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Tom Pile - Running Dog Music

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Washing and trimming a perfect bouquet of radishes to throw into my salad the other day, I was overwhelmed by a sense memory. Maybe I was five or six, watching my Dad at the kitchen table, slicing fat radishes in half, dipping them into a plate of salt, and popping them into his mouth.

The bright red and pure white of the radishes, the sound of the crunch, the tactile pleasure of dipping into the salt - I had to try it. 

“Can I have one?”


The blast of pungent radish and sharp saltiness almost knocked me over. I didn’t eat radishes for a long time after that.

Now, I’m ready for it. I got out a plate, threw some salt on it, dipped, and crunched.

Pure delight.

Thank you, Dad.

Go North, Young Man

About this time 131 years ago, young Eugene Hallock Pile, age 23, son of Benjamin Pile, left his home and family in Missouri to venture into the unknown. He and his buddy, Thornley Wells, packed up a few belongings and supplies, loaded a horse and a wagon and themselves onto the Great Northern Railroad, and headed north. They had heard about opportunities for homesteaders to grab a piece of land and make their fortunes growing grain to feed the hungry populations on the East Coast, and were ready to jump in and try their own hands.

The two young adventurers switched to the Manitoba line (later to become the NP) at Fargo, which was at that time a nest of snakes. Prostitutes, gamblers, tracklayers, outlaws, and speculators ran the town…well, perhaps not all that different from today. They rode a branch to the end of the line at Devil’s Lake, then took their wagon another 30 miles north on up to a spot that must have looked good to them. They were farm boys, so they were focused on the soil—there wasn’t much else to look at. Eugene and Thornley helped each other to set up on adjacent claims, where they erected sod houses and started the immense and daunting project of clearing and preparing the land for crops. 

Up in those parts, if you didn’t bring it with you, you had to go a long way to get stuff like wood, flour, salt, seed, and everything else. As one can imagine, life must have been pretty sparse those first couple of years. The winters were not any warmer in 1883 than they are now, and they had to travel a lot further than the distance from the door of the store to the door of a car in those chilly days. I don’t imagine their wagon had much of a heater, either. 

They survived. In a couple of years, Eugene was ready to stake another claim, returning to Missouri to marry Ida Dell Walker of Iowa City and bring her back on up to the homestead. “Come with me, darling, to a place where it’s freezing and hard and lonely. It’ll be an adventure!” Right. Ida must have been made of some pretty tough stuff, too. Eugene and his wife did at least have some family near Devils Lake where they could stay while they built a decent house. That house became the Prairie Home Farm, named by Ida, that we all know and cherish in our memories.

They lived. They worked the land. They prospered. They started a family. Ernest Walker Pile was born in 1894, and Ruth Ellen Pile was born a couple of years later in 1896. Prairie Home Farm would become the home base of the Pile clan for a century.

That spirit of adventure, that willingness to leave the safety of home, to roll the dice and take a chance seems to have been passed on through Eugene’s genes. Quite a few of his descendants seem to have the bug for uprooting themselves and heading off into the unknown, including Robert Eugene Pile, Eugene’s grandson and my father, who is 92 years old this very day. Dad’s path took him into World War II and the South Pacific. I’m still in awe of his willingness to risk the ultimate sacrifice for his country, and supremely grateful that he didn’t buy the farm on that journey, because, of course, I wouldn’t be here. He is my idol, and my model for what a good and rich life can be. I can only hope to stand in his footsteps.

We all go where life’s opportunities or our own particular fates lead us, and that’s both good and bad. Dispersal, separation, and disconnection are often the results of following a dream, but the family bond is deeper. We all are connected to the Prairie Home. 


...seems to be in short supply most of the time. Robert and I saw the Peter Tunney billboard on the Major Deagan the other day and it got me to thinking.

It isn't a sentiment that's often out in front. There's so much that can get in the way of a simple expression of thanks. Responsibility. Pride. Inattention. Worry. Regret.

We've seen more than the usual share of destruction and deprivation in our world lately. Disaster, hostility, and suffering are everywhere. And yet, a second look reveals neighbor reaching out to help neighbor, kind souls sheltering strangers, young and old lending their hands and backs to rescue and cleanup operations.

This time of year is special, no matter what else is going on in the world, because we're reminded to take that extra moment to say, "Thank you." To our families and friends who stand by us. To our partners and clients who help us keep a roof over our heads. To the men and women who protect us and defend us. To those who go out at any hour in all weather to save lives, fix what's broken, and keep watch when things get rough.

So again: Thank you.

Let's Get Small

I'm all for austerity.

Spend less, reduce clutter, get rid of stuff that holds you down, take only what you can use, relinquish attachments—all are worthy objectives. These are guiding principles for my personal life, and also for my political views, since the personal is political. Like they say: think globally, but act locally. I vote for smaller government, less waste and excess, more responsible conservation of resources, and more caution when considering the rights of individuals to make up their own minds. Less is more. 

I'm serious. Let's get small. Really small. Let's take up less space. Let's let go of the idea that bigger is better. Let's give up on that old American dream of wealth and prosperity for all. It is not sustainable. It only works when there's a third world -- an "under" world -- to supply us with our gadgets and material wants. Guess what? The third world watches Dallas and Real Housewives and American Idol on TV, too, and they want what we have. Who's going to supply them? 

Yes, they've been watching. They want their MTV and their Starbucks and their KFC. They want their burgers and fries. They want their big houses and stylish clothes. Trouble is, there's no room at the table any more. If all 9 billion citizens of the world lived like the typical American family, we'd all be drowning in pig shit and choking on fumes.

We can't pretend that we can turn the clock back to a time of innocence when the future was all bright and rosy, and everything seemed possible. Those who look to reinstate the Glory Days are in for disappointment and disillusionment. The American Century is over. Anyone who has looked closely knows that it wasn't all that glorious anyway. 

We're in a new century now. Let's promote some different American values, some values for the future and for the world.

Let's start small: 


Try to be kind.

Say thank you more often.

Play more.

Talk to dogs and small children. You will learn something every time.

Honor your elders, but question authority every time.

Work hard. Eat well.

While we're on the subject, less meat is not such a bad idea.

Plan for the future, remember the past.

Live in the present.

It was a different world

Just finished Herman Wouk's Winds of War and War and Remembrance. A monumental effort, but well worth the investment of time and attention. 

You think you learned the history in school, but if your education was like mine, you only skimmed the surface. I read these books to gain a deeper grasp of my father's generation, of the sacrifices they made, and of the events that shaped their world view. I came away with so much more than that. My faith in humanity was restored.

One door closes, another one opens

So I asked:

"Five elements. Two versions of each element. How many possible combinations are there?"

The question arose out of seeing Cunningham's Split Sides at BAM last night. The final NY performance of the world's most celebrated dance company was bittersweet - profound and earthy, mysterious and straightforward - in typical Merce style.

Split Sides is one of the more popular later works, partly because of the collaboration with Radiohead and Sigur Rós on the music score, and partly because of the way that the chance operations that were so fundamental to Merce's approach are brought right out on stage. The official video is available on Netflix and Amazon, and contains several possible sequences. It works like this: the sequence of the dance, the music, the costumes, the sets, and the lights is determined just before the dance starts by five tosses of a die. In other words, when the die is thrown for the dance, and even number means the 'A' portion of the dance goes first, and an odd result means that the 'B' portion goes first. And so forth for the sequence of the rest of the elements. 

The program told us that 32 possible combinations existed, but we didn't have the math skills to prove this out, so I asked for help from people who actually might understand the math. Henry punted [it was Saturday night after 11 pm, after all] and Robert responded at 3:00 in the morning with a series of cogent questions, pointing out how incomplete my framing of the question actually was:

1. How many elements per "combination"? 2? And saying five elements with two versions of each is really just saying 10 elements, mathematically speaking.

 2. Also, is element1 + element2 counted as a different combination from element2 + element1?

 3. Also, can two of the same element together be considered a combination?

To be fair, Henry actually responded later with the correct mathmatical formulation of the problem, which is 2^5, or 2 to the fifth power. Seems so simple when you know what to ask. Robert has graciously pointed out that I should be embarrassed that I could not put 2 and 2 together, as it were. He's right, of course, but I'm profoundly glad that my son is smarter than me. I probably learned this in 8th grade algebra and promptly forgot it. Use is or lose it.

Since I was losing sleep over the question, I got up early and spent a couple of hours working it out visually for those of us who are slow learners. Below is a picture of the 32 possible combinations [click to enlarge]. By the way, other than Robert Swinston's failure to take the bow he so deserves, the version that we experienced last night seemed absolutely perfect. The Cunningham legacy will live on, thanks in no small measure to the way he opened the eyes and ears of so many people around the world. Always looking ahead to see the future before the rest of us could even imagine it. Always living in the present. Always listening carefully to the sound of silence.



engineers and musicians

Talking with Robert about the state of the world we're handing over to the next generation, I expressed some relief that there seems to be some recognition on the part of young people today that the challenges they face will only be met through hard work, serious study, and tremendous ingenuity.

"Kind of makes me feel guilty about the choice to study music," he said.


We need music now more than ever. Music calms the beast, ignites the soul, and unites everyone through a common language that is pre-verbal. What are all those engineers going to listen to on their brainpods or genephones or whatever it will be that they will use to connect to everything everywhere?

I sent him this drawing courtesy Hugh Macleod along with some banana bread and told him to get back to the woodshed.

He has much work to do. 

A minor hurricane

I'm feeling some disappointment that poor Hurricane Irene did not measure up to the magnitude of shock and awe that we all prepared for here in New York. What's that all about? I mean, instead of feeling grateful that my car, my house, my loved ones, and my person and possessions were not injured or damaged or even seriously put out, I'm somehow let down that Nature decided to reserve her full fury this time. We got off easy, and I feel cheated.

Do I really have a death wish, or a desire for disaster? I don't think so. Scrabbling through the rubble of a fallen roof to find my family would not really be preferable to sitting here in my normal comfort zone with the lights on and the power grid humming.  What did I want, then?

Here it is: I want to be reminded that humans are not in charge, that Mother Earth can turn on us in a minute, that we need to respect forces that are beyond our control, and that our hold on all that is familiar and dear to us is tenuous and impermanent. I want to die a little death so that I can appreciate life a little better.

I wanted Irene to do that for me so I don't have to do it myself. 

Moving on

My kids are not kids anymore. Emma's off to Bard. Robert's going to Jacobs School of Music at Indiana U. It's certainly a mixed blessing. I could not be more proud of the fine human beings they are becoming, but I am going to miss them like I never imagined. A page is turning, and even though I know it isn't, it feels like the end of the story.

For Emma @ 17

When I got here this morning
I realized I had forgotten my keys.

I had no key for my house.
No car.
No key to understanding.
No closet, no locker, no cabinet.
No keys on my piano.

No vault, no safe deposit box.
No doors.
No maps.
No limits.

No bars.
No chains.
No fences.


Banged himself up good on Saturday; waits four days before going to the doctor. He has cracked a vertebra in his neck and needs surgery. Like now.

I admire his desire to be independent, but this is a little too risky for me.


I wish I had known him better, but it was enough to be in his presence and absorb his teaching as much as I could. His voice will always be with us.

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