Temple of Heaven: Grounds for Optimism, Part 2

 This is Part Two of “Grounds for Optimism”, in which our fearless scribe goes to Chinese gardens, walking and running and thinking about things and then writing about them to dazzling effect. Part the First, on the “Humble Administrator’s Garden” in Suzhou, did its dazzling right here.

The Temple. Little bits of heaven surround it.

The Temple. Little bits of heaven surround it.

A few days later, in Beijing, I loosened my purse-strings again. Though I’d stayed, on a couple of prior visits, in a hotel near the Tiantandongmen station of the capital’s a-maze-ing subway system, I’d balked at the high walls and what had seemed like the rapacious price for a wander around the Temple of Heaven. (Tian Tan. Dongmen means the “eastern door” of this Ming and Qing dynasties-era complex of imperial gardens and temples.) On my second-last day in Beijing, I decided it might be worth running inside those walls, instead of on the chaotic surrounding streets. I had my usual sinking feeling at the entryway crowds, but the lines weren’t actually that long, and I found out that an entrance ticket – no access to the temple interiors, fine by me – was only 15 yuan. (You’re not paying $2.50 to go jogging, goofball. You’re running through Chinese history and culture for the price of a McChicken! Give your head a shake.)

The Tian Tan grounds are enormous, and yes, I got lost. I’d thought to run the perimeter and then see what I’d like to explore further, but after 35 wide-eyed minutes I wasn’t any particular where, as far as I could see. Well, I thought, I must be back near the East Gate by now, but I wasn’t. It didn’t matter. Even without entering The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests – the “most famous temple in the world”, this under-educated Westerner was surprised to discover – or the Beamless Fasting Palace where Emperors purified themselves for weeks before their invocations of heaven, or viewing the Circular Mound Altar of sacrifice, I knew I’d be back for another tour the next day. Quite apart from the legends and the antiquity, there’s so much China in there, the parts just behind the walls of heavy traffic, the veils of pollution, and the look-how-modern-we-are! forests of shiny skyscrapers.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it’s a People Place. (People’s

Rocks to me. Even after I read, I didn't get the significance.

The Seven were just funky-shaped rocks to me. Even after reading, I didn’t get the significance.

Republic. Go figure.) There are tonnes of tourists, absolutely, but what this one liked was the locals who also paid no attention to The Divine Storehouse and the Seven-Star Stones. Folks pay, I found out from a spry old dude with careful and sufficient English, 100 yuan for a year’s pass. They come, singly and in groups, for exercise, community, art, serenity and the most amicable kinds of noise. I walked and ran and watched and listened, and for a time I just lay on a bench looking at the sky through the branches of old cypress trees. Here’s what I saw:

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ODY: Week 12. Listen.

It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon…

(Every one of Garrison Keillor’s stories of a mythical Minnesota begin this way. Prairie Home Companion. Gotta love it.)

It’s also been a quiet week in Old-Dog-With-a-Guitar Land, Gary, but I keep on pluckin’. And I still have a ringing in my ears. It’s “Scuttle Buttin’” by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, and that whole Carnegie Hall album. I do love the blues. But I keep thinking back to the rudeness of the crowd as an elderly John Hammond, one of the godfathers of great American music, tried to introduce the band and was almost shouted down. Perhaps even worse was the reaction of much of the crowd to SRV’s solo encore.

He quietly introduced “a song I wrote for my wife” and eased into a slow and introverted instrumental love song called “Lenny”. I have no idea how he made some of those sweetly bent chords come out of a Stratocaster, and I can’t fathom why so many in the audience appeared not to care. “Go, Stevie!” one guy roars, apparently thinking, along with many another buzzed-out moron, that all this delicate stuff was just to whet our appetite for some more headbanging histrionics. I’ve read that Vaughan put his finger to his lips more than once during this extended solo, but the shouting (Hey, listen, I’m a rock show star!) just kept on. That would’ve driven me nuts. It does, even in my living room. Another leather-lung tried to help – I guess – by screaming “Shut the f—k up!!” It didn’t work. I wonder how the performer felt. It’s the context, I suppose, that whole bar blues ethic. I admired Vaughan’s attempt to deliver some quiet and quirky virtuosity, rather than the beer-fuelled, ass-kicking kind. It’s weird when fans take their heroes prisoner. I wonder if it’s just coincidence that the brief, up-tempo closing ditty, a fast and funky answer to the sweetness of “Lenny”, was called “Rude Mood”. (Yeah, folks, I was just teasin’ y’all with that LOVE-stuff.)

There’s so much to The Blues. Feeling. Longing. Suffering. Of course, it arose (at least indirectly) out of the experience of slavery, and it’s still rooted in pain. It can always be dressed up around the edges with sweat, booze and sex, and that’s all some players can find in it. I’ll always go back to Roy Buchanan, though, because he finds all the emotion. (And, bitterly, a most tawdry and depressing end, but that’s another story.) “The Messiah Will Come Again.” “Roy’s Bluz.” Stunning things. I can dig the energy and drive in all kinds of blues players and songs, too, but I lose patience with the corruption. “Howden’s Blues”: I fantasize about a new music — and maybe even playing it a bit — that is tinged with or even driven by the blues, but which can speak of social justice, and not just another dysfunctional shack-up; that can appeal to mind, and not just the groin. Or hey, how about a just slightly raunchy hymn to racial harmony or loyal marital loving? You may say I’m a dreamer…

Well, of course I am. After all, I played my guitar every day again this week. That made for 84 straight, and it ain’t like I’m making a whole lotta music. I’m playing waltzy accompaniment to “On Top of Old Smokey” and a polka-esque pick-strum backing to the melody of “Skip to My Lou”. In four different keys, mind you!! And no matter how tired I am or how drab the prospect, I find that the practising still draws me in. Just gotta put myself in the driver’s seat, and Gordon and I go lurching off on our nearly musical way.

ODY: Week 10. 70/365. But I Never Played for my Mother…

Monday. Gordon (the guitar) and I had a nice long bedward session. Michael Enright was interviewing the astonishingly young, beautiful and good Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the radio. (In Half of a Yellow Sun, she writes of the birth of Biafra in the ‘60s. Sounds powerful.) I like my right hand. I can get much more into the BlissyZone with finger picking than with chord changes. Male multi-tasking!

Tuesday. It was game 3 of the World Series, the first of the playoffs that I’d seen. First of the year. (Unbelievable. I still love that strange, timeless, slow game. I raced home from October school days to watch the Series as a kid. I played seriously into my 30s. I can still feel the bat in my hands, awake or asleep, in a way that I doubt a guitar will ever match.) Carpenter pitched brilliantly, and that turned the Series for the Cards. I watched over at my friends’ house, where I found not only a working television but that my buddy Fanfan is learning to play bass. Potential collaborator. I played long and lots. Had the room to myself ‘til the seventh inning, then the bullpen got too loud. These folks, two of them born in Canada, knew far less about baseball than I did about guitar two months ago. I tried to save them.

Wednesday. Lesson Night at the Ol’ Ottawa Folklore Corral, and it was a good night in the Old Dog guitar saddle. (How’s that for a mangled metaphor?) Asked questions. Got answers. Further to my mind-boggled reaction to the chords from last week’s “Study in E”, GG (Kurt the Guitar Guru) was able to quickly teach me the remarkable “E minor 11th” chord, which can also be played as “G 6-9”. It’s the opening chord to “Hard Day’s Night”, for one thing, and I’ve got it. Sounds good, right? Actually, it doesn’t. It’s ridiculously primitive. It’s just a brainless right-hand strum without a finger on the fretboard. (Ohh. I knew that.) The GG had lots to say about more significant things, like finger shapes. Learning to feel the chord shapes is the key. Sliding from one chord to another based on shapes, not notes, means that skilled guitarists are sometimes seen as “idiot savants” by other classically trained musicians. While they have had to learn the individual notes to a chord, good guitarists can intuit new chords quickly by adjusting their finger shapes or moving them up or down the fretboard. (I think that’s what the GG said. Musicians, forgive me when I know not quite what I am talking about.) 

And then came Thursday. “I think you should come right away,” Big Sister said. Our dear Mum has been in steady physical decline for the past several years, and it looked like she was doing her final taxi toward spiritual takeoff. And she was. I took care of what I thought I needed to, including being ready for a funeral, packing for my youngest son and preparing to practise the guitar for however long we would be away from home. I grabbed Gordon, met Calvin Junior (and his own versions of Hobbes) at the school bus stop and hit the road running. We didn’t quite make it, but I had some quiet moments of reflection in her room, where her body still lay.

I didn’t think much about music. Aside from her love for hymns and her comically poor singing of them, music was never a big part of our life together. Baseball? Hockey? Books and books? Absolutely. When I was a kid, though, Mum would make occasional reference to my hands: “Look at those fingers! You’re going to either be a surgeon or a concert pianist.” Well, I did almost get into medical school one year, but musical virtuosity was unlikely since lessons were never even suggested. It occurs to me that my impracticality stems more from my mother than I had thought. She’s always been a woman of grand dreams, and her vision of a generous, funny and welcoming family life was realized in the most vivid way, especially in the generation of her 13 grand-kids. Later, as we shared Enid stories, someone told of a young writer friend who had told Mum of an ambition: to win a (remotely conceivable) literary prize. (It might have been the Pulitzer.) Mum’s response was characteristic and quick. “Why not the Nobel?” Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? (Enid Howden quoting Robert Browning. Time and again. Burden and blessing.)

So, decades after I began to notice my own rabid interest in music, and after years of fascination and envy at the musical progress and accomplishments and satisfactions of my own kids, I embarked on this Old Dog Year. I decided to do something about a hypothesis I’d had for awhile. Maybe I am a bit musical. And with my athletic ability in free-fall, maybe I should work at something I can get better at in mid-life, without a need for youth or functional ankles. ‘Cause they ain’t comin’ back. I now feel that among the many lofty and wonderfully principled ideas my Mum had planted in me, this seed of musicianship was among them. It wasn’t well-nourished, mind you, but it was there. It was the classic “castle in the air”, which another strain of my childhood had derided. Quit your dreaming, boy. Get down to business. What a little absent-minded professor he is! And I hated that stuff, that accusation that I was cloud-bound, impractical, a dreamer.  

But although I function reasonably well in this allegedly Real World, I came to understand as an adult that I clearly was all of those things, and an idealist and a hope-filled romantic, too. So was my Mum. And like me, she would have loved Thoreau’s take on dreamers in Walden: “If you build castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now build foundations under them.”  So I do, in this case by pulling out my guitar every day. I thought later that I should’ve taken Gordon up and played a little in the stillness of her second-to-last room, but that wasn’t really us. (Among those souls I called upon that night to welcome Mum, though, was the old Cleveland Indians star Rocky Colavito. She’d been a great fan, and it seemed fun; the only problem was my discovery that he’s still alive. Ah, well.) Instead, I pulled out the guitar later at Big Brother’s place, where the clan gathered late into the evening, ostensibly to plan but mainly to remember. I softly fingered all the bits I can do without thinking. It felt a little like love.

Maybe all this explains, in part, why I’ve taken the long way ‘round to being a musician. (Wow. I just said I was a musician. It hardly even hurt! I do feel a giggle coming on, though.) It also took me a long while to become a writer. Chez Howden, it was reading, not writing; baseball, not music; and, in a larger sense, principles that regularly overrode pragmatism. I felt a certain joy in Mum’s passing. It was release from a limited and painful life for her. It was a superb family reunion: everybody was there, and the laughs were legion. But there was more than that, a sense of personal relief and of eagerness to live that I attribute to Mum’s example of both. Relief and contentment at the end of a well-lived and loving day, and a current of eagerness to do what I might to realize her hopes for all of us.

Right this moment, odd as it is, messing around with a guitar seems to be part of that. Amid stories and photographs, I picked some more at Little Sister and Silent Paul’s place the next night. I was a late-night guitar vampire for the next few days, using the quiet of Big Sister’s living room to go through my exercises and exercise my memories. At times it was a welcome escape from thinking, yet at others I felt as mindful as I could be. It was a rhythmically stumbling kind of meditation, peaceful moments to linger on the kindness of dear old friends and vaguely familiar faces from the old home town. Sorry for your loss. Condolences to you and your family. Enid was a great lady…

We stood by her grave — right next to my Dad’s — in the sweet sunlight of a warming autumn day, laying roses and praying and singing. (It was just the Howdens, and we actually sang pretty well, thanks.) I walked by my grandfather’s grave, past my old high school, around some of my favourite tree-lined and leaf-scented streets. Back by the fireplace at Big Brother’s, I spent a good part of the afternoon playing, including a welcome bit of stern rehearsal time with the Itinerant Artist. My eldest son, the IA, is a genuine musician, the Real Instrumental Deal, and has taught guitar for several years. He applied the Kenny Werner learning triangle – got to play slowly, and eventually combine the ability to play perfectly, at tempo and all the way through – in very specific ways to my practising. He beat out a very slow tempo, and insisted I match it. He showed me a technique for practising chord changes that avoids frozen frustration and encourages gradual acquisition of speed. It was sweet, personalized guidance and attention. (He also played, after my fingers were numb, many of the pieces I’ve struggled with, giving me some sense for how it sounds.) I’ve never felt so much at home with playing music.

That night, at a wonderful memorial for Enid H., our words of memory and tribute were in the forefront, but so was music. “How Great Thou Art” was sung with chest-busting force and beauty by a large congregation (there was a stealth tenor among the guests, and we rode his thunder. Wow.). And there are real live musicians in the next generation. Representing them, niece Bethany played a sweetly feeling “Fairest Lord Jesus” on the piano, and the IA followed later with a gorgeous solo trombone rendition – a bit jazzier than that small-town Baptish church has likely heard before – of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”. I’m decades behind, and didn’t even think of playing guitar on that bill. But I’m on the job, I’m learning, and “if a job’s worth doing,” as Mum reminded us all ad infinitum, “it’s worth doing well.” I never played for my mother, but that’s okay. I am playing for her now, and hope to do it well.

ODY: 31/365

As I said a couple of days ago, I do have to get out more. Out of myself, especially, out of my head. I want, too much, to keep my progress secret, to develop In House, to fulfil that mythology of the Self-Made Man that is so central to our cult of individualism, whether rugged or otherwise. (It’s a damaging myth, especially for the males at whom it is mainly aimed.) When I was in grade 7, my grasp of physics was even less certain than it is now, but here’s the thing. I believed that if I could only get strong enough, I’d be able to grasp the seat of my desk with one hand and the side bar with the other and lift both desk and me off the ground. I really did. At some level, I think I still do. 

When I tried out for the varsity basketball team as a walk-on in my second university year, I was in tremendous physical condition: stairs, weights, long runs, line sprints. I’d had a gym mainly to myself, and my shooting and handling had taken a huge jump. I was only 5’11”, but strong and quick. However, I had never spoken to the coach, had failed to find the best games where the stars and the other wannabes were. When tryouts were on, I suddenly turned into Mr. Team, distributing the ball and not showing off until too late the individual skills I’d worked so hard to hone. In short, I made every mistake in the book, which mostly came down to this: I was trying to lift myself by my own bootstraps. I was too much on my own.


So tonight, the Old Dog will be doing something he is not wired to do (the New Routine). As the next step in my year-long quest for mid-life guitar glory (the New Trick), I am going to join a bunch of other beginners at the Ottawa Folklore Centre. Guitar 101. (And with all these days on the Dégas, an el cheapo instrument that my son pulled from the garbage and glued, I’d better be better than anyone else! Absurd Expectations R Us.) But here’s the real point. I’m going to try the easy way. I’m going to learn from experience. Success leaves clues and I think I’ll try to read ‘em. It’s not worth less if I get some help along the way. Try easier for a change…


Sheesh. You’d think a teacher and coach would know these things for himself. What I have taught, in the main, has been stuff that I do (or did) pretty well. But when I’d encourage kids to work together in mutually challenging, mutually reinforcing groups, or to find someone better than them and follow in their slipstream, I was preaching to the preacher. I still am. Still trying to shed the label I’ve worn so long, even as a team sport athlete: Does Not Play Well With Others.

ODY: 30/365. I Guess Not.

I don’t know what I’m doing when I do it, but I do it anyway. I love to mute the strings and mess around with percussive strumming and picking and fretboard assaults with the left hand. Especially when I’m brain-dead tired and another halting run through “A Blues Riff” or “Bonanza” feels too much like medicine. (Buckley’s. Cod liver oil. Not the sweet grapey stuff you get at the drug store now. Shoot, we used to figure if you didn’t gag on your medicine, it wasn’t worth taking! We used to eat burnt toast on a sore throat and never even chew it. Made you strong!) Work on a new chord? Left hand says, “I can’t want that.

The Queen of Encouragement generally stays away when I’m in the Old Dog Gimme (Guitar) Shelter, but tonight she crept downstairs while I was noodling a rhythmic monotone on a muted string. I was hypnotized by it. She said, “Is that supposed to be music?”

ODY: 25/365

Only 68/73rds of this experiment in personal re-novelty, this “Old Dog Year” of learning guitar, remain. I like fractions.

After two hours watching a vibrant and feverishly competitive practice of Canada’s best amateur basketball team and wondering if I was wishing to blow that whistle again, I returned to my own subterranean training session. No floor burns, no ankle turns, no sweat. (And don’t forget, coach: no herding sullen teens toward an objective only you can imagine. No making chicken soup out of chicken, um, feathers.)

Didn’t much feel like work, but was surprised to find that the 30 minutes flew. I went back to my dogged progress in figuring out how to play the theme from Bonanza, and I’ve got it, even the almost-intricate part. I’m sure it’s pretty eccentric fingering, and I’m a long way from ease in the saddle, but that was fun. More fun with the blues, too. Almost like playing music.

ODY: Duller by the Day (13)

As one writer put it, “I hate writing. I love having written.” I feel the same way about running, although once upon a more youthful time moving these limbs could be its own reward. But I’ve long known, as athletes told themselves in advance of Barcelona, “No pain, no Spain.” I’ve proved it to myself as a writer, too, although the pain is something different, some intrinsic clumsiness in the dance between inspiration and monotony. That’s where “the dullard” I referred to yesterday comes in.

The Canadian writer David Carpenter put the writer’s need for blazingly bland routine like this: “Most writers must learn to make a pact with dullness. Not boredom, or lack of imagination or passion, but dullness of routine. Keep your daily appointment with the computer screen and keep your ass on the chair until you’ve reached your daily quota. However rich your inner life may be, seek also the dullard within.” The pact with dullness, once the initial excitement of cradling a curvy beauty in one’s arms begins to fade, is exactly what the novice guitarist needs to cultivate. This midlife strummer does, anyway. (My curvy flesh and blood beauty, now, that never gets old, though rumour has it that we might.)

They say, whoever “they” might be, that any habit requires about 21 days of faithful performance to establish. As this Old Dog marches forward on a planned year of daily strumming and picking, I have tiny shivers of embarrassed joy at the things I can (nearly) do on the guitar. Mostly, though, I’m glad to have made Carpenter’s “pact with dullness”. Getting the arse in front of the screen, or under the echoing hollows of the guitar, is a fine though very private victory. Nearly two weeks in.