The weather has changed dramatically in DC. The hurricanes and earthquakes have given way to Fall-like temperatures, and the temperatures are in the low 60s.
That’s right, friends. This here is recollecting weather.
Sorry I haven’t written more. I’ve been focusing a lot on composing lately: two orchestral scores for short animation projects, six commissioned works for solo piano, plus the pieces I’m notating out so that I can finish my first folio by the end of the year.
It’s been a busy time for my muse in general. As sexed and satiated on contriving new melodies as she’s been, I’ve also been doing some freelance video work, continuing to add to the word count of my novel, and developing a deep, lustful appreciation for hypernicum berries and the way they really tie a flower arrangement together.
Turning 29 came with a strange sense of urgency, like the time for dawdling was over and it was time to start making things.
It’s kind of wonderful to feel like a Real Composer, I must say, especially since my level of formal music theory is somewhere between that of a 7-year-old and a tea cup. The last time I felt like a Real Composer was on a Thursday at the Scott Joplin Festival this past June. It was one of those little moments that, in the scheme of the world, doesn’t measure on any scale but in the scope of my own life is quite cherished.
Some context is in order.
As part of the performer’s modest compensation, local area businesses donate food for the performers to eat during the festival. It’s a brilliant and much-appreciated gesture – fed musicians are happy musicians, after all – and so all the performers tend to trickle throughout the week in and out of the “green room” for coffee and bagels in the morning and sandwiches at lunch.
What also draws performers is that in the green room, which is actually green but in mildly frightening places (the carpet, for instance), there is a little Wurlitzer piano. Wurlitzers, for those keeping score at home, are the burnt kernels in the bag of piano popcorn, but this piano is unpretentious and mostly inoffensive and the pianists use it to warm up for performances, work out a last-minute detail, etc.
This particular Thursday, I found myself in the green room alone with three phenomenal composers – Brett Youens, Max Keenlyside, and Bryan Wright – each of whom has written a rag that I believe is is not just good but Great. Not “oh wow that’s really good” great, I mean like “that should be in a movie and enjoyed by millions” great.
The best part was that we coalesced totally by accident, had what was likely the most sophisticated 15-minute conversation about ragtime composition that’s been had anywhere ever (I’d recite it but it’d implode your brains), and then proceeded to perform not our own but each other’s pieces.
Think about that for a second. Yeats and Longfellow and Cummings and Hughes are in a room together, talking about poetry and reciting not their own but each other’s poems.
I was dazzled by the commonality of purpose, the profound shared interest. Here were four men who had all risen to the same question. We all wrote in different styles and emphasized different things, but there was an unshakeable likeness to our passion and a deep mutual respect for our talents. That we would learn from and steal from each other was a given. And that we celebrate each other’s creations was another.
I don’t know if this kind of Mutual Admiration Society exists in other endeavors, but in a green room in June, it certainly was made very real for me.
Today at work, when a colleague handed me a draft of something and encouraged me, in a cocksure tone, to “suck on this,” I received further evidence that my life is a symphony with countless leitmotifs.
Allow me to explain.
To say that I was in my shell in elementary, middle, and high school is to understate just how profoundly immaterial I tried to be. Case in point, I didn’t make a real friend until 9th grade, with whom I bonded over, you guessed it, the “Maple Leaf Rag.” (Ragtime: 473, Childhood Traumas: 11)
By 12th grade, however, there were cracks in the shell. I had found the piano, found something I could identify with and be identified by (so bizarrely important in high school), and I found myself with more confidence, speaking up in class, making jokes, acting out. It turns out that I could be a bit of a class clown when I felt safe to do so, but the whole idea of joking around in class was so foreign to me that I made more than my fair share of cringe-worthy mistakes. Here is one.
Mr. Donaghue was extraordinarily young. He didn’t seem it at the time, as in my teenage mind anyone over 21 might as well remember defending Fort Sumter, but Mr. D couldn’t have been more than 23, fresh out of college and excited to be teaching. He was handsome, with a face that had traces of Emilio Estevez, and he was funny. A history teacher, he encouraged dialog every day, made the content interesting, led class debates, and otherwise facilitated one of my favorite classes of the year.
I felt comfortable. Encouraged to speak. Intellectually engaged. I liked Mr. Donaghue a great deal. Which is why I still cannot believe that I decided, while handing him a completed assignment one day, to encourage him to “suck on this.”
I said it with the cocksure bravado of a newly awakened teen – a stupid, ignorant, dumb teen – and his face, normally smiling and warm, went cold and stiff. A part of me fell, likely the part raised by my mother, sensing too late that I had crossed an invisible line. “Martin, you will not talk to me like that,” he said sternly. The students who overheard shifted uncomfortably in their seats. He never talked sternly, and I never talked to teachers like this, ever. Up until this point I had gotten in trouble at school two times: once for running home at lunch in 5th grade and once for walking the hall without a pass. I wasn’t exactly used to getting into trouble. “Don’t ever say that to me again. It’s not okay.” He took the paper. “Take a seat.”
I went back to my seat and fought down tears from my eyes. What had I meant by saying that? What could have possibly possessed me to say that?
Flash forward to today. My colleague hands me the document and says “suck on this,” and my first feeling is anger. A line was crossed. Here was an audible, public sign of disrespect, coming from an otherwise friendly peer. I said nothing of it – what was I going to do, chide them like a teenager? – but underneath my skin my blood boiled. How dare they talk to me like that? I thought. Who do they think they are?
After I calmed down somewhat – I’m not someone off of whom things roll easily, much as I wish to be – I percolated on it. You could argue that an adult should know better – and I agree, they should – but come on, most adults are just old high-school students with a Visa card. I had said the same words to a person I liked and whose company I enjoyed while delivering him a paper of which I was proud. The parallels to today were uncanny.
Except that I was a stupid 18-year-old and this was a professional who really should know better. I digress.
After some considerable percolation, here’s the place to which I came. I did not know, at 18, that Mr. Donaghue’s role as Teacher, and his success in that role, depended on his students respecting his position. I liked Mr. Donaghue, I respected him, but in my naïveté I failed to see the value of respecting his position. In a social setting, this is fine – who cares about your position at a movie or a game? But in school and, as I saw today, at work, the roles matter. They matter. The class could not function without Mr. Donaghue having the prerogatives and privileges of teacher-hood. He couldn’t meet his requirements, satisfy the expectations placed on him, or get us to where we needed to be without that respect.
It’s the same reason, to this day, I still call my mentor Tony Caramia “Mr. C” and not “Tony.” As long as I want to be his pupil, a respect for the roles is still important.
Likewise, I can’t function at my job without a respect for my position, no matter how friendly and well-meaning the peer. It just… doesn’t work. And so tomorrow, when I go in, I’m going to be in the full regalia of my role: dressed, pressed, shaved, clean, and focused. There will be no mistaking my expectations for how I will be talked to and treated.
And if they say anything like that again, I’m going to tell them exactly what I think they should go suck. Let’s call it Mr. Donaghue’s final lesson.
Somehow, I think he would approve.
There are no words in English that can describe the feeling of a moth dying in your ear canal. But let’s start at the beginning.
On the morning of June 28th, 2011, 12-year-old Wade Shlote woke up with a moth in his ear that he couldn’t get out. It hurt him terribly, confounded the ER doctors, and made the local news.
Two months later, two thousand miles to the east and on the 10,570th day of my life, another moth made a very poor and wholly traumatizing decision when it flew into, and got lodged in, my motherf*cking ear.
We were out celebrating Jessie’s 29th birthday. We grabbed Mexican food at Lauriol Plaza and hit up Muzette in Adam’s Morgan for a private karaoke room. At 10:30 PM, stuffed with enchiladas and Korean translations of “My Heart Will Go On,” we all parted ways.
As I made my way to the car, a winged spawn of Hell, descended from the flying dactyls of Hades himself, made a 100mph entrance into my most private of places. I recoiled as though I’d been shot, pawing dumbly at the side of my head as my wife and friends looked on in shock. Had a bomb been detonated? Had I blown an ear drum somehow? Had karaoke, my most mortal musical enemy, finally dealt me a killing blow?
The entire left side of my face was rattling and buzzing. Something was literally beating my eardrum, and it slowly dawned on me that, no, this was not some weird chemical imbalance or temporary aberration; there was a motherflipping moth in my motherflipping ear.
It is hard to find the words to describe what its like having a living creature forcibly occupy your insides, let alone beat its wings like a thunder god against your ear canal. Every time he flapped his wings my entire body bent sideways, my hands clawing and scrambling at my ear trying to get it out. It wasn’t just uncomfortable, it really hurt! Add to it that the whole time I was so grossed out I could nearly puke, and you have the makings of both a horror movie and my life.
Panicked, we abandoned our friends and I drove like a madman to the nearest CVS. Jess, sizzled on her birthday drinks, ran out and came back with a bag full of ear wax remover and Q-tips. By this point I was equal parts crying and yelling, and I dumped literally half a bottle of the remover into my ear. The moth, clearly panicking at the rising water level in this new and not entirely comfortable new habitat, went into wing-flapping overdrive and for ten minutes it was Star and Stripes Forever in my inner-ear. I turned on the flashlight on my iPhone and held it up to my ear, trying to coax the damn thing out. “Follow the light, dammit! Follow the light!”
Well, he found the light alright. In my ear all fell silent, a dull ache the only indication that something was amiss.
That’s right. Some men get tattoos to show how hardcore they are. But me? I drowned a moth in my ear canal. I have nothing left to prove.
The best, though, was getting to the ER and being told what else they pull out of people’s ears. A short list includes ants, spiders, moths and, brace yourself, cockroaches. It’s these kinds of conversations that leave me wanting to spend the rest of my life wearing ear muffs.
I checked in, got my bracelet, sheepishly explained how I was in a particular kind of agony because a bleeping moth flew into my ear, and after answering some questions about all my prior surgeries (I failed to see what an appendectomy in 1999 had to do with an invasion of my ear canals) I was led back to one of the rooms where a kindly ER resident named Dr. Mark told me to lie on my side while he investigated my ear.
“Oh yeah,” he said while peering in, “definitely something in there. I’ll be right back.”
He returned a few seconds later with what looked like a long-nosed bottle opener, told me to relax, and proceeded to nearly kill me while removing the dead moth from my head. I cannot even begin to tell you how much this prodding hurt. And I really tried to man up about it, too, taking a deep breath and everything, but when he pulled on the bug I yelped and growled like an angry dog and Jess had to hold my hand so I didn’t shoot up and give him a colorful talking-to about ear etiquette (there’s really only one rule, and that is the only thing that gets to go in my ear is sound, a rule that was broken not once by three times tonight). The moth, apparently not content to just enter my ear, had made a break for my brain, China, or both and lodged itself against my eardrum.
Finally, though, Dr. Mark saved the day and retrieved the intruder. It was literally over half an inch long, and we all looked at it with a mixture of pride and disgust, like one might the technical specifications of a nuclear-tipped bunker buster.
Dr. Mark left to do the paperwork, and I just stood there for awhile, estimating how long the hot shower would need to be before I started to feel normal again. Anything shorter than two hours isn’t going to cut it, I thought.
As I was standing there, another thought caught me. Moths are attracted to flame, to light, even when it means going to their deaths. The darkness of an ear would seem an unlikely place for a moth to go, so what did this little moth see inside my ear that attracted him so? What light was he following? What illumination in there captured his attention?
One thing is for sure, however. I will never ever use the phrase “put a bug in his ear” ever again…
I am a big fan of a good massage. First, I like the word massage. It is nearly as slippery as the oil, it conveys this lovely, vaguely French experience in which something pressing but irreducible has been resolved, and it is highly preferable to “a damn good rubbin'” which, while very accurate, connotes more than one usually cares to connote.
I’ve got massages on the brain tonight because I just got a great one at Fit to be Tan in Arlington, an early/late birthday present from Jess. There’s nothing quite like getting touched for an hour – real, honest-to-God human proximity for a solid hour – to restore some faith in your body and in other human beings. I have to wonder though, and I was thinking about this so loudly in my brain today that I’m surprised the masseuse didn’t hear me thinking it, what are masseuses and masseurs thinking about when they’re doing their work?
The question followed me into the dimmed room, refused to be hung up on the hangars with my other clothes, and stayed with me throughout the otherwise blissfully thought-free session. I didn’t want to ask the masseuse what she was thinking about – well, okay, I did want to ask her but couldn’t find a non-creepy way to look up from the massage table, her hands on my thighs, and go, “So what are you thinking about?” – so I invented this little monologue in her head about her laundry, what she was going to cook tonight, books she had to return to the library. This was preferable to her thinking about, well, me and the studiously unperfected body I had paid $90 to present to her as a problem to be resolved.
Let’s be frank. It takes some cajones to walk into a room, get naked, lie on a table, and entrust the person who is about to touch you to be present enough to make you feel like a fabulous muscular riddle, attuned to every knot and tautness, while at the same time not notice your shoulder hair of irregular lengths. It must be the same thought that women have going to the gynecologist: “Dear God, what is he/she really thinking?”
I suppose on some level I shouldn’t care. I’ve paid good money for an hour in which my body is the subject of someone else’s attention. But I couldn’t help myself thinking about all my imperfections, all my blemishes and blobs, my blots and my bits, and how, if they did at all, they registered in the masseuse’s brain.
For all that thinking, however, there was one part of this massage that was undeniably, unquestionably, unfailingly and simply good. And that, my friends, was the Hot Towel. When your therapist tells you to go to your happy place, allow me to suggest Hot Towel Land. Nothing quite ensoothed and ensmiled me like getting my shoulders beat to hell and then blanketed by a steaming hot towel. Seriously, these things are wonders of the modern world. All of the low-level chatter in my brain ceased completely, replaced by all my neurons exhaling at once in a chorus of “aaaaaaaaahhhhhh.” Highly recommended.
Also, and let me preface this by saying that massage therapists are in no way prostitutes, but do you know what separates a massage therapist from a prostitute? About three inches. That’s right. Three inches. There is a three-inch safety zone around your hoohoo and your haha – you’re welcome, parents – that the massage therapist wisely avoids. Everything else about this experience, however, might as well be sex. The candles. The soothing music. The application of oils. The rubbing of body parts. The sound of skin slicked against skin. You move in three inches and guess what, you’re in Vegas. But so long as you follow the three-inch rule, you’re safely within the socially acceptable and still insatiably gratifying realm of massage.
Which is another reason why I love that word. What other words take us so close to the brink of the forbidden but instead land us in a place of pure bliss?
I’ll tell you what words: a damn good rubbin’.
I turn 29 in less than a month. This is simply unacceptable. I demand a recount.
To my credit, I still have a few dreams. One of my very real dreams is to be nominated for Grammy. I don’t care for what or in what category – if I win Best Use of a Alliteration in a Ragtime Title, that’s fine – I don’t have to win, I just want to be nominated.
See, being a ragtime pianist kind of sucks. You spend half your time declaring the legitimacy of your music, and the other half worrying whether you are or are not legitimate. Your chance of dying in obscurity, forgotten but for a few enlightened diehards, is literally 100%, and you often wonder if you’re making a remote amount of difference with your music.
Which is why I’ve wanted, ever since I was 16, to win a Grammy award. It would mean some public acceptance, would make it irrefutable that I had produced something musically worthwhile, and it would make me feel all shiny in my dull places.
To that end, Bryan has been helping me submit Handful of Keys to the Grammy nomination process. It’s this weirdly secretive, whisper-and-skeleton-key process that he just fortunately has access to, and we’re going for it. Why not? The album has been created. It’s just sitting here, being all album-y. Why not send in some copies and see which way the dice fall?
Now, there is no “ragtime” category, nor is there even a “traditional jazz” category. A ragtime album has to go up against either the jazz world or the classical world, so the numbers are not remotely in my favor. Even so, we’re submitting it in four categories:
Best Jazz Instrumental Album
Best Jazz Improvisation (for “The Entertainer (blues)”)
Best Jazz Composition (for “The Smoky Rose”)
Best Liner Notes (for… well… the snarky, fun liner notes I wrote)
It’s got a snowball’s chance in Hell, but you can’t win if you don’t play. And who knows? Maybe my music will reach some appreciative ears.
Other than that, it’s been a pretty slow month for me. I’ve been taking a break from all things piano. I was writing a new rag earlier this month but petered out on it, growing weary of the same old syncopations, and have been enjoying picking up a few other interests of my muse – working on my novel and doing some freelance video production – that fell by the wayside in the spring and early summer.
Sometimes I get worried that when I put ragtime down I’m not going to want to pick it up again.
Happily, October is bringing a couple lovely engagements, including the First Annual Stride Piano Summit at which I’ll get to feel like a fanboy again. And it all starts to make sense when I’m around my friends Brian Holland and Jeff Barnhart, who epitomize the spirit and joy of the music.
In the interim, I’m planning a for-reals bash here in DC to celebrate the release of Handful of Keys. I’m inviting everybody who’s anybody, and since you’re somebody, you should totally come! More details as I have them…
Hi! Sorry I’ve been silent lately. Hilarity has ensued, just not here.
That said, thanks to Yuko Eguchi-Wright, esteemed scholar and wife of my friend and producer Bryan Wright, I’m able to present, in the order they were performed, all six of my entries into the World Old-time Piano Playing Championship!
Here they are, laid bare for posterity…
I currently have five desktop computers in my apartment, ranging in age from a 1999 Power Mac “Sawtooth” to a 2005 Power Mac G5. In between are three Windows PCs – none newer than 2004 – in various stages of disrepair.
The laptop you’re reading this post on likely has more processing power than all of my computers combined. Le sigh. But that’s not what I’m writing about.
What’s got me thinking is the fact that, for the past 15 years, I’ve been happily obsessed with computers and the purchasing/acquiring thereof. What I haven’t been obsessed with is what happens to all of these metallic menaces once they’re no longer capable of providing the computing experience I desire. I have more mercury in my bedroom than NASA did in the 60’s, people. Now what?
In World of Warcraft, one of the first skills an enchanter learns is how to “disenchant” items, breaking them down into component parts in order to enchant or make other items. I wish I had this skill in real life – break down the crap that I acquire and make something usable out of it – but a man can only own so many motherboard clocks. At a certain point, it’s time to throw it away.
Human beings excel at making things, but frankly we’re pretty lame at unmaking things. As Americans we often put all our thoughts into obtaining and acquiring – car, phone, computer. When was the last time you bought a piece of technology and thought about what would happen to it when you didn’t want it anymore? It’s not such a big deal for organic things, but the stuff computers are made out of – mercury, lead, adamantium – doesn’t go away. The plastic in the keyboard I’m typing this on is going to outlive me, my children, my children’s children. How scary is that!
I’ve been doing some digging about what the heck to do with old tech. Here are the most promising and pragmatic that I’ve found:
Create a green job by donating it to Goodwill (thanks, Dell Reconnect!)
Recycle it at Best Buy (free)
Recycle it at Office Depot ($5-$15 depending on the size)
Donate old phones to victims of domestic abuse in your community (thanks, Verizon!)
What do you think? What’s the best way to be a technology geek and not trash the planet upon which we depend for everything?
While this arrangement works in the YouTube video, it just seemed weird on the album. I’m not sure why. Oh well – the album’s loss is your gain!
Enjoy this high-quality MP3 of one of the great themes of my childhood.
“Tiny Toon Adventures” in Ragtime
iPhone-friendly link: click here
My latest CD, “Handful of Keys: Face-Melting Ragtime Played By Martin Spitznagel,” is finally available for sale!
I don’t have any fancy reviews yet. I don’t have any glowing word-of-mouth wildfires. I don’t have a shiny press kit, corporate sponsors, or CD release party pictures.
What I do have is 74 minutes of my favorite music, handsomely packaged and beautifully recorded. And for $20, you can have it too!
Take a listen. Maybe get yourself a copy or two. And let me know what you think