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.


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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Why do I do This to Myself?

A few days ago, I discovered that Amazon was selling their Fire7 tablet (“New!  Improved!”) for about $35.

So, of course, I ordered one.

It arrived today, and at 7:00 I took it out of its wrappings and turned it on, and by 7:30 I was filing to return it.

The long and short of it is that inexpensive tablets haven’t improved since my last stab at one, and it’s not just Windows tablets that suck.

Why do I keep doing this to myself?  Why do I hope, against hope, that this time they got it right?

Look, I know this is supposed to be an absolutely entry-level everything-to-everyone tablet.  I get that.  But my phone works better.  And does more.

Using this for just a few minutes reminded me of why I don’t ordinarily feel that my life is incomplete without something that fits between my notebook and my phone.

Ned Ludd strikes again.

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The Invisibility of White Privilege

(Parts of this post were published on groupthink.kinja.com some weeks ago.)

I was in New Haven a month or so ago and it was 87F and humid. I had to dress up because I was going to an event in the federal courthouse that afternoon, but it was hotter than hell out there. On a day like that I would normally be wearing a T-shirt, shorts (yes, cargo shorts), and sandals if I didn’t have to go to court. But that day…well, at least I could leave my jacket in the car until later.  And so it was that, looking like this (see below), I got a lesson in white privilege.


I needed to meet a marshal to drop off a subpoena, and the marshal’s office happened to be in a rather nice office building downtown. I strolled in off the sidewalk, slid on through the lobby, saw the sign that said “All Visitors Must Sign In” just as I was reaching the elevator, and went “awe, fuck it” and went up. No questions asked then, or when I walked past the guard in the elevator lobby on my way out a few minutes later.

That’s when I realized that being white and wearing a suit made me invisible. The guard was looking for people to talk to, but not for people like me. Had I been wearing flip flops, or had my skin not been white, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts I would have been stopped.

White privilege isn’t like a credit card.  It isn’t something you pull out of your pocket when you want to use it.  It’s always there, and it’s as invisible as I was to that guard.  It’s a shield that permits some people to see you (you have priority with sales assistance in stores, for example) and some not to (police generally won’t bug you if you’re white and halfway reasonably groomed).  It shielded me from that guard’s attention.  It shields you, if you’re light-skinned.

Now, briefly, think about what life would be like if you didn’t have white privilege.  If it went away, and suddenly you were confronted with police who noticed you, guards who noticed you, sales assistants who didn’t notice you.  Police who assumed that you were not terribly valuable and who thus were more inclined than they might otherwise be to shoot you.  Imagine if your neighborhood lost white privilege.  Imagine if your children did.  And if you’re white, you realize, deep down, that the odds of what happened to Trayvon Martin, et al. happening to your child are pretty close to zero, thanks to that invisible shield.  And that the odds of it happening to any given kid who isn’t white are so much greater that the event isn’t even surprising when you hear it or read about it on the news.

That should make you angry.  It really, really should.



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I Sing the Body Electric

In 1980, I saw the movie Fame with a friend of mine.  It was a rainy fall evening in downtown Minneapolis, somewhere in one of the huge old theaters on Hennepin Avenue.  My friend, a Romanian émigré I had met in Hebrew class, enjoyed them film.  I was enthralled.

When I graduated from high school in 1976, I had two identities.  One was as an actor/theater person; the other was as a Christian.  While the latter identity hadn’t survived college really intact, and though I had managed only to fit a single theater class into my curriculum, I was still, in 1980, definitely a theater person.  I still had visions of the stage, though they were mixed with music by then.

Fame fed all of that.  I saw high school, I saw theater, I saw romance, I saw it all.  Everything I ever wanted.  I was only four years older than the kids in Performance Arts.

Time has come and gone.  37-odd years now.  I’ve played music (and I’m way better at it than I used to be), I’ve done a radio drama, but most of my life has had nothing to do with the theater and never will.  And I’ve done stupid things, too.  Saturday, I was clearing the area behind the garage, stupidly wearing sandals.  Something got between my right sandal and my foot while I was carrying a piece of decayed fence, and it went into my foot.

So now I’m at home because I literally can’t walk.  And I decided, for the hell of it, to pull up Fame on Netflix.

You know what?

It hasn’t changed.  And my response to it hasn’t changed.  I’m still seeing high school, theater, romance.

Fame has held up remarkably well.  In the 37 years since I first saw it (and as far as I can tell, that was the only time I saw it before today) many things have changed and not held up.  There are no more Checker cabs.  There are no more heavy green telephones.  If you walk around New York today, you see people not talking to each other or looking around, you see people staring at cell phones (or talking on them).  The city is cleaner and less interesting.  I’m cleaner and less interesting.  Do you know how long it’s been since I went to a midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show?  Smoked dope?  Hell, my children are now older than the students in Fame.

It hurts, in some ways, to watch Fame, because I realize what’s been left behind, and a large part of it is me.  I was young in Minneapolis, and ready to stay up all night long and do fantastic things.  I’ve done things that I never could have imagined, and few of them have been fantastic.  But some have, I suppose.  Now I sit, a 60-year-old lawyer, in a pleasant house in Connecticut.  I go to bed around ten.  I don’t swear as much.  I don’t listen to music as much.  I’m in many ways less than I was.

But the dreams haven’t changed.  And I still love this song.


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A “Good” Education

Before reading this, I urge you to take a little while and listen to this.

OK, you’re back.

I want to start out by saying that, as an undergraduate, there was never any question that I was among the best and brightest at my school.  Starting in 1976, I attended the University of Minnesota, in the College of Liberal Arts.  All told, the University had around 55,000 students.  My student ID number was 990127.  Tuition, during my time there, was between $300-400 for as many classes you wanted each quarter (the University was on the quarter system, what is now known as the trimester system—each term was 10 weeks, and there were three normal terms in the university calendar, plus two shorter summer terms of 5 weeks each (plus, if I recall correctly, exam weeks)).  The University had, in addition to the CLA, the Institute of Technology, a forestry school, and an entire agriculture campus (that we knew as “Moo U.”  Plus there were graduate programs in almost every department and professionals schools for Law, Medicine, and Architecture.

I made the Dean’s List every single term.  I was in the honors program.  I was in chemistry classes with premed students and I earned solid As when they were getting Bs.  I graduated summa cum laude in sociology, with a gold phi beta kappa key and a GPA of around 3.8.  I never got less than a B.  Yes, I’m bragging.  I earned the right.

So what did I do for an encore?  Naturally, I applied to graduate school.  I applied to ten, and was accepted at nine.  The one that didn’t accept me (Stanford) may have done so because one of the people I asked to write a recommendation hated that school.  Those that did accept me—every one of them, from the New School for Social Research and Columbia University to the University of California at Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara—gave me scholarships.  In some cases, they gave me way more than free tuition–additional aid for living expenses, so I would finish loan-free (and loans were smaller in those days).

I ended up at the University of Chicago, one of the great schools for sociology, with a 3-year scholarship that gave me leave to take whatever courses I wanted, so long as I was making progress in the sociology department, and $1,500 each term for living expenses (Chicago was also on the trimester system).  $4,500 per year was not a hell of a lot of money, but a studio apartment in Hyde Park, with utilities, could be had for $400/month, and there were always research assistantships to be had, so it was pretty good.

Do you know the difference between a college and a graduate school?

A college turns out people who go into a wide range of disciplines—they may become small business owners, artists, housepainters, musicians, actors, shopkeepers, draftsfolk, bus drivers, electricians, plumbers, clerks, soldiers, luthiers, police officers, managers, account executives, bicycle mechanics, insurance salespersons.

A graduate school turns out professors.

Now, I have no argument with professors.  I’m married to one—one who also received an excellent scholarship from the University of Chicago and who (unlike me) finished her PhD (and on-time!).  But I wonder sometimes, regarding my own case in particular and graduate schools in general, if we don’t make a mistake by funding the routing of the undergraduate “best and brightest” into the professoriate.

I’m thinking about this in large part due to having listened this weekend to the Malcolm Gladwell podcast I’ve linked above.  Because the reason I don’t work in a factory today, and the reason I’m now in my third exciting career (I’m now doing law, after teaching and software engineering) has much more to do with that undergraduate education than with graduate school.

Gladwell makes the point that America is a country in need of weak-link aid rather than strong-link aid.  That is, in context, that it would make more sense to put money toward improving the education of the many, including the “not so hot” students, than it does to put increasingly vast amounts toward the education of a few, fantastically smart students.  He uses the analogy of soccer vs. basketball, and argues—convincingly—that America is trying to play the latter when it needs to play the former.  We should be funding the bench, not just the superstars.

Now, there are good reasons to fund smart students.  I remember sitting in one class at Chicago and realizing that the person to my left had a BS from Yale (he quit grad school the next year and went on to be a lawyer), and the one to my right had a BA from Harvard (finished grad school and has been chair of sociology at Chicago!).  I was smart, and I did good work and communicated some useful things to people.  Not as smart as them, but I was smart.

But.  Had the thousands spent on my abortive graduate career gone to the University of Minnesota, easily a dozen people could have earned BAs.

I’m not sorry that I went to graduate school.  It was a great experience—I met my spouse, branched out to a new city, learned things that I still use in everyday life, met exciting people and minds (see Yale and Harvard, above).  But the marginal advantage was small.  Perhaps that’s why I dropped out of graduate school.  What I learned as a grad student didn’t build all that much over what I learned as an undergraduate.  Or perhaps I wasn’t cut out for it, and wasn’t as smart as I thought.

And maybe Malcolm Gladwell is right.  Maybe what we need is not a few people with great educations, but a whole lot of people with good ones.  Looking at the current political situation, it’s hard to argue with that point.



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Lessons from Squirrels I: Mortality

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

–John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, “Meditation XVII”

OK.  Pretentious title and text (which I hope to invoke again later) out of the way–

This post is inspired by two things, ten or more years apart.

Thing the First:  As readers of this blog know, I’m a morning person.  So it was around 6:30 AM, in a small town in Wisconsin, I was riding my bike to work, not yet far from home, when I came across a disturbing sight.  In the middle of the road was a squirrel–upper body smashed by a tire, but its legs were moving.  It was still trying to escape.  It knew death was coming, and it didn’t want to wait around for it.

Thing the Second:  This morning, this time driving to work, I saw a smashed squirrel.  But what was significant this time was a non-squashed squirrel that was sniffing at it and touching the body tentatively and solicitously.  A relative?  A mate?  A total stranger?  But it was not “playing” the way squirrels do; it knew something was wrong.  It knew it was dealing with death.

OK.  Maybe I’m being anthropomorphic here, but consciousness of death implies something.  These “lower animals” understand mortality.  And they don’t like it any more than human beings do.  And consciousness of death, well, that implies so much more.

This is something I haven’t thought much about since I took a course in “animal rights” back around 1980.  My final paper for that class was on the question of consciousness and its role in morality.  On these grounds, books like Watership Down and The Plague Dogs (which were among the books we read at Professor Sartorius’ assignment, together with Peter Singer’s work) are rather disturbing, in part because they privilege their protagonists’ species (as we do our own).

I remember thinking, while I was writing that final paper, about the cat that lived at my parents’ house and  whom I had known, at that time, for more than 12 years.  I think I wrote that I would have a very difficult time reconciling what I knew of that animal with eating her.  She was a person.  I was not acquainted with the squirrels to whom I refer above, but I am coming to think, bit by bit, that just as much as my cat, those squirrels are persons also.

Being a person means that someone is not interchangeable with someone else.  That applies to humans (and it’s something we all too often forget) as well as animals.  My cat (unofficially denominated “Miss Meow,” though officially “Samantha”) was not like any other cat.  She knew her home and her people and behaved in a certain way that no other cat behaved.  To be sure, there were commonalities with most other cats–a love of barbecue, cheese, and catnip–but so there are commonalities among most other people–a love of barbecue, cheese, and coffee.  And people are not interchangeable, either.

What makes us people–what makes us persons–what makes squirrels persons–is the recognition of the individual quality over the collective quality.  And to the extent that is recognized, mortality becomes a force with which we much reckon.  Each death of a human being affects me because I am a human being.  The bell tolls for me (and thee).  Each death of a squirrel affects all squirrels because they are squirrels.  The bell tolls for them.

But more importantly, we should observe that the death of another, regardless of species, to some degree diminishes us because of the individual quality of that being who has died–because of its loss.

Am I going vegan?  Not likely.  Vegetarian?  more likely, but see above, barbecue.  I’m human.

Still.  Let us, even in our carnivorous moments, acknowledge the individual, regardless of species.  The bell tolls for we.


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