A Silence, Serving It Up

The scene: an elegant restaurant.

A waiter crosses the floor, headed your way. His dress is formal, his manner both imperious and humble. As he approaches, you can’t help admiring the grace with which he avoids other diners, other staff, furniture placed apparently where he’s most likely to collide with it. You wonder — you doubt — whether you could ever move with such assurance.

The waiter arrives at your table. He raises an eyebrow, ever so slightly. He bends at the waist. The beverage is yours for the taking; he will not presume to touch it or place it before you.

A pause.

You raise your hand to the serving tray. Your fingers close around the stem of a glass…

What I don’t know about music theory could fit in a stadium, if I was lucky. (Yes, be patient, I’m not really changing the subject.) And as you know if you’ve been around here for even a few weeks, my hearing presents some obstacles when listening to anything at all.

But with music, the obstacles are minor as long as there aren’t any words involved. I can hear the instruments and the notes and rhythms just fine. And every now and then, I think I hear music do something interesting. And then I hear it again, in some other piece. And then I wonder if there’s a name for this something, or if I’m just imagining things…

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Ideas Whose Time You Never Saw Coming

Like many — most? — people who like to think of themselves as creative, I’ve had my share of disappointments with the success of others‘ ideas:

  • Sometimes I’ve used a plot device, a character type, even a simple phrase in something I hope to have published… only to find it in some other work already published by some other author — who’s become fabulously successful. Argh, I think, why couldn’t that have been ME? Why did I wait so long? As though the gimmick (whatever it is) somehow caused the success.
  • Sometimes somebody uses a plot device, character type, etc…. and the work tanks miserably. Argh, I think, I could have done so much better with that! And been successful, too! As though the (mostly imaginary) mishandling of the gimmick (whatever it is) somehow caused the failure.
  • I once wrote a horror story which, even now, I think is publishable. Except for one thing: After I’d sent it to exactly one publication (where it was rejected — surprise! — because it was too long), a horror movie came out in which the “monster” might have been the one in my story. Argh, I thought, now I’ll have to hold off for a few years to give people time to forget the film. And then, a few years later, came the sequel. Which wallowed at the box office, much to fans’ surprise. So far I’ve been holding off for over ten years.

And then there are ideas which don’t fall into the disappointing category at all. You think to yourself, Why didn’t I think of that myself? or at least, Why didn’t SOMEBODY think of that sooner? (Think Harry Potter here, kiddies.) All you can do is applaud in wonder.

And finally there are the ideas — especially combinations of two or more other ideas — which are so bizarre that you’re surprised anyone at all ever thought to put them together.

I think this falls into that category. I give you the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain, performing… the theme from Shaft:

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Things Pass Away

2 Autumn Leaves, by Kristie Shureen PhotographyFrom whiskey river:

September: it was the most beautiful of words, he’d always felt, evoking orange-flowers, swallows, and regret.

(Alexander Theroux)

For summer there, bear in mind, is a loitering gossip, that only begins to talk of leaving when September rises to go.

(George Washington Cable)


If we were not beings who pass quickly away like all other things, none of this would matter.

(Susan Murphy, Upside-Down Zen)

and (the single word don’t ringing loudly):

Why we don’t die

In late September many voices
Tell you you will die.
That leaf says it. That coolness.
All of them are right.

Our many souls — what
Can they do about it?
Nothing. They’re already
Part of the invisible.

Our souls have been
Longing to go home
Anyway. “It’s late,” they say.
“Lock the door, let’s go.”

The body doesn’t agree. It says,
“We buried a little iron
Ball under that tree.

Let’s go get it.”

(Robert Bly, Eating The Honey of Words: New and Selected Poems)

…and — not from whiskey river, just because I was curious about Bly’s “iron ball” and found this video, likewise on the theme of time, and of things which can happen too quickly to see or even imagine:

…and finally, because obvious though the selection is, this post just wouldn’t be complete without it:

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Learning to See

Continuing last Friday’s meditation on the topic of sight, and the things which we might see differently “if only”…

First, from whiskey river‘s commonplace book*:

Picasso is riding on a train and someone sits down next to him.

Recognizing who he is, the person asks, “Why don’t you paint people the way they really are?”

Picasso asks, “What do you mean by the way they really are?”

The man eagerly pulls out his wallet and shows Picasso a picture of his wife and says, “This is my wife.”

Picasso responds, “She looks rather small and flat, don’t you think?”

(by Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei; story also recounted elsewhere)

Not from whiskey river:

Jack London, by Arnold Genthe (taken 1906-1916)

When Jack London had his portrait made by the noted San Francisco photographer Arnold Genthe, London began the encounter with effusive praise for the photographic art of his friend and fellow bohemian, Genthe: “You must have a wonderful camera… It must be the best camera in the world… You must show me your camera.”

Genthe then used his standard studio camera to make what has since become a classic picture of Jack London.

When the sitting was finished, Genthe could not contain himself: “I have read your books, Jack, and I think they are important works of art. You must have a wonderful typewriter.”

(quoted at PhotoQuotes.com)

From The Luminous Landscape:

…a good photograph isn’t measured in line pairs per millimeter, MTF functions, S/N calculations, or any of the other measurements that photography enthusiasts recite like religious mantras. The most important tools that are used to take good photographs are the human eye, the human brain, and the human heart.

And finally, a little music. I’m not going to provide a bunch of links to online information about Ry Cooder — there’s a ton of it out there. I will say that if you don’t know his work, at all, I think you’re in for a treat. The number which follows (not one of his hits, but a performance I’ve always been fond of) is a straight-up instrumental version — a re-visioning — of an Ike & Tina Turner number called “I Think It’s Going to Work Out Fine.” Here’s what Rolling Stone said of the number in its review of Cooder’s 1979 Bop Till You Drop:

Cooder’s instrumental version of “I Think It’s Going to Work Out Fine” takes the sweet growl of the Ike and Tina Turner original and sets it against some easy, sexy self-assurance. Ike and Tina made this number into a toe-to-toe at midnight, but Cooder’s version is full of relaxed and low-slung afterglow.

“Relaxed and low-slung afterglow”: love that.

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* whiskey river’s “commonplace book” is what the site’s author calls its archives. Unlike most blog archives, though, whiskey river’s are not strictly speaking chronologically organized: “They are arranged here in random order, the way they were found.”

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Puzzlin’ Evidence… Done Hardened in Your Heart

Talking Heads was one of those bands which I probably never would have picked up on — not on my own, anyhow. Predictably, in retrospect, it took a nudge from my brother.

Or rather, a couple of different nudges. One of the later ones came in 1986, with the release of the musical film True Stories. Mike pointed me to a couple of reviews and then, somehow, he managed to corral a bunch of us to accompany him to Philadelphia to see it one night.

Nominally, it’s a Talking Heads film: the group released a not-quite-soundtrack album containing its versions of the songs. But in the film — written and directed by, and “starring,” the Heads’ lead singer, David Byrne — with few exceptions, the songs are performed by other people in the cast. For instance, a voodoo priest (played by gospel/R&B star Pops Staples) sings a song called “Papa Legba” to bring love and good fortune to Louis (The Dancing Bear) Fyne (played by John Goodman).

The general idea for the film came to him, Byrne has said, from tabloid stories — how they might represent people from a single town.

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Nouveau Retro: Big Daddy

Brief post today… Worked way later on writing-type stuff than I’d meant to. (So I guess that counts as an excuse, huh?) In any case, this one has decidedly nothing at all to do with writing.

Sometime back in 1991-92, I got a very curious gift from my brother. It was a cassette tape (I later upgraded to CD) of music by a group called “Big Daddy”; the title was Cutting Their Own Groove.

On the front, an antique-looking record player seemed to be playing, was it? yes! an old 45-rpm vinyl record. A rainbow of sparks was shooting from the needle at the end of the tone arm. I flipped the cassette over, curious to see what the playlist might be. As my brother knew, my preferred musical genre at the time was oldies, so maybe…

What was this?!? All the tracks were recent hits! Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” “Graceland,” by Paul Simon…

This was a stupid cover band! What was Mike thinking, sending me this crap?!?

Long story short: a cover band, all right. But a cover band with a difference. A difference which Mike knew would appeal to me.

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Seeing, Not Seeing

From whiskey river (originally published [PDF] in Beloit Poetry Journal, Fall/Winter 2004/2005):

It Wasn’t Death She Saw

But life:
skin dancing with flesh
like silk curtains that swirl in the wind
above her mother’s window

up up   now puff!   and in again

Or breath — is the wind breathing?
She’d been playing in the grass when it happened:
the snake flung
from the mower’s blade, rainbows
of ribbons in the air

rainbows rainbows everywhere, catch a ribbon for your hair

She wrapped the pretty pieces in willow leaves and grass.
When she told her mother what she’d seen —
the way life
leapt out of the snake
just like a ballerina —
her mother beat her,
scrubbed her tongue with salt

but Mama, it was beautiful, like fireflies at night

She learned to hold her body

very still.

(by Kirstin Hotelling Zona: editor, Poetry Radio podcasts)

Not from whiskey river:

The Stare’s Nest by My Window

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

(W.B. Yeats)

Finally, there’s “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night,” by Tom Waits, performed by Madeleine Peyroux (lyrics below):

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Edit to add: And, what the heck, just for comparison here’s Shawn Colvin’s (live) very different but just as enchanting take on the same song — which I just found out about. (Thanks, Jules!)

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(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night

Well you gassed her up
Behind the wheel
With your arm around your sweet one
In your Oldsmobile
Barrelin’ down the boulevard
You’re looking for the heart of Saturday night

And you got paid on Friday
And your pockets are jingling
And you see the lights
You get all tinglin’ cause you’re cruising with a six
You’re looking for the heart of Saturday night

Then you comb your hair
Shave your face
Trying to wipe out every trace
All the other days
In the week you know that this’ll be the Saturday
You’re reachin’ your peak

Stopping on the red
You’re going on the green
Tonight’ll be like nothing
You’ve ever seen
You’re barreling down the boulevard
Looking for the heart of Saturday night

Tell me is the crack of the poolballs, neon buzzin
Telephone’s ringing; it’s your second cousin
Is it the barmaid that’s smiling from the corner of her eye
Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye

Makes it kind of quiver down in the core
You’re dreaming of them Saturdays that came before
Now you’re stumbling
You’re stumbling onto the heart of Saturday night
Now you’re stumbling
You’re stumbling onto the heart of Saturday night

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The World Has Not Ended, But the Day Is Still Young

Another brief, YouTube-salvaged entry today to work on a review for the Book Book site

Libba Bray (link to her site over there on the right, under the “Je Ne Sais Quoi…” category) is a funny YA author, and an all too infrequent blogger. In her most recent post, she mentions being a physics freak and takes the opportunity to draw our attention to news of the Large Hadron Collider:

Tomorrow [Editor’s Note: i.e., TODAY, Wednesday, 2008-09-10], on the border of France and Switzerland, way underground, The Hadron Super Collider will be turned on, and physicists will search for answers about the universe. What’s out there? What is dark energy? When the Big Bang happened, where did all that matter go, and would it have been such an imposition for it to have sent us a few postcards over the years? Is there a Higgs-Boson (aka “God Particle”) or is that just the name of some disaffected aristocratic particle who drinks too much and lives in a crumbling estate on the edge of the universe? (You know, next to the restaurant. Sigh. Douglas Adams. R.I.P. Did you know Douglas Adams and I share a birthday? You do now. Plenty of time to shop for it, too. Well, for me. Mr. Adams did not leave a forwarding address that I know of. But I digress.)

We were talking super colliders. And what the universe is made of. And why gravity is so weak in our world. And why we’re here. And whether there might be other dimensions and if they have malls and if those malls are more evolved or do they still have a Hot Topic right next to the Jamba Juice.

…There are naysayers who worry that the Hadron Super Collider will create a black hole that will swallow the earth and annihilate every single thing including the cockroaches and Paris Hilton. You know, there are always drawbacks, people. This is science.

To reassure us, though, she also directs our attention to this video, courtesy of the scientific community:

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Flying, Not Flying

From whiskey river:

To the Light of September

When you are already here
you appear to be only
a name that tells of you
whether you are present or not

and for now it seems as though
you are still summer
still the high familiar
endless summer
yet with a glint
of bronze in the chill mornings
and the late yellow petals
of the mullein fluttering
on the stalks that lean
over their broken
shadows across the cracked ground

but they all know
that you have come
the seed heads of the sage
the whispering birds
with nowhere to hide you
to keep you for later

who fly with them

you who are neither
before nor after
you who arrive
with blue plums
that have fallen through the night

perfect in the dew

(by W. S. Merwin)

…and, from elsewhere:

Evolution in Indiana

I thought that species took ten thousand years
to gradually evolve new strategies
to deal with shifts in climate or environment,
but after two snow-free years in a row
the local robins all at once decided
to winter here instead of flying south.
I watched them pace my lawn in late November,
debating like small Hamlets with their instincts:
“It’s way past time to migrate; why haven’t I?”
Since, every fall, a few old feeble ones
decide they’d rather risk starvation here
than drop off dead of fatigue in Alabama,
at first I thought it was their kind I glimpsed
rummaging discarded Christmas trees
for grubs and squabbling with the greedy squirrels
stealing birdseed from my neighbor’s feeder.
But then, one drizzly January walk,
I spotted dozens, looking sleek and healthy,
plucking worms who’d washed up on my sidewalk.
Why here, where I was forced to grub for money
all winter long, when they could fly away,
I wondered as they hopped out of my path.
Does flying hurt so much they’d rather shiver
and see the sun once every other week
than perch in palms swayed by an ocean breeze?
If I had wings, I’d use them… and on and on
I muttered as I trudged around the block
in pointless circles, just for exercise,
hands thrust into my pockets, arms tight to sides,
like some huge flightless bird, while overhead
the most successful members of my species
winged effortlessly southward in high Boeings
invisible from our side of the clouds —
we well-fed and hard-working flock of Dodos.

(by Richard Cecil)

…and finally, the following. Downloading the original, alas, isn’t an option. Following right behind, though, at a very close second choice, is this unplugged version by one of the four original performers:

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Fatboy, Skinny Man

Real post coming up later today.

In the meantime… Below is a screen capture (not an actual YouTube video — don’t (duh) bother clicking the Play button) of the amazing video of Christopher Walken dancing to Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice.”

For the actual video, well, the YouTube version (as sometimes happens) has had its “embedding disabled by request,” i.e., it can’t actually be pasted into a blog post. So just go here to see it.

I’d forgotten how much I liked this when it came out. The reminder today came from Kate Lord Brown’s What Kate Did Next blog.

'Weapon of Choice' video screen capture

P.S. Obviously, the planned four-day absence I mentioned last week didn’t materialize. I’ll keep the little stack of posts about figures of speech in a back pocket, to use as needed.

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