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Boundaries

 

(Broadcast on WCMU-FM Morning Edition Fall 1982)

 

If traveling some six thousand miles in a single month taught me nothing else—other than the wisdom of getting to a place and staying put—it taught me the arbitrariness of the boundaries people project upon the land. After all, nature puts no boundary lines upon the earth; those that appear on maps are products solely of the lawyer's imagination and the surveyor's ingenuity.

 

I should have known all this before, of course—I've traveled enough to know that if you fall asleep in western Ohio and then wake up with only the landscape to tell you where you are, you really don't know if you're in southern Michigan, northern Indiana, or eastern Illinois. I've seen the flatlands of northwestern Minnesota become the flatlands of first North Dakota and then Manitoba with only highway markers and the colors of police cars to give warning that some people have divided this featureless landscape into two states of one country and a province of another.

 

But I only began to think about the ways the land contradicted subdivisions as I traveled west one August. Leaving Missouri and entering Kansas, I saw no difference in scenery. I watched the land change as we crossed Kansas, observing the lift of the land as we drove from the prairies of the Missouri River basin into the table-flat high plains section of western Kansas, on our way toward the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. But I never saw sharp distinctions—one topographic division led into another and, when we crossed the border into Colorado, I saw only more high plains before us. It would be another hour before the gradual incline led us to a place where the mountains would emerge on the horizon.

 

The remainder of the trip confirmed the suspicions about boundaries that Kansas and Colorado raised. At Mesa Verde, I looked out from Park Point at the one place in the nation where four states meet in a single location. The Park Point handbook could superimpose boundary lines on pictures of the vistas I beheld, but I couldn't see any natural borders between Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. In the days that followed, as we roamed the Four Corners area, I could see that changes in topography were always well within states, never between them. The canyonlands of Utah became the canyonlands of Arizona, following the Colorado River; the Guadalupe Mountains made no distinction between Texas and New Mexico; the Chihuahuan Desert extended from deep within Mexico to deep within the United States.

 

I could see as well that nature's indifference to boundaries extends to the zones of habitation it creates. Rivers are the centers of their environment, not the edges; nature works upward from them toward mountaintops, creating climate zones along the way, saying that here on the plains the pinyon may grow and here in the foothills belongs Ponderosa pine and here in the Montane Zone may grow Douglas fir. And yet a traveler up a mountainside will often see the zones overlap, pinyon growing with Ponderosa pine and, higher up, Ponderosa pine mingling with Douglas fir.

 

In McKittrick Canyon, in the Guadalupe Mountains, hikers can tramp through something like five biotic communities in a couple of hours, discovering the northernmost limits of the Texas Madrone tree, the westernmost limits of some deciduous trees more common to the Appalachians, the southernmost limits of some conifers.  Such a mixture of habitats causes a mingling of unexpected forms of wildlife as well.

 

The blurring of zones of habitation isn't confined to flora and fauna—it happens with people as well. I'd often noticed how southern Iowans behaved like northern Missourians and northern Iowans behaved like southern Minnesotans. In the west, I found the New Mexicans of Las Cruces not much different from the Texans of El Paso. Santa Fe seemed virtually a McKittrick Canyon of human habitation, where the styles of Greenwich Village, San Francisco, and Tesque Pueblo, of Eastern Jew, Western Gay, Mexican, cowboy, and American Indian, all blend in an adobe melting pot. In parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, the Navajo Reservation occupies a space larger than New England, unnatural boundaries overlapping other unnatural boundaries.

 

Nowhere can I find evidence that boundaries between states and between groups of people are anything more than the fictions of mankind, unnatural pretenses that sharp distinctions are possible. Nature seems to work by gradation, oblivious to unnecessary delineations. In place of continued conflict over imagined borders and hair-splitting distinctions of race, religion, and ideology, mankind might do well to ponder nature's example.

 

 

Note: "Boundaries" was included in Limited Sight Distance: Essays for Airwaves. Glimmerglass Editions. 2013: 64-66.

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In Deep Water

 

(Broadcast on WCMU-FM Morning Edition Fall 1987)

 

It's grey and overcast outside as I write this, but for a little while the pavement is dry and the puddles on the lawn are shrinking. In the three weeks since a deluge of battering rain triggered the worst flooding in Michigan history, the rain has seemed to be a permanent part of the landscape; such brief respites remind us that it's possible we'll spend a day in the sun again.

 

In such a month as this, after the devastation of swirling floodwaters, after days and weeks of virtually unrelieved gloom and damp, we struggle to figure out how to respond. We need distance from events to give us perspective, but the unchanging weather refuses us space to retreat to. Our collective spirits are being tested and we feel an end-of-winter gloom in the middle of autumn.

 

The physical damage of the flooding has been so widespread that everyone knows a host of horror stories—collapsed basements, ruined carpeting and furniture, lost books and papers and photographs. In my town the Pine River surrounded a local supermarket and department store, swept across downtown streets, closed every bridge connecting the two sides of town. What on the first day was a curiosity of raging water and limited inundation became on the second day a creeping threat and on the third a relentlessly spreading terror. From dry ground on impassable streets we stared uncomprehendingly at houses made uninhabitable by the floodwater. While I watched, playful canoeists out sightseeing paddled down the middle of Downie Street past a despondent couple in a rowboat—the men in the canoe trailed a mallard decoy, the couple transported luggage away from their apartment building.

 

Even those whose homes were safe on high ground had connections to the damage. A couple who had recently moved to a new home found five feet of water in their old one and pondered the impact on the unfinalized sale; an older house down by the river that we had thought of buying three years before, its exterior totally renovated by its new owners, was completely surrounded by water several feet deep. Friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers—everywhere you turned you found someone damaged or ruined. One day when the water had receded, we helped a couple empty their home, lugging waterlogged bedding to the street, disinfecting furniture, ripping up ruined carpeting and pulling up the spongy linoleum under it and watching the wooden floors begin to buckle as they dried. The smell of muck and mold and disinfectant stayed in our lungs for hours after we had returned to dry ground, a shower, and clean clothes.

 

The spiritual battering of the flood's aftermath has been even more widespread. As the rains continued and the waters rose again, we watched the weather with numbed disbelief, the initial shock and eagerness to rebuild replaced by a sodden weariness and persistent wariness—no time to ponder cause and effect, only dazed acceptance of a permanently waterlogged lifestyle.

 

If any good comes from the weeks of relentlessly rainy gloom, it lies in the constant reminder to those unaffected by the flood of the plight of those devastated by it. Those of us on high ground have a tendency to get on with our daily lives once our curiosities and conversations are sated with flood information; those still waiting for the waters to recede, still struggling to count and compensate their losses, still listening nervously to the rain at night and waking with alarmed alertness before dawn, know that the fabric of their lives has been altered and their sense of security perhaps permanently shaken. We highlanders need to stay aware of the lowlanders' situation: there but for the grace of topography go we.

 

If anything, these days in deep water ought to remind us that much of what we occupy ourselves with daily is of transitory importance, that ultimately what matters is the quality of life where we live. Moreover, the quality of our lives is inextricably bound to the quality of our neighbors' lives. In an age when our society continually invites us to isolate ourselves from one another, to value our individual desires above our communal needs, the lesson of catastrophe is that we can't survive in isolation. The flood's effect is paradoxical: at the same time the rising waters cut us off from one another, they remind us that no man is an island.

 

If we haven't learned that lesson these last few weeks, we are in far deeper waters than we can handle.

 

 

Note: "In Deep Water" was included in Limited Sight Distance: Essays for Airwaves. Glimmerglass Editions. 2013: 42-44.

 

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Autumn

 

(Broadcast on WCMU-FM Morning Edition Fall 1981)

 

 

One morning this week, when I began my early morning walk to the university, autumn was in evidence all around me. The air was chill and moist, and wood smoke drifted in it from somewhere, reminding me of the smell of burning leaves that pervaded the autumns of my childhood. In the sky the bright fall harvest moon was low above the western horizon, reluctantly giving up the night, but still not dimmed by the onset of the dawn.

 

My usual route to school takes me down a street of older houses, where the neighbors seem to worry little about the trespassing of leaves from one another's trees. No homeowners here have scurried out to rake the lawn free of evidence of fall and prop up plastic bags at the curb like an honor guard saluting their compulsive tidiness. You can still hear the rustle and crackle of crisp dead leaves under your feet and occasionally plow through ankle-high drifts of colorful decay. Occasionally, disheveled mounds of leaves reveal the places where the disorder of nature has been improved upon by the chaos-making of children. Even in the stillness of the morning, more leaves detach themselves from the branches overhead and drift to the ground. About now in the season, the trees above your head and the carpet of leaves below your feet seem almost to mirror one another. The passage down an autumn street is hard to complete without thoughts of the season.

 

I've always been fond of fall, but never so much as this year, perhaps because I'm finally accepting the onset of my own autumnal season. The metaphor of the seasons for the stages of a man's life may be a commonplace, but it's durable because it's apt, even though we never realize its appropriateness fully until we've gladly given up attempts to make our summers linger.

 

Summer seems to me to be too intense, too extravagant. It celebrates its lush fertility in bursts of excess, expending the virility of its heat upon lengthening days with no acknowledgment that the days grow shorter midway through the season. Summer is all heat and light, all sensuality and ardor, all undirected energy and undifferentiated passion; its color is green, a sign of fertility but a mark of conformity as well, a willingness to be regimented in the pursuit of pleasure.

 

Autumn moves at a different pace. Its days are temperate, nights gradually cooler. As its heat retreats, and its light grows less intense, it heightens other senses, making you more aware of color and tastes and smells, making you more discriminating and alert about subtler pleasures. It's a more sober season, more reflective and thoughtful. It teaches you to understand, accept, and expect change; it focuses your attention on transition, on what you've learned and what you have yet to learn, on what you've done and what you've left to do. Autumn never deceives you about its ability to last; even as, in Indian summer, it lets you remember fondly the seasons past, it never lets you forget that winter is coming, that you have to accept its onset, that you have to be prepared for it.

 

I think there's something to celebrate in autumn, and I apply the season to my own life. If I take it more seriously than I do summer, I don't take it somberly. After all, I see myself as only beginning my season; there's hope that I'll display my brightest colors, channel my energies into a stirring achievement, right at the moment before I begin to let my powers fade. You could do worse than be a tree at the height of its individuality, its color, its perception and acceptance of the change of seasons. You could do worse than be a harvest moon, full, serene, brilliant, illuminating more and more the lengthening night below you.

 

I find comfort and reassurance in the autumn season. I'm really going to enjoy it while it lasts.

 

 

Note: "Autumn" was included in Limited Sight Distance: Essays for Airwaves. Glimmerglass Editions. 2013: 36-37.

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Thinking Out Loud

 

Having discovered a few recordings of my radio scripts on cassette, I searched our garage for a box with all the typed copies of essays written for my university's broadcast of "Morning Edition." My colleague Ken, who was taping film reviews for a local slot on that program, suggested I write book reviews for it. I did write a few, focusing on writers I liked and sometimes taught, but I wasn't comfortable doing it. I had no real alternative in mind when I asked John, the station's executive producer, if I could write something other than book reviews. "What would you write about?" he asked. "Just anything I feel like writing about," I answered. "Okay," he said. So, I did.

 

In 1980, when I started writing radio essays, I had completed my first book, Thomas Southerne, drawn from my dissertation research on Restoration theater, and written conference papers and articles on composition and rhetoric and English pedagogy. All that was about to elevate me from assistant professor to associate professor. I was a fully functioning academic. But as an undergraduate, I'd written a column for the college paper, The Lamron, succeeding a friend who had published satirical and humorous pieces. Titled "Root '66," my feature managed to amuse, entertain, or annoy those students and faculty who occasionally read it. I hadn't written that kind of thing in fifteen years and, probably because encouraging students to write personal essays had helped center my thinking somewhat, I had mellowed quite a bit. I felt ready to write short random essays.

 

The topics I felt like writing about were wide-ranging: our family life in Alma, my Western New York childhood, my reading, my viewing, the cycle of seasons, life on the road, the cosmos, a philosophy of place, and even, occasionally, current events. The first 20 scripts were written and recorded in the late summer and autumn of 1980, when Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were competing for the presidency. My satirical piece endorsing Bugs Bunny for president made one colleague confront me about my failure to be more reverential about the nation's highest office. Two other essays, titled "The Voter's Prayer" and "Evolution and Education," were never aired. I tried for fewer opinion pieces in ensuing essays.

 

At the end of each school year, I collected my scripts into binders with general titles: Airwaves Essays I, II, and III, Alternate Route (a variation on my old "Root '66" title), and finally Thinking Out Loud, drawn from my habitual tagline, "This is Bob Root, thinking out loud." The series ran weekly two-thirds of each year between 1980 and 1987, eventually totaling 225 scripts and only ending when I felt the need to write longer, more complicated essays.

 

Twenty-six years later, hoping to better preserve some of that work, I included fifty-two radio essays in Limited Sight Distance: Essays from Airwaves. I claimed in the preface that writing around three dozen essays a year "forces you to be more alert to the world, to move through your life always open to the possibility that what happens to you—whatever you notice, view, read, observe, experience, hear or overhear, wherever you go, however you get through your days—might end up in an essay. You walk through your life ever so much more awake because, pressed by constantly recurring deadlines, a part of you is always testing potential opening lines, composing narrative or descriptive or expository or reflective sentences." I compared it to "having a play-by-play announcer and a color commentator piped in over images from a video camera attached to your head, permanently displaying your angle of vision."

 

Sometimes a broadcast would prompt listeners to get in touch. One man wrote me about how, after hearing my script about a small-town hamburger joint, he convinced his co-workers to lunch at a local restaurant rather than a fast-food chain. The restaurant made their own pies, and my correspondent reported having had a slice of both the rhubarb and the lemon. Other people approached me to share their own thoughts about that week's subject. Hans, my department chair, sometimes stopped by my office to say he'd been in the shower during the broadcast and only heard the final minute or so and wanted to know what he'd missed. These encounters taught me something about writing essays—that what really interests you enough to write about, whether ordinary or idiosyncratic, will inevitably set off vibrations in other people, a kind of sympathetic tuning, almost in spite of your intentions. You may be writing for yourself but that doesn't keep readers from connecting to what you've written.

 

I'm going to post some of my radio essays over the coming weeks, ones that resonate with me, ones that might have resonated with some listeners.

 

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Listening to Lyrics

Recently, deep in a crowded box in our garage, on a different shelf from the box with typed copies of all my lyrics, I found three cassettes with recordings of some of my songs. One cassette has seven songs on one side and six of my earliest radio scripts on the other side—I taped them the first year I wrote short essays for my university's "Morning Edition" broadcast. Another cassette has thirteen songs, including some on that other cassette. A third cassette records the audio of an interview on "Northern Michigan Morning," a local television show, where I discussed the Michigan Songwriters Guild and performed "When Does A Man Get Fully Grown?" The tapes all date from 1981.

 

The sound quality on the "Root Songs" tape isn't very good; my guitar sometimes drowns out my voice. I taped those songs at the kitchen table in my apartment. The sound is better on the radio essays tape—I understand almost every word I sing. Since I've found no other tapes with songs, I can't confirm melodies for other lyrics I collected in that binder, five written fifty years ago, the other thirty-five composed around forty years ago. I haven't written any newer lyrics since then.

 

Listening to lyrics performed by a self-accompanied singer creates a different sense of the song than reading those lyrics in silence does. If I read them aloud, I'd likely dramatize them, as if they were monologues designed for oral interpretation. (My undergraduate Advanced Oral Interpretation course served me well when I recorded those radio scripts decades later.) The dramatic reading attends to pace and tone and emphasis guided by punctuation and internal rhythms of the words; performance of the lyrics requires obeying the melody, conforming to tempo and meter, and being guided in expression by the musical notes. The melody affects the personality of the singer even as he expresses the attitude of the lyrics.

 

To compose songs, I once claimed, I would "sit down with my guitar and let the melodies tell me what's on my mind." I recall a few times when a melody told me I wasn't composing words to match the mood of the music. I'd learned a few different finger-picking strums watching Laura Webber's Folk Guitar show on "educational television" years before and found that shifting the time signature or picking pattern altered my attitude toward my lyrics. It wasn't until I played those tapes that I remembered how much else went into my songs besides the lyrics.

 

Listening to the lyrics, I felt, with relief, that most of the taped songs were pretty good. Perhaps I chose the best ones to record. I haven't played guitar in so long I couldn't guess which chords I was playing or which finger-picking patterns I was using, but, while I listened, at times I felt my right hand try to imitate the strums I was hearing and my fingers moved in some vague approximation of the finger-picking I might have been doing. But I'm unlikely to ever get my playing back up to the level recorded on the tapes.

 

I was curious about what the lyrics would say about the man who composed them. Some are pretty confessional: "When Does a Man Get Fully Grown?" admits to folly, loneliness, doubt, uncertainty, in plaintive images. Other songs reinforce the singer's sense of isolation: "Freedom of the Highway," "The Highway Calling Me," "Roll Like a River," "It Gets a Little Lonely in the Night." Later songs celebrate a more positive direction in the singer's life, songs of love and longing: "Standing at the Door of Love," "This Is My Love," "The Words I Long to Hear," "Spending Time." When I played a recording of one for Sue, we both were on the verge of tears. On the other hand, a few songs convinced me that I shouldn't write on political themes.

 

Songs often run through my mind. I wake up mornings with last night's tv show theme song or something I heard on the car radio playing in my head. (I don't know why I woke to the chorus of "Luckenbach, Texas" the other morning.) A song sometimes haunts me all day. Since I listened to those old cassettes, some of my own songs have popped up when I've entered a silence of some kind. Sometimes I try to sing along or pretend I could. I don't mind listening to them that way but I'm careful about how much attention I give them. Whether the song lamented or celebrated whatever inspired it, I need to choose how much lyrics from the past affect the way I feel about the life I live now, so far in the future.

 

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Once a Songwriter

 

According to the list of titles in my "Root Songs" notebook, the first five songs were written in Iowa between 1970 and 1971, while I was in graduate school, and the remaining thirty-five in Michigan between 1979 and 1981, where I'd been teaching and my wife and I had separated and I'd become a single father trying to figure out how to move on with my life. When I read the lyrics, memories sometimes open up, some fond, some troublesome, but just as often they stay closed—What or who was this song about? Why did I write it? Some songs seem political, the ones written during the Nixon years and the Vietnam era, and some are intensely personal, lyrics about loneliness and change and grasping for meaning, lyrics for my children and my future wife and possibly for people whose relationship with me is ambiguous. Most of them are more personal than public-minded.

 

My songwriter friend John was on our faculty only a single year; we met in the 1980 fall semester and with Barb, another singer/songwriter, eventually started what we called the Michigan Songwriters Guild. When we performed at Hobie's Olde World, John and I were interviewed by Barbara Milstein for the Lansing State Journal. "'I sit down with my guitar and let the melodies tell me what's on my mind,' Bob Root said. 'Going from music to words is easiest for me. I always seem to have an idea in my mind. If I don't put it down as soon as possible, I'll forget it at the end of the day. I've probably lost more than I've written.'" The interviewer explained, "Root tends to compose introspective music—exploring the beginnings and endings of relationships. It's 'sort of like a narrator sitting back, thinking about and looking at his own life.'" She thought my song "The Highway Calling Me" "sums up its thought with the line: 'You're never more a prisoner than when you're really free.'"

 

I was influenced by songwriters I tended to listen to, mostly folk-oriented singers. My songs were often about trying to move on and come to terms with my life, and I sometimes introduced "Highway Calling Me" by referring to "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" and claiming mine should be "Bob Root's 13th Road Song." John and Barb sometimes suggested we each write a song in the vein of another singer or from an outlook not typical of us. I wrote some satirical lyrics, like "God Bless America (Bless Her Guns and Tanks)," and the rowdy country-flavored "Free-Rolling Man," with the lyric "The barroom queens in the barroom scenes/check your bankroll while they check your jeans." I worked on one lyric for a long time until I realized I was composing new words to a melody by the Lovin' Spoonful; it made me aware of my limitations as a musician. It also made me aware that I didn't want to write poetry that didn't have a tune underlying it.

 

The lyrics that affect me most are those that grew out of my situation in the years I wrote them. The ones about lovers separated were inspired by Sue's working for two years in Missouri while I still worked in Michigan. I can tell how far along we were in our relationship by some of the lyrics: in "The Words I Long to Hear" the narrator claims, "And now I'm on the Greyhound and I'm staring at the road/Thinking of the time we'll be apart/And thinking where you'll be the time you're not with me" and his need for confirmation and assurance is clear; "Spending Time" is a declaration of commitment and longing, as in the opening verse:

 

I know too much of wasted days

I know how much they cost

But counting all the empty hours
can't measure what I've lost
If time is really money, girl,
I know where you should be,
lying here right by my side
spending time with me

 

I'm pretty pleased that I can revive the melody in these songs and several others by reciting them aloud—something of rhythm and emphasis and pace surfaces as I do—and I'm disappointed that trying the same approach with others brings back no sense of their original tunes. I've found some scribbled sheets with musical notations for some songs in that same box of manuscripts and hope to locate those tape recordings of some of them. I'd like to know just what I was searching for on every level of the songs I used to write.

 

 

Note: The original article, "Songwriters find a cheerful home" by Barbara Milstein, Journal Correspondent, appeared in the Lansing State Journal June 6, 1981.

 

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Reading Lyrics

 

Having found that folder of my old lyrics and tried to remember their melodies, I've wondered how they sounded to other listeners than me. I used pop songs when I taught college classes on popular culture and workshops at local high schools. I focused on their rhetoric: the way we respond to the speaker in the song, the situation the song recounts, its effect on individual listeners. Just as we all have our own reactions to what we read or what we watch, we all have our own reactions to what we hear.

 

I played three recordings of the Lennon-McCartney song "Let It Be." Most familiar was the Beatles' original pop rock version; Aretha Franklin's was impassioned soul music; Joan Baez's was gospel-flavored folk music. The lyrics were the same in all three, which suggests that the meaning of the song was the same each time, but the singers' gender and race and the music they performed to varied. In class discussion students' preferences for one version over the others tended to be based on familiarity with the artist or the subgenre of popular music or their sense of the artist's sincerity.

 

This is a game you can play at home, comparing versions of songs in videos on YouTube—I just tracked down "Dream Lover" by Bobby Darin, Mariah Carey, Tanya Tucker and Glen Campbell, and Ricky Nelson, "Hello Young Lovers" by Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder, "House of the Rising Sun" by Leadbelly, the Animals, and Joan Baez, and "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson. Or consider the music of three performers who just left us: Helen Reddy (she recorded two different versions of "I Am Woman"), Mac Davis (his song "I Believe in Music" was recorded by Davis, Helen Reddy, Perry Como, and many others), or Eddie Van Halen (look for an early song).

 

The other example I offered focused on how certain situations are presented differently in the lyrics and melody of thematically similar songs. Both Rod Stewart's recording of "Tonight's the Night" and Bob Seger's recording of "We've Got Tonight" are songs making a case for two people spending the night together, but the attitudes and the arguments of the male vocalists and their implied relationships with the women being persuaded vary quite a bit. Listeners might react to the vocalists' perspectives based on psychological or social preferences (and also to their possible preference for one singer over another), but if you read the lyrics without the melody, how would you react to either song—that is, to the message of the lyrics? If you heard the melody without the lyrics, in an instrumental version, how would you react to the song's attitude?

 

Only a few people ever heard live performances of my songs, always by me, so reading their lyrics provides little or no sense of their melodies. In poems we glean an understanding of pace and rhythm ("I think that I shall never see/a poem lovely as a tree" by Joyce Kilmer; "Whose woods these are I think I know/His house is in the village though" by Robert Frost). In my lyrics I can sometimes recognize the melody by reading the lines, like these from "Spending Time"

 

I know too much of wasted days

I know how much they cost

But counting all the empty hours
can't measure what I've lost

 

Or this chorus from "It Gets a Little Lonely in the Night"

 

It gets a little lonely in the night
It gets a little lonely in the night
By daylight I'm alright
But it gets a little lonely in the night

 

I recognize the stressed and unstressed syllables, the difference between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter lines from "Spending Time", the variations in feet in the repeated lines in "It Gets a Little Lonely in the Night." Emphasis and lack of emphasis determine the pace if I read them aloud. The texts of my lyrics tend to be metrical, but they aren't all obviously musical, at least to me. If you read both of these verses aloud, you might be aware of the metrical difference between them but be unlikely to intuit the melody underlaying them.

 

It's possible to find lyrics online with accompanying video or audio versions. If you read an unfamiliar lyric aloud, try to sense a melody, then listen to a recording to see how well your imagined song resembles the actual one. Your reaction might have something to do with how you're reacting to the lyrics. Those verses above trigger reactions in me; they open passages to memory and emotion that make me wonder how I'll feel about who the lyrics tell me I once was.

 

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Itsy Bitsy Spider

 

In the past, to reach our far-flung children and grandchildren, we made Facetime calls to those far away, in-person visits to those close by, and occasionally traveled long distance. In 2020 everything changed. We still interact online but don't know when we'll be in our California son's physical presence again. We still see our Florida daughter's family online but now socially distance from our Wisconsin daughter's family when we see them. Now, evading autumn allergies, we've reversed the last two approaches, Facetiming Wisconsin and visiting the Florida gang, masked, in person. Everyone keeps growing older, so we at least gain some sense of time passing even as daily housebound routines seldom suggest it is. Online and social distance connections are nowhere near close enough but they restore our awareness of what we value most.

 

My reading keeps reinforcing that feeling. Sue and I shared Dave Barry's Lessons from Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog, a funny, thoughtful book about adjusting to ageing and making life more meaningful. Its intimate, urgent ending has substantial power. Among advice drawn from each lesson, the most essential might be, "Be grateful for what you have. (It's probably more than you think you have.)" I find that reminder necessary in these days of pandemic and political turmoil— as you worry over what you, your neighbors, and your country might readily lose, it's easy to overlook what you already have.

 

Almost simultaneously, my bedtime reading confirmed that perception. "Tears, Silence, Song," Rebecca McClanahan's essay about living in Manhattan in the aftermath of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, ends quietly focused on her relationship with Marcella, the daughter of New York friends. "Marcella loves patty-cake and nursery rhymes," she writes. When Rebecca sings to her, "she nods in rhythm or makes the motions with her hands—'The Wheels on the Bus,' 'Old MacDonald,' and her new favorite, 'The Itsy Bitsy Spider.'" She suspects that the parents "sense that I need Marcella more than she needs me" and recounts hearing the child on occasional phone calls. "The child's words were not the point. It was the lilt of her toddler babble, the song of someone who knew nothing of the attacks, whose whole world was Mama, Dada, cookie, milk, my, go, bye-bye." The essay ends with Marcella settled on Rebecca's lap on a park bench.

 

"Marcella's head began to bob in rhythm. She wanted a song. Her hands were busy, her fingers weaving, wiggling. She wanted the spider song, starring the itsy bitsy hero who won't take rain, won't take no for an answer. I placed my hands in front of hers to show her how to make him climb, up, up, up. I hadn't sung in a long time and my voice was rusty, but her bobbing head told me she needed the words, so the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again."

 

McClanahan is grateful for the moments with the child, grateful for the perspective those moments give her in regard to the world around them both.

 

I was at once grateful to her for reminding me of my own encounters with the itsy bitsy spider. Pondering a response to the question Mary Oliver asks in her poem, "The Summer Day": "Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?", I'd found an answer in moments with two young granddaughters.
 

"In Florida, Eliza, now two, lets me push her in a swing attached to a tree in her front yard and listens to me sing. When I get to the end of lines in "The Wheels on the Bus," I hear her quietly echo the last words—"round and round," "swish, swish, swish," "shh, shh, shh." When I sing "Itsy Bitsy Spider," she indistinctly mutters some of the lyrics. I see her hands moving, fingers wiggling for the spider's climb up the waterspout, the rain coming down, the sun coming out, and the spider climbing again. She smiles and looks at my hands, expecting me to do the finger motions with her, and laughs when I do.

 

"In Wisconsin, a few days later, Lilly, now three, sits with me at the counter island in her kitchen, finishing her lunch. She asks me to sing and, after a couple of nursery rhymes, I start "The Wheels on the Bus," which she knows well. Her fingers wag back and forth like the wipers on the bus, and she holds two forefingers to her lips for the shushing. She asks for "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and readies her hands for the finger motions, singing along with me and with her eyes encouraging me to do the hand gestures, too. She smiles approvingly as I raise my fingers."

 

My moments with my granddaughters were not in troubled circumstances like those both McClanahan and Barry experience, but gratitude doesn't depend on such occasions, only on paying attention to what you are given, what you have. Out comes the sun and dries up all the rain and the itsy bitsy spider climbs up the spout again.

 

 

Note: The full essays can be found in these journals and books.

 

Barry, Dave. "One Last Lesson," Lessons from Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019: 195-235.

 

McClanahan, Rebecca. "Tears, Silence, Song," The Kenyon Review. New Series Vol 38, No. 3 (May/June 2016): 67-78. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24784279

 

McClanahan, Rebecca. "Tears, Silence, Song," In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays. Pasadena: Red Hen Press, 2020: 70-85.

 

Root, Robert. "Wild and Precious," Under the Sun. June 24, 2015. http://underthesunonline.com/wordpress/2015/wild-and-precious/

 

Root, Robert. "Wild and Precious," Lineage: Reading the Past to Reach the Present. Postscript Writers Press, 2020: 148-151.

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Where We Are

 

One living room wall in our Sarasota rental is almost entirely glass, with the lanai (just a screened-in porch, says our son-in-law) beyond it and, across a shallow stream, a wide expanse of bright green grass and scattered trees. Deep in the condo, at the dining table between living room and kitchen, where my wife and I spend hours on our laptops, I sit directly across from that view of the golf course. When the vertical blinds are open to let early morning air enter, I sometimes see the sun emerging behind distant trees. This morning, rising toward a cloudless sky, it slowly illuminated gently rolling grasses and highlighted dewy stretches alternating with dry ones. Some wet patches changed from silver to orange and then to gold, brightening minute by minute. I crossed the room to photograph the scene, continually captivated by alterations in color and light. Nothing stirred on the golf course. When the sun rose more fully above the trees, its face turned bright white, too brilliant for me to look at. I shut the blinds and let it continue to rise unseen.

 

Wood storks sometimes occupy one solitary, tall slash pine on the lawn upland from the stream. They are another reason for me to open the blinds, step into the lanai, and lean slightly through the screen door to photograph them. Five were in the tree last night. I'd seen at least one, sometimes two, in the late afternoon and early evening over previous days, but finding so many at once captivated us. The first time I saw two on the tree an osprey launched himself off a slightly lower branch and sailed just above the stream past our condo. Osprey. Wood storks. On our first days here we delighted in spotting a limpkin, a few egrets, a cluster of white ibises, and, though I identified them only days later, a bevy of black-bellied whistling ducks. Another day, after a light afternoon rain, three sandhill cranes calmly strolled along the stream bank. Walking in a nearby park we saw an anhinga on a float in a pond, wings spread to dry them, and in a patch of thick wetland a great blue heron stood virtually motionless—motionless until I wondered out loud if he were a statue and he turned his head to stare scornfully at me.

 

Over the years, when we'd come to Sarasota to visit our daughter and her family, we'd fly to Tampa, rent a car, and spend a few long weekends. We'd often stay on Siesta Key, on the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico, where we could walk the beach and identify the shorebirds: snowy plovers, semipalmated plovers, killdeer, sanderlings, western sandpipers, herring gulls, royal terns, least terns, black skimmers, brown pelicans. Once, on a morning when we were somehow almost alone on the beach, a half-dozen dolphins passed us offshore. We smiled and waved but I doubt they noticed us. Sometimes the kids would join us to swim in the Gulf waters. For a short time, we'd enjoy a different way of life.

 

Lately, for health reasons, we've driven down in the fall and rented a house or a condo for more than a month. On weekdays, with daughter and son-in-law at work and grandkids in school, Sue tutored at an elementary school and I hung out in libraries, teaching online or scribbling. Now, in this pandemic year, we send curbside pickup orders online to shops with proximity to our rental and later drive off to fetch them, facemasks on, car windows up, trunk open, hand sanitizer at the ready. We used to take the kids on weekends to familiar places like the Bradenton Museum of Science and Nature, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Ringling Museum, and Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, maybe enjoy a boat tour on Sarasota Bay and snacking at Yogurtology. We're unlikely to visit any of those places this year, as much as we value them. When we see the kids, we try not to make our air hugs too tight.

 

A few days ago, we all drove in separate cars to Turtle Beach and were almost the only masked people on the shoreline. We walked to a semi-isolated spot where the youngest granddaughter braved brisk waves alone while the rest of us cheered her on. A peaceful evening seaside moment. I tried not to compare it to the many other shoreline strolls we've taken, the quiet mornings, the calm sunsets, the sense of connection to something outside ourselves. I wanted simply to enjoy it for the moment we were there. I wanted to remember what we value about being where we are.

 

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Writing Lyrics

 

I don't know how Facebook knew I might be interested—just recently it posted ads for online wine shops right after I Googled a couple different wineries—but it's been sending me notices about the American Songwriter Lyric Contest. Winning contestants might receive a very expensive guitar or a relatively inexpensive microphone, but the Grand Prize Winner would receive a "Round-Trip Flight to Nashville, a Professional Demo Session (one song), two nights at Union Station Hotel Nashville," and a "Dream Co-Write" partnership with a successful professional songwriter. The songwriter and the contest winner would collaborate on turning the winning lyric into a successful, recordable song. Perhaps the lyricist him/herself would become a professional songwriter and go on to fame and celebrity, like winners on American Idol or The Voice do. For a moment, I was alert to the possibilities.

 

I wasn't likely to compose a new set of lyrics by the deadline three or four days later—I hadn't written a new song for decades—but somewhere in a box of old writing projects is a notebook of lyrics I wrote and performed in my brief time as a singer-songwriter. I hadn't been much of a guitar player in college and not a composer at all, but when my first marriage broke up and I moved without a television into a small apartment in the town where I taught, I began playing guitar again, learning tunes in The Joan Baez Songbook and Greatest Hits of the Sixties and watching Laura Webber's Folk Guitar.

 

Eventually, I generated lyrics and tunes silently on the walk to work, mostly forgot them during the day, did more composing on the way home, then worked on them more in the evening. A former student planning to sing at a friend's wedding weeks away told me she'd been singing and playing guitar daily, to get her voice up to performance level after a long lay-off. I decided to do the same thing, hoping at least to sing my own songs in tune. A friend urged me to perform at a local bar's open mike night. With the university on end-of-semester break the bar was nearly empty, but I was encouraged when one of the two drunks in the audience asked me sing Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain" a second time.

 

When the next school year started, I played a short set on a crowded street during an autumn festival. John, a new instructor in our department and also a singer-songwriter, heard me. We got together to play for one another, soon workshopped our songs with Barb, another singer-songwriter, and initiated occasional songwriter nights at a bar in a different college town. At John's house, I met the woman who is now my wife. After both my songwriter friends moved, I stopped writing songs and settled more deeply into my academic life, occasionally performing folk songs with neighborhood friends at a monthly sing-along, the Alma-gamated Song Group (we lived in Alma, Michigan). After the instigating musician of that group moved with his family to Maine, I seldom picked up the guitar.

 

I make the claim to having been a singer-songwriter modestly. I did, after all, write songs and sing them at people for a while, but the truth is I can't write musical notations, only mark chord changes above appropriate words in the lyrics. I taped some of them to recall the melodies later but haven't played those tapes in years. Even with the words in front of me I'd have trouble remembering most of the melodies. I remember writing songs for the woman I courted and married and for each of the children in our blended family. I know many lyrics were often about my situation at the time. One song, "When Does A Man Get Fully Grown?"—pretty folky, if I remember it correctly—was one Barb liked so well that I rewrote it from a woman's perspective and heard her perform it with her own songs.

 

I should find that folder of lyrics and read them through, find those tapes and listen to them. I wonder what I'd think about them as songs; more dangerously, I wonder the degree to which they would reveal the person I was at the time I wrote them. What would I think of him—of myself—as the person who needed to write those songs? To enter that songwriting contest, though, I'd have to submit a recording of myself singing my lyrics and playing guitar. That would require a lot of rehearsal. It would also require tuning the guitar.

 

I still get daily ads for that contest. I don't know why I haven't told Facebook to stop them.

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