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Modern Song

I plan to shelve Bob Dylan's The Philosophy of Modern Song, a birthday gift this year, beside my two-volume copy of Paul McCartney's The Lyrics from last year. It's been a while since I've purchased recordings by popular performers, but when I did, I more often collected singer/songwriters than cover artists. I have Dylan's albums on LPs, cassette tapes, and CDs, as well as his earlier 2004 book Chronicles: Volume One, all stored in various boxes and cabinets. Since his new book arrived so soon after publication, I had no time to wonder whether I'd buy it myself. It doesn't collect Dylan's lyrics, as McCartney's does, but is devoted to considerations of recordings and performers from the second half of the twentieth century, though some songs were composed in the first half and a couple in this century. He reacts to sixty-six separate songs spanning a wide range of subgenres, composers and lyricists, and recording artists and cites lyrics more by vague paraphrase than direct quotation.


For example, the third chapter, following chapters about Bobby Bare and Elvis Costello, discusses "Without a Song" as recorded by Perry Como in 1951, accompanied by a photo of sheet music crediting Vincent Youmans as the composer (in 1929) and Lawrence Tibbets as the performer who sang it in The Prodigal, a 1931 MGM movie. I remember Como's version—my family watched his TV show each week (he duetted once with Bing Crosby), and we had the record; mere mention of it brings the melody and a few lyrics to mind. But the fourth chapter discusses, at greater length, "Take Me from this Garden of Evil," written and recorded by Jimmy Wages in 1956 and never released. From time-to-time Dylan draws on a vast, expansive breadth of exposure to "modern song," thoughtfully examined but devoid of academic reference. It's as if Dylan is casually sharing his thoughts about each song without supplying references that would help readers track down texts or recordings. You mostly have to have heard them yourself long ago and draw on your own memories.


Dylan's idea of the philosophy of modern song is expressed in a variety of popular types—ballads, rhythm and blues, country and western, folk, show tunes, rock and roll, and more. Composers range widely as well: Little Richard, Pete Townsend (of the Who), Jackson Browne, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht ("Mack the Knife"), Willie Nelson, Domenico Modugno ("Volare"), Hank Williams, Rodgers and Hart, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Pete Seeger, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Lerner and Lowe. Most chapters open with a second-person address to the speaker in the song, as if the prospective singer is speaking to himself—or trying to inhabit and identify with the personality that will project from the lyrics.


Take the first two pages of Chapter 35, on "Blue Bayou" by Roy Orbison: "In this song you've been saving your pesos, penny pinching all your small change. Working freelance, doing drudge work so you can get back to Blue Bayou. A place close to heaven that lingers in your head." Later a second section of the chapter will talk about the song: "This is both a spectacular song and a spectacular record." There's a darker opening for "Your Cheatin' Heart" by Hank Williams: "This is the story of the con artist. In this song you're the swindler who sold me a faulty bill of goods—beguiled me, double crossed me, and now you're out of moves and soon you'll be groaning with prolonged suffering. How do I know? I just know." Is this what's necessary for a singer, to become the person reciting the lyrics from within himself? Do you alter your identity with every set of lyrics you perform?


I haven't said enough about everything that's in this book visually as well as dramatically. But possibly Dylan wraps it up in his final pages, riffing on Dion and the Belmonts' 1959 hit "Where or When," a 1937 song by Rodgers and Hart performed in both stage and screen versions of Babes in Arms. Dylan considers the difference as like reincarnation—"star-crossed romance playing out in different times and in different flesh." (I have the single somewhere.) Dylan claims that Dion's voice "captures that moment of shimmering persistence of memory in a way the printed word can only hint at." For Dylan, music "is of a time but also timeless; a thing with which to make memories and the memory itself." He concludes, "Music transcends time by living within it, just as reincarnation allows us to transcend life by living it again and again."


Most of these songs are likely accessible online, but Dylan makes me eager to hear them again on my old Victrola. I need to discover who I think is listening to them now.


Note: Dylan, Bob. The Philosophy of Modern Song. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022.

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Who Am I?


"What can we learn," Joshua Rothman wonders in a New Yorker essay, "by asking if we've always been who we are? . . . Are you the same person you were as a child?" Questions worth asking but answering them requires knowing who you were as a child and who you are now and figuring out how to determine whether those two identities are the same or different. I return to Rothman's challenge to readers: "Try to remember life as you lived it years ago, on a typical day in the fall." A typical fall day in my childhood quickly arose in memory, but I needed to get inside that skinny blonde kid, not just conjure him from photographs or recall the places and people he recognized outside himself.


As a child I was a relentless reader who tended to create adventure stories where I pretended to be a superhero of some kind or a western hero of some kind or a Robin-Hoody/Zorro-ishy swashbuckler of some kind. What I read in comic books or comic strips or heard on the radio fired my imagination towards variations that suited my preferences. I never imagined myself playing sports and seldom attended sporting events or watched them on TV. Hanging out with friends I preferred donning a costume like those worn by action stars and pretending to overcome various villains. We never played on opposing teams trying to beat one another—we were always the good guys. When hiking across town and climbing trees in Outwater Park, I tried to emulate Tarzan's movements from tree to tree or ducked into the only cave-like space on the hillside to hide out or pretended a shootout in the cemetery made me leap (or at least clamber) over tombstones.


Reading, viewing, listening, and writing isolated me. My neighborhood friends didn't go to my elementary school and had other friends elsewhere; I had a lot of time to myself. I often claimed to be sick and stayed home from school catching up on my reading and imagining myself to be someone else. I had my own bedroom, my own radio and record player, and the solitude to sing along with teen performers and share their lyrical emotions without indulging in lifestyles the songs implied.


Somehow I got through high school and college and became a high school English teacher—still writing all the while, mostly short stories, one very short high school novel, a college newspaper column, reviews and poems—and went on to grad school, where I took up creative nonfiction as a scholar and an essayist/memoirist. I taught composition and creative nonfiction for almost thirty years, published academic articles and books, and eventually concentrated on composing literary nonfiction.


My essays and memoirs were largely either about where I'd been and what I'd done there or about other writers and what they'd written about. That seems very much like an extension of what I'd been doing when I was young, learning from what I'd read or viewed or listened to and imagining myself as one of those people. In youth I had modeled myself on Ricky Nelson and the Everly Brothers and Eddie Cochran; in adulthood I connected to Ruth Douglass, Isabella Bird, John Muir, and others. My literary studies angled towards dramatists and essayists whose work appealed to me most, often less celebrated than others, or whom I identified with more, like the Restoration dramatist Thomas Southerne, E. B. White as an essayist, and nature writers Aldo Leopold and August Derleth.


When I consider the adjectives that would best describe me as a youth, I think of these: withdrawn, solitary, reserved, self-absorbed, shy. Over the intervening decades I had to learn to be (or to at least seem) more sociable, approachable, cheerful, and outgoing. All these later traits were necessary developments for me to become a lecturer, classroom teacher, scholastic advisor, husband, and father. I've been mostly comfortable in those roles and certainly the happiest.


But it occurs to me that those traits aren't ones that define me for myself. I'm now a retiree, almost exclusively an aged homebody, and my most outward-seeming behavior is what I'm doing here: writing about what I've been reading, reacting to ideas that circumstances have suggested I might think about. My social life is limited—it doesn't often occur to me to get in touch with anyone (I receive almost no personal mail or email and mostly post only a "like" in reaction to others' Facebook posts, seldom a comment, almost never a judgement.)


So to Joshua Rothman I guess I'd reply (if I had to) that I'm pretty much the same person I was as a child, despite accommodations that growing up has influenced me to willingly accept. That's who I am. That's okay.


Notes: Rothman, Joshua. "Becoming You". The New Yorker (October 10, 2022: 20-24)

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Who Are We?


One of the habits I've maintained over the years when we've spent autumn weeks in Florida has been, on our return to Wisconsin, to pile unread back issues of our subscriptions on living room tables and gradually set about making sure I've perused each issue before I recycle it. Naturally, after we've come home this year, new issues have been arriving to be added to the stacks. As usual, it's unlikely that we will be up to date in our reading before winter sets in. I won't read everything in every issue, of course, but sometimes I need to tear out an article to reconsider a few times more after the rest of the contents have been disposed of. That's how I come to be contemplating an essay from a mid-October issue in the second week of November.


The subtitle of Joshua Rothman's New Yorker article "Becoming You" asks, "Are you the same person you were when you were a child?" and claims early on, "If we could see our childish selves more clearly, we might have a better sense of the course and the character of our lives." He eventually asks, "What can we learn by asking if we've always been who we are?" It's not a question everyone feels the need to ask themselves, since who we are today seems so much like who we were yesterday and who we expect to be tomorrow, but it can get you remembering your sense of self at various stages of your life.


Rothman refers to some long-term studies that attempt to gauge stasis and mutation in personality and/or character and/or sense of identity over time. One that originated in New Zealand examined the same thousand-plus individuals over a forty-year period to assess how they "have changed over the decades" and compared them to thousands more subjects studied in the United States and the United Kingdom. He also considers a series of documentaries begun by the cinematographer Michael Apted which focused on the same individuals every seven years between 1964 and, so far, 2019, ranging from "Seven Up!" to "63 Up." The subjects were initially grouped in relevant categories, and changes in those categories noted as they emerge. Rothman remarks that, "as the series has progressed, the chaos of individuality has encroached on the clarity of characterization."


Readers of Rothman's article are given a challenge: "Try to remember life as you lived it years ago, on a typical day in the fall." The article is in an October issue, after all, and looking out your window at your surroundings may help trigger your memories. Certainly, after glancing out at my present surroundings, I automatically flashed to my childhood neighborhood in western New York, the trees in our yard and my grandparents' yard and our neighbors' yards, and the fallen leaves everywhere and memories of my friends and I leaping into piles of them. The longer I recall those images, the more they expand my sense of being there, bringing back those neighbors and those playmates and those relatives, and the feel of the weather, and of eventually being old enough to be assigned to rake those leaves and pile them on the curb for city crews to pick up. Rothman's challenge for such memories is this: "Does the self you remember feel like you, or like a stranger? Do you seem to be remembering yesterday, or reading a novel about a fictional character?" That is, how close or how distant do you feel from the individual in your memory, the one you're certain was you?


Prompting memory to go off in search of younger, potentially different versions of myself certainly surfaces a variety of different images, mostly from that neighborhood and from the elementary school I attended and the nearby streets and stores and the park behind our house. Much of what surfaces is external: other people's faces and behavior, the surroundings that provide a background for their actions, some unintended shifts in seasons. The challenge is to turn my perspective around and envision my reactions to what those images display at the time I first saw them, first lived in them. At the moment, I'm not sure I can follow the linkage from who I was as a second or third grader jumping into leaf piles, running home from school, obsessed with Bomba the Jungle Boy and Davy Crockett and Robin Hood and superhero comic books, to the elderly author/professor retiree I am now, scribbling these thoughts. Have I changed? How often? How much? How? Rothman concludes, "We change, and change our view of that change, for as long as we live." He may be right, but I'll need to contemplate a lot more memories—reinhabit my earlier self more fully and frequently—to confidently agree.



Notes: Rothman, Joshua. "Becoming You" by Joshua Rothman. The New Yorker (October 10, 2022: 20-24)

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Thursday, September 29, 2022: 8:05 AM, the power still out, I write by hand, expecting to copy it to my laptop sometime later. We sensed Hurricane Ian's presence throughout the night, its winds bouncing through the trees. Rain stopped early this morning and, though still high and windswept, the stream that rose well onto its east bank recedes slowly toward its regular channel. I count thirty-five ibises pecking along a stretch of the golf course.


A bright stretch of cloudless sky briefly shines in the distance, closer to the Gulf of Mexico. Trees shake more or less calmly. A tree limb smashed a bedroom window in our daughter's Sarasota home, half an hour's drive south of us, making them hunker down in a windowless hallway for part of the night. They were somewhat closer to Ian's landfall around Fort Myers, their night likely more fraught than ours. They've emailed us that their power's back on, clean-up proceeding, roads around them still too dangerous to drive, but they're all safe. Our landlady reports that outage here is too widespread to restore locally, and though the coast from St. Petersburg to Naples is in rough shape, Tampa is mostly unaffected. Ian stormed northeast toward Orlando and the Atlantic. I haven't yet learned about its impact on coastal islands near us.


From the lanai, we see branches and limbs deposited by the surging stream as it receded lining the opposite shoreline. Formerly exposed marshes further south have yet to resurface, but the stream should be back to normal in a few days. In our parking lot an elderly man brushes debris off his windshield and sweeps away leaves and branches that accumulated around his car. Nearby, an older couple packs up their station wagon to retreat somewhere with electricity.


A neighbor tells us her brother-in-law down the street has a working generator and we follow her past yards where people saw and rake and pile debris and take down window covers. We chat idly while he charges Sue's laptop and phone, our neighbor's friend's laptop, and an appliance of his own. Back at our condo, we check out fallen trees at the north end of our parking lot, directed there by someone whose window was broken by one collapsed tree and who owned one of the three cars it landed on. Part of the tree rests on the wall of the complex, two windows on each of the four floors visibly damaged; the pavement at its base still clings to it.


Walking out across the golf course, we continually discover fallen trees, cracked trunks, and hanging limbs. Maintenance crews will need several days to clear the landscape. At least fifty white ibises and five sandhill cranes now patrol the grounds. More than a half dozen crows drift down to pick up what look like popcorn kernels outside our neighbor's lanai. We open all the blinds to let in as much daylight as we can, keep the refrigerator closed, make an uncooked supper meal of cheese and crackers.


Just before 8:00 PM, startling us as we read by battery-powered lanternlight on the couch, lights and audio abruptly cut off on Wednesday suddenly brighten and sound out. The dishwasher starts up, lamps brighten the kitchen, living room, one bedroom, and at least one bathroom. I shout, "Harry Lewis!" We don't get television or internet access yet, but we can read in bed by lamplight again and decide when to sleep.


September 30 and Beyond: Hurricane reminders abound: traffic lights out much of the way on a nerve-wracking ride to rent a car, other drivers not as cautious as ours; debris lining streets and sprawling across yards and roofs; our relief when neighborhood signals light up again; thronging vehicles waiting to turn into a still-open gas station; crowds of people restocking supplies at a still functioning supermarket that lost most refrigerated food. With further, safer mobility, we reach our kids' house secure on a street lined with trash bags, piles of tree limbs and furniture, and evidence of vigorous yard work. Online news reports, drone footage, personal videos, and photographs display broad swaths of damage elsewhere: flooded homes, demolished buildings, unsalvageable businesses, the collapsed Sanibel Island causeway, an 18-foot storm surge, desperate anguish of the suddenly homeless, over 119 deaths throughout the state, persistent restoration efforts of homeowners and neighbors.


The hurricane haunts me, but I've only been an inconvenienced bystander, a short-term visitor able to retreat from reminders. I won't live with it daily, like those who still walk or drive these streets and neighborhoods, like those longing to somehow restore their unexpected losses and escape their ominous memories. When we return next autumn, Hurricane Ian's memory will await us here; we'll be hoping that evidence of its presence will be harder to find.


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September 28, 2022, Wednesday: 8:18 AM. I've likely been awake since 5:45 or earlier, unable to tell sleep from wakefulness these days. It's light enough to see outside where, on either side of the complex, thick rain and loud wind are persistent. The lanai screen is soaked, the stream behind us is already high (it rained all night), and a limpkin calmly eats along the shore on our side. We've checked various weather sites, like NOAA and Accuweather, and weren't reassured when learning Ian's landfall will be just northwest of Fort Myers, the highest storm surge likely to the southeast of it.


Today, meteorologists who thought Tampa Bay's water level might rise 3-6 feet now expect Ian to arrive as a Category 4 hurricane and sound disappointed it hasn't upgraded itself to Category 5. They now predict landfall just northwest of Fort Myers and claim Wednesday afternoon winds will reach 155 mph and storm surge a catastrophic 15 to 20 feet above normal tide level.


We keep doing what we regularly do. At the moment I'm typing this and Sue is tutoring online in Milwaukee from our Sarasota bedroom. She might not make it through the day. I just finished my morning coffee and photographed the stream through the lanai behind us without going into it. Yesterday we emptied the lanai except for the cumbersome round, glass-topped dining table and tall glass-shelved bookcase, cramming everything into a back bedroom corner. NOAA's Potential Storm Surge Flooding Map indicates by color coding the height of the flooding: blue is greater than 1 foot above ground, yellow greater than 3 feet, orange greater than 6 feet, red greater than 9 feet. Their image is advisory for five days. Some businesses posted a hopeful return to normal on Friday but others, like Mote Marine Aquarium and ABC Liquors, are taking a wait and see approach before reopening, uncertain how the storm will affect the physical buildings, whether repairs will be needed, whether power will have been restored.


This will be a long day, as tomorrow (and maybe the day after?) will likely be.


10:32 AM: The wind sometimes strengthens and thumps the lanai screen, as if urgently demanding attention. It's hard not to look up as the sound grows louder, hard not to worry whether the screen—and possibly the glass doors and windows that make up the interior lanai wall—will be sufficiently resistant. The trees beyond the stream tremble and shudder and shake all the while, often vigorously. The stream is not yet at flood stage but, as rainfall persists, it's getting closer. Sometimes, often, the wind is loud enough to drown out the sound of Sue's voice guiding her students on the internet. Lights in the condo occasionally flicker or fade slightly, then regain regular brightness. The woman from the corner unit just walked back and forth in front of our condo talking on her phone, the balconies above her keeping all but her feet dry.


12:17 PM: The stream's width and height have increased, spreading across the opposite shore, and the strengthening wind gusts keep generating white wave crests. Fiercer and fiercer. NOAA reports hurricane-force winds approaching the Florida coast near Sanibel Island, close to land near Fort Myers. Barrier islands—Sanibel and Captiva and Pine there, Siesta Key and Lido Key and Longboat Key offshore near us—are very low and slender, with no chance to slow the hurricane's ominous approach.


c. 5:00 PM. Hurricane Ian is a presence all through the day. We have an early supper for a change and continue reading pages from The Ink Black Heart aloud to one another, all the while being reminded by wind and sheets of rain that we're surround by storm. Then the electricity ceases abruptly: lights off, dishwasher off, sudden silence in the condo, only Ian sounding outside. For awhile we keep on reading by battery-powered lantern light, then quietly sit together on the living room sofa in deepening darkness until after 7:00. Before it becomes completely dark, we prepare for bed, then try to read our nighttime books there, Sue's by penlight, mine on Kindle. I give up before she does, somewhere around 9:00, an hour when we usually start reading, and try to rest without sleeping. We have ten hours of darkness to get through before daylight of some kind should return.


I try not to imagine what is happening outside. I am mostly sure we have safely barricaded ourselves in our rented apartment; we are likely far enough inland, likely far enough north of Ian's landfall, our daughter's family likely far enough from the coast, to be secure. Surely when daylight comes and, as forecasters keep predicting, the storm finally abates, we will be able to face the new day with relief.


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On Friday, in Sarasota, we're warned online about a tropical storm on Florida's west coast potentially developing into a hurricane, hitting us most strongly midweek. We stock up on flashlights and batteries and foodstuffs that won't spoil if we lose refrigeration, hoping it will all be for nothing.


On Saturday, Tropical Depression 9 becomes Tropical Storm Ian. Weather forecasters trace routes it might follow, guessing strong winds and abundant rainfall might hit Sarasota directly on Wednesday. A neighbor tells us this condo complex is solid and substantial, built to hold up. We have three floors of condos above us; others extend on either side of ours. We're inland from the Gulf but counties listed as likely to be hit include Manatee, where we are, and Sarasota, where the kids are. I remember coastal sites we've visited: Venice, Osprey, Spanish Point, Sanibel Island (where I attended a writers' conference once), Captiva Island, and Fort Myers, Thomas Edison's house next to Henry Ford's house in Fort Myers Beach. We've strolled the beach on Siesta Key, dined in St. Armand's Circle, toured Mote Marine Aquarium, taken boat rides on Sarasota Bay. We're familiar with barrier islands offshore.


On Sunday, we walk the neighborhood on a familiar route, visit our kids at their home, and hear varying weather reports. One predicts a dip in the jet stream might pull the storm northward into the Panhandle or steer it into Florida's west coast. Tropical Storm Ian may be a hurricane then, cascading 4-8 inches of "extremely heavy rain," flooding low-lying street areas, rivers, and, most severely, coastal regions. Or maybe none of this will happen. It's a nice day.


On Monday, people in counties north of us around Tampa—Pinellas, Hillsborough, Hernando—are ordered to evacuate their homes. Schools and colleges there and in Sarasota and Manatee counties will close tomorrow, their buildings housing evacuees. A few years ago, Caroline, Tim, and the kids drove north to safety in Tennessee and returned to learn they hadn't needed to flee. Reports say Ian will attain Category 4 status just south of the Sarasota metro area. Promising support for residents, a Manatee County Administrator says, "Now is not the time to panic. But it is time to finalize your storm preparations." Having returned our rental car, we're now fully pedestrian. It's too late and too complicated to stay with the kids, who have boarded themselves up. It's unlikely we'll be flooded by a storm surge. Sarasota Bay is 5.1 miles from our condo complex, a 12-minute drive. The storm may not notice the distance.


I assemble flashlights, penlights, head lamp, lantern—they all work. An afternoon thunderstorm drenches the golf course behind us, soaks our lanai screens, and splashes on its tables. I move cushions indoors amidst very loud thunder. The rain ends and we plug in our computers again. Sue tutors online at 5:00 and we have dinner afterward. The stream behind us seems higher now, especially down near the bridge. We read The Ink Black Heart aloud while we have the chance before losing power. Electricity flickers off, then on, hinting at what's ahead. Accuweather still claims the hurricane will see "a fork in the road," and either way Tampa Bay might see 6-10 feet of storm surge. A loud warning on our iPhones claims the storm is 36 hours away, reassuring us the potential catastrophe is still on our way.


On Tuesday, on our morning walk, a Chinese woman tells us she's driving to Orlando to avoid the storm. Early reports suggest Ian won't flood our complex or the kids' neighborhood or our granddaughter's dorm in Daytona. In Manatee County, evacuation levels "based on hypothetical storm scenarios" indicating "the potential height of the saltwater inundation from storm surge" are announced and Mandatory Evacuation Orders issued for people in Levels A and B and Voluntary Evacuation Orders for Level C. Our daughter thinks we're in Level E. Manatee County Building Codes required homes built after March 2012 to sustain 150 mph winds on the coast. In the laundry room a long-time resident reassures me the buildings are solid and weather resistant. An old oak fell during Irma without damage to the complex. A storm beginning this evening will last through Wednesday into early Thursday. Newscasts are already getting excited about Ian's arrival in Georgia and the Carolinas. E. B. White noticed radio newscasts stop talking about Edna after it left Massachusetts and before it reached Maine, where he lived. I'm behaving toward Ian the way he did toward Edna, making random daily notes with no real certainty they will lead to anything more. In the early afternoon it's quiet on the golf course but before we retire, we're aware of stronger winds and heavier rainfall. We wonder what tomorrow will be like.


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Weather's World


Wherever something potentially problematic happens in the country or in the world, our internet weather site posts plentiful links to reportage. Looking for news about torrential rainfall and potential flooding in Wisconsin (where I live) and Florida (where I'm visiting), I learned about flooding elsewhere in America—i.e., historic flooding in eastern Kentucky causing over 40 deaths; extensive flooding in Mississippi; severe coastal flooding in Alaska—and powerful flooding elsewhere in the world—floods in Italy causing 14 deaths; horrendous flooding in Pakistan causing 1,500 deaths; a historic typhoon in Japan causing millions of evacuations; a hurricane devastating Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean. Videos from cellphones and drones display a wide variety of inundations: communities underwater, roads washed out, homes deluged, people wading through viscous waters, rivers and lakes reaching ever higher levels and ever fiercer surges.


Everywhere I look, every part of the world is undergoing a wide range of climate problems. I follow the west coast weather frequently, to see what it's like where my son lives. In the southwest the challenge to the climate and to the lives lived there are the opposite of what my midwestern and southern relatives have been facing. They are confronted by the problem of drought. I've long been noticing the shrinking water levels in Lake Powell (the second largest reservoir in the US, now at its lowest level since it was first filled sixty years ago), and in Lake Mead, the Colorado River, the Great Salt Lake, all the most prominent locations that a massive population depends upon for electrical power and agricultural irrigation. Drought's impact on California, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Kansas, and Oklahoma has challenged crop production everywhere


We're not alone. The European Union has reported that the drought in Europe is "the worst the continent has experienced in 500 years." One source listed the Rhine, the Danube, the Tiber, the Po, the Elbe, and the Volga as rivers that are drying up and disrupting shipping. Another source reported that, due to extreme heat and as much as 60% less rainfall than customary, the Yangtze, China's biggest river, is so considerably lower that it makes commercial navigation impossible. News footage often shows freighters everywhere unable to carry cargo further than their initial entry port. The internet often shows side-by-side images taken a couple years apart that demonstrate how shrunken certain waterways have become, how much certain shorelines have lowered, how historic discoveries surprisingly occur because previously unknown ancient dwellings and long-hidden community sites (as well as more recent criminal activities) have been revealed at exposed lake and river bottoms. Some of that news, in itself interesting or intriguing, would seem more positive if not for the circumstances that brought it to light.


The extensive heatwaves contributing to the drought also set the stage for massively destructive consequences, particularly abundant and devastating wildfires. On September 19, the National Interagency Fire Center claimed that, in the United States, "ninety-five large fires and complexes have burned 902,574 acres in 9 states." Idaho had 38 large fires burning, Montana 27 large fires. Smaller fires abound everywhere, especially in the northwest and the southwest. The NIFC's 2022 year-to-date chart listed 51,169 fires consuming 6,789,438 acres—so far.


Wikipedia lists nineteen countries in Europe and around the Mediterranean battling wildfires, the most extensively affected principally Algeria, France, Greece, Portugal, and Spain, but including the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Tunisia, Turkey, and others. The range of countries named suggests how persistent and widespread the fires have been. Heat waves contributing to the aridity and potential for wildfire have set record temperatures—115 degrees, 129 degrees—in many countries and caused major melting of previously impervious glaciers and mountaintop snowpacks. Antarctica, the Arctic Circle, the Alps, the Himalayas, the Dolomites—most of the locations we think of as permanently icebound all have appeared in videos of glacier loss and destruction, and melting ice contributes to rising sea levels everywhere. HT Tech reports online that NASA has displayed a view of the eastern hemisphere (Asia, Africa, Europe) showing what it calls a "HORRIFIC [the capital letters are theirs] heatwave on Earth as humans suffer unbearable conditions." It quotes Stephen Pawson, chief of the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office, asserting that "this large area of extreme (and record breaking) heat is another clear indicator that emissions of greenhouse gases by human activity are causing weather extremes that impact our living conditions."


Based on what I scroll past on Facebook or news sites, everyone's overwhelming preoccupation is on efforts to deepen our self-absorption. But recognizing the expanding impact of weather and climate change would locate us more solidly on the actual planet, in the actual climate, and make us more aware of the future our world races toward, the one we pretend we can't change.



Notes: NASA shows HORRIFIC heatwave on Earth as humans suffer unbearable conditions


NPR Morning Edition: Where the Colorado River Crisis is Hitting Home (9/22/22)



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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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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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