?

Billy's strange life has brought him to this point, standing in a dirty bookstore in New York City, trying to buy a Kilgore Trout novel about Jesus Christ, reading about the porn star he's mated with on Tralfamadore on the cover of a girly magazine.  Again, Billy's life seems to be a series of circles that keep intersecting, or Russian nesting dolls, one experience swallowed and mirrored by the next.

Welcome to Thanksgiving Eve.  I am currently sitting at home, alone.  Earlier this evening, I underwent a little meltdown of sorts.  It had to do with my family and Thanksgiving and my crazy, bifurcated life.  Like Billy, I am sort of bombarded at times with different versions of myself--husband, son, sibling, father, teacher, poet, friend.  Each one of these selves compete for my attention at times.  Tonight, it became a little too much.  I simply packed up my book bag and computer, said to my wife, "I need to be alone," and came home to my empty house.

For a while, I just sat on the floor in the dark kitchen, trying to calm my racing mind.  Too many things to think about at once.  My 90-year-old father is in the hospital with pneumonia.  The social worker is attempting to find a bed for him at a local nursing home.  He won't be coming home again.  He's too fragile, and his Alzheimer's has progressed fairly quickly.

So there's that.

My brother has been down in a hospital in Grand Rapids for evaluation of his heart this week.  The news wasn't great.  His heart is working at about 25% capacity.  The doctors wanted to implant an assistive device, but my brother refused.  Instead, he now has an external defibrillator.  He and my sister are coming home on Friday.

So there's that.

And I have papers to grade, a Christmas essay to write, some poetry readings to plan, and Christmas music to learn.  In about a week, I have five or six days of insanity--my daughter's birthday parties, a benefit reading for a local Canathon, a poetry workshop, and teaching.

So there's that.

All of these different parts of my life sort of battling for attention, like little kids.  I felt my brain shutting down earlier, and I had to get away.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight.  He's not sure what he's thankful for, but he's thankful.  Maybe for an empty house.  A warm blanket.  Peanut butter and a banana.  And silence.



November 22: Turkey Trot, Sharon Olds, "Ode to Wattles"

I have much to do and think about in the next few days. 

Tomorrow morning, I am running the annual Turkey Trot.  A 5K race that will probably kill me.  I haven't run in a while, and I'm a little anxious about the prospect of doing it tomorrow.  However, if I am anything, it's a person of tradition.  I haven't missed the Turkey Trot in almost 15 years.

Then, there's Thanksgiving dinner.  Actually, it's going to be Thanksgiving lunch.  For some reason, the decision to eat early was made.  I think it has something to do with the Black Friday sales that start at 5 p.m.  on Thursday.  (Side note to any CEO of a large corporation:  your employees deserve to enjoy Thanksgiving with their families, too.  I will NEVER participate in Black Friday that starts on Thanksgiving afternoon.)

So, Saint Marty is going to bed early tonight, hopefully, to rest his wattles for the Turkey Trot in the morning.

Ode to Wattles

by:  Sharon Olds

I want to write about my wattles--oooo, I
lust after it.
I want to hold a mirror under my
chin so I can see the new
events in solid geometry
occurring below my jaw, which was
all bone till now, and now is jam-packed
reticule.  I love to be a little
disgusting, to go as far as I can
into the thrilling unloveliness
of an elderwoman's aging.  It is like daring
time, and the ancient laws of eros,
at once.  But when I look down,
into the compact's pool, and see
my face hanging down from the bottom of my face,
like a raft woven of popsicle sticks,
my nursing-home neck,
then, though I'm willing to age and die
for there to be sex and children,
the slackness of the drapery, and the
inside-out pockets of the jowls shock me.
I thought it wouldn't go far with me
that I would be geology,
my throat a rippling of synclines and anticlines
back when the crust was warm, and I
was hot.  Secretly, I don't know yet
that I'm not, but I bow my head to time,
and count my withered chins, three five seven
nine, my muses, my truth which is not
beauty--my crone beauty, in its first youth.



Tuesday, November 21, 2017

November 21: Son of God, Second Chance, Show Off

The bookstore was run by seeming quintuplets, by five short, bald men chewing unlit cigars that were sopping wet.,  They never smiled, and each one had a stool to perch on.  They were making money running a paper-and-celluloid whorehouse.  They didn't have hard-ons.  Neither did Billy Pilgrim.  Everybody else did.  It was a ridiculous store, all about love and babies.

The clerks occasionally told somebody to buy or get out, not to just look and look and paw and paw.  Some of the people were looking at each other instead of the merchandise.

A clerk came up to Billy and told him the good stuff was in the back, that the books Billy was reading were window dressing.  "That ain't what you want, for Christ's sake," he told Billy.  "What you want's in back."

So Billy moved a little farther back, but not as far as the part for adults only.  He moved because of absentminded politeness, taking a Trout book with him--the one about Jesus and the time machine.

The time-traveler in the book went back to Bible times to find out one thing in particular:  Whether or not Jesus had really died on the cross, or whether he had been taken down while still alive, whether he had really gone on living.  The hero had a stethoscope along.

Billy skipped to the end of the book, where the hero mingled with the people who were taking Jesus down from the cross.  The time-traveler was the first one up the ladder, dressed in clothes of the period, and he leaned close to Jesus so people couldn't see him use the stethoscope, and he listened.

There wasn't a sound inside the emaciated chest cavity.  The Son of God was dead as a doornail.

So it goes.  

The time-traveler, whose name was Lance Corwin, also got to measure the length of Jesus, but not to weigh him.  Jesus was five feet and three and a half inches long.

An encounter with Christ.  Or the body of Christ.  That's what the Kilgore Trout novel seems to be about.  The time-traveler wants to find out if Jesus really died on the cross or if Christ's death and resurrection was some elaborate hoax perpetrated by the Son of God and his disciples.  Guess what?  Jesus is dead as a doornail.

Of course, that's one of the great parts of the Jesus narrative--Him sacrificing His life for the sake of humankind.  I'm not sure Vonnegut really bought this tenet of Christianity, and it really doesn't matter.  I just find any kind of encounter with Christ--historical, Biblical, or fictional--really compelling.

So, let me follow up on my encounter with the young homeless man that I wrote about yesterday.  After I finished my blog post about this man yesterday, I got in my car and was heading off campus.  I was still feeling really guilty about not helping this guy out early in the morning, when he was headed to the Warming Center in town, which offers assistance to the homeless.

As I was driving along the street, heading out of the university, I looked over to my left.  There was the young man, carrying the same suitcase, walking along the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette.  I shook my head, sort of not believing that I had a second chance.  I drove a little way up the street, turned around, and went back to the young man.

I rolled down my window, introduced myself, and offered to buy him some food at Burger King.  He thanked me, stubbed out his cigarette on the sidewalk, put his suitcase in the back seat of my car, and got in.

"Thanks, man," he said, putting out his hand.  "My name's Josh."

I shook his hand, said, "I'm Marty."  I explained that I had to get an appointment, but I wanted to do something for him.

"You know," Josh said, "if you could drive me to the church up the street, that's where I'm spending the night."

In Marquette, there is a homeless shelter called Room at the Inn that rotates around various churches in the area.

"Sure," I said.  We drove up the street to the church, listening to Christmas music on the radio.  When I pulled into the parking lot, Josh reached over and shook my hand again.  "Thanks," he said.  He got out and retrieved his suitcase from the back seat of my car.  "Maybe the next time I see you, I'll have some place to live," Josh said.

I nodded.  "I hope so," I said.

He closed the door and walked up into the church.

I had an encounter with Jesus yesterday.  He was a young, homeless man carrying a suitcase.

Saint Marty was grateful for the second chance.

P. S.  When I checked my e-mail tonight, there was a message from a couple poet friends of mine.  They want to organize some kind of reading for and by homeless people in the area, and they were looking for some ideas.  God really likes to show off sometimes.


November 21: Odes, Sharon Olds, "Wind Ode"

Sharon Olds' last collection of poems was titled Odes.  It contains odes to things that you wouldn't generally read odes about--like tampons and the penis and the word "vulva."  Strangely, all of these odes have an incredible amount of beauty. 

That's what Sharon Olds does.  She celebrates everything, finds inspiration in the lowliest, most human of subjects.  It's all about praise and thanksgiving.

Saint Marty has a poem for today's wind and snow in the Upper Peninsula.

Wind Ode

by:  Sharon Olds

I saw the water, ruffled like a duck,
as if its ruffles arose from within.
I saw clouds, scudding across
as if by their own will.  I sat here,
over the pond, and saw its fierce
gooseflesh and its rough chop
as if it were shivering.  I did not know you,
I looked right through you.  And then, one summer
day, Wild Goose was in nine moods
at once, and I went down to it,
and into it up to my lower eyelids, and I
saw a row of fine lines
rushing toward me, then another row
crosshatching it, rushing, then a veil of dots swift
in, like a hat-veil-sized spirit, I saw you,
it was you, and there were many of you, I sank
underwater, and looked up,
and saw your strokes indent the surface.
Could we trace them back, these hachures and gravures,
to the Coriolis force caused by the
spinning of the earth?  Who is the mother
of the wind, who is its father?  O ancestor,
O child of heat and cold, wild
original scribbler!


Monday, November 20, 2017

November 20: Rabble-Rouser, Young Man, Warming Center

Another Kilgore Trout book there in the window was about a man who built a time machine so he could go back and see Jesus.  It worked, and he saw Jesus when Jesus was only twelve years old.  Jesus was learning the carpentry trade from his father.

Two Roman soldiers came into the shop with a mechanical drawing on papyrus of a device they wanted built by sunrise the next morning.  It was a cross to be used in the execution of a rabble-rouser.  

Jesus and his father built it.  They were glad to have the work.  And the rabble-rouser was executed on it.

So it goes.

If the Alanis Morissette song "Ironic" is running through your head, that's okay.  It's running through mine, as well.  Of course, Vonnegut is playing with irony here--the future rabble-rouser creating a crucifixion cross with his father for a current rabble-rouser.  Vonnegut is making a statement about the past, present, and future.  How there are circles within circles.  Everything repeats, including the executions of rabble-rousers like Jesus Christ and Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Yes, I think that people who are activists for peace and love and justice are mostly doomed.  Someone with a cross or a gun will come along and take them out.  So it goes.  A lot of people are threatened by the idea of compassion and equality for all human beings.  They want to protect their pieces of the pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving dinner, are unwilling to share what they have.

That's why we have an epidemic of refugees who can't seem to find homes.  Instead of opening doors, people want to build walls.  I'm not pointing fingers here.  I'm guilty of this sin, as well.

This morning, as I was walking into the medical center where I work, I saw a young man with a suitcase talking to a nurse who had walked into the building a few steps ahead of me.  It was around 6 a.m., and it was less than 20 degrees outside.  The young man was asking the nurse for directions to the Warming Center in town.

The Warming Center opens every morning in the winter to provide food and shelter for homeless people in the area.  From the medical center, it's about two miles away.

The nurse gave the young man directions, and he thanked her.  I watched him button up his coat, pick up his suitcase, and walk out into the cold, dark morning.  And I let him go without offering to give him a ride or at least a cup of coffee.  I tried to rationalize that the young man could have been dangerous, carrying a knife or gun.  I needed to be safe, I said to myself.

All day long, however, I've been thinking about him.  I missed an opportunity to share my pumpkin pie with someone who was hungry.  I blew it.

I hope that he made it to the Warming Center safely.  I hope there was coffee and oatmeal or something.  I hope that he was able to take a hot shower.  I hope he encountered someone today who was a better person than me.

Saint Marty is thankful this afternoon for humility and shame.  They remind him how to be a better person.


November 20: Feel Instensely, Sharon Olds, "First Thanksgiving"

For this week of giving thanks, I'm turning to one of the poets who makes me feel intensely every time I read one of her poems--Sharon Olds.

I know, I know.  I have featured Sharon Olds many times before, but I get nostalgic this time of year.  Plus, Sharon Olds is constantly astonishing in the depth and wonder of her words.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for Sharon Olds.

First Thanksgiving

by:  Sharon Olds

When she comes back, from college, I will see
the skin of her upper arms, cool,
matte, glossy. She will hug me, my old
soupy chest against her breasts,
I will smell her hair! She will sleep in this apartment,
her sleep like an untamed, good object,
like a soul in a body. She came into my life the
second great arrival, after him, fresh
from the other world—which lay, from within him,
within me. Those nights, I fed her to sleep,
week after week, the moon rising,
and setting, and waxing—whirling, over the months,
in a slow blur, around our planet.
Now she doesn’t need love like that, she has
had it. She will walk in glowing, we will talk,
and then, when she’s fast asleep, I’ll exult
to have her in that room again,
behind that door! As a child, I caught
bees, by the wings, and held them, some seconds,
looked into their wild faces,
listened to them sing, then tossed them back
into the air—I remember the moment the
arc of my toss swerved, and they entered
the corrected curve of their departure.


Sunday, November 19, 2017

November 19: Thanksgiving Week, Classic Saint Marty, "Things My Daughter Knows"

It is the beginning of a short week.  Thanksgiving on Thursday.  Work on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.  Pies and Jell-O molds to make.  A Turkey Trot to run on Thanksgiving morning. 

I think I'm really going to try to concentrate on being thankful these next seven days.  I've been trying to do that for most of this year.  Some days are more difficult than others.  This weekend has been a struggle with my father.  My brother, who had a heart attack this past summer, is downstate being evaluated in Grand Rapids.  It's not good news.  He's not doing well.

So, this afternoon, I am going to try to relax.  I don't have to teach this week, so I plan to do a little pleasure reading.  Maybe some pleasure writing.  Probably some pleasure eating, as well.

A year ago, I was giving thanks, too . . .

November 19, 2016:  Ichneumon Flies, Blood Sport, Money Struggles

"To prevent a like fate," Teale continues, "some of the ichneumon flies, those wasplike parasites which deposit their eggs in the body tissues of caterpillars, have to scatter their eggs while in flight at times when they are unable to find their prey and the eggs are ready to hatch within their bodies."

Weird little fact.  Flies zigging through the air, dropping their eggs like the firebombing of Dresden.  The flies have to do this.  If the eggs hatch inside the flies, the young will start munching on their mommies.  So, it's either kill or be lunch.

Children can be trying at times.  Especially around this time of year, when they are bombarded by commercials for new gadgets, toys, technology, books, music.  The blood sport of Black Friday shopping in the United States.  I must admit to making some back alley deals for a Tickle Me Elmo back in the day.  As a parent, I want to make my son and daughter happy, give them everything they want.

Of course, I've never been able to do that for my kids.  They are pretty aware of the financial constraints that exist in our household.  But, interestingly enough, they have always been pretty happy in our modest home.  (Since my daughter has become a teenager, she's been chafing at the fact that she has to share a room with her little brother.  We're working on that one.)  My wife and I try to give them a good life.  Today, my son gets to go see the Trolls movie.  My daughter gets her dance lesson this afternoon.  Tomorrow, we're all going to see the new Harry Potter movie.  Like I said, we do the best we can. 

Big things--like remodeling the attic for my daughter--take a lot of planning and time and prayer.  A LOT of prayer.  I'm not complaining.  I know that my problems are another person's fairy tale.  My kids are smart and funny and compassionate.  Hopefully spiritual, too.  (My daughter sometimes bristles at going to church, but she eventually comes around.)

I know that I will never be a rich person.  We will always have money struggles.  My kids will never be the best dressed.  My daughter is not going to get a new car as a graduation present.  My eight-year-old son is about eight years away from getting his own cell phone, although he wants one desperately right now.  That's just the life I've chosen.  But I don't think I'll ever have to push my kids out of an airplane to save myself from being eaten alive. 

Saint Marty gives thanks today for his daughter and son.



At the start of Thanksgiving week, I have a poem of thanks . . .

Things My Daughter Knows

by:  Martin Achatz



How to lace ribbons up her shins,
count music beats, lift herself
to her toes, hold her body
on that axis, those ten digits,
defy laws of gravity, motion,
float like some undiscovered planet.

How to brush her red hair
upside down, rake teeth
from scalp downward,
over and over, until her mane
glows like organized flame
when she tosses her head back,
when she looks at me
from the forest fire of her face.

How to ignore the gaze of boys
as she splits water with the curves
of her hips and chest, dives
into the deep green end, reaches
for something on the bottom,
maybe an angel she painted
in kindergarten, all orange, black,
a ladybug singing in excelsis Deo.

How to feed me Life Savers
when my blood sugar dips so low
I can't remember anything
but my need for juice, cookie,
the steps of bite, chew, swallow,
bite again, as my mind untangles
the shoelaces of memory, finds
at its center knot this girl,
all leg, arm, body, DNA
of an encounter almost 13 years old,
when I reached out in the dark one night
and found the spark of love.




Saturday, November 18, 2017

November 18: National Prayer Week, Modern Authors, Radical

These fictitious people in the zoo had a big board supposedly showing stock market quotations and commodity prices along one wall of their habitat, and a news ticker, and a telephone that was supposedly connected to a brokerage on Earth.  The creatures on Zircon-212 told their captives that they had invested a million dollars for them back on Earth, and that it was up to the captives to manage it so that they would be fabulously wealthy when they were returned to Earth.

The telephone and the big board and the ticker were all fakes, of course.  They were simply stimulants to make the Earthlings perform vividly for the crowds at the zoo--to make them jump up and down and cheer, or gloat, or sulk, or tear their hair, to be scared shitless or to feel as contented as babies in their mothers' arms.   

The Earthlings did very well on paper.  That was part of the rigging, of course.  And religion got mixed up in it, too.  The news ticker reminded them that the President of the United States had declared National Prayer Week, and that everybody should pray.  The Earthlings had had a bad week on the market before that.  They had lost a small fortune in olive oil futures.  So they gave praying a whirl.

It worked.  Olive oil went up.

Religion is an experiment in this passage.  The aliens on Zircon-212 are seeing how humans respond to one of the most basic human stimuli--materialism.  The humans believe they are fabulously wealthy, and they jump up and down and cheer.  They think that they have lost all of their money, and they turn to God and prayer.

It's a fairly cynical view of the human condition, but Vonnegut was a survivor of the Dresden bombing.  He probably suffered from post traumatic stress disorder for most of his life.  That certainly would explain Billy Pilgrim's time traveling episodes in Slaughterhouse.  I guess what I'm trying to say is that Vonnegut saw the very worst of humanity in his life, and that translates into his views of human motivation and love and spirituality.  Slaughterhouse can be described as a lot of things, but I don't think that I would ever call it a hopeful book.

Of course, I have a very different attitude toward spirituality than Vonnegut's.  I prefer hope over cynicism, as my one Constant Reader knows.  Sure, I can lapse into periods of darkness, even despair.  But, on the whole, I prefer light and joy.

That makes me a little different from a lot of poets and writers.  There is a tendency among modern authors to eschew possibility in favor of impossibility.  A brand of Vonnegut cynicism runs through much contemporary literature.  Now, I'm not saying that's a bad thing.  Great writing is great writing, no matter what.  Most times, however, I choose to embrace what's good in humankind, and that includes the Christian ethic of helping the poor, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked.

I don't think that's an old-fashioned way of viewing the world.  In fact, I think it's pretty radical, flying in the face of capitalism and materialism.  Joseph McCarthy would have probably had me imprisoned as a communist during the 1950s.  J. Edgar Hoover would probably have had a case file on me.  But I think McCarthy would also have thought Jesus Christ was a communist.

So, Saint Marty is a radical for love.  That's not a bad thing to be.


November 18: Fallow of Winter, Judith Minty, 27 from "Fall"

You know, with everything going wrong with my father, I've been thinking a lot about aging and declining.

There's a pine tree in my backyard.  It was uprooted and blown over by a windstorm this past May.  Its roots have become branches, and its branches have become roots.  It was certainly past its prime.  I haven't had the tree removed because I can't afford it.  However, I've become fond of its horizontal existence.

Saint Marty is ready for the fallow of winter.

27 of "Fall" from Yellow Dog Journal

by:  Judith Minty

These trees are past their prime.
Over sixty feet tall, lower branches
stripped of needles, roots
heaved up, bent like arthritic hands.

I fill the front of my shirt
with pine cones.  Later, when I rocK
on the porch, nodding my head,
I will smell the floor of the woods.


Friday, November 17, 2017

November 17: Veterans' Hospital, My Father, Diminished Capacity

A sign in there said that adults only were allowed in the back.  There were peep shows in the back that showed movies of young women and men with no clothes on.  It cost a quarter to look into a machine for one minute.  There were still photographs of naked young people for sale back there, too.  You could take those home.  The stills were a lot more Tralfamadorian than the movies, since you could look at them whenever you wanted to, and they wouldn't change.  Twenty years in the future, those girls would still be young, would still be smiling or smoldering or simply looking stupid, with their legs wide open.  Some of them were eating lollipops or bananas.  They would still be eating those.  And the peckers of the young men would still be semierect, and their muscles would be bulging like cannonballs.

But Billy Pilgrim wasn't beguiled by the back of the store.  He was thrilled by the Kilgore Trout novels in the front.  The titles were all new to him, or he thought they were.  Now he opened one.  It seemed all right for him to do that.  Everybody else in the store was pawing things.  The name of the book was The Big Board.  He got a few paragraphs into it, and then he realized that he had read it before--years ago, in the veterans' hospital.  It was about an Earthling man and woman who were kidnapped by extra-terrestrials.  They were put on display in a zoo on a planet called Zircon-212.

Well, I could talk about all of the sexual abuse charges being leveled at politicians and movie stars right now.  This little passage from Slaughterhouse really touches upon the objectification of women and men in pornography.  However, there are two words that really leapt out at me as I transcribed those two paragraphs--"veterans' hospital."

My father, who is a veteran, is not doing well.  He is 90-years-old, and, over the last month or so, it has become abundantly clear to my sisters and myself that he simply can't live at home anymore.  He keeps falling, has wrenched his knee and cracked three or four ribs.  On top of that, his memory is failing, and he can't control his bowels.

I don't say these things to be mean or insensitive to his struggles.  He's always been a very proud man, and I know that his diminished capacity is very frustrating to him.  He wants to remain independent, but he can't.  Tonight, I spoke to my sister about nursing home placement.  Since he is a veteran, we are hoping that we might be able to find a room for him at our local veterans' hospital.

However, I know how my father will react to this possibility.  He's made it abundantly clear that he doesn't want to be anywhere but home.  My grandmother, my dad's mother, died at the veterans' hospital, and my father has felt guilty for over twenty years about placing her in that facility.  Basically, he associates that place with dying.  The equation in his mind goes something like this:

Veterans' Hospital = Death

I understand my father's fears.  However, living in his home is simply not safe for him anymore.  He's bruised from head-to-foot because of his falls.  He can't clean himself, and he can't go to the bathroom by himself.  He needs 24-hour care before he seriously injures himself.

If it sounds like I'm trying to convince myself of this fact, I am.  Seeing my father seriously diminished is not easy, but admitting that he can't and won't ever get better is tough.  When he goes into the veterans' hospital, he will not be coming out alive.

Tonight, Saint Marty is thankful for the care the nurse provided for his father this evening.


November 17: For My Father, Judith Minty, 3 from "Fall"

Saint Marty has a poem tonight for his father . . .

3 of "Fall" from Yellow Dog Journal

by:  Judith Minty

My father's slippers, found
in a trunk, now mine to wear.
Too large, creases in the leather
barely touch the flesh.
I slide my toes to the end, along the old ridges.

His feet clump over linoleum floor,
table to dishpan, woodbox to stove.
Only the scrap of rug by the door
muffles his presence.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

November 16: Soot and Fly Shit, Friend, Breast Cancer

Billy left his room, went down the slow elevator, walked over to Times Square, looked into the window of a tawdry bookstore.  In the window were hundreds of books about fucking and buggery and murder, and a street guide to New York City, and a model of the Statue of Liberty with a thermometer on it.  Also in the window, speckled with soot and fly shit, were four paperback novels by Billy's friend, Kilgore Trout.

The news of the day, meanwhile, was being written in a ribbon of lights on a building to Billy's back.  The window reflected the news.  It was about power and sports and anger and death.  So it goes.

Billy went into the bookstore.

Things really don't change all that much.  I have been to Times Square.  I've looked into the window of a tawdry bookstore there, probably saw the same stuff that Billy Pilgrim saw, minus the four Kilgore Trout paperbacks.  And I've seen the news in lights, and that news was all about power and sports and anger and death.  So it goes.

I'd like to believe that the world has somehow changed since Vonnegut envisioned Billy Pilgrim in Times Square back in the 1960s.  Unfortunately, things haven't gotten better.  They may have shooed away the hookers and forced the adult bookstores to close, but Times Square is pretty much the same.  So is the world.

Today, I saw a close friend that I haven't seen in a couple years.  She looked happy, healthy.  Unfortunately, my friend just learned that she has breast cancer.  In the next couple weeks, she's going to be getting bilateral mastectomies and reconstructive surgery.  Then she starts rounds of chemo.

I hugged my friend this afternoon.  Hard.  Asked her if there was anything I could do, even though I knew there wasn't.  She is a fighter and has been her whole life.  I know that she's going to beat this disease.  The thing she seemed most upset about was the fact that she had to postpone starting her college nursing program.

In a world that Kurt Vonnegut sees speckled with soot and fly shit, there are stories of hope and survival.  Yes, the world is still full of power and sports and anger and death, but my friend reminded me today that I don't have to give in to all that.  I can choose light instead of darkness.

So, this afternoon, Saint Marty is thankful for his friend, who is a sun in a world filled with shadows.


November 16: A Friend, Judith Minty, 21 of "Fall"

I have a friend who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.  She is preparing for surgery and chemo.  I don't think she sees herself as brave or strong, but she is.  When I spoke with her this afternoon, she talked about breast cancer as simply a bump in the road on her journey to becoming a registered nurse. 

She isn't alone.  She is surrounded by love, and she knows this.

Saint Marty has a poem for his friend this evening . . .

21 of "Fall" from Yellow Dog Journal

by:  Judith Minty

When the sun falls,
oaks pull in their branches
and shadows
creep closer to the cabin.
I am never alone in these woods.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

November 15: Tralfamadorian Concept, Mobius Strip, Hope

Billy Pilgrim checked into the Royalton Hotel on Forty-fourth Street in New York.  He by chance was given a room which had once been the home of George Jean Nathan, the critic and editor.  Nathan, according to the Earthling concept of time, had died back in  1958.  According to the Tralfamadorian concept, of course, Nathan was still alive somewhere and always would be.

The room was small and simple, except that it was on the top floor, and had French doors which opened onto a terrace as large as the room.  And beyond the parapet of the terrace was the air space over Forty-fourth Street.  Billy now leaned over that parapet, looked down at all the people moving hither and yon.  They were jerky little scissors.  The were a lot of fun.

It was a chilly night, and Billy came indoors after a while, closed the French doors.  Closing those doors reminded him of his honeymoon.  There had been French doors on the Cape Ann love nest of his honeymoon, still were, always would be.

Billy turned on his television set, clicking its channel selector around and around.  He was looking for programs on which he might be allowed to appear.  But it was too early in the evening for programs that allowed people with peculiar opinions to speak out.  It was only a little after eight o'clock, so all the shows were about silliness or murder.  So it goes.

The Tralfamdorian concept of time, as I've written before, is not linear.  It's more like a Mobius strip, something continuous and looped so that it's possible to go back to the beginning by going to the end and vice versa.  In fact, I would say that time doesn't really exist for Tralfamdorians.  Time is a human concept.

Of course, the passage of time is how we understand the universe.  Things come into being, live for a little while, and then wink out of existence, never to be seen or heard again.  It's not very comforting, I know.  Yet, humans have come to terms with this temporality.  We've learned that letting go is a part of breathing and living and loving.  Change is a constant.

If you've read this post thus far, you're probably expecting me to say something slightly profound about eternity, maybe rage against the dying of the light, per Dylan Thomas.  Being a Christian, I don't think of death as anything final.  It's a step, like passing from one room to another, hopefully better, room.

That image of passage, however beautiful, doesn't comfort me much at the moment.  Unlike Billy, I have not been privy to glimpses of the future or past.  I don't know what going to happen to me in the next hour or day or week or year.  Billy has seen his future--including his own death--so he's not afraid of anything like bombs falling from the sky or planes crashing into mountains.

The best I can do this afternoon is give thanks for the breaths I'm taking right now, for the words that my fingers are tapping out of the keyboard.  I'm thankful for my class this evening.  For the students who show up to accept whatever knowledge I impart.  And I'm thankful for my car that will carry me home after I'm done teaching.

Of course, none of those things I just listed are guarantees.  They're merely hopes until they happen.  Human beings live on hope.  Hope for breath and food and sex and love.  We hope for all these things, each and every day.

Saint Marty is kind of addicted to hope.


November 15: Creatures of Fear, Dose of Faith, Cheesecake

Aren't we all creatures of fear?  I know that I am. 

I fear all kinds of things, ever day.  Right now, I'm afraid that somebody is going to eat the piece of cheesecake I put in the refrigerator down the hall from my university office.  Later on, I'll be afraid that my students will hate me when I had back their graded papers.  I'll go to bed tonight afraid that I'm going to have to drive through a snowstorm tomorrow morning. 

Fear following fear following fear. 

A pastor friend once told me that the opposite of faith isn't doubt.  It's fear.  I'm not sure what that says about me and my litany of fears. 

Saint Marty just needs a little dose of faith to make it through the rest of the day.  Either that or a gin and tonic.

22 from "Fall" of Yellow Dog Journal

by:  Judith Minty

All day.  Now night
and the sky still clear.  I can see
parts of a constellation.  Perhaps
it is Orion raising his sword
as leaves open tiny doorways for me.

If I were not so afraid
in the dark, tonight
I would walk to the beaver pond.
Never looking over my shoulder, just poking
down the trail, blind woman
with her stick in a world without shadows.
I would come to it on this night.

And the stars.  The stars
would gleam first above me,
then reflect in the still water.
I would look down at the bear
and the dog star in Canis
and see that the pond runs deep
as the night sky.  And know this.
Tonight.  If I had no fear of it.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

November 14: Inner Hermit, Judith Minty, 6 from "Fall"

I spend most of my days talking with people.  That's my job.  I register patients for surgery, answer phones, meet with students, teach classes.  My days are all about words.

In a single 24-hour period, I may have sixty or so minutes where I'm allowed to withdraw and not think about the rest of the world, if I'm lucky.  Usually, I spend a portion of that time writing these blog posts.  So, in a way, I'm still talking.  I just get to choose what I want to say more freely, without fear of alienating anyone. 

Sometimes, I dream of being Thoreau, living in the woods with my notebook and pen.  Or Judith Minty, retreating to her father's cabin on the Yellow Dog River.  The thought of that kind of isolation appeals to me at the moment.

Saint Marty is getting in touch with his inner hermit.

6 from "Fall" of Yellow Dog Journal

by:  Judith Minty

All day, I stay close to the cabin.
My ax rings the morning.  And half the afternoon
I gather kindling, spread the sticks
to dry.  I am menstruating and have heard
that bear are attracted to women when they bleed.

I haven't spoken in three days, have seen nothing
bigger than chipmunks and squirrels
at the woodpile.  It is only beyond the perimeter
that black shapes hide, breath steaming,
low growls circling their throats.
When the branch falls, I swirl to the sound, ax raised.


November 14: Had to be Done, Newborn Adolf Hitler, Shitty Decisions

"It had to be done," Rumfoord told Billy, speaking of the destruction of Dresden.

"I know," said Billy.

"That's war."

"I know.  I'm not complaining."

"It must have been hell on the ground."

"It was," said Billy Pilgrim.

"Pity the men who had to do it."

"I do."

"You must have had mixed feelings, there on the ground."

"It was all right," said Billy.  "Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does.  I learned that on Tralfamdore."  

Rumfoord is attempting to justify the bombing of Dresden to Billy, not quite apologizing but acknowledging Billy's experience of the event with some degree of compassion.  Billy harbors no anger or ill feelings toward any person involved in the bombings, in the air or on the ground.  He knows that the Dresden bombing happened, is happening, will happen, no matter what he says or does or how he feels.

It's a pretty good attitude to cultivate, if you can do it, this Tralfamadorian point of view.  It's all about total acceptance, good or bad, of whatever happens in life.  If more people were like Billy, there might be a lot more peace in the world.  On the other hand, total acceptance also allows a lot of terrible stuff to happen, as well.

For example, if I could somehow travel back in time to April 20, 1889, Braunau am Inn, Austria, I would probably take the newborn Adolf Hitler and throw him off the nearest cliff.  Now, whether that would make a difference or not, I'm not so sure.  Perhaps another Hitler would emerge to fill the void.  Perhaps the Holocaust would still occur.  But at least I could say that I did something to try and prevent the death of millions of people.

I'm not sure that Tralfmadorian  acceptance is the healthiest approach to the world.  It sort of smacks of Pontius Pilate washing his hands of the death of Jesus Christ--I'm not guilty because I just stood back and watched it happen.  That would sort of be like me seeing a woman being raped on a street corner and simply ignoring the situation, going to Starbucks and buying a pumpkin spice latte.  I would still be guilty of allowing a terrible act of violence to occur, and I would probably get arrested.

So, Billy Pilgrim does nothing to try to change the course of history, even though he knows the past, present, and future.  I'm sitting here, at the end of 2017, almost a full year after the 2016 U. S. Presidential election.  Last week, I walked into the voting booth again and cast my ballot, hoping that it would make some difference, somehow.

That is the great experiment that is the United States of American.  Making shitty decisions as a nation and then trying to correct those shitty decisions. 

Saint Marty is thankful this afternoon for the possibility of changing the future.


Monday, November 13, 2017

November 13: Black-and-White Sadness, Judith Minty, 7 from "Fall"

For some reason, I am drawn to older poetry collections this month, books that I have read and reread many times.  This week, it's Judith Minty's Yellow Dog Journal, which still ranks in the top five of my all-time favorites. 

I am melancholy today.  Perhaps it's the coming of winter.  The gray and slush and cold.  The darkening of the sky at five o'clock in the afternoon.  I found myself at home alone this afternoon, after a doctor's appointment, lying on my bed with the lights out.  The silence, which I usually welcome, was oppressive.  My mind wandered back and forth over my life--births and deaths, successes and failures. 

By the time I climbed out of bed, I was steeped in black-and-white sadness.  Haven't been able to shake it off yet.  I'm sitting in my office at the university, a stack of papers in front of me, filled with a kind of dread that has nothing to do with grading.

My life seems to be sliding by way too fast.  I'm feeling a little out of control, and, when I'm like this, I want to hibernate.  Shut myself away from the world and just read and read, write and write.  That's all.

Or maybe Saint Marty just needs some spiked eggnog. 

7 from "Fall" of Yellow Dog Journal

by:  Judith Minty

Sitting on the porch.
Can't tell if I was dozing or reading,
the eye had wandered from words,
turned inward,
so that I only saw it
after the chipmunk's scream.

The hawk spread its wings,
so close I might have touched his feathers,
and lifted the chipmunk up
out of the clearing
and made no sound.


November 13: Reluctantly Becoming Interested, To Be Heard, Great Gift

Later on, as a middle-aged optometrist, he would weep quietly and privately sometimes, but never make loud boohooing noises.

Which is why the epigraph of this book is the quatrain from the famous Christmas carol.  Billy cried very little, though he often saw things worth crying about, and in that respect, at least, he resembled the Christ of the carol:

          The cattle are lowing,
          The Baby awakes.
          But the little Lord Jesus
          No crying he makes...

Billy traveled in time back to the hospital in Vermont.  Breakfast had been eaten and cleared away, and Professor Rumfoord was reluctantly becoming interested in Billy as a human being.  Rumfoord questioned Billy gruffly, satisfied himself that Billy really had been in Dresden.  He asked Billy what it had been like, and Billy told him about the horses and the couple picnicking on the moon.

The story ended this way:  Billy and the doctors unharnessed the horses, but the horses wouldn't go anywhere.  Their feet hurt too much.  And then Russians came on motorcycles, and they arrested everybody but the horses.

Two days after that, Billy was turned over to the Americans, who shipped him home on a very slow freighter called the Lucretia A. Mott.  Lucretia A. Mott was a famous American suffragette.  She was dead.  So it goes.

Billy finally gets to tell his Dresden story to Rumfoord, who listens reluctantly because Billy's truth doesn't gibe with his truth.  Yet, Rumfoord allows Billy to talk about the bleeding horses on the surface of the moon.  He listens to Billy Pilgrim.

I think that's what every human being really wants in life:  to be heard.  There's nothing more frustrating than to voice some story and have nobody listen.  I write these blog posts, send them out into the ether of the Internet, and hope that they find some willing listener.  I don't care if the listener agrees with what I'm saying.  Don't care if the listener voted for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.  Don't care about the listener's skin color or sexual orientation or religious affiliation. What I care about--I want someone to listen, acknowledge, understand.

That's why I write.  That's why any writer writes, I think.  I'm trying to make people understand who I am, why I am.  In fifty years, when I'm worm food, I want my kids and grandkids to be able to read these words and really know me as a person.  They might not like everything they find out, but, in the long run, they will hopefully appreciate my hopes and dreams and struggles.

So, to all the Rumfoords listening to me right now, I want to say thanks.  I'm not the most interesting person in the world.  Not the most talented writer or poet.  My life usually verges on boring.  Yet, you're taking time out of your day to read these words, hear my voice.  That is a great gift.

Saint Marty is full of gratitude on this gray, cold evening.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

November 12: Light and Hope, Classic Saint Marty, "White Noise"

A lot of ink and air has been spilled this week over the fact that it is the one year anniversary of the election of the 45th President of the United States.  It hardly seems possible that it has already been 365 days since my country went off its rocker.

I know that I sometimes climb on soapboxes when I broach this topic.  Not doing that tonight.  I'm too tired, and, as I approach the Christmas season, I would like to embrace light and hope instead of darkness and hatred, because I still believe that light and hope will win.  I have to.

So, my Christmas decorations are up.  Tonight, I may watch A Charlie Brown Christmas with my son, to get in the mood.  There are still people out there--a lot of them--who welcome the poor and homeless, who don't care what color your skin is or who you love, who embrace peace and love.

I believe this with all my heart.

A year ago, it was a little harder . . .

November 12, 2016:  A Tailless Sparrow, Nicks and Bumps, Healing

Nature seems to catch you by the tail.  I think of all the butterflies I have seen whose torn hind wings bore the jagged marks of birds' bills.  There were four or five tiger swallowtails missing one of their tails, and a fritillary missing two thirds of a hind wing.  The birds, too, who make up the bulk of my list, always seem to have been snatched at from behind, except for the killdeer I saw just yesterday, who was missing all of its toes; its slender shank ended in a smooth, gray knob.  Once I saw a swallowtailed sparrow, who on second look proved to be a sparrow from whose tail the central wedge of feathers had been torn.  I've seen a completely tailless sparrow, a tailless robin, and a tailless grackle.  Then my private list ends with one bob-tailed and one tailless squirrel, and a muskrat kit whose tail bore a sizeable nick near the spine.

Dillard spends a whole chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek discussing this aspect of Nature.  Chomped and be chomped.  Eat and be eaten.  That's the way things work.  Even human beings are not immune to this design.  Dillard lists all kinds of creatures that snack on people, from insects to worms.  It's not a pretty picture.

Me?  I have a few nicks and bumps.  You don't get to be my age without such souvenirs.  On either side of my right knee, I have two caterpillar-shaped scars.  When I was a kid, I had an operation on my leg because my right leg is longer than my left.  On the back of my neck, I have a dent from where a cyst was removed a few years ago.  I am the proud owner of an appendix scar as well. 

All of these things are my trophies of living on this planet as long as I have.  I have been chomped, cut, bit, and stomped.  As a parent, I've been peed and pooped on.  My son has been throwing up all morning long.  Sometimes he hits the bucket.  Sometimes he doesn't.  He has not hit me.  Yet. 

We all have to take our personal and collective hits.  All experience heartbreaks and joys.  Disappointments and triumphs.  This week, some people in the United States have been incredibly jubilant.  Other people have been angry and depressed.  There will be healing, eventually.  But there's going to be a whole lot of tailless robins and sparrows in the streets of America after things calm down.

I am trying to move on.  Regain some perspective.  I cannot share in the beliefs that shaped the outcome of last Tuesday night.  They don't represent who I am.  I can't embrace a movement that is founded on bigotry and hatred.  I believe in love and charity and acceptance.  That's what being a Christian is all about.

Saint Marty gives thanks for the scars on his leg and neck.  His nicks and bumps.  They are reminders that healing happens.  Slowly. 


And a poem for this evening about seeing truth in the storm . . .

White Noise

by:  Martin Achatz



It’s always in my ears
            Thrush and blue jay in the forest
Fills the air
            Indistinct as grains of sand
The way winter afternoon fills
            Radio.  Handel?  Zeppelin?  Kanye?
In the palm of a storm
            Horn and siren, freight truck
With fat, silencing flakes
            Voice, sharp as January

I absent it, let it quilt my day
            Shit man, shit call me
Until all I hear through its
            Phone, insistent as labor pains
Silence is what I choose
            News of Libya and Iraq and Pakistan
To hear.  White
            A new planet, expanding.  White
Bread baking in my oven
            Fist of hurricane tearing up the Milky Way