Friday, December 30, 2011

Barbara's gift

My dear and loving wife was taken from me on my 56th birthday. Barbara did not leave me. I know what it is to be left—to be dumped like a bag of trash that is no longer useful. The damage to your ego is enormous, and of course there is a grieving process as well. You wonder how you could ever have loved somebody who turned out to be such a &@$@!!! You lick your wounds, you indulge yourself, and of course you eventually move on.

This was different. The massive cerebral hemorrhage came as a thief, stealing in upon the shadow of a 33-year-old cancer and snuffing out in mere moments a life that had ridden perilously and courageously through that shadow, brakes off and headlights dimmed, into a future of steadily diminished hopes. There was no chance to say good-bye. As we drove to the hospital, she was still apologizing to me for spoiling my birthday. The pain came later; her last words were “my head hurts so bad” and “my tongue is numb.” As the children and I were ushered from the room so they could insert a breathing tube, she spiraled down into the dark coma from which she would not awaken.

For the next three days, she lay in the ICU, and I held her and kissed her and spoke to her while I waited for her relatives and mine to arrive and join me in that anguished vigil. I told her that she had not been a bad mother to our children, as I knew she believed she had been, because she could not hear their recitals and take their telephone messages— because since her deafness they had instinctively and understandably come to me first when anything was amiss. I told her that her example of brave survivorhood in the face of the grimly unknown—the aftermath of a massive dose of radiation that had been intended to prolong her post-cancer survival to two years, if possible—was the best role model they would ever witness: that she had been the best mother I could have hoped for to my two nearly grown children. I told her that I loved her more than anyone could ever know. Finally, I told her that I was ready to let her go.

The organ donation people came in on Thursday evening, and the surgeon flew in at two the next morning. An hour later, while the children and I lay sleepless in our beds (we had all awakened at 2:30), he removed several of her organs for transplant and research. She was finally at rest. To my astonishment, she was only the 103rd organ donor in Central Texas this year.

As remarkable and generous as that gift was, though, it is not the gift about which I have chosen to write. That gift was given in stages, as we progressively lived through a series of medical reversals that changed both of our lives unalterably. The worst was the onset of total deafness just hours before we had planned to drive to Texas and pick out a new house. It was the death of our previous ease of communication, of our ability to enjoy music together, and of so much more. We grieved it in tandem, bearing each other up in a partnership of shared sympathy that was largely unimaginable to outsiders: to those who didn’t belong to our nation of two, bound together in mutual loss. We both understood that we had experienced a death, and that we could live through it only with severe discipline and infinite patience with each other. Somehow we grew, and discovered things in ourselves that we hadn’t known were a part of us.

What I told Barbara on Thursday night was that because we had faced the death of a shared life together hand in hand, I was now ready to face it alone. I told her that this was the gift we had given each other, and that my time had come to redeem it.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


On December 16, 1826, Ludwig van Beethoven celebrated his 56th birthday. On December 19 of this year, I will celebrate mine.

For me as a Beethoven scholar, this is a particularly weighty birthday. Beethoven would die three months later and never had another one. By this time in life, he had already composed all his music—the promising early works, the dazzling ones of the middle period that earned him his reputation, and the profound, mystifying (in the good sense) works of his late period, written after he lost his hearing: those works in which he has always seemed to me to be transcending the medium and communicating timeless truths.

I used to look at the late works as the product of an old age marked by profound wisdom. I am now that old myself, and I don't have that wisdom, and it astonishes me to think that I have lived through as many years as Beethoven did. I know it's a cliche, but I don't feel my age—until, that is, I look at the music Beethoven wrote, and had been writing for over a decade by the time he was 56 years old. Then I realize that a creatively miraculous life was indeed compressed into what I now have to regard as a very short human time span. Beethoven's oeuvre—one of the most significant achievements in human history by any standards—was finished when he was 56. I march on toward retirement, which I expect to be at least 14 years in the future, and I have no such sense of closure, and I'm glad I don't, because I don't want the show to stop.

There have been numerous attempts to explain what makes Beethoven's music the cultural landmark that it has become. As a teenager, I read Leonard Bernstein's "imaginary conversation" titled Why Beethoven?, in which a young Bernstein asserts that Beethoven may not have been outstandingly good at any of the individual building blocks of music, but he had the inexplicable gift of always knowing which note had to come next. Beethoven, he seems to want to say, wasn't a particularly good composer, except for the fact that he was a great one.

More recently, a colleague told me of his belief that Beethoven was no better than Haydn, except for the fact that he was more neurotic, and thus appeals to our neurotic age. I have to agree—and I said this on Facebook recently—that in virtually every respect that can be measured or quantified, Haydn was at least as good as Beethoven, and often better. I'm not sure, though, that being neurotic is what has allowed Beethoven to draw so many toward his star instead.

It is telling that Beethoven has come in for his share of revisionism lately. One scholar asserts that his achievement has led later listeners to have unrealistic expectations about what music can do. Another has claimed that Beethoven's music embodies male libidinal impulses, and that a feminine "voice" is necessary to restore the balance. (Apologies to Scott Burnham and Susan McClary for simplifying their arguments.) At the very least, it is now widely understood that his music, which for so many years was considered "universal" and "immortal," is very much a product of the time and the culture in which it was written.

Yet I have always believed that it speaks uniquely to our culture as well, and that it embodies timeless truths that go far beyond the world of music and pertain to human spiritual development in the broadest sense. What did Beethoven, who died at 56, and Haydn, who lived to 77, have in common? A style, an approach, an epoch (broadly defined) within the unfolding drama of music and its history. What separates them? A revolution, a new century, and a dawning transformation of the way we understand human identity.

Haydn's music is wonderful, inventive, sophisticated, ingenious and playful by turns; it is everything that a music lover could possibly hope for or expect. Beethoven's music, meanwhile, speaks to the situation of a lone human individual caught in the middle of vast societal transformations and hobbled in its ability to respond. Unlike Haydn, Beethoven was forced to come to terms with those transformations, and unlike Mozart, who faced the same set of challenges decades earlier, he lived into what Carl Jung called "the second half of life:" the years that play out after about age 35, when the ego has been formed and the individual must find new, novel, personal ways to grow or else begin to stagnate. Beethoven's hand was forced by encroaching deafness, and he went where the daemon led him. He went, as his contemporaries often recognized, into a place that was often terrifying and baffling, but that contained undreamt-of revelations as well. Like a seer, he brought those revelations up into the light and embodied them in music, and the world will never be the same.

When I was 32 years old, my life fell apart. Divorced and unemployed, I was forced down into that same primal cauldron myself. At that time, I was unimaginably grateful to know that Beethoven had been there before me, and had recorded the experience in his music. Now I am 56, and I will always know that Beethoven is more than just a living presence who has trod the same years along parallel paths. He will live on because has shown me, as he has shown so many others, how to survive.

That's why I am always baffled when so many people—even the most musically sophisticated—hear in Beethoven's late music nothing but sublime expressions of suffering and despair. I'm not talking about the 9th symphony, with its titanic but transparent journey toward joy. I'm talking about works like the string quartet in A minor, Op. 132, which from the first time I heard it at age 15 has always been my very favorite piece of music. In it can be heard all the beautiful, hopeful humanity that has ever been breathed, compressed within a hard nut of suffering and left to germinate in the inner resonating fibers of everyone who will listen. In it is found the knowledge that life does not stop, and that biting into that nut is healthy even if your teeth crack and your gums bleed. As I now prepare to enter into the part of life that Beethoven never lived, I remain convinced that the knowledge he planted has only begun to come to fruition—within me, within humanity.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Great Either/Or

(Note: This post is not intended as a response to the philosophical ideas of Søren Kierkegaard, whom I generally admire. Kierkegaard believed that the Hegelian dialectic had devalued the crucial principles of individual autonomy and free will. I understand what he meant, although there are still things that I like about Hegel.)

The Great Either/Or is a fallacy in logical thinking that I have encountered my entire life, even among highly educated people. Richard Taruskin has documented its destructive effects on my own field of musicology in the introduction to his Oxford History of Western Music. Carl Dahlhaus, he points out, famously asked whether art history is the history of art, or the history of art? In a lighter vein, David Hackett spoofed this line of thinking by asking "Basil of Byzantium: Rat or Fink?" The point is that it's quite possible Basil was both a rat and a fink, and it's also quite possible that the history of art is actually the history of art, whatever that might signify. Both/And is usually the more realistic answer. Nevertheless, I have been accused more than once, after making that assertion, of wanting to repeal the Principle of Contradiction.

So here are some things I want to vouch for:

• It's quite possible to be a liberal and still believe strongly in individual responsibility.

• It's also possible to believe there is an important role for communal responsibility without being a collectivist, a socialist, or any other kind of "ist."

• Most of the reality of what politicians supposedly deal with is lived out in the gray area between extremes, and political change generally consists of shifting positions within that gray area in incremental ways.

Nevertheless, Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, was quoted this week as saying that Jesus was “a free marketer, not an Occupier. Jesus rejected collectivism and the mentality that has occupied America for the last few decades: that everyone gets a trophy—equal outcomes for inequitable performance. There are winners and yes, there are losers. And wins and losses are determined by the diligence and determination of the individual.”

First of all, I want to lay to rest the idea that in American schools these days, everybody gets a trophy. My son, for example, is a senior in high school. For the past four years, he has been participating in a series of auditions that will ultimately lead an elite group from all over Texas to the All-State Choir, which will perform next spring for the annual meeting of the Texas Music Educators Association in San Antonio. The competition is stiff and unrelenting. After four years of trying, Jeremy is one audition away from qualifying, and he must study a varied repertory of music from three centuries and in three or four different languages in order to even sing that audition. There's still no guarantee that the trophy will be his. In my experience as a parent, things like this are more the rule than the exception.

The broader point, though, is that Perkins makes himself irrelevant the moment he opens his mouth by implying that everybody is either an Occupier or a free marketer. The possibility that somebody —e.g. yours truly—could be both doesn't even seem to occur to him, so deeply has he bought into the Great Either/Or. If somebody doesn't agree that the diligence and determination of the individual are the Alpha and the Omega of moral values, then that person is presumably sitting in an Occupy encampment handing out trophies. There is no middle ground.

I don't mean to pick on Tony Perkins; he's too easy a target, and his comments wouldn't even be worthy of attention if they didn't serve my broader point. It must be particularly difficult, though, for a religious leader to have to rule out a priori the idea that there can be something more important than the actions of individuals. After all, as another well-known religious figure recently wrote, "It's not about you." At some level, Perkins must understand that. Nevertheless, he is so steeped in the Great Either/Or that when he looks beyond his own nose all he can see is collectivists.

So just remember, the next time somebody says that there are two kinds of people in the world, that there are indeed two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don't. In an ideal world, everybody would be in the second group.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

I am the 0.00000033%

It was Joseph de Maistre who said that every nation has the government it deserves. Maistre was apparently a monarchist, so his statement should probably be read as a pointed critique of democracy. And so I have to read it in the context of the devolution of our democracy over the past few decades, which has led to our current state of governmental near-paralysis. Do we deserve this? More importantly, what does it say about us if we do?

An Op-Ed in this week's New York Times asks what Mahatma Gandhi, whose example has been repeatedly invoked by Occupy Wall Street protesters, would make of the protests.

Gandhi, says Ian Desai, would have rejected the slogan "We are the 99%." Societies operate as wholes, and the income stratification that the OWS protests have highlighted exists because we all accept and enable it.

If Desai is right, the obvious question is "Why?" Given that the US is rated between Ghana and Senegal in terms of income inequality, and far below any other "developed" nation, can it be true that we not only allow this situation to exist but actually approve of it? When I say "we," I mean the 100% that Desai says Gandhi would have addressed. I, personally, don't approve of it, and I know many others who don't. Placing our desires in conflict with those of the collective, though, is in Gandhi's view the wrong way to go, even if we have 99% of the collective on board. It is the 100% that will have to create any meaningful change.

So what is it about the American people that makes us so resistant to such change? Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which I've been reading on the recommendation of a Facebook friend, provides some interesting hints. What Gladwell is interrogating in the book is, in the broadest sense, the peculiarly American doctrine of the "self-made man." It is part of our national mythology that we are an open and egalitarian society in which anybody can succeed, simply by dint of hard work, grit and determination. The outliers—the upper 1%—are the ones that have done so, and those of us who haven't shouldn't complain; we should get to work.

Gladwell documents some of the ways in which this mythology can blind us to what's really going on when people succeed beyond expectations. For example, I was born in 1955. That means that I could have been Bill Gates. Literally. If I had practiced programming computers during my adolescence with the kind of determination with which I practiced the piano, I could have been ready to get in on the ground floor of the personal computer revolution and make a fortune. There were only two problems: I wasn't very interested in computers, and I didn't have the access that Gates did growing up in a computer-obsessed area of Washington state, or that Steve Jobs did growing up in Silicon Valley. So I've ended up a moderately successful musicologist instead of a phenomenally successful computer entrepeneur.

I'm not complaining. I like what I do and I wouldn't trade places with most people who make far more than I can ever dream of making. I suspect, though, that many Americans who do complain about their lot in life still have a deep-down conviction that it's solely their own fault. In fact, there's something even more pernicious going on, and it's what has enabled the current Fox-News-driven blame the poor mentality. Many Americans believe that successful white baby boomers like myself grew up on a level playing field full of equal opportunity, but that the field has been eroded and pockmarked and all but destroyed by freeloaders demanding special treatment. That's why Newt Gingrich is able to denigrate the OWS movement in such blatantly demeaning terms and receive cheers from some of the very people who would most benefit if the current protests succeed.

I did not grow up on a level playing field, and I know it. I came from a family that gave me intellectual autonomy as a birthright, and treated the pursuit of knowledge as a worthy goal. I grew up in an upper-middle-class household that allowed me to waltz into an elite college and an Ivy League graduate school. I was able to spend countless hours playing the piano and listening to music because I didn't need to hold odd jobs to get by and supplement the costs of my education. I was blessed, and I regard the career that I was given as a vocation, not a birthright. I seek to give back to society some of the special insights and unique gifts that have been handed to me, because I know that I do not own those gifts.

I am just me, though. The 0.00000033%. I feel incredibly fortunate to be there, but I am also part of the 100%, and I wish we had a mythology that would enable us to act in the collective interest and not just that of 300 million individuals. That's not socialist; it's just reality. As long as we cheat ourselves of that understanding, we will, I'm afraid, continue to have the society we deserve.