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What better way to start off the next segment than with a new piece? I just finished this last night:
I also just returned from a really good visit with my family back in Indiana. As long as I am dreaming, though, there are some things I wish I could fix in a dream-world. I wish I could make my Dad happy. I wish I could go back in time and help my Mom more. I wish I could vaporize all the stress in Jill's life. Heck, while I'm at it I might as well wish for serious health-care reform.
This is a good day for wishing too: my Dad's birthday is today. So I wish him a happy birthday!
Unfortunately, Ruth had a bad reaction to the pain medication she was given, and wound up in a mild coma on Thursday. She has since recovered and is now back in her home at Medford Leas (the extended-care facility where she, and Roy before he died earlier this year, has been living).
I hate to see people I love go through such difficult times. What can we do? This is life, all the good and the bad. We did have a nice visit from an old friend (Anita Cervantes) earlier in the week, and good weekend-dinner times again with Jeff/Sharlene/Elliot (Sharlene also had a bad week -- her sister was diagnosed with ovarian cancer). I guess this is what we can do. I'm working on some new music. Like that will do something, huh. This is life.
Besides the reduction in the frequency of postings, what I've noticed is that I seem to be reporting more mundane -- read "boring" -- aspects of life. Perhaps that isn't true, but it sure feels that way to me. Earlier in this blog I had the temerity to write things like this:
But at least these feeble locutions attempt to express something beyond the surface of a prosaic reality. Lately it seems my texts have been more along the lines of "I went here", "Jill said that", "Lian and Daniel did these things." Which is fine, except I can't imagine why anyone would want to read about them. What do I want to say? Why do I want to say it?
I do realize that there is an informational function of this blog, one I had not anticipated. When I haven't written for awhile, friends will sometimes call me on the phone to see how things are going. Yikes! I'm fine! Believe me, if I'm not this will probably be one of the first places I use to unpack my emotional baggage. Still, though, I don't want to face such an overwhelming feeling of 'unfinished business' as I was when I first confronted my cancer diagnosis. I want to write good stuff. I want to say things that might matter to someone (hopefully Lian or Jill or Daniel) someday. Instead, when I'm not busy ruminating about writing this blog (which does seem to be one of my favorite topics these days), I feel like I'm reporting the equivalent of "I went out to the store today and bought some milk. I need the calcium."
I can think of three big reasons why this is so. First of all, I'm not dead yet. As silly as this sounds, the fact of the matter is that I no longer feel the intensity that accompanied my first wild fears about multiple myeloma. The result is that my attention is no longer focussed upon 'getting it all down before I go'. What remains are the everyday acts of living. This drift of focus probably isn't warranted. My situation could change with the next visit with Dr. Pearse, and there always exists the random truck on the New Jersey Turnpike scenario. I don't know if it is humanly possible to sustain the kind of emotional passion that comes with thinking I had 18 months left to live, though. Even if it were possible to maintain that level of morbid mania, I doubt I'd be much fun to be around.
The second factor is a hard awareness of how insufficient a text can be in the face of real events. It was hard to get through the death of Jill's father, but the horrible murder of our friends' daughter Emily Silverstein left me with not much I could imagine saying. It was after that terrible event that I believe I started writing fairly flat reports of existence. Any embellished prose or reflective attempts to "make sense" of things just felt slightly ridiculous.
Finally, if I'm honest with myself, I realize that I'm not a real deep thinker. Despite my semi-literary pretensions (on full display in this blog), I don't think I have the kind of insightful intelligence that I so admire in many of my friends and colleagues. I wish I did. Don't get me wrong -- I certainly try to distill my sense of things into cogently perceptive writings that might actually do some good in the world. But when I look back, my efforts seem bland and unremarkable. Even the features of music I like (including my own, heh heh!) are essentially what is described by theorists as the 'musical surface'. I'm an ordinary, shallow guy.
Here's an example: Shortly after my initial myeloma diagnosis, I figured I should try to write Big Serious Papers again. I had (still have) outlines done for papers on "process improvisation" (a paradigm for the FUTURE!), "The Best Art is Local" (still may do this one...), one on the use of 'ambient music' as a culture of doing or a culture of commodity, etc. etc. etc. Right about this time one of the editors of the Computer Music Journal contacted me, probably motivated by a strange oh-my-god-I-heard-Brad-is-dying guilt, to write a guest editorial. I saw this as a chance to promote a few of my ancient causes, a chance to once again attempt the Big Serious Paper. This is what I wrote (you will notice from some of the topical references that it was indeed written a few years ago):
I make this self-assessment without bitterness or rancor. I am basically a happy man. I know that by some stroke of luck I wound up in a wonderful life-situation. And I realize that going out to the store to buy milk because I need the calcium is an amazing thing to be able to do.
Yet there are times I wish I could do more. The night before last, I was outside in our back yard. The sun had set, and the light was a deep dark-blue that enfolded the trees and bushes. I took a picture of the the sky:
I ran across this poem in the New York Times last week. It was part of an obituary for Karla Kuskin, an author of children's books (we had some of her books on young Lian and Daniel's bookshelves) and a poet known for her oblique comments on common living:
It was the summer between 7th and 8th grade. I was too young to work a summer job, and I had just began exploring musical life in a rock band. My maternal grandparents had given me a Wurlitzer electric piano for my birthday. It was my entry into a world of electric guitars, bass and drums. Across the lake from us lived Kent Lavengood, one year younger than me and a fairly talented guitarist (I think he still performs, known now as P. K. Lavengood. Hey, I just used Google and found this web site apparently about him -- still doing music, and somewhere in NJ!). We spent most of the summer 'hanging out' and playing music together, plus Kent shared records from his collection. One of the first that he lent me was the rock opera Tommy by The Who.
I had devised a goofy way to listen to records that would now be labelled an "immersive" audio environment. My parents had a large console stereo system, the piece-of-furniture kind popular in the 1960s and 1970s. I had built two satellite speakers for it as a Christmas gift to my mom, the idea being that she could use them to listen in the kitchen. During that summer, however, I commandeered the little speakers as part of my personal listening set-up. I would lie with my head on a pillow between the large console speakers and place the two small ones on either side of my shoulders. Total surround-sound! Years ahead of home-theater systems! Although it must have been strange for the rest of my family to see me lying prone on the living room floor in that fashion. I spent hours that way.
So I came home with Tommy from Kent's house, started up the record player, situated myself in my little speaker-nest, and... Oh the REVERB! The music sounded like it came from some huge cathedral, it seemed so deep, so powerful. I couldn't imagine how they did this, the drums, the voices, the guitars, but I was totally enthralled by the grandiose sound of it all. I had never heard anything quite like it before. It was a glorious experience.
Why am I telling all this? I just finished seven more compositions, I did one-a-day last week to learn some new software:
Oh my! It took me awhile to get around to doing this, but none of the pieces above use any reverberation algorithms at all. Ok, there is a little echo plus loads of other signal-processing, but NO REVERB! There ya go, Paul!
We started the weekend in a fairly intense rainstorm. Half of Roosevelt lost power for more than eight hours. Our house was lucky -- we had no electricity for about an hour on Friday, and then later for a short period that night. It rained semi-continuously from Thursday afternoon through Saturday evening.
It was the rain that formed a part of my first memorable experience. Saturday afternoon I had gone out shopping for a new door-lock at our local big-box hardware stores. On the return home, the clouds were breaking up in several layers of grey, giving the sky a fragmented, unsettled appearance. I was driving through an area of sod farms -- odd enough because of the uncommon grassy flatness here in central NJ -- and the rain was misting and blowing. I was imbedded in a water-granule three dimensional space. And it suddenly all seemed so strange. I had one of those freeze/flow moments, where everything seemed to stop. The water hung, crystalline, in the air. At that very particular moment I had an awareness of all the possible pathways that led to my being there, all the impossibly improbable threads that determined that point, that time. I could almost see the potential life-routes from there, the different decisions that could lead to one lived-life or another. I thought to myself: "I wonder what it would take to completely change the kind of person you are?" Then, more darkly, I thought: "All of this will end some day." I'm on drugs.
The second experience is on-going, and points to the lie behind the notion that it is even possible to completely change the kind of person you are. As a thoughtful holiday suprise last year, Gregory Taylor had given me an on-line download gift certificate from Amazon.com to purchase a new release of the major works of the progressive-rock band Genesis. Back in high school, I was a major fan of band. I would listen to Genesis records for hours and hours. Driving home from teaching at Columbia at the end of the week (classes started this past week), I used Gregory's gift and put on one of their longer works, a piece called "Supper's Ready".
Various parts of that music have been running in my brain's background music loop ever since. Perhaps because I listened to it so intently when I was younger, I can hear almost every nuance of every phrase when I attend to my unconscious radio. It puts me back in high school again! I'm young! The future is wide open! Here I am now, and that thread has run, become solid. How could I ever change that?
I don't want to change it, either. This life has been good, even when it all ends someday. I do want to do this, however: earlier in the summer, my two best friends in high school, Geoff Pacheco and Pat Kennedy, got in touch with me via e-mail. Together we had formed a progressive-rock band we called "Vindication", even producing an LP between our sophomore and junior years. I wrote back a short e-mail or two, but didn't really pursue a more extended conversation. I'd like to find out more about where their threads have led them.
How am I to interpret these observations? What do they mean? One thing I can temporarily put aside as a constructed correlation: on entering the examination room today Dr. Pearse said to me: "I have nothing to tell you -- everything is still the same." Yes, this is good news, for this month at least.
We had an 'open house' at the Computer Music Center tonight. Even though I am very familiar with all the work our students are doing at the CMC, when I see it all on exhibit it makes me happy. One of the aspects of life I've found most amazing is the chance I've had to work with people I truly respect and admire. I really like everyone I work with! I am a lucky guy.
And I'm glad I got jolts of good news/good feelings today, because I do have a cold. Physically I feel pretty lousy. That can pass, though.
Down the hall a Jewish youth group of some kind is also meeting. They are singing and dancing. I'm not listening to them, though. Instead I'm playing the recordings I made earlier today with Dan Trueman and Terry Pender.
The songs I hear from down the hall are centuries old. One of the pictures on the wall is a close-up of the two 'touching fingers' from Michelangelo's famous Sistine Chapel ceiling (Creation of Adam) -- 1500. And here I sit, in this same room, typing as I did ten years before, listening to music we just created today. Time is fluid, and I am floating, floating.
I think the best thing to do in this entry is just list a few links and descriptions of recent activities, mainly so I can look back here and imagine what life was like during the fall of 2009:
There were only two not-so-happy things over the holiday. This was the first Thanksgiving that we spent without Lian. When I say "not-so-happy" in this case, it's definitely a selfish and short-sighted statement. The actual goodness is that Amazon.com sent Lian to Osaka (Japan!) for two weeks to help with the software at one of their new warehouses. Yikes! My little girl! She's handling a warehouse! (or as Amazon cheerfully calls them, a 'fulfillment center') It has forklifts and large trucks and lots of big boxes being shuttled around! What an amazing thing -- yes, we missed Lian for the turkey-event, but the pride we feel in what she is accomplishing, my oh my. You desperately want your kids to do well, and then when they do you miss them so much. Why can't life simultaneously change -- for the better, of course -- and stay the same? Is that too much to ask?
The second sadness was that Jill's mom had taken a turn for the worse. Just before the holiday Ruth was doing really well. She had even set a goal of eating Christmas Eve dinner with all of us in the main dining room at the care facility where she is living. When Jill went to see Ruth on Sunday, however, was having some respiratory problems and was quite a bit weaker as a result. She was also a little confused about the date, etc. The perplexing element is that there doesn't seem to be any root cause for the ups and downs in Ruth's condition, except for the obvious one: getting old is tough. Ruth still wants to work towards her holiday meal go, though. This is good.
More to say, but it's late now. I wrote the above earlier, back in New York. Now I'm in Indiana.
And HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Lian, 23 amazing years. I'm not
saying much here, partly because there is so much to say.
I wanted to set at least one tiny marker here, though.
I really love this time of year, and it takes on a special significance with Lian coming home from Seattle (tomorrow, yay!). I gain a deeper appreciation with each year of what our family gatherings mean to Mom and Dad. I mentioned in my last post here that we spent a good weekend up in Longmeadow. Lately I've really been enjoying our family get-togethers, especially with my dad. Since leaving politics he's been much more relaxed, much more open about all kinds of things. He's even doing a lot of walking and healthy eating; he lost over twenty pounds in the past few months!
The only hiccup in last weekend's happy scenario happened towards the end of our stay. Because of the blizzard, my parents' flight back to Indiana was cancelled. As I get older I understand and feel how aggravating this can be (check out my earlier entry about returning from Minneapolis a few years ago). My mom was very anxious, but my dad went ballistic. He was certain that they would never get back to Indiana before Christmas and was ready to rent a car and drive through the snow for sixteen hours, this after I had managed to rebook tickets on a flight to return on Monday, the day after they had planned to be home. All things considered, I think the airlines did a remarkable job of handling the stress on the system caused by the snowstorm (of course, this is from the perspective of someone for whom the alternative arrangements worked). Dad seemed convinced that the new return flight -- booked through Newark -- would never leave the ground, and that somehow the airline industry was targeting him especially for extended aggravation. Unfortunately, we all felt the burn of his anger.
Don't misread me, I love, admire and respect my father more than any other man I know. In an uncanny way, I also find myself knowing more and more how he feels as I age. He is a truly great leader, and I even have "objective proof" of this assertion: my dad was President of the Indiana State Senate longer than any man in history. His track record of legislative achievement is unsurpassed. Through his progressive political leadership, he has improved the lives of literally millions of people.
In one of those seeming-paradoxes-that-make-sense, the qualities that make Dad a great leader are also the qualities that can be personally difficult. The airline ticket situation last weekend is a case in point. Dad has a vision of a better world, the way things ought to be, and he works hard to make that world a reality. When he is frustrated in doing this, his annoyance is extreme. I wonder if some of my personal failings are a reaction to this, a stupid little mini-rebellion hanging over from my youth. I procrastinate, I tend to set priorities wrongly, I don't do what needs doing. Often when I am told "you must do this now!" I instead turn my attention to something completely different.
I don't think this mini-rebellion theory really fits me, though. What I do know is that I'm not a great leader like my father. I am not driven in the same way he is. This doesn't bother me too much. The reality is that my brain got constructed differently, and the activity that most attracts me is making music. I have been unbelievably lucky in that my desire to craft new sounds, combined with my sideways-stepping approach to 'career development' resulted in the job I hold at Columbia. As a result, I don't think I've done much in the way of achieving 'greatness'. I certainly can't claim much in the way of direct life-improvement for any constituents.
Many of my colleagues at Columbia are indeed recognized
'great' people. They have managed, through hard work and
intellectual/artistic achievement, to accomplish much and
garner the awards and accolades that accompany such success.
I really haven't, BUT when I finish a new piece of music --
even though it isn't breaking bold new artistic ground,
nor does it promote exciting new modes of creative thought --
I usually really like it. Nothing else professionally
gives me such satisfaction, such a feeling that I've done something
good. This is enough for me: I like my music. I like my life.
On the way home, driving through the piled snow, it seemed so right. This is all a construction of my own, of course, but it was definitely one of those moments I wanted to extend, an eternity again captured on Christmas Eve. I guess I'm primed for that kind of feeling about now.
Is it possible to string these moments together? How do we get here? How do we stay here? The past year has felt like a return to 'normalcy' of sorts, although I can still feel the wiftiness. I've discovered that three years can be a lifetime. I'm supremely selfish in this case -- this is all so good now, I want more. How can this end? I can't imagine it.
Listen to those monks. This Christmas is indeed merry. And more.
I've been getting a lot done, perhaps working well because of the contentment that surrounds me. I've also been catching up on reading-for-fun, going through the books given to me for the holidays. While choosing some books on-line from Amazon, I ran across the work of author Scott Russell Sanders. I recalled reading his set of essays Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World years ago. He is on the faculty of Indiana University, and writes much about his life in the Midwest, especially Indiana. Yeah, just a little bit of resonance there for me. I noticed that his book Writing From The Center was available for my Kindle, so I downloaded it and began reading. In the title essay of the collection, he writes:
I'm listening to holiday music right now. The decade is ending tonight. The past three years of that decade have been a very long time.
Happy New Year!