Thursday, August 4, 2011

On Hills and Pedal Steel Guitars and Rose Gardens and Forgotten Treadmills

Centro-matic--"Only In My Double Mind" (mp3)

I have a neighbor. He has a hill. The hill, really it's more of an embankment, rises on the back corner of his property, facing the street. It has a stone wall running beneath it. But the hill itself, at times, has been a bit of an eyesore, or probably feels that way if you are the one who owns the hill. It's a sunny spot and weeds take to it, and even if you clear those weeds away and smile at your hill in satisfaction, they will return quickly.

My neighbor has tried planting the hill with various ornamental shrubbery. He has built various small rock gardens on it as a way of helping to tame the space. Most of all, he and his wife can be seen bent over on the hill on many summer evenings, trying to get control of the hill with pairs of gloves and a lot of pulling and piling of weeds into a wheelbarrow. This year, they have installed a wrought iron fence to run behind it, perhaps for contrast, perhaps to try to further contain the hill.

So far, nothing has really worked, at least not as a long-term solution. I watch from my window, and I want to walk out and let them know that they are wasting their time, that no amount of back-breaking labor is going to give them the hill. But I don't. I keep it to myself. When my neighbor points out an area of progress or a bush that is flowering on the hill, I respond with compliments.

I have a friend who wants to learn the pedal steel guitar. He has purchased one. He has been taking lessons. I have been to see his pedal steel guitar. It sits set up in his music room and I have been invited more than once to sit behind it and to have a go at it. I have done so.

But it is an unwieldy thing, with more guitar strings than I'm used to, tuned differently than a normal guitar. It does indeed have a couple of pedals that influence the sound, and, beyond that, a number of levers that you have to control with your knees to bend strings, shift keys, get a vibrato sound.

All in all, it is way too much for me. I know the amount of time that I would have to put into such a thing in order to gain even minimal competence with it is time that I don't have, or at least don't have the inspiration or initiative to take even one note, one step, down that path. I realize fully that my friend will never learn to play the pedal steel. Though learning never ends, by the time you hit your fifties like me, the ways that you can learn, the speed with which you can pick things up, the ability to train your muscle memory--all of those things are diminished. My friend is considerably older than I am.

But I never tell him that he should give up the pedal steel, never tell him that I think that his time would be better spent doing x. And I know that he must look across the street more often than not at the happenings and projects going on at my house and shake his head. He is baffled, I know, at my inability to maintain a lawnmower. He has to notice the overgrown rose garden or the various attempts I've made to sneak in a vegetable garden here or there with a lot of watering and pretty meager results.

If I tell him that I've started running or that we've joined a health club or that we've bought a treadmill, he seems pleased and offers words of encouragement, but when it becomes clear, through lack of discussion, if nothing else, that those endeavors have been shut down or pushed aside, he never says anything.

And that's the thing. To navigate our daily lives, the last thing that we want to do is to point out another's folly. Well, okay, the second to last thing. The last thing that we want to do is to have our folly pointed out to us. This is generally a good thing. It allows us to enjoy comfortable, companionable relationships and to be supportive of each other with issues large or small.

But it does make it very difficult to be straightforward and truthful if the circumstances call for it. As we all know, suddenly telling someone what you really think, finally asking the question you've wanted to ask for years, letting your friend know that you think he's pretty much a conspiracy nut, these are all mines in the minefield of friendship which, if exploded, can do great damage to same.

It make me wonder: which life should we be constantly preparing for? The comfortable daily life with its gentle jabs and easy alliances, the slights healed with a beer or a quick compromise, the shared disappointments of jobs and ambitions? Or, should we be preparing for the difficult times when we have to make hard choices and to say or do things that we never thought that we would have to say or do, put friendships on the line and take risks with a future we previously saw smoothly mapped out?

I would argue that it is impossible to prepare for both simultaneously. The latter requires a daily intensity that makes it tough for other people to be around you. You want to debate moral choices and confront situations while your friends want to talk S.E.C. football. The former will make you popular, but will likely leave you floundering in superficial waters when a real commitment of values is called for. What happens in those times when someone wants to know what you really think, not just what you carefully avoid saying?

All I know is that, the older I get, the more hills and pedal steel guitars and rose gardens and forgotten treadmills are gathering in my mind, those, of course, being only minor examples of what's really important and unspoken and growing. The mind is infinite in many ways, but not in its ability to hold back truth. I realized this from spending time with the elderly in Florida the past two weeks. Sometimes to a fault and sometimes quite humorously, the elderly often say whatever they think, with little editing. They can't help doing so. By that time, there's simply too much there.

1 comment:

Daisy said...

It seems at the begining and at the end of our life we speak our opinions freely and we learn to edit somewhere in the middle.

My young son says to me yesterday "Mom that thing in the garage is for running not hanging towels. You should try it."