The Weary Blues of Langston Hughes

American Poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Great poetry is not necessarily white. Sometimes it comes from something deeper, like the centuries-old suppression of the black man in America. It becomes even more interesting when it is tied to the blues, as this poem is:

The Weary Blues

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
     I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
     He did a lazy sway . . .
     He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
     O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
     Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
     O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
     “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
       Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
       I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
       And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
     “I got the Weary Blues
       And I can’t be satisfied.
       Got the Weary Blues
       And can’t be satisfied—
       I ain’t happy no mo’
       And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

Atacama Norte

Path at Sequoia National Park

John Muir understood the forests of California better than anyone: “And into the forest I go to lose my mind and find my soul.” There are beautiful forests in California, as well as beautiful mountains and even beautiful deserts. Thanks to climate change, however, in a very few years we might still find the mountains, but in place of the forests, we will have greatly enlarged deserts.

Currently, the driest desert on earth is the Atacama, which comprises parts of northern Chile and southern Peru. It is a major event there if the rainfall runs to several millimeters! As California becomes ever drier and the wildfires ever more uncontrollable, I can foresee much of this happening in the dwindling years of my lifetime.

California has both the largest and the oldest living things on earth in its forests. The Sequoia Redwoods can run to 115.5 meters (379 feet) in height. They can—under normal circumstances—live between 1,200 and 2,200 years. In the White Mountains on the other side of the Owens Valley are the Great Basin bristlecone pines, which, unlike the redwoods, look hardly alive. Yet the oldest trees of this species are 4,800 years old, making them venerable oldsters while the Greeks were conducting the Siege of Troy described by Homer in the Iliad.

Bristlecone Pine Tree of the White Mountains

Both types of tree are hardy and have survived multiple wildfires caused by lightning strikes in the last several thousand years. But man is a relatively new factor, and many of the fires that are decimating the forests of California are the result of arson or human carelessness.

Call me a tree-hugger if you will, but there are many things in California that I have come to love. Let me close with another quote from John Muir, who is the bard of the wilds of California: “Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the green deep woods. Sleep in forgetfulness of all ill.”

Thirty-Six Streams

The following selection on desire is taken from the sayings of Gautama Buddha known as The Dhammapada:

If you sleep
Desire grows in you
Like a vine in the forest.

Like a monkey in the forest
You jump from tree to tree,
Never finding the fruit—
From life to life,
Never finding peace.

If you are filled with desire
Your sorrows swell
Like the grass after the rain.

But if you subdue desire
Your sorrows fall from you
Like drops of water from a lotus flower.

This is good counsel
And it is for everyone:
As the grass is cleared for the fresh root,
Cut down desire
Lest death after death crush you
As a river crushes the helpless reeds.

For if the roots hold firm,
A felled tree grows up again.
If desires are not uprooted,
Sorrows grow again in you.

Thirty-six streams are rushing toward you!
Desire and pleasure and lust ...
Play in your imagination with them
And they will sweep you away.
Powerful streams!
They flow everywhere.

Emeric Toth’s Recurring Nightmare (Repost)

Chamula Girl with Plastic Bucket

This is a repost from my Blog.Com site on January 26, 2009:

It was a recurring dream that I would have at least once a week. In November 1980, I spent a week at San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the State of Chiapas, Mexico. The town was known as a market town for the Highland Mayan peoples from San Juan Chamula, Zinacantán, Tenejapa, and other villages. In the city market, tourists are besieged by little Chamula girls selling crude handmade dolls. They come up to you, caress the doll, and coo to it softly. It was hard for anyone to resist. My Chamula doll is still propped up in my library in the Latin American literature section.

My revised edition of Michael Shawcross’s San Cristóbal de Las Casas City and Area Guide (San Cristóbal: Guadalupe de la Peña, June 1979) made reference to a local restaurant called Normita’s. In it, Shawcross wrote: “1E and 1S on Av. Benito Juárez. Pleasant, candle-lit atmosphere. Friendly owner (fine classical guitar-player). Try the Jalisco-style Pozole. The Huevos Motuleños are particularly fine. Beer/wine. Open afternoons and evenings only.” The 1E and 1S placed the restaurant one block southeast of the Zócalo.

Except, it wasn’t there. I had crawled all around the southeastern part of the city until I finally stumbled upon it. I spent all my small bills on the Jalisco-style Pozole, which was quite good and very filling. (If you’ve never had pozole, I suggest you try it on a cold day—and make sure it has a lot of hot chiles in it.)

When I emerged from a restaurant, I was accosted by a little Indian girl in tears carrying an empty plastic bucket. I could not give her anything because the smallest bill I had at the time was a 100-peso note, at the time worth about $12.00. Even if I were so warm-hearted as to have given it to her, her parents would probably have thought she stole it or did something nasty with one of the tourists, and then beaten her for her pains. I shook my head sadly and walked down the street, followed by the little girl, crying as if her world had tumbled down about her head. Had she lost something? Had she lost the money her parents had given her? I never knew.

That is my dream, being followed down a dark Mexican street by a poor little Indian girl with an empty plastic bucket, beseeching me for a few pesos which I didn’t have while drenched in tears.

Puffy Eyelids

The Worst Allergy Season in Memory Continues ….

For a couple months now, I have had a savage attack of blepharitis. My eyelids continue to itch like crazy, inviting me to rub them, while discharging what looks like endless tears. Last night, all night long, I had to wipe the tears from my eyes, which woke me as they ran down my face.

Finally, today I contacted my ophthalmologist, who prescribed eyedrops and a salve that worked well a few weeks ago until they ran out. They should be ready for pickup on Friday or Saturday.

The worst thing about this condition is that I am tempted to drive with only one eye open, which is not great for depth perception. Also, reading becomes a much more tiresome activity. (For me, that’s serious.)

I have no doubt that this condition is somehow connected with climate change. The summers have been growing progressively hotter, and large-scale wildfires have packed the air with various toxins.

In the absence of prescribed medications, the only thing that helps for an hour or two are hot or warm compresses. Over-the-counter preparations like Pataday are not even that good.

Favorite Films: Get Carter (1971)

Production Still of Michael Caine Killing the Man Responsible for His Brother’s Death

I am rather new to Get Carter, which I saw for the first time last year. It is a tale of revenge by a London mobster on the Newcastle hoods who killed his brother and cast his teenage niece in a pornographic film. Once Caine has seen the film, he goes on a killing spree of unabated fury and brutality against the Newcastle mob. There was a remake shot in 2000, but the Michael Caine film directed by Mike Hodges is the version to see.

Interestingly, the role of Newcastle mob boss, Cyril Kinnear, is acted by playwright John Osborne of Angry Young Men fame (Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, the screenplay for Tom Jones).

Particularly gruesome were the murders of two women who worked with Kinnear. Caine sleeps with one of them, locks her in the trunk of a sports car, and essentially shrugs his shoulders when his adversaries push the car into the harbor. Another one, who recruited the niece for the porno film, was told to strip, injected with drugs, and pushed into a pond. Caine left a trail of her clothes for police to follow to point to the location of her body.

This is a fairly violent picture, but it is well made and definitely worth seeing.

You Can’t Go Home Again

My Old High School Gets Razed

As I sit here sweltering in Los Angeles, I am conscious of the scenes of my past being erased from view, almost as if they had never existed.

But they did. Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio was the scene of my triumphs. I was not only the valedictorian of my class, but also the recipient of the Mr. Chanel award for my contributions to the school. Because of budgetary constraints felt by the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, Chanel was shut down in 2013. Today, I discovered in an email from my brother Dan that the school is now being wrecked by the City of Bedford.

Chanel High, which ended its life as St. Peter Chanel High, was opened in 1957. I was in the second graduating class of the school (1962), having started out as a freshman when there was only a sophomore class ahead of me.

old St. Henry Elementary School on Harvard Road, which I attended between 1951 and 1958. has been closed down for some time. No longer are the devoted Dominican Sisters who taught me walking the halls rustling the large wooden rosaries they wore, and Father John Hreha has no one to yell at. I believe it now exists as the Harvard Community Services Center.

My very first school, Harvey Rice Elementary at 2730 East 116th Street in Cleveland, still exists. I went there for Kindergarten and half of First Grade. I didn’t do well because I didn’t speak English at that time, only Hungarian. When we moved to the Harvard-Lee area in the summer of 1951, I was signed up for Second Grade at the new St. Henry School, never having completed First Grade. (Sometimes, I still fear that knock at the door in the middle of the night reminding me that I have to go back to Cleveland to finish First Grade.)

Dites-moi où, dans quel pays,
Est Flora la belle Romaine,
Archipiades, et Thaïs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine,
Echo, parlant quant bruit on mène
Dessus rivière ou sur étang,
Qui beauté eut surhumaine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?

Sometimes, I feel as if my life were one of the novels of the Argentinian César Aira, whose stories progress like one of those Roomba vacuums—always going forward, and never back.

Even though much of my past has been erased, Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire is still around. But since most of the stately elm trees died of Dutch Elm Disease, and the school decided to fill every open space with new buildings, I don’t recognize the place any more.

Disunited States

We Created a Situation in Which the States Are at War with One Another

The words of the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution seem innocuous enough:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The United States of America didn’t suddenly come into being as a harmonious united country. Before there was a constitution, there was a document referred to as the Articles of Confederation, which were in force from 1781 until replaced by the Constitution in 1789. That initial document didn’t work out all that well because of some serious problems, such as:

  • Congress could not regulate trade
  • There was no uniform system of currency
  • The Federal Government (such as it was) had no power to tax
  • There was no independent judiciary, foreign affairs head, and no ability to deal with internal or external threats

In other words, the various states had all the power, and the Federal Government, virtually none. It seems to me that, even with the Constitution ratified by all the states, that some states still think they are in charge. That’s one of the major causes for the Civil War of 1861-1865—a conflict whose resolution has been partial at best.

Although I am a Citizen of the United States, there are some states which I would think twice before visiting; as I doubt but that my rights would be abridged.

When it comes to issues such as abortion, one can see clear cultural fault lines:

Foreigners visiting the United States are often surprised that, in some states, there is a different set of laws. If one is traveling from ocean to ocean, one could find oneself in a different legal situation not only from state to state, but sometimes from county to county—especially if you are trying to buy alcoholic beverages or marijuana products.

When traveling in Europe or Latin America, I faced no such situation, even in areas where there were strong cultural differences, such as in some of the islands off the coast of Scotland where the Wee Frees form a large part of the population.

Helicopterum

Burton W. Chace County Park in Marina Del Rey

delightful It was another warm day, though nowhere near as blistering as those inland areas euphemistically referred to as valleys. Whenever I’m feeling too hot, I always know that it will be miraculous cool and breezy in that park at the west end of Mindanao Way.

So I stopped in at Trader Joe’s for a picnic lunch of a Mexican chicken salad, watermelon chunks, and watermelon juice and found myself a picnic table in one of the three covered picnic pavilions in the park (shown above). Then I moved closer to Stone Point, at the tip of the peninsula, and took out a copy of Roberto Bolaño’s short story collection entitled Last Evenings on Earth and began reading.

Wouldn’t you know it? There are in big cities three things that militate against enjoying a book (or even a good night’s rest): motorcycles, rap music, and helicopters; and I got a 30-minute dose of the latter as it lazily and raucously circled the park without any clear end in mind. I kept thinking to myself how opportune a shoulder-mounted Stinger missile would have been.

But then, one of the drawbacks to big city life is that your neighbor gets all het up and doesn’t give a damn about your need for a modicum of silence. One fantasizes about a gruesome conclusion to each incident, but that never seems to happen. Tant pis!

An Unhappy Time

I Was at Low Ebb in My Twenties

If I had to pick the worst decade of my life, I would have to pick my twenties, between 1966 and 1975. I had miraculously survived brain surgery in September 1966. For my entire adolescence, I did not have a functioning pituitary gland: Instead, I had a benign tumor that not only destroyed my pituitary, but was staging an incursion on my optic nerve. Oh, and by the way, due to the malfunction of my pituitary, I had, for all intents and purposes, no adrenaline, thyroid, sex hormones, or human growth hormone. At the age of twenty-one, I looked like a high school freshman. When I bought alcoholic beverages, I was always being carded by store employees who did not believe my true age.

As I have described my condition before, I felt like a Martian mixed among human beings. I had fallen in love with a young woman, but it was not reciprocated. Several times, I awoke in the middle of the night, walked several blocks to Zucky’s Deli and had breakfast, then walked a few more blocks to the beach at Santa Monica. In the pre-dawn hours, I stared at the waves wondering if I had the courage to take a walk to Japan.

In time, I weathered my depression. I signed up for group therapy, where I discovered that my problems were all part of the human condition, namely, that we were all Martians.

In his book of interviews with Osvaldo Ferrari, Jorge Luis Borges found an interesting way of describing my condition:

Yes, I am sure I am happier now than when I was young. When I was young, I sought to be unhappy for aesthetic and dramatic reasons. I wanted to be Prince Hamlet or Raskolnikov or Byron or Poe or Beaudelaire, but not now. Today, I am resigned to being who I am. And to summarize: I do not know if I have attained happiness—no one does—but I have sometimes attained a kind of serenity and that’s a lot. Also, seeking serenity seems to me to be a more reasonable ambition than seeking happiness. Perhaps serenity is a kind of happiness.

For Borges, that’s saying a lot, as he had lost the sight of his eyes some thirty years before the interview. After my surgery, I was sterile—which is, as I see it now, a highly survivable condition.