I’ve come to believe, after having written some myself, that every book worth half of what it’s printed on is about the true and vulgar ruination of a life. Tolstoy told me so and so did my therapist, a tall, light-skinned African American man with whom I went to college and who shares with me a love for jazz and was, in fact, one of my mentors in the music back when we were in school. I’ll call him Bill, after Strayhorn, for the sake of this remembrance, and tell you he looks like a slim Charles Mingus, his face square-jawed, his nose somewhat wide in the sub-Saharan way, his frame like a basketball player’s (though only six-foot plus), and his movements lithe as Rilke’s panther in the Paris zoo.
We met for an evening on the Upper West Side recently when I was out to New York. Like everyone these days, we ’d gotten back in touch via Facebook, though there was light correspondence via email before that, mostly my urging him to get back into vinyl or else. I imagined he ’d compiled a magnificent record collection made up of original releases from all the standard labels—Blue Note, Impulse!, Verve, Columbia, and even CTI (a label I myself abhorred for its overly produced jazz-pop productions with strings and synthesizers, watered-down beats, and simplified melodies)—and I was forever goading him that he ’d promised his whole and complete collection to me once he ’d gotten into CDs, of which he ’d compiled thousands. He sent me pictures of a remodeling he ’d done once, built-in custom shelves throughout a denlike space he ’d dedicated to his music.
But he would never let me know in those emails what his equipment consisted of, preferring to keep it a mystery, perhaps so I wouldn’t dog him. He ’d show me pics of his convertible Porsche (top down under lavish trees of Lambertville, Pennsylvania, where he practices), a gleaming red thing cute as a button with five-on-the-floor synchromesh. But not his audio rig. Consequently, I would periodically urge him to pick up an old Technics sl-1200 Mk II, used on eBay, and have “my man in Upstate,” a modder and analog guru, refurbish it for him with a new motor, fresh grease and oil, and a couple of updated parts. Bill would say, Yessuh, I will someday, but never go for it. Then I would tease him he should give me his LP collection straightaway and not make me wait for it till he was dead as he ’d provided so in his musical will when we were sophomores. Since the early seventies, Bill had branched out into a kind of eclecticism, moving out from Alice Coltrane into world music—North African Arabic stuff, Caribbean son and shit, Brazilian samba, and even gypsy cante jondo, which itself was the root of flamenco.
At Pomona College during our freshman year, Bill lived almost directly downstairs from me in the dormitories, and I could hear his Impulse! albums blaring from his stereo almost every afternoon, Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders drifting out above the little midget palm trees outside our windows and swimming above the neatly trimmed hedges maintained by the college’s Chicano gardeners. Bill came from Compton, now famous for the rap group NWA if for nothing else, but it’s where my black schoolmates at Gardena High were bused in from, and, back then, before crack cocaine and worse, it was a varied community of folk with middle-class incomes and strong aspirations for what we all wanted back then—a front lawn irrigated with water from the Colorado, two Motown cars in the garage, and a much better stereo. He and I always had a good word for each other whenever our paths crossed, each of us one of the few “ethnics” amidst an enrollment overwhelmingly white in those days. In fact, as one of the few African Americans, Bill had made it a point not to talk to white people, a survival practice that had been discussed and vetted in the pre-term meetings of the Black Student Union. He ’d copped to this in a casual moment of sharing at our twentieth reunion, apologizing to our classmates that those were different times and that we were young and that the main thing was that he be solid with his African American brothers and sisters, who mostly believed it was the way to go back then.
Back when I was in high school, I mainly played blues or rock records, but I ’d just started collecting classical records once in college—Heifetz and Piatigorsky playing the Brahms sextets and the Mendelssohn octet and the magnificent Brahms Double Concerto. I ’d heard these bowtied gentlemen play when I was fourteen, a guest of a Jewish classmate’s parents one Saturday afternoon when they took me to the Little Pilgrimage Theater across from the Hollywood Bowl.
Then, one Friday evening my freshman year in college, Zubin Mehta came with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and performed Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, and I went out and got the LP immediately, falling in love with the sound of the oboe, the bassoon, and a piccolo overblown like the cry of a shrike. I found records of the Budapest String Quartet playing Beethoven, and they, too, became lullabies for me, soothing me to sleep. I coveted the richness of string sound and, like the cool jazz I preferred, it whispered lavishly at me like a fluttering chorus of a lover’s lashes across my body when I ’d been so anxious through the day, my mind and spirits lit up by the heady company of my school peers, who, to a soul, possessed good minds and educations far better than mine.
I was the L.A. public-school kid among those who ’d prepped at Exeter, Horace Mann, Deerfield, and the University of Chicago Lab School. And I drove myself hard to get there, so as not to feel dumb in class or insipid during our mealtime chatter in the cafeteria and dining halls. I pushed myself to study most all the time and, though I took no drugs, all the bright foam of my new collegiate life just gave me the all-night jitters. Music was my anti-anxiety pill in those days—Kind of Blue my diazepam, Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” quartets my Xanax. And they worked. A lot of nights, after studying, I ’d stack a sequence of three albums on the spindle of my Zenith rig and let myself slowly drift off, knowing both enspiritment and deliverance were mine if I ’d just let the music take me.
In my waking leisure hours, though, my curiosities intensified in a kind of potent reduction distilled from just three jazz albums that had been simmering through my sleep—Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Coltrane’s Ballads, and Wonderland by Charles Mingus. I thought of them as “America’s art music,” the small combo (a solo instrument or instruments with a rhythm section) the equivalent of a string ensemble in the classical tradition, and I pushed myself to learn more. Eventually, I targeted the classmate who lived downstairs, as I ’d heard recordings of saxophones and trumpets blaring out from his dorm window, carrying out to the courtyard and up the walls to my room on the second floor. I ’d determined Bill was to be my tutor whether he wanted to or not. I ran into him in the hallways or between classes on campus and asked if I could drop by to listen sometime. He was cautious and aloof at first, saying “maybe.” But I eventually wore him down, repeating my suggestion whenever I saw him in the lunch line or in the dimly lit hallways of our dorm.
Exasperated after one of my incessant pitches, probably in the queue for a meal at our dining hall, he asked, “Why should I let you into my room to listen to my music?” He meant black music.
Calling on everything I had and trying to sound straight outta Compton, I said, “Because I’m black myself and you is half Japanese and don’t know it.”
“Huh?” Bill said. I ’d stumped him.
“My daddy done more than kissed your mama,” I said.
He looked at me cockeyed at first, smoldering, assessing, his face unperturbed but for a slight flare of his nostrils, then cracked up at my audacious joke, breaking into a big smile that showed back teeth. I ’d counted on him recognizing this mutual culture of outrageous but joking insult we both came from and it breaking down barriers. It did. He invited me to drop down to his room sometime for a listen.
When I went over one afternoon after classes, Bill was already playing a Pharaoh Sanders LP from 1966 that I didn’t know—Tauhid, which he pronounced “Tau-heed,” dramatically elongating and emphasizing the second syllable. It was the magical suite entitled “Upper and Lower Egypt.” Its music first weaves a sonic tapestry with tomming drums, thumb piano, a droning bass and guitar, electric piano, and the splashings of varied cymbals. Then, rhythmical improvisation commences on the drum kit, augmented with rattles and a cowbell until the standup bass starts plucking out a catchy and insistent ostinato. The piano and guitar join back in at some point, playing full, ascending chords from the earth to the skies. Throughout, there is rhythmic play on woodblocks and thumb piano, which strike marvelous grace notes that make the progressions sparkle. Finally, about halfway through the sixteen-minute piece, Sanders comes in with a brilliant improvisational screeching and honking solo that explores a wide swath of his tenor’s tonal range. The tune closes with Sanders chanting in Arabic. Bill and I listened in silence until the side finished. Bill plucked up the tonearm from the spinning platter of his turntable before the stylus could hit the label, and there was a short moment of silence between us before I broke it with a question.
“What’s he saying?” I asked.
Bill gave me a sidelong look, smiling again, but this time tight-lipped.
“Well, he’s saying, There is no god but Allah . . .” He let that sink in a moment, then elaborated. “Tauhid means to conceive of the world as One,” he continued, extending his arms and opening his palms upward like a preacher. “Tauhid of Allah means both the oneness and the uniqueness of Allah.” Then he smiled magnanimously and bowed his head, ever so slightly, his hands coming to rest clasped near his waist, a pose of theatrical dignity and reverence.
Bill’s words charged the air in the room. They were of a religious tradition that was foreign and more than a little suspect to most Americans. Black Muslims were unsettling to mainstream culture, and, though we ’d heard from Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by then, only a few outside of Islam’s proponents might encounter its teachings, even its vocabulary, in their normal lives. But I had. Back when I ’d taught a photography class in Watts for a couple of weekends. Back when I ’d taken a poetry workshop there the summer I was fourteen. One of the counselors was Muslim. One of the teachers would quote Malcolm X’s speeches. And the black parole officer who ran the cultural center where we ’d meet would repeatedly expound on the issues of amity and mutual respect among all of us as, said he, we were from “a Panther family, a Muslim family, a Christian family, or a family of free-thinkers.”
I thought carefully about what to say to Bill next. It would be important.
“We have that teaching in Buddhism too,” I answered. “All things possess the Buddha nature.”
We let these words from the two different religious worlds hang in the air a moment, then Bill got up and flipped the Tauhid LP over, saying, “You gonna like this one. It’s called Japan!”
“What the fuck I know about Japan?” I said. “I ain’t no Japanee!”
We laughed again, two boys from the ’hood who knew they both understood the ambiguities of origin, displacement, mixed cultures, and the art they produced. That whole year, we connected on Coltrane, Miles, Mingus, and Monk, him loaning me his precious records, one by one, presenting me with mini-lectures before each loan. These were disquisitions on development—the differences between one album and another, what it meant in terms of Afro-American culture, how the music might be “outside” but still based on the blues, the foundation of jazz. Bill also told me not to bring anything back scratched, or he ’d have to cut me off. He never did.
After years having not seen each other, Bill proposed we meet for dinner when I told him I was coming to Brooklyn and New York City. I ’d been at a very nice retreat for artists in New Hampshire the past month (I was cooked for, given a private studio in the woods, and placed among mostly splendid and polite fellow artists) and was dropping down to New York to see friends, conduct an interview or two with folk in audio, and tour a couple of factories (one for headphones, another for turntables in nearby New Jersey). Bill had studied psychology at Stanford after college, graduating with a Ph.D., but chose to practice rather than do research. Now long in private practice as an independent therapist, successful and upper middle class (two cars, one the aforementioned Porsche), he proposed we have dinner at a spot he knew on the Upper West Side. I was game, so we made the date.
We started in on our salad discussing prominent L.A. figures like flute/saxophone genius Eric Dolphy (an elevator operator at the Crenshaw May Company department store) and Yusef Lateef, another flute/sax player who, Bill allowed, was the one who taught him the flute. Oh, yeah? I said, impressed. Bill grinned and told me story after story. I countered with mine from glory days.
It was a joyous conversation over rare steaks and pearl onions, potatoes, and peas. Our tastes in jazz mainly coincided, with the difference that he was more appreciative of the avant-garde and “free jazz” of Ornette Coleman and the fusion of Weather Report (which I abhor), while I maintained my borders within early Coltrane, middle Miles, and most all of Monk. We agreed completely on Mingus, though, the great bassist who was our revered elder and camerado from nearby Watts (which borders Compton), that he was a monster and the one composer who, like a Janus of jazz, looked both forward and back in his equanimous embrace of avant-garde cacophony and dissonance on the one hand, then field hollers, swing, and the blues on the other. As we got up to leave and stood by the coat rack near our table, a balding Hispanic man in a tux asked how we “gentlemen” knew each other. I guess he ’d noted our races—one of us black, the other Asian, yet ease and volubility filling the space between us.
Bill grinned and said, “This is one of my good friends from college, and though we haven’t seen each other in many years, it’s just like it was yesterday that I last set eyes on him.”
He spoke in long, almost grandiose sentences like this, with a soft breathiness lofting his words into the air like a chain of small clouds streaming gossamer and goodwill behind them. Even if I hadn’t felt the same way (and I did), I ’d have found myself nodding in agreement anyway, slightly ashimmer in the head with the light music of his speech.
As we walked out to the street, Central Park West, the night traffic shoving a luff of breeze our way, lifting our coat collars a bit, Bill handed me his card and invited me to call or email whenever I liked, whatever I wanted to talk about.
“Jazz or just old times or whatever,” he said, giving me the eye.
I took the card, for a moment puzzled by the gesture.
“That’s my private number on it, so just call me anytime,” Bill added. “It’ll go to message if I’m in session, but I’ll call you right back once I’m free.”
He gave me a wave and, with a tilt of his head, he was off down the windy avenue, the semaphore of traffic lights and walk signals dodging under the columnar rectangles of a black sky inserting themselves between buildings looming above him.
I stood on the sidewalk, letting a thought leak in from the smattering of lights surrounding me. Oh, he’s inviting me to take a session, I realized. Though there likely was a shadow over my cheer, which was unfeigned, I ’d thought I ’d kept my anxieties over my marital separation mostly out of our talking. I tucked the card into my wallet and spun away in the opposite direction, buttoning my coat all the way up to my neck, awash in goodwill and just a touch more curious about the future—the one that had seemed so full of murk and loneliness ahead—and I felt something like gratitude for it as I paced toward my subway stop, humming Coltrane’s “Central Park West,” perhaps a little off-key, but jauntily, like a flâneur’s carefree sashay down the blustery avenue of my new life, estranged from love yet rich in a murmurous and vague promise of solace. Sah-dah-dahhhhh, Sah-wee-da-a-ooo-lah-dahh, Sweeddah-la-ahh . . . Twee-dee-lah-ahhh . . .
It took me a while to take Bill up on his offer. It came in the fall, about five months after S had moved out and eight since she ’d announced she wanted a divorce. Processing things took time, as you can imagine, and I did it in all the usual boring and stupid and passive ways I could, not wishing to do anything dramatic or desperate. I knew I was complicit in our loss of love, and I could not deny that I ’d given up most every evening to the pursuit of stereo, my new high church, while S had languished watching “quality programing” on the sofa in the living room adjacent to my study (where I ’d had all the electronics and speakers crammed in around my writing table). It would have been a laughable scene, something out of a sixties domestic comedy like Good Neighbor Sam or The Seven-Year Itch, except there was no hanky-panky with the wives of friends nor the wife’s tennis coach or the glamorous and curvaceous yet still girlish upstairs neighbor in a swank New York apartment house. In fact, our lives had become bland by any outward standard, my ears affixed to stereo while S’s eyes were affixed to the high definition pixels of our twenty-nine-inch LED tv from Korea by way of Costco. So, my response to her announcement of intention to divorce was equally boring, I suppose. I tried negotiation in oblique ways, abandoning my hi-fi world to watch television on the couch with S, trying to develop an interest in Mad Men and movies on-demand. We went out to lunch sometimes. We went out to a jazz concert where a talented friend of hers sang a revival show of Billie Holiday standards. We even went out on a last date to the movies and saw The Grand Budapest Hotel together, a highlight event, louche and wan, that signaled my adult surrender to the inevitable, just as the hotel had surrendered to war, disuse, and decline. But I still spruced up the kitchen with little gifts—a Mexican folk-art cross banged out of salvaged steel from a gift shop at the Denver airport, a trivet that was a colorful square of ceramic tile with the design of a cartoon dragon on it that spit fire onto a barbecue grill, a new Braun coffee grinder—pathetic and uninspired material gestures of a bewildered man. I talked. I even tried going to a couples yoga class with S—something I ’d have ridiculed as so stereotypically alt-cult middle class prior to my quiet desperation. In short, I tried to be the companion I never had been.
But S moved out and took our daughter with her nonetheless, speeded things up, in a way, as her counselor had told her it might help “stabilize and reassure” our little girl so she could enter her new life before too much anxiety about it set in.
The first time I called Bill was in midsummer, when I was feeling the emptiness of the house without the steps of another padding softly on the carpeting, S’s teakettle boiling on the stove, the low chatter from the tv on in the living room while I read or listened to music in my study. I was feeling the length of the days, so much light with no one else around the yard. I was feeling the space that was empty next to me on the bed at night, throwing my arm across the pillow, and finding no warm shoulder, no curvature of a breast underneath a nightgown, no honey-colored hair I could twist in my fingers and let go.
I admitted my disinterest, copped to being a bad and infrequent lover, our dwindling sexual partnership, and my abandonment of love as the center of things. I ’d put an abstract there in place of it, a ghost in the machine, an obsessive quest that was ludicrous and foolish to anyone sane. Bill took this all in with alacrity and recommended I read a book, The Anatomy of Love, that discussed the different ways people dealt with marriage, adultery, and divorce. I ordered it online and, from the picture of its cover, recognized that S had been reading it just before she said she wanted to leave. That in itself was a small shock. Why hadn’t I picked up on that? But I read the book and found it completely null and void. It was organized in a kind of self-help way, with explanations, anecdotes, and citations from medical, anthropological, and psychological research that just wore me down in their simplicity and short-answers approach. A lot of it was based on that dreaded curse of failing marriage—adultery—which I ’d assumed had no role between us. But, in our follow-up session after I ’d browsed the book (which he ’d predicted I might not like), Bill led me to the thought that adultery wasn’t limited to (in his words) “jus’ steppin’ out sexually,” but could be applied to obsessions too—obsessions like mine with stereo.
“You dropped your wife for a stereo jones, man,” Bill said, “And she wasn’t havin’ none of that foolishness. You just didn’t pick up on it that you were shutting her out, letting it wound your love life together, doing the evening tango with jazz and all that business on LPs and CDs and whatnot while your beautiful wife languished on the couch, unfucked in the other room.”
Whoa, my brother, I thought to myself, You’re getting in deep. But I knew instantly he was right. The question was, why did I do it? I had no answers for that one except I knew I was given to obsessions and sought them serially throughout my life, that I didn’t feel I was alive unless I was chasing something—photography, poetry, lava floes across the Hawaiian countryside, my mysterious paternal family history, seed rain and near extinct birds in the fern forests of Volcano, and the jitterbugging and fox-trotting ghost of my father emanating from the inner works of a tube amplifier. I was a learner of things esoteric and obscure, and I wasn’t happy unless I was consumed by them, my thoughts of nothing else while immersed, and that immersion itself was my karma and my soul, some kind of hermetic bathysphere of deep diving into the ten thousand damnable things of the incarnate universe so long as I never touched bottom. I was one-track minded like my mother said, prophetically, when I was a teenager and no different now than I was then, bending over the three-pronged jaws of a vise and tying a dry fly in my bedroom, looping the threads around bits of deer hair, hackles from a Chinese rooster, or twists of glittering chenille and Mylar. I lived in the subaltern and the microscopic and found magnificence in my absence from the normal things of life. In other words, I lived to be absent.
“For us simpler people,” Bill said, “We call that denial—like the river in Egypt. You learned that trick as a kid in Gardena because it was a way to survive . . .” and here he paused for the right descriptor, “All that tension between your mother and you, and then you end up getting addicted to it even after you’ve grown and moved out, and you repeat it no matter where you’ve gotten yourself off to in life, no matter if you’ve made it and have a real life to enjoy. Because you can’t. You need to escape, even if what you’ve got is good, because you’re afraid that you’re not you unless you’re escaping. It’s a ghetto thing all right. We all have it to some degree or another. I have it too.”
That was enough profundity for one session. Bill broke it off after that and asked me to “ponder” things as I felt like it. I told him again that I didn’t like that book, but he said it wasn’t the book so much that mattered but how I reacted to it, how it got us into the discussion of ghetto escape and my fear of being trapped that expressed itself in serial obsessions even as the world saw these (and I did too) as artistic and, miraculously, as accomplishments. I was still a damned fool, in other words.
After separating from my first wife and before that divorce, I went and saw a counselor with a Ph.D. in education—not in psychology or anything remotely like it—because she was cultured, European, smart, had sparkling blue eyes and was just generally attractive. It was something I needed then, devoid of intimate female company for a time. She listened attentively and spoke with a gorgeously light accent and a musical voice full of gentle exclamations and, I thought, sometimes with genuine concern too. And she was a good advisor, encouraging my fatherly commitment to staying in Eugene to raise my two sons, helping me sort through my priorities and turn down an attractive recruitment from an art school in the Midwest, dissuading me from a couple of bad love affairs, and beginning exploratory discussions about my mother, who ruined my life, as the Jewish joke goes.
I ’d seen other ones—a plump woman who dressed in plum and navy Chanel suits helped my first ex and me develop a co-parenting schedule but could not get our bill straight (she overcharged, then undercharged, then double-charged); a lanky New Age-ish middle-aged man whose son crewed with my oldest but whose advice seemed better suited to hawkish Republican men who ’d just begun soul-searching after a first affair; and a Slick Willie who dressed crisply in a long-sleeved white shirt, sport coat, and dark slacks and tie (he looked like a made-for-tv FBI agent) and rhapsodized how he imagined I ’d be “freed” the more we kept talking “through the years.” The woman who wore the Chanel suits was very good and gave excellent schematic advice (no sensitivity involved), though it took months to straighten out our bill. But the men just weren’t for me. It was as though we ’d sprung from entirely different species on earth.
As a matter of fact, that was my main problem—that I felt of a distinct world and culture different from all the Oregonian locals and academics too. Despite a fairly happy childhood in Hawai‘i, I was a product of an intensely urban environment once we moved to L.A. (I was seven), high on diversity and energy, even aggressive by most standards, and not only was that hard to shake, but I was completely unwilling to do that. In fact, you might say I was arrogant about where I came from, throwing the occasional cussword around in a department meeting, showing the Little Leaguers the “hard slide” into second base and incurring the stern disapproval of their mild and nurturing fathers, making a right turn on a red light after checking traffic.
So, when I found my European therapist, I thought we connected on the level of our analogous exilic consciousnesses—she the cosmopolitan from a vaunted capital of Western civilization (she ’d grown up with opera, a symphony, great gardens, and marble monuments strewn about) and me the ghetto kid with an education who made it out just on his feeble wits. We spent many sessions measuring out our relative disdain for the locals and their culture—a news anchor who once identified Toni Morrison as “winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature,” a restaurant whose menu touted a dessert pudding that would “warm the cuckolds of your heart,” and the achievement of our urban planners who had managed the synchronization of all the stoplights on Sixth and Seventh streets (our complementary one-ways) from downtown to the Washington Street overpass.
In the end, it was a feeble and superficial connection, and our meetings dwindled and became infrequent over the years. And then, suddenly, sometime after taking up with S, I just stopped going. I suppose it shows what a coward I was in therapy or how my therapist was my surrogate for feminine company in those days. Either way, I ’d decided it was a demonstration of my shallow character.
What didn’t I bring up? Race and loneliness, actually, things I didn’t feel I could talk about with anyone who wasn’t “of color,” as the expression goes. There was no way I could relate my predicament—a middle-aged man in a career and lifestyle that took him far from roots and community—to anyone comfortable and performing, like shares in a good stock, in what felt to me a culture of bland food, well-meaning and polite folk, and an annual two-day Asian Celebration with Oriental food booths, lion dances, taiko drum recitals, and martial arts demonstrations at the convention center next to the Lane County Fairgrounds.
As I grew happy and contented in my relationship and then marriage to S, I withdrew more and more from whatever that self-contained, small-town world could not provide me. I just stopped asking it to. I stopped reading the local paper, stopped watching the local news (the malapropisms, constant phlumferrings, and poor grammar of the newscasters just sent me up a tree), and stopped trying to make friends. I made my little band of family, S and my grown sons, then S and our daughter, most of my entire world, and I liked it, dropping the pretention of being somebody to the outside world other than what I was—a father and a husband and an academic poet who didn’t write poems so much anymore.
I didn’t much like being known as a writer but enjoyed anonymity more. I failed at being a minor celebrity, which all poets tend to pretend to be. At a writers’ conference, for instance, teaching a workshop to mostly adult hobbyists, sincere in their wants to be better at their craft, I ’d feel stalked by the needy, who ’d follow me to the men’s room and put annoying questions to me as I unzipped, expressed a shortened stream, and then zipped back up. Tell me about your childhood, a bald-headed male retiree would say, leaning against a cold tile wall sweating with congealed summer moisture. Or, after an intricate lesson in meter and rhyme that exhausted me, You sure know sonnets! Tell me about Yeats and Shakespeare, would you? And You remind me of an Oriental Jim Harrison the way you just say what you feel and don’t give a moose fart. After the conference, back in Eugene, I ’d get a misshapen envelope from E.T. somewhere at an address unknown to me, open it, and find a red lacy thong stuffed inside. Who wants that? Worse yet, I ’d be on the dance floor on the Friday night of the first weekend of a two-week writers’ retreat with mostly adult students (the MFA, pre-, and post-MFA kids sprinkled sparingly amongst), busting a move with S, and I ’d feel a faint tug on my right back pocket where my wallet was not. I ’d spin around, and spilling out over the floor would be a sheaf of papers covered in columns of type—a manuscript of poems. Someone had tried to stuff their sheets of verse into my jeans, hoping I ’d read and endorse them.
In truth, celebrity was never what I had, but rather I think I was seen as a rung on a ladder for others to climb over, and in order to do that they had to get my approval somehow—a letter of recommendation, a blurb on the back of a book, or, best of all, a fellowship nomination or prize recognition. I was prey and got stalked every time I showed up in public. Uh-uh, not this bruthah, I ’d say to myself, and put it out that I was dangerous, that I might just go off on somebody, that folks had better watch their step.
This did not earn me a lot of invitations over the years. My calendar grew less and less crowded as I aged into senior standing, and, to be honest, I didn’t miss the jetting around and junketeering one bit. For the longest while, I ’d felt like a fake to myself anyway while on the road and receiving the sorry attention of the lost. Not only didn’t I deserve it, but I didn’t want it either, craving a different kind of connection if it were to be with people at all. For the truth was I was still in love with the inner solitude from which poetry arose, and no one much spoke about it or came from there in their game-playing social interactions. We came at each other from booze and American affability, a desperate cheeriness that crinkled the eyes and pickled the imagination into salty, antisocial personas. Then, the grosser needs took over—desires for fame, advancement, and throwaway sexual encounters. Uh-uh, not this brother.
So why Bill? Well, we came from the parallel universes of twinned ethnic suburbs in South Los Angeles, as I said, he from Compton, which was black, and me from Gardena, which was Japanese. We ’d both made it out of our just-short-of-genteel ghettoes, got ourselves to the same fine college, and earned advanced degrees that launched us into professional careers. And yet we missed something. And we still celebrated at little shrines of the past we put up in our upstanding homes. We played jazz music and reveled in what we knew about it and experienced as we listened to it. When we talked, it was always about jazz, about how Freddie Hubbard was so great coming out of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and then he lost it, playing the fame and smoove jazz game, wearing his velour jumpsuits in burnt sienna, placing a pickup in the bell of his trumpet, selling the fuck out. And what the both of us knew, likely at a pre-conscious level, was that, however critical we were of the trumpeter, it was Hubbard’s arc that was our arc too, that we had assimilated, gone all CTI with synth strings and away from our Blue Note roots, and there was something fundamentally wrong with that, having left our homes and our communities, living among the quality white folks.
Our identities were retrospective—we looked upon the past and the poor neighborhoods that blessed us into the world as something we needed to pay homage and respect to like the music we loved, like the sweet bread our grandmothers baked on weekends, like the hymns rising from our churches (or chants from a temple, in my case) and melodious in our memories. We had to, in effect, stay black, as the saying goes, even as we climbed economically and professionally.
And Bill knew me from when I was that scared Asian kid hoping to make it at Pomona College, writing my first silly and sentimental poems, hatching my plot to do something artistic in life. He knew what I ’d come from, and he knew the special rigor of our education because he was pretty much always in the same boat as me, desperately paddling away to get momentum and gain on all the white kids from the preps and Beverly and Uni and Hollywood High (the good L.A. schools where the likes of Susan Sontag had gone), who were ahead of us scattered along the river upstream. I not only felt a superior sympathy from him completely unlike the patronizing indulgence I might receive from anyone whose travel in life might’ve gone more smoothly than ours, but I sensed commonality between us and it gave me confidence. What’s more, I felt he sensed this commonality with me, and I could say quite a lot to him without having to write a novel about it first.
He knew. He could relate. He loved jazz.
And so music was always the buffer between and the buoyancy under us, keeping everything afloat. Whenever conversation lagged, we could talk about Charles Lloyd or Yusef Lateef (both of whom were almost his flute teachers, as a matter of fact). If things got too heavy or close to the bone, we could run off to the figurative water cooler and gas about bebop and the cool, jazz samba and Cuban son montuno. We would not talk about Breaking Bad, Tony Soprano, our stock portfolios, or the natural way to diminish dandelion growth on our front lawns.
So I picked up the phone, called the number he ’d given me back in New York, and we started our sessions.
After our first session, during which Bill had produced that zinger of an observation about my “stepping out with stereo” as an adulterous act, I let things fall dormant for about six months as I chewed on that, reflected, and felt not only intense regret, but an untapped reservoir of dark remorse as well. What kind of idiot throws away his marriage for a stereo? I’ve thought about it all kinds of ways, up and down and sidelong too, and I thought nothing said it so well as “I Threw It All Away,” the syrupy Dylan song from Nashville Skyline: Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand / And rivers that ran through ev’ry day-ee-ay-ee. I walked around for days, hearing Dylan’s country-styled croon over the sliding notes of session man Pete Drake’s pedal steel guitar and its slinky vibrato pulsing under my heart as I held those thoughts and those lines in a kind of abject folly and tried to go about my business as though still unruined, though I knew I was not.
For S and our child were more than my second chance in life, they were my everything or should’ve been, as I slogged and schlumphed along toward retirement and sang in my chains like the sea (as another Dylan put it). They were the radiant center of things that forestalled any gloom and transformed every misfortune into a new dawning with the warm glow of promise and security aborning. Or so should they have been. I ’d look up from my reading and glow with a silly and yet uncommon pride when I saw S at her computer, banging away at an email to her associates in Europe, or when I ’d see our baby girl beginning to crawl or bouncing gleefully in her jump-up harness under the doorway to my study. But it was just that—I reached out with my mind and not often enough with my body to embrace them. Could I have counted them as emotional capital that, once invested, need not be touched to earn their way into growth and consistent returns? I didn’t have an answer to that one. And I roiled with bewilderment for months as I tried to sort through a quiet soullessness over how things had turned out.
“Look at it this way,” Bill said, during one conversation. “You’ve got big changes in your life and, like me, you’re kind of close to another big change—retirement and a downturn of outward commitments and a focusing on yourself—but you aren’t going into it with the same feeling of plenty that you had before. That gave you a lot of confidence, I’m guessing, and you ended up taking your wife for granted, like you said, and she wasn’t having none of that. So, now you’ve got a situation to cope with. You’ve gotta account for the change, in other words, and be able to look forward without that same source of confidence you had before. And it was, in fact, a confidence that may have caused you, for whatever reason, to make some choices that actually changed the reality of that future you used to look forward to. Matter of fact, you acted like you were retired already, focusing on yourself and your stereo hobby, as though you were alone and not partnered. You see? You kinda built this life already without knowing it.”
And, though there was no music on while Bill spoke, I still heard the plaintive notes of a valedictory playing like an undercurrent, a funereal march from a line of musicians accompanying a black casket along Bourbon Street and through the French Quarter to the Cities-of-the-Dead and an ultimate repose. It was the true ruination of my life that I had presided over and had myself conducted from the orchestra pit, my obsession with music and the gear to reproduce it as though live, a vulgar substitution, in other words, for living itself and the genuine carnal and spiritual drama in which we must all play our parts in situ and not in absentia, as I had done. Like an inadequate Ellington, music was my mistress, and I ’d been caught stepping out on life itself.
“We good?” Bill was asking, as I ’d fallen silent on my end of the phone.
“Yeah,” I said, “We good.” And hung up.
I’ve said I am a poet, but, truth be told, I stopped writing poems once I took up the audio hobby, though I was still writing poetry after S and I returned from our honeymoon in Italy, where I ’d written a ton. Throughout that summer, I worked on a few more short lyrics I liked and one major piece, a narrative sequence about a fresco painter that I just dreamed up one day in the swank study I had in Italy.
It was fun studying up about the fresco process, learning about how a fresco was made first from a cartone drawing of what would be the painting. I ’d seen that glorious sketch of Caravaggio’s—the one for his famous School of Athens painting that sits in Rome. The drawing was a floor-to-ceiling one and stretched across almost half the curved wall around a large rotunda of a room in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan. The detail of it was amazing, down to the folds of robes around each of the scholars, their bearded faces, the angles of their noses completely individual. But the flow of the hand that sketched it was what really amazed me—willowy and elegant, then forceful and energetic like waves bouncing on the surface of the sea just ahead of an incoming storm. Each drawn line seemed to have its personality and emotion, its own rhythm of formation. I think I stood in there for twenty minutes at first, but I came back two or three more times just to drink in the hippocrene of it. I wrote my own poem with this in mind—the artist’s lavish love for his task, a deft hand running first over paper and then plaster like the palms of an onshore wind tomming on the waves of the sea.
But it was just after that, in the trough of leisure after finishing my book, that the audio obsession took me over and, rather than sketching out plans for a new book and writing poems by the day for it like I was supposed to, I spun CDs of the operas I liked by Verdi and Puccini instead, studying up on the plots, relishing the arias, savoring the passo caratteristico, the instrumental ritornello, the little cantabile at the end sung allegro (in a quicker tempo than the main motivo of the piece). I don’t know why, but I fell in love with knowing something new and different, something elegant and emotional, something as crafted and perhaps even more so as any current style in American poetry would permit these days. Hearing this music quickened my blood and made me feel a part of things in a way that my daily life and even my life in poetry did not.
And what was wrong with my daily life? I can’t say it wasn’t comfortable. The struggles of establishing the early and middle career were pretty much over, and I guess it puzzled me what to do with myself. Could it be that all I had to do every day was write? Deep down, I can only think it must have terrified me to know that, inhabiting a dreamscape in my mind and slowly tapping it, drop by drop, for poems. And so, I came up with another venture just to embark on something new that would occupy my waking hours. And, boy, did audio and music do that. There was a tremendous amount to learn. Very little of the advice I ’d get seemed applicable to me and the music I wanted to play, so I just had to burn through the surplus from my paychecks after covering the monthlies that were obliged. I harvested the paltry royalties from my books and my speaking fees too, learning on my own with these little goblets of cash (like blood) what it took by way of equipment and matching them to each other to get to where I could stand to listen to it.
Hi-fi was its own brave new world, and it did not admit newcomers without exacting its price in trickery, dollars and time, and frustration. A piece of gear could beguile you with temptation from its gorgeous images and enthusiastic reports from both amateurs and professionals posting online, then arrive and be completely wrong for you and your system. Why was this? Who could know without committing repeated follies? I went through multiple system overhauls in just the course of one year—three amps, three sets of speakers, two CD players, a few sets of boutique wires of audiophile grade, and, roughly reckoning, I must have spent north of twenty thousand dollars chasing the sound I wanted. A bit more than half a Beamer’s worth at the time. And I would come to spend much more.
But it wasn’t the money that mattered, it was the pursuit of a sound in an audio system that would be as much like that first, spectacular evening at La Scala as possible. During my honeymoon with S, we toured Florence, Como, Bellagio, then Milan, where we ’d taken in the opera one early summer night. Though I ’d heard compilations of arias on CDs before, had even gone to a performance or two stateside, nothing had prepared me for the intimate scale and most wondrous show at La Scala. I ’d heard not men and women, but gods and titans sing that night. So, with a home stereo, whatever technical challenges there might be, I knew just how the music was supposed to affect me, rending my heart and inspiring tears of joy in the way of Rodolfo’s magnificent aria from the first act of La bohème set in the squalorous garret in the Latin Quarter of Paris. And that is what I sought, whatever the specifications, intricacies, features, and cost of all the gear that circulated through my study cum listening room. Whatever a sales clerk, brochure, or reviewer would say, I was looking past the words to see if there was any code that would hint that an inert thing made of whatever baroque set of parts designed to spring to life energized by electrical impulse and current would produce the astonishing voices of Italian opera, a trompe l’oeil of the magnificence of a full orchestra.
All this became as much a daily obsession as poetry had been when I was in my twenties and throughout my thirties as I built whatever there was of my “reputation.” Day by day, the quest for sound displaced the quest for the poem, my reach extending outward to exploring the ephemeral qualities of audio gear rather than inward to touching the frail and sweetly tender harp strings of my own Aeolian zither. You might even say that I ’d become bored with writing poems, that a valve had been shut off, that I stopped believing in the romance of whatever inner voice I ’d tried to cultivate and bring into the world as my own verse. I ’d done it enough times that, though I was continually surprised and delighted, I knew that it changed nothing, as Auden infamously once said, that, as Stevens said, all was the same on the blue guitar of poetry.
So, as I kept up appearances, teaching my classes, tutoring my graduate students, critiquing poem after poem they ’d all bring in for my approval or not, I obsessed about audio, surfing the web for new products and insights on the various fora—audioasylum.com, audiocircle.com, and, eventually, whatsbestforum.com. I ’d drive up to Portland to hear a CD player I thought might be just the ticket, take a day in the middle of a reading trip to visit a handful of dealers around the Bay Area, auditioning an amp here, a player there, a pair of speakers on the showroom floor of a place near the Opera House in San Francisco. On a job interview, during a recruitment visit to Baltimore, when asked if there was anywhere in particular I wanted to go for the half-day I was free, I made the request to be driven to a crossroads near the airport outside of town so I could spend an afternoon listening to Chinese-made tube gear and Danish speakers, using the CDs of Alfred Brendel playing Haydn piano sonatas as my test tracks. I was all for sound and sound was my all in those days.
In these early days of the hobby, S would sometimes accompany me on my voyaging through the audio marts wherever we went on vacation or for an out-of-Eugene errand to Portland, our Northwest Nineveh. I had not yet worn her down. Our daughter was an infant then, stroller-bound, and I have this picture of them backlit by a setting sun on NW Johnson Street, outside a swank baby boutique and its blue awning with white piping jutting over its window. They were shoving along, making a faltering zigzag down the sidewalk, dodging others in either patience or misery, headed up the street away from me as I ’d stepped out of a dealer’s, having spent the last hour pestering a salesman, listening to a beastly ziggurat of a Conrad-Johnson tube amplifier and comparing it to a solid-state piece of more modest size and cost by the same manufacturer. S and our baby in her stroller were silhouettes against the darkening cityscape, wind lofting against the turquoise woolen pashmina S was wrapped in (the same she wore to La Scala) and her honey-blond hair cut just above the shoulders, and I imagined our daughter bundled in flannel blankets and cozied in her stroller, both of them just biding their time, indulging me, waiting out my obsession, which only grew more fierce as the years kept flipping by like dark traffic on the boulevard, going the opposite way, making soft, susurrus, and plosive local winds that flapped mercilessly on our clothing, flattening and folding the thin wake of our spirits as a resolute atmosphere collided with ours, faint and pedestrian against the fading light.
I told Bill about this in one of our sessions, saying it was an image that has stayed with me for a good ten years now, as our daughter grew into a girl as lanky and lovely as her mother. I thought it represented regret.
He was silent a moment and then he spoke.
“It’s a premonition, isn’t it? About the ruin you think you’ve made of your life.”
And just like that, I was thrown into an abyss of infinite recognition, where Geryon, that winged dog of Dante’s Inferno, could dive through the blasts of air, loft under my flailing body, and then make his spiraling descent with me silently screaming, perched between his rhythmic shoulders, to the caustic and ferocious world of the unredeemed.