A Measure of Serenity

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A Measure of Serenity

Windham Hill 84

Aerial Boundaries, by Michael Hedges (1984), encountered 1984

Buy it here | See it here | Sheet music here

First you hear a rhythmic pattern plucked or tapped on a guitar’s upper strings, then a counter-rhythm and a melody on the lower strings. All at the same time. Then some of the notes are produced by a hand slapping the strings instead of plucking or tapping them. And no, there is no accompanist; this is Michael Hedges, somehow plucking (or tapping or slapping) with both hands simultaneously, laying down drones and sonorities with the left and with the right, playing them off against each other.

Paradoxical Virtuosity

Wait: How is all that possible? We know how a guitar is supposed to be played: one hand doing the fretwork, one hand doing the plucking. But that is clearly not happening here. There are too many notes. YouTube today reveals a small industry of guitarists trying to replicate Hedges’ dexterity.[1] He is carefully studied. But in 1984 there was only Hedges.

When, like me in 1984, you had only heard it, and like me you didn’t play the guitar, the virtuosity might have completely escaped you. There was something paradoxically simple about the overall effect, a bit like sunlight illuminating a field that seems quiet and motionless until you perceive bees working feverishly at every bud. And that was Aerial Boundaries, simultaneously busy and placid. This was a work of deceptively brilliant musicianship.

Aerial Boundaries was Cut 4 of the Windham Hill Sampler ‘84, the other album[2] that was part of the visit Lincoln, Nebraska I described last time. (I took a copy of the cassette out to Lincoln for my girlfriend Mary, and it got played a lot while Mary and I were together.) The album was an entrancing introduction to what was coming to be known as New Age Music. Later on, perhaps, the genre would come to be thought of as clichéd. But in 1984 it was fresh and new, and clean, dazzling as the sunlight.

To me, it was evocative for what it was, and important for what it wasn’t.

Evocative

What it was: a crystalline sound, a new way to evoke peace and thoughtfulness, things I stood in need of. Life had given me a second chance, but using it was not inherently a serene thing. I had to grow a real career from the little stub of one I’d achieved so far, and I still had much of the hard work of divorce to do. Peace and thoughtfulness would be great desiderata in that process.

As far as the career went, however brilliantly I may have done in law school, I was only beginning to master the basics of law office politics. Brilliant, it seemed, might not get you all that far. As had happened in graduate school, I gathered I was viewed as problematic and not a regular guy.

Manna for Naught

But suddenly, like manna from heaven, I was handed a piece of the regular guy stuff, the task of supervising the summer law clerks. By rights, it shouldn’t have come to anyone at my humble level. I was only three years out of law school and four years away from any likelihood of being offered a partnership. I intuited that I would not have been given this important role had the partners at my firm, which I’ll still call Funhouse, P.A.,[3] cared all that much about the summer program. Of course in a normal firm, they would have cared, a lot, and one of them would have been running it. But this was Funhouse. I figured that the way to make the most of this opportunity was to craft a summer program the equal of those being offered by the best firms in town.[4] And I think I succeeded pretty well.

Well, more accurately, I succeeded at matching the entertainment at the best firms. Not the outcomes, though. To my dismay, at the end of the summer, only one of my charges received a job offer.[5] By no coincidence, the offeree was the son of one of the firm’s best clients. Effectively, then, my work had gone for naught.

Realpolitik

My first response was the kind of undiplomatic reflex that had so often interfered with my chances before. I fired off a memo angrily protesting the waste of the summer program; luckily my new direct supervisor caught it before it went out, and told me not to circulate it. I followed his orders, though I didn’t really understand them. Later someone took me aside and explained the dollars-and-cents reasons why the firm had trashed the summer class. But all I knew at the time was that I was being asked to suck it up when something good I had done was being ignored. And of course I had no clue then what it was like to be the boss in charge of a business and its cash flow.

Going along with this little bit of realpolitik bore fruit promptly, however. Very shortly thereafter, I found myself in a social setting with a group of the firm’s rainmakers; just them and me, for some reason. They were all pleased with what I’d done. Had I given offense by bellyaching, the atmosphere would surely have been chillier. Not long after that, I was given to know I wasn’t thought of as difficult any more. One of the partners told me in surprise that I’d “joined the establishment.”

As another part of this “socializing Jack” effort, the new boss began to see to it that I did a lot of one work for a single client, and I began to develop some real expertise. I’ll write more about this later.

You might have thought it wasn’t a lesson a 35-year-old would have had to learn. But the sad truth was, it was exactly the kind of lesson I had to learn. The roots of my cluelessness in matters of diplomacy were the kind of thing I was addressing in therapy. Better late than never, I guess. And one key to addressing it was there in New Age music like Hedges’: serenity.

The Job of Divorce

At the same time, the work of the divorce never seemed to stop; it took a million forms.

For instance, taking my kids trick or treating for Halloween of 1984, in the neighborhood I’d left only that May, I learned that one couple I’d thought eternal were now in a nursing home. Strangers answered that door. I learned as well that a next-door neighbor had died; no one answered that door. Two families I looked on as old friends were out, and no one answered those doors either. In fact, hardly anyone was there to welcome me back during my brief return. The upshot of these little losses: I found myself greeting a strange guy I’d never liked very much, but who did answer the expected door, as if he were an old friend. But basically, I had to deal with the fact that when you move on, you move on. And many friends are not portable. That experience can stand for many, only of few of which will I mention, and none of which will I describe.

When you’re divorced, for example, the friends you do keep are apt to chip in with their perspectives on the recently ended union. I had some unpleasant discussions, let me leave it at that.

And no matter what you do, parenthood in a good divorce can be harder than parenthood in a bad marriage, because, of course, childhood in a good divorce can be harder than childhood in a bad marriage. First one of my children, then both of them, went into observable emotional tailspins. And my therapist said it would take everyone two years at least to regain their footings; she was right about the “at least” part. And let me leave that at that as well.

And what divorce is complete without wranglings about money? And in what divorce is there ample money anyway? So I had that too, part of the divorce suite, if you will.

Serenity from a Cassette

And in other news, my mother and stepfather were proving themselves to be not immortal, as my dad had a serious fall and they both had to miss coming to Baltimore for the holidays. Nothing like a holiday without your parents on hand to force you to face up to how on your own you may be.

With all such things, as with office politics, serenity can be a help. Even when it’s serenity from a cassette.

Not Actually Impossible After All

So much for what the album evoked. Now, I said above that the Sampler was also important for what it wasn’t. So here’s what it wasn’t: Music that had been part of my former marriage in any way. I had discovered it all on my own. It was a first in that regard. I was learning to like something new, something that was entirely my own. Of course it was bound to happen, but it felt miraculous, as did so many little things at that point.

Consider the title Aerial Boundaries. I used to think it was a nonesuch. How can one have a boundary in the air? And then I realized that all boundaries are just imaginary lines drawn by surveyors. Of course, you can represent a boundary on a plat, and you can mark a boundary terrestrially with a monument like a nail or a fence or a wall. The nature of the earth, as a (somewhat) immobile medium makes monumentation possible.[6] You cannot mark a boundary in the air by attaching anything to the air. But that’s just a matter of the monuments, not of the boundaries themselves. The concept of a boundary per se is just as meaningful in the sky as in the dirt. Perhaps the point of the title was the actual possibility of something that had seemed impossible. Like Hedges’ two-handed plucking/tapping. Like a hive of activity in a field that first seems to be sleeping in the sun.

Or like finding music for myself. And some measure of serenity.

 


[1]. See, e.g., here or here.

[2]. Purple Rain being the first, as described earlier.

[3]. See this piece for the explanation.

[4]. There had always been large law firms. But in that era, the dawn of the mystique of what’s known as BigLaw, when it seemed as if there would never be enough talented young lawyers to meet the demand, summer programs, typically focused on law students between their second and third years, were a sort of pledge rush, an attempt to woo the youngsters with an amazing variety of entertainment, instruction, vicarious lawyering experiences, softball and flattery. Take it from one who was fortunate enough to have been there in its heyday: it was great, great fun.

[5]. In that era, the norm was for most of the law clerks to get a permanent job offer at the end of the summer.

[6]. Although when you spend as much time doing boundary law as I have, you know how changeable the earth’s surface is relative to surveying monumentation. Earthquakes, bulldozers, floods, and changes in vegetation are just a few of the things that plasticize the surface of the earth (and give surveyors and lawyers much work to do).

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for album artwork

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