STILL

I am a fairly early riser.  I am often awake sometime between 6 and 6:30am, and I almost always hear the click of the door as our room-mate, Trey, heads out (around 7am) to make the walk up the path to his car and thence to his job in town.  I do not emerge from the bedroom to see him depart.  Instead, I prefer to enjoy this part of the morning, under the layers of sheets and blankets, enjoying the stillness of the moment. 

Rebecca and Geoffrey gave Pony and me leave to install ourselves in the master bedroom.  This chamber has a row of windows that border the upper edge of the roof.  When we first arrived, it would still be on the far side of 7am (closer to 8) before the morning light would come streaming through those windows.  But we are nearly finished with January, and the approach of day comes noticeably closer, and lingers a bit longer each evening.  So I lay in the bed, with my wife, and the dog, and one or two (or even all three) cats, just taking in the stillness of winter on the mountain. 

I am thinking about stillness in a variety of ways lately.  The mountain was enshrouded in a thick fog this morning (only possible when the wind has ceased).  The dog and I took our usual morning walk, and without the wind to keep us company, the only substantial sound was the crunch of my boots in the snow (Rufus has already learned to tread far more quietly). 

And it was just a couple of days ago when I heard of the passing of Pete Seeger.  Another stillness.  In the New York Times, they said “he sang until his voice gave out, and then he sang some more.”  Mr. Seeger might have been embarrassed to be compared to Ghandi, but I believe there is a fair comparison, in the sense that both of them thought (and fought) passionately for human beings (although “fought” may not be the most suitable verb).  Ghandi was concerned about industry and corporate activity becoming too large, beyond human scale, as it were.  Pete Seeger addressed similar concerns, although, in his case, he dedicated his life to sharing music with audiences all over the world.  But he was never happier than when he got an audience to sing along and create that community of song.  I don’t know if Pete Seeger ever got around to listening to the CD’s I mailed to him.  But, at the very least, I had my chance to add my voice to the many others who have acknowledged what a positive influence he was. 

In another nod to stillness, the latest issue of TIME magazine has a cover story about mindfulness (and, couched within that all-embracing term, the technique and tradition of meditation).  I have found some time to meditate nearly every day and welcome that addition to my set of daily activities.  And when I play the guitar, I have been able to listen more attentively to the tone and phrasing, and play with a greater sense of intention.  It is very much a zen thing, this way in which the music can co-exist with the stillness. 

THE ART OF COAL

I feel I am starting to get the hang of using coal.  And it is a good thing, too; very timely. 

Yesterday (Sunday), about mid-morning, we received a phone call from Sam Weaver.  Word had been going all around about an approaching snow storm. Sam was concerned that our car was parked just a little too close to the main road, and should the snowfall be heavy enough, a snow plow could accidentally clip the front of our car.  He offered to bring his tractor around, with the attached snow blower, to clear a bit more space for us, so we could park a little farther off (and further protect our Gypsy Rose). 

So a good part of Sunday morning was spent walking up the path to where the car was parked, driving it off to the side (to give Sam the necessary space to work with), ultimately to park it in a somewhat safer space.  In between, we also drove over to Sam’s place for a little bit.  He had an extra pair of snow shoes that he offered to lend us, and we ended up just visiting and chatting for a bit (while Rufus played with Sam’s dog, Ranger; the two of them chasing each other like lunatics through massive snow drifts).

By the time we re-parked the car and made our way back to the cabin, the snow was coming down in a profusion of fat, fluffy flakes.  We felt as if we were walking through one of those dime store snow globes.  Altogether, we probably got about another foot or so of new snow (which meant more shoveling today for me).  The temperature has been colder, and it is predicted to dip about 3 or 4 degrees below zero tonight, which is why I am glad to start understanding the use of coal in the pot belly stove in the main hallway. 

We have more coal than wood, and the more we can use the coal, the better.  There is a bit of an art to it, though.  It’s getting to know how much coal to add (too little and the fire dies out; too much and you choke the fire and, again, it dies out). And timing is very much a vital part of the equation.  But for most of today, I have succeeded in maintaining a steady bed of glowing coals, which in turn keeps the fan on the pot belly’s chimney blowing a constant stream of warm air. 

More than once, over the last couple of weeks or so, I have been reminded of an old movie (a Disney movie, perhaps?) that I watched as a kid, called “My Side of the Mountain”.  The story was presumably about a kid (early adolescent) who, inspired by Henry David Thoreau, set out to live on the side of a mountain for a year or so.  It was, admittedly, a very Hollywood sort of romanticized thing.  Years later, I got ‘round to reading Thoreau’s Walden.  I can say that we are living in much better circumstances than either Mr. Thoreau or the kid in the aforementioned movie.  For one thing, we do have the ongoing presence and aid of the magic Electricity Genie to help us in a variety of ways (internet, DVD entertainment, lights, kindles, and more).  So while we are living within a certain amount of simplicity, it would probably strike Mr. Thoreau as being incredibly luxurious. 

Today has been a good day.  The day began with shoveling snow (and giving Rufus a chance to take care of business), followed by rebuilding the fire in the pot belly, then some work on the internet attending to gigs, followed by guitar practice; rinse and repeat, as it were.  We have found a rhythm to our lives here, and the next few weeks should be very productive as a consequence. 

Steppenwolf part two

[to recap just a little: Harry Haller insists that music is more than just the immediate sensual experience]

“Very good, Herr Pablo.  But there is not only sensual music. There is spiritual also.  Beside the music that is actually played at the moment, there is the immortal music that lives on even when it is not actually being played.  It can happen to a man to lie alone in bed and to call to mind a melody from the Magic Flute or the Matthew Passion, and then there is music without anybody blowing into a flute or passing a bow across a fiddle.”

“Certainly, Herr Haller.  ‘Yearning’ and ‘Valencia’ are recalled every night by many a lonely dreamer.  Even the poorest typist in her office has the latest one step in her head and taps her keys in time to it.  You are right.  I don’t grudge those lonely persons their mute music, whether it’s ‘Yearning’ or the Magic Flute or ‘Valencia’.  But where do they get their lonely and mute music from?  They get it from us, the musicians.  It must first have been played and heard, it must have got into the blood, before any one at home in his room can think of it and dream of it.”

“Granted,” I said coolly, “all the same it won’t do to put Mozart and the latest fox trot on the same level.  And it is not one and the same thing whether yu play people divine and eternal music or cheap stuff of the day that is forgotten tomorrow.” 

When Pablo observed from my tone that I was getting excited, he at once put on his most amiable expression and touching my arm caressingly he gave an unbelievable softness to his voice. 

“Ah, my dear sir, you may be perfectly right with your levels.  I have nothing t say to your putting Mozart and Haydn and ‘Valencia’ on what levels you please.  It is all one to me.  It is not for me to decide about levels.  I shall never be asked about them.  Mozart, perhaps, will still be played in a hundred years and ‘Valencia’ in two will be played no more – we can well leave that, I think, in God’s hands.  God is good and has the span of all our days in his hands and that of every waltz and fox trot too.  His is sure to do what is right.  We musicians, however, we must play our parts according to our duties and our gifts.  We have to play what is actually in demand, and we have to play it as well and as beautifully and expressively as ever we can.”

With a sigh I gave it up.  There was no getting past the fellow. 

While I see both points of view (and agree with both, at least a little), I admit that I lean more towards the perspective of Pablo, and so have remembered this passage over the years, and revisited the novel for that purpose.  Although I have done my time as a professor of music, my greatest impulse it to play music, to create music, without worrying overmuch if that music achieves any sort of immortality.  And over time, I have come to believe that this is very much a zen attitude; to embrace the ‘suchness’ of a thing, without attaching anything more to it.  I don’t know if I would go so far as to call this a manifesto or predominating philosophy, but it has certainly been an influence in how I approach my music and life in general. 

Steppenwolf

               

I was 12 years old when my parents decided they would take each of us kids separately on a sort of bonding trip to Chicago.  Being the oldest, I went first.  What I still remember vividly from that trip is going to Marshall Fields department store, where I bought a copy of Don McLean’s “American Pie” album and a paperback copy of Herman Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”  I understand there is (or at least has been) a Steppenwolf theater in Chicago, so there may be others who make an association between the Windy City and that novel, but I may be one of the very few (perhaps the only one) who groups Chicago, Steppenwolf and American Pie into one little unit of memory.

There is a passage in that novel that causes me to come back to it from time to time.  Pony bought me a copy on my kindle for Christmas, and that passage (according to my kindle) is at the 60% point in the book.  It is an exchange between Harry Haller (the Steppenwolf and narrator of the story) and a jazz musician named Pablo.  This is the passage:

“Herr Pablo,” I said to him as he played with his slender ebony walking stick, “you are a friend of Hermine’s and that is why I take an interest in you.  But I can’t say you make it easy to get on with you. Several times I have attempted to talk about music with you.  It would have interested me to know your thoughts and opinions, whether they contradicted mine or not, but you have disdained to make me even the barest reply.”

He gave me a most amiable smile and this time a replay was accorded me.

“Well,” he said with equanimity, “you see, in my opinion there is no point at all in talking about music.  I never talk about music.  What reply, then, was I to make to your very able and just remarks?  You were perfectly right in all you said.  But, you see, I am a musician, not a professor, and I don’t believe that, as regards music, there is the least point in being right.  Music does not depend on being right, on having good taste and education and all that.”

“Indeed. Then what does it depend on?”

“On making music, Herr Haller, on making music as well and as much as possible and with all the intensity of which one is capable.  That is the point, Monsieur.  Though I carried the complete works of Bach and Haydn in my head and could say the cleverest things about them, not a soul would be the better for it.  But when I take hold of my mouthpiece and play a lively shimmy, whether the shimmy be good or bad, it will give people pleasure.  It gets into their legs and into their blood.  That the point, and that alone.  Look at the faces in a dance hall at the moment when the music strikes up after a longish pause, how eyes sparkle, legs twitch and faces begin to laugh.  That is why one makes music.”

“Very good, Herr Pablo.  But there is not only sensual music.  There is spiritual also.  Besides the music that is actually played at the moment, there is the immortal music that lives on even when it is not actually being played.  It can happen to a man to lie alone in bed and to call to mind a melody from the Magic Flute or the Matthew Passion, and then there is music without anybody blowing into a flute or passing a bow across a fiddle.”  [to be continued]

The World of Names

I can’t remember the first time I was told that the Eskimo have several (dozens? hundreds?) of names for snow.  It should come as no surprise that I find myself reflecting upon that factoid these days.  There are the various forms of falling snow: from small, stinging particles to fat, fluffy flakes.  And there are the various forms of snow that lie beneath the foot that can range from an easy, thin layer that barely covers the ground, to large drifts of powder that one can sink into as easily as any quicksand, to hard packs of heavy snow that can be traversed on foot, or even more easily with the benefit of snow shoes. 

Pony has been getting the hang of snow shoes.  I haven’t given them a try as yet, but expect that I will before too much longer.  Rufus has developed an interesting, low-crouching gait as he tests out a patch of new snow.  We are, all of us, learning new things about winter on Casper Mountain. 

Our room-mate, Trey, works for the Fort Casper Museum.  This requires him to rise at about 6am each weekday to get showered and dressed and heading out the cabin by about 7, to trek the half-mile up to the main road where we park our cars.  He has been willing to swing by the grocery store on the way home at night for the odd extra item.  We have made two trips since installing ourselves in the cabin; both times stocking up on a prodigious load of supplies that were then carted down to the cabin by way of a small, purple, plastic sled. 

But, for the most part, we are content to stay in or near the cabin.  My morning usually begins with throwing on clothes to take Rufus out to do his business.  This is usually followed by carting some wood and coal from the bins into the inner part of the cabin to use in the two pot-belly stoves.  We use only one stove for most of the day, waiting till evening to fire up the second stove in the kitchen (in this way, we try to pace ourselves in the burning of wood).  We have more coal available to us than wood, and consequently try to make greater use of it.  But I am still learning about coal.  Put too much in, and it can damp the fire and even put it out.  There is almost an art to find the right amount to feed into the fire, and to gauging the timing of it, as well. 

After loading in the coal and wood for the day, it is usually necessary to clean out yesterday’s ashes from each of the stoves before rebuilding a fire.  Each stove has a lower chamber, with a tray that catches ashes from the grill that holds the fuel in the upper chamber.  In this way, one can remove most of the ashes that have fallen down into that tray and still have hot coals glowing from the night before with which to rekindle a fire.  I generally wait on getting a shower until after all this labor of loading up fuel and setting new fires.  By the time these various chores have been attended to, breakfast is usually served about mid-morning. 

The rest of the morning and the afternoon are devoted to practicing guitar, working on booking for the next leg of the tour and dealing with other matters of business, interspersed with moments outside with Rufus.  At around sunset, I take some time to meditate, followed by playing more guitar, while Pony puts dinner together (a couple of times I have taken on the duty of fixing dinner, but the former arrangement works pretty well for both of us).  Trey usually returns from work to find us engaged in these activities.  He and I had talked about the possibility of his grabbing an occasional guitar lesson (he has a used Ibanez acoustic that will do nicely for such), and he had his first lesson with me last night. 

SHOVEL READY

It was a week ago when we installed ourselves in the cabin on Casper Mountain.  A couple of days before our arrival, Sam Weaver and his son, Sam Jr. (brother and nephew of our friend, Rebecca) plowed a path from the main mountain road to the cabin.  Sam then allowed us to use his 4-wheel drive pickup truck to cart dog, cats, guitars and our other sundry supplies down the path and into the cabin.  We took one more trip into town on the Thursday of last week to get Wyoming plates for Gypsy Rose and to grab some more groceries. 

Over the last week, I have gone out two or three times a day to build upon Sam’s plowing with some shoveling.  The goal was to create a few additional trenches that would make it easier to dump ash and old cat litter (all of which should rejoin nature with the Spring thaw).  In addition, I had a project in mind to make a path from the parking area to the back door.  When we first arrived at the cabin, we saw that the back door and the porch were piled with about a five-foot drift of snow (half obscuring the two living room windows).  I had this ambition to try and dig a path to that back door.  For one thing, I thought it might be some good exercise.  For another, it would be good to have access to the additional exit. 

I felt more than a little like Sysaphus this Tuesday morning, when I woke to find that some 2-3 feet of new powder had fallen overnight; all my efforts having proved in vain.  Our roommate, Trey, had returned  last night, and I could see his tracks leading up and out of the path to the main mountain road.  Beyond that, the parking area was a new blanket of snow. 

Our usual morning routine is to reset fires in the two pot belly stoves.  I did that, then spent a good half hour shoveling a new path from the door to the bank of snow that borders the parking area.  I then dug a new pit in the bank for yesterday’s ashes and dirty cat litter. 

There had been some remarks made about Warren Weaver (Rebecca’s father); some comments about how, over the last ten years or so of living in the cabin, he had sort of let things go.  And it is true that, upon his passing away, when Rebecca and Geoffrey took possession of the cabin, it was in a sad state of neglect.  The last five years have been a project of gradual reclamation of the place.  And I can say that it is very liveable now.  Old, soiled carpets were torn out, floors and walls and shelves all scrubbed and cleaned, new rugs thrown on the floors, and everything is in a better state now. 

Still, as of this morning, I had a new measure of sympathy for Warren.  Growing old is not for sissies, my father used to say.  And keeping this place going in the winter is not an easy task.  I’m not really complaining.  For the most part, I can say that I’ve been enjoying our first winter week on Casper Mountain.  But I guess I have a better understanding of how overwhelming it could get to stay on top of things when winter really sinks its teeth into the place. 

Growing old is not for sissies.  You got that right, Dad. 

THE DOG IS NERVOUS PT II

It took us a couple of trips from town to Sam’s place on the top of Casper Mountain, and then two trips with the truck down to the cabin.  The cats were in carriers, and Pony held Rufus in her lap while I navigated the truck down the winding road to the cabin.  By about 5:30 on Tuesday, we had everything loaded into the cabin, Gypsy Rose parked up at the head of the path (next to the main mountain road), and Sam’s truck returned to him.  Now we could start to unpack, get settled, and look forward to meeting Trey, our new roommate for the next 7 or 8 weeks. 

The cabin was originally built by Warren Weaver (Rebecca’s father).  He started off modestly enough with a couple of rooms, then sort of built up and out over the years.  As consequence, it has something of a patchwork look to it.  Moreover, Warren worked for several years as an electrician, and he would install various lights that he scrounged here and there.  The result is an eclectic collection of lighting fixtures throughout the structure, and sometimes a bit of a guessing game as to where the switch may be to turn this or that one on. 

But it is a comfortable place, with two pot-belly stoves to provide warmth for the central portion of the cabin, a couple of wood bins and a coal bin, and all manner of additional rooms that surround the center of the structure. 
Trey is the “official” caretaker.  We are somewhere between guests and house-sitters providing additional support.  Our intention is to stay in the cabin as much as we can manage (keeping trips to town at a minimum).  In so doing, it becomes our charge to keep the pot-belly stoves stoked with fuel, thus reducing the need for the electric heat. 

Trey works at a museum in Casper.  Among other things, this requires him to get up at about 6 am to shower, dress, and trudge the half mile or so up the cabin’s modest road to the main road, where he parks his vehicle alongside our own.  Since installing ourselves in the cabin, I have made that same trek at least once each day (at the very least to check on the status of our parked car).  Let’s just say that this provides some good cardio exercise. 

Trey decided to welcome us proper by buying a ready-to-bake pizza in town for our first night in the cabin.  The cats were glad to be released from their carriers, and Rufus is ecstatic about the snow.  However, there was a small incident, early on, where he jumped on top of a drift, only to fall through and nearly bury himself.  I had to crawl through snow up to my waist to retrieve him and help get him back onto more solid ground.  At the very least, it was a lesson learned for both of us.  He still loves the snow, but he may just respect it a little more. 

THE DOG IS NERVOUS

Monday, January 6th, and we get on the road at about 10:30 am, heading for Casper, Wyoming.  It is a sunny day and we are hopeful for a safe and fairly quick journey. 

Although things look promising to start, the weather takes a bit of a turn by the time we hit Cheyenne.  There are strong, steady winds, with gusts exceeding 55 miles per hour.  There are signs on the highway warning “light trailers” to stay off the road.  I keep telling myself that our RV is more than a light trailer; especially with Gypsy Rose in tow behind us.  I don’t know if I have any scientific basis to back up my belief, but I hold to the thought that the lower-profile car acts as something of an anchor, perhaps lending us a little additional stability in the face of the high winds.  Even so, there are times I slow down to 45 mph to better navigate the gusts.  There are also stretches of blowing snow and ice. 

There was an incident in Kearney, Nebraska, where Lola (our insane GPS) took us on a circuitous route to an RV park that ultimately took us across about two miles of very rough-graded road, causing the whole RV to shake and tremble.  Ever since, Rufus has grown skittish when the RV shakes or vibrates while travelling.  He wants our comfort and reassurance, so Pony has been going into the back to sit with him on the couch (at least, in this way, he is not trying to climb on me while I drive). 

Meanwhile, I just do my best to keep a steady hand on the wheel.  I have my thumb drive in the USB port of the RV’s stereo, and each song is a few more miles down the road.  I focus on the road, and on each song, holding on to the notion that with each song we are a little closer to Casper.

We arrive in Casper at just shy of 5pm.  There is not time to check the RV into the storage place we have lined up, let alone considering the task of shuttling pets, clothes, and various other articles and supplies up the mountain.  The RV storage people have an adjoining park that they let us use for the night.  We have dinner at Johnny J’s Diner (a 60’s retro-style greasy spoon we discovered on previous trips to Casper). 

The next day, we go to Johnny J’s again for a spot of breakfast.  By about 9:30 am, we have loaded up Gypsy Rose with the first batch of boxes carrying various clothes and other articles.  The plan is to stay in the cabin of our friends, Rebecca and Geoffrey, for the remainder of January and the month of February.  Rebecca’s brother, Sam (and his son, Sam Jr.) plowed a path from the main mountain road down to the cabin and offered to let us use an old pickup truck to cart things down to the cabin.  Our initial plan is to take this truck down to the RV to get the pets and the remainder of our supplies, but as we drive this old pickup down the mountain to town, the truck blows a tire just as we get to the base of the mountain.  It is not a small flat: the tire is entirely shredded over the course of about 100 yards.  We talk to Sam, and he allows that the tires are some five years old and haven’t seen much distance in that time.  He suggests we get the spare put on, drive it back up to his place on the mountain, and we can borrow his other truck (a newer one, with better tires).  However, the lug nuts on the rim are rusted tight, so we end up shelling out for a guy from Casper Tire to come (with his are pressure jack and all).  He gets the spare put on in quick time and we are back in action.