Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Quick Takes: Walking Distance
1. My son has moved up to the next-sized violin, a one-quarter which he has dubbed J.J. It's the first instrument he's had that actually sounds, when played, like a real violin. When I rented his previous axe, a one-eighth size which he called McGillicuddy, it already had little pieces of red tape stuck to the fingerboard to help little hands find the right notes, so I ignorantly asked our violin teacher, an elderly Hungarian master, to put some tape on J.J.'s neck for the same purpose. He fixed me with a stern look. "Pentimento," he said, "that is Suzuki nonsense. Do you think I learned to play with pieces of tape on my instrument? He will learn to play the right notes by tuning with his ear and adjusting his fingers accordingly." I was embarrassed; of course, he was absolutely right, and, by the middle of the lesson, my son was tuning and adjusting and playing the right notes all on his own. All of a sudden I saw the proliferation and near-cult status of Suzuki instruction in this country -- perhaps unjustly -- as a money-making conspiracy, and started to wonder if it had played any part in the precipitous decline in musical literacy we've experienced in the past fifty years in America.
2. I brought McGillicuddy with us as I walked my son to school this morning, because the violin rental shop, operated out of a private Victorian home, is another three-quarters of a mile's walk away. A dad dropping off his daughter said to me, "It's so great that you walk everywhere!" I explained to him that not only was I not legally licensed to drive a car (though I may be by the end of this week, after I take my road test on Friday), but that if I didn't walk each day, no matter what the weather, my head would probably explode.
3. I hadn't had breakfast, and was hungry after dropping off McGillicuddy, so I walked the few blocks to the main commercial thoroughfare in the neighborhood, and went to the only place that was open at 8 AM, which was McDonald's. Until we moved here, I would go to McDonald's maybe once every five or six years, but things really change when you move to the greater U.S.A. I remember mentioning this to Really Rosie once, and she scolded me, saying, "Haven't you read Fast Food Nation?" In fact I have, and so I know that McDonald's is destroying not only American society but also the entire universe. Nonetheless, I'm not a great believer in the efficacy of ideological boycotts, especially when you're hungry and it's the only game in town. We boycotted Nestlé when I was little because of their greedy, unethical formula-pushing in maternity wards in Africa, which led to the deaths of thousands of infants; but it occurs to me now that few people who boycott Nestlé probably believe that abortion should be banned, which raises inevitable questions about the efficacy of such protests. About boycotting, I guess I have a sort of "circumcise your hearts" attitude.
4. As I ordered a sausage muffin and a coffee with five creams on the side, I briefly hoped that the front-end worker wouldn't think I was a junkie, which I probably would have thought if someone had ordered a coffee with five creams from me. But then again, I didn't ask for sugar. I contemplated the offer on the wall behind the counter of Braille and picture menus, which gave me the good feeling that McDonald's is friendly towards people with disabilities, immigrants, and those with selective mutism. As I had my breakfast, I thought about where I might be if I were still in New York. Probably on the subway on my way to teach at the large urban university where I was an adjunct in the music department. Some of my fellow riders would be nodding off on strangers' shoulders, while others would be attempting to construct impenetrable self-contained universes around themselves with their iPods and newspapers. Young orthodox Jewish women, looking like it was 1949 in wool coats, platform pumps, and smart chapeaux, would be reading from little Hebrew prayer books with their red-painted lips moving silently, and would finish by kissing the books and stuffing them back into their pocketbooks.
5. After McDonald's, I walked over to the dollar store to get some cleaning supplies, and one of the grotesquely-tattooed moms from my son's class -- the one who drives a new Cadillac -- pulled over to offer me a ride. "I see you walking everywhere in the neighborhood," she noted, correctly. As we drove the few short blocks, she told me she was a vegan, that she didn't wear leather shoes, and that the U.S.D.A. allows one eyedropperful of pus in every glass of milk. There's more to these tattooed moms than meets the eye, I thought.
6. On my way to the violin shop through a run-down working-class neighborhood, I saw a little old Ford parked on the street covered with bumper stickers, one of which said, "I'd rather be reading Charles Bukowski." And when I entered McDonald's, they were playing "Bring It On Home to Me" (above), one of the most perfect songs ever written. It made me feel as if strange epiphanies might be happening all over the world in the most unlikely places.
7. My favorite crossing guard is training her elderly father, a man named Loyal, for the job. Yesterday, his first day without her, he asked me how many children I had. I told him just my kindergarten-aged boy for now, and mentioned our upcoming adoption. Loyal, who is what evangelicals call a "Bible-believing Christian," responded to the news about the adoption by noting that those who are merciful will be shown mercy. Somehow I hadn't thought about mercy in the context of adoption before, and as we stood there chatting at the street corner, he with a yellow reflective jacket and a stop sign in his hand, tears rolled unchecked down my cheeks.
8. All of which makes me think that, even if I pass my road test, I will still want to walk everywhere, lest I miss something beautiful.