Sunday, November 16, 2014

Memory's Noose


Come the cold and rain in the fall, I sometimes get reflective about old memories, and here's one that burbled up ...

Aeons ago, we had a close friend who met the man she thought was The One. They courted, then moved in together, and bliss was in the air. Happily-ever-after bloomed, and hurray! she deserved it.

Fast forward just under two years, and to abridge the story, the man was NOT The One. There came a terrible row and a break-up. 

Emotionally wrought, our friend came to stay with us. I cleared out my office and made it into a bedroom. For the next few weeks, she was submerged in the greatest depths of depression and grief. We tried to help, but in such circumstances, there was little we could do. The death of a relationship needs the same stages as a real death, and it can be a slow process. 

We offered support, quiet, and hoped for recovery.

(In an odd happening, early on, our friend dismantled the door knob and latch to the office-gone-to-bedroom and swapped it with the one from the hall bathroom, which could be locked. Nobody would have gone into her room without knocking, but there you go; grief does strange things to people.)

Time dragged on. Recovery did not seem to be in the offing. Our wounded friend would spend all morning planning a trip to the store to buy a single orange. An hour at the store to make the selection. The rest of the afternoon recovering from the trip. The air here was too thick with traffic fumes. The tiniest bit of something unusual in her food would cause her stomach to roil for days. Misery was a heavy blanket, and it covered not only her, but the whole house.

Every red door needed to be painted black.

We saw this, and after a time, also saw that it was beyond our ability to heal. See somebody, we said. Get professional help from somebody who knows how.

No. 

We kept trying. Talked for hours. Was a solicitous as we could be. 

She got to the stage where she began rewriting the conflict with Not-The-One. It was all his fault, she decided, she had done nothing wrong, nothing, save to be kind, loving and open, and he was an oafish, blind loser who couldn’t appreciate what she had to offer!

Okay. We didn’t completely agree with that, given some of what we had seen and heard, but we mostly went along. (Any deviation from this absolute was met with instant rage: No! No! It was him! Him! In no way me!)

Fine. We’ll shut up now. You are suffering. Whatever you need to get by.

Eventually, we shrugged and moved along with our lives, and eventually, she packed up and moved away, unhappy that we weren’t more help. How could we not see? Her grief was as powerful as if they had been married fifty years and he had suddenly died. She was bereft. Suck it up and get over it? Not the way to look at it.

Then came a series of phone calls from afar. We needed to see how badly she had been treated. How we had been mistaken in our thinking that she was in any way responsible for the situation, either with Not-The-One or our interaction with her while she was under our roof. We had fallen short in the friends department. She was putting her ducks in a row, and we needed to move to our proper place.

Okay, I said, let’s put it all behind us and move on. I certainly could have been mistaken in how I had seen things, and if so, I hereso apologize.

No, not “could be,” you WERE mistaken! No question! And how you spoke to it? You didn’t really feel that way …

Wait, wait. What? I didn’t feel that way?

That’s right. You didn’t see it correctly, so you couldn’t have really been in that mind-set, and you need to re-think it and see that I am right. You need to see that you were wrong about it.

Whoa. Hold up. I will admit I could have been wrong. I don’t think I was, but we all know memory is a faulty machine, and I am sorry  if I missed shit, but at the time all this went down, I surely know how I felt about it. My facts might have been askew, but my own feelings were what they were. It is what I thought I saw at the time. 

Over the course of a conversation lasting several hours, then several more conversations,, it became apparent that, for our friend to deal with this how she wanted, I had to revise my memory so that it agreed with hers 100%.

Not just acceptance; I had to love Big Brother …

I could go a ways down the road, but for me to say what she apparently wanted to hear, I had to say something that simply wasn’t true. I couldn’t do it. Or wouldn’t, which made the effect the same. 

It became the crux of every subsequent conversation, and these were many and long. 

Impasse.

Finally, I said, Okay, listen: We have danced around this fifty-seven times, and unless you have something new to bring to the discussion, it isn’t going to be resolved. Neither of us is apt to have a come-to-Jesus moment that I can see. If you can find a new line, then we can revisit it, but otherwise, I’m not going there any more. We can move on or not.

Not ...

And that was the end of our long friendship. Because I wouldn’t substitute her beliefs for mine, we got to the end of the road. 

Such are the throes of major depression, that reason fails utterly and there is no way out. 

I think about it sometimes. Should I have just agreed with her? It would have fixed it for her, though I believed it would have broken it for me. It wouldn’t have been a white lie, about her hair, or how those jeans made her look. It would have been a repudiation of what I believed to be true, and ever so much worse. 

I am sorry to have lost my friend, but I can’t say I have regrets about my stance. Sometimes standing where you must leaves you there by yourself, but hey, there it is. Fall reflection of the day …

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Luthier - A Short Short Story


The smell of burning vegetation wasn’t so bad, but when the flow crossed the road? The stink of melting asphalt was acrid, it made your eyes water, and it was hard to draw a breath without coughing. Fortunately, the trades were blowing, so most of the smoke and stench moved away from the village. For now.
A news helicopter flew overhead, noisy and intrusive, a man seated in the back doorway, camera trained on the front of the flow, which was already past Les.
Where Les stood, the lava’s heat was not so bad, and the shell was dark, almost black, with only the small windows here and there to reveal the glowing red-orange underneath. The reports said it was moving at twelve yards an hour, and he guessed it would be no more than half a day before it reached his house, maybe a bit less. 
He became aware that somebody had joined him on the hillock. He turned to look.
A young, very tanned woman stood there, maybe twenty-two or three years old, dressed in cut-off jeans and a red T-shirt, black rubber slippahs. She had long, jet hair, and was obviously a native, not a haole like Les, who was old enough to be her father, at least. Maybe her grandfather …
Not local though, he didn’t know her.
“Aloha,” she said. 
He nodded. “Aloha.”
“You live in the village.”
“Yep. That house, over there.”
“The big one?”
“No, behind it, to the left, the little one with the metal roof.”
“Ah. Are you sad?”
He glanced away from her at the lava. Looked like it was inflating a little. 
“Sure, a little. But Madame Pele claims her own when she wishes. I knew that when I set up shop.”
The young woman smiled. “Yes, Madame Pele does that. You have been here for some time?”
“Fifteen years. Not so long, though I got used to it. Home.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a luthier. I build ukuleles.”
“Ah.”
“That big house there? That’s Donny Halle’s house. He is a musician, very famous. He plays ukulele.”
“I have heard his music. It is beautiful.”
“It is. He is an artist.”
“If he is rich, he can buy another house,” she said.
“He can probably buy three or four houses.” He smiled.
“You are not rich.”
“Not in money.” He grinned wider.
“In other ways?”
“Halle plays one of my instruments. Every time he goes onto a stage to make his beautiful music, I am there with him, in a small way. I am happy to be able to do that.”
“You build your instruments in your home?”
“Yep.”
“What will you do if Madam Pele takes it?”
“I have my tools and wood packed up. When it gets close, I’ll go find another house. My skills will work anywhere I go.”
“Will not Halle’s skills do the same?”
“Sure.”
“If you could talk to Madame Pele and ask her a favor, what would you say?”
He shrugged. “That maybe she might consider sparing Halle’s house.”
“His, but not yours?”
He shrugged again. “My house is not much.”
“I see your friend has built a levee to turn the flow.”
Yes. Halle had rented some heavy-duty earth-moving equipment, back-hoe,  skip-loaders, whatever, and had men out digging and piling dirt up for a couple weeks, since the topographical maps pretty much showed where the lava was going to go. 
There was a wall of semi-packed dirt in front of his house, angled to the northwest, fourteen, fifteen feet high. Halle was hoping it would be enough of a barrier to turn the lava away from his house.
Of course, if it did, it would direct the flow right into Les’s front yard …
“I hope it works,” he said.
“Really? If it does, the lava will take your home, will it not?”
“Be my guess. But Halle brings joy to so many people. He deserves to live well, and he loves that house.”
The young woman smiled. “Without the instrument that you made him, would Halle’s music be as beautiful?”
“He can play a throwaway tourist uke and make it sound good, but I’d like to think it wouldn’t be quite as good as my ukulele.”
She nodded. “I must go. You said you have your things packed?”
“I do.”
“You can unpack them. And tell your rich friend he can stop piling dirt up. The lava is going to stop shortly.”
“You think so?”
She gave him a broad smile. “I do.” Then she flashed him a shaka sign and vanished, like a soap bubble popping in the hot sunshine.
Holy shit! There’s something you didn’t see every day …
Maybe he was having a flashback, or going crazy. People didn’t just disappear like that!
It took him a few minutes to get himself back together.
By the time Les had gotten down the little hill, the lava flow had slowed by half. 
By the time he got home, it had stopped.
It would make a great story, but, he decided, maybe it was better if he didn’t tell it.

-30-


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Eye See You

So, the latest round of eye-boogery ...

To make a long story short, I noticed my glasses were getting fuzzier on the right side, so I went to the optometrist to get a new prescription. 

Wow, that's changed a lot, said the doc. It was pretty stable, for like, five years. You should go get it checked. 

So I did. 

Ophthalmologist said, I don't see anything, but let's take some pictures ...

Oops. Little hole in the retina there, wasn't there before ...

A quick lesson in eye physiology and anatomy: The eyeball is filled with something like warm Jello, called vitreous humor. As we age, it tends to shrink, and when that happens it pulls away from the lining, which includes the retina. No problem, except that sometimes it doesn't want to let go, and you get a torn retina. Not as bad as a detached retina, but maybe needs to be repaired.

Easiest repair is laser surgery. They deaden the eye, hit the tear with with a laser, and spot-weld it back into place. Outpatient, surgery, take it easy for a few days, all fixed, another little blind spot, but beats the option.

So I want to visit the next level of specialist, one who does such things. Another round of tests and pictures, eyes dilated for two days, yadda-yadda, and cut to the chase, no surgery for now.

We are going to–pardon the word-play–keep an eye on it for a couple-three months, then recheck it. It can get better, worse, or stay the same, and depending on how that goes, probably need a new lens in the specs on that side.

Never a dull moment. 

Meanwhile, I am cleared to go bungee-jumping, skydiving, or trampolining. I should not allow myself to be hit repeatedly in the head, but that's not a good idea anyhow ...

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Even a Blind Pig ...


... finds an acorn now and then ...

The jam group to which I have belonged for a time, the Closet Musicians, meets once a week. Most of us are past retirement age or about to get there. The composition varies, but usually there are a couple of guitars, a ukulele or two, a washtub bass, a kazoo, harmonica, sometimes a banjo or mandolin, and a couple of non-instrument-playing singers.

We get together, sing songs, talk about our ailments, tell bad jokes, and generally have a fine time.

Musically-speaking, and being realistic, we aren't very good. Now and again, we manage a song whose harmony blends pretty well, and there are a couple that seem to do that consistently, but some of the songs are pretty ragged.

The most recent session, we tried a couple new tunes that were so-so. Then we went into our list and did some with which we were familiar, along with a couple that we'd played, but not recently. Old chestnuts, most of 'em, the kind of stuff that people roll their eyes and groan over when they come up,  but due to some unknown surge in the Force, or the full moon, or syzygy, whatever, they sounded good.

I mean, really good. We started on the same note, ended on the same note, the harmonies were spot-on, and frankly, we amazed ourselves.  

It's a running joke in the group, that if somebody misses the session, we always tell them how great we sounded because they were gone: "Oh, you should have been here! We were great!"

 However, this time at least half a dozen songs just flowed out like warm honey. On-key, tight, even. The a cappella finish to "Wagon Wheel" was perfect. The harmonies on "Hallelujah?" Nailed down. "Can't Help Falling in Love?" Nicely-done, if we do say so ourselves. "Mustang Sally." "Way Down in the Hole." "St. James Infirmary." "Kansas City." 
"The Lion Sleeps Tonight." We sounded like we knew what we were doing ...

It might never happen again, but having happened once? That means it is possible ...

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Classical Ukulele

Cory Fujimoto, doing a little Pachelbel and Bach ...




Accidental Lead


So, recent round at the Lehrer acoustic jam, the group started out small: A bass player, harmonica, conga drum (with a small high-hat), cello, and me, the lone ukeranger ...

No guitars. Usually there are more guitars than everything else put together, but not so this time. One did show up after a bit, but it started out with me having to be the rhythm guy and singer. I was gonna write the chords on the white board, then realized nobody needed those except me. 

We cranked it up, played four or five songs, no hurry, and eventually the guitarist and a flutist showed up. A pretty nice blend of instruments, and the guitar player could sing, so he led a few songs.

At one point, the guitarist started off on some old rock number and I missed hearing what key it was in. My ears, such that they are, aren't adept enough to immediately figure that out, so I cheated: I looked for a note and tried to play a melody, which sometimes will point me to the right chord progression.

Wasn't happening quickly enough, so I just found a pentatonic that worked okay and riffed, but quietly.

Those of you who don't know, five-note scales, i.e., pentatonics, which usually leave out the 4th and the 7th, sound pretty good behind pretty much any blues or rock song. Won't make you sound like B.B. King or Clapton if you just stick to that, but it won't sound terrible.

So I noodled along. The cello took a solo, then the flute, then I realized they were looking at me and I was already playing it, so I just upped the volume a bit and did a verse's worth of bars, then the harp-player did a solo before we went back to the guitarist.

Bam! Just like that, unintentional, my first ever solo in public.

Here's the funny part: I can't remember what the song was ...

Monday, September 22, 2014

Be Specific


Reverend White was preaching the Sunday sermon down at the 1st Baptist Church Once Removed, and he wound for the big finish: "All right, then! Who wants to go to Heaven!"

All the parishioners raised a hand—save one: Brother Brown.

Reverend White frowned. Maybe Brother Brown hadn't heard him.

"I said, 'Who wants to go to Heaven?!"

Same thing.

"Uh, Brother Brown?"

"Yessir?"

"Don't, uh, you want to go to Heaven when you die?"

"Oh, when I die, yessir."

"Then how come you didn't raise your hand?"

"Well, Preacher, I thought you was gettin' up a group to go now ..."

Here the example of somebody who wasn't being clear enough for his whole audience ...

There are time when you are writing when you might want to have your readers fill in a lot of stuff on their own. You give them hints, clues, and you ease off so they can do part of the work. Perfectly valid, as long as you do it on purpose.

There are times when you want to convey as sharp and specific an image as you can; you want them to see the picture you have in your mind.

General is easy. Specific requires more doing, because no matter how clear you think you are, if there is any wiggle room, a worm will find it and do just that. 

Getting precise in your language helps. Not just a "jacket," but a "distressed brown leather 1950's Langlitz motorcycle jacket with scuff marks on the right elbow, and three missing teeth at the top left side of the offset-right zipper." 

Not just a "gun," but a "stainless steel S&W K-frame .357 Magnum with a four-inch barrel and oversize fake-ivory grips, with the Sanskrit symbol for "Om" scrimshawed in black on the cylinder-latch side ...

I name you the Specific Ocean, hey ... ?

Helps if you avoid overusing words that don't really mean anything. Somebody says a building was large and modern. Really? What does that mean? As compared to what? Small and old? 

Uh huh. Clue for the crossword puzzle #27 down: See #39 down. And you go look, and it says See #27 down. 

Right. Up yours. 

How big is big? Convey some sense of it that a reader can relate to. If you say it was a huge warehouse, that doesn't do it. If you say it took three minutes to walk from the front to the back at a comfortable walking pace for a man in good shape, that's better, although you might then have to explain what "good shape" means.  

The size of a Costco store? Not bad. They aren't all the same size, but many of them are.

If you say you could park nineteen city buses end to end without touching the front and back walls with the bumpers? Better still ...

You are painting pictures with naught but words, and you have to engage not only the intellect, but the senses. Who, where, what, when, why, how; and the sight, sound, smell, feel, and taste. 

Get all that right, people won't be able to put your book down. Of course, that's the trick, isn't it ... ?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Good Neighbors - Another First World Problem


We belong to a homeowners association. When we bought this house, umpty-dump years ago, somewhere in the pile of papers we had to sign was an agreement to abide by the rules of the neighborhood. We signed it, not having a clue what that meant. Not that there was an option, it was mandatory.

The association, which hereafter I will refer to uncharitably, was responsible for maintaining the common grounds, the clubhouse and pool, and the standards of the neighborhood. A board of directors was elected by the residents, and said directors issue a newsletter, and tell us the business to which they attend. Included in the make-up of the board is an Architectural Committee and Director.

Pretty much anything past mowing your lawn, you need to get approval from the AC. Mostly this is pro forma, but if you want to take down a dead tree, put up a new fence, re-roof, or paint your house, do any additions, etc., you submit your request in writing and get approval before you start. (And if you don't mow your lawn often enough? You get nasty notices from the AC. Cut it, or we will, and we'll send you the bill. And if you refuse to pay this bill? They will slap a lien on your house.)

No boats, no campers, no political lawn signs.

All of which is to keep the value of our homes up, and I can understand that; however ...

I lost faith with the association when, a few years back, a developer wanted to do a commercial property on what was zoned residential land just around the corner from my house. The neighbors across the street would have the empty field backing up to their yards turned into whatever the developer could get going, and the idea of a McDonald's or a BK being built filled all of us with a certain wide-eyed horror. The traffic. The noise. The smells.

Well, on this end of the street it did. Such things would not impact the folks down at the other end of the street, which included the then-president of the association. So the board, in its wisdom, elected to support the developer.

We went to meetings of the land-use board in the city and testified, and to make a long ugly story short and ugly, we eventually lost to the developer. Won at the zoning board, lost to the Mayor's deciding vote. 

Fortunately, what got built was a drugstore and not a Mickey D's, but still, our association had sided with the developer and it rankled.

Couple of my neighbors across the street sold their houses and moved. On a good day, warmed up, I can probably reach the roof of the drugstore with a baseball thrown from the street in front of my house.

Once, when we put up a wooden fence to make a small courtyard out front, with the association's approval, the AD came round. We had elected to leave the fence natural wood. 

I think, he said, I'm going to make you paint this fence.

Oh, really? And are you going to make the other five folks on this street alone paint their natural wood fences, some of which have been up for ten years, as well? Because I'm sure as  up-yours-Jack not painting mine otherwise.

Nor did I, nor did my neighbors. There was no rule that said it had to be so, the AD was simply being high-handed.

Some folks should not be allowed even the smallest bit of power.

This was about the time I started calling the association board the Neighborhood Nazis ...

This is all background to tell you the most recent association blunder. 

To paint one's house, one must submit a swatch of the paint one wishes to use. The theme in this neighborhood is "Pacific Northwest Natural," whatever the hell that means. (Basically, this boils down to muted colors. Grays, greens, blues, even dark reds, but nothing primary, and nothing heavy to the pastel end.)

So down the street and a block over, a family picked out a color, sent the swatch in, and was approved. Painted their house.

But, oh, my, it was much more pastel a blue than it looked on the swatch! It stood out brightly. A nearby neighbor complained. It wouldn't do!

So the debate arose: This color isn't right. The homeowners in the sky-blue house are being cooperative, but really, they don't feel as if they should have to pay to repaint their house, and while I'm not a lawyer, I would think that if push came to trial, they would have a very good case. They followed the rules. It wasn't their screw-up. 

So what to do? Leave it? Pay to repaint it from the homeowners' dues? There are enough houses here that tacking ten bucks on our yearly dues would cover it. Let it stand until it needs to be repainted, fifteen or twenty years down the line? 

I will be fascinated to see how it all shakes out ...