Thursday, November 21, 2013

My Back Pages 2: Pet Sounds

One of the things you can do in your dotage is to go back and look at what you missed in your youth.  I used to be reluctant to do this, for the ridiculous reason that I didn't like to admit a mistake.  But now, with my pride starting to wear off, and plenty of time, I am working through a "bucket list" of art works that I originally turned my back on.

One of the mistakes I made as a rock critic in the sixties was to ignore the Beach Boys’ 1966 album “Pet Sounds.”  I heard people raving about it, but I was absorbed with new music from Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Mothers of Invention etc.  I loved the Beach Boys, but with an innocent teenage love that didn’t take them all that seriously, a love I thought I’d outgrown.   

“Pet Sounds” didn’t look like an important work.  Capitol Records' cover photo was a clumsily-staged shot of the group feeding deer at a petting zoo.  In the sixties you could sometimes judge a record by its cover, but not this one.   Hidden inside was the masterpiece of rock’s greatest composer, Brian Wilson, and the beginning of the story of his fall from innocence to despair – the story of the sixties, played out in the life of a vulnerable genius.   

The very last track is an elegy for innocence:  In “Caroline No,” Brian’s falsetto keens, lamenting the loss of “the girl I used to know:”   I remember how you used to say you’d never change, but that’s not true. O Caroline you break my heart…  The album ends with the last of Brian’s pet sounds –  dogs barking, and the howl of a fast train passing, its whistle dipping suddenly in pitch and then fading away. 

But the real greatness of “Pet Sounds” lies under the lyrics, in Brian's startling, sumptuous arrangements.  He started with bass, percussion, and keyboards, added a full studio orchestra, and then an incredible array of his own “pet sounds:” from bottles and cans and a bicycle horn to a Theremin, the weird futuristic instrument invented in the 1920's, played by moving one’s hands through electromagnetic fields.  The result is a collage of sound that touches every texture of 20th century music.  Example: “I’m Waiting for the Day,” a dazzling use of dynamics, back and forth between doo-wop group rock and Brian's tenor/falsetto solo, backed by an oboe and then a flute.  In three minutes, the track includes seven sections and ends twice, first deceptively with a Debussy-like wave of strings, then for real with a hammering back beat and the doo-wop chorus.   

Don’t take my word for this.  In 1966, Paul McCartney called another jewel from the album, "God Only Knows," the greatest song ever written.   And he said “Pet Sounds” was his inspiration for making “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” the following year.   On first hearing “Pet Sounds,” McCartney said his response was “Oh, dear me.  This is the album of all-time.  What are we gonna do?”   

Brian Wilson said almost the same thing, a year earlier, about the Beatles album “Rubber Soul.”  On hearing it, he said he felt the rules of rock had changed, his competitive instincts were fired, and he set out to make “the greatest rock album ever.”   

In 1967, I became a rock critic by accident, when there was barely such a thing as a rock critic.   Working in the newsroom of The New York Times, I was astonished to see the Times print a negative review of “Sgt. Pepper,” a review that called it “fraudulent.”   I knocked out a rebuttal and ran it downtown to The Village Voice, which published it the next day.   It said “Sgt. Pepper” was the “most ambitious and most successful record album ever issued,” that the Beatles had “turned the record album into an art form.”  This quickly became the accepted verdict, and I was accepted on its merits as a rock critic, though I was really just a Beatle fan.   

Now, I must amend my original verdict.  “Sgt. Pepper” may have turned the record album into an art form, but the groundwork for that was laid by “Pet Sounds.”  As for the “most ambitious and successful album ever,” I would have to vote for Brian Wilson’s masterpiece.  “Sgt. Pepper” is a musical tour de force, but it lacks a consistent sound or style – it’s a pastiche of styles ginned up, less by the Beatles than their brilliant hired hand, producer George Martin.   

“Pet Sounds” is a musical tour de force in an integrated style, the work of one artist who wrote the notes and most of the lyrics, sang the lead vocals and played many of the instruments himself.  The story it tells is honest and humble, the story of a lonely genius rejected in love, frustrated in his art, beginning to feel “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.”    

Stuck at home this fall recuperating from surgery, I decided to excavate my music collection in search of overlooked treasures.   The greatest find was this 1990 re-issue of “Pet Sounds,” with copious notes by Wilson’s biographer +David Leaf, including the quotes above from Wilson and McCartney.  It also includes previously unreleased tracks at the end, including the original version of “I Know There’s an Answer,” before the record company made Brian change the lyrics.   Its original title was “Hang On To Your Ego,” and it told of an artist battling for his already-compromised integrity.  The original chorus went: 

                        Hang on to your ego,                     
                          Hang on but I know that you’re gonna lose the fight..”   

Brian Wilson lost his battles, as so many did in the sixties.  It took him a long time to come back, and he’s never made it to where he wanted to be.   But he gave us this treasure, tonal gold that will last as long as recorded music.   If you don't know "Pet Sounds," put it on your bucket list.   

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Friend in the Ditch

Morningside Community Garden, 111 & Amsterdam

The world looks different once you’ve fallen into the ditch   I’m now post-surgical and recovering from my herniated disk, but still walking slowly, with crutches or a cane, still getting no farther than the end of the block.   One thing I’ve noticed standing there in the autumn sun is how much company I have.  We live two blocks from a big hospital, in a neighborhood with many elderly people, so along with the parade of students, tourists and busy people in the prime of life, there are always the sick and wounded, getting around with canes, crutches and wheelchairs.   

Like most healthy people, I tended to ignore these people before, or wince when I looked, thanking God or good luck that I had been spared their pain.  Now that I am one of them, I try to make eye contact, and express some sympathy.  Misery loves company.   

But even among the wounded there’s a hierarchy.  We tend to look away from the dying and the horribly maimed, leaving them alone to suffer in their own world.  On our block there is one woman who has learned not to look for sympathy.  She has little more than half a body, cut off just below the waist.  She rides around the block in her motorized wheelchair nearly every day, her lower torso tied up in a shawl, staying out for hours to take the air and the sun.  Her face is deeply lined, deeply tanned, and she looks straight ahead with an unchanging, stoic expression.  The sight of her is painful to others, and she knows it.  Even my pastor wife, turning the corner and seeing a half-person coming toward her, gasped under her breath.  A moment later she said -- "that was quite a sight.”   

I admire this woman, because her demeanor says that regardless of what other people think or feel, she is determined to live.   She knows that when she goes out she will be ignored, shunned, ostracized by her neighbors.  But she refuses to be homebound, to limit her human contact to those who by family or profession are bound to be sympathetic.  The block belongs to her as much as anyone.  She may be an outcast, but she will not sacrifice what’s left of her life.    

Like most people, I used to look down on this lady with horror, and avert my eyes.  But in recent weeks, as I stubbornly took my daily walks on crutches, once even passing out from the pain, I decided we had a lot in common.  People didn’t like the sight of me, either.  So a few days ago I looked at this lady openly, intently, and she looked back.  I nodded, and she returned the greeting with a barely perceptible movement, as if to say I’m not sure you meant that, but if you did, OK.   

Today, feeling better, as I stood near the corner leaning on my crutches, she suddenly rolled around the corner, and looked up.   I smiled and nodded.  She smiled and said, “Hi.”   

Now we are what you call “nodding acquaintances.”  I’m not sure I want to push it.   One thing I don’t want to do is to play “journalist” and find out her story so I can use it.  But I’m not averse to making a friend in the ditch.   I’m only there temporarily, it seems, but I could be back, any time.
-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Curse of Ms. Bliss: Unfamiliar Quotations 2

Having no doubt worried readers with the run-up to my back surgery, I feel it necessary to offer a post-surgical update.   To kill two birds, I can combine it with Part 2 of the popular feature “Unfamiliar Quotations.”    

Today’s quotation is different, though – not a useful saw or slogan, but something you should probably never say to anyone.  It was said to me, though, at the tender age of ten:  

“Some day, Tommy Phillips, you’re going to be flat on your back.”    

This came from my fifth-grade teacher in Roslyn, Long Island, a Miss or Mrs. Bliss.  Middle-aged, thin and usually dressed in black, she never made much of an impression on me, but somehow I set off a deep resentment in her.  At the time I was a smart kid who did what he wanted and often didn’t pay attention in class, though I had no problems with learning.    

One day, I discovered a new way to solve an arithmetic problem, and eagerly put up my hand.  “I can do it a different way,” I piped.   

Ms. Bliss told me to shut up, and do it the way she taught. 

I don’t remember exactly what brought on her prophecy.  But I'm sure I was doing what I wanted, probably horsing around with my deskmates, when she erupted:  

“Some day, Tommy Phillips, you’re going to be flat on your back!”  She said this quivering with rage, repeated it for emphasis and followed up “Then, you’ll see…”    I was too stunned to listen further.  But it had its effect.   

For the next 60 years I wondered about the curse of Ms. Bliss, and what I would see if it came to pass.  And then at 71, I found myself flat on my back.   


On Columbus Day, eight weeks after the first stabbing pains in my right hip and thigh, I was stretched out on the table in a neurosurgeon’s examining room, unable to sit or stand for more than few minutes.  I had grown a spiky beard and lay there moaning when Dr. Cohen came in.   He immediately diagnosed me as “pretty miserable.”   

The MRI showed a badly herniated lumbar disk, pressing on the nerves from my spine.   Rest, ice, heat and gentle stretching had done nothing to help, and the pain was getting worse by the day.  He proposed a micro-diskectomy, cutting away a small portion of the vertebra to clear out the herniated tissue.  Some friends had urged me to explore non-surgical options, and I had already tried acupuncture, with no relief.   Today I was desperate and this surgery seemed to make sense.  “Let’s do it,” I said.  

Clearing his schedule, the nurse found an opening three days away, but only if I could get the necessary pre-op tests with my primary care physician.   

Dr. Baskin grumbled about the hurry-up, but he squeezed me into his schedule the next day, even after the holiday weekend.   Normally brusque, this time he patted me on the back and said, “Good luck.  You’re in good hands.”    

I woke up in pain at 5 a.m. Thursday.   Debra helped me dress, led the way to the elevator, then to the street to hail a cab.   The cabbie was African, mellow at the end of a night shift.  No traffic.  I stretched out in the back as best I could and we rolled down Columbus Avenue in the pre-dawn, past familiar signs and buildings, the Natural History museum, Lincoln Center, Fordham, the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, then a right on 58th and over to the entrance of Roosevelt Hospital.   

Inside the atrium a small crowd was gathering.  These were the ambulatory surgery patients, reporting at dawn for 7:30 operations.  We were blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians, some with kids in tow.   I was the least ambulatory of the bunch.   There were easy chairs in the waiting area, but I couldn’t sit easily, so a Hispanic man, a sharp-looking guy in a new straw hat,  gave up his place on the one couch, making room for me to stretch out.   

At 6:00 a nurse came to escort us upstairs.  She looked Chinese, plump and jolly, and herded us like campers on an outing.  I was last in line when we reached the 5th floor ward, but she assigned me Waiting Chair Number One, closest to the door.   

Before I even tried to sit,  an orderly came up to ask if I would rather lie down.   “We want you comfortAHble,” she said with a Haitian lilt.   She wheeled a bed from across the way, adjusted the height, helped me onto it and covered me with a blanket.    

Next to come in was a senior RN, who introduced herself as Alicia.  She reminded me of Edith Bunker, chatty and friendly but serious about her business. She went through a ream of paperwork, checking my answers to all the questions about medical history, allergies etc, while someone else took my blood pressure.  Alicia had seen hundreds of these operations and assured me that I was going to feel better, very soon.  

A few minutes later I watched the ceiling fly past as my bed rolled through the corridors, pushed by a Jamaican guy.   The anesthesiologist had deep blue eyes.  She looked deep into mine, checking my consciousness before she obliterated it.  “This is your last chance to ask questions,” she said, as I saw Dr. Cohen coming toward us, dressed in casual street wear.    

I had no questions, just told Dr. Cohen I was looking forward to this, and we shook hands.  I felt his hands and they were good.   

A Filipino nurse popped into view.   You’re going on a trip, she said.  Where you wanna go on vacation?


“OK, Aruba!”  The anesthesiologist dropped the bomb in my IV. 

Next thing I knew, the surgery was done, I was back from vacation.  A medical student with a hairy chest debriefed me – told me all they’d done, and what I could expect in recovery.  Already I began to feel an ache in the lower back, and the return of normal sensation to my right hip and leg.   

After that I was wheeled to the recovery room, where a golden-skinned, dark-eyed  nurse took my vital signs, and gave me a choice of snacks.  I chose cranberry juice and graham crackers.   They tasted divine.  She brought me seconds.   

“I’m Miss McDonald,” she said primly.  She was so pretty and I was so happy that I had to flirt.   Ah, but what's your first name?  

She hesitated.  I usually don’t give it, because people can’t say it right.   

Spell it, then, I said.   


Oh, Zen-IDA, I said. 

So, you’ve traveled, she said with a smile.   Zenaide is from Panama.   

A volunteer was hovering, an elderly lady named Evelyn.  Her job was to stay in contact with loved ones and escort them to the recovery room.  She called Debra, and brought her to my bedside.   

 The last nurse we saw was a solid Hispanic woman, middle-aged, who was there to check out my “sea legs.”  She watched me intently and followed close as I got up and walked on crutches to the men’s room.  I hadn’t noticed before, but there was a bright yellow bracelet on my wrist that said FALL RISK.  My legs felt steady, though, as I made my way across the floor.  The nurse closed the door – “for privacy” -- and told me to knock when I was ready.   

I stood, I peed, I knocked firmly.  I walked back across to Debra and sat on the bed.  The nurse said “You’re good to go.”   I could leave whenever I wanted.   

I rested for a few minutes, then Debra called for a wheelchair to push me to the main lobby, where I sat while she went out to hail a cab.  Another mellow African driver took us up Amsterdam Avenue this time, past PS 87 where the kids had gone to school, past our favorite Taqueria, past V&T’s Pizza.   We took a left on 111th, stopped at our entrance, and Debra gave him a $5 tip “for a smooth ride.”  I asked for extra time to get my legs and crutches out.   

“No hurry, man.  All the time you need.”   

Home again, miraculously with two working legs under me for the first time in months.   

That night I was able to reflect on the curse of Ms. Bliss.  She was right, I did find myself flat on my back.  But what I saw was not what she envisioned.   She probably thought that in a helpless state I would see that my boyish sense of freedom was an illusion, that our lives are controlled by others, that we live not according to what we want but the dictates of family, school, employer, medical establishment, church and state. Shut up and do it their way.  

Maybe that was her life, but it was not what I saw.  My wife stayed home from work to feed and dress and bathe me.   We left our door unlocked so that neighbors could look in on me when she had to be away.  A neighbor and a stranger picked me up off the street when I passed out in pain.   My best friend helped bring me to doctor appointments.  My entire church prayed for me, plus people from other churches and other religions, plus friends of friends who I don’t even know.  Families cooked and brought meals to our door.  My children visited and called, and the ones far away got together and bought me a bed table and a Kindle.   

And on the day of my surgery, every human being I saw recognized my distress and shared it in some way, helped me to bear it.  I didn’t feel controlled, but lifted up by others.  Maybe it was because everyone could foresee themselves in the same state.  I never felt helpless.  Lifted up by people from all over the world, in the heart of the greatest city in the world, I wound up feeling on top of the world.  I was doing what I wanted, was thrilled to see it working out.  But I wasn't doing anything, it was all being done by the people I had trusted myself to.  Thus my boyish sense of freedom lives, but I understand freedom in a new way.  It's not an individual achievement, but a communal gift.  

A hundred years ago hernial disk surgery had barely been invented, and I might have spent the rest of my life flat on my back, in an opium trance if I could afford it.  Today I am walking on two feet, healing, my energy returning and my dotage receding again to the horizon.  I owe it to humanity and science, and even our half-broken health care system, in which I am blessed to be in the unbroken half.  I only ask for the strength and wisdom to return the blessing, and help set others free.  

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips

O let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb.

---    L. Cohen


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Tragedian Unmasked

Life lessons come fast and hard on the Road to Dotage.   Last month I defined my fundamental problem as a Tragic Flaw:  “an irrational craving for life that picks me up out of bed every morning and propels me out the door to explore the known and unknown world, that fills my head with music and makes me want to dance.”  This flaw, I supposed, was the force behind my latest dancing injury, which turned out to be a herniated disc, requiring surgery.  “The dancer will dance, the actor will act, the lover will love, the tyrant will oppress and the courtier will curry favor until they expire,” I wisely wrote.   

My thesis was that even thought this flaw had got me into big trouble and would eventually kill me, it was simply a fact of life, in the DNA, unalterable, a categorical imperative.    

Cool facts about a Tragic Flaw: 
1.  Since it is unalterable, you don’t need to work on it.  You’re off the hook.
2.  It puts you in a class with Kings!  Remember the college definition of tragedy – a great man undone by a flaw in his nature.  A tragic flaw confers nothing less than greatness on its bearer.   

Lest you all run out and look for one, let me offer this urgent update.  At some point a doubt may appear in the tragic hero’s aura of self-satisfied suffering.  Could it be that his flaw is something less than the curse of greatness?  Suppose, just suppose that it were no more than a stupid, babyish arrogance that should have been shed long ago, and in fact could still be shucked off.  Ever since I wrote about my Tragic Flaw I’d been thinking:  Do I really need this?   

As fate would have it, I was presented with a test.  Two weeks ago when my herniated disc was hurting out of control and I still didn’t know what it was, I had reduced my daily outing to a 50-yard walk, to the corner of my block, where I could stand in the sun for ten minutes and watch a parade of Upper West Siders go by.  It was my last direct contact with the great world outside, and I didn’t want to give it up.  One day, the pain was especially intense and unpredictable, but the sun was shining and the world beckoned.  I grabbed my crutches, unsteadily, and told my wife I was going out for my little walk.   

She eyed me.  “Are you sure you want to do this?”   

“Yes,” I said in a defiant tone.  And off I went.  I wobbled to the corner and stood in the sun, but it made me feel sick and dizzy.  A few people wandered by, but I got no kick out of them.  I decided to walk back.  Turning for home, I dropped one crutch and had to stand holding an iron fence until a woman came and picked it up for me. 

I made it back to the front stoop and mounted the ramp, but felt too weak to open the heavy front door of the building.  So I leaned against the wall, waiting for a neighbor to come along.  The next thing I knew, two guys were hauling me into a sitting position on the ramp.  I had passed out, grazing my head on the iron railing as I fell, and was bleeding slightly from the scalp.   

For the next three minutes, I had to fight my rescuers and talk them out of calling an ambulance, which would carry me to a squalid emergency room where I would be held for hours, checked for a concussion, stuffed into an MRI machine, and held up for inflated fees.  “Just buzz my wife,” I begged, and she rescued me.

The test itself came two weeks later.  Feeling a little better, I craved some afternoon sun on a beautiful October day.  The day was getting late, but I begged my wife to walk with me to the corner.  When we got outside, we could see that the sun had already sunk behind the buildings opposite ours, and had crossed Amsterdam Avenue, where it still shone on the sculpture garden at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.   

It was about 75 yards to the garden.   

I could make it, I was sure, and told Debra so.   

“Yes, but will you make it back?”   

I couldn’t swear to it, but I thought so.  Besides, she was with me.   

“If you fall down, I’m gonna call an ambulance,” she warned. 

That put me in a pickle.  I couldn’t afford another collapse and a trip to the ER.  But my Tragic Flaw craved the sun and the city.  To deny its wishes would be to abandon my own beloved irresponsibility, my own cherished greatness.   

I caved.  All right, I said sheepishly.  I would wait and go out the next morning when the sun was on the stoop.   

Thus my tragic flaw began to come undone.  As I had secretly suspected, there was nothing noble about it.  It was no more than a babyish arrogance, a flight from reason toward objects of desire, however passing and trivial.  I could still compare myself with King Lear, but I had to look past his royal robes and see him too for what he was:  a foolish old man who knew himself only slenderly, a poor decision maker, deluded by flattery that had turned into grandiosity. 

A few years ago, in my Shakespearean acting period, I wrote on a futile audition form:  “King Lear, c’est moi.”   


A very dear friend of mine describes herself as a “ridiculous person,” and she means it.  Irrationally neurotic, compulsive and fearful, she is nevertheless probably happier than I, because she is at home in her ridiculousness. She doesn’t try to justify or glorify it, it is what it is, and so is she. 

But could I, at this age, make the leap from pseudo-tragic to authentically ridiculous? 

Some would say I’m already there. 

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Voice From the Ditch

The Road to Dotage is the pleasantest, openest road you’ll ever encounter in life.  Free at last from the demands of working and raising a family, you get onto it as if exiting from a jammed expressway, coasting down a ramp, abandoning your car and skipping onto a broad, sunny path.  The destination is unknown, but of course it’s the journey that matters, and the journey is delightful.   

There’s just one little thing.  You have to find a way to block out or disregard the shrieks and groans continually rising from the ditches on either side.  These are the the cries of the casualties, those who have fallen or run off the road.  The ditches are strewn with elderly people: wounded, sick, demented, and dying.  These are your peers, your colleagues, your rivals and your friends.   

Of course there is an army of doctors, nurses and pharmacists on hand, tending to the casualties, trying to get as many as possible back on the road as soon as possible.  They work miracles, these people.   

Last year a man I know, an octogenarian who still teaches college and rides a mountain bike on weekends, fell suddenly and violently ill.  In the hospital they found a hole had opened in his esophagus, and food was leaking out into his abdomen, setting off a septic infection.  This man spent two months flat on his back in intensive care, as they battled the infection and saved his life.  In the following months he underwent two surgeries to repair the damage.  Now, I hear, he is back on the Road to Dotage.   

I write this from the ditch, where I too have suddenly fallen flat on my back.  The sore hip I brought back from dance camp only got worse and worse, until I could barely walk or sit up without excruciating pain.  Last week the orthopedist dismissed me and sent me on to a neurologist to search for the source of this torment.  After two more MRI's, the diagnosis is in: a "doozy" of a herniated spinal disc.  I'm seeing the neurosurgeon next week.   
I’m living day to day with the help of a wonderful wife and powerful pain killers.  But I have hope.  I fully expect that in some weeks or months I will step – or at least limp – gratefully back onto the Road to Dotage.   

I started this blog with an enthusiastic account of a book – “The Delights of Old Age” by Maurice Goudeket.  He was one of the lucky ones, enjoying the wisdom of old age and finding new adventures and pleasures as he walked in wonder through his seventies.  Since I liked the book and identified with his character, I assumed my seventies would go the same way.  And maybe, once I get back on my feet, it will be that way again for a while.  But never again will I ignore or disregard the voices from the ditch, the cries of the wounded.  I’m one of them now, and we are legion.   

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips
Photo by Django Phillips

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Tragic Sense of Life

Miguel de Unamuno 
At 71, I am starting to grasp what might be meant by a “tragic sense of life.”   The phrase has puzzled me ever since college, when I looked at the book by Miguel de Unamuno with that title.  I had no idea what he was talking about.  For me, tragedy was something to be avoided, not cultivated or brooded over.  Armed with youth, good looks and education, I hoped to leap over the pitfalls of life, and let others come to grief.  

In literature class we learned about the tragic hero.  This was said to be a great man undone by a flaw in his nature, unwittingly brought down by a catastrophe that was, in some way, of his own making.  I found it interesting but not that relevant, since I didn’t have any major flaws.  I did have an inkling of something universal in the stories of Oedipus and Lear, a cold wind blowing through all of existence.  My goal was to stay out of its way.  

Fast-forward fifteen years and find me undone, in the ruins of an early, supremely self-confident marriage.  I began to understand that I did have hidden flaws, and they did cause me to suffer.  But I thought they could be fixed, the damage repaired, and a tragic end averted after all.  To some degree I was able to improve myself; I learned to listen and consider another person’s feelings, so my second marriage succeeded where the first had failed.  Still, I was left with my original tragic flaw, which ran much deeper than the ones I had supposedly fixed.   

I was left with my original tragic flaw because in every way it appeared to me to be a virtue.  It was, and is, an excessive, irrational mixture of optimism and joy, a craving for life that picks me up out of bed every morning and propels me out the door to explore the known world and the unknown, that fills my head with music and makes me want to dance.  Starting at about age 55, my tragic flaw began to harm me.   

Bored with my job, and inspired by all the stories of elderly people who succeed in new ventures or go back to their first loves, I decided to go back to ballet class.   I had studied ballet on the side for a few years in my twenties, and got just far enough to feel the intense pleasure of disciplining the body into an instrument, and the ecstatic sense of taking it into the air.   

I told my colleagues I was coming in late one day, and took a beginner-level ballet class at nine a.m.   I came out laughing like a man suddenly released from prison.  I could still do it!  I was rusty but my body had not forgotten, the teacher even complimented me on my knowledge.  And the class ended with leaps across the room, two by two.  It was ecstasy to keep pace with the pretty girl dancing next to me.    

I had planned to take one class a week, but this was so much fun that I went back two days later.  This time I came down from a leap and felt a pain as if I had been shot in the leg.   I hobbled off the floor -- someone asked me if I was all right.  Oh yes, I gasped, it’s just a cramp.  It turned out to be a torn calf muscle that took six weeks to heal.   

As soon as it healed, I went back to ballet class. This was the first of a series of injuries that dogged me for the next ten years.   My wife told me I shouldn’t be jumping.  My response: “jumping is my life.”    

My first ballet class was the beginning of the end of my working career.  Three years later my employer declined to renew my contract, and the boss said he didn’t think my heart was in it any more.  He was right.  My heart was in ballet class, where I continued to jump, and come down in pain, until I finally gave up in my mid-sixties.  Do I regret going back to ballet, with all the pain and loss it caused?  On the contrary, I feel it saved my life.  The body-memory of a releve at age 60 with arms fully raised, back straight, and every muscle and bone engaged in soaring higher, will be my inspiration until I die.   It was my tragic flaw in action.  What makes it tragic is that it can't be fixed,  it’s in my DNA, both my joy and my downfall.    

Once I sat with a delirious man dying in a hospital.  He was stretching his body upward the same way I did in that releve, babbling nonsense, reaching for heaven.  He looked beautiful -- his arms balletic, his face angelic.  The nurse came in and yelled at him.  “If you don’t stop that, I’m gonna restrain you!”  

The world takes it as a duty to restrain people from acting out their tragic flaws, but it is mostly a hopeless task.  If you visit the School of American Ballet in New York, you will see some teachers crippled for life by their dancing days, leading eager children down the same path.  The dancer will dance, the actor will act, the lover will love, the glutton will feast, the saint will give, the tyrant will oppress and the courtier will curry favor, until they expire.  We can give up many things for our health and well-being, but we can’t give up life.  And we die from having lived.   

--   Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips

Monday, September 2, 2013

My Back Pages

                                    “I got no future, baby, I know my years are few.
                                    The present’s not that pleasant; just a lot of things to do..” 
                                                                                    L. Cohen  

Every summer you learn something about yourself.  It’s the time of year when structure breaks down, when you drift off to different places, some boring, some exciting; you do new things, you do the same old things, but sometimes they come out different.   This summer I learned that I can no longer dance every day and night.  

I’ve been going to dance camp with the Country Dance and Song Society nearly every summer since 1976.  The first year it was American Week at Pinewoods Camp in Massachusetts.  We did Appalachian clogging, contras and squares, plus I took a fiddle workshop and sang early American hymns.  This took place in the woods and went on all day and half the night.  It was the total opposite of my life in the city, working in a tense newsroom, visiting my children on weekends in a broken home.   

I got so high at Pinewoods – on nothing but dance, music, women partners, a black pond and country air – that I could hardly sleep.  I would stand outside my cabin in the dead of night and vibrate in the wind, shaking with a continual attack of energy, howling silently through the trees. 

Lucie Hopkins in a sword dance
I got married again in 1979, to Debra who I met dancing, and now we go to Family Week in New Hampshire with grandchildren from that first marriage.   This year I came up lame after three days of dancing day and night.   Again I could hardly sleep but this time it was from pain, rather than excitement.  My greatest thrills were watching my grandchildren in a sword dance, a morris dance, a mummers’ play.  

I was a semi-invalid for two weeks after we got back, and to stay conscious I spent some time living in the past.  I used to find this uncomfortable; I was always rating my performance, judging whether I had succeeded or failed, whether I had done better than someone else.   But now I think if you give up praising yourself for past success, you can also give up blaming yourself for failure.  It’s all one, very little of it has to do with personal effort or choice.  You were what you were, you are what you are.   

I’m enjoying the past, at least the exciting times of it, the times I felt part of what was happening in the world.   This week I read through old issues of Crawdaddy!, the magazine of rock that appeared briefly and memorably in the late 1960s.  At that time I was writing occasionally about popular music for mainstream publications, but my point of view was shaped by what I’d read in this underground magazine, put out by people younger and more radical than I was, people who believed rock and roll was the template for a new culture, a new way of life in America and beyond.   

I believed it, at least in part, and for a very short period it seemed to be true.  The April 1968 issue of Crawdaddy! brings it all back.  This was the sweet spot of the late 1960s, post-Sgt. Pepper and pre-Woodstock, when the answers were no longer just blowing in the wind, but broadcast on the radio, on mainstream stations, in everyone’s ears.  “All You Need Is Love.”  Americans were still dying every day in Vietnam but here at home, a peace movement was gaining strength, with an anti-war candidate successfully challenging the President, driving him out of the race for re-election.   

Rock and roll was not a unitary phenomenon but a cultural wave, crossing all racial, social and political barriers.  The April issue of Crawdaddy! was on it across the board:  an interview with Jimi Hendrix, a review of Bob Dylan’s pivotal album “John Wesley Harding,” an analysis of the curiously conservative pop art of the Bee Gees, an account  of Brian Wilson’s creative process with the Beach Boys, a review of  the masterful and hypnotic “Notorious Byrd Brothers” – and a concluding editorial by executive editor Paul Williams, in which he held out hope that the music industry could be a vehicle for peace and reconciliation, as well as great art.  “I believe we are on the threshold of a whole new level of mass communication,” he wrote.  “I think that the dreams of both businessmen and artists can be realized, but only to the extent that they both recognize each other, only to the extent that we think of ourselves as all being people, working toward common human goals.”   As Jon Landau pointed out in his review of “John Wesley Harding,” Dylan had cast off his image as a one-sided protester, and was saying the same kind of things.  In “Dear Landlord,” he addresses his adversary:  "If you don’t underestimate me, I won’t underestimate you.”    

That was April 1968.  Two months later, reconciliation went out the window as the presidential campaign became a horror show.  Robert Kennedy, who had entered the primaries trying to push past Eugene McCarthy as the peace candidate, was assassinated in Los Angeles.   Later that summer President Johnson called out the National Guard to defend the Democratic National Convention, and Chicago police went on a riot, attacking anti-war protesters in the streets.  The democrats nominated vice-president Hubert Humphrey, and Richard Nixon was elected in November, with a “secret plan” to end the war that relied heavily on carpet-bombing.    

Rock and roll mirrored the collapse, as the 1967 “summer of love” was succeeded by fear and loathing.  The Beatles floundered, the Beach Boys broke down, the Byrds took refuge in ersatz Country-Western.   Hendrix died, as did Jim Morrison, and others.  Williams left Crawdaddy! and it faded as a critical voice.      

Early 1968 was like our “Arab Spring,” an opening that seemed to look out on a new age of moderation, rationality, peace and love, if only we could get over the hump.  (“Dump the Hump” read my home-made sign as I stubbornly protested and campaigned for McCarthy in the days after RFK’s assassination.)  But we couldn’t get over it, it just kept growing.   

Yet I remember that spring fondly, and I don’t write it off.   If I’m going to enjoy my dotage, I will enjoy it with the thought that someday – not in my lifetime, probably, but maybe in my grandchildren’s, another spring will come, and this time we will find a way over the hump.  Perhaps foolishly, I feel the same way about Tunisia, about Egypt, about China.  I was there during the Tienanmen Square protest that spread to every major city in China, and I don’t believe the Chinese authorities have the power to repress those memories, or the hope the people expressed.  

Remember the “Prague Spring” of 1968?   The Soviet Union sent in tanks to end it, but 20 years later it was back, and this time it was the Soviets who didn’t have the strength to resist.  And a playwright, a Frank Zappa fan, a former prisoner, was elected President of Czechoslovakia.  Proving what?  That rock and roll will never die.   

For people who insist that the end of an essay return to the topic with which it began, I offer this: unable to take my usual outdoor activity because of an inflamed hip, brought on by exercise I can no longer manage, I have just spent several days reading, thinking and writing about my own past, and the future of others.  There are worse ways to grow old.   
Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Beauty, Truth, and News

-- By Tom Phillips  

When John Keats wrote “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” it was probably a romantic outburst, the final inspiration of a masterpiece, rather than a thought-out philosophical statement.   But a few years earlier,  the great philosopher Immanuel Kant had laid the groundwork for just such an outburst.  Truth is "the indispensible condition of fine art,” wrote Kant in his “Critique of Judgement.”   Kant saw beauty as the great vehicle of truth and goodness, communicated not in concepts but directly to the senses, available to all.   Beauty has a universal appeal, and for Kant it was the means for moving ideas up and down the social ladder, bridging the gap between an educated elite and the common people, creating a unified culture.      

We experience beauty in nature as well as art, but Kant predicted correctly that in the modern age, art would take the leading role.  In the early years of the industrial revolution, Kant foresaw that “nature will ever recede further into the background,” and future ages will have to search for truth and goodness without a daily experience of it.  Art, he said, will bear the burden of civilization, expressing moral and philosophical ideas in beautiful form.   

That was written in 1790.   In the 20th century, the fine arts rejected the ideal of beauty, and so lost touch with the people.  Modern art, contemporary poetry and conservatory music may be conceptually brilliant; they don’t speak to the masses.   Still, beauty has a life of its own, it is everywhere in the works of humanity.  It finds its way, and we find our way to it.   

After reading Kant and Keats in college, I graduated thinking I was a poet.   Instead I spent much of the next 50 years writing the news for radio and TV, possibly the lowest form of literary work.   But in my own mind at least, it was a way to serve art and beauty.     

Newswriting is not a fine art.  In Kant’s terms, it lacks the essential element of freedom; one is tied to the facts, and there are strict limits on the imagination.   Still, there is an art to newswriting, and it has exactly the same goal as the highest poetry – to render ideas in terms of the senses, in terms common to all.    

To that end you employ definite, specific, concrete language, whether writing about a street fight or an argument before the Supreme Court.  And it has to sing.  People who listen to the radio expect music.  Every sentence needs to scan, and you dress them up with metaphors and similes, internal rhymes, alliterations, and quotations, preferably with a twist on their original intent.   

Time is precious in broadcast news, and especially on a show like the CBS Evening News, where we used to try to write the first draft of history every day, packed into about 20 minutes of airtime.  Later, when I tried to show students how to do it at the Columbia School of Journalism, one said “this is like writing haiku poetry.”   My favorite lead sentence ever was written by a student, Joanmarie Kalter, on a local story.  Somewhere in upstate New York in November, they cut down a big evergreen to be that year’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.  She wrote:  “A tree fell in the woods today..”   

The golden age of newswriting seems to be in the past.  At CBS, vivid writing was once the stock in trade, and you might still hear some echoes of Edward R. Murrow on the Evening News.   But original voices like Charles Kuralt and Andy Rooney are gone and irreplaceable, and a new generation of TV journalists is more interested in the arts of digital imagery than in creating pictures with words.  Most news today sounds like it was written by robots, and some of it actually is.  But beauty-and-truth is always out there somewhere.   These days I look for it in the lyrics of wry, cryptic young song-writers on college radio stations, in independent films and videos, and in the writing of a new crop of essayists and bloggers.   Where do you find it?   

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips  

P.S.  If anyone wants more of my thoughts on the art of newswriting, I spoke about it at length in a 2001 PBS interview, which they later turned into a lesson for high-school and college students.   You can read the interview at

Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn"
Kant, "Critique of Judgement,"  translated by James Creed Meredith.  Oxford World's Classics, 2007.   See Ch. 60 "Appendix"  page 182-3.  

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Unfamiliar Quotations

-- By Tom Phillips

After falsely and cynically dangling the idea of a one-syllable solution to life’s problems in a recent post, I promised to follow up with “words to live by, whole sentences, unfamiliar quotations.”   
Like most people I have my familiar quotations – e.g. the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer -- but I rarely use them.  In my dotage I rely mainly on a small collection of private quotes, proven effective for getting through the day.  None of them shows up in a Google search – these are stray quotations, scraps of poems or conversations, possibly misquoted or misattributed, but tried and true.   So here they are: 

1. “Most mistakes that people make aren’t that important.”   

This humble truth is either a quote or a close paraphrase of the last line of a poem, a lost poem from a little magazine in the 1960s, written by a teacher of mine.  The poem was about a junk store, a bric-a-brac shop full of useless items.  “We should be grateful for these things, because they teach us / Most mistakes that people make aren’t that important.”  The author was Sheldon Zitner, professor of English at Grinnell College.  A Brooklyn native sojourning on the prairie, he later drifted north to the University of Toronto where he became known and loved as a Canadian poet, though he was about as Canadian as a palm tree or a bialy.  When I knew him he was an intense young poet and playwright, and a brilliant teacher of literature.  For Prof. Zitner every class was a performance – a meticulously prepared yet spontaneous demonstration of mastery of the text, with students serving as props, foils, dunces, and occasionally inspired co-teachers.   One day he was holding forth when he suddenly slammed his fist on the desk and apologized to the class.  “I just can’t teach today.”   This came as a surprise to the class, because he seemed as good as ever, but somehow he felt he was having an off-day, and was furious with himself.   He couldn’t abide anything less than brilliance.  The poem may have been an act of kindness to himself – forgiveness for falling short of greatness.  So when I’m furious with myself for missing the mark, I mumble the last line, savoring its calm rhythm, its modest internal rhyme, its soothing sentiment:  “Most mistakes that people make ..”   

2.      “Now is not the time to be in a great hurry.”   

This is from another beloved teacher, Zen Master Soen Nakagawa from Japan.  In the 1970s he would fly in periodically to lead intensive retreats for the Zen Studies Society, bringing wisdom and a zany creativity to the often solemn and plodding practice of us American Zen students.   I loved his teaching and couldn’t wait for the personal interviews he would give every morning and evening at our “Dharma concentration camp” in the Catskills.  His dokusan chamber was on the second floor; we would line up at the foot of the stairs, and go up one by one as he rang a little bell for the next inquirer.  I had so much to say that I would tear up the stairs as if the place was on fire, making a terrible racket.  At this retreat, he led me through my first koan, an agonizing series of steps to the experience of a Zen mind.  The agony was part of the teaching. “You must become desperated,” he assured us, having taken countless students through the same journey.   On the next-to-last day I solved the koan and we had a wonderful relaxed chat.  On the last day, I tore upstairs again.  But this time he sent me back, and made me walk up calmly and quietly.  “Now is not the time to be in a great hurry.”   Many years later I live in one of the world’s busiest cities, among millions of people in a hurry.  But I have this little after-koan as a reminder that when the work is done, it’s time to enjoy the cool of the evening.    

3.      “He knows the heart for the famished cat it is.”   

This is another fragment of a lost poem, also from a little magazine in the 1960s.  All I remember is that one line and the image of a cat foraging in alleyways, desperate for food.  I remember this while walking the streets late at night, with my chronic recurring deficit of unmet needs, “desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope, with what I most enjoy contented least..”   I can’t remember who “He” is in the poem, except that he knows the heart for the famished cat it is.  That lets me know I’m not the only one, in fact we are legion.  “Everybody’s got a hungry heart,” says the pop song, but I prefer my feline image: not even human, but quivering with life; not just needy but desperately so, famished.      

            4.  “The highest that man can aspire to is wonder.”     

This last one I believe is from Goethe.  It doesn’t appear in a long list of his famous quotes, but it’s of a piece with them.  Wonder is the experience of contemplating things too great to be fully understood, pleasure with a penumbra of awe.  It’s often associated with gazing at the night sky, and this may be how I first experienced it.  But at least for me, this feeling was compromised by a scientific boyhood.  At age eight or so, I learned the names of the planets and the major stars, and could pick out a few constellations.   I learned no more than any eight-year-old, but I became in my wee way like Whitman’s learn’d astronomer, with his charts and diagrams, no longer able to look up “in perfect silence at the stars.”   

Luckily though, civilization and the human mind can never be fully mapped or catalogued.  There are always strange new places, scenes that will bring on that thrill of mild bewilderment.  Dotage is the perfect time to contemplate these realms.  Our time is short and our abilities declining, so we can’t fool ourselves into thinking we can “master” something new.  This is why I like to study languages, like Korean, that I will never be able to speak, and listen to music sung in Arabic, of which I don’t know a word.  My understanding is just enough to generate a sense of wonder.   

I like reading that is partially incomprehensible.  Wonder is missing from most conventional reading, but it’s always there in “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake.”  Joyce deliberately creates a universe so full of references that it’s impossible for any reader to get them all.  The ones we don’t get create an aura of mystery around the ones we do.  What is he talking about?  Ideally, we know enough to follow the story, but we’ll never know everything it implies.  Just like life.  We stay sane if we can comprehend what’s around us, but at the same time there is an endless realm beyond. 

Zen Master Soen gave us what he called his lifetime koan: “What is this?”  At any moment we can ask this and conjure up the spirit of wonder, because there is more going on in every moment than we can ever understand.  The founder of Soen’s teaching line, Hakuin Ekaku, had an even briefer, breathtaking lifetime koan.  I saw it in an exhibition of Hakuin’s calligraphy last year at Japan Society, a one-word koan, the character for “death.”  So here I am back with a one-syllable response to life’s problems.  But “death” is not exactly a solution.    

Contemplate that, Freddy.   

If anyone can add any information on the sources of my unfamiliar quotations, please put it in the comments below.  Or add your own favorites, be my guest.    

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Passion and Action in Holy Week

-- By Tom Phillips

Why do we call it the "Passion" of Jesus Christ?  The answer surprised me.

I always thought "passion" referred to the strong emotions Jesus felt during the last days of his life. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word originates in Christian theology, and its first meaning is simply “the suffering of pain.”  Its second definition is “the fact of being acted upon, the being passive.”   

Andrea Mantegna, "Ecce Homo" c.1500
In “The Road to Daybreak,” the late Catholic teacher Henri Nouwen wrote that the moment of Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane is “a turning point from action to passion. After years of teaching, preaching, healing, and moving to wherever he wanted to go, Jesus is handed over to his enemies. Things are no longer done by him, but to him. He is flagellated, crowned with thorns, spat at, laughed at, stripped, and nailed naked to a cross… From the moment Jesus is handed over, his passion begins, and through this passion he fulfills his vocation.”    

Nouwen says that though we tend to think of our lives as what we do, what is done to us is really a much greater determinant. In the case of poor, imprisoned, enslaved or disabled people, what is done to them is nearly all of life. Their only freedom is how they respond.    

If Jesus had not suffered and died on the cross, he might have been remembered as a charismatic rabbi who taught his disciples a radical form of Judaism.  The action of his life was not all that different from other itinerant religious teachers.  It was in the passion, the “drinking of the cup” that he fulfilled his vocation.   

After the resurrection, Jesus spoke to his disciple Peter about the kind of death he too would die:  “When you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (John 21:18)  

Thinking about our own lives in terms of passion rather than action puts them in a new light.  The test of character is not so much what we've been able to accomplish, but how we respond to what happens to us.  I've tended to see what happens to me as an annoying interruption, an invasion of my privacy, rather than a God-given or existential circumstance.  Holy Week is a chance to honor ourselves less, and life more. 

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips
"Ecce Homo" by Andrea Mantegna, c,1500