Notes on Notes, or, Plugged In at the Party of Art
Published in The Threepenny Review
If you wanted to pick the number whose very sound best and most comically captures middle age in all its dust-bunny grayness, it would be hard to top the number of years I have been alive as of this writing: forty-three. Yes, forty-eight and fifty-six are older than forty-three, but somehow they just sound cooler. And I am living proof that forty-three is old enough for some of the less savory trappings of middle age: once-bionic eyes that now strain to make out what’s on the nearest street sign; prescriptions for three – three! – different kinds of medication; and the nine-to-five schedule of the working stiff (“stiff” being an allusion to the state of my lower back). There are compensations, though. My wife and children come to mind. There is also a certain indifference to mass opinion, one that lets me, for example, do a couple of things casually that I wouldn’t have dared do at all as a teenager: (1) dance and (2) wear shorts or swimming trunks that reveal the skinniest legs anyone has ever seen. And there is one benefit I couldn’t have foreseen twenty years ago.
For the past few years I have kept a succession of notebooks in my right hip pocket. The notebook is there from the time I get dressed in the morning until I get undressed at night, whether I am sitting or standing, at work, at a funeral, or at the local flea market. (The notebook is usually a 3 ½ by 5 ½ inch, forty-eight-sheet Clairefontaine; I tried a Moleskine someone gave me, but the wear and tear reduced it to shreds within five months, and the Clairefontaines hold up for the six to nine months it takes me to fill them.) The notebooks are repositories for the titles of books, records, and films that I read or hear about and want to investigate. (There’s also usually a page devoted to my blood-pressure readings, but enough about that stuff already.) The notebooks are less important than what they signify, which is a thing I feel more and more as I age and wish I’d had more of when I was younger: curiosity – a feverish desire to learn, particularly about the arts. When I’m feeling “plugged in,” as I like to call it — and I feel that way very often — I can forget that I am not a twenty-year-old, newly minted adult waking up to the wonders of the world.
Of course, the world, even the world of the arts, is an awfully big place. One person, even if that person’s name is Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, or Cornel West, can learn only so much, and only so much at a time — and if you open yourself to everything, the sheer amount of stuff out there can lead you beyond exhilaration into bewilderment.
As for the solution, I came across an eloquent expression of it — actually, two — in my job. I come across many things in my job. I am the editor of a magazine of biographical articles, which appears eleven times a year; the biographees are living people in a wide variety of fields. Most months, reading over the proofs of the articles, I am struck by connections between and among people who would seem to have little in common. One of the issues, for example, included articles on the theologian Stanley Hauerwas and the nonfiction writer Susan Orlean, two people whose ideas, you might think, wouldn’t necessarily intersect much. But here is the surprisingly salty-tongued Hauerwas talking in an on-line interview about religion: “Being a Christian gives you something to do. It means your life is not just one goddamned thing after another.” And here is Orlean writing in her book The Orchid Thief: “[T]he reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.”
What have been my tools for “whittling the world down” are my passions for learning about (in no special order) books, jazz, and film. Living in a world where I can immerse myself in these things is like being at an ongoing party, to which all trumpeters, novelists, cinematographers, directors, essayists, and saxophonists, great and minor, have been invited. Some of the guests turn out to be more interesting than others, but that’s a party for you. The notebook helps here. Several years ago I read (for my job) an article about the writer Andrea Lee, which quoted her as saying that her “favorite book of all time” is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Into the notebook it went. As sometimes happens, I transferred that information from notebook to notebook until, having written it down two or three times without reading the book, I concluded that I never would, and stopped the transfers. Then — three weeks before this writing — I was in the Strand bookstore, at 12th Street and Broadway in New York, when I overheard two men talking. “I was on the subway and saw a guy reading The Master and Margarita,” one of them said. “So I checked it out. I couldn’t put it down.” The Strand didn’t have a copy that day, but back in the notebook it went . . .
A month or so ago I bought a jazz CD called Boss Tenor, a 1960 recording by the saxophonist Gene Ammons. The writer of the liner notes, Leroi Jones (who was not yet Amiri Baraka), listed some of the saxmen who were influenced by either Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young (whereas Ammons had synthesized the influences of both, in Jones’s view). Among the names mentioned were Ike Quebec and Wardell Gray. Now, I prided myself on being able to recognize, blindfolded, sax solos by Hawkins or Young, or Benny Carter or Ben Webster or Charlie Parker or Johnny Hodges, or even such slightly lesser lights as Charlie Rouse or Don Byas — but Ike Quebec? Wardell Gray? Who? Into the notebook went their names, and off I went, to the Virgin Megastore at Union Square . . .
Last winter I picked up Phillip Lopate’s Totally, Tenderly, Tragically, practically a one-book course on great films – one that I almost couldn’t read for writing down movie titles in my notebook, many of them works by Japanese directors I didn’t know: Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse, Kenji Mizoguchi . . .
I enjoy each book, film, and record for itself, but what truly fascinates me, and what I hope for with everything I read, watch, or put on my stereo, is a work’s connection to something else. It occurred to me as I listened to the music of the bassist-composer Charles Mingus, for example, that it bears similarities to the films of Robert Altman: that the films, with their many characters crowded into a single shot and their simultaneous conversations, might be mere exercises in cacophony but are instead works of power and beauty — pulling off a feat similar to that accomplished by Mingus’s polyphonous compositions. In another example, it seemed to me that New Journalism, as practiced by Tom Wolfe, has features in common with a musical movement that came along at roughly the same time: Free Jazz, as ushered in by the saxophonist Ornette Coleman. The decidedly eccentric Coleman, instead of tossing out songs’ original melodies and playing new ones based on existing chord progressions, as had the groundbreaking Charlie Parker before him, based his melodies on his individual response to the totality of a piece of music — lending even more freedom to an art form already characterized by improvisation. Similarly, Wolfe, in his essays and nonfictions books, is not bound by point of view, shifting between his own and that of his subjects to marvelous overall effect. These connections make the party of art feel smaller, more intimate to me, while adding new dimension to the things in it.
Recently I’ve tried to expand my focus, just a little. On the same day as the overheard conversation in the Strand bookstore, I went to the Guggenheim to see an exhibit of Jackson Pollock’s drawings. The entry in my notebook from when I stood in front of Pollock’s “Untitled, 1943″ refers to the “simultaneity” the drawing has in common with Charlie Parker’s music. For better or worse, I can’t remember what I meant by that. Maybe, though, there is a link to be found between the works of those two self-destructive artists, who both died in the mid-1950s. Maybe I will find it. I have time. I’m only forty-three.