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.


JMB said...

The Charles Bukowski bumper sticker made me LOL.

I walk a lot too. I walk my daughter to school and then continue (with dog) on a longer route. The other day, I was approaching an elderly man and he stopped and I thought, oh shit he wants to talk. So he goes, "I see you at mass sometimes, how's it working out for you, because it isn't working out for me at all". I didn't know what to say so I started to laugh and agreed with him. Then we chatted about the dog and he took off.

Pentimento said...

That's kind of awesome. That's one of those conversation openers that seems to be ordained by God.I hope you see him again, and I hope it will start working out for him.

I also snorted with laughter when I saw the Bukowski sticker.

Sally Thomas said...

I am always so happy to hear violin teachers diss Suzuki. I find it cultishly creepy, not to mention kind of a racket. My daughter really loathed what exposure she had to the "method," and finding teachers who would consent to ditch it in favor of letting her read the music, which she could do already, was a challenge. She began the violin relatively late, at 8, and hated being stuck with, as she put it, robotic Twinkle-Twinkle midgets.

Her last teacher/youth-orchestra conductor used the Suzuki books some for exercise books, and when we went to buy one from the violin store we got a stern lecture from the man behind the counter about how we were probably screwing up my 17-year-old's playing forever by not using only as directed. Sheesh. Entirely coincidentally, I'm sure, his wife's a Suzuki strings teacher . . .

My daughter told her teacher this; he rolled his eyes and said, "I'm not a fan. Here. Play this Bizet."

He also diagnosed her as a German Romantic type, which is about right. She's not a Bach personality at all. You and she would probably get on well.

Pentimento said...

Ha! As far as Bach goes, I know I was supposed to be flattered when a musicologist I know told me recently that I had the personality of a Bach singer, but I was actually annoyed.

You know, I had never considered what I now realize is the unwholesomeness of Suzuki. My son was kicked out of his first violin teacher's studio after just three lessons -- she was a Suzuki teacher -- because of his wild behavior. When I realized he could read music, I knew that being kicked out had actually been felicitous.

And now I finally understand why I failed so miserably at Suzuki violin myself. Violin was my second instrument (after piano), and I'm not exactly what you would call an inherently unmusical person. And yet, my grade-school Suzuki teacher, a real bully and tormenter, it must be said, kept me in the first book for three years. I wouldn't practice because I was so miserable. Finally, one day she put the second book in front of me, and told me to sightread the first piece. But she had never told me the names of the notes I was playing with my fingers on the pieces of tape! Still, looking at that piece, I realized in a sort of flash of enlightenment that F# was one finger on the E string, etc. I played that lesson, then never went back.

lissla lissar said...

We also walk everywhere, but it's pretty common here not to have a car, what with our decent transit system.

Right now I'm not supposed to walk, and have just gotten to the level of third-trimester tiredness which makes it less appealing, but I am desperately looking forward to May and the re-opening of the farmer's markets, so we can do our set market-library-park-home walk twice a week.

Also, last year I was too morning sick to appreciate fresh vegetables. I'm hoping this year I won't be too tired to think of cooking, when local produce season arrives.

Charming Disarray said...

This is really lovely. I don't think I've read another "Quick Takes" post that I enjoyed so much.

Pentimento said...

Lissla, please forgive me for not knowing you were pregnant with #3! I don't allow myself to read blogs anymore because I have a big writing project that I have to finish by a set time. Please accept my tardy congratulations!

Charming Disarray, thank you! As the take-out coffee cup from my lamented home town says, "We are happy to serve you." : )

Caldrik said...

Oooh, then I get to spring the BIG news- we're having twins! Identical twin girls- Geoff is cycling between ecstasy and terror at having to tell them apart.

We're having blood pressure problems, and hoping to hold on for another two weeks, when they'll be 35 weeks and have developed their lungs a bit more.

And we'll have four under five. Heaven help us....

Really Rosie said...

I think you just made my day.

Pentimento said...

That is beyond awesome, Lissla and Geoff! Congratulations!

And Rosie, as you know, We Are Happy to Serve You!

lissla lissar said...

Oh, bother. That was Geoff's account, logged in. It's still me.

Pentimento said...

I knew it was you, no worries!

entropy said...

I agree with Charming Disarray.

Wonderful Quick Takes.

Marcie said...

I'm coming out of nowhere here, interested in the commentary on Suzuki. (Been reading and enjoying your blog for a while.) My daughter did Suzuki violin for a short time when she was about six. Before long, it was evident that she pretty much hated it, and after making her stick with it a while, I conceded and let her quit.

I recall vividly the day: it was time to go to her lesson. As we left the house for the car, she was resisting again, and I finally decided, "fine, we're done with this."

The afternoon paper had arrived. On the way back into the house, I opened it up, and saw the article announcing the death of Shinichi Suzuki. Forgive me, but my sense of black humor kicked right in. "Oh, great. We've just killed Suzuki."

Huh - curious about when exactly that happened, I just looked it up. He died on Jan. 26, 1998 - 14 years ago today.

My daughter is now in college, majoring in vocal performance, and has won a couple awards for her piano playing along the way. I guess being a Suzuki quitter didn't exactly ruin her for music forever. :)

Pentimento said...

All the Suzuki detractors are coming out of the woodwork!

Honestly, I had never heard any criticism of Suzuki until my son's violin lesson the other night. I just knew is wasn't right *for him*, and I also recalled my miserable experiences with it, which nonetheless did not put me off music forever either, or otherwise deter my going into it as a profession somehow.

But I am really starting to wonder about how it gained such a foothold here, and am really starting to doubt its efficacy as a pedagogy across the board.

MrsDarwin said...

I learned viola from the Suzuki books, but never followed the method -- I was 16 when I started viola, and had been playing piano for ages. I think my teacher just used them because they were (in the pre-internet days) easy to acquire. One forgets, now that it's so easy to order something on Amazon, the kind of searching around you had to do if you couldn't get to the big sheet music store way up north or the great violin shop out west.

Lissla, I'm so glad someone else accidentally posts under her husband's account. I feel like I'm always doing that. We share a computer and a password.

Pentimento, I agree with everyone. These are wonderful Takes.

Pentimento said...

Thanks for the love, all, and back atcha.

Mrs. Darwin has politely neglected to mention that she has actually ridden as a passenger in a car that I was driving. : )

Melanie B said...

I clicked through from Google reader to tell you what a nice breath of fresh air this post was. Evidently I'm not the only one who felt that way.

I miss being a pedestrian. For the first two years that I lived in Salem I didn't have a car. I walked and took public transportation everywhere. It took almost two hours to get from my house in Salem to Boston College and involved a brisk minute walk to the commuter train, changing to the Green line in Boston followed by another brisk walk across campus. I miss the afternoons when I would linger in Boston on the way home, visit the Public Library or Boston Common, stroll down the city streets.... Having a car is nice; but it does mean that I tend to drive even where I might be able to walk. We're only a mile from the library but we never walk there. I worry about Bella being able to do the whole walk; but that just shows how little she is accustomed to walking.

lissla lissar said...

Nathaniel can walk quite long distances, and he's four. Of course, as soon as I found out I was pregnant I kicked him off the... the board thingy on the back of the stroller (brain melt), and as soon as I found out it was twins he definitely had to walk everywhere, so he's pretty trained, now.

Mrs. Darwin, we share a computer and always leave ourselves logged in, and we're always saying, "Hey, this isn't MY gmail account!" just before hitting send.

Running board. It's called a running board. Pregnancy brain.

MrsDarwin said...

Aw, Pentimento, you're a good driver. I'd rather ride with you than with my mom. :)

Pentimento said...

You flatter me. We'll see where the chips fall today. : )