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Filtering by Tag: Howard Schapp


Howard Schaap

typewriter-1227357_1920 Just last week, during prayers at bedtime, my youngest son thanked God that piano lessons were over for the summer. I’m not sure when it became law for upright pianos to be stationed in every household, to break the backs of the fathers who move them there and to break the minds of children who, coming home daily from school, find not freedom but piano lessons, but it’s a law I resent even as I continue to abide by it. In one corner we, too, have a breaking-down piano like a hulking mushroom.

I took piano lessons from third to sixth grade—until I broke my arm, thank God—and honestly never played one song that had life or actual music in it. For me, the piano was a parallel art: it was an art that ran parallel to my life and never once broke into my own playing. One night, after I tearfully struggled through my lesson, going through the motions, I got out our old typewriter and began happily copying encyclopedia entries. First, I did “Temperate Forest” followed by “Desert.” Climate descriptions, animal lists, whatever. I plunked them out and felt every one of the clicks and thunks, felt the energy transferred from my fingers to the simple levers of the keys that punished the paper with staccato precision, marking it with elegant letter after elegant letter. That rhythmic mechanical process clicked off something in my brain. I loved it.

Dad was a musician, or rather a musician turned farmer, with short muscular fingers at least a key-and-a-half wide from milking cows for forty years. The night of the plunking typewriter, he scolded me sharply for my miserable attempt at the piano while I could type out meaningless stuff easily enough. He was right. There was certainly no music to the words, nothing like he could do on the old upright. He’d modeled what music might sound like, playing from memory an old ditty in which his hands jumped from the keys with life and verve, his thick torso swaying back and forth, a conduit of emotion and energy even if he didn’t hit all the right notes. In a man of his size, it was something to behold.

As I sit this morning and wonder what it is I’m doing at this keyboard, I can’t conjure as much emotion as he did for those little ditties. It wouldn’t be safe. Or sustainable. And yet it’s exactly what I want in a way—to grasp and hold lightning for a minute like he did, for meaning to flow through the conduit of my body and out these ten tangled fingers.

So I get up morning after morning, sit before the keyboard, and bend myself to the lessons, waiting for lightning to strike.

The Tale of Entrails

Howard Schaap


Caesar. What say the augurers?

Servant. They would not have you to stir forth to-day. Plucking the entrails of an offering forth, They could not find a heart within the beast.

Compared to freshman year’s Romeo and Juliet, I loved sophomore year’s Julius Caesar. I loved all the weirdness, from the lioness whelping in the streets to the slave with the burning hand to dreams of bathing in blood. Then, all that oratory stirring up men to mad revenge—it was almost enough to make politics cool.

But it was the whelping lioness—love that word, whelping—and the stormy weather and the crazy birds that I really loved. The idea that all of nature was in tumult along with the ruling classes of Rome made nature and culture all of a piece, and I liked that idea.

Pivotal in this all-of-a-piece world were the augurers, or haruspex, priestly types that read nature via the entrails of animals in order to prophesy the future and test the will of the gods. It was a strange type of priesthood, so extremely earthy.

I began my own foray into entrails—so says the master haruspex to the apprentice—via the fish we caught when I was a kid. After filleting the larger game fish, Dad would slit the stomachs to find what else the fish had been eating, usually various sorts of smaller fish that were intact enough so we could tell what they were, minnows or perch mainly.

Now, with my own kids, the stomach-check has become such a highlight that they request it even before I begin. It’s maybe a little creepy, but over the years we’ve found a pretty interesting array in the stomachs of northern pike: the usual minnows or perch, but also crayfish and frogs—once five entire frogs—and another time something with fur. Now, we’re even checking the stomachs of sunfish where we have found snails and dragonfly larvae.

Of course, real fishermen do this sort of work to understand how to better catch fish: what are the fish in a given lake feeding on and how well? Then there’s the larger story of the lake: how well is the food chain working?   The larger story yet is that of the canary in the coalmine: what is disappearing from the food chain and what does that tell us about how sick we are?

Which brings me back to Caesar’s augurers, those improbable butcher-priests, looking down to look up, who could not find a heart in an ox. Recently, as I filleted a pike, my son asked where the heart was; the meat was already slid off and in a pan; the stomach was checked, empty; I reached in and found the heart, held it out slightly to show them, a tiny little rubbery muscle slightly smaller than a marble.

It beat, throbbing between my fingers, startling me, sending a shiver down my spine.

If it was an omen, it was an omen of life, and it made me feel small, there in the twilight, the world all of a piece.