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.