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.

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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.

How To Kill Creativity

Perhaps the single most important thing to do, if you wish to extirpate the creative impulse, is to remove joy and spontaneity.   Replace that flush of love that makes somebody dance with a formula to master that will allow them to know exactly where the beat is that they are dancing on.   When dealing with a young person, crushing, or perverting, a love of creativity is fairly easily done.   Take something like singing, which most people like to do and do quite naturally.   

Form a group of children, call it The Singer’s Group.  Make them sit quietly while you tell them all about the joy of singing, the history of human song, the mammalian love of vocalizing going back to the songs of the whale and before.   Then, tell them what they will sing and instruct them, note by note, pausing to point out wherever they have overstayed a dotted half note. 

By this procedure you will find out two things: which children are most anxious to please their teachers and their parents, and which are most hellbent on being creative at any price.   

It’s just me, probably, but I would infinitely prefer to play in a room full of the second kind of child.

 

Merry Christmas From New York

I was headed downtown to visit friends in from far away.  After a groggy start to Christmas Day, a day that generally fills me with despair,  I was running late, well after the time I’d told my friend I’d aim for.   I had a twenty minute or so southward train ride to get there, then a short walk west.  

As you approach the elevated Number One line at Dyckman Street you can see up the track almost to the next station north.   If you see the southbound train coming around that bend, experience teaches you can catch that train if you run into the station, Metrocard in hand, and make a smart dash straight up the steep steps.  

I went through the turnstile and made my dash smartly, but there was no train.  The one I’d seen, apparently a mirage.  There was no train on the horizon either.  I noticed how winded I was, I’ve run up these stairs many times– this was the most winded I’ve been.  I walked it off.  

At the end of the platform a man was talking on the phone with his back to me.  He had a baby carriage with him.  The baby was also turned away from me, but I noticed how solicitous the man was, walking the baby carriage in little circles to soothe the baby.  I watched them absently for a moment, thinking of the human parent’s instinct, if everything falls right, to comfort their child.  I recall feeling impressed with how this guy was taking care of his baby.

The train came.  The man turned the baby carriage slightly to move his child on to the train.  I could now see that the baby was a full grown beagle, sitting very patiently upright in the baby carriage.   I made a note to tell this story to my friends when I arrived, but as things happened I forgot about it.

We exchanged handshakes, hugs and pleasantries and then my friend said “I have a small gift for you,” as if remembering some trifle.  He went into the other room and returned with the best gift anybody has ever given me, possibly the best gift anyone has ever given anybody.  “It’s really nothing,” he said, handing me a hard-shell ukulele case with the imprint of a palm tree on its shell.

Over the years my friend has mentioned a dream image he has, of himself, sitting on a porch somewhere beautiful at sunset after his work day is done.  His work would be gently but firmly bending wood, plying it, smoothing it, skillfully using tools to turn beautiful wood into a beautiful musical instrument.  In another life, he’d have loved to have been a luthier.  

A few years ago he took a course from a master luthier and made a tenor ukulele, out of beautiful wood, over the course of several weeks.  He sent me photos of it at the time and mildly self-effacing comments about the instrument when it was done.   I opened the case and there was the hand-made ukulele, a very beautiful one.  Everyone I showed it to later could not help stroking it.  It is lovingly detailed, with several unique flourishes, and finished to the texture of perfect skin or something like that.  It is so silky that it’s hard not to pet it if you hold it in your hands.   Everyone who held it did.

It plays beautifully, with a rich tone I haven’t heard from most ukuleles.   He also somehow rigged the lowest string to be in a lower octave, as on a guitar, making this uke a much more useful instrument to play melodies on.  I smiled as I played a little Django ending that had been impossible to play on my other ukes.  Sekhnet could not stop commenting on its beautiful tone, just as I could not stop playing it in the car after we left our friends.  

“What an amazing gift!” Sekhnet said, “I hope you really thanked him.”  I assured her I did.  I think I did, I’m sure I did, I had to have.  Of course, now that I’ve played it for hours, and re-tuned it to concert pitch, I’ll sing its praises some more when I talk to him tomorrow.  He’d looked at the label inside, with his name and the year he made it, 2009, and told me, since he never played it (although he certainly could), that I should have it, since I would play it.  I certainly am playing it.

I played it happily for an hour or so in the background with Sekhet’s family.  Each of them had admiringly held and petted the beautiful instrument, a few even strummed the open chord it plays if you don’t finger the frets.  I then played it all the way back to the city.  When we got back I was concerned that the constantly sleep deprived Sekhnet get some sleep.  I left her and walked to the subway to head uptown.

Being Christmas, it was only natural that the train service would be fucked up.   The high-tech interactive electronic information signs on the subway platform gave random misinformation.   According to the fancy new sign the next A train was a Brooklyn-bound one scheduled to arrive in 46 minutes (average wait is supposed to be about twelve minutes).  There was no information about any uptown trains at all.   “We’re working harder to serve you better,” I said finally to two other sour-faced men waiting for information on the uptown train to take them home Christmas night.

A moment later there was an incomprehensible PA announcement and a Brooklyn-bound A train rumbled in on the downtown platform.   Another announcement began as the Brooklyn-bound train was departing, making a great racket across the station.

The MTA had decided, in its infinite puckishness, to have the crackling, irrelevant, over-driven announcement delivered by the employee with the heaviest and hardest to decipher foreign accent.   I don’t know where this guy was born, but I’m sure the last thing his parents ever dreamed of for him was delivering this incomprehensible message to disgusted New Yorkers over the public address system moments after the end of Christmas Day. I have no idea what he said, but I do recall sincerely muttering something about fucking retards that I do not now feel very proud about having muttered.  

A dirty, smelly beggar was striking out as he made his way toward me on the platform.  He’d start to speak and get waved off.  I saw this happen a few times, found I had a single dollar bill in my pocket and thought “what the fuck?”   When he came toward me I handed him the dollar, which he dropped.  

Before he picked it up, he looked me in the eyes and asked “could you please help me out with two or three more?”  I told him I didn’t have it.  It was true.  My other bills were twenties, and outside of that, I had two pennies.  He continued down the platform and I was reminded of my dislike of people who don’t have the grace to say thanks. 

On the uptown A, which finally arrived, a large man asked “may I sit next to you?”  This is not a question anybody phrases this way on the New York City Subway.  It was the only seat in the car, and I nodded, almost imperceptibly, and without looking up from my book, only because it was the right thing to do.  

Then, because you know what they say about unpunished good deeds, he began humming in a soulful way, and turned his head toward me as I tried to read, which made his humming suddenly way too loud.  He began to sing, in the same manner as his humming, turning his head like a slow moving leslie-speaker to heighten the effect.  

He did that African spiritual-inspired melisma, making every quavering note a long, stylized, if cliched, statement of his soul.   After a few minutes of this I wanted to do something to make him stop. I thought about my vow to remain mild and kept reading.  

A seat opened across the way, and I took it.  I couldn’t hear his fucking singing from over there, and it was a relief.  Suddenly, I smelled ass, dirty feet, filthy clothes.  The smell was coming from the seat behind me, turned out to be a homeless woman.  But the smell wasn’t that bad, it was better than the fucking soul singer.  

The singer got off a few stops later and I went back to where I’d been sitting.  I watched the poor homeless woman, who appeared to be very much insane.  I thought of the almost infinite varieties of suffering in this world, and of God and the mythical baby Jesus weeping over it all, less than an hour after Christmas.  I  took out the ukulele, played a bit of Django’s version of “I’ll See You In My Dreams” and put the lovely instrument into its protective case as the train pulled into Dyckman Street.

As I walked up the hill to my apartment, carrying the perfect tenor ukulele my old friend had made, I thought of the blessings of this life. Those blessings are not the physical things everyone is taught to covet, of course, but what lies behind them, what we might call their spiritual dimension– what they represent in terms of our souls.   If the physical manifestation is also a beautiful thing, that’s ideal.

I thought of my friend’s ancient mother, now well-past ninety and noticeably much older than the last time I saw her, not that long ago.  She made mention tonight of her approaching death.  I’d never heard her speak of death, but when I quickly broached the subject of Trump, during a moment when her son had gone back upstairs to fetch something she’d forgotten, she told me that the only good in it for her is that this would be a good time for her to die.  

I told her that my mother, at the end of her life, had begged me to promise her that Sarah Palin would never be the president.  I made the promise and I’m as sure as it is reasonable to be that Sarah Palin will never be the president of the United States.  There are things as unthinkable as President Sarah Palin, but that’s an imponderable story for another time.

When I put her son’s ukulele in her hands she immediately began stroking it.   She admired it for a long time, and mused about how many other hidden talents her talented son had (he was cooking a delicious smelling dinner at the time).  

Later, sitting around the coffee table, my friend’s mother smiled, and pointed at her son and her grandson, huddled over the young man’s cellphone, looking at photos of some of the grandson’s recent architectural projects, I assume.   To her daughter, with a big smile, she said “kvelling…” This is Yiddish for a parent’s pleasure in seeing their child do something that makes them kvell with pride.  The daughter looked at her blankly and asked “who?”   

“Me,” said the old woman happily, as she pointed to her chest with a gnarled hand.

I’ll See You in My Dreams

Stop me if I told you this one already, dad.  It starts with my love for soul music, which I got from you.  It’s impossible to overestimate the value, to me, of those flat Sam Goody bags you’d bring home from downtown Brooklyn with the latest Sam Cooke record inside.

Mister Soul,” said the skeleton of my father. 

You’d put that new disc on the turntable in the living room and I’d groove to each new track, before I even had the words to describe a groove, the feel, the voice, the thrilling freedom of a guy playing with time the way Sam Cooke did.

“Yeah, and of course, he had to be shot for that, for good old American values,” said the skeleton.  

Like Patrice Lumumba.  

“Lumumba died for freedom,” said the skeleton, raising a bony fist.

We’d listen to those Sam Cooke records in the living room and they would transport us. Mom would play Johnny Mathis, and I dug that music too, and the way his voice was drenched with reverb, a thing I also couldn’t identify, but loved from the start.   Love of music is no small thing.

“Well, your mother and I both loved music.  Somebody, maybe Nietzsche, said without music life would be a mistake,” said the skeleton.  

It would certainly be as mistaken as a life without sex, something many millions don’t need to imagine.

“True enough,” said the skeleton. “But I know all about your love for Sam Cooke and how big a favor I did to your musical taste by marinating you in Sam Cooke when you were but a tadpole.  What’s the story you said you may have told me already?”

Oh, yeah.  One afternoon, as mom was getting close to her first and last trip to Hospice By The Sea, which was a lovely place but actually miles from the nearest sea, I heard her groaning from her bed and went in with my guitar.  I don’t know if she was asleep or awake.  She might have been in pain or having a bad dream about death, an eventuality she was determined not to talk about.  

I sat by the bed and played a gentle samba-like vamp with my fingertips.  It was the most soothing thing I’d come up with in my life and I thought it would calm her.  She became quiet and I figured I’d lulled her back to sleep.

She opened her eyes, lifted her head off the pillow and said irritably “what IS that?  It sounds terrible.  It always sounds like you’re tuning your guitar.”  

I never understood that.   Here was a woman who loved music, pop music, opera, show tunes, country music, every kind of music. What was this “it always sounds like you’re tuning your guitar” shit?   We finally had a conversation about it.  

It turned out, much to my surprise, that she was no fan of instrumental music, had never liked it.  When she listened to music she listened to the singers, their passion, the stories their songs told.  That’s why, once she discovered it late in life, she loved country music: the big personalities of the singers and the great stories apparently told in many of the songs.  “I never liked jazz, I love the melodies, I don’t care for improvisation.  I listen to music like I read books: for a good story told in a great voice.”

I remember thinking, damn!  I always assumed she was just being a dick, out of unhappiness with her own life, crapping on something I loved to do– play the guitar.  I never sang, I wanted to play well enough to be an instrumentalist– a thing my mother, weeks before she died, told me she had no understanding of.  In fact, she told me explicitly that she often had a hard time recognizing a song just by hearing the melody played on a guitar.

“Damn…” said the skeleton.

A year earlier mom began crying at the thought that she’d never hear my singer friend Joe sing again.  I had Joe over to my apartment, opened garageband — a program that allowed me to accompany and record Joe and overdub other instruments afterwards–  and accompanied him on a dozen or so songs from the Great American songbook.  After he left I recorded a few more instrumental parts, but left the accompaniments spare, his voice front and center, with a nice dollop of reverb.  

I brought the CD down to Florida, popped it into the computer and played it for her.  She was painfully polite about it, how sweet of us it had been to try to make some music for her, but the music had clearly not done anything for her.

About a month later I was talking to her on the phone and she reported “the most amazing thing!”   She’d been lying in bed listening to her iPod and suddenly Joe was singing and it was so beautiful she couldn’t believe it, she had no idea how the song had even got on her iPod.   It sounded like he was singing in a big hall.  It was gorgeous!  

“Which she pronounced ‘gawgiss’,” said the skeleton.  

Yeah.  I explained to her that I’d put the tunes on her iPod from the CD, and if she found a playlist called Joe DiSalle Trio she could hear all dozen or so tunes we’d recorded for her.   I coyly asked her what she thought of the trio (which was me on guitar, keyboard and bass) and she said they were good.  I explained that the big hall sound was a kind of reverb, called “big hall”,  that I’d added to Joe’s voice to give him that Johnny Mathis sound.  I told her I wasn’t surprised it sounded so much better on the iPod, as it was mixed to be heard in stereo through headphones and not over the crappy speakers of the computer in the den.

“Nice story,” said the skeleton.  

Yeah, but that’s not the story.  So a couple of days after cracking up a room full of hospice women in her bedroom in your apartment, she’s suddenly feeling like shit.  She often said “I don’t know why I feel so goddamned shitty all the time!” in the months before she finally died.  I knew not to make any linkage to her approaching death from a painful and wasting cancer that had spread to her whole body.

“Which was kind of you,” said the skeleton.

Anyway, they finally took her, on a gurney, down to an ambulance to take her to Hospice by the Sea.  One of the magpies that used to sit with Ed Pulley and his dim girlfriend on those benches in the parking lot, a woman mom always hated, a nosy ignoramus and a racist, called out “they’re taking another one to die!”  In that case she was right, but what the fuck?  

At the hospice mom lingered for a few days.  I brought my ukulele and I was working on a solo version of I’ll See You in My Dreams, which I played many times while I sat in the room there.  Not long before the end, as I continued to play it, mom turned to me with a big smile and said “I’ll See You in My Dreams!”

Unbelievable, but not surprising

In a club in Brooklyn, basement room, ceiling painted black, beer glass in hand nodding to my friends’ son’s band as they put on their show.  Their kid is the drummer, the youngest in the band, and a hell of a talented drummer.   He’s more interested in keyboards these days, which he tickles with great intuitive fluency.  You’d never know the guy wasn’t, in fact, a years’ trained jazz pianist, except that he has little idea of what notes he’s playing, what key he’s in, what extended chord he’s playing wild, fluid arpeggios of.

“He never plays drums anymore,” his father says sadly at one point.

After their first energetic tune the bandleader introduces the virtuoso on keyboards and the guy playing the baritone sax, also a virtuosic player.   The bandleader is flushed, happy, does not turn around to look at or introduce his drummer.  I watch the kid’s face take on a hurt cast behind the drums, clearly unhappy to be ignored after playing his ass off with the rest of the band.  As anyone would be.

As the next tune starts up I say directly into his mother’s ear-plugged ear: “Did you see David’s face when Noah didn’t introduce him?”  Surprisingly she hadn’t, but she was not happy about it now.  “I almost shouted out ‘who’s that fucking drummer?'” I told her and she shouted back “you should have!”

The show went on, the band was great, interactive, taking cues from each other to propel new improvisations.   They were jamming on a very high level.  

Suddenly the bass, keyboard and sax fell silent and David began hammering at the drums, every drum, from every conceivable angle, a great outpouring of raw emotion executed with titanic force and tightrope walker assurance.  He wailed on that drum kit in front of the brick wall for a good long while and I don’t really know that words can describe it.  

The band around him seemed stunned, even knowing very well how good their drummer is.  That brick wall behind him was reduced to a pile of rubble by the time the amazed band joined him.   He had literally brought the house down.  

Right before he began to play again, the bass player, smiling ecstatically, extended his arm and called out “David Resnick!” to a raucous standing ovation (although all applause was of necessity a standing ovation, since there were no seats in the room).

“I’ve never heard him do anything like that,” his father yelled as the fans roared.  

Later the kid quietly said “I’ve never done anything like that before.”  

I thought to myself later that what he’d done was the most beautiful possible way to deal with being ignored– do something absolutely fucking unignorable.

His father said “imagine if he practiced drums…” and I told him it was unimaginable.  Then I said what I really felt, and said it again a few times in the car later, to impress it on the young drummer as well as his parents.

“Unbelievable,” and I paused and held up a finger “but not surprising.”  I repeated it a couple more times for good measure, before dashing out of the car into the drenching thunderstorm.