Commentary: Beware of the temporal goo of January nights

Tom Stafford

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Tom Stafford

It’s been dark for some time, and your body tells you it’s time for the 11 o’clock news.

But a check of the digital clock says it’s 8:19 and you remember: It’s January again.

Time has slowed to the point in the time-space continuum known as the temporal goo – that state in which you feel as though you’ve been held hostage in the waiting room of the Social Security office, the title transfer department, or the car repair shop, where you decided to linger instead of taking the courtesy van home.

Briefly, you consider asking whether the van can run you to the story to get vaping materials just to have something to pass the time.

But the Christmas bills are on the way, and you’re low on cash, which means you can’t afford either the vapes or the withdrawal patches.

On these kinds of nights, some people knit and others log on to Facebook to goad their never-Trump or ever-Trump friends.

I’ve taken to going down the basement stairs to pick up two wooden sticks, open a book that’s cover went missing in the past millennium and work my way into a trance.

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Although it sounds weird, most people know what the trance-state is like.

It’s nearly any state in which you’re doing something and time accelerates like a luxury sedan weaving corn rows among the lines of cars in rush hour.

The opposite of the temporal goo, it’s a state in which the clock informs us that the 15 minutes we think we’ve spent doing something actually has been nearly an hour and 15 minutes.

The different things that put each of us in that state is what I call our ultimate hobby.

As I mentioned, it could be knitting. It could be working on cars. For some, it’s gaming.

For me, it involves making two wooden sticks dance between my fingers while they make sounds on a practice pad, which is just a piece of synthetic rubber glued to a board.

I’m no Fred Astaire at making the sticks dance. And, unlike what is said of Ginger Rogers, I certainly can’t do it in heels and backwards.

But just being on the dance board is fun.

And, for me, it’s the complexity the dance that envelopes me and brings on the trance.

It starts simply enough, with the two sticks and some black marks on the page, the notes.

In drumming method books, the notes also are accompanied by the letters L and R for left and right hand, a coding system even we drummers can understand.

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Early on, the books ask that you not just alternate sticks but play patterns in which four hits with the left hand might be followed by two, three or four with the right, before the left comes back in for however many hits are indicated.

The multiple hits mean you can’t lift the stick back up to full height to strike each note. They require that you bounce the stick three or four times in succession. More than that, the bounce has to be consistent so that no note sounds louder than any other and so that all notes remain equally spaced from one another.

This begins to resemble the game Simon, in which the patterns grow more and more complex as the game goes on – except that it’s not only the number of notes you have to keep track of, but which notes are sounded with the right stick and which the left.

Then, to make things interesting, accents are thrown in like dashes of pepper or hot sauce.

Those accents easier to execute when they fall on the first note in the pattern, because your fingers can use the energy of the first strong stroke to bounce the softer notes that follow. But if the accent comes on the last of four notes, all sounded same stick, it becomes a different matter. Because it’s then necessary to insert the motion needed to play the accent without delaying for an instant the moment the stick must kiss the pad.

Shorter one-measure patterns give way to two measure patterns that might be either repeated or mirrored in the third and fourth measures.

At this point, it becomes difficult to make the patterns and read them at the same speed. So short term memory – what some call muscle memory – has to take over.

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During this transition, the rhythm can wobble a bit like a bicycle under the control of an inexperienced rider. Restarts are required – as is repetition – for things to get back on the road. While that’s happening, the conscious mind holds the bicycle seat to keep things steady before the autopilot again can kick on.

It’s only as you gain enough faith in your hands that your mind has enough attention freed up to do the physical fine tuning required for the hands to make the sticks dance in a way that makes the phrasing just right.

Only then, in this trance-like state, can the hands turn rhythms written on the page into the sounds the writer intended be made at the far side of the sticks. Only then can the phrasing imagined by those who wrote the patterns be realized by the one who has gone beyond reading the music to playing it.

For years, the internal rhythms of those patterns have struck me as mathematical formulas. Or maybe mechanical sounds once created by earlier steam-powered machinery – the kind that, once heard, create an itch early on in the process that the pattern’s completion turns into a pleasurable scratch.

Wherever it comes from, I don’t care.

I only know it as a dance that sends me into the trance that frees my mind up from the temporal goo of January nights.

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