Interpretive Dance

(This post was inspired by the piece “Unzesty” from Renee over at “This Dead Horse”.)

When people tell you what a poem “means”, they are almost invariably telling you stuff about themselves, and only partially about the poem. Poems come to life through interaction with listeners or readers, so this seems only natural: any interpretation is telling you about that interaction, which necessarily contains the person who has said interpretation.

Like Renee in the blog post above, I can recall teachers who graded us on repeating back their own interpretations of poems, more-or-less verbatim; like her, I had to learn this the hard way, by failing a few quizzes before I caught on to the game being played. This didn’t seem like a practice calculated to building a love of poetry; it seemed more designed to create something like a cult around the professor, and there is a whole world to explore in that phenomenon.

Many of us want to appear as “oracles”, people whose insight into truth is not to be questioned. One need only go so far as Twitter to see screen after screen full of people who make assertions as to the ultimate truth of everything, and with serene confidence. I had professors, both in poetry and philosophy, who had little-to-no interest in developing the critical thinking skills of students: they had already obtained all truth, and it was the student’s job to ingest it and regurgitate it, unchanged.

It is easy to see the hallmarks of wounded ego in all of this. Very few people care about poetry — you can take it from me, I’ve been a philosopher and a poet — and the natural response of all of us who feel compelled to pursue interests few others have is to dismiss all others as a bunch of unfeeling idiots. They are not, of course, and it is only our desire to feel that our passions should be shared by the rest of the world that causes us to react this way.

I assumed that the teacher described in “Unzesty” himself thought pretty much nonstop about sex and death, so he saw it everywhere he looked. That human beings confute sex and power dynamics constantly is another topic about which many pages could be written, and a significant number of those would be dedicated to college professors and other people in positions of power.

If the concept of “privilege” means anything — and many dispute that the concept does mean anything, other that to be used as an empty pejorative — it is that no one sees all things objectively, and that honest perspectives on the meaning of things have equal validity. This is a vexing reality to all who love something so much that they become an expert on it.

Those other people, with their opinions. Geesh.

(For other posts from the Mighty Cheer Peppers, see here.)

The Fatigue of Ordinary Gentlemen

Jacket Blurb: In this not-really-anticipated new tale from author ordinaire Owen Servant, a motley group of “heroes” from unknown parts of history assemble to exchange vague platitudes and argue over where to eat lunch.

Note to self: when and if you ever write a book, do not attempt to craft your own marketing.

For well over a decade, I had this dream of living in a camper, traveling all over North America, seeing the sights, reading books. I’m not quite sure where the money was supposed to come from to support that existence; my dreams have always been light on practical details. In my dream, I lived alone, of course, because that was the life I always imagined.

My actual life is nothing like that. I am a married grandfather with four or five children (depending on how you count) and four or five grandchildren (depending on the same counting convention) who is a mathematician at a large Fortune 500 company, where I am also what might be called an executive.

My typical work day is from 6 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, Monday through Friday, with sporadic night meetings. I also work most Saturday mornings. I have roughly 50 or so employees I am directly or indirectly responsible for.

In becoming a mathematician, I assumed I would be able to lead a thoughtful and secluded life, so I’m batting 0-for-2 there, as well. I do attempt with some regularity to think, but am not as successful as would be ideal. Maybe if I had a camper.

When I do get home, I’m typically doing things with the three oldest of the aforementioned grandchildren:

This photo was taken in my backyard, 2 days before Halloween, 2022.

Since the time change, I get up almost every morning at 3:30. I get up, do a devotional/meditation, roll out a yoga mat and stretch for maybe 20 minutes, sit down in my study to read Nano Poblano posts, then write as much as time allows before I have to get ready and head to work.

I go to sleep around 9:30 at night.

I write at speed and rarely do much, if any, editing. As such, I routinely make mistakes, which is fairly representative of my life as a whole. I have a lot to do, and I do most of it, although more-and-more in a kind of waking haze, never getting enough sleep, but slogging on, nonetheless.

Sometimes, on a Sunday, I go out for drives in the countryside, listening to books or podcasts. In days like we’ve been having here recently, cold and clear, I can feel from the hills and trees and farms I pass the beauty and magnificence I longed to be seeing as young man, when I dreamed of a camper life.

I am lucky to have the life I do have, and I treasure it. But I am becoming aware of how life, and age, prepare us through tiredness for eventually letting go. I have so much to be thankful for, and only so much time to experience it, so I’d best get back to it.

Is your real life different than people might get from reading your blog? What dreams did you have that you never realized?

Farm and Away

There’s something both beautiful and sad about farms.

Some of the beauty comes in the interaction farmers have with the land. Even though technology develops and changes over time, the relationship of farmers to the land itself does not. “The land” here means not only the soil, but the seasons, moisture, wind, and any number of other variables we could call “natural”.

Nobody who farms for a living thinks human beings have “conquered” nature, because, in any given year, at any given point, nature can take it all away. No one who farms believes they have it all figured out.

Farmers are trying to preserve the land, not just because it is their livelihood, but because it is a duty. The land may turn on them for periods of time, in its unpredictability, but farmers never turn on the land.

Farming is seasonal, and seasons measure time. Part of the sadness of a farm is the passing of time, and the memory of those who’ve served that particular land.

The passing of time is an “everywhere” thing, of course: in cities and other busy places, we can cover much of that up with bustle and newness. When you’ve seen the same farmer working fields for forty years and realize one day he’s not there anymore, there is no missing it.

I grew up in Florida: not the part you’ve ever heard of, but that other part. We had the beach and we had the Gulf (of Mexico), but we also had farms. And cinder block. Florida in the 1960’s was largely comprised of cinder block: the houses, the stores, the restaurants.

I would say, “you had to be there” to picture it, but you didn’t, because… cinder blocks.

My best friend’s grandfather had a farm about thirty miles from where we grew up. Sometimes I would tag along on visits. They lived in a cinder block house, with a cinder block shed, and what seemed to me to be an enormous tractor parked in the yard. By today’s standards it would be more like the size of an ATV, but I was young.

When my friend’s grandfather passed away suddenly, the farm changed hands. I have driven by that place a handful of times in the thirty years since, and it hits differently than other memories. It’s like farmers and the land become one, and their inevitable separation seems that much sadder.

When I had to travel out of town recently, I drove largely through farm country. I live in Georgia, which means if I’m trying to get anywhere in anything like a timely manner, task one is to avoid Atlanta at all costs. So I took a circuitous route through the country, and enjoyed it immensely, as I love just driving through countryside.

Fairly near where we live is a large solar farm; it is a place where urban and rural sensibilities seem to coalesce. I only comment on that because there are very few places in modern life where that can be truly said. Our election maps look suspiciously like population density maps, which makes me think that urban versus rural ways of looking at the world may be more fundamentally different than people would have us believe.

At one time in my life, living out in the country was a dream of mine; having no practical skills of any kind whatsoever kind of disqualifies one from the farming life. Since I’m not crazy about being in crowds, I’ve spent almost my entire adult life living in suburban areas on the edge of rural ones, belonging to neither world, but accepting, and even admiring, both.

Do you have a secret desire to do something you are completely unqualified to do?

For more “Nano Poblano” goodness, click here.

In The Storm of Comparison

I have had problems with envy throughout my life. Because I was born an ugly child, I’ve always envied good-looking people. In fact, I still do, even though I married into a family full of them. Envy, of course, is born of comparison, and our ability to make comparisons is often imperfect and distorted.

When you are an ugly child, people around you will let you know, as children typically comment immediately on anything that seems unusual to them. This comes from lack of empathy and perspective, of course, but we all know adults who behave the same way, commenting on people or to people about whatever they think needs fixing.

In case you don’t know, ugliness is a situation many feel needs remedying, and fast.

As an early adolescent things only got worse, as my desire to not be seen as unattractive had grown considerably. The winds of pubescence blow hard, and they blew me very close to suicide. Fortunately, I found a few lights on shore to help steer me away, people who seemed to love me in spite of my rather manifest flaws.

One other thing that helped, in my later teens, was realizing I wasn’t the only one. I got to know people who envied me, not for my looks, obviously, but for other things I could do. I came to realize that envy was a kind of weird one-way comparison where we pick out what we want to focus on and ignore everything else that might lead to more qualified or nuanced conclusions. None of us are all good or all bad.

Yesterday, I went to see my nine-year old grandson compete in his first archery tournament, which he won, by the way. As he was walking out to receive his medal, the group of junior high and high school girls sitting behind us were saying things like, “Oh my God, he’s so cute!” and “Look at him!”

I’m glad for him that he gets that life to experience, and not the one I had, but the nine-year-old still inside me is envious. What I wouldn’t have given to hear that even once.

When this subject come up, people sometimes ask me if I still think of myself as ugly. The honest answer is, “yes”, but the beautiful woman I share a marriage with begs to disagree. She does wear pretty thick glasses these days, though.

The concepts of “beauty” and “ugliness”, I’ve come to think, are kind of like music: they don’t inherently mean anything, but they sure feel like they do.

This post is part of Nano Poblano 2022. Click here to experience the madness!

A Trusted Advisor

People tell me things. I find this to be strange, as my perception is that I rarely shut up long enough for the other person to get a word in edgewise. Yet hardly a day goes by that someone or other isn’t telling me some kind of secret, unsolicited.

Maybe I’m really a bartender, and just haven’t learned to accept it — possibly because I don’t drink alcohol.

Recently, a very young woman who works at our company cafe told me that she doesn’t understand guys at all, and wishes she could find one who actually saw her, and heard her, and liked-her-as-her, not for what they hoped they could get from her.

I told her that there are indeed guys like that out there.

Where? she asked.

The fact that I get a biscuit and a Coke Zero five mornings a week has apparently qualified me as a relationship counselor, so I gave her the most Dad-like advice I could think of, namely:

“Find activities you like to do with other people, both men and women, and where you aren’t there primarily for the purpose of meeting anyone. If you meet someone, great; if not, you should be able to have fun anyway.”

She said that was actually do-able, so she’d try it and let me know how it went. Then she gave me my biscuit for free.

Okay, I made up that last part.

I am not quite sure why it is people trust me; I don’t trust me, and I’ve known me quite a while. Maybe people mistake my predictability for reliability; getting the same breakfast every day isn’t the most accurate indicator of emotional stability, however.

I am sixty years old, so I would say there’s a grandfather thing going on, but truthfully, things have been like this since I was about sixteen years old. Choosing me as a confidant has never seemed like the wisest choice, to me; but people did it, do it, and will seemingly keep doing it, so, there you go.

Currently, I’ve driven a ways out of town to some farmland to watch the sun set. Sundays, I will often go out for drives in the country; it’s lovely around here, and particularly in the fall.

Thinking about what I wrote, above, I realize: I tell all of you who read this blog my secrets, it’s only fair that people in real life tell me theirs.

It’s some kind of balance.

A Teacher, a Painter

My mother was a teacher, and my father was a painter. I grew up in a house full of her books and his paintings.

I think it is safe to say that the modern world has as strong an interest in identity as any age before it. I chose to identify my parents by a profession (for my mom) and a hobby (for my dad) even though she didn’t become a teacher until she was around 40, and he gave up painting before I was born.

Defining an identity as being boiled down to single word or concept is part of our human tendency to want to substitute simple things for complex things. My mom was a singer, a reader, a union organizer, a friend, a daughter, a sister, a swimmer, a humorist, a melancholic. My dad was a pilot, a windsurfer, a track runner, a human rights advocate, a chorus director, an insomniac. And that only scratches the surface on each of them.

As storytellers — and I assume anyone with a blog or reading blogs is a storyteller — we struggle to transfer our known perspective through the prism of the unknown perspective of readers. So much that has become part of us — so much we have experienced — has been done without words, and that context informs our every thought. So we try to say how we feel, but our words fall short of conveying our meaning. I can describe my parents to you, though, and can bring parts of them back to life through stories. Which is just one reason why storytelling is magic.

I’m grateful to my parents, now, in ways I probably wasn’t while they were still alive. That is sad, of course, but I suspect it is common. My children, and their children, will one day describe me in some way: maybe, “he was a mathematician” or “he was a pianist”. They may also see in me some light I’ve long since lost track of. Or, they may truthfully remember the darkness in me, for there is plenty of that.

My mother was a teacher who taught me that I should never stop learning, and never stop wondering. My father was a painter who loved to show others the hidden beauty in things, and encouraged me to do the same, as best I could. And I hope for all of you the same things: truth, goodness, and beauty.

“Libraries Are Magic”

[Day 7]

Well, they are.

My mother tells me that, as a girl, she spent a lot of time at the public library, because (a) it was safe, and (b) it was quiet. My mom is the thirteenth of fifteen children, born into hunger level poverty, so both of those things were in short supply.

We moved a few times when I was a kid, and I remember the public libraries in each place. In addition, we had school libraries and even a meaningful church library or two thrown in there.

My favorite two of all those libraries were the two where we lived starting (for me) at age 10. My hometown library was my favorite, and made summers bearable. The next town over had just built a new one (pictured) and I used it, too.

When you move to a new town or neighborhood, you typically don’t have friends there. It’s quite a change for kids, particularly when you are used to having lots of them where you moved from. This was the situation my sister, brother and I were in the summer of 1972. My brother was starting high school with summer band though, and my sister was at the same high school she’d been at, and could drive.

I knew no one, and was going to be starting 5th grade at a new school that fall.

My first visit to the town library was our first full week in our new (to us) house. My mom, who taught school and so was home for the summer, took me to explore.

The library was in a very nondescript one story building. No fancy landscaping or architecture.

The children’s books were second thing on the right as we entered, just past the checkout desk. I realized within seconds I’d just entered a gold mine. For this library had the thing I was most looking for, yet couldn’t find in book stores: old books.

I think my love of old books started the prior year, when our teacher read us the first of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I realized that kids of my parent’s or grandparent’s times had led totally different types of lives, which I found fascinating. Before radio, television, or electric power in houses. Or maybe just before television, but, radically different than I knew.

I wanted more of that, and here it was.

My mom also found some books she wanted, and, after getting library cards, we were able to exit with a decent first haul. And the two week time to return meant a guaranteed trip back.

Libraries are magical for lots of reasons, of course. One of them is that we build monuments to those things we think are most important. When a child knows there are always collections of books available for borrowing, no matter where the family moves to, she or he knows society values books. The library in the next town over seemed like a palace to me, and there is magic in being someplace important — one that, as adults, we lose sight of, until maybe we feel it again by going somewhere famous.

Schools. Libraries. Football fields. Public pools. Grocery stores. Restaurants. As a kid, these are all magic. I see infants looking around in wonder in grocery stores, while their unnoticing parents hurriedly gabble away on their phones, oblivious to the sheer sort of ecstasy going on a few inches away.

Which is a shame, really.

When I went to visit my mom in Arizona last month, she took me to the library of the Assisted Living facility she lives in. They have newspapers, books, and magazines, and a computer memory game they’re all encouraged to play daily. So we did, together, laughing through much of it.

Old age and Parkinson’s are serious things, as is facing it with her children thousands of miles away. But my mom and I were back in a library, and the magic still happens there, just like it did forty-six years ago for a ten year old boy trying to fit into a new neighborhood, and just like it was for a little girl 30 years before that, trying to escape poverty and chaos.

Libraries are magic, magical monuments erected to something sacred, a chance to communicate directly with our own past. If we become too disconnected from the past, feeling it has nothing left to teach us, we lose the ability to focus even on the present. To truly know where we are, we must remember where we came from.

For if we forget that, the only monuments left will be monuments to ignorance.

And we can’t afford any more of those.

Photo credit : Niceville Public Library. 19–. Black & white photonegative. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. Accessed 20 May. 2018.

For Love of Dancing

For as long as she could, she danced: wherever, whenever. Every day.

She didn’t dance because she was the best at it. She didn’t dance for the attention. She danced for love of dancing, for the pure joy of it.

Long before I met, and fell in love with, and married her, she had this other love. Through the ups and downs of childhood, and adolescence, and a turbulent young adulthood, and a failed first marriage, she had this.

Music made her want to dance. Dance made her free. For real joy always comes both from the outside in, and from the inside out.

She was very good at it, and it did garner her a lot of attention. In addition, she got to the point where she could be paid to do it, and to teach it, so she did both.

While she was still a teen, she had been told she had structural deficiencies in her knees – parts weren’t there that should be – and that she probably ought to give up her more athletic pursuits, as one or the other of her knees could give out at any point.

But given the cause, she reasoned, that was ultimately going to happen anyway. So she danced: wherever, whenever.

When I showed up in her life, she had three daughters, and all of them danced as well. The eldest was slim, graceful, and her body expressed itself naturally in dance: but she loved dancing for the attention more than the feeling, and so ultimately fell away. The middle girl loved the creative aspect of dancing, and dreamed of maybe being a choreographer; but other disciplines offered her the same chance for creativity, and so she too fell away.  The youngest danced only because she wanted her mother to be proud of her, so she fell away the soonest.

We have a niece, though, who has continued to dance and to teach dance for love of dancing. Even with a young family, and a busy career: because not to do so is unthinkable for her.

My wife’s knees eventually got to the point where the kind of dancing she loved was not possible anymore. But we can, and do, dance some at wedding receptions; I also often catch her dancing with one or more of our grandchildren in the living room, as the familiar signs joy on her face have me falling in love with her all over again.

“Dancing”, for you, may be some other thing. It may be riding a bicycle, or running, or playing basketball; it may be writing, or going to the movies, or participating in poetry readings; it may be music, or painting, or drawing, or cooking, or surfing, or blogging — but, whatever it is, cherish your joy. Nourish it. Love it while you have it.

For the lessons of love and joy are the same: they’re born, they grow, they will change, and they will ultimately pass away. Part of life is about wringing every bit out of these experiences while we can, then letting them go when we must.

So dance for as long as you can: whenever, wherever.

Every day.

A Hollow Noon

It is lunchtime, and that should be a good thing, but I do not feel much like eating. Partially that’s because of how much I had for breakfast, and partially it is because my house has mirrors in it, and I see myself in them. I look like I rarely miss meals, and possibly knock other people down and take theirs. So I can skip a meal now and then.

It’s a sad, depressing day outside, and my work schedule doesn’t help. In January so far, I have typically worked from something like 5 or 6 in the morning until 6 or 7 at night. Yesterday I was up at 3 am and finished at 9 pm; this morning, I was up at a more typical 4 am, getting ready for a 6 am meeting with the president of the company I work for. I am a mathematician (an actuary, actually) by trade, I write poetry out here in spare moments, but spare moments are getting hard to come by.

I feel really hollow right now, exhausted, spent.

There is a strange theory prevalent these days that it requires moral authority to have feelings. I’m not quite sure where it came from, but it is of questionable validity. It takes all kinds of forms, for example:

  • You aren’t smart enough to have feelings.
  • You aren’t rich enough to have feelings.
  • You aren’t poor enough to have feelings.
  • You are too smart to have feelings.
  • You are too (fill-in-the-blank) to have feelings.

I find this attitude to be depressing wherever I encounter it. The only thing I can say about it is that very few people who say they believe in it really do. Because they think their feelings matter, and that they are entitled to them, and they know in real life things aren’t that simple.

COVID-19 has simultaneously increased and decreased the amount of “real life” many of us experience, so that is an ideal breeding ground for ideas people typically hold only when removed from real life. Like owning the privilege of having feelings.

Oh, well, back to work.

For all of you out there reading this, my advice is “Feel your feelings. You’ve earned them.”

And if you’ve got better weather you can send this direction, we will take it.