More Real Than Real

One summer, when I was a kid (maybe seven, or eight) I read Fred Gipson’s 1956 classic Old Yeller. I hadn’t seen the movie version. (Come to think of it, I never did see it.) When I got to the end, when Travis Coates has to shoot his beloved dog, I cried and cried. That same summer, I also read a book that had just come out in paperback, Born Free, Joy Adamson’s real-life memoir of her experiences in Africa with a lion cub named Elsa. The movie had not yet been made, nor the Oscar-winning theme song yet written. (And interestingly, I have also avoided ever seeing that movie, too.) At the end of that book, as a postscript, the author notes that Elsa died. I remember closing the book and realizing with a stunned shock that I hadn’t shed a single tear. Why not? At the tender age of eight (or seven), I was kind of freaked out at my lack of response. Here I’d wept and wept over the death of a dog who I knew was a complete fiction, an invention of the author’s imagination. And now, faced with a description of the real, actual, nonfictional death of a real animal whose entire life I had just read about, I was unmoved. My mom helped me figure this out: it was the story-telling. I don’t have a copy of Born Free, but my recollection is that Elsa’s death was reported in a brief epilogue, a line or two that seemed almost an afterthought. “A few days later, Elsa died in the bush.” No details, and...

The Art of Kindness

“Musician, mentor, friend.” That was the headline of a story in the Nov. 14 edition of the Rochester, NY Democrat & Chronicle. The story continued: “Noted as a scholar and a gentleman . . . the late Alfred Mann is credited with bringing attention to early music. As brilliant as he was in his field, Mann also was gifted in the art of kindness.” The Alfred Mann Music Festival this weekend was a wonderful experience. As exquisite as the musical performances were (Handel’s Messiah, performed from my dad’s edition, and Bach’s B Minor Mass, his signature piece and one which I’ve played under his direction many times), the really remarkable experience for my brother Tim and me (both there with our fiancées, both of whom knew my dad) was being with so many of my parents’ friends and colleagues and hearing all they had to say about them both. One of these, Michael Dodds, a young teaching assistant who had grown quite close to my dad and lunched with him weekly for an eight-year stretch, said this in the festival program notes: I find it remarkable that in spite of the tremendous adversity Alfred faced during his formative years and early adulthood, during one of the starkest manifestations of evil in human history, I never heard him express bitterness or regret. For every path denied, new opportunities, discoveries, and friendships resulted, and he never lost his wonderment and gratitude for these things.  At the special dinner held for festival particpants, Michael asked me about that. Had I ever heard a bitter word from him about the havoc that Naziism...

On Nineteen

In his magnum opus, the Dark Tower heptology, Stephen King writes a foreword to the last several volumes entitled simply, “On Being Nineteen,” and the number 19 shows up as an idée fixe throughout the series. I remember 19 very well: it is a potent threshold, a time shimmering with the halo of possibility. If you can keep that halo alive, then in a very real way, you’re always nineteen. When I first met Cameron Johnson and the seed for You Call the Shots was born, we were both on the thresholds of stepping into new decades: I was forty-nine, he was nineteen. I felt like I was talking with someone (at last!) my own age. Some people say that as a civilization, in reaching the year 2000 we have reached the threshold of adulthood: passing from 19(hundred) to 20(hundred) — time to grow up. Perhaps that’s true. If so, who better to look to for inspiration than nineteen- and twenty-year-olds? As it happens, my youngest son, Chris, is nineteen. What is he up to? I can’t say I know for sure, but whatever it is, it’s bound to turn into something fascinating and wonderful. He and I have lately been watching the TV show “Heroes” on DVD. I love it. It’s about discovering one’s unique ability, and how that plays into the bigger picture in transforming the world. Hey — that’s what I chase after every single day. What nobler and more exciting, fulfilling pursuit could one possibly...

The Folly and Wisdom of Nineteen

(Thoughts on the eve of the Alfred Mann Music Festival) When I was nineteen, I was offered a position as composition instructor at a university. To my dad, a musicologist and college professor, this must have seemed a dream come true. What more wonderful career opportunity for a budding composer (me) than a university position! Which made it all the more amazing to me that, when I turned down the offer in order to pack my stuff, move up to Boston to study macrobiotic philosophy and drive a cab instead, he did not even flinch. To this day, I cannot quite imagine how it is that he did not throw a fit. But he didn’t. He absorbed the news, and said nothing. Years later, he confided to me that, with the wisdom of hindsight, he was now so glad I had not taken the position. “It wouldn’t have been right for you,” he said. “They would have driven you crazy.” I hope I am able always to muster such restraint and trust in the face of my kids’ decisions — which by definition are at times bound to appear at least somewhat whacko to me. When my dad was nineteen, he had a college position ripped away from him—not by choice but by history. As a young German with some Jewish blood, he arrived in Berlin to assume a teaching post he had won, only to find himself barred from entering. Within the year he had left home, career and country. As he writes in his memoir, Recollections and Reflections: “It was on my twentieth birthday, in 1937, that...