Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.


July 2016


It was a Monday, the only truthful day of the week. All other days were liars. Only Monday told you how bad your life really was. It had been a long, gray winter, but that morning in March the sun filtered through the trees on the east bank of the Seneca River and tried to convince her that this Monday would be different. It was the twenty-ninth spring for Savannah Joyce and she would be nobody’s fool. Especially not Monday’s.

copyright 2004, joseph e bird

This is the opening of my first novel, Counsel of the Ungodly.


I jumped in my car the other day to head to a meeting and the radio was tuned to NPR, where local classical composer, Matt Jackfert, was hosting his classical music show. I caught the last few minutes of the third movement of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. The music, while aptly named, is captivating. And when you know the story behind it, it’s even more moving.

Here’s Gorecki’s story:  Henryk Gorecki’s life.

Here’s the third movement:

Nothing else to say.


Ever notice my profile pic? Looks like I could break out in song on a moment’s notice, right? When I was still on Facebook, I had the same photo on my Facebook page. One day an old friend, a very accomplished musician, saw my picture, stopped by my office and invited me to join him and his friends for their jam sessions. Sounds cool. But just because I’m holding a guitar doesn’t mean I’m good enough to join in with real musicians.

I declined.

There’s a lesson in that little story.

There are lessons in all good stories, even stories that are completely made up. Fiction, in other words. In fiction, we meet people, get to know them, and learn from their mistakes. We feel their pain, rejoice in their victories. Kind of like life.

I’ve heard people say they only read stories that are real. They mean history, biographies, and reference and self-improvement books. All good and beneficial. But by skipping fiction altogether, they’re missing nourishment for the heart and soul.

Same with art. And music. And dance. And poetry. And other forms that engage the right side of the brain.

Relying on feelings too much can get is trouble. But we risk missing out on so much if we live only in logic and reason.

“We dance for laughter,
we dance for tears,
we dance for madness,
we dance for fears,
we dance for hopes,
we dance for screams,
we are the dancers,
we create the dreams.”  — attributed to Albert Einstein


I haven’t dropped any music lately, so let me tell you about two of my recent discoveries.

First is the Mahogany Sessions, stripped down acoustic music by various artists, mostly in a moody or melancholy style. It’s good for late-night listening or when you’re in one of those moods. This evening might be right.

There’s an interesting story about how I found out about Josh Garrels, but I’m not going to tell you right now. Here’s one of his songs from the Mahogany Sessions. Just put in your earbuds and groove to the vibe.

Is this really necessary?

Inculcateverb: to teach and impress by frequent repetitions or admonitions.

Socrates inculcated his pupils with the love of truth.

What a clunky word.  Sounds like a medical procedure. If you left off the last phrase of the example sentence, it would sound like Socrates had vision problems.

Socractes inculcated his pupils. 

Maybe he used eye-drops.

But he’s talking about the love of truth.

Love and truth. Two beautiful words. Noble concepts. What a better place the world would be with more love of truth. Or just more love, for that matter.

So let’s inculcate truth. Sounds like something politicians do all the time.

Let’s inculcate love. Yikes.

Why not use a word everybody understands?  One that has the same air of nobility as love and truth?

How about instill?

Socrates instilled his pupils with the love of truth.

I like that better.

The meaning is clear. The thought is uplifting.

Just because words are out there, doesn’t mean we have to use them.

gloom be gone

Poets like to write about rain.

And gloom.

And getting old.

And loss.

But today is beautiful.

The sun is shining.

It’s too nice for poetry.

Even if all I do is sit in the shade with a cup of coffee.

Tales from the home.

We were sitting in my grandfather’s room at the nursing home, talking about nothing, as you tend to do.

She walked in like a scary Joan Crawford, glancing at us before looking elsewhere as she made her way to the other side of the room.

“Are you looking for someone?” one of us asked.

She stopped cold. Her eyes widened. “Maybe I am.”

It was chilling. And later, funny. A short story that would be told often.

Her name was Joanne. She hadn’t meant to be scary. She hadn’t meant to offend. She was just disoriented. As are most people in the nursing home. That might not be an accurate statement. It’s just my casual observation.

I don’t know when nursing home visits became part of our routine, but they’ve been a fairly steady occurrence for the last twenty years or so.

My great uncle was a country preacher back in the day. A stern-looking man, very conservative, but with a good sense of humor. His last months were spent in the nursing home. He did not go gentle into that good night. He would lay in his bed and yell. And curse. At the top of his lungs.

It was scary. It was funny. But most of all, it was sad. It makes you realize that life is a struggle to be the kind of person you know you should be.

My grandmother, his sister, was in the same facility, although I’m not sure if it was the same time. She spent two years there after her stroke and was as quiet and gentle as she had been at home. My grandfather and two of his sons visited her almost every day. We would talk to her, tell her about the garden, the weather, and her great-grandchildren. Most times, there was no response. The visits were more for the visitors.

There have been more relatives, friends, and neighbors.

It can be heart-breaking, especially if you think about it too much. It helps when you realize that most of the residents are living in the moment. They all want to be someplace else. We all wish they could be.

This year, we’ve visited a friend who really doesn’t want to be there. When we would show up, she wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t even look at us. This continued for weeks.

Still, we tried.

Finally, she started to warm up. And though she’s far from normal, she at least welcomes our visits. We don’t know what brought about the change, whether it was meds (or lack of meds) or just an attitude adjustment. And we know it could go back to being icy on our next visit. Even if it does, we’ll go back.

Not because we get anything out of it ourselves. It can be taxing.

Not because we’re making the lives of those we see that much better. Most of the time they’ll forget we were even there.

Do you remember the last time someone smiled when they saw you? Do you remember how that smile made you feel? Just for that moment?

That’s it.

It’s just a better moment. For everybody.


Lawnmower Update (as if you really care):

My wife is one of the Boone County McDerments. Her dad (and his brothers) could build or fix anything. She obviously inherited those genes. I came home after work and she was finishing up the carburetor repairs. She didn’t even watch the video.

It started on the third pull.

The Heart is a Boring Atrocity

Last year, thanks to my friend across the pond, Amos Mallard, I read Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Though there are some passages that may be offensive to our more enlightened sensibilities, it is nonetheless now in the top three of my all-time favorite novels. (Thanks for the recommendation, AM.) This is not a review, I just want to say that I agree with most people who consider the book a classic.

Then I came across this non-professional review (edited for a family-friendly format):

“This is one of the most atrocious books I’ve ever read. Over 300 pages of simple sentences, annoying repetitions, talentless descriptions, force-fed conclusions and moral lessons, and maudlin two-dimensional characters. It was a pain to go on after 50 pages, but I kept hoping that the characters might grow some sort of backbone and be cured of McCullers’s boring style. Beware: this does not happen. Boredom and desperation levels skyrocket after a while and the book just grows dismally pathetic. It rarely sounds plausible, and all characters seem to be a different version of just one; even the way they speak is always the same. Essentially, they are criminally deprived of personality and endowed with rage-invoking repetitious ideas.

Unfortunately that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The faults of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter lie deep and spread wide. I have rarely been so disappointed with a book.”

So, fellow artists, when considering the words of critics, remember that not everyone thinks van Gogh was a genius.  Some think Beethoven is boring. And I read another reviewer who thought To Kill a Mockingbird was “a sorry excuse for a book.”

A grain of salt, my friends. Maybe more.

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