Credidero #4: Absurdity

My father was born and raised in Albemarle, a North Carolina Piedmont mill and rail town near the Uwharrie Mountains. He left there after college to embark on a long and successful Marine Corps career, living and traveling around the world, but his parents stayed on in the same house on Melchor Drive until they died, Papas before Grannies, both passing when I was in my twenties.

While I never lived in Albemarle, I had two decades’ worth of grandparent visits there, with many fond memories still held dear of those mostly gentle days. Until I developed teenage cynicism and ennui, one of my favorite things about going to Albemarle was hunkering down in a comfy chair to read my grandmothers’ copy of The Golden Treasury of Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer. I have that battered copy of the book to this day, as my aunt gave it to me after my grandmother died, knowing that no one else had ever read or loved it as much as I did.

(Amusing [to me] side note: The book was given to my grandmother by her friend, who everyone called “Miz Doby,” in June, 1966. I opened it today and looked at the front-piece inscription and smiled to realize that I still do not know what Miz Doby’s first name was, since she just signed it “E. Doby.” They were both elementary school teachers, so presumably the book was originally intended for my grandmother’s students, before I laid claim to it).

As is often the case with big hard-covers that are regularly handled by children, the spine of the book is cracked, there are stains throughout it, and it’s clear to see where the most-loved, most-read pages were, as they’ve been bent back, breaking the glue that held the pages to the spine. If I just set the Untermeyer book on its spine and let it fall open as it will, it drops to pages 208 and 209, containing Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and “Humpty Dumpty’s Recitation.” If I flip to other broken-open pages, I see these poems:

  • “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” and “Calico Pie” by Edward Lear.
  • “The Tale of Custard the Dragon” by Ogden Nash
  • “Old Mother Hubbard” by Sarah Catherine Martin
  • “The Butterfly’s Ball” by William Roscoe
  • “How To Know The Wild Animals” by Carolyn Wells
  • “Poor Old Lady, She Swallowed a Fly” by Unknown

Some of these poets and some of the poems are better known than the others, but they all do share one prominent recurring similarity: they are all nonsense verses, rhythmically engaging to the ear, deeply earnest in laying out terrific tales without any meaningful anchors in the real world whatsoever. They and others like them could readily be described as “absurdities,” which my desktop dictionary defines as “things that are extremely unreasonable, so as to be foolish or not taken seriously.”

I can still recite “Jabberwocky” by heart half a century on, and my early love of the absurd has pervasively infused both the inputs into my intellectual development, and the outputs of my own creative work, throughout my entire life, and likely through however many years I have remaining before me.  Indulge me three examples on the output side, please: these are short poems that I wrote when I was in my 30s or 40s, clearly related to, and likely inspired by, the doggerel, wordplay, and rhythmic whimsy of those gentler children’s poems in the Untermeyer collection:

“Tales of Brave Ulysses S. Vanderbilt, Jr.”

I don’t know how to make this damn thing go
James Monroe won it in the hammer throw
Won it very long ago
Won it in the hammer throw

Time goes by while we’re learning how to fly
William Bligh dreamed of sour rhubarb pie
Dreamed it with his inner eye
Dreamed of sour rhubarb pie

On the sea, Bligh and Monroe sail with me
One degree south of Nashville, Tennessee
South of Rome and Galilee
South of Nashville, Tennessee

Home at last, feeling like an age has past
Thomas Nast drew us through his looking glass
Drew us as we crossed the pass
Drew us through his looking glass

I don’t know how to make this damn thing go
Even so, sell it quick to Holy Joe
Sell it painted red Bordeaux
Sell it quick to Holy Joe

Sell it with a piping crow
Sell it for a load of dough
Sell it at the minstrel show
Sell it, man, and then let’s go

“Field Agents”

“Let him out, he’s coming now, he’s alone,”
(I can not tolerate the taste of this megaphone).
Deep in the coop, the fox, he sees that some hens have flown,
his cover’s blown, (tympanic bone, Rosetta stone).

And then the hawk drops down from his perch on high,
(spearing the fox through, he lets out a little cry),
Justice is quick here, we stand and we watch him die,
I dunno why (fluorescent dye, blueberry pie).

We pull the poor poultry out from the killing floor
(some of the pups get sick there in the feath’ry gore),
out on the lawn, we stack them up and note the score:
it’s twenty-four (esprit de corps, espectador).

Back in the barn, now, safe in our little stalls
(I watch those damn bugs climbing around the walls),
We sleep and eat hay, waiting ’til duty calls,
as the time crawls (Niagara Falls, no one recalls).

“Natural History”

The ammonites farmed with diazinon
to kill eurypterids beneath the soil.
Which perished there in darkness ‘neath the lawn,
but rose in eighty million years as oil,
which dinosaurs refined for natural gas
to cook their giant land sloths on steel spits.
As sloths were butchered, forests made of grass
rose from the plains to hide the black tar pits,
where trilobites would swim to lay their eggs.
Their larvae flew and bit the mastodons,
while tiny primates scampered round their legs,
feeding on the fresh diazinon.
At night, the primates fidget as they dream
of interstellar rockets powered by steam.

What do these, or the many other poems like them that I have written over the years, mean? Damned if I know. But damned if I also don’t think that they provide better insights into my own psyche and mental processes than the more lucid prose I write professionally and for pleasure. My brain’s a messy thing, and there’s a lot of stuff going  on inside it that doesn’t make a bit of sense, but which nevertheless consumes a fair amount of internal attention and firepower. These absurd little nuggets spill out of my brain easily and frequently, and I enjoy extracting and preserving them. They seem to reflect a particular lens through which I often view the world: it’s astigmatic, has finger-prints on it, is lightly coated with something greasy and opaque that can be rubbed around but not removed, and there are spider cracks latticed throughout its wobbly concave surfaces.

So many of my tastes in the various arts align closely and clearly with this warped view of the world, as though my internal center of absurdity vibrates in recognition and appreciation when presented with similarly incongruous external stimuli. Examples: I have been drawn to surrealist paintings since early childhood, I regularly read books in which language and mood are far more important than linear plot or narrative, and I once did a little feature on the films that move me most, titled: My Favorite Movies That Don’t Make Any Sense At All.

I must admit that since rolling the online dice three weeks ago to decide which of my Credidero topics I would cover this month, I have had to repeatedly tamp down the very strong urge, prompted by the word “absurdity,” to merrily write 3,000+ words of absolutely meaningless gibberish wordplay and call it “done,” rather than actually considering what “absurdity” really means, and processing what I really think and believe about it. And that initial, innate reaction to just be absurd, as I do, has made this a more challenging topic for me to write about than ones that have come before it. Whenever I thought about how to frame the narrative, I always found myself in some sort of “eyeball looking at itself” scenario, an impossible infinite do-loop of self-reflection where I know the mirror and the object reflected within it are both irregularly warped and pointed in different directions, and I don’t (and can’t) quite know what the true image is.

I must also admit that this isn’t the first time I’ve reflected on such matters, even without the formal structure of a public writing project. I have long found that the easiest way to break out of a wobbly self-reflective do-loop has been to create and export a new loop, so I can look at it from the outside, not the inside. When I read the poems reproduced above today (and there are a lot like them in my collection), they strike me as relics of just that type of act or urge: I wrote them as absurdities, I see them as absurdities now, I embrace those absurdities, I know that I created those absurdities, I know that the act of creating them was absurd, and that any attempt to explain them would be equally absurd.

But at least those bits of absurdity now reside outside of me, self-contained and complete, where I can see them more clearly, rather than having them whirring on blurry spindles within me, occasionally shooting off sparks that ignite other bits of weird kindling lodged along the exposed and frayed wiring of a gazillion neurons packed inside my skull. They mean nothing to me objectively, but they mean everything to me subjectively, because they’re so closely aligned with the ways that I think, and what I think about, and how I view the world around me — or at least how I view some world around me, even if it’s not the one I actually live in.

Pretty absurd, huh?

When I do try to order my thoughts on this topic in ways that can be meaningfully communicated to others, I’m struck by the fact that many of the poems in Untermeyer’s great poetry collection for young people are just as absurd as mine are, and just as absurd as the playground chants that kids around the world somehow seem to learn by osmosis, or the songs we sing to little ones, or the goofy talking animal imagery of countless children’s films and television shows. Utterly absurd! All of it, and all of them! But they love it, don’t they, and we seem to love giving it to them, don’t we? When we describe the whimsy of those ridiculous art forms as “absurd,” we imbue the word with fun, and frolic, and laughter and light. Look at the smiles! Look at them! Joy!

Then minutes later, we turn from our young ones, and we check our Twitter feeds or pick up news magazines or turn on our televisions and are confronted with words, actions, or events precipitated by political figures with whom we disagree, and we may scowlingly brand their actions or activities as “absurd” with vehemence, and bitterness, and anger, and darkness in our hearts. Absurdity is somehow colored in different hues when it manifests itself in real-world ways outside of the acts of the creative class, or outside of the bubble of childhood. And rightly so, as is most profoundly illustrated in our current political clime, where elected or appointed public figures routinely engage in acts or spew forth words that are (to again quote the dictionary) “extremely unreasonable, so as to be foolish or not taken seriously.” 

It is to our own peril, unfortunately, when we don’t take such manifestations of public, political absurdity seriously. Talking animals don’t kill people. Absurd public policies do. Nonce and portmanteau words don’t break people’s souls. Propaganda and hate speech do.  Surrealistic imagery does not poison minds. Unrealistic demagoguery does. Absurd fantasy stories about non-scientific worlds do not destroy the real world. Absurd fantasy policies anchored in non-scientific worldviews do — and there is only one real world within which they function and do harm, no matter how fabulously untethered their sources may be.

People with severe mental illness may act publicly in absurd ways, and we sympathetically view that as a part of their pathology. But what are we to make of people without such pathologies who consciously, actively engage in absurd behaviors specifically designed to remove value and meaning from the lives of others? I’d move them from the absurd pile to the evil pile, frankly. And we’d all be better off were we to rid ourselves of their noxious influences, which is why the fact that 50%+ of our country-folk don’t bother to vote at all is, in itself, utterly absurd.

There’s a vast repository of philosophical thought and writing (from Camus and  Kierkegaard, most prominently) dedicated to understanding absurdity and the ways in which it manifests itself in our lives, and how we are supposed to respond to or function in its grip. Not surprisingly, the philosophy of absurdism is built on the same “dark” theoretical frameworks as existentialism and nihilism, where there is a fundamental conflict between our desire to imbue our lives with value and meaning, and our inability to find such objective worth within an irrational universe that has no meaning, but just is. Once again, the nonsense that is charming when fictionalized for children is often appalling when framed as the architecture within which adult humans function. Why try, when in the end we all die, and we will never know why?

It’s easy for me to embrace and understand my own sense of inner absurdity as an adjunct to the whimsical absurdity of youth, but not so easy to reconcile my inner landscape with the often awful external vistas associated with public, political, and philosophical absurdity. Can I love one and hate the other, or is that in itself an absurd mental position? Is there meaning to be found between those poles, or is life just a pointless, endless Sisyphean push up a hill until the rock crushes us for the last time?

I took a stab at framing my thoughts on why we are what we are some years back, and, of course, I framed it as an absurdist piece called “Seawater Sack Guy Speaks.” If pressed about the article and what it says or means, or why I wrote it, I’ll usually frame it as something more akin to the absurd whimsy of youth, ha ha ha, but if I’m honest here, it’s really a bit more than that, and there’s more objective truth about what I believe, or what I will have believed (credidero) within it than there are in most of my absurd writings. It begins thusly . . .

There’s an explanation for why we exist in the form we do, and I know what it is.

We are all about moving little pieces of the ocean from one place to the other. That’s all we are: sacks of seawater that can convert solar energy into locomotive force, so that we can move our little pieces of the ocean around. Unlike most seawater sacks, though, we are conscious of our selves, and this consciousness leads us to question our primary universal role as movers of hydrogen, oxygen, salts and minerals.

Consciousness is an electrochemical process that our particular strain of seawater sacks have evolved. No better or worse or different than a tail, a gall bladder, or an appendix. Because we don’t understand how this electrochemical process works, we use the very same electrochemical process to create mystical, non-biological explanations for its workings.

And it ends with this . . .

I’m not going to be carrying any metaphysical seawater around any metaphysical heaven or hell when my sack breaks down and releases all its atoms, so I figure I should use every bit of the consciousness I’ve evolved, here and now, to enjoy my fleeting, warm, moist moment in the Sun. This is not to say that I’ve a problem with other sacks of seawater whose enjoyment of their own fleeting, warm, moist moments in the Sun involves the belief in something different. If such chemical processes provide them joy or comfort (or at least the chemical processes that cause their seawater to produce such sensations), then such is their right, and who am I to force my chemistry upon them?

I take joy and comfort from just being conscious, and consider that scientifically miraculous enough.

Is that absurd? Yes. Is it a “good” or the “bad” manifestation of absurdity? I think the former, but I know some would say that if I shared it with a child, I’d inflict harm, and some would say that walking around as an adult thinking such thoughts could readily slot me into the pathological spectrum of absurd beliefs and behaviors. And they may be right. I am absurd, I admit it, inside and out — but I am not a philosophical absurdist. I do believe we can glean meaning and value in an unfeeling, unthinking, and unknowing universe. And I do not believe that a fundamental conflict between the quest for meaning and the universe’s indifference to it drives my own inner absurdity.

When I start thinking about these Credidero articles each month, one of the first things I do is to look at the etymology of the word to be considered. “Absurdity” surprised me in its roots: it is a Late Middle English word derived from the Latin absurdum, meaning “out of tune.” That elicited a “huh!” moment from me, as I am also actively, eagerly drawn to “out of tune” music: the first time I ever read about Arnold Schoenberg’s dissonant 12-tone music, I had to hear it; the first time I ever read about the tritone (“The Devil’s Interval”), I had to find a piano so I could play it; my listening library of thousands of songs contains a high percentage of music in which standard, pleasing Western melodic structures are in short supply. I didn’t realize it, but apparently my musical tastes are absurd too. At least I am consistent.

When I considered the concept of internal and external absurdity as a form of musical expression, I was immediately reminded of a wonderful, favorite song by Karl Bartos (ex-Kraftwerk), called “The Tuning of the World.” In it, Bartos writes about wishing that he could believe in God after seeing a haunting Laurie Anderson concert, noting:

I connect to the sound inside my mind
Closer I can‘t get to the divine
I wish I could believe in God
Life would be just safe and sound
I‘d build my house on solid ground
It‘s rather hard to understand
Why some believe and others can‘t
Who rules the tuning of the world?

I don’t know the answer to Karl’s final question there, for Karl, but to whoever rules the tuning of my own world, I am thankful that you left things in a state of wonky intonation with a lot of busted keys and clammed notes and buzzing frets, since I honestly like it better that way, absurdly enough.

Note: This article is part of an on-going twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this fourth article complete, I roll the dice again . . .

12die

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Twelve: “Inhumanity.”

Caution: This book may detune your world.

 

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

 

Another Song About . . .

Professor Buggy Jive is a soul rock singer-songwriter with a basement studio in Albany, New York. He loves Joni and he loves Aretha and he loves Prince, and I love him and his music. He comes from a big musical family, and I also knew his sister, Jennifer (she was, indeed, too big for Schenectady) and his second cousin, Bryan Thomas, when I lived back in the 518. Good folks, all of them.

Bryan was an especially exquisite performer and composer, now retired. When my Dad died in 2002, his then-recent song “Shine” was my centering chime for months and months. It perfectly captured the complex swirl of emotions around a boy losing his church-loving Daddy (we both had church-loving Daddies) and the confounding feelings associated with seeing the men we loved most being taken away by the God they loved most. It was just right, just so, just perfect. My soul moved. I wept. It helped. Later, I asked Bryan to sing “Mary, Don’t You Weep” during an Easter Weekend Mass at the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer when I was director there. All the souls in that room moved too. But he told us not to weep, so we (mostly) didn’t. Much.

Much later still: Albany’s creative community (of which I was a small part for nearly two decades) was devastated in recent weeks by a pair of losses, with Caroline “MotherJudge” Isachsen and Greg “Sarge Blotto” Haymes both flying away too young, and with shocking quickness after late-stage cancer diagnoses. I knew them both. I was shocked, too. And very saddened to hear the news from so many miles away. It’s hard to hug over wifi.

Folks in Albany and elsewhere (even Des Moines) have been extending condolences, sharing hugs and stories, planning memorials, remembering, laughing, reflecting, as one does, when one grieves. Buggy Jive knew and loved Greg and Caroline too, and while he was thinking about them, someone asked him to go look at the Moon. He tells us about it in this little video here. It is just right, just so, just perfect. My soul moved. I wept. It helped. Love you, Professor. Thank you.

Securing Tomorrow’s Success, One At-Bat At a Time

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the April 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

I have spent over a quarter-century in leadership roles in the nonprofit sector, and you know what? I still don’t like asking people for money. Like all of my professional peers, I am continually researching prospects, cultivating donors, crafting appeals, making cases, and asking for gifts — and despite all of that effort, more often than not, the answer is still “no.”

Being a fundraiser is analogous to being a baseball batter in that regard: if you’re really good at your job, you can pull a .300 average (i.e. 30% success rate), but more than two-thirds of the time you’re going to strike out, get tagged out, or hit what looks like a glorious stroke into deep center field, only to see it snatched away against the wall. But those of us who make careers in this field learn to shake off those bad at-bats, take some practice swings, and step up to the plate again, with the never-flagging confidence that the next at-bat just might be a highlight-reel game-winner.

One of the nicest things about being CEO of TREE Fund is that a sizable percentage of our annual gift solicitations are handled by volunteers, most especially our ISA Chapter Liaisons and our Tour des Trees riders. People rightly marvel at the physical challenges of the Tour (I ride it, so I know how hard it is), but as a professional fundraiser, I’m honestly more awed by the fact that our riders are willing and able, year after year, to solicit friends, family members, coworkers, colleagues, strangers, whoever it takes, to raise a lot of money for our research programs. Wow!

That extraordinary level of volunteer commitment allows our staff team to focus more on business partnerships, direct mail solicitations, and other forms of giving that either defray the expenses associated with the Tour, underwrite operations, or enhance our endowment to ensure our long-term viability. Another area where we focus staff attention, though a bit more behind-the-scenes, is on planned giving. Unlike annual giving — where a donor makes a contribution to a charity as an outlay of current assets or income — planned gifts are current decisions to make future gifts, most often from an estate via bequests, insurance policies, or retirement plan distributions.

For individuals and families who wish to make legacy gifts that are guaranteed to support their philanthropic interests in perpetuity, planned gifts may provide the most effective ways of achieving such goals. We have an amazing group of supporters called The Heritage Oak Society who have already established such legacy commitments. We’re going to be making a formal appeal for The Heritage Oak Society this summer, so you’ll be hearing more from me on this topic then — unless, of course, you decide to give a grateful fundraiser an intentional walk to first base by reaching out to express your interest before I ask.

I’ll be over here in the dugout if you’d like to share some sunflower seeds and talk it over. It could be a winning proposition for you, for me, and best of all, for TREE Fund.

I Googled “Planned Giving” for a stock image to accompany this article, and they’re almost all tree related!

Move On

Note: You should play this song while reading this post.

Last night, I went back up to our condo at 340 East Randolph in Chicago for one last peek at the amazing views that have been such an integral part of our daily experience since 2015. It was nice to see a little bit of green in the palette, after a particularly brutal winter . . .

Farewell, Glass Box in the Sky!! We will miss you!

Marcia and I pretty much decided that “view” is not going to be a primary determinant in choosing housing from this point forward, since nothing is ever going to live up to what we’ve experienced here on that front. That said, our new home in Des Moines does have a very pleasant vista of the heart of the city, so we’re thankful for and glad about that . . .

The arched bridge at the right-hand side of that photo provides us quick access on foot to the human habitrail that links the entirety of Des Moines’ downtown, so we can easily get anywhere in the heart of the city without a car, regardless of the season. Our neighborhood, the East Village, is also the hopping/happening part of town these days, so there are a lot more credible restaurants and retail outlets there now than there were when we last lived here. We’re not intending to get another car, and I’m going to be a foot, bike, public transit and ride share guy for the foreseeable future, so that density of destinations is helpful. Katelin and John (daughter and boyfriend) live across the street from us, so that’s a wonderful benefit. The Bumble also lives there, so I’ve been getting what passes for regular quality time (three pets, then a bop, hiss, and scratch) with her. Just like old times.

We took custody of our new place on February 1st, and I have been back and forth from Chicago to there numerous times since then, usually bringing a full load of household goods with me. This week, I’m staying in Chicago in a hotel, under my new work paradigm, where I spent one week each month at our office in Naperville, and work remotely from my home office the other three weeks. When I get back to Des Moines next weekend, we have one more small furniture delivery to receive, and one last room in which to hang art and decorate, and then the new nest will be pretty much complete and ready to serve as home for however many years this chapter in our story is going to last. That will feel really, really good after three years of maintaining two residences, and enduring regular long-term separations.

There are some things in life that get easier as you get older and wiser, but moving is not one of them. When I was a kid, we moved regularly with my Dad’s Marine Corps careers. In the early years of our time together, Marcia and I moved twice in Northern Virginia, twice in Idaho Falls, and twice in New York, before settling in for a nice 12-year stint at Cord Drive in Latham — the longest I have ever lived in one place. I used to be really good at moving, both in terms of the physical aspects (Young Strong Man Can Lift All Furniture, Huttah!), and the psychological ones, which in some ways were eased by living most of the time in either military or academic cultures, where everybody was a n00b every year, and nobody was immediately obvious as the “one of these things is not like the other” cast member.

But somewhere along the line, likely after that long spell in Latham, I turned into a grouchy set-in-my-ways old man with a body that feels the effects of every heavy box that I lift for days after I schlep it. Get of my lawn, you kids!! And where are my back pills?!

By virtue of the way that we’ve had our lives set up over the past three years (one apartment and one storage unit in Des Moines, one condo with a storage cage in Chicago), it has taken multiple little moves between those destinations over a two-month period to get us to the point of almost being settled in our new place, so that’s even harder than the usual rip-the-Bandaid approach of quickly hauling a single household to a new place in one fell swoop. So I’m ready to sit. I’m ready to settle. Bring me some tea and my slippers and point me to my comfy chair. I’m good.

Over the next few months, Marcia and I have trips to Florida, the Carolinas and Greece (30th Anniversary!) lined up, and I’m very much looking forward to traveling that does not involve hauling heavy loads, and that has us leaving from and returning to a single destination: Home. I know that this is not our final one of those (we’ll be going somewhere warmer when retirement time rolls around, guaranteed), so that also means that we’ll need to move on at least one more time, and I’ll be older, grouchier, and stiffer when we do it . . . but once it’s done, we’ll have a new base of operations for new adventures, just as we do now, and that’s a comfort and a blessing, all things considered.