April 25, 2005
TT: TwentiethI moved to New York twenty years ago this month. It never occurred to me as a young man that I would someday live here, and I'm still capable of being taken aback by the improbable fact that I do. Just the other day I was riding across the Brooklyn Bridge in a cab, and as I glanced out the window at the skyline of lower Manhattan, the city suddenly looked strange to me, as if I'd never seen it before. Perhaps you can never feel completely at home in a city to which you move at the ripe old age of twenty-nine.
I celebrated my twentieth anniversary as a New Yorker by slipping out of town for a few days--an appropriate gesture, I think, since Manhattan, for all its myriad wonders, has a way of getting on your nerves after a couple of months' worth of continuous exposure. As I sat on a park bench by the Hudson River, basking in the sunshine and idly turning the pages of Du côté de chez Swann, I caught myself thinking about how different the world was when I came to New York. Among other things:
- The World Trade Center was still standing.
- So was the Berlin Wall.
- I was using the first VCR I'd ever owned.
- I hadn't bought my first CD player or fax machine.
- I had yet to use a personal computer, much less buy one.
- Cell phones didn't exist.
- None of my books was written. (For that matter, none of the pieces collected in the Teachout Reader was written.)
- I'd never seen a ballet by George Balanchine (not counting The Nutcracker) or a painting by Pierre Bonnard.
- Our Girl in Chicago was still in high school--and three of the people whom I now number among my closest friends weren't yet old enough to go to grade school.
Since then, my life has undergone countless other changes, a few of them fairly dramatic. I buried a parent and a best friend. I became a drama critic, and acquired a niece. I was investigated by the FBI, voted on by the Senate, and sworn in by a Supreme Court justice. I started a blog. And I began to think of myself as a New Yorker, which some might say was the biggest change of all.
What surprises me most, though, is that I don't spend all that much time thinking about such things. Some, yes--I'm as susceptible to unexpected attacks of acute nostalgia as any other middle-aged guy--but for the most part I tend to be preoccupied with the next piece I have to file and the next show I have to see. What I wrote about Balanchine a year ago is in many ways true of me as well:
Of all his oft-repeated refrains, the most familiar was Do it now! "Why are you stingy with yourselves?" he would ask his dancers. "Why are you holding back? What are you saving for--for another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now." His ruthlessly practical approach to running a dance company was rooted in the hard-won knowledge that his next breath might be his last. He worked within the means available at the moment, using them to the fullest, never wasting time longing for better dancers or a bigger budget: "A dog is going to remain a dog, even if you want to have a cat; you're not going to have a cat, so you better take care of the dog because that's what you're going to have." He ran his private life along the same lines: when he had money, he spent it lavishly, on himself and others, and when he didn't, he lived frugally. "You know," he said, "I am really a dead man. I was supposed to die and I didn't, and so now everything I do is second chance. That is why I enjoy every day. I don't look back. I don't look forward. Only now." This dance, this meal, this woman: that was his world.
Perhaps my tendency to live in the present is merely a phase I'm going through. My impression is that most people grow increasingly preoccupied with the past as they grow older. It may be that my work helps to anchor me in the present moment, and I'm sure that living in New York and spending so much of my time in the company of younger people have had a similar effect. But whatever the reasons, I mostly like my life, and most of the time I like it very much indeed, which is why I enjoy sharing bits and pieces of it with you.
Marcel Proust, in whose imagined world I am currently immersed, assures us that happiness "serves hardly any other purpose than to make unhappiness possible." He might be right, but I prefer to think otherwise. At least for the moment, I propose instead to cast my lot with Justice Holmes, who in old age told an old friend,
I was repining at the thought of my slow progress--how few new ideas I had or picked up--when it occurred to me to think of the total of life and how the greater part was wholly absorbed in living and continuing life--victuals--procreation--rest and eternal terror. And I bid myself accept the common lot; an adequate vitality would say daily, "God, what a good sleep I've had," "My eye, that was dinner," "Now for a fine rattling walk"--in short, life as an end in itself.
Of course I hope I can do a bit better than that, but at the very least I'll gladly aspire to accepting the common lot. Today I'll do my best to write a piece, take a walk, call my mother, read a couple of dozen pages of Proust, and spend a few minutes looking at the Teachout Museum. If at day's end I've accomplished all these things, I'll go to bed content--and if I haven't, I'll do the same. Like the cops say, Rule No. 1 is to go home alive at the end of your shift. Every day is a victory over the abyss.
See you tomorrow.
Posted April 25, 2005 12:03 PM