Friday, July 15, 2016

His Mark

Without saying a word, Queequeg, in his wild sort of way, jumped upon the bulwarks, from thence into the bows of one of the whale-boats hanging to the side; and then bracing his left knee, and poising his harpoon, cried out in some such way as this:—

“Cap’ain, you see him small drop tar on water dere?  You see him?  well, spose him one whale eye, well, den!” and taking sharp aim at it, he darted the iron right over old Bildad’s broad brim, clean across the ship’s decks, and struck the glistening tar spot out of sight.

“Now,” said Queequeg, quietly hauling in the line, “sposee him whale-e eye; why, dad whale dead.”

“Quick, Bildad,” said Peleg, his partner, who, aghast at the close vicinity of the flying harpoon, had retreated towards the cabin gangway.  “Quick, I say, you Bildad, and get the ship’s papers.  We must have Hedgehog there, I mean Quohog, in one of our boats.”

I used to dream that one day I would be marked out and plucked from obscurity and, if I am going to be completely honest, I dream of it still.  When I was young the dream involved my singing voice.  I hoped that it was beautiful.  I had read in a child’s biography of Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind being discovered by an impresario wandering by her open window and I thought it might happen the same way for me.  And so it came to be that one evening at Tanglewood I lay with my family on a blanket, singing along to whatever the orchestra was playing—I can’t imagine what classical piece I knew that well—when we were approached by a man and a woman who had been seated with some friends nearby. 

“Your daughter has a beautiful singing voice,” they said, and I believed them, although some part of me must have had my suspicions about what they meant since I remembered the scene well enough years later to figure out that they were have a gentle laugh with my parents at my expense.

I sang in the car and imagined a man on top of the car, waiting to catch a few notes.

I had a very small singing part in the high school musical, and a smaller dancing part.

I auditioned for but was not asked to join the chorus at a college known as the “singing college.”

Still, I loved to sing.  When the children were newborns I found that talking to them was unbearable, and that taking care of them in silence seemed sullen or even hostile.  Imagine wordlessly stuffing someone into a pair of pajamas.  The only thing to do was to sing, and I sang a lot of impromptu songs about what I was doing, including making the bed and hoping I wouldn’t find shit in their diapers.  I also sang along with the radio, and, especially at bedtime, I sang actual songs.  If you’ve read the book Mating you probably remember the protagonist walking through the desert to her true love, singing to keep herself sane.  She discovers within herself a catalog of songs that she knows all of the words to, and while her repertoire was more wide-ranging than mine was, because she was fictional, it was pleasurable for me to wander my desert and figure out that in fact I had a solid catalog of patriotic tunes that my children found soothing.  I also sang “Sweet Baby James,” which is really, really long, every night for about seven years.  During that period, I found I was able to cut my brain off entirely from what I was doing, and kind of ramble around it with a flashlight in my hand while my chest vibrated and pushed sound up through my throat and out of my mouth.

I watched an interview with Hugh Jackman, who did such a nice job in Oklahoma!, and he told me that the trick to singing well is to mean every single word you’re saying, and then I tried to do that, when I wasn’t trying to cleave my consciousness from whatever I was saying or doing at the moment.

And then one day the children were grown, or more grown, and they loved my voice. 

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