Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Grumpus

In my last post, Rising Moon, I inserted a link to so that listeners can hear a song in its entirety, rather than the 30-second snippet provided by other websites.  In the course of installing this link, I got lost. Pathways which initially worked to play the song stopped working, alternate pathways would compensate but then they stopped working.  An intrusive, confounding Pop-Up Blocker Detected window kept opening.  It later turned out this window was easy to use and I needn't have been put off by it, but I've a shallow learning curve in technical matters.  (2013 Update:  At this point I have replaced the link with a succession of embedded music players, the current one being Spotify.)

Amidst this confusion, I had a memory from childhood –– of a board game in which I would be going along a path toward some goal, following random directions from sets of cards.  There were bad guys in this game whose purpose was to delay my progress.  The chief bad guy was named Grumpus, or something like that.  I couldn't remember.

I also couldn''t remember the board game's name, although I did recall it was one of those Snakes and Ladders games in which you are similarly on a path ... only to be dropped or ascended into another level where things might or might not go well.  Like life on a bad day, or air travel and shopping malls on an average day.

Anyhow, I began to experience the website as a board game, with the role of Grumpus played by the Pop-Up Blocker Detected window.  Seeking to clarify the origin of my memory, I quizzed friends and family about their knowledge of children's board games and Grumpus.  Happily for me, help was forthcoming, and I learned some things.

I thanked my helpers, and what follows is an excerpt from a thank-you to one of those helpers, my sister.  It reveals partial answers:

     "Dear ----, I believe the board game in question was Uncle 
     Wiggily.  It had two bad guys, The Skeezicks and (the one 
     that really troubled me) The Bad Pipsisewah –– a horned 
     rhino-like beast which in some editions of the game presented 
     inexplicably as a large red squid.  (What, one wonders, was 
     The Good Pipsisewah?)  Now the Uncle Wiggily book also 
     had a character named Bazumpus, although I don't remember
     its nature or intentions.

     Anyhow, I believe I conflated The Bad
     Pipsisewah with Bazumpus and came
     out (strangely) with Grumpus.  It's
     also possible I did nothing of the sort.
     Your inclusion into this mix of Dad's
     'Oh, don't be such a grumpus'
     complicates things with psycho-
     dynamic possibilities.  Dad was from
     Tennessee, of course, where perhaps they say things like that.
     So the roots of my confusion may lie variously in board games,
     literature, family relations, or Tennessee."

Uncle Wiggly (1954 Edition)
I believe I am only at the dawn of understanding here.  One thing to add, though.  The destination in the game, the place you wind up at the end of the trail, is Dr. Possum's House.  This is something we can all think about.

Rising Moon

I had forgotten what a nice song "Rising Moon" (1985) by Hugh Blumenfeld is.  Written by Blumenfeld, and sung with backing vocal by Diane Chodkowski, it first appeared in an early issue of Fast Folk Musical Magazine.  (See Smithsonian Folkways for archival information on this magazine.)

Spare and heartfelt, "Rising Moon" conveys a tone of fragility, a tone blending attraction, hesitation, and restraint, that jumble of feelings at play in those totally smitten.

There is a delicious tension, we're not sure how this song-story will end.  The lyrics and vocal timbre evoke this tension, while mournful background cello and counterpointing guitars provide instrumental grounding.

We find ourselves drawn in, pulling for the singer, hoping it all works out.  Here are the lyrics:

     Rainy nights in March, making you amazed
     Singing songs of angel flights and silver traveling days
     Making all my life sound like a lark
     Trying to sing my heart out
     Trying to make a start, now won't you

     Hang a rising moon on this sinking heart of mine
     And lead my willful sadness to its rest
     And roll me o'er an ocean where the days ride deep below me
     And something that was mine will be mine again

     Sitting here beside you till it's far too late to leave
     Pretending nothing's on my mind and nothing's up my sleeve
     But feeling I could very nearly touch you
     Should I take you without warning
     Stay until the morning comes, oh

     Hang a rising moon on this sinking heart of mine
     And lead my willful sadness to its rest
     And roll me o'er an ocean where the days ride deep below me
     And something that was mine will be mine again

     Talking's not so easy ... singing's just not fair
     It puts you in a woman's soul to wonder how you got there
     So I guess I'll just take all the time I need
     And I'll kiss you when I know you
     Find a way to show you, you can

     Hang a rising moon on this sinking heart of mine
     And lead my willful sadness to its rest  
     And roll me o'er an ocean where the days ride deep below me
     And something that was mine will be mine again

This is crafted writing.  Early on the singer tells us his beloved has atmospheric magic, an uplift power.  She can rise aloft, fly with angels amid "silver traveling days."  And she can save the singer from the gravitational pull of his sad, weighted history, roll him over "an ocean where the days ride deep below me."

The middle section is more earthy, less abstract.  There is a physicality and that "delicious tension," in a stanza worth repeating:

     Sitting here beside you till it's far too late to leave
     Pretending nothing's on my mind and nothing's up my sleeve
     But feeling I could very nearly touch you
     Should I take you without warning
     Stay until the morning comes ...

These lines feel true.  I imagine most people have known that tangle.

Finally we come to the third section of "Rising Moon."  The need for rescue of the first part, the muddled desire of the second –– both are resolved in a thoughtful manner.  As seen in these penetrating lines:

     Talking's not so easy ... singing's just not fair
     It puts you in a woman's soul to wonder how you got there

Talking versus singing, both get you inside someone's head and heart. But whereas talking favors mutual sharing and clarifying, singing bypasses this work and gets you there anyway ... as if somehow you got on an airplane without going through any negotiation or screening.

This singer says that's not fair, and that he says it puts him on a higher path.  Not just in it to win it, he seems in it for the long term, seems to want something more binding than artistic mystique.  He chooses the route that is "not so easy," which is talking.  He implies that a binding connection can only result from the time it takes to know and be known.  Then he can kiss her, and then she can know who kissed her and upon whom she might hang "a rising moon."

Hugh Blumenfeld is an interesting man.  He holds a Master's Degree in English Literature and PhD in Poetics, and more recently became an MD specializing in family medicine.  These twin concerns perhaps trace to college at M.I.T., where he graduated with degrees in Biology and Humanities.  (See Hugh Blumenfeld for biography.)

His song, "Rising Moon," speaks to tensions inherent in the human condition, tensions which surface when appetite meets up with thoughtfulness and regard.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Strangeness

This post has been tweaked and retweaked.  Its themes have long been with me and can be filed under Family and Social Relations.  My editors, Todd and Cyril, both feel the post is a bit dark but we are going forward.

It begins with religion.

Years ago, I heard a minister define religion as "the human community.” The word comes from the Latin religio (obligation, bond), which derives from the verb religare (to bind).  Think "binding" words such as ligament, ligature, obligation, and "the human community" seems a workable definition.

This "binding" meaning of religion reminds me of numerous songs that are secularly religious.  A perfect folk-rock example would be "Get Together" (1967) by The Youngbloods, with its refrain:

     Come on people now                          
     Smile on your brother
     Everybody get together
     Try to love one another right now

The song has depth.  More than just a "let's be nice to each other" song, it begins with the lines:

     Love is but a song we sing
     And fear's the way we die

Love, expressiveness, opening up –– these are opposed to fear, insularity, a death of attachment.  Or so it seems to me.  But while opening up to others with a "one world" spirit of unity might seem "religious," it can also be suspect.   After 9/11, "Get Together" was put on a list of "lyrically questionable" songs by media giant Clear Channel Communications, which list was then distributed to over 12,000 radio stations.  In advocating fellowship, The Youngbloods ran afoul of the censorious.  (See "Get Together," or this blog, One Note Man.)

Potentially running into trouble is the least of it, though; in part, because opening up to others may instead lead to pleasure, not rejection; in greater part, because "binding" with others takes effort. Why?  Because it is easier to remain closed off and not learn about an unfamiliar someone; after all, it takes little effort to maintain our default perspectives.  True learning requires attention and suspension of preconceptions –– it enlarges a mental room in which to accommodate the new.

Togetherness takes work.  There actually is an "obligation" to suspend preformatted concepts so as to be capable of being surprised by the unexpected.

A poem that movingly distills this is "The Strangeness," by Stan Rice (The New Yorker, 3/6/00):

     The strangeness of others ––
     Even your sisters and brothers ––
     Is a responsibility to
     Overcome –– or some night they will be lying
     In a bed dying –– and how you loved them,
     Its quality –– will be as unknown
     To you as your own mother was
     While a living stranger.

Quite a poem.  What catches me is the word "responsibility."  It carries that sense of "obligation," and it brings that obligation down to earth. These unknown "others" are not from different lands or in different skins, we are not “smiling" upon metaphoric brothers from different cultures or persuasions.  These others may in fact be our biological sisters and brothers –– and yet as strange to us as implicitly we are to them.  So we are all "living strangers" to one another; ironically, no more so than when we are among familiars.

Deeper still is that "how you loved them" may be unknown.  We are not just strange to one another, we are strange to ourselves, unaware of how others experience the “quality" of our love.  I may think I know you and love you well, you may be thinking no such thing.  So if there were to be a roadmap to self-knowledge, it might reasonably start with thoughtful attention to others; in particular, to how they have or have not been reached by us.  We might then know something of how we love them.  We might then not take our connections for granted.

There is important work to be done here and only so much time in which to do it.  The possibility of "human community" plays out against the reality of the human clock, which is always ticking.  One’s "sisters and brothers" will someday be "In a bed dying."  It would be a tragedy at their end-time to not know who those people were, and to not know who one was to them.  It might lead to feeling haunted, it might be the essence of feeling haunted.

Is this too serious, preachy even?  I hope not.  How I link up to readers of this blog hinges on the reach of my words, and how those words are taken in.  What I think my message is may not at all be what you are hearing.  And that's probably always the case: maybe none of us ever hears exactly what the other is saying.  There is built-in imprecision as to who we are to one another; and that's on a good day, when the other is saying something and we are actually listening.

While not classically "religious," these issues of knowing/being known, the obligation to try, and time limits seem morally central –– crucially so, when one's "human community" is familiar and thus presumed to be known.  Because chances are we are less known to one another than we imagine, and that all knowledge is partial knowledge.  We should try to overcome the strangeness of others and self-with-others.

Let's put something out there, see if there is a response, allow for getting it all wrong and the possibility that others will get it all wrong. Let's allow for "right" and "wrong" to not be very useful concepts.  Let's keep putting it out there anyway, lets's do our best.

Sunday, June 13, 2010



Readers of this blog may have noticed the addition of a team member, Todd. This brief post will introduce him.

Coming from a background in forestry and herbaceous studies, Todd has shown talent in transferring pruning capacities –– originally developed in woodscapes –– to the world of blogscapes.  This makes him an attentive, if somewhat methodical editor.  And since writing can be a lonely enterprise, his very presence is solid and affirming.

Welcome, Todd!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Fat-Hearted Men

Note to visitors:  This post contains a photo Yosemite Starry Night by Sam Rua (click link for Mr. Rua's photo galleries).  The photo visually extends a poem by Kenneth Rexroth, "The Great Nebula of Andromeda."  Astronomically, Mr. Rua's Yosemite photo is of the Taurus constellation, not the Andromeda of Rexroth's poem.  Aesthetically, though, it's just right for the atmosphere evoked by that poem.

In 1971, Marvin Gaye recorded "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)." One of its verses goes:
     Oh, oh, mercy mercy me                                                    
     Oh, things ain't what they used to be
     No, no
     Oil wasted on the oceans, and upon our seas
     Fish full of mercury ...

Marvin Gaye wrote this song.  Forty years on, the unfolding oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico revivifies its lyrics.  And while there are many aspects to this disaster –– scientific, legal, ethical, political, ecological, financial –– what mostly remains is a kind of stupefaction.  It is hard to comprehend this oil spill; thoughts are slow in coming, as if I had suffered a blow to the head.  Even music fails me here, Marvin Gaye notwithstanding.

In quantitative terms, between 20 million and 44 million gallons of oil have leaked into the Gulf to date.  Numbers of this magnitude turn to mush in my mind.  Helpfully, one website visualizes the enormity of this oil spill in local-geographical terms.  For those in the Northeast, such a quantity of oil would cover the entire states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and most of Massachusetts.  (For more on this, click on Three Ninety Eight.)

This visual aid eases my stupefaction but only somewhat.  That is because British Petroleum seemingly knew back in 2005 that they were in a "frontier province" of deep water drilling, and that they would have to possess "the capability to respond to the unexpected" (see Our Fix-It Faith).  But evidently BP insufficiently respected the complexities of this "frontier province," as well as their stated care in entering it.

By definition, when one is at a frontier, one is at a beyond point of knowability and preparedness:  Past this border lies an unknown universe.  A working recognition of the limits of knowability could have tempered exploratory optimism with substantive contingency planning. There could have been –– there should have been –– an attitude of awe at the largeness of this move into the unknown, with an attendant and grounding humility.  Instead, there seems to have been a "can do" hubris in which BP befogged itself, losing sight of the ramifications of what it was actually doing.  Rather than respectful awe, one finds detachment and a scrabbling to do catch-up.  BP stupefied itself.

But here comes a poem that actually relieves stupefaction. It is "The Great Nebula Of Andromeda" (1956), by Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982).  Rexroth included it among a suite of poems, The Lights In The Sky Are Stars, written for his 5 year old daughter Mary when the poet was 50.  The setting is likely the Eastern Sierras in California; it is night and Rexroth and his daughter are camping.

     We get into camp after
     Dark, high on an open ridge
     Looking out over five thousand
     Feet of mountains and mile
     Beyond mile of valley and sea.
     In the star-filled dark we cook
     Our macaroni and eat
     By lantern light.  Stars cluster
     Around our table like fireflies.
     After supper we go straight
     To bed.  The night is windy
     And clear.  The moon is three days
     Short of full.  We lie in bed
     And watch the stars and the turning
     Moon through our little telescope.
     Late at night the horses stumble
     Around camp and I awake.
     I lie on my elbow watching
     Your beautiful sleeping face
     Like a jewel in the moonlight.
     If you are lucky and the
     Nations let you, you will live
     Far into the twenty-first
     Century.  I pick up the glass
     And watch the Great Nebula
     Of Andromeda swim like
     A phosphorescent amoeba
     Slowly around the pole.  Far
     Away in distant cities
     Fat-hearted men are planning
     To murder you while you sleep.

These are arresting images: eating macaroni by lantern light, stars clustering like fireflies, stumbling horses, a child's "sleeping face/ Like a jewel in the moonlight."  The images are perceptual and concrete, they catch like a bur:  One smells the macaroni, sees the stars, hears the horses.  And the rhythm in the sound of the words is pleasing.

But mostly I like how the poem draws me in and out of two spaces. There is magic afoot here.  The concrete imagery pulls me into the Eastern Sierras of the poem-world.  I feel there, in the dark with Rexroth contemplating eternal things of stone and star, then brought back by Rexroth to an internal “me" space, pondering human transience and temporality.

Yosemite Starry Night 
(Credit: Sam Rua)
Rexroth's magic is hard to get at.  But I think it has to do with reverence for both spaces, for vast “outer" space and also limited “inner" human space.  Rexroth himself, while camping, goes out into vastness and then back into his head.  He writes a poem about it, and his poem acts upon the reader in the same way the Great Nebula of Andromeda acted upon him.  So the poem is a star-portal:  I read it and am drawn so fully into the poem-world that briefly my world is left behind me –– taken out among the stars, I am then returned to earth.

The poem itself becomes a "little telescope" through which to enter vastness, and through which to then re-enter personal space (with its issues of time, death, fragility: the territory of human transience).

Both spaces matter.  Rexroth is as absorbed in his daughter's sleeping face as he is in the Great Nebula of Andromeda.  His attitude toward the particular movements of one lived life is as reverential as his attitude toward the swimming movements of Andromedan star dust.  And he is certainly not detached from either.  We are here a short while, and we live against a natural backdrop that was here before us and will be here after us.  A fitting attitude toward both our brevity and that timeless backdrop should be absorbed reverence.

And the "fat-hearted" men ... well, they lack this attitude.  They are removed, far from an attitude of awe at life, time, and nature.  People and nature have become usable objects, and murder becomes possible –– we remember that men died at the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf, with ecosytems fouled, and habitats of diverse species threatened.

In the end, "The Great Nebula Of Andromeda" relieves numbness by restoring perspective.  It does so by taking us back to what matters in our brief time here.  This is not an abstract perspective, its details are as concrete as a daughter's sleeping face, the smell of macaroni, the "star-filled dark."  Given the hubris and detachment of the "fat-hearted men," it may seem insufficient to counter with only a perspective, a belief about what matters during our time on earth.  But a belief trumps being dumbstruck, and it can counter rapacity with reverence, and it can be shared.
Belt of Orion

I will let Kenneth Rexroth close this post.  In a later poem from The Lights In The Sky Are Stars, "A Sword In A Cloud Of Light,” he describes a Christmas Eve scene on Fillmore Street in San Francisco.  He and Mary are caught up in throngs of holiday shoppers, noise, nighttime city bustle.  Mary looks up at the sky:

     You say, "There's Orion!"
     The most beautiful object
     Either of us will ever
     Know in the world or in life
     Stands in the moonlit empty
     Heavens, over the swarming
     Men, women, and children, black
     And white, joyous and greedy,
     Evil and good, buyer
     And seller, master and victim ...

And moving to the end:

     ... It would do
     No good to say this and it
     May do no good to write it.
     Believe in Orion, Believe
     In the night, the moon, the crowded
     Earth.  Believe in Christmas and
     Birthdays and Easter rabbits.
     Believe in all those fugitive
     Compounds of nature, all doomed
     To waste away and go out.
     Always be true to these things.
     They are all there is.  Never
     Give up this savage religion
     For the blood-drenched civilized
     Abstractions of the rascals
     Who live by killing you and me.