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Joshua Bell in the DC Metro Station

by KATHLEEN PEINE

Urban dictionary calls it “granny spam”. The kind of email Thomas Kincaid would send you if you were his luminous pal- and if he wasn’t busy in the afterlife urinating on Winnie the Pooh. Those emails bring to mind being tied up on an Ikea couch, forced to watch The Wedding Planning Sweet November Time Travelling Saccharine Bastards. Pray to Kivik, Norse Pagan lesser god of shitty furniture, it still won’t help end that movie any faster. He’s too busy getting them set up in Right to Work southern states. And now there’s a damn Allen wrench permanently stuck to my ass.

But that’s just how it is. The assaults are everywhere- pushing the sap and actively discouraging anything nuanced and real- filling minds with sweet cardboard. Any number of blatant attempts lurk out there trying to push those buttons- why? I have no idea, all I know is those damn inspirational emails give me rabies, and I typically place those who send them in a special compartment in my brain where I let them reenact Beaches and Snoopy Come Home. That’s not really fair to Snoopy Come Home, though.

I got one of these messages from my workplace the other day (they send weekly inspirational crap all the time) and it was something that made me ache (not the usual headache) – a sad-tinged and heavy ache. I think I took it farther in my mind than they intended.

Maybe you’ve seen this one. It goes something like this:

A guy in jeans and a baseball cap shows up to play violin music for cash. It’s a busy Washington DC Metro station, and he plays about 45 minutes of Bach. A couple thousand people go by, but only 6 stop for a passing moment. When the music ends, there is no visible response from anyone. Children passing had tried to stop and listen, but their parents, without fail, shoved them past, hurrying them to their destinations. That’s really not a very remarkable story at this point, is it?

But the rest of the tale becomes a little unbelievable so I did some due diligence to verify that it really happened–and it did. Here are the details, many found in an old Washington Post article, not just from that email that sparked this.

The man playing the violin was Joshua Bell. I don’t know much about these things, but evidently people who like to categorize think he is among the best classical musicians in America. Just okay seats at his concerts go for $100, and they sell out.

The violin itself is part of the story. Handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari, it is reported to be of almost supernatural acoustic beauty. The original varnish is something of a mystery, but it’s thought to contribute to the perfection of the sound. That and the amazing wood that is imbued with the clarity of a glacier–an unintentional gift from the Little Ice Age.

From the cold mists that made that violin possible to ethereal fingers flying- unimaginably rare treasures combined to serenade those individuals hurrying to places like cubicles. And overwhelmingly, they did not stop.

This brings to mind how little value we place on something of exquisite beauty if there isn’t a corresponding high price to go along with it. You can bet those individuals who purchased pricey tickets to Bell’s concerts bragged at work about them. Yet only the children really seemed to want to stay and enjoy him in the DC Metro.

Accumulations and petty treasures pile up in our houses. Plato is said to have strolled the markets, pissing off vendors by saying “What a lot of things I don’t need.” Yet this horrible trajectory has continued, filling our lives up with meaningless trinkets, paid for by rushing past fleeting songs –miracles of so many layers we can’t begin to account for all of them.

Even the free and common can have a luscious grace. I mentioned waiting for mulberries to ripen with anticipation and my mother reacted with disgust at this free food (ironically she’s a child of the depression). “Who wants to eat those messy things?” But how many remember stretching childish arms to the branches, gathering those exquisite berries? With a sour under the surface to remind you that they are wild. Those berries would perish under fluorescent grocery store lights; they are too good for that. That’s a taste of perfect with no price. I still eat them.

They refer to normalcy bias in terms of disasters. People tend to discount the severity of what is occurring around them for all manner of reasons. Perhaps there is a facet of this bias that also hinders the perception of the truly peerless. And children haven’t had that bias stamped into their being so fully, hence their ability to damn well know that Joshua and his violin are worth listening to. And a taste of early summer is joy.

To live like that again, all the time.

So, sometimes a sweetness can be found even in a modified and chemical world (or a slew of granny spam)- for we do straddle two planes. One with hunks of old wood and pesky guys in jeans making noise at the Metro as well as worlds of exhausting beauty.

I know where I want to live.

Kathleen Peine writes out of the US Midwest and can be contacted at kathypeine@gmail.com or at the website paintedfire.org

 

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