“And I’m laughing, ‘cuz I’m under a starry sky.”


Indigo Girls, “World Falls”

January 4, 2003; Miami Beach

I’m laughing now, like I’m under that starry sky again, looking up, wondering how the universe can be expanding if it’s already “infinite”. What’s it expanding into? And, if it’s expanding, then it couldn’t, by definition, have been “infinite” already. Or yet, or before, or ever.

Whatever. Right? It’s mind boggling. Anyway, that’s a whole other conversation to savor over a vanilla cigar sometime — some night, under a starry sky. Right now, I’m laughing a jubilation-induced laugh. If that’s ever happened to you, you know that what’s happening is not really funny per se, but you still find yourself laughing for whatever reason beyond your control. And there’s really no other emotion for it anyway, because you can’t believe it’s actually happening. It feels so good, and you’re so happy, and it’s so much fun to be happy. You’re elated, and maybe laughing because there’s no other way to express the joy. Why do we laugh when we’re happy? I don’t know. It’s like dogs: they bark when they’re happy, and they bark when they’re mad. Maybe we aren’t really that much more evolved emotionally than are dogs. I mean, we cry when we’re happy, and cry when we’re sad. But that’s another conversation altogether, too, getting into the evolution and mutation of genes such as FOXP2, which reminds me, incidentally, of still another conversation we could have: of how I find that people’s practice of compassion is largely arbitrary, boiling down to individuals treating certain creatures with more care or consideration solely because some creatures are more intelligent than others, or because the individuals have invested themselves emotionally in an animal, like a dog, cat, hamster, or bird. Interesting. But is that really the definition of “compassion”, or is such phenomenon antithetical to the whole concept of empathy itself? Let’s save that thought for an ice cold Di Saronno at some point. Now back to the story.

I’m happy and laughing because I just finished a guitar lesson with Walt. Put the strings down only moments ago. Wow, the feeling of finally capturing a song, of learning to play along with a tune whose euphony has enthralled you for ages — it’s somewhat overwhelming. At last! At long last, I’m able to elicit that certain captivating melody from my own guitar! After fourteen years of listening to that deliriously delectable harmony in Fleetwood Mac’s “Never Going Back Again”, I’m able to play along with it. My fingers don’t move as fast as Lindsay Buckingham’s, granted, but at least I know what his are doing now. I’ve learned the notes; I know the chord progression! I can almost finger-pick the tune. Yes, it sounds like I’m playing with my feet, but still; Walt has unlocked the secret, and I’m happy. I feel like Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” over and over as he ran naked through the streets of Syracuse. I’m not quite ready to ditch a hot bath to streak through Sicily over the sensation, but, as Billy would say, “the feeling’s the same”. The notes are the words, the way to express the exhilaration I can’t articulate in words, and so am relegated to laughing about.

Before learning the tune, I was like an illiterate man: I could appreciate the mellifluous sounds emanating from Buckingham’s guitar, but could not educe them from my own. I did not have the capability to translate what I heard on my stereo into my guitar’s own dialect. I was like the man who can speak, but cannot read; he knows what he wants to say, but cannot understand what the page says — what the words on it mean, what the characters are trying to tell him. Whether words on a page, or notes riding bars — it makes no difference — neither he nor I could interpret them. There they remain, black forms on white paper, latent beauty on loose leaf, awaiting an emancipator, someone to liberate them from the bonds, binds, and confines of the treble and base clefts, as a genie awaits a kind soul to rub the vase. Like a struggling, aspiring musician, the illiterate man knows what to say, but does not recognize the letters staring back at him from the page, the letter, the book, the card, the sign, or whatever it may be. The communication is only one-way: stunted, stultified, inhibited, impeded, encumbered — bumping headlong into an illiteracy-imposed ceiling, an inability to articulate thought in what we call words; or — in the musician’s case, the inability to release rhythmic rhymes or melodious messages — the muse itself — in the form of song. Whether the words go left-to-right, as in English, or right-to-left, as in Hebrew, or vertically, as in Japanese, doesn’t matter, because the illiterate man can’t read them anyway. He knows enough to stop reading at the end of the line, but the lines don’t connect. He needs that genie to translate for him, to translate inert ideas into passionate praxis. That man can only articulate his own feelings verbally; he is unable to decipher yours, the ones you’ve written him from afar. In an inverse, ironic way, the illiterate man who can speak but not read is like the musician who can play by ear but cannot sight read. And there exists the barrier to sharing joy. Please, if you haven’t already, volunteer to teach someone to read. There are hundreds of places to do so which will come up on any Internet search. Make the world a better place. Release that someone from the shackles of illiteracy, and help him or her experience that ever-expanding universe, the one which opens up with just twenty-six letters, in all their countless combinations, or opens via ten thousand characters, in the case of Kanji, or whatever the case may be. Sanskrit, Swahili, Siamese, Spanish, Esperanto — don’t you see? It’s not the symbols that matter; it’s what they say. But we must all be taught their meaning. And that’s what life is, the opportunity to create meaning. But that’s another essay for another time.

The point here is that in language, thoughts precede the ability to articulate them through the written word, while in music, sounds precede the ability to evoke them from a hollowed-out, fretted-neck wooden instrument with nylon strings. And Walt has broken the code! He’s grabbed the Enigma from the sinking sub. He’s deciphered Lindsay Buckingham at the Yeck Palace Triton Tower, just as the Brits decrypted Triton in Buckinghamshire. Are you still with me here? I don’t need to be able to read the written notes anymore! My fingers know what to do now when they hear the sound that mesmerizes my mind. I’m not sure if I’m explaining it well enough. It’s so cerebral, so ethereal, so unreal. So simultaneously tangential — but tangible, palpably liberating, concurrently cathartic, and galvanizing in Gestalt-like manner. Maybe Helen Keller explained the feeling best in her autobiography, when she described what learning her very first word felt like — when Annie Sullivan helped her break through her personal language barrier. Helen wrote:

“Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word ‘water’, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away. I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house, every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me…I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were, but I do know that ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘sister’, ‘teacher’ were among them — words that were to make the world blossom for me.” (The Story of My Life).

Isn’t it fascinating to reconnect with the manner in which “motion” elicits “emotion”‘? It’s the twenty-first century and I’m still amazed at that, even though the Romans had it nailed down long before Latin died as a language. Think about the correlation: “emotion” is a semantic notion which metaphorically applies physical movement to strong feeling. It’s what they felt thousands of years ago: being moved, not just emotionally, but almost physically, by a “feeling”. Do we feel it, or does it feel us? Is it an active verb, or passive, or both? Wow. That’s almost like the quesiton, “Is light a particle, or a wave?” Without getting too off track, Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says that Latin used the phrase “motus anima“, for “emotion“, or “movement of the spirit“. Vulgar Latin used “exmovere“, or literally “to move out“, “to excite“. Are you excited about all this? Can you feel the muse? What is your personal muse, anyway, and what have done about it lately?

As for me, I’m excited. What am going to do about it? Keep taking guitar lessons, try to figure out if I’m actually playing the music, or it’s playing me, and perhaps delve deeper into this amusing muse, the one that’s so captivating, and so liberating, all at the same time, all the time. Is Zen theory onto something, or way off? Or is it all one, as the Pre-Socratics preached? Let’s get excited, people. Let’s move out. Let’s nail down the vernacular — in whatever form it takes, and then learn not just the songs, but what they mean(!). Lindsay Buckingham wrote it, Stevie Nicks sang it, and I’m reiterating it: we’re “never going back again“. We’re moving out, people. Let’s get there already. Now grab your guitars…

Written by Glenn Yeck | Comments Off on “And I’m laughing, ‘cuz I’m under a starry sky.”