Invasive Joy

When I’m not pressed for time, I prefer a different path to the familiar. Before the covid lockdown, my wife and I filled a winter afternoon with a visit to the state aboretum.

We drove country roads lined with stone walls and split-rail fences that framed views of century-old farmhouses and horse stables. After about an hour and a half in the car, we entered a vast open place of monumental trees, stark rock formations, intriguing trails, people walking dogs and a few empty picnic tables. What would this grand place be like, I asked myself, in summer?

I went to a map and saw, about halfway to the arboretum, right off the main road, a tiny park commemorating a Civil War battle. I checked–you could walk your dog there and, though I did not see any picnic tables, the park encircled an old stone bridge that was on the National Register of Historic Places. I thought it might make a nice stop on the way.

My home is surrounded by Civil War battle sites. Gettysburg is an hour and twenty minutes to the north. The road you drive is the same one that Lee’s Army took, though it has been paved and widened considerably. Manassas (a.k.a. Bull Run) is a few miles to the south. To the northwest, on the south bank of the Potomac River, is Ball’s Bluff, where Union Army Lieutenant, and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. survived a rifle shot to the chest.

And those are only the ones that have been identified. A neighbor who drives bulldozers for a local site developing company told me he rarely has a day on the job when he didn’t uncover a cannon ball.

The Civil War battlefield park I found on the map was smaller than a supermarket parking lot. It featured a scenic overlook of a section of Goose Creek, which flows a few miles west and south of where I live. The stone bridge crosses the creek and dates from the early 19th century when what is now state Route 50 was a turnpike.

The sign leading to the park was small enough to miss, but we found it and parked on the gravel lot. We walked the dog and admired the bright green meadows along the creek’s flood plain. The stone bridge, which dated back to the early 19th century, had waist-high retaining walls wide enough to form a temporary table for a picnic lunch.

A sign told us that four days of skirmishing and fierce fighting happened here, and several miles to the east. Lee’s army was marcking north toward Gettysburg and a detachment under J.E.B. Stuart had to stop Union forces heading south that wanted to come around and encircle Lee’s troops. Stuart delayed the Union army here and elsewhere long enough to prevent them from catching up with Lee.

Unlike Ball’s Bluff, which has a small cemetary on a tree-shrouded mound, this little park showed no monuments to lost lives.  In Jerusalem’s Old City you can see masonry pock-marks and other battle scars from the Six Day War.  I found no battle damage on the bridge, which, another sign told me, stayed in use until the 1950s.

The sun rode high overhead in a cloudless blue sky. Everything was peaceful, tranquil, and–when I passed some wild, pink rose blossoms along an abandoned stretch of the old turnpike–quietly beautiful.

My wife, who knows roses, said this variety was invasive. Left on its own, it would soon take over.

We took our time returning to the car. I paused to turn back and take one last glance at the park.

Without the explanatory signs, I would not have believed this to be a place of violence or death. If anything, the park and that spray of cheerful pink roses, suggested that nature’s mission here was a continuation of what nature does best: use as much as possible of what’s close at hand, to create much more than was thought possible.

Of course, not everything nature creates is welcome. I can think many invasive illnesses without which we’d live longer and happier.

But if one of the results is an unexpectedly pleasant flash of exuberance, a bit of intrustive joy in what was once a place of fear, anger, agony and loss, then it let it continue here, and, in our cities, in our hospitals, in our homes and our hearts.

I imagined the place overwhelmed with bright, colorful roses, and hoped someone would let nature take its course, so those roses, which may be unwelcome intruders, remind us that things can, and will, change for the better.

 

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Slow Time

I envied my grandparents as they slowly made me breakfast.

They knew what to do without thinking, opening the thick, rounded doors of their refrigerators like a banker opens a safe. A slow turn of a stove dial brought forth flames that roared and danced until another, measured twist brought the flames down to an even, opedient blue ring.

How wonderful to have mastered such things!

My grandparents moved with a unpreturbed grace. The soles of their shoes didn’t slap the floor as mine did when I clomped about the kitchen. Each foot went up and down gently on black and white tile.

I don’t remember any eggs breaking when grandmoter lowered it into boiling water. Sometimes I could stand on a step stool and watch them tumble happily.

Instead of serving the eggs in cups, my grandmother cracked the shell, scooped out the gooey interior into a bowl, added salt, pepper and a pat of butter, then mashed it into a delicious, pale yellow mess that was perfect with rye toast. She served this to me with orange juice that my grandfather called Tropicanoh.

My grandparents lived in houses so scent with cooked food that the aromas never went away, even when the windows were thrown open to “let in the air,” or, later, when they moved to Florida, my grandfather turned down the thermostat dial to “make the air condition.”

I don’t remember anyone measuring ingredients. When I grew old enough to cook  for myself and I asked for the recipe, I was told “just a bit. Not too much.”

I could not stop myself from gobbling my grandmother’s Cream of Wheat. It tasted so much better than what my mother made at home. I discovered later that my grandmother spiked hers with butter and sugar.

These old, slow moving people revered patience, peace and small pleasures. When I wanted to rush downstairs to the swimming pool, where the scrawny old men sat on lounge chairs and talked about their surgeries, my grandfather paused to feel the Flordia breeze on his face.

As I hurried down the Coney Island boardwalk toward the noisy rides and the possibility of brown, lusciously greasy French-fried potatoes from Nathan’s Famous, I would look back and see my grand parents gazing across the beach at the water. What was the big deal about being able to look at a beach and water, I wanted to know.

Instead of riding the merry-go-round, they watched me clamber up an outside horse, lean over and snatch a tarnished brass ring. I know I kept the ring as precious treasure that, somehow, I lost. But I have clung to what my grandparents’ said to me when I was frustrated, angry or crying from a scraped knee: with patience, peace and gentle persistence, all things we could want from life arrive at the right time.

I am now a grandparent and my experience tells me that too many things never arrive and those few that do are easily ignored, or squandered. I move slowly because the medication I must take frequently makes me dizzy. My body is stiff in ways that yoga won’t soften. I try not to recall the times when I could run fourteen miles in a day, or bike 50 miles, or teach back-to-back karate or doing that yoga pretzel pose so serenely, without feeling anything but accomplishment.

Number One Son has a grandchild that I have seen more often on a video screen than in person. Number Two Son works hard and likes to buy used cars, fix them and sell them. I’m not sure where his love for automobiles comes from, but I know the importance in reaching for, and grabbing that brass ring, whatever its shape or size, while you can.

I don’t need to ride the merry-go-round now to be happy for Number One Son’s new job and Number Two Son’s newest old car. You can be sure that when it’s time to make breakfast, I’ll add a little bit of butter or sugar to make a simple pleasure just a little bit more pleasureable.

And when I trudge my daily mile-and-a-quarter, or zoom to the supermarket on my bicycle, or hear my joints creak and crack as I squirm my way into a yoga pose, I’ll notice the fragrance of a spring breeze coming through my window, confident that, it’s not how many of the things you wanted that came to you, but what’s already here, that makes slow time so much fun.

 

 

 

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Wandering Fires: Graduation Inspiration from Maxwell Anderson

Maxwell Anderson was among the most famous and popular American playwrights of the first half of the 20th Century. One of several children born to an itinerant Baptist preacher, Anderson aspired to write poetry and chafed at his father’s religious beliefs. Though he rejected traditional Christianity, he later professed a humanist faith in an individual’s personal freedom and the importance of democracy as a safeguard against tyranny. He won the Pulitzer Prize and several other awards, wrote Hollywood screenplays and is remembered today for the historical dramas Elizabeth the Queen, Mary of Scotland and Anne of a Thousand Days, which, with the more contemporary Winterset, were written in unrhymed blank verse.

Unlike Eugene O’Neill, the greatest American playwright of that era, Anderson did not attend Ivy League schools or have any significant exposure to the stage beyond English courses at South Dakota University and student theatricals. He got a masters degree from Stanford University and, after several failed teaching positions, became a journalist and editorial writer in New York City, where he saw enough plays in Manhattan’s thriving theater district to want to write them.

With the exception of some military reportage during the Second World War, Anderson gave up journalism after the resounding success of the second of his 40 plays and musicals, What Price Glory, a collaboration with Army veteran Laurence Stalling about Americans fighting in World War I.

He claimed he only wrote for money. He also wanted to inspire his audiences with stories of mostly sympathetic characters who, like the ancient Greek anti-hero Oedipus, discover a hidden or tragic flaw in their natures, or in their relationship to others, and then struggle toward a moral or socially redemptive resolution.

The single work that brought him the most money was “September Song,” composed with Kurt Weill for the musical Knickerbocker Holiday. The song was written at the insistance of actor Walter Huston, who wanted a solo number that would humanize his otherwise gruff and dictatorial role as the musical’s antagonist. Though the musical is now forgotten, and some of the song’s original lyrics have been changed, “September Song” has become a staple of the great American songbook.

Anderson despised the lucrative work he did in Hollywood, because actors, directors and producers made significant script changes without consenting him. He revised many of his plays for films. His many screenplays include an uncredited rewrite of Ben Hur.

He did most of his writing inside a roughly finished shack behind his house in New City, New York. Visitors described it as lined with books, with a desk and chair and iron stove. In warmer months, the cabin reeked of mildew from an exterior sprinkler system that splashed water on the rear window, giving rise to a theater legend that Anderson did his best writing when it was raining, or appeared to be.

Like many American writers of his time, Anderson had a difficult emotional life. Infamously dour, shy and short-tempered, he was married three times and maintained a careless disregard for the money he made. He tended to give away fortunes to friends and family who did not always repay his generosity.

He was, without question, a superb writer and, though he suffered when his plays flopped, dooming him to went several months in which he could not write a word, he found ways to rally his spirits and write more. He wrote this “to the young people of this country”:

If you practice an art, be proud of it, and make it proud of you. If you now hesitate on the threshold of your maturity, wondering what rewards you should seek, wondering perhaps whether there are any rewards beyond the opportunity to feed, sleep and breed, turn to the art which has moved you most readily. It may break your heart, it may drive you mad, it may betray you into unrealizable ambitions or blind you to merchantile opportunies with its wandering fires. But it will fill your heart before it breaks it; it will make you a person in your own right; it will open the temple doors to you and enable you to walk with those who have become nearest among men to what men sometimes may be.

Amen.

 

 

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Doing Something Wonderful

A writer I know sent me e-mail urging me to affix my name to a petition protesting an “emergency” archive that stores books that can be downloaded without charge. The archive exists, I was told, so that people who can get reading matter for teaching purposes or light the darkness with cultural sparklers after the end of the world as we know it (presuming that the internet, computer operating systems and screens still function). Until the apoclaypse arrives, people can download this stuff for free.

The Writers Guild says this is theft and should be stopped. I agree that it is theft of an author’s copyright. As someone who has a copyright, I can say it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when publishing royatlies come up for discussion.

For example: a while ago a friend bought a digital copy of one of my books. This should jave triggered an infinitesimal publisher’s royalty payment to me. Because publishers like to hold on to royalties, just in case the world ends, the publisher should at least have sent me a statement filled with creative accounting methods that prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that even if the entire population of Sweden bought digital copies of my books–the publisher owed me nothing.

I’m still waiting for the statement.

So I checked out this emergency list. Most of the stuff on it I didn’t recognize. I saw copies of Architectural Digest and immediately thought of a dystopian scenario (similar to Canticle for Liebowitz) in which commercial effluvia attains the veneration of a sacred text. Most of the books were in the public domain, so Lord Byron will not rise from the grave to claim whatever he is due for Four Longer Poems downloads.

I almost wished to see my books on the list. They were written to be enjoyed. I like the idea of someone in the distant future finding my work and having a chuckle. I did not see them but, then again, I did not search for them because, long ago, I learned the frustration of searching for my books in a bookstore.

My first job was bookstore clerk. Though I had wanted to be a writer long before that, I had a dream of strolling into a commercial literary establishment and, after enhaling the aroma of freshly printed paper, I would find one of my books sitting snugly on a shelf, cover out.

This actually happened, and, when it does, it’s one of the things that can make you forget all the other stuff that’s supposed to happen to an author, but doesn’t.

Still, I quarreled with the dream: my book wasn’t science fiction or fantasy, which I have always revered; and the book wasn’t is every bookstore. But it was in a some. And, for a moment, that was wonderful.

When I was a child I thought books were monuments of an author’s genius that, once published, sat on shelves forever to delight those that found them. When I began to publish journalism, I believed that my important writing—the stuff I was born to do—would happen in books.

This expectation made writing books slow, worrisome and fretful. When you want your stuff to be good, when you write for the ages and fear that mistakes, hidden biases and sloppy work will damn you forever, you want every word to count.

Though my mother encouraged me to read books, neither she nor my father were avid readers. Both thought science fiction and fantasy was a childish thing that I’d put away. I never put it away,  largely because it “spoke” to me, as it does to many adolescents who have no idea how they’re going to navigate the perils and pleasures of the adult world.

Most of the writer heroes of my youth wrote for money, which meant they were known for what they wrote about, not how they wrote. They cranked the stuff out quickly, depended on editors to tidy up the messy parts, used stock characters, reused plots and settings like old tea bags, strung out their stories in a sequels and prequels when a single volume would have sufficied, shamelessly copied the tropes and pacing of movies and mainstream fiction, and didn’t fret about critics because they had two other manuscripts awaiting publication, a third in the typewriter and a dozen more waiting to be written.

No matter how much they seemed to know about astronomy, engineering, the military or advanced technology, most had day jobs. I can infer now from the authors’ ritualistic disparagement of authority figures, that these jobs were sufficiently degrading and humiliating to inspire fantasies of strong willed, brilliantly inventive heroes from outside the social mainstream who instantly see the truth, realize their destiny, fight the good fight, rescue the damsel and save humanity.

The editors and exemplars of the genre rationalized their hastily cooked escapism as a necessity: science fiction no longer about predicting the future as much as it was anticipating the moral, psychological and sociological implications of technological developments, and show that humans will not only solve problems, but evolve (symbolically or actually) into beings who can master the rude passions that brought wars and the threat of Cold War era thermo nuclear destruction.

And, more than any other literature (or so the purveyors claimed), fantasy gushed with the sense of wonder, that ecstatic, sublime, transcendent emotional state that would redeem us from our narrow, selfish concerns, and inspire us to take our place as explorers and citizens of a universe better than we can imagine.

What genre fiction really did was make money for a very few people, shamelessly exploit many more and create fan cultures that found imaginary worlds more appealing than their own. In terms of production values, it was about quantity, not quality, though some writers sought an illusory legitimacy by selling their work to mainstream publications that not only paid more, but reached a larger audience.

When science fiction and fantasy found that bigger audience it was rarely taken seriously. Oh, there were a few infamous moments, such as Orson Welles radio dramatization of the War of the Worlds, but it was only until the hippies of the 1960s turned to J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and Frank Herbert’s Dune, that a scaffold rose that would one day bring us Star Trek, Star Wars, Game of Thrones and, finally, the Marvel movies. And you know these have inspired a new generation that can’t wait to chose the tropes they most enjoyed from previous literary and visual genres, and put them into a package that sparkles with the spectacular adventures and wonderful visual effects that the rest of us can’t find at home.

In a sense, the Marvel movies are a new generation’s equivalent of the traveling circus that used to come to town and, for pocket change, thrill us with things we’ve never seen, makes us laugh and fills us with a sense of wonder about the astonishing things people can do on the high wire, the trapeze, in the lion cage and behind curtains in the side show.

How many wanted to hop aboard an elephant, or stowaway on a truck or a train when the circus left town? Of that number, how many found out that to do those tricks required discipline and dedication: you had to practice, practice, practice and practice some more, and that one slip can either end your life, or render you worthless for any other kind of employment?

And how many reached that conclusion that being able to do something wonderful ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, but it’s still worth doing?

More than enough so that when their work speaks to you, you can’t help but listen.

 

 

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When You See a Rainbow

The bike shorts didn’t fit. Don’t ask why.

I put them in the “when I’m thin” pile. Then I saw the rainbow dividing the eastern sky.

I went to the garage, hit the door opener and the cool afternoon breeze blew away the dank, oily, grimy odors from all the stuff that we would never put indoors.

Before me was an old Dahon fat tire two wheeler, my second folding bike. The first I got as a birthday present. A few months later it was stolen after I locked it to streetlamp in front of the Delancey Street Playhouse in Philadelphia’s posh Rittenhouse Square. I had ridden several miles from my safe, suburban house down through scary slums and nasty, broken streets so I could rehearse my minor role in a community theater production in which my 13-year-old son was co-starring.

Later that year he would go to New York City to audition. Then he would become an equity actor in a revival of a Neil Simon play that would rehearse and open in south Florida, playing Cocoanut Grove and Fort Lauderdale before returning for six weeks at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater.

I would accompany him to New York and Florida and feel so proud when he took his bows at the end of every performance.

Then I would buy another identical Dahon folding bike that, a decade and a half later, looks just about the same, while its owner has thickened somewhat from the chest downward, had two heart attacks and gave up riding.

But strange things happen when you see a rainbow. You can feel like ancient people, who presumed that anything so beautiful must be special and divine–a gift, a signal, a sign.

I wore creased LL Bean full-lenth khaki trousers with one-inch cuffs, clunky black Merrill leather mocs, and a favorite blue-striped T-shirt.

The tires had enough air. I eased the bike out of the garage. The rear wheel’s snick-snick accused me of neglect.

I threw a leg over the bar, sat down, pressed on the pedal and took off.

My face divided the thick, late evening air. I hit the street that would normally be cluttered with rush hour parents returning from wherever they hunted and gathered, zoomed past the masked folks with their masked kids and unmasked dogs, heard the steady drone of fat tires on asphalt wet from the earlier cloudburst and returned to that moment from my childhood when we took the training wheels off my first two wheeler and I entered the transcendent state of speed.

I did the course I previously trudged in running shoes, with earphones and an ancient I-Pod. I glided up inclines that had seemed so signifcant as if they were mere variations in a path that was mine alone to enjoy.

I caught the scent of spring blossoms as my street came up. I was not sweating. I was not tired. I did not feel like a heart attack survivor, or a survivor of anything. I was just a guy on a bike having a great time being alive.

I asked myself if I should maintain my state of speed and prolong the ecstasy. Aging wisdom kicked in: don’t push yourself; it’s better to quit when you want more.

I rolled up the driveway and entered a garage that was no longer a dungeon for outdoor stuff.  It was a Bat Cave and I was Bat Man having returning to a world of an invisible, infinitesimal killer, in which people are suffering and dying and sacrificing everything they have to save lives.

But a world with enough rainbows for everyone, when we need them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Be Happy For This

For a moment, put the phone down. Turn the big screen off. Look away from the news. Reports of so many frightening, terrible, shameful things will be there when you return.

If you have kids, parents, friends close or far, and they’re okay, be happy for that.

If you have pets, and you have the food to feed them, a place to care for them and they don’t need the vet, be happy for that.

If you share your space with a loved one who is stressed out because working from home is still work, be happy that you can still love that person, even if it’s only to make a cup of tea for that person and leave that tea where they can see it.

If you have a roof over your head that doesn’t leak, hot water when you need it, cold water you can drink, doors and windows that you can open to let in a spring breeze and close to keep out a storm, be happy for that.

If you have an old shirt, sweater, pair of shoes or pants that just feel good when you wear them, be happy for that.

If you hear about someone being kind to another, be happy for that.

If you can finish the work you have been given, if you can put your kids to bed, wash the dishes, sit in a chair or sprawl out on your couch and do nothing for a few minutes, be happy for that.

If you have enough food in your house for a few days, be happy for that. When you go to the market and you find something you need, or something that would be so much fun to share, and you have enough money to buy it, take it home and serve it, be happy you can do it. Even if some don’t touch it, don’t like it and don’t know why you bought it, sharing food is a good thing to do.

If you go for a walk and people you don’t know on the other side of the street wave and ask you how you’re doing, and you can’t figure out how it is that those you’ve never met and probably never would, are so pleasant, be happy they are.

Maybe there’s something to being nice that makes it worthwhile.

If you see plants pushing up from the soil, if trees and flowers bloom and then push new leaves into the air, if some other thing you find suggests to you that being alive–as hard, scary and sad as it can be when too many people are struggling, suffering and dying–can have moments of incredible, astonishing, redemptive beauty, and you wonder why you didn’t notice it, or why you need to be reminded of it, just be happy that beauty got your attention, for a moment.

Find peace.

 

 

 

 

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The Dogs Are Confused

The sports games shut down at night. The schools closed the following morning at 5:30 a.m.

We have a plague upon our houses.

With so much around us banned or discouraged, more people are at home more of the time. Litter from kids snacks clutters the landscape. Most of the neighborhood’s cars stay sleeping in their driveways. We don’t hear so many jet planes roaring overhead.

And the dogs are confused.

They know when they’re supposed to be walked. They know who has been near their turf, when that dog and walker came through and whatever they may have left as a calling card.

But now, people who used to walk their dogs before the sun came up, are sleeping late and taking different paths. From the way my dog behaves, the common calling-card locales have new aromas, some of them not so friendly.

I don’t know why some dogs adore each other, and others drop into a fighting crouch, growl, bark and pull on the leash. It probably has something to do with scent, size and atty-tood–the big German shepherds swaggering about, tossing off looks at the smaller dogs that say, “Watch it, kiddo. You could be my lunch.”

And yet, the smaller dogs, especially the Yorkies and Chihauhaus, have this manic urge to challenge anything on four legs, no matter how large or Teutonic: “How dare you even exist in my line of smell?! Why, if I wasn’t connected to this person,  tied to this person, in LOVE with this person who really has no idea what they would do without me, I’d have my teeth in your neck!”

I used to make a joke that it was all because of the last election. Or the election before that.

But elections have come and gone and people who genuinely couldn’t care less, now feel that they have a right to be as cruel as possible to other people, especially on the Internet. Until this coronavirus came upon us, people were sitting in chairs, in comfortable rooms, with too much food in their kitchens and too much time on their hands, writing all kinds of nasty, hateful, ugly and profoundly unAmerican stuff on-line because…

Why? I really don’t know.  Is it because other people–those in power, those with money and nice clothing, those who say things that make us mad–are better at being awful, than we are?

Or are we, on some level, dogs that imagine themselves part of a territorial pack, and it really doesn’t matter what our reasons are–we have to growl and get mad and challenge dogs in other packs because, on some other level, we think that all this growling and barking will impress the alpha dog, or, maybe, it just feels good to growl and bark when you’re tied to a human being who just doesn’t get it?

I don’t mean to belittle anyone with genuine grievances. Over my lifetime, I’ve seen things become better for some people and worse for others and, like a dog tethered to a human being, there are parts of what my dog and I might call reality that I just don’t understand.

For every person who has claimed that success equals hard work and a positive attitude, I’ve seen others who have worked–and hoped–just as hard, only to see their fortunes sink.

For every dog fed steak and walked five times a day, how many others get the dried junk from a sack and are lucky if they have a few minutes a day in the back yard?

What about the dogs that are abused and abandoned? What could they possibly do that would justify that?

Any single life lost to illness is horrific and catastrophic for those who cared for and loved that peson. Right now, the numbers of people who have died from this virus are small. No one knows how much those numbers will grow.

We can be certain that the numbers will grow.

It doesn’t matter who you are, what clothes you wear, what college you attended, how much money you make, who you pray to, what awful green smoothie you’ve had for breakfast, how many times you resist the urge to rub your eyes that are itching because it’s allergy season–

You can get it. And some of those who get it, die from it.

Right now, my dog is confused at all the other dogs being walked at different times by people she’s never sniffed before. Friend or foe, she wants to know.

And I’m confused by the people who insist on blaming others, finding fault, littering the Internet with their righteous rage, and otherwise getting mad because what was routine a few weeks ago, is now a matter of life and death.

I can think of only one thing beyond all the hand washing, elbow coughs and crowd avoidance that can lead you out from confusion:

You can love the fact that you’re alive, that you’re not alone, that you can help others in ways big and small. You can appreciate every moment you have in the sun.

And understand that, no matter how you voted in the last election, we really are in this together.

 

 

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Down Here

Inside the International Space Station

People float like babies in a starry womb.

Rockets bring them enough stuff

So they can be happy way up there

Instead of down here

Where I was told

I should write a poem.

 

Down here, people are dying

Of too much this

And not enough that.

A study just came out:

Everything you thought was good for you

Ain’t.

Maybe you should write a poem.

 

Down here, it’s okay for some people

To be mean to other people.

They’re rich. They’re powerful.

They have a gun! They have a right!

They think they can do what they want.

While the rest of us

Should write a poem.

 

Down here, storms with names make expensive real estate

Go away

Faster than you can say, “location, location, location.”

The wind kills people you may not know personally.

Garbage clogs the gullet

Of a falling sparrow that sings,

“You should write a poem.”

 

Down here, people do all kinds of awful things

On the Internet

Where there’s no up and down.

They have apps that make it easy

For people you don’t know, to think they know

Everything about you.

Except the poem you should write

 

So that aliens on distant planets

Who have really big guns

Or angels in heaven

Who have terrible swift swords

Can peer down on us and

Let us continue to do all that we do

Just because they like our poems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reasons for Not Writing

I’m not ready yet! I should

  1. Play solitaire until I win.
  2. Check the news (Have you ever noticed how, unlike what happens in that great Kurosawa film Rashomon , the more points of view you get on a topical subject, the more you feel you really don’t know anything?)
  3. Have more coffee, maybe with something sweet, so I can get that sugar rush and blurt out any old thing. (Even if the blurt fades and leaves you in a low mood)
  4. Go to the gym or go for a run so I can get more ideas and inspirations. (So I can be  too tired to write).
  5. Check e-mail (and see who has rejected my submissions, ignored my e-mails or used one of those cheeky automatic replies that is not a reply as much as it is another way to tell someone that they are not worth your time).
  6. Consult the I-Ching (Book of Changes). This ancient Chinese fortune telling system that I encountered in college involves a random series of actions that generate a pattern. You then read commentary on the pattern. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung especially enjoyed the I-Ching because it confirmed for him the interaction of theoretical archetypes that can act as metaphors for human conditions and possibly reveal hidden truths about situations and personalities. Like astrology, Tarot cards, palmistry and tasseography (tea leaf reading), the efficacy depends on the superstitious belief that all events are connected, that faraway incidents can influence local outcomes and—specific to the I-Ching—natural forces, visual images, family structures and royal hierarchies are equivalent and direct metaphors of human interactions. (This is fun until you notice that belief systems that encourage these ideals are very popular in tyrannical regimes because they reinforce rigid social order and repress dissent).

Counter reason: No one is ever “ready,” and one can argue that those who believe they are could be less flexible and adaptable than those who just jump in or “get out of the way” and let the creative impulse come through.

I still don’t know if any of this is good. I should show it to someone who is in the business–

Counter reason: The only thing they can tell you with any reliability and accuracy is what they think you’re trying to do and how they might do it if they were you. They’re not you. If they were, they would be doing EXACTLY what you’re doing.

But what if nobody likes this? Or, even if they do, they reject it becaise the publishing business has changed. The things considered necessary for publication have changed. Publishers no longer want a good story (one can argue that they never did). They want a story that can be sold as a souvenir of an encounter by someone who is already popular on the Internet. I am not popular on the Internet.

Counter Reason: There is another kind of success that has little to do with popularity. It’s based on kindness, generosity and a willingness to do “good.” Yes, good intentions may lead you astray, but it’s rather obvious that the writing that is meaningful, enjoyable and worth reading, is worth bringing into the world.

As a journalist, I’ve written about many popular people and I’ve seen what these people must do (or feel they must do, or resist doing what they feel they must do) to maintain that popularity. About the best that can be said about celebrity maintenance is that it is its own skill with highly situational values (what works for one audience does not always work for another). The worst is that you can get lost in it   and spend so much time and money on it that you forget who you are (this is a common theme of Hollywood success biopics), become a parody of what made you successful, or so ignore your gifts and talents that your performance (or whatever art you provide) loses its value.

As a critic I’ve learned that popularity is not easy for anyone to control. Even if the work is uniformly excellent, the artist’s image can change, sometimes without the artist doing anything different. Fashion also changes: different eras pick different artists to mirror their values, and the media just as eagerly tears down those who, not long ago, were so righteously built up. Celebrity may seem as a judgement of value, but it’s really about consumption. Fame eats people, places and things. At best, it changes them. At worst, it destroys them.

As an artist, I understand that nothing is guaranteed. You really have no way of knowing, much less being certain, how your work will be received. There is a joyous part of making art when you stop worrying about this and just let it happen. Reaching that joyous moment is not only possible, but likely, with practice. Practice isn’t about repetition. It’s about finding a different way, every time, to what matters about your art.

Finally, when popularity becomes the hierarchy of success, those at the top benefit at the expense of just about everyone else.

But–!

  1. It’s a beautiful day. I could walk the dog, run an errand, start cooking something that requires me to watch a pot.
  2. I like listening to music but my favorite tunes are tangled in a mess of music files. What if I clean up my music files, extract my favorite tunes, and listen to them for a while, hoping that inspiration takes hold?
  3. I want to find out something on the Internet but I need to research to make sure I’m doing it properly. Of course, researching anything on the Internet can take an hour or more and…now it’s time for lunch!

Final Counter Thought:

Everyone feels anxious before beginning. See it. Feel it. See past it and let go.

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Play ‘Em

I found this Internet list of what were supposed to be the 100 greatest bands of all time, and, as you might expect, most of my favorite bands and musicians, and, most likely yours, weren’t on it. What can we do about this?

The list appeared to be based on Spotify followers and the anonymous list maker’s ability to link music industry awards and multi-platinum album sales to overall quality and significance. At the top was The Beatles. The Rolling Stones was there, too, with Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Led Zepplin (though the picture of Zep was some other band), ZZ Top, The Who, Metallica, The Beach Boys, REM, The Band, Credence Clearwater Revival, U2, Coldplay, Rush, Steely Dan, and The Police. Heart was on the list, The Pretenders and The Eurythmics,  so that bands with powerful female lead singers–whose recordings and concerts made a pile of money–could also be remembered.

I agreed that most of the choices were obviously popular and worthy of acclaim, with the exception of Grand Funk Railroad, a 70’s power trio so despised by my teenage friends and I that I made a movie about burning one of their records, they certainly earned their acclaim.

Few single musicians were on the list, unless you want to count Jimmie Hendrix (and the Experience), Janis Joplin and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Bob Marley, Miles Davis, Little Richard, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, David Bowie, Duke Ellington, Johnny Cash, Billie Eckstine, Sarah Vaughn, Hank Williams, James Brown, Billie Holiday, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Tony Bennett or, perhaps the greatest musician of 20th century America, Louis Armstrong–are not there.

No songwriters were on the list, either, though their work may have generated piles of money just as big. Irving Berlin remains the songwriter with the most hits–far more than the Beatles. A day doesn’t go by when a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical is not performed somewhere in the world. Can we raise a Martini to Cole Porter’s bittersweet wit? How about Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Julie Stein, George and Ira Gershwin? Lest we forget, Bob Dylan became the first singer/songwriter to win the Nobel Prize, and his voice is STILL terrible. Though Randy Newman won an Academy Award for film songs–where would we be without “Sail Away,” as well as Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”? How could a high school senior prom end without Elton John’s (and Bernie Taupin’s) beautifully gentle “Your Song”?

What about “crossover” artists from classical music, like Yo-Yo Ma, Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein (who also qualifies to be among the songwriters, for “Maria” and “Tonight” in West Side Story)? Folk artists like Woody Guthrie, Richie Havens and Pete Seeger whose work brought social change?

While we’re at it, why are British pop and rock bands on the list, when great Latin American, South American and African bands and musicians were not? Were the sales figures unavailable? Do Astor Piazolla, Hermeto Pascoal, Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Hugh Masakella, Tito Puente, Ruben Blades, Tom Jobim and Joao Gilberto not qualify? Could it be the fact that the American music industry awards typically ignore, or give only token attention, to world music?

Maybe. But, in making my own list, could I be guilty of excluding others just because I don’t know the songs and sounds of a particular region or culture? Easily. Absolutely. We live in a time of abundance. One person could never listen to it all in a lifetime.

So, how do we work off our lingering annoyance at lists that don’t include the artists we love, whose work changed our lives and whose music still is in our hearts?

Play ’em. Play them when you’re driving, cooking, going nowhere fast on a treadmill or a stationery bike. Play them when you’re working from home and you’re not on a teleconference.

If they’re not on Spotify (as with most of my favorites), buy a digital download and let it survive somewhere on your hard drive.

Don’t be afraid when an earworm crawls into your brain and you find yourself humming, whistling or croaking through a few notes in the shower. Singing when you’re alone must be done, and done often!

Because whoever might be listening might need to hear it, again.

 

 

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