Archive for March, 2011

Sidebar #1 or When I Was Six

Posted in Cape Cod, coal freighter on March 17, 2011 by smpiv

The ship is pitching in heavy seas.  The gray is the special gray saved for storms at sea where the horizon and the sky meet as one.

The ship is a coal freighter headed for Italy.  The crew is Italian. 

My brother and I are on the bridge with the crew as they worked hard to keep the ship on course.  As the ship listed from one side to the other we began to call out the angle.  10…20….25….28….30…cheer! 


No problem.  We began to stand on the high side and run to the low–again and again.


We never felt the concern or fear of the crew.  Were we in danger?  I don’t know.  This was just one big carnival ride that happened to be in the middle of the Atlantic.

The sound, the smell, and the spray as it crashed over the bow—those sensations I can still feel and hear.

That intermingling of sky and sea; the static of the two crashing together; the roll and pitch of that, now toy-like, metal hull—I can still feel and hear.

I was six, so it’s difficult to say that I had never felt so alive, but all my senses were on edge—I was definitely alive.

Today on the Cape, I stood overlooking the sea, my nose pointed into the wind, the rain washing around me.  It was cold. 

Nothing pitched, nothing heaved, and my feet were firmly planted on the ground.  My senses were put on edge.  I felt alive.  I was six.

It was a good day.


The History of the World Part I or One More Step toward Armegeddon

Posted in Uncategorized on March 13, 2011 by smpiv

My one moment of absolute and abject panic happened as I was trying to get to an escalator that would take me down to the subway in Moscow.  As I worked my way through the crowd to that singular point of entry I was suddenly taken off my feet by the others that pressed around me. 

I’m sure I wasn’t more than an inch or two off the ground, but I had no control; I couldn’t stop or change direction.  From the pit of my stomach I could feel a constriction in my being, and I do mean being, because it was my entire body that wanted to scream and my eyes couldn’t get any bigger.  And, then, I was back on the ground and it was gone.  It didn’t subside, or slowly disappear; it just stopped in an instant.

I can get a bit of that sensation by just thinking about it.

The closest I had come to this sensation before the time in the Soviet Union, was when I was a boy living outside San Diego.

My grandmother, Mimi, had made us all hamburgers for dinner.  I had my plate on my lap while we watched TV and then everything began to shake.  I threw my plate from my lap with enough force to hit the ceiling and screamed all the way through the house as I ran out the door.

This was my first earthquake.  I would experience a number of tremors and earthquakes after this, but with a knowing nod, I would simply wait for them to end.  Like anything, you get used to them.

Most of us know that Japan is nothing but a collection of islands on a volcanic fault line and that earthquakes are a relatively common occurrence there—they are used to them.

By any standard the 8.9 magnitude earthquake that struck the other day was unusual and unnerved a population quite used to earthquakes.  As well, the tsunamis were colossal by any standard and the possible melt down of several nuclear power plants adds a human calamity that, like the Richter scale, moves this disaster in exponential steps.

To watch the video of muddied waves full of human and natural debris move casually across, through and under roads, bridges, plowed fields and buildings is mesmerizing and daunting.  The Japanese who are as prepared as a society can be for earthquakes had no answer for the tsunami and apparently no answer for the looming nuclear disaster.

Like Chernobyl, and sadly, we will probably read about any number of heroic Japanese men and women who will die, knowingly, from radiation exposure to confine and encase these reactor melt downs.

Where am I going with this?

We are a species that thinks very highly of itself.  After all the premise of many of our religions is that we are made in our god’s image—a bunch of mini-deities.  For the most part, we have decided that we are solely responsible for the deterioration and destruction of our natural habitat—and, perhaps, we are and we are taking steps to reverse the damage.  But, perhaps, we are also seeing the end to a very quiet period in climatic, geological, and volcanic history.  Causality never stems from one thing—there is no Ockham’s razor here.

We are a very conceited species.  We think we affect everything and that everything is affected for us.  We are now trying not to work against the natural fabric, but to go with the weave.  We may be too late, but our conceit makes us think that if we work the problem soon enough all will be well and the earth will play fair.

The same earth that we have animated with names like Mother Earth, Gaia and many more I can’t think of offhand that make us feel comfortable with a huge molten rock that probably doesn’t even have a clue that we are here.  But just the same we have animated the Earth with the slogan “Save the Earth”, just like we have the slogan “Save the Whales”—both very admirable goals.

I suspect if we ever learned to communicate with Whales they would be very appreciative of the gesture.  The Earth, on the other hand, couldn’t care less.

Let’s face it the Earth doesn’t care for us one way or the other.  Does this mean we should stop all efforts to save ourselves by being kinder and more responsible to our planet?  Not at all, let’s remove as many variables as we can so we can focus on keeping ourselves safe from a temperamental and less than caring Mother (yep, Mother Earth).   But let’s be clear, it won’t stop Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Tornadoes and the list goes on—we might as well consider ourselves at-will employees of Earth.  We can be fired at any time.

I had to get this out.  Katrina, Andrew—again with this animation of natural phenomena—9/11, Haiti,—all natural and man-made disasters that we should have known were coming, known how to prepare for, and ultimately how to respond too, when in fact we can’t, we didn’t, and we won’t.

We must now do for Japan what we have done for traumatized peoples before and surely will do for in the future—help them. 

But, above all, don’t panic, keep your feet on the ground, keep your own emergency preparedness kit at home, and remember that Twinkies have an amazing shelf life.

This too will pass.

The History of Poetry Part I or My Welsh Brother

Posted in Autobiographical, Joan Armatrading, The Clash on March 11, 2011 by smpiv


Rain, rain, go away…….

Joan Armatrading.

Bad poetry?



At one time her first album might as well have been my theme music; my signature color.

It wasn’t the words, because, truthfully, not until recently have I actually listened to the words to a song.  And even now I have a difficult time parsing the words from the music—musical dyslexia?  Perhaps.  Might explain my inability to remember the words to a song and don’t even ask me to take dictation—it all jumbles together.

I first heard her music with my girlfriend at the time– Sian McCaffrey.  She was from a small town outside Manchester, England.  We were both students at a small teaching college in Carmarthen, Wales.  It was 1977 and I was all of eighteen years old with a full head of hair.

Her voice—Joan’s not Sian’s—went straight through me.  Every time she clipped a note or popped a “c” or “s” it was like a tuning fork.  She was on my wave length.  Yet she was counter to everything I had listened to—or for that matter what I would later listen too.

Britain was firmly in the grips of Punk—not New Wave—but Punk and I loved it.  “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols was played at every dance (there were two a week) and we all danced the Pogo.  The Pogo?  We literally bounced up and down as if we were on a pogo stick for hours.  The Jam, The Clash, The Stranglers, The Buzzcocks, et al, and we pogoed to them all.  It was usually loud, difficult to understand, and completely absorbing.

Joan was my secret pleasure.  Sian and I would be at the Drovers until closing at 11pm, get a couple of bottles of Cider and go back to her room at a parsonage off campus and put that album on.  Again and again, until she kicked me out and I would walk back to my digs at an old Victorian Mansion, off campus as well, with that music in my head.

It was usually raining—ah, finally, the rain part. 

A Welsh weather forecast was usually rain.  You put your rain coat on automatically, without looking out the window.  It was rarely a cold, invasive rain; it was just part of the landscape.  When the sun came out it was usually to peek through or around rain clouds, arc a quick rainbow and then back to rain.

It made for a very green and lush landscape.  It was very Hobbit like in its execution.  Having read the “Lord of the Rings” several times before I arrived, I was struck by the similarity.

That was quickly subverted by the poetry of Dylan Thomas.

For the average Welshman his choir and his poet—in both Welsh and English, was what moved the sun above those eternal rain clouds.  Thomas was the god poet and very much alive for most.

Above all Thomas’ words were carved and warped by that lush countryside; a countryside that defined and redefined the color green; and just as magnificently his words defined an ancient countryside that had been seen to by the guttural sounds of the Welsh language.   

      The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
      Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
      Is my destroyer.
      And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
      My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.


So there I was very much ready to pogo my way through life—after all I would be eighteen forever, right?  Well I am now long past my Punk days, although I still have a particular soft spot for the Stranglers “Black and White” album, and it’s been years since I walked beneath the rain leadened skies of Wales. 

We often wonder what will last, what will be eternal.  I remember having an argument with my next door neighbor in Poway, California as to who would have more staying power, the Monkees or the Beatles.  I’ll let you guess how smart I was—enough to say it was one of my dimmer moments.

I had forgotten Joan Armatrading until recently.  Not until I listened to it again did I realize how important it had been to me.  Her music had looped in my head as best it could in those days before portable music.  It now conjures up memories long forgotten.

Thomas’ poetry never left me.

I’m not a big poetry guy, but there is something about his words and how he turns and enslaves them for his use that makes me come back again and again.  For me it transcends the page.

More importantly it pushed me beyond my adolescent musings and simplicity and made me think. 

      The force that drives the water through the rocks
      Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
      Turns mine to wax.
      And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
      How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.


So here I sit, thirty some years later, the rain coming down steadily to knock down the snow to reveal the dirt and grime that is hiding beneath.  It is the rain that brought Joan Armatrading to mind; that brought to mind Dylan Thomas. 

Now in Vermont, another lush, green land probably better described by Robert Frost than Thomas, it is still Thomas’ words that ring in my ears.  His are the words I wish I had written; the words I wish I could have shaped; the words I could have etched.

But I didn’t and I won’t.  So I leave it to the likes of an Armatrading for theme music and the likes of a Thomas to take me beyond myself.  And now I leave you with more of his words—

     And death shall have no dominion.
     Dead men naked they shall be one
     With the man in the wind and the west moon;
     When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
     They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
     Though they go mad they shall be sane,
     Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again
     Though lovers be lost love shall not;
     And death shall have no dominion

Good poetry?