The Art of Measuring

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Ms. Anne hummed something that seemed an unlikely mashup of “Deck the Halls” and “Come On’a My House.” Despite that, I knew the day was good and that Ms. Anne was not in a funk the way she was last year after Christmas. “How was your Christmas holiday? Your family visit go OK?”

“Yes, yes. We had a lovely time. Even the priest seemed to celebrate in a heartfelt way.”

“That’s great, Ms. Anne. End of the year is here. What shall we do?”

“I have an idea. Maybe a brilliant idea. Well, at least a good idea,” she said. “I’m going to commission art that interprets a poem. Not a montage or collage and not just any poem. A poetic painting. What do you think?”

“I guess that could work. There’s a lot of poetry that celebrates nature and we certainly have the wall space. Have you talked to an artist?”

“I didn’t say anything about nature. No, I’m thinking of a poem that speaks across generations and is appropriate to this coffee shop. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

I didn’t know if Ms. Anne knew that I read Prufrock once every year or so. An English teacher at the old military high school introduced the poem to us when I was in the ninth grade. I began scanning through remembered fragments of the poem.”I’ll bet I know the line you want, Ms. Anne! ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.’ Am I right?”

She laughed. “That is correct! I know an artist who would create a lovely tribute to Eliot and to the measure of our days that would fit beautifully here in the shop.”

“But don’t you think the poem is a bit sexist, reflecting the world as it once was, Ms. Anne? ‘In the room the women come and go, speaking of Michelangelo.’ And don’t you wonder how it speaks of aging?

“I don’t wonder at all. Have you ever read the poem and paid attention to it? It is about aging and a bit of sexuality and it offers a glimpse of mortality. I love that poem. Eliot may be out of style—I don’t know who is now considered a literary giant these days, but I’ve always had Eliot near the top. And if this painting can inspire people to read Eliot, that will be my reward. And besides, don’t we all measure our lives with coffee spoons?”

She was moving on to a new customer as I remembered other lines from Prufrock:

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

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Capping the Day

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Ms. Anne Thrope seemed irritated as we closed the shop on Tuesday.

“We didn’t do too well today, did we?” I asked, though I knew that the shop had been busy all day and we had sold all of our paklava and ma’moul.

“No, we had a good day. I’m feeling a bit irked, but it has nothing to do with business. With manners.”

“Yeah, I heard that big argument about Christmas greetings and ‘happy holidays’ and ‘merry Xmas.’ People seem to miss the point of Christmas when they feel such a need to be defensive and attack people who don’t share their exact perspective. Especially when they don’t know that the X represents the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of Christ so that Xmas is simply an abbreviation of Christmas.”

“Wait,” Ms. Anne gave me a halt sign with her palm. “I don’t need you to start mansplaining because you don’t know what is bothering me.”

“I apologize. I didn’t intend to get started. Some days I talk because I don’t know what’s going on and I fill in the space. An old trait that seemed to grow in adolescent anxiety, but there I go again. I’ll stop.”

“I’m glad that you understand my perspective.”

“I’m curious, Ms. Anne. Are you going to tell me what irritates you?”

“I think you’ll see a change here tomorrow. I’m going to put up a new sign by the door. Big enough for people to notice, I hope.

“Last night I took some friends out to dinner at one of the better restaurants in the city. McSorley’s Emporium—I love the sense of irony in that place and the nod to old New York! But in the middle of the restaurant was a table of twelve or fifteen men and every one of them had on a baseball cap or a trucker’s cap or a farmer’s cap. I guess to hide their baldness, but hiding it doesn’t make the baldness go away. I think keeping a cap or hat on indoors is rude, especially when dining. I grew up in a time when caps and hats were removed indoors. Have I given you enough of a mansplanation?“

“I think I understand. In many ways, you’re old school.”

“That is correct. And so I’m going to put up a notice effective January 1 that men should remove hats and caps indoors if they wish to receive service. No shoes, no shirts, no service is the idea. Cap on the head—no service.”

“That’s a losing battle, Ms. Anne. People will just go to the chain coffee shop. Their staff has to wear hats at work.”

“And if people go there, I will still feel that I have stood for a good principle. I feel better already. Good-night.”

Costing Celebrity

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Last Monday the Newton Minow Political Discourse Club, a group of retired people, came to the coffee shop for their weekly session. Samuel Terravosky seemed to have the biggest number of complaints. He didn’t like Meet the Press and he didn’t like Fox News and he thought the networks failed to cover any serious news such as defining the issues of Brexit or political corruption in South Africa or elections in Armenia.

“All they want to do is talk about the President’s tweets. Like he’s a cartoon figure and Sylvester the Cat is coming around the corner. There’s more news than these problematic messages.”

I tuned him out when he reached back to Richard Nixon.

Strawberry Kaimakamian came back from serving pastries to the group and said, “That group—that so-called Newton Minow club—is beginning to argue about the President and news organizations. Do you think we should stop them before it gets too loud?”

“Not at all. They have healthy conversations. They call themselves the Newton Minow Political Discourse Club for a reason. Minow headed the FCC—the Federal Communications Commission. He called television a ‘vast wasteland’ back in the 1960s. I wonder what he thinks now. That group will mind their manners.”

“Even when they’re talking about the President? People seem to forget civility when he comes up. And it’s not my generation, but your generation that keeps breaking the rules.

“You know I’m still reading the book by Dag Hammarskjold. He was a wise man. I keep going back to what he said about the idea of celebrity and from what I know, he must have been warning himself. I’ve got it in my backpack. I’ll get it for you.”

Strawberry returned while I was helping a customer decide on walnut or pistachio ma’moul. She waited until I finished.

“Listen to this. It’s brilliant!

Around a man who has been pushed into the limelight, a legend begins to grow as it does around a dead man. But a dead man is in no danger of yielding to the temptation to nourish his legend, or accept its picture as reality. I pity the man who falls in love with his image as it is drawn by public opinion during the honeymoon of publicity.

“Isn’t that a beautiful warning? Can’t you just hear him? Do you think Ms. Anne would post this somewhere? Can’t people understand that what others think of them doesn’t matter? What matters is our moral sense, our integrity. That’s an old-fashioned word, integrity. I’m beginning to like it a lot. What do you think?”

“I think we’ve gotten into a heavy conversation for two people working in a coffee shop, Strawberry. I’m not sure where it’s going to stop. Or if it can stop.”

“And that’s the beauty of Hammarskjold. Ever since I read that little book about his prayer—the Three Prayers You’ll Want to Pray—I’ve ventured into a different spiritual path. And I hope it doesn’t end. How about you?”

“The path I’m on began long ago, but I see that the group needs your attention. Forward we go!”

Ghost Interruptus

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Ms. Anne Thrope lets me work alone when I clean the shop. I have time to turn things over in my head, to solve problems, and sometimes I remember ordinary things that happened back in the day. I play music and sometimes sing or even dance. The door is locked so the only worries I have are inside my head. Tonight my worry concerns the economy and jobs, whether the latest government bailout is going to help ordinary people instead of helping the CEOs, and whether my unborn great-grandchildren will be able to clean up whatever mess we’ve left behind.

Big laughter interrupted my work, and I knew Saroyan was in the shop. Ms. Anne keeps an old photo of the writer on the wall, but I never thought a photo would invoke a spirit from the past until I began working here. I’ve become used to his irregular visits.

Not really conversations because that implies more of a dialogue than what happens when the ghost visits. He talks and he laughs—do ghosts have gender? Maybe I’ll find out in the future.

Saroyan’s big laugh signals some sort of talk and I brace myself for whatever he says.

“Hey, worried man! Pay attention. Why are you letting politics ruin your time on earth? You’re cleaning this place and all you can think about is how the politicians are screwing up the world with their greed and you’re acting as if this was just invented. Meanwhile you’re missing the imperfect beauty of the world. What’s the matter with you?”

I began to mumble something about feeling trapped because of decisions being made by different leaders.

He talked over me, “Did you ever read what I wrote? I forget which story I put this in. It was a good story—but they’re all good because they are my children and they retain their innocence unlike children who grow up. This is what I wrote:

Three times in my life I have been captured: by the orphanage, by school, and by the Army. I was four years in the orphanage, seven or eight in school, and three in the Army. Each seemed forever, though. But I’m mistaken. The fact is I was captured only once, when I was born, only that capture is also setting free, which is what this is actually all about. The free prisoner.

“And that’s why you need to let go the burdens you’re holding, kid. This worry isn’t helping you—unless you’re going to change things. And I don’t mean signing a petition. Do something constructive. Ask questions. Embarrass the politicians. Ask them again and again. Go to political events. Talk to other people. Take a run for political office. Don’t let fear turn you into a living statue. Live and make the world a more glorious place by what you do!

“Good talking with you, kid. Anytime you got a problem you need to talk about, let me know.”

Quiet Interlude with Tea

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The Rev. hunched over his teacup and his notebook. He held a pen, but didn’t write. No other customers in the place so I checked to see if he wanted another cup. “How about some fresh ma’moul today? Pistachio filling.”

“No, but another chai would be good. I’m not making any progress on this sermon. Something reminds me of my friend John Mogabgab—may he rest in Love eternal. His memory seems very close today.”

“Rev., I don’t know what to say. You’re the spiritual authority. Maybe his spirit is trying to communicate with you. Something else on your mind?”

“Life, I guess. I know where it comes from. I read a story by William Saroyan to pass the time the other day. It was one of those stories Saroyan claimed to knock out in an hour one day before he went to a party. He referred to a character named Mogabgab and that reminded me of John. Makes me sad.”

“So you know the why and the wherefore then.”

“Yeah. I like to pretend that I don’t. It’s the everyday pastoral reality. People are born, they get sick, they die. When I was ordained, an older minister told me that people wanted clergy for “matchin’, hatchin’, and dispatchin’.” Not the best description of ministry, but it comes close sometimes. There are rules and expectations. Don’t make anybody mad. Talk about ‘those people over there’ and what they’re doing wrong, but don’t say anything about the ones sitting in the pews. That sort of thing. And I’ve heard too many people who claim to love God use the foulest language to describe other human beings who are equally created in the image of God. Somehow what was once an easy way to describe political groups has become a way of tearing down one another. So I’m rambling and struggling with Sunday’s sermon.”

“Rev., that seems a long way from your friend.”

“You’d have to know John. He was concerned for community and the common good. He used the word commonweal a lot. What is our purpose and what is the common good? He would ask questions like that at his office. The questions he asked helped them gain perspective. I wonder what John would ask today. What is the common good for the congregation? What is the nation’s common good? How do we begin to change the dialogue to become more inclusive and improve the lot of all people? Those are the sorts of questions John would ask.”

“Well what if you were to preach a sermon about those questions? Or maybe let the congregation talk about the questions? I’d go to your church if you asked people to answer those questions in the service.”

“It’s good that you’re not clergy then! But thanks for helping me get beyond my surface lament. How about one of those ma’moul cookies now? Pistachio would be fine.”

The Singer of the Band

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The Rev. seemed to alternate between bouncing and dancing when he waited in line at the coffee club. “What’s up, Rev?”

“I just got word that a church is ordering 300 copies of In Days to Come—my Advent book. They’re going to use it for small groups and also try to let it influence the Sunday preaching. That’s why I write—to try to change the conversation in churches.”

“Everybody needs a reason. I know you’re not getting rich from books. If you have time, ask old Fred Falzone about his band story. It’s one of those good-bad things. You’ll like it.”

When I delivered the Rev.’s chai, I heard him ask, “So I hear you have a musician story, Fred.”

“Yeah, kind of a surprising turn for me,” said Falzone. ‘Here’s the deal. Back when I was a kid, I played drums in a small band. We did dances and we weren’t that good, but we made noise together and gave other kids something to make them move. We could count on playing small dances at Fort Yeprad—this was during Vietnam—and we’d each make fifteen bucks, which was decent money for a fifteen-year old back then. Minimum wage for adults was about a dollar then. We played two hours and then packed out.

“So these guys who’d been drafted always tried to talk their way into the band. Like the time this guy tried to convince us that he was the manager of The Beatles and wanted to play bass. And another idiot tried to convince us that he was Mick Jagger. How dumb did they think we were?”

“I see your point.  Mick Jagger and the US Army? Major contradiction.”

“So one night a guy comes up to the guitar player and explains that he recorded some tunes that made the charts, but the record label didn’t care and he got drafted. Went into a long explanation. Talked about The Box Tops. Asked if he could sing with us because he missed the old days. Lead guitar player said, ‘Sure, you be the fool,’ and this guy tells us to play ‘The Letter’ in some strange key like F-sharp. Guitar player hits the intro and we do the song and this guy sounds just like the record. So for the last forty years I’ve talked about the night the lead singer of The Box Tops played with our garage band.”

“That’s pretty cool.”

“Naw, Rev. They never drafted any lead singer of The Box Tops and he never served in any military. We got suckered bad. More than forty years I’ve been bragging about a lie and it makes me wonder if my friends knew the truth and were laughing about that story.”

 

Driving Thanatos

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As I drove home from the funeral of a long-retired friend, the radio played Chopin’s Piano Sonata #2 in b-minor. The third movement, often called the funeral march, includes a theme familiar to many cartoon doom scenarios: da da-da dahhhh. Instead of writing the rhythm or the notes, listen to Arthur Rubinstein play that third movement.

Somewhat dark and driven reflection on the lives of the five people I’ve known who have died in the last week. They were three adults who were fifteen-twenty years older than I and two adults whose ages made them my contemporaries. A lot of dying in a few days. I take these deaths somewhat personally.

But again as I hear Chopin’s somber chords and melody, I give thanks for the lives of these five and the ways that they brought change into the world through industry and business and publishing and writing and ministry.

Yes, I take these deaths personally. They tell me that life is sweet and to be savored. They tell me that life is short and full of depth and intensity. They tell me that the work of transformation continues.

They tell me that life grows out of love and that life continues through love.

The dirge of Chopin ended, having completed its work. I listen now to celebratory and joyful musical expressions by John Coltrane and Dave Brubeck and the king of jazz, Louis Armstrong, and I am grateful.

Credo

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Life is short.

I thought I understood that, but over the last five months, I’ve witnessed the deaths of family and friends, acquaintances and former co-workers. All these deaths keep pointing to this fundamental reality:

Life is short. Love one another.

I thought I understood that, but I am beginning to enter a new phase of learning.

William Saroyan’s preface or prelude or overture to The Time of Your Life inspired me in adolescence and continues to this day: “In the time of your life, live…so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.’

Live, as Saroyan wrote, to not add to the misery and sorrow of the world. I thought my generation born after WWII understood that. I was wrong because we’ve set loose as much anger and other deadly sins as the generations before us—the generations we thought to avoid imitating. And other generations pile on and add to the general misery and sorrow of the world.

Life is short. I have work to do, people to love, gifts to use. I will not waste time in anger—whether at others or myself.

I believe that to be a part of the divine will for humanity.

Remembering Carole

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My friend Carole Perdue Farr died from cancer earlier this summer. I write this in place of a sermon for a service of death and resurrection or a funeral or a memorial service because Carole did not want any such service. I write this note for Michael Paul Farr, her husband, and for Jeremy, their son. Carole was fierce in her love for Mike and for Jeremy. She dearly loved them and was not shy in her declarations and, when needed, her defense of them.

Carole was a force. She acted in theater, sang, danced. She earned a doctoral degree in library science and worked for much of her career as a librarian in the Georgia prison system, helping to educate an abused and underserved population.

We were in undergrad school together and then went on to Emory University. I don’t know which of our friends made the indirect reference to the Romanov family, the czar and czarina of Russia, but somehow we began to speak of the Farr and the Farrina. Somehow that designation suited Carole’s sometimes-regal persona.

The mind pulls up strange memories in times of grief. Carole once convinced me to let her use a home permanent on my then-abundant and uncontrolled hair in an attempt to straighten and manage it. While my hair eventually recovered, we agreed that the experience seemed more like a television sit-com.

One painful and funny memory, one of those bittersweet moments, goes back to a Sunday afternoon at Emory in the pre-cable television days. The Farrs invited several of us to their campus apartment to watch television and talk about the grind of course work. The Sound of Music came on the local station and Carole began to sing along with the movie. A friend and I began to lampoon the film, which we’d all seen many times. After telling us politely and then more firmly and still more urgently to stop the ridicule, Carole went to her bedroom during a commercial break and came out with a saber, chasing us out of the apartment. Bittersweet.

We stayed in touch in the years after Emory, visiting back and forth, arguing and enjoying conversations. Carole was never able to get me to admit publicly to any fondness for Maria and her singing charges, but she knew more about my sentimentality than I wanted to make public. So it goes.

A friend across many years of the lifespan is now dead, and the lives she touched are richer as a consequence. May Carole Perdue Farr rest in Love eternal.

Remembering the Kamajinator

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Ms. Anne Thrope closed the shop for her annual spring vacation, a holdover she said from the days when her father would close his business for the entire month after Christmas. I’ve told her that this is not a very contemporary approach to business, but she pays the staff full-salary during the closure and we still get vacation time.

This morning I walked back to the club because we’re open again. The place doesn’t feel the same because of the death of our friend, a drummer and artist named Kamajian. Ub some places he referred to himself as Kamajinator. We didn’t know his age. We didn’t know his first name. “Age is a number, and history is so last year,” he said. We only knew the one name he used. Conversations with him were refreshing and stimulating. We enjoyed his drumming at local clubs. He would come to the club, linger over his coffee, and work at his computer until one of his friends showed up for conversation. A beautiful soul he was.

Years ago I saw a cover illustration he did for a Batman comic book. I also saw some of his scientific art. We kidded him about the old Saab he drove, which he said he wanted to redesign to look like the Batmobile.

And then he died, and we found out his first name and his age and other details of his life that he never felt necessary to disclose.

We miss him.

May Kamajian rest in Love eternal.