Monday, February 27, 2012

Falling Meters

My iPhone doesn't do the snow-capped White Mountains justice, especially Mount Washington's peakthe highest in the northeastat which Lu gazes from the summit of Mt. Rosebrook at Bretton Woods. Even with its upper black diamond and double black diamond runs, designed by Olympian Bode Miller, Bretton Woods seems a gentle mountain, with the sort of terrain that can be easily negotiated by experienced skiers. And I'm thankful for what it offers: a peaceful coast on which to contemplate the beauty of the surrounding mountain range, its glacial cirques and ravines.

Bretton's forgiving terrain is a balm after skiing Cannon Mountain's (where Miller traversed the slopes with his junior ski team) cold and severely pitched trails. Wind gusts at Cannon's summit reached thirty miles per hour muddling visibility in the afternoon. Its long runs became icy turns and twists that were not easily negotiated. But Cannon's steep, lower Front Five, where thighs burned hot on Avalanche, and Paulie's Extension above that, and Zoomer, and the gladesthe exhilarating skip through the treesall of which plunge down to Echo Lake, were, alone, worth the price of the ticket and the freeze that settled into the outer extremities of my body.

And then there was the snow. The glorious snow.

Falling softly and silently.

We are back home now, where the ground is shorn and sepia-steeped, and where I've had the chance to leaf through everything under the Sun, including the Moon, in this year's Old Farmer's Almanac. What I found in the Almanac is that today, this 27th day of February, is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's birthday, a birth date that is shared with sister Backwoods Betty. And I wonder now if what Betty remembers most of Longfellow mirrors my recollection: Father's animated reading of Longfellow's graceful and melodically metered epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha, especially the first few lines of its final canto:
By the shore of Gitche Gumee / By the shining Big-Sea-Water / At the doorway of his wigwam / In the pleasant Summer morning / Hiawatha stood and waited...
This past week, before snaking down the sleeted helix of the mountain, I stood and waited, heard the rhythm of the white mountains and the meters of falling snow, the sound of the crystal drifts across the north woods, the soft crunch of fresh flurries that had gathered beneath my boots.

And Longfellow, from Snow-Flakes, spoke then, too:

Out of the bosom of the Air,
        Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
        Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
                      Silent, and soft, and slow
                      Descends the snow.

Even as our cloudy fancies take
        Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
        In the white countenance confession,
                      The troubled sky reveals
                      The grief it feels.

This is the poem of the air,
        Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
        Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
                      Now whispered and revealed
                      To wood and field.

And then more: A deep breath. The deepest. 

It was all right to go home.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Gone Skiing

Sierra ski racing in the mining days. New England Ski Museum.
Hans Castorp found that one quickly gets readiness in an art where strong desire
comes in play. He was not ambitious for expert skill, and all he needed he
acquired in a few days, without undue strain on wind or muscles. He learned to
keep his feet tidily together and make parallel tracks; to avail himself of his stick
in getting off; he learned how to take obstacles, such as small elevations of the
ground, with a slight soaring motion, arms outspread, rising and falling like a
ship on a billowy sea; learned, after the twentieth trial, not to trip and roll over
when he braked at full speed, with the right Telemark turn, one leg forward, the
other bent at the knee. Gradually he widened the sphere of his activities.
.     .     . 
He rejoiced in his new resource, before which all difficulties and hindrances to
movement fell away. It gave him the utter solitude he craved, and filled his soul
with impressions of the wild inhumanity, the precariousness of this region into
which he had ventured. On his one hand he might have a precipitous, pine-clad
declivity, falling away into the mists; on the other sheer rock might rise, with
masses of snow, in monstrous, Cyclopean forms, all domed and vaulted, swelling
or cavernous. He would halt for a moment, to quench the sound of his own
movement, when the silence about him would be absolute, complete, a wadded
soundlessness, as it were, elsewhere all unknown. There was no stir of air, not so
much as might even lightly sway the treeboughs; there was not a rustle, nor the
voice of a bird. It was primeval silence to which Hans Castorp hearkened, when
he leaned thus on his staff, his head on one side, his mouth open. And always it
snowed, snowed without pause, endlessly, gently, soundlessly falling.
~ Thomas Mann, excerpt from Chapter 6, The Magic Mountain, 1929

Such is the call of the wintry mountain. And so it happens this week is winter break--that time of year the Suburban Soliloquist unplugs and leaves the mortal flatlands for the higher, hiemal call of the Great White North, where she revels on the gleaming slopes of powdery snow, and the surrounding territory's majestic views. (With skis much shorter and lighter than the twelve foot wooden slats of the nineteenth century.)

At last.

Next week, after she's halted to hearken the echo of her own skis scraping the snow-wrapped summits and long, winding trails of the White Mountains, she'll  be back to the muddy, mortal flatlands and the hypertextual webs of ether. 

Aren't you all looking forward to this year's extra day of winter? Perhaps it might even bring snow to suburban streets, parks and fields. One can only wish...

Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday Night Frolic — The Reservoir at 8:00 am

People create their own questions because they are afraid to look straight. All you have to do is look straight and see the road, and when you see it, don't sit looking at it - walk.
~Ayn Rand

I wasn't supposed to be walking along the paved path this morning, not alone, not at anytime or any day, but I had abandoned my first routean attempt to reach the falls at the western end of the 252 acre reservoirwhen I came nearly face to face with a fox halted on all fours. I noticed his red coat partially hidden by brush and I knew he had been tracking me as I approached his immediate territory. Not wishing to take any chances with a potentially rabid animal, I decided to slowly pivot back east, back through the rain-soaked leaves and muddy trail, back toward my car, the lone car, parked behind a local Masonic lodge. As I retreated I pulled my car keys from my coat pocket and shook them like a noisemaker just to let that fox know who was boss, all the while hoping he wouldn't come at me from behind, not looking back, not once.

There's a small baseball field at the northern end of the lodge's parking lot, backing up along the reservoir, and on the eastern side of the lot stands a chain link fence protecting the water supply. I hadn't before noticed that the reservoir curled around so closely to the field, which I'd been to only once or twice, late spring several years back when the boy used to play ball, long after he had confessed to me, but before he had worked up enough nerve to tell his fatherwho kept signing him up, spring and fall, year after yearthat his heart just didn't connect with the game. Pulling grass and snapping at butterflies in the outfield should have been sign enough, but not to father's of mighty-armed, left handed boys. 


[I wondered if it weren't denial (well, of course it was) that kept my husband from noticing what seemed so very obvious to me. I'd grown up with ball players. My dad, who'd coached, let his tomboy daughter (for whom, at the time, no hardball league existed) practice with his team and keep stats. I loved the game as much as my dad and brothers, and I knew when a boy was in love with it too. A boy gently smoothing a stitched, leather-covered hardball in his hands like it were a sacred thing, or stepping into the batter's box, face lowered and serious, as if it were a confessional and he was ready for release. Almighty God, let it go, set me free! There was a level of intimacy with the sport that my son just never felt. And that was okay with me. Eventuallyafter a mourning spellit was alright with his father, too.]

With the morning chill and drizzle intensifying, I plodded through the thick brush along the fence at the edge of a cemetery and church bordering the reservoir and found the fence trailed off where the woods opened up beyond the hallowed grounds. At the risk of a $500.00 fine and imprisonment for up to one year, it was there I transgressed and climbed an unobstructed embankment to find a winding, smoothed asphalt path at its crest, surrounding the reservoir. (Damn the electronic surveillance and penalties. Tell me how one turns away from this path?) It was from this perspective that I could see nearly the whole of the reservoir. The view was grace, pure grace. Alone, in the midst of this serene form, I put down the knotty stick that I had picked up along the way, and stood looking at the water, the grey mist rising from it, the leaf-lined path, the evergreen and flora fringe, before freezing the moment with the camera built into my cell phone, its shutter sound effect slicing the moist air. 

And then I looked straight ahead and walked.
* * * 

Sharon Van Etten is a young singer/songwriting from New Jersey who spent her college years in Tennessee. It was there that she found the music that was to influence her highly personal songwriting. In the past three years she's put out just as many albums, and has found a solid American fan base.

Pitchfork, on Van Etten's debut album, Because I Was In Love
Most crucial to the album's success, however, is Van Etten's unerring sense for crafting memorable, seductive melodies. Here again she takes no shortcuts, as she largely forgoes standard verse-chorus repetition in favor of a more organic style, with wonderful songs like "For You" and "Holding Out" gently unwinding like the lines across a hand-drawn road map. Even in a folk scene that can sometimes feel over-crowded, Because I Was in Love positions Sharon Van Etten immediately towards the front of the pack.
From Because...

And We Are Fine, from Tramp (2012)

NPR calls Van Etten "hypnotically complicated." I think she's going to stick around long enough to hypnotize many of us. You can find more on her latest album here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Treehearts (and Songhearts and Sweethearts)

Last year at this time I wrote a bit about the history of Lupercalia in this Drunk and Naked and Running Wild post, which, given the title, I later realized might bring in more creepy keyword hits than I'd prefer. But it wasn't the case at all. Nope. Turns out that nothing ropes in blog traffic here at SS more than a man caves search. I almost wish I'd never written that post.

Yesterday, I researched the origins of the heart shape as a symbol of the human heart, love and Valentine's Day and pulled up several anecdotes, but I scrapped the idea. I thought about posting this poem by Gaius Valerius Catullus, but scrapped that too.

What I really needed was a  walk.

So, I marched down the slope of our backyard, through the woods, and along the stream in hopes of finding a naturally occurring heart somewhere in the water-washed stones or the brush or the tangled branches. It was no easy task in February, when we're long past (or presently looking forward to) blooming catalpas and bleeding hearts. I'd nearly given up when I turned to head back toward the house and noticed the shape of a heart six or seven feet up in an odd looking four pronged tree. Although it may appear, from the above photo, that the heart was carved into the tree, it was not. It's completely organic, formed naturally in the tree's bark. That's my Valentine's Day gift, I thought.

When I got back to the house, I heard Max (for any new readers who haven't been introduced, Max is my 14 year old son) playing his guitar but I didn't recognize the tune. Max, who's highly resistant to lessons of any kind, had been teaching himself a couple of Aerosmith songs (ouch) on the electric guitar (ouch) he got for Christmas, but what I heard was acoustic. I went up to his room, phone in hand, and listened as he played his old classical guitar. He'd composed the melody himself, he said, it was a work in progress, but he wasn't sure if he might have stolen it, he'd heard something similar, he thought. 

So I recorded it on my phone. And after hours of trying to figure out how the heck to embed audio on my blog, this is your Valentine's Day gift:

Later, I checked the tune with SoundHound, a music recognition app for phones. The results: There were no close matches. What do you know, Max's first organic piece of music, formed naturally in his heart.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Friday Night Frolic - Cold, Cold Ground

Then came the ice birds, through the bleeding sky, over the undulating, aqua field.  The white forest, frozen in dream, did not hear their trumpeting, nor the crunching upon the crisp ocean as a gaggle landed on its crystal beads. 

One eye open and one eye shut, they rested uneasy, gulping the heaving field's abundant airuntil impatient and hungry grew the gosling, who cried!

Mother goose took the lead, dew-tipped tails waddled behind, the bleached horizon in the distance pined. 

Where the red sky meets the blue plain, dusk and dawn are the very same. 

A poem, at times, must be scrutinized, to uncover certain cluesthis is what the schoolmaster uttered, his tapered pointer a dancing muse.

Ice birds fixed on the cold, cold ground of the ivory shore as they shuffled in cedilla form 
(unlike their innate, accent circonflexe arrays in ruby heavens).

The silver gander considered the graze, and advanced along the inversion, his broad crown alert to what might fill the gizzard. 

Somewhere in the sea of brush: berries, sedge and root. (Had he expected fish?) Then came the ice birds, mandibles wide and serrated, pulled up all the grasses, swam along the scrub, filled their bellies with white forest and frozen dream.

* * *

No one writes more imaginative story/songs/poems (especially the scruffy, down-and-out sort)  than Tom Waits. Loss, lies, love, lowlife, liquor, loners and lullabies, he covers a lot of ground with a mean growl. Only Bukowski (whose influence on Waits is palpable) growled more prolifically. But Waits is the master of pairing poetic story with melody. And his ballads are beautiful.

From Franks Wild Years (1987)

From his 2006 album, Orphans:

From Mule Variations (1999):

From Alice (2002):

Waits's most recent album, Bad As Me, was released in 2011after a seven year absence in the studio. On Bad As Me he's back like the geese, mandible wide and serrated. You can read (or listenhighly worth the 45 minutes) more about the release on this October, 2011, NPR Fresh Air interview with Waits. 

The geese, as they were this morning (minus inverted color), in the undulating field.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Comfort Food

"Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each." 
~Henry David Thoreau

Friable vermillion, mocha and pumpkin scraped into piles and bagged. Grass crew cut for the cold that would set in. Silver shears buzzed the holly and fire bush. Wood piled in a hollow. The little brown bat tightened in the soffit. Soil turned to clunch.

All readied for winter's diet. 

But the season failed to season. It was as bland as young bananas and white rice. 

Then. The shaker's salt clotted. Scraped peppercorn clogged in the blades. The frother jammed. The iron grew tired of steaming--just as the milky billows above rebuked soft and airy deliverance. The humidifier clattered. Alarms screeched randomly. 

Except for the ransacked house. Inside, they took what they could fit in their duffle bags. Outside, silence.
Police notified neighbors. The immediate ward abuzz with concern. 

Footprints cannot be detected in clunch.

A little girl backed up a chair under the doorknob.

Had the odds changed?

Have a piece of chocolate cake, her mother said. We are as safe today as we were yesterday. No more, no less.

In the distance, a dog barked. Geese honked overhead. 

They're back. You know where they're headed, right?

Every year, same spot, the girl said.

Actually, I'm not so sure they ever left.

The girl smiled.  Mama, that cake's the best I've ever had. I'm gonna run out and see if I can find them.

She watched her round the corner, up to Ryan's plat where the pond water swept over the fall and the birds gathered at the edge of the brook, daring each other to jump in. This is the way it was. Clouds giving or not. Clunch. Seasons lapsing. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Friday Night Frolic - Winterlust

I was born in a cloud... 
Now I am falling. I want you to catch me.
Look up and you'll see me.You know you can hear me.
The world is so loud. Keep falling. I'll find you.
~Kate Bush, Snowflake

It is probably never wise to start a post off with at the risk of..., but, while we're talking about authenticity and, to some degree, baring soul (and as a follow up to this post), I'll risk baring this: I finallythis week, in good ole Beantowntook part in one of the dreaded "oscopies." Not fishing for congratulatory remarks, I'm a big girl (oh, am I?), yes, I am, but sometimes it takes me a while to get around to things. Especially those things I don't like. And fear. Such as balancing my checkbook, cleaning out the refrigerator, and, well, getting poked and prodded.

Wednesday, in Boston, it was a grey morning and a balmy 52 degrees. Dr. Bliss dropped by the holding area to say hello, review my records and recite a litany of complications. I read the paperwork! I wanted to tell him. But I didn't. I let him go on. After all, he is Dr. Bliss. Oh, Dr. Bliss, you're so very kind and attentive. (She thinks, and he is) I'm sure this procedure will be like having a cupcake for breakfast. What, shouldn't everyone start their day with a cupcake? There are certainly no complications with cupcakes. Cupcakes are not complicated. They are sweet and harmless (like you, Dr. Bliss). Lest one chokes on one, of course. But really, how would one choke on a cupcake?

There was a moment, a look between us, I felt for sure he'd read my mind. Look, how could I not be thinking about food? And choking? I hadn't eaten in days (alright, hours), and I was about to be wheeled into the tricked out room for an endoscopy.

After Dr. Bliss fluttered away the nurse returned to check my IV and seize my book. A book, you brought a book to your endoscopic procedure? (She said, in not so many words, after I had refused her magazine offering.) She smiled smugly, and I knew that she had heard my meditation on cupcakes. Moments later I was trundled toward the surgical room, where the hard stuff was administered and where all my worries fell away...

Yesterday, yet another mild day in New England, I spent the better (or worse) part of the day in bed, and then, late afternoon at my desk trying to compose a Frolic. But in my still loopy and confused state, not having altogether shaken off the previous day's midazolam and fentanyl cocktail, all I managed to do was watch video loops of snow falling and winterscape screen savers on YouTube while shaking my daughter's snow globe. Something was wrong.

Maybe it was the narcotics.

Or an obscure compulsion (fueled by narcotics?) to expunge all thoughts of Wednesday's stressful scoping by way of alternate, yet still dreamy, optics.

We have no snow. And in the winter months, it is not the waning sunlight that disturbs my circadian rhythm. It is snow deficiency. This winter, in this bend of Rhode Island, we've seen a total accumulation of a mere half foot of snow, which came to us in a weekend whirl and remained only long enough for my daughter and I to leave a pair of skinny ski tracks along our whitened streets during one afternoon. But it was a glorious afternoon. Outside, everything sang. The snow-covered woodpile, the twisting brittle grape vine (which, no matter how invasive, I will not cutits summer canopy is simply gorgeous), the birdhouse, the stream beyond, and the shallow woods beyond the stream. It was an avalanche of song, it was shimmerglisten harmony, stellatundra chorus, a sorbet deluge of melody, terrablizza, spangladasha!*  The next day, as temperatures rose and the dang sun blistered, frost began to pool and trickle down storm drains.

How does one find oneself in the wintertime without a snowy foil shading earth's face? (This is not how New England works!) The starkness of undressed trees and woodland and field, at times, seems unbearable. Where are the tracks laid?  There is a crevasse in my soul that longs to be filled, as it rightly should this time of year, with the song of snow.

So what I did, at day's end, at wits end, at the edge of pharmaceutical fuliginousness, was what any decent New England girl would do, I sought the highest counsel: I went to mystical royalty. I went to Kate.

Her eminence, Kate Bush. With her 2011 concept album, 50 Words for Snowwhich has been described as "elegantly loony"she proffers an opulent and moody compilation that conjures what, this season, has become a winter phantom.

From the L.A. Times:
[...] Bush grounds her songs in the permafrost of winter, with her piano work sounding like the first stirrings after a cold snap. “Among Angels” could be the soundtrack for plants stretching toward the new spring sun, but as much as it’s connected to the natural world, the song twinkles with something more ethereal. “I can see angels standing around you,” Bush sings in her windblown soprano, “they shimmer like mirrors in summer.”

Bush's inspiration for the album is rooted in Eskimo lexicon myth: Eskimos have fifty words for snow. But they don't. Bush, nevertheless, brilliantly bangs out her own neologisms de neige in the same seductive voice of yesteryearher misty highs and lows blanketing the soul with icy wonder dust. 

From NPR:
The opening and closing cuts invoke a chill as they dwell on the ephemeral nature of the life cycle. "Snowflake," which features the choirboy pipes of Bush's 12-year-old son Bertie, gives voice to the melting consciousness of the natural world itself; "Among Angels" reads like the sweetest kind of suicide note. In between there are imagined couplings – with a gender-bending snowman in "Misty," and with a lover found and lost through many reincarnations (and played with brio by Elton John) in "Snowed In At Wheeler Street." The bounding "Wild Man" chases a yeti.

50 Words is an enchanting (if, at times, creepy) collection where each song builds on the other. It contains seven songs only, but their depth and breadth (the longest song is 11:08 minutes, the shortest, 6:48) are stunning. Listen. Worries fall away...

And then, there will be cupcakes, iced, this evening. And tomorrow, for breakfastshould there be any leftovers.


* Italicized modifiers courtesy Kate Bush, 50 Words for  Snow.