Dim figures lay scattered, most still, some moving, moaning softly, a few rending the air with hoarse shrieks, adrift, attenuated, desolate in souless suffering. The moon hung low, full but defaced with smoke and dust and the rising mist, a corpselight.

He stared ahead, seeing nothing, seeing too much. A leaden weariness made breath a burden. He did not bleed, but sensation had left him, burned from him by what he had witnessed. What he had done.

The attack had come just after midnight, the bugles screaming, the waves of Chinese lunging and stumbling up the slope. The mines had blown, the .30s and the M2s opened up with white tracers streaking, and the 80mm mortars whumped their shells onto the massed bodies. He crouched at his radio, shouting the ranges over the din, in the precise measured tones he had learned in Kansas over the equipment he had learned to use in Georgia. The fear, coppery-tasting, sickening, his bowels trembling. The world shattering as the  big shells came down, a curtain of flame on a darkened stage, the players so many broken marionets.

Limbs, torsos…heads. The moans. The shrieks. The darkness. The shame. They had died, and he had lived.

The faces did not look like his. The eyes were almond-shaped, dark, the hair dark, straight, so little like his wavy reddish waves, his mother’s hair, his grandmother’s hair. Not like his, not like theirs. And yet they had died, and he had seen them die. The fierce exultation. The clearing smoke. The human wreckage. The cries. The smell of blood and feces, and burnt meat. And the empty aftermath.

He stared straight ahead, seeing nothing, seeing everything. The moon rose slowly.

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Prodigal

November 24, 2008

Considering the irregularity of my postings, I wonder that anyone still reads this blog. I’ve been far away from it; too busy, too distracted, too fatigued, too… okay, I’ve been playing WoW. Sue me.

But I’ve missed writing. I know it’s not very good, but I don’t write for the audience. I write for me. After some encouragement, I let you all into my musings. I hope they haven’t been too disappointing. I hope they are not too dull; but if they are…again, sue me. You don’t have to read them. But I am going to try to get back to regular posting, so I apologize in advance for the quality of my writing, or for the lack thereof. I just have to write again.

It’s Alistair Cooke’s fault. I happened to catch the documentary on Cooke this evening on PBS. The show spoke of his “Letters from America”, the radio series he did for the BBC, and told of how they were commentaries by an observer with cinematic vision, a man who saw things as unflinchingly as a movie camera, and yet worked very hard to keep his own opinions out of his simple statement of what he saw, and let that simple statement, over many years, tell the story of a changing nation through what may have been mankind’s most tumultuous century.

I can’t do that as well as Cooke, I’m sure. I spend much of my time trying to be objective. I am distrustful, not of the values of my upbringing, but of the assumptions attendant therein. I contend with this every day, to see as much as I can as clearly as i can. I will try to do that here. It may not say anything of our nation’s passage through this new century, nor represent our times to electronic readers to come; but it might help me discern what is true from what is not; to distinguish what is true from what I only think is true.

In my youth a friend of mine once advised me to be wary of “Truth with a capital T”. He said that one should look for small everyday truths. It was sound advice, and though in time my friend would stumble when the little truths escaped him for a while, the little truth of that advice is unassailable. I have kept it as a guiding principle.

Thanks, ol’ buddy. Glad you found your feet again.

From those little truths, one can build, over the years, a vision of what is true. And that is much more important than “the Truth”. The former is enlightening. The latter is advertising. This is a truth I have discovered.

We have moved into a new kind of religion, or at least of Christianity, with new ways of looking at Christ’s message. It is an attempt to move past the marketing of two millenia to the real message, like taking the bag of corn flakes out of the oversized, brightly-colored box and pouring them into a sturdy, solid bowl. I like the idea, if it can truly be done. It’s an old idea; it motivated Constantine’s council of bishops and scholars in Nicaea; it motivated Benedict; it motivated Francis; it motivated Martin Luther. But it has to be more than throwing poop at the cathedral door, and having a social consciousness. It has to be a spiritual, and it has to be an intellectual reformation. It has to become a freedom of vision. It has to be willing to cast aside comfort, cast aside complacency, and at the moment of any revelation it must cast aside anger, undisciplined passion, self-congratulatory salvation. It must be a change of soul, and heart, and mind. And it requires a willingness to see the small true things…and to accept that some of the Truth, as packaged by state or religion or media, is so much brightly colored packaging. Whether or not this new form of religion will be successful is not yet certain. I can almost assure you it won’t last in perfection past it’s first generation. But it’s a noble attempt. I do wish it didn’t so often involve trading in J. S. Bach for Bill Gaither, or Rembrandt for nifty logoes; I think we’re selling ourselves a little short. But that’s just me. And it’s kind of a distraction.

I will rather look and listen and feel for the small true things. I will ask questions, and and seek answers, and not be afraid of the truths I find, even if they are unsettling. I need not attempt to match the Infinite. It’s too exhausting. And if I can, I will try to share the truths I find, and a few laughs, and a few tears…though I will try not to make the tears to self-indulgent. Try. Not promise. I am me, after all. Don’t expect perfection.

Nor any strict adherence to a publishing schedule….

Full Moon Fever

September 24, 2008

There are times when, in the middle of a moonlit night, I wake up and can’t go back to sleep.

It always happens when the moon is full. Whether it’s a clear night or not, the increased level of ambient light, the weird effects of steroids on my circadian rhythm, too much caffeine, the tidal effect of the waxing phase, or the influence of the the Moon in my seventh house rising in Scorpio… whatever. I have to get up, go into the living room, read, watch TV, pet the cat(s), the dog, or one of my thirty-five stuffed toy otters (no, that’s not some sexual euphemism. I collect toy otters. it’s my thing, you wouldn’t understand).

It has been suggested to me that perhaps my occasional insomnia might be attributable to my age. Thanks. That makes me feel better.

There is also a theory that I have become a werewolf. Okay. Can’t sleep on a full moon, lots of body hair (only some of which is due to the steroids), generally surly before dinner…I concede, the werewolf theory has a certain weight. But I rarely feel like howling at the moon. Oh, and while I do like ribs, i don’t usually do the actual killing and evisceration of the beastie.And I prefer them cooked and covered in barbecue sauce.

Another theory is that my cat wakes me up, just to piss me off. Oh, he does that, but usually I can fall back to sleep afterwards…after I pet him, make sure he’s comfortable, and remove his foot from my throat.

A final theory is that sometimes I just wake up on the night of a full moon and can’t go back to sleep.

I didn’t say it was a theory that completely explains the phenomenon, I just said it was a theory. I mean, I could have made some funny, Barry-esque observation, but I’m just not that imaginative. Probably because I can’t sleep during a full moon.

And besides..my cat tells me I need to kill a pig, take a flea bath, and take Geritol. Who am I to argue with him?

Sorry for the long silence, but I’ve been busy.

No, really.

Stop laughing! I actually DO things…sometimes….

I do, too!

I’ve been taking guitar lessons for a couple of months now. Remember that I had two goals in mind, the first to learn how to sight-read on guitar, and the second, to learn to use a flat-pick. Both have been a bit of a challenge, but I’ve made some progress.

I’m working with Barry Edelson at Ken Stanton music, an excellent teacher for an old fart like me, and from the Berklee Guitar Method (from the Berklee School of Music in Boston). It’s a challenging book, even for someone like me who can actually already music…but who hasn’t bothered to learn to do so for his guitar-playing. The drills and etudes are simple… but annoyingly difficult. This old dog is learning new tricks, sure, but very… very… slowly. And because I know I can play better than my current level of flat-picking allows, I try to go too fast, and it takes me twice as long to unlearn  bad habits before learning the good ones. Barry, however, is a diligent taskmaster. He doesn’t let me get away with much.

The flat-picking is actually coming along pretty well, in my humble (really, VERY humble) opinion. After nearly eight weeks of practicing (not very religiously… but practicing), I’m beginning to get a better idea of moving the pick up and down from string to string, and to pick eigth and sixteenth notes using the standard alternating up and down technique. As someone who used to just fake it with all four fingers, this is no small accomplishment… okay, yes, actually, it is a small accomplishment, but I’m middle-aged, with little spare energy, and face it, not exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier. It’s coming a long, though, and I can hit most of the notes… eventually… that I want to hit.

The sight-reading is the tough part. I learned to read music playing single-voiced instruments, my trumpet and my own voice. The guitar forces me to think in terms of chords, which I never learned to do in all those halfhearted piano lessons of my youth, and only learned in a rudimentary fashion playing guitar by ear. Now I’m learning to see the notes as a chord, not as a big stack of notes. This process, I have it on good authority, is not unlike passing a canteloupe through your ear canal (I was going to use a birthing analogy here, but thought better of it; all my friends who are mothers, save one, chose to have epidurals… save one, and frankly, she’s crazy anyway…)…

Where was I?

Oh, yes, sight-reading. It’s a challenge. I’m desparately trying to remember the music theory I learned… well, took, anyway… almost thirty years ago. It’s, um… not helping much. However, I am endeavoring to persevere. Joy has taken to wearing ear plugs during my practice time, but nevermind that now.

The great thing is, I’m playing my guitar again. I’ve got my music back, if only in a student’s fashion, and I am beginning to enjoy the new skills I’m learning. This is a Good Thing ™. It might even be a Very Good Thing (c).

So that is the status report. I will try to keep in touch. Perhaps adter my World of Woe-craft character reaches level 70, I’ll have more time for blogging. Of course, by that time, I might be flat-picking in a hoe-down somewhere. You know, the Raccoon Creek Bluegrass festival is only a year away…

I’m sure they’ll let me hand out fans and bottled water….

Two Steps Back

May 14, 2008

I have been playing guitar since I was about thirteen. While high school band and chorus provided me with musical training, a fair ear, and a chance to play a single-voiced trumpet, I never found the time to take guitar lessons, never took time to get some formal training with my favorite polyphonic instrument. I am, as it were, entirely self-taught. And obviously, as a teacher, I lacked certain skills.

It didn’t hold me back. In the small group of friends and acquaintances in which I usually performed, I could hold my own. I played by ear, with the help of the chord diagrams in the easy guitar sheet music, and the fact that so many folk, rock and pop songs are three chords and a bridge. If it hadn’t been for John Denver, I’d’ve been sunk. But after thirty-some-odd years, I needed to take it to that “next level” people too often talk about. I’ve swallowed my pride, and submitted to the ultimate indignity.

I’ve signed up for guitar lessons.

Some of my friends, the non-musical ones, might be kind of surprised at that. I mean, a few of them have seen me hold forth for six hours straight, never repeating a song, and playing until my fingers bled.

Literally.

My musical friends know it’s what I need to do, however. I need to put my soul into it, into the guitar itself. The songs that I’ve written have withered to nothing because I have nothing new to put underneath the words that sometimes spill out in torrents. I must find more materiel with which to build the musical framework, upon which those words can become something more than maudlin, childish attempts at profundity.

Or so I hope.

So, I’m going back to school, or at least to private lessons. I will finally put my money where my mouth is, take the lessons, and start, as my high school band director called “woodshedding”, by which he meant, “take it out behind the woodshed where no one can hear you and practice, practice, practice”.

What do I want to do with it? Maybe nothing. Maybe write more songs, maybe just learn to play guitar better. Maybe give up all this singer-songwriter stuff, and play “Recuerdos de la Alhambra”, and the guitar transcription for Bach’s “Suite for Two Violins” (yeah, like I’ll ever be that good!). Or maybe I’ll start playing bluegrass.

One thing for sure; in a few weeks, I will have new grist for the mill: new skills, new knowledge, new inspiration.

I’ll have my music back in my life.

Scented Sensibility

May 8, 2008

I rose early…early for me, anyway…and bustled about my morning routine, working hard to get out of the house before my usual half-hour-later-than-I-should. The cat had been fed and medicated, the dog had been given her forty minutes in the sun before being crated for the day, and I was set to head out.

I unlocked the door, stepped out on my back deck…and it hit me.

I am not the world’s most effective, diligent amateur landscaper. I mow the grass… or the dirt… from the comfortable yellow seat of my green John Deere lawn tractor; I cut the whole yard, bermuda, crabgrass and sandstone disguised as soil, in about an hour; but I don’t usually get the trimmer out to trim the grass under the flowering-whatever trees or edge the edges or trim the boxwoods by the front porch more than once a…month? A year?

Whatever.

And I don’t worry about the vine growing all over one side of my rear deck. The vine that is overcoming the Sky-chair stand, and the wire utility shelf, the deck rail, and slowly crawling up through the screen over the kitchen window. The vine that will probably take over the whole back wall of the house someday.

The honeysuckle vine.

I know. It’s agressive. It’s wild. It’s untamed. It’s getting more nourishment than it needs from its roots in the old compost bin. It will challenge kudzu with its threat to life, liberty and the occasional small animal. It will become a nuisance, maybe even a danger in its moist leafy weight.

It smells like Heaven. Its scent is dawn on a summer day. Its scent is a childhood memory of my brother showing me how to find a drop of candy by gently pulling the stamens out through the base of the flower and putting the nectar on my tongue, and his laugh as he saw my surprise. Its scent turns my overrun, less-than-orderly, more-than-messy old back deck into a little garden, into a little kiss from God.

I have a brown thumb. I have managed to kill everything from azaleas to zoysia. I can’t grow corn, or turnips, or broccoli, or tomatoes. I can’t even grow mold under my house. I will never have a Better Homes and Gardens home and garden. At my age, I can’t even grow taller. But I don’t worry about the bare spots in my lawn, or the failed tub of mint and catnip by the chiminea.

I think I will leave the honeysuckle vine to grow for a while. I think I will wait until the deck starts to sag, and we have to dive into our savings tearing it down and building a new one. I think that when that happens, I will see if I can plant a new vine by the old compost bin. I don’t need a garden, I need a honeysuckle vine.

I need a little bit of Heaven outside my back door.

Seeing the Model

March 25, 2008

Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who created Mount Rushmore, knew that those hundreds of stonemasons and laborers working on the details of the huge faces of four great Presidents carved into South Dakota granite, might miss the whole scope of his plan. So he carved models of the great heads and set them up at the sculpture site, and every day the workers could see the scope of the whole work, and stay interested as they bent over jackhammers and chisels and slow ground cold stone into art.
We work and trudge through our days, working on seemingly trivial details, hammering, chiseling. We occupy our free time dreaming of what we’ll do if we win the lottery, or if some previously unknown wealthy relative leaves us a million dollars. We lose ourselves in immense dreams of glory. And we miss the masterpiece that we’re working on every day; the real life that we began while we were busy dreaming.

Dreams are powerful things. They can motivate. They can inspire. They can be romantic, extravagant, wild, fanciful. But often, too often, they can betray us. They can distract us. They can break our hearts. Dreams they are, but they are not hopes, for hopes are what allow us to endure.

Each day, we climb a mountain of The Same Old Thing. We are bent over our desks, our computer consoles, our hammers and our chisels. But the mountain we climb is the sculpture upon which we work. The granite we carve is being crafted under our hands with every day we live, every hope we summon, every friend whose hand we take, every kindness we share, every little moment of happiness and beauty we carve from our mountains. And when we are done, when we reach the point where, finished or not, the work we are doing comes to its inevitable end, we hope to find that when we finally step back to view the whole scope of our work, we will see that the Great Artist has created a masterpiece…even if some of the gritty details aren’t quite so perfect.

Even if the model was….

 I was reading beholdthestars blog this evening, and wrote a comment there, and…well, it just started me off, so I will continue it here:

A commonly-used expression in my part of the country (and probably also in yours), in discussions of rights, is “Your rights end at the end of my nose.” I would have more faith in those who use that phrase if they didn’t so often act upon this aphorism as though their rights begin at the end of MY nose.

There’s an old movie that runs every now and then, Sam Elliot in Travis McGee: The Empty Copper Sea. In the midst of the movie, Sam/Travis is sitting at the bar as his voice narrating, says something about how the world is “full of people that are like bowling balls, always looking for someone to knock over.” As he finishes his narrated observation, the bartender gives the waitress a hard time. “Another bowling ball” growls McGee before taking the bartender to task (with suitably gleaming private detective eye). That movie was made in the eighties, the novel it was based on…in (at least) the seventies if not earlier. Apparently there are still a lot of bowling balls in the world.

We each have a great power to do good in the world…and a corresponding power to do great harm, if not great evil. The difference lies within the choices we make, and the obligations we have, and the rights we recognize. And upon never forgetting that we have the power to make those decisions.

Each day we encounter situations in which we can decide to follow the rush of our emotions and say or do something that might be at the least harsh and at the worst, hurtful to those with whom we interact, or to step back and consider a better way to express ourselves, or to act with or upon others. How often do we…do I…jump into our reaction with both big flat feet, and stomp all over the spiritual and psychic health of those with whom we work or live?

In my case, far too often. Oh, I could blame the steroids…with some little truth…but long before I was on immunosuppressants I was a bit…short…with people at times. And all too late, I come to realize it. As I have aged, I’m not sure that I’ve gotten any better about it, but it isn’t through lack of trying.

One thing I have learned through the years is that there’s no such thing as “I can’t help it.” There may be “I can’t control it”, but “I can’t help it” is a no-go. We can always help it; we can always make it better, if only by apologizing sincerely.  And then fulfilling our obligation (thanks, Stars…and Ms. Weil) that our initial callousness has brought upon us.

I guess this is all a part of that “doing unto others”-thing, and all part of that “being part of a community”-thing, that too many of us have forgotten, along with the simple fact that our rights end at the end of our nose, too. Beyond that are our obligations, to be free and to take notice, and care, of others.

Thanks again, Star.

Sysiphus was an ancient Greek king who for his crimes against the gods was banished to Tartarus to endlessly roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again, throughout eternity.

On every Monday morning, we know how the old king must have felt. There at least are no dark shadows and moaning shades in our brightly lit offices, and no three-headed hound to prevent our departure at the close of the day, not counting the noisy sales group in the conference room, and that guy from accounting with the annoying laugh.

But our work is never-ending. We create a report or build a database, or process forms or handle the needs of the public, and when one day ends, the next will await us with more of the same. Unceasing drudgery.

But is it really? Oh, it can be tiresome, it can be the same old thing every day. And if we bring none of our own joy to it, it can be cheerless. But it pays our bills. It feeds us, and when the day is done, we can take to our home and hearth a sense that, whether or not it was the most enjoyable way to spend our day or the most glamorous of vocations, it has given us a sense of purpose, and some sense of accomplishment. These are not trivial things.

Our work does not define us; we define our work, or at least we should. So let Mondays be a little less dreary, and let us welcome each new day’s chance to do our work just a little bit better. If we do it well, then we have placed our own stamp upon it, and we can take some comfort in the knowledge that the world perhaps was made a little better by our unsung exertions.

But then again…it is Monday….

World Enough, and Time

February 21, 2008

My wife and I will be celebrating our sixteenth wedding anniversary on the 29th of February. It has been a good sixteen years.

It’s been a good sixteen years despite my illness, despite my being on Disability for nearly four years, and despite my often being underemployed in the early years. It’s been a good sixteen years despite our families each having their own trials and tribulations, illnesses and surgeries, disputes, disruptions and divorces. It’s been a good sixteen years even though I drive my wife absolutely crazy in any number of ways.

In my youth I was always looking for fireworks and symphonies. I looked for the thunder crash and the artillery barrage, the big time, the big top. I thought love had to be epic and overwhelming. I have learned a better way in sixteen years of marriage. I’ve learned that the most powerful feelings are the ones the poets don’t write about, the ones that have the power and immensity, not of a storm crashing ashore, but of the long swell of the deepest sea.

What I have really discovered in the last sixteen years is that the years haven’t paled our marriage, that there are new discoveries every time I look into my wife’s beautiful brown eyes, that there is delight in the curve of her lips when she smiles, in the tilt of her head when she’s engrossed in something on her laptop. I have found that Andrew Marvell was wrong to fear the “deserts of vast eternity” when “beauty shall no more be found”.

Beauty is in my wife’s every movement, in her every breath. In sixteen years, there is no diminishment, only new facets to be discovered. And tomorrow, I know, there will be new delights.

I am a very fortunate man.