Why do you write?

People write for different reasons, just like we play music for different reasons. Thinking of music, I know some people who play music for the applause, in hope of fame, dreaming of playing to and impressing large, appreciative audiences and being thought of by others as a real musician. In writing it that way, I see I am passing judgment on them, just for doing the normal, natural thing in a competitive society where all we are is what we can prove to others we do better than most. It also suggests there is another way to think about making beautiful sounds, about writing, about doing anything we love. I will explain.

When you play an instrument to produce the best possible sounds you can on it, you are attuned to it, related to it, and you will always play as well as possible. When you pay attention to your intonation, the dynamics of your notes, how you produce different sounds, which sounds most make you love the instrument in your hands, how you bend the note, or slide to the note, or hammer it from a lower note, you are playing in a universe that has nothing to do with others appreciating it. You play for love of what you are doing, love of the sounds your fingers (or breath) and the instrument are making.

I suspect every great instrumentalist plays this way, because they love the sounds they begin to master, love the instrument that produces the sounds, love the way it interacts with other instruments in the mix. When you are in this zone, nothing else really matters to you. When you play out of this kind of love, you naturally get better and better, because it’s not a matter of practicing to attain a goal, it’s always a matter of joyful play. You are absorbed in making a beautiful melody sound as beautiful as you can, laying in a harmony or counterpoint line as perfectly as you can. There really is no better work.

You play a note on the piano. You can bang it hard, stepping on the sustain pedal, and have it ring like a gong. The instrument is called the pianoforte because it is capable of playing pianissimo (quietly) or forte (strong!). A good player can make a piano whisper too, whenever needed. You can sound some notes loudly and others quietly to achieve all kinds of subtle effects. There is a range of things you can do on an instrument capable of this palette of dynamics that were impossible to do on the instruments that preceded the piano, like its direct ancestor the harpsichord. Writing is the same thing, there is a vast range of what you can do with words, lining them up in different ways, loud and soft, for different effects.

I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and I’m officially an old man now. I often wrote out of a feeling of being unable to understand and make myself understood. Though I always spoke well enough, it was not enough. There were things I struggled to express, things I barely understood myself, and I found early on that writing, and thinking, and editing, clarifying what I felt and what I was actually trying to say about what I was wrestling with, was a very helpful process. Writing led me to understand things that perplexed me and it allowed me to share them, through the writing itself or talking, in light of what I’d worked out on the page.

What struck me more and more as I went along was the incomparable beauty of clarity. The writers I admire most set things out clearly. If you don’t give the reader all the necessary background, set out concisely so as not to waste her time, you are doing nobody any favors. If the solid back story needed to understand a point is missing, ambiguity floods in. There’s enough of that in life, it does not enhance expository writing, in my experience.

My goal when I write is clear expression, and I cut away anything that interferes with clarity. I often have to murder a darling, resist the impulse to make the words dance, or shimmy, or call attention to themselves. My main thought when I’m reviewing and revising my words is to make them as plain and clear as I can. This is particularly important when dealing with a difficult, perplexing subject.

For example, and this example stretches over decades, you are perplexed at an unresolvable contradiction about a parent. In my case my father was very smart, very funny, his politics always favored the underdog, the oppressed, he loved animals and treated them with great tenderness, he was insightful, keenly interested in the world and could be very reassuring when he wanted to be. A wonderful man. At the same time, he was very often irritable, angry, critical and mean. He was an abusive prick to my little sister and a determined enemy to me for most of my life. How do you reconcile these things? How is it possible not to take your father’s seething anger at you personally?

If you internalize this kind of parent’s view of you, it makes no sense, the world makes no sense, your life is a painful jumble. A devoted friend of the underdog, a man who believes deep in his soul in human equality, in a right to be free of tyranny, who teaches you to be kind to others, to treat animals with tenderness, snarling every night that you’re a venomous snake … WTF?

How do you understand this? You take an insight, like George Grosz’s comment that in order to understand how someone can behave brutally you have to study the humiliation they underwent. You read this in a biography of Grosz you are reading as you research how this political artist used his talent as a weapon, how he was forced to flee by the Nazis, who would have happily made a gruesome example of him, how he struggled in the US. You started reading about Grosz because your father once compared your drawings to Grosz’s, a compliment you did not take to heart at the time, but one you cherish in hindsight.

You have to study the humiliation that makes a man act with brutality. How do you do this? You can’t really ask the man. One kind of writer would write a novel, create a character she could interrogate, put in different situations, see how he acted, what made him brutal, fill in the imagined humiliation that made the story make sense. I am not this kind of writer, though I love good fiction I’m not drawn to writing it, my attempts over the years strike me as mostly sketchy. I need actual details to work with directly, to describe as accurately as I am able.

So I spent many, many hours conversing with my father’s beloved seventeen years older first cousin, Eli. The man was mostly estranged from his own three children and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, the result of his tyrannical insistence on raising them as he saw fit, not as they might have liked to have been raised. He could be very difficult, flew into a rage easily, but also, as with my mother, was very easy for me to placate if I acted the right way, backing off just a bit, like I was easing up on the gas pedal.

As easily as Eli’s face turned purple, spittle formed on his lips and he became savage as a leaping panther, he would calm down and return to being a funny, wonderful story-teller. I suppose it was the same dynamic between him and me as the one between my mother and him. They loved each other and fought constantly.

As often as he was blind to the needs of others, to his own role in making people miserable, he also had frequent moments of great insight. It was fascinating to watch these two contradictory things marching forward side by side in our conversations. If I’d spent 40 hours talking to him, I’d never have learned what I needed to know. It took hundreds of hours, over the course of dozens of drives up the twisting Sawmill River Parkway to visit him, before he thought to reveal the difficult truth I needed to know about how my father was humiliated, from the time he could stand.

It was a crushing revelation and he made it with all appropriate hesitation and regret to have to tell me, but describing it to me was an act of love that turned a light on in the universe and enabled me to start to let go of much of the pain and anger that had been building in me for decades. It allowed my father, a few years later, to have a son standing next to his deathbed who knew exactly why he felt his life was over by the time he was two. In a sense, it is a miracle my father did only as much damage to my sister and me as he did.

I have mused about this, and Eli’s gift, over the course of a thousand page first draft that is sitting on this blahg, needing another pass to start turning it into a book you could read and extract lessons from for your own life. Click on the subject “Book of Irv” to the right of this post and you will see what I’m talking about.

A word about “by Oinsketta” instead of publicizing my name, Eliot Widaen, as any normal writer would do. When I started this blahg it was to get access to a supposed archive of research on Malcolm X compiled by Manning Marable a scholar who died shortly after (or maybe right before) the publication of his biography of Malcolm X, El Hadj Malik el Shabbaz. I’d read the book in fascination, thinking it was a great and insightful work, and then the critical shit hit the fan. People who loved Malcolm (as my father had, as I do) were outraged by some of Marable’s assertions in the book. I’d seen a reference to an online archive of Marable’s research, went looking for it, found it, logged in and found virtually nothing of use there.

I remember feeling quite disgusted at the “archive”, that the sources of the controversial parts of what Marable had written had apparently gone with him to the grave. Before being able to access the Malcolm research archive site, I had to log in to something called WordPress. I logged in as my late, beloved cat, Oinsketta, created a PIN and was given a blog. That was about ten years ago. I don’t think I can change the author’s name at this point, on the other hand, I never really checked it out. On the other hand, I suppose I don’t really care enough to research it. At the same time, the clock is ticking, and I’m trying to get some of the best of my thousands of pages of writing into publishable form.

Why do you write?

Playing soothing music for my dying mother

My mother died a long, slow, painful death from endometrial cancer. She did not want to talk about death, though she often asked, rhetorically, why she felt so awful all the time. I understood that I was not supposed to mention death, or the deadly cancer eating its way out from the lining of her womb.

My mother always gave my father a hard time about his napping. He’d fall asleep a few times a day and, when I was visiting, my mother would point at him and complain. It turns out he was dying of undiagnosed liver cancer the last few years of his life, which could well explain his more frequent naps, but that’s another story.

As my mother got closer to the end, she found herself exhausted during the day and would often fall into a nap. I asked her if she’d changed her opinion of napping.

“Oh, I LOVE to nap!” she said with a big smile.

One day toward the end of her life, when she was trying to sleep off some unbearable pain, I went quietly into her room with my guitar and began playing a soft, soothing vamp, something like this one:

Her breathing seemed to become more relaxed as I played. I played softly for a few minutes, hoping to help her to sleep. Suddenly she sputtered and opened her eyes on the pillow.

“What IS that?!” she said crossly, “it sounds like you’re tuning your guitar!”

I withdrew from her bedroom and didn’t try that shit again.

Joe Manchin’s view

I watch Democratic Senator Joe Manchin interviewed and often feel an impulse to slap that complacent reasonableness off his face, particularly when he smiles amiably after the interviewer asks no follow up to his prepared bipartisan-sounding answers. Yes, Joe, we all agree it would be a better country if the two parties worked together, if we did not live in a zero-sum moment where one party, making no concessions, can simply tell any lie to justify their unconscionable actions to their angry base. We’d also be a better, more decent country if millions of our countrymen stopped being violent racists and misogynists, agreed Joe.

I’ve got two words for Joe Manchin and his idealism about bipartisanship: Mitch McConnell.

Do you think, for a second, that Scorched Earth Mitch would hesitate to nuke the filibuster once he regained the majority? He already did it for Supreme Court nominees, after blocking Obama’s nominee because it was only ten months from an election. You recall Mitch blamed it on the Democrats, who’d eliminated the filibuster for presidential nominees after a record shattering number of the president’s nominations were filibustered by Mitch and his colleagues and never reached a hearing.

Our government was not always gridlocked this way. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed 96-3. Radical right-wing activist Boof Kavanaugh did not enjoy quite as much bipartisan support, he prevailed 50-48, after Mitch got rid of the filibuster.

Tell us more about this principled bipartisanship of yours, Mr. Manchin, and how it will melt the heart of a power-crazed troll like McConnell. Or how it will enlighten even a handful in a united Republican Congress that continues to block a commission to get all the facts about the riot at the Capitol, a party that will not denounce its 147 members who voted, without evidence of any kind but the former president’s lies, to contest the counting of Electoral College votes, even after #Stop the Steal rioters, infuriated by the exhortations of the president and other rabble rousers, stormed their workplace, put many police in the hospital and interrupted the ceremonial counting as members of Congress scrambled for their lives and rioters looked for Pence and Pelosi, to string them up. This is Trump’s party, a party in which even “moderates” refuse, as a block, to vote with the radical Democrat left embodied in Biden and Harris (no vote for Covid relief, Mitt?)

On the other hand, Manchin, former governor of West Virginia, was elected to the Senate in a state that voted this way in 2020:

A decisive ass-whupping from a state where Trump had promised crowds of cheering West Virginians he’d send them back into the coal mines. Thousands of mining jobs were lost under Trump, a man with a spotty record on telling the truth, but MAGA man is apparently still beloved in West Virginia, at least among the 63% who turned out to vote in 2020. It’s clear, in light of the heavy Republican tilt of the great state of West Virginia, that Joe Manchin has to be mindful of the likelihood of being lynched if he calls too loudly for helping an illegitimate Democrat [sic] president by making it harder for obstructionists to filibuster every one of his proposed laws.

Yes, white people do get lynched too, once in a while, “race traitors” in particular, when it’s extremely necessary for a mob to make an example out of one who violates sacred norms and folkways.

So, while I don’t like it, I can understand Manchin’s tap dance. In a hopeful part of my brain it reminds me of the recent statements Biden has been making about fighting the climate emergency and job creation. Fighting climate catastrophe will create millions of good, clean jobs, he says (not unreasonably) and transform our economy from an extractive system that is destroying the world into a sustainable one that will allow our children’s grandchildren to live on healthy planet. As he talks I keep hearing the term he refuses to say, the plan he vowed to veto if it ever reached his desk: The Green New Deal. That’s politics, you can’t always say what you actually mean, for fear of stoking partisan rage that will sink a good idea before it can get political traction.

If Manchin says, before it is absolutely the last moment to do so, “fuck the filibuster, I’m with Joe and Kamala” he’s done, as he knows. Could he do a better job by making a less moronic argument for why he’s against changing a frequently abused parliamentary rule that is not part of the original design of our government? Possibly, even though all arguments in support of the filibuster require overlooking its mostly racist history. But people who are dying deaths of despair in large numbers, as they pine for good jobs they once had in the coal mines, in a state that American prosperity has left behind, likely would not cotton to even the most otherwise reasonable arguments for making the filibuster harder than merely sending an email to the proper authority. They like Joe because he fights for West Virginia and is basically an older-style Republican conservative who ain’t gonna do anything we don’t want him to do.

Here’s an interesting article about the challenges West Virginia faces. It provides several ideas for how the federal government could help states like West Virginia and win voters away from the idea that all federal programs are part of a coercive system that must be resisted as strongly as the deprivation of States’ Rights once was by states that took up arms against such tyranny.

The article points out:

The economics of redevelopment in the state are particularly tricky given that the state government has limited resources, local governments have meager tax revenue, and philanthropic dollars are scarce (those out-of-state coal companies didn’t leave behind a lot of local family foundations).

The solution, of course, collect taxes from giant corporate “persons” that currently pay none and let the federal government invest the money to help actual human persons in places where the entire economy in some small towns, in recent years, has been based on obtaining and selling millions of doses of the prescription drugs people with no other options use to dull their pain, and 238 times a day, end their pain once and for all.

That kind of large-scale economic development program, directly benefiting a wide swath of his constituency, is the only thing that will allow a Joe Manchin to take less maddening positions on things like actually allowing debate on bills in the Senate.

I have no insight into what motivates the first openly “bisexual” member of the Senate, Arizona’s anti-filibuster reform, anti-minimum wage hike Kyrsten Sinema (elected in 2019 to fill John McCain’s seat), but I have no reason to suspect it is high ideals about democracy. Arizona and West Virginia Democrats have to keep the pressure on these two “centrists” to do the right things. It’s unlikely they’ll listen to anyone else.

Bonus Track

One of my favorite Frank Burrows tunes, The Place, very much a song for our current tight spot. The sublime C part of this rocker, for my money, is about the greatest — and most heartbreaking — I’ve ever heard.

As Frank emailed back in September 2009 (I’m looking for his lead sheet for I Wish in old emails):

 I keep sending it because I keep feeling it.

“I thought today was Monday, I’ve not been keeping up. The TV says it’s Friday, and everyone’s in love. I’m trying not to listen, just staring at the door. But when I grab that doorknob, I’m headed there once more. Bumping into people, I really do not care. It’s not that I am evil, just slightly worse for wear. Frayed around the edges, and sick inside my gut. But I know where I’m going, and soon I’ve walked enough.”

An evocative song for our times

Here is a beauty by Frank Burrows, a comrade from high school I have embarrassed over the years by repeatedly, and without provocation, calling a genius. I Wish is unique among his works (as far as I know), both instrumentally and because it’s a waltz. My hat’s off to the guy. I love this tune. Take a few minutes, breathe, and take it in. You won’t regret it.

Dog on a string

Sit back and enjoy the groove of Paul Greenstein’s original track. Composition, arrangement, engineering and all instruments by Paul. This is the great tune I jammed to here, back in April, 2006.

Paul explains the title, in a way:

The only thing I might suggest would be an explanation of the title ‘Dog on a string’.

During the 70’s and early 80’s in the UK, there was a certain type of festival (for example Stonehenge and early Glastonbury), that attracted a certain type of festival-goer; a rebel, non-conformist, ‘free spirit’, counter-culture type of person. Dreads, grubby denim, beads etc. Sometimes referred to as a ‘Crusty’, due to a propensity to get covered in mud (think classic British Festival Weather), the mud would then dry, leaving a crust, gettit? Driving and often living in an old school bus, ex-post-office van, or similar (called a ‘bender’), this person would often have a canine companion, usually a skinny bitsa (bitsa this, bitsa that). Eschewing anything as conservative as a  ‘proper’ dog lead, a piece of string would be used. Of course, this has absolutely nothing to do with the track itself, and probably even less to do with the vocal, for which I still don’t have a translation.

Actual history – in 1985, Margaret Thatcher sent in the police to disperse a band of ‘new age travelers’ heading towards Stonehenge festival. The resulting brutality is known as the Battle of the Beanfield.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Beanfield

For a bit more of more recent Paul, clickez-vous Plague Mice. a 10,000 mile collaboration from May 2020.

Another collaboration, from around 2009: Now Before I Gliss (Paul with some evocative playing on fretless glissentar).

One from the vault (Sensitive Dog)

One from the Random Acts of Senseless Creativity files. After I thought about this track an hour ago I went looking for it, a journey through a labyrinth of old emails and various digital booby-traps. After a few small wrestling matches with the technology, I was able to place it here, where it can be found easily next time. I was happy to locate it and I’m glad to pass it on.

The underlying track for this is called Dog on a String, composed and performed by Paul Greenstein sometime after the turn of the twenty-first century, if memory serves. This was an improvisation I recorded, back on April 14, 2006, apparently. All parts were played for the love of making the track and for that reason alone.

For me this over-the-top jam captures the thrill of interactive invention — the joy of improvising over a groove you’re really digging.

Our ability to find joy and improvise has been sorely tested in the isolation of this COVID crisis. Mutual, playful improvisation, a vital part of human interaction, a free delight of life, fades during dark times, the habit of playing happily — another casualty of the pandemic. Playing together gives us joy, undeniable but easy to forget, sometimes. This track reminds me of how much fun play is.

Paul’s track was a delight, I greatly love that mysterious, soulful Indian singer, all of Paul’s parts are superb (if several lovely ones were drowned out by the overloud distorted guitar, sorry about that). It is also beautifully engineered, everything is exactly where you want it to be in the mix and the EQ. I’ll ask Paul for the original track, so I can post that beauty for you to hear.

Listening to this track I hear my excitement, the enthusiastic variations inspired by the sheer fun of following a wildly idiosyncratic groove.

Sensitive Dog starts with a dog lover’s question for Cesar Milan, who then considers the best way to interact with a dog who is very sensitive. Odd to say, I couldn’t tell you what key it’s in, I had no idea when I was playing it, most unusual for me, I followed the singer as best I could.

There are suboptimal notes, which I can’t begrudge someone inventing parts over a track he is greatly loving as he plays. If you don’t let yourself be distracted by the mistakes and take in the entire 1:56 as a piece, I think you’ll get what I’m talking about.

My only regret is the mix. If someone had been sitting at the controls (there were no controls, the overdub was recorded off the small amp that was also playing Dog on A String) and adjusting the volume on the distorted guitar, to allow Dog on A String’s many subtle nuances to be appreciated, the track would be infinitely better.

To me, the track is still cool, instant time-travel to a moment of great fun. A reminder of a vital thing, sadly easy to forget during dark days — the joy of carefree play with someone you enjoy. I hope you find it so too.

Musical Interlude

This early pandemic recording (May 2020) seems a good Christmas offering, something about Tony Bennett, the singer who made this lush pop tune popular back in the Eisenhower days, even before my time. [1]

To me this tune is a great example of a great arrangement, you really can’t do the proper accompaniment without playing the two main parts. The chords are basic and provide a pleasing harmony to the melody. But it’s the line the piano is playing against the chords (a clever arpeggio of the chord), it turns out, that gives the song its swing, its groove. The melody, applied over the top, even loosely, cannot help but be at its most beautiful, set off this way by the other two parts. My Christmas elf’s hat is off to the arranger of this great tune.

To the musically hip, check out a fatal flaw in the underlying loop, every time the top comes around (and dig the riff from Santana’s first album in the bluesy final chorus, and a guest vocal from Sekhnet at the very end).

[1]

“I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is a popular song, written in the fall of 1953 in Brooklyn, New York, with music by George Cory and lyrics by Douglass Cross and best known as the signature song of Tony Bennett. Wikipedia