Music

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Last Sunday was rainy around here. So rainy in fact that before the downpour was done there was significant flooding in the area. I had some places to go in the morning and spent a while in the car, headlights on, wipers wiping, and music on the radio.

I was unhappy with the selections on the classic rock station that morning, so I switched to classical. They were playing Baroque music, which is pleasing sometimes, but not that morning. I switched to the jazz station and found a tune by a combo featuring sax and trumpet, my favorite kind of jazz, and settled into it. The music filled the confined air of the car, the rain continued unabated, and I ate up the miles towards my destination.

Often in human life, especially human life in the seasonal climes, we find ourselves locked inside because of the weather. Snowy days, rainy days, even too hot days. In these times, for many of us, music is our companion. We always listen to music. I sometimes wonder if its very ubiquity on radio, computer, and various digital devices doesn’t devalue its ancient wonder.

For most of time, if you wanted to hear music, you had to make music, or know someone who would make it for you. Sometimes it was just singing, or singing to the accompaniment of drums, pipes, or the simplest of string instruments. Everyone has heard about the origin of folk music and blues music in the work songs of field hands and slaves. For a long time, any family that could afford it had a piano in the house, and someone who could play it at least competently. The sale of sheet music used to be big business.

Much changed with the coming of recorded music. The number of people who could make music declined while the number who could listen to music increased. The quality of the music listened to also declined rapidly. (We’ll argue about this some other time.) But the important point is, now almost anybody can take music inside with them when the weather dictates a retreat from the elements.

Music is solace on a rainy day. It is comfort amid a snowy afternoon. The weather changes what we listen to. There is time and space to listen. In the raucous comings and goings of a summer afternoon I enjoy pop songs and rock ballads. When I know I am confined for a while I am more interested in putting on a long Mahler symphony, Beethoven concerto, or Bach chorale. I have the mental space to listen.

When I reached my first destination last Sunday morning, the Ethical Society’s Sunday morning platform, there were two musicians to entertain us, a folk guitarist and a brilliant young fiddle player. They led off with a rousing traditional reel. It was an unexpected delight in the otherwise somber air of the rainy morning chamber, and it seems everyone sat up a little straighter after the bright chords died away. I know I did.

I have read a few times the theory that in the ancient years of human prehistory, the time of hunter-gatherers, we would gather in caves or other enclosures during the coldest winter months, huddling together, doing little, conserving energy in a kind of semi-hibernation. I wonder how we stood it. We’re human beings, after all, not given, like bears or skunks, to sleeping long stretches or staring at cave walls for weeks on end. I like to imagine someone in the family band would at one point or another burst into song, or what would turn out to be the prototype of song, our earliest music, filling the dank echoing darkness with sound, expressing frustration, or expectation, or even joy at the thought of the eventual advent of spring and sunny weather. I know I would.

 

 

Bridges

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I was on vacation last week. I took three short trips, one to fish for a few days, one to tour the Abraham Lincoln sites in Springfield, Illinois, and one to visit a relative who is recovering from a recent car crash. Each trip was about a two-hour drive away, so I covered some ground, mostly on highways—I-44, I-55, I-70. Driving along highways is one thing. Most of us do that all the time. Even going to the grocery store or our gym we’re likely to put in a few miles on a highway.

But on each of these trips I crossed at least one bridge. I live in St. Louis, Missouri, so inevitably I am often crossing bridges over the Mississippi River. When you live beside one of the world’s great rivers all your life you tend to lose a sense of its renown, its lore. To me it’s just the big river I see all the time. I also crossed over the Missouri—another major stream—and the Meramec, a local river, mostly known for its disastrous flooding every few years.

I can drive highways all the time without anything more than a sense of time and miles passing. But whenever I cross a bridge I get a rush of feeling, a sudden sense that I am going somewhere. I’m not sure why it is, except perhaps that I am not well-traveled for my age and experience. Most people I know have been many more places: more cities, more states, more countries. My travels have been slight in comparison, and each place I go fills me with a mix of dread and anticipation.

I first felt this way many years ago when I crossed a bridge over some minor river in Tennessee. I was probably headed to a family funeral, I really don’t remember; but I do remember crossing this bridge. At the time I was very smitten with Big Band music, and a tape was playing (yes, a tape) of Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw, some such quintessentially American musician, and the rush of feeling in that moment, having crossed from Missouri to Tennessee, one state to another, took the form of how huge is America, all these states, all these regions, and the wonderful music flowed into the moment and filled the space with sound.

But the feeling is not usually that well defined. It’s usually just a sense of crossing from one region to another. The people on this side of the river live one way, the people on that side are different. I will see new things on the other side. I will learn about those things and one day I will return, cross this bridge going the other way and tell my native tribe what I have seen.

Or something like that. I really don’t know how to describe the feeling. I mentioned it once to a traveling companion and she offered little response, just an ‘I see,’ or a ‘hmm.’ I considered trying further explanation, but I turned back inward instead, knowing this was likely not a feeling that could be shared. And yet here I am sharing it on a larger scale. Go figure.

A bridge is an easy symbol, and almost always of good things. A bridge into the future. Building a bridge between people. Bridging the gap. But the good things don’t always come without some danger. One of my favorite children’s stories is The Three Billy Goats Gruff, about the perils of crossing a bridge when there are monsters lurking beneath. But oh, that grass over there is so green, so lush, that it is worth the risk. Thank goodness we have Big Billy Goat Gruff to defeat the troll and lead the way.

I hope that my future holds many bridges to cross, both literally and figuratively. And I guess the point I am trying to make is that for me, all bridges are literal and figurative at the same time, and to tell the truth, I kind of like it that way.

The Middle of Summer?

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There were two stories on the radio this morning about summer: one dealt with the problems families with children face when they don’t have school to send their kids to during the day, while the other was about our summer music playlist. This latter story led off with the announcer noting that we were halfway through summer. Which of course sent me into all kinds of considerations.

There are several different summers. One is the traditional season that begins at the solstice around June 21 or 22, and runs until the autumnal equinox around September 21 or 22nd. If you’re counting what feels like summer, this is the one that counts. In the Great American Midwest, and plenty of other places, the heat and humidity often last at least that long.

Meteorologists have long used a different reckoning, counting seasons from the first day of the first month in which the seasonal pattern prevails. Thus winter is from December 1 through January 31. Summer is June 1 through August 31. But you see the problem with this, which I noted above. Summery weather can begin sooner and run longer. Meteorologists need well-defined units in which to record statistics about the seasons they study, so this system makes sense. If a summery weather pattern persists too long into what they normally deem autumn, that’s something to be noted. (Except, of course, in the United States, where we have politicians to keep an eye on weather patterns, and we don’t need to listen to meteorologists and other ‘scientists.’)

Then again there’s that summer vacation. When a school-aged kid says ‘summer is almost over,’ it means that summer vacation is coming to an end, no matter the weather. Summer is defined by the local school district and by state laws that say how many days of school students will have in a given year. Increasingly summer ends sooner and sooner. It used to be all schools began the day after Labor Day, the first Monday in September. Now school districts are worried that students won’t have enough weeks of instruction before they take their federally-mandated achievement tests, so in some places they start as early as mid-August. But of course federally-mandated achievement tests are an important part of every child’s education, so we have to adjust our lives to accommodate them.

All of these various ‘summers’ mean something to different people. Summer, like all seasons, is a time, but it is also a feeling, and I think we all know summer when we feel it. Like winter, it is a feeling we both cherish and grow weary of. No matter the date, when it has been too hot and too humid for too long, we all pine for summer to be over.

This is, of course, why autumn is the most popular season by far.

Rain is a Holiday

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Rain was predicted this past 4th of July. The midsummer celebrations always include barbecues, parades, and municipal fairs—all outdoor activities. There are simply no traditional indoor Independence Day activities. There was a good chance that parades would be rained out, that they wouldn’t be able to have the fireworks in Memorial Field. It put a damper on everyone’s celebrations, and there were lamentations far and wide about the unfairness of it all. After all, July is so typically hot and dry, and the weather predictions for the following week were for skyrocketing temperatures and dry, dry, dry. Why should it rain on the 4th?

I rarely complain about a rainy day, even on a holiday. Rain is special no matter when it comes. I mean, water out of the sky? How does that happen? One of the most ancient of Sumerian myths has the two sons of the sky god arguing: one is the deified Summer and one is the deified Winter, and they dispute about who is more important for the growth of crops. Their father steps in to settle the argument: Winter is more important, because without his rains there would be no crops.

But more than that, a rainy day always feels special. A long time ago I was married to a woman named Carolyn. She used to love when it rained, and we would take long walks beneath a large umbrella. This is the right attitude; there is something intimate and romantic about sharing that little shelter, the patter of raindrops on it, the splash of water at your feet, that encourages conversation and closeness.

We once attended Fair St. Louis, the biggest local fair, and one of the best 4th of July parties in the country, on a rainy day. I thought cancelling was the best idea, but she would have none of that. We went to the fair and it was very nice. The temperatures were cooler than normal for July, and the weather kept the crowds small. It was easy to get a beer and a hot dog, to get up close to hear featured musicians, and to find a good seat for the fireworks, even though we got rained on a few times. Our determination was rewarded when the rain held off in the evening and the fireworks went on as usual, everyone oohing and aahing from their soggy blankets on the ground.

Early in the predawn morning I am awakened by the sound of rain. It was a warm night and the window is open and I can hear the rain begin to drop on leaves and on the ground. I know it is falling on the sill and soon I will have to rouse myself and close the window. But I linger against that duty, feeling calm and assured within the sound of the rain. This will be a good morning, cooler and greener, and I hope the rain is still falling when I get out in it.

So many blues songs and popular tunes evoke rainy days as a symbol of sadness, loneliness, and despair. I know, it’s an easy contrast with a sunny day, which is a symbol for happiness and things going well in life. Still, I don’t get it. Everyone complains about rain on a holiday, but to me, rain is always a holiday, a little break within itself, a little remembrance of the cycles of nature and how they can interrupt the artificial lives we’ve assigned ourselves.

Country Bird, City Bird

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During the years I lived in the country, surrounded by woods, I would occasionally visit someone back in town, and occasionally spend the night. Arising in the morning to step out for a walk, I would notice the birds singing. Everyone notices the birds singing, it’s a lovely part of being awake and outdoors in the morning; but this was my observation:

The birds singing in city and suburban areas were always more raucous, louder, and more ebullient than those in the country. In the country there were delightful, distant peeps and trills and calls from here and there. In the city there was always a crush of birdsong, what could rightly be called a riot of birdsong. One would think, from the demonstration they made, that there were many, many more birds in the city than in the country.

But the fact is, there are plenty of birds everywhere. The difference is that in the country there are many more trees to inhabit. In the city, they have to contest their nesting spots all the time. Much birdsong is just that: the announcement to the world that this is the spot where my mate and I have chosen to reproduce and raise our young. It’s our tree, you go find your own. Birds inhabiting one of the few dozen trees in a subdivision, or one of the ornamental trees in a strip mall parking lot, have so much more to to contest than birds who find themselves in a thickly forested area where the choice of trees seems infinite.

During the early 20th century, architect Frank Lloyd Wright spent much energy working to deconstruct the urban environment, to spread things out and reduce population density. His was a utopian vision of prairies of population rather than crowded cities. Of course it didn’t work, and later critics of his work have written that there is one main reason it didn’t: people like living in cities. They find them stimulating and interesting and full of vigor.

Sometimes I hate a crowd, like when I’m fighting to leave a parking garage after a sports event, or trying to find a parking place at the mall around the holidays. But I also enjoy some crowds, like at our local farmer’s market on a Saturday, where you rub shoulders with people of many ethnicities and cultures and styles. Such a rush of sights and smells, and such a cacophony of sounds, of various languages being used, of accents and discussions and arguments. One’s ears are assaulted, like the birds on a spring morning in the city, all quarreling and threatening and making a joyous noise of it all.

You can live in the country, and find peace, space, and time to think, and make little noise. Or you can live in the city, chockablock with ten thousand of your neighbors, and jostle and fight and cajole; butt in line and sneak an extra portion; or you can open the door for a stranger, and say hello and good morning to people you’ll never see again. Either way your song, the thing that you feel you need to say each morning when you get up, is likely to remain the same.

Counting

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I have an odd habit of counting everything that I do. Perhaps it originates in my lifelong habit of exercise, in which I count repetitions of lifts, squats, and crunches. I count how many stairs I go up, or the steps between my office and a co-worker’s office. I count how many weeds I pull when I’m gardening, and how many times I knead the bread dough. I make to-do lists and count how many tasks I have accomplished in a day. When I’m driving somewhere long distance I count the miles driven, and grow more concentrated on the task of counting the closer I get to the destination. I count weeks in a season, the days of the week, the weeks in a month.

If there is a philosophical foundation to my focus on the seasons as a subject of study, and indeed as a way of life, it is the idea of mindfulness: learning to be present in the moment you’re living, engaged with the people and events here and now, and not focused on imagined futures or tormented pasts. I guess it’s obvious that obsessively counting everything militates against that. It puts an artificial layer over everything.

If I’m walking in a park on a sunny spring day, I should be aware of things around me—the breeze, birdsong, voices of children, splashes of geese as they land in the lake—and not on the 572nd step I’ve taken. 573rd. 574th. It’s all a matter of calming one’s mind to be present in the moment. And while I believe I often calm much of my worry about work, or family, or money, or whatever, I substitute for those things this incessant counting.

I practice yoga usually 5 or 6 days a week. One of the goals of yoga is to calm one’s mind and concentrate on perfect stillness, to listen only to one’s breathing. For this reason many students of the discipline adopt a mantra, some calming word to repeat in the mind to still all other thoughts. It never works for me. I find myself counting the breaths I take while holding each pose. The counting seems to drive out many other thoughts, so maybe that’s good; but the counting itself is a problem.

Humans are obsessed with counting, and the counting of time in the year is the most glaring example of it. We have never been comfortable admitting that counting is our thing, our obsession. We want to believe that the universe is orderly in a perfect, countable way, that our various deities created it just so. We were long loath to admit that it wasn’t really that orderly. We counted by the moon, which was always a mess. Lunar-based religious calendars still in use have holidays happening all over the year. Once we settled on the solar year, or the tropical year, things settled down, but not completely. There is the problem of leap year, making up for the fact that we have laid the year out in a number of days, and once we have counted 365 of them, the universe still has ¼ day hanging there.

When it’s hot we count how many days of summer are left, as if once we pass September 21 someone will flip a switch, the temperature will cool, the leaves will turn, and we can get our sweaters out. In reality these are gradual changes, everything happening on an innumerable continuum. But we don’t stop. What is supposed to by cyclical we try to make linear; what is ineffable we try to tally.

I wish I could stop counting things all the time; but I don’t think the problem is mine alone. I think we all need to think about what purpose our constant enumeration of things serves. And now I will publish this little essay to WordPress, and start counting how many people read it . . .

Cucumbers

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When I was a boy my grandparents lived in a succession of small western Tennessee towns. The names of the towns were typical and prosaic—Edith, Ripley, Dyersburg—but my siblings and I had a field day when they moved to a spot called Frogjump. We’d visit in summer, and the funniest thing to us was that we found the place to be truly almost infested with frogs. I was young and nothing of a naturalist or explorer at the time, so I don’t know if it was because there were nearby creeks or ponds, but there were frogs everywhere. My grandfather was the Baptist minister, and we attended church twice every Sunday. In the cool of the settling evening after late services, the local boys occupied themselves with catching frogs and hurling them to their deaths against the stone walls of the church.

My grandmother always kept a garden, but her garden in Frogjump is the one I remember most vividly. Maybe it’s because it was more successful than others. For one thing, she got a bumper crop of cucumbers one year. I would go out with her in the afternoon and while she weeded I would lift leaves and scrounge until I found a cucumber. It was a thrill, finding the big vegetables, all dusty and covered with scratchy prickles. And it was a thrill when she’d say to me, ‘Another one! Look at you! You’re so good at finding them!’ I was good at finding them. It was my special skill, my first indication that I was going to enjoy gardening, that I was going to be good at it.

When I was older and had homes of my own, I always put in a garden. Whether large or small, I always feel best when there is something that I am growing. Which is a funny expression in itself, because nobody truly grows anything. They just initiate the process by putting seeds in likely soil, watering that soil, and waiting for sunshine and warmth to have their effect. But again, I always feel best when I am participating in that process. It’s semantics, I guess.

But what stood out mostly for me is the fact that in general, I wasn’t that good at it. I didn’t take seriously the need to prepare the soil properly. I was impatient and would plant seeds that called for warm soil weeks before it was time. I’d complain to anyone who would listen about the bad seeds I had bought, secretly knowing the seeds had probably been just fine until I had consigned them to a frosty death in early March. I didn’t fertilize much, so plants that did grow were reluctant to produce any vegetables or fruit. And weeding was a chore I never took seriously, even though if I harked back to memories of my grandmother, weeding was the activity I saw her do the most in her gardens.

I eventually learned. I had some good teachers, and I read a lot. I have had plenty of successful gardens. I have learned that gardening is one of the most seasonal of activities. We mostly think of it as spring planting and summer’s abundance. But in autumn, after everything has been picked, the process of turning the soil begins. Even in the winter months, on any day warm enough to allow, you can be out there checking on the soil, tilling it one more time, getting it ready for spring planting.

Harvesting, the actual thrill of picking ripe vegetables, occupies less of your time than any other gardening activity, although to most of us, it is the payoff. And that’s what else I have learned. To experienced gardeners, every step is part of the payoff. All the preparation of the soil, laying out rows, patiently waiting to put in the seeds or bedding plants at the proper time, each step is gratifying and understood to be part of what leads to the harvest. Picking those cucumbers is the delight of children, and of fond grandmothers who seek to encourage little boys.

 

The Birds

The desk in my third floor apartment looks out on a large tree. Funny that in three years spent wandering a wooded area, I did not learn my trees better, and I don’t know what sort of tree this is. Perhaps as spring comes on and the leaves come out, it will be easier to tell. There are only a few trees, like the shag bark hickory and the birch, that I can identify by their bark.

Still, sitting at my desk I have already seen three different kinds of birds in my one tree, and this morning it was the setting for a nearly perfect moment. I was drinking tea and pondering the text of the book I’m working on. In the background the classical radio station began to play Respighi’s The Birds. A pair of pearly gray pigeons alighted, as if on cue, on a large branch just before me. They went into what can only be described, quite literally, as billing and cooing. They snuggled, they ran their bills through one another’s feathers, they moved a few inches apart and spent a minute feigning indifference, and then went into another round of affectionate bonding. Then the male hopped on the female’s back. He was off quickly. I couldn’t tell if he achieved his aim. After a few more minutes spent ducking their small heads together and rubbing wings, he was on top of her again, a little longer this time. Once off, they both sat unmoving for a few minutes. Then she slowly began to wander off, as if distracted by something she had to do. Once she had stepped about a foot away from her partner, she took wing. He followed suit a moment later, though notably, flying in a different direction.

Ah, what is love! In poetry, in our own imaginations, even in cartoons, we see these simple behaviors of birds and other animals as mimicking our own emotions. Surely all the fond rubbing of heads and fluffing of feathers is expressive of affection, like we would hold hands and embrace, whether or not it is leading inevitably to mating. But with these birds, it was leading inevitably to mating. I know little about the mating patterns of pigeons. Will they become a nesting pair, the male helping the female to feed and tend to her little ones once they are hatched? Or does he just fly off, perhaps to find another likely mate on another tree on a sunny Saturday morning?

It is one of the great questions and debates of animal behaviorists, whether the animals experience emotions as we know them. I only know that I was so absorbed in watching the pigeons that everything else stood still around me. I didn’t even notice when the Respighi piece concluded. And I don’t know if I was so taken by the scene out of simple interest in the birds’ behavior, or because I was projecting my own feelings of loneliness onto them. I think there can be nothing more difficult than scientific objectivity, especially when it concerns animal behavior.

Sameness and Difference

Last night, well past midnight, I was awakened by what I took to be the sound of gunfire; five or six sharp cracks in quick succession. Startled awake I raised my head and listened for some result—screams, angry voices, sirens racing to the scene. All I discerned were perhaps some muffled laughs, and then the silence of the night closed around me again.

So this is life in the city, I thought. Gangs, guns in the hands of dangerous people, disorder and peril. But upon rising this morning I replayed the incident of the previous evening and recalled that in the three years I lived in the country, there was rarely a day that did not include the sound of gunfire, either in the distance or frighteningly close by. Random bangs that sounded like shotguns, the sharp crack of handguns, or the rapid fire of automatic weapons, drilling bullets into otherwise still Saturday or Sunday afternoons. Who knows, who can tell if these firearms were in the hands of responsible or irresponsible people? Why did I never worry that a crime was probably being committed, that someone was being gunned down? What is the difference, really, between hearing weapons fired in the country and in the city?

There is more noise in general in the city; it’s more traffic, mostly. And more light. Streetlights filter in through the still curtainless windows of my small apartment. There are way more streetlights than I consider necessary. You almost have to look up to see that it is night in the city, when only the sky is dark. Everything else is illuminated well enough to read fine print. In the country, night is dark. You can tell when the moon is full, or close to it, when you step out, without looking up to see it. The light fills the ambient darkness. You know why people in times past worshiped the moonlight, or spoke of its spiritual qualities, by the way its nearly physical presence envelops you. It would be nice if urban planners could design streetlights that dimmed in proportion to how much moonlight was available, so city dwellers could experience it.

I have smiled at, said hello to, or been ignored by more people in the past week than in the entire last three years. They are just there. I feel like Gomer Pyle, like someone who clearly does not belong, but wants to be accepted, putting my friendly face out there in an environment that does not always reward a forthcoming attitude. It’s hard to say if people in the country are kinder or more friendly; certainly that’s the stereotype, but there are so few instances to test the hypothesis that the idea must remain anecdotal at best. All I know is that wherever I am, I regard most people as pretty much the same; kindhearted and selfish by turns, and unpredictable once you put a gun in their hands.

 

Just Another Excuse

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The other night the TV weatherman posed an interesting question. Which season, he asked, do you think is warming the fastest here in the Midwest? Turns out it’s winter. Out west, it’s spring, but here our winters have been averaging a few degrees warmer every year.

This is of course an effect of the global warming that is not happening. The vast majority of the world’s scientists agree that global warming, or what they are now calling climate change, is the greatest problem facing our planet. Fortunately we here in America do not have to listen to scientists, because we have career politicians to keep us informed.

It is only a few days before Christmas and I have not worn a coat yet this year. Yes, sweaters and light jackets, but no heavy coats yet. This is unheard of, or nearly so, in the Great American Midwest. This is either cause for concern or jubilation, depending on who you talk to. Some people like the cold weather and miss it. Some hate the cold weather and remind us that it will soon get cold enough. January and February will be frigid and icy, just you wait.

I heard a botanist the other day saying that our climate here in Missouri is now mimicking the climate of Arkansas, the state due south of us. I’ve been to Arkansas often, and I note that the same crape myrtle that doesn’t bloom until August around here blooms in May there. So that is a significant climate shift. Except of course for the fact that it is not happening.

One thing I have often noted about people’s interactions with the seasons is that they are most compelling in their changes from one to the other. People who have a favorite season like the transition to that season most of all. Autumn is the favorite season of more people than any other, with spring close behind. Summer and winter are distant contenders. When you ask people what they like, they usually cite the change from summer to autumn, or from winter to spring. It’s change they like, the feeling of something welcome and new: cooler days after the heat of summer, warmer days after the chill of winter.

I’m the same way. I try to be creative in my life, and I find that creativity peaks when change is in the air. Lately I’ve felt a little stymied in my creative endeavors, and I am now choosing to blame the weather. Winter has been dilatory in arriving, if indeed he ever intends to get here. Those long, cold afternoons spent indoors with books and papers scattered about are a distant dream. I’m sure it will come though, just as sure as I am that once it does, I’ll be able to find another excuse for my lack of creativity.

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