He Taught Me to Play

January 3, 2012

It is impossible to overstate the importance of playing guitar in my life.

I was seventeen when I decided I wanted to play the guitar. This was partially because one of my friends was learning to play and partially because I had discovered Eric Clapton. There were probably other reasons, but I have forgotten them.

My parents knew someone who played. I knew him, too – his step-daughter and I had been childhood playmates – I just didn’t know he played. They sent me to him. He helped me pick out my first guitar – an Alvarez – and started me with some chords. I went once a week for lessons. No charge. He learned songs I wanted to learn and taught them to me.

After a few months, I went off to college and I was on my own. I kept practicing and I learned fast. When I came back to visit, I could improvise a little and I knew more songs. We played together, but they weren’t really lessons anymore.

In the middle of my first semester, when doctors found a desmoid tumor in my right shoulder, he and his wife came to St. Louis with may parents. We played guitar in a hotel room the night before they cut me open.

After that, it was regular. When I was home, we’d get together and play. Over the summer I might jam with his band. On those nights, he always drank a lot, but I wasn’t paying too much attention. Lots of people drink on the weekends.

Later, after college, when I was busy with my lost years, I joined the band for a while. In some ways, it went well and in some it didn’t. When you play guitar a lot – and I suspect this is true of all instruments – you end up sounding either like a too-good copy of someone else or like yourself. Greg sounded like himself. That’s the biggest compliment I can give him as a musician. He was good. By them, so was I. We both had egos. I was cocky about how good I was and so was he. I wanted more space. I left. It was amicable. We still played sometimes. I borrowed the whole band to play my dad’s 50th birthday party. It was a good show. We put our egos aside. We shared solos and vocals. We played some duets.

We talked about playing together again, maybe doing some shows as a duo, but it never happened. He dropped off the map. I stopped hearing from him and so did my parents. We figured there was some bad blood we didn’t know about. I always thought he blamed me for the band breaking up not long after I left.

Yesterday, we learned that wasn’t the case at all. Greg had been trying to clean himself up. He’d spent some time in rehab. It’s the kind of thing that’s obvious looking back. It wasn’t hard-living. It was a serious problem, I just didn’t see it at the time. He had a lot of pride. The kind of pride that keeps someone from telling others when you’re trying to get better. That’s what happened.

Not long ago, he fell off the wagon. It killed him. That’s not much of an epitaph. Let me do better.

Guitar is the first truly creative thing I ever did. It led me to writing classes. It led me where I am today.

So many of the best experiences I’ve had over the last fourteen years have happened because Greg got me started on the guitar. I have life long friends who I became friends because we both loved to make music. I write stories and books because that was where writing songs took me.

Playing music with someone is a special thing. It’s a cliché, of course, but when it goes well, it bonds you to them. You can’t play well – you can’t really make music in a group without letting others in. When you play with someone a lot you get to a point where you don’t even have to look at each other. You close your eyes and go and when it works (it never works all the time) it’s great. I played with Greg more than anyone else.

I’m writing all of this and it all feels short. It’s not right. It’s not enough. We all have a few people who are there at the right moment. Who give us a map and a flashlight and point us in a new direction. Greg was one of those people for me. He set me on my course, whether he knew it or not. He was a good friend. I’m going to miss him.

All My Friends

August 26, 2011

Until today, my friends and family have mostly escaped the economic catastrophe that’s been hitting the country since I was in college and which has only gotten worse the last few years. I would like to say this is because the people I know are smart, creative, and industrious, and so they are bound to prosper in most any circumstance. In fact, they are smart, creative, and industrious, but it would be foolish to pretend that anything other than luck has kept all of us employed. Economic troubles like these are indiscriminate, and often, it does not matter how hard you’ve worked. You can still lose your job.

Today, many of my friends are losing their jobs.

The company I worked for before I became a teacher is shutting down, and I can promise you this: It is not because of the workers. The people I worked with when I was there were among the the very best people I have ever worked with. We worked hard and were not paid nearly enough. We all saw the writing on the wall, though. The company was an illustration of everything wrong with America. It was run by the greedy sons of greedy owners. They once told us right before a major snowstorm that was going to hit the day before our Christmas holiday that if we did not come to work, we would not be paid for our holiday. They once called us together to tell us the company had set profit records that year, but there would be no bonuses. Never has there been a better advertisement for the inheritance tax and a progressive income tax. The people in charge were callous and coarse and incompetent. They had done nothing to earn their position, but that did not stop them from exploiting it.

But somehow, they got lucky. They hired a bunch of people who actually cared about doing a good job. More importantly, they hired an amazing office manager (who was eventually in charge of hundreds of people). We hated the company and he hated the company, but we loved him. And so, we worked hard. We did the best we could because we wanted Kevin to look good. Because we knew he was what made the work bearable. He was all that stood between us and the incompetent stumble-bums above him.

I made friends at that job. Friends I will keep the rest of my life. One of them stood up with me at my wedding. Another took our wedding pictures. Fortunately, both of them got out a few months before the end. Even though I hated my job, I was happy to have the people. Whether they knew it or not, they sheltered me through one of the most difficult parts of my life. I have never been so lost as I was those first few years after college.

I do not feel that I owe that company anything. But I owe the people who worked there – the people who kept it afloat all this time despite the incompetence above them – too much to repay. I wish all of them the best of luck and if anyone needs an editor or one of the best managers you’ll ever meet, let me know.