I almost missed you, October. Life has been busy and exciting for the good Doctor. But I want to keep a monthly appointment, even a loose one here, and I finally have a few moments to my own to share with you an anecdote from the other week.
I was at my friend’s house the other afternoon for coffee. This friend of mine is a musician, a guitarist. But, at the moment, he was baking – one of this other sometimes-passions – making something for us to have with our coffees. He’s a curious fellow, a sensitive soul. His time-management skills (outside the context of bar-lines) are also atrocious. Hence why he was still baking when I arrived; he had meant to have everything finished and cooled in time for my arrival. All neatly set-out and arranged to meet our first cup on his oddly ornate serving tray. A family heirloom. But no matter, we put the coffee on and discussed our pressing affairs across the thresholds his sitting room and adjoining kitchen. We’d put on a second pot when his treats were ready. We often drank more than a single serving at any rate.
“I like my art like my chocolate chips:” his voice rose through the statement in a crescendo-for-no-real-reason; he lowered it again to a resting level, “bittersweet. –Or is it semisweet? That wouldn’t do anywhere near as finely.”
He is a tragic man, but, not sad. He’s alone now and, truthfully, I don’t think he will get used to it if he hasn’t at this point. Since my arrival, Barber’s Adagio has cried itself out into a grandstanding final movement of Beethoven 9 and now Maher’s “Resurrection” symphony is stirring the porcelain-ware sitting on its tray atop the coffee table with a fledging life. Little Rattlings. His tastes shift to reflect his mood; last week we had African blues and Highlife, the week before that it was Iron Maiden, and before that, I think, it was Jean-Michel Jarre.
I sauntered from my place by his old globe – another heirloom; he wasn’t the type to have money to sink into a globe, though he most certainly was the type to own one – stepping into the kitchen, coffee cup in hand. I moved to start the process of putting on another pot when I saw what he was doing.
“Jesus, man! You’ll burn the flesh off! What in hell are you doing? How will you be able to play?” He’d taken the baking tray from the oven with his bare hands, holding the edges with his fingertips. I was horrified. He had a concert of great and new prestige this very night, one he had told me of with great anticipation for months. Maybe he was sadder that I had realized.
“It’s all right!” He flashed a smile so dazzling it made his hair look thicker and his face almost ten years younger. “I don’t feel the pain anymore.”
He walked over to the counter where he had a cooling rack standing ready and made to set the baking pan down. He jumped at the last possible moment and dropped the sheet the final few millimeters. He chuckled to himself, rolling his fingertips together, then blowing on them. He moved to the faucet and ran a little cold water over them.
“Well,” he admitted, “mostly.” He held his hands up with his palms turned towards me so I could see: “it’s the callouses. They’re so built-up, I hardly feel it…. until I’ve really overdone it, that is. I guess.” He shrugged, unconcerned.
Nothing that afternoon was overdone but he’d certainly outdone himself with whatever it was that he’d made. I am not the connoisseur of sweets that he is, but it was some kind of baked delicacy new to me; a little zesty, some cocoa in there, flaky, dusted with cinnamon after it had cooled. It went perfectly with our fine acidic café foncé. We sat down at last with our little plates for our desserts and actually used the saucers for our mugs (that were really for wood side-tables, not the mugs’ benefit) in the sitting room. I took my customary place on the couch. He took a chair that faced both myself and the window. He looked through it and his face glowed with the blue light of afternoon storm. The rain was audible for the first time and in the diffuse light the lightness of his features came into a sudden soft focus. He smiled again, but this time with only half his mouth and his look was wistful somewhere out in the rain. The sky wasn’t dark at all; it just glowed and gave.
“Today would be her birthday.”
I was taken a little aback. “Oh, I didn’t realize that was today.”
“Yes.” He just nodded deeply twice and let the statement run-out. He nodded by rocking his whole body. It showed his age.
I couldn’t think of a thing to say. He told me a little about her, about them, and about the past. I never saw him truly nostalgic except for this one curious case. He never really gave me the details. I sensed they were private – not secret but his. Perhaps theirs, though now he was sole custodian of those years. “It’s alright,” he finished, looking to me with a raised eyebrow to make sure I was ready for an earnest reference, “….so it goes.” He smiled at me the way he had when he looked through the window. I stole a glance in that direction; the pane was nearly opaque, it’s glass molten with raindrops. Then he smiled like he did when he pulled the injuriously hot baking pan out of the oven with no though of protection to keep his precious hands safe.
He took a sip of coffee and I could see how it pleased him. This small pleasure was one thing sacred we shared. For instance, I didn’t care for his quiet religion and, for his part, he was uncurious of anything not beautiful in his eye. Luckily, he could easily see the beautiful things in the research I was engaged in lately. But sweet things and bitter coffee we shared in the same quaint little place of ourselves. It had made us feel respectable back in the days when sometimes we’d drink for real and even sometimes drug, to enjoy such a bourgeois ritual a day or two later – or the afternoon before. Those days are mostly past, but the afternoons carry forth.
I began to recount the latest in my research, the update of that week. The math was beginning to line up with our specimens. The indications were so pleasingly human. It was how I imagined Francis Crick and James Watson (and their team of course) must have felt. A shared universality! How marvelous; looking at our latest findings, and what it could suggest, it was what faith in scripture must feel like when one is in a church. But my and my team’s church was not just the lab, but the whole world where things moved – once you knew what to see. Who would have guessed an obsession with Einstein would have led me down this particular path of biophysics?
“Do you mind?” My host, by gesture, indicated he would like to play his guitar to fill the background. The music had run out and the rain had died away. He tuned, strummed a chord, bade me continue, and began to play. Flickers of pain illuminated his placid, oceanic expression when he made the quicker, more complex and precise gestures to fit melody and flourish into his chording. All the while he looked to me, listening intently to what I had to say.
I am not sure what style of music his was. I knew he wrote but he seemed to play from a vaguely familiar repertoire most often. It wasn’t flamenco and it wasn’t classical. And for some reason or not for any reason at all I never get about asking him for a word for it. Beautiful and infinitely inventive were more than enough to describe it. The arrangement on those ghostly familiar melodies and progressions seemed to change every time or pair and repair like a bright festival of loving bodies. Gay and gallant at one moment, in torpor and reverie for the duration of the next movement, bold and cocksure the next, tragic and human for the final turn.
The burns or the playing or the remembering was hurting him. He was quiet about it, more intent on listening to my drone and his guitar’s dramatic turns of interval.
It is painful, yes. But that in itself was meaningless. I looked at him, enraptured in the what he himself would call petty human struggle. It’s not the point that it hurts, it just does. And he’s one of the few, perhaps the one I’ve seen, who doesn’t ever seem to be bothered by that. He just makes music from it. Or coffee. Or sweets with names in sweeter languages.
I told you he was a tragic man. It’s no fault of his, life is a tragedy in the end – a little sooner if you are him. But that doesn’t spoil any of the jokes or the small glories like this afternoon. The littlest things make my friend happiest. His temper isn’t perfect but he certainly handles the big things with a grace.
We should all learn to handle life with the hands of a musician. Most of us have tried our hand at a musical instrument and most of us failed utterly and given up all but the pretext of a “used to” thing done for polite conversations. My friend is different. He is different from the rest of us who learned to play our guitars as teenagers or middle-agers. Do you remember learning the first chords or simple stupid two-note songs? My fingers ached and the strings stabbed straight into the bone sometimes it seemed. I had blisters and the more I practiced the more I blistered until I didn’t have the fortitude or the patience to practice. Getting there, to the point of blisters, was another matter – on good days, at least – but it wasn’t any fun once I had the blisters. Most people, for all their bravado or their snippiness, are really rather torpid people compensating – though their hobbies and professional accomplishments are wide-ranging and as impressive as they are varied and virtuous. They don’t live much of a life because it gives you blisters, every time.
But I told you my friend was different. He lived how he played and played how he lived – only a little more elegantly. Life like his is a bittersweet song – or chocolate chip, if you will. You get strong to it if you want to. It hurts but you persevere. It is worth it. To blister. One must play through the pain and smile at the best parts and especially at the total mistakes. But it will change you – if you have to be too strong, play through too many blisters. Eventually, this way, if you are going to live long enough, you become calloused and insensitive. If your hands are to survive, it cannot be helped – not if you intend to carry on. But, for a maestro, it is still possible to feel the beauty of the melody through the callousness and the ringing of the world threaded in harmony beneath your hands as you play, reaching through all that hardened skin, touching the vibrating strings.
After the final cadence, my friend set his guitar away with a sarcastic flourish. This self-depreciation marked his best moods. I laughed and cheered, “Bravo, old sport!” He looked down at his hand; his face locked into a sensitive and bewildered portrait. The illusion snapped back to animation as he chuckled through his nose. It was a singular laugh all to himself. He held up his hand to where I could see his fingertips.
“Look at that,” he mused, “I’ve gone and managed to blister.”