(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 I first realized that I must leave my homeland. What loomed as a desperate conflict then became in retrospect my future’s blessing, but it took time to arrive at such understanding.”
I love that last. But it took time to arrive at such understanding. Doesn’t it always?
I had perplexed my dad before when, at seventeen, I dropped out of high school and started my own alternative school with a group of friends. When I later graduated from that school, my diploma bore an inscription (from unknown source—probably something we made up ourselves): “We did not know what to expect upon the open road, but we began here.” A noble sentiment—which my father quietly and good-naturedly lampooned with this paraphrase:
“We had no idea what the hell we were doing, but we did it anyway.”
I think he got it exactly right.
We like to think we can offer guidance to our young, and I suppose, in many ways, we can. But for this and every generation, life is essentially this: jumping off a cliff. (Sundance to Butch: “I can’t swim!” Butch to Sundance: “You crazy bastard! The fall will probably kill you!”) They have no idea what’s ahead on that open road, and even though we might think we can tell them, we can’t, because we don’t know either.
Whatever it is, though, I can promise you this: they’re up for it. Want to see an entire generation do something amazing? Just watch. And listen. And learn.