Today I was going to write about something else entirely and I’ll probably post it someday. But not today. Today I’m going to tell you a couple of stories.
A few days ago, on a beautiful summer evening celebrating AJ’s baseball team winning the league championship with a picnic and cocktails in the park. I was talking to the two moms of one of AJ’s teammates and they were telling me about what it was like when they were first together and pregnant and living in a neighborhood that was dangerous and not very open-minded. When they took their son to day care for the first time, they weren’t sure what to do but finally told the director, “C has two moms.” “Oh, no,” the director said. “Oh, no, no, no, no, no.” All of us listening made noises of concern. But the woman telling the story assured us it was not what we thought. “The director said, ‘I don’t want the ex wife coming down here and then the wife coming down here — someone always gets in a fight.” We all laughed, but not the teller of the story. “I cried. I couldn’t stop crying.”
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Yesterday, I met up with a toymaker I work with at a conference I was attending. He lives on the West Coast with the man he’s been calling his husband for longer than he’s been legally able to do so, and I only get to see him once or twice a year. When I ran into him in the hallway yesterday, he had his phone in his hand, checking the Supreme Court rulings like my son checks for White Sox scores. We both cheered at the preservation of ACA. “Tomorrow,” he said. “They say it’s going to come tomorrow.”
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Months ago, the park near my apartment scheduled a screening of Paris is Burning for tonight. I remember seeing thing film in college and being overwhelmed. It’s not a happy film, but there is joy and I predict it’s going to be the biggest fucking party my neighborhood has seen in a long time.
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Today I’m thinking about everyone who will feel this most and I’m happy for them. Tomorrow I’m going to be happy for me, because tomorrow, the world will be a little bit better than it was yesterday.
Yesterday, AJ put on a red cap and gown and graduated from middle school.
Yesterday I conquered my nerves and took my very first guitar lesson.
Yesterday it was hot enough to fry an egg on the street – I have seen photographic evidence.
The graduates were soaked through by the time they got into the church.
My guitar was out of tune by the time I sat down to play.
The heat bends everything out of shape.
They looked so tall, in their red robes, with their faces, some smiling, some solemn, in concentration.
I frowned at my recalcitrant fingers, always one step behind my brain.
The breeze of the fan cleared the air.
AJ accepted his awards as we stifled cheers when his name was called out.
I tried not to smile with relief when I heard I’m holding my hands the right way.
Tut, tut, looks like rain.
A fourteen-year-old boy gave an impassioned speech about his education and the earthquake in Nepal, the country from which he emigrated just five years ago.
I reshaped my fingers, learning to roll them and flatten them to make the sounds I’ve been dying to hear.
The sun melted soft spots into the sidewalk.
The children stood and turned their tassels as the crowd erupted.
My fingers mapped the fretboard, and suddenly they knew what the chord inversions let like, the shape of them, the way they make you feel.
The sun was relentlessly sunny.
The children sang and AJ played a guitar solo and we were all surprised and moved.
I learned a new way to play the B section of Blackbird and it changes everything.
We forgot about the heat, just for a moment, despite the sweat pouring down our brows.
A 14-year old girl quoted Winnie the Pooh: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
My fingers finally landed F# major, while I sang under my breath, “These are the words we use to say goodbye.”
Nighttime, still steamy, church windows open, a horn, a laugh, and the sound of bells – we strolled home humming in our heads.
A long time ago, I went to France to study music and met a boy who told me he loved me as we stood in lamplight on the Pont Neuf,watching the boats go by. I didn’t believe him, but it was what I wanted to hear. We’d spent the day squiring an eggplant sporting my sunglasses, around Paris and taking pictures of it in front of major tourist attractions. The eggplant was part of a theatrical production the boy was in. He wanted the pictures for the show, but the eggplant provided a convenient distraction from the awkwardness of the question we didn’t really want to be asking –what happens when you go your way and I go mine? The eggplant is in nearly every photo I have from that trip.
What happened when he went his way and I went mine? Not much, really. It was messy but brief. And then we didn’t speak for a long time, years. And then out of the blue he invited me to a concert he was doing and I was so surprised that I went. And then I unexpectedly ran into him at a conference, literally the minute I walked in the front door. And now we are friends again and we live in the same city, albeit on opposite ends. The eggplant did not survive the immigration process.
Over the weekend, the boy wrote about a play in Brooklyn that he’d seen. He posted it to VisageTome and tagged me and a few other people, urging us to see it. I looked up the play and discovered it’s at a theater company founded by one of the other parents of a kid on AJ’s baseball team. I mentioned this fact to the boy, and he said they were old friends.
I talked to the parent about our mutual friend and he told me they’d gone to college together. “And how do you know him?” the logical question I should have been prepared for, after which there was a pause while I groped for an answer that didn’t involve vegetables or make me sound like an overly nostalgic ex-girlfriend. “Oh, we were in school in France together, a long time ago.”
New York can feel like the world’s tiniest place.
It was a good weekend all around. On Friday, I had the day off and spent most of it sitting in the park with my guitar and my conference paper in progress. AJ went to his 8th grade dance and came home in one piece. On Saturday, I had dinner with a good friend visiting from Chicago and two of her friends who live a block away from me. We ate at a fantastic new restaurant in the neighborhood.
It is perhaps worth noting that I did not have the eggplant.
This afternoon AJ stepped up to the plate, the very first batter for his team, and whacked a home run. Afterwards I stopped to chat with a couple of friends watching their kids play later games. I went home and ran into Mr. Spy who was coming back to the park with cocktails. So I went back with him and we found our friends and poured out gimlets. At that very moment, it started to rain. We finished our cocktails under an enormous tree, but we were all pretty soaked (in both senses of the word) by the time we left the park.
And now, I’m trying to get myself organized for a trip to Boston this week for which I still have not bought my train tickets. I am not planning on packing any vegetables or cocktails but am nevertheless looking forward to the ride.
It’s a totally different thing learning an instrument as an adult than it was as a kid. This does not come as a total surprise. I’ve taught violin to adults. I’ve always loved working with adult beginners. They’re interesting because they’re incredibly passionate about it and they also tend to box themselves in with their expectations or their habits or those walls that all of our knowledge and experience can build.
As a kid I came to the violin because I loved the sound, but my experience of learning the violin was one of learning to do things right. Violin pedagogy is very focused on technique, on getting things just so. It’s necessary, because getting a good sound out of a fiddle can take years. It’s a complex process. But all the focus on technique can make it easy to lose sight of the music. I had many wonderful teachers over the years, all of whom focused on the minutia of technique. The ones that stuck with me, though were the ones let me know how and why they loved it while they did so. The generous souls. I may have learned more from the ones that made me cry, but they are not the reason I still do it. Practice was a chore for them and playing well didn’t always feel like much of a victory.
Guitar is a different thing entirely. I’m not sure I’ve ever worked this hard at something for no reason. I have no real expectations. Sure, I’ve been known to entertain a fantasy that Neko Case might walk by me playing in Prospect Park and invite me to slip in the side entrance to the bandshell and sit in with the New Pornographers. And sure, I’d love to play with a band, any band. But I’m also pretty happy doing what I’m doing, chipping away at the things that until a few weeks ago I didn’t know how to do. I didn’t learn them because someone told me I had to know how to do these things in this way. I learned them because there was a song that spoke to me and I wanted to play it. And the things were what I needed to do. I’m enjoying the process.
As I tune up my guitar every night when I get home from work, I think about the struggles I had with math growing up. I would regularly get high scores on aptitude tests but do poorly on my homework. It puzzled more than one of my teachers. But I was never interested in memorizing formulas. I wanted to look at the problem and figure out how to answer it myself. I wanted to think it through. And there’s not a lot of room for that in the early years of public school math.
I hit the same wall in grad school. As an undergrad, I’d had music theory teachers who let me dive into analysis of pieces with a limited number of tools. To me, music theory was looking at the questions I had about a piece and devising ways to get at the answers. The process of the inquiry was what turned me on. In one of my papers, one I ended up submitting with my grad school applications, I attempted to analyze a highly complex string quartet by Elliott Carter. In order to explain what I heard and what I could see on the page of the score, I gave each pitch a number, so that I could show how the pitches were ordered and reordered, broken into parts and put back together again. When I got to grad school, I discovered this was a tried and true theoretical method for music like Carter’s –it’s called set theory. But I’d never heard of it or learned it. The process of figuring it out, though, turned out to be much more interesting than learning the ins and outs of the technique. In fact, I became increasingly frustrated with the limitations of the theoretical toolbox. I didn’t want to practice anymore. I switched fields.
It never occurred to me that these are all the same problem. I’m a person who needs to take things apart and learn how they tick. There can be no shortcuts. In my dissertation work, I got sucked into the endless vortex of archival research because I didn’t trust the shortcut of secondary literature.
In all of these areas, what I like is to find my own tools.
With guitar, I’ve had only myself to guide me, so the tools are all mine. I’ve taught myself every thing I know. But now I’ve had to admit I’ve hit a wall. So I emailed AJ’s guitar teacher and asked if he’d give me a lesson or two. I can’t remember the last time I had a lesson. Probably a conducting class in grad school. And even though I haven’t scheduled it, I’m already getting nervous. I’ve been playing until the tip of my left pinkie goes numb. I record what I do, so I can hear my progress. It’s humbling most of the time, but every now and then I get a glimmer of something, a moment where I relax just enough, where I land a barre chord squarely so the strings ring instead of clunk, where I managed to sing a different rhythm than I’m strumming – still a challenge after so many years on a melody instrument. And suddenly, it’s not about counting each and every mistake – my hesitating entrance, an overlong transition between chords – but about the moments where I get it, where I’m not just playing what’s on the page but saying something. It’s a good feeling. And right now, I can’t get enough.
Harriet sings Sam Phillips’ “Reflecting Light”
Practice track, recorded on my iPhone with Voice Memos – doesn’t do the Gibson justice
Me: In bed, drinking coffee, reading a book, checking email.
Mr.Spy: At the kitchen table, drinking coffee, doing last Sunday’s crossword puzzle and making siren noises whenever a fire engine heads past our apartment to the firehouse down the street.
AJ: Sleeping, sleeping, and sleeping.
Another Saturday morning at Spy Headquarters.
I spent the afternoon locked in my office talking to myself.
I haven’t snapped, not yet anyway. But I still need to practice talks before I give them. I always thought I would grow out of it, would be able to relax and just talk.
Monday, my alma mater is flying me back to Chicago and putting me up at a hotel for two days so I can talk to graduate students about toy-making. The last time the University flew me in, I was living in Boston and had just been accepted to graduate school. They’ve sent me an itinerary and arranged for people to get me from point A to point B on a campus I once knew like the back of my hand. My first talk, with students from my own department, is in a building that didn’t exist when I was there. The hotel I’m staying in didn’t exist when I was there. Time marches on, but I don’t feel that different.
My second talk, to students from several university divisions, is as part of a panel. I am the only untenured faculty on the panel. I’m not sure how I got there (although I have some suspicions). I’m the only one not employed by the university. I’m both outsider and insider and it’s feeling a little weird.
But I’m also getting to see some old friends I haven’t seen in person in far too long. I’ll be near the lake, which has its advantages. And I’m going to meet with my dissertation advisor. Because nothing makes you feel guilty like talking to people about your illustrious academic career and having to confess you’re a total slacker.
Consequently, I will be writing and unwriting this weekend, trying to anticipate what people want to know about working in a toy factory and making toys and then second guessing myself. I should, really, be working on the talk I have to give next month, which is much more complicated. It’s good to procrastinate with tasks that appear to be useful.
It’s better to procrastinate with a guitar.
Yesterday, I bought a guitar.
That sentence is true and it’s important to record, but it’s entirely too dry and mechanical to describe what actually happened.
I posted a photo of my guitar on Facebook with the caption “my new boyfriend.” This elicited many comments from my smartass friends. “I hear he holds his lacquer pretty well,” said one. “He’s strung out,” observed another. I was joking when I posted it of course, but I also wasn’t. A new instrument is a new relationship. I’ve had my violin and bow since I was in high school and I still remember the process of buying them both. Now I pick them up to play and they are just part of me. I know them so well. I know what they will and won’t do. Every time I play is a conversation with them.
If you’ve ever tried to find a new instrument, really tried to find the right one, you know how intense and emotional the experience can be. Or at least, I hope you do. Or maybe it’s just me. But I doubt it.
Last summer, I had a one-night stand in the same shop with a Gibson LG-2 that I could not afford. I stayed in the store for over two hours just so I didn’t have to put it down. And then I had to put it down. This guitar, also a Gibson, is very similar, but it’s had a harder life and has sustained some damage. With expert repairs, you’d never know it to listen to it, but it makes it less valuable as an object. I don’t give a rat’s ass about that. So to whomever once put a fist-sized hole in the back of this instrument, I thank you. I’m sure it didn’t deserve it, but I’m grateful just the same.
To try out an instrument, you have to play it, really play it. I prepare some songs ahead of time, a mix of styles and tempos and volumes, a mix of things I know well and things I’m still learning. It’s important to have things you are still learning, because the right instrument will help you, not get in your way. It’s not just the way it sounds, but the way it feels and the way it supports you. A good relationship doesn’t just bring you something, it makes you a better person. I sing better with my guitar. It doesn’t help me sing. It has nothing to do with the physical act of singing, except maybe in that my fingers seem to know it already and I don’t have to think about it’s presence in the mix if I don’t want to.
But mostly I want to.
Trying out old instruments is also about trying out their history. I’ve played some very nice new guitars, but I gravitate towards those with a past. I played one yesterday made in the 1930s that had a nearly triangular neck because so many years of fingers had worn one side flat. To play a guitar like that is to walk into its world. You have to fit yourself to it, to be willing to throw yourself into it. In the end it was too dry a sound for me, the strings offered too much resistance. The guitar played me.
With the right instrument, you just know. As soon as I picked up my guitar, although I continued to give my carefully planned evaluations a try, there might as well have been nothing else in the room. I was done. This was it. It commands my respect, but gives me room to move, accommodates my needs. It doesn’t sing for me, it sings to me or with me. We do it together. I smile when I pick it up, smile when I hear its first notes each time I play. I smile just thinking about it. There’s a warmth to its sound that makes me feel like it loves me as much as I love it. Crazy? Probably. But there it is.
My relationship with my guitar may be even more physical than my relationship with my violin. I wrap my arms around it to play. And while my violin and I are an old married couple celebrating our 30th anniversary this year, my guitar and I are just starting our honeymoon together. It’s new and exciting. I am just starting to learn how it works, knowing where the invisible grooves in its neck, left by someone else’s fingers, lock now into mine. The angle of the curve of its waist, which fits me better than my last guitar. The stiffer weight of the neck, the smoothness of its tuning pegs, the rippled wood over a recent repair on its back. The sound of its voice sends shivers down my spine. The sound of its voice makes me grin just from thinking about it. Last night I dreamt about playing it, the feel of the cool metal frets against my fingers, the echo from its belly.
I think I’m in love.