One of the good things about Facebook is that unexpected joys pop up as a result of this cantankerous little time-waster. You can reconnect with old friends, make new ones and see if your ex has gotten fat to boot! (There's also the Minions that the middle age crowd has glommed onto, but that will require extensive psychotherapy and another blog to explain my disgust for those little deranged yellow freaks.)
A recent example: I'm a fan of the New York Philharmonic on FB and I came upon this extraordinary post that they shared yesterday. One of the advantages of being an organization that is so steeped in history, like the New York Phil, is that you amass treasures that lie dormant in your vaults. Case in point - yesterday they shared an entire score they scanned of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 (sometimes nicknamed "The Titan") that was composed between 1887 and 1888. It's an extraordinary work, filled with lush harmonies and sweeping emotion. But, the score they shared isn't just some plain old folio - it has markings by none other than the brilliant composer of West Side Story and world-class conductor, Leonard Bernstein. In colored pencil, Bernstein's careful notes are written, his intelligent dynamic markings and orchestra cues give us a rare look into a genius at work. Bernstein's conducting is something that people are fiercly divided on, as some find his leadership laborious and heavy. I happen to, when he's in his milieu like Haydn, Beethoven and Mahler, adore his intense style of leadership.
This moment got me to thinking, as most things do. Very seldom do we look around us and see the marks of the past that abound in our midst. The work of scientists, artists and thinkers lay before our eyes and we take them for granted. We are so focused on what's ahead that we don't take time to look back in search of positive things. Now, I'm not one to wallow in the past, in fact I despise. Progress and change are a welcome sight and we shouldn't be afraid of them because if you don't analyze the past you're doomed to repeat it. But too many people get stuck in the murk trying to wade through the mistakes they made in what seems to be eons ago. The past has the ability to teach us but also to destroy us.
Another not-so-recent example of my experience with a relic of the past. I must admit, I am a big fan of Richard Nixon. I think he a keen political mind and was incredibly intelligent, but he placed his hope in those around him and, sadly, they collapsed under him. For the past eight or nine years, I was on the search to find the perfect book signed by Nixon to grace my rare book collection. And, just earlier this year, the opportunity presented itself on that simultaneously glorious and abhorrent site, eBay. It was a signed presentation copy of Richard Nixon's book The Real War, personalized to journalist Barbara Walters, with her notes written in the margins. I mean, how much more monumental can you get? I respect both Nixon and Walters greatly and I knew, from the first time I saw it, that it must be mine. And, happily, it is now sitting on my shelf as I write this piece.
Those notes of Barbara Walters in the margins of that book are another example of the hidden footprints of the past that reside just outside of our periphery. The words people leave behind are precious and we should always seek them out and preserve them. The notes of brilliant minds show an unpolished side of the process of a genius, even if there are mistakes and correction. It shows us that even those who were at the top of their fields had a specific process in which they thought and solved problems. To me, these relics are fine art.
One last blast from the past, which I'll leave you with. My mom has a big tub underneath her bed, filled with old mementos of the past. Items that hold personal significance to my mother, my sister and I reside in this box. A few months ago, we decided to drag it out and see what wonders lie within. In addition to all the things we knew were in there, my new favorite find upon this unearthing was a yellowed picture, circa 1974 or so, of my grandmother, Shirley, and her best friend, Vern. These were two gregarious women who loved to eat to excess and live life with a zest and pure enjoyment. My grandmother was a contradiction: sometimes she could be bubbly and outgoing and sometimes she was reserved and chilly. Her friend Vern was a cross between Julia Child and a linebacker for the Chicago Bears. She owned Millie's Pancake Shop in Addison, IL and she ruled her kingdom with an iron fist. Kids sneaking cigarettes and her son and his delinquent friends were dealt with the same disdain and they felt the pain of her monstrous arm on more than one occasion. The thing that both of them enjoyed doing most in the world was eat and they did it with a passion unequaled in the history of culinary escapades. I would try to describe them physically, but I think the photo says it best:
The past fills our life and guides our actions. We are not the people we are now without the people we used to be. We may change and grow, but our old experiences lie in our bones and fill our lungs. Whether the past is Leonard Bernstein, Richard Nixon or Vern Duda, it is there and rich for the taking.
So, why not spend some time strolling down memory lane? As long as you don't dwell too long, I think you'll enjoy the journey.
And have a slice of cake for Shirley and Vern.