My Father’s Face

I wrote the first version of this poem around twenty years ago in San Antonio, Texas. My late wife, a city councilwoman at the tine, was attending a National League of Cities convention, and I had accompanied her.

My father and stepmother drove up for the day from their home in Kingsville, about 180 miles to the south.   I hadn’t seen him for the best part of a year, and I was shocked by the change. True, he had grown more and more sedentary since he retired, but, despite some heart trouble, he had always seemed vigorous and healthy. He was almost eighty now, and for the first time he looked his age. His gait was halting; he needed a cane; and he seemed to have lost his interest in life’s pleasures.

The poem is a sonnet, the form that I usually turned to in those days to document troubling emotions. I was trying to understand what was going on.   What I didn’t know until after he died a few years later was that his heart condition was much more serious than he had been letting on to the family. (My father was a master of denial).   What I didn’t suspect until I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, was that he may have shared the condition. The “sudden, pointless stops” described in the poem were one of my major symptoms before I received treatment.   It would have been just like my father to notice new symptoms in his body and never bother to tell his doctors.

 

MY FATHER’S FACE

My father’s face looks like a rumpled sock;
His feet are slippered; in his hand a cane.
His gait is slow, with sudden, pointless stops.
I cannot watch him without shock.
“I’ve chosen this,” I expect him to explain.
Instead, he finds the nearest chair, and plops.
And I think: “Is this my fate? To live by pill?”
“To sit and wait for passing time to kill?”

And yet, when he begins to think,
I see the brilliant person that I knew.
When ideas clash, he does not shrink
From combat; he takes the field anew.
And when he looks at death, he does not blink.
He faces it; considers it his due.

Vietnam and Iraq

In 1966, I thought my life was over.  I had just graduated from college with a degree in a subject I wasn’t interested in — Chemistry, and had determined that I wasn’t going to go to graduate school, at least not yet.  I was caught in what seemed to me an unresolvable moral dilemma; on the one hand, I thought the Vietnam War was obscene and unsupportable; on the other hand,  I thought I had a moral obligation to serve my country—a feeling that was surprisingly strong.  Unsurprisingly, considering how immature I was, I drifted.   I went through two draft interviews in Texas, and was able to hold things off by asserting my right to be inducted  in my home state of California.   At the same time, I was going through what an earlier age would have described as a nervous breakdown, and I had not one, but two letters from physicians attesting to the problem.  When I went through the draft process in Texas, no one bothered to look at the letters; when I got to the Oakland induction center in 1966, miraculously, someone read them.

My Vietnam experience stayed with me, and when it became clear that the Bush administration was going to do something even more stupid, I wrote several poems; this is one of them.

A Thought on the Eve of Destruction – 2003

I remember my induction;
I remember sitting there
Listening to the oath of duty,
Listening to the oath of death.

Through the glass, I saw the others,
Through the glass, I heard them pledge,
And I thought: “I’m not a killer.”
And I thought: “I will be killed.”

And as the door began to open,
I felt a hand upon my back,
It was the doctor, come to tell me:
“You’re not fit to go to war.”

Now we find that we are heading
Into another deep morass,
Blindly stumbling, deaf to reason,
Led like lemmings to the fight.

And as the door to this new battle
Begins to open, ever wide
Where is the doctor come to tell us
We’re not fit to go to war?

More Than Possible

“Politics is the art of the possible.”

The phrase, practically a cliché in political circles, is usually attributed to Otto von Bismarck , the Prussian politician who unified Germany in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century.  Bismarck, of course, said it in German : Die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen.  The word he used for”possible”,  “Möglichen”, can have the connotation of “maximum possible”,  which is very different from the usual American interpretation of the phrase: “You have to settle for what you can get.”

It’s not true – you don’t have to settle for what you can get.  In every political situation, there is a range of possible and realistic political outcomes.  An effective politician understands that, and works to go as far to the top of that range as she or he can.

It is true, that the first step in analyzing any particular situation is to determine the lowest common denominator, the most achievable favorable outcome.  It is also true that you need to devise a strategy that make sure that the lowest common denominator is achieved.   But it is not true that you have to stop there.  Some politicians use the fact that “you can’t always get everything you want,” as an excuse for not working as hard as possible.  But the best politicians never stop working until a given process is complete, never stop getting just a little bit more.

So don’t be fooled by cynical political types who make fun of citizens who want a completely satisfying solution to a problem — an end to capital punishment, say, or a tax system that makes sense.  If it is in the best interest of the people she or he represents, the right sort of politician will take his or her job seriously, and work to get the people their heart’s desire.

Political Season

For the ordinary citizen, the political season is a short two month period from Labor Day to the November election day of an even-numbered year.   Most ordinary civic-minded citizens of our democracy limit their interest to that brief expanse of time.  Sadly, an ever-increasing number of our citizens don’t even have that much involvement..but that’s the subject of a different post.

For those of us who have an interest in influencing the selection of candidates we select to represent us, political season begins on Labor Day of the odd-numbered year, and continues until the final election of the cycle.  Here in heavily-Democratic Sonoma County, that means that politicians of all persuasions (except the most conservative) will be gathering  at the Carpenter’s Hall on Corby Avenue in Santa Rosa, for  a Labor Day breakfast of pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon, along with enough networking to stock a sales convention.

Who is running for the open seats?  One State Senator is term-limited, and several seats are coming open on City Councils around the County.

What entrenched incumbents have been caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar?  Here in the County, it was a neighbor’s window screen, but it’s the same idea.

Who is up-and-coming, and who is over the hill?   Gossip, gossip, gossip.  Politics thrives on gossip, and only the very best politicians know when to gossip, and when to keep their mouths shut.

For those of us who are engaged, it is only a game we are playing,  but a game that is vital to our country’s survival.  Like profession football, politics is a team sport that tends to be dominated by players with large egos,  On September 7th,  I will be there for the kickoff.   I hope many of you join me.

A is For Arnyx

It occurred to me that although I have posted a sample illustration from my book of verse for children, A is for Arnyx, I haven’t posted any examples of the verses themselves.   Here are three of them,   The first, The Arnyx,  was also the first to be written.  I made up the name “Arnyx” and was very surprised when I discovered, through the magic of the internet, that there are people named “Arnyx”,  The second, The Frammis, was my first and only attempt at an original tongue-twister.   The third, The Questerling, is perhaps the most traditional kid’s poem in the book.

 

 

The Arnyx is a fearsome beast –
Two heads, twelve legs, three tails (at least.)
His cry’s so loud, that when it’s ceased,
A pin drop’s like a drum.

The Arnyx lives in garden sheds,
And sometimes under children’s beds.
The rightmost of its hairy heads
Is used for chewing gum.

Fear not, fear not the Arnyx, child!
Its disposition’s meek and mild.
The only thing that drives him wild
Is a girl who sucks her thumb.

 

The frammis frets and fidgets,
As it tries to fit a widget
On the bottom of a basket
That is fully filled with gaskets

Now, the frammis, silly fellow,
Would be better being mellow,
For a widget is a gadget
For the inside of a basket,

And it’s much too much to ask it
To fit inside a basket
That is fully filled with gaskets.

 

When all the other birds take wing,
The poor, bedraggled Questerling
Yearns to join them in their flight,
Flaps its wings with all its might,
Until its heart begins to pound.
And still it’s anchored to the ground.

That hapless, panting Questerling,
That hopeless, earthbound, flightless thing,
Is burdened by excessive weight.
Oh, it regrets now that it ate
So much candy, so much cake
Not to mention chocolate shakes.

Oh, how it regrets its fast-food fling!
No more French fries, O, Questerling!
McDougall menus from now on,
Until all this extra weight is gone.

For now, the Questerling sits and sighs,
And dreams of soaring through the skies.

 

Variation on a Theme by Baudelaire

The following variation was written a few years later than the Variations I describe  here.   The theme it varies is from the “To the Reader” introduction to Les Fleurs du Mal, or rather from my translation of “To the Reader,”  which I may share at some point.

 

It’s true, my friend, you have free will
And yet, you are a puppet still.
The Devil’s fingers pull your strings.
He makes you do disgusting things.
He leads you through the murk and mire
Nearer to eternal fire.
But, if you wish, you can escape.
The strings are only stuck with tape.
So yank them off, and turn to good.
Abstinence and brotherhood.
But if you worship womankind,
And if you yearn one night to find
Soft golden hair across your chest,
And touch her softly rounded breast,
And hear her sweet, seductive song,
I guess you’ll have to string along