“Life is an Overcoming”

“Life is an overcoming,” said Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra 

I was sitting at one end of the sofa. My very crippled and messed up dad on the other. I was “dad” sitting. He was watching TV and occasionally suffering a leg spasm. I was in high school, going through my sophisticated phase and reading “forbidden” or questionable books. Nietzsche was questionable to my teacher, Miss Cohen for reasons that I think are now obvious. We talked about the book and in it, she explained, came Hitler’s idea of the ‘Übermensch’.

That isn’t what I found at all.

From the first chapter, it’s clear that he has a different view of things, a human centered view. One of the first things he says as he prepares to walk down to the village from the mountain is directed at the sun, “Oh great star, what would you be if not for those for whom you shine?”

And down he comes.

Still no “Übermensch.” I found all kinds of ordinary, simple people and a half-mad oracle. I got the impression that the oracle was a little out of his mind, still, he brought a message of stoicism and hope to the village people (YMCA!) who were struggling with misery and darkness that was, in Zarathustra’s mind, mainly in their heads.

“You tell me your lives are hard to bear, but if it were otherwise, how would you have your pride in the morning and your resignation in the afternoon?”

My dad had a more severe spasm and nearly slid off the sofa. I was there to catch him. He motioned to his urinal. I said, “No problem, dad.”

He said, “Errrrwwa errr eading?”

I said, “Thus Spake Zarthustra,” handing him his urinal.

“Werrr ooo ike it?”

“So far.”

My dad finished. I took the urinal to the bathroom, flushed the contents, rinsed it out in the tub. Back in the living room, “Listen to this, dad. It’s beautiful.”

“K.”

I read the beginning, the prologue.

WHEN Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake

of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed, and rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went be- fore the sun, and spoke to it thus:

You great star! What would your happiness be, had you not those for whom you shine?

For ten years have you climbed here to my cave: you would have wearied of your light and of the journey, had it not been for me, my eagle, and my serpent.

But we waited for you every morning, took from you your overflow, and blessed you for it.

Behold. I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that has gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it.

I would rather give away and distribute, until the wise among men once more find joy in their folly, and the poor in their riches.

Therefore must I descend into the deep: as you do in the evening, when you go behind the sea, and give light also to the underworld, you ex- uberant star!

Like you I have to go down, as men say, to whom I shall descend.

Bless me, then, you tranquil eye, that can look on even the greatest happiness without envy!

“Isn’t that beautiful, Dad?”

“Es.

“That’s just the beginning!”

“Ayyyknow.”

I loved Zarathustra. I knew nothing about who or what he was supposed to have been, but I liked the idea of his going off by himself to figure out his right relation to the universe. The message of life being “an overcoming” really struck home for me given the situation we — my family — were all living at the time.

As for Hitler, all I could guess  was that he didn’t really understand it. I suggested this to my English teacher, Miss Cohen, and she nodded. “Possibly that’s true, Martha,” she said. “But what horror that misunderstanding unleashed.”

***

So this morning I revisited ZarathustraIt’s still beautiful.

You tell me, “Life is hard to bear.” But for what purpose should you have your pride in the morning and your resignation in the evening?

Life is hard to bear: but do not affect to be so delicate! We are all of us fine beasts of burden, male and female asses.

What have we in common with the rose-bud, which trembles because a drop of dew has formed upon it?

It is true we love life; not because we are used to life, but because we are used to loving.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/overcome/

Goin’ to School

My little brother looks so bewildered in this photo, and sleepy. After our dad immortalized this moment, we headed out the back gate, across the Gustavson’s yard (otherwise we’d have had to walk on a busy street, a REALLY busy street with streetcars running on it) and on our way to school. Englewood, Colorado. 1958.

It was three blocks.

Of course I had no idea that it was also the first day of ten years of walking to school with my brother. 🙂

There were the days in Montana when we were staying with my aunt and uncle and Kirk started first grade. In Montana, their first grade was Kindergarten the first four months and first grade the second, so effectively Kirk went to Kindergarten twice. My mom always believed that’s why he never got the idea that you go to school to learn, not to play. But…

My aunt and uncle (and cousins) had four steers in the pasture. They were going to sell the steers that fall. I’m glad I did not have a perfect understanding of that because to me they were pets. Bret, Bart, Hobie and Chester I thought were their names. They were really Bret, Bart, Hobart and Festus or something, named after TV westerns I was too little to stay up and watch.

One of the main crops in that part of Montana in the 1950s was sugar beets. Trucks loaded with sugar beets roared down Central Avenue (which we had to walk beside AND cross) spilling beets along the way. “Pick up as many beets as you can when you come home, kids,” said my uncle. “We can feed them to the cows.”

Kirk and I were little kids, and we couldn’t carry a lot, but we usually came home laden with sugar beets. We got to put them in the cowshed with the other beets we were picking up from the railroad tracks on weekends when we all went out in my uncle’s truck and drove along the frontage road getting the beets that had fallen off the train.

In other walks to school, in Nebraska, we crossed a football field that was on one of the higher hills in our town beside the Missouri River. This place was amazing. Crossing the field one day I found a cecropia moth. In winter, the wind blew hard across the top and drifts could be higher than either of us were tall. Sometimes they piled up against the snow fences placed at either end of the football field and Kirk and I would climb up the crusted snow and jump down five feet to the foot of snow below. Other times the snow came at us (the walk home was straight north) like stars and spaceships. The mufflers my mom knit for us were usually crusted with ice by the time we got home on a winter day.

I liked walking to school with Kirk. I liked Kirk. I have a lot of stories like these — priceless to me, evoked by a photograph.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/priceless/

Time Passages

“OK, let’s synchronize our watches.”

We look down at our left wrists and, with our right hands, make small movements, adjusting our imaginary watches.

“O400, we attack.” We tip-toe to the bushes — mostly honeysuckle — and look through the branches across the next yard at the enemy. They are also synchronizing THEIR watches. We get down on the ground, crawl on all fours to the fort that is the newly installed central air-conditioner.

“Debbie! Junior! Come in here now! I told you to wash the dishes before you went out to play and those dishes are still on the table!”

We stand up. Debbie and Junior call out from their yard, “We’ll be right back!” My brother and I sit down on the central air-conditioner unit to wait.

Dad yells from the house, “How many times do I have to tell you not to sit on that goddamned thing!” We jump off.

In this the twilight moment between summer and fall, the sun seems to hurry toward the end of the day. Just a month ago we’d have had HOURS left to play, but now our dad’s shrill whistle summons us inside before Debbie and Junior have finished the dishes.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/synchronize/

Sibling Rivalry

I loved my brother and respected his talents. But…of all the rocks I’ve painted, people like the one with his cartoon character on it most. It’s almost as if he’s back. I hear our art teacher saying to me, “Why are you always hanging around the art room? You don’t have any talent.”

That is not true.

My mom, “You’re the writer, Kirk’s the artist.” That was that, pure and simple. My reaction against this was instantaneous and visceral. Art is not just ONE thing.

For the most part — between us — my brother and I didn’t have any issues over this. Our work was very different AND different people liked his work from those who liked mine. My brother liked my work. In fact, he was my biggest cheerleader — up to a point.

When my work sold, paintings sold, he wasn’t too happy. He should have been since he was always hitting me up for money, but… He got over it. “You’re an abstract expressionist,” he said.

I had to look that up.

“The thing about your paintings, Martha Ann, is they’re not on the public pulse.” That was true.

I have never had any interest in drawing comic strips. I don’t enjoy them very much and to draw the same thing over and over again in order to advance a narrative (that’s the new way to say “tell a story”) seemed tedious. Why not just write the damned thing? But my brother’s comics were hilarious. I have a decent sense of humor it’s more situational than it is a world view.

Still, my brother wanted to do conventional paintings and he did some. I felt his imagination kind of died in that kind of work, but he was hoping to sell them for big bucks.

That led my grandma to say that which was never to be spoken, “Kirk’s a cartoonist. I think Martha Ann is the fine artist in the family.”

My mother’s face paled. Kirk’s reddened. I was pleased, but I looked down at the ground. The taboo had been broken.

Between us it was really not about whose art was better. I helped my brother paint cells for the animated cartoon and he taught me to make paper and sharpen my linoleum carving tools. Really that’s the point. I painted this rock so that Leafy could wander around Colorado Springs (where my brother lived most of the time).

 

He'll wander around Colorado Springs on this painted rock. :)

Leafy Wanders, my brother’s cartoon alter-ego.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/visceral/

My Pardner

“This is my partner, Meg.”

I remember that transition. It was weird. You had to call your unmarried live-in main-squeeze SOMETHING and “partner” was the word that seemed to have the most caché. It wasn’t sexist or diminishing like “girlfriend” or “boyfriend.” Meg would always be willowy and faux-independent. She would cling to Larry’s arm more tightly than would a wife, but they were in an open relationship.

I always thought Larry was in an open relationship. Meg was probably hoping to get married, but I was probably wrong.

In my life, the word “pardner” was nicer. It was a word my Uncle Hank would say to me to get me away from the noise of the family, whatever noise — my mom and her sisters, my cousins, my brother, whatever was going on that made me unhappy. “C’mon pardner, I have a job for you,” and I would follow him. Sometimes we’d go to the garage and work on a car. Sometimes we’d go to the shop and he’d show me his latest saw or the boxes he was making. Sometimes we’d just take a slow walk to the back 40 and back to the house.

When I was grown up, sometimes it was my idea. “You wanna’ go for a ride out west of town in Little Red?” (the name of his old Mitsubishi small pickup. The first time I proposed this — and we went — he said, “Well by golly, Martha Ann, you can drive a stick.”

“You wanna’ go get coffee at McDonalds?” (He liked that.) “You want to go shopping for Jo’s Christmas present?” (That was a howl for both of us.)

Pardnership is knowing your pal well enough to know when they need to escape, and good pardnerships are rare. I miss my pardner very much.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/partner/

It’s not Just Picnics and Turkey

I’m not big on traditions. I don’t even like them very much. One reason is that I live a solitary life and most of the traditions in a culture involve the tribe (the family). I have no family. I’m not going to “gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing” and carve up a turkey on Thanksgiving. I’m not going to have a big family cookout on Memorial day.

Truth be told, when I was in a situation where these things were part of my life, I hated them. I think a lot of people do. Beyond what people have told me about their holiday experiences (shudder), there are many films made about family meltdowns at traditional holidays. “Let’s bring a bunch of people together who have NO affiliation beyond childhood history and blood and see what happens!”

But… None of this means I cannot be touched by traditions.

Though I don’t have much in the way of family, I do have a “family” though I’m not related to them by blood. One “branch” of this family is my stepson, his wife and their kids.

Long, long ago in a stone cottage in far away Southern California, it was Christmas Eve. S, the German wife of my stepson, B, had decided to make German Christmas Eve dinner because she was homesick for German traditions. She also loves me (it’s mutual) and as they had no other family pressures for that day (Mother-in-Law) they decided to bring Christmas Eve up the road to me. I was then living in the Cuyamaca Mountains about 30 miles east of San Diego.

I did not know what to expect, but I was definitely open to it. Many unexpected and superlatively cool things have happened to me on Christmas Eve.

They arrived with baskets and boxes and bags of food and — what? Presents??? They put the presents under my tiny (12 inch) living Christmas tree (that means they put the presents on the dining room table). S immediately set about organizing things (she is German). I said, “Why don’t we take a hike before dinner?” I had mentioned decorating a pine tree up in the forest in the nearby mountains on Christmas Eve. This was interpreted as putting birdseed on a pine tree in the mountains and S had brought bird treats. I also knew (and they didn’t) that up there in the higher mountains was…

Snow.

My gift to S was a white Christmas.

We got in my car with Dusty T. Dog and headed to the Laguna Mountains. S couldn’t believe what she saw — a foot and more of snow on the ground. We got out and took a snowy walk. We hung a bird seed bell and suet rack on a tree, took some photos, and headed back for dinner.

Dinner was great, and after cleaning up we sat around in the living room and exchanged gifts.

Exchanging gifts on Christmas Eve is the tradition in my family. As I said, most of my family is dead. It’s a custom I enjoyed as a little kid with a huge extended family and in my own little family with my mom, dad and brother. There came a point in the Great Vanishing when it stopped. I think that was about 2004. I didn’t notice because it didn’t stop right on Christmas Eve, but choices I made in my life and events in my life, meant I wasn’t going ‘home’ to Montana (where the remainder of my family lives) for Christmas. Meanwhile, things were changing up there, too. I never thought about it. Never thought, “Well that’s it for the Christmas Eve exchange of gifts with my family. It was good while it lasted.”

So there we were, S, B and I opening gifts together on Christmas Eve in my little stone cottage in Southern California. The fire in the wood stove kept us comfy and warm. I felt deeply happy, connected, to all the years of tradition, my family, my grandma, all of them, that I love so much.

And that, folks, is the magic of tradition.

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https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/traditional/

Cleaned Out

I didn’t expect it to be fun. I even expected it to be painful sometimes, going through all the boxes of my parents’ lives. Most of the time I just went out to the garage, filled up the trash can and then put everything back. When the trash can was empty again, I attacked another box or two. Some boxes I hauled unopened to the thrift store when I knew what was in them and knew I didn’t want them — my mom’s crystal, my aunt Martha’s fancy clock.

It’s funny that the last box held my own past. Fitting and kind of cosmic, sort of saying, “OK, MAK, deal with your own life now.”

I lost my dad when I was 20. He was my best friend, my confidant, my teacher, my hero. He was funny and iconoclastic, brilliant, but, above all, brave. He had Multiple Sclerosis back in the day before Interferon and the other drugs that exist now, before they knew anything about autoimmune diseases, maybe before the term even existed. I was there for him, beside him and with him through all of it. When he died, I wasn’t really allowed to mourn. My mom was an extremely envious and possessive woman, very jealous of my relationship with my dad. My Aunt Jo told me this and that just corroborated what I already sensed, especially when my mom said, “Shut up. He was your dad, but he was MY husband.”

A lot of feelings got stuffed down, and I wrestled on my own to understand what had happened to my life. Thankfully I had friends and other family who were by my side and on my side as I went through it.

There is something, though. I wish I could have known him once I had grown up as I have some other members of my family. As I’ve gone through all these things, things that I did not myself pack or even know about, I’ve seen a little bit of my dad through my very adult eyes.

One of my dad’s most personal artifacts was in the second to last box, his wallet. Inside were the usual things — pictures of my brother and me as newborns, a photo of his parents in their 40s, a photo of my mom holding me when I was 1, identification for the government places where he worked, even his army discharge papers and a copy of his birth certificate. But this…

Dad's wallet

It took me a little while to figure it out. Then I realized it was my dad’s way of reminding himself that no matter what a crappy hand he’d been dealt, he wasn’t going to whine about it. He didn’t, either. Toward the end, he got very frustrated and angry sometimes, raging over the question of continuing to be alive when his abilities had been abridged dramatically, but he never — that I remember — played violin music.

I was not really prepared for the intensity of my reaction to these artifacts. Last night, it had all so penetrated my mind, that when I saw a friend outside when I began my walk with the dogs, and invited her along, I said, “The light on the Beartooths is beautiful in the evenings, I mean the Sangres. I’m in Montana in my mind, I guess.” I felt awkward and disoriented for a moment.

All today I’ve felt exhausted and sad. I don’t think that’s so strange. I’m glad I’m finished with this, I’m glad I did it, it was the right thing to do, but most of all, I’m most happy that I will never have to do it again. All that’s left is one last trip to Montana.

Radio Days

Sunday mornings I listen to the RADIO. Its signals are no longer radiated through the atmosphere, but come through the miracle of cable Wi-Fi. It’s a station in San Diego. 94/9. The DJ, Steve West, is a guy I listened to back in the day, the 80s when the alternative station was 91X. Yes folks, it’s an oldies show called Legends of Alternative. Steve West plays alternative and punk, sometimes playing songs I request (through the miracle of Facebook). I’m pretty sure his favorite band is The Cure. If it hadn’t been for his radio show, which was always on when I was driving home from school around 1 or 2 pm, I would  not have heard many of the songs that are my life’s soundtrack, such as “Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush and “Holiday in Cambodia” by Dead Kennedys.

I grew up with the radio. My dad was a radio man when he was in the army. Having failed to ship out twice with his outfit(s), he ended up out in the California desert with the Army Corps of Engineers. The Army finally sent him to school, and he was trained to be, as he described it, “a radio man.” He told me the whole story, but long before I was old enough to have the context points that would help it stick in my memory.

When I was growing up, our basement had lots of cool WW II tech stuff in it — hand-cranked generators, telegraph buttons (?), field phones (my brother and I LOVED playing with those), and an assortment of various strange radios. My dad had been a HAM radio operator while he was in college in Montana, so there was all that radio equipment, too. I thought of a radio as a box with sound coming out of it; for my dad a radio was a platform with tubes, wires, coils and antennae.

When I was very small, my dad worked for the University of Denver. Imagine how much fun this must have been. He shot up rockets carrying weather balloons dangling radio transmitters into the atmosphere to “find” radio waves emitted by, I’m pretty sure, the bomb that had been tested at Alamogordo, NM.

The most spectacular radio in our lives was his Zenith Trans-Oceanic. Once he and I (I was 10 or 11) had built his office in one corner of the basement, had stained the pine bookshelves mahogany (brown), put all the books away, set up a small sofa, put in his desk, arranged his things, we were ready for the ceremony of, “C’mon MAK. Let’s see if we can listen to Russia.” Usually we just got Juarez. “C’mon, MAK. We can practice our Spanish.”

I couldn’t choose between my favorite radio songs for this post, so here are my top three.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/radiate/

Bricks and Mortar

My dad was a brilliant man who died young, but not before he achieved some remarkable things, and not just me ( ha ha ). He was one of the scientists who collaborated on a super-secret government computer code during the Cold War, JOVIAL. The name — an acronym for “Jules Own Version of the International Algebraic Language.“– (IMO) reflects the wry, dark sense of humor of guys who had lived through the Great Depression and survived WW II (a good example of this is Dr. Strangelove). My dad was VERY funny in that style and, as I grew up, I thought everyone appreciated it. OH WELL.

This morning, researching the computer language, the first sentence I came upon was, “Jovial is essentially a dead language.” That is true in so many ways, but I don’t want to digress.

In going through box after box of family photos, I found some from the time we lived in the first home my parents owned, a little post-WWII tract house in Englewood, CO. There were — as was the style and necessity at the time — street after street of little houses, 900 – 1000 square foot homes, usually 3 bedrooms and a bathroom, built to accommodate the Baby Boom. I have played several iterations of SimCity, and, seriously, that’s what a 1950’s neighborhood looks like from above.


However anonymous the neighborhoods, or identical the houses, no two families are alike. As soon as the people moved in, they began to make the houses theirs. My dad did, too.

My grandfather was a building contractor and my dad liked working for him. He liked laying tile, building things with bricks, putting up partitions. As my life with my dad proceeded, we both spent a lot of time in the basement of our future homes (our first home didn’t have a basement) building stuff, usually bookcases. Once my dad told me that if he hadn’t met my mom, he wouldn’t have become a mathematician, gotten a masters degree or any of that. “I was happy laying tile, MAK. But thank God your mother came along and talked me into getting an education.” He had many good reasons for feeling this way, notably, that when he was 27 it became apparent he had Multiple Sclerosis. He was ever-after grateful that he didn’t have to rely on his physical abilities to earn a living for his family.

My dad’s project on his first home was a grill. Here’s a picture of my mom standing beside the grill, probably 1955.

Mom and grill 1250 E Bates Pkwy

And here’s the grill as it looked in 2014, the last time the house was sold. It’s clearly marketed as a focal point of the backyard. From the smoke stains on the blond brick, it looks like the grill has been used a lot. My dad designed it well.

One of the BIG EVENTS of this backyard of my childhood was company (by dad’s boss, for example), a cloth spread on the picnic table (also built by my dad, the kind you find in park service picnic spots), T-bone steaks and corn on the cob cooked over an applewood fire. Why all that was so great I did not know, but for my folks it was a very big deal. I think for my brother and me, the big deal was sherbert at the end.

grill

I am sure only a few people remember JOVIAL. The events of the Vietnam war — with which my dad was involved as a war-gamer and adviser to the Pentagon — will be debated as long as people remember it. But this grill has stood for 62 years in this little backyard in Englewood, Colorado, and though no one who lives there, and enjoys cooking on this grill, will know who built it or anything about the lives of the people in the little family who first owned the house, I do. 🙂

***

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/collaboration/

I See Dead People

The task I set myself is — I find — a rather melancholy one. I didn’t know it would be. All I set out to do was clear out stuff from the garage that I don’t need and that no one else (I know) will need.

The last box of “memories” has been the best and the hardest. During the time before my mom was completely awash in bitterness, she made two photo albums. One photos of her side of my family and the other of my dad’s side of my family. She was interested in genealogy as well and had in mind that I and whoever came after me would see how things changed over time. She never imagined anything like Ancestry.com or taking photos of photos with a cell phone and uploading them so that anyone who’s interested can see.

I have been doing the 2017 version of what my mom did in the 1980s. It is all online now so that the great-grandchildren of my aunts and uncles can see the family.

There was an old log and sod cabin on the plains not far from Billings, Montana, that we used to drive out to sometimes when I was up visiting family. It was always called, “The house where Pat was born.” Pat was the second oldest daughter in the family of 7 girls and 3 boys.

Today, as I looked at these photos, I realized that most of the kids were born “in the house where Pat was borne,” not just Pat. Pat was ashamed of being born in so poor a place, and so they teased her. The only thing worse than being born into poverty was being ashamed of who you are. “You’re as good as the best, and better than the best,” was one of my grandfather’s philosophical tenets. And so my aunt was shamed by her sisters for her shame. “Be proud of who you are and where you came from!”

My mom is in the first three pictures. In the first two, she is the youngest kid. In the third she stands in front of my grandmother, between the littlest one and the one older sister who never seemed to feel comfortable on the earth. My grandfather — who regarded himself as a philosopher — poses as one. My grandma looks tired with the sun in her eyes. One uncle is missing, the other — who was a cowboy and worked on wheat ranches — stands in front of his own car. Once the older kids grew up, moved out and got jobs, life improved for everyone.

My grandmother made all their clothes, the dishcloths, dishtowels, sheets, pillow cases, rugs, quilts and pillows herself. She drove the wagon that was the school bus on weekdays and the church bus on Sundays. She took care of the chickens and other fowl. Grew food in her garden and “put it up” for the winter.  She milked the cows and made butter and cheese. I can see why farm families need to be large. Sure they have to find a way to feed all those kids, but the man power is important, too. The view I’ve come to about the philosopher is that he didn’t do much, but he was interesting. I don’t know very much about him. Those to whom I was closest did not have much to say. He was already in his 50s when my mom was born and it could be in his younger years he was not so much a philosopher as he was a farmer. He ran for political office in Iowa some years before the move to Montana.

Obviously their life was hard even before the Great Depression. My mother used to go on and on about the hardness of their lives until it was beyond bearing and I could no longer listen. It seemed that the difficulty of her life (their lives) was beyond the difficulty of anyone’s life ever before or after.

I’m done with this task now. I don’t ever want to do it again. It may have been a mistake to go through that stuff. If I had just left it until I died, someone who didn’t care would not even have looked at it. But if I hadn’t done this, I would not have found out some things I am glad to know, and I would not have found a couple of treasures that were tucked away for me to find.

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The family around 1924

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The family around 1928 (with an extra little girl) and one boy missing

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Most of the grandchildren in 1956 (there would be more) on my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary