More of a Skirmish. Fray Rejoined.

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Easy title, tough challenge. Here we go.

I’m back.

There are endless things to write about, and an infinite number of slimy ways to wriggle away from keyboard, from pen, from the front lines. (Yes, I’ve been meditating on courage, and how life’s demands so often exceed personal supply. I can’t want that.) Courage. My word.¹ When I think of writers I heart the best – and it’s KV² I come back to ever and anon – it’s sometimes ‘how did they do that?’ (technically, commitment-wise) but mostly it’s ‘how did they do  that?’. That is, what allows or compels an artist to be so bloody BRAVE, or reckless, or whatever it takes to tell the whole truth?

¹ Courage: Gord Downie‘s word. (And Hugh McLennan’s.) Go, Gordon.
² That’s Kurt Vonnegut. Hi ho.

I’ve re-read The War of Art. I’ve had a big birthday. I’ve said ‘no’ to a major time commitment to an activity I love well beyond reason and balance. I’m summoning resolve. I plan to act like a professional. I’m ready to write again and more and still and daily. The title speaks of my renewal of effort as “more of a skirmish”, in the wider lens of the social insignificance of whatever I do, and because I lean hard into self-deprecation and other forms of egocentrism. But it’s big news in my little corner; this is my Olympics. This is struggle. Here is my war – one of ‘em, anyway. That will mean Way More Words from the Howdy Home Office, and some of them will appear here.

Hurray for here!

And if you’re a subscriber, bully for you, and thanks for reading. (And if you’re just stumbling into this, there’s a whole lot of earlier stuff on sport and men, culture and books, faith and fandom, learning and remembering, edges and ledges and the odd bit of ecstasy.)

For a Change

Two more sleeps, and we fly to Canada, ending our five-year service in China. So much to say about our stay and our going, but little time to write. I did, however, stumble on this from my archives, a 2007 piece recalling my halting, erratic progress along a spiritual path. That road eventually led to several warm, lovely evenings and afternoons of farewell to good friends in Dalian, China. CHINA! 

I was a small-town Baptist, though I mainly worshipped Gordie Howe. I reverently oiled my baseball glove at least twice a year. We also went to church every Sunday, and were allowed to ransack our stockings and open only one present before attending Christmas service. Sunday school attendance prizes were an annual treat, but I rarely read or discussed the Bible at home. The patron saints of our southern Ontario Protestant family were Rocket Richard, who crowned my sister “Miss Corvair” in 1965, and a skinny, bespectacled local football hero named Garney Henley. Oh, and Rusty Staub, le grand orange of another Montreal sports squad, the brand-new Expos. As I became a teenager, though, love and spirit began to mean something different.

One September morning, a new girl sat in the desk behind mine, a girl with long blonde hair. In a grade eight instant, I knew there might be a reason for females after all. Within two years, I had not only fallen for her brains over basketballs, but was also fascinated by the Faith lived by her mother.

It said the Creator keeps promises.

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ODY: Week 6 (42/365). Old, Blue, Borrowed and New.

Just picking up Old Dog hairs from your carpet for the first time? The creation myth is here, and the first step is here.

I spent the first part of the week at a training seminar in Toronto, bunking at Sue and André’s place in a cozy Beaches neighbourhood. I’d dragged the guitar along, and kept the faith with some late-night strumming on Sunday. On Monday night, I got caught. André, husband of my wife’s old friend Sue, came home from work late and heard something that reminded him of music in his spare bedroom. He poked his head in to praise Sue for dusting off her guitar. Instead, he found me playing the ol’ Dégas in my underwear. Hurray! Male bonding!

I was training as a facilitator for the Virtues Project , an approach to teaching, child-rearing and relationships that puts fundamental human goodness right up front. Guitar Virtuosity was on my mind. Let’s examine a partial list:

Courage? (Check. Terrified of this thing, started anyway.)
Creativity? (Okay. I am making things. Basement noises. Muttering blogs.)
Enthusiasm? (Muted. Taking a jock approach: never too high, never too low. Should make more whoopee. Not what you’re thinking, though that’s not a bad idea, either.)
Determination? (Check. Day 42, kids!)
Diligence? (Long past due, but duly done.)
Humility? (If I needed more, this newfound clumsiness really helps.)
Idealism? (Larded with practicality and order, but hopefulness leaks through.)
Orderliness? (I have a good place. As for time, though, I shoe-horn practice into the absolute heel of my day, and the night-time, blues be damned, ain’t necessarily the right time…)
Patience? (Man, it doesn’t come easily, but it comes. Haven’t thrown anything. Yet.)
Self-discipline? (42 in a row argues for Yes, but the frayed edges of disappointment try to shout them down. I am disciplining Self to listen more to column A. All those days, whether purposeful or not, count. “90% of life is just showing up,” saith the prophet Woody Allen. I have showed up at fretboard and keyboard.)

Virtues I haven’t the nerve to acknowledge yet as part of this off-key odyssey:

Confidence. (A rumour, a far-away voice. So far, will and embarrassed enthusiasm rule.)
Excellence. (I have, however, just emerged from a pothole in the footpath to the parking lot next to the on-ramp to the road to excellence. That counts.)
Joyfulness. (I hear its giggle, but it runs away when I look.)
Service. (Hard to see what this does for others. Nobody-but-me for the moment…)

Tuesday was Day 3 of the Virtues seminar, and I was presenting some ideas and exercises on COMMITMENT. In part to counter-balance some of the syrupy-sweet or new-age ethereal music that had been played – but mainly to jumpstart my own courage (and humility!) – I went LIVE. I played a perverse kind of musical chairs (If you call that music. If you call those chairs!) with my new best friends. I had them scribbling some ideas in response to questions and challenges, and I (mercifully) didn’t give them much time to write. Mercifully, because their writing time was defined by my playing of “A Blues Riff”, first very slowly (à la Week 2 and 3) and, later in the exercise, as fast as I could go. Going public. Visible (and risible) commitment. (Merde, did I make a lot of mistakes!) Concentration was probably hard for them, as I inserted some startlingly realistic enactments of mock frustration. It was lively, let’s say that, and we laughed a lot. (Commitment is too often a grim, ominous and guy-unfriendly concept.) And that turned out to be my playing for the day, because I wasn’t back to my borrowed bunk ‘til 1:30 a.m., with an important meeting about the Old Dog Year the next morning, bright and early. But most importantly, I chose an intimate circle of gracious encouragement. So many pats on the back, so much praise for this tiny outreach to the Muse of music. I smiled and smiled.

The Wednesday meeting was an assessment of interest about this Guitarzan spasm of learning and all the on-line thinking I’m doing about it. Interest? ‘Fraid not. A busy man had the courtesy to indulge me with a meeting but hadn’t even looked at the submitted collection of entries on the first 31 days of the Old DogYear. Garn! I’ve learned what doesn’t work, anyway. And then it was the long trip home and another exhausted midnight guitar run. Commitment feels strong, though confidence is wobbling. This would have been the night of my second group lesson, but I missed it. I wonder how much farther KW took us.

The end of the week found me back in the beloved basement. Same old stuff. The dullard within. But doing all this repetition feels like early summer days, when the strengthening sun slowly burns off the fog of morning. KW had thrown lots of chords at us, and they’re coming. I’m starting to remember how to configure the C chord, but I’m also hearing what C sounds like and how it speaks to G and D. The little finger-picking sequence that the guitar guru showed us, an initially unruly little gang of 4 notes, began to resolve itself into a smooth and brainless pattern. Look, Ma, no eyes! It’s very relaxing, actually, quite a mind-emptying finger-dance where the digits are starting to remember their steps without my help. Sweet. A little less old. A little less blue.

And a LOT less borrowed, broken-necked Dégas guitar because, on Sunday, I finally pulled a Major Commitment Trigger by buying A NEW GUITAR. My guitar! I wanted to dance and giggle but, to my credit (or shame), I took it all in stride. It’s a Walden guitar – a D550, baby! – a solid-topped beauty that I got on sale for $200 at the Ottawa Folklore Centre. It’s a folk guitar, not low-rent classical as the Dégas was, so the strings are metal rather than nylon. The B and high E strings are like razor wire, so there is another level of fingertip toughening to come. They’re also the same colour as the – what is it, the pick-guard?—that guitar-body armour below the sound hole, so these eyes have trouble picking them out. Guitar Guy at the OFC spoke warmly and knowingly about my Walden, and I feel good about this machine. I bought a stand, an electronic tuner and a humidifier, none of which I know how to work yet. The humidifier is a fairly simple and obvious thing, though I hadn’t considered how dryness could affect a wooden instrument. I’m not sure how it sits, so that’ll be Question 67 or 68 when I go for the next groupthink lesson in a couple of days.

It’ll be fun to show off my new lovely, but I’m scared to play with her. She makes sweet and unfamiliar sounds that my borrowed love was incapable of making. The music we made was obviously much more full and rich, but I strummed as if I was nervously coaxing melody from a crystal vase. I missed the Dégas. This new friend doesn’t yet sit comfortably with me. I wanted to whale away with my mock solos and percussive energy, but I felt nervous and reserved. I wanted things to feel comfortable right away, ‘cause heck, she’s beautiful, she has a gorgeous voice and body, it’s a fresh and exciting start and besides, that first date had cost me a pretty penny! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that there were those awkward pauses in the conversation, that I was unsure about how to treat her and how she might respond to my overtures. It was a tense kind of fun, though, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be seeing each other again.

ODY: 22/365

Today is full of commemorations of massive murder, but the IA had more urgent questions. “He taught you bar chords? Those are hard! Jacob still refuses to even try them.” Jacob is Ben’s friend. Ben, eldest son, Itinerant Artist, was having his long-distance chance to hear how the Old Dog Year is going. He’d only been back down from the Arctic for a week or two, no Internet connection yet but the phone works. He’s a gentle pile of bones, but the IA did had some strings to pick with what the Teen Vegan Punk-rock Intellectual (his bro) had chosen to start me up with.

The IA is a musician and a sometime guitar teacher – and he’ll go back to his music degree sometime, too, I’m sure – so he has a little stronger background than the TVPI. (But I can learn from anybody. At any distance.) He had praise for my efforts, including a truly catastrophic attempt to play the blues over the phone without a warmup. (I haven’t played it that badly in at least a week). 

“You’ve played every day on a broke-neck garbage guitar? For how long? That’s a victory right there!” Thanks, IA. And you’re right about another thing, too: an experienced, face-to-face teacher might not be a bad investment. One wandering phone call brought encouragement, a promise of emailed chord diagrams to expand my repertoire, and also inspired a pretty satisfying guitar workout. So maybe feedback helps. So maybe I do need more regular and immediate instruction. But hiring a teacher? Well! That does seem like rather a public commitment, don’t you think?