Young Man with a Horn (Or, Hitting the High Note)

We all have go-to movies, shows, or reruns when we need a good laugh, a respite from the day.  For me, one of my all-time favorite sitcoms is the 1950s classic, The Honeymooners.  Though the show aired years before I was born, it’s always been a joy for me to watch.  The Honeymooners features bus driver Ralph Kramden; his wife, Alice; and their best friends and neighbors, Ed and Trixie Norton.  (As an aside, I consider Ed Norton, played perfectly by Art Carney, to be the funniest character in television history, but Jackie Gleason’s Ralph isn’t far behind!)



In one memorable episode from March 1956 titled “Young Man with a Horn,” Alice digs up Ralph’s old cornet, asking him to throw it away, as she is trying to rid their apartment of unused and unneeded junk.  But Ralph protests.  “This means a lot to me,” he says.  He used to play it when he was younger, and feels sentimental toward it.  Alice grumbles, “You haven’t played it in years.”  But Ralph is adamant.  He wants to keep the cornet.



He tries it out, playing the old tune he used to practice when he was a boy.  It goes okay until he tries to hit a particularly high note half a minute into the song.  The result sounds like the wailing of a wounded banshee.

“I never could hit that high note,” he says.  This causes him to reflect.  He thinks of all the ideas, the projects he’s started in his life never to finish.  “I never stick with anything,” he says.  “I never hit the high note.”



That’s when they hear a knock on their door.  An elderly couple enters, apologizing for the unannounced visit, but they explain that, forty years ago, after getting married, they moved into this same apartment.  And seeing that today is their fortieth wedding anniversary, they are feeling nostalgic and wanted to see their old home.



During the conversation, Ralph learns that the old gentleman is the owner of a well-known donut company–“Your donuts are my favorite,” Ralph assures him.  He is impressed, and asks the man the secret to his success.

The man tells him that one day, many years ago, in this very apartment, he determined to become a success, to make it, to do whatever it took to climb to the top.  He explains that he created a list of his strong points and a list of his weak points, and posted them side by side on the wall, and then he worked to make his strong points even stronger and to eliminate his weak points altogether.

This sets a fire under Ralph,  He applies for a new job, a step up from the bus driver position he’s had for years.  He makes his own list of strengths and weaknesses.  “I’m going to be a success,” he declares.  “I’m going to hit that high note once and for all, Alice!”



But a week later, Ralph learns he didn’t get the new job.  Nothing has changed.  “I failed again,” he says.  “What a moax I am,” he goes on, using the term Jackie Gleason made famous during the show’s run.  “I’m not gonna be a failure anymore–what a laugh.”

But Alice will hear none of it.  She tells him she’s proud of all the changes he’s tried to make, the self-improvement he’s worked so hard on.  And as for the job he didn’t get, “there’s always next year, and the year after that,” she tells him.

Ralph looks at her adoringly, and says, “You know something–I did hit that high note once.  The day I married you.”



And the curtain falls with the classic kiss and embrace nearly every Honeymooners episode ends with.


Old Ralph Kramden’s wish to hit the high note, to soar high above snowcapped peaks, is something I am sure we can all relate to.  And in the world of creative writing, it seems especially apropos.

As much as I love writing, as much as I cannot conceive of a life without it, I am the first to admit–the writing life is littered with hard days, days where the words don’t want to come, when the characters are performing their own literary version of a sit-down strike, when the desire flickers and wanes, and when the ideas are nowhere to be found.



Indeed, as Oscar Wilde is attributed to have said one long-ago day, “I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.”

As I continue to work on the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, I know full well what Wilde meant!  There are days when nothing seems to work, when the words you want to use are stuck, stranded on a raft upstream, separated from the page by a wide, unnavigable log jam.  On such days, I cajole, I wait, I take a walk, I key in a sentence or two, hoping for a momentum that doesn’t come.  The words seem to be coated with mud, viscous and thick, slowing the process down to a crawl.



There are other days when the words come a little easier, though with generous amounts of doubt and insecurity thrown in.  “Sure, I’ve written six pages today,” I might say.  “But are they any good?  Or will they just need to be scrapped and completely redone?  And what about the next scene, the next chapter, and the one after that?  Will I be able to pull it off?  Or will everything bog down?”



The questions and concerns of the writing life rarely fade, the self-doubts are rarely silenced in full.  But there are times–yes, there are times when everything comes together and wings spread wide, catching the current and soaring high over green, luxuriant meadows.  When and how these wings sprout, causing the words to sing and the ideas to race along like jackrabbits–I do not know.  I wish I did.  I wish I could bottle it.  But it comes when it comes, rarely, fleeting, tantalizing, here one day and gone the next.  But the taste of it, the memory of it–they linger, and they encourage, and they serve as a reminder that sometimes, some days, we can and do hit the high note.



It reminds me of all those days growing up when I would shoot baskets in the driveway.  My parents were good enough to put up a basketball hoop over our garage, allowing me and my two brothers to practice as often as we liked, despite the dented and damaged rain gutters such practices produced!  Some days, I’d go outside and dribble the ball around, and Rick, a good friend of mine who lived next door, would come out and join me.  If I was having a particularly good day and my shots were going in, Rick would say, “You got the feelin’!”



The feelin’.  The zone.  Hitting the high note.  Call it what you will.  We all know it when we experience it. We all hunger for it when we’re struggling.  It might be hidden, buried under boxes laced with cobwebs and old clothes dusty and  wrinkled from years of neglect, just as Ralph Kramden’s cornet was.  But it’s there–waiting, ready, and available.



We just need to keep plugging away, even on the soggy days, when the clouds are gray and low.

Because it will all be worth it when you blow your horn, hit your high note, and soar.



Thanks so much for reading!


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