Best of Fish & Bicycles: Lyric of the Day: Rise To Me

Originally Published: April 18, 2011


Well, for the third Lyric of the Day installment in a row, the theme that grabbed me is Love.

The source of today’s lyric, Rise To Me, from The Decemberists‘ most recent album, The King Is Dead, is just about the most beautiful song I’ve heard in a long, long time. From a musical perspective alone, the song has a lovely, simple chord progression and verse-chorus-verse-chorus-etc. composition; and the arrangement, rooted in acoustic guitar, piano, harmonica, Chris Funk‘s gorgeous, pining pedal steel guitar, and Gillian Welch‘s perfectly placed harmony vocals, provides a lush canvass for Colin Meloy‘s characteristically poetic lyrics.

So, let’s dig into those lyrics and see what’s going on here. I think you’ll agree that Rise To Me is a very powerful expression of love.

Big mountain, wide river
There’s an ancient pull
These tree trunks, these stream beds
Leave our bellies full

In this first verse, Meloy sets up an image of a maternal natural world that lovingly sustains us. And while the mountain is big and the river wide, the first chorus that follows speaks of challenges and threats.

They sing out:
I am gonna stand my ground
You rise to me and I’ll blow you down
I am gonna stand my ground
You rise to me and I’ll blow you down

The photo I’ve included above seemed to capture something of nature’s stubborn determination to stand fast in the face of challenges. While the tree may have been shaped by the wind and receding glaciers may have moved those boulders around tens of thousands of years ago, the boulders now seem unmovable, the tree still stands, green with life, and the green grass, too, seems to have decided that it will stick around as well.

With this image of steadfastness established, Meloy turns to the subject of his son Henry, who has high-functioning autism.

Hey Henry can you hear me?
Let me see those eyes
This distance between us
Can seem a mountain size

As a father of a son myself, this is the part of the song that first caught my attention. There may be nothing more painful, emotionally, than to witness your child suffer, and so it’s only natural that a parent, out of pure, primal love, might desire that their child learn from the example set by the unyielding force of nature in the first verse, so that he may be as prepared as possible for the many challenges that life will bring.

But boy:
You are gonna stand your ground
They rise to you, you blow them down
Let me see you stand your ground
If they rise to you, you blow them down

Finally, Meloy adresses his wife, wishing for her the same kind of strength and resiliency. And I can’t help speculating that there’s recognition here too that the strain of raising a child with autism can lead to strain in their marriage, and that on top of all the usual challenges most couples face, there’s hope that their relationship can stand firm.

My darling, my sweetheart
I am in your sway
To cold climes comes springtime
So let me hear you say

My love:
I am gonna stand my ground
They rise to me and I’ll blow them down
I am gonna stand my ground
They rise to me and I’ll blow them down

Reminds me, in a beautiful way, of a line from the famous sonnet:

[Love] looks on tempests and is never shaken

–William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

Anyway, enough analysis. Here’s the band, sans Gillian Welch unfortunately, performing Rise To Me live.

Best of Fish & Bicycles: In Defense of Moss

Originally Published: April 20, 2011


I don’t know whether it’s thrilling or depressing that some local news made it on the front page (albeit below the fold) in the National Edition of the New York Times today.

On one hand, it was exciting to see a beautiful photo of the lush green moss that is so prevalent here and that I love so much, and I thought the front page headline was cute:

Nature’s Wall-To-Wall Carpet

But then, here’s the headline of the story on Page A-13:

Poor Season for Sunshine Is Great One for Spores

What a frickin’ let down!

Sure, New York Times, rub it in our faces that this has been, so far, the coldest April on record here in Western Washington, remind us that it snowed just six days ago, and refer to my beloved moss diminutively as spores.

That’s.Just.Cruel.

There are some things that I never get tired of living here in the Pacific Northwest. No matter how many times I see a Bald Eagle soaring overhead, or the towering western red cedar or Douglas fir, or the jagged snow-covered peaks of the Cascade Mountains, I’m always enthralled.

Well, the same goes for nature’s wall-to-wall carpet — moss — an astounding 700 varieties of which, as I mentioned back in June 2010, grow in our Olympic National Park. Whenever I’m out on the trail and I see the green stuff covering trees and rocks, softening the rough edges, I can’t resist the urge to reach out and lay my hand on it, or in the case of a large patch on the ground, to lay my body down upon it. Every year, I notice that more of my lawn is being consumed by moss, and I look eagerly forward to when there is no grass left at all.

And yet, as if we needed any more rain, the Times rains on my mossy parade by focusing mostly on people who are busy trying to reduce or rid their environment of moss.

Hmmmm. Maybe the New York Times 20-article diet isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Best of Fish & Bicycles: Happy Old Decade

Originally Published: December 31, 2009


numbers
Listen, I’m not a Left Brain person. When I look at bank statements, Excel spreadsheets, those huge lighted signs at the airport showing flight numbers and departure and arrival times, my head goes all fuzzy, like it’s filled with cotton balls, my eyes cross, and the numbers seem float up from the surface and scramble. (I wouldn’t call it dyslexia, though, because I got an A in Statistics at Rutgers in 1988. Chuckle, chuckle.)

Anyway, if it weren’t frustrating enough to do things like payroll at work or balancing a checkbook, there’s the whole numbers and time and calendars thing, which Wikipedia attempts to make clear:

The Julian calendar was used in Europe at the beginning of the millennium, and all countries that once used the Julian calendar had adopted the Gregorian calendar by the end of it. So the end date is always calculated according to the Gregorian calendar, but the beginning date is usually according to the Julian calendar (or occasionally the Proleptic Gregorian calendar).

Crystal clear, huh?

As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading all these Best Of lists, not just for 2009, but also lists of what folks consider the Best Of the first decade of the 21st Century.

And as I think about this, my Right Brain orientation doesn’t want to trust my subordinate Left Brain when it screams out that it’s a bit premature to declare an end to the first decade of the 21st Century.

I’m reminded of similar brain hemisphere confusion in the run-up to January 1, 2000. The Y2K Bug hype was in the air and much of the world seemed determined to celebrate the coming of 2000 as the beginning of the Second Millennium. After all, 2000 is such a nice round number, isn’t it? It’s just so Second Millennium-ish!

And yet, if you ask an astrophysicist at NASA, well, it’s not.

Question: I’m 17 years old. I’d like to know when the new millennium starts. Isn’t it Jan 1st, 2001? Why do people get excited about 2000 then? How can I explain this to my friends? Please help.

Answer: You are right that the millennium starts on Jan 1st 2001. There is no year zero, so the first millennium started on January 1, 1 C.E., the day after December 31, 1 B.C.E. The first millennium ended 1000 years later, on the night of Dec 31, 1000/morning of Jan 1, 1001, and the second millennium ends 1000 years after that, on Dec 31 2000/Jan 1 2001.

The main reason people will celebrate the millennium on the night of Dec. 31 1999 is to hold big parties, and to hold them a year sooner than they would otherwise. I expect that, around February, 2000, people will start coming around to the belief that the millennium does indeed start with 2001, and plan their next party accordingly.

By the same highly educated reasoning, this would mean that the first decade of the 21st Century doesn’t end until January 1, 2011.

And so, while I’m happy to have evidence that I can still manage to utilize both sides of my brain, I still intend to party tonight like it’s 2011.

Happy New Year!
Happy Old Decade!

Best of Fish & Bicycles: Consider The Bald Eagle

Originally Published: January 5, 2011


The current surge of anti-government sentiment in the U.S. — the government is too big, too intrusive, markets should be totally free from government regulation, there should be little or no taxes, etc. — amazes me on so many levels, and today I came across an article that really highlights the folly of those attitudes.

The ideas that Americans don’t need the government telling them what they can and can’t do, and that anything the government does the private sector can do better, really don’t square with what usually happens when American behavior goes unchecked.

Case in point: The Bald Eagle.

Designated as the U.S. national symbol in 1782, included in the Great Seal of the United States, the Seal of the President of the United States, and on much of our currency, you’d think the country actually cared deeply about the animal and its wellbeing.

Well, as it turns out, no. Left to their own devices, the American people, through hunting, habitat destruction, and pesticide use nearly drove the Bald Eagle to extinction in the lower 48.

According to Wikipedia:

It is estimated that in the early 18th century, the Bald Eagle population was 300,000–500,000, but by the 1950s there were only 412 nesting pairs in the 48 contiguous states of the US.

It took the government stepping in — declaring the Bald Eagle an endangered species in 1967 and banning the pesticide DDT in 1972 — to keep the country from destroying its own mascot.

Now, I live in eagle country, and knew about the dramatic recovery of the population here, and with friends in Maine knew about a similar success story there, but now this:

But even the most optimistic could never have predicted the resiliency of the birds and the ferocity of their comeback. In Iowa, hopeful environmentalists set a goal of 10 or 20 nests by 2010. But exponential population growth took the Department of Wildlife by surprise. Last year, federal staffers lost count at 254 nests, nearly as many as once existed in the entire continental U.S. The bird left the Endangered Species List in 2007.

Iowa?! I didn’t even know there were ever Bald Eagles in Iowa!

Governments, historically, are never perfect and frequently the opposite, but what we need is better governors not less government. And since we are our own governors, it’s up to us.

Best of Fish & Bicycles: Portlandia: Why Am I So Defensive?

Originally Published: January 20, 2011


Listen, I don’t even watch TV, except the occasional episode via Hulu.

But, when a new series comes along set right here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s impossible to not hear about it, and when everyone around me is talking about this great new thing, I have to admit that I invariably cave and at least check it out. (Sometimes it sticks and I’m hooked: 30 Rock. Sometimes it doesn’t: Modern Family.)

Anyway….(geez! sometimes I even get tired of how long I take to get to the point)…I’ve now watched the inaugural episode of the new comedy series Portlandia, starring SNL’s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein of Wild Flag and Sleater-Kinney fame, which is set…painfully obvious…in Portland, Oregon, and while I laughed heartily throughout, I had a curious delayed reaction.

This morning, Salon has an article posted titled Can The Left Laugh At Itself?, and the premise of the article is summed up nicely at the very end:

Armisen and Browstein’s masterstroke is showing how certain flavors of modern leftist sensitivity/engagement can seem (to outsiders) like passive-aggressive self-absorption laced with contempt for the unenlightened.

Now, I can get behind the value of an ego check for us well-meaning lefties, and I realize that the best comedy makes us laugh when we recognize peculiarities, not just of others, but of ourselves.

However, I have to say that I did find my defenses rearing up as I watched the show and read reviews that applaud the lampooning of the left. I very clearly saw aspects of myself in the show’s characters, folks who are earnestly trying to be part of the solution rather than the problem, by buying local, buying organic, eschewing their cars in favor of bicycles and transit, challenging our culture’s tendency towards homogenization by exercising their right to adopt an alternative, non-9-to-5-ladder-climbing lifestyle, etc. In my mind, we need more people like this, and if we are marginalized we’re in deep trouble.

Hilariously, the Salon writer has me pegged:

The series rather pointedly teases a core section of IFC’s audience — a portion that will watch Armisen and Brownstein’s antics very closely, with an eye for accuracy, and then either roar with recognition and approval, or go on the Internet immediately and write a blog entry about how “Portlandia” doesn’t get Portland, or Oregon, or feminist bookstores or urban bike culture.

Now, I laughed a lot as I watched the show, and I’ve watched the clip of just the opening song, The Dream of the 90s Is Alive In Portland, numerous times because it’s so freaking funny, so it doesn’t seem like my sense of humor is lacking.

Rather, it’s impossible for me, a 46-year old lefty, to watch Portlandia and not think about how soundly the 60s counterculture had its ass kicked by anti-hippie backlash, by many in the movement hypocritically transforming from hippie into yuppie, and how lefties are still so easily marginalized and dismissed by the right simply by calling them liberals.

Additionally, it seems all the more concerning to me that, in the case of Portlandia, young artists like Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, who have both been part of the counterculture dream of the 90s, might be contributing to their own marginalization, rather than letting the right do all the work.

So, I’ll definitely be watching more episodes, and I’d really love to hear what other lefties think about the mixed feelings I’ve expressed here. I mean, I’m always open to good reasons to lighten up.

In the meantime, I think I’ll watch the video of that opening song one more time.

Best of Fish & Bicycles: Video Fridays: Andrew Bird

Originally Published: June 6, 2010


I first heard Andrew Bird on NPR over a year ago, and I was struck by how beautiful his music is, how refreshing it was to hear whistling and a plucked violin.

But after the NPR piece was over and my life reclaimed my attention I forgot about Andrew Bird, until, thankfully, a student employee I supervise mentioned how his favorite Pandora station is built on Andrew Bird.

Wow. The guy is a true mad genius.

In today’s Video Fridays installment, Andrew builds a song with a violin, guitar, whistling, and vocals using a loop machine in a stunning one-man-band performance.

Enjoy!

Best of Fish & Bicycles: A Rock & Roll Elder’s Beginner’s Mind

Originally Published: September 21, 2010


Like most guys of my generation, I spent a considerable portion of my youth listening to Led Zeppelin. I didn’t really have a choice. I had an ear for music and I had testosterone.

Now, all these years later, I’m a 45-year old frustrated musician, harboring a dream to be in a performing band, having worked at the guitar for over 20 years, particularly over the past 5 years, and yet I can’t seem to find bandmates. My recent Craigslist ad, the language for which I crafted over several weeks, yielded not one response. For the first time in years, I walk past my guitar these days, sitting on its stand, and I don’t feel an intense magnetic pull. I’ve started to question whether or not I should even bother. Perhaps, I think to myself, I should just settle for the occasional jam session that I attend, or the occasional campfire that I strum and sing around.

But then, last night, I heard a delightful interview with Robert Plant on NPR, and I was particularly struck by this exchange (my emphasis in bold):

Melissa Block: Do you think that you started thinking of your voice, maybe, as an instrument, in the way that Jimmie Page’s guitar was an instrument in Zeppelin?

Robert Plant:Yeah, it was a thing to play off of, definitely. But, it’s a weird thing to do, because the voice doesn’t have that kind of flexibility. I wanted my voice to be a tenor sax, really. I wanted to be Coleman Hawkins. I wanted to be Dexter Gordon. I just think that certain instruments have so much more chance of following the electric charges in your mind. When you’re listening to people play the post-bebop stuff, you can hear this great instrumentation. But for a singer, you’ve got to work with syllables; you’ve got to work with themes and lyric. I’ve got to learn to play something soon.

Sure, a cynic could write this off as a kind of faux humility that comes with the privilege of being a superstar. Certainly, Plant doesn’t have to learn to play an instrument. He’s set for life.

But for some reason, his comment struck me as a genuine expression of Shoshin, the Zen Buddhist concept of Beginner’s Mind. As Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki said: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

There’s a film I saw in 2002 titled Fierce Grace, a documentary about Ram Dass. The film is part biography and part exploration of Dass’ experience of a massive stroke he had suffered. Near the beginning of the film, Dass explains that when the stroke hit he was struck by how he — a world famous spiritual teacher, a former Harvard professor and devoted student of Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba — at a moment of being very close to death had no connection to spirit, had no spiritual thoughts whatsoever, that as he laid there all he noticed were the pipes on the ceiling above, and he thought to himself: I have some work to do. (You can see this very moving scene, as well as the entire film, split up into nine parts, on YouTube.)

And when I think about the writing of my Craigslist ad, I realize that it was written from an expert’s frame of mind. Of course I’m no true expert at anything, and yet, as I was writing the ad, I was thinking of my musicianship as having achieved a degree of expertise and that I required bandmates to have an equal degree of expertise or higher. While there’s a fairly thoughtful and practical motivation behind that approach – to filter out musicians who won’t be very compatible with me due to their lack of experience, thereby saving their time and mine – I can’t help wonder whether or not this expert mind energetically turned off potential bandmates.

Maybe, like Ram Dass, I have more work to do. Perhaps I should take some lessons, to finally learn all those alternate chord forms that I’ve coveted for so many years.

It could be fun to be a beginner again!

Best of Fish & Bicycles: There Goes The Neighborhood!

Originally Published: August 5, 2010


No, the following headline is NOT from The Onion:

IHOP mascot Suzie Pancake assaulted at Bellingham restaurant

BELLINGHAM – IHOP’s mascot Suzie Pancake was assaulted by a bystander at about 3 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3, outside of the restaurant at 3619 Byron St., according to Bellingham police.

A 19-year-old woman dressed in the pancake suit was outside the IHOP, waving at passers-by, when 22-year-old James Manas approached her and began yelling at her and hitting the suit with his hand, Bellingham Police spokesman Mark Young said.

A passer-by stopped Manas as he tried to hit her again; Manas then walked to a nearby bus stop, said Young.

Disturbing. I know. It’s the kind of thing you never think will happen in your town. It’s so A Clockwork Orange!

It’s funny, right after I read this story in the Bellingham Herald this morning, I started to take off on my bicycle for work and found that our car, which we park on the street in front of the house, had had both front windows wide open all night. Truth is, this is a common occurrence, arguably foolish complacence for sure, but crime is, fortunately, incredibly rare in our neighborhood.

Question is: Now that Suzie Pancake has been assaulted here in Bellingham, will all that change? I mean, what’s next? Will Ronald McDonald go on a crazed vigilante binge seeking revenge on Suzie’s behalf?

Best of Fish & Bicycles: The Fragile Male Self

Originally Published: August 10, 2010


A couple of weeks ago, our cat came scurrying into the house from the backyard, with this in her mouth:

I know. Before you’re able to settle into how cute the baby squirrel is, you find that it’s actually kinda painful to look at. How vulnerable. How fragile?!

And, it’s one thing to just look at the photo, another entirely when you need to figure out what to do with the poor little thing.

No, it wasn’t dead. The eyes, like those of other baby mammals, hadn’t opened yet. As far as I could tell, the cat had not injured the tiny squirrelet, and it didn’t seem, however skinny it appeared, to be particularly weak, as it squirmed around considerably, repeatedly wresting itself from the hand towel I tried to wrap it in to keep it warm.

I couldn’t return it to its nest, or whatever you call it, because I had no idea where that might be. And even if I could, I remember reading somewhere that the mother will reject the baby if she detects a human scent, and I rushed to hold the baby in my hands to keep it warm, because I read somewhere else that this would prevent the animal from going into shock.

Thank goodness for the NW Wildlife Rehabilitation Center! I called at 5pm and they were open until 8pm. Awesome! They were a 30-minute drive out Mt. Baker Highway, but they told me it’s baby squirrel season, they have 6 others from the past week, and they have a very good success rate rehabbing them and releasing them out in the wild.


As I’ve mentioned before, I have a 12-year old son, and there’s no one who looks at him, either in repose or while rock climbing or skimboarding or etc., and thinks he’s fragile in any way.

According to Michael Gurian, however, author of A Fine Young Man: What Parents, Mentors, and Educators Can Do to Shape Adolescent Boys into Exceptional Men, nothing could be further from the truth. Through review of extensive research and research of his own, Gurian presents conclusive evidence that, while boys outwardly exhibit bravado and toughness, contrary to sexist stereotypes that women are the weaker sex boys are actually more mentally and emotionally fragile than girls.

It’s this disconnect between what boys feel they need to be and who they are that makes the time of adolescence so incredibly difficult for them, and I certainly see my son struggling with that all the time.

Now, don’t think for a second that there’s a simple solution. You don’t just coddle and tell your son, “Honey, you don’t have to pretend.” Some of the posturing they do, Gurian suggests, is actually healthy and it’s a matter of finding a positive outlet for it, through sports or other male activities.

Anyway, there’s much more to it than that, and there’s much more to my son for sure.

(Oh, by the way, the little squirrelet was a boy and he’s doing very well.)

Best of Fish & Bicycles: Hot Metal Action

Originally Published: May 24, 2010





This past Saturday, the family unit and I attended what may be the coolest event in a town that has a thing for cool events.

The Welding Rodeo, held at Bellingham Technical College, is, if anything, a celebration of creativity. For I would wager that most people, when they think of art, don’t think of suede-clad teams of individuals wearing masks and wielding sledge hammers and welders. The Welding Rodeo shatters the cliché of the beret-wearing, palette-holding intellectual, dabbing oil paint delicately at a canvas with sable brushes.

Think of it this way: In high school, you’d usually have no problem distinguishing between the kids in metal shop and the kids in life drawing, the former destined for an auto repair shop, the latter for an art gallery. No such segregation at the Welding Rodeo.

The event’s format is simple. Teams of four have eight hours to fabricate a metal sculpture using only the scrap metal available to them at the 8am scrap dive:





The teams retreat to their booths with their materials and go to work, sparks and hammers a-flyin’.





Slowly but surely, the sculptures start to take shape, all of them, in some way, representing the theme chosen ahead of time. This year’s theme: Human Form.





One of the teams has traveled to the Welding Rodeo five years in a row…

…from Denmark!

A bonus for the day: anyone who wanted to try welding could sign a waiver and get a taste for the metal-on-metal action. Here’s my son Julian going for it:





These few photos really can’t do the event justice, so you either need to come to the rodeo next year or check out the extensive photo galleries they already have posted.