Growth is Something That Happens When You’re Not Noticing

More than six years ago, when this blog was a matter of fits and starts–even more than it is now–I wrote about my beloved “Star Trek” guitar picks.

You see, back in the late ’70s, I was just learning to play guitar, and I wanted nothing so much as to be able to sound like Cat Stevens.

The problem was that every pick I tried made my guitar sound harsh, not lightly brushed like his.

I finally hit a solution–I thought.  Some very, very, very thin Jim Dunlop picks. The problem was that, being young and ham-handed, I shredded them.  Literally.  I went through several each week.

Then, One Day There They Were.  The Star Trek picks (see the earlier link).  I fell in love, bought a handful, and never saw them for sale anywhere any more.

So, for the nearly 40 years that I’ve been playing this guitar, I’ve used those picks almost exclusively.

Except.

I was playing my guitar today, and I realized that it had been years since I’d held a pick.

In the past six years, my playing changed from something I did with a pick to something I did exclusively with my hands; the nails and the flesh.

To be sure, I used to play that way some of the time, particularly when I finger-picked; but now, that’s the way I play exclusively.  I strum with the nails, pluck with the meats and the calluses, and that’s it.

Even while I was thinking of, and missing, those fabulous picks?  I had outgrown them.

I still don’t sound like Cat Stevens–or even Yusuf Islam.

I sound like me.

 

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Locomotive Breath Part II

He sees his children jumping off
At stations, one by one

–Jethro Tull

In the unlikely event that you follow this blog, you’ve seen me writing quite a bit about death lately.

This afternoon, sick with a cold, I’m just flipping through random photos on the internet when I come across one that reminds me of my father’s mother–my Baba.

And that’s when it hits you.  Perhaps it’s not children jumping off at stations; perhaps it’s our ancestors.  Our parents, their parents, their parents, and so on.

And yet, the train isn’t quite the right metaphor.  It doesn’t capture things.

Perhaps, seeing myself today as the product of one family and the producer of others, I am like the second stage of a three-stage rocket.  The first stage has fallen away; at 59, 75% of my fuel has been burned;  and now the third stage is warming up.

That’s of course not quite right either, because this rocket has an infinite number of stages; still, I can’t help but miss those that have dropped away.  And I can only hope that I will be remembered, however briefly, when it’s my turn.

 

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Trying to Imagine What Death is Like

I’ve been thinking about death a lot of late.  Most recently, the publicity around David Cassidy’s death has provoked me to thought because—as much as I hate to admit it—The Partridge Family was a part of my youth.

So let me start there.

When I was a kid, death was clearly not what it is for me today.  People didn’t really die.  If I saw someone get killed on a TV show, often there was a cop-out (I remember, for some reason, Batman and Robin turning bad and being machine-gunned by terrified police officers, only to discover that they had not been killed—robots had taken their place).  Checkov dies on Star Trek (“Shadow of the Gun”) but is brought back to life.

G.I. Joe could be killed in battle with dirt bombs.  But he always could be set back up.

Death was an act.

When I was in my teens, I became a bit of a Jesus Freak and, understood in that context, death was a door.  That became a little harder to grasp when my ex-girlfriend’s father died suddenly of a heart attack.  But we accepted the fiction.

When two of my best friends from high school died while I was in college, that fiction became harder and harder to maintain.

I married, and adopted new decorations for that fiction, but death remained a door, even if I was beginning to doubt.

Now, during this period I had known people who died, I had dressed corpses, and of course I had seen death on television (both real and dramatic).

The trick was, I had never seen anyone die, in person.  We insulate people in the United States, and death usually takes place a long way from us.

Death remained, in theory, a door, even if the outlines of that door were starting to evaporate into smoke.

Then, last March, I was present when my father died.

I remember.  His breaths came ever more slowly over a period of hours.  He would stop breathing for 10, 20, 40 seconds at a time.  Then he would gasp, and breathing would resume.  Then one time, he didn’t.  His skin became cold, rapidly.

And that’s when the door evaporated entirely.

I no longer think of death as a game or an act.  I no longer think of death as a door.  I believe that when you die, you’re gone.

That’s all.

So what must it be like to die?  In some ways, I look forward to the experience—except that I will not be there.  So there will be no experience.

I was nearly killed in a bike crash a long time back.  I was knocked clean out, concussed, jaw broken, and I have 10-15 minutes missing.  The only reason I know that they are missing is that I woke up while I was being put into an ambulance.  But other than that, I was riding and then things stopped.

If I had not woken up in the ambulance, that stop would have been complete.  That’s what I expect death to be like; and since I will not wake up again, there will be no way to account for, to assess, to realize that there was a stop.

That’s what I expect death to be like.

In some ways, I hope I’m wrong.  But I’m pretty sure I’m right.

And I’m pretty sure that, deep down, we all know that.

 

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My Bohemian Window

Bohemian Window

The summer after I graduated from college, I was independently wealthy.

It was 1981, I was 23 years old, and I held in my hand an acceptance letter from a graduate school that included free tuition and a $4,500 per year stipend.  What’s more, I had received a $1,500 prize from my college department at graduation, so I didn’t need to work, so long as I was reasonably careful with my money.

I subleased a tiny, dingy, walk-up off-campus apartment from a friend who had moved in with his girlfriend.  It was one room plus a kitchen and bath; it smelled like gas, and it leaked when it rained, and there was barely enough space for me and my guitar and my bicycle together with a couch and bed.

The building was old and tumble-down, and I felt every bit the adventurous but deeply depressed bohemian while I lived there.

One day I was browsing through a bookstore and found a colorful window sticker with a dove and a rainbow.  I bought it and stuck it to the front window of the apartment to cheer myself up.  At night, the moon or some other source of light would shine through it, and I’d sit on the ratty couch and gaze at and through that sticker as if it were magical, trying to divine my future while listening to Bonnie Raitt’s Streetlights album.

Of all of the contents of that apartment, the building itself, the street, only I and my guitar and a photograph remain.

 

 

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New Bag Time Thule Strävan, Reviewed

This blog turns out to be one of the longer-lasting ones around.  I started out (badly) in, let’s see:  Ah.  June, 2008.  Took a while to get going, posts in fits and starts, but, what the heck, I’m still here.  And if you’ve looked at this blog before, you know that I am obsessed with bags.  Well, briefcases.  Among other things.

I still have and use my trusty, debranded Manhattan Portage Europa.  It’s simple and it works well.  But I’ve had it for four years, and my life has changed a bit, and I was looking for something new and.  Well, we’ll get there.

I have had several cardinal points for bags over the years, the most important being that the strap should be sewn on.  Two reasons for this:  First, it makes the bag more secure, or at least it makes it feel more secure.  When you’re riding somewhere, you don’t want a piece of hardware to come apart on you.  I’ve had that happen, and almost dropped a rather expensive laptop that belonged to someone else.  A Close Call.  Second, it makes the bag quieter, because the hardware, metal or plastic, isn’t knocking around.

So it took a lot for me to violate that particular point when I acquired my latest bag.

Actually, it’s a bit of a compromise.

New Bag

The bag is known as a Thule Strävan 13″ Macbook bag.

The first thing I should point out is that this is a small bag.  It’s intended for 13″ and smaller notebook computers (which works well for me, because I use a 12.5″ computer, the Lenovo X240).  The second is that it appears to be out of production, but still available from Amazon and similar places.  and because it is out of production, it’s cheap (think $25, give or take).

So.  First, as to that compromise:  instead of having the strap sewn in, or having plastic or metal loops to which to clip the strap, this bag has webbing loops to which the strap clips directly.  It thus eliminates the noise of rings and clips, though some hardware remains.  The strap hardware seems very solid, however and, unlike some, it holds the strap tightly enough that things shouldn’t get twisted up.  There is a strap pad (which I removed) and two buckles to adjust the length of the strap.

Next, the Strävan has something I’d been looking for:  handles.  I’m spending way too much time in my car these days, and I needed an easy way to grab the bag until I can use the strap.  Thus, handles.  These are nice–there’s one on either side of the main compartment, they’re comfortable, and the bag feels balanced.

About that zipper–another cardinal point for me has always been to have a flap over the top of the bag, because it keeps out the weather.  I also like the way it looks.  Here, no flap, just a zipper across the top, with nice pulls.

Inside that zipper are three large, flat compartments.  First, on the front side, a nicely-lined and padded one that fits my notebook perfectly.  Second, on the back side, a smaller lined and padded pocket intended for a tablet of some kind.  I don’t use it often, but sometimes toss in my Kindle Paperwhite.  In between the two is about an inch of space, into which you can put some folders and a letter-sized writing pad.  I’m trying hard not to overstuff this, which is comparatively easy because most of what I need is on the computer.  Sometimes, you want paper, but most of the time, you’re OK.  I keep a single folder and a legal pad in there.

Oddly, the tablet pocket can be opened by a zipper running down one side of the back of the bag.  I don’t know why you’d want that, but it’s there.

The front side has a veritable plethora of pockets:  One runs parallel to the computer pocket, which means that it’s a bit smaller than that pocket, and opens with a zipper across the top front.  I use it to store a USB to MicroUSB cable and a small Claierefontaine tabbed notebook with my to-do list.  On top of that are three more pockets.  The largest of these is intended for a notebook power supply, and that’s what I use it for.  To it’s right is a pocket just a bit smaller, into which go pens, business cards, and a tin from a Well-Known Brand of herbal teas that holds some bluetooth earphones and a tiny digital audio recorder.  Each of these pockets unzips on two sides, so they’re easy to get into.

On top of the power supply pocket is a small flat zippered pocket clearly intended for a phone.  Why anyone would put their phone in that kind of pocket is beyond me.  Mine lives in my back pocket at all times.  But it’s a nice extra space to have:  I keep my blood glucose test kit and a granola bar in there.

Overall, the bag looks nice, not overly-techy, and keeps my stuff together in a small space.  The only thing I truly dislike about it (allowing that I’ve already violated my cardinal points regarding straps and flaps) is that the manufacturer’s logo/name is printed on the side in large letters–unlike the Manhattan Portage bags, you can’t remove it.

I’ve had this bag for about a month, and I’m really very pleased with it.  They also make a 15″ version, still in production, and consequently, priced significantly higher.  If you need to carry a 14″ or 15″ machine, it looks like it will do just fine (these are currently available at Staples, as well as online).

If you’re the kind of person who travels a lot with a small computer, I think this bag, particularly at its current price, is hard to beat.

 

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Well, this could be the last time.

I didn’t buy a guitar yesterday.  I was going to.  I had, the day before, arranged to visit the seller, and then I realized something and didn’t go.  But I almost did…

The story starts around 40 years ago in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota.  A couple of years earlier, I had become involved with a church youth group whose leader was musically inclined.  In the late 1970s, this was virtually a requirement for any one working with youth (as it seemed to me, at least, that the world was not so much a place of smells and colors and textures, but of sounds).  This guy played a 12-string Martin guitar, and that sound.  That sound!

My mother had a small, poorly-made, Kingston guitar.  A decoration, really, rather than an instrument, that sat in a corner.  But only a few weeks after hearing the leader of my church group play his 12-string guitar, an instrument that to this day puts me in mind of angels singing, I picked up her little guitar, pressed a lens out of a pair of cheap sunglasses to use as a pick, and tried it.  It was, of course, horribly out of tune; it hadn’t been touched for years.  I managed, with the aid of a pitch pipe, to get it tuned.  Then I picked up the book she had tried to use to learn to play the thing.  If you’re of a certain age, the name “Mel Bay” will strike fear into your fingers, and this was, indeed, an introduction to the Mel Bay Method of guitar playing.

I almost quit.  Almost.  I did quit a couple of times.  But those angels were still there in my head.

I was living at home at the time, and one day I wandered into a music store in the local mall—I think it was Schmidt Music in Rosedale—and there on the wall, above the various home organs, were guitars.  Ovation guitars.

Ovation was one of the best-known brands, distinctive, because while they had wooden tops and necks and (usually) six strings, that was where the resemblance to conventional instruments ended.  Where regular guitars have backs and sides made of some hardwood, typically rosewood, mahogany, or maple, Ovations had a black plastic bowl.  Known informally as round-backs, they were produced by a company that had originally been founded to make durable plastic parts for military helicopters.

One of the guitars was beautiful model called the Country Artist.  Unlike most folk guitars, it had nylon strings, which I figured would be a good idea, since at the time I didn’t relish damaging my fingertips with steel strings.  Used, with a good case, that guitar was priced at $400.  I didn’t have $400, but I did have a cello that my parents had purchased for me years before in the hope that I would take to classical music.  I had not taken to classical music and, with a little persuasion, I was able to convince my parents to let me part with the cello in exchange for the guitar.  That was one of the best decisions they and I ever made.

Immediately, any and all discretionary funds I possessed started to flow to the purchase of music books that had chord diagrams in them.  I learned, and learned, and learned, and learned.  I never looked at a Mel Bay book again!

Eventually, an electric guitar joined that Ovation (first a Gibson Marauder, then an Ibanez MC200) and, ultimately, a small Martin OO-18 steel string guitar.

I played the hell out of all of those instruments, building calloused fingers and an ear for arrangements.  I occasionally made a little money playing, but mostly I played for myself and for friends.

When I prepared to move to Chicago for graduate school, four years after acquiring the Ovation, I sold all my guitars except the Martin.

I still have that Martin today, and I still play it, and I’ve bought and sold about a half-dozen other guitars over time.  The variations are enjoyable.  But I’ve had a special place in my heart for that Country Artist ever since.  So when I saw one on Craigslist last week, I thought about it, went “nyahh,” thought about it some more, and then finally contacted the seller and planned to go see it the next day.

You have to understand what that guitar meant to me.  If I close my eyes, I can still smell its case, the wood and plastic resin scents that wafted from the guitar itself.  I can hear and feel its resonance as I plucked the low E string (I was a religious user of Augustine Blue strings, favored by Segovia).  I can feel the smooth ebony fingerboard, and see the glow of the beautiful spruce top.  I can watch my cat curl up in bowl-shaped velvet of the case while I play.

Yeah.

What struck me between the time I contacted the seller and the time I contacted him again and told him I wasn’t coming to look at it was the nature of nostalgia.

Wanting can, I think, be divided into categories.  There is wanting something in the future.  That is anticipation, longing, desire.  This is wanting but never having had; it’s aspirational.

I always wanted to try an Alembic electric guitar (They were $1,700 in 1976; still produced, they’re around $10,000 today).  A few years ago, I finally had the opportunity.  The Alembic was everything I had dreamed it would be, and the owner of the guitar shop where I tried it looked like he knew what I was experiencing:  the fulfillment of a long-held wish.  But he knew that I wouldn’t be buying it.  And that trial—that one time that I played an Alembic?  It cured me.  I still like to look at them, but my desire has been satisfied.

Nostalgia’s not like that.  It’s wanting something that you had, but can never have again.  It’s a kind of fetishism of symbols.

For me, that Ovation was a symbol—a symbol of friends who’ve passed out of my life through time, distance, and death, of lovers, of the tiny apartment that leaked buckets when it rained, of watching lightning from my balcony, of making candles from discarded crayons, of incense, of sticking flowers in the muzzle of a tank, of eating vegetarian pizza and drinking green tea at the New Riverside Café.  Of my favorite college book bag, of classes at the University, of the vast underground bookstore, of the street light shining through a sticker on my window.  Of my youth.  Of my naivety.

All those things are gone—gone forever—and owning a guitar that I associate with those things won’t bring them back.

Nostalgia isn’t always a terrible thing, because it tells us about ourselves:  what we valued then, and how that is connected to what we value now.  But buying items that symbolize a past frozen in memory and amber light, I think that is a bad thing.

So I sent an email to the guy selling the guitar.  What I wrote was:

I’m not going to look at the guitar tonight after all, and this is my explanation and apology.  Essentially, the time when I owned certain instruments (like the Country Artist) was a particularly great time in my life, and it’s for that nostalgic reason as much as any that I want to see it and, after doing so, would likely buy it.  But, and it’s an important but, I’m 40 years older, and my little Martin is really all that I need.  Guitars are meant to be played, not revered as symbols of the past.

I apologize for making plans with you to see it, and maybe interrupting plans you had already set.  It’s a lovely instrument and it deserves to be played and appreciated by someone who loves it for what it is.  Unfortunately, that’s not me.

Do I regret not going to at least see that guitar, to pluck its strings one last time?  Yes, of course I do.  But you know what?  There’s a last time for everything.  Some day, I will play my Martin guitar for the last time.  Some day, I will ride my bike for the last time.  Some day, I will type on my computer for the last time.  Some day, I will taste chocolate for the last time.  Some day, I will close my eyes for the last time.  Some day, I will kiss my spouse for the last time.

Nostalgia is a longing to say that there is no last time, that we can always recover our past—our friends, our lost loves.  That we can say the right thing instead of the wrong thing even though we said the wrong thing decades ago.  That you can always go home again.

Nostalgia is a denial of mortality.  But it’s mortality that makes us who are.

Until next time—

 

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Game of Phones

(aka “A Screed of Depression and Hatred”)

This morning I’m feeling depressed.  The United States of America, the country I was born into and love, is in the hands of an idiot.  Puerto Rico, part of that country, has been all but destroyed by a hurricane, and the rest of us are being a little, well, slow in doing anything to save the people of that territory.

An in the midst of all of this, one of the hot topics of the day is a phone that costs 1,000 fucking dollarsSaying that felt good.  This is a slice of glass, metal, plastic and silicon, together with various forms of carbon and lithium, that people can carry around to talk to their friends and coworkers, take photographs, listen to music, and play games.

None of those are bad things.

What is a bad thing is that we have prioritized a toy that is–let’s be honest–a marginal improvement over the previous version of itself over the lives of our brothers and sisters.

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