Sunday, May 27, 2012

My Antiquated Nervous System

Several days ago I took a late evening walk beside a nearby park.  As I was walking in the dark shadows of the ash trees looming over the sidewalk, a large man stepped out in front of me.  He was talking loudly and laughing. 

A rush of adrenaline hit me.  Having grown up in an era before cell phones, my instant reaction was to judge this noisy fellow's behavior as deranged rather than as merely uncouth.  I was relieved when I saw the cell phone pressed against his ear.

Truly, past conditioning is hard to overcome.  When I first moved to Colorado from the flatlands of the Midwest, I had to get accustomed to occasionally seeing ski racks on the roofs of cars.  In the Midwest cars had bare roofs, except for police cars with their top mounts for red and blue emergency lights. During my first six months of driving in Colorado, I would continually mistake cars with ski racks for police cars and then hit the brakes in a panic to get under the speed limit.  I was the most law-abiding and neurotic driver imaginable.         

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Comb

I have carried this trusty pocket comb for many years.  Today I noticed that it has lost teeth in the same proportion that I have lost hair.

Perhaps my comb was made by the same man who made the picture of Dorian Gray.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Cyclical Life

Since young adulthood I have had the same set of five recurring enthusiasms: music making, writing comic fiction, investing, exercising, and studying religion.  Over and over I have beguiled myself with these activities throughout the years.  My pattern is to take up one of these enthusiasms, pursue it with great energy and focus for many months, and then set it aside for a year or more.  The result has been a patchwork life of intermittent dabbling,  a dilettante's buffet of inconsequential amusements. 

Right now, after many years of absence, music making and studying religion have returned to get a grip on me.  Every evening I practice my ragtime pieces on the old piano in the basement.  Every night before bed I read a chapter from Martyn Lloyd-Jones's bracing collection of sermons entitled Studies in the Sermon on the Mount.  And I can feel the early stirrings of the return of my investing enthusiasm.  I purchased a used textbook on investment psychology last night from Amazon.  A fit of stock buying and selling will probably be upon me by late summer, if my moods and urges run true to form.

My enthusiasms for comic writing and exercising are dormant at present.  My comic writing enthusiasm sputtered out last summer after I wrote a parody of a 1930s detective story.  (Now there's a literary sub-genre of miniscule popular interest!)  Today as I look at my bookshelf full of collections of comic short stories and essays--a full six feet of the best humor from England, Ireland, Canada, and the United States--I feel not the slightest impulse to put pencil to paper.  I can't think of anything funny, witty, or even whimsical.  Life is dry as dust.  I have one lone writerly post-it note stuck to the bookcase.  The note outlines an idea that seemed clever to me several months ago, something about applying early twentieth-century propaganda techniques within the narrative of a fairy tale.  At the moment, the cleverness of this idea totally escapes me.

Given my expanding physique, it is apparent that my exercising enthusiasm is long overdue.  Unless I have a health scare or feel a special need to make a favorable impression on a rich widow, this particular enthusiasm may not reawaken until a few months before my next high school reunion in 2014.     

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Heliotrope Bouquet

My morning began well. I enjoyed practicing the first two strains of a ragtime piece called Heliotrope Bouquet by Louis Chauvin and Scott Joplin.

Ragtime expert "Perfessor" Bill Edwards ( explains the piece's history: "This rag contains the only known surviving compositional fragment of Louis Chauvin, who by most contemporary accounts was a very creative, skilled and prolific pianist who knew a multitude of pieces, though he was unschooled and could neither read nor write music."

Chauvin (1882-1908) lived a hard life as a traveling musician. His health broke in his early twenties from dissipation. Alcohol and opium addiction were proximate causes, although there have been conjectures that syphilis, multiple sclerosis, and/or sickle cell anemia may have been contributing causes.

"Perfessor" Bill continues: "Scott Joplin visited Chicago (some sources say Sedalia) in 1906 where he found the ailing Chauvin playing some beautiful syncopated themes. Two of these strains in particular were found to be particularly haunting to both, and Joplin wrote them down for later completion. Once the strains were harmonized by Joplin, and two more were composed with thematic tie-ins, he released it in 1907 as Heliotrope Bouquet, giving Chauvin the primary composer credit, and therefore some of the income derived from the work."

Chauvin died in 1908 at the age of 26. Heliotrope Bouquet was his only published piano work and has been a popular ragtime piece for over a century. It is represented by several good YouTube performances. My own performance still lacks technical polish but has oodles of panache.

For those who aren't familiar with the pink-purple flowers of the heliotrope plant, here is a picture.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Only Yesterday

Last week I watched the fine 1991 Japanese anime drama Only Yesterday (Japanese title: Omoide Poro Poro, literally "memories of falling teardrops") written and directed by Isao Takahata and produced by Studio Ghibli. The film shows how Taeko, an inhibited 27-year-old single woman, overcomes the fears and pressures that had stunted her earlier life and had brought her to an unfulfilling career in a Tokyo office.

The film shifts between scenes with the adult Takeo and scenes with her fifth-grade self. Takahata created a framing story about the adult Takeo, who takes a break from her city life by spending her ten days of yearly vacation working on a relative's safflower farm. During this vacation she is puzzled to find herself continually preoccupied with memories of her fifth-grade self. The heart of the film is a lengthy series of flashbacks wherein Takeo reminisces about her struggles as a fifth grader and tries to make sense of how this crucial period prior to puberty influenced her subsequent choices and outlook on life. She remembers her earlier self, the youngest of three daughters, as an impulsive child vying in vain for parental affection and encouragement. She remembers the shame of her weak math skills. She remembers the awkwardness of her first crush. She remembers her fear and embarrassment about the impending changes menstruation would bring. She remembers the pain of being rebuffed by a poor boy she wished to befriend. And as she wrestles with these memories, she comes to understand how childhood fears and disappointments caused her to close off her heart. At the very end of the film, even as the columns of credits in Japanese are appearing on the side of the screen, Takeo heeds the urgings of her imagined fifth-grade self and, fortified by the love of an amiable young farmer, finds the courage to pursue her own happiness.

As I am susceptible to the charming, though unreliable, notion that a deep investigation of the past can lead to insights in the present, it is small wonder that I was captivated by the film. I am the kind of person, in my stronger moments a shrewd amateur historian and in my weaker moments a nostalgic sap, who often views the past as the wellspring of truth and the present as merely a froth of consequences and accidents. I am the kind of person who delights in histories that give a glimpse of the daily life in past ages, such as the popular 1931 book by Frederick Lewis Allen (1890-1954), Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's. (I am intrigued that the book and the anime film share the same name.  What should I make of this?)  Here is how Allen begins his book.

 If time were suddenly to turn back to the earliest days of the Postwar Decade, and you were to look about you, what would seem strange to you? Since 1919 the circumstances of American life have been transformed--yes, but exactly how?

Let us refresh our memories by following a moderately well-to-do young couple of Cleveland or Boston or Seattle or Baltimore—it hardly matters which—through the routine of an ordinary day in May, 1919. (I select that particular date, six months after the Armistice of 1918, because by then the United States had largely succeeded in turning from the ways of war to those of peace, yet the profound alterations wrought by the Post-war Decade had hardly begun to take place.) There is no better way of suggesting what the passage of a few years has done to change you and me and the environment in which we live.

From the appearance of Mr. Smith as he comes to the breakfast table on this May morning in 1919, you would hardly know that you are not in the nineteen-thirties (though you might, perhaps, be struck by the narrowness of his trousers). The movement of men's fashions is glacial. It is different, however, with Mrs. Smith.

She comes to breakfast in a suit, the skirt of which—rather tight at the ankles—hangs just six inches from the ground. She has read in Vogue the alarming news that skirts may become even shorter, and that "not since the days of the Bourbons has the woman of fashion been visible so far above the ankle"; but six inches is still the orthodox clearance. She wears low shoes now, for spring has come; but all last winter she protected her ankles either with spats or with high laced "walking-boots," or with high patent-leather shoes with contrasting buckskin tops. Her stockings are black (or tan, perhaps, if she wears tan shoes); the idea of flesh-colored stockings would appall her. A few minutes ago Mrs. Smith was surrounding herself with an "envelope chemise" and a petticoat; and from the thick ruffles on her undergarments it was apparent that she was not disposed to make herself more boyish in form than ample nature intended.

My mooning over bygone days is a harmless diversion, although it probably indicates a certain slackness of character. However, the obsessive introspection that Taeko subjected herself to in the film is a serious and potentially dangerous undertaking. Old memories retain great power. One can easily be weighed down by the pain of past regrets, the sadness of lost opportunities, and the bitterness of old grudges. As the adult Taeko is chided by one of her older sisters for mentioned a grievance from her school days: " What a burden your past must be if you're still holding a grudge like that!"

I made myself very miserable last week by imitating Taeko's introspection. In my case, I didn't need to go back to my childhood memories, which are generally pleasant. It was my college days that burdened me. What happened to me in college? What was it, I wondered, that set me on a course to spend the next forty years of my life in one corporate bureaucracy after another? Surely, this life I have led had nothing to do with my boyhood dreams!

I puzzled over these questions for hours last week but came to no satisfying understanding concerning what fears and pressures had shaped my college self. Even worse, now I was worried that I had no better understanding about what fears and pressures were currently shaping my present self, an older man on the brink of retirement. Taeko's introspection freed her to pursue her own true happiness; all that my introspection gave me was headaches and sleepless nights. Finally, I gave it all up as hopeless.

This only positive outcome of dredging up my past was that I recalled the things that had made me especially happy and hopeful as a young undergraduate trudging through my endless technical courses: Christianity, creative writing, and piano playing. Christianity has been an enduring consolation to me throughout my life. This humble blog and a thin collection of short stories published for the Kindle (yielding a grand total of one sale since last October) are ways that I have regained my interest in writing during the past few years. To revive my piano playing after decades of musical abstinence, yesterday I downloaded sheet music for a half dozen ragtime pieces, went down to my sons' ancient upright piano stored in the basement, and commenced to whale away at the first part of Scott Joplin's The Entertainer. My playing is atrocious – if I try to play up to tempo, the tune gets mangled beyond recognition – but I find encouragement in detecting tiny improvements with each hour of practice.

Proverbs 20:24  Man's goings are of the LORD; how can a man then understand his own way?