On the Litter

 

The secretary sits in his car outside Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church, its Rosetta window reminiscent of the one inlaid in the gable wall at Otey, his boyhood parish. A drooping melaleuca languishes beneath the window, in the light of the entryway. Men smoke there, in this light, before flicking their butts into the wet street and entering the church in twos and threes to find their spots. Duty-bound, the secretary must join them, as he’s joined them a thousand times before—to read and record the minutes. Tonight, the grand poobah Max will open the floor to the men’s experiences with a recitation of Kunitz’s poem “The Layers,”

I have walked though many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being,
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray…

To coax himself inside to listen to his fellow men, the secretary makes a game of it: He will sit quietly and take notes more copiously than the anonymity of the members permits. He will quietly write out everyone’s remarks in the first person, parroting each guy’s voice to the best of his ability.

Kobe M.

I’ve rarely felt more intimate with my wife than when we went shopping for a couch. I was going to tell her this, but I know it doesn’t match her definition of intimacy. It takes two, you know, to be truly intimate.

Phil

When the various ways of getting an erection lowered my blood pressure too much, we tried alternative ways of sex. My wife likes them a lot, but I’m not sure she needs me for it.

Ace

Has anyone heard about this male platonic touch method for keeping a marriage interesting? My hugging you is supposed to make things better between Nance and me.

Hector

My ex told me she was still grieving after our divorce and I wondered if I was grieving too and just didn’t feel it. Is that possible? Can you grieve without feeling it?

Tariq N.

When I pee it dribbles out. I used to have a steady stream. My doctor tells me I have an enlarged prostate.

Paul W.

Tell me about my aspirational clutter. I’ve got camping gear, fishing gear, scuba gear, rock-climbing gear, a long board, a short board, wetsuit, a mountain bike, a road bike, a home-brew kit, never been touched, an untouched saxophone, a post-hole digger, a treadmill, a rowing machine, a Serbo-Croatian language course, a half dead bonsai tree, a camera with an endless array of lenses, and stacks of how-to’s and historical novels. My question: should I have a garage sale?

Hank

My daughter’s stepfather bought her a Prius. I can’t believe he bought her a Prius. I could never buy her a Prius.

Max F.

From Kunitz, I say again, “Live in the layers, men, not on the litter.”

 

Stanley Kunitz called his poem “a summing-up poem.” Max enriches the meetings with the summing-up poems of men and silently urges praise of his choices. This sounds judgmental. The secretary doesn’t mean to judge. He loves Max. Max checks in with him before he can slip out: “You good?” How can the secretary tell Max his wife’s biopsy has come back and, with it, news of an advanced stage of cancer? How can the secretary explain his wife’s insistence that he find someone new, only to turn around and say, “You’d better not, if you know what’s good for you”?

“I do,” the secretary has told her. “You do what?” “Know what’s good for me.” “Go see your friends,” she says. “I want to stay here with you.” “Go,” she says, “and don’t take it personally.” “I’m not taking it personally.” “Then go,” she says. “Tell them what’s happening to us and take down whatever advice they offer, so as not to forget. Come home afterwards, and crawl in bed, and try not to wake me, and please do wake me. You can if you want. I want to see you all the time now. It’s complicated, isn’t it? In the time we have left, our shared time, I’ll need more alone time than you’re used to. So go to your dumb ole meeting, Thomas, and come home quick and, yes, I think I do want to hear: tell me what the men say about us.”

 

Variations On Knowing

Orchid & Guitar

I’m in a writing group called The Drunken Goats. But I don’t drink, and I haven’t seen any of my peers get too drunk. No, that’s not true. I did watch one of us get pretty fucked up at our holiday party a few years ago. He grew very affectionate with everyone, and he passed out early, with his head in someone’s lap. Before he went, though, he’d become obsessed with this sentence, the source of which no one has discovered:

The general known for sending his troops into the fray knowing full well that he would lose more of his own but with fewer overall casualties was a controversial warlord.

He must have said it a hundred times, varying the diction and syntax with each articulation, his final utterances incomprehensible because he was slurring:

Understand, you, that she will lose women of her own but not those women she doesn’t know to send into a fray anyway, before someone brands her Controversial Warlord.

And now that I’m thinking about it, it wasn’t a he-goat (Paulo, who is a loudmouthed drunk), but a she (Maggie, who is not). And she, for her love of fine art and prosodies marked by repetition and theme & variation, and for her performance that night, called to my mind Gertrude Stein (1874-1946). Put another way: The goat who drank the most was like a High Modernist.

Gilda’s Club

1.

Wandering amid the women in his life, a once-lonely man with a wry sense of humor found love simply by persisting in telling the same dumb jokes over and over again—and listening for laughter. Lifting her veil, he now tried to speak, but found himself speechless in the eyes the wisest comedienne he’d ever witnessed.

2.

American comic Gilda Radner (1946-1989) wore many faces. One she called Roseanne Roseannadanna. She played other characters with names like Brungilda, Emily Litella, Candy Slice, and Judy Miller.

Donning a huge head of tight curls, she, Roseanne Roseannadanna, was a fake and movingly puerile consumer-affairs reporter on the mock news broadcast on the late-night variety show Saturday Night—first airing in the early 1970s.

Brash and tactless, she, Roseanne Roseannadanna, was quick to savage colleagues and viewers alike—anyone who got in the way of what she was saying—before digressing into something bodily, something scatological, like her own flatulence or the status of one of her nose hairs.

She, Roseanne Roseannadanna, dropped names so that in one moment she was reading a letter from a viewer, usually one Mister Feder of Fort Lee, New Jersey, asking about quitting smoking or how breast feeding a baby works in practice, and in the next she was going on about her supposed run-in with Princess Grace of Monaco.

Maniacal, sarcastic, insistent, she, Roseanne Roseannadanna, marked my earliest exposure to this kind of playacting. As a form of insistence, she, Roseanne Roseannadanna, chronically referred to herself by her full name. Save for the emphatic I, she favored fewer pronouns for herself when speaking about herself, of whom she spoke admiringly.

Though she, Ms. Radner, was a master of sketch comedy, none of the teenagers in my life have ever heard of her. This makes sense. It would be like my reciting from Lucille Ball when I was their age or a teenager forty years hence laughing at the antics of I don’t know who or what in our present moment.

Once Ms. Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she famously said, “Having cancer gave me membership In an elite club I’d rather not belong to.”

Upon her death, her husband, also a famous comic, helped to found Gilda’s Club, an international organization created to support people living with cancer.

Having sworn off marriage after the death of his wife Gilda Radner, the widower did eventually remarry. Sometime after that—or was it sometime before?—he sought therapy. For what specifically, I don’t know. Loneliness? Anger? Depression? Impulsivity?  He said to his shrink something like, Hey Doc, I have the urge to give away all my money. Well, replied the therapist, how much money do you have? Me? he said, I owe $300.

One day I was walking down Division Street in Nashville when I happened upon a red brick building—home to one the chapters of Gilda’s Club. So read the bronze plaque on the facade on such a bright and muggy day. The parking lot was empty. The windows were dark. Cupping my hands about my face to peer through the glass, I got the sense of a clock ticking. Dust motes. Empty chairs. Dusky silence. A card table stood strewn with magazines. A turntable sat beside a stack of records. Beyond bookshelves, a view to a kitchen and, everywhere, jutting shadows. Suddenly overwhelmed by a sense not so much of time passing as of time having passed—of not so much death as the insignificance of a single life in the context of the sheer number of individuals who have entreated youth to linger—I backed away from the window and, looking around to see if my nosiness had raised eyebrows, I buried my hands in my pockets and, with a down-turned gaze, continued my walk as if nothing had happened.

By George (Good Day)

Washington

My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute my success in life to the moral,intellectual and physical education I received from her. ―George Washington

From a pair of Georges come two wonderful quotes, one from the novelist George Eliot, author of Middlemarch, and the other from the comedian George Carlin. “Affection is the broadest basis of a good life,” says one. Says the other, “The day after tomorrow is the third day of the rest of your life.” Can you guess who said which? I guess it’s pretty obvious. Maybe it isn’t important. They make a nice couple. No matter who said what, they make more meaning together than they do in isolation.

The poet George Oppen was a profound witness to the 20th century. As with my grandfather (George) on my mother’s side, at the end of his rich life, Alzheimer’s overwhelmed him. I learned then that when someone asks, ‘Where’s my wife?’ and he has no wife, you say ‘She’s not here right now’ as a way of going along with the forgetting person’s reality. You accept that nothing you do will bring back their ability to remember. You manage anxiety.

Back then, and finding them again now, I wrote the phrases ‘profound witness’ and ‘disease of forgetting’ in the margin beside the poet’s lines,

And it is those who find themselves in love with the world
who suffer an anguish of mortality...
A Child’s Drawing of His Grandfather
George Carlin (1937-2008)