As some of you may know, Hollis Huston has been living with cancer for a few years. He has found that despite all attempts to manage it, it has found a way to stay one step ahead. As Hollis said, "I am up against a clever and evolutionarily advanced adversary."
It is now time to turn to hospice care. His family has set up an online space to keep family and friends, colleagues, students, and readers of this blog updated in one place:
We also want to use that site to collect your recollections and thoughts of Hollis. He and his family would love to hear from you.
Thank you for visiting, and thinking about Hollis.
Sunday, February 25, 2018
You fly down a street on the chance that you'll meet,
And you meet -- not really by chance.
-- Oscar Hammerstein II, "Hello, Young Lovers"
. . . his heart was going like mad and yes I said Yes I will Yes.
-- James Joyce, Ulysses
If you'll forgive these songs for having been written by men, perhaps you can forgive me also for offering the pair as a bracket of romance, not only as it was but as it is proposed to become. Both fictional singers are women describing their true love, in a time when the lover or the love is dead. One song describes the beginning of romance, and the other enacts its end (the consummation described in male poetry as death: "Let me shipwreck in your thighs," cries Thomas's Captain Cat.) After that fulfillment love must be rediscovered, again and again, and that is why the lovers do not always live happily ever after. Love must be rediscovered because the lovers are changed by their love; they are different people now. Though asking that this continuing rediscovery last a lifetime is asking a lot, it can happen.
There is no death in either incident, and no compulsion. I wish for you, whatever your age, gender or sexual preference, that at some time you have had or will have both experiences, for they bestow life. What happens in both cases is, to use a hackneyed phrase, ardently desired by both parties. Though the primary application of both images presents encounters of a man and a woman, the experience is generalizable.
Isn't this what it's supposed to be, and seldom is? what we look for out the window, our fancy lightly turning? the hope that lifts us through a hundred disappointments, tediums, deadly obligations and crushing catastrophes? the thing that when it happens can't be stored in the larder or held in reserve, and burns its recipe? that demands pursuit from two sides and eludes that pursuit? And yet it happens.
It's hard to see how even in the paradise to come, when there will be no more tears or fear or awkwardness or miscalculation or misunderstanding and we shall all be transparent to each other, there could be objection to either of these tropes. Joyce's Molly is physically aware of her lover's desire, and her assent is in the most utopian way enthusiastic and repeated; she and Leopold are both arriving where they want to go. And Hammerstein's Anna and her Tom as well, in the beginning of their love, arrive exactly where they want to be, and in the most symmetrical way -- in the open street by mutual unprofessed desire.
And here is what we're fighting about these days: how do we move from unprofessed desire to professed desire and then to consummated desire? On whom falls the burden and the penalty? And what is the penalty? Tom and Anna have come together, knowing in their pulses and their shallow breathing and their idiotic speech that they have met "not really by chance." So what comes next? The utopian solution of Molly and Leopold is not what comes next. We have to get from here to there.
We are deciding what courtship shall look like. Though its forms have changed and will change again, courtship will happen. Some of its discontents are socially conditioned, but most are eternal. There will always be in some form bad dates, fear and angst and regret for things done and not done, joy and tears, immoderate rage and foolish mercy, Faustian hope and Wertherian despair. The stakes are passionate rather than intellectual.
I have used the gentle word "courtship" for this tumult -- a word that comes from Eleanor of Aquitaine's troubadour courts. We forget that courtoisie, though it restrained a lot of wholesale violence, normalized what we now call infidelity, and deflected libido toward the rape of lower-class women. Though I speak with gentility -- another troubadour word -- courtship is not a research proposal but a caldron of life and death from which, despite the overreaching promises of marriage, no one emerges in perfect safety. We cannot, by law or shaming, confer perfect safety on our lovers.
I doubt that, in the present wave of revolution, we have truly understood mutuality. Because of the criminal and/or shameful actions of some powerful men in the workplace, the workplace is now a main site of suspicion, where predation and injustice are to be hunted, in a design for perfect safety. But the workplace -- heavens to Betsy! aside from individual abuses, can be one of the safest and best places to meet people. You get to observe a person over time, in different situations and different company, doing real work. You see them on good days and bad days, in joy and sorrow. You hear how they speak to others, how they groom themselves, what they choose to wear -- of if you all wear uniforms, you get to see how that person carries the uniform. Is it not at least as true to discover love in a workplace as in a bar, or by face-swiping on a smartphone? And that's why there always will be workplace romance; we can face it, or ignore it at everyone's cost.
The agency I work for, a not-for-profit where every workday I hope to do some good in the world, takes a moderate position on workplace romance. It should be reported to management; public displays of affection are discouraged; transfers are considered to prevent apparent conflicts of interest. I have seen people meet, fall in love, marry and raise children, while still in the employ of my agency. What's wrong with that?
Let us return to Tom and Anna, who have met by chance but not so in a street whose name they will always remember. Think of it: your subconscious has outwitted what you thought was your mind, your heart is racing, everything seems clear, and nothing has been said. Will something be said, and by whom? and it is fearful to speak, for your hunch though tyrannical could be wrong, and if you are wrong you are a fool or worse. I can never forget the chilling dismissal of Prufrock's Love Song, measured out in coffee spoons: "That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all."* So many Toms and Annas let the moment go by -- the heart beats, the moment passes, the boat sails, he thinks tomorrow I am bound for India, and she now I must accept the proposal of Cludbucket, who will support me and my children, die soon and leave me wealthy. For both of them the name of that street will be a lifetime's key to regret. There are real consequences to what we never say.
Now some of the world's biggest corporations propose that the person who asks, if refused, must never ask again. I am learning these days about the horrors of being asked. Let me propose a parallel research: the horrors of having to ask. (And in the present social/political climate there's no doubt that the proposers of this policy expect that men will ask, as they were supposed to ask in the long-gone world of Tom and Anna.) As a nerd growing up ashamed of my body and lacking the social skill to leave my private world, I remember many youthful evenings when I wished God had made me a girl, so I wouldn't have to ask. Let us remember that for many men the title of designated asker is not a ticket to limitless joy and world domination. That's why the real criminals of the present crisis don't really ask -- they demand and take. That's their way of avoiding the horrors of the ask. They're cowards. And they leave the rest of us to live with their disgrace, heroic idiots and clumsy gentlemen in the making as we are, who must now confront not only the risk of the ask but its finality. Such policies will either be generally ignored and then selectively enforced, or rigidly enforced and drive passion out of open places into darker corners and hiding-places, along with creativity. Come now, I don't think this is what we want.
Perhaps there will come a time when all of us, Toms and Annas and Leopolds and Mollys, women and men, askers and asked alike, will hear the torments of the other. This is a risky business, and requires compassion.
*T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (New York; Harcourt, Brace & World, 1950), p. 6.
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Tuesday, February 6, 2018
The Left is cannibalistic. It eats its own.
-- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (The New Yorker Radio Hour, January 26, 2018)
No women were harmed in the making of this picture.
-- Nancy Crocker
My accomplished friend Nancy, an author, actor, activist, feminist and for the last two and half decades a Minnesotan, has met Al Franken several times and reports that he is like a smart teddy bear, nothing creepy about him. She joins other women who give him good report. Eight of his Senate staffers say that "he treated us with the utmost respect." Thirty-six women who worked with him on Saturday Night Live praise him as "a dedicated and devoted family man, a wonderful comedic performer, and an honorable public servant," from whom "not one of us ever experienced any inappropriate behavior."*
He stands accused of actions that, taken as true and interpreted in the darkest way, do not amount to rape, power play for sexual favors, cruising of shopping malls to "date" minors, self-exposure or quid pro quo. I still say he "stands" because he was denied a process that might move the accusations forward toward penalty, restoration or exoneration. His supporters from SNL call such actions "stupid and foolish," and he himself agrees, but no one says he invaded the bodies of children, or ruined anyone's career, or fired anyone for refusing sexual favors. He is not a Weinstein, a Spacey, an Ailes or a Nassar.
I've never met Al Franken and I don't know his personal life, but for decades I've seen his work and can't avoid certain conclusions. My gaydar is suspect but my nerdar is superb. Al Franken is a nerd. Like me, only more accomplished. He is a nerd who grew into his nerdity and through strenuous effort acquired dignity; who also did some "stupid and foolish" things along the way; and who in Nancy's estimation could be elected governor of Minnesota today.
I should say what a nerd is. (If you don't see yourself in this description then you aren't a nerd in my book). A nerd is a boy who lives in his own world and doesn't play the game because he can't. In the classroom he may have all the answers but pays a price if he offers them. On the playground, his worthlessness is proclaimed in every choosing of sides for kickball -- he is the last boy or maybe the last person chosen; and in the corners, in the intervals between one class and another, there may be a game of keep-away with his coke-bottle glasses; he is pushed, knocked, insulted with words of gender-loaded insult for which he lacks skills of deflection. These bankruptcies in a cruel market drive him further into a private world of books and fantasies, a world he cannot share.
As a nerd grows into youth the terror of the playground recedes, replaced by terrors of the courtship market. Unable to toss a three-pointer or to locate a tiny ball at the end of a bat, lacking practice in the role of physical attraction, unskilled in small talk and banter, the nerd relinquishes fear of bullies for the fear of women. Every roll of the eyes, every sigh and look over the shoulder toward someone else, takes him back to the kickball field.
Boo hoo you say. We all have our problems.
These are the problems of nerds. And we are legion.
Many nerds are saved. Their lives are saved by a chess club, or a school play, or a math club, or band practice, or a gifted teacher, or a secret society of lost boys who locate each other with nascent nerdar. Finding a ground of adequacy, they begin a hard lifetime of integration between their private natures and the corrupting games of the world.
A few nerds never climb out of the pit. Their shame turns to anger, and their anger to monstrosity: Weinstein and Nassar might be nerds gone rotten. Or Ted Kaczynski. A few nerds turn their anger on themselves, and do not survive.
But most of us survive, and without becoming monsters. We commence the long work of integrating interior with exterior, arriving late in the world lacking a decade of practice, eternal sophomores impersonating adults, fools in search of our authority. Showbiz teaches that you can't learn a role without rehearsing it. We try stuff, and some of it is really stupid. Or we don't try stuff, which is just as stupid. Both our trying and our not trying can hurt people.
The scripts offered to us are, after all, stupid. As I grew up, manhood was Clark Gable carrying Vivien Leigh up the staircase in spite of her protests; it was Rosanno Brazzi stripping Katherine Hepburn naked with his gaze; it was Cary Grant telling David Niven he should "fight for" Loretta Young; it was Humphrey Bogart mansplaining to Ingrid Bergman that their love didn't amount to a hill of beans and she should go with the other guy. A little dab of Brylcream would do me, and I would enter the stage with my high "confidence" flying, assuming the mastery of women, ready to pursue and assert my rights and never let go, never take no for an answer. As I noticed myself not doing these things, I didn't think it was a sign of virtue; I thought it meant I was a hideous botch of male personhood.
Now I am an old man, still climbing out of that pit. It takes time, and risk, and errors of commission and omission, to learn there is another way to approach the majority of the human race. So simple it's incomprehensible: women are people, and should be listened to. It takes a while to learn what listening is. It takes a while to learn that there are some who will listen back. It takes a while to learn that when two people listen to each other a number of beautiful things can happen: camaraderie, encouragement, companionship, emotional support, flirtation and crush, or in a very few instances romance, though romance is not required for these other modes to be gorgeous.
What makes me sad, in the furor about the bad date that someone had with Aziz Ansari, is that a sour assumption drives the story -- that the evening is pointless unless they f*!@. Even if two people are falling in love -- as those awkward protagonists clearly were not -- who is there now to model the simple value of getting to know someone by listening, the not always but sometime extravagant joy of delay, the rising of desire as one explores the mind and heart of a person whose very presence makes your heart race and dazzles your brain and puts a lump in your throat? Though I am old, you don't have to be old to lament the death of antici -- pation, the flattening of romance into a plumbing emergency.
These protagonists seem sad and awkward, and the incident appears foolish and stupid. And we awkward men, not monsters but flawed and yet doing our best, will not go through a lifetime without having done something stupid and foolish. We are not mind-readers. We were not raised in the radiant world yet to come, but in an older world of toxins now being exposed. So as the current wave breaks over us all, new-brooming some monsters but also some persons of good intent who are growing into a role never written before, and meanwhile placing the same seal of ill repute on all alike, I have two requests.
First, I hope there will be a spirit of education. That means, for women I know or will come to know in the future, that if I do something that makes you feel violated, in the name of god tell me so, here and now. In a better world I would already know, but I am formed by this world and I do not yet know. Tell me. Offending you is the last thing I want. If we talk this out, I might learn that, either for you particularly or for all in general, I should change my behavior. It's even possible you might learn it wasn't what you thought it was. In either case, there is no good letting this virus multiply.
Second, I hope that before we eat many more of our own there will arise a spirit of compassion, expressed toward all but particularly toward the awkward. I've just written the archeology of my kind of man, the grounds of pain and ignorance out of which my errors arise. But no one comes to adulthood, to this or that social scene or workplace, without blind spots and tendencies to folly. There are criminals and there are monsters; but for the rest, let those who have never done anything foolish and stupid cast the first stones.
*"Former Franken Female Staffers Speak Out," Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post, November 17, 2017. "36 Women from Saturday Night Live Sign Letter of Support for Sen. Al Franken," Raisa Bruner, Time, November 21, 2017.
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Saturday, December 30, 2017
Tuesday, December 5, 2017
. . . And I thought, I've got nothing . . . which meant, I had nothing to lose.
-- Bruce Springsteen*
You can mould clay into a vessel;
yet, it is its emptiness that makes it useful.
-- Tao Te Ching, 11
I was brought up to get it right, no matter what the cost. If the assignment, the action, the long division problem, the situation, whatever, wasn't right -- well, then it was my fault: I had obviously not worked hard enough. I must go back to work right now, and must not stop until all was correct; and whoever stood in my way because they didn't understand, or thought I was wrong or untimely or misdirected, had to be set right. By me.
Great accomplishments were expected, to be attained only through unremitting effort. I was not to set the matter aside, or read a book, or watch tv, or work on a more gratifying project, or go to bed in hope of morning insight. That's what lazy people do, said the voice, and if you act like them you'll waste your talents. Anything you don't get right is worthless. And here would follow a list of people known to me who had come to nothing because they had been lazy and wasted their talents.
If you screw up enough things you might make something work in the end, and I am a man of superlative obscurity in a fourth career, disappointing the voice of endless demand, never attaining more than a middling income and often struggling for that. I've been hired and fired, but never had the power to hire or fire anyone. In these times perhaps that is a blessing.
To be a first-born son, informed at the age of eight that I had an intellect, is as much curse as blessing. My responsibility to the gift, always defined by someone else, often overwhelmed me. Perhaps in my eighth decade, right now, on this page, for your eyes only, I apply it to something of my own.
Perfectionists have their uses. They get a lot of things right. That's how they're driven. And they're alone on their faultless shore.
But some things can never be right, not the way a page of long division is supposed to be right.
And the cost of rightness, that rightness of a sum, saps not only the visceral power but the mental ones as well. Not even mathematics is tidy right. The structure of the universe depends on an irrational number. No matter how many digits you write, you can never get pi just right.
Chanticleer sang again the other night at the Church of Ignatius Loyola (so yes, now Christmas can come). They were singing the lullaby Suo Gan, and my favorite singer had a solo, and I turned to my daughter saying "That's my boy!", but before I turned back the song was done, and their so soft cadence had pounced on me, beyond right, uncanny and there was water in my eyes. I wasn't ready. That's the point.
The right of music, and the right of a poem, and the right of love, these are not to be carried and remaindered. You know when it's there, but there's no map to take you all the way. Every musician knows how to get to Carnegie Hall (practice practice practice), but no one tells you when or where to leap off the building, though you must fly part of that way or they won't let you in.
The things I've done best I had no idea how to do, and I was sore afraid, wishing I knew how to get it right. The only thing I had was a need to jump off the building. These few works, of theatre or teaching or ministry or caritas, were uncharted. Step by step and breath by breath, feeling wind on my face and shift of ground beneath my feet, I would pray for a provisional truth to reveal itself for one more day. I didn't know. I wasn't full of knowledge. I was empty. I had nothing.
The risks are real. Human beings can get it wrong, Terribly wrong, pitiably wrong, or damnably wrong. You can harm yourself and you can harm others. That's the basis of the fear, the holy terror that accompanies every truly important act. But the surest road to hell is the highway of utter safety.
And that's the beauty of this last career of mine, its anti-perfectionism. I've been forced off the island of perfection. I'm really not supposed to know, as I pass over a threshold of pain and fear, what the good news is. I'm supposed to discover it there, in that room, and name it and bless it. My usefulness is to be empty.
*The New Yorker Radio Hour, November 25, 2017.
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Tuesday, November 14, 2017
My sentiments to share -
Grant me, O Lord, a sunny mind -
Thy windy will to bear!
-- Emily Dickinson, "Besides the Autumn Poets Sing"
My northeast New Jerusalem is becoming tropical, and we've waited far too long this year for the change. A week ago I was sweating in short sleeves, but now at last comes the weather that brings me life. No snow yet, but I've had to climb into my long coat, rediscover its obscure fastenings, find my gloves.
My friend thinks I am morbid. Snap out of it! he says.
But I'm not sad. Winds are in my face, and that makes me strong. The fertile half of the year is before me.
Son of a preacher and spouse of another, an academic for the larger part of my adulthood, I was formed not on the calendar year but on church and school year. In those measures Autumn is the time of when things begin, the big bang of inspiration. The cold wind, and the now rare but longed for blast of snow in my face, wake me to productivity and efficiency. The loss of light does not oppress but thrills me. My seasonal affective disorder comes not now but sometimes in the spring with too much light, and with the end of things I had begun.
So this is my November song, drawing perhaps, as good songs do, tears out of joy, or joy out of tears. Isn't that the darnedest thing? that our happy songs can make us cry, and our saddest songs can make us happy? Singing is our rescue from mortality, a rescue of self but also of the moment. The song is the thing that we make of it, the thing that stands outside, might live longer than the moment on which it was drawn. I lash these words together in order not to be morbid.
So I am one of those weird brothers who thrives in winter, traveling in fantasy not to sun-drenched beaches but to sea-thrashed cloudy islands where, above a cliff in bulky sweater and a hut of stone, I sip my smoky single-malt and battle rapturously with words, words words of others and my own in descant. Some may ask why I am so sour, but I am not sour -- this is the location of my peaty sweetness.
It's not the first time I have been misread. I see now for instance, with almost two decades of remove, that the years I worked in theatre were years of misplacement. I was with the wrong people, and they frequently misread my silences as discontent. Sometimes they were right, but often not.
Now, as my friend points out, I have a lot on my plate; or rather, something on my plate that was not there earlier; or rather, someone who looks over my shoulder in the mirror. For two years -- this is how I like to say it -- I have known the name of my angel, and in the last year I've spoken about it to others, and I've also spoken about how things look in the presence of the visitor. One personality scale designates me an Intuitive Introvert, intense on both dimensions. I process inwardly, and I don't know what to say until I'm done; but when I'm done I speak. And these last two years are the best, so far, of my life.
So I may seem to brood, and perhaps this behavior is what the word means, though I am surprised to live under it. High on my windy cliff I'm having a good time getting ready, Mr. DeMille, for my aria. And different observers may have different impressions of the figure I cut as I wait. So you don't have to worry. Well, worry a little, but not too much, and enjoy the whiskey.
There is for instance Altagracia, whom we are in danger of misreading. She overwhelmed me, when I went to see her, with her lamentation. She's lost a toe already, and large parts of her feet may have to be removed in order to "save" her, a recommendation that she loudly refuses, as she charges about her apartment and the neighborhood. She'd rather die, she says, refusing to live "that way," on such humiliating terms, and she indicts God: "Why should I suffer so? what did I ever do?" She tells us the stories of five attempts to end her life, and the stories with retelling become less tragic, more darkly comical, and she laughs with me. I've done this work a while, but her lamentation at first overwhelmed me; I provided audience, but couldn't see the strategy, until I took her "case" to a group of my peers.
They said, don't get trapped in the clinical psychology, the "issues" of denial, shame and control. Listen to the song of her spirit. She is still alive, and on her terms. She challenges us, and refuses to be dead. Learn from her courage and from the strength of her will, and from her powerful projection of lament. She will die some day, but has not yet been reduced. There is trouble ahead, but also beauty here.
Altagracia and I are very different people, and her situation is different. She has much less time before her than I. But in my present mode I am a fellow traveler with all my clients. They narrate a thousand nights: there is always another tale to tell the angel, and I can mistake the tone and the substance as well as anyone.
Don't worry too much, and enjoy the whiskey.
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Tuesday, October 31, 2017
If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.
-- Ayn Rand
No man is an island.
-- John Donne
-- Ayn Rand
No man is an island.
-- John Donne
You have to know yourself, and that's hard, and it takes time. A lifetime, and still not done. So it is likened to a journey that will take what you have, and must then be left to others.
In the present critical and theoretical climate, it's hard to imagine a voyage of discovery as virtuous. So let's not call it virtuous, let's call it necessary. Because when we're born we don't know who we are. In fact, we don't even know that we are. I learn that the sound filling the room and bringing comfort is my own act: I am the one who cries. I have to be taught that the stinky mass appearing several times a day between my legs is something made by me, and I must control and learn to dispose of it myself. I am told that the odd creature pointing at me in the mirror has a name, and that the name of it is my name.
Then it gets really complicated. I learn that I like ice cream and hate spinach, because they feel good or awful in the mouth, because I crave them or cringe at their approach, because I have fantasies of one and nightmares of the other. I learn that throwing and catching a ball feels good to me, or not. I learn that making a series of tones out of my whining seems a thing essentially worthy, or not. I learn that books comfort me, or not.
I come to know, often painfully, the wandering of my eros: what signals of gender, culture, passion and disgust, make my body feel like it belongs with another body. Or not. I learn, if I am fortunate and acquire the skills of such learning, what kind of person could be my friend. And what kinds could not. It might begin to dawn on me what the work of my life is.
Through intuition but also through blunder and error, you learn which activities are yours to do, making the existential pain go away not just for a moment but from hours to days, days to weeks, weeks to years to the rest of life. And you learn which activities should be done by someone else. And which should be done by no one.
"There's no great trick," says a character in Citizen Kane, "to making a lot of money, if all you want to do is make a lot of money." Making a lot of money was clearly not my life's work. But that's just one example, and not one that I have broken my heart over. More painful as a child to learn that athletic competence is not my life's work. Very painful as a youth to learn that concert pianism is not my life's work. Long and painful to learn after youth that my burdensome intellect does not belong in the schools.
So here I run in my groove, not always comfortable, not always right, and yet the groove seems to fit. People look at me, hear me, and say I have the look and the voice of a chaplain. There was a time when I would have taken offense at this. Nowadays I am glad to let go of imposture, the strain of portraying what I am not. Though even this rut might finally prove false, I have seen many things I am not, and I'm not going back.
But this is just my trek, and yours is for you to tell. So far I have described the interior voyage, the delving into unknown parts of the heart to discover what we must become. Discovery means to remove the cover. Revelation is to re-veal, taking down the veil of the temple. You find only what was always there.
And now you must return. This is the exterior voyage, the resumption of life that awaits when you return from the deep to the surface, with precious cargo. If you can't disembark with it, your Precious will rot in your hold. It must be for someone, or you'll never have enough of it. You'll only have enough if you give it away.
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