Ernie and the Tiger’s Eye

Between the ages of 6 and 9, I lived in a small, remote farming town in the desert/agriculture side of Washington State. The sign as you entered Prosser proudly proclaimed that it was a friendly town with friendly people.

One day I hatched a scheme to scare up some additional pocket money for penny candy at Bonanza 88. I and my best friend Jasmine would draw pictures and go door to door selling them. Now keep in mind that my art skills then were roughly as good as my art skills now. Which is to say that I still can’t draw worth a darn. In a flurry of activity we drew 15 or 20 artistic renderings with crayon on pieces of paper. Then, methodically, went door to door across the whole block – we two little girls.

I’m guessing we failed to ask permission on that one.

Happily, this story does not end up with years going to therapy or my body in a ditch or anything. We had a perfectly lovely time. Some people weren’t home. I have in my memory the face of an immigrant family, completely bewildered by this underage door-to-door salesmanship. Two of the houses I remember particularly. One of them was white, and had snap-dragons lining the walkway. I paused on my way up to make them snap. At home was a grandmother-type, by herself. She had a blue cut glass bowl of ribbon candy – old and sticky – on her table. We stayed quite a while there. I believe she had popsicles. I’m sure she rounded up quarter for us, so we left her house satisfied entrepreneurs.

The last house we left was only three or four doors down from my house. It was blue – a slate blue – with a red door. It was a two story house – unusual in our land-abundant, ranch-heavy town. I suspect it was one of the oldest houses in town. In it was Ernie. Ernie and I formed a strong friendship. He was very old – I believe he was a WWI vet. And his house was filled with all manner of fascinating things. Ernie never moved from his chair between the front door and the kitchen, but he knew exactly where every single object in his house was. Jasmine came with me that first time, but I went back by myself many times.

Ernie’s basement was a hall of wonders. There were mounted heads on plaques. He had a hand-turned crank that lit a light. There were cupboards and drawers and cubbies – all neat and organized and lovely and full of nifty things. Ernie must have delighted to play the classic old guy trick of giving me a tiger’s-eye and telling me I had to keep it with me at all times to fend off tigers, and going on about how well it had worked for him. If I headed up the stairs to the now-still bedrooms, there were daintier things telling of a bygone time when daughters and wives had populated the house. My favorite, on the stairs, was a popup book of gnomes. When you pulled the handles, all manner of funny (and scandalously inappropriate to my mind then) things would happen. Ernie would send me on a quest to a particular room, and have me either look at something there or bring it back to him. Then he would tell me stories about it.

I suspect that Ernie lived an accomplished and interesting life, of which I saw the briefest pages. I’ve loved old codgers my entire life, since I was a young girl, and Ernie was the finest vintage of old codger. I do not remember saying goodbye to him. I wonder if I disappeared? If I told him I was leaving? If I just stopped coming? If, perhaps, he didn’t answer his door one day? I don’t know, and will likely never find out.


Of course, this idyllic turn of entrepreneurial zest somehow did not meet with maternal approval after I got home with five quarters and a bunch of stories. I was *supposed* to be playing at Jasmine’s house, not wandering the block as an itinerant artist. My ear was mightily bent on the topic of “talking to strangers”. (“But mom! He’s not a stranger now!”) But I was chastened, at least temporarily.

Thus it was when, a week later, I seriously hurt myself a mile away from home while with my sister, I walked that entire mile – bloody, with gravel deeply embedded in face, hands and knees – turning down all offers of assistance from kindly grownups who offered to call my mom, explaining through pouring tears that “I’m not allowed to talk to strangers or go into their houses.”

You may all take a moment, friends, to have great pity on my mother.

Faure’s Requiem and Mull of Kintyre

It’s a rainy day here, and that has doubtless informed my music-while-coding choices. I have a playlist on my iPod built from pretty much all the music I loved and listened to over and over again before I graduated from college. That was back when you could only listen to music that was either played on radio, or which you had purchased (or painstakingly bootlegged). This playlist is heavy on the King Singer’s, Peter, Paul and Mary, Faure’s Requiem, “The Civil War” by Ken Burns, Handel’s Water Music and “All the Best From Scotland vol. 2” which is quite possibly the high point of Celtic music ever. Or, more likely, just a trip back in memory lane for me.

I’m sometimes still amazed at just how the music can bring me back to who I was. Each piece is precious in its evocation of a prior me — the child who gazed out the window of her home at tall mountains and dreamed dreams and for whom the world was a simpler place. I’m not surer that all the lessons I have learned since are well learned, or even true. While perhaps the possibilities of magic I learned from Tolkein and Lewis have never been my lot, I’m not so sure that the lessons of CNN and NPR aren’t just as skewed towards the venal, frustrating and cruel. The kindness and exultation of humanity are not news items.

I feel lucky that I have such a consistent and kind way to reach back to who I was and what I felt. I can’t be that person again, but I can remember what it was like to be 12 and in love with magic, mystery and music.

I remember weeping from the beauty of the cello in “Watching the White Wheat”. I had the Canadian Brass version of Pachabel’s “Canon in D” on constant loop on my fidgety portable CD Player as we drove past the ancient winding rivers of Yellowstone — and possibly that was the moment I truly and finally fell in love with my trumpet. We drove across the Missouri river in the dead of night on an impossibly high bridge, my father, brother and I, listening to the Kingston Trio’s lament on the same theme. Lying in my bed with the rhythm of the rain tapping on my windowpane, I longed to assure Paul Simon that by no means did his words “Tear and bend to rhyme”. In one of the last moments of my childhood, driving through a late spring snowstorm coming out of Missoula Montana listening to Therese Shroeder-Sheker’s Geography of the Soul, which would be the theme music of my thesis-writing, and falling in love as thick snowflakes drifted past dark pines on an impossibly distant road.

There is so much beauty there, in those memories.

For someone to whom music is so important, and reaches so deeply, I often feel like I have not maintained my connection. Sure, in the last few years I’ve added in Folk Rock in the form of Steeleye Span. There’s Kate Rusby, who’s released the same album about 4 times. (Or maybe they just all sound the same.) There’s Madeleine Payreoux. I’ve made a few forays which I haven’t ended up loving, as well. It seems like one more way where I am starving my soul of the nutrition it so desperately needs, through my own neglect. But I hardly know where to start, or how.

There is one completely new form/kind of music I’ve fallen head-over-heels for this year, though. It’s so new to me I’m not even entirely sure what genre it falls into. The music is from Symphony of Science

I like the beat. And for me, listening to what I listen to, Auto tune is actually new and exciting. (I KNOW I KNOW!) But what I really, really, really like about this is the poetry and optimism. I’m pretty sure that generally this would be called techno or electronica, but is it standard for techno/electronica to be cheery, uplifting and speak towards the hopeful future of our species? And there is no genre designation for “Good lyrics/uplifting”. So given that I have downloaded/purchased all their existing albums, help me oh great internet. Who else out there is doing this? Is anyone setting poetry to this kind of beat? The good stuff, too. Is there a Donne/techno or a Spenser/electronica? Is there a fantastic lyricist I should track down? How do I expand this newfound fondness of mine? Or, as I fear, is Symphony of Science a unique exemplar of it’s kind?