Beauty, simply.

Beauty, simply.
(Water plants near the mouth of the River Danube 2016)
Try as I might I don't understand the world. Never have. Don't expect I ever will. So I guess I'll just have to accept the presence of beauty, without knowing why it's there, rather than not there.
Now and again the world disappoints me. Some of its inhabitants disgust me, and others surely frighten me, but despite that, the sum of life has always seemed to me threaded with beauty.
I said 'sum'. I meant 'essence'. There's a purity to be distilled; a vein of hope to be discovered in all things. I believe it, and won't be persuaded otherwise.
I won't say all things are shot through with beauty. Sometimes there may be only a strand of it; thin, tenuous and tiny; visible only to eyes that want to see it. Sometimes it will only be seen in hindsight. Sometimes the presence of beauty would offend us if it were suggested.
There are circumstances, and I've lived through my share, where even the suggestion of beauty would be blasphemous. Grief, anger, rage, hopelessness, injustice, fear; a complete list would be a long one. Even at these times, in my experience, there is an essence, a presence, that waits patiently and respectfully for us to be ready to turn towards it.
(Memorial for victims of the Thai Burma Railway construction World War 2)
Through all the things that make life monotonous, pointless, useless, or cruel, beauty, simply shines through. I don't understand it, but I accept it.
I will thank God. You may thank who or what you like.
(Shrine. Luang Prabang, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, 2017)

A Guitar Progression

A Guitar Progression
Adventures in Guitar Consciousness
I posted the image below on this blog one year ago. It shows the old Yamaha guitar I used to strum and sing along with before life got in the way and it was left in a cupboard for 40 years. When I posted this I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, making music with my old instrument again. I was so pleased that after months of ploughing through all the teach yourself books on Kindle, I could play stuff. Well, I could play easy stuff, sort of, after lots of practice, and never without mistakes. The music in my head was beautiful. The sounds coming from the guitar were a little less so.
Listening to the former, and ignoring the latter, I began to tell myself I wasn't all that bad at it. My own opinion of course, untainted by contact with anyone who could actually play notes, chords and arpeggios without having their audience looking around for the exit.
Emboldened, I turned up at the door of a classical guitar teacher. You know! Someone who knew their way around a guitar; had a Masters degree in guitar performance and another one in composition. He combines private tuition with live performances on the national stage solo and in ensembles. If I had been looking for someone to massage my ego I should have looked elsewhere.
Luckily, I swallowed enough pride and humility to let him teach me things about technique and practice I had no idea even existed. He was polite, but he left no doubt that what I had been doing by myself had been largely a waste of time if I wanted to learn to play beautiful music. That he was in his early twenties was inconsequential of course, but it did not really make things easy for an old codger more used to giving instructions than accepting them.
I began again, from square one. Concentrating on correct fingering, posture, hand and finger dynamics, fingernails, breathing and paying respect to quavers and crochets as they were written on the page, saw me progress – far too slowly for my liking – through the book he recommended for preliminary students (pre-schoolers and the like). All the while, I was straining. Impatient to play real music, I often became angry with myself and with him, frustrated by how long it was taking to learn simple skills. As he reminded me though, ever so gently, the skills were not simple skills. They were complex fine motor skills. The process was not unlike a child learning to use a pencil for the first time. It would take practice and time. No shortcuts, was his repeated advice.
He was right of course.
So, another year has passed. I've purchased a more expensive guitar (below). I've learned much about playing the classical guitar and am playing pieces from the AMEB grade 3 level. Big deal I guess. Hundreds of school kids do that too, and better than I do. But I am beginning to realise that I do not care about that at all. I just love learning and playing.
I love the music I can coax from my guitar. On a good day I can almost slide into a trance while brain and fingers work together in a way impossible just twelve months ago. I can play a piece like Lágrima (Francesco Tarrega) imperfectly, but just as its name (teardrops) suggests, I hope one day to play it well enough to moisten the eyes of any listener. Another piece by Tarrega, Adelita, is more difficult, and could take me longer to get my fingers (and brain) around. So be it. The journey is what matters. The destination can be left to itself.
Other things I have learned at the feet of my young teacher this past year:
Getting angry with myself at mistakes or mastering a technique more slowly than I would like is pointless. It achieves nothing. A mistake is a mistake; nothing more; nothing less. Shrug it off and continue playing. Which reminds me of another of his maxims:
Do not stop when you have made a mistake. Continue to play as if nothing happened. Most probably your listeners will not have noticed (even though it is a clanging, jarring event for you). (Great advice, I guess, for future concert performers).
You cannot practice correct technique enough. Nothing short of perfection is sufficient. (Near enough is not good enough in this game).
Practise slowly; very slowly. In this way you can identify flaws in your technique and deal with them before they become ingrained. This is also the best (only?) way to learn a new piece. Practice a few bars at a time, very slowly. If you can play it perfectly, slowly, you can also then play it fast. (So he says anyway, and I am starting to believe he is right).
Caress the guitar as you play. Become one with it. Be part of the music. Use it as a meditation technique if you like. (I am trying this).
Do not interpret the music your way until you can first play it the way the composer wrote it. (I rankle at this).
The metronome is your friend. (Yes, well, maybe).
There is, however, one particular aspect of the guitar I continue to struggle with. Just one, I hear you think. Well there are many to be honest. For instance I always want to progress more quickly than my technique allows. I continue to become frustrated and grumpy when I can't play something right, although I am getting better at going with the flow. I detest the metronome but I suffer it because I know it is doing me good. No, the one aspect that is providing a big challenge to me – still – is overcoming anxiety and nervousness when playing in front of other people.
My teacher has no specific advice for me on how to remain calm and how to still jittery, disobedient fingers and thumbs when playing in public. No advice that is, apart from his observation that I need to work on it. Maybe he is not too worried as I am unlikely to be playing in front of a concert audience ever. That is so, but I really would love to be confident of playing for friends, even if I am a silly old man who needs to understand he is past performing age.
Well there you have it: A synopsis of a year of classical guitar lessons. Learned heaps. Feel good about myself. As my teacher tells me . . . God bless him . . . “a couple more years and we will have you playing beautiful music”.

A Life of Dreams

(Image of the Carina Nebula – Wikicommons)
I'm the first to admit it. I'm a nerd. A dreamy nerd, but a nerd.
Have been, on and off, right through my life. Now in my sixties I'm more adept at reading social cues than I used to be, and have learned to temper the hard angles of my nerdishness, but looking back at the nerdish boy-man of yesteryear I see a pattern.
As a boy I liked to read much more than to play sport. Still do, but that's more of a physical imperative now, with aches and pains and such. I lived in my mind then, designing intricate palaces, imagining great adventures in this world and out of it. I would spend hours inventing board games and playing them by myself. When encyclopedias were books, I revered them, leafing through and vacuuming up information about everything and nothing.
As I said, I was a little different . . . to say the least. A nerd.
Gadgets fascinated me; not so much fixing them, but using and understanding them. I was pretty much clueless when it came to repairs. The only workshop I felt comfortable in, was the one inside my mind.
And then I discovered astronomy. With a school friend who shared my passion, we would spend nights in the back yard gazing through small telescopes, entranced by what we saw and developing an encyclopedic knowledge of the night sky.
Yeah, I know . . . risk takers we were . . . adventurers. When other young teen males were dreaming of their sporting heroes, pop music, cars they would like to own, or girls, our dreams were extraterrestrial.
Astronomy was the first of a series of interests to grab me and inspire me to dream. As it turned out my mathematics scores did not let me realise my dreams of becoming an astronomer, and in hindsight that was no bad thing. You see, although I didn't know it, I was barking up the wrong tree as they say. Along with the wonder and physical beauty of the universe, which I love to this day, I had absorbed a trusting belief that the answer to my dreams was out there somewhere waiting for me to discover it. Sort of like Douglas Adams' boffins in his book “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” when they asked the great god-like super computer for the answer to 'life, the universe and everything'. The answer they got was 42.
Just as I did eventually, those boffins walked away glumly, disillusioned, except it took me a good few years, a physics degree, wrong turns and blind alleys to realise I'd been sold a pup. Ever slow to see the really important things in life, it was only in the fullness of years that I began to appreciate that although there might be exciting dreams aplenty in science and technology, my dreams were now to be found in an entirely different direction.
Mind you, I admit I remain prone to bouts of nerdish indulgence. I'm more excited about the latest toy drone I'm flying in the lounge room than is my grandson who has just received it as a birthday present. I'm interested in reference material of all types: Data tables of vehicle performance; Google Maps; Google Earth; optical devices; wiring diagrams of all types. These are but a few of my remaining guilty pleasures. Furthermore I read books on byzantine history, political analysis, German and Italian language learning, and I am learning to play classical guitar. There, I've said it! What a weight off my conscience. Us nerds carry a lot of guilt about being different.
But, where was I? Yes, my dreams. Nerds have them no less than most people, you know.
I used to dream about gadgets. It seems to me that gadgets are gadgets, and as fascinating and addictive as they may be, they remain gadgets. Computers, wireless devices, CAT scanners, GPS modules, hadron colliders, telescopes. Some of them produce data and information. Some of that is meaningful to me. None of it is the stuff of my dreams now.
Which begs the question: What does a nerdish old man dream?
My old school friend reminded me this morning via email of our shared interest in astronomy as boys and it inspired me to write this blog entry. Not surprisingly, my dreams have evolved along with me in the decades since those evenings in the back yard with a telescope. Dreams of what I would do with my life are no longer relevant. Such dreams have been rendered obsolete by the passage of time. I know what I am doing with my life now, and I am content.
Possibilities of meeting alien life forms or communicating with them via sophisticated gadgetry no longer seem quite so likely. The answer may be out there somewhere, but I didn't ever find it, and my questions, and dreams, are different now.
Now I dream of being accepted and valued for who I am: an old guy with nerdy tendencies, some of which he has learned to temper.
I dream of letting go of self importance and of embracing humility.
I dream of letting go of the need to know and to be in control.
I dream my wife, children and grandchildren will know I love them unreservedly.
I dream of being a good and true friend.
I dream of bringing smiles to people who need them.
I dream of being as one with my creator.
(Image of the Crab Nebula – Wikicommons)
So, the dreams change, bringing with them different questions that have different answers.
I guess life is about people, not gadgets. If you knew that all along, why didn't you sit me down and explain it to me when I was young?
(Image – Wikicommons)
In a life of dreams, I have indeed been a slow learner.

Rebirth of Passion

Rebirth of Passion

(I kind of liked the sound of the title.)

(My 'studio')
It's been almost a year now since I started trying to play classical guitar. On a whim I dusted off the mass produced Taiwanese guitar I bought in my teens that had stood unloved in the wardrobe for decades. Back then I strummed chords and sang with abandon, modelling myself on Cat Stevens, the Bee Gees, Don McLean and other long forgotten icons. Unfortunately loads of enthusiasm could not quite make up for reluctance to work hard, and my musical dalliance fizzled. My guitar was picked up less and less often, until it was stored away during the first of many house and life moves.
Years passed.
My old el cheapo Yamaha G55a (entry level) instrument caught my gaze now and then when I was poking around. It brought back a memory or two. I couldn't ever throw it away. Nor the sheet music that accumulated in those passionate times. I knew strumming a guitar and singing along with a wistful expression was behind me, and mercifully so, but there was something in guitar music that always held magic.
I heard the beauty of plucked strings, intervals and chords, now and then. It was calling me, but I never made the time. Competing priorities. One day, but never now. To be honest, I would have been embarassed to be seen (not to mention heard) plucking away, brow creased, tongue poking out with concentration. There is a necessary humility in beginning (again) to learn to play a musical instrument and I struggled with that; being a mature and responsible adult who liked to hide behind his straightness and respectability. No way was I going to put myself in a position where people would patronise me, or smile behind their hands at my folly.
So, for some reason, maybe it's that I am now retired, one day last February I took my old guitar out of its case and set about restringing it. Walking into a music shop was not something I had done for years and the task of asking for the correct strings confirmed I was going to need to learn some humility, and learn it I did.
Having taken the first steps, the next few weren't nearly as hard. The internet is a wonderful resource. Kindle has many classical guitar tutorial books in e-format. I downloaded one, and behind closed doors and closed windows, I begun to learn some theory of music and the playing of classical guitar properly for the first time, by myself, without a human tutor.
Impossibly hard it seemed at first. I plugged away. There was a correct way to sit, to hold the guitar, to use my hands. No shortcuts or adaptations acceptable. Naturally I struggled with these limitations. I am me, after all; the king of corner cutters! I didn't want to waste time playing scales. Just let me at the music!
For the first couple of months I wanted everything to happen more quickly. Discouragingly, I found pieces were not getting easier to play. The old habits of wanting results without hard work were very hard to lose. Eventually I purchased a hard copy of a spiral bound “Complete Guitar Method” by Matteo Carcassi (a pioneer of the classical guitar), and decided to follow it as best I could.
The book is well organised, or maybe it matched my preferred learning style. It was set out in a way I could understand. Scales, intervals, chords and arpeggios for each key were practised thoroughly before it moved to some related short pieces. This clicked with me. I got it! I began to play stuff that sounded good and that I could manage, but only after quite a lot of repetition.
Mind you, I suspect that the music I heard in my heard was not quite the standard of the music I played. No matter. I was in love. If you have slid up and down arpeggios, and marvelled at the richness of intervals and chords, you will know what I mean. Sublime beauty on tap. 'Heaven on a stick' is a phrase that comes to mind.
Understanding some of the structure of beautiful music and playing it, admittedly the simpler stuff so far, is one of the most awe inspiring things I have experienced in my life.
I know all this might sound nerdy. Classical music and stuff like that. Frankly I don't give a damn my dear. I reckon my ability to appreciate all music styles has improved after studying classical music. It's the glue that holds it all together, don't you know?
I look forward to practice. I devour it. I am transported by the melodies and harmonies, and frustrated when I can't quite get them right. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to contort your left hand across a fretboard with speed? Maybe you do.
They say a talented person needs around 10000 hours of practice to master the classical guitar and perform at concert level. A quick calculation tells me I have now logged almost 250 hours. Just a tad more to go then. I won't be performing before family and friends any time soon.
I am so happy with my new found passion. It's a lonely thing to learn by yourself though. I would love to find somebody else to play alongside. The world does not seem to be overrun with classical guitar enthusiasts however; at least not near where I live.
YouTube will just have to fill the gap.
A guitar teacher would be nice too. As much as I would like to have a teacher, I can't justify the expense. Some great players have taught themselves. It seems I will need to rely on my own determination and perserverence. Anyway, as long as no one else hears me, what does it matter?
The old fellow is enjoying himself. So what if he follows one of his passions in his own time and in his own way?
Oh, and while I think of it . . . my old Yamaha, mass produced in Taiwan decades ago, has mellowed and developed a fine quality sound with age. Perhaps its owner might be so lucky.

One Fine Day

The clip was recorded recently inside an ancient monastery of the Armenian Apostolic Church in central Armenia.

Such beauty. Such transcendance. Everybody who was passing through on that day stopped and listened, transfixed, to these singers.

For some of us though,there is no beauty to speak of in our lives. No favours; no free rides; no second chances. Mercy seems in short supply and justice is hidden out of sight.

As I write this I am thinking of the young mother and her little girl whose skeletal remains were discovered hundreds of kilometres apart, years after they had had their lives snuffed out, by someone (or ones) they should never have met, let alone trusted.

Life was not beautiful for them. The young mother had walked out of the family home, and took her little girl, barely two, with her. Living out of a car, they existed on the margins, drifting wherever the wind, or the mother’s whims, took them. There would likely have been a series of benefactors: boyfriends; ‘protectors’; drinking buddies; casual acquaintances; even the odd kind hearted person now and then.

Running away from who knows what at home, they bounced from place to place like pinballs. There were few flashing lights though, and no winner’s bonuses. The mother was killed in a lonely forest and her body left under a pile of leaves, to be found by chance long after there was any possibility of identification of her remains. The daughter, and I shudder to think about this, was taken away and killed some time later and her body shut up in a suitcase and tossed into scrub alongside a country highway about a thousand kilometres away.

I guess the only miracle that ever came their way was that they were both found, identified as mother and daughter, and probably will be laid to rest together. (Great police work!)

I sit and think about them and I feel conflicting priorities. I feel a rage that makes me want to scream out at the obscenity; this manifest evil that crouches at a safe distance and smirks at me, challenging me to do something about it. Or, more correctly, taunts me for my inability to do anything at all to make things right for this mother (herself barely a child) and her little girl. I also feel a sadness that extends outwards, beyond time and place.

I refuse to believe this is where it ends. Inside I scream for justice and demand to know why this happened to two innocents. It is not right and not how I want the world to be. But I have lived long enough to have learned that what I think about such matters is not relevant to the outcomes.

Instead I choose to believe that evil does not have the last word. I choose to believe that those two young souls matter; that they are not (and never were) disposable and inconsequential. I choose to believe that somewhere, one fine day, they will be surrounded by the love and care they failed to find in their short unhappy lives.

One fine day.

Meanwhile I am grateful for the beauty that for whatever reason is strewn in my path. The song clip above is one I recorded recently in a cave monastery in Armenia. It continues to send shivers down my spine, and reminds me that no matter where I find myself, there is something beyond me and that something is good.

If I would be so bold as to ask anything of God this afternoon, it would be that young mother and child would know such beauty too.

Beautiful People

A quote from Annie Lennox caught my attention this morning.

(Annie Lennox – Google Images)

Now until a few minutes ago I knew nothing about Annie Lennox. That's right- THE Annie Lennox. That admission alone, I imagine, will see me disappear from Christmas card lists far and wide. As so often happens to me where popular music is concerned, I'm not up with who's who, having misspent my youth apparently, on other interests. You'd be surprised just how many conversations hang on possession of a treasure trove of trivia about popular singers and songwriters. Then again, maybe you wouldn't be.

Well now I've admitted publically such an embarassing gap in background knowledge, may I jump to the quote?

“There’s this youth culture that is really, really powerful and really, really strong, but what it does is it really discards people once they reach a certain age. I actually think that people are so powerful and interesting – women, especially – when they reach my age. We’ve got so much to say, but popular culture is so reductive that we just talk about whether we’ve got wrinkles, or whether we’ve put on weight or lost weight, or whether we’ve changed our hair style. I just find that so shallow.” Annie Lennox.


This lady is on to something!

I want to applaud her. Yes! Yes! Yes! Well, apart from the 'especially women' jab. Don't write off us guys because were not female Annie: That would be unfair and not nice. Men are people too and interesting! But I am straying from the point.

Our background western culture is built on youth and trying to stay forever young. Gyms, fitness clubs, cosmetics sell the eternal youth myth but it goes much much deeper than that. Marketing at all levels is saturated with youth. It wallows in it and glorifies it. In the West we worship youth as a self evident value. We buy clothes and cut our hair (if we still have any) in ways we think will make us look younger. We laud our kids as our 'best friends' (Good grief! Your child doesn't need you as their best friend. They need you as their parent; an entirely different thing). We seek employees with youth and energy over those with age and experience (regardless of age discrimination laws which no one seems to take seriously anyway)

Youth worship is so deeply embedded in our values, I think, we often don't even know we do it. Take this paragraph about Annie herself from an 'Over 60s' web site:


“Annie Lennox turned 60 on Christmas Day, and to those of you who feel 60 but don’t look it, or look it and don’t feel it, Annie is a shining inspiration. Can it really be more than 30 years since her mega-hits with the Eurythmics tore through the charts of the 80. She really doesn’t look like a day has passed!”


Do I really need to point out the irony of an 'Over 60s' web site that appears to be sucked in by the 'youth is good', 'youth is everything' mantra? I mean why is it a good thing to be 60 yet not look it? What on Earth is wrong with being 40, 50, 60, 70 or 80 and looking your age? Is it shameful to look your age? If so, why? Why is it better to look 30 than to look 40, or to look 20 rather than 50? I guess there might be a point in misrepresenting your age if you are on the lookout for a sexual partner maybe, or if the whole idea of wisdom and maturity eluded you, and you lived your life completely superficially.

Youth is great. Youth is to be celebrated and enjoyed as long as it lasts. However youth is not the essence of life. Youth is not who we are. Youth is not the answer. It is more a symptom of not having been around long enough to know much about yourself. Enjoy it while you have it by all means, but to attribute the meaning and value of your life to it is beyond sad. You and I are much more than our youthful looks and boundless energy even when we are in the midst of it all. We are an important part of the story of life, and we continue to be an important part of that story as we leave youth and grow ever older.

Annie is quite right and quite insightful. Our western culture doesn't value people for who they are. It values them for their looks and their absence of blemishes and wrinkles. The irony is that the richness and beauty of life only becomes apparent to most of us until long after youth is gone, and few want to listen to us anymore. The wisdom that comes (sometimes) with age allows us to accept gracefully being ignored, dismissed and devalued because we are not as young as somebody thinks we should be before they will take us seriously.

I love life. I like myself. I am comfortable with who I am. I see beauty around me in the faces of grandchildren, of my wife, children, friends, and sometimes in passing interactions with people I don't know. I can see connections now that were invisible to me when I was young. It all makes a kind of sense. I count for something. I have value despite my wrinkles. I am part of something bigger than myself. I don't have to prove anything, and certainly not to anyone who looks at me at age 61 and looks away again, looking for something I left behind a long time ago.

A selfie. Maybe I should have used some face cream.

(Maybe Annie's doing a bit better than I am.)



A short biography of Annie Lennox from Wilipedia for those, like me, who weren't switched on or plugged in in the 70s and 80s:

Annie Lennox, OBE (born 25 December 1954), born Ann Lennox, is a Scottish singer-songwriter, political activist and philanthropist. After achieving moderate success in the late 1970s as part of the new wave band The Tourists, she and fellow musician Dave Stewart went on to achieve major international success in the 1980s as Eurythmics. Lennox is the most recognised female artist at the Brit Awards, winning a total of eight awards, including Best British Female Artist six times.




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