OMG

                                                                           Illustration by Clayton Mednick

As you know, I am not a person who goes looking for the hand of god in everyday events. I believe everyday events, by there very nature, are beyond god’s management. I don’t ascribe meaning to random incidents, accidents or unusual combinations of numbers.

Much is made of so called miraculous recoveries from medical maladies but as a matter of statistics they fall well within the curve of possible outcomes. In fact, most of the “miraculous” part is added by people and media looking for the hand of god in otherwise ordinary outcomes. It just goes to show, if your always looking for something to confirm your belief system, then your going to find it.

For instance, people talk about the miracle of childbirth. And you know, if it weren’t for the eight billion people crawling over every square inch of the globe I might be inclined to agree. But really, with over 380 thousand kids born every day and the very function of life being continuity, there doesn’t seem anything remotely miraculous about it. If anything it seems commonplace, even inevitable. Practically mechanical.

Survived a plane crash? So did most of the other people who have ever been in plane crashes. It is rare to the point of miraculous when everyone on a plane is killed.

The Virgin Mary’s profile on a potato chip? You want it? You got it!

9-11? Everywhere you look. Same as it ever was. You’re just looking for it now.

It’s called Confirmation Bias. People tend to seek out, focus on, and remember information that supports their ideas and beliefs while ignoring or downplaying information that contradicts or undermines their beliefs.

Why is it that people thank god for the recovery of a desperately ill child but they don’t blame god for trying to kill the kid in the first place? Confirmation Bias.

It’s why professional athletes thank god for the big win but they don’t blame god for the crushing defeat. Also because cursing god negatively impacts the bottom line of product endorsements. Simultaneous Confirmation Bias about both god and money. Not exactly a shocking revelation.

However, even I have to admit that once in a while my thoughts turn to god when there is a sign with clearly inescapable religious significance. The sign in question was seen by my own self in the sermon case outside of St. James Episcopal Church, 865 Madison Avenue at 71st Street, founded 1810. It read:

Does God Really Give Fashion Advice?

A sign from god? I like to keep an open mind so here we are giving it a little consideration.

It seems to me that before you ask the question of whether or not god gives fashion advice you would want to consider if you would even trust that advice. Sure it’s god but still, you have to be a little skeptical, right?

God and fashion?

(1) Is it Possible? I suppose anything is possible.

(2) Probable? Well, on first blush it doesn’t seem like a great fit.

(3) A good thing? Hard to imagine really.

The question of god being a good source of fashion advice is, admittedly, not the kind of thing one considers very often. I haven’t read the bible but I’m a big fan of religious radio shows. It is no small point of pride with me that I was listening to Harold Camping of Family Radio predicting the end of the world years before the end of the world didn’t happen. It seems to me that Family Radio’s byline “Feeding the Sheep” should have been the mother of all neon signs warning that anything coming across their airwaves was tongue in cheek, hand in wallet bullshit but did I mention Confirmation Bias?

My sister used to have a housekeeper named Ella Mae. Ella Mae summed it up this way; “I don’t know why everybody make such a big deal about the end of the world. Every day it’s the end of the world for somebody.” True Dat!

In all my years of listening to Brother Camping’s gravely voice peel the proverbial onion of scripture I never once heard him comment on the benefits of, or god’s preference for, florals versus checks, pleats or no pleats, wide lapels or narrow. One assumes that god prefers a necktie over an ascot but that’s just an assumption. Collar or no collar? Two button, three button or four button dress suit?  In fact, although I know it to be a mortal sin to wear White Bucks before Easter, I don’t believe that rule dates from the Roman Empire.

Tunic and cloak? There’s just nothing eternal about those threads.

Ok so let’s get back to the source of this conundrum. I’m not familiar with the Episcopalians so I had to look them up. It turns out they are the Americanized Anglicans. When the American colonies seceded from England it was necessary for the churches here to secede from the Anglican church because the Anglicans swore an oath of loyalty to the crown. So if the Episcopalians are basically an English order you have to figure any fashion advice would have to touch on the basics of English taste; namely Paisleys and Cross Dressing. Of course that also casts doubt on the Necktie versus Ascot assumption. Religion is so vexing isn’t it?

But doesn’t this all skirt the issue of expectation? What is it that we want from a god anyway? Is fashion really a good use of the almighty’s time? Isn’t god busy with something else? Anything else? Everything else? As it turns out, not really.

The physical universe is governed by physical laws. These laws are unbending both backwards and forwards in time. Using even our imperfect knowledge of these laws we are able to make accurate predictions about future events as well as accurate predictions about what the past will hold as we unravel every story of creation. It is these immutable laws that make accurate predictions on the macroscopic and microscopic level possible.

So, within the principals of uncertainty, the universe is a predictable system that runs itself. God doesn’t really need to bother with it. In fact, god can’t bother with it. The universe is itself beyond tampering with. That’s why we don’t see phenomena that don’t conform to physical laws. In other words, if it can’t happen, it won’t happen. Weather, while notoriously difficult to predict, does not happen in a way that is beyond explanation. It doesn’t rain cats and dogs. It doesn’t rain money. It may rain on your parade but it doesn’t rain rare scotch or cheap wine. It only rains water. That’s all. The fact is, many of life’s mysteries are not actually all that mysterious. You can see that the realm of god is actually a pretty narrow set of possibilities.

So what does god do with all that free time? When we complain of something taking an eternity, it’s only a metaphor. For god, it really is time without end. God must have been bored senseless.

Then along comes fashion. It is unfathomable. Truly unexplainable. And in that regard it seems like fashion may be an appropriate place, perhaps even the best place, for god to exercise the old creativity. Certainly it offers us a plausible explanation for Kilts and Burqas. On the other hand, while I suppose there’s something alluring about a nuns habit, these are not examples that inspire faith, for lack of a better word, in god’s capacity as a go to source for fashion advice.

Still, god can only work within the limits of his public and the tolerance of shareholders. The market is fickle and even god cannot afford to alienate followers or tamper with the brand image. You know, I’m starting to see the lines converging here. Maybe god really is an arbiter of fashion. But fashion in a really broad sense. Timeless, classic, refined, transcendent. That’s it! Transcendence! Of course! Art is a reflection of its creator and if the creator is, THE  CREATOR, what else would you expect? Religious crackpots (that seems like a redundancy) are always shouting “god is great” but maybe the reality is more subtle and nuanced. Maybe god is not simply great, but more importantly, god is graceful, majestic and elegant. Maybe god is, dare I say it? Fabulous!

So I think we’ve got a pretty good handle on the question now. It seems like god probably does give fashion advice. God’s tastes run to the restrained side. For the most part god eschews flash except for production numbers involving Pharaoh, at which point god is not above a little flamboyant ostentation though always steering clear of garishness. A certain austerity pervades god’s best work. God prefers an earth tones palette and traditional materials; flax and wools; silks for special occasions. Mantles and headdresses are common accessories and light footwear is a must. And jewelry. God simply loves a little sparkle. But tasteful; always tasteful.

God’s advice, like so many before, well not actually before, but like so many since, is likely to be about the fundamentals, while emphasizing brand authority.

 “I am thine God.”

“All powerful and not entirely displeasing to the eye. Yea even fetching in the right light. Thou shalt know that thine god’s couture is original and copyright; sovereign and inviolate.”

“No knockoffs or else. Do not tempt my wrath.”

“Thine god loves you and blesses you with this fashion tip which truth is eternal.”

“It is not what thou weareth. It is how thou weareth it.”

 

“Now I, your god, command you to go forth and be your ravishing self.”

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The Piano Lesson

 

 

Hey Drew,

I’m trying to remember, did you guys have a piano growing up?

I guess you can see where I’m going with this.

Music lessons. Did you ever take music lessons when you were a kid? I’m trying to walk through the rooms of your row house at 8091 Fayette Street in Mt. Airy and I can’t find a piano.

Up the many steps to your front door, the entry leads directly into the living room followed by the narrow dining room. The uncommonly narrow kitchen is off to the left of the dining room. The kitchen and dining room are actually in the same space. A thin wall with an entry at the far end divides them.

The living room is where a piano would have been. To my right is the long couch with the uncomfortable fabric. Pet proof, child proof and husband proof as they used to say in the ads. I don’t know, that seems like a tall order. There’s a pair of end tables and a dog sitting on the backrest. Mittens. Black and white and dead all over these many years now. I’m blanking on the wall opposite the couch. A TV console maybe? Very sketchy but definitely no piano. A piano is not the kind of thing you forget about in a room.

The dining room is barely wide enough for the dining room furniture. No piano here. I’m ten years old and when people are seated I can’t squeeze by to get to the kitchen to see my mom. She’s in there with your mom doing what they do best. Solving world hunger within a twenty foot radius. They’ve made enough food to choke a swarm of locusts. The dining room furniture is mock colonial but the meals are genuine overkill.

A quick stop back into the kitchen for a mental snack (wow, it really is tight in here) and a look at the window thermometer. These things are kind of fascinating. It’s on the outside of the window looking in. It makes you wonder if a thermometer, looking in like that, a voyeur, occasionally registers the temperature of its family’s life. You know, just to flex it’s muscles and break up the monotony. I’ll bet those little fuckers can be pretty astute and you know they’re sneaky. A thermometer may not know what time it is but you better believe it knows how hot things can get in the kitchen. Especially this kitchen. It’s so pinched intimacy seems unavoidable.

You know while we’re here we might just as well have a look around upstairs. Your room is, Holy Jumping Jesus Christ Drew don’t you ever clean this place up? Dude, I think you’ve set some new standard here. I’m in awe. Huh?! Look man it may be my memory but it’s still your room. By the way, nice blacklight posters, you should save those. They’ll be collector’s items someday. What’s a collector’s item? You dopey teen, a collector’s item is something you throw away because it’s trash and then pay big money for later because it’s nostalgic, unless it’s a porcelain figurine. In that case you pay big money for it because it’s nostalgic and then throw it away later because it’s trash. Hmm? No, I don’t make the rules.

Ok, back out into the hall, test the wall to wall carpet. Pluuuuush. Seven steps and it’s Bonnie and Lissa’s room. Let’s see, Oh! Oh my gosh! Oh sorry, sorry Lis! Really, honest I didn’t mean, yeah yeah no no I won’t tell. Bye. Wow! This place is like a mine field.

Then the master bedroom, made neat for our visit so I’m looking in on some kind of standard template of 60’s domesticity. It looks like a textiles or home furnishings ad and you know that’s probably what it is. An ad fixed in my mind, interchangeable with reality. A default memory when the real thing is inaccessible. Look magazine June 1968. Avocado Green bedspread. Burnt Orange lamp base with frosted glass globe. Formica furniture. Some kind of two layer curtain blocking the light and damping the sound from the street. That’s all I got. I guess we never played in here. Let’s head back down to the basement.

Well, would you look at that! Here I am, thinking you didn’t have a piano and there it is, under some laundry, in the last place I look. Dear Abby used to say that everything you find is in the last place you look because after you find it you stop looking. Call it what you will, I call that genius. The piano is a pale wood upright but still it must have been a bitch getting down here. Oh wait! Now I see. This is the back space of the garage entry which is at the back of the house. The garages are sub-grade, exposed right to the foundation, along the entire length of row houses. Entry is from a central driveway that cuts across the backs of all the houses. No backyards. So getting the piano into the house was easy, the real bitch would have been bringing it upstairs. But nobody did. The piano never actually made it all the way into the house did it. Into the living room. It never really became a family member. It was left in its stillness to gather laundry, it’s strings vibrating in sympathy with the passing rumble of trucks. More of a listener than a singer.

Pianos do not make easy partners. A piano is demanding of space. It is physically large. It is visually heavy. Its sound expands to fill whatever space it occupies. Its quiet does the same. When a piano is not embraced by a family it becomes an awkward guest, its very presence a constant reminder of an unrealized hope. A piano won’t be ignored, it can’t be put away and forcing it to leave involves a certain amount of cruelty. Getting rid of a piano involves a rejection of ones own positive potential. It is an admission of failure. A small death perhaps, were it not attached to great expectations.

A piano is obviously a singular instrument. The number of strings varies with size and style but I’ve just counted the tuning pegs on our 1942 Knabe Butterfly Baby Grand and it has 215 strings. My brother’s 1937 Gulbransen Upright has 220 strings. A concert grand piano has 230 or more and that’s just on 88 keys. Stuart and Sons, of Australia, make a 102 key piano. That seems like the kind of thing you’d see in a Dr. Seuss illustration tipping precariously from the top of a feathered tree. To put a little perspective on this a full-size Grand Concert Harp (the kind used in an orchestra) has 47 strings. No other instrument comes close to the piano.

A little subsurface exploration and we find that except for the highest and lowest tones each key on a piano has two or three strings. The strings of a single key are called Unisons because they are identically tuned. The multiple strings even out the volume across the keyboard. Very thoughtful. The piano covers the full spectrum of any instrument in the orchestra from below the lowest note of the double bassoon to above the top note of the piccolo. That and the fact that it’s able to produce melody and accompaniment at the same time is what makes it such a great instrument to compose with. But it isn’t just the strings. According to the Steinway web site there are 12,116 parts in a Steinway piano. I’m thinking there are probably a couple of thousand parts in that number that are just there for numerical superiority but even so it’s a pretty astounding figure. And you know what? None of them would be worth a frogs fart without the bridge, a narrow ledge of hardwood that transfers the string vibrations to the soundboard. Isn’t that how it always goes? It doesn’t matter how powerful my computer hardware is and it makes no difference how sophisticated my software is; if I can’t plug it in, it’s just junk. The bridge is the plug that activates the piano. A terrible metaphor and more than likely inaccurate but hey, it can’t all be poetry.

I’m sure you’ve turned the crank on one of those little music box contraptions. It’s a tiny metal barrel with little nicks in it. As the barrel rotates the nicks pluck at a tiny metal comb; the fingers of the comb corresponding to an octave of notes. Plink, plink plink, plink plink and we have “Send in the Clowns” or, as with my grandparents favorite music box, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”, a big hit from 1910. The point is the little bastard didn’t make much sound until you cranked it while it was sitting on a table. The table was a soundboard through which the sound could amplify because, as we all know, sound travels better through the densely packed molecules of solids than through the widely spaced molecules of air. The same holds true for a piano. The wooden soundboard accounts for the volume of sound. Such a great word in this context, Volume. Volume is the degree of loudness or intensity of sound but Volume is also the amount of space occupied by a three dimensional object. The way sound occupies a space is three dimensional. So that makes sound an object, right? Sounds good to me.

We had a piano too; a Kurtzmann. I asked my father how we came to own a piano and if he charged it off to his business. My father’s explanation goes precisely like this.

“There was a man who had a shop on Germantown Ave. where he restored and sold pianos. Our oldest child played flute and our middle child was a layabout and our idea was to get him off his ass and the piano might uncover some latent gift buried who knows where. So we invested in the piano and the child and the rest of the story has yet to be writ. Alas I didn’t think to charge it to the studio and that’s why I remain a free man despite my parole officer’s protests.”

For a time it got a reasonable amount of use but mostly by me which was not going to be a good sign for any instrument. At one point I thought it would increase my non-existent cool factor if I learned to play guitar. Thank goodness I broke my wrist after the first lesson. It saved me from having to admit another failure. Our piano, like many, was never really embraced by the family as a musical instrument but we all recall it fondly as being a stellar piece of furniture.

It seems like everyone had a piano in the sixties. Factories must have been cranking them out like confetti. Pianos must have been a status symbol from the very beginning but mass production must have made it a more affordable postwar symbol of affluence. Like all such symbols it was subject to a hierarchy. A grading system. From huge, ornate, hand carved cases to little more than functionality and packing crate simplicity. From old to new, from concert grand to grand to baby grand to upright. From Steinway to what, Kenmore? Kmart? Edsel? World wide there have been thousands of brands.

Naturally you would expect that all those pianos must have degraded the symbolic value of the instrument. But there is always a lag time between the end of an objects perceived desirability and actual market saturation, between exclusivity and the realization that all a piano bought you was a piano. There’s nothing like owning a piano to help you draw that conclusion for yourself but by then of course it’s too late. I’ve been told by people who know about this stuff that exclusivity can end with a market penetration of 30% while saturation is more like 80%. You can see that the lag time between message degradation and image degeneration can be significant but that’s not going to be an issue here. With 10 million pianos in this country and well over 110 million households, the piano’s strong image and message are still well aligned. So what does it all mean? It means there is something about a piano. Something that vastly exceeds the sum of its parts. Maybe the piano maintains its regal position based on the simple hope that some of that high grade something will rub off on us second rate owners.

My family, living in a large house, opted for a used baby grand. It filled the space nicely and made my parents, a couple of ghetto Jews, feel like they had, if not arrived, at least departed the want of their depression era childhoods. My sister suffered a year of piano before making a break to the flute. I went through years of lessons and though I resented having to practice, I don’t recall hating the instrument. Or loving it for that matter. I don’t think I liked it or even disliked it. I was not a passionate child. Not enraged like my elder sister or uncontrollably exuberant like my younger brother. I am, after all, a middle child. I see all sides of an argument and they are all equal before me.

All of that time, all that parental hope and expectation culminated in my final lesson. It was the end of the school year. I was 13 years old. Before going away on summer vacation I asked my teacher if he thought I should continue my lessons in the fall. He said, “Technically you play pretty well but you have absolutely no feel for the instrument.” I don’t believe this came as any surprise to me. It was a relief really. My father warned me for years after, that I would eventually regret not finishing my piano studies and becoming somehow competent at this instrument. As if there is ever an end to the study of an instrument. My father didn’t see my potential as clearly as my piano teacher. I had learned Für Elize, and Russian Folk Dance. I had gently gutted Beethoven, Bartôk and Mozart, purging them of any passion, emotion or sentiment. I had dutifully learned how to read music. My potential was met. There may have been more to learn but there was nothing more for me to learn. Without any regrets I would not touch a keyboard again for another 35 years.

Our middle guy, Miles, takes piano now. Early on it became apparent that Miles had language and word processing problems. He stuttered and couldn’t retrieve words that he knew. We tried to get him help and he was evaluated but he exhibited little of those problems while being interviewed. Then one evening at dinner I took out my cell phone, put it on video and asked Miles what he was holding in his hand. I don’t know how I knew beforehand but I knew he wouldn’t be able to answer. I just felt it the way an experienced mountaineer can feel an avalanche before it happens. There is a tension in the surrounding air before the snow lets go, breaking the bonds of traction, the snow slipping away along a submerged layer of instability like a final kiss goodbye.

Miles couldn’t answer. He was holding an orange. He stuttered and struggled continuously until the video memory was exhausted. He qualified for help after that. What is interesting is that the problems of retrieval were not problems of memory but of processing. Kind of like hand eye coordination but between reasoning, language and mouth. The particulars of the strategies he learned have, for the most part, slipped away from me except for one element. He was to concentrate on the musicality of speech.

There is a slew of evidence supporting the claim that people who study music have higher IQ’s. Instruction in music greatly improves children’s performance in reading and math. College bound students score over 50 points higher on the verbal portion of their SAT’s and over 35 points higher on the math portion. Studying music improves abstract reasoning skills. Piano is the most complicated instrument and, to my mind, promised to offer the greatest degree of benefit. As luck would have it we already owned a piano that we inherited from my wife’s Aunt Bert, a life long piano teacher. The bulging contents of her music bench prove her to have been an avid player of classical music, show tunes and early to mid-century popular music. The real Tin Pan Alley stuff from the likes of:

Boosey & Company, Inc. -The House of Song Fame- New York (And London)

Sole Selling Agents: Boosey-Hawkes-Belwin, Inc. 43-47 W. 23rd St.

New York City.

There are addresses of major publishers in the RKO and the RCA Buildings at Rockefeller Center as well, offering sheet music from the likes of Aaron Copland, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rogers & Hammerstein, Noël Coward, Lerner & Loewe, and the ever popular writing team of Al Hoffman and Dick Manning, represented here by a song called Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom). Distressing right? Powerful people were deciding this was a good idea. I guess it was big; there’s a picture of Perry Como on the cover. There’s a tune called Flirty Gertie from Bizertie. I wont even attempt to explain this stuff except to say that it is proof positive that we all grow up on a different planet then our parents did.

There’s a sheet for a Jerome Kern tune, The Last Time I Saw Paris, apparently sung by a star named Hildegarde. Just Hildegarde. Actually that’s not entirely true. She was also dubbed The Incomparable Hildegarde by Walter Winchell and The First Lady of the Supper Clubs by no less a fashionista than Eleanor Roosevelt herself. Whether that was a high compliment or a vicious insult is anybodies guess. So, Hildegarde. Really trips lightly off the tongue doesn’t it? I wonder if it ever occurred to anyone to have her change her name. For that matter I wonder if Hildegarde, to a mid-century ear, sounded like Fergie or J-Lo or Prince. On the cover of the sheet music is a photo. Hildegarde from the waist up, looking over her shoulder, unsmiling, no backdrop. Plain as an unsalted cracker. I don’t know how we’re supposed to be having a good time with this when she clearly isn’t. Hildegarde is a platinum blonde with a face reminiscent of Madonna but her hands look like they belong to Mike Tyson. Clearly the industry hadn’t perfected the art of image making.

The pre-war sheets are heavy paper stock printed with an abundance of scrollwork and unrestrained self promotion. The cover was the sales pitch.

WILFRID SANDERSON:-

OUR MOST CONSISTENT COMPOSER OF GOOD SONGS

GIVES MUSIC LOVERS ANOTHER GEM IN

REMEMBERING YOU

The Beloved JOHN MCCORMACK

HIGHLY ENTHUSED OVER THIS FINE BALLAD

INTRODUCED IT AT HIS FIRST CONCERT OF 1933-34 AND HAS REPEATED IT

WITH SIGNAL SUCCESS ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS INCLUDING, TWO BROADCASTS

Words by Music By

DENA TEMPEST WILFRID SANDERSON

.35¢

Composed for the home entertainment market before that market was finished being steamrolled by radio, this “Gem” is a duet for three hands; two hands playing chords one hand playing an ultra simple melody. The chords can be managed by any piano student. The student can easily coach the one hand melody. The melody player wouldn’t even need to read music. The key strokes can be memorized in a matter of minutes. With music like this anyone who had a piano could play a piano. And you know what? With songs like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” I’ll bet the sing alongs were a blast.

Let me call you “Sweetheart,” I’m in love with you.

Let me hear you whisper that you love me too.

Keep the love-light glowing in your eyes so true.

Let me call you “Sweetheart,” I’m in love with you.

Sure we think of those as simpler times but that’s us, not them. Every era is somewhat more complicated than the rabble can cope with. Ergo politics. And sure people weren’t too bright back then but really, how different could it have been than it is now. Not too different, rest assured. Within their own timeframes, how different are pianos and video games. Less different than one might think. While they utilize different technologies it is by no means a given that a game is more complicated then a piano. The possible combinations of gameplay are limited. When you include composition and improvisation, a piano becomes the true machine of unlimited possibilities.

By the post war period the cover art on Aunt Bert’s sheet music, when there is any, consists of awkward one tone publicity photos and discount illustrations. In fact the whole package, from cheap paper to poor printing seems to lack any decidedly divine inspiration. Until you get to the songs. There are some clinkers in here but for the most part we’re looking at the American Songbook. Standards that seem to defy the certain death that stalks most popular music. It turns out Aunt Bert’s piano lessons were also lessons in good taste.

Miles started lessons through school when he was five, in one of those group keyboard classes. When he was six we started lessons at home with Gabe, the teacher from the public school outreach program of The Piano School Of New York. A great program and a great teacher. For the final lesson all the kids in the program were required to play to the gathered families on a Steinway Concert Grand in a recital room at Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time Warner Building on Columbus Circle. Miles, cool, calm and confident to a fault, played his piece, then jammed a bit with his teacher and after all that, leveraged the occasion to get a Pineapple Sunday from the Mister Softee truck parked on the corner.

During this time I started pulling free sheet music off the internet that we could work on together. I would play a piece and if he liked it I would show him where to put his fingers. He watched, memorized and repeated in a way that I never could. He continued in school lessons when he was seven but the music was not interesting to him. These school lessons tend to present the instrument as a fun thing to do but it didn’t seem like Miles wanted it to be fun. Fun wasn’t going to hold his attention. We had noticed that the part of his home lessons that he liked best were when he and Gabe would jam to some simple blues progressions. At these moments his concentration level was at its height. With all this in mind I went in search of a jazz teacher who would work with him.

Throughout this period his language and reading skills really started to gel. He was getting help at school and he was playing piano at home. But it wasn’t until we landed Sonelius Smith that it all came together. Sonelius is an old school jazz man with a reality check on business. He’s played with some of the greats including Lionel Hampton and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He talks to Miles about the diversity of styles he’ll need to play in order to make a living. This to an eight year old. Sonelius has no time for fun and games. Piano is a serious pursuit. He’ll start and stop Miles over and over again trying to make a point. There’s no tickling the ivories with Sonelius. It’s about mastering the instrument through mastering yourself. At eight years old I wouldn’t have lasted a single lesson. I’d have curled up inside and refused to go back again. Miles is amazing and unshakeable. Sonelius’s critical tone rolls off him with no effect. Miles has made remarkable progress and in the process learned how to ignore Sonelius at particular moments, apparently for the sole joy of getting under his skin. Miles is thriving on the discipline. He’s playing Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Mongo SantaMaria, some classical works as well as improvisation. His reading has improved dramatically and his math homework is painless. More than that, as the white father of a beloved mixed race son, I believe Sonelius is the black man that Miles needs in his life. He’s like another grandfather. The one who you respect because he’ll whoop you upside the head if you sass him.

We have three boys and it goes without saying that one on one time is at a premium around here. Miles will go to the piano on his own to practice or just to experiment but when it comes time to really concentrate I am at his right hand. We talk about the notes, intervals and fingering. I read the music as he plays and I point out weak spots and mistakes. He corrects me when I’m wrong. Recently he’s started to ask me if I think I can do better and of course the answer is no. He loves to hear that. He enjoys letting me know that he is better than me at this thing. I enjoy letting him know that he is better than me at this thing. I am able to function and teach and be supportive without being masterful. And at this point I am reminded that a long time ago I learned as much as I was able, that it has exceeded in value any worth I have ever assigned to it and that it was just enough for me to help my little boy.

Salt Peanuts

Hey Drew,

Did you ever use a flavored ChapStick and it reminded you of grape soda when you were a kid and that got you thinking about reaching up into the old soda machine in front of the gas station on Old York Road to liberate a bottle without the bother of paying, how much was it, 35¢? All because Eddie, the bad kid down the block, thought it was a good idea and you didn’t know how or even why to say no. It was a small thrill on a hot and humid suburban summer night; right up until the cops skidded to a halt. We bolted but I couldn’t make it over the wall so I slid under a parked car, gravel buried in my skin and held my breath so tightly that my chest hurts just telling about it.

Memory is peculiar isn’t it. And the more remote the memory the more peculiar it gets. The things that surface from distant memories are the things that didn’t even bear mentioning back when the dormant past was the urgent present. The subject of Monday morning’s meeting will be lost forever by Thursday afternoon but something about Miss Dulcet’s lipgloss, her perfume and the way she looked, reflected upside down in the polished surface of the conference room table, those details will revisit you on your deathbed.

And in every instance we are reminded that memory is the echo of five senses. The smell of roasting peanuts can trip trap doors to anywhere. A bus ride can abruptly transport you decades. Every song triggers a memory and the quality of light, at any given moment, can let loose a snowfall of associations. Memories are such tangled and sentimental creatures. The point is, we are constantly reminded that not only is the distant past not so distant, it hasn’t even passed.

I guess you can see where I’m headed with this.

When I was a kid my mom would stick me on the Greyhound Bus to Atlantic City to spend a few days with my grandparents. I went during Easter Vacation, well before the summer season started, so the place was pretty much abandoned. I barely recall a thing about my grandfather except that he loved to play Solitaire. Solitaire isn’t the kind of card game that invites a lot of company. My grandmother, my Bobba, didn’t like to do anything as much as she liked to walk. She also liked to watch soap operas in her birthday suit but again, not an activity that benefits from company. They lived on the boardwalk at the Vermont Arms in an apartment overlooking the ocean a generation after Atlantic City’s heyday and a generation before gambling arrived.

What I did there on my visits was walk the boardwalk with my grandmother. And I don’t mean stroll. We walked with the purpose of refugees fleeing an active volcano. We would go from Captain Starn’s Seafood Restaurant with its giant curio shop at the north end by Absecon Inlet, to as far south as we could go before running out of boardwalk or daylight. Even then she would take a moment to look further south; consider her options. I don’t know what was calling to her but she always listened to it before we turned back. Perhaps it was some inner voice urging her on to conquest and adventure. Whatever the case, I have no doubt whatsoever that if the boardwalk extended to Cuba we would have attempted breakfast in Havana.

The Atlantic City of the 60’s was an open air museum. A run down version of the Atlantic City of the 40’s, 30’s and 20’s. Those marches took us through a landscape of oddities and a near endless stream of my grandmother’s memories. My grandmother was deeply self centered but, to my memory, her reminiscence were not about herself so much as they were about the landscape. What pier used to be here and what entertainments used to be there. It may have been through her that I learned that every place has a story and every object in that place also has a story. There were rolling chairs. An oversized one or two passenger wheeled high-back chair made of wicker and pushed by a hired hand. As a child I remember that it was not at all clear which direction was forward or even what their function was. There were hundreds of them lined up, sometimes stacked up as though ready for a bonfire but I never once saw a person ride in one.

We would stop at Steel Pier and Steeplechase Pier which were open but just barely. They weren’t so much open as they were simply unlocked. Mr. Peanut would be wandering around like a movie extra outside the store at the formerly world famous Haddon Hall Hotel. Everything was moldy, faded, and decrepit. Everyone I saw was old. Of course when you’re eight almost everyone really is old but that feeling remains stuck to the memory even after I have joined the ranks of the walking dead.

While I appreciate the forces that were in play that turned Atlantic City into a gambling Mecca I think it’s a shame that no one seems to have given any thought to turning the entire place into a Zombie Theme Park. Where were the big thinkers, the visionaries, when such an opportunity knocked? They were there of course, just like they always are but nobody listened. Money replaced memory. History and therefore meaning were the casualties.

Though my grandmother and I traveled miles in both directions, the place I liked best was the pinball arcade right next door to their building. It was an arcade out of The Twilight Zone. A genuine time warp where you got to kill an enemy that was already dead. Every machine was a relic of the second world war. At least one would hope so with names like Zap the Jap and Kill the Kraut. Every kid could contribute to the war effort by dropping a coin, looking through the periscope, knocking over the drop target destroyer and sending a thousand men to a watery grave. Preferably with sharks.

Those machines and their murderous innocence are gone now, along with the ramshackle structure that housed them and along with my grandparents who lived next door at the Vermont Arms.

Call Me Irresponsible

Illustration by Clayton Mednick

Hey Drew,

Are you an Eccentric? A Rugged Individualist? A Sententious Crank? How about a nut job. Are you a nut job? Maybe a Whacko? A Fruitcake? A Head Case? An Oddball? I’m none of those things but it seems to me that everyone else is. I mean, think about it. Children appear to be a bunch of lunatics. Teenagers are incomprehensibly deranged. Old people are chronically demented and everyone else is non compos mentis. It’s a little strange how nobody notices their own peculiarities and hypocrisies. And absolutely nobody wants to take responsibility for their actions. We often describe people as suffering from delusions but the reality is quite the opposite. It’s not them, it’s us. We’re all suffering from each other’s delusions. From one another’s common, yet persistent, disorderly editing of reality.

I guess you can see where I’m headed with this.

I’m sitting here on the front stoop watching the kids pick on each other. It’s like a microcosm of every regional conflict in the world.

Me against my brother.

Me and my brother against my neighbor.

Me, my brother and my neighbor against that kid over yonder.

If they were old enough to cross the street, I fear they would make a foray into the next block (after waiting for the light and looking both ways) in search of plunder. A half pint raiding party with plastic light sabers picking up conscripts and kicking over the Lego castles of the weak along the way to pillaging the local candy shop. When the parents show up there’s going to be a lot of finger pointing.

And of course that behavior doesn’t really abate when people get older. The grabbing and the bickering, the cheating and the name calling. The only difference with grown- ups is the scope of the undertaking and often times not even that. Adults are just big children. And you know what that means?  It means that when the lawyers show up there’s going to be a lot of finger pointing.

The nice thing about kids is that while kids are as averse as adults to taking responsibility for their actions, at least kids aren’t pretending to be doing you any favors. As cruel as kids can be, their convictions are as short as their attention spans. With kids you can see the knife coming. And the knife is flimsy and plastic with a glow in the dark blade. Not so with adults.

It’s been said that every possible universe is possible and so I imagine there must be a universe where everyone takes responsibility. And not just responsibility for themselves but for everything. The cheese goes bad on the plate and the person standing closest points it out and apologizes. All the other people in the room say ” That’s ok Mork, it wasn’t you, it was me.” or ” Nope, nope, I did it!” or “Ok, if you think so but still, I feel just awful about it.” Then everyone chimes in together “We’ll try better next time.”

Neurotic? Sure! Unbelievable? Not so fast!

I worked in an environment like that once; where everyone was happy to take responsibility. It was my first job in heavy construction and it was a pier renovation. A dive job. I learned the responsibility ploy from my mentor, a commercial diver and whacked out Vietnam vet named Scotty. Scotty used to say “I’m the second best diver in the business. Everyone else is the best; just ask them.” Whenever something fell overboard, and on water jobs things fall overboard all the time, Scotty would say he lost it. No one bothered with recriminations because it was widely understood that this kind of thing happens and that Scotty could kill you with less effort than it takes to blink and in about as much time. Also, Scotty hadn’t lost anything. Everybody knew that Scotty was just happy to take the blame. And everyone else, when not eagerly grabbing the blame for themselves, was glad to have such a convenient place to put it. Scotty understood that assigning blame doesn’t move the job forward, it’s just divisive. But almost everyone else on this particular job was of the same mind. When asked where a missing tool was, guys would generously offer up a  “Gee, the last time I saw it, it was in my garage” or “Yeah, I think I sold that to my brother-in-law.”

Neurotic? Sure! But these are the tradeoffs we make. And there are advantages.

Everyone taking responsibility creates a rock bottom level of tension between people. And it takes the time consuming task of assigning blame right off the table. Assigning blame is so rarely of any benefit. I’ve listened to so many stories of love gone wrong. He was mean, she was demanding. I always give the same advice. Assigning blame is pointless. You didn’t get along. You weren’t compatible. That’s all.

All that time listening to the lovelorn, lost to me because of my own willingness and because I guess I look like the kind of person people can trust. Alas, they’re wrong. When people ask me if I can keep a secret I always say “No.” That kind of honesty inevitably has people telling me things I have no business knowing. Counterintuitive I know but that’s practically a definition of human nature. The truth is I can’t keep a secret any better than I can keep a cookie. If I have it, it’s a goner. It might be me or it might be hereditary; it’s hard to say. For generations our family motto has been,

 “Your Secret Will Die With Me.”

 

A nice double entendre, no? It’s on our family crest in the original Norwegian.

 

Din Hemmelige Vil Dø Med Meg.”

And while I do understand that we are Ukrainian peasants without land, title or crest, I also understand that the reason my clan has blonde hair and blue eyes is that footloose Viking dandies were galavanting around the Ukrainian countryside looking for soul food and a little snuggle. Therefore we claim our birthright as Vikings. And Jews too. We’re not trying to dodge an investigation regarding our whereabouts on the morning of 1 day B.C. Plain and simple we are Viking Jews. Yes we pillage. Yes we destroy. Yes we leave our dirty clothes on the floor and empty milk containers in the fridge. But our ambitions are fueled by good intentions. We’re genuinely sorry about any inconvenience our ransacking may have caused. We feel just awful about it. Honest, we’ll try better next time.