The Folly and Wisdom of Nineteen

November 9, 2007

(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.


  1. Dr. John Snively

    The most profound thoughts ever conceived have never been published and those among us who dare to record these energetic translations on paper are the sacred chroniclers indeed.
    If there were but the time for all of us to share our innermost feelings in such a meaningful way we would unite forevermore in a deep ecstasy of understanding and compassion.
    Thank you for this dance…

  2. Kevin Rae Wood

    I like the butch and sundance quote. None of us really know what where doing but we swim all the more.

  3. David Snieckus

    Thanks for the reminder of those great words, “We had no idea what the hell we were doing, but we did it anyway.”

    I also jumped into macrobiotics without a clue of what I was getting into. In 1977, I was on my way to being a million-dollar round table rookie, my Life Insurance boss saying I was crazy, my in-laws screaming “You’ll be brainwashed” and my parents calling it a “CULT.”

    It took time to arrive at such great understanding. I’m glad I did.

  4. Linda Williams

    Isn’t that what its all about . . . jumping off every single moment without knowing how to swim?

  5. Ana McClellan

    For those of you who read the blog comments regularly, John’s father went on to come to the US and serve during WWII as a translator for the US forces before returning home and marrying John’s mother Carolyn and beginning what became an amazing career as a musicologist. I hope whoever is able to make the upcoming “Alfred Mann Music Festival” at Eastman this weekend will join us in an annual tradition of remembering a great husband and father and a talented and wise artist, writer, and composer.

  6. Michal Reia

    Thank you for the sharing of this information. I have missed a great event this November. I am just accessing it all and have gifted myself with a great Thanksgiving gift by doing so.
    God bless,



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