Monday, October 27, 2003

Diego's Piano

"Maybe he had some problems/Maybe some things that he couldn't work out/But he sure was funny and he sure told the truth/And he knew what he was talking about..."
-Bob Dylan "Lenny Bruce"

I may or may not grow up... to be the next Gavin DeGraw (I just may not have the pipes) but I will go to my grave knowing deep in my heart one of the best things my Mom ever did for me was sign me up for them there suburban, all the rage, piano lessons.

My sisters preceded me in piano lesson takin' and though I always enjoyed listening to them and wanting to be able to emulate their ability to make some music, I certainly was more than a bit apprehensive when my Mom brought me to some music school on Lexington Avenue near Highway 36 to meet the appropriately named Mrs. Good, my soon to be piano teachin' instructor.

On this particular day Mrs. Good tried her best to determine what my existing (if any) musical aptitude was by having me go through some exercises on the piano keyboard ("make the sound of a train" "make the sound of a ghost"). I did my best although it was one of the first times (in a life since full of them) when I felt like a complete fool/idiot knowing that my pounding of the lower bass keys sounded nothing at all like a choo choo train or an just out of sight being.

I got placed in a lesson group with three others- the punkish looking (in a suburban way rather than a cool British fashion) Chip House, the intellectual looking Andy McCue, and the overly sensitive looking Eric Haugen (who would eventually become my closest ally of the trio). At our first lesson the three of them seemed to get along swimmingly like the proverbial now healthily looked upon soybeans in a pod, and as Mrs. Good ran us through some more impish exercises I began to feel like everyone else in the room was in on some kind of secret that was eluding me and I began to feel the tears falling down my chubby little cheeks. Mrs. Good noticed the wannabe unnoticed swollen eyes and try as hard as I could hidden sniffles and she stopped the lesson short.

When I went out to the warm Pinto outside with my Mom waiting to take me home, Mrs. Good shared some out of earshot words with my Mom. Mom kept nodding and the following ride home after the requisite "How did it go?" Mom and I rode mostly in silence, as we were to do for the following eight years that she drove me to and from my piano lessons. (On a memorably icy winter day Mom and I did a full 360 spin in the Pinto at the intersection of County Road C and Western Avenue- a moment Mom later said she didn't remember even though it was the first instance where my life flashed in front of my eyes and optical nerves.) Mom told me to hang in there, that once I learned the rudiments and got beyond just playing scales, that the songs would pour out of me and I would have great fun. And she was right.

Throughout junior high school and high school I frustrated Mrs. Good because I was much more devoted in learning how to play Barry Manilow and the Beatles' songs on the piano than I was my assigned Clementi and Bartok pieces. High school in particular was a period when I'd come home from my day and eagerly jump into my assigned lesson only to be pulled away temporarily (and forever) in pounding out "Hey Jude" or "Mandy" or something near and dear to my blood pumping organ that doesn't always exist in all those soulless ones. So less pretentiously, it was a necessary and needed catharsis from the overwhelming things pounding away in my heart. Yup, sometimes a Beethoven or Mozart piece might suffice but if "For No One" or "Even Now" didn't speak volumes to me about my current situation then the stars above may as well have been made out of the barfed up bag of Skittles of my close by youth and admittedly stilted vision.

When I went off to college and found myself so to speak and so on my own the thing that ended up rooting me more than anything else was going down to the dorm's piano (in a most public place- Enjoy the veal! Be sure to tip your waiters and waitresses! My next show will be the same time same place tomorrow when the sun will come out according to the little orphaned Annie!) or the more private pianos in the music department where I spent a couple of hours whittling away my work/study hours and playing the same old songs I was used to playing at home. It was a reaching out to no one in particular, and maybe it was a slight reaching back to someone quite and quietly in particular.

Post-graduation and living with roommates in thin walled apartments the only time I got to relive and relieve my piano playing days/urges was when I went to my parents' house and between fits of Nintendo frustration of failed electronic journeys going over to the simply standard black and white (no gray!) keys I grew up tinkling and pounding out whatever it was that was in my heart. "Let it Be"? "The Long and Winding Road"? "Abandoned Love"? "Don't Think Twice"? One of the best things about moving into MY house seven years ago was having the ability and the privacy to buy my own piano (who would have thought that day was ever forthcoming or possible in the least?). My immediate and immediately more tolerant than I could ever ask feline roommate Max was never quite sure what to make of, nor quite appreciative of my late night spontaneous piano playing performances but I sensed he knew it was one of those things I did, not because of a need to be my most annoying self but rather because of a need to exorcise and exercise the all too closing in demons within.

More than a number of months back I was sitting in a San Francisco restaurant enjoying a Dim Sum meal with my most talented piano playing sister when we cooked up the idea of my taking her baby grand piano in because having moved from a rented house to a rented apartment she no longer had the room to house the instrument. This plan took a long time to ultimately come to fruition but after much delay this was the week the piano was to arrive in my humble little house all the way from Stockton California where the last person to house it was a friendly chap named Andrew who told me he had just written a symphony on it (I didn't have the heart when I chatted with him to tell him that I have a piano playin' kitty who most likely will be the most frequent user). On Wednesday I got a call from the piano moving company I chose after some Internet research (is there really any other type these days?). I was told to call the driver. I did so and was told I had missed his appearance in St. Paul and he was now somewhere in North Dakota. The anxiously awaited piano and made it's appearance in these parts and had continued on far far away (the story of my life).

I was angry. I needed to pound a few keys and sing out John Lennon's "God" (a song that once upon a long ago I actually did a passable if not forever cloying coy version of). I got a hold of the poor not quite his fault, out of the loop truck driver and the only thing that kept my seething teeth and other body parts from boiling over into undiluted rage was my mind's picture of the certain sauntering schooled in grace Carol Vescey of my life, herself forced to take a few piano lessons in another lifetime- a thing we've shared in words, thoughts and feelings thank God. I heard her telling me to calm down, not that she has ever uttered those specific words to me, but these days, though she doesn't always know it (and far be it for me to tell her) she does have an equally calming as she does agitating affect on me. A deliverer of a cyclamen plant to my ailing Mom at a most difficult time (a picture that just wouldn't leave me alone as I struggled through last week's Lucinda Williams' concert at First Ave) I continue to merely wish that we one day take the time to exchange a time of dueling piano songs (or perhaps we can even make it a separate but shared duet) because if there is but one thing I'm sure of, I'm sure that we have earned that right after all the other things being equal and distinct.

So tonight as I write this my sister's piano is on the way from Chicago to Green Bay. I have been lacking the time, energy, strength and funds to do much traveling these days so I'm a bit envious of all the places the piano has been recently. I'm told it will arrive at my house sometime tomorrow. Visions of grand performances stick inside me and my best friend told me awhile back that she can see me sitting in my living room wearing a tuxedo and top hat and entertaining two captive cats (seven legs between them). It may not exactly be another chapter to my life but I'm sure it'll be worth a footnote when all is said and done (and sung).

Monday, October 20, 2003

Little Digger

"I go out with a friend/Maybe a little music might help/But I can't pretend/I wish I was somewhere else/I wanna watch the ocean end/The edges of the sun then/I wanna get swallowed up in an ocean of love"
-Lucinda Williams

"What does it mean when something changes how it's always been?"
-Liz Phair

Dear Thompson,

I think I get it now. I think I understand why anything out of the routine startles you, how things new to you cause you apprehension; and how some things you don't understand simply frighten you. For example, I understand now why when I turned on the furnace for the first time the other week you couldn't handle it. You couldn't handle the strange noise, the blowing air, the new smells, the heat, and just somehow how the air around us was forever different.

I really wonder what you were like before that fateful day and the accident where you got your paw caught in some type of trap and ended up losing your entire leg. There are times you can be the sweetest little cat, so energetic, so well behaved, and even once in awhile a little cuddly. What convinced me to adopt you and your pal Diego-san was the way the two of you played together so well. I loved how when I visited the two of you in your foster home how you clearly looked at Diego to make sure things, that I, was okay. Once you saw Diego check me out then you were right behind albeit a tad apprehensive.

But Thompson we're going to have to continue to work on trusting each other. I know you have your ghosts and demons and I know that there will forever be issues related to your handicap. Believe me if there is something we truly do share (and ultimately can understand about each other) is that I too have more than few obvious ghosts and demons. I don't think it is an accident that we somehow managed to find each other.

I remember the first night we were together I rolled you a ball that your foster mom had given me as your favorite toy. Unfortunately I rolled it to the side of your missing leg and as you leaned down to grab it with your mouth you toppled over. A friend warned me that in adopting you I had to prepare myself for some psychological issues that might exist and while I listened to her (as I am always inclined to do), I don't think I truly was realistic in how I forever have to try to remember that you do, and probably always will have some trust and fear issues. There are times I just wish it was all easier for you.

As you know it has not been a easily understood few weeks for me Thompson. Going to the funeral services of my uncle and my neighbor and hearing a lost friend's death was ruled a suicide has truly been hard. She after all was in a way the one that talked me into adopting you in the first place. I remember how she told me of her love of her kitties, Jazzy and Pumpkin, and how they related to her and each other that when I met you that I knew what I would someday soon do. I wish I could tell her that.

Thus I appreciate how you and Diego-san continue to entertain me with your youthful curiosity, how everything still seems so new with you guys. I think more than anything watching you two has kept me from falling completely into the all too familiar abyss. Yet with you I have to keep remembering that the trust you have in me comes along with a unhurried learning process. I felt bad the other night when the Cubs fell apart and my chosen team this playoff season (the Florida Marlin{s}) came back from what appeared to be certain elimination to move on to the World Series and as they went ahead I let out a loud whoop with a clap and you fled in fear from seeing this new side of me. One step forward, two steps back (perhaps your distrust of me was deserved since I was rooting against the team my Mom rooted for when she was growing up despite having brothers who were Cardinal fans. Mom had her rebel side after all.)

So here is a lesson I will pass on to you Thompson. Having a broken heart doesn't always involve losing some type of love. Having a broken heart can also mean not being able to feel much at all except a feeling of isolation and a lack of connection with anything or anyone around. I was reminded of this lesson (which I learned a long long time ago) while attending Lucinda Williams' Saturday concert at First Avenue. As you know I prepared myself in seeing one of my pantheon of favorite performers and favorite writers the night before by listening to the sixth greatest song of all time, Williams' "Am I Too Blue?" I'm sure I drove you and Diego nuts by hitting the repeat button on my CD player but the song is great like a little lullaby and it probably is the one I'll sing to my first child someday somewhere. "Am I too blue for you? Am I too blue?/When I cry like the sky like the sky sometimes/Am I too blue?" Maybe my preparation was a bit too good because as I watched Lucinda I only grew bluer and bluer.

She opened with her pop hit (for Mary Chapin Carpenter), a terrific version of "Passionate Kisses." The show featured a lot of songs from her last CD World Without Tears the first being a slow and reflective "Ventura." The song is a tearjerker and indeed there was a jerk in the audience who spent most of the rest of the show inexplicably (and inscrutably? And I don't mean that as an insult) crying. I think I was thinking about how the night before as I was messing up meeting up with the blue eyed editor how I stopped into the local neighborhood Cheapo to try and make a phone call and CONNECT and I ran into Ms. Rose, a big Mr. Max fan, who showed me the picture of Max prominently displayed at the register. I was deeply moved if not a bit sad. I miss Max more than ever as I'm sure you know.

And as I got home that night I particpated in an online conversation with the newest member of the feline sympathizers, Ms. Lisa Anne Marie and that modern day typed conversation was well timed I must say. A connection if not just the most modern type. I must one day meet Lisa's kitty Sidda because she is the cute kitty who chases the cursor from a computerized mouse.

The two highlights of the Lucinda show for me were "Joy" which gathered steam like a runaway train, puncturing any defense that might stand in the way, and "Sweet Side" which is such a bitter tribute to a dysfunctional relationship that it reminds me of a thing or two about the one whose diamond earring I was proudly wearing at the show. Get Puzzy indeed.

During the show I drifted back to fifteen years ago this month when I worked a midnight shift at Cheapo and I had taped the first game of the World Series between the A's and the Dodgers. Not much meant much then so when I came home and numbly fast forwarded my way through the game to try and see as much as I could to taste the flavor of what was going on while at the same time trying to expedite things to get to bed ASAP, I just assumed that the heavily favored A's had won since they dominated most of the game. But that's when I was reminded why baseball remains the one truly great game, as the gimpy Kirk Gibson pinch hit in the end of the ninth against the A's unbelievable closer Dennis Eckersley, and somehow lived up to the Roy Hobbs myth and jacked one out of the park to win the game (and ultimately the Series for the Dodgers). I remember being stunned and happy and wanting to call everyone and someone at the same time. So coming home this night to a taped Marlin(s)/Yankees game was made all the more comforting after a stressful heartbreaking night out greeted by the familiar gait and grunt of your handsomely spotted face.

I'm quite sure none of the people in First Ave shared my now lifelong devotion to the Marlin(s) least of all the people I was with but Lucinda was great. Her voice crackled effectively; she interacted with her band in a mesmerizing way and man she looked great in that black Stephaniesque t-shirt. I bolted in a fashion reminiscent of you when you are unsure of things, when the show was over. I had to get back to the place that is all about trust.

So in the end I must say, I love you Thompson. And I'm trying to make the feeling familiar if not somewhat mutual.

Yours truly,

Monday, October 13, 2003

I'm Just Looking For You To Feel Sorry For Me

"You're not in the world, Casper."
-Angel cruelly to Spike

Every year for a little more than a decade we've devoted the last issue of the newsletter to top ten lists- personal lists of the ten most important discoveries, memories, moments from the previous year. It's trendy, it's hip, and over the years the contributions have dried to a trickle the size of Rush Limbaugh's ability to say "no" to the nearest cheap shot or most available $340 painkiller.

This year for the first time I've sorta kept a running list (I'm getting up there in years you know). And on that list is an inordinate (and unprecedented) amount of activity shared with a friend who I know is frustrated with me more often than not but who has the rare ability to notice the things I notice and thus is as good a witness to history as any other in this version of my life (8.0?). This particular person has noticed that in my rare public appearances that we tend to stand in spots where people end up brushing against me even though there may be miles and miles of other air that could be occupied at that very moment. Yes it sometimes feels like I'm in a place just a little out of sync with others, and this time discrepancy not only manifests itself in unnecessary physical encounters but sometimes the type of mental anguish that can extinguish a good's night sleep here or there or everywhere.

So I went to the dentist the other day, not a favorite thing of mine to do, and I think I may have been diagnosed with a terminal gum disease. Dr. Hill cheerfully described what he thought was going on inside my mouth (ewwww) with x-ray pictures that sort of backed what he was saying- painting a mental picture of the most grim scenario possible -plaque or bacteria making a desperate run for things and ending up somewhere that would cause the most painful demise in written history- even though I've not only been a regular brusher but also a flosser (it's been the favorite part of my day for the past 26 years for God's sake!) but none of it can probably counteract the two or three years I went without visiting the dentist.

So I came home nearly in tears (believe me not so unusual these days) and a new dental regime that would not only take care of whatever it is happening in my mouth (ewww- super ewww) but also cure whatever related mental thing may be occurring. (And suffering from severe! Buffy withdrawal pangs what with the new fall TV season beginning- thumbs up on Alicia Silverstone's quirky charisma! Thumbs down on Kelly Ripa's prominently displayed cleavage!) I plopped in my tape of my favorite Buffy episodes and watched the one where the Slayer is stung by a demon that causes her to drift between a world that she has come to believe in- one where she is some type of bruised hero fightin' the good fight against vampires and all things evil- and another where her Mom is still alive but Buffy is a patient in a mental hospital.

She is forced to choose not only what she thinks is real, but the place where she ultimately wants to belong. And after I cry another time watching the words I've memorized by heart- at the sudden plot twists that made the show so special and that still continue to GET to me- I plop on my newest CD with two (at this point) paying a world's worth of attention relatively new roommates (of the feline variety- seven legs between them)- Thea Gilmore's moody yet most compelling Avalanche.

The British press has dubbed her as the next Dylan or the next Leonard Cohen and I must admit the twenty-something lass has a remarkable way with words (God if "Heads Will Roll" doesn't cut through the every day crap, the every day morose routine then yer deader than the zombies that haunt Buffy's world- or at least used to). Swirling beneath Gilmore's often provocative lyrics is an ambient bluesy backing reminiscent of Emmy Lou Harris' moody (but must have) Wrecking Ball.

In America young women grow up to be Britney Spears but in Great Britain they may not grow up to give a big wet kiss to Madonna on the lips but they grow up listening to Elvis Costello and turning out to be someone who can write a lyric like, "Age plays dirty tricks you're looking like a counterfeit..." And for some in a perpetual disintegrating piece of mind images can mean lots (or Goddamn it even lots more) and narrowing it down, as Thea sings, to dots on the screen. A feeling returns. Most definitely top ten worthy.

Monday, October 6, 2003

For Risa Ree

"There's some people that, you don't forget, even though you've only seen them one time or two..."
-Jack Fate

There is a lovely scene in Sofia Coppola's new movie Lost in Translation where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are standing in a Japanese hotel elevator separated by a crowd of Japanese. Both stand out for different reasons- Murray's character because he dwarfs everyone else in the elevator and Johansson because she is a lone lonesome blonde. Both also somehow stand out because of an obvious connection problem- of being lost in a strange land, not so much physically but emotionally. As the only two Americans in the small enclosed space they acknowledge each other with a knowing look.

Later on in the movie as a friendship has blossomed, Murray and Johansson are talking about the first time they met and Murray's character has to remind Johansson's Charlotte that her memory is wrong- because she doesn't remember the elevator encounter. When he describes the first moment she asks, "Did I scowl at you?"- her now standard defensive and unhappy typical reflex to life. The movie is full of many similar and familiar truthful moments. Our lives are full of supporting characters- not every relationship is going to be a booming intimate one, yet it is sometimes in those small shared moments with those that come to be a little more than strangers where the connection can be momentarily special creating some of the most unforgettable memories of our lives.

Ever since I moved into my house seven years ago the return of spring has been marked by the familiar return of baseball but also the return of my neighbor, Mrs. Ethier, hanging out her laundry on the laundry lines in the Ethier's back yard. This was an early Saturday morning ritual- thus I was seldom out of bed before the first load of sheets was flapping in the wind. Yet there was something nice about wearily blinking the sleep out of my eyes to the sight of Mrs. Ethier's weekend chore.

A couple of years back Mrs. Ethier was diagnosed with cancer and ever since seeing her hang out the laundry was a rare sight. Her husband took over the chore and whenever I could I asked him how his wife was doing. His response almost always was the same, something about how she was doing OK but she was such a stubborn woman. One weekday I came home and saw a UPS sticker on my door saying they had tried to deliver a package to my house but I wasn't home so they left it next door. I sheepishly knocked on the Ethier's door and the Mrs. answered and told me to come on in. The woman I had mostly seen from afar, the one who always smiled and waved when we did see each other, looked so frail. She looked around for where her husband had put the package all the while making me feel like a long lost son. It was the last time I ever spoke with her.

A couple weeks back I came home from work and noticed a lot of cars parked around the Ethier's house. It was a telltale sign that something was wrong. A couple of days later I was at the dentist waiting for my name to be called when I picked up the morning newspaper and saw the obituaries. I read them almost knowing what I would see, but hoping I was wrong. I wasn't. When I went to the visitation Mr. Ethier told me that his wife had fallen and from there she got weak and the end came fast. I told him I thought something might be up what with all the cars and he said something about the final car being the hearse that arrived in the morning.

So there I was days later watching Lost in Translation, with the loss next door in the back of my mind, at a movie that really captured the Japan I saw when Al and I visited there six(!) years ago. I remember lying in my tiny little motel room after a full day flipping the TV to strange Japanese TV shows thinking about the twelve pound ball of fur I had left with my parents, wondering how he (and they) were doing. I remember during the day studying all the faces that looked like mine but were somehow so different and in a different way than what I encounter every day here at "home." I remember how my oldest sister who had visited Japan a year or two before had told me to bring plenty of Kleenex because the motel rooms didn't supply them only to find that it was common for businesses to hand out small packages of tissues as a promotion (one of many small details Lost in Translation captures). I thought about going to this movie with a friend who probably might repeat Johansson's scowl line if I asked her about the first time we met. And sadly I remembered Mrs. Ethier's devotion to spring smelling sheets.