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Weather Watching

 

Whenever I check weather conditions online, both laptop and cellphone open my Wisconsin site automatically. Before setting out on our third walk in three days in Sarasota, I checked my phone and found three emails from our media company in Waukesha. The first one, from 12:05 AM (CDT), informed me that power was out at our condo and promised speedy restoration. The second one 20 minutes later, reported power still out and promised somewhat later speedy restoration. The third one two hours later repeated what the second one reported and promised. After an hour-long hike around our neighboring Florida golf course, we found a fourth message from 6:46 CDT claiming that power had been restored and offering advice if our television still didn't work correctly. The power had been off for at least six hours, hopefully a neighborhood event, not only our household problem. The next morning power was out again early and restored within an hour. Presumably it was a widespread weather predicament.

 

That morning, my weather site warned of possible flooding on the Fox River in Waukesha. The Fox runs down the city's west side, through city parks, marshland, and grassy or wooded shoreline. In our part of town, our walk north beside parkland swings up to the river's edge and passes under a two-lane twin highway bridge before rising again to higher ground. Land below that bridge floods more than once annually. The river flows south behind our condo complex along well-forested Fox River Park, where one section of bike-and-foot trail gets inundated every year. River depth is usually 3.6 feet on average, flood stage normally 6.0 feet, but that day it reached 7.1. Our condo complex rises from the path along the river into the neighborhood. I didn't worry that we'd be flooded but wondered if high water could impact our local power grid. Lake Michigan storms recently had been worse than earlier in the year.

 

Online, I switch over to the Sarasota weather site. Its daily news list predicts thunderstorms have 90-to-98% chance of occurring today, tomorrow, and the next day, and 41-to-70% chances the following week. Supposedly, few days will go by without rain. In our first days here, we encountered enough of it to make driving in traffic uncomfortable, but most often it was more intermittent than predicted. Once, after we took bags of groceries to the car, Sue remembered something else she needed and returned to the store. I closed our trunk and felt rain start up as I climbed into the driver's seat. Rain poured torrentially for several minutes, then shifted to light sprinkles as she returned, with no realization of what I'd been sitting through.

 

A week later our kids came to our rental. We played a goofy card game—it had been Scattergories and Rat-a-tat Cat at their house last weekend, now Family Charades this weekend—and occasionally we stepped into the screened-in lanai to check the golf course and the stream that separated it from our back yard, hoping to see various birds or notice golfers who had started showing up the day before, after ten days of aerification ended and the course opened for play again. It began to rain lightly and then it rained intensely. We'd seen such rounds of rain off and on over the past several days but in short order this became a very heavy downpour. A strong wind sent it thudding against the walls of the lanai. Soon the screen wall was so saturated we could no longer see through it and the specially cushioned outdoor chairs and the small glass table and the carpeted floor were thoroughly drenched. From past experience we recalled going through this again and again each year and knew they would take a couple of days to dry. But still, this rainfall seemed fiercer than we had witnessed before.

 

Our daughter and son-in-law and granddaughter stomped through the pouring rain to their car; our grandson had already run through it to his. They would travel less than half-way home before the storm lessened and rainfall became light or absent the rest of the way. The stream behind our condo now was perhaps as high as we had ever seen it, and the marshland near the short bridge into the golf course at the end of our street, where golf carts zip through most sunny mornings, was entirely submerged. A portion of a tree trunk, felled earlier by a grounds crew, had rolled into the stream and had disappeared. Sue put a rolled beach towel against the narrow slit at the bottom of the lanai's screen door, to discourage skinks and possible higher levels of rainwater from entering. Rain or shine, we knew we would not have breakfast on the lanai in the morning.

 

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After Dreaming

 

I seldom remember my dreams. When I wake, a lingering part of one vanishes as I flip back covers and swing my legs out, gone before I stand beside the bed. Whatever occupied my subconscious in sleep was likely reacting to something seen on television or encountered in bedtime reading before dosing the lamp, but it slips away by the time I reach the bathroom. I don't remember enough particulars to scribble any thoughts about what was in the dream.

 

My dreams often have vaguely specific settings, suggesting familiar locales but inaccurately envisioning images of them. Perhaps some school auditorium, like the one at Emmett Belknap Junior High or a theater space somewhere, will be in the background, or maybe the cabin at Willow (now Altro) Park behind my parents' home. More remote settings barely suggest anyplace I've actually been. Once awake, I can't recall detailed images of any locations, even less account for what actions took place in the dream.

 

Yet sometimes a dream sets something in motion when I wake. Recently I dreamt I was in a crowded space, sort of an evening social gathering in a rustic retreat: a screen door opened, someone gestured to me to come outside, I stopped talking to someone nearby and stepped onto a darkened porch where some of my family awaited—I recognized my daughter and her husband, perhaps her brother, and a few others I couldn't identify. Almost immediately I woke up but, instead of still envisioning that scene, I began to visualize walking from our bedroom in our Wisconsin condo, down the stairs, across the kitchen and through the living room toward the front door. I almost reached the entrance when I started tracing a similar route from my teenage bedroom, along the hall past my sister's bedroom and my brother's bedroom, down the stairs, across the front living room, and up to the front door of the house in Lockport where I grew up. I've walked that condo route daily for fourteen years and haven't walked that hometown route in fifty-six years, but somehow those two memories replayed like focused videos, replacing that dream moment in my consciousness without fully erasing its unclear image.

 

I had that dream our first night here in Sarasota starting our annual weeks-long retreat from Wisconsin ragweed. We'd dropped our luggage at our rental, looked out from the lanai at the Champion Golf Course, and drove to have dinner with our daughter and her family at their house. These factors likely influenced elements in the dream, but I've been pondering those two parallel imaginary walks through my homes ever since. Perhaps once more entering the Florida condo for the third year in a row triggered some kind of equivalent memory of walking through places where I've lived, starting with the condo we own up north. We'd left one residential condominium for another mostly familiar one, a credible association.

 

But what brought my childhood home into my memory? A brief challenge of my memory brings to mind around a dozen places where I've resided (not counting dormitories) since high school, one for twenty-one years. None of them came to mind. Did remembering that family home have something to do with the passage of time? Only one Florida grandchild was home that evening, a second one staying overnight with high school friends, the oldest—the one I first visited at her birth—away for her second year at college. In that dream, was she outside with her parents in that group? Is that what sent me chasing across time?

 

That morning I lay in bed, carefully resurfacing images from both locations. I toured our home condo easily—I see it daily—and the family house was surprisingly detailed. I envisioned slowly walking throughout, noticing familiar furnishings in my bedroom, recalling what nearby rooms contained without entering, recognizing the changing perspective while descending the stairs, glimpsing the piano, upright clothes rack, bookcase and mirror in the front living room, crossing to the door, wandering through the adjoining family room, my parents' downstairs bedroom, and the hallway into the kitchen, gazing out the windows above the sink into the backyard, with its clotheslines and the high metal fencing separating our yard from the baseball diamond in the park beyond it. I had no sense that I'd forgotten anything.

 

This morning in Sarasota I look up from my laptop to peer across the broad living room, through the sun-warmed lanai, and out across the sprawling golf course. If I close my eyes, I could imagine moving here as I projected those older scenes. Memories seemingly have arisen to make me connect these specific highlights, as if they were especially relevant scenes in a tersely-pointed three-act play condensing a very long narrative—my individual life.

 

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Transcribing

 

Years ago, while researching Walking Home Ground, I visited Aldo Leopold's shack and nearby Leopold Center, and I still follow their Facebook page. Recently I learned that they were transcribing Leopold's journal—its thousand-plus manuscript pages already viewable online—for print publication. The organization invited volunteers to help with the project. I quickly applied and quickly received a link to 20 manuscript pages online and a set of guidelines. Perusing Leopold's handwriting immediately reminded me of having done this kind of task before.

 

At a display in Central Michigan University's Clarke Historical Library, I'd encountered the manuscript of an Isle Royale journal. Our daughter Becky would be working on the island that summer and we would camp there for a week and so I read it. On Isle Royale we wandered locations where the journalkeeper and her husband lived in fall 1848, ending on December 30. Although the journal was credited to C.C. Douglass' second wife, Lydia, I discovered it had actually been written by his first wife, Ruth. It took me a while to learn when they had left the island and what had become of her.

 

In 1998, I published my edition of "Time by Moments Steals Away": The 1848 Journal of Ruth Douglass, my introduction much shortened by press editors, but still absorbed by the text and by the personality of its author, I felt obligated to uncover the full background of Ruth Edgerton Douglass, resulting in a second book, Recovering Ruth: A Biographer's Tale, a blend of travel, biography, and memoir, published in 2003. The two books had an impact of me: editing Ruth's journal altered the direction of my scholarship; composing the memoir altered my sense of identity as a writer.

 

My title for that first book comes from Ruth's final entry. The journal's calendar format was designed for business, each page divided into three separate sections and no Sunday entries provided. She skipped many dates until they reached the island. At year's end, she claimed the need to "reflect upon the fleetness of time, with its many changes, and that every rolling year adds another to our age, and draws us nigher to Eternity, and we might well say with the Poet,

 

'Time by moments steals away,

First the hour and then the day!

Small the daily loss appears,

But it soon amounts to years:

Thus another year has flown,

And is now no more our own.

Forty-eight! Old year! So thou

Hast for aye departed now.'

 

I have no idea if "the Poet" is anyone other than Ruth Douglass herself and confess to doggedly writing an annual New Year's entry in my own journal ever since.

 

The illustrations in my edition of Ruth's journal include that an image of that final journal entry. It's challenging to read in the small size allotted to it, but even without a magnifier it's still legible. That's not always the case when you're reading old manuscripts and some adaptation is often required. The older the manuscript, the greater the chance of finding out-of-date spellings and letter formations, not to mention unfamiliar terms and allusions or random errors in word choice. Since editing Ruth's journal I've sometimes transcribed portions of other writers' manuscripts. It usually requires adjusting to the idiosyncrasies of individual writers.

 

In my own handwritten journals, I tend to print, a habit I picked up from my father, but when drafting an early sketch of something in longhand that I know may eventually be revised and re-revised (or abandoned), I tend to scribble in a cursive script other readers might justifiably curse at. The longer I work on it, the less legible it becomes; sometimes later I have more trouble transcribing my own handwriting than I have with a stranger's. I'm pretty sure Aldo Leopold's journal entries are principally thoughts he expected only himself to read, recording clues to his reactions at the time, allusions to information he thought worth keeping. He would expect to be able to read his own handwriting, fill out his own abbreviations, understand his own allusions.

 

I self-published my grandmother's newspaper column years ago, thinking it would be good to have it out in the world, to have her descendants know they could connect to them whenever they wanted. Somewhere I have a file folder with my mother-in-law's handwritten poetry gathered inside, poems I meant to transcribe and print to pass around to family members. It might be past time to unearth that folder and complete the transcription.

 

Aldo Leopold's handwritten journals are viewable online. It will be good to expand their accessibility into print. They won't be as popular or as influential as A Sand County Almanac but then, they don't have to be. I think I need to volunteer to transcribe another 20 pages soon.

 

Notes: Aldo Leopold papers: Diaries and Journals: Shack Journals.

 

Root, Betsy. How to Develop Your Personality. Edited, with an Introduction, by Robert L. Root, Jr. Glimmerglass Editions, 2012.

 

Root, Robert. Recovering Ruth: A Biographer's Tale. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

 

Root, Robert L., Jr. "Time by Moments Steals Away": The 1848 Journal of Ruth Douglass. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998.

 

Root, Robert. Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2017.

 

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Mobility

 

My mobility problems were heightened by immobility: sitting at my desk or in a coffee shop or in a local library or driving for curbside pickup, mask on, trunk open, adjusting to isolation during the continuing pandemic. Our walks became shorter in time, distance, and frequency. I sometimes wobbled standing up, my balance unpredictable, shaky halfway through a walk, uncertain much of the way home. In March, my feet suddenly couldn't get out of one another's way and I fell flat on the paved trail near the university. In mid-May, at my annual appointment, a thorough check-over and a CT scan convinced our primary care physician I had spinal stenosis, specifically neurogenic claudication and needed an MRI for confirmation. At home I searched medical references online to better understand what I was going through.

 

Neurogenic claudication is "pain caused by too little blood flow to muscles during exercise," usually "occurs in the legs after walking at a certain pace and for a certain amount of time," and "because of narrowing in the spinal canal (stenosis) causing pressure on the spinal nerves." Stenosis is "often caused by age-related wear and tear," its symptoms pain, numbness, and muscle weakness. A CT scan (Computed Tomography) is a "quick, noninvasive" imaging technique using radiation (x-rays) to obtain pictures of tissues, organs, and skeletal structures. An MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) works with magnets to obtain more detailed information about inner organs (e.g., the brain, skeletal system, reproductive system).

 

I'd been wedged into the tight tube of an MRI radiology machine before. The first time, a pacifying injection calmed me; another time, unpacified, I panicked from claustrophobia. This time, undrugged and less anxious by inserting earplugs and wearing heavy headphones over them, I lay prone, eyes tightly closed, silently counting numbers to myself while piped-in 1930s big band music was drowned out by constant thumping and pounding. The CT scan had lasted a few minutes on an open berth; the MRI ran thirty minutes in a boombox tomb. Each time the nurse checked on me, she left the room before the MRI came on again.

 

The clinic and my doctor both provided reports about the MRI and scheduled visits with a spine care specialist. In early June an Advanced Nurse Practitioner showed me detailed interior images of my spine, emphasizing where things seemed somewhat problematic. She arranged a series of sessions where a physical therapist coached me about repetitive daily exercises—arching and straightening my spine, bending and curling my legs, pressing my back to the floor. The next day, I did morning exercises and repeated one a second time near noon. Sue and I walked north, past a park playground and along an open field. When I paused to bend and straighten my legs, I couldn't move my feet well and fell over into the grass between the sidewalk and the road. I couldn't tell if the exercises had made my feet and ankles numb, but I seemed to do better when striding on the way home.

 

I tried to be conscientious about getting into those routines the recommended number of times each day. Two weeks later we walked through the nearby woods and across the river and back, roughly an hour of walking, formerly a customary outing. I felt the exercise in my legs and feet but had no difficulty completing the circuit and felt a little relieved. My internist gave me additional alternative exercises in later meetings and, by the middle of July, he approved of what I was doing, thought the exercises were helping, and updated some of them. He doubted I'd need further appointments after my next check-up.

 

In the interval we attended a family gathering on the Leelanau Peninsula, four hours of driving, four hours on the Lake Michigan Ferry. One day, with our daughters, son-in-law, and grandchildren, we hiked the Empire Bluff Trail, a 1.5-mile trek up and down very steep, very sandy, well-wooded terrain with a rewarding view of distant Sleeping Bear Dunes. Two days later a larger group of us walked five miles on the Mud Lake and Lake Michigan trails to the Manitou Overlook above Cathead Bay. None of that hiking bothered me, barely pained me.

 

At my final check-up yet another doctor reviewed my progress, scheduled no further appointments, and urged me to stay active and contact her if things worsened again. I'm theoretically no longer in need of consultations but I still need exercise.

 

For most of this year I've been conscious of mobility problems. Casually typing up an earlier longhand draft of this post, I wrote "mortality" instead of "mobility" and didn't realize it until I typed "immobility" further on. I didn't confuse it with "immortality." Glancing back, I corrected the spelling of "mobility." Since then, I haven't made that mistake again.

 

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Memory: Night Songs

 

The composition and rhetoric courses I studied during my University of Iowa post-doctorate year led me to write conference presentations about popular culture and preoccupied me as I settled into teaching at Central Michigan University. Eventually, long after I'd published my first book, drawn from my Restoration drama dissertation, I pieced together a completely different second book, published about ten years after I became a fully employed scholar/teacher. The chapters of The Rhetorics of Popular Culture: Advertising, Advocacy, and Entertainment are now between thirty-five and forty years old.

 

I revisited the book recently, after inadvertently finding an online video of "Night Moves" by Bob Seger, a favorite song of mine. It's not a good video but I listened to it twice, the second time singing softly along with Seger. Each time, I reached moments when I started to choke up, almost moved to tears. The song had affected me that way in the past, and hearing it opened the door to connections to Seger's songs lurking in memory.

 

I usually collected albums by singer/songwriters, first on LPs and eventually on CDs. Seger was a Michigan songwriter, and he was invited to share a Detroit concert stage with Bruce Springsteen. My students celebrated having purchased tickets—my class that evening was sparsely populated—and later let me know how great it was watching Bob and Bruce together. Some had attended my rhetoric class where I compared two thematically linked songs to help them appreciate familiar cultural elements as a way to consider what makes one song profoundly moving for someone and another, similar song seem irrelevant and unaffecting.

 

Together the class read the lyrics and heard recordings of Bob Seger's "We've Got Tonight" and Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night," examining the rhetorical angle in both: how the narrator portrays himself and presents his case to his particular listener, in either song a potential lover. Both songs were recorded in 1976 and eventually examined in a chapter in my popular culture book a decade later. They are essentially seduction songs, each centering on a man's attempt to talk a woman into bed, but differing notably in the presentation of the speaker's persona and the sense of who might be in control of the situation.

 

In "Tonight's the Night" the man prepares a younger woman to be initiated into sex, emphasizing his expectations ("Don't deny your man's desire"), his control of the situation ("Don't say a word, my virgin child"), and his semi-veiled explicitness ("Spread your wings and let me come inside"). Melody and arrangement reinforce a seductive rhythm running through the song and the lyrics center on the man's anticipation. The title is essentially a pronouncement of what is imminent for her. (In class we focused on the words and music, but a video I didn't show focuses on the man's leering persuasiveness—we never see the girl's face.)

 

In "We've Got Tonight" the speaker appreciates the woman's position, expressing a sense of their mutual needs ("both of us lonely, longing for shelter"), explaining his own situation frankly ("Deep in my soul I've been so lonely/All of my hopes fading away"), and offering the woman the chance to make the decision ("We've got tonight. Why don't you stay?") The song concludes with the repetition of earlier lines, the chorus heightened in intensity, the resolution open-ended.

 

Clearly the songs make a different impact. I prefer Seger's recording because of a certain individual literary quality in his songs. Compare "We've Got Tonight" to "Night Moves," where the narrator recalls experiencing robust sex with an avid and unsentimental partner ("We weren't in love, O, no. Far from it/We weren't searching for some pie in the sky summit"). There's a celebratory nature to the narrator's reminiscences of energetic and exploratory youthful sex and the verses rise to a crescendo ("Felt the lightnin' and we waited on the thunder"), but then the music grows calmer and the lyrics become a quiet epilogue that moves the speaker forward in time, into more remote and contemplative circumstances, where he wakes to the sound of distant thunder, starts humming a song from a much earlier time, and ponders:

 

Ain't it funny how the night moves

When you just don't have as much to lose

Strange how the night moves

With autumn closing in.

 

Unlike other popular sexual initiation songs, Seger's "Night Moves" ends on a mature perspective, adopting an older man's persona and asking listeners to identify with and accept its unromantic view of sexual initiation and the changes in self-awareness that come with maturity. I appreciate the perspective. But I should also acknowledge that my preference for Seger's "Tonight" song over Stewart's is more philosophical than musical, a judgement based on their rhetoric—the speaker's persona and perspective—rather than on their poetry or melody or orchestration.

 

 

Note: Root, Robert L., Jr. "A Listener's Guide to the Rhetoric of Popular Music," The Rhetorics of Popular Culture: Advertising, Advocacy, and Entertainment. Contributions to the Study of Popular Culture, Number 16. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987): 105-116.

 

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Memory: Gathering

 

When we got together with my cousin and her friend from Arizona recently, they were passing through Milwaukee bound for Door County. It had been several years since we'd seen one another. She caught us up on some of her world travels and we shared our visit to the Leelanau with family. All kinds of memories opened up as we talked, and I began to call up images of a variety of houses and yards and young cousins and long-departed elders and siblings. I'd seen my cousin more frequently in our youth, when both sides of my family largely resided in my hometown. My mother's parents had lived across the street from us, and her three brothers had raised their families, cousins abounding, within readily walkable blocks on the south side of the city. My father's father, his mother long departed, spent his remaining years across town from us and his sister's family lived for a long while closer to our neighborhood before moving across state. I had a good sense of whom I was descended from and who I was related to as I grew up.

 

Those of us in my generation eventually dispersed rather widely, and later our children did as well, to Wisconsin, Florida, and California. My wife's siblings still gather annually, as best they can—there have been losses among them as well and Covid complicated things, particularly this summer—and we've often hoped to get our children and grandchildren all in one place for a spell. When we got home from that Leelanau reunion this year, I noticed a photograph in our living room that evoked one of our earliest gatherings.

 

In summer 2007, we'd rented a house on the Door Peninsula, and the photo opposite my easy chair shows three of our grandchildren and two of their grandparents ostensibly reading from Sleepy Time Tales, a book I don't really remember. The picture always amuses me since our oldest granddaughter and her brother and their grandmother, holding the book, are all looking at the camera, the youngest child, their cousin, is gazing away from everything, and only Grandpa is intent on continuing to read the story aloud, completely ignored. The grandchildren's ages are likely four, two, and not-quite-one at that time. Both families will each add a daughter in a few years time.

 

Since we've just spent a week with those three and two more grandchildren on the Leelanau Peninsula across Lake Michigan, I can't help being aware of the passage of time and the changes those kids have undergone. The granddaughter in the photo will soon start her sophomore year in college, the boys will be a junior and a sophomore in high school, and their younger sisters will be in junior high; incidentally, their grandparents' hair is now considerably lighter in color. I'm tempted to try to replicate the photo, in the way I've seen people on Facebook display decades of family growth by annually staging photographs of family or friends in the exact same poses in the exact same locations. I'm aware of the likely differences in our version. Our grandkids would sit in the same positions on the couch, the co-ed to the left, the boys still in the middle; Grandma possibly needing to perch on the nearest boy's lap. The younger granddaughters would kneel or squat before them all. Since both of the boys are now very much teller than Grandpa, he would be entirely hidden behind them, except possibly for a glimpse of his shirt—fifteen years later he still wears that same one each summer.

 

The Leelanau family reunion is not certain to be repeated next summer, so the recreation of that first picture is in doubt. Luckily, a few weeks ago, one of our daughters photographed all of our grandchildren on one of the Cathead Bay trails in Leelanau State Park, deep in the woods. The three from the first photo stand behind the younger girls to the rear, the oldest granddaughter still to the left, the grandsons' positions switched so that her brother is deepest in and the youngest one (with glasses) is furthest on the right, while his sister is furthest to the left in the foreground, and the youngest granddaughter is most to the front, her siblings directly behind her. Knowing something of their energies and interests—they dance and play sports and read online—I won't try to read to them this trip.

 

We have many photos of their younger years around our house. It's always rewarding to relive moments we've shared with them. It's always stirring to recognize how much they've grown when we gaze at recent pictures. I'm content to stay here with them in the present. I'm in no hurry to see images of them in the future but certainly hope to have many chances to view them.

 

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Memory: The Nameless Horse Dilemma

 

Somewhere recently—and unexpectedly—I ran into a cartoon by Ellis Rosen mocking "A Horse with No Name," an old hit song by the group America. It was originally released on a 1971 album, and I'd first heard it then. I'd likely seen the cartoon somewhere earlier but now find it often online. It shows a man on a horse strumming a guitar as he rides through a desert scene and sings the opening lyrics, "I've been through the desert on a horse with no name." The thought bubble emanating from the forehead of the scowling horse reads, "It's Jim damnit." It made me chuckle the first time I saw it and again when I came upon it recently.

 

But when I woke up the following morning, the lyrics in the chorus were resounding in my head. The second line claims, "It felt good to be out of the rain," an illusion to the desert setting, I guess. The third and fourth lines—"In the desert you can't remember your name/'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain"—have always given me problems. When I first heard the song, I responded like an overly upright English teacher—(I was a teaching assistant in grad school at the time the song came out)—thinking "ain't no one" (which grammarians might claim as a double or, with "no pain," possibly a triple negative) should be either "there isn't any one to cause you pain" or "there is no one to cause you any pain." Logically, if no one is there to cause you any pain, that would make you feel good as you rode through the desert away from the rain, which apparently you don't like to ride in.

 

Then I wondered about the importance of the horse's lacking a name. Is it your horse or someone else's and why did neither of you name it? Or do you simply not know the horse's name? Did you ask the owner? In the cartoon the horse is a little grumpy about your indifference. But then I dug a little deeper and wondered why "you can't remember your [own] name" in the desert? Did you remember it earlier, in the rain? Or do you actually mean, you can't remember the horse's name or just don't care? And how would someone "giving you pain" make you remember your name but not giving you pain make you forget it? Each time you sing the chorus you blithely chant "La la la la la la…" Is the guy on the horse stoned?

 

The verses leading up to the repeated choruses supposedly record a nine-day journey through the desert. The first two stanzas are about the first day, taking in the setting ("plants and birds and rocks and things/ . . . sand and hills and rings"); the third stanza about both the second day (getting a sunburn) and the third day "in the desert fun" (maybe not a bad sunburn?) noticing a dried up river bed; the fourth stanza, when he lets "the horse run free/ 'Cause the desert had turned to sea," repeats his mention of plants, birds, rocks and things, sand, hills and rings. I can't help wondering why the desert turning into sea makes him let the horse run free—it may be nice of him—but why we should think anything had changed if he sees the same elements there as well (plants, birds, rocks and things, etc.). The fifth stanza strives for a conclusion:

 

The ocean is a desert with its life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love

 

And then repeats the chorus one more time. The ocean/desert comparison is obscurely interesting, but what does he mean about "a perfect disguise" or cities standing on "a heart made of ground" or humans giving no love (to what? To whom?) "La la la la la la..."

 

The lyricist Dewey Bunnell has explained that "A Horse with No Name" was "a metaphor for a vehicle to get away from life's confusion into a quiet, peaceful place." Some listeners thought it was a veiled reference to heroin use. As someone teaching freshman lit courses, I had the feeling that the rhymes in the lyrics were off-hand and random and largely chosen for sound rather than sense—"name/rain/name/pain," "sun/red/fun/bed/told/flowed/dead," "free/sea/things/rings." "underground/above/ground/love." But the melody was catchy, and it was a popular hit. Clearly it's one I've carried around a long time.

 

Popular culture isn't something we choose exposure to. Our favorite Italian restaurant plays tunes by Sinatra, Al Martino, Dean Martin, and others throughout the meal. You don't always have a choice about what plays in your memory later that night or early next morning.

 

 

Notes:

 

"A Horse with No Name," Wikipedia <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Horse_with_No_Name>

 

"A Horse with No Name," Lyrics.

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Memory: Furniture

 

The morning after we did a thorough cleaning of our bedroom, emptying drawers and vacuuming behind and below heavy furniture and dusting a lot, I woke up thinking about my history with particular pieces.

 

We have nightstands on both sides of the bed. Mine is a fairly squat and sturdy do-it-yourselfer with the open space below a littered drawer filled with books. I can date Sue's stand back at least seventy years, though it may be older, originally a smoking stand set in my family's second living room, the one we all gathered in after supper—the first living room was the house entrance, open to the staircase up to our bedrooms and the hallway to the kitchen and centered on my mother's second-hand upright piano.

 

My father sat in the northeast corner of that room, opposite the television and next to the smoking stand. To his left, before our porch window, a cabinet housed our RCA Victor record player and our radio. Our phone sat on top of the smoking stand, Dad's pipe and tobacco canister were enclosed in the center space below a wide drawer, and phone books and magazines filled open slots on either side. He settled into his recliner after supper and on weekends for sports telecasts. I sat there during weekday lunch hours, watching one of my mother's soaps, "Love of Life," unless she was in the kitchen with my grandmother, and hoped to watch some of "The Betty White Show" rather than "Search for Tomorrow" before heading back to junior high. In late afternoon I also watched "American Bandstand," chapters of the "Flash Gordon" serial, and episodes of "Howdy Doody" with my sister and brother, before Dad came home. The smoking stand followed me to college and to apartments and houses ever afterward. Now it's on Sue's side of the bed, containing her books and folders and notepads.

 

Sue's dresser, across from the foot of our bed, was my mother's until her death. She may have acquired it before she married my father or when she and I lived with her parents or, after Dad returned after the war, when we moved into the house across the street. It was originally—at least in my memory—in the front room upstairs, first their bedroom, then only my mother's. My sister had the largest front bedroom, my brother and I shared the smallest one in the rear of the house. Later, when my parents remarried, the dresser was moved downstairs into what had been the family playroom. I moved into that front bedroom, where I got a clock radio for my bookcase bed and fell asleep to George "Hound Dog" Lorenz's rock-and-roll show on WKBW. My brother got the back bedroom to himself.

 

My mother's dresser, likely pretty old when she acquired it, had three long drawers, the bottom one the deepest, a round mirror attached to the back and towering over the top of it. Perhaps Sue and I were given it when we married and moved into our very old house in Alma, a little south of where I taught and where my ex-wife and our children lived in the middle of Michigan. It followed us to Colorado and later to Wisconsin. The drawers now screech when opened and closed, but they're roomy.

 

Over the years we've tried to divest ourselves of some of what we accumulate. We took half of our Michigan belongings to Colorado, and after four years in that apartment, decluttered again before returning to the Midwest and settling into this condo. Occasionally during our thirteen years here, we've decluttered again, as necessity demands. Whenever we move again, it will be to someplace smaller—we've visited older family members in fiercely institutional retirement homes and noticed how prominent Spartan settings and bare necessities are and expect our circumstances to eventually be similar in coming years.

 

We'll not likely pass on much furniture to our far-flung children in California and Florida and those nearer-by in Wisconsin—our descendants have also been accumulating for a while now. We may be around long enough for grandchildren to use something as they move into adulthood. Perhaps an antique store might take the dresser or the Salvation Army or Goodwill accept some things. The smoking stand might still be of use in our retirement retreat.

 

I'm not sure our children or grandchildren will conjure similar memories about the furniture we will leave behind. Maybe some of the bookcases would be useful (and some books readable), but that beat-up dresser and smoking stand are unlikely to prompt any fond associations with family history for them the way they have with me. You aren't always aware of everything decluttering opens up for you, how much of the past you have to confront—and how much relinquish.

 

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The Nonfiction of Place

 

When I started reading Ben Shattuck's Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, a flurry of similar titles and authors arose in memory. I recalled nature memoirs prompted by earlier nature memoirs or nature essays. My musing likely was prompted by a review of Shattuck's book by Lori Soderlind in the New York Times Book Review that also commented on A Road Running Southward: Following John Muir's Journey Through an Endangered Land by Dan Chapman, as well as books replicating locations of Hiroshige's 19th century paintings and visiting sites in Sherlock Holmes stories. I'd read all Thoreau's walking accounts and most of John Muir's, including his Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf.

 

Wherever I wander, I carry a book recounting an earlier author's experiences in that environment, sometimes prompting an essay or memoir of my own. Isabella Bird's A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains encouraged my Following Isabella; John Muir's, Aldo Leopold's, and August Derleth's Wisconsin writings were the foundation of chapters in Walking Home Ground. But publishable writing doesn't always result. Reading about their simultaneous travels in Samuel Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and James Boswell's A Journey to the Hebrides I pondered—unsuccessfully—how I might repeat them. Much varied reading and wandering resulted in my never completing a book comparing the Hudson and the Rhine Rivers—my brief essay "The Marksburg Photo" was the only part of The Endless Landscape to see daylight.

 

Perusing my bookshelves, I recognize how one book often stirs my interest in vaguely similar books. Reading Thoreau's Cape Cod led me into Henry Beston's The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod and at least two books by Robert Finch, Common Ground: A Naturalist's Cape Cod and The Outer Beach: A Thousand Mile Walk on Cape Cod's Atlantic Shore. Meeting David Gessner at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference led me to his book A Wild, Rank Place: One Year on Cape Cod, and since then I've read his other books, some about places I wanted to see (Under the Devil's Thumb, about Colorado) or about writers I've also read (Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis and All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West).

 

Gessner's indebtedness to Thoreau reminds me of other authors who have celebrated his influence: John Hanson Mitchell's Living at the End of Time deliberately draws from Thoreau's experience at Walden and Walking Toward Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place further celebrates Thoreau and his contemporaries. After we moved to Wisconsin, I couldn't resist August Derleth's conscientious following in Thoreau's footsteps, not only in his considerations of his own home ground in Walden West and Return to Walden West but also in his personal visits to Concord in Walden Pond: Homage to Thoreau.

 

A good many books simply immerse me in places where the authors live. I'm thinking here of John Lane's Circling Home, about Spartanburg, South Carolina; William deBuys' The Walk, set in New Mexico's mountains; Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, ranging from Britain to the Himalayas; Chet Raymo's The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe, from his Massachusetts home to nearby Stonehill College; Laurie Lawlor's This Tender Place: The Story of a Wetland Year, in southeast Wisconsin; Alfred Kazin's A Walker in the City, roaming Manhattan; Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, in Arches National Park; and Reg Saner's The Four-Cornered Falcon: Essays on the Interior West and the Natural Scene and Reaching Keet Seel: Ruin's Echo and the Anasazi.

 

Sometimes I'm introduced to earlier writers whose books fostered later authors' interests in certain themes and locales. Ivan Doig's Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America draws on the earlier writing of James Gilchrist Swan; Christine Jerome's An Adirondack Passage: The Cruise of the Canoe Sairy Gamp recreates the 1883 voyage through the Adirondacks of George Washington Sears (pen-name Nessmuk); Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk alludes often to an earlier memoir, The Goshawk, by T. H. White (who later wrote The Once and Future King); and John Elder's Reading the Mountains of Home is about hiking Vermont hills in the company of Robert Frost's poem "Directive."

 

What I've read has always had a profound influence on what I write. Years ago, as a Fourth Genre editor and conference panelist, I edited Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place containing essays and commentary by such figures as Kim Barnes, Elizabeth Dodd, Barbara Hurd, Lisa Knopp, Scott Russell Sanders, Natalia Rachel Singer, and Deborah Tall, as well as Gessner, Mitchell, and Saner. Checking my bookshelves, I think I could often have been compiling sequels to that anthology. Engaging and observant nonfiction of place abounds, and I keep collecting it.

 

Notes: Root, Robert, ed. Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.

 

Root, Robert, "The Marksburg Photo," Ascent (November 2019)

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Then Then Now

Then: E. B. White's 1949 essay Here Is New York opens with mention of "the stubborn fact of annihilation," giving gruesome hints of what might happen in an air attack: "The city for the first time in its long history is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition." World War II was over, Germany reduced to rubble, Hiroshima and Nagasaki obliterated, the debris of war spread throughout Europe. The Cold War had begun, and memory of the atomic cloud hung menacingly over the planet.

 

At the same time, under construction not far from the Whites' Turtle Bay Gardens apartment, the United Nations Building was expected to house an international congress of diplomats hoping that, if enough nations united in the cause of peace, it could possibly be maintained. White noted "a race between the destroying planes and the struggling Parliament of Man": "The city at last perfectly illustrates both the universal dilemma and the general solution, this riddle in steel and stone is at once the perfect target and the perfect demonstration of nonviolence, of racial brotherhood, this lofty target scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway, home of all people and all nations, capital of everything, housing the deliberations by which the planes are to be stayed and their errand forestalled." In the intervening half-century, he seems overly optimistic—or perhaps reservedly hopeful.

 

Then: White's scenario was grim speculation in his day, but after the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001—Ground Zero on 9/11, as we call it—it felt uncomfortably like prophecy. In 2003, at the end of a conference in New York, I joined Michigan colleagues at LaGuardia for our flight to Detroit. Two had visited the site of the destroyed World Trade Center. They were surprised not to be more moved by it, the scene of so much horror and rage and, temporarily, a binding national grief. Expecting upwellings of strong emotions while gazing into the crater where the city's tallest building had been, they felt very little. One said, "It looks mostly just like a massive construction site." The flow of commerce creates similar sites every year. E. B. White commented about change in his Here Is New York introduction, claiming "The Lafayette Hotel, mentioned in passing, has passed despite the mention." Perhaps the hotel created such a crater, probably somewhat smaller, when it was demolished and replaced by a new skyscraper.

 

The United States then occupied Afghanistan and had invaded Iraq, retaliating for attacks on New York and Washington two years earlier. Some friends abandoned the conference in fear of further attacks. I remembered White's fear for the city and felt as if the terrorists had confirmed it. But in LaGuardia that day, television channels broadcast American aerial attacks on Baghdad. I thought: The destroying planes outracing the Parliament of Man are ours; the chance for peace is being evaded by us; our government drops the stubborn fact of annihilation on a foreign city, its people the victims, we the aggressors. Gazing from our flight, I thought New York looked very open, very small, very vulnerable, more destructible than ever before, indistinguishable in that regard from all the other cities of the world.

 

Now: In 2021 American President Biden ended occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the longest military campaigns of our history. In February 2022 Russian President Putin invaded Ukraine, causing massive destruction, an enormous refugee crisis, and a vast number of deaths. As I write, in June, the war persists, Ukraine supported militarily and economically by a broad spectrum of international allies. The Russian president is unrelenting and persistently menacing, seemingly willing to expand his war further into the world. In the US the Republican Party is relentlessly focused on gaining absolute control over legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government and opposed to environmental protection, health care, education, employment, equal opportunity, or public safety, responding to yet another massacre of school children with callous, hypocritical responses while expanding access to gun ownership and abolishing abortion rights. In the first twenty-one weeks of 2022 there were 213 mass shootings in America and at the end of May, 1,004,119 people had died of COVID-19 since January 2020.

 

It's hard to feel safe in America, fearful internationally of a potential third World War and disconsolate domestically about what our own government allows and enacts to reduce our personal rights and our community safety. Now, to me, feels less reassuring than the Thens we've endured in my lifetime.

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