Sunday, September 26, 2010

Responding to "Living In Sin" by Adrienne Rich.

Living in Sin
She had thought the studio would keep itself;
no dust upon the furniture of love.
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
the panes relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
had risen at his urging.
Not that at five each separate stair would writhe
under the milkman's tramp; that morning light
so coldly would delineate the scraps
of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
that on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own---
envoy from some village in the moldings . . .
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;
while she, jeered by the minor demons,
pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
a towel to dust the table-top,
and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.
By evening she was back in love again,
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.

by Adrienne Rich (1955)

The Inevitable Burden of Dreaming of a Better World
by Fred Dodsworth (2010)

In Mid 20th Century America, the opportunities Adrienne Rich had to exercise her intellectual and creative talents were claustrophobically constrained. While her husband pursued an academic career at a prestigious institution, Rich’s options were restricted to the domestic: “Kinder, Küche, and Kirche.”* Poetry afforded her the opportunity to plunder life for images, situations and feelings she used to speak strongly and aesthetically to her concerns. Written in one long stanza divided into seven vignettes, this poem uses eroticized imagery juxtaposed with crude descriptions and subtle religious references to explore what it meant to be a woman. “Living in Sin” contrasts the idyllic fantasy of a romantic relationship with the harsh reality of a sidelined, disempowered woman and insists we look beneath the molding, to confront the grimy, vermin-infested culture that restricts women.

“She had thought the studio would keep itself/no dust upon the furniture of love,” we’re told in the first line, identifying the poem’s narrator: woman, individual and collectively; tone: disappointed; and condition: dirty and oppressed. These remain consistent throughout the work and contrast with the poem’s persistent romantic/erotic charge. Strong sibilance and long E-sounds sing us into the text while weak implicatures tell us to “study” the poem and recognize the conflict between erotic impulse and women’s restricted roles. The dusty “furniture of love” foreshadows estrangement and the alliterative “half heresy” and the title; “Living in Sin,” encourage the reader to consider the influence of traditional religious values. Last Rich draws attention to the dirty panes and noisy taps. Symbolically the plaintive tone of the plumbing references woman’s complaints with her plight and trouble, out of sight in this ostensibly idyllic scene. Similarly, dirty windows suggest visible signs of distress in plain sight while allowing Rich to neatly use the homonym “panes” to suggest her suffering while reinforcing the conflict over “women’s work.”

Rich increases the erotic charge in the second vignette and set us up for the social/ sexual conflict of the milkman in the third. Continuing the playful alliterative P sounds started with “panes,” the poet presents a pear — symbol of woman’s sexual availability — and a piano. She reinforces this sexualized imagery with a cat and the alliterative moaning sound of “amusing mouse,” more symbols of female sexuality. Calling the mouse “picturesque” continues the alliterative P while referencing the socio-cultural meme which encourages women to be ‘picture pretty” sexual objects. Making the cat and mouse respond to “his urgings,” the author crafts lustful imagery that is immediately reactive to the masculine presence. She shatters this erotic reverie with the entrance of an ambiguous second male, the milkman with the sonically rapidly moving: “Not that at five each separate stair would writhe/under the milkman’s tramp.” The milkman is a complex figure because his entrance at five signals the new day and its social responsibilities more than his erotic possibilities while deliberately evoking the cliché of milkmen as sexual partners. Such word choices as “writhe/under,” in which “writhe” is stressed by “five,” and the carefully coupled “milkman’s tramp” allow us to question Rich’s intention.** Is she sabotaging the sexual primacy of her lover/husband?† Is she alluding to lustful feelings toward another? The poem does not tell us but the resonant inference allows us to wonder. Blocking the milkman’s entrance with a semicolon, Rich darkens the tone of this third vignette by using the brightness of the “morning’s light” to coldly “delineate the scraps/of last night’s cheese and three sepulchral bottles.” The feast of the night before confronts the morning after and the death of love. The three gravestone-like bottles suggest the three crosses of Calvary Hill, which overlaid Aphrodite’s Temple of Love. Modern Christian values force “her,” a priestess in Aphrodite’s temple, to abandon egalitarian hierogamy and become a janitor. Her failure is witnessed by “a pair of beetle-eyes.” The disturbing image of a beetle standing amongst the saucers moves the poem into the kitchen and the fourth vignette.

The following powerful tableaux symbolically depict “woman’s” degraded social status. The kitchen and saucers serve metonymical for the distaff world, in this case polluted by the foulness of a beetle. Worse, it is not a singular beetle but “an envoy from some village in the moldings” with its eyes fixed unto “her own,” representing the collective judgment of the other, all who would see and judge woman for household disarray, including the insect infestation itself. As woman she’s accountable without regard to her other obligations, dreams or desires. He is not. This is most powerfully exemplified in the following:
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes.

By devoting four lines to his desultory response Rich gives great weight to “his” lack of remedial action. Whereas she must confront the dishabille of their shared home and the judgment of the studio’s insect colony, he passes judgment upon her. Up until this point his only action has been to urge on the cat and mouse, with all the inherently explicit sexual connotations that image provoked. Now he yawns. Worse, “he… sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard/declared it out of tune.” The piano becomes a stand in for “her” and she has been found wanting or “out of tune.” His dismissal is then accentuated by gazing into the mirror and shrugging. These are the physical actions of a man who doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter that in the real world we all yawn and shrug or belch and fart. In this context his yawn and shrug say she is inconsequential. Then he “rubbed at his beard.” In addition to stressing his maleness, “to beard” someone is to confront them in their territory, to insult them tells us. In the fourth vignette she is confronted in her symbolic territory, the kitchen, in the fifth she is insulted and dismissed. Rich closes this scene with abandonment as he “went out for cigarettes.”

As this emotionally devastating image of chastisement resonates, the poet forces us to acknowledge the many forces brought to bear to insure female compliance. Metaphorically the jeering “minor demons” in the penultimate vignette echo the “village in the moldings” in the fourth, and represent every woman’s internal self-criticism plus the social pressures compelling women to succumb to the distaff realm. At the same time “minor demons” reference religion’s role in forcing women into this compromise. To fail to acquiesce to her lot in life, to a life of subordination and obedience to her husband, is to dispute God’s Plan, a sin.

The final two scenes return us to a world where women acquiesce to their “obligations” and love their men, but there is trouble in Paradise. In the penultimate vignette the protagonist falls to task, making beds, dusting tables, and boiling coffee, all the while expressing implicit resistance with an erotic subtext. She does not just make the bed, “she pulls back the sheets” to reveal what has been hidden, encouraging us to examine the pathology that links Eros and “Cleanliness, which is next to Godliness.” Similarly the coffee is made, but “boil(s) over on the stove,” the stove metonymically representing woman, her sexuality, even her genitalia.†† She is coming to a boil and spilling out everywhere. Sonically the poem speeds up with short words utilizing sibilance and brisk t-sounds and spondees “table-top” and “coffee-pot” to further accelerate the poem while again tying domestic obligations to sexuality. Rich resolves the final vignette with a return to love but tempered. “By evening she was back in love again, though not so wholly.” This rich homonymic word choice references a lack of wholeness, the incompleteness of the profoundly constricted female experience, and the disconnect between holy sexuality and oppressive gender restrictions. Love is under siege. Now she “feel(s) the daylight coming,” the ominous image of “a relentless milkman up the stairs” suggests stern consequences are coming as well.

The world has changed dramatically in the 55 years since “Living in Sin” was published. After the 1960s “Women’s Movement,” the distaff half now dominates in colleges and the workforce, and every day more and more women hold the highest reins of power from politics to business. This is true in fields as diverse as journalism and medicine. That said men and women today are as full of “Strum und Drang” around “Women’s Roles” and sexuality as they have been at any time in recent history. National figures like Carly Fiornia make catty comments about her opponents hairstyle’s, national journalists discuss Hillary Clinton’s clothing choices, and men wonder why women aren’t more sexually aggressive (when they’re not “hysterical” about modern woman’s sexually aggressivity), and the “Church” is as eager as ever to weigh in on women’s roles.††† Perhaps the biggest change is that as women have moved into every higher positions of authority they have become women’s most ardent critics. The war on women is no longer man’s alone, now women have taken up arms to restrict women’s freedoms, too.

*Kinder, Küche, and Kirche, “Children, Kitchen and Church,” a phrased widely and dismissively used to indicate the distaff realm.

**While one could argue that the phrase milkman’s tramp is simply referring to the sound the milkman makes walking up the stairs in the mid 1950s, the time of this poem, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald revitalized a hit song that had been repeatedly popular since the 1930s with their version of the “The Lady Is A Tramp.”

† The reader is allowed to assume the primary persona is the poet. Rich was married with child in 1955 when this poem was written.

†† By example, the common phrase indicating pregnancy: “She has a bun in the oven.”

††† See “The Danvers Statement” by The (Baptist) Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: Proclaiming God’s Glorious Design for Men & Women, or the Catholic Church’s annual denunciations of birth control, or the Taliban’s crimes against women for just a few of the many, many examples.

© Fred Dodsworth. September 26, 2010

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Deja Vu all over again.

Just before the 2004 elections I interviewed Congressman George Miller (D-California, 7th Congressional District). Depressingly, the conversation we had then is as timely and relevant today as it was then.

Congressman George Miller: All right, all right. The battle never ends (sighs).
Dodsworth: No it doesn't. That's probably a great way to start. The battle never ends. Both on a state level and a national level our country is facing many crisises. What keeps you up at night? What makes it hard to sleep?
Congressman Miller: What keeps me up at night? Oh, hell. There's just… Nothing.

Dodsworth: Nothing?
Congressman Miller: What generally keeps me up at night is the anticipation of what has to be done. You know, just the volume of work and things that have to be accomplished. All of which are part of those things, whether it's trying to review and figure out what the hell is actually going on in Iraq. Or what's happening in my jurisdictions, and, and what's happening with people's unemployment benefits. Are they going to be cut off? Are they going to be given an extension or not. How do we re-think our manufacturing base. How do we re-think federal investments in advanced research and development …to obesity in school children to… you know.

I mean one of the good things about this job is that there's always something. (He chuckles ruefully.) You know this is not a job where today is like yesterday or tomorrow will be like today. But it weighs on you. It weighs on you. And right now, for a long time, we've seen a fairly sluggish economy, a lot of people unemployed.
You see young kids losing their life in Iraq. There's a lot of… things that… that you know that… Things that could have maybe been done differently that would have protected some of those kids. But the rush to war didn't allow that kind of planning because we were so driven to get in and get Saddam Hussein, without thinking. So we now see more and more… even the Pentagon reports… saying that a lot of these kid's injuries and fatalities could have been avoid if they'd have been properly equipped.
So you think… Jesus… How did that happen? So, it's a mixed bag. It's a very mixed bag. There's not a problem that beats down on you in this business.

I take this job very seriously. I think of this as … I've been given one of the great privileges in our country — to participate. But there's a constant sense of responsibility, if you're going to do this job right. So I'm a good sleeper (laughs) but I also keep a note pad by my bed because I do wake up and think, 'oh, geeze! (he laughs comfortably). So it's, it's also an energy source because you know that you've been given the chance to contribute. You've been given the chance to participate in the governing of the country and so… there are things you've just got to do because they've got to get done.

Dodsworth: The GAO announced, a couple of days ago, that between 1996 and 2000, 61 percent of all major American corporations paid no income taxes.
Congressman Miller: (excited) I didn't see that story but we know that we know that the percentage of total taxes that corporations are paying rapidly decreasing.

Dodsworth: In 1960, twenty percent of all taxes paid, were paid by corporations. Today I think it's around four percent.
Congressman Miller: Um-huh. I don't know if that's a good measure. I don't know if that was the right figure in 1960, or today.

But I think you are getting to a situation where more and more of the responsibility for paying for whatever level of government we have is falling simply on wage earners. Because of the substantial reductions in taxation on dividends, on capital gains, on corporate taxation, a greater and greater percentage is falling on the person who is getting a paycheck week or every two weeks or every month. But they're getting a paycheck and withholding. They're the wage earner.

But those people who have investment income, who have passive income are paying a smaller and smaller percentage.

So here you have this big run up, $200 billion for this war on terrorism, for this war on Iraq, but who's paying for it?

At the beginning of this process, before 9-11, before the war, before Afghanistan, before Iraq, before "Homeland Security," we gave a massive tax cut, essentially to the wealthiest people in this country. Now we have this huge challenge to America, but only the middle-class are paying the bills. There's something wrong with that.
So those figures that you site, I think raise very serious questions about equity, fairness and the people's confidence in our tax code.

You know we have self-compliance. April 15th we mail in our taxes, and everybody does that and there's a sense that… but if you start to lose confidence in that tax system you'll end up like other countries where people say, 'I'm not doing to do this. This is unfair and I'm not going to participate.'
Fairness is something we have to be very, very careful about, in the tax code. And I think that we've gone to the point now, with the recent tax cuts, where fairness is not exactly… (laughter)… how you'd describe the tax code today.

Dodsworth: How would you describe it?
Congressman Miller: Unfair. Unfair and it's one tax code for the wealthiest people in the country and another tax code for middle income and lower income people.

Dodsworth: There seem to be enormous benefits accruing to the wealthiest people and the benefits are being cut at the lowest levels, and at the middle class.
This President came into office with program called, "Leave No Child Behind," and our state governor came into office with his education program, which he promised to stand behind. Yet our governor has cut the guaranteed funds to education, and from what I see, education doesn't seem to be getting funded on a national level, either.

Congressman Miller: Well, the President broke his promise. I was one of the authors of "Leave No Child Behind" and I think it's a very important piece of legislation but it hinges upon states and local school districts having sufficient money to bring about the reforms that are called for in the act, in terms of high standards, of assessments, of a qualified teacher in every classroom. We had long discussions with the President about the real cost of those reforms. We told him the kind of money we thought needed to be spent to bring that about. And he assured us that if we were able to pass those reforms, which I think everybody considered the most significant reforms in 35 years, in the federal role in education, that he would provide the resources. It's a five year bill, he provided the resources for one year and he hasn't provided the resources in the last couple of years. And that's had a serious impact in terms of the opportunities for real reform and for children doing better in their schools.

Dodsworth: Did he lie?
Congressman Miller: Well, when somebody breaks their promise to you, that's what I'd say.

Dodsworth: I'm 53, in my life I've near seen such adversity between the two parties that run this country. Republicans and Democrats. Do you concur with that?
Congressman Miller: Well, I think that most of the evidence suggests the country is fairly polarized. You had a presidential election that was 50-50. The popular vote went to Al Gore, the Supreme Court went for George Bush.

Dodsworth: The U.S. Supreme Court. The Florida Supreme Court did not. And it was on a straight party line vote [for The U.S. Supreme Court].
Congressman Miller: Yes. Most of the data you see today suggests that it's 50-50. Kerry and Bush are essentially tied. And there's a lot of reasons for that. It's clear that the President is a very, very fundamental, bedrock conservative, who really doesn't believe in most governmental services, from protecting the environment to protecting social security or Medicare. He's made it very clear. But there's a like number of people in the country that strongly believe there's a role for government in promoting well-being within our society. That's the struggle you see being played out in the campaign and in the Congress. The President wants to load up the courts with right-wing ideologue judges. And there's a lot of us who feel there should be some balance on the court. And so you have a serious split in the United States Senate. You have a serious split in the House on education, on the environment, on the war in Iraq. On a whole range of issues.

Dodsworth: What can be done? What is that like to work with?
Congressman Miller: Well, that's the nature of democracy. In another system of government I guess you'd just come in and impose your views but that's the struggle of… that's what democracy is about.
This November, either the people will be concerned enough to go out an vote or they won't. We really don't get much voter participation in this country compared to so many other countries. Whether that's because people feel it doesn't make a difference or people feel the country is basically going OK or not remains to be seen but… in democracy you don't get to just end the debate. The debate continues so the struggle continues.

This is now… this polarization has been happening over the last several years. It's very hard to try to… you know, I passed one of the few bi-partisan bills, or two of the biggest bi-partisan bills. One in the area of environmental protection, one in the area of education. But there hasn't been much of that in the Congress.

It's rare. It's harder and harder. Tom Delay really doesn't want… the Republican leader in the House really doesn't want to work with Democrats. He wants to do it his way and he waits until he can get enough Republican votes, and then (he) passes it. And he doesn't want debate. He doesn't allow debate. He doesn't allow amendments. He doesn't allow public hearings on those efforts. And so there really is a desire… he said he really is looking for one-party government! He'd like to crush the Democrats so he could just do it his way with even less public input or debate or what have you. But that's really not the tradition or history of our country.

It's supposed to be a public process … how you make the laws and govern this country. You're supposed to have the debates and protect the rights of the minority in the government so they can put forth a view that may be different than the majority. But then you vote and that's fine. You don't get to win every vote or lose every vote. Whatever. But that's not what's happening here. They're really trying to take over the government, for one party, from the White House to the Senate to the Congress.

It's not me who is saying this. People who are Congressional scholars or Presidential scholars are looking at what's going on here and it's pretty clear. But again, that's why we'll have an election in November. That's why you see probably the highest level of energy turning out for the Democratic party, and people opposed to George Bush, that I've seen in decades. That's the process. That's the process.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

America’s Culture Wars Poison the News

On September 4, 2010 San Francisco-based Craigslist, an international computerized listing service, posted a ‘Censored’ banner over its Adult Services section in response to legal actions threatened by 18 state Attorneys General. This Craigslist section typically offered legal sexual services available for a fee. By Monday afternoon, September 6th approximately 1500 articles had been posted on Google News regarding Craigslist’s action. I examined two of these articles for bias. Established women reporters working for national news organizations working from wire copy authored both articles. A direct comparison of these two news stories illustrates the growing problem of the deliberate use of biased news to promote cultural values rather than objectively inform the public.

The MS-NBC story, filed by Athima Chansanchai, focused on legal and Constitutional issues raised by this action, as well as practical business and technical aspects of running Adult Services advertisements. Chansanchai appeared to avoid making personal value judgments about the moral and societal implications of offering legal sexual services for sale. She included the results of a survey of “more than 1,800” members of the Mashable social media site wherein more than 70% of those surveyed objected to the censoring of Craigslist’s Adult Services section and then qualified that by noting that the vast majority of those respondents favored changing the laws to legalize prostitution. Chansanchai also cited several reports appearing in other established reputable publications, including a national article in the New York Times that questioned “the possible free speech ramifications of the decision,” and a local article from the San Francisco Chronicle, quoting a UC Berkeley law professor who said this censorship “would likely result in the takedown of what might otherwise be perfectly legitimate free expression.” Other recognized authorities on issues of protected speech and the particular problems inherent in social media and internet technology were also quoted in Chansanchai’s piece.

In comparison the CNN article, with reporting by Deborah Doft and Nicky Robertson, focused almost exclusively on the salacious ‘immorality’ of sex for sale; and what the reporters implied were the ‘natural’ results of legalize prostitution, including child prostitution, female enslavement, and death. Further calling into question the integrity of their report, they used this news story as an implicit endorsement of the candidacy and ideology of Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who is running for US Senate. Doft/Robertson’s article leaned almost exclusively on commentary from Blumenthal, featured him exclusively in the first half of the article and predominantly in eight out of the article’s 27 paragraphs. Blumenthal was quoted approvingly as announcing that this is a “significant apparent step in the right direction,” and as saying, “these prostitution ads enable human trafficking and assaults on women.” The reporters also quoted him stating that if he was elected to the U.S. Senate he would try to change federal laws to make it easier to prosecute sites like Craigslist.

As a further example of the deliberate bias of the Doft/Robertson article, the reporters distorted a comment from a Craigslist spokesperson to make it appear that the computerized listing service agreed with Mr. Blumenthal’s actions. Doft/Robertson wrote “A Craigslist spokeswoman said at the time that the site agreed with at least some of the letter,” and quoted from a Craigslist press release: “‘We strongly support the attorneys general desire to end trafficking in children and women, through the internet or by any other means,’ said Susan MacTavish.” A more logical interpretation is not that MacTavish is agreeing with Blumenthal’s complaint, she is simply stating that Craigslist is also concerned about the illegal marketing of women and child prostitutes, and supports the legal enforcement of existing laws against such trafficking. Doft/Robertson implied that this was a newsworthy change in Craigslist’s policy, but offered no evidence to substantiate that Craigslist previously held a different opinion. Further the Doft/Robertson article gave very little play to the fact that the company had committed considerable sums of money and energy to ensure that Craigslist isn’t used for illegal purposes (which we learned from the Chansanchai article).

The emotional tone of the Doft/Robertson article was self-congratulatory and judgmental and the reporters used quotes to support their smug perspective. Other than Blumenthal, the reporters only quoted other CNN reporters, including the ironically named Amber Lyon — a typical prostitute-styled nom de guerre — who advertised herself on Craigslist offering illegal sexual services for sale. Their article also quoted several people who were inadequately identified including a prostitute named “Jessica,” and two unnamed and otherwise unidentified “girls” who claimed they were sold for sex on Craigslist. By not adequately identifying their sources Doft/Robertson make it impossible to verify these allegations. By quoting fellow reporters, including one who offered illegal sexual services, the news service became the subject of the story rather than the reporter. To further emotionally load its sensationalistic and sordid tale, Doft/Robertson resurrected Philip Markoff, the now dead serial murderer who targeted at least one of his victims from her Craigslist advertisement. Then the reporters literally ended their tale with a report CNN did two years ago, stating Craigslist had “more than 7,000 ads in a single day. Many offered thinly veiled ‘services’ for anything from $50 for a half-hour to $400 an hour.”

In comparison the Chansanchai article focused on Constitutional, technical and business issues and she did not quote the Connecticut Attorney General running for US Senate. Additionally Chansanchai sought the opinion of several lawyers who specialized in such legal actions, and who disagreed with the legal interpretation offered by the candidate for Senate, and the various state Attorneys General who had joined in his threatened legal action. Ms Chansanchai also garnered the opinions of other media reporters, and she detailed the considerable expense and effort Craigslist has expended in combating illicit and illegal activity in its Adult Services section. While mentioning the Philip Markoff case, she questioned whether the censoring action would be effective at curbing what she referred to as “the world’s oldest profession,” especially in light of the growing market for such services, which she reported were expected to triple in revenues this year over last. Chansanchai noted that such services as Craigslist offered in its ‘Adult Services’ section are currently advertised in other media, including local newspapers, local telephone directories, flyers, post cards and by other internet providers, and she quoted a press release issued by CEO Jim Buckmaster stating that Craigslist’s restrictions on such advertisements “are stricter than those typically used by (The Yellow Pages), newspapers, or any other company that we are aware of.”

In the end, whatever action Craigslist takes, the sexual services on offer will not cease to exist, and will continue to be best legally enforced by local law enforcement and judiciary, reflecting the ideal of ‘local community standards’ incorporated into the American legal system. That said, this distortion of the news reflects an on-going cultural war in which one side desires to restrict legal human sexual behaviors. Driving the restrictive impulse are the moral and religious concerns of that portion of our society, which is at odds with the freedoms guaranteed to all Americans by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and which is adverse to the personal beliefs and interests of another large element of our society. While both sides are reasonably utilizing the judicial and legislative processes to drive the narrative and their agendas, using the news media to distort the issues is a form of corrosive propaganda, which is profoundly destructive to the intended role of the media as objective protector of our democratic institutions and practices.

1) Chansanchai, Athima. (2010, Sept 6). CRAIGSLIST'S 'ADULT SERVICES' DECISION A BLOW TO FREE SPEECH? MSNBC/Tima Media. Web. Retrieved from

2) Doft, Deborah and Nicky Robertson, & CNN Wire Staff. (2010, Sept 5). CRITIC PRAISES CRAIGSLIST MOVE TO CENSOR ADS, CALLS FOR MORE INFO. CNN. Web. Retrieved from

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A Persimmon Tree at Eventide.

I remember planting this tree. The bark was smooth and the trunk slim back then, when my children were still small and my wife and I were not long married. Now the coarse surface of my ever hopeful Hachiya Persimmon is gnarled and rugged, its rough trunk twisted and deformed by my naïve pruning experiments. I call this tree hopeful because I hope to reap its fruit, which is botanically known as Diospyros, literally the ‘Fruit of the Gods’ — although Fruit of the Squirrels is more like it. Every season a scatter of pale green blossoms grace it, most resolving into small hard green fruit as the season progresses. For some reason much of that fruit plunges to the ground long before the summer sun settles its brilliant orange into the soft juicy flesh of this true berry. Still, come Fall, there are usually good numbers of not-yet-orange globes hanging from my tree. As the persimmon’s leaves turn rust red and fall, the tree reveals its true treasure nearly ready for harvest. But most of these riches will go to the backyard squirrels that arduously cart them away before they ripen. I’m lucky if I harvest a half-dozen fruit out this great bounty.

Sitting in my backyard watching the earth nibble on the sun, listening to the hum of my beehive overhead to the north and the gentle clucking of my chickens to the south, it’s hard to accept that these days, my days, are winding down. I’ve never hated Winter. Its cold heart instills no fear in me. I’ve never needed Spring’s optimism and rebirth to warm me up. But now I know the passage of Time, and how brief is our moment in the sun, how transient the juicy wet mouthful of the flesh of fresh ripe fruit, and the promise of persimmons yet to come. That said, this Fall it’s good to be home. A hospital is no place to spend one’s waning days.

Everything changes in a moment. It’s a cliché, but true. One moment she felt a small, insignificant discomfort, the next my wife was surrounded by the immediate urgency of triage – an entire team of nurses and doctors singularly focused on keeping her alive. The intense professional commitment of those green-cloaked masters of the mystery of medicine was both reassuring and frightening. That she might need their undivided attention would have been a terrifying experience, if she had been in any condition to be cognizant of their ministrations. But cleverly they had already administered a simulacrum of morphine into her bloodstream to ensure that her growing awareness of this inconceivable pain was stunted. It wasn’t that she couldn’t feel the pain, it was there like an attentive lover who wouldn’t dare leave her side, but it was obscured in a fog of false memories and misunderstandings. “Where am I?,” she asked. “Why can’t I just go home?”

With her pain, if not abated at least misplaced, it was hard to explain to her why all this medical ritual was necessary. “I don't want to continue to participate in this medical test,” she actually said. She didn’t say: “Have I, through some deviousness, acquiesced to their treachery, now allowing them to perform unimaginable atrocities on my being, or am I still dreaming this?” but it was there in her eyes. My wife of 33 years was in the Emergency Room with a life-threatening condition brought on in a moment without warning. What I called my life was fluttering like a brown tree-dropped leaf lifted out of reach by a late summer gust.

Day slid sloppily into night and back into day again with only the bright lights of a three-ring circus, and lion tamers, and sword swallowers, and giant flaming rings of fire to divide one moment into the next, her circus tent from the one next. It’s 2 a.m. in the I.C.U. Time to light up tonight’s big show with gurneys and bells and beeps and shouts and screams and tubes running anywhere and everywhere. Incomprehensible growls and guttural grunts fill night’s darkest hours, for hours on end. It’s 3 a.m. Wake up, it’s time for your pain-pill. Do you feel any pain? It’s 4 a.m. Here’s a needle, let us jam it straight into your heart or maybe your brain. We will suckle on your fever dreams. It’s 5 a.m. Are you hungry? You can’t eat. Would you like some chips of ice? It’s 6 a.m. Time for Rounds. Mystery performers crowd the carnival, vying for attention, ignoring the dying. Who could know what transpires beneath the flesh in such circumstance? There, just under the skin, that which is most vital lays hidden from view, from knowing.

Was she there one day or one month, or was she even there at all? I could not say and in the end it did not matter. All the sacred ceremonies and magic concoctions were for naught. As it always is, in the end, it is just one person and the void, staring at each other, waiting for the unimaginable. In the end the professionals surrendered their powers, took off their costumes, put aside their potions and magic rattles and waited for whatever came next. In the end, it was time to go home.

Sitting in the eventide underneath my beautiful persimmon tree with its large, hard, shiny leaves of dark green, I listen to the chickens squabble, each testing the temporary supremacy of hierarchy in the henhouse while wild birds twitter and flitter from branch to branch, sneaking to steal such chicken scratch as might allow them to raise just one more fledgling to feather this year. It’s late and soon the moon will lord the night sky but while there’s still some sun left in the day the last flight of bees scurry from flower to flower in a mad dash to collect a little more nectar before they too must surrender to what bees call sleep. Their work was fruitful this year. The persimmons hang heavy and green from my tree. With some luck I might taste this harvest, too. I reach out and take her hand. It is good to be home.

©September 6, 2010 Fred Dodsworth

Si vis pacem, para bellum.

I was named after a dead guy — worse than just dead, he committed suicide. In the early 20th Century Fred Denman, a 50-something artist wacked himself with a gun because his life sucked. I guess. Did I mention that he was in his 50s? Did I mention that I’m in my 50s? I’ve been dreading this decade my whole life.

Frankly I don’t know much more about him than I’ve just written. Odd, isn’t it, that my family would detail to me those salacious specifics and no more. He was my grandmother’s brother, or was he her uncle? I recall my father telling me it was her brother my father and I were named after, but that doesn’t make much sense now. She wasn’t likely to have a brother in his 50s before my father was born. At any rate she must have cared very deeply about old Fred Denman because she name my father after him, and he named me after himself.

Fred means peace. I like to say it’s the oldest hippy name. Peace. Pax. Paz. Pacem. Fred. In Sweden they still use the word Fred for the word peace, but they pronounce it different, like Freed. The word is very ancient and comes from the pre-Germanic Norse language, it’s an old European name not much in favor these days.

My father also was an artist, seems Grandma managed to implant that meme along with the name. That said, my father wasn’t a peaceful man. From the large scar across his forehead, also bequeathed to him by his mother —he was a disobedient child, and she rewarded him with a slap across the head with a fire-poker — his lack of peacefulness predated his battles with war and alcohol.

We had what is today called a dysfunctional family. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the modern term. Shell Shocked is the old term. We called it “Dad’s mad,’ or “Mom’s trying to drive dad crazy.” Usually alcohol was involved. Like an accelerant might be used to make a fire burn more vigorously, alcohol made my family more colorfully and dramatically explosive: children shoved through walls, fists smashed through walls, dishes shattered on foreheads (there seems to be a forehead slapping theme to all of this).

My father’s family wasn’t the only branch of the tree that liked to do battle with Demon Rum. Mom’s family, too, had a proud tradition of alcoholism. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that I have gone a round or two in the ring with booze.

I didn’t name any of my children Fred. It seemed to me that we’d played the peaceful name out. Did I mention that both of my grandfathers at one time were professional boxers and soldiers? Maybe Fred was just meant for violence-balance, a bit of peace to butter the pugilism, a bit of the ying for yang. My first child I named Kendra: One who knows. The second is called Asa: The healer. My last child is named Colin: The cub or the future. I’ve made peace with my past.

©September 6, 2010 Fred Dodsworth