At a certain point in my musical career, after a weekend spent running between a salsa gig in the South Bronx, a brass quintet gig in Midtown, and rehearsals for some weirdo avante-garde puppet thing Downtown, I was feeling satisfied at how differently I'd played in all these places (as I did in the dozens of wildly diverse scenes of which I was a recognized part). I acted differently, too. And talked differently. A typical freelance New York City musician, I was the ultimate chameleon (but I didn't think about this very often; I was too busy doing it).
When my weekend was over, I hightailed it over to the Skylark Lounge out by JFK airport, a black bar where men wore hats with feathers, to sit in, just for kicks, with one of my all-time favorite jazz drummers (and friends) Walter "Baby Sweets" Perkins, who performed there with his trio. Around 2 a.m., while we took a break (and he practiced paradiddles on his practice pad in the back room), Walter asked me what I'd been up to. I recounted my weekend wryly, ala Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Walter listened, then looked up slyly. He asked me if this was just another stop on my ride. My eyes widened and I gasped in horror. "Walter, this is home!" I exclaimed.
And I meant it. However, I had to privately acknowledge that the South Bronx salsa gig was also home. As was the chamber music gig, and the avante garde thingamajib. There were many stops on my ride, none of them not "home". "I'm like a whore," I remember thinking to myself more than once in dark moods, "who really believes it."
My promiscuity extended to other parts of my life, as well. The fortieth or so time a Peruvian or Cantonese waiter praised my evident deep love and feeling for their cuisine, I glowed in the acceptance, while some part of me felt intense shame, knowing I'd soon (often in a matter of minutes) be expressing native-like deep love for any of dozens of other cuisines. I felt like I was forever kissing a wife goodbye as I went off to one of my dozens of other secret families. No disingenuousness, though. The kiss was fervent, heartfelt, and offered without the slightest self-consciousness of my larger-picture situation.
I couldn't reconcile the two drives: my dissatisfaction with anything less than a feeling of deep connection to whatever I was involved with, in contrast with my immense fickleness. At one point, I was known as a "regular" in over 100 restaurants. "Oh, Jim comes here all the time; we're his favorite place!" They had no idea! Yet, paradoxically, they were all quite right. I saw the paradox, but couldn't explain it.
Same with many other aspects of my life. To this day, no one knows all of it. I'm not sure even I do. I'm so sincerely dedicated to the current thing - as if it were the only thing! - that the rest falls away. Never once have I rubbed my hands together smugly at the thought of my many waiting lovers (this is all metaphorical, as I've always been strangely monogamous with girlfriends). I'm just playing - by which I don't mean dabbling, I mean the sort of absorbed play children engage in. I don't pull back the camera for long views to self-consciously assess. Long views are never beneficial. That's what grown-ups do. What's happening now is what's real.
The promiscuity is seen on a subtler level, too. I can adopt and act from a number of perspectives and voices, and feel absolutely sincere in all of them. Each time, I feel like I've found the innermost one; my actual "home". I believe myself so deeply each time that I've periodically worried whether I'm a psychopath.
And perhaps I am, some weird sort of do-gooder, highly empathic psychopath. To me, though, I feel that I've been in an endless search for what I'd hoped the world would be; the small outcroppings of quality and clever creativity, the fleeting bursts of joy among the grimness, the Easter eggs of creation. They're too diffuse in any one realm, so I keep moving. Like a scramjet engine scooping up oxygen molecules through its huge intakes, relying on sheer speed to harvest sufficient quantities of sparse fuel, I've spread out to many cul-de-sacs in the maze, gleefully absorbing power-ups just as my exuberance begins to wane. I'm like an animal who needs vast habitat to support itself. It's a pain, frankly.
Yet I'm not radically different from people who take a narrower approach; who settle in and become experts in Sichuan food, or who only play 1930's swing jazz, or who go every day to the same restaurant, bar, or cafe. People who've only worked one job in their one specialty, and who have one dream, one big idea, one religion, one philosophy, one credo.
I could easily have gone that way. When I first discovered Jackson Heights, ate my first Colombian plato montañero, and fell in love, my ardor quickly mushrooming into the resolution to experience and master the many, many other cuisines represented under the el of Roosevelt Avenue, I could just as easily have stuck with Colombian. I could, to this day, be listening only to cumbia music, reading only Colombian literature, and hosting a proud web portal for "All Things Colombian". I could be less of a mercenary, a whore. I could have stopped right there and then.
But I didn't. I'd love to say I kept going because I wanted to grow and learn and experience, but I could have done all those things within the borders of Colombian culture. I might say it was an overarching desire to experience the whole world, but you can't eat the whole world, that's just a narrative. You can only eat what's in front of you right this minute. We are small beings, living moment-by-moment, like raindrops descending a window. Any grand narrative we assign ourselves is strictly a graft-on (hence my disdain for long-views and camera pull-backs). Life doesn't work that way. We're not grand.
It was only the tiniest thing that diverted me from that path: I was too oblivious to recognize a limitation. It had never occurred to me, keeping my head down, that loving, believing in, and identifying with A meant not loving, believing in, and identifying with B. And so I became benignly and unselfconsciously promiscuous. And it wasn't until years later, when I occasionally caught myself in the mirror fervently kissing one lover goodbye en route to another, that I noticed I'd stumbled beyond boundaries.
It's no harder to go broad than to go deep. But it's also possible to go broad and deep. I think it's a matter of sincerity, fervency, and obliviousness.
As I wrote here:
Life consists of a series of revisitations to tired cliches, certain with each new pass that we now really understand them. And so it is with Edison's "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration." That quotation used to conjure up images of wild-eyed fanatics banging hammers in garages in the middle of the night. But it's just a matter of normal people blithely but indefatigably putting out. The Colorado River, etcher of the Grand Canyon, is just some shitty little river.
The best among us are shitty little rivers. To me, that's what Edison was saying.
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