Exercises in Narcisscism, Part One

17 Jun

Let me tell you about a story about a person named Ashley. Ashley was a precocious kid. She read literally every book she could get her hands on and that was her world. That’s what she knew because it’s where she went when things got rough at home when she was growing up. Consequently, Ashley was a lot smarter than her peers. But this didn’t affect her social skills and she made friends easily from the time she started school. She was someone who trusted easily, who grew close to people and suffered when her friends suffered, celebrated when they celebrated. A home movie from 1988 shows her addressing the camera with, “I love you very much, world!” And this innocence served her fairly well in the years before hormones and teasing.

Until about 4th or 5th grade, when kids started getting mean. From that point on, school was a relentless siege. She didn’t really understand why she was being singled out for so much ridicule and punishment until she hit 6th grade and came around to the notion that some people enjoy prodding at sincerity, at creativity, at earnestness – even teachers. Her 6th grade teacher in particular gossiped and picked on her right along with the other girls, and she withdrew even further.

So she kept reading. Junior high was more of the same. High school was only better because she was able to find those other creative, sincere people and commiserate with them, but she still hated nearly every minute of high school. Band – that was about all she could tolerate, so she threw herself into being a band geek and kept on reading. She wasn’t particularly good at her instrument and lacked any comprehension of “practice.” Everything she did musically was a crapshoot, pure chance. There were at least as many bad days as good days and some of her peers weren’t shy about telling her how much she sucked. (As late as college, she had days where she couldn’t play a half note in time. Thankfully, those days are long behind her. Use your metronome, kids.)

But she liked band, liked the goosebumps she would occasionally get in rehearsals and performances. She liked being moved to tears sometimes for no other reason than the music was pretty. She never thought she would ever be “good,” never even entertained the notion of making music for a living. She threw up so many mental roadblocks and made every rehearsal a challenge. She quickly grew bored of concert band, got ahold of a copy of Kind of Blue at age 15, and decided she wanted to play in jazz band. There are no baritones in jazz band, she was told. So her mom took her to the music store and rented a trombone, and she bought a method book and started sheddin’.

Jazz band was a purposeful thing for her. She never rose above third bone, but she came to appreciate it because it trained her ears so much better than anything else she had tried. One of her section mates was a guy named Nathan Dyer. He had long hair and a goatee and when he wore his hair down he had the beatific demeanor of Jesus Christ; nonetheless, he acquired the nickname “Nasty Nate” for his skill as a musician, among other things. He wore the same corduroy sport coat every single day. He was a high school student who listened to Spyro Gyra and early Chicago and quoted Jimmy Pankow in his solos. He was a unique, transcendent soul, a true original in a sea of posers and conformists. She looked up to Nasty, but drifted away from him once they had graduated. He went off to pursue a music degree; she drifted.

High school ended and she flopped around like a hooked fish desperate to live but unable to pull away from reality. The music thing sort of faded away. Paramedic school, she thought. I’d like to help people, and being a paramedic sounds sort of fun – something different every day. She had grown into a bitter, angry, purposeless young adult who didn’t really like people all that much and worked hard at alienating her friends – she had that down to a science. Music was nowhere to be seen. She rapidly unlearned everything she had worked at in high school. No one gives a shit that you’re a self-taught trombonist if you A. suck and B. never play again. Band was just a thing she did back in the day. She tried to suppress the goosebumps and tears and intense range of emotions she felt when listening to music. Back then, she thought, man, how cool would it be to be moved to tears by the beauty of what you do for a living? Professional musicians are so lucky. I could never do that.

Then she was watching the news one night and saw that Nathan Dyer had been killed in a car accident. She suppressed the emotions, choked down the tears, and tried to be a tough kid. It was going great until the funeral, when she walked into the chapel to see a tableau of Nasty’s short life laid out before her, his trombone forever silent, at rest next to his ubiquitous corduroy jacket. That scene was too much and she couldn’t stay, even though the jazz band where she and Nasty had sat next to each other played a couple of Sammy Nestico charts in his honor. Music was too painful then, like the sun being too bright.

Life ebbed and flowed from that point on and eventually she got the bright idea to run off and be a music major. She was a 22-year-old infant, a hack in every sense of the word, but she just woke up one morning and decided to apply to Pittsburg State. Nasty Nate had gone to Pitt State in pursuit of his music degree; so had several other friends, guys she admired as musicians. Maybe they can straighten me out, she thought, and get this fire lit for good. Her experiences at Pitt State are worthy of their own volume that could perhaps rival War & Peace in length and self-righteousness. Stay tuned.

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