After the church fired me, re-hired me the following day, subsequently docked my pay and screamed at my wife over a dispute about when we actually moved out of the old parsonage, I resigned. A final Sunday of employment was set. The Methodist Book of Discipline does not provide instruction for the eventuality of a Music Director being fired for killing a rabbit. The church had to improvise. After a brief discussion about what John Wesley may have done in such a case, they decided to hold a reception following my final worship service. Though many in the church leadership were not pleased with me, they felt it necessary to allow the congregation the opportunity to give cards and gifts and goodbyes.
I was working “part-time” for the church about 50 or 60 hours a week. I was also teaching a few classes at the University of Tampa and gigging out here and there. A local jazz singer asked if I would find a guitar player and meet her for a job in Deland on the same day as the reception. Deland is about two hours from Tampa. I took the job knowing that I would get to duck out of the reception early.
We had built a “little big band” at the church and were doing a service that was using original swing and funk charts. The weekly task of writing parts for a ten-piece band was overwhelming. On Saturday evening, I began finalizing the charts for my last service. I finished printing parts at 6:00AM. I slept for one hour, got up, and went to work. My final services at the church were uneventful. The sermon was mildly humorous. Most of the pastors for whom I have worked have a fascinating talent that they develop in seminary. They take a passage of Scripture, make it say what they want it to say and simultaneously bore you nearly to death. This Sunday was no exception to this technique. By the end of thirty minutes, we all understood the real meaning of the text he had chosen from I Corinthians: Just because Kurt is leaving does not mean that the church will fall apart. NOBODY LEAVE! ALL THE EXITS ARE LOCKED!
The reception itself was lovely. The congregation was as wonderful as they had always been to me. It should be noted that they were not informed about Bun Bun’s demise. Many gave cards with checks or cash inside. After twenty minutes at the reception, I grabbed my guitar player and headed towards Deland. I left Jenn to collect the remaining thank you cards. She placed all of them inside a small purple gift bag and brought them home. With the thrill of finally having left employment still pumping in my veins, we made it to Deland in an hour and a half. Despite having only one hour of sleep, I found my body invigorated. (Since the occurrence of these events, I have had the opportunity to speak with five other church musicians who have all confirmed the experience of a post resignation euphoria that accompanies leaving United Methodist institutions.)
When a local jazz singer asks you to meet her in Deland for a gig with a guitar player to accompany her gospel choir, it is important to pick the right guitar player for the job. I had originally hired the J-Dog as a trombone player for the little big band at church. I soon found that he was also a proficient bassist. He could also sub on keyboards when I went on vacation. Though the J-Dog could do all these things, I found that his real love was writing quirky little original songs for the local music scene. (Check out his latest project here.) The J-Dog’s playing was always surprising. When I played with the J-Dog, I felt like I was back on the seesaw in elementary school. While I was enjoying the gentle rhythm of the rise and fall, the kid on the other end would throw me a curve and jumped off. When I played with the J-Dog, I always had to be ready to throw down my feet to catch myself. The J-Dog was not the big mean kid that jumped off the seesaw in order to hurt you. The J-Dog was just throwing some excitement into the game for fun. I also knew that the J-Dog was not uncomfortable playing gigs that were slightly unconventional. The particular singer that had booked us was so talented that she could carry a show by herself without a band. I once saw her playing an outside gig where the soundboard fried in the sun. When the main speakers went dead, she continued the show a cappella without a mic and kept the crowd’s attention until a solution was found. This fantastical giftedness also came with a tendency for calling tunes that were unfamiliar to the entire band. I knew that the J-Dog’s seesaw would be a perfect match for the singer’s unpredictability.
When we arrived, we found a church with about six hundred people waiting for us to perform. The singer had confused the times, and we quickly set up in front of the audience. The singer and her gospel choir filled the entirety of the stage area. The band had to set up on the ground at stage right. My eyes were level with the singer’s shoes. The J-Dog stayed close to the piano. Behind me was an old black man with a beat up electric bass. Young white musicians like the J-Dog and I love to play with old black men. It’s a matter of reverence for the creators of America’s music. We introduced ourselves. The singer’s son was playing the drums. With a brief sound check, we started the concert. By the third song, the singer did her trademark move and called a tune that no one in the band knew.
The scene played out like this:
Singer: (aside to band) Start playing “You’re always with me” while I talk.
Kurt: (turning to the rest of the band in panic while playing the first two chords –which happen to be the only part of the song he knows) Does anyone know this song?! I played it once. A year ago. I don’t remember anything accept these two chords!
Drummer: I don’t know it. I just have to play the drums.
Kurt: J-Dog, do you know this song?
J-Dog: I don’t know it. Just keep playing.
Kurt: (to the bassist) Do you know this song?!
Bassist: No, but I played it before.
Singer: (to audience) And what this song means to me is that…
Kurt: (to the bassist) Well, how are we supposed to play a song we don’t know? I remember it has a lot of changes in it!
Bassist: Yeah it do. Yeah it do.
Kurt: Well, what are we going to do?!
Bassist: You’re just gonna hafta feel your way through it, son. You’ll do fine.
Kurt: What do you mean I’ll do fine?! I don’t know the song!
Singer: (to audience) Bow your head for a moment to think about this.
Singer: (turning toward the band and speaking in a stage whisper) Kurt, it’s in F Major, not E flat! Move the key now!
(Kurt provides a not so subtle direct modulation up a whole step. The band follows.)
Bassist: You’ll do fine. Just feel your way through it, son. You’ll do fine.
Singer: (to audience) Amen.
And with that, she started singing.
When a rhythm section collectively improvises an accompaniment to a song that they don’t know, the musical interaction becomes a sort of rabbinic council. The singer provides the revealed truth of the note, and the sages begin to argue about its precise meaning. At times, the dramatic disagreement between the piano player and the bassist leaves the guitar player in the uncomfortable position of arbitrator. The piano player’s superior Talmudic knowledge and insistence on his argument can sway undecided voters. Occasionally, a semantic problem will arise where two outwardly different positions are sonically reconciled without either party giving up their original position. A rare serendipity can occur when all three come up with the same solution to the problem independently. The nightmare happens when the piano player and the bass player come up with completely different solutions to the problem but find the other’s argument more compelling than their own. In this situation, they may simultaneously abandon their original position in favor of the other’s point of view. They soon realize that the conflict remains unresolved by each taking the other’s position. They immediately concede for the sake of unity and return (once again simultaneously) to their respective original arguments. With the conflict unresolved, the singer moves to a new point of revelation.
I’m not sure if anyone in the audience noticed the amorphous nature of the accompaniment. As we were inventing a song on the spot, the singer must have felt as if she were crossing a stream on slippery rocks. Each time she went to plant her foot, the rock would shift underneath. She maintained her balance to the other bank, and when her foot again reached solid ground, I heard a voice behind me saying, “You did fine, son. You felt your way through. You did fine.” We played the rest of the job and left the gig. I knew about a local Thai restaurant from a previous gig in Deland that year, so J-Dog and I settled in for a meal before the trip back. I thought that the Thai tea would really help in the battle I was waging to keep my eyelids from snapping shut. With the exception of one hour, I had been awake and working for almost thirty-six hours. I was exhausted. After a two hour trip, I dropped off the J-Dog and returned home at 11:30PM. I headed to the back porch to talk to Jenn and drink a beer. Hindsight wears corrective lenses. When I look back, I wish I would have had about five beers so that I might have had an excuse for my behavior.
Avi, who was about 2 years old at the time, came down the stairs at 11:45PM. He was wearing the pitiful face that causes parents to immediately acquiesce to any request. “Will someone come and lay down with me,” he whined. I was the obvious choice, but a deal had to be negotiated first.
“Jenn, I can lay down with him, but I have to go to the bathroom first. Also, I need you to wake me up in forty-five minutes because I have to read for the music history lecture that I’m giving in the morning. You have to wake me up.”
“That’s fine,” she responded. “Why don’t you take that purple gift bag with the cards and checks and money into the bathroom with you. You can look through the cards while you’re in there.”
I grabbed the bag and headed to my favorite reading spot. I sat down and started going through the cards. The congregation had been very generous towards me. There were all sorts of cards conveying regret for my resignation. Some of the cards contained checks. Some contained cash. After reading through the cards, I decided to return them to the purple gift bag and separate the money in the morning. I flushed and headed upstairs to lay down with Avi.
I awoke at 1:15AM. As my eyelids scrambled quickly up the contour of my eyes, my mind’s foot slipped, and I went into free-fall mode. A queasy feeling entered my stomach as I began to process the sensory information confronting me. I reminded myself to remain calm and settled into the familiar groove of making sense of my idiocy. When one is in the regular habit of channeling for Don Quixote, it is advisable to create a safety checklist when approaching the train tracks of nincompoopery. I have always favored the “stop, look, and listen” technique. I blinked to clear my vision and found that the initial visual image remained intact. A life-sized image of my visage was staring back at me. I quickly realized that this was not a good omen. I was, in fact, standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom downstairs. Since I had not fallen asleep standing in front of the bathroom mirror, I soon deduced that whatever had happened since I went to bed could not be favorable. I decided to avoid this problem for the moment and proceed to the “listen” phase of the safety checklist. There was screaming creeping through the open bathroom door from the hallway. I recognized Jennifer’s “you bought me a humidifier for my twenty-first birthday?!” tone of voice. The words that formed the prologue to her tirade were profound enough to grasp the whole of our lives together with one hand. She began her synopsis with a paroxysm of righteous fury: “KURT! KURT! KURT! OTHER PEOPLE DON’T LIVE LIKE THIS!!! OTHER PEOPLE DON’T LIVE LIKE THIS!!! OTHER PEOPLE’S HUSBANDS DON’T FILL THEIR CARS WITH DIESEL FUEL AND BLOW UP THEIR BACK PORCH TABLES AND PISS IN PURPLE GIFT BAGS FULL OF MONEY!!!” I looked down in horror as the stream of urine I was producing was heading straight into the purple gift bag. On my best day, my aim is not that good with something as large as a toilet bowl. Now I was sending a perfect stream inside a small, shiny, purple bag. Worse yet, the bag was not anywhere near the toilet itself. It was on the floor in front of the sink and mirror. That explained my ability to see my reflected image. I immediately contracted my pelvic muscles and returned my attention to the screaming. “NOW, YOU ARE GOING TO TAKE THOSE CHECKS AND THE CASH OUT OF THE BAG AND DRY IT OFF IN THE MICROWAVE, AND YOU BETTER PRAY TO GOD THAT NONE OF THE INK RAN ON THE CHECKS!” The horrifying thought of having to take a check back to a congregant and ask for a new one came to mind. “Um…it got wet. Can you write me a new check?”
“Well, how did it get wet?”
“Um…I’d rather not say.”
Jennifer continued reliving her horror. “Kurt, I was in the kitchen. I heard you going to the bathroom. I heard the sound of water on paper. I thought that you were missing the toilet and hitting the scraps of wallpaper on the floor. Then I realized that I was not hearing the sound of water on water at all. I came around the corner and saw you standing in front of the sink peeing a perfect stream into the purple gift bag. You better hope that none of the ink ran on those checks.”
I hurriedly searched through the urine soaked envelopes and placed the money on a microwave-safe plate. I searched below the “popcorn” and “potato” buttons on the machine for a pre-set that said “urine soaked money”. When it was not found, I made a guess for around fifty seconds. I carefully watched so that none of the currency would burst into flames. When it was finished cooking, the money was dry but retained a faint, unpleasant odor. The smell was not unlike Thai tea that has been processed through a human digestive system. The checks survived the process with some ink smears evident, but they were all still legible. We made the decision to do an ATM deposit in order to avoid direct eye contact with a bank teller.
The occurrence of the purple bag incident led me to question my ability to become a productive member of society. Jennifer’s pronouncement was after all true. Other people didn’t live like we did. I began to formulate a list of significant events in my mind from the past few years for bullet points on a document I like to call resumé of a Kartoffelkopf.
1. Filled our car with diesel fuel leaving us stranded in Louisiana
2. Bought my wife a humidifier for her twenty first birthday
3. Newspaper article written about me for the dirtiest car in Dallas
4. Fired from church job for killing a rabbit
5. Exploded wife’s patio furniture
6. Urinated in purple gift bag full of money
There was an unmistakable pattern that had formed. I began to panic, and I asked myself, “How am I supposed to live a life when I don’t even know how to function properly in the universe?” Suddenly, I heard the voice of an old black man in my head. “You’ll do fine. Just feel your way through it, son. You’ll do fine.”