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