Friday, June 23, 2006

Fairy Tales

Detroit was perturbed with rain. After a strange distended lunchtime concert, I awoke from a short nap, in a non-state-of-mind, to find a darkish sky over a still, mirroring lake. I couldn't resist, and padded to the shore in my flipflops. I unhooked the bicycle boat, slid it out into the quiet water. Mansions slipped by on land, blinking their large windows at me, while I listened to the boat creak and felt the paddles pull against the water; my legs seemed to go through their motions, pedaling obediently and absently. The boat was built for two and the second set of pedals rotated also, pushed by my invisible twin. On this dark day it seemed like a strange penance, a trip with a silent Virgil in a suburban Purgatory. ("Here are those who park in two spots at once at the strip mall, beware their fate!" & etc.) Spiderwebs hung all over the boat, but no spiders. And this suspended, grayly beautiful time went on for a while, until I reached an arbitrary, unknown goal; I had forced myself to do nothing and to feel uncomfortable with that nothingness for a little while.

I turned the boat around in some lilypads and, as I turned, events interjected: it began to rain. Little dark spots appeared on my shorts and on my T-shirt. The lake was a million splashes; its surface went from glossy to matte. I pedaled faster, now conscious of effort; thunder rumbled; lightning might present a problem, such as death. The rain came harder and very soon I was totally, utterly drenched, my hair hanging everywhere, down over my eyes, and my shirt like a towel, clinging; everything was clinging with water. What a delicious excess! Rainstorms give me the urge to run outside wildly and get soaked--anarchically, pointlessly--and to laugh at or with the rain; a few times I have run with the urge, and ended up laughing wryly at myself. I would step out into the rain, and feel no surging careless joy, just an incremental soaking which resembled a forced smile. You cannot be wild on command. Here, nature and circumstance were wild; one half of my brain seemed to embrace this wetness below, around and above, loved the unsheltered abandon; while the other half seemed to be processing a sense of alarm. I kept going back and forth from worry to pleasure and docked the boat with some relief. Once on land, I was able suddenly to notice that it smelled wonderful, the shore in the rain; the rain freeing the smell of the forest; at that point worry fled and I felt showered by Nature and well-pleased, like an otter surfacing. A piano-playing otter, hampered in useless human clothes.

I climbed back up the path to the lovely house, in a lovely Thoreau-ish mood, and right there, on the penultimate step, sat a frog. It sat calmly in my way, and I didn't want to disturb it. I felt rather amphibious myself at the moment, and perhaps in that moment of kinship it had something important to tell me. (It's not easy being green?) I am not given to omens, but I swear (!) the frog stared me down for a moment, and then loped off into some ferns. It wanted to slow my ascent for some reason. As i slid open the screen door, my mind formed the question What Did The Frog Mean? And as I turned the spigot for hot water in the shower, my brain seemed to supply from nowhere: "The frog wants you to play more Schubert."

(I'll leave you a moment now if you want to mark the day that Think Denk crossed into the certifiably insane.)

The beautiful, bittersweet waltz from the end of the Scherzo of the D major Sonata (all naysayers of that piece are forthwith condemned to Suburban Purgatory) came into my head, and I imagined the frog among the ferns, waltzing in circles to those strains in the rain. It was a pleasant image for my steamy shower and I emerged delighted. Dried and dressed, I went to a wonderful piano recital in the evening and subsequently stopped off for a beer and a burger at Dick O'Dow's, where I had spent previously some quality time with Eighth Blackbird. Previousness: sought but not found. Now only frat boys, loud televisions, and sad emptiness sat at the tables where our arguments over Schumann had beerily been perpetrated, and I drove home subdued by food and drink, facing somewhat towards the past as if it were the future. The Burger King sign along Telegraph Road shone bleak and lonely. I squeezed the car in its cul de sac, and ascended the few steps to the front door of my host home, pensively.

There, again, on the penultimate step, sat a frog. An even bigger frog than before, a real green gargantuan, staring and perched as if to hop, but obstinately not hopping. It sat on muscular haunches, a glistening Sphinx.

Coincidence? Now, of course, it occurred to me that frogs come out in wet weather, but always on penultimate steps? There was a difference between the frog-at-dusk, dark green against a slate step, and this night-frog, brilliantly lit by front porch beams, its droplets glistening against dull brick. But perhaps the message was the same, or more of the same, an intensification of the afternoon's. A dire warning or the emblem of an incipient prince? Was it happy to see me? I was abundantly keen to interpret it, and advanced cautiously. It stood its slimy ground. I reached out my cell phone to snap pictures, and it did not wince, blink, or shift.



I stood right next to it. I could have scooped it up. But still, it trusted me and sat. Only when my patience and wonder were exhausted, and I went on to the final step: then it hopped off, casually. It moved on only when it realized I had.

I stood on the other side of the closed door, in the dark foyer, listening to the gutter drip, wondering what the frog had become, to what Prince or Castle or Idea it transformed in the rainy night.

The next night, in possession of a cold Cosmo, and sitting at a long reflective bar of brushed metal, I tried to reckon with the Two Frog Phenomenon. I had a cute little black notebook and a pen. "Frog," I wrote, at the top of an empty page, and then again (but ever so slightly more hesitantly) on the next line, "frog--". I knew that by the end of the Cosmo my perceptions were no longer to be trusted; it was a race against time. Nonetheless, progress was not swift. "Time to stop and smell the frogs," I penned, a silly grin coming on... "A frog a day keeps the Hanon away," I tried again, and realized my serious quest was disintegrating. Proust has wonderful long passages about how we lose the most important insights of our lives due to such frivolity...

A further obstacle: a man sat next to me at the bar, chatted me up, averred I had a "great soul," and left. My frog musings were demoted to scraps between these verbal exchanges, and it is very distracting to be called a great soul in a crowded New York City restaurant, on the basis of a superficial shouted conversation. Looking over the notebook the next day, I noticed I had removed half a page to write my Great-Souled website address down for the effusive man, and had, in a very selective show of efficiency or parsimony, not been willing to waste the remaining half page... frog thoughts were scrawled up the tiny remaining peninsula of paper like desperate cries (ribbits) for help.

In hindsight, a few phrases from the notebook jumped out. The frog seemed to call up the idea of something I wanted: it was a magnet, or symbol, for some unfulfilled desire. It also seemed to be simultaneously a thing and event: a reminder, in some way, within the whirl of concerts and festivals and receptions and rehearsals and post-concert-dinners, that something had happened or was happening. Something. The penultimate step was the temporary stoppage of time, converting flow into event. It was a coincidence written on my life like graffiti carved on a tree, saying "JD loves X" with X, the typical noncommittal variable, somewhat up for debate. Why did Schubert and that piece come to mind?

... it came to me later. I remember this afternoon as one of my happiest to date, an afternoon I played an all-Schubert recital in Bloomington, Indiana, in Auer Hall, as sunlight came in through the high windows of the hall, and gradually dimmed as the recital went on, and we all stood outside afterwards in the late afternoon, spring breeze: friends in Schubert's wake. I felt that I had played reasonably well and I was talking with dear friends who seemed happy for me too, proud of me for having played that way, for having grown, and simply happy for the music which they had heard. There is a G major Trio in the Scherzo which I had always found somewhat elusive, and that day I remember it didn't seem elusive at all but totally overwhelmingly beautiful, and very much like the light that was coming in the hall and like my own happiness that spring had finally arrived... The frog for totally random reasons seemed to suggest, or want to remind me of, that electric connection between the self's experience and music-making. Which is, perhaps, the unprofessional side of the professional pianist. I wanted to play that Schubert piece again to find again (always again) that which is personal and lovable about music making: more than the hammering and honing of certain perfections, the intimate conversation with myself. That which opens up doors to happiest and saddest spots, which destroys the sense of already-experienced, which destroys the horrible saying "been-there-done-that," and replaces it with the present tense, even when it conjures up the past.

After that recital (we are still in the flashback, sorry!), I took a moment--paused penultimately before the party, so to speak--and asked myself what I really wanted to do at that moment to savor the Schubertian afterglow. I found myself at Soma, a beloved wacky counterculture-ish Bloomington coffeeshop, and in front of Soma, as if conjured, leaning against a broomstick, was a super cute member of the staff for whom I had long nurtured a painful, silent crush. This person stood, looking off dreamily into the purple sunset, bathed in the same (but darker) light which had just bathed the hall. The moment was ripe for me to introduce myself. Destiny called. I put it on temporary hold, went inside and ordered a triple espresso and a brownie. When I came out again to the porch, somewhat more jittery, it was empty; the next day this barista was gone forever, shipped off to California for some sort of rehab. Sigh.

And, at the piano, if I just pause for a moment and imagine the phrase without moving, without attacking the piano, without demanding sound, I get a desire for the phrase which sound can never match: the idea of touching the keys, invisible imagined contours of notes heard in the abstract, which the piano could never teach you... the inaudible things hidden behind the sounds, at the penultimate step of meaning where the frog is sitting calmly telling you to stop and then move on.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Beware the batrachian mask of innocence. One of the glories of early-70's horror film (pre-gore era) was "Frogs!" (http://imdb.com/title/tt0068615/). The plot summary runs thus: "Ray Milland plays an aging, grumpy, physically disabled millionaire who invites his family to his island estate for his birthday celebration. Sam Elliot plays a free-lance photographer who is doing a pollution layout for an ecology magazine. Jason Crokett (Milland) hates nature, poisoning anything that crawls on his property. On the night of his birthday the frogs and other members of nature begin to pay Milland back."

The music, btw, was by Les Baxter, the late, lamented, self-proclaimed king of exotica.

They all thought at first the frogs were harmless, too.

Carol said...

Jeremy, Jeremy! Back to the lovely baristas again?! We won't even discuss day-dreaming of dancing frogs in the shower! Perhaps the answer to the ever-present frog, is simply that he was a "Prince Charming" waiting to kiss his "Princess" - and you - of the male variety of human being kept showing up instead! What do you make of the fact that my "frog(s)" at my home consist of two raccoons and one opossum - other than the fact that they get fed?

Anonymous said...

Beautiful. Wierd, wonderfully so.

Anonymous said...

An especially good entry... Thanks.

hari said...

how beautiful to spend the day, back to nature in a boat in the rain; it's like your worries seem washed away temporarily.

how not so beautiful about the barista. it reminds me of that old movie "one touch of venus." she's gone before it could begin (great song from that movie, "too soon".)

Andrew said...

A truly modern tale - Barista ed il Pianista.

Kip said...

that was quite lovely

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