Friday, April 25, 2008

Apricot Tree

My apricot tree is in bloom—a beautiful burst of pinkish white flowers. Apricot flowers appear before the leaves (which are appearing in bud form), presenting a glorious flash of color with nothing to dull the display. First nothing but grey sticks, and then, suddenly, technicolor. It’s a wonderful harbinger when so much else warns of dreary pointlessness. Our artificial world is not so fruitful.

My classes are going well. My students repeatedly win awards, both on campus and in the community, honored by the Provost, the college President, the Writing Committee, the town Mayor and a host of agency heads. The badly needed redesign of the Composition Program is ½ my ideas (I’m on a nine person committee), and the journals my students have created are the “poster child” for our new 200-level writing initiative. But my Peer Review Committee denied my promotion, noting that the criteria specifies an emphasis on successful teaching (although the Personnel Committee had no problem at all). Huh?

The woman I anticipated sharing the rest of my life with not only didn’t show up, but disappeared, and when I finally called just to inquire as to why, informed me she felt “abandoned” (although she did seem glad to hear from me). The irony that I can never reach her by phone (she turns it off) or even leave a message, that she didn’t answer my email, that she no longer uses her Yahoo IM, and yet makes no effort to contact me appears lost on her (other than apparently sending me a letter, when we already know that mail across the Canada/U.S. border has become a joke during the Bush administration). She loves me, she keeps saying. To quote one of my friends, “I’ll believe it when she shows up.” And now? She has another reason for a delay. My friend’s point is well taken.

My government is insane. The economy no longer works well. The elective wars in Afghanistan and Iraq aren’t conforming to the administration’s fantasies. Looming but solvable problems with Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, Unemployment, Global Warming, Rising Energy Costs, Rising Food Costs, Insufficient Health Care—all are lost to jockeying for short term political gain, and the only consistent push seems to be for cutting taxes, as if no taxes would magically solve all this.

I was finally able to get some sleep, and after rising, I took my dog to Stoney Pond for a longish run. She quickly found some deer parts—the forequarters of the front feet, fur still attached. Poachers, probably. We run on, and when deep into the woods, her demeanor alerts me to the presence of wildlife—but clearly not prey. We run on, and her nose and ears track the changing direction. Finally I hear it—once, then twice. Certainly not a dog (and without an owner out here). Coyote, I suspect. We run on. Then I see it—or at least a swish of tail for a moment. My dog, a few seconds later, sharply turns her head once she catches the scent. We run on, repeating the pattern a few times.

Then I see, directly in my path, neatly laid out, a feather from a red-tailed hawk. I pick it up. My Native American friends (who associate me with a red-tailed hawk totem) would say I was given a gift from the deer (I let my dog take the bone home), the coyote, and the red-tailed hawk. Once, in my younger mystical days, I’d have thought so too. It’s a wonderful, and probably healthy belief, one of reverence to things greater than ourselves. It’s spring, though, and I run virtually every day. The odds of our coming across such things are high, and when we do, it’s just nature playing itself out—just as we all are living the course of our lives.

But I took the feather home, accepting the gift, real or imagined. And for all else that happens, my apricot tree is in bloom.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Frog Song

Long days. Too much everything. At the end of this day, despite the late hour and approaching darkness, I call my dog and head to Stoney Pond, not for the run I missed, but for a long walk. The trouble with troubles is that the mind races, preventing solution—or at least working against one.

We start the walk—a calm, peaceful night, the scent of moisture in the air, the weather warm before an approaching cold front. My dog races about, sometimes straining the 26’ retractable leash, sniffing about, sometimes digging furiously until I call her.

I’m thinking about the hour I wasted before we left. My college has embraced something called “Strengths Quest” as a tool for students and faculty. I was handed my access code a few months ago. Although I rolled my eyes at the presentation two months ago, I finally decided to log on.

Good grief. Who are these clowns?

Two unseen geese take off honking, warning the others of our approach.

Two of my “five strengths” aren’t even words—“Ideation” and “Intellection” [I swear—I’m serious—that’s their taxonomy]. Two others (and notice these labels aren’t even parallel) simply repeated my answers to the ridiculous questions: “Strategic” and “Learner”. The fifth took what I said and bizarrely exaggerated on no evidence: “Maximizer.” The off-shoot of all this is that I like to take time to think and plan, that I’m good at absorbing information and readily seek it as needed, and that I build on my strengths rather than obsess about weaknesses. [Well, duh, yeah---]

Then consider the hundreds of areas the brain-trusts who designed this atrocity simply ignored. Arggh. This is scholarship? No wonder colleges can’t achieve demonstrable results (except in artificial areas measured by arbitrary vehicles such as this nonsense).

An eerie sound dominates the walk, like a cicada invasion (but it’s too early for insects), or more like a science fiction film. Actually, it’s frogs, peepers, so many that the sound just meshes together into a spooky, constant barrage, an effect amplified by the evening quiet and the rapidly darkening sky. A little further along the path, another sound slips underneath, more frogs, but croakers this time. I know what will happen, and it does. As we approach a side pond, home to the croakers, the sound abruptly stops, almost as suddenly as throwing off a switch. Amazing. The peepers continue.

Across the water, somebody’s in the campground. A radio plays rock music. Lights shine.

I think about the book I’m reading, a book I first read several years ago, Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game.” I’m teaching it in my sophomore literature class. Now, of course, I see several things I missed the first time I read it, including the themes of his other novels and the playful irony of the work. It speaks to me as much now as it did then—no doubt in large part because Hesse and I share an interest in music and Eastern philosophy (though the book involves much more than just that). I’ve always remembered this passage, one I accidentally turned directly to when flipping pages:

“This landscape of clouds and sky. At first glance you might think that the depths are there where it is darkest; but then you realize that the darkness and softness are only the clouds and that the depths of the universe begin only at the fringes and fjords of this mountain range of clouds—solemn and supreme symbols of clarity and orderliness. The depths and the mysteries of the universe lie not where the clouds and blackness are; the depths are to be found in the spaces of clarity and serenity.”

We come around the “corner” of Stoney Pond, leaving the woods to walk along the water, approaching the campground. The music has softened considerably. People (three?) walk about with flashlights. Another goose honks, flying across the water.

The peepers are loud now. We walk to the shore. Abruptly, eerily, the peepers suddenly just stop. Silence. No music. No wind. No birds. No sound at all.

The sky is cloudy—cold front approaching. In the darkness, I look for a place to cross the watershed to the road by the campground. Eventually, I realize this will simply mean I have to get my feet wet. I go for what rocks I can see, none of them dry, but better than wading into rushing water over my ankles. I slosh through the mud on the other side, slipping at times. At least I’m wearing think wool socks.

A small fire and a Coleman lantern light the campsite, one now devoid of sound and visible people. My dog and I walk by, silently.

The night is warm. Peaceful. I used to get away to the mountains for a day at a time, and always found it gradually cleared my thinking. Why did I stop? Busy schedule, I guess—and since I moved to the country, I don’t feel the same need to “get away” that I did in the city, even in the well-wooded residential area. Maybe I should anyway. Dunno. Not that easy.

When I reach the car, I’m not done walking. I walk past along the road for a bit, intending to double back. As the road climbs, though, the character of the forest and the air changes, more dry, lighter but also “desolate” in a relative sense. I turn back and drive home.


Sunday, April 6, 2008

Reelin' in the Tears

On the way to do laundry, finding talk radio at the moment vapid, I hit “scan” on my car radio, and caught the beginning of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years.”

For years I’ve loved this song—first, Steely Dan is an awesomely talented and original pair of composers/performers, and second, they collaborate with monsters (music slang for incredibly gifted performers), in this case, that awesome guitar solo, an exemplar of both construction and delivery.

I’ve long know the lyrics, of course, although they’ve always been secondary to my interests as a musician, but today, for some reason, they caught my ear:

Are you reelin’ in the years,
Storin’ away the time;
Are you gatherin’ up the tears,
Have you had enough of mine?

Well, quite a few years have passed since I felt quite that way, but I started thinking about my last few relationships.

Sure, years ago, I flatly messed things up. I was young, stupid, clueless. It happens. But more recently, past decade or so, I’ve entered carefully calculated relationships, a step at a time, planting gardens instead of rushing in, sword blazing. And the results were wonderful! Passionate partnerships built on common interests, engaging conversations, intersecting life goals, and so forth.

And yet these relationships went belly-up. Why? No reason. Nothing bad happened. That, in fact, seems to be the problem—with no negative developments, the relationship seemed to be promising enough to call for a long commitment, making it a real threat. One partner decided to strive to control me and force issues she knew would never work. Another decided she’d worry 24/7 that I was seeing other people on the side (I’ve NEVER cheated on a partner—when I told one of my best friends about her assessment, he could only repeat, “What?!” His wife agreed.) More recently, one woman invented such bizarre stories to get ME to be the one to end the relationship that my dad pointed out “You’ve got lots of material for a great novel there.”


Everyone has issues. That’s fine. But I’m tired of people taking a pound of my flesh in attempts to satisfy their own psychoses.

Taking your bat and ball and going home alone is easy. Partnerships take more effort than that—you’d think mature people could get a grip on that. But apparently not. Many relationships seem to be forged youthfully, when idealism clouds any sense of reality.

When Tracy Chapman asks, “Why if there’re so many of us, are people still alone?"--it’s often because they choose—whether they’ll admit it or not—to be alone.

Just take responsibility for such a decision, rather than spending years of other people’s lives when they could be building a life instead of wasting one. Cry your own tears--and be clear about the reason.

I'm reminded of the pilot for "Mad about You." Our couple meets by accident, and are about to part forever, despite obvious sparks (well, this IS television...). Then our hero turns to this vision and says somthing like, "One day, you'll be with your friends, drinking margarettas, complaining 'Why can't I just meet a nice guy?' Well, you DID meet a nice guy--and you let him walk away." He turns. Pause. She says, "Wait! -- you swear you're a nice guy?" And so we have a television series.

That's what people want. Television. Internet romances. Emotion at a distiance.


Saturday, April 5, 2008

An Artist's Circle

I was perhaps an accidental artist, growing up alienated with a slightly abusive mother and a dad working long hours and going to night school, themselves the children of dairy farmers, my childhood era the turmoil of senseless violence of the sixties, my environment stuck in fifties philosophy, a tarnished Pleasantville.

Yet the house was filled with books, the library was down the street, and inexpensive books were available from catalogs the teachers gave us in class. I took refuge here, eventually also in mathematics (I liked the logical aspects and the challenge of theoretical math) and increasingly in music. From music, the path I decided to follow, I learned a good deal about what the music addressed, including time periods, cultures, philosophies, literature, dance, opera—anything that might make me a better musician—learning FAR more than in school or college.

Most of all, I learned to identify myself as an artist—one who strove to see the world in terms of ideas, particularly fresh views of that world, challenging entrenched, outdated, unuseful thought patterns. “I was sent into the world to rattle cages,” I sometimes explained—my view of the artist as a young man, my way of dealing with a confusing world in my search for purpose and identity.

Thirty years later, I seem to have circled back. My family is scattered and some members won’t even speak to each other. I feel alienated at work, my classroom successes—new approaches, students winning awards for their writing and so forth—are met with polite praise and official criticism, as I’m viewed more as a threat than an asset, indicated by the degree of nitpicking necessary to respond to my endeavors (which remain otherwise successful). I’m irritated and angry, despondent and discouraged. What a waste of energy.

So, I find myself back to rattling cages, back to letting go of what others think, back to seeing the world as freshly as I can, and back to living in my own mental compartment, perhaps symbolized by my cave of an office, or by my home located far out in the country by myself.

Ironic, I suppose (or maybe this has just been building): I sat down to consider how to approach my Intro to Fiction class in this next unit. We’ve just finished “Dubliners”—essentially the story of Joyce’s journey from artistic/alienated adolescent in ”Araby” to his cosmic self-realization(s) at the end of “The Dead”—and his next work? “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (one of the books I read on my own as a student). Then I started to read the next work, Hesse’s “Magister Ludi,” and I had my own epiphany.

As the “biographer” described the history of the novel’s Glass Bead Game, I remembered why I chose to read this work too as a student, and I know what I’ll teach the class to get them into the novel. As the narrator describes, I’ll show them what’s so special about Bach, Mozart, and Renaissance masters, how Joyce parallels music, how music and mathematics are richly intertwined, how great a role math plays in Renaissance painting and architecture, how Ancient Greece saw music as also geometry and astronomy, how this started the university system, and how Ancient China governed the use of music as essential to the health of the state—and why.

And then the role of contemplation. How everything is a symbol. And just what do we DO with this knowledge after we attain it?

For better or for worse, the artist is back, attitude and all. It’s simply who and what I am, and I refuse to be "a creature driven and derided by vanity."