The Devil’s in the Details
“I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues” is one of the musical centers of my life—Louis Armstrong’s trumpet made a sound that changed music around the year 1927 (and my life, around 1990-something), which I learned from my musician friend Mark, and he also told me that when Billie Holiday started singing, she wanted to make her voice do what Louis Armstrong’s trumpet did. Anyone can sing pretty. So what? What are you saying with your voice?
(What Miss O’ has been saying with her not-very-pretty-voice all week is—and this is abbreviated—“Fuck the NRA.” And “Fuck Corporations.” And “Fuck the Fucking Fuckers who will not fucking read a fucking article in its entirety before having some fucking stupid thing to opine against it, so fuck THEM.” Now she’s trying to say something more hopeful. Stay with her, won’t you? Nice to see you again.)
But back to Billie: This is one of the many delightful tidbits I pick up when I show up at my Bread Loaf friend Mark’s house, which only happens a few times a year, though he lives an easy commuter bus ride away from NYC, over in New Jersey. We are busy. Mark plays New Orleans jazz piano, and for 20-some years played two weeks a year at Preservation Hall, a young, Northern, suburban, white, classically-trained pianist who was good enough to play with the old, Southern, black jazz musicians (until Katrina hit and they dispersed, having lost everything in the 9th Ward). (To clarify, this is NOT the "music" (Mark's quotation marks) of the all-white, boater-hatted Dixieland bands that play in one insistent rhythm of all-whiteness.) Jazz, in the New Orleans style, is music to Mark. When I go to his house, he plays the blues, and I can scat along to any song, whether I’ve heard it or not. I once asked Mark why that was. “You understand the blues. You get it.” It’s the only music that speaks to my soul, really. When people say, “Beatles or Rolling Stones?” there’s no question it’s the Stones. By which I mean Van Morrison.
Now, as far as Mark is concerned, music more or less stops with the last thing Oscar Peterson played before he left this world, whereas I’m a fan of Springsteen. And Robert Plant. And Pink. But another thing besides the blues that Mark and I have in common is that in our aging (he is 19 years older, so he gives me hope, should I live so long) and yet very busy lives, we have to decide to go to bed, in that we don’t really “get tired.” This is not to say we are not tired, even exhausted, especially in the morning. But there is SO MUCH WE WANT TO DO. When I visit, we do projects with the aim of bringing order to his crazy old house, and to take my night’s rest, I sleep in his studio—a giant main room of what was a former church and schoolhouse in the 1800s, containing a workbench covered in artists brushes, carving tools, drawing papers, clippings from magazines, pictures and cards, and old clock and watch parts, and photos and sheet music; then there’s a piano; a pullout sofa covered in boxes of stuff to be sorted; a church bench; book cases and file cabinets; various stools on which rest bins of things to be sorted; a choir loft with a couple of mattresses and shelves of books, books, and books; and in the whole of this studio there is absolutely no place to sit, except the piano bench, after Mark moves an Italian carving (which he still needs to figure out a way to hang on the wall) and the books of German choral music. Music, and language (we have too many books to count), and a teaching history, and curiosity to know stuff: Our bond(s). To wake me up on a Saturday morning, he’ll come in and play me a nice bluesy New Orleans song—so much better than an alarm. And when I say “alarm,” I mean “fucking alarm,” or, more usually here in my Queens home, “fucking CAR ALARM” at three o’fuckingclock in the morning. But this is, after all, a blog about responses. Did I mention that? It is.
Pavlov Was a Cruel Son of a Bitch
We are a conditioned species. Somewhere in our schooling we all probably learned (or at least vaguely heard about) the experiments of a guy named Pavlov and his dogs. Remember this? Pavlov noticed that his dogs salivated whenever they saw their dinner in a dish. Pavlov wondered about this salivating response: So he then used a bell to call his dogs for dinner, and saw that when they heard the bell and began associating that ringing bell with dinner, they began salivating at the sound of the bell. To further the experiment, Pavlov rang the bell at times he was not feeding the dogs, and so conditioned had they become to associating the bell with dinner, they would salivate whether they were fed or not. Just like when we watch Doritos commercials. I always salivate when I see those Budweiser Clydesdales…and a cousin of mine salivates whenever she sees Glenn Beck's buzz cut.
So we humans, too, like those dogs, develop conditioned responses to the world, whether or not these responses lead to our being nourished. As much as we think we are free to be you and me (40 years old this year!), we’re less “free” than we imagine. That is to say, who we are, naturally, given our druthers, is often not something we explore after we’re, say, five. So often, how we react to the events of the world or the moments of our life is Pavlov’s dogs all over again—conditioned responses, depending on how we were raised, the habits we develop, or the responses we are used to hearing that we think we are supposed to have: We all have conditioning in our bloodstream. For example, hearing the word “Liberal” has for too long been anathema in the discourse of America, that is to say, A-MER-ka; and the NRA is conditioned to believe that if the words “gun control” come out of anyone’s mouth, that speaker must be killed with guns. (My mom, Lynne, was so conditioned by the Catholic Church, that when they condemned one of my mom's favorite film stars, Ingrid Bergman, for having a child out of wedlock with Roberto Rossellini, my mom told me, "I kept wondering how I was supposed to feel.")
How did we get so conditioned? I am writing about this today because the thing is, it’s killing us as a rational species. I see it when every single friend I have has to check his phone when we are out to dinner. Ten times...no, eleven. For another example, I read a Washington Post headline today: “Spare Us the ‘National Conversations’: Obama Loves Them, But Do They Work?” I decided not to read the op-ed (spare me), because I’m tired today. But here’s what the headline made me think about.
Our Roots Are No Longer Showing, and This Is Too Bad
Follow Miss O’s trip down television memory lane, won’t you? When the miniseries Roots came on television in 1977—just after Gone With the Wind was televised for the first time, I might add, and I don’t think that was a coincidence—my dad, Bernie, was working at a meat plant in Landover, Maryland. It was at this meat plant that my dad, who was an Irish-Indian Catholic from Iowa (“Home to Six Black People”), really got to know blacks for the first time. He started working at the plant when I was in first grade (he could have worked alongside Archie Bunker) and commuted with another guy, Harry, a white Jehovah’s Witness, until I was in high school, when he returned to a regular grocery store to cut meat, because the plant closed. Historical perspective for the kids out there: This airing of Roots was in the days before cable television and even VCRs, to say nothing of DVRs, so the whole nation was watching the same three networks, the same public television programming, and one or two locally syndicated television stations (which ran nearly identical commercials for carpet installation and Ginsu knives and Chevrolet used car lots). Big television events could not be taped or DVRed (take that in), or Netflixed later, and therefore (as those future technologies were unimaginable) were not to be missed: Even if you had to crawl into work or school the next day, everyone stayed up to watch this stuff. The next day—on the commute, on the bus, at work, at school—people throughout this country had what you might call spontaneous “national conversations” about that television event. What President Obama (who is a year older than I am) remembers is what I remember: The days when people talked about shit because it was just fucking interesting and important or culturally impactful. It wasn’t only Miss O’s willingness to discomfit everyone on what you might euphemistically call Live Facebook: Everyone did it. My dad would come home from work, say, carrying Jehovah’s Witness literature from Harry, and he’d read it aloud and argue with it, and then argue with Harry about it on the ride to work. Then he’d report the story to us: “Christmas isn’t in the Bible, Harry said, birthdays aren’t in the Bible, Harry said, and I told him, ‘Your goddamned Cadillac isn’t in the Bible, either, and you drive one of those.'” (Even though Harry worked at a meat plant, he knew, as so many Christians do (read your Puritan history), that the only way to show everyone that God has truly blessed you is to (ostentatiously) own a lot of expensive shit. What would Jesus buy?) But I was talking about Roots, the famous miniseries based on Alex Haley’s bestseller about finding his African roots after a long search through his family’s slave past. With the airing of Roots, then, a lot of racial tensions from many, many decades came again to the surface (not that they weren't always present). One day after the second or third night of the series, my dad came home and told us that when the white supervisor came onto the floor of the plant to tell the guys what they were to do that day, all the black workers, fell to their knees and said, “Don’t hurt me, massa,” and everyone collapsed laughing. The tension was broken, beautifully and brilliantly, and for the rest of the day, everyone could stand on the line and talk about the show and the history in it.
Phoning It In
The phone just rang, and it was an actor friend of mine, whom I’ll call Jiminy, who lives in another American city. He has just finished reading a new novel, The Lawgiver, by Herman Wouk, who is 96 years old, which book was his attempt to write a novel about Moses, because writing a novel about Moses was Wouk’s biggest literary dream. But as a character in this novel says, “Nothing Jewish is simple,” and Wouk instead wrote a very funny, epistolary/email/Skype novel about a fictional film company trying to make a movie of a novel about Moses (fictional, in this book) by a writer named Herman Wouk. You got that? I love the conceit. What Wouk realized was the folly of trying to write about Moses—it’s too big a story, too complex, too much. That said, Wouk did write a lovely book my friend enjoyed reading.
Now here’s why I bring up this friend: It has to do with complex conversations. Though a Liberal like me, with lots of interests and a love of the arts, he’s a hard friend to talk to at times, and it has to do with the impulses that drove him to become an actor: He’s a different kind of a Well-Butter, the term I’ve coined, which I’ve talked about before (people who interrupt your stories with, “Well, but…” and tell you why your experience didn’t happen the way you said it did even though they WERE NOT THERE). Just when I’m reaching the climax of a story I am telling, Jiminy will interject, as he did today, “Real quick, remind me to tell you another story, a sidebar about Roots, when you finish. Go ahead,” thus sucking all the air out of the tale, stopping the story’s momentum cold. When this happens, I simply stop. I take this as a cue that the story I am telling is not interesting, and I say, “No, tell your sidebar,” and he does (about how his one-man show about George S. Kaufman tanked, going largely unseen because the festival week he was given was the very same week that Roots aired, a five-night (I think) event), and then we are off on another subject. What’s also going on is that he’s an actor who cannot have the limelight washing over anyone else for very long; we remain friends because he’s a delight to listen to. We never do return to my story. Sometimes he will realize I’m onto his boredom, and he will feel bad and apologize, but nonetheless my shutting down has never, in 20 years, stopped him from interjecting into nearly all of my stories. It’s humbling, that sort of treatment, and sobering. I used to be hurt, but one day I was not hurt, and realized that his interjections have made me emotionally better equipped to deal with criticism. And that is invaluable to me. Though a natural listener, I am an even more a natural talker, so being told on a weekly basis, essentially, “Go ahead and finish talking, but I’m bored” helped me learn to shut up and to develop my listening skills even more keenly. I’m always practicing. When people call me, it’s not about ME. They need to talk, and I need to listen.
So back at Mark’s—and I no sooner arrive from the bus stop than he has to show me something, and we’re walking the house and looking at some letter or a piece he found in a junk shop, and it’s 20 minutes before I get to drop my backpack and take off my coat. One such item was a Chinese lacquer box that had been his grandfather’s, which contained lots of tiny things, a tiny egg that unscrewed to reveal a tiny chick—the egg was no taller than my pinky nail—and Mark talked about growing up with lots of tiny things, learning to pay attention to tiny details—he’s collected a tin of interesting buttons, and searching out beautiful ones is a pleasant activity for me of an evening—we talk about what it means to want to do EVERYTHING, and to take the time to learn art forms and try to do them not merely competently but superbly—and this means leaving off tasks such as going to the toilet, eating, drinking fluids, so rapt do we become in our quests, our pursuits of learning, to the point that after we got home from the restaurant where Mark played a 4-hour set, we were down in the workshop where he drilled tiny holes at the drill press into the wooden Japanese shoes, so I could put in tiny eyes to string a wire through so we could hang them (they could make the perfect complement to the calligraphy-themed wall)—despite our promise to ourselves that we’d get to bed by 11 instead of midnight. As it was, we got to bed around 1:00 AM. Well, I got into my bed and was reading, but I heard him still shuffling around out there…
So here’s what I’m on about: There are people—unimaginative people, I think—who exist primarily on conditioned responses, as opposed to people—imaginative people, I think—who are driven to explore challenges. In brief, I think I’m getting at habits vs. talents vs. interests, or maybe I mean lives guided by developed talents and interests vs. lives bubbled-wrapped by conditioned responses—people like me and Mark, for whom no detail is too small to care about, no concept too alien to learn more about, vs. my Republican cousin, who cannot be bothered to watch the 9-minute testimony of a Newtown dad over the banning of automatic weapons (“didn’t see it—too busy”), but can needle me on my Facebook wall by searching out and "commenting" with links to right-wing propaganda criticizing this poor man's testimony. I realize I am setting myself up as superior. What I really mean is what Joe Biden said to Paul Ryan: If you have no answers, no original ideas, “Get out of the WAY.” What I think is going on is that too many conditioned-response sorts of people are seeking out positions of power, where they are constitutionally incapable of making anything like a useful difference to a society as complex as ours. In the meantime, deeply thoughtful, tireless creative types, such as Mark and me, avoid positions of power like the plague. I don’t have an answer yet, by the way, and I have no idea where this is going. (And by the way, most of my time is spent in bitter self-loathing. I do a lot of creative stuff to prove to myself I'm not shit. Almost all my friends do this. Bruce Springsteen does this, and God love Bruce for admitting it. Glass half full!)
Letter Forms: The Birth of Writing
So back at Mark's, where my big task was to help him hang some art on his walls: One of the pictures we hung on one studio wall this past weekend was a 3’ x 4’ framed paper containing all the Trajan Roman Letter Forms, A to Z, with an ampersand to make the fourth and final row balance. The I and the O, Mark explained (and this was a spontaneous Sunday morning lecture, as we stood in our jammies holding our coffee and admiring our hanging work from the previous day), are the father and mother of all letter forms. As for this particular rendering of the alphabet, Mark was present when his master calligraphy teacher stood in front of all the class and, with one flat brush and a pot of red ink and a pot of black ink, with no ruler and no grid, wrote out this very sheet of the all-caps Trajan alphabet in one go, in four rows. Hanging here in a red-matted black frame on his wall at eye-level, Mark could study the brush strokes as he himself practiced. He told me to notice something: “There are no straight lines in any of the letter forms!” he exclaimed. And I looked closely—he was right. “It’s an illusion that the curves create—you see them as straight, but if they were, there would be no real beauty.” The illusion of straightness creates beauty—the illusion of symmetry does this for faces, too. In addition, the same brush makes the wide bold strokes, as well as the hair-thin serifs. (When I became an editor, I had to take an interest in font readabilities—learning that serif font is easier to read than sans serif—or “without” serifs. Compare the fonts:
ARIAL: You will notice that there are no tiny doo-hickies attached to the ends of any of these letters in the font called Arial. It’s very technical looking. Compare this to the font called Georgia, below.
GEORGIA: There are little thin doo-hickies at the ends of the lines on each letter, and the “o” is thinner at the top and bottom than it is on the sides. (Compare this to the Arial version of the “o,” which is the same thickness all the way around. It’s why Arial isn’t as beautiful.) If you write a test in Arial font, students will do worse on it than if they had taken the same test in Georgia font. There are studies. Serifs matter. The beautiful is also more readable and more comprehensible. Go know!
Isn’t that interesting?)
(By the way, you may already know that the reason there are font choices on a computer is because Steve Jobs took a calligraphy class before he dropped out of college. People create and patent fonts—whole history of that stuff. But I have to move on! Dammit! There is SO MUCH RICHNESS and I want to share it ALL!)
On the history of these letters: They were discovered on the Column of Trajan ca. 112 AD, the thus began, one way or another, the world of modern lettering. In calligraphy circles, this is the Holy Grail of stuff to see—and the column is no longer accessible to the casual viewer, but Mark knows one of the last calligraphers living who was allowed to see it in the flesh and make a rubbing of it. See, Mark knows shit like this. And isn’t your life better right this moment for having learned it, too? I learned all this Sunday morning as Mark was getting ready for this church organ-playing job and I was throwing my couch bedding into a pile. I stopped as the lesson continued.
And then we saw the clock, and Mark jumped and ran downstairs to shower and dress and get ready to go to church to play, but first he had to collect his suit for the German choir concert he had in the afternoon. It had snowed in the night, and I knew he hadn’t noticed, so while he was at his morning ablutions I found the broom in the kitchen and went outside and shoveled the walks and swept the snow off his car (he gasped when I told him, and then quickly said, in his soberest voice, “I knew you womenfolk were good for two things, and now I see it’s three.”)
I’ve got a right to sing the blues: I look at the stupidity of these fucking Republicans in Congress; scream at the absurd amount of national air time asshole delusionals like Wayne LaPierre of the NRA get in order to further insult my intelligence; shake my head at the sickening amount of Facebook real estate taken up with wanting to own the bodies of women who have found themselves pregnant. (Where is their outrage about Drone strikes or GMOs?) Doubtless these same people see my postings about trying to protect the food supply from corporate takeover and to find a way past fossil fuel dependence as little more than fear mongering. And all I can think is that such people, conditioned to react to progress in a negative way, simply do not have enough...something...whatever it is, that could expand their vistas. What's the word I'm looking for? That word that the Texas Board of Education banned from all text books back in the 1990s and into the 21st Century....what's that word? Oh, yes: Imagination. (It has the same root as the word magic. Scary!) As a result, it's as if too many people have taken the stuff they were taught and made it into a wall, rather than using it as a foundation. The silence between the jingle of active, informed conversations and the dull thud of conditioned responses (that take the form of kneejerk judgments) is the result of the differences in imaginative development. And it depends on other things, too, this inability to have a real conversation—mostly on how many drinks I’ve had.
So I’ve got a right to feel lowdown. And then I go to Mark’s. And then I return home to two package notices, one from Vermont and the other from India. And on my apartment hallway step, my neighbor Debbie has piled my mail, in which stack I find a padded manila envelope from Hugh, with music mixes (and directions for where to buy all these songs to support the artists) for all my many dance moods, and a post card informing me that my friend Anna Citrino's first book of poems, Saudade, is about to be released. And I know I have a blog to write, and friends to talk to, and vegetables to buy to make soup, and the place is warm, and the bills are paid.
Still, I’ve got a right to sing the blues, I've got a right to moan and sigh, and so, to tell you about this, I want my voice to sound like Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, and each week I am practicing and working at it, sounding that goddamned voice of mine, yes I fucking am, until the song is played. "What a Wonderful World," my ass (which is just a blues version of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"): Listen to Louis on "I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues." THAT is music. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to dance to Van Morrison and sip some chamomile tea. And maybe, sometime tonight, I'll remember to go to bed.
Sleep good. Kisses to all and love from,