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Joseph E Bird

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

When Clara met Harry.

My old school.  No, not my class.  I’m old, but not that old.

I spent half of my first grade year at the old Central School, which was an elementary school by then. In the photo above, it was the high school in my little town of St. Albans, West Virginia.

Freshmen Nuts, the banner says. Kids being kids, trying to be outrageous for their class photo. Front and center is Sarah Wilson, dressed like a baby with her baby bottle.  The others I can’t really figure out. Behind Sarah is someone in what used to be called a “dunce” hat, which was sometimes used to humiliate misbehaving students. Oh, the psychological carnage inflicted in those days.  To left of the dunce, a student is very proud of whatever he (she?) is holding. Wish I could see it. I’ll bet it’s good.

Then there’s the fiddle player. Kind of looks like a girl to me. She’s holding the fiddle comfortably, knowingly, as if it’s more than just a prop. Like she’d be tearing into Turkey in the Straw at the square dance on Saturday night with her guitar playing father and banjo picking brother.  Her friends would think she’s odd and make fun of her.  Then, in her senior year, a new family from Huntington would move to town to help build the railroad. The oldest son, Harry, is Clara’s age. (Yes, her name is Clara. How do I know that? I’m a writer. I think Clara suits her.) The other kids don’t want much to do with Harry because he’s new and he comes from money. And then there’s Harry’s good looks. He’s just intimidating. Except Clara doesn’t care. He’s the new outsider. She’s been an outsider as long as she can remember.

There’s something about Clara. You can see it in the photo. Harry sees it. She’s no-nonsense. Straightforward. Not afraid to speak her mind.

“You play the violin very well,” he says.

“It’s a fiddle.”

“Yes, of course. I took piano lessons when I was young. Learned a little Brahms. Some Liszt.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Do you ever play any classical music?”

“I’m a fiddle player. I don’t care much about those guys.”

“Uh-huh.”

On the platform behind her, her father plays the first three chords of the next song.

“Got to go.”

She turns to take her place, fiddle under her chin.  She looks back.

“Can you dance?”

Before he can answer, she’s ripping off the intro to the next song, smiling at Harry.

.

Then again, it’s entirely possible that the person in the photo is a guy. But that’s another story.

 

Savannah

new york

you want to be
where the lights are so bright

where life lives on
through the night

and songs fill your heart
with delight

oh Savananh
is that where you’ve gone
my Savannah
i’ll see you at dawn

carolina

i know the sand
and the beaches call for you

the warm sunshine
and soft breezes, too

a time to reflect
and renew

oh Savananh
is that where you’ve gone
my Savannah
i’ll see you at dawn

i’ll pack my bags and be on my way
drive all night and into the day
grab some coffee, put gas in the car
if i could find out where you are

california

where dreamers go to find
what might be

and watch the sun set
by the sea

leave their troubles behind
and be free

oh Savananh
is that where you’ve gone
my Savannah
i’ll see you at dawn

i’ll pack my bags and be on my way
drive all night and into the day
grab some coffee, put gas in the car
if i could find out where you are


copyright 2017, joseph e bird

NPR – Station of Doom

Dear NPR:

A few years ago, you became my radio station of choice. I listen to all the great story-telling shows on Saturday. On Sunday afternoons, the cooking and travel shows fill the time as I drive through the mountains of West Virginia. I even dig most of the classical music shows. We have a local DJ, Matt Jackfert, who is always playing something interesting in the genre.

My job requires a lot of time in the car, and in the mornings, I usually tune to NPR to get news and commentary. I like the seriousness with which the news is presented and the absence of hyperbole from local radio personalities.

But here’s the thing: You’ve become sooo negative.

Nobody can do anything right. It seems like all your stories are about how somebody doesn’t get it, is incompetent, or just plain mean. If only everyone were as enlightened as the good, caring souls at NPR, what a better world we would live in. Yes, we need journalists to fact check and tell us the truth and I appreciate the work you do, but I can’t take it anymore.

I’ve found myself tuning in to the local commercial stations and enduring the screaming car dealers and the bad jokes and the shallow reporting just to get a break from the prophecy of doom that NPR is becoming.

Yeah, the world is a crazy place and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. But I need a break. So NPR, can you lighten up a bit? Please?

In his book, Chronicles, Bob Dylan was looking back at the 60s and all the analysis that went with the events that were changing the world.  He said this:

“All the news was bad. It was good that it didn’t have to be in your face all day.  Twenty-four-hour news coverage would have been a living hell.”

I can relate.

 

Run slow to run fast.

Runner athlete running on forest trail.

If you’re a runner, and you want to shave a few minutes off your 5k time, slow down. I know this is counterintuitive, but if you want to run fast on race day, slow down on your training runs. Take it easy. And those long runs you’ve been putting in on Sunday mornings don’t do you any good either. Sleep in. Save your energy. Then on race day, you’ll be fresh and run faster than you ever have before.

Train smart, not hard.

No, not really. I’m lying.

If you want to run fast, you have to train fast. Not everyday, but you’re going to have to run fartleks or intervals or speedwork at the track. And yes, you still have to get up early on weekends and put in the extra miles. That’s the truth, kiddos. It’s hard work to run fast. It’s no walk in the park. More like torture in 90 degree heat, lungs about to burst. Or slogging through the rain or fighting the wind. Aching legs that keep you up at night. Is it worth it all just to run fast?  That’s for you decide.

But if you want to be good at something, you have to train hard. There ain’t no shortcuts. And you have to want it pretty bad.


Photo credit: iStock Photography

How to win a Nobel Prize for Literature

In the early 1960s Bob Dylan heard Robert Johnson for the first time.

“From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up. The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window. When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor.”

In his book, Chronicles, Volume One, Dylan comes across not as a musical genius, but as a man who was always doubting, always searching, always trying, always learning. When the music of Robert Johnson shook his soul, he needed to know why. Dylan had this to say:

“I started meditating on the construction of the verses, seeing how different they were from Woody’s [folksinger Woody Guthrie]. Johnson’s words made my nerves quiver like piano wires.”

Of course there is some measure of genius in Dylan, but it wouldn’t have come forth had he just sat back and waited for inspiration. But he didn’t have to be told that creativity involves hard work, because part of the reward of being creative, is in the toil it takes to create.

“I copied Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and patterns, the construction of his old-style lines and the free association that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction – themes that flew through the air with the greatest of ease.”

And this:

“I didn’t have any of these dreams or thoughts but I was going to acquire them.”

And look where it took him.

 

Booger

There was little to talk about. All had been said in the days before, so they sat quietly and waited. Heather closed her eyes.

The double doors to the large room were in the back and had been propped open, so there was no tell-tale squeak that she might have otherwise heard.  The carpet muffled the footsteps that on hardwood or tile would have given notice as his worn cowboy boots clopped down the aisle. But as it was, she had no clue that anyone had entered the room, much less that he had managed to position himself just a few feet away, until she heard her father speak.

“Booger.”

She thought it was just an expression of frustration of some minor annoyance that had caught his attention. Maybe a button was loose on his suit jacket. Maybe one of the lights in the ceiling of the funeral home was burned out. Maybe he was just bored. She didn’t even open her eyes. Then the voice she didn’t know.

“Hey, Pops.”

He spoke in an energetic clip, combining the two words into one. By the time she opened her eyes he had slapped her father on the shoulder and was in the midst of a frenetic monologue that didn’t require any acknowledgement from George to keep going.

“You doing ok? Look at you in a suit. Beats that orange all to hell, don’t it. Me, I’m more country and western. Check this out.” He stuck his thumb in the gap of his shirt where the buttons usually are and pushed it toward George. “See them snaps? Mother of Pearl. Pretty slick, huh. That’s as bout as fancy as I’m going to get. Anyways, I got out a few days after you did and once I got settled down a bit, I wanted to look you up, make sure you was doing ok and all. I got a hold of your PO and she told me you was up here in Virginia and she told me all that happened and I came up here to tell you how sorry I was bout your boy. You was real good to me in lockup, Pops. Helped me keep my head on straight.”

“West Virginia.” She had been watching him, this ex-con, who was holding a new, stiff cowboy hat in his right hand and waving it as he spoke, as if he were trying to swat a fly. He seemed a little daft, this long-haired middle-aged man who hadn’t bothered to shave in at least a week, and she quickly surmised that he was very likely to return to lockup for getting in a bar fight or smoking weed on a street corner. Just didn’t seem all that bright. She looked back at the coffin in front of her.

“Beg pardon, ma’am?

“West Virginia, not Virginia.’

“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry. I never was very good with geography.”

“Hey, Booger, you going to preaching today?”

Booger turned back to her father.

“No, Pops. Ain’t no preaching today. It’s Tuesday.” Then to Heather, “He never could keep his days straight. Course that ain’t unusual in lockup. You tend to lose perspective, you know.”

“I suppose.”

one more moment

rain sunset 1 for web

In this time
just after dawn
I can smell the dew
lifted from the grass
by the early morning sun
as the birds call
to one another
and the cool air
moves across my face.

My coffee is never better
and the peace never so serene
and the problems so far away
in this time just after dawn.

Time is limited
and there are
words to write and
songs to sing and
work to do and
people to see so
I have to move
from here
and get about
the business
of getting about.

Even the robins will
fall silent
and the wind
will be still
and the grass
will dry
in the heat
of the day.

And the pavement
will burn
as the trucks
roll past
and the heels
will click
in the heat
of the day.

So one more
moment
in this time
just after dawn.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird

Mom and Pop

mom and pop

They were the definition of simple folk.

My grandfather, Justus Jennings Bird, died shortly after his 100th birthday.

His wife of 70-some years, Bettie Pearl, was 97 when she passed away.

I never knew my grandfather when he worked. By the time I was old enough to remember anything, he was retired and spent his time gardening. In the neighborhood, he was known as the man with the greenhouse. He would sell tomatoes and corn and green beans from his front yard in the shade of the tall oaks with the white-washed trunks. What he didn’t sell, Betty Pearl canned. They had home-grown vegetables all through the winter.

They had pride in their work.  Pop’s rows in the garden had to be straight. Mom’s apple pie crust had to be perfect. It was good, healthy pride, not like the kind in the Bible that makes you bad, to borrow a phrase from an Avett Brothers song.

Of course there was no social media in their day. They would have enjoyed seeing photos of their family, but there would have been no pics of prize-winning tomatoes, no snap-shot of the perfect pumpkin pie. They were appreciative if someone liked what they did, but it wasn’t why they did it. Pop liked to grow things. Mom liked to cook.

Simple folk. Simple ways. A lifetime of contentment.


Photo by Rick Lee.

 

You can call me Jim.

There are people I have known for years – no, make that decades – who have trouble remembering my name.  ”Hi, Bob,” someone will say.  No, Bob’s my uncle.  Or “Hey, Rob, are you back in town?” Well, you’re thinking of my cousin who lives in Florida. I’m Joe. I’ve been here all along.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called Jim. Yeah, Jim is close to Joe and it’s an understandable mistake for someone I don’t see very often. But time and time again I have to re-introduce myself to the same person who thinks they’ve never met me.

You could take the old Nat King Cole classic, Unforgettable, and change it to So Forgettable, that’s who I am.

I’m a quiet guy in person. I don’t stand out. I used to imagine that my laconic nature would be perceived as brooding and mysterious. But no, just boring.

I’m not very outgoing. I used to watch the way my mother could talk to anyone and have them laughing within minutes. Why couldn’t I be more like her? I’m better than I used to be, but I can’t help but to fall back into my loner tendencies.

I’m not one to shout about my beliefs and political leanings. I think such things are complex and multi-layered and don’t lend themselves to slogans or sound bites. If you want to have a long, serious conversation, I’m in. But of course, ain’t nobody got time for that.

I write stories. You like them? Cool. Not getting it? That’s ok.

I write poems. Dig the rhymes? Groovy. Free verse not you thing? NBD.

I write novels. Well, the truth here is that it seems that I’m the only one who gets something out of them.  That’s ok, too.

We all want to be known and appreciated. We want to know that our lives, our work, our being here, is meaningful in some way.

We cross paths with hundreds, probably thousands of people in our lifetimes. Some we know, some we don’t even catch their names. Some we see face to face, some we only see what they’ve done.

There’s a painting hanging on the wall of the pizzeria in South Hills by an artist whose name will never be known outside of her family. For a moment, it takes me to a different world, one that I wouldn’t know without her painting.

A fiddle player plays a mournful solo, for the moment upstaging the star, only to step back from the spotlight and return the glory to the charismatic singer.

An old man, who stops and looks inside every dumpster and eats at the church kitchens, whose clothes are dirty, nonetheless walks with dignity and greets you with a warm smile and an unashamed hello, and gives hope, that despite our circumstances, we can show love and respect.

So you can call me Jim. Maybe you’ll remember me, maybe you won’t. And maybe something I do will make a difference to someone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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