I knew a woman once who liked surprises. She liked them so much that she started wishing for them and to her amazement she started getting them. But they weren’t quite what she thought they would be. The parking ticket was a surprise. Losing her keys was a surprise. Her boyfriend dumping her was also a surprise. She said later, “I learned to wish for nice surprises.”

I like surprises too. Nice ones. I especially like them for my birthday. After four years of mediocre dinners at Thai restaurants and gift certificates from bookstores, Brian has also learned that I prefer surprises for my birthday. Birthdays were hard to master for Brian. Just like husbands before him, he would rise unusually early the day of my birthday, tell me he was going for milk, and then spend 2 hours in the nearest mall trying to find a present. Or, if it was a weekday, he would call from work, say he would be home in an hour, and then turn up two hours later with an unwrapped present inside the plastic bag he has just bought it in. It wasn’t until our fourth year of marriage that I finally learned to tell to him a few weeks before the birthday what I wanted: 1) a cake and 2) a surprise. The cake, because I like cake and I like candles, and a birthday cake melds my two favorite things in one. The surprise, because like my friend, I like surprises – nice ones.

So, in general, I would say surprises are good things except — and this is important for Short Punks — when I’m on stage. Recently, Brian and I did a show at Quenchers, one of our favorite places to play. We had rehearsed as we always do and from inside the rehearsal room it sounded, to use a musician’s phrase, tight. Tight is something many (not all) bands strive for – a sound that says, “yeah, we know what we’re doing.” Tight shows expertise, precision, confidence. In rehearsal, that’s how it sounded, tight. I left Superior Street, happy, confident, and grateful.

Two nights later we were at Quenchers doing a show in front of 10 people, at most. It was July 4th and the Taste of Chicago was on and Cheap Trick was doing a free show, so ten people was good even if half of them were from the other band on the bill. The set sounded well enough, pretty much what we practiced and I was going through the usual jokes I tell during the set. It was as we were finishing “Hard Luck” that Brian decided to give me a surprise – not a nice one. Without warning he started playing the next song “I Wanna Live,” a rockabilly inspired tune that I play with sticks. That fact that he was going into the next song without warning or pause or notice wouldn’t normally be a problem except that “Hard Luck,” the song we were playing, is played with brushes. Two bars into it I realized what he was doing and tried to keep up using the brushes. But it was no use. Brushes don’t have the attack of sticks and there was no backbeat.

Over the noise I shouted to Brian, “I need to switch.”

“Okay,” he said.

For 2 bars he vamped while I pulled out sticks and then tried to lock into the rhythm he had started. But it was hopeless. I couldn’t find the pocket, that place in the music where the drums slide right in and sound right. For the rest of the song, and it’s a long song, we were slightly off. The drums felt, to me at least, as if they were sitting outside the music and me along with it.

We ended the song. Into the mike I said, “What the hell was that?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “I wanted to try something different.”

You wanted to try something different??

The rest of the set I was slightly irritated which actually helped my playing. On the ride home with the gear carefully stowed into our four door sedan, I asked Brian again what he was trying to do.

“I get bored. I needed something to happen. It sounded fine.”

That’s when I figured it out. Brian likes surprises, too. Unlike me, however, he doesn’t need them on his birthday. I also realized one person’s nice surprise is another person’s nightmare. For Brian, sets need surprises. Well-rehearsed is the equivalent of boring and as soon as I find a spot in the night we’re I’m comfortable, he switches songs or plays a different song or throws bars in from another song that’s in the same key. Brian doesn’t like boredom. For me, boredom means I can stop trying – I can relax. And that’s where some of the tension is when we play live. One of us wants to forge ahead into unknown territories, the other wants to stay on the couch with a book and the cat. Ironically, in real life, off-stage, it’s the other way around. I like to travel, move to new places, see new things, try exotic food. Brian likes to stay in the neighborhood, go to places he knows, and eat food he already likes. That’s when I learned something about being married and being musicians. In order for it to work in both places, we both have to compromise. I have to cope with the surprise on-stage, and he has to cope with them, off. In the end, it keeps it interesting for both of us, on-stage and off.

But aside from boredom, Brian is willing to take risks in music that I don’t feel ready to. Perhaps this is because he is a more experienced musician who’s played since he was sixteen years-old. Whatever it is, when we’re on-stage Brian will walk me to a song’s cliff-high edge, and make me look down. From high up, he’ll say, “let’s jump.”

I usually scream, “Are you out of your mind?”

“Come on,” he says, eyes winking. “Let’s go!”

Before I know it, we’ve jumped and we’re hovering somewhere inside a song that we’ve rehearsed a million times, but now it’s different. Brian’s chords are slightly different or his rhythm and I have to decide. Am I going to play along or not? Sometimes I fight him and keep trying to play what we rehearsed, but that’s usually a bad choice because he’s not playing what we rehearsed. The better choice is not to resist. Go along, and see where it takes us. “I Wanna Live,” our rockabilly-tune, goes heavy metal. “Olivia” a indie pop tune starts sounding like Bob Dylan wrote it. Once it’s over, and if I have let go, I discover that not only did it sound good, but I learned something new. Aside from anything else whether I want it or not, every show is a complete surprise.

At least, to me.