Depending on your disposition at any given moment, you’re always free to focus on the glass half full or the glass half empty. Given over to a natural crankiness, which I justify by puffing myself up and claiming I’m simply a good “critical thinker,” I tend to dwell on what’s wrong with the world. Pollyannas annoy the hell out of me. Things need fixing. Don’t just sit there. Get off your ass and fix them, I say.
Must be my Calvinist background. I like to claim I’m an ex-Lutheran, but the truth is the Calvinists got to my young mind at a much earlier time, when I was more susceptible to the idea that if I were a good little boy not only would the adults in my life smile at me more, but God himself would be pleased. I was put on this earth to do good works. There is no finer goal one can have in life than to die knowing you made the world a better place than you found it. It gets confusing at times, like when I get the bug to try to convince people their hopes and dreams are false and fanciful and they need to be more realistic. But the goal remains the same
For years I’ve looked back at my early child-rearing and complained that they did a piss-poor job of training me to be a mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body. What we got with physical education was a coach who would line up all the guys and have them choose teams, football in the fall, baseball the rest of the year. I was always one of the last chosen and it set me on a path where I hated physical education all my life. When in later years I saw how other countries did it, by stressing individual development, through soccer or through gymnastics carefully guided, I came to resent my P.E. training as a classical example of mis-education.
More recently, though, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that I grew up at a time and in a place where music and art were part of the school curriculum, and we had a marvelous soul for a music teacher who was able to develop in us not only our skills as singers and players of instruments, but a love of music itself. I took seven or eight years of piano lessons, became the accompanist of our high school glee club and for a time I even got a job as the organist of the local Methodist Church. I played in recitals, got other jobs - playing for ballet recitals, for example, and people regularly told me that I was going places as a musician.
Alas, what was missing was the push from parents or other mentors who might have tied me to the piano bench, forced me to practice my Czerny finger exercises and cram music theory into me that might have opened the door to such possibilities. Instead, I coasted, playing one not too challenging tune after another when my piano teacher thought I was ready for it, until finally I concluded that it had become clear that I had no special talent for music. Working relentlessly at it would simply have cut too sharply into more rewarding activities. Both the external pressure and the internal discipline were just not there.
More than once I heard somebody remark, “He’s so talented! Pity he never did anything with it.”
The thing is, I did do something with it. Every morning during the current lockdown I start the day with music. YouTube gives you access these days to the best musicians in the world. You are not limited by money and geography by an inability to get to concerts at Carnegie Hall. You can watch Carnegie Hall concerts on your computer screen. Two boys from Manchester, England, play piano/organ duets at the Royal Albert Hall. I come back again and again to the winners of the Moscow Tchaikovsky piano competitions. Watch folks with superhuman hands, like Yuja Wang. And folks who can expose you to the soul of Beethoven, like Igor Levit, that you never realized you’ve been missing all your life.
Never did anything with it? Nonsense. I developed an appreciation for what’s involved in nurturing such a native-born talent through discipline, and even to this day, when I wonder if I’m just going to sink into the ground with cynicism about American democracy or even the ability of the human race to be human, I find I am still lifted right out of my chair at times with wonderment at the virtuosity of those who did make it to the top. And joy at the power of music to move you up onto the floor to move your body. How is it that tragedy can leave you dry-eyed but beauty that enters the brain through the eyes and ears brings the tears?
Four years my friend Harriet got up at 4 a.m. to bring her daughter to ice-skating lessons before school until one day her daughter simply announced she was now tired of skating and didn’t want to do it anymore. “What a waste,” her grandmother said. “All those hours practicing. For what?”
Harriet had a quick answer. “It wasn’t a waste, mother,” she said. “Amy got to make the connection between effort and accomplishment. It doesn’t matter than she didn’t become world-class; she learned a valuable lesson for life.”
I’m told, now that I’ve passed my 80th birthday, that I’m officially old. So I think I should be able to get away with concluding that the purpose of life is preparing for the time in your life when you won’t be able to get around all that much and will have to live with your memories. But it turns out it’s more than memories: it’s the ability to appreciate things that a good education gave you, whether it was the joy of reading and the knowledge that it’s a big world with endless exciting new surprises, or places of refuge, or insight into the full breadth of human experience. Or the ability to distinguish the trivial from the enduring.
I once said I wanted to live a life with no regrets. I wanted to get things right. Wanted to be one of those people who, when dying, didn’t have to worry he’d spent too much time at the office, too little time with his children.
But it turns out I do have regrets - lots of them. I wish I had learned Chinese. Wish I had brought my German and French and Spanish to a higher level. Wish I had traveled in Africa. Wish I had not told everybody that Kenny Rizzi had pissed his pants after promising not to. Wish I had not terrified my friend Pete by threatening to tell his mother he was gay because I thought he needed help curing himself.
But I don’t regret not become better at the piano. I took it as far as I was able to and then channeled my love of music into the joy of listening to others perform. I’m proud of my appreciation of music. I’ll match my appreciation with anybody else’s. Any day. So there.