Leaving Music, Leaving Marriage—A Memoir Print E-mail

dead20wolf(San Diego Reader February 24, 2000; Revised 2006-2009)

I was trembling, tearing open the biscuit-colored envelope, its official return address, University of California, San Diego, Department of Music, Graduate Division. "I am happy to inform you," it began—but didn’t I know the rest, hadn’t I known it in my gut for months, ever since I kissed and mailed the application, that my (our) westering dream would come true?—"The Department of Music is recommending that you be admitted," and then I couldn’t see the words since I was crying and running to tell my wife Annie and four-year-old twin sons: we’d be leaving Santa Fe, our home since 1975, and moving to southern California.

I didn’t say that last bit right off. I read out the very sweet "offer": full tuition scholarship, a teaching assistantship at $5,000 a year, and the Ph.D. track in composition. In five short years, I’d be a bona fide Doctor of Music!

"Isn’t it wonderful," I said to Annie. We had discussed the move a lot, and she always stanched any plans with, "We’ll see—if you’re accepted."

Now, no pride-beaming love from her, but "Is this really what you want to do?" We’d been sleeping in the same bed, maintaining a two-inch channel of space between us for months—or longer. I looked at her and couldn’t stop the tears from welling up again.

"I want us all to go," I blurted out in a kind of maudlin ecstacy. This was it. A chance for my wife, who’d been part of a very successful weaving business on Canyon Road for seven years, a new opportunity. A chance to keep the family together. A chance to make something of myself. At thirty-two, I had to get to California. And they had to come with me. The two ideas were inseparable.

I called the kids in.

"What do you guys think about us moving to California?" In the fall, when school started, they’d be almost five and could enroll in kindergarten.

"OK," Jeremy said, a little too easily.

"It’s going to mean leaving your friends at preschool," their mother said.

"OK," he said again. He had such even-tempered surety about everything.

I asked, "Do you guys remember the ocean?" It was only four months ago that we’d visited San Diego and stayed in Mission Beach. "Where we made the sand castles and we fed the gulls and the Zoo and the killer whales at Sea World, remember?"

"That’s San Diego?" Blake asked excitedly. "OK," he echoed Jeremy, joining the enthusiasm.

During that visit to Mission Beach Annie’s mother openly said she wanted her (us) to come. There were dozens of shops to sell rugs and shawls, craft fairs and designer clothing stores. La Jolla was littered with trendy shops. I’m not sure my wife needed to sell for the money. She saved half of what she made, or so she told me.

"I don’t know," she kept saying. Until I reminded her of a few choice things. One. She had said, long ago, that it was only fair that when she needed to leave Missouri for Santa Fe, I had supported her exploratory visits and agreed to uproot and come with her. Which I didn’t regret. But she asked and I said yes.

"Annie, you said to me, ‘It’s my time.’ Remember?"

She gave a kind of shrug-tilt of her head.

"Well, it’s my time," I said. "No more $3.35 an hour punching computer cards. OK? It’s my time." And I thought, yes, all these years, her making tens of thousands of dollars, and me nothing. Me, the one with the great future in music behind him.

"OK," she said, too agreeably, "it’s your time."

How small her acquiescence. It wasn’t in her to be happy for me anymore. But I figured marshaling the conviction for this move was my responsibility. Besides, the old conditional—if I were happy, she’d be happy—awakened once again. I gave her a hug and a twirl, her skirt furling out, Western-style, then grabbed each boy and took him for a turn around the kitchen.

Over the summer, we packed, held yard sales, painted the house. I reviewed concerts and prepped for my interviews at the newspaper. UCSD wanted me to audition on my instrument, the guitar. I could play the piano passably, say, at the three-year level, Book III of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. But my fingers still had guitar tunes in them. I could probably render Manuel Ponce’s three popular Mexican songs, though it had been a good two years since I’d tried. For the audition, I added new pieces by Manuel de Falla and Hans Werner Henze. But any guitar-playing thrill was gone. I practiced getting the notes right. Nothing more.

In early September, the four of us and our new Volvo, towing an eighteen-foot U-Haul, graveled out of the driveway and left. I remember the leathery feel of the new car, its tank-like security inside, the kids buckled in, their lantern-eyed looks of expectation and dread—or were they merely reflecting mine? And then, a shock. I began shaking, those public-speaking nerves, nettled by the era’s end. I couldn’t know that I was leaving the place I would from then on think of as home. I did know that Santa Fe had defined me, the place or the events I wasn’t sure. Place embodies event. Such as the moment Annie and I drove up to our adobe and I tore the note off the door to call Mother and she sobbed through the news that Dad had just died. Our arrival, his death—seven years ago. The simultaneity of those two events had been book-ended as one pillar of my fate, driving out this day in search of its companion. I was expecting the other bolt from the blue but not before Santa Fe’s spell had its say. You cannot leave, the place said, it’s futile to try. I conclude, years later, that this, too, is what was passing between me and my wife and our kids, them seat-belted in, me at the wheel for the next nine hundred miles: Santa Fe cannot be left, so it goes with us. But all I saw, clipping by us, were the dusty streets, the water-mad acequias, the piñon-dotted hills, still tasting yesterday’s last order of huevos rancheros, smothered in green chili, the whole receding from my sight and my body’s grasp as we rolled down the grade to Albuquerque.

Seven years at seven thousand feet in the rearview mirror snapped shut, and the Volvo’s torque pushed us toward Grants and Gallup, across the red-rock mesas to Flagstaff, riding at fifty-five the oceanic basins and range into the Mojave, the late summer misery of the desert. In 1975, the trip to Santa Fe had taken us gently up into the mountainous aerie of the West. In 1982, the trip to San Diego would diffuse us onto the coastal flat and beach calm of southern California. Soon, there would be no more going there. We’d be there, West of the West, at the far end of America. For its part, the past would be like a chain of towed U-Hauls, all smashing into one another, a comic volley, their contents spilled onto the ground.

After a blissful night of motel air-conditioning, we crossed the Colorado River, went deep into the desert, skirted vast lemon orchards, slowed beside the sparkling Salton Sea, the world’s saltiest lake. At Desert Shores, we drove through a phantom community with paved, named streets, waiting for houses. The lots looked emptied, scraped clean by a highly efficient tornado. Or else the homes were invisible. I said to Annie that the houses were there. It would take time before the parallel realm of the Golden State would appear to us. She didn’t acknowledge the joke.

Another motel, another morning, and Annie announced her desire to enter San Diego via Route 78. This, we’d learn later, was "the back way" in. She said it looked harmless enough on the map. I’m not sure, I said. Wouldn’t Interstate 8 be safer? But this route, she said, would let us see the mountains. "You have to go slow anyway!"

I froze, shut my eyes. How many times had she had me drive off the beaten path, search for a restaurant, an antique shop, a scenic byway. "Stop!" she’d say, "What’s that?" It was nothing, a yard full of ceramic trolls, a sagebrush museum. When we started up Banner Grade to Julian, the gears groaned like Hannibal’s elephants crossing the Alps. Roar-worried, I glared at her. But then I breathed, softened. What good was glaring? If the car blows up, the car blows up. She’ll buy another one; she’s got plenty of money. It occurred to me, a coinage of Kahlil Gibran, that letting go of expectation was the key to wisdom. My citing her dissolved, and I remembered her letter.

She’d written it before we left. It raked my eyes with her addressed-to-my-husband voice, one I dreaded reading because it would be about money, hers vs. mine. "I thought to put this in writing so it will be clear both to myself & to you." We would, she went on, split the California expenses. The rent from our home in Missouri (a pittance) and hers in Santa Fe (unlike most couples she refused to share what we owned after we married) would pay for the Volvo and the Santa Fe mortgage. She would use whatever was left over for "family entertainment, travel, or small luxuries—all of which are important to my idea of a happy life for us all." And, she offered, "I want for you the same as you do for yourself – to be able to experience this school opportunity fully without the necessity of having to take a second job during your term." (I had no idea a "second job" was in the wings.) Thus, she wrote, "a loan will be necessary," that is, she wanted me to get a loan. Another loan. On top of those from my undergraduate years at UNM, which I would delay repaying, post-doc. I guess the money from my teaching assistantship wouldn’t be enough. And, it was certain, she wasn’t lending me any more money or, for that matter, forgiving my $4,000 IOU. Last, she stated it was essential that as a family we rent a three-bedroom furnished home, making our "stay there," in California, "comfortable."

It was all convincingly dictated. Like an indictment.

Small luxuries? Three bedrooms?

Maybe losing Santa Fe wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe in the land of sun-kissed maids we might close those two nighttime inches between us. What was two inches!


We rented a small house in Encinitas, twenty-to-thirty traffic-slowed minutes north of San Diego and half-a-block from Neptune Avenue, the westernmost street on which ocean-view homes were perched on a high cliff. At night the coast nestled under a thick fog. The fog lingered into morning, and we’d miss Santa Fe’s prevailing sun. In the steep front yard two avocado trees grew, their broad waxy leaves canopying the ripe black fruit and darkening the soil at the base where no sun got to. Ever-broke, I told Annie that I need not buy lunches. I’d make avocado sandwiches everyday. She smiled that half-smile of hers.

Much about southern California was a shock.

Its fleshiness for one. On the beach, I watched the young remove their T-shirts to reveal butt-hugging trunks, string-tied bikinis. They played volleyball and football, charged the water with boogie boards. Waves rushed up the beach, and people scampered for frisbees like dogs. Our beach town, Encinitas, had backyard lemon trees; bicycle lanes; blond and bronzed young women who roller-skated on the sidewalks or kicked a soccer ball, their ponytails bobbing; drying kelp, fly-covered and rancid smelling, at Moonlight Beach where I walked the kids; salty, fungal, Odyssean air. Tank tops, flip-flops, Hawaiian shirts, coconut suntan lotion, the smoky aroma of crab cakes grilling under a palm-leaved-roofed fish stand, the slight bulge in a young girl’s midriff following a lunch burrito from Juanita’s, one of dozens of Mexican eateries that lined the Coast highway.

UCSD was stranger still. The campus was not integrated into a town. It was perched on an expansive mesa near ocean cliffs (though a wealthy suburb and golf course held us back) and stuck within a great grove of Eucalyptus trees, spangly leaves and papery, peeling trunks. The school was only twenty-two years old, its buildings exposed concrete, bad Bauhaus, ugly and heavy and serviceable. It was founded as a research center in science and technology, the arts little more than adjunctive. Research interests spilled over everywhere: in music, the curriculum was devoted to aesthetics, new music performance, and electronic composition; in art, to happenings; in literature, to theory. Some science departments were built on fat contracts with the defense industry for high-tech weaponry and with the pharmaceutical companies for cutting-edge bio-medical testing.

At the school, the first three days, two dozen of us grad students (so my file tells me) were given a battery of tests: exams in music history and literature, dictation and error recognition, acoustics, sight-singing, rhythm quizzes, keyboard proficiency, score reading, and musical analysis (Bach, Chopin, Schoenberg). In its mix of orality and literacy, the exam was like that of a Medieval university. We had to speak, sing, read, analyze, perform. I played the guitar pieces I had prepared passably. From the faculty’s unenthusiastic response, I could tell I was not a catch: I didn’t have the kind of virtuosic skill they wanted for their New Music performance groups, among which were the several dervish improvisers of SONOR. I failed only pre-Renaissance music history and the notation of some gnarly rhythms.

I was assigned to teach basic musicianship and to be a teaching assistant in Music Appreciation, where I delivered a lecture on Charles Ives, my favorite composer, to three hundred undergraduates. I was placed in composition courses, electronic music study, classes in contemporary theory and performance practice. One required class was "Problems and Methods of Music Research." In fact, many courses used "problems" in their titles: this is what the department was for—contemporary music problems, unanswered questions. Right up my alley, so I thought.

I was put into an ensemble where we produced pieces by John Cage and Roger Reynolds, the latter one of UCSD’s famous faculty composers/experimenters. Rehearsals got quite competitive: who among us was the most musically gifted? One percussionist liked to glove-slap our composers’ faces with his God-given rhythmic talent. He’d say, "Let’s hear you beat out five against three," and he’d tap a three-beat waltz tempo on one knee then go against it with a five-beat figure on the other knee. Suitably, his eyebrows rose, and we’d feign amazement.

A group of grads and I performed John Cage’s "Amores," for three percussionists and one pianist on prepared piano. I played the solo piano parts, pre-altering the piano strings with nine screws, eight bolts, two nuts, and three strips of rubber. When the key’s hammers hit the altered strings, the sound was jangly and gong-like, reminiscent of an Indonesian xylophone.

What’s more, I noted San Diego itself had a small but buoyant New Music scene. A place called "Sushi" had opened up downtown, where new performance artists transcended the limitations of any single form, among them, Philip-Dimitri Galás and his sister Diamanda, or Karen Finley who combined (so read her promo) "madness, theater, sculpture, and performance" in a work titled, "I Like the Dwarf on the Table When I Give Him Head," which pitted mother against daughter arguing "over the secret ingredient in potato salad." The adventures continued at UCSD where Michel Redolfi staged his subaquatic "Underwater Music" at the University pool with a special program note: "Public must bring swim suit; snorkel and swim mask recommended."

Each day I traveled down the Coast highway to school on the local bus, the 301. That road was west of the coastal Interstate, which went from Canada to Mexico, immortalized in the surfer’s bumper sticker, "There is no life east of I-5." Some days, running late, I’d catch the Express bus, which raced down I-5 to the Veterans Hospital. Out the window, I catalogued the abundances. One, the uninterrupted miles of oleander in the freeway’s median. Never watered, they were sheared flat once a year. And still they bloomed, even flourished, despite auto fumes and Cal Trans’ hack job. They hid the whizzing-by north-and-south-bound vehicles from each other, though the collective sound noised on. My little notebook of the time says, "Oleander dichotomy indicative of SD." That such robust greenery could exist parallel with the traffic roar gave me a kind of resilient hope.

All this newness was reviving me. Years earlier, Santa Fe had done the same. I’d been summoned to the left coast with other artsy mavericks. A few of us had been found, most, though, were still reeling from our westering arrival. But no matter. Its perfect climate had room for the artist’s strangeness, the hedonist’s guile. Plane and busloads arrived from the East, from L.A., from Mexico. Few natives meant that there was a kind of psychic detachment from San Diego by San Diegans, its placelessness all but invisible. South of Los Angeles was unlike the family-heavy, history-hardened places, especially New Mexico, I had lived. In homes in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Missouri, I knew a handful who’d left for the lure of the coasts, most during the hippy days. Of the many who stayed, their wandering gene was un-decoded. Later I would read Glenway Westcott’s aphorism for my region, the Middle West: "A state of mind of people born where they do not like to live."

Such novelty did not, at first, expose the paradox. It took time to see that San Diego was socially free-wheeling and historically one-dimensional: its usefulness as a port during the second World War gave it a prescribed history, a politically conservative bent, a military whose totemic stature meant only a recent past. Hardly any deep time. The place (I would learn) tolerated the experimenters in the arts, mostly by ignoring them. In fact, many people and most ideas were disregarded in the booming sunshine, any pith addled by an average daily high of seventy degrees.

Waiting for my bus, I overheard one grad student tell another that San Diego had little of what L.A. or San Francisco or Chicago or any big city in America had in abundance, namely culture. The other grad student said, "Wait a sec. San Diego has a culture. It’s just not artistic. It’s physical."


Those first weeks, we escaped the heat, Santa-Ana-blown, by going to the beach. We got there via Stone Steps, a steep one-hundred-foot concrete walkway to the sand not far from our house. As we lugged our towels and chairs, buckets and shovels down the steps, we passed muscle-toned young men and women who, with rhythmic breathing, were jogging up.

One afternoon, with Annie paging a People magazine and our boys creating boat canals in the sand, I took off my T-shirt, my first sun-exposed flesh in years, and waded into the warm, greenish water. Copper-colored seaweed strands snaked by my bald pink knees as I slogged deeper. The waves rose higher, rushing under my arms, then lifted me, turned me around. There I could see the towering cliffs of the coastline, the stately bluff houses with backyards dropping off or fringed with hanging ice plant, an uneven row of palm trees towering above the cliffs and there, on the beach, my family, minuscule and ordinary.

Floating a moment on the waves, I thought how we had made it to California, a journey my father had once dreamed of. Dad had wanted to live in San Francisco after the war. But Mother nixed the idea. She insisted on living one day’s drive from her mother in Illinois. Now, with Steve living in Wisconsin, Jeff in Atlanta, and Mom in Ohio, I was the one who got the farthest away. I thought about our journey to San Diego as geographic history, second (in the annals) to the transatlantic immigration of my mother’s Swedish grandparents. In the next century, my sons might honor their pioneering parents. The middle-western-ness of my past had often felt like a great captivity, the Israelites trapped in Egypt. But here I was, floating free from Pharaoh.

I looked back again: the coastline was suddenly much smaller, binocular. My feet plunged for bottom. Nothing. Then a wave ran under me, diabolically, while the steely surface waffled and barely sputtered. Though I knew how to swim, I was frightened. I started my arms moving, careful not to panic. This was nothing like the lakes of my Wisconsin boyhood. There, the water’s energy was neutral. The ocean had intent.

I swam harder and felt disoriented. Was I swimming in place? I wasn’t getting anywhere. Rolling on my back, I tried kicking, motorboat-style. But the quaking water sloshed in my face. In my mouth. I spit out the brine. It tasted like crab.

Now I swam as hard and as fast as I could. I glimpsed my tiny family on the shore, who were unaware I was fighting for life. I swam hard again, felt the seaweed entangle my legs. I frantically kicked free. It all felt suddenly scripted: the ocean would torture then kill me.

A huge wave lifted my body, the seawater running its foam up my nose, and then, as quickly as the panic set in, my toes touched mud. Suddenly I was standing up and the water was rushing back into itself through my trembling thighs. I’d been spared.

I stumbled up the shore. "Jesus, I almost drowned!" I was panting, spitting, palming my face. "I couldn’t swim my way out. The water took me," pant, "where it wanted to," pant, pant, "then threw me on the shore."

The boys looked up, stared uncomprehending. Then, just as fast, returned to buzzing their lips, running their toys in their elaborate little ditches.

"You weren’t going to drown," my wife laughed, or snickered, I wasn’t sure which. "And besides, you’re in no shape, Tom, to be swimming in the ocean."

"God, I almost died out there."


"And," I mocked her mocking, "you could care less." It was as if she had deposited and let ripen that "and" in her I-hate-you account for months.

Now she did snicker. The she got up and cast those cold brown eyes at me. "You have no idea what I care about. Don’t assume anything." Another intentional, rehearsed slash. "C’mon boys," she said to the kids, "let’s go home and I’ll make us some dinner."

OK, I was in lousy shape—overweight, thirty unfiltered cigarettes a day, no exercise. I felt lumpy, a heart-attack candidate. My stomach felt smaller in the morning but then bulged as if gravity pumped it back up once I got off the toilet. But—shit—who asked her? So what if the surfer Adonises we passed sniggered to themselves. It was mere scorn not blame. Jesus-fucking-Christ—a marriage was like a contract in how low an opinion one could hold the other in and stay attached.

I’ll leave. The old mantra was back.

I hated her for pointing out the obvious: I was out of place. My sons had inherited their mother’s skinny frame and flat stomach. They tanned easily; they didn’t squint like me, the Nordic one, who was poorly assembled, faultily evolved. Which she’d remind them of. I’d hear her talking to Blake or Jeremy, when they weren’t cooperating: "You’re just like your father, aren’t you."

Towel around my neck, huffing up those Stone Steps alone, I started thinking that my sons must have their own sense of California’s bounty, about which I hadn’t bothered to ask. They liked it here, reveling in the beach, the cool nights, the outdoor pull. They wanted to go to Sea World, the new Wild Animal Park, eat fish and chips at Captain Keno’s. I wanted them to be happy and, I figured, they wanted me to be happy. Did I follow that or did I think about their welfare only when mine was threatened?

Getting back, the boys and I built spaceships out of Legos on the front porch. We talked other fun things to do. After dinner, we brought our multi-colored plastic spaceships inside and kept at it (Annie did the dishes and was in the bedroom, doing who knew what), and then it was bedtime, the night fog pawing in through the louvered-open window of the back door, and I was snuggling them in their bunk beds, cheek-on-cheek to Jeremy, above, cheek-on-cheek to Blake, below, promising my sweetly hugging-me-back five-year-olds new outings next weekend, saying, "You guys know, everything’s gonna be fine," since there was so much to do in San Diego, and "We haven’t even begun to explore the mountains and the desert." Why was I assuring them everything was going to be fine?


Because, gazing out the bus window on my way to school, everything wasn’t fine. For how long had I been living with the polluted feeling that I didn’t want to be married to her anymore? That stain was there, but the other feeling—that our marriage with children cannot end—was stronger. The rawness of what was said at the beach, I think, had scared us both. Maybe we clashed because this transition was too quick. Annie had set up her biggest loom in the middle of our living room, already throwing the shuttle and filling orders. Christmas, three months away. My anointment at school, via the department’s Welcome Week, had vanished. We dozen new composers had to get busy, write new work. This was the quarter system, too: a new piece in ten weeks! Concerts were scheduled, rehearsals slotted. The musicians I’d need had to be chosen. Finding the space-time continuum to compose was the goal. But concentrating was difficult. "I need to talk to someone," I said out loud on the inner-lighted Express bus rushing home. My window image stared back. Next day I called and found that marriage counseling was available free at the University.

Before our first counseling session, Annie and I enrolled the kids in kindergarten. We didn’t fret over the transition. Blake and Jeremy had already been socialized at preschool, knew how to share, knew the consequences of not sharing. "Time Out" we called it.

"Will we have ‘Time Out’ in kindergarten?" Blake asked.

"Oh, yes," I said.

"Will we have fun in kindergarten like preschool?" Jeremy asked.

"Fun? Man, you’ll play on the Jungle Jim and do numbers and draw and read and work on projects," I said. "It’s the best time of all, Kindergarten."

How uncomplicated it felt, leaving them at 7:45, as though a clearing had been reached; our sons ran ahead and we, their tired parents, would catch up later. Annie and I watched, standing opposite beside our car doors. What fine new dreamers they were! Sun-yellowed towheads, deepening tans, curious dispositions. They wore different-colored but same styled new shirts (gifts from my mother), which united them, made them more than mere brothers. Up the short sidewalk they went, the two moseying together, Jeremy a tad taller than Blake, now the half-a-whole doctrine of twinship an enviable fact: on that first day of school, they had a buddy to lean on when most kids broke with their parents and entered the school cell, frightened and on their own.

An hour later we met Taylor, first name; last name, he didn’t say. He was a Marriage, Family, and Child Counselor. Pro-football-big, African-American, cheeks and neck coarse like sandpaper, scratched, I wondered, in sympathy to his clients’ crises, spilled on him during their confessional fifty minutes.

No, to the first question: Had either of us ever seen a counselor? Well, for me, yes, I had seen a Jungian counselor once in Santa Fe, a man whom I couldn’t afford and who said he wanted to explore the uncharted domain of my artistic psyche, which frightened the shit out of me. "I can’t tamper with that," I told the old grey beard. "Why?" "Because then I’ll really fall apart."

Taylor said none of that collective unconscious stuff was for him. His specialty was being direct. "I take it," he said to Annie, feeling her unease, "you’re not comfortable about being in this room."

"You got that right." Asked to elaborate, she said after years of us getting nowhere, she had real doubts that we could repair the marriage. Her main complaint had always been my failure to earn money. She was not unhappy with the move west. She wanted California for the boys’ sake, the schools and the beach. She wanted to live near her mother. Being an independent artist was important, too. She relished weaving what she pleased, the business headaches gone. She went on and on about herself so much that I thought she did seem comfortable with talk therapy. Obviously, she didn’t know herself at all. Taylor listened and concurred—if that’s what he was doing—with everything she said.

It was my turn. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to go: sharing? Here at last was my opportunity: to become a professional whose degree would mean a career and, eventually, a good salary as a University professor. With my future assured, I needed her to cooperate, to help me get there.

Taylor interrupted me. (He didn’t interrupt her.) "What about sex?" I wondered whether he, like everyone else in flesh-focused southern California, weren’t over-sexed.

I stared at him. Annie was silent.

"Well that about explains it," he said. He told us that we might learn something important by exposing our physical selves to each other, admittedly, a vulnerable spot, he understood, but "a true indicator of your deepest feelings. Don’t rush. Try it. See what happens. Then come back."

He asked us then about the boys, about our individual family backgrounds. What was my dad like? What was her dad like? Our mothers? Our brothers and sisters? It devolved into a family interview, and I wondered if we saw ourselves in terms longer and more determinant than our marriage, we’d have an alternative means of fixing what was wrong. Suddenly fifty minutes was up, and he said as we left, "Don’t forget the sex."

We did not forget and, a week later, we returned.

"Well?" Taylor asked. He seemed to enjoy his voyeuristic role. And I was finally getting a clue: living in California meant professionals—read, strangers—would (even wanted to) know your most intimate details, the juggernaut of the New Age.


"It fizzled," she said of our night before an avocado wood fire. "I laid there like a mummy and didn’t feel anything."

Taylor said, "Good. Tom?"

Good? "It was OK," I shrugged. "We didn’t do much. But was that the point. We were taking time to be close. I liked that." What I’d actually felt was a clammy embarrassment; I was afraid of approaching her because I was certain she’d reject me. My body, especially. I had worn a T-shirt until she said take it off.

"What do you mean, good?" I asked.

"I mean it’s good to risk communication. You can’t just say, ‘We’re not communicating.’ You have to attend to how you’re not communicating. What’s going on, the patterns you have, when you attempt—"

"It’ll take time," I said. "That’s all. For us to be like we were. I’ll be working on my Ph.D. here which will one day get me out of debt"—hadn’t I said this already?—"and make me less self-involved. I want her to know that I have to be self-involved in order to do well. At school." I needed, I thought, to keep coming back to my work. I’m a composer. My work is who I am. "I made all those sacrifices for her in Santa Fe," I went on, "so she could succeed."

"Is that true?" Taylor asked Annie.

She said she wouldn’t use that word, but yes, "he supported my business."

"Do you think you should stick it out for him?"

She replied that part of her did.

"Does that part want to?"

"I don’t know," she said. "But I do know," and she paused, her eyes hardening in that I-will-not-cry motif. (I seemed to do the crying for both of us.) "My whole life, ever since I was fifteen, there’s always been a man in my life. On the phone. On a date. In the car. In the bed. Always, always a man to take care of. I’ve never had a break from being with a man. From taking care of him. I watched my mother go through the same thing. The truth is, I don’t know if I can want it anymore."

This I had never heard before. This, being damned as a gender, another spawn in the stream, no different from her first husband, Don, the poor sucker Tom the Guitarist had replaced.

I said, "I understand that my desire for her is gone right now but I don’t feel that way because she’s a woman."

"You don’t feel desire for her because?" Taylor asked.

"I don’t feel desire for her because I’m afraid she’ll reject me—that I’ll be rejected, and it’s too," I stopped and started blubbering, "painful. It’s too painful not to be accepted for who I am."

"Are you hearing what he’s saying, Annie?"

She nodded. But like a bobble-head.

"Besides," I said, "giving up is not the answer. Not my answer."

"Tom," she said, "it is less you than us I want my freedom from. Can you understand that?" Now, her eyes welled up and the tears brimmed out.

"What else is there but us?"

"There’s me, there’s the boys," she said hastily.

"That’s selfish bullshit. I think all you want is to be free of me."

"In a way, that’s true," she said.

I could hear Taylor thinking good. "Tom," he said, "you can’t tell her what you think she wants. She’s here and she can tell us what she thinks. Make I statements. Say what you want, OK?"

"What I want is not to lose my children. That’s what I want!" The admission stunned me.

"OK, good. Does what you want include her?"

"For Christ’s sakes, of course it does."

I felt the chill of death, my number come up. It was all about me now, my fear of losing the kids. A fear Annie did not have. Because, the law and custom decreed, they’d stay with her. She had the money. She had the time. She could tend her career at home. I had to tend mine in concrete buildings, in cantankerous compositions, wielding the sword of the American maverick. All she had to do was sit at home and weave and watch the clock for when she had to get the kids from school.

It was clear: I was being asked to separate our we-ness for the sake of the family. What a fucked-up idea that was.

Therapy was exhausting, which, for Taylor, I think, meant we were getting somewhere. He stopped it there. We agreed to talk again in a week, no, we had schedule conflicts, in two weeks. Too long? I was trembling, thinking how many classes I had to teach, music I had to write. My days were packed. My days felt like they were—or had—already being lived. I couldn’t wait. But I had to.

Driving home in silence—think ill, think well of the other?—I stared at the oleander, that unending single leafy-green hedgerow, its white-rose-purple blur mocking me with its indifference. Picking up the boys at school, we each took a son aside at lunch and lied about our day.

For her and her beautiful raven hair, there was no flutter of love in me left.


I kept telling him, "I know you want me to be lost in the piece, Julio. And I’m telling you I am lost. For Christ’s sake, can’t you hear it?"

My composition teacher was Julio Estrada, a European-educated and mestizo-mysterious Mexican as well as acoustic-theoretical-mathematical-textured-sound-mass genius born out of the Xenakis-Ligeti school. He was at the piano playing through the sketches I’d given him for my first piece. A rhythmically and tonally ambitious work for solo viola. An absolutely one-of-a-kind work. Never attempted before.

"No, I don’t hear it," he said. It felt as though he were chiding me. This, our fifth weekly lesson. I’m an adult; I don’t need to be chided. Composers aren’t for chiding. "I’m not seeing any growth," he went on, "in this idea. You’re just extending it with repetitions. Here, I want you to hear something."

He launched Richard Wagner’s famous opening chordal sequence to the "Prelude" to Tristan und Isolde, those achingly unresolved leading motives and velveteen harmonies. He sang as he went, "Who knows where he’s going," he played on and talked. "It’s wonderful. ‘Where am I?’ the music keeps asking. And the music says, ‘I am lost. I must be lost.’ Oh, to be lost in a composition is the most wonderful thing of all. This is what you must do, Mister Larson!"

Part of me laughed at his charm, part of me hated his showmanship.

I’d already told him how much I revered Charles Ives. And he’d steered me to Ives’ music for quarter-tone pianos, tones in between the chromatic ones, which, I decided, would be the terrain I would cross. I fell in love with the eery, dense sound-textures Ives created. I reconfigured my viola piece to use quarter tones, not as adjuncts to standard notes but as individual entities themselves.

Again he swooned, "Let the music go! Stop pigeonholing—isn’t that the word you Americans use—pigeonholing it into what it doesn’t want to be." Odd how his phrases were so elastic, even enthusiastic, while his eyes bore the heavy-lidded knowledge of years spent telling young composers that their music was going nowhere.

"Am I really doing that, Julio?"

"Yes. You’ve got to transform the rhythmic and melodic fragments you’ve created into something else, something inevitable—a section of turbulence, a section of calm—which will give you a structure, without losing the freedom of being lost."

"And this is—"

"This is OK. But you can do better."

I wondered, Can I?

"You must let the music go. There is no continuity, no growth to prove that you are lost. You must make a transformation of the freedom of being lost."

I didn’t know what he meant. I thought, I can’t compose and I can’t understand composition.

And then he looked at me directly. "You came here to study New Music," he said, dropping his tone like a priest. "And you must learn that New Music takes its constructive process from within the piece, as the piece unfolds. You should never shackle it to a pre-existing form. Or make it formless. Otherwise, it cannot be new. It must grow on its own terms. Become a species all its own."

"But I though I was doing that! I am lost in the piece, honest, I am, I am!"

"You’re lost, my friend, not the music."

Riding the gear-loud bus home, moonlight rayed atop the drowsy main, I was stunned. The glorious avant-garde, fostering a life of freedom in me, was not at fault. The fault was me.

Estrada was right. To compose, I couldn’t be lost. I had to create a piece of music that arose only from my confidence to compose it, or else it wouldn’t get composed. The "lost" piece reveals the "found" composer. Like Ives. A secure man composing insecure music.

A lost composer was just a sad, lonesome, lost composer.

What was I doing? I no longer touched the guitar or the piano. In front of my blank score paper, in the student café, I thought up melodic lines, harmonies, even quarter-tone nuances, but they were empty, silent sketches. I was notating something entirely intellectual, an idea about music, a disembodied music. It wasn’t there. It was mental. Worse, I was no longer thinking about music in the worded way I once loved, reflecting on Ives and Roy Harris and the Americanness of our music, the abstractions of the painter Wassily Kandinsky, tuning emotion to melody, story shape into musical narrative, as Aaron Copland had done.

At UCSD, I’d heard from members of a brass quintet who had given a piece I’d written in New Mexico a quick reading that it was unplayable. One day, at the aviary in the San Diego Zoo, I tried my hand at transcribing bird songs. (Oliver Messiaen had done it, maybe I could too.) Eyes-closed, I listened as carefully as I could then whistled the motif to tamp it in my ear. I notated it. But it was nothing more than a flitting melody, twee-twee-tweeee-eat-tweeeee-eat, another chirp in a chirping universe, as indifferent to my hearing it as I was to making something useful of it. (I felt people noticing me then I’d feel special that I was being noticed: oh, there’s the man who can notate bird song!) Another bumptious bus ride home and I stared at six birdsong melodies jotted into my notebook. What now? Use it someday, for the great composer is he who never stops compiling notes for the works he will one day write.

Always in my life the composition that would define me was coming. It was due any day now.

You’re lost, Estrada said.

At home, everyone asleep—by now the new year had come—it was testament time. A bit of homework Taylor had given us. What is it in your life that you want to change? Write it down.

"My problem has been selfishness, trying to get started in graduate school, making a good impression with my work as a composer & teacher. Since I am still working on my first piece over the Xmas holidays, trying through sheer determination to make it as good as possible, I went overboard, working on it too much late at night, although this was the only time I had. It was time that should have been for Annie & me. This unbalance between my work & Annie is the major problem of our marriage. I blew it by not communicating the above, enough, with her." O Castles! O Despair! The whimpering is pathetic. I was a composer. A composer needs time alone to compose. A composer needs his selfishness. Why didn’t I get this?

Why, if it was so important to me, did I get married, have kids, waggle along in the relational realm, all of which kept me from composing? Why didn’t I understand that time alone, time away, time apart, is a good thing? Instead, I’d swallowed the hook, that the artist is selfish, that he should feel wrong for wanting his solitude. This is how a bad marriage puts your head in one of those latex hoods the bondage freaks wear, skulls it on so tight that you’ll say/do anything to survive. You believe only what others tell you to imagine about yourself. That’s the worst.

Next I wrote up a change-chart: get the kids going in swimming classes; start jogging with Annie; get into shape so we’d have a better sex life and, possibly, another child; quit smoking; plan vacations; play more music with Annie, the folk music we loved all those years ago in Missouri, in the small town, in the cow pond, on the back porch where we dreamed ourselves into being.


I folded my homework for Taylor and put it in my folder. I got out my viola piece. Though I’d asked for more time to work on it, the work was due in a week. From their room, I could hear the boys breathing, that ebb and flow, so like the pulse of waves on the beach. Annie had already shut the door to the bedroom. Nothing was pulling me away, so I had to sit at the table with my guitar, write/imagine/hear the piece to its end. I played through the motifs I added the previous night. I added a few more. I kept thinking, if I could only make the inchoate take form.

That night, the title came to me. "JEKE." I would combine the first two letters of Jeremy, the last two letters of Blake. The music would accordion them together. A way of keeping them for me. At least in music. Having a name for the piece gave me a strange satisfaction, and I fell asleep, under a Navajo blanket, on the couch.

Soon it was premiere night. Three other grad student composers and me. I’d written a program note, declaring that JEKE was inspired by my twin sons. It invokes "the play of persistence, intervallic and motivic, a fantasy in and out of quarter-tonal stress and stressing, wherein its many openings are thinned. I remove it metaphorically to twinning—evoke J & B’s fraternal magnet, friendship and trust, alongside the will to vary; purposeful, defiant, free. This con-structure of music/representation is my experience—others contain other embodiments."

On a dark stage with a lone light overhead, the violist began. One minute in, I realized my brave player hadn’t had enough time to learn the piece. Two minutes in, I started melting. The piece was lost, as Estrada had said. But not how he wanted. JEKE sounded tortured, delirious, unstable—with the main harmonies, open fifths and fourths, fast or slow, subtly altered by quarter-tone shifts. A piece falling out of tune, failing to cohere.

One person spoke to me afterwards. He asked whether I had given the player a piece of music with instructions to purposely play it out of tune. If so—I think he was complimenting me—it was a radical notion. Good. No one else. A few who caught my eye nodded. The dispassionate nod. The violist packed his case and said, "That was weird." I had worked for three months on this twelve-minute piece. I found its player frustrated, its audience unresponsive, its creator bewildered. Did it need revision? Should I dump it? I couldn’t tell.

One faculty member spoke to me the next day. He was impressed with its rhythmic complexity. But then he asked, Why did it need so many quarter tones?

"Because," I was almost shouting, "it’s new! Isn’t that why we’re here?"

He squinted and turned, slapped by my pungency.

You’re lost, my friend.

An undergraduate wrote a review of JEKE for her performance class: "Sometimes the concurrent lines flowed harmonically but many times they contrasted each other. But even contrasting, they were still put together as if to show that the boys can be together enjoyably though they may be different. I enjoyed the piece, especially because I was trying to correlate the twins and the music." Suddenly there was hope that two of us understood the metaphor of my sons in the music.

few minutes into our next therapy session Taylor said to Annie, "Come on, now. You’ve got something on your mind today that you want to say. What is it?"

"I can’t go on," she said. "I’m living a lie. I want him gone. I want it—" and her hand karate-chopped the air, "over."

"You liar!" I hollered. "You knew this would happen."

"She’s been trying to tell you that for some time, Tom," Taylor said.

"Why didn’t you tell me before we got here? You moved to California knowing you wanted a divorce, didn’t you?"

"Divorcing you has been on my mind every day of my life for the past two years."

There it was, the truth, finally out. I should have been shocked. But I knew it was true, entangled with my desire not to know it was true. "I’m not leaving," I yelled. "I am not leaving my children with you. You can’t throw this away."

"Tom, Tom, listen." Taylor pulled his chair close to me, touching my knee. Again, I was crying, she wasn’t. "You’ve got to hear what she’s saying. She no longer wants to be married to you. I know you want to keep working at it. But she’s saying she can’t. She won’t. She wants it to be over. Not a separation, but a divorce. Do you hear her? What we are doing here is helping you two communicate. What you haven’t been able to communicate. Do you hear what she’s saying?"

"Of course I hear her." My palms were soaked with wiped tears. "But why is it that I’m subject only to what she wants? Why can’t she find a way to save it?"

"Can you answer that?" Taylor asked her.

She said nothing, her expression blank, private.

"I’m afraid, Tom," he said, "there’s not much of an alternative when one person wants out. I know it’s unfair. But it’s true."

I couldn’t speak anymore. I was dumbfounded. Both of them were telling me it was over, and I either accept it or—I accept it. There was no alternative.

"Annie," I said finally, "tell me— There’s no need to lie anymore. All those times I wrote music for you, those songs and guitar pieces— All those times I played and sang for you, I thought that’s what you loved about me." I was still snuffling. "It wasn’t, was it?"

"No," she said.

"I know what it was."

She waited.

"You liked it that I could fix things in the house, right? That I was responsible. That I figured out how to put your loom together. That I got your car running."

Her quiet affirmed what I was saying.

"That you thought—" but now it was in the open and didn’t need saying: She loved what she thought I was, a fixer and a provider, and I thought she loved me for my music, my being an artist, what I thought I was. The more the former dwindled, the more the latter rose, the less she cared.

"You fell in love," I said, "with somebody else. Not me."

"And you wanted someone that wasn’t me, too," she said.

The import of that didn’t sink in until much, much later: that I wanted the sexual partner, the painter, the seeker. Not the woman who made money, not the woman who wanted children. Not her.

"But I can’t let go of my children," I wept. "I can’t. Don’t make me do that."

They both waited until I said, "I can’t stand this anymore. I have to leave."

Annie went out, to pick up the boys from school. Taylor sat unmoved, like a coach who’d suspended his best player. I went out, dreading the only thing I had left: my willingness to beg.

I slumped through the campus, leaned on a eucalyptus tree. Later, I stood in the bathroom of the music department, peeing, and a fellow classmate, a man with curly red hair, seeing my distress.

"What’s wrong?"

"My wife wants a divorce," I said.

"Christ, man, I’m sorry," he said. "But she knows. That’s what so fucked up about it. She knows when it’s time to go."

He didn’t have to say he’d been through it. This was southern California.

"It’s for the best," he said. "It’s really for the best. You’ll get through it."

That night I slept in our van, the Dodge Econ-o-line Annie had recently purchased. Now it would move me out and be my home. The next day, a Saturday, I drove to Encinitas.

There was Jeremy and Blake on the front porch, playing Legos. I was shaking. They stared at me. Had she told them? Oh Christ. I walked past and called out, "Annie." She was in the kitchen, standing over a pie crust, hands white with flour. Nothing had altered in her world.

"You’re not welcome here," she said. She wore her yellow chenille robe, the one (how long had it been?) whose tufted raised rows I loved to run my fingers through when we embraced before bed.

"But I live here."

"No," she said, "this is my house, and the boys’. Have you forgotten what we decided?"

"Tell me, you cunt," I said, "I’ve forgotten."

(That was the moment. I lost her. We lost each other.)

"It’s over," she yelled. "Get out!" And she gripped a knife that lay beside the pie tin.

"You’re out of your mind," I yelled back.

"You don’t know how much I despise you, do you?"

"You asshole. Why don’t you get out."

"Oh, no, this is my house," she screamed. "I’m paying for it." She showed me the knife, the silver gleam and glint, then flung it in the sink, "Just like in Santa Fe."

"But I’m paying half the rent!"

"Not anymore you’re not. Get out!" She glared. "You want the truth? I told Taylor I wanted to divorce you every day for the last two years, but you know what? It took coming to California to get rid of you."

Suddenly Jeremy and Blake ran by us into their rooms, crying. They sounded hysterical.

"Look what you’re doing to them!" I shouted.

"They know, Tom, they know. Get out! Get out!"

"You told them, didn’t you? You didn’t let me tell them!"

I could hear them whimpering in their room. I went to the porch, paced, quivered, my gut a nest of wasps.

I went in again, holding my palms up. In defense. I pleaded for a separation. She flung a plate that shattered at my feet. She slammed a drawer, then a cupboard door. Again she screamed, "Get out!" I waited on the porch, pacing again. I started walking. On the street, Neptune Avenue. Beside me rushed the winter afternoon, skate boarders, bikers. I went south, one, two, three miles. Then I was walking onto the beach, below Cardiff, beside boulder piles as large as houses. Then I was on the hard sand of a withdrawing tide. I turned around, the ocean on my left, walking into the fog and the evening. I walked and walked. For miles, past Stone Steps to Leucadia, then farther north. Eventually the tide came in, pushing me back to the cliff base. That winter violent Pacific squalls had already raked away much of the beach sand, exposing small sea-polished stones underneath. As the waves washed ashore, the rush of water back down the rocky incline made a noisy sucking sound. It was a grating noise that I heard not as release but as relentless in-breathing. Each gravelly whoosh was a desolate reminder that I had to leave my kids with her, give up my stake, become absent so they could have a stable home with one parent. To spare them their mom’s and dad’s hate. Where could I take them? I had nothing. No money. No place.

Walking back to Encinitas along Highway 101, again nearing the house, I couldn’t stop crying. I pounded on a chain-link fence, No, No, No! I feared more than anything—I will always fear it, like an open casket—having to go into my sons’ room and say goodbye to them. My tears activating theirs, my fear despoiling them. Their tugging on my neck. Their five-year-old bodies, strong but pliant, the boyish vulnerability, both of which I wanted to pick up and clasp to me and run away with, their clinging to me, their needing my devotion.

I snuck in through the unlocked back door. They were asleep. I lay down on the floor, hunched up and quivering. This was how I had slept beside them in their twin bassinet when they were three days old. I listened to their rhythms of exhalation, the two, one, JE-KE. I imagined their freedom from their parents’ turmoil. I felt I had to sacrifice myself. It was a paroxysm of love and duty, what I reckoned as a father’s responsibility. I thought about my father, the most responsible man I’d known. He would have done as much for me. I felt him decide. I felt his consent. What typed itself in my head was, You boys don’t deserve parents who hate each other: I will go, I will go.

Years later Jeremy tells me that he remembers that afternoon and evening, the yelling, the sound of the plate breaking, he and his brother rushing to their beds. He’s nineteen when he tells me that after I left, he crept into the kitchen and tried to put the plate back together. Revealing this bunches his face, and he turns away. He wants to cry or he’s already cried. I can’t tell. I ask if he recalls my sleeping on the floor that night. No. But he does remember wanting to see me the next day, Sunday, then waiting for me on Monday to take him to school, then waiting for me again after he got home. And I didn’t show.


After I awoke in the van, I called my mother. I told her that because we couldn’t stop fighting, Annie and I were separating. It was a varnished truth. I would see Blake and Jeremy every weekend. But I had nothing, only a van and some clothes. I asked for $500.

"Of course, Tom," she said. "I won’t let anyone ruin your life." Her protecting me shined once more, perhaps the last good time: I never thought she’d have such resolve until I tried her.

I got on I-5. I saw none of the speeding cars or the stationary oleander. Only an illumined red speedometer needle shaking on 40. Drive, I said. South, to the border. Then drive back. Mother’s words echoed in my mind. She said I was strong, that she and Dad had raised good sons who could survive trauma. Besides, she said, Annie’s hatred of me was not my fault. Yes, when I was a boy, the distress my family suffered because of my older brother’s craziness, was not my fault, either. But this was different, Mom. Dad kept the whole family together. I can’t. I know he died without a thing. No money. And I know how much you miss him. I miss him, too. Your father would have known what to do. So you do, too. You’ve got to be strong for the boys. Think of them. They need you. They need you to reassure them. I had a father who often traveled during the week, who wasn’t always there. His voice on the phone soothed me; his face, his cheek, his goodnight kiss when he was home. My absent father was still a father. The father is always there, coming home, a threat and a promise. He’ll be here soon. That was what I had to live for—that I’ll be with Jeremy and Blake, soon. Before they know I’m gone.

I drove to the UCSD library. It’s a building shaped like a Rubik’s cube, perched on one of its points. Inside the jagged structure I felt calm. Libraries buoyed me, the self-pity submerged. The anonymity of the stacks were soothing, the emotion stationed between the covers of a book—exactly how I wanted my emotions to be, compact in their open-and-shut mechanic. Why hadn’t I stayed in these long stacks under the florescent lights? Why had I strayed?

I looked up a poem by W. D. Snodgrass, "Heart’s Needle." I had read that the poem was an elegy for his three-year-old daughter in the wake of his divorce. My hand covered my mouth, barely able to intone the lines: "Three months now we have been apart / less than a mile. I cannot fight / or let you go." On the concrete floor, I sobbed.

The needle in my heart stuck. It stitched and pinched, caught and tore, thinking of Blake and Jeremy. When my sons awake, I am not there. They search the house for me. They gaze out the window for me. They ask their mother who says, Shush. They see my guitar case standing against the wall by the door, my books and papers in a cardboard box.

On another floor, I found a volume of Arthur Schopenhauer. I opened the index to Music. On the referring page one sentence had already been starred: "The composer reveals the innermost nature of the world, and expresses the profoundest wisdom, in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand."

Serendipity, fate, neither mattered. The plumb of those words went deep—they still do—as deep as any music. At that moment, I knew not the whole of their meaning. Only the knife plunge, the hook of the barb.

At a corner table, I looked out to the East, to I-5, and into the foggy soup that coated the coast. I had always done the opposite of what Schopenhauer had said—used my "reasoning faculty" to understand what I composed. But, since my reasoning faculty couldn’t understand music, I was expressing neither the profoundest wisdom nor the innermost nature of the world. Because I believed writing music was a way to find wisdom and that innermost nature and I had failed at it, I would, from now on, only repeat my failure by staying with music. What I needed was a language that wouldn’t fail me. What I needed was a language that communicated to me and to others what it was I couldn’t have. This language sounded like music. But I couldn’t know I needed a language other than music until I had experienced the means—music—by which I couldn’t have it.

Leonard Bernstein had raised the question: "Why do so many of us try to explain the beauty of music, thus depriving it of its mystery?" I don’t think Bernstein was tormented by the question. If he was, music itself overcame any wish he might have had to deprive it of mystery. He need only rush to the conductor’s podium where his doubts were stanched, for example, by the unbridled beauty, the tragic grandeur, the tympani roll and the violin attack on that spiky, tortured figure in D minor, the opening measures of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1.

It was a misnomer, our "depriving" music of its mystery. We weren’t depriving music of anything. Music could care less that we explained it. Music can’t be deprived. Music is itself. Forget poetic texts or program notes. Music asks for but then dismisses what it asks for. Is it deceiving us? Of course it’s deceiving us. Just try reasoning with it. Music, come on now, be reasonable. Not on your life. Music is as careless as a comet or a virus: Here’s an A flat, then a B, then three very quick C sharps, then a big fat rest, then a B minor seventh in a two-beat arpeggio.


What in the realm of expression was music?

Not what I thought.

Who in the realm of music was I?

Not me.

Who in the act of making a marriage work was I?

Not me.

And not me was me. Is me. I’d spent so long getting lost that now the only self I had was the one who was lost.

How appropriate, it suddenly felt, there, in the library stacks, surrounded by all those bound volumes of words, that I get it. That I get it that music was not, could never be, what I thought it was. That music was no longer the expressive language with which I could know myself. That my marriage was also no longer an expressive act (two authentic American artists, a weaver and a composer, supporting each other), through which Annie and I might find ourselves.

We were not we.

I was not I.

I had not been I for a long time.

Maybe I had never been I.

And the whole point of being myself meant realizing that I was probably never going to be myself. I could only be an I who strives toward his otherness, where he thought he should be. It was this fluid, unanchored self-definition that made sudden sense. I had sought a career in music, the expressive language of music composition, and a marriage to fulfill me emotionally, and both were telling me the same thing.

This you is not you.

You are someone else, a you you don’t even know yet.

And yet, congratulations are in order. Because you’ve lost yourself, you’ve found yourself.

Estrada was right.

You are lost. That’s who you’re supposed to be. Lost. Not found. Lost. Get it?


The next Saturday, I picked up Jeremy and Blake and our "Three’s Company" life began. We hung out at the University, in one of the music rooms where they kept the percussion instruments. The boys plonked on cardboard-tube xylophones and banged on the kettle drums, and I wrote a "Little March" on the piano with these lyrics:

Jeremy and Blake

I love you

Jeremy and Blake

yes I do

yes . . . I . . . do

Hah! I’d gone from a near-impossible-to-play piece for quarter-tone viola to a sappy lullaby in two-four time.

We ate lunch in the quad, and I told them that Annie and I would live apart because we were unhappy together. Apart we would be happy, but apart from you two I would be unhappy, so things weren’t going to be easy, I would miss them, and then I stopped. Too much, too soon. I buoyed the hope. We’d see each other every Saturday and Sunday. We’ll do lots together: the beach, camping, movies, parks, reading, singing. Things like we’re doing right now. Talking and feeling better. They didn’t buy it.

Dropping them off Sunday night, I left tearfully, as I would for several Sundays. On a deadly quiet suburban street in Del Mar, I rolled out my sleeping bag on the floor of my van. One time, I sat in Denny’s and composed a long letter trying to understand what had happened.

"While you opened me up to fatherhood and continue to do so, that shock of your birth hurt me, not that I didn’t want you, although I was terrified at first. It was the terror of fate that so shocked me and it just so happened to be the event of your birth—an event I later came to love because I learned what life is: it is the end of superstition and belief, the beginning of action, actively making things happen, such as a beautiful relationship with you two." And my anger about fate. "My losing you is the kind of change which is not supposed to happen in my conceit of life, as I will always feel you have been taken from me—and not by Annie, but by some fate which does not let me know. Am I never to know even though I know it will all happen anyway?"

Progress: at least I wasn’t haranguing myself for being selfish.

After composing the "Little March," I quit playing the piano. I quit conducting, quit singing, quit listening to music, quit or stopped hearing it in my head, turned the valve as tight as I could. What was in my head? Melodies. Rhythmic phrases. The sound of an alto sax and flute in dissonant flourishes; the sense that my skin could feel a tune in waves of electrical energy—that music quieted, vanished. (It didn’t die; in moments of utter calm, I hear it still.) At first I didn’t believe I was no longer musical. I’d pick up my guitar and my fingers knew what to play. But the mechanical, tactile pulse that says you want to play, you want to drive a piece of music forward wasn’t there. I laid the guitar down in its case, my body numb or shutdown, the music like rats fleeing me for the briny main. I pushed the guitar case under the bed.

Suddenly I despised it all. The avant-garde. The shock of the new. Its pleasureless hedonism. Its childishness. At once concert, I watched a guitarist I knew play half of a Bach bourrée, stop, turn on a vacuum cleaner, blow up a plastic glove, tie its end and attach the balloon-hand to the head of his guitar where it floated, then finish the bourrée. This wasn’t music; it was stupidity. Sixties kitsch, though at the time my coterie and I thought it ridiculously funny. How many more of these new-music performances could I stand? None, thankfully.

It was true. By the time I got to San Diego, I no longer notated sounds I wrote down ideas. "Make an action in music out of not wanting to do a musical action," or "The future of music lies in the uses to which television will put it." Because what I wanted music to be did not exist, music became descriptive prose about a music I dreamt I’d compose. I was always planning the piece I would write as a way of getting me to write it. (In reading my notebooks now, I have little clue as to their meaning or their practicality. Was that the intent, putting it all into words so I’d hear nothing?)

Whatever it was it was exhausting. Suffering such spiraling away as my musical identity reminded me of Nietzsche: "What is it I suffer from when I suffer from the destiny of music?" Part of me wanted to punish myself by denying myself the balm of music, especially during the time my sons and I were apart. I couldn’t listen to the music I loved—say, the "yes, Jesus loves me" Largo of Ives’s Fourth Sonata for Violin and Piano—without blubbering. I wanted to purge music’s ability to still seduce me. But I couldn’t. Who can? The jazz chords, sixths and ninths, of "Stompin’ at the Savoy." The fiddle tunes, "The Irish Washerwoman" and "Midnight on the Water." William Schuman’s "New England Triptych," Duke Ellington’s "Rockin’ in Rhythm," Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, Meredith Willson’s "Seventy-Six Trombones." With each, the music insists on holding you fast, heart-hooked, memory-attached. It’s what music wants. It’s what culture wants. It’s what any art wants. To use us, its hosts, as the means to perpetuate itself. I recognize now that art deceives us for its own purposes. Music, evolutionarily self-selecting, uses us as much as we use it. "How can we doubt," Carl Jung says in his essay, "Psychology and Literature," "that it is his art that explains the artist, and not the insufficiencies and conflicts of his personal life?"


Two weeks passed and I returned to Taylor. He seemed unchanged, an uncle whose tics I’d memorized. Yet something about him was more than familiar, beyond the weeks spent counseling my ex and me. His big body packed itself into that padded swivel chair; he looked as though he had a family, maybe children, which calloused his countenance—and I wondered whether he still itched the chafe on his cheeks and neck. Or whether he’d learned to leave it alone.

"How are you feeling?" he asked.

"I’m feeling—I hate to say this—very different. A lot lighter."

"You do know why."

"The fighting has ended. We don’t argue anymore."

"And that’s good, right?"

"That’s good."

He’d seen it before, he said. Couples whose split was vindictive and bitter yet came as a great relief. I couldn’t know this earlier. But I should know now that it’s a counselor’s job to help a bad marriage end. Especially, "in your case," he said, "when it’s past saving." He went on to say that in our contemporary Reaganized vision of family happiness, some counselors saw it as their duty to salvage marriages, no matter what. Like marriage should be no different from what our parents believed. He didn’t buy that. "No one is served," he said, "if it remains unchanged. It only gets worse, and you and she suffer. As do the kids. Besides, good dads don’t have to stay married."

This last bit: What a ray of light. Had he only offered that hope early on—because being a good dad and not staying married to her was what I wanted, which I didn’t know I could want.

"You know," I said, smiling, "it took our coming to San Diego and these sessions with you for me to realize how tired I was of arguing with her. We had nothing physical anymore. I was sick of her tallying up my debts. Of her seeing me not as a composer but as a provider. And I wasn’t providing much of anything. It was OK for her to be an artist because she made lots of money at it. But unless I made money, in her eyes I was nobody." I thought a moment. "I think I also see how much I helped perpetuate it."

"You got some of that perpetuating it from your parents, didn’t you?" Taylor asked.

I said yes I had. From my dad.

"You wouldn’t have known any other way but theirs, correct?"

"My dad was the provider. I guess I believed I had to be like him. Married. And focused on something other than what I wanted to do."

Just then I noticed the similarity. Taylor reminded me of my father, Big John. Same size, same directness, same bristly tough-to-shave cheeks. And the same honesty I reveled in with my dad, who, in those long moments, especially after he’d been on the road, tucked me in at night, who wanted to atone for his absence, to let me glow a bit in his eyes, to acknowledge, though it went unsaid, that he and I had missed each other and for us to linger and labor in the presence of that feeling where we were as much ourselves as we were perfectly paired.

Taylor embodied the father I thought I’d lost, the one unrecoverable in me. But Taylor was saying, this is someone I, too, could be. Don’t long for the father, become him.

Before we ended, he said one thing more: "Jeremy and Blake probably won’t take you to task for what has happened. And don’t be surprised if they blame themselves." He then asked, "Do you have a place yet?"

No, I was sleeping in my van, waking at dawn before anyone in the neighborhood noticed me. Homelessness was fine for now. The school had showers. The boys and I camped on weekends.

"I quit smoking and started running," I said.

"Good for you," he replied. We stood and shook hands. He walked me out. And that was it. I hoped to see Taylor again—to tell him that I had spent a decade of my life desperately clinging to two things, a career in music and a marriage to Nancy Ann Carter, both of which I had long ago stopped wanting, that is until he and southern California let me let them go. I know he would appreciate where I’ve got to, acknowledge my still wrestling with the truth of it, savor it with me for a time, allow it its heft. He continues to do this for me even though physically he’s no longer here.


I needed a room, a bed for my aching back. I answered an ad at a flat-roofed house in Pacific Beach. A man, unshaven and dumpy, swung the door open. His kitchen smelled of fried chicken and Marlboros. Here’s the room. One queen bed filled the space. A tiny desk sat in the corner. Like biospheric aliens, philodendron leaves pressed against the window. When I said I had my kids on the weekends, he said that’s all right, you can play with them outside. In his living room I spied family photos on the mantle, thick sideburns and longhair, circa 1973. Who are they, I asked. "My family," he said, "before my marriage broke up."

I drove away quickly. I waited until my name came up for an apartment at Mesa Apartments, the University’s graduate student housing.

By July, Blake and Jeremy had two places. I disliked their Encinitas house because its bunk beds (my mother’s gift) and toy chest and boogie boards, its folded and strewn clothes, its posters and blue jean smells, its proximity to their friends and school—all negated my place. But I might duplicate some of what they had. So I started collecting. At my two-bedroom apartment (I found a roommate who actually took to my sons), Blake and Jeremy slept on a ratty fold-out couch in the living room. In the main closet I put a bookcase, a giant toy box, and a little dresser with separate drawers for their backpacks of underwear and shorts, toothbrush and Walkmen. Few toys traveled back and forth. Instead, I got hand-me-downs from my ex, or else I charged up my Visa. My walls soon were covered with their sketches. Many said "I love Tom," showing houses and palm trees. The word love and a house were always joined.

We’d spend hours in a nearby park—a huge sandbox play area with adjacent tree-house trees—where they met other kids. At night I read library books, chapters they recalled fairly well from week to week. I didn’t date, hire a sitter, have friends over—no interferences allowed when we were together. I might stay inside and read, especially once Blake and Jeremy found friends. There were other single Dads with kids populating the apartment complex Saturday mornings. But I watched for Blake and Jeremy furtively out the window or else ambled outside every thirty minutes. The pattern of their lives grew stable and by December of that year their resiliency and my steadiness were kin.

Blake was on the phone with my mother. "We’re lucky, Grandma," he said. "We get to be at our dad’s house and our mom’s house for Christmas. We get to decorate two trees and we get two piles of presents. Want to talk with my brother?"

At first, I thought, both sons were showing me how well they adapt to divorce, they’re team players, they accentuate the positive.

It would come about more slowly that once I’d lived with the pain of missing them a while, I started to see that Blake’s lines felt rehearsed, protecting me perhaps from feeling any worse than I did. He was a quick study, spinning Christmas. Which is the point about Christmas, keeping its persona in tact. He and his brother were being good sports for me. One of the many jobs kids shoulder, post-divorce. Meanwhile, something else, shudderingly private, happens to them.

A divorced father of young children realizes eventually that his failure in the marriage cannot be hidden, and his children participate in his disappointment, which like a dye colors everything. No matter how pleasurable our moments were, the moment was always occupied by my fear of losing them. I hurried my reading, glanced out the window, sewed buttons back on, fussed over their meals, held them tight to me and nibbled their ears, tickled them on the bed, toweled them dry after a bath—and all the while I thought our togetherness is being taken away from me. A punishment, a life sentence. At times I was so fixated on being their father that I couldn’t even see how much I was there. How often did I sit with my kids and feel remiss for not spending more time with them, vowing to do better the next day, and the next, drifting in a sort of immovable penance, unable to disguise the fact that however much I was devoted to them it wasn’t enough.


In October 20, 1983, a Thursday, our divorce became final. My $8,000 debt canceled, the house in Santa Fe hers, child support to be determined, and joint custody. (Yes, materially, I got less.) On May 29, 1984, my petition to transfer from the music department to the literature department was approved. Why did it take so long? I’ve implied why in the lengths I’ve gone to here. I kept composing words that were liberated from their music. One attempt was to notate a range of American poetry, a species metrically different from traditional English iambic pentameter. The American voice is syncopated and irregular. In William Carlos Williams’ "so much depends / on a red wheelbarrow," I hear a pause after "depends" and a downbeat quarter rest before "on." These caesural punches have the quirk and stab of our idiom. Such utterances shape content and meaning.

I worked on these textual ideas with Bernard Rands, an ex-pat British composer who, having studied with Luciano Berio, was a master text-setter. He had set an array of poems from five languages around single themes—moon songs, sun songs, songs of the eclipse. During my lessons with him, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his "Canti del Sole," for tenor and orchestra. It was comforting working with Rands; he helped me revive a principle about voiced poetry, which I had abandoned twelve years earlier. It occurred to me, in Rands’s messy little office where he and I ranged over Yeats and Eliot and Thomas Hardy, that my musical sensibility was entirely based on my early reading of poetry—the quantities, the stresses, the pauses, the durations lengthened and quickened by syncopation, all of which delighted me. Why had I developed the sounds and rhythms of speech and script as a music outside language, when, in fact, it was the music of language I loved?

Rands helped me sort my ideas for a new work for male and female voices and three instruments. It would tell the life of Theodore Roethke, using key phrases and lines from his poetry. My idea was that the meaning of a poem is freed by the voice that recites or sings it. A poem must be heard. I wanted to successively overlay Roethke’s child and adult perspectives, the conflict most pitted in his work. I wanted to underscore the meaning of the words by atomizing the syncopated subtlety of his lines.

My Roethke piece (part composed, part improvised by the players) was given a reading at my composition jury. At the end, faculty composer Roger Reynolds, another eventual winner of the Pulitzer, asked the singers/reciters whether I had given them, or they had discovered, precise emotions they could engage while performing the piece. Both said no. "I like the sounds Tom writes for me to sing," said the mezzo-soprano, "but I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel about this music."

I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel.

When I met with Rands to decompress, I felt ashamed, worse, unsophisticated. I told him that I couldn’t add anything to Roethke’s genius by notating his musical tendencies in a performance piece. There was enough music in the lines he’d written already. He didn’t need me to improve his lines.

"You’re not improving them," Rands said. "You’re using them as a springboard to explore sounds and rhythms you want to write." Unlike most composers, he was ever the optimist.

"Music only gets in the way," I said.

"You don’t hear sounds in his words?"

"No. I hear myself doing what the singer said. I’m not feeling what he’s saying and I’m not giving the singers anything to work with."

Rands looked surprised and troubled.

I left with a pounding in my head. Stop! Stop trying to find the music in language. It’s just there. The music of Roethke’s poems will arise whenever anyone reads one, whether aloud or silently. The music is there in the language he writes. In the language you write. So write.

Finally. Simple. Relief equal to the divorce. On May 29, I seemed to float above the quarter-mile concrete path from the music office to the literature office where I enrolled. After twelve years, I went back where my primary artistic language had its home. To paraphrase Kierkegaard. One lives the journey forward. One maps it only by looking back. What cinched my becoming a writer was my being a musician.


Despite my sons’ valiant coping with our new digs, I returned them on Sundays as though they were on loan. As I said, the shame I felt for failing them as a full-time father was always there. Such blues colored that first year when so many drop-offs were pervaded by sadness. But not always. Saying goodbye on the front porch, beneath the avocado trees, Blake had trouble hugging me. I sensed his not wanting to acknowledge to himself how much he missed me, which is precisely what made me want to hold onto him more tightly. "It’s OK, Blake, for you to miss your Dad and tell me how you feel." His green eyes refused the invitation. Instead, he bore me a flat, unmoistened, on-the-lips kiss. He seemed to cherish our weekends together, where one day we rollicked at Sea World and the next picnicked and swam in Mission Bay. He held it in, I felt, the weekend’s endlessness and its abrupt betrayal on Sunday. (In my notebook I wrote down something he said, shocked by its insight: "I don’t do anything right.") Hustling himself inside, I imagined he told his Mom that everything went fine with his dad. Yeah, he had fun. And then he went off by himself.

Jeremy held on, walked me back to the van.

One night, at his mother’s request, he took a letter down the path to the mailbox, accompanying me. In the foggy cold, he wore his heavy Chicago Bears parka that I’d bought him—and he treasured—bright orange lining, a pointed orange-zippered hood which framed his face in a ball, tender and bright. His face moved side to side, his chin rubbing the hood’s furry edges. He waddled in the stiff newness of the jacket, making nylon-scraping sounds as he went. At the foot of the steep walk he climbed up the side of the fence to reach a second mailbox that rode piggyback on another. On it was printed his, my, last name, and his mother’s last name.

"Can you get it?" I asked, but he was elastic, propping a foot on the fence, holding on with the other hand, pulling the mail out of his mouth, putting it into the box, shutting the door, and raising the metal red flag. He was above me and leaned out to fall forward and be caught. When I did, his face rubbed next to my ear, and he said, "I love you." That close, I felt my face was as much his as mine. We were indistinguishable—the boy in the father, the father in the boy. I wanted to be his age, wanted him to be mine. He let go and shimmied down my body, leaping to the sidewalk.

I said, "I’ll see you in five days."

"OK," he said. No cloying regret.

"Take care of Blake and Annie."

"She doesn’t want to be called Annie anymore—"

"Oh really."

"Her name is Nancy."

"OK, she’s Nancy. Like she was before. I can live with that."

"She wants us to call her Mom."


He waited.

"So," I said, "you should call me Dad."

We said another round of "I love you"s, hugged again. Lingering was painful. But the pain of it was also complete, like those moments when my index finger inserted itself into the safe little barrel of his thumb and fingers, which closed and held on.

"See you when we play," he faltered, "four in a row?"

"No, honey, Connect Four," I corrected him about the name of a game he, Blake, and I often played. It was an upright grid in which opposing players (black vs. red) dropped checkers to connect four in a row. You built your row and blocked the row of your opponent.

Suddenly he turned, his bobbing parka-form ascending the steps. We had the ends down already—presence/absence. And the coming to (me) and the going from (me) in between. I heard the door at his mother’s up there open, shut.


I realize now that it wasn’t my composing music per se that drew me to it. It was the aliveness of music in me that was so affecting. Aren’t we all magnetized by music’s vibrations? From ages twenty-two to twenty-seven, I was a primitive, an oral musician; when I became a serious composer, notating and writing down my sound ideas, I lost the orality and took up the script, what Eric Havelock calls "the literacy of music." This led, ages twenty-eight to thirty-three, to the constant need to explain my musicality to myself—in words. By the time my writing self had purged my musical self, I’d come full circle.

Since leaving music and my marriage, I didn’t go to concerts for some twenty years. I rarely listened to recordings. I bought a few compact discs again only in the mid-1990s. I was like a lapsed Catholic, who sits in the church, sullen and blank, then walks out. If anyone played a record—after my divorce, I had a lover, Barbara, who adored listening to opera while we had sex; I think she fantasized that I was a tenor—I would defer to his or her interest. I wouldn’t let on as to what I’d been through. It was too strange, too emotional. Undiscussable. An unanswered question I had yet to ask. When I started reading through the notebooks and journals I’d kept, heard again the many tapes I’d recorded, I couldn’t feel my former musical identity, still chafing at me, button-holing my attention. Which is why I had to tell this story chronologically. To let a complicated identity unravel itself through time, one of many paths I could have taken.

I know the regret I didn’t want to feel: If only I’d remained a ragtime guitar player (and not messed with the avant-garde), how good I’d be today, how stable those sixteen-bar melodic strains would have anchored my life. But that’s folly. Every musical style I worked in was a transition to another style. Each held only half my interest. Whether playing and composing folk, ragtime, jazz, classical, and New Music, I was at home in none.

And yet the irony is, taking the path that leads you even to your half interests is the path you take. The path that seems so unlikely in retrospect to have been your path—well, that’s the path.


In 1984, I awoke in a clearing. Two things noted in my journal that year tell me so: "an essay on the father in contemporary poetry" and "Jeremy losing two games of Memory, a card game, to Blake, & my being excited for Blake & Jeremy, feeling the loss of the approval in one and the warm feeling of winning in the other." Why these? In the first I envisioned a piece of writing bigger than me and yet whose theme I was currently living. And in the second it was the first time I recorded my sons’ activity in clear, direct, observant language, the first time I wrote about them as people whose daily deeds expressed and shaped their personalities. From then on, I seldom wrote about the unfathomable abstraction of music and, instead, recorded the actual experiences of my marriage and divorce, the kids’ daily lives, and what troubled me psychologically. I wrote down what troubled me. I did not compose music as a metaphor for my trouble.

In that 1984 journal, I also wrote, "Someday a book on my musical life, circa 15 - 34 yrs. old."

The once-filled tanks I had for music and for Annie were empty. I used up my allotment of sound; for a long time, I felt I had used up my desire to care for a woman as well. Letting her go was not as easy as letting music go. How odd that is to say when it was music I was obviously more devoted to!


The dramatic scenes I’ve written are recreations, based on the many times I’ve remembered those scenes, during which time they have grown and changed and memory has had its way with them. My intellectual journey is informed by my reading and studying materials at the time and since. Some of this material I first encountered in the 1970s, and it has taken me decades to understand. I trust no one thinks I had the intellectual acumen then that I have now.

What effect have the events and emotions described in this essay had on my sons and ex-wife? I’d like to answer that , but I don’t think it’s possible. They will tell their own tales. All I can say is that I have been true to my desire and my antipathy for Annie, our intimacies and dreams, our dread and anger. As right as she was to throw me out, I was right to want reconciliation. But being right is the most impotent of relational judgments.

I also recognize that the divorce intensified the latent frailty and loneliness in my sons, in part, because their birth in 1977, five years before the family ended, meant the marriage never stopped being tested and strained. I was torn apart by having children, and I couldn’t fake that feeling. (It does no good to try and assuage that by saying "I did come to love them.") I’m sure they felt my ambivalence. I’m sure it hurt them. Nothing is more searing for young children than to harbor the abandonment their parents feel for them and to be powerless to counter that feeling—them or me. Even though our split brought the unhappiness into the open at last, the hurt was already there, is still there, no doubt.

To paraphrase Jung, the greatest burden of the child is to live the unlived life of the parent. How would such a burden reveal itself in my children? My angst with music and marriage was there when they were born. It must be part of their marrow. Parents. Mom and Dad. They do not mean to but they do. It’s hard to say this but I’m never quite sure, like any possessive parent, to what degree I see in their faces that father-son likeness, which manifests as their disappointment of me or of themselves.

Or do I imagine this?

I know I can only express my feelings for them, not theirs for me.

Nor theirs for themselves.

Still. I would like to.

I’m their father.