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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Merce Cunningham, Frank McCourt: After the Meltdown, Part IV

Funny what you miss.

We felt many moments of pre-emptive nostalgia during our last months in New York City. It was an easy frame of thought to fall into: Here is our last night listening to world-class live jazz on a Monday night at the Standard, our last croissant from Bergamot, our last pizza Genovese at Don Giovanni (now being too grown up for Ray’s on Sixth and 11th), a last morning dance class at Merce Cunningham Studio for M, a final walk along the Hudson for me... But these were anticipatory losses, the real ones to come.

The real ones did come. After all these days on the road, we woke up one day a week ago and realized we hadn’t been alone together for 107 days–always in someone else’s house, or in a hotel, or in an airplane or car between the two. So put down privacy as the first thing we missed, in a real way (as opposed to a carefully curated "I Miss NY" way, calculated for maximum resonance among sentimentalists). In New York we had our place. And in NYC, there is a curious privacy amid the masses–nothing new here, the anonyminity of crowds a cliche, but now I know its truth personally.

The following day, as we hiked along a mountain trail at 5,300 feet; M suddenly cried out, "I miss broccoli!" And there you have it: under the pines and overhanging granite of the Ernie Maxwell Trail, the essence of our city life was boiled down to a vegetable and a state of mind.

With the conjunction of the closely spaced deaths of Frank McCourt and Merce Cunningham, in whose orbits we intersected, the one briefly, the other frequently, a third ineffable NY thing came to me today: possibility.

We moved into an illegal sublet in 1982; the building housed the Cunningham dance studios, and oneday M went upstairs to check it out. She came down a few hours later, sweaty, and said they’d let her dance. And so she kept on dropping in, dancing, and got to know the teachers and students, and even Merce at a distance, to the point of once being offered a scholarship–which she turned down, flattered, with great reluctance and rueful sense of "what might have been?"

Cunningham was all about possibility. His embrace of chance and non-narrative performance blended, for me, aspects of zen and sport with the hoity-toity-ness of fine art. In his way, Merce kept it real. (I remember him in an elevator, staring at how I blocked the door from closing by back-footing it–"memorizing the move to use in something," M said later.) As M kept trying to explain to me, Merce was all about those random moves and "bits" that were just done, un-patterned, freed from music’s beat, triggered by nothing, or else by chance and necessity.

Frank McCourt’s writing was the opposite, all about the story, the narrative, about his life as a narrator of stories about his life. We only met once, but it made an impression of a lifetime. He gave a reading at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park, shortly after "Angela’s Ashes" was published and started soaring up the lists. He wasn’t that famous yet. But it was happening, like a strange potion ingested that hadn’t quite taken effect. He read in a bemused, offhand style–applauded frequently by what seemed like a hundred former students of his from his decades at Stuyvesant High School. For some reason one of his older ex-students, friends of ours, invited us to join him at dinner afterwards, and we sat there sharing his moment, a bit grateful not to be taking up too much space as he accepted hugs and toasts. Finally someone’s gush about "making it at last" seemed to strike a nerve and he spoke out in a tone rueful, honest, and knowing in a way that felt slightly bitter: "It’s all very nice, the attention, but it’s a bit late. I really could have used this 20 years ago, even 10."

I’m paraphrasing, but that’s what he said. And it shushed the crowd, his students, those young faces; they who were so triumphant for him (and to be honest, triumphant for themselves at having known him when). Many of them suddenly realized, I believe, the embarrassing truth he had just committed, like a faux pas: that while recognition matters, and money and fame do certainly glitter, youth is still everything. Just as when they were juniors at Stuy High and he was Mr McCourt, the coolest teacher with the best stories, good for killing 50 minutes of a school day.

McCourt showed what a good teacher he must have been by that refusal to take on the role of Late-Life-Success-That-Makes-It-All-Worthwhile. He rejected an easy celebration, and risked being seen as a sore winner, a grump or a Grinch, to make a point about life–about the lives of his students, now young adults. If you want something, don’t wait for it to happen, make it happen. Start now.

And while I can’t speak for his students, I know I it made an impression on me–being older than our fellow guests and a bit more bruised by life, I got it.

Chance and necessity, possibility and privacy–and broccoli. Seize the day.

1 comment:

  1. I really loved your comments about Frank McCourt. They were provocative and honest and really made me think about "starting now" and what success really means. Thank you.

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