My wife is forever losing her blueberries. They tumble like marbles from the peanut butter slathered bagels that she sprinkles so generously with chia seeds. She’s a healthy one, a vegetarian, my wife. I refer to them, jokingly, as her “birdseed bagels.” She claims not to see them, these runaway blueberries. They “get lost” in the black tiles of our checkerboard kitchen floor. Until someone steps on one, in which case they squish and then harden. A stubborn mess for someone (me!) to scrub away with a wet paper towel. Sometimes they find their way between the wall and the oven or, occasionally, if a whole pack spills from the fridge, all the way down into the basement—the masculine abode where my tools, clothing, books and fishing equipment are stored. “Stored,” perhaps, is a kind term for the mess I have down there. Things are piled for the most part on available horizontal surfaces. It is interesting, as I stop to think about it, that I require only the main floor of our home to be immaculate . . . the house stratified in some manner like Freud’s three levels of consciousness. Her clothes are kept in the upper story, the master bedroom. She occupies this nest like a befeathered bird in designer yoga-pants while I endure, a foul-whiskered mole occupying the nether regions with the centipedes and spiders. I suppose it is a matter of gravity that the crumbs fall to me.
Writing lately has been a struggle. I worked too much in March and the house brings with it its own distractions–its crumbs large and small. And then, of course, there are the children. But it is greening outside and the four-year-old turns five soon. There is hope on the horizon, even if there is snow in the forecast. Writing is a form of meditation, at least for me. I lose myself inside and out, unaware of the passage of time. Keystrokes form lines across the whiteness of a page as scenes are created—the banal fibers of my existence twisted together by theme to form a narrative.
Meanwhile, the birds chirp outside my windows as the laptop hums. The morning slips away, giving way to afternoon. The dishes and laundry loom. My children and spouse will be home before long. This silence, however golden, won’t last. The crumbs, like boulders in my mind’s eye, demand my attention.
I recently complained to Emily about not having time to write and its relationship to the division of household chores. She responded by saying that just because something needs to be done doesn’t mean it has to be done right now. Like so many postal employees, I am afflicted with a touch of OCD. Typically, I clean whatever needs cleaning before I write. Things need to be ordered in the house before I can seek perfection on the page. Today, however, I heeded her advice. The kitchen is a disaster with the morning’s pancake batter congealing to the mixing bowl. The bathroom I won’t even describe. But I got something done. I wrote.
Ironically, my family life has become both an inspiration for writing and its impediment. It is a realization which mostly makes me angry with myself. I am wholly to blame for my own frustration. I signed on to this, all of it, wholeheartedly. Frequently, I have described parenthood in terms of chores and sacrifice. But recently, my eldest son did something that made me realize how much we occupy each other’s fantasies, how he enriches my existence as I, by way of influence, mold him into an adult.
About a decade ago, my brother gave me a 5-string banjo for my birthday. To be honest, I didn’t much welcome the gift. I had an acoustic guitar I felt guilty about not playing and another instrument only added to my sense of musical incompetence. I tuned it as best I could to open G, playing the same little slide triplets and hammer on riffs that I sloppily executed on my guitar—blues clichés that I learned from John Lee Hooker tablature. They sounded ok, but what greatly annoyed me about the banjo was how shitty the fifth string (the weird one with the tuning knob at the fourth fret) sounded. Tinny with fret buzz. I assumed it was a crappy product of Chinese manufacturing and quickly lost interest. The banjo wound up in a basement closet with the water meter.
My wife is a teacher, so she is blessed with summers off to watch the kids—a wonderful thing for all of us. It is during this time that she conducts her annual cleaning of the basement. The boys help out by sweeping and mopping. She is sensitive about leaving my perpetually disarrayed tools and tackle boxes alone. This household event leaves me inevitably suffocated. One, because they are invading what has become my personal space. But also, because her cleaning the rest of the basement makes my work tables look slovenly by comparison. I feel overwhelmingly pressured to organize my shit, something I don’t have time to do because I’m not off for the summer, even though she assures me I don’t have to. Meanwhile, she makes oblique suggestions about giving away some of the books I’ll never get around to reading. Or selling the banjo. I’ve always evaded her requests, mostly out of laziness.
A few weeks ago, my son rescued the banjo from its dusty, dank obscurity. He hauled it upstairs along with a bronze ashtray full of guitar picks and began plucking. The sound, as you can imagine, was not simply bad. It was atrocious. The horrible din a bog-full of bullfrogs might make if they were being slaughtered. But he kept at it, resolutely, for hours on end from the comfort of our beige recliner. I encouraged his efforts, suggesting to no immediate improvement, that he try to play in some kind of rhythm. I tightened up the strings for him and tried playing the thing. My hands, which as a guitarist I’ve always wished were larger, seemed cumbersome and scrunched on the skinny, broom-handle neck. And when I tried finger-picking everything thing seemed wrong—the silver strings too close together with the first string missing altogether. I shook my head and handed the instrument back to him with a desultory shrug and a promise to get new strings in the future. The sound of bullfrog murder continued well into the evening.
My wife and I laughed about the matter in the kitchen.
“He’s very determined,” she observed.
“You have to sound bad if you ever want to sound good,” I said. “It takes a lot of practice. I was awful for a long time when I first started playing guitar.”
“You still are.”
I sneered back at her sarcasm.
“At least he’s not singing.”
“Well, just wait,” I warned her, “till he finds that box of guitar peddles I have down there. They’ll be teenagers before you know it. This house is going to get a lot louder and a lot smaller.”
As my son matures, I’ve observed him acquire my manias. A couple Sundays after he started playing the banjo, I finally took him and his brother out to buy strings. But along the way, we first stopped by the local Department of Transportation hub to pick up a couple buckets of salt and sand to combat the ice on our sidewalk. Thoughtfully, I had brought along a five-gallon pail for each of them, but just as we got there my cherub-cheeked four-year-old had drifted off to sleep. I roused him, fearful of a tantrum later on. He shook his head forcefully no, so I instructed his older sibling to go ahead and fill both buckets. Watching him work, tall now and filling out in the back, I couldn’t help but admire his progression toward manhood. After school, he shovels and chinks at the ice with the chopper the way I used to do obsessively when I got home from work. I hate ice. Most people, to be honest, give little shit to the mailman who risks life and limb to deliver the unwanted junk mail and bills to their house each day. The neighbors must think me crazy, out there in my uniform, pursuing such a Sisyphean task. Now I watch my own son, an emulated version of myself, engaged in the same futility.
We arrived fifteen minutes later at the Guitar Center in Roseville with my youngest son awake and raring to go. I held his hand across the treacherous parking lot and we opened the big, glass doors to the raucous babel of juvenile males thrashing with guitar pedals and beating away at electronic drum kits. My boys seemed damned scared. I encouraged them to have a look around on their own, but they didn’t dare leave my side.
“All right,” I said, anxious myself about the whole operation, “let’s find what we need and then check out stuff.”
I found the long aisle of strings near the cash registers. After several minutes of bewildered looking, I finally spotted them inches from the floor on the bottom row–a pack of D’Addario phosphor bronze banjo strings. My elation at completing my mission was tempered by my lack of choices. Why only one kind of banjo string and a half-dozen options for mandolin? I could only conclude that my chosen instrument was as out of style as Steve Martin himself. Next, I found a suitable instructional book with some chord diagrams and tablature for various children’s songs. I felt myself bursting with confidence. Why, I’d be strumming out bluegrass versions of Oh Susanna and Cotton Eyed Joe in no time! Dueling Banjos, I suspected, might never happen. I asked the kids if they wanted to get in line to try the drums, but they both seemed ready to leave.
“I thought you guys would be more into this,” I said, frustrated by their lack of enthusiasm. I guided them over to a wall of electric guitars. The axes were polished and shiny like Chevy’s at a vintage car show. I pointed out the more iconic models that attracted my eye to Miles. “This one here is a Les Paul. That one’s a Fender Strat. I had one of those. I sold it when I moved up here to live with your mother. Tobacco sunburst. I had a nice big tube amp too.”
Miles gawked up at me admiringly. “You sold it to be with mom.”
“She didn’t make me sell it. It wasn’t a deal breaker or anything. I just needed money at the time.”
Theo started to groan and hop in place impatiently.
“Let’s just look at the acoustic guitars and then we’ll leave.”
We entered a glass-walled enclosure where the feminine-bodied guitars with their honey-blonde wood hung from the walls. The room had a feeling of stillness, like a church.
“There’s a Gibson Hummingbird,” I said to Miles. “That’s a real beauty. Dad, can’t afford that one.”
The more expensive models were kept high out of reach.
“The guitars are free to play,” a man about my own age who I hadn’t noticed in the room informed me. “Take one down if you like.”
I wasn’t sure whether he worked there or if he was just some dude hanging out on a Sunday. I returned his smile and nodded, fingering a pick I had placed in the front pocket of my jeans. There were several Martins in my price range. I scrutinized the labels to see which guitars had solid spruce tops and which were laminates. The kids were staring at me with “wanting to leave” expressions on their faces.
“I’m going to have to come back some time without you guys. Do you want to hear me play one?” I asked Miles.
“What about this one?” he said.
I laughed. He had chosen the oddest guitar of all. It was a guitar neck with out any tuning knobs that didn’t have any body at all, just a wooden box with a chrome bar for resting on your leg.
“That’s called a Traveler,” the man said. “You’ll have to plug it in for it to sound like anything. Amps right there.”
I went over to where Miles was standing and picked up the instrument. “You really want to hear this thing?” I asked.
He nodded enthusiastically. I felt a bit put on the spot as I approached the amp. I plugged the jack into the guitar and strummed a bit, not getting anything but the soulless, jangly noise of unamplified strings. I fiddled with the dials and tried again. Still nothing. Then I realized, feeling rather foolish, that the amp had two channels with another jack cable lying on the floor. I turned up the right volume control and finally, holy shit, I had reverb!
“Hey, you guys ready?”
They gaped at me expectantly.
I felt self-conscious and rusty. It had been a long time since I had played. After some hesitation, I strummed an A minor chord, my favorite chord when I first learned to play. A surprisingly rich sound filled the room. My two boys watched me with adulatory smiles as if Neil Young himself had strolled in to give them a private concert. They were an easy audience. Everything I did was awesome because I was the man who made them pancakes.
I played slow, appreciating the sustain I was getting with the amplifier–A minor for a couple bars with some hammer-on effects. Then G. D. Back to A minor again. I sensed a vacant space in my lap where the body of the guitar should have been. I played the progression for a while with my eyes closed, lost in it the way I get lost in my writing. I stopped, turned the volume off and unplugged the instrument as I rose from my stool. Over my shoulder, I noticed the guitar guy hanging at the back of the room. He had witnessed a special moment. There were big emotions in simple chords and not everyone had to be Eric Clapton. I returned the Traveler to its place on the wall and told the boys it was time to go.
I paid for the strings and banjo book, deciding impulsively to buy each of the them kazoos which were offered in different colors inside a goldfish bowl by the register. Driving home, I realized I had been playing the verse from “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” It took some doing but I managed to string up the banjo and get it in tune. I had downloaded an app on my phone for this purpose because, somewhere along the line, my guitar tuner had busted. I discovered that in the past I had tuned that oddball fifth string an octave too low and that’s why it sounded like shit. Stupid. One thing about art or anything in life, is that you have to be willing to look stupid in order to learn or grow. Which leads me to another thought in regard to parenting. Even though we live in a hyper-competitive world that is fraught with peril, children should be allowed the space to look stupid and make mistakes. With that in mind, I took pictures of each of them strumming the banjo with kazoos protruding from their mouths like cigars to show their grandmother who is a piano player. While they played chase games outside with the neighborhood children, I took out the instructional book and tentatively began to learn the tune to Clementine.
I’ve informed my wife, who continues to lose her blueberries, that I’ll be buying a new guitar this year. Whether I’ll follow through with this threat remains to be seen. The trim on the house needs painting and, as May pushes toward June, I’ve yet to buy a fishing license. I write when I can, which means sporadically, not every day like I should. Sometimes, when the house is empty after the floors have been swept and mopped, I play the banjo, if only for ten minutes, before I have to get ready for work . . . and the sound of bullfrogs wafts out the open windows.