Fiddling Away the Doom

A rare sound in the night, and with it, a rare smell.



At 3 in the morning I sat up in bed at the sound of light rain on the roof above my head. For a moment in that gray area between wake and sleep I didn’t understand the sound. It is June 25th in California, summertime, a long stretch of five months without a cloud in the sky. That’s how weather works out here. Lots of rain from November to March, occasional visits of rain in April and October, and then the rest of the year settles into a sameness of blue skies and dry heat, day after day, month after month. They call it a Mediterranean climate but that’s wrong. I’ve spent long stretches in Italy and Monaco and Greece in the summertime, watched thick clouds gather over the Mediterranean and marveled at the show of thunder and lighting. There, it rains. Here, it doesn’t.


I repeat: Here in California it doesn’t rain in the summer. It doesn’t even rouse up enough clouds to nudge Hope awake. That’s one of my big problems with living here, the predictability of the weather, the empty sky.


Which makes a rain like last night’s—and the smell of dampness from my porch this morning—such a pleasure. It’s the scarcity that creates the pleasure, the rare visit of rain in a season of stark and searing heat. That’s today’s lesson on beauty and joy and life itself: that we need to worship at the shrine of Melancholy and Decay and Searing Summer Heat in order to receive the delights of Joy and Beauty and Rain.




I’m taking violin lessons. Rather, I’m taking fiddle lessons. Just that shift in words makes it seem more possible to learn this instrument.


Have you ever picked up one of these things? Who designed it? Who ever thought it a good idea to twist your left wrist in a way that looks like you have severe palsy?


In any case, I’m giving it a try along with Liam. He missed a part of his curriculum last year that included the violin, and now he’s catching up over the summer. Me too. And why not? If nothing else I’ll take a few lessons and forever appreciate those who can wail away at the fiddle. Now I’ll know what it takes to contort that left wrist and to find notes where there are no frets. I’ll know what it takes to somehow press down with your fingertips on strings with very little space. I’ll know how tough it is to make that bow not squeak. I’ll know.


One of the benefits of being 57 years old is that you just don’t care. I don’t care if I stick with the fiddle, don’t care if I please my teacher by mastering this week’s lesson, don’t care if I set down the violin in its case today and say, “That’s enough.” All I know is that I’m back in America with plenty of idle time over the summer. So why not a fiddle?


These days are golden days. Soon I’ll need to return to my office at the college and busy myself with duties. Until then my days are filled with ease, filled with a swinging from limb to limb in this tree of pleasures. (Is that a good analogy?) To give you an idea, over there is the limb of reading on the porch in an Adirondack rocking chair with a cup of coffee by my side. That’s a sturdy limb. I recline on that limb for long stretches, then feel my weight slide off and over to a limb of fiddle playing I go, and then leap to the piano limb, then over to cleaning up the house and then over to phone conversations with Anthony and Joe, and then over to making quesadillas  and then up to tilling the hard soil in the garden, then down to a bicycle ride. Limb to limb to limb. On that limb I listen to the Indians baseball game, then back to the piano bench, then over to the writing limb that always feels so good when I’m there yet feels so daunting, so distant of a leap.


These days are golden days—indulgent days of doing whatever I want. For four days I am alone, the rarest of days with Dolora and Liam off to visit relatives in Santa Rosa. For four days I am not traveling the world, not figuring out our hotel for tonight and not caring about visas and train schedules. Be gone, obligations. I am a monkey in a tree, and if I want to pick bugs out of my red ass and eat them, then so be it.




Good questions I’ve been asked about the trip:


+ What’s the worst bathroom experience?

+ What’s one gem that Liam has brought back with him?

+ Has there been a whole shift in your being, or just an expansion that comes from traveling?

+ Are you bored now that you’re back?

+ Was there one place where you felt you could live?

+ Who are the most beautiful people in the world?

+ Is there one thing that you’re bringing back into your life here in America?

+ Which country appreciates its farmers?

+ Which country has the worst food?




I can feel it around the edges. I can feel myself moving out of a dream state and into a waking world that worries me.


Still I’m in America as if I’m visiting America, just another country in a string of countries that encircles the globe. This is day 26 just as I’ve had day 26s in Italy, Greece, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. I can almost feel my rhythms shifting toward a move to the next country. Our month has nearly ended, and now it’s time to pack our bags and hop on a plane to… Argentina.


But I know there’s no Argentina. I know this is it, that in four days the trip officially comes to a halt on July 1. That day is a Tuesday, a fitting day of the week that is unremarkable and vague, a passage from one state to another but is itself just air.


What will happen to me on July 2nd? Wednesday is the hill of the week, the slight incline in Kansas from which you can see all sides of time.


I’m not there yet. The forecast over Kansas is murky skies with a gathering front of sorrow. The air is expected to be thick, to settle its oppressive weight down upon the land like the palm of a heavy hand. The probability of ennui is at 80%, of dissolution at 60%, of existential angst at 50%, of a depression that cannot move at 25%. Of course, these are all just computer models based upon a trillion bits of data—my own chemical makeup, the heat of summer, America, the world itself—and is no guarantee of anything. Keep in mind that the computer model puts the probability of joy at 20%, of newfound optimism that lets sorrows slide off my back at 10%, of wild-eyed ecstasy at 5%.


The month of July.


Eliot got it all wrong. July is the cruelest month, breeding cactus out of the deadlands.




For now, it’s fiddle time. Turn away from the hillock that rises like a pimple from the mottled skin of Kansas and pick up that fiddle. Push away all ominous premonitions with the thrust of a bow across a string.


So easy, isn’t it.



1 Comment

  1. Kristi Robinson

    At 45 I’m envious of your strong and sturdy “limbs”. I’m just now feeling as if mine are beginning to grow. 🙂

    Have a wonderful day Jim.

    P.S. How ’bout that No-no?!?!?! Tell Liam I thought of him.

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