Tag Archives: narrative

Lesson Number One: the metronome doesn’t care about you.

See that metronome there on the piano, class? It doesn’t give a crap about you! You could be having the worst day of your life, but the metronome doesn’t care. You could be swimming with herpes, but the metronome does not care. Flood, famine, pestilence? The metronome does! Not! Care! Set that thing to 120 beats per minute, and it IS 120 beats per minute. No wavering, no complaining: Just a ruthless, methodical 120 bpm straight down the middle.

Think about this, class! The metronome is one of the great levelers the world has ever known. It is democracy and justice. Balance and symmetry. That metronome doesn’t care if you’re black, white, green, whatever. All it cares about in this world is keeping tempo. It shows you what is and gives you the chance to succeed. And if you can’t keep up, well, that’s on you to keep trying. THAT’S democracy.

What’s great about the metronome is that it will LET you succeed. It will give you all the tools you need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get ahead. If you’re struggling with a passage at 160 bpm, you can slow it down and work on that phrasing until you get it nailed, and then speed it up until you get that nailed, and then speed THAT up. Try asking if you can slow down the production line at the factory so you can catch up!

And here’s something really cool: the metronome takes you in between the lines. See, class, rhythm isn’t notes: it’s the spaces in between the notes. The metronome is set, and it offers you the same exact space in between notes, over and over and over again. You can fill and synchronize those spaces all you want, and you’ll have unlimited chances to get it right. Because that metronome isn’t stopping and it isn’t going anywhere.

You will never have a more honest, even-handed friend in your life, class. That metronome right there is pure loyalty. It’s there for you, precisely because it doesn’t care about you.



Image Source: Brian McGuire

I lie in bed in the dark trying to keep up with my hurtling thoughts. My wife sleeps beside me – sweetly, untroubled – backlit by the alarm clock. Occasional footsteps, growing fewer and fewer as the night goes on, rustle outside the window. The room is dark and still, except for the thoughts running away from me.

Can’t sleep…

The tempo of my thoughts is allegro.

FINally my music education pays off! Allegro: fast, quickly and bright. 120-168 beats per minute. Lively.


The thoughts come fast and quick:

The water bill is due…then the hospital bill is due…MORTgage is due…and what was that RATTLING SOUND in the car?!?

I. Can. Not. SLEEP.

Midnight comes and I run the numbers in my head.

1:00 AM comes and I plan the payoffs. I write a check in my head for the mortgage and cringe. The heating oil truck pulls up in my mind for another delivery and I panic. I see the price at the pump in my thoughts and freak out.


How the hell did people afford to live before? The economy was so much different in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s…what happened to the middle class?!? WHAT ABOUT US?!?

I think and feel the worst and convince myself that it will never get better.

And then I think of my life and all at once it hits me and I realize that it IS better.

I remember I’m a stable married homeowner with a stable job and a stable life. I realize that we’re handling the expenses of life and we’re not breaking.

I think of where I was a decade ago. Back then I was alone and sleeping on a mattress. Back then I couldn’t imagine not having roommates or not being employed through a temp agency. Back then I was bouncing $300 rent checks and I couldn’t even think of eating out at nice places.

Tonight we had a hell of a nice dinner and talked of our coming vacation at the beach. And we’re making the mortgage and all the bills. I would NOT have been having this conversation back then.

It IS better…

I remember my breathing exercises from therapy, and how much they help. I train myself to slooooooowwwwwwww my breathing – and with it my thoughts – from allegro to adagio.

Ah hah! Adagio: slow and stately (literally, “at ease”). 66-76 beats per minute. Sloooowwww, solemn. Definitive. My music education has paid off!

At ease. At ease I breeeeaaaaattttthhhhhheeeeeeee.

INNNNNhaaaaaaaaling pooositive. Hooooollllllding onnn to pooositive.

DAMN! The phone bill!

EXhaling negative. EXhaling negative. PUSHing out negative. PUSHing out negative.

And my student loan!

INNNNNhaaaaaaaaling pooositive. Hooooollllllding onnn to pooositive.

The bills will be there tomorrow. Let it goooooo tonight…

INNNNNhaaaaaaaaling pooositive. Hooooollllllding onnn to pooositive.

It IS better….

EXhaling negative. EXhaling negative. PUSHing out negative. PUSHing out negative.

NOTHing I can do about it now….so let it goooooooooo….

EXhaling negative. EXhaling negative. PUSHing out negative. PUSHing out negative.

NOTHing I can do about it now….so let it goooooooooo….

Let it gooooooooo and sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep

My breathing slooooooows down my brain and body. Caaallllmmmmm and clarity befall the path of my thoughts. And I realize that I’m alllllright.

What can I do about that surprise bill at 2:00 AM? NOTHing. So let it gooooooo.
What can I do about that surprise bill at 9:00 AM? Pay it. And then it’s goooooone.

My thoughts slooowww to an adagio that I can carry about all day. Confident, controlled. At ease.

At. Eeeeaaaaaasssssseeeeeee…

It IS better.

It IS better…

The alarm clock glows 3:00 AM. My wife sleeps on, undisturbed. I exhale. Adagio. I inhale. Adagio.

And then? I sleep.



fire sky
Image Source: stephendun

The pain wasn’t explosive at first. It was more warm and beckoning. Passionate, even. Much more carmine red than cardinal. It wasn’t until I realized the pain and pulled my finger away from the burner that the hurt burst forth in fierce, angry agony. Lesson learned: the initial contact isn’t nearly as painful as subsequent or repeated contact.

It was the night of the All Star Game, 1982, and I was at my grandparent’s farm making Jiffy Pop for the Midsummer Classic. I was nine, and I remember staring at the orange/red coils and thinking, “what would happen if I put a finger on the burner?”

Not three years earlier, I was at the farm, on the back of our trailer with our Christmas tree, which we had just cut down from our own woods. I was sitting on the back of the trailer, by the right rear tire, while my grandpa drove the tractor and my parents walked behind. I was wearing my moon boots, and I remember staring at the tire and thinking, “what would happen if I put my boot on the tire?”

Broken collarbone.

I remember feeling the thud of hitting the ground, the wind hurtling from my body and a warm ache just under my neck. And then I was screaming and my mom and dad were running for me. Carmine to crimson.

My first sips of beer came from cans thrown away on Jacksonville Beach. You could always find an empty on the beach, and occasionally I would pick one up and take a pull. I showed one to my mom once, and she was horrified.

From there, I went undercover and graduated to sips of Jack at my friend’s parents’ house. These raids reversed the lesson. The first taste was explosive: pure tongue-tingling medicinal fire. But then, once you swallowed, the warmth spread. It was like swallowing the sun and feeling the beams slowly reach all over my body. Crimson to carmine. I liked this carmine.

I liked it a lot.

Most of my life has been spent, I now realize, in search of the inverse carmine. The pain becomes too much and I run for the beckoning warmth. I do it again and again, realizing that the warmth deceives, that warmth is also pain, and will lead to more and escalated pain.

Still, the lure of warmth holds the greatest sway. I seek warmth like the winter sunsets at the farm, and my parents and grandparents and their loving spirits.

Warmth like endless summer days when all I had to worry about was if we’d end up at Pizza Hut or McDonald’s after Tee-ball. Warmth like jumping in the hay in the barn and dreaming about girls and real electric guitars.

Who doesn’t want to be warm and safe?

Who cares that safety is a lie?



Image Source: EListMania

September, 1986: I was freshly fourteen, freshly home in Maine after four years of Florida exile and ready to start eighth grade. I missed Maine like crazy, but I got used to the life of a pre-teen Florida beach bum/skate rat. Every day in Jacksonville was like a Cameron Crowe film, and I was straight out of central casting, bedecked with a devil-lock (nicely highlighted by fourteen bottles of Sun-in), surf and skate tees, Jimmy-Z’s skate shorts and violet Chuck Taylors.

My new Maine chums were, to put it mildly, a little taken aback by me. Walking into Sugg Middle School, Lisbon Falls, Maine, circa 1986, was like walking into a documentary about the Nixon years. I decided to dress up in a Cosby sweater for that first day. My classmates were all bowl cuts and bangs and jean jackets. I was listening to and skating to The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, The Ramones and Agent Orange. Transportation for the rest of the class revolved around the most extreme engines on two or four wheels, and the Maine airwaves were filled with Grace Slick and John Kay and Steppenwolf on the dinosaur station.

And there were only two feet clad in violet Chucks for many miles around.

It was September, 1986. Reagan and Gorbachev were staring each other down. The Red Sox were cruising in the American League East. The Beastie Boys, Robert Palmer and Don Johnson (sic) ruled the charts, and Who’s The Boss?, Growing Pains and ALF were must see TV.

I was fourteen and finally back home after four years of dreaming. And I was about to become a middle school pariah; a purple-wearing faggot.



Happy 4th by Westbye
Happy 4th, a photo by Westbye on Flickr.

The eleven mile stretch between my grandparent’s farm and the town of Gardiner, Maine had several farms that featured their name on the barn. There was the MAPLE TREE FARM, which had a plank sign above the barn doors. Then there was the Chip Off The Block Farm, which was a red barn with the name and an Amish seeing-eye design painted on. But my favorite was the LENTY TO DO FARM. I never thought about what it meant to have Lenty to Do, or what it took to accomplish Lenty, and it certainly never occurred to me that perhaps a “P” had fallen off somewhere. It was the LENTY TO DO FARM, and that was that. No questions, nothing to see here.

As my grandpa whipped us past these farms in the Oldsmobile, I always wished we had a finger bar mower, just like the one on the tractor, attached to the passenger side. Grandpa would attach the mower to the tractor, lower it so its gruesome, pulsing teeth spread out six feet from the tractor and a foot above the ground, and drive out into the fields to mow the hay. I always pictured the mower on the car, destroying everything in its path: mailboxes, telephone poles, all the detritus of the sidewalk decapitated and laying in a swath of rural destruction at the hands of the Rocket Delta 88.

A trip to Gardiner meant a haircut for grandpa and getting toys at Wilson’s Department Store for my brother, grandmother and me. We would park next to the Kennebec River and walk up the stairs of the Arcade to Water St. The Arcade was narrow and rickety, and always smelled of musty river water, greasy paper plates with pizza slices in some form of forgotten decomposition and occasionally urine.

The toy section was upstairs at Wilson’s, and it was a magical world of Hot Wheels cars, car and airplane model kits, Diff’rent Strokes and Dukes of Hazzard coloring books and my favorite: Topps Baseball Sticker Albums with shiny stickers. And of course whiffle balls and bats for games on the lawn of the farm.

After doing our trading, as grandma would call it, grandpa got behind the wheel of the Olds and floored it home.

Some grandfathers sit on the porch and tell grandiose fishing stories. Some grandfathers play Bingo at the VA and volunteer for bean suppers. My grandfather drove like a maniac. Yelling at everything and nothing, dropping cigar ashes, eating…driving never deterred him from any of the above. Why so crazy? Temperament and more lax traffic enforcement, I guess. Why the hurry? Probably to make it home in time for the start of Another World. We always seemed to make it just in time.

I would sit in the back of the Delta 88, driving my new Hot Wheels across the bench seat, breathing in that wonderful cigar smoke, and plotting the destruction of rural Maine by hay mower as we pushed 60 in a 35. Anything that existed within six feet of the road was a goddamn goner. I probably would have spared the LENTY TO DO FARM, though. Whatever Lenty was, I didn’t want to have it to do.

Image Source: fearlessvk

I’ve dreamed of the delta as long as I’ve heard the sound. Memphis and Vicksburg, Jackson and Dockery and Yazoo City. I imagine the heat and dirt kicking off the tires on Highway 61, before it was revisited, and the smell of magnolias and the silt of the Mississippi and the Yazoo. High cotton in high summer, a rocker on a porch, sweet tea and good conversation. Catfish and ribs and cornbread, and biscuits as big as the sky. I hear the creak of old pine floors and a night full of cicadas. Hand-held fans, Mason jars, all genteel and proper. I see and smell and taste Mississippi America in my minds-eye and ache to see if my imagination is right.

But mostly I hear the delta. Hubert Sumlin and Mississippi Fred McDowell, Charley Patton, Son House and Pinetop Perkins. Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads. I hear the call and response, the holler, the moan of redemption and exaltation in song. America, Americana, American Roots, American Blues. I hear a bottleneck against heavy strings raised well above the neck and the stomp of a foot keeping time. I hear one man playing three parts simultaneously and singing of a life of oppression on the plantation and salvation through Jesus: guttural and low, then liberated and blessed. I hear the spirit and soul of America and her promise and her shame. We Shall Overcome, Eyes On The Prize.

I dream of the delta and the sound of America, and I pick up the tune and join in the verse…

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It begins as a notion in the afternoon.

I’m deskbound at a call center, listening to irate and distraught insurance policy holders and informing them of their limited rights under the settlement of a class action lawsuit for $11 an hour. I have a 70 page script of legalese before me, and not one page bridges the gap between the answers that exist and the answers they want. I feel like a monster and want to visit every last caller and kick puppies in their presence, for all the good I’m doing them. 200 calls in queue throughout my floor. No let-up.

The Globe sits on my desk. I scan the box scores from last night, the news and notes, the predicted starters for tonight.


I step out of the air-conditioned nightmare into blissful east coast summer humidity. Gonna be a beautiful night, the kind you want to be outside for.


On the train, I grab a seat on the left so I can get a view of Dorchester Bay and the rainbow mural on the Boston Gas Tank. It’s the largest copyrighted piece of art in the world, and it’s a reproduction from the demolished original tank. Supposedly the artist painted a profile of Ho Chi Minh in one of the rainbow bands, but I can’t see it. Maybe that’s intentional. If I can I’ll grab a seat on the right as we approach Charles St. so I can take in the view of Boston when the train crosses the Longfellow Bridge.

If I’m still on the train, that is…

Yeah, why not? Ballgame tonight.

At Park St. I abandon my commute and switch to the Green Line. The buzz in my stomach grows as I get closer. Five stops away.

Boylston, Arlington, Copley, Hynes Convention Center, Kenmore Square.

The Greatest Walk

The train is packed. Game night crowd. I get off at Kenmore, hit the top of the stairs and step into an electric summer carnival.

The Vet who plays Hendrix tunes (right-handed) is set up, case open for donations. Unlicensed vendors sell woefully cheap t-shirts, caps and pennants, and the Boston Baseball hawkers do a brisk trade. I love their scorecards, so I hand over a buck for a copy. A kid plays drums on an array of plastic buckets and salvaged industrial parts. Rocker kids heading to see the latest and greatest bands at The Rat sneer, and I pass them by and rejoin the game crowd.

The Citgo sign does its synchronized neon dance across Commonwealth Ave. The sign – removed from its regular spot on top of the left field wall on a television screen – takes on an entirely new persona: night watchman for the square, guardian of the gate to the suburbs, all-seeing electric eye of Back Bay. It sits atop the BU Bookstore with no context, a relic from a distant era, now risen from darkness during the 80s energy shortage. It is cheap and vulgar, and beautiful and perfect. It is Fenway, it is Boston.

The game day crowd veers left onto Brookline Ave and approaches the bridge over the commuter rail tracks and the Mass Pike. And suddenly there is Fenway. The lights on the towers slowly turn on and John Fogerty plays on the PA. I look left and see the pike, the Prudential and John Hancock towers and all the lights of downtown dancing in the early twilight. I look ahead and see pre-game revelers streaming out of The Cask and Flagon.

Another bucket drummer is set up on the corner of Brookline and Lansdowne, and the air is heavy with the blissful smell of sausages, peppers and onions. A batting practice ball clears the wall and bounces on Lansdowne, and a group of kids with gloves chases down their treasure. The buzz of excitement in my stomach is out of control.


I get in line at the ticket office on Yawkee Way and scan the huge seating map. Outfield Grandstand seats available. Score! I buy one, head back outside and enter through the turnstile at Gate A.

Into the dark, down the ramps under the grandstands behind the plate. It is cooler and dark in here, with peanut shells crunching under every step. T-shirt stands, beer stands, chowder stands, Fenway Franks and ice cream helmets. I buy two dogs, smear on Gulden’s mustard and head up the ramp.

And there is the field and the wall and everything I’ve dreamed of all winter. The sun catches the edge of the roof above the right field grandstands, casting a glow across Fenway. The organ plays, the whites of the hometown team uniforms pop, the kids go crazy. I take my seat under the roof, scarf my dogs and fill out the lineups on my scorecard.

This is the oldest part of the park, with wooden slat seats that may date to the first game in 1912. The seats face center field, thus I have to crane left to see the mound and plate. They are narrow and hard, and there are poles in my line of vision. Because of the roof I can see nothing above the wall in left. And yet they are among my favorite seats in the house, just because of this coziness and feeling of originality.

A game at Fenway is a collage of a thousand moments that I treasure:

The pause just before the pitch. The pitcher holds the ball, just before the windup. The batter finishes cocking the bat and settles in his stance, ready, waiting. Infielders stop fidgeting and crouch in position like soldiers at attention. It feels like the air has been sucked out of the park. Then the tension is broken with the pitch…

The moment when the BALLS and STRIKES lights on the scoreboard snap off. End of inning, end of rally. Finality. Turn the frame, go get ‘em next time.

The slant of the sun across the field, and the approaching night.

The cry of the vendors and the linguistic joy ride that results from a heavy Massachusetts accent. HEY, HUT DUGHS heeeAAAHHH! FRESH POPPED PUP KAHN HEAH!

The feeling that somebody sat in this very spot and watched Babe Ruth hit. Somebody sat in this very spot and watched Ted Williams and DiMaggio. The connection to that history and the history of Boston just outside the walls.

The final out and the exit from the park to a changed world.

Night has come and I wish I had a coat. And I still have to get home. But I have spent the night at Fenway Park, and for a few hours I have left the day, the call center, the irate and the distraught and the trappings of the real world behind. It begins with a notion in the afternoon and ends with the warm glow that comes from a surprise gift. I go home with the feeling that there is nowhere else in the world I would rather have been, and no greater adventure than the one I had getting there.

Image Sources:

Cook & Son’s Bats Blog

Sitting in the Bleachers

Martha Ackmann

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