To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Year 3: Part 2: Post 2: Piano Men

The spring semester has started. I like my classes so far, and I start my part-time job next week. I'll talk about all that later. Right now, I want to talk about Philosopher's Stone Soup.

As you might remember, this is an extra-curricular activity of sorts lead by Allen and sometimes Kit. It's a kind of pot-luck dinner and discussion group, except we bring ingredients rather than dishes and we cook together. And Allen's discussions always end with everyone knowing less than they thought they knew before. Some people use philosophy and reason to achieve knowledge and understanding--Allen uses them to plumb the limits and inadequacies of rational knowledge. It's oddly like being sharpened, like a person might sharpen a pencil, but  we all have fun at it anyway.

So, the warm weather has continued. All the snow is gone and the mud is starting to dry. It might not last, but we've all wanted to spend as much time outside as possible, so this week we had Philosopher's Stone Soup outside, like we do in summer.

Most of the usual people, like Ebony and the two Ravens were there, plus two yearlings, maybe about ten people total, though some arrived late and others left early. Surprisingly, Charlie showed up. He doesn't usually, in part because he and Kit don't get along well and she usually does attend. She was there this week, but they ignored each other. With Charlie came Rick, who also doesn't usually attend because he doesn't get along well with most people. He brings interesting ingredients when he does show up, though--in this case, home-made venison jerky.

We had two other unusual guests, too, Alexis and David, Allen's youngest and oldest children.The middle one, Julie, was apparently at a sleep-over. Alexis is almost six now. When I met her she was a toddler, and I rarely see her so I got it stuck in my head that she was a toddler still, but of course she isn't. Her special ingredient for the feast was a bag of marshmallows and Allen sent her off to cut marshmallow sticks from a willow tree on the other side of campus.

"Last year she didn't know one bird from the next and now she can recognize tree species?" I asked.

"Genera, anyway," Allen said. "I don't think she can tell one willow from another. Somebody told her that willow is the best for marshmallow sticks because the inner bark is edible and now she won't use anything else."

"Well, it's true," said Charlie, a little defensively.

"We could just use barbecue forks," said David, a bit testily, as though irritated by his family's silliness.

"Would you want to?" his father asked him.

"No," the boy admitted. He had his knife out to sharpen his stick already. "She knows some of her birds now, too," he added. "I taught her."

Later, once we got the food on (a kind of spring stew, bubbling away on the outdoor grill), Allen brought out his guitar and started strumming it casually while the rest of us talked, playing with the tuning. He's not a great musician, nor is he an especially good singer, but he loves making music anyway. Kit had her violin out (it's more portable than her preferred instrument, her cello), but she didn't play it.

After a while, Allen got his guitar in tune and he started to play and sing quietly.

It's nine o'clock on a Saturday
The regular crowd shuffles in. 
There's an old man sitting next to me
making love to his tonic and gin.

Most of us stopped talking to listen and to watch him play, though not everybody did. He wasn't giving a concert.

I'm not a big Billy Joel fan, but of course I'm familiar with the song. I kind of like it. It's very well crafted, lyrically. The thing is, it's always seemed very dark to me. When Billy Joel sings it, it sounds like this indictment of his own audience, like he is passing judgment on all these hopeless people, glorying in his power over them, his ability to draw in a crowd...maybe he is indicting himself, too. That's what I hear, anyway. I've never known whether he's actually singing about himself or if the piano man is a character, maybe who he thinks he would have been had things not worked out for him.

Allen sang it completely differently. His voice was softer, gentler, like he could see all those hopeless, suffering people and feel compassion for them, like as the piano man he was doing his best to help, and knew his music couldn't do very much, but it was all he could offer and maybe all these people could accept.

I hadn't thought of it before, but of course Allen is a kind of piano man. He got his start as a magician in Key West playing for crowds in Mallory Square and he's talked about how fascinated he was to discover that magic could address some kind of need in people. He still performs for hospice and hospital patients, for nursing home residents, for people in pain, one way or another. He offers what he can.

Not long after he finished singing and put his guitar down, David stood up, and sang "You May Be Be Right." After a couple of bars, Kit started accompanying him on the violin (did you know a violin can play rock and roll? I didn't) and he jumped up on one of the picnic tables and sang into a carrot as though it were a microphone.

He's thirteen now, and sprouting fast. He's already as tall as Allen, and he's clearly going to get taller. His voice hasn't changed yet, but I'm sure it will, soon. He's starting to look like a teenager, not a kid, and he has a natural stage presence--so does Allen, but David's is edgier, sexier. Once his voice changes and he finishes puberty, he'll look like a rock star.

I don't think the progression of his adolescence is irrelevant. The song he chose--the lyrics seem calculated to frighten a parent:

And you told me not to drive
But I made it home alive
So you said that only proves that I'm insane 

And when the son of a psychologist sings

If I'm crazy then it's true
That it's all because of you
And you wouldn't want me any other way

It's not too hard to guess that something is going on.

We gave David the rock and roll audience he seemed to want, clapping and shouting, and when the boy was done he grinned, hopped down from the table, and started eating his carrot. Allen stood and walked over to his son and clasped his hand like a biker, congratulating him on a good performance.

"I don't think you're crazy," Allen told his son, quietly. "You're a teenager, and a fine young man."

For the rest of the evening, Allen seemed subdued, thoughtful. He didn't direct the conversation as much as he normally does. When we'd finished our marshmallows and finally began to disperse,  Allen asked David if he wanted to head home.

"I'd love your company," he clarified, "but you don't need a baby-sitter anymore. I imagine you have things you want to do."

I should point out that the family commutes by bicycle, not by car.

"Yeah, I guess I'll head home," said David, quite casually, though he'd looked quite shocked for a moment. "You want me to take Alexis?"

"If you think you can keep an eye on her on the road, then ask her what she wants to do."

"It's pretty dark. I guess I'd rather leave her with you."

"Good idea. Call me when you get in, ok? Leave a message if no one picks up."

"Got it, Dad. See you Saturday."

"See you."

And David walked off by himself into the night. As soon as the boy turned his back I could see the tension break out on Allen's face. He took a big breath, picked up his daughter, and kissed her.

As Ebony and I walked back to the Mansion, she broached the subject of what had just happened.

"Was that some kind of Unitarian Bar Mitzvah?" she asked. I had to agree that it might have been.

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