Wednesday, September 30, 2015

September 30: Decorated with Great Aplomb, Saint Marty's Day, Lisa Russ Spaar, "Rapunzel's Girlhood," Adventures of Stickman

That evening passed festively enough.  The tree had been decorated with great aplomb and by ten-thirty everyone had left and the children were in bed.  Buoyed by the companionship of his friends and family, Ives had consumed a few more drinks than usual.  In the dark of the living room, with only the tree lights on and Bach playing on the hi-fi, Ives and Annie had remained on the couch, relaxing...

This evening is one of the last normal evenings Annie and Ives will have for many years.  In a few days, their son will be dead, and the Christmas season will become a painful reminder of everything that they lost, at least for Ives.  But, for this quiet moment, in the glow of the newly-decorated Christmas tree, Annie and Ives are happy, content with their lives.

In exactly five days' time, it will be Saint Marty's Day.  No, I didn't forget about it.  But, with all that has gone on in the last month or so, I haven't really been focusing on the approaching holiday.  Yet, it is time to bring the Saint Marty's Day decorations down from the attic, decorate the Saint Marty's Day tree, and bake some Saint Marty's Day cookies.

For those of you new to the blog, I will explain.  Saint Marty's Day is very much like the Christmas described in the above passage from Mr. Ives' Christmas.  However, the only person who gets presents is me.  Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ.  Saint Marty's Day celebrates the birth of another very important holy person.

Tonight, I will probably gather my family around, light a few Saint Marty's Day candles, and watch some Saint Marty's Day movies, like It's a Wonderful Saint Marty's Day and Saint Marty's Day Miracle on 34th Street.  Of course, there's always the classic A Charlie Brown Saint Marty's Day.  I'm already feeling warm and fuzzy inside.

Join Saint Marty in singing a Saint Marty's Day carol:  "Have yourself a merry little Saint Marty's Day..."

Lisa Russ Spaar probably already has her Saint Marty's Day shopping presents wrapped already.

Rapunzel's Girlhood

by:  Lisa Russ Spaar

In the house where I lived
before the tower,
we kept a tub filled with carp,
sleek secrets cruising the black water,
orange as embers.
Their mouths were round as my wrist
and always pulsing for more
of the grain we fed them.
I have a mouth with no tongue
and I explored it in my room
as far as my fingers could reach.
For some reason, I'd close my eyes
when I did this,
and always I'd picture those fish,
circling stories below in their basin,
sometimes coming to the surface
where I'd glimpse their large, wild eyes,
the fret of their flesh, elusive
as answers bobbing into view
in my Magic-8 Ball toy--
"Fat Chance" or "No Way"
and sometimes "It's in the Bag."
My lonely body asked my questions
for me--the dull ache of bones growing
overnight, of eggs preerupting inside me,
thimble breasts hot as coals--
and always the crone's hands filling
my bath, shearing my dress up,
testing the steam.  It took two hands
for her to wrest a terrified fish,
pin it beneath her sodden knee,
slit its throat.  I was always surprised
that something so hidden
could be exposed that way, the guts
coiled and glazed with musk,
little ladders of bones I'd prop
against my sill for the mice to climb--
and the meat I'd close my mouth around,
my tongue pressing all the remnants
of ocean each down my throat
before I'd spit the tough flesh out.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

September 29: Look of Devastation, Sad Day, Ellen Bryant Voigt, "A Marriage Poem," Adventures of Stickman

And he'd tapped Ives' shoulder thoughtfully and, maintaining his composure, had marched out of the office, shoulders back, chest out, a look of devastation upon his face.

It is Christmas time, and Mr. Mannis, Ives' boss, has suffered a tremendous loss.  His son is seriously  wounded in Vietnam and later dies.  Mannis is in a state of shock, searching for some source of comfort, and he turns to Ives.  In about a year or so, Ives will lose his own son, but, at this point, the two men are drawn together by friendship and respect.  Grief and sadness will come later.

For some reason, I felt a lot like Mr. Mannis today, walking around with a pall of devastation hanging over my head.  For the first time since the day of my sister's funeral, I visited the Website of the funeral home and read my sister's page.  Several more people had added tributes to the guest page.  Then, I clicked on the file containing the audio of my sister's Mass.

I simply wanted to listen to my eulogy, since I have no real recollection of what I said.  But, after 15 minutes, I was completely undone.  Sitting at my computer at work, after everyone else left, weeping.  It's my own fault.  For the past month, I've tried to keep myself busy in order to avoid the messy business of grieving.  Tonight, I realize that was probably not the best course of action.

So, my nerves are a little raw this evening.  I'm tired of dealing with the troubles of the world.

Today, the MacArthur Foundation announced the winners of the 2015 Genius Grants.  One of the lucky recipients was poet Ellen Bryant Voigt, whom I once named as Poet of the Week for this blog.  That's right.  On top of being a Saint Marty Poet of the Week, Voigt is now also a MacArthur Genius.

I know money is not the key to happiness, but I truly can't imagine receiving the kind of stipend that accompanies this award (currently $625,000 over five years).  Doing the math, that's a little over $100,000 a year, no strings attached.

As I said, money cannot make the troubles of the world vanish.  It certainly can't bring my sister back or take away my sadness.  It would, however, allow me to grieve in a house with a finished attic, a repaired kitchen ceiling, and maybe a second bathroom.

In honor of Ellen Bryant Voigt's award, I have decided to include one of my favorite Bryant poems.  You be the judge if it's genius.

Saint Marty needs to get to sleep now.  He's not a genius and needs to work in the morning.

A Marriage Poem

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt


Morning: the caged baby
sustains his fragile sleep.
The house is a husk against weather.   
Nothing stirs—inside, outside.   
With the leaves fallen,
the tree makes a web on the window   
and through it the world
lacks color or texture,
like stones in the pasture
seen from this distance.

This is what is done with pain:
ice on the wound,
the isolating tourniquet—
as though to check an open vein
where the self pumps out of the self
would stop the second movement of the heart,   
diastolic, inclusive:
to love is to siphon loss into that chamber.


What does it mean when a woman says,   
“my husband,”
if she sits all day in the tub;
if she worries her life like a dog a rat;
if her husband seems familiar but abstract,
a bandaged hand she’s forgotten how to use.

They’ve reached the middle years.   
Spared grief, they are given dread
as they tend the frail on either side of them.   
Even their marriage is another child,   
grown rude and querulous
since death practiced on them and withdrew.

He asks of her only a little lie,
a pale copy drawn from the inked stone   
where they loll beside the unicorn,   
great lovers then, two strangers
joined by appetite:
                              it frightens her,
to live by memory’s poor diminished light.   
She wants something crisp and permanent,   
like coral—a crown, a trellis,
an iron shawl across the bed
where they are laced together,
the moon bleaching the house,
their bodies abandoned—


In last week’s mail,
still spread on the kitchen table,
the list of endangered species.
How plain the animals are,
quaint, domestic,
but the names lift from the page:   
Woundfin. Whooping Crane. Squawfish.   
Black-footed Ferret. California Least Tern.

Dearest, the beast of Loch Ness, that shy,   
broad-backed, two-headed creature,   
may be a pair of whales or manatee,   
male and female,
driven from their deep mud nest,
who cling to each other,
circling the surface of the lake.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Monday, September 28, 2015

September 28: Poet of the Week, Lisa Russ Spaar, "Hallowe'en," "Ives" Dip, Adventures of Stickman

My choice for Poet of the Week is Lisa Russ Spaar.  I'm not that familiar with her work, but I came upon her collection Glass Town in my office.  A friend had given it to me this summer.  I started paging through it, and I came across the following poem:


On the night of skulled gourds,
of small, masked demons
begging at the door,
a man cradles his eldest daughter
in the family room.  She's fourteen,
she's dying because she will not eat
anymore.  The doorbell keeps ringing;
his wife gives the sweets away.
He rubs the scalp
through his girl's thin hair.
She sleeps.  He does not know
what to do.
When the carved pumpkin
gutters in the windowglass,
his little son races through the room,
his black suit printed with bones
that glow in the dark.
His pillowsack bulges with candy,
and he yelps with joy.
The father wishes he were young.
He's afraid of the dream
she's burning back to,
his dream of her before her birth,
so pure, so perfect,
with no body to impede her light.

This poem spoke to me on many levels.  As the father of a 14-year-old girl.  Lover of Halloween.  Grieving brother.  It's a poem that breaks my heart open.

My daughter has been a dancer since she was five years old.  That's when she took her first ballet class.  I always worried about her getting caught up with body image issues.  She never has, thank goodness.  But it's never far from my mind.

My daughter is very level-headed.  I trust her.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm not letting my guard down.  There are still teenage boys to discourage.  I'm not that trusting.

My question for Ives tonight is about my daughter:

Does my daughter still think I'm cool?

And the answer:

 ...Shortly, around two o'clock, they were sitting in a crowd in an echoing gothically ornate hall listening to a group of choristers singing in Latin about the transformations of the soul and other such autumnal subjects, and in the midst of one such song, Robert, reached over and took hold of his mother's hand, holding it gently.  And he had looked over at her, his expression saying, "I will always be with you, Mama, from this day onward."

 OK, I will take that as a "yes" for being cool.  I have to.  I'm tired, and worrying about my daughter will keep me up tonight.

Saint Marty doesn't mind living in denial if it means a good night's sleep.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Sunday, September 27, 2015

September 27: Second Birthday Party, Contentment, Classic Saint Marty, Confessions of Saint Marty

The last day of Pope Francis' visit to the United States.  Also the day of my son's second birthday party, with my wife's family.

I find myself very reflective this afternoon.  My son is in second grade, my daughter in high school.  The days of being the parent of a young child are behind me.  I am at an age where people start seriously thinking about their retirement plans and 401Ks.  I have not been able to set aside money for a trip to Green Bay, let alone my kids' college educations.  That makes me feel a little bit like a failure.

Of course, I know that I've been successful in a lot of other ways.  I'm a published poet.  I'm a college professor (part-time, so I guess that means I'm really happy with my work life part-time).  I have a great family.  I married into a great family.  My kids are loved greatly.  I have a home with a new roof, two cars, and leftover pizza in the refrigerator.  Success, success, success. 

Yet, I'm not feeling very successful today.  I'm feeling a little disappointed, and I don't know why.  I want to feel happier, more content.  I think I'm basing my contentment on pretty superficial things.  Like, if only I had a full-time teaching job at the university, I'd be perfectly content.  Or, if only I could publish that new collection of poems I've finished, I'd be perfectly content.  How about, if only I had a ten-thousand dollar nest egg in the bank, I'd be perfectly content.

Contentment is really not a matter of money or professional success.  It's a matter of looking around and realizing that you have a pretty good life, just as it is.  It's an attitude more than anything else.  So, I'm going to try to practice that attitude for the rest of the day.  I'm going to be content if it kills me.

Today's episode of Classic Saint Marty first aired a year ago, on my son's sixth birthday.

September 26, 2014:  My Son Again, Terry Godbey, "Eight Years Old"

I promise this will be the last post about my son.  You're all probably getting tired of my sentimental musings.  When birthdays and weddings and anniversaries come around, it gets me all maudlin and reflective.  Can't help it.

I'm also pretty darn tired.  It's been a very long week.  And, when I'm this tired, I'm prone to watching movies like It's a Wonderful Life or Stand By Me and crying like a schoolgirl.  I'll snap out of it in a day or so.  But, for tonight, I'm going to wallow a little bit.

Terry Godbey knows what I'm talking about.  The poems she writes about her son are full of the surprise and ache of parenting.  One day, your child is small, weak, and beautiful.  Before you know it, your child is tall, independent, and beautiful.  It happens so fast.

Saint Marty just wants things to slow down a little.

Eight Years Old

by:  Terry Godbey

Even in winter, my son refuses to wear
a pajama top.  When he comes near,
I lean close and brush his skin
or stroke it outright
like bolts of wedding satin,
and something catches in my throat
like undissolved chocolate
in a cup of cocoa.  He is lush,
toes pink and curled
as the pearly hearts of seashells,
voice lifting and plunging,
a heron diving for fish,
his pogo-stick stride,
arms like clock hands gone wild,
the balloons of his cheeks when he grins,
and on his restless legs, faint hairs
pointing in all directions
as if ruffled by wind,
a great storm on the way.

Confessions of Saint Marty

Saturday, September 26, 2015

September 26: A Good Son, Seventh Birthday, Tomas Transtromer, "Memories Watch Me," Confessions of Saint Marty

He's prayed for a good son, and when he was born named him Robert, after his adoptive father.

Ives was left on the steps of a foundling home in New York City when he was an infant.  For the first few years of his life, he was raised by nuns.  Then a widower named Robert Ives showed up one day, close to Christmas, and decided to adopt him.  When Ives becomes a father, he makes it his mission to give his children a close, caring, loving family.  The birth of his son is one of the happiest days of Ives' life.

Today is my son's seventh birthday.  Of course, I'm going to say the thing that all parents say:  I can't believe it's been seven years since he was born.  Time really does have a way of slipping by like water in a mountain stream.  Beautiful and fast.

My son is funny and smart and healthy, although he could eat more vegetables and fruits.  This morning, I knelt down in front of him and sang "Happy Birthday" to him.  He bobbed his head along as I sang, and, when I was done, he leaned over, kissed me, put his arms around my neck, and whispered "I love you" in my ear.  It made my heart absolutely dissolve.

Yes, I am being sentimental.  I think I'm allowed that today.  Two of the best days of my life were when my daughter and son were born.  I remember, on both occasions, feeling as though scales had been peeled away from my eyes.  Kids have a way of making the world seem freshly made.  As if, stepping outside, I may find Adam on my lawn, trying to come up with a name for a bird roosting in one of my trees.

That's Saint Marty today.  Thinking back.  Giving thanks.  Letting his son reinvent life day by day.

A little poem about reflection...

Memories Watch Me

by:  Tomas Transtromer

A morning in June when it's too early yet
to wake, and still too late to go back to sleep.

I must go out through greenery that's crammed
with memories, that follow me with their eyes.

They are not visible, wholly dissolve
into background, perfect chameleons.

They are so close that I can hear them breathe
although the singing of birds is deafening.

Confessions of Saint Marty

Friday, September 25, 2015

September 25: Small Fraction of Things, Son's Birthday, Tomas Transtromer, "Sketch in October," Everyday Fairy Tale, Adventures of Stickman

While this small fraction of things went on, Ives thought of his son.

This tiny sentence follows a three-page-long paragraph that gives the details of Ives' life post Robert's murder.  He goes for drives with his family.  Watches old movies on the television.  Takes his daughter on college visits.  Attends funerals.  Celebrates Christmas.  All the normal, everyday things that fill his days.  Yet, Robert is never far from Ives' thoughts.

It has been an everyday for me.  Fridays are full of work and the anticipation of a weekend of rest.  Nothing monumental happened.  At the moment, I sitting in my parents' living room, watching the coverage of Pope Francis celebrating Mass at Madison Square Garden.  I should feel inspired or uplifted or blessed.  I don't.  I'm tired.  Dog tired.  When I get home tonight, my plan is to make a drink for myself and go to sleep.

Tomorrow is my son's seventh birthday.  We are having a party for him tomorrow, and then we will have another party for him on Sunday.  By Sunday night, I will have eaten enough cake to feed a small African nation.  These parties will be joyful.  I will sing and laugh and be filled with love for my son.

Yes, tomorrow I will think of my sister who passed away.  She was my son's godmother, and she made his birthdays festivals of spoiling.  The pile of presents rivaled a Christmas haul.  It made my sister incredibly happy to make my son incredibly happy.  She will be the candle that will be missing from his cake this weekend.  In the everyday, Ives thinks of his son.  In my everydays this weekend, I will think of my sister.

Once upon a time, a dairy farmer named Lola lived every day of her life in the same way.  Up at 3 a.m., muck out the barn, feed the cows, milk the cows, oatmeal for breakfast, put the cows out to pasture, cheese sandwich for lunch, drive the cows home, feed the cows again, chicken for dinner, clean the barn, bed.  Every day.  Every week.  Every year.

Lola never got bored with her life.  She loved cows and oatmeal and cheese sandwiches.  They brought her great joy every day.

One day, Lola decided to have a hot dog for lunch.  That afternoon, one of her cows died.  That evening, her barn burned to the ground.  The next morning, she woke up with a bladder infection.  Pretty soon, the bladder infection turned into a blood infection.   In two everydays, Lola was dead.

Moral of the story:  stick to cheese sandwiches.

And Saint Marty lived happily ever after.

Transtromer writes about everydays, too:

Sketch in October

by:  Tomas Transtromer

The rowboat is freckled with rust.  What's it doing here so far inland?
It is a heavy extinguished lamp in the cold.
But the trees have wild colors:  signals to the other shore.
As if people wanted to be fetched.

On my way home I see mushrooms sprouting
                                                   up through the lawn.
They are the fingers, stretching for help, of someone
who has long sobbed to himself in the darkness down there.
We are the earth's.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Thursday, September 24, 2015

September 24: Swaddling Him, Too Tired, Tomas Transtromer, "From March '79," Adventures of Stickman

It was in fact a blessing.  An ability to sleep more easily and deeply had come to him during the past few years.  where he used to toss and turn and drive his wife crazy at night, no sooner would he now lay his head upon the pillow than he would fall asleep.  But not into that sleep of old age, but into the sleep of a child, an infinitude of possibilities swaddling him.

Yes, I've used this passage about sleep before, probably when I was really tired.  Like Ives, all I need to do is lay my head upon the pillow, and I'm gone.  Thursdays are not good for me.  Most of the week, I get about five hours of sleep a night, if I'm lucky.  This week, I wasn't lucky.  I've been averaging a little over four hours per night.

My book club met tonight.  We read Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman.  My take on the book:  it's a good first draft.

I don't have much more to add tonight.  Too tired.  Ready for bed.

Saint Marty doesn't even have enough energy for complete sentences.

From March '79

by:  Tomas Transtromer

Tired of all who come with words, words but no language
I went to the snow-covered island.
The wild does not have words.
The unwritten pages spread themselves out in all directions!
I come across the marks of roe-deer's hooves in the snow.
Language but no words.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

September 23: Family Men, Moments of Sun, Tomas Transtromer, "On the Outskirts of Work," Adventures of Stickman

Ives and Freeman were two of the more respectable higher-ups.  "Family men," whom the slightly looped secretaries tended to praise to death at these parties, for their gentlemanly natures and fidelity to their wives...

Ives is a respectable guy.  He shows up to work on time dressed in a suit and tie, treats everybody with respect, doesn't cheat on his wife, doesn't abuse his kids, and genuinely seems to care about people.  Ives doesn't have any deep, dark secrets hidden away in the closet.  He's a family man who's done well for himself doing what he loves to do:  drawing and painting.  Art.

I think I'm a pretty respectable guy, too.  Sometimes I wear a tie to work.  I show up on time, treat all my coworkers with respect.  I love my wife and kids fiercely and care about all the people in my life.  I have few secrets.  Most of my personal life is right here on this blog.  If you want to find out about the skeletons in my closet, you have over 2,600 blog posts to read.  Hint:  I'm not an alcoholic or drug addict, and I don't torture puppies in my spare time.

Of course, there's the saying that nice guys finish last.  That may be true.  Certainly, Ives is a nice guy, and his life is pretty much derailed for several decades by the murder of his son.  I've had my share of challenges in my life, too.  Death and separation and depression and mental illness.  Just because a person lives a good life doesn't mean that he won't have to endure hardships.  But, every once in a while, in the midst of struggle, there are moments of sun.

I experienced one of those moments this afternoon when I met with the head of the English Department at the university.  The meeting was about my upcoming bid for promotion.  It was the first time I'd had a chance to visit with my new boss.  She was warm and friendly, and we discovered we had a lot in common.  She's a poet.  She studies the connection between spirituality and writing.  In fact, she's done spiritually-based writing workshops.  And she's finishing up her Master's of Divinity.  In short, she seemed very pastoral in her demeanor and personality.

At the end of our time together, she suggested we have drinks and discuss maybe doing a poetry reading or workshop together.  Yes, it was that friendly and encouraging.  Plus, she's going to support my bid for promotion.

At the end of this very long work day, I am blessedly content, like Transtromer in today's poem.  There is exhaustion on the outskirts of work, but, if we look down or out or around, there are wild geese flying against a copper moon.  Miracles every day.

Saint Marty enjoyed himself this afternoon for the first time in a while.

On the Outskirts of Work

by:  Tomas Transtromer

In the middle of work
we start longing fiercely for wild greenery,
for the Wilderness itself, penetrated only
by the thin civilization of the telephone wires.


The moon of leisure circles the planet Work
with its mass and weight.--That's how they want it.
When we are on the way home the ground pricks up its ears.
The underground listens to us via the grass-blades.


Even in this working day there is a private clam.
As in a smoky inland area where a canal flows:
THE BOAT appears unexpectedly in the traffic
or glides out behind the factory, a white vagabond.


One Sunday I walk past an unpainted new building
standing before the gray water.
It is half-finished.  The wood has the same light color
as the skin on someone bathing.


Outside the lamps the September night is totally dark.
When the eyes adjust, there is faint light
over the ground where large snails glide out
and the mushrooms are as numerous as the stars.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

September 22: Gold Watch, Promotion, Tomas Transtromer, "Kyrie," Adventures of Stickman

On December 29, 1982, there had been a big party in the boardroom, and it was attended by many of the old-timers like Ives himself--Crane, Silverman, Schamberg--and Mr. Mannis, having survived his third open heart operation, made a speech.  They had given Ives a watch--a gold Swiss pocket watch from the 1920s, engraved with his name on the back (to go into a drawer along with the watch he had intended to give to his son long ago at Christmas)--and a plaque.

Ives retires.  After many years at an advertising agency, he is given his gold watch and plaque, thanking him for his decades of faithful service.  Ives started out at the bottom and worked his way up, drawing by drawing, account by account, promotion after promotion.  He is respected and beloved by all of his colleagues and coworkers..

Tomorrow afternoon, I am meeting with the head of the English Department to discuss a promotion.  For the past 17 years, I have held the rank of Contingent Assistant Professor.  I want (and think I deserve) the title of Contingent Professor, which is a jump of two ranks.  After almost 20 years of teaching and a few thousand students, I am hoping that my boss will support my decision.

I am not a person who feels comfortable tooting his own horn.  It's just not something at which I excel.  In my posts, I may sound incredibly confident and self-assured.  I'm not.  I've said it before, and I will probably say it with my dying breath:  I think that I could have done better.  I could have been a better son.  A better brother.  Better husband and father.  A better teacher and writer.  Basically, I could have been a better person every day of my life.

That doesn't mean that I'm Rasputin or Donald Trump.  That means that I've made mistakes, and I acknowledge them.  That doesn't mean I don't deserve that promotion (or a Pulitzer Prize or a MacArthur Genius Grant).  It means that I'm human, with tons of flaws.

Contingent Professor Saint Marty.  Sounds pretty good.

By the way, Tomas Transtromer isn't perfect, either, although he has a Nobel Prize hanging on his wall.


by;  Tomas Transtromer

Sometimes my life opened its eyes in the dark.
A feeling as if crowds drew through the street
in blindness and anxiety on the way towards a miracle,
while I invisibly remain standing.

As the child falls asleep in terror
listening to the heart's heavy tread.
Slowly, slowly until morning puts its rays in the locks
and the doors of darkness open.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Monday, September 21, 2015

September 21: Poet of the Week, Tomas Transtromer, "After a Death," "Ives" Dip, Adventures of Stickman

Since it is approaching Saint Marty's Day, which, coincidentally, usually falls during the same week that the Swedish Academy announces the recipient of the year's Nobel Prize in Literature, I have decided to feature Tomas Transtromer as the Poet of the Week.  Two years ago, Transtromer won the Big Prize, which was convenient since he lives in Stockholm and had a very short commute to the Prize Ceremony.

Transtromer is not well-known in the United States, but he is an incredible poet, his work lyrically complex.  I must admit that I have become a great fan.

After a Death

by:  Tomas Transtromer

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside.  It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.

It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.

You all know how I've been struggling in the weeks following my sister's death.  Up days and down days.  Today was mixed.  Cleaning out my e-mail inbox at work, I came across a message my sister sent to me three years ago on my birthday.  The body of the message wasn't profound.  It was simply the words of "Happy Birthday" typed out, like so:

Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday, dear Martin.
Happy birthday to you.

For a few moments, I could see her sitting at her desk, early in the morning, typing those words and then clicking the "send" button.  It made me both incredibly happy and incredibly sad.  I didn't delete the message.  In a couple of weeks, on Saint Marty's Day, I will open it again.  Reread it.  Think of how she would call me at work on my birthday, sing in my ear at five o'clock in the morning.

For me, my sister's e-mail was like Transtromer's shimmering comet tail, the afterglow of a life cut far too short.  I am participating in another nature essay event this evening, and, as I stand up to read, I will be thinking of her.  The bright flash of her among the stars.

So, my question this evening for my Ives dip is this:

Does my sister know how much she is missed?

And the answer:

And then Ives blinked and found himself standing on the sidewalk beside his wife, across the street from the Church of the Ascension.  On the pavement, just by his feet, was a large piece of canvas, and under it a body, stretched out.  Then the officer lifted off the canvas and shined a flashlight onto the face to reveal the shocked and bewildered expression of his son.

Edward and Annie Ives confronting the death of their son.  It's incredibly moving, and the two words that always stick with me are "shocked and bewildered," as if Robert can't believe what's happened to him.  Maybe my sister feels the same way, wherever she is.  Or maybe she's looking down on me, right now, wanting to tell me she's OK.  Happy even.

That thought gives Saint Marty some comfort.

Adventures of STICKMAN

Sunday, September 20, 2015

September 20: Boy's Hoodie,Release the Hounds, Classic Saint Marty, Confessions of Saint Marty

My daughter was at Bible camp this weekend for a teen fall retreat.  The camp is one of her favorite places to be.  She's been going there since she was about eight years old. 

When I pulled into the camp, she came walking up to my car, wearing a foreign hoodie.  By "foreign" I mean one that does not belong to her.  As we trudged up to her cabin to retrieve her suitcase and sleeping bag, I asked about her new article of clothing.

"Oh," she said, looking down at herself, "it's Easton's."

"Oh," I said.  "Is he a friend of yours?"

She shrugged, and that was the end of the conversation.  She has been wearing the hoodie all day long.  It is the second year in a row that she's come home wearing some boy's clothing.  Last year, I believe the name was Brad.  By the time she graduates from high school, she should have an entire closet of teenage boys' clothes.

Of course, I'm not going to say anything more, unless she wears the damn hoodie for three weeks straight.  Then I may suggest showering in it to get it clean.  Aside from that, I shall be content in my fatherly ignorance until such time as I need to release the hounds on some horny kid who's missing something from his wardrobe.

Today's episode of Classic Saint Marty first aired a year ago.  It's a little melancholy and nostalgic.  Things haven't changed much.

September 20, 2014:  Rumor of Sadness, Warm Day, Philip Levine, "Night Thoughts Over a Sick Child"

The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever.  Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year--the days when summer is changing into fall--the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.

Yes, the end of summer is a time of sadness and change.  The trees are preparing for winter.  Crickets seem to call for frost and snow at night.  At dusk, the sun turns everything gold--the grass, bark on the pines, swings on the playground.  The whole world is a sepia photograph.

Today felt like August, not late September.  Near 80 degrees.  Sky, blue as church window glass.  The wind was temperate and constant, making the oranges, greens, and yellows flicker and spark in the trees.  It was a perfect day.

Autumn is my favorite time of year, but it also fills me with a kind of melancholy.  I suppose it's that rumor of sadness and change that White writes about.  Something coming to an end.  Soon it will be cold and white in the mornings, and the sidewalks will be a carpet of fallen maple and aspen and oak leaves.

No, I'm not suffering from seasonal affective disorder.  Yet.  That comes after the first six months of winter.  I'm simply mourning the end of summer.  One of the reasons I've chosen to live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with my family is the acuteness of the seasons.  Spring, summer, fall, winter--they're all magnified here.  Spring is greener.  Summer, hotter.  Autumn, oranger.  Winter, whiter and colder.

Today, I'm being reflective.  Thinking about everything that's happened and changed.  It's been a year of upheaval for sure.  It makes me nostalgic for simpler times in my life.  Retro times, if you will, when happiness was easier to come by and worries were just shadows in a brightly lit room.

My son is still coughing, but not so acutely.  He has more energy and is hungry again.  He's on the mend.  I found a poem by Phil Levine about caring for a sick child.  It certainly touches upon the fears of all parents when it comes to the illness of a son or daughter.  Especially a very young one.

Saint Marty hopes you love it as much as he does.

Night Thoughts Over a Sick Child

by:  Philip Levine

Numb, stiff, broken by no sleep,
I keep night watch. Looking for
signs to quiet fear, I creep
closer to his bed and hear
his breath come and go, holding
my own as if my own were
all I paid. Nothing I bring,
say, or do has meaning here.

Outside, ice crusts on river
and pond; wild hare come to my
door pacified by torture.
No less ignorant than they
of what grips and why, I am
moved to prayer, the quaint gestures
which ennoble beyond shame
only the mute listener.

No one hears. A dry wind shifts
dry snow, indifferently;
the roof, rotting beneath drifts,
sighs and holds. Terrified by
sleep, the child strives toward
consciousness and the known pain.
If it were mine by one word
I would not save any man,

myself or the universe
at such cost: reality.
Heir to an ancestral curse
though fallen from Judah's tree,
I take up into my arms my hopes,
my son, for what it's worth give
bodily warmth. When he escapes
his heritage, then what have

I left but false remembrance
and the name? Against that day
there is no armor or stance,
only the frail dignity
of surrender, the dumb beast's fall,
unseen in the frozen snow.  

Confessions of Saint Marty

Saturday, September 19, 2015

September 19: John XXIII, Pope Francis Visit, Laura Boss, "Remarkably You Love Me," Confessions of Saint Marty

There were the activities of Holy Week in Rome.  Holy Thursday at Saint John Lateran, Stations of the Cross on Good Friday evening, held on the viale outside the cavernous floodlit Colosseum, Easter Sunday at the Vatican.  There had been that morning in Saint John's, when, through a mist of frankincense, a procession of skullcapped cardinals in scarlet robes, and priests and altar boys carrying elaborate candles and antique bronze crosses swept in toward the sacristy.  And among them, as a choir sang and an organ shook the floors, Il Papa, John XXIII, blessed the crowd and, touching the heads of the faithful, laid his palm upon his son's brow.

Ives counts the above moment as one of the highlights of his son's short life.  Ives believes something holy happened; he felt a surge of energy pass from John XXIII to his son and then him.  He doesn't know what to call it.  Grace?  The Holy Spirit?  God's goodness?  Of course, as a Christian, I believe those three explanations are one and the same.

The United States is currently preparing for the first papal visit of Pope Francis.  The newspapers are full of the details of his trip.  Francis is going to address Congress and celebrate Mass.  I don't know much else about his itinerary, but people (Catholic and non-Catholic alike) are incredibly excited.

I have to say that I really like Pope Francis.  He does things that make people uneasy.  He celebrates Maunday Thursday by washing the feet of Muslims in prison.  He doesn't live in the papal apartment but in a simple room in a hotel attached to the Vatican where cardinals stay during papal conclaves.  He hugs people, dispenses with formalities.  He's not worried about being THE POPE.  He's worried about simply loving people the way Christ did--without judgement or agenda.

I would say that Pope Francis' guiding principle is love.  Particularly, he wants to make the world aware of social inequality.  Of the poor and desperate.  The unloved.  That's the mission of his papacy.  He goes around and tells people to love one another--Christian or Muslim, brown-skinned or white-skinned, straight or gay. 

I try to live by that credo myself, and I usually fail miserably on a daily basis.  I swear at other drivers when I'm in my car.  I get irritated by people I encounter at work.  I hold grudges.  I'm not above talking about people behind their backs.  In short, I'm human.

Sometimes I'm not a very lovable person.  In the past month, I've been moody, angry, sad, indignant, worried, angry and sad again.  Reading over my recent posts, I don't even know why people are still reading this blog.  I've been wallowing, and it's not very attractive.

Yet, there are no limits and conditions on love.  I'm loved by people even when I'm unlovable, when I'm mean or sarcastic.  That's what loving like Christ is all about--find the dirtiest, crabbiest, most unloving person in the world, and love him/her.  It's a tough assignment, but it's what will change the world.  No election, no army, no war, no financial bailout, no vaccine will alter the future.  Unless love is involved.

I'm going to climb down off my soapbox now.  I'm not perfect.  Pope Francis is not perfect.  It's the striving for perfection that makes the difference.

Saint Marty has a long way to go.

Remarkably You Love Me

by:  Laura Boss

me of the vacuumless rooms,
me of the paper cluttered rooms,
me of the I'll do the dusting tomorrow
me of the if it's mechanical or electronic
     I blank out
me of the if it's boring conversation,
     I stop listening
me of the unanswered letters and unpaid bills
who sit ankle deep in dust writing poems all night

Confessions of Saint Marty

Friday, September 18, 2015

September 18: I'll See You Again, Closest Friends, Friendly Fairy Tale, Laura Boss, "Elvis Presley," Adventures of Stickman

Ives nodded and Mannis seemed to drift off into sleep, and so Ives and Annie got up to leave.  But as they were on their way out the door, Mannis opened his eyes again and said, in a raspy voice, "I'll see you," and he'd thought to add, as Ives turned, nodding again:  "Won't I?"

Ives friend and boss, Mr. Mannis, is dying.  Always a tall and handsome man, Mannis is reduced at the end of his life.  He's pale and thin, a frail shadow of the successful advertising executive he once was.  And he's afraid.  Never a man of faith, Mannis clings to Ives and Ives' belief in prayer and God.  Most of all, Mannis holds on to human companionship.  He's not ready to say goodbye.

I find this passage particularly heartbreaking because it's about a man who is filled with a kind of despair at the end of his life.  He's staring into a dark question, and he doesn't have any way to find the answer.  Lacking belief in God and heaven and eternity, Mannis turns to the comfort and stabilty of his friendship with Ives.

I think there is something very sacred about strong, intimate friendships.  I am lucky to have a few very close friends, persons who know all of my gifts and faults.  I don't see these individuals every day of my life,  In fact, one particular friend I see maybe once a year.  Yet, when we get together, time seems to fall away.  We start talking, and it's as if we're continuing a conversation suspended only a few hours before.

In the month since the death of my sister, I have heard from each of my closest friends.  One of them spoke at my sister's funeral.  Another called me the night she died and let me simply cry in his ear.  Another came to the funeral home, hugged me, and stood beside me for a while, acknowledging the generally shitty situation.  I do not have to explain myself to these people.  They know, and they bless me with their knowing.

Once upon a time, a man named Elvis lived on the highest cliff in the kingdom.  He chose to build his home on this spot to discourage visitors.  Elvis didn't like his family, and he didn't trust any person enough to become friends.  He simply wanted to be left alone.

One day, Elvis got very ill, but nobody knew.  When Elvis realized he was about to die, he sent word to his brother via carrier pigeon.  His brother received the note, killed the pigeon, and ate it for dinner.

After much suffering and coughing, Elvis died on a cold, rainy morning.

When Elvis got to heaven, he looked at God and said, "What did I do to deserve dying alone and unloved?"

God looked at Elvis and said, "You were an asshole."

Moral of the story:  never send a carrier pigeon to a hungry relative.

And Saint Marty lived happily ever after.

Time for another Elvis story...

Elvis Presley

by:  Laura Boss
In the mid 1970s Elvis was playing Las Vegas.  I was sitting at a second row table because my husband was an active player at the craps table and at chemin de faire.  (He only gambled on vacations but when he played, he played big.)  At any rate, there was a stage with two of Elvis' body guards, two burly guys who stood on each side of the massive velvet curtained stage, arms folded across their chests, looking as if they were black belts in karate, looking as if they would love someone, some woman in the audience to just try to run up on stage to Elvis, though Elvis had not even made his appearance.  The women in the crowd were in their thirties like me and were obvious in their tawdry sequinned outfits out for a big night.  These women for the most part were mature versions of the high school crowd that I didn't fit in with.  They were the early teenage fans of Elvis while I went with the student council crowd and college prep crowd.  These were the fast girls from my high school and perhaps every other in this country who dated the guys with the Brillo pompadours and sometimes "went all the way."  Sometimes even having to leave school in junior or senior year to get married.  These were now the women in the audience screaming for Elvis to come on stage.  I felt embarrassed by these women of my generation and embarrassed that I felt that way.  Finally, the music blared and the music was so dramatic and almost like a musical proclamation of awe that I almost expected God to appear.  But it was Elvis, black, black, greased hair, white rhinestoned cowboy suit that looked like he was wearing a girdle underneath to hold his paunch in, tanned skin that almost looked like pancake makeup.  He was charismatic in the way great stars are.  I understood why those women started screaming louder.  He sang with a sweet mixture of sexuality and innocence and pomposity, working up an enormous sweat.  He would take a hankie from his neck and wipe off sweat and then stare with audacity and a broad smile at someone in the audience and then toss it out.  The women in the audience went wild, screaming out his name, leaping up to reach the sweat soaked neck scarf; some women took off their panties and threw them up to him.  I was still embarrassed by these women of my generation, but I could see what they saw in Elvis.  In the middle of all this he answered an earlier rumor that had floated around the nightclub when a blonde child carried by a very thin attractive blonde woman had sat at a front row table and it had been whispered that the child was Elvis' daughter sitting with his current girl friend.  Then Elvis continued his strutting the stage, singing, wiping his sweaty face and neck and throwing out sweat soaked scarves.  Finally, the ticket parade of panties stopped.  The evening was over.  My former husband mocked the women and Elvis.  But I was reassessing both.  I thought maybe I could have learned a lot from those "fast" girls in high school.  They were not so wrong about Elvis and maybe they were right about taking their chances with passion when it struck.
 I became an Elvis fan--though I don't think I could have thrown my panties to anyone performing even if it had been God.
Adventures of STICKMAN

Thursday, September 17, 2015

September 17: Eerie Shadows, Balloon Viscera, Laura Boss, "I Don't Visit My Father's Grave," Adventures of Stickman

...One night, while working late, Ives, in his fatigue, staggered out to Madison Avenue, for as far as he could see, the office buildings were casting eerie shadows, and he felt the world a lonely and dreadful place.  He often awoke with a gasp in the middle of the night, his heartbeat accelerated, his breathing shallow, his heart filled with sadness, his head with memory.

Ives grieves for a long time.  He grieves so long that his wife considers divorce.  Ives grieves.  His daughter goes to Nepal, comes back, gets married, and has kids.  Ives grieves.  His best friend's wife dies.  And still Ives grieves.  For close to two hundred pages, Ives is in a constant state of sadness

I don't know why, but I thought I would somehow be beyond crying over my sister's death by now.  I had it all figured out.  I allowed myself to be angry and sad for two weeks.  At the beginning of September, back to work and teaching.  No more time for tears or being pissed off.  That was my schedule.

It hasn't worked out so well for me.  I can go for a few hours, maybe a day.  Suddenly, I'm walking to my car or brushing my teeth or eating a banana, and I start crying and can't stop.  I was talking to a good friend from the English Department, and he asked me how I was doing.  I told him about my attacks of sorrow, and he said, "Well, yeah.  You're going to be recovering from this for the rest of your life."

We talked about how the human race is united by tragedy and sadness.

"Why can't we be united by balloon animals or something?" he said.

I told him that, every time I tried to make a balloon dog or swan, it turns into balloon intestines.

"That's it," my friend said.  "We should be united by balloon viscera.  Something that lifts us up from inside."

Saint Marty's had a good day.  Good day working.  Good day teaching.  No anger.  No sadness.  Just balloon viscera raising him higher and higher.

I Don't Visit My Father's Grave

by:  Laura Boss

I don't visit my father's grave
don't put stones on his tombstone
don't say prayers
don't forget him

Adventures of STICKMAN

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Septmeber 16: Award-Winning Nature Essay, Skunks, "The Smell of Sin"

Well, I do owe you an extra post to make up for my absence last night.  So, I have decided to share the nature essay for which I was acknowledged last night at the Falling Rock Cafe and Bookstore.

It's about two of my favorite things:  skunks and sin.


The Smell of Sin
I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.
     -----Robert Lowell, “Skunk Hour”

I used to collect skunks.  Ceramic pink ones.  Crystal ones.  Green plastic ones.  When my mother assembled her manger scene at Christmas, I insisted that she include a small, porcelain Mephitis mephitis, its plume raised in salute to the Christ child.  Something in the solitary skunk nature appeals to me.  Stocky and slow, a skunk can back down a grizzly bear by stomping, hissing, and letting its tail bloom.  Yet, my attraction to the Mephitidae family borders on the obsessive.

The oldest skunk fossil was unearthed in Germany and dates back 11 to 12 million years.  That means that, while our oldest ancestors—primates called Ardipithecus—were taking their first toddling steps on the savannas of Africa, skunks were probably ambling across the icy bridge between Asia and the Americas, to the soils and glacial meltwaters of Upper Michigan.

Surely the skunk family, which originated some 40 million years ago, has gone through its share of Darwinian metamorphoses.  Perhaps some ancient skunk kin sported cheetah legs, was a black-and-white bolt of speed.  Or maybe it had saber teeth, took down mammoths in a cinder-and-snow apocalypse.  I’m not sure if any of these skunk chimeras were possible, but I like to believe so.

Contrary to popular belief, skunks are not nocturnal.  They are crepuscular, a word I love.  It means “occurring or active during twilight,” that time just before or after the rupture of darkness, when peepers carol and mosquitoes feast.  In that in-between, skunks nose around for berries, larvae, desiccated mouse carcasses, mushrooms, and overturned trash pails, their bodies perfect mirrors of the universe, night giving way to day giving way to night again.

My encounters with skunks have always been crepuscular.  One pre-dawn, I opened my front door to find the contents of my garbage can disgorged on my lawn.  Apple cores and pizza boxes and chicken bones glistening with dew and moonlight.  This is not an unusual occurrence on trash collection mornings in my Ishpeming neighborhood.  I cursed the skunk gods loudly, my voice startling in the thrush and chirr of bird and insect chorus.

Then, the green barrel of the garbage can jumped, rolled, and I saw the wedge of black and fan of white emerge.  I had no time to regard the creature.  It turned, raised its tail, and was gone like a Perseid meteor.

A 1634 edition of Jesuit Relations contains the following description of a skunk’s defense:  “. . . two have been killed in our court, and several days afterward, there was such a dreadful odor throughout our house that we could not endure it.  I believe the sin smelled by Saint Catherine of Sienna must have had the same vile odor.”  An adult skunk can spray accurately up to 25 feet, and the scent can be detected a mile away.  That morning, I was less than five feet from my crepuscular vandal.  Yet, I didn’t smell it.

You see, I am lucky.  One in 1,000 people have a condition called specific anosmia.  That means they are simply immune to certain scents.  Lilac or sulfur.  Swamp water or rotten egg. Scientists have postulated that recessive genes are the culprits here.  Some strange coupling in the helix of creation.  Perhaps it’s an upgrade on the human animal, or maybe a step back to an earlier model. 

When Charles Darwin first encountered the Bethlehem orchid, with its white swan throat, he imagined an insect with an almost twelve-inch proboscis.  Long enough to inseminate the orchid with pollen.  Several years after Darwin’s death, the sphinx moth was discovered, with its 14-inch nose and attraction to the petals of tropical stars.

That’s what I like to think I am in my skunk love:  a sphinx moth in this cold and rugged peninsula.  An adaptation or throwback to a Mephitis epoch when the smell of sin ruled the earth like tyrannosaur.  Because of my DNA, I’m more than bear or wolf or mountain lion.  Out in the twilight, I flit from bush to tree to boulder, waiting for my black-and-white orchid to appear.