Monday, December 01, 2008

Craving a Kalamazoo KM-21

The first Noble Truth of the Buddha is often translated

Life is suffering.

Some days that rings true. There are days when a lifetime's assortment of physical and psychological maladies make me wonder if my life isn't marred by suffering. The torn cartilage in my knee from martial arts. The screw in my wrist from tennis. The deviated septum from the three times (so far) I've broken my nose. The surgically repaired shoulder. Not to mention the various self-inflicted mental wounds, anxieties, fears, and insecurities.

And my life is relatively privileged. I live it surrounded by friends and family who love me and care for me. I am well fed (too well fed, of late!), have good shelter, and a fair amount of freedom to choose the course of my life.

So, if my life is suffering, what about that of the poor, the marginalized, the hungry, the lonely, the imprisoned? What about those who have been beaten, abused, raped, molested? What about the tortured parents of children who cry out in pain, unable to sleep because they are too hungry?

When depression hits, or when a change in the weather reminds me of each time I tested my far too little talent on some sports field only to break or tear something, or when I consider the plight of that faceless majority of the human population whose existence I would rather deny, it seems only honest to declare that life is suffering.

But in other moments, such a statement seems, well, a little harsh.

Life is filled of moments of pure, distilled pleasure, unsurpassed joy. You don't even have to look too hard to find them. Every time Adam jumps into my arms. Every time I hear a beautiful piece of music, or read an inspired passage of great literature, or mediate on some passionate work of art. Each night when I fall asleep cradled in Sami's arms.

Such pleasure, such joy, calls into question that Noble Truth of the Buddha, doesn't it?

That's what Westerners familiar with Buddhism have declared for, well, as long as Westerners have been studying Buddhism. Life is suffering? they ask, What about all the pleasure, what about all the joy? Surely the entirety of life can't be reduced to suffering!

But that's not exactly what the first Noble Truth does. It doesn't reduce life to suffering, but rather points to a fundamentally dissatisfactory quality that permeates each aspect of life. The Sanskrit work dukha that is often translated "suffering" has, as you might guess, a much more subtle meaning. A more honest translation of the first Noble Truth might read more like

Life is full of discontent.

That dissatifactory quality to life, that discontent the simmers under the surface, ready to emerge even in the midst of pleasure, that dukha, is caused, according to the second Noble Truth, by "desire," or, more accurately, "craving."

This is at the root of a great many addictions.

When I taste, for instance, a great piece of pumpkin pie, like I did when I ate my grandmother's best contribution to this year's Thanksgiving dinner, that sensation - while certainly pleasant - is a complicated one. I am first drawn to the pie by its aroma, an aroma that entices me, whets my appetite, instilling in me an insatiable desire to put the pie in my mouth. So I do. I scoop up a slice, put my fork to it, and place a bite between my lips onto my tongue. I feel the texture, and that texture, mixed with the aroma, creates a taste. A great taste. A wonderful taste. As I chew and swallow, I think, I must have more of that taste.

And so I do. But that sensation, however pleasant, is also impermanent. I can't repeat the experience indefinitely. Eventually the pleasure gives way to something else. And that something else, whatever it is, is dissatisfactory, because I could not cling to the pleasure. I could not hold on to the moment forever.

Trying to cling to that elusive pleasure can manufacture a great deal of suffering. In fact, Thanksgiving may be a perfect case study for that. How many of us, chasing the pleasure of the food we pile on our plates, hunt down that sensation far too many times, until we must retreat to the bathroom, or at least to the comfort of a soft recliner, nursing a stomach ache? I know that - at least at Thanksgiving - more often than not, I do. And so pleasure turns quickly into pain. And that pain was manufactured by craving that which cannot be, by clinging to something impermanent.

There are a great many other ways in which suffering is manufactured by craving. Many of them are obvious. My teenage years were full of them, pining like Romeo for Rosaline or Juliet, some abstract fantasy of feminine beauty, some mysterious sexual allure the mere sight, smell, or even memory of whom would burn the chest with the pain of unrequited love (or, at least, lust).

And those cravings do not, alas give way with the end of adolescence.

I remembered this today as I held in my hands the most beautiful instrument I'll probably ever touch.

A couple of weeks ago my mandolin died. It was a sad day. I almost wrote about it, drafting a post titled something like The Day the Music Died or some other bit of allusive melodrama.

That mandolin - a Kentucky KM-630 - was an extension of me. I found it at a used instrument store (not worth naming here because, frankly, the store is the pit of hell), in bad shape, for sale for less than half what it was worth. Taking a chance, I bought it, took it home, and fixed it up. Soon it sounded just right.

I played it every day, until I could no longer tell the difference between the music I was hearing in my head and the music that was coming out of it. It wasn't the best instrument by any stretch of the imagination. But it was my instrument, an extension of me. My playing style adapted to it, and it seemed to change with my playing style, too.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, in a moment of reckless stupidity, I stepped on it. As the luthier I took it to today dryly noted, they're not made for that. The neck is broken in several places, and it won't hold string tension. With the KM-630 deemed beyond repair, I took this afternoon to start looking for a new mandolin.

Steilberg String Instruments - where I found my violin, a Keith, Curtis & Clifton handcrafted last year in Romania - is far and away Louisville's best instrument store. I drop in my time to time to drool over a Weber octave mandolin that I'll never, under any circumstances, be able to afford.

Today, however, I was on a mission. Not to buy anything - I'm broke. But, at least, to begin forming some plan that will eventually end with the acquisition of a new mandolin. So I told the guy there what I was looking for, and he took me to a practice room and started handing me a few instruments. My favorite of the new ones was this Weber Aspen #1, but it is well beyond any budget I can dream of.

Then he said he had something special. From the used section of the store he dragged out an instrument they don't have listed on their website, a Kalamazoo KM-21. It was made by Gibson at their plant in Kalamazoo sometime between 1936 and 1940, and has matured nicely. My first thought when playing it was, This is what that Weber wants to be when it grows up.

I don't know how long I sat in that practice room, strumming on that antique mandolin. But I do know that from the moment I first touched it, all the other instruments in the room were dead to me.

But that experience, like everything else, was impermanent. It couldn't last. I don't have the unfathomable amount of money to spring it from its prison. I lack the funds to adopt it and take it home. And, well, eventually it would get awkward, sitting in a practice room all day, clutching a mandolin that dates back to before WWII.

So I handed it back to the guy, and we shared a knowing look, both of us wishing that somehow I could afford to buy it. But, like almost every other time I walk into that store, that wasn't going to happen. I left the store, once again, empty handed.

But now, for better and for worse, I have the memory of playing what was for me the perfect instrument. For better because not only do I have the joy of holding that exquisite work of art and coaxing beautiful music out of it, but I also have a better appreciation for the potential of the mandolin. It isn't just a tinny instrument to draw out the high end. It is also a complex instrument. A rough instrument. A mature instrument. And for worse because, no matter how much I crave that instrument, how tightly I clung to it in the store and how tightly I now cling to its memory, it isn't my instrument.

Not yet, anyway.


Liam said...

Nice post, Chris, and my condolences for you mandolin.

Aspirant said...


this is a great post. It is an excellent explication of the first noble truth...nicely rounded out by your own continued desire for the mandolin you cannot have. Detachment eludes you on that :)

And I love your comments about your family. If there is a place where discontent and love-satisfaction most meet, it is in family relationships.

It is so great to be back here, listening to your voice. I am jealous when I read the theologians you have read; I am trying to plink away at a few pages of Harnack, and as always reading Wright (his books are like Moby seems I never completely quit or finish them). Fact is, as I complain of often, my job is consuming, especially this time of year when the papers pile up.

Anyway, great to be back here. So glad you have not left the blogsphere.