It’s Rainin’ So Hard.

Such good fortune to have woods behind our house – the tall oaks and poplars and gum trees, the skinny pines — that the rain plays like musical instruments, improvising a rushing waterfall concert, punctuated by the runoff from our roof splattering the driveway and the bass drum thunk from gutter overflow on the rubber lid of our garbage can, all the percussion instruments played at once, so you feel as if you must be moving on a river gaining speed towards rapids, though safe and dry on your screened-in porch. Half the charm of listening to heavy rain, I think, is that paradox, the symphony coming in your ears says go, but you are stationary, and in the dark before dawn this morning, the rain itself is invisible, so sound is the only marker, amounting to a study in percussion. Steady and hard since I sat down at 6:30 (it’s 7:30 now), played as a drone, relentless, the pace unchanging, the weatherman says 4 inches in two hours, no doubt washing out low roads all over the neighborhood that have not already succumbed to the week’s previous heavy downpours.

They say you never hear the rain stop. That truism is accurate, I think. All week I’ve waited to disprove it, and all week I’ve been distracted, missing that moment when the last drip fell. But the weather radar shows an orange storm cloud nearly past us now, headed east towards the Bay, so in the next half hour this torrent should lessen, the timpani fade, as the sky lightens and the morning’s birds, sheltering and quiet now, rush out to greet the day. No breeze at all, the trees still as a frieze, but a lessening of the roar, a rebounding run, then a dimming again, the snare drummers switching from sticks to brushes, the vibraphonists tapping slower, with space between tinks, still the overall laundromat shugga-shugga, but it’s as if the storm has thought to pace its diminution to the coming of daylight. But of course, it was the storm cloud that darkened the sky so late on an August morning, and with its passing, daylight unveils. Glistening swatches of green emerge, and the dark trunks of the tall trees stretch upwards in a still life hallelujah.

One bird whistles a three-note trill and repeats, a flute introduced to counterpoint the drone. No answer yet from her sheltering companions. By now on a dry day the birds would almost be done with their breakfast jazz concert, hitting the feeder hard, flitting and singing to each other all across the backyard. Not a one yet. Oh wait, a shabby chickadee has come to the feeder, sheltering in its lee, shivering beneath its narrow awning, allowing one chirp, shaking its wet feathers, second guessing its courage in leaving the shelter of whatever tree holds its nest. How resilient these palm-sized feathered troupers! What a gift to sit here under the porch roof, listening more closely than usual and adding my own little tapping to the general roar!

Now we note the slightest breeze, the individual leaves trembling as if they too are the audience and not the instruments, rustling program notes at their seats, awaiting the conductor’s wand, attending to the audio-visual synergy that dims and brightens at the same time. They seem giddy in their trembling, the little bird still huddled at the feeder, the rain now, yes I can firmly state that it dissipates, while a flat gray light illuminates the yard, as if someone is slowly turning up a dimmer switch. A hummingbird zooms past. My coffee nearly gone, the day almost upon us, wavering streaks of wet gleam silver on the window screens, that good hollow thunk on the garbage can lid irregular now like a jazz man cogitating on the possibilities, working out a rhythm only he or she can follow.

For an hour this morning time stopped. Everything was a drone, intimating the swelling Om that speaks of Oneness and Nothingness at once. My ears sought out progression, rhythm, resolution, some inkling of movement forward, and my eyes grappled for light, grasping at its dawning gradations as a path back to some norm. You can see why suicide runs rampant in the Great Lakes states, where gray gloom hangs for months and rain falls steadily for days. Imagine the maddening deprivations of solitary confinement in prison. We are made for motion, we crave indicators of progress from here to there, if not in space then at least in the timely changes a day brings. Without that, caught up in the thrum and drone, a little panic sets in. I would feel it if I thought this drenching downpour was not about to end. If I couldn’t sense some variation at least, some shift of sound or light in the general clamor. It’s 8 am now and yes it’s brighter but the rain has not let up. Maybe it’s the caffeine, but I do sense an anxiety in my chest and a fatigue at listening so steadily, the way one might feel in the late hours at a raga festival, wishing I’d brought an edible.

I’m clearly not much of a meditator. I shy from the lessons this morning’s rain would share, can’t stop thinking my way through it, typing little observations, watching Buddy at my side with his head up attending with so much more of a zen poise. The chickadee is gone. The hummingbird is gone. The rain continues. I had hoped to hear it come to an end. For a moment there thought, ah, diminuendo, and of course the sun will come out eventually. But now I think it’s actually falling harder. So hard that it fogs the far trees, makes a rain scrim in the woods. Nearby a tree falls – ah crescendo, the cracking at its base a little thunder (there has been no thunder all morning), then the accelerating shush as the limbs slap through the canopy and down to a sodden thump, the heavy trunk settling in the loam. Foundations loosened in wet soil, leaning old grandfather trees upended deep in the woods, their roots revealed like tentacled hands, done with the work of ages. That was a change! The falling tree snapped me out of it, brought me back to attention. I can groove on the music again. The breeze has accelerated, tickling the leaves on some trees but not others, like a ribbon of breath snaking from limb to limb. I’ve been sitting her listening and typing for nearly two hours, and if anything it’s falling harder than before. What an unusual August morning! Poor Buddy needs his walk. I feel like dear Irma Thomas in New Orleans, “Counting every drop, about to blow my top, I wish this rain would hurry up and stop.”

Meanwhile, Here in Suburban Richmond: an essay

In this morning’s New York Times a summary of the mistakes we’ve made here in the U.S. in coping with the coronavirus, which has put the lie to our already tattered notions of national pride. I feel battered on all sides, even though it’s been easy for me so far. A professor of occupational therapy with college junior sons, we were enjoying a spring break vacation in Kill Devil Hills as the nation shutdown in mid-March.  They closed the bridge to the Outer Banks the day we left, and that Monday, like teachers all over the country, I learned to zoom.

Our sons zoomed, too, in their bedrooms here at home. They’ve chosen all online classes for the first semester of their senior years and will be studying in their bedrooms again.  One – an ocean rescue lifeguard – has taken advantage of zoom to stay on until the tail end of the season in Nags Head. The other, a budding film-maker, has set up an online business adding special effects to music videos.  My wife, an occupational therapist in a free-standing polytrauma unit on the VA hospital campus, wears a mask all day, has helped 3-D print thousands of face shields, and has seen only one covid case in her building so far. I’ve had it easy, really, isolating at home, working with a half dozen students on their doctoral dissertations and capstones, tinkering with a couple books I’m writing, and cramming to learn strategies for teaching my fall lab course in what we call a hybrid (half zoom/half face to face) model. 

I only leave the house a couple times a week for groceries, hand-washing and squirting disinfectant, and scowling behind my mask at those with bare faces.  I get squirrelly, sure, but I’m an introvert, so that helps.  I read, I write, I ride my bike, I cook and mow the lawn, I blog and post to social media.  I’ve marched for BLM here in Richmond, with the old folks who haunt the edges of the crowd. On occasion, I Facetime with a distant friend and we’ve even had a couple socially distanced cocktail meetups on our screened-in porch.  We’ve been lucky, healthy so far.  Yes, my wife’s 102-year old grandmother died in March in her assisted living facility.  She’d been spry, even danced a little on her birthday, but spiked a fever and was gone in two days, back when there were no tests, so we don’t know.  As one son drily put it, “Even if it wasn’t the virus, something was going to get her.”  Eventually, I imagine, we’ll bury her beside Grandpa, but for now her ashes sit in an urn (she didn’t want to be cremated, but there was no other choice). Our other grandma resides in a dementia unit in a New York nursing home, well-cared for, but only able to wave with some bewilderment at family visitors through a window. A close friend died in late July of cancer.  The last time I saw her was in February, and not being able to visit her to say goodbye saddens me.  In my extended family, some have caught Covid and recovered at home. But like I said, we’ve been lucky so far.

I know, however, that a lot of our luck comes from our special privilege.  We have a roomy suburban home where we can all live comfortably in shutdown. We have jobs. I even have a job that allowed me to work from home this summer.  We’re on the same page about the virus, and look after each other. Yes, it’s worrisome that some others in my family and some neighbors distrust the science, have marched against masking, throw up their hands and call this the End Times, etc. Across the decade plus of the Obama and Trump administrations, politics have distanced us. Like so many others we’ve learned never to discuss politics at gatherings.  But now, when the only way to slow the virus and lower the death toll is for all of us to pull together (the way other countries have been able to do), it worries me more that we’re so divided, so confused, somehow making public health political.

But here we are.  I’m gearing up to put on a mask, a face shield, gloves and scrubs, and walk back in the classroom again in less than two weeks.  My students need hands-on labs in splinting, physical agent modalities, prostheses, movement therapy in stroke, and more, or our accrediting agency won’t let them graduate.  I’m in my mid-60s, so in a marginally high risk group.  Sort of wish I’d retired last year.  But instead I’ve agreed to stay on at my job until the end of the school year next May, because the state hiring freeze means they can’t replace me right away. 

I’m – I think the word may be – “trepidatious.”  We’re at least a year away from a vaccine reaching us all.  As I write this, more than 155,000 Americans have died from this thing, and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, more are suffering disability in their recoveries. For now the university where I work plans to hold nearly half its fall classes face to face. If I had to bet, I’d say that we’ll be back to full-time zooming by Columbus Day. Meanwhile, thousands more Americans will die.

Why is it so hard for people to face facts? Why can’t our President lead? A couple months ago, I mused on Twitter, “Think of the lives we’d have saved if Ivanka had added masks to her fashion line?” What I meant, of course, was that if Trump had seen a penny profit in those masks, he’d have pushed them hard. But here we are. As he so famously said, “It is what it is.” I tell my students to roll with it, to be safe, and to recognize that this is a year they’ll be telling their grandchildren about. For now, like my boys, they look forward to graduating into a scarcity of jobs, even in the health care field. But they’re young and resilient, and as a friend posted the other day, remember in the late 60s and early 70s, young men graduated directly onto a flight to Vietnam. My parents turned from their teens into World War II. It’s scary, yes.  But wouldn’t it be wonderful, wouldn’t it be patriotic, if we could, as President Obama reminded us at John Lewis’ funeral the other day, turn towards each other? I mean, at the very least, think of the lives we could save.

Love Over Fear? A reflection

When I wrote this poem last fall, using the 5-7-5 syllable haiku formula, I really didn’t have an answer to the question it poses. 

But it’s nagged at me.  I have a t-shirt worn to demonstrations that reads LOVE/fear (love over fear).  But the t-shirt doesn’t fully answer the question either.  Then I ran across a book by the popular philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum that goes directly to the point.  Here’s the cover:

Nussbaum writes:

“We’ve said from the outset that hope is the opposite or flip side of fear.  Both react to uncertainty, but in opposing ways.  Hope expands and surges forward, fear shrinks back.  Hope is vulnerable, fear self-protective.”

So by Nussbaum’s reckoning, fed by her deep reading in the classic philosophers and astute observations about popular fare like Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the answer to my high coo’ed question might be:

If hate is just fear

spewed onto others then love

is hope in action.

I’m not entirely satisfied with this equation (or the way the new poem parses) either.  After all, doesn’t love often express itself best in situations where there is no hope, for instance in holding the hand of a dying friend (or in today’s climate, placing a hand up to theirs on a window pane)?  But I like the way Nussbaum’s definitions allow friction to operate on these heavily loaded four-letter words.  She describes how fear and hate, like sticks rubbed together, feed each other’s fire.  Hope and love, like palms rubbed together, warm the hands that reach out to touch.

So I’m thinking that hope and love, framed in this way, can be practiced as solutions to fear and hate.  When fear emerges, because of pain or misunderstanding or perceived danger, then hope can arise, too, perhaps aided by the behavioralists’ A-B-C (accept-believe-challenge) ritual, so that love can blossom where hate might have seeded instead.  For example, the coronavirus is deadly, terrifying and unpredictable.  But because it’s hard to hate a microbe, fear instead feeds on various strategies for hiding one’s head in the sand:  distrusting science, disbelieving the numbers, blaming others, and opposing the simplest efforts to combat the menace.  Fear can even lead to hateful rants in supermarkets by people refusing to mask.  The A-B-C approach to short-circuiting that fear with hope, as a path towards love, might read like this:

I accept that the virus is a sneaky killer.

I believe that I can take actions to protect myself and others.

I challenge myself to keep informed, stay home when possible, wear a mask in public, wash my hands frequently, and help others when I can.

The same model might fit so many of our personal, social, and political concerns.  After all, we live in frightening times.  But there is another word needed to complete this fear-hate/hope-love equation, and that is courage.  Is love, as my amended poem now reads, hope in action, or is something more required to act on these emotions?  Maybe courage is the linking word I’ve been looking for:  Hope feeds love feeds courage feeds hope feeds love.  Maybe, too, courage is love’s engine when there seems to be no hope.

So this: You can give in to fear, let yourself cower into hate; or look up with hope and brave love.  As the Jackson 5 sang in the midst of a time as tumultuous as the one we find ourselves in today:  “A-B-C/it’s easy as 1-2-3.”  Or is it?

PS – Here is a fascinating conversation from the Washington Post with a Black Buddhist gentleman on these same issues.

Tony Vomits Punk, the books

My friend and long-ago college tutor Randy Fertel is writing a follow-up to his well-received book of essays, A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation (see my review here).  The new book will explore the uses and abuses of improvisation as an idea and a strategy in the arts, popular culture, and politics, and what I’ve seen of it so far is both fascinating and directly relevant to our current predicaments.  Anyway, he texted me last night to ask if I could suggest a book on the history of punk music, which immediately sent me to my book shelves and to the composition of the list I’ve shared here, in case anyone else may be interested in this topic that has meant so much to me.

Interestingly, I’ve never seen a cohesive history that starts with the New York scene (CBGB), blends in the UK (Sex Pistols, etc.), and adds in LA, Cleveland, DC, Akron, etc. in that incredibly packed and explosive 2-3 years (oil embargo, gas lines, Drop Dead New York) made so depressingly indelible to those of us who graduated out of high school into it (1975-’77).  That said, here are my Top Ten books about punk, for your reading pleasure.

Homstrom, John, & Hurd, Bridget.  PUNK: The Best of Punk Magazine.  This is a hefty coffee table book that reproduces the New York ‘zine that coincided with the very beginning of punk in New York.  It’s fun to read, feels juvenile and clubby and silly.  But introductions to each issue throughout the book do a good job of pulling together what was going on in the streets, what mattered, and how the sound and look developed (first issue was January 1976).

Legs McNeil.  Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.  Legs co-founded PUNK magazine, was in bands, etc.  A little frustrating as the story is told in fragmented interviews and dashed off asides, but he was there, knew everybody, and paid attention.

Jon Savage.  England Dreaming. This may be the best punk history, fierce and on point, but its focus is the English scene, especially the shooting star that was the Sex Pistols, so it doesn’t catch that first ignition of punk in New York.  One of my favorite books about music and its impact on culture, back when music could do that.

Lester Bangs.  Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung; Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste.  Guessing you know Bangs, the mad king of rock critics, whose stream of consciousness writing and make it bleed tastes made each of his record reviews and interviews a punk manifesto (his review of James Taylor, for instance, is a hilarious plea for something please to come blow up the music scene).  Most of the reviews came pre-punk, but he was there when it happened, wrote the first review of Patti Smith’s Horses, traveled with the Clash, and even took a stab at an article called “The Roots of Punk” (in Mainlines, that doesn’t mention a single band but perfectly nails what it felt like to be a confused teenager of the era).

Patti Smith.  Just Kids.  I’d include this in a list of my favorite books of the century so far, just so achingly beautiful in its appreciation of youth’s glory and what comes after.  Have you read this yet?  Damn it’s good.  Patti, of course, was the first punk goddess (and there were a lot of girl bands in punk), put out the first punk single (Piss Factory), and single-handedly changed college fashion with Robert Mapplethorpe’s black and white photo of her on her first album Horses

Richard Hell.  I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp.  If you ask me, Hell was the first punk punk (Warhol and Reed and Iggy and the Dolls his immediate influences, but let’s draw the line here).  And what’s amazing is that he’s aged into a sort of elder statesman of the scene, sober, articulate, and more clear-eyed than wistful over what he created and survived.  This autobiography is almost as well-wrought as Patti’s, and less insular.

Dee Dee Ramone.  Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones.  All four of the original Ramones are dead (one of their later drummers survives).  Dee Dee lived all the excesses of punk like a latter-day Keith Moon.  He wrote most of their best songs, could hardly play bass, and that was fine.  A line from the book:  “People who join a band like the Ramones don’t come from stable backgrounds.  Punk comes from angry kids who feel like being creative.”  The Ramones are a sort of miracle, the perfect punk band before punk even had that name, and they never made the mistake of evolving into something less crude.  I will always love them and their individual members in the same way I love all four Beatles.

Simon Reynolds.  Rip it Up and Start Again:  Postpunk 1978-1984.  Punk was dead in two years, so they say.  But most of the bands I love came after that, were just as punk as the originators, and even got record deals.  This is a highly readable straight history of punk’s splintering into hard core, ska revival, new wave, straight edge, etc., leaning towards all the amazing bands from the UK then.

Michael Azerrad.  Our Band Could Be Your Life.  This chronological history covers roughly the same post-punk era (1981-1991), but focuses on the American bands.  Title is from a song by The Minutemen, one of my favorite bands, and if they ain’t punk, what is?

Walking the Endless Wall

Just a couple miles away from the New River Gorge Visitors Center in West Virginia, the aptly named Endless Wall hiking trail offers vista after vista of the gorge, the famous arched bridge, and the rapid-churned New River far below.  It’s a well-marked, mostly flat four-mile out-and-back that your grandmother could do in sneakers, but its rewards belie its accessibility.  The trail begins amidst a surprisingly robust stand of hemlocks, some of the few left from the hemlock borer blight that has devastated so much of the Blue Ridge forests.  These graceful conifers stand tall and limbless up to a high canopy where their piney needled tops sway in a breeze.  At ground level, rhododendrons run riot across the stony ground, with nothing to block the view between them and the hemlock heads.  Chris and I walked in an almost cathedral quiet, sunlight shafting in between the narrow columned trunks, just a tinkling stream and the caw of crows to mark the stillness. 

Half a mile in, as we approached the “endless wall,” the hemlocks give way to the usual mixed deciduous forest of white oak, maple, and sycamore, their mustard, pumpkin, and occasional cranberry-colored leaves littering the path made a tunnel by over-branching rhododendrons (must be so fragrant here in springtime when they blossom!).  I thought of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural trick, of narrow passageways opening onto high-ceilinged rooms as we emerged from this tunnel onto our first vista, a rock outcropping directly at the edge of the ridge, with a magnificent view of the fgracefully arching rusty bridge that spans the gorge.  Just far enough away not to hear the cars rushing along its arrow straight roadway, but not too high to miss the distant hushing churn of the river below.  We stood as if on the edge of the world up there, and the steeply sloping hills, dappled in autumn colors, seemed like some rumpled shag rug, hawks and buzzards swirling below and then swooping past us to circle even higher in the sky. 

New River Gorge Bridge seen from Endless Wall Trail

Every hundred yards or so for as long as we wanted to walk, another spur trail offered another outcropping and yet another magnificent gorge view.  One path goes to a climber’s ladder that disappears down a rock crack to a narrow ledge far below.  We didn’t see any climbers on our walk, but what a series of challenges that miles-long wall of rock must offer!  No kayakers on the river rapids either, as temps dipped down to freezing overnight, but it was easy to imagine our son Nick and his Passages Adventures crew blasting through the narrow white water channel there on that storied trip he took I think 3 years ago.  The brisk air and the bracing vistas made me feel almost brave enough to consider taking up white water kayaking and rock climbing myself!  Eventually we turned around, not even halfway through the hike, stopping on a broad flat rock and letting our legs hang over the edge, for lunch.  Here’s my favorite picture from the hike: 

On Reading a Worn Copy of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums at 62

Finished Dharma Bums, its final rapturous rush as Kerouac’s protagonist (clearly and baldly autobiographical) packed a Summer on a Cascades Mountains (Desolation Peak) fire lookout into half a dozen pages; the final page as innocently exalted as I have felt in my epiphanies, so many of them nature-driven, and heartbreaking since we know how his short life will devolve into alcoholism (his drinking a recurrent theme in the book, the Gary Snyder character deriding him for always needing a drink) and a sequestered death at his mother’s house in Florida. Coming off the mountain, believing he’s learned an ultimate truth through a Buddhist filter, all is right; he fears and yearns for the tumult of the cities, suggests that the lessons of his mountaintop solitary Summer will carry him through. I have felt exactly that, and wondered if I was the only one who had walked that path. Kerouac says, no, this is not an uncommon thing, it’s open to anyone; just let yourself turn towards that edge of madness depth perception, check your everyday cynicism at the door, and grin.

Can’t believe I’ve never read this book before. It sums up so beautifully a path I’ve trod (and you have to think this book influenced the music and literature and the whole cultural gestalt that led me along all these years – it certainly had to up the ante for the coming youth movement, almost seems a blueprint for hippiedom and its many offshoots, in ways that On the Road was not) (that classic almost a cautionary tale about the dread of aimlessness, whereas Dharma Bums, with its hilariously ham-handed and dilettantish Buddhistic flourishes, points the callow reader towards inward-seeking life goals Thoreau or Muir would have appreciated).

The woodsy parties sound like Electric Kool Aid Acid Test fests, minus the LSD (not yet invented), no doubt emulated by all the hippie communes to come. I’ve been to parties like that – I’m thinking especially of weekends at Nora’s rundown Mississippi plantation. Young people at play with flowers in our hair, skinny dipping in the creek, at the cusp of some sort of revelation, and holding it there like a glow of pot smoke swelling our lungs. Those weekends, probably every day of my wild oats years in New Orleans, too, just another On the RoadDharma Bums derivative. And not just then and not just me, of course. Think of their influence on the searching, fulfillment-yearning, meandering way we have all lived in the sixty-plus years since their publication! Even if you never read them, they signified.  What culture shaking power Kerouac’s two great novels unleashed!