Transcript

104:

Music Lessons
Transcript

Originally aired 06.05.1998

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/104

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Here's my seventh grade teacher's sad fate-- he trained as a classical musician, loved music, truly loved it. And then every working day, he surrounded himself with 13-year-olds who massacred the living guts out of it. Could not play it and did not care. It made him the angriest teacher I ever saw. He yelled all the time. This is what happens if you believe that music means something, is important, and you're surrounded all day long with 13- and 14-year-olds who demonstrate through their actions that maybe it's not.

I told Durrell Daniels about him and Durrell understood immediately. Durrell was once paid to teach band, but he had to quit because he looked at the facts at hand and came to the simple conclusion--

Durrell Daniels

I got out of band teaching because I noticed that all the band teachers I knew had went a little crazy. I mean, no disrespect intended, but you don't find too many, like, totally sane band teachers who have taught band for a long time. And I sort of saw myself going on the edge. And I said, well, no. I don't want to be whistling to myself at a wall, looking at apples that are not there, or something like that. Because it's sort of like-- no instrument sounds good when it's not played well. Trumpet was a pain. Saxophone was a pain. Clarinet was hell.

And another thing. The kids, when they get a trumpet, there's a difference between a kid singing and a kid getting a trumpet. You might can't sing, and you might be a little shy. No kid's going to be shy about blowing that horn no matter how bad they sound.

Ira Glass

As a professional musician, Durrell played jazz and funk and soul, keyboards and vocals. He's toured Asia and Brazil and Canada. He's done gigs in Paris. But four years ago, with kids to support of his own, he returned to a music job in the Chicago Public Schools in an elementary school.

Durrell Daniels

And we get these little records, Barney records. And we get up and do a little Barney dance. I'm like, this sucks.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

And you had already, at that point, you had toured. God, there should be a name for this, like for that moment.

Durrell Daniels

Misery. That's the name.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass, coming to you today from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, California, thanks to public radio station KQED in San Francisco. Today on our program, Music Lessons. What's frustrating about them, what's miraculous about them.

Act One, Papa Was not a Rolling Stone. David Sedaris tells what happens when a parent does not play an instrument and insists that his children take lessons. Act Two. Toccata and Fugue in Me, a Minor. Sarah Vowell recalls all the things that she learned in music class that had nothing to do with music. Act Three, Knockin' on Heaven's Door, in which Annie Lamott provides some much needed spiritual uplift to our program with an example of what we can learn from music now, all of us. Stay with us.

[APPLAUSE]

So imagine that you're an adult and you decide you want to express yourself through music. And the medium that you have to express yourself is 13- and 14- and 15-year-old kids. That is a very imprecise medium in which to apply your art. This week was especially hard on Durrell. He had to get one group of kids rehearsed to sing at one graduation ceremony and another group ready for another graduation ceremony and then there were some recitals to do.

And then the gospel choir, who usually is pride and joy kids, sort of fell apart on him. They were singing badly. They were arguing with him. He sat them down. He told them he was probably going to have to cancel their last concert of the year. But he would decide about it after one last rehearsal.

Durrell Daniels

My kids-- I was like, look, I'm tired. I'm tired. I've been working this stuff for you guys. And look, I can't sit here and argue with all you almost-grown kids all day long.

[KIDS REHEARSING]

All right. Come on. Let's get together.

Ira Glass

After school Tuesday, the gospel choir gathered in Lindblom's Auditorium, 22 girls and three boys, one boy who never seemed to sing at all.

Durrell Daniels

All right, you guys. Let's get into sections.

Ira Glass

Everybody was on their best behavior. They wanted to show Mr. Daniels that they could do the concert. And they began their practice the way that they always do, with a prayer.

Durrell Daniels

Father God, right now in the name of Jesus, God, we come thanking you, O God. We want to thank you for gathering us here, O God. We come against every spirit that's trying to hinder this choir right now in the name of Jesus.

Ira Glass

And then from the moment that they started to sing, they just soared. They were great.

Gospel Choir

[SINGING] Clap your hands.

Durrell Daniels

One, two, three, four!

Gospel Choir

Hey!

Ira Glass

Teaching music is like any teaching, except that when you fail, it is loud. And failure is so easy. Every note is a chance to mess up. After three songs, Mr. Daniels told the chorus that he would not cancel the concert. Now he just had to get through two graduations, their concert, and a couple of recitals, and he could have the summer to promote his new CD, which, like any real professional musician, he asked me to mention here on the radio.

Act One. Papa Was Not A Rolling Stone.

Ira Glass

Act One, Papa Was not a Rolling Stone. Children are asked to live the unlived lives of their parents nowhere more than music lessons. There the eager music students and then there are the reluctant music students. This is the story of somebody in the second group. Please welcome writer David Sedaris.

[APPLAUSE]

David Sedaris

My father loves jazz and has a substantial collection of records and reel-to-reel tapes he used to listen to after returning home from work each evening. He might have entered the house in a foul mood, but once he had his Dexter Gordon and a vodka martini, everything was beautiful, baby. Just beautiful. The moment the needle hit that record, he loosened his tie and became something other than a mechanical engineer with a pocket full of IBM pencils embossed with the word "think."

"Man, oh, man. Will you get a load of the chops on this guy? I saw him once at the Blue Note, and I mean to tell you that he blew me right out of my chair. You could take a hatchet and cut the man's lips right off his face, and still he would have played better than anyone else out there. That's how good he was!"

[LAUGHTER]

I'd nod my head, envisioning a pair of lips lying forsaken on the floor of some dressing room. The trick was to back slowly towards the hallway, escaping into the kitchen before my father could yell, "hey, get back here! Where do you think you're going? Sit down for a minute and listen. I mean, really listen."

How could you prove you were listening? It was as if he expected us to change color like the fuzz-colored ceramic rabbit our neighbor used to predict the weather. I often thought that my father might have been a musician himself had he not been born to immigrant parents who considered even wax-tipped shoelaces to be an extravagance. They listened only to Greek music, an oxymoron as far as the rest of the world was concerned.

[LAUGHTER]

Jazz was, in a sense, my father's own personal discovery. Denounced and forbidden by his parents, he hid his 78s and secretly drove into New York City, where he'd sit alive and enraptured at the feet of his heroes. The move to North Carolina was difficult, and he felt cut off with nothing but the Country and Top 40 radio stations Raleigh had to offer in the mid to late 1960s. Limited to his record collection, it became his dream that his children might fill the void by someday forming a jazz combo.

[LAUGHTER]

His plan took shape shortly after escorting my sisters Lisa, Gretchen, and I to the local state university to see Dave Brubeck, who was currently touring with his sons. The audience roared when Dave Brubeck stepped forth from behind the curtain, and I sat back, pretending those applauds were for me. A person had to do something while standing before a crowd of 600 people. And with this in mind, I'd been secretly working up a little routine. The act consisted of me dressed in a nice shirt and tie and performing a medley of commercial jingles in the voice of Billie Holiday.

[LAUGHTER]

For my Raleigh show, I'd probably open with the number used to promote our town's oldest shopping center. A quick nod to my accompanist and I'd begin with, [SINGING] "the excitement of Cameron Village will carry you a-way."

[LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE]

The beauty of my rendition was that it captured both the joy and the sorrow of a visit to Ellisburg's or JCPenney's. This would be followed by such sure-fire hits as the theme for Winston cigarettes and the catchy new Coke commercial. [SINGING] "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company."

[APPLAUSE]

I was lost in my fantasy, ignoring Dave Brubeck and coming up for air only when my father elbowed my ribs to say, "are you listening to this? These cats are burnin' the paint right off the walls!" Driving home from the concert that night, he had drummed his fingers against the steering wheel, saying, "did you hear that? The guy just gets better every day! There he was with his kids, the whole lot of them, jamming up a storm. What I wouldn't give for a family like that. You guys should think about putting an act together."

The following afternoon, he bought a baby grand piano. It sat neglected until my father signed Gretchen up for a series of lessons. Lisa was assigned the flute. And I returned home from a scout meeting one evening to find my instrument leaning against the aquarium in my bedroom. "So there she is," my father said. "Here's that guitar you always wanted." Surely he had me confused with someone else. While I had regularly petitioned for a brand-name vacuum cleaner, I had never said anything about wanting a guitar.

[LAUGHTER]

Nothing about it appealed to me. I had my room arranged just so, and it didn't fit in at all with the nautical theme.

[LAUGHTER]

I stuffed it into my closet and there it remained until he signed me up for private lessons. "But I'm sick!" I yelled, watching him pull out of the parking lot. "I don't want to play an instrument. Don't you know anything?" I lugged my guitar into the music shop, where the manager led me to my teacher, a temperamental midget named Mr. Mancini.

[LAUGHTER]

A fastidious dresser stuck in a small town, Mr. Mancini wore clothing I recognized from the young boys department at Hudson Belk's. Some nights he favored button-up shirts with clip-on ties, while other evenings I arrived to find him dressed in flared slacks and a snug turtleneck sweater, a swag of love beads hanging from his neck. His arms were manly and covered in coarse dark hair, but his voice was high and strange, as if it had been recorded and played back at a higher speed.

My fascination was both evident and unwelcome. He didn't ask my name, just lit a cigarette and squinted against the smoke. Like my father, Mr. Mancini assumed that anyone could play guitar. He had picked it up during a single summer spent in what he called "Hot-lanta, G-A." "Now that," he said, "is one classy city. You know what I mean? The girls down on Peachtree are running wild 24 hours a day."

"That's great," I said. He seemed to know that I was nothing special but just a type, another boy whose father had his head in the clouds.

"Let me show you what this instrument's all about." He climbed into his chair and began playing "Light My Fire." The current Top 40 version was performed by Jose Feliciano, a blind man whose plaintive voice served the lyric much better than Jim Morrison, who sang the song in what I considered to be a bossy and conceited tone of voice.

[LAUGHTER]

The was Jose Feliciano, Jim Morrison, and then there was Mr. Mancini, who played beautifully but sang "Light My Fire" as if he were a Webelos Scout searching for a match.

[LAUGHTER]

He finished his opening number, nodded his head in acknowledgement of my applause, and moved on, performing his own unique an unsettling versions of "The Girl From Ipanema" and "Little Green Apples," while I sat in my seat, a fault smile stretched so tight I lost all feeling in my jaw. My fingernails had grown a good three inches by the time he hit his final note and called me close to point out a few simple chords. Before leaving, he gave me some purple, mimeographed handouts which we both knew were useless.

Back at the house, my mother had my dinner warming in the oven. From the living room, I could hear the aimless whisper of Lisa's flute, which sounded much like the wind whipping through an empty Pepsi can.

[LAUGHTER]

Down in the basement, Gretchen was either practicing piano or the cat was chasing a moth across the keys. I was at the mall with my mother, afternoon, when I spotted Mr. Mancini reaching up to order a hamburger at Scotty's Chuckwagon, an open-air fast food restaurant located a few doors down from the music shop. He was standing on his tiptoes, and even then his head failed to reach the counter. Once he'd gotten his food, he carried his tray towards a vacant table facing the escalator. The passing adults shifted their gaze or smiled politely while their children were decidedly more overt. Toddlers ambled up on their chubby, bowed legs, embracing my teacher with their ketchup-smeared fingers.

It suddenly became clear that Mr. Mancini hated children. The only thing worse were the adolescents, the boys my age who sat at the surrounding tables poking fun and regurgitating their Scotty fries in laughter. Watching this scene from a distance, my first thought was hey, that's my midget. Hands off! The man was my discovery, not theirs. I'd always thought of him as a pocket Playboy, but watching him dip his hamburger into a puddle of mayonnaise, I broadened my view and saw him as a vulnerable loner, an outsider who scoffed not only at Raleigh but at the entire state of North Carolina. It was a persona I'd thought of adopting myself.

Looking at it this way, it seemed that Mr. Mancini and I actually had quite a bit in common. We were both men trapped in boys' bodies. There was no reason I shouldn't address him not as a teacher but as an artistic brother. If things worked out the way I hoped, maybe I could even use him as my accompanist.

The following evening, I showed up for my lesson. And this time, when asked if I'd practiced, I told the truth, saying in a matter-of-fact tone of voice that no, I had not touched the thing since the last session. I told him that I had absolutely no interest in mastering the guitar. What I really wanted to do was sing in the voice of Billie Holiday, mainly commercials, but not for any banks or car dealerships, because those are usually choral arrangements. The color ebbed from my teacher's face. I told him I'd been working up an act and could use a little accompaniment. Did he know the jingle for the new Sara Lee campaign?

[LAUGHTER]

He acted as though I had instructed him to do something unspeakable perverse. "You want me to what?" I was certain he was lying when he told me he didn't know the tune. Doublemint gum, Ritz crackers, the themes for Alka-Seltzer and Kenmore appliances, he claimed ignorant on all counts. I knew that it was queer to sing in front of someone, but seeing as he'd been doing it for weeks, I started in on an a cappella version of the latest Oscar Mayer commercial hoping he might join in once the spirit moved him.

With a total disregard for his company, I sang the same way I did at home when alone in my bedroom. My eyes shut tight and my hands moving in a useless and crippled fashion. [SINGING] "My bologna has a first name. It's O-S-C-A-R. My bologna has a second name. It's M-A-Y-E-R. Oh, I love to eat it every day. And if you ask me why, I'll say that Oscar Mayer has a way with B-O-L-O-G-N-A."

[APPLAUSE]

I reached the end of the tune, thinking he might take this as an opportunity to applaud or maybe even apologize for underestimating me. But instead, he held up his hand, saying, "hey guy, I'm not into that scene. There were plenty of screwballs like you back in Atlanta. And I don't know, I guess it's your thing, or whatever, but you can definitely count me out."

My father was disappointed when I told him I wouldn't be returning for any more lessons. Luckily my sisters were as fed up as I was, and we approached him together, saying that the Sedaris trio had officially dismantled. He offered to find us better teachers, adding in that if we were unhappy with our instruments, we could always trade them in for something livelier. "The trumpet or saxophone or hey, how about the vibes?" He reached for a Lionel Hampton album, saying, "let me play you a little something I think you're going to love."

We told him, no Dad, don't bother. But still, he readied the stereo, holding the record to the light and examining it for dust. "I'm telling you that this record is going to change your life. And if it doesn't, I'll give each one of you $5. How do you like that?"

It was a tough call. Five dollars for listening to a Lionel Hampton album. Yet we knew that there were certainly strings attached. We looked at each other, my sisters and I. And then we left the room, failing to respond as he yelled, "hey, where do you think you're going? Get back in here and listen!" We joined our mother at the TV and never looked back. The music was his great fantasy, not ours.

That night, as was his habit, our father fell asleep in front of the stereo, the record making its pointless, silent rounds as he laid back against the sofa cushions dreaming. Thank you.

[APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

David Sedaris is the author of several books. His book of stories, Naked, just came out in paperback. Coming up, Sarah Vowell marches, Anne Lamott prays. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues. It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of different writers and performers to tackle that theme. Today we come to you from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, California.

[APPLAUSE]

Today's program, Music Lessons. What makes them so great, what makes them so terrible, what we really, really, really learn from them. We have arrived at Act Two of our program.

Act Two. Toccata and Fugue In Me, a Minor.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Toccata and Fugue in Me, a Minor. As a teenager growing up in Montana, Sarah Vowell was not casual about music lessons. She was not reluctant about music lessons. Music became her life. She was in marching band, band 1, symphony band, jazz band, pep band, orchestra, and the Bozeman Recorder Ensemble. She's now a music writer and one of our contributing editors at This American Life. Please welcome her.

[APPLAUSE]

Sarah Vowell

It was autumn in America, a fine, hot, Indian Summer day. Pretty high school girls sat on bleachers with the sun shining on their pretty hair, watching handsome high school boys play football. And then it was halftime, which is where I came in. I was standing in line in my silver spats down past the end zone waiting to go on. I was in 11th grade. I was in marching band.

I had a foot-tall, fake fur, black hat with the vaguely-processed-food-named shako strapped under my chin that not only prevented me from breathing, it prevented me from balancing, so that even though my job was to march around as some kind of sick metaphor for teenage military precision, I moved through time and space with the grace and confidence of a puppy walking on a beach ball.

[LAUGHTER]

Because of my double shortage of strength and coordination, I barely passed gym. But somehow I was supposed to lift a baritone horn that measured twice my body weight, blow into it while reading microscopic sheet music, step in a straight line while remembering left foot on beats one and three, right foot on beats two and four, and maneuver myself into cute, visual formations like the trio of stick figures when we played the theme from My Three Sons.

[LAUGHTER]

And then, halfway through the halftime program, I had to break formation, drop my baritone horn on the field, and sprint to the 50-yard line, a long haul, with everyone in the band, everyone in the bleachers, everyone on the sidelines watching and waiting, silent and still. And then I picked up my mallets. This is what they had been waiting for, a xylophone solo on a little Latin-flavored number called, "Tico-Tico."

[LAUGHTER]

My polo-shirt-clad nemesis, Andy Heap, stood up in the stands screaming, "Vowell, Vowell, woo, woo!" as the laughter of his friends-- at me-- drowned out the horn section. This was the same Andy Heap, I might add, who earlier in the week in music history class had delivered an oral report on Tchaikovsky's mistress and referred to her as Mimi throughout, even though her name was Nadia. Andy Heap was apparently smart enough to publicly humiliate me during "Tico-Tico," he just wasn't smart enough to know that the abbreviation M-M-E-period stands not for Mimi but the title "Madame."

[LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE]

Anyway, I only had a second to stick out my tongue at Andy when I finished because I had to let go of the mallets, rush over to my baritone-- again the freeze-framed spectators, the loneliness of the long distance runner, --and I'm back in formation with the low brass for the finale. And I was getting academic credit for this. I was getting graded to wear that uniform, to play those songs. Which begs the question, what exactly was I supposed to be learning? What was marching band supposed to teach me?

And marching is not a particularly applicable skill in later life. And ditto all the other handy things music classes taught me-- the E-flat minor scale, the alternate fingering for D-sharp. Here, then, some of the lessons, actually useful ones, I accidentally learned while pursuing music.

Accidental lesson number one-- Marxism for 10th graders. Once a week, the best band kids played with the orchestra. I played the bass drum in orchestra, which meant that I never got to play. My participation ratio was something like 75 measures of rest per one big bass wallop, which gave me plenty of time to contemplate the class warfare of the situation. And here's what I figured out. Orchestra kids wore tuxedos. Band kids wore tuxedo t-shirts. And the orchestra kids, with their brown woolens and Teutonic last names had the well-scrubbed, dark blond aura of a Hitler youth brigade. These were the sons and daughters of Humanities professors. They took German. They actually played soccer. Dumping the fluorescent t-shirts of the band kids into the orchestra each week must have looked like tossing a handful of Skittles into a bowl of Swiss chocolates.

[LAUGHTER]

But nothing brings kids together like hate. And the one thing the band kids and the orchestra kids had in common was a unified disgust for the chorus kids, who were to us merely drama geeks with access to four-part harmony.

[LAUGHTER]

A shy violin player wasn't likely to haunt the halls between classes playing "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" any more than a band kid would blare "Land of a Thousand Dances" on his tuba more than three inches outside the band room door. But that didn't stop the choir girls from making everyone temporarily forget their locker combinations thanks to an impromptu, uncalled-for burst of "Brigadoon."

[LAUGHTER]

Andy Heap? Chorus.

[LAUGHTER]

Accidental discovery number two. Where's Walter? My junior high had an electronic music lab. We made tape loops and learned words like quadraphonic. In my spare time, you know just for fun, I checked out all the books on electronic music from the library. My favorite records for a while there were Walter Carlos' concept album "Switched-On Bach" and its sequel, "The Well-Tempered Synthesizer," which offered what I thought were hilariously witty covers of Bach classics performed on-- get this-- a Moog synthesizer.

In my readings on electronic music, something puzzled me. Every time I'd look into Walter Carlos, the information would just stop and someone named Wendy Carlos would turn up. I got to school early one morning to ask my electronic music teacher what happened to Walter, and was Wendy Walter's wife or daughter? And my teacher kind of didn't answer for a long time. And then he blurted out, "uh, Wendy is Walter." What did he mean?

[LAUGHTER]

"Uh, Walter-- Walter had a sex change operation and changed his name to Wendy."

"What's a sex change operation?"

[LAUGHTER]

Now, I know it's hard to capture now, here, in San Francisco--

[LAUGHTER]

--what a shock this was. I knew absolutely nothing about sex. We didn't talk about sex in my house and Sex Ed wasn't scheduled until spring. I was a wholesome, small town, Christian kid engaged in wholesome, small town, Christian pursuits. And suddenly, bam, I'm standing at the corner of Sodom and Gomorrah and where's my street map?

[LAUGHTER]

That Walter Carlos. I hadn't even recovered from the shock that Bach could be messed with.

[LAUGHTER]

Number three, biology as destiny. In seventh grade, I started band. I wanted to play the drums. My parents, who lived with me, as was the custom in Montana, did not want me to play the drums.

[LAUGHTER]

So I picked the next loudest instrument, the trumpet. How I loved my trumpet, the feel of it in my hands, its very volume and shine. You know what I especially loved? The spit valve. In eighth grade, a teacher told me about this good old trumpet player I might like, so I went out and bought one of his records. And every night for over a year I went to sleep listening to it, the same songs over and over, trying to figure out why Louis Armstrong was so funny, so moving, so good. And I got caught up in this superstar talent of his right around the time I was beginning to suspect that I didn't have it, talent, I mean.

And there was another problem too, which I discovered about three years into my trumpet career. I found out the reason I was getting a shoddy tone and I had trouble hitting the high notes was because of the shape of my jaw. The shape of my jaw. I felt the world was more or less over. I was outraged that a person's fate could depend on something as arbitrary as the angles of her teeth. And not only that, I had to switch to a brass instrument with a bigger mouthpiece, the baritone horn. The baritone horn. Like, trumpets are played by Miles Davis and baritones are played by-- nobody.

[LAUGHTER]

Lesson number four, when doves cry. From the time I was 12 until I finished high school at 18, my poor parents' calendar was blackened by an ambitious roster of concerts and recitals averaging at least one per month. They were always so gushy in their support it never dawned on me that they might have preferred to avoid junior high school gymnasium performances of the theme from Rocky. They acted as though their world revolved around my sister and me, and that's what we believed.

But I remember one night after an eighth grade band concert, I caught a glimpse of pencil marks on my father's rolled up program. He told me that he checked each movement of each piece off as they ended.

[LAUGHTER]

Obviously because he was counting the seconds until he could go home. And at the time, I took it badly. I was offended that he had so little regard for the seriousness of our interpretation of "What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor?" But now I see those pathetic little check marks as heart-shaped symbols of his love. Everyone says that love requires the utmost honesty, but that's not entirely true. Once I knew that my father was suffering for my sake, really suffering, I learned that love, especially the parental kind, requires the heartwarming sacrifice that can only accompany fake enthusiasm.

[LAUGHTER]

Number five, birth of cool. So I was doomed at the trumpet, acceptable at the baritone, shaky on this xylophone, and putrid on the piano. But there is one instrument for which I had an innate knack, an instrument I could play with some semblance of grace. It was, unfortunately, an instrument which was already on its way out during the lifetime of J.S. Bach-- the recorder. I taught myself to play it when I was 11, and by 14, I was perhaps the youngest member of the American Recorder Society, reading their journal, The American Recorder, and practicing the Elizabethan and Baroque music I special ordered with my babysitting money.

I found out about an amateur ensemble that met once a week in my town playing mostly Elizabethan standards like "It Was a Lover and His Lass" at a tempo marked on the metronome as "Post Office slow." The members of the Bozeman Recorder Ensemble, as we were called, included a retired high school music teacher, two math professors, and a number of housewives, one of whom had a daughter in my grade. I was the only member under the age of 40, and most of them would have been eligible for the senior citizen discount at the music store. I played with them for a couple of years until my pals Margaret and Leota and I broke off to form our own trio.

[LAUGHTER]

The three of us just plain liked each other, liked playing. At school, in all those hours of actual classes with actual teachers, music felt more like a job. Playing with Leota and Margaret was the first time, the only time, I actually enjoyed playing music. And here's a little Elizabethan song we used to do called "Willow, Willow," which-- this is actually my first public performance since the Reagan administration.

[LAUGHTER]

Which I was kind of looking forward to. And on my way here, I was walking down Market, and there was this guy on the street playing the recorder. And I kind of got a glimpse of what that looks like.

[LAUGHTER]

I'm a little less sure. So this is "Willow, Willow" from a manuscript in the British museum.

[PLAYING RECORDER]

[APPLAUSE]

Now, imagine playing that on the street with your two friends who happen to be older than your parents. And you look up from your music stand and notice one of your schoolmates staring on in horror-- Andy Heap, for instance. But you know what? You don't care. You might even smile at him. And this is the most important lesson of marching band, of public displays of recorder-- to withstand embarrassment. Maybe even seek it out. To take nerdiness to its most dizzying, "Willow, Willow," "Tico-Tico" extremes--

[LAUGHTER]

--and stand before my peers with my head held high, to stick out my tongue at the Andy Heaps of the world, run back to the baritone horn of life, and blow mighty and proud.

[APPLAUSE]

(HOST) SARAH VOWELL: Thank you.

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell is the music columnist for the online magazine Salon and the author of Radio On.

[APPLAUSE]

Bandleader

One, two, three--

[MUSIC - CHILDREN FROM THE SAN FRANCISCO UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT]

Act Three. Knockin' On Heaven's Door.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Knockin' on Heaven's Door. In this act, we turn from formal music lessons to what it is that music can actually teach us today now, outside the classroom. Anne Lamott is the only writer in our show today who actually lives in the San Francisco area. The author of many books, please welcome her.

[APPLAUSE]

Anne Lamott

Thank you. So there I was on a plane returning home from St. Louis. Or rather, there I was in a plane on the runway at the airport in St. Louis, with, I think, the not unreasonable expectation that we would be in the air soon as our flight had already been delayed two hours. I was anxious to get home, as I had not seen Sam in several days. But all things considered, I thought I was coping quite well, especially because I am a skeptical and terrified flier. In between devouring Hershey's chocolates and $13 worth of trashy magazines, I had spent the two hours of the delay trying to be helpful to the other stranded passengers. I distributed all my magazines and most of my chocolates, I got an old man some water, I flirted with babies, I mingled, I schmoozed, I was Geoffrey Rush in Shine.

[LAUGHTER]

I had seen what may have been a miracle at my church recently. I had been feeling ever since that I was supposed to walk through life with a deeper faith, a deeper sense of assurance that if I took care of God's children for God, He would take care of me. My only hope was that nothing else go wrong, that once we were on board, everything runs smoothly. My idea of everything running smoothly on an airplane is that once it is in the air, A, I not die in a slow-motion fiery crash or get stabbed to death by terrorists. And that B, none of the other passengers try to talk to me.

[LAUGHTER]

We finally got to board. I was in row 38 between a woman slightly older than I with limited language skills and a man my own age who was reading a book by a famous right-wing Christian novelist about the apocalypse. A newspaper had asked me to review it when it first came out because this author and I are both Christians, although, as I pointed out in my review, he's one of those right-wing Christians who think that Jesus is coming back sometime next Tuesday right after lunch, and I am one of those left-wing Christians who think that perhaps the author is just spiritualizing his hysteria.

[LAUGHTER]

Also, I suggested in my review that he has the tendency to be a little rigid. "How is it?" I ask, pointing jovially to his book, partly to be friendly and partly to gauge where he stood politically.

"This is one of the best books I've ever read," he replied. "You should read it." I nodded. I remember saying in the review that it was hardcore, right-wing paranoid, anti-semitic, homophobic, misogynistic propaganda.

[LAUGHTER]

Not to put too fine a point on it.

[LAUGHTER]

He smiled and went back to reading. I couldn't begin to guess what country the woman was from, although I think it's possible that she had one Latvian parent and one Korean. She sounded a little Latka, the Andy Kaufman character on Taxi, except when things began to fall apart, when she sounded just like the space men in Mars Attacks! "Ack! Ack! Ack!," she'd cry. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

As we sat there on the runway, the man reading the book about the apocalypse commented on the small gold cross I wear on a necklace. "Are you born again?" He asked as we taxied down the runway. He was rather prim and tense, maybe a little like David Eisenhower with a spastic colon.

[LAUGHTER]

I did not know how to answer for a moment. "Yes," I said, finally, "I am." My friends like to tell each other that I am not really a born-again Christian. They think of me more along the lines of that old Jonathan Miller routine when he said, "I'm not really a Jew. I'm Jew-ish."

[LAUGHTER]

They think I'm Christian-ish. But I'm not. I'm just a bad Christian. A bad born-again Christian. And certainly, like the apostle Peter, I am capable of denying it, of presenting myself as a sort of leftist, liberation theology enthusiast, and maybe sort of vaguely Jesus-y bon vivant.

[LAUGHTER]

But it's not true. And I believe when you get on a plane, if you start lying, you are screwed unto the very Lord.

[LAUGHTER]

So I told the truth, that I'm a believer, a convert. I'm probably about three months away from slapping an aluminum Jesus fish on the back of my car. Although I first want to see if the application or Stickum in any way interferes with my lease agreement.

[LAUGHTER]

I just love the guy. I just love Jesus. It's that simple. Anyway, as the plane taxied out to the runway, the man on my right began telling me about how he and his wife were home schooling their children. And he described with enormous acrimony the radical, free-for-all, feminist, artsy-feely philosophy of his county school system. And I knew instantly that this description was an act of aggression against me, that he was telepathic onto me, could see that I am the enemy, that I will be on the same curling team in Heaven as Tom Hayden and Vanessa Redgrave.

[LAUGHTER]

But suddenly the plane braked to a stop. We all looked around for a moment, and then the captain came on the PA system and announced calmly that two passengers wanted to get off the plane right then and there. We were headed back to the gate. "What?" we all cried. The good news was that this was only going to take a minute or so, since in the past two hours we'd only gotten about 500 feet. The bad news was that FAA regulations dictated that all of the stowed luggage had to be gone over by security to make sure these people had not accidentally left behind their pipe bombs.

The Latvian woman stared at me quizzically. I explained very slowly and very loudly what was going on. She gaped at me for a moment. "Ack," she whispered.

[LAUGHTER]

Eventually, the three of us in row 38 began to read. And an hour later, the plane finally took off again. We, the citizens of row 38, all ordered sodas. The Latvian woman put on a Walkman and began to listen with her eyes closed. The Christian man read his book about the apocalypse. I read The New Yorker. Then the seat belt sign came on and the pilot came back on over the PA system. "I'm afraid we're about to hit some really heavy turbulence," he said. "Please return to your seats."

A moment later the plane began bouncing around so hard that we had to hold on to our drinks. "Ack! Ack! Ack!" said the Latvian, grabbing for her Sprite. "Everyone take your seat!" the pilot literally barked over the PA system. "We are in for some rough going." My heart bounced around like a jumping bean. The plane rose and fell and shook, and the pilot came back on and said sternly, like an angry dad, "flight attendants, sit down now!"

[LAUGHTER]

And the plane hit those waves and currents of air on the choppy sea of sky, and we bounced and moaned and gasped. "Whoa," we all said, as one, like we were on a roller coaster ride. We're going down, I thought. I know a basic tenet of the Christian faith is that death is really just a major change of address--

[LAUGHTER]

--but I had to close my eyes to squinch back tears of terror and loss. Oh my god, I thought. Oh my god. I'll never see Sam again. This will kill me a second time. The plane bucked and shook without stopping, and the Christian read calmly, stoically, rather pleased with himself it seemed to my tiny, hysterical self. The Latvian closed her eyes and turned up her Walkman. I could hear it playing softly.

And I, praying for another miracle, thought about the one I had just seen. It took place at my church, where one of our newer members, a man named Ken, is dying of AIDS, disintegrating before our very eyes. He came in a year ago with a Jewish woman who comes every week to be with us, although she does not believe in Jesus. Shortly after the man with AIDS started coming, his partner died of the disease. A few weeks later, he said that right then and there, in the hole in his heart that Brandon's death left, Jesus slid in and had been there ever since. This man has a totally lopsided face, ravaged, emaciated. And when he smiles, he's radiant. He looks like God's crazy nephew Phil.

[LAUGHTER]

He said that he would gladly pay any price for what he has now, which is Jesus and us. There's a woman in the choir named Renola, a beautiful black woman who is smart and jovial and sweet and as devout as can be but who has also been a little standoffish towards Ken, if you ask me. She's always looked at him with confusion, when she looks at him at all, in his goofy, ravaged joy. Or she looks at him sideways. She was raised by Baptists in the Midwest who must have thought that his way of life, that he, was an abomination.

Maybe it was hard for her to break through this. Maybe on the most visceral level, she was a little afraid of catching the disease. I'm not sure. But anyway, Kenny has come to church almost every week for the last year and won almost everyone else over. He missed a couple of Sundays a while ago because he was too weak to come. And then a month ago, he came back, weighing almost no pounds, his face even more lopsided, as if he's had a stroke. But during the Prayers of the People, he talked joyously of his life and his decline, of how safe and happy he feels these days.

So on this one particular Sunday, for the first hymn, the so-called morning hymn, we sang "Jacob's Ladder," which goes "every rung goes higher, higher." But Kenny couldn't stand. But he sang away, sitting down, with a hymnal in his lap. And then when it came time for the second hymn, the fellowship hymn, we sang "His Eye is on the Sparrow." I noticed that Ken still couldn't stand up to sing. The pianist was playing and the whole congregation had risen. And only Ken remained seated, holding the hymnal in his lap.

And Renola watched him rather skeptically for a moment. And then her face began to melt and contort like his. And she went to his side and bent down to lift him up, lifted up this white rag doll, this scarecrow. She held him next to her and he was draped over and against her like a child. And they sang. And it pierced me.

I can't imagine anything else but music that could have brought about this alchemy. How is it that you have a chord here and then another chord there and then your heart breaks open? I don't know the answer. Maybe it's that music is about as physical as it gets. Your essential rhythm is your heartbeat. Your essential sound, the breath. We're walking temples of noise. And when you add the human heart to this mix, it somehow lets us meet on a bridge we couldn't get to any other way.

Back on board, little by little, the plane grew steadier. And the pilot came back on to say that everything was OK. I was so excited that we were not going to crash and that I might actually get to see Sam again that I started feeling mingle-y. I suddenly wanted to be new best friends with a Christian man. But just when I opened my mouth, the pilot came back on the PA system and asked if there was a doctor on board. The woman behind us who turned out to be a nurse got up and went back to investigate. The Christian man prayed. I tried to rubberneck but I couldn't see a thing.

[LAUGHTER]

I went back to thinking about Ken in my church, and how on that Sunday Ken, of whom Renola had been so skeptical, was trying to sing. But then he and Renola both began to cry. Tears were pouring down their faces, and their noses were running like rivers. But as she held him up, she suddenly lay her black, weeping face against his feverish white face, put hers right up against his, and let all those spooky fluids mingle with her. He looked like a child in her arms who was singing because tiny children just sing all the time because they haven't made all the separations between speech and music. So he sang and she held him up. And she sang and he held her up.

When the nurse sitting beside us returned to row 39, it was with the news that a woman in the back was having a heart attack. A heart attack. I ask you. But there were doctors on hand and the nurse thought the woman was going to be OK. "Good lord," said the Christian man. We looked at each other and sighed. We shook our heads and continued to look at each other. "God," I said, "I just hope the snakes don't get out of the cargo hold."

[LAUGHTER]

The prim, apocalyptic Christian man smiled. Then he laughed out loud. The Latvian woman started laughing then, although she still had her Walkman on. And while I hate to look like I'm enjoying my own jokes too much, I started laughing too. The three of us sat there in hysterics. And when we were done, the man reached over and patted the back of my hand, smiling gently. The Latvian woman leaned in close to me, into my Soviet air space, and--

[LAUGHTER]

--she beamed. I leaned forward so that our foreheads touched for just a second. I thought, I do not know if what happened at church was an honest-to-God little miracle. And I don't know if there has been another one here, the smallest possible sort. But now I felt like I was sitting with my cousins on a plane eight miles up, a plane that was going to make it home. And it made me so happy that I suddenly thought, this is plenty of miracle for me to rest in now.

Renola Garrison

[SINGING "HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW"]

Ira Glass

Anne Lamott is the author of Bird by Bird, Operating Instructions, and most recently, Crooked Little Heart. Singing from Renola Garrison and the pianist is Anne Jefferson, both of them from Anne's church.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself, with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Senior editor Paul Tough. Contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Engineering by Joe Hunter.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

Our show was produced for the stage by Kate Boyd and the Solo Mio Festival. Addition music by David Riera. WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. I'm Ira Glass. It has been such a thrill being here. Back next week with more stores of This American Life.

[APPLAUSE]

Today's program was first broadcast in 1998. This American Life was distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.