"Fire is motion / Work is repetition / This is my document / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all defenses."

- Cap'N Jazz, "Oh Messy Life," Analphabetapolothology

Friday, February 29, 2008

"learning to bend"

a weird thing happened today as i was sitting at work in the computer lab, flipping between my favorite local online radio stations, WRFL and WOXY.

as i usually do, i perked up when i heard the DJ begin to introduce a local act, a young musician from Louisville, KY who's beginning to make a big name for himself. but when i heard the name "Ben Sollee" i practically leapt out of my seat and ran over to the computer to max up the volume and make sure i was hearing things properly. 'Ben Sollee?!' i thought to myself, and somehow, not as surprised as i feel i should have been, i sat back down and closed my eyes, while in my mind i was being rip-chorded back to 1997...

i was just a 6th grader at Winburn Middle School in Lexington, KY, starting a traumatic foray into public school (a huge difference from my Montessori educational beginnings), in one of the poorest parts of town. i was hapless, unbearably shy, puny and confused, unused to being picked on or mocked for my lack of concern for the most popular fashions or brand name clothes. i was unaware that participation in certain activities, like band or orchestra (or Math Team), were shunned, derided, absolute social taboos. i just wanted to make music... i'd grown up playing piano, listening to classical music in the car with my parents, and loving Kenny G's sax on the weekends while my mom made food in the kitchen. i figured if they wouldn't let me play piano in middle school, i could try my hand at learning the violin.

and that's how it started. i remember taking the bus to school early every morning, nearly 2 hours before school started, waiting to be picked up a block from my house when the sun was still low in the sky and my breath was still a lingering mist in the early morning fog. i'd stand there - a comical sight - with my disproportionately large backpack and a violin case, wearing large glasses and "high-water" elastic-waisted hunter green pants and one of my mom's old sweatshirts. when the bus pulled into the school parking lot some 30-40 minutes later (we had to drive completely across town to get from my house to the school), i'd walk past the cafeteria full of detention'd students and bee-line into the orchestra room, where i felt - finally - happy. this small room was the only place i had at the time to feel physically and psychically safe within the walls of the school. as soon as i left, i would be sure to encounter all sorts of ugly manifestations of peer pressure and judgment (and racism), but here, especially in the early mornings when it was just me and a few other musical devotees, i felt safe and at home. finally, a place i belonged...

and that's how i remember meeting Ben. i was a 6th grader with no sense of style or self-confidence, and he was the totally cool 8th grader who everyone (myself included) admired. and the coolest thing about Ben was that he managed to exude utter cool without any sense of giving in to peer pressure. that's what i admired most about him. he came to school every week wearing some variation on the same outrageous outfit: overalls (one strap undone) and a cut-off t-shirt, the shoulders just a little too wide, and the bottom of it fringed and frayed, cut just a little too short so that it revealed a glimpse of his abs, which were just a little too fit for someone our age. and his hair, famously unkempt and wild, a mass of shocking blond curls, slightly eccentric looking, while at the same time charmingly nonchalant.

i'd come in every morning, throw down my books, and eagerly set into practicing scales, finger patterns, gently learning to wiggle my fingers enough to achieve a basic vibrato, practicing shifting from first to third positions, trying different rhythmic patterns to increase my speed (i was the fastest violinist in all 3 grades! we had a speed-playing competition which i won handedly). and Ben, who'd be playing around on several instruments at once, would come over to me with a stand and a sheet of music, and we'd start a jam session until the first bell rang.

in class, he'd be jumping between the cello (of which he was always uncontested first chair), bass, even violin and viola on occasion. he was a renaissance man, he could do it all, and with such vigor and enthusiasm that even if he didn't actually know how to play them all, he had us all fooled into believing him. all the girls i knew had huge crushes on him; he was so cute, so talented, so charming. i was too scared to admit to myself at the time that even i had noticed these things, had admired him from afar, that i liked him too. and not just in the middle-school-girl crushy kind of way, but just in general "liked" him. because no one could not like Ben. he was just so like-able.

anyway, i remember middle school as this overwhelmingly difficult time. kids get hormonal, they get confused, they hurt each other more than they might mean to, and sometimes they don't really regret it. middle school, i'm convinced, is probably one of the hardest times to be a kid. it's a jungle, for sure. but being in Orchestra somehow always made things better. and i'm not saying it was wholly because of Ben. of course i loved the music, loved mastering a new instrument, found joy playing in concert with my peers, etc. but it was also that wild hair, those overalls, and those early morning jam sessions, that made life a little more bearable.

so, i'm happy to extend my congratulations to an old friend. and i'm proud to say i knew him way back when...


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