Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tempus Holdit

I just remembered a magic spell I once knew.  Here's how it happened:

The other day, I had my metaphorical butt kicked by a twelve-year-old.  Part of my lifelong musical journey is that I have been studying classical guitar for the past five years.  My teacher is kind enough to hold "salons" for her students several times per year, at which we can perform solo pieces for each other -- mostly adults.  Many self-conscious jokes are cracked before performances (mostly by me), many excuses are made from the stage (mostly by me) and many right hands shake nervously over the strings (mine, especially), derailing passages that sounded so great just the day before in everyone's practice rooms. 

But none of this applies to the kid in question.  He nailed it.  He nailed it because he is talented, no doubt, but (forgive me for this) so am I.  Mostly, he nailed it because he is twelve.  As always, I find there's so much to learn from those to whom we constantly condescend: "these kids."

I'm willing to bet you will hear the name of the young man above, someday.  And, probably, of another student of my teacher's, who is now nineteen and is studying guitar in college.  I love to watch this second young man take the stage.  He lopes up there deliberately, pointedly, and manages to make his formal bow feel like a high-five.  Then, without a moment's hesitaton after sitting down, without so much as the slightest facial affectation, he digs into, say, a Barrios piece the way you or I might dig into a bowl of mint-chocolate-chip.  He proceeds with downright discouraging precision and with a blossoming and quickly maturing sense of interpretation that makes me smile every time.  Again, talent is not the issue here -- he clearly has scads of that.  But, mix talent with youth, and you have a kind of tao as exquisite as a pin balancing on the point of another pin.

I don't think this is just developmental stuff -- throwing information into a rapidly growing dendrite jungle and all that.  It is something else.  You could see it as a cliche, but it comes down to living in the present. 

Oh, we suck this out of our kids as soon as possible: Think of the future!  Plan, predict and educate yourself so you will be financially secure, someday.  Go to college! -- not so you can learn, but so you can get a good job. ("How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?*)  But they refuse to listen for awhile, thank goodness -- until they cave in as we all eventually do.  But, until then, "now" is everything to them. 

So, while they are flying through an arpeggio at dazzling speeds; while they jump from "position one" to "position ten" and back to "position three" in allegro, they are thinking only of the guitar neck, not of what their audience will think of them or what homework they need to do later.  They are living the piece the way they live a layup or a trick on a skateboard that it takes them three hours to land.  "Now" is all there is.  (Yes, they have hangups about what people think of them -- more than adults do, maybe -- but not while they are doing.)

And, by the way, the twelve year old was playing a piece from "book three."  I'm in "book five."  But he played the piece in book three way better than I did at the time -- with greater smoothness, with a quicker tempo and with a whole lot less self-consciousness.  He probably also got to it a lot faster than I did.  The machinations of mind and body are just more efficient at that age. 

As I said, the young eventually lose this ability, the same way they forget the magic spell for making time actually stop.  

On the way home from the salon, thinking about all of this, I saw a group of kids on a corner of a suburban neighborhood.  They had done it -- stopped time; created a hovering "now."  I could see the shimmer of it around them.  Now, I don't know if we grown-ups still maintain sufficient chi to pull this off, but now I know the process, at least.  The thing is, I used to do it myself.  So did you, probably.  Here's the incantation:

You get into a circle with your friends, preferably on a summer night in early September -- a good mix of girls and boys, freshly bathed and changed into T-shirts and shorts after a day's swimming, if possible -- and you sit on your bike, one sneakered foot on the ground, and you slowly and rhythmically rock your bike back and forth while talking.  As far as I know, this is the only way to actually stop the Earth from spinning; sort of massage it to sleep with bike wheels the way you put a rabbit to sleep by rubbing its cheeks with your thumbs.

We grown-ups don't notice this effect because we are busy, of course.  But I have reason to believe that that's why, sometimes, an hour seems to pass too slowly: somewhere, a little pack of wizards is making its magic.  When the streetlights come on and the kids go home, the Great Spin begins again and morning comes much too quickly.

* Roger Waters, from "Another Brick in the Wall."


  1. Very insightful. Your philosophies always make me chuckle. Keep 'em coming!

  2. My greatest fear is having life pass me by.

  3. Get on the bike and call you friends, Nick.

    Keep checking in, Morgan and I will keep the philosophical laughs coming.

  4. Yeah, but I'll bet the precocious upstarts can't write a virtuosic essay like this. Brilliant!

  5. Kevin -- your comment is deeply appreciated -- thanks very much.

  6. Hmmm.

    "I don't think this is just developmental stuff -- ...You could see it as a cliche, but it comes down to living in the present."

    I hope you're not saying this ability is only applicable to youths. Do you think while Bela Fleck is performing he ever thinks about how he has to get the show over by 11:30 so he can get the bus rolling along for the show in Albuquerque?

    The best cliché is "youth is wasted on the young." Maybe kids do live more in the present, but it's not as appreciated because they take it for granted. I think adults can appreciate it more only because we know how difficult it is to maintain. Heck. If I had realized as a kid how much I'd miss summers off, I might have decided to go into academics.

  7. Gina -- what I'm saying is that we tend to get the ability squeezed out of us by the world -- but there is hope. Bela avoids it, I'm sure, but it is harder for him as a grown up, I'm sure. But one of the keys is starting young with whatever pursuit you follow. I wish I had started guitar at 10. Then, maybe today I woud be playing on Bela's level not ust because of time, but because I would have established that brain pattern. (Bele plays in Albuquerque? Poor guy.)

    Nicole -- yes you can.

  8. Gina -- a better way to put the point I was trying to make: If you put an infant in the pool, he instinctually swims. Later in life, when intellectual fear kicks in, he needs to be taught. That sort of thing.