I love piano. Love it. There is just nothing like its sound; nothing like it in this world.
One of my great regrets in life is that I never learned to play it. “Hey, it’s never too late,” you say… and sure. I could find a cheap keyboard (no room for even a stand-up piano in this house, unfortunately), spend the next few decades hammering keys and learning coordination (I’ve always thought it takes two brains to play piano—one for the left hand, the other for the right—and perhaps a third for the feet). But I have other projects that are taking my time, so I doubt I’ll ever play, other than wistfully tracing shapes of ivory if I’m ever visiting the house of someone who owns one.
Besides, starting this late in life, I would never get really “good” at it; and even if I’d started as a child, I probably would never have gotten as fluent on piano (or any instrument, for that matter) as some of the greats. And so I’ll just listen instead. There are so many wonderful piano players, past and present, who have graced the sound waves with their nimble fingers. The world is a better place for them.
I started out with the intention of writing about a few of my favourite piano players, and then the past few days happened. The country of my birth seems to be turning into the “United” (those quotation marks are sarcastic) States of Gilead much faster than even my worst nightmare could have predicted. It’s left me feeling sad, angry, and heartbroken.
The past several years—and even more acutely, the past few days—have been an emotional journey, one of watching and trying to process from afar as my homeland tears itself apart and seems determined to undo the myriad stitches of effort from so many good people who have fought so hard all their lives for various causes, including women’s rights. There’s a lot I could say on the subject, and perhaps I will sometime, but I’ve decided it might be wise to sleep on those thoughts and instead carry on with my original blog post idea.
I will, however, make one change to my original plan. You see, as I was listening to my favourite piano players and endeavouring to narrow the list down to a handful to introduce in this blog post, it struck me: they were all male. Every single one of them. I literally could not think of a single female piano player, other than a few personal friends or acquaintances. In terms of famous ones, I knew there must be a ton of them, but I was ashamed to realize that I was not aware of any of them.
Okay, so, that sucks. But it is what it is. I’m not going to sit here and beat myself up for having fallen in love with the sounds of piano players who happened to be exclusively male (Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Duke Pearson, Vince Guaraldi, Glenn Gould, etc), nor am I going to dwell (for now, at least) on what internal and/or societal prejudices and other factors might have led my attention to that side of the gender spectrum when it comes to pianists. Rather, I have decided to accept that my experience of piano players has been decidedly narrow, open up my mind, and use this as an opportunity to discover female piano players. So, now, in their honour—and indeed, in honour of all the women who have raised me and guided me and taught me to be the person I am today as well, for without them, I would be a much lesser man—I am going to introduce some wonderful piano players I’m thrilled to have discovered. And if piano isn’t your thing, sorry! I’ll write about something else next week :-)
It’s difficult to decide whom to start with, so I’ll just pick one. Her name was Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981). Born in Atlanta, Georgia, she wrote many compositions and arrangements, and made hundreds of recordings on piano, both solo and with various other musicians. Here she is playing a beautiful blues tune she composed called “What’s Your Story Morning Glory”:
She also was a teacher, and produced many fine students—and not just piano players. Among her progeny were such players as Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie, to name a few. In addition, she was an altruist. She used her own savings to create a foundation to support a project in which she turned her apartment into a halfway house for the poor and for musicians struggling with substance addiction (and this makes me wonder if that’s how she met Charlie Parker *shrug*).
She continued teaching throughout her career. She instructed school children on jazz, and for a time was an artist-in-residence at Duke University, where she taught history of jazz and directed the jazz ensemble there. Here’s a video of Mary Lou Williams doing a tune called “The Man I Love” in Montreux, in 1978:
Holy shit those fingers can play!!! :-) Such a beautiful musical soul, and I am so glad to have learned about her. She’s right bang on my list of favourites now.
Next up is a contemporary piano player named Marialy Pacheco (1983- )… (and click her name to hear a great piano duet of hers!).
Born in Havana, Cuba, she grew up with music, and attended a conservatory while still quite young. She got into latin jazz, and studied and performed classical as well, and began recording record after record (heh, yes, I said “record”… old fogey me). What I’ve heard of her music so far has captured my imagination. Here is a piece she composed and recorded in 2006, called “Mi Azul”:
How can you listen to that and not fall in love with piano?! Glorious. I have no words. Here’s a video of her playing solo at Birdland in Neuburg, Germany, a couple of years ago (I think):
Apparently, the Cuban jazz pianist world is extremely male-dominated, and she faced quite a bit of discrimination along her way, so it’s really cool that she has risen to such prominence. Her fresh sound has really shaken that world up, from what I can tell. If you want to learn more about Marialy Pacheco, here’s a 2013 interview with her:
While searching online for female piano players, one name kept coming up over and over: Martha Argerich (1941- ). She is one of the greatest classical pianists of all time.
She began kindergarten when she was not quite three years old, and there a five-year-old boy (a friend) told her she would never be able to play piano. Well, she sure did prove him wrong! By the age of eight, she was giving piano concertos, and six years later she was studying in Austria under Friedrich Gulda. Here is a recording of her playing Chopin’s Polonaise in A-Flat Major, Op. 53, “Héroïque”, in the mid-1960s:
One thing I find really cool about Ms. Argerich is that she speaks many languages quite fluently. I’ve always thought there to be a connection between language and music, though I suspect it is not as black-and-white simple or direct as most literature tends to make it out to be. It has something to do with imagination, I think, and with heart, if there is such a thing. Here is another performance of hers, of Chopin’s Piano Sonata 3, this one recorded much more recently (in 2020, in Hamburg):
Sadly, she was diagnosed with cancer, and that cancer spread to her lungs and lymph nodes. Happily, though, after treatment, it went into remission, where it has remained for many years. I like to think it’s her passion for playing that has helped her battle it.
When it comes to piano music, my tastes definitely lean toward jazz, but I tried to listen to a broad variety of music. My journey continues, but for now, here is a contemporary experimental piano player and composer named Kelly Moran (1988- ):
She is a virtuoso of “normal piano”, but is also into electronic music software, which she combines with various things to produce some pretty bizarre but also pretty beautiful stuff. One of her sounds is produced by what she calls a “prepared format”, which involves placing objects such as forks and spoons in-between the piano strings. This results in a more percussive, cut-off sound when she plays the keys. Here is an example of that:
And one more, which gives a glimpse of her setting up the piano beforehand:
There are so many other wonderful female piano players out there, it feels a shame to be listing so few of them. But hopefully I’ve started some of you down a rabbit hole (I know I have sent myself down one!). At the end of this blog post, I’ll post a couple more links for further listening and reading. For now, though, I’ll mention one more musician (last, but certainly not least!): Wu Yili (巫漪丽), aka Elaine Wu (1931-2019).
A Chinese-Singaporean pianist, Wu Yili rose to fame in Mainland China as a performer of classical piano, both Western and Chinese classical styles. As with so many people in the arts, the Cultural Revolution saw her persecuted and strung up and beaten to within an inch of her life. Years later, she immigrated first to California and later to Singapore, where she lived out her days in relative poverty. One of her more famous compositions was the piano part to Butterfly Lovers:
That video performance was made toward the end of her life, when she was eighty-six years old. She had been “re-discovered”, and the fact that she had Parkinson’s but was still able to play so well was part of the reason the video went viral, especially in China. You can read more about her in the description. She died in 2019 in Singapore General Hospital.
I could go on, but I’ll keep the list short. If you are interested, here are a couple of links for further listening and reading:
10 Beautiful Modern Piano Pieces by Female Composers of Today (piano Performed by Anna Sutyagina)
10 Women Composers You Have to Know About (not strictly about piano, but some of them are indeed pianists)
That concludes my ramble about female piano players. I am not at all glad of the impetus behind this exploration of mine, but I am certainly glad to have been given this opportunity to have my eyes (well, ears) opened. Thank you for reading and listening :-)
appy Winter Solstice, everyone.
Today is the shortest day of the year. Or the longest, for those of you up in the northern hemisphere; but where I am, it’s winter, and summer feels very, very far away. But the sun looked beautiful this morning, shining through the tree branches.
Leaning out over the railing of the back deck, I could see its light beginning to splash the upper branches of the gum trees behind the house. I heard some soft sounds overhead. Looking more closely, I spotted this cockatoo way up there in the topmost branches, catching the first rays of the day:
It was a beautiful morning. But cold. Brrr! I went back inside to warm up with some coffee in front of the heater.
Some friends and I used to celebrate the winter solstice in high school. That was back in the other hemisphere, so it happened in December rather than June. Over there on the far side of the world…. Anyway, we’d get together for a big feast and play music and celebrate. Good times.
Thinking about winter brings back a lot of memories. Of sunlight shining low through bare branches in Percy Warner Park, toes beginning to get cold despite the many steps taken. Of even colder toes, from fording ice- and snow-lined streams in the Gila Wilderness that time, breath fog floating, a snow storm in the distance, magnificent eagle circling on high for a long, long time until it seemed to decide suddenly to make a B-line straight for the storm, where it disappeared, leaving the sun behind. I will never know why it did that. Perhaps it was just a trick of the light, and it didn’t actually fly into the blizzard.
Of snow angels in the back yard, and of a snow woman my mother made – beautiful, life-sized sculpture of a nude woman, right in the front yard for all to see. Of snow forts and sledding, and of the winter when we were a bit older and decided it would be fun to take the canoe down the street. Which we did, over and over and over, complete with paddles for effect. Laughter, bodies rolling into ditches, rosy cheeks, numb chins and fingers. Mittens, boots, down jackets.
Of when night had a child that spat forth crying into morning, all wet with eyes shut against bright light streaming under the bedroom door; of the stickiness of tears and snot on the stained pillowcase as I dressed, memories of a long-distance phone call at two in the morning already vague in my waking mind despite the fact that only a couple of hours had passed. Of field upon field of frozen corn stalks streaming past the car window, all the way to west Texas. Of iron gray clouds forming a high ceiling over the funeral. Of weeping, and of memories of weeping. Of silence and prayer.
Of fireplaces, screens catching stray sparks, wool socks drying. Of first frosts, and of last frosts. Of red taillights fading in the distance along a flat, straight road at night.
Of first Christmases. Of last Christmases. Of first summers-turned-winter, when the world had flipped upside-down and June-July-August had become the cold months. Of coffee mornings in the Illawarra, of frigid winds blowing salt, of sleep-caught eyes and hard school mornings. Of hugs, and of a warm (and very
fat big-boned) cat.
So many memories. Too many to list.
There’s something comforting about winter, like a blanket drawn tight around your shoulders. Something desolate and dreadful about it, too. Perhaps it’s the awareness, no matter how distant, of the threat of freezing to death. As well as the guilty relief for those of us who are fortunate enough to not have to worry about freezing to death ourselves. Still, my parents taught me well: Never take warmth or good weather for granted. Always do your best to stay dry, keep your feet dry. Plan layers. Plan not to freeze, but plan for the possibility. It gets cold out there. Yes, it does, and not just in the mountains.
There are a lot of people out there doing it hard, sleeping on the street. More and more these days. We should give them some thought and help how we can. You never know when it might become you.
Winter brings a shallower angle to the sunlight. Longer shadows, crisper air, clearness and coolness to the lungs. I hate wearing hats, but I sometimes will wear one in winter, to protect my ears. So, winter brings mussy hair, too.
There are massive heat waves happening up north right now. I hope a bit of this cold air can somehow bleed around the planet and provide some relief. We need warmth, but we also need coolness. Warm eyes and cool heads.
I’m rambling again. Happy Winter Solstice, everyone. Oh, and another thing winter brings:
It’s not simply sadness.
It’s also not just about losing people we love.
We can grieve over any loss, really. It might be a lost opportunity, a lost friend, a lost feeling, a lost time. A breeze might carry a scent to our noses that reminds us of… something… and we can’t put our finger on it. Something lost. Something fleeting, perhaps, or something more.
Or you might hear a song; a beautiful voice with a mournful piano, and that could bring memories of another time crashing back into your conscious mind. A bygone time; faces, laughter, places you will never see or hear again, perhaps, or events that happened then but will never happen again. The end of an era; a severed arm. A whole world, lost. And you feel sad, and more. You grieve.
And then there is of course death. The final end. The ultimate goodbye, whether we were ready for it or not. (Can anyone ever be ready? I honestly don’t know.) Parents, siblings, lovers, friends. Partners. Companions on this trip around the sun. The Sun! That should be capitalized, for it is one of the few things that brings pure light to this world and to our hearts.
A friend recently told me in an email that he’d attended the funeral of a friend’s mother, who had died very suddenly. He said the service was nice, but that while they were showing all the pictures from her life, from trips and gatherings and so on, he began to wonder if that was the ultimate purpose of the photos we spend all this time taking. All these moments we attempt to capture: What are they for? To show at funerals? At weddings? I’m paraphrasing, and he worded it better, but… it makes me think, too. I take a lot of photos these days, using my phone. Photos are so easy to take now. You don’t have to worry about only having 24 or 36 shots to a finite and not-very-cheap roll and then having to spend more money developing them. I wonder if that caused us to be more circumspect back in the day, in terms of what to take pictures of. But somehow the entire two rolls of photos I once took of the same damn squirrel in the same damn tree make me doubt it.
言归正传, I wonder, too, if we take photos in order to hedge against the grief we know deep down is coming. Coming slowly but surely, riding on that brakes-out train called Time (not sure if I should capitalize that one or not). We will forget most of what we experience, whether we get dementia or not, and these photos will be all we have left to remind ourselves of what happened, whom we met along the way, whom we loved. Little kernels of memory; pockets designed to take the edges off our grief, that grief over the times and people and experiences that will never come again. Like a bare-chested drunken He Tihua, hollering joyfully in the sun next to a 拖拉车 half-laden with stone, or an empty suannai bottle tinkling to laughter as it rolls into a gutter. Forgotten, left. Grieved over, yes, but… what good does such grief do?
But then that’s my problem. One of them, that is (I have many!). I always wonder what the point of stuff is. Even stuff like grief. Well, it does have a purpose, surely (and in the back of my mind, back there where I like to put stuff I want to ignore, I do have an inkling of what that purpose is), but it’s not the same as with other things. I’m rambling here, I realize. ‘Probably not going to edit this when I’m done, either. Not because I’m lazy (I am, sometimes), but because I am chasing a feeling here. Hoping to capture it, but aware that I am not likely to; I can feel it slipping away even now.
Let me try another tack. In its simplest essence, grief is awareness of loss. It can be the loss of a thing, a time, a place, a feeling, a person, oneself. Loss is inevitable, for change is unstoppable. Yet this is a reality our minds have difficulty grasping and accepting.
And so we feel it, deeply. We dwell on it. We wonder, Why did my father have to go. Or, What happened to our friendship. Or, Why don’t I spend any time doing that anymore, that thing I did when I was a child, back when I was unaware and happy. Grief is the awareness of loss, and that feels a whole lot like regret sometimes.
And yet. We also cannot move forward into new happinesses until we have grieved. It is therefore necessary for happiness. To postpone or bury grief, avoid it, deny it, and so on, is to deny ourselves future happiness. Well, in the depths of grieving, it’s quite tempting to think, Yeah well fuck it, I’ll never be happy again anyways, so I’m just going to wallow here forever. I believe everyone gets to that point, or close to it. But then you come up for air. Because you have to, whether you like it or not.
Time is relentless. It drags us into sadness, whether we like it to or not, but it also drags us out of sadness, also whether we like it to or not. We really have no choice in the matter. All we can do is put on the brakes; we cannot actually stop that train. It is brakeless.
I think my wife and I maybe need to take some time to look at some photos. Just take an afternoon, or even just an hour maybe, and put them up on the TV. Just choose any folder; it could be Christmas last year, or a trip to the US seven years ago, or whatever. It doesn’t really matter what. (I do wish I still had all my photos from southwest China, when I was there in 1992-93; I’d love to look at those right now, but alas, they are lost.) The point is, just have a look at some memories. Not to grieve the loss of those times/places/people, nor to hedge against grief; but to simply appreciate them, celebrate them, enjoy them. Enjoy looking at them, in the present.
Because life is short. We can spend our time dwelling on what we once had, or we can enjoy the present and look forward to the future. Or, in the words of Red, we can get busy living or get busy dying. That’s goddamn right.
Much easier said than done, of course, especially when you’re flattened and absofuckinglutely paralyzed by grief and can’t see any way out of that pit. Like you’re surrounded by slippery twenty-foot-tall glass walls and don’t have even a stool to stand on. But knowing that this, too, will pass, can help, and so can having faith that the hard times will eventually end.
For they surely will. And photos or not, the fact is, we can’t ever completely lose anyone we hold dear, because our hearts have been forever transformed by them.
annina thought she heard a scream outside. She put down the knife and moved to look out the window, but all she could see were autumn leaves dripping in the heavy fog, and the top of the Warden's head with its giant ears sticking up into view just above the crest of the hill.
There it was again: Another scream. But not the same voice. Jannina squinted in the direction of the commotion, past the Warden's head.
Something was wrong. The head was moving.
She heard a third scream, this time from farther away, down near the bonewood pier. Men were shouting now. Jannina ran to the door and stepped outside. Jono follower her, curious to see what the commotion was.
Jannina stared in disbelief at the Warden's head. It swayed right and then left, and began to rise upward; slowly at first, but then with frightening speed. The thing straightened its massive body, flexed its eight arms, arced its terrible ears, and lurched forward, tearing right out of the ground in a display of immense strength. Dirt and rocks sprayed up from where its "tail" exited the time-packed soil, and suddenly the Warden was bounding forward through the village center, toward the pier.
She watched in shock, mouth agape. The Warden had always simply sat there, a fixture. Always. Never in her life, nor as far as she knew in the lives of her parents and their parents before them, had the thing even so much as twitched. Now it was ripping forward, fully animated, the blades of its hands swinging taut.
People were yelling and shrieking. She saw the Warden disappear into the fog in the direction of the ocean, and then heard a series of tremendous splashes. A high-pitched screech split through the mist, causing her skin to crawl. It was a lot like the distant, occasional mewing sound she had been hearing from the water, only much louder and fiercer. Jono looked up at her with wide eyes and stood closer, his face white with fear. Inside, little Soolna was bawling.
Jannina shook with adrenaline as she darted inside and picked up the heavy four-year-old, hugging her and comforting her as well as she could in her distraught state of mind. "There there Sooli, it's okay; there there Sooli, Auntie Jannina's here. There there...."
More shouts echoed up the hill from the direction of the shore. Jannina looked out the window and saw people sprinting as hard as they could away from the village center. A moment later, she thought she saw a shape loom up in the fog beyond the huts. Something huge. It was tall and narrow—taller than a full-grown bone tree—and was bending forward. As it got closer, she thought she could see something that looked vaguely like a mouth at its top end. Then there was a giant splash behind it somewhere. The shape jerked back into the fog as if it had been yanked, and Jannina saw no more. But horribly, the mewing continued, making her skin crawl.
Both kids were crying now, and it was contagious, for Jannina felt on the verge of tears herself. She forced herself to stay calm.
The massive splashing sounds seemed to be getting father away, until all of a sudden, the high-pitched mewing stopped altogether. A throng of shouts from the men in the village center rang out, though they had changed in tone; they now sounded more excited than terrified. A few minutes later, the splashing sounds got closer again, but were more measured and not as abrupt or violent as before. Now Jannina saw a giant shape emerge from the fog, moving up from the beach to the left the pier. It was the Warden, arms hanging at its sides, dripping with water and what might have been blood. Staring forward with the same seemingly sad eyes as always, the thing walked slowly back to where it had always sat, turned around, and lowered itself to the ground with barely a thud. There was a brief grinding sucking sound, and then silence as the Warden's head swayed first right, then left, and then was still, its ears open wide and angled forward in the exact same posture as before. It just sat there as it always had her entire life, staring out toward that same unseen horizon, not moving in the slightest. As if nothing had happened at all.
Jannina turned to see her aunt stumbling up the path toward the hut, completely out of breath, her face white with panic and worry. She opened the door for her and watched stupidly as the woman came barreling in and grabbed her children with both arms before collapsing on the floor, weeping desperately.
"Safe now, safe now," the older woman gasped.
Jannina crouched down and wrapped her arms around her aunt and her cousins, not daring for a moment to take her eyes from the Warden's still-dripping head and ears. Then the shock wore off enough for her to think.
Dripping blood and sea water. The sea. The pier. Adrenaline shot through her chest, and she jumped to her feet. Dad...!
"Aunt Prianna, I need to go," she breathed.
Her aunt nodded and grasped her hand. "Go." Jannina tilted her head in thanks and bolted out the door.
This morning I went up to Dave Griffith’s coffee shop, On the Soul Side Café, and played what is now my regular Tuesday morning “gig”, from 10:30 to noon. This was the third time I’ve done it, not including this past Sunday when I filled in for the jazz band that normally plays there but couldn’t make it this week.
It was really nice of Dave to invite me to play. And it’s perfect for me; these days, I am not trying to make a name for myself in the music industry or “conquer the world”; I’m happy to just play casually. The coffee shop is a low-pressure, chill place that is sometimes full of fascinating people and sometimes more or less empty. I am cursed with a perfectionist attitude, so I always try my best regardless, but it is nice to be able to just play whatever I want and not have to worry too much about screwing up. And I find that even in the times that I am playing to an empty room, aside from Dave and his employee of course, it still is really good for me; it’s excellent practice—and performing like that is a much more focused kind of practice than is practicing by oneself at home. The awareness that someone might be listening, even just with me as background music to coffee machines and conversation, forces me to concentrate more and tighten up heaps. It’s a bit like playing music on the street; even if people are just walking past and not seeming to pay any attention, you still are aware of their ears, and that makes you play your best.
Speaking of chill, relaxed, and very welcoming musical atmospheres, I met Dave at the local open mic, which is held at the Katoomba Family Hotel every Wednesday evening and run by Eliot Reynolds. I found out about the open mic in October of 2020, when I posted a question in a Blue Mountains musicians’ group asking if there were any jams or open mics around. My wife and I had moved up to the mountains earlier that year, and we were freshly out of lockdown, and for some reason still partially unknown even to me, I had started playing music again after roughly fifteen years of hardly ever picking up my flute and only picking up the guitar occasionally, to relax after work for a few minutes. Well, a guy (another flute player! What are the odds?!) named Graeme was kind enough to respond to my question in the musicians’ group, and he told me about the open mic nights at the Family. A couple of weeks later, I got up the courage, walked up to town, got up on that stage, and played three tunes on my flute. I was sweating bullets; it’d been a very, very long time.
And something crazy happened. It was like rediscovering a long-lost appendage. See, something had been missing in my life, though I hadn’t known it, consciously at least. I still am not sure why exactly I stopped playing music all those years ago. Multiple reasons, no doubt. Some deep, some not. I do have an inkling of why I started again, or at least of part of the reason; it was a sudden realization of how effing short life is. And of some other things. And of some other things still, no doubt, of which I perhaps will never be fully cognizant.
Regardless, the long and the short of it is that it’s nice to be playing music again. That’s an understatement.
Apart from breaks due to covid lockdowns or waiting for jabs, I’ve been going up to the open mic at the Family fairly regularly ever since, and it’s been quite liberating. It has not simply been a rediscovery of music; in a very real sense, this has been me finding my own way in music, a thing I’d never done before; not really. All those years ago, when I was playing a lot of music and performing with various groups, most of it was other people’s music, not mine. Or playing the way I thought I had to. Or following, rather than leading. Sure, some of the music was mine; some of it was me. And the countless hours playing on the street, most of that was me, too. Sort of. Although, I didn’t really know who I was back then, so was that really me, flowing out of my flute? Sure. Partly. Partly not. That’s a subject for another day, perhaps.
On one of those open mic nights, in December of 2020, I believe it was, I met Elle Peterson. I heard her play guitar and sing, and was transported, and the connection was mutual; after hearing me play some solo flute stuff, she invited me to get up and play a few tunes with her (it was not a very crowded night, so we’d all gotten to go around and play another set of three tunes each). I don’t know how else to describe it: She and I positively clicked. It just felt right. My fellow musicians will know what I mean when I say that such musical bonds are exceedingly rare; only a few such profound musical connections happen in a lifetime. It honestly felt like we’d been playing together for a long, long time. It was absolute magic. (And still is!)
Over the next few months, Elle and I played more together, formed a duo called Misty Mountain Accord, and even did a show together—my first performance since 2006—at Dave’s coffee shop, no less. Here is a link to the show; I put the tunes up on YouTube: Misty Mountain Accord’s first live show. Since then, mainly due to covid and schedule conflicts and so on, Elle and I have had trouble finding time to do more public performances together other than the open mic, but as things settle down, we plan to do more. I’ll give plenty of notice on the Misty Mountain Accord website.
My solo Tuesday morning thing is a very happy and relaxing outlet for me. I’m doing different themes each week; the first week was “Celticy/Folky”, the second week was “Bluesy/Jazzy”, and this week was “Songs of Old”, in which I played a bunch of—you guessed it—very old songs and tunes. On one of them, an old traditional Klezmer dance tune, my flute finally broke. I’d been waiting for it to happen. Thankfully, I was prepared; I had with me my $89 Aldi special. Its tone is not as nice as that of my regular flute, but it works just fine. I also played some guitar tunes, and sang some (sorry to all attending for not bringing earplugs to pass out!). I tried my hand at singing an old Robert Service poem called “The Cremation of Sam McGee”, which I’ve put to music, as well as an old Banjo Patterson poem called “The Daylight is Dying”, written in 1895, for which Elle helped write music and chords. Thank you Elle :-)
Music is important. Many of us tend to forget things that aren’t as immediately and obviously vital for survival as money and food and so on. But surviving is just the beginning. We have to live, too. Live and love.
The definition of “love” is growing in my mind, as I get older. Music is love. So many things are love. Love is so many things. I said “obviously” vital, earlier. Well, it might not always be obvious, but music is in fact vital for survival. It really is. It’s in our bones; it’s in our blood. It’s in our hopes. Our passion. Our tears.
If you haven’t listened to any music in a while, you should make some time to do it. It will likely remind you of a lot of things you may have forgotten. Moreover, it is soothing to the soul. The soul needs stuff like that. It’s its sustenance.
Thank you, Graeme. Thank you, Eliot. Thank you, Elle. Thank you, Dave. And everyone else I’ve met along this journey of musical awakening and re-awakening. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for helping me come back to life.
For anyone interested, here (<--click) is my fledgling YouTube channel, where I’ve uploaded some of my music. Most of it’s a bunch of old flute stuff from decades ago, but there is some Misty Mountain Accord stuff, too, and soon I hope to record and post some guitar-and-singing songs as well as some new flute tunes I’ve written.
Thank you for reading :-)
Sándor remembered the sting of the wasp, white hot pain exploding from just above his thumbnail, as he’d picked a spring beauty for his mother in the yard. Then, when he was a little older, the sickening bubbling of hot oil spilled across his knee; the way the skin had peeled off, as well as the scar that had eventually formed but never quite smoothed over his violated nerve endings.
He recalled the mind-jarring disbelief with which he’d watched his hand separate from his wrist, late one night during a fourth graveyard shift in a row; the terrible fire and nails that had shot right through his arm and torso and head immediately afterward. Sometimes he could still feel that one, waking up lost seventeen years later in sweat-drenched sheets.
He remembered other agonies, too, but chose not to think about those. They weren’t the kind that time or painkillers could heal, so were better left behind locked doors, deep down in the safe corners of his mind.
She didn’t—couldn’t—know about those.
A bare foot nudged his ankle. “What’s wrong?”
Glancing at Melanie, Sándor was once again startled by how stunningly beautiful she was. “Nothing, babe.”
“Liar.” She made a face and pinched his Achilles tendon with her freakishly strong toes.
“Ow,” he yelped, kicking her foot away playfully. “I’m telling you, as soon as we spin back to normal grav, you should try hanging upside-down from the chin-up bar with those things.”
“Yeah well, I bet you could do it, too, monkey girl. Not kidding.”
“Could not.” She slapped his knee hard, but her eyes were smiling.
The scanner made a guttural choking noise. Finished. Finally.
“Okay, let’s see what we’ve got.” Melanie stretched, then touched a series of combos, toggling through the data lists until she got to the one she wanted. She stared open-mouthed at it for several seconds. “Shit,” she said simply.
Sándor closed his eyes and shook his head. “Damnit.”
Neither of them spoke for a long time. Even the scanner remained silent, as if fearfully aware of having been a bringer of bad news.
Sándor drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. “You remember that thing they kept telling us over and over in basic? About how sooner or later we’ll all reach a point, a threshold of some sort, that will truly test our mettle?”
“Yeah I remember.”
“Well.” Sándor pursed his lips. “I think I'm getting pretty fucking close to there.”
“Me too. But we’ll find one.”
“What’s the point? We’ve looked everywhere already.”
“Yeah, well, it’s find one or die.”
“Yeah. I know. But, hey,” Melanie raised her brow and pinched his heel again with her toe. “Mettle, remember?”
I was recently reminded of the time I was in Germany with some friends, performing at what used to be a harp camp.
It was the summer of 2000. For years, said camp had been focused on cultivating young budding harp players, but that year (or perhaps the previous year? I can't remember), it had opened up to other instruments and forms of music. Our band–called the "Acoustic Vibration Appreciation Society"–had come across a rather random pair of benefactors; in North Carolina, a couple in their late thirties or early forties had seen us and another band we were all involved with perform, and fallen in love with our sound. Months later, they asked us out of the blue whether we'd like to do a European tour for a month or so that summer. Our answer had been something along the lines of, "Why yes, that would be lovely, but we can barely afford to pay rent... so, um, nope, not an option, but maybe someday!” And their answer had been something along the lines of, "Oh, money is no problem; we’ll supply all your plane tickets and pay for any other expenses involved."
Well, it turned out that they were a) quite serious, and b) quite rich. See, they had been planning on buying a big RV in Europe and touring around in it that summer (which they did do). On a pure whim, they had thought it would be fun for their new favourite band to be there as well, to play some gigs for them. Plus, they were genuinely very kind and generous (if rather spontaneous, flighty, and wacked in the head) people; they seemed to really enjoy making connections for us and trying to help us in our musical endeavours.
They bought our plane tickets as promised, and the trip was a go (minus a couple of our regular members, who sadly were busy touring with other bands, or, in the case of our "think-globally, act locally" violinist, had the attitude of, “Why would you want to go over there and play music for a bunch of folks you don’t even know?!—but that’s another story). We played some great gigs there... our benefactors were not agents by any stretch of the imagination, and knew very little about the ins and outs of booking venues, etc, but they did hook us up with some awesome people in Germany, the Netherlands, and Scotland. Our mandolin player and banjo player booked the rest. We played a couple of festivals, several pubs, a theater, and some clubs, and even got to do a live radio show in the Netherlands. (Not to mention, we played on the street a TON to get money enough to make ends meet after our rather ADD benefactors suddenly dumped their RV and took a plane to Greece for a romantic holiday among the islands, completely forgetting all about us, and we didn’t hear from them again for months!)
So anyway, this former harp camp in the middle of Germany was one of the connections the couple made for us (I think they were actually friends with the guy who ran the camp, or knew him somehow). We were invited there as “performing guests” and to teach a workshop on our “style” of American music (whatever that was, lol... I still don’t know). We didn’t get paid a heap, but the camp made all our meals and accommodation free and allowed us to take whatever classes we wanted during the week we were there. So I took a tango class.
I should mention that I can’t dance. I had no dancing background, other than the awkward bobbing and twisting that most guys end up getting dragged into doing by some partner or other while growing up. It’s always been something I generally try to avoid, because I have even less rhythm than Steven Martin’s character in “The Jerk”.
But anyway. Tango class. It was taught in German, but I had taken six years of German in school and hadn’t yet forgotten it all, so that was fine with me. Pretty cool, actually. Anyway, this was on I think the second night of it... we had learned some basic moves, and the music was playing, and my partner and I were stumbling through the steps (carefully, I might add, though in a minute you won’t believe me—but I was genuinely trying to be careful, not reckless!!!). Well, there was this part where I had to try to turn my partner around by swinging my left arm to the left and turning my body... so we did this semi-flailing wheel around, and... CLOCK!, my elbow made direct and solid contact with another dancer—an elderly woman, in her mid-seventies at least—square into the side of her head, right in her fucking temple. And she went down like a sack of potatoes. I frantically stopped and knelt to her aid, saying, “Entschuldigen Sie mir bitte” over and over. Turned out she was fine—just a bit stunned, and likely with a headache—but no physical damage had been done. She was, however, extremely grumpy at me. As I helped her to her feet, she stared a stare worth a thousand words that basically said “Leave, you young uncultured American piece of shit”, and shook my arm off, and wouldn’t say a single word to accept my profuse apologies. My face cycled through all the shades of red in shame and embarrassment.
That pretty much ruined dancing for me lol. I felt absolutely terrible.
I would give anything to be able to see you,” Dahlia whispered.
“I know. Me too.” Kaikos pulled her closer, and for a moment Dahlia let herself sink into his firm, confident hold, utterly immersed in his masculine muskiness.
Like any other day, tomorrow had been approaching for years; not even the great Ma’shaa could halt the march of time. She knew this, of course, and had been prepared for the inevitable ever since she was a little girl. Still, that knowledge did nothing to quell the fear and uncertainty that churned through her body and gave her dangerous thoughts of running away and hiding in the mountains.
Everything would change. Everything.
“My mother said this morning that she dreamed I would be approached by the Amethyst,” she whispered.
“A bold choice that would be. You’d be known as ‘Dahlia the Radiant,’ and your kinfolk would happily bask in the purple glow of your majestic presence!” Kaikos teased, a stray finger tickling her ribs.
Dahlia elbowed his hand away and pinched his shoulder hard, eliciting a chuckling wince. “And you’ll be known as ‘Kaikos the Black,’ after the callousness of your wry sense of humor!”
“Black wouldn’t be so bad, actually.”
“Are you an idiot? Black would be the worst. It can never touch the light! You’d be forced to cross the Sea of Truth, and if that didn’t kill you, you’d have to live in exile with the other Black-chosen in a land without color. It would be absolutely dreadful....”
“I know, I know, I was just kidding,” Kaikos soothed, but there was a faraway tone in his voice. He kissed her gently on the forehead. “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere, baby girl. Who knows? There’s a chance we could even get the same eyes tomorrow.”
Dahlia turned her face to find his lips, and for a time they were lost in a world of taste and scent and touch. As she made love to her man, she imagined him as he had been only a few weeks previously, before the Submission: Gorgeous and strong, with a smile that melted her heart and a pair of deep brown eyes that were always dancing with life and passion.
Later, while listening with her head on his chest to the gradual slowing of his heart, Dahlia wondered what the world would look like through amethyst eyes.
Originally, I’d been planning to write this week’s blog post about music; specifically, about my experiences over the past year or so with the local music scene here in Katoomba. It’s been a wonderful time, and I’d like to share some of it. However, recent events have made me decide to take a rain check on that one. I know it would be better to write about music than about what’s happening in Europe right now, at least for my mental health… the last post was about simplifying and my need to learn to do it, after all, and then there is this poem by Rumi:
Today, like every other day,
We wake up empty and frightened.
Do not open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
He’s right. And I should do that, rather than what I’m about to do… but I need to rant. So, here goes.
First of all, let me just point out how fucking selfish and inconsiderate Vladimir Putin is. The world has been doing it hard through more than two years of this pandemic—haven’t we all been through enough?!? Ugh. Seriously, you choose now to start a fucking war? You asshole.
Now, right as his invasion of Ukraine was beginning, various countries including the US announced a few economic sanctions against Russia. I posted about this on Facebook at the time, but I thought it worth including here. I mentioned what Stephen Colbert had to say regarding US sanctions against Russia: “So that means no Russian money can come into the US. There goes Tucker Carlson’s sponsors.”
Exactly right. But the damage was done. Whether knowingly or not, Donald Trump was and continues to be Putin’s Manchurian candidate (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/15/kremlin-papers-appear-to-show-putins-plot-to-put-trump-in-white-house ). America’s influence is being divided and conquered as we speak; it’s actually been happening for years. China is observing from afar, gauging NATO’s & America’s response, planning its move on Taiwan.
Also… I have recently read an article written by Putin (here—however, this link is currently not loading; I am optimistically assuming the Kremlin’s website is again being subjected to a DDOS attack, perhaps by the hacker group Anonymous, who have recently declared war on Putin and his government—so here is a site that summarizes the essay, albeit with a clear bias toward certain conclusions: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/putins-new-ukraine-essay-reflects-imperial-ambitions/) back in July 2021, regarding Ukraine’s historical ties with the Rus people, efforts to claim it by Poland and other foreign forces, and so on (this is his version of the story). Anyway, in it, he mentions several other former Soviet republics.
It is becoming pretty clear that certain analysts and historians have been right about Putin all along: a) He took the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union personally (this is well documented), and b) he has been biding his time ever since. Trump was / is his puppet, used to sow discord and confusion. Now Putin is striking. He is banking on the fact that America is not willing to go to war over Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Moldova, etc. And China will watch as the West does nothing (apart from some economic responses and vocal outrage, which Russia will weather), and strike Taiwan when the time is ripe. My fear is that China’s ambitions might actually go beyond Taiwan: The Philippines, for one.
Okay, so the above was more or less what I wrote on Facebook the other day, minus the bit about the DDOS attack. If you’ve read it before, my apologies for repeating myself here.
There are a few signs that China is perhaps, if not nervous, then being a bit more conservative with its plans than I’d previously thought it would be. It appears Xi Jinping is going to wait and see a bit longer before making any decisions to invade Taiwan, rather than use the current conflict as a smoke screen / distraction. Who knows? He still could do it. But I think he’s going to wait and see how this shit show pans out first. He is, unfortunately, a very smart man. And so is Putin. I imagine the fact that Russia has put its nuclear forces on “high alert” has given China pause; bosom-buddies though Russia and China have become (or, temporary allies of convenience, at least), the very last thing China wants is for a world war to break out, much less a nuclear one. The latter is good for no one, and a conflict that expands beyond Ukraine—and therefore has a much higher chance of spinning out of control—would not be good for business. China would prefer peace—on its terms, but peace nonetheless. It is hoping it can take Taiwan without a shot fired. This has always been its plan. There are a few things that would force China’s hand, of course; a formal Taiwanese declaration of independence, for one, or certain formal acts of recognition by the US. Short of those, though, China would prefer not to go to war. If it can cruise in with its massive army, replace Taiwan’s democracy with a puppet government (like it has done in Hong Kong), and not have to kill anyone or disrupt the economy too much, that would be ideal, as far as Xi Jinping is concerned.
See, China is all about business, and is actually quite happy with the status quo: The American empire is in decline, and China is on the rise. Trump has weakened NATO massively, and Russia and China have very patiently and systematically been prodding and influencing elections and economic decision-makers in many of NATO’s member nations. Indirectly, China is using Putin, just as Putin has been using Trump. The West is showing cracks. The UK is in disarray, Europe is on unsteady feet, Canada and Australia and New Zealand are militarily and economically too small to do much other than influence worldwide public opinion (which, in the long term, is actually quite a big deal), Germany is tied to Russia’s economy, France is facing populist movements similar to the one that is dangerously close to making America’s experiment in democracy come to a grinding halt or fall apart completely…. In a nutshell, the time appears to be right for China to make its move.
So, it has been making it. The Belt and Road Initiative is one way it has been doing so, and consolidating power in Xi Jinping is another. Like Putin, Xi is now constitutionally allowed to remain in power for many years into the future. (Not that the Chinese constitution has ever really mattered when it comes to the government’s decisions; whenever the constitution is in the way, it simply changes it… this has been true since the very founding of the PRC.) Xi Jinping, like so many of his compatriots, is tired of living in a world that is dominated by America and its allies. The fatigue has been building since the end of the Qing Dynasty, and the list of grievances against the West is long. Xi dreams of China becoming not only a new superpower, but the superpower. Taiwan is integral to his plan; it is an economic powerhouse, and he wants it. China needs it in order to succeed.
言歸正傳, China is a bigger player going forward than many would like to admit (and this reluctance to face the facts—this underestimation of China’s ambitions and, yes, capabilities—could end up being, perhaps, one of the West’s biggest downfalls). Putin has his ambitions, and he is using China to his advantage. However, if he should do anything that crosses a line and pisses China off too much, he will lose that ally. China is loyal only to itself.
As much as the Western media like to toy with construing Putin as off his rocker, however, one thing remains true: He is very keen, very far-sighted, and very cunning. He worked in counter-intelligence for years, after all. So, I have no doubt that he is aware of the lines he cannot cross with China.
Being logically aware of something, however, does not always dictate a course of action. Is Putin’s ego so big that he would cross those lines anyway, just to get what he wants? Will emotion (his burning desire to “teach the West a lesson” and restore Russia’s former glory) guide his hand? This could be good or bad. On the one hand, if it does, then he could make mistakes, such as underestimating NATO’s response to his invasion of Ukraine and/or other former Soviet republics. On the other hand, it could drive him to say, “fuck it,” and push the button.
That’s the button no one wants pushed. That’s the button that must not be pushed. It’s been the stuff of nightmares for generations.
Who in the world would launch nuclear weapons? I don’t mean in retaliation to a nuclear attack; I mean, who would actually initiate a nuclear conflict? Well, the US did, back in World War II, of course, but I don’t believe the current US regime would. So, what leaders on Earth actually would push the button? Not many, thankfully. But the really fucking scary thing is, I believe Vladimir Putin would. He has very little regard for human life, he has an ego the size of a planet, and he is arrogant beyond belief. He is a multi-billionaire and has lost touch with reality, if indeed he ever was in touch with it in the first place. Who else would? Well, the jury is still out on the new Israeli government. Would the Iranian leadership, once it had (has) the capabilities? I don’t think so, but it would certainly retaliate if it were attacked. Same with India and Pakistan, for now at least. The UK? France? No, I don’t think so. North Korea? All bark no bite has been the trend there, but that could change. Still, I think it’s more likely to use nukes as a threat than actually launch them. Would Xi Jinping push the button? Sure. If someone attacked China first.
Interesting times we live in. Very interesting times. I guess what I am really hoping is that all this economic pressure causes more Russians to speak up against their leader. He probably has a number in mind… if X-number of citizens revolt, I will put X-number of citizens in prison; if Y-number of citizens revolt, I will have to go to plan B… that sort of thing. Plan B could very well save the world from nuclear holocaust.
This has been tangent after tangent. Sorry. I guess the main point I was trying to make is that Putin is a dickhead for doing what he’s doing. The world needs to heal from covid. We need to bond together to slow and reverse climate change, before it overwhelms us completely. We need peace; we need to love one another. We don’t need to be seeing the world as a big board of Risk, and plotting how to take territories etc. We need to cherish life, and improve people’s lives, not the opposite.
Okay, rant over. It was more of a venting of fears, I suppose. Next blog post won’t be so worried, I promise :-) Hang in there folks. Let’s hope for a milder outcome and a swift end to armed conflict.
Oh, before I go, here’s something for a chuckle: Ukrainian Astronomers Name a Star "Putin Is a Dickhead"
Apologies, dear readers. I had every intention of putting up a blog post this week, but life has happened again and there is just way too much going on. Thank you so much for reading my blog posts! I truly appreciate it, and hope to be able to put up something new for you to read here by this time next week.
Meanwhile, here is something beautiful for your listening pleasure:
Thank you for your patience, and have a wonderful day/night :-)
It’s certainly not the first time this has happened: The world has started to feel far too complicated. It has felt this way before, and it will feel this way again. Still, when you’re inside a thing, the perspective of time tends to live in blind spots and becomes difficult to recall.
Sky. Sunshine. Running water. Shade. Drifting clouds. Birdsong. Wind in the trees. These things are grounding. They revive the senses and calm the soul.
On many a backpacking trip, back when I used to do them, I achieved a separation of mind from society. Not completely, of course; “wherever you go, there you are,” after all, and we bring our baggage with us. But when you’ve been in the wilderness for a while—oh, say, at least a week—the cacophony and busy-ness of the human world begins to drift away, and your body awakens to a very different sort of awareness: One of sundrenched meadows, of pine boughs and moon shadows; of weather, of cold and warmth, of the land and the myriad non-human beings that inhabit it; of rock and rain and finding a safe, flat place to sleep, and of the need to make a fire and fill your belly; of telling stories, recalling memories, or simply sitting in silence, watching the fire crackle.
When you’ve reached such a simplified—not simple by any means, mind you, but simplified—state of being, the world begins to look quite different. Looking back on how you felt just weeks before, when you were still submerged in human society and all its worries and woes, you begin to see just how much of a frog in a well you have been. You start to realize that while yes, humans have overwhelmed this planet like ants (oops, that's an injustice to ants; sorry!), we are not the end-all-be-all; our existence is not forever. We are but one small chapter in this vast story of Earth. Sadly, we are indeed leaving our mark—one which is altering the course of life on this planet, perhaps even sealing its doom—but even that immense mark is temporary. I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that long after we are gone and have done our damage, whatever vestige of life has survived—a weed, some bacteria, perhaps a virus (wouldn’t that be ironic)—it will, with or without us, begin the next chapter.
I do hope we humans will pull our heads in before it’s too late, and resist the selfish and fearful instincts that drive us to war, greed, bigotry, and cruelty. I spend a lot of time worrying about these things, reading the news, observing what’s happening around the world, watching the not-so-slow-&-steady-anymore death of ecosystems and populations, including our own. The greed kills me; it boils my blood and makes me want to fight for justice and equality. And in my own small ways, I do.
But then things get to feeling so complex, so hopeless even; and it’s times like these, times like today, like right now, when I remember… vague though that memory has become… that outside this narrow little human well of perspective is a whole other world. A simpler one; one stark in both its beauty and its reality. And if I’m lucky, that then makes me realize I should take a pause; take a step back and simplify.
How do you simplify? Well, people talk about meditation, but despite having worked for a Tibetan Buddhist church for more than seven years, I still have no idea how to meditate. But I do sometimes remember how to focus on something small. See, small is not less. Simple is not less. Often, it’s more. Scratch the cat under the chin. Spend that second or two longer hugging the one you love. Pause for a minute to look at the light playing on the bark of the tree out the back; watch a beetle make its surprisingly not-so-slow way across a stone. Literally stop and smell the flowers.
Or go for a walk. Listen to the buzzing of a bee or the breeze in the branches overhead. Read a book—fiction, mind you! …or at least, if it is non-fiction, make sure it’s something that isn’t going to get under your skin and bring the horrors of the world crashing back in. Cook something yummy to eat. Hold someone’s hand. Do the dishes. Haul some heavy boxes. Play a musical instrument, or listen to some music. Say something kind to someone. Be.
Take a step back, pause, and look at everything you might normally plan to cram into your day. Acknowledge the items you absolutely must do—and by must, I mean, something dreadful is going to happen if you don’t do them—and then take a rain check on the rest. With whatever minutes or hours are left, do very little. Do simple things.
I’m not saying you should stick your head in the sand, quit your job, ignore the world’s issues, pretend everything will be fine or that it’s all someone else’s problem, etc. No. I’m just saying, push pause for a moment. Take a step back. Remember to breathe. That’s what a late friend said to me once. It helped. A lot. (Click that link, or this one, for a brief window into his world.)
You’ll have to rejoin the rat race at some point, in some way or another; you can’t (and shouldn’t) keep your head in the sand forever. You shouldn’t just sit in a cave for the rest of your life and leave all your fellow humans and other Earthlings to fend for themselves. (Opinions do vary on that, I am aware; I am expressing mine.) But you can take breaks. You can declutter your mind now and then. You can simplify.
I think doing so once in a while clears the mind, thereby enabling us to function as relatively sane, compassionate, far-seeing members of society. Hell, if enough people learn to simplify like this, it may just prevent a fight. It may just prevent a death. It may just save the world.
So, rather than keep trying to force that knot, perhaps you should take a moment to untangle. It might help.
You and your sisters were all made with Truesight. We must not wait for protocol; use it now, before it is too late. When the time comes, I shall defend your actions before the Armada.
Distracted by her uncle's fretting, Alpha shifted her communication mod to a dedicated channel so that she could continue her scans uninterrupted. That’s the thing, uncle; I have been using the Truesight, ever since we last jumped. And no matter how far I look, it’s the same: red.
There was a brief pause. Then perhaps it is not a matter of distance, but of direction. This time try looking toward—
No; it’s the same everywhere, Uncle. No matter where I look, no matter how far, I see only red.
Her uncle’s pathways fell silent. The two probes revolved around each other in a tight orbit, the older model’s gravfields extended in triplicate around the pair of them like invisible arms bracing against the dead of space.
Alpha sensed her uncle’s barely concealed panic. His inadequate sensors were straining upward, downward, back the way they had come before their most recent jump. But all around them the stars and galaxies continued to fade red into the distance, and she knew that at the very least he could see that.
She concentrated. Dedicating all of her memory to the Truesight search mod, she used it to penetrate outward to ever farther layers. Her scans hurtled past quasars and superclusters she would never have dreamed of seeing in tens of thousands of millennia. But through all her efforts, not a single spot of blue-shifted matter appeared on her sensors: the entire universe was still moving away from them at a tremendous speed.
Perhaps we should pick another direction, try another jump, her uncle muttered. But it was obvious he was not convinced.
Alpha would not allow herself to give in to despair. Well, if we had enough power, we could attempt another Meta-Bend. Whatever we did wrong the first time must have caused this singularity; perhaps we can find a way to repeat it. Only this time Bend differently somehow, for the opposite effect. It’s worth a try.
And how, Alpha, will we gather enough power? Or any power at all, for that matter, what with all the stars in the heavens racing away from us, red-shifted and ever farther out of reach?
I don’t know, Uncle. Not yet. But we cannot give up.
They spun in the void for many hours, neither saying a word. Finally, her uncle broke the silence. You are right of course, my dearest Alpha. We will find a way. And perhaps at this very moment, your sisters are searching for us; or perhaps the Paradigm will think of something. Perhaps....
Perhaps, Uncle. But at the very least, in the meantime, we have each other.
“That may be your truth, but this is my truth.”
Lies and lying.
Semantics, a gerrymandering of words.
The whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Perjury. Falsehoods. Fabrication. Mendacity.
Equivocation. Prevarication. Misdirection. Vagueness. Evasion.
Forgery. Deceit. Misrepresentation. Dishonesty. Distortion. Evasion. Slander. Fiction.
White lies. This is for your own good; it’s merely a justified inaccuracy, given the circumstances.
I’m not pointing this gun at you. No, really; yes, it’s in my hand, and sure, the barrel may seem to be pointing right at you, but it’s not. It’s an illusion. Don’t believe those idiots; they are constantly spouting fake news. I promise. You can trust me. I am not lying. I am being honest. I am telling the truth. Believe me. I’m NOT pointing this gun at you. I’m NOT pointing this gun at you. I’m NOT pointing this gun at you. Repeat after me: I’m NOT pointing this gun at you.
Vote for me. I am truthful. Don’t listen to the other guy; he’s a two-faced sonofabitch. Fake news. You can’t trust anything but what I say, because my truth is THE truth. Just ask so-and-so….
By now, we humans have some pretty evolved brains. We’re getting better and better at quite a few things, and one of them is lying. The fact is, we’ve gotten pretty fucking good at it. Just think about how many different words/lexemes we have for this behavior, in English alone! (yeah, that link is about snow, not lying, but still… *shrug*)
Moreover, today’s technology and communication systems—social media, photograph and video manipulation, misinformation spam, etc etc etc—have upped the ante, making even more complex lies possible. Lies within lies; lies that appear to be true, and not simply on the surface. Sometimes it takes some real, earnest digging and research to figure out whether a statement is true or not, and even then, sometimes you just never know.
The ironic thing is that most of us humans aspire to be truthful, at least in our own individual way. Most of us tend to hold honesty and integrity in very high regard. Sometimes when we do that, we’re being hypocrites, of course. Many of us not only lie to others, but to ourselves. Pulling the wool over someone else’s eyes is one thing, but doing it to yourself, so well that you actually fall for it—now that’s artful. Tragically so.
Regardless, most folks think lying is bad.
And yet, we all do it. We all lie. Children lie. Adults lie. Every human lies at some point or other. I don’t know whether it’s in our nature or not—that’s a whole ‘nother discussion—but we all do it, each and every one of us.
When was the last time you lied? Have you lied today? What about? Were your intentions benevolent or malevolent? (…And does that matter?)
I’ve been wondering about guile lately. ‘Probably because I’ve been watching and reading the news, perhaps far too much. Anyway, I’ve been wondering about what evolutionary purpose lying and deceit might serve, if any. Do other animals lie? Is complex language a prerequisite of the capacity to deceive? Are opposable thumbs and the ability to use objects as tools part of what led the language centers of our human brains to evolve? It’s an interesting theory. Think about this: Among mammals, the baring of teeth is generally a sign of warning. It basically says, “Come closer and I’ll defend myself, with these sharp pointed things here!”
In humans, smiles can be reflections of true joy, of embarrassment and discomfort, or concealment of all manner of emotions and intentions (“No, I love you. Really, I do. Now… just… go to sleep… muhahahahahaaa….”) I’m sure I’m leaving lots out; these are just the thoughts that are coming to mind right now. Bear with me, and please forgive my lack of thoroughness. I’ve love to be thorough, but that’s probably another thing I’ll never truly achieve. In any case, there are many, many (…many) theories as to the origins and purposes of the smile.
It feels simplistic to say that learning to lie is what separated the strong from the weak among our ancestors. Survival of the least honest, that sort of thing. Because truth and honesty have saved us from perishing countless times, too, surely. Right?? Geez, I certainly hope so. It’s hard to think of an historical example at the moment, but perhaps you can.
I’m rambling here. Let’s see.
Say, for example, that I am testifying before an anticorruption board. Let’s say it was alleged that I, as one of the keepers and guardians of the two cats that live with my wife and me, did bribe both felines with a special snack one afternoon while my wife was away at work so that they would give me extra cuddles on the couch/lounge while watching television later that evening. The anticorruption board (my wife) has accused me of this, and I must defend myself.
Okay, so: If I am telling the truth, I need to convince her of it so that she knows I am not lying.
If I am lying, I must lie well so that she thinks I am telling the truth. Because if I get caught, I’m in trouble. :-p
So, let’s say, in this scenario, that I am not lying; that I did not actually feed the kitties a treat in an effort to bribe them into giving most of the evening cuddles to me instead of to their momma the way they usually do.
If this is true, then this is a truth.
If this is true, then this is the truth.
This is my truth.
This is true.
Goodness. There are so many ways of describing honesty, as well as lies!
But how will she know if I’m actually telling the truth or not? Maybe she has informed the entire neighbourhood of my alleged evil ways of kitty-cat manipulation, and now all of the neighbours believe her; and no matter what I say, they all think I am lying. Now I am up against not only my wife’s truth, but the court of public opinion.
If forty-odd percent of 328 million people believe that I don’t have a rock in my pocket because I have said that I don’t, does that make it true?
Obviously, what I’m trying to get at is the idea of objective truth. It’s something my father thought about quite a bit. Is there such thing as objective truth? Can something be true, independent of perspective and opinion and so on? Is all truth subjective? Is any truth subjective?
If I really do have a rock in my pocket, does it matter how many people believe that I don’t?
Let’s say I actually did bribe the cats, and my goal is to convince everyone—not just the neighbours, but everyone in the world, if I can—that I did not (the goal being to not only achieve my objective of getting more cat cuddles, but to avoid getting found out and in trouble for my deceitful ways). Like the existence or non-existence of a rock in my pocket, no one was actually here to see whether I bribed the cats or not; I could be lying or I could be telling the truth, as far as they know. So, I therefore plan to bulldog through with a giant, billion-dollar ad campaign (hey, what can I say; I invented a special sort of cat food and now it’s sold gazillions and made me super rich, muhahahahazaaaa) to get people all over the world to believe “my truth” and not my wife’s fake news. She doesn’t have the money to spend, so I think it might work.
I tell lie after lie, and over time, I gather a ton of people to my cause… people who have always thought of me as an honest person (or at least as one who can get things done, especially things that are in their interests), and who therefore believe in me and will fight tooth and nail on my behalf in defense of “the truth”. I go on talk shows, popular podcasts, the six o’clock news. I gather large rallies and speak to stadiums full of true, enlightened believers. People who won’t fall for the bullshit being spouted by the other side (my wife, our neighbours, and whomever else they have managed to convert to believing their version of events). Politicians argue my case in senates and parliaments in over a hundred countries. Facebook and Twitter and Google don’t buy it yet, because I don’t yet have any of my people high up in their ranks; they have been putting out all these stupid warnings and labels on my tweets and posts, saying stuff like, “this claim about lack of kitty cuddle bribery is disputed,” or “some or all of the content shared in this Tweet conflicts with guidance from our highly qualified legal experts in feline bribery and cuddle-acquirement,” blah blah blah. But it’s early days yet; I’ll convince them all.
See, if you say something is true loud enough and often enough, and get enough soundbites and face time, then eventually the truth—my truth—will come out on top.
Okay, let’s say I succeed in this effort. Let’s say that when all is said and done, everyone thinks my wife is the real liar, and that what I have been saying all along is true. And because I’ve gotten some very powerful people to come over to my side—supreme court justices the world over, the chief of the local police, even Sideshow Annie—I end up becoming legally immune to the neighbours’ prosecution for a period of no less than thirty cat years. So, for all intents and purposes, the powers that be have decided that my version of events is the truth.
But is it?
Which brings me to another question: Does it really matter? Do people’s actions always reflect their beliefs, including in terms of what they believe to be true? Apparently not. (Click that link for a very interesting read—it’s quite an eye-opener, and pertinent to this topic.)
There are truths being ignored because they are not popular or are uncomfortable to read about. Bald-faced lies being told by major world leaders. Honesty being misinterpreted as guile. Dishonesty being mistaken as earnestness. Lies becoming more and more complex. The truth getting harder and harder to believe. Lies getting easier and easier to believe, and harder and harder to discern. All this is happening, and more.
We humans have gotten ourselves into a real pickle, that’s for damn sure. It is certainly challenging to know what to believe these days; so much so that a frighteningly large number of people have become so paranoid that they don’t trust anything that comes out of anyone’s mouth anymore, especially anyone speaking on TV—politicians, journalists, even scientists. It’s a sad state of affairs. There is little room for honour and integrity, and even those who actually possess those attributes get dismissed as liars. And part of the sadness is that some of the paranoia is founded (though plenty of it is not, of course). This just adds fuel to the fire in people’s minds.
Nevertheless, I don’t think we should give up hope. I believe we need to start having more conversations about truth; conversations about what the truth is and what it means. About perspective; about the difference between objective and subjective. About vested interested, and what those drive so many people to do and say. About lies and lying on all levels, including rationalizations such as, “oh it was just a white lie” or “oh it was just a little exaggeration, all for a good cause, you know”.
We should take a good long look in the mirror, too, acknowledging our own behavior and seeing what our society has become and how we ourselves have individually contributed to that, and then reevaluate our values—and, in the process, continue to talk openly with friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, and so on, about what we see, what we think, and what we’re learning. It all starts with conversation, I think. On-going, sincere, mutually respectful conversation, and in as peaceful a manner as we can muster.
How do we recognize the truth? How do we recognize lies? How do we learn to recognize when we’re being hoodwinked into believing something is a lie, when it is actually the truth? All of these things, and more, we need to talk about. Get it out into the open. Expose such behaviors and learn to see them clearly for what they are.
Will we come up against greedy sonsofbitches who will lie to our faces and maliciously spread misinformation in order to achieve their (often hidden) agendas? Yes, undoubtedly. And we definitely must not retreat into naïveté.
But if we stick with it, persevere in our efforts to discuss these things and discern truth from lies, then perhaps we’ll figure out how to forge past this very ugly period of history we are currently in. I hope we will. And I actually believe we will.
Something is wrong, and in a moment of panic I realize that my body has tilted too far to the side. The exertion of craning my neck to see out the tiny window has caused me to leave the wall, and I am floating like a dead fish toward the ceiling.
I reach out blindly for something, anything. My fingers find the crack between the door and its frame, and I use it to bring my body upright and my feet back to the floor. With some effort I keep the nausea under control, and gradually my pulse begins to slow.
So this is how it’s going to be. Everything cumbersome. I bite my bottom lip and cross my arms, hugging my shoulders.
It’s cold in here. Cold air. Cold walls. Cold light. Cold metal floor.
Careful not to apply too much downward force lest I launch myself away from the wall again, I bumble over to the hammock. Its fabric is tangled and dirty. After a moment of futzing with it, I get the netting open. I frown at the stench that wafts out as I lift my legs and angle my feet toward the opening. After an awkward and lengthy struggle during which I cannot let go of the net with my hands, I am more or less sitting with my legs in the sleeping bag and the netting on both sides of me.
Frustrated. Empty. Cold .
It feels like I’m floating in a pool of water at the gym or something. But at least I am now stationary, except for the slight side-to-side residual drift caused by my efforts. I carefully lie back and reach a finger out to the oily wall to steady myself. After a few minutes, I am almost still.
She’s wearing a bright red hat that curls up in the front, made of some sort of synthetic leather with a felt underside. Expensive, like most of her clothes. I keep trying to think of something I can buy her that she would like; something I can afford, but something special.
Her finger is pulling at my belt loop as we stroll through one of the quieter garden tunnels near my habmod. Mostly hidden fans blow a cool breeze, causing the big lazy elephant leaves to wave up and down. My eyes linger on her lips and she smiles. Reaching gentle arms around my neck, she kisses me. My heart is pounding.
I want to have babies with you, she whispers into my ear.
My throat catches. Hands closing tighter around her waist. Pulse racing. The dark green elephant leaves waving all around.
Yes, I whisper urgently.
I awaken, uncertain of where I am for a moment. There is no light; all I can see are the little ghostly swirls of random color that my brain has conjured to fill the void.
It will never happen.
I move my arms to prop myself up, but feeling no resistance, I suddenly get the sense that I am falling. My heart jumps in panic. Then that back-of-the-throat feeling of near total weightlessness and the sudden smell of the hammock combine to remind me of the cold fact that I am in a prison cell. Memories flood my consciousness—of my arrival on the comet, of the elevator, of the trial. The knot building in my stomach quickly turns to bile.
This is the rest of my life. This is forever.
I vomit hard, convulsions wracking my chest and throat. Through the dark, I hear the liquid stuff spatter against a wall or the floor or the ceiling. The sound and the smell makes me heave again and again until I am dry, and then I heave some more.
I blink back cold tears and stare into the disorienting blackness, seeing nothing, begging silently for sleep. After a long time, my throat stops screaming from the harsh stomach acids and a deep, cruel thirst settles in.
I am gone. I don’t even exist anymore.
Someone asked me awhile back, “How many countries have you been to?” I was looking at a map this morning, and it reminded me of the conversation. So, let’s see. I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived in a few and visited more than a few—enough that it took me a minute to list them:
America, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Belize; UK (England, Scotland), France, Germany (East and West), Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Switzerland; China, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore (or not, unless just a long layover at the Singapore international airport counts); Australia, New Zealand.
Japan might not count; I was only there one day, to reset my visa. I spent the day wandering around Osaka, eating noodles for lunch, waiting in a waiting room at the consulate, and training in and out from the airport. Italy might not really count either; I was only there for a day, too, driving through a corner of it. Had lunch by a pretty lake, as I recall. I was only 12, though, so it’s hard to remember much. There was some intense traffic, and black diesel exhaust fumes, big trucks and whizzing motorcycles, and my dad was swearing as we went around a bend on a winding mountain road.
If you count them all, even including Singapore, then I’ve been to 22 countries (two of which don’t even exist anymore). But I do not really count Singapore, honestly. We were there for several hours, waiting to change planes, but all we saw was the inside of an airport, which could have been anywhere. I suppose a few of the fast-food options in the food court were different. Either way, whether I’ve been to 21 or 22, or 19, that’s only about one tenth of the total countries / nation-states in the world.
Which means that if I want to get to them all before I die, I’d better stop writing this and go travel somewhere rightquick. Fortwit’. Seeya! :-p Oops, first stop, a bank; need to rob one for funds. Wheeeee.
Still though. As my dad used to say, Wherever you go, there you are. So, in a way, I’ve only ever been one place: Where I am at any given moment.
How long you spend somewhere and what you do there has to count for something, too. Like, there’s a huge difference between a week and a couple of years. And countries / nations are only one sort of place. Some are vast. Some are tiny. It’s all the myriad locations and modes of being within all those lands, as well as between them, that truly spark the wanderlust. As M. Hodges (the younger) would agree, there are many modes of travel.
So, why does it matter how many places I’ve visited? *shrug* It doesn’t, really. It was a question put to me, so I answered it as well as I could. You can spend your entire life in just one country, just one state, or even just one town or county, and still have an entire lifetime full of experiences. Change of location is wonderful for the imagination and personal growth, but then so are roots. Sometimes it seems that more you move, the shallower are your roots. Memories fade and are distorted with time. Friends come and go. Family, even. You can get to feeling spread out; neither here nor there. Trapped in-between countries, in some in-between land… where is that? Where the clouds are, perhaps? Beyond the horizon just above the vanishing point of a forever road? Or in the light above oceans, scattering through jet trails, with glimpses of stars above…?
Stars, however… those are constants, for the most part. Sure, you see some in the southern hemisphere that you don’t see in the northern, and vice versa, but there are still plenty that are always there. Same with the moon; it’s a constant. It centers. It grounds. It can be a friend. Friends are necessary, whether real or imaginary.
We take a lot of constants for granted. Taking them for granted creates more distance, but it’s an imagined sort of distance, not actual geographical distance. In this day and age, communication happens at the tap of a screen, even to and from the most remote places on Earth. Gone are the days when making a phone call could take all day long (yes, that happened to me once, as recently as the spring of 1993, in a little mountain town called Batang / 巴塘; and sorry Mom and Dad for waking you up at 2:30 in the morning when the long series of operators finally made the connection, only to have it lost and the line go silent not five minutes later!). And for the vast majority of humans, gone, too, are the snail mail days. I miss snail mail. Email just isn’t the same. Same with paper books versus ebooks. You can’t smell an ebook. They are convenient, however. I wish I’d had e-dictionaries and e-books to lug around in some of the places I’ve traveled; it would have made my pack a bit lighter. Those grams / ounces add up.
How many countries have I been to? Well, I guess that’s one question to ask. Another one, though, and a harder question to answer, is this: “In how many people’s lives have I made a positive difference?”
Whatever the number, I hope it continues to grow.
The brothers crested the ridge, and for the fourth time that day their hearts sank. Lief, the taller and older of the two, picked up a rock. Hefting it a moment, he hurled it as far as he could while yelling a particularly foul profanity.
Skäll dropped his pack and sat on it. His breath staggered back to him as he squinted in frustration at the daunting horizon. “Like I said,” he panted. “We’ll never catch up.”
Lief scanned the ground for another rock, hands on his hips and chest still heaving from the climb. Skäll was ready with a come-back to the inevitably positive and courageous comment.
But his brother merely raised the canteen, took a distracted swallow, and stared northward, into the wind. After a long while he shook his head. “Time for a change of plans.”
Skäll sat up with eyes wide. “You’re friggin kidding me, right? There’s no way we can go back. If they—”
“Not back; east. We’ll go to the river.”
Skäll spit. “Assuming we can even find a damn river in all that. And blades won’t do us any good, remember?”
“We will. It’s out there,” Lief said, waving at the rocks and snow in a vague arc that covered a good third of the rough and tumble land to their right.
Skäll said nothing. He had no ideas and was too exhausted to argue anyway. Both of them were resisting the urge to look behind them, he knew. If those... things were indeed following them, then which direction they chose wouldn’t matter.
“We’ll find it,” Lief said.
And then the silent stretches would come,
When we paddled without talking
And lost ourselves
To where we were.
On an overcast morning
Just upriver from Drinking Lake
The wide Churchill River oozed mirror-like
Into a shifting sky of gray and blue,
Black and purple.
Hours and hours of repetitive motion
Like the swift that can keep flying
Even when it sleeps;
The tapestry pulled me in.
Colors waxed and waned in smooth patterns,
Pushing against the edges of my vision,
Drawing me ever deeper.
A flick of water from my blade
And a faint roar up ahead
Brought me gliding back
To cold breezes
And jack pines on the shores;
To where I was…
unconscious yet conscious
like a swift’s awareness
the dip, swish
scattering droplets across the surface
like white beads.
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