27 June 2009

Free to Be

So you want to be entertained?
Please look away
We're not here 'cause we want to entertain
Please go away (don't go away)
Reality is the new fiction, they say
Truth is truer in these days, truth is man-made
If you're here cause you want to be entertained
Please go away

--Sleater-Kinney, "Entertain"

Is your life worth a painting?
Is this girl vs. boy with different symbols?
Being born is power.

--Minutemen, "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing"

Sleater-Kinney: Entertain

R.I.P. Michael Jackson.
R.I.P. the lost memories of youth.

I will openly admit that when I heard the news of Michael Jackson's death my thoughts were one step above the Who Cares level. I've never owned any of Michael Jackson's music and other than the cool shuffle of "Billie Jean" didn't care for it much. I thought he was bizarre. And he certainly was: the plastic surgery, arranged marriages with accompanying children, and the child molestation charges were just too much to deal with or think about. Who cares.

Then I checked Pitchfork for my daily dose of reviews and other bits of music geekiness and found their tribute and I wondered what a sometimes snobby and cooler-than indie rock website would say about the pop icon. And the tribute is honest and it expresses similar feelings of disassociation and confusion that I feel for this person whose body of artistic work has been all but obliterated by the train wreck that his public life became. And at the end of the tribute they posted a 1974 video of Michael Jackson and Roberta Flack singing "When We Grow Up" from the television show Free to Be... You and Me.

And then I almost started to cry.

I was three days short of my fifth birthday when Free to Be... You and Me first aired. We were living on Iris street in Lakewood, Colorado. I have no idea where I first saw the show, either at home or at school. Until I watched the video yesterday I would not have been able to recall that the show even existed. Seemingly, it had vanished from my memory.

The song itself is sweet and heartbreaking. The melody is simple but beautiful and as soon as it began I remembered every word. Michael Jackson was seventeen in that clip and, no, Michael you didn't have to change at all. But you did and I did and I forgot all about you. And now I have a son that is the same age I was when I first saw that show.

So I guess Mike and I have a longer relationship than at first I remembered. And then I went back and watched most of the clips from Free to Be... You and Me. The entire show in seventeen parts is posted on You Tube by someone who goes by the name Mooncrystle. Thank you, Mooncrystle. It's also sweet and heartbreaking and, apparently, it affected my life in profound ways yet relegated to the subliminal corners of my memory. Suddenly, I remembered it all: the lyrics, images, storylines of the individual pieces, Marlo and Mel, Rosey Grier, Alan Alda, Carol Channing, Kris and Rita, and especially Michael.

Then I remembered other things: Riding in my sister's Barracuda. The South Iris Street Fourth of July Bicentennial Block Party. The Phillips '66 gas station where Dad moonlighted after returning from his Bureau of Reclamation job at the Federal Center. My sisters' Jackson 5 Motown 45s. Banana-seat bikes. The drive-in theater on Wadsworth boulevard.

Maybe the test of an icon is its ability to subvert itself into the subconscious. Well, you accomplished that, Mike, even with this non-fan. Damn if you haven't been there all along. And I thought I didn't care.

If I was a gambling man I'd hazard a small fortune to say that Michael never had the opportunity to reclaim some of his lost memories of youth. I might even double down and bet that he might not have had too many memories of his early childhood that he wanted to reclaim. I know them only as vague and incomplete anecdotes but the stories of Michael's childhood with his abusive and violent father are numerous. Sadly, those doors are bound to reopen to the undiscerning public for many months to come. And that's too bad.

By all accounts Michael Jackson's death is a Tragedy in the most classic sense of the word. In short, Aristotle wrote that Tragedy is characterized by a person who experiences a reversal of good to bad fortune. The reversal must be caused by a flaw or mistake in character. Though possibly unforeseen, the reversal of fortune is inevitable. And, finally, the emotional outcome of the Tragedy must elicit in the audience (us) a catharsis or sense of relief.

I don't think it's morbid to say that whatever Neverland Michael finds himself in, it is much less lonely, less fearful, and less painful than the one he experienced here with us (the audience). I, for one, feel a sense of relief.

No, in the coming weeks I won't purchase Michael Jackson albums or biographies or watch too many Entertainment Tonight episodes. As Wendy said, it seems like he died a long time ago. And that's probably true. It's doubtful that he could ever recover any of his glory years from the mid- '70s and early '80s. For me, anyway, that's alright because, apparently, that's the image of him that made such an impression on my five-year-old mind. It's that image, along with a whole host of others, that I had forgotten about. Collectively, those are the images and experiences that formed my life as I live it today. And they have returned to me and they are here; and now they will be remembered. Thanks, Mike.

17 June 2009

The Ice Kings

Who knew a geeky, quiet, little (ex) band from Austin, Texas was so into snow? Not me. And who knew that the eco-capitalists at REI were hip enough to employ such an un-snowy band for their snowy soundtrack? Not me.

Though the video would have better accomplished using a telemarker or two, the skiing is awfully nice, especially as I look all around me and see nothing but the green, green grass (of home) growing taller and taller.

The compilation came out January 2009. As far as I know the song is unavailable on any other format and might never be now that they no longer exist. I assume it was guitarist/vocalist Andrew Kenny who said this about the song:

"Ice King" was written in the middle of a record streak of 100-degree days here in beautiful Austin, TX. Something's gotta give. As hot as it gets here, it gets even colder in the Northeast. And doesn't the cold outside have a way of bringing out the cold in people? That's what this song is about.

I would say the opposite is true, Andrew. At any rate, enjoy your (dreams of) skiing.

16 June 2009

Literary Skiers 2a

Nowadays the meadow isn't considered worth haying. Machinery is cost-prohibitive in relation to annual yield. No one will winter here anymore. We are a different breed of Westerners. Snow always looks good to skiers.

Someone from Denver bought Lyle's place for the fishing, a summer retreat. Without irrigation much of the meadow has regressed to native sidehill pasture and sage. The rest is frumpy-looking, matted under the yellow thatch of last year's uncut growth. Along the east fence, where Pat and Lyle used to bet on whether or not the snowdrift would last till the Fourth of July, short lengths of snowbroken wire sink into the earth, sink down with the roots.

Underneath its feral pelt, the meadow is still the meadow, entire, lying in wait for winter. Wildflowers still joy in its swells and hollows. And do the ruined, sage-choked irrigation ditches feel sorry for their intricately pattered uselessness?

--James Galvin, from The Meadow, 1992

10 June 2009

Literary Skiers 2

According to scientists who study avalanches for a living, snow has the widest range of physical properties of any known substance. What's amazing is that the Eskimo language doesn't have more words for it. Powder snow, corn snow, sugar snow, windpack. Neve, slab, spring powder, spit, and fluff. Thawing and freezing it changes with every degree of temperature, every passing second. Goose down, ball bearings, broken styrofoam.

Then there are the properties of snow that are not physical, or not exactly physical; its lethal whims, its harmlessness, its delicacy, its power, its relentlessness, its flirtatious disregard, its sublime beauty.

Harmless enough, the season's first flakes arrive in the stubble of the mown field, in the spiked branches of pines. They vanish in the morning sun as though they never meant anything by it. And what do they mean in midwinter when the hard-packed drifts settle in, oppressing the foreseeable future? A little wind and spindrift makes them smolder.

All winter the drifts come and go. They have a sense of direction, but they aren't going anywhere. The flakes come straight down or sideways, fast or slow; sometimes they don't fall but swirl and hover and take off like swallows. The meadow fills, and drifts make bridges over the fences. Everybody waits.

The fences break under the weight of so much beauty. Who does the meadow belong to now? For half the year it belongs to the snow, not a thing you can do with it, and by April no one thinks it's pretty anymore, though it is.


Lyle said, "If you want to know who really owns your land, don't pay the taxes for a while. Then if you want to know who owns it even more, just look out the window in a blizzard. That's the landlord's face looking in, snooping."

Ray, who didn't own any land and never had, outside the lot his doublewide was on in Laramie, thought of snow as a beautiful way to die.

--James Galvin, from The Meadow, 1992

03 June 2009

The Mountain Keeper

Once there was a boy. His name was Enrico. He lived at the bottom of a very green and very fertile valley.

Enrico loved where he lived. He knew the valley and all its inhabitants very well. He knew the village streets and enjoyed evening strolls through them.

He had many friends and was never afraid to start a conversation with villagers.

Often, he was seen running among the flowers and playing in the streams.

But as full and happy as his life was, Enrico soon felt that something was missing. This feeling made the boy question the world around him. And as soon as he started to question the world around him he started to look outside the world where he felt most comfortable and most certain of his place. And the first place he looked was up.

"What's up there," he asked.
"Where," was the reply.
"Up there."
"There? That's your house, silly. That's where you live."
"No. Past the house. Up. Up there."
"Up there? Above the house? Nothing. Just mountains and the sky."
"Mountains and the sky? I want to go there," said Enrico.

"Where? Up there? Oh, no," he was told. "There is no reason to go up there. Everything you need is here. Here you have your friends.

Your pets.

Your villages, churches, markets, and schools. Everything. What more do you need?"

"Yes, yes," said Enrico. "I know, and I love it all. It just seems that there must be something more. And that something must come from up there. I mean, the grapes that make our wine come from up there.

The grass that feeds our cows that give us the milk to make our cheese and ice cream comes from up there."

"True," the villagers conceded.
"The wood and rocks that we use for our homes come from up there."

"Very true," they all agreed.
"The water we drink comes from up there. Even the sunshine that keeps us happy comes from there," said the boy.

"Yes, maybe. But those are places incalculable and far too dangerous for travel." Here the villagers drew the line.

"Any water you would find up there would be frozen and buried by the snow.

Any sunshine you would find up there would be tempered by the cold winds.

No, Enrico. Those are places unthinkable. Mind your business down here and you'll never have to worry."

The villagers argued their position but Enrico had already made up his mind. There seemed to him a new and even bigger world above him. A world of endless possibility. To stay with what was comfortable and known would be more dangerous and more uncertain than the wind, rocks, and snow high above him.

Enrico went to sleep that night and dreamed of his plans.

The next morning, Enrico woke up early and prepared for his travels. He and his pets left before dawn. The villagers went about their daily routines as usual and no one even noticed that Enrico was gone.

It wasn't until that evening, when large storm clouds began to roll over the mountains and into the valley, that Enrico's sunny presence was noticed as missing. The storm clouds blackened and soon it began to rain.

The villagers feared the worst.

High in the mountains, Enrico was afraid, too.

It stormed for four days.

But Enrico learned many things from the valley far below. He knew the same rocks from up high were used to build the houses in his village. So Enrico built a small house to take shelter from the storm.

And Enrico used what little wood he could find to make a fire to keep warm. He collected water to drink that sprang from the rocks and he thought that it tasted even better than the water that flowed through the valley. And using everything that he learned from his life before, Enrico and his pets stayed safe and happy.

On the fifth day the skies cleared.

Enrico knew that after four days of storms the fifth day would bring him luck. Once again, he and his pets took up their travels. Higher and higher, farther and farther, deeper and deeper into the mountains they climbed.

The destruction from the last four days of storms was clear and it made Enrico appreciate the power of the unknown. Still, they persevered.

Enrico looked up and found the highest point he could see. He made that point his goal. Up they climbed. And higher still. As if straight into the sun.

They struggled and struggled and at times Enrico wondered if he had made the wrong decision to leave his village and set off on his own. His pets never questioned their actions, though, and the sun kept the sky above them a deep shade of blue. This gave Enrico courage. And so they continued.

In the Time of False Messiahs

circa 1648

He sat in the shade of trees at moonrise
Following with his eyes the tracks of fleas
Who were hunting wolves. A poor rabbi
Dressed in a paper gown, he ate a black potato.
Women danced behind him like the snow.
There were boats in the sky above him
And they were lowering ropes.
There was famine everywhere in Poland.

The fires of the city made him cold
So he walked into the forest.
He walked along a brook into the hills.
He praised the white trees
And the owls that nested in them:
Their simple fires of digestion, the bones
Of mice igniting in their bowels.
He reached up and grasped a rope.
He climbed into the boat.
There was a famine everywhere in Poland.

Everywhere below him there was hope.

--Norman Dubie

Finally, they turned a corner of rock, snow, and ice and the world Enrico once knew fell out from beneath him. There was sky everywhere above him and everywhere below him there was hope.

And Enrico looked all around him and he knew why he was there and his pets knew why they were there, too.

There was nowhere else to go but up.

And from that point the world only grew bigger.

Enrico and his pets never returned to the village and the valley far below. At every ridge and every mountaintop, the boy, soon to be a man, would spy another ridge and another mountaintop to which to travel. And he would. And his pets would follow. Enrico spent the rest of his life climbing from one high point to another. With each successful journey Enrico would learn something new and this would inspire him to continue when a retreat back to the valley floors would have been easier and safer.

Enrico noticed that often the tallest, healthiest, and oldest trees lived in the most precipitous of places--hanging off the edge of a cliff, their roots exposed into air and turned back toward the more stable soil. He thought that maybe the will to survive depended on the severity of the struggle; the more you are forced to bury your roots into the side of a cliff the more aware you will be of your precarious surroundings, the more strength you will raise to accomplish the long task ahead. He thought about this for a while. Then he moved on.

As he moved through the mountains Enrico mastered his ability to construct rock shelters and houses. Soon he noticed signs that others had used or briefly occupied his stone shelters. Old campfires, cooking utensils, and even beds attested to the fact that not only were the villagers venturing farther and farther into the mountains but that they were moving their livestock to higher pastures as well. It wasn't long before Enrico found new stone shelters that he hadn't made in new places that he hadn't been. Stone shelters modeled after the same design Enrico perfected on his own.

He also noticed that the houses in the valley were being built differently and placed in different locations so that they would resist and avoid the seasonal effects of the sometimes difficult weather the villagers were forced to endure. He reasoned that this, too, was learned from the style and placement of his own shelters high in the mountains.

This made Enrico very happy. He felt that finally he was able to give something back to the community that gave him so much, that taught him all the valuable lessons of early life that he could have never learned on his own.

The valley prospered and made a name for itself as a home of artisanal products and a culture reinforced by honored traditions. Though from afar, Enrico felt that he, too, contributed and helped the valley's villages flourish. Not only did he anonymously teach building techniques and styles but his vision to reach for higher and higher places encouraged other villagers to search for inspiration above the valley floor.

But Enrico never returned to the valley. He died many years later, alone but never lonely. The remnants of his life are still recognizable and easily accessible, all made possible by his sunny disposition and his impulse to question the world around him with wonder and love.

Stories still circulate among the villages about Enrico and his pets and many believe that if you look closely enough you can still find Enrico among the rocks and snow, safe and content in the high places of the world around us.

--For HBH who has a lifetime of mountains to go.