Wednesday, May 31, 2017

May 31: Mental Illness, Les Murray, "Panic Attack"

My life has been touched by mental illness in many ways.  Depressions.  Bipolar disorder.  Panic attacks.  Anxiety.  You name it, it has been a part of my life in some way.

It's really easy to stigmatize people who suffer from mental illness.  Someone walking down the street, talking to himself.  That someone will draw stares, laughter, finger points.  In most cases, not a single person will stop to help.  Because mental illness is scary.

When your mind turns against you, there's not a whole lot you can do.  Stay in bed all day, covers over your head.  Deep breathing.  Medication.  Therapy.  The problem is that most people with mental illness do not have the capacity to realize they need help.

My wife has bipolar.  Her uncle had bipolar.  Several years ago, he committed suicide.  My wife takes her medication faithfully because she has seen the cost of not taking her medication.

Saint Marty prays every night for people who suffer from mental illness.

Panic Attack

by:  Les Murray

The body had a nightmare.
Awake. No need of the movie.

No need of light, to keep hips
and shoulders rotating in bed
on the gimbals of wet eyes.

Pounding heart, chest pains -
should it be the right arm hurting?

The brain was a void
or a blasted-out chamber -
shreds of speech in there,
shatters of lust and prayer.

No one can face their heart
or turn their back on it.

Bowel stumbled to bowl,
emptied, and emptied again
till the gut was a train
crawling in its own tunnel,

slowly dragging the nightmare
down with it, below heart level.
You would not have died

the fear had been too great
but: to miss the ambulance moment -

Relax. In time, your hourglass
will be reversed again.

May 31: Dostoevsky, Time Leaping, Great Literature

Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn't science fiction.  He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky.  "But that isn't enough any more," said Rosewater.

Certain books contain a lot of wisdom.  For Rosewater, that book is The Brothers Karamazov.  Dostoevsky's book tells Rosewater everything he needs to know about life and the human condition.  There are a lot of books like that in my life.  The Catcher in the RyeCharlotte's Web.  Certain books by Charles Dickens.  The World According to GarpSlaughterhouse Five.  All of these books have taught me something about the world as I know it.

I have read Slaughterhouse exactly four times in my life.  The first time, I was in sixth grade.  Second time, I was a sophomore in high school.  Third, I was in a graduate-level English class about metafiction.  That time, I actually wrote a paper on the book.  Now, I am reading it for a fourth time.  Slowly.  Transcribing each of Vonnegut's words into blog posts.

Every time I reread a book, I am a different person.  Therefore, the book speaks to me in different ways.  In sixth grade, I remember being excited about Billy's time leaping and flying saucer rides.  It was right around the time that the original Star Wars trilogy came out, so I was all about science fiction.  In college, I found Vonnegut's subversion of genres fascinating--that a book could be science fiction AND memoir AND historical fiction AND social protest.  Now, I find Vonnegut's own back story the most compelling element of the book.  His war experiences.

That's what is crazy about literature.  It morphs and adapts.  At least, great literature does.  That's why the story of Billy Pilgrim has endured for so long.  Because it speaks even in this time of Trump.  Tralfamadore seems more real than the Untied States of America right now (typo intentional).  Sometimes, I feel like an alien from outer space, watching things unspool in the White House.  I don't recognize this land that I live in, just like Vonnegut struggled in the 1960s and '70s. 

That's why books are so important.  They help make sense out of senselessness.  Or they provide a welcome break.

This evening, Saint Marty is thankful for the words of Kurt Vonnegut.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

May 30: Ravenous Blob of Plasma, Les Murray, "Science Fiction"

In keeping with my previous post, I found out that Les Murray has something to say about science fiction, as well.  I'm not sure Murray's vision of the future is very comforting, but it proves that science fiction isn't just about a ravenous blob of plasma that oozes all over town, absorbing everything in sight and growing to the size of a blue whale.

No.  Science fiction can be about hope and loneliness and pain, as well.  It's about possibilities.

Saint Marty sees a cheeseburger in his future.

Science Fiction

by:  Les Murray

I can travel
faster than light
so can you
the speed of thought
the only trouble
is at destinations
our thought balloons
are coated invisible
no one there sees us
and we can't get out
to be real or present
phone and videophone
are almost worse
we don't see a journey
but stay in our space
just talking and joking
with those we reach
but can never touch
the nothing that can hurt us
how lovely and terrible
and lonely is this.

May 20: Kilgore Trout, Science Fiction, Hope

Night came to the garden of giraffes, and Billy Pilgrim slept without dreaming for a while, and then he traveled in time.  He woke up with his head under a blanket in a ward for nonviolent mental patients in a veterans' hospital near Lake Placid, New York.  It was springtime in 1948, three years after the end of the war.

Billy uncovered his head.  The windows of the the ward were open.  Birds were twittering outside.  "Poo-tee-weet?" one asked him.  The sun was high.  There were twenty-nine other patients assigned to the ward, but they were all outdoors now, enjoying the day.  They were free to come and go as they pleased, to go home, even, if they like--and so was Billy Pilgrim.  They had come here voluntarily, alarmed by the outside world.

Billy had committed himself in the middle of his final year at the Ilium School of Optometry.  Nobody suspected that he was going crazy.  Everybody else thought he looked fine and was acting fine.  Now he was in the hospital.  The doctors agreed.  He was going crazy.

They didn't think it had anything to do with the war.  They were sure Billy was going to pieces because his father had thrown him into the deep end of the Y.M.C.A. swimming pool when he was a little boy, and had then taken him to the rim of the Grand Canyon.

The man assigned to the bed next to Billy's was a former infantry captain named Eliot Rosewater.  Rosewater was sick and tired of being drunk all the time.

It was Rosewater who introduced Billy to science fiction, and in particular to the writings of Kilgore Trout.  Rosewater had a tremendous collection of science-fiction paperbacks under his bed.  He had brought them to the hospital in a steamer trunk.  Those beloved, frumpish books gave off a smell that permeated the ward--like flannel pajamas that hadn't been changed for a month, or like Irish stew.

Kilgore Trout became Billy's favorite living author, and science fiction became the only sort of tales he could read.

Rosewater was twice as smart as Billy, but he and Billy were dealing with similar crises in similar ways.  They had both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war.  Rosewater, for instance, had shot a fourteen-year-old foreman, mistaking him for a German soldier.  So it goes.  And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden.  So it goes.

So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe.  Science fiction was a big help.

Of course, science fiction is a huge part of Slaughterhouse.  Billy is unstuck in time through the entire novel.  He travels on a flying saucer, lives in a zoo on the planet of Tralfamadore.  Now, the question is whether the science fiction aspects of the book are just the results of Billy's unstable mind, or are they real?  Is Billy a time and flying saucer traveler?  Does Tralfamadore exist out in the far reaches of the universe, beyond stars and time, or in the inner reaches of Billy's brain?

I prefer to accept Vonnegut's science fiction as the truth of the novel.  I want to believe in the collapse of time and the presence of alien life on the planet Earth.  Of course, I grew up watching sci-fi movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet.  I loved sci-fi before Star Wars.  Grew up watching reruns of the original Star Trek.  I wanted a tribble for a pet.

I think my attraction to the genre is very much the same as Billy Pilgrim's.  I love the idea of reinventing myself and the universe.  Science fiction is all about possibility for something better.  Or something worse.  It all depends on what aliens have taken over the planet, and whether those aliens eat human beings, breed them as slaves, or find them "fascinating," to quote Spock.

I want to believe in a better future (hard to do in Trumpland right now).  I want to reinvent myself into a better me.  Richer.  Smarter.  Thinner.  More successful.  All I need to do is come up with a way to teleport myself across the universe or meet a kind Tralfamdorian who likes my jokes. 

Of course, Vonnegut uses science fiction as a way of dealing with, as he says above, "the greatest massacre in European history."  Reality is too painful, too horrific.  So, Vonnegut changes reality and time, gives himself an escape hatch on a flying saucer.  It's through this alternate reality that Vonnegut is able to come to terms with all that he witnessed in Dresden.  Kilgore Trout and the bird that sings "Poo-tee-weet?" fill in the gaps, ask the questions, provide the music in a world that doesn't make a whole lot of sense to Vonnegut.

That is what, I think, science fiction is all about, whether it be dystopian or pulp.  The Day of the Triffids or 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  It's about making sense out of senselessness, hope out of ashes.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for martians and Jedi knights.

Monday, May 29, 2017

May 29: Poet of the Week, Les Murray, "Bottles in a Bombed City"

It's late, but I have a new Poet of the Week.  He's Australian, and he is amazing.

His name is Les Murray, and I am looking forward to spending a week with him.

It's late.  Saint Marty is going to bed.

Bottles in a Bombed City

by:  Les Murray

They gave the city a stroke. Its memories
are cordoned off. They could collapse on you.

Water leaks into bricks of the Workers’ century   
and every meaning is blurred. No word in Roget

now squares with another. If the word is Manchester
it may be Australia, where that means sheets and towels.

To give the city a stroke, they mixed a lorryload
of henbane and meadowsweet oil and countrified her.

Now Engels supports Max, and the British Union   
of beautiful ceramics is being shovelled up,

blue-green tiles of the Corn Exchange,
umber gloss bricks of the Royal Midlands Hotel.

Unmelting ice everywhere, and loosened molecules.
When the stroke came, every bottle winked at its neighbour.

May 29: Dream of Giraffes, Memorial Day, Writing

Under morphine, Billy had a dream of giraffes in a garden.  The giraffes were following gravel paths, were pausing to munch sugar pears from treetops.  Billy was a giraffe, too.  He ate a pear.  It was a hard one.  It fought back against his grinding teeth.  It snapped in juicy protest.

The giraffes accepted Billy as one of their own, as a harmless creature as preposterously specialized as themselves.  Two approached him from opposite sides, leaned against him.  They had long, muscular upper lips which they could shape like the bells of bugles.  They kissed him with these.  They were female giraffes--cream and lemon yellow.  They had horns like doorknobs.  The knobs were covered with velvet.


One of the reasons why I love Slaughterhouse Five is that it constantly surprises me.  Part memoir.  Part history.  Part science fiction.  Part surrealism.  Vonnegut is able to bring all of these elements together in the book.  This passage, where Billy, under a cloud of morphine, transforms into a giraffe, is a little Kafkaesque, without the cockroach, and a little Naked Lunch.  It is so wonderfully strange, especially when Billy starts having a menage with two female giraffes and their long, muscular upper lips.

I have spent most of the day being a writer, which is something that I don't get to say very often.  I went to a Memorial Day parade this morning, and I attended a Memorial Day service at a local cemetery.  My family and I brought some flowers to a few graves of relatives (including my sister's).  Then, I went home and started working on an idea for a piece that I've been thinking about for quite some time. 

I wrote for close to six hours.  It's in a finished form, but I'm not really sure what it is.  I envision it as a prelude to something much longer.  By itself, it could be a prose poem or a short lyric essay.  It really felt great to write without interruption, to allow myself the luxury of being a Vonnegut for a little while.  I didn't write about giraffes having tongue sex in a garden, but I was definitely outside of my comfort zone as a writer. 

Now, at the end of a three-day weekend, with a week of work and grading ahead of me, I'm a little depressed.  I know that I won't have another extended period of writing for quite some time.  With this new piece, I have about three projects that I'm working on now.  That's my writing process.  If I get stuck with one project, I turn my attention to another for a while.  I got this idea from the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. 

When I was a teenager, I read an article about Asimov.  The article said that Asimov's writing space contained three desks, and on top of each desk was a typewriter.  Asimov told the journalist that he always had three different books in progress at the same time.  When he reached a roadblock with one book, he would swivel his chair to the second desk and start typing on the second typewriter, which contained the manuscript for a completely different book.  When he got stuck on the second book, he swiveled to the third desk and third typewriter and third manuscript.  Asimov was brilliant.

My problem is that I don't often have days like today.  During the week, I have to steal ten minutes at a time for writing.  Sometimes during lunch.  Sometimes when I'm waiting for my daughter at the dance studio.  Sometimes right before bed, after I've corrected four or five student essays.  I don't get pages written.  I get paragraphs, if I'm lucky.  Usually, it's one of two sentences.

Therefore, today was a blessing.

Saint Marty is thankful for being able to write for six hours.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

May 28: A Musical, Classic Saint Marty, "Lilacs"

Went to see a musical today with my wife and son.  Once Upon a Mattress.  It was a community theater production, and my son loved it.  I had to drag him away from his computer game to get him to go.  Half-way through the performance, he turned to me and whispered, "I regret not wanting to come."  Then he hugged my arm.

It was a great daddy moment for me, introducing my son to something that I love.  I may not be able to change a flat or change the oil in my car.  I don't fish or hunt or throw footballs.  But I can sit in a dark auditorium with my kids, tell them about Carol Burnett and Nathan Lane and Stephen Sondheim.

Three years ago, I was thinking about my differences again . . .

May 28, 2014:  Cars, Mechanically Challenged, Google

...Elwyn [E. B. White] loved cars.  So did the boys' father.  After selling two of his three carriage horses, Samuel bought a Pope-Tribune runabout, which looked sporty with its long, straight-steering shaft and boxy engine bonnet, until he replaced it with a sleek Maxwell roadster whose short running board swooped forward and back to form elegant tire guards like wings.  But Samuel never learned how to drive and left that particular twentieth-century excitement to his children.

White was in love with the horseless carriage, as were his brothers and father.  Typical guys.  They're interested in cars that are fast, elegant, sleek.  I'm sure that if Elwyn were a teenager in the twenty-first century, he'd probably own the newest iPhone.

I've never been into cars.  The only thing I look for in a car is that, when I turn the key in the ignition, it starts.  That is my definition of a good car.  Of course, I like driving new cars.  But I really don't care if I'm driving a station wagon or a Lexus.  If it gets me to where I want to go, I'm satisfied.

I've always been mechanically challenged.  All of my brothers know cars inside and out.  They can do crap like brake jobs and oil changes.  I'm happy if I can change a taillight (and I usually have to ask my brother to help me).  I just don't do car stuff.  However, I can spot a bad metaphor from a mile away.  Give me a bad poem and pencil, and I will turn it into a verbal Corvette.

That's who I am.  I'm not the oily jeans kind of guy.  Sometimes I wish I was.  I could probably save myself a lot of money.  This morning, I heard a story on the radio about Google creating a car that drives itself.  Just enter your destination, and the car does the rest.  If Google invents a vehicle that changes its own oil and fixes its own valves (whatever the hell those are), I am totally sold.

Until then, Saint Marty will continue to put his key in the ignition, say a prayer, and turn it.

If it gets me to work, I'll drive it.

And an early summer poem . .


by:  Martin Achatz

Early June, lilacs begin to bloom
In my backyard, along paths
I walk at sunrise.  They swell
The air with rain and dirt,
The promise of warm months
Just around the corner, a battalion
About to roll into town,
Unstoppable as a tank.
Bushes bud, slow fireworks
The color of midnight
Blueberry and silk cocoon.
By summer solstice,
Lilacs overrun my neighborhood,
The way the Mississippi overruns
Its banks during hurricanes,
The way fire and bricks and blood
Overran the streets of Los Angeles
After Rodney King.  For days,
The world smolders, burns
Purple and white, unchecked,
Until the killing heat of July
Comes, withers petals to husks
Of brown, to burned-out shells,
To reminders of that first
Crush of summer, when we all
Spill into the sun, sure,
If we shout loud enough,
Spread our lilacs far enough,
The children of America and Pakistan,
Of Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan
Will somehow blossom into peace.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

May 27: My Little Girl, Carol Ann Duffy, "We Remember Your Childhood Well"

My daughter is going away for the weekend.  She is going with her boyfriend's family out to their camp.  It's rustic.  No electricity.  Outhouses.  Bugs.  Trees.  Snakes.  Bears.  Deer.  I fear for her safety.

I find it a little difficult sometimes to let my daughter go on trips like this, because I'm her father and I've looked out for her my whole life.  I'm still getting used to this whole growing up and spread the wings stuff with her.  I trust her.  She's a good girl with a very good head on her shoulders.

I am a little nostalgic for the days when she really depended on me, when she really was my little girl.  Childhood is slipping away, and that makes me a little sad.  I miss braiding her hair and saying prayers with her at night.  I do not miss Dora the Explorer.

Saint Marty is thankful for his beautiful daughter.

We Remember Your Childhood Well

by:  Carol Ann Duffy

Nobody hurt you. Nobody turned off the light and argued
with somebody else all night. The bad man on the moors
was only a movie you saw. Nobody locked the door.

Your questions were answered fully. No. That didn't occur.
You couldn't sing anyway, cared less. The moment's a blur, a Film Fun
laughing itself to death in the coal fire. Anyone's guess.

Nobody forced you. You wanted to go that day. Begged. You chose
the dress. Here are the pictures, look at you. Look at us all,
smiling and waving, younger. The whole thing is inside your head.

What you recall are impressions; we have the facts. We called the tune.
The secret police of your childhood were older and wiser than you, bigger
than you. Call back the sound of their voices. Boom. Boom. Boom.

Nobody sent you away. That was an extra holiday, with people
you seemed to like. They were firm, there was nothing to fear.
There was none but yourself to blame if it ended in tears.

What does it matter now? No, no, nobody left the skidmarks of sin
on your soul and laid you wide open for Hell. You were loved.
Always. We did what was best. We remember your childhood well.

May 27: Book to Read, Dirty and Tired and Wounded, Heroes

Billy was put to bed and tied down, and given a shot of morphine.  Another American volunteered to watch over him.  This volunteer was Edgar Derby, the high school teacher who would be shot to death in Dresden.  So it goes.

Derby sat on a three-legged stool.  He was given a book to read.  The book was The Red Badge of Courrage, by Stephen Crane.  Derby had read it before.  Now he read it again while Billy Pilgrim entered a morphine paradise.

Sitting in a prisoner of war camp, next to Billy Pilgrim, who is now quietly having a nervous breakdown in a morphine cloud, Edgar Derby is given The Red Badge of Courage to preoccupy himself.  Of course, I would think it would be hard to take your mind off war by reading a book about war.

Of course, Stephen Crane's book is about a young man who is struggling with an impulse to flee from battle, desert his regiment, and run for peace and safety.  At one point in the story, that's exactly what Henry, the main character, does.  Eventually, he returns and marches into battle as a flag bearer.  I'll never forget the last few paragraphs of the book:

It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low, wretched sky. Yet the youth smiled, for he saw that the world was a world for him, though many discovered it to be made of oaths and walking sticks. He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover's thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks, an existence of soft and eternal peace. 

Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds.
It's not a pretty picture.  Union and captured soldiers marching along, dirty and tired and wounded.  Crane, just like Vonnegut, does not glorify war in any way.  It's brutal and terrifying, and everyone involved yearns for one thing--"tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks, and existence of soft and eternal peace."  Crane wrote about the American Civil War.  Vonnegut is writing about World War II.  Nobody would argue with the fact that both of these wars were fought for just and noble purposes.  Yet, there is still blood and pain and loss.  Brothers and fathers and sons and daughters and mothers and sisters never returning home.

That is the reality of armed conflict.  Terror and grief.  I'm not saying that sometimes there aren't justifiable reasons for war.  Slavery.  Genocide.  Incredible violations of human rights.  Threats to world peace.  And there are brave men and women from countries all over the world who have or will endure the red sickness of battle for people they will never know.  That is an amazing thing.

As I said last night, I am not a fan of nationalism.  I believe in peace and acceptance and compassion.  Always.  But I am also amazed by people who are willing to put their lives on the line for others.  Police officers.  Firefighters.  Soldiers.  Missionaries.  These people are true heroes in my eyes.  As it says in John 15:13, "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends."

Saint Marty is thankful for these heroes today.

Friday, May 26, 2017

May 26: Old Saying, Carol Ann Duffy, "History"

There's an old saying that if you don't know history, you are bound to repeat it.  Something like that.

I believe that statement is true.  It's true for people, for countries, for the whole human race.  We need to learn from our mistakes.  Wars that we've fought.  Genocides.  Slavery.  Famine.  Drought.  Poverty.  Climate change.  We need to learn from all of the things that humanity has wrought on this little chunk of rock we call home.

If we don't learn, we will kill each other.

'Nuff said from Saint Marty tonight.


by:  Carol Ann Duffy

She woke up old at last, alone,
bones in a bed, not a tooth
in her head, half dead, shuffled
and limped downstairs
in the rag of her nightdress,
smelling of pee.

Slurped tea, stared
at her hand- twigs, stained gloves-
wheezed and coughed, pulled on
the coat that hung from a hook
on the door, lay on the sofa,
dozed, snored.

She was History.
She'd seen them ease him down
from the Cross, his mother gasping
for breath, as though his death
was a difficult birth, the soldiers spitting,
spears in the earth;

been there
when the fisherman swore he was back
from the dead; seen the basilicas rise
in Jerusalem, Constantinople, Sicily; watched
for a hundred years as the air of Rome
turned into stone;

witnessed the wars,
the bloody crusades, knew them by date
and by name, Bannockburn, Passchendaele,
Babi Yar, Vietnam. She'd heard the last words
of the martyrs burnt at the stake, the murderers
hung by the neck,

seen up-close
how the saint whistled and spat in the flames,
how the dictator strutting and stuttering film
blew out his brains, how the children waved
their little hands from the trains. She woke again,
cold, in the dark,

in the empty house.
Bricks through the window now, thieves
in the night. When they rang on her bell
there was nobody there; fresh graffiti sprayed
on her door, shit wrapped in a newspaper posted
onto the floor.

May 26: A Broken Kite, PTSD, Honor and Respect

Hold on.  This is a longer passage from Slaughterhouse:

There was silence now, as the Englishmen looked in astonishment at the frowsy creatures they had so lustily waltzed inside.  One of the Englishmen saw that Billy was on fire.  "You're on fire, lad!" he said, and he got Billy away from the stove and beat out the sparks with his hands.

When Billy made no comment on this, the Englishman touched him exploratorily here and there, filled with pity.  "My God--what have they done to you, lad?  This isn't a man.  It's a broken kite."

"Are you really an American?" said the Englishman.

"Yes," said Billy.

"And your rank?"


"What became of your boots, lad?"

"I don't remember."

"Is that coat a joke?"


"Where did you get such a thing?"

Billy had to think hard about that.  "They gave it to me," he said at last.

"Jerry gave it to you?"


"The Germans gave it to you?"


Billy didn't like the questions.  They were fatiguing.

"Ohhhh--Yank, Yank, Yank--" said the Englishman, "that coat was an insult."


"It was a deliberate attempt to humiliate you.  You mustn't let Jerry do things like that."

Billy Pilgrim swooned.

Billy came to on a chair facing the stage.  He had somehow eaten, and now he was watching Cinderella.  Some part of him had evidently been enjoying the performance for quite a while.  Billy was laughing hard.

The women in the play were really men, of course.  The clock had just struck midnight, and Cinderella was lamenting:

          "Goodness me, the clock has struck-- 
            Alackday, and fuck my luck."

Billy found the couplet so comical that he not only laughed--he shrieked.  He went on shrieking until he was carried out of the shed and into another, where the hospital was.  It was a six-bed hospital.  There weren't any other patients there.

Whew.  That was a long one.  Billy is teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  He blacks out.  Eats.  Sits and watched the entertainment that the Englishmen provide.  Then, he falls into the canyon of mental illness, shrieking with laughter.  It is probably PTSD, after the long train ride without sleep and the German delousing shower/gas chamber.

At the beginning of Memorial Day weekend, I think this passage is fairly important.  There are so many combat veterans in the United States who suffer from PTSD.  Just this past Sunday, a friend from church (and a veteran) told me that he is going away for six weeks of treatment for PTSD.  For this man, the firecrackers of the Fourth of July are triggers for panic attacks and flashbacks.  Instead of going to parades and picnics, he spends most of the holiday at home, in the dark, teetering like Billy.

I often forget to be thankful for the freedoms I have in this country.  I can criticize the President of the United States and government, peacefully demonstrate, hold unpopular opinions.  I can do all this without fear for my life or safety.  Those rights are guaranteed to me by the United States Constitution (regardless of what Donald Trump says), and that Constitution has been defended and protected over and over, through the centuries, by brave men and women who were/are willing to risk their lives to preserve it.

I am not getting all nationalistic here.  I think nationalism is dangerous.  What I am saying is that there are people who have sacrificed greatly so that I can say what I want to say, live the way I want to live.  And those people deserve honor and respect, whether they are living or dead.

Tonight, Saint Marty is thankful for those who have defended his freedom.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

May 25: Patient Sort of Fire, Ann Patchett, "Commonwealth"

Billy Pilgrim was on fire, having stood too close to the glowing stove.  The hem of his little coat was burning.  tt was a quiet, patient sort of fire--like the burning of punk.

Billy wondered if there was a telephone somewhere.  He wanted to call his mother, to tell her he was alive and well.

Billy is literally burning up, and he doesn't even realize it.  He's too preoccupied with the idea of letting his mother know that he isn't dead.  Meanwhile, the flames are slowly eating away his overcoat.

I think that's always the case.  When some significant life event happens, most people are completely unaware of it.  Tonight, I hosted the monthly meeting of my book club.  This month's selection was Ann Patchett's Commonwealth, which is all about major life events and their disastrous aftermaths.  Two families destroyed with a kiss.  I love this book.

Book Club is always one of my favorite nights of the month.  I get to sit around with some of my favorite people in the whole world, talking about good literature (in Fannie Flagg months, mediocre literature).  And everybody brings food.  Tonight, it was pesto ravioli, a great salad, vegetables and dip, and banana bread bottom cheesecake.  So good.

One of the things I appreciate the most about these gatherings are the conversations that occur.  Yes, we talk about themes and characters and symbolism.  But we also talk about how the month's book intersects with our own lives.  For example, tonight we spent a lot of time talking about childhood and parenting and dysfunction and forgiveness.  Those are the kind of conversations I love the most.

So, I am tired.  I am also full.  Satisfied.  It was a great time.

Saint Marty is thankful this evening for his book club friends.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

May 24: Love Poems, Carol Ann Duffy, "Warming Her Pearls"

I find myself drawn to love poems this week for some reason.  Perhaps it's the heat of them.  Or the hope.  Or the passion.  Reading a good love poem makes me feel like the world is okay.  That the Donald Trumps aren't going to build their walls.  That more people will embrace compassion and understanding and charity.

As John, Paul, George, and Ringo said, "All you need is love."

Saint Marty believes in the gospel of the Beatles.

Warming Her Pearls

by:  Carol Ann Duffy

          for Judith Radstone
Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
bids me wear them, warm them, until evening
when I'll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her,

resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.

She's beautiful. I dream about her
in my attic bed; picture her dancing
with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.

I dust her shoulders with a rabbit's foot,
watch the soft blush seep through her skin
like an indolent sigh. In her looking-glass
my red lips part as though I want to speak.

Full moon. Her carriage brings her home. I see
her every movement in my head.... Undressing,
taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching
for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way

she always does.... And I lie here awake,
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.

May 24: Cinderella, Most Popular Story, Happily Ever After

The banquet hall was illuminated by candlelight.  There were heaps of fresh-baked white bread on the tables, gobs of butter, pots of marmalade.  There were platters of sliced beef from cans.  Soup and scrambled eggs and hot marmalade pie were yet to come.

And, at the far end of the shed, Billy saw pink arches with azure draperies hanging between them, and an enormous clock, and two golden thrones, and a bucket and a mop.  It was in this setting that the evening's entertainment would take place, a musical version of Cinderella, the most popular story ever told.

The most popular story ever told.  That's Vonnegut's claim about Cinderella.  An abused girl rescued from her wicked step-family by a handsome prince, swept away to a castle where she will be married and live happily ever after.  Of course, in the original version of the story, I believe Cinderella has her stepmother and stepsisters blinded by a flock of crows or seagulls.  There's also a point where the stepsisters cut off their toes in order to make their feet fit into the glass slipper.  So it goes.

I'm sure there are other stories that could make a claim to the "most popular story ever told" award.  There's the tale of Scrooge and the ghosts.  Or the one about Belle and her hairy love interest.  Let's not forget the Jesus narrative from the gospels.  Don Quixote sparring with windmills.  Gilgamesh.  There are a lot of stories that have been around for a very long time.

Of course, the one thing that most of these narratives have in common is the ending.  Everyone, in the most popular stories, lives happily ever after.  Belle kisses the Beast.  Presto.  Instant Brad Pitt.  Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning and goes on to save Tiny Tim's life.  Jesus rises from the dead and redeems all of humankind.  Don Quixote finds his Dulcinea.  Love wins.

That's why these narratives are so enduring.  They provide hope.  In the ash heaps of life, there's a Fairy Godmother waiting to change you into a princess.  Even if you're the biggest son of a bitch in London, there's a ghost willing to rescue your soul from eternal misery.  And, of course, the biggest and most important narrative, God sends His son to suffer and die for our sins. 

That's why we tell stories.  It's the promise of salvation, the light of hope.  We are all children who want to live happily every after.  Billy Pilgrim wants it.  You want it.  I want it.  Nobody wants to live forever in world of darkness and pain and death. 

So, we sit on our parents' laps, open a book, pay attention in Church.  And we listen:  "In the beginning . . . Once upon a time . . . "

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for stories.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

May 23: Bombing in Manchester, Carol Ann Duffy, "If I Was Dead"

I was looking for an uplifting poem this afternoon.  The day after the bombing in Manchester, England, I wanted something that spoke of hope and life and love.

I think the poem below fits the bill. 

Saint Marty is praying for peace in the world today.

If I Was Dead

by:  Carol Ann Duffy

If I was dead,
and my bones adrift
like dropped oars
in the deep, turning earth;

or drowned,
and my skull
a listening shell
on the dark ocean bed;

if I was dead,
and my heart
soft mulch
for a red, red rose;

or burned,
and my body
a fistful of grit, thrown
in the face of the wind;

if I was dead,
and my eyes,
blind at the roots of flowers,
wept into nothing,

I swear your love
would raise me
out of my grave,
in my flesh and blood,

like Lazarus;
hungry for this,
and this, and this,
your living kiss.

May 23: Warm Milk, In the Midst of Life, God's Graces

Now he was indoors, next to an iron cookstove that was glowing cherry red.  Dozens of teapots were boiling there.  Some of them had whistles.  And there was a witches' cauldron full of golden soup.  The soup was thick.  Primeval bubbles surfaced it with lethargical majesty as Billy Pilgrim stared.

There were long tables set for a banquet.  At each place was a bowl made from a can that had once contained powdered milk.  A smaller can was a cup.  A  taller, more slender can was a tumbler.  Each tumbler was filled with warm milk.

At each place was a safety razor, a washcloth, a package of razor blades, a chocolate bar, two cigars, a bar of soap, ten cigarettes, a book of matches, a pencil, and a candle.

Only the candles and the soap were of German origin.  They had no way of knowing it, but the candles and soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State.

So it goes.

An amazing little section that moves from the glory of a welcome banquet to the reality of war.  The Englishmen are doing their best to make the Americans at home in the prison camp, sharing their food and toiletries and provisions.  None of them know the ingredients of the German candles and soap.  Those items sit there innocently beside the warm milk and chocolate bars. 

I suppose that's what life is.  As the saying goes, "Media vita in morte sumus in the midst of life we are in death."  I have experienced this kind of juxtaposition many times.  The day my sister died, I went to an English Department meeting.  The first meeting of the fall semester.  Before the meeting, people were laughing and telling stories about summer vacations and accomplishments.  New graduate students sat in the back of the room, taking in their first glimpse of academia in action.  And in the middle of all of that, I sat next to my office mate, absolutely destroyed.

Of course, I didn't have to be at that meeting.  Nobody would have blamed me if I hadn't shown up.  There was something about being there, however, that I found comforting.  I think it was the hubbub.  The laughter, jokes.  It was a reminder that life continues.  Happiness and excitement and hope still existed.  And there were the words and hugs of close friends.  To this day, I think it was the best thing for me at the time.

Maybe that's the point of this section of Slaughterhouse.  Life and death coexist.  Perhaps they are symbiotic.  I'm not sure.  Certainly, that day in the English Department, I found myself lifted, just a tiny bit, out of my grief.  The disagreements in the department meeting seemed a little less urgent.  The friendships, a little sweeter.  The break from death and its attendant responsibilities, a little reminder of God's graces.

Saint Marty is thankful this afternoon for the brownie he ate at lunch.  It was manna.

Monday, May 22, 2017

May 22: Poet of the Week, Carol Ann Duffy, "The Light Gatherer"

My daughter has stopped throwing up, but she's still squirreled away in her bed, under a levee of blankets, pillows, and quilts.  The bucket is still sitting on the floor.  Her room is dark and a little funky.  But she is on the mend.

There is nothing worse for a parent than not being able to make your child feel better, to just watch her cry and shiver and heave.  It makes you feel absolutely useless, like you're being derelict in your duties.

Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet of the Week understands this.

Saint Marty does, too.

The Light Gatherer

by:  Carol Ann Duffy

When you were small, your cupped palms
each held a candleworth under the skin, enough light to begin,
and as you grew,
light gathered in you, two clear raindrops
in your eyes,
warm pearls, shy,
in the lobes of your ears, even always
the light of a smile after your tears.
Your kissed feet glowed in my one hand,
or I'd enter a room to see the corner you played in
lit like a stage set,
the crown of your bowed head spotlit.
When language came, it glittered like a river,
silver, clever with fish,
and you slept
with the whole moon held in your arms for a night light
where I knelt watching.
Light gatherer. You fell from a star
into my lap, the soft lamp at the bedside
mirrored in you,
and now you shine like a snowgirl,
a buttercup under a chin, the wide blue yonder
you squeal at and fly in,
like a jeweled cave,
turquoise and diamond and gold, opening out
at the end of a tunnel of years.

May 22: Tennis or Croquet, Sick Kids, Ebola Hospital Ward

They were adored by the Germans, who thought they were exactly what Englishmen ought to be.  They made war look stylish and reasonable, and fun.  So the Germans let them have four sheds, though one shed would have held them all.  And, in exchange for coffee or chocolate or tobacco, the Germans gave them paint and lumber and nails and cloth for fixing things up.

The Englishmen had known for twelve hours that American guests were on their way.  They had never had guests before, and they went to work like darling elves, sweeping, mopping, cooking, baking--making mattresses of straw and burlap bags, setting tables, putting party favors at each place.  

Now they were singing their welcome to their guests in the winter night.  Their clothes were aromatic with the feast they had been preparing.  They were dressed half for battle, half for tennis or croquet.  They were so elated by their own hospitality, and by all the goodies waiting inside, that they did not take a good look at their guests while they sang.  And they imagined that they were singing to fellow officers fresh from the fray.

They wrestled the Americans toward the shed door affectionately, filling the night with manly blather and brotherly rodomontades.  They called them "Yank," told them, "Good show," promised them that "Jerry was on the run," and so on.

Billy Pilgrim wondered simply who Jerry was.

The Englishmen are throwing a welcome party for the newly arrived Americans.  They've cooked, cleaned, and freshened up.  They're singing and clapping, treating them like long-lost comrades.  And the Germans love it all.  Their British prisoners are acting exactly the way they imagined British prisoners should act.

Today, I have been trying to act exactly the way that a father should act when he has two sick kids.  My son threw up all day yesterday.  This morning, at about 12:30 a.m., I heard my daughter getting up-close-and-personal with a bucket.  She threw up all night long.  I emptied the bucket all night long.  Then, I got up and went to work at 4:45 a.m.

My son is back to his normal self, pestering me for time on my laptop to play Minecraft.  My daughter has finally stopped vomiting.  I just made her a bowl of chicken noodle soup a little while ago.  I have not heard the soup making a return visit yet.  I think my household may be on the other side of this mountain now.  Thank God.

My daughter is pasty white.  Her bedroom smells like an Ebola hospital ward.  My son just took a bath, washed off the residue of the last 24 hours.  I'm sure my daughter will hop in the shower tonight, once she has regained a little of her strength.

The Englishmen can make a party in a prisoner of war camp.  There was no party in my house yesterday.  Now, I am simply hoping not to contract this particular plague of chunk blowing.

Saint Marty is thankful for good health this evening.