Fiction: The Agency

“You must understand, it’s not very often I get company,” the old man said to me as he put down his guitar and took out a Pall Mall from his cigarette case. “So tell me, son, how did you get here?”

*    *    *

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I can’t recall how many days it has been since my journey started, but given where I am now, I feel as though it’s not really something I should be concerned with. I only remember the setting. The very first door lay at the bottom of a back-alley stairwell, a place where I was told to go to answer to some prosperous opportunity. I never did get the name of the person who sent me.

My initial qualms subsided only when I noticed the presence of a man pacing outside the door. He looked to be in his late twenties and was dressed and kept in a similar formality as I was. His hair was short and straight, chestnut. A white collared shirt (which was coming un-tucked from his khakis) and silver-blue tie. Polished black dress shoes that emphasized his every step on the concrete walk. He kept his head low, mumbling, “What’re you doing?” or “Where are you?” to himself in repetition.

And I asked him, “Sorry, but are you waiting for someone?”

He took a quick glance at me with his hands still shoved in his pockets and said, “No.” It didn’t look as though he was in the mood to talk.

Beneath the door was a sign painted onto the concrete. It said “You’re WELCOME to take a step” in black typeface. Only after I opened it did the pacing man blurt out to me, “Do you have any idea what to expe—“, and the slam of the door ended his sentence too early.

The place I stepped into was alarmingly empty and compact, nothing but a short hallway leading to another door. The walls were the exaggerated white you would see in advertisements for dental strips, with nothing to adorn them. The floor was a matching neutral carpet. A woman’s voice, crystal and synthetic, greeted me over an unseen intercom. It said, “Welcome to the Agency. Please proceed through the door you see before you.” The message was then repeated in several other languages before the reverberated tone of a vibraphone concluded the announcement.

I remember the moment when my hand first gripped the stainless steel doorknob that shone from across the hall. It was unnaturally cold, and once my hand came to rest on it, I couldn’t think to pull away. Turning the knob slowly, I pulled the door in toward me and was bombarded by a sheer wall of noise.

Maybe that small hallway had been heavily soundproofed as a means of respite from the outside. I wouldn’t have had any idea that just beyond it lay a much larger room where an ocean of people, all in formal dress, were moving in currents, talking or shouting, discussing or arguing, moving along in a room whose bilateral dimensions knew no boundaries. The collective oneness of the voices was too much to bear on the ears; it was as if I had the power to read minds, and the thoughts of every passerby were piercing my head. Right then, I wanted to leave.

I twisted and jiggled the doorknob, but I was trapped. The door had firmly locked shut behind me. I had nowhere to go but forward.

I pushed my way into the depths of the crowd, fighting the entropic patterns that tossed and disoriented me. The cacophonic choir continued to pound against me as I made my way. There were times when I wanted to cry out, and during my unpleasant swim through these moving bodies I could have sworn I heard others shouting for help, powerless to the flow just as I was. Even if this were true, response was out of the question. There was nothing I could do, except to continue moving forward.

On the other side of the room were more doors, and my instinct was to go through the first one I could reach. To be anywhere else was better than where I was then. When the familiar chill of the doorknob reached my fingertips, I knew to make my escape.

As I came to expect, once the door was shut behind me, I was locked into the next room and there was never any means of turning back. I had absolutely no bearings about this place (to be honest, I still don’t, and I may never figure it out), but I figured the only thing to do was to keep walking straight. Still, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy about this whole ordeal. I mean, I had my own place outside of the Agency, and it didn’t seem as though I would be leaving anytime soon. A faint dread, like that of a mild nausea, began to fill the pit of my stomach.

To my relief, the second room wasn’t nearly as crowded as the first, and it was here that the true scope of each room revealed itself. Each was impossibly large, starkly white just like the entrance. The opposite wall of each was lined with innumerable possible choices of exit, and no matter how far to the left or right you looked, they seemed to stretch on forever. This did nothing to make me feel any better. I was completely at a loss of where to go next, let alone how to get out. I ended up asking as many people in the room as I could if they could help me out, with mixed results. Some said something like, “I’m pretty sure your not supposed to leave.” A large majority of others responded, “Your guess is as good as mine.”

I remember thanking them, weakly, before continuing on my way.

Each door had to be picked with care, but there was no way of knowing what awaited you on the other side. The number of people always varied, and the purpose was always different. I can’t tell you how many registration offices I’ve passed through that have rejected me and whatever skills or assistance I had on offer. I can’t tell you how many board meetings I’ve interrupted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten lost in the claustrophobic labyrinths of cubicle space. There were always papers being copied and faxed, telephone lines always ringing and being put on hold, fingers always clicking on keyboards. Door after door after door, opportunities came and went and came again, fleeting, but I had no luck latching on to them. There was only futility in this endless circuit, headaches from the noise, and dampened spirits that lingered in the grayscale confines of this place.

And yet, this place seemed to take your basic needs to heart. Whenever you passed through a door with your stomach growling, you always ended up in a cafeteria with hundreds of others, eating in silence and not talking to each other. Whenever you needed a bathroom, there it was, suited to your gender and always vacant. Whenever you needed to sleep, there would be a soft bed waiting for you, but never any means of telling how long you’ve slept. Every time I laid myself to rest, I couldn’t help but wonder who was providing all this.  

In all the rooms I’ve visited, not a single one contained a window.

Inquiry, rejection, cluelessness, hunger, bowel movement, sleep; this routine continued for an unspecified amount a time. I became a slave to it, and it made me neither happy nor depressed. I floated between rooms, just as thousands of others were doing to try and find their place.

Eventually, I came to find the arboretum.

Somehow, in the middle of this complex, there lay a natural enclosure surrounded by glass walls. The carpeted floor gave way to hard earth and groomed grass, the repeating white walls to coniferous trees. Overhead, one could see the sky at the cusp of dusk, periwinkle with tinges of muted greens and yellows. The sun was only visible in the beams of light that passed through the pine needles, and the moon, half concealed in shadow, was rising into the coming night.

There were only two doors out of this room, and one of them was unlike the other. Whereas most doors in the Agency had only stainless steel doorknobs, there was a door in the arboretum that was entirely stainless steel and lacking any handle. In front of this door sat a balding man with eerily pale skin, defined by wrinkles and punctuated with liver spots. He, too, was in formal dress, not unlike anyone else I’ve come across, but his shirt wasn’t tucked in and it looked like it could use ironing. He bore his feet to the air and the ground, and had set aside his socks and dress shoes. He strummed some classical guitar piece that I couldn’t recognize, and every few seconds his performance would stop dead so he could let out a raucous cough before picking up exactly where he left off as if nothing had happened.

He turned his eyes to me as I entered.

*    *    *

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“Son, that’s quite the story. But you shoulda told me something I don’t know!” the old man laughed before collapsing briefly into a hacking mess. “You’re here ‘cause you got lucky, nothing more to it than that. But hey, I won’t scare you off. You’re welcome to stay for a bit, if you like.”

“Thanks…” I said. “So, I’m guessing you’ve been down a similar path?”

“That ain’t anything to guess. Everybody goes down a similar path here. That’s why I’m sitting here right now! And this here is a wonderful place I’ve found, isn’t it?”

“Definitely.”

“They don’t got air in there like it is here. Take it all in.”

I took a deep breath, and my nose was met with the stench of a man who couldn’t remember his last shower. That and the breath of yellowed teeth and cigarette smoke.

“You’ve been sitting here a long time,” I said.

“That’s right,” the old man puffed as he inhaled deeply into his Pall Mall before blowing a billow of smoke into the air. “But understand, I only stay here ‘cause it’s so nice to stay here, and I ain’t got that much time left anyway. See, you’re different. You’re young, and I can see it in your eyes, you’ve got potential.”

“But what about you?”

“Eh, I’m sure there was a time that I did too, but this is where I was fortunate enough to end up, and this is where I’ll stay.” He coughed again, then he picked up his guitar and starting plucking away.

“Look, I hope I’m not intruding or anything. I can’t say I’m quite sure I know what I’m after in this place.”

“Does anyone? It don’t matter what anyone’s after, ‘cause they’re all after the same thing!” he grinned crookedly.

“Could you elaborate?”

When I asked him this, he only continued to play his piece and cough, saying nothing. His eyes stared unflinchingly forward for what felt like a few minutes, and I wasn’t sure if he had reached inner tranquility or if he had gone catatonic.

“Sorry,” he said, abruptly snapping his head toward me. “What were we talking about?”

“Never mind,” I sighed.

“Look, if I’m gonna say anything to you, it’s this: Don’t be afraid to keep moving forward, ‘cause you never know where you’ll end up.”

“I’ll bet.”

“So, are you stayin’ or movin’? ‘Cause it’s about time for me to be practicin’ alone, if you get me.”

“Oh! Sorry, I guess I’ll be going.”

As I collected myself to head toward the door to the next room, something I’d been keeping in the back of my head suddenly reemerged. The cold of the doorknob was numbing the palm of my hand.

“Hey,” I said. “The door you’re sitting in front of. Why does it look different?”

“It’s ‘cause it ain’t a door. It’s an elevator,” he said with a wheeze.

“An elevator? Don’t tell there are more floors to this place!”

“Nope. Just look up at the sky.”

I turned my eyes toward the falling dusk. To my astonishment, faint straight lines began to appear as the sky darkened, extending up from the elevator door and fading into a lofty height beyond.

“I see it now. Where does it go?”

“Nobody really knows, but you can bet that we’ll all find out one day. When the time is ripe, it’ll be my turn.”

I turned the doorknob and pulled the door inward to take my leave. The old man had retaken his guitar in his arms, head bowed low and leaning intently into his sound. There was a dim orange glow behind his head. The prompt for the elevator was alight, the panel on the wall displaying a uniform white arrow pointing up. I’m not sure why I hadn’t noticed it when I entered the arboretum, and I can only imagine how long that button had been lit up.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Take care, son.”

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Stuart Harris

Stuart Harris is a 20-year-old Professional Writing student at Algonquin College with thirteen years of music experience under his belt. He’s a pianist trained in classical and jazz idioms who wants to parlay his knowledge into teaching himself an alien instrument and share his observations with you. Keep strummin’!

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Drifting Back

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When you listen to an instrument, or play one for yourself, where does it take you? Maybe you let the voice of the music guide you to a new setting somewhere around the globe (given the sound and origins of the ukulele, for instance, it’s really difficult not to think about lounging in Hawaii). If you’re an experienced player, perhaps you let the music take you on an improvisational journey, letting your sound and your mind define a path without a clear destination and playing just to see where you might end up.

In its own small way, the ukulele has opened a gateway back to my own childhood.

It was my first time trying to move away from simple chord charts by reading music from a ukulele tab, which shows both which numbered frets to play and the rhythm in which it should be played, not unlike piano sheet music. These tabs are used to notate melodies, a musical component I’d never tried replicating on a uke before.

And keeping to my tendency to listen to music much older than I am, I was trying to play the riff from that popular 80s relic, A-ha’s Take On Me (bonus points for you if you were alive when the music video premiered on MTV).

Plucking out melodies on the uke is tricky, and as someone who’s only used to strumming chords, trying to do so really put me in my place. Chords are the blueprints of a song in most cases, planning the progression in key for the melody to follow. As such, individual chords tend to be repeated over the period of a melodic phrase, meaning less finger movement. Tackling a melody that spans a number of frets over all four strings requires a level of dexterity I just don’t have yet. The right hand must pick each individual string as the left hand moves over the desired fret, and it’s easy to muddle your sound by simply brushing the wrong string with either hand.

It’s tough, but I found it to be a lot of fun to try. For the first time in years, the feeling of practising was reminiscent of my younger days in the Suzuki Music Program studying piano. My teacher would often pull out simple melodies for me to sight-read, allowing me to build dexterity and muscle memory in much the same way as I’m teaching myself to do on the uke.

And for a brief moment, I was reacquainted with my childhood devotion to the discipline, with a sense of gratitude that I was now gifted enough to attempt to reteach myself what others had taught me all those years ago. Suddenly, practising was fun again.

You’d be surprised how gratifying it can be to finally take your hands off the instrument and say with confidence, “Man, that sounded awful. Let’s try it again!”

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Stuart Harris

Stuart Harris is a 20-year-old Professional Writing student at Algonquin College with thirteen years of music experience under his belt. He’s a pianist trained in classical and jazz idioms who wants to parlay his knowledge into teaching himself an alien instrument and share his observations with you. Keep strummin’!

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Teaching Fingers to Dance Again

When I first picked up the ukulele, the beauty of its portability was almost immediately offset by just how awkward it felt to hold. The ergonomics of the instrument wasn’t difficult to wrap my head around, but it was a whole different story as soon as fingertips touched the fret board. While my right hand was free to strum at leisure with a carefree flick of the wrist, my left hand fought its own battle closer to the tuning knobs, strings digging into skin and nail as my hand slid and contorted in a feeble attempt to produce the proper sound.

Months later, this feeling hasn’t changed all that much, but I am getting better. I’ve learned some chords and some progressions they can build, and I’ve also learned a few new knots that my fingers can get tied into.

There’s probably something to be said about how disillusioning it can feel to have to reteach yourself the basics of fingering for a new instrument after spending so many years developing muscle memory specific to another. Looking back at the musical journey I’ve taken to get to this point, however, I’m amazed that I was able to discipline myself to develop such muscle memory at all. I suppose if you spend over a decade practicing a skill, it’s going to become more and more comfortable through rote repetition, but how does one begin? As a kid, practicing the piano was never a terribly glamourous idea in my mind—and I’d often deviate from my regiment to diddle on the keys, to the dismay of parental enforcers—but I’d always admired what results could be achieved.

Fingering is a delicate balance between what comes naturally and what works best for the progression of a musical phrase (or what a didactic scale book tells you is right and wrong fingering). It’s easy to make mistakes, and if you slack in practice, just like exercising, your muscle memory will atrophy. I still tend to favour, say, my middle finger where my ring finger needs strengthening. Having my right arm in a cast for two years forced me to use my left hand more, but years later the reemergence of my right hand has had me lose some of that left hand virtuosity.

Picking up the ukulele, I’ve had to cast any preconceived notions of fingering aside and start again from square one.

 

But this instrument presents a new regiment opportunity that the piano never did. I can take this instrument anywhere, and as Ukulele Mike suggests in the video here, you can develop muscle memory in much the same way dentists suggest you can spend time flossing.

Go watch TV, or enjoy a nice view. This will allow you to practice shifting deftly from chord to chord without having to look at the fret board, and eventually get a new feel for the instrument.

And really, who doesn’t like another excuse to watch TV?

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Stuart Harris

Stuart Harris is a 20-year-old Professional Writing student at Algonquin College with thirteen years of music experience under his belt. He’s a pianist trained in classical and jazz idioms who wants to parlay his knowledge into teaching himself an alien instrument and share his observations with you. Keep strummin’!

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The Music Trinity

I’m not about to claim that I’m a musical expert. I might have experience reflected in my years of piano-related studies, but I have always seen myself as a student of music and nothing more. I don’t think it would matter how many more years go by. As long as there is something new for me to learn, that view isn’t likely to change.

Even now, I’m still learning.

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Learning the ukulele has been a challenge for me. After studying and practising the theory of music as it relates to the piano, picking up this new instrument has encouraged me to look back on how I’ve somehow managed to teach my own hands to speak this universal human language. The fundamental elements of music have a lot in common with how we speak. In speech, we communicate by practising linguistic rhythms and intonations, using words as our building blocks. As I understand it, the components that create music can be similarly broken down into a trinity that music technique controls: pitch (notes, the basic units of sound), time (the beats and rhythms we create with sound), and dynamics (the character we give to sound).

Discipline in music is in exercising balance and control of these three elements.

Time is the most constant element between instruments. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing, say, piano or ukulele; the methods in which beats and rhythms are established and note values notated do not change. The main concepts of dynamics can carry between instruments as well, but some instruments can achieve a range of characteristic effects that others can’t by design. As a result, each instrument has a unique voice. For example, you can control the loudness and softness of a piano or ukulele, but you cannot sustain the notes of a ukulele as long, nor bend the notes of a piano at all. Where instruments differ the most is in how pitch is achieved, and this element, in part, determines how the musician must adapt in technique when switching between instruments.

Both these instruments are meant to be played with both hands, but there’s a key difference between each when it comes to technique. On a piano, control of pitch, time, and dynamics must be managed independently of each hand in many cases, but on a ukulele, each hand has a role. The left hand is completely devoted to pitch, depressing strings on certain frets to achieve a different tone. The right hand controls time and dynamics based on how the strings are strummed and muted.

This simple change in technique makes a world of difference in producing the elements of the musical trinity. It’s like learning a completely different way of speaking a language you already know.

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Stuart Harris

Stuart Harris is a 20-year-old Professional Writing student at Algonquin College with thirteen years of music experience under his belt. He’s a pianist trained in classical and jazz idioms who wants to parlay his knowledge into teaching himself an alien instrument and share his observations with you. Keep strummin’!

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Every Day is a Sunny Day

The road to McDonald’s Corners Community Centre was dusty and dry beneath the sweltering sun of a mid-July morning. From the first of May to Thanksgiving, the big backyard of this retired backwoods schoolhouse would play roost for a congregation of Canadian farmers and farm owners. They would travel from every crossroad in Lanark County to set up shop beneath white country fair tents or rustic wooden kiosks, showcasing another successful year’s harvest and toil.

Buck up, lad! You're holding a ukulele! And please, take that cap off. 

Buck up, lad! You're holding a ukulele! And please, take that cap off. 

My godparents had called our family to the market. They run Red Dog Farm, their out-of-the-way home north of Hopetown that, this year, bore a fine selection of maple syrup and clickity-clacks (boiled wool slippers). Between purveyors of alpaca wool products and woodcarvings, my godmother Beata looked after the stand, sitting in her lawn chair and strumming a ukulele.

This was my introduction.

Her instrument was an unusually tiny aqua-green affair, but it did its best to compete with the folk trio playing next to the wood-fire kiln baking pizza a short distance away. Its sound was at once familiar and unequivocally cheery. It seemed to perfectly embody godfather Ian’s personal motto: “Every day is a sunny day.”

My family reciprocated her enthusiasm for her newfound pastime, and wanted to know more. She told us she was taught by David Newland, who had hosted a workshop in the community centre that stood before us. He was able to teach his class all the basics of the ukulele in a mere four hours, and judging from her playing, it seemed like she was more than well on her way.

My mother loved the idea of learning the ukulele, and Beata agreed to give her a few pointers. My sister and I took up the opportunity to learn a new instrument, and my father, himself an experienced guitarist, joined us. Soon, we were all gathered in the community centre for a workshop of our own.

The ukulele was passed between my mother, my sister, and me, and we’d take turns placing fingers on different frets trying to plunk out chords. Whenever it came to me, I always had trouble holding it comfortably. There I was, a guy who’d spent 13 years playing piano, cradling this innocent, seemingly proto-guitar in his arms.

I ended up learning four chords: C, F, G, and C7; the root, fourth, and fifth chords in the key of C, plus the dominant seventh in the key of F.

If you've got your own ukulele, feel free to follow along. Black dots show finger positions, starting from the top of the fretboard (to help you read, try turning your head 90 degrees to the right if you strum with your right hand, the opposite if you strum with your left). Don't be concerned about fingering; just try what's most comfortable for you. 

If you've got your own ukulele, feel free to follow along. Black dots show finger positions, starting from the top of the fretboard (to help you read, try turning your head 90 degrees to the right if you strum with your right hand, the opposite if you strum with your left). Don't be concerned about fingering; just try what's most comfortable for you. 

It might seem scant, but you’d be surprised how versatile these four chords are. This is like the traditional folk tune essence; chances are if you know any old folk song, you can play it in the key of C with these four chords.

It might not be everything, but this doesn’t take four hours.

The week after our market visit, my mother received a ukulele for her birthday. This happened four months ago, and given her responsibilities, she hasn’t really touched it since.

Maybe now’s as good a time as any to dust it off and pick it up again. It might make the days a little bit sunnier.

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Stuart Harris

Stuart Harris is a 20-year-old Professional Writing student at Algonquin College with thirteen years of music experience under his belt. He’s a pianist trained in classical and jazz idioms who wants to parlay his knowledge into teaching himself an alien instrument and share his observations with you. Keep strummin’!

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Check out Ukulele Hunt for further exploration