Thursday, December 6, 2018

Christmas Music

I just changed out the 5 CD’s I’ve had in my changer since my knee replacement in mid-September.  Actually, they were in there before that.  I listened to them all during the fall, and never grew tired of them.  They were:

               Chet- Chet Baker
               Playboys- Chet Baker and Art Pepper
               Disc 2 of the Modern Jazz Archive-Art Pepper
               Countdown (2 disc set)-John Coltrane

I’m compelled to find out about the lives of these people from whom I only hear notes.  I almost wish I hadn’t read Art Pepper’s story.  He and Chet Baker came to represent the American West Coast Jazz movement.  I love their music because they were wildly inventive and creative, Pepper on Saxophone and Baker on trumpet and vocals.

While both broke away from playing in bands and became their own musical masters, they couldn’t shake the tragedy of heroin addiction.  Art Pepper died of a drug-related cerebral hemorrhage in 1982 at 57.  Chet Baker OD’d in 1988 at age 58 in an Amsterdam hotel.  Both lived in and out of prison.  Their most productive musical years were interrupted by periods of poverty and squalor.  Better to listen to their passion, which was music, than study their very mortal lives.  That’s what they would prefer us to do I think.

John Coltrane’s time on earth proved to be a little better.  Born in 1926 he found success as a sax player while performing in a post World War II all-white U.S. Navy Band as a “guest” (but regular) performer.  Following his term in the service, he plunged into the blossoming bebop scene and never looked back, devoting the rest of his life to jazz.

Coltrane had a spiritual awakening in 1957, finding inspiration in all religions, and credits that discovery with his ability to overcome a heroin and alcohol problem that had plagued him since 1948.  He played with all the jazz greats and is regarded as one himself.

John Coltrane died suddenly at age 40 of liver cancer.  Other biographers attribute his death to chronic hepatitis suffered during his days as a heroin addiction.  He was posthumously awarded a special citation by the Nobel Prize Committee in 2007 for his “masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz.”

As good as those musicians are, it is winter now and I switched to classical music.  Here’s what is filling the shack starting yesterday.

Brandenburg Concertos 1,2,3,4,5,6 (two discs)        - Johan Sebastian Bach
Symphony No.2/Karelia/Finlandia                            - Jean Sibelius
Clarinet Concertos in A Major                                   -W. Amadeus Mozart
Sheherazade, Russian Easter Overture, y mas         - Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

The stories of these musicians is a whole different deal.  They were working earlier in history on a different and kinder model.  They lived in Europe, were valued by their countrymen, subsidized by both church and state, and supported according to their talent with money and privilege.  Their lives did not revolve around record sales or plays on iTunes.

J.S. Bach lived from 1685-1750, lasting 65 years.  Not bad for back then.  He was from a long line of Bachs supported by the church and the town of Eisenach, Germany.  Music was everything to him and his family.  He took up the family business and played the game.  Life was good. 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had the shortest life among this random group of five CD musicians.  He died at 35 and was buried in a pauper’s grave in St. Mark’s cemetery in Vienna, Austria.  Don’t feel too bad for him.  A child prodigy, he grew up to be eccentric, a little crazy, and a musical genius.  He lived hard, drank too much, but wrote over 600 pieces of some of the most haunting and lasting music the world has ever known.  Had he played the game differently, more conservatively, he could have lived comfortably like the other Mozarts.  Wolfgang went his own way.  Most like Art Pepper and Chet Baker methinks.

Nikolai Rimsy-Korsakoff lived in Russia between 1844 and 1908.  Like many classical composers, he was privileged, born into a family of Russian nobility, also supported by church and state.  Who else could afford all those modern instruments, hire all the players, and put them in a hall with large audiences?  It was a rich man’s game, and Nikolai played it well.  Ironically his music hearkened to Russian folk tales.  He took the tunes of poor Russians playing Balalaikas in a shacks and stoked them up with the rich tones that the new musical technology of his day afforded him.

Jean Sibelius lived to be 92, dying in 1957.  He cranked out seven symphonies while living in Finland, and a bunch of other tunes, before going silent during the last 30 years of his life.  It was like he retired.  They figure he was not pleased with the 8th symphony.  Could be he had high standards.  He burned that 8th symphony, along with the rest of his remaining unpublished stuff.  The people of Finland revered him.  He wrote beautiful music.  Be still my soul.

Wait a minute?  Isn’t this blog supposed to be about Christmas music?  Why yes it is.  Let me be brief.  Christmas music is sappy and sentimental.  There’s a reason it only gets played for a month once a year.  It’s not very good.

We do it to ourselves I think.  We romanticize both the Christmas holiday and the music around it.  I guess it is normal to reminisce, to hearken back to our childhoods, to want to recapture a feeling we had years ago.  In an effort to do so we listen to worn out tunes and anachronistic lyrics, sometimes recycled and sung by newer artists, until we can’t stand it.  And then the New Year comes and thankfully it’s over. 

Chestnuts roast, halls are decked, crooners pledge to be home, bells jingle, children laugh, noses glow, and Frosty the snowman’s appearance is described over, and over, and over.  I don’t want to be a Scrooge here, but we could do better.  We could at least improve the mix, and I don’t mean with “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”  That’s a song, by the way, that my mother, as a senior citizen and a grandma herself, thought was simply awful.  I’m with you ma.

I’m searching for the modern, the not heard much, the Christmas songs with a twist.  Fact is Christmas is not a magical time for everyone.  Along with dreams of a white Christmas, melancholy and sadness can and does flood in. 

Not everyone wants to go home for Christmas.  Sometimes bad memories reside there, family strife, unresolved conflict.  I think we need to be extra kind and generous at Christmas because many around us are hurting.  Maybe you.  We need kindness.  It can seem as if the whole world is merry and bright but us.  Are there songs that capture that?

Try this one.  But first, check out the lyrics. 


It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

But it don't snow here
It stays pretty green
I'm going to make a lot of money
Then I'm going to quit this crazy scene
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

I made my baby cry

He tried hard to help me
You know, he put me at ease
And he loved me so naughty
Made me weak in the knees
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

I'm so hard to handle
I'm selfish and I'm sad
Now I've gone and lost the best baby
That I ever had
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh I wish I had a river
I made my baby say goodbye

It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

It was written in 1971 by a young 27-year old Joni Mitchell.

She was probably hunched over a piano late at night in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles where she lived at the time.  She feels bad about herself.  She pushed away a person who loved her, quite possibly a person she loved in return.  And as she tries to reconcile her actions with her feelings, she wants nothing more than to be somewhere else.

Maybe she wants to be a little girl in Saskatoon, Canada where she was born, with high boot white figure skates laced to her feet, a cold wind in her face at Christmas, skinny silver blades gliding across the ice on the Saskatchewan river, with that feeling of freedom you get when you are skating, flying away, and everything is good.  You never imagine then that when you are old it will be so hard to recapture the thrill of such moments.

So there’s that about Christmas, which points to a need for a different kind of Christmas song for many.  Please don’t feel alone if you feel that way.  You’re not alone at all. 

Let’s be kind to one another for a while shall we?

Merry Christmas everybody.

Press CTRL and click below to hear the song or find it and listen another way.  It’s beautiful.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Chattanooga Chugs On

I found myself reading a small southern newspaper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press.  I thought I ought to somehow.  I equated it with tuning into Fox News now and again.  I want to understand red states, and Trump voters.  There are a lot of them, too many to disregard.  And so I read the paper to see what I could find that was either different or new.  I also wanted to see what kind of news readers on the Lookout were getting.

Almost half of Chattanooga, Tennessee, if you didn’t know, which I didn’t, is in Alabama.  It’s near that Lookout Mountain area, where Tennesee, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina meet.  You might call it sort of a nexus of the South.   All I knew about that town, to be honest, is its distinction of being in the title of a famous jazz standard, Chattanooga Choo Choo, made popular by Glenn Miller.   We Americans can be fairly ignorant of one another without hardly trying.  But heck, it’s a big country.  Let’s not beat ourselves up.

Chattanooga has almost 180,000 people living in it.  Along with Knoxville it’s the biggest town in east Tennessee.  And, as Glenn Miller might have observed, there are lots of trains in Chattanooga and now Interstate highways.  It’s a transit hub.  As an American town it has what all our towns have, babies and old people in geriatric homes, school kids and retirees, working men and women along with the unemployed, the prosperous, the poor, gay, straight, everything.

Racially Chattanooga looks like this: White 58%, Black, 35%, Hispanic and Latino 5.5%, and not much of each of all the other categories.  It’s growing.  It’s still smaller than Knoxville but growing faster.  It had the first Coca-Cola bottling plant in the world.  Chattanooga is home to Little Debbie snack cakes.  It has a lot of distribution centers.

But now, THE NEWS.

I read both the Saturday and Sunday editions, November 17 and 18.  I don’t know newspapers like reporters and editors do but I know newspapers are changing, tasked with surviving by finding new business models and cheap sources of information.  I’m not sure where this paper gets all its content but it is diverse in origin. 

Someone is quite proud of the paper’s history.  They still quote the founder, a guy named Adolph Ochs (1858-1935) as giving them their motto “To give the news impartially, without fear of favor.”  Grand.

The current publisher, Walter Hussman Jr. has a pretty wordy statement on his philosophy of journalism.  There’s a lot of blah, blah, blah in there but he does say a news organization must not just cover the news but uncover it.  He talks a lot about the truth being not always apparent, and the duty of journalists being to present facts and let the reader decide what is true.  He also thinks there must be a clear and sharp distinction between opinion and news.

I read a story written by a woman named Anita Wadhwani from the USA Today Network Tennessee, picked up and printed by the Chattanooga paper, about a new execution date for a local guy named Leroy Hall, who was convicted of setting his girlfriend on fire in her car.  He was one of six men (why always men?) who had just received new dates to die in 2019 and 2020.

These murders have been held up by legal challenges to Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol.  A federal judge denied a request by another bad actor, David Earl Miller, who was convicted of murdering a Knoxville man in 1981.  He had argued for the right to die by firing squad. He is scheduled to die on Dec. 6,l but not by being shot in the heart by a gang of riflemen.  If he is killed on that day he’ll be the third to die at the hands of the Tennessee legal system this year.  Tennessee previously killed two men this year, one in August by lethal injection and another in November in an electric chair. 

Tennessee is ready to move forward with killing long term prisoners, barring further appeal and stoppage, by killing Donnie Edward Johnson who was convicted of killing his wife in 1985 by stuffing a plastic garbage bag into her mouth; Stephen Michael West convicted of stabbing a mother and daughter to death in 1986; Charles Walton Wright convicted to premeditated first degree murder of two men during a drug transaction in Nashville in 1985; Leroy Hall mentioned above; Nicholas Todd Sutton convicted in 1986 for killing a fellow convict by stabbing him 38 times (Nick was already in prison at the time of that crime, previously convicted of murdering his grandmother).  And last but not least is Abu-Ali Adfur’ Rahman, formerly known as James Lee Jones, for the 1987 murder of a marijuana dealer. 

All of those grisly grimes were alleged to have taken place more than thirty years ago, with death sentences just now being scheduled and presumably carried out.  I hadn’t read a capital punishment article in some time.  Illinois established a moratorium on the death penalty in 1999.  Then Gov. George Ryan said he was tired of having prisoners on death row exonerated, many as a result of a coordinated effort led by Northwestern University, the Innocence project, which applied new DNA technology to old crimes.  He believed, rightly so I think, that the chances of killing a wrongfully convicted prisoner were too great.  Illinois abolished the practice in 2011.  Truthfully I’d forgotten how awful it is to compound such grisly death with more death.  Sixteen states have abolished the death penalty and four more have placed capital punishment on moratorium.  Tennessee isn’t among them.

The Saturday editorial, right under the paper’s banner, was a commentary by S.E. Cupp, writing for some outfit called the Tribune Content Agency.  Her headline was “Reasons Trump May Not Want to Run Again.  I’ll summarize her points.

He’s Running Out of Stooges-Republicans shielded him from investigations, and his aides carried out his imprudent ideas.  But that is all falling apart.

He Trusts No One-He continues to fire people.  The castle is crumbling from the inside and Trump feels like a ruler under siege.

His Base is Shrinking-He lost is constituency in the suburbs, he will not have the turnout he had in 2020 in 2016, nor will he face an equally horrible opponent.

It’s not Ego that Drives Him-It is his irrational, impulsive, insatiable id-the dominant part of his brain that craves immediate gratification and self soothing affirmation at all time.  He wants what he wants when he wants it.  As he gets less of what he wants, and finds fewer people to help him bend the rules, it is quite easy to imagine him deciding in the next year or so he’s had enough.

I didn’t expect that to be the lead editorial in Chattanooga for some reason.  I felt buoyed up somehow.

Another commentary they picked up and chose to run was written by Francis Wilkinson of Bloomberg News.


Paraphrasing again, Francis thinks the NRA took a bruising hit on election day, and then immediately shot itself in the foot by telling ER doctors to stay in their lane.  He observed that the NRA lost all over the place, and was outspent by gun safety groups.  His evidence?

Voters in Washington State approved a ballot initiative imposing expansive regulations on gun purchases and ownership. 

Nevada elected a Democrat for Governor who defeated an NRA backed opponent, and replaced a GOP governor who had consistently stymied gun regulation.

More than two dozen House races flipped from Republican to pro-gun regulation Democrats.  One, Kentucky Democrat John Yarmouth, regularly wears an “F” pin advertising his F rating from the NRA.

In Georgia, an NRA backed Republican incumbent U.S. Representative was defeated by a Democrat,  professional gun-safety advocate Lucky McBath.

In exit polls across the country, voters registered support for “stricter gun control measures by 59 to 37 percent.

And as for the reaction to their admonishment to ER doctors to keep their mouths shut, what ensued was nothing less than a social media avalanche, sharing pictures of blood-soaked scrubs and others consequences of our uniquely lethal gun policies.  Said one doctor, on a tweet that went viral, “Do you have any idea how many bullets I pull out of corpses weekly?  That isn’t just my lane, it’s my f***king highway!”

So read the people who we accuse of thinking of liberals as snowflakes, whom some of us dismiss as deplorable, in the November post mortem of the only poll that really counts-a national election.  I imagine it has them thinking.  As if they weren’t thinking before.  We’re all thinking aren’t we?

Finally I read a news article about Mark Pettiway written by Jay Reeves of the Associated Press.  Its title was “New Black Officials Rethinking Policing.” Mark Pettiway, a veteran law enforcement officer became that city’s first African American Sheriff of Jefferson County, in which lies Birmingham Alabama.  On that same day Jefferson County also elected its first black district attorney.

This is the same Birmingham Alabama, where on  September 15, 1963 members of the KKK planted 15 sticks of dynamite under the east steps of the African American 16th Street Baptist Church.  The dynamite was attached to a timing device set to go off on Sunday morning.  Four young black girls attending Sunday School were killed by the explosion: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.   That was but 55 years ago.

Mark Pettiway ran and won on an alternative message.  He favors decriminalizing marijuana, opposes arming school employees, supports additional jailhouse education programs to reduce recidivism, and plans for deputies to go out and talk to people more often, rather than simply patrolling.  Here is one of his thoughts about the future of Jefferson County.  I remind you, this is Birmingham, Alabama.

“Going forward we need to think about being smarter and not being harder.”

A strong turnout by African American voters, combined with national concern over police shootings of unarmed people of color, helped him defeat longtime Sheriff Mike Hale, a white Republican.

So there you go.  That’s what I read in a newspaper in what you might call the heart of the South.  It’s not for want of balanced news that those states are now red.  Print journalists, at least, are doing their job.

It appears thinking Southerners are beginning to change.  If they don’t change their party affiliation, perhaps the Republican candidates seeking their votes will change their positions to fit voters’ changing views.  Why do we fear our Southern and Western states will never change?  Change happens all the time.  Let’s watch for it, entertain it, and seek to bring it about.  Everywhere that people read and listen new information changes hearts and minds.  And people throughout the United States read, listen, and think.  

But we have to be able to read, listen, and think about their views as well.  It goes both ways.  How about this?  I’ll consider your point of view if you consider mine.  We don’t have to change each others’ minds right away, but I think we have an obligation to read, listen, and think it over.  Try it.  You might be surprised at what you learn.  

Friday, November 2, 2018

Vote with your Heart

I’ve had some medical issues and my older brother called to check on me.  I get tired of talking about it so as soon as I could I changed the subject.  The best way to do that with Darwin is to talk about politics.  He’s a student of current events, a voracious reader of recent books, a news watcher, and an historian of sorts about politics in America.  He’s 80.  He’s seen a lot and I think he remembers it all.  When he becomes discouraged, and he is so often these days, he worries not for himself but for his grandkids.  Lately he worries a lot. 
I was in my recliner with ice on my knee watching CNN when he called. Darwin was talking about the pipe bombs sent from Florida to prominent Democratic politicians and donors.  He often says how unprecedented the times are in which we live.  He likens it to the violence that broke out across the country in 1968, fifty years ago, but thinks the rapid spread of news, rumor, and lies on social media and the 24 hour news cycle today has those days beat all to hell for being incendiary. 

On my TV screen a constant loop of video showed police with automatic weapons dressed in military gear running down the sidewalks of a pretty neighborhood in Pittsburgh.  There was a swarm of emergency vehicles filling up the area.  An announcer repeated the solemn news of death inside a Jewish synagogue; a man believed to be the shooter was in custody, the possibility of the death toll rising higher. 
“Jesus Christ David, these pipe bombs.  Democrats all over the country, and their funders, getting packages from some crazy right wing asshole from Florida.  There’s so much going on nobody is talking about the white guy in Kentucky who walked into a Kroger store and shot two African Americans.  He didn’t even know them.  Shot them because they’re black.  He is supposed to have tried to get into an African American church, and when he couldn’t, went into the Kroger instead.  Somebody is quoted saying they saw him in the parking lot with his gun, was afraid, and he told them ‘It’s OK, don’t worry.  Whites don’t shoot whites.’  I can’t take it.”

“Have you seen this coverage on the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh?”
“Pittsburgh?  No.  What happened there?”

“Guy walked into a Jewish synagogue with an AR 15 during a bris.  Ceremony blessing a newborn baby.  Started shooting.  Eight dead that we know of.  They say it’s likely to go up.”
“I bet he didn’t know them.  They died just because they were Jews.  God help us David.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t know about it Darwin.”
“I had to take a break. When it gets bad I tune in MY TV and watch old westerns.  Gunsmoke is on right now.  Before that I watched Bonanza.”

I take my breaks in a different way.  I go to the shack where there is no TV, put my smart phone away, and listen to music.  I was drawn back to Bob Dylan’s music by a question my friend Sam posed on Face Book about the longevity and vocal quality of singers as they age.  He started by asking if Paul McCartney had written or sung anything decent since “Band on the Run” in 1973. 
The conversation turned to Dylan. I found myself missing the sound of his young voice.  So I dug into the vinyl out in the shack, starting with John Wesley Harding Dylan’s eighth album recorded in 1968.  I wanted to hear him hold those prolonged notes on “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”  While I was at it I remembered how much I liked “Down Along the Cove.”  But the best song, not for his voice but the lyrics, was “All Along the Watchtower.”  I felt the same chill I felt when he delivered that last stanza as I did when I was sixteen.

All along the Watchtower, Princes kept the view,
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants too,
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl

That was back when Dylan’s voice had range and was an asset, when he could sing up and down the scale in several octaves, and wrote songs that filled the musical spectrum.  As he aged, his songs became  musically narrow, to better fit the limits of his aging voice.  Don’t get me wrong, they’re still complex, and intricate songs.  But they’ve changed.  What hasn’t changed is his ability to write hard hitting, emotionally biting lyrics.  He puts his thoughts into words that I feel inside myself.  It’s a gift.

Three years earlier Bob Dylan was 24 and made an album called Highway 61 revisited.  The world, since he made it to New York City from Minnesota six years earlier, has opened up to him.  He may have been the hottest song writer in America, and certainly the hottest folk music performer ever.  Despite his age, consider the wisdom these lyrics reflect from the song “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”

Up on Housing Project Hill, its either fortune or fame

You may pick on or the other, though neither of them are to be what they claim

Did you have that perspective about notoriety and money when you were twenty four?  Could you verbalize it, write it, and convey it as Dylan did six years out of high school?  I certainly couldn’t.  But when he sang those lines he brought his ideas to me.  I was fourteen.  He was bringing me, and I’m sure many of us, along with him.  

In the title track “Highway 61 Revisited”, Dylan starts the song with the story of Abraham hearing God’s voice commanding him to sacrifice his own son.  Only Dylan could boil it down so succinctly.

God said to Abraham, kill me a son.

Abe said ‘Man you must be putting me on.’

God say no.  Abe say what?  God say you can do what you wanna

But the next time you see me comin’ you better run.

Abe said ‘Where you want this killin’ done?’

God said ‘Out on Highway 61.’

The real paved Highway 61 runs from the Canadian border through Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth Minnesota, to the Mississippi Delta, and in the song that bears its name comes to represent the place where everything evil happens; filicide, incest, chaos, fraud, the seeds of war (think Vietnam).  In the song with the same name Dylan lays it out in a rolling fast tune, complete with a siren whistle.   It’s a hellishly dark song, but jaunty at the same time.  I didn’t quite know what he was trying to say when I first heard it.  But I kept listening and thinking.  

Dylan’s lyrics had my attention from the start.  The first track on Highway 61 Revisited, “Like a Rolling Stone”, blares out brash and captivating electric guitar chords impossible to ignore.  He’d recently made the switch from acoustic folk to electric rock which infuriated some.  Me?  I was both listening to his lyrics and loving the music, with no bias toward the instruments.  He words were allegorical at times, but in other cases personal and direct.

You used to laugh about

Everybody that was hanging out

Now you don't talk so loud

Now you don't seem so proud

About having to be scrounging your next meal.

“Like a Rolling Stone“ challenged me to consider how I would handle life alone.  I was living on a farm surrounded by a family which kept very close to home.  The small town where we went to church and I went to school was wrapped around me so closely.  Those song lyrics were from someone outside my world, but talking right to me.  Dylan challenged me with the prospect of new scenarios and unknown locales.  He made me ponder answers to direct questions.

How does it feel, ah, how does it feel?
To be on your own, with no direction home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.

I didn’t have answers to Dylan’s questions.  But I desperately wanted to feel that individuality, that aloneness. Who knew how it would feel?  I didn’t tell anyone, but I was determined to one day find out. 

 Dylan is no longer giving me advice.  He’s 77 and has not released an album in some time.  He is designing iron gates and recently lent his name to a whiskey called Heaven’s Door.  He doesn’t owe his listeners anything, but I would love to know what he feels about his country today.  He’s not talking. 

When Darwin can’t take it he dives back into the fictional drama of black and white images of the old west filmed in the 50’s and 60’s.  Kitty and Sheriff Dillon sitting in the Long Branch Saloon solving community problems.  Hoss, Ben, Adam, and Little Joe eating Hop Sing’s cooking and planning to  thwart the rustlers threatening the Ponderosa in a way that Ben Cartwright would approve.
When I can’t take it I go back to when I was young and the songwriters, poets, and novelists were catching me up in their words and testing my beliefs.  The whole world was ahead of me and I had the rest of my life to figure out what they were telling me and what I wanted my life to be. 

But escaping the reality of our collective here and now is a luxury.  We’re challenged by the need to impact and influence the direction of our government and its effect on civil society.  It’s falling apart.  You may want to spend your days putting a record on the turntable from 1965, or finding a re-run of “Gunsmoke” on some obscure cable channel, but there are bigger fish to fry.  You have the ability to make a difference by as a citizen with the right to vote. 
Decide what direction you want the United States to go.  Do you want more of the same hateful rhetoric we’ve heard for the past two years, and corresponding damage to our institutions, or do you want to signal your dissent?  It’s up to you and in the collective sense us.  Look closely at what is going on in the news.  Determine how you can best use your vote to represent your views.  And if you haven’t already done so, go to your polling place and speak directly to power with your vote.  It’s important.  We can watch fluff TV and listen to records later.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Good Luck with That David

Before this last elective surgery I was working on a blog about Dylan, with a little Hemingway mixed in.  As the date for my trip to the hospital neared the list of things to get done before I couldn’t walk loomed large, and I didn’t finish it.  A random FB post had thrown me into a binge of old Dylan music, some of it on vinyl, and I became immersed in lyrics.  Before I knew it I was under the knife. 
The word elective surgery is fairly new, developed I’m sure during my lifetime.  The idea is this- “it's  not necessary to keep you alive, but if you want it done, someone will do it.  Whether they pay for it is another matter.”  

Really?  I can see the farmers I used to work scratching their heads at this idea.  Just for a little while mind you, before rejecting it completely.  The best way to avoid painful medical treatment, their steadfast goal, was to stay away from doctors first, and then hospitals at any cost.  And speaking of cost, those guys didn’t buy health insurance till the government handed it to them in the form of Medicare in the mid 60's.

Dentistry, and I mean the entire field, was seen as  elective for my Dad.  He grudgingly let  Mom take us to the dentist as kids, and even get dentures herself, but he elected to forgo dentists entirely.  He lost his teeth gradually.  Most of them blackened and sort of evaporated, the process hidden from us, until he got down to the molars.  Those he had to work fairly hard at.
I didn’t see my Dad him with pliers or vice grips in his mouth, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he secretly used them to persuade the exit of those big teeth from his gums.  I have a couple of his molars, yellow with long white roots.  He saved them in his desk drawer with the paper clips.  You tell me why.

If you wonder why you rarely see chopped sirloin on restaurant menus anymore, it’s because guys like my Dad are largely a thing of the past.  We’re now a country of straight white teeth, except of course for the poor, whom we don’t seem to care about.  Modern dentistry, along with fluoridation, has made those Americans who can afford it a country of proficient chewers. 

I made hay with a number of farmers who had complicated leather and steel trusses designed to hold in hernias.  There we were, trapped in  hay mows on long summer afternoons, hoisting 75 pound bales of hay, and sweating our asses off.  It was hard work, but I was a kid and had no intention of continuing to work that way once I graduated high school.  The men I worked with, both tenant farmers and land owners, had worked that hard their entire lives.  They worked on, burdened by the pain and trouble of hernias among other ailments, without complaining. 
“You can usually push them back in,” our neighbor once told me, after showing me what his truss did, custom made to press on the hernia and do basically the same thing.  “If you can’t get it back up in there you have to worry.  You gotta watch out they don’t get strangulated.  But if you don’t panic it usually takes care of itself.”

Those men were known not to panic.
None of the farmers with hernias elected to get them fixed that I knew of.  Not when you could manage it and avoid the doctor. 

We now consider health a worthy investment.  An improvement I’d say.  Our collective goal is taking care of our bodies so as to manage these much longer lives we’re living.  And with attitudes changing we now find ourselves with a menu of procedures to choose from.
For the purely cosmetic procedures, satisfying vanity more than improved function, you’re on your own dime.  But if you want to say, continue to use your shoulder as you are accustomed, or walk without pain, both Medicare and private insurance are more than willing to accommodate you.  Meet some low threshold criteria and the door is open for a raft of expensive procedures funded routinely every day.  I think the medical folks, and their partners in the drug industry, want the work.  And at the rates paid in the US for those procedures who wouldn’t?

Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a good thing.  I’m benefitting.  My Mom needed artificial knees in the worst way.  Had she been able to get them, she could have avoided years of pain, and enjoyed increased activity, maybe even living longer than she managed, alone there in our farm house, making it from the recliner, to the kitchen, out once a day to get the newspaper at the end of the walk, talking incessantly on the land line. 
Trouble was no one she knew had gone through that new idea of knee surgery.  No one at church, no women at the beauty parlor.  They took the best anti inflammatory pills and pain relievers the hometown family doctor could find and put up with it, so Mom did too.

I’m not willing to do that.  I want to walk down streets in towns I’ve not yet found.  I want to hike over the next hill.  I’m on this two year program to improve my mobility.  Last year I had my long messed up left ankle straightened and repaired, and this year it’s the knee on the right, maybe damaged by accommodating the weird gait of its partner all those years.  In any case, I’m joining the ranks of those with both bone reshaped, reconfigured, and repositioned to its original purpose and bionic joints, titanium replacing bone, plastic filling in for cartilage.
My legs served me well, and I used them hard.  I hitchhiked with a back pack for years in the 70’s, on four continents.  The longer I traveled the less I carried on my back, but all the same it was a load.  When vehicles stopped past me on the road I made a habit of running to them.  I thought it was bad form for a guy wanting a free ride to walk.  My backpack would bounce as I ran.  I could feel it in my knees but never thought a thing of it.

I wasn’t what you would call cautious about life then, and certainly not about my health.  That left ankle was never the same after a bad ski accident.  It was my second time on skis.  I thought I was ready for the big hill.
While elective surgery is now available, there’s still a calculation.  I’ve decided there really is no gain without pain, hard work in therapy, and recovery time.  When my friends related their new knee experiences, they encouraged me. 

“It will be nothing compared to your ankle I guarantee.”
My ankle, which was done early April of 2017, was long term.  I couldn’t bear weight on it for months.  When I did walking was tentative and gradual.  It took a long time to get to anything that resembled normal.  It’s still getting better now, 19 months later.  The surgeon told me I’d see improvement for up to two years.  I thought he was kidding me.  Funny, how we hear things but don’t believe them.  Some things seem incredible.

Knee replacement is totally different.  When you get out of the hospital there is a fully functioning knee in there.  My ankle procedure required bone to knit together.  My artificial knee was firmly attached to my bones.  Don’t ask me how.  I haven’t yet watched the video.  The physical therapist in the hospital got me up and walked me down the hall, mostly to show me it was possible I think.  Recovery in the case of my knee is getting the muscle, ligaments, and tissue around the knee back to normal after being so rudely pushed aside.
It’s major surgery.  Power tools are involved.  Protractors and stuff I’m sure.  I’ll find out later.  They’re surgeons, the orthopedic people that do this work, but just as heart surgeons take after plumbers, the orthopedic folks embody the hearts of carpenters. 

Let’s go back to my buddies with fresh new knees.  When I ask them how long it takes to fully recover from the surgery they say:
“Well, it keeps getting better for a year I’d say.  But it gets good pretty quickly.”

I’ll be a month past surgery next Friday.  I’m convinced that as humans we lack the ability to remember or appreciate physical pain.  Maybe it’s the opiates.  In any case because it’s my right knee I can’t drive.  Those pain pills became my friends.  I don’t regret doing it, but it hurts more than I anticipated.  Getting back to a decent range of motion takes work.  I think the physical therapists are actually the most important part of the deal.  I’m doing what they tell me.  I think and hope I‘ll have a good result.
Still in all, it’s a calculation.  You sacrifice freedom for increased mobility in the future.  You willingly walk into hospitals, surrender yourself to their system, allow someone you barely know to knock you out and work you over in almost sadistic ways, and then you thank them when it’s dover.  It’s counter intuitive when you think about it.

Between loads the guys in the haymow, my neighbors, used to take breaks.  We’d climb down from the heat of the haymow, find some shade, a breeze if there was one, and have a blow till the next rack wagon arrived.   We had great conversation, five or ten minutes at a time.  I’ve imagined trying to explain what I’m doing with those old farmers.  It would probably go like this.
“So David, my wife found out from your Mom that you’re going to get a new knee somehow. Mechanical deal.  Is that so?”

Farm women talked  constantly and the men kept their mouths shut.  But if the men listened to their wives they could find out everything there was to know about the people around them.  I mean everything.  It was amazing how little privacy there was.  You think social media is bad.  Consider party phone lines.  
“Yeah, that’s right.”

“How’s that work?  I mean just what are they doing to you?”
“Well, they make a slice down your knee, pull away the muscle and stuff to expose the joint, and then saw the top of your knee away from your thigh bone, they do the same thing on the bottom, from your shin bone, and then they put an artificial knee in the center of those bones, line them up good, pound it in to the ends of the bones and glue it.  They got the right sized knee already, from an x ray and a CAT scan.”

I can imagine how wide their eyes would be.  Stubbly beards.  Blue chambray shirts sweated through.  They would all be over a hundred years old today.
“Who’s doing it?”

“Orthopedic surgeon out Bloomington.”
“Young guy?”

 Eyes would roll.

“How many times you figure he’s done this kind of thing?”
“Plenty I think.  It’s about all he does.”

“Who makes that knee they’re putting in you?.”
I’m sure they would feel better if the manufacturer was Allis Chalmers, or John Deere.  Craftsman or Snap On would work too.  They would be thinking of the joint as something like the knuckles we used on the speed jacks and power take offs.  I still do sort of.

“I have no idea.”
“I’d find out if I were you.”

There’d be a pause.  Reacting to their suspicion I’d tell them more.
“As I get it with these tests they find out the exact angle of the bones, then a computer gives them real precise measurements, maybe even something of a jig, so they cut the bones exactly right to accept the knee.  Pretty high tech.”

Their eyes would grow wider.
“What kind of saw they use?”

“Probably something like a hand held power jig saw.  I didn’t ask.”
“And when it's all over this artificial knee is going to work like your God given knee?”

That’s what they say.”
“Is that right.”

Those farmers used that particular line "is that right" not as a question. They didn’t expect an answer. Their voice didn’t rise.  You didn’t know exactly what they meant.  That’s what they intended.  They rarely expressed disbelief, giving you the benefit of the doubt.  But they doubted a lot of things without showing it.  
We would hear a tractor down the lane.  When we looked, a rack wagon stacked with bales would be making its way toward the barn.  We would pull on those yellow cotton work gloves and head back towards the haymow.

“Yeah well good luck with than knee deal David.  Let us know how it turns out.”
They would no more have their knee sawed out of their leg and replaced with a mechanical one than they would go to New York City on vacation.  To them it would have sounded crazy, risky, and expensive.  They wouldn’t have asked how much it costs because where I lived it was impolite to talk about money.  But there is no way in hell those men I worked with fifty years ago would have turned their body over to some doctor for anything as drastic as that. 

Times change.  Today we have developed faith in both the skills of our medical folks and the technology they use.  We’ll take outrageous measures to extend the useful life of these bodies we have.  I hope I’m right on this one. I’ll let you know.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Animal Stories

Yesterday a red fox trotted into our yard.  It was  sunny summer, but the air had a hint of fall.  The fox was enjoying the day.  He slowed to a walk then sat in a patch of sun.  He scratched for a while, stood and stretched, doing a downward facing fox, then laid out flat.  I was taking pictures of him through the patio door.  As I looked at him, he looked at me.

After a time he moseyed into my neighbor Bill’s yard and laid there, not far from the shack.  I opened the door quietly and slowly made my way toward him.  The fox watched as I neared,  not particularly concerned.  As I put my foot on the shack steps the fox stood, looked at me for a last time, and trotted into the ravine.  My fox encounter was over, as was his encounter with me.  Though I shouldn’t speak for the fox, I think it went pretty well for him.  As for me, something about it warmed my human heart.

You can’t make these things happen.  You can go to a zoo, but that’s a rather forced meeting wouldn’t you say?  Who says the giraffe wants to be anywhere near you?  He has no choice.  The fox however chose my yard, and I was there he did.   It’s all chance.  But when it happens it’s meaningful, at least to me.
You can improve your odds of encountering wild animals by going into a wilderness.  I was just there.  I’d like to share an account of that experience with you.  Think of me as your roving reporter, and this an edition of animal stories.

Going north from Dryden Ontario, on Highway 105 to Red Lake (where the road more or less ends), the roadside is bordered by lakes and wetlands, trees and rocks.  Aside from the pavement and power lines few signs of human intrusion are seen for 130 miles.  Four American guys traveling that road, in one of those big plush four passenger pickup trucks, were bemoaning the lack of moose sightings. We were slowly scaling then descending gently rolling rock hills.  At the bottom of the dips there was invariably water. 
“Every time we pass one of those bays I expect to see a moose.  I always look, but I never see one,” the driver said.

“I know what you’re saying.  I do the same thing,” said the guy in the passenger seat.
We didn’t listen to the radio driving up.  It was like we were slowly decompressing.  The truck had a Wi-Fi hotspot, but soon we’d be completely cut off from all outside signals; phone, internet, radio, TV.  I was looking forward to it.  My smart phone would be reduced to simply a camera and a flashlight.

Not a town, not a person, very little traffic greeted us along the way.  It was quiet in the truck.  Then, just south of Ear Falls, one of the men in the back uttered a single word.

The driver immediately slowed and we all looked toward the water.  Standing along the road, not twenty feet away, was a bull moose.  Big rack of antlers, long skinny legs, dripping wet and nearly black.  At first I thought he was a statue, and then his head moved.  He held his head high and his big eyes looked at the truck.  We glided past him.  He never took a step, and then we were gone.
Funny how a few moments can make such an impression, the image burned into your brain such that you  will never forget.

Our destination was Job Lake, one of the many lakes leased to outfitters in Northern Canada which are reachable only by float planes.  It’s a 30 minute flight from Red Lake.  When the plane lands on the lake, taxis to the dock, your gear is unloaded, and the plane takes off again-you and seven friends are the only people on the lake for the next seven days.  4 boats, 8 guys, a rustic cabin, and 8,800 acres of clean fresh water lake. 


We go there to fish, but long ago we found out it’s not just the fishing that brings us back.  It’s the quiet, the beauty, the seclusion, and the wildlife. 
Up from our dock is a rustic cabin with a deck, porch, kitchen, half bath, and a big room with a dining table and 8 bunks.  We always go the week before Labor Day.  The weather is usually good and the bugs absent, so we spend a lot of time on the deck.  When we do we have visitors.

The boldest are the Whiskey Jacks.  Also called Canadian Jays or Gray Jays or Camp Robbers, these birds will land right beside you and stare you down.  Nate was having a sandwich on the deck at lunch and thought a Whiskey Jack was going to go for a chunk of it while it was in hand.  They’re brassy, those Whiskey Jacks, and hungry.  Some took to feeding them, leaving bits of leftover pancakes, biscuits, what have you on the deck ledge until an unfortunate incident made us question the wisdom of our human intervention.  But no sad tales today.  Here’s a healthy and happy Whiskey Jack.

Always present it seemed and oblivious to any threat we might pose was a snowshoe rabbit.  Snowshoes look like a hare, and are dark in the summer.  I’d love to be there in the winter when their coat turns pure white.  They say they replace the pontoons on the planes with skis and land on the ice.  Damned cold though.  I track the weather out of Red Lake on my phone.  I don’t think you could cut wood fast enough to keep that summer cabin on stilts warm through a frigid North Ontario winter.  Here’s our friend the snowshoe rabbit, who made a daily appearance on the trail to the outhouse.

One of the most distinctive sounds each day are the cries of loons.  We saw them every day on the lake, some with babies, keeping their distance, fishing like we were, doing what loons do.  When they take off they slap the water with their wings before rising off the lake.

A few boats saw otters.  They keep their distance as well, their heads often appearing as bits of wood bobbing in the water until they suddenly disappear, only to pop up again further away.  I once saw an otter running the bank of a lake in the boundary waters.  They’re bigger than you think, sleek and shiny.
Bald Eagles are quite a show on Job Lake.  Perched in the trees that ring the shore, the eagles are always on the watch at day’s end when we clean fish.  Our daily trip across the lake, to make sure bears are not attracted to the fish guts, lends itself to this close up view.  The other birds, mostly gulls and vultures,  scatter when this guy is hungry.  Among birds he’s king of the lake.

But the dominant animals, and the main attraction, are the fish.  A natural hatchery, the lake system in Northern Ontario maintains a nice balance of perch, walleyed pike, and northern pike primarily.  There are lakes where bass are plentiful, as well as lake trout and muskie, but you can’t prove it by our experience on Job Lake.  We catch an occasional perch, northern pike by mistake, but we fish for walleye.  We use light tackle, colorful jigs fished very near the bottom tipped with live bait, from boats drifting with the wind.  Occasionally we troll, but when we do the motor runs and breaks the silence.  My attraction to jigging for walleye is the quiet of it, the concentration.  Present the bait, imagine the fish below you, watch for the rod tip to twitch, wait for a tug on the line.  It’s a wonderful way to spend a day.  

When you do get a northern pike on the line it’s a rush.  Northern, who grow bigger than walleye, fight harder.  Serious northern fishermen use high test line and steel leaders with big spoons and other artificial lures.   Steel leaders, tied on the very end of the line before the lure are used to keep the fish from cutting the line with its teeth when they hit.  Stronger line is employed to keep the fish on when hooked.  Northern are the giants of the lake.  My friend Nathan caught a thirty seven incher (37”), the biggest northern of the week.  Not an easy task to land a northern that big on a walleye set up, but Nate’s a good fisherman.

There are ruler decals in the boats to measure fish.  We buy Canadian conservation licenses, which have strict limits on how many fish of what size can be kept, and which must be released.  There is a daily limit per fisherman of four walleye between 15 and 18 ½ .  One fish exceeding 18 ½ can be kept as part of that number.  The reasoning is this.  The little walleye deserve to grow, and the big ones are important to breed the next generation.  But you can keep, and eat, members of the biggest group, the top of the bell curve, those of average age and size, the most plentiful fish in the lake.

We follow those rules closely, and kept few if any fish over 18 ½ inches.  We want Northern Ontario’s fishery to be as healthy as possible.  In fact, on days we ate fish we found that four fish per boat was too many.  That would give us 16 walleye, 32 filets, which was more than we could eat.  So we cut back to three per boat.  Plenty for us.  No need to be greedy.

Truth is, we caught lots more fish than our limit.  It’s the catching not the eating, the experience not the trophy.  Like the moment I had with the red fox when I came home, it’s the encounter with those beautiful wild fish that makes the trip.  One more fish story and I’ll let you go.
I was fishing with Gary that morning and it was a little slow.  A cloudy day with a little chop, waves on the lake, chilly, spitting rain once in a while.  That’s usually perfect for walleye.  But our spots weren’t panning out. 

“You want to go to the wall?” Gary said.
“Yeah, I love the wall.  Let’s head there.”

We brought our lines in and set off for a trip across the lake.  The wall is sort of the entrance to the southern part of Job Lake.  It’s a tall rock island.  On one side is a sheer wall of stacked red and gray granite, some green with lichens.  You can see where over time rock has sheared off and fallen in the lake.  Blocks of granite are strewn by the shore and underwater.  Pine trees cling to cracks in the rocks.
The water is deep right up to those rocks.  To be that close to land yet in such deep water is unusual.  The catching is not always good, but it’s so beautiful I love to fish there anyway.  I scan the intricate rock wall and imagine the millions of years it took to form.  I imagine fish among the boulders way below me.  I space out and get lost in thought.  Sometimes that’s a great place to be. 

Gary judged the wind and set us up on a drift that he hoped would sweep us relatively near the shore across the wall.  He knew from the depth finder we were in deep water, sometimes thirty feet.  The drift took us in a little, maybe too close.  We would have to go out and reset the drift.  I put my pole down to get something out of my tackle box.  The tip of my rod leaned outside the boat.
“I think you’re getting a bite,” Gary said.

I looked up.  Sure enough, the end of my rod was bending then letting up.  I picked up my pole and felt the line twitch.  I let it go for a few seconds more, felt another twitch and pulled up quickly, setting the hook.  It felt solid. My drag began to whine.  After a time I began to reel it up. 
“I may need the net,” I told Gary.

Usually we just bring the walleye up to the side of the boat, grab the jig in their mouth, and lift them into the boat.  You can do that with an average fish.  This felt bigger.
It didn’t fight a lot.  I continued to reel it in and then we saw him near the surface.  When the fish saw the boat it headed back down where it came from.

“Whoa,” Gary said.
I didn’t want to horse the fish into the boat.  My line was six pound test.  The fish would tire out, Gary would net it, and then we could see what we had.  I worried my line could snag on the rocks.  I kept my rod tip up and continued to work the fish slowly.  Finally we saw it again.  The fish broke the surface and rolled on its side.

Gary got the net under that big fish and scooped it into the boat like he was shoveling snow.  He put it at my feet.  It thumped the bottom of the boat hard as it flopped. 
“Jesus, what is it?”

“It’s a walleye.”
“I thought it was a catfish.  Look at its head.”

It had a huge head.  Something about that fish immediately made me think of it as female.  I felt as if I had caught the big Mom of all the smaller walleye I had caught up till then.  It made me want to get her back in the lake safely, and as quickly as I could.

I opened her mouth.  Rather than being hooked through the lip the barb of the jig hook was buried in the top of her upper mouth.  No blood, it’s all bone and gristle there, so I dug in my tackle box and got out the needle nose pliers.  It wasn’t stuck as bad as I thought.  I grabbed the shaft of the hook, gave it a turn and a pull, and she was free.
“Wow Gary.  Let’s get a picture.  I want to get her back in the water.”

“Well you have to measure it.”
She was hard to hold.  I got a good grip on her tail, the other hand under her head, and put her against the side of the boat where the inches were laid out.  Twenty seven inches (27”).  Biggest walleye I’d ever caught. 

“Hold her up Dave.  Let’s get this done.”

As I held her and Gary took the picture I could feel the warmth of her.  Her body was warmer than the air.  She was alive and strong.  As soon as Gary snapped the photo I lowered her into the water and held her for a moment.  Then I let her go.  One big flip of her tail she dove out of sight, safely back in her element.

And there you go.  Of all the moments I’ve had with wild animals that was one of the best. She was a beautiful fish.
On the drive home we rounded a curve and a small black bear was in our lane, taking its time crossing the road.  Rick slowed, honked his horn, and the bear looked over its shoulder at us as if annoyed.  Finally it turned and disappeared into the woods.

An hour later, in broad daylight, another shape crossed the road in front of us. 
“Is that a coyote?” I said.

“That’s a cat.  And not a bobcat either.  Look at that tail.”  Bob said.
It was a cougar, also called a mountain lion.  Bob cats and lynx have short tails.  This tail was long and fluffy.  It was a first for all of us, seeing that big cat.

Here’s the refreshing thing about our trip.  The only politics we encountered in the wilderness were the ideas, the frustrations, and the observations we brought with us.  They faded.  Soon we were asking what day it was, what was next for dinner, what we thought the weather might be, and where best to fish next.  We lived in the moment for the most part, and anticipated the next, as those animals we encountered did.  Fish swim and eat for the most part.  Animals simply live their lives.  Life is simple.  And it can be for us if we let it.
Don’t get me wrong, you need to vote in November.  But you also need to escape the craziness of modern life when you can.  It will you do you good I guarantee.