Today is my fifty-sixth birthday. So what?
Hitting the double nickel last year inspired me to hold forth at length about this and that, not entirely without reason, seeing as how my first play and second opera were both premiered in 2011. Alas, 56 is a thoroughly uninteresting number, and 2012, while it holds a major event in store for me, promises to be routine in other respects. Assuming that nothing cataclysmic intervenes, I’ll write a hundred-odd pieces, see a hundred-odd plays, spend a lot of time waiting impatiently in departure lounges, and–I hope–finish the first draft of Mood Indlgo: A Life of Duke Ellington. For me that’s standard stuff, and I’m not sure I’d want it any other way, though I do have three never-to-be-acknowledged dreams that I hope will come true between now and year’s end. The first is probable, the second not altogether unlikely, while the third is a dismayingly long shot. (None has anything to do with Satchmo at the Waldorf, in case you’re wondering.)
Birthdays per se don’t mean much to me anymore, save as unwanted reminders of the inexorable approach of the Distinguished Thing. Six years after meeting Mrs. T and surviving a brush with death, I no longer need to be reminded to use well the interval: I’ve got that down pat, though I seize some days more firmly than others. In fact, I’m much more in need of regular reminders of the value of leisure, at which I’m not nearly good enough. If a philanthropist with money to spare were to offer me a smallish chunk of it, I’d ask my employers for a leave of absence and take Mrs. T on a nice long trip, in the course of which I’d endeavor to write as little as possible. But even the longest, loveliest vacation must end sooner or later, and no sooner would we return home than I’d sit down at my desk and go back to work…and do what?
It isn’t quite right to say that I feel the need for a change, since the past few years have been so full of changes. Perhaps a better way to put it is that I’m trying to decide how I want to spend the next part (which may, of course, be the last part) of my life. What shall I do once Satchmo at the Waldorf opens in Lenox and the manuscript of Mood Indigo is shipped off to Gotham Books? Should I embark on yet another biography? Ought I to continue working as a critic? Might I want to try my hand at teaching? Is my first venture into playwriting destined to be a one-shot affair? Above all, I long to know the answer to this question: are my energies best spent as a jack-of-all-trades, or has the time come at last for me to direct my fire at a single target?
The longer I live, the surer I am that the world was made for specialists, and I’ve always been reluctant to settle into a pigeonhole, however commodious. When I played music, I played many kinds of music on more than one instrument. When I became a critic, I wrote about whatever interested me rather than concentrating on a single medium. When I became a biographer, I jumped from subject to subject (first a journalist, then a choreographer, then a jazzman). No sooner was my first opera libretto produced than I started writing my first play. Yes, it’s been fun, but might I have been better served had I concentrated on one thing? While I don’t think it’s right to call me a dilettante–I’ve aspired to professional standards in everything to which I’ve set my hand–I sometimes wonder whether my reluctance to specialize has kept me from doing as well as I might have done in any of my varied lines of work.
Even at fifty-six, it’s not quite too late for me to change my ways, or at least modify them. It’s well within the realm of possibility that I have twenty-odd years of comparatively undiminished energy ahead of me, and I want to use those years in the best and most satisfying way that I can. Up to now I’ve operated on the assumption that life itself would tell me what to do next. Will it do so yet again? Or ought I to take courage in hand and place all my chips on a single number? And if so, should it be one of the numbers on which I’ve successfully bet in the past–or would I do better to try something really different?
Merely to write these words is to smile at their preposterous presumptuousness. I noted seven years ago that “nothing I imagined for myself when young has come to pass: everything is different, utterly so. I’m not a schoolteacher, not a jazz musician, not the chief music critic of a major metropolitan newspaper, not a syndicated columnist, not settled and secure.” You’d think, then, that I’d know better than to suppose that I could ever point myself in any conceivable direction with a reasonable expectation of getting where I thought I wanted to go. Yet here I am, trying once again to figure out what my next move should be.
The truth is that my next few moves are already set in stone. I’ve got a book to finish and a play to see onto the stage, The Wall Street Journal still expects to hear from me six times a month, and Paul Moravec and I are just getting started on our third opera. Nor do I have any particularly bright ideas about what to do after that: I have yet to receive an offer of steady employment from a college or think tank, and no matter how well Satchmo at the Waldorf does this summer, I have no illusions about being able to make anything remotely approaching a living by writing plays, much less opera libretti.
In short, nothing has changed–yet. Maybe it won’t, and maybe that’ll be just fine. Or maybe not. Edward Steichen said it: “Every ten years or so, a man should give himself a good swift kick in the pants!” Am I due?