Man Child

llustration: Clayton Mednick

Hey Drew,

I don’t remember much about my puberty and I don’t recall a thing about yours, which is probably just as well, but maybe you can give me a hand here. A little advice to your little cousin to help me through this trying time.

We had a week of extreme and changeable weather around here. Very dramatic. The Weather Channel was an orgy of predictions. The meteorologist, April Shauer, was so excited she had a fine mist of sweat on her upper lip. It was like the atmospheric turbulence had moved into her panties.

Then, just when things seemed to have settled down, our middle guy Miles sprouted almost a foot overnight. None of his clothes fit in the morning. I had to take a day off from work so the wife could take him to the doctor. We thought it was gonna be a bigger deal than it was. Clothing wise he actually fits nicely into Clayton’s clothes even though Clay is 5 years older. I hope Clay doesn’t mind sharing with Miles for a few months until we see what happens but you know a whole wardrobe is a lot of money, particularly if he’s gonna outgrow it all in 36 hours. What do you think, is that unfair?

The doctor said it was the most extreme case of Precocious Puberty he’d seen in quite a while but apparently not so rare as one would imagine. Something to do with the Pituitary yadda yadda. Who can understand doctors anyway? I swear, I think they just make it up as they go. I know that’s what the rest of us do, so it’s a pretty fair assumption, right? Even so, it’s probably just as well I’m not a doctor.

My mother used to say that she could have been a doctor but she hates sick people. Know thyself, right? Well I’ll tell you something else I know; kids can make you feel old in a hurry. Especially this kid!

I mean the height is kind of shocking but not nearly so much as his change of voice. He went right down into the lower registers and is able to hit a low C on the piano. That probably doesn’t mean much to you but when he’s humming it actually moves a glass of water across the table by vibration. Weird, I know.

The other disconcerting thing is the beard and chest hair. Way more than me, which I know isn’t saying much, but for an 8 year old it’s pretty startling. And boy is he strong. Every time Butch, the neighbor’s Pit Bull, looks at him Miles snarls and Butch runs away in terror. I’m actually enjoying that but don’t tell anyone. I think Miles put a beating on him when no one was looking. Only room for one alpha male on this block, Buuutch!

Now don’t get me wrong, he’s still the same sweet kid he’s always been but he’s a little more insistent about things like cookies and bedtime. We’re trying to act as if it’s nothing out of the ordinary but you can tell he knows that a rule change may be coming his way. For the moment he’s still susceptible to the old bait and switch but that’s only gonna last for so long. The upshot is that either we can address it now, before he makes demands, kind of get the upper hand or we can take a wait and see approach, deal with it as an evolving situation. Proactive or reactive, that’s the question.

Ok, so I started this letter yesterday and never mind about the question of sharing Clay’s clothes. He must have had a hell of a night because this morning he’s looking pretty comfortable in my clothes. And he wants to borrow the car and get a job. I mean, I admire his drive but still, I’m a little conflicted. I wish you were here to help me on this. I know you could talk some sense into him. A parent’s authority is so greatly diminished as a child reaches the parent’s height, but there is something about a stranger that always commands a kid’s respect. I mean, the job thing might be ok but I don’t know. What do you think? Should he finish second grade first? What a dilemma!!

Where do I draw the line? Where would you? Anything taboo just becomes more desirable, right? For instance the Scotch. I had to hold the line there didn’t I?  I’m still the parent, right? But still there’s the need for flexibility. So the single malt is forbidden but I bent on the blended. Compromise, right? But with an eye towards the future. Right?

I don’t know, it’s so disorienting. I mean, it seems like only yesterday he was just a little kid. Or maybe it was the day before yesterday.

Anyway, I guess it’s true what everyone says. They really do grow up so fast.

Que Sera Sera

Hey Drew,

My wife had to work last Saturday and so did Charlotte, the neighbor across the street. Her husband Chris was left with their two girls Miranda, 5, and Kendal, 7. They are a mixed race couple, same as us. Chris had six tickets for a members only event at the Brooklyn Zoo that included free rides on the restored Brooklyn Carousel as well as snacks and events at The Lefferts Homestead, an 18th century farmhouse. Chris called with the invite for me and my little guys Cole, 7 and Miles, 8.

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

Two middle aged white guys with four kids of color in tow. Two boys, two girls, two men. Gay! Pretty much guarantees that you’ll be ignored by the single mom’s and all the dads. Couples are occupied so you become a magnet for married moms, alone with their kids, looking for a gay guy to girl talk with. I let Chris field the heifers while I kept a laissez faire eye on the chilluns and watched the neurotics. It’s always fun to watch today’s parents molding tomorrow’s psychopaths. I try to keep a positive spin on it.

There isn’t really much to tell about the event. The zoo had animals; the big hit was the baboon’s ass. Bright red for reasons that only another baboon could fully appreciate though the kids came in a highly vocal second. The homestead had old fashioned handmade toys for kids to try, like 6 inch wooden stilts. I mean, what is the point of stilts that don’t make you appreciably taller? I guess when you’re under 4 feet tall, 6 inches is a big deal.

“Look at me dad, look at me! I’m a giant!”

The boys had them pretty well mastered in a few minutes, the girls wouldn’t go near them without crying. The kids are too old for the storytelling circle and too young to appreciate the house, built either in 1777 or 1783 depending on your source. It has a sloping concave roof with wooden shingles. There is a photo of it being moved across Flatbush avenue into the park about 100 years ago. In the photo there is a slowly cresting wave of brick houses and low rise apartment buildings creeping up the blocks on all sides. Blocks that didn’t exist when the house was built. Blocks that aren’t even squared to the lot the house sits on. The house seems dropped into the scene like Dorothy’s house into Munchkin Land.

The photo was taken at that moment when it wasn’t clear who the intruder was in the situation. Were the buildings overwhelming the pastoral scene or was the farmhouse getting in the way of progress? I guess the answer depended on whether you were standing on a porch or a stoop. Oddly enough the loser in that battle is the last one standing. Many of the new buildings in the photograph are gone now, replaced by apartment blocks only a generation later. The remaining ones have been stripped of what little dignity they originally possessed; glassed over and turned into cell phone stores, roti shops and cheap clothing outlets. Down the street, a few steps into Prospect Park, under the maples and sycamores, the homestead has its dignity and its porch intact.

And then there was the carousel. It’s an old beauty and as it is a device that goes round and round it’s purpose is to make you want to puke. Coleman was a little intimidated by it and wanted to sit on a bench instead of on the back of one of the horsies. As luck would have it the benches were few and taken so while the others rode, Cole and I sat out and watched. As luck would also have it the other kids wanted to ride again and Chris was looking a little green so we slipped into the cool vinyl couch of the beast, with brave faces and a nervous belly.

I never used to have this problem. When I was a lad I used to go on a ride called The Zipper. To my mind the reasons for calling it The Zipper aren’t entirely clear. I think it probably should have been called Vomit Now. This would have been the very early 70’s and the carnival was on the lower fields of Grey Nuns on Old York Road. The carnival was designed to take the small change from the kids and keep them busy while the adults played illegal slot machines up in the school. The slots were arranged in an oval with their backs open to the center where the operator could keep an eye on the innards. Whenever a machine was about to make a colossal payout a nun would come over to the machine, graciously ask to jump the line, take the handle away from the player and start jacking coins down the slot. Within a pull or two she would hit the jackpot, scoop up her winnings and walk away from the adoring parishioner she had just ripped off. And the adoring idiot would just marvel at the sister’s good luck. I swear it’s true. First hand knowledge. I was sitting cross legged under the table watching with my friend Richard as we were digging dropped quarters out from between the machines.

The Zipper was basically a dozen tipsy cages spinning on a pair of drive chains that were rotating around a parallel pair of 40 foot propellers that where spinning. Rated number 1 on any carnival ride shortlist, every description of it is priceless. I have only just now learned from Wikipedia that I was riding the pre safety improved model. Improvements came in ’77 after a hefty number of gruesome and litigable accidents. It is, in fact, hard to think of any description of this ride that would even remotely suggest that those injurious outcomes were anything but deliberate. I urge you to have a look at the Youtube clips of it and then consider this little gem of a fact. The stripped down model I rode turned about 40% faster.

Ordinarily I am loathe to use anyone else’s writing beyond the length of a short quote but this entry from another web site is just too precious to pass up.

# 1 Ride – The Zipper

Truly the most metal of all the amusements – the Zipper is King of Kings amongst carnival rides. No matter where you are, in any state, in any town, the Zipper ALWAYS guarantees you the following three things:

1) The most insane, scary, drunk and high ride operator in the entire fair

2) The largest line, consisting of more middle schoolers smoking cigarettes per capita than anywhere else in the nation

3) The ONLY ride that gives you both a 10 in Fun and a 10 in Likelihood of a Fatal Accident.

The Zipper rules all that comes before it – a 48 foot tall beast, where the only thing preventing you from meeting an untimely demise is a two inch long pin, that’s half an inch in diameter. The ultimate deathtrap, the Zipper rewards those brave enough to look past the squeaking, creaking, and falling of integral pieces with an incredibly intense riding experience that changes every time you go on. What’s that clicking noise? No time to think about it – you’re being hurled head first toward the pavement. Is that a screw that just hit me? Doesn’t matter, because we’re going BACKWARDS, baby.

Nice right? Not anymore. A 99 year old carousel is now an alarming prospect. I’m sure it’s partly mental but still, after I turned 40, everything that could make me dizzy did. After I turned 50 even the mirror became disorienting. Then again that may be another story.

So there I was, facing down the hellish, nauseating threat of the carousel. The platform spinning round and round. The horses going up and down. And only two padded benches for the cowards. The merry old gentleman operator, a clever disguise for the roaring soul eater. He whose name must not be spoken. For a reckless torpedo of a kid, Coleman can have extraordinary moments of fear over the most mundane events. In retrospect, it was less like fear and more like shyness. As if a formal introduction to the wooden horsies might be all it would have taken to dissipate his anxiety. “Coleman, this is Sea Biscuit. Sea Biscuit, this is Coleman. You two are gonna be great buddies”.

I know his anxiety must have been on my mind because as the carousel started turning and I began testing myself, successfully, as to whether I could make myself dizzy I started to look for stable points for us to focus on. I started by pointing out the music maker. A one man band, minus the man, called a Wurlitzer Band Organ, it sits on the blacktop, unmoving, in the central area along with the drive motor and operator, the carousel spinning around them. Opposite the Wurlitzer there is a bare breasted caryatid, her arms draped languidly over her softly quaffed hair. Her breasts are high and her nipples suggest that she was carved on a cold day. A surprising addition really to a ride that dates back to 1912, and yet it doesn’t look at all out of place. Personally I  think they should have one like her on every street corner in America.

Now we’re picking up speed; pushing I would guess 6 rpm maybe even 7. I need a strategy, a game-plan to get us through this. Or maybe just to get me through this. When you look towards the center of a spinning object, as we did with the fulsome caryatid, you are looking at the slowest moving part of that object. If you are seated on that spinning object it’s a pretty good tactic nausea avoidance-wise. Better yet is to look at something else on that object that is spinning with you. As a matter of relativity you are now standing still, centrifugal forces aside. But staring at my hands is only going to alarm Coleman so I look up and I see the very slowly turning crank. The horsies that go up and down are not pushed up from below they are pulled up from above by a driveshaft with offsets like a hand cranked drill laying on its side. As the shaft turns these offsets describe a small circle. The crank passes through a sleeve at the top of the pole that carries the horse up and down and the pole slips up and down in a guide mounted to the floor of the carousel. Cole is either very interested in how this simple mechanism works or he is too petrified to resist my guided tour. Either way the ride is soon over and as the last strains of Que Sera Sera played by organ, xylophone and drums fade away I can see he’s ready to ride again.

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.

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.

Bedtime

I knew right away it was the beginning of the end.

He stayed in our bed for the first two years or so. I don’t think my mother approved. I believe she thought it didn’t encourage independence. She cloaked her concern by appealing to my pragmatic self-interest. The family bed didn’t sound very good if only because it interfered with “intimacy.” That conversation ended after I pointed out that the bed wasn’t the only place to get “intimate.”

No, the family bed ended because our bed faces east and west and like a live compass his head always ended up facing north. Even in a king sized bed there wasn’t enough room and I got tired of him kicking me on the way to his magnetic repose.

From the time he began staying in his own bed or at least starting out in his own bed, there was always a connection from his room to ours. Amputees talk about ghost limbs. They report that a severed limb is not only still there but itches. The mind fills in that loss. The umbilical cord is like that. At night it stretches easily from his room to ours. During the day it stretches all the way to school but its influence is diminished, wrapped and tangled as it is with all those other cords. It’s a good thing it’s only a metaphor. That influence is slow to fade. I suspect it is like a parabolic curve that forever approaches its infinity but never quite arrives.

The call would come in the night. “Mommy.” And off I would trudge to his room to bring him back into the cozy fold of our bed with a quick stop for a midnight pee on the way. Eventually he found the way on his own and really it was remarkable and exciting. A little rustling from down the hall. Like a dog that can’t quite get the right number of circles one way and then the other to find its rest. And then that sound, pad pad pad pad pad pad pad. It makes you laugh to hear it. It almost sounds human but the weight of the footfall is wrong; too improbably light. And then the hands thrown straight up in the air beside our bed. Not a word, just him standing there, arms thrust up. Not like a holdup at gunpoint. No, this is more like superman soaring up to heaven. Or like a high diver who has sprung from his board, reached the apex of his dive and is simply waiting for gravity to turn him towards his final fall into a sea of arms and covers. He never made a sound but then he never had to wait for his flight.

In his own bed he would always start out with his mother. Eventually the routine became that when he awoke and called “Mommy”, she would go lie down with him until he went back to sleep. Occasionally I would start out with him but I was not a first round draft choice. It really happened because his testing of her began to extend beyond lights out. He simply wouldn’t stop talking. She would threaten to leave but eventually threats stopped working and then she would leave and oh the laments. The crying and the sorrys. The agony seemed so real and maybe it was. Maybe they are manic-depressives when they are tired because no sooner was she back in his bed than he was excitedly chattering away again.

Enter Daddy. Bedtime disciplinarian. It worked out great because as soon as I lie down in the dark I am history. Hell, as soon as I lie down period. A book or two, lights out and that’s all. No one to talk to, no one to test. I’m already in dreamland. Half the time I would fall asleep while reading him a book. Sometimes I would drop off in the middle of a sentence and he would grab my nose or push my head to wake me. “Reeead” would come his voice through the fog. Many a time my eyes would close and I would hear myself finish a sentence all wrong; the last comprehended word having triggered some kind of random association. I would hear my voice behind the black screen of closed eyelids and think, “hey, those aren’t the words”. I would catch myself and open my eyes and we would look at each other and crack up. Sleep was never a chore and we became good at it.

Now, in the middle of the night comes the call for “Daddy”. Or the occasional “Mommy, I mean, Daddy” which his mother finds particularly galling. I go to him and we shuffle off for the midnight pee. He usually has a word or two like “let’s get cozy” or “I’m having trouble with my covers”. He lies down and I flip the sheet and cover and as they settle down over him he says “come in” like it’s a cabin in the forest. We are like two conspirators in our cuddling. He rests his head on my shoulder and I kiss his curls. When he turns over and rolls his head on to his pillow I know he’s asleep again and I return to the big bed. I am aware that eventually he will stop calling. More and more he sleeps through the night. He’s still a kid but his bladder is growing up.

Much of my parenting revolves around the awareness that he will outgrow almost everything without my help. For a short time when he was four and would ask me to carry him I would say, “No, you’re a big boy you can walk yourself.” I’m sure I thought I was teaching him to be strong but then it occurred to me that he didn’t need to be weaned from this request. Someday he was just going to stop asking and I was the one who would be alone in my regret. Carrying is just a hug in motion and soon, too soon, will come the last. Yes he’s heavy but so what. I’m strong.

And then, just a few nights ago it happened. He called for Daddy and when I came in he wouldn’t talk to me. Just a low growl. We went for a quick pee and I put him back in the bed. I straightened the covers and he grunted and didn’t make room for me. I asked him if he wanted me to stay and he grunted again and turned away. No room at the inn. I returned to the big bed and felt the strength of that cord again and that the balance of pull works in two directions. Like fishing; sometimes you pull on the fish and sometimes the fish pulls on you but in the end the big one always gets away.