Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Improvised Birthday Message

On October 22, 2010 I will begin the experience of my 43rd year on this baroque planet of ours, in what appears to be a long orphaned age. Accordingly, I will submit my perceptual temperament to a most public gaze, in the manner of reflections, images and memories culled from the most memorable of the past 42 years, in no particular order.

I remember firstly the smells and feels of those herbal concoctions of my father, stored in industrial vats near my crib: the eucalyptus seemed to be my favorite - the most comforting and soothing.

When I came down with an odd childhood disease months from my birth date, in spite of conventional and received wisdom in medical and psychological quarters these days, I have remembered sensations in my body corresponding to the objective fact of my emergency rush to New York City Hospital. I can feel the cramped car I was in, the warmth of my parent's bodies. I remember being locked in an odd incubator, and the constant fussing and toying with me by the nurses. Later, I was told, on my mother's authority they were cutting my hair. I know not much else except that I was miserable during my stay. My difficulty with touch to this day probably owes something to that brief week.

My earliest aesthetic memories were akin to religious children's genuine experience of God, that is, if those children have had such an experience and are not merely playing at empty religious rituals required by their families and communities. For me, the pulse, sound and harmonic tones of Ravels' Bolero, Bach's Brandenberg Concerto, Mercury Radio Theater's Orson Welles shows, the singing of the Beatles, especially "Day in the Life", the sound of Bessie Smith, and the cornet of Bix Beiderbecke, in Broadway, the complete scores of Guys and Dolls, The Fantasticks, and the Rock show Hair: this list comprises among the most important of my earliest formal auditory experiences. Their melodies, rhythms and harmonies shaped and molded me. The sound of those particular singers and orchestras burned into my marrow and bone; they educated my heart most likely prior to the English language.

And speaking of the English language, the next formative experience was listening to my father read aloud from Coleridge, especially Rime Of The Ancient Mariner and Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer. Later on I was introduced to "the absurd" through improvised stories in the manner of Franz Kafka. My father taught a Shakespeare class - you might say an early example of home schooling - a few years later with and my best friend as the sole pupils.

My earliest memories of dramatic art are visual ones: of Kubrick's 2001, the Marx Brothers, Fellini's Roma and The Clowns. From The Marx Brothers I learned the pleasures of insult and iconoclasm. From Fellini I got a sense of human diversity and vitality. From Kubrick I got a taste of something possible in cinema that I had only to see - in the work of Antonioni - finally and fully realized.

From these odd French movies of the 1970s I learned something of what is possible in human conversation. There was more to this art of conversation, however artificially staged. In arguing against my parents and in defense of a production of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land, with Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud no less, I learned of the possibilities of scene construction between merely two people, the nature of performance, and the hard lesson that people could, in spite of their best instincts and intelligence, be rather incurious about the mystery, obliquity and indirection that could transpire and give rise to suspense between two characters.

Unlike many, if not most of my peers, my elders, and increasingly even those younger, I have chosen not to marry or reproduce. This has been very much a choice. Yet it is a choice borne of my desire to spend a certain amount of time alone. I remember the first woman with whom I made love. She was among one of the most beautiful women I have ever had the magical fortune to know. We loved each other's company, but it was not to last because of differences in time and, of course, temperament.

At that time I had something of a musical career starting, writing lots of music and playing lots of gigs. It took many, many years for me to become, to my ears anyway, a decent musician. To make a thing of coherence and meaning - what we may call Art or I, after an old fashion, call Poetry - to say nothing of beauty and excellence is the most arduous thing.

Because of my peculiar disconnection from traditional forms and institutions and my curious sense of freedom, the most important human contact in my life has been through friendship rather than through the form of the couple. This has been as hard on me as it has been liberatory and liberating. But without my friends, some of whom may be reading this right now, my life would be a far worse and more bereft place. I am pleasantly reminded of that self-help cliche that friends are "God's" way of apologizing to us for our families.

During that time my perceptions were rather crude. They still are but are much more complex. My emotions are both considerably dulled, yet, paradoxically, enriched. I hope that is not too oxymoronic, for there is not more to be said on the matter.

One of my heroes and inspirations is Ralph Waldo Emerson. He seems to me right about so many things. Most of all I love his syntax and his style which are are of a piece with his so-called message. I close with this passage from Experience. They seem to me words to live by. I measure my state by them:

I compare notes with one of my friends who expects everything from the universe and is disappointed when anything is less than the best, and I found that I begin at the other extreme, expecting nothing, and am always full of thanks for moderate goods. If we will take the good we find, asking no questions, we shall have heaping measures.


  1. Happy Birthday Mitch! I found your blog through a mutual friend just yesterday, 10/21 was my 47th birthday. I resonated profoundly with what you wrote as you can tell from my comment, and today I enjoyed these Proustian reminiscences and the music of your soul. Thank you for sharing. I hear that you're in Boston too, so maybe my sweetheart and I will catch you at a Jazz concert sometime, that would be fun.

  2. Thanks for wading through all of my writing Carl. But seriously, thanks for being a jazz fan - the more the merrier. And thanks for your birthday greeting!

  3. Also Carl Happy Birthday to you too!! We Libras have to stick together...