Good Stroke

Issue 9 | Winter 2022 |



             I’m listening to Big Daddy Webster’s band and digging it
                          but can’t help noticing that Daddy is not quite himself,
is as talented as ever and as jovial and charismatic
                          as the leader of a band this good would have to be
             yet somewhat subdued, a little less talky, a little more
prone to sit during solos instead of standing
                          at the mike. When the band takes a break, I say,
“Great as always, Daddy,” to which he replies, not “Thanks”

             or “Good to see you” but “I had a stroke,” of all things,
                          to which I say, “Well, I’ll be damned,” though it isn’t long
before we’re talking about what we usually talk about,
                          which is music, in the course of which Big Daddy
             observes that European rock is not as good as
the American kind because Europeans don’t have
                          garages: all things being equal, if you’re born Jean-Luc
             in Marseilles instead of Carl in Oakland, the odds

             are that much more against your becoming a guitar hero
                          or just an ordinary drummer, at which point
the guy who actually plays drums in Big Daddy’s band
                          hears us and, thinking we’re talking about him,
             comes over and says, “I had a stroke, too.”
How about that? Four guys in the band, and half
                          of them have had strokes, which strikes this observer
             as very likely over the national average, and this

             without having heard from the other two musicians.
                          “Yeah, you have to have a stroke to play in this band,”
says Big Daddy Webster, to which the drummer replies,
                          “Yeah, but I had a good stroke,” meaning one which
             came more as a warning than a catastrophe,
and here I can’t help thinking of the student
                          who told me how his aunt heard his uncle struggling
             in the other room and rushed in to find him

             writhing on the floor and called an ambulance,
                          though the doctor said if she’d found him
five minutes later, he would have been dead,
                          whereas this same uncle has spent the last decade
             in a vegetative state in a nursing home. O chance!
You giveth, and you taketh away as well. On December 27,
                          1831, Charles Darwin stepped aboard the HMS Beagle
             and began a five-year journey that would result

             in his theory of natural selection, yet he almost
                          didn’t: having dropped out of medical school
(too much blood, too many operations without
                          anesthesia, including on children), Darwin
             decided to become a clergyman and live
in the countryside, where he could pursue
                          his interests in natural history, but he was approached
             first by Captain Robert Fitzroy, who invited him

             to sail on the Beagle as Fitzroy’s unpaid companion,
                          during the course of which trip he learned
that the captain was an ardent disciple
                          of German physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater,
             who believed that a person’s character traits
could be revealed by examining their “lines
                          of countenance” and thus, in Darwin’s words,
             “I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected,

             on account of the shape of my nose! [Fitzroy]
                          was convinced that he could judge a man’s character
by the outline of his features, and he doubted
                          whether anyone with my nose could possess
             sufficient energy and determination for the voyage.
But I think he was afterwards well-satisfied
                          that my nose had spoken falsely.” Now the theories
             espoused in Lavater’s Physiognomy are clearly

             nonsense, are folderol, gimcrackery, hogwash,
                          baloney, balderdash. Horse feathers. Poppycock,
claptrap, banana oil. A four-year-old could see
                          through them. Yet historians tell us that this book
             attained a wide readership, largely because
it was handsomely published and lavishly
                          illustrated, meaning that a seeming work
             of science almost put Darwin out of business,

             though that work succeeded in winning
                          many followers not because of its scientific nature
but because it was beautiful. Damn you to hell,
                          art, you fool us every time. Thank you for not
             putting all your trust in Johann Kaspar Lavater,
Captain Fitzroy! Without Darwin, there’d be
                          no theory of evolution or at least not the one
             we have today. We’d still think we are the result

             of a kind of magic trick performed by God.
                          “Shazam!” says God. “Hmm, not bad. Now let me
make a mate for him so he’ll have someone to watch TV
                          with. Shazam! Now let me make a TV, then chips
             and beer.” America, your garages are the wombs
from which thousands of bands have burst. May all
                          your strokes be good ones—they’re the ones that lead
             to better lifestyle choices, also better stories.