Wednesday, May 31, 2006

a couple of wild and abrupt developments in my routine life. first, i've started walking to work, since half a swim three days a week isn't quite doing it for me, so i find myself reacquainted with some old friends: arena parking lot, highway-shoulder prairie, a small stream in a little patch of woods. but now it's daytime; it's steamy; it's a little different.

second, and more dramatic, is this. as you know, the path coming back to the office from the pool (in the clocktower building) comes up beside the japanese garden, where they are blasting out the library up to the right, raising dust and making a huge racket in a large construction zone, even as irises, bamboo and other exotic plants bloom in the garden. This would be enough of a sensory experience, but the grass, immediately across from the garden, separated off by the fence, is now going uncut- being part of the construction territory, but not being used for anything. Nature picks up on such things right away- the grass goes to seed; clover blossoms, wildlife moves in- all basically because of an oversight. I admire and respect the univ. grounds crew- who are usually right on top of anything in their territory- but this is really no longer their territory. and as long as they're blasting away at the library (part of which collapsed on them a while back), they may not be paying much attention to this new little prairie...

meanwhile the steamy sauna summer descends...i'm putting my stories (below) in italics, and in the template; hope to provide more. i hope also- to finish the play, to play some music, to get back to some poetry. the stories, by the way, are true, to the best of my knowledge; the haiku versions are not. same journey, different perspectives, i guess...

Sunday, May 28, 2006

late seventies...i'd come back from hitchhiking 48 states, mexico, guatemala & canada, and was living in iowa city, a town that was a pretty good place for a guy like me to try and get a grip on reality. but one of the problems with being a notorious traveller, a rogue, a change agent, is that people who were attracted to me were often people who were bent on that kind of change, rather than, say, trying to settle down and earn a little stability. and the minute i opened my mouth it was obvious i'd seen a little of the other side- the unpredictable, the open road, the western wind. but my reaction to anything that tended to pen me in- for example, a possible affair with a married woman who for whatever reason saw me as liberation, or possibly knew i just had a hard time saying no, well in any case, my way of saying no was to just find a reason to take off, and do it. sometimes i'd go to mexico, or maybe california, but it was early july, so i decided to go north. and, because my 48 states included alaska but not north dakota, i headed north aiming for north dakota, but not really having any more specific destination in mind.

so when a trucker carrying an empty hog crate, or something like that, told me about a folk festival in winnipeg manitoba, i decided to take him up on it. i was well north of minneapolis, and i was carrying my banjo, which did not have a case, an old mountain banjo which is again in minneapolis even today with my friend matt. at that time though it was a magnet- it attracted comment, it gave me rides with truckers like this guy, and people gave me good tips, (like- go to winnipeg, and go now). in winnipeg i had the good fortune to run into a guy named hans, incredibly generous guy, who played banjo also, and knew the festival, and even took me there several times, as well as letting me stay in his house, where a number of interesting people, including his wife, lived. the festival was fantastic. i think i got in cheap or free, in return for working there, or some such thing, but i was bowled over by the music. celtic, irish, scottish, quebecois, blues, cajun, every imaginable genre, much of which i had never heard before. and lots that i had heard, and new well: bryan bowers, pete seeger, doc & merle, people like that. every time i turned around. some bands got right down into my bones and told me that i had a heritage that i had not known about previously. the tannahill weavers were like that; so was a quebecois band called ma tante alys (my aunt alice?), which i have been unable to find since. old celtic roots music sang out at me and made me put my banjo aside as a kind of shallow attention-getter, which it was. but then, the winnipeg paper got a picture of it and there i was again- a symbol of the travelling spirit arriving for the festival. at the same time my eyes were widening at the new things i was hearing- canada seemed to keep track of, collect, and even provide for all the carriers of its national heritage- i was being celebrated as a traveller bringing my own sounds into the mix...and i felt a little inadequate in that regard. but one guy i met said he was holed up in a school dormitory in banff, canadian rockies, out west, and it was all pretty stuffy, and what he really needed was a banjo picker like me to come out, make real loud banjo sounds in the middle of the night, and show these stuffed-shirts what real music was. he was insistent, and i remembered what the rockies were like in july...hard to resist. i promised i would.

so the festival pressed on- band after band, singer after singer, three or four days of it, best festival i've ever heard. i can't even remember the names- it's been about thirty years, and some were not that well known, even at the time, yet each of them, i remember, had brought their best and put it out there. the festival was held out in a field which had many stages at different ends of it, lots of high grasses, and patches of trees in various corners. i'd walk around literally unable to catch even half of what i wanted. and getting into incredible jams at will with various people. it may have been at that time that i first noticed that the banjo was somewhat limited in that you have to always play a certain kind of upbeat, country harmony- and you're not always in the mood. be that as it may, i was exhausted every evening, and found myself once getting a ride, but only part way, back to hans' house, and his wife was along. so we started walking back to the house, but it was late at night, maybe 12 or 1, a clear night with a big moon and stars, even in the city. this young woman also was quite beautiful, attracted to banjo-pickers, and...well, let's just say that talking to her was becoming very interesting, but at the same time, very frustrating, as she was the wife of my good friend. nevertheless, i was a talker, enjoyed talking, was enjoying the company, and then i noticed a very magical thing.

the whole city, every neighborhood that we walked through, was blanketed by gigantic elms, huge trees which used to be a canopy for entire midwestern cities such as toledo, ohio, where i spent my first ten years, but also iowa city, the iowa towns of my youthful visits to my grandparents, every town we'd drive through. these old elms would shade entire blocks for entire summers, make a huge green canopy- but they'd been wiped out, perhaps while i was further east, in pennsylvania and new york, but in any case by the time i came back out to iowa, at the age of 19, 1973, dutch elm disease had wiped out the whole lot of them from ohio on out past iowa and nebraska- people were still actively mourning them in iowa city, where iowa avenue was way too sunny. anyway, here in winnipeg, manitoba- they still had millions of them. every street, a tunnel, with majestic houses, and the canopy could see it clearly even in the middle of the night. we walked down numerous streets, all like this, and finally stopped at the grassy front of some church where we could talk, in the middle of the night, without waking people up- and that's when i heard the rustling above of the leaves of the canopy. it was like the music- it touched me down to my bones, it said to me, you have a heritage, your memories are deep inside you, and some things can touch you, can reach inside and make you remember. elms have a certain sound when a gentle breeze goes through them- this is a sound american midwesterners haven't heard for many years- and they have a certain look, that you get when you are lying on your back in the shade, and looking straight up.

back to the young woman- she understood the predicament, namely that she was already married, and to our credit, we were good kids that night, and though hans knew something was up, being not totally oblivious, he was a gentleman too. i'm sure she has long forgotten, though you never know, but i can't think of the phrase 'desire under the elms' without remembering that night; as it turned out, i felt bad enough, and decided to make good on my promise to the household friend in banff, which i did, going out past moose jaw and regina saskatchewan, making banjo music on demand, all one evening, in some dormitory of an art school or some such thing high in the canadian rockies, where july is cool but life expensive. unfortunately, on the way back, it was difficult to even get to north dakota, given the roads i was on, and i missed it again, stopping instead in some native american gathering, where the hot summer wind was blowing across the pine ridge somewhere outside rapid city. that's really another story; i could weave it in here, but what i remember most clearly about that experience, besides the hot blazing sun, the sunbaked high-grasses, and the wind, was somebody else's heritage being laid out to ruin by the europeans and the ravages of alcohol....and what the elms and old celtic, welsh and scottish music had to do with this i'm still not sure. it left me with a strange taste in my mouth, and an eagerness for a small cot, a natural foods bakery, and regular swims in an old farm quarry in iowa summers, what felt like my natural environment, with or without the elms, where i could straighten out what was what, and what was my place in it.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

got a little steamy around here, an abrupt end to a cool and wet spring...everything is very green and rainforesty. I like to say that our two kinds of days are hot tub and sauna - from now until about october. my wife is right that the best defense is probably to lose weight.

i've got new students- one from ecuador, a number that i've already had before, a good group. teaching newstalk- a class based totally on reality, and in my own design. i make headline exercises about all nature of things. coming home, i find my one-year old learning to walk and my four-year-old hocking me to make a "no girls allowed" clubhouse. i'm not complaining. my stepdaughter is on a murder-trial jury; a deer is attacking people over by campus lake; memories are washing over me. we're trying to sell our house. but i'm resisting living between a highway and a flood. it's not me that wants to move; in my own '68 ford kind of way, i do all the moving i can handle just as it is. but i'll go with it, as long as it works out, and it looks like we'll go 'cross-town somewhere, but not too far, still deep in southern illinois, land-a-linkin' - home of memorial day, home of the hurd brothers & paul simon, god rest their souls. life goes on - my band leader is on her way to a folk festival in texas- if i had my druthers though, i'd be going to the one in winnipeg...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006



Friday, May 19, 2006

Dr. Chandler!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

early 70s- i was hitchhiking through mexico as a 19-yr-old and found myself in pelenque, home of overgrown mayan tombs to the sun, made of stone from who knows where...but this place had a few too many americans and foreigners, and i began to feel unease at that- for one thing, the locals would treat you differently, in inverse proportion to the number of americans/foreigners they had regular contact with. another thing i noticed was that the days were so hot and steamy that it was really much better to travel at night- while i ordinarily did not want to appear as one who traveled only under the cover of darkness, it really was more of an evolution toward survival and living better- but you saw much less at night, of course, at least until your eyes became adjusted.

so it happened that i found myself at chichen-itza- another magnificent & glorious ruins, i'm sure, in the middle of the night, locusts screeching, me at the side of the road, wondering whether to wait until daybreak to enter with what little money i had left. knowing full well, of course, that i'd never pass this way again, probably. a grass hut stood in front of me, perhaps the entrance to the tourist section of the ruins. ten, twenty minutes passed- this was about 3 in the morning- but i was wide awake, having slept in the afternoon, deeply, somewhere in the shade.

a car of americans/foreigners gave me a lift to the coast- this was probably an hour and a half- but i remember being quite alienated from them. i could barely understand them though it was the same plain english i'd spoken for many years. they were friendly enough- but i remember feeling that if i were to leave mexico at that point i would feel this way- unprepared for reentry into my own culture. they let me off on the coast- not far from what is today cozumel- and i was immediately approached by a middle-aged man, clean-cut, who wanted me to sail with him up to florida from a boat he pointed out from that beach. he said it was a 23-foot sailboat (true), he knew the way (not so true), had a good navigation system (less true), etc. told him i'd do it but only on the following day, after i'd met up with my parents at isla mujeres (true)- they were scuba diving, worried about me, glad to see me alive & well & healthy, though dirty through & through. before i left the coast i spoke to an old mexican guy who pointed out a single crane in the distance on the cozumel beach and said that someday this entire beach would be luxury hotels (this of course turned out to be true also). i thought to myself that he was probably a b-s artist, but what did i know? i was glad to speak spanish, to get back into just talking to people and finding out what was going on in a place.

we set off on the 23-ft. sailboat which turned out to barely manage the stiff caribbean waves; i threw up & this did not endear me to the guy as i didn't quite make it to over the side and this smelled bad for a few days....he wanted me to sail while he slept and taught me how; he of course would listen to the radio, figure out our location, and steer accordingly or tell me where to steer. he was afraid of cuba and swung way wide of it, but this put us in the gulf where we lost the benefit of the gulfstream current and flailed around for days trying to find it again. one night i almost lost him...and myself, as a storm was so bad we had to take down the sails but that wasn't easy and required skills i didn't have. his navigation turned out to be not so good, either that or he was delirious, either way i began to lose confidence in his general abiltiy to know where we were. i specifically remember he once said we were now south of marathon key, he was pretty sure of it, but i didn't believe it. and he stopped eating, since we only had ten days of food, three more than we were supposed to need, but quickly running out on our eighth day, with the last two or three entirely fruitless. meanwhile the caribbean sun beat down and the radio played "b-b-b-benny and the jets" over and over again- my only connection to our mainland goal, miami. i tried talking to the guy about mexico, about florida, about anything, but we had almost nothing in common, i now think he was a smuggler, but he certainly wasn't an expert sailor or an upright citizen. we finally found a small group of shrimp boats which hovered around what turned out to be the dry tortugas, the key west of key west, actually a key that was under water, and after several days of trying to get past them (fruitlessly) we asked them to call the coast guard (this guy didn't really want to do this, but i was beginning to fear for my life- this was the tenth day- and said that if this was an option, this was the one i wanted. the only food we had at that point was what my partner had refused to eat for 4-5 days. i however had eaten normally and was quite lucid, though sunburned. the coast guard did in fact tow us into key west, where some hippies were on the dock watching the sunset- i kissed the earth and asked them where the nearest shower was- and set off hitchhiking- this time from key west to la- with seven pesos in my pocket, and some very dirty laundry. i felt the peso coins in my pocket- they were the only things i'd brought with me, besides the memories, from mexico. and the place was not exactly full of peso-exchange type places. sunny, though, and with a sense of the wide-open seas that stretched out from its beaches.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

as a term ends i find myself reflecting not on the students or their grades - water under the bridge - but the fact that again they showed interest in various interesting topics, and i led them directly to study, among many - the amish. reminded me of my days in the english river valley - wellman, specifically, a beautiful part of iowa, washington county, back roads going past shiloh and around kalona, where one day a guy gave me my first banjo, and taught me to play it on a wooden bridge over the english river. a couple of guys came by in a horse-and-buggy and spoke to us rather deliberately, even played the banjo for a minute. a rare exchange between the english and the amish.

as i drove by a house with a pink porch, stretching my neck to catch sight of the marriable girl who supposedly lived there, i of course fantasized about being let into the community, enjoying fine homemade food and living happily without television, city angst and pollution. We got our milk from an amish guy up on the hill who was childless and watching my pregnant friend Paige rather closely. the english and amish were actually quite divided and friendships like that of paige and the dairy farmer were somewhat rare, as were occasions like the banjo-picking on the bridge. rural iowa weather was dramatic- blizzards, clean harsh icy roads, bright sun, huge drifts, backdrops for bright orange triangles on shiny black buggies, going very slowly, iron wheels in mud ruts and slush, but sliding differently, more slowly, on the ice...i almost hit a buggy once, my car, with paige in it, landing in a huge snowdrift beside the ice-glazed gravel road. the nearby house didn't have a phone. the gardens were buried in snow; the pink porch was in the other direction, the west wind cutting under my jacket. i felt bad, sinful for even having a car, much less being unable to control it, but everyone was ok, especially paige, who was one tough person, the father of her baby having taken too many drugs and jumped into the english river, and her getting by with help and a ride to town now and then.

years later i encounter some things written about the amish, and my students, many of them saudis from a bedouin tradition, are fascinated with a rejection of modern technology, a country orientation, a cult-like clinging to religious principles. we encounter a story about a woman who has turned bitter, her third, fourth and fifth child having a kind of autism, and the local amish talking about 'god's will' as if god rains down genetic problems on the amish as punishment for thinking outside of the fold - but no, she said, it's because i married my distant cousin, which is common in this community but dangerous nonetheless, and i'll take my kids to the doctor if i have to borrow a car to do it; this last act of defiance getting her evicted from the amish community. the woman she's with agrees, and says that we aren't meant to be closed off from other people, to shun the outside's a fault of an otherwise very good people = people who take care of their land, grow stunning flowers, work hard, help each other, live good lives. shunning the modern world- where do you see that in the bible?

the students, many of whom have nice cars and an occasional weekend on their hands, will probably visit arthur- illinois' home of the amish, maybe a few hundred miles up the road, a restaurant stop on the way to champaign & chicago. why not? they're kids, like i was, looking at different lifestyles, surprised, maybe, that all americans haven't gone for the same ball of wax. i think of the wooden bridge near paige's house- and the banjo encounter. it turns out that groups of amish divide themselves over issues like lace curtains which, if you are modern, so to speak, you accept, and if you are traditional, you don't. the outsider doesn't see the subtlety when every house is without even a telephone pole. but one's eyes get adjusted to subtlety. and, the banjo and instruments in general turn out to be one of those things like lace curtains- those boys were making a point in their community- by accepting and even trying out the banjo- that was perfectly clear to members of their own community - who could probably see them miles off from one of those little houses with lace curtains. a couple of english on the bridge playing a banjo. a clear iowa fall day now, orange leaves in the woods, clear skies in the west, the english river below gurgling its secrets. it's not so much shunning the world, as choosing the things you adjust your eyes to, the pace you use to process it, the wheels you clack on the wooden slats of the bridge. nice meeting you, my friends...say hello to the guy up the top of the hill.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

here's to a super-awesome phd advisor, and a super-awesome phd-candidate daughter, from the red baron of google-bombers. and a happy cinco-de-mayo to all...