Posts Tagged ‘Practice’

Beckman’s Daughter

Monday, January 7th, 2019

Beckman's Daughter

Julian Beckman, thirty-nine, is known only as Beckman to everyone except his mother and daughter. Beckman’s mother Alta, who is eighty-three, calls him Jewel, and Beckman’s sixteen-year-old daughter Jasmy calls him Sweet Papa. Beckman lives with Alta and Jasmy in the house where he was born, a big two-story place on a half-acre at the west end of Mountain Home Idaho.

Alta is German and was stunned when she got pregnant at forty-three, having been told by doctors when she was a teenager in Germany, and again by doctors in America when she was in her thirties, that she would never be able to get pregnant.

Adam McKay was Beckman’s father. He was seventy-two and fifteen years a widower at the time of his fruitful tryst with Alta, his housekeeper, and he was just as surprised as she when they produced a child together because he and Mavis, his wife of forty years, had never been able to make a baby. Adam was a retired backhoe operator who spent forty-five years building roads in Idaho and Washington and Montana.

Beckman was four when Adam died and left his house, two pickup trucks, a gigantic turquoise Cadillac, a barely-used backhoe, and 150,000 dollars to Alta.

Alta was not fond of Adam. They barely spoke to each other during their six years together, and they never touched each other again after they learned Alta was pregnant, so Alta was more relieved than sad when Adam died. And four-year-old Julian, who believed Adam was his grandfather, was relieved, too, because Alta and Jewel were inseparable, so her relief was his.

Thirty years later, when Jasmy was twelve and had a school assignment to write about her grandparents, she asked Beckman what he remembered about Adam.

Beckman thought for a long moment and said, “His skin was gray and he was bald except for a little patch of white hair just above his left ear. His face was quite lopsided, his teeth were crooked and gray, he smoked a stinky pipe, smelled of whiskey, and his voice rumbled like distant thunder. He watched television from early morning until late at night and often slept through the night in his armchair in front of the television. When he was a young man he built roads, but as an old man, when I knew him, he just sat in his ratty old armchair waiting for your grandmother to serve him. I never heard him laugh, but once I saw him crying at a movie on television in which a man was standing at a grave, weeping.”

Gig Antonelli, forty-five, a beefy fellow with longish brown hair, a wearer of colorful Hawaiian shirts and gray sweatpants and broken-down moccasins, is the owner of Gig Music, a high-ceilinged store jammed with old and new guitars, amplifiers, two dilapidated sofas, and a wall of banjos and mandolins and fiddles.

Gig, who always sounds stoned even when he isn’t, is standing behind the cluttered counter trying to tell the man on the other side of the counter that the guitar he wants to buy costs five hundred dollars, not fifty; but the man is French and understands very little English.

“Uno momento,” says Gig, who sort of speaks Spanish, his wife Mexican. “Yo tengo un hombre que parlez-vous Francais. Stay right there.”

Gig hurries to the back of the store and knocks on the door of one of the two rooms where he and Beckman give guitar lessons.

“Entré,” says Beckman; and Gig opens the door and looks in.

Beckman, very tall and slim with short blond hair, has worked at Gig Music for seventeen years, ever since he came home from college. He is sitting on an armless chair facing twelve-year-old Cal Crosby, a chubby kid sitting cross-legged on the floor playing a progression of three easy chords on a two-thirds-sized Yamaha guitar, his black hair falling over his eyes.

“Sorry to interrupt,” says Gig, rolling his eyes at Cal sitting on the floor instead of in a chair, “but we’ve got a French hombre up front who thinks the black Ovation is fifty dollars and I can’t make him understand it’s five hundred. Can you talk to him?”

“Sure,” says Beckman, speaking quietly as he always does unless he’s talking to someone hard of hearing. “I’ll be right back Cal. Just keep playing those chords until they start to feel automatic.”

At the counter, Beckman speaks fluent French to the man who wants the Ovation, the sale is made, and the man asks Beckman where he learned to speak such excellent French.

“My mother,” Beckman explains, “grew up in Strasbourg speaking French and German and she taught me both when I was growing up. And we still speak French and German at home, along with English.”

Beckman returns to the lesson room and finds Cal texting someone on his smart phone. So Beckman picks up Cal’s guitar and plays a sweet run of chords, a jazzy samba, and as he plays he thinks of Jasmy’s mother Krystel who last visited from Cameroon when Jasmy was thirteen, how Krystel and her husband Patrice were baffled by Beckman not allowing Jasmy to have a smart phone.

Cal looks up from his phone and listens to Beckman playing the samba, and when Beckman finishes, Cal says, “Will you teach me how to play that?”

“I will try,” says Beckman, handing Cal the guitar. “If you will try to practice for an hour every day.”

“An hour?” says Cal, giving Beckman a horrified look. “Every day?”

“Yeah,” says Beckman, nodding. “In my experience, the only way to get really good at anything is to practice our butts off.”

Jasmy, who seems much older than sixteen, is tall and graceful, her skin dark brown, her raven black hair long and curly, her lovely face made of equal parts Krystel and Beckman. And because Jasmy practices her violin for two hours every evening and often cooks supper with her father and grandmother, and because her friends let her use their phones at school and she’s allowed to use her father’s computer in the evening when she’s done with her homework, she doesn’t mind not having a smart phone.

Her greater concerns at the moment are that she doesn’t want to leave Mountain Home to go to college, even to attend nearby Boise State, the young man she’s been dating is threatening to break up with her if she won’t have sex with him, but she wants to wait until she’s eighteen, her friends want her to smoke marijuana with them, but she promised her father she would wait until she’s older, and she is afraid her breasts might grow too large and interfere with her volleyball playing.

Jasmy is six-feet-tall and may yet grow another inch or two. She is the superstar of the Mountain Home High varsity volleyball squad, and several colleges have offered her full scholarships to play volleyball for them. She is also a superb violinist, and her violin teacher hopes she will attend either Julliard or the Eastman School of Music, and the sooner the better.

Beckman is six-foot-five and was playing on the Boise State basketball team when he met Krystel at the beginning of his senior year. Krystel, who is from Cameroon and six-foot-two, was a junior, new to Boise State, and playing on the women’s basketball team. She spoke little English and was instantly enamored of Beckman, who not only spoke French, but was good-looking and taller than she and gentle and kind and took her on marvelous hikes in the mountains.

They were both virgins when they became lovers, and when Krystel discovered she was pregnant after five months of intimacy with Beckman, she went home to Cameroon, gave birth to Jasmy, and four months later returned with her baby to Idaho to complete her engineering degree and play for another year on the Boise State basketball team.

Her first day back, Krystel brought baby Jasmy to Beckman’s house in Mountain Home and explained to Beckman and Alta, “After I get my engineering degree, I’m going to marry a man named Patrice in Cameroon and we are going to have two children. I will keep Jasmy if you don’t want her, but I hope you will take her so I can finish my studies here and start my new life in Cameroon without such a difficult complication.”

Beckman, who had just graduated from Boise State with a degree in Anthropology, was instantly and ferociously in love with Jasmy, as was Alta, so they gladly agreed to take the beautiful baby girl. Krystel moved in with them for two months before her classes resumed, and while Jasmy grew attached to Beckman and Alta, Krystel breastfed her less and less until quite seamlessly Alta became Mama and Beckman became Papa.

When Jasmy was three-years-old, she became enamored of the word sweet and attached the adjective to Papa.

When Beckman was four-years-old, shortly after Alta inherited what to her was a vast fortune from Adam, Alta sold the trucks and backhoe and Cadillac, locked up the house, took a train from Boise to Portland, and flew with four-year-old Jewel to Germany to see if she wanted to live in Strasbourg again rather than stay in America. But after two weeks in her mother’s house, Alta became severely depressed and Jewel became depressed with her, so they flew back to Portland where Alta bought a brand new Volkswagen van and drove them home to Mountain Home.

The first thing Alta did upon their return was get rid of the television. Then she tore up the old carpeting in every room of the house to reveal the beautiful hardwood floors, and she replaced every stick of furniture with fine new furniture. She then spent a year overseeing extensive repairs on the house, including a complete kitchen remodel and repainting the house inside and out.

When Beckman was five and started kindergarten, Alta took a job as a breakfast and lunch waitress at the Manhattan Cafe, a job she kept for eighteen years until she was sixty-seven and baby Jasmy joined the family.

Alta liked being home when Jewel came home from school, and she spent her afternoons gardening and cooking and being available to her son if he needed help with anything or wanted to go anywhere. Beckman loved gardening and cooking with Alta, and in the evenings they would sit by the fire reading aloud to each other in German or French or English; and when Alta was sewing or knitting, Beckman practiced his guitar; and they never again had a television.

A gregarious person, Alta made many friends while working at the café, and she regularly invited two or three of her friends to join her and her son for supper. She had a handful of men friends, and there were men who courted her until she was in her seventies, but she was largely indifferent to romance and preferred the company of women and Jewel.

One night when Jasmy was four and Beckman was reading her a bedtime story, she interrupted him to ask in German why everyone besides Alta called him Beckman and not Julian or Jewel.

“Julian is a nice name,” she said in English. And then she added in French, “A beautiful name.”

“Well,” said Beckman, closing the book and replying in English, “it all began in First Grade on my first day at West Elementary School. Our teacher, Mrs. Bushnell, called roll and…”

“What is called roll?” asked Jasmy, who was not yet in kindergarten.

“The roll is a list of all the kids in the class. The teacher calls out the names in alphabetical order, and when your name is called, you say Present, which means ‘I’m here.’ The teacher does this to make sure everyone has gotten to school safely.”

“What is alkabektical odor?” asked Jasmy, her frown deepening.

“Al-pha-beti-cal or-der,” said Beckman, slowly pronouncing the two words. “That’s when you read last names that start with the letter A first, and then you read the last names that start with the letter B, and so forth all the way through the alphabet to the last names starting with the letter Z. That’s alphabetical order. In the order of the alphabet.” He gave her a wide-eyed smile. “You know your alphabet, don’t you?”

“Of course,” said Jasmy, nodding seriously.

She then recited the English alphabet, the French alphabet, and the German alphabet.

“Exactly,” said Beckman, applauding his daughter for her excellent recital. “You just said the letters in alphabetical order, and when the teacher called my name, Julian Beckman, one of the other boys in the class, I think it was Jay Worsley, though it might have been Johnny Wickett, loudly repeated my last name—Beckman—as if he thought there was something remarkable about the name, and all the children in the class laughed.”

“Why did they laugh?” asked Jasmy, outraged that anyone would laugh at someone else’s name. “Beckman is your last name. And Beckman is my last name, too. But nobody calls me Beckman. They only call you Beckman.”

“I know,” said Beckman, thoughtfully rubbing his chin. “So listen to what happened next. At recess, when I went out on the playground—recess is when all the kids go outside and swing on swings or kick balls or run around shouting—I was playing catch with Colin Vogel who was my best friend at the time, when a boy called to me, ‘Hey Beckman,’ and I looked at him and said, ‘Yes?’ and for some reason this made a whole bunch of kids laugh. So I laughed, too, and Colin asked me, ‘Do you like being called Beckman instead of Julian?’ And I said, ‘Beckman is fine with me if that’s what people want to call me,’ and from that day on, everyone called me Beckman, and they still do, everyone except you and Grandma.” He rubbed his chin again and frowned up at the ceiling as if trying to remember something. “What’s the name you like to call me? I forgot.”

“No you didn’t forget,” said Jasmy, giving him a playfully annoyed look. “You know I call you Sweet Papa.”

Many people who know Beckman wonder why such a pleasant person doesn’t have a girlfriend or a wife and never has, not since his love affair with Krystel. Several women over the last sixteen years have tried to win Beckman’s heart, but he remains resolutely single. The town cynics suggest Beckman is married to his mother, but this is not true, for the closest thing to a relationship Beckman has had since his love affair with Krystel resulted from Alta playing matchmaker.

The woman in question, an attractive German tourist named Elise, was sitting on a bench in Railroad Park in downtown Mountain Home in June of the year Beckman turned thirty. Alta and Jasmy were walking their two dogs, Schultzee, a Dachshund, and Canine, a gray shorthaired mongrel (both deceased now) when Canine took an interest in Elise. She spoke lovingly to the dog in German, Alta responded in German, and Elise came to stay with the Beckmans for the next two months.

Elise fell madly in love with Beckman, and he with her, but when Beckman didn’t pursue things with Elise beyond lovemaking, she traveled on.

The following winter, when Alta had a terrible flu and was feeling particularly mortal, she asked her son, “I wonder why you didn’t want to marry Elise. She was such a gem and you seemed so well-matched.”

To which Beckman replied, “She is a gem, Mama. But I was no match for her. She loves to travel, loves big cities, loves expensive restaurants, reads the latest bestsellers, measures herself against the latest fashion magazines, and measures her life against the snootiest of cultural arbiters, none of which I care about.”

“Do you think you will ever find someone to love and marry?” asked Alta, who very much wanted her son to marry a good woman.

“You know, Mama,” said Beckman, placing his cool hand on Alta’s hot forehead, “I don’t think much about that sort of thing. You taught me to live in the present, to be generous and kind and helpful, and not to dwell on the past or the future. And for the most part, that’s how I live. If love finds me, so be it, but I’m not going looking.”

“When did I teach you that?” asked Alta, soothed by Beckman’s touch. “I don’t remember.”

“You taught me every day,” said Beckman, speaking in his quiet way. “You still do. You show me by how you live, how you invite your friends for supper, how you work so happily in the garden, how you sing when you cook, how you love Jasmy, how you love our dogs and cats and chickens, and how you love me.”

Beckman and Jasmy play guitar and violin together, and sometimes they sing together, too. The name of their group is Jasmy & Beckman. They perform one Sunday morning a month as part of the service at the Unitarian Church and as background music for Visiting Time after the service. They also play for an hour every Saturday morning from April through October at the Mountain Home Farmers Market, and for an hour every Saturday afternoon, if they’re not playing a wedding, at Crazy’s, a coffee house and comic book store two doors down from Gig Music.

But mostly they play together at dozens of weddings throughout the year in and around Mountain Home and Boise, for which they make a hundred and fifty dollars per hour for the two of them. They have a two-hour minimum for weddings, and they charge for travel time if the wedding is more than a half-hour away from Mountain Home.

They usually play for thirty minutes before the wedding ceremonies while the guests assemble, they frequently play the processionals and recessionals, and they play post-wedding receptions. Thus during the peak months of the wedding season, spring through fall, they make nearly as much money from weddings as Beckman makes working full-time at Gig Music buying and selling guitars and giving lessons.

Beckman is a fine guitarist, his chord making pleasing and sophisticated, and he can play any kind of music: classical, jazz, hip-hop, rock, folk, reggae, and the very latest pop hits. Jasmy, however, is the overt star of the duo, her tone exquisite, her improvised solos exciting and soulful. She started playing the violin when she was six, took weekly lessons from a woman in Mountain Home until she was nine, and since then has taken lessons from the principal violinist of the Boise Philharmonic.

On a glorious Sunday afternoon in May, Beckman and Jasmy, dressed in the black clothes they always wear for weddings—Beckman in suit and tie, Jasmy in a long skirt and elegant black blouse, her hair in a ponytail—are playing Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser” at a reception in a banquet hall in a hotel in Boise following a big wedding in a park on the Boise River. They are sitting on a small stage in one corner of the hall, having a hard time hearing each other over the din of two hundred raucous wedding guests. This is their last tune of the gig, and they are both eager to be heading home.

When Jasmy finishes a long solo and she and Beckman reiterate the opening phrases of the tune, a striking woman with long brown hair and olive skin emerges from the melee with an expensive camera and takes several pictures of Beckman and Jasmy playing; and when they finish, the woman introduces herself.

“I’m Portia Cruzero, the wedding photographer,” she says, her accent thickly Spanish. “I’m just new in Boise from Los Angeles, and before I was there I live in Barcelona, and I hope I can see you again at many more weddings. If you would like some photographs of you for your web site or concert posters, I hope you will call me.” She hands Jasmy her business card. “You have a card for me?”

“We’ve run out,” says Jasmy, enchanted by Portia. “But you can reach us through Meg, the wedding planner.”

“I will take pictures of you for no charge,” says Portia, beaming at Beckman and Jasmy. “For my portfolio and my web site. I would like to pose you in the mountains by granite. You know? I think it would be so dramatic.”

“Wasn’t Portia wonderful?” says Jasmy, as they drive home from Boise. “I just love her.”

“Yeah, I liked her,” says Beckman, smiling at his daughter. “Shall we take her up on her offer? To take pictures of us?”

“Definitely,” says Jasmy, nodding emphatically. “We could frame one and give it to Grandma for her birthday.”

“So… do you want to call her or should I?” asks Beckman, coloring slightly as he thinks of the beautiful Spaniard. “Maybe you should. You’re so much better at that sort of thing than I am.”

“Are you blushing Sweet Papa?” asks Jasmy, arching an eyebrow.

“Am I?” says Beckman, coloring a bit more. “She’s probably married. Don’t you think?”

“I don’t think so,” says Jasmy, never having seen her father so enamored of anyone. “But I think you’d better call her right away. She just moved here and I’m sure lots of men are already chasing her.”

“Not if she’s married,” says Beckman, shrugging. “How could she not be? She’s lovely and smart and charming and… she must be married.”

“Why?” asks Jasmy, enjoying her father’s disquiet. “You’re lovely and smart and charming, and you’re not married.”

“Oh but I’m a strange cat,” he says, frowning at the road ahead. “She’s not strange at all. She’s… wonderful.”

At school the next day, Jasmy borrows her friend Celia’s phone and calls Portia, and they have a long conversation full of laughter. Portia speaks French better than she speaks English, so she and Jasmy blab in French, and at the end of the conversation Jasmy invites Portia to come for supper on Friday, and Portia accepts the invitation.

When Beckman gets home from work and is sitting at the kitchen counter having a beer and watching Jasmy and Alta make supper, Jasmy says casually, “Oh… I called Portia today.”

“Did you?” says Beckman, taking a long swig of his beer.

“She’s coming for supper on Friday,” says Jasmy, making a goofy face at her father. “She’s bringing bread and wine.”

This Friday?” says Beckman, startled by the news. “Is she… is she bringing her husband?”

“She doesn’t have a husband,” says Jasmy, shaking her head. “But she does have a daughter. Cynthia, who is nine and loves spaghetti, so that’s what we’re having.”

“With a big salad,” says Alta, chopping an onion.

Beckman takes a deep breath and says, “Shall I ask her to marry me when she gets here, or should I wait until after supper?”

Alta and Jasmy exchange looks and Alta says, “Why wait?”

“I was joking,” says Beckman, blushing profoundly.

To which Jasmy and Alta say nothing as they carry on making supper.

So Beckman goes out into the backyard with his beer and sits at the picnic table on the edge of the vegetable garden where he is joined by the large mutt Eileen and the little mutt Colossus, and he thinks about Portia and how the moment he saw her, he felt he knew her, that they had been best friends long ago and thought they would never see each other again, not because they stopped loving each other, but because they lost sight of each other in the hubbub of life.

Now Beckman thinks of Krystel, Jasmy’s mother, and he admits to himself, really for the first time in a conscious way, that he has remained loyal to her for seventeen years, though Krystel and Patrice have been married for fifteen years and have two children.

“But I wasn’t really being loyal to her,” he says, speaking quietly to the dogs who are both looking at him. “I was punishing myself for failing as a mate.”

Having said this, he further realizes that his experience of conceiving a child with the first woman he slept with made subsequent sexual entanglements seem far more dangerous to him than they might otherwise have seemed had his first sexual experience not produced a child the mother didn’t want.

Now he hears the back door open, a moment passes, and Alta sits beside him with a second beer for him and a beer for herself.

“I’m happy you met someone you like, Jewel.” She bumps her shoulder against his. “I know you were joking about asking her to marry you, but sometimes joking tells us secrets we need to hear out loud.”

“I think I’ve been afraid to be in another relationship,” says Beckman, hearing how true that sounds. “But I don’t want to be afraid anymore.”

“Good,” says Alta, nodding. “I never told you, but when I was twenty-five, I met a man, Friedrich, and we fell in love, and for two years we were inseparable and very happy. But when he asked me to marry him, I told him I could not have children and he was devastated and stopped seeing me. I was so sad, so depressed, I wanted to kill myself. But my mother encouraged me to come to America and see if I could be happy here. And you know the rest.”

“Tell me again,” says Beckman, clinking her bottle with his. “I like hearing how you came to Mountain Home.”

“Well,” she says, gazing at the setting sun, “first I went to my cousin in Chicago and lived there for some years and had some nice boyfriends, but I always broke up with them when I thought they were going to ask me to marry them. But then I wanted to get married, so I went to a clinic and they did lots of tests, and once again they told me I would never be able to get pregnant. And though hearing this didn’t make me want to kill myself, it did make me want to leave Chicago, so when my girlfriend said she was moving to Boise to work in a hotel, I asked if I could come with her. And when I saw the mountains and the lakes and the forests, I was so happy I decided to stay. I was a maid in the hotel where my friend worked for seven years, and then one day while I was cleaning a room, I tripped over a vacuum cleaner and hurt my back so badly I could hardly move for two months. The pain was the worst I have ever known. When I finally got better, I decided to look for an easier job, and that’s when I answered the ad for a housekeeper and came to Mountain Home and met your father.”

“Lucky for me,” says Beckman, giving her a gentle squeeze.

“Lucky for you I tripped over that vacuum cleaner,” says Alta, sighing as the sun vanishes beneath the horizon, “because that’s when something shifted inside me and I was able to make you.”

On Friday afternoon of the day Portia and her daughter Cynthia are coming for supper, Beckman is standing at the epicenter of Gig Music prying open a wooden crate containing four Epiphone guitars, when Gig says, “I’m thinking of selling the business, Beckman. You want to buy me out?”

Beckman sets down his hammer and pry bar. “How seriously are you thinking about this?”

“Mucho seriously,” says Gig, nodding. “I would have told you sooner, but this other opportunity just came up and I have to act on it pronto or it won’t happen.”

“May I ask what the other opportunity is?” asks Beckman, feeling a little wobbly—he’s worked at Gig Music for nearly half his life.

“A big music store in Tacoma,” says Gig, rubbing his eyes. “Five times bigger than this place. Huge inventory. Not just guitars. Everything. Been there fifty years. Super duper web sales. ”

“The fast lane,” says Beckman, who prefers the pace in a guitar shop in Mountain Home. “How much are you asking for the business?”

“Quarter mil,” says Gig, nodding hopefully. “But if you can come up with two hundred thousand, it’s yours.”

“There’s only about fifty thousand dollars of inventory in the store,” says Beckman, frowning at Gig. “Are you selling the building, too?”

“Building, inventory, name, reputation, everything,” says Gig, scrunching up his cheeks to quell his tears. “Selling my house and my duplex, too. Carmelita wants to get out of here. Her sister lives in Tacoma. Things have not been good at home lately, just between you and me, and I’m trying to save my marriage and make some serious money for a change. I can’t lose her, Beckman. It would kill me if she left me. So if you can pay cash, I’ll go down to one-seventy-five, but that’s rock bottom.”

“Can I think about it for a few days?” asks Beckman, looking around the chaotic store and thinking the first thing I’d do if I owned this place is get rid of those two hideous old sofas and replace them with sturdy chairs and one small attractive sofa.

“Monday at the latest, mi amigo,” says Gig, smiling sadly at Beckman. “But mañana would be ideal.”

Riding his bicycle home after work, Beckman imagines various scenarios without Gig Music in his life, and he keeps seeing himself converting the garage into a suitable place for giving lessons, which vision morphs into enlarging the garage and creating a recording studio.

“Though I do like getting away from the house,” he says, turning onto the quiet street where he lives. “And I like buying and selling guitars. I really do.”

As he walks his bike up his driveway, Colossus and Eileen come to greet him, and as he puts his bicycle in the garage, he has a grandiose fantasy of buying Gig Music and converting the garage into a recording studio—the audacity of his imagination making him laugh.

Only when Beckman enters the kitchen and finds Alta and Jasmy cooking up a storm does he remembers that Portia and her daughter Cynthia will be arriving any minute now; and he gives silent thanks to Gig for offering to sell him Gig Music and thus quelling the worrisome thoughts that have besieged him ever since Jasmy told him that Portia and Cynthia were coming for supper.

Jasmy is wearing a beautiful dress Alta made for her, yellow cotton painted with big red roses; and Alta, who rarely wears anything other than trousers and a sweater over a shirt, is wearing a lovely blue dress she last wore when Beckman graduated from college seventeen years ago.

“Does this mean I am to wear a dress, too?” asks Beckman, arching an eyebrow.

Alta and Jasmy ignore his jest and Alta says, “Go take a shower. They’ll be here soon.”

“I’ve laid out some clothes for you,” says Jasmy, stirring the soup. “Your teal dress shirt and black corduroy pants and your purple leather belt. You don’t have to wear them, but I hope you will.”

“I will,” says Beckman, clearing his throat, “but I want to say two things to both of you before I bathe and embark on my dressing ceremony.”

“Yes?” says Jasmy, gazing expectantly at her father.

“We’re listening,” says Alta, pausing in the act of opening a bottle of wine.

“I would caution you to temper your expectations vis-à-vis Beckman and Portia becoming an item.” He pauses portentously. “After all, we only spoke to her for five minutes and…”

“Fifteen,” says Jasmy, quietly correcting him. “And?”

“You both look gorgeous,” says Beckman, deciding not to tell them about the Gig Music situation until Portia and Cynthia have come and gone. “And I love you.”

“That’s three things,” says Jasmy, her dimples eloquent.

After supper, Beckman and Jasmy and Alta and Portia and Cynthia retire to the living room, and before any of them sit down, the adorable nine-year-old Cynthia whispers something to Portia, and Portia, who did not wear a dress, but looks fabulous in black jeans and a burgundy tunic, smiles at everyone and says, “I told her about your music and she wants to know if you would play for us.”

“We thought you’d never ask,” says Beckman, taking his guitar from its stand by the piano. “Do you have a favorite song, Cynthia?”

“Thank you next,” she says, nodding hopefully.

“You’re welcome next,” says Beckman, winking at her.

“No, Sweet Papa,” says Jasmy, getting her violin out of its case. “That’s the name of a song. Just get a nice groove going with a couple closely related augmented seventh chords and I’ll play the melody. It’s five or six notes repeated over and over again. And that’s the song.”

“Ah,” says Beckman, sitting down on the one armless chair in the living room and playing a lush jazzy sounding chord. “Who wrote this song?”

“Ariana Grande,” says Cynthia, nodding. “She’s my favorite singer.”

“Do you like her, too?” asks Beckman, looking at Portia and wondering if she really likes him or just seems to like me because she’s so incredibly charming.

“She’s not my favorite,” says Portia, looking at Beckman in a way that means she really likes him. “But I’m forty, so I think maybe I’m a little too old for Ariana.”

Jasmy plays an E on the piano, and she and Beckman tune together.

“Mama loves The Beatles and jazz and Spanish music,” says Cynthia, sitting on the sofa beside Alta. “But I love Ariana.”

“Everyone likes different kinds of music,” says Alta, smiling at Cynthia. “I like The Beatles, too, but when I was young I was crazy about Charles Aznavour. Have you ever heard of him, Cynthia?”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I mostly listen to Ariana, but I like Justin Bieber, too.”

Beckman plays the lush jazzy chord again and Jasmy says, “More minor and not so complex.”

Beckman obliges, Jasmy nods, Beckman finds a second chord kin to the first, and Jasmy says, “Now back and forth in a kind of Girl-From-Ipanema groove.”

He finds the groove and Jasmy plays the brief plaintive melody over and over again; and Cynthia gets up and does a little dance while whisper-singing the words of the song.

At high noon on a Thursday, seven days after Portia and Cynthia came for supper, Beckman is standing behind the counter at Gig Music stringing a guitar, the building and the business now belonging to him, the decrepit sofas gone, but nothing else yet changed.

The bell above the front door jingles and Beckman looks up, surprised to see Portia entering the store.

She crosses the room to him and smiles flirtatiously. “Did you forget we were going to lunch today?”

“I didn’t so much forget,” he says, gazing in wonder at her, “as cease to believe you would come.”

“Oh Julian,” she says, looking into his eyes. “I barely slept waiting for this moment.”

       fin

Seymour

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

Cat and jamming

The Piano Lesson photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2015)

“If you play an instrument or sing, you will no doubt agree that life’s experiences influence the way you practice. But has it ever occurred to you that the opposite may also be true: that the skills gained from practicing—namely, the refinement and control of your emotions, your thoughts, and your physical responses—can influence your life?” Seymour Bernstein

Last night Marcia and I watched Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary about the pianist and piano teacher Seymour Bernstein, who was eighty-five at the time the film was made and is eighty-eight today. The film, directed by Ethan Hawke, the actor, is certainly about classical music and pianos and playing the piano, but the movie is also a fascinating and ever-surprising portrait of an extremely thoughtful person with an extraordinary talent for teaching.

The previews for the film made me worry that Ethan Hawke would be too much in the film, but his presence is minimal. Most of the film brings us into intimate closeness with Seymour, who is delightfully erudite and eccentric. I felt we were having a visit with a favorite uncle, and whether I agreed with everything he said or not, it was big fun hanging out with him.

A most unlikely veteran of the Korean War—and there is a great segment of the film devoted to his military experience in Korea—Seymour grew up in an entirely non-musical family, but began playing the piano when he was five, having begged his parents to buy a piano. His disapproving father used to say, “I have three daughters and a pianist,” but Seymour was born indivisible from music and so was not deterred by his foolish father.

At one point in the movie, Seymour is in the piano rental room downstairs in the Steinway building in Manhattan, working with a brilliant young pianist on technique, and the young pianist says, and I paraphrase, “Everything in my life is about music.” And we see Seymour responding to the young man’s pronouncement with a look that says, “Yes. You are a younger version of me.”

Several scenes in the film take place in this Steinway rental room—Seymour looking for a grand piano to use for the recital Ethan Hawke has scheduled for the denouement of the film. As a piano player, these scenes made my mouth water and re-ignited my lifelong desire to have a super duper grand piano—not that there’s anything wrong with my trusty upright. But when one hears those bass notes played on a superlative grand piano, and one’s entire body begins to hum along, well…

Seymour goes from grand piano to grand piano, looking for one that sounds good to him even when played softly. He plays a few chords on one piano and crows, “Horror of horrors!” and then dashes away to try one he declares “not bad”, until at last he finds a piano he proclaims the finest he has ever played, and this from a man who has undoubtedly played hundreds of the finest pianos in the world.

My favorite scenes in the movie are when we get to watch Seymour giving private lessons and master classes, all of his students accomplished pianists. Again and again, we hear these pianists play parts of pieces that sound wonderful, and then we watch Seymour adroitly help them noticeably improve their playing of the part, either by explaining the music to them in a way they have not considered, by demonstrating what he wants them to do by playing for them, or by physically taking hold of them and altering their postures as they play. And everything he does and says is freighted with love for the music and for the musicians. Inspiring!

Hawke decided to film a number of conversations Seymour has with a variety of people: two pianists, a British guy claiming to be a mystic, and a man in his fifties who has been Seymour’s student since he was five-years-old. The self-proclaimed mystic struck me as entirely superfluous to the film, and I had the feeling Seymour thought so, too. The two pianists are useful echoes to some of Seymour’s ideas about practicing and self-discipline, and his middle-aged student poses a question that made me want to smack the guy, but Seymour handles the question with equanimity.

The guy, peeved that Seymour gave up performing when he was fifty, says (and I paraphrase), “Don’t you think someone with your extraordinary talent has an obligation to overcome his aversion to performing in order to give your gift to the world?”

Seymour’s answer is, “I poured my gift into you.”

And really a large point of the movie, and apparently the main reason Ethan Hawke wanted to make this film, is that Seymour is indivisible from his art, and this indivisibility is what he models for his students. Seymour’s bliss, if you will, springs from helping others become the best musicians they can be, regardless of their level of talent or whether they will ever perform for anyone other than themselves.

In his youth, Seymour did concert tours and wowed the critics, but none of that for him compares to the joy he feels in exploring music on his own terms, including composing, and helping others overcome their obstacles to playing better.

At one point, Hawke is shown trying to elucidate why he feels so conflicted about himself as an artist and a person. He says his best work as an actor is often not successful, and his largest successes, in terms of money, are his worst work. Seymour, who has lived in the same little one-room apartment for sixty years, suggests by everything he does and says that the solution to Hawke’s problem is to stop making crappy movies and make good movies instead. In making Seymour: An Introduction, Hawke has certainly taken Seymour’s advice.

It may also be, that like Seymour, Ethan will eventually discover his greatest gift when he ceases to take roles to make big money and gives his all to the art of acting, perhaps as a teacher.

Practice(ing)

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2012)

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” Sylvia Plath

Marcia and I were walking on Big River Beach yesterday, the wet sand firm underfoot—Big River swollen and muddy from the recent deluge, a light rain falling.

As we reveled in the windy wet, free from our various indoor practices, our conversation ran from gossip to silence to politics to silence to memoir to silence to what we might have for supper. And at some point Marcia asked me about a speaking engagement I’ve accepted, a keynote address at a writers’ conference, the dreaded topic—The Creative Process—chosen for me by the conference planners. I say dreaded because I think most of what I’ve ever read about the so-called creative process is hogwash, and I fear that anything I might add to the dreaded subject would be hogwash, too.

Long ago I worked in a day care center overseeing a mob of little kids. The day care center was located ten minutes from Stanford University and we were forever being visited by earnest graduate students writing theses about educational techniques, educational philosophies, educational processes, and God knows what else pertaining to mobs of little kids. Having no degree of any kind, let alone a degree in Small Child Management, I found it highly amusing to be the frequent recipient of attention from these humorless academics, some of whom, I’ll wager, went on to author textbooks for aspiring nursery school teachers, kindergarten teachers, and other Small Child Management educators. Could it be that information gathered from interviews with me conducted by these earnest humorless people helped shape curricula for early childhood education in America? I hope so, but I doubt it.

One day as I was supervising my mob of kiddies in our outdoor playground, a woman named Stella, a doctoral candidate at Stanford, stood beside me, clipboard in hand, asking questions about my supervisory process, a process I had theretofore never tried to elucidate to anyone.

Stella: I note at this time that all the children seem to be safely and happily occupied. I have recorded a current population distribution of one group of five children, two groups of three, four dyads, and three solitary individuals. Would you say this is a typical distribution of the total?

Todd: Um…well, certainly not atypical.

Stella: Would you characterize these as established groups or new and/or developing configurations?

Todd: The configurations are ever changing, though girls tend to hang out with girls, and boys with boys, especially among four and five-year olds. Two and three-year olds tend to be more gender polyrhythmic, if you know what I mean.

Stella: (makes a note) We’ll come back to gender aggregates, but for now I’m curious to know what specific actions you took to precipitate this particular distribution of individuals and groups, and if you employed any specific techniques for settling the children into these successful play actions?

Todd: Are you serious?

Stella: Yes. I have noted zero incidents of crying, fighting, or moping in the entire population for over fifteen minutes now, which defines these play actions and this particular population distribution as successful.

Todd: Could you repeat the question?

Stella: (reading) What techniques did you employ for settling the children into these successful play actions?

Todd: Let me think about that for a minute. (shouting across the playground at a five-year-old boy about to destroy a sand castle just completed by a four-year-old girl) Don’t do it, Lance.

Stella: Wow. (flips to a new page) Would you characterize that as a tone-based warning or a content-based warning?

Todd: Both. And now if you’ll excuse me, Megan is about to slug Bianca and I would like to intervene before their play action becomes highly unsuccessful.

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” Yogi Berra

I want to be helpful to people who aspire to write, so I will try to come up with an inspiring keynote address—because inspiration can sometimes get the ball rolling—though in truth there is no “the creative process.” Each of us has to roll our own ball our own way, and that’s all there is to it: rolling your own creative ball. I use rolling to mean doing, acting, working—everything else is just talking about rolling, which is not the same as rolling, believe you me.

“It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.” W.H. Auden

Thirteen years ago I published The Writer’s Path, a book of my original writing exercises, and before the silly publisher took the book out-of-print, The Writer’s Path sold ten thousand copies with never a penny spent to promote that most helpful tome. Excellent used copies of The Writer’s Path can be found on the interweb for mere pennies plus the dreaded shipping charge.

I designed each exercise in the book to be a non-analytical way to practice a particular aspect of the writing process (not to be confused with the creative process.) For instance, many writers (as in most writers) have big trouble rewriting their initial drafts. Among the many underlying causes of this big trouble are: 1) rewriting skills are developed through thousands of hours of practice, and very few people are willing to work so hard for so little in return 2) rewriting is all about change, and most people are deathly afraid of change 3) rewriting reveals the inadequacies of the original drafts, and such revelations, especially for beginning writers, can be huge bummers.

So I came up with a series of exercises involving the swift creation and destruction and re-creation and re-destruction and re-creation of lines of words, intuitive processes that obviate fear and short-circuit analytical thinking—the great enemy of spontaneous word flow—to give writers invigorating rewriting workouts.

Writing, drawing, and playing music are muscular activities as well as mental processes, and I have no doubt that all original stories, pictures, and songs result from synergetic collaborations of our physical muscles with our cerebral muscles, along with valuable input from unseen agents of the unknowable, if you believe, as I do, in such fantastic nonsense.

“The world is a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.” Sean O’Casey

When at nineteen I embarked on a vagabond’s life and could not take a piano with me, I bought a guitar in the sprawling mercado of Guadalajara and taught myself how to play. A year later, having spent a good thousand hours developing a thumb-dominant style of picking and strumming, I stood on a sidewalk in Toronto, strumming and singing. And lo a miracle befell me. Yea verily, dozens of smiling Canadians threw coins and paper money into my dilapidated cardboard guitar case and thenceforth I was a professional musician. Not long after that initial sprinkle of heavenly largesse, I bought a much better guitar and for a time made a minimalist living as a troubadour.

Eventually my piano regained supremacy in my musical life and my guitar became (and remains) a sometimes friend. Two years ago, Marcia and I produced two groovacious CDs of instrumentals and songs featuring guitar and cello (When Light Is Your Garden and So Not Jazz), though of late my focus is on piano improvisations and Marcia is happily immersed in various classical music pursuits. But I digress.  

What I set out to say was that I became a highly functional guitarist through thousands of hours of practice, and I always—this is key—used a thumb pick (on my right thumb) when I played the guitar. And then a few years ago I made a startling discovery, which was that unless my right thumb was actively involved in the playing of a tune, I (this body brain spirit consortium) had no idea where to put the fingers of my left hand to make the chords for any of the songs I knew. That is to say, my right thumb, for all intents and purposes, is the only part of me that really knows how to play my songs.

People who write about spring training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball.” Sandy Koufax

Marcia’s mother Opal is ninety-three and still drives her car all over Santa Rosa where she lives in her own apartment in a commodious retirement community. Two years ago, Opal took up pocket billiards, otherwise known as pool, playing twice a week with friends in the billiards room across the hall from the ping-pong room. When Marcia and I go to visit Opal, we play three or four games of pool with her every night, Marcia and Opal teamed up against Todd, their dyad getting two turns for every one of mine, which makes for a fairly even contest.

What I find most inspiring about Opal learning to play pool so late in life is that every time we play with her, she not only plays better than when we last played, she plays much better.