A song of Roland

Imagine my surprise when I looked in my email and saw a word of the day for “roland”. I instantly knew where it came from, naturally. I’d just read the Song of Roland recently, and loved it. Fighting the Moorish pagans, splitting shields and heads with swords, long white flowing beards, that last desperate blast on the trumpet (far too late, of course) — how can you not love it? The Song of Roland proves that the French knew how to fight — at one time, anyway. Those long white flowing beards inspired me to try and grow a beard on vacation recently. I won’t be sharing a picture of the results, but suffice it to say mine was neither long, nor white, nor flowing. (More like patchy, and scratchy, and wife-and-child-repelling.) Mountjoy!  
  • Orlando's Column (Roland's Column)

    Orlando’s Column (Roland’s Column)

    with Anu Garg


    noun: Someone who is an equal match for another. Typically used in the expression “to give a Roland for an Oliver” meaning “to give as good as one gets” (tit for tat).
    After Roland, the legendary hero of the 11/12th century epic poem “Chanson de Roland” (Song of Roland). His tale was inspired by Charlemagne’s nephew and military leader. Oliver was friends with Roland and his equal. They fought each other but neither won. Earliest documented use: 1525. A related word is rounceval.
    “My little lord, who was surrounded by savage women, poor thing, had the immense satisfaction of giving a Roland for an Oliver to an especially obnoxious young twit.”
    Samara Al-Darraji; Eclipse; PublishAmerica; 2005.

Guilt Theater

It was a masterful piece of guilt theater, you have to admit

— I held out just long enough before I cracked;

I gave just the right weight to the confession,

spent just enough time on obfuscations and denials.


You threw in a few unexpected twists, but I handled them adroitly —

no stranger to this performance.


Next time it’s your turn.


Each of us is always performing,

whether we mean to or not.

We can’t help it.


Not acting is the worst acting of all.


Know your role, play it to the hilt,

or you may find there is no one behind the mask you wear.




Are you quieter when you walk sideways?
Do people hear you less?
Do you make less noise? 

Many's the time I've slipped sideways through people's society -- 
like slipping through their houses when
there was no house
in broad daylight
unseen, unknown, unheard

like a noiseless ghost whose story no one knows -- 
- or ever bothered to ask.


Call me maybe…

Of all the things to get stuck in my head…

I know this is a two year old song by now, but it’s still great. I ran across this the other day when looking for the clip of the Afghan Whigs on Jimmy Fallon, which apparently has been taken down — but I think that’s another story. I much prefer this version to the official music video, which actually kinda gets on my nerves. The official video buries the fun and the melodicism of the song, and Fallon and the Roots (how do you get the Roots to be your house band, anyway?) uncover it again here. The lyrics are simple and fun — not overdone, they perfectly capture the rush of a crush just starting out. The classroom instruments lend this version an innate innocence, sunniness, and optimism that fits perfectly with the song, and I guess you could say with first love itself. It just proves again that it’s not what you play, it’s how you play it. Who would have thought that little plastic instruments could produce such a magical sound? They sound like a marching band whose color guard is made up of unicorns with rainbows for tails doing backflips over the band, for crying out loud. Impossible not to smile when you hear this. Remember about eight years ago or so, when every pop song sounded like a marching band? Yeah, I liked that, because I’d been in a marching band in high school that was pretty awesome. Good memories brought back by that sound. Classroom instruments aren’t quite it, but they can be close, especially when played by someone who knows what they’re doing — and the Roots & Fallon do.

I don’t think I’d heard of Carly Rae Jepsen before this, or if I had, it hadn’t really registered. She’s Canadian, apparently, and did pretty well on a reality talent show up there, which is how she got her start. Not my type, but if I were in high school, maybe she would be. She looks like she’s having fun in the video, which is the important thing. I like how she tosses her shaggy hair back and forth, and how her voice soars above the ruckus of the toy instruments on the chorus. I also like how nobody is sure what’s going on right before they start — everybody is giving everybody else the side eye while Fallon fiddles with the backing click-track thinger. ?uestlove also sticks the kazoo back into his mouth backwards after the whistle break, which is kinda fun. Certainly not one of the greatest moments in Western art music, but hey, everybody needs something fun every now and then, right? Play as many times as you need to feel good — I think I’m on #45. (I lost track.) Anyway, enjoy the song.

I Think I Know…. (One Good Paragraph #6)

I’m rereading Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I’m getting more out of it this time around. I’m working on being more intentional about my writing, and I dig Rilke’s direction and guidance. Reading his letters is like talking with an older and wiser friend. The other day this paragraph jumped out at me:

There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge. [emphasis original]

I like this. It makes sense. I tend to want to be a serious person, and this feels fitting — like if something matters that much to me, I should make sure to build my life around it. Really, when I think about it, I’m already most of the way there to an answer. I always have a notebook (or two, or three…) with me at all times. I love words, I love language, and I know that’s where my gifts lie. I’m just now getting back to that, when I used to engage in it more often when I was younger. It’s been years since I wrote a story — at least since high school — but I realize that I’ve always written, in one way or another. Maybe now I’m not going to deny myself or put myself off anymore. Some things are too important to leave to the experts or the professionals, after all.

But what if I ask myself and I find out I don’t want to write?, someone might wonder. Rilke answers that too, later in the same letter:

It is possible that, even after your descent into your inner self and into your secret place of solitude, you might find that you must give up becoming a poet. As I have said, to feel that one could live without writing is enough indication that, in fact, one should not. Even then this process of turning inward, upon which I beg you to embark, will not have been in vain. Your life will no doubt from then on find its own paths. That they will be good ones and rich and expansive — that I wish for you more than I can say.

So there you have it. Ask yourself the question: Must I write — or paint, or sing, or whatever your art form is? Does this matter to me more than my life? Then go after it with everything you’ve got — and if not, keep looking until you find that one thing that lights your fire.

As for me, I’m fairly certain what the answer would be even before I ask the question — which in itself is the answer.


Time by Flowers

You can truly lose yourself in the tulips, she says
— and the tulips go away
and the peonies come,
and the peonies are going
and the delphinium is coming in
and the delphiniums go
and the dahlias are there.

I love that flowers can tell time.

And that they bring back so many memories or emotions from a time gone by.

Hiding Places #1: The Married Student Lounge

You are My Hiding Place: The Married Student Lounge

Being someone who craves solitude and quiet – I need it, in fact – I’ve always looked for places where I can hole up and brood if need be, where I can be sure to be left alone to sort things out and know my own mind in peace. One of the best places like that I’ve ever found was during my junior year of college. It was kind of a bumpy year for me, because a number of my friends (not that I have a lot…) were pulling back from me, and I was feeling more alone than usual. I was living off campus, not really seeing many people that I cared about, and those I did see didn’t seem to care about me. Then I found the off-campus student lounge.

Picture half of a basement of the upperclass women’s dorm (which was connected to the underclassmen’s men’s dorm – go figure). It was large enough to be an ample-sized room all on its own, with a broad nook full of metal lockers, a lounge area with sofas and comfy chairs, rugs, and a coffee table, and another room attached that was full of study carrels. That, and a bathroom, was it. Hardly anybody ever went there. I don’t even think most of the off-campus students knew about it, and if they did, I doubt they cared. A door in the far wall opened into the portion of the basement underneath the women’s dorm, but that was locked from the lounge side. (I think I was over there once, to visit friends. We had segregated dorms; this was a church school.) You needed a code to punch in on the keypad to get in, and in perhaps the biggest favor he did for me all year (the word “favor” hardly has the magnitude of what I owed him for this gift), my buddy gave me the code.

I hid out a lot down there. At first I was taken aback by the absolute stillness of the place – the fluorescent lights didn’t even buzz. The thick foundation walls muted any noise from the outside, and like I said, hardly anybody ever went there. If they did, they’d be in and out in a few minutes – and then I was alone again. It was heaven.

It’s difficult for me to overstate how great this was. I was rooming with four guys, one of whom I was close to, but he was choosing to stay with other friends for most of the time. The two remaining guys, while nice, were too wrapped up in their own stuff to make very good friends. One played video games constantly and argued with his other friends about Ren Faire, and the other dragged the dresser that served as a TV stand into the middle of the room so he could watch TV while he sat on the can for hours. (No joke.) Our rooms were in a dorm made out of a converted nursing home (which has since been demolished), and at first we thought it would be great because we could have a room to hang out in & a sleeping room. It turned out not to be great, for a variety of reasons. First, for the other 2 – my buddy & I had roomed together the year before & got on famously, and then these other 2 hatched this grand idea to all room together. We had to adjust our setup to accommodate them and their nonsense, which was a little bumpy all around. My room became a place I slept, and that was it. I couldn’t study there (which was fine – I was a library rat, and still am if given the chance), and it wasn’t that congenial to hanging out there. I felt displaced, a little bit betrayed, or maybe hung out to dry would be more accurate. (Only recently have I realized that perhaps the reason my buddy spent so much time on someone else’s couch was because I snored like a son of a gun. Still do, in fact. The fact that it could have been at least partly my fault did nothing to diminish the pain. People let you down.) Then I found the married student lounge.

The tranquility of the place soaked into my soul. It was quiet, but not deathly silent, like quiet can be in a house by yourself or in a hospital, perhaps, at the right time of day. It wasn’t the kind of silence that merely waits to be broken, like when you’re the first one into a room that you know others will most likely be entering in a moment. It wasn’t the kind of quiet that accentuates the little noise there is, the whoosh and hum of ventilation, the buzz of fluorescent lights, the gurgles and creaks that your body and clothing can make when you shift, even the thrumming of your own blood in your ears or the sound of your own breathing. Those noises seemed to get lost there. It was just…quiet.

I felt free there. Nobody was watching me, nobody was ignoring me or trying to impress me, nobody even cared I was there. The rest of the world receded. It was like Aladdin’s cave, like a special hideaway, a refuge, prepared just for me but no one else. There may have been a dozen or 18 study carrels in that side room, but they were all for me. Some had snapshots pasted up in them, lists, occasionally a cartoon, but I almost never saw someone studying there. Those things felt like the part of the décor on the set of a movie or a play – not so much personalizing it or giving it human warmth as simply part of the fabric of the place. There wasn’t any dust on anything, even though who would go down there? The janitor? Did they even have the code? The lockers were there, but they, too, felt simply like part of a set for a play. The couches and chairs were amusing, from another era, hardly sat on. One set of chairs, with a matching end table, were made to look like they’d been cut out of whiskey barrels – I don’t recall if they were molded plastic or wood.

Once I laid on the couch along the wall – it must have been on a Tuesday or Thursday night or something, some time when I should have been diligently working ahead but instead took advantage of a slack space in my schedule – and I read an entire book in one sitting (laying, actually). An entire book. One sitting. I think it took me two hours. The book was about depression. I still remember things I read in it – the woman who wrote it said that she walked her way out of her depression. She marched miles and miles each day, walking for hours in all sorts of weather. She said that the sound of her own heels ringing on the pavement rhythmically brought her out of her depression. The very monotony of their sound convinced her, bit by bit, that her life too was going to improve. I still think of that quite a bit, and I too walk to ward off depression; maybe not as much as I should.

Down there, time took a break. I could go down there on a winter’s afternoon, the sky just beginning to gray towards dusk, and when I came up the streetlights would be shining yellow in the full dark night. The emotional and psychological bumps and bruises of the day would blur and melt away, dissolving into the pool of silence I was in. My nerves, scraped raw by other people, began to heal. It was my fortress, my underground stronghold. The keypad and code protected me, and besides, the very anonymity of the place, its existence largely unknown to the student body, didn’t that mean that I was safe? With all the stressors of figuring out a relationship with the girl who eventually became my wife, not having a place to go to, and having my friends head away or drift away, I needed a place to hide, to be safe; to recuperate, to lick my wounds and brood, to refresh my soul in solitude. The married student lounge was all that and more. There I found the silence and the space, welcoming and yet respectful, inviting and yet still cordial, to know my own mind, and to cope.

I don’t even know if the married student lounge is still available for students to use, if it’s still in the same place, if it still has a keycode or even if anybody remembered it after I graduated. I do know that for a rough time in my life, it was my refuge and my hiding place. That place bestowed on me a kind of happiness I identify with very deeply but very infrequently receive in this world. It was a place I could count on being able to go when I felt like I had fewer and fewer people to count on and turn to. I hadn’t thought about that place in a long time, till something someone told me brought it back to light. I’m grateful that I got to have it for a while, and I hope it helps others as much as it helped me. Now I think I will recall it often, at least for a while. I still look for hiding places, but with somewhat less success nowadays. I hope to find more soon – a good hiding place is worth guarding and saving. You never know when you’ll need one.

I have known some of my happiest moments there, by myself.