Some fiddles are fitter than others

I took this week off from the column.  Here’s a seasonally appropriate rerun from 2008.  Happy holidays!  Now, back to the cookies.

This Christmas season, my wife Kara and I decided to be socially conscious and do our best to buy locally, so we headed over to do some shopping at a nearby bookseller, Barnes and Noble, one of our local corporate behemoths.

To our surprise, there was a good deal of very local activity going on in there; our next-door neighbors’ teenage son, Brian, was playing in a concert with his fiddle group in a roped-off area next to the café, where currency is converted into coffee mixed with sundae toppings. The young musicians had clearly not been paying attention in math class; they seemed to have been playing their instruments for longer than they had been alive.

“This is a song that I composed last summer,” Brian announced into the microphone, before heading into a performance that Mr. Holland would have gladly traded for his opus. During the song, three teenage kids played musical chairs with their musical instruments, switching between a piano, an electric guitar, acoustic guitars and fiddles (you could tell they were fiddles, not violins, because the people playing them were not wearing tuxedos). I half-expected Bugs Bunny to march across the stage wearing his one-man-band outfit, playing a trombone while swinging mallets into a bass drum with his ears.

I don’t come anywhere close to matching Brian’s success when I compose my own songs, which are generally improvisational message songs intended for much smaller audiences, with titles like, “The Itsy-Bitsy Husband Doesn’t Feel Like Emptying the Dishwasher.”

Regardless, standing among the toe-tapping, head-bobbing audience there beside the biscotti jars, I felt a certain camaraderie with those talented kids because — and I don’t mean to brag, but — in certain musical circles, I’m very highly regarded, especially and exclusively in the circles that are familiar with the high scores on our copy of Guitar Hero II.

For those unfamiliar with the Guitar Hero franchise, it’s a series of video games that makes players feel like Jimi Hendrix for the intrinsically nerdy act of being able to punch large plastic buttons on a guitar-shaped controller. I once overheard a guy at a party who, in the saddest boast I’ve ever heard, claimed to be the 24th-best Guitar Hero player in the world, which might be slightly more impressive to women than having the 24th-hairiest shoulders. A true Guitar Hero aficionado will do well not to spend too much time thinking about the real instruments they could have learned in the same amount of time.

We never upgraded to Guitar Hero III in our house, mainly because the pursuit of musical excellence on a pretend guitar began to seem somewhat counterproductive, especially when a very real guitar sat biodegrading in its case twenty feet away, gently weeping from neglect.

A couple of weeks ago, spurred by post-Grand-Theft-Auto-conquering boredom, I pulled my old acoustic guitar out of the corner it had been occupying since before Tom Cruise was crazy.  Shortly thereafter, I discovered that it doesn’t do the best things for your musical confidence when the first chords you strum on your chosen instrument send your dog into a barking frenzy, the same way the trash truck’s brakes do.

Her musical criticism aside, I realized that our dog Memphis was barking because she’d never heard me play the guitar. After watching Brian and his fellow musicians calm and delight the harried crowd that had assembled mainly to throw elbows at its fellow shoppers, it became clear that all those days I heard Brian practicing through the windows, creating a disproportionately beautiful soundtrack for walking the dog, were paying great dividends.

In any event, Memphis is really going to freak out when she hears what our vacuum cleaner sounds like.

You can locate the exit door before Mike Todd’s encore begins at mikectodd@gmail.com.

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