Dental Surgery


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I have a new dentist, a lovely twelve-year-old girl. Her dental assistant, Denise, is about the same age, give or take a year. When Denise was on vacation recently, she got her hair cut; she was tired of always putting it up because it’s so hot out so she just decided to whack it all off. My dentist thinks it’s super cute, really. This conversation took place between them while they were giving me a root canal and crown. It’s one thing that they get you in the chair, give you a shot to numb you, and then present you with a sheet full of disclaimers and cautions, asking you to sign it, approving the procedure you’re already in the middle of. But when they carry on this girlish chatter while the drill is digging ever deeper into your gums, it’s disconcerting to say the least.

Last night I was reading the novel Submission, by Michel Houellebecq. The story’s protagonist is a young man just finishing college who notes that ‘maturing is to some degree learning to lose our disdain for the generation we’ve been called upon to replace.’ I can see that. Reminds me of the old Mark Twain quote, ‘When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to 21 I was astonished at how much the the old man had learned in seven years.’ When I was young I was as bad a smart-aleck as has ever inhabited the planet. Later I saw how much my elders could have told me—tried to tell me—if I had only listened.

And now I am on the other side of the equation, the older person who sees everyone as too young for the roles they inhabit, too inexperienced to understand things fully. My young dentist, vendors who call on me at work looking like they just left the playground, insurance agents, financial advisors, everybody is so young! I am called upon to learn trust, to know that these people, while young, are educated, tested, ready to provide the services they advertise. I must lose my disdain for the generation that’s replacing me.

In art, the seasons are often used as a metaphor for human life, from the springtime of youth through the aging and death of autumn and winter. We move through them one stage at a time, always looking towards what comes next. But what you don’t realize until you get to an advanced age is how much you also look back. This is what separates the seasons from human life—looking back as much as looking forward. The Romans must have understood this when they created their god Janus, god of beginnings, whose name is inscribed in the month January. He was a two-faced deity, always looking forward and backward, because nothing ever happens—nothing meaningful, anyway—without both.

I purposely selected a woman dentist. I just don’t like a guy with his big hairy knuckles digging around in my mouth. I was, I am still surprised by how young she looks, how young everyone in her office looks. But my tooth feels fine now, she and her assistant did an excellent job, despite over-sharing about Denise’s hairstyle choices. Like most people, I dislike dental surgery, and it was a big step for me going in to get some things taken care of. It was also a big step, moving closer to trusting the younger generation.

Spaceship Orion


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I was learning how to play a new song this week, ‘Spaceship Orion’ by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. It’s an old tune I’ve always liked. To me it’s a companion piece to another song I have long known, Neil Young’s classic ‘After the Gold Rush.’ Both songs are about humanity flying to some distant planet, seeking a new home, once earth has been met with ecological disaster. Neil Young’s song is perhaps more optimistic about that future, ending with the lines ‘Flying Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home in the Sun,’ while the Daredevils end their song with the repeated lines ‘It can’t be like home, it can’t feel like home to you there.’

Of course not. For one thing, it’s imaginary. How many books and stories and movies have there been about humanity setting up new colonies on distant planets? How often we’ve been run through the whole speculative drill about families in suspended animation, whole populations enduring multi-year flights to the ends of the galaxy, waking up to a planet with sufficient atmosphere, water, and acceptable gravity, waiting there for us? The fact that to this point no planet has been found that even remotely fills the bill does not deter the science fiction writers. It’s just not going to happen, I think anybody with their head on straight can see that.

This has always been my problem with the ‘space program,’ with ‘exploring space’—as if exploring something infinite has any practical meaning. What a huge waste of money. Sure, putting satellites into orbit has had some practical value; but manned space flight? It is as much science fiction as science, and always has been. Boys playing with rockets. And now, I fear that it feeds into some dangerous political fantasies. Our current White House regime holds to three interesting ideas, which considered together, make for a scary scenario.

First is protection of the wealthiest in America. The recently passed tax ‘reform’ bill does just that, while offering weak and temporary sops to working Americans. Wages remain stagnant despite what is touted as a red-hot economy, while inflation is ticking up, led by gas prices. To the top economic tier, a great economy means they are making more money, while to the rest of us, it means less value for our income. An extremely rich upper class trailed by a weakening middle class and increasingly desperate lower class is becoming institutionally cemented into our society. Anyone who would mention this or opine that it should be otherwise is, of course, a socialist.

Second is denial of climate change—or at least of man’s role in it. David Brooks wrote a piece years ago (when he still had some cred in conservative circles) about the things conservatives actually believe that they won’t admit. Climate science was one of those things. Most conservative politicians are educated people, they understand basic science and can see the signs all around them. But they can’t admit it, either out of deference to their energy company sponsors or to jolly along the average benighted southern voter. When the occupant of the White House takes America out of the Paris Climate Agreement and works to weaken any environmental laws we do have, the applause from his side of the aisle in congress is deafening.

Third is a fixation on space things. New policy directives call for a return to the moon and eventually flights to Mars, for renting space to rich guys who love rockets. In several of his recent disjointed ramblings, the Dissembler in Chief has mentioned how rich guys love rockets; this left many wondering where he was headed, what he meant—as if he ever really means anything. Where this comes from is anybody’s guess: so here’s mine.

A scenario of many of the science fiction stories about inhabiting the moon, Mars, and beyond posits a happy future on extra-terrestrial colonies—for a lucky few. Those lucky few are, of course, the wealthiest. This seems like outlandish speculation, except the idea of all our official resources being focused on the happiness of a tiny percentage of rich people is rapidly becoming reality. Further, we can officially deny the effects of climate change, but in private, keep a weather eye out for those changes. If our toadying to the energy companies and their campaign donations leads to increasing environmental straits, we ought to have a plan. And so that plan, being promulgated even as we speak, is to intensify our efforts in space, particularly manned exploration of other planets. We must prepare to set up those colonies for rich people if/when everything goes south. Yes, the whole idea is still as much science fiction as science, but I’d bet anything that our administration in Washington is more informed by movies like The Martian and Interstellar than actual science.

Let’s face it. Earth is the only planet where humans will ever live. Let’s work to save it, and stop with these science fiction scenarios in which only the blessed few may thrive on a distant orb. I like the song ‘Spaceship Orion,’ but I realize it’s only a song.

As for my theory about where the Occupant in Chief is headed with his space talk, you may think it’s a little far-fetched. Maybe I’m being paranoid and getting carried away. After all, setting up colonies for rich people, while denying the opportunity to the vast run of humanity, would require having some kind of enforcement in place, some kind of Space Force, and I haven’t heard anybody suggesting that we start a Space Force. Have you?

Edna Gets Around


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Sometimes I think we fall into using certain locutions, because they express our innate desire to be seen as sympathetic, or right-thinking. Sometimes, if we press further into the facts of the matter, those locutions turn out to be simply nonsensical. Here is my current example.

I have been reading American poetry that deals with the seasons: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Most poetry collections include an introduction that offers biographical and critical material, and puts the writer’s work into cultural or historical context. These same themes are also reworked when I visit Wikipedia or Britannica Online for further information. Of Edna St. Vincent Millay, one thing is said repeatedly—I believe I read it in three sources, if not four. ‘Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923, only the third woman to win the prize.’ Impressive, no? It is sad, I think, that we continue to count women’s accomplishments by which number each woman who achieves something can claim. Good for Edna to haul in one of those coveted Pulitzers, and only the third woman to do so!

Then I got curious. She won her Pulitzer in 1923. The Pulitzer Prizes were established in 1917. The prize for poetry is not given every year. By the time Millay got hers, there had been five winners: Sara Teasdale, Carl Sandburg, Margaret Widdemer, Edward Arlington Robinson, and Millay. Yes, she was ‘only the third woman to win,’ but at that point, women had dominated the award. Women would go on to do very well, with Amy Lowell, Leonora Speyer, Audrey Wurdemann, Marya Zaturenska, Gwendolyn Brooks, Marianne Moore, and many others winning. Over the years, men have won more, but it would be a challenge to come up with a female poet who has deserved a Pulitzer and not won.

I think it would serve as better history, and indeed give credit to women poets, if the sources on Edna St. Vincent Millay said, ‘Millay won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923, the third woman to do so in a field dominated up to that point by women.’

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) was notoriously promiscuous, taking many lovers, a practice that persisted unabated after her marriage. She wrote the famous verse:

My candle burns at both ends,

It will not last the night.

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—

It gives a lovely light.

The idea of a candle burning at both ends is often interpreted to mean that her lovers were both male and female. She had no children, and her biographers note that in her life she had two abortions—in a time when such procedures were terribly dangerous.

She wrote of all seasons, but in a life as unconventional as hers, she was never going to mimic the traditional themes of seasonal literature. In the poem ‘Spring’ she asks, ‘To what purpose, April, do you return again?’ She is unimpressed by the resurrection of life, and the thought that death is never final, because:

Life in itself

Is nothing,

An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs,

It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,


Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

More stirring to her is the death of beauty, as exemplified by autumn. In ‘The Death of Autumn’ she writes that when the reeds die and grasses are fetched off by the wind, she feels the weight of the year in her heart.

I know that beauty must ail and die,

And will be born again,–but ah, to see

Beauty stiffened, staring up at the sky!

Oh Autumn! Autumn!—What is the Spring to me?

As with most poets, Millay concentrates on spring and autumn, but summer also seems to hold special meaning for her. In her poignant ‘Sonnet XXVII’ she writes:

I know I am but summer to your heart,

And not the full four seasons of the year . . .

And in the poem ‘Song,’ she writes of summer:

Gone, gone again is Summer the lovely,

Gone again on every side,

Lost again like a shining fish from the hand

Into the shadowy tide.

Biographers have theorized that Millay’s sense of loss at the passing of another summer is a reference to her own childlessness, another fertile season spent without fecundity. But as far as I can see, there is nothing in her life to indicate she ever longed to have children, and the evidence indicates she was fully capable.

Millay is another example of the fact that the seasons will always be seen as similes for the progress of human life, both its cyclicity and its impermanence. And when that life is unconventional, so is the poetry it produces.



Uncut Pages in Burroughs


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Last night I was reading Winter Sunshine by John Burroughs. Recent editions of Burroughs’s original books are hard to come by: today we have mostly anthologies and collections of his hundreds of nature essays. This was a 1908 edition of Winter Sunshine, and in the midst of the essay ‘Autumn Tides’ I was much surprised to find two uncut pages.

Let me tell you, if you don’t know, about uncut pages. Books are printed and bound using large sheets called octavos, meaning that there are eight pages to a sheet. The sheet is printed and folded into a unit called a signature. The signatures are assembled into their proper order, then run through a finisher that cuts the edges so the pages are all separate. Sometimes, the cutter misses a few pages. Sometimes it misses many. In the old days, this was common, and one could encounter uncut pages with some regularity. A person who could read and write was likely to carry, or have handy a penknife, with which it was an easy operation to smoothly slice open the uncut pages. I have read entries in old journals about the pleasures of finding uncut pages, like unwrapping a gift, or opening a door into a new world.

I used my Swiss Army knife. I was being careful, since this was a library copy, borrowed through interlibrary loan from the Abbey Library in Conception, Missouri. As I continued through Burroughs’s wonderful musings about the changing seasons, I was struck by the fact that I was the first person reading this essay in this volume. Almost exactly one-hundred years, and never had anyone opened these pages. This is a loss: people should always be reading John Burroughs.

I have been reading and writing about the seasons on earth for more than fifteen years. In my ever-expanding book, I have written chapters about the science of the seasons, the measuring of the seasons with calendars, the mythology of the seasons, and the holidays based on the seasons. Now I am working on the chapter about music and literature of the seasons. This has led me to many of the great nature writers—Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Millay, Muir, Teale, Borland, Beston, Dillard, and of course, Burroughs. Of these, I find Burroughs the very best.

His essay ‘A Sharp Lookout,’ from the book Signs and Seasons (which I am reading in an 1886 first edition, borrowed from Grinnell College Library) begins by noting that one need not travel the globe to see unique and interesting climatic features: if one will only be still and patient, and keep a sharp lookout, no matter where one lives, all the seasons will pass by in pageant, like new and strange countries. Burroughs’s writing is beautiful and deep, but the depth comes from close observation, not mystical thought. He is spiritual, but not superstitious. In ‘A Sharp Lookout’ he cautions against things like ascribing innate intelligence to trees, or the ability of animals to predict weather. He writes of finding a frog in hibernation in November, having made its hibernaculum beneath the thinnest layer of leaves, surely an indication of a mild winter ahead. But the sharp lookout must persist, and he found the ensuing winter to be long and unusually cold. He sought out his frog in spring and found it no worse for a bad choice of winter domicile.

In the essay ‘Phases of Farm Life,’ he relates the chores on a farm more closely to the seasons than any other writer, save perhaps Laura Ingalls Wilder. By midsummer hay-mowing time, ‘The men are in the meadows by half-past four, or five, and work an hour or two before breakfast.’ Sugar making comes during ‘. . . the equipoise of the season: the heat of the day fully balances the frost of the night.’ Interesting to note that when he writes of farm life, he uses the old, Biblical terms ‘seedtime and harvest’ instead of spring and autumn.

Reading Burroughs is like entering a wonderful world we are all too rapidly leaving behind. I am as moved by his paragraphs as I am by the sense that it is a lost world. The very thought that I can still cut pages and enter that world is as close to a spiritual experience as I am likely to have in this life.

Dad Jokes


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I visited my older brother in his hometown this past weekend, and as he was driving us somewhere we passed a cemetery. ‘People are dying to get in there,’ he said, nodding seriously towards it. I couldn’t believe it. The old dad joke.

My brother and I are both old dads, and more importantly, we had an old dad. This was a joke he used to make. Either that, or he’d ask, when we passed a cemetery, ‘Do you know how many dead people are in there?’ No. ‘All of them.’

My friend Curt had a dad who was a terrible jokester. We would be looking out on a rainy day and he’d say, ‘If this rain keeps up, it won’t come down.’ Or we’d be going fishing, and the lady in the bait and tackle shop would ask, ‘Do you have worms?’ ‘Yes,’ he’d say, ‘but I’m going fishing anyway.’

Why is it that dads feel the need to share dumb jokes? Do they consider themselves especially witty? Or do they just hope to be the family’s spirit lifter and morale booster? Maybe it’s because of our busy lives. Dad may only see his wife and kids for a few minutes in the morning before rushing off to work, and if he feels the need to make an impression as someone charming or fun, a joke is an easy short-form device for accomplishing that. Yes, a large percentage of moms are also rushing off to work, but let’s face it—their time is filled with making sure the kids have lunch money, or lunches, with finalizing details about when they need to be dropped off or picked up from lessons, team practice, doctor appointments, and other family business. Dads try to reserve this time for the charm offensive.

Dad jokes tend more towards the shorter formats than long story jokes: knock-knock jokes, or why-did-the-chicken-cross-the-road jokes. A story joke takes too much time, requiring the kids to lift their faces from their phones longer than is reasonable.

DAD:                                    Knock-knock

FAMILY MEMBER:            Who’s there?

DAD:                                    Britney Spears

FAMILY MEMBER:            Britney Spears who?

DAD:                                    Knock-knock

FAMILY MEMBER:            Who’s there?

DAD:                                    Oops! I did it again . . .

That’s the perfect dad joke. It’s brief, and with its reference to Britney Spears, so-o yesterday. But it’s also funny.

My specialty has long been the man-walks-into-a-bar joke, from the classics, like:

A duck walks into a bar and orders a beer. He says, ‘Put it on my bill.’

To more modern takes, such as:

A jumper cable walks into a bar and orders a beer. ‘Okay,’ says the       bartender, ‘just don’t start anything.’


A termite walks into a bar and asks, ‘Where is the bar tender?’

Everyone regards these as some of the stupidest jokes going, but they also always laugh. It takes a special kind of person to tell jokes, knowing they are dumb jokes—and often, that person is a dad.

I wonder if this is more a modern phenomenon? I do not, for instance, recall my grandfather telling jokes. He was a Baptist minister, so that may explain it, but he was altogether quieter and more somber. Here is the only joke I ever heard him tell:

Two Texas ranchers are arguing about who has the bigger ranch. One says, ‘I can get in my truck, and drive from sunup to sundown, and still not reach the end of my ranch.’ The other one says, ‘Yep, I used to have a truck like that.’

It’s a story joke, though a short one, and doesn’t necessarily fit the mold. But I can’t imagine the same man who deadpanned every Sunday about Paul’s letters and the Acts of the Apostles saying something as trivial as, ‘Knock-knock,’ or ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’

I recently visited the Laura Ingalls Wilder home in Mansfield, Missouri. Nice place to see, if you’re at all interested in the Little House books, or American literature in general. One of the most important artifacts in the museum is Pa’s Fiddle. That’s right, the fiddle Pa played all the time when Laura and her sisters were growing up, playing and singing old songs to entertain the family and take their minds off hard times, hard work, hunger, cold, darkness, and worse. I remember also ‘Pa’s happy song,’ which he would sing, ironically, at times when there was the least to be happy about. It comes up a few times in The Long Winter, when one blizzard after another sets in. Pa will come in from doing the morning chores in -40° weather, and start singing about being a happy little sunflower. Pa also told funny stories. In the long evenings on the prairies the girls would beg him to tell their favorites. It is Pa as general entertainment, morale booster, stress reliever. This role has been reduced, in modern times, to dads telling dumb jokes, but it’s still the same function.

There is also the likelihood that most dads feel they are giving their kids fodder for a successful social life by supplying jokes. I always imagined my daughter, despite the eye rolls and weary sighs she offered in response to most of my jokes, telling them to kids at school that very day. ‘Hee-hee-hee,’ her friends would laugh, ‘where do you get all these jokes?’ She’d never say, but we shared the unspoken secret. We all have our fantasies.

My friend Al was always terrible at telling jokes. He was so bad that sometimes he would present them as a sort of outline, providing all the key elements, then supply the punchline, and tell us to put it together for ourselves. Despite this inability, his daughter grew up to be a well-adjusted and charming young woman. Go figure.

I don’t know what got me going on like this about dad jokes, except that when I heard my brother make the old cemetery joke, it hit me that I also make the same joke, or fight the desire to make it, like a spirit that takes possession of me, every time I pass a graveyard. That’s the dad in me, my own dad, and most every dad I’ve known.

Spring Calling–Are You There?


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Spring has come at long last to the Great American Midwest. The days are beautiful, breezes sunny and mild. Birds sing from every tree, vying for coveted nesting places, chasing one another joyously through the air. Down in the area I call Cypress Hollow, where I turn around on my morning run to head back home, two ducks have paired up. I watch eagerly, hopefully, for the appearance of their ducklings. Nobody can talk about anything except the weather. Okay, this being St. Louis, the weather and baseball—but then the two are closely tied to one another.

Here’s a thing I want to talk about. I am a librarian. Librarians, traditionally, have had a conflicted relationship with cell phones. We oversee places that are much better when they are quiet. Yes, we have long despised the stereotype of the shushing librarian, but the fact is, if we do not shush noisy people, other people will usually approach the desk to demand why not. This goes doubly for people using cell phones in libraries. Everyone rude enough to use a cell phone in a library believes they are keeping their conversation quiet, but there is simply no such thing as a quiet cell phone conversation. They are all, always and forever, disruptive to the general ambience, especially in a public library reading room, where ambience is our most precious commodity.

All this is by way of saying that I dislike the whole cell phone culture. It was a long time before I was forced to get one. I use mine regularly now, but not so regularly that I am seen walking about on public streets with the thing stuck in my ear, or my eyes glued to the screen, watching god knows what. I once said, and still believe, that there is only the thinnest line separating people who walk around talking on cell phones all the time and people who walk around talking to themselves.

So on a beautiful spring morning, when I am walking into the grocery store for something, and I pass a teenaged boy staring at his phone as if the ultimate answer were displayed there, I have the urge to shake him and say, ‘Look up! Listen! The sky is blue, the birds are singing, daffodils and tulips are blooming all around you.’ I don’t like to be too judgmental, the lad is wearing the uniform that indicates he works at the store, and is probably on a break. Maybe this is the only time he has in his busy morning to see if he has any messages. But somehow I doubt it.

I am troubled by young people growing ever more tied to their tiny, demanding devices. There are studies coming out all the time indicating that cell phone culture is detrimental to health, to attention span, to ability to perform well in school, and on and on. I was talking last night to a man who teaches art classes at a community college: he tries to get students to stay off their phones during class, but finds that they don’t because they can’t! They are truly addicted. My problem is that young people spend too much time focused on their phones rather than the nature around them.

Of course one of my major gripes with modern society is that we don’t spend enough time outdoors, we don’t cherish nature, we don’t watch the seasons come and go. But I find the problem growing worse with young people. How are they going to worry about whether earth’s climate is changing, and seek solutions to the problem, if they don’t even know what the climate is like now? But the problem could be even more pressing.

My friend asked me this morning about the meaning of ‘spring fever.’ Is it something to do with allergies? No, I explained, it is an expression indicating a longing for love and romance brought about by the warmer weather. Like in the Elvis Presley song ‘Spring Fever,’ a terrible song from the crummy movie ‘Girl Happy,’ with the wonderful lyrics:

The blossoms on the trees

Look at the honeybees . . .

Get up, get up, love is everywhere.

Love in springtime has been a motif of human existence since before we were recognizably human. Courtship and mating find their primetime when the sun grows warm and the days grow longer. But what will happen when young people no longer notice this? Can the species endure? There is cause for hope: there are always hormones, the other great fuse of courtship, and I have not read any reports noting a decline in them.

Someone should create an app that tells cell phone users when it is the first day of each season, maybe plays an excerpt from Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ and provides a list of things that are traditionally done in that season. I’d download that, even I sometimes get so busy that I miss the first day of spring or summer. Of course, I’d have to ask a young person how to download an app . . .



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Leaves. I am finally seeing leaves sprouting on trees everywhere when I run in the morning. Clusters of pale catkins on the tree out my window. Tiny spikes peeking out of the cypress branches. Trees in the distance seen as more green than gray, even in the dim light of a cloudy morning. Spring has had a tortured birth this year, Persephone held back by her tyrant lover, Demeter sorrowing in clouds and rain and weeks of chilly days.

But it’s all over now, I feel confident in saying. No, I don’t. Not confident at all, because this is the third or fourth time since early March that a few warm days strung together have played us for a fool, and I would be dismayed, but not at all shocked, to see frost on the windshields by the weekend. The past few years have been like this in the Great American Midwest. It is perhaps too facile to note that our climate is changing. Will we ever return to normal weather patterns, or is it too late? Maybe we just need to accustom ourselves to new realities. It would worry me, the dire warnings from the science community and the evidence of my own eyes—but thank goodness we have conservative politicians to tell us otherwise.

A few years ago, when I left the ranch, I began the process of getting used to new realities. No more stepping out the front door in the morning to an overwhelming chorus of bird song, to watching sunrises over the barn and fog rolling in over the west pasture, whole herds of deer grazing and dozens of turkeys dancing in the rain. I live in the city now, and watch for other signs of morning. Yes, I see the sunrise, and hear bird song—these things still happen, albeit in ways less immediate, less abundant. As I run in the early morning, the dusk to dawn streetlights click off in turn, starting from the east and moving west. Morning has come. Crossing the Watson Road bridge, a starling flits past me, singing on the wing, as happy as a starling anywhere. At Shop ‘n Save the Budweiser truck backs into the loading dock, beeping loudly, and the Tastykake truck pulls out, drivers who rose long before dawn to get the day’s commerce underway. Traffic picks up, and I negotiate with inattentive drivers at each crossing. They don’t intend to even pause at stop signs, why would they yield to me?

It has taken stores longer than usual to lay in their supplies of bedding plants, of mulch, gypsum, topsoil, and manure. The huge parking lot ‘gardening centers’ are just now opening. I have no gardening to do, only three small pots with herbs in my window, but I still get that springtime feel, things quickening, springing to life, when I see a family loading the SUV with bags of fertilizer and trays of little marigolds and begonias, cucumber and tomato seedlings.

And today, this week really, I am finally seeing leaves on trees. Someone said to me a few days ago that if she had to, she would trade all the flowers in the world for all the trees, and I’d have to agree. They are the lords of the spring, of the summer. Yes, it is still a cloudy week, with not much sunshine predicted for days. But it is hard to be gloomy when everywhere are signs of life.

A Chilly Walk


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I went out for a walk this morning and did not dress warmly enough. It was about 7:30 and the sun was in evidence in the east; it was big and golden but emitting minimal warmth, and I was more than halfway through my walk before I stopped feeling the chill. It is mid-March now and one expects warmer days. Spring begins next week—another time when we wish the calendar had some actual power. It is only a figurehead timekeeper, and the seasons wander promiscuously over its weeks and months, doing as they damn well please.
I will be happy to see the spring come. Though it was a mild and variable winter, producing almost no measurable snow, it has lingered well past its welcome—even for those few among us who do throw out a welcome mat for the coldest season. It occurs to me that in the past several months some of my posts here have been dour and depressing. This is likely due to the overall national mood as much as anything, as well as the tiresome round of changes in my personal life.
But I also see the good in winter. The Celts saw the coming winter not as a dark time, but as a time of building light—a distinction without a difference to some, but a very different emotional perspective. Winter is the time when we reflect, take stock, and find ourselves. If your spirit does not grow strong in winter, you’re going to have a hard time the rest of the year. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet’s Garden:

And what, I ask you, is winter save sleep big with the dreams of all the other seasons?

As spring comes on, and I begin to look outside, breathe deep, look for greening leaves and budding flowers, I realize that I have not wasted the winter. It has been a time of producing things, of moving projects forward. It may be only in spring that those projects meet the world, but they were accomplished when the windows were frosty and the nights were long. For instance, I wrote this song, which I think is very good.
I also finished a chapter of my book, once called The Varied God but now called The Measure of the Year. I have worked on it for so long, and I can now see my way to the end of the project. There are two chapters left to write, plus an epilogue, and significant parts of those sections are already researched and outlined, so they should fall into place pretty easily. I know, that’s the coming season talking, but I like it. I am a willing sucker for the siren song of spring.
It was a chilly morning for a walk. No bikers and no runners passed me, only a few huddled figures walking to their jobs at Shop ‘n Save and the Dollar Tree. Even as I write this I am looking out the window at a gray and gusty morning, with little climatic indication of the changes I am so anticipating. But a while ago I saw a flicker scuttling up the tree out my window, busily pecking away in search of bugs, and I knew that some signs of spring are irrepressible.
Spring is coming, and only waiting for you and me to join it.




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This morning I stepped out to run after a sleepless night. A pingy frozen mist fell on streets two degrees too warm for it to freeze there. It hit my face as soon as I stepped out, and my feet slipped a bit on the wet pavement. Can’t run in this, I immediately decided. Then I took a breath and the cold air filled my lungs; I took a few steps and my muscles responded; something like a thrill ran through all of me, and I began to walk. By the time I got to the running path I was ready to burst out into long strides, it all felt so good. All of which is especially strange, because it was still dark.

I am still running in darkness. We wait and wait through the darkness of winter for the sun to return, to give us days that are light when we wake up and stay light as long as we care to be outside while the evening draws to a close, and then, sooner than expected, the days begin to shorten.

It has been a weird winter—that’s the word people tend to use most to describe it. Weirdly freezing during December, then jumping back and forth from very cold days to record-breaking warm days throughout January and February. But we accept the unreliability of heat or cold in the seasonal cycle. Some summers sear you with weeks of excessive heat and humidity; some winters keep you in the deep freeze for far too long. Then again, either season can be mild and pleasant.

But the cycle of darkness and light never changes. I suppose meteorologists have tables that can tell us the exact moment of sunrise a hundred years from now. I enjoy running when the sun is up, when drivers heedlessly speeding to their destinations can see me. Like most runners I have had many near collisions with inattentive motorists, though a truck has only hit me once.

The problem is that we do not change our schedules according to the seasons–and that means according to darkness or light. In the old days, maybe Farmer Jones got up at the crack of dawn to start his chores. Well, the crack of dawn is not a time on a clock, say 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., it gradually moves through the year. As the year progressed, someone who awoke at the crack of dawn gradually moved with it.

Once we started doing everything according to clocks, at set hours, that all changed. Now Farmer Jones awakes at 5 a.m., whether it’s dark or light then. When we realized what an artificial overlay timekeeping was to the natural order, we put in force our clumsiest time tracking device of all: Daylight Saving Time. At that point, Farmer Jones likely wanted to hang himself from the hayloft. I can think of nothing that happens in the yearly round of days and nights that more effectively disorients and confuses people.

My thoughts are different when I run in the dark. More about how hard I’m running, how hard it is to run, how my ragged breath claws at my chest, my legs ache ascending a hill. It’s not that bad, but it seems like it in the dark.

Daylight is the good time, darkness is the bad time. Darkness, when philosophers and sneak thieves prowl the night, when dastardly deeds are done, when the lonely stalk their rooms in desperation. We fight the oncoming dark. Jack O’ Lanterns, bonfires, candles, Christmas lights and more illumine our wintry evenings, at least for a while, until we give up, throw in the towel, and let January and February chill our souls. But by then the corner has been turned, the solstice passed, Sol Invictus, Apollo, the Son of God, or whatever ancient spirit appeals to you has returned. To me, prosaically enough, it’s just the sun.

I ran a good distance, though not as far as I was running before I got the flu in January. When I got home I was barely winded and felt very good, and sat down to write this. Finishing up, I look out, and a pale light, struggling through dense clouds, is brightening the window. It’s too cloudy to see much, but the bit of future I can read in the brightness tells me that soon, I’ll be running in the sunlight.



Four Last Songs


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(This was written a while ago, as should be clear by the wrong seasonal setting; but I am once again working on these musical ideas.)

It was humid and still this morning, until sunrise brought a stiff breeze that cooled the air with a promise of rain showers. I sat on the porch in that kind of paralysis one feels at the change of summer into autumn, thinking about the Last Four Songs of Richard Strauss. They were playing on the radio yesterday as I was driving home, and when the announcer announced them, he offered the names of each one. It’s funny, this set of songs has long been a favorite of mine, but I never stopped to think about the titles of the individual songs or to consider their lyrics.

The lyrics to three of the songs, Spring, September, and Going to Sleep, come from poems by Hermann Hesse, and the fourth, At Sunset, from a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff. At first blush it would seem there is a progression to the set, something moving through the seasons; but it’s really only one song about spring followed by three songs dealing more or less with impending death. Kinda gloomy, I’d say.

On closer study, though, maybe there is more to it than that. Hesse’s poem Spring is about the transition from winter into spring, and by transference, about the human state of distance from nature into a full immersion in nature, which was a High Romantic ideal. It begins with the lines ‘In shadowy crypts/I dreamt long,’ which are pretty somber words for a paean to spring. But no fear, spring does come, to be passionately embraced by the poet.

If with this song we enter the seasons of greening and fruition, in September we move away from them. A lyric laced with melancholy, September is explicitly seen as the month when summer dies.

Summer smiles, astonished and feeble

at his dying dream of a garden

Again, it is the transition we are dealing with, the movement from one season to the next. A point I come across often in researching the seasons is that most people, when they speak of the seasons–especially when they speak of favorite or beloved seasons–usually cite the transition from the previous season into their favorite. It is the time of change that carries something special, whether it is hope, or optimism, or simply fascination with nature’s endless cycles.

In the world of art there are many representations of the seasons. Musicians, painters and poets can’t get enough of guiding us through the four seasons. But the sad fact is, much of this work is mediocre, if not bad. The programmatic impulse in art, the need to make a piece of music tell a specific story or to delineate something as obvious as the four seasons in a painting, usually bespeaks a limited imagination: think Norman Rockwell or Currier & Ives. Of course there are exceptions, such as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or Haydn’s The Seasons, but mostly, the world of art would suffer very little if all the works dedicated to the seasons were removed. This does not mean that programmatic art is not popular–people very much like art that is so easy to understand, and which appeals to something so intrinsic in their lives.

The fact is, Strauss did not write his Vier Letzte Lieder as a set: they just happen to be the last four songs he composed prior to his death, at 85, in 1949. His publisher put them together in the form that has become well known to generations of music lovers. This combination may have been a marketing ploy by the publisher, hoping the songs, seen as a whole, would appeal to the popular imagination. As a matter of fact, there was a fifth song, Strauss’s actual last song, called ‘Malven,’ which he dedicated to a woman other than his wife Pauline, dispatching the manuscript to her. She kept it secret for a long time, for what may be obvious reasons. The song, never orchestrated by the composer, is rarely included in performances or recordings of the Vier Letzte Lieder. It has been described as ‘very ordinary,’ especially compared to the wonderful late flowering of the other last songs.

They had been a fortuitous grouping, making a great concert piece of these songs which, while thematically linked and carrying the feel of moving through the life of a human spirit, are not diminished by a too obvious program. Strauss died a year after completing these songs. He was in his eighties, weary and depressed, living in Switzerland while his German homeland was being purged of Nazi vestiges. Perhaps the secret to creating great art around seasonal motifs is in not walking the audience through a rote recitation of all four seasons, but in expounding on the beauties of the season in which your soul resides at the time.