The endowments and the foundations won't, but you can help support my long-term exploration of the middle west, Vagabond In the Middle. Any donation to help defray expenses will be appreciated. Send to Tom Montag at: PO Box 8, Fairwater, WI 53931.
grumbles on the street. Temperature at 20 degrees. Everything is painted loverly.
We take the bit of snow; we have no choice. Spring will come: we'll land on our feet.
The streets are slippery, snow on Highway E heading north. I'll take my time. The flag at the cemetery blows the wrong way again, east to west. Is the storm circling us like wolves? We've got nowhere to hide. Now six Canadian geese above the road; they've got nowhere to hide. We'll get what we want when we want what we get. You make your own self unhappy, or not.
If I write the same thing again and again and again, what have I lost? Writing it over and over, I might make a permutation in it and end with something new.
The lay of the snow. The landscape is Wisconsin; it could not be moreso.
at Another Country has initiated a "poetic dialog" with my daily "Lines for...." You may have noticed that he started by leaving comments here that were poetic responses to my poems. The first of his responses on his own blog went up yesterday, here; and the second, today's, is here.
At some point, of course, we'll have to reverse roles, and I will respond to Peter's lines.
In the meantime, I will be putting a handy link near the top of my sidebar directing you to Peter's blog and his on-going dialog with my "Lines."
"On and on it goes. What comes of it, no one knows...."
of freezing rain and snow here yesterday, nothing that stayed. The real ugliness is farther to the south. It's about twenty degrees today, a dull light, a winter-grey sky. A winter-lonesome cast over things. An ache throbbing in the bare land, like heart-ache. The tremors of love are the slow hills we live with, easy rolling endless prairie.
The merest dusting of snow on the roof of the car. A bite to the morning.
A wind from the north is lazing in the cemetery. Who is going to complain?
A mile and a half south of Five Corners, there's a snowy owl on a power pole, bright against the grey sky. A white loveliness against the dullness of this winter landscape. The suddenness of beauty wandering amongst the ordinary days.
tell other people how to spend their time and money," Ivan said, "but if you want to have a fun evening, just go up and watch our boys basketball team. I really don't know how good they are, but they are the best I've seen in a long time. I mean, they have the big uns, they have the ones who are quick, they've got the shooters, and they play defense. This is high school basketball at its very best."
"Ya ever notice I don't say much about wrestling," Ivan said. "I suppose ya have. It's not that I have anything against wrestling. It's just that I don't know squat about wrestling. I've looked for a book called Wrestling for Dummies, but so far haven't found one. So what I would like to see happen is for the wrestling coach and the wrestlers to put on a wrestling clinic on Channel 17 sometime. Explain the rules, the different holds, and the scoring. You know, enough for us to understand and enjoy what was going on. They could go into a wrestling practice and show us what was good, what was bad, and what wasn't allowed. Think on 'er."
"When they get to talking politics at Paul's Cafe," Ivan said, "they make fun of the Democrats UNTIL Arden Devlin shows up. When Devlin gets to laying the facts on the Republican majority in Paul's, they hush up. When Devlin parades fact after fact about the shortcomings of the current administration, it makes the only other Democrat think, 'I wish I'd said that.'"
"Have you ever heard about the family that every Christmas played a game called 'Have You See Jesus?'" Ivan asked. "Every year they put out a plastic Nativity Scene, and every year the wind would come up and blow it away. So on Christmas morning, they would go around the neighborhood asking, 'Have you seen Jesus?'"
"Francis Runyon had calf cramps a couple days last week," Ivan reported. "The advice he received from the As the Bladder Fills table was to 'eat more bananas.' But, one thing, you don't want to put banana peels in the disposal."
"Me trying to run a computer," Ivan suggested, "is like Charlie Brown trying to fly a kite."
"Mike Hughes bought a new recliner," Ivan reported. "He gave it a shakedown cruise last Tuesday. He sat down to watch some television. The next thing he knew, it was three o'clock in the morning."
"We used to call it wrasslin' when I was a kid," Ivan said. "Now it is called wrestling and it more scientific and probably a lot more fun if you know for sure what is going on."
"Bobbi Miles was taking notes at the As the Bladder Fills Club last Friday morning," Ivan said. "She had gotten some inquiry from some Ivy Lerague school wanting to know about the middlewest. This, in my opinion, is not the middlewest. This is the Great Plains. As far as I'm concerned, the middlewest stops at the Jewell County line. Everything west of Jewell County, to me, is Plains country."
"Has there been enough snow to guarantee a bumper wheat crop?" Ivan asked. "I don't know how much it takes, but I've had enough already."
to meet a customer. The days get longer, but not so that it's light out yet as I write this. There's dark gloom to the sky, temperatures have dropped, winter returns. The street lamps cut a cold figure in the darkness. I don't make any promises.
No frost on the windshield. As the sky begins to lighten, there is a variety of greys in the clouds - pale to dark. Everything moves as its own pace. Nothing much happens in the village at this hour. Some few folks drive to work. Lights are on in some of the houses; others houses are dark.
Again the wind comes from the east. Everything goes the other way: nothing goes home.
Isn't light is a kind of bath as we rise and dress each day?
on the weekend. Much of our snow cover is gone; the drive is entirely clear of snow. We were in Iowa visiting my parents and I gave a reading in Ames. The snow cover all across Minnesota and Iowa is mostly gone, too.
This is winter, but not a very mean one. We enjoy good fortune for a few days. Nastiness is supposed to be coming. Today is a grey morning. Temperature is about 30 degrees above zero. No complaints yet.
The wind is hard from east to west, or perhaps nearly northeast to southwest. There's a sparrow hawk on the power line north of the village. Only some patches of snow remain in the fields. A greyness of geese above the field off to the west of where the hawk tree used to stand.
Nothing much to remark on this morning, yet it is everything that is.
a great unhinging, or is it a nailing onto? We let go the night, we grab the day, the sun, the motion forward. When will the drag of the past, that weight, bring us to a standstill? Is that what death is?
When the letting go? When the holding onto?
The merest hint of frost this morning. Blue sky with clouds to the north. Sun from the east, a blanket on our warm house.
Yes, a dark bank of clouds to the north. Wind from south to north. We are promised real warmth - in the 50s, maybe into the 60s.
The temperature is well into the twenties, some greyness above, the eternity that's mine ahead of me.
There is a black hole at the center of the Milky Way. How many times has matter expanded and contracted, how many Big Bangs? How distant is the God that lets the machine run and re-set and run again?
Your soul will never escape the black hole at the center of everything, expect as the light next time. Shine, shine, shine.
No frost on the windshield. A fog of breath in air.
The poet can choose the beauty he knows; he can choose a new beauty he doesn't know; he can mend and meld. I know now I am more welded to the past than I used to think. I like to sing what I know. I am like my fellows.
Context is that which gives meaning to nothingness. Without context, nothingness is nothing.
this morning. Yesterday was enough above freezing that water was running in the streets. The sun keeps hammering away. It's up again this morning, saying "Spring is coming, spring is coming."
The wind is from the west. The road is smart black asphalt. The fields are white. The sky is blue, is hazy here and there. Sun and shadow. Saint and sinner. The promise of spring exclaimed in the face of winter.
ECHO'S YEAR IN REVIEW according to its inestimable author
January 2007 Raymond Osborn waxed eloquent about the meal that was served at the High School commons area on Christmas Day. He said the potatoes and gravy were the best eating he had in a long time.
February 2007 Andy Hoard said if you put pepper on your ice cream, you will never get a "brain freeze." Kendall Nichols said, "That's right."
One can only assume that the cold snap we had last week neutered several brass monkeys.
April 2007 Bobbi Miles told about a game they used to play when she was in high school. It was Peediddle. The rules were: when you and your date met a car with only one headlight, you would say peediddle and kiss each other.
Andy Hoard introduced his brother by saying, "I got the looks. He got the money."
Dick Stroup was telling about a squid that had testicles that were ten feet long. He was talking about tentacles. His wife still blushes when the story is repeated.
June 2007 Arloa Barnes encouraged her aerobics group to "put your belly button right on your spine."
The name of the song is "June's busting out all over," not "June's bust is out all over."
July 2007 Gladys Kennedy said when Smith Center and Lebanon consolidated [schools], the kids got along fine; it was the adults who had the problem.
August 2007 Lynn Pickle is on my list. She has the restroom in the Second Cup labeled Hens and Roosters. I used the Roosters, but I sure don't have anything to crow about.
September 2007 Jack Benn was wondering if anybody in Phillipsburg knew how to unboom a cannon. The P-burg cannon boomed, but the P-burg team hadn 't scored.
October 2007 If Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest, why is sleeping in church frowned upon?
November 2007 The waitress at the Second Cup said "that young man who was sitting right there paid for the coffee." The young man she was referring to was Greg Hubbard. He wanted Linton Lull and me to rotate his tires and change the oil in his car. But we only work in hard hat areas.
December 2007 On the Hays Daily News Super Eleven [football players] were Joe Windscheffel, Braden Wilkson, and Brayton Gillen. Also selected was the entire offensive line. Roger Barta was selected all area coach.
burns with light. The temperature is about 20 degrees above zero. There was no snow during the night. All the trees still bear the weight of last week's snow in their branches. All decisions are final, no decision has been made. Sometimes we go too fast for our own good. We slide down the hill, the toboggan out of control. Even preliminary decisions are final.
Whatever are the birds talking about so intensely this morning? It's too cold for that kind of conversation.
A clod of dirt in the field where alfalfa used to be - there is snow on it, like the white breast of some black bird. Morning sings that bird's song.
There are clouds smeared in several directions. It looks like a storm front coming from the west. Halfway to Ripon, snow is drifting across the road from southeast to northwest. What pushes what away?
Temperature is about 20 degrees above. Thank you for everything, thank you for anything. Nothing? I wouldn't be around to talk about that.
I want to celebrate the moment. The single instant when everything comes clear, when the true nature of things is revealed. You hold that clarity a moment, then it dissipates in the face of an onslaught of the world's noise.
But it's useless to complain about the noise. The task is for me to find my own silence, and the peace and wisdom that might go with that.
The day is overcast. Snow falls light in wide, lazy flakes.
Main Street in Fairwater is wet with snow on salt. Wind in the flag at the cemetery blows it hard from west to east. North of the village the road is sloppy and not very trustworty. Farther north things look a little more polar. Snow is blown across the road a foot or two above the asphalt.
At the south edge of Ripon, a crow above the road plays the wind, or the wind plays it. The crow faces west, goes nowhere in that direction, gives up and heads east where all things come from except the wind.
The weight of winter will not be lifted, not today. The light, the blueness of sky - an insufficient conspiracy.
It's colder this morning - five above at best.
The flag at the cemetery in Fairwater snaps sharply west to east. Sunlight is yellow on the snow, creating a softer blanket this morning, a certain glow.
Just south of Five Corners I find snow blowing across the road, even drifting in some places. I plow over some minor drifts. I'm going to work, not because I want to but because it's my duty. Duty is my hangman.
I don't believe in God and fortunately She puts up with that.
We've gone from nothing on the ground to serious plowbanks in just a few days. Roads have been slippery and sloppy at times. Temperatures are still relatively mild - it's ten degrees above zero anyway, if you consider that mild, and I do.
Seems like it's still rush, rush, rush. Perhaps I want too much. Perhaps I'm trying to fit too much in. I need to find a steady pace and hold it steady. What are the chances of that any time soon? We'll see.
As I leave home this morning, there's fire in the eastern sky, a vapor of snow in all the tree branches, a vapor of tree branches. Out in the country I see a woods shrouded behind a veil of whiteness. Everything seems a little paler this morning, colors not strong enough to seem real. Everything I see seems farther away, a distance beyond my reach.
on Sunday night, late. I worked Monday and Tuesday but have felt so far "behind schedule" on everything that I haven't taken the time to write here. I have to take the time to write here. This is not product, but process, and I've got to go through these motions whether there is something to say or not, because if I don't open myself, I won't be open when there is something to say.
We came back in a snow storm. We've gotten a couple more inches beyond that. It's winter. Fortunately, it's not bitter winter. Yet.
There is no wind in the flag at the cemetery. Snow on all those graves. Grey skies. More snow promised. Temperatures in the teens.
"Some people spend all day looking for patience," the fellow on the radio says. Tom says "patience is found in your own heart. Look there."
On Watson Street in Ripon, snow on the trees like the absence of shadow. Or like the whitenes on the shadow's other side, perhaps.
for the Creative Nonfiction class I taught this fall, I hadn't even finished congratulating myself on the prospect of having all my days to myself again when I got an e-mail asking if I would teach another class at Lakeland College during the spring semester. Because Lakeland has been very good to me - letting me teach Creative Nonfiction twice now, and Advanced Composition once - I couldn't very well refuse them in their hour of need. So I'm signed up to teach "Introduction to Mass Media" during second semester.
The class meets three days a week, M-W-F, at 10:10 a.m. The first class gathered yesterday, and I found - after having the luxury of three hour class periods - that 55 minutes is barely enough time to get anything done. But, as I remarked in an e-mail to one of our daughters yesterday, not getting everything done on Monday gives me something to do on Wednesday, and it is always good to be prepared as you face twenty-five inquisitive minds.
I intend to work them hard enough that they'll have something to grumble about, yet their efforts will be directed at making them the "experts." By the end of the term, they'll be teaching me about the mass media. It should be fun.
Those of you who know The Middlewesterner know that Mary and I always spend a week or ten days in Cozumel each January. This year was no exception. With the exception of going to and fro, we had a wonderful time, as usual. I did a bit of scuba diving and the rest of the time worked at preparing my "Mass Media" class (see above) and enjoying the food. Mary did more scuba diving, and she saw nurse sharks for the first time, and several sea turtles. I was disappointed to find that Johnny Bravo's was closed; he served "the best beef tacos on the island," one of which was mandatory for my Cozumel trifecta. So - no Trifecta this year. Also, I was disappointed to see that La Altenita was closed for several days during our stay. Toward the end of our visit, we found the owner and arranged our traditional last night feast of tamales. La Altenita's come wrapped in banana leaves (Yucatan-style) rather than with corn husks. This year's tamales were just as tasty as last year's.
We had fifteen songs already written for Trinity's upcoming "train" album, yet Dean Schechinger - who writes the music to make my ordinary lyrics turn to magic on Trinity's albums - was a little depressed because we didn't have a "train wreck" song. You'd think there were already enough train wreck songs, but no. So, while I started writing a train wreck song here, Dean wrecked his own train, which I've tidied up, and now we have TWO train wrecks for the album. And a total of 17 songs altogether, if we include "The Nobody Dies In a Polka Polka" written by me and my guitar-pickin' friend from Ripon, Doug Burk. Both verses in "Nobody Dies" have railroad settings.
So - work on creating the lyrics and music has been coming along nicely. Dean needs to finish up melodies for three of the songs yet. I have to repair my lyrics on two of the songs so they work the same from verse to verse. Then Doc Abbick, our featured guitar player and lead singer, will do the voo-doo that he does, which is to make the songs uniquely his own. We'll start recording the album after the end of the semester, along about the beginning of summer, with the goal of releasing it - our second album! - sometime next fall. In the meantime, I have been practicingpracticingpracticing. I play my basslines against music files Dean sends me and, I must say, I am starting to sound like a bass-player. Sometimes my fingers know more than I do! If I get to sounding much better, I will want to buy the last instrument I'll ever buy, an excellent quality acoustic flat-top bass, such as a used Guild, if I can afford it, or one or other of the acoustic flat-top basses made by Martin Guitar Company and available in the middle price range. I want something that plays easier and sounds better acoustically than any of the basses I currently own. If it will be the last bass I'll ever buy, it had better be a good one, right?
On Sunday, Doug, and I recorded live versions of ten instrumental tunes we've been working on. Doug is my guitar-pickin' friend from Ripon, Wisconsin, and is the fellow who has taught me most everything I know about music, even as I have resisted. He believes that only 2% of it is talent; the other 98% comes from practice. As I say, I resisted that message, but you know what: after practicing hard, as I have been for the past six months, I am more inclined to agree with him. I am starting to sound like a bass player.
Am I having too much fun?
Say No. Say No, Tom - you just go on and have all the fun you want.
Ivan said. "I didn't realize just how old I was getting until one of those chilly days we had a week or so ago. What happened was - a nubile young thing with a trophy rack came walking in wearing a tank top, shoulders back, apparently wearing one of Victoria's Secrets. You know what my first thought was - that girl needs to put on a sweater. Now let me tell ya - that is old."
"I really disciplined myself on my Christmas eating this year," Ivan said. "I didn't eat any more for Christmas than I did for Thanksgiving."
"The quietest thing in the world," Ivan said, "is a conversation among J.C. Chance, Jay Schmidt, and Roger Kelly. When those three get together, the only sound you'll hear is bone-on-bone scraping when they shrug their shoulders and a gravelly sound when they nod their heads."
"When I was in grade school back in the 30s," Ivan recalled, "we didn't have obese kids in our class, but we did have a lot of snotty noses. You would bring a clean handkerchief to school in the morning and by noon it would be snot-soaked and abrasive to the nose. These soft, disposable tissues have almost done away with the sore red nose that was the result of wiping your nose with a rough handkerchief."
"One thing we used to have to do when I refereed basketball," Ivan said, "that they don't have to do nowadays - we used to have to get both coaches together before the game and go over the ground rules. It was a lot different then. Had overhanging balconies, posts along the side of the court. The backcourt line was never across the middle of the court. The courts were not long enough for that. The Harlan gym had a heat radiator above the backboard, so you had to shoot a low trajectory shot. Portis had a heating stove in the corner. It was surrounded by fencing so no one would crash into a red hot furnace. Athol had a heating grate below the basket. One time at Athol I was driving in for a set up. Bud Conaway undercut me, and I landed on that hot grate. Put a waffle brand on my butt that lasted into July. Kensington's gym was long enough but it was so narrow that it was almost like playing in a hallway. I remember you had to walk from the dressing room through a tunnel to get to the court. The two best courts in the county were at Lebanon and Gaylord. But the tough place was where the wall was out of bounds. When you gave the ball to a player to throw it in from out of bounds, you always had to back the defensive player back so the out of bounds player had a chance to throw the ball in."
yesterday. I came home about 10:30 a.m. and went back to help out on second shift. I'll be doing that again today - I'll stay for a meeting this morning, come home, then go back for work this evening.
It is chilly this morning - about 12 degrees above zero. It is grey overhead, in contrast to the snow on the pond and our lawns. Our roads mark out our duties.
Again by the time I get out to the car to leave for work, the sky that had started grey this morning is a great blue hug. A tic-tac-toe of vapor trails in the east southeast, haze still to the northwest.
The flag at the cemetery blows from south to north. A darkness of cloud out over Lake Michigan. Weather is so temporary: everyone has it, but they don't keep any of it for long. It's like trying to hold the memory of a dream - later in the day you remember it was powerful but you don't have the least clue what it was about. Weather is like that, so soon gone, and soon we are lost in our usual fog.
It is a somewhat hazy morning; still we have light coming earlier - earlier today than yesterday. I can understand why primitive peoples in the north might celebrate the turn of the sun. Every morning now we are one sunrise closer to summer. A fellow at work said yesterday: "It's January - even if it gets nasty, how long can it last?" Well, I remember four or five years ago now three weeks of unrelieved 20+ below zero temperatures in January, so it could get nasty - though that's not likely. I shall enjoy this singular moment, and the next one, and the next.
There is sunlight like spilled cream on five black birds behind our house, where they sit atop the top branches of the tallest tree. Snow on the ice of the pond. The sun cannot yet reach down into the scoop of landscape this morning, so the snow is blue like cold skin. Color around the rim of earth, orange mostly, some pinkness. Today the flag at the cemetery flies from west to east. The temperature is about five degrees.
Why does the light this morning look so rich and thick? You want to sing.
it is the same old season. We tear a page off the calendar; we don't change anything. The light comes a little bit earlier; it stays a little bit longer. Every night the moon dallies, takes its sweet time coming up. It is higher and higher in the sky when I rise; soon again we'll have a day-time moon. The moon - that chunk of rock we care so much about. Because it's ours.
As I go north and south and east and west from here, living as the vagabond in the middle, the shape of the sky will keep changing. Stars will stick to different parts of the dark dome. The sun will rise and set at different times in seemingly different places. Everything is relative, except our eternal middle western endurance, our doggedness. This is not relative at all, but absolute, that endurance.
I step outside to a cold morning. There is sunlight and frost on everything. All the trees look as if someone has spray-painted them white. A nice effect, not over-done. Such a morning, such a day.
I put the car in gear and I'm underway.
Oh! the sun is south. I haven't thought recently about how far it has been moving off true east. It could not be much farther off.
At the cemetery, the flag hangs dead against the flag pole.
Three crows along Highway north out of Fairwater take off 1, 2, 3 - an offbeat between each lifting.
Story, yes. There must be story, but there must also be poetry, passion, a fierce hold on what we are and what we've got.
Ivan said, "Lyle Morgan and David Grey got to comparing bad backs. Morgan had one that sounded chronic. Grey had one that sounded like it was brought on by snow-shoveling. But after this bad back conversation and the resulting sympathy it brought from their listening audience, it was revealed that following their coffee break, they were going sledding. My medical training is sketchy at best, but even in my medical ignorance I am convinced that sledding wasn't the relief you sought when suffering from a hurting sacroiliac. But you can't tell young people anything."
"Ain't it the truth," Ivan said. "Someone asked Dick Weltmer when his heifers were supposed to start calving. Dick said they are supposzed to start calving during the next storm."
"I don't know if Joe Lambert's kids and grandkids know this or not, but one time when Joe was a student in the Thornburg grade school, he got the bright idea that he would hide out and not return to the classroom following recess one day. So he hid in a culvert near school. School teacher Brown didn't beg, plead, or promise any kind of punishment. Professor Brown just gathered up a bunch of Russian thistles, piled them at the end of the culvert, and set them on fire. The thistles started blowing smoke in one end of the culvert, and Joe came blowing smoke out the other end of the culvert."
"Edith Drake," Ivan said, "described me to my grandson as a pain in the butt. I can't hardly believe she would say that, can you?"
"What a revolting development this is," Ivan said. "Last Thursday night, Me N Momma was following Jack and Arlene Benn down the hall at Smith Center High School. You know how Jack moseys. I couldn't believe it. They were actually pulling away from us. Of course we weren't going full throttle but, even at that, having Jack Benn pulling away from you is degrading to the Nth degree."