In memoriam

Dusty Davis: 1976 – August 9 2014

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

 I met Dusty in Spring 2001.  He was a student in my English class at Cal Poly, “Ecoliterature: Reading and Writing the Landscape.” Though he looked no older than the others, it was clear from his quiet yet confident demeanor that he was a “mature student.” Our distant but warm friendship began when he took up my weekly invitation to extend our Thursday afternoon class hikes with a sleepout somewhere on Cal Poly Land. We wandered above the railroad tracks and discovered a fawn left sleeping in the tall grass by its mother, a bubbling spring, and a patch of rare Mariposa Lilies.

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Another Thursday we camped above Stenner Canyon and the next morning found our way down Dairy Creek and crossed fences to get back to Poly in time for 9 AM classes. He was wonderful company, easy to talk to, easy to be quiet with, open to adventure.

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At the end of the quarter I asked each student to submit one piece of work they’d completed for inclusion in a class anthology.  I was planning to copy and paste them into a crude Word document and pass out duplicated copies, but Dusty volunteered to do a real graphic layout and then insisted on hand-sewing and binding 40 copies in order to learn and practice those skills. I remember him staying up till the small hours to complete the job, along with Elena whom he’d recruited to help, and the gasps of wonder when these unique artifacts were distributed to his classmates at the final exam.

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Reminders of the “Good Old Days”

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

[Updated June 30 2013]

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Soon after their move to San Luis Obispo in 1989, my parents, Lise and Henry Marx, presented Jan and me with a gift they’d been working on for several years: a collection of German proverbs they had learned from their parents and grandparents.

I remember continually hearing these sayings from my earliest childhood until their final days. Each time one was uttered there was a moment of satisfaction”the speaker pleased to have found a way to make familiar sense out of some new experience and the hearer gratified to grasp the connection.  Growing up as a first generation American, I reacted to these old-world pieties with boredom and embarrassment.

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New Year’s Eve 2012

Friday, December 30th, 2011

The invitation from our esteemed host
Requested that his guests would bring along
Some ceremonious way to make a toast
For this occasion with a poem or song.

Hence, without a moment’s hesitation
I consulted Google for a clue.
It spewed forth many hits for contemplation
Of the old year’s end and welcome of the new.

I found verse by Shakespeare, Ralegh, Clare
Robert Burns and Frost and Service too
All grieving for the loss time makes us bear
All hopeful for what next it brings in view.

There’s little more to say than what they said,
So lets just try to love life, till we’re dead.

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

I began this blog six years ago at the start of a long, gradual splashdown toward full retirement which yesterday concluded.  Larry and I chose Bob Dylan as the topic of the final week in the Great Works course we co-taught, and hoping to make a small gesture of farewell for the last interpretive sally, I selected a song which has been my friend since I was the age of this year’s students.  I woke up at the usual time, gripped by the usual anxiety about facing the class eight hours later, and decided to write out some parting remarks.

Song lyrics

1965 Performance

This song is about departing and starting, about being through and beginning anew, about relinquishing the past and welcoming change, about what Virginia Woolf called “Time Passing” and what Mary Oliver called “The Journey,” and what Thoreau called “Spring.”

The song’s emotion is elegiac, the paradoxical bittersweetness of a eulogy–a mixture of strong feelings that modulate from harsh to insistent to comforting and encouraging.  That mixture is expressed in the repeated melodic line of every stanza, the regular meter of the lyrics, the amazing congruence of the rhymes, and the complexity of the singer’s tone.

The situation the song sets up is one of forced evacuation from one’s home”the rocky transition from resident to refugee. The speaker’s rough voice is that of the cherub holding the sword at the Gates of Eden, chasing Adam and Eve out of Paradise”proclaiming the end of Innocence.

This is a metaphor for other endings:

  • breaking up a love affair
  • striking the set after the performance of a play
  • concluding a dinner party
  • attending the last day of a class
  • graduating from college
  • retiring from a career
  • facing death

One strain in the voice is threatening, cruel, even sneering.

  • You must leave now— the place you occupied is no longer yours”you have to abandon whatever you’ve surrounded and protected yourself with.
  • Take what you need¦you better grab it fast”And make it quick, I mean it.
  • Otherwise you’ll be shot or trampled: Yonder stands your orphan with his gun¦ Look out the saints are comin’ through.
  • Your position has been given to someone else, who’s waiting to occupy what used to be your room and is already wearing what was in your closet: The vagabond who’s rapping at your door/Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.
  • Whatever you’ve committed to, accumulated and relied on in the past has lost its strength.  That means the forces with which you built your defenses”All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home/All your reindeer armies, are all going home–and also the desire that let you drop those defenses in bed: The lover who just walked out your door/Has taken all his blankets from the floor.
  • The reality on which you’ve based your life is shifting: The carpet now is moving under you— and even the heavens above are collapsing like a tent: This sky too is folding over you.

Another strain in the voice offers cold but prudent counsel:

  • take what you need, you think will last. Now you must distinguish your grain from your chaff, your goods from your stuff.
  • The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense: there’s no more security and predictability, so be wary and wise.
  • Take what you have gathered from coincidence. You cant rely on abstraction or principle, only the tentative knowledge gained from your own personal experience.

The chill in the voice is also bracing.

  • It urges courage: Leave your stepping stones behind
  • It promises freedom: Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.

And finally the voice redirects nostalgic longing for the old flame that’s burned out to the opportunity for beginning: Strike another match, go start anew

And it alerts us to the sound of a future unseen, perilous, and yet beckoning, where something calls for you.

So on this last day of our class, where the works we’ve read have stimulated all of us into affirming new beginnings, this day before all of us “must leave,” lets listen to what this song of Innocence and Experience has to say.