Sonnet Upon Reading Old Letters

Pile of old letters

The Old House Sure is Quiet

The old house sure is quiet since you’ve gone.
Mom can’t get used to cooking just for two.
You won’t believe how much weight we’ve put on.
We’d hoped to get a note by now from you.

These letters now are half a century old,
Confirm I was a most neglectful son.
No matter how I wish the tale retold,
That page is turned. That episode is done.

And so I write this meager note to you,
Dear Father, only parent I have left.
Your fondness for your prodigal issue
Outlives their fondness, who left me bereft.
May you this orphan never leave alone,
May your fire find and melt this heart of stone.


(2018)

NOTES: Reading old letters is not for the faint of heart. I’ve been going through a box that includes the letters my parents wrote to me during my freshman year of college.

I am older now than they were then, and I am definitely identifying with them in this story.  I was the youngest of their children (by a long shot) and they had become empty nesters after having had children in the house for nearly 40 consecutive years. They were pushing 60, still working hard to make ends meet, and now suddenly living by themselves.

They wrote me several times a month, usually on Sunday evenings. They each filled both sides of a full sheet of paper.

The message that comes through, again and again, is: “Please write and let us know how you are doing.”

I have no idea how many times I wrote them back, but from the plaintive tone of their letters, it couldn’t have been very many.

And that figures. I was off on the Big Adventure of my youth.  Determined to grow up and become my own person and form my own beliefs. Remember, this was 1970.  Maybe not the peak of the counterculture, but you could see it from there.

I recently read an article about the attitudes of college freshmen over the years. The subject being investigated concerned the students’ desire to work towards a good job with security.

The year that scored the absolute lowest was–you guessed it–my year, 1970.  And I was pretty typical.  Despite my long-suffering father’s most excellent advice to “study something practical,” I thought my purpose was to discover Truth, Beauty, and Love.  I remember heading off to school with the express intention to NOT study anything practical that would lead to a regular job. (And I certainly succeeded at that! When I finally graduated five years later with a B.A. in philosophy and classics, I was fully qualified to be a fry cook, and that was about it.)

It took several years and going back to school before I developed any marketable skills.

But back to my folks.

They were such faithful correspondents. They diligently reported news they thought I would be interested in.  Like who they ran into up on the square … which of my old schoolmates were married and having babies … news from the high school.  Who was crowned homecoming queen–that was big news. And they faithfully reported the high school football scores each week.

I didn’t realize how much they had enjoyed going to my games, and although I was no longer playing, they would occasionally take in a game, or at least listen on the radio or read the local newspaper, and they would report the scores to me.

But of course, I was pretty much over all that.

Those days are sort of hazy for me, but I know I was finally off on my own and trying out everything I had refrained from doing in high school for fear of getting kicked off the football team.

My folks were lonely, to be sure. But beyond that, if I may project a little, they were being faced with their own mortality, and their own sense of purpose and meaning.

The more well-off set of their generation cashed out of their suburban homes and headed for Florida or Arizona and retired to a life of relative leisure. And who could blame them? They had put their lives on hold to save the world during WWII, then they had come back and built the greatest economy the world had ever seen.

But my parents weren’t quite in that class.  They had raised 4 boys, helped take care of a handful of grandkids, and now that I was gone, they weren’t sure what to do next. Except they had to keep on baking pies and driving busses and fixing tractors. Retirement really wasn’t an option. Meanwhile, the whole society, as reported in TIME magazine, seemed to be turning upside down all around them.

And then, when their prodigal son finally deigned to write from college, he babbled about crazy things. I was studying impractical subjects. I was planning to go to Mississippi to register voters. I was learning yoga and wanting to have serious conversations about serious subjects.

Neither of my parents had been able to get much of a formal education, yet they were patient with their insufferable son. My mother didn’t even get to go to high school because her mother had died during the influenza epidemic early in the last century, leaving her as the eldest daughter (although she was just barely a teenager) to run the household and raise all her younger siblings. My father came of age smack in the middle of the Great Depression, and was forced to drop out of high school to start earning a living, working as a farmhand for a dollar a day.

We had a bit of a generation gap.

And yet, my parents’ hobbies belied their lack of education. My mother read poetry. From an early age, she would recite the verses she loved to me from her beloved volume of the most loved poems of the American people.

She read the American classics of the time: Wordsworth, Emerson, Eugene Field, and even that new fellow, Frost.  Some of my earliest memories are of her reading to me from “The Duel” (aka “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,”) “Lil’ Boy Blue,” and “Hiawatha.”

She would dutifully clip poems out of the Capper’s Weekly and stuff them into the letter she sent to me each week.

My father, meanwhile, was a serious student of the Bible and ancient history. He would order Bible commentaries and translations of ancient writers such as Josephus and Philo to supplement his Bible reading.

Looking back with the perspective of time, I see a couple of very intelligent people who had their potential abbreviated by circumstance. I also see I was a very lucky kid who was in grave danger of pissing away great opportunity.

And most of all I see a clueless teenager who had no idea of the hopes and fears and heartaches of his parents.

Many years later, when my own children played their last high school games, graduated and went off to college … when they were thousands of miles away in another country and didn’t check in as often as I would have liked … only then did I have a glimpse of what must have been running through my own parents’ hearts so many years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

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Hippie haiku

Vintage college swimming pool
“Liberate the pool!”
We presumed naked meant free.
We didn’t know jack.


Notes

The year: 1970.

Location:  A liberal arts college with a reputation for being a little “out there” situated in the upper Midwest.

A delegation of hometown friends make a long journey up to pay a fall break visit to a group of their high school friends who inexplicably all had happened to enroll in the same Liberal Arts College with a Reputation for Being a Little “Out There.”

It’s great to see old friends.  Partying ensues.  Someone (remembering with fondness the skinny-dipping escapades back home in the bucolic farm ponds and rock quarries of west central Missouri) suggests that a group be formed to go “liberate the pool” on campus.

It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

The word goes forth through the hallways of the dormitories of the liberal arts college with a reputation for being a little out there.

A party is formed, and the pool is “liberated.”

The campus police are called, and the liberators are duly cited for their violations of civility.

I’m not saying who was, and who wasn’t actually there.  Or who was a participant, and who was just an observer.  Perhaps, you were not available, but you would have gone had you been available.  Perhaps, you were horrified at the mere suggestion.  Memories get fuzzy when seen through the gauzy veil of so many years.

But, I’ll let the following people explain to their families and descendants just what role they actually played that evening in the notorious Macalester College Skinny-Dipping Affair of 1970:

  • David DuBois
  • John Swisher
  • Marty Swisher
  • Rob Greenslade
  • Robert Lee Van Arsdale
  • Ann Heinzler
  • Sheri Fritz
  • Paul Thompson
  • Alison Williams Coulson
  • George Cossette
  • Becky Roberts Kabella
  • Alan Ballew

John Marquand, I’m pretty sure you were not along on that trip.  But if you had been, I’m also pretty sure you would have been right there with the other liberators.  This is your chance to set the record  straight.

 

Invite a poet to give your next commencement speech

Poet Mary Karr stands a delivers an awesome graduation address at Syracuse University
Poet Mary Karr stands and delivers an awesome graduation address at Syracuse University

Poet Mary Karr recently delivered the most awesome commencement speech ever.

Not that this is a category with a lot of tough competition. I cannot say I can remember anything from any commencement address I’ve ever heard.

One exception: Sen. Thomas Eagleton spoke at my high school graduation and told us impatient about-to-be-hippies-and-rebels to “work for change, but work within the system.” Advice we promptly went out and ignored.

Likely the only reason I remembered this: a couple of years later George McGovern picked Eagleton to be his vice presidential running mate in the 1972 election.

When the press dredged up records that Eagleton had been treated for depression McGovern declared he stood behind his running mate “1000 percent.” But a couple of days later Democrat party leaders got to McGovern and convinced him that Eagleton was a big liability, the idealistic McGovern dropped him.

Working within the system didn’t really wok out for Eagleton all that well. Or for McGovern. He went on to get trounced by Richard Nixon in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in American history.

Commencement speeches are notorious for bland bomfoggery and inane clichés.

I can’t even remember who spoke at my college commencement. Likewise for any other graduations I’ve attended as a guest.

But I’ll wager that the Syracuse class of 2015 and their loved ones will long remember Mary’s little talk.

She ends her speech with a tribute to her mentor and benefactor from her own undergraduate days, Professor Walter Mink, of Macalester College. She says he inspired her to teach college. But he did much more. A generous and wise man, Mink could see into the souls of his students and give them what they needed.

Professor Walter Mink
Professor Walter Mink

In Mary’s case, Mink and his wife gave her understanding and encouragement until she began to find her way.  (In Mary’s third installment of her memoir series, Lit, she details the many remarkable kindnesses lavished on her by the Minks, ranging from outfitting this poor Texas girl with warm clothes to withstand the bitter Minnesota winters to persuading her to get counseling.)

In the speech, Mary tells an interesting anecdote about a physiological psychology class taught by Mink. During my time at Mac, which overlapped with Mary’s I took that same class. Professor Mink was a wonderful teacher and a compassionate man.

(He was so beloved that three of his students formed a punk rock band and named their group “Walt Mink.”  He was that inspiring.)

One of our major lab assignments that semester was to implant electrodes in the brain of a lab rat. The plan was to stimulate various parts of the brain with electric current and record the behavior.

Each team of students was given a rat. I named mine Sparky. We had to do all of the prep on the rat ourselves, which meant giving the rat a shot to anesthetize it. (I’m deathly afraid of needles.) When the rat was safely numb and groggy, we were to secure its head in a device that closely resembled a toy vise grip.

Then came the fun part.

We were to use a scalpel to slice open the rat’s scalp, pry back the skin, and then drill tiny holes through the skull to create access points for the electrodes. I didn’t realize that the skull of a rat is only about as thick as an egg shell.

So, as I was drilling away, the bit broke through the skull and sank deep into the poor creature’s brain. Poor Sparky. His brain certainly got stimulated!

As his little arms and legs were jerking back and forth in a seizure, Dr. Mink rushed over assuring me that the rat could not feel a thing and that he would be okay. He extracted the drill and helped me patch up Sparky and get the electrodes properly implanted, the mounting glued to the skull, and the scalp sewn up around the mount.

But poor Sparky never was quite right. Our brain experiments on him produced some very strange results that semester.

Let’s just say I quickly discovered I was not created to do anything remotely medical, or anything requiring fine motor skills.

But I want to make it very clear: I was NOT Mary Karr’s lab partner. If you read her speech, you’ll understand why I emphasize this point.

I’m sure you’ll agree that when it comes to selecting a commencement speaker, this speech makes a strong argument for considering hiring a poet to do the job.