Wednesday, August 25, 2010


A new grandmother
shares with me her story of the baby's first steps
and the light shining from her
is an echo
of the light that shone from me
when my baby
who came to me so late in my life
first walked
first spoke
first loved me.

In the echo of her story
I feel again
the small hand
and see again the faltering, drunken steps
and the laughter
in her and in me
when she lands on her bottom
and our eyes meet.

And I look to my future
and wonder if
or when
I will be the new grandfather
and will tell my story
of first steps
once again.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Look! Up in the Sky!

It wasn't a bird, nor a plane.  And it sure wasn't Superman.  I had just moved to Pennsylvania and was living in our first apartment in downtown Harrisburg.  Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, by the way, is not too terribly far from Three Mile Island.  I was living in a top-floor apartment, about four stories up, and one of the nicer things about it was the small balcony just outside the dining area.  One warm, clear evening in May, there was a power failure.  It struck me as a little unusual, since there were no thunderstorms in the area and it wasn't hot enough for air conditioners to be draining the power grid.  At any rate, I thought it would be neat to just sit on the balcony in the dark and look out at the blacked-out city skyline.  I admit it; I find blackouts in general to be pretty cool, so long as I'm not stuck in an elevator when the lights go out!

It was a clear night, and the sky was full of stars.  It was actually quite wonderful to be able to see so many stars without the usual light pollution from the streetlights and neighboring buildings.

That's when things got a little weird.

I was looking up when an enormous black shape started blotting out the stars.  It was dead black, the exact color of the space between the stars.  There was no light coming from the shape, no reflection and absolutely no sound.  It was impossible to tell how high up the thing was, but it "felt" fairly close, about 150 feet up.  It was moving north at about fifteen miles per hour, and whatever it was, it was HUGE.

The first thing that people suggest to me was that it was a cloud, but whatever this may have been, it was certainly not natural.  The front end of it came to a point, and it was perfectly symmetrical.  And it just kept coming.  At one point I was reminded of that scene in the opening of Star Wars where the Imperial Star Destroyer just keeps coming...and coming...and coming.  It had almost that exact same triangle shape.  And it was perfectly silent.  It was strikingly odd, in fact, that something so big could be so totally silent.

The next day, I checked the newspaper to see if anyone else had reported seeing anything, but there was no mention of this phenomenon.  The power failure was attributed to a minor "incident" at the nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island.  (If you live anywhere near a nuclear plant, you will know that their press offices love the word "incident."  It can cover anything from a faulty circuit breaker to a core meltdown.)  My wife, to this day, I think, attributes the incident to my imagination.

I did share my experience on line prior to this, with a bunch of folks on the old X-Files forums, and what was very gratifying (and more than a little odd!) was the fact that several people there reported similar experiences.  All of them had seen the dead black, dead silent "Star Destroyer" shape.  For all of them, the shape was moving slowly northward, and the sighting was associated with a power failure.  After all, power plants and UFO's have had a long association.

I never saw anything in the sky before or since that I couldn't explain; this is my one and only "sighting."  I used to scoff at folks who mistook Venus for a UFO when it was especially close to Earth orbit, but the feeling I got when I was looking up at this large black triangle moving between me and the night sky was uniquely creepy.  Whatever I saw, I saw something.  And I cannot explain it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Charms to Soothe the Savage Breast

Well, I seem to be able to at least make an average of one entry weekly, a fact of which I am somewhat proud.  This is certainly the longest any New Year's resolution has lasted in a good long while.

In one of those cases of coincidental synergy that occasionally come into our lives, I spent this past week in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.  The highlights of the trip for me were all musical:  a violinist playing period music in the Wythe House; two older gentlemen playing an ebony flute and a viola de gamba in the Mary Sith House, and all three getting together for a concert at the Raleigh Tavern.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the three performances, particularly the pieces by Handel and some other 18th Century composers who were new to me, what I mainly took away from the experience was how music was perceived back then.  People did not enjoy Handel because they knew he was destined for greatness throughout the ages.  They enjoyed his music because they were able to play it at home.  Because they could dance to it.  In the 18th Century, one would rarely be able to attend a concert performance -- but one would always have music in the home or the tavern.  The music that mattered most was the music that one was able to enjoy, either by performing it with friends or by dancing to it with others.  It had a more essential role in the enjoyment of every day life, and the importance of the hands-on element of it cannot be stressed strongly enough.  Picking up one's violin is not the same as picking up one's iPod, although the enjoyment of the music produced by either is probably much the same.

I have also been enjoying a program (or perhaps I should write "programme") on BBC America called "The Choir," which details the experiences of choir director Gareth Malone as he attempts to form choirs in regions of Britain which have never had formal (or informal) music before.  Mr. Malone is choir director of the London Symphony Choir and is quite charming.  In his first attempt, he goes to a working-class secondary school to try to form a choir of 25 youth and whip them into good enough shape to be accepted entrants in the Beijing World Choir Olympics.  I enjoyed the program, but was not really moved emotionally until the kids' performance in China.  Malone himself is moved to tears when he tries to relate how, for the first time, the kids "got" what it means to be in a choir.  The relationships one forms in a choir, he says, are different and more personal than any other social relationship.  When you get out there, try your best, and experience having it all come together with the likewise efforts of others, it is a beautiful experience.  One unlike any other.

It moved me to tears, as well.

I belong to a choir.  I am one of the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg's "Unisingers," the self-styled "musical ambassadors" of our church.  We are a bunch of anywhere from 18 to 50 souls at any given time.  We meet for a few hours once each week to put together music for our church's services  Sometimes we also perform for services or festivals elsewhere.  We have done some pretty unusual stuff, everything from the usual church fare to Green Day and P.D.Q. Bach.  I also belong to a trio we jokingly call "The 4-H Club" because even though there are three of us, we have four surnames between us (one of us is hyphenated, the poor bastard) that begin with the letter "H."  We perform a number once a year at the church music scholarship benefit concert.  I realized that I get the most satisfaction from singing with these groups when I am performing music that I enjoy.  No matter how silly 4-H may get, the audience always seems to come along for the joke, because, I think, they find infectious the fun we ourselves are having.  At least I hope they do.  And the performances with the Unisingers are difficult to describe, apart from saying that there is nothing quite like the satisfaction we feel when we "nail" a particular piece.  It's the work together that is the reward, not the audience response.  And most importantly, the relationships I have with the Unisingers are like no other friendships in my life.  They are closer to family than mere friends.

And that is the synergy between "The Choir" and my choir -- I think I might have a sense of how those 18th Century colonists enjoyed their music.  The joy of music is in the making of it and in the participation as much as in the listening.

I wish I could better describe it, because it can be a glorious feeling.  All I can tell you is that even if you think you have no talent at all, you can probably make some kind of music.  And the making of music is one of the most human things we can do.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Et Tu, Morgan Freeman?

I am both royally ticked off and bitterly disappointed with the Science Channel.  Last week's episode of "Through The Wormhole With Morgan Freeman" explored the idea that the physical laws of the universe are so finely tuned that they indicate a creator.  For example, if the weak and strong nuclear forces were not exactly balanced the way they are, the Big Bang would have resulted in a universe of mostly helium instead of hydrogen.  No hydrogen means no water, and no water means no life.

First off, I would respectfully remind us all that Morgan Freeman is an actor.  He is not a physicist.  He is not a theologian.  He is not a philosopher.  He is the guy who has the neat voice from that penguin movie.  He is the guy who started his career as Easy Reader on "The Electric Company," for crying out loud.  I have no idea to whose agenda this whole creator nonsense belongs, but it is patently absurd, and if the so-called Science Channel thinks that Morgan Freeman gives it additional weight by virtue of his superior narration skills, they need to change their effing name.

The universe is what the universe is.  The fact that we have intelligence enough to explore its rules and laws and origins is a happy accident.  We, as Kurt Vonnegut said, are the lucky mud that got to sit up and look around.  What a wonderful, happy turn of events!  But how its relative unlikelihood points to proof of an intelligent designer is a logical fallacy of the highest order.

The program did attempt to sidestep the religious implications by positing the idea that perhaps our universe is a sim entertaining this same intelligent designer.  That we are, in effect, non-player characters in the ultimate game.  This was supposed to make me feel all Twilight Zoney, I guess, as well as letting the Science Channel keep their science cred.

I don't buy it.  I don't buy the phony statistics that creationists use to "disprove" evolution, and I don't buy the intelligent designer.  Occam's Razor, baby.  Until that burning bush speaks directly to ME, I will continue to happily go through life knowing that the greatest power is that of the human mind, even if sometimes that power is used in the service of self-delusion.

I am done with Morgan Freeman and going back to Stephen Hawking's show on Discovery Channel.

Hawking does it better anyway.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Pelican Bill

In keeping with this blog's apparent spirit of complete and utter inconsistency -- from deeply personal essays to rants to recipes -- here is another children's book I wrote for my daughter when she was seven years old:

© 1999 by Tom Hayes

Bill was the stubbornest pelican on the island.

Whenever his mother asked Bill to practice his fishing, he only wanted to play.

Whenever his father asked Bill to practice sitting on stumps and watching the boats, Bill only wanted to go fishing.

And whenever his brothers and sisters wanted him to play, Bill only wanted to sit on a stump and watch the boats go by.

But being stubborn wasn’t always so bad.  One time, when Bill’s littlest sister lost her favorite pebble, only Bill stubbornly refused to give up looking for it.  He dove and he dove and he dove for the pebble -- and he found it!  His sister was very happy. 

One day, Bill’s father said, “Bill, why don’t we go sit on a couple of stumps and watch the boats go by?”

Bill said, “No, I want to go fishing.”

His father said, “Bill, I think that’s a bad idea.  There are a lot of boats out today, and most of the boats are fishing boats.  That means there are lots of nets in the water.  No, this is a good time to just sit and watch the boats.”

Bill said, “No, I want to go fishing.”  And off he flew.

Bill skimmed low over the water.  Suddenly he saw dozens of beatiful silvery fish darting just below the surface.  Bill took a deep breath, and dove for the fish.

Almost immediately, Bill found himself all tangled up in a huge blue fishing net.

“Help!  Help!” called Bill.  His mother and his father and his brothers and his sisters all flew to his rescue.  After a lot of pulling and tugging and pecking and poking they managed to get Bill free.

The next day, Bill’s mother said, “Bill, let’s go practice our fishing.”

Bill said, “No, I want to play.”

His mother said, “Bill, after what happened yesterday, I really think you need to practice your fishing.”

Bill said, “No, I want to play.”  And off he flew.

Bill looked around for somebody to play with, but his brothers and his sisters and all the other young pelicans were out fishing.  It was a beautiful morning, with almost no fishing boats out on the water, and so it really was a perfect time for fishing.  But Bill was stubborn, so he tried to play all by himself.  And he didn’t have very much fun at all.

The next day, Bill’s brothers and sisters came up to him and said, “Let’s play!”

Bill said, “No, I want to sit on a stump and watch the boats.”

His brothers and sisters said, “Oh, come with us, Bill!  It’s a perfect day to play!”

Bill said, “No, I want to sit on a stump and watch the boats.”  And off he flew.

The stump was cold, and once again there were hardly any boats to watch.  The boats that were out weren’t doing anything particularly interesting, and whenever the sun went behind a cloud the stump got even colder.  Bill thought to himself that it really would be a lot more fun to go find his brothers and his sisters and play with them.  But Bill was feeling really stubborn, and he stayed on his stump.

An old sea turtle swam up to Bill’s stump, stopped, and took a long look at Bill.  Then the turtle took a deep breath, opened its beak, and spoke.  In its slow turtle voice it said, “Hello, Little Pelican.  Why such a long face?”  And it laughed a wheezing turtle laugh at its own joke.

Bill didn’t feel much like laughing, though.  And he certainly didn’t like the joke about his long beak!  “I’m not very happy,” he said to the turtle.  “I really don’t want to be here at all right now.”

“Then why don’t you leave?” asked the turtle.

“I can’t,” said Bill.  “I’m being stubborn.”

“Well,” said the old sea turtle, “there’s stubborn, and then there’s STUBBORN.”
“What do you mean?” asked Bill.

“What I mean,” said the turtle, “is that sometimes being stubborn can be a good thing.  But sometimes it can hurt you more than it helps.”

Bill thought about that for a while.  He remembered the time when he just wouldn’t give up looking for his sister’s lost pebble.  And Bill remembered how good he felt when he found it.  Then Bill thought about how he was feeling right at that moment -- how cold and lonely and miserable he was, sitting on that stump.  And how much fun he could be having if he was off fishing or playing with his brothers and sisters instead.

“You know,” said Bill, “you’re pretty smart.   For a turtle, I mean.”  Bill and the turtle both laughed.  And then Bill flew off to find his brothers and sisters while there was still time to play.

The End