Thursday, February 2, 2012

Talking Bridge

My friend Wylie once said it would be good if we had some sort of report cards or signposts in our lives, such as “Leaving Adolescence, B-plus” or “Approaching Maturity, credit/no credit class.” My friend Marc, handing over the baby he lovingly fostered to its adoptive parents, said “I guess I should give them some kind of owners’ manual.”

What I wanted to be when I grew up was some sort of explainer, a person who might make that sort of sign or give that sort of report card or owners’ manual to myself or anybody who asked. Sort of a Talking Bridge. A kind of interpreter.

Just what form this career might take was not clear to me, but certainly I enjoyed pointing out this or that, so I started writing and playing the piano. It didn’t matter that I was entering a crowded field filled with people more skilled than I. I figured that it was one of those areas where one might find useful work almost anywhere, something like giving a tourist directions to the beach.

As for my own cosmic report card, I gave myself an A in Childhood, but a D-minus in my awkward and unkind adolescence and purblind twenties.

I went back to school and constructed a thematic major titled “Music As a Therapeutic and Tutorial Tool,” something San Francisco State would allow Liberal Studies majors to do in those days. We chose our own classes and defended the curriculum before a committee.

And I tried to be a good Talking Bridge, passing along information and observations which seemed useful to me under the umbrella of writing and teaching.

Sometimes the report cards come from outside. After I published The Phoenician Sailor, a book of poetry, in the sixties, a woman got my address from the printer and walked a mile to my house to thank me. That was an A, even if the woman was my only reader. My piano teacher said sometimes I belonged to the Mr. Magoo School of Piano Playing. Grope and hope. D-minus. But he added that I had so many technical problems, he thought I might be a helpful teacher to people with the same problems. B-plus.

When I retired from teaching piano at Skyline College, a woman only a little younger than I, weeping, said “How can we go on without you? You cared about us.” I took that as an A. And when the boys said “The dads came and went, but Mom was always there,” that was a definite A-plus. One I needed badly.

We have these landmarks in our lives, whether they come from inside or outside. When I turned fifty, I hand-copied all 81verses of the Tao Te Ching, which certainly took less time than hand-copying the New Testament or the Koran. At sixty, I went back to Greece with my mother and sister and sought an oracle at Delphi. Which I found: “Get the trash off the mountain.” At seventy, it was back to Greece again and to Delphi again, and it was a humbling lesson about the dangers of romanticizing anything.

Now I am at an age where we begin to lose our spare parts (starting with the gall bladder in two weeks). I suppose the signpost should quote Itzhak Perlman: “Do the best you can with what you’ve got left.”