The Empty House

My wife and kids have been away all week, sunning themselves on a seashore far south of here; they’re heading home now. It’s an odd thing, being home alone.  As they headed off last week, I entertained fantasies of High Productivity. I would play music, pore over books, pay bills, write furiously. I had not counted on the fact that an empty house is...an empty house, and that to be alone in such a place is almost like finding oneself in a locale like a cave or crime scene — foreign and strangely lifeless.

I pad around at nights with a sense of eerie wonder, not quite sure what to do with myself: Watch TV? Nah, too boring. Read? Sure, I’ll get to it. Walk the dogs? Tomorrow. When my wife and kids hit the road, they took all the energy of the house with them. I can’t even manufacture imagined echoes of children at play — running and screaming and hitting walls and playing stereos and fighting and crying and stumbling into my study, wailing: “Daddy!” This house was not built for quiet, and neither, it turns out, was I.

It’s hard to be constructive when you feel as if you’re in Mammoth Cave. Only today have I managed to get the hang of it, and I suspect that’s because of deadline pressure — they should be here in an hour or so. After returning home from work (I did my two-hour stint on "Weekend Live" from noon to 2pm Eastern Time), I wrote out some bills, did grocery shopping, filled the car with gas, fed the dogs, and then got down to Constructive Leisure. I spent the better part of two hours playing music (see related entry below), and now I’m writing. Oh, and I’m also watching college basketball — something that is definitely impossible when the rest of the family is around.

I’ve talked with my wife a couple of times already today — it’s one of the benefits of mobile-phone technology. The kids have been watching movies and old television series on the car’s DVD system. That little gewgaw is one of our rare concessions to fashion. For years, we resisted the idea of getting video inside the car, but when faced with the prospect of driving 12 hours or more, we decided the only way we could travel without losing our minds was to find a device that would dull the kids into a kind of placid complacency. We’ve been suitably old-fashioned, though. The playlist includes “I Love Lucy,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” and a bunch of movies produced before Disney became politically correct and terminally insipid. We’re not in a hurry for our kids to become hip and edgy. We like the idea that they might spend their childhood years as children.

My wife is wonderfully insistent on this point. Most days, she makes the kids go out in the yard and play, rather than drooling in front of the TV. We keep the set off throughout the school week - with an exception for “American Idol,” which Jill and the kids adore. We don’t have video games, and we’ve been prudish about what the kids watch. They don’t seem maimed by this excess of parental supervision. In fact, it’s somewhat refreshing to be the father of the only sixth-grade girl at her school who isn’t walking around with an exposed midriff, a pierced belly button, and a desire to grow up to be just like Britney Spears, only a little more raunchy. (I exaggerate, but not by much.)

A Homily on Marriage

The idea of teamwork takes me to a related and important point, the glories of marriage. I will chip away at this topic a lot in coming entries. It’s important to me, and it’s worth spending some time on figuring out why it is so wonderful and essential.

When we first got ready to launch the radio show, someone from the marketing team came by and peppered me with questions. They appear elsewhere on this site as an interview. The most interesting question was to name one thing I could not live without. That was a no-brainer: My wife.

I have reached a point where life without my wife not only would be unimaginable, but unbearable. It wasn’t always thus. In the early years of our marriage, I was a lousy husband. We spent four or five years fighting and feuding about all sorts of stuff, and most of the discord was my fault. I got carried away with being an Aspiring Big Shot in Washington, and devoted far too little attention to the only reliable and altruistic friend I had. At some point, the scales finally fell from my eyes. I made an astounding discovery. Life wasn’t about me. I was blessed with having married the most naturally decent and honest person I have ever met — someone whose character inspires in me a kind of reverent awe, whose love never fails when times are bad, and whose heat-seeking sense of humor never fails to puncture my pomposity in times of plenty.

Once we got past the little hurdle of my super-sized vanity and ego, we started having kids, and things got exponentially more complex, more difficult, and better.

Marriage never works unless you submit yourself to it — decide not only that it will work, but that you will commit heart and soul to your mate. This seems ridiculously obvious, but a quick check of the divorce statistics will prove that it’s not. Too many people entertain fantasies of “perfect loves.” For guys, this means Olympic-caliber connubial gymnastics. For women, it means roses every morning. I know a handful of people for whom this formula worked, at least for a while. But eventually, life breaks through the reverie. You have to work and pay bills. You want to resume hobbies. You want to carve out interests that are your own. And every once in a while, you have to sleep eight hours. In short, the duties and obligations of adulthood force you to divide your attention in many ways. The world forces you to mellow out a bit and leave the honeymoon behind.

Some folks panic when the fireworks begin to fizzle. They decide they are in love no more, and set out in search of other sources of pyrotechnic amour. The don’t realize it at the time, but they have become swingers — comic figures who seem enviable in youth and pathetic in maturity.

If, however, you decide to stick by your mate, you will learn that love takes firmer root when you and your spouse start becoming what the Good Book calls “one flesh.” You don’t need explosive excitement all the time. You just need your mate. And one day, you realize that the most essential part of life is merely being around the person you love - hearing their voice; talking about little, inconsequential things; knowing that of all the people in the world you know, this one is the person you must trust and need. This person is the echo of your heartbeat, the susurrus of your soul.

One thing unlocks the promise and joy of marriage: commitment. As long as people figure the arrangement is temporary, subject to periodic upgrades, their marriages are fictions — like the unions of those Hollywood dopes who swap mates with mind-numbing frequency. Does anybody think these people are really happy, or that they have any concept of life’s blessings and contentments? Of course not: They get money and glamour — along with rap sheets, fitness gurus, lascivious pool guys, and spiritual advisers who peddle Salvation version 6.0, which promises perfect harmony with the universe without having to surrender any of one’s self-centered indulgences. I love the fact that Britney Spears and Madonna are poring over the Kaballah — apparently without spending any quality time at the synagogue. This is rather like studying Catholic Theology without ever having heard of Peter.

The point is: If you want to be happy, commit. Submit. Stop looking around. If you married right, then count your blessings and watch them multiply. It’s not difficult at all, but it requires a single and simple act of will: Demanding that the words, “I do” were right and true then, now, and forever more.

End of sermon

The Joy of Sax (yeah, I know: It’s an old and bad pun)

I belong to a rock band called “Beats Workin.’ ” I’ve always hated the band’s name, but love the band. We practice every weekend, and we’re looking for a venue where we can play regularly (a minimum of twice a month). I play nonessential instruments — saxes (soprano, alto and tenor) , flutes (alto and tenor) and an occasional rhythm guitar. (I’m working on keyboards, but I won’t be stage-ready for a while.)

These instruments have created a somewhat ticklish situation at home. I love playing flute, and it’s the instrument I play best. At some point soon, I hope we’ll stream on this website some pieces I played onstage last November with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. (We’ve got to get Ian’s sign-off first.)

Yet, let’s face it: There’s not a lot of call for rock flute, outside of Tull pieces and some awful solos on drecky old songs like “Windy.” A rock band needs a sax, so I have started devoting a lot of time and energy to getting my chops back on that instrument.

Here’s where things get dicey. In the early days of my sax revival, my playing sounded as if I were stranging a goose and broadcasting the torture through loudspeakers. Our laborador retriever kept bounding through the house looking for the fallen bird, while the other animals either bayed in protest, or ran to the other side of the house, seeking cover and quiet.

Unfortunately, there is no quiet way to practice sax, and there is no way to stop being awful without practicing. You have no choice but to make innocent human beings endure the sound of your musical journey. So I soldiered on, and my playing became the subject of talk on the street. A couple of guys got into a heated debate one day about whether it was a sax, a flute being modified by electronic effects (something I also do when practicing) or some unnamed other instrument, like a “rock bassoon.” I had to settle the argument by admitting that the sound was indeed a saxophone, which caused one guy to beam in triumph and the other to say, “Are you sure?!” This was humbling, of course, but it also redoubled by determination to keep at it.

Well, I have done a lot of that this week — honking away at everything from old Charlie Parker standards to rock and blues to play-along stuff with Mindy Abair’s first album. I’ve been trying to learn jazz licks, which means running through lots of scale and chord studies, in addition to playing along with a wide variety of music and instructional CDs. It is beginning to pay off. The jazz flute is getting passable. Meanwhile, the sax sounds less like a waterfowl in distress and more like the brass instrument it is. I’m even getting decent at making the thing growl — an effect achieved by humming while playing. The point is, it’s fun. We’ll see what my wife and kids say tomorrow, when they hear me tooting away.