“It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” (R.I.P. Yogi Berra)

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I’ve never really liked the Yankees (I grew up a Kansas City Royals fan, which should explain things), so it’s a bit odd that some of my favorite baseball players of all time played for that organization.  Of course, Babe Ruth has always been the bomb.  And Lou Gehrig was one of the primary heroes of my childhood despite the fact that he’d been dead for fifty years (I loved the “Iron Horse” for his spirit of determination and perseverance while battling ALS, the crippling condition now known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”).  I’d also always admired Roger Maris for the shit he took for breaking Babe Ruth’s record, and I respected Joe Dimaggio for his unconditional love of his ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe (plenty of folks loved her, but nobody loved her like he did).  And then there’s Yogi Berra– the master of the malapropism.  The dimwitted Yankees catcher/philosopher who has waxed poetic on numerous topics and is best known for his one-liners (affectionately known as “Yogisims”):

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

“It’s like deja vu all over again.”

“You can observe a lot by just watching.”

“We have deep depth.”

“It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”

“A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”

“I knew the record would stand until it was broken.”

“Pair up in threes.”

“We made too many wrong mistakes.”

“Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.”

“Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”

“No one goes there nowadays– it’s too crowded.”

“It gets late early out here.”

“I didn’t really say everything I said.”

“Even Napoleon had his Watergate.”

“The future ain’t what it used to be.”

“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”

“If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

“It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

Well, it’s officially over now for Yogi Berra, as he died yesterday at the age of 90.  The baseball world (and the rest of the world, for that matter) lost a true character in Yogi– he was one of a kind, and he’ll most definitely be missed.

Thought For The Day

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I know what you’re thinking: “He fucked up that proverb! It’s supposed to be ‘When one door closes, another door opens‘, right?” But no– I didn’t fuck up that proverb. Quite the contrary, actually, as that proverb fucked me up, and now I simply can’t help seeing it from the other way around. But then again, I’ve always been a bit of a “glass half-empty” kinda guy.

It’s downright ignorant to assume that closing the door on a crucial part of your life will automatically lead to something better. I mean, who even knows what’s behind that second door? Could be something good… could be something bad… we don’t know. And who’s to say there’s even going to BE a second door? Guess what, folks– sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes when a door closes, you’re left standing with your proverbial dick in your hand in an empty hallway full of other closed doors, and no matter how hard you knock on any of those doors, they’re going to remain shut. That’s cerrado, pendejo.

I think what’s too often overlooked in this expression is the finality involved in the closing of that first door, and that’s exactly why I’ve restructured it for this blog post– because people need to fully grasp the significance of having that first door forever shut. News flash, Holmes: regardless of whether or not another door ever opens, whatever once was behind that first door is now essentially gone forever. So consider this a PSA from your friendly neighborhood perennial loser.

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Big Yellow Taxis (September 16th)

sinkingyellowtaxissunken yellow taxis (handiwork of Hurricane Sandy)

I’ve been humming the chorus to Joni Mitchell’s classic tune “Big Yellow Taxi” all week long now, so I guess it’s ironically fitting that I just happened to watch an episode of the early eighties sitcom Taxi containing a scene that proved to be at once both incredibly poignant and eerily timely to me:

 
When you’re a child, you tend to notice the good times over the bad in part because of your age. Your limited life experiences keep you from having enough of a framework in place to distinguish the good days from the truly bad.  When you look at a calendar as a child, it’s only the good dates you see– the birthdays and holidays and such.  But as you get older, you inevitably learn the feeling of regret, and there will eventually come a time when you realize that some dates on the calendar are harder to face than others.  Today marks one of those dates for me.

September sixteenth was once the happiest day of my life, and now it’s easily the saddest.  But as Joni Mitchell sang, “don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”   Yep, Joni, darlin’… I paved paradise to put up a parking lot.

“Big Yellow Taxi”

They paved paradise
and put up a parking lot–
with a pink hotel, a boutique,
and a swinging hot spot.
Don’t it always seem to go
that you don’t know what you’ve got
‘til it’s gone?
They paved paradise
and put up a parking lot.

They took all the trees
and put them in a tree museum.
Then they charged the people
a dollar and a half just to see ’em.
Don’t it always seem to go,
that you don’t know what you’ve got
‘til it’s gone?
They paved paradise
and put up a parking lot.

Hey farmer, farmer,
put away that DDT now.
Give me spots on my apples,
but leave me the birds and the bees, 
please!
Don’t it always seem to go
that you don’t know what you’ve got
‘til its gone?
They paved paradise
and put up a parking lot.

Late last night
I heard the screen door slam,
and a big yellow taxi
come and took away my old man.
Don’t it always seem to go
that you don’t know what you’ve got
‘til it’s gone?
They paved paradise
and put up a parking lot.

(apologies to Joni Mitchell and to D.G.)

The District Sleeps Alone Tonight

I’ve been a fan of The Postal Service since this album came out in 2003, but I never fully grasped this particular song until the last year or two, and I just felt like sharing.

Smeared black ink, your palms are sweaty
and I’m barely listening to last demands–
I’m staring at the asphalt wondering
what’s buried underneath…
(Where I am)

I’ll wear my badge– a vinyl sticker with big block letters
adherent to my chest that tells your new friends
I am a visitor here… I am not permanent.

And the only thing keeping me dry is… 
(Where I am)

You seem so out of context in this gaudy apartment complex,
a stranger with your door key explaining that I am just visiting,
and I am finally seeing why I was the one worth leaving…
why I was the one worth leaving…

D.C. sleeps alone tonight.

(Where I am)
You seem so out of context in this gaudy apartment complex,
a stranger with your door key explaining that I am just visiting–
I am finally seeing why I was the one worth leaving…
why I was the one worth leaving…

(Where I am)
The district sleeps alone tonight after the bars turn out their lights
and send the autos swerving into the loneliest evening–
and I am finally seeing why I was the one worth leaving…
why I was the one worth leaving…

(apologies to The Postal Service)

Aunt Jane

My brother called me the other day while I was in the shower and thus unable to answer my phone, leaving me a message stating that he had some “shitty news” and asking me to call him back.  I envisioned a dozen different doomsday scenarios for what he had to report, but when I spoke with him, none of those fears were realized.  Rather, in typical fashion, the bad news was something completely unexpected– straight out of left field (but isn’t that always the case?).  His news was that an old family friend had died, and he wanted to tell me over the phone before the information would inevitably (and impersonally) reach me through the grapevine via text or e-mail.  I’m thankful that he did, because when a family member dies, that’s a loss you need to be able to share with someone on a much more intimate level.  And Jane (or “Aunt Jane” as we called her) was family, goddammit.

Jane Hoogestraat (pronounced “Hogue-eh-straht”) was a poet and an English professor at Missouri State University.  My father was on the search committee that originally hired her at MSU, and she would later become a close friend of both my parents (particularly my mother).  Looking back, I’m proud to say that my brother and I had the privilege of spending some (but not enough) time in her company.  Aunt Jane was one of the handful of genuine and truly decent human beings in this world with a heart almost as big as she was.  She was a giant of a woman at over six feet tall, but that tall frame belied her soft-spoken and sincere personality.  If you were to look up the word “staid” in the dictionary, it could easily read “see also: Jane Hoogestraat.”

IMG_0562“Aunt Jane”

Jane was an intelligent, quiet, and kind woman.  While she may have battled a handful of personal demons (namely depression), she refused to allow her dark thoughts to cloud her eternal optimism.  She believed in the goodness of others, often in spite of any meanness she may have been shown.  She was a hard luck woman and was no stranger to experiencing hardship or being mistreated by those she put her faith and trust in, but that just seems to be par for the course when it comes to people with good hearts– the nicest folks are oftentimes the ones who are taken advantage of or trodden on the most.  Life has a funny way of dealing the worst cards to those who have the best intentions, but Jane always chose to play the bad hands she was dealt rather than fold, and she did so with the same brand of optimism exhibited by Candide or Job.  And she deserved better. 

I have many fond memories of Aunt Jane.  My favorite memory comes from the Christmas she chose to spend with me and my mother in Fayetteville, and how happy she was when we accompanied her to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to see the Christmas service.  Jane had fully expected to attend the service alone, but we weren’t about to let that happen, and I know that it meant the world to her to have us there.  During that same visit, Jane also played a small role as matchmaker in reuniting me with the woman I would eventually marry, and that is something for which I will always be grateful.

And I’ll never forget the time she asked me and my brother to house sit for her.  “Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” she told us, and when we opened her fridge, it was stocked full of nothing but hummus and black beans– foodstuffs we would only ingest if we were literally starving to death (I believe we ate a lot of Hardee’s that week).  That same week we witnessed Helga (one of her morbidly obese cats) nonchalantly watch a mouse run along the baseboard of the living room without batting so much as an eye.  We were incredulous, and we let Helga know it.  “You call yourself a cat?!?” we yelled, but the incredibly fat Helga just stared up at us, then glanced back at the mouse, and promptly laid her head back down.

IMG_0514dinner at Jane’s (Diet Coke did not pay for this product placement)

I loved Jane’s house– it was an older home just down the street from the house I grew up in, so it always held an extra sense of familiarity to it.  It was your typical English professor’s dwelling:  small and modest with a couple of cats, close to campus, lots of books, and very little else in the way of material possessions with a few exceptions.  Jane was particularly fond of her original set of turquoise FiestaWare, which we shared a meal or two on, and she was even more proud of her collection of black depression glass.  My mother simply couldn’t understand Jane’s fascination with that ugly glass (“It’s hideous,” she would say. “I mean, it’s fucking BLACK!”).  But my brother and I understood, because when you held that black glass up to a bright light, you could see the deep purple sheen shine through at its thinnest and most fragile parts, and I think that’s why Jane loved it so much.  I believe Jane was one of those folks who appreciated the little bits of beauty hidden amongst the ugliness of the world, and I think that appreciation came by her honestly, as it’s a theme that shines through with the same subtle loveliness in her writing.

IMG_0518enjoying fried chicken with an old flame on Jane’s FiestaWare

I’m one of a handful of human beings left who believes there are few things more important in this world than poetry, and I would be remiss if I didn’t write about Jane’s work.  I’ve always enjoyed Jane’s poetry despite the fact that it runs contrary to the style of poems I’m typically drawn to.  I’m a sucker for gritty poems about the human experience, full of passion and raw emotion, with the kind of profound volta that either punches you in the stomach or leaves you clutching your heart.  Jane’s work is far more understated and pastoral– lots of topographical references and glimpses of nature with plenty of descriptive lines about flora and fauna, but almost always with the profound and human turn that transforms a poem into a poem.  Her words are well-chosen and her lines are often eloquent and beautiful.  You can get a glimpse of her work (as well as listen to her read one of her poems) by checking out this brief write-up PBS did on her by clicking here.

Jane was a strange and marvelous lady who carried herself with a special kind of stoicism.  I didn’t know just how special that stoicism was until her death, when I learned that she had been quietly continuing to battle the cancer that most of us thought was in remission.  She had many of us fooled as to the severity of her condition, and I myself had no idea how sick she was.  She endured a tremendous amount of pain and suffering in her last year, and yet she didn’t see any point in complaining about it– she preferred to keep that information to herself, and I’m not sure that anybody had any clue as to the extent of what she was going through.  She shouldn’t have had to shoulder that like she did, but that’s just the kind of person Aunt Jane was.  And she deserved better.

I’ll leave you with one of Jane’s poems, as I think it wraps up this remembrance beautifully.  “Near Red Lodge, Montana” is a poem not just representative of Jane’s poetic voice (with her fondness for the pastoral and her acute attention to detail), but also emblematic of her soul and how she always chose to acknowledge hope in the presence of despair.  Oddly enough, it’s the final poem from her last publication, Border States, which won the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry.  I regret (infinitely more so, now) that I wasn’t able to attend her last poetry reading, but my brother was there and he told me she received a standing ovation.  And she deserved it.

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Near Red Lodge, Montana

Are even the field stones charred, the rugged sienna clay
on the road, the white rocks along the creek bed,
are they darkened like snow in a late urban winter?
Can a part of the past be torched, just like that,
by a lightning strike that has you hanging up the phone
on a year, a summer, on the green fields leading in?

Here’s how it happened. Days earlier, near East Rosebud,
in isolated country behind Shepard Mountain
a lightning fork caught a tree, a patch of needles,
smoldered for days in its remoteness, then started
back drafting and blew, a fire that funneled the ravines,
jumped the smaller creeks, took out the grassy plains.

The sweet grasses lost in that fire, alfalfa, short grass,
buffalo, the trees, juniper, lodge pole, spruce, willow,
become only some residual sifting down from time to time,
ash of memory, dust of trivia, the unlabeled pictures
of the year … to whom was this year lost? Fire crews
will tell you they train to recognize what they can’t save.

And here’s how it comes back, when it does, new growth
from scorched earth. The fireweed spreads its roots,
then paintbrush or crocus. Spring snow cover melts away
over the first juniper seedlings, a start of mountain ash.
Lichen returns to a blackened trunk, spreads to the fragile base
of a lodgepole pine that has needed fire to seed.

Far from human fear or desire, the water rinses a little soot
from the edges of a still-charred rock, the kind a hiker
might pluck, polish like a talisman to carry home and hand
over, shyly, stupid and late, another one for your collection,
maybe for those rock gardens you’ve been designing,
dreaming of, from a little part of the world you used to know.