Nothing was working as I thought it was going to. Everything was hard. I moved to New York to be a writer, to throw my hat in with Capote and Fitzgerald, to rush the steps of Grand Central as Salinger had, to breathe the early morning fog in Washington Square where Cather had walked. To ride the ferry, very merry, and to stand at cocktail parties where editors and writers traded bon mots.
It was 1992. I stood behind the bar at a diner, Tom Waits on the stereo and an array of working stiffs asking for stiff drinks. The glamour of literary society never passed by Broadway and Bleecker. There was a stratosphere above 14th street where such things existed, but it might as well have been across the ocean, across a galaxy of time.
I spent so many weekends of my childhood in the thrall of old movies. When I thought of literary society I could almost hear the clink of Rosalind Russell’s martini glass as she stood in a many-roomed apartment on the upper East Side with editors from The New Yorker and Random House, fast-talking current events with quick-witted men in slightly crumpled suits. Even today I can conjure up that daydream, and now I can taste the martini. I had no business thinking I was going to just magically find myself there. I had no idea how to get in proximity.
Then, standing at the bar at 3:00 in the morning, I read Rilke’s “For the sake of a single poem:”
Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) — they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things… Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves — only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.
That clinched it. I had seen nothing. It was a crisis of youth, although I guess to most people 27 doesn’t seem so young. It was apparent that I had nothing to say. I had a low self-worth, a desire for adventure, and a strong feeling that I had never found my place or my people. I wanted to write, but it was baldly obvious that I had not lived.
Some of my friends were actively seeking heroin addictions. While that had its glamour, I was born with the ability to wake in joy of the coming day. It is a genetic thing, which you would understand should you spend 15 minutes with my family. I was lucky to be driven to try to find my way to happiness somewhere else.
Peter Pan complexes get a bad rap. There are the man-boys who live at home, never able to truly take care of themselves; men who crumble at conflict and who mooch off women and take and take. There are the women who carry their high school clique, with all of its intrigues and judgments and small-mindedness, around with them forever. Michael Jackson, well, understood.
It seems to me there is something else though, a milder form of the pop-psychology invention, which is an inherent inability to care to grow into anyone’s expectations of what we should do. For some reason that I don’t understand, I just never got caught up in any desire to “grow up.”
I figured out early, say around 8 years old, helping with the parade of babies in my mother’s big Catholic family, that motherhood held no interest to me. That feeling always stuck. I also never had much desire to own or accumulate things. Even now, strolling by the mansions of Pacific Heights here in San Francisco, I fall into the romance of the architecture and the fantasy of seeing that view every morning from my bed. I think, what is it like to live in beauty like that? Then I think of owning one. I feel a heavy weight around my neck and shoulders, as if I were choking. All the millions of decisions about upkeep and decoration and propriety would be a stone dragging along behind me. No, better to have all of my friends so well-heeled, loving me enough to give me an open-invitation to lie on their big comfy sofa and watch cable, and then the sunrise over the Golden Gate bridge.
This is the kind of childishness I’m talking about.
So when I was 27 years old, standing at the bar reading Rilke and listening to “Rain Dogs” on the stereo I said to myself: I’m tired of being a bartender. I need to see the world to be the writer I dream of being. I never thought of being a musician before. How about I do that for a living? And it seemed perfectly feasible and like no big deal that I didn’t yet play an instrument. I just didn’t have any sort of timeline, for anything.
I started playing drums. Over the years, I have had countless conversations with people telling me they always wanted to play the drums, or some other instrument, and the myriad reasons for not doing so. They think they don’t have musical ability. They are too old. They played but had to give it up and now it’s too late to start again. It’s usually either they don’t think they can, or that they’re too old to try. They will never be a professional musician for any number of reasons, so why even pick it up.
To these people I would say: go back in time in your mind, close your eyes and go back to before you had the weight of the words “SCHOOL” and “TEACHER” and “ASSIGNMENTS” and “GRADES” and all of the baggage you have around those early moments, and just remember the joy in learning and accomplishing. The joy in digesting new information. Remember what it feels like to have someone explain something and how your mind opens like a flower. You look around a corner into a new way of seeing, and your whole being is a garden abloom with this new knowing. Remember the time before you had any sense of cause and effect, of timelines and outcomes.
This is my favorite story of learning to play drums with Fred Klatz, the drum teacher who did turn out to be the best drum teacher in New York City. I was attempting an exercise in which I was playing four different patterns with each of my limbs, and he was asking me to count a different pattern out loud. If I thought too hard about any one pattern, say my left foot, the whole thing would fall apart. It kept falling apart.
He said, “You know where your mind has to be for this? You know when you’re looking all over the house for your glove, and after 5 minutes of searching you look down and realize you’ve been holding it the whole time? Put your mind there.”
Instantly, I could do it. One metaphor, and the world changed.
What will your instructor teach you, not only about playing your instrument, but about seeing the world? I grew up thinking I was going to be writer, so when I found myself in math class I did what I needed to do to get by, but never identified with it. When I started learning drumming I realized, holy moly, my mind is REALLY comfortable with math. I started seeing time as geometric shapes. I realized that when I was stressed as a kid, I used to count, that numbers were comfort for me. The things I learned about myself while learning how to play an instrument far outweigh anything I do on the kit.
What will your instructor tell you that you need to hear right at that moment? I was getting hung up by learning how to play the double-kick pedal. I was reading and watching videos and getting the technique all tangled up in my head and therefore could barely work the thing at all when I would sit down.
I went to see the Melvins that night, and had a chance to speak with Dale Crover, my very favorite drummer, after the show. I asked him about playing the double-kick, and I spouted a bunch of theories I had about what I had read.
Dale looked at me and said with a surprised smile, “There are no rules.”
I don’t know why I needed him to tell me that, why I didn’t know that already. I guess I needed it to hear it right then, and now I hear his voice in my head whenever I’m getting held up by protocol in any part of my life. There are no rules. Just act from the heart, from our own truth, and that’s all there needs to be.
We are so goal-driven in this society, so concerned with the outcome that it sometimes stops us from even starting. There is such fulfillment in simply putting your fingers on the keys or the strings or the paintbrush or the tennis racquet and just finding joy in that moment with no expectation and no judgment. There is so much joy purely in the accomplishment of now. Gretchen says that learning a musical instrument is a lesson in delayed gratification. It can take so long before you are even close to where you imagine you want to go when you start. It’s true. Yet, there is such a beauty in the process. Letting go of the outcome is the first lesson. Finding a teacher who speaks your language is like finding the golden ticket.
I get hung up by things that seem to take forever. When I compare it to Bonham’s, my right foot will be an endless source of misery until the day I die. The days when I remember to treat it compassionately, like my little slow-witted body part, are the days I seem to have the most progress. Those days, I settle into training it the way I would a bumbling puppy, slowly and patiently and methodically. It’s a peaceful feeling. I let go of all my desires for the future, all regret of the past and of starting so late, and I once again do very slow exercises. I know that just sitting down is all that is required of me. I’m not going to break any records today. I’m not going to set the world on fire with my kick drum technique this afternoon. Today is just for me. I sit down and do the work. That is all that is necessary in this moment. As for the outcome, well, maybe next show I’ll notice a difference. Probably not, but somehow that’s not the point.
Our time is too limited to limit ourselves with “too old for.” For a while, you say you’re too old to keep doing something, and then, you’re too old to start something. As someone who has been comfortably fixed in a childish vision of reality for a long time, I wonder, to what relation of time are we speaking? I feel the breath of the wind that moves over the planet, watch the rise of the tides, hear the thunder of the waves breaking stone into tiny grains of sand that caress and hold us and will continue to cradle generations for as long as time. So really, there are no rules. You get to go where your heart calls you. You get to find joy in learning. Find that teacher who makes you laugh and says things in a way that helps a little membrane in your mind fall away to reveal some truth that was hidden from you in plain sight.