What Is Normal?

This is an essay about us, mostly as professional folk… not a character
analysis of any kind. All you who have held steady jobs most of your lives,
all you who had families and raised children who became productive out
in the world, I hold you to be far above “normal.” Life is challenging for every
single one of us, and to live with dignity, honesty and integrity, with respect
for others, deserves, in my humble opinion, the highest praise we can give.
I feel that the merits of the rich and famous are ridiculously overblown, and
that the “common folk,” aka you and I, should be getting the press. Probably
not cool to start an article with a caveat, but there it is.


Ever wonder where you were, as a person, in this crazy world? I mean, not geographically, but comparatively. Ever wonder how you stack up with all the
other humans on the planet? What you’ve done, who you might’ve impressed
what difference you might have made in someone else’s life… ever wonder
where you fit in, how you fit in, if you fit in? And did it matter? Does it matter?

I’ve thought about this stuff from time to time, all my life. From the time I was
maybe 6 or 7 I started comparing myself to others, to see where I stood, how I matched up, trying to find how good I was… and who I was.

I think we’ve all done that to one degree or another. Whether consciously or subconsciously, I think we compare ourselves to whomever we’re with at the moment… on the basketball court, in a meeting, at a cocktail party. Lunch or
dinner with strangers or new business contacts are great ways to find where
we are in the great scheme of things.. and often we don’t even realize it.

Sometimes we get honest readings as to how we stack up. It’s not hard to
figure out where we stand in a conversation. In sports, it’s instantaneous.
Either we’re faster, stronger, tougher, jumper higher, react quicker… or we
aren’t. One of the great things about being a guy… we get all kinds of
opportunities to measure ourselves against our peers. And most of us
learn to come to grips with our shortcomings in sports fairly effortlessly, as
98 % of us know, or knew we weren’t going to be athletes anyway. But when
life got more competitive in the areas we were really interested in, it got more
serious. Most of us want to be really good, or even great, at the challenges
we take on.

I think, however, to a large degree it’s fairly futile to try to accurately place
ourselves and our worth in the world as a whole, or even in our society.
Outside of our own communities, I would guess few of us make any news
at all about our inherent abilities on a national scale, or even a statewide
scale. Even if it’s true that we all get our 5 minutes of fame, how many of
us were able to cash in on it to any degree? And finally, does it even matter?

For me, I’ve always felt completed when anyone complimented me on a
piece I played on the piano, or a song I might have written. Am I a simple
man with simple needs? Probably, but I kind of doubt it. I have a healthy,
sometimes over-active ego that often needs satisfaction on any level it can
get. Don’t believe me, look at how many “I’s” I write in these blog posts. But
do I, or did I ever, want to be famous? No, not since college days.

Eddie Duchin               Peter duchin

I knew a guy in Boston who knew Peter Duchin, Eddie Duchin’s son. Eddie Duchin,
as you might recall, was a New York society pianist and band leader who
“developed a style rooted in classical music that some saw as the forerunner
of Liberace’s ornate, gaudy approach.” Eddie Duchin was fairly famous in
the ’30’s and early 40’s. Peter followed in his famous father’s footsteps,
becoming a well-known New York society pianist and band leader. As my
friend told me, “I was hitchhiking my way through Europe in 1960 when I
met Peter in Italy. We hit it off and traveled together for several weeks. One
evening he told me was seeing as much of Europe as he could, as he was
about to become a professional musician back in the states, and he knew
there would be few opportunities for travel after that. He said he felt trapped
by his parents’ fame and by his upbringing, trapped into being the same
society musician his dad had been. I asked him if he couldn’t break out, be
someone different, go against the grain. He just smiled ruefully and said, “Oh
yes, I’ve considered it from time to time, but not enough to actually do it. I’ve
made my peace with it all. And besides,” he grinned, “It’s not a bad way to
make a living.”

Well, that story really affected me. Eric told me that story in 1970, and Peter
had already had a successful New York band for 8 years. He was, at the
time, married to some New York divorcee and was becoming quite wealthy.
But it was the freedom part that stuck with me. To be “trapped” by certain circumstances in one’s life that kept one from doing their passion, was
unthinkable to me, and I decided over a short period of time that I would be
content with the freedom to pursue exactly what I wanted, when I wanted,
and fame and fortune be damned!

A sincere, albeit naive emotion, but it stuck with me, to this day, actually. My
“fame fear” is hilarious to me, as it turned out there was never a ghost of a
chance that I might touch fame on any level. Over the years I’ve met some
people who were famous for one thing or another. Of the many things i noticed
about them, one obvious thing is that they were all very different from me!
Another, of course, was their abilities. I heard Oscar Peterson play one evening
in Boston. My table was close to his left hand, which disappointed me at
the time, as I was wanting to watch the incredible chops of his right hand.
Well… did I get a surprise! His left hand seemed to absolutely dance on the
keyboard, and before I knew it I was totally mesmerized with it – how it
assisted, suggested, encouraged… it did everything… rhythm, chords,
melody! I left that evening thrilled and humbled by the whole experience.

To namedrop for a moment, I’ve met Jimmy Carter, Henry Mancini, Diahann
Carroll, Irving Berlin, (yes, I’m that old…) Michael Douglas and Lana Turner.
And Lana kissed me… on the cheek. And… I was seven at the time. But
no matter, it happened, didn’t it? Anyway, most of those were casual meetings
with no meaningful interaction to speak of. There were, however, two guys who
have always been heroes to me, guys who have reached the heights in jazz
music that I could only dream of. They are two pianists, Lyle Mays and Russell

To know where I stood in comparison to two world-class jazz players, all I had
to do is sit down with each of them at different times. Oh boy… was it ever
instantly obvious where I stood in the great scheme of fame, fortune and

With Russell, we were two keyboardists in an L.A. recording session, him on
acoustic and me on electric. On a break the producer, James Stroud, had us
each play several minutes of Blues… turns out he was judging our abilities to
play the next session. Needless to say, Russell got the gig, and certainly
deserved it. He would go on to be the leader of The Yellow Jackets, a great
band that all jazz fans know of.

With Lyle Mays, who was the keyboardist for all those great Pat Metheny
recordings, it was a different story. We met for a drink at EJ’s, a jazz club
in Atlanta, one night after a Metheny concert. One drink turned into 4 or 5
and we sat up, drinking, talking and playing for each other and Steve, the
owner of the club, until 5 in the morning. Lyle would play for 10-15 minutes
then I’d get up and play 10-15 minutes. The funny thing is, after hearing
Lyle play, I was inspired and played probably as well as i ever had. And
even at that, sounded woefully inferior, reminding me of the times Bob
Wright used to effortlessly knock me on my butt in those high school football
games against Sheridan. Lyle knocked me on my butt that evening, with
style and grace. If I hadn’t known before, I knew then just how good one
needed to be to be a player at the level he was. A good lesson, perhaps
one I didn’t need right then, but a confirmation of what I already knew to be true.

Compared To What?

And of course it’s all so relative. In Atlanta, I was maybe in the top 6 jazz
pianists in the ’70’s and ’80’s. In the U.S. I was maybe 198 in the top 200. In V.C. Montana, my home town, I have been top dog from time to time. But then V.C.’s population is around 150. And perhaps that is my whole point. What really matters
in all this is who we’re playing for at the moment, who we’re with right now, how
we are affecting their lives, if we are loving and caring to those around us.
It might very well be that the majority of us “normal” folk wouldn’t deal with
fame and fortune very well anyway… or wouldn’t want to! There’s a definite
price to be paid for all that fame, the loss of privacy and freedom, for starters.
Takes a certain kind of person to deal with all that… and I’m not that kind.
Sour grapes? Maybe, but if becoming a famous person involves my having
to change my basic personality in order to be that successful and famous,
and to handle it all gracefully, count me out. I would no more want that than
I would want my Betty to become more like Martha Stewart.

Hell, we all get judged every day, like it or not, by our friends and enemies
alike. It could be that the closest we can come to an honest evaluation of
who we are might lie in the kinds of friends we have. Look around us…
who has stuck with us through all these years, who has understood (and
often endured) our personal wrinkles and warts… if we still love them and
respect them, I’d guess that probably says as much about us as it does
about them. So should we shimmy out on this philosophical branch and say –
our true friends are a true mirror of ourselves? I really don’t know. All I know
is that it’s true for me… or at least I want it to be true for me. I love my
real friends, I respect them and try to emulate them. Their friendship actually
raises me up to a better level of perception and understanding. I guess it’s
a little weird, perhaps, but my friends help me to see myself in a better light
than I would otherwise. My best friend now is my partner, Betty Johnson,
who inspires me every day to be a better, more selfless person. And she
does it by example. I studied Buddhism with the Buddhist Monks in Atlanta
for 5 years, and today Betty is far more spiritually enlightened than I’ll ever
be. See, there’s that “comparison thing” again. But it’s true. I continue to
learn from her every day how to be a good person in this world.

I told Betty about this article and asked her if she’d ever compared herself
to others. She said, “No, I never did. I just lived my life and did the things
I thought were best for myself and others. I never thought to make any
comparisons like that.”

Of course not. That’s not who she is, anyway. When you’re striving to be
the best you can be every day, comparisons are useless. We are who we
are, after all, and can only do what we’re each able to do, which pretty much
reduces this mostly useless diatribe to a great gasp of hot air, not enough to
even float a respectable balloon.

Michael Colemire, once turned to his wife, after reading a post of mine,
and said, “He’s a windy little bugger, isn’t he?” Yes, Michael, I am. I know this
to be true, as I’ve compared myself, over the years, to every other windy
bastard who annoyed me, and find myself to be right up there with them.
So see? Perhaps comparison isn’t a bad thing… at least I know I’m a
windy bag of hot air, and can go forward in life, knowing how I’m perceived,
and decide whether it’s worth it to try changing that perception. In this case,
it isn’t. So for those few of you hoping for a better me, probably not going
to happen… at least not so’s you’d notice. Sure, I continue to try, but have,
some time ago, hit the improvement wall hard, which quickly reduced me to
striving to be kinder, gentler, more understanding and accepting of the
outside world, and pretty much let it go at that. Knowing that we are virtually
all normal folk, living a somewhat normal life in an abnormal world should,
in fact, bring us a certain peace of mind… that we should not necessarily be
driven to change the world to any measurable degree, but rather to cut
ourselves some slack and to strive (if we absolutely must strive) to find
happiness and contentment for ourselves and our loved ones. That, I believe,
is doable… for all of us.

Steve Hulse

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