Archive for August, 2014

Geography Of The Heart / Fenton Johnson

This memoir by Fenton Johnson chronicles his three year relationship with his lover, Larry Rose. It is a relationship that slowly deepens over time despite the fact that Rose was already HIV positive when the two men first met. The year was 1987, and at that time a diagnosis of HIV was a likely death sentence. In this poignant memoir, the author interweaves the story of his upbringing as the youngest of nine children in Kentucky, and that of Rose, the only child of German Jews who had survived the Holocaust. Johnson explores his initial feeling of doubt about the pairing, and how he resisted fully committing himself to the relationship. But as the two of them became closer, and Rose’s health began to deteriorate, the author slowly begins to learn of the transformational power of love. Even though he at first feared he would be unable to carry out his role as caregiver, in the end he felt honored to nurse his partner through his final days. There are numerous memoirs that chronicle the personal impact of the AIDS epidemic. What makes this one special is Johnson’s talent as a writer—he is a master of the craft. He has created a lyrical love story, using humor and brutal honesty, to put a human face to being Gay in America at a time when many people felt that AIDS was a punishment for such relationships. I could have done without the final chapter where the author tries to sum up the impact that love had on his life. It is unnecessary because the story he so aptly presented had already done that job for him.

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Master Of Your Own Clock

May you be master of your own clock
with time left at day’s end

Blessed with the energy to wrestle
a headwind into submission

And the wherewithal to appreciate
the gift that silence bestows

To be aware that each breath taken
is as unique as a snowflake

And cognizant of the subtle shading
in dusk’s rich blend

To have the provisions for sharing
with guests at the table

And later, a spare hour set aside
for drowsy contemplation

With the tome in your lap, a friend
you can always turn to

Postponing The Inevitable

Door to door,
coming home those Sunday nights,
from farm to town,
the commute was all of four miles.
Just time enough
to dread the approach of another
school week ahead.
How I wished for super powers,
the ability to turn
twilight back into full sunshine.
Closing my eyes,
I’d settle for a car ride that had
no destination
if I could not conjure the clock’s
backward retreat.

Drowsiness alone
changed that ten-minute car ride
into an escape.
When Father finally turned into
our driveway,
the crunch of gravel failed to be
a wake up alarm.
I did not stir even after the rest
had climbed out
and a shut-off engine began to
tick as it cooled.
Heavier than a sack of potatoes,
I was determined
not to meet another Monday on
my own two feet.

A Blizzard Of Falling Apples

The wind rises with the dawn
and a blizzard replicates an April shower.
But today’s precipitation from
a neighboring orchard isn’t pink petals.
Rather, it is the steady thud
of apples, rotted and worm-burrowed.
How could a season so ripe
and flourishing come to such a sad end?
But perhaps this forsaken meal
wasn’t meant for the likes of you or me.
An overgrown orchard requires
no tending hands to fulfill its purpose.
The absence of footsteps does
not mean that there won’t be visitors.
These crisp October mornings
will give way to sun-filled afternoons.
And to a drunken hum as
others feast on its intoxicating nectar.
A blizzard of falling apples
favors the discriminating sweet tooth.

The American Way Of Death Revisited / Jessica Mitford

Drawing howls of protest from the funeral industry, and acclaim from consumer interest groups, The American Way of Death was first published in 1963. This updated version, completed by Mitford just before her death in 1996, was published in 1998. It contains several new chapters and updated facts and figures to supplement the original material. While published just sixteen years ago, its overall tone seems quite dated. Throughout, Mitford references numerous journals from the funeral industry, titles that I would hazard to guess no longer exist here in the digital age. Even though the book has a Sixties feel to it, the questionable funeral practices that the author reports on still plague us today. In her muckraking report, Mitford shows how funeral directors and cemetery owners have sold Americans a bill of goods by claiming their extravagant funeral practices are a treasured tradition handed down from the earliest days of this country. In truth, the tradition was created out of whole cloth by the funeral industry itself one hundred years ago, driven by a desire to extract as much money as they can from grieving families. The situation has only gotten worse now that multi-national corporations have begun to dominate the profession. Since all families at some point will need to plan a funeral, this book serves as an excellent primer to alert consumers about the questionable practices that they might encounter when burying or cremating a family member. While the topic might seem like a grim one, Mitford leavens the material with a gleeful energy as she debunks the industry’s self-serving proclamations and exposes their lobbying efforts to insure fair practice legislation rarely sees the light of day. It is a book I wish I had read before helping to plan my parents’ funerals. Better late than never, it helped to spark a conversation with my wife on what I want done (and not done) to my body after I die. Since death never goes out of style, The American Way of Death will continue to inform consumers for a good many generations to come.

The Dearly Departed

Never fear, the graveyard’s
dust is not their final resting place.
For the grieving heart’s sake,
the dearly departed are content
to play cameo roles in
the labyrinth of nightly dreams.

Inhabiting our memories,
ground into celluloid film stock,
they are not drawn to
the light cast by a heavenly sun.
Their essence resides in
the black powder of a former one.

Captured on a single frame,
the shock of recognition haunts.
In a breathless moment,
it is the residue of their breath
that speaks volumes.
The script has no need for words.

In a camera’s slow pan,
as walk-ons not central to the plot,
alive again, but not exactly,
they munificently smile on cue.
Their faces animated
only when there is no light at all.

Sum : Forty Tales From The Afterlives / David Egleman

Eagleman works as a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and his background is put to good use in the stories in Sum, a vividly imagined collection of forty possible afterlives that might follow our deaths. While his day job deals with neuroscience, he is first and foremost a writer who excels in the craft of writing short stories. The vignettes he presents here are funny and creative, with delightful twists that brought a smile to my face. But better still, he also delivers a twist on the twist itself, making each a thoughtful examination of how we define ourselves as human beings. The stories are compact, running from two to four pages, without a wasted word throughout. In one afterlife, God is the size of a microbe and unaware of our existence. Another finds that each of us is forced to live with annoying versions of the better people we could have been if we had only tried harder while alive. While the stories are rooted in science, one does not need a neuroscience background to fully enjoy these witty and sometimes unsettling tales. Deftly offered by this first time fiction author, these captivating vignettes are a delight to read. The book is short enough to finish in a single sitting, but it is best savored in small doses. I found myself reading many of them a second time just to marvel all over again at the author’s creativity. Highly recommended.