ODY: Weeks 22-23. Stricken (Streakened?). Travellin

Week 22 of Guitar for Dummy started off sweetly. Once upon a mall wander, when I should have been doing my consumptive business and getting the hell home, I hit the pseudo-intellectual indulgences store, where they sell cigarettes, chocolate bars, and more mags about more things than I could imagine. (Hold the cigs.)

Stores like this — does anyone call them “smoke shops” anymore? — with their racks upon racks of magazines always hypnotize me if I allow myself to walk in. Mercifully, I can usually pass by the sections for women, knitters, video game junkies and home repairmen. Normally, the music section is also beyond me, unless the cover features an artist I know. I’ve always loved music, but I felt outside it. Now, however, that I was a Certified Guitar Butcher, it seemed unjust that I had never bought a music mag, so it was a breakout day: would it be Guitar? Guitar One? Acoustic Guitar? Fingerstyle Guitar? Vintage Guitar? Guitar World? Old Fart Guitar Diletantte Galaxy? (I made up one of these.) I settled, for a reason I can’t remember, on Guitar Player magazine. 

It was a bit of a Looking Glass experience. It had English text, photos of (mainly) familiar things – faces, guitars, curvy women reminding me that I was an ol’ babe in BoyLand – and ubiquitous advertising, but it was a strange land where I could see and read and still not find much sense. (John Mayer (?) plays Regular Slinky and Power Slinky…okay, sure…Fasel infused classic wah cutting high gain distortion searing double-edge tone…I think that was a good thing, but it took me awhile to figure out where the verbs were…) It went on. I noticed spank-guitar shred lessons and alnico classica humbuckers. I certainly didn’t understand the local customs or dialect in this new world. (Toto, I don’t think we’re in Sports Illustrated anymore…)

I thought Guitar Player might teach me something, and that it might be good airport reading, because we were off on a family trip. We’d decided on Guadeloupe: it would be an immersion in French, and we knew two couples who had lived and worked there. Okay, and palm trees and sun. Just days ahead of our flight, I’d found that friends of these friends could lend me a guitar for the two weeks we’d be there. I stopped hunting for a titanium guitar case for baggage handlers to play catch with. Gordie would stay home and safe. 

4:30 am taxi, 6 am hop from Ottawa to Montreal, 9:30 Air Canada flight to Point à Pitre, during which we removed the many layers of clothing we’d needed for -25 degrees C. and got ready for the tropics. We arrived, met by other new friends. (So good to belong to the Bahá’í community, with friends and fellows everywhere we go.) Got settled in our gite, joined our new friends for an evening, returned weary and grateful for a clean bed at about 11 pm, and only then realized, with a foggy head but emotional air raid sirens, that my guitar connection hadn’t been at the meeting. ARGH!

I was up against it: The Streak was in jeopardy. The goal I’d set for myself had been 365 straight days at the altar of the guitar muse. The day before we left, I had played for the one hundred and fiftieth consecutive day, and looked forward to playing in the warmth of a Caribbean evening. But now it was late, in a guest house in rural Guadeloupe. (The nearest neighbours were cows and roosters.) I made a desperate stab-in-the-dark request. Good news: Yes, the proprietor said, my grandson has a guitar you could borrow! Profoundly helpless and regretful news: But he doesn’t live here. Maybe you could have it by tomorrow.

I was buried by it: The Streak was over! Hard to take, but there was no way around it. I had made a promise that in the end – well, in the middle, actually – I couldn’t keep. Shoulda brought my own guitar. Damn! Did we go to the wrong meeting, maybe? Where was Christine?… But there you go, and there I went. It was a lovely night for sleeping, and I was crispy with fatigue et un peu de chagrin. But it wasn’t the disappointment that kept waking me up – it was the damned roosters. 

Rose-Hélène was true to her word, and the grandson’s small guitar was in my hands for our first full day on the island. It took a long while to tune – at least I’d had the foresight to bring my electronic tuner, or I’d have been cooked trying to coax music out of that thing. After about six or seven minutes, it made some recognizable noises, though it had ridiculously high action, rather like the ol’ broken-necked Degas that I started with. It was a comfort to be back on the musical trail. I didn’t even try to go all heroic and somehow redeem the sins of the previous day. Jes’ played, and it felt good to not be too desperate or anal about the whole thing. Life goes on. The Streak was at One.

After two days with the baby guitar, I was back to full-size after finally meeting my connection. (Some people go to the Caribbean in search of illicit chemicals. I scored six strings.) It was a full-sized classical acoustic, dusty and out of tune but a good machine. There were little coloured circles all over the fretboard, but I didn’t really try to figure out the chord calculus. I just did my dusty old things in a bright new place: the windows of our gite were always open, so I tried to do my late-night strumming softly, thumbly. (I ended up not using a pick the whole time there.) After all, the other guests were, well, heck, some of ‘em were considerably older than ME, and dawn comes early in Gwada. (And according to several neurotic cocks, it comes over and over again, the all-night rooster version of the movie Groundhog Day…). So no psycho percussion, no windmills, no blues hollers or howls of frustration.

All was well, and then a few days later, it happened again! ANOTHER MISSED DAY. Was it the water? (Or the lack of it?) Was it bad sleeps, or hot days after Canadian ones? I’m not sure, but after a day as the loyal chauffeur and pack mule for the princess, and then some beach time and too much sun and a miserable drive home, I couldn’t friggin’ get around to the guitar because I had my head in a toilet for much of the evening. I finally was able to tumble into an exhausted sleep, and I didn’t even consider playing. Sigh. And so a new challenge came: would I still get that daily practice in without the absurd but effective spur of a long run of commitment?

My favourite practice of the trip happened a couple of days later. I sat on a rock, down near Atlantic’s edge in a town called Le Moule. For an inland lad like me, the swell and the roar of the waves is intoxicating, and I liked it well. The surf pounded relentlessly, and I sweated profusely. I turned my ballcap backwards to keep my neck from reddening and, but of course, to present the image of an arty young vagabond, sitting on a rock, discovering himself and chronicling his generation in song by the sea. (Too bad there were no other rampant sentimentalists there. If a narcissist plays by the ocean / Does anybody see?) So, yes, I was a bit self-conscious – still! – about playing “in public”, even though there was almost nobody around. Still, I had a blast: beautiful scene, beautiful sun, one idea in mind and time on my hands. It felt like a vacation. Sweet!

Our first week in Guadeloupe was a delight. (Except for that toilet episode.) I was quite proud of myself that the end of The Streak didn’t sabotage my commitment, or hasn’t seemed to. It was the only bit of dark cloud we had. So now the count stands, for those of you scoring at home, at 159 out of 161 days – not what I’d been planning, but a fair percentage. The Streak is now at 5. Whoop-de-do…

Words AND Music?

I woke up this morning with a full-colour version of an old and quite likely vain imagining playing in my head. (Playing with my head, it felt like.) It already has a title: How Long Will That Take In OldDog Years? First, though, it will be serially published, let’s say in Guitar Player magazine. Each month will chronicle some of the daily highs and lows, as well as account for this musical pilgrim’s progress in learning one of the standard riffs. We’ll start with the main rhythm from “Smoke on the Water”. And some month down the road? The Walsh solo from “Hotel California”. And one thing, anything, from Bruce Cockburn. “Foxglove”. Anything from Speechless. Yeah, in my dreams…

I want to learn how to play guitar. (There, I’ve said it. You’ve read it. “The temple is already built!”) That thought has been banging around in my brain for years, and it must terrify me. I’ve never taken even the remotest step towards it. It frightens me almost as much as writing does, except that when it comes to words I know lots of the basic repertoire. I just suffer from performance anxiety and bad habits. That, and a deep melancholia about the place of my scribbling in the parade. (As if place matters. Join the parade! Even if you’re the guy with the broom walking behind the elephants…) In any case, I’m trying to learn how to follow what Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way: “Creativity is a spiritual practice….The stringent requirement of a sustained creative life is the humility to start again, to begin anew.” And the courage, Ms. Cameron. And the courage. “The beginner’s mind,” says the guru. “A culture of learning,” says the International Teaching Centre. So.

Humility and courage, the Right Stuff, remind me of one of my favourite Far Side cartoons. (And where is Gary Larsen now?) It informed me when I was making a second stab at marital sustainability, and it sits above my writing desk now. The cartoon shows a dog on a unicycle riding on a high-wire. In the spotlights’ glare, our wide-eyed pooch juggles four balls, keeps a hula hoop whirling, holding a jug on his head and a cat in his mouth. The caption: “High above the hushed crowd, Rex tried to remain focused. Still, he couldn’t shake one nagging thought: He was an old dog and this was a new trick.”

This writing trick is a hard one. A recent article in the Globe and Mail discussed the publishing trend that may have begun with Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, and which continues apace with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, among many others. It’s a diary. (I can write a diary!) It recounts, more or less, a substantial, natural and imaginable block of time. (I can imagine a year!) It’s become something of a publishing cliché, but it seems to have staying power. (I hope I have staying power, and I know I can do clichés!)

How Long Will That Take In OldDog Years? This crazy notion reminds me of that lead-balloon anti-joke about heeding an ambition. Self-Doubting Desire complains: Do you know how old I’ll be by the time I learn to play the guitar? The Voice of Pragmatic Encouragement answers: The same age you will be if you don’t. (Borrowed that one from Julia Cameron, too.) I like it. Such dedication to a long-delayed dream scares me. (Yeah, so?) Okay, how about A Year and Six Strings? Or maybe Because A Red Miata Seemed Too Obvious: My Mid-Life Quest for Guitar Glory. I am Title Guy. Now I just have to Do the Deed and Write the Rambling Memoir. (Cool.)