(From the draft I wrote the day after my father’s death at 104.)
This is the last small room he will live in.
Every day I visit him at 4 O’clock.
We balloon the room with our forgiveness.
“Either this man is dead or my watch has stopped.”
“Not funny for a man this close to death.”
We share what only dark humor can express.
The Marx brothers, for both of us, are the best.
The men are waiting outside the door.
The electric razor hums in my hand
As it cuts along the cheekbone and the neck
Like a harvester on pre-Winter land
Across the snowbank of white paper skin
I harvest thistle from earths intellect.
They zip their bag shut but leave without him.
If you loved your education or even if you didn’t, but love the people, the culture — and you are pretty certain you should have never been admitted — you are a born Poet Laureate.
If you are worried about qualifications, no license is required. And what is really great is that there are endless jobs available because in most institutions this job has not even been created — so you can fill it by volunteering and hold it endlessly as long as you are keeping the alumni laughing.
And if you are worried about keeping your integrity this is absolutely the job for you! You can test this:
Call a restaurant and tell them you are a Poet Laureate. You will get a table next to the kitchen. You can insist on no favoritism and be certain that your request will be honored.
And it is not “a low paying job”! It is a no paying job, so you pay no taxes! And there are other hidden benefits:
I have found that as long as I have been a Poet Laureate they have not revoked my degree. In my case, that’s important.
I have been the Poet Laureate of the Harvard Alumni Association for the last eight years and I am living proof that no talent is richly rewarded for the pure pleasure of just doing this job.
Yes, I have proof:
The job requires that I present my “ode” at the Annual Spring Meetings of the Alumni Association and, for the last two years, for different reasons, it has been videoed.
Have fun with it. Two weeks ago, because of the coronavirus, I bemoaned the cancellation of our graduation and celebrated our student athletes and our football team:
The year before, I celebrated the Harvard Magazine and my former father-in-law:
On Friday, March 6th, I headed home on a mid-morning train from NYC. We had been busy. The day before, we had finished a third table reading of The Grace of God & The Man Machine. The atmosphere had been wonderful and the actors had greeted each other with hugs and kisses, celebrating the act of making theater.
Other than my wife, this was the last time I have been within six feet of anybody for almost two months. Everyone in the world I know is in quarantine.
I have tracked my friends in New York and elsewhere, as some of them have gotten the virus, gone dark, and returned to report they are better but have lost friends to the disease.
The realization that this will not end easily for anybody has been made clear every morning as I’ve watched a cold spring come to Maryland under iron gray skies. I have been waiting for good news or some sign of change. I want the everyday life that I will always remember but will not see again.
Today, I decided to gather the little things that I might have taken for granted before, and make them into an exciting life that must be coming.
A year ago this week, I recited my 7th annual Harvard Alumni Association poet laureate poem (a “serious” bit of frivolity which I dearly love). This year, because the alumni meetings will be held virtually, I was asked to write it and have it videoed for presentation tomorrow. Instead of being disappointed I will not see my friends and fellow alumni and present it to a live audience, I reviewed the video and found myself laughing.
Finally, the play I was afraid would die in New York City after that great reading, we have just been informed is a finalist for the New York Rave Theater Festival and is being considered for perforce in NYC in October.
A different world is evolving now, but at least personally it is starting to feel like we are starting to wake up from a sleepless night to a coming spring.
Okay, I may have a problem. I am a recovering lawyer and now aspiring playwright and poet. Is it possible that I miss time sheets? “Every six minutes” for a lifetime?
People used to say: “You are what you eat,” but what if you are what you “do” or have done?
Maybe I’m getting worse. At the law firm, I made a rule that if anybody could finish a story that I was telling I would stop telling it.
Now I don’t care. If I can get a second laugh or even a third from the same story I will repeat it, again and again. (And I’m going deaf so I’m the only one who doesn’t have to hear it.) It could be senility. It could be I’ve lost any sense of embarrassment, but it definitely demonstrates no merciful memory loss, at all.
The other thing is, even in retirement I must “work.” I have grown even more intolerant of delay because everything I’ve written should be on stage by now! Damn it!
What has happened to me?
In the past year, I have written or rewritten three plays. One (Onaje) has been produced in New York, two will be produced in New York (Vox Populi, for which I wrote the libretto, and The Grace of God & The Man Machine). Another, The Naked House Painting Society, is looking for a home.
Yes, I used to be impatient as a lawyer but now my stuff is not produced fast enough? Do I still need litigation? The need to measure work on massive conflicts in tight building blocks of measured time along with a new project have made me afraid.
I have started working on a poem based on Dante’s Inferno. Dante’s Inferno has 34 cantos and 23 six-line stanzas in each canto. That in itself was my wake-up call. How sick is this?
The law can definitely create “delusions of grandeur.” Might it also imprint the structured, ordered, anal impact of time sheets?
Is it now that I require 34 cantos and 23 six-line stanzas in each canto? Seriously? But I haven’t given into it yet, I think.
Still, as I started the Prologue and began to “write about what I know,“ I found a schizophrenic litigator’s theme begging for harmony. This is how it starts:
With first light, or birth, or perhaps before/
And maybe after, comes the dialogue:/
The debate in the mind. Waves on the shore/
Each overriding the last. No monologue./
Two nagging voices in constant conflict./
One “as doubt“ the other “as hope,“ both spent/
Bickering on some path I did not pick/
Living the daily schedule of events/
As I wake and wonder where each day went:/
The debate in the mind. Waves on the shore/
Each overriding the last. What event,/
What plea, what prayer from my central core,/
What keeper of my life long travel log/
Can cure me of this endless dialogue?/
I start with a sonnet? How sick is this?
T.S. Eliot said:
“evenings, mornings, afternoons,/
I have measured out my like with coffee spoons;”/
And the poor man was just a banker.
Still, it will be funny and too long for me to repeat, so that may be progress.
Perhaps because I am older, or perhaps because I am now a playwright and a recovering lawyer, I decided I would make a commitment to a more spiritual Christmas this year.
I committed to finding a passage out of the comfortable consumerism, “Jingle Bell Rock” on the radio, Alvin and the Chipmunks and the hula hoop, and into a less self-deceptive and more spiritually aware holiday.
My problem is I excel at self-deception.
In the past, I have always believed that I was sufficiently into the festivities to fool myself, and I would let the transformative spiritual moment gently pass.
No, in truth I am a wizard of self-deception.
I fool myself in little ways all year long as I artfully keep my “spirituality” — like my “modesty“ — at bay.
For example, I have a room right next to my study that contains the framed memorials of the important accomplishments (of which I am so very proud) from my life as a lawyer and playwright.
When I enter this room, I am reminded that I don’t take myself too seriously, because it also contains a sink, a toilet and extra toilet paper. But of course, it is not a private bathroom. If nature calls, our guests are forced to see what I am proud to believe I have made of myself, framed and on the walls when they lock the bathroom door behind them.
I have employed this same gift of willfulness and self-deception when I have prepared myself to let the holidays gently pass by each year.
But as I have said, I think things have changed now that I’m a playwright and recovering lawyer.
I have been forced to see things less as an advocate and more as an observer.
A judge or jury renders a verdict, but there is no redemptive celebration thereafter. Rectifying and resolving social wrongs, if that happens at all, offers no thought of spirituality and in my case, may regrettably explain the bathroom.
But as a playwright, I have come to observe that my plays are meaningless unless the actors commit to giving them life and the audience commits to embracing the performance and the work.
So I have observed that some ethereal things do not come to pass at all unless there is belief, commitment, and then action.
This year, I will find the time for that individual commitment and action on Christmas Day. After I celebrate the joy of being with my family, I will take a walk — perhaps just a little walk — out by myself alone and consider the universe, which I do not understand. I’ll stop for a moment and realize that even if I have no belief in a heaven or a hell, I accept that cold hand of “grace,” which is what so much of religion and spiritual faith is about. And then when I return back home, I’ll try not to see if anyone is locked and reading in the bathroom.