Out of the ordinary

You know the cliché about taking the road less traveled? It's said so often it sounds stupid or pretentious, and usually said by people who don't mean it.

It's from a great poem, though, by Robert Frost, and it's short, just twenty lines:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

More poems should be so short. Says it all, really, so I want to say something more.

I've lived in a closet, and in a van down by the river, and in residential hotels that would frighten ordinary folks. I've stayed in houses shared with friends and strangers who became sort of an oddball family. For a while I squatted in an empty basement. Even tried living in the woods — what a disaster that was, and I wouldn't do it again. But I'm glad I did it once.

If I'd made normal choices instead, maybe I would've had a career, instead of so many dead-end jobs. Maybe there'd be children and grandchildren. Maybe I'd own a house, maybe even a necktie.

And if I'd made normal choices, I never would've met my wife, never would've had the best years of my life. She'd made some out-of-the-ordinary decisions along her path, too, which led to our paths converging.

And that has made all the difference, as Frost said so much better than me.

So there it is, the most important lesson I've learned in life: When there's a choice to be made, always at least consider the weird choice.

Most people don't. They do what's expected of them, and that's how most people become 'most people' — boring fucks. You never want to be 'most people'.

Try something crazy instead. Fences are for cattle, and walls are for prisons. If you let society's notion of 'normal' set your boundaries, you've snipped away the most interesting possibilities.

Of course, the guy writing this is old and gray and fat and feeble, with not much adventure in me now. Getting here, though, I came by a path less traveled, and every step of remembering it puts a smile on my face.

Can 'most people' say that? 

Republished 4/8/2024  


  1. Which road had most people used?


    1. Cheeze, I dunno. It's an allegory, not a map, but if the road's paved with multiple lanes in each direction, you'll find me on a quiet trail where motor vehicles are prohibited.

    2. OK, I asked the question badly. Frost is messing with us, implying that he chose the road less taken, but in the second verse he notes that the two roads were worn about the same.

      This has nothing to do with your life story, which IS about a road that not so many people take, which I respect and enjoy your stories about.

      Frost, in this poem, (which is about the road he doesn't take) is talking about regret. The high school English teachers mostly get it wrong. Mine did.

      In any case, my comment was about the poem, not your life path, which is more interesting than most, and more interesting than Frost's poem.


    3. You asked the question fine. Robert is not my favorite poet, but he's the finest of all the Frosts.

      To me it's about wist, but that's reflection not necessarily regret. If the high school teachers all had the poem wrong, they were taught wrong in college. Which might be what college is all about, and there's a path I've never regretted not taking.

    4. I read a story about Frost once. Ezra Pound had been in the madhouse for more than a decade and was in no-win situation the hospital administrator liked keeping him as a kind of prized zoo exhibit, but proving he was "sane" (which he probably wasn't) would get him pushed back to trial for treason for his broadcasts from wartime Italy. His supporters enlisted Frost, who was pretty much the in-house poet of the Eisenhower administration. Frost felt indebted to pound for his early support of his poetry, though he (like pretty much everyone sensible) was disgusted by his actions during the war. He went back and forth on what to do, finally wrote a letter to some higher-up, paid for the lawyer that was arguing the case and left town. Essentially got him sprung, was barely thanked, cringed when Pound immediately gave the fascist salute on a boat in Rome. I mean he viscerally hated the guy at that point, but felt it was still kind of unjust to punish to hold a guy forever because he was a shithead. I have to admire that, I'm not sure if I had any cred I'd lend it to a person I detest. I'd probably let the fascist asshole rot and nobody would have blamed him if he did the same.

    5. TS Eliot had a similar relationship with Pound. He thought poets could use all the help they could get and fascists didn't deserve help. I think he also ended up writing a letter or two.

      Bob Dylan wrote a verse about the relationship, but not a whole song:

      "Praise be to Nero's Neptune
      The Titanic sails at dawn
      Everybody's shouting
      "Which side are you on?"
      And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
      Fighting in the captain's tower
      While calypso singers laugh at them
      And fishermen hold flowers
      Between the windows of the sea
      Where lovely mermaids flow
      And nobody has to think too much
      About Desolation Row"

      So it goes.


    6. Everything about TS and Frosty and Ezra us news to me. Guess I'm out of the poetic loop.

      Would you guys stand up for an old pal who'd gone fascist? Not sure I would, especially if he's unwavering. Is it more moral to stand by a mentor, or forget him and let him rot? Discuss among yourselves.

      We have the benefit of a history where the good guys won, but I *hope* I'd oppose fascism even if it was a brand new concept. Not to get all deep and profound here, but it's *mean*, and mean people suck.

      I used to have the bumper sticker. Now I don't even have a bumper.

    7. There's a letter from TS Eliot to Pound, written right after the latter was extradited from an Italian POW camp to the US to stand trial. It's basically: here's some people I've talked to, here's some good advice, here's some stuff you should think about, and concludes with: "I end this letter, perhaps for the first time in our 30 years of correspondence, with my signature" and wrote his full name. That was how he basically signaled the end of their friendship and it was so British it hurt (from an American in Britain, no less).

      "Would you guys stand up for an old pal who'd gone fascist? Not sure I would, especially if he's unwavering."

      I don't think I would, though at this point he had been in a (somewhat comfortable but still pretty awful) insane asylum for 10+ years. The madhouse didn't prevent him from continuing to be a fascist piece of shit though Frost didn't know that. This was one of his madhouse proteges:


      He also wrote and published poetry from the madhouse, though his wife censored one passage in which he lionized an Italian woman who lead Canadian soldiers into a minefield and repeated "EL ALAMEIN EL ALAMEIN WE WILL RETURN." It wasn't published until after his death. When you read it now, you think, wow, this guy should have been shot by the Italians after the war, and the trial and madhouse probably saved his life.

      So knowing all that? Yeah, he could rot in hell and I'd probably chuck a rock through his window and hoped it hit him too. Maybe he'd think differently if he knew about Kasper and the blackshirt poetry he wrote post-war, but Frost seemed to be able, after some struggle, to put humanitarian concerns over what a piece of shit Pound was. I kind of admire that because I don't think I could.

    8. You obviously know a lot about all this, and frickall, that link to John Kasper is a trip to someplace awful. Crazy that fucker had a bookstore in Greenwich Village. Being not big on confrontation, I'd settle for throwing bricks through the window on a regular basis.

      I do try to keep the art and artist separate generally speaking, but sometimes that isn't wise or feasible or honest. So why is Ezra Pound though of as only a poet? That's all I would've known about him even a few days ago. Pound ought to be at least as notorious , say, Henry Ford or the America First Committee.

  2. Well, I love Fire and Ice and The Mending Wall and although I disagree with it, I like The Gift Outright. And I've always loved The Road Not Taken because it's kind of fun to be fucked with, especially if I can learn something from it. And my Grandmother used to play wist and I should have learned a thing or two from her, but alas, I was too young when she departed. She gave me a quarter a week when a quarter could buy five candy bars or a small toy that didn't fall apart. She had me place the quarter in a circular hand-carved wooden container, and my Sis had an identical one. I'd give something to have that piece on my bookcase today but it is likely in somebody's landfill. It was a gift outright and I threw it all away.


    1. All of it — life — is a gift, and most of it gets thrown away.

      My granny also played whist, but I remember nothing of the game.

      Were you not allowed to spend the quarters? Had she carved the wooden coin-holder herself?

    2. My grandmother wasn't a carver. I have no idea where the twin wooden containers came from but I remember they were beautiful. As I remember, the requirement was that I had to spend the money on something useful. Like a book. Any book. My grandmother believed that reading made a person smarter, whatever they read. Again today, you lead me to a Dylan verse:

      I Threw It All Away

      I once held her in my arms
      She said she would always stay
      But I was cruel
      I treated her like a fool
      I threw it all away

      Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand
      And rivers that ran through ev’ry day
      I must have been mad
      I never knew what I had
      Until I threw it all away

      Love is all there is, it makes the world go ’round
      Love and only love, it can’t be denied
      No matter what you think about it
      You just won’t be able to do without it
      Take a tip from one who’s tried

      So if you find someone that gives you all of her love
      Take it to your heart, don’t let it stray
      For one thing that’s certain
      You will surely be a-hurtin’
      If you throw it all away

      Copyright © 1969 by Big Sky Music; renewed 1997 by Big Sky Music


    3. Liking the lyrics but unfamiliar with the song, I googled around, hoping Mr Dylan would sing it, not mumble it. He went for the middle ground, singing with hints of mumbling, and it rocks me just right.


      I love your granny — what a great rule. Lenient grownups give you the allowance and of course it instantly becomes candy bars and balsa-wood airliners. Cruel grownups "give" you the allowance but don't let you spend it, it's savings. Granny's idea is a good compromise.

      My question as a kid would be: Do comic books count as books?

    4. Generally not for my Grandmother. But if it was a hardback or paperback book, it was OK. She didn't care about the content. She simply believed that reading made you smarter.


    5. And she was right, and it did, and there you are. Do you recollect what books you bought with those quarters?

      I read a lot of books as a kid, and generally not kid books. I liked Harlan Ellison way too young. The books came from the library, though. Mostly my quarters went for comic books and Big Hunk candy bars.

    6. At 5 or 6, probably Dr Seuss. From 10 to 12 all 13 James Bond books, a fair amount of Isaac Asimov. I was a slow reader. Still am. When I was about 12, I read Seven Days in May on a family weeklong vacation. Couldn't put it down. I've been in the middle of one or two books continuously since. The last couple of years I've been reading all non-fiction -- books about American vernacular music and how it relates to culture. Read most of Peter Guralnick and Nick Tosches who died this last year. I make an exception for Dashiell Hammett. If I need to breathe, I'll read a Hammett short story. Just finished a book about the development of the solid body electric guitar and am now reading a book about the Wrecking Crew.interrupt

    7. I don't read as much as I used to, the internet snatched me away, plus I'm easily bored by so-so writing like my own.

      But I wonder often about people who've never read for pleasure and knowledge. I know a few. Like, a friend in his 70s who told me he's read exactly one book since high school, and that was a biography of his favorite baseball player.

      The guy's not a dummy, nit illiterate. He just never got into the habit of reading. Even on the internet, he spends all his time on YouTube.

      Thank your grandmother for nudging you toward books, man. I don't even know what nudged me into reading, except my lifelong discomfort around people. Close the door and open a book, was always my mantra.

    8. Trying to find someplace to parallel park this comment -- it applies below. Dylan sang the tune properly on the album Nashville Skyline. If you find the album version, you'll find the tune.


  3. And I'm still working on early rock and roll, perhaps for next Monday.


    1. Monday's come and gone without music, and I miss it, but no pressure.

      As inspiration or an emergency backup, here's my favorite rockin' instrumental from the '60s.

  4. Just for the record, or for one last try at making my nearly useless point, 1) I did say MOST high school teachers get it wrong; the ones who had good college lit profs usually get it right. And my information about high school teachers is nearly 60 years old. Maybe they've gronked the poem by now, and 2) whether Frosty was regretful or wistful about the path he didn't take, he didn't take it so all he can do is report about the small stretch of it he saw, and that stretch looked very much like the path he DID take, and 3) based on the name of the poem, the verse is about the path he didn't take, about which he can't know much. It's sort of a quantum thing. Now, unless somebody wants to bail me out, we can move on, down whatever path we DID take.


    1. No points are useless, even poem points, and I like "quantum thing." Schroedinger's poetry!

      I can only guess at the path not taken by looking at my siblings' choices and where their lives have taken them. All the Hollands came from the same place, and then made different choices. I'm happy with the choices I made, and assume they're happy with theirs even though it all perplexes me.

      I'm not sharp this morning, can you tell?

    2. My Sis and I were discussing my parents Sunday night, trying to decide whether they were atheists or agnostics. I voted for atheists, Sis voted for agnostics. We agreed that they would have been OK with whatever paths she and I chose.

      You must be sharpISH. You found "I Threw It All Away" on Nashville Skyline. Just be thankful he didn't yodel it.


    3. I am agnostic on yodeling, but I googled Bob Dylan yodel, and got "My Blue Eyed Jane,." It's pleasant but includes no yodeling. Google lies.

    4. Nashville Skyline was Dylan's move into country music. He'd dabbled before, but here, on his 9th album, he was pretty damned country. He didn't yodel, but he could have.

      Actually, when he appeared on the Johnny Cash Show around this time, he chose to sing a duet with Johnny off his second album, which was surely folk: Girl From the North Country. He and Mr Cash made it country. They later recorded it together.


    5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTQ_hJ-35e8

    6. Wow, that's painful. I'm assuming you didn't actually click 'play'? It's some YouTube nonentity-celebrity monstrously mashing the whole song into barely a minute, by laying everything on top of everything else like musical pick-up=sticks.

      Here's Cash & Dylan without interruption, and it's pretty good. :)

    7. Doug, thanks. I clicked the wrong button. I had a bunch of files open and I thought I had the one you found selected. Thanks again.


    8. What is life, but a long series of the wrong buttons pushed?

      That video, though, really zorked me. It's so shallow, so nothing, such *vandalism* of the song, but it has almost nothing but kind comments, and the schmuck who made it, @DJGerryfromStarlightMusic, has 48,000 'subscribers' to his channel. 48-thousand. Cheez. My site gets a couple of hundred hits on a strong day.


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