Inspired by Roger Williams

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A Musical Instrument


An ode to Dad

Welcome back to the memory house.

This is a therapeutic memoir-writing project I started at the beginning of the year.

I had the idea that I struggle with memory problems because of past trauma.

I also struggled to write my life-story chronologically, but I could do little bits at a time, topically and out of order.

So start with the prompt object, or some tangentially related thing. Then the first memory, then and chained memory. Then it’s important to reframe the memory and have a positive takeaway before leaving.

It’s been great for me. I have better short-term memory and feel a lot more confident that I’m remembering things.

I wasn’t a musician. All of my artistic talent is tied up in words and images, not crossing over into music. I can write lyrics pretty well, but I can’t do anything with melodies. I barely understand music notes at all, and I can’t tell when sounds are in tune or in key. I learned to sing adequately in the way normal people learn to illustrate competently. I can’t actually tell how well I sing, only that I can hold a note for a very long time after very little Peking Opera training, and I have put that to a lot of use.

My dad built guitars. I understand the need to build something with a self-taught craft. He taught himself all about guitars and all about woodworking in the same way I taught myself to sew and tailor. I also understand having nice clothes with just enough trivial flaw to ruin them, or to finish them and have nice clothes, but not be able to wear them well. If I had a chance to ask Dad, if I made the effort to find him and ask him, I wonder if he’s agree that it’s frustrating to make an instrument from scratch and not be able to play it.

He can play guitar, but I’ve never heard him play a song. He never said anything about wanting to be in a band. I can play the four chords everyone learns on acoustic guitar, but I’m not good. I have very poor sense of rhythm and performance.

I don’t often wish I could play an instrument, but I do have a fantasy of building a bow and firing an arrow at something like Smaug. I think everyone who saw The Hobbit cartoon has thought about that. It seems fitting that people like me and my dad would long for an independent and vertically consolidated creative process where we make the thing, then use the thing beautifully. The alternative would be a creative partnership between Dad and a great guitarist or me and a great model. That’s really hard. Regular human relationships are hard enough, but to fully realize creative art means needing an even more intimate relationship in art.

My Dad has talked about himself, and I’ve also heard stories about him from Mom.

“He built that in college,” was the explanation for his electric guitar.

It was a while before I understood that it wasn’t for class, he had built it as a hobby while he had been in college. They were both fine arts majors, it was perfectly logical for their curriculum to include a class for which they had to build an instrument.

“We had to build an instrument for a class,” said one of my colleagues who had studies music, many years later. “My friend made a steel drum out of a coffee can, and it sounded great!”

When my dad was about the age I am now, he was going through a similar grappling with middle age. I recognize the feeling of wanting to pick up things that I had been passionate about and then given up for career or family reasons.

He pulled out his old guitar that he had mad in college, hoping to use at least parts of it in his new effort to make guitars. I got the impression that he was disappointed that the decades had warped it beyond hope. Maybe it was just that I was disappointed as he looked down the next and had to break it in half.

He learned how to properly dry wood so that it wouldn’t warp like that. He bought wood on eBay. This was long before Etsy existed. He clamped and glued and dried the wood. He sanded it and finished it into a beautiful pale color like pine. It had shiny stripes from the wood grain that reminded me of my stretch marks with the subtle color difference and slight shimmer.

He had hoped to sell it to our local Guitar Center. I understand the disappointment that everyone was excited to see it and play it, but didn’t want to buy it. I think I inherited that lack of charisma, or propensity to rejection. I know what it’s like to create something amazing, that is recognized but not wanted. I know what it is to not be wanted in spite of talent.

Dad was a man of great talent, but not social skills. I’ve been told that we probably both had something like autism. The more I think about our lives, the more I believe it. Maybe his whole family was dealing with enormous amounts of social awkwardness that contributed to how little we saw of each other.

I don’t miss being a teen who resented my strange Dad. I don’t miss being a young adult who resented the failings in my upbringing. It’s the consolation of our own old age to be able to understand how hard most of our adults were trying. I didn’t need to have children of my own to realize that I couldn’t do any better. As someone in a song once said, I could do a lot worse than be like Dad.

It was abusive, physically and emotionally. What helped was in realizing that he never set out to be an abuser. He was ill-trained and ill-equipped. He had no guidance in how to set boundaries with children and help them develop habits. The lot of us tumbled through life, uncivilized compared to everyone else. We were all barely awake, often awareness dawned on us only to realize we’d failed. We’d failed to have a clean house. He’d failed to have clean children. We’d failed to not break something. In a much more closely integrated community, we would have seen cleaner families effortlessly keep their homes neat. In a world that didn’t devalue his labor as a graphic designer so much that destruction of property by a foolish child was devastating, it wouldn’t have been so upsetting that we couldn’t take care of what little he could afford. In a world without predatory mortgages and more help for them keeping track of their expenses, they might not have lost their home. As an adult in an unfair system that feels bad every time I fail, knowing hundreds of children will blame me for how their lives turn out, I understand that the circumstances are the real enemies. It’s not fair for the well-being of all human being to be the sole responsibility of carers whose care is valued less than anything else.

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