Archive for the 'Conversations' Category

I’ll just go away now, shall I?

I couldn’t prove it, but it’s likely that I am the only person in the world at whom the jazz-fusion guitarist Peter White has ever hurled a radish, not counting people related to him. Though less likely, it is also possible that I am the only person whose conversations with the singer-songwriter Al Stewart are equal in number to the occasions when I have insulted him; to be precise, in both cases that number would be two.

Al Stewart. Photo credit unknown.

Al Stewart was one of my early music heroes, and Peter White was a member of his band for twenty years before striking out on his own. Fewer and fewer younger people remember Al Stewart as years go by, but he had a number of small hits in the early ’70s — “Nostradamus” and “Roads to Moscow” from Past Present and Future — and a few big hits later in the decade — “Year of the Cat” and “On the Border” from Year of the Cat, “Time Passages”, and “Song on the Radio” from Time Passages.

Even before those latter two platinum-selling albums came out I was a devotee. Jeff’s older brother had Past Present and Future and we wore it out on the barge-sized cabinet phonograph his folks had in the living room. It is not surprising I loved it; each song on the album treated of a different decade of the 20th century. Though Al himself abjures such contrivances, it is often said of him that he invented his own genre, historic pop-rock.

Take me back in time, Al. Past Present and Future album cover image probably copyright CBS, Janus Records, or the graphic artist(s).

When Year of the Cat first hit the radio I hastened to tell Jeff that I dedicated the title song to Carolyn D., an eighth-grader on whom we both had the same secret, undeclared crush and for whom our codename was “Cat”. Jeff made what might these days be termed “whatever-face” and said, “I already dedicated that song to my cat Snowball.”

As will soon be abundantly clear, Not Getting the Effect I Hoped For is a theme that runs throughout this post.

1.

In 1985 I was in Germany, staying with a family on their farm just outside the small university town of Tübingen. When I heard that Al Stewart would be playing in nearby Reutlingen I bought a ticket and caught a train. I went by myself, but in the concert hall I sat with a young German couple whose enthusiasm for Al Stewart rivaled my own.

I believe this tour was named The Cat is Back. It supported the album Russians and Americans, one I bought but found disappointing for really spoiled-brat reasons and hadn’t played very much. I was fixated on Al’s earliest albums at that time.

When the band came onstage they tossed radishes out into the audience, Al making a joke about not having any carrots to throw — a reference to a previous album, 24 Carrots — and how they had a ton of radishes backstage. Al was thin, had long wavy hair and wore a slick shirt. They played a great concert, in my opinion, and changed up the old barnstormer “Nostradamus” in a really innovative way.

Peter White as he looked in former days wielding an axe, which was not much different from how he looked wielding a radish. Photo borrowed from LastFM, credit unknown.

Afterwards, the German kids said they were going to try to get backstage and talk to Al and invited me to join them. I don’t know how it was so easy, but we went backstage. The band were in a large dressing room, just preparing to sit down to some food. A handful of us just waltzed in there and started bugging him. A local reporter, a young woman maybe from a college paper, got in his face and asked a bunch of questions, which he was pretty gracious about answering, though I remember him saying that all he wanted to do was eat some dinner. My two young companions were dumbstruck, their eyes shining up at him like footlights, and I think they barely managed to squeak out a request for an autograph. Al sat down to eat and when it was my turn, I sat directly across the table from him and asked him — let me pause for just a moment here while I confirm with my Center of Being that I really and truly did this — asked him when he was going to get back to writing more strictly acoustic songs, like “Next Time” from Modern Times.

It had been a tough decade for artists like Al, something I hadn’t considered before opening my pie-hole. Since his big hits, punk and disco had taken over the world and the first wave of the folk revival — championed by such luminaries as Bob Dylan — had definitely spent itself, leaving Al floundering in an increasingly electronic, minimalist and forward-looking music scene with very little room to maneuver. Gentle, historic ballads weren’t moving.

Al frowned as though he’d completely forgotten about that song, and said that he didn’t know when the last time he’d played it was or whether he could even play it anymore. Peter White was standing behind Al listening, holding a radish in his hand. He said “what about ‘The Candidate’ from the new album? Do you have the new album, Russians and Americans?”

Don't remind him. Photo credit unknown, maybe RCA?

I stuttered. “Uh…Yeah, I have it, but…”

“That’s right”, said Al, visibly relieved. “That one’s completely acoustic.”

It was at this moment that Peter White assumed a playful look of disgust on his face and said something like “sure, he bought the new album but he didn’t listen to it…complains about it without even knowing what’s on it”, and then pitched a radish at my person.

It bounced off, but the indictment silenced me and loosed the voices of the band, which all rose against me as a chorus of ridicule. They riffed on Peter’s comment and chuckled, until the world began to swirl and spin in front of my eyes and everything went black. I over-exaggerate too much. Really, my moment just passed; someone else jumped in to ask him another question or beg an autograph, and I faded away and never saw myself again.

2.

The first date Angela and I went on after Mara was born was to see a much older Al Stewart play the Triple Door here in Seattle in support of his 2005 album A Beach Full of Shells. We sat in the front row. He was now a balding man with a double chin in baggy pants and comfortable shoes, but he’d only gotten better over time. In the years since I’d accosted him backstage in Germany he had made something of a comeback, and by this I mean that he started making albums again — starting with 1993’s Famous Last Words — that really sounded like Al doing what Al did best: sweet, melancholy, funny, educated, beautiful and playful songs mostly on acoustic instruments, occasionally with something louder or more produced. It was almost as though, with the pressure to chart removed and no one but his devoted fans paying any attention, he was free to remember who he was and what we all loved about his music in the first place.

Peter and Al rippin' it during one of their rare reunions. Photo borrowed from LastFM, credit unknown.

Having lost track of him after the mid ’80s, I took note of Famous Last Words, and then Al seemed to knock each album after that out of the ball park. Between the Wars (1995), Down in the Cellar (2000), and Beach Full of Shells continued what struck me as a whole new era of the best songcraft the man had ever produced.

Angela and I both enjoyed the 2005 show, so when he came back in 2008 and played the Triple Door again we went and saw him again, and this time we stood in line to have him autograph our copy of his latest album, Sparks of Ancient Light.

One of Mara's favorites, and probably Al's, too. Image copyright probably Appleseed Records or the graphic artist(s).

When our moment came, I had my speech ready. I was going to tell him I was the churl who’d impugned his artistic integrity in Reutlingen all those years ago and apologize for my behavior. Though I didn’t expect him to remember the event, I thought the story would amuse him.

Al Stewart was not amused.

I never even got to the radish part. As soon as I made reference to that concert, Al groaned and said that that tour had been terrible and that that whole year had been one of the worst years of his life. He quickly took the CD booklet out of the jewel case to sign it. He suddenly looked depressed.

Panic started to grip me. I don’t like to be the cause of anyone’s mood plummeting, but this was particularly horrifying. I had meant only to bring a lively anecdote to that brief interview and right an old wrong, and now I was making one of my cultural heroes relive a nightmare. I was making it all worse, not better.

Like a good wine, as the saying goes. Performing in Santa Monica, 2010. Image by Vandonovan licensed through Creative Commons.

Cheerfully prattling on, I insisted that the 1985 concert as I remembered it was a great one, but he wasn’t listening. He was verbally fending off the memory I had shoved under his nose. He scribbled his mark on the cover of the liner notes booklet and handed the case back to me, literally leaning toward the next person in line in an effort to be quit of me.

I stopped talking. I think Angela rolled her eyes and laughed at me all the way down the street. I’m sure it was my imagination, but as we drove away I could have sworn I heard small items like little round vegetables bouncing off the back of the car.

A dropped coin

He who does not see God in the next person he meets need look no further.”

– Gandhi

I seem to be treading near the horizon between this material world and other ones a lot lately. A strange thing happened today as I was threading my way among the citizens and denizens of this dubious outpost of civilization. I was walking east along Pike Street in that dodgy section between Second and Third. I find it difficult to remain spiritually open in this particular quarter, as there always seems to be the potential for mayhem, perhaps an argument or even a shooting. It was here that police many years ago encircled a troubled black man who’d been brandishing a scimitar and finally knocked him to the pavement with water from a fire-hose.

So I always experience a temptation to harden myself as I pass through there, and the hardening changes not only my posture and my gait but I’m sure my face as well. I’m aware that even when I think I’m smiling bigly, like for pictures, I’m really only smiling a little, and that when I’m not smiling I actually look like I’m scowling. And maybe I am. Being aware of this unfortunate aspect of my visage, I make an effort as I stroll around to open myself up — not to ask for trouble, and not because I think I’m a superhero, but because I need that for my own soul. I am trying to become the kind of person I might admire, and I often know such persons by the fact that they are open and friendly and smiling. So I practice it when I think about it.

Years ago, even the people with clipboards asking for a moment of my time for a worthy cause made me fold up and wish I could disappear — I hated them. I still inwardly cringe every time I see one ahead of me on the sidewalk, or waiting for me at the other side of the crosswalk like someone guarding the far end of a rope bridge, but these days I am able to smile broadly as I approach them. I don’t necessarily shake the hand they proffer (the line “I’d shake your hand but I don’t want to” from The New Adventures of Old Christine always comes to mind), but I always say hi and I don’t feel trapped, and that’s because my outlook toward people has changed toward the positive over recent years.

But that balance between the self-preservation instinct and spiritual openness is difficult to maintain in the wacky parts of town. So it seems now somehow fitting or predestined or ironic (or something) that I saw a young woman in a thick coat and the big soft boots of the current fashion approaching me earnestly at an angle across the sidewalk. Her diagonal trajectory caused people behind her and in front of her to adjust their own bearings suddenly, though she didn’t seem to notice or care.

“Excuse me!” she said quickly.

I stopped and raised my eye-brows, trying to look open, even though I felt very much closed and protective of myself. My collar was up against the cold and my hands were in my coat pockets and because I had forgotten to smile purposefully I probably looked irritated.

Her right eye wandered a little and was slightly closed. She held some coins pinched in the fingers of both her hands and was clacking them together. She seemed to be waiting for me to answer, but I had not yet fully opened myself. My stopping and regarding someone is my signal that they have a short moment to engage my empathy, but I don’t waste words on the street. I waited for her to state her business. She seemed confused that I didn’t speak.

“You’re beautiful,” she blurted. She said this in a quick slur, barely moving her lips, so that I wasn’t even sure that that’s what she said. She clicked the coins, looked away slightly. I suddenly understood that she was completely overwhelmed by the world, and had no idea how to go about getting what she needed from anyone.

I leaned forward then, hoping to assure her that she could at least continue, could make her request. I expected she was going to ask for money, and I regretted that I didn’t have a dollar ready. I sometimes keep a dollar loose in my pocket so that I don’t have to fish out my wallet out on the sidewalk when the spirit moves me to give. But she didn’t ask for money.

“How can I help you?” I asked.

“I just wanted to see if you’d stop,” she reported, again in a kind of tight-lipped slur. She shifted position on her feet and looking away again. “You’re beautiful.”

I have an idea of about how beautiful I am on the typical scale of Western civ for my age category. This didn’t seem to be about that. The phrase repeated sounded strange, as if she were not saying it of me, but more as a hope for herself, a hope that it may be true of herself and that someone would say it to her. It sounded like something she said often, like a phrase she worried over.

“Well…thanks,” I said. I wanted to say “You’re beautiful too,” which was just the truth. But I was so taken aback that I only managed to add, “You too”, a lame non-sentence, a fragment without verb or object.

If she heard me it had no visible effect on her. Her attention seemed to be drifting, or rather, she didn’t seem to know what to do with my own attention now that she had it. I smiled as broadly as I dared then, and feeling suddenly vulnerable I turned away and proceeded in the direction I’d been going. I thought of how we desire to be told these truths by the people who matter to us — our parents and partners and friends — and how, failing that, a person might seek that connection and affirmation anywhere, anonymously even, and how even in a relatively open moment I was not able to receive such a gift without fear and confusion. It was a pretty simple idea she communicated, a clear statement, and yet I wasn’t able to fully return the blessing just then, just there, and it sent me tumbling down the sidewalk wondering what could possibly be wrong with her.

I heard a coin drop and when I looked back she was chasing it. It seemed to be rolling away from her, just beyond her reach as she followed after it.

In step

I’m walking down Fourth Avenue after picking up a book at the library yesterday, and a man crosses to my side of the street. He’s smartly attired in a dark dress shirt and black pants and talking pointedly. I assume he’s got the Bluetooth ear-thingy in but then I see he doesn’t. He’s just talking. We cross the street together and happen to be pace buddies, although I push my stride a little so that I’m not actually beside him. While emphatic, his speech is not loud and the noise of traffic drowns out most of it, but over my left shoulder I hear fragments of a non-stop complaint that sound like this:

…not CIVilized…
…civiliZAtion…
…trying to cross a STREET…
…get in the WAY…
…wait TWO seconds a man cross the STREET…
…no way…
…no reSPECT for the common man, for the FELLOW man…
…civilized…
…riots…
…all he wants a place to LIVE and a decent job…
…CIvilized…
…WAIT…
…peDEStrian…”

We walk for at least a block together, and it occurs to me that although he had been sounding off even before he joined me on my side, someone had nearly driven over us as we stepped into the crosswalk and his vitriol might have something to do with that. Then halfway down the block, a woman drives out of a parking garage and halts on the sidewalk in front of us, blocking our forward progress. I’m slightly miffed, but my miffage is almost immediately assuaged by the fact that there is already a running, verbal complaint audible in my left ear. It occurs to me that the man might well be channeling my own sense of pedestrian entitlement, as though his body and vocal cords were a receiver and amplifier of my own indignation.

I could protest that I was simply an innocent bystander, that I just happened to be walking at the same pace slightly in front and to the right of a crazy person, but the fact was, many of the phrases I was hearing seemed to be from thought patterns that I would have to admit to having entertained in my own head, and pretty recently, too. I get tired of nearly being struck by motorists, and it happens a lot. Was the man just picking up and broadcasting my own signal? The fact that he was walking behind me and I couldn’t see him heightened the sensation that I was hearing a voice in my own head. The scary part is, the voice just didn’t seem that foreign.

What a horror it would be if my most self-pitying, resentful and uncharitable thoughts were suddenly bullhorned to the world around me via some inductive crosstalk between my own magnetic field and that of someone with a looser tongue. And what if I couldn’t shake that person by turning right down Cherry? What if that person remained at your left heel always, like some figure out of early twentieth-century German literature. The whole episode made me want to think kinder thoughts.

Archetype mower repair

Cinema and television teach us that grouchy old men who speak their minds are to be trusted. There’s an attractive — and dramatically useful — turn of story in an overly masculine ego trying to protect a vulnerable and charitable nature underneath. The fact that such men endure obvious pain to talk with foolish ordinary people is an indicator of their better selves. I’m thinking particularly of Curly Washburn in City Slickers, whose maxim about focusing on “just one thing” is wisdom I wish I’d come across early in life, but also of the grandfather in Heidi, Lou Grant from Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore, Grandpa Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine, Grumpy from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (sic), and take your pick of John Wayne’s or Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.

Mean as a rattler but ultimately helpful. Jack Palance's Curly.

Mara has already learned this. I took her with me one Saturday morning a weekend or two ago when I took my gas-powered lawnmower, a machine that I loathe, to a Repairer of Small Engines on Beacon Hill, which for you out-of-towners is one of the seven ancient hills upon which the city of Seattle was founded. It is one of the more southerly hills, fully across town from where we live.

The repair man, whom I’ll call Jim, was a grouchy old man, though I would not say very old. He had hawkish bushy eyebrows and a white moustache, like a more tidy Mark Twain. He was hard of hearing to begin with, and disinclined to listen to a middle-aged suburban weenie to end with, so there you go. He flopped a pad and pen onto his workbench and told me to write down my contact info. Then, after instructing me to fire it up, and after listening as the mower instantly conked out, he said it was probably the diaphragm and told me he’d get to it by tomorrow. Thirty-eight bucks.

I tried to express delight that it would be so soon and so reasonable. But Jim didn’t want to hear me speak. Maybe he assumed I was complaining. “It won’t be today. I’ve got two others ahead of you, and then this thing,” he gruffed, not quite kicking a large rider mower sitting in his driveway. “That thing’s a monster.”

I dithered for a minute until I realized he had no further use for me. He hadn’t said a word to Mara. “He seems like a nice man,” she mused as we walked back down his driveway.

You just know that after he reads you the riot act, he's going to give you 24 hours to prove your hunch. Ed Asner's Lou Grant.

This was the second home-based lawnmower repairman we’d visited. Upon some pretty stout recommendations, I had taken my mower to someone even further away a few months ago, a non-grouchy, even friendly person who’d given it what he called a complete tune-up. The first time I’d used it after the tune-up it worked fine. The second time, it started choking and gave up completely in the middle of the patch of clover that comprises our backyard lawn. I didn’t want to travel so far again; it’s a lot of time. And anyway, I get a yucky feeling when things like this happen — I know I should let a small businessman make it right if he missed something or forgot to put the whatsit back on the thingamajig, and maybe he would fix what was wrong without even charging me, but he’s already sort of one notch into the doghouse. Plus, his abbreviated hours on weekends made things difficult.

I called a lawnmower place on Aurora North, just a short drive away, but they said they were booked for two months. I could hardly believe it. Who’s booked for two months? Like these people are so well regarded that citizens with lawns to mow will wait for 60 days for their mowers? I wondered if there was some epidemic going around, a lawnmower virus, something in the gas, or maybe the End Times really are here and small engines are failing in droves.

But in the end I dialed Jim’s number and asked if he could look at it sooner than two months. He said bring it down.  

After dropping the mower off at Jim’s, Mara and I stopped at a playground we’d seen near his house, a large, beautiful park called Maplewood, where we asked a mail carrier who had parked his truck in the parking lot to take lunch if there was a good local burger joint around. He said there wasn’t a single place like that on all of Beacon Hill, which I found hard to believe. But he was right. We ended up patrolling the hill back and forth before finally giving up and heading up to get a burger in our own neighborhood. True, we stopped at a yard sale and bought some hats, but I was still surprised when we got out of the car at Burger Master and my cell phone was ringing already and it was Jim telling me that he’d finished and I could come and get the mower. He was open until eight.

Mara was torn between going back with me to get the mower and walking to Mighty O Donuts with Angela and Millie, but I would not say she was very torn. I ended up driving back to Jim’s by myself.

Foul-mouthed and perennially in a bad mood, but he's the only one who sees what's important. Alan Arkin's Grandpa Hoover.

He was in the same humor as before when he emerged from the back door of his house. There were no lawn mowers in his driveway, but he opened up his garage and I saw a line of mowers spooned up like shopping carts, and that big monster of a rider.

“What was the name?” he asked.

I told him my last name, and he pulled out my mower. “Start it up,” he said, and then went about trying to find the diaphragm he’d pulled out of it, which he said was the worst he’d ever seen. Certain of his words seemed to rumble with a raw edge, as though Yosemite Sam were saying them. “Worst”. “Seen”.

The mower started up beautifully. I let it hum for a second and then shut it down and started writing a check. He couldn’t find the old part. He seemed eager to use it as a visual aid in teaching me what old gas does to such a delicate organ, like someone trying to deter people from smoking by showing them a smoker’s lung.

“You gotta use gas with fuel stabilizer,” he hollared, and then he said it again. I imagined his neighbors at their dinner tables hearing him out there and miming it along with him. “I tell this to about four hundred people every year, and mostly it’s people that I’ve told before. Gas goes bad after a few weeks. You gotta use fresh gas and you gotta use fuel stabilizer.” 

“You won’t have to tell me twice,” I said in an attempt to appease his ire, but he shot back with a snort, “Well, I’m not gonna remember YOU next year.” A wan smile held my face for me while I tried to figure out what his rejoinder could mean. He went on crabbing about how you should store the mower over winter with no gas in it, let it run out.

“What kind of fuel stabilizer should I use?,” I asked, hoping my interest in immediate compliance would calm him down. “Is there a particular brand? Would I get it at a hardware store or at like a NAPA Auto Parts?”

“It’s fuel stabilizer!” he screamed. “You can get it anywhere.” But then he stepped into the garage and shook a plastic quart bottle of Sta-Bil fuel stabilizer. “This is just one brand. You can get it at any auto parts or Home Depot.”  

He'd really rather you went away, but this is the man who's going to carry you through the darkest night of your life. Bridges as Cogburn.

Feeling that he was softening, I pressed on in my quest to redeem myself as the imcompetent owner of the mower with the most abused diaphragm he’d ever seen. Even though he seemed to be edging away, I asked for clarification. “So, the gas that’s in the mower now I should dump out, right?” If I’d thought about that question for a moment I would have asked anything else, like what his favorite color was.

“No!” he snapped. “That’s fresh gas in there!”

“Oh, right, because you changed it out…”

(This was structurally an exact repeat of the scene in Broadway Danny Rose, where Mia Farrow’s character tells Woody Allen’s that her ex-husband got shot in the eyes, and Woody says “He’s blind?!” and Mia says “Dead!” and then Woody thinks out loud, “He’s dead. Of course, because the bullets go right through”. The only difference is that Mia was not yelling.)

“Of course I changed it out! I had to to replace the diaphragm.! That’s what I do!”

“Well,” I said. I was unable to absorb any more cantankerosity, so I turned to the mower and began wheeling it to the back of my car.

He turned away. “I was eating,” he said. “That’s why I’m in a hurry.” 

I noted silently that he’d told me to come get the mower and he’d said he was “open” until eight o’clock.

“Sorry,” I said, but he had already disappeared toward the house. I shouted “Thanks!” over the top of his garage. I felt like adding “…you grumpy old fart” but really, I was very pleased. People who can fix mechanical stuff with their hands are a national treasure, to my lights, and if these Keenan Wynns and Walter Matthaus and Burgess Merediths manage to stay in business, you know it’s for all the right reasons.

My report card: "Bad, bad stale gas..." Jim added the purple highlighting for me.

 

Wherefore art thou Nuh-uh?

A few days ago Mara asked me to tell her a story. We used to tell her a story every single night at bedtime after reading and after turning out the light, and there were very few repeats, although when we started reading her The Wind in the Willows and the Pooh books and the Oz books and other chapter books this practice of making up stories for her ceased. Now she asks me to tell her a story at all times of the day, while I’m rushing around preparing to go to work and when we sit down to eat.

For the last, oh, ten months I have been too exhausted to enjoy the effort it takes to craft a story in my head from scratch, and if truth be told many of my stories (I will not say Angela’s) Mara will recognize later in life when she reads cliassic literature such as Tolkien’s Smith of Wootten Major (the beautiful and haunting companion story to the lighthearted Farmer Giles of Ham) or listens to, say, The Byrds’ “Chestnut Mare”. 

Being too tired to make up a really clever yarn, and riffing on the Little Red Hen, a story whose denouement had been troubling me lately and which I happened to be mulling over in my mind, I told this tale:

“Nuh-uh and Uh-uh and Uh-Huh were three siblings who decided to walk into town…”

“Was that their names?” interrupted Mara.

“Yes, those were their names. So they set out toward town, and on the way they came to the house of Mr. McGillicuddy, who was on his roof cleaning his gutters but couldn’t get down because his ladder had fallen down into the yard. He called to the children and asked Nuh-uh, ‘Will you come and put the ladder back up so I can get down?’

“And Nuh-uh said ‘nuh-uh’.

“So Mr. McGillicuddy asked Uh-uh, ‘Will you come and put the ladder back up so I can get down?’  

“And Uh-uh said ‘uh-uh’.

“So then Mr. M–“

My wife interrupted. “What kind of names are those? And why would they just say their own names?” Angela demanded with what I would call a sneer except that it was lighthearted and not intended to injure, so let’s call it a snort.

I lifted my eyebrows in wonderment. “Do you object,” I queried, “to something about this story that I’m making up out of my own head…and did I mention that it’s my story?”

“Well it just seems goofy.” She spilled another handful of oatie-os onto Millie’s tray. Millie began picking them up carefully and putting them into her mouth and sucking on them.

I proceeded with the story, which went something like this:

“So then Mr. McGillicuddy asked Uh-huh, ‘Will you come and put the ladder back up so I can get down?’

“And Uh-huh said ‘uh-huh’ and he went over and lifted the ladder.”

“She went over,” said Mara. “Not he.”

“Right,” said I, adjusting to the picture that I now saw in Mara’s mind of perhaps a girl her own age in what she had already intuited would be the starring role. “She.

“So they walked along and came to another house, where an old woman in a wheelchair was on her porch and was trying to get back into her house but needed help with the front door. She called to the children and asked Nuh-uh, ‘Will you open my door for me so that I can go inside?’

“And Nuh-uh said ‘nuh-uh’.

“So the old woman asked Uh-uh, ‘ ‘Will you open my door for me so that I can go inside?’

“And Uh-uh said ‘uh-uh’.

“So then she asked Uh-Huh,  ‘Will you open my door for me so that I can go inside?’

“And Uh-huh said ‘uh-huh’, and she went and opened the door for her.

“So finally they came into town, and as they were walking along the street they were arrested –“ (here I paused for a tense moment and lifted my nose slightly) “by the smell of fresh-baked apple pie. And the three children followed the wonderful aroma into the bakery, where the baker was just pulling a pie out of the oven and setting it on the counter to cool.

“Said Nuh-uh to the baker, ‘Silver and gold have I none, but I would sure like some of that pie. May I have a piece?’

“And the baker looked up and, recognizing the children, said ‘Nuh-uh!’ And so Nuh-uh didn’t get any pie.

“And then Uh-uh said to the baker, ‘Silver and gold have I none, but I would sure like some of that pie. May I have a piece?’

“And the baker said ‘Uh-uh!’ And so Uh-uh didn’t get any pie either.

“Then Uh-huh said to the baker, ‘Silver and gold have I none, but I would sure like some of that pie. May I have a piece?’

“And the baker said ‘Uh-huh!’ and gave Uh-huh a big piece of apple pie.”

That was the end of the story. Since I often have no idea how they will end (like my blog posts) I was rather pleased that this particular story seemed to finish with a nice sharp crack. Mara went on with her dinner, which is not to say she didn’t enjoy the story, but she takes these things for granted sometimes. Angela was still shaking her head as though she were trying to figure out how to break it to her Facebook crowd that she had married a buffoon.

Mara asked for the story again the next night at dinner, and I told it again. Again Angela took me to task about why each of the characters just said their own name, and expressed disapproval with her entire lovely face.

A storyteller in 1911 holds her audience spellbound. This image comes from the Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA) and is licenced through Creative Commons.

Tonight Mara asked for the story again. This time, although I gave the old lady the name of Mrs. Grainsworthy, I left the man on the roof unnamed, so Mara interjected that his name was Dickens, and also said the reason the children were going to town was to see their cousin Kayla. (These details are enormously helpful.)

Angela aired her complaint afresh, as though the story should make more logical sense somehow, but I tendered my opinion that Mara, for whom the tale was made, did not seem to suffer from a similar inability to suspend disbelief. In fact when I asked Mara to explain to Mommy why the children just said their names, Mara said that maybe they were just saying their names and those people thought they were answering them. I thought this explanation represents a pretty fatalistic and bleak view of the world, and I don’t think Mara really thinks this when she hears the story, but for Mara, hearing a story and theorizing about its dramaturgical devices are activities with different goals. She hears the story apart from any internal editor telling her that things have to make logical sense. It makes poetical sense to her. It ends as it should. And why wouldn’t there be three siblings so named? Mara is untroubled. 

Yet my true love chafes. I have made up hundreds of stories for Mara on the spot — as has Angela — some silly, some beautiful, some didactic, some a little spooky, but none of them have ever met with this kind of critical panning by my co-author. 

She suggested I blog about it. Maybe you all can explain it to her. Emerson-like, I refuse to defend myself (that is, like Emerson I write an essay defending myself instead). But I think there are at least several ways to understand the story, which is why I think it’s destined to become a family classic.

Your turn. What do you make of it? There are no wrong answers.

Change of the guard

Note: I wrote this a while ago, before Emilia was born. It wasn’t quite right at the time so I let it season for a while. I have made some edits but did not change the references to our family of three.

The first sign of maturity is the discovery that the volume knob also turns to the left.”

– Jerry M. Wright

It is a frightening thing when you realize that all the mores, values and customs that make up the very core of your social self have shifted a notch on the scale away from current and in the direction of Mesozoic. This happens to all of us. There is nothing new in getting old. But from an anthropological point of view, there maybe something worth saying here about some of the details.

My first realization that I was no longer in the age group that could most viably claim currency was when I worked at the ranch camp in Ohio, and it centered around music. I was just 29, and I then still considered myself to be a young person, but my coworkers were mostly 19 years old and younger. When I said something about the Doobie Brothers and no one knew what I was talking about, I furrowed my brow a little. Similarly, I heard a song on the radio that was catchy, and I wondered absently at my coworkers who the group might be.

“T’pau”, said Geo immediately. I had never heard of T’pau, and at first I thought Geo was trying to eject a bit of apple skin or something from the tip of his tongue. Furthermore, the song was apparently already old news.

Gesundheit!

I started licking my finger and sticking it in the wind to see what was going on. I realized that I was somehow out of step with the cultural mind, although even then it took a while for it to dawn on me that there were people in the world who were fully ten years younger than I and yet were grown and developed human beings, and that that decade of seniority was the beginning of the difference between being young and being eveything else.

* * * *

I have several times reflected on the social manners of today’s young people — I guess I’m speaking mainly of the males — and entertained the thought that many of them seem to me to be not overly warm, even though they are, as a broad generalization, people I really like and people I would trust to run the country. At least, there’s something that I’m interpreting, maybe incorrectly, as unwarmth. I think of my own generation as self-obsessed, angry, unbalanced, compulsive, lazy, reactionary, and not very grounded. Broadly and generally, I mean. But still, I think of my contemporaries as warm, or at least polite in ways that make it easy to get to know someone. The generation coming into their own now are, generally and broadly, level-headed, just, honest, creative, energetic, helpful, intelligent, extremely capable, and not very excitable, but there sometimes seems to be something kind of flat about them in social interactions, and I have struggled in recent years to figure out whether I’m just misperceiving the situation or if there’s something fundamentally different about the way they interact with others.  

We (my better half and our better third) attended a block party. Angela and I familied late and we have a young daughter, so we frequently find ourselves in company with younger couples. Our best friends are younger couples. For me this makes for some strange little moments. This was such a moment. There were only two men present at first, we’ll call them…oh, Simon and Mike. Simon was hosting the party with his wife. We were in their backyard. Mike and Simon live nextdoor to each other, on the opposite side of the street from us. They were talking about something in a relaxed way. I went over and the two men interrupted their conversation to regard me, and I said…I keep reliving the horror…”so Simon, what do you do?” I added ” — for trouble or entertainment” just in time, because I could see immediately that asking what someone did for a living was “not on”. He looked at me as though I had asked him whether he took his lunch to school or rode the bus. As though my question had no meaning. He furrowed his brow and slowly, making a little mouth puff as though trying to solve for x without scratch paper, delivered himself of a single non-descriptive line about marketing in Redmond, and then made a joke — gracious chap — to the effect that in his free time “I just do what she tells me” and pointed to his young spouse.

I was suddenly grateful that I had seen him building a garden box like mine this summer, now full of thriving plants, and I steered the conversation into that more sensible arena, and Mike walked away to get a beer. But the light went on in my head.

"Let's not kill each other, how 'bout." August II of Poland and Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia.

I suddenly understood — right at that instant — that in social situations I use social forms that are no longer valid. In fact, it’s not particular forms that are invalid, but the formalism entirely. The way I learned it, first we shake hands. This establishes trust, because the hands are used to do harm to one’s enemies and are occupied most often by a weapon of one kind or another. A handshake — the open, empty hand extended — is the pledge of peace, or at least truce. Next, I honor you by asking something specific but sufficiently non-threatening about you. That’s why we have jobs, so we can ask this. You answer and fill in that information for a while, then return the ball to me by asking what I do. So then I go, and in this way we get to know each other a little bit, though in a formal way. And war is averted.

At some point this formal introductory pas de deux might lead into a more “authentic” conversation, as when your work with data mining software prompts me to ask how random information can be intelligently searched, and my documentation of geospatial imaging software gets you curious about who our customers are, that they should need to see the writing on a number 2 pencil lying on the ground in Tunis. But the entry point is very formal, and this formalism just doesn’t fly anymore. Kids these days… they just don’t roll that way.

* * * *

I’m baffled still as to how young people today get their conversations started, but what I’m beginning to see is that they get there without the formalized intro steps. Those, I believe, they regard as inauthentic. Authenticity is the watchword of the new generation of twenty- and thirty-year-olds, as I see it. Mike and Simon were probably just picking up a conversation that may have started organically months before. My walking up and asking what Simon “did” was like a big cloud of weird perfume wafting in from over the fence. I keep wanting to laugh and cry about this at the same time. It was such a doof moment for me. I’ve always been quick on my social feet, deft in conversations even when dumped midstream where I don’t know the lingo.

But more and more frequently I encounter the feeling that the most basic grid I overlay on social situations for navigation cannot be trusted anymore. The topography has become unlike the earth I knew. Is this what becoming a fuddy-duddy is really like for everyone? Do I begin to seek out people who understand what I’m doing when I extend my hand? Do I start distancing myself from young people because I cannot break the code? And isn’t the code designed at some level to keep me out anyway? Every generation rewrites the code for this purpose, so that they can disenfranchise the generation before and wrest from them the sceptre of world dominion. It has to be this way. No generation, certainly not mine, gives it up willingly to those following.

The penitent man just accepts the process of aging, that's what the penitent man does. Indy narrowly escapes decapitation.

But I am just starting out as a father. I have to figure this out. I can’t go play golf with men my age whose kids are finally in college. I’m not complaining. I’m looking frantically around, like Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade trying to figure out which stepping stones to tread on so that he will not fall through the floor while also trying to dodge the whirling head-cutter-offer discs. But see, that’s a reference from 1989, and maybe now there are no coded stones to step on. Maybe you just wing it.  

More about the trees

Yesterday I walked up the alley to the market to get my coffee. It was a great little outing, the kind that makes my workday more grounded. My friends at the coffee shop greeted me by name. Then I moseyed downstairs to talk to David, who owns a used book store (Lion Heart Book Store) on one of the lower levels. Later I walked up Pine past Fifth Avenue and finally (been looking for several weeks) found Shoe Shine Eddie, who brightened up my Rockports for me. On the way back to the office I ran into and walked several blocks with Julie, who waits at my bus stop in the morning and with whom I often ride into town. It was the perfect downtown mini-adventure.

I don’t often buy anything from David, but if I’m thinking of a particular book I usually will give his place the first crack*, and he’s always glad to see me. David is lively and fun, a big kid really. He’s a chatterbox and the kind of local businessperson who remembers people and remembers what he talked about with them. He is clearly of Middle Eastern or maybe eastern Mediterranean descent, though he was raised here in Seattle, and he regularly adopts the vocal modulations and phrases of a desert carpet seller, just for a lark. When he rings someone up for a two-dollar paperback he says, “For you, my friend, three hundred dollars. It is a good price, a deal for you.” Women are treated to additional cooings having to do with the question of their whereabouts all his life. If our conversation is interrupted he will say to the customer as I stand aside, “it’s okay, this is my twin brother, you see he looks identical to me.”

David and I have been holding an extended conversation about the identification of a tree that he goes past every day — he wants to know what it is so he can get one, and I have looked at it from aerial photos and on Google’s Street View but we’re still not sure. Or rather, he does not think it is what I say it is (Cupressus sempervirens). Every time I go in he asks me if I’ve walked by that tree yet to examine it in person (it’s in the University District), and I always tell him to grab a piece of it and bring it to the store so I can look at it. We get nowhere.

Yesterday I went in because I was curious whether he had an old copy of T. E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but as soon as he saw me he started pestering me about that cypress again. That reminded me about my own tree story, which we will now segue into. Please empty your pockets of any sharp objects and hold on.

You may remember one of my first posts about the family apple tree. Where we left off, I had managed to keep only one of the eight grafted trees alive and I had the thing in a big plastic container and was nursing it until I could get it into the ground in a place where I thought it might be able to stay awhile. Well, Mara and I planted it up above the rockery last spring, behind several large rhododendrons.  I knew it would be safe there, get enough light and water, and be out of the way of most of the kid traffic. We had no rain all summer, but I dragged a watering can up the hill every day or two during the drought, and it did quite well. It put on several feet of growth in its two main stems before shutting down for the winter, so that it reached almost to my height.

Not yet a tartsworth, but the significance of this fruit is enormous.

In April the tree put out a ton of cheery white flowers, and I started being hopeful that it might actually bear fruit this year. Technically, an apple such as the Transparent can bear in as few as two years, and I think I grafted mine over three years ago. I’m happy to report that I went out early in May and found that one of the flowers had closed up and formed a tiny little apple.  It was just over a half-inch long. It didn’t look like there would be any more this year, and who knew if this one would even survive or be devoured by a single snail, but I was happy to see it anyway. Last week I checked again and not only had the first one grown to about an inch, but there was another tiny one lower down on the same branch.

I’m happy because this means that I can now declare success in my years-long quest to preserve and transport the family apple tree’s genetic legacy. These two little fruits are the very clone, the direct genetic offspring, of the old apple tree that grew all through my youth at 106th Avenue SE in Bellevue. If the two apples actually grow to size, we will make a small tart out of them. My mother can hardly wait to make apple pies from the Transparent again. For Mara particularly, this is a great story. She doesn’t really grasp yet what it means to me — she can’t because she has not yet that sense of time and loss of youth and the ages of trees — but she reads our excitement about it and she gets that it’s a big deal, she intuitively understands that it is important that we nurture this tree to maturity. The project was worth it to me for Mara’s journey alone. I cannot control what she remembers or values in her life, but I can fill her days with as many opportunities as possible to sense the wonder.

David drank this story in happily, as though it were lemonade. He noted that his own father planted 30 apple trees on their property before David was born, and that when he and each of his siblings were born his parents planted a cherry tree, and that subsequent owners cut down many of the apples but that the cherries remain. Further, he has known many Greek families whose forebears brought figs or other trees over from the old country and planted them here a hundred years ago, and they thrive and survive even today.

David did not have a copy of Lawrence’s book. Last week he had a beautiful hardback of it, but he sold it immediately, and why didn’t I come in last week? Where have I been lately?

I smiled and stepped back as a wave of customers approached him with questions and purchases, and I went out emptyhanded. No matter.  It’s really about the conversation. 

*This does not change the status of Island Books as my official neighborhood bookstore.


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