Walking Music

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Walking Music

Metheny Travels

Are You Going With Me?, by Lyle Mays/Pat Metheny, performed by the Pat Metheny Group (1983), encountered 1984

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And so there I was, completely alone, trying to figure out what to do about my marriage. The woman I might have distracted myself with had left town and was gone. She soon made it clear she did not want me to write to her. What I did next was entirely up to me. It was immensely and productively lonely.

Getting Help

Anyone who’s had a marriage fall apart will recognize the fix I was in. The person I would ordinarily turn to to help me make any important decision was the person I was contemplating quitting. In this context, my closest counselor was de facto my adversary. She was not – could not be – on my side in this, and I did not find what she said helpful.[1]

I wasn’t very good help to myself either, at least not initially. I kept asking myself the wrong questions, which had a lot to do with my inability to do anything other than think in unproductive circles.

But I did get help.

The one who finally dragged me over to the correct questions and then waited impatiently while I answered them was a new therapist. Her name was Jo. Our marriage counselor, in suspending the marriage counseling, had referred me on to her (about the only useful thing he did). Jo and I met in her Chinese-decorated office[2]on the ground floor of a Towson high-rise that I would drive to twice a week.[3] And there I also made the acquaintance of a therapy group who became a second family, a healthy and intimate second family with just a couple of peculiarities: no one had last names, and, tragically, one’s rate of success would be measured in how quickly one was able to “graduate,” i.e. to say goodbye to it, never to see the other family members again. The group was even firmer than Jo was in calling people on their BS, which was indeed a vital talent because we all had so much of it to offer, I as much as anyone.

The Answers

I’m not going to drag you through the specifics of what the right questions were or how I answered them. I’ll simply say that eventually I struggled past the paralysis and those great loops of thought I had not been able to escape on my own. In general, I came to three major perceptions. These were: a) the marriage was irretrievable; b) until I worked through some of my own problems, I could not be a good husband to anyone; and c) in the examination of conscience as regarded my children, I could not forget the example of the oxygen mask. (You know, when flying with children, that if the cabin becomes depressurized, you use the oxygen mask first. Otherwise you may not be able to help either the children or yourself. Maybe you were wrong to have taken them on the plane in the first place, but once aloft, you still have to be the one to use the oxygen mask first.)

Between Contractions

Getting to that point was a process. The emotional part of it would probably be familiar to anyone who had been there himself or herself. It resembled dealing with waves of nausea. There would be periods where one felt desperate to leave, and then there would be periods of relief, when just the absence of pain felt good, and made one cautiously optimistic that the marriage could be saved.

Christmas of 1983, for example, was one of those periods between the contractions. After all the hustle and bustle of preparation was done, after the cards and the presents and the tree were all in place, I took my children to see the Christmas Story movie, which was just out then. We drove out to an old-fashioned two-screen theater in the suburbs. We were all by ourselves in the cold before filing into the popcorn-smelling warmth of the moviehouse, the film was an obvious and instant bit of wonderfulness, and a feeling of peace descended on me. Maybe, I thought for a moment, we could all be happy together again.

That Christmas glow lasted less than a week. By New Year’s Eve, which we saw in at a party aboard a vintage train car on a siding at the old Camden Station in downtown Baltimore, I astonished my friend the host by telling him privately: “Here’s to being a free man in 1984.”


By the end of February 1984, I had finally reached the point where I no longer wavered in my realization that I needed to leave.

But acceptance, though assertedly the last stage of dealing with impending death, is only the first phase of deciding to divorce. Then you need to summon courage, logistical skill, and cash. And the greatest of these is courage. You need the courage to overcome your own tendency to backslide into the more comfortable life you had built, the courage to stand up for yourself against the person you had up to that point been identifying as your other self, the courage to break children’s hearts and brave the disappointment of in-laws and friends, the courage to face a life of at least comparative economic hardship.

But courage you must have. Very quickly, in the group, I became acquainted with two people who had made themselves utterly miserable by hanging on for years in the marriages that had made them miserable, marriages they should have left. But they were never brave enough; until I left the group two years thereafter, they remained stuck. And that, I resolved, would not be me. Whatever else I would be, I refused to be stuck, even if some bravery was required.

Concrete Steps

In late March I started taking some of the concrete steps one has to take (getting things out of the safe deposit box and obtaining legal representation). And, prodded by the group, I announced my intentions to my wife. The fracturing had begun.

The day after Easter I went further and signed the inevitable apartment lease. I wrote at the time I felt like a lawyer going to trial when the facts are against him, a feeling I was not unfamiliar with. You’re going to do as well as you can, whatever the outcome, but you know the experience, however necessary and inevitable, won’t be pleasant. I also wrote that I was “blotting the … copybook, enrolling myself forever in the club of the sadder but wiser.”

There remained three weeks to go, three weeks in which to finish all that had to be finished before I moved out. “As the ordeal goes on,” I commented, “you lose track. You never know what’s round the next curve. You lose all orientation. One moment you’re cold, the next you’re crying hysterically. There are hundreds of practical details to cope with, and you’re so out of it you can’t cope with any of them.” The hardest task of all was talking to the children. And I will just mention it without further comment; the details are personal.

The Truck Came

And then, eventually, blessedly, came May 15. The truck came and picked up my things; two friends took off from work and helped me. After they left, I was sitting surrounded by boxes waiting for me to unpack them in a huge, well-lit two-bedroom apartment in one of the classic old apartment houses just off the Hopkins campus. For my purposes of the next two years, it was perfect.[4]

And the ecstasy hit. This was not the faintly pleasurable interstice between bouts of nausea of which I have written above. This was the full-throated thing. Whatever had been good or bad about the marriage, it was all now in the past tense. My future was entirely to be written, to be built, piece by piece, according to my own design. And I was animated by a fixed resolve to design it far better this time.

A Determined Walk

And that’s why the Pat Metheny Group’s Are You Going With Me? is the music that always comes to mind when I remember those first few days of being out on my own. From the first beat of the song almost to the ending over nine minutes later, drummer Dan Gottlieb’s strutting beat (probably augmented by Nana Vasconcelos on percussion) does not falter. It is the rhythm of a determined walk. And as the walk proceeds, the scenery changes several times, and it seems as if the affect of the walker changes with it, as scenery and affect are presented through Metheny’s guitar synthesizer and his collaborator Lyle Mays’ synclavier. The constant is not that the walker is in ecstasy, as I now was, but that he is always in challenging minor-key environments. But despite the challenges, despite the minor key, the mood is always joyful to my ear. The melodies grow ever more complex and elaborate, the pitch rises, the volumes rise, and always the walker rejoices, striding on. Eventually, at about the 8-minute mark, the intensity becomes orgasmic, and only after that climax has been achieved do Gottlieb’s drums go silent.

I was always realistic enough to anticipate that my landscape would be one of continuous, and continuously changing, challenge. But I felt now that I could be happy passing through it all.

I listened to this number many times in the months surrounding my departure. Guitarist Metheny’s brilliance (like that of keyboard man Lyle Mays, which I later grew to appreciate separately), set off by interactions with the live crowds in front of which the album was recorded, were to me the sound of a life fully lived. I felt personally beckoned to live as daringly, as soaringly as that song. And I resolved to try.


[1] In the 1998 movie of James Jones’ The Thin Red Line, an impressionistic take on the story of the Army on Guadalcanal, a “dear John” letter is voiced by the faithless wife: “Help me to leave you.” That was what I wanted.

[2] I remember screens with stylized vistas of landscapes (arched little footbridges and pagodas), and when I wasn’t looking at Jo, I would spend a lot of time with my eyes focused on the screens, trying to make out or at least imagine the faraway objects hinted at there, and wondering with part of my mind what the lives of the inhabitants of that little land might be like. For some reason the exercise was liberating.

[3] A round trip from downtown to Towson plus an hour session would take about two hours out of a working day. A young legal associate could hardly leave his office at a regular time, week after week, and give no explanation, without incurring unhappy comment from his superiors, and I was not about to give any explanation. That unfavorable notice was part of the price I paid to do this, and in so doing, to use a contemporary bit of jargon, I “valorized” it. If I was going to be dinged for a regular AWOL, I was damn well going to make it work.

[4] By perfect I don’t really mean perfect in all respects, as I shall write in succeeding pieces. Stil, I had all the six ground-floor windows on the left (plus three more around the corner):

3700 N. Charles

While this is a current photo (as of 2013), I can discern nothing that has changed in the past thirty years.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for artwork

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One Comment

  1. Rita McMullin says:

    This was very moving and written beautifully. Rita