My New Year's resolution at the start of the year was to see more plays. I did, but the total scarcely broke two digits, so I must refresh my efforts this year. Also, most of the plays were semi-obligational attendances (directed or written or populated by friends) and so should probably be weighted lower. The nice thing about being in your 40s, as Fran Lebowitz observed, is that suddenly the people in your cohort run things, such as the world. They admit you into exclusive places, throw you the occasional job, and tell crackling true-life tales in hearty, relaxed voices. The less nice thing is that some of them have created terrible works of art for you to sit through and hypocritically coo over at the bar afterward. Luckily, my wife has the caliber of theatrical friends where you have to struggle for fresh-sounding superlatives rather than weaselly cliches. Also, in this season of dewy-eyed remembrance, let's remember that logging one more sluggish production of "The Cherry Orchard" equates to the Bataan death march only in the most skeletal and symbolic view.
A quick digression: "The Cherry Orchard" has come to stand as a funny personal synecdoche for sham artistry ever since I worked at a publisher in New York in the early 1980s. The place was run by a snub-nosed, obscene, hot-tempered, reptile-faced, rapier-sharp Brooklyn Jew of the school that is precisely and simply called old; the receptionist was, like office receptionists all over, a self-regarding actress of slender skills. One day the old man tumbled out of the elevator after a typically festive lunch and beheld the lady at her desk filing her nails with queenly languor and chatting on the phone about some audition or another. She quickly signed off, straightened up, and handed him a fistful of pink "While You Were Away" slips. Meanwhile he continued to stand before her, studying her face in vexed silence. He was the kind of guy you treated like a live volcano, never knowing. As it turned out, he was trying to crystallize an impression into an English sentence, and presently he snarled, "You belong in a second-rate production of 'The Cherry Orchard'!" and marched off. My wife and I still enjoy using this throwaway line of the late, lamented Donald I. Fine to rob our dear colleagues of all dignity and humanity behind their backs.
1. The closing night of "Our Town." The missus played both Mrs. Soames and Mrs. Gibbs in two Chicago runs of David Cromer's interpretation of the Thornton Wilder classic, then went to New York in 2009 as Mrs. Soames, then returned in the summer of this year as Mrs. Gibbs, then left, and finally we all came back, along with many of the people involved with the show throughout its long New York run (the longest of any "Our Town" in theatrical history, by a good eight months), to watch the charged thing unfold one last time. David's trail of glory blazed on this year, with a MacArthur Fellowship and a handful of big new productions in the works; and on this night, I felt a fairy-tale happiness in seeing the masterful actors in the audience drinking in the details of his performance as the stage manager as though they were in class. And I think we all were. At the bar, the fairy tale bade to turn hellish as one hour of drinking followed another. Luckily my pal J. was on hand, with provocative notes on the show and stories about art forgery in the 1920s, and so the five hours passed like three-and-a-half.
2. Speaking of J., another highlight was having two days off in New York in March and hanging out with him. A few lucky souls seem to make it into middle age without having sired children and comfortably off. Thus they are able to dedicate themselves to serving the rest of us as Professional Friends. I call them lucky, but I don't mean to suggest that they stumbled into their status or that we breeders are comparatively cursed. "Lucky" comes to mind because these childless cosmopolitans of whom I speak seem to bask in perfect contentment and freedom. Their happiness, if as thoroughgoing as it appears, raises a problem for us breeders, and so perhaps it's better for those of us who have followed a more textbook model of value acquisition and who end up shadowed by yapping little scoundrels with dirty faces and tuition fees, to avoid dwelling on the soul of the Professional Friend, but merely to share mutely in his glow. For two days, then, it was like Return to Fantasy Island as J. and I ate at swanky Manhattan joints, downed Scotch with the affable crackers of Red Hook, slept in, chewed over religious ethics, and dug through his big collection of Gary Stewart and Barbara Mandrell records. The interlude was capped by a mano-a-mano show with Jenny Scheinman in Park Slope. These are the times in life, fleeting though they may be, when you feel like, not a king, but a god.
3. Seeing poorly, hearing worse, caring even less. For the first time in life I am truly feeling (and probably looking) my age (47 and rising), even graduating on certain days to the age of a different person, a gentleman of about 62. This summer I made my first purchase of reading glasses -- I even used them on stage a time or two to look at charts -- and now wonder how I was getting along without for so long. It's a drag missing sections of conversations and plays, and the little arthritic aches are an irritant (also the growing conviction that nothing you will experience from here on is going to impress you much), but middle age, with all its creaks and rattles, is on the whole a great benefaction, and so I include it among the highlights of 2010. For one thing, being solidly in what is presumed to be your period of prime earning, with decent clothes on your back, a home that you own, glasses on your nose, and an intact family, you begin to notice an awful lot of spurious goodwill being generated from without. Store clerks smile and call you "sir," and mean it. Inane off-the-cuff utterances which twenty years ago would have been greeted by eye-rolling or inattention are now hailed by your partners in conversation as Confucian profundities. Country music improves too. That Carter Family song about the old homestead falling into desuetude -- you sang it all your life without even bothering the pigeons, but now it seems newly tinged with tragedy, and listeners weep openly. Being definitely off the sexual market is another blessing, and a substantial relief, not that I was the ripest rutabaga on the shelf to begin with. In sum, money enough, physical powers diminished but decent, widespread social approval, musical deepening: come on, this has to be the apex, man! And now that I am recalling some of the conversations and plays I did hear, I'm not sure I regret missing the others.
4. Some fun shows, mostly tiny or private. Opening for Roy Clark at a firemen's ball down in Memphis was a blast -- a rare occasion to play my stuff for a born-and-bred, no-kidding country crowd, and the more gratifying to be received so warmly. But most of my best 2010 performance memories happened at places with smaller stages, or none. House parties, little listening spots like Barbes in Park Slope or the back room of the Hideout in Chicago, and private parties are by miles my favorite venues anymore. You can focus and hear yourself play, and it delivers the goods for people. When Tina Fey's husband Jeff threw her a surprise 40th birthday party in May and asked me to come play with a band, not only did I have a terrific evening and get to catch up with friends from the old days saddled with insanely hectic lifestyles, I got the lifelong memory, which I'll boastfully publicize here, of sweet Tina squealing, as we emerged from our hiding-place and trotted over to the stage to play: "This is going to be fucking awesome!" The New Yorker writer who got married, as the Merle Haggard song goes, "somewhere in the middle of Montana," had at each place setting a personally selected volume of midcentury hardcover fiction, a movingly elegant stroke -- just picture fog and mountains and horses outside a warm old room with a bar and monuments to Wyndham Lewis and Leonard Michaels and Frank O'Connor all around you within it. This is about as good as human beings have to offer up in the way of a response to things like mountains and horses. Finally, a party at year's end in a little Mexican storefront near Midway Airport on the south side of Chicago. Just me, Nora O'Connor, fifty drunk information-age workers, one hundred fat jugs of wine, and about twice that many pounds of shredded goat meat in broth. Reads a little queer, but wasn't. A guy said to me after the show, "I can tell you practice for hours every day," which is obviously another of those post-performance comments begging to be misconstrued -- I mean, having your practice show through your work isn't any more of a goal on the stage than in the sack -- but it was Christmas and I took the gift gladly, in the spirit in which it was offered.
5. Neighborhood life. The auto guy on the corner doing little jobs for free. Everybody taking care of each other's kids here and there, and consoling one another through divorce and death and the lesser miseries of life. Shoveling each other's snow, watering each other's plants. Working up a song for a 5th grade party with a mom down the street. A little gossip over a bottle of wine after hours. You guys that live in big cities: this is what it's like. You do most of this stuff with your freely chosen friends. We do it with people we're semi-randomly thrown together with. Is this "better" for us somehow? My wife says that as artistes, people who turn experience and imagination into stories, we're better off in a little town, where we don't run the risk of spinning our archetypes in an echo chamber. On the evidence of a lot of new plays and music I take in, I think she's onto something.
6. A weeklong visit from my brother, up with his wife from Alabama. Just a killer week, and we got to play music together, too, which hardly ever happens.
7. Sweden. Two weeks there in some characteristically severe winter weather had their share of bleak interludes, but also there was the recording date with Linda Gail Lewis, playing a little guitar with Billy Bremner, wandering alone through Stockholm, Skelleftea, Pitea, and Umea. The little village whose name I forget where the lady steps on stage at the end of your show, bows slightly, and shyly presents you with a wrapped gift of tea and butter to remember the name of her village by. The pretty young rockabilly-punk lady whom I challenged to prove her femininity by mopping the floor. The English people with whom I tied one on at the superclean bar in superclean Gavle. I think I covered all this in another post, so I'll stop.
8. Books. This year I was happy to meet the work of Rohinton Mistry, Padgett Powell, Kate Christensen, and Emily Hahn, all of whom I hope to read more of. I "popped my George Eliot cherry" with The Mill on the Floss. I also renewed some old acquaintances. Getting from age 12 to 15 was breezier with Peter DeVries, and his companionship from 47.4 to 47.43 was just as bracing, and lightening. H.L. Mencken I had not looked at in two decades (I think I had mentally filed him as, in the words of Joseph Epstein, a young man's writer) but on cracking the first volume of the newly-reissued Prejudices, bought for a friend's birthday, I was laughing out loud by the second page. (And this at a slapdown delivered to some obscure Harding-era congressman -- truly, it is the singer, not the song!) Bernard Malamud was yet another childhood-era writer I returned to with profit. As always, or almost, for stories, there was I.B. Singer and Anton Chekhov and John Cheever and Flannery O'Connor (and I kind of got a crush on her non-relation Frank this year, too). I ventured into Jonathan Franzen's new one and found it not my cup of bile. Seven specific titles that I recall as big bright spots -- books that made me want to call friends and read them passages aloud: Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow, The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies (if you are curious why the field of radio astronomy endures and should endure despite an historical record of zero success), The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science by Martin Gardner, 36 Arguments for The Existence of God by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Essays and Criticism by Arthur Schopenhauer, and a collection of Wodehouse stories whose title escapes me. So there!
9. Nora O'Connor. I must confess that a year in which I played less with Jenny Scheinman and not at all with Danny Barnes registered with me as a kind of instrumental regress, because those two push me so much instrumentally and make me think in categories I hadn't even known were categories. But you know what the Christians say -- every time God closes a door, He opens a window -- and here comes Nora, who pushes my singing into a gentler and more tuneful range, and gives me the idea that about three-quarters of music performance is relaxation. Great areas for me to try to advance my skills and understanding. In return, I make her play guitar faster than she might wish to. A clear trade imbalance! I am thrilled to be working more shows with Nora in the year ahead.
10. On the consumption side of music, two events, one of them ongoing, radically colored my year. Out in Felton, California last April, Robbie Gjersoe and I had finished an afternoon show and had the evening free, so we drove north to Oakland to hear Bill Frisell play with Jason Moran and Kenny Wolleson. I don't expect a replay of the long-term mental plate-shifting that happened after the first time I saw Bill play, in 2005, but in the times I've seen him play since, the magic has not abated. To pick just one moment, in "Beautiful Dreamer" he climbed up the fretboard playing an almost diatonic scale on the 1st string but landing -- in a move bold almost to the point of idiocy, but executed with gentle care and softened further with what seemed to me self-surprise -- on the flat 9th, while harmonizing each step of the climb on the 5th string in continuously unexpected places. Bill just dips his finger into the gloaming and coaxes out these freakish musical dust bunnies, time after time. The second event was a piece called "The Don't Wanna Leave You Blues," which was in a piano book for kids that my 10-year-old's piano teacher was using. This piece took a hold of Tennessee like peanut butter to Elvis. He needed it every day in every which way. He'd play it keyed minor or dressed up with Monkish flats; pounded with the side of the hand or sprinted through at whorehouse tempo; dressed in widow's weeds and chorded in stately, rubato blocks on the "jazz organ" setting of a visiting digital keyboard; arms crossed, or extended behind the body while sitting backward on the bench. At first I believe the child was delighted to behold himself playing a simple two-handed stride with competency. After that it was like a virus. To our family, 2010 is almost synonymous with "The Don't Wanna Leave You Blues."
11. The Wisconsin Dells. This is a water-themed family vacation spot with a blend of open-your-wallet luxury and hold-your-nose cheesiness rarely achieved so far form shorelines. We swam in pools, rafted down chutes, and played pool volleyball. I vanished for long stretches to read a Sue Miller book. At night we had a "swig with Nig" (don't ask), made it all the way through the haunted house for the first time, and got our picture taken at a photo shop where you dress up in antique garb and hold funny props. This turned into our best-received Christmas card yet, a shot of me in a frilly gown and floppy hat playing cornet, Preston in a circuit-riding preacher's frock brandishing a jug of wine, Donna decked out in coonskin cap and baseball bat, and Tennessee swinging a pair of pistols, all over the phrase "Happy Holidays." If we sound like characters out of a Ring Lardner story, I fear that is exactly what we are becoming, day by day.
12. Money: more of it. I see that my list of highlights has laid unbecoming stress on my professional life, and I wish that weren't so. I wish there were highlights such as a wonderful anniversary celebration with my wife (could've been, but we were quarreling through it, and then she tore a tendon on her hand -- not from quarreling, I should say -- and went to the ER) or this walk in the woods or that sunset. Well, the sun sets once every day, rapidly and without fuss, and without its even being asked to. In contrast, I spend probably half of my waking life attending to my profession and a lot more just thinking about it, and when all this effort pays off every now and then, I guess it makes for a more high-impact episode than another goddamned sunset. So I close with the locally significant, cosmically meaningless news that I made a bit more money in 2010 than in 2009, about 15% more. This was a stealthy kind of progress of which I was ignorant until sitting by my accountant's elbow at our year-end laff riot. Because I worked less (not counting my weekly Hideout shows as dates or income) and managed once again to rake this in without manager, lawyer, agent, or label...I gloat. Happy New Year! If you supported me in any way, thank you very much!