Wednesday, November 29, 2017

November 29: About Golf, Trivial Detail, Fragile and Short

The same general idea appears in The Big Board by Kilgore Trout.  The flying saucer creatures who capture Trout's hero ask him about Darwin.  They also ask him about golf.

It's a trivial little passage, focused on a fictional novel in Slaughterhouse, a book of fiction.  Fiction upon fiction upon fiction.  There are flying saucer creatures interested in the thoughts of Charles Darwin about survival of the fittest.  They are also interested in the game of golf, for some reason.  Another trivial detail.

When I have been faced with huge, life-changing events, I have always found myself focused on the trivial.  The day that my sister died, I attended an English Department meeting at the university, where the usual gloom-and-doom was trotted out.  Low enrollment.  Not enough money in the budget.  Budget cuts.  And, sitting there, it all seemed so pointless.  Insignificant.  Trivial.

I am at one of those times in my life.  My friend's daughter, who I've been writing about for the last two or three days, was flown to a hospital at the University of Michigan this morning.  Not for treatment.  She was flown to there to have her organs harvested.  I have not received the official word, but I would imagine that she has passed away by now.

Tonight, I have to teach.  My students are doing their oral presentations for the next three weeks.  I am sure that the students who are scheduled for tonight are anxious.  They probably think this presentation is the biggest deal in the world, that everything pales in comparison right now.  They are wrong.  In the grand scheme of things, these oral presentations are about important in life as a bad game of golf.

I am not saying that my students shouldn't strive to do well.  No.  I'm saying that life is fragile and short.  At the end, it isn't really going to matter whether you receive an "A" or "B" or "D" on some presentation in a class.  What's going to matter is how well you have lived your life, whether you've said "I love you" enough or dropped some coins in a Salvation Army bucket or given a homeless person a warm meal or hugged your kids.

So, this evening, Saint Marty is thankful to have another day to make a difference.

November 29: Wisdom, Denise Levertov, "Talking to Grief"

I don't really have a whole lot of wisdom this evening.  In the face of grief and profound loss, wisdom feels like a cheap Hallmark card.

Instead, Saint Marty has a poem for his friend who lost her daughter today.

Talking to Grief

by:  Denise Levertov

Ah, Grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.

I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.

You think I don't know you've been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider
my house your own
and me your person
and yourself
my own dog.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

November 28: Charles Darwin, Natural Selection, a Little Selfish

On Tralfamadore, says Billy Pilgrim, there isn't much interest in Jesus Christ.  The Earthling figure who is most engaging to the Tralfamadorian mind, he says, is Charles Darwin--who taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements.  So it goes. 

I am not sure that I'm prepared to accept this somewhat fatalistic little passage.  Certainly, Vonnegut's summation of Charles Darwin's theories are spot on.  However, the idea that corpses are improvements stops me cold.  I can't get on board that train.

What Vonnegut is talking about is the theory of natural selection.  In the wilds of the world, this idea holds some merit.  Weaker species die out.  Stronger species survive.  But I can't agree that Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King are better off dead than alive.  That, somehow, their corpses were part of the whole process of human evolution.  Those deaths weren't the results of survival of the fittest.  Those deaths were the results of racism and cowardice, with a smidge of hate-mongering thrown in for flavor.

Of course, I'm being a little selfish.  I have had Type 1 diabetes since I was thirteen.  If I were to go along with Vonnegut's line of thought, then that would mean that my disease is nature's way of weeding me out of existence.  That I'm better off a corpse because I'm weaker, sicker than the rest of the human race.  See why I have a problem with that?

It would also mean that the Holocaust was Darwinian, as well.  And the Rwandan genocide.  And slavery in the United States.  The Trump presidency.  All part of the natural way of the world.  The strong overpowering the weak.

So, while I believe in Charles Darwin's work, I can't push it as far as Kurt Vonnegut does here.  Just because someone can obtain a semiautomatic rifle (or several of them) and kill a whole lot of people does NOT make that someone a superior specimen.  An improvement.

So it goes in Saint Marty's universe.

November 28: Negative Capability, Joy Harjo, "Grace"

I have no updates on my friend's daughter.  You may think this strange, but I don't want to call my friend.  She is dealing with enough at the moment.  She doesn't need me telephoning to pry details out of her.  I will simply exist in a state of Negative Capability right now, not needing all the answers.

Because of this, I have been thinking about grace in its many forms.  Some people, after my sister died of lymphoma of the brain, said to me, "Well, she's out of pain.  That's a blessing."  At the time, I didn't feel like it was a blessing.  It wasn't grace.  It simply sucked ass.

However, I am not one to question how grace works in my life or other people's lives.  I simply wait for grace to come my way.  Then I take it, cook it with eggs and bacon, and eat it with a glass of wine.

Saint Marty sends some grace to his friend this evening.


by:  Joy Harjo

I think of Wind and her wild ways the year we had nothing to lose and lost it anyway in the cursed country of the fox. We still talk about that winter, how the cold froze imaginary buffalo on the stuffed horizon of snowbanks. The haunting voices of the starved and mutilated broke fences, crashed our thermostat dreams, and we couldn’t stand it one more time. So once again we lost a winter in stubborn memory, walked through cheap apartment walls, skated through fields of ghosts into a town that never wanted us, in the epic search for grace.

Like Coyote, like Rabbit, we could not contain our terror and clowned our way through a season of false midnights. We had to swallow that town with laughter, so it would go down easy as honey. And one morning as the sun struggled to break ice, and our dreams had found us with coffee and pancakes in a truck stop along Highway 80, we found grace.
I could say grace was a woman with time on her hands, or a white buffalo escaped from memory. But in that dingy light it was a promise of balance. We once again understood the talk of animals, and spring was lean and hungry with the hope of children and corn.
I would like to say, with grace, we picked ourselves up and walked into the spring thaw. We didn’t; the next season was worse. You went home to Leech Lake to work with the tribe and I went south. And, Wind, I am still crazy. I know there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it.

Monday, November 27, 2017

November 27: So It Goes, Good Friend, Good Daughter

Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round, was shot two nights ago.  He died last night.  So it goes.

Martin Luther King was shot a month ago.  He died, too.  So it goes.

and every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam.  So it goes.

My father died many years ago now--of natural causes.  So it goes.  He was a sweet man.  He was a gun nut, too.  He left me his guns.  They rust.

This is quite the catalogue of death.  Of course, Slaughterhouse, in a lot of ways, is a catalogue of death.  Vonnegut wrote the book to somehow grapple with his war experiences, including the destruction of the city of Dresden.  Death is sort of inescapable.

Right now, I have a good friend whose daughter, the last I heard, was in a coma in the hospital.  Her daughter is also good friend of my family.  She was present when my son was brought to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit after he was delivered.  In a time when I was feeling more than a little unnerved, she was sort of an anchor for me.  She kept me laughing and calm.

I am not going to discuss the details here.  That is not my place.  I'm simply sending this story out into the world, asking for good thoughts, prayers, and hope.

Saint Marty is not ready for another "so it goes" right now.

November 27: For a Friend, Emily Dickinson, "Hope is the Thing with Feathers"

I have a poem tonight for a friend whose daughter is very sick.

Saint Marty is feeling a little powerless tonight.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

by:  Emily Dickinson

'Hope' is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I've heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

November 25: Blue Movie, Serenity Prayer, Flawed Creatures

Billy put his hand up at the very first part of the program, but he wasn't called on right away.  Others got in ahead of him.  One of them said that it would be a nice time to bury the novel, now that a Virginian, one hundred years after Appomattox, had written Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Another one said that people couldn't read well enough anymore to turn print into exciting situations in their skulls, so that authors had to do what Norman Mailer did, which was to perform in public what he had written.  The master of ceremonies asked people to say what they thought the function of the novel might be in modern society, and one critic said, "To provide touches of color in rooms with all-white walls."  Another one said, "To describe blow-jobs artistically."  Another one said, "To teach wives of junior executives what to buy next and how to act in a French restaurant."

And then Billy was allowed to speak.  Off he went, in that beautifully trained voice of his, telling about the flying saucers and Montana Wildhack and so on.

He was gently expelled from the studio during a commercial.  He went back to his hotel room, put a quarter into the Magic Fingers machine connected to his bed, and he went to sleep.  He traveled in time back to Tralfamadore.

"Time-traveling again?" said Montana.  It was artificial evening in the dome.  She was breastfeeding their child.

"Hmm?" said Billy.

"You've been time-traveling again.  I can always tell."


"Where did you go this time.  It wasn't the war.  I can tell that, too."

"New York."

"The Big Apple."


"That's what they used to call New York."


"You see any plays or movies?"

"No--I walked around Times Square some, bought a book by Kilgore Trout."

"Lucky you."  She did not share his enthusiasm for Kilgore Trout.

Billy mentioned casually that he had seen part of a blue movie she had made.  Her response was no less casual.  It was Tralfamadorian and guilt-free:

"Yes--" she said, "and I've heard about you in the war, about what a clown you were.  And I've heard about the high-school teacher who was shot.  He made a blue movie with a firing squad."  She moved the baby from one breast to the other, because the moment was so structured that she had to do so.

There was a silence.

"They're playing with the clocks again," said Montana, rising, preparing to put the baby into its crib.  She meant that their keepers were making the electric clocks in the dome go fast, then slow, then fast again, and watching the little Earthling family through peepholes.

There was a silver chain wound Montana Wildhack's neck.  Hanging from it, between her breasts, was a locket containing a photograph of her alcoholic mother--a grainy thing, soot and chalk.  It could have been anybody.  Engraved on the outside of the locket were these words:

The serenity prayer is used in twelve-step programs, from Alcoholics Anonymous to Sex Addicts Anonymous.  It's all about acceptance.  That's what this whole passage between Billy and Montana is about, too.  Billy's time-traveling.  Montana's blue movie.  Billy's war experiences.  Montana's alcoholic mother.  Tralfamadore and Tralfamadorian zoos.  These are things that can't be changed, so Billy and Montana accept them.

I struggle with the past sometimes.  Mistakes I've made.  Choices that I wish I could change.  It's a fruitless exercise.  For example, if I could go back in time, I would probably finish my PhD.  Perhaps if I had done that, the trajectory of my life would have been altered.  Maybe I wouldn't be living in the Upper Peninsula or writing poetry.  Maybe I wouldn't be Poet Laureate of the Upper Peninsula.

Maybe my wife's struggles with mental illness and sexual addiction wouldn't have happened.  Or maybe they would have.  Maybe I wouldn't have two beautiful kids.  Maybe I would be a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet or essayist.  Or perhaps I would be a bitter, stifled academic, making my students' lives miserable just because I'm that miserable.

It's a pointless exercise.  There is no way of telling how my life would be different right now if I had made different choices.  I can't change the past, just like Billy or Montana.  I accept that.  There is certainly serenity that comes with that realization.  Yes, I have done some terrible things in the past.  Things I regret.  However, those things don't define my present or my future.

In fact, I guess I should be thankful for those mistakes.  They've taught me how to be a better husband, father, brother, teacher, and writer.  That doesn't mean that I won't make more mistakes in the future.  I will.  That's a 100% certainty.  I am human.  Humans are flawed creatures.  They fuck up.  I will fuck up.  Again and again and again.

It's what Saint Marty does with those fuck ups that make the difference.

November 25: Update on My Father, Sharon Olds, "Ode to Dirt"

Update on my father:

He is still in the hospital.  Tomorrow or the next day, if everything goes well, he will be transferred to a local nursing home.  At the moment, the doctor is attempting to regulate his blood pressure, which has been a little high.  He is suffering from urinary retention for some unknown reason.  It might have something to do with prostate cancer, for which he has been treated in the past.

If it is prostate cancer, we will probably not seek any kind of treatment.  My father's 90 years old.  He probably would not survive any kind of chemotherapy.  At this point, it's all about making him as comfortable as we can.

Of course, these events make a person contemplate mortality.  My father is not going to get better.  That is a fact.  His quality of life will probably improve at the nursing home, where he will be under constant care.  However, the nursing home will be the last place he lives, for however long that is.

It's all about honoring the work my father did as a father and husband now.  Preparing for the ground and dust to come.

Saint Marty needs to remember that.

Ode to Dirt

by:  Sharon Olds

Dear dirt, I am sorry I slighted you,
I thought that you were only the background
for the leading characters--the plants
and animals and human animals.
It's as if I had loved only the stars
and not the sky which gave them space
in which to shine.  Subtle, various,
sensitive, you are the skin of our terrain,
you're our democracy.  When I understood
I have never honored you as a living
equal, I was ashamed of myself,
as if I had not recognized
a character who looked so different from me,
but now I can see us all, made of the
same basic materials--
cousins of that first exploding from nothing--
in our intricate equation together.  O dirt,
help us find ways to serve your life,
you who have brought us forth, and fed us,
and who at the end will take us in
and rotate with us, and wobble, and orbit.

Friday, November 24, 2017

November 24: Literary Critics, Fictional Character, Broken Tooth

Billy didn't get onto television in New York that night, but he did get onto a radio talk show.  There was a radio station right next to Billy's hotel.  He saw its call letters over the entrance of an office building, so he went in.  He went up to the studio on an automatic elevator, and there were other people up there, waiting to get in.  They were literary critics, and they thought Billy was one, too.  They were going to discuss whether the novel was dead or not.  So it goes.

Billy took his seat with the others around a golden oak table, with a microphone all his own.  The master of ceremonies asked him his name and what paper he was from.  Billy said he was from the Ilium Gazette.

He was nervous and happy.  "If you're ever to Cody, Wyoming," he told himself, "just ask for Wild Bob."

Billy, a character in Vonnegut's novel about the bombing of Dresden, is on a fictitious radio station program to discuss whether or not the novel is dead.  Slaughterhouse is a very self-aware book.  Vonnegut himself has already made a couple of appearances in its pages.  Now, Billy is surrounded by fictional literary critics meeting to have a fictional discussion as to whether or not the novel is dead.  Basically, these characters could talk themselves out of existence.

It's an interesting line of thought.  Perhaps I am a fictional character is someone's novel right now.  Sitting in my living, the day after Thanksgiving, writing a blog post about being a figment of some writer's imagination, I could be abducted by aliens, encounter the ghost of some miner who drowned in the Barnes-Hecker disaster of 1926, or transform into an albino deer.  It depends upon what kind of novel I am a character in.  Science fiction.  Horror.  Fantasy.  Historical.

I will tell you what the plot of my day has been so far.  I slept in until around eight o'clock this morning.  I am not a Black Friday shopper.  When I got up, I ate a banana smothered with peanut butter.  Then I drove my daughter to her boyfriend's house.  When I got home, I started cleaning.  I vacuumed and swept and mopped.  Straightened and dusted.  Scrubbed down the bathroom.  Made beds. Folded laundry.  As I was folding laundry, I decided to eat some Wheat Thins and cheese.

Here is the plot complication of my narrative:  a piece of my tooth came out as I was eating.  At first, I thought it was just a piece of dry cheese or fragment of cracker.  No such luck.  So, now I have a tooth with a ragged hole, and I have to deal with it for the rest of the weekend.

I really dislike whoever is writing the novel of my life right now.  I would have much preferred to receive a phone call from a literary agent who had stumbled across my blog and wanted to offer me a six-figure advance on a memoir of my life as a would-be saint.  That would be a much more enjoyable way to complicate my plot.

However, I am not in the kind of novel where fantastic things like that happen.  Instead, I will worry my tooth all weekend long with my tongue, and on Monday, I will hopefully have a dentist appointment to fix the problem.

Saint Marty is just thankful that he isn't in a Tolstoy book.  He doesn't want to throw himself under a speeding train.

November 24: Overindulgence, Sharon Olds, "Ode to My Fat"

Well, I am sore today.  I ran a 5K Turkey Trot yesterday morning, and my body is letting me know that it didn't appreciate the exertion.  Even sitting on my couch, I can feel a slight throbbing in my calves.

Thanksgiving is a time of overindulgence.  I understand and accept that.  The day after Thanksgiving, however, is when you either loosen your belt a little or wear sweat pants.  I have opted for the belt.

Of course, the next four weeks will be a parade of Christmas cookies and eggnog and breads.  That will mean more belt loosening or a lot of will power.

Saint Marty is again thinking the belt option is best.

Ode to My Fat

by:  Sharon Olds

Palpating my arthritic joint--
my saddlebag feels like a treasure ball,
dime-store treats wound in crepe-paper
streamer, so that they bulge with rubber
babies, with balls and jacks, yet I feel
it isn't dishonorable to wear
these pockets of flesh like the quilted pouches
of ladies' lingerie bags.  And there are calf-skin
Florentine boxes made with multi-humped
lids like this, and Elizabethan
sleeves made of bunches of puffs.
And somewhere there is a fish roe which is
a ball of bubbles, and a rhizome,
or a diatom, in the form of a sphere
made of half-spheres, and probably there's
a teething toy.  And how about
a mathematical formula, which
describes a dome covered with domes,
or a cabochon-cut gem then cut with
baby cabochonettes.  I know, it's
unnerving--they're collapsible and
bounce-backable, apop and aquiver as a
spider egg mass, the blobulettes
of fat, fecund as Astarte with her chest
of a hundred breasts--it's papadodeca-
hedral as the blastocoele
itself, it's like a doppelganger of what
each of us started as--exponentiating
matter.  Yet I salute you, elderly
corsage, wilted hydrangea worn
at the hips, holster of life force,
fat of wonder, fat of bright
survival, O tapioca, O foam
of Aphrodite, O cellulite!

Thursday, November 23, 2017

November 23: Velvet Draperies, Happy Thanksgiving, Many Directions

So Billy read it.  He knew where Montana Wildhack really was, of course.  She was back on Tralfamadore, taking care of the baby, but the magazine, which was called Midnight Pussycats, promised that she was wearing a cement overcoat under thirty fathoms of saltwater in San Pedro Bay.

So it goes.  

Billy wanted to laugh.  The magazine, which was published for lonesome men to jerk off to, ran the story so it could print pictures taken from blue movies which Montana had made as a teen-ager.  Billy did not look closely at these.  They were grainy things, soot and chalk.  They could have been anybody.

Billy was again directed to the back of the store, and he went this time.  A jaded sailor stepped away from a movie machine while the film was still running.  Billy looked in, and there was Montana Wildhack lone on a bed, peeling a banana.  The picture clicked off.  Billy did not want to see what happened next, and a clerk importuned him to come over and see some really hot stuff they kept under the counter for connoisseurs.

Billy was mildly curious as to what could possibly have been kept hidden in such a place.  The clerk leered and showed him.  It was a photograph of a woman and a Shetland pony.  They were attempting to have sexual intercourse between two Doric columns, in front of velvet draperies, which were fringed with deedlee-balls.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Until I started transcribing this section of Slaughterhouse, I had completely forgotten about these little passages about the adult bookstore.  So, yeah.  Certainly, Billy doesn't really have any interest in what is being sold.  He was drawn inside by the Kilgore Trout novels, and he picked up an old porn magazine because Montana Wildhack was on the cover.  Ditto the movie machine in the back of the store.  Again, it's all about the different parts of Billy's life connecting in one particular place.

I just returned from Thanksgiving dinner at my sister-in-law's house.  Turkey and mashed potatoes and dressing (with cudighi sausage) and sweet potato casserole and corn, among other things.  It had a little of everything, and it was delicious.  And, of course, there was a whole bunch of family.  Lots of laughter and jokes, some a little inappropriate.  They are, after all, family.  There are always inappropriate jokes.

My wife and I have been married for 22 years.  We dated for five years before that.  So, I have been a part of my wife's family for close to 30 years.  To steal a line from Citizen Kane, I know where all the bodies are buried.  In some ways, these holiday dinners are like Billy Pilgrim's life--all these different memories and people intersecting and manifesting.  Of course, there was no pornography involved, as far as I know.

Last night's Thanksgiving meltdown has passed.  I have resigned myself to the fact that my December is going to be insane, with events and readings piled on parties and workshops.  I can't avoid it.  This weekend, some time, my father is going to be transferred to a local nursing home.  Hopefully, one that is close by.  In a few minutes, my sister and brother will be back from Grand Rapids, where my brother had an external defibrillator implanted.

Am I feeling thankful?  I suppose so.  My father will be well taken care of.  My brother is still kicking, with a little less force than before.  My kids are healthy.  Ditto my wife--and she's getting healthier all the time.  And I'm doing well at work.  Teaching award.  Poet Laureate.  Writing.

His life might be going in many directions, but Saint Marty is a blessed man.

November 23: Thanksgiving Night, Mother and Father, "Pecan Pie"

It is five o'clock on Thanksgiving evening.  The parades are over.  Turkey Trots are run.  Meals are eaten.  Dishes washed and put away.  Food comas are beginning.  Maybe later tonight, another piece of pecan pie will be eaten.

At my parents' house, we didn't have Thanksgiving dinner.  Too much upheaval these last couple days.  Sunday evening, I will bring over a pecan pie, help my sister mash potatoes and heat up gravy.  I will carve the turkey.  Probably eat a lot of the skin.

My father will not be with us.  By Sunday, hopefully, he will be in a nursing home.  My mother will be eating Thanksgiving dinner with us on Sunday.  My mother's memory isn't great, so she, after a few days, will start thinking that my father has died.  We will remind her that he's still alive, many times a day.

Tonight, I have a poem I wrote a few years ago for Thanksgiving.  I've put it on this blog before, but I think it's time to share it again.

Saint Marty is very grateful to his mother and father for all the opportunities they gave him over the years.

Pecan Pie

by:  Martin Achatz

Mix eggs, sugar and Karo,
melted butter, vanilla from Mexico
in a bowl until it all runs
yellow as corn silk.  Add pecans,
one-and-a-quarter cups.  Fold
them into the gold syrup,
the way a farmer folds
manure into a field of hay
or my son folds a Tootsie Roll
under his tongue, plants it there,
lets it feed the furrows
of his young body.  Pour this filling
into a shell, edges fluted
by my wife's hands, crimped
between thumb and forefinger
to peaks and troughs of dough.
Bake at 350 degrees.
Forty-five minutes to an hour.
You'll know when it's done.
The house will smell
brown and warm and sweet.
Dip a butter knife blade
into the center of the pie.
If it comes out hot and clean,
take the pie out of the oven.  Put it
on the front porch to cool.
You can leave it there overnight.
It'll be waiting in the morning.
Cover it with a hand towel.  Carry
it to your parents' house,
where your mother asks you
"Is it cold outside?"
over and over as you cut
the pie.  "Yes," you tell her.
And "yes" when she asks again.
It is cold this Thanksgiving.
And, yes, pecan pie is her favorite.
Give her a large slice,
with extra Cool Whip
and a hot cup of coffee.

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.