Wednesday, April 21, 2010

at the age at which Mozart was dead already.

I promised this to someone on my birthday, but was out of town on the day and didn't have the book with me. So here you go, Carrie. Credit Ellen Goodman, April 1977.
Let others freak out at turning 30 or 40. Let others greet their new decades with $12-an-ounce moisturizing cream and anxiety attacks. Not me. I'm no more mesmerized when the zeroes click into place in my life than when the speedometer turns over a new 10,000-mile mark.

But this odd-numbered birthday is different. This one has been lurking around, waiting to ambush my mind. You see, at the age I'm about to be, Mozart was dead already.

Now why, you ask, would someone whose musical career ended in the college chorus line of Guys and Dolls be worrying about Mozart?

Because Mozart has always been a convenient symbolic figure in my life. Someone to make me feel totally inadequate. Someone not to be able to live up to. Someone to make me miserable. Nice healthy things like that. I mean, if you want to feel like a wipeout, there is always the specter of old Wolfgang inking in the G clefs.

Remember when you were 5 and thrilled at being able to tie your shoelaces? Mozart was composing minuets. Remember when you were 30 and still hadn't "found yourself"? Mozart had finished The Marriage of Figaro. Need I go on?

Of course, Wolfgang isn't the only such handy source of low self-esteem and discontent. In the third grade there was always one kid who was on the gold book when you were on the green. There was one guy in college who had his first play produced on Broadway while you were completing your language requirement.

I had two friends publishing novels in New York the year that I was writing obituaries in Detroit.

I suspect that most of us were geared at a young age to all those grades and annual reports. There wasn't any such thing as an overachiever back then. He was just someone ahead of us. Someone to chase.

Now, however, it strikes me that there may be some advantage in arriving at the age at which Mozart was dead already. You don't have Wolfgang to kick yourself around with anymore. It occurs to you that you are far too old to be precocious, and you'll never be a Young Achiever. You'll never again be able to write Don Giovanni at 31.

Instead of whipping yourself to mush after the goals of others, you begin slowly to reset those goals. All this is called learning to live with yourself.

You stop living for Who's Who or the obituary column. You begin to give up the notion of living for the record, for others, or for the fleeting immortality of card catalogues and Chamber of Commerce plaques. As one friend put it: "If I'm not going to be Shakespeare, I might as well enjoy life."

At the age at which Mozart was dead already, you begin to gain what some people call perspective and others call "losing the old drive" and others call mellowness. For a day or so you might be repulsively philosophical. You might ruminate on the fact that the earth will be cold in a billion years or so, that most people's life's work is their life, and that there's not a whole lot of point in just making points.

The next trick, I suppose, is to learn to accept your limitations without trapping yourself in them and to find some of the important lines: the line between eternal dissatisfaction and smugness, the line between anxiety and boredom, the line between being driven and being immobilized. The line that we describe as a balanced life.

As for me, I may get there yet. I have at least finally realized one truth that comes with the candles: I'd rather be alive than be Mozart.

wond'ring aloud...

wond'ring aloud
How we feel today...
will the years treat us well...

Gotta love Jethro Tull.

Hit one of those milestone birthdays last week. Birthdays always make me reflective, but the ending in -5 and -0 ones much more so. One of the things I've been wondering about is just how much wiser I am, really.

For some reason, I've been thinking about Chris Farley. Maybe my subconscious unearthed something while I was in Milwaukee last week. Chris Farley was an alum not only of my alma mater, but of my specific place within it. He died in my first semester there and it was a huge deal. (Also a little weird to be seeing my dean interviewed on CNN, but that's neither here nor there.)

Marquette has gone through a lot in the last 13 years. Buildings have come and gone. Al McGuire (peace be upon him) died. The board of directors was mocked nationwide for trying to change the school nickname to "The Gold." Hegarty's, a 77-year-old campus institution -- and where my friend Mike took me for lunch to try to get me to talk about my feelings after my dad died -- is closing. It's all minutiae that adds up to a life. And as far as I can tell, I'm thinking about Chris Farley because he didn't care, and I wonder why he had that figured out at 33 and I still don't.

It sounds petty, but remember the SNL skit where he was auditioning for the Chippendales? That, friends, took brass ones. Niecy Nash getting out there every week on Dancing with the Stars and shaking her self-admitted large self for the entire country to see? She's doing it, and she's doing it with a "F, yeah" attitude. Meanwhile, I refuse to go out in public in anything sleeveless, because god forbid anyone stare at my fat and flabby upper arms. Like the rest of me isn't fat and flabby either? And more important, like I should care?

How does one arrive at the point of that sort of self-acceptance? I feel kind of ridiculous for being this old and not having achieved it yet. Perhaps that's a hint to get the hell outta the Caribou across the street from St. Marys. It kills me that physicians all tend to hit the genetic lottery as well as the IQ-points one. Really -- looks or brains -- should be one to a person. ;-)

and it's only the giving that makes us what we are...

Monday, April 12, 2010

"an elegant deception"

I spent Sunday afternoon not in the park with George, but at a play with a couple of people.

The play, "John Gabriel Borkman," was the 2nd to last one Henrik Ibsen wrote before being thoroughly debilitated by a stroke. You wonder if he saw it coming.

Despite having been written in the 1890s, there was a lot of it that was still perfectly topical. One part of the second act, however, particularly spoke to me. (The theater did its own adaptation, and I had to find this online from another source, so it's not exact, but you get the idea. Borkman is a disgraced financier ala Bernie Madoff and Foldal is a mousy little writer friend of his.)

BORKMAN. [Restlessly.] Yes, time flies: the years slip away; life---- Ah, no--I dare not think of it! [Looking at him.] Do you know what I sometimes feel like?


BORKMAN. I feel like a Napoleon who has been maimed in his first battle.

FOLDAL. [Placing his hand upon his portfolio.] I have that feeling too.

BORKMAN. Oh, well, that is on a smaller scale, of course.

FOLDAL. [Quietly.] My little world of poetry is very precious to me, John Gabriel.

BORKMAN. [Vehemently.] Yes, but think of me, who could have created millions! All the mines I should have controlled! New veins innumerable! And the water-falls! And the quarries! And the trade routes, and the steamship-lines all the wide world over! I would have organised it all--I alone!

FOLDAL. Yes, I know, I know. There was nothing in the world you would have shrunk from.

BORKMAN. [Clenching his hands together.] And now I have to sit here, like a wounded eagle, and look on while others pass me in the race, and take everything away from me, piece by piece!

FOLDAL. That is my fate too.


BORKMAN. [Interrupting.] Well, well--let us say no more of these stupid old stories. After all, neither of us got into the Cabinet, neither he nor I.

FOLDAL. But he rose high in the world.

BORKMAN. And I fell into the abyss.

FOLDAL. Oh, it's a terrible tragedy----

BORKMAN. [Nodding to him.] Almost as terrible as yours, I fancy, when I come to think of it.

FOLDAL. [Naively.] Yes, at least as terrible.

BORKMAN. [Laughing quietly.] But looked at from another point of view, it is really a sort of comedy as well.


(following a discussion on the merits of women or whether they're all evil. Foldal comes to their defense, as a whole.)

BORKMAN. [Moving impatiently on the sofa.] Oh, do spare me that poetical nonsense.

FOLDAL. [Looks at him, deeply wounded.] Do you call my holiest faith poetical nonsense?

BORKMAN. [Harshly.] Yes I do! That is what has always prevented you from getting on in the world. If you would get all that out of your head, I could still help you on in life--help you to rise.

FOLDAL. [Boiling inwardly.] Oh, you can't do that.

BORKMAN. I can when once I come into power again.

FOLDAL. That won't be for many a day.

BORKMAN. [Vehemently.] Perhaps you think that day will never come? Answer me!

FOLDAL. I don't know what to answer.

BORKMAN. [Rising, cold and dignified, and waving his hand towards the door.] Then I no longer have any use for you.

FOLDAL. [Starting up.] No use----!

BORKMAN. Since you do not believe that the tide will turn for me----

FOLDAL. How can I believe in the teeth of all reason? You would have to be legally rehabilitated----

BORKMAN. Go on! go on!

FOLDAL. It's true I never passed my examination; but I have read enough law to know that----

BORKMAN. [Quickly.] It is impossible, you mean?

FOLDAL. There is no precedent for such a thing.

BORKMAN. Exceptional men are above precedents.

FOLDAL. The law knows nothing of such distinctions.

BORKMAN. [Harshly and decisively.] You are no poet, Vilhelm.

FOLDAL. [Unconsciously folding his hands.] Do you say that in sober earnest?

BORKMAN. [Dismissing the subject, without answering.] We are only wasting each other's time. You had better not come here again.

FOLDAL. Then you really want me to leave you?

BORKMAN. [Without looking at him.] I have no longer any use for you.

FOLDAL. [Softly, taking his portfolio.] No, no, no; I daresay not.

BORKMAN. Here you have been lying to me all the time.

FOLDAL. [Shaking his head.] Never lying, John Gabriel.

BORKMAN. Have you not sat here feeding me with hope, and trust, and confidence--that was all a lie?

FOLDAL. It wasn't a lie so long as you believed in my vocation. So long as you believed in me, I believed in you.

BORKMAN. Then we have been all the time deceiving each other. And perhaps deceiving ourselves--both of us.

FOLDAL. But isn't that just the essence of friendship, John Gabriel?

BORKMAN. [Smiling bitterly.] Yes, you are right there. Friendship means--deception. I have learnt that once before.

FOLDAL. [Looking at him.] I have no poetic vocation! And you could actually say it to me so bluntly.

BORKMAN. [In a gentler tone.] Well, you know, I don't pretend to know much about these matters.

FOLDAL. Perhaps you know more than you think.


FOLDAL. [Softly.] Yes, you. For I myself have had my doubts, now and then, I may tell you. The horrible doubt that I may have bungled my life for the sake of a delusion.

BORKMAN. If you have no faith in yourself, you are on the downward path indeed.

Borkman was a flaming narcissist and clearly mad, but at least he believed in himself. I, on the other hand, am feeling really Foldal-like these days. Chalk it up to impending milestone birthday melancholy, I guess. There's more behind me than ahead at this point and I don't have a tremendous amount to show for it.

I swear: Next time I step foot in a theater, it's going to be for something light and fluffy. And if it's not, they're going to sell something stronger than coffee at intermission. ;-)

Friday, April 2, 2010

don't tell me you love me...

(cue Night Ranger song here)

It's been an ... interesting ... month. It's probably unwise to put the majority of the details out here, but here's the part that's bothering me.

I got back this morning from driving a friend to the airport (90 minutes each way, with my usual detour for getting lost on the way back). Picked him up at 7:30, got home about 11:30. One of the other residents -- who's been here about a month, maybe a bit less -- was taking her laundry down the stair as I was coming up. She said, with what seemed to be to be sincerity, "Oh, I'm so glad you're back!"

Taken aback a bit, I tried to keep it light and said "oh! Well, it's nice to be missed."

Whereupon she replied, "Well, of course! You're important to me."

And all I could think was, 1) You barely know me, 2) You know me in only a VERY specific context, 3) Pleeeeease don't pull out that particular gun on me. It makes me nervous.

Kurt Vonnegut (peace be upon him) said once that he never included anything even remotely resembling a love story in his books because once you do that, it's all over. The sky could be black with flying saucers and World War III could be imminent, as far as your plotline goes, and nobody would give a shit -- they'd just want to know about the love story. And once somebody says "I love you," what can you do, really, but say "I love you too"? He felt it was like holding the other person hostage.

There are a number of people I feel deep affection, and even love, for -- but it is often hard for me to say so aloud, perhaps because it makes me so nervous having someone say it to me. It makes me *especially* panicky when it's said to me from someone who uses it casually. To me, it's not a casual word, and definitely not a casual emotion, and while I'm grateful to have people who care about me, nothing in my life to date has proved to me that anything like love at first sight exists. (Affection at first sight can happen now and then -- not all that often, but it's lovely when it does.)99.9% of the time, though, love is not something that can be honestly proclaimed when you've barely met someone. It takes time to build a relationship to the point where you can use the word genuinely. Please don't make me all anxious by throwing it around lightly. I get anxious easily enough as it is. :-)