Power Music

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again, and when you hear it, you feel you can do anything.

Like most mystical experiences, the cause and effect are not related. We may not remember the music. We may forget how it feels. But, when the music finds us and, without effort or intention, the power fills us, a hopeless world shines with possibility.

1. I hadn’t planned on sitting in Bath Abbey and hearing an organ concert when I was sixteen and backpacking through Great Britain. My friend and I had wandered through the Pump Room, a sacred site for Jane Austen readers, and I wasn’t impressed because I had been forced to read Emma in high school and didn’t “get” it the way I thrilled to stories about space ships zooming through the future. I sipped some of the water that was sacred to the Romans and earlier folk. I got a mouthful of more water when we swam in an indoor pool.

The organ recital was something else to do. For a tourist on a limited budget, the interiors of religious buildings were usually free to explore (we didn’t see Westminster Abbey in London because of the admission fee). They also offered a change in atmosphere from the busy, sensory stimulation of the street.

Until someone cranks up the organ. I did not know any of the music played that night, but I felt the low notes reverberating in my gut and I GOT it. The organ music was a metaphor for the unseen divine spirit.  The organist took a bow at the beginning and the end of the recital, but, because I couldn’t see him performing, this wasn’t so much a concert as it was a feeling of the presence of the sacred.

I never forgot it (and, yes, dear reader, I “got” Jane Austen eventually).

2. I came back from a college class to the seedy off-campus house I shared with several conservatory-of-music students and followed the sounds of a beeping and bouncing into the room of a composition major. I sat down on a broken chair and smiled. No one can stop themselves from grinning when you hear Terry Riley’s “A Rainbow in Curved Air” for the first time.

About two-thirds of the way into the piece you hear an electric snake rattling its tail from one speaker to the next. The piece builds to a climax but continues for several more merry minutes.

If the creative power is the most important manifestation of the divine, then this music was God laughing, playing (without making a mess!) and having fun.

3. Dexter Gordon stood tall in the club and played his horn with a calmly assured magnificence.  As a music critic, I had plugged Gordon’s club date. One of the perks of the job is free admission to the event you plug. I had been told Gordon was a legend but what you read about a performer leaves too much out, until you attend the performance. I had no doubt: I was in the presence of greatness. When Gordon finished a tune, he held the saxophone high overhead, as if to say, when I have this, I have everything.

4. I was angry at Frank Zappa again. I grew up appreciating his wonderfully hilarious blend of brilliant musical complexity, grotesque humor and witty satire until this recording, where it seemed that the humor and satire fused into a nasty desire to offend.  The intricate sense of beauty I heard in his earlier work had been set aside for what the music industry calls novelty songs with implicitly obscene lyrics.

And then I heard the live recording on Zappa in New York of the Black Page 1 & 2, a percussion piece Zappa wrote for his drummer Terry Bozzio that is then put to a disco beat with melodies for the band. The tune is hard to follow when you hear it on the drums, but when the band comes in, you feel immediately how uproariously ingenious–and joyous–it is. This piece did not justify the disgusting, offensive stuff on that record, and subsequent recordings (even if it Zappa’s intention was to lampoon social hypocrisy, pretension, racial and ethnic stereotypes and the barely hidden perversions of those who claim to be holier than us), but it gleamed with the exuberance of a composer who was absolutely free (pun intended, Zappa fans) to write what he precisely what he wanted, with the assurance that it would be performed by musicians who respected him, recorded to his standards, packaged in accord with his wishes, and thereby preserved so many, many more may “get” it, and even enjoy it.

5. Pete Seeger singing simple songs with an honesty, warmth and intensity that made you believe that music could change the world, for the better.

The world has changed though the idealism that enthralled my generation died years ago.

But we still have those moments when music finds us, or, in the words of guitarist Robert Fripp, “takes us into its confidence,” and we feel a great rush that of a power that, if it isn’t purely divine, should be.

In music things are possible that are actually impossible.  –Alfred Brendel, pianist



You Lucky Dog

Our dog is ill and I feel like a parent again.

We’ve been twice to veterinary physicians, and each time, I watched a kind, knowledgeable human being gently examine a living thing that is both more than, and not quite, our child.

Our dog is old enough to be middle-aged, but she can’t tell us how she feels or what might be wrong. We can only look at her eyes, watch her tremble, mop up the vomit, toss away the food she won’t eat, and pray that she doesn’t become any worse.

With both sons grown, educated, employed and debt-free, I never thought the disquieting, uneasy realization would return.

As my wife and I took turns holding her, we each revisited the truth that, no matter how many doctors you see, how many miracle drugs you have in your medicine cabinet, and how carefully and lovingly you’ve nurtured your child, all life is precious, fragile and prone to suffering for which there may be no identifiable cause, definitive explanation, or optimistic prognosis.

You hold this warm being that, just a few hours previously, seemed content, even happy, to be with you. You went on walks together. You stood patiently as she sniffed here and there. You held the leash and explained that we weren’t going to chase squirrels right now. When you saw another dog and heard no growls, you let them sniff each other. When she relieved herself, you picked up the solid matter with a special bag and put it in its special place and said to yourself that, despite the truly horrible stuff in your morning newspaper, the yammering “panel of experts” in your evening newscast, the vagaries of the stock market, how much you were charged to fix the car, and the predictably marvelous way tax cuts only make your taxes go up, all was right in your world.

I even joked about it. While other people bragged to us about fancy cruises, new kitchens, sons and daughters acquiring jobs, promotions, engagements and other rights of passage, I quietly told myself that today I had a nice walk with the dog. What could be better?

Now all that seems a wispy dream, a false innocence fashioned from a willingness to forget the fretful wisdom of parenthood.

I put the dog in her harness, carried her down the steps and placed her gently in one of her favorite sniffy places. She stood trembling, so weak she couldn’t move. I brought her back in, hoping that this was this a side effect of the medication the vet prescribed, or the illness’s nadir, after which her health and spirit would return so she could chase the squirrels off our deck and bark at neighborhood dogs that had the audacity to pass by.

She fell asleep and I didn’t hear her snore or flutter her paws as in her dreams. She does not move and her breath is shallow.

And I fret and worry, clinging to the discomforting fact that my wife and I have done everything right. We’ve been to two vets. Tests were taken, and two x-rays. We were giving medicine and showed how to administer it. We can only wait, knowing from experience that doing everything right is no protection against loss, illness, reversals and the bad luck that happens often enough so that it seems the only difference between a suffering dog and another running after a stick on an open field is–good luck.

And time, which doesn’t heal all wounds but can, occasionally, provide the space to make them go away.

Until we have to be lucky again.







Printing Out

So you’re done and you hit the PRINT key.  The printer wakes up from hibernation and out comes your latest work of genius. You watch the paper roll out. You grope for metaphors–leaves falling in autumn, snow flakes in winter, you falling back on your bed, weary and purged and hoping to just let it all go when–

You see, in the middle of that paragraph you rewrote and revised and spellchecked–a mistake. A typo, a grammar flub, or, worse, a string of words that make you fall back in your chair with a butt-squishing thud and say, “I wrote that?”

Why is it that what we write on a screen looks so perfect until we print it out? Or, more accurately, why is it easier to see obvious flaws when we can hold our work in our hands?

A similar phenomenon occurs when you read the piece aloud. You not only learn that some things that happen on a page do not sound good when recited, but that you add, or subtract words as you read, as if your brain is going back to the moments of your original composition and improving on them.

Or not.

To what extent does the medium change the message? I won’t go so far as to invoke Marshall McLuhan’s famous book title “The Medium is the Message,” because, when media become most effective, we don’t feel as if we’re watching television or reading a newspaper–we’re immersed in the story almost as if it is more real than our current surroundings.

And yet television programs, as well as much of the “free” Internet, are punctuated meretricious, attention-grabbing advertisements that try to pull us away from our escapist pleasures and remind us that we are flawed, quietly despairing human beings who can only come to terms with our woeful inferiority by consuming this thing that will make us perfect, happy, healthy, functional, smiling, sensational! The message in that medium is that of aspirational consumption–we can be all we want to be if we keep acquiring stuff.

So what kind of product can I buy so that my polished, over-revised meticulously proof-read,  piece of writing flops out of the printer, I see only, merely and exclusively my piece, and not those sneaky little typos, flubs, and mistakes that anybody but me would fix?

Another writer I knew, who bragged to me about spending his summers living in cheap digs in Morocco, told me that all pious artists and craftspeople always include a flaw in their work because only God is perfect and to aspire to perfection is to blaspheme the Almighty.

So…in trying to rid my work of the errors that would, at least, distract from the story I want to tell (at worst, so disgust a reader as to make that reader toss my work aside), I am setting in motion a spiritual process that, if it doesn’t reveal booboos that I missed the first time, creates them for the second.

Now it has been said in other places, by other writers, that idealism–the relentless pursuit of perfect, flawless or drop-dead beautiful states of art, design, engineering or behavior–is just another path to perdition.

And yet, when we go on a job interview, appear in public or–in our outrage-fueled times–attain a degree of celebrity or notoriety, we don’t want spots on our clothing. The few guys left who still wear neckties want that knot to be a flawless inverted isosceles triangle, with the longer end in front of the shorter end, and no food stains or boogers on the fabric. This is doable, right?

Until we put on the tie, go to the job interview, or the party, or the event, do our thing, put up with the things other people are doing, and all goes well until we pass a mirror and we notice–

How did THAT get there?

Could this have something to do with philosophical idealism, which holds that there is stuff “out there” that we’ll never fully grasp or understand, but that by acknowledging this and striving to approach this stuff, we’ll comprehend reality better than we would if we depended on what we got from our senses?

Don’t know. My mother hated dirt. I have anxieties about spots on my clothing that I will never shake off. At a writers conference I heard a panel discussion in which editors and agents were snarking off about query letters and manuscripts they reject if they find more than a single error on the page. Such flubs, they claimed, indicated that the author was unprofessional, and, therefore, “not quite what we have in mind.”

I expect that one day science will rescue us, by doing a study that “proves” that errors in work are a better indication of all those character traits that make you a great partner, parent, employee and…writer of stuff worth reading, and those who pursue ideals of cleanliness, sartorial perfection and grammatical cool are precisely the kind who cannot deal with humiliation, embarrassment, chagrin and all those other intensely human emotions that never quite go away, but can leave the room, when you learn to love what you do.



When Machines Cry

You can understand how I felt when, not long ago, I entered our small kitchen and heard an unusual tone. It was unlike any plaintive machine bleat I’d heard in that it wasn’t immediately irritating. It did not demand action, but, rather, attention.

I’m wary of such sounds, having had to put with car alarms that cry in the night, daytime or just about anytime we’d rather not hear them. Another car may have passed too close to the proximity detector, or the owner didn’t cut the alarm off before he opened a door. I once set off my car alarm from inside my house when pocket change depressed the panic button on the key.

Welcome to the era in which machines not merely cry, but inform us when they’re hungry (the intentionally annoying microshriek of a smoke alarm that wants a battery change), tell us where to go (GPS navigators, in a variety of dialects) and conduct humorlessly polite conversations as they provide us with music, turn our lights on and off, make a telephone call, order a pizza, tell us that someone is at the door and remind us of pending family birthdays and doctor appointments, all the while reporting back to some algorithmic overlord everything we have said and have had them do.


The tone I heard inside my house did not go away. It happened randomly, typically when I was in the kitchen. It wasn’t like other sounds I’d heard in the house. One of our toilets sings as it fills–don’t ask me how, or why. (Air in the pipes? Maybe.) The tune is oddly satisfying: it starts low and ends high, as if to say, just a friendly reminder of how grateful you should be that I’m ridding you of that which you want to disappear, and readying myself so that the next time you need me, I’ll be here!

Add to this sounds that originate outside the house. I hear the unearthly snarl of the motorized garage door opener, righteous, early-morning grumble of pick-up trucks (in our neighborhood, having a big pick-up truck earns you more curbside status than a luxury sedan or fancy sports car), the scrape of garbage cans dragged into position for the clunking, banging, devouring whine of the garbage truck, the patter of squirrels across the roof, the thunk of playing children colliding with the sides of unalarmed cars parked outside, the distant yowl of emergency sirens rushing to that one intersection that is so dangerous that you’d think something would have been done by now but no, and the glowing ambient chords from the wind chime we hung in the garden so long ago that we forget about it until the wind picks up.

But in the ten years this house has sheltered me, I have heard nothing like this sound. Like most people confronted with the inexplicable, I assumed that if I ignored it, it, too, would go away.

Until my wife heard it.

We considered all the machines in the house that could speak. The nearest was the smoke detector. We touched the TEST button and it immediately yelled at us–how dare we disturb its sleep but, now that we did, the battery was low and it was going to yell at us until we changed it.

We fumbled through the Strange Small Stuff drawer for a 9 volt battery. We found two. Both, according to our smoke detector, were insufficiently charged to meet its needs.

I was so annoyed at the damned thing that I disconnected it from the ceiling. It continued to beep. Worse than that, the beeps roused others from their beauty rest. Smoke detectors on the first and third floors began to shriek in sympathy. The machines scolded us: WE ARE NO LONGER SATISFIED WITH YOUR BATTERIES AND IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT.

My wife and I have raised demanding children. We did not yell at the smoke detectors to shut up. We did not permit the slightest physical abuse. I went to the supermarket and spent too much money on batteries which, as everyone knows, are sold for full retail in January because in December every kid in the country has torn the wrapper off a toy that runs on batteries and, by the time the dreariest month comes around, he has drained the batteries that came with the toy.  Those battery makers know they have millions of perpetually panicking parents in their pocket, and they put on the squeeze.

I dutifully fed all my complaining smoke detectors and–the sound happened again. My wife went to the fireplace and adjusted the flue. We heard the sound again. We searched the kitchen for whatever device might have caused it, and found nothing. Could the sound have come from another room? A quick check of the room near the heater revealed that a carbon-monoxide detector was on the brink. We replaced the batteries and we still heard the sound. What did this mean? My wife went out and bought a new carbon-monoxide detector while I awaited the one heater repair guy with a carbon monoxide sniffer who was willing to make a same-day emergency visit.

The repair guy did not find any carbon monoxide, but a pipe leading to the hot water heater was letting a little bit of gas into the room. He tightened it. We thanked him and felt relieved. What if that leak had become leakier? One static electric spark from an acrylic sweater or a our polyester blend fleece jacket and ker-BOOM!

The heater guy left and I did the addition: $16 for new smoke alarm batteries, $40 for a new carbon monoxide detector, $199 for the emergency furnace inspection and…

We heard the sound again.

I turned to my wife with a where-have-we-failed expression that I never thought I’d wear again, considering that both children have graduated college, are free of student debt and have decent jobs. Eldest is married. Youngest is engaged.  We had searched the house, overspent on batteries and detectors, and even sought the assistance of a professional! What else could a concerned parent do?

The sound kept at us,  especially when we were in the kitchen, cooking, eating and cleaning up.

I have studied folk superstitions and confess to occasional acts of anthropomorphization. I even harbor a few irrational beliefs regarding the future and Why Bad Things Don’t Happen to People Who Deserve Them. Though we live less than 35 miles from Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood where novelist, screenwriter and Georgetown University alumnus William Peter Blatty set one of the most infamous horror novels (later made into five feature films and a TV series) of all time–I was not about to call the exorcist!

I resolved to endure the sound, live with it and ultimately ignore it until–

We were in the kitchen making dinner and I put my foot on a the lever that opened the lid of the stainless-steel-and-black-plastic euro style garbage can. I tossed in the skins from peeled onions (having learned NEVER to put onion skins down a garbage disposal) and took my foot off the lever. As the lid slowly closed it made a–


I opened the lid again, removed my foot, and heard the sound again.

I brought my wife over. She’s a scientist who teaches. She believes in the scientific method and, like me, is impatient for the Twenty-First Century space-age awe and wonder promised by science fiction writers that NASA is no longer delivering.

I opened the lid and let it close. She told me to do it again. I did it again.

“Must be the hinge,” she decided.

I agreed. I opened the lid one more time and realized that this was more than two under lubricated surfaces creating a sympathetic vibration as they moved against each other.

This was not a crying machine demanding attention. It was something different, deeper, a cry from that very essence of the thing’s being.

Our garbage can, having heard the clarion call from the singing toilet, was talking to us, saying, you may not know me personally but I just want to remind you how appreciative you should be that I take in just about anything you put in me and keep your kitchen stink-free so you can savor all those fragrant fumes from that roasting chicken or the Bolognaise sauce whose onions you just peeled, and I will continue to do so, whether you listen to me or not, whether you consider the existential angst inherent in being a willing receptacle for the smelly, unwanted organic material that you so blithely discard, of your as long as you carry the trash down into the garage at regular intervals, replace my liner and rinse me out with soapy water when the liner breaks.

All in one heroic toot!








Robot for Christmas

First we bought one for my son. He unpacked it and set it up, with one concern: would the cat permit it to exist?

The cat watched from a distance as the black plastic disc beeped and wooshed across the floor, its sweeping wings fluttering like a drone that should be buzzing through the heavens, but, like a wiser Icarus, has crashed to earth and is content to crawl, picking up dust, dirt, food crumbs and cat hairs in its way.

The cat’s head dropped, his attention focused as the robot bumped into its first chair leg. It spun thisaway and thataway until it entered the privileged space bounded the by the four legs. It bumped about and I believed that cat and I had a similar thought: was the robot some mere feckless thing that goes with the flow, plans its life around a morning horoscope, assumes a relentlessly positive attitude as it bashes itself against obstacles, or was it learning?

When the robot found its way out of the chair, the cat moved forward, nostrils flaring, whiskers whisking. He came up behind the robot. Would the machine be aware of him and turn around?

The robot proceeded with its first traverse of my son’s floor, oblivious of the potential danger. I thought of Neil Armstrong stepping on to the gray soil of the Moon. Then I corrected my metaphor: the robot’s job was to remove footprints, not make them.

My son is an IT executive for an internet company that has enough employees and has foos-ball and ping pong tables but has been around too long to be a start-up. He understands how these machines work, but he also likes to go on wilderness hikes, which suggests a healthy dislike of machines and people who wish they could be them.

He loved the robot. The cat noticed this and, presuming that anything that his food source permitted into the home was not a threat to the food source, returned to its perch atop a black high fidelity speaker amplifier, and dozed.

As the robot continued its journey I remembered reading “Can You Feel Anything When I Do This,” a short story by science fiction satirist Robert Sheckley.  In that tale, a bored wife (this was written in the days when married women who didn’t have children where supposed to stay home while their husbands commuted to urban office jobs where they sat at desks, talked on the phone, went to meetings and had three martini lunches of steak and a baked potato) buys herself a domestic robot that cleans the floor well enough but, sensing her boredom, adapts itself so it can attend to her other, sensual needs.

Yes, the story was misogynistic, as much science fiction was back then, but it made its point: to what extent are prepared for the unintended consequences of labor-saving technology that can learn?

At this point, with the robot navigating the complexities of my son’s floor, the only consequence of interest was functional. Was the machine picking up all the stuff it was supposed to? Was it doing any good beyond the marginal entertainment in watching an electronic rat run a random maze?

The floor didn’t appear to be much different when my son stopped the robot, popped open the black plastic dirt compartment and, wow, was it stuffed with stuff! Cat hairs, food crumbs and–fulfilling the promise that in any new technology must before it becomes a necessity in your life–crud we didn’t even know was on the floor in the first place!

So my wife bought one for our home, hoping that the Daisy, our bossy West Highland Terrier, would also permit it to live.

Again, we sat in awe as the device went under and around chair legs, end tables, sofa skirts, floor lamps, shoes we had tossed off and a pile of books I still hadn’t read–a journeyman out on its first great adventure that, we hoped, would become a royal progress.

Daisy not only watched its every move, but pursued it intently, learning as much about it as it was learning about our living room.

Then, with a genuine sense of wonder, we beheld a fundamental difference between cats and dogs.

Where Izzy, my son’s cat, lost interest in the robot after it proved not to be a competitor, Daisy, a herding beast, maintained her concern, especially when the robot blundered into a dining room thicket of chair legs that did not give it enough room to come out. She drew close to it, made a gentle woof, and moved her paw in the direction the robot should follow. When the robot failed to find the way out, Daisy nudged it toward freedom.

Does a dog have Buddha nature? Daisy does.







Something wonderful happens when you read your writing aloud.

I thought the passage was as close to perfection as I could make it. I had spent almost a month on it, revising relentlessly until it gleamed. I thought I fixed all the spelling and punctuation errors, too.

Then I read it aloud to my writers group, in the first line, I found something that wasn’t quite right. I noticed other errors and wobbly passages that were hard to say.

At the end of my reading, I heard a few seconds of silence. The group liked what they heard. I found that what they heard wasn’t completely what I wrote, but me correcting myself as I went along.

I ended up with was a piece that flowed better. I not only caught errors. I found a hidden musicality in the prose.

John Steinbeck used to read all his works aloud before he sent them to his publisher. Before he became famous he’d have parties and invite friends. Later, he’d read to himself.

Try it.



Fifty Good Pages

My wife finished proofreading this morning. She found some typos. As is my nature, I came up with a few lines that I thought might make the manuscript even better.

I now have fifty good pages. Good pages are reasonably free of grammatical and spelling errors. They introduce the hero, establish the setting and describe the thing or event that starts the plot.

For me, these pages constitute a reliable beginning for a novel that was already finished several years ago. My wife and I agree that this version is better.

And yet, I fret.

I no longer remember when I started writing the book. I finished a draft and, because my existing agent hated science fiction and fantasy (and didn’t respect me because I wanted to write it), I sent it to another agent, who called me and said “you want to write a real novel.”

“What’s wrong with that?” I replied. I had read enough within the genre to know that readers could handle more than strange quests, rites-of-passage stories, rebellions in dystopian societies, engineer-with-a-problem epics and space opera.

Way back in college I thought that the basic idea in Twain’s wonderful Huckleberry Finn could be adapted to a fantasy. Philip Jose Farmer had created a metaphor for the Mississippi in his Riverworld series. I was more interested in a device I’d glimpsed that Heinlein may have lifted from Twain in Stranger in a Strange Land: that of an innocent forced into the adult world, surviving on his wits, a few special talents, the unexpected benevolence of others. He sees and feels the flaws of this new world, has no idea what to do about it and, after a series of adventures, decides the only thing he can do is to leave. Heinlein had Michael Smith perceive his own end and, in a Christlike manner, understand that by permitting himself to die, he would benefit others. Twain had Huckleberry Finn recoil at the hypocrisy and moral rot of mid-western American slave-holding society and decide to “light out for the territories”–lawless places along the expanding western frontier.

As a youngster I had seen plenty of unfairness, indecency, hypocrisy and outright exploitation in the ways human beings work and live together. As an oldster, I see even more, and worse: well-meaning, well-educated adults who have eminently reasonable explanations that excuse, condone and even praise this vileness as an onerous but necessary way for good things to happen.

I disagree. It doesn’t matter where you were born or what circumstances you were born into–the evil that we choose to do to each other hurts, maims and kills. You don’t need an expensive education to understand that choosing not to be evil and acting to further the good may make things better. Isn’t this message found in our religious texts (usually buried beneath accounts of brutal, divinely inspired battles, hideous punishments and miracles that benefit one person, family or tribe, at the expense of others)?

Having studied moral philosophy I know that merely doing good brings on piles of complexities and contradictions. What if the good you want to do is not the good that the social situation wants? What if, in doing good, you inadvertently hurts someone, or you must choose between saving one life at the expense of another? What if the good you do makes things worse? Let’s say your goodness comes at great hardship to you: should you compensate for this hardship by paying yourself a nice salary, or taking a larger share of the community’s resources? Who and what gives you the right, privilege or power to do anything–good, evil or indifferent? What if, in doing good, you must risk or sacrifice the money, food, shelter, material items or social status necessary to survive comfortably, thereby bringing suffering down on yourself?

Finally, how do you know what’s good, especially if you are an outsider at the edge of an existing culture?

I don’t pretend to solve any of those problems in the novel. I deal with them in one way: our hero learns to trust himself enough to go where he is needed, even if he is not sure when he arrives what that need may be, and if he is competent to fulfill it.

That’s more than enough to sustain a hero on a quest to find his beloved. But it isn’t enough for me, to stop fretting, judging myself, revising too many times and loading myself up at the end of every writing session with those familiar depressive thoughts: this won’t be published, no one will read this, no one will care about it or someone famous will do an inferior version and blow you out of the water because that person is famous and you’re not.

That last condition happened to a writer I knew.

So now I have fifty good pages of a book I’d really like to make even better, that, I believe, will be a “real novel” that fantasy readers will love.

How do I hold on to that, and keep the downer feelings at bay?