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.
falling to the west. Sun assigned to the eastern sky. Blueness overhead. It's morning. It's glorious morning in glorious March - Easter ahead, the equinox ahead, spring will be coming. By March 1st we know we've survived another winter and - in the face of any amount of snow and blow - we can whistle and go on our merry way. Mary says snow tonight and tomorrow, as much as six inches. Ha! the snow will go, will go soon enough.
I'm scraping some bit of frost off the windshield. An old feed truck comes past on Washington Street. It's not hitting on all cylinders; it rumbles and roars deeply, an elemental vibration; and it leaves a thick trail of acrid blue smoke, a haze of it, enough to slow the wind.
River runs. Flag blows. I drive north out of Fairwater. Black asphalt and blue sky straight ahead as far as I can see.
You can go home again. You can go home to visit, but you can't stay.
Just north of Five Corners, a pair of mourning doves on a power line, fluffed against the cold and the promised storm.
If you make yourself say something, you may say something interesting and important. You'd better be listening when it comes along. If you miss it you might as well have kept silent.
That's the way it is: if you don't pay attention, you lose - you lose something, a word, an image, a trill of emotion. So often we put our head down and push on without recognizing what's in this moment. This might be the moment. I want to learn to live in it.
like a single large bird disappears behind the evergreen across the street. The flash of it, an image of such a great bird, and your breath catches. Then you realize what you've seen - nothing new, but something presented differently.
We'll have blue sky today - there's haze like a day's growth of whiskers, yet I expect it will disappear. Or perhaps not; I have been wrong before. The temperature is about 15 degrees.
I have made coffee for my wife. We have everything we need.
Oh, yes, I step outside and now I think the sky will be grey all day. The haze has thickened. The sun stays almost hidden - a luminous disk in the east, nothing more. The village is grey with a winter day's greyness. Nothing busts wide open with color.
The wind in the flag at the cemetery blows from south to north, a little southwest to a little northwest perhaps.
Out in the country, a drabness touched by snow. The roads are clear. Asphalt is stained with salt.
For a moment, a blinding sun breaks through. It shines on ice and crusted snow. Sheen of brightness like a knife.
"Sun on Sunday" says the weather-woman on the radio. I don't think she realizes what she has said. In this modern life, we forget Sun-day, Moon-day.
turned everything white yesterday, and made the roads slippery. This morning - blue sky and cold. The temperature here is about ten degrees. "Hitch up your britches and git going," I can hear my dad say. The day doesn't get better for the waiting.
Crunch, crunch, crunch, I step on snow on the way to the car. It's a biting morning, the car in shadow of the neighbor's house.
The white surface of things is a loveliness with sunlight bright on it. Wind at the cemetery, the flag blows west to east.
The rest of my drive to work - an emptiness. The day has gone translucent, I'm seeing nothing that registers, that sticks to mind. So quiet a white morning near the end of February. Nothing else to do, nowhere else to go but to go to work.
on some kind of drawing up at Paul's Cafe last Tuesday morning," Ivan said. "He hit the motherlode at the front table. I even invested a meager amount. Dennis asked for my phone number so he could call me in case I won. You talk about your waste of time. That was a waste of time. He knew it, I knew it, all God's chillun knew it. I ain't gonna win no drawing."
"The Tuesday snowstorm had some good points," Ivan thought. "Momma made chili and baked cookies."
"I don't know how those old miners who got snowed in and spent the winter in a mountain cabin did it," Ivan said. "I had a case of cabin fever so bad by two o'clock in the afternoon last Tuesday that I was walking the floor. Cabin Fever and Claus Phobia - that is a double-whammy when you are snowed in."
Ivan reported: "Davy Winkleman says it is too late to start any vast project with half vast ideas."
"I was complaining about not getting my check to stimulate the economy," Ivan said. "I didn't know who to blame - was it George W., Congress, or the Postal Department? I said something about it to a grizzled veteran Smith County farmer. He summed it up in one word. He said, 'Republicans.' I never thought of that before."
"I was saying that I don't really care what happens politically any more," Ivan admitted. "I won't be around long enough for it to affect me. Donna Conrad said, 'You may live another twenty years.' Betty McDonald said, 'Lord, I hope not. We don't want to have to put up with him for another twenty years.' It gives you such a warm feeling when you have friends."
"Busy, busy, busy," Ivan said. "Last Friday morning, Dick Weltmer was stoking the furnace with breakfast at Paul's Cafe. Dick had an appointment with an eye doctor, an ear doctor, a nose doctor, and a throat doctor at Hastings. Then he was going to try to get to the Mankato cattle sale by noon. Following the cattle sale, he was going to try to make it to the Smith Center-Hill City basketball game and spaghetti feed. He was planning on doing all of this while driving no more than the speed limit."
"Announcer Mike Hughes said he sat down at the wrestling promotion at 3:45 p.m. and didn't get up until 10:30," Ivan reported. "He said Friday morning that his arms, legs, hips, back, and butt were hurtin'. He said you could see dimples in his butt from the bolts in the bleacher seats. I chose not to look."
I can see blue sky behind it in patches. Cold and snow has been promised. The temperature is 20 degrees. We haven't seen the snow yet.
Each place has its own peculiar lay of light. Each place tugs at its natives in a special way, at its natives and its adopted sons and daughters. Sometimes we give our hearts away to another place than our native home: I have to make allowance for that.
The flag at the Fairwater cemetery blows north to south. There is some chill on the air even as the sun punches through the overcast to the east.
Wind. The geese are keeping their heads down - not a single vee of them cuts the air this morning.
To the south of Ripon, a blast of snow flakes flung down. I think of Thomas Merton's funeral, of Sister Therese's poem of one handful of blasted sleet hitting the coffin being lowered into the grave. A shock of remembrance.
By the time I'm sitting in the parking lot at work, it's a real flutter of snow across the wall of vista before me.
a bout of mildness over the weekend. The greyness overhead today seems soft and patient. We know there is harshness at the other end of the sky. That happens. Storms hold. Storms hold and run and tear.
A few large flakes of snow have fallen; they amount to almost nothing but they remind us where we are - this is February and it snows in March too, remember.
Geese and greyness; and trees moving in the wind. It could be a still life but for the life of wind. Life is an insistent motion.
The flag in the parking lot at work blows to the south. Everything blows one way or another, eventually. We make our choices. We want to get to where we want to go. Yet we have to go to work.
Wednesday afternoon and evening. Much ado about very little - only a few inches of snow came out of it, enough to make yesterday a little slippery and sloppy. The roads cleared in the afternoon. It is a blue sky morning, the storm and sidewise snow would be barely a memory yet it clings to the sides of everything, like paint.
A white blanket on everything, ditch and fields. Where is the snowy owl when you need him? Gone to feed farther on.
Fog and clouds smear away from Green Lake to the northwest of me. The lake has been open all winter: it is putting its warmth to the air, water wishing to be snow again.
This is February; this is not February. We lose sight of everything on a morning like this. You can't find the melody for anything.
The fog is so thick it's coming down as rain, a regular patt, patt, patt.
In the country, visibility is only a quarter of a mile. Maybe less. Wet, unhappy starlings on the powerline again this morning. Ghostly orbs of light come out of the fog towards me. An extrusion of light in these conditions. If I had to live out in this weather, where would I hide from it?
Sometimes I just want to tell the world to "Shut up." Noise of the radio, noise of tires on the wet asphalt, the distant whine of all the unhappy people.
I say, but nonsense too. Bumperstickers will be issued.
The good news is this: on Sunday, via internet and telephone, I bought a 1988 Guild four string flat-top acoustic bass, exactly like the one pictured here, except mine is Serial #130 and the one shown at the link is a 1995 model and Serial #145. But they are bass-ically the same.
My 1988 Guild acoustic bass Serial #130 is presently located in Alexandria, Virginia, and will be relocated to Fairwater, Wisconsin, during spring break. I will meet its present curator in Alexandria on March 17, load Ol' Number 130 into the passenger seat so she can ride shot-gun, and bring her on home as fast as my little Saturn can carry me.
Can you say: Tom is ecstatic!
Now, you may know that I write lyrics for, and play bass with, Dean Schechinger and Doc Abbick in a group we call Trinity. We have recorded one album, Fairy Tales & Nonsense, and we are up to our elbows in a second one, all original "train songs."
From time to time in the course of developing our songs, Doc and Dean and I exchange bits of curious information beyond verse and chorus and melodies for particular tunes. At one point, recently, another song at hand, Doc exclaimed: "Alright! A song that rhymes."
"I didn't know you were so keen on rhyme," I responded. "I'll keep that in the mind in the future."
Further along in the discussion, Doc opined: "It might be truly impossible to use rhyme in some situations, but I think a writer should at least try." And he thinks rhymes help make songs easier to remember.
I responded: "Within the poem/lyric itself, rhyme functions (1) to help unify the poem; and (2) to underline the meaning. The poem/lyric itself doesn't care whether it is easier to remember. Outside the poem/lyric, rhyme has traditionally been used to help remember, yes; yet we no longer live in an oral society, so we don't have to put our stories in rhyme in order to remember them. I have seen so many terribly bad poems that rhyme that I am automatically prejudiced AGAINST a poem that rhymes. Little Old Ladies in Tennis Shoes (LOLITS), you might say, have ruined the usefulness of rhyme for me. Instead of rhyme, I would generally prefer almost any other device to make the poem musical."
"On the other hand," I continued, "rhyme also can function as camoflauge, that is, for some people it can help make a lyric seem like 'a real song.' For me these days this is really the best argument for using rhyme."
"Personally," I added, "if there is to be rhyme, (as you may have noticed) I much prefer slant-rhymes or half-rhymes to real rhymes (think Emily Dickinson). I tend to agree that if you establish a certain rhyming pattern, you should follow it all the way to the end. I'm not averse to true rhymes in the occasional lyric, now that I know you like them, provided they don't get sing-songy and they do indeed help unify the lyric. A song like 'Three Little Pigs' doesn't really 'need' rhymes to keep it unified, because the structure of every verse is so parallel to the structure of every other verse. Well, you should never get me started in the first place. Sorry. The point being, we'll occasionally give it a good try."
And, at some other point recently, I had the opportunity to ask Doc this question: "What have you got when you've got 200 banjos at the bottom of the ocean?" It's an old joke, but Doc didn't know the punch-line and he wanted to. "My joke about 200 banjos at the bottom of the ocean is an adaptation of the lawyer joke," I wrote back. "What have you got when you've got 200 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start."
Of course, once you start in on the banjo, you can't stop. So at some point I added: "Banjo is one of the four instruments that aren't allowed into heaven. I told you that, right? The others are bagpipe, trombone, and accordion. That's why it's heaven. None of those instruments are there. If there were bagpipes, trombones, accordions, and banjos, it'd be hell."
In my snarky opinion, of all instruments, with those four it is the most difficult to tell the difference between someone playing badly and someone playing well.
Well, Doc took exception to my snarky opinion, as he is sometimes wont to, and he sent along a little piece of prose which really does seem to be the last word on the matter. What can I say, except that I'd like to share it here:
At the Pearly Gates by Doc Abbick
As I approach the pearly gates, I will sing some of the old Latin tunes we learned in high school. "In paradisum deducant me (changed to first person from second person - more immediate) angeli..."
In his gruff, authoritative, commanding voice, Pete will say, "Was that you doin' all that singin' boy?"
Then, as meekly as a child, I will reply, "Yes, sir, your holiness."
"Well, just go on in through that big white gate there and ask somebody where the Seraphim's practice hall is. They been needin' some baritones."
"Can that big guy with the bushy beard come in too, sir?"
"Tom, sir. See him way down there?"
"That tall fella down on the bottom cloud there what just stepped in line?"
"The one with the big bass geetar strapped to his back like Johnny Cash?"
"Yes, sir. That's Tom."
"Hmmmm. Now hold on just a minute boy! Ain't he one uh them so-called poets what wrote so-called poetry what don't rhyme?"
"Well, sometimes it rhymes, sort of half way, or in a slanted way, sir."
"Well, now, I don't know about that."
"But, your holiness, he honestly thought it was poetry, as long as he used some other devices."
"Devices! Hah! Yeah, I heard that excuse a million times..."
"But, Saint Peter, sir, your holiness, he's my bass player."
"Oh, he is, is he?"
"Yes, sir, your holiness. He practiced every day, and we've been workin' together for years."
"Oh, you have, have you?"
"Yes, sir. And we were in the seminary together."
"Seminary, you say!? "
"Yes, sir, in Sioux City. And he can recite the Greek alphabet."
"Greek, huh? Yeah... Well... Seminary.... Uhhh huh.... Yeah.... Greek is good, I s'pose.... It uh been nice if he had an accordion or a banjo too, but....Well.... Well.... Oh I guess it uh be arright, him bein' yer bass player 'n all. Just get on in there like I told you now, boy. I'll send an angel down there directly to fetch him on up here and show him how to find you.... Hey, boy, I wanna hear some more uh that singin.... Next!...."
"Kendall Nichols said to me, 'Don't write anything derogatory about me in the Echo.' That just cut about a page and a half of print that I already had."
"David Grey and Lyle Morgan were sitting at the far east table at Paul's Cafe last Sunday afternoon," Ivan said. "Lyle called our attention to how much David used his hands when he talked. He was right. David would get to waving his hands around to explain, make a point, and come to a conclusion. Pretty soon David told something with both hands on the table without a move. I called it to Lyle's attention, saying he didn't used his hands to talk. Lyle said, 'That time he was telling the truth.' You can draw your own conclusions."
"Last week," Ivan said, "I mentioned the name Nolan Hajny in the Echo. Nolan is just naturally a funny guy. He can even remember the song, 'She had freckles on her but she was pretty.'"
"When you get to talking about lawns and grass and weeds and such," Ivan said, "just remember what Casey Edell said about a girl in the 1930s. He said at a dance she was a wallflower but she was a dandelion in the grass."
"When you ask about a basketball team," Ivan said, "the first thing you hear is 'They are big.' You need big, but a point guard starts everything. No point guard, no points, it's that simple. Fortunately for Smith Center, they've got A Street Joe Windscheffel. A Street Joe can play point guard, he can play shooting guard, and he can go inside and play power foward. I've never seen him carry water or sweep the gym at halftime, but I'll bet he could."
"I'll be glad when I hear my first Sandhill Crane," Ivan said. "When you hear a Sandhill Crane, spring can't be far behind."
"Betty McDonald said last Friday that if she had any less to do that day, she would come to a complete stop," Ivan reported. "She said every evening one of her girls calls her and says, 'Mother, what did you do today?' Betty says she has to stop and think if she done anything or not."
According to Ivan, "One momma kangaroo said to the other momma kangaroo, 'I hate it when it rains and the kids have to play indoors.'"
warm melting days. "Watery light," as Mary's mother said yesterday from her hospital room. She is recovering. Spring comes on.
It is a grey morning. The temperature is already above freezing, I believe. The day uncoils. The ice of the pond is getting sloppy wet; water stands atop it.
The flag at the cemetery blows from south to north. Tires sizz on the wet asphalt. Some little mist spats the windshield. A line of starlings along a powerline north of town, birds wet and unhappy. A vee of geese flies east above me.
Out in the country, fog hangs down in all directions. Where would you go if you could go somewhere, and how would you be different than you are where you are?
split left and right, creased north and south. A jet plane heading west. A new day dawning.
You see what you see. Don't beat yourself up too badly about it. Tomorrow the sky will be something different, a blue sheerness of petticoat, a shiny muslin, a white gauze.
Metaphor takes you away; it doesn't bring you back. You come back on your own if you get here at all.
It's a brisk morning, yet the birds sing. There is a smell of spring not far off, not farther than hope. There is sun on things, that brightness.
The sun is a shaggy-maned lion. The flag at the cemetery blows almost due north. To the west now I see a darkness of clouds, and elsewhere some smears of cloud. The fields are mostly bare of snow. Geese and crows. Far off, perhaps a hawk on the nakedness of its tree.
Where I work, a play of crows above the parking lot, a crackle and snap of them.
about the grey haziness above? Complain about a bit of wind in the trees? The dampness and chill in everything? No, I don't think so. I think I'll sing my heart out about being alive. Being alive another day!
Yesterday was warm and melting. Today, we're told, won't be quite so fine. Indeed, there are snow flurries already, not serious yet but they grow more serious by the minute. Even so, I've got to sing rejoicement!
Now already in the blink of an eye the streets are white with snow. Serious snow indeed.
They are wide, wet flakes by the time I step out to the car, like chunks falling of the roof of a house, some of them. Heavier than a coat of paint. Wetter than a kiss.
Oh, the snow. Where is the snowy owl when you need him? He's not at his station along Watson Road this morning. I haven't seen him for several days. Has he gone to fatter mice in fields farther north?
a rose is a rose, unless it's the rosiness all around the morning horizon today. A soft edge laid on everything. Despite the crusted snow, despite the cold temperature outside, a softness is evident, as if the world is swelling for spring. The temperature is about twenty degrees. I'd like to stuff a wad of money in my pocket and chase the horizon, but I'll go to work. Duty.
Even the wind in the branches seems more gentle somehow.
Everyone wants what no one gets, is that it? A crumbling brick with the sun on it. In summer, the insistence of ants. There is no stampede for these. I'll take them like flowers.
Wind in the flag, from south to north. It blows me all the way to work. It blows me into empty-headed oblivion. I see everything, I notice nothing.
we'll ever need today; it stretches from horizon to horizon like a crown of happiness. The temperature is only about ten degrees but who can complain. The world is bright with every possibility. Abandon hope if ye cannot rejoice. You dress the world, undress it; you have no one to blame.
In the cold, still air, there is a certainty, a sureness - as if the dictionary is complete, as if everything has been defined for all times. There is that kind of hard edge to everything.
No wind. By nature and definition, all despair is infinite. If it does not roll everywhere forever, then you've given up despair and it's not despair, it is hope again.
I have been way too occupied to be watching for the snowy owl when I need to. It could be there, it could be not there - today I don't know.
going to say 'unseasonably warm' weather?" Ivan wondered.
"Did you put the cat out?" Ivan said, "I didn't even know he was on fire."
"I guess I'll ask Mike Hughes if I can join the group Six Pack," Ivan said. "That way we could have a star-studded show. He could be the star and I could be the stud."
"Lyle Morgan showed up last Thursday morning at Paul's Cafe," Ivan said, "wearing either a rubber or plastic thumb stall on the thumb of his left hand. Now Morgan is one of the smartest guys I know. His I.Q. would rank right up there with anybody else in town. But with Morgan, when he tells you something, you have to separate fact from fiction, you have to separate the wheat from the chaff, and you always have to scrape the B.S. from around the edge of his stories to get to the kernel of truth. So here is what he said about his thumb. He said he was loading cattle. One of them wouldn't do what it was supposed to do. So Morgan done something, kicked it or done something to make it upset. So it got his thumb in its mouth and bit. Now that's his story and he stuck to it through several interrogations by some expert interrogators."
"The meek don't want it," Ivan said.
"I overheard a conversation about cold weather," Ivan said. "How cold it had been, how long it had been since some of the older people had gotten out to do any shopping. Nolan Hajny topped all the staying-in stories I heard. Someone asked him if his wife, Lorna, had made out a grocery shopping list to take to the store. Noland said she had, and it took a full roll of toilet paper for her grocery list. Now, I'm tellin' ya those people had been scraping the bottom of the grocery barrel at their house. Sounded to me like they were eating left over left overs."
"Somebody told me the other day not to 'rush off,'" Ivan said. "Boy, I just wish I could 'rush off.'"
"Someone said we had had snow on the ground since Thanksgiving," Ivan reported. "It had to be somebody young to remember that, because us old people can remember the Smith Center-Osborne football being played on a snowy field on Thanksgiving of 1932, but we can't remember what happened last week."
"Stan Hooper says that if Hillary Clinton is elected president, he is moving to Australia," Ivan reported. "That kind of statement could cause Hillary to carry Smith County."
"In 1930," Ivan said, "the candidates for Kansas governor were: for the Republicans Frank 'Chief' Haucke of Council Grove; and for the Democrats, Harry Woodring, a banker from Neodesha. And it would probably have been a rather dull election, until Dr. John R. Brinkley became a third candidate. Dr. Brinkley came to Kansas in 1918. He opened a medical clinic in Milford. In 1922 he started the first radio station in Kansas. The call letters were KFKB, Kansas First Kansas Best. At his medical clinic he offered to restore male sexual prowess by transplanting goat glands. He became a third party candidate for governor as a write-in candidate. It has long been suspected that he received enough write-in votes to win the governorship, but the Republicans and Democrats had enough clout to make the election boards throw out ballots on any technicality. The name had to be spelled exactly right, the I's dotted or any other technicality that could be found. Much to both the Democrats' and Republicans' relief, Harry Woodring was elected governor."
severe wind lifting the snow from stretches of prairie, depositing the snow on our roads. A reconfiguration not to my liking. Enough snow on the roads that you have to be careful driving. You didn't know what surprise was just out of reach of your headlights.
It's still a loud blow, the sound of the wind in the trees. The wind grabs the trees, tries to drag them. The trees cry for relief. They don't want to lose control, such control as sturdy roots can give.
The wind has blown away the clouds above us - they are heaped in a pile to the south and east. The snow is crusted by the melting and freezing; where a piece of soil was cast up by the snowblower onto our lawn, a pit or scar on the white surface. Heat and cool. Love and leave. A pang of loneliness. All upon a pile of snowbank, questions.
Far to the west, a bank of dark clouds. There are places in the countryside where the fields are bare, whipped to black soil by these winds. An exposure like a scab pulled off a wound, I'd say.
as the sun came up. It is blue sky overhead now, a certain rosiness all along the horizon, a new day. We had a snow storm on Saturday night and Sunday morning and now it's behind us like a bad dream we no longer remember.
Sun in the afternoon yesterday - Sunday - cleared the snow off the roads. Our way is clear. It may not be the path we've chosen, but we can go. Sometimes we think merely moving is enough. It's not. You've got to ask where the hell am I going or you're going to hell.
Wood smoke comes up the neighbor's chimney. Frost holds tight to the windshield. My fingers grow number, scraping. Sun lays on everything; the sun shall take all.
Yesterday the flag at the cemetery blew north to south. This morning it flaps south to north. Nothing lasts forever, except perhaps the wind. Yet even the wind must change direction.
frost, temperature of 20 degrees. Another song across the sky. "Hello, Beautiful Morning." Someone should write it down, but we all think we're too busy. We are busy like ants; we have much to do about nothing. What is true and permanent and important? I'm not sure we ask ourselves. The small bits of it we handle are all we want to handle. Aren't we all afraid to break off something bigger than we are, something rangy and untamed? Don't we choose to play it safe?
The snowy owl is off to my left this morning as I drive north, on a power pole along Carter road, exactly where I saw it last night too.
We are promised temperatures in the 40s today. What loveliness.
a grey haze with blue behind. Along the horizon, a whiteness, like hoarfrost in all the trees. A rosy-faced girl off to the east, smiling at us.
Get up in the morning and say Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah. Shadows have gone to Shadowland. We're back in the world of things with substance. Now again we can taste what we eat; we feel the texture of life; brightness is warmth. Everything's as beautiful as light can make it. No one gets everything.
Wrap your arms around the morning like she's a girl. Kiss her like you mean it.
Poetry is neither fact nor fiction, it's the plain truth. Some of us are not ready for plain truth. No one said the truth was simple. Sometimes you've got to put on your apron: you're a butcher cutting meat.
It's a sincere frost on the windshield.
I saw the snowy owl again last night, near the same power pole as earlier. The sun was setting. The owl was a great whiteness against the darkness coming on. There is a bit of hoarfrost in the trees along Highway E. There is a white haze in all directions. Overhead, all the blue sky we could ever want.
a birthday," Ivan reported. "I've never really known just how to pronounce Charlene's name. Those people over south of Athol say "Char"-lene. The rest of the county calls her "Shar"-lene. But she is such a nice person that she answers to either one."
"I want you to remember," Ivan said, "I didn't say this, a guy I was talking to said this. I asked one of the local yokels if he went to the basketball game last Monday night. He said, 'Hell, no. I don't go to girls basketball games.' He said, 'Girls ain't built to play basketball. Ya ever notice their hands. Little narrow things built to peel potatoes and fry mush. Not built to wrap around a basketball.' Then he went on, 'People think we won Duby Duby Two. We didn't. Rose the Riveter did. Got women out of the bedroom and the kitchen and put em in defense plants, and they ain't never come back.' He continued, 'It used to be a door-to-door salesman could make a living going door to door selling paring knives to housewives. A man would starve to death trying to sell door to door nowadays. Ain't no women at home. All out working.' Then he started coughin, and he would cough and he would hack, then he would cough and then he would hack. Finally I said, 'You got a cold.' He said, 'I've caught a helluva cold.' I said, 'What you doing about it?' He said, 'I'm going home and gaggle some Lister-by god-rene.' I hope to visit with him again sometime. But it won't be at the half-time of a girls basketball game."
"The only people who like snow," Ivan said, "are poets who can sit in the house, look out the window, and write about how beautiful it is."
"The heater fan on my car quit running," Ivan reported. "Couldn't get the frost off my windshield. Scratched er off with a scraper. Got in the car and about froze when I drove to town. My teeth were chattering and I had goose bumps on my cold hide. When I went over the railroad tracks, the heater fan started working."
"John McDowell bought the coffee for the As the Bladder Fills Club last Wednesday morning," Ivan said. "It took a while for us to figger who had bought the coffee. When we started to pay, Kate, the waitress, said 'That gentleman who was sitting there bought the coffee.' It took us a while to come up with John McDowell as the buyer. A brief poll showed that none of us had ever heard of him referred to in that manner before."
"One man," Ivan reported, "said to the other man, 'Your hair is getting thin on top.' 'So what,' said the second fellow, 'who wants fat hair.'"
"Gene Conaway might look like a grizzled old farmer," Ivan said, "but he does have a soft heart beating in his farmer's breast. Last Friday morning, we were sitting in Paul's Cafe and Gene said he had to go up to Orchelin's when they opened up. He said he had to go get a heating pad for his cats. He has a momma cat and a kitten. And he thought they needed some warmth when they came in from the cold."
"Bruce Miles as complaining about his Maratta slippin and a-slidin on the city streets," Ivan said. "We all sympathized with him, all that is but Jack Benn. Jack's observation was not sympathetic at all. Jack's comment was, 'Hell, that thing don't have any more traction than a wheelbarrow.'"
a temperature about 12 degrees. I've got a trip to Ripon and back under my belt already, taking M. to the hospital for tests. A rosy giant was starting to waken to the east as I came back, that great wink of sun starting to rise. I'll leave work to bring M. back home about 11 a.m.
It's a chill but lovely day. It's a blue dome of sky. It's heaven covering us. I say a prayer that everything in the world would be so fine, everything.
At the cemetery, the flap flaps lazily to the east.
A turkey vulture above a white field. A great flock of small birds surrounds it like a mist. It's a quick image of life and death and life, winter on the land, the promise of spring, another round of birth and growth, fecundity and decay. Everything goes back to the essential things, finally. We do not wish otherwise.
Sometimes I play music; and sometimes the music plays me. It has been a long time coming, for I am not very musically inclined, and you wouldn't say I come from a musical family. Yet now, on rare occasion, there are times when I am playing that it is not about me but about the music. That's progress.
Two factors in my life, I think, have fueled the shift.
First, my good friend Doug B., the Ripon, Wisconsin guitar player I jam with, said he wanted to play acoustic rather than plugged-in, so about a year and a half ago I purchased a cheaply-priced flat-top acoustic bass guitar made by R.W. Jameson. Suddenly, "practicing" became so much easier - I didn't have to get the electric bass out of its case, plug into the amplifier, plug the amplifier into the wall, and fire up. It was as simple as lifting an instrument from the the stand and playing it. And this got to be addictive - there came a certain time each day when I had to pick up that bass and work my way up and down the neck, playing the same pattern in several keys. Then changing the pattern and going through the various keys again. It got to the point where I couldn't not play. That's a delicious state.
Second, forty-two years after our graduation, I reconnected with my high school classmates Doc and Dean. They had been a folk duo in high school, and as I have written about they ended up performing some of the songs from those old hootenanny days at a school reunion in June of last year. I talked myself into the position of bass player for their reunion gig. We all met for a long weekend in Kansas and worked up 42 songs for the show. Doc sings lead and plays the front guitar; Dean sings harmony and plays rhythm. Tom plays bass and keeps his mouth shut, pretty much. Doc's son Chuck, a true musician, joined us on keyboards, provided intros and endings and instrumental breaks in the middle of songs, and made us sound like we knew what we were doing.
We went out for breakfast at 2:00 a.m. when the gig was done, and over pancakes and eggs we wondered if that's all there was to it.
Turns out, that wasn't all there was to it. By the end of June last year we'd hatched a plan to create an album of "fairy-tale" songs, which we did. I compressed eleven fairy tales to song-size lyrics and wrote one nonsense song; Dean wrote music for them; and Doc made them sound sweet. We're all together there on Fairy Tales & Nonsense, Doc and his guitar, Dean singing harmonies, and me on bass.
The Fairy Tales album was "Dean's album," created for a grandson born at the end of October. Dean got an album, so you'd think Tom should get one, and Doc should get one, right? Right. Tom's will be an album of original train songs, and we are well along towards finishing lyrics and music, and this summer we will set about recording the 14 or 16 best songs we've written on the subject of trains. These days I practice the train songs for at least an hour a day.
And then, too, Doug and I have gone back to playing music regularly, three or four or five hours every other weekend or so, with Doug concentrating on guitar instrumentals of blazing beauty - either songs intended to be instrumentals, like "Under the Double Eagle" or some of the fiddle tunes Doug learned from his dad and adapted for guitar; or some old favorites we've adapted for guitar and bass, such as "When You and I Were Young, Maggie." We may even record some live acoustic versions of these songs at some point.
I am having terrific fun. The calluses on my fretting fingers now have calluses on. I am playing music and sometimes the music plays me.
I still have poems to write and the middlewest to explore, don't get me wrong. I recognize that I need to get back out on the Vagabond trail, and I will this summer, once I have finished with my teaching this semester at Lakeland College. I have to be at school on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, which doesn't leave much space for travel until the semester ends. I am looking forward to getting back at it. I may pack the car in May and not get home til September, I just don't know.
I do know that, at this point, I am ready to buy the last instrument I'll ever buy - a flat-top acoustic bass of excellent quality. I am on the lookout for a good one that booms sweetly. I mean, it has to be loud when it is played unplugged, and it has to sound sweet. It has to be easy to play, and not go out of tune as you go up the neck. It has to be well-made. As I say, it needs to be good enough that it will, indeed, be the last instrument I ever buy.
A week ago this past Saturday Doug and I drove up to a store in Appleton where I played seven of the acoustic basses they have in stock. Doug would take a guitar down off the wall, and I would pick up one of the basses, and we'd play one of our instrumentals. The basses I played ranged in price from $199 to $899. And you know what? The one that sounded the best was the $199 model.
But I don't need another $199 bass. I already have three low-end instruments. Now I want a good instrument that sounds good and plays easily. I have my eye on the Martin BC-15E. Oh, how I want it to boom and sing and be easy to play.
Yet I can't know any of that without playing it.
So sometime later this month or early next month, Doug and I will trek over to Elderly Instruments in Michigan. Doug will pick up a Martin six-string he is interested in, and I will pick up the BC-15E, and we'll play some of our songs.
And if we're lucky, the songs will play us.
And, if I am luckier still, that bass will play me, and I will have found the last instrument I'll ever need to buy.
When the music plays you, there's nothing you can do but keep on playing, keep on playing, and hope it doesn't end.
like stealing second base. Blue morning sky, the sun to the east. Temperature about five degrees. Would there be a crowd in the stands, cheering? Not at this temperature, I suppose. We might be halfway home but at five above zero that's not enough for some people.
As I step out to the car, there's a woodpecker at work already, drilling into a cold fiber of tree, looking for a cold morsel. If he's satisfied at the prospect, I am.
It's a tight frost this morning. Everything wants to hold onto everything, except my fingers want to be iceplugs.
I love this lay of light, the bream of it, the honey-ness. The sun is a hog's snout rooting out the cold. The wind is from the west.
snow on top of it. We have been out to clear the driveway. Moon in the darkness above, visible through falling snow. A great halo. Colors in the night overhead as we worked at the snow. The shine of color like a blessing.
It was slippery driving last night. I suppose that it shall be slippery this morning. Take extra time, take extra care. We can land a man on the moon but it won't mean nothing if I die in a traffic accident sliding through some stop sign.
As I leave for work, there is a sundog almost due east off the end of Washington Street. The sun breaks everything open. Snow on the highway. Wind blows from the west. Snow is a great, white scab; beneath, the land heals. Another season will come.
Snowbanks have formed in the ditches, along fence lines. All of a sudden it looks like winter again.
Crows against the wind, a few of them. For now the crows seem to be winning. You don't know how long they'll keep what they've gathered. Success is only a temporary refuge.