Category Archives: communication

Googlespeak

I THINK I’LL WONDERFUL

vintage-little-girl-on-phone

If you use the free phone service Google Voice and your callers leave voice mail, Google transcribes the messages. Evidently Google believes that the transcripts are less than perfect (see next paragraph), but I wouldn’t change a thing. You’ll agree with me, I’m sure, after you read the three examples below.

Google would like your help in making voicemail transcriptions better. With your permission, our automated systems will remove your account information from your voicemail messages and analyze them to improve our language models.

Have a happy anyway

TRANSCRIPT 1. Hi darling little girl we did. I just noticed, your maths it and Ralph. We need to visit. That’s All I can tell you And now, whenever marry Mike, phone When you are, only death. 4. And sometimes I can’t here 2. What it so Boy. We may have to make an appointment. Just, is that anyway. I’m glad you’re safe. This is and home you redo the worried me, this time anyway. I love you much and You know your always in my prayer file There, anyway  Happy weekend and You know, Jeff, try me again And I’ll try you have that. Love you much. Hi Mary.vintage-phone-teenager

TRANSCRIPT 2. Issue resolved. Thank you for the birthday wishes. I’ve got to see why this issue. I remember you might work for there you have a yesterday and the potential client of ours so curious to see if you are, but I don’t heard it right. I mean, but I can’t find it. Because of that you if you call me back so So if you have any chance. Later.

TRANSCRIPT 3. Hi Sweetheart, Happy Easter, gosh i get you in passage and you’re supposed to inflate Enya. I left gosh. I’ll get you another book don’t journal. You know we had a separate but. I just or slightly ec all and in in the park. I would anyway. We’re gonna go tonight and you You know, have 5 I think I’ll wonderful. Sermon, and all. All the things that we need to do about the Resurrection, anyway. I don’t know what you’re doing tomorrow. But. I hope. It’s. If you have a happy anyway….

One Little Word–part 1

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, drug user of note

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, drug user of note

Listen to the Music

I’ve sort of been collecting — that is, I note mentally and forget to write down — instances of One Little Word having a colossal impact. Perhaps, by way of illustration, you’ll recall the ruckus that ensued when Washington, D.C., official David Howard used the word niggardly in a meeting:  

WASHINGTON CNN (February 4, 1999) A white aide to Washington Mayor Anthony Williams who resigned [under duress] after using the word niggardly in a conversation will be returning to city government, ending a flap over what critics derided as political correctness run amok.

On Thursday, saying he acted too hastily in accepting David Howard’s resignation, Williams offered Howard his job back as director of the Office of the Public Advocate. Howard agreed to come back to city government, but he has asked the mayor to find him a different job.

In fairness to those who objected to the word, its use was probably ill-advised. Niggardly is hardly ubiquitous (another word not universally understood) in text or conversation. Anyone with common sense might have predicted the brouhaha.

English—It’s a trip

The Beatles 1964

The Beatles 1964 (clockwise, from top left: John, Paul, Ringo, George)

My tale is very different (its impact hingeing on a single letter, in fact), having to do with the fluidity of English-language vocabulary, which readily accepts ethnic and street slang (‘ho’, yo’ mama, homie [homeboy], the ‘hood, blunts [for marijuana], reefer) and technojargon (encryption, teleconference, CPU, whiteboarding, to name just a few).

Drug-subculture terms were conspicuous in the lyrics of rock music in the late 1960s and early 1970s, “acid rock” and “heavy metal” in particular. Sometimes the references were subtle, as in the Beatles’ (1967) “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” There was nothing subtle about “Cocaine,” written and recorded by JJ Cale in 1976 and memorably covered a few years later by Eric Clapton, who claims “Cocaine” is “an anti-drug-song. The fans only listen to the refrain: ‘She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie, cocaine.’ But it says, ‘If you wanna get down, down on the ground, cocaine.’” (Stern magazine, 1998.)

Child Julian Lennon's drawing, upon which John Lennon claimed "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was based

Young child Julian Lennon’s drawing, upon which John Lennon claimed “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was based

John Lennon insisted, by the way, that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was based on a picture his son, Julian, had drawn and that no allusion to LSD was intended.

I had long been in the habit of tuning out lyrics. For one thing, they were often indifferently articulated. I’m one of the many who thought that CCR was singing, “There’s a bathroom on the right” in the group’s 1969 hit “Bad Moon Rising” (actual lyrics: “There’s a bad moon on the rise”). Do check out kissthisguy.com, the utterly hilarious “archive of misheard lyrics.”

A more compelling reason for not listening to lyrics was that they were so often just stupid, especially compared to the music and the musician.

My favorite male musicians tended to be lyric-impaired. You have to go back to Ira Gershwin to find any substance in masculine lyrics, or perhaps I am simply out of touch. I read In Watermelon Sugar all the way through, and the only thing I remember is that everything was an odd color, so it might be that I lack the refined sensibilities to perceive subtlety and nuance in songs such as…  

“Layla” (Eric Clapton): “Layla. Layla. Layla. Layla. [indecipherable] Layla. Layla….”

“Peggy Sue” (Buddy Holly): “Peggy Sue. Peggy Sue. Pret-ty, pret-ty, pret-ty, pret-ty Peggy Sue. Oh, Pe-eg-gy; my Peggy Sue-ooh-ooh, ooh, ooh-ooh-ooh ooh, ooh. Oh, I need you, girl, and I want you, Peggy Sue….”

“La Bamba” (Ritchie Valens).

Buddy Holly, from txhome.org

Buddy Holly, from txhome.org

I’ll be honest: “La Bamba” is my all-time favorite song — the Ritchie Valens version, not the Los Lobos version or the Yum!Yum!ORANGE version. The lyrics have never been a factor, because they are in Spanish and thus, by definition, exotic.

Judging by the lyrics to “Donna,” Ritchie Valens’s other monster hit — released before his short career was cut shorter as a result of dying in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly — Valens was no Ira Gershwin: “Oh, Donna. Oh, Donna. Oh, Donna. Oh, Donna. I had a girl. Donna was her name….”

Cover of the Ritchie Valens 45-rpm single "La Bamba" (1958)

Cover of the Ritchie Valens 45-rpm single “La Bamba” (1958)

But Ritchie Valens can take neither the credit nor the blame for the “La Bamba” lyrics, it turns out, because “La Bamba” is a three-hundred-year-old Mexican folk song. I wanted to know what a Bamba was, but apparently there’s no equivalent in English. The closest Spanish word to Bamba is bambú (“bamboo”), which, if you substituted it for Bamba, would make the song, if anything, less silly. Basically, Valens is singing about a dance, the Bamba, which either is a funny dance or is not to be attempted unless you, yourself, are a humorous, practical-joker type, plus you have to have speed and height, which [antecedent unclear] “I’ll be [be what? Speedy? High?] for you. I’m not a sailor. I’m not a sailor. I’m captain. I’m captain. Damn your eyes, I’m captain.”

If you are expecting a rebuttal here — “No, I’m captain” — you will be disappointed. The other shoe, in “La Bamba,” never drops. Wikipedia claims that the song’s message has to do with a groom’s promise to be faithful to his bride, fidelity being (according to Wikipedia) a virtue practiced by captains but not sailors, which shows how much Wikipedia knows about the privileges of rank.

Drawing the line

In the fall of 1971, I started working as a bookkeeper at an MOR radio station. MOR (middle of the road) describes the station’s “format,” which was soft rock: the mainstream music of Bread (“Baby, I’m-A Want You”), Cat Stevens (“PeaceTrain”), Elton John (“Rocket Man”), Harry Nilsson (“Without You”), the Spinners (“One of a Kind [Love Affair]”), Dobie Gray (the truly lovely “Drift Away”), and so forth. Drug-free and hamless to children and puppies.

In those days I could and did listen to the radio while I worked, so I knew every song on the station’s playlist by heart. Sometimes I sang along, making up lyrics when the real ones were just a mumble. I didn’t mind being clueless about who “Daniel” was in the Elton John hit… “You’re a star in the face of the sky…,” and “It looks like Daniel; must be the stars in my eyes.” I guessed that Daniel was probably in Heaven, but it turns out he was going only as far as Spain. Fine with me.

And then my very favorite song, the one that made me feel Up when I was Down or relaxed when I was tense, disappeared from the playlist. The artists, Brewer and Shipley, were fairly obscure, though the song I adored was on their third album, Tarkio. I couldn’t imagine why such a sweet, innocuous, folk-y song would be found objectionable. After all, Lawrence Welk considered it “a modern spiritual,” and it was performed on his weekly white-bread TV program by Gail Farrell and Dick Dale, who were apparently laboring under the same misapprehension I was.

I asked one of the deejays about the song’s disappearance. “What happened,” I said with complete ingenuousness, “to ‘One Toe Over the Line’?”

Then I waited patiently while he picked himself up off the floor and controlled a tedious series of fits of the giggles. Whatever it was, it was gonna be good.

“Honey,” he croaked, the giggles having not completely subsided, “it’s not ‘One Toe Over the Line.’ It’s ‘One Toke Over the Line.’”

“Okay,” I said, still at sea. “What’s a toke?”

“Oh, honey, you are an innocent, aren’t you?”

I wasn’t, but I let it pass.

“It’s a hit,” giggle, choke, “off a joint—a marijuana cigarette.”

“I know what a ‘joint’ is,” I said irritably. But my annoyance was directed at Brewer and Shipley, for taking me in. No wonder they were “showing off [their]… smile” there at “the railway station.” They were stoned.

The divorced mom of a sweet 4-year-old girl, I was terrified of drugs. I would mellow some in the months to come. It soon became apparent that if I were to cross every occasional toker off my friend list, I’d be down to Mom and Dad and one or two insufferable Republicans I knew from high school, when they were regular people. Not every Republican is insufferable, but these guys were stiffs in suits, believe me.

So I reconciled with Brewer and Shipley, who had surely missed me,  and “One Toke Over the Line” remains a favorite, even though Spiro Agnew called it “subversive.” Below are links to the videos, performed by the original artists and also by Gail and Dick, who I’m sure have long since recognized the enormity of their mistake. You’ll also find the B & S version on the Feelgood Music page of my website. Don’t look for “Cocaine.” I’m saving it for my Bad-Trip, Downer, FeelShitty Music page, for those who find this happiness thing to be so been-there-done-that….

Brewer & Shipley video

Lawrence Welk video

Poem J—The Only Act in Town

Old postcard showing an Arizona motel

To illustrate this post, I used a number of vintage postcards featuring motels that were new and gleaming when my family took summer road trips in the 1950s. The amenities, in order of their importance to us kids, were (1) a swimming pool, (2) air conditioning, and (3) television. The roadside motel, no reservation required, was a novelty. We were used to hotels or "cabins."

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Final Poem in the Series—
Last Chance to Rate

To help my friend and colleague Queen Jane Approximately decide which of my poems to submit to publications and contests, I have posted ten “possibles,” poem A, poem B, and so forth, through the current post, poem J, and have invited readers to comment.  

Below is the last poem in the series. Please feel free to comment at any time, but I’d be especially grateful if I could hear from you by May 1. Along with comments, I’d love it if you’d give me your ranking of the ten poems, 1 being your favorite and 10 being the worst of the lot. You can leave your assessment as a blog comment or e-mail it to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Thanks very much!    

Rusted Motel Sign

This sign is NOT representative of the motels my family stayed in; we required neon in our motel signs

 _____   

What follows is actually a unit: a poem set into a silly story. All comments enormously appreciated!   

_____   

Q & A with Gutroach and Boogerdung at the Sleep-Cheep-We-Peep Inn

Recently I had the honor of being asked to serve on an authors’ panel at the first annual meeting of the Virtually Unpublished Writers of Tasteful Religious Books Society. I did not, as it happens, actually participate, because I went to the wrong hotel.*    

* Which I didn’t find out until the next day. The conference was at the Cheap Bed Sheep Shed. I showed up at Sleep Cheap, We Peep. Anyone could have made the same mistake.   

I wondered why the concierge gave me an odd look when I asked him to direct me to the conference room. “Well, we have meetin’s in the back of the bar sometimes,” he said, pointing at a faux-hardwood door, which you could tell was flimsy and hollow by the multiple holes at about the level where a man’s fist would be if the man were driving his fist into the door.   

Postcard from an Elk City, Oklahoma, motel on the now-defunct Route 66

Postcard from an Elk City, Oklahoma, motel on the now-defunct Route 66

Plainly, the VUWTRBS was on a very tight budget. Even so, given the fragrance (Eau de Bud Light Breath with notes of Stale Sweat and Bratwurst Aftermath) wafting from the bar, and the ambience (storm sewer, but darker), I made a mental note to suggest renting the KMart employee break room for the second annual meeting.   

Entering the room behind the bar, I was relieved to see a dais, a couple of folding chairs, and an audience of more than a hundred of God’s children who were, like the rest of us, seekers of the holy inner light. I walked confidently onto the little stage, knowing I looked my best, in my navy patent-leather pumps and navy-and-white-polka-dot linen sheath dress with a white Peter Pan collar.  

I chose one of the folding chairs—the one without an overturned beer can and a glob of Cheez Whiz on the seat—sat down, demurely crossed my ankles, and waited.   

Michigan motel postcard

Michigan motel postcard; note absence of swimming pool

I looked at the audience. They looked back at me. Probably. I can’t be sure, because a spotlight was shining directly into my eyes. The few things I could actually see had this sort of pulsing halo around them, like they were radioactive and about to blow. Someone at the lighting board was evidently experimenting with various effects. It was unsettling. The live sound engineer was even more adventurous, as I was about to discover. 

After half an hour, the audience was getting restless, as evidenced by what sounded and smelled a great deal like a certain unseemly type of competition my brother and his friends had sometimes entertained themselves with after they’d had a few beers. Since there didn’t seem to be anyone in authority, I thought it was a good time to show some initiative.    

‘We’re gonna tear this place apart’

I stood up and walked to the microphone, adjusted it for my height, smiled a huge, joyous, I-love-everybody smile, and spoke a hearty “Welcome,” hoping I would come across as friendly and approachable. Evidently, I made a very different impression— more in the style of Linda Blair pre-exorcism, when she intoned (in a deep male voice), “Keep away. The sow is mine.” 

Determined to retain my dignity, I switched the microphone off, waited a few minutes for my hearing to return, and tried once more to charm the audience members and put them at ease. 

Another Route 66 motel, this one in Oklahoma City

Another Route 66 motel, this one in Oklahoma City

I smiled more broadly and spiritually than before, if that were possible, though I had the feeling that my ears were actually meeting on the back of my head and thought I’d probably reached my maximum smile diameter.    

“Well,” I said perkily, “this is supposed to be the Q & A session led by Mr. Edmund Digby. Mr. Digby, you’re not out there in the audience anywhere, are you?”    

There was no answer, other than a signal that the competition might be starting up again, so I hurried on: “Well, let’s just begin. I’m sure that Mr. Digby and the other authors on the panel will be here any moment.” 

A Springfield, Missouri, Route 66 motel

A Springfield, Missouri, Route 66 motel

I held up a copy of my book. “My name is Mary Campbell,” I said. “You’ll see it there on your agenda, next to Unfamiliar Territory, which is, obviously, the title of my book. I assume you’ve read it and you have some questions. Who wants to go first?”    

“I’ll go first,” said a young man in the front row, and the invisible lighting technician obligingly illuminated his face. He was pulling on an odd little pipe, which he then handed to the young lady beside him, and she inhaled deeply from it too and passed it on, and I was about to say something about How Germs Are Spread when the young man spoke again. “My name is Gutroach and my question is, where’s Puking Maggot Progeny?”    

I glanced at my roster, pretty sure I would have noticed such an unusual name; as I had suspected, there was no “Progeny” on the list.  

“Mr. (or is it Ms.?) Progeny isn’t on my attendee roster,” I said. “Is he or she a late registrant, perhaps?”     

Vintage postcard depicting "the South's Finest Colored Motel"

This one speaks for itself

“Well, perhaps he is or perhaps he ain’t, but we paid to see Puking Maggot Progeny and by G__d, we’re gonna see Puking Maggot Progeny or we’re gonna tear this place apart.”     

She Who Must Be Obeyed 

At this I became a little indignant. I had never read any of this Progeny person’s books, nor had I heard of him, but I knew that my work had merit too, and I said as much, with all the asperity at my command.     

“So,” I concluded icily, “perhaps Mr. Progeny ain’t gonna be here, in which case you can listen to me and then we can go to the wine-and-cheese buffet before the banquet, or you can all go home and I’ll see that your registration fees are refunded.”     

“Wine and cheese?” said Gutroach, grinning as broadly as I had, but not, I thought smugly, as spiritually. In fact, what his grin most eloquently demonstrated was poor dental hygiene.    
1950s-style motel in Nevada (pronounced ne-VAY-dah), Missouri

1950s-style motel in Nevada (pronounced ne-VAY-dah), Missouri

“WINE and CHEESE? Yummy, YUMMY,” he chanted. “Yummy in my tummy.”     

Then he licked his chops, scratched his… lower torso, and started to get up from his seat. The odd little pipe, I noticed, had made its way back to him, and I was opening my mouth to give a brief lecture on Hygiene, when he shouted to someone else in the room, or perhaps to someone on the Isle of Wight.     

“Hey, Boogerdung,” he yelled, as if Boogerdung were lying inside a sealed casket instead of dozing in the second row, “I got the munchies. You got the munchies? Let’s go grab that wine and cheese and head over to the Scab Zombie.”     

I had reached my limit with Mr. Gutroach and I had no interest in hearing whether or not Mr. Boogerdung had the munchies.     

Postcard from what looks like a VERY old motel; it's located in Tennessee

Postcard from what looks like a VERY old motel; it's located in Tennessee

Sit down, Mr. Gutroach,” I said firmly, sounding (I was selfishly gratified to notice) just a bit scary.  “The Scab Zombie is closed. Raided. Shut down. Everyone’s in jail. I’m the only act in town tonight, and I’m ON!”     

‘He loves that little girl, man’ 

Mr. Gutroach actually sat down, even looking a little sheepish. The audience was quiet. I cleared my throat and began to read the poem I had selected.    

“Anna Sighs     

“Pressing on my pearly window, Night inhales—”     

“Hey!” Mr. Boogerdung interrupted owlishly. Evidently he hadn’t “gotten his nap out,” as my mother-in-law used to say if one of the babies was cranky. “Who gives a shit about your f–ing pearly window?”

“I have no idea,” I replied. “Who gives a shit if Bing Crosby is dreaming of a white Christmas?”     

Silence. Faces blank as notebook paper.     

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s try this another way. Who gives a shit if Mr. Marshall Mathers’s public persona intimates that he’s a pistol-packing drug addict who bags on his momma but he wants to take time out to be perfectly honest ‘cuz there’s a lot of shit that hurts deep inside o’ his soul, and he grows colder the older he grows, and the boulder on his shoulder is like the weight of the world, his neck is breaking and he wants to give up but he doesn’t? And why doesn’t he?”  

A motel along Route 66 in St. Louis, Missouri

A motel along Route 66 in St. Louis, Missouri

“’Cuz he’s bringin’ in the big bucks, baby,” said the girl next to Mr. Gutroach.     

But Gutroach wasn’t listening. “Man, that’s some sad shit,” he said, shaking his head, “’cuz Eminem, he loves that little girl, man.”     

“Is that right?” I said. “Well then maybe, if he wants to take baby steps toward responsible parenting, he could refrain from making music videos that end with his doing a great imitation of himself slitting that little girl’s mother’s throat and yelling, ‘Bleed, Bitch, bleed!’”     

In the ensuing silence, I read my poem:     

Anna Sighs

Tranby House Kerosene Lamp, photo by Gnangarra, commons.wikimedia.org

Tranby House Kerosene Lamp, photo by Gnangarra, commons.wikimedia.org

Pressing on my pearly window, Night inhales and, bloated
with the noxious air, it tries to come inside and take its
pleasure there. My little lamp is proof against the first
assault, and bears the siege with dignity, but we are only
three—the lamp and Anna here with me, but Anna sleeps
while Night retreats to breathe the venom that it needs
so it can swell again and burst the breach.     

All-engorging, thick with vile effluvium, and restive, Night
still heaves against the pane and probes the porous mortar,
thus to gain a continent, and breathe again, but holding
breath within, as if release would leave it spent of form
and substance, vanished in a photon storm.     

No, to find fragility and penetrate, just as the hungry sea
assaults the levee where it groans, and swallows up the
shore—except that Night can but devour and look for more,
can ebb but not abate, for it is powerless to moderate
its gluttony, nor would it, if it could.     

Anna tosses in her sleep, and if she feels the indolent
oppression, swollen with its kill, she feels it inwardly,
and moans, the speech of wan resistance, drained of
will, a feeble protestation, habit murmuring, “I am.”
Something in her knows the enemy and would arrest
it, summoning a name, essaying ownership. It rises
out of bounds before the net is thrown.     

Bereft of thought and consciousness, it senses
nonetheless that I alone am here to watch and to
resist — to fill the lamp until the fuel is gone.     

One forgets at midnight that this too will pass; not
even Night outlasts the unremitting circle. But at
midnight one unreasoning expends what has been
grown and gathered season after season, sacrifices
every treasure, throws into the flame a hundred
fragile artifacts, to gain a moment’s clarity. At
midnight, friends have settled in and locked their
doors, oblivious to ghastly appetite, now
thickened by the certainty that Anna will comply
and abdicate her shape, to be a pool, a fog, and
then evaporate.     

Perhaps she dreams that Night will hide her
face and nobody will notice that the Anna space,
once occupied by negligible molecules, is
vacant now. But Night and I were taken by
surprise; we had forgotten that the planet
turns. At sunrise, the tenacious lamp still
burns, and Anna sighs.     

_______   

Sunrise on the Nebraska plains, photo by Deb Kirwan

Sunrise on the Nebraska plains, photo by Deb Kirwan

I knew I had them with the ‘vile effluvium’

“Man, you musta been WAY down when you wrote that,”  Mr. Gutroach said softly. “Lookin’ at you, who’d of thought you ever felt that dark?”     

I moved my chair to the edge of the dais so I could see the audience better. About twenty-five people remained in the tawdry room, with a combined (visible) tattoo count roughly equivalent to that of the U.S. Navy’s Third Fleet.     

“You all aren’t members of the Virtually Unpublished Writers of Tasteful Religious Books Society, are you?” I asked.     

An older motel in California

Somewhere in California

There were a few puzzled looks, a few guffaws, and one nonverbal comment from a Rude Bodily Noise contestant.  I had to bite my lip to keep from telling the offender that he was a lightweight compared to my brother and his friends, who could have, so to speak, blown all the “contestants” out of the water.

“Well, you sure ain’t Puking Maggot Progeny,” said Mr. Boogerdung, fortunately interrupting my train of thought.     

The girl next to him whispered something in his ear. He shook his head. “Please,” she said urgently. I thought she probably had to pee.  

“She wants me to read a poem I wrote for Mama who died.”    

“Oh, please do,” I said, meaning it. “My mom died a long time ago, and I still miss her. I’d be honored if you’d read your poem.”     

Apparently Mr. Boogerdung always kept it with him, in his wallet. I noticed he had a library card in there too.     

The sheet of paper had clearly been taken out of and returned to the wallet a hundred times. It was about to fall apart at the folds. He opened it carefully, held it reverently, and began to read:     

Mama, sometimes at night, when everything’s quiet,
I wonder if you’re near. I wonder if you hear
Me when I talk to you ‘bout bein’ sad and say I’m sorry for bein’ bad.
When you were here on earth, were you sorry you gave me birth?
Daddy always said I was jest a waste of human flesh.
But you always made me feel better inside, like if I tried
I could be great and do you proud. Is that still true now? 
  
  

Mama, I know you’re in Heaven. I hope the angels up there are givin’
You clouds & harps and such, ‘cause down hear you never got much.
But sometimes I watched you prayin’ to God, and you were sayin’
Watch out for my boy when I’m gone, and if his daddy carries on
’Bout him not bein’ worth a lick, you give that  mean old fart a kick. 
  
  

(Beg pardon, Ma’am, but that’s what Mama said.)     

But after you weren’t there to yell at, Daddy didn’t seem to care
’Bout nothin’ else and died hisself. I love you, Ma. Am I too bad for God to help? 
  
  

Neo Punk dude

Not a member of the Virtually Unpublished Writers of Tasteful Religious Books Society

You could have heard a pin drop. I was so moved by his sentiments and so impressed with his untutored eloquence that I didn’t know what to do except hug him. He hugged me back, probably thinking of his mother.     

“What was her name?” I asked. “Your mother’s, I mean?”     

“Well,” he said, “her given name was Charlotte Rae but everybody called her Sugar.”     

“Sugar Rae? Oh, wait. Your mother’s name was Sugar Boogerdung?”     

Mr. Boogerdung and Mr. Gutroach laughed so hard that Mr. Gutroach belched prodigiously mid-laugh and almost choked to death.     

“Them ain’t our real names, Ma’am,” Mr. Boogerdung said after picking himself up off the floor. He leaned toward me and said in a low voice, “I was christened Jody Leonard Bodie. You can call me Len if you want.”     

“What about you, Mr. Gutroach?”     

“Arthur Billy Clovis Dewitt at your service, Ma’am,” he said obligingly but almost in a whisper and more to his shoes than to me. “My folks thought it’d be cute for my initials to be ABCD. But if you don’t mind, please call me Gutroach or Billy, or Buttface, I don’t care as long as it ain’t Arthur or Artie or Clovis.”     

“Great to meet you gentlemen,” I said, taking Len’s left arm and Billy’s right arm and leading them toward where the wine-and-cheese buffet ought to have been if we hadn’t been at the wrong motel.     

“I haven’t introduced myself properly either,” I confessed. “’Mary Campbell’ is my nom de plume. At home I’m known as Festering Pustule, but you guys can call me Pus.”     


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Truth in Advertising?

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I'll have what she's having

The Risk-Free Trial? Guilty

Vintage Garden

Vintage Garden, by Xx_rebeldiamonds_xX

Last summer I bit on a “risk-free trial” for an açaí-berry formula and a colon-cleanse detox product, both in capsule form. I was aware of the risks of a “risk-free trial.” The strategy is similar to that used by publishers such as Bottom Line Books and Rodale Books, which let you “examine a book free for thirty days,” during which you could doubtless read the book and send it back, keeping the bonus gift, usually a small but useful guide to Growing Healing Herbs in a Sunny Window, or perhaps Homemade Garden-Pest Repellents.

(At least I suppose that reading a book doesn’t violate the rules for examining it. Or are you just supposed to check the binding, count the pages to make sure they’re all there, and verify that the book is printed on recycled paper and that no animals were harmed in the research, writing, printing, or distribution?)

I lost 12 pounds

In any event, I was quick to read the fine print on my “risk-free trial” of açaí-berry formula and colon-cleanse detox product. I needed to return the bottles containing the “unused product” to an address in Florida within ten days of my receiving them, which the company estimated at three days after shipping. Otherwise, my credit card would be charged $89.95 per month until cancellation.

Usually, it’s a miracle if my mail gets opened within ten days of receipt, but the phrase risk-free trial sets off warning bells. So… an unprecedented TWO days after receiving the product, I extracted my ten-day supply from each bottle and sent the remainder via USPS Priority Mail to the Florida address. Even so, my credit card was charged $89.95.

Astonishingly, the charge was removed without my having to make so much as a phone call. I’ve heard from other victims, however, that such charges can be very sticky.

You are actually at risk the minute you divulge your credit-card information, which is required for the “minimal shipping charge” of $1.95 or whatever.  If you must take the risk-free-trial risk, consider using a temporary (prepaid) credit card and keep the balance very low or cancel it altogether. Or not. Consult your legal professional.

By the way (and DO consult your healthcare professional before trying this regimen), I lost 12 pounds in two months on the colon-cleanse detox capsules.

Next: Truth in Advertising, Your Just Deserts — “Get the Smooth, Flawless, Young-Looking Skin You Deserve”

Below: I thought there was missing text, but it’s just Silly Syntax

From an Arizona Department of Health Services Report…

Neurological Effects [of exposure to hydrogen sulfide in sewer gas]:
Ataxia, choreoathetosis, dystonia, inability to stand in one 20-month-old child


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Charlie Chan (http://www.impawards.com/1934/posters/charlie_chan_in_london_xlg.jpg)

Charlie Chan

I read this afternoon — in a novel, by a usually careful or at least painstakingly edited author (Nora Roberts, writing as J.D. Robb) — about how the heroine’s strategy wasn’t succeeding so she decided to try a different tact.

I can’t even imagine what that would look like. Pretending she is British, perhaps? Or emulating Charlie Chan?

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    Detour

    The shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line

    In the poetic life, the shortest possible distance between two points is not always a straight line

    MAP LEGEND

    1. We plan to go to the Washington Monument (intended route = straight vertical line)
    2. Just as we are leaving, we receive emergency phone call: Grandma has fallen down the steps. We drive as quickly as possible to Grandma’s, dodging kangaroos along the route; Grandma is able to walk (a very good sign) and knows her name, what day it is, who is president of the U.S., etc.
    3. We take her to see Dr. Checkerout, who says that Grandma is hale and hardy and that the very best remedy for the small laceration on her left nostril (splinter on steps) would be to spend the day at the Washington Monument (Is that a coincidence, or WHAT?)
    4. We drive back to Grandma’s so that she can get her hat and camera and put on her walking shoes, and we set out again for the Washington Monument

    5. Oh, no! There is road construction in the vicinity of the Washington Monument; we must detour via Bermuda
    6. Well, since we have to go there anyway, we enjoy the sun and the surf in Bermuda, along with numerous tropical drinks containing rum; Grandma is sloshed, so we check in to a hotel
    7. We resume our trip to the Washington Monument the next morning, arriving without incident and having a wonderful time

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course
    Lesson 34
    Dealing Poetically with Adversity

    Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

    roadsign_kangaroo2 

    The poetic life is nothing if not flexible.

    In the above diagram, the shortest distance (as the crow flies) from our house (upper left) and the Washington Monument is represented by a vertical arrow. Once we had learned of Grandma’s accident, however, it was not possible for us to take that route, poetically speaking. The shortest distance had become much longer. If you are going to live poetically, you need to use mystic math.

    Mystic Math

    (The Truth Is in the Poetry)

    One thinks of Julio and Jeanne next door....

    One thinks of Julio and Jeanne next door....

    Is it so foolish to deny that 2
    plus 2 must always equal 4? Because

    one thinks immediately of Julio

    and Jeanne next door, with twins, Celine and

    quiet Jim — not counting Thor, the sheltie,

    they are four indeed — but one in the

    directory, one phone, one family,

    one house, one home.

     

    How many syllables comprise a poem?

    How many deities are in the Trinity?

    How many personalities have you, or I

    (not in the psychopathic sense, of course,

    although one wouldn’t know, would one, if there

    were moments unaccounted for — so many

    billion galaxies to travel in for

    one a bit unraveled)?

     

    ...so many billion galaxies to travel in....

    ...so many billion galaxies to travel in....

    And then there is the Christian marriage

    ceremony, wherein 1 plus 1 make 1,

    and during which the wedding guests affirm

    that all are one in Christ.

     

    One day, one night, together, they become —

    a day. Once more, the sum of 1 plus 1

    is 1, at least within the limits of

    the English language — its vocabulary

    vast, indeed, although, alas, not infinite.

     

    fiddlepm_chair_istockAnd think of all those violins, violas,

    cellos, basses, trumpets, clarinets,

    trombones, and horns and cymbals, harps

    and bells and such — and all the men and

    women, dignified in black and white,

    with all their individual concerns —

    one widowed just a year ago tonight,

    another six years clean and sober; to

    her left, an oboist whose brother was

    indicted yesterday for tax evasion; on

    her right, a Pakistani having such

    a frightful allergy attack — and the

    conductor, who has just received a check

    for twenty thousand dollars from the lottery—

    but now she raises her baton — and

    in that instant of anticipation, in

    that sacred, silent metamorphosis, how

    many, would you say, have they become?

     

    Ludwig van Beethoven, an 1804 portrait

    Ludwig van Beethoven, an 1804 portrait

    Four notes — three quick, one slow — are played:

    the Fifth (but first, perhaps, in pure

    and simple glory) symphony of Beethoven

    begins… and in the audience,

    a few may fidget, measuring

    the minutes and intending to

    retreat at intermission. Violinists

    count the silent beats of idleness

    between their passages, but, I imagine,

    seldom ask themselves how many

    notes they play in all, and just

    as well, it wouldn’t change a thing. Do you

    suppose there’s someone who, for fun

    or scholarship, attempts to number all

    the microbes in the hall, and further,

    calculates the ratio of respirations that

    occur between the second movement and

    the third? For to be sure, it could

    be quantified somewhere by some technology

    or other. Fortunately, no one cares.

    And that’s the point. They came, you see, to hear

    the symphony.

     

    ...the stars care nothing of our counting them....

    ...the stars care nothing of our counting them....

    Therefore, you’ll get no argument from me that 2 plus 2 are 4, not 3 or 17
    or 20, but in turn you must forgive
    the solecism I commit, suggesting there’s
    a truer truth than anything that can
    be proven by addition — if it were
    not so, than why would anybody bother?
    What would be the joy of noticing
    this pattern or that symmetry? Do we
    pursue a proof because the numerals
    insist on our attention? I am sure
    the stars care nothing of our counting
    them or our refraining from it. Finding
    order in the universe, or else
    imposing it, or otherwise competing
    in a race with chaos, really has a single
    benefit — it satisfies, however
    temporarily, the spirit, and
    the truth, you find, is in the poetry,
    not in the paper that it’s written on
    or in the composition of the particles
    that dart about at rates astonishingly
    great — as we believe, for so the eye
    of science witnesses, and since we give
    it credibility, we cannot disagree.
     

    ...viruses or other microscopic entities....

    ...viruses and other microscopic entities....

    It pleases us to cede authority

    to science, even though we never see

    the viruses and other microscopic

    entities; but science offers remedies

    for every manner of disease and warns

    that to release a sneeze uncovered will

    unleash a tyranny of demons; so

    it seems, in our experience, and is

    esteemed as fact, no longer theory…

    because it matters. That’s the only

    reason — saves a life, perhaps, or

    fifty million. If the latter, is the

    scientific effort fifty million times

    more worthy? I don’t know.

    You do the math.

     

    by Sister Alma Rose

    February 2006

    “Galaxies,”  “tulips,” and “stars” images © Luc Viatour GFDL/CC

     tulips_magentas

    The Ashley Incident

    My son Jack and daughter-in-law Ashley live next door with their children, one of whom is Little Jack, who is almost a year old.

    Computerized tomography (CT) scanner
    Computerized tomography (CT) scanner

    Last Sunday, I got a 7 a.m. phone call from Ashley. She was obviously in huge pain. I told her to go immediately to the hospital, where the emergency-room personnel discovered via numerous expensive high-tech methodologies that she was hemorrhaging, which I could have told them without the machines and the expense. After about six hours spent groaning in agony, Ashley was rushed to the operating room for exploratory surgery, anesthetized, split open like a salmon, and relieved of a couple of pints of blood and a ruptured ovarian cyst.

    i-40_map
    Red line = I-40

    They sent her home on Tuesday, less than 48 hours after the surgery, with an incision the length of Interstate 40 and instructions not to lift the baby or any other heavy object for two weeks. This was one of those unfunded mandates doctors and hospitals are so fond of issuing, because of course they did not send Mary Poppins or Mr. T  home with Ashley.

    “How,” I asked myself, “would a Person Living Poetically respond to Ashley’s dilemma?” This was not an idle question, because I tend to feel that I am to blame for everything, including World Hunger, and that everything is therefore my responsibility. I am a pathological People-Pleaser, and my default definition of myself (CONtentwise) is “one who ties up all the loose ends in the universe.”

    As it happens, I had a lot to do this week, and Ashley’s plight arose at a very inconvenient time for me. I had deadlines to meet and telephone interviews to conduct and no clean underwear.

    ...telephone interviews to conduct...
    …telephone interviews to conduct…

    Theoretically, it would have been possible for me to keep to my schedule, just as it would have been possible for the Washington Monument–bound family to call 9-1-1 for Granny and go on its merry way. But if one has decided to live poetically, such choices are no longer simple. Another possibility would have been to help Ashley and grouse about it continually, moaning and groaning every time I had to carry little Jack from one room to another or, worse yet, up a flight of stairs, which I did, several times, moaning and groaning shamelessly because, after all, I didn’t drop him, so I attained the victory only slightly tarnished.

    Aleutian Islands (triangles = active volcanoes)
    Aleutian Islands (triangles = active volcanoes)

    Fortunately, I had done the decluttering exercise in Lesson 5.1 and I had finished the personal inventory assigned in Lesson 13, so I wasn’t being a knee-jerk do-gooder when I decided to devote as much time as was needed to Ashley for as long as she needed it. Using the Golden Rule, it turns out, is a pretty good way of making decisions much of the time, and what I would want Others to Do unto Me, if I had just lost 25 percent or so of my blood supply and had major abdominal surgery and if I were lurching around due to the pain of an incision that looked like the Aleutian Islands, is, I would want Others to cater to my every whim and relieve me of all responsibility for babies, diapers, six-year-olds, meals, and the like.

    Finnish macaroni casserole (photo by Suvi Korhonen)
    Finnish macaroni casserole (photo by Suvi Korhonen)

    So that is what I have been doing instead of attending to my blogs and my deadlines and my laundry. That, and accepting with gratitude the various casseroles and salads and desserts supplied by the Church Ladies, because that is what Church Ladies DO, just as helping one’s grown children when they are in need through no fault of their own (as opposed to being in need because they have screwed up Big Time) is what I do, when I am living poetically. 

    Assignment 34.1

    1. Identify as many poetic devices as you can in “Mystic Math,” above.
    2. Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
    3. Keep exploring the meditations at www.LifeIsPoetry.net, and continue with your meditation journal.  

    * * *

     

    Ritualize

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 27

    Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
    Part 6: Personal Rituals, continued

    Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

    Baking cookies

    Baking cookies

    If you have done Assignment 5.1 (Declutter Your Life) — especially if you were ruthless in your decluttering — perhaps you’ve made time to practice some of the customs and rituals that bind us as communities and families, and that help us meet our individual needs for structure and purpose. Here, in no particular order, is a list of individual, family, social, and religious customs, traditions, and rituals, some of which might be part of your life:

    Story time

    Story time

    • family meals — preparing, eating, conversing, and cleaning up
    • saying grace at meals
    • Christmas caroling (or wassailing)
    • holiday observances and meals
    • housekeeping
    • prayer
    • meditation
    • confession
    • communion
    • congregational worship
    • dance
    • sports
    • family game night
    • campfires
    • day trips
    • picnics
    • barbecues
    • gardening
    • volunteer work
    • visiting relatives
    • visiting the sick
    • weddings
    • bridal and baby showers
    • viewings and funerals
    • bedtime stories
    • ablutions (hygiene — washing, brushing teeth, and so forth)
    • going for walks
    • dating (dinner and a movie?)
    • reading out loud to family
    A traditional snowman

    A traditional snowman

    While some rituals, traditions, and customs become irrelevant and fall out of use, others cling for no apparent reason. We still “knock on wood” after asserting that, for example, we’ve “never gotten so much as a parking ticket” — possibly a remnant of the ancient practice of waking the tree gods and invoking their protection against future parking tickets. The practice of blessing someone after he or she sneezes may derive from an old belief that demons can enter your body when you sneeze. (Gesundheit means, roughly, “good health.”)

    I enjoy these harmless practices because they connect me with ancestors whose names I’ll never know… although it’s getting harder to find real wood, and “knock on laminate” doesn’t have the mystique of “knock on wood.”

    After school

    After school

    On the other hand, the tradition of the “Sunday drive” has all but disappeared. When I was a little girl, residential air-conditioning was practically unheard-of and television sets were almost equally rare. Sunday dinner was usually eaten in the mid-afternoon, but in the summer it was too hot to cook during the day, so often we’d pile in the car with a picnic basket full of egg-salad sandwiches, carrot and celery sticks, potato chips, and cold pop — grape Nehi, perhaps. Alongside most country roads there were picnic tables under spreading cottonwoods or sycamores every few miles. We’d stop at the shadiest spot we could find, spread our tablecloth, and have our little feast, observed by squirrels and birds waiting to tidy up after us.

    Nehi advertisement on a matchcover

    Nehi advertisement on a matchcover

    Now, on summer Sunday afternoons, for better or for worse, the ritual of televised Major League Baseball has largely replaced the family outing. Indeed, family dinners, in many families, are consumed in front of the family television or — sadder yet — televisions.

    Assignment 27.1 Ritualize

    Read “Women’s Altars” at Sister Alma Rose Has the Last Word.

    Evaluate the rituals and traditions you observe. What is their purpose? In what ways are they metaphorical? Are they time-wasters, or do they provide structure and meaning? Are there rituals and traditions that you don’t practice but that would benefit you and your family? How can you work them into your family routine?

    1. Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return your assignment to you with comments.

    * * *

    Customarily

    There was a madness about Mardi Gras… — the music, the masks, the mayhem all crashing together into a desperate sort of celebration … that was both gleefully innocent and rawly sexual. He doubted [that] the majority of the tourists who flocked… [to New Orleans] for the event understood or cared about the purpose of it.  —Nora Roberts, Midnight Bayou

    Mangueira Samba School Parade (photo by Felipe Ferreira)

    Carnival in Rio: Mangueira Samba School Parade (photo by Felipe Ferreira)

    Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) is the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is the final day of Carnival, the three-day period preceding the beginning of Lent, the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday (some traditions … [consider] Carnival … [to be the] time between Epiphany…  [Twelfth Night] and Ash Wednesday). The entire three-day period [before Ash Wednesday] has come to be known in many areas as Mardi Gras.—Wikipedia

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 23

    Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
    Part 2: Rituals and Traditions and Festivals and Customs and Celebrations and Ceremonies and Habits… Oh, My!

    Every weekday morning, when I was in high school, I woke, at precisely a quarter to six, to the crisp click of my dad’s Zippo lighter, signaling the first cigarette of the day, the beginning of his morning ritual, through which he moved, brisk but unhurried, with a precision that made timepieces unnecessary.

    teenage_girl_bruthsing_teethDad would smoke his cigarette, don his terry-cloth robe, fetch the newspaper from the front porch and take it into the downstairs half-bath… from which he would emerge, 11.37 minutes later, to climb the stairs and take his shower in the upstairs bathroom. The shower water shutting off was my cue to get up, brush my teeth, wash my face, put on my clothes (this often involved a couple of trips to the clothes drier in the basement and sometimes a hasty ironing job), find my books and my homework, experience a moment of anxiety about the homework left undone, and skip breakfast if I wanted to be ready when Dad left for his downtown office, so that I wouldn’t have to take the city bus to school and could maybe finish my homework in Dad’s car.

    Living poetically: an orderly life

    Dad’s morning routine illustrates one of the great benefits of ritual and an essential ingredient in living poetically: maintaining order. If one is going to live poetically, then one must be efficient whenever possible, thus allowing oneself the liberty of being artistically inefficient at predictable times.

    This is a lesson I was slow to learn, which is why, when I was working full time at an 8-to-5 job, my daughter, Marian, usually ate her cereal in the car on the way to day care.

    travel_driving_on_country_road_istockFor purposes of this lesson, I’m going to fudge the boundaries of words such as ritual, custom, festival, celebration, ceremony, and tradition. Sometimes the words can be used interchangeably, sometimes not.

    It is the custom (and the law), for example, in the U.S. to drive on the right side of the road and to GO when the stoplight turns green. Some over-the-road truck drivers customarily flick their headlights to let passing cars know that it’s safe to return to the right lane. Back when most highways were only two lanes wide, it was customary to tap on the horn as a signal to the car in front of you that you were about to pass it.

    These are practical customs, adopted to make driving safe and efficient. You could, I suppose, consider them traditions, but they are hardly rituals or ceremonies or celebrations. The custom of driving on the right side of the road quickly becomes a habit — something you do automatically, without thinking. Imagine the chaos if every morning, when you got into your car to go to work, you (and the rest of the drivers in your community) had to make up your mind as to which side of the street you wanted to drive on and what to do if you encountered a green stoplight.

    Halloween

    On the other hand, it is customary and traditional for children to wear costumes and go trick-or-treating on Halloween. Few children, however, are aware that Halloween

    …has roots in the Christian holy day of All Saints and the… ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain — a celebration of the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture, …sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year.” Traditionally, the festival was a time used by the ancient Celtic pagans to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. The ancient Gaels believed that on October 31, now known as Halloween, the boundary between the living and the deceased dissolved, and the dead became dangerous for the living by causing… sickness or [damaging]… crops. The festivals would frequently involve bonfires, into which the bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown. Costumes and masks were also worn at the festivals in an attempt to copy the evil spirits, [to hide from them], or to placate them. Wikipedia

    pumpkin_fieldAs was often the case when a civilization became “Christianized,” missionaries finessed Christian holidays into traditional pagan celebrations. The name Halloween is a shortened form of All Hallows’ Eve (or All Hallows’ Even), because it falls on the eve of All Hallows’ Day, now called All Saints’ Day, which in Christian theology commemorates those who have died and, presumably, gone to Heaven.

    As Halloween symbols, skeletons and jack-o’-lanterns have ancient meaning as well, but, for most kids, Halloween is just an excuse to dress up, get together with friends, and eat a lot of candy. Without being aware of it, they are participating in an ancient and multilayered ritual.

    Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, 2006

    Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, 2006

    Mardi Gras

    Worldwide, the carnivals that precede the forty-day sacrificial season of Lent traditionally comprise several days of extravagance and self-indulgence — in sharp contrast to the ensuing (partial) fast, which is meant to

    …[prepare] the believer—through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial—for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to the Passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. —Wikipedia

    Weddings

    The official wedding portrait of Princess Grace and Prince Ranier III of Monaco

    The official wedding portrait of Princess Grace and Prince Ranier III of Monaco

    Associated with weddings are rituals, celebrations, ceremonies, and customs, all rolled into one series of traditions — from bachelor parties and bridal showers to Catholic masses and chivarees. During the wedding, the bride is supposed to wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue” (often a garter), though nobody remembers why. 

    According to Wikipedia, “exchanging rings may be the oldest and most universal symbol of marriage, but the origins are unclear. The ring’s circular shape represents perfection and never-ending love.”

    Why rituals matter

    Rituals and ceremonies often mark transitions — seasonal, cultural, and individual. Weddings, baptisms (if you believe that baptism is necessary for salvation), wakes and funerals, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, quinceañeras, even “divorce parties” are ways of delineating a change in status… of indicating unequivocally that before the ceremony things were one way and after the ceremony they are another way.

    An 1883 print depicting an Irish wake

    An 1883 print depicting an Irish wake

    I had always thought that wakes and “viewings” of the deceased were unnecessary and even macabre, until my mother died without warning in 1974. At the age of 62, she had a massive stroke at home; Dad rode to the hospital with her in the ambulance, while my sister, Pipi, and I followed in my car.  The three of us sat in a waiting room, watching television as Richard Nixon announced that he would resign the presidency the next day, August 9. Periodically, some medical person would appear with an increasingly gloomy “update” on Mom’s condition. We were finally allowed to see her, though she was practically unidentifiable behind flanks of machines and forests of tubes.

    Late in the evening, the machines and tubes were removed, Mom was declared dead, and we were asked if we wanted to see her again. Our unanimous reaction was, “Ugh,” whereupon her body was donated to the Nebraska Anatomical Board, a sort of clearinghouse for cadavers that would be used for medical research. We held a memorial service, but of course there was no viewing, no cemetery burial, not even an urn for her ashes.

    Tulips (Floriade canberra); photo by John O'Neill

    Tulips (Floriade canberra); photo by John O'Neill

    Well, it was a mistake, at least on my part. Somewhere in my psyche there was persistent denial: I had not seen her dead, therefore it was possible that she was not dead. I had this recurring dream that she had gone to Japan and would be back any day. During my waking hours, I experienced depression, panic attacks, even hallucinations.

    I spent a lot of time with Dad in the home he and Mom had shared, helping with laundry and sewing buttons on his shirts. I watched Mom’s tulips and perennial herbs cleave the thawing earth in the spring. I don’t think I actually “went on with my life,” as they say, until Marian and I moved to the Washington, DC, area almost a year and a half later.

    When Dad died, eleven years after we lost Mom, I was not about to make the same mistake. He had been ill for some time, and his death was not unexpected, but I arrived at the hospital (in response to a nurse’s phone call) minutes after he died. When I entered his room, held his cold hand, kissed his ashen face, I felt an enormous sense of relief. “He’s not here,” I thought. “This isn’t Dad. He’s gone away.”

    Rituals and celebrations connect us with each other, nudging families and communities together. Researchers have found that “social” people, who regularly spend time with their families and friends, are happier and live longer than people who are comparatively isolated, even by choice.

    A Campbell family picnic in Des Moines, c. 1946

    A Campbell family picnic in Des Moines, c. 1946

    When I was growing up, none of our relatives lived in Omaha, and, as the youngest of my generation on my dad’s side, I found our rare family get-togethers tedious in the extreme. As an adult, though, I discovered to my surprise that my older cousins were funny and interesting, even though it was usually a funeral that brought us together. We have had two non-funeral-related family reunions in the last twenty years, and both have been delightful, with copious sincere expressions of regret that we don’t see each other more often. If one of the other Campbells were to plan a reunion and send me an invitation, I would eagerly attend. But, however fine a time we have at our reunions, we return to our comfort zones and follow the path of least resistance, and to date no additional reunions have been planned, which is a pity.

    child_with_posy_for_momTruthfully, now… would you give your mother flowers or take her out for a champagne brunch if there were no such thing as Mother’s Day or if we, as a culture, didn’t traditionally celebrate birthdays?

    Rituals connect us with our history and our ancestors. I have heard of Jews, descendants of those who fled one of the numerous European Inquisitions, growing up in Mexico and the American Southwest, practicing customs such as ritual handwashing and candle-lighting without knowing that such traditions were relics of their ancestors’ “Jewishness.” These are people who had no idea that they were descended from Jews… but their rituals outlasted their theology. (See Hidden Heritage: The Legacy of the Crypto-Jews, by Janet Liebman Jacobs)

    Rituals, traditions, and customs lend structure to our days, weeks, months, and years. As mentioned above, a lot of things just aren’t worth the effort that would be needed to continually make decisions about them.

    Take the Christmas tree. The custom of cutting down an evergreen tree, taking it home, hauling it into the house, setting its trunk in a bucket of water, and decorating it with garish balls and beads, probably originated in pre-Christian times as a reminder that living things can thrive even in the dead of winter. The modern tradition, in which the trees became associated with Christmas, seems to have originated in northern Europe some five hundred years ago.

    Christmas-tree ornament (photo by Kris De Curtis)

    Christmas-tree ornament (photo by Kris De Curtis)

    If you decorate your house for Christmas, you probably have a Christmas tree. It might be a fir tree of some sort, or something that has been assembled in a factory to resemble a fir tree. You probably have your own family ritual that determines how and when the tree should be decorated. You might have been horrified, after you got married, to learn that your spouse’s family has one of those aluminum-foil-type trees and hangs only pink satin ornaments on it. Perhaps there were arguments about when the gifts should be opened: on Christmas eve or Christmas morning.

    You could flout tradition and bring in a small sycamore tree, or maybe a palm. You could hang your ornaments and stockings on a coat rack, or you could pound a bunch of nails into the wall and drape tinsel across them. It would be odd but certainly not illegal. But why bother, when stores and parking lots are crammed with pines and spruces, and when you have a collection of beautiful Christmas-tree ornaments, some of which are family heirlooms?

    Rituals of all kinds are exceedingly tenacious. When I was growing up, we opened the presents under the tree — those that came from distant aunts and uncles, and those that we gave to each other — on Christmas eve. My sister, Pipi, as the eldest of the three of us kids, got to hand out the gifts, and we opened them one at a time, in an orderly way. We wouldn’t have dreamed of opening a gift while someone else was opening hers.

    victorian_family_christmasThe presents from Santa Claus — filled stockings and wrapped boxes beneath them — were, naturally, opened on Christmas morning in a sort of frenzied free-for-all — except that everyone had to be there. My brother, John, and I would roust Pipi and Mom and Dad out of bed so that Christmas Day could begin.

    John and I insisted on maintaining this ritual even when we were in high school and Pipi was in college. To this very day, I’m uncomfortable opening a gift — any gift — while someone else in the room is opening one… unless its Christmas morning, which is, as mentioned, exempt from the one-gift-at-a-time rule.

    Rituals revisited

    Kids in Halloween costumes (photo by Charles Nguyen)

    Kids in Halloween costumes (photo by Charles Nguyen)

    Some traditions have become totally severed from their origins. We no longer dress up at Halloween in order to protect ourselves from evil spirits, nor does Halloween have any religious significance except, perhaps, to Satanists. But we continue to observe Halloween for valid social and cultural reasons.

    The tradition of hazing originated as a test of manhood — a rite-of-passage ceremony associated with an organization or a society. While it might have been a useful way, at one time, to “separate the men from the boys” in preparation for battles or hunting expeditions, hazing has, among some groups, degenerated into a sadistic display of boorishness.

    Assignment 23.1

    Prepare a three-column table. In the first column, list the most important customs and traditions you observe. In the second column, summarize the origins of those customs and traditions. In the third column, indicate the relevance they have for you today.

    Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will comment on it and return it to you.

    Next: Advent — What Are You Waiting For?

    Aztec Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli, c. 1500 (photo by David Monniaux)

    Aztec Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli, c. 1500 (photo by David Monniaux)

    Where God Resides

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    Chapter 8: Writing toward the Core
    Part 2: Connecting with God

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    * * *

    The most ordinary of prospects caused her to stop and stare. The last of the leaves dropped from the trees, and the bare branches made lace against pale skies. Sun after rain turned cobbled streets blue as fish scales, dazzling to the eye. Autumn winds, whipping the bay to a scud of white-caps, brought with them, not cold, but a surging sense of vitality.  — Rosamunde Pilcher, The Shell Seekers

    Kabir, 1398-1448, mystic poet and saint of India

    Kabir, 1398-1448, mystic poet and saint of India

    *

    Living poetically begins with a sense of connectedness — with God, with the soul-candles of other creatures, with the earth. The poetic life is not lived in isolation.

    I have heard equally intelligent and thoughtful people say contradictory things about God — that there is nothing that is not God, or that God is very “Other.” It doesn’t seem to make much difference, though I used to fret about such things quite a lot. Now I simply try to keep it in mind to honor the sacred, wherever I encounter it, or it encounters me, as the case may be. Though I am absent-minded and daydreamy, I try to remember to notice things, to be alert for any messages the Universe is trying to send me.

    The Ritual of Baptism — Saint Remigius baptizes Clovis I, represented by the Master of Saint Gilles c. 1500

    The Ritual of Baptism — Saint Remigius baptizes Clovis I, represented by the Master of Saint Gilles c. 1500

    Rituals are important because they remind you to remember and to notice what you might otherwise take for granted, the way Mother’s Day prompts you to feel and to show gratitude to your mom. There is a calming, reassuring meditation on the site MyInnerWorld.com  that calls to your attention the ways in which you are not self-sufficient but that in which, rather, you and your needs are supported — by the earth, by the air that you need to breathe, by food and water when you are thirsty and hungry…. More on rituals in another lesson.

    * * *

    Where the self leaves off and God begins is the subject of a great deal of poetry. Here are three such poems (the third poem appears in two translations):

     

    ARE YOU LOOKING FOR ME

    Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
    My shoulder is against yours.
    You will not find me in stupas, not in Indian shrine rooms, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals;
    not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
    When you really look for me, you will see me instantly—
    you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
    Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
    He is the breath inside the breath.

    —Kabir, translated by American author and poet Robert Bly in The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations

    Kabir was “a mystic poet and saint of India” (Wikipedia, accessed Nov. 21, 2008) whose life spanned the first half of the fifteenth century. Born into a Muslim family, Kabir became a student of Ramananda, a Hindu. But Kabir’s views defied sectarianism, and his appeal has remained universal.

    According to Kabir, all life is an interplay of two spiritual principles. One is the personal soul (Jivatma) and the other is God (Paramatma). It is Kabir’s view that salvation is the process of bringing into union these two divine principles. — Wikipedia

    Robert Bly (b. 1926) in 2004

    Robert Bly (b. 1926) in 2004

    Of Kabir, Bly writes, “His metaphors act like a loose electric wire, or a two-by-four to the head. His contempt for those wishing to be saved by being good is endless…. In the shortest of his poems, he models the high-spiritedness that he thought is essential for the life we live on this earth.

    “‘The buds are shouting:
    ”The Gardener is coming.
    Today he picks the blossoms,
    Tomorrow, us!’

    “If we cannot recite that last line with joy, then we are probably too gloomy to take Kabir in. He wants us not to worry whether we live or die.”

    * * *

    Emily Dickinson 1830-1886

    Emily Dickinson 1830-1886

    The brain is wider than the sky,
      For, put them side by side,
    The one the other will include
      With ease, and you beside.

    The brain is deeper than the sea,
      For, hold them, blue to blue,
    The one the other will absorb,
      As sponges, buckets do.

    The brain is just the weight of God,
      For, lift them, pound for pound,
    And they will differ, if they do,
      As syllable from sound.

    — Emily Dickinson

    Emily Dickinson — though not as solitary and reclusive as she has often been described — lived nearly all her life in her parents’ home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her poetry is deceptively simple, rigorously disciplined into conventional forms packed with paradox and insight. The poem above is in common meter, with the rhyming pattern ABCB arranged into alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.

    According to one analyst,

    her subjects are often parts of the topography of her own psyche; she explores her own feelings with painstaking and often painful honesty but never loses sight of their universal poetic application; one of her greatest techniques is to write about the particulars of her own emotions in a kind of universal homiletic or adage-like tone (“After great pain, a formal feeling comes”) that seems to describe the reader’s mind as well as it does the poet’s.  —Sparknotes.com, accessed November 21, 2008

    The Wikipedia article on Dickinson observes that the poet considered her own mind to be “‘an undiscovered continent’…. Academic Suzanne Juhasz considers that Dickinson saw the mind and spirit as tangible visitable places and that for much of her life she lived within them.”

    Both of these analyses are fine, as far as they go, though the words topography and continent suggest a surface exploration. In my view, Dickinson was not so superficial; she mined her own psyche for jewels that shine in all human consciousness. 

    * * *

    BUDDHA INSIDE THE LIGHT

    Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875-1926

    Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875-1926

    The core of every core, the kernel of every kernel
    an almond! held in itself, deepening in sweetness:
    all of this, everything, right up to the stars,
    is the meat around your stone. Accept my bow.

    Oh, yes, you feel it, how the weights on you are gone!
    Your husk has reached into what has no end,
    and that is where the great saps are brewing now.
    On the outside a warmth is helping,

    for, high, high above, your own suns are growing
    immense and they glow as they wheel around.
    Yet something has already started to live
    in you that will live longer than the sun.

    —Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly in The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations

    BUDDHA IN GLORY

    Center of all centers, core of cores,
    almond self-enclosed, and growing sweet–
    all this universe, to the furthest stars
    all beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.

    Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
    your vast shell reaches into endless space,
    and there the rich, thick fluids rise and flow.
    Illuminated in your infinite peace,

    a billion stars go spinning through the night,
    blazing high above your head.
    But in you is the presence that
    will be, when all the stars are dead.

    —Rainer Marie Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell

    Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian poet who wrote in both German and French. Among the great twentieth-century poets, he is unusual in that his work is both accessible and hopeful, often joyous.

    In his introduction to the Rilke translations in The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations, Bly writes, “Rilke has for hundreds of readers been their first introduction to poetry that goes steeply and unapologetically up with the spirit…. Poetry doesn’t mean talking well, but being truly alive. Poetry is ‘a god breathing.’”

    I have included the Mitchell translation because, unlike Bly, Mitchell tries to reproduce the original poem’s meter and rhyme as well as its meaning. Every poem is diluted somewhat in translation, of course, because meter, rhyme, rhetoric, and vocabulary are never independent of one another.

    * * *

    Assignment 21.1 Where Is God?

    1. In each of these poems, the Divine is “placed” somewhere relative to the individual. Write a brief essay (a few hundred words) on the “location” of God as depicted in these works of Kabir, Dickinson, and Rilke.
    2. Write a twelve-line poem in common meter on the “location” of God relative to you. If you are uncomfortable with the name God, substitute Spirit or love or inspiration, or one of the other names of God.

    Please e-mail your assignment to me at Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

    * * *

     

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    Metaphorical You

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    All the Animals You Are

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    Blake was a painter as well as a poet. Here is Blake's *The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun* (1805)

    Blake was a painter as well as a poet. Here is Blake's *The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun* (1805)

    Sharpen your intellectual claws. We are going to attack (metaphorically) one of the most famous and admired poems in English literature, “The Tiger” (or “The Tyger”), by William Blake (1757–1827). First, though, you’ll read another of Blake’s poems, “The Lamb,” which is often studied as a contrast to “The Tiger.”

    THE LAMB

    Little Lamb, who made thee?
    Dost thou know who made thee?
    Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
    By the stream and o’er the mead;
    Gave thee clothing of delight,
    Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
    Gave thee such a tender voice,
    Making all the vales rejoice?
    Little Lamb, who made thee?
    Dost thou know who made thee?

    Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
    Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee.
    He is called by thy name,
    For He calls Himself a Lamb.
    He is meek, and He is mild;
    He became a little child.
    I a child, and thou a lamb,
    We are called by His name.
    Little Lamb, God bless thee!
    Little Lamb, God bless thee!

    THE TIGER

    Tiger, tiger, burning bright
    In the forests of the night,
    What immortal hand or eye
    Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

    In what distant deeps or skies
    Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
    On what wings dare he aspire?
    What the hand dare seize the fire?

    And what shoulder and what art
    Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
    And when thy heart began to beat,
    What dread hand and what dread feet?

    What the hammer? what the chain?
    In what furnace was thy brain?
    What the anvil? What dread grasp
    Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

    When the stars threw down their spears,
    And water’d heaven with their tears,
    Did He smile His work to see?
    Did He who made the lamb make thee?

    Tiger, tiger, burning bright
    In the forests of the night,
    What immortal hand or eye
    Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

    Jargon to impress your friends

    William Blake's Title Plate for *Songs of Experience*

    William Blake's title plate for *Songs of Experience*

    Here’s a bit of vocabulary that you can use to sound really smart when discussing the mechanics of these poems:

    Quatrain — Four-line stanza, usually containing a rhyme scheme. “The Tiger” consists of six quatrains.

    Rhyme scheme — Pattern of rhymes in verse. A different letter represents each rhyming sound. In “The Lamb,” the rhyme scheme of the first eight lines is AABBCCDD. In “The Tiger,” the rhyme scheme of each quatrain is AABB, if you allow eye and symmetry to rhyme. Blake might have been indulging in “near rhyme” (half rhyme, slant rhyme) there. It’s also possible that the words were pronounced differently in the late 1700s, when Blake wrote the poem. Or there might be intentional irony in the nonrhyming couplet, which is, in a sense, not symmetrical. (Other common quatrain rhyme schemes are ABAB, ABBA, and ABCB.)

    Couplet — Pair of consecutive rhyming lines. In “The Tiger,” each quatrain has two couplets.

    Foot — A group of 2 or 3 syllables — one stressed, one or two unstressed — forming a “metrical unit,” the basic unit of poetic rhythm (TI-ger is a foot in “The Tiger.” Compare with “ARE you // GO-ing to // SCAR-bor-ough // FAIR,” which combines two-syllable and three-syllable feet.)

    Trochaic foot (trochee) — A two-syllable foot, in poetry, in which the first syllable is stressed and the second syllable is unstressed, as in the four trochees “PE-ter, // PE-ter, // PUMP-kin // EAT-er” (as well as in “TI-ger, // TI-ger, // BURN-ing // BRIGHT.” The absence of a final unstressed syllable [which would be present if Blake had written “TI-ger, TI-ger, BURN-ing BRIGHT-ly”] is called catalexis).

    Iambic foot (iamb) — A two-syllable foot, in poetry, in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed (Christopher Marlowe‘s famous line “Come LIVE // with ME // and BE // my LOVE” consists of four iambs.)

    Tetrameter — A line of poetry in which there are four metrical feet (All the examples above are either in trochaic tetrameter or, as in the Marlowe line, in iambic tetrameter.)

    Trimeter — A line of poetry in which there are three metrical feet (In “The Lamb,” the first two lines are in trochaic trimeter; the following six lines are in troachic tetrameter with catalexis.)

    Frontispiece, by William Blake, for *Songs of Innocence and of Experience*

    Frontispiece, by William Blake, for *Songs of Innocence and of Experience*

    Observe how Blake uses, in addition to metaphor, the following rhetorical devices in the two poems:

    Anaphora — Repetition of words or phrases at the beginnings of lines

    Alliteration — Repetition of the same beginning letter or sound for words in a series or in close proximity

    Cacophony — Harsh-sounding passages in poetry or prose; note that harshness comes from hard consonant sounds (K, T, and CH, for example) as well as word meanings (The cacophony in “Tiger” contrasts markedly with the euphony in “Lamb.”)

    Euphony — The opposite of cacophony — pleasant-sounding, perhaps mellifluous; note that pleasing sounds come from soft consonants (such as L, R, and V) as well as word meanings

    A poem you can sink your teeth into

    “The Tyger” seems to provide unending food for thought, which is one of the things that make it a truly great poem. Here is one analysis:

    Of course, there can be no gainsaying [denying] that the tiger symbolizes evil, or the incarnation of evil, and that the lamb (Line 20) represents goodness, or Christ. Blake’s inquiry is a variation on an old philosophical and theological question: Why does evil exist in a universe created and ruled by a benevolent God?  Blake provides no answer. His mission is to reflect reality in arresting images. A poet’s first purpose, after all, is to present the world and its denizens in language that stimulates the aesthetic sense; he is not to exhort or moralize. Nevertheless, the poem does stir the reader to deep thought. Here is the tiger, fierce and brutal in its quest for sustenance; there is the lamb, meek and gentle in its quest for survival. Is it possible that the same God who made the lamb also made the tiger? Or was the tiger the devil’s work? —Cummings Study Guides, accessed November 4, 2008

    This commentator sees the tiger as a symbol of evil and the lamb as a symbol of Christ. I respectfully gainsay his or her view. A symbol can be but is not always a metaphor. A handshake might symbolize friendship or agreement, but it is not a metaphor for friendship or agreement, just as the U.S. flag is not, in itself, a metaphor for our country.

    William Blake, in an 1807 portrait by Thomas Phillips

    William Blake, in an 1807 portrait by Thomas Phillips

    The writer fails to consider “The Tiger,” which appeared in Blake’s book Songs of Experience, in relationship to “The Lamb,” from Blake’s Songs of Innocence. (Blake considered the two books a unit and published them together, as Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.) Another shortcoming of the reviewer’s analysis, in my opinion, is that it assumes a conventional attitude toward religion, Christianity, God, and Christ that Blake did not possess.

    He did not hold with the doctrine of God as Lord, an entity separate from and superior to mankind; this is shown clearly in his words about Jesus Christ: “He is the only God … and so am I, and so are you.” —Wikipedia, accessed November 4, 2008

    Finally, it’s not at all clear that Blake saw his metaphorical tiger as pure evil — the lamb and the tiger are not necessarily opposites — but rather as beautiful and terrifying.

    Because scholars have for over two hundred years continued to debate the complex message of “The Tiger” without reaching consensus, I shall boldly contribute my own theory: The lamb (both in the poem “The Lamb” and in the allusion to the lamb in “The Tiger”) are metaphors for facets of the human personality, including Blake’s own inner angels and demons, and the “contrary states” of human life.

    When one is young and innocent — untested — one is “tender,” “meek,” “mild.” (Need I mention that Blake and his wife and lifelong companion, Catherine Boucher Blake, had no children?) With adulthood comes experience and power, to be used for good or ill. One does not stop altogether being a “lamb” when one gains the “fearful symmetry” of a “tiger.”

    The following analysis of “The Tiger” presents a more refined understanding, I think, of the poem and its intricacy:

    The reference to the lamb in the penultimate [second-from-the-last] stanza reminds the reader that a tiger and a lamb have been created by the same God, and raises questions about the implications of this. It also invites a contrast between the perspectives of “experience” and “innocence” represented here and in the poem “The Lamb.” “The Tyger” consists entirely of unanswered questions, and the poet leaves us [in]… awe at the complexity of creation, the sheer magnitude of God’s power, and the inscrutability of divine will. The perspective of experience in this poem involves a sophisticated acknowledgment of what is unexplainable in the universe, presenting evil as the prime example of something that cannot be denied, but will not withstand facile explanation, either. The open awe of “The Tyger” contrasts with the easy confidence, in “The Lamb,” of a child’s innocent faith in a benevolent universe.Sparknotes.com, accessed November 4, 2008

    Assignment 19.1

    What animal are you?

    Regardless of Blake’s intention — and who’s to say that it was static and fully formed even as he wrote the poems? — I believe it’s fair to say that we are all, metaphorically, at different times and in different situations, an entire menagerie. Throughout history and literature, people have been compared to and represented as lions, puppies, rats, mice, panthers, fawns, even elephants.

    I wrote “The Kitten” (below) strictly to illustrate this lesson — as a metaphor for my own vulnerability — not to win any poetry prizes. I live alone now, but I was once pampered and protected. I can be sturdy and resilient — like, say, a Saint Bernard. I can be an “eager beaver.” Sometimes I like to hibernate, like a bear. But occasionally — when, for example, I have to carry a bag of groceries home from the store, or when the plumbing gets stopped up, or when I’m weary or just plain lonely — I’d enjoy being treasured and taken care of.

    THE KITTEN

    I am a kitten, wishing to lie
    in a soft, sunny spot with my lover nearby,
    to be fed when I’m hungry and stroked when I sigh
    and held all through the night when the wind rises high.

    Your assignment is to write something similar — it needn’t be in the form of a rhyming poem; a few lines of graceful prose will do as well — about yourself. Begin with the words “I am a,” then name the animal you are, and describe a few of that animal’s features that are like your own characteristics.

    Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return it to you with comments.

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