Monthly Archives September 2013

The Ominous Mystique and Allure of Alleys

Every inveterate walker of cities knows the allure of alleys. Dark, narrow and often damp, they tend to house trash bins, rats and worse, exposing the corroded back walls of homes or business establishments whose front entrances gleam with respectability.

Alleys are as old as ancient Pompeii and Rome, where they served as servant entrances and thoroughfare for service delivery persons whose presence might upset the careful social mannerisms attendant to the front door.

Alleys come alive for me every time I visit a different city and set about the walking that will help orient me to its gridlines, smells and bustle. I can’t help but stop and pause at nearly every alley I come across, noting its length and width, its doorways and bins, its daytime shadows and night time lights (or lack thereof).

Alleys are rarely wide and thus often dark and at least a tad ominous. Bums and various ne’er do-wells are drawn...

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Hearts Like Wheels: The Melancholy of Linda Ronstadt and Van Morrison

I was talking with a friend recently about my previous post on Van Morrison and his mood-laden song, “When the Leaves Come Falling Down.” He was telling me how another Morrison mooder, “Melancholia,” is reportedly Morrison’s only truly autobiographical song and, indeed, also represents my friend’s truest and deepest stance toward life. This surprised me a bit, inasmuch as my friend, whom I’ve known pretty well for most of my adult life, presents a rather relentlessly cheerful public persona, far removed from the dark brooding pathos of “Melancholia.” Yet it also put me on notice, again, of the deep sadness that underlies so much of life and so many people, a sadness virtually everyone meets on various and shifting terms throughout the peaks and vales of our brief tenures here.

This sadness is heightened in fall, when death and the loss of light all through nature rather massively reinforc...

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Jagged Trajectory: From Renaissance Glory to Lord of the Flies

The older I get, the more sense history makes. All the pieces of humanity’s exceedingly checkered past fall more into place, resulting in both more compassion for what we have come through and alarm for what continues to befall us. More than 500 years after the Renaissance posited that humanity could become a shining beacon of perfectly realized rational values, we lurch from one crisis, one massacre, one civil war, one bellicose despot to the next. One part or other of our world is always threatening to go up in flames even as many of us preoccupy ourselves with whose dessert will make the grade on the next installment of some epic cooking show that plays like the Last Judgement, set to music.

These thoughts occur as I work my way through two books that have piled atop each other on my reading table this week: Charles Taylor’s sweeping account of the secular-religious tracks running on their often paral...

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An Ode to Golden Gate Fog

Fog is rich—in mystery, in metaphor, in intrigue. Fog was noir before noir existed at all. We walk out the door and espy the fog and up comes the collar and the shoulders, and we are set to hunker, hands in pockets and eyes all a-squint. If we’re walking someplace, we’ll be glad when we get there.

It can be treacherous, of course. Night or day, if the fog is thick enough, we have no bearings, no guideposts, nowhere to tack. This way, no, maybe that way, oh, maybe no way at all, stuck and aimless.

A voice might beckon to us, but from where? Sometimes it is best just to wait.

But fog can be a love, too. I was maybe 8 years old when I decided I’d one day live in Northern California, and it was the fog itself that beckoned me. I remember the moment...

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Van Morrison and the Deep Wisdom of the Leaves

I’ve long felt that fall is fortunate to be so gorgeous, otherwise we would never forgive it for all the grief we feel over summer’s end. Yet deeply interwoven into fall’s beauty is its profound sense of melancholy at time’s passage, all the brightness dimming now as the world inexorably darkens and decay and death spread across the landscape, there for us as reminder, as harbinger, as spur to savor the day.

Fall is a time to begin our long hunkering, but the dream of every romantic is to do so with one’s beloved, in a private enclosing world walled off from the coming darkness and cold. Few artists sketch that world with quite the stark beauty of Van Morrison, and in the vast sprawl of his career over a half-century, few songs have matched the super-charged romantic vision of When the Leaves Come Falling Down.

This 1999 song sees Morrison at both his songwriting and singing best, inhabiting a pl...

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