Monthly Archives: November 2011

Los Espacios–What Rises From the Music of the Heart

Me he creado un espacio para mí misma, y es mi propio espacio.  Vea – no tengo ni origenes ni raíces.  Me siento como si fuera perdida en la marea.  Mi mente es mi espacio. Es mi único lugar.

Accordion music is the grandest of inspirations for me, and I wish others could understand why.  It’s a versatile instrument that can simultaneously breathe happiness and sadness.  How can it evoke both emotions at once?  I believe it’s in the depth of sound that a wind instrument produces, a wind instrument that’s capable of depth because of its size, and the manner in which it’s played.  The Columbia encyclopedia gives this description of an accordion: “musical instrument consisting of a rectangular bellows expanded and contracted between the hands. Buttons or keys operated by the player open valves, allowing air to enter or to escape. The air sets in motion free reeds, frequently made of metal. The length, density, shape, and elasticity of the reeds determine the pitch. The first accordions were made in 1822 by Friedrich Buschmann in Berlin. Bouton added a keyboard 30 years later in Paris, thus producing a piano accordion. The accordion is frequently used in folk music.”

This begins to get at the heart – or the lungs to be more exact – of the accordion.  “The air sets in motion free reeds,” says Columbia, and this is mainly responsible for the unique sound that gives me insane rushes of joy, feelings of wistfulness, and nagging sorrow.  Also, as this encyclopedia points out, accordions are frequently used in folk music.  This is entirely because of its diversity in sound.  The accordion can take the place of an entire band – one musician is less costly than four or five.  And, after being established as a sound that encompasses the existence of regular people, it can never be removed from its place there.  It will always appeal to peculiar elements of North American society – in Louisiana, in Scottish Canada, in little pockets of Czech and German settlements, and in Spanish-German Texas and Mexico.  In the latter, the Norteño and Tejano, I discover my favorite use of the accordion.

My obsession for the accordion has led me to write insanely long research papers on Tejano music, to run away to Mexico for little trips, and to waste all my money in order to take my family to San Antonio for vacations.

And here is a lasting image of an accordion in my mind: The San Antonio river walk was strung with lights in November, lights that waved and rippled in the water.  The air was muggy, warm with little breezes that moved the palm leaves.  Along the walk, hundreds of people sat in the patios of restaurants, eating food and drinking beer and coffee.  Down the river, guides drove quiet tourist barges full of weekend people.  I had come to San Antonio to experience the culture of ‘Texas,’ which includes the Alamo and many types of people, but that also largely includes Texas and Spanish settlements.  For example, one night, we ate in a mom-and-pop German restaurant and listened to polka music, and the next, we ate in an over-priced Mexican restaurant along the river walk.  

But I’ll return to my image: We took a ride on a river boat, and the evening was just chilly enough to be pleasant, yet held warmth in its core.  We listened to the guide and learned that Jennifer Lopez stood on that bridge in the filming of the movie “Selena,” which is (as you know) about a Tejana superstar who popularized the Cumbia within the traditional Tejano conjunto.  

A fine white mist rose from the water and appeared as billows under the lamps.  After living in the harsh desert southwest for several years, the beauty and gentleness of San Antonio mesmerized me.  I looked out, and the people drifted as misty to my eyes as the fog did. I was overwrought from night after night without sleep.  My mind was numb.

And then I saw the true ghosts, a band of men who emerged from the fog as specters might have risen from a moor.  They were under a bridge – three men – one with a bajo sexto, another with a single drum, and a third that filled the air with the breath of the accordion.   It was one pure moment of magic – and gone, like that!  We drifted past, and I had fleeting thoughts of jumping from the boat and swimming to shore so I could listen for a few minutes more, and also to make sure they were real, but I didn’t, even though I knew the water was only a few feet deep.

That was that, a complex beginning and ending a la vez.  I can listen to accordion music anytime on my radio, play the CD’s of my favorite bands.  Still, though, there are things that are unattainable to me, so far out my reach.  I think of a song by one of my favorite accordion players, Ricardo Muñoz; I can hear his deep, melodious voice in my head singing, “Eres aire que da vida, y mi alma te respira; eres aire que me alienta, una brisa que alimenta.”  That’s what I have to sing to el acordeonísta: you are the air that gives me life, and my soul breathes you; you are the air that encourages me, a breeze that feeds me.    


Skate Rink Memories

It was pouring rain outside the skate rink, and inside, the line was long and the corridor fogged and sweaty with kids wet from rain. Near the skate rentals, the smell was of rubber mats and dirty socks, and the boy behind the counter pulled out wads of dirty laces before plunking the skates on the counter. The benches were broken wooden things, at one time painted red and green, but now peeled mostly down to boards. Kids sat on them, pulling off their Nikes or K-Mart knock-off shoes, and lacing their brown skates with the frayed strands. Then they walked past the smoking closets, peering in surreptitiously to see what they could see of the older kids, who puffed away at forbidden cigarettes while clouds of smoke drifted out the open doors – a curious, sweet spicy smell of cloves mixed with the staleness of Marlboros and Camels.

Across from the closets was the café, and it was like a beacon – bright lights cast over orange booths and red and blue signs hung from the ceiling. Clutter covered the food counter: a popcorn machine filled with yellow corn, a jar of fat green pickles and another jar of red Twizzlers. The kids ordered hotdogs and fries with ketchup until their skin and pores were penetrated by the sour and sweet and greasy smells; they drank icy Cokes, syrupy sweet and sparkling at them with bubbles.

When they finally scooted over the worn, stained carpeting and back onto the rubber mats, they began to glide. Many of the boys wore special black skates, hockey skates they’d saved their allowance money to buy. Some of the girls wore special white skates, princess skates, but not very many. The timid girls split off and rolled down into the kiddie rink, where they pushed themselves off padded walls, tried to spin and turn, until they hit the other padded wall. The brave girls skated out into the big rink, where they ching-chinged their wheels over the glossy skate floor, taking care to avoid the show-off boys who raced around them before lowering themselves to a balance pose on one leg with the other leg straight out in front of them.

All over both rinks, the disco lights played and the music blasted out tired rock songs they’d heard thousands of times because the music selection was old and out of date. Really, no one listened to Lionel Richie anymore. Didn’t they know that? Some kids approached the DJ’s booth to request newer songs, but most wouldn’t dare to go near that high-up throne. The older boys who worked in the booth were cocky. They could do all the skating tricks the young boys could do, only better and, besides, they were the ones who could hoist you from the rink if you caused trouble.

That was the skate building, a worn building in a bad neighborhood with a big orange skate painted on the side that faced Sunset Highway. It sat next to the railroad tracks – and beyond that were blackberry brambles and cottonwood trees – beyond that were fields filled with rain and shadows. Shadows moved slowly; they seemed to roll along the tracks as though they were composed of the bad characters who roamed over the neighborhood. Crimes happened here and were rarely reported. One summer, a family that moved into a seedy rental unearthed the small skeleton of a young girl, and nobody had a clue that a young girl had ever gone missing.

After that, the police were all over the neighborhood that they normally avoided because it was better to leave well enough alone – let those people live as they would, and they needn’t involve themselves. The skeleton seemed to open something up, a new fear, an acknowledgment of the silent violence. The next thing the police knew, a fourteen-year-old girl reported that a local man had raped her. Everybody knew the man, knew he prowled like a lion at night, searching for prey. And though it seems unlikely that a skeleton should be the first to break the silence, that was the case – and the silence was broken forever.

The police began to roam through the neighborhood, to position themselves in the park at night, where rain and shadows met under enormous pine trees that could have hidden anything – monsters of the deep, instead of shady refuges for young children. Young children didn’t play in the park, hadn’t played there ever in the night, of course, but not in the day either, not for years. Rumors of drug deals and illicit sexual favors floated around. Some reported that, before the police began their own prowl, gang members practiced knife-throwing at the trees, where their blades sank deeply into the barky flesh.

And meanwhile, kids skated at the Skate World. Once they had their hands stamped, the bouncers wouldn’t let them come and go. Security was tight at the skate rink. It was the one place where parents felt they could drop their kids for awhile so they could get away by themselves, have a beer, maybe two or three. It was just odd that, all too often, the cocky young boys who worked in the DJ booth would open the back fire-exit door, the one that faced out on the railroad tracks, open it wide to allow in the fresh night air. Or so they claimed. But make no mistake, and never tell your parents, that the skate rink wasn’t the safe haven it was supposed to be. 
p.s. Spotted Owl pen and ink by A. Leon Miler


The Weight of Brightness

This morning, a call came through to remind me of my appointment at the ophthalmologist’s office. If I had recently made a doctor’s appointment, it was beyond my awareness.

“I’m busy this afternoon,” I told the receptionist, which was true. I meant to spend the afternoon at the library.

“This isn’t the kind of appointment that can be rescheduled,” she said, her voice snappish.

I stared at the remains of breakfast: eggs, hollowed grapefruit shells, an ounce of coffee. I watched the sun slice the clouds and beam pale winter light on the table. My vision blurred, and a headache stole up my neck, where it settled at the base of my skull.

I agreed to keep the appointment—I don’t know why. My vision was perfect, despite my head cold that gave me double sight—two phones, two coffee cups, and ten fingers on one hand.

I laid my head on my arms and fell asleep while considering my latest thesis statement: “This paper is meant to wake you up.” My eyes snapped open and slid closed again. No, that wasn’t it. It was much more complex than that, having to do with mitochondrial disarray and . . .

Later, I locked up my apartment and commanded myself to drive to the library. But I didn’t. Instead, my car coasted across the bridge and carried me into downtown, where I took a left on Broadway and entered a parking garage on the same block as the ophthalmologist’s office, which I’d never visited before, but there it was with a bright yellow eye and monocle painted on the window. As I passed the window to reach the door, I observed that the eye was a 3-D prism, painted in such a way that the pupil appeared to follow my movements—otherwise known as the phenomenon of the observer observed.

Inside, I sank into a chair and opened an outdated issue of Sky and Telescope. I was intent on reading an article on red dwarfs, but the receptionist informed me the doctor was waiting. I glanced at my watch, which I had precisely set by my cell phone. I was ten minutes early.

Magazine in hand, I followed the receptionist’s directions to enter the first room at right. A man in a doctoral lab coat sat on a standard stool while he studied the contents of a file. Surely, he didn’t have a file on me yet.

His face was like an old friend’s, though. The wiry blond curls that sprang from his head, the domed forehead and beaked nose—his familiarity niggled at me in that knowing and not knowing way. He raised his face and smiled, revealing two rows of square, horsey teeth. He was my high school history teacher, or the man’s doppelgänger. What an odd retirement job.

“Mr. Montpierre?”

“Call me Dr. Randall,” he said. “Put the magazine down and have a seat, please.”

“All right, but I don’t know what I’m doing here. I have 20-20 vision.”

“Says here you’re nearsighted.”

“You must have the wrong file.”

“No, I don’t think so. Why don’t you rest your forehead and look through this eyepiece, tell me what you see?” He pressed my head to the machine.

Wonder of wonders, I clearly saw an eye chart. I read off the rows of letters until he told me to stop. Then another chart appeared. I read off the first line, which contained black arrows moving in various directions, so I read them off as if I were a navigator: southeast, northwest, true north. The next row was composed of figures that might have been Egyptian hieroglyphs. My stomach churned in the same sick way it used to when I hadn’t studied properly for his history exams.

“It’s an Egyptian equation,” I guessed. “A math problem. Those birds represent numbers.” The figures disappeared. I raised my head and allowed my eyes to refocus. “See? I have perfect vision. All’s clear.”

He looked at me and shook his head sadly, as if I’d betrayed his faith in me.

“Didn’t I pass the test?”

He slid a pair of hideously unattractive bifocals from his coat pocket. “Try these,” he said.

“But I don’t need them.”

“Just try.”

He slipped them, a perfect fit, over my ears and rested them on my nose. The room snapped into focus. How had I not noticed the world was fuzzy before? And dark—the world was once dark, and now the air glowed as if touched everywhere by sizzling photons. I jumped from the chair and witnessed everything—every crag in his face, every looped fiber of the reddish-brown carpet, every spot on the ceiling. There were approximately 10,000 spots for every 4×4 ceiling tile. If I subtracted the light panels, there were . . .

Who cared? I had a world to explore. I left the examination room, wandered past the receptionist’s desk, and opened the door to the outside world, where the light flooded my new sight. I heard babbling behind me, but my ears were as dim as ever. Instead, the light sang to me, along with the world in every particular.

I heard yelling, but I didn’t listen, couldn’t make out the words anyway. I wandered up the hills and valleys of the sidewalk, following the edges of brightness until the sheer weight of it landed on my skin, and I collapsed.
I collapsed under the weight of brightness, the sheer bliss of it blindingly cold.

I pulled off the glasses, and the world dimmed and swooshed with noise, gagged me with the odor of mud and grass. I lay on the riverbank—on the verge.

I slid the glasses back on, sat up on the wet grass and stared at the water because it lapped with complexity, much more than being awake, much more than mitochondrial disarray.

Only one thought dulled my pleasure at such minute beauty: I wouldn’t reach the library this afternoon, and perhaps never again. It would take me too long to get there.