As I walked I came upon a scene of violence. The limb of a tree fell from a great height and crashed into the railing of a bridge over the river. A beam shattered. Nails pulled from wood with a great screeching sound. The limb in the water. All quiet now. But the violence remains. Hanging in the air.
Music has always spoken to me since that day in the fourth grade when a band director put a trumpet in my hands and asked me if I wanted to be in the band.
I am ecumenical when it comes to music. I owe my allegiance to no artist or style but rather find myself drawn to the beauty, power and mystery in all musical forms and styles. I listen to music often when I write or when I’m editing photographs. I listen when I drive, when I take long walks and in the little dead places in life where nothing else is happening (standing in lines, walking between the parking lot and the office, getting dressed, waiting for airplanes to take off.)
I used to listen to a lot of Chill. It was like having a soundtrack to my life played through the speakers of the humongous SUV I drove at the time. In recent years, I fell under the thrall of Dub Step, the London underground mashup of electronic dance music, power chord rock and roll, heavy bass and anything else you want to throw in the blender of Fruity Loops (a computer program for editing music). I especially love “the drop”, a moment in most Dub Step songs when after a soulful or intricate opening there is a dramatic pause and then a blast of sonic energy in the form of a wall of music that makes one imagine a warehouse full of people jumping up and down in unison and joy.
Imagine my wonder, in recent days, when I stumbled onto ChillStep, the bastard child of two genres of music I had, until then, loved equally but separately. I had used a voice command to tell my handy electronic assistant to play a Dub Step playlist and somehow, not once but twice, the assistant responded, “Playing ChillStep playlist.”
The calm moody laid back world of Chill jammed up with the frenetic power of Dub Step. ChillStep appeared as a revelation. Calming and energizing in turn.
I commend it to you.
About 20 years ago, I crept into my children’s bedrooms at about 3 a.m. and rousted them from their sleep.
“Come with me. Let’s go outside and watch the meteor showers.”
Tonight, I went out to watch the Perseid meteor shower again. I saw a lot of meteors but it was the memories that came thick and fast.
As a boy, my best friend and I built telescopes from parts we ordered from the Edmund Scientific Catalog. I studied the stars. Traveled to them in my mind. Developed a love for the mysteries of the night sky and the universe. When the city came and installed a street lamp, I shot it out because it cut down dramatically on what I could see in the night sky. It made perfect sense to me but neither my father nor the public works department were amused. Another night my friend’s mother locked up the house and went to bed without knowing that we were on the roof stargazing.
As a young man, I remember walking to the barn to milk before day break and seeing the Milky Way in sharp relief against and deep black sky, unpolluted by street lamps. I could barely make it out tonight from my suburban neighborhood with the bright lights of Nashville castings its glow from the east.
And then that night I woke up William and Marshall and explained to them what was happening as streaks of light coursed across the sky. They still remember that night fondly. They were sleepy and groggy but they turned their faces to the sky and were delighted when they saw the shooting stars. I suspect they will always remember that and, perhaps some future night, they will wake their own children and make new memories. With their faces turned, once again, to the night sky they will begin a story by saying, “Your grandpaw did this one night with us a long time ago.”
Memories, like the stars themselves. Steady.Sometimes harder to see than others. Always there.
It’s late in the day. Tired. Hungry. The equipment is all loaded and the crew is ready to go eat and rest.
Then the light changes. No, you say to yourself. No, it’s just another sunset. You don’t have time.
Then the paint horse begins to walk up the pasture.
Without actually making a decision you begin to walk toward the fence. Quietly. You reach into your pocket for a camera and then for a few glorious moments you are simply lost. You aren’t hungry or tired. There’s just the light and the horse. The little yellow flowers seems to glow. The horse turns the wrong way and you get some fantastic sunset photos featuring the wrong end of the horse.
Then he turns and begins to graze toward you and the sound of his eating and chewing seems like a sound from another world. A deep crunching noise as he breaks off the sweet grass and chews.
Then something happens. The cosmic tumblers fall into place and you get just a moment where the sun, the sky, the horse and the little yellow flowers feels like they are in just the right place. One frame out of a few hundred. The last shot. One last shot.
It’s a gift. You could have been down the road a few miles but, instead, you happen to be standing there with a camera in your hands when something sweet and memorable happens. It’s a gift you give to yourself. One last shot.
A lot happened today. Hundreds of photos and hours of video. But as I lay dying years and years from now this is the image I am most likely to remember from this day. The last shot. One last shot.
I had just finished my chores when I heard the first rumbling. Long and low like the earth clearing its throat. A storm was coming.
The front of our house faced Bays Mountain in the distance. Sometimes, storms would go south of the mountain and we could just see the tops of them. But when the storms came north of the mountain then we were in for a show.
I went into my Mom and Dad’s room and got a quilt one of my grandmother’s had made and went out on the front porch. I sat in one of rocking chairs there and covered myself with the quilt.
The storm had cleared the lower hills and was coming north. When I would see the lightning bolts I would count. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Then, a gentle boom.
Another bolt of lightning. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Then another boom. A little louder.
I would lose myself in the storms and count down the time difference between the lightning and the thunder.
Lighting strike. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Then a nice big round boom of sound. A few raindrops began to fall. I could hear them on the leaves in the woods before I could see them.
Two strokes of lightning. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Then boom … boom. One clap of thunder right after the other.
Then the lightning would be so close there was no need to count. The rain came hard. Huge fat drops of rain that splashed on the concrete of the front porch and mist that blew onto my face.
Lightning would strike and simultaneously there would be a huge crash of thunder. I was in the center of the storm. The trees whipped and thrashed as if trying to flee the violence.
The sunlight was all but gone. Lightning lit up the countryside and there were flashes of light and crashes of sound so close together they couldn’t be distinguished one from the other.
I pulled the quilt around me more tightly. I breathed in the misty air. I leaned into the storm.
My mother came to the screen door.
“Here he is,” I heard he announce to my father. “He’s watching the storm on the front porch.”
“Are you OK?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “Just watching the storm.”
Then it was over. Weak light returned to the hill. Rain dripped from the leaves of the trees in the front yard.
I went back inside and put the quilt back on Mom and Dad’s bed. I always loved those storms.
My father was a bookmaker.
He worked for the Kingsport Press. During a 30-year career he worked in every part of the making of books. Bindery. Stamping. Gathering. Printing. The plant where he worked starting in the 1960’s was one of the few in the world were a manuscript came in the front door and a book got shipped out the back.
I will always remember how he would pick up a book and examine it. He would remove the dust jacket and set it aside. He would run his thick hands over the covers and down the spine. He would look to see if the end paper was nice and square on the inside cover. He would check he headband to see that it was properly applied … or shake his head if the book didn’t have a headband … a sure sign of a shoddy book.
He would sometimes speak to us as he examined a book, incanting words and phrases in an almost prayerful contemplation. Saddle stitching, perfect binding, Smyth sewn, spot varnish, watermarks, die cuts, blind stamping, galleys, gatefolds, gutters. Heaven forefend that someone would open a book and crack the spine so it would lay flat. If a perfect stranger did that in his presence they would get a lecture.
My father was a bookmaker. He could not abide a shoddy book with thin paper, bad printing or imprecise gutters.
These days I mostly read books on a variety of electronic devices or as audio books. I have never lost the appreciation of a well-made book. My wife and I have a small but well tended library. I sometimes go in there to write letters or read or think. There is something permanent about a book. Something noble. Something hopeful. A book is civilization saying, “This is important. This will last. Read this.”