Craft

I watched an excellent documentary on Frank Zappa, an eccentric musical genius and original thinker who was also a hell of a guitar player.  The film was called Eat That Question (from the title of a Zappa tune).  It struck me how devoted to his craft the almost maniacal Mr. Zappa was.

If you have something you love to do, it is a beautiful thing to hone it to the highest excellence you can reach.   That honing strikes me as a lifelong effort and it seems to me the minute you become totally satisfied with the craft you’ve attained, like, say, Eric Clapton apparently did, you go on autopilot, begin to roll backwards and start to take on a certain stink.

There is a craft, for lack of a better word,  to everything we practice.   A way of doing the thing each time we do it, with an eye toward doing it even better.   In the case of writing, for instance, it is finding a thought or feeling that is important enough for you to focus on and express.   Then you need to put it into words.   Then comes the most important part, to arrange the words so that everything is as clear to the reader as you can make it.   If you decide it’s good enough, before it is, you are not taking your craft very seriously.

(Then you will need to have another cup of coffee, shower and put your pants on, it’s already almost four o’clock.  Yee gads!)

Writing for real

I have to consider the possibility that all this writing I do is driven by a compulsion similar to what I regard as my graphomania, a sometimes uncontrollable urge to make marks on paper.   I write that sentence not to castigate or judge myself, but to view myself for a minute as others, untroubled by a need to set their thoughts and feelings down clearly in words, must sometimes view me.  

Put it this way, you can tell a complicated story to a friend who is quite interested in what you are talking about and they will always hear you out.  That same story, set out in 1,500 words, might well be unbearable for them to read.   Why is this insane bastard sending me this long section of his obsessive personal diary?   This insane bastard sings like a bird, why doesn’t he perform in a coffee house instead of madly singing to me?    We have coffee houses and clubs for singing birds, why is this bird sitting on my shoulder and singing directly into my ear?   Ewwwww…

Years ago, when I drew a lot, everywhere, somebody sitting next to me on the subway would from time to time ask me if I could always draw.   They sometimes seemed to be looking for a tip about how to draw.   I used to tell them that I always loved to draw, though I wasn’t especially good at it when I started, though I always found it great fun.   If you love something you will keep doing it and it’s natural that you’ll get better and better.   The love of the thing will keep you delighted to do it.   The delight will keep you at it and your mastery of the thing will improve.

I have often thought of this in regard to other things.   When you strike a note on a guitar, if you love the sound of the guitar, you will notice there are different ways to sound the note.   There is a great pleasure in this discovery.   If you strike the note with the soft pad of your finger the note has one sound, kind of round.   Think of the great bossa nova guitarists.   If you strike the note hard with a pick, your finger immobile on the note, you get a certain sound, you can also “attack” softly with a pick.   The kind of pick, hard or flexible, influences the sound of the note as does the gauge of the strings.   In addition to picking the note, you can hammer the note on, you can pull off to get another note.   If you fret the note below where it naturally sounds on the fretboard and bend the string up to it, you get another sound entirely, a singing sound.  You can bend the note one whole step, as blues guitarists and rock stars generally do — one distinct sound, or you can bend the note up a half step, as Django used to, a much different, and playful, sound.  There are also countless microtones you can stop on as you bend from one tone to another.   Mr. Clapton is a master of this, as is, more notably perhaps, and more masterfully, Mr. Beck,  Jeff Beck.  There is vibrato, plucking, tapping, fast picking, sliding a la glissando, harmonics, all kinds of ways to play a note.

All to say, if you love a thing, it is not work to learn more about it, to study it, to be so compelled that the thing itself is of infinite value to you.

I appreciate, more deeply than I can say, that in a robustly commercial society where all real value is monetary (and an unmonetized space, like the ad-free hold time of a business phone call, is a sadly wasted space, to those who love monetization above all else) what I have said above makes absolutely no sense.   A psychologist may agree that in terms of stress reduction, or increasing self-esteem, daily engagement in activities you do well and enjoy greatly are ‘mastery exercises’ that have mental health benefits to the individual.   Don’t found your life on them, mind you, but they have a certain value.

Found your life on your love of them at your peril, friends.   You may find yourself with excellent control of pencil, pen and brush, able to “kill an edge” with great precision in a way that will impress your friends if they are watching.   There used to be an ad on matchbooks “learn to drive the big rigs, flash a big bill-fold and impress your friends!”   If you’re doing it to impress your friends,  I completely understand.   Who am I to opine about what motivations are more noble or laudable than others?  As a teenager I deliberately set out to master a little piano, which I taught myself from what I knew on guitar, to impress girls.   It once actually worked!  She sat on my lap as I played Beatles songs with my arms around her, and the rest, a veritable magical mystery tour.

I sometimes imagine the electronic book of my life.  It would be lavishly illustrated, with some of the millions of images I continually make with no purpose except love of making the marks.  My desk is continually overflowing with them.  It is horrible in a way, this profusion of useless but largely beautiful debris.  I would select a hundred compelling images  and put them in the colorful book.  I would take a hundred pages of my best writing, maybe two hundred, place them between the pictures.   Since the technology is there, I’d add sound files, with some of the music I have come up with over the years.   You’d be happy to buy it.  You’d love it, if you were the right kind of person.

I try not to judge, though I am often unsuccessful in this.   People have very different experiences and expectations of life.  My own are eccentric in the eyes of many people, I realize that.  It comes with dancing to your own idiosyncratic rhythm section.  

I love reading well-written history books sometimes.  I love Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, a masterpiece.   She writes, about the assumption, in the Jerusalem court that tried him for his enormous bureaucratic crimes,  that Eichmann was a normal middle class German of his time:

They preferred to conclude from his occasional lies that he was a liar — and missed the greatest moral and even legal challenge of the whole case.  Their case rested on the assumption that the defendant, like all “normal persons,” must have been aware of the criminal nature of his acts, and Eichmann was indeed normal insofar as he was “no exception within the Nazi regime.”  However, under the conditions of the Third Reich only “exceptions” could be expected to react “normally.”   This simple truth of the matter created a dilemma for the judges which they could neither resolve nor escape.  (p.27)

As for the title of this post, real writing, at its best, makes you stop to wonder.  It changes, even for only a moment, how you think and feel and makes you consider your own life and the world around you in a different way.   It is wonderful shit.

The Awful Ease of Incoherence

I’ve been getting a bit of the incoherent narrative full-stink in my personal life lately, and, of course, we are all subjected it to it daily in the news.    Here’s a quick illustration of the difference between a coherent story and an incoherent one, so we’re all on the same page.

Coherent:   Humans and animals are in escalating danger of habitat loss and extinction, in large part due to massive, destructive, human activities.   We don’t need science to tell us the earth herself is regularly screaming in alarm.   The largest California wildfire in recorded history is raging at the moment, along with several other wildfires in the state.   Climate disruption has increased the number of these catastrophic events every year:  record hurricanes, monsoons, floods, droughts, landslides, earthquakes in regions that never had earthquakes,  tornados in regions that have never had tornados, plus a new horror, never seen before:  fire tornadoes.  We regularly endure record heat waves, record cold streaks, new records for heat set year after year, “hundred year storms” coming along to devastate us every year or two.  

The science only confirms the disastrous state of nature we are able to observe taking lives all over in the globe on a regular basis.  Citizens of the entire world are aware of this perilous situation, only in America is there any controversy attached to this, and only because billionaire fossil fuel titans have invested countless millions to create armies of zombie-like deniers called, elegantly, “climate change skeptics”.

Incoherent version:  Human liberty itself is under attack.   Our government has become a tyranny.  Scientists with an anti-freedom agenda have conspired to make it look like there’s a correlation, a cause and effect, if you will, between the millions of barrels of fossil fuel, and the tons of clean coal, burned every day, the lucrative, clean extraction of natural gas from deep inside the earth, and the supposed warming of the earth.   The earth warms and cools in natural cycles.  Humans have nothing to do with it.   Government is the enemy, not humble servants of the people like us who want to make sure everyone has enough gas for their cars.   Without gasoline the trucks can’t deliver food to the cities.  Our very culture, our survival and our liberty, is under attack and those vicious partisans are weaponizing disputed science as the tip of the spear.  The science is disputed, there is no consensus among the mere 98% of climate scientists, including at NASA, who say this is so.

We are treated to the weaponized tweets of an infantile, irrationally angry winner-in-chief every time we turn on the news.   These tweets make no sense except in one way:  they constantly shift the focus back to incoherence.  If there is a focused discussion of some important issue being maintained in the media, there will be a nasty presidential tweet suddenly calling out son-of-a-bitch Lebron James, attempting to denigrate the NBA great with a strongly implied “nigger” thrown in there for good measure, because the people who love real winners don’t shrink from non-politically correct speech.   Lebron James is overrated– not as good as MIKE!  Lebron should shut his fucking mouth and stop being a loser.   I could beat Lebron in a game of one on one, Lebron sucks.   Etc.  

Soon, that’s today’s story.   “The President today attacked the NBA’s greatest player, LeBron James.”   The president will double down by tweeting  the name of another player, who played his last game fifteen years ago, who supposedly (incoherently) makes Lebron look like a pile of poop.   Lebron will be interviewed about this, will respond with his characteristic aplomb, but seriously, WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK?

It is not a problem.  The world we live in now is largely ruled by incoherence.  Do not be fooled into thinking the facts matter, that the identical stories of fifty eye witnesses who are complete strangers to each other make any difference, same with recordings of actual conversations, videotapes of the hideous thing happening right in front of the camera phone, the world itself as you perceive it does not actually exist!  WINNING exists, and LOSING.  If you’re not winning, you’re losing.  You’re all fucking losers, tweets the world’s greatest winner, only I WIN and you all can’t stand it, losers.   Jealous, pathetic losers.   SAD!

The fish rots from the head, they say.   The only trickle down I’ve ever seen in my sixty-two years living in America is the trickle down of incivility, in-your-face hostility, hereditary entitlement, the corporate killer mentality coming home to roost in every argument everywhere.  Never admit fault, that concedes liability.  For the same reason, never apologize, unless with massive qualifications before, during and after the calculated apology.   If confronted, hit back harder.   If confronted with something you cannot counter, become indignant, completely change the conversation.  If necessary, invent some inflammatory provocation to put the enemy on the back foot.  If necessary, gather allies and threaten violence.  Most people are cowards, outgunned ten to one they will usually give up like the pussies they are.  People talk big, but a loaded gun talks much, much louder than any bigmouth, no matter how smart he thinks he is.

This is the only thing that trickles down, this psychopathic impulse to dominate at any cost.   It’s the only game in town, yo.   I note that most of us do not play this game, or that we try our best not to play it.   Anyone who has whiffed this foul game full-stink will make every effort to not to replicate it.  Still, it is pervasive.   The values of our society come from what we see reflected in the public behavior of our elected officials, ambassadors, celebrities.   The party of “I’ve got mine and fuck you, you fucking whining loser” has been prevailing the last few decades.  It is America’s one truly bipartisan coalition.

I console myself by reading histories of fascism.   There are always good people– on one side, on one side — who stand against the encroaching totalitarian incoherence.  On the other side there are millions who go along with authoritarians out of a genuine desire to put their boots on the necks of the enemies of the people.  There are also even more millions who have learned from birth to simply conform.  You do what you are told, don’t make waves, and you will generally be OK.   This is the tragic swing group, since they are the ones who, by doing nothing but obey, allow incoherent authoritarians to call all of the shots.  The millions who hate your average Hitler type, an ill-tempered, oversensitive type who won’t hesitate to use as much violence as his enemies demand,  have to tread very carefully until they can figure out the small acts they can do to put a finger on the other side of the scale.  A scale that eventually, and always, tips against these ruthless authoritarians who must always rule by coercion and terror.

Yesterday I went to see the great Jose James play outdoors at Lincoln Center.  I’ve had the pleasure to talk with Jose a few times at the home of  my close friends.   We made arrangements to get on the guest list for reserved seating on a day when the real feel temperature in NYC was 99 degrees.   This was due to the high humidity which made a mere 90 degrees feel much hotter.  I stayed hydrated and went to the show.

To sit in the reserved seats you had to have an orange wrist band.   These were given out on the opposite side of the large venue from where the reserved seats were.  It was hot, I was dripping, but walked over there on my painful knees to get my pass.   The young woman who gave out the passes was there at her small table alone.   There was an opening in the moveable barricade about six feet from her.  I went to the opening.  

A guard stepped into my path, pointed to an empty labyrinth of barricades and told me I had to go the long way around.   I gestured toward the empty table, to the girl with the iPad and a bunch of wristbands, the completely empty labyrinth of barricades.   I asked him to please let me pass, my knees were killing me, I’d walked a long way already, and that, please, since nobody else was waiting, might I just get my pass and go join my friends who were already seated?

The guard, a dark-skinned African man in a crisp, white uniform, told me that I had to go all the way around.   That was the rule.   He had no discretion to violate the rule or make exceptions no matter what, was apparently not even supposed to be discussing anything with anybody.   I soon learned why, he was being watched intently by two of his bosses, who immediately made their sharklike way toward me to find out why I was giving their hired hand such a hard time.

The large man, who had a huge pallid head like an overinflated albino melon about to burst, advanced one step too far into my space and told me with a glare: “first of all, relax”.   I told him to relax.  One step behind him was a woman, a dead-ringer for Betsy DeVos (but with dark hair), probably from the same social class (we stood in the shadow of the David H. Koch wing of Lincoln Center, after all), and about to prove herself as brilliant as DeVos in the arts of persuasion and argumentation.

Pumpkinhead told me the rules are the rules, they’re there for crowd control and I had to walk.  I told him my knees were killing me, my friends were waiting and I’d appreciate the small courtesy, which was only common decency, especially since nobody else was being inconvenienced and I was an easily controlled crowd of one person.  His turd-like smile told me exactly how far this line of moral reasoning  was going to take me.

At this moment DeVos’s cousin stepped forward with that famous well-bred idiot smile and said reasonably: “imagine if fifty people were here and they all asked us to just let them break that little rule, to give each of them special treatment?”   You see, her smile said, just common sense, just like your’s!  It’s a draw, so the rule wins!

I started asking her if this was really the kind of country she wanted to live in, where the Nuremberg Defense was the final word in any conversation, where unreasoning adherence to rules no matter what the circumstances trumped every other consideration?    Neither of them, I saw, had any problem with the downside of anything I was saying.  I was unwittingly describing exactly the country they want to live in, a place where people who don’t like the rules are kept strictly in line.

Before I could point out that while it might be a problem if there were fifty people simultaneously demanding preferential treatment, I was the only one in this actual, real-life non-hypothetical, and the favor I was asking could be considered a request for special treatment only by a rigid, rules-bound, unreasoningly authoritarian type, the girl with the iPad and the wrist bands came over from her table, where she had been waiting patiently for the next customer.

I thanked her and gave her my name, as Pumpkinhead said something I don’t recall.  My name didn’t come up, to another eructation from the pallid Pumpkin.  I gave Sekhnet’s name and that seemed to work, Pumpkinhead said something else I don’t recall.   I told the girl “please, just give me the fucking wristband so I can get away from this asshole.”

This one two punch (“fucking” plus “asshole” equals “resisting arrest”) gave them all the moral ammunition they needed to leap into indignant defense of all that is decent.  I’d said FUCKING, a Bozo-no no!!   How dare I rape the ears of this innocent young black woman after assaulting the black hired guard with my offensive, nakedly racist insistence on my white privilege.  

“That’s it!” said Pumpkinhead triumphantly, “don’t give him the wrist band.  You’re not getting it!”  I had one bit of restraint left, and I used it.  

“Ah, not only an asshole but a vindictive asshole, nicely played.”  

Just as I turned to storm off, muttering incoherently about letting him take me to court for slander where truth is an absolute defense to the charge, Sekhnet came up.   Turned out DeVos and Pumpkinhead had given her some crap earlier, a variation on the same issue (she’d gone a few steps into the empty labyrinth and took a shortcut, hopping the barricades).    They gave her quite a stern talking to  about that, you can be sure.  I walked a hundred yards, sat on a plastic chair in the sun, stewing a bit, letting the anger dissipate.

Someone I knew came up and said hi, when I gave him a 20 second capsule description of my recent confrontation his eyes turned into two ping-pong balls, lolled out of the sockets on to his cheeks.  He waved a wan goodbye and I fluttered a few fingers.

Ten minutes later Sekhnet had my wrist band, texted me her location, and we sat in the “V.I.P” section to watch the show.  Jose put on a great show, singing the songs of Bill Withers, songs he was born to sing.  On Grandma’s Hands, a song about the love of a grandmother who always protected and comforted him when the world was kicking his ass, he did an inspired improvised section that blew me away.  

It was brilliant, using the musician’s many arts to drive home the obscene incoherence of a violently angry caregiver.   Grandma’s “Matty don’t you whip that boy” turned into a long, staccato, rhythmically complex, inventive reinvention of the morphing syllable that began with “whip”. Jose’s improvisation evoked the twitch of a grandmother’s pain to see her grandson mistreated, the violent idiocy of the mistreatment itself– well beyond words. [1]  His singing and wild invention took me to another, far better world, and after the show I had hardly a thought of those two incoherent fascist disease carriers who’d tried to ruin my day.

 

[1] I described it in an email to a friend this way:

There’s a point in the song when Grandma is stopping the father from whipping the boy.   Jose did a long improvisation here, where the words “what you want to whip him for?” turn into scratchy nonsense syllables, percussion, wordless hiphop, rhythmic, robotic, spastic, absurd, endless, obscenely ridiculous, the single syllable of “whip” turning into a million senseless acts of incoherent brutality.  Man!  Needless to say, I loved that shit, it was truly inspired and done with superb musicality.   Turned to Sekhnet with a big smile and said “brilliant” and M turned, smiled and nodded.  Then she looked at me one extra beat.  Tears were falling out of my eyes.

 

The Circle of Fifths

I’d heard the term “the circle of fifths” for years without ever really seeing the principle in action.   It is a very cool principle.   Hearing the fifth note of a scale makes the ear want to go back to the first note, the fifth note demands to be resolved to the one in Western Music.  Instead of the one,  play the five of that one, then the five of that one, and repeat, and repeat and repeat, in a perfect circle.  

It’s kind of cool to watch it in action, to play it through yourself a few times.  I saw a chart of the circle of fifths recently, and a guitarist gave a good lesson about the uses of this circle of fifths we have heard so much about over the years without learning what it actually was until the other day.  The chord structures of every melody we know are based on this circle of fifths, which is also a circle of fourths, it turns out.

Screen shot 2018-03-28 at 1.45.09 AM.png  

Clockwise this circle keeps going up a fifth, a perfect circuit of fifths.  Go the other way and the chords move by fourths.   The relative minor variations of these are also fun to mess around with, trying to play the cycle in a nice smooth circle.

Cutting Contest

Sekhnet took me to see the incomparable Tommy Emmanuel at Town Hall last night.   He put on his usual great show, playing with virtuosity and joy throughout.   It’s a unique experience being moved by some beautiful and complicated playing and at virtually the same instant laughing at some offhand shtick the guy does at the same time.   The man is that good.   If you ever get a chance to see Tommy live, just go see him.

It’s clear watching him play how much he loves what he is doing.  He got that good because, in addition to the talent that God gave him, he loved what he was doing enough to do it for a million hours over the decades.  His joy and sense of how much fun he’s having is infectious.   After his opening number I turned to the guy next to me, another guitarist, and said “damn, he just keeps getting better!”  My neighbor agreed.  “Like a fine wine,” he said with a satisfied smile.

It was something the guy next to me said before the show that inspires what I’m thinking about now.   We were discussing guitarists we admire and at one point I mentioned some younger blues players I’d heard for the first time in recent years, including a passionate player named Jonny Lang.   He nodded and told me I should check out the youtube of Lang and Eric Gales trading riffs.  He’d started the conversation telling me about Gales.   

“At one point the crowd is urging Gales to cut Lang, and you can see the results, I mean Lang didn’t have a chance ….”

I stopped him to say I never got the point of cutting contests.  We didn’t get a chance to pursue the subject further, because Tommy Emmanuel took the stage and that was that.

You can read about cutting contests going all the way back.  A great trumpet player came to town, there was a jam session after the show.  The local trumpet king would bring his horn and proceed to try to out-blow the star trumpet player.  It was like gunslingers, making a name for themselves by outdrawing the fastest gun in the west.   It always struck me as an idiotic misuse of talent, an ego-driven exercise in being an asshole.  Or a killer.

As a guitar player I’ve found myself in these situations a few times over the years at jam sessions.   The session is, to some guitarists, not about playing the best music we can invent, it’s about proving who is the best guitar player.  To me the best guitar player is the one who always plays exactly what you want to hear in the music.  Nice inversions of chords set perfectly against what the singer is singing.  A little bass riff that sets up what another instrument is doing.   One note, vibrating plaintively against a series of harmonies.  Sometimes it’s playing your ass off in tandem with another instrument, riffing off what the other player is doing.  I never see it as a contest and if I’m in a room where others do, it can sometimes be a long session.

A cutting contest has nothing to do with tasteful collaboration.   It’s about showing off.  It is a no holds barred competition for who is top dog.  I never understood that shit.  I know that professional musicians are often egotistical and competitive, that’s how they get to the the top of their game.  I suppose the cutting contest has some place in that world, though I’m pretty sure not everyone in that world engages in cutting contests.

But in a group of pissants renting a practice room to make some joyful noise? I mean, seriously, what the fuck?   Who is the best pissant guitarist?  Really, this is a question you think should be answered now?  Determining matters of dominance and submission instead of pursuing the highest quality musical interaction we can come up with?   

Ranking professional guitarists is dumb in any event, it’s largely a matter of taste.   Vying for supremacy with other amateur guitarists is useless at best.  You can play with virtually anyone unless they play out of tune, off time, too loud.    If you don’t like the way they play you don’t play with them anymore.  But a cutting contest among pissant guitarists?  This really how you want to waste our precious time?  Figuring out who will get to solo and who will hold down the rhythm part?

Tommy Emmanuel told a story that illuminated the issue beautifully.   His mother loved to sing and strummed a guitar and later took up lap steel guitar.   She needed an accompanist for her lap steel playing and, around the time Tommy began kindergarten, she taught him a few chords on guitar and he became her rhythm guitar player.   He couldn’t wait for school to be over so he could run home and play rhythm guitar for his mother.    His older brother Phil soon thereafter took up guitar, and he too wanted Tommy to play rhythm behind him.   He did it happily, for years.

The guitarists I love best, and I think mainly of Jimi Hendrix and Django Reinhardt in this regard, were brilliant rhythm players.  Jimi said all guitar playing is rhythm guitar playing, and it made a big impression on me.  Django could play an accompaniment like nobody’s business, hard to imagine anyone doing it better.  If you can’t play the rhythm part to one of Django’s tunes, you have no hope of playing any other part of it.

When I was learning to play two guitarists would take turns playing rhythm guitar and lead guitar.  Think of the Beatles in their early rock ‘n roll days, John banged out the rhythm part that moved the band, along with the bass and drums, and George played the cool fills and riffs and took the solos.  We’d take turns.  I became a pretty good rhythm player, and I took pride in playing a solid rhythm part.  Sometimes another player would be so inspired by the solid rhythm part I was laying down he’d solo forever, which soured the whole thing for me.

I don’t know how much of the cutting contest mentality is a result of a capitalist mindset that endlessly compares endlessly competing entities and how much is just homo sapiens nature.   We are, after all, largely powerless, and often pissed off, and trying to unsee the terror we know awaits each one of us at the end of our mortal days.  Maybe that fleeting feeling of supremacy when we step on somebody who’s a little weaker is the best we’re going to get that day.   Count me out of that shit.  I’m busy trying to complete a reasonable written accounting of myself while I’m here.

By the way, I enjoyed the clip of Jonny Lang and Eric Gales.  Gales is great.  I don’t think anybody is cutting anybody here.  They are making a joyful noise.  If you like rock and blues guitar, check ’em out (no idea what’s up with Lang’s hairdo, or Gales’ for that matter).  Here you go.

“I Just Want You To Be Happy”

We were driving north on the Throgs Neck Bridge, my lifelong adversary at the wheel.   When my sister and I were little kids, and the family drove back to Queens over the Whitestone Bridge after visits to the U.S. mainland, my father would point to the towers being built in the channel between the East River and the Long Island Sound.  “When that bridge is done, we’ll have a much quicker ride home,” he said, or words to that effect.  He must have said it several times, because the bridge opened when I was four and a half and I clearly remember him pointing at the bridge being constructed across the Throgs Neck.

We were heading to my apartment on the northern end of Manhattan, I’d had dinner with my parents in Queens, as I did periodically in the years before they moved to Florida.  I was close to forty, and had finally gotten rid of my car (impossible to park in my neighborhood).   I used to make the drive, around 25 minutes each way, but once I ditched my car it was a ninety minute trip each way by subway and walking.   My father was driving me home this particular night.  It was a rare stretch of just the two of us being together in a car.   On the Throgs Neck Bridge, about five minutes from their house, I asked him, point blank, what it was that he wanted from me. 

“You seem eternally unhappy, disappointed, disapproving of my choices in life,” I told him.  It must be said, at that point I’d been fired from a series of jobs and most recently blacklisted from teaching in the public schools after a long ordeal by bureaucracy.  “What would you like me to do to relieve you of those, no doubt painful, feelings?  Is there anything?  Would law school do it for you?” I asked.  “Would you be happy if I became a lawyer?”

I remember the dark Long Island Sound stretching out to the right of us as we headed toward the Bronx.  My father paused.  Then he told me that he would feel differently about my life if only I were happy in what I was doing.  My happiness, he said, was the most important thing to him.  I managed not to say anything snide.   

“You know, if you were happy being an artist… you know, I never understood why you don’t try getting a show in a library, or a hospital, or some place like that, just to get some exposure, get a foot in the door.  You work in isolation and you… I mean, it just seems like a very unhappy life.  I just want you to be happy.  If you were  happy, I’d be satisfied.” 

I explained to him that a show at a library or a nursing home was not a stepping stone toward becoming a professional artist.  An artist only makes a living working in advertising, illustration or becoming a darling of wealthy art collectors, curators and influential art critics.  None of those options appealed to me, I told him, yet I love to draw and that’s that.  I asked him again what it was that I could do that would leave him feeling I was not wasting my life.   

“You don’t have to do anything for me,” he said, steering his Cadillac into a lane for the toll booth.  “I don’t know where you get the idea that you have to do anything for me.  You’ve never sought my advice or input before, I’m a little surprised you’re asking me now.” 

I’m asking you now, I told him, weary from decades of senseless war I had little insight into.  I’d been an antagonistic newborn, an implacable infant, a relentlessly defiant toddler, an angry, fearful school boy, a rebellious, sharp-tongued, disrespectful teenager.  I’ve digested all of these things by now, the first few being patently absurd, the remainder fairly predictable, based on being treated as a challenging little adversary from before my first memory, but at that moment in the car I was seeking a way off of this boundless, senseless battlefield.   

“Only if it would make you happy to become a lawyer,” he said.  “I mean, obviously, I think you have the mind to be an excellent lawyer.”   

And extensive experience with adversarial proceedings, I pointed out.  I don’t recall much more about that long ago conversation, except that I took the LSAT review books out of my local library and took a few sample tests.  I learned later that many people take courses to prepare them for this highly specialized test, but I had long experience cramming for Regents Exams in high school and had always had a knack for these standardized tests (though I had mediocre scores on my SATs, as I recall, but those were taken at my personal height of not giving a fuck about anything).   

I did well enough on my LSATs that, with my college transcripts, I was accepted to all three of the law schools I applied to.  I chose one, took out loans (that I am still repaying more than twenty years later) and the rest, as they say is history.   

“So you’re saying you went to law school in an attempt to please a father you knew to be impossible to please?” said the skeleton of my father, a much different creature than the man who drove us across the Throgs Neck Bridge that night.

Pretty much.   I’ve spent the day today immunosuppressed, working out different ways to play Hoagy Carmichael’s great Lazy River on guitar.   What a beautiful, bluesy, ingenious tune.  Hoagy graduated law school and passed the bar exam on his first try, just like I did.  He was a musical genius and was soon making money as a musician and so never had to experience the grinding that is the fucking law.  I, on the other hand, was forced, for more than a decade, to earn my crust of bread by the stinging sweat of my brow, in the manner of Cain, cursed by his maker. 

Playing that tune, with an involuntary smile when he pulls out some of those great lines, I can forget all about it, until it’s time to put the guitar down.

“Well, you know Elie, we all have to put the guitar down some time,” said the skeleton with great tenderness.