Self Portrait

not as i am, but
the way i’d like to be seen
(by myself most of all)

any resemblance
to what you think you know
is just a tactic in support of that strategy

surprises couched
in the comfort of preconceptions

the bald head
and general roundness
somehow make the rest more believable

i never imagined he was
such an accomplished musician

the bass makes sense
he was always preoccupied with rhythm

and will you overlook the exaggerations
of my virtues
or at least forgive them
if i overstate my vices?

i will show them here
like a badge of honour
like scars from not yet rumoured duels

such honesty
you will say
so brave

not at all
i will say

and that will be the only truth i tell you here

© Mark Milner, 2019

Cosmology — fragments

say the world is filled
mainly with emptiness

gaps
between trees

space
between stars and planets
atoms and particles

tiny fragments
of presence
surrounded by absence

sounds break up silence
into song, measured and measurable
ordered on mathematical principles
numbered and arranged
in defiance of zero
of nothing
of space

vain desire that there be
something rather than nothing

lonely beauty of a dying star
on the remote edge
of a galaxy
a billion light years away
spinning and whirling
on the edge of annihilation
dancing and singing
its brief being
into the void

is it just a habit of mind
this conflict between something and nothing?
Manichaean tendency to believe
that everything requires an opposite?
polarizing instinct to divide
rather than blend?

say
we are atoms thrown defiantly together
we are particles cast out from stars
we are energy
time and motion

and when our time is done
cast off again
thrown together again
reused and recycled

old notes for new songs
new arrangements of old harmonies

in the end there is silence

that music had a dying fall
but does nothing follow?

the musicians put away their instruments
the audience departs, the hall is empty

say there will be other songs, other performances
other musicians and audiences

say each performance will be something new
or a remembrance of something that never was
and never will be again

maybe it’s a failure of imagination
that I don’t believe

in angels or gods, or
feel a connection to something beyond

that I don’t fill emptiness with purpose
suppose that planets have plans for me
or that they rest on spheres moved by celestial harmonies

that the inert remembers
the briefly living, that there is justice
more satisfying than dissolution

although I sometimes hope for a thread of memory
stitched into a corner of the fabric of time

I do not know how things begin
or end, or even if

or say
beginning and end are one and the same
seen from different angles

a lone whale sings her grief
to an almost empty ocean

in the middle of Ireland
stones still hold the shape
of an old church
carved and carefully stacked
into walls defying entropy
which has already claimed the roof
ruined the choir
where now even birds are not singing

other stones remember
lives no one recalls
history does not remark

only a fugitive cow grazes in the long grass
honeybees stir the pestles of wildflowers in the shade of a stone wall

and I have stopped to capture a moment in a photograph

how much longer will these stones cling to each other?
to the idea of order that placed them here?
how long can names and dates resist the wind and rain?

one year and eight hours away
I sat on the bench near my father’s stone
having cleared away the encroaching grass
and dirt that filled in the letters
of his name

and I spoke to him as if he were alive
spoke in a way I never did
while he was alive

I spoke as if he could hear me
as if it were a prayer

the wind stirred the leaves in the trees
and brought the rainclouds closer

somewhere a bird sang
a melody I couldn’t follow
and a hare stopped briefly
to consider my presence
then carried on with his day

 

© Mark Milner, Burnaby, BC, July 2019

Backing and forthing

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything on this blog. Being busy isn’t really much of an excuse. It’s not like there haven’t been hours wasted each day that I could have spent doing something productive. If this is, in fact, productive. For the most part, I think of it was talking to myself on (virtual) paper – a way of sorting through the flotsam of my mind, and trying to make some sense of it all. It’s been a strange few months.

A good friend of mine, who I’ve known for more than 30 years, has moved more than 7,000 km further away than he was previously – from Calgary to St. Petersburg, Russia. While I’m excited for him, and support his decision to leap into the unknown, what I feel mainly is loss.

In the past 25 years, since I moved back to the west coast, we’ve really only seen each other two or three times a year, at most, and rarely spoken on the phone more frequently than that. And yet, I’ve always felt a closeness, like kinship, to Scott. He was the best man at my wedding. He’s always been there when I needed him, and I’ve tried to do the same for him.

That he’s no longer an 80 minute flight, or 11 hour drive, away feels strange. To visit him now will not be as simple as booking holiday time and a flight. It will require planning. I’ll need to get a visa, for example, and won’t really be able to book anything until I have one. None of this is insurmountable, of course, and I can’t help feeling I’m being entirely selfish in focusing on this as a problem rather than an opportunity.

And yet, it still feels like loss. Scott was the first of my close friends to ride a motorcycle, and one of the last, too. Most others had given up already. My first long road trip on a bike was with Scott. We rode down the west coast and into the desert. We rode through eight western U.S. states and two provinces in twelve days. By the end of it, motorcycling had become part of my identity.

I’ve done two long trips since then, and numerous shorter rides. One trip, with another friend, who later gave up riding after a crash, expanded on that first adventure. Twelve states in 21 days. And then last year, I rode solo around Ireland and the UK for three weeks.

Since that last trip, though, I’ve barely ridden at all. A handful of short rides last summer and early fall. Nothing really since then. In part, it’s likely to do with not having many people nearby to go out riding with. But mainly, I just haven’t been motivated to do it. Riding in traffic has become a drag, and there just aren’t that many good routes nearby that I haven’t already done, in many cases multiple times. There’s certainly nothing on the level of the roads in Ireland and Scotland. And so, with all that, I’ve put my bike up for sale.

This, too, feels a little bit like loss, although it was entirely my own decision. Seeing my bike in the garage every day, and not really feeling the urge to ride it, was beginning to bother me. Keeping it insured and maintained, but not riding it, seemed like a waste. It’s a great bike. It deserves to be ridden.

I think, more than the annoyances of traffic and the declining number of fellow riders in my circle, my identity began changing last year. I started to think of myself more in terms of playing music than in terms of riding motorcycles.

I’m not very good (yet) at playing music, but I’ve improved quite a bit over the past year. I’ve now got a collection of five instruments – two bass guitars, an electric guitar, an acoustic, and a keyboard synthesizer. Where my YouTube stream used to be filled with motorcycle videos, it’s now full of music-related things.

Are my motorcycling days done forever? I don’t know. It’s entirely possible that I’ll want to do more long trips in the future. Or that a period away from it will reignite the passion I used to feel. We’ll see. For now, though, I’m indulging other interests.

And of course, Adele and I are preparing for our pilgrimage. Dates in calendar are often closer than they appear. We’re just over two months from flying off to Portugal, and then walking to Spain. If I weren’t me, I’d be jealous.

I expect a lot will happen between now and then. Locally, Bard on the Beach has begun it’s 2019 season. We’ve seen Taming of the Shrew (which was brilliant!) and have two more plays coming up this month, and one in August. We’ve also recently seen the Claypool Lennon Delirium – one of the best rock shows I’ve experienced – and have tickets coming up for The Raconteurs, ZZ Top and Iron Maiden (although Adele has already said I should find someone else for that one). Add to that the walking we need to keep doing, the songs I want to learn, the books to read… And… and… and….

Well, this has been a bit of a pointless ramble. My apologies if I’ve wasted your time. But it was your decision, as much as mine, to keep going. If you expected there to be a point to all this, whose fault was that? But I’ll tell you what: I’ll try to do better next time.

Tabula Rasa

1
Arvo Pärt at 36,000 ft.
The voices of the strings weave
Through the air, rise and fall, play
Against each other.

Outside, the clouds
Mingle and separate, fall away
Beneath us, behind us.

Just as time
And music fade
Into silence.

2
To live without expectation,
The future as a blank slate,
To engage with what comes
As it comes
In its own time.

Trying to imagine that.
Knowing that we expect the future
To resemble the past.

The batter looking for a fastball
Doesn’t recognize the change up, and swings through it, surprised.

3
The point where the patterns intersect,
The point where the patterns disperse,
Here the mind is free to play.

Fullness and emptiness have the same rules.

Your plans cannot escape these rules, or contain them.
This is the first rule.

It doesn’t matter that you don’t acknowledge the rules.
This is the second rule.

4
I never expect the face in the mirror.
Recognize it, of course. Know it’s mine.
But it surprises me every time
Like a note played off key
Or an off-speed pitch.

5
The difference between knowledge and expectation:
We all know we will die. And yet death arrives unexpected.

The number of times I watched my father’s head
Move through shades of red and purple
As he coughed at the dinner table, then lit a cigarette.

And yet it was years later, and something else entirely.
I watched him slip quietly into Silentium, all the machines switched off.
I was utterly unprepared.

 

©  Mark Milner, 2017

Back to school

Tonight I’m starting bass guitar lessons again, with a new teacher. The last one, a  good musician but only a fair instructor, was frequently late, occasionally a no-show, and almost always smelled bad. Here’s hoping tonight’s is better.

My goals, having fumbled around with my chosen instrument for a few years now, are somewhat different than they were then. My main objectives are:

  • Improve my right-hand technique
  • Learn some useful exercises
  • Begin to understand theory in a less theoretical fashion – mainly by learning about the construction of the songs I want to play

As for songs, the ones I’d like to learn – my ineptitude notwithstanding – are almost uniformly old (like me!) but covering a range of styles. Some bluesy rock (Cream, Led Zeppelin), some post-punky pop (Joe Jackson, The Police, The Talking Heads), some old-school hard rock (Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath).

Maybe, someday, I’ll feel confident enough to add prog rock (Yes, Rush), early metal (Iron Maiden) or jazz (Marcus Miller). Maybe, but I’m not counting on it.

Of course, my new instructor may have other plans, and if they seem reasonable I’ll follow them instead.

In Memory of Miles Davis

An obsidian Gabriel, taking his time
Out of time and reshaping it
In twists and curves
Of polished brass, until it emerged
Blown timeless from the bell.

At times, time would explode
From his horn as a fire
Red fury of notes,
At others would leak out soft
And linger, like a swirling
Cool blue smoke.

As he expanded on a Spanish concierto,
Sketched images of 52nd Street
Or perforated an old carol
With strangely appropriate arabesques,
Time, always, would bend with his breath
And wrap itself around the worlds
He created in both our minds,
Music in and out of time.

And those final phrases:
“Mr. Pastorius” coming to an end.
All that ceaseless upward striving;
Abandon, surrender, control.
Which seems even now to say it all.
Miles to go. Miles gone.
Leaving my time now with nothing
But echoes from a muted horn.

 

© Mark Milner

Odds & sods

Strange days in politics…. I mean even more than usual.

In the U.S., Donal Trump talked mostly about himself in relation to Black History Month, with a nod to the little known up & comer Frederick Douglass (oh, my!), apparently unaware of the 19th Century abolitionist and friend of Abraham Lincoln. Turns out the Donald threatened the President of Mexico with invasion and told off the Prime Minister of Australia before hanging up on him. I don’t think this bodes well for the upcoming visit with Canadian PM Justin Trudeau.

Speaking of whom, here in Canada our Prime Minister has abandoned his election promise to reform the electoral system his party subsequently benefited from to one that better reflects the popular vote. I guess when you go from third place to first, your perspective changes. Funny, that. I’d be more disapppointed if I’d fallen for the lie.

Add that to his ‘betrayals’ (utterly predictable though they might have been) of the progressive voters who abandoned the NDP for the Liberals in the last election, such as on oil pipelines, greenhouse gas emissions targets, pulling out of combat in Syria, and so on. Add all of that to his cash for access fundraisers, holidays with religious leaders whose charitable foundations get millions of federal dollars….

For those Bernie-loving Americans who think our Liberal Prime Minister is some kind of progressive poster boy, think again. He and his party are just as inextricably linked to big business as any establishment politicians in the U.S.

****

Still too cold, in my opinion, to be out and about on two wheels. I just don’t like frost and ice. I can’t wait for the overnight low temperature to get up to 3C again!

****

Reading Guitar Zero (which could be my new nickname) by Gary Marcus. It’s a fascinating book, even if you’re not trying to learn to play an instrument. (And reassuring if you are. It’s not so much that you’re talentless as that this really is difficult! Eventually, with enough practice, you’ll get better at it. Probably.) It looks at how learning a musical instrument rewires the brain, even later in life. Well written, well researched. If you’re interested in neuropsychology or music, or language for that matter, I recommend it.

****

Cat is being high maintenance, so that’s all for now.

And now for something completely different

Enough of politics! (At least for now…)

The longer I live, the more I believe it is important to have a wide diversity of interests, hobbies and pastimes. For many years, now, I have ridden motorcycles. Learning to ride – which I am still doing, really, after more than ten years – has been an extraordinary journey, one made up of dozens of smaller journeys. It. Hasn’t always been fun. For example, crashing a few years ago. But even with that, I wouldn’t give it up willingly, and I’m glad I decided to learn it in the first place.

Learning new things and acquiring new skills is one of my chief enjoyments in life. That’s why a few years ago – shortly before crashing my motorcycle – I bought a bass guitar. It’s why I recently bought an electric guitar – so I can learn both together. (If I had a bigger place and more money, I’d probably get drums, too.) It’s why I love to read, to watch documentaries (and films generally), and to attend lectures and exhibitions.

Learning about new places is the best part of traveling. When we went to Morocco a few years ago, I tried to pick up a little Arabic and Berber, partly to amuse our guides and the locals, but mainly because it was fun to learn. Traveling on the motorcycle is like that, too, even though I’ve only been places where a version of English is spoken. Learning to find my way around, though, is a lot of fun, especially if I’m on my own and only have paper maps to go by.

A while back I started to develop an appreciation for baseball, too. I don’t think there’s a professional sport more given to arcanity than that. Learning the different types of breaking balls a pitcher can throw, the infield fly rule, why – generally – you don’t bunt with two strikes: this all takes time to acquire, to say nothing of the history you learn from announcers as you watch the game on TV.

I don’t quite know what it is that makes learning so fun for me. I know not everyone shares this passion for knowledge acquisition. In fairness, though, they may just have different things they like to learn about. Woodworking, knitting, quadratic equations. Different strokes, right?

Lend me your ears…

Nietzsche once wrote that “without music, life would be a mistake.” Some people likely think that was an example of hyperbole (which Nietzsche was prone to). I am not one of those people.

Since I was a baby, there has been music. My father loved jazz, gospel, calypso, country and western, and bagpipe music. An eclectic mix, to say the least. On long drives to visit family on Vancouver Island, I recall hearing Louis Armstrong, Harry Belafonte, and Johnny Cash coming from the 8-track deck mounted under the dash. Every Christmas, he played Mahalia Jackson’s renditions of “O, Holy Night” and “Go Tell It On the Mountain.”

One of the things I’ve inherited from my father is a varied taste in music, and a near obsessive need to have my hours filled with it. Jazz, Classical, Folk, Rock, Blues, Ska, Funk. The genre almost doesn’t matter. (Although, I mostly don’t like radio songs or club music, or anything that seems to lack originality.)

Even within a genre like “Rock”, there is a wide variety styles I like. Classic Rock, old Heavy Metal, Progressive Rock, New Wave, Punk, et cetera. I expect most of my playlists would leave others confused.

There are favourites, of course. Music I listen to more frequently, more repeatedly, and this tends to change over time. I used to listen to Beethoven obsessively, but now, when I listen to classical music, it is more likely be Bach or Arvo Part. In jazz, I have become more attuned to Coletrane and Sonny Rollins of late, though I still listen to a lot of Miles. In rock, there’s no one I listen to more than Rush these days, especially the remixed Vapour Trails. Although, Peter Gabriel is a close second, and my appreciation of the Rolling Stones has been increasing.

I can’t imagine not being able to listen to music for any length of time. When I was a child, I would sing to myself if I didn’t have a radio or record player handy. I still do this when I’m riding my motorcycle. (It’s a good thing others don’t have to hear what goes on inside my helmet!)

For this reason, I think hearing is the sense I’d have the hardest time living without. Although, I can hear whole symphonies in my head, in the way others can picture a beach. So maybe it wouldn’t be the end of the world to be without hearing, since I’d still have music. If that were to go, though, I think Nietzsche is right: life would be a mistake.