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Archive for April, 2012

Difficult Passages

I’ve started practicing the oboe again — as part of the long development process towards my next theatrical piece, Sea of Reeds (a commission by the Shotgun Players in Berkeley, in collaboration with my long-time producer, Jonny Reinis, and director, David Dower).  And so all the sensations of oboe-playing — which I haven’t done regularly since I was a teenager — are coming back.  The feel of the reed between my lips.  The too-loud clacking of the keys as I press them (working on that!).  The smell of cork grease in the morning.

And the awareness, at every moment, of my longing to create something that’s beautiful!  It is that gap — between the sounds I am making and those I wish to produce — that, more than anything else, brings me back to those teen years, when my hope was that I was going to become great: at oboe-playing, at math, at sports, at love.  But what I was really good at, in retrospect, was in not becoming anything other than this — my parents’ child.  And somehow I got it in my head that being their child meant never working hard at things.  If I was precocious: fine!  But when that precociousness was challenged — when, in the terms of math or marathon running, I “hit the wall” — I was at a loss.  To be struggling was to be uncool.

The funny thing is, as I’m writing this, I’m remembering one of the very few criticisms that my father ever addressed to me.  I was a teenager; we were standing in the narrow hallway of the bustling apartment that he and my stepmother, Sue, had set up, with my young siblings underfoot everywhere; and he must have been reacting to something I’d said, or hadn’t said, that reflected a privateness — a distance, at least, from him.  “You’re cool,” he said, appraising me. …  I know, it doesn’t sound like much of a critique!  And I don’t think he meant it in a totally negative way, either.  But it was as if, after idealizing me since my birth — and projecting the most glorious future onto me — Dad was, in that moment, seeing right through to my essential self; and he was realizing, with a sigh, that his ideal and the reality had, somewhere, diverged.

Through no fault of his, or of anyone’s, I have devoted much of my time since then to trying to close that gap — to revert to the contours of the perfect vision he (and maybe Mom as well) had of me as a little boy.  Kind of like standing partway out into the ocean and hoping that, if I just stay there, doing absolutely nothing, the currents will pull me back to shore.  When in fact that journey has already, irrevocably, begun — when, in fact, it has mostly happened.  So that the real question is, What will I do as I head to the other side?

It’s shocking that progress is not inevitable!  Neither in our individual selves nor in society.  As a child I believed it was inevitable, with all my heart; I was a fundamentalist of progress — I had no doubt.  So how to reconcile that ideology with my experience of practicing the oboe and not becoming great?  A conundrum!  This, I think now, is where faith comes in.  But I also think I need to adjust my concept of faith — or perhaps that adjustment has already begun.  Because I used to think that faith required — was pointed at — a perfect result: a utopia.  Now I don’t consider perfection a goal — or even a possibility, or even (God help me) desirable (because it suggests the death of change).  Now I consider the goal to be: better.  Just better.  A better world.  A better transition from C to C-sharp (lots of fingers have to be slapped down at once, as quietly as possible).  Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the object of my faith is now a process — one that keeps open the space for improvement.

Also, the oboe being what it is, I have a short-term goal of being able to practice for more than 20 minutes at a time!  (The old embouchure ain’t what it used to be, which itself wasn’t what it should have been.)

I’ve been doing scales, sometimes with a metronome.  Also, etudes from the massive Barret Oboe Method book that has weighed down the music stand of every oboist I know.  And — with a vague idea that the music of J.S. Bach will play a featured role in Sea of Reeds — I’ve been dipping into a book I have containing many of Bach’s lovely cantatas for oboe and voice.  That book is called Difficult Passages — a title that’s bracing in its blunt honesty.  It leaves unmentioned the fact that those passages, if played well, are also beautiful. …  Actually, they’re beautiful even if not played well (as just happened when I practiced a few of them).  Because, somehow, in these compositions the ideal is always immanent.  Which I now feel I am finally beginning to understand as, facing back at where I began, I blow myself, in tiny increments, towards the other shore.

A Lecturer, But Not Yet a Graduate

My "lecture," viewed from the balcony. (Photo courtesy of Tali Si Malott.)

Last Thursday I had the remarkable, perplexing, and wistful experience of returning to Princeton University, my almost alma mater.  The occasion was a performance of my monologue The Mathematics of Change, as part of the J. Edward Farnum Lecture Series (co-sponsored by the Princeton Math Dept.).

This was my first time back at Princeton since June of 1980, when I attended graduation ceremonies for my class, even though I hadn’t yet written my required senior thesis.  Princeton lets you “walk” if you’ve done everything except your thesis; you just don’t get your actual degree until you do submit your thesis and it is accepted by your department.  And amazingly, you can submit your thesis anytime in your whole life.  What I was told, way back when, was that I’d get two grades: one for the submitted thesis, along with an “F” (for, I guess, being Way Friggin’ Late).

I did a monologue about not graduating from Princeton (oh, and also about democracy), titled Citizen Josh; incredibly, and excruciatingly, I am still working on my thesis!  I’d intended that show to be my belated thesis, but the Princeton Politics Dept. told me that I needed to append some actual thesis-like prose to the Citizen Josh script.  I’m now working on an abstract for that added section, with the benevolent guidance of a current Politics prof., whom I’ve never met but is almost certainly way younger than me, and definitely smarter.

In the meantime, now at least I’ve done my other Princeton monologue there: The Mathematics of Change, about when I “hit the wall” at freshman calculus.  I’d been trying for years to do this show at Princeton, and finally made it based on the efforts of two brilliant Princeton mathematicians, Peter Sarnak (a bit older than me, I think) and Manjul Bhargava (unbelievably young).  Somehow — perhaps using their number-theory wizardry to confuse the authorities — they arranged for me to perform the piece as a “lecture” in McCosh 50, the storied hall where Albert Einstein and many other luminaries once spoke.

It was, on the one hand, lovely to be at Princeton with my wife and our teenage son; back when I was a brooding, fumbling undergraduate, few (and certainly not I) would have predicted that such familial happiness lay ahead for me.  It was, on the other hand, creepy to return to the scene of my academic crimes after 32 years and still feel like an outsider — someone who didn’t, and doesn’t, seem to fit in with the privileged vibe on campus, like a financially aided microbe that is being continually rejected by the host as a pathetic (and/or slightly dangerous) antibody.  Or maybe it’s just that I should have studied harder, and that knowing this continues to bum me out.

In any case, it was totally lovely to do my math “lecture” in McCosh 50, before an audience of math faculty and students, along with anyone else who may have wandered in.  (The event was free and open to the public.)  It just goes to show that the route back into one’s past is sometimes made possible by the careful description of one’s abject failures.  Or else it means that great mathematicians can make things happen for the rest of us — not the original definition of “applied mathematics,” perhaps, but it worked for me.

The real "Mr. Fine."

P.S.: One of the many silly comic riffs I go on in The Mathematics of Change has to do with the naming of Fine Hall, the math building at Princeton.  In the show I speculate that, like many other buildings on campus, Fine Hall was named after a rich alum (presumably named Mr. Fine).  I give this fictional guy a silly voice and silly things to say. …  Well, it turns out that the real “Mr. Fine” was (a) not rich and (b) a beloved mathematician who, against great odds, managed to found a world-class math department at Princeton.  Henry Burchard Fine was born in 1858 (a bit more than a century before me) and died in 1928 (a year after my mother was born), after being hit by a car while riding his bike on the outskirts of Princeton (cycling being something he loved to do, as I love to do it now).  I was gently informed of these facts by several mathematicians who had been in my audience in McCosh 50 — and have supplemented them by reading a fond obituary by a friend and colleague of his.  My friend Cynthia Dwork — a great mathematician herself — happily recalled her mathematician father’s office in the original Fine Hall, which was beautiful and grand (unlike the somewhat boxy structure that bears his name today). …  This all lends further ammunition to the argument that one should never trust an autobiographical monologuist!  (I certainly don’t.)

P.P.S.: Right after my “lecture,” I was interviewed by a reporter for the Daily Princetonian.  His report can be read here.