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Meeting Death in Thrones and Elsewhere

I know that many of you are not Game of Thrones fans. While I am writing about the show, it is not from a fan’s perspective (though I am one). So, know that you won’t be left in the dark by what follows.

I’m finding myself profoundly affected by the events of the recent broadcast third episode of this eighth and final season of Game of Thrones. And by one moment in particular, early in the program.

The Dothraki

The Dothraki are a nomadic tribal people. They are fierce warriors and superb horsemen. And “men” is correct in that statement, though the women are fierce in other ways. Throughout the eight seasons, we have seen them be brutal with each other, brutal with captives. They are not generally nice neighbors. And we have seen them cut through the premier army of the day like a hot knife through butter. These are folks you want as allies, not as foes.

The Fatal Dothraki Charge

In the most recent episode, the Dothraki lead the charge—literally—against the army of the Dead. In the night, we see the Dothraki massed for attack: thousands of them, their curved scimitar-like weapons all aflame by sorcery. With characteristically savage war cries, they surge off into the dark, riding out to meet a foe as they have so many times before. From the vantage point of a nearby cliff, we see the solid wave of lighted blades, moving steadily across the dark plain.

Perspective

Then the director, Miguel Sapochnik, does something we understand well. Rather than keeping us in this long shot of thousands, the camera focuses on one single Dothraki horseman, a leader of the charge. We see him galloping forward, his face in a familiar war mask— a grimace of determination. Then, at the last instant, as he finally meets his foe, his expression goes from that determined ferocity to surprise and dismay as the wave of the Dead sweeps above and over him, his mount, and dozens of his tribesman around him.

Again, we see the fray from the cliff and see the vanguard of light dented, pushed back. Then from the rear, we see the points of light that are the lighted swords bobbing in the distance. We hear the war cries. We see the lights diminish in number. And then, barely a minute after the first encounter, the lights of Dothraki swords go out altogether. Silence. After a few seconds, a single horse, terrified, runs toward us, followed by a handful of Dothraki horsemen, on foot, running for the rear.

The significance of the speed and totality of this defeat is not lost on the remaining troops. They know what the Dothraki can do. And now, in a moment, the Dothraki are gone.

How All This Matters

The face of that one rider comes back to me now, as it has late at night and throughout my day. I think about his encountering Death as a shocking and immediate presence. Recently, my first childhood friend, two years my junior, died after a long illness. More recently, my next-door neighbor, just eight years my senior, suffered a major stroke and died within twenty-four hours. Death is no longer the abstraction it once was.

Today as I compose this, I feel the warm sun on my shoulders, the breeze in my hair. I look up at the oak tree. Its new leaves are just emerging, a lovely pale green. I grew it from an acorn taken thirty years ago from my backyard in Massachusetts. Now a thirty-foot tree, it is nevertheless still an infant. With luck, its lifespan will triple my own. Needless to say, I will not be around to see it mature.

All these reminders of mortality gathering—I remember my own father, confiding in me one dark night on Cape Cod, nearly forty years ago. “Since turning seventy, I have been very aware of my mortality.” Then it was something I heard but could not feel as I feel it today, a week since turning seventy myself.

What Kind of Astonishment?

I suppose this is a gift. We hear that we should treat death as an advisor. That we should live each day as if it were our last. I would prefer, however, the message of a poem my wife recently used in her yoga class, one that suggested we treat each day as our first. As Linda Pastan’s poem, “Imaginary Conversation” says, “each day. . . all raw astonishment. Eve rubbing/ her eyes awake on that first morning, /the sun coming up/like an ingénue in the east.”

I would like my astonishment to be more like that: given to each day I live, rather than that of the Dothraki warrior. I will try. I will feel the sun and the wind. I will enjoy the new leaves floating on the branches that reach out toward me, offering me their astonishment at being born.

Oh, Johnny Crewcut

I have a song called “Johnny Crewcut” about young men I grew up with and went to school with in Gill, MA, and who weren’t as lucky as I was, as I am.

The character is a composite of two or three individuals, but the reason for the title is the real central figure, John Zywna, who was a couple or three grades older than me. In high school, he became a star athlete—a football hero. Then he went to Vietnam. And a friend from back there told me he had been killed.

I wrote the song as a poem first after a drive down Main Road, Gill on my way to the airport one summer. I took the same route the school bus took every morning. That took me by the Zwyna’s house and cow barn, then the Tyler’s on the other side of the road. Both families figure in the title character of the story when it became a song one summer after another drive through my old home town.

Last week, I went to an open mic in Brattleboro, VT. I had just gotten into town and called The Marina to ask if they still had an open mic and if so, when it was. The woman said, “We do!” I asked, “When is it?” And she said, “Tonight!” “What do I have to do to get on the list?”

She gave me the 9:20 slot. Late, but I had dinner plans. I arrived about 8:30, as the host and the house band were roaring through their set. They were an interesting four-piece: two guitars, bass, and trumpet? The odd thing was it actually worked. The trumpet and one guitarist trading licks was amazing. And not just for Brattleboro on a Thursday night.

Before it was my turn to go on, I brought my guitar into the hallway outside the restrooms to warm up. A guy went by me into the men’s room, looking over his shoulder as he did. I moved out to catch the guy before me finish out his set. The bathroom guy plus another couple were heading out. The BG said, “That sounded great. I wish we could stay.” I said, “So stay.” They left. But ten minutes later, they came back.

I plugged in, did an opening song written in the 1850s (I called it a ‘50s tune) that went over well. Then I introduced “Johnny Crewcut.” I said pretty much what I did above. I said “Gill,” because no one has ever heard of it outside of about a fifty-mile radius. I ended the way I usually do, the way I did above, by saying the song is for those boys who weren’t as lucky as me. Then I sang the song. There’s a link to a recording at the bottom of the page.

It begins with me in a rental car, an emigrant, come home to gloat and reminisce. I notice a few old landmarks.  The second verse introduces Johnny in the past: “He grew up poor in a family of ten/Working all summer on that bottom land.” Many kids in my class worked summers picking tobacco or baling hay, or both. They bragged about how many levels—tiers—they could throw a hay bale. I always like the sound of that.

The third verse—half as long— is Johnny’s death in Saigon, imagined because no one has ever told me what happened. After an instrumental break, time breaks as well, and we’re back in the car, in the present. I had gone off Main Road, down by the Connecticut River where some of the most fertile soil in the Valley can be found. The road abandons the river a few miles from the center of town, and turns and climbs into a forest of White Pines higher on the old riverbank. The song ends honoring Johnny by remembering him, or more precisely, not forgetting him, which takes intention and will. Saying his name out loud. At the end, just his name, repeated: “Oh-oh, Johnny Crewcut.”

Again, it was well received. The crowd was small, but mainly musicians, so their approval meant something. I sang three more. Then the house band, sans trumpet, came back to close out the night.

Several people up front told me after that they lived in Greenfield, where I was born. They knew Gill. (Pause) But they didn’t know Johnny Crewcut. I said, “Well his ‘can-I-buy-a-vowel’ last name was ‘Zwyvna.'” They looked at each other. “Isn’t that Tracy’s name?” “Yes, but without the ‘v.'” “Oh,” I said, “I might have added that after someone in the audience once told me I’d left out a consonant.” But apparently, I hadn’t.

“Tracy” was Tracy Zwyna, their neighbor across street, whose dog had recently gotten out and run over into their house. She could be “Johnny Crewcut’s” granddaughter, grand-niece, or whatever. But in that area, in that town, almost assuredly the same family.

That was strange and wonderful small-world stuff, for sure. That was the first time I had performed the song within a few minutes’ drive of the setting in my childhood. That was powerful in itself for me.

But it felt like something else to me. If there is magic in names, and if speaking a name is summoning a spirit, then I think I had an answer that night. “Oh, Johnny. Where are you now?”

Here. Right here.

Here’s the link I promised.

To Leonard Cohen

Years ago, when I was new to California, a freshman in college during the fall of The Summer of Love, I woke the first morning in my dorm. It was 6:30 AM. A voice was spilling words into my ear that seemed part of my dream, and yet they were not. I remember the beauty of the voice, the language, and my disorientation from both.

The singer was Judy Collins. The song was Suzanne, by Leonard Cohen. See the link below to a Rolling Stone article and a performance of the song.

Through the years, I held on to the lyric and the lovely guitar and voice. Then late one evening in the late 90s, I sat in the dark, listening to a recording of myself and my bandmates in Passenger, my band from the early 80s. It was a live performance, and Jeannine’s voice floated over Ashley’s keyboard and my acoustic guitar. On the choruses, unlike Judy Collins’s version, we sang three-part harmony. It was good. Michael, our drummer who sat out for that song, is heard to say, “Beautiful,” as the applause rises behind.

That night, I was struck by the way that song had continued to weave its way into my life through the years. Not by accident, for certain, but perhaps unappreciated. So I began to write a poem in which I incorporated some of the lyrics from Cohen’s song into three verses, three stories from my life. The first was my college dorm. The second, that performance, transposed into a bar we used to play in Point Reyes Station. And the third, that night, in my home in San Rafael, with my daughter asleep upstairs, and the 18-year-old recording playing in the background. So it’s a “found poem” in a way, obviously owing a great debt to the original. But I wanted to capture the way the words of the song blended with my world.

Here’s the poem, which I offer as a tribute to those people who shared the song with me over the years, to Judy Collins, for her beautiful rendition, and most of all to Leonard Cohen, who wrote those words and placed them in such a beautiful melody: one his own voice couldn’t quite convey, but which he clearly heard.

Thank you, Leonard. Thank you, all. Below is the poem. Italics indicate my additions. The rest, Cohen’s lyrics.

Leonard Cohen on the Clock Radio, 1967 and Thereafter

1.

Waking by the river late summer of love,

her voice, cascading in tea and oranges,

in golden light that comes all the way from China,

 

waking in adobe, the heat like honey,

dawn-red roof tiles, hissing lawns,

Martin still living and Jesus was a sailor,

 

you want to travel blind when dreams come nearer,

waking with her among the garbage and the flowers,

trusting in the seaweed morning, her mind.

 

2.

And in the denim Western, there are children mourning

and cowboys leaning out for love, nursing a Coors,

and she, certain only drowning men can see her.

 

Black velvet trios walk blues like chimes,

like shadows upon the water,

and she shows you where to look,

 

outside of all this, where a lonely wooden tower

is run by roses, where the sun pours down,

where you travel with her, blind.

 

3.

Rocking white wicker this night forever,

half crazy, half sleeping,

where the night air pools beneath the trees.

 

Silence hisses, applause rises on tape,

and you hear the boats go by, slowly up the hill,

and a voice you don’t recall, calls

 

through memory all the way down

to one cricket in the darkness.

You know you want to be there,

 

perfect, perfect it seemed, body and mind. 

 

Here’s the link I promised.

My Journey

I admit upfront that this is the sort of rant that writers make, and some may find it a little arcane. Like the word “arcane.” But here goes: Have you noticed how everyone is on a journey these days?

I began noticing it while sitting with my wife through episodes of The Bachelor. Everyone on that show talks about “my journey” as if filming a six-week reality show is some epic, an Odyssey, replete with headwind, salt spray and maybe a Cyclops or two.

I began rolling my eyes (both of them) months ago.maloan_10

Then things got worse.

Every contestant on every show, every person interviewed on GMA or on the nightly news, it seems, is on “a journey.” Then this morning I looked at the side panel of my Corn Chex box and saw the headline, “General Mills is on a Journey.” Arrrgh!

I wonder what we used to say in these instances. “What is your story?” “Tell us about your experience?” No matter now.

These things happen, I know. As a writer, as a former teacher, I’m particularly sensitive to language trends (or as we would say today, “what’s trending in language.” More on that another time, another time.)

I recall the shifts in usage certain words went through during my years in the classroom. “Tight” did frequent 180’s in meaning in the 70s and 80s, lurching from “unfair” to “cool” —maybe “dope” in today’s vernacular— then back again. Saying, “Wow, that’s tight!” was a crap-shoot. I would try to keep up, so as not to embarrass myself.  Better still just to stay away from using teen slang.

I am amazed sometimes that contemporary slang dips back centuries for expressions that were common long ago. I remember talking to a student in the early ‘80s about a new piece of writing I’d done over the weekend. Monica looked askance and said, “You must be some kind of full poetry guy.” I think “full” was an early alternative for “total” and “totally” which have ruled the roost pretty much ever since. I haven’t heard “full” used that way in many years.

My curiosity then was that “ful” (with one L) was a common adverb in the Middle English of Chaucer’s work, meaning “very.” Here’s an example from The Miller’s Prologue:

3150    This dronke Millere spak ful soone ageyn
(This drunken Miller spoke very quickly in reply)

400px-canterbury_tales_-_the_miller_-_f-_34v_detail_-_robin_with_the_bagpype_-_early_1400s_chaucer

How a usage from the late 14th century wound up in the mouth of a high school freshman in 1982, I don’t know. But there you are. Of course, when I excitedly told Monica about all this, she rolled her eyes. Like me, watching The Bachelor.

So I guess we all have our peeves, pet and otherwise. I’m just more inclined than some to take notes and make public my complaint. That’s my journey, I guess.

 

 

Virtual Wilderness?

IMG_2086Virtual Wilderness?

             I’ve been reading a lot lately about Virtual Reality and how our lives will be forever changed when we can be immersed in virtual scenes, whether these be business meetings, movies with friends, games, or trips to far off places.

Having seen the Internet move from text-based content to photograph-heavy content, and knowing that video content is already moving in (a website project I was working on lately in the end involved little work for me because the owner wanted videos (of himself) to carry his message), it isn’t hard for me to believe Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg when he claims that VR will be the next step beyond video. He revels in the thought of “be[ing] able to stream what you are doing live and have people to able to interact in that space. . . .  Humans are fundamentally social.”

And Yet

There is something missing here. I don’t want to push against the tide, but moving to a virtual reality is not a complete human experience. One of the scenes Zuckerberg imagines is sitting around a virtual campfire with friends from around the world. The social aspect of that, the human social aspect of that may be valid. Meeting somewhere in real time, and interacting with those someones, both verbally and visually—so that gestural, “metalinguistic” communication is intact as well—that’s all good.

The missing piece is what’s not human in that scene. A constructed version of nature and wilderness is neither one. I’m seeing an article this morning (yes, on Facebook) about a bison calf that Yellowstone Park visitors “rescued” because “it looked cold” and they thought it had been abandoned. The result? The calf had to be euthanized because it quickly developed the habit of begging for food from humans and gravitating toward human contact. That’s cute in a 65-pound calf. Not so much in a one-ton plus adult bison.13164473_10207299021212992_8736358767459553017_n

Normal Trees

The point is that we often don’t understand what we see in nature. And if and when we try to construct what we do understand as nature in Virtual Reality— well, I’m not optimistic. Even the vegetation could be an issue. Many folks are so deprived of experience in nature they don’t know how to describe it. I had a student a few years ago who was writing a scene with trees. In the interest of aiming him toward clearer, more precise description, I asked, “What kind of trees are they?” He answered, “You know, normal trees.” I fear that our virtual reality would be populated with “normal trees” and “normal creatures.” I shudder to think.

Of course, what I know about VR would rattle inside a hollow aspirin tablet, and maybe engineers are already uploading all sorts of data I can’t imagine to create a more real virtually real. But a larger issue remains. Nature is not a human construction. The better you know that, the more strange and wonderful nature becomes. Sometimes it seems utterly alien. So be it.

Romanticism

The Romantic poet William Wordsworth famously wrote, “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her,” but despite all his long walks in the Lake District, Wordsworth was wrong, I think. I don’t think that “nature” cares much about me, frankly. Nor should it. I am a part of nature, yes. But nature isn’t here to provide me with feedback about myself, or to stand as a metaphor for my life process. I need to be curious, and attentive. Respectful, and learn to keep my distance sometimes, as those Yellowstone tourists maybe learned the hard way.

Since it hasn’t worked in the real world, I don’t have much hope that that attitude can work in virtual reality.

The Noise of the Village

The Chippewa song, Noise of the Village, reads, simply, “Whenever I pause, the noise of the village.” The context, understood by the intended audience, is the point of view of someone walking on foot on trails on a hillside above the settlement of his people. That context, missing for us, was immediately accessible to whoever heard or sang that song, centuries ago. The song/poem is a sort of haiku, American-style, which influenced many poets of the late 60s.

It’s common for us to feel marginalized by songs, poems— literature in general— of other cultures. It’s good for us of the dominant culture, I think, to feel we missed a handout somewhere. We are accustomed to having our literature pre-digested for us. We expect it to be easy.

In celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, more commonly Columbus Day, then, I acknowledge the People who came before us here, and who gave the world here its first words. Even the Spanish city and street names here in my neighborhood are a secondary layer of language history. I accept the fact that there is much I will never get, never understand, no matter what. Heck, it’s true of Shakespeare, too. Celebrate.

My Village

That said, I also felt on that particular evening that I shared the experience the song describes, in a very contemporary, personal and authentic way. I was walking my dog in the late heat of the October day on the open space behind my “village.” The view going up the hill is grand. I can see the maze of gently curving suburban streets below me, the fire station just now springing to life with sirens and swirling red lights. Beyond that, Highway 101 going north/south as always, a river of traffic that never rests. And beyond that more streets of a business park, the canals of Bel Marin Keys, and finally, serene in the still and heat, the Bay—San Pablo Bay, the forehead of San Francisco Bay. As I turn to survey all that, and as my dog notices and decides she can explore the surrounding grassland, I hear the sound of the village.

I also imagine from my sentimental perspective that the village sounds the song commemorates were richer, more aesthetic. They were human sounds of a purer nature: children laughing, women grinding by hand a pestle of wild wheat with a stone mortar. A pair of dogs barking. A baby crying. Human, except for the dogs. My village is the traffic.

I was going to say that my village was silenced by the traffic, and that is true, I suppose. But these days we do our living, our work and play, inside thicker walls, walls which conceal our joy and our boredom, our pleasure and our pain. No, the noise from the freeway is legitimately ours, is us, is our village. If, in a few centuries, someone were to study today’s American culture, the car would certainly be a star player.

And this evening, as I pause on the hill overlooking the village, for better or worse, it speaks for us.

The Sound of Silence

SoundSilence      Hello, Darkness.

Like many my age, and especially my generation—my g-g-generation— I have hearing loss. My ears literally, “whisper the sound of silence.” And to add insult to injury, as I was first writing this, longhand, my pen started to run dry. The words got fainter and fainter as I pressed on. Not funny, universe.

What’s on my mind is the quality of sound when I’m in Vermont, as I was last month. People talk about a passing car being an event. Some, being so unaccustomed to the silence, are actually frightened by the absence of noise. But my fear is not being able to hear the silence.

What passes for silence for me now is a constant buzzing hum, especially in my left ear, thanks to a friend’s very loud band one singular night about ten years ago. Leaving, I thought the sprinklers were on outside the club. Nope. Just my ears.

That Frog

The old adage of the frog in the cook pot comes to mind. As my hearing gradually gets more compromised, I am only occasionally aware. Because the rate is slow (like the increase in temperature around the frog) I am not aware of what I am losing. And I have nothing with which to compare my hearing at any one moment. I just notice the cicadas that are not cicadas singing away in both ears. Once in a while, like now when I notice the wind is blowing but I hear no sound of moving leaves, I realize that there is something I’m missing. Or like when I’m out for a walk with my wife and she asks me, “Do you hear that?” Always a hard question to answer. I have to scan what passes as silence and seen if there’s anything noticeable about the background hum. Depending on the frequency, of course, there may be. But usually not. Sometimes this amazes her. “You can’t hear that?” (Whatever it is.) Nope. Sorry.

Dues

Yes, I am a musician, and yes, I played too loud for too long, probably listened too loud as well, and this is those chickens coming home to roost. But I continue to play, although at much lower volume. I think.

I remember the day I first noticed “floaters” in my vision. Maybe I had always had them. Maybe one day they just appeared, the way an ache in certain joints just seems to be there one day, for no particular reason that you can fathom. All of this, I know, is aging. Being part of a generation that once mocked “anyone over thirty” as hopelessly old and out of touch, there is an ironic payback here. I don’t believe I openly mocked anyone, but I, like most people I imagine, never could grasp what getting old would feel like.

In my head, of course, I’m still a young man. I read recently that once we reach a certain age, a certain stage of development, we don’t really change that much in personality, in the way we feel, think, or react. I know brain science has trumpeted the plasticity of the brain in recent years, dooming the old dog and his new tricks to the scrap heap. All good. I will do some brain training online after this, I promise. But meanwhile, I sit here in California, midafternoon, in brilliant sunshine, hearing the sounds of the peepers in the twilight of New England in my ears. At least that’s how I choose to think of it right now.