15 August 2007

My Birthday Again!

Every year for any number of years now, I have used my birthday, in Fagin’s words, “to review the situation.” It is that time again. Alas, this year I finish my sixtieth year. I am healthy. When I appear before Nathan Rich for the Alan Block Yearly Death Watch (which occurs generally in late winter or early Spring), my blood pressure remains low, and my runner’s pulse (25-30 miles per week still) beats at a superb fifty times per minute. I never have any medications to report taking, and I suffer no allergies. There are few family histories to report, save some serious neuroses. I do not smoke, and I drink moderately--research suggests even my drinking is healthy for me. I try to have at least two drinks each day. I am not overweight, and though emotionally distraught these days, I am not emotionally disturbed.
But I am sixty years old, and I don’t like it one bit. I neurotically drove myself to the emergency room this past Sunday evening (dear Nathan was on duty) and discovered in AARP magazine that the longevity for the human being increases steadily--for males it is now almost 77 years. SEVENTY SEVEN YEARS? Even my feeble math skills suggest that if I attain the average, I’ve got only seventeen years left. SEVENTEEN? I can’t even remember being seventeen! I am somewhat relieved to discover that Brooke Astor recently died at 105 years of age, and that both Ingmar Bergman and Michaelangelo Antonini were in their mid to late eighties, but Merv Griffin was only in his early eighties!

I don’t like the idea of being this old, because I feel this young. I don’t like the idea that two thirds of my life may be over. I hate being told, “You don’t look sixty,” because whether I look sixty or not, I am sixty years of age. And I hate being told, “You’re still young,” because though I am more active than most people I know, I am still sixty years of age and it takes a great deal longer getting up from the floor that it did thirty years ago.

Yes, I am complaining. I hate listening to my carp and moan. It implies regret, and I don’t want to consider that I have any of them. But today it is not the regret, but the reality that weighs on me.

So, my fifth book will be published in September, and in two weeks, I start my thirty fifth or thirty-sixth year of teaching; I have had a good career. I am in the midst of writing what may be a sixth book. This week I send my oldest daughter to college, and my younger daughter starts eighth grade. I live on the Ponderosa, and I have a beautiful cabin office (Walden), built for me with love by my dear friend, Gary Welch. The only pills I take are my vitamins (twelve to fifteen pills a day--megadoses of most of them), and I arise tomorrow morning on the sixtieth anniversary of my birth to run four miles with Gary. Having said that, it is clearly only the spoiled child that complains.

Right now the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera is showing: every one knows there is no sanity clause!

I begin my sixty first year. May it be more productive and happier than the sixtieth has been. May my complaints next year be no different than they were this year. And may I be awake next year to run with Gary on my birthday.

13 August 2007


Mid-August again. Course syllabi and book lists insinuate themselves into my consciousness. I welcome the structure come this time of the summer. The endless, and often hourless days begin to trouble me. Oh, that is not to say I don’t have writings and readings to do; I do. Of course, I do lack a sense of discipline which would hold me to the chair for longer periods of time—sometimes, I too soon lose patience with the writing, figuring that ‘later’ in the day I will return to the knot. Alas, it doesn’t happen often enough that I discover myself steeped back in the writing and thinking. I’ll get to it tomorrow.

What I dread in retirement is the idea that each and every day I would have to wake up and invent myself all over again. I couldn’t bear the burden. Is there no lack of a void?

With the opening of school, at least I am responsible to be certain places and at particular times and about which I can complain. Like Bartleby, I can say, “I know where I am.”

With the opening of school I start wondering if I really need new shoes. With the coming Fall, I am covered by an avalanche of Fall catalogs with all of those beautiful men wearing clothes which, if I wore, would never make me look like them. I count my ties, and check the frayed collars on the Oxford button-downs. I send my trousers to the cleaners.

05 August 2007


Lately, when I go out for my run, I listen frequently to Beethoven’s compositions, especially the 4th, 5th, 7th and (the magnificent) 9th Symphonies. (I have also recently added to the iPod the complete later string quartets--more about them later, After more listening. Oh, and I also recently added Mahler’s Third, because Phillip Roth suggested I do so.) And for some reason I am focused on the idea of ‘tension’ in the music. I like not the tension per se, though it is not exactly unpleasant. I thought first about how tension is created in music, and how the resolution of that tension is so satisfying-- like orgasm. I think tension occurs in a created discrepancy between what the listener expects to hear, how the composer has in the work established expectations and what actually occurs in the music. Or else it occurs (as in conversation, I suppose) in voices agreed upon a topic but without agreement as to its direction. Like the voice of the violins and flutes in conversation but not in concert. I am sure there are formal musical explanations how a composer creates this, but I don’t need to know this right now, though it would be very satisfying to learn this information.
Jokes work on tension, too. And the relief of tension produces laughter. I think a great deal of human life works in the interplay between forces producing tension. Tension often maintains interest! The resolution of tension is satisfying; its prolonged continuance produces discomfort, sometimes extreme. And art too produces tension--I think particularly of Picasso’s Mademoiselles of Avignon--their distorted bodies and visages!
Then, I began to wonder how might a musician or artist or comedian prepare an audience to expect something, and to create the tension by interrupting or delaying expectation. How does the artist know what the audience expects? I think of Dada, and the urinal as art. Of course, there is everything cultural about it: in a country without urinals, a urinal on a wall might appear quite beautiful--especially if was filled with, say, flowers, or food, or pearls, or the bones of sacred animals. Whatever the culture thinks of as comely. I wonder if the beauty is a product of tension: perhaps so, if there is in the environment and/or culture a force in opposition to that urinal on the wall. The resolution of the tension would become an engagement with the art object that would cause the opposition to temporarily, at least, be rendered powerless.
I think this is why I don’t understand 20th century music--I am unfamiliar with the tonal scales and can’t hear anything approximating what I know of music--no tension at all, just noise.
I think there are many ways tension is produced in music and art. I want to start to consider the constructive uses of tension in other aspects of life--and education.

01 August 2007


Though I usually account July 4th as the summer’s end, today—August 1—actually portends the season’s imminent close. The first date marks the only Western holiday of summer, and its celebration seems for me to end the anticipation which defines a season. For many, Labor Day marks the end of summer, though for me and millions of students and teachers the first Monday in September marks not so much the end of summer as the beginning of another academic year. It seems not so much a holiday as a starting gun. Mixing my metaphors, I approach Labor Day more like a light switch turning on the year than a celebration marking anything whatsoever. Indeed, for much of my life, Labor Day was a dreaded event: its advent meant trips to the barbers, expeditions to the stationary stores for school supplies, and slow walking to the corners to await the school bus. It was on Labor Day down Fifth Avenue in New York on which marched the fired Air Traffic Controllers in the Labor Day Parade marking the end of Union power. There was little to celebrate at Labor Day except endings.
I turn sixty years old this month.