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.”