Thursday, March 09, 2017

You Can Feel It All Over

When my brother died, my grief was volcanic. Returning from his memorial in Indiana, I found myself enraged at the world going about its business as if nothing had happened. People seemed unaware that the very rules of existence had changed. My brother was dead, dammit! For at least a year I regularly experienced what I called emotional landmines; I’d be chugging along reasonably well, functioning with something resembling equanimity when BOOM! Something would remind me of James, and his death. I was, it’s fair to say, a bit of a mess.

So far, my grief at the death of my father has been much quieter. I suppose this makes sense. He died at age eighty-two, after a rich and fulfilling life. He’d had satisfying work, a loving family, great friendships, many adventures and achievements.  He’d also had at least four years of declining health that weighed heavily on him, and wasn't any fun to watch. He lost the ability to walk, to read, to write, even, I fear, to enjoy food. So much of what made him, him was slowly stripped away. He’d been ready to die for a while. Maybe my worst grief occurred in his final years, as he faded away. 

But while I haven’t (yet) experienced any emotional landmines, this is not to say Dad hasn’t popped up now and then. Most of the visits have been triggered by music. I hear "The Hucklebuck," and suddenly Dad’s voice is singing the lyrics (I remember them effortlessly), while he shows me how to Charleston and do that move where you appear to switch your kneecaps. I hear a nineties pop anthem to girl power, and I remember a story Mary told me. Dad was visiting a married couple with a young daughter. As was his habit with kids, Dad wanted to include her in the conversation, so, he asked her what kind of music she liked. Immediately she launched into a passionate speech praising the Spice Girls. 

“Paul doesn’t want to hear about the Spice Girls!” her (perhaps projecting) parents said. 

Without missing a beat, Dad said, “I’ll tell you want I want, what I really, really want!” 

I bet he made sure the young lady said her piece.  I bet he had follow-up questions. He might even have sung with her.

The strongest memory, though, was a few weeks ago, when I stumbled across Stevie Wonder singing "Sir Duke." This song has made me think of my dad since the first hearing. It was in regular rotation on the radio when I was ten, and we were living in London for Dad’s sabbatical. On our spring break, we rented a car and drove through the Scottish Highlands, usually with the radio playing top forty. "Sir Duke" quickly became a family favorite. Every time it came on, we cheered, no one louder than Dad. We’d sing along vigorously, Dad always kicking things off with the joyous ‘OW’ at the beginning. To this day that song puts me in the back seat of a rental car, blue-grey mountains, silver lochs, and 
God’s own plenty of sheep streaming by the windows, Dad wearing white driving gloves due to a case of sun poisoning on his hands, bouncing in his seat, yelping ‘OW' along with Stevie. That song is one bright thread in a wonderful week.

While I hadn’t predicted it, it’s not that surprising that songs are triggering visits from Dad. He and Mom naturally formed the first and deepest roots of my musical tastes, introducing me to the Beatles, Bach, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Mozart, Duke Ellington, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, the Chieftains, Handel, and Bartok, just to name a few. Dad taught us Sibelius’ "Karelia Suite" is best played loud, he sang about a girl in Kalamazoo ('K.A.L.A.M.A.Z.O.ooh what a gal/a real pipparoo'), he and Mom taught us rounds and folk songs that shortened many a car trip. We learned to love a wide range of musical genres, never allowing snobbery to dampen our joy in a song, whether silly or grand. And it wasn't just music; they did the same thing for us with books, film, food and art. 

It's reasonable to say that Dad was a great man in the way the world measures these things. It’s good and right that people are celebrating those aspects of him right now. I’m proud of the things he accomplished, and the causes he supported. But there's a comforting intimacy in the fact that so far, his surprise visits have all reminded me of his goofiness, his exuberance, his unabashed joy. 

There’s another song tied to that Scotland trip, and Dad: Bernard Cribbins’ "Right Said Fred." I don’t know if the song ever made it to this side of the pond. It’s more of a novelty song like "The Hucklebuck," or "Kalamazoo," not a work of genius like "Sir Duke." It's from the nineteen sixties too, so its connection to that week in Scotland is a complete fluke, triggered perhaps by some DJ's nostalgia. I hear it play, mountains, lochs and sheep streaming by, and I delight in Dad’s roar of laughter at the surprising turn taken in the closing line. If you’ve never heard it, it’s worth a listen.





Monday, June 27, 2016

The Medium & the Cat

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I'm frontloading this video with an eye to editing it, and possibly compiling a video reel. My valiant little samsung camera sure tried hard, didn't it. This was recorded February 10th, 2010, as part of the Spectacular Scrantonian Spectacular, at the Electric City Theater. Billy Rogan provided the music, Jeff Wills produced the event, and stepped in the play with me here. 

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Studying Sunflowers




While most of last year's crop of sunflower seeds were fed to the birds, I saved some for planting this year. On two or three different occasions I put some in places I thought would make a sunflower happy, but to be honest,  didn't keep good track of where they were. I left the weather in charge of watering them, and was pretty lucky on that front; it was a wet spring, but not overly so, from what I could tell.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Warp and Weft



I've mentioned before that my interior design style is best described as "ya done with that?" Even now when it's not the financial necessity it once was, I'm still likely to accept free things friends are getting rid of, just in case. That's what happened a few weeks ago when someone offered me two blue curtain panels. . 

Once they were an option, I realized they would be a good replacement for the ones hanging in my bedroom. Sixteen years hanging in south-facing windows had caused them not merely to fade, but actually tear from sun damage. So I was surprised, as I took them down, to find myself a bit melancholy. They were more woven into my history than I had realized. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


I startled this praying mantis when I cut some of the basil this past weekend. Since then I've checked for it whenever I'm in the vicinity, and it has always been there. I wouldn't have thought basil was especially appealing to insects of any kind, with the essential oils being so strong, but apparently praying mantises and lady bugs are actually drawn to herbal plants. Since both insects are known for eating garden-destroying bugs, I'm always glad to see them around. I also just think they're cool. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Competing for His Affections

When we first met five-year-old J, I thought perhaps I was imagining the spark when she saw Bill. But her father (a college friend of mine)  chuckled and whispered to me, " I think somebody has a crush." It was instantaneous and adorable. Bill loves kids, but often feels out of his element, doubting his ability to connect with them. It was obvious though that J was ready to take him in hand. 

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Favorite Books: The Charioteer by Mary Renault


This is another in a series that has been forming here over the years without me realizing it: musings on favorite books. Whether it's true or not, on general principle I will say that spoilers abound here, so if such things bother you, don't read this essay. I'll be talking about bird feeders, or dogs, or something else soon. The quotations in the essay all come from:

Renault, Mary. The Charioteer. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974


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At one point in The Charioteer, by Mary Renault, Laurence Odell (Laurie, or Spud to his friends) is rereading Plato’s The Phaedrus, a book he has found deeply inspiring since adolescence. When a friend asks him to describe it, he is momentarily stymied for many reasons, but one of the biggest is “it had been a part of his mind’s furniture for years…” (p.108). This is as good as any description of my relationship with The Charioteer. It has been a touchstone for me since I first picked it up thirty-five years ago. Trying to describe that relationship, however, has proven elusive; I doubt I’ll ever be able to do it effectively. I suppose it’s like trying to describe any important long-term relationship. I've probably read it dozens, even scores of times, and almost every reading has revealed something new. I think the book is wiser than I am, with insights that wait patiently for me to see only when I’m ready for them. It has anticipated and marked key changes in my life and gave me hope at key points. I would even go so far to say it had a hand in shaping my ethics.

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