Sunday, April 25, 2010

Writers as rock stars and a kid with a clarinet

I had to work until 8 on Friday night, so I was unable to attend a concert by the Rock Bottom Remainders. The group has never topped any chart, at least on Billboard. But the band members have ruled the best-seller lists for decades. The band consists of some of the most famous writers in the country, stars of fiction and nonfiction. Stephen King, Mitch Albom, Dave Barry, Roy Blount Jr. Greg Iles, Matt Groening, Amy Tan, Ridley Pearson, Scott Turow, James McBride and Kathi Kamen Goldmark.

Every once in awhile, the members step away from the computer and pretend to be rock stars, performing for charity. Barry says Blount Jr. has coined their genre "hard-listening music," but the group's performed with Springsteen, Warren Zevon and at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sure, they've gotten their gigs primarily because of their day jobs and not the music, but they aren't terrible.

Louise scored a free ticket on her way to buy one and stood in the first row. After the show she mingled with some of the band members. I've read nearly every book by most of the authors in the band. Their books spill off our shelves. Louise, meanwhile, knows who they are and has read a few of their works. But she was the one standing front and center Friday night at the theater in Times Square. Life's not fair.

Unfortunately, even if I someday sell 10 million books with my series of novels about a hard-scrabbled copy editor who tracks down killers and corrects their punctuation in the taunting letters sent to the police and press, I'll never be allowed to join the Rock Bottom Remainders. I'm assuming possessing a shred of music ability is a prerequisite. I don't have any, whether it means singing or playing an instrument. My voice sounds great on the radio, provided I'm bantering with the host about a boys basketball game. I can't sing. I have a worse voice than the guy in church who belts out every hymn, oblivious to the fact the children are weeping because of the damage he's inflicting on their ears. In junior high choir, I provided backup humming. Anything else, like singing real lyrics, was a stretch.

I'm even worse with instruments. In fourth grade we all learned how to play the recorder, that staple of elementary schools throughout the land.

Each kid had to perform a solo at some point. When my turn arrived, the damn thing barely made a sound, as my hands were shaking and I was unable to properly operate the most rudimentary of instruments. The teacher eventually passed me by as I looked at the instrument and shook my head, conveying the idea to my classmates, "Hey, why did I get the defective recorder? Anyone want to switch with me, because this one doesn't work." I hated pulling the white instrument out of its cloth covering. Even at 10 years old, I wondered, what's the point?

In fifth grade we picked real band instruments. Except I missed school the day everyone else chose their instrument. So of course the boys picked the cool things like the saxophone or drums while the girls followed gender stereotypes and grabbed their flutes and clarinets. By the time I returned to school, all the good boy instruments had been swiped. The band director remembered that my sister had previously played the clarinet.

"Why don't you just use hers and you can play the clarinet." Should I also follow in her footsteps and become a Brownie?

At 34, I can now understand that it's absurd to look down on a kid who picks any musical instrument. It's ridiculous, and sexist, to label something a girl instrument or a boy instrument. But in the mid 1980s, in small town America, fifth-grade boys did not play the clarinet, unless they had a burning desire to be verbally mocked or physically beaten. I meekly agreed to the suggestion, perhaps because I knew it'd be a short-term problem. Back home I grabbed the case out of my sister's closet and put it together, loathing the taste of the wooden reed. I didn't have any more skill with the clarinet than I did with a recorder, although I did stop shaking while playing. This was no longer about nerves, it was all about competence. Look, in fifth grade I could do things that most of classmates couldn't do, like hit 20 free throws in a row or make diving stops on a baseball field. People possess different physical skills. Hand-eye coordination helped me dominate at ping-pong but proved worthless when fumbling around with a recorder. So why force someone with below-average musical dexterity into an activity he doesn't enjoy and isn't any good at? This is why I always felt bad for kids who got picked on in phy ed class. I knew quite well what it was like to be the prey, to be an overmatched, frightened performer at the mercy of teachers and classmates. Of course, I didn't have to worry about being hit in the head during dodgeball.

Kids snickered whenever I left class for a clarinet lesson. Christ.

I lasted two weeks. I'm all for not giving up and toughing things out. Except when it comes to forcing a 10-year-old boy to play clarinet. My parents agreed with the decision - they'd heard me play. Music teaches students many wonderful things. And I wholeheartedly support efforts to keep music programs alive in schools. For many kids, they're a way to college, and a path to a better life. For others, it's a great way to expose them to art. Wasn't for me. And while the clarinet ensured my stay in band only lasted a fortnight, the end result wouldn't have been any different with the sax, drums or trumpet.

Still, when I sell my 10 millionth book and the Remainders are looking for a fill-in on a Saturday night in New York City, maybe I'll offer up my services. Don't all bands have a spot for a guy with shaky hands who plays the recorder?

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