Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Julie & Julia

Just finished reading "Julie & Julia," which is a fantastic memoir and I have a crush on the author, Julie Powell, which she would likely find creepy but also kind of cool.

I imagine she's used to it now, seeing as the book has been out for five years and it's being made into a movie with Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, but her book is a big part of the reason why I've begun blogging regularly again. It's good to have a project.

The book, for those of you who don't know, is a about a 29-year-old actress at a dead-end secretarial job in New York City who averts mental collapse by resolving to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in one year. Powell's book crackles and pops with wit - I found myself laughing out loud often while reading - and when she talks about how it felt to be approaching 30 and working at a job with no future and not feeling like she would ever get her shit together, well, dear Reader, I'm no stranger to that inner-monologue. The only difference is that her neurotic blog (upon which the book is based) garnered legions of followers and got her interviews on CBS and in the New York Times, not to mention a book and movie deal.

Mine got one hit in June. Alas.

That said, I found the experience of reading quite comforting. I used to think that everyone else had their shit together and I was the broken one for not having a clue. Now I realize that the vast majority of people, especially people of the 26-35 persuasion, are groping for meaning and purpose and the "next step." A well-written memoir/blog is the act of making sense out of what seems like a jumble of experiences with no narrative, no common thread. The idea that your everyday experiences can amount to a meaningful, funny story that can inspire others is a really happy thought. I came away from this book feeling a little better about my own quest. Good stuff.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Oh Shenandoah

(I long to hear you)

There is nothing quite like camping to make you appreciate the miracle of hot running water. This, more than anything else, is what separates our era from the ones that came before. The Etruscans may have had their bread, the Spartans their soldiers, the Greeks their philosophies, but goddammit I can take a hot shower whenever I want.

Jess and I had never been to Shenandoah National Park before. It's a shade under two hours from Northern Virginia, and talk about an escape! You endure Interstate 66 south for 20 miles, hop on 29 south for a few minutes, and then disappear west onto 211, past winery after winery, until finally you begin your 2,400ft ascent into "Skyland," aptly named because the single road through the park, Skyline Drive, is literally something out of Gulliver's Travels. Around every bend is a breathtaking view, with blue mountains and yellow valleys and gray mountains even further in the distance.

Our campground (curiously named "Matthew's Arm" for unknown, hopefully lurid reasons) was about 10 miles from the entrance at Thornton's Gate. The park itself is enormous, stretching over 100 miles from north to south, and the two-lane Skyline Drive has a speed limit of 35mph that you exceed at your careening-off-the-mountain peril. The two conspire to make the place seem very, very big. Which is exactly, as it turns out, the kind of place for a soul beleaguered by modernity to vanish for the night.

The campground was clean and well-organized, although the sites were very close together. I could, for instance, follow the plot of an otherwise convoluted ghost story being told across the street and four sites up. We had a site next to the restroom, which to its credit had cold running water and toilets not beset upon by spiders, but which made for a rather noisy night of flushes and blow-dried hands. Of course it figures that the one time I'm camping with a bathroom conveniently nearby, I don't awaken having to go at all.

Tooch and Jeep brought the dogs along, and shortly after we arrived Jess and Tooch set the picnic table with foodstuffs while Jeep and I endeavored to start a fire. I actually remembered to bring a lighter this time, and Tooch had ingeniously decided to pick up some fire sticks at the general store in the park along with the cold beer and makeshift-Gerber multi-tool that I later used to hack open a can of apple pie filling.

Jeep and I wielded all our fire-making know-how, which is to say that we tried every assemblage of wood - the A-frame, the Log Cabin, the Awkward Catamaran - that we could think of before finally deciding to dump all the fire sticks and wood in a pile and light it at the same time, using the air-pump from the air-mattress to feed that sucker oxygen until the wood could boil off enough moisture to stay lit.

The "Awkward Catamaran"

It was decidedly the least inspiring camp fire I've ever been party to, but it was akin to making a fire out of wet bathing suits, and by the only meaningful measure - we got it hot enough to make s'mores and hot dogs and mountain pies - it all went well enough.

That night I slept like a baby on our brand new shiny air mattress.

In the morning we took down the tents, packed the cars, had a breakfast of granola bars, bananas, and water (sound familiar?), and found a trail that looked promising to hike. The "Meadow Springs Trail," at mile-marker 33.1, had a couple of things going for it. For starters, it wasn't the 6.1-mile trail that was listed as "strenuous" and eventually led to a waterfall that "may or may not have any water, depending on if it has been a dry summer." Second, it passed the site of an abandoned cabin, where only the stone chimney remained after a mysterious fire burned it down in 1946. Third, it promised a spectacular view at the top. The three combined were enough to lure us into trying it, and with the exception of the trail involving neither meadows nor springs, it was awesome.

The Mysterious Chimney

The top of the trail actually met up with the Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Maine to Georgia, so we walked along that for a little over half a mile until we got to Mary's Rock, which is this unbelievable stone structure on the very top of one of the highest hills in Shenandoah. We climbed to the top of the rocks and could see for miles and miles in every direction. In any military endeavor where the high-ground mattered, you would want to be the first to capture Mary's Rock. I was convinced you could see DC if you had the right telescope. Breathtaking.

The View from Mary's Rock

We hiked back down the mountain and rode east on 211 until we got to Warrenton, VA, where we stopped for a char-burger at Foster's Grille, which was actually really tasty and had great french fries. After that it was home for a shower (with stunning, amazing, miraculous hot running water) and a nap and a lazy dinner of wild-caught Alaskan salmon with teriyaki sauce and Asian rice, followed by more lounging and reading, and now, mercifully, sleep in a soft bed...

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Fog and the Valley

June 28 marked my one-year wedding anniversary. It's amazing to me to think that an entire year has passed since that stormy, memorable day in 2008.

We have yet to print out the wedding pictures, which was kind of endearing before we hit one year and now just sounds kind of sad. We have six weddings to attend in 2009 (three down, three to go) and they're consuming much of our discretionary income, including our picture fund. And you thought planning your own wedding was expensive! Just wait until your friends, who have dispersed to all corners of the country, decide to tie the knot and you're scrounging for plane tickets to Rochester, MN.

Our actual anniversary passed without much fanfare. The weekend was devoted largely to celebrating others. We attended the wedding of Jessie's cousin and the graduation party of her other cousin. I drank so much at the former that I was shot for the latter, and on the anniversary day, once we returned from all the parties for other people, we made a small dinner, popped a movie in ("Zack and Miri Make a Porno"), made love, and fell asleep. Simple and sweet.

Jess, however, had in her heart that we do something special for our first anniversary together, something memorable and worthy of pictures. An idea came after speaking with a co-worker who, for his 30th birthday, had gotten a hot-air balloon ride from his wife down in Charlottesville, VA. Entranced with the idea, I got the name of the company from him - Blue Ridge Balloons - and made arrangements. Our flight was to leave the Boar's Head Inn in Charlottesville at 6 AM on Friday, July 3. All we had to do was be conscious and clothed at 6 AM and meet in the parking lot.

I don't like waking up early, and will take a sunset over a sunrise any day. I especially don't like spending a lot of money on something that *requires* me to wake up early, and ballooning isn't cheap. In fact it's the opposite of cheap. It would have been cheaper to fly 500 miles with US Air than it was to fly 5 miles in a balloon. The journey, when ballooning, is the destination.

I had it in mind to stay at a bed & breakfast the night before, but I couldn't find a room for less than $150, and this month was looking tight enough already thanks to the aforementioned weddings, so we decided to rent a spot at a local KOA and camp out Thursday night. This was a masterful plan with great romantic possibilities, and it would have been effortlessly adorable had the following three things not happened:

1) We arrived at the campsite after sunset.
2) We forgot to bring matches and firewood.
3) We brought nothing soft upon which to sleep.

This all seems comically inevitable in retrospect, us being us. I knew last month, when I bought my first linen shirt for $63 at Macy's, that I had officially become a yuppie in the worst way, although I didn't think that directly translated into bringing all the goodies necessary for hotdogs and s'mores and forgetting to bring anything except the two contacts on the car battery with which to start a fire (let alone something to burn WITH said fire). So we assembled the tent (a wedding present we unwrapped at the campsite) by the parking lights of the Toyota, and then made the 9-mile trek back to town in search of fire.

$18, a BIC lighter, and four Duraflame logs later, we were roasting hot dogs and making s'mores that would curl your toes. Our stomachs full, we sat in silence and watched the fire consume two of the Duraflame logs which, despite their upbeat packaging do not, in fact, light just by burning the wrapper they come in.

Jess laid down a sleeping bag in the tent. I doused the fire. We attempted sleep on the solid ground. A fitful five hours later my cell phone alarm went off and we drooled awake, packed up the tent by the early morning light, and consumed granola bars and a bottle of water on the way to the Boar's Head Inn. It looked like an overgrown English cottage, and I availed myself of the free coffee, served in a room covered in old color prints of Irish Setters and men in polo jackets. Outside, we met our balloon crew, Jim and Liana, who shuttled us in their white pick-up truck to the launch site behind a local elementary school. All of the local balloon companies talk with one another, often launching from the same spot because the more balloons there are in the air, the easier it is to navigate. That being the case, four pick-up trucks with a large wicker basket and brown duffel bag in the bed switched into four-wheel-drive and climbed up a dewy grass hill into the outfield of a small baseball field, their chosen launch site this morning because the wind would carry them southwest of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The sun barely crested over the valley to the east as Jim lowered the basket off the truck and tipped it on its side, attached the burners, and unfurled the enormous balloon from the duffel bag. It snaked out of the bag like a magician's trick, at least 30 feet long if not longer. Behind us, one of the balloon crews was already "cold-packing" their balloon, inflating it with cold air supplied by a gas-powered fan. The narrow tube on the ground that was their balloon slowly filled with air, taking the familiar light-bulb shape, though on its side it appeared doughy, like a failed soufflé.

Jim put us to work, holding open the mouth of the balloon as he started his own fan and blew cold morning air into the balloon at 60mph. Jess and I, deafened and delighted by the fan, held on for dear life as the fabric slowly took shape. I peered inside the growing rainbow-patterned balloon, and it was like looking into the great hall of some Fairy King, the sun illuminating all the patches of color like a molten piece of stained-glass.

Once the balloon was “cold-packed,” Jim turned the knobs on two large propane tanks in the basket and fired up the burners. “Burners” is really an understatement here – these things shot seven feet of flame up into the hungry mouth of the balloon.

He fired them in short bursts, alternating burners, until at last the hot air pulled the balloon skyward. We quickly jumped into the basket, which had just enough room to fit the three of us. An assistant unlatched a safety tether from the truck, Jim fired both burners, the heat prickling on my scalp (which couldn’t have been more than 8 inches from the burners – yeouch) and the balloon creaked and groaned and slid along the grass for a few feet before lifting magically up over the trees.

We spent the next hour floating serenely 1,000ft over the valley. The sun hadn’t yet burnt off the morning fog, and it hung in pockets over the valley. There were four other balloons in the air with us, all at varying altitudes and distances, and it was amazing to watch how fast they could ascend and descend.

For the first 20 minutes or so of the ride I had an absolutely uncontrollable desire to hurl myself out of the balloon. I have no idea why, but I literally had to hold myself in. I had no desire to die. On the contrary! It’s my same crazy desire to, say, jump off of a cruise ship at night or jump in front of the subway – it’s like a Siren Song, a call to new experience, to “what would happen if…?” – it was nuts, but the ground was a hot orange in the morning sun, and the air was smooth, and the balloon hovered, silent and still, and I Just. Had. To. Jump. Out.

Fortunately the feeling passed, and we landed safely an hour later. Quick aside: You can’t actually steer a hot-air balloon. There’s no rudder, no fans, so when I say “we landed safely” I’m saying, “Seriously, I have no idea how this guy landed this thing without killing us all.” You change direction by changing altitude, because the wind is moving in different directions at different heights. The Weather Channel, when it says “Winds out of the southwest at 5mph,” is just referring to the air at the surface. If you go 500ft up, the air might be moving northwest at 20mph, and at 550ft it might be out of the west at 0mph; this masterful game, with an element of memory and luck, is the real art to ballooning, the reason you have to get a pilot’s license. Because, I mean, you can’t just park that thing anywhere. There are mountains and rivers and highways. Oh, you could put that thing on the ground just about anywhere, but you need to be able to get the chase vehicle to the location unless you want to carry hundreds of pounds of balloon gear yourself. It was amazing. The landing itself was smooth as a baby’s ass, right into a field with a single tree in the center, and the white pick-up pulled right up beside us. We folded the balloon, Jim disassembled the basket; we met up with the other trucks a few hundred feet away and had the celebratory sparkling apple juice toast.

The rest of the day was spent taking a tour of Jefferson’s Monticello, his “essay in architecture,” which was guided by a taut southern woman who kept calling it “Monti-cellah” and chiding everyone for leaning against “these original walls.” We got lunch at nearby Michie Tavern, which is a charming, if touristy, complex purporting to represent the Old South with a tavern and a dress shop and a general store. Lunch was a “Colonial Southern Buffet” of Colonial barbeque, Colonial fried chicken, and Colonial beans. I’m pretty sure they just put “Colonial” in front of everything for effect; I can’t imagine Jefferson eating himself fat on “Colonial New York-style Cheesecake.”

After that we made the 3-hour trek back to DC, barely able to stay awake after the lack of sleep and early rising, and got back in time for a nap on the Love Sac. Then it was off to Bangkok 54, a great Thai restaurant in Arlington, for dinner with Tooch, Jeep, Val, Mike, and Anne. We played mini-golf that night at nearby Cameron Run park (I won by a stroke), and collapsed, exhausted, into bed. Not bad for a first anniversary.

Although next time, we’re taking an air mattress. If I’m going to look like a yuppie, I might as well sleep like one, too.

Sunday, July 05, 2009


Dear Google,

You are not doing a very good job tonight. It's July 4th, and I am in need of some validation from you that my 26 years has left an impression on this planet. It was the kind of night where I was measuring my self-worth based on your search results, and guess what: I'm not feeling fluffy.

The majority of your results were pages I've created myself. Total tweets in reference to me: One. No new comments on my YouTube videos. The few instances in your results where someone else mentions me don't highlight, praise, or adulate as much as they merely mention and enumerate. Yes, I was in attendance at that event. Yes, I performed that piece. But what did you think of me? Did I move you? Did I change you in any way? Or was I like the light in the theater, and just, you know, there?

You may have mapped the globe and revolutionized the internet, Google, but you can't make me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

I've been really obsessed with my legacy lately, actually. Some people, no doubt highly intelligent and precariously correct people, would think it silly for a 26-year-old to be concerned with such a lofty concept as his own legacy. It's like describing the sunset over your own gravestone - it's just not something that you think about this side of the curtain. But I have been thinking about it, have been wondering what I'm going to leave this planet when I do eventually leave, and I've realized that if I'm going to leave something tangible, something that lasts, I'm going to have to do a number of things.

Number One is by far the hardest, and also the most necessary: I have to stop being lazy. I have to make creativity a priority, be it music or film or the written word. Every minute I waste in front of a TV or laptop screen is a minute spent not creating, not refining, not developing, not listening to the muses. I'm all about vegging out occasionally, but there has been a devastating lack of productivity recently that is frittering away borrowed time. I have major projects to finish: HFTH, new CD, new pieces, fantasy novel, grad school application... all of them are languishing, lying in a heap, unblinking, waiting for me to resuscitate them. Which leads me to-

Number Two: I have to finish the things that I start. This means that when I write a piece of music or have an idea for a short story, I actually sit and write them down, print them out, put them in a folder. What happens after that is up for debate, but I have to make them exist in the real world outside of my own brain, have to get them onto something durable and lasting and outside of me. And if I commit to a project, I have to see it through to whatever end may come, regardless of whether it comes out any good. Which leads me to-

Number Three: I have to release myself from the tyranny of good. By "tyranny of good" I mean this: Everything I create has to be good right away, and if it's not good, then I failed. This mindset, which rightfully sounded alien and terrifying when I was younger, has overtaken me in adulthood because I'm now creating not just for the joy of creating, but I'm creating with an end-product in mind. "What is this going to do for me?" A new piece has to be good enough to debut and perform for a live audience. A new story has to be good enough to get published. A new film has to be good enough to get seen. But the problem is you can't create from tomorrow, you have to create from now, and if you're fixated on the outcome you can't enjoy the process of creation, the assembling of disparate strands, the refining of those strands until the form is pleasing. Letting go of "good" is not an easy task, especially for an attention-hound like me.

On a happy note, and in direct contradiction to the aforementioned lack of productivity, I'm nearly done notating a new piece that was inspired by the music of Eubie Blake. It's called "The Newbie Eubie," and I'm thinking I'll debut it at the Indiana Ragtime Festival in August. Music has been one fertile area for me recently, and it's been great. It's hard not to want to make it "do more" for me - more opportunity, more chances - but it's one of the few areas of my life where I'm still able to shut some of that out and just play for me.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Border Skirmish

Dear Reader,

Hi. I'm enjoying writing to you again. I hope you don't mind how rusty I seem to be at this. I'm choosing relatively mundane topics to get back into the swing of things. Then again, the majority of my days are an assemblage of little meaningful moments, and to what end should I blog other than to capture the tiny freckles of memory that would otherwise fade with the winter of age?

Recently, I've gotten addicted to a game called Lux ( Well, more accurately, I should say I was "hooked" on Lux by my friend Dave, who is an insistent chap when he feels he knows I need and/or would enjoy something. He's been after me for almost a year now to buy a $25 license key so we could play online together, and finally (after a year of me saying I'd get to it) he surprised me and just bought me a key to use, in my name and everything. (As I said. Insistent.)

Lux is basically a computer version of Risk, which, for those of you who have battled me on the Map of Destiny already know, is one of my favorite games. Lux has all kinds of different maps in addition to the standard "Risk" map. There is a Nazi-era Germany map, a Roman Empire map ("For Gaul!"), even a "Siege" map where you duel other players in and around a well-defended castle. Getting someone out of the Castle Keep is a real challenge, let me tell you. The game makes for very quick gameplay, has good graphics and sound (who doesn't want to see a country literally explode in the flames of victory when you conquer it? Take that, Kamchatka!), and is frankly addictive. All that's missing is the trash-talking at the table, and the game designers have thoughtfully included a chat-window for just such revelry. I highly recommend you check it out.

Not all of my skirmishes today were so digital. My wife and I are not... what's the word... lukewarm people, and when it's on, oh, it's on.

I'd call today's tussle a border skirmish. Diplomatic talks broke down. Someone threw a firebomb. All of a sudden there were bodies everywhere. Explosions. Not everyone can talk about their marriage like a war on terrorism, I know, but against a wife as well-armed as mine, you don't mess around. My wife can kill a man at 20 paces just by telling him the truth.

So, we fought. She stormed out. I stormed... well I stood still and didn't storm anywhere, but I felt tempestuous. My angry clouds were swirling. Chance of precipitation was in the 80s.

I heard the door downstairs slam shut, and I huffed around the apartment for awhile. You know when you get so angry that you can't stand still? You just feel all agitated. Not even really thinking. Occasional violent urges. The odd thought. "I really should drop off my dry-cleaning," followed by a pang of hunger and then more anger.

I was in a huff. And then the strangest quote came into my head from Mr. Rogers. It's from a song that he read to a tough-as-nails senator when Rogers was part of the group defending PBS to the senate. Here are the lyrics:

What do you do with the mad that you feel
When you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong...
And nothing you do seems very right?

What do you do? Do you punch a bag?
Do you pound some clay or some dough?
Do you round up friends for a game of tag?
Or see how fast you go?

It's great to be able to stop
When you've planned a thing that's wrong,
And be able to do something else instead
And think this song:

I can stop when I want to
Can stop when I wish.
I can stop, stop, stop any time.
And what a good feeling to feel like this
And know that the feeling is really mine.
Know that there's something deep inside
That helps us become what we can.
For a girl can be someday a woman
And a boy can be someday a man.

(watch Mr. Rogers read it to the senator here)

So, I thought of this song. "What do you do with the mad that you feel / When you feel so mad you could bite?" I didn't have any clay. I'm too lazy to make dough unless it's from a tube. I don't have any friends to play tag with, and I was in my skivvies and didn't feel like getting dressed to go run around. So I did the only thing I could think of.

I rearranged the apartment.

Not the whole apartment, mind you. Just the bedrooms. I suppose you could say I'm passive-aggressive, but you can't argue with my taste in throw pillows.

We live in a two-bedroom apartment, and for the entire time we've lived here we (and our stuff) have occupied/slept in/messed up one room while the other sat pristine, preserved like a shrine, for guests. It's like owning a restaurant with a beautiful seating area - candles, tablecloths, artwork on the walls, live music - and only ever getting to eat by the sink in the kitchen.

I moved my piano in there last year and my wife used the closet, but otherwise the guest room just sat there looking inviting, warm, and comfortable while our bedroom was overcome by the rubble of everyday life - scraps of paper, speakers, boxes, checkbooks, video cameras. We did this, we thought, out of respect for guests. It's important to both of us that people come visit and feel at home when they do.

Sometimes I would escape to the guest room and wonder, "Why is this space used as a glorified closet?" So I did it. I took the plunge. I moved the bed around, moved the piano, and I put my computer desk in the guest room. It took three hours. I was sweating bullets.

And my wife nearly killed me when she came home. But spaces have energy. Rooms have energy. Not to get all feng shui on you (which always makes me hungry for General Tso's, but I am a firm believer that spaces elicit powerful reactions on an unconscious level. Our shitty bedroom is a source of tension in our apartment. It's covered in my possessions - my pictures, my posters - and it is not charming, quaint, or relaxing. The computer desk in here made it feel like a dorm room, and the clutter made us try and avoid it. And to top it off, we had a wonderful bedroom right next door reserved only for guests that we only got to look at and never use, a constant reminder of how our bedroom should feel.

So I still need to figure out how to fix up our bedroom. Ironically, the guest bedroom looks even more inviting than before and our bedroom looks like a bomb hit it. Hm.

We fought. I redecorated. We fought about the redecorating. Minor skirmishes. Trade disputes. Arguing over land rights. It's "Risk: Home Edition," and today, Kamchatka moved a computer...

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Okay, so recently I've been haunting the PianoWorld forums. I'd say I've become something of a piano voyeur, reading about other people's pianos, scrolling through their pictures, imagining that it was me who was bringing home a new Bluthner or Bosendorfer. All that I'm missing is a telescope and a wheelchair.

I love the feeling of possibility with a new piano, the undiscovered country of its keyboard, the roughness around the edges that can only be polished by hours of devoted practice and performance, that feeling of limitless musical potential. A piano and pianist contour to one another like lovers, and the passionate and unselfconscious communication between them is the most intimate getaway, the most romantic breakfast in bed.

Sometimes, when I'm just existing in this moment or the next, I forget the breadth of experience that I've had already in life. Musically there have been many spectacular moments, and as I was perusing the Steinway Pianos website tonight, I found a press-release about the "Olympia" piano designed by Dale Chihuly. It's finally been purchased after 9 years on the road.

One-of-a-kind piano, only one in the world. And guess what? I've performed on it! I gave a whole concert on this piano - a ragtime concert, no less - at a car dealership in Erie, PA, back when I sold pianos. I didn't play all that well, actually. The concert was kind of a surprise to me, and the damn keys are orange and yellow, which didn't help. But it's cool to think that I had my fingers on that piano before it went into a museum, that I had a chance to make my music upon it.

Also, I can confirm that the bench is as comfy as it looks :D

Shade of Blue

Dear Reader,

Feeling kind of down this weekend. Not sure entirely why. We watched a number of movies - "Milk" on Friday, "The Duchess" on Saturday," and "Watchmen" on Sunday. Not exactly light viewing, but it was a treat to get ravaged by so much story in so short a time. Gay rights, the politics of gender, nuclear holocaust... I'm due for a viewing of the "Wizard of Oz," I think. Something to cleanse the palate.

Actually, on Saturday we went to the American History museum and saw the remnants of the Star-Spangled Banner, old trains and cars, and the ruby slippers. I never conceived of just how big that flag is, or how beautiful trains look before they are doused in the smoke and ash of use. And, frankly, the ruby slippers weren't as shiny as I had hoped. Light degrades them, you see. If they were to sit under the same bright lights that made them sparkle in the movie, they would fade and fade, so their presentation in the museum is rather underwhelming: dimly lit, although with a twinkle on the lip of the left shoe that glows like an ember in a dying fire, the last remnants of the old magic. Not enough to get you home, only enough to remind you of it.

Home. I'm not sure where my heart feels it nowadays. Home is siting at the piano and playing. Home is in the twin bed at my mother's house, the passenger seat of my father's truck, the table at Eat 'n Park with Mat. Home is where my wife is. The warm bed where I sleep. Home is behind the wheel of my car, the sunroof open, sitting with my eyes closed in a parking space and listening to the world outside as the sun warms my face.

I've become dubious as of late of lending too much credence to emotion. You can feel "down" for any number of reasons: your sleep schedule is off, your sugar is low, you didn't exercise today, you have too much energy, etc... There's nothing celestial about that. I used to let myself get caught up in the roller coaster. Hell, I took pride in the fact that I felt things strongly enough to be able to call it a roller coaster. Everyone else seemed to be rather zombie-like. Morose. They weren't like me, weren't feeling things as deeply or as authentically. Now I realize that to really feel, to be proximate to Truth, is exhausting. And being a Real Person is exhausting enough, you know, without the emotional roller coaster. Waking up early, putting on your disguise and going to work, cooking and cleaning the apartment, exercising... The motions themselves are enough to tire you out, let alone contemplating the meaning or significance of them.

This is what I didn't know about being an adult that I know now. It's freaking tiring! It was easy for me to ignore that fact when I wasn't working, when I was living off my parents and spending my days playing. And it truly was playing, even when I felt like I was in the real world. I was just playing at the whole bit. Now I'm married, work full-time, plan out weekends months in advance, all while trying to feel authentic and purposeful. And I'm relatively successful at it, if I say so myself. I'm becoming more solid. But a solid what?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Blogs Are Boring When Life is Good

Happy St. Patrick's Day! I celebrated by locking myself in the bedroom with my piano and playing for three hours while Jess went out with friends. It was heavenly, the most time I've had on my piano down here at any one sitting.

In Pittsburgh I've got my Disklavier, a 48" Yamaha U1 that is a fantastic practice instrument. You can read the entertainingly old version of the story of how I won it here.

At my apartment in D.C., however, I needed to get a piano and didn't want to damage the Disklavier by moving it, so now I have a beautiful little Kawai CE-7 that I bought off of craigslist last spring.

I think I had more fun searching for a good used piano than I've had buying anything ever. I scoured craigslist every night, e-mailing people with instruments that looked promising. I would check brands and models against posts at the PianoWorld forums, which was very helpful in avoiding a number of models. (PianoWorld is THE website for piano people... very fun).

I tried out a little Kimball upright that had about as much musicality as a couch pillow. I tried out a solid but poorly-maintained Baldwin Acrosonic at the house of a lovely old couple who, after hearing me play on their piano, came to one of my concerts in NoVA. (A side note: The only piano my grandfather Adam Spitznagel ever owned was a Baldwin Acrosonic, which to me is sad because A) He deserved to play on a real instrument and B) No one ever thought to record him playing anything.) I flirted with the idea of going to a dealer, but knew instinctively that I'd get a lot more piano for the paltry sum of money I had to spend ($1200) if I foraged in the private-seller woods than I would hacking away in the weeds of a dealership.

I finally found, after three weeks of searching, a 42" Kawai upright in walnut, made around 1980.

There is something comforting about wood that is older than you, you know? The piano was at a house out in Reston, and when I went to try it out I found out the house was for sale and the piano was the last big piece of furniture to be moved out. Sweet bargaining position for me, I thought, channeling my grandma's hawkish flea market eye. The house was enormous, one of those million-dollar deals, and the piano was tucked away in the same room as the washing machine. Illustrious, I know. It was, far and away, in the best condition of any piano I had looked at, though. It was like finding a mint '98 Honda Civic in a lot full of '81 Corollas.

It was out of tune, of course - the shudder that piano technicians get when they get the "I bought a piano on craigslist" call is an extremely well-documented and justified event - but as most people who own a piano know folks usually only tune a piano when they are shamed into doing so, and it's not the end of the world. I play professionally and my piano hasn't been tuned in over a year, so I try not to judge people, though this Kawai must have gone 5 or more years without going under the tuning hammer. It's like a car in that way. It's meant to be driven, and when it's not being driven you can spring all kinds of leaks.

No such problems with this piano, though. I knew what to look for: cracks in the pinblock, worn felt on the hammers, keys that didn't work. None of it. Everything was like-new! I pretended to deliberate. I did. Not afraid to admit it, but on the inside I knew I'd found the right piano for me.

The fun part was getting it for $750, knowing that it was easily worth three times that. Pianos are horrific investments unless you buy one of the fancy brands (i.e. Steinway or some such), losing a huge percentage of their value each year. This is bad news for new piano owners but great news for impoverished musicians looking for quality instruments. I only know one professional pianist who owns a Steinway grand, and it's because his partner has a "real job" that brings home real money.

The Kawai is a great practice piano. Nice firm action, really takes some energy to play, and it's solid. I never considered myself a "Kawai" kind of guy, but my experience thus far has been awesome. It holds a tune brilliantly (and I beat the hell out of it), it has a great sound and action for such a little thing, and it makes a lot of sound. The CE-7 has been praised by technicians as being Kawai's best-sounding console... me loves me that solid-spruce soundboard... and the whole point of buying a real acoustic piano instead of a digital was that I wanted to keep my fingers strong in the months where I'm not performing, and in spite of having to dance around the schedules of the neighbors upstairs and down, it was totally a worthwhile purchase.

Pianos are one of those curious things that are more than the sum of their parts. For me, the piano is a freedom machine. I consider it one of the great pleasures of my life, one of my true luxuries, that at any moment I can sit down and transport myself to that melodious pasture called Joy. I wish there was some way to communicate that feeling to the kid who hates piano lessons, the kid who, like I did, just wanted to play the fun music. Keep walking the path. The journey only gets more amazing...