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: 32/365. Night Class.

So there I was, learning to play with others. Sort of. Nine nervous grownups with that bright first-day-in-school blush. I even thought KW, our teacher, had a bit of a shine on, but he’s been doing this a long time. Maybe it was because he was distributing, in two piles of photocopied paper, his book. Ah, so this was a literary soirée, minus the canapés and the booze and, ah, staples. For me, it was a first chance to learn this new thing with people beyond my immediate gene pool.

There were nine chairs, nine music stands, and between them were six women and three men awkwardly hoisting their new best friends. We sat in a small basement studio in a northern capital city. A quick inspection confirmed that I was the oldest of the dogs here at Guitar Obedience School. (Wouldn’t have it any other way.) The hour went quickly.

It took a while to get the pages collated. KW’s amplifier had several ideas, few of which had anything to do with powering his little black axe, with which he hopes to be audible over our group’s acoustic cacophony. The cellar studio held a bizarre stew of tunings, and I knew that either I or the guy next to me was in a hopeless state. K shut us down quickly. “Let me give ‘em a quick tune.” Mine gave him a challenge, but he was pleasantly surprised that my crippled Dégas – “let me put it this way, they don’t make a high-end guitar” – actually made a decent sound once he’d cranked it about for a few minutes.

Not so with my near neighbour. “You have a bass guitar,” KW said. Twenty minutes later, he admitted defeat. “This is impossible to tune.” No wonder the hour went so fast. He talked us through some of the basics. I discovered that I’d even been holding the thing wrong, which is part of why my left hand has had so much trouble finding a way to make chords; the neck should be tipped upwards, but I’ve been perching the guitar on my right thigh so that it was quite horizontal. Oh. Okay, then. He reassured us: “You’re going to have a long time where you say, ‘Damn, I suck!’” He implored us to buy electronic tuners. He flew through a couple of chord diagrams to great passivity. (Calm acceptance of the familiar? Hmm. I’m betting on stunned incomprehension, but maybe that’s just me.) He showed us a little finger-picking sequence, showed us how to read the chord boxes on page 17 of his manual – thanks to my sons’ pencil diagrams and emails, I understood them; YAY! – looked at the clock, grinned sheepishly at us and said, “Bye!”

Oops. Later, the guy in the music store upstairs cheerfully pronounced my guitar “unplayable”, and explained to me that its ridiculously “high action” was not an expression of macho praise but a mark of how far above the frets the strings were. (I probably should have bought the Walden guitar they have on sale. It sounded JUST a little different than mine, and wasn’t one of the $2000 jobs.) When I walked out into the night of this Brave New World of Musical Education, I was a bit bewildered, but pleasantly so. Nowhere near catatonic, but I think some of my classmates were.

ODY: Day 14

Two full weeks of the Old Dog Year are done. It is a perfect time to sit back and evaluate. How am I doing? What components of this self-indulgent midlife quest, this pale adventure, are effective and what parts need re-tooling?

Well, screw that. No nerdy analyses for me, at least not today. (I’m a natural at rumination.) I’m playing every day even when I’m lost. I make up stuff. I pretend. I turn off my critical ear and just make noises. Last night (yes, I’m cheating today: my after-midnight guitar churning was possible with eyes closed and a burnt brain, but I sure as hell couldn’t write), I tried to get a little smoother on the tunes I’m picking and the chords my fingers are trying to find.

Son Dave the TVPI has left town, and I may be forced to pay for lessons now. (He’ll still be a Teen Punk-rock Intellectual, perhaps the only one of his kind in Canada’s Nunavut territory, but a Vegan in the Arctic? Don’t think so. Pass the raw fish, please. And how would you like your caribou this morning?) Before we took him to the airport, the T(V)PI tuned the Dégas and pointed out that the E-major and A-minor chords that I’ve been practising are rather similar – the same fingering pattern, just one string higher – so that is a chord transition that I can learn to make. (Can a three-chord rock anthem be far behind?)

And since Dave was leaving, his brother Will had convinced a good buddy to drive him up for a visit: seven hours through the tail-end drowning of Hurricane Ernesto’s sorrows. Big Man Will (the only BMW I’ll ever have) and Little Jason are a Mutt and Jeff pair (see, I looked it up for you), an odd but loyal funship, a couple of guys who can yack and laugh without end. Jay was one of the funniest kids I ever tried to teach, funny/quirky and funny/ha-ha and an apparently hopeless student. He bobbed and floated like a drunken butterfly through a couple of my English classes, writing and reading what he had to. He showed up and passed ‘em, but somehow managed to flunk guitar class miserably.

And somewhere in the four years since, Little Jay Forbes picked up the guitar again, along with a pencil, some chords and a million burning ideas. He walks through malls and hears riffs and runs for his guitar. He writes like a mad thing at 4 a.m., sings in local restaurants and Legion halls and just had a professional pressing of his first CD of original songs. He sang for his spaghetti last night in my basement, a tune too new for the album, and it was full of clear-voiced feeling and melody and solid guitar playing. It makes no sense at all, this development in his life, which is why I love it. Jay Forbes, the six-string dropout and English class lounge act, made interesting music come out of my broke-neck guitar. If I can’t find inspiration there, I ain’t lookin’ for it.   

ODY: Day 7. Time for Another Lesson

Another son – so many young men with a thing or thirty to tell me! – advises that there is indeed a C chord. I can recycle my “Old Man and the C” pun. And there are chords A through G, minor and major, a distinction that I can often hear but don’t understand in musical or theoretical ways. In other words, I don’t know how or why the Fretful Fingers do their thing. I think it would be best, though, to not think too much about the WHY of things.

I remember my high school biology teacher, the inscrutably marvellous Mr. Cook, teaching us about human development, of individuals and of the species as a whole. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. He would explain mechanisms and cycles and I would want to know why. “These are metaphysical questions,” Herr Cook replied. I felt proud that I nearly knew what “metaphysical” meant. Among other things, it meant that asking why isn’t always a useful thing. 

Asking WHY is a great substitute for learning HOW. Then I get to think and talk about playing instead of playing. Do it now and understand it later. Okay. Having said that, the fingering makes no sense to me at all. I spent most of tonight’s session, another late-night bonanza, drumming on the body of the beast. I did this partly because I’m a bit lost for things to do – I definitely need another lesson – and partly because I’m trying not to worry about that. It was rather meditative, actually. I was getting to know my broken-necked Dégas guitar.


I also like percussion. I’ve drummed on every school desk I’ve ever inhabited, including sudden and startling rolls on my teacher desk whenever it was time to switch gears in class (or wake the dead). Percussive string action in guitarists has always fascinated me, and so I banged up and down the neck in more and less rhythmic ways. I tapped the fret guard and all over and around the body. On my mind was the tapping James Seals used to do on his guitar, which was pretty distinctive even on a love song like “Diamond Girl” or the earlier “‘Cause You Love”. It was one of his things. (He was an odd and often quite beautiful writer, was James Seals, and a great musician. Early Seals and Crofts albums are collectors’ items now, but worth looking for.) And I strummed and G-ed and power chorded, but mostly I beat on my Dégas like a drum.