Thirty-four (34)

The view from my back porch
The view from my back porch

September is one of my favorite months. I love the crispness of the air, the brightness of the sun, the blueness of the sky and the sense of change and possibility that rides on the adventurous breezes. It is back-to-school, new-pencil time. I often return to Tolkien, the progenitor of so many of my childhood daydreams, in September – fondly remembering that Bilbo, Frodo and I are separated in birthday by a scant day. (There was a time in my life where I attempted to figure out whether if, what with time zones and all, I could in any way be considered to be born on September 22nd. There is not, for the record.)

And here we are, on the first welcome day of autumn after a delicious and delightful summer, looking at my birthday. My thirty-fourth birthday.

My mother in law painted my dining room for my 34th birthday
My mother in law painted my dining room for my 34th birthday

Is there any birthday less consequential than your 34th? I’m no longer young, but not quite middle aged yet. I feel no biological clock ticking down because I’ve had my children. I still can’t be president. It’s not divisible by any exciting numbers. There are no (known) science fiction or fantasy references that make it significant (like 42). It’s just another birthday.

But this year, I find myself wildly and unreasonably excited by it. Look at that! I’m having a birthday! Isn’t that marvellous?! Maybe we should have cake! Although I still find myself melancholy on reflection of my lost little kitty, and although I have been somewhat tired and worn of late, my birthday is still (unexpectedly) exciting to me.

I reflect on why this might be. I come to the conclusion it’s because, for the first time in many years, there’s something I actually want for my birthday that I do not have and have been waiting to obtain for months. A new guitar. A grownup-size guitar. A guitar that says, “Yes, Brenda is really actually playing the guitar now.” A pretty guitar with a graceful body and mother-of-pearl inlay. (I hesitate to confess how much my heart was set on mother-of-pearl inlay.) A guitar with a darkly beautiful sound and an easy way of laying in my arms. I have sought, daydreamed and wanted, and for my birthday I have obtained my heart’s desire.

There are other things too, of course, that make my birthday delightful. There is the delight of a guilt-free chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and rather fewer than 34 candles. There is the delight of watching my sons learn the joy of giving. The New England Patriots are even obliging by playing an 8 pm game on my birthday (although one ardently hopes that this week’s performance is better than last’s – UGH! Eds note: QUADRUPLE UGH!).

Finally, this day initiates the fall for me – coming as it does so close to the equinox. Bring on the orange and brown palette. Let there be pumpkin stickers. May the fridge hold apple cider and the kitchen be fragrant with boiling apple butter. Let us open the windows during the day and close them during the night. Let me wake to the sound of the furnace turning on to heat the room for morning ablutions. Let there be birthdays and Halloweens and Cthulu games and apple picking and Mocksgiving and Thanksgiving and Advent and Christmas. I am ready.

For lo: I am 34. I am not young. I am not old. I am not even – quite yet – middle aged. I have learned how much there is to love of fall, and stand ready to lay down another layer of memory to build the beautiful patina of age.

A brief discourse on digital tuners

Between the cornetto and the guitar, I decided I really, really needed a digital tuner. Back when I was a good musician (high school) a digital tuner cost over $100, so I lusted after one but had to borrow the one from high school or tuned to the piano/oboe. ($100 is still plenty of money, but it was even more back then!) These two instruments I’m attempting to learn are hard to tune properly, and I’m playing by myself, and my piano is more than a quarter tone off when it’s been recently tuned. So I decided I was practicing enough to justify spending a hundred bucks on a digital tuner, twenty years after I first wanted one.

That was when I discovered that a digital tuner now costs around $10. 

The future is an amazing place.

By the way, after several long and arduous months, I have finally graduated to my first song on guitar. It is ‘Scarborough Fair’. This is a milestone, my friends! I have hope that in a year or two, I might be able to make it through at tempo, as soon as I learn how to do an “F” chord. (Not in my homework for this week – next week!)

Daydream believer

A while back, Grey begged to start guitar lessons. After lots of “blah blah blah” about commitment, fortitude, perseverance and a lot of other highly unpopular and multisyllabic attributes, I bought him a guitar and started guitar lessons and nightly practice sessions.

Yeah. That didn’t go well.

I wanted him to play for several months, knowing well that in music you don’t get a sense of accomplishment and fun until you’ve put in some significant grunt work without any real psychic kickbacks. You don’t sound good for a while, and you can’t really play songs for a while. It turns out this is even truer on guitar than, say, piano. Two months later we were having nightly bitter “discussions” about practicing (in which there was a lot of “how little effort can I put in and still get my parents off my back”), he wasn’t playing anything that he found fun, and his behavior in lessons was execrable. I probably should’ve called uncle, but I was all like Commitment! Perseverance! Fortitude! When what I was really teaching him was to hate it, while severely impinging our domestic tranquility.

It came to a head last week. For the second time in a row he refused to play during his lesson when his teacher asked him to play. Now, I’d already expended considerable parenting creativity on guitar. I created my first ever sticker chart. After one appalling lesson I stopped the lesson halfway through and dragged Grey out to a rock in the middle of the woods with night falling until he and I could see eye to eye about how we Treat Other People Especially Teachers. But this night I just didn’t have any shots left in my parenting pistol. I guess some times it’s good to know when to give up.

I’d been sitting in every lesson for the last several weeks (at his teachers request), and so in a fit of inspiration, I told Grey to have a seat in my chair, I sat in his chair, picked up the guitar, and resumed his lesson – asking all the questions I’d been sitting on because it was his lesson not mine and I was going to shut up and be the background already. (A hard thing for me to do.) So the teacher taught me four chords, answered some of my questions (Is the intonation different depending on where your finger is in the fret? How do you read guitar notation? Which string is which? What chords are these?) When I left, the tips of my fingers tingled for days. I practiced a few times.

This week, I went back (carting Grey). The admin and I simultaneously told each other this wasn’t working out, but I have two more lessons paid for… so I went in. And I learned how to tune the guitar (kind of) and two more chords. And you know what? I’m totally digging it.

One of the prices you pay for living the life you want to live is a paucity of daydreams. Almost every big change that could happen to me would be worse than what I have. I have found the love of my life. I have a great job. I live in a neat house with fantastic neighbors. I have just the right number of awesome kids. So daydreams about, oh, being a firespotter in the mountains, or becoming a professional musician or author, being *noticed* (somehow) and transformed into someone rich famous and fabulous… the kinds of things I dreamed about as a kid. Well, they’re all hollow, unsatisfying and ungrateful daydreams to me now. I don’t really want any of those things anymore (mostly. It would be cool to be an author). So I’m really happy with my life, but I miss the fun of daydreaming.

Guitar has given me some daydreams. I probably started off on the wrong parenting foot, daydreaming for my kids. This is natural, understandable and dangerous. These daydreams are how we end up with parents who try to make their children into people they’re not, and it can end unhappily. (Of course, the flip side is that this is the only way we get Olympic gymnasts and violinists who’ve been playing since they were three.) The person who should be daydreaming about what Grey will be and do is Grey. My daydreaming on his behalf was likely inaccurate. I was imagining a Paul Simon type guitar player. He’s imagining a, well, let’s just say the he’s currently *totally into* KISS 108, which they play at afterschool. He has opinions about Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez.*

Anyway, back to me. I’ve been having fun imagining becoming an adequate guitar player. I mean, I’m never going to be on stage playing Concierto Aranjuez. But maybe I could become accomplished enough to accompany myself in Kathy’s Song, or play the (pretty darn simple) accompaniments to most youth group songs. Maybe I could play guitar around the campfire while we’re camping. Or maybe in some late-night hangout, after the games have finished, I could be sitting on the couch picking an accompaniment to our conversation. I mean, trumpet is the most antisocial of instruments. If you’re playing it, you’re doing nothing else. But guitar eases itself into company and makes itself welcome. It’s not too late, and I am not too old.

It’s also been extremely refreshing to learn something so new. Yes, I have a musical background, but it’s an extremely different musical background. Mine is linear, melodic and strictly conforms to written music. Guitar is so not linear. The guitar teacher had no music at all in the lesson room. It is terribly exciting to me, at the entrance to my middle age, to be doing something I have not done before.

So who knows. Maybe I just have one more lesson and we put the guitar away and I opened my mind a little. Or maybe someday, well, who knows.

*And to all you parents of five year olds who are thinking I would never let my child listen to Lady Gaga!, JUST YOU WAIT. You will be driving in the car in some foreign state flipping through channels on the radio. Your child will pitch a fit because they want you to stop because they love that song. And then they will sing along to it, with most of the words correct. And you will never have heard this song before in your life. And then you will find yourself confronted with the choice to either ban all rock and roll as the music of the devil, or accept that your child prefers Pokerface to Prokofiev.

I was born with music playing in my ears

Little boy, little guitar
Little boy, little guitar

When I was about ten, my parents signed me up for piano lessons. The genesis of this decision is lost in memory to me. Did I beg and plead? I know I exhibited musical interest, but piano lessons require a piano. Pianos are expensive, and I know for sure we didn’t already have one. (We bought a player piano so that my father, who is not a musical genius, could also play pian.) My parents were far from wealthy, but somehow there it was. A piano. And there I was in lessons with Mr. Hunter, while his two young children listened in the next room.

I have an excellent memory, so I’m a little appalled at how little I recall of these lessons. They went on for years with two teachers. I remember that my mom combined the piano lessons with my brother’s weekly trips to Yelm for futile vision therapy. I remember the silver books and the arpeggios. I remember that I was terrible at site reading but could memorize pretty easily. I remember some recitals most vividly playing “Take 5” with Tyler in a duet. I don’t remember practicing particularly diligently. And I certainly don’t – can’t – remember being successful. After years of piano lessons, we were left to conclude that maybe I wasn’t so musical after all. Then I got a trumpet, got my pride in a huff and became one of the best high school trumpet players in the state — playing in a premier Youth Symphony. I briefly considered going to conservatory for college.

All this is to say: I love music, I care about music, I want my children to love and play music, and I know that sometimes you have to try a few instruments before you get to the right one.

Grey and Thane both show musical interest and some aptitude. They both sing nicely, and have at least partially inherited their parent’s tendency to sing often. Last year, we tried a piano lesson for Grey. It went ok. But he was dutiful instead of passionate. We didn’t do a second one. Then Grey started asking for drum lessons. Heaven help me, he wants to be a percussionist. My orchestra-snob instincts rebelled. I mean, do percussionists even use notation? Can they read music? I struck a bargain: become a competent guitar player (still a cool rock ‘n’ roll instrument) and I’ll consider your percussion request. He reminded me several times: how about guitar lessons, mom?

Finally, I found a school (right next to our library!) and took him to a free trial lesson. His teacher, shy with distracting earlobe extensions, emerged from the room half an hour later. “We don’t usually take kids this young. But Grey seems really passionate, and ready to work hard. He’ll need a half size guitar, but I think I can teach him.”

And so it is. We tracked down an adorable half-size guitar for him. He’s gone to two lessons so far. He’s supposed to spend 5 minutes at a time pressing down on the frets to build up finger strength so he can actually play. He talks about the “1-2-3-4” (clearly he’s being taught to count time). He daydreams about sounding like Simon and Garfunkel. He looks proud as punch with his guitar strapped to his tiny back.

A few years ago, on a cold night, we were camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The boys were scattered across the floor of the test, and Adam and I tried to catch some chilly sleep, knowing that Thane would wake us up at a brutal hour. In the campsite a few twigs away, friends were gathered around a fire. One of them, some anonymous voice, pulled out his guitar and sang. Despite our weariness, the cold, the knowledge of an early morning, Adam and I listened and loved every moment of it – this shadowed serenade.

My son may give up after a few months of guitar, with no mastery. He may rise to the level of mediocrity through years of practice, as I did with piano. He might find an enjoyable level of accomplishment – enough to break out his guitar around a campfire and make his attempting-to-sleep neighbors glad instead of grumpy. Or perhaps he will become a master – classical, jazz, rock. Perhaps he will forget that it is possible to have uncalloused fingers, and find it hard to imagine not knowing how to turn those strings to music. Whichever way he ends up, I wish him the joy and the love of it.

A boy and his guitar
A boy and his guitar