Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Real Beauty

Each morning, this summer, as I drive into school -- somewhere around 8:30, when the sun is at its most golden -- I see true beauty.

All business, in shorts and T-shirts, there goes a father, mother and son. All three of them are overweight, the son's round physique a perfect miniature of the father's, his hair just as sunrise red. The mother's hair sits high in an all-business bun.

They're there for a reason, make no mistake. They are out there to get in shape. They walk briskly and with purpose, each the others' most important person in some way. Each encouraging the other to keep going; to get healthy; to work off the weight. The son seems determined, even if he would prefer to be playing Minecraft, and he inevitably trails a bit behind with a stick (sword? light saber? bow?) in hand. The mother holds the father's hand -- or, rather, she holds gracefully, coquettishly, onto his outside two fingers. The mother walks a nearly imperceptible four inches ahead of her husband; they are side-by-side as a husband and wife should be, but she is leading -- she is the one who wakes her favorite lads up each morning and says, "Come on -- get your sneaks on."

Every day, without fail, they breathe in the leaf-dappled summer scents and take advantage of the slow-motion summer clock and incrementally work at changing their lives, step after step. It chokes me up every time.

There's no saccharine, greeting-card, joyful, everyone-in-white-on-the-beach false moment-capturing, here . There's sweat and inconvenience and sacrifice in their walk and in their posture. There's some inner-thought distance. But there's committment and total comfort of company. There's an "us-against the-world-ness." There's teamwork that no artificial team could ever approach. And, of course, there's love.

Is there anything, on Earth, more beautiful than a family?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Hot Thought

It was 94 degrees in these parts on last Friday night, the last time I looked -- which was about 11:30 at night. I had to play three sets on the drums in a club whose air-conditioning was definitely feeling the strain of a long heat wave. Between the struggles of the machine and the door to my right -- that opened and closed repeatedly onto the outdoor deck to let in belches of oven-hot air -- it must have been 85 degrees in the bar.

Needless to say, by the end of the night, I was rather damp with perspiration. (We play three sets of just about non-stop music every night. No time for the weary drummer to rest. No need to give me any sympathy -- the band does not, God bless them.)

After I'd broken down the drums and loaded them into the car -- it was, like, 1:30 am by then; it had maybe dropped to a cozy 88 degrees outside -- I went back in to "dummy check" for stuff left behind and I bumped into one of our regular followers; a really nice guy, a little younger than us with a bald head and a quick smile.

The not-so-old old guys. 
"Man," he said, looking me over. "I think you're sweating a little."

I laughed and he laughed. "You're way too old to be working this hard," he said.

I told him that I had just had a serious conversation, that night, with my fourteen-year-old son about his becoming my "roadie" when he starts driving.

The plan is that, when he gets behind the wheel in a couple of years, I'd pay him part of my nightly salary to set up and break down the drums. It would be a great part-time job for him during high school.

Logic aside, it was another chance for me, philosophically, to wrap my head around this getting-older business; this dance one has to do on the fuzzy floor between accepting age and fighting its detrimental effects. I'm only 48, for the love of Pete. But part of it is about learning to let our loved ones help us as the years pile up There is no shame in letting the vehicles of our virtual immortality (our sons and daughters) prop us up from to time, the way we did as they leared to do....hell...everything.

Machismo wants to brag about having walked uphill (both ways), barefoot and over broken glass to school but the wise man is just proud of having learned once he got there. I plan to play the drums until my arms fall of, but if I can put off that unfortunate day of limb-shedding for many years by harnessing the youthful energy and strength of my boys, why not? Will the audience watch me play a 32nd note fill around the kit and say, with a snort, "Well, yeah, that was fast, and he is, like, 86 years old, but I hear his son sets up the drums for him..."? Of course not.

We all should try to age with grace. We all want to keep our dignity. What we have to convince ourselves of is that our dignity does not suffer when we walk through our elder days under the gentle support of those who love us too much to judge us for -- for lack of a better term -- having to "repay" the gifts of strength and guidance we once gave them.

Anyway, I have to set up my own drums for at least two more years. And, no, Kurt the bass player, I will not use a smaller kit. (Okay -- maybe a little macho conviction is good...)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Analog Man

I got a new watch the other day. It's an automatic watch -- the kind that winds itself through the motion of your arm through the day. You move; things spin; it winds.

I am not sure why I like watches so much. I'm not a jewelry or clothing kind of guy. It might be echoes in my DNA of the grandfather I never met, Joseph Tancredi, a watchmaker from Philadelphia. (He also made timers on bombs for WWII.) He died when my mom was way too young to lose a father...

Maybe there is enough of him in me, though, that I have an affinity for the things. I'm not rich, so I can't really afford to own more than one or two, but I like having one.

The one I got, as I say, is an "automatic," or self-winding watch. The finest watch I have ever had, but not so fine by the standards of the real collectors.

I've never wanted anything digital, even when I was a kid and the hideous -- but strangely seductive -- calculator watches came out. I want to see hands and Roman numerals. I want to hear a tick. In this particular watch, there are small views into the workings. You can see some of the jewels and a spring and some working cogs (or sprockets -- never was sure of the difference, ever since Spacely Sprockets and Cogswell Cogs from The Jetsons first raised the question when I was a boy).

The other day I watched a video about care of automatic watches, because, when I get something new, I feel about a week of a real need to know all there is to know about it. I have even been reading about the history of Bulova, the company that made the watch...

At any rate, the guy in the video said something compelling:

"The beauty of having an automatic watch is that at some point human hands have had to come in contact with it to balance it, to regulate it and to get it to run... It's when that craftsman, that watchmaker, assembles that movement and breathes life into it that it gains, well, kind of a soul."

Yeah, man, I'm all in. I was an analog kid; I'll not turn into a digital man. You can have your Apple Watch with its perfect time. I'll set my watch daily and think about craftsman and the springs and the sprockets and the hundred tiny parts that move each other like tangible harmony; none of them virtual; none of them holographic.

The digital men can sit bolt-upright or slide out of their plastic and metal chairs, sterilized and cool. I'll be reclining in the crook of an old tree, a mile away from my phone if you need me, aware of the time but way more concerned with how it passes than whether it is flawless...

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Joy, Storms and Sadness

There's no perfect balance; no prescribed fulcrum for the teetering boards that all of us are. Is there? We're all different woods, different weights, different spans of length.

I feel so much and so deeply, sometimes, it is actually frightening to me. There is such beauty in some of the feeling -- like Emily Dickinson experiencing poetry, "feeling as if the top of [her] head were taken off" when she read a great poem; like the overwhelming "high" I feel when I hear a profound moment in music. Sometimes, though, the feelings come in cold waves. Sometimes, they are like weighted lines tied to all of the sinking things around us. Around me.

Friederick Carl Frieske
"Afternoon -- Yellow Room," 1910.
Yesterday, I just felt so sad all of a sudden, and it wasn't out of nowhere. (Which is good.) I could name all of the weights pulling at me. They were not my problems, though -- they were the problems of others; or, rather, the profound weight of my connections to others. My boys, one facing high school, starting; one having lost his first girlfriend and my connection to them pulling at me; my worries over whether I am teaching them right; being firm enough or to firm to guide them into manhood...

Part of is was the book I am reading, Dead Wake, by Erik Larson, about the sinking of the Lusitania -- the sepia visions of history; the great ship headed out of New York Harbor; my fellow humans, dead and gone, stepping aboard and nothing I could do about it -- no way to warn them and save them from the icy water that must close over their heads. The profound coincidence of a woman who survived the Titanic who, at the last minute, canceled her trip on Lusitania because of sickness...

But, it all mixes with beauty. And beauty is heavy, too. It pulls your eyes wide open; it fills you with warm, slightly detached weight, like a third Scotch: my wife's beauty, which is so much more than just a face and a body that it fills me with storms; my sweet, simple dog, eyeing me with a desire for nothing but my casual notice; the warmth of my house...all balanced with the idea that everything is transitory...

I want to feel... I really do. But sometimes, feeling is like adrenaline: after a day on the roller coasters, the rides are just exhausting bacause the tank is empty. And sometimes, feeling is a joy that terrifies. It always leaves me exhausted, though. And sometimes very sad.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Why I Won't "Leave the Country" if "X" Gets Elected

My older son, Joe, is, as all young people must, finding his intellectual way into the world. He is extremely inquisitive, very philosophical and he is creative in ways that make me exceedingly proud. But, as a young man, he is, of course, apt to latch on to things he has heard that stir passion in him. The other day, he echoed the ubiquitous "If Trump wins, we should leave this country."

It just so happens that this was said two days ago as we were walking away from Sankaty Lighthouse in 'Sconset, on Nantucket. Only a few minutes earlier, we had passed "Footlight," the home where my favorite writer, John Steinbeck, had written East of Eden. I had completely forgotten he had written the book on Nantucket until the tour guide pointed out the house. Of course, my heart leaped with delight and I quickly took a blurred picture as we drove past...

...but only a few minutes later, there was my son talking about "leaving the country." The proximity -- in not only inches and feet but in my heart -- to my most beloved writer caused a discordant resonance for me. My son had rung a bell that a thousand people a day ring...but this time, it sounded rattled, like I would imagine the cracked Liberty Bell would. And like the Liberty Bell (rung-again) would, it made me feel pride in a country with a deep history and with a roll-call of fine human beings who did things both great and unknown.

I saw Steinbeck, silhouetted in a window in Footlight and recording his self-doubt (someday they will figure out I am not as good as they say I am) in his journal as he wrote East of Eden. I saw Lincoln in dark meetings, his soft voice urging his cabinet to fight for the Union above all else. I saw a simple, courageous man from Philadelphia, in 1866, driving his family in a covered wagon, out past the Mississippi, to claim the land offered by the Homestead Act (an act that encouraged African Americans and single women to apply, by the way). I saw Aaron Copeland at the piano adding notes to his manuscript for "Appalachian Spring"; Elie Wiesel exorcising his demons at the typewriter; Dr. King, his tie slack, his eyes watering, pondering the next line of a famous speech. I saw boys from my generation playing dusty baseball on a weedy infield on a summer day just for the joy of it -- no thought of scholarships; no travel teams to keep up with; no pitching and hitting lessons on the schedule -- just playing until the light was too low, a prelude to the night's dreams of the big leagues. I thought of newly-married couples, with no money, making love because they had to; because love and family were a need, not a business proposition. I saw a line of heroes and inspirations: Leonard Slatkin with his baton; Barber penning the notes of his adagio; Mike Schmidt, confident and almost defiant at the plate; Vinnie Colaiuta in complete command the drumkit; my own father sitting center-chair in a big band with his magical silver trumpet; Dr. Robert Ryan, his voice cracking with emotion as he read Keats to our little graduate seminar class; my wife, Karen, exercising every single dark morning at 5:30, to stay strong; my sons growing into fine, sensitive and moral young men...

...I saw all of this as my son and I walked a gravel path under a hot blue sky, just after I heard the words: "leave this country." And it occurred to me: hell, no.

I told Joe that I am too proud of the real great people of this country to abandon it, either physically or mentally, just because of the behavior of high-profile creeps. I'll never give up hope for America. There are too many good people living good, just and sincere lives, who are the blood in the veins. The President is not the country. The loud-mouthed flag-wavers are not the country. The Tweeters and Facebookers who spend their time spreading their political agenda and un-researched claims are not the country.

We are the country. "We the people" -- the ones going to work for others or for themselves; the ones cutting grass on Saturday; the ones trying to get better at golf or music or writing or dancing or fishing or at just being people; the ones who are trying to teach their kids to be good men and women; the ones who have no time for politics and angry online arguments; the ones who would rather read a book than a meme; the ones who walk their dogs, rain or shine; the ones who stand comically in bathrooms with their spouses, brushing their teeth before bed -- we are the ones who make this country what it is.

No politician; no president, good or bad, can take that away from us or "bring it back" to us. I understand how those in charge can change our circumstances, but they don't shape our American-ness.

I have very little respect for many politicians, but they are just some of the many pimples on the beautiful face of a great country. Yeah, the Liberty Bell is cracked. It has to be. It tells the truth in its silent sound.

My son's response? "Good point, dad. Can we get lunch soon?"