Fairly articulate mammal

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Time Travel Vision Quest Chapter Two

Time. It’s a tricky concept, huh? A moment ago I’d been standing at the edge of adventure, thinking about ritual, accomplishment, what our traditions mean, and, to be completely forthcoming, thinking about Lyric and if she might want to spend some time with me when we both got back. Now that moment—my very recent past—was  some unknown number of centuries in the future, and I was going to have to do some quick thinking about my situation. 

Step one was going to be to get to a safe place. Yeah, I know, pretty soon I was going to need water, food, some way to defend myself, all kinds of things, but it was almost dark, and the howls I had heard — oh crap, there they were again — told me that there was at least one species of deadly predator at large in the area. Everything but safety would have to wait. 

My first thought was to try to get a fire going, but I wasn’t very confident that I could make it happen under conditions this damp and this dark. So my next best bet was probably going to involve getting into a tree and moving high enough to get me out of range from these wolves. I found a small ash tree that was skinny enough for me to shimmy up a ways. I made it to a fairly sturdy branch, and moved out far enough to stretch up and out to reach a much sturdier branch on a bigger tree. Unless a bear or maybe a big cat came along, I was going to be okay. It was going to be a long night, but not a lethal one. Tomorrow I’d take a look around and see where and when I’d landed. Northern Europe? Canada? Had the American Revolution happened yet? Had the telephone been invented? The wheel? I wanted to know,  obviously, but it would have to wait. I got as comfortable as I could, pressed against the tree trunk, hoping I might drift a bit, maybe at least get some low-quality half-sleep before I had to face tomorrow.

And then I heard it. It was a voice. It was fairly close by and I was pretty certain that it belonged to a child. Therefore, that child was walking around at night in an area where I knew there were wolves prowling. Damn it! Remember a second or two ago when I was settling in for a luxurious night of shivering in a tree and trying to almost-sleep? That reality was gone. Time really is a tricky concept.

Making as little noise as possible, I eased down from the tree, and took a few tentative steps toward the voice I’d heard. I wasn’t hearing the wolves now, but that didn’t mean anything. The sky had cleared a little, and there was a three-quarter moon shining faintly through broken clouds, increasing my visibility some. Not much. Just ahead of me, I could hear footsteps, but the voice had stopped speaking.

Then the footsteps stopped. I could hear a rumbling growl just ahead, and was starting to imagine myself somehow saving the day and returning home in record time, having accomplished an amazing feat of straight-up heroism, when the seldom-heard-from practical voice in my head began to point out that I had no idea how to subdue a wolf or wolves in pursuit of an easy dinner. Just ahead, I could now see the silhouette of a boy, maybe ten or twelve years old.  I was about to speak, to shout out a warning, when I saw the wolf in a blur of motion, but not attacking the child. Nope. Sprinting directly towards me.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Time Travel Vision Quest, Chapter One

The soon-to-be-graduates of the initiation class had gathered at the lodge. 

Back when he was still alive, my father had talked a lot about the day I’d be here. “Burke,” he’d say, “life is full of adventures. We don’t always understand that fact as we’re going through something, but then we look back, and think, WOW, what an adventure that was! The initiation won’t be like that. When you’re old enough, that’s an adventure you will not fail to recognize. It’s amazing. I can’t wait to see you off, when the time comes, and to talk to you when you return.” But he hadn’t been there to see me off, and he wouldn’t be talking to me on my return. He’d died two years ago. He’d been quite an adventurer himself, and had lost his footing on a climb, and had a bad fall. I missed him all the time, but today it was a sharper feeling.

It was spring. The dogwood trees were exploding in blossoms. While Elder Pine was talking to the group of us, my attention would slip sometimes for a moment, but I was trying to focus, just in case any of this would be important to know when I got to the past. Whenever and wherever that was going to be.

“This concept is as old as human culture,” he was saying. “When the boy reaches a certain age — the age has varied somewhat across time and place, but for us it is 16 — it is time to become a man. Of course, we progressed as a species, and this long ago quit being gender-specific. The point is to mark the transition when you’re moving out of childhood and into maturity, to do this with a ritual or accomplishment or experience. You break the frame that holds the picture of your life as a child, so that you can form a new picture, so you’ll own your own life, to think of yourselves as, and for others to accept you as, adults.” 

I didn’t know if I’d ever think of myself as an adult. I’m the boy who is always lost in dreams and imagination, not the most analytical thinker, not the strongest, not the fastest. I’m the likeliest to see things in a weird way, to not be able to explain what I mean. Voted most likely to let my sentences trail off and then lapse into an awkward silence. The critics have spoken.
A hand went up. It was Lyric. 

“Why was it just boys, in so many cultures, for so long?”

“Because the assumption for girls was that they’d be taken as wives and would have children. Having a baby was the ritual for them.”

There was some uncomfortable laughter. He continued. 

“It was true for centuries, in many places, that fighting in a war, particularly killing another warrior, could serve as the ritual. But it has varied. For the Peyote Church of the Navajo, it was what they called a spirit walk, experiencing the world under the influence of a powerful hallucinogen. For a French villager in the Renaissance, it might have meant starting an apprenticeship. For an upper-class Brit in the 1800s, it could mean boarding school. For a 20th century suburban American, it meant a test to earn a license that would then allow you to pollute the atmosphere with a huge and dangerous motorized vehicle. From warfare to childbirth to mind-altering substances to privileges and tests, the core is the same: you return from the experience as someone with what the ancient Greeks called “arête,” meaning skillfulness and, importantly, the commitment to becoming skilled. Skill at a craft, skill at athletics, scholastics, the arts, skill at managing what life will throw at you … the important thing is the commitment to learn, to take responsibility for acquiring your own excellence. That foundation shows us that the true goal of developing arête is to become skilled in the art of living.”

I thought hard about all he’d said. He turned to look at the time circle, which had been lasered into a huge piece of granite. The earth had eroded away around it, so that it looked like a small rock dome that had risen from below ground. Like everything else in our lives, the time circle was powered by the sun, but there the similarity ended. None of our other tech collected energy from the sun at this magnitude, nor could it harness or release that energy in such an intense burst. Every year, a handful of our village’s boys and girls turned 16, and every year they each left on a Time Travel Vision Quest. It was the only thing the time travel technology could ever be used for.  Every year, most of the boys and girls came back as men and women, having developed sufficient arête to return. But every year, one or two vanished, never to be heard from again. Maybe they liked it where they went, and decided to stay.

“This brings us to now, “ Elder Pine said. “I have assigned you each a time and place, which you will learn presently.” He smiled. “It will emerge. You will deduce. You have said your goodbyes. Moving on, then, the first traveler is … Burke.” They all looked at me. I nodded, and stepped onto the dome. Immediately, there was a flash of light and a silence more complete than I had ever experienced. I felt an urgent pressing on my chest, simultaneous to a lightness in my head, and  then I lost consciousness. 

When I woke, I was freezing cold, wearing only jeans, boots, and light shirt, in a forest I had never seen before. Dark was falling, as was sleet. The shadow of night enveloped all I could see. I could hear the howling of wolves not far away. I kept imagining that there were eyes watching me, and maybe there were. I didn’t know when or where I was. The ritual was underway. My Time Travel Vision Quest had begun.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Time for Something New

Did you ever see that ABC documentary from the ‘90s, The Beatles Anthology? There are interviews with the surviving Beatles about various parts of their work and legacy, and at one point they’re asked about the sometimes-debated idea that a sprawling and adventurous double album of theirs — The Beatles (known by most of humanity as The White Album) — should instead have been released as a nothing-but-polished-diamonds single album.
McCartney’s rebuttal to this criticism is pretty funny: “Shut up! It’s the bloody Beatles White Album!” Heh. Well said, Sir Paul. But George's answer is better. He says, “What do you do when you’ve got all these songs and you want to get rid of them so you can do more songs?” The gist here is hey, it's about process. He’s saying, dude, we needed to get these songs out there, to make room in our hearts and heads for the new songs waiting to be written. Since George’s next batch of songs turned out to include “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something,” the only reasonable response to the point he’s making is “Yes, sir; point taken.”
I have a similar feeling these days. I’m on a little bit of a rollhaving just jump-started my creative battery by writing thirty poems in thirty days in April. Some of them were even pretty good. Still, it’s true, that I have felt a bit frustrated from having old work scattered here and there, unpublished or otherwise inaccessible, maybe in media formats that don’t exist anymore, like the cassette of kid’s songs I wrote in the early 90s? Some stuff feels likely to be lost, whereas I want it out there in the world!
Whether it’s ignored or enjoyed, I want to feel like I’ve published it (that is, made it public). I feel some loyalty to it, and some unsettledness that it didn’t quite get its moment, at least not sufficiently. That’s part of why I was so happy to have “Train I Ride (1953)” recently published online in the new issue of The Museum of Americana.
For those reasons, one of the things I want to do on this blog/portfolio site is to archiving some older work I don’t want lost.
In that spirit, here’s an educational video I wrote, explaining the concept of Fact Families. This was part of a math course by Ignitelearning! (I’m not being over-enthusiastic, btw, the exclamation point is part of the company’s name). This piece was animated by hotshot animator Don Smith, arranged and performed by Jason Molin, and produced by the omnicompetent Erich Pelletier. This was a period where my work was particularly fun, creative, and satisfying, not least because I was inspired by all the talent around me, so you’ll surely see a few more of these from time to time.
But back to my main point: let’s test George Harrison’s theory, shall we? By his logic, I should be ready to do some cool new work. I’ve just had a favorite old poem published. I’ve recently gotten to do a very fun performance of (mostly) older poems at the Austin Slam Anniversary show. Right here, and not long ago on facebook, I’ve linked to some fun old educational media pieces. Will it make room in my heart and head for something new? I mean, the name of this blog isn’t Jeff’s Back Pages. This is mostly about the next page!
Therefore: I hereby commit to posting something brand new, whether that’s prose fiction (a story or maybe even the start of a novel), poetry, or song. Something. New.
It’ll be published right here next Monday morning, same bat-time, same bat-channel.
It will not be something that’s already underway. It’ll be something I begin from scratch, starting pretty much as soon as I click the “make it so” button on this very blog post. So I’ll see you here next Monday with, um, something. New.