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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.


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.


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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Les Paul


For the second time in three weeks I've come to the Prairie Home Cemetery in Waukesha, to distract myself from waiting for car repairs many blocks away. My treks here have been inspired by the chance to again visit the grave of Les Paul, the Waukesha-born musician who revolutionized the electric guitar and multi-track recording. He's celebrated here all over town with wall murals and colorful, differently themed statues of electric guitars, thirty in all. I still haven't tracked them all down, but I always look for the one with images of Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, and Heart on it. In the 1950s, when I began listening avidly to pop music, my mother bought a copy of "How High the Moon," the major hit by Les Paul and Mary Ford. She played it so often that it became anchored in my subconscious and I virtually hear it again in its entirety anytime I think of it.


Born in June 1915, Paul died in August 2009, just over eleven years ago as I write this. According to the account of his career engraved in the stone walls around his grave, he and Mary had eleven number 1 hits and 36 Gold Records between 1949 and 1962. Their marriage eventually ended but his influence in the recording industry continued for a long time. One of his later recordings, Chester and Lester, was a dual guitar album with Chet Atkins, the prominent country guitarist and producer. Videos on YouTube record Les performing with younger musicians like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Joe Walsh of the Eagles. Younger guitarists were aware of his influence.


It's not only the murals and artfully decorated guitars that commemorate his career locally. There's also the Les Paul Experience display in the Waukesha Historical Museum and another, grander exhibit, Les Paul's House of Sound, in Milwaukee's Discovery World. There, each time I go in, usually with grandchildren, I watch the 1953 episode of Omnibus, the informative and entertaining television series hosted by Alistair Cooke, that featured Les and Mary explaining how they managed multi-track recording. In the fifties, when we had only four television channels and networks all offered public service programming as well as entertainment, I saw it when it was first broadcast one Sunday afternoon. The exhibit is expansive and inclusive and the episode itself is available online.


Fame is fleeting and life is short (Has anyone else ever mentioned this before?) but I'm always cheered by an awareness that some people—not only presidents but also poets and other creative individuals—are given attention somewhere as a reminder of their accomplishments. Waukesha has a Whittier Elementary School, a Lowell Elementary School, and a Hawthorne Elementary School. My Wisconsin grandchildren live in a school district containing Whitman Middle School and Longfellow Middle School. I like seeing nineteenth-century poets and authors honored in this way, in part because at one time in my life I read them all. Few of those writers are read or remembered today, unless some author revives them, as Mark Doty did in What Is The Grass, his book about Whitman's influence on him, and Nicholas Basbanes did in Cross of Snow, his recent biography of Longfellow. I read both books with considerable pleasure over the past few months.


I don't know how many people have come to Waukesha to visit Les Paul's grave, but I was cheered that Central Middle School was renamed after him. It's okay if modern school kids get to hear about creative artists of the 20th Century as we slide more deeply into the 21st. Every so often I learn about the hometown of someone who is or was prominent. For example, Orson Welles was also born in 1915, a month before Les Paul, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a little over fifty miles away. When I drive south to Florida again, on our annual ragweed escape, in Indiana we'll pass a stretch labeled John Mellencamp Highway near Seymour, his birthplace, and remember again that James Dean was born in Marion, not that far away. Online I can easily find lists of people born in towns I've never heard of who achieved either fame or notoriety, many whose names I recognize from films I've seen or books I've read or recordings I've heard. The famous tend to live out most of their lives somewhere other than where they were born. Les Paul started his show business career in Waukesha, as a teenage performer named Rhubarb Red, then spent most of his adult years elsewhere, and eventually returned here at the end of his 94 years.


When you discover where accomplished individuals started their lives, you realize that where they began didn't keep them from doing something ambitious, something memorable, as those lives went on. That should be encouraging to people who feel as if they come from Nowhere. It should also be encouraging to people who live Nowhere when some of those people make it known where they come from. I like standing in the sunshine at Les Paul's grave. When I get home, I'll go online to watch and hear "How High the Moon." It's already playing in my subconscious right now.


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Doing and Undoing


My bedtime reading recently was Terry Tempest Williams' Erosion: Essays of Undoing, a powerful series of reactions to current decimations of the natural world, especially the withdrawal of national parks and monuments from protection against industrial development. I've had a thirty-year acquaintance with her work, beginning in 1991 with Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. That book is simultaneously a moving memoir about her mother's death and an observant nature study about the devastation wrought by a rise in the level of Great Salt Lake. I admired her blend of lyrically personal and conscientiously informative writing. Since then I stayed on the alert for her later books; in Denver's Tattered Cover Bookstore, I once heard her read from her politically charged book, The Open Space of Democracy.


Williams is not one to simply write the same book repeatedly. Reading a new book by her is often surprising and rewarding in unexpected ways. Leap has a dust jacket with a detail from Hieronymus Bosch's triptych "The Garden of Earthly Delights" and an endpaper that reproduces the entire triptych. Teaching the book online, I sent students to a website at the Museo del Prado, where they could enlarge the image and scroll around in it. Sections of her book correspond to panels of the triptych: the first explores the panel focused on "Paradise," the second the panel on "Hell," and the third the center panel, "Earthly Delights." As you read, you keep checking the artwork for correspondences with the prose. But it's not simply a book about fifteenth century medieval art; she often alludes to Mormon ritual and theology and her life back home in Utah, and in one daringly imaginative segment enters the painting and walks around in it. I taught it to highlight the ekphrastic impulse in literary writing, not only in poetry but also in essays and memoir, and invited students to enter "The Garden of Earthly Delights" on their own, as much as they could.


Having studied medieval literature in grad school, I came to Leap eager to dwell in a triptych, but Williams simultaneously connected me to the contemporary era without difficulty. Her celebration of the centennial of the National Park Service, The Hour of Land (2016), records visits to twelve National Parks. Over the years I'd been to five of those parks: Gettysburg with my father, Effigy Mounds as a grad student, Big Bend and Alcatraz Island with my wife, and Acadia as an artist-in-residence; I'd also had residencies at Isle Royale and Rocky Mountain National Parks. I'm aware of how often I read the kind of books I wish I was writing. Donna Seaman, reviewing the book in Booklist, called Williams "an ardent, often rhapsodic, always scrupulous witness to the living world and advocate for the protection of public lands," and piled on a lot more admiring and accurate adjectives. I notice a slew of dogeared pages in my copy of the book.


Erosion: Essays of Undoing, her most recent book, is every bit as "ardent" and "scrupulous." "profound, poignant" and "clarion" as The Hour of Land, as well as "haunting, powerful and brave," according to Diane Ackerman. To all of that I would add the word "urgent." Much of the book reacts to the impact of a misguided, malicious, and arrogant president ruthlessly dedicated to undoing virtually every positive aspect of American life, not only in regard to environment but also to education, employment, health care, and constitutional equality. Each of Erosion's four sections opens with an essay on the theme of essays that follow: Erosion of Home, Erosion of Safety, Erosion of Democracy, and Erosion of Belief. A two-page map after the preface highlights the changes the Trump administration has ordered to be made to Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which President Barack Obama declared enlarged at the end of his term of office, in cooperation with the indigenous tribes that value that landscape in southeast Utah. (David Gessner visits Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in his new book, Leave It As It Is, an apt companion to Erosion.)


Williams warns us that, "when it comes to wilderness, 'the open space of democracy' drowns in the wake of greed." Her vision for the country is more spiritual, humane, expansive and inclusive than the indifference and self-interest of our legislatures and our corporations to both environment and community encourages us to feel. By the end of the year we will all know whether her hope for our ability to save not only our society but also the land it inhabits has been rewarded. In the meantime, we have Williams' books to remind us what we have and what we're likely to lose.


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Reading and Listening


I own all of John McPhee's thirty books published between 1965 and 2018. It may be my longest reading relationship. When I discover a writer who seems to be on my wavelength, I look forward to spending time with him. It's a kind of solitary friendship. McPhee is an accessible writer; I'd taught some of his work to grad students in Michigan along with other essayists, memoirists, and literary journalists. McPhee was the most journalistic of them, reporting on the insights he gained from people in various fields as he gained them; his readers tended to learn with him.


My only autographed copy of a McPhee book, Uncommon Carriers, recounts his travels with, as the dust jacket tells us, "people who drive trucks, captain ships, pilot towboats, drive coal trains, and carry lobsters through the air: people who work in freight transportation." My wife and I lived in Colorado and frequented the Tattered Cover Book Store in downtown Denver when it was published in 2006 and McPhee came through on a book tour, giving me the chance to hear him read in person. I arrived early, bought my copy, and went to the nearly empty presentation room to start reading.


The first essay, "A Fleet of One," recounts McPhee's experiences accompanying the driver of a sixty-five-foot long chemical tanker across country from Georgia to Oregon. Opening with reflections on learning to drive a standard auto, he begins to see the highway as the driver of an eighteen-wheeler sees it. The change in perspective is revealing, especially in regard to what the drivers of four-wheelers don't appreciate about their relationship to eighteen-wheelers and what the drivers of eighteen-wheelers have to be constantly aware of in traffic shared with four-wheelers. After mentioning the first time his trucker used his air horn, he explains:

"In the three thousand one hundred and ninety miles I rode with him he used it four times. He gave a light muted blast to thank a woman who helped us make a turn in urban traffic close to one destination, and he used it twice in the Yakima Valley, flirting with a woman who was wearing a bikini. She passed us on I-82, and must have pulled over somewhere, because she passed us again on I-90. She waved both times the horn erupted. She was riding in a convertible and her top was down."


I reread the last sentence twice and chuckled to myself. Soon the event started, the audience now almost filling the room. McPhee was introduced, gave a quick overview of the book, then read the opening pages of "A Fleet of One." When he read the line "She was riding in a convertible and her top was down," the audience erupted in laughter. He smiled approvingly. At the end of his reading, among a swarm of listeners, I had him autograph the book, muttered something admiring, and headed home, expecting to read further in the collection that night.


On my way out of Denver I remembered how closely McPhee's reading of those early pages had echoed the pace, the shifts in stress and emphasis, the tone of my silent reading of them before his talk began. Almost nothing had varied. I had subconsciously read his prose in silence just as he had read it aloud. That is, we had both "heard" the words and sentences exactly the same way, the way McPhee intended them to sound if they were spoken aloud.


I might have been aware that McPhee tended to read his writing aloud to his wife before submitting it to The New Yorker, where he often published. In the title essay of his collection Draft #4, he explains how a piece of writing will take four or more drafts: the first ragged draft is there simply to open the door to discovery and further reflection; near the end of the second draft, he says, "the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people, something that seems to be working and is not going to go away." He reads the second draft aloud, then he "remov[es] the tin horns and radio static that [he] heard" during the third reading, and largely copyedits the fourth draft by replacing certain words with better ones. The final draft gets the right words in the right order.


I took McPhee's advice about writing long ago. Writing short scripts for local public radio, I recognized how remote and academic my early ones sounded. Once I began reading them aloud as I edited and revised, I could hear myself sounding more conversational, less like a professor and more like a person. McPhee's Denver reading reconfirmed for me the wisdom of his multi-draft approach. This very post was considerably different in its first draft. As you read it you might be able to sense what it would sound like if you were reading it aloud. It won't sound like John McPhee, but, hopefully, it might sound like me.


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