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Monday, June 25, 2012

We know our world by our passing through it

This morning is unexpectedly clear skied and warm (for morning) at 50° (10° C). The forecast still calls for more cloud cover than this, along with scattered showers. I don't complain. It means I can leave the top down again this morning and listen more clearly to the morning bird song over my commute soundtrack.

This also opens the car, and me, up to the many variations of morning smells along my route in: something blooming fragrantly here, mulching lawn clippings there, diesel exhaust from a ponderously large truck some distance in front of me, a fried breakfast (?) as I pass these houses, the trailing fumes of a cigarette from someone who passes in front of me in a crosswalk as I wait at a light. This is high season for lavender, a spicy-floral scent that pops up more than once along my way. Our own yard is currently abloom with lavender, and it's passing scent conjures a vivid mental picture.

My commute takes me past woods and wetlands, suburban neighborhoods, and through concrete-intense intersections and overpasses. I think, as I move through each distinct zone, I would be able to spot my place on my morning commute just by the subtle (mostly) nuances of each area's scent. It would be an interesting test, at any rate.

Of the many ways we know our slice of the world, traveling by car is usually the least informative. We see, but usually stay well isolated from smell and sound. The car is a controlled space, sealed up and personally defined.

On early mornings when I can have the top down I sometimes go without music altogether. When I do have music on I keep the volume down very low. Partly out of courtesy to the homes I pass, many with windows open and people still sleeping, but partly because I don't want to drown out the exterior soundtrack of the morning commute. As much as I like to entertain the idea that I can identify my commute location by smell alone, I am even more certain I would know my location by its sounds.

Writers and poets (if there is even a distinction) commonly refer to scent and sound when they write of places and journeys, and for good reason.

Scott Cairns, in his poem Another Road Home, writes:
before our mountain, above our mountain tea
suggests in its late, cypress-scented air
a pressing density, a wine-like, whelming
cup, ksinómavro—deep and dark, substantial.
And the road? Meandering, manifestly
inconclusive, and for that reason not
so likely to ferment blithe disregard.

Robert Burns, in Afton Water:
Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, I'll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.
Thou stock-dove, whose echo resounds thro' the glen,
Ye wild whistling blackbirds in yon thorny den,
Thou green-crested lapwing, thy screaming forbear,
I charge you disturb not my slumbering fair.
How pleasant thy banks and green valleys below,
Where wild in the woodlands the primroses blow;
There oft, as mild Ev'ning sweeps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades my Mary and me.

Or Bruce Cockburn, in his song My Beat:
Past the derelict mattress
and the overgrown pavement
over the tracks
and through the hole in the fence
Past graffiti-bright buildings
and the junkyard alarm bell
and the screaming police cars
and it's all present tense

It's my beat
In my new town

Past the drunk woman reeling
with her bag of provisions
Down through the tunnel
with the stink-fuming bus
On to the bike path
where it's something like freedom
and the wind in my earring whispers
Trust what you must

It's my beat
In my new town

We know our world by our passing through it, and we know most when that passing has intention and attention.

Today's full playlist (volume – pianissimo):
- The Guggenheim Grotto: The Universe Is Laughing
- Franco DeVita: Si Tú No Estas (Live)
- The Killers: Mr. Brightsides
- Posted via Hermes.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Friday and a mostly Canadian muse

It's Friday, and that means the return of the popular dude. Yesterday was glorious sunshine and the top was down on the Miata all day. This morning is back to grey and threatening. I reach back and pull the top up over me about two-thirds of the way in this morning after a few small drops appear on my windshield. On these maybe-it-will-rain-maybe-it-won't mornings I think leaving the top down to see if I can make it all the way into campus without getting wet is a game I play with myself. This morning I lose just before I get to the second Starbucks along my route.

Regular readers (both of you) will know I am no small fan of yerba mate. My current perfect mate drinking set up for the office looks like this:

A gourd-ishly shaped Pete's Coffee mug rocking a small heap of Guayki's smokey barbacua blend mate, a spoon-style Argentinian bombilla, and a Guayaki travel mug full of additional hot water, to serve as my desk-top termica.

I'd much rather have my morning mate than coffee most days, but there are times (and especially on Friday mornings) when I wish I could get my mate via the Starbuck's drive through. Not because it is hard to make (nothing could be easier than setting some water to near-boil), but for the I'm-treating-myself-today aspect of picking up a cup of coffee on the way into the office. Ok, that's silly, I know, but there it is nonetheless. This morning I pass on by.

Today's commute featured a wonderful playlist, another of those randomly served up lists that make me wonder what magic really lives in the iPod's shuffle algorithm. Two of Canada's best poet/songwriters account for 50% of the playlist. If I were manually managing this list I would be tempted to add in one more song written by one Canadian (Ian Tyson) and made famous by another (Neil Young): Four Strong Winds. But that would be gilding the lily, I suppose.

Leonard Cohen (covering his own Hallelujah, and being covered by Perla Batalla) weaves a beautiful, almost mythical (is it real, or only shapes in the clouds?), story with his Ballad of the Absent Mare. Just one small piece of this poem demonstrates its artful imagery:
Oh the world is sweet
the world is wide
and she's there where
the light and the darkness divide
and the steam's coming off her
she's huge and she's shy
and she steps on the moon
when she paws at the sky

Admit it, you can see that horse now, can't you?

Then Bruce Cockburn with his Iris of the World, which reads, in part:
on a boulder by the shoulder
the paint will likely outlive
both the feeling and the holder
in the age of Global Warming
when all things are growing colder
it's beautiful the writer
opened up his heart and told her

Passing through the iris of the world
Passing through the iris of the world

I'm good at catching rainbows
not so good at catching trout
I'm good at blowing holes in things
and ranting in self doubt
I've got a way with time and space
but numbers freak me out
I've mostly dodged the dogmas
of what life is all about

Passing through the iris of the world
Passing through the iris of the world

So it's Friday, that saunteringly popular dude, and the skies are grey, the mate is self-serve (as befits the end of the work week), and the muse is mostly Canadian this morning as we pass through the iris of the world.

Today's full playlist:
- Gary Louris & Mark Olson: Precious Time
- Ella Fitzgerald: Desafinado
- Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah
- Fountains of Wayne: Please Don't Rock Me Tonight
- Bruce Cockburn: Iris Of The World
- Perla Batalla: Ballad of the Absent Mare

- Posted via Hermes.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Testing Clover

Tuesday comes wrapped in Nobody Owen's grey winding sheet, damp and slightly chilly this morning. This makes for a commute of adjusting wiper blade speeds to deal with endless variations of mist to sprinkles. As uncertain as Tuesday's role in the work week, the rain today is more mild irritant than significant impression.

Folks are tired of the rain and grey skies this far into June. I can tell by the impatience of their driving this morning. Pressing into each other, tailgating, cutting corners, pushing, pushing. Trying, I imagine, to force their wills onto the landscape of the morning commute, to exercise control over something, anything.

For whatever reason, I can't be bothered to get caught up in that this morning. I feel like I'm simply slipping alongside the morning rush. I am the small twig floating inconsequentially past canoes on the river. My commute is short, though, so it is easy to sustain this illusion. Much more time spent in this coursing stream of collective frustration and I, too, would undoubtedly catch the communicable rancor of the morning commute.

I pull into the sleeping campus no worse for the wear. The quarter break is upon us, and the campus does rest. The parking lots are largely empty, there are no early morning clusters of students moving toward early classes, and the whole place feels quietly different. A college campus should throng and buzz with activity, but these occasional quiet spaces in the annual calendar do have a serene beauty of their own.

Walking across campus yesterday I came across a clump of purple clover in full bloom. Instantly, I was back in my youth, walking in a field on a warm summer day, plucking clover heads to suck the sweet drops of nectar from the base of their flower spikes. I wanted, so badly in that moment, to bend down and pluck a few spikes and test for nectar. Being grown up, though, I also thought about passing animals, th habits of people, airborne pollution, and gardening chemicals (though we do practice sustainable horticulture on campus, so the latter was probably not a real concern), and I resisted. I resisted tasting the clover blossoms, but I did pause long enough to snap a picture:

Like Whittier's musings in his poem The Barefoot Boy:
Oh for boyhood’s painless play,
Sleep that wakes in laughing day,
Health that mocks the doctor’s rules,
Knowledge never learned of schools,
Of the wild bee’s morning chase,
Of the wild-flower’s time and place...

Oh for boyhood’s time of June,
Crowding years in one brief moon,
When all things I heard or saw,
Me, their master, waited for.
I was rich in flowers and trees,
Humming-birds and honey-bees;

All this swept over me in a flash, before and after I took the adult course of inaction. If I pass that clover again today, and I believe I will, I intend to follow the barefoot boy's free-spirited course of action this time. Maybe they won't taste as sweet as memory, but at least I will know.

Tuesday can keep her grey winding sheet, June her clouds and rain, and the morning commute her seething frustration. Sometimes you have to step outside of time for the briefest of moments (if that isn't a contradiction) and test the clover.

Today's soundtrack (all from the new Sigur Rós album Valtari:
- Remembihnútur
- Dauõalogn
- Varõeldur

- Posted via Hermes.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

This rain that soaks us through

It's June in the Pacific Northwet. The weather prognosticators tell us we can expect nothing warmer than 57° (13° C) today and, of course, it is pouring rain. This is quintessential June weather for us. The weather of every sodden June camping trip, every underwhelming June vegetable garden, every long distance stare into the ever-out-of-reach mirage-like notion of summer.

Most of my hiking/camping memories are cradled in the associations of rain. Rain slick creek-side rocks and boulders, fern-rich undergrowth tightly holding fists full of gathered rainwater with which to drench passing jeans, and an ever-dripping canvas of pine trees that didn't so much provide cover from the steady rain as slow it down to a fine steady mist, like flour passing through a giant sifter.

Gary Snyder conjurs some of this in his poem Endless Streams And Mountains, as he follows streams from a lake or river up into many mountains and past several stories. It isn't a rain poem, per se, but my associations of mountain streams invariably dress the mental imagery his poem conjures in wet and steady rain:
Clearing the mind and sliding in
to that created space,
a web of waters steaming over rocks,
air misty but not raining,
seeing this land from a boat on a lake
or a broad slow river,
coasting by.

Because of our rain we are lush, verdant, elaborately and explosively green, redundantly so. There is something comforting about this combination of really wet and really green to those of us born to it. I think we must be rocked to sleep so often by the sound of falling water spattering against foliage and the tangibly expressed humidity of rain that it seeps into our subconscious to become the definition of calm.

Then we grow older and have to commute in the stuff and it begins to form new associations. Ask the many high school age kids I pass on my way in this morning, miserably absorbing the rain without coats or umbrellas (uncool garb), sulkily ignoring each other in small loose groups as they wait for a bus they don't want to take.

Ask the freeway commuter whose already-tedious crawl becomes an instant creep while drivers fail to account for reduced visibility, wet pavement, and failing patience. Ask the parent at home with small children who will not-be-going-outside-in-this-downpour-thank-you-very-much! Ask the employee who works with his or her hands in the outdoors, who knows no amount of rain gear will keep them warm and dry throughout a full day of this rain.

Me, though, I have a short freeway-less commute. Four or five songs worth of travel time, half a dozen at most. I won't get my shot at being wet until I walk from my office to meetings on the main campus, a short half-mile through dripping greenery full of the smell of damp earth.

Driving in this morning, the wipers are swiping someplace within the signature time of the music, while Michele Legrand languidly slides from one rhythm to the next amid a thousand dazzling piano notes. The iPod favors jazz this morning, with Bob James up next followed by Ellington and his band. Just as I pull into the campus parking lot the iPod shifts to a little Rocco DeLuca, and the tempo changes.

Today's full playlist:
- Michel Legrand: Les Enfants Qui Pleurent
- Bob James Trio: Nightcrawler
- Duke Ellington: Arabesque Cookie
- Rocco DeLuca and the Burden: Bright Lights (Losing Control)

- Posted via Hermes.