Thursday, October 11, 2012

Applied Rhythm

Often in moments of quiet, driving down the road, sitting in a waiting room, resting on a bench at the Inner Harbor, my father, almost involuntarily, would put his hands together and begin softly clapping out a rhythm. A simple four-four beat. Leaning forward a bit, his arms resting on his legs and his hands dangling between his knees, he would one way or another add music to his day, like applying mortar to widening cracks and crevices. In his head, and in his heart, was a song always waiting, like a great conversation you can’t wait to continue. Or maybe it was his soundtrack, and in the quiet moments it resurfaces into consciousness. Whatever. Music was as much a part of him as an arm is to you and me. Natural. Flowing out like a spring. Music gave him joy.  Music gave him company.  Music gave him God.

Moving from piano to guitar to the banjo player, my dad had perfected the chord-melody style, allowing him to play melody but with a richer sound, without accompaniment. The largess of this benefit was not when he was performing to the crowds, but when he was alone. How I remember him playing mostly is where he was seated on the side of his bed, his collapsible music stand perched before him, practicing for hours. Tune after tune filling the rooms. He strummed with these large, triangular, brindle plastic pics; and from time to time, in between beats, he would drag the edge of his pick across his forehead, squeegeeing off his sweat. He would emerge from his room after a couple of hours only to guzzle a large glass of cold water, the front of his button-down shirt soaked in a big V from neck to navel.

From time to time, after an especially enthusiastic run-through of his extensive repertoire of standards like Whispering, Five Foot Two, Bye Bye Blues, he would resurface, shaking his head mildly in disbelief, and muse, "I played things on that instrument that I've never been able to play. It was like I was talking to God."  He was.

In the 73rd Psalm, St. Augustine writes, "...He who sings praise, not only sings but also loves him of whom he sings." Yet over the centuries, Augustine's words have become known more as He who sings [to God] prays twice.  Common among these words is the exultation of music and the exultation of God through music.  It is speaking to God.  The gift of music is a grace that allows us to reach our highest potential as human beings, and through it we're expressing our thanks and our joy and our gratitude. 

Music is one of the few sustenances other than food that feeds us beyond measure, as essential as love, family, and friendship.  It is the great communicator.  It is the great uniter.  It sends us as far away as we want to go.  It brings us home when we need to be.   It digs deep down into us.  It elevates us to distant pinnacles.  It stretches across the universe.  There is no one out of its reach.  It blankets us all.  Thank God.  Because it covered my father when he most felt uncovered.

As a predominantly deaf man, who retained a low percentage of hearing in one ear only after enduring an extended bout with childhood meningitis, my father stockpiled years of lonely, isolated hours full with music, banging on an old upright piano or slashing across the strings of an acoustic Epiphone.   Eventually parlaying his sweat into playing professionally in one of the most sought after duo's in Baltimore.  And later selling pianos and teaching music.  Wherever he turned--music.

After a neighbor who was downsizing for a move sold my grandmother a well-used upright piano, my father, still in grade school, saw his own mother sit down and begin to play, which he had no idea she could even do.  Songs like Heart of My Heart, Somebody Stole My Gal streamed out of her fingers; and she sang out loud and sweet, as though she were in a revival.   And then his sisters would chime in, Ain't She Sweet, Bye Bye Blackbird.  No hesitation.  Completely unabashed.  Music invaded his home and clung to the walls, new life permeating everything, like thick, overgrown ivy. 

Soon, too, my father sat before the piano and, as though for the first time, began to breathe, introducing  himself  to his own music, his own heart, his own soul, a new acquaintance growing into fast friend and then old love.  The peace enveloping him from the knowing that no matter what came and went, whatever was given and taken, implanted and extracted, music is constant.  This is what God gives us in music--an always.  My father would never truly be alone again. 

It's no wonder my dad became a performer and then a music teacher; he had to share what was shared.  Although song was so personal to him, and always with him, it wasn't all his; and that's probably why he positioned a guitar in my arms when I was four.  My dad once told me that the great Itzhak Perlman had said that his father forced him to play the violin when he didn't want to, and he now can't thank him enough, not because of his success, but because of his joy.  That's what my father wanted for me.  If I could stick it out, wrestling through the Volga Boatman and Marianne, eventually--the joy. 

I remember feeling a bit surprised to find other families in which no one played an instrument.  I thought everybody played something, or at least sang.  My sister played clarinet.  I toyed with the French horn and then the tuba and sang in one chorus or another since the moment I was old enough.  I didn't last long with my father as my teacher, especially because he knew when I practiced and when I didn't.  There was just no hiding it, so my lessons only lasted about four months, just long enough for me to learn the F chord for Silent Night.  To my dad's great delight, when I was 18 I did learn the guitar.  And to my great delight, it can never be unlearned.

I admit to being a little guilty of being a "helicopter parent."  I hover a bit too much, and I want to create for my kids a well-rounded childhood.  And so with the Brownies, the clubs, the camps, soccer and lacrosse, I want my daughter, who's old enough, to learn an instrument, hopefully of her choosing.  I may even apply a little bit of that force that Perlman remembered.  And soon, I'll prop my guitar in my son's arms.  I don't care about greatness or playing before crowds, but I can see farther down the road to that joy, loitering, to be discovered.  That gift waiting to be unwrapped. 

A couple years before my father's passing, a recording surfaced, found by an old fan of my dad and his partner.  The reel-to-reel, featuring my dad's partner playing wild Dixie banjo and my father providing the flawless foundation on rhythm guitar, highlighted absolutely extraordinary moments in musicianship.  It is documented proof that my father experienced what so many of us clamor to experience--to be a part of something great.  That recording, which is now on CD and MP3, has evolved from bootleg into artifact into heirloom.                                                        

Somewhere in my father's last hours, as he lay in his own bed, in home hospice, I leaned in and spoke into his left ear, his "good" ear, and I asked, "Dad, do you want to hear your songs?"  Although it was a time for silence, for peace, I felt that his music was his peace.  His eyes closed, he nodded yes.  And one last time he visited with an old friend, the old tunes, the old music, the old joy, assuring himself that he was not alone, that there is what God promises when we pray to Him twice--an always.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

All the Fun

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
(Walt Whitman, 1865)

“Can God fit in my Matchbox car?” my four year old son asks. 

“Sure,” I answer, “He’s everywhere.” 

“Is His stomach bigger than our pool?” he follows. 

“Sure,” I answer again. 

“Is He magic?” 

“You could say that,” I say.  I imagined magic is just what it must look like what God does to a four year old.  (Actually, it looks like that to this 44-year-old.)  So, without deconstructing God’s omnipresence, I let it stand as magic.  And why not?  It’s an easy out when he asks, “Did God make the trees?” 



“Magic,” I answer, which is much easier than explaining the evolution of cycles of plant life that God set into motion who knows how long ago.  (Well, He knows.)  Beyond that, it seems like magic.  Supposedly, we get the answers when we die.  But I don’t care.  I can’t imagine enjoying a tree more.  And if God says, “Look how easy it is for me to make a tree,” it won’t diminish my impression of a tree at all.  The trick won’t be ruined.  I feel for those who get caught up in the How How How.  Just sit and marvel that it is.

This, I think, is God’s plan—magic.  But there’s His BIG magic and out little magic, which, perhaps, introduces us to His BIG magic, by our own attempts at ours.  Perhaps I have a little better understanding, for lack of clearer expression, of God’s magic, God’s skill, because I grew up with my father’s magic.

I know at seven years old I was an easy mark, but my dad used to fool me over and over with this one magic trick (to be honest, all magic tricks) that I just couldn’t get enough of.  He would peal a card off the top of a deck, show it to me, let’s say a two of diamonds; and then he would rub the card on his knee, or better yet…my knee, and show it to me again—and it would change, let’s say to a king of clubs.  My eyes would pop.  I would examine the card, turning it over and over in my hand; and I would demand, “Again!”  And he would do it again and again and again.  I couldn’t get enough. 

Eventually, I figured out that my dad was doing a card trick, a sleight of hand, an illusion, skillfully done.  There was an easy explanation.  But not to me.  I just didn’t know what it was, and I couldn’t figure it out, thankfully.  I would have spent my time focusing in on his hands, on the how, and that would have ruined all the fun.  All the mystery.  All the joy. 

Of course my dad wasn’t trying to make a fool of me when he would change a card or cut and restore a rope or close a sponge ball in my fist to have it then grow into seven sponge balls springing from my hand.  Instead, he was trying to make me see something—a world filled with magic.  Still, I would pester him for the secret, but he’d never tell, not till I was much older.  He didn’t want me to miss the fun.  He wanted me to have the wonder that abides with faith of its existence.  It makes life fantastic.  It allowed me to peer up at a vent in my attack and think, Yeah, Santa can fit through that. And now on a calm, clear night I peer up at a blanket of scattered gems across the black abyss and I think that I should never want the moment to end.  Now, I know a star is a gaseous sphere illumined via thermonuclear fusion.  That’s a BIG creation by God’s skill, but I can’t make one.  To little old me, it’s just magic.  Beautiful.  It just is.  If I get caught up in the how, I miss the glory.  And I think that’s God’s message.

In Matthew 14:19-21, Jesus feeds the hungry multitude of people:
19 And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.
20 And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full.
21 And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.
Now when they were done, Jesus departs to go pray, no questions asked.  It’s truly one of the most amazing moments in the gospels.  Thousands of people fulfilled from so little.  Satisfied in the marvelous.  Knowing that only God could provide in such a miraculous fashion.  And I’m so glad that Matthew 14:22, the following verse, doesn’t begin, “And one among them said, ‘Hey, wait a minute…Do that again, this time slower,’” hoping to catch Jesus produce 5000 fish from the sleeve of his tunic when no one was looking. 

Yes, it’s puzzling and unbelievable.  But, so are we.  The mere fact that we exist, that we evolved over such a long period of time from something so small is that changing card in the cosmic deck.  Sure, my tiny mind would like to know how God does it.  I am tempted to say, “Do it all again.  This time slower.”  But, for me to dwell on the How How How, I might miss what God wants for me, what my father wanted for me—all the fun.

After my father passed away, some of his belongings were divvied up between my sister and me.  Among these artifacts were some magic tricks, a magic wand, linking rings, a life-like rabbit, decks and decks of cards, the usuals.  And in one bag of tricks, deep down in a corner seem, was a little rubber hand, hollowed out to fit over a fingertip.  I slipped it on the tip of my pinky, and it came to me when my dad used to show me his cupped hands with this little rubber, life-like hand in miniature reaching out from between the palms, as if my dad had captured a little man to show me.  Since then, from time to time, I interrupt my children at play in their rooms and dive on the bed, as though in hot pursuit, and reign in my cupped hands from under a pillow and rush over to my kids to show them the ensnared little man-sprite, whom my kids now call Guod (which is Doug backwards), his hand reaching out and waving to them; and then as quick as a flash he is gone again to dwell among us and watch over us from the shadows.  “Seeing” Guod always gets them going.

Last night the two of them composed a note to Guod, revealing their hope for his happiness and pledging their love to him.  Not missing any of the fun.  I hope they never lose that.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Alright, Better, Wonderful

Sitting alone in my car at 1:00 A. M. in the deserted hospital parking garage, the doctor's words about my father's near fatal condition echoed in my skull: "He's not responding to the medicine.  He needs to be kept as comfortable as possible."  My father's congestive heart failure was causing him to fill with fluid, drowning him under his skin, each added ounce causing his heart to run out of steam, like wheels slipping in place.  The doctor's countenance, his forced half-smile, his hushed tones in his speech trying to comfort us all added up to his assuredness of my father's demise.  The night was going to be long.  And so I did what everyone else does in the grips of foxhole faith, I called out to God.  "Please, give me something, anything to let me know that he's going to be okay," I said, my head down and my hands on the steering wheel, squeezing so tightly as though I were forcing God to listen.
       When my heart slowed and I could see again, I turned the engine on, rolled down the windows to let the summer air in, and from the radio speakers began the first electric chords of The Beatles' song "It's Getting Better All the Time."  Anyone who knows me well knows that I am Beatles fan, as in the "fan" in fanatic.  And it is that fanaticism that has kept me well attuned to what popular Beatles songs are played on the radio.  "It's Getting Better All the Time" is not one of those songs.  It gets very little play in comparison to the dozens of other hits they had: Hey Jude, Let It Be, Strawberry Fields Forever, et. al.  So because it was this song at this moment, I knew one thing for certain-God was speaking to me.  He was picking a language I would understand.  It seemed a little heavy handed; I thought God was a little more cryptic, but I wasn't about to argue.  I drove home and slept, peacefully, knowing that this wasn't the end.
       The pastor at my church once said that faith is the opposite of our instincts.  We must see something to believe it, yet for faith we must first believe, then we will see it.  That's pretty tough for so many of us, the belief in things unseen.  So I know that there are those who say that God's talking to me through The Beatles is a pretty broad leap.  Still, sitting in that car, I experienced that X factor, that absolute rightness stemming from a total lack of rationality.  And that was fine by me.
       Arriving at the hospital the next morning, my sister was already in the ICU.  There was an energy in the room that was palpable, a surging charge.  My sister rushed to me, spouting, "The doctor said in the night Dad just suddenly began responding.  Fluid was draining out in healthy quantities."  However, the doctor later added that there were too many factors beyond just being 79 for Dad to recover and live beyond Christmas.  We were convinced otherwise.
       After a cafeteria buffet breakfast, my sister and I sat on a lobby bench to process the morning.  Reticently, I recanted details that unfolded nine hours earlier.  When I reached the crux of the moment, telling her how I deduced that God had picked a language to speak to me, cleverly employing a Beatles song as some sort of divine conduit, her head was tipped to one side and her eyes were piercing into my face.  "Stop!" she demanded.  And then she recanted the details of her morning.
       After driving home from the hospital, she pulled into her driveway, turned off her van, and sat there, not yet allowing herself to go inside.  In the pounding silence of the early morning, she called out to God as I had, "Please, give me something, anything to let me know that he's going to be okay."  As her van began to warm up, and not ready to walk, my sister started the engine for the cool air of the air conditioner.  Her radio had been on when she had stopped, so after the engine turned over, a song was beginning.  The words began to bore through the stratum of her prayer.  It was Bob Dylan, telling her, "Don't think twice; it's alright."  As she listened, a comforting peace began to gently knead her.  When the song was done, she cut the engine, went inside, and slept.
       My sister and I were of the same mind, thinking that God's media were not that conspicuous.  But why not?  Why can't God just chuck a brick at our heads when He wants a quick communiqué?  And so we sat there, gaping at one another, just as affirmed as we were spooked.
       A year later, at my father's 80th birthday celebration, Louis Armstrong crooned What a Wonderful World, to which my father, or the "miracle man" as one doctor called him, and stepmother danced, smiling, breathing with clear lungs.  I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't believed it.