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I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet.  The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...

Friday, May 22, 2020

Time to reprise my poem "Delusions of Mediocrity"

Delusions of mediocrity 

I turn 55 in the summer of 2015. My friend the poet Ken Irby dies. 

I’ve been to Argentina that summer and start running when I get back. 

I am no longer President of the University Senate. 

Pet-sitting at my girlfriend’s house while she is on a trip (dog, chickens)

I begin to fool around on her electric piano. I’ve heard there’s something

called a tri-tone substitution, so I try it out. Also, that you can replace

the tonic with the iii chord. Using these simple ideas, I write my first song.

I can hardly play piano—lessons as a kid and all that—but I know elementary

concepts of music theory (apparently). I write a few more songs 

on a cheap keyboard I have in my own apartment. I’m playing every day

by now. My songs all sound similar to one another, because I am exploring 

a few ideas, but I learn more keys and gradually branch out. My lyrics are 

not good. “Like stars emerging on a cloudless night / We got together and

it felt so right. / Let’s live a life together, / in sweet harmony.” I struggle to 

write down the music using free music notation software. (It’s hard to use

that phrase in a poem, isn’t it?). In September I run my first 5k.

I go running on campus one day, though, and have asthma attack. In October 

my friend loses use of both arms in bicycle accident, temporarily.  

I help to nurse her back to health.

 I take her 

to Davis to celebrate my mom’s 80th birthday in November, and to Austin

in January. My sister has Semantic Dementia and lives in Davis too.

She is musician and poet too, but cannot read, or read music, any more. 

She has lost many words, especially nouns and proper names. 

She does not know my name any more.  

Cared for by my mother and by Norbie, she is cheerful. Norbie,

her husband, my new brother-in-law, has loved her for years and 

pokes gentle fun at me, calling me Professor Mayhew and 

exaggerating the importance of my Senate Presidency.       

In 2016 I play piano every day except when traveling. We go

to Austin (as I’ve already mentioned), Tallahassee, and Cuba. Getting back

to my songs, I write more, back from Cuba. One uses the chord changes 

to “Bemsha Swing,” by Thelonious Monk. Another two use the progression to

“Hit the Road Jack,” the so-called “Flamenco cadence.” I have recorded 

some songs at the studio in the public library. My playing is terrible, 

hesitant, too staccato, dynamically insensitive, but I suffer from “delusions

of mediocrity.” The idea that I could play as well as amateurs playing 

in local bars and coffee shops. Those guys are actually good though, 

and I am not, though writing these songs gives me an odd feeling 

that for too long I have blocked myself off from the wellsprings of my own

creativity. That sounds awkward in a poem too. It is too explanatory and 

discursive. Creativity has become a management consultant buzzword 

so all the cool poets now are being deliberately unoriginal. Good thing

I’m not one of them. Anyway, my songs are inspired by Bill Evans-type

sonorities. They are harmonically complex by now, full of colors I find

fascinating. Since I’ve been listening to jazz all my life I seem to have

a lot of good ideas for songs. Now I finally understand Lorca’s love of 

Debussy and Falla. The nuanced chromaticism of his Suites, so different

from stereotypical notions of Lorca as poet of duende and 

Andalusian Kitsch.  I set a few Lorca poems to music. 

I take voice lessons all spring.  I play in front 

of the hardware store where they have a piano where everyone can play.

Record heat and humidity render it unplayable, though, by mid-summer.

Also, in the student union, where there is a grand piano whose keys also

begin to stick. One day I sit in on drums at Martin and Durand’s house 

with a country band (Martin’s band), just with snare drum and wire brushes. 

They are gently tolerant of my playing, which isn’t too bad, I guess. 

I realize I’ve been playing drums for 20 years but rarely in public,

typical for my isolated and bookish existence, typical

of all the ways I get in my own way, sabotaging my own 

happiness through cowardice and asinine, egotistical stoicism. 

It is summer of 2016 now, as you might have guessed. My short un-

successful musical career is almost a year old.  We commemorate a year

of Ken’s dying and I offer to play a song called “Elegy for Ken Irby” 

at Judy’s house. (I once called it “Italian Movie Theme” before I realized

that it was an elegy for him.)  Meanwhile my so-called creativity

is at a high point. I don’t even care that my poems are bad 

and write bad poems on purpose that everyone loves, including this one

that I conceive of in my head this morning as I run five kilometers. 

People like my songs too. Between pride and embarrassment, I settle for

a kind of homespun enthusiasm, the way anyone should be enthusiastic

about their hobbies, things that make them happy to do from day to day. 

That seems better than wondering every day whether I am talented

or just a fuck-up.  I am happy and in love with life itself, despite

intermittent depression that makes it hard to get through the days, 

sometimes. I love my friends and family too, some “hid in death’s dateless 

night” but most still living, and of course I love Beth, the 

woman I wrote those songs for. Life seems uneventful, at times, but is 

actually crammed full of events, good, bad, small, momentous, 

I realize. I realize that the next year might be eventful too and 

decide to keep my radio dials tuned to as many stations 

as possible to see what might happen.    

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