Soul Man, Soul Mate

Click here to read this story.

In high school, and even as a fraternity member in college, I was not much of a dancer. Squirming and gyrating to pop rock seemed awkward and a little phony. Simple jumping up and down to the beat, as the male and female groups do today, seems more fitting. At fraternity parties I tended to dance with the Nashville couples who had set steps, sort of like line dancing. Eventually, however, I did get a reputation as a wild dancer. But I won’t claim that it was dancing at all.

There was one man to emulate when it came to dancing: James Brown. With the funky beat of his band, it was hard not to feel the music directing the feet and the whole body from inside out and the floor up. Hearing a James Brown hit today immediately generates the same reaction – full abandon.

The figure of the soul man was significant in the late-1960s in Memphis. The attributes, attractions, and limitations of his type are worth further study.

Click here to read this story.

Still Life

Our widowed friend paints life still:

each object vibrates color;

vessels brim with promise past,

with memories vaguely shaken.


Repeating acts for themselves,

sublime grasp of the moment,

each stroke observes one forward step,

one backward glance forsaken.


Still life is breath, no less,

when human hands and eyes behold

what minds and hearts embrace,

what sharing lives awaken.

Liberal to a Fault

What is little recognized about liberalism in America, among the illiberal, is its toughness in resisting homogeneity. It is little known and understood because conservatives and identity-conflicted centrists choose to ignore context and history when composing their self-congratulatory political narratives – narratives that describe their own views as wholly realistic and doggedly principled while ignoring the evolving ideals and labored mechanics essential to pragmatism. Recently, Nathan Heller wrote an article entitled “Northern Lights” for The New Yorker. [1] In it he examines the effectiveness and sensibleness of the welfare state in Scandinavian countries. He also contrasts that with criticism of the Scandinavian system offered in a current book on the topic. The juxtaposition of Scandinavian and American solutions to individual and social issues leads him to a interesting conclusion: that where Scandinavians have achieved saneness with an underpinning of sameness, America, particularly because of the strength of liberal ideals, pursues better solutions while preferring cultural diversity. As Heller sees it, this is not exactly unqualified praise of the American approach in general or American liberals in particular.

Here is how Heller states it:

“What Nordic life tells us…is how steep and ambitious the path of American liberalism is. Conservative social ideals are notorious for their mercenary spirit and wishful self-justifications…. Yet a certain hardness of heart rests in the practice of modern American liberalism, too. We have registered our willingness to make the Faustian deal that the Swedes have not. The possibility of having a truly Iranian-American life, or enjoying deep-Appalachian bluegrass, is important to our national variety. And, to let these cultures thrive on their own, we’ve agreed to let some of our people, by our withheld intervention, be thrown under the bus.

“Because this is America, we hope for better. But we aren’t hung up on our tendencies to fall short. …Like many Enlightenment-born nations, we declared our principles at the start – liberty, equality, the pursuit of happiness – and trusted that any friction among these ideas would be sorted out, eventually, in the churn of civic life. The trust continues. Progress is slow. While Nordic people have made the best of what they have, Americans persist in gambling on something better, and yet settling for something worse.”

Heller, having it both ways, as is the wont of journalists and critics alike, seems to be lightly criticizing American liberalism for not demanding the level of purity that would force submission to a tighter state in order to achieve a more amenable lifestyle – if not a more equitable and interesting society.

But his essay offers a valuable lesson to conservatives about liberalism. Liberalism is not more aggressive in opposing gun ownership, or the advancement of willful denial of fact in our society, because liberals see such aberrations as a part of our culture that somehow augment American life and prospects – as if to say, we will not force you to give up your diverse ways because we have no intention of giving up ours – and we find all the differences to be, at least a little, enriching.

Liberals in fact think there may yet be something useful and enlightening to emerge from conservative expressions – though there is often every reason to doubt that proposition. That, my friends, is truly entrenched optimism and determination. Liberals won’t go hard on guns in general because of fondness for grandpa’s beautiful gun rack and his colorful hunting stories. Radicals of every stripe should remember that liberals have firepower, too – sporting and defensive weapons, factories, technology, demographics, and diversity – shared culture and work. And liberals have an impressively successful track record of consistently crushing jackboots when they goose-step too high and too close to home. Diversity does indeed have its usefulness, lest conservatives think it is all about meditation, yoga, and sushi. Allies are a wonderful complement in war.

I am not so sure that American liberals are throwing anyone under the bus. But, by Heller’s lights, they are liberal to a fault for not going out of their way to crush differences of opinion and living styles. All this is not to criticize Scandinavia – even without bluegrass. Heller’s spear is meant for us alone, even though he would not wish us Scandinavian. We are too gloriously searching and messy for that.

Therefore, any assertions by conservatives regarding concealed or elite liberal designs to build a totalitarian state are pure projection and fancy on the part of the real schemers. Liberal America prefers flavorful variety over monotonous universal perfection.

FOOTNOTE:

1. Nathan Heller’s article “Northern Lights” in The New Yorker on February 16, 2015.

Little Shops of Honor

Click here to read this story.

In former days, these hands of mine did more than blindly stagger around a computer keyboard. They were nimble – as comfortable with a straight-razor blade or a thin paint brush as with an electric drill or a table saw. Duties done, they will be free to come alive again in that heavenly retreat of retirement, making things not to have fine things but for the exhilaration and finality of touch and fabrication.

When I retire to my little shop of honor, I will not miss the formal, well-paid, self-important work. The troubleshooting, the problem-solving, the deal-brokering, the puzzle-working, the dot-connecting, the creating something from nothing, the adapting old into something new – all will still be with me. It was with me before I started my belated career of twenty-two years; it will continue to be there in the company of my family and neighbors and singing birds.

When I retire to my little shop of honor, I want to invent, or share in the invention of, one more creation, one more thing to be proud of. I am confident that there is one more way out there to reinvent myself and to make my modest shop a source of simple, ephemeral pleasure.

Millions of little shops of honor can achieve similar goals by simply pursuing the activities that they most enjoy with practiced skill – risking loss, and letting others marvel at their dedication and product.

Click here to read this story.

Born Again

With some frequency, I have mentioned that I once returned to college many years after leaving it. I never deliberately dropped out: eventually, after more than four years of hard study there, I was excreted.

The first time I left, though, I was propelled from college. Something was happening to me which I did not understand. Friendships were dissolving, personalities were shape-shifting, my body was bloating, the world was gnawing. And it was spring. But more significantly, I had hit a wall. I enrolled in a course on Renaissance Europe at Memphis State University. I had taken four very good required survey history courses prior to this particular course but had mainly taken courses in business and psychology. More inclined toward the latter – and seeing the former, based in no small part on the other people pursuing it, as a misfit for my temperament, principles, and evolving interests – I sought out new study paths late in my junior year.

The readings for the Renaissance course were complex and overwhelming on many levels. Though my professor was a spellbinding storyteller, I felt lost in material that I could neither digest nor piece together. I was captivated by images and tales of men and women who made my own life seem under-lived and completely uninteresting; I encountered ideas that made those surrounding me and my time appear clearly insufficient. Yet, I felt the time speak to me – call to me. Having read and attended with all my ability, I went to my professor and told him of my decision to withdraw from school. I told him that I would risk all, even risk being drafted for duty in Vietnam, to see the world and find my place in it. This man, who seemed to hold the world in his large hands, his imposing stature, and his deep, authoritative voice – a true believer in the power and fundamental necessity of education – did not attempt to dissuade me. He was genuinely supportive of the reasoning upon which I based my move outward.

I will be honest. I left school in pursuit of craft. The very word loomed noble and superior to bland consumption. Emphatically, I did not leave for humanism. I never would have dreamed that humanism could, through the twisted witchcraft of modern-day religion, be cast in popular American culture as the most wicked scourge ever to plague mankind. I was humanism through and through. I did not need to pursue it. And there was nothing that could drive it from me. It was the grand gift that had seeped into my pores from the moment that I was born. It was the alpha and omega of my education. It was the beginning and sustenance of my values. And nothing solidified humanism’s hold on me like the benevolent Protestant upbringing in my household that surrounded me since birth. To me, Jesus was humanism writ large. He would not stand so pervasively and personally approachable without the ideals, contributions, and sacrifices of humanism, and humanism would not thrive without the model and teachings of Jesus.

Consistent with my practice of posting manuscripts related to the Middle Ages, I have attached essays pertaining to my exploration of the Renaissance.

The mighty figures and events of the Renaissance would mock our petty conceits. And we justly deride many of theirs. But we easily see ourselves among them. We find their assumptions familiar. Their excesses are recognizably human in our eyes.

The Renaissance in History
Lawyers and Statecraft
Michelangelo
Letter About Machiavelli’s The Prince
Review of Renaissance Letters

(Refer to the key offered in the previous post on dooms to view these learning journals. Read them or ignore them at will.)

When Letters Could Talk

Click here to read this story.

I treasure letters. I save most personal correspondence I receive. And I try to save drafts of some letters that I send. Fragments of letters encapsulate evidence of the fullness of living. It pains me to imagine chunks of history daily cast away. Still more, it awes me to consider the trillions of stories that were never part of our shared record.

Digital messaging is something we think we cannot live without. I greatly appreciate its speed and convenience. I am grateful that I continue to receive emails – occasionally even containing multiple paragraphs – that approach the detail, color, feeling, and depth of handwritten letters. But they are fewer and fewer. Though I have tried to keep personal email exchanges over for the past twenty years, emails have become more akin to business telegrams than letters. Blogs are really not like letters either, but they can be richer than emails – though less personal. When I write something for what others insist on calling my “blog,” I generally write portions as if they were letters to individuals with whom I am very familiar. Often the messages I send to them in this indirect way are urgent though quiet. Even though I have substantial experience using digital technology for communication, the first time I got a response to a “blog” story from someone I didn’t know, it creeped me out; I felt as if my personal space had been violated in some way. Maybe I am over that to some extent, but in a significant way I am not. I write to people I know. [1]

Despite having little to say most of the time, I endeavor to be both informative and entertaining in my letters. Whether I succeed in achieving either is an open question. I am not a very inventive letter writer in terms of fiction and fantasy, but I am a passable exaggerator.

Recently I found a bundle of letters written in late 1982 and early 1983. They are particularly interesting to me because they illustrate how my wife and I lived before the advent of our son. These paragraphs that you are reading are a sidewinding preface to selected parts of three of those letters.

There is an incident – not mentioned in the letters – that links the first two recipients. It happened as a close friend, my wife, and I leisurely drove back to Nashville from Boston. My wife and I were returning home after travel north to briefly visit our friend. His girlfriend’s parents lived near the water’s edge of eastern Long Island. We had only just met her days before in Boston, and she had returned to her parent’s comfortable house for an extended summer stay. She and her parents put the three of us up for a night to help relieve our drive south.

My friend had a mischievous streak and was a studied deceiver. He delighted in the discomfort of others, especially familiars. As we were driving across Long Island, he casually mentioned, as if it were a slip of his tongue, that his girlfriend’s brother had deep-rooted psychological problems and had recently been found wandering, if not stalking, the beach holding an ax. When we arrived, we met her friendly family, and while we were on the beach, we ran across her younger brother. He did indeed act peculiarly. After dinner and a beach walk, my wife and I returned to our guest accommodations in the basement of the house. The brother’s bedroom was a small side room off of the main basement room, separated only by a flimsy, hollow-core interior door. From the stairwell he had to walk across the room about ten feet from the foot of our double bed to get to his room. That night, after we got in bed, turned out the lights, and began to nod off, he returned home and walked a little too noisily to his room and shut the door. The light remained on for the entire night, and there was occasional shuffling in the room, accented by periodic human utterances. My eyes and ears were alert all that night. I had one of the most fitful sleeps ever, continually glancing at that door with the light seeping from the inch-wide crack at the bottom, listening for signs of imminent attack. We had been warned by our friend not to mention the brother’s condition; so as thoroughly polite and grateful guests, we issued not a hint, before or after our evening, about our planted suspicions, though craving all the while confirmation or denial of our friend’s darkly sketched story. The next day, our friend reluctantly and “innocently” confessed his tale, after hearing of my restless sleep and seeing my haggard eyes. His girlfriend was not amused by his trick or our long-suffering discomfort.

Letter writing and friendship are similar to that story. It’s difficult to sort what is fact from embellishment. Often we don’t really want to know the absolute truth because it would ruin the experience. If we demand only truth and facts, there might be no story – nor life – to speak of.

FOOTNOTE:

1. Since its inception, TennesseeSoul Mate has not been open to external search engines. That polite curtain of modesty is a cellophane barrier I have been unwilling to lift. Thus, though it is open to whoever stumbles upon it, the TennesseeSoul Mate portion of the TennesseeSoul network possesses an imaginary privacy. Otherwise, TennesseeSoul overall is strongly shielded by obscurity, general lack of interest, and too much other stuff to do.

Click here to read this story.

A Fractured Brotherhood

Click here to read this story.

Who wasn’t dumb when young? Blessed are they who survive to laugh about it.

The 1960s were not for the faint of heart or overly idealistic. The same caution applies to the story for which these few words feign preface. Thinking of that time brings to mind the term wasted. But the times were wasted in intriguing ways.

Those who find modern society perplexing and unruly surely did not attend a large public university in American in the 1960s. The chaos was both diffuse and acute – and unremitting. Nonetheless, there were core standards that set a pace – even under long, unkempt hair and amid bizarre street-theater antics. We were wackos then as we are now in aging. Still there were, and are, steady limits that continue to yield results and reassurance.

* * *

The recollections associated with this introduction started with a dream about a hunt for a missing person. I began getting visits and phone calls from a disparate group of individuals with little more in common than prolonged proximity to one another long ago in youth. The individuals were roughly equivalent in experience, intelligence, class, wealth, ethnic and social background, and aspirations – but different enough to make interactions among them interesting and unsettling, offering a context for the personal evolution of all involved.

A youthful initiation into the world of intoxicants figures in this account. No serious offenses or accidents derived from said experimentation worse than what I had already accomplished as a very sober, yet equally dull-witted, 16-year-old driver. My first accident occurred two weeks after getting my license. Driving with four or five friends on the way to school, I was hit from my left at an unmarked neighborhood intersection. One friend broke his collar bone. Though the other driver was charged, it was as much my fault as not. The second was about eight months later after being caught downtown at night in a fresh snow storm with a car full of church friends. Of course, no one wore a seat belt; one girl in the lap of another friend hit her tooth on the dashboard. I was not charged, due to the ice, slow speed and minor damage to the other automobile, but I knew it was my fault ultimately. The third time, maybe a year later, while double dating, my engine (in the same car) caught fire in a quiet out-of-the-way suburban neighborhood. To my father’s dismay, the car did not burn up. Still it was damaged enough in my three accidents that my father traded it (rather than me) for a green Volkswagen Karmann Ghia convertible. Finally, I had learned my lesson: there was no way I was going to scratch that beauty.

An excursion in fraternity introduced me to new ways of self-defeat – and maturity.

Memphis is sustained by social and emotional tendrils. Long after I left my college fraternity, a former brother occupied a house near campus with his best friend, who was not our fraternity brother but a party beast beyond any in that organization. When they gave up the house, my uncle and aunt and cousin moved in, and my grandparents moved next door. Within no time, my other two first cousins moved, each with a wife and child, into separate houses within a block of my aunt, uncle, and paternal grandparents. This area of Memphis became a frequent and much-appreciated resting place, especially after I moved into a duplex on the other side of the tracks, closer to the university, about six short blocks away. We all surrounded the location of my old fraternity house. In effect, it was as if over the years of significant events, I had not moved out of the realm of fraternity but rather stretched my links from it to the university and broader world beyond.

This story explores youth and fraternity as a potent, hazardous coupling. Though the subject and the telling may seem small, the personal consequences were enormous. And they live on in countless ways.

Click here to read this story.

Icons of Affection

Click here to read this story.

Art is a loaded concept. To ordinary Americans, always sniffing about something, it smells of pretense, fastidiousness (or slovenliness), delusion, and wasted time. If and when we think of ART, we associate it with Europe, museums, odd living arrangements, and media stories about outrageous sales prices at auction houses. Or we think of it as decoration to fill empty spaces.

What has no price is worthless in most quarters. Art as a commodity is the order of the day. Art as an ordinary activity is…well, befuddling.

Forays into the forbidding world of art, though personally rewarding and mind-expanding at times, generally go nowhere – except to a box hidden under the bed or to the attic or, if elevated above dismal, on the wall of an out-of-the-way room. Still the mind carries on, trying to connect, trying to understand – and perhaps gradually evolving to see more and more in more places. With time, one relaxes prejudices and self-deprecations and learns to coexist in parallel planes. After years of misses, one sometimes begins to understand the nearness of the creative process to skilled labor and simple, clear-headed insights.

Images persist while everything but gene exchange and self-extinction lapses. Adaptation builds and fades. What remains, if anything, are images and the changing values placed on them. The world itself, and its history, becomes a string of disparate, discontinuous movie frames.

Actually, it is much funnier than that, but only rarely. It is humorous when we think about art and its creators caught up in existential questioning amid all the fuss. It is painfully funny when we imagine someone else, too much like ourselves in this respect, repeatedly stumping a toe on an award-winning sculpture used as a doorstop, then ditching the whole enterprise in philosophical and exasperated revolt.

Click here to read this story.

What Worth History?

A student of history need not rush to publish in response to every detail in the daily press. Important things never go away and are always relevant. The more time taken to connect events and properly sequence and emphasize them, the more potent the eventual story. Racial slander, commercial-political collusion, economic inequality, and popular outrage are ever-present. They are as ubiquitous as the Southern political operatives who sell the future of their fellows, and their own souls, for the sake of power and lucre in mimicry of the luxuries of more established and prosperous climes.

We all re-tell our stories. And the stories are the better for it. I repeat my stories and activities: over and over I rehearse the scripts, twist the unfoldings, and tweak the endings. They are the only stories and activities that I have. The Iliad was recited hundreds of thousands of times and changed with each telling. And the repetitions don’t seem to have hurt it at all.

Dirt, dirt, dirt – we come from dirt; we live from dirt (guided by intelligence, we hope); we return to dirt. There is nothing fearful or shameful in that fact – except when we forget it.

What is history worth and what is worth history? Why study history?

When I returned, at almost forty, to finish my college degree, my two most inspiring history teachers, my first one after returning and my last one, were confined to wheelchairs. Both were near retirement and not far from death. The search started in Italy and ended up in the American South. Proximity to toil and the soil pervaded both perspectives on history. Yet for all of this, there was a wonder at the endless spectacle and peculiarities of human history, especially pertaining to intricate, evolving human cultures. I suspect that I forgot the dirt of life at times in early college days, but I never forgot for long once I discovered history through the eyes, voices, passions, and reading recommendations of these two men.

Both professors were first and foremost storytellers and social beings, highly interested in cultures and institutions – in outstanding individuals and the life patterns of ordinary people. They were more interested in generating interest, materials-management skills and synthesis, befitting any professional, than in frail and filigreed scholarship for a closeted few. Both men shaped and shoved more students into forms of professional life other than academics. If a degree was needed for a career, why not choose a broad area of study that is rife with intrigue and relevance to life in all its connected manifestations over a commercially specialized focus?

For the last course of my belated undergraduate degree, in the winter and spring of 1990, it was my good fortune to study the post-Civil War history of the South at Tennessee State University. A more decent mind and gentle personality than my esteemed professor would be hard to find in academia, or any profession, at any time. He was familiar with his South and its people, he was compassionate but analytical about what happened there. However, he was not overly optimistic about where it might go – neither were my significant teachers at Memphis State University about the course that lies ahead for the people of the nation and the world.

Yet no matter how hard the grind, how pointless the day, returning to my stories – these stories of generations – revives my outlook and my body. How can history do more than prepare the mind and preserve the spirit?

While working on a short essay entitled “Guilt by Association” and its related material, pondering the worth of effort even in my sleep, I had a dream. I was a young boy in an enclosed horse-drawn carriage at a large rural event when a robust baby boy was thrust through the open window in a moment of wide-spread celebration. Years later, in a side room at that very setting, I was presented with an opportunity to ask questions of that, now, wise old man. A lifetime had jumped in an instant from birth to sagacity. In those minutes, talking with the experienced, sage Benjamin Franklin about people, events, and the mechanisms of life, my world view expanded exponentially: dirt and destiny combined to lift me above the common fray and into to it all at once.

That is why we study history. That is why a few magnetic storytellers rise from nowhere to teach it by being themselves.

May these fallen guides, born of practical experience, books, and noble goals, continue to speak in stronger voices that we can understand:
      Dr. Marcus W. Orr (1925–1990) – Memphis State University;
      Dr. Samuel H. Shannon (1934-2003) – Tennessee State University.

Gray Claws

No thing reveals the fate of a nation more than the plight of its old. In America, at the dawn of the 21st century, people who sought expansion of personal horizons and independence are suddenly finding themselves confined and utterly dependent.

Doubling the trouble is the tendency of the utterly feeble to rely on the decrepit twin highwaymen of our political system – to wit, the Republican Party and its bastard sibling, the Tea Party – to cling to privilege and to restore a lost golden age that never was. This is not to say that the Democratic Party lacks its own deficiencies. But at least the Democratic Party contains the diversity of microbes necessary to digest change and excrete failure through the natural family processes of internal bickering, back-stabbing, inheritance hunting, and deathbed watching.

Through all the bitterness over the Affordable Care Act, I was guilty of not being sufficiently livid at the obstructionists who spent untold effort trying to prevent, overturn, repeal, slander, and otherwise block implementation of health reform. That is until I witnessed first-hand the desperation of the old and uninsured who need good information and more rational and fair health insurance coverage. To the dimwits who fought the Affordable Care Act tooth and nail with every underhanded deceit known to man, I say thank you from the bottom of my heart for calling it Obamacare. You have insured that one of the most significant advancements in health services in this country will be forever linked with the president whom you refused to give a chance and the Democratic Party, which sacrificed much to hold the tiller firmly during a gale of lies, whining, privilege-seeking, and self-indulgence. May you not suffer in your old age as you would have others suffer.

The old – and that bracket includes baby boomers – don’t have much to fall back on in terms of the children next in line: many of our children are lost in cyberspace and consumed by their own selfish concerns and presumptions of superiority. And, too, progeny in every developed country are but one Internet or electrical-grid failure away from complete helplessness themselves.

It is assumed by those who wish it so that the old will whimper, rollover, and die. An alternative plan on the political right and left is for the old to claw back in elder rage and irrationality that further dooms the long view and the arduous climb out of the hole we have dug for ourselves.

There is another way, as usual. The old can accept their duty to mentor and pass the baton responsibly to another generation. They might delay retirement but be ready to step aside and let jobs go to the young who need to start their overdue careers. They might vote and speak as if they acquired common sense over their many years of prosperous existence. The young can accept greater responsibility and maintain sensible engagement in politics and the lives of the old.

Never has it been so apparent how maturing Americans have inched themselves, and our society, out on a flimsy limb far away from practical community. It is not the fault of this generation of elderly or the past one. It is not the fault of evolving youth culture, either. That is except where the habits and culture of each generation have fused seamlessly and energetically with the unbridled consumerism of the past century and a half and neglected the future.

The most giving and creative society can indeed simultaneously be the most selfish and shortsighted. Too tired to try, the old fall back on bitching and recliners. Though high time for generational change, few new friends of mankind stand out: no figure, no group, no ideology, no method leaps to mind to make our evolutionary path easier or surer.

One cannot hear the sounds of the environment with embedded ear buds. One cannot see one’s surroundings in the illumination of a hand-held device. One cannot connect when constantly plugged in and tuned out. Neither can the old hear, see, or connect from the cave of their dens, strangers to the Internet, immobile, and steeped in denial until it is too late.

No external solutions exist, only the basic everyday ones. The momentum is with each household and tribe pursuing its daily survival. That is how we have gotten by for centuries. That is how we will rise or fail together – one by one.

Precipitously, our old fall off the playing field. Nothing changes – except that the wisdom of the ages is diminished in a steady dribble. Forgetting is what we do best. It is what we do worst. The brittle gray claws of the old crumble and break. And the spaces left when they decamp are beyond filling.