Fireflies

Church at twilight with invisible fireflies.A few weeks ago I met a friend for an after-work drink and a burger in Friendship Heights. We had a nice time; Jake’s is a good place, and the conversation was lively, with lots of laughter.

Around twilight I walked her back to her nearby home. The sidewalk was canopied by trees that blocked the first few drops of a light rain, emphasizing the sparkles of a scattering of fireflies in the shadows, and across the lawn of the church.

Under the trees, several fireflies drifted into my path, occasionally even hovering in front of me. While we stopped to look at them, I held out my hand, palm down. One of them flew toward me, alighting on my hand. It extended its wings a few times, then settled down. As we resumed walking, it stayed in place, randomly flaring into yellow-green light. We were both amazed that it was so comfortable riding along with me.

We left the canopy of trees, and I blew gently across my hand, sending him flashing back to join his friends in the night. The rain picked up a bit as we approached her house, so I said goodnight and turned back the way I came.

My spirits were high as I strolled along the sidewalk, pausing under the leafy canopy to watch the rain. I knew it was going to rain harder, but I didn’t want to hurry. A little rain wasn’t going to hurt me, and it was too pleasant an evening to ruin by dashing across rain-slick streets. I drew a few odd looks from couples huddled under their rainbow umbrellas, but I didn’t care.

Most of the fireflies moved out of the drizzle and back under the trees. It felt good to see their lights, reminding me of my childhood and evenings spent chasing lightning bugs across my grandparents’ yard. A Miracle Whip jar waited on the porch, holes considerately punched in the lid with a screwdriver, furnished with a handful of grass to provide them with the comforts of home. Before morning, of course, any captives would have vanished; I have always suspected my grandmother was complicit in their daring escapes.

As my thoughts drifted along the years, I held out my hand again, checking to see if the friendly insect wanted to accompany me on my return stroll. I was a bit surprised when one landed, but even more surprised when another soon joined the first. I raised my right hand, and soon there were five, blinking intermittently on the backs of my hands, advertising my presence.

I was afraid to move — almost afraid to breathe, lest I break the oddly tranquil spell. The analytic portion of my mind wondered what might be on my skin that would prove irresistible to fireflies; the mystic portion considered sympathetic magic and wondered if my reflective mood was drawing fireflies from my past. I watched them crawl across my skin for several minutes, thinking.

The weather stepped up from evening shower to minor rainstorm, and the trees stopped providing any shelter. At the same time I remembered a need for a grocery visit on the way home, and decided that I didn’t want to wander through the frozen food aisle soaked to the skin. I lifted my arms, and watched the fireflies lift off, flying into the foliage overhead.

A couple of nights ago I saw a scattering of lightning bugs in my yard. I thought of Kentucky, and mayo jars, and long-past mercies. I also thought about a twilight moment under the trees in front of a church in DC. There’s magic in our childhood memories, of course, but there’s also magic in our everyday lives.

Why Hallowe'en?

Hallowe’en is my most important holiday. I am not a pagan, born-again or otherwise, although I have nothing against members of those ancient and venerable (or new-age and invented) orders. However, my sentiment has nothing to do with any religion, organized or not, so we can safely leave those discussions out of this particular story. No, my love of All Hallows Eve is a little more personal.

When I was a child, Christmas was fun. Not having been raised in a very religious atmosphere, it was primarily a season of visiting relatives, eating cookies and candy, playing in snow, and getting presents. We followed many of the same rituals as other families of our class and background: enormous Christmas trees, house lights, waking bleary-eyed parents at 6:00am to see what Santa had left (even though we would always peek in the doorway while Daddy struggled with his 8mm movie camera), and all the rest. But, it was, in a way, too ritualized. We knew all the moves ahead of time; only the specific details changed from year to year.

The Fourth of July offered its own type of excitement, too, with firecrackers, bottle rockets, and bar-be-ques. The thrill was spiked a bit whenever we would visit my grandparents, because Grandpa Palmer had a small cannon he would load with black powder and shredded newspaper to show up all the other kids. That was always pretty neat, though in retrospect, I’m not sure why. It just made a tremendously loud BANG, and that was it. Just a little confetti drifting down afterwards.

But Hallowe’en was always different. For one, I had influence on it. You see, my mother was a frustrated artist, who lived for the opportunity to use her skills. Holidays were always been the best time for this. At Christmas, we had a tree-full of hand-made ornaments; there were intricately decorated cookies to eat; on our lawn painted plywood Peanuts characters acted out the end of that perennial TV favorite, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Easter brought heaping baskets of candy, and tons of elaborately decorated eggs. But Hallowe’en brought costumes! And, I got to choose what type.

Vintage Hallowe'en postcard

Every year we would begin a ritual. My mother would ask me what kind of a costume I wanted, and I would go crazy trying to decide. As do most young boys, I had an intense monster fetish. Wolfman, Frankenstein (it wasn’t until years later that I discovered that Franky was the doctor, not the monster), Dracula, various ghosts, witch doctors, alien creatures, and other mind-numbing horrors were considered each year, but only one could be chosen. Ah, the exquisite agony of decision!

Eventually, often with Mama’s prompting, I would decide. Then my mother would begin the arduous process of getting a boy with little concept of how these things work to sit still for several fittings, and assist in the choice of colors for the mask which I would wear to complete the disguise. This was not a simple process at all, for Mama’s artistic ingenuity knew no bounds. As an example, one year, I was to be a Witch Doctor. A tight-fitting chocolate brown costume was made, along with a grass skirt and an over-sized paper maché mask. But, for the finishing touch, she put some chicken bones in vinegar for weeks, to make them soft and rubbery, then strung them together into a necklace. It was perfect. (Politically correct, it was not, and I admit to a certain horror at the memory now. But those were less enlightened times.)

Then the fun would begin. Back in those simpler days, before the rules of fun were written by toy manufacturers, there were always costume parties in school. I don’t think that I won any, because there were always richer kids who could have professional costumes made. But the other kids always thought my costumes were the coolest, making it one of the few times that I was accepted by my peers. A Sav-mart Spider-man costume with a flimsy plastic mask just didn’t cut it next to my silver and blue alien jumpsuit and helmet, or a glow-in-the-dark Green Ghost costume.

And then, the ultimate event, the High Mass of All Hallow’s Eve: Trick-Or-Treating. We would begin the preparations shortly after dark, with my father putting a bowl of candy inside by the front door, for those other “lost souls” who might come by. My brother and I had, by this time, been forced to eat dinner. Our diet for the next few days would consist largely of Three Musketeers, Butterfingers, and Atomic Fireballs, so I suppose it was a last meal, of sorts. Afterwards we would whine and beg and be generally irritating until we would be allowed to get into costume for the evening’s performance. After a final checking over of all scare-systems, we would be off.

We would travel in packs, with several other neighborhood kids. The fathers would travel discreetly behind, even then, often carrying empty highball glasses for their own “treats” at discerning homes. We would run wild, carrying on like the madmen and ghouls we represented, but still finding time to stop at every house for a hearty cry of “TRICK OR TREAT!” It was rare that we would ever even consider a trick, because everyone knew the rules: if you give the kids candy, then they have a good time; if you don’t, they’ll be confused at the break from tradition, and call you stupid names. After a few hours, though, we would have gone as far as our fathers’ legs could carry them, and they would herd us toward home, where two final rituals awaited.

The first was the checking of the count. Why it was first begun, I’m not sure, probably idle curiosity, but my mother counted every single trick-or-treater who came to the door, and dutifully reported to my father as to their number. (In later years, this became a sad barometer of how effectively the true monsters were killing this holiday, as the numbers dwindled down from hundreds, to tens, to less than ten). The second arcane rite was the dividing of the spoils, my brother and I each pouring the contents of our brightly smiling plastic jack o’lanterns into carefully distinct piles on the floor. With a fervor which would make a futures trader proud, we would bid and barter to get the candy we wanted, and stick the other with the undesirable black licorice bits and stale popcorn balls. My mother went through the heaps first, though, as the concept of razor blades in apples, though quaint by today’s standards, was the real menace then. Funny how no-one thought that the holiday needed to be banned then; parents just protected their children by going through the bag before the kids ate anything.

Then, sugar-stuffed and bone-tired, we would complain and head off to bed. I would usually try to stay awake for a while, thinking of ghoulish and ghastly things. But, inevitably, sleep would come, bringing with it the threat of another ordinary day tomorrow — a threat that was always carried out.

Vintage Hallowe'en postcard

But all these childhood memories are just part of the reason. Besides the personal considerations, to my mind Hallowe’en fills a very real need in the world: it is the only holiday glorifying the imagination. Ghoulies and ghosties scare us because we can imagine them; we can cut two holes in a sheet and become a lost soul, or don a set of plastic fangs and become the lord of the undead; we can tell and re-tell dark tales and revel in the crawling of gooseflesh. No other holiday even pays lip service to the wonders of the creative spirit. Other holidays may have their charms, but their primary purpose is the celebration of tradition, containing little room for anything more than habit.

The very soul of All Hallow’s Eve is mystery. Christmas is still, at heart, Christmas. The Fourth of July is part of the past, relived once a year. The Easter story has been told, and is fixed and unchanging, likewise with most holidays. But, Hallowe’en is new and frightening every time. There are always new stories to tell on Hallowe’en, tales which have never been told before.

And, it encompasses so very much. Christians, spiritualists, and atheists alike can share this occasion. Anyone must still see the need for the ability to see what is not there, or what might yet come to be. How else can great inventions be conceived, or great books written? All that separates man from other life on the planet is his imagination. Isn’t that worthy of celebration?

I suppose that in the end, Hallowe’en is religious for me. I have my rituals: carved pumpkins, candy, scary stories told in the dark. I have my traditions and gospels as well, when I sit in the dark and tell the story of the Haunted Elevator, or remember the costumes my mother used to make for me. On Hallowe’en I celebrate all the wonders of the limitless human imagination.

[First published in Ambergris From Leviathan Hallowe’en Special, October 1989]

Musical Evolution: 1

Music surrounds us every day, and yet so often it’s little more than noise, a background hum behind our shopping experiences. I’ve never been able to cheapen it like that; music deserves our attention, not our nonchalance. I know this puts me at odds with most other people, but that’s a familiar position for me.

I was recently “tagged” to participate in one of those Facebook shticks, the kind where the respondent writes a themed list of some kind and then asks a group of their friends to do the same. This particular shtick asks you to list the twenty albums which have had the greatest impact on their life; the catch is that you are to take no more than twenty minutes to compile your list. Two different friends asked me to participate, so I opened the ancient hi-fi hutch in the living room of my memory and rifled through the contents.

As I jotted down the names, I decided that this could be a more interesting exercise than most of these shared ideas. My musical evolution really does reflect my own personal development, more than many people, I’d guess. It may also give some clues as to why I ended up being so— difficult. However, quite a few of these require a bit of explanation, either to who the artist is at all, or as to why this particular recording shaped my growth. Not wanted to choke anyone with an enormous and frightening block of text, I have broken it into two sections; part two will be published this evening.

In (very) roughly chronological order, here is part one.

  1. The Royal Guardsmen: Snoopy vs the Red Baron — The first record in my earliest memories, this locked in an early love for novelty records. As one of my first exposures to recorded music, I hadn’t yet learned that music was serious and life-changing business, and not intended to be funny. The lyrics to the title song and many others are indelibly burned into my mind, meaning that they make occasional and often inappropriate appearances. (To my surprise, it turns out they are from Ocala, and are touring this year.)
  2. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass: Whipped Cream and Other Delights — The sassy brass and catchy tunes caught my ear; it wasn’t until later than I found myself drooling over— er, admiring the album cover. The quirky pop horns and exotic marimba captured my imagination, and probably pushed me toward learning to play an instrument, too. It also stretched my Kentucky-born horizons a bit, introducing me (indirectly) to sounds from other countries.
  3. Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison — My parents really liked Johnny Cash, and I’m glad of it. Even though I was too young to understand the lyrics, the music, the timbre of his voice, and the general style struck a chord in me. I was singing “I know I can’t be free” back when the worst punishment I’d endured was being sent to my room (although when you are a kid that does feel like prison, I admit). Still, I knew that man with the gravelly voice didn’t care for doing what people said he ought to do, and how could a guy with a voice like that be wrong?
  4. Disneyland Records: Thrilling, Chilling Sounds of the Haunted House — I have loved Hallowe’en as far back as I can remember, so this isn’t much of a surprise. One side was made up entirely of creepy sound effects, although they weren’t really all that scary, even when you are seven years old. The b-side, however, was a series of stories told in sound, with just a few words to introduce each tale. With my  imagination set free I scared the crap out of myself, over and over again. Listen to a quick clip here.
  5. Chicago Transit Authority: Chicago Transit Authority — When I was in middle school the concert band had an arrangement of a song called “25 or 6 to 4.” It was fun to play, mainly because the trombones got to play the opening bass line. Being rather musically sheltered, though, I knew nothing of pop music, and had no idea it was something you could hear on the radio. This album, heard at the house of a friend, became my introduction to rock music, leading me to erroneously believe that all rock and roll had a horn section. While I didn’t get my own copy of the album until a few years later, I probably wore out my friend’s copy.
  6. Herbie Hancock: Head Hunters — This was the first album I ever bought, courtesy of the Columbia Record Club. By this time I’d been playing trombone for several years, and music had become my sole focus in life, jazz in particular. Still, nothing I’d listened to at school could prepare me for the dark and glistening fusion tones of this recording. The free-form recombination of  jazz, rock, R&B, and (then-new) electronic synthesizers opened my mind to the idea of a world without genres, where all that mattered was the sound. The bass riff behind “Chameleon” remains one of the funkiest grooves of all time.
  7. Maynard Ferguson: MF Horn 4 & 5, Live at Jimmy’s — By the time I was in high school I was fascinated by jazz, and an early favorite was the big band of Maynard Ferguson, a trumpeter known for his enormous range and willingness to cover pop songs. His over the top and completely bombastic arrangement of the generally reviled Richard Harris ballad, “Mac Arthur Park,” was amazing, boosting the pretentiousness of the original to wall-of-sound power. Once again the crossing of genres pulled me right in, and even today, “Mac Arthur Park” remains a favorite song. (Yes, I will admit that.)
  8. Don Ellis: Live at Monterey— It’s hard to underestimate the impact of hearing Ellis’ big band for the first time. Here was a jazz trumpet player who was writing hellishly difficult charts in non-standard rhythms, using non-standard tuning, and with non-standard instrumentation, and swinging like a classic jazz band. The song “3 3 2 2 2 1 2 2 2” — the title reflecting the subdivisions of the 19/4 meter as played by the triple upright basses — worked into my brain and broke something in a good way. The blend of east and west, jazz and classical, acoustic and electric showed me that you can respect your roots and still go somewhere no one’s ever been before.
  9. John Williams: Star Wars — I saw the film on opening day, after having been tantalized by a full-page newspaper ad weeks before it opened. From the moment the film began I knew I was going to love it; by the time it ended I knew I would see it again, and did, at the very next show. It was the first time I’d ever really been swept up in the score for a film, becoming aware of how the music subtly (and not so subtly) reinforced the film’s themes. I bought the album as soon as I found it, and played it all summer long.
  10. Blood, Sweat & Tears: Greatest Hits — “Spinning Wheel.” “Lucretia MacEvil.” “And When I Die.” “God Bless the Child.” I spent a lot of time analyzing this album, mimicking David Clayton Thomas’ blues-tinged vocals with growls on my trombone, and then sitting down with paper to pick out and transcribe the horn lines. Through this I came to understand what an arranger does, and how many other people contribute to any project’s success, often without any recognition. It didn’t seem fair to me. Frankly, it still doesn’t.

As I mentioned, part two will be published tonight. In the interim, if you have any comments or questions, or want to share some of your own albums, please leave a comment.

A time long ago

I came across this photo at my father’s house. This is your vaguely humble author and his parents in the late fall of 1960, somewhere in either Illinois of Kentucky. Consider yourselves fortunate I didn’t publish the bearskin rug photo.