Archive for February, 2010

The spirit is willing but the fleche is weak

A hit! A very palpable hit!”  

–Osric in ‘Hamlet’ 

William fences. He uses rapier, foil and épée to score points against opponents in the martial art of fencing. I learned this today because instead of simply greeting him at the bus stop, then boarding and sitting near the front and opening my book to read while he went to his accustomed seat in the back, I asked him if he was following the Olympics at all.  

He said, “Oh no, I don’t condone that sort of thing.”  

“What, athletic excellence and prowess?” I laughed, thinking he was joking.  

“Oh, well, that,” William corrected. “No, I mean anything run by the International Olympic Committee.” He went on to explain his view that the IOC is a corrupt body well known for graft and incompetence.  

You’ve heard me kvetch about how hard it is to make new friends, and you’ve heard me admit that I don’t really give the obvious avenues very much effort. I find that it is so easy for my inner judge to disqualify people, to scratch them from a list of prospective friends. Examples:  

“He’s an engineer so he’s probably overly pragmatic and wouldn’t appreciate the intense intellectual struggles that afflict me. Scratch.”
“He smokes. Scratch.”
“His eyes gloss over just when I’m making my main point. Scratch.”
“Probably a war-mongering conservative. Scratch.”
“Definitely an entitled, holier-than-thou Sierra Club environmentalist. Scratch.”
“Doesn’t eat anything with glutens. Scratch.”

How did I ever make any friends when I was younger? It was because children start out less judgmental, and their requirements for friendship are less strident. In Jeff I found an ally during my earliest years of trying to adjust to what seemed to me a hostile world outside the nest of home. We got to know each other on the bus ride home from school, recognizing a shared apprecitation for (what we would never at that age have called) the nobler ideals; principle, heroic bravery, dramatic narrative, epic quest. Later on in Junior High, Kip felt safe; I knew he had my back, he made me laugh, and was refreshingly smart and original. I don’t even remember meeting him. I think he had befriended Jeff first. I didn’t put it to a vote in my head, I just liked him and found myself at his house eating Doritos and drinking Pepsi. As for Chris, Bill, and Mark, the friends on my street that predated my school years — they were my friends simply because I had run outside and found them standing there trying to figure out how to dam the storm ditch. Common enterprise, kidly energy to burn. We ran like gazelles and climbed like chimps, wreaked havoc on infrastructure. Friendship was never asked for, it was assumed.  

Today, I think my assumption is that people will be a lot of trouble. Friendship seems like the long-odds. And in a way it is. People are busy by the time they grow up. Most of them have also been careful, unlike me, to retain the closest of their oldest friends through various annual rituals such as hallowed sporting events (bowl games, etc.) and school or church organizations that keep them involved in each other’s lives. Socioclast that I am, I long ago shattered all those constructs that had any claim on me, such as the church bodies of my youth, and made sure I didn’t stumble into any memberships or associations during my college days. Lord knew, the dormmates, housemates, classmates and workmates in my life were enough without potentially finding new people to befriend in say, an association of persons interested in the preservation of old buildings. My mistake was in underappreciating — missing entirely — the role those group activities and interests play over the long haul in keeping people in friendships.  


I don’t condone that

sort of thing.”  


William rents a house one street over from us, a spiffy little Victorian house with a turret and cakey trim. He rides the 8:25 bus, which I only ride if I’ve missed the 8:05. We’ve spoken and jested before, and we’d exchanged names at one point. Months later I remembered his name and he did not remember mine (“He didn’t remember my name — probably self-centered and dismissive. Scratch.”), claiming he was lousy with names. He can’t yet be forty years old, but he dresses in colorful striped vests and antique-looking shirts, wears a watch on a chain, and in cold weather dons a long dark overcoat and sometimes even white gloves. He is bearded and stout, and if it weren’t for his long hair tidily pulled back into a pony-tail, he would look like a railroad baron in his prime. He is extremely intelligent, a little aloof and distant, but entertaining to listen to you if you can roll with a little bluster and hyperbole. I liked him right away, but something always made me want to keep a safe distance. While he likes to talk, I never sensed that he could listen equally well.  

But a couple times recently including today, William has approached the bus stop and said, “Hi Matt.” Call me a softy, but it seemed like the guy was trying. Despite a known inability to remember names, he had logged mine in and was willing to use it. I always greet people by name. Using a person’s name makes them feel validated, like you actually notice the difference between their existence and someone else’s. These days, however, few people use your name as you greet them, especially among younger generations, who seem to consider the practice formal or even stilted. Anyway, my nickel-core heart was charmed and moved by William’s effort.  

Instead of sitting and reading, which I really felt compelled to do, I went and sat in the back of the bus with William, who continued the conversation by admitting that he might watch the Olympics if they had fencing, though at the same time registering his disapproval of the criteria by which the sport is increasingly judged. With a little more prompting from me, he went on.  

Friendship is risky. Can balance be maintained? Should it? Aren't overextension and loss of control part of the allure? Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, used by permission.

“Well, first of all, it’s all electrified now, which is a sin against God, ” he said. According to William, the electrification of the weapons changes not only how a match (called a bout) is judged, but also consequently how people use those weapons; it affects their form. “The foil is very flexible, it is a little like a whip at the end, and now people will reach around your arm and tag you just slightly using the whipping of the foil. If I get the slightest touch on you it’s registered electronically as a point.” That’s not a travesty in itself, William said, but what it means is that people start valuing speed over control. I’m not sure why this would naturally follow, and maybe I didn’t understand him correctly, but that’s what I thought he was saying.  

A moment later William was describing the concept of right of way in fencing, whereby one player (player? combatant? épéeist?) may not go on the offensive while the other player is on the offensive. You have to wait until their offensive move is done before you can assume the right of way.  

I said that sounded awfully British, a merriment he noted before continuing to acknowledge that there are certain moments, defined by the rules, when you may take the right of way from your opponent — such as when he or she has executed a move called a fleche, which is an overextending move sometimes used to good advantage if the element of surprise accompanies it — and begin your own offensive, but it’s not supposed to be a free-for-all. But he said people now will try to keep the right of way so that they can continue making an attack. Or maybe it was vice versa. In any case, William was saying that members of this newer school of fencing are frustrating to play against because they are chaotic — the give and take is not there — and that electronification has encouraged this artless style.   


Speed and strength are the  

things you should fall back  

on — and only briefly —  

when you make a mistake.” 


“They put themselves in positions that they never would if their opponent were holding a real sword,” said William at one point. “They get off balance. It looks really dramatic, but it’s not the same as classical fencing. You see these photographs of people lunging, completely stretched out, completely exposed. That may work against someone playing the same way, but if you’re playing that way against someone who knows what they’re doing, you can’t win. Well, once in a while you win, but not often. You’re relying on speed and strength, but really, speed and strength are the things you should fall back on — and only briefly — when you make a mistake, when your form fails. 

“The closest metaphor I can come up with is that it’s like a debate. There’s a sort of dialog back and forth, where I’ll say ‘what would you do if I did this?'” He flicked his wrist just slightly to indicate a move of the foil. “And they’ll say ‘well, I’d counter this way.'” He gestured a countering move. “‘Ah, but what if I then did this?’ ‘Well, then I’d respond this way.’ ‘Oh, but maybe that’s exactly what I wanted you to do, and now you’re overextended and I can do this.'”  

I was fascinated by the whole thing. I really enjoy listening to someone who knows something thoroughly. William was expressing dismay at changes in fencing that are so subtle that the uninitiated like myself would not be able to notice them. I would see someone overextending themself and becoming off balance, but would be mesmerized by their speed and not realize that mastery lay instead in the subtlest flicker of the well-balanced, classically inspired opponent maintaining better form.  

I always say, you learn something new every day if you’re not careful. What I learned today is that sometimes, the early maneuverings and positionings of male bonding are a little like fencing. One combatant approaches and says, “how would you respond if I call you by your name?”, and maybe the other says “well, I might sit near you and engage you in conversation.”  

The risk is always the same, that you will overextend and the opposing player will strike. But maybe an occasional point scored against you is the price of a worthwhile match.  


My eyes are caught

Every now and then, seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market.”

 — Joseph Mitchell

Among those who know his work, author Joseph Mitchell, of whom I have previously written, was famous for hearing people, for letting the sounds of their particular voices enter his ears and travel through him to the paper, where they emerged filtered and distilled and yet still intact. It was what made his work so uncommon and so enduring. He called his first book My Ears are Bent.    

I couldn’t hope to be nearly the writer Mitchell was, nor am I much of a photographer, but one follows one’s heroes however one might. Mitchell was given to long walks around his city and along the Hudson River. Most days I eat lunch at my desk, dropping sandwich crumbs into the cracks between my keyboard keys, and then I take an hour to wander during the early afternoon looking for some way to reignite the little pilot light on my soul. Sometimes I am fortunate enough to tumble into conversations with strangers, but Seattle is not Manhattan, and people are not talkative here, now, the way they apparently were in New York in the ’30s. When human connections are scarce, I can get a different kind of benefit by searching out positive things about the city, which I otherwise regard as noisy and irritating. Often I enjoy observing the way nature, especially light, interacts with the glass and brick and steel of buildings, or even how older aspects of the city “interact” with newer ones, since the built environment has, as it were, a geology of its own.    

Sometimes I take a little digital camera with me, which helps me search these things out. I’m going to post a few recent photos here, most of which have several things in common. There’s a blueness to a lot of these, sometimes because I shot them at twilight but often because the fall and winter air refracts the spectrum of sunlight in a certain way, which is picked up in shadows and in the apparent (as opposed to real) color of window glass (and often the window glass is “really” blue).   

Also, I tend to focus on what happens when you zoom in on the city’s edges. Distance through space becomes compressed and lines and curves create vistas that boggle the eye, take on shapes whose logic can only be understood two-dimensionally. In these close-up framings, the side of a building often becomes the “sky” behind the subject.   

“Art that has to be explained is no kind of art at all” must surely be a quote from somebody by now, although I admit that I just made that up. Nevertheless, this blog is explicative by charter, and I spend quite a bit of time taking and thinking about these images, so I thought it was worth a post. Put your walkin’ shoes on and come with me for a little jaunt around town.     

1. Benaroya Hall and the new Washington Mutual Tower, now owned by Chase Manhattan.

1. Above is a good example of both the close-up and the blueness thing. The building in the background actually has blue glass, but the curved windows of the symphony hall are reflecting the blue sky of a clear morning. There is a squiggle of white reflected in one of the windows that is the only evidence here that the sun is up and very brightly shining on buildings nearby, while this entire view is in shadow. What caught my eye here was the thicker lines in the further building shooting down at angles to meet the place where it all goes curvy, and this audacious roofline whirling out of the picture. It is also worth noting that in reality, the curved lines and the angled lines on the further building are all — every last one of them — perfectly horizontal, yet here they seem all at odds with each other.   

2. Train heading into the tunnel under downtown.

2. I call this photo “Two Pigeons”. I was doing an experiment that day in which I took off my glasses, which makes me blind as a bat. I can walk around, but I can’t see to read or resolve much detail. I could see there was a train going under — actually, I was lost among the parking floors of the very building shown when I heard the train, which was frustrating because I was trying to get over to the vantage point where I finally took the photo — but I couldn’t see, for example, the two pigeons, so that I had a good laugh later when I reviewed the photo. What caught my interest here was the fact that things are not how they seem. The winding of the rails gives the impression they are threading their way among buildings because they have no other options, which is not exactly true. The rails have been there for more than a hundred years. The buildings are the newbies here, even though they look so very solid and, especially the one on the left, rocklike. The fact that the buildings look as though they were dropped here at odd angles gives the clue that really it is the buildings that have accommodated their shapes to that of the railroad. The squeaking noise the wheels make as they roll slowly through this concrete canyon is hideously loud and abrasive, and the building on the left is condominiums.  How do the occupants endure this?   

3. Rainier Tower eclipsing the 5th Avenue Theater.

3. Here we have the pedestal of the Rainier Tower, which appears almost as if it were the prow of a large concrete ship cleaving through the city. We don’t even see the top of the pedestal here, upon which, out of view, an entire building of glass and steel sits, and yet the older theater buiding is dwarfed by this sinistrous mass. Nature is utterly subjugated here — light is swallowed up and the trees at the bottom of the image seem to be mowed over like so much grass. 

4. Three buildings at twilight.

4. Here are three buildings that seem to be growing right out of one another, or at least that’s the effect I was trying to capture. In truth the lowest one is next to the middle one on the same block, while the furthest one, the “”old” WAMU Tower, is really diagonal across the street from the middle one. The actual ground distance covered in this view is the distance diagonally across two blocks. The lower building is concrete grey, and combined with yellow light from the street and blue from the sky it somehow comes out pinkish. The taller two have the same color “bones” but they are beyond the reach of street light and so appear cooler. Architecturally, the lowest one is oldest, a bunker from the ’60s, I would guess. This is the ugly building I’ve written about before. Reminds me of a skull with wormholes eaten through it. The ’80s saw a lot of repetitive pop-out elements (I call them) because of the increase in the number of middle managers needing corner offices. You see them in the middle building. The WAMU Tower also is from the ’80s, and one of the city’s more gracious numbers (we’ll return to this building at some point in the future). You can’t see the top here but it’s pyramidical, and I’m a sucker for pointy tops. 

5. Tree, train and building at Myrtle Edwards Park.

5. I will someday have to disassemble my love of trains and other rusty industralia here and examine it. It doesn’t really make much sense to me. I think freight trains just seem to me like a holdover from another time, even though they are still very much in use everywhere. I know that this tree is not very old, but if you think of the tree as iconic, you might imagine the various stages this view has gone through. A long time ago this might have been a photo of a tree, with maybe some hills behind (again, maybe not this tree, but…). A couple decades ago it might have been a photo of a hopper car with a tree in front of it, and maybe there would have been a granary or a water tower in the near distance. Here however, it seems to be three things at once, and not really fully any of them. Moving from the lower left to upper right we move through the decades. The tree seems to be crowded out by the train and fence, but the train is in a way jailed itself under the striped “sky” of the 3131 Elliott Avenue Building. But here’s something, The lines of the train and the fence reinforce the modern lines of the building, while the tree stands athwart all of the lines, those of perspective and, since it is not quite straight, even the vertical ones.   

6. Moon over Elliott Bay.

6. What does it mean when we say “outside the window was the moon”? Well, here you can see the answer. It’s about thirty feet. A crop of this image may or may not be what you see in the header of this blog, depending on when you’re viewing it. What I saw here was the moon — silly moon — trying to commune with lights inside this tower, as though it recognized some kinship there. And yet there is almost nothing similar between the world left of the dark edge — commercial, short-sighted and short-lived, always changing and progressing and consuming itself, confined, economically justified (or not) — and the world to the right of that edge, which is timeless, cyclical, unbounded, and exists apart from any justification. The distance is not thirty feet, it’s the entire universe. There are some wisps of cloud barely visible here. 

7. The Seattle Tower and WAMU Tower.

7. This one’s for Louis.  Unfortunately it is not a very good image by any measure. It seems a little out of focus, for one thing, and the light is uninspiring. It might be better at sunrise. I was going to crop this so that there was no sky showing, to increase the tension and sense of confinement. But then I realized that I liked the way the “shoulders” of both buildings are in view. Big brother, little brother. Two Seattle street toughs. It appears as though the WAMU Tower sort of has the little guy’s back. Or, I dunno, maybe it’s like one humunculus threatening another. You could decide. 

8. Myrtle Edwards Park.

8. I could do this all day, but I think that’s enough for now. I have lots more. The problem with digital is that you end up with millions of photos that sit around on hard drives, collecting virtual dust. So here’s a final image, one that isn’t so confined. Nothing terribly cerebral here. This is another that I took with my glasses off, which is what made me notice the various subtle curves — some almost concentric — and the vivid green against blue, one of my favorite color combinations.  Also, I like how the mountains appear as the smallest and lowest things in this image, but that wasn’t by design. I couldn’t even see them when I clicked the shutter. 

Thanks for coming along. We’ll do it again sometime.  


This morning at church, I and a man named Bob followed Edie and John downstairs with the offeratory plate so that he and I could learn the job of verifying the money. This is a little job that needs to be done every Sunday. Somebody must accompany Edie or Trish, whichever of the two ladies is counting the money — mostly checks, a few dollars in cash — to be a witness that what is being collected and reported and deposited in the bank all matches up. It seems unnecessary, our little church family being who we are, but it is motivated by the principle of accountability, and so someone goes along as a witness each week. I will be one of those who do this little job from now on.

Our church is a small in every way in which smallness can be a virtue. Large is the love I find there, but the building, an old red brick Swedish church built I think around 1907, is small as church “facilities” go these days, and the people who call it their spiritual home comprise a relatively small group who, most of them, also make it their communal home. That is to say, their community of friends happens also to be the group of people with whom they worship. On any given Sunday there are less than thirty people in the austere old sanctuary for the sermon, and the children in the rooms of the adjacent building outnumber them. It is as if a bunch of people who really enjoy and love and support each other in all the phases and on all the pathways of life just happen to have a church building in which to do it.

Angela and I have been a part of this community — she right away, I more gradually over the years — for more than a decade. We were married here. Although there are a few families and individuals who have moved away geographically yet still consider this church their church, and there are a few who don’t attend regularly and these people sometimes show up and we learn or relearn their names and faces, for the most part we know everyone. It is a family church, and we have watched the several dozen children grow from babies to the little people they are now. There used to be a number of old Swedish ladies who sat in the two rows closest to the big stained glass window of the south wall and who remembered when services were held in their native tongue, but most of them are gone now.

But even in such a small church, it is amazing what you do not know of your fellows. People are like mines, their shimmering ores hidden underground. We laid Peter H. to rest a few months ago. We all gathered in the rain at a little cemetery in North Seattle, where his body would be interred among members of his family who had preceded him, and released him to eternity. We brought Mara, a bright splash of color in her yellow raincoat. Our pastor, who for most of us is also a friend with whom we might go out to lunch or watch basketball games or discuss books and movies, said a few words about what Peter meant to him, and then Peter’s brother, who had come up from California, told us a few stories about him, stories that made me rethink what I knew of Peter. Some others from among us then spoke to honor Peter with their own experience of him and give us a word to remember him by. Apparently, he had a really edgy, dry sense of humor and a keen wit, the kind of humor that people who didn’t know him well, like me, would have thought wasn’t humor at all, the kind of wit we would have completely missed.

Peter was extremely reticent, even retiring. I had never really engaged him in conversation owing to my own discomfort with very shy people. He stood every Sunday at the top of the stairs going into the sanctuary and greeted people with an almost inaudible hello, which usually disappeared into his chest because he held his head down, and handed each person a bulletin if they wanted one. I always thanked him and greeted him by name, and if I asked how he was he always answered in a single word and a little smile and nod. He was not what I would have called an old man, and seemed in fact like a grown up little boy. He died of complications after a sudden stroke. He had never married. In listening to those who knew him best talk about him, I learned that Peter was troubled by something like schizophrenia. He lived, at times, in a darkness that I cannot even imagine. It was only in his service to others, his quiet, unassuming, faithful service to a little body of people who barely knew him, that he found the cord that led him out of himself, a lifeline he clung to. We were his salvation.

After the short graveside service we all retreated to the church basement, where a lunch had been set out and some of Peter’s art work was displayed. At the reception I saw a table full of framed photographs that Peter had made, and some of his drawings and paintings. He apparently loved to photograph flowers. I had had no inkling that he had any interest or talent in these directions, and seeing these finished works — framed, declarative, expressive, asking to be looked at, available for scrutiny, boldly visible — really surprised me, since their author was practically a shade as I knew him. But it should not have surprised me. It seems to me that God’s spirit, which I believe is in everyone, longs to be expressed — will be expressed — strains to get out and connect with people, no matter what the condition of the vessel.

I used to wonder why Peter put himself through the agony of standing and greeting everyone. It all makes sense now.

It was Peter who used to accompany Trish or Edie downstairs with the money every Sunday, and silently watch and verify that all was as it should be. John has been doing it since Peter died. Bob and I, along with two others who were not present today, are stepping up so that we can all take turns filling Peter’s verifier role. 

But no one has yet filled Peter’s spot at the front of the church, at the top of the stairs of a Sunday, just inside the door. The bulletins now are on a little table there, you can take one if you want one.

Like Mr. Perlman said…

When I was a kid my parents gave me a little guitar one year for Christmas. It was a Trump classical guitar, made in Japan. Not an expensive one, but solid enough and…well…real. I didn’t learn to play it. As with most endeavors, when I couldn’t master it at once I lost interest. The same thing had happened with the accordion. I had accordion lessons until it came time to learn the black dots. Musical notation frightened me. I seemed to have a mental block against it. When the teacher, a gentleman in the neighborhood called Mr. Demerrit, told me that if I learned the notes by the next week I would receive a bag of chocolate, I stiffened up and my mind completely rebelled. I did want the chocolate, but the pressure caused me to blow a fuse. The day he was to return I told my parents I did not want to take lessons anymore. I was told that the chocolates would be forfeited. I felt the pinch, certainly, but I decided to pay that price to avoid failing at the notes. 

I played trumpet for a while in fourth or fifth grade. Everyone played something that year at Enatai Elementary — maybe it was mandatory — and an awful lof of us played trumpet. Mine was rented. I don’t recall how I got by without learning the notes. I only remember playing one song: “España Waltzes”. We played it on stage in front of our classmates and their parents and our teachers and we nailed it. Perhaps I simply lexically mapped each note to the instrument without really learning what notes they were in the larger scheme of things. In any case, I didn’t continue any longer with trumpet than I had to.

Feeling the squeeze.

My sister, who had played piano since she was three or four, picked up the old guitar as a teen and taught herself to play it so she could accompany church-group sing-alongs in places where the tonnage of an upright piano would prohibit its inclusion, such as parks, or other people’s living rooms, or just about anywhere. She taught herself pretty quickly, so I thought I might have some luck, too. I remember watching her practicing out by the fence in the front yard, and feeling an absurd jealousy that music was being made on my guitar and I was not the one making it. Soon after, I signed up for lessons in downtown Bellevue from a man who asked me to bring examples of what I wanted to play. I showed up with my vinyl copy of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Trilogy album so he could hear “From the Beginning”. It’s been a long time and the man’s actual visage over time has slowly morphed in my memory into that of Alan Rickman, whom I see rolling his eyes and grousing that every punk kid came into his studio wanting to be a rock star. He started me out very slowly picking a series of repetitive notes and kept telling me to slow down, so that I would learn to alternate my index and middle fingers. While I did this, he sat three feet away and called his wife on the phone. I only went twice, I think.

I did eventually teach myself to play guitar. It happened over those long hours, those interminable hours, that I remember having to fill when I was in high school, say between getting out of school and dinner, or between dinner and bedtime. There was nothing but time, it seemed. I was not involved in any groups or activities. By high school I already thought of myself — and behaved — as a loner and nonjoiner. I had only a few friends. If they were busy with choir practice (Kip) or off smoking weed with the burnouts (another whose name shall remain nameless), I played my guitar. I came to regard the little classical guitar as a toy, so I saved up $100 and bought a Mateo from a store in Kirkland. It was not a good guitar, but it was acoustic and it sounded really cool.

But something was amiss here. I didn’t learn Beatles tunes or Joni Mitchell tunes or folk songs or any number of other popular kinds of music that would facilitate my joining in musically with groups of revelers. At that time I was not interested in anything that anyone else liked, and in particular I thought the music of the Beatles, minus the Magical Mystery Tour, was boring. I had also not yet discovered Joni’s soulful and brilliant lyrics, in which she sacrificed herself over and over again that others might know true and lasting love. I didn’t know from folk music. I was into progressive rock (“prog”), which included at its more accessible end Yes and ELP and the Alan Parsons Project and Pink Floyd, and at its more rarified end the indomitable Genesis (though they were starting to arc into the mainstream), Gentle Giant, Renaissance, Triumvirat and a number of really exquisite Italian bands led by Premiata Forneria Marconi and Banco del Mutuo Succorso.  It was the classical guitar strains of this genre that I tried to emulate, and I actually created quite a few really far-reaching epic original works that were both romantic in tone and convoluted in structure. Some music theory might have helped, but I found that just hammering away at stuff for days usually gave me something interesting at least. Some of these I could never play, because they existed only as symphonies in my head, and no one else could play them because I could not write them down. Some of them I can play still, on the old classical guitar, which is leaning up against the wall a few feet away from me right now. See, I finally realized I was never going to be really good at playing guitar, and it seemed silly to have two bad guitars around. I gave the Mateo away and kept the little classical. Over the years I had come to realize that the classical guitar, and this little one of mine in particular, has a sweet, honest, earthy sound that I just love. I can’t do much with it. But I picked out “Moon River” on it to sing to Mara when she was a baby and once in a while we all sing “When the Frost is on the Punkin'”, Ted Jacobs’ arrangement of James Whitcomb Riley’s poem. I can also play the beginning of a beautiful classical-style piece by Steve Hackett. 

Pushing 40 with original strings.

In college I became interested in Celtic music, what I called “diddly music”. It started when I began helping a guy named Eric work on and sail his sailboat — a 37-foot Tayana cutter — on Lake Union on Saturdays. Eric used to come into the Arco Mini-Mart where I worked and chuff about how much fun sailing on his boat was, and I would always say it sure sounded fun, and he would say you should come out sometime, I’m always looking for good crew. And I’d always say, yeah, I’ll do that sometime. And one day he told me to show up Saturday at such and such slip at such and such marina on Westlake. I did, and he and two other volunteers my age showed me the ropes (the “sheets” as ropes are called on a sailing vessel), and we would tack back and forth on Lake Union and sometimes even Lake Washington. He always had Fiona Ritchie’s “Thistle and Shamrock” playing belowdecks on the radio, and so I came to associate the jigs and reels with good times under sail. I rented a fiddle and took a single lesson from a very quiet, nervous woman in Wedgewood, and even though my interest in Celtic music cointinued to grow, and even though I came into possession of my grandfather’s violin for a time afterward, I never went back for more instruction from her. I don’t recall what excuse I made that time, but I’m sure that it just was too much work for the caterwauling and scraping that emanated from my efforts. At the time, I probably blamed her for being boring and failing to sufficiently inspire me.

There is a story of a middle-aged man who ran up to Itzhak Perlman after a performance and with a heart heavy with regret said that he had always wanted to play violin but that he had studied piano instead, and that hearing Mr. Perlman play that night had made that old desire rise in him again, but that at his age he feared it was now too late for him to start playing violin. Mr. Perlman said to him these words: “It’s never too late. But…there’s no time to lose.” I love that saying. It expresses both the assurance that however old you are, you can start now, today, and the urgency of not losing any more time to procrastination. I don’t know whether or not this really happened, but I am grateful to those who kept this anecdote in circulation long enough for me to hear it. It is something I could stand to say to myself every day, not just about learning to play musical instruments, but about many aspects of life. 

With this thought lodged in my cerebrum like shrapnel, the fantasy I have always had of myself as an old gent playing in a local contra dance band, or sitting in on a circle of bluegrass musicians at folk festivals, or contributing here and there in gatherings of family and friends when the music is up has been impossible to indulge in as a fantasy alone. The thought kept nagging at me that it was not too late to make that dream a reality. Itzhak said so.

But what should my instrument be? My long history of half-assed guitar playing made me uneager to begin formal guitar lessons again. I have so many bad habits there, and my old identity as a non-joiner is so wrapped up in the very feel of holding a guitar. And besides, everybody plays guitar. If the point is to find a pathway for me to abandon my aloofness and learn to join in with others through music, I reasoned, I would want to play an instrument that there was not already a surplus of. Too, I thought, the thing should be small and portable. Tuba and pipe-organ, not for me. I’ve always loved the sound of the clarinet, but unless I started hanging out with Klezmer musicians I couldn’t really see myself whipping it out at parties. I thought of retrying the violin, but I’m already getting creaky in middle age, and the affront to one’s neck in playing the fiddle seems completely untenable going into the muscularly problematic half of life.

At some point my ear picked up on the concertina, a.k.a. squeeze box. It’s a little thing with bellows for drawing and pressing air through internal reeds, and whose notes are regulated with buttons on either end. Ironically, it is very much like an accordion, only smaller and without the keyboard. I don’t know when it began, but I started noticing how sweet its reedy little sound was, and I began to love it. When I think of how I have always cherished the soulful clarinet, and even the little wail of the oboe, it occurs to me that I might just be, genetically speaking, a reed man.

No time to lose. My Italian-made 20-button C/G concertina.

Well, it was decided. For years now, I have known that the concertina would be the instrument of my dotage. Small and portable, relatively few people play it so few bands or circles have one, it’s designed particularly for contras, squares and other folkdancing forms, and you can play it without contortions of the spinal column. A couple years ago, my friend Ed Z., who plays and teaches guitar professionally, found a 20-button Anglo concertina (C and G scale) in an antique shop and bought it on a whim. What he didn’t know, and I didn’t either, was that the concertina is not really intuitive to learn, especially an Anglo. Each button on an Anglo renders a different note when you pull (draw) than it does when you push (press), like a harmonica, so that you have to keep track of two sounds for each button and you have to know whether you’re coming or going. An English concertina (yes, the words “Anglo” and “English” both mean the same thing etymologically, but those are the words that have congealed around the two different types) plays the same note on draw and press. My friend Ed fiddled with it but could make no immediate headway and had more important things to do, so I bought it off him for what he paid for it, which was too much. 

As soon as it came into my ownership one of the reeds became dislodged, which left its corresponding button wheezingly mute while the reed itself, a small piece of metal with a slot in it partially covered with a spring of paper, rattled around inside the bellows. The only thing for it was to loosen the screws holding one of the wooden ends on and fish it out. Borrowing some advice and piano glue from my dad, I reaffixed the reed and put the box back together, but in the process of removing and replacing the end I compromised the leather seal, which causes it to leak air.

The next problem was finding a teacher. I learn best from humans, in person. There are no people advertising in Seattle that they will teach you how to play the concertina. I think this is because it would be madness to claim such a thing. I got a book right away, which in four pages explained everything and then gave a number of songs you could play with a 20-button Anglo. But without being able to read music, this was almost useless. What I needed was for someone to give me a lesson, show me how to play one tune — an interesting one, not “Good Night Ladies” — to get me started. It took years. Angela had a friend named Chris who plays concertina for contra dances, who declined to become my teacher but whom Angela pursuaded, as a birthday present to me, to come over to our house for an hour and “show me what she knows” over a cup of tea. Chris brought her concertina over, showed me how she holds the thing, taught me a practical way to play a G scale, played a few tunes, and gave me some pointers. Lastly she gave me two names I might call. It took me another year to get my courage up, but I finally called a man named Kevin whose number Chris had given me.

He didn’t want to teach me at first. For one thing, he doesn’t play a 20-button, he plays a 30-button. The 20-button concertina is very limited. Most Irish music, the kind Kevin plays and the kind I am likely to want to play along with, makes use of keys that require more notes than can be achieved with just the C and G scales. But he was sympathetic to my desire to learn. I sensed that there was an ethos at work here (as among smokers, who will never decline a request for a fag if a fellow smoker asks, unless it is their last), whereby Kevin felt obliged to advance the cause of concertina playing. He kept not hanging up, until he had agreed to meet with me and get me started with a couple of tunes that would be playable in C or G. For payment for an hour of instruction he joked that a sixer of beer would suffice, but when I pressed him he said “twenty bucks…a dollar a button”.

Obviously not Togy's "old favourite".

So last December I took my concertina to his house, where he had set up a couple chairs and a music stand. Kevin had taken the trouble to create written notes which he charmingly titled “Lesson 1” and printed out for me, along with the musical notation for two tunes, “The Old Favourite” and “Sally Garden”. We hammered out “The Old Favourite”, I watching him play a measure on his box and then trying to copy him on my box. It was alarmingly difficult, and I felt a lot of stress, because he seemed to expect that I could just up and do this. But this actually brought my meager abilities into full and sharp focus, and even though I made many wrong notes, drawing when I should press and pressing when I should draw, or hitting the wrong button altogether, I actually stumbled through it with him. It felt to me like a disaster, but Kevin showed no exaspiration at all. It felt good to be a student again, to be completely over my head, asea in that foamy mix of ignorance and determination. Kevin did not show any doubt that I could succeed. Therefore I did not doubt myself. It was like being a very young kid again, learning to read. The thrill was intoxicating.

I had brought a small interview tape recorder and recorded Kevin playing the tune both slowly and at full speed, and left his house with my head spinning. I was so mentally exhausted that I left behind the clef illustration he had made me (he insisted that I would eventually have to read music). He emailed it to me.

Within two days, strange to tell, the tune began to feel itself in my fingers, and I was actually playing it all the way through. My concertina is not a good one. It is sturdy enough and its sound is sweet, but it’s difficult to play — you have to really manhandle it to get any smoke out of it — and mine is leaky to boot. Concertinas are expensive. There is not a surplus of cheap, good quality used boxes out there for sale. What you find available is either low quality or high cost, with little in between. My original promise to myself was that if I learned ten tunes reasonably well, I could go ahead and lay out for a decent beginner model, but Kevin is encouraging me to move up as soon as I can, decrying the maxim that “if you learn on a lousy instrument first you’ll be able to play anything” in favor of the practical truth that “if you have a better instrument you’ll be more likely to play it”. So I’m on the very cusp of buying a Rochelle 30-button Anglo, which was designed especially for spanking tyros like myself by a concertina maker who otherwise builds and repairs top-of-the-line boxes. To get into any kind of truly high-quality concertina, you’re looking at at least a thousand dollars. The Rochelle sells for several hundred, handy carrying case and tutorial included. My history with musical instruments gives me pause, but I feel committed to it this time.

I took a second lesson from Kevin last week and I’m now working on “Sally Garden”. It’s going well. I’m frankly astounded at what my brain and fingers have managed to accustom themselves to in a couple of months. And for the first time in my life, I’m reading the music. You know…those little black dots with the sticks and flags.

Gold plus three for Bill and Barb

At least four things happened on this day in 1957. In Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a Marmota monax named Phil saw his shadow at 7:47 a.m, correctly sensing an extension of wintry weather that year. Eleanor Roosevelt used her newspaper column “My Day” to admonish the instigators of what she called “unfortunate incidents” related to the fact that President Eisenhower had gone personally to meet King Saud of Saudi Arabia at National Airport in Washington. In men’s college hoops, the Sooners prevailed over the visiting Texas Longhorns on their home court at Norman, Oklahoma, 71 to 59.

And at Sudbrook Methodist in Pikesville, Maryland, outside of Baltimore, 27-year-old Willard from the neighboring town of Reisterstown and 21-year-old local girl Barbara plighted their troth and began a life journey together that continues, I’m happy to say, to this very day.

The way they were. Cutting handsome figures and cake on the Big Day.

The church Mom grew up in and got married in as it looks today. It has recently closed its doors due to decline in membership.

They moved to Bellevue, Washington, a couple of years later, where they raised three children: Jenifer, Matthew and Benjamin; two dogs: Vicky and Lassie; and a number of cats. Along the way they have been the friends of many and continue to be a blessing to me and my own nuclear family and my friends. Which reminds me that my mom made a pea soup so good that even Kip would eat it, even though he allowed no other pea soup to pass his lips.

The venerable pair a few years ago. Still speaking to each other, as it happens.

More about Mom and Dad later. For right now, happy 53rd anniversary to two wonderful people.


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt