i got music, part i: my django obsession

(NOTE: Last year, I started writing an amateur musical memoir. Then I stopped. These things happen. But I had some fun with it — enough fun that, who knows, I may well finish it one day. Just not today. And probably not the next day, either. So in the eternal spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, I’ve decided to take what I’ve written, break up into tidy, digestible chunks and spew it out into the world via this shit-figurin’ blog. And so, with no further ado. . . )



Time: June of 2016

Place: Northampton, Mass. 

Mood: Panicked


I hit wrong notes.

It’s what I do, and let me tell you, I do it brilliantly. It’s my calling, my métier, both the hitting and the wrongness: For decades, I have slammed the misguided fingers of my left hand, a.k.a. the Flailer, onto taut steel wires while my right hand, a.k.a. the Steely Fist of Death, grips a long, light, horse-haired stick and waggles it strenuously across a curvy wooden box in optimistic attempts to approximate pitch and loose mellifluous sound waves into the air. It is in the nature of such actions that many of them fail. It is in the nature of me. Because I am an amateur. I do not play the violin. I play at the violin, a critical distinction once expressed to Fritz Kreisler by that humble amateur-fiddler-cum-fascist-dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Sadly, I’m not a fascist dictator, so I don’t have that to fall back on. Quiet, peasants! You will listen while I play! No matter that I sound like a dying squirrel! I don’t have much of anything to fall back on. When I play at the violin, I play at it for my own enjoyment, but I live in fear that my own enjoyment will cause those around me to writhe in agony and/or cringing sympathetic embarrassment. This fear has taken a marked upward turn since venturing into jazz, as the danger of hitting wrong notes expands exponentially with improvisation. You’d think the opposite. You’d think that improvising means that you can play anything, and hey, you’ll never be wrong! When it fact it means that you can play anything, and hey, you’ll never be wrong, unless you hit grievously incorrect notes out of sync with the chord changes, and then you’ll sound like a dying squirrel!

I’m fearing the squirrel right now, as I slouch in my little plastic folding chair in a little sunny room in a little tidy building on the Smith College campus in Northampton, Mass. I am surrounded by a class of fellow amateurs. They are able. Eager. Informed. I am inept. Terrified. Clueless.

Before us sits a man. A great man. A great, French-speaking man with a gentle manner and glorious facial hair. A man who can and does do anything on the fiddle. A man of voluminous knowledge and astonishing artistry. A man who knows nothing of the squirrel.

The man is here to teach us, and I am here to learn. For I have done a rash and hopeful thing. I have enrolled at Django in June, an annual camp for hardcore gypsy-jazz fanatics who, feeding an addiction for upbeat, retro-swinging, strangely chromatic tunefulness, bring their quirky guitars and skinny mustaches to a gathering that’s part festival, part music school, part 24/7 jazz saturnalia, part cult. I have joined the cult. I have drunk the Kool-Aid.

But at the moment, I am very, very afraid. The great man before me is a wizard of the gypsy fiddle and a god in this cosmos, someone whose YouTube videos have wowed me from afar. And I am about to make a boob of myself in his presence. A large boob. A large, quavering, anxiously perspiring boob who already feels inferior to every other violinist here.

“Play this,” he says, and plays a chromatic progression of rapid-fire notes.

Everyone else plays it. I panic. When I panic, I can’t do a damn thing. So I fake it.

“Play it again,” he says, and again plays the same chromatic progression of rapid-fire notes.

Everyone else plays it. I panic and fake it.

“Not everyone is playing it exactly right. Let’s play it again,” he says, and once again blitzes through the run.

This time, while everyone else is playing it, I do nothing. Not with my body, anyway. Inwardly, I am writhing on the floor with matted hair and gnashing teeth while blatting laryngeal moans of utter torment. And as I do, I’m thinking: I AM TERRIBLE AT THE VIOLIN. I AM THE TERRIBLEST VIOLINIST OF ALL TIME. HOW TERRIBLE AM I? LET ME COUNT THE WAYS.

I’m terrible at fast running notes. My fingers function in extreme slo-mo. On a scale of 1-10, I rate around 3.

I’m terrible at scales, chords and arpeggios. Terrible, terrible, terrible at scales, chords and arpeggios. On this, I’m a 2. If I’m lucky. Probably a 1.

I’m terrible at sight reading. 5. On a good day, 6.

Above all, I’m terrible at being terrible, focusing on my terribleness to the detriment of things I do pretty well, or I might do pretty well, if only I paused in my reflexive self-flagellating to actually practice. But I don’t, because I’m terrible about practicing, too. From 1 to 10, I rate a 0. Less than 0. Let’s say -7.


“Play it again,” the great man says.

I howl silently, then panic and fake it.

holy moly

Growing up in an atheist-agnostic household, I learned that love, kindness and generosity were the only working gospels, and I learned that they do indeed work. But only if you choose to love, and you choose to be kind and giving,  and you choose to set aside judgment of others and bend to help when they’re down. I also learned that people of faith don’t exactly have a lock on these gospels, a truism demonstrated by generous atheists and ruthless believers since the dawn of the frontal lobe.

So, no, whenever we happen across some homeless pandhandler slumped against a wall, looking despairing and exhausted and famished,  we don’t need religion to tell us what to do: Love. Give. Don’t judge. Bend down to help. We don’t necessarily need God in those moments. But here’s what hit me the other day: God needs us.

Let me explain.

Rewind to late last week, when I happened across this fine piece of 1 Corinthians during my regular bedtime bible-flip:

This got me thinking. It got me thinking, because A) like 99.9999999999999 percent of the population, I struggle with self-acceptance; and B) “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam,” is one of my all-time favorite literary quotations, right up there with “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” and “I’m nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody, too?” (And do you suppose that’s the first time anyone has crammed Popeye, Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson into the same 68-word sentence?)

It got me thinking, too, because lately I’ve been dwelling on the problem of hate and discrimination — the tendency to demonize people, declare them sinners or define Them against Us. As though we weren’t all Us! As though we weren’t all Them! As though we weren’t all struggling with this beautiful but oh-so-pissy business of being alive and imperfect, frustrated with our own shortcomings and irked by the flaws of others.

I’m especially baffled by self-proclaimed Christians who do the demonizing. I wonder which bible they’ve been reading. Certainly not the one on MY night table, the one where Jesus tells us to feed the poor and help the stranger and not judge and not hate and sing kumbayah around a campfire while making daisy necklaces. There must be some other, Exxtreme Edition Bible where jujitsu Jeez-Us rips off his shirt to reveal his bleeding pecs and then instructs his disciples in the rules of Fight Club.

So I read that snippet from 1 Corinthians the other night, and I thought: hmmmm. I yam what I yam by the grace of God. God made me this way. God made you that way. God made everyone every which way, even the most annoying people in the most annoying ways, and if you believe in God, you gotta believe God did this for a reason — some divine reason we can never divine. Then I thought: Holy moly! Wait a sec. Maybe God made us all in this crazy patchwork of singular personalities and predilections and shortcomings because God needs us to be different! God needs you. God needs me. God needs us.  

God needs us to be our most essential selves. Our best selves. Our selves most engaged in life, most available and willing to pitch in. I was already chewing hard on this when, on Sunday, I heard a terrifically insightful homily on the Holy Trinity (Father Richard Vosko, St. Vincent de Paul, tip o’ the hat to both) and the importance of being present in moments when we’re called to help.

The Trinity is something that Catholics accept while quietly and simultaneously fearing that non-Catholics regard us as wacko polytheists slathering ourselves in oil under the full moon. But this time, the God-in-three-persons paradigm kicked me in the teeth (and in the best way!) as I realized, a mere 27 years after converting, that all three guises are present in us at every moment: the God who made us; the God who talks to us; the God who came here, suffered and showed us how to love.

So, okay, let’s say I run across some homeless panhandler on some hot summer morning. In that moment, Creator is present in the panhandler, in me, in the sunshine, in the air. The Holy Spirit is present in the still, small voice that says: That poor guy is hungry. Go buy him a sandwich. And as I hand him the sandwich, each of us is Jesus — the hurting and the helper, both. On some other occasion, he might bend to help me.

I yam what I yam. He is what he is. We are what we are. God needs us.




bleeding heads, bleeding hearts, bad satire

I’m not normally one to weigh in on pop-cultural paroxysms seizing the Twitterverse, even two days late. But I have to say it: Kathy Griffin’s “beheading” of Donald Trump was wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. It was stupid. Stupid stupid stupid. It was sorely misguided. It gives the Trump opposition a seriously bad name, tainting his critics with the stage blood of a mock assassination that does nothing to advance the  causes of peace, justice and compassion that those on the left presumably support.

Yes, okay, she had a right to express her displeasure with a faux decapitation. Thank you, First Amendment, and God bless America. Yes, it’s the business of comedians to push boundaries, especially in times of profound national stress, and occasionally they push these boundaries so hard that they draw blood. Jim Carrey has since come to Griffin’s defense, saying it’s her job to “cross the line.” Larry King says that’s exactly the sort of comic she is –a line-crosser, a boundary-pusher, the sort who goes “over the edge a lot.”

Yeah, right, okay. Lines. Boundaries. Edginess. I get it. As I think I’ve established pretty well in past blog posts, I am nooooooooooooo fan of the apricot-haired infantile swellhead currently taking up too much space in the Oval Office and, sadly, our collective American consciousness. I am ALL in favor of ridiculing him, his tiny everythings (mind, heart, hands, kidneys, whatever) and his nattering band of sycophantic munchkins. Mockery! Yes! Satire! Yay! 

But I know my Jonathan Swift well enough to understand the creative and moral imperatives of political satire: To call out the horrors of a failed system with blackened, ridiculous overstatement. Swift challenged heartless British policies toward the starving with a “modest proposal” to sell and cook Irish babies “in a fricassee, or a ragout” — a ghastly piece of irony that he knew enough to publish anonymously. But the ghastliness was born of compassion. It didn’t target ACTUAL BABIES; it took aim instead at the ruthlessness of the system. Had Griffin taken a more Swiftian tack on Trump, his head would have stuck to his body and polished off a large plate of authentic-Mexican food. (NOTE HYPHEN PLACEMENT, WORD NERDS.)

Alas, she didn’t.

We need to do this properly. If we’re to oppose the man and his twisted reign for God knows how many months and years — and if we’re going to get through this AS A PEOPLE, which believe it or not, we are — we need to set some ground rules. Ready?


Do I really need to say it? Must I go into the whole we’re-either-fighting-for-democracy-or-we’re-not business? Do I have to point out that, hey, cracking jokes about killing the president is promoting violence and criminality and therefore A REALLY BAD and ANTI-DEMOCRATIC IDEA? That it’s, well, kinda breathtakingly hypocritical for a political wing that prides itself on being anti-gun, anti-capital punishment, anti-hatred, anti-bloodshed, anti-war? I guess I do.


Just no. He’s a kid. None of this is his fault. So shut up.


I’ve gotten into a few Facebook spitting matches on this subject and may get into a few more once I post this. I am, how shall I put this, deeply perplexed and apoplectic to the point of hemicranial agony by my fellow lefties who A) claim to support government programs helping the poor, B) oppose the right’s draconian efforts to dismantle them, C) feel particularly outraged by attempts to gut Obamacare, which could end up killing Americans with preexisting conditions, but D) ARE TOTALLY OKAY WITH THIS SCENARIO if the dead Americans in question voted for Trump. The logic being: Hey, you voted for him, pal. You pay the consequences. Death penalty for you!

Once again, the hypocrisy takes my breath away. Aren’t we supposed to be the bleeding hearts? Don’t we claim to be supportive of people in dire straits? Like putative “Christians” who hurt the poor and exclude the stranger, liberals who ditch compassion for cruelty in some childish hissy fit of nyah-nyah retribution are betraying their own ideals.


This is an obvious but necessary corollary to Ground Rule Number 3. I just don’t see any point in lumping half the American populace, or even 34.76543 percent of it, into a trash bin of Worthless and Heinous Devil Spawn, because, look, not EVERYONE who disagrees with me or belongs to some other party or lives in some other, redder part of the country is THAT BAD. They’re not! I swear! I know some of them! I talk to them! They talk back! Using their indoor voices! They’ve even been known to do me a solid when I need a little help!

So here’s the thing: We either oppose facile, destructive generalizations, or we don’t. We either stand against violence and ignorance, or we don’t. We either stand for compassion and sensitivity, or we don’t. We either believe in a country that makes room for everyone, or we don’t. We either believe in a future for that country, or we don’t. We either behave like people who want to shape that future together — even if “together” is a distant and fantastical notion, at the moment — or we don’t.

We either have faith in our glorious democratic ideals and love them, work for them, push toward them, cross the divides between us and press on with each other, or we don’t. And if we don’t, we need to act as if we do, or there is no getting out of this at all.

Who’s with me?