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From Hippie to Happy

From Hippie to Happy

Hopefully this will make you laugh.

This is the year of my 50th college reunion and here is my ode about what I think about that.

–––

The 50th Reunion of the Class of 1973
(and a Tip of the Hat to the Class of 2023)

So is this where sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll ends?
With grandchildren, prostate problems and Depends?
Not for the class of 1973
On this, our 50th anniversary!
We’re the Alums that never stopped having fun…
For us our college years were just a dry run

So why try to remember what I’ve forgot?
Maybe it’s a little. Maybe it’s a lot.
Who cares? Fifty years of paranoia
Now pot’s legal’n, some say, even good for ya.
Forget that thought that we are all old relics.
Now shrinks treat patients with our psychedelics.

Memory and “smarts” never go hand in glove.
I’ve no memory of what my major was.
Who cares, long as they don’t take my diploma back
If my “memory lane” is a cul-de-sac!
I do still remember my graduation!
That 50th, class of ’23, had some fun!

And that is one thing that I’ll never forget.
Them dancing to James Brown, I really regret.
I’ll tell you the whole truth. I will tell you no lie.
Wasn’t exactly “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
Man, we lived through some stuff you just can’t forget:
Watergate, Berlin Wall, and the Chia Pet.

But wait! Just stop and wait. I wonder what we
Look like to the grads of 2023?
They’re so advanced I check for hair on my palms.
They have evolved so much! They’re truly phenoms.
I still type with both hands and I feel very dumb.
Darwin was right. Now they can type with their thumbs.

Oh, but we’ve got wisdom in the class of ’73!
First, you must accept Harvard’s study on longevity.
It is not your new Harvard degree or your new PhD.
Joy comes from your classmates, and your friends and your family.
Second, the older you get the shorter your stories should be.
And last, “Peace ’n Love!” from the great class of ’73.

–––

For the last 10 or so years I’ve been a poet laureate. I love the school, I love my class, and I love my classmates, and all I have to do to keep the job is hope the alumni laugh. This is a very prestigious job which pays nothing and thus has made me irreplaceable.

Visit https://robertbowiejr.com/haa/ for further hometown skulduggery.

Finding My New Voice and Learning to Listen to Others

Finding My New Voice and Learning to Listen to Others

I have just met a lot of feral cats in My Lady’s Manor in Monkton, Maryland, and I really like these feral cats! These are not the fighters on fire escapes I knew when I lived in inner-city apartments.

Slightly before Thanksgiving, I was invited to set up an open mic by Angelo Otterbein, the new owner of the new Manor Mill in My Lady’s Manor in Monkton, Maryland.

So what is an open mic? What is My Lady’s Manor? Where is Monkton, Maryland, and who are these feral cats?

The town of Monkton is about 45 minutes north of Baltimore and about 5 minutes south of the Pennsylvania boarder and the Mason-Dixon line. It includes a old grist mill, a miller’s house, a small hotel with a little cluster of houses next to the Gun Powder river, all nestled around a mid-1800s whistle-stop of the defunct North Central Railroad, the tracks of which are now a walking trail that runs next to the river.

In 1713, Charles Calvert, 3rd Baron of Baltimore, made a 10,000 acre gift of land to his fourth wife and christened the estate “My Lady’s Manor.” Monkton and My Lady’s Manor are known for sprawling countryside, horse farms, and old, stately homes set back from the country roads.

Angelo recently purchased the old grist mill and has revived and converted it into a historically renovated creative arts center, and the old Hotel now houses trout fishermen and nature walkers.

An open mic is an invitation to performers — poets, in this case — to stand and deliver their work in front of a live listening audience.

These cats are poets.

As a lawyer for over 30 years, my professional life offered me a chance to submit plays I wrote to the Baltimore Playwright’s Festival, but I had little or no access to local poets.

Angelo’s invitation to develop an open mic on Monday evenings unexpectedly provided the opportunity to meet the poets of the region, and it has been amazing to watch these cats in front of an open mic.

These cats are poets because they observe and take the time to write down what they observe and, by committing to this practice, they develop their own voice.

The more one writes, the more one discovers one’s own voice.

It is a solo voice that is created through omission and selection. What you leave in and what you leave out. It is your speaking voice on paper, but it is a solo voice.

All of a sudden, I have been surrounded by a wonderful collection of solo voices that are quite different from each other’s and from my own. All of a sudden, I discovered there are small but selective poetry magazines, published all around me, whether on paper or virtually. It is a world alive and well, created by this remarkable community of feral cats.

Over the last few months, I have been putting together these open mics on the first Monday of every month. The hustle and bustle of the Manor Mill — which features painters, musicians, metal sculptors, basket weavers, and textile artists, teaching and learning from each other — subsides on Monday evening, and the mill is surrendered to the open mic and poets.

The Manor Mill is a remarkable place, far from urban environments. It draws people who have often never met before. It takes incredible courage to stand up in front of strangers and speak, but it takes even more courage to stand behind your voice and deliver a vision in the form of a poem to strangers.

It is exciting to witness this courage, and walk into a world of so many new articulate voices. They speak differently. They think differently. They approach poetry in so many original ways.

Poetry is the most flexible art form available in language because of line breaks, intentional rhythms and rhymes, and the limitless themes available, because ideas and expression can be shaped in ways that are less constrained than sentences, paragraphs and chapters.

It is astounding how wild and creative these people are, and how much I have learned from them in such a short time as I find my new voice and learn to listen to others in this beautiful new welcoming environment.

A Little Pat on the Back from a Long Time Ago

A Little Pat on the Back from a Long Time Ago

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Professor William Alfred, my tutor in college, and how my affection has grown for him. Today, I will remember the other mentor for whom I have a continued and growing affection.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979) was, and still is, a very respected poet of the late 20th Century. She lived a hard life filled with loss and loneliness. She was raised and passed around by her maternal grandparents and relatives after her father died when she was a year old and her mother was placed in a mental hospital.

After she got into and graduated from Vassar, because she had no traditional family to surround her, she found comfort in travel. In late midlife, after her partner with whom she lived in Brazil for years died, she was alone again. Robert Lowell convinced Harvard to offer her a chance to teach there.

In order to get into her class in the fall of 1972, I had to submit an essay on the Wallace Stevens poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”

It starts:

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.

It is a difficult poem. It is like a description of a carnival with its cigar rollers and ice cream makers but it is about the preparations for a Cuban funeral. It is a celebration of life, not a celebration of the dead person. The end of the first stanza reads:

Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

From my first reading it struck me personally as being so godless and lonely. It ends with this:

If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Years later, I found in her letters her description of how she had decided to choose that poem for the competition.

She was walking alone past Brigham’s Ice Cream in Harvard Square toward Kirkland House where she would make copies of the poem she had chosen for the competition and leave it with Alice Methfessel, a staff person at Kirkland House, to hand out to the competitors.

Alice would, a few years later, become the executor of Bishop’s estate.

It was a small class limited to around 10 to 12 people. She required that each student memorize 15 lines of two 20th Century poets for each class. She was insistent. When she pointed at us in class, we had to recite our chosen poems.

She told us it was a way to bring a poem alive again. When it was recited in a different environment it will be different than reading it from a book again and again. It was like a friendship you could carry with you.

Bishop did not appreciate self centered over egoed undergraduates. I was a little older myself. From the beginning, I believed I felt her loneliness and I imagined she felt mine, but I wrote it off as my imagination.

I worked very hard in Bishop’s class and she saw the depth of my interest and commitment. I didn’t speak up much but I was always prepared for class. I never made intentional eye contact but I found that midway through the term she smiled after I had participated, and by the end of the year we would even talk briefly as we were leaving class to reenter the Square.

We talked about things rather than poems when we chatted. This was a time when confessional poetry was on the rise and people wrote very personally about their families and themselves extensively, but Bishop by nature was reserved and private. She wrote about things that were indirect, but they were very moving and profoundly personal.

No one believes me now, but I misread the instructions for the first hour of the three hour blue book final exam. The instruction required that we were to write out verbatim half of all those poems that we had memorized. I wrote out all of them.

I got an A from her and Professor Alfred was pleased because she had a reputation for being a hard grader.

I asked her to write a recommendation when I applied to law school. She agreed but I was surprised to almost sense she thought my choice was a little misguided given my obvious love of the arts. I don’t think she thought too highly of lawyers.

Years later, well after she had died, I was surprised to learn her recommendations could still be found at Kirkland House, so I asked to see her’s of me and when I read it, and proudly made a copy, I discovered something.

She wrote a short but glowing recommendation but she concluded:

“… but I feel he has great abilities, and possibly talents, he is not aware of himself… Mr. Bowie has worked very hard and has a very original cast of mind. I recommend him highly.”

What an odd and gratuitous comment for a law school recommendation, I thought. Did she know someday I would find it?

And then I smiled as if she had touched my hand.

She had cared about me. And as I stood there rereading my Xerox copy, I felt affirmed and supported to continue on this, my late life journey. She had noticed me.

 


Photo: Archives and Special Collections, Vassar College Library

Yes, Love Grows Forever

Yes, Love Grows Forever

I have been discovering that love grows over time with reflection.

In 1965, Hogans Goat, a verse drama about love and politics set in turn-of-the-century Irish Brooklyn ran for over 600 performances on Broadway. It was written by Harvard Professor William Alfred, about the world in which he had grown up. In the early ’70s it was made into a movie.

Alfred was a legend at Harvard. Everyone loved him because he was completely approachable, lived in unassuming rumpled clothes, and had a habit of giving all the change in his pocket to the street people in Harvard Square. He knew some of them by name.

As a teacher, he was beloved because he taught an unbelievably good class on Beowulf, old English, and poetry in Sanders Theater every year to well over 500 adoring undergraduates. That is a testament to his talent.

He lived alone in a little house on Athens Street just outside of Harvard Square.

I was terrified when I was admitted as a transfer student to Harvard. The summer before my first classes, I had seen Hogan’s Goat on TV. It was great. I couldn’t get enough of it.

I was terrified of the place but I was a determined starstruck groupie with a plan.

As soon as I got my student ID, I went to Nick at Brattle Florist in Harvard Square. Nick was a proprietor and a friend. I had started buying corsages from him in high school, and I loved just going into his shop to talk to him.

I had decided to buy flowers and knock on Professor Alfred’s door to tell him the truth about being a starstruck groupie who just wanted to meet him.

Nick told me that Professor Alfred came in regularly, so he knew his favorite fresh flowers.

I took my bouquet early in the afternoon to Professor Alfred’s little house. I carefully ascended the three steps and almost knocked on his door, but I lost my nerve. I made two more passes before I finally knocked on the door and waited.

When he answered, I immediately straight-armed my flowers at him as I stood on the top step and I told him I was a transfer student who knew no one but I was a big fan of his and then I turned to go. He thanked me and to my surprise he said, ”Come in. I’m making tea.”

I entered into his little living room and sat in one of the wing chairs next to a little fireplace with a small clock on the mantle.

Professor Alfred returned with the flowers in a vase and a pot of tea with cups. He settled in and started to ask me questions. I was caught completely off guard. I talked too much about myself because I was nervous. But finally, I had the sense to ask him questions about the play as I kept an eye on the little clock on the mantle. I did not want to outstay my welcome, but I didn’t want to leave.

After almost 25 minutes, I stood up and apologized for staying so long, and Professor Alford asked me, “Do you have a tutor?” I didn’t know what a tutor was so I was sure I could confidently tell him, “No, I don’t.” He promptly replied, “I can be your tutor.” I promptly accepted, even though I had no idea what that meant.

That night, I went to my first dinner at Kirkland House, my new dorm along the river. I had been assigned a room and I told the three or four boys who randomly settled their trays at my table that I was a transfer student and I wondered if they knew what a tutor was. I was told it was like a graduate student who was sort of an academic big brother. I told them I had randomly met Professor Alfred that afternoon and he had offered to be my tutor.

My dinner companions were shocked. “You’re kidding! Alfred is your tutor?” The next day, I rented a room on Putnam Avenue and never stopped studying for fear I would flunk out.

I was convinced that once my fellow classmates at Harvard discovered how stupid I was, it would be the rage of the campus and I would be pointed out continuously, so I never moved in to Kirkland house.

For two years, once a week at 8:30 a.m., I met Professor Alfred and we studied poetry together. At the end of each meeting he would ask, “What do you want to learn next week?” There were no limits. We talked about Greek metrics and rhymes in English and non-English in translation, and poetry all the way back through Beowulf.

In the spring, we would set up two chairs in his little backyard and he would feed the squirrels by hand as we talked. Quite unconsciously, he became my poetic surrogate father. In short, I fell in love with the man, the devout Catholic, the humanitarian and the poet.

He would at times quote from memory poems he liked. One time, he quoted: “There is in God (some say) a deep, but dazzling darkness…”

It was by Henry Vaughan (1621–1695), but I didn’t take in the rest of it. His recitation had stopped me in my tracks because of the way he delivered it. He measured out the rhythm in the air and there was an intensity in the way he looked at me that made me lose my concentration.

Although Professor Alfred was in late middle age, he loved life, and I loved that he rose to almost any occasion.

One morning as I entered, Robert Lowell, the famous poet was leaving. Professor Alfred explained, “Cal wanted to go see the artistes last night.” They had gone down to the “combat zone“ in Boston because Lowell, the old Brahman, very much out of character, wanted to see the strippers at work.

One morning as I entered, Faye Dunaway, the star of Hogan’s Goat, and Peter Wolf, the lead singer for The J Geils Band, were on the couch in the living room. The two had obviously been on a very creative overnighter, and Alfred had sat up with them because they were friends.

I graduated with honors in 1973, and when I would visit Boston or Cambridge I’d visit Nick to pick up flowers and knock on Alfred’s door. If he was in we would always talk.

It was always professor/student but it was always friend to friend. The phone would ring occasionally, and he would smile and say, “They will call back I am certain,” and we would talk some more. The friendship ripened and grew stronger over time.

In June of 1999, I traveled up to Cambridge and ambled into the Brattle Street Florist, found Nick and requested my customary bouquet of flowers. Nick looked up from the flowers he was arranging for a customer. He dried his hands as he stopped his work to talk to me. He faced me, paused, and said “He died last month. He’s up in the Harvard lot in Mt. Auburn Cemetery.”

I read last month in The Crimson that the Brattle Florist would be closing.

Nick had died but I stopped there when I was in Cambridge and got flowers. I took them to Mt Auburn and found Alfred’s grave below the tower, up the hill.

The gravestone read:

“There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness.
Oh, for that night where in him
I might live in visible and dim.”

I had missed those last two lines when he’d read them, which defined him perfectly.

There was no one around, so I spent a lot of time with him, and when I got up, my knees were wet from the ground. I think I loved him more then than I ever had before.

Do Unto Others Especially When Others Have Done Right by You

Do Unto Others Especially When Others Have Done Right by You

Last Tuesday, October 11th, at 7 pm, the Robert Frost Poetry Foundation hosted a Zoom reading by the winner and ten runners-up of the annual 2022 Robert Frost Poetry Contest. The winners came from as near as New York and as far away as New Zealand.

I was extremely fortunate to have my sonnet, “Summer Thunderstorms,” chosen as the first runner up. This is a real honor.

These readings lit me up!

Every single one of the poems was exquisite but what was personally wonderful for me was Helena Minton, who I have not seen since high school, was on that call. This high school, the Cambridge School of Weston, was a remarkable place because it respected the arts as a part of life rather than a collateral activity.

Helena and I were both on the board of the literary magazine of the Cambridge School of Weston. Also on that board was Susanna Kaysen, who wrote “Girl Interrupted,” which became a movie starring Winona Ryder. Helena has also become a well respected writer. The Boston Globe recently gave her rave reviews for her new and selected poems entitled Paris Paint Box, which I have read and highly recommend. I cannot name every member of that high school board, but they each were accomplished writers even in high school.

As I remember, we met once a week in the basement of one of the school buildings, and our faculty advisor was Mr. Pastorini, who took this stuff seriously.

The quality of the work that we received for publication was consistently very high and we learned from each other as we shared our perspectives about the submissions by our schoolmates.

I raise this because, again and again, I realize that the seeds and roots of my efforts now, fifty years later, to create a second career as a playwright and poet were planted and nurtured at that school and in that basement.

A month ago, the little library near where I live offered me a chance to teach a class in poetry. I am going to teach it in the same way as I was taught. We will learn from each other in a nurturing environment.

I have also been invited to start an open mic at a newly created independently owned cultural center in Monkton, The Manor Mill. I will try to support it much the way Mr. Pastorini ran that school magazine. We will learn from each other in a nurturing environment.

Finally, I had lunch yesterday with Allen Reese, who is a well respected poet, professor and previous publisher, to learn how to put together a small press to support the class and the open mic readings.

The real heroes, however, are Angelo Otterbein, the entrepreneur who created the Manor Mill only a year ago. It is growing into its future as a home for all the arts — from the visual arts and crafts, music in all forms, and writing. Similarly, Cynthia Weber at the Hereford Library opened a room and planted chairs in a circle for my class, with several recommended poetry books on a table nearby.

What little I can do I owe to these new and old friends who have nurtured me and given me the unbridled courage to be a little different and to create.

Do unto others, especially when others have done right by you.

———

Summer Thunderstorms

As with the generations long since dead
The fire and brimstone of the status quo
Wakes him up from the safety of his bed
And lightning frames him in the window

And photographs him in its afterglow.
Tonight he feels his present and its past
As the summer storm also comes and goes.
Conclusions are foolish in a world so vast.

For at the edges of his world and heart
Far past the farthest boundary of his grasp
Where ideas cause worlds to come apart
He lives in this place that will not last.

He loves his life more than he can explain
And leaves the window open to hear the rain.

———

I hope you will consider joining all those who taught me that the arts are at the heart of life. You can find An Accidental Diary on Amazon and, after you have enjoyed it, please spread the word. Give it away. The arts are not just a collateral activity.

Out of the Rain and into Ice House Pond

Out of the Rain and into Ice House Pond

…Out of the rain of last week.

I’m back to work. Watch me pitch.

As a child growing up in New England I quickly adopted “Yankee entrepreneurship” and I completely embraced “self-reliance,” which required me to not work for others during summer vacation in case I felt an urgent need to go to the beach.

One summer back in the late 1960s, two high school friends and I started the “Right On House Painting Company.” This was a highly independent entrepreneurial effort.

Our advertising amounted to a forceful announcement of the company name followed by the lifting of our right fist to the sky and pledging solemnly: “Right On”!

We were, of course, saluting latex paint.

Because we were under-funded and had to keep the overhead low, we lived in an old barn off of Upper Lambert’s Cove Road, which we rented from a local commercial fisherman who had at least twenty cats and had been drunk all winter.

We struck a deal for $15 a week rent if we would help him remove the long johns he had been wearing all winter.

Despite the bargain rent, he got the better deal.

We cleaned out the barn and divided it into quadrants so each of us had a room and there was a room left for eating, drinking and entertaining.

It was our “green” corporate headquarters.

We had no running water but refused to live without elegance, so we built an outhouse in a birch grove with a white wicker chair with the bottom cut out of it. We were proud to be feeding the birch trees.

We were way ahead of our time.

We bathed nearby in Ice House Pond — pretty much always at night so we didn’t get our bathing suits wet.

To reduce automotive and travel expenses, we generally hitchhiked with a can of paint and a brush in one hand and our thumb extended from the other in order to get to work.

It was also an early form of targeted corporate advertising, since we ended up meeting everybody on Martha’s Vineyard over the summer.

Every ride was a job interview from the passenger’s seat, but it didn’t matter because we were on your way to work anyway.

Our corporate mission statement required that on sunny days we went to the beach. On rainy days, we played poker. On hazy days we painted houses.

We made good money.

When asked about our profit margins we would announce: “Enough is as good as a feast” and drop our eyes and lift our fist to the sky.

My entrepreneurial spirit has never died.

I have avoided being an employee over the last several decades by starting a law firm and retiring to become a poet and here I am selling my book… but man do I have a deal for you!

It’s all about how you look at things.

Don’t look at this book as poetry — everybody hates poetry and a book of sonnets is worse.

But! If you look at it like sort of a Bible written in rhyme and rhythm or maybe just “Easy Go’n Bob’s Book of Random Wisdom,” then why not?

Keep it where you can read just one sonnet at a time uninterrupted. Like the bathroom. Or a wicker chair with a hole in it. I’m not proud.

Consider the sonnet entitled “The Facts of Life,” obviously composed for future generations.

———

The Facts of Life

I swam, back then, with some father’s daughters,
Back stroking only slightly out of touch,
Out to the raft in the starry waters
And never thought of their fathers all that much.

My child, don’t judge me till you’re fifty-five
But there were midnight visits to “Ice House Pond,”
In my misspent youth, when I was still alive,
Where couples would strip, and swim and then bond.

And my child, this I know for sure is true:
At seventeen we all are born to be free
But ’cause I’m your father and I love you
Please consider this seasoned advice from me:

As you lust for life, avoid the crudity
But don’t miss occasional sponti-nudity.

———

Get it in softcover or on Kindle I don’t care. Get a copy and after you have read it, give it away. Spread the word. That is all I want.

It’s sometimes a little scary and sometimes a little sad and often about self-reliance, defiance, a second life, and “which way is the beach?”

Right On!