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Joseph E Bird

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

Month

April 2017

Galveston

pier for web

Heather is on her way to Houston to see her father, who she hasn’t seen in ten years. On her way, she took a detour to Galveston to try to find the pier that was the scene of her mother’s death. In Galveston, she is befriended by Lucas, a no-nonsense oil rig worker probably 20 years older than she is.  He helps her through a medical crisis and in their brief time together, they become close. In this scene, Lucas is driving her from the hospital to her car, where she will continue her journey to Houston.


Lucas drove a Jeep. Of course he did. The hospital was only a couple of miles from the shore and they rode silently, the only sound the buzzing of the tires on the wet roads and the flip-flap of the windshield wipers.

All necessary information was exchanged back at the hospital. The doctor had been in before Lucas had arrived, so she told him everything, as if he was her parent. It was comforting to talk to an older man, one who seemed gentle and kind and wise. Naivete had left her on a warm Fourth of July evening thirty years ago and she knew that Lucas had an attraction to her and that being with her was more than just an act of kindness. But that was ok. She had a similar attraction to him, despite his age. But she knew and he knew that their relationship, however brief it would turn out to be, was founded on something deeper than a superficial physical appeal. Even so, just as the setting sun can bring a moment of pleasure, or the taste of freshly baked bread can offer a passing contentment, so it is with the inexplicable feelings that simmer just beneath the surface when the ancient instincts draw one to another, despite all logic and reason. Sometimes it’s just there, not to be acted upon, but to savor in the moment and to store away as a memory for the lonely, hollow days that surely lie ahead. And as they stood in the rain and hugged, Heather knew that it was more than a courteous embrace that they shared. Maybe she could stay a little longer. Maybe she could return to Galveston when the business with her father was complete. When she kissed his cheek, she thought it was a real possibility. It wasn’t until she was driving along the Gulf Freeway that reality started to nibble at the edges of the romantic vignette that she had allowed her imagination to paint.

He had to be in his sixties and though he appeared healthy, heart disease or cancer or some other ailment was likely lurking around the corner. His future was short. Not that hers was any better, and she was already showing signs. Hers would be a lingering illness; his, one and done. Not a very promising future, for either of them.

She drove west, knowing she would never return to Galveston.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird

Not so tough guy.

to The Gang

That’s me. Back row in the middle. Me and the boys. The gang.
Real tough guys, we was, although you might think differently after you hear this story. One more trip in the way-back machine.  This time, it’s my freshman year in college. Let’s set the scene.

I had just turned 18 and I’m off to school to set the course for the rest of my life.  At least that’s the theory. To illustrate how far off base that concept can be, the major I chose was Agronomy, the study soil and crop science, with the idea that I was going to be a farmer. About halfway through my freshman year it dawned on me that I didn’t come from a farming family, had no prospects of ever owning a farm, and I was afraid of cows.

I didn’t quite have my act together at that point.

Fortunately, the administrators of higher education understand that 18 year-olds can’t be left completely on their own. It would be better to let them get acclimated to this new semi-adult world by living in a dorm under the supervision of 20 year-old Resident Advisor.

The dorm.  Fifty guys on one floor, sharing one common area with one television, and two giant shower and toilet rooms. That took some getting used to. We were supposed to be students, but it was more like one, long endless party. It’s not as fun as it sounds, especially if you not a big partier. I wasn’t. I loosened up a little in my later years in school, but as a freshman, I was pretty much intimidated by everything.  Which probably explains my Lord of the Flies moment.  Except that it was much more than a moment.

I kept to myself as much as I could, but I had a tormentor.  He wasn’t the biggest guy on the floor. He wasn’t the meanest.  He wasn’t the funniest.  He was just a guy with a permanent smirk. I never would have even noticed him if he hadn’t started calling me names.

Now some guys I know would have taken a stand right there. Smacked him down and put an end to the insults. But besides a few harmless tussles with friends when I was growing up, I’ve never really been a fighting guy.  So sticks and stones.  I did my best to ignore him.

Which, of course, meant that he never let up.  Day after day. Week after week. Month after month.  I acted like it didn’t bother me, but it bothered me a lot.

Then one weekend, a friend came up to see me.  This friend, being as immature as I was, brought with him a rubber monster mask. Why?  Who knows. We went out with our other friends, one of us wearing the mask, just to see if anybody noticed. As college hijinks goes, it was pretty lame.

Later that evening we were back at the dorm. I was wearing the mask and roaming the halls, just for kicks. He sees me, and even with the mask on, he knows its me.

“Hey, that’s a big improvement on your looks,” he said.  Then the names.

At this point, I need to explain a guy thing. When guys get together, they will sometimes play fight. Kind of shadow box, throwing fake punches that are not intended to land. It’s all just posturing and it’s always done in fun.

So I’m wearing the mask and he’s calling me names.

I start to shadow box.  Slow motion punches in the air.  He does the same.  Nothing’s going to come of this.

But he keeps calling me names. Mean names. Hurtful names. Really bad names.

And that’s it.

I flick a jab and hit him in the face. Then another one. He’s stunned. I hit him again before he hits back. He lands a punch to the side of my head. Then he clinches so I can’t hit him again.  We wrestle around a little, and then both of us decide we don’t want it to go any further. We separate, breathing hard. His lip is bleeding.

He is still stunned. He’s angry. Partly because I hit him, but I think more because I refused to play his game by his rules. He was a bully and I’d had enough.

It’s an embarrassing story, though. I shouldn’t have let it get to the point that I lost my cool and started throwing punches. I should have found a better way to defuse the situation earlier.

I still encounter bullies. We all do. The person who is so insecure that they think they build themselves up by tearing other people down. Or are too scared to let someone else do something their own way. We just need to figure out how to deal with them in a civilized way.

After my freshman year, things settled down. I found a bit more confidence and some really good friends.  The tough guys in the photo?  Yeah, we’re all posers, as if you couldn’t tell.

I think about my tormentor from time to time. Wonder if he ever felt bad for being a bully. Wonder if he ever changed. People change. I’ve changed. I hope he has, too.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird

The free spirit.

GCB-sailor edited

This hip chick is my mother.
The photo was taken around the time she began her career as a stay-at-home mom.

After giving my father credit for his hidden artistic talents (and at the risk of turning this forum into Joe’s nostalgia corner), I wanted to take a look at a different creative type.  If my father was a left-brain analytical, my mother personified the right-brain free spirit.

My mother had artistic ambitions. She was good with sketches, and I think I remember her working with pastels. But she was raising a family and it was hard to stick with it.

She was also a musician. She played the clarinet in the high school band (or faked it, as she would say, a skill I managed to master when I was in the band), and she was an excellent piano player. But she was raising a family and it was hard to stick with it.

She loved to write and was a master of the funny story. She wanted to be the next Erma Bombeck (a popular humorist of her day) and probably had the skills to pull it off. But she was raising a family and it was hard to stick with it.

Did I mention poetry? No, not the soul-searching free verse that is popular today, but poems that actually rhymed. And again, many were humorous. But she was raising a family it was hard to stick with it.

She also sewed and made clothes for the family. I consider sewing an art form, but for my mother, it was a necessary skill, one that she was able to stick with, because she was raising a family.

Like most right-brain thinkers, my mother had dreams of making it big, but they never panned out. Even so, at every stage of her life she was able to find contentment in the work that she did. Yes, she found happiness in her art, her music, her writing, her poetry. But she knew what was really important. It wasn’t a sacrifice for her to let her dreams take a back seat, it was her act of love for her family. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

Times have changed. With more options available, many mothers are able to work outside the home, fulfill their obligations as a mother, and still find time to pursue other interests. Roles are changing, too. Stay-at-home dads are much more common and give women even more choices.

But my mother’s world was different. Still, one truth remains.

Our time is short and our work is ephemeral.

Know what really matters and make the most of it.

Sing to me a truth.

Someone once told me that he had broken up with his girlfriend and he was having a hard time getting over it. Except he said it like this:

Most of the time
I’m clear focused all around
Most of the time
I can keep both feet on the ground
I can follow the path
I can read the sign
Stay right with it when the road unwinds
I can handle whatever
I stumble upon
I don’t even notice she’s gone
Most of the time.

That’s from Bob Dylan.  His song, Most of the Time.

Larry Ellis had this to say about poets:

“A poet is a maker.  A poet is someone who attempts to convey meaning and emotion through the creative use of language.  A poet employs metaphor to spark the imagination and meter and rhyme to trigger the memory.  Would we have understood – would we have “gotten” – the meaning of the Vietnam war – as the songwriters wanted us to get it – without the music and rhythm and rhyme of, for example Have You Ever Seen The Rain?”

It’s part of an essay that he wrote making the case that the prophets of old interpreted and proclaimed the meaning of events, and did so in a poetic language that would drive home their message (or God’s message) and be remembered.  You can read the entire piece here.

Such a poet doesn’t look to the clouds to find inspiration in the ether.  The poet has something to say and is deliberate in the choosing and placement of words.

The poet says, much like Bob Dylan or John Fogerty or Jeremiah:

“Listen.  I have something you need to hear.”

 

Do your thing.

Eugene Bird at work

This young man is my father.
The photo was taken in the early days of his career as an electrical engineer.

In many ways, he is the stereotypical engineer.  He’s analytical.  He’s a logical problem solver.  He pays attention to detail.  He would be considered a left-brain thinker.  Creative types – your artists, musicians, actors, dancers – are generally considered right-brian thinkers.  If you think with the left side of your brain, you’d make a good engineer.  If you think with the right side, you might be a good writer.  And for much of what I remember about my father, this would seem to hold true.

When I was growing up, I don’t remember him doing anything very creative.  He was very much an engineer, and was a great (if sometimes intimidating) teacher of math and science to me and my sisters.

Most of his career he worked for Union Carbide and when they began to build new production facilities in Texas, he was transferred to Houston.  My family moved to Texas twice, and when he was sent to Houston for a third time, he opted to go it alone and not put the family through another move. So what does an engineer living by himself do in his spare time?

Golf?  Maybe jigsaw puzzles?  No.  He took up painting.  When he returned home we were astounded by what he had done. Among other things, he painted this scene of the old Morgan homestead near Winfield (WV), across from what is now the John Amos power plant.

eugene painting for web

As far as I know, he had never painted anything before.  There were other paintings, including a very lifelike portrait of Pittsburgh Steeler great, Mean Joe Green.

But when he came back home, he was done with painting.

In the 4o-some years since, he’s completed home improvement projects and done some woodworking, but not much that would label him as a creative type.

Then last year, my sister suggested to our then 86-year-old father that he should do pencil sketches of his great-grandchildren. He agreed.  Here’s one of the twins, Bear.

bear for web

For most of his life, my father has played the role of engineer.  He is still very practical and analytical, and his fondness for logic would make Mr. Spock proud. And then he’ll surprise us with those sparks of creativity that seem to come forth every forty years or so.

Lessons in all of this?

Don’t sell yourself short. You may not even realize the potential within.  Do your thing.

Too old? Nope. That just doesn’t cut it. Do your thing.

It will make your life better.

 

 

 

 

The Green Box

green box for web

I guess I was around fifteen. Maybe eighth grade. Back then that meant that I attended St. Albans Junior High, the old high school of my mother and father. Some of their teachers still taught there. Like Mr. Jordan, a science teacher, I think. Gordon T. Jordon, to be precise. In my mother’s time, they called him Gordon Tordon Jordon.

The old school is now a warehouse for old commercial kitchen equipment. Broken windows everywhere. Who knows what living inside. And a few ghosts from the past. Not literal ghosts, just haunting memories.

Like the first time I danced in front of people. Before I learned not to care what people thought. Bad memory.

Eating popcorn while watching a basketball game up on the mezzanine of the gym. Good memory.

Dodge ball. Crab ball. Climbing ropes. Does anybody really have a good memory of gym class?

We had a really good auditorium for its time. Like an old theater. Lots of good productions and student talent shows. Jack Lyons singing Mr. Bojangles. Good memory.

Almost getting beat up after school for mouthing off to an upper classman and being saved at the last minute by a teacher who saw the guy pull his fist back and yelled out the window just in time.

And then there was Shop Class. I was not a shop class kind of guy. In fact, I was still trying to figure out what kind of guy I was. I was dabbling in music, but was never really very good. Likewise with sports. Not super smart. Not super cool. Pretty much just another extra on the great movie set of life.

But Shop Class was required, so I spent a semester learning how to not cut off my fingers with a power saw, lessons I value to this day. Mr. Bass, one of the school’s coaches, also taught Shop Class. Scary guy. Big. Stern. Never smiled.

Steve Bailey was in my class. His family lived high on the hill in St. Albans. He was somewhat of a free spirit, but cut from a different cloth. His hair was long, all the way to his shoulders, which was not that unusual for the time, but he wore shirts with French cuffs and cuff links.  Nobody did that. So there he is in Shop Class with his fancy shirts. But he could be intimidating. Nobody made fun.

At the end of the semester, we had to put all of our newly learned skills to the test and actually make something. Anything. Other guys were making cool stuff. Maybe a gun rack. Or a table. I made a box. Roughly 12” x 12” with a lid. Painted green. A plain green box. Even at the time, I was embarrassed by my lack of creativity.

That was, what, 45 years ago? The box is still in my garage.

Today, I’m in the middle of a remodeling project in the basement. Over the years, the occasional water infiltration had caused mold to grow at the bottom of a built-in bookcase and the wood paneling behind it.  So I took out the bookcase. The rest of the paneling was still good and I didn’t want to rip out everything so I decided to cut off the bottom and rebuild with a new wainscot.

I drew a line on the paneling and five minutes later, the offending moldy panels were gone. A nice, clean cut.

It was satisfying. Even though it was really demolition, it felt creative. Like I was doing something positive. Something that few people would ever see. But it felt good.

I think that’s how it is with anything creative that we do. Whether anyone else appreciates it doesn’t really matter. We were born with that creative urge.

For some people, it’s masterpieces of woodworking or pottery or fantastic art or life-changing music or stories that take us to another world.

For some people, it’s children and families and making those around them feel loved and welcome.

For some people, it’s leading others to find greater truths.

And for some of us, it’s building a green box and cutting out the mold.

Simple creativity.

Not for the rewards. Not for the riches. Not for the accolades.

Just because we can.

A young woman dances.

GB3

A young woman dances.
She sees her future
and the possibilities
seem limitless.
Her joy is exuberant
and must be expressed.
So she dances.

A young woman dances.
I becomes we,
dreams are shared
and the path is changed.
Her joy is deep
and must be expressed.
So she dances.

A young woman dances.
Her life is not
as she thought
and there are limits.
Her joy is mature
and must be expressed.
So she dances.

A young woman dances.
She creates art
with pigments and
fabric and clay.
Her joy is in beauty
and must be expressed.
So she dances.

A young woman dances.
She is carefree and
moves with rhythm
and vitality.
Her joy is alive
and must be expressed.
So she dances.

A young woman dances.
The years have passed
but hope lies ahead
for all that is
good and pure.
Her joy is her faith
and must be expressed.
And so she dances.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird

A young woman lies on the cobblestone.

A young woman
lies on the cobblestone.
Her body is twisted.
She is bleeding.
She has left us.

A young woman
is supposed to live.
And laugh.
And love.
No, not this.

Such a young woman.
What?
Why?
Who?
Such a young woman.

Others have gone too soon.
A cousin.
A brother.
A son.
A mother.

A young woman
lies on the cobblestone.
Yesterday I saw her.
Today she is here.
She has left us.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird


A word of explanation.  The other day, I was listening to Dvorak’s Requiem while I was working at the office.  I was listening via YouTube, and whoever posted the video used the painting of the late nineteenth century German painter, Jakub Schikaneder as the sole image in the video.  It inspired this fourth poem in my Young Woman series.  The painting is called Murder in the House.  Yes, it’s disturbing.  Life is fragile.

A young woman stands in line.

A young woman
stands in line.
She is tired.
Tired from the kids.
Tired from work.
Tired from walking.

A young woman
stands in line.
Her hair is pulled back.
Her t-shirt is
stained from breakfast,
or last night’s dinner.

A young woman
stands in line.
She glances at the
beautiful people
on the magazine covers,
their lives a dream.

A young woman
stands in line.
Her young boy
tugs on her pant leg.
He holds a piece of candy.
No honey, put it back.

A young woman
stands in line.
Her buggy is full
of dollar store bargains,
and a cake mix
for dessert.

A young woman
stands in line.
At her side
a stroller cradles
her sleeping daughter.
The boy smiles.

A young woman
stands in line.
She will likely never
own a business
or empower other women
or be held in high esteem.

A young woman
Stands in line.
She is tired,
But her love
is patient and kind
and endures all things.

A young woman
stands in line.
She is a mother.
Nothing else matters
And her children
will call her blessed.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird

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