The first chord of “Kluane Lake” is a drop cap. It’s the start of the piece, but it’s also an announcement that the piece is starting, so listen, and a promise that where it goes next will be a place worth going.
This chord has no time. It just rings. Time doesn’t start until the rest of the phrase, having listened, now takes its own traveling steps. It’s also a chord I love, but which, until Monday night, I had never played on a good piano.
I’ve been threatening to play at an open mic night since separation, when I got the upright piano with the broken leg. I bought the sheet music for the Gymnopedies and learned my favorite one—which I’d always imagined being able to play—by penciling in the note names, and relearned “On the Rebound,” a Floyd Cramer piece that I learned the first time when I took piano lessons as a kid. I practiced when the boys went to bed. I hope they remember it when they hear the Gymnopedie in a movie or something after I’m gone.
I also started writing songs at the piano. I thought I’d have a set of three post-divorce songs soon enough, and I’d go play them at an open mic night somewhere.
I no longer remember the details of the first one I finished. I think it was good, but I’ll have to refer to a recording to remind myself.
The second one I finished was much better. I think it works. It’s the first song I played and sang Monday night, slightly flummoxed by the microphone boom arm between me and the keyboard, the way I couldn’t tell how loud my voice was in the speakers, and the way the orientation of the piano put most of the audience behind me.
The third one I finished writing wasn’t a new song; it was “Kluane Lake,” a piano piece I’d started when I was much younger and never found a way to finish. One day in my three-boy home in my new life, my hand went to a chord that was down a whole step instead of up, and that unlocked its completion. I still have things I want to improve in the B section, but good enough: That and the second song could be a two-song open mic set.
I’d looked, on and off since landing in Connecticut, for open mic nights 1) with pianos 2) that weren’t at bars 3) and didn’t feature session musicians jamming. I didn’t find any for a long time. Now, with two new pieces burning a hole in my pocket, wanting to be spent, I searched again and found one. 40 miles away, Monday nights. I’d already visited half a dozen open mics a year or two earlier; now I drove out to this one, just to scope it out, not to play.
I didn’t hear the piano that night—no one had signed up to play it—but it was the place. Coffeehouse vibe, even though it was a performance space, and I was told they kept the piano tuned. A few weeks later, I psyched myself up and then chickened out. Monday night, I went back and signed up.
All I really wanted to tell you, though, was what it was like to play this one declarative, declamatory chord. What came out of this Steinway baby grand was a sound my beaten Krakauer upright with the broken leg could only point at. It was truer to the music in my head than even my head could be. The clarity and flat-out power of the chord . . . I don’t have words. It contained more of the divine than I’ve ever heard in it, and I’ve heard it maybe a thousand times.
My old Krakauer with the broken leg makes digital pianos—even the ones with expensive samples and the latest algorithms—sound like toys. This Steinway baby grand did not make my Krakauer sound like a toy; it sounded like what the Krakauer meant but could never fully express. It sounded like how a lake in the Yukon should sound when put to music.
My playing . . . was all right. My nerves in the strangeness of that performance space will improve, and more of the music will be unhindered by them. The B section will improve, too, in small compositional decisions that, when enough accumulate, will nudge it in the right direction on the pedestrian-to-sublime spectrum.
Next time, though, I’ll just do “On the Rebound.” It’s upbeat, there’s no singing, and I can do audience hand claps. I want to see if they’ll let me turn the piano around, though. It’s hard to connect with an audience when you’re facing the back wall.
PARENT is washing dishes, thinking about various ways the threads of abuse in his family of origin have reached through generations when CHILD 1 enters, crying.
CHILD 1: [crying] I snapped! I … [incomprehensible]—
PARENT: I can’t understand what you’re saying.
CHILD 1: I said I wanted tinvi papartins ackzed [incomprehensible]—
PARENT: I still can’t understand what you’re saying.
CHILD 1: I said I wanted to invite someone to the party, and—
PARENT: What party?
CHILD 1: Our birthday party.
[Their birthday party is still a ways off.]
PARENT : Oh… OK, go on.
CHILD 1: And I wanted to invite someone he doesn’t know, and he said no, and I said but you invited [friend] when I didn’t know him, and he was going [does impression of brother looking away and making yak-yak-yak puppet gesture with his hand] and I said stop doing that and he said F you, and I threw the orange chair at him.
[The “orange chair” is a small stuffed ottoman, just fabric and stuffing, a little heavy, but no hard parts.]
PARENT: [silent for probably half a minute, still washing dishes] I don’t know what to say to that. It’s—I wasn’t expecting to have to deal with this right now, so gimme some time to think about it before I say anything, please.
[Child 1 exits, parent continues to wash dishes, reflecting that this is much too tidy for good fiction, and there should be some time between thinking about his family of origin and being presented with a related situation in his own. Thoughts go in several predictable directions: Sit them down, listen to both sides, and deliver judgment; take screen time away from both of them; tell them to work it out between themselves; give them a lecture about how people treat each other; yell at them to get their attention; tell one to F himself and throw a big pillow at the other to teach empathy.
Dishrack fills up. Parent reflects some more on the threads of abuse in generations of his own family, goes upstairs, gathering Child 1 along the way. Upstairs, the orange ottoman is back where it belongs. CHILD 2 is sitting on his bed.]
CHILD 2: [extra cutely] Hello!
PARENT: Hello. Both of you sit over there.
[Parent sits on Child 1’s bed. Both children sit on Child 2’s bed, facing him.]
PARENT: Do you want to be abusive men when you grow up?
BOTH: [shocked] No!
PARENT: Then stop practicing to be abusive men.
[Parent exits silent room, goes back to dishes, waits ten years to see if this was actually as good as it seemed at the moment.]
My grandfather had a temper. He would “pop his top,” I was told. Voices would be lowered in the telling. That was one of his defining characteristics. The family stories involve fists. The fists are his, my dad’s, and my cousins’. The fists aren’t thrown in these stories, so either it was a lot of posturing or I didn’t get the good stories.
My father had a temper, too. He ran ice cold until he blew. Two speeds.
A few months ago, I walked out on my family. I left one child with a red, fearful face, and the other wide-eyed with trepidation. It was the end of a 99-stressor single-parent time-bomb day, and the hundredth had just come. I don’t remember what it was, but it was in the kitchen, and it was some extremely simple thing I’d micromanaged, one tiny step at a time, every single step done ridiculously wrong by the child, after ten or fourteen hours of every other possible thing being frustrated, one at a time, with no other parent around to shove this onto, and all the work things going wrong, and the car, and the money, and I — JUST —
There’s an instant, so small it seems between instants, when something in you makes a decision. It can be to fight, to explode, to rage… If you’ve never been taught what to do during that instant, it feels like there’s no other way. I never have been taught.
Nothing feels worse than two minutes after you explode at your kids, when the adrenaline drains out — unless it’s ten minutes after that, when someone tells you your kids have to learn that Dad’s human. It’s worse because not only does it underline that yeah, you WERE just an unacceptable asshole to the most vulnerable people in your own family, but in addition to dealing with the fallout from the explosion, you’ve also got to figure out what to do with well-intentioned enablers making excuses for bad behavior.
Yes. You were just an utter asshole. No, it was not OK. Yes, you scared someone.
Yes, there was more stress than you could handle. Yes, you resisted for days, minutes, seconds, whatever. Sure, if you want credit for that, I guess you get it, but no, what you did after that was not OK. In the instant that’s so small, it’s between instants, you made that left turn. Yes, I know you couldn’t find anywhere to turn right, and the brakes were out. You still made the left.
I’ve told therapists, in various contexts, that I need to know what to do. I need a plan that I can have ready to go, so I can just pull it out and follow it when I need it. I think it’s useless to tell someone what not to do, or even for them to realize it themselves. It’s only useful to give them something to do. In couples’ counseling, I was smiled at after I said that, and the conversation was guided elsewhere. I may have brought it up twice or so, I don’t remember, exactly, but not three times. After that, I didn’t bring it up again. But I still thought it was true.
So at some point this year or last, after losing it after X number of frustrating things I couldn’t handle piled on top of each other in too short a time period, I decided next time, at that instant, I’d just walk out. That would be the plan I could remember and reach for at that instant. It would feel bad to me — partly because it’s blatantly disrespectful to whoever I’m walking out on, and partly because it feels like losing when all my hormones are boiling up for the very purpose of NOT LOSING — but it couldn’t possibly feel as bad as two minutes after exploding at my children.
So… I did. The instant between instants came, and I knew that if I moved even a single muscle, or said a single word, a whole giant dam of lava would burst out.
And I walked OUT. I didn’t look at the child, say a word, nothing. I stormed out of the kitchen and out the front door and went and stood on the lawn and looked out at the entire universe I was enraged at.
And the rage dulled a little. But I’m middle-aged and know what happens when you go back into something after counting to ten. All you’ve accomplished is a ten-count intermission, and here we go, back to it, and now we’re in Act II, which has the climax. So I went over to the sidewalk, still in that state where if I were younger, I could convince myself it was time to go back in. I didn’t go back in, and started walking instead.
My kids are twelve years old. As the finale to a scary crescendo, they’d been abandoned in their house at night.
I kept walking, turned a corner, and tried to stay selfish as the guilt started sneaking in. Though I have my helicopter moments, I’m basically not a hoverer — I don’t repeat the exceptions to that statement once I notice them, and I expect Urgent Care visits as part of parenthood — but I felt deeply that leaving them was wrong. I kept walking. The plan was to disengage, and I was following it, though I couldn’t remember why. I just knew it was the plan.
There’s a gas station at the corner of the next street. I went in and bought ice cream.
I did not go the shortest way home with the ice cream. I went the long block instead of the little alley street. It was dark. My house had the kitchen lights on. My kids were inside near tears. Neither knew where I’d gone, or when I’d be back. One probably felt it was his fault. They were both scared.
First positive reinforcement: I was right. It didn’t feel as bad as two minutes after an explosion.
So I explained that I didn’t know what else to do, but I knew I was going to explode, so I broke the cycle. Maybe I did a good job, maybe I didn’t. Maybe it was the right thing, maybe it was the wrong thing. But that’s what I was trying to do: break the cycle. And I did.
Second positive reinforcement: They understood. And look — now we can just apologize to each other, nobody got exploded at, nobody feels awful — bad, sure; scared, sure; but not awful — and we have ice cream.
They told me some more how scared they were, I apologized some more for that, and we all thought, you know… that was actually kind of good.
Let’s try to do that next time, too.
They were bickering in the kitchen, and the crescendo was building. Remember what we talked about, I said when I walked in. Remember what I did that other night? Remember breaking the cycle? It ended with one of them leaving. He was NOT happy. His brother DID complain about him when he left. There ABSOLUTELY WAS stewing and steaming.
But we did it.
Break the cycle, I told them again, when they were bickering again, and a child with a face as resentful as faces can get, red and blotchy and ready to blow, walked out.
I was working in the living room one day, and a child came and sat down next to me and said nothing.
Okay, I said, when the distraction was too much for my work concentration. What’s up.
I’m breaking the cycle, he said.
And I was like—
Not the cycle thing, but the modeling behavior and having them practice it thing? It works? After just two practices?
We added to it: Tell the other person that’s what you’re doing instead of just leaving.
And then a week or a month later. Plop. Child. What’s up? I’m breaking the cycle.
This is a Rosh Hashanah post. Junior Chef and I made challah today, and took the loaf to a local park with running water for tashlich. Tashlich is a Rosh Hashanah tradition of casting your sins away, in the form of bread crumbs. We’ve done it every year, even back before we were a three-dude family, and every year, I re-explain what we’re doing. We’re not feeding ducks, we’re throwing away the mistakes we’ve made and thinking about how to do better. The Jewish concept of sin isn’t the Christian concept. All it means is you missed, try again better. You know what you were supposed to do. So we’re throwing away our guilt or depression about the miss, and just taking a better shot.
Today, it came to me what tashlich really meant this year: We hadn’t missed.
We hadn’t missed.
We put the frisbee in the car and went over onto the little bridge while a local Jewish group started their guitar playing and speeches on a makeshift stage a few hundred feet away, and I said:
My grandfather — your great-grandfather — had a temper…
— And my father …
— And I …
— And you …
And in four generations — probably a hundred years — you are the first ones who can break the cycle.
So yeah, think about whatever you did this year that you need to do better. We’re still doing that. But we’re not really here to throw our sins into the lake this year. We’re here to say:
My marriage finished going to hell in 2013. In 2016, I finally got back to the only sport I’ve ever loved, randonneuring, and came close to completing an SR series (a 200K, 300K, 400K, and 600K brevet in a calendar year), but when I realized there was no way to finish the 600K within the time limit, I ended it a hundred kilometers short.
This is my second try since 2014 marital separation. The 2016 election results laid me out right when I naturally start losing weight and building quads, in November, so I’m a little unmoored and flabby about this year’s endeavor, but today I decided what I want.
Between May and August, I will:
- Prepare as best I can, given the limits of my schedule and my mental and physical conditions, and then ride as though I came to have fun.
- Be the least forgiving observer of my arrival times.
- Return under my own power if I DNF, unless prevented by mechanical failure or rigid calendar.
- Continue an R-12, regardless of how I feel about my performance during the season.
- Spend less time on randonneuring than on my children and the rent; moderately more than on my novel; and way more than on household upkeep. The children can eat water chestnuts and dress themselves out of the hamper.
- Plan a midseason intermission of normal recreational cycling and picking up dropped balls, so that September doesn’t deliver as overwhelming an avalanche of deferred responsibility as it did last year.
- Print this out and put it in my map holder and above the refrigerator, because this is all the kind of stuff you conveniently can’t quite remember when you need to.
There’s been a line of empty sake bottles above the kitchen sink with 100K, 200K, 300K, and 400K written on them since last year. The 600K bottle is still in the fridge door.
So I’ll try not to have too much riding on this, and we’ll see.
MY FATHER MADE it clear to me that I was mechanically inept. “Sometimes it skips a generation,” was the phrase, and we believe what we’re told by people we believe love us. He had it, I didn’t, and because it had skipped me, I never would.
ALL THE QUOTES are from Pastime, a 1991 Spenser novel.
“Remember,” I said, “there were no women. Just my father, my uncles, and me. So all the chores were done by men. There was no woman’s work. There were no rules about what was woman’s work. In our house all work was man’s work. So I made beds and dusted and did laundry, and so did my father, and my uncles. And they took turns cooking.”
The first thing I bought to improve my kitchen was a serving spoon. I was working at Scholastic Books in Manhattan, and across from it was Dean and DeLuca, a very expensive gourmet shop where sometimes, to make myself feel better, I’d drop several dollars more on a treat than something only a scant degree less enjoyable would have cost at Cafe Duke.
They had utensils there, too, not just tony takeout. I thought about it and bought this big, pretty, satin-finish serving spoon.
THEN, BECAUSE I was reading Consider the Fork, and she swore by tongs, a pair of those, also from Dean and DeLuca; and thanks to a minor casino windfall of my wife’s, a rice cooker from Mitsuwa Marketplace—the largest Japanese grocery store in the US, which I’d sometimes stop into after riding my bike into New Jersey, to pack my single pannier with sake for me and mochi or candy for my family. Then the Microplane Zester/Grater—I think that was also from Consider the Fork—and I don’t remember the order of acquisitions after that. A thing here, a thing there. All haphazard, probably, from the outside, but tightly integrated to the emerging pattern in here. A pretty serving spoon was only needed if I was going to take food seriously enough to want to present it; we already had black nylon cooking spoons, which we used for both stirring and serving. This would not be used for stirring. Tongs were only necessary if I wanted to risk, on the say-so of a book, money on a utensil I’d never felt the lack of, but which an expert called her most valuable. And a rice cooker is a long-term decision about nutrition, expense, and self-reliance…and I have this Kurusawa/Mifune thing. The ronin in The Seven Samurai—as determined, scarred, and self-reliant as any knight-errant gumshoe—accept rice as payment.
Separated by weeks and freelance checks came: a good garlic press, a balloon whisk despite already having a spiral one, a small mortar and pestle, two nice big white serving bowls from Sur La Table, nested, even though mixing bowls had been serving the same purpose just fine. Each item requiring a second or third thought, and usually a second or third visit, before the purchase.
“So all of you cooked?”
“Yeah, but no one was proprietary about it. It wasn’t anyone’s accomplishment, it was a way to get food in the proper condition to eat.”
MY MARRIAGE ENDED, after a quarter-century, in July, 2014. She moved first, to the county in Connecticut we’d agreed on so the boys could have good schools and I could have train access to Scholastic. By the time the moving started, Scholastic had given all my work to a much larger vendor that could offer bulk pricing. No time to react. Two weeks later, I landed in the same county, different town.
I got the old raw-wood Ikea utility table. On our first weekend together, I had the boys sand and stain it with me, and it moved into our new kitchen as our new prep table. It fit perfectly. We didn’t have anywhere to eat yet, or even a wastebasket, but I knew what kind of little family of men I wanted.
THEY TURNED TEN soon after we moved. Now they’re eleven.
I called them to the top of the stairs to their room this evening, and said to the one who’s only intermittently interested in cooking, “There are two things I need done, and you can choose which. One, you can wash some dishes and set the table. Two, I need the chain taken off my folding bike, which is in the bike garage on the workstand, and put to soak in cleaner.”
His brother’s dream is to be on MasterChef Junior; I’ve been working with him on cooking since we moved here. This boy’s equivalent started four days ago, when he began his career as a mechanic by replacing the rear dérailleur and shifter cable on a little secondhand mountain bike his mom bought to keep at her place. His career will probably not be as a mechanic; he wants to be a scientist. I will probably never be able to send him to college, but I was struck, long ago, by Richard Feynman’s stories of being “The Boy Who Fixes Radios By Thinking,” and I can at least give him a tactile understanding of basic physics. The classical simple machines are lever, wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, and screw. Bicycles are compound collections of four out of six, and the other two (wedge, inclined plane) are integral to fixing and riding them.
And not just of basic physics, but of applied physics; felt physics. Reading about springs and being able to repeat that they store energy is not the same as getting your finger pinched when a dérailleur snaps back on its hanger. The abstraction of reading says the physical world is readily understood and easily manipulated. The orneriness of reality teaches you that perseverance and endurance are the only things that really ever manipulate it.
The bike garage is the only room in the house where he’s allowed to swear.
I’ve struggled with dérailleur adjustment for two years, since I bought my first workstand and bike tool set during the same life epoch that pushed me to buy the serving spoon. Lightly guiding my budding mechanic through his own first repair blew away the last of the obstacles. I now get it. Last night after seeing my boys at a school concert and then leaving them and driving half an hour home by myself, I needed to make myself feel better, so I shouldered my randonneuring bike down the basement stairs and tuned up its winter-beaten drivetrain. I didn’t refer to any of my previous printouts from the web. It just makes sense.
It made sense to mechanical boy in a single day. Mostly I just tightened things his hands were too small for, made him stop when he jumped to the wrong conclusions, and told him not to hit himself in the face with the cable.
I also had him touch the cable near the shifter while turning the grip, to feel what’s going on up there, and then had him do it again while watching the dérailleur. His light bulbs went off so much faster than mine ever have. He’s got that thing I don’t.
“Your father sounds as if he were comfortable with his ego,” Susan said.
“He never felt the need to compete with me,” I said. “He was always very willing for me to grow up.”
SO I HAVE my fantasy house, my little family of men. I yell at them sometimes, which Spenser’s fictitious father and uncles never did, and feel unforgivably shitty and apologize. I’m trying to be an ideal, and that’s something nobody can maintain outside the hermetic chamber of a book. But even an unattainable ideal lies in a direction, and if we don’t aim for it, we don’t travel in that direction, and can’t get reshaped by the effort.
We’re still jerks sometimes, all three of us, including the one who’s not eleven, but I think we’re teaching each other how to be better men, one generation to the next.
IT WAS A very simple dinner tonight because of work and being tired and not-recovered-yet broke, and as a pan heated, I went downstairs, plausibly to make sure the mechanic knew where the Chain Brite was before he got started, but really to see about fingers not being pinched, and he was already done. The chain and master link were soaking in the yellow Domino Sugar tub. So I agreed that yes, it is very fun and he should totally do more of this kind of thing, and went back up to the kitchen and his brother said, “Can I butterfly these sausages for you, Dad?”
I know how I got here. I don’t want to sound disingenuous. It was intentional.
This is just a night when I had that moment, and am amazed.
So first Fat Cyclist called me out, and then I called him out back, and then he missed his story deadline, and then I made my deadline for “The Rambler, Part 2,” and gave him more time and he got “Last Ride on the Kokopelli” done, and then November 30th at midnight, I missed my deadline for getting the whole book together and up for sale.
So…I can’t tell who won anything. I think we both lost—but we also both finished our stories, and I’m about to finish the book. That’s noble and honorable, right? Coming in under your own power after you miss the cutoff?
Here’s the cover:
It still needs its back cover and spine designed, a missing author blurb snagged, ISBNs registered, and some other stuff that somebody’s got to do and I’m the only one here. I tried. Sometimes N+1 is how long it’s going to take to finish a book.
Should be a couple more days or so.
We also never quite got around to agreeing on exactly what would happen if one of us lost, but now that both of us have, it seems to me it should be doubled.
So if we take [never really figured out this bet] and double it, we get…uh…well, I think we get “donate money to each other’s favorite charity.”
What say you, FC?