The Piano

These days, you often can’t give them away, and many fine pianos actually end up in the trash. The market doesn’t care about family or sentimental values or the fact that music may have kept the family together or at least brought home the joy of making music.

In 1931 at the height of the Depression my parents bought a new Steinway grand for their new Chicago apartment. I was born three years later, and the piano (along with 78-rpm records) became my introduction to music—a lifelong passion. My mother played Christmas carols and simple classical pieces on it, dad would hammer out old show tunes, and some notable jazz musicians like Barbara Carroll entertained us at parties.

Other musicians recognized what a great instrument this piano was. When the family moved on from Chicago, so did the piano, to a new home in Highland Park. In 1950 my parents hosted an affair with the Louis Armstrong All-Stars, and Earl Fatha Hines played it and loved it. In the mid-1960s it came to rest in my New York apartment where in 1971 Sir Roland Hanna, the noted jazz musician, came to a party I had and played it. For its later years it took up space at my ex-wife’s house in New Hope, PA.

When Sally and I split up, we had a fight about who would get the piano. At that time she had a house and I was moving around, starting a new life in Rhode Island and doing a lot of itinerant communications work. So she got the piano, and I got the divorce. I think she did play it, a little. But mostly it sat for ten or more years, tuned but unplayed.

When she died the house had to be sold, and I undertook to sell the piano. I wrote to local music schools and got a lot of nice responses and no-thank-yous. I lowered the price and finally got a bite from NYU’s Music Department. They sent two people out from New York to audition the piano. They found it “a very fine instrument” and so we had a deal. Since I used to teach at NYU years ago, I thought it was a perfect home for a pedigreed old Steinway.

Grand pianos are big clunky objects, very heavy. Many people today are perfectly happy with mobile electronic keyboards that offer cheesy programmed accompaniments and sound enhancements. They are light and convenient for band musicians and those content with digital music. As readers of this blog know, I’m never content with digital music even though I do have a Yamaha electric piano to (sometimes) practice on.

Our old family piano in a way held the family together emotionally when we were all younger, analog people. It was more than a fixture; it was a memento of good times and the power of music to create a joyful connection.

Aging Is Not a Disease

The NY Times recently published a piece in which a 41-year-old doctor in Boston muses about advances in the science of anti-aging. She is pregnant with her first child and wonders whether aging is really inevitable. Her dad does pull-ups at age 70 and pursues studies on “how he might slow the ticking clock.” Aging for folks like this is clearly something to be conquered, not accommodated.

“Longevity researchers,” she says, “would tell you that aging itself is a disease that we can understand and treat, cancer and heart disease and dementia only its symptoms.” Hmm, if aging is a disease, I must be pretty sick at 88. I do have age spots but no cancer or heart disease—yet—and no crippling ailments or obvious mental disorders, though some might contest that. So I got lucky in the old age sweepstakes.

I’ve been blessed with good health (with some minor problems) in the last few years, and I look at getting older as something perfectly normal. If I can get another year or so, that would be fine. I don’t fear death, though I might if things change. For now, I look and feel younger than my chronology would predict. Except in the morning.

Getting older, I’ve been drawn to feel that so much of what we do as a society works against nature. We humans can’t even manage ourselves, and all our false notions of progress are usually at the expense of the natural world and those less fortunate. How we respond to climate change will be the ultimate test.

So I find that anti-aging and extending human life are like so many other new tools for fighting off or plundering nature and advancing bogus notions of progress. Work proceeds apace on gene modification, CRISPR, AI, and other high-minded efforts to alter our humanity and improve on what nature gives us. I never thought I’d say this, but why is science always the answer?

A good friend in her mid-70s recently had major surgery for an intestinal blockage. She was quite healthy, and this came as a big shock. So did the resulting colostomy. She’s been depressed, won’t eat, and talks about wanting to just give up. The vicissitudes of our health can change everything.

If good health is everything, why are we so cavalier about it? Could someone in poor health rely on an anti-aging program? Will these programs be just for the rich? Of course they will.

To her credit, Dr. Lamas, the writer, is not wholly convinced that anti-aging science will provide a better life: “it is not entirely clear that having a younger genetic than chronological age confers a longer or better life.” If I continue to be blessed with good genetics and health, old age remains something to treasured—until it’s not.

Oldsters Partying in Puerto

The other night it was a mixed group, oldsters and mid-oldsters and a few younger people. I was probably the most senior of about thirty people there to exchange silly Christmas gifts and watch the sun go down over the Pacific. I knew only about four of these folks and thus looked forward to another evening of isolation, boredom, and social constipation.

This is what happens to many of us, old or not, as parties find us standing alone, drink in hand, listening to the noisy chitchat, resenting the loud music, deciding whether to approach a group and break into their conversation.

Perhaps you’ve experienced this. I used to be a jovial party-goer and party-thrower in my youth, big drinker, life of the party. (See “Nothing Succeeds like Excess.”) Aging often produces a slow process of withdrawal from all that, which is no bad thing. After all, how much small talk can you generate? Who wants to hear more stale political opinions, gossip about the neighbors, indulgent talk about oneself, with never a question about you?

At the party in question I came in with my partner, felt awkward and out of place, said a few hellos, and sat solo for a while to watch the sunset and plot my next (if any) moves. I made up my mind to tough it out so I went to sit with a younger couple eating dubious hors d’oeuvres and had a nice exchange with them.

The rum punch was good and I found people approachable. The gift exchange turned out to be fun, and the atmosphere changed from small pods of talkers to participants in an engaging group activity. I almost felt glad I’d come.

The small group I hang out with in Oaxaca was nothing like this mixed bag. Beach people are different. One older tanned guy in Hawaiian shorts looked like my old college roommate and never stopped talking. Other oldsters simply sat and said little. Women, as usual, carried the day and brought things to life. One looked like Kyrsten Sinema even to wearing a brassy Sinema-style dress. I kept ascribing personalities to these characters.

The point of all this is that aging produces in some of us the urge to withdraw (see “Retreat of the Elders”), which occasionally can come on strong. I’m not a recluse and I do like people, but in small groups or one-on-one. Most parties I can do without; this one—good for observations—wasn’t too bad.

Forced intimacy in any circumstance may work for the young. For most oldsters it just pushes old buttons.

Old People Driving

Jerome’s was gray

On Friday my friend and I drove from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido, a distance of 160 miles, which usually takes a minimum 6-1/2 hours on high mountain roads, through truck traffic, potholes and endless switchbacks. That works out to about 23 miles per hour. It’s a tough drive and took us a bit over 7 hours including a stop for lunch.

I drove the whole way, and in the last 10 miles or so hit two topes (speed bumps) pretty hard—feeling really stupid because I’ve done this road scores of times. On arriving I was so tired and wrung out that I couldn’t meet friends for dinner. It finally came to me that fatigue had made me lose my concentration. And you cannot do that in Mexico.

So no more long-distance solo driving for me. Like many oldsters, usually male, I’ve been proud of my driving. I drove sports cars in my salad days and for a long time thought my capabilities generally persisted. In a short book, I spoke about

avoiding the kind of hubris or testing of fate that old codgers manifest on the roads. Giving up the keys for most of us would relinquish a final vestige of independence. Like coasting downhill on an empty tank. . . . If I had to quit driving I’d be giving up one of the remaining joys in my sedentary life. It’s a matter of maintaining, as we all do, the fiction of one’s life.

So much for that. Hubris is what happens when you’re making other plans. A good local friend of mine drives so badly that I refused a few years ago to ride with him unless he let me drive. He once fell asleep on that same mountain road and nearly killed himself and a companion.

With the arrogance of youth I said to my father Jerome years ago when he was driving too fast in big glitzy Lincolns: “How about letting me drive for a change?” No way that was going to happen because I had told him his new car looked like a Baroque church. So he kept on driving big cars until he once roared through a stop sign, hit another car, and then argued about fault with the insurance company.

Oldsters are naturally jealous about keeping their driving privileges, and they can get very testy about it. Younger relatives may force the issue, but many states have no age restrictions. Make ‘em all take a test, I say. Yet the politics of aging may not let that happen. The AARP opposes this, calling it age discrimination.

And as the public approves of more electronic junk and digital screens in cars, the distractions for seniors and all of us will get worse. Drive safely to your Christmas destinations.

The Physicalities of Aging

I’ve written before about the joys of getting older: first, about some of the social aspects of withdrawal; then about declining brainpower. I’m not quite sure why these pieces drew the attention of my readers. Maybe it’s the aging process itself that binds us old farts together.

To discuss the more physical aspects of aging is a little more risky. Yet we must face up to our own mortality by confronting the commonplace ways our bodies degenerate—or at least have difficulty performing their accustomed functions. Who wants to hear about another’s constipation? Still, a few personal stories may connect with you.

About three years ago I realized that I wasn’t getting enough exercise. I didn’t want to walk much anymore. The sidewalks in Oaxaca are cracked and broken; I was fearful of taking another fall. And how many times can you enjoy hiking around the very same blocks? I used to like going to the gym, so I bought an elliptical trainer.

This is a great machine for exercising a bunch of muscles, plus some low-impact cardio. You know what’s coming, right? I used it faithfully for a while, then progressively abandoned it. Monotony and apathy will overcome all your good intentions. Well, lately I’ve gotten back on it, and it feels good. Let’s see how long this lasts.

It’s very common that as one ages one’s gums recede and gaps appear between the teeth. This is why you see so many old people using toothpicks after eating. You finish a nice dinner and your companion starts poking away at his/her mouth. Now you’ve begun to do it too. My dentist said, “get a Waterpik,” and he was right. The detritus removed after brushing will simply amaze you.

Years ago, my father had a pretentious gold toothpick in a thin leather case. He would produce this and use it at home or after a fine restaurant meal. We observed this many times. Finally my sister said, “Pop, do you have any idea what’s growing in that case? It’s pretty disgusting.” Naturally, this had no effect.

Older people finally don’t care what others think about such habits. That too is part of the aging process.

I find it harder and harder to cut my toenails. Bending over to get a purchase on the nail clipper gets more difficult as one’s arthritis progresses. And the longer the nails grow, the harder it is to cut them neatly. A male friend of mine, now deceased, gave up on the whole thing and regularly went to a podiatrist for, God bless him, a pedicure. I’m not quite there yet.

It may not be in the best of taste to talk publicly about such commonplace things. Older folks are still rather sanitized and Victorian in talking and dealing with bodily needs and functions. The fact that such behaviors are rarely discussed can only mean that we’re less equipped to deal with them as we inevitably age.

Why Beethoven, and Why Now?

Some of you know I had a partial career as a music critic years ago. (Most everything is now “years ago,” it seems.) I wrote about jazz, the record business, ‘70s rock and, later, classical. My writings were all ephemeral; but the music is not. Most all of it is on record in one form or another, the wine and the dregs.

When I was growing up, a lot of Beethoven echoed in my house. Music was an intrinsic part of our lives, and Beethoven was at the heart of it. I’ve talked about that here and in a book I wrote but not much about Beethoven. Well, the Eroica symphony was a revelation to me as a teenager because it completely broke new musical ground. When I began to really listen to the string quartets in college, they became touchstones of my musical life. Jazz was my daily fare, Beethoven the haute cuisine.

Last night, over leftover noodle casserole, I listened again to all three Rasumovsky Quartets, from Beethoven’s middle and troubled years. There is no music in the world like this. Here is Opus 59, no. 2 of these masterpieces.

I won’t give you a critique here, rather some thoughts that the music evoked. First, the surprising turns this music takes: I remembered that critic Whitney Balliett once called jazz “the sound of surprise.” The three quartets embody surprise in abundance. Second was the stark contrast between the world this music projected and our own disjointed times—the ways in which Beethoven could render his disjointed life and times in the coherence and power of his musical speech.

Later I was to think about how the Eroica Symphony and later the Rasumovsky quartets revolutionized the music of Haydn and Mozart. Here’s how Joseph Kerman put it in his classic work on The Beethoven Quartets:

A new world was being explored, and if the string quartet was going to find a place in it at all, it had to smash the fragile, decorous boundaries set by the classic image of chamber music, . . . a new “symphonized” quartet necessarily had to come into being (p. 151).

Haydn and Mozart provided the building blocks, but the decorous age was clearly over, another instance of the surprising ways the 18th century changed thought and art.

There is no analogue today. The crudeness of our pop music and the irrelevance of much contemporary classical offer no relief from the social and political chaos around us. When I’m hungry I go back to Beethoven.

The recording I listened to is a two-SACD set by the Tokyo String Quartet. The sound is extraordinary, their interpretations exemplary. I have other different but interesting renditions on vinyl by the Guarneri, Budapest, and Juilliard ensembles.

Beethoven would go on to even greater heights of expression in the Late Quartets, one of which (the C-Sharp Minor, Opus 131) would change the way I thought about music forever. More on that later, perhaps.

A Slight Loss of Control

Some fans have urged me to write more about aging. It is a rich topic, especially for one at my age (88). I offered my general thoughts on the matter a couple of weeks ago, but that was the tip of the iceberg, so to say.

Every aspect of aging seems to have three components—physical, psychological and social—and they’re all interlinked. There’s a very thorough and intimidating treatment of this on Wikipedia. Read it while you have your late afternoon cocktail. (Why do all discussions of aging always recommend easing off the booze? They totally ignore the psychological and social benefits.)

So today I want to talk not about dementia but about mental deficiency as it creeps up on you. This is normal yet disturbing. Myself and many friends have experienced loss of short-term memory. You know, forgetting your keys, the last name of a friend, where you put something. This is so common that it’s unremarkable. Yet it upsets a lot of us.

Often when you’re trying to recover a forgotten name it will come back to you a few moments later while you are thinking of something else. So your memory is still functional; it’s just taking its time to sift through all those long-unused cells in the mental library.

And sometimes the name or the word doesn’t come back. Well, calm down and search out related aspects of the word on Google. This will often trigger an association that can make the connection and turn your light bulb on. The usual fear and distrust of technology in elders is well-placed. But you have to learn to make tech work for you. I talked about some of the problems here in “Computer-Assisted Headaches.” We elders have to stop being intimidated by technology and learn simply to ignore what we can’t understand.

Keeping your mental alertness is key to solving many problems of aging. I have IBS, a too-common bowel disorder. So I complain again to my doc, who says that after all these years “you know more about this than I do.” I’m skeptical but as I experiment with treatments, nostrums, remedies natural and unnatural, I find some success in dealing with it. And I use the internet a lot.

Bottom line: your apparent loss of mental (even physical) control can often be compensated by using what’s left of your brain.

What we all worry about is keeping our mental acuity. Well, you’re never going to keep the edge you had at age 20 or 30. After 70, we all decline, so what can help? The usual advice is to exercise more, learn a new skill, play games and solve puzzles, dance, meditate, eat a good diet, and so on.

I think the most important way to keep sharp is to involve yourself regularly in a mentally challenging activity you love. For me it’s writing; for someone else it’s hiking or volunteer work or cooking. When you feel depressed, anxious, irritated with someone, or too isolated, don’t give way to it. Get back to something you really treasure doing.

That’s not just a bromide, folks. Example: when the blues take over, I turn to the music I love and I can regain an equilibrium from that. We need to remember to engage with the things we love.

Retreat of the Elders

This is for those of you who have reached your advanced years and are now flirting with the attractions of solitude. Sometimes, it seems, this can be more than a flirtation.

Here are the symptoms: a penchant for eating at home; fewer visits with friends; a preference for books over TV; souring on politics and current affairs; pique with the common culture; suffering fools gladly; and so on. Covid, of course, made things worse.

You go to a party where most of the folks there are your friends. The conversation is the usual chit-chat about local happenings, friends who are ill, movies you’ve never seen, restaurants you never visited, travel plans you’re not concerned about, political opinions you don’t agree with. You drink too much and leave early.

It’s about feeling “out of tune,” as Wordsworth said in his poem “The world is too much with us.” When the vibes are bad it’s like you’ve come from a different world, captive to “a creed outworn.” You are out of tune with the common culture (or so it feels), with its emphasis on escape, schlock or shock in pop art, films, and more. To confirm this, take a jaundiced look at New York Magazine’s stories in The Cut and Vulture.

The urge to withdraw from it all, I think, is not just limited to us elders. People everywhere seem to be getting a bellyful of all the institutions of state, the customs and the verities we grew up with and trusted. Why else would so many swallow Trump’s patent medicines and hokum? What is MAGA if not an escape into a surreal fantasy? How did the craziness of Brexit take hold of so many Brits? All of this represents a kind of withdrawal.

We oldsters turn sour on so many things because we’ve lived long enough to lose most of our innocence. Yeats said it best in “The Second Coming.” You seniors may remember these lines.

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

So many sages have told us that aging is simply a loss of innocence. I don’t entirely buy that. I still remain innocent to many things, open to ideas, good books and conversation, thoughtful people, art and music. There’s just a whole lot less to be open to now. And that, my friends, requires regret but no apology.

Speech for Mr. Biden

Back in the salad days of 1992 I wrote a stump speech for Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa who was then running for president. The campaign liked it, wanted to use it, but Harkin dropped out of the race shortly after. Great timing, John. So here’s another one for President Joe. The independents are frustrated with him, largely because he doesn’t really speak to their issues.

My fellow Americans . . . and all those who didn’t vote for me:

Today, let’s talk about some painful issues, things that have come about in your lives and mine that are a little uncomfortable to speak about. I’m talking about the personal costs of inflation, the global economy, and the dreadful state of our politics.

I’m not going to give you an “America the beautiful” approach today. Inflation, I know, is what’s affecting all of us. It can be brutal—especially for those with low incomes. And it continues to rise unabated. The Consumer Price Index has jumped at an 8.2 percent annual rate—and that’s a 40-year high.

Compared to a year ago, food prices have gone up 11.2 percent. What I want to tell you is that this isn’t just an American problem. It’s global. You’ve heard the stories about famine in under-developed countries. People in our own country continue to go hungry.

Fires, famine and floods don’t have to be part of the human condition.

But inflation affects the price of most everything, not just food. Rising rent costs are driving many protests. Healthcare costs rose nearly 1 percent in September, the most in two years. New cars and most consumer goods cost more. I know: I’m telling you what you already know.

How to fix this? It won’t be easy. The Federal Reserve is working to get more people employed, but that can be a long haul. Claims of unemployment have jumped dramatically in states hard hit by the recent hurricanes. The labor market is very tight. Republicans have offered no—I repeat no—provisions to deal with any of this. They’d rather scare you with talk about how crime has taken over the country. Yet our most immediate goal must be to stabilize the economy.

Pocketbook and life issues are central to that. Covid is not beaten and could be merely in recession. And rising American healthcare costs are going to cripple the economy. We have to get them under control, but frankly that depends on winning you over to vote with us in the midterms and beyond. The opposition has no plans to fix our healthcare. For them, it’s not a right but just another business.

Ditto with gun control and abortion, the personal freedom issues of our times. The upcoming elections will determine whether we can make abortion legal again through new legislation. We simply must do this!

What I’m asking is that you simply vote for freedom over obstruction. Republican opposition leaves no room for compromise. And their obstruction begins and ends with Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories. The Big Lie about the 2020 election basically proposes a vast conspiracy to defraud the voters. If you believe in that, I have another bridge to sell you.

I won’t berate you here with the accomplishments of my administration. That doesn’t cut much ice when many of you are concerned with putting food on the table. I also know that many of you don’t want to return to the chaos and anxiety of the Trump years. As Americans, you know that we can do better, much better.

With your help we will do better! Thanks for listening.

Death is an abstraction until it’s not.

 

Death is the ultimate fact of life, notwithstanding all the trite stuff that’s been written about it. And of course it’s not all trite. I recently reread T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” surely the ultimate poem about this subject. It brought forth strong feelings about recent losses of people in my life:

“I had not thought death had undone so many,” says the narrator.

My son Ethan died in July from a fall in his apartment. He was fifty-two. Mentally ill for many years, his death ended a sorely troubled life and yet was so undeserved. We knew it might end this way; still, the shock of it jolted the family beyond words.

Two friends of mine from the music world recently passed—Sy Johnson in July and Charles’s wife Sue Mingus last month. I interviewed Sy in the early 1970s for my book Mingus Speaks (for which he provided photos of Charles and Sue). My reflections on Sy are here and here. We continued our friendship long after Mingus’s death from ALS (another horror story).

Sue and I had several engaging sessions of talk in the Mingus apartment—about Charles, the book and our life connections in Chicago/Milwaukee. We connected again more recently at gigs of the Mingus Big Band at the Jazz Standard in NYC. Sue managed the band and the other Mingus aggregations, attending every session and personally dishing out checks to the musicians at the evening’s end.

For many of us the dead are in suspended animation, a presence forever. Roger Angell, a fine writer/editor for The New Yorker, wrote an affecting piece in 2014 about the ongoing power of remembrance of those passed. I loved his stuff. He died in 2022, aged a hundred and one.

We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the safe landscape of the day. It’s no wonder we’re a bit bent. . . . The dead have departed, but gestures and glances and tones of voice of theirs, even scraps of clothing—that pale-yellow Saks scarf—reappear unexpectedly, along with accompanying touches of sweetness or irritation.

The dead maintain their presence in so many ways. Memories agitate or sustain us, fill out our lives with joy and grief. It’s like watching old shows on black-and-white TV.