I sang a solo in church yesterday. My friend Lesley asked me to sing to accompany the guest sermon she gave on the lives of immigrants in Milwaukee. I almost never sing alone in public anymore, but Lesley’s one of my favorite people and she picked “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” one of my favorite songs, so how could I resist?
I realized while preparing for this performance that I sing a solo about once a year. In 2008, I surprised Tina at our wedding reception by singing “Isn’t It a Pity?” to her — the one by George Gershwin, not George Harrison. (My favorite stanza begins, “Imagine all the lonely years we’ve wasted, fishing for salmon, losing at backgammon!”). In 2009, I rewrote the lyrics to “Danny Boy,” transforming them into “Kenny Boy,” a tribute to the loving relationship between another George — W. Bush — and Kenneth Lay, that I belted out at a protest show on the eve of W.’s retirement from politics. In 2010, I performed a song in Aramaic, a reconstructed version of one of Jesus’ beatitudes, for a performance art piece about the women who baked the bread served at the Last Supper.
You get the picture. I sing only when the occasion demands it, despite years of voice training and so much time spent in the music department at Beloit College that fellow students often assumed I was majoring in it. In spite of a love of singing, I’m not a serious singer.
Sunday night, Tina and I watched “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” a documentary about legendary Tokyo sushi chef Jiro Ono. At age 85, Jiro was still fiercely perfecting a craft he had apprenticed to 75 years earlier. For his diligent efforts he’s been granted three Michelin stars. Watching the movie, you get the sense that Jiro has had few, if any, interests besides his restaurant. There’s no hint that this sushi god has had much of a love life (the only evidence being his two sons, who probably didn’t emerge fully formed, rising up from the seafoam on half an oyster shell, like Zeus’ progeny did) or even a love of backgammon. And forget the fishing. This guy just wants to cut right to the salmon.
Where does this intense focus come from? How does he do just one thing for 75 years? Doesn’t he ever get bored?
After watching this movie, I tried to think of a single discipline to which I’ve given the level of dedication Jiro has given to sushi, even for a stretch of months. I couldn’t think of one. I know I would be a better singer if I applied myself. I could speak Spanish fluently if I worked at it every day. After eating at my house, guests tell me that I could easily become a professional chef, if I went to school. I wonder sometimes if I’d be a better poet if I weren’t spending so much time writing fiction. Or a better fiction writer if I could keep myself off the performance art stage.
In a culture where the highest value is placed on “being the best” at something, I’ve instead become a pretty good jane of several trades. My eye is on the sparrow, the song, the conjugation, the concasse, the story, the verse, the classroom, the stage. On a bad day, I feel adrift. On a good day, I am grounded in this: The instincts I’ve been honing over the years to help me craft a cohesive poem are the same ones that guide my best cooking. My basic knowledge of the syntax of several languages tells me something about the most affecting shape a line of song might take. The faces of the audience at a performance are imprinted on me and re-emerge later in my short stories.
So I am unfocused, unless you count my relentless attention to the discipline of being Jennifer, something I spend every day trying to get right.