Sunday, March 19, 2017

Book Briefs

Catching up on my reading from this year - here's what I've read so far:

Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin

This book has been laying around the house for awhile and I was reluctant to read it for two reasons.  First, it's 748 pages.  Second, there was that movie with Colin Farrell in it that was advertised as an epic romance.  Luckily, the book has little to do with the movie, and is much better (I'm assuming from reading online reviews of the film, which got a 13% critic rating and 43% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes).

The book starts out Gangs of New York, with the character Peter Lake drifting around the Four Corners in New York City running from a criminal boss.  While attempting to burglarize a large house one winter night, he comes across Beverly Penn, the daughter of a William Randolph Hearst-type newspaper tycoon, when she is the only resident present of the large mansion Lake has broken into.  They fall in love, but she is dying of consumption.  The Four Corners boss catches up with Peter and he whisked away in a mist never to be seen again.

The book then switches from a historical fiction into a kind of modern fairytale, with time traveling characters, artifact carriers, and demi-god like people questing to find a perfect city that no one has ever seen but seems to exist up in the clouds.  The book then turns straight into magical realism, and then to Christian allegory, tied up with steam engines and the mist, the good city, and a bridge of light.

Going into this book expecting a romance and ready to put it down after 50 pages if I had to, I was incredibly surprised.

The Kindness Handbook, a Practical Companion, by Sharon Salzberg

This is an introduction to Metta practice in Buddhism, or Loving-Kindness.  It is easily understandable, and seems to be directed by the publisher to the self-help, to "transform our daily lives".  The root of the book is Metta, though, and Sharon Salzberg, whose bona fides as a Buddhist teacher are for real, gives a good, basic way to understand and gain some terminology without having to delve too deep into the literature.

A Walk Across America, by Peter Jenkins

In October 1973, Peter Jenkins, along with his dog, a 95 pound Malamute-mix named Cooper, started walking from his college town in New York, with a goal of reaching the Gulf of Mexico, and then across the United States to California.  He did so in order to "find the real America" - the real people that do most of the living and dying in the small towns of America (catch the reference to It's a Wonderful Life? - that was my reference, not Jenkins' - I love that movie and can quote it at length).  Along the way, he meets friendly farmers, and unfriendly police, a true-life mountain man, and lives in a single wide down in a holler with an African-American family in the mountains of North Carolina.

I've been a sucker for these kinds of books ever since I read Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon when I was 19 or so.  A Walk Across America is a sort of mix between Blue Highways and Bill Bryson's A Walk In the Woods.  The themes are similar - that people no matter where you go in America are generally friendly, helpful, have incredibly rich lives, and are sometimes a little scary.  Also, the narrator is changed by the journey in ways they did not expect. One thing I did expect - Jenkins got caught in several snowstorms, because he decided to start walking south from New York in OCTOBER, through the northern and central Appalachians.  Did he not think to learn some basics about the area before he took the trip, like that it can snow a foot on top of your tent in one night while you're 3,500 up in the Blue Ridge?  Well, spoiler - he survived.

 The great thing about books like A Walk Across America is not what you know is coming, but the scenes and personal stories you learn along the way, along with the narrator, sort of like a photo album, but with a depth of knowledge about these people that you wouldn't have otherwise.

The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger, by Stephen King

I am still trying to read through all of Stephen King's books and have the first three Dark Tower books at home, so I thought I would try the first volume.  King's two sources of inspiration for these books were the Lord of the Ring Trilogy, and Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name" from the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns.  Imagine if Frodo was a loner with six shooters, wore a duster and hat, and smoked cigarillos.  The Gunslinger was not a long book, but I'm not sure at this point whether I'm going to follow him on his journey or not toward the Dark Tower.  Think he'll be okay without me.

Monday, March 13, 2017

I've Got the Music in Me...

     I read an article this week in the Atlantic about a study that finally put a name to people that don't like music- it's called being defective.

     I'm just joking about that - a little bit - actually it's called specific musical anhedonia.  Still, even with naming the thing, I can't understand someone who doesn't like music, but could actually take it or leave it, and more often than not would choose to leave it.  Music has been a part of my entire life, even though my parents were not particularly musical.  From my first 45 - I think it was Eddie Rabbitt's "Every Which Way But Loose" - to my first cassette - Men At Work's "Business as Usual" - to my first CD - the Black Crowes' "Shake Your Money Maker" - I have always had music playing, buying music, listening to new music, driving to music, playing music.  According to the Atlantic article, I am what they call musical hyper-hedonic, which describes people who find life unimaginable without music.

     Some of the most energizing, joyous, ecstatic moments of my life have been with music.  I remember listening to marching bands in parades when I was a kid and the soaring feeling I got from the harmony of the instruments and the thump of the drums in my chest, playing guitar and singing with my friends in high school, sitting under this old oak tree in a field at night, after learning just enough chords to play U2's "Running to Stand Still," playing in my high school garage band and the energy that you get from the music that you never seem to get tired no matter how long you play.  Going to see big arena shows in high school and college and the feel, the concussion of the kick drum that knocks the air out of your windpipe and hits you way down deep, past the gut, behind your heart, deep in the diaphragm.  I love harmonized voices - the Jayhawks, Carter and Ralph, Emmylou and Gram, and good guitar of whatever genre, Stevie Ray and Jimmy Page, Django and Mike McCready and Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam.  I love soulful voices and operatic one, Maria Callas and Aretha Franklin.  I love jazz and funk and hip hop and (good) country and Bob Dylan and Big Star and Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M., the Pixies and Nirvana., This past year, I cried for David Bowie and Guy Clark, Merle Haggard, and don't even mention Prince.

     I can both change my mood by listening to any kind of music, and be unable to listen to music that doesn't fit my mood.  I am likely to skip genres within a single morning, from bluegrass to hip hop, to Aaron Copland to Cheap Trick to John Coltrane.  I still think Spotify is the best invention in all of the history of the world, after the multi-track recorder.  

     So today, after I spent 30 minutes of Sunday School, helping Abby Cain work up "This Little Light of Mine" with a small youth choir, I have been bouncing off the walls with energy.  I clapped and stomped and worked up a sweat, and yelled out directions, and new lyrics and, just listened to the amazing voices of these teens and kids we have in our church.  I was bouncing in my seat all the way through the church service after.  During the sermon, I was signing the gospel version of "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" over and over.  

     I listened to David Bowie's "Space Oddity" today, danced and sang along to Elvis Costello's "My Aim is True" while making fish tacos - signing, "Aaaaalison" - dipping the Tilapia in the egg wash, then cover in breading, then in the pan to "I know this world is killing you, ooooh..." Sizzle, sizzle.  At dinner tonight, put on a Latin playlist on Spotify and my bass drum leg was going on its own until I apparently was shaking the house and my attention was called to it.

     All of this started from snapping off "This Little Light of Mine" and I recognized in church the energy that can come from music, especially with hedonics like me.  I was lifted all day.  I felt "in the spirit" and nothing I did all day could work out that energy.  And that IS the Holy Spirit, in all His infinite, transcendent, and tangible glory.

     The Buddhists teach that everything is temporary - good, bad, whatever - so, I recognize the impermanence of this feeling of being filled.  Even then, I wonder why everyone doesn't want to have church be just like that every week - energetic and hopeful and full of love and spirit and vitality - so much vitality that my hands stung from clapping even after the church service, an hour after we stopped.  But I have to remember that there ARE those anhedonics out there - those that don't get a feeling from music, and some people come to church to find solace or company or peace or quiet.  As for me - I think I like to praise Him on the loud cymbals.  And I know where to find the Spirit again - because next Sunday is youth choir practice at 9:30.

(This song doesn't really fit the end of this post.  I heard it on TV just now and to me it is instant "up".  There is not hardly a better, more rocking, spirit-rousing song than "Why can't we give love, give love, give love...  dang, is this a Gospel song?)

Monday, March 6, 2017

NY Times Article - Kendrick Lamar, Beck and Tom Waits on Artistic Creation, via Leonard Cohen

Great article from the T, the Style Magazine of the NY Times this past week:

Three Iconic Musicians on Artistic Creation — and Its Importance Now

Here's some videos of some of my favorite songs from Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. I've never really been in to Beck since his first album and I was in college, I think. I love Kendrick Lamar, but all of his stuff is protected and can't be shared off YouTube.

Tom Waits - Time
from the Rain Dogs album

Leonard Cohen - Bird on the Wire
from the Songs from a Room album
This is a live recording from 1979

Sunday, March 5, 2017

An Almond Blossom Kind of Day

     Outside our kitchen window is a flowering crab apple that the girls and I planted for a "Mother's Day Garden" several years ago along with several other shrubs, plants and flowers.  After the past few years of floods and being trampled by dogs, drought and freezing, and soil that needs amending, the only thing left from the garden is the crab apple.  The azaleas were not suited for the light or drainage of the site.  The flowers were too delicate to survive being rolled over by playful dogs.  But every spring, standing over the sink, I look out the kitchen window in the morning, drinking coffee out of my Abbey of Gethsemane mug, and one day I am surprised by the tiny pink buds on the crab apple tree.  This year everything is blooming all at once and way too early.  Two weeks ago, just past Valentine's Day, I noticed the nubs of the small rose-pink buds on the tree, and then the blooms seemed to explode overnight, with the most blooms of the most vibrant color that we've ever had, either because of the warm winter, or maybe that interior pruning I did last fall.  And the blooms stayed this year for longer than I've ever seen - a showy scene each time I would stare out the window.  I even saw it crawling with honey bees one day, in February, which seems unnatural, until I remember it is nature, after all, so the bees probably know better than me.  This flowering crab apple has been a continuing inspiration the past few weeks of this winter, and an always ready hit of instant brightness and uplift for the spirit.

     Last week, however, the blooms began to fade, seemingly too soon as they always do.  We always grieve a tiny bit to see such a beautiful thing leave.  But this year, I stopped myself and realized these are not dying flowers, but changing ones.  And I saw a next phase starting where the blooms are longer, with stems reaching down to the ground like tiny fireworks on each branch, that even though they were no longer what we think of as "beautiful flowers" they were more beautiful because I had to look harder to see them and pay attention to their detail.

     It's like the Van Gogh painting, "Almond Blossom".  This painting is not striking in its color, there is no mad inspiration in the brush stokes of thick paint, like the sunflower paintings or "Irises".  There is no awe-inspiring, passionate cry of the mystery of "The Starry Night".  There is just a pleasant day with tiny blooms on a craggy limb.  The blooms have no color, they sit, small, because they are utilitarian nut blooms and do not need to be showy to accomplish their purpose.  They are what they are because God made them that way, and they can be nothing else, so I don't think they would even apologize for being less than other more flashy flowers. When you look at them closely, however, at how delicate, how precise, how perfect they are in their simplicity, they are poetry.  They are life at its most real and most beautiful.

     Today has felt like an Almond Blossom day.  Some days you have inspiration or drive that propels you through, with seeming unlimited energy, be it love or rage, excitement or passion.  Some days are down, rainy days, or tired ones where you ache or can't think because your head is too heavy to lift. Today was neither.  It was not quite warm and not quite cool.  We had a beautiful clear sky, but with nothing to put the sunshine in context, just seemed to be a bright day.  It was a day I got some work done, and some rest, some prayer, but with no real reflection, just a regular day full of going and being and neither one of them strong enough to keep any inertia going in any one direction.  It was a day, though, where if we look close enough at how everything has fit into its place, how everything with a use fulfilled its purpose, and at how the regular nature of a quiet Sunday fits into keeping Sabbath among all the hundreds of Sabbaths that we live over our lives, that was a beautiful day indeed.