Prince: The Last Concert April 22, 2016Posted by markgeil in Music.
To be honest, Prince wasn’t really on my radar at the beginning of this month. I’d pull out an album every once in a while, revel in the music, and put him back on the shelf. Then, on March 30th, I was clearing out my junk email folder when a notice from the Fox Theatre here in Atlanta caught my eye. Prince was coming – wait, in a week? – and tickets were going on sale at noon that very day, not more than an hour away. I hopped on the theater’s site and found the date and times. I couldn’t find any prices, but I learned that there was a limit of two tickets per person, and they would only be available through will-call the day of the show. Prince wanted no scalping.
At a few minutes before noon, I refreshed the page, and saw a screen that said a few patrons at a time would be moved to the purchase page. When noon arrived, the page went blank and that swirly icon appeared, and moments later I was there. I chose the cheapest tickets, picked my seats, and just like that I was crossing an item off my bucket list that hadn’t even been on my bucket list a few days before. On the way home I stopped by a used CD store and found an album I didn’t already own: Emancipation. “Did you get tickets today?” asked the clerk. I was triumphant in reply.
Thursday April 7th arrived and I could scarcely contain my anticipation. I wore a purple shirt to work, fully aware that I was still a middle-aged white guy at an office job. My wife drove downtown mid-day, picked me up, and we went to the Fox to pick up our tickets. Everything was remarkably well organized. I found the table with the letters for my last name, sang “I’m going down to Alphabet Street” to myself, and picked up those two little pieces of cardstock that would soon become the souvenirs of a lifetime.
I went back to work, and two hours hadn’t passed before I got another email from the Fox. “It is with profound regrets that Prince has to postpone two shows scheduled for tonight at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia,” it said. “Both shows, scheduled at 7 and 10 PM, as part of his Piano & A Microphone Tour, will be postponed as the entertainer is battling the flu.” I called Amy, disappointed, and quipped that he’d probably reschedule when we had some other plans we couldn’t miss. The theater said our original tickets would still work, but also offered a full refund. Ha! (So much for no scalping, I thought.)
The weekend passed, and then on Monday I got the word that the show was rescheduled for that Thursday, exactly one week after the previous date. It was clear on our calendar. Just like that, I was back in anticipation mode, listening to Prince nonstop.
Since we already had our tickets, the Thursday redux started later. We were told that doors would open at six, so we grabbed a bite to eat and found that a long line had formed outside the Fox. We debated taking a downtown stroll but decided to just wait in line, finding our place just where the line curved around by North Avenue. There’s a palpable camaraderie before concerts – strangers bonded by at least one shared interest – but I’ve never felt it more strongly than I did that night. Age, culture, ethnicity… none of it mattered. That line of people was so relaxed and happy and helpful to one another I wondered if I was at church. Well, a weird church where people wear lots of sequins and platform shoes and lamé trench coats. The old concert t-shirts I saw were an archive of music history; I knew each was woven with a great story.
Moments after an advertising truck rode by blaring “1999”, we heard loud sirens, saw blue lights, and wondered if a wreck had occurred on busy Peachtree Street. Instead, we saw a motorcycle policeman, followed by two big black Escalades with limousine plates, and another motorcycle cop. Before I realized what I was watching, a tinted window lowered a bit and a hand emerged, waving at us. We’d just seen royalty. The coronation parade lasted all of 20 seconds, but our line was ebullient.
Riding the high that can really only come from seeing Prince’s hand, our line started moving. Snaking around the building, still ever-so-orderly, we made it inside. As we passed the merch table, Amy saw that look in my eye, that inner battle in which my selfish desire for an overpriced concert t-shirt battled against every frugal fiber of my being. Thirty-five dollars? For a t-shirt? “You get in line and get yourself a shirt,” Amy practically commanded. I love my wife.
There were only two such tables in the entire venue, each with foreboding signs declaring “NO MERCH SALES AFTER SHOW”, and only two poor souls working each, so here’s where things became far less orderly. I was reminded of that time I squeezed onto a rush hour train in Hong Kong, except that this was once again such a familial mosh pit that no one seemed to mind. Finally, I reached the front, shouted “Number 3, extra-large!” and waved my $35 cash to pretty much anyone who would take it, and walked away with my second souvenir of a lifetime. “Prince”, it read, “Piano & A Microphone”. It was adorned by the moon in various phases. “What’s with the moons?” someone in line had asked. “Who knows?” came the reply, “It’s Prince.” There you go.
I got my cardio in ascending the venerable staircase up, up to our seats and finally saw the stage. A few lit candle stands. A screen with kaleidoscopic projections. And, center stage, a piano and a microphone. A purple grand. It’s Prince.
Seven o’clock came and went. I wondered aloud to Amy if artists ever monitor the lines at merch and hold their start until most people find their seats. Now I wonder if Prince was mustering the energy to take the stage despite his apparently lingering illness. Instrumental music swelled from time to time, teasing, but then, finally, it was time. The stage filled with fog, and a purple spotlight from behind the scrim revealed an iconic silhouette, perhaps the single most iconic silhouette in all of music. The scrim ascended, and his royal highness strutted forward, scepter in hand. You know that song, “Let’s Go Crazy”? We went crazy.
Prince made a lap around the piano, leaned his scepter alongside it, and took his seat. He adjusted the microphone, readied his hands, and sang, with a knowing smile, “Guess I should have known by the way you parked your car sideways that it wouldn’t last.” We went nuts.
“Little Red Corvette melted into “Dirty Mind” and I thought of that ridiculous album cover and giggled. For all his musical genius Prince had some ridiculous album covers. (I just used the past tense, and that’s very sad.)
“Dirty Mind” melted into, of all things, “Linus and Lucy”, the Vince Guaraldi song from the Charlie Brown specials that my kids played at their piano recitals. And just like that, we were at a piano recital, but instead of a nervous third grader, this piano was being played by one of the most musically gifted individuals in modern times. Prince had always been an electric guitar guy to me, who also happened to be able to play just about anything else. But on this, his last night of music, he showed us that he understood the piano in ways that few do. As usual, he spoke rarely, but he did take some time to explain that his father taught him piano. Domestic images from “Purple Rain” sprung to mind, and then vanished when Prince started playing “Chopsticks”. Yes, that Chopsticks. But then, oh-so-effortlessly, he jammed. The Celebrated Chop Waltz was injected with funk, and though it never left its root melody it sprouted branches before our eyes. I marvel at Prince’s voice, but I realized in that moment what a gift it was just to sit and listen to him improvise an instrumental on piano.
A little while later, familiar chords emerged from that same piano, and Prince delivered a soul-stirring rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U”. I turned to my wife and whispered, “I’m so happy!” That one’s a piano ballad, but it was remarkable to see how other songs like “U Got the Look” and “Pop Life” took on entirely new meaning when Prince reimagined them on the sole instrument. I also realized at one point that I’d been to plenty of concerts during which the audience sings along with gusto, but I’d never been to one in which the audience sings along with gusto in falsetto. It’s an unusual sound!
About a dozen songs in, Prince played a Joni Mitchell cover, “A Case of You”. Afterwards, he walked off the stage. It wasn’t really encore time yet, so we wondered what was up. “Huh,” I said. “Well, it’s Prince.” A short while later he returned and said, “Sometimes I forget how emotional these songs can be.” Had Prince really left the stage to have a cry? I wouldn’t be too surprised. Now, though, I wonder. I wonder lots of things, and they make me sad.
Towards the end of the show, the real encores contained gems. I marveled when Prince covered “Heroes”, my favorite David Bowie song. Now I marvel that both are gone. I applauded when he played “Diamonds and Pearls”. Now I ponder the first line, that I heard him sing only a week ago. “This will be the day, that you will hear me say, that I will never run away.” We all applauded when he played “The Beautiful Ones”. Now I wince a little when I see the song on TV during round-the-clock showings of Purple Rain, and I hear “The beautiful ones, they hurt you every time.” As I write these lines, it’s almost midnight here in Atlanta, on April 21st, and it’s raining. It should be.
We ended with “Kiss” and Prince declaring that another family was waiting outside. He didn’t play “Purple Rain” for our 7:00 show, though he would later to close the 10:00 show. I honestly don’t think he had it in him to deliver it twice. He played from around seven until midnight, and his plane home had to make an emergency medical stop, and then I suppose he seemed fine, but apparently he was not.
I had posted a picture of the stage after our show, since no photos were allowed during the concert. Today, a new comment on the picture said that we had seen his last night of shows, ever. I assumed it was one of those silly social media falsehoods that get carried away. Later I learned it was true, and everything we witnessed last week took on a surreal quality. I recalled singing “Kiss” in my finest falsetto, with all my new family members, and that was memory enough. Now, though, I realied it was the last time Prince would ever play the song, so the memory is tinged with gravity and importance and, yes, sadness.
Now that I look back on last week, though, I’m not really sad. I’m grateful for what music can do, and what music was able to do in the hands of its gifted bearer.
Alight with Wonder September 27, 2013Posted by markgeil in Philosophical musings.
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I am working from home today, and I put aside a thesis to go and cull weeds from a disobedient front lawn. I have bare hands and bare feet. The sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy, and the cool late September breeze makes me breathe.
A hundred – a thousand? – little ants panic when I pull up their taproot home. A wedge of geese announce their fly-by with sharp honks that sound too much like fake goose honks to be real goose honks. A shadow catches my eye, dark before I see its maker, the brightest yellow butterfly, bumbling just past my ear.
I dirty my hands, and pretend for a moment that I’m not a soft city boy. There is soil under my fingernails, and my hands are spattered brown and red. Aged, like the leaves will soon be.
The world is alight with wonder. Creativity is under our feet and over our heads and, if we take the time to touch it, in our hands.
The North Carolina Keys September 13, 2013Posted by markgeil in Family.
Tags: beach, Family
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Our annual Geil family vacation was almost over. It had been a grand week at the beach. We had celebrated several birthdays, which called for regular visits to the Sweet Spot for ice cream. We had a windy late night walk on the pier, and on the way there we had occasion to introduce my youngest nieces to what they called “trespassing on people’s properties”, when you have to be very very quiet. We created a barely-floating flotilla, ambling down the intracoastal waterway when ocean riptides had closed the beach.
The beach is my favorite place. Each of my senses retains a tangible memory of that sacred place. My nose delights in that first moment when I roll down the car windows for an influx of salty air. My toes are happiest barefoot in the sand. My ears are tuned to the relentless frequency of noisy ocean waves. I listen to Jimmy Buffett songs just to make me miss the beach more when I’m back inland.
Holding a place in such esteem makes leaving it that much more difficult, and so the final clean-up and drive away day is usually more bitter than sweet. When we were little kids, we made a point of saying, “Bye, Beach House” every time we drove away toward home. But my visits were more frequent then, and each goodbye was sweetened by the promise of imminent return. Now, “Bye, Beach House” means a sad “See you next year.”
This year was worse, though. It’s bad enough to pack up from vacation and go home. It’s worse when you’ve lost your keys.
How cruel an irony it is to not want to leave a place and to spend your last moments there frantically searching for the very means to leave. And oh, did we search! I checked the usual places a dozen times. I retraced my steps from that morning, and the night before. I thought about when I had last driven. We were spread among two houses, so I went from one to the other, over and over. An hour passed. My frustration mounted.
I let a discouraged growl boil over as I drove someone else’s car, one more time, the couple of blocks from our little family house to the rental. But when I pulled in the driveway, the boiling stopped. I was deflated, released, by what I saw there beside the house.
My father and my brother were on their knees, surrounded by garbage. They were searching our trash, one bag at a time, for my keys, just in case they had accidentally been thrown away. I got out of the car and walked toward them, humbled and loved by their unsolicited act of service. I thanked them, and they both looked up with the same expression that conveyed, with no words, “No biggie. Just doing what we thought might help.”
As my eyes beheld those dear faces, my ears heard that sweet sound of ocean waves, crashing just beyond the dunes behind me. My nose caught a saline breeze. And I realized that I do not love the beach because of the sand, or the water, or the air. I love the beach because of my family.
Because my father, on his knees there before me in the filth, and my mother had decided decades ago to build a little beach house, one wall at a time, because they somehow knew their boys would love it there.
Because my brothers spent so many summers with me building sand castles and digging for clams and getting knocked over by waves. Because we grew up there, from chasing lizards to chasing girls. Because those boys did love it there, and without even trying, we loved each other there.
The beach is my favorite place because my family made it that way. While that same family, now multiplied in number, rallied around me in the search for the missing keys, I found them. They had accidentally been packed in a suitcase. Or maybe they had hidden there, because they wanted to stay a little longer.
Next time I walk on the concrete and wish it was sand, I’ll get the memory right. I used to equate images of the beach with erstwhile happiness, which is fine. Now I know that images of the beach mean a treasure chest of memories and new moments with my family, which means love.
Let there be light August 1, 2013Posted by markgeil in Academia, Philosophical musings.
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There are 12 light switches in the front of the lecture hall in which I taught this summer. They are rather Spartan, labeled with one of those clicky Dymo labelers like I had when I was a kid. But they’ve become metaphorical for me in a cheesy kind of way. Every Tuesday and Thursday for seven weeks I’ve turned them on, thinking about the so-called “light of knowledge” I have hoped to impart to these students.
Light is a powerful word. Darkness is the place of the unknown, where things are hidden that are probably scary. Light is revelation. In the light, our path is clear. The darkness, as Sting wrote in an old Police song, “makes me fumble for a key to a door that’s wide open.”
I have been teaching undergraduates for 16 years, long enough to become jaded and cynical. Though I am sometimes cynical I have lofty hopes for my students, every semester. I hope to inform their future careers, to get them to view the world a little differently, and, from the Pollyanna stronghold that lives in me, fighting the cynical self, I want them to enjoy learning, just for learning’s sake.
This summer’s class was Biomechanics. I told the students early on that they probably have an intuitive thinking about the subject, based on how it looks like the world works. So did Aristotle. But in the case of the laws that govern motion, at least, Aristotle was wrong. I told my students that I wanted them to stop thinking like Aristotle and start thinking like Newton. Along the way, some did. There were even singular moments of epiphany when a certain student would finally grasp a concept, when they seemed to enjoy learning.
Today I gave the final exam. I turned the lights on, distributed the exams, and took my lofty perch in front of the 70 seats. About an hour in, a few questions came, as they sometimes do. And I became disappointed, as I sometimes do. Seven weeks, and all those lectures and homeworks and review sessions and I still have students who don’t know the difference between mass and force. They leave me, unchanged, and I become cynical again. Two and a half hours after I had turned those 12 switches on, I turned them off again, frowning at the dark unknown.
Walking back to my office, I pondered blame. What could I have done differently to reach those students who learned so little? Or was it their fault for barely trying? Then I thought of myself as a learner instead of a teacher. I thought of all the lessons God wants to show me and the ways He wants to illuminate my darkness. He has beauty to show me, and mystery, and wonder. And I sit at the feet of the perfect teacher and I barely even try.
In a roundabout way, I’m inspired by my students’ failures. Certainly, I try to improve as a teacher. But I’m also motivated to learn! I want my own singular moments of epiphany in the lessons around me. I want to be changed. I want the light switches to stay on.
Fall semester is only two weeks away. Another 70 students await, for undergraduate biomechanics. And I will turn the lights on.
The Melancholy of Autumn October 29, 2012Posted by markgeil in Philosophical musings.
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The squirrels in our back yard are confused. Yesterday, I finished a major culling of vines, weeds, and the remnants of this year’s garden. My chainsaw broke twice slicing through vines as thick as my forearm, coiled around much thicker trees, and the squirrels’ playground is now sparse. I should probably burn the resulting tangles of vegetation, but I would certainly catch the trees on fire and probably a neighbor’s house, so instead I just made massive piles in our small woods.
Topping one of those piles is what’s left of our cherry tomato crop. Bright red tomatoes still cling to a few of the vines, even now on October 29, even as most of the leaves have withered. There are few spiritual metaphors mentioned as frequently as seeds and gardens and fruit, but as I pulled the roots from the ground and untangled the tendrils from the cages, I was struck by the wonder of it all, as if I’d never before seen a seed sprout.
We bought these tomato plants from a school fundraiser catalog, which is to say we paid about 500% more than they were worth. They were supposed to be those fancy, modern upside-down hanging plants. Apparently that only meant the packet of seeds was accompanied by a plastic bag with a rope attached to one end and some perforated holes. We had to supply the dirt, start the seeds indoors in small cups, fill the bags, punch out the holes, transplant the baby cup-plants into the bags, nurture them flat on a table outside, then, finally, hang them and watch them grow. We did all that, up until the final step, whereupon we did hang them and watch them die.
We had extra seeds, so we decided to plant a handful in the back yard near the deck. These, perhaps grateful to be in a proper, less modern environment, grew. We watered them, and fed them, and they kept growing, and dozens and dozens of little green tomatolings were born.
Though I do not actually like cherry tomatoes, I harvested our bumper crop throughout the summer, filling buckets and bowls every week. I even tried to make homemade salsa with the little buggers, but the product of the hours of effort wasn’t nearly as good as the free stuff at Moe’s. Eventually, vines overtook our deck, escaping their wire cages and crawling along chairs and walls. In the end, we had grown and eaten and given away so many cherry tomatoes that I was content, yesterday, to pull up the vines without even picking the last little late bloomers.
A bitter wind whistles now through that back yard, setting free showers of leaves that paint the ground sepia. They are leaves from trees that we planted, when the kids were young, or not yet born. They were willow oak saplings that fit in the trunk of Amy’s parents’ car, and now they are rooted, and stand taller than our house. And all around them is death.
The melancholy of Autumn is the part of the story that all the metaphors about seeds and gardens and fruit tend to ignore. The leaves whither and fall. The tomato plants die. One day, even those willow oaks will succumb to disease, or wind, or just plain old age. Yesterday, though, as I noted how little effort it took to pull those huge dying plants up out of the ground where we had so recently placed such tiny seeds, I realized it’s all a good thing. God could have made perpetual plants, forever fruit, but this death, this cycle, is a better way. For the sprouting of a seed and the bearing of fruit is a miracle glorious to behold, and we get to do it over and over again.
Creation is the lifeblood of the created, and to be flabbergasted by growth and bounty is a gift. To know that an end is inevitable is to appreciate the present, and to trust in the promise that the melancholy will make way for joy.
A Wren in the Hand is Worth Two… October 3, 2012Posted by markgeil in Music.
Tags: eric peters, Rich Mullins
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Two extraordinary songs, one simple bird:
“And the wrens have returned and they’re nesting
In the hollow of that oak where his heart once had been
And he lifts up his arms in a blessing for being born again”
– The Color Green, Rich Mullins, A Liturgy, A Legacy, and A Ragamuffin Band
“This is the year when laughter douses charred and burnt-out dreams
This is the year when wrens return to nest in storm-blown trees
Is this the year of relocation from boughs of old despair?
This is the year to perch on hope’s repair”
– The New Year, Eric Peters, Birds of Relocation
The former is the first song of the Liturgy section of what many consider Mullins’ finest album. Mullins lists 2 Chronicles 6:18 as scripture to accompany the song: “But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!”
The latter is the decisive arrival of hope and light in Peters’ brilliant account of despair and recovery. It praises a God who makes all things new, even things that seem beyond repair.
I assumed that Mullins’ wrens inspired Peters’, so I asked him. As it turns out, Peters did not (consciously, at least) recall The Color Green while writing The New Year. He had his own reasons for his wrens:
“It’s one syllable.” That was his first answer. He has a point. “This is the year when cardinals return to nest in storm-blown trees” doesn’t work at all.
But then he thought for a moment and added this:
“Also, I really like their song.”
The song of the wren is chirpy, staccato happiness. It makes the heart a little lighter. I’m glad it’s sung by a monosyllabic bird.
I read once that there are times when birds sing just because they want to. They have mating calls and warning calls and such, but there are also times when, apparently, birds sing for no apparent reason. Biologists might not understand why, but I do. If the rocks can cry out in praise, then surely the wren can sing a happy song for the Maker of Song.
I pray that I will never fail to marvel at the swaying arms of the oak, or the palette of colors with which God painted the sky and the fields, or the happy, hopeful song of the wren.
And when I need it, it’s good to know that the wrens have returned, and they’re nesting.
The Land of the Living September 24, 2012Posted by markgeil in Music, Philosophical musings.
[Upon returning from Hutchmoot, the annual gathering of folks from The Rabbit Room to celebrate music and writing and all things bright and beautiful.]
This guy named Andrew Peterson said this guy named Frederick Buechner said something that really resonated with me, that spoke to my eternal soul, but I can’t remember what it was.
The abundance of Hutchmoot means that words and moments of sublime wisdom fall all around me like shavings from a whittler’s knife, such that I forget more brilliance in one long weekend than I’ve remembered all year. I feel like Rich Mullins when he sang, “There’s so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see.”
My “dream session” happened on Saturday morning this year. The aforementioned Andrew Peterson, as gifted a singer-songwriter as I have known, and Ben Shive, who possesses a preternatural musical intellect, were discussing the life and music of the similarly aforementioned Rich Mullins, the name I fill in the blank beside “All-time favorite musician”. Stoked, I was.
At the appointed hour I made my official photographer rounds to each session and landed at Rich-fest. Which is to say I landed near Rich-fest. The little chapel room was full. The doorway was full. I was three-deep outside in the foyer, straining to listen. I actually cocked my head to one side like a curious dog hoping the scant soundwaves might better land in my ear.
What I heard was like the fragmented call of a one-bar cell phone. A couple of audible sentences would thrill me – this really was AP and Ben talking Rich! – and then the whole room would laugh warmly at a statement I did not hear. I heard the start of a discussion about the elusive lyrics of “Land of my Sojourn”, and then someone in the foyer ordered some sort of frothy coffee that made all kinds of noise.
Standing just outside the room, forlorn and frustrated, I was suddenly reminded of my place in this fallen world. I don’t intend to deify Andrew and Ben and Rich, but in that moment they represented a glimmer of the Divine. The conversation in that chapel was something I desired because it spoke, in my language, of the beauty and mystery of the Creator and His Heaven. And I couldn’t hear it all because of an untimely cappuccino. I was a Mullins mendicant wandering off toward a cathedral, aching for the glory inside, stuck at the door.
Then, someone left. And none of my fellow mendicants moved to claim the empty seat. So I did. I took my place inside, where I could hear every word. I was no longer an eavesdropper, but a participant. And then Ben started playing a familiar hammered dulcimer part on his keyboard, and Andrew sang, “Well the moon moved past Nebraska and spilled laughter on them cold Dakota hills.” And then my fellow participants and I started singing along, in that infinity-part harmony that only seems to happen at Hutchmoot. And I felt the thunder, and I saw the Lord take by its corners this old world, and He shook me free to run wild with the hope.
I am home now, and Hutchmoot is past. In some ways I’ve left the chapel again, and I am back in the foyer where cars are double-parked and noisy televisions make their political noise. But I have learned that though we toil on this side of Heaven until eternity, though we are soiled and temporal, the doors to glory are not barred. We might be butterflies, fluttering frantically amidst the fumes of a grimy gas station, but by the grace of God we are butterflies nonetheless, and loftier breezes and cleaner air are in our skies.
I am determined to seek the glorious, and to seek it often.
“I am certain that I will see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living.”
Pomp and Circumstance May 9, 2012Posted by markgeil in Family, Music.
Tags: Billy Joel, class of 2012, graduation
In a closet in our house hangs a funny square hat with a funny polyester gown, a strangely still pair in the midst of so much activity surrounding their imminent utility. Outside, the magnolias are finally blooming and the relative humidity inches ever higher, portending another steamy summer in the south. Springtime has yet to take her leave, but we know she will, just in time for a certain weekend at the end of May. Cue the pomp and circumstance. It’s graduation time.
Sarah Kate is 18 years old, our eldest daughter, the object of the impending festivities. As she struggles through her last papers and exams, she does so with a satisfying promise of finality, knowing these will be her last last papers and exams in high school. Nonetheless, she needs the grades as she’s leading a tight race for valedictorian. No rest for the weary, at least not yet.
Twenty three years ago, I was a senior in high school myself, pondering graduation and its manifold meanings. I had a soundtrack: a cassette tape of “Songs in the Attic” by Billy Joel. I got it by mail-order from the BMG Music Service in one of those “10 Cassettes for the Price of One” deals. I played it over and over again that Spring of 1989, thinking about the lyrics and their relevance to my evolving place in the world with a profundity that only a high school senior can muster.
My cassette tapes are long gone, most of them worn beyond usefulness, but just the other day I saw “Songs in the Attic” on CD in a bargain bin at a store. One listen, and oh, I’m that wide-eyed senior again! Here are a few words, then and now.
They say that these are not the best of times,
But they’re the only times I’ve ever known
And I believe there is a time for meditation
In cathedrals of our own
I discovered Charles Dickens in high school, my imagination lit with the opening words of “A Tale of Two Cities”: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Isn’t that true of the teenage years? Life is the see-saw that will never balance in the middle, forever swinging radically from one extreme to another. Like me, Sarah would testify that the best of times have outweighed the worst; we have been blessed. I still believe, though, that it’s that “time for meditation” that is so important. One cannot comprehend the 18 year old’s perspective on the world unless one is 18. I don’t think I can fully remember it; there was too much depth in that present reality. I think it must be captured, and that cannot happen without some time to pause in one’s own cathedral. I kept a journal in high school, to do just that. I typed it on an IBM PC, and stored it on a 5 ¼ inch floppy disk, since that computer didn’t even have a hard drive. Finally, my senior year, I printed the whole thing on a noisy dot matrix printer. It’s all gone now. The floppy failed, so the paper was all I had, and I don’t know what became of it. It would be an amusing read now, full of pretentious vocabulary and overblown sentiment. I would enjoy it, I think, and be embarrassed by it, I know, but it’s no great tragedy that it’s gone. It was catharsis at the time, so it served its purpose, and I think it was all very good writing practice for me. Granted, I’m still pretentious and overly sentimental, but I’d like to think I’m not quite as effusive as I was back then.
And as we stand upon the ledges of our lives
With our respective similarities,
It’s either sadness or euphoria
A ledge, indeed! We never moved when I was a kid. In fact, my folks still live in the same house in which I grew up. I had the room at the end of the hall upstairs. It had red shag carpet and a metal desk we obtained from an IBM surplus sale, where I did hours and hours of homework, even that senior year. It also held my prized possession, a Pioneer rack stereo system with a pair of 110-Watt speakers and a 5-disk CD changer that finally enabled me to cast those accursed cassette tapes aside. Since we never moved, the end of high school was probably the first major transition in my life. Now, here in Georgia, we’ve lived in the same house for over a dozen years, so Sarah has known similar stability. She, like me, stands upon a ledge. As I thought about the fates of my classmates, I liked Billy Joel’s polysyllabic wisdom about our “respective similarities”, the tenuous threads that ran through all of our stories. Sure, we had our cliques, our groups that grew into whatever label or stereotype they chose to define them. I knew it should be the other way around, but I had a cynical notion that there were few among us who really acted as individuals. We were not as different from one another as we though, I realized. Some peered over that ledge and felt the sadness associated with departure, with the closing of so rich a season. The same felt the euphoria of new opportunities, their first real independence, and a coming adventure. Others, I’m sure, flipped the emotions. High school had been euphoric, at times, but the future looked bleak. Regardless, I realize now how difficult it is to have any comprehension, as an 18-year-old, of what really lies ahead. And that’s great! What a joy to make your own way in the world, to test the faith that you hope will guide you, without the weight of preconceived notions.
So, before we end
And then begin
We’ll drink a toast to how it’s been
A few more hours to be complete
A few more nights in satin sheets
A few more times that I can say,
I’ve loved these days
I was a good kid in high school, and I did not drink any toasts or spend bon vivant nights on satin sheets. But I often thought myself older and more worldly than I was, so I pretended to identify with these lyrics. I would hear the lilting piano on my massive Pioneer speakers and nod, knowingly, picturing myself indulging in “things refined”. What a punk. I could, however, look back on my halcyon high school days and say with confidence that I loved them. I had the sorts of friends who would sit with me in the dark and listen to a Dire Straits album and ponder the meaning of life. I had a family who loved and supported me. I had summers at the beach, and a car with a sunroof. (Maybe I did indulge in things refined after all. I was still a punk, though.) And I had a girlfriend who would become my wife.
As a father who has fond memories of childhood, I want to engineer the same fond memories into my children’s lives. But I can’t. I can love and support, but I cannot get inside their heads and affect their sadnesses and euphorias. Thank goodness. What a responsibility that would be! All I can do, and all I hope I’ve done, is to be there, praying and encouraging and providing. Sarah’s off to college in August. It’s so soon! But, it’s time. It’s time for her to transition, to step into a great unknown and trust that her faith will guide her. I have every confidence that her future will be a success. However, that’s not what I’m thinking about right now. I’m thinking about what my life was like at her age, and what she must be thinking and feeling. And most of all I’m thinking about how I’m pretty sure she will find time in the next couple of weeks, before the funny square hat leaves the closet, to pause, and reflect, and declare, “I’ve loved these days.”
The View from my Window – a London essay February 28, 2012Posted by markgeil in Travel.
Tags: culture, London, roehampton university, travel
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There are no raindrops on my window, but there should be. It’s raining outside, and cold and windy, because this is London, and it’s February, and gentlemen need a good reason to wear a cap and a tweed waistcoat. Even without raindrops, though, my view is distorted by the ripples in that grand leaded glass that seems just right for a building like this, a building that’s 250 years old.
This is my office, for two weeks at least. There is a marble fireplace, and16 footceilings, and that stately window. Outside there’s a courtyard with an old clock that always reads one minute past two and dormant ivy scaling stone walls. And more stately windows, returning the gaze of my own, of capricious sizes that suggest floors between floors.
This was all built for some chap called the 2nd Earl of Bessborough because he needed somewhere to put his sculpture collection. Someday I shall commission a Palladian villa be built to accommodate by CD collection. Now, since it’s been taken over by Roehampton University, this old villa houses students and lecterns and books.
There are books in this office on shelves that no one could possibly reach without an extension ladder. There are books on anatomy and physiology, nutrition, training… and one at the end of a middle shelf called “Football: The Beautiful Game”.
I’m tucked into a corner desk among two other professors during my visit, working at a computer that feels so dissonant. Seems I should be sipping tea and reading Shakespeare or listening to Handel. Part of travel is testing the stereotypes, which is why travel is good for you. I love the fanciful notion of old Britain, and I always hope those stereotypes prove true. For this trip, so far, so good.
I flew directly over Ireland on the way here, but the Emerald Isle was safely sheltered under a thick canopy of clouds. Finally descending through the clouds, I saw old houses in rows with little gardens, soccer and rugby fields, and grasslands where royalty surely once hunted deer. I saw the River Thames, partitioned from above by bridges far more opulent than their utility ever demanded. It was all so very British. I was delighted.
On the way to customs, aboard the moving walkway, we proceeded past a wall-sized poster of a beefeater and I saw a little girl turn, salute, and declare “Hello Solider!” in the most charming British accent I’ve ever heard. On the ride from Heathrow to the campus I saw foreboding stone walls that once separated a convent from the rest of the world.
And then I saw my office, with its crooked floors and ancient character.
I used to imagine I would find a part of myself in England, a chunk of my true character inhibited by my New World environs. When I studied for a month at Oxford I threatened to buy myself a vestigial walking cane and embrace that inner Englishman. There I’d be, a pretentious young American with his walking cane and his pocket watch traipsing the cobbled streets and feeling quite at home.
I’ve come to realize that I’m no more British than I am Chinese, and that’s okay. One can appreciate, and even participate in, a culture without the need to feel any ownership of it. I think it might even be better that way. The need to intimately identify with a people or a place can set you up for disappointment when the connection is lacking, and that disappointment can be a robber of rich experiences. So now I happily fling myself into a culture with little regard to how removed I might be from it by station or history. And it is that new rich experience that affects and shapes me.
Oh, but I do love England! And every now and then I become utterly foolish and disingenuous and ask a question of a merchant in my fake British accent. I am content, though, without a walking cane, to traverse the cobbled streets and gaze out the stately window on a place that is not home, knowing what a great privilege it is just to visit.
London Wanderlust February 23, 2012Posted by markgeil in Travel.
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If “wanderlust” means the desire to explore, the motivation to discover new places, the inborn courage – or foolishness – that sees a long, winding, potentially interminable and misdirected path and says “let’s just see where this might take me”… well, then, I’ve got wanderlust. Naturally, then, when a student’s computer crashed and an afternoon Skype was cancelled, I had to scratch the itch of exploration.
There is a massive “Royal Park” adjacent to campus called Richmond Park. Hundreds of deer roam its confines, and they’re even celebrities now since appearing in a viral video starring a mischievous dog named Fenton. My free afternoon happened to be adorned by bright warm sunshine, so I picked up a weird British sandwich and some biscuits and decided to head out wandering.
They bought me an “A to Zed”, which is a handy book of maps, and I found Richmond Park, and noticed it’s adjacent to another massive greenspace called Wimbledon Common. Familiar with that name, I looked a little closer and sure enough, there was the “All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club”, right there on map 135. I really have no concept for how far things are on these maps, so I decided just to head in that direction and see if I could make it. Who knows, maybe there’d be a lovely game of croquet on.
I’ve learned over time that the danger of these journeys is encountering obstacles that aren’t really apparent on the map. I hit the first such barrier at Kingston Road, which is a really more of a highway, and not an easy one to cross! Parkland beckoned on the other side, so I dashed across, only to find the pedestrian subway that I should have taken after I crossed.
On my map the parks are covered in dotted lines representing paths, and I successfully navigated my way down a dotted line to the nearest landmark, the Wimbledon Windmill. I don’t know why there’s a windmill in the park. It wasn’t turning or anything. I could have learned all about it at the adjacent “Wimbledon Windmill Museum”, but the tennis courts beckoned, and daylight was fading fast. I crossed Wimbledon Common, hiking along at a steady clip and enjoying the fresh air, and then traversed a posh neighborhood that actually had detached houses, not the typical flats-in-rows. These had Porsches and such in front of them. I figured these were the sorts of places that the tennis stars rent out for the tournament. I also wondered if these homeowners despise the annual zoo of tournament time. I wanted to interview one, but none were out. Rounding Newstead Way I got my first glimpse of the familiar green and purple of Wimbledon, just down the hill. I had made it! It was actually a stunning view, because just above the roofline of Centre Court I could make out downtown London, and the London Eye in particular.
The museum had just closed for the day, so I could do little but lap the grounds and peer through each gate. I saw Courts 2 and 3 first. They are pristine. Good grief, even Court 8 is pristine!
Then I reached some excellent views of Centre Court, which is just massive. In a large room that was part of the complex I watch an unexpected event: hordes of boys and girls, all with numbers pinned to their shirts, trying out to be ball kids. They looked well-prepared as they executed a carefully choreographed dance of standing, running, and kneeling around a pretend tennis court.
I never could find Henman Hill, but I saw lots more beautiful grass courts, and even a handful of clay and hard courts. The sun was setting as I left the complex, and apparently there was no croquet happening, so I began the journey back.
As much as I am a fan of wandering I do not like backtracking, so I found new streets and new Porsches and a new entry into the park. And so it was that I was now in a heavily wooded area, with hardly any light, and an almost useless map, delightfully lost. I pointed myself in the general direction I thought I needed to go and chose paths accordingly, until I saw lights in the distance. Wouldn’t you know it, I was back at the windmill! Wrong dotted line, apparently. No worries, I thought, I’ll head west for a while, then north, and encounter all sorts of new things. And so, westward ho!
A sliver of moon was now visible, as was a bright star above the last hint of setting sun. I decided to make like a Magi (Magus?) and follow the star as best I could, since it marked the west. I soon found myself beside a small pond, and I stopped to watch the ducks and listen to all sorts of strange bird calls. It all started to take on a certain eeriness as the last light faded. Twisty trees loomed large, and little squirrels made a racket in the leaves much larger than their size would merit. And I was all alone.
I continued hiking, feeling a lot like the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings book I’m reading right now, and wondering if Tolkien ever hiked a similar wood here in England. I reached a fork in my chosen path, and my star was right in the middle. The rightward path “felt” better, as did a left fork when the path split again. And then I noticed a curious row of small trees that seemed to form a gate where my path crossed. I wasn’t sure, but it almost looked like the trees formed a large circle, and I paused for the briefest moment at the threshold.
In the distance, at what might be the center of this circle of trees, I thought I could make out some sort of bench or monument. As I got closer, I could tell that it was indeed a monument, and my gaze followed it up, up, and I gasped. I was standing beneath a massive stone cross.
I hadn’t seen it as I approached, either because I was watching the ground or because it was too dark. There was a sword on the cross, and inscriptions around the base. The side I had approached read:
“Nature provides the best monument. The perfecting of the work must be left to the gentle hand of time, but each returning Spring will bring a fresh tribute to those whom it desired to keep in everlasting remembrance.”
Circling the stone, I better understood, reading this:
“The land around, 42 acres, is dedicated to public use in memory of all those who, having been resident or belonging to the families resident in the adjoining districts, gave their lives in the Great War, 1914-1918.”
Once I finally made it home and studied the map a bit I learned that I had inadvertently crossed into Putney Vale and chanced upon the War Memorial, erected in 1920, and the Memorial Gardens. In so doing I fortunately missed a very large Cemetery and Crematorium, which might have been too creepy for even me to bear on such a dark and lonely night.
I’ve whispered a prayer of thanks to God for sending me along the way of the cross. I set out to find tennis courts, and instead I encountered a stirring reminder of the living God in cold stone. I am far from home, and alone, but the Ancient of Days is living and moving.