When the sparrow sings
deep in the woods all alone,
is it still lovely?
NOTES: My old friend and schoolmate, John Marquand is a bird whisperer. He rises early in his Colorado home and gets out when the light is good to stalk and take amazing photos of birds.
John shoots other beautiful photos as well, but he’s got a thing for birds. They seem to pose for him. He shares a lot of his photos on his Facebook page. If he ever puts out a nature calendar, I’d buy one.
Dear gentle woman grown so early old,
You’ve all but left us on our lonesome own.
Now after many years to spirit sown,
A creeping glacier scrapes your memory cold.
You, greener days ago, recited verse,
And planted hardy seeds of simple song
That rooted deep, perennial and strong,
To flourish in the shadow of the hearse.
Today your weathered hands no longer know
The jonquil from the mum, nor how to weed.
Today you prattle on without the seed
Of sense, that for so long you toiled to grow.
So now for you I pick this small bouquet,
Out of the garden patch you used to tend,
Now choked with worldly weeds from end to end,
In need of hands to cultivate its clay.
My mother loved poetry. Her own mother died when she was just a girl, so she dropped out of school to help raise her younger siblings. She never got to go to high school, but she loved the music of English words artfully strung together.
She read the American classics of the time: Wordsworth, Emerson, Eugene Field, and even that new fellow, Frost. Some of my earliest memories are of her reading to me from “The Duel” (aka “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,”) “Lil’ Boy Blue,” and “Hiawatha.”
She filled a buffet drawer scraps of paper bearing homespun verse she had copied by hand, or clipped from the pages of Capper’s Weekly. After her death, I found her Bible. It was worn out and held together at the spine with pieces of packing tape. Tucked amongst the hand-scrawled Bible verses and sermon notes was a tiny piece of paper where she had written this fragment from John Greenleaf Whittier:
Of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest of these, it might have been
In her 70s, Mother began a long, slow journey with Alzheimer’s. At first we thought she was just getting forgetful, but, in time, we realized she was losing her faculties. She forgot names and nouns.
Early on, she devised clever strategies to trick us into helping her fill in the missing blanks. “I’m going to the, um, you know,” she would offer, hoping one of us would bail her out by supplying “the A&P,” or the name of some other destination that had eluded her.
But, in time, she lost the ability to play Guess the Word with anyone. She slipped away from us and never came back, even though she lived for years neither speaking nor, as far as we could tell, understanding anything spoken to her. She lived so long probably due to some diligent care at the county nursing home in our small Missouri town, and to the fact my father visited her every day and spoon fed her lunch.
Just miles south of town
missiles waited in silos,
hell in a cornfield.
NOTES: In the early 1960s, we began hearing talk of the government planning to put missiles in underground silos in our part of the country. Sure enough, Minuteman sites began to appear in fields across west-central Missouri.
The silos weren’t advertised, but they were not hidden either. There was one clearly visible from the main highway south of town. Many others were scattered about the surrounding countryside, both in our Saline County and in neighboring counties.
The Minutemen were intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. They burned solid fuel, which allowed for much faster launches than the older, liquid-fuel missiles.
The idea was deterrence. Our missiles were able to target Soviet cities, which would discourage them from initiating an attack on the United States. They had missiles pointing at us. We hoped nobody blinked.
It was vaguely unsettling to know that we had nuclear missiles located so close. But, I was just a grade school kid, and didn’t think too much about such things.
A few years later, when I was in high school, talk started about upping the ante and locating anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) nearby. These were defensive weapons, designed to shoot down incoming ICBMs from the other side.
I read a couple of articles, believed myself to be an expert, and declared my opposition to the ABMs. If I remember correctly, the nationwide high school debate topic was about the ABM issue.
I really didn’t know what I was talking about. My big argument was that having ABMs located close to our homes would make us a primary target. I remember having no real answer when a classmate’s big brother, who attended the Naval Academy, pointed out that we were already targets because of the Minuteman missile installations. Having ABMs nearby, he said, would at least give us a chance to shoot down the Russian missiles headed for us.
The Minuteman missiles stood on guard until 1991, when then President George H.W. Bush ordered them off alert status. Under the terms of the START I treaty, the missiles were removed and the silos destroyed a few years later.
In hindsight, the Minutemen seemed to have done their job. The Russians never attacked. The inherent weakness of the Soviet Communist system gradually became more and more evident as their economy crumbled.
In 1989, Mr. Gorbachev did indeed “tear down this wall,” as Ronald Reagan demanded. Or at least the Soviet leader allowed East Germans to tear down the Berlin Wall themselves. And then we saw the Soviet empire collapse.
China essentially gave up on Communism around the same time, when its leaders realized that if they wanted to make money, they had to harness the power of markets.
Today we see Venezuela teetering on chaos as its experiment with socialism goes up in smoke. Cuba still soldiers on under the heel of the second-string Castro, yearning for the day when real freedom returns.
Of course North Korea continues to keeps the flame alive for all those who dream of establishing a world-wide Worker’s Paradise. It’s our best example of what happens when Communism reaches full flower.
It seems fitting on May Day to pause and think on these things.
Like many a child of the 1960s, I read the book, and pondered its ponderous philosophy of “Quality.” As the son of a mechanic, I resonated with his idea the “classical” personality, who pays close attention to his machine and makes sure it runs at peak efficiency. I wanted to be like that.
But I realized I fell more into the category Pirsig calls the “romantic personality,” that was more focused on living in the moment at the expense of rational analysis.
To this day I’m not sure if “Motorcycle Maintenance” is a great work on the level of Plato, or a pop phenomenon. But I sure thought a lot about it.
The primary reason I perked up my ears when I heard the news today is more poetic than philosophical.
You see, the very first date I went on with my wife was at the Blue Heron Café in Minneapolis, a hippy-dippy veggie establishment that was operated by Pirsig’s ex-wife, Nancy James.
Who needs online dating services?! The first time I saw my future wife, she was glowing. Honest to Pete. She was bathed in a golden aura, sitting a darkened auditorium, listening to the chaplain of the U.S. Senate speak about living “the deeper life.” We were both independently reading St. Augustine’s Confessions. (Is that weird or what?) We were both footloose and fancy free and unencumbered by any other relationships.
After I finally screwed up the courage to ask her out, among other things, we discovered that we had the same favorite restaurant in common — the aforementioned Blue Heron.
So, of course, we had to go there for dinner there on our first date. Which we did. I do not remember the main course, but I do remember drinking a bottomless glass of herbal iced tea.
Then on to the second part of the date, the initial screening of the German World War II movie, Das Boot.
In case you don’t remember this classic, starring Juergen Prochnow, 90% of it took place on a German submarine. Close quarters, high tension, and lots of dripping water. Lots of water.
I was quite sure that it being a sophisticated foreign film, there would be an intermission when I could go to the restroom and relieve myself of all the iced herbal tea.
When the movie was finally over, and the final sub was sunk, we both sprinted for the bathrooms.
Quite the romantic first date.
Somehow we survived this inauspicious beginning, and 35 years later are still together.
So, tonight, I raise a glass of herbal tea to you, Robert Pirsig. Godspeed.
we idolized you so much,
you were like heroes.
Then, that class trip fiasco,
And class trips were abolished.
NOTES: The class ahead of us in high school was impressive. It included some very smart and talented people who challenged and inspired us underclassmen.
Counted among its members were some of the best athletes, actors, debaters, musicians and scholars ever to come out of our little Missouri town of Marshall. When they went away to college in the fall of 1969, they returned on their breaks with fascinating stories of life at their campuses.
I paid close attention to their testimonials, and followed a couple of them when it came time to make my own college choice.
The class of 1969 certainly went out with a bang. Our high school had long had a tradition of the senior class trip, which involved a long trek to some exotic destination far enough away to make getting there grueling and sleep-deprived.
That year the seniors made the long bus ride to Six Flags Over Texas. But during the course of that journey, something happened.
The stories we heard were somewhat hushed and confusing, but whatever happened was so serious that school officials cancelled senior trips forevermore.
The next year, there was not even a discussion about our own class taking a senior trip. Not. A. Chance.
The Class of ’69 was already notable in that it had voted to abolish the venerable tradition of selecting the most popular and respected girl to preside over Achievement Night as Miss Fair Marshall.
Now, our heroes had managed to put the kibosh on another tradition. In a way it enhanced the reputation of the Class of ’69 even further. In addition to all their other superlatives, they had also become the Biggest Screw-Ups.
I’m hoping some of my old schoolmates from the Class of ’69 might finally come forward with the true story of what transpired on that notorious trip. Why don’t you just come clean? Confession is good for the soul and the statute of limitations on your crimes certainly has expired.
Some members of my own class are still a bit aggrieved that we didn’t get to have our senior trip because of you.
It would be good to be able to put the scurrilous rumors to rest, and to finally forgive and forget.
STYLE NOTE: Like haiku, the tanka is a traditional Japanese short poem form with a prescribed number of syllables. The pattern is 5-7-5-7-7.