The pursuit of excellence for its own sake is regarded as idiocy in a society that values only the creation of value– that is, the creation of the dough re mi — money you can buy things with. Things are given value according to how much they’re worth — in dollars and cents. Nothing could be more basic and immutable than this first law of the marketplace, no? Why bother to write clearly, if not to hone your craft for money? Why be meticulous about playing in tune, and in time, if nobody is paying — if, in fact, nobody is listening? I am listening.
I was checking out a guitar yesterday, a 3/4 size Martin that felt good in my hands, sounded good. I’d been thinking about it, realizing I’d probably have to buy it, even though it’s not really made of wood. “How does it sound amplified?” I asked the kid with very long hair. He handed me a cable and led me to a room with padded stools and amps.
“It sounds good,” he said. He was right. Damn, it sounded very good. I began to play, now with a pick, now using fingertips to pluck the chords of One Note Samba; I strummed with my thumb, with the pick. A nice rich, round tone. The pleasure of playing this little guitar was considerable, my hands relaxed, playing things they’d played enough to play smoothly, improvising, checking out the harmonics.
Somebody came into the room after a few minutes and began to play another guitar. At first I was annoyed at the intrusion, but when I realized the guy was playing a straightforward thing in E, I played in E, some fills, a couple of chords. It was OK, I could continue to check out the guitar. My back was to the guy, he’d sat behind me. He soon got very ornate, playing a fast, elaborate finger-picking piece that was tricky to follow. He turned up his amp.
It was quickly obvious that this was the common exhibitionist wanker in a guitar store, there are dozens of them, wailing away, fancying themselves gunslingers, striving for supremacy, the spotlight, the admiration of their flailing peers. If you walk through the main room of any guitar store there are many of them, bashing away at guitars, in every key, in no key, with varying degrees of skill, playing over each other, all of them way too loud. The cacophony is unbearable. They get into cars, if they have them, tailgate, ride the horn, pass on the shoulder cursing as they go, spin out of control, ultimately wind up totaling their cars into a divider. On a good day.
I never turned to look at him, unplugged the guitar and brought it back to the salesman. I’ll buy it tomorrow, I decided, when I’ll be in the neighborhood next.
In the subway on the way home I am fleshing out an idea that struck me while walking across 18th Street. I’d paused to write: reading is magic, think about it. Marks on paper tell you what I’m thinking.
Picture that animated. That’s what I was doing on the subway. I drew a pen, took a brush and painted a shadow under it. The train swayed, jerked, but I have always written and drawn on trains, am an experienced surfer that way. It is a very rare stroke that goes wrong for me on a train. I soon had a 3-D looking calligraphy pen drawn on the page. I made a note to animate the drawing and then cut the pen out. I’d take the cut out pen, dip it in a drawing of an ink bottle, the cruder the better, and write the words, in stop-motion, as though they were flowing from the moving pen:
Reading is magic, think about it. Marks on paper tell me what you’re thinking.
True. A simple but powerful illustration of the amazing human invention of writing and reading — communicating anything you can think of to express using combinations of 26 symbols. Also a powerful evocation of the potential of animation to get kids interested in literacy. I drew in my book for about ten stops, was pleased and shut my eyes. It felt wonderful to shut my eyes on that air-conditioned train.
Inevitably I had the second thought, which caused my eyes to open and which I began to note on another page — in black and white.
We do not, as a society, give a fuck if you can read, have a rich mental life, consider ideas and solutions to problems you might not have imagined. We do not, as a society, give a rat’s ass if you can write, beyond clicking a box assuming liability for any and all debts incurred in the course of your dealings with our corporation.
Our society does not have work, or any productive use, for a good chunk of its people, tens of millions of them. The young versions of these unneeded people are sent to schools to prepare them for a life where they are not needed. The lesson many of them learn clearly is: fuck you, asshole, bend over and spread your cheeks. Lift up the nutsack. Cough.
Life’s work: knowing this, all of it, and living calmly and productively, doing everything your talents allow to inspire, give hope, make a small ripple of change. Death is waiting for you anyway, why be aggravated by the many aggravations this life dispenses so generously for free?