Notes From the Bo(a)rder: Mother’s story/Mother’s stories

In the last months of her life, even as she had lost most of her cognitive abilities, my mother was described by the professional caregivers at Grace Manor as “feisty”. Until she began to lose her ability to speak cogently she could inspire or infuriate even the most experienced among them. She could wax philosophical and hold court with words of wisdom, or launch into a withering verbal assault targeted directly at her victim’s Achilles heel, even at a stage of her Alzheimer’s that precluded her comprehension of where she was or who she had just attacked. It wasn’t that my mother was a particularly cruel woman. It was just that the cantankerous nature that this particular illness bestows on its victims was enhanced by her overly outspoken nature as well as a superior intellect that seemed little affected by her inability to remember anything. It wasn’t for nothing that my siblings and I often referred to her at “The Irmanator.”

Irma Pedrogo Cordero was born on February 18, 1926 in Playa Ponce, Puerto Rico. Her mother, Rosa, had been the eldest of 14 children born to Angela Bernard Lavadie                                                                                                                   Angela Cordero Bernard                                                                                                a French woman (Angela’s father was Julio Esteban Bernard, and her mother was Hermina Ursula Lavadie), and a Puerto Rican man named Ramon Cordero y Matos. Irma’s father was José Ramon Pedrogo Rubert.

. José and Rosa Pedrogo                                                                                                  José and Rosa Pedrogo


Among her 13 maternal uncles and aunts were a number of teachers, and both the Angela Cordero Bernard school and the Bernadino Cordero Bernard school  in Ponce are named for two of the Cordero siblings. The Corderos remained a strong community oriented family for many years, and my mother’s first cousin, Rafael Cordero Santiago, ultimately became Ponce’s most beloved and iconic mayor. The seaport in Ponce, the deepest in the Caribbean, is named for him.

At some point after Irma’s birth her family left Ponce for Cataño, a small town across the bay from San Juan. She was the youngest of three (or 4, depending on how you count, but more on that later), was exceedingly bright, was a gifted singer, and endearingly cute, the result being that she was always the center of attention. It took no particular gift of persuasion to be able to convince my grandmother to allow her daughter to sing at public gatherings, and Irma performed on a children’s radio show, Mi Abuela Borinqueña. Later in life she would admit to identifying with Shirley Temple, and although I cannot attest to whether her talent or popularity warranted such an affinity or whether these were delusions of grandeur, I do know that she was quite special and was doted on as a result.

Sadly, my mother’s youthful singing career came to an abrupt halt when a case of diphtheria made a tracheotomy necessary, resulting in damage to her vocal chords. Her illness was in some ways transformative, but in other ways was consistent with the kind of childhood she had, and it could be argued that ultimately the trajectory that her life took was altered not a bit. Her exceedingly large and doting family circled the wagons and saw to it that the hospital in which she was treated provided her with a private cabin – not a room, a cabin – which they oversaw in ways that would put any 21st century helicopter parent to shame. Her cabin had to be disinfected from floor to ceiling on a daily basis, and the family refused to entrust such an important task to a stranger, instead taking turns on alternating days to clean the room meticulously. In all likelihood their obsessive care saved her life. Lesson: obsession is not always bad.

As I mentioned, my mother was exceedingly bright, and she graduated from her high school in Bayamon, (Cataño had no high school) as the valedictorian at the age of 16. During that time she had fallen under the wing (and spell) of the charismatic Puerto Rican poet, journalist, essayist, novelist, and scholar, Pedro Juan Labarthe. Labarthe dedicated a poem to my mother, which he published in his collection, Relinatorio Acetre y Corazon; Poemario En Azul y Castano.                              The title of the poem, Busca las Cumbres, is engraved on my mother’s gravestone. Labarthe also encouraged her to pursue a post-secondary education and helped her secure a scholarship at Pennsylvania College for Women in Pittsburg. That school, in keeping with the trend away from gender specific institutions, is now known as Chatham University and is, of course, coeducational.

Mother was, as I’ve indicated, accustomed to being the center of attention – something of a little princess, and unfortunately the scholarship came with a string attached. She was expected to wait on tables in the dining hall. She soon wrote home to her mother that she couldn’t fulfill this expectation and would be coming home post haste. Her mother and her brother José (known to all as Pepi from the diminutive “Pepito”) agreed to pay for her education in full. In her older age she would talk resentfully of her half-brother, Modesto, who had said she was the apple of his eye but never contributed to the cost of her education. (And, in truth, why should he have?)

Modesto was the product of a rather obscure affair between my grandfather and Clara Cila Lago, who seems to have married my grandfather on April 15, 1911.  According to my mother, her father got Clara pregnant and married her in order to give their issue his last name, and immediately filed for either an annulment or a divorce. I don’t know how true the story is, but I do know that Modesto was considered part of the family, although his name does not appear in the 1920 or 1940 censuses, and I know that my grandfather did subsequently marry my grandmother and to my knowledge it was sanctioned by the Catholic Church. This would imply either an annulment of the prior marriage, or that the prior marriage was a civil ceremony and was therefore not recognized by the Church. According to my mother, Modesto as an adult was a gambler. She relates a story that at one time he owned a casino in San Juan. My uncle Pepi was working in the casino office doing the book keeping. One day Modesto walked into the office and told Pepi to clean out the contents of the safe because he had just lost the casino in a bet.

In Pittsburg Irma was a young and immature college student, and home sickness eventually prevailed. She returned to Cataño and then went to Antigua where she was in the secretarial pool for the commanding officer of the naval air base. She was among the younger group of the secretaries, and the more mature women kept a protective watch on the younger women, seeing to their well being as well as their virtue. Based on my mother’s account of that time in her life, as best as I can determine it, one of those women may have been Maria Isabel Polo, the sister of Maria Carmen del Polo, who was the wife of the Spanish dictator Generalisimo Francisco Franco. Mother also spoke of those occasions when pilots having just completed their training would take off from the air strip, flying to aircraft carriers in the Caribbean. The commander of the base would at these times become morose, admitting that it broke his heart to know that he was sending many of these young men to their deaths. I know little else of that period other than the photos of her on dates with various officers that my siblings and I found when we cleared her personal effects out of the storage facility that contained the remnants of her long life.

Not surprisingly, that storage included a decent number of musical films and compact discs. Music played an important role in the life of the Pedrogo family. My grandfather played flute, and often traveled to various towns in Puerto Rico to play private engagements with his friend, Pablo Gomez, who played violin. They would travel on horseback, and were known as decent musicians perhaps, but also as irredeemable pranksters. There is a story of them playing at a wedding reception in a private home, where they put baking soda in the chamber pot in the women’s dressing room. They waited outside the room until a woman would relieve her bladder, they delighting with the knowledge of a prank well played as she shrieked loudly at seeing her urine effervesce.

They also accompanied the choir in the local Catholic Church in Ponce. One early Sunday morning my grandfather and Pablo went crabbing together before mass. They couldn’t resist releasing a bag of live crabs onto the floor of the choir loft, creating, from what my mother has told us, quite an uproar. It was in this church that José met my grandmother, who sang in the choir.

My mother claimed to have sung well and played the violin badly. But her brother Pepi played violin exquisitely, and her sister Rosita could play nearly anything on piano after hearing it once. Neither of them pursued careers in music, however. There was also an aunt of theirs who played piano for the silent films at the local cinema.

My grandparents were both active in the community in Cataño. My grandfather owned a typewriter shop, where he sold and serviced all manner of office equipment.       He taught my grandmother Morse code, which she used to make extra money by installing a telegraph office in their home. The dots and dashes that were so familiar to them became a secret language that they often used in order to communicate silently when out in public places, tapping out their messages on the backs of each other’s hands. My grandmother was also the head of the Red Cross in Cataño, and my mother often spoke of the canned food and the blankets that became hastily warehoused in their home whenever a tropical storm or hurricane would tear through the island.

In the mid-1940s my grandfather added a new line of products to his typewriter shop – reading glasses. He quickly recognized that there was much more to visual acuity than selling over-the-counter readers, and could see a potential career for his youngest daughter. With his encouragement and that of her dear mentor, Labarthe (who was a Columbia University alumnus), Irma applied to and was accepted at Columbia University School of Optometry. I’m always amazed and humbled by the fact that as a young Hispanic woman my mother was able to gain acceptance to the school and to the circle of colleagues that she encountered there. Many of her fellow students were older than she, having previously put their educations on hold to serve their country in its greatest conflagration. And, she was the only woman in the school!

It was at Columbia University that she met my father, Robert Warren Phillips. He was a bit of a Beau Brummell in his distinctive attire, and right up until their respective deaths each of my parents insisted that the first thing that attracted her to him was the argyle socks that he habitually wore. They were married on June 3, 1950, shortly after graduating from Columbia.                                  My father practiced optometry in his late father’s optical office, and my mother applied for and secured a job as an optometrist but quit after her first day on discovering that her duties would include making coffee and performing a number of other “secretarial” tasks. It was her opinion, and my father agreed (as do I) that they would never have asked a man to perform these tasks, but regarded them as “women’s work” regardless of her professional qualifications.

On July 3, 1952 Irma gave birth to a premature boy that they named Robert Warren Phillips.  That child died the following day and was buried in Pinelawn Cemetery in Farmingdale, NY. Just barely over a year later, on July 26, I was born. A few months after that we moved to San Juan, PR.

Eventually we would move back to the States, taking up residence first in the basement apartment of my father’s sister, Julia, then buying a house in Deer Park, a hamlet in the town of Babylon in Suffolk County on Long Island. Through much of my childhood my mother worked as an optometrist, she and my father having two offices. My father typically worked at the office in Bay Shore, NY, and my mother maintained one near our home in Deer Park.

Mother could be mercurial. She was a loving mother, but would anger quickly with what seemed like little provocation. I can recall receiving disproportionately severe scoldings (she never believed in corporal punishment) for things like leaving my bedroom closet door open, forgetting to bring home a text book that I needed for a homework assignment (which I realized almost as soon as I got home from school – we only needed to get back in the car and drive half a mile to the school to retrieve it.)

She was supportive of my ventures, and encouraged my musical pursuits with great pride. The experience of losing a child made her over-protective, and there were many things that most normal children do that I was prevented from doing, including things like class trips (unless she came along on the trip as a class-mom, which was most of the time.) She was always a bit too concerned with what other people thought about her, probably because she had strong opinions of other people  – what they did and how they did it. Many was the time that she would embarrass me when in a public place she would tell another mother – a stranger – that she wasn’t parenting correctly. The idea that she might be wrong about how to do things, or that there might be other correct ways than the ones that she employed was completely foreign to her thinking, indeed, never even entered her realm of thought. And if one were to point out that there might be another perfectly legitimate way than hers to do something she would disagree vehemently. I do not believe I ever witnessed my mother showing the least sign of self doubts.

My mother was, as indicated, very intelligent and very well educated. And yet, she had no interest in learning more than she already knew, showed no curiosity about the world in ways that might expand or challenge her world view, and held tightly to her customs and ways, secure in the belief that this was the way all correct people behaved and believed and had always been so, and would always be so. Even her fashion sense seemed to cling to whatever was the norm in the 1940s, and she adhered to the belief that all decent people knew that these fashions were the correct ones.

In what would seem like a contradiction to all of this, Irma could be crude at times, using profanity freely among her adult friends and among us once we had become adults. She drew the line with vocabulary that related to sex or sexual anatomy, being of the belief that sex was a dirty necessity that we had to employ for the purpose of reproduction, but was under all other circumstances disgusting. She was uncomfortable with the correct words for parts of the anatomy, being rather shocked that my toddler son knew the word “penis” and didn’t have some cute nickname for it. She was disgusted by the idea of breastfeeding, and couldn’t comprehend why any mother would resort to such primitive means in the day and age when science had developed more sanitary methods of nourishment. Besides, to her way of thinking there was no way that a mother’s body could produce a milk that would provide all the nutritional requirements that a “scientifically” produced baby formula contained.

   In 2002 my parents retired to Pembroke Pines in South Florida. They arrived just in time to be able to attend my graduation from the doctoral program at the University of Miami. They retired to Florida and to the couch, becoming sedentary and slowly, very slowly deteriorating. After a lifetime of not only meaningful employment but volunteerism and engagement in the community my parents stopped everything. In Deer Park Mother had been on the Board of Trustees of the Public Library, a president of the Business and Professional Women’s Club (BPW), and an active member of Lioness International. This past BPW Woman of the Year, a woman listed at the turn of the century as one of the Town of Babylon’s 100 most influential people of the 20th Century now was content to finish out her days watching television shows, reading books, and doing crossword puzzles. Lord knows, she and my father had earned that right, but I found it alarming to think that they appeared to be biding time waiting to die.

Eventually Irma would be diagnosed as having Parkinson ’s disease and Alzheimer’s. My father did a great job of helping her as she became less able to cook, then to dress herself, then to find her way around their house. And he did so in a way that no one in the family seemed aware of how far the illnesses had progressed. We only discovered it when he entered the hospital in June 2015 with congestive heart failure, never to return to their home, but rather to live out his final 5 months being moved back and forth between hospitals and rehab centers.

We moved my parents to Lakeland, FL to be near me. My father passed away that November, and my mother, who lived in my house briefly but hated it was moved to the assisted living facility that had originally been intended for her and for my father. As her Alzheimer’s progressed, we eventually had to move her to a memory care center where she would be, if not happy, then at least, safe. The sale of their house had provided enough of a nest egg that we were able to provide additional caregivers to make up for the inability of the staff to provide the level of personal care she required.

During her last few months my mother deteriorated to an almost unrecognizable point. She seemed unaware of where she was, often insisting that the staff phone me because she had no idea how she got there, and feared that I didn’t know where she was. She would have no recollection of the last time we had visited or called, and so felt that she had been abandoned by her children in a strange place that she failed to recognize on an almost hourly basis. Her fear made her increasingly angry as it gave way to real terror. When, on the recommendation of her doctor, we put her on hospice care, all medication except for those providing comfort were withdrawn. It was felt that she was in the last months of her life. We were warned by the director of the facility that withdrawing one particular medication might accelerate her deterioration. After consulting with a dear friend whose many years of Methodist ministry made him wise and well versed in the ethics of elder care, we decided to withdraw that medication as well. Within a few weeks we saw her lose her ability to speak, walk, eventually to swallow, and under the care of hospice she spent most of her last days in a morphine induced slumber.

On January 19, approximately a month short of her 92nd birthday, Irma Phillips passed away. My mother was an extraordinary woman. From her I learned to strive for excellence, to not accept anything less than the best that I could do. I did not often agree with her, and I did not often feel that she truly understood me as an artist. Many times she would ask why I played music that “most people don’t understand” rather than to go with the tide of poplar/populist music, the music that she actually preferred. I always thought it ironic that she demand that I push myself to fulfill my potential, and yet didn’t understand that to be more entertainer and less artist would be to betray that very standard. But her achievements as a woman in a time when most women are fighting against that all too real glass ceiling are truly inspiring.

She may not have fully grasped my artistic choices, but she was always supportive. Of all the repertoire that I’ve played over decades as a classical guitarist there was only one that she truly loved, a piece that I performed at her funeral, and fittingly enough is a piece by Miguel Llobet who stands near the head of my extensive musical family tree. That piece, El Testament de n’Amelia I present as taken from my album, Lo Mestre, the Music of Miguel Llobet.

Notes From the Bo(a)rder: op. 1 no. 1 Extraordinary Individuals – Rey de la Torre

I’ve been acquainted with some truly extraordinary individuals. I first began to edge along the border of Greatness at the age of 22 when I had occasion to study privately with José Rey de La Torre, an experience that lasted for a year.

At the time, I was living on Long Island, and had been reading guitar duets with a slightly older and more accomplished guitarist than I, Don Mantell. I had just graduated from Hofstra University with a B.S. in Music Education, and I was beginning to show signs of serious improvement on the guitar, unconsciously drifting slowly toward the orbit of an esthetic that would eventually become my universe. Don saw that slow drift and gave me the push that I needed, recommending that I study with a guitarist who had concert experience and an international reputation. Living in relatively close proximity to New York City, such a teacher would not be difficult to find.

One day, Don handed me a phone number for Rey de la Torre and told me that he would be an excellent teacher for me. I was well acquainted with Rey’s reputation, and was flattered that Don felt I was ready to study with one of the most important figures on the concert stage. I called Rey and set up a session to play for him and see if he would accept me as a student. The session wound up being the first of a year of weekly lessons.

I have often wondered what it was that has lead great players such as Rey to be willing to invest their time in me. I suppose there is a quality, an evident seriousness of purpose that some students exhibit from early on that makes master artists give certain acolytes entrée to their universe. Perhaps it is a recognition that they are ultimately citizens of the same country. I’ve believed that I’ve seen that quality in a number of students during my own teaching career, and I’ve opened the borders to such individuals. I’ve been right about as many of these students as not. Still, I am glad that I’ve given the opportunity to become something greater to all of them; the ultimate decision of most of them to remain outsiders to this curious and demanding world of creativity is theirs alone, whether conscious or not, and brings them no shame.

During that year of studying with Rey I missed only one lesson – Thanksgiving Day. Interestingly, Rey was reluctant to cancel our lesson on that day. A dedicated Catholic and a dedicated artist, he believed in giving thanks to the Creator every day, and his art was an all-consuming passion. His reluctance to cancel that one day was not a demand though, but rather a suggestion that I felt unable to follow; familial obligations were and still are important to me.

There are a handful of things that could be said about Rey that could be found in a good research resource. There are many other things about him that are probably far more interesting and paint a more complete picture of the man, things that cannot be verified by documentation, things that can make this present discourse more apocrypha than verified biography. This is no scholarly document. My intention is to present the kinds of details that fill the corners of the man’s life, the places that reverberate the whispers that give dynamics to a life that is otherwise consigned to the mezzo forte of history books and encyclopedia articles.

Besides, this is more my story than Rey’s. Who is anyone, after all, other than who they are to someone else? My first impression of Rey was exactly as I had expected it to be. A fit looking man of about 60, he had a full head of silver hair crowning a handsome face that could have belonged to a Hollywood leading man, the quintessential Latin Lover – a little something of Ricardo Montalbán and a little something of Kevin Bacon. He was uncommonly intelligent and spoke flawless English with a slight Cuban accent.

Everyone who knew him professionally – his colleagues, students, business contacts – knew him as Rey. At some time in his life he adopted his father’s last name as his first, and his mother’s last name as his. His real name was José. In keeping with the Spanish tradition of using a first name – father’s surname – mother’s maiden name, he was actually José Rey de la Torre. His young wife, Marianne, would therefore have been Marianne Rey. I first met Marianne when my wife at the time, Elena, and I had the opportunity to dine at their home in Staten Island. Marianne was a lovely and gracious woman, probably a bit closer to my age than to Rey’s. Marianne called him Che, a common nickname for José. (I have no idea how Ernesto Guevara came to be called “Che.”) She often called him “schatzie.” She was of Swiss origin and doted on her older husband without seeming to be in any way subservient. Their bond had formed when she, as a physical therapist, was able to give him back his playing after having lost the responsiveness of his right middle finger.

At their home, while Marianne finished her culinary undertakings Rey entertained us by having his pet parakeet perform tricks. He explained to us a little later that he had learned how to train animals as a child growing up around horses near his home town of Gibara, Cuba.

Rey was a great story teller, and his life was interesting enough to provide a raconteur with ample grist. He told us of his time as a teenage boy studying with Miguel Llobet in Barcelona. He would appear at Llobet’s door three times each week at exactly the time that the nearby clock would chime the hours. So precise was his arrival that on the one occasion when he arrived at his door as the last stroke of the bells had already begun to decay, Llobet opened the door before he could begin to knock and in his most solemn voice intoned the words, “You are late.”

Before arriving at Barcelona, Rey had distinguished himself as a young virtuoso in Cuba. Llobet had him drop all of his repertoire and begin almost from scratch, playing nothing but simple etudes until the master deemed him ready to begin repertoire. Rey followed his teacher’s instructions unquestioningly, and moved from being a young virtuoso to being an emerging artist.

Rey may have been an open book to his teacher musically, but in matters that did not pertain directly to his art he could be as evasive as any other adolescent. Llobet would have been horrified had he known that Rey was regularly risking the physical well-being of his fingers by playing on an amateur baseball team. But despite his desire to maintain a secret life of sorts, Rey was not always able to hide personal details from the maestro. Rey was a cigarette smoker, a fact that he hid from Llobet. On one occasion Rey was invited by Llobet to play a piece for a friend of his. After his performance, Llobet, with the smile of one about to reveal that he knows your secret, invited Rey to join them for cigars.

During the year that I studied with Rey he rarely concertized. He was beginning to have health problems and hand problems that would ultimately be diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis. He did give an out-of-town performance of the Concierto de Aranjuez. I’ve often wondered if that were his last public performance. If it were, it would be ironic, since it was Rey who gave the American premier of that iconic masterpiece.

I had a formidable drive each Thursday to get to my lesson. Rey borrowed an empty room in the office of a dentist friend of his, Dr. John Richter, who as I recall also studied with him. My lesson came immediately after that of Fred Draper, an affable gentle man (and a gentleman) who was about eight years my senior. Each week I’d make the trip to mid-town Manhattan a few blocks from the U.N. with Elena in tow, and we would either remain in the city for a while or else go out to dinner after the lesson. Dinner was a way to kill time in order to avoid dealing with rush hour traffic, as my lesson ended at 4:00 PM.

I recall one week when at the end of my lesson I told Elena that I had a migraine and would rather just go home. We retrieved our car from the parking garage, and as I pulled out of the garage I discovered that my tire was flat. So there I was, in the middle of rush hour in mid-town Manhattan, changing a flat tire while suffering from a worsening migraine headache. Cars passed close by my crouching body as I removed that heavy assemblage of rubber and steel, now rendered useless by a small nail. The noise of traffic – tires bouncing along pot-holed macadam, imperfect mufflers on eight cylinder engines, the occasional horn blaring – as well as the smell of exhaust from inefficient combustible engines only served to exacerbate my condition. By the time the tire was changed I was in agony. And to make matters worse, I still had to drive home on the Long Island expressway at a time of day when traffic would be at a near stand-still, and the trip was sure to take at least two hours.

Rey was, indeed extraordinary. His command of the guitar was unparalleled and he had an easy way about him that brought out the best in me. Under his instruction I began the process of transitioning from being a student of my craft to being an artist. This journey was not completed under his instruction, but extended on for a number of years. I believe I would not really become an artist for another decade. But Rey did introduce me to the kind of detail oriented process without which no practitioner can truly call him or herself an artist.

I recall my first lesson with Rey, and the first assignment that he gave me. I had already studied the Fernando Sor etude opus 6 no. 8, known to all of us at the time as Sor’s Etude no. 1 because of the position it held in Andrés Segovia’s marvelous collection of Sor’s etudes. It mattered not a bit to Rey that I had studied it years earlier. He wanted me to approach it with new ears and a new mindset. It was with this piece that I first began to pay close attention to details of note duration, damping strings while plucking others, listening to the beauty of the counterpoint, and tracing the progression of multiple melodic lines as they wove in and out of each other.

The year that I worked under Rey’s tutelage I learned a great deal of music. Not only did I relearn several of the Sor etudes that I’d studied in college, but I learned some staples of the Spanish guitar literature that I’d not looked at before – La Maja de Goya by Enrique Granados, Torre Bermeja by Isaac Albéniz, Torroba’s Sonatina. I also learned a number of works that were more contemporary in their esthetic – Quatre Pieces Breves by Frank Martin, Theme, varie, et finale by Manuel Ponce, and Preludio y danza by Julián Orbón. Most significantly for the trajectory that my life would eventually take, I learned Miguel Llobet’s set of ten Catalan folk melodies that he had arranged in such creative ways that they are regarded as original compositions.

I also learned a valuable skill – I learned how to come up with good left hand fingerings. Rey was meticulous in this regard, but not doctrinaire. He had clear ideas on fingerings, but he never disregarded my own suggestions when I began to make them.

It had been almost a year of studying with Rey when he announced to me that he and Marianne were moving to San Francisco. I don’t know exactly what precipitated the decision. To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. Still, I spent the last several weeks gleaning as much as I could from this remarkable maestro. When the time came for him to move he asked me to hold on to a few of his guitars until he could settle into his new home, and then ship them to him. I did so dutifully, and resisted all temptation to play his instruments. In retrospect, I believe I should have asked him if I could play them once in a while. I believe he would have said yes, and it would have benefitted me to be able to practice on concert quality instruments, my own guitar being a student model made in Barcelona by Juan Estruch. Some time went by; I phoned Rey a number of times, and we wrote to each other somewhat regularly. After I sent him his guitars our contact became a bit more sporadic. We eventually fell out of touch with each other.

Throughout our lives we go through many transitional periods. These are the turning points that in the young are referred to as “coming of age” but are really not limited to those embarking on some imagined final path to maturity. I believe that we have many comings of age. This was my artistic coming of age. While I still had a long way to go before I could regard myself as a master, it was during this time that I realized that I felt compelled by something bigger than myself to pursue the classical guitar, and to dedicate myself to mastering it. Rey’s impact on me has continued to resonate through my life, even inspiring my decision decades later to write my doctoral dissertation on the influence of Miguel Llobet on the direction that the guitar took in the 20th century. I’ve had several excellent guitar teachers, each who affected my life and my artistry in profound ways, but there will always be something special about Rey de la Torre. I always think of him when I play El Mestre by Llobet, a piece that I studied under him. Fittingly, the title means “The Teacher.” In my life Rey was indeed THE teacher. Here I present a video of me playing this miniature masterpiece.


Prologue: What is a Bo(a)rder?

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past. -T.S. Eliot

I am the Bo(a)rder. In many ways, everyone is a bo(a)rder. We inhabit our lives not as a permanent resident but as ones given permission to stay in them until it is time to go. We move around the edges of our existence creating boundaries and then wantonly crossing them. Or, perhaps, we wait by the borders of our lives like some would-be immigrant hoping to be granted asylum to a life that we would rather be living.

I am the Bo(a)rder. I am a product of tenants who occupied similar space for generations and bequeathed me the lease on a rent controlled life, neither a luxury condo nor a tenement. Every choice I have made has been preordained by their status as bo(a)rders, and yet every choice I make, good or bad, is completely mine. To them goes credit for my triumphs and blame for my failures as much as credit and blame must be assumed by me for both mine and those of my descendants. This will be my story, my testament. This will also be the story of my ancestors, and, who knows, perhaps my descendants.

I live my life on the periphery of greatness. The worst and best that can be said of my life is that it has been and continues to be interesting. Those who interact with me daily, people whose lives are interesting in the most elegantly private and beautifully subtle ways, think of me as extraordinary, partly because I have accomplished some modestly extraordinary things – and yes, I know that is an oxymoron.

I have become acquainted with some truly extraordinary individuals, people whose accomplishments change the world in dramatic ways. I count among my acquaintances people with Grammy awards, people who have made fortunes, people who have been knighted. To these people I am quite ordinary. So my tenancy is one that sees me edging along the fringe of true greatness without ever quite crossing that border. I trade cordially with those on the other side and they know my name and deeds, but although I have visited them, I am no citizen of their country.

It may appear that before entering this world I chose parents who were also modestly extraordinary. They chose likewise, as did their parents and grandparents. This choice, the truest natural selection, was given then to my children.

Who, then, am I? The obvious answer is that I am a musician, a guitarist, a teacher, a writer, and a scholar. I have spent my life as a passionate servant to the greater cause of music, giving concerts whenever I can in order to find some meaning to my life by sharing that passion with a receptive audience. I have performed in bars, cafes, and restaurants, I have provided music for brides to walk in and out of their public ceremonies, and I have played music to create an atmosphere for people at social gathering, all in order to make a few dollars plying my craft. I have made a few recordings that, while not commercial successes by any stretch of the imagination, have represented the best artistry that I was capable of at the times of their recording. I have taught more students than I can count over nearly a half century of giving instruction. Some of those students have satisfied my soul by becoming accomplished artists themselves, and most have given me some real pleasure by simply becoming enriched by the experience. All have helped me to feed my family. I have written articles about the guitar and am still amazed when 25 years after the termination of my monthly guitar columns I am still contacted by guitarists who thank me for inspiring them to stretch artistically and become the better players that they now are. I have even made a small contribution to music history by resurrecting the reputation of one of the most significant classical guitarists of the 20th century, Miguel Llobet, by way of my doctoral dissertation.

I am a husband, a father, a stepfather, an uncle, a son and a friend. I am married for the second time in my life, and my wife will inevitably figure in my writings – it was she who inspired me to write. My son, my daughter, and my step daughter will also be a part of my writing. How could they not be? I am not sure how far afield my writings will take me. How uncomfortable am I willing to make myself? How uncomfortable am I willing to make others? Although I will continue to write about who I am and to, hopefully, reveal to someone the inner workings of an everyday artist I also believe that I am a product of my forbears, and so I will also write my family history. And who knows? Perhaps someone will find this history interesting.

My mother possessed a brilliant mind, and accomplished a remarkable feat before settling into the comfortable life of a suburban wife, mother and professional. My father, although less obviously gifted than my mother, had his own share of accomplishments. My paternal grandparents are shrouded in some mystery, although there are some clear moments that distinguish their lives. This is a veil that I intend to lift over time, but my father’s quiet nature provided me with little on which to proceed. My mother, on the other hand, was gregarious. In her final years of dementia her past became her only reality which meant that there were stories of her childhood and her parents that seemed as if they had happened yesterday. My story is their story, and theirs is mine – my parents, my grandparents, their parents and their grandparents. My roots extend back to Spain, France, England, and who knows where else. I hope to discover more as I research and write. I am writing for them (my predecessors) as much as for me, and hopefully someone will find this all interesting.

I will leave off with a composition of mine, Agenbyte of Inwit. The title means “The Pain of Conscience” in an early dialect of old Kentish. It reflects regrets that we all have. It is a view of conscience as a nostalgia for one’s own innocence.