Thursday, February 19, 2015

Taking a Risk

I realize that I am taking a risk in writing this blogpost. The risk is that I may come across as hopelessly out of touch. This is not as great a risk as it seems. More and more, I realize that I am barely clawing my way into the 21st century. For example, when I recently read in my college alumni magazine that a member of the class of ’13 was added to a new committee, my first thought was “That’s a really old person.” Then I realized it was the class of 2013 not 1913. Oh. . . .
I was reminded of my age and my era of comfort again this week when I read that Leslie Gore had died. Lesley Gore of “It’s My Party,” “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” and “You Don’t Own Me.” That Lesley Gore. I even watched a You Tube video of her singing one of those songs on “Hullabaloo" in 1965, and, sadly, I think I remember seeing that show when it aired originally. Which only goes to show that if you know what “Hullabaloo” is, you’re probably on your way to being out of touch.
But I still haven’t gotten to my point—another symptom of my advancing years. Here it is: I do not understand why people choose to have tattoos etched into or drawn onto their bodies.
I realize that tattoos have been around for quite a while, but they seem to be the rage these days. When I was growing up, Jewish parents made a big deal about our not getting our bodies tattooed. It goes back to a line in the book of Leviticus, I believe. And I’m sure that the Nazis marked Jews they placed into concentration camps with tattooed numbers in part to desecrate their bodies. But that is way off the point.
Why am I thinking about tattoos and questioning them today? Two recent incidents. On Saturday afternoon, Audrey and I went to see a Metropolitan Opera performance beamed into a local movie theater. Imagine, opera and popcorn together—not much can top that. So we’re watching a pretty avant-garde Bartok opera called Bluebeard’s Castle, in which the soprano—a tall, thin blonde woman playing Judith—is opening doors into the home and mind of her new husband Bluebeard, who is notorious for knocking off new wives who enter his castle but never leave. In one scene, she is sitting inside a bathtub and appears to be wearing what most of us where when we’re bathing—nothing. Which seems somewhat shocking during an opera, that most high-brow of entertainments. While singing a pretty serious aria in pretty lugubrious tones, she turns her back to the audience, and there it is—a colorful and not-so-small tattoo. I’m a little shocked—not by the nudity (which I would applaud) but by the tattoo. Am I out of touch? You betcha.

Then, today I went to my gym to work out. Standing near me was a young man pumping an amount of weight I cannot even imagine lifting in my dreams. Down his muscular left arm, in large old-English font, the following letters are tattooed: G-O-D-S.  I have a little trepidation checking out his right arm for another set of letters, but there they are: G-I-F-T. And I’m thinking, here is a man with a great deal of ego but not the best knowledge of grammar. After all, he left out the apostrophe in God’s. And I understand something he may not realize—that that spelling error and egotistical message are going to be on his arms for a long, long time. Someday, he may need to buy a lot of long-sleeved shirts to cover them up.
So, there you have it. Today, I am railing against tattoos, especially those that are grammatically incorrect. Tomorrow, who knows? Hey, modern world, bring it on!

Sunday, February 15, 2015


The older we get, the more we are able to understand and appreciate irony. Here is an example. Last night, Audrey and I went to see the movie “Still Alice,” about a woman who is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The main character was losing her memory, and my mind was flooded with memories. Which seems pretty ironic to me.

Here is just one example. In the middle of the film, actress Julianne Moore opens a speech she is delivering on her personal struggles with her disease with a quote from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop. The poem, entitled “One Art,” begins:

            The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
            so many things seem filled with the intent
            to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

And I left the movie for a few seconds and was drawn back to my memories of Elizabeth Bishop, perhaps my favorite American poet, not so much because of her writing, which is wondrous, but because of my memories of her.

When I was in high school, I used to take out from the public library Caedmon Records on which poets read from their work. Now, I know that sounds pretty pedantic, and it is. But that’s how I was (and still am, according to Audrey). My favorite of those albums featured Bishop reading from her works.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poems are filled with strong images. I might even call them “manly” if I was stereotyping. And her voice on the Caedmon recording was powerful. I imagined her as being tall and strong. (During my freshman year in college, my first English professor, Alice Miskimin, had that type of stature. She was a good teacher and was known for her toughness, as a grader and hockey player. In fact, I once heard that she was not allowed to play in the intramural hockey league with other students and professors because her body checks during games were sometimes too violent. But I digress.)

So you get an image in your head, and it sticks. During my junior year in college, I was taking a poetry writing seminar with Mark Strand, who would later be named American poet laureate.
Mark Strand gives a reading of his poems.
One day, Strand announced that one of his mentors, Elizabeth Bishop, was coming to campus. The two poets seemed well matched to me. After all, Strand was well over six feet tall with a huge head filled with words and images. I figured they would make an impressive pair, physically-speaking. Excited, I arrived at the reading early, got a good seat, and readied to watch “my” Elizabeth Bishop stride to the podium in all her height and strength. And out walked a “garden club lady,” hair recently colored and curled in a beauty parlor, glasses dangling from her neck on what seemed to be a string of pearls. I’m sure my mouth fell open with surprise.
The "real" Elizabeth Bishop-- small of stature
but powerful of voice and image
Then she began to read, and it was the same voice with the same mesmerizing power. I don’t remember what she read that day. I just remember being both surprised and impressed by the “real” Elizabeth Bishop, who was so different from my mind’s eye and so much the same.

And almost as quickly, my mind returned to Julianne Moore and her character’s fading memory. “Still Alice” is not an easy movie for people my age to watch. Almost all of us battle with losing words and names and focus for brief spans of time. And we fear more permanent losses. We begin making lists for everything, and we post a file on our computer with all of the passwords we need to open up electronic doorways to our information. My file used to be named “Passwords” until a Geek Squad member helping me clean out a computer virus suggested I use a different name, in case someone broke into my computer and began looking around. And what about those passwords? If we make them complex enough to deter hackers, we may never find our stuff again. Ironies that build on ironies.

Speaking of memories—Audrey and I are planning to watch SNL’s 40th anniversary retrospective tonight. And we’ll remember the bits from the earliest shows much better than those from contemporary shows. Not so much because our short-term memory is failing, but because we can seldom stay awake long enough these days to get much past the opening half-hour of the show.