Cincinnati: Summer 1995

(This post is dedicated to and inspired by James Agee’s Knoxville: Summer 1915 which you can read here.)


Time moved very slowly when I was six years old. I have read many theories about this. Some say that because a child’s brain and body are so new, the blood and heart so fast and the cells so active, the speed at which they are moving actually causes time to slow down around them. Others say that because young minds have a shorter attention span, they become bored more easily and therefore feel time’s passage more acutely. Like staring at a clock. I don’t necessarily think these two are incompatible or contradictory. My own theory is that, being shorter, kids’ heads are closer to the earth’s gravitational pull. You know, Einstein’s Law of Relativity and all that. Like I say, I remember these long days. Especially in summer. There are echoes and images of days like this buried in my mind, like at the bottom of the well, folded in upon one another, made complicated and probably inaccurate by time and age, but with a common innocence strung together by cracked sidewalks and chain link fences and telephone wires. For instance, one strong image is of our next door neighbor’s bird bath which was always splotched with moss, and the stone it was made of looked very old like a gravestone from the Civil War. When I was finally tall enough to see over the bowl, I remember being disappointed to find that there was no water in it. And no birds either. There were only the husks of dead nuts, leaves, and twigs that had fallen from the trees above. Now, I realized why squirrels would have wrestling matches in there.

At this age my head was still pretty close to the ground but also I was growing up. This summer was a transitional one. I was learning how to ride a bike. And having just turned six years old that July, I was to begin kindergarten in mid-August. How could I have known that from here on out, after this point we all cross, I would always have somewhere to be during the day and some task expected of me, and that every summer thereafter would be an unsuccessful attempt to recreate a freedom that only exists in childhood? No, none of us really know what is coming. We are so eager to grow up.

Our street was somewhat narrow. The houses were close together, built before World War One, a type of classic American look, with thin strips of yard and thin strips of driveway and small porches, and sometimes brick and sometimes vinyl siding. There wasn’t a single rainy day on that street. Well, of course I’m sure it did rain sometimes, but if it did I don’t remember, and it’s my childhood memory, so what the hey; every day on that street was sunny. And the summers especially were hot and blue.

I was shooting basketball at our next door neighbor’s house—their whole backyard was an asphalt driveway rimmed with some dumpy looking trees—and, as I dribbled the ball around, before every shot, I thought, God, help me to be more like the Red Power Ranger.  Dear future self: please do not end up like Creulla de Vil. If I made the shot that was God telling me I would be more like the Red Power Ranger. There were many other such scenes that summer. If, for instance, I could put my head under water long enough to touch the bottom of the pool or if I went across the monkey bars all the way without letting go, I had achieved a certain type of acceptance from the universe. That was how games and dares worked.  Without the ability to distinguish between Republican or Democrat, I was working very hard and crudely on the ideas of good and bad. I can’t remember this, but I would imagine that the tenor of public life back then was still very colored by the falling of the Berlin wall and the administration of Ronald Reagan. But I was not even tempted to think about that because, as kids say, that was grownup stuff. That was for people who had shrunken down the world to an unmysterious thing they could fit inside their head.  But kids know the difference between fiction and non-fiction. The idea was to be brave in real life. Like dad. He had a mustache. And when he shot a basketball he made it. At the park the other taller men looked silly when he dribbled around them and he swished three pointers. The taller men, with their hands on their knees, would say, Oh, man, he’s quick. I knew if I did everything right and brave I could one day be a man with a mustache, dribbling around taller men, shooting three pointers.

This is all very cute but I don’t mean to give the wrong impression. What we talk about when we talk about earlier times, about our childhood, is an imposed simplicity that only exists in the mind. What is truly idyllic are probably not periods of time in history but periods of time in personal history. But, what of it? Lest we prematurely jump to the wrong conclusion, we should also ask, What isn’t in the mind? And what is the real imposition? Even when our bodies get old and our blood slows down and our heads get further from the earth and we grow mundane and sober and we begin to be tempted to think that the End is Nigh, is that not also in the mind?


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At a Small Smoky Jazz Bar in a Forgotten Corner of Heaven


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Start with Ovid’s Metamorphoses

“Every interpretation of a myth impoverishes and suffocates it; with myths, it’s better not to rush things, better to let them settle in memory, pausing to consider their details, to ponder them without moving beyond the language of their images. ” – Italo Calvino


I find a lot of people are very interested in the idea of Greco-Roman mythology but don’t know where to start in their exploration. With all due respect to academic introductions to mythology—I am thinking of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology for example—I believe the best way to learn about mythology is to jump right in and get your hands dirty with the original source material. Hesiod’s Works and Days is a popular option or Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. You certainly can’t go wrong with either of those choices but there is another option that I think may be more accessible to the average reader, and no less substantive.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is my choice. It’s an incredible book with more in it than I could possibly describe in one or one hundred blog posts. Written during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus, Metamorphoses is a poetic re-telling of 250 various Greek and Roman myths, reinterpreted through Ovid’s indelible vision of Greek literature and of life.

My personal favorite story from the Metamorphoses, a good place to start for the would-be mythology geek, is Ovid’s version of the story of Phaëthon. An underrated one, in my opinion.

Phaëthon, an otherwise pretty regular kid, learns that he is the son of Phoebus (who is confusingly both Apollo and not Apollo) god of the sun. This knowledge of his parentage turns Phaëthon into a pompous turd. One day one of his friends gets fed up and challenges him. So Phaëthon travels east to the sun palace to get proof from Pheobus himself:

There stood the regal palace of the Sun, soaring upon its many lofty columns, with roof of gold and fire-breathing bronze, and ceilings intricate with ivory, and double-folding doors that shone with silver… [Phaëthon] had climbed the steep path leading to the dwelling place of his reputed parent, he went in and turned at once to meet his father’s gaze–though at some distance, for he could not bear such brightness any closer.

Phoebus sat in robes of purple high upon a throne that glittered brilliantly with emeralds; and in attendance on his left and right stood Day and Month and Year and Century, and all the Hours, evenly divided; fresh Spring was there, adorned with floral crown, and Summer, naked, bearing ripened grain, and Autumn, strained from treading out her grapes, and Winter with his gray and frosty locks.

Surprisingly Pheobus is happy to oblige Phaëthon’s request. In fact he permits him to ask for anything as a proof of their relation. Phaëthon asks if he may drive his father’s sun chariot through the sky for one day. Pheobus responds:

Your deed reveals the rashness of my speech! Would that I were permitted to rescind the promise I have given! I confess that this alone I would deny you, son!

Pheobus describes as a warning his daily routine. Far from being a stroll through the sky, it is a treacherous journey:

“The first part of the track is steep, and one that my fresh horses at dawn can hardly climb. In mid-heaven it is highest, where to look down on earth and sea often alarms even me, and makes my heart tremble with awesome fear. The last part of the track is downwards and needs sure control. Then even Tethys herself, who receives me in her submissive waves, is accustomed to fear that I might dive headlong. Moreover the rushing sky is constantly turning, and drags along the remote stars, and whirls them in rapid orbits.  I move the opposite way, and its momentum does not overcome me as it does all other things, and I ride contrary to its swift rotation. Suppose you are given the chariot. What will you do?”

Phaëthon completely ignores his father’s pleading, missing not only the dangers that lie ahead which he is completely unprepared for, but also his father’s own respect for his daily task. The ordering of the cosmos and the passage of time. Obviously Pheobus takes his job very seriously and is even reverent and humble towards it. But still poor dull Phaëthon insists that he drive his father’s chariot:

The boy has already taken possession of the fleet chariot, and stands proudly, and joyfully, takes the light reins in his hands, and thanks his unwilling father.

Once morning comes the outcome is what you might expect:

When the unlucky Phaethon looked down from the heights of the sky at the earth far, far below he grew pale and his knees quaked with sudden fear, and his eyes were robbed of shadow by the excess light. Now he would rather he had never touched his father’s horses, and regrets knowing his true parentage and possessing what he asked for. Now he wants only to be called Merops’s son, as he is driven along like a ship in a northern gale, whose master lets go the ropes, and leaves her to prayer and the gods. What can he do? Much of the sky is now behind his back, but more is before his eyes. Measuring both in his mind, he looks ahead to the west he is not fated to reach and at times back to the east. Dazed he is ignorant how to act…

But Phaëthon is far from the only person effected by his actions. What follows from his inability to control the chariot is an apocalyptic earth-destroying fire:

Great cities are destroyed with all their walls, and the flames reduce whole nations with all their peoples to ashes. The woodlands burn, with the hills. Mount Athos is on fire… Then, truly, Phaethon sees the whole earth on fire. He cannot bear the violent heat, and he breathes the air as if from a deep furnace. He feels his chariot glowing white. He can no longer stand the ash and sparks flung out, and is enveloped in dense, hot smoke. He does not know where he is, or where he is going, swept along by the will of the winged horses.


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Zac Brown & the Art of the Ballad

Country music is a genre with such a rich tradition in storytelling it is basically a trope. But the lonely troubadour singing sans his wife and dog is a caricature not because it’s true, but because it represents a very small portion of highly visible country music which has been infected with the same plug-and-play formulas endemic to every sub-genre of pop music. The same goes for the lazy whiskey-drenched summer fling and the scorned lover whose strong personality is underscored by a particular style of boot.

Zac Brown, my favorite modern day country artist, said it best in a 2013 interview:

“To me, country music has always been the home for a great song. If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I’m gonna throw up.”

by Jason Bullinger,

I originally became interested in Zac Brown because his sound was everything I admired in country music without any of the negative baggage. His gruff baritone voice is not overly twangy. He plays a nylon-string acoustic guitar on most songs that opens up the instrumentation to more folksy tonal qualities.

But most importantly, his lyrics are connected to this great storytelling tradition in country music. This is the tradition of Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, and Merle Haggard whose songs are Shakespearean in scope. There are almost no tropes and no sentimentality.

A great entree into this kind of country song is Zac Brown’s Colder Weather.

Colder Weather is a deceptively complex song. It’s the story of an estranged couple parting ways, though it isn’t clear why:

She’d trade Colorado if he’d take her with him
Closes the door before the winter lets the cold in,
And wonders if her love is strong enough to make him stay,
She’s answered by the tail lights
Shining through the window pane

He said I wanna see you again
But I’m stuck in colder weather
Maybe tomorrow will be better
Can I call you then
She said you’re ramblin’ man
You ain’t ever gonna change
You gotta gypsy soul to blame
And you were born for leavin’

The piano starts as the driving force through the first verse and chorus, like a typical ballad. But the song slowly builds into the second verse by introducing slight percussion and slide guitar as reinforcement, and then additional strings and bass in the second chorus.

As the song reaches it’s peak at the bridge, the lyrics change tense from the third to the first person. This has the effect of changing the song from a story to a confessional. This is no longer a song about an unnamed guy and his girlfriend. It’s a song about Zac Brown. Vocally, he jumps octaves at almost the same time the tense changes, easing the transition:

Well it’s a winding road
When your in the lost and found
You’re a lover I’m a runner
We go ’round ‘n ’round
And I love you but I leave you
I don’t want you but I need you
You know it’s you who calls me back here

But what I think makes this a great song is the metaphor it’s based on. I am a sucker for a good metaphor. It’s never clear whether the cold weather is actual weather preventing them from being together or whether it’s really emotional distance that cannot be bridged, you were born for leavin’. Their meeting is always deferred, maybe tomorrow will be better, which, for me, makes the story more poignant. Far from a sentimental love story, it’s a tragedy. The cold indifference of the weather is likened to that mysterious urge to either stay or leave, which cannot be controlled or understood. Things will never change for them but on the other hand, there’s always tomorrow.


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