Category Archives: Inner Ear

1 January 2017

Ah,  the power. The power and constraint of a New Year,  a convention laid upon us — smack in the middle of sun and moon cycles, the natural measures of our time on Earth — by the arbitrary forces of empire. First the Romans, their calendar hopelessly convoluted. Then the church, whose holy and secular empires superimposed religious holidays over all the old pagan ones. Finally, as European powers began to conquer the world, a kind of proto-bureaucratic realignment that sought a return to reality. Earthly reality, that is — the original calendar of the Earth’s circuit around the sun, the moon’s orbit around earth. Proto-bureaucratic because the purely human and artificial solution was to lop off a quarter of a day three years of every four, and add a day in the fourth. Ooh la la.

And so we start another year — however that lands for you and me and everyone else on the planet — regardless of what your religion, nationality, persuasion or reality might be. Just the outward and visible sign of the manifold inward conflicts we carry with us — and which burst forth in the ugliest and most unexpected ways, even as we sail forth into this New Year. Where will the next outbreak explode? Who will guide us through it? We are so weary of these questions already and the year is not yet one day old.

But for some — I have a friend who is one — this is actually a birthday, a real one. That is not insignificant.

And so I gather up my hopes, I say my prayers, I set my course. Let this be the first day of the rest of my life. Let me spend it well and make a difference for the good. Let me take care of the earthly vehicle that is my body, and make time to appreciate the beauty of the world around me. Let my spirit grow and rejoice, with laughter and in tranquillity, with friends and in solitude, in harmony with the soul of our planet and the truth and unity of our humanity. There will be an answer.  Let it be.


“From heres” and “come heres” ~ Rockbridge County ctd.


Do I know you?

The way her eyes narrow says it all. She’s walking toward me as I drive across Myers Street and raise my hand in the customary (hereabouts) greeting-in-passing.

Her face bears the stamp of our mountain country: weathered skin, strong bones, creases at the corners of those pale blue eyes that traveled across the North Atlantic a couple of centuries ago, the creases proof of years of outdoor work.

Her gray hair is neat and nondescript and she is wearing a purple sweatsuit, a nice one.  She is clearly not someone who steps out for a trip to the post office or a walk around the block without some forethought.

What’s it to you,  I hear her thinking as I put my hand back on the wheel. Not for her this Johnny-come-lately habit of waving at strangers. Back in the day, you only greeted people you actually knew, from church or school or perhaps the grocery store, and that’s good enough for her. None of this raising a hand or doing the two-finger waggle now popular on our narrow county roads as two vehicles weave past each other.

I stand reproved. She is right. I’m not from here, even though I was born in this very town more than sixty years ago. I am not a “from-here.” My family were outlanders, “come heres,” and from the North to boot, which sometimes still matters here.

She is not. She is from here, and these mountains are truly her home, their shifting patterns of light and shadow ingrained in her being from so far before birth that she has to stop and count the generations. And count them she can. They are buried in a family cemetery somewhere in the county, or in old church cemeteries with names like Ebenezer or New Providence.

I want to protest. I grew  up here. I too know the light and the shadow, and I see – or rather hear, coming back from the flatlands where I spent most of my adulthood – how in the mountains, the sound only travels from one end of the hollow to the other. It does not travel miles, the way it does over flat land, so that you might hear the noise of a highway five miles distant if the wind is blowing your way.

Not here. Here, you will only hear what the mountains let you hear. You will not hear the dog or the child or the highway from the other side of the ridge line.

And I want to tell her that I too see how their colors change, these mountains, how right now they wait for fall’s flaming brilliance but will soon  lie brown and sleeping in the winter sun. How the spines of their leafless trees stand up like prickly fur. How they will turn pale green in spring, darker in summer, flame bright again in autumn. How we can walk their trails and listen to the birds call.

But we won’t have that conversation, she and I. There are many divisions besides ridgelines in these mountains. She is of the tribe J.D. Vance calls his “hill people,” and I know it is a term of hard-earned and well-deserved respect. But we won’t have that conversation either. Her purple sweatsuit recedes in my rearview mirror, and we go on into our respective days.

Photo caption:  Looking across Rockbridge County to the Blue Ridge from the top of the road where I live … this is her ancestral land. I’m just a “come here,” but it is my land too.

Edward Albee, The Zoo Story, And The Rest Of Us

I was 16 the spring that Edward Albee came to Lexington, Virginia. Lexington at that point was a rural county seat still unconnected by interstates to the greater world. But it was home to two colleges and the crossroads of two old Indian trails turned two-lane U.S. highways, over which tractor-trailers labored endlessly en route from, say, Richmond, Virginia to Richmond, Indiana or wherever.

It was 1962. Albee, who died last week, came to Lexington at the behest of a theatrical genius named Cecil Jones, who happened to be the director of the local university’s rather humble theatre. Based in an old shoe factory at the edge of campus, the theatre was home to the Washington & Lee Troubadours, a proud but ragtag group who performed everything from Shakespeare to Giradoux in a space that had a catwalk for a lighting booth, no wing space, a costume loft that doubled as a unisex dressing room, tattered folding seats for the audience, precious little heat in winter and stifling temperatures the rest of the year.

Albee was an emerging leader of the avant-garde theatre of the absurd in New York, intriguing critics and baffling the public. He came to W&L as a guest artist/professor for 10 days, gave one public lecture, and sat in one of the Troubs’ fraying seats as two young men took the stage – juniors, and already veterans who’d played Iago and Roderigo just two months earlier on that same stage. They launched bravely, or perhaps even a bit casually, into their first reading as Peter (John Dunnell) and Jerry (Tim Morton) on The Zoo Story’s park bench.

Albee immediately stopped them. Gave instructions. And again.  And again. The stopping and starting  went on for what seemed like an agonizing half hour or more – it’s a one-act play – and Albee wouldn’t budge beyond the opening lines till they had it to his satisfaction, while the rest of us out in the house squirmed in empathetic agony.

There were no women at W&L in those days, so townswomen, professors’ wives and high school students took the Troubs’ female roles. I was by then more or less a regular, and as it turned out, I would end up understudying the role of Grandma in The American Dream, Albee’s sendup of post-WW II American domestic life, and also a one-act, paired with The Zoo Story.

We didn’t even GET to a reading of The American Dream that night, as I recall, or maybe I’d gone home by then to do my high school homework – but from that production of Dream hangs a tale.

Here it is: Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf opened at the Billy Rose Theater in New York that fall – some six months after his stay in Lexington – and it centered, of course, on the dysfunctional life of a small college town.

As it happens, Woolf’s four characters are the savagely bored alcoholic academic couple George and Martha, and the newly arrived young prof Nick and his wife, Honey. By then, Albee had already done at least one stint as a college professor, so he’d seen the backstage of academic life. But as it also happens, the lead male role in our American Dream was a devastatingly handsome young man named – in real life – Nick; his mother was played by a faculty wife named Martha; and another faculty wife, also associated with the production, often turned her smooth Southern accent upon  her husband, addressing him with affectionate exasperation as “HonnnnEEYYYY,” when he’d return from the supermarket or hardware store without some crucial item.

Coincidence? If so, such an intriguingly close one. Only George – Richard Burton in the film – is unaccounted for. My theory: Albee had the play all but written. Perhaps he’d already named the George and Martha characters after our nation’s First Couple, and the rest fell into place. Or maybe that trope suggested itself  in the wake of Lexington. It’s the stuff of myth.

As for me, I spent the spring trying vainly to memorize Grandma’s role, when it turned out that the elderly frat-house mom who’d been cast in the part couldn’t keep the endlessly repetitive dialogue straight. Neither could I. In the end she got it, and was her usual wickedly clever self on stage. By then, Albee was gone, to continue streaking across New York’s artistic sky, a theatrical meteor – fixed in my 16-year-old memory, based on that first night, as a cosmic jerk. But then, he was so young then too – just 33, a raw and edgy troubadour himself, who had already penned these lines for posterity:

Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.

  • Jerry, in The Zoo Story

The Silent Bricks…. of Lexington

I’ll preface this by saying that in all the years I lived away from here, there was probably never a day I didn’t think at some point of the brick sidewalks of my hometown. They are not just any bricks, physically or symbolically. They’re from the 19th century. They were cast and baked here. We all recognize their patterns, because they are in our souls. They are part of what called me back to this town in the mountains of Virginia.

My friend Beverly Tucker describes them more eloquently than I could have imagined. In doing so she speaks not only of the bricks in our village’s historically wealthy streets but also of those up in what was the African American quarter of town, on Diamond Hill. Here’s what she has to say:

Strolling through the village one is struck by the uniqueness of the pathways and walks. The walks are paved with bricks specifically designed for Lexington, Virginia (otherwise known to us as “ the village”) and are appropriately referred to as the “Lexington bricks.” They are subtle in appearance, dignified in their silence, a dignity earned through the most difficult measures. If one should be inclined to notice the symbolism that links Lexington’s African American community to those pathways, the metaphor presents itself obviously.

The brick walks have been present there in their role of quiet support… as leaders… as followers… deeply grooved… only to be worn so smooth that their original form often fades to tiny rises and falls apparent only to the touch. They have been relocated, walked on, written on, spat on, broken, cracked, bought and sold.

In perfect response and form, they remain strong and true to purpose. They have felt the heel marks of history, slept under the snow, baked in the sun, enjoyed the spattering of afternoon thunderstorms, been kissed by the sugar maple, blown over by the wind, and still they look up and remain unmoved from their strength.

The bond is greater for its historical journey to the final experience and safety on the hill called Diamond…. and they will be bound for as long as they last no matter the triumph or defeat that makes its way to their place. They have been fired to face adversity and endure. That strength and endurance is firmly stacked for us to make our way from here to there. Look down to see their provenance. Look up to see their prophecy. The silence can now be heard…………..

Wolves, gorillas, sea lions, oh my … Concerts for (other) animals only

Wolves at Wolf Haven Interational
Wolves at Wolf Haven International


Heard this fascinating item on NPR right before Christmas:  A woman who started out studying depression in (other) animals  reported that those in captivity can be driven mad by boredom.

Laurel Braitman, author of Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves, began a campaign to try concerts for animals in captivity and in the wild — no humans allowed except the musicians — and observe the results.

The results reported in on WNYC  are fascinating. Listen on! Among the concerts was one by a member of U2 for sea lions; another was hard rock for gorillas.

Wolf Haven, a rescue site in Washington state, was one of the sites described. Wolves who’d been literally chained in captivity now inhabit this wilderness site about 100 miles north of Portland, OR.  Cue the Mozart: Braitman explains how the wolves, free to roam  within the preserve, came right up to the fence where the orchestral group was playing. Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, joined her on the program. Henotes that canids — dogs, wolves, coyotes — can of course hear overtones our human ears will never capture. An intriguing thought.

Kudos to public radio writer/producer Britt Wray for this really riveting Studio 360 program.


Where there are vampires … there’s hope?

Vampires – hope?

A few months ago, I picked up “Into the Woods” by Kim Harrison. I previously had little interest in vampires – had skipped Ann Rice entirely – but an interview with Ms. Harrison in Writer’s Digest had caught my attention. She had interesting things to say about writing, and when I found the book on the “new arrivals” table while grazing in a Saratoga Springs bookstore, I picked it up.

And it got me thinking. WHY are we so fascinated with the “undead” – with hordes of the horrific, the vampires, zombies, werewolves, demons and more? Witches, by comparison, seem positively benign, being human.

With Halloween just safely past, we’ve sailed past All Saints, All Souls, Day of the Dead and even Guy Fawkes Day, a cornucopia of holidays clustered around and behind what was once probably the most sacred day of the Celtic year, and lo, Ms. Rice returns to the field with “Prince Lestat” and a multimillion-dollar contract with Universal for “The Vampire Chronicles.”

So what’s the deal?

A little quick research into the attraction of “Twilight,” “True Blood,” “The Vampire Diaries” et al. pulls up everything from loss of control to … loss of control. It’s sexual. It’s political. It’s the perfect metaphor for troubled times.

That’s what I thought. Harrison’s vampires are so oddly human. They work for dark mob-boss type overlords from whom they can’t escape. They are victims of hostage syndrome – they love the thing that holds them captive. They have moments of decency and they live in fear. And lust. Their lives are chaotic and unpredictable, but they seize opportunities for forbidden love despite the risk. They’re conflicted about it too.

Don’t they sound familiar?

While looking at one article online, I was distracted by the news that an Arizona politician (no kidding) says there are vampires in the mines, and the assertion that “Nightcrawler” makes a vampire of the news media. On the sidebar was the truly scary news of more mass graves uncovered in Mexico. Vampires pale in comparison.

Perhaps that’s why we seek them out today. They are the iconic proof of our dark side, and yet they are vulnerable. And in that vulnerability lies, finally our hope: That we can ward off evil with a simple gesture and drive a stake through the heart of our darkest fears.


Bury My Heart

at Wounded Knee

I just pulled out of my Baggallini a small chamois pouch that contains a stone from Wounded Knee. I was there, just about this time five years ago. The Wounded Knee cemetery sits on a bluff overlooking miles and miles of grassland belonging to the Pine Ridge Reservation…if the Lakota who live there wouldn’t laugh at the idea of grassland belonging to anyone. I hadn’t felt so free or so peaceful in a long time, as I felt on the reservation. Go figure.

But I went there for a less than peaceful reason:

In the winter of 1891, my great-grandfather was dispatched from his infantry post in Wyoming to somewhere in South Dakota. The dates said he was probably one of hundreds of officers whose troops were sent to South Dakota just in case the Seventh Cavalry needed help. They didn’t, of course, need help in what I think is generally agreed to have been the infamous incident at the place we remember as Wounded Knee.

So I went there to get down on my knees at a stone monument weathered almost beyond reading, and to lay a little tobacco there, and to say a prayer. I’ve written about that and about the other things I learned about my family’s 200-some years as Americans and as a military family, in a book about the family furniture.

Part memoir, part military history, it is also a meditation on why we Americans are so attached to our stuff — and the destruction that attachment has sometimes caused.
It’s a beginning …