Winter Haiku

Royall Lyme after shave

Even in winter
one whiff stirs a remembrance
of spring long ago.


Notes: I’ve heard that the sense of smell is the strongest trigger of memories. I’m not sure that is a scientific fact, but anecdotally it sure seems so.

The odor of a particular janitorial product can transport me back to the polished hallways of Southeast Grade School. A hint of Lily of the Valley can put me right back in the shoes of the little boy who was me tending a flower garden with my mother.

The smell of fresh baked bread lands me in my grandmother’s house, playing with my cousins, anticipating the first bite of that still-hot bread, smeared with homemade butter and smothered in honey from the comb.

And the smell need not be pleasant. Step into a campground outhouse, and I’m right back on my childhood farm.  We weren’t the poorest farmers in the county — we had a two-seater.

And that reminds me. The smell of burning paper brings back the recollection of the out-of-date Sears & Roebuck catalogs, kept along with a box of kitchen matches in that old outhouse as a sort of forerunner to the modern room deodorizer.  You just rip out a page, roll it tight, and light it.  Everything smells much better than before!

Last month while on vacation, I was delighted to find a fragrance from the past at an Brooks Brothers outlet mall store. The bright green of the Royall Lyme bottle caught my eye almost immediately.

The heavy metal crown-shaped lid felt the same.  The faux-Old English font looked the same. And when I sprayed on a bit of the fragrance, I was taken back to the mid 1960s again.

The high school speech and debate club had boarded a school bus and driven to Kansas City for a weekend field trip.  The stated educational rationale was to take in a film or two that were not available in my rural hometown. But it was really pretty much a junket, a good excuse to get out of town and hang out in the big city.

Some of the details are fuzzy, but I think we stayed at an old Howard Johnson’s out on I-70 and Noland Road. Then the next day, with our teacher, Mr. Washburn, driving the bus, we ventured into the city.  I think the big movie most people wanted to see was Cat Ballou, which would most likely date this event in the spring of ’67.

We had no way of knowing it, but that summer in San Francisco would see the “Summer of Love,” with the full flowering of the hippie subculture. This was the era of “be-ins,” sex, drugs, and rock & roll.

But that was all to come later. Back in Kansas City, we caught a matinee, which I remember nothing about.  We ate at the Italian Gardens, at its old location on Baltimore Avenue, my first experience with ethnic food. The spumoni was redolent. It must have been soaked in some type of booze, which I had also never tasted before. A classic spumoni in an old school Italian restaurant can sometimes take me back in time.

But the most memorable experience happened when we stopped into a fancy men’s clothing store. I didn’t have a lot of spending money, so I couldn’t afford the clothes. But I found a bottle of Royall Lyme cologne in my price range and bought it.

I had a crush on a girl, and there were signs she liked me too. We sat next to each other on the bus ride back home. I wore the lime-scented fragrance.

As I walked home from the school building by myself, I recall humming Simon and Garfunkle’s 59th Street Bridge Song, with its signature line, “Feelin’ groovy.”  (From the first album I would buy for myself, incidentally.)

The sun was warm. The birds were chirping. My feet floated above the sidewalk. God was in His heaven. Everything was right with the world.

And all was infused with lime.

Speaking strictly for me, I could have died then and there.

As for peak experiences, this may seem fairly tame. But when you think about it, how many times in your life seem absolutely perfect?

I can only think of a handful.

The perfection was fleeting, of course. It always is. We went back to classes on Monday. The school year ended soon. The puppy-love romance fizzled. The summer was spent detasseling corn and bucking hay. Come mid-August and we had to endure the grueling two-a-day football practices. School started up again. I caught a cold. The entire football season I sat on the ice-cold aluminum bench as a third stringer.

Everything was not groovy.

But that one springtime, lime-soaked day was a glimpse. A foretaste of something pure and good and innocent and perfect.

My generation would try, just a couple of years later to take the Summer of Love to the next level and seize that innocence by force.  At Woodstock, half a million young people would head to Yasgur’s Farm and try to “get back to the garden,” but would wind up wallowing in trash and mud instead.

I read about Woodstock in TIME magazine. I wanted to believe in it. But I had just been blessed with indoor plumbing and central heating a few years before. Something about the filth and the litter and the discomfort just didn’t jibe with what paradise was supposed to be like for me.

Then, in December of 1969, all the false hope of the Summer of Love and Woodstock would be slammed shut at the Altamont Raceway Festival Free Concert. While the Rolling Stones played Sympathy for the Devil, a fight broke out.  And while they played Under My Thumb, a Hells Angels security guard stabbed a stoned-out and unruly concert-goer to death.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the counterculture had peaked, and I had pretty much missed it.

We were a long way from “all  is groovy.”

By the time I would head  off to college in 1970, eager to plunge into the counterculture, it had already been exposed as a false hope and an empty dream. I felt vaguely cheated, like I’d arrived late at the party.

In 1973, Van Morrison would capture the contradictions and the corruption of the hippie movement in his song The Great Deception on the album Hard Nose the Highway:

Did you ever hear about the great deception
Well the plastic revolutionaries take the money and run
Have you ever been down to love city
Where they rip you off with a smile
And it don’t take a gun

— by Van Morrison

But the idea of paradise persists. And the scent of limes still brings it back.

 

 

 

 

 

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Philosophy and Poetry

The poet in a philosophical mood

A Short Philosophical Love Note

Of what does missing consist?
(But first, know this, you are missed.)
It could be the lack of tender attack –
You see, I’ve missed getting kissed.

It might be like a disease
That only your treatment can ease.
The symptoms persist and although I resist
I wind up down on my knees.

It’s metaphysical tricks –
That’s strange, I know, but it sticks –
What else could explain the internal pain
When my heart my law contradicts.

It could be all in the mind,
If mental’s the way we’re designed.
But wishing you were does not make you here –
That’s truth of a different kind.

Who plumbs the depths of the soul?
And who knows the depth of the hole
Gouged when a lover heads for safe cover,
Exacting outrageous toll?


NOTES: When I headed off to college, my long-suffering father advised me to study “something practical.”  He suspected that I was likely to squander my opportunity at getting the education he never had the chance to acquire.

It might have been my hair, which had not been cut since the end of football season.  It might have been his knowledge that I was not the type of kid who listened to his elders.

So, of course, I went straight ahead and majored in philosophy with a minor in Greek and Latin.

And, also of course, the universe proved my father right.  Upon graduation I entered the job market and landed a coveted job as fry cook at a pancake house.

It was the only job I could get.

I had gravitated towards philosophy because I wanted to find answers to the big questions of life. I wanted to find Truth, Beauty and Love, and thought that philosophy was the route.

I didn’t find the answers I sought in philosophy. Instead, I grew weary of hairsplitting arguments and arcane debates about the meaning of language.

By my senior year, I was tired of the whole enterprise.

But I did find truth in a most unsuspected place. Not in the heavy and thick books of philosophical and impenetrable prose.  But in a dusty old Bible, the same Bible my father had been pointing me towards all my life.

Ironically, not only was my father right about studying something practical, he turned out to be right about where to find truth as well.

But off at college, I experienced my own personal John Newton/Saul of Tarsus moment.

Like the notorious English slave trader, I realized I had been blind about my own wretchedness.

Like the self-righteous Pharisee, I was knocked to the ground and scales fell from my eyes.

Like both of them, I was touched by grace and set on a new path with a completely fresh start.

After searching for truth in the ancient writings of Socrates and Plato, and seeking power in the seductive teachings of the East, I discovered that the truth I sought had been under my nose all the time.

But now that I had found truth, I still had to figure out what to do with my life. I was a decent short order cook, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t my calling.

I finally hit on the idea that I needed to do something that involved writing. And in those days in the afterglow of Watergate, this meant journalism.  So I went back to school to take just enough classes to land a newspaper job.

We all wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein.

I was delighted when I landed my first freelance stringer assignment. I drove to City Hall, spent 3 hours at a city council meeting, drove back home and then spent another 4 or 5 hours writing up as many stories as I could. The next morning, I drove the finished copy to the office.

I was delighted that for this they’d pay me a whole 15 bucks! And if one of the stories was decent, I might get a treasured byline.

What I didn’t realize was that the newspaper business had already started its long, slow decline. By the early 1980s, afternoon dailies were already going out of business all across the U.S.

Newsrooms were shrinking and it was tough to get on with a major metropolitan paper. And this was all before the internet cut the legs out from under newspapers’ business model.

Impatient with the career prospects at the big papers, I took a job as the editor of a financial newsletter.

(Had I been a better investigative journalist, I would have discovered that this publication had nothing to do with reporting objective truth. Instead, it was the front-end lead generator for a rare coin and precious metals dealer. It was really a direct marketing enterprise.)

But things worked out, and that first direct marketing job eventually led me to doing fundraising for good causes, which has been my career for the past quarter century.

But for several years — before I found the love of my life and the mother of my children — my love life followed the same tragic-comic early trajectory as my circuitous career path.

Full of false starts and spectacular missteps.

After one of these disasters, many years ago, I wrote the poem posted today.

It’s about the only thing I have to show today for my philosophy major.

Hometown haiku

Marshall High School cheerleaders, 1968.
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Unattainable,
cheerleaders stirred crowds and our
imaginations


NOTES:  Here’s another invaluable photograph from my friend, Susumu.  This must have been taken in the fall of 1968, amidst an exciting small town high school football season.

It most certainly was an away game.  The home games of the Marshall High School Owls were played at Missouri Valley College’s Gregg-Mitchell Field, and this setting does not look familiar.  I’m guessing it might have been the away game that year at the home field of our most hated rival, the Excelsior Springs Tigers.

Marshall had been playing second fiddle to the Tigers for several years, just unable to put together enough power to overcome dislodge them from the top of the Missouri River Valley Conference.

The year before, we had endured a humiliating defeat as the Tigers came into our stadium and beat us on a frigid night in Marshall.  Those old aluminum benches had never felt so cold.

This year turned out much better.  Coach Cecil Naylor had us worked into such a frenzy that we could have taken on a band of Viking berserkers.  We travelled into the Tigers’ home turf, took care of business, and vanquished them 20 to 0.

But I digress.

The topic is cheerleaders.  What is with their mystique?  And why couldn’t they get a date with their own classmates?

I could be misremembering, but it seemed that very few cheerleaders ever dated guys in their own class.  Older guys might work up the confidence to “date down” with a cheerleader from lower grade.  But mating between cheerleaders and a classmate was scare and rare.

One of life’s great mysteries.  The Cheerleader Paradox.

Mysterious even when you factor in the fact that in our little town, many of us had attended school together since first grade, and the rest of us had been together in the same building since 7th grade.

The long history and close familiarity meant that most of your classmates were like family.  That contributed to sense that the cute girl in chemistry class seemed more like your sister or your cousin than girlfriend material.

I mean, you’d grown up together!  You’d seen each other on good days and bad days.  Good hair days and bad.  You’d fought on the playground in grade school, and competed for teachers’ attention.  Not much mystery left.

But even that doesn’t explain the Cheerleader Paradox.

Dr. Freud, call your office.  I’m open to hypotheses.

Midsummer Anniversary Poem

Here comes midsummer's milestone of our love
Here Comes Midsummer’s Milestone

Here comes midsummer’s milestone of our love,
Years since our selfish selves we pledged to yield,
So we’re as broken-in now as the glove,
I wore so long ago while in the field.

Fresh from the store unworn straight to my room,
Rubbed in the oil and every crease explored,
All through the night I savored the perfume,
The musky linseed leather I adored.

Come sober daylight with our job to do,
All awkward stiff not giving either way,
How many sweaty strivings’ deja vu
It took before we as one flesh could play.

Some ragged days I’d spit and pound the palm,
Or hurl the thing against the dugout wall,
But all the while a magic mute and calm
Mutated hand to glove with every ball.

The softening was gradual but sure.
Soon nerves and muscles seemed just like they spanned
From fingertips to join the glove secure,
As if I had been born with one webbed hand.

We’ve come now to the eve of middle age,
Well worn but with a lot of sport to go.
We must each for the other one assuage
Those stinging blows life certainly will throw.

We’ve held through wins and losses and through rain,
That etched new cracks not there at all before.
But loves like this were made to take the strain,
Just like that piece of cowhide that I wore.


Notes:

Not long ago, I asked my wife if she had a favorite poem.  Her blink reaction was, “the one about the baseball glove.”

So, that is what she gets on the eve of  our 31st anniversary.  A re-run.

It was written sometime in the early 1990s.  We were young and just starting a family.  I had a job I absolutely hated.  I would take long lunch breaks and write poems parked by the side of Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis.

Long before I discovered girls, back in Marshall, MO, my first love was baseball.

I cannot begin to total up the hours spent playing baseball, watching baseball, collecting baseball cards, sorting baseball cards, reading about baseball, and dreaming about playing in the World Series.

I knew the starting line-ups of both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City A’s by heart.

When I played one-man whiffle ball against my friend Royce, we would pick a team and go through the line up as each individual player. If the guy batted right, we batted right. If he batted left, we batted left.

(We drew the line at pitching left-handed, because neither of us was truly ambidextrous.)

Our spare time was spent searching for discarded pop bottles which we could turn into the neighborhood grocery store for two cents apiece. Every 5 bottles meant we could buy two more packs of baseball cards.

Somewhere between the ages of 12 and 13, we moved on to other interests. A long and winding path led me to the love of my life.

We were married 31 years ago today.

The inspirations for this poem are multiple. Several years ago, it was coming on to midsummer and my wedding anniversary.

I was feeling that sense of my youth slipping away. But, despite the oppressive job I was enduring, I was confident that good things still lay ahead.

I was also listening to a lot of Van Morrison. His song “Madame George” was stuck in my head. (Quite possible the most poignant song ever written.)

In particular, I was hearing the line where Van does his improvisational thing where he repeats the words “love” and “glove” over and over in an almost hypnotic chant.

My story is about a very different glove, and a very different love. But that merging of the two words was lodged in my mind.

The result of all of this ferment was this poem.

The only time I’ve ever read it in public, I was told it was “an audacious metaphor.”

I’ll take that.

Today, upon the occasion of my 31th wedding anniversary, I submit this little poem. It’s as true today as when I wrote it years ago