Monday, August 31, 2009

Marital Haiku #1

Your eyes enchant me
And your voice is beautiful.
So, what did you say?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Auras of Power

So I learned a minute ago that Ted Kennedy died last night of his cancer. I know something about the vigil of a family, the death rattle, the astonishing, holy quiet that fills the room when the body no longer breathes but the warmth of life has not yet cooled on the forehead. The fingertips blue, the face relaxed, and a sense of awe and wonder for those alive to sense it. Alas for the end of life. Alas for the loss of having any more tomorrows to plan and look forward to. Alas for entering the time when we hope the end of tomorrows comes quickly.

I think Ted Kennedy sensed the special mantle of leadership that is available to those who rise, either by force of personality or by station in life. Ted Kennedy, I think, had both of those things. He was infused with the aura of his family name and the people's sense of hope that stuck to the family name despite the human failings of individuals. He was blessed with a strong constitution, such that early in his career when he suffered a broken back in an airplane crash, he came back from it and rose above any further mention of it.

He became a champion of things his family was expected to champion, either because he personally believed in them or because he needed to appear to champion them in order to retain the devotion of the followers. There is a border zone in the human spirit between truth and pretense, or truth and feigning, in which the thing we feign one day becomes the truth of us by and by, either because we have come to believe in it, or because we have "incorporated" it, made it a part of our body and soul and identity. I'm saying that Ted Kennedy was born into a societal role and he filled that role splendidly all of his life. A former age would have termed his "performance" the Obligation of the Noblility, Noblesse Oblige.

I'm not suggesting that he was posing as "the good man." I'm suggesting that in his public life he passionately advocated what the populace hopes those of noble spirit will advocate. In his public life he upheld our hopes, those of us who wanted leadership like his or hoped for better social conditions in the ways he did.

I used to receive hate mailings at my office from a source in southwest Missouri who absolutely did not want America to have leadership like his. For that faction, Kennedy's name was synonymous with the sure destruction of the American Way.

Mourn with me, then, also, the blue finger tips of the girl Mary Jo, trapped in a small pocket of air in the sunken car that Ted Kennedy somehow escaped as it sank into a pond after he drove off a short, low bridge in 1969. He later said she had asked for a ride back to the hotel. She had told none of her five co-workers at the party that she was leaving. Her purse and hotel room key were still at the party.

Mourn the people who are caught up in the auras of power and personality and who are consumed.

In the paper today I read about two bright hopes of Missouri politics who played dirty in the 2004 election, lied about it to investigators, and who will now do jail time, not for playing dirty, but for lying about it.

Back in August of 1969, the month I finished graduate school and began my teaching career, the month of Woodstock, the month after Mary Jo went for late-night ride with Ted Kennedy, our society was in a time of transition from hushing up the misdeeds of our nobility to gleefully exposing them thirty years later during the humiliation of the Clinton household. I have wondered this morning if a situation parallel to the last ride of Mary Jo Kopechne could possibly result in only the brief suspension of a driver's license were it to happen today.

I mourn the loss of Ted Kennedy, and his failures of spirit and judgment, and of the damages that occur inside those auras of power.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Passing Form of Institutionalization

I have a step-nephew, once or twice removed, and named Wilson Oldhouser, III. He is the grandson of my stepfather-in-law, Wilson Oldhouser, who I first met in 1975. I’ll call my stepson “Bill” to avoid confusion. Bill is a lawyer in Baltimore, an hour’s drive south of York, PA, where Wilson lived most of his life. Bill had formed a lifelong bond of affection for Wilson, and vice-versa, and so, by the grace of God, Bill was in the right place, with the right maturity and legal connections, to intervene by degrees when Wilson began to lose his senses.

Wilson died in April of this year in an Alzheimer’s care facility near Bill’s home. Alzheimer’s was Wilson’s largest and possibly only fear in life. He had seen his brother Woody succumb to it. When it came upon Wilson’s own mind, it buffered him from a terrifying self-awareness. Thus, as far as I know, Wilson never spoke of losing his senses. He didn’t know they were gone. There was some god-given essence to Wilson that prevailed in social interaction even when he could not remember.

Wilson was larger-than-life to the members of the family and to many of his friends. He had a big, outgoing personality. He had a piercing baritone speaking voice and a huge smile. He loved adventure and feared no risks. As a fighter pilot in World War II, he had lived to tell the tale of more than one brush with death.

My late wife, Sandra, was his stepchild. That was an uneasy relationship for her. She had lost her father in a divorce that took her by surprise when she was fourteen. A couple of years later, her mother, Gladys, married Wilson in 1956. In 1975, before I was taken to meet Gladys and Wilson, Sandra thoroughly cautioned me about Wilson’s brash manner. I think she feared he would scare me off.

When I met him I made a brash game of our getting to know each other. I made wise cracks. I gave him goofy answers. I made him laugh. He realized that we were in for a long game of verbal delight. And so, as our relationship developed, he never once tried to throw me off balance, and I never engaged him in anger. We had become something like buddies.

During my period of grieving over Sandra’s death these past months, I didn’t keep up with Wilson’s condition. I contacted Bill in April to ask about Wilson and learned that Wilson was in failing health at the time of my note and that he had died five days later.

Bill is an excellent writer. His Christmas letters to the family are always warm and interesting. I saw that warmth and ease again this week when Bill sent me the transcript of a memorial gathering of lawyers and judges on August 7 in York, Pennsylvania. I take this transcript as a “historic artifact” because it is evidence of a vanishing form of memorial called “Minutes of Respect.” It resembles a Quaker assembly in which various people rise in turn and say something in memory of a departed friend.

At the close of the proceeding, Judge John Uhler remarks on “Minutes of Respect” as a passing institution. He speaks of the manner by which a profession memorializes its members and considers whole people and whole lives. He says, “There is always a debate as to the appropriateness of the continuation of these Minutes of Respect, and the debate evolves from the younger members of the Bar. They are not swelling to include themselves in observance to these Minutes, and it's a passing form of institutionalization of times gone by. I'm an advocate that these Minutes continue. How else can we memorialize the history of our members, the sheer diversity of interests that our members bring to the table and before us? And quite frankly, the Minute that has been presented by Bill has, quite frankly, given a new focus, a new picture of Wilson that I never had the opportunity to experience, and I thank him for that. We need to memorialize our history, and it's important not only for the family members but it's for the members of the Bar to recognize that there are more things to life than billable hours.”

I have made a PDF file of the Minute of Respect with Bill’s permission. I have also connected Judge Uhler’s final remark – “there are more things to life than billable hours” – to the objects I see in museums. Local museums have long served the function of “memorial station” for town residents. There is a memorial quality to donating tangible objects to a museum, so just about everyone, sooner or later, will approach the museum board with a proposed donation of objects.

It is the job and duty of the museum people to bring objects to life. Last week as I gazed at an array of rusting old farm machinery I thought, “There is so much more to life in a farming community than obsolete tools and machines.” What Judge Uhler is responding to is a compelling story. The presence of rusty equipment is not the museum’s problem. The problem is the absence of story. That is a problem that can be solved over and over, in ways that offer a fitting memorial to the forbears and departed friends and relatives who worked on the land.