On a Cusp
I’m hours away from what is generally seen as a significant point in one’s life: the beginning of my sixtieth year.
My thoughts about this waypoint in my journey are likely to be similar to those of others or even yourself: what a trip it’s been, I’m really 60?, what does the future hold for me and the seven billion I share the Earth with, especially the seven and seventy who are most dear to me.
Decades ago, I wrote an essay about the time and perspective. It wasn’t so much an essay as a letter written late at night to a dear friend, but I expound and address the gathered crowds even in my letters. It’s a grand — or grandiose — tendency I have.
In that long-ago letter, I wrote of Glenn Gould, a Canadian pianist. I first learned of him and his work from my first wife, who was well-acquainted with music and a wide range of topics about which I knew little.
Gould was unique, and even reading the Wikipedia entry on him you’d see what I mean. He began his career brash and supremely talented, and we can hear proof listening to his first recording from 1955, of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The photo of him on the jacket of what was then an “album” showed a 22-year-old who clearly was making his own music, his own way — he insisted on artistic freedom in his first recording contract, at 22 years old, not at all common at that time.
Since 17, he’d been studying the Variations, little known and performed little. His debut recording sold an astonishing number of copies, then and later. Gould had made a statement.
Yet he soon retired from public performance, preferring studio work where he could try again and again to play perfectly. He acknowledged that mistakes happened; he just didn’t want those to be what he and others heard. Thanks to recording techniques and multiple takes, he could create what he regarded as perfection…in the studio.
Decades later, he recorded the Variations again. While his first recording was stunning in its virtuosity and speed (and length: Gould tended not to play the repeats as the music and tradition dictated), his last recording is somehow even more astonishing: slower, deeper, each passage, each note having been considered for decades. It’s much longer, and steeped in what strikes me as intimacy over virtuosity.
These two recordings bracket my coming into existence, in May of 1957, and my coming into my own, in 1981, when I left school and began discovering how I would affect the world around me and how it would affect me.
I took a bit longer than Gould to discover what I really meant by being affected and affecting, experimenting and failing, rejoicing and realizing.
There’s something about those 1955 and 1981 recordings that I discovered late one night, listening at top volume in the dark. Gould, he who insisted on perfection in performance and recording, can be clearly heard in many of the pieces humming along a he played.
In 1955, Elvis Presley recorded much of his music in one take; that was typical at the time, and Gould’s multiple takes were eccentric and expensive.
These days, we’re used to perfection, or the appearance of it — AutoTune, recording magic, lip-syncing. By 1981, multi tracking and multiple takes and splicing was typical — but here’s Gould humming along like you or I would when we hear our favorite songs on the radio or our iPhone.
In 1955, what Gould produced was astonishing, superhuman, and perfect. By 1981, it was him, humming and all. This was Bach not performed by him, but channeled through him. He brought the Variations to me, through him, in a way that stays with me always. I’m listening to them, to him, as I write this.
Glenn Gould died of a sudden stroke, days after he turned 50, having channeled Bach, Canada, and himself briefly and brilliantly…and having greatly affected my life.
I’m not Glenn Gould. I’ve only in the last decade or so come in to being Michael J. Tardiff. I’ve spent the last decade or so helping myself be myself, helped and encouraged and shaping and influenced by so many of you, readers and those who barely remember my name. That same dear friend to whom I wrote that letter long ago once told me she loved attending my presentations, because she sensed that even I didn’t know what I was going to say until I said it. In a sense, then, I was channeling myself, in the presence of others.
I’ve spent the years since Julie’s spot-on assessment trying to reconcile the me that is me with my perception of who I am. And here, on the cusp of ending my sixth decade, I’m beginning to feel that I came into being, first son of Arthur and Dorothy, to channel my self, to shine forth. And in the last decade, that’s been my work, guided and inspired by patient friends and idols and geniuses, but even more so by those who sideswipe my life, passing by a little too fast and a little too close, leaving paint marks on me and taking some of my color along with them as they disappear over the hill.
So here I am, well past the middle way, having spent forty years discovering who and what I am, only to discover that I am a part of all that I have met, and they a part of me. I’ve been asked throughout the years about my aim, my goal, and my answer since my twenties has been the same: to connect, to share, to discover, to learn, to just be…and to be happy. I’d wondered if wanting to be happy was selfish, and it is self-ish. What I haven’t realized until recently is that my connections, my discoveries, my learning, my happiness has a purpose — to affect others, and to effect change towards happiness for others and for all. It seems like an unreachable goal, yet I don’t care: each bit of paint we leave behind makes a bit of a difference, and that difference may be what it takes to make something happen.
You do that, in your own way. I’ve noticed. I’ve benefitted. I’m grateful. I’m who I am because of you.
Help me celebrate. Please give money, time, or anything at all to something that helps other people. Donations, work, things — and to anyone you choose or prefer, from homeless people to needy people to causes or efforts or schools. And make the donation/gift/effort in your name, not mine. Make a mark, a scratch, a dent; leave happiness, betterness, and joy. Please.
And happy birthday.
[For a taste of what makes Glenn Gould so important to the world and me, read his remarkable New York Times obituary.]