A Songwriting Lesson
by Ernest Troost
Dad pulled the car over and parked facing the pond. He stared trance-like, leaning forward on the steering wheel, looking across the water as he smoked. He took a deep drag, and I could hear the soft crackle of his flaring cigarette tip. I stared across the pond too, hoping to see whatever he was seeing.
“Beautiful spot,” he said.
Driving home from town on a Saturday, Dad would sometimes say, “Let’s explore,” and he’d turn down a road we’d never been on before. When I was nine or ten this was the best kind of adventure. The back roads in our rural Connecticut town were narrow, lightly oiled, and might even have sections of gravel or dirt. It was exciting to discover what was around each new curve. They could dwindle into cow paths or pass new houses being built in clearings carved out of the thick woods. Dad said the town was growing fast and the new houses were probably for folks moving up from the city. Sometimes we’d stop and climb through the half-built structures, which smelled of fresh-cut wood. We’d try to guess where the kitchen or bathroom would go, or we’d look out through the empty frame of a picture window, to see what the owner’s view would be.
On these rides we never had a map and there were few road signs. Sometimes Dad would let me pick the direction when we came to a fork in the road. Often the woods overhung the road and I could put my arm out the window and touch big maple leaves. Sometimes there were long stretches of stone walls along the roadside that had once encircled an estate. Once, a road trailed off into a field and Dad followed it, crawling along in first gear, our Volkswagen’s engine revving hard, the smell of hot oil rising from the transmission tunnel. We struggled to see where the old road had once been. We pushed through tall grass, our tires covered with mud, and I imagined we were on a safari.
“Are we lost?” I asked.
“Sometimes you have to just keep going,” he said.
We followed tracks, really just light impressions in the ground, to the far side of the field and squeezed through a narrow opening in a stone wall. We came out on a familiar two-lane highway. It was the road home.
Those drives with my Dad were physical manifestations of his creative thinking. Instead of working something out on canvas with paint or juggling words on a page, he drove his car through all the permutations that were available in the surrounding countryside. It was his way of showing me how intuition and patience worked together to help you discover new places and ideas, and that the process itself could be enjoyable.
When I’m writing a song I start with music that is simple and play it for a while, maybe singing some fragments of words. The chord progression is unremarkable, but then I change a chord or two, and the progression takes a turn. What was commonplace becomes intriguing. The words rub up against this altered progression in a new way, like unfamiliar scenery rushing past a car window. Now the song’s words start to sound right with the music, and I can feel a pull like a compass needle finding north. The words resonate, but they still don’t make sense. I sing it over and over—and this is the hard part, because the song might not make sense for a long time. I patiently change words while I play, following my ear like we once followed the faint tracks in a field. Then one day the song miraculously crystalizes into its finished form, and I hear my Dad say, “Sometimes you just have to keep going.”
On Account of the Lamb Being Awkward*
by Ernest Troost
David Copperfield as a child: But why must I go away, Aunt Betsey? I want to stay with you, and Mr. Dick.
Aunt Betsey Trotwood: But you have to be educated, David, and take your place in the world.
--David Copperfield MGM 1935
While I was living at my parent’s house in between high school and college, a period when I was adrift and confused about what I would do with my life, I’d go for drives with no particular destination, just to be moving, to see the scenery changing around me. But the local country roads were too familiar. I’d memorized their curves and straights, rises and dips until they were no longer much of a distraction.
My parents were very patient and allowed me the time and space to sort myself out without a lot of pressure, though there were one or two heated discussions about my getting a job. I’d stay up into the wee hours of the morning watching old Hollywood films from the 1930s and 1940s. On those late evenings falling asleep on our flowered couch in front of the black and white 14” Zenith, films and life would become indistinguishable. I loved Mrs. Muir’s Gull Cottage in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Aunt Betsey Trotwood’s house in David Copperfield, and Windward House in The Uninvited. These cottages were fictions, black and white composites made from matte paintings and shots of the California coast, but they looked real, so perfect that I wanted to be there, with their ancient stone walls and nibbling sheep. I would hear the gulls and smell the sea.
Then one night I found myself walking on a path along the coast. Up ahead were a group of cottages built near the bluffs. I looked out to sea and saw the blurry image of the empty flowered couch and matching hassock of our TV room.
Victor Young’s beautiful Stella By Starlight floated around me like a gull feather caught in the breeze, and I found myself standing next to Rick, the composer in The Uninvited, as he reassured the housekeeper, Lizzie, that there were no ghosts in Windward House. Further up the path, Bernard Herrmann’s dark swelling orchestra in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir surged with the melodrama to come, and when the lecherous behavior of Uncle Timmy was revealed, I wanted to throw him off the bluff myself. Now, finally, Mrs. Muir could get back to writing Blood and Swash.
At the next cottage I visited Aunt Betsey’s character in David Copperfield and watched her throw David Copperfield’s sadistic stepfather out of the house. I agreed with her that the stepfather was one of the nastiest pieces of work I’d ever met. When afterwards she hugged David and told him he had a good heart and she would help him become educated, I felt she was talking to me.
That night I was still at the cottages when my father came downstairs for his nightly snack, and seeing the TV on in an empty room he turned it off. Suddenly, everything around me went dark. I stumbled along the coastal path till I came to a dead tree at the cliff edge in The Uninvited and there I waited. I admit it was a spooky spot. I sat and listened to the thunderous waves crashing below me, and fragments of distant piano music. After a while I became a little peckish. I wished I had brought some food with me. How long would I have to stay here with my legs dangling over the cliff?
The next morning my grandmother flipped on the TV and went into the kitchen to fix her lunch. When she came back I was sitting on the couch, and she sat down to watch her soaps. She had fried up eggs with onions and potatoes for her lunch and had brought a plate for me too. Without taking her eyes off the TV she handed me the dish and sat down. “Eat,” she said, “it’s good.” It was.
I needed some time to make sense of what had happened last night. Clearly, these films were taking up too much space in my brain. The characters in these stories strived to achieve great deeds, and by the end of the films they triumphed. Of course, these were classic Hollywood films, designed to satisfy and inspire a weary audience struggling after the Depression. In contrast, my life so far had had none of the same hardships, so why was I so inert? Was I so afraid of change that I feared to make a move?
I got a job sweeping the floors of a factory that made medallions and awards, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. Huge presses with one thousand tons of pressure punched out medals for people who had achieved great things with their lives. My job was to keep the floor clean of scraps of gold and silver. I held the job for exactly three days. When I walked out I told myself I was meant for greater things. I needed more time to think about a future I had not yet imagined.
I began studying classical guitar and devoting all the daytime hours I could to it. My days were full of learning the fundamentals of this instrument and practicing scales and arpeggios.
A week later The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was once again airing at 2AM. I needed a plan. That night I made a salami sandwich the way my mother always made them for me, with provolone, lettuce, tomato, and mustard. I put it in a paper bag with an apple and added a flashlight, just in case. I sat down on the flowered couch and put my feet up on the matching hassock. I was dozing when I awoke hearing Lizzie say, “I’ll soon have it shipshape and Bristol fashion.” I was at once standing in front of Gull Cottage smelling the fresh salt air and looking over the monkey-puzzle tree, a species, I’m told, that’s as old as the dinosaurs. As I walked up the path toward Windward House I could hear the familiar melody of Stella By Starlight emanating from the second-floor music studio, and I wondered if I’d soon smell mimosa.
I looked out to sea and there in the fog was the blurry image of our TV room with the empty flowered couch and matching hassock. My father once again had come down the stairs to have some cookies and a cigarette. On his way back upstairs he switched off the TV.
This time I was ready. I flipped on my flashlight and found a place to sit on the stone wall in front of Aunt Betsey’s house. I ate my salami sandwich as the sheep bleated softly around my feet.
This is how I spent the rest of my summer. I practiced guitar all day and went to the English coast each night. With the help of my inspiring guitar teacher I started to see the possibilities outside my small parochial view of the world. It was like I’d been living in a dark room and he’d thrown open the shutters, filling the room with sunlight. Now I was listening to the music of Django Reinhardt and Edward Elgar, and there were new musical discoveries on my guitar every day. I took less frequent drives. Eventually I began to spend less time on the English coast at the cottages. The characters in these films were happy to carry on their scenes without me skulking around on the sets, and I started to get more sleep.
I would leave that fall to study music in Boston. I will always remember fondly my times on the bluffs in England with the seagulls riding the thermals and the cottages with their steep roofs and colorful inhabitants who let me share my summer with them, listening to their clever dialogue. I remember looking down the gently curving coastline as the sheep quietly grazed and the silvery sea threw up glittering handfuls of diamonds that tumbled to foam on the rocks.
When I left for Boston I packed my guitar and stuck a flashlight in the glove compartment. My mother gave me a salami sandwich for the long drive, made just the way I liked.
Mr. Micawber: So relentlessly pursued over aerie and housetop, and vice versa, I have thwarted the malevolent machinations of our scurrilous enemies; in short, I have arrived.
--David Copperfield MGM 1935
* Title taken from dialogue in The Univited Paramount Pictures 1944.
by Ernest Troost
I went to kindergarten in a suburb of Toronto, where each day my sister and I walked to school, winding between five-story apartment buildings and undeveloped lots. There was an ice cream man in the area that cut kids up with a long knife and stuffed them into his ice cream cart with the popsicles. It was a known fact that if you heard his bell he was too close for you to get away. In hindsight, I realize that this might have been a tall tale made up by older kids. Either way, we walked to school ever alert and fearful of hearing the tinkle of his bell.
When we moved back to the US and I attended first grade at St Mary’s in Stamford, things were not much better, though long knives and ice cream vendors were not involved. Instead there was a bleak asphalt playground and perpetual gray skies, ruled by bullies looking for skinny kids to pick on. I was an easy target. This is when I started making up stories. I’d found I could sometimes distract a bully with an astonishing tale, the more dangerous, the better. I once told two guys who were taunting me that, while I lived in Canada, I had fallen three stories down a mineshaft and it took firemen two days to pull me out. They were so enthralled that they forgot to hang me up on the chain-link fence by my coat collar that day. The next day my story was less potent so they hung me up. Another time I told them the thick patches my grandmother had sewn on the knees of my uniform pants were from repelling down a granite cliff to escape a Kodiak bear. Now, this story the nuns heard about, and they informed me that Kodiak bears live only on Kodiak Island off Alaska, not in Toronto. They enlightened me on the sin of telling fibs. They clearly lacked any understanding of my plight and could have at least praised my survival instincts. In Stamford there was also the ominous school building itself, towering over us like a giant slagheap, ready to collapse and smother us all during the next heavy rain.
Pencils without erasers were distributed in my first-grade class because with the Lord’s guidance you didn’t make mistakes. During penmanship practice I tried to rub out an error with the hard end of my pencil, but it smudged and ripped the paper. This was a punishable offence. I offered up the back of my hand to the nun with her ruler, while my eyes locked on the crucifix above the blackboard. I was hoping for a reprieve, or at least a well-aimed lightening bolt, but the weeping Jesus was giving me his stone face that day. I secretly pledged to run away and join Claude Kirchner’s “Merrytunes Circus” if she hit me again.
I was so relieved to learn we were moving away from Stamford before I started second grade. I remember my mom driving me into Ridgefield for my first day of school. The sun was out and the sky was all blue and encouraging. The lawns were green and trees were swishing about in the breeze. As we drove down Main Street, Mom and I picked out our favorite Victorian house. I rolled down my window and breathed the cool crisp air and took in all the clean, white picket fences. “This place is great,” I said to my mom. “It’s a beautiful town,” she said. “You’re going to like it here. You won’t need to make up any more stories.” I knew I’d have to wait and see about that one.
A bright green crosswalk was painted on the street--I would go on to recreate that crosswalk in every HO train layout I ever built. Also welcoming us to town was a big clock mounted on an elegant post across from the bank. It turns out that in the 1950s there was a trend of adding public clocks to town squares around the country. City planners liked the quaintness they added to the town center. The American Women’s Voluntary Services erected this clock in 1958. It was indeed a handsome clock, and immediately the town felt like home. Some part of me registered this as a new beginning. I would grow up in this town.
Mom turned down the circular driveway of Veterans Park School and stopped in front. The one-story school was inviting, with low gentle steps to the front door, just my size. After attending first grade in a gothic-revival monstrosity, a mashup of granite, brick, and slate, this midcentury design, with its clean lines and unfussy geometry, looked to me like a child’s drawing, simple and true. I felt safe stepping inside and waving goodbye to my mom. Architects Sherwood, Mills, and Smith had designed the school in 1955, as the town was experiencing its first boom in population. Mills also designed himself a midcentury house south of Ridgefield in New Canaan, which was beautifully restored to its original condition around 2019--but that’s another story.
I remember the sun warming the floor and the quiet stillness of the lobby. There was a display case on the right with awards and artwork by the kids, and on the left stood a secretary at a switchboard behind a counter of light birch. Everywhere there were big windows filled with swaying green trees. The secretary asked if I needed help finding my room and called my teacher. Then she walked me down the wide hallway to my room.
My teacher introduced me to the class, telling them I had lived in Toronto and Stamford. Everyone was friendly. At recess we played some games organized by the teacher, then she waved us off to go play. I stood there wondering what to do. A girl asked me if I wanted to go on the swings and I followed her over to the swing sets, which stood in the shade of magnificent trees. The lawn swept gracefully down the hill from the school to a huge field with a few distant baseball diamonds. It was like the playground had no boundaries. No fences, no pavement, only a sea of green grass. We swung higher and higher on the swings and I felt the gravitational forces swoosh in my belly and I laughed. The girl asked me what it was like living in Canada, as she zoomed by on her swing. I started to say I had been chased by a bear, but stopped myself. “It was pretty much like this,” I said. “Oh,” she said, “Like normal.” “Yeah,” I said, “like normal.”
by Ernest Troost
It was black outside as I stepped onto the chilly back porch. A light drizzle was falling and I pulled my windbreaker tight over my sweater. Dad handed me a flashlight and a coffee can with a little dirt in it. He looked at me as I shivered and said, “It’s not that cold. This will be fun.”
Just after I’d gone to bed, I’d heard Mom saying to Dad that I was only eight years old, and kids that age need their sleep. I was too young to be dragged out of bed in the middle of the night. But at around 2AM Dad shook me awake. He leaned over me, smelling of coffee and tobacco, and whispered, “Get dressed and try to be quiet, we don’t want to wake the whole house.” I’d been excited when Dad proposed catching night crawlers, but now, with cold rain dripping down the inside of my collar, it seemed far less appealing.
Looking out into the darkness, it was difficult to get my bearings, but eventually I could see the faint outline of the tall trees at the edge of our yard and hear their leaves rustling overhead. Our backyard was mostly hard packed dirt, as we had defeated all efforts by my father to grow a nice lawn by pulverizing any new grass with badminton and whiffle ball games. The rain had turned it to mud.
Dad squatted and swept his flashlight beam slowly across the ground in front of us. I squatted next to him and tried to imitate his movements with my flashlight. Tufts of wet grass soaked the seat of my pants and mud oozed around the sides of my new sneakers.
Then, right in front of us appeared two huge worms, glistening pink in Dad’s flashlight beam. As we moved towards them, they shot back into their holes like they were spring-loaded.
“They can hear us,” whispered Dad.
“They can hear us?”
“If they feel your vibrations through the ground, they’re gone, baby, gone,” he said.
I began to worry about grabbing one of them, but I didn’t know what to say. So I said, “Big worms.”
“Yeah, they’re beauties,” said Dad, sweeping his beam across the lawn.
I wonder where Dad had learned about catching night crawlers. He’d grown up in a city. Since we’d moved to this rural town, Dad seemed to have acquired all sorts of outdoorsman interest and knowledge that he was eager to share with us. He would slam on the brakes in our car, sending us flying into the dashboard, then throw it into reverse to show us a snake that was sunning itself on the side of the road. “Look at that thing. I think it’s a copperhead,” he’d say. “We’ll have to look it up when we get home.” After dinner I saw him reading an old copy of “The Tomato Can Chronicles,” by Edmund Ware Smith.
I spotted a worm with my flashlight, and as I moved forward it zipped into the ground. “Gone, baby, gone,” I said to myself, more than a little relieved. I duck-walked through the muck over to where it had disappeared and stuck my finger in its little hole in the ground. My light beam fell on another worm close by, and, holding my breath, I grabbed for it. I got it. I pulled, but the other end held fast in the ground. As I pulled, the worm stretched thin like a cartoon worm. Then it popped out of the ground and coiled its slimy body around my hand, and I frantically threw it at my coffee can. I missed, and it disappeared into the darkness.
“It’s not going to bite you,” said Dad.
I wiped my hand on my pant leg, and decided to let Dad catch the rest. After an hour of crouching in the mud and rain, Dad say, “Okay, we’re good to go.”
“How many do we have?” I asked.
“Enough,” he said.
The next morning at 6AM we were rattling down Route 7 in our VW bug. My eyes were burning, and I needed sleep. I had toasted a Thomas’s corn cake and it was balanced on my knees as I drifted in and out of sleep. We swayed and bounced on the road, and I tried to keep the little lakes of melted butter from overflowing their little corn cake banks and running onto my jeans. I had never been so tired. Dad kept his window cracked so his cigarette smoke would go out, but it allowed more of the noise from the VW engine in. Together with the static on the radio and the fishing rods and gear clattering away in the back, the din lulled me to sleep.
I was running hard away from something. My heart was pounding and a strange sound was behind me. A quick glanced over my shoulder revealed a giant night crawler, at least twenty feet long, slithering after me.
“Wake up, you’ll miss the morning,” said Dad, flicking his cigarette in the direction of the full ashtray. The sun was starting to break through the clouds and the leaves sparkled. We turned off Route 7 where a little black canon sat at the intersection with the name Cannondale inscribed on its side. We swerved, and I caught my corn cake from falling. We bumped over some railroad tracks passing an old train station and a cluster of small farm buildings, and then I closed my eyes again.
The giant worm was right at my heels. I could feel and smell its wormy breath. I leaped onto a residual boulder, struggling to get high enough for safety.
“The fish will be biting today,” said Dad, as a pothole jolted me awake.
“I can feel it in my bones.” He held his cigarette between the stained fingers of his right hand, which rested on the vibrating shifter knob, letting ash fall around the transmission tunnel like a dusting of snow.
“This is the perfect spot,” said Dad, as we pulled into a gravel turnout along the Norwalk River. The sun was spilling across the river and polishing the wet rocks. The water was loud enough that we couldn’t talk easily. I sat on a warm smooth piece of granite--which looked suspiciously like a residual boulder--and ate my corn cake. It was the best corn cake I’d ever tasted.
Dad impaled a worm on a hook and tossed his line into the frothy water. “How many worms do we have?” I asked. “Three,” he said.
The river was high and fast that day and our big worms wiggled around in the foam until their color faded to a ghastly white. We fished all morning, but didn’t catch a thing. On the way home I asked Dad if maybe next time we should try fly-fishing.
He said, “Fly-fishing? What do I know about fly-fishing?”
How to Catch a Frog
by Ernest Troost
If you tumble out of bed one morning in the autumn of your life and smack your palm to your forehead in the realization that you’ve never experienced catching a bullfrog with your bare hands, you’re not alone. But you’re in luck. After you finish your morning coffee, I’ll guide you through the steps.
First, you’ll want to outfit yourself with waterproof shoes or rubber boots, and an effective mosquito repellant wouldn’t go amiss. After you’re suitably dressed, the next step in catching a frog is finding one. Look in the marshy ends of fresh water ponds or drainage ditches along country roads. Try flooded sections of farmland where runoff has created large semi-permanent puddles. These are good spots to search and where you’ll eventually spy the big yellow, inscrutable eyes of Lithobates catesbeianus. It can sit motionless for hours, waiting patiently for a dragonfly or a curious wasp to come within range of its sticky tongue and voracious appetite. At dusk it starts up the racket that’s made it famous, deep rumblings that ricochet across the swamp and meadows, serenading its mates, who are devotees of “drum and bass.” During the day you’ll find it resting on a lily pad, its fat body mostly in the cool water, its head in the warm sun.
Once you’ve selected your target, move cautiously and get as close as possible, being sure to stay out of the frog’s line of sight. Squat down low at the swamp’s soft edge near your frog and wait. This is where those boots and repellant will come in handy. We want it to forget you are there, and it might take a while. What’s that slight methane smell bubbling up from the stagnant water? Don’t be put off, as this is just decomposing organic matter and is the primordial perfume that our prey prefers.
Now that you’re sure it has forgotten all about you, raise your arm ever so slowly and with your hand formed into an open claw-like shape, move it into position, inch-by-inch, close behind the frog. Be sure not to cast a shadow, as that is a clear sign to the frog that a predator approaches. Now, how fast the frog will react will be influenced by how long the frog has been sitting in the sun. If it’s sleeping and enjoying froggy dreams of life as a tadpole, you have a fighting chance. The most important thing to remember, besides striking quickly, is to aim where you anticipate the frog will be once it jumps, not where it now sits on the lily pad. You will need to lead the receiver here. You’ll want to try a lightening grab for a spot six inches ahead of where it’s facing. Hopefully, it will jump straight ahead--sometimes they jump to the side, and if it does, you’re out of luck. If your aim is true, you will be rewarded with a hand full of sinewy, jerking frog. Hold tight. It will snap and hiss, but it’s harmless, and after it kicks a few times it will give up quietly.
I’m reminded of a cub scout telling his fellow cubs about a boy who caught an exceptionally large frog. The boy held it up and looked it straight in the eyes, and the frog’s tongue shot out and grabbed the boy’s eyeball and pulled it right out of the socket. Even as a cub I never believed this story, but I never again looked a frog straight in the eyes.
Now is your big moment. Your nerves and muscles twitch with electricity, your arm flashes forward, the frog leaps straight ahead into your grasping hand, and you’ve got him. Congratulations!
You’ve caught the frog you’ve dreamed of, but what do you do with it? I don’t recommend eating it. I’ve never tasted one myself, but I hear it tastes like stringy chicken. Stuffed and mounted on your library wall is a little presumptuous. You might take a snapshot to show your grandchildren, but it would be best to simply plop it back into the water. With a few pumps of its powerful legs it will glide beneath the surface like an Olympian and then float up and delicately grasp the edge of a lily pad with its tiny webbed fingers, staring back at you blankly, like nothing’s happened, like it didn’t narrowly escape being breaded and fried.
But you are now the uncontested, benevolent master of the swamp. You’ve demonstrated your superior hunting skills and you’re feeling decades younger, and ready for bigger challenges more suitable to your well-honed and lightening-fast reflexes.
Notice the large snapping turtle that’s sleeping in the weeds at the pond’s edge. Should you decide to try to catch it, you might want to read my Capturing Snapping Turtles instruction pamphlet, which states emphatically on page one, STAY AWAY FROM SNAPPING TURTLES. However, if you are not a manual reader and prefer to plunge ahead and learn by trial and error, I leave you to your own devices. Go ahead. Give it your best shot, big guy.
Dedicated to Andy Hatem, for whom I caught a large bullfrog when he was eight years old.