“I cannot be trusted to tell them how I am. . .” (Jason Shinder)

A moment of reality or an Old Queen's bling?

A moment of reality or an Old Queen’s bling?

On the last day of the last classes for the course work leading to my PhD (1978), I drove from Iowa City to Cedar Springs and purchased a ring. It cost far more than I should have spent on anything at that juncture—as a poverty stricken graduate student. On the internet rings that look similar to mine run from $300 to $1750.

If mine is worth $1750, I ought to sell it today. I never wear it because the last time I did, a couple of friends made fairly unkind comments about it. The ring looks like either a gangster’s pinky ring or an old queen’s bling. Ostentatious. It’s a large garnet set in high-quality gold. Garnet is my birthstone.

A couple of days ago I found the ring in a box with some other small valuables while sorting through a pile of stuff in the process of cleaning out the detritus of my life (I’m one step and a few dollars away from hiring a “professional home organizer” who specializes in helping old folks downsize.)

Yesterday I changed my Facebook picture (yes, I participate in “social media”). The new picture was taken when I was a senior in college (1966), in the surplice and cassock the choir and organists wore for chapel services at the university. I found it, too, in a pile of stuff I’m sorting. The picture immediately garnered many “likes” and a few comments.

Earlier in the day yesterday, driving home from the fitness center (“Nearer my God to thee,” anyone?) I listened to NPR’s “TED Radio Hour.” It was about “success.” I heard two segments of the program, the last was Guy Raz’s interview with Alain De Botton. His most memorable one-liner was, “We have made in the United States a meritocratic society where success is deserved, but failure is also deserved.”

Before talking to De Botton, Raz interviewed Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” and played clips of his TED talk about success. Yes, I’m a Mike Rowe fan. I’ve said it many times: I’m easily entertained. He’s certainly one of the sexiest men on TV—and I’ve also worked in a place like those where he’s hung out with workers in dirty jobs. I worked at Kaiser Steel in Fontana, CA, for two years, not in a dirty job, but in one of the least healthy environments possible—I can’t imagine what it took to make that huge area ecologically safe when the plant closed. Disposing of the slag heap alone must have been a herculean job.

Talking about some of the people he’s worked with over the last 8 years, Mike Rowe said, “You don’t follow your passion, you

One of the sexiest men on TV

One of the sexiest men on TV

always bring it with you.” He was referring to a PhD former psychologist who was working cleaning out septic tanks, who said he tired of listening to other people’s crap.

“You don’t follow your passion, you always bring it with you.”

Lately I’ve been thinking a great deal about what my passion is.

I write every day. That’s not really a passion, however; it’s a compulsion. Is there a difference? I can (but I don’t let myself) go days on end without playing the organ. When I think about that, I am mystified. I’ve done that all my life (since 1954). I have a pipe organ in my living room. The largest pile of “stuff” I need help sorting is organ music. That 1966 picture of myself is important not least for the professional “costume” I’m wearing.

That TED Radio Hour fascinated me because I do not consider myself to be a “successful” person. I have never written a book (scholarly or otherwise, fiction or non-fiction). I have never played a commercially-recorded organ concert. I’m retired on about $2100 per month. I don’t have a husband. I suppose the list of “I don’t” or “I haven’t” is infinite.

The fact is, I have no “passion” in the terms I think Mike Rowe meant.

I’d love to be a world-famous scholar or fiction writer or concert musician. I really would. I think any one of those would be a kick-ass accomplishment. But I obviously don’t need any of those things, or I’d either have it, or I would have spent my life and my energy trying to get it.

My passion is really quite simple.

I have to insert a disclaimer here. Many years ago I knew a flute player named Kristen Webb. She played a recital at my church in Salem, MA. When we were taking a break from rehearsal, we were chatting about performance, and I mentioned that an organist friend/mentor, Professor Sam Walter of Rutgers University had recently died. I said Sam told me that in performance one enters an “altered state of reality.”

Kristen immediately expanded on that thought, saying that when she performed, she had something of an “out-of-body” experience.

The only moments of performance when I’ve ever been aware of an “altered state of reality” was when I knew I was having a seizure and performed nonetheless. A fairly frequent occurrence until then—Sam died in 1987, and I had begun treatment for seizures only about three years before that.

My passion is really quite simple, and some might think it trivial or even silly.

I want for one moment—longer if possible, but one moment would satisfy me, I think—to know, to be absolutely certain that I understand or feel or experience—I don’t know what the verb should be—without a scintilla of doubt or dissociation or despair the essence (the reality?) of my own existence.

How do a ring, and old photograph, a remembered conversation, a radio program from yesterday pile up to make my reality? Or do they—

Sounds like arrested development, doesn’t it? Teenage angst.

Or the fervent hope and desire of every person 70 years old. And for some of us beginning when we were seven.

“How I Am,” by Jason Shinder (1955–2008)
When I talk to my friends I pretend I am standing on the wings

of a flying plane. I cannot be trusted to tell them how I am.
Or if I am falling to earth weighing less

than a dozen roses. Sometimes I dream they have broken up

with their lovers and are carrying food to my house.
When I open the mailbox I hear their voices

like the long upward-winding curve of a train whistle

passing through the tall grasses and ferns
after the train has passed. I never get ahead of their shadows.

I embrace them in front of moving cars. I keep them away

from my miseries because to say I am miserable is to say I am like them.

Jason Shinder was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1955. He was the founder and director of the YMCA National Writer’s Voice, as well as the director of Sundance Institute’s Writing Program. He taught in the graduate writing programs at Bennington College and the New School University. His awards and fellowships include serving as Poet Laureate of Provincetown, MA, and a 2007 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He divided his time between Provincetown and New York City. Shinder died in April 2008.

One moment of reality

One moment of reality

“. . . I pretend I am standing on the wings of a flying plane. . . “

Lara Flynn Boyle in her newsworthy dress

Lara Flynn Boyle in her newsworthy dress

Drive yourself crazy. Try to remember all the conversations you have in one day. On top of that try to think about everything you’ve heard or read that someone thinks is “newsworthy” for the day—news headlines on the hour on NPR or news briefs on Yahoo when you log on—items in the news that keep you au courant. “’Catching Fire’ Catches, Passes ‘Iron Man’ as 2013’s Biggest Movie.” “Top 6 Playoff Quarterbacks’ Pre-Game Meals.” “Designer Breaks Silence over Infamous Lara Flynn Boyle Tutu Dress.”

Three conversations I’ve heard or participated in during the last couple of days have stuck with me. KERA’s Krys Boyd talked on “Think” with Darrin McMahon whose new book is Divine Fury: A History of Genius. A conversation interesting and off-putting at the same time. McMahon says an essential ingredient of genius is “drive.” I’ve never been driven by anything except love of chocolate. Right away it’s obvious I’m no genius. ORLY!

I had a conversation with my sleep doctor. It boiled down to his gentle warning that as one gets older, one will naturally sleep less. Less than the 5 or 6 hours I’ve been getting per night for 50 years? Oh, PLZ!

A friend and I had a conversation about match.com. How many people on match.com admit to being interested in anyone 69 years old? None. Zero. At least not gay men. But if I don’t find someone in 6 months, they’ll give me another 6 months free. By which time, of course, I’ll be 70. BFD.

I don’t come close to being a genius, I’m going to be sleepier as the years drag on, and I’m already over the hill. None of these flashes is surprising news. None is news as big as Lara Flynn Boyle’s tutu dress.

When I was in high school a group of us from the First Baptist Church of Omaha went to a conference at the American Baptist Assembly at Green Lake, WI. It was one of the most important weeks of my young life (not hyperbole) for several reasons.

At a worship service the staff organist played three “Intermezzi” by Hermann Schroeder. I’m not sure I was ever more taken with music at church. I raved about it. My good friend with whom I was sitting couldn’t believe I liked the music. “It’s not fit to be played in church.”

When we returned home I asked my teacher if I could get the music and learn the “Intermezzi.” He not only knew them but he played them and had an extra copy. I still use the copy of that score from 1962—with Mr. Wischmeier’s performance markings in it. Four years later I played Hermann Schroeder’s Organ Sonata I for my senior recital in college.

It takes no particular genius to play the Schroeder “Intermezzi.” They’re technically quite simple. A bit of inspiration may be necessary to play them so they sound “musical” rather than intellectual. Eugene hated them because the melodies are angular and they are mildly (not crushingly) dissonant. They are not hypnotic enough to be appropriate for most church services—in which no one wants to be challenged beyond their comfort zones.

I’m not sure why I was thinking of the “Intermezzi” yesterday. I miraculously found the score—I never put a music score away afterPrentend I'm walking

I use it, and my apartment is stacked with piles of music as if I were an old man who can’t keep things in order—and played through them.

Or tried to.

One would think a short (one minute 40 seconds to play) technically straightforward piece of music that I learned 50 years ago would present no problem. It did. I had to practice—it almost seemed as if I’d never played one line of the piece because it was so difficult (time consuming!) to get it right. I was obsessed. I wanted to record it.

It seems unfortunate that I think of Eugene when I play those intermezzi. They soon passed through my conscious world into my unconsciousness. They brought with them a small repertory of music by Schroeder I love. I’d like to think I would have learned that music even without Eugene—but I needed to prove to him that the music is expressive of something important (the older I get the less certain I am what that might be).

When I talk to my friends I pretend I am standing on the wings

of a flying plane. I cannot be trusted to tell them how I am.
Or if I am falling to earth weighing less

than a dozen roses
(Shinder, Jason. “How I Am”).

I knew I’d have to “sleep on” the music before I could record it. The sleep of all these years was not enough. I’d have to sleep with it in my conscious mind. Is that weird or what? Today I played it just fine. Recorded it in one take. The drivenness of my youth took over.

This business of longevity, this accumulation of experience and feeling and thought is more confusing—rather than less—every day. I can re-play, probably with much more musicality now, music I learned fifty years ago. I’m somehow musically (my hands may not agree) in my prime. And yet I can’t find a date because no one is looking for someone 69 years old.

“How I Am,” by Jason Shinder (1955-2008)

When I talk to my friends I pretend I am standing on the wings

of a flying plane. I cannot be trusted to tell them how I am.
Or if I am falling to earth weighing less

than a dozen roses. Sometimes I dream they have broken up

with their lovers and are carrying food to my house.
When I open the mailbox I hear their voices

like the long upward-winding curve of a train whistle

passing through the tall grasses and ferns
after the train has passed. I never get ahead of their shadows.

I embrace them in front of moving cars. I keep them away

from my miseries because to say I am miserable is to say I am like them.
—Shinder, Jason. “How I Am.” The American Poetry Review (November/December 2005).