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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Thoughts One Day Before Surgery

I should be resting, but I woke up with a drive to write about two things. One is a happy memory and one is sad. Yet I have the energy to write about one thing only, and (if you have been following this blog) you can guess which I will choose.

Sadness is the foundation of who we are. It is the pillar we cling to in times of need. Sadness tells us who we miss and for what we are grateful. Sadness is at the core of humanity. I mean this not this in a depressing way—not at all, and quite the opposite—but rather in a profound way. Happiness is the froth of life, the bubbles on the champagne. Happiness is wonderful to have, but after a lot of soul-searching I don't feel it constitutes a foundation. If life were a sailboat happiness would be the sail and sadness would be the hull.

In this time of my life—where I am about to have a second brain surgery in as many months—I am focussing on stability and not speed. My sails are down.

At least twenty-five years ago I attended the summer camp at Interlochen in northern Michigan three summers in a row. For those who don't know, Interlochen is one of the most renowned arts education destinations in the world, drawing students from every corner of the globe. I had been well-traveled my entire life, but nothing prepared me for the endless variety of students I encountered there. I could write for the rest of my life about Interlochen and never run out of things to say.

Today, I wanted to share my limited encounters with a certain violinist, a boy who played in my orchestra (Interlochen had several for different levels and age groups). I never heard him play by himself, but he sat in the middle of the section which—at Interlochen, with its weekly "challenges"—meant he was not the best but also not the worst. He competed.

The boy was blind.

He had short, straight black hair and did not wear sunglasses to conceal his eyes which had a dull gray color. I didn't know his name, but it amazed me that he learned to play every note from memory each week for two straight months. Occasionally, I would hear a lament from whomever was his "stand partner" that week. (In violin sections, two players share one music stand, making them musical "partners".) The stand partner sometimes didn't like being stuck helping him learn his part for the week, but I suppose that is the kind of thing a fifteen-year-old might not understand.

One time, the conductor asked the orchestra, "Here we have an interesting chord: C, E-flat, G-flat, B-flat. Can anyone tell me what this chord is?"

I was a music theory geek by then and knew it was a half-dimished seventh chord. But I saw the boy's hand shoot up, so I kept mine down.

"Yes?" the conductor asked.

"Diminished," the boy said.

"Very good! Well, actually, it is a half-dimished seventh, but very, very good!" The conductor paused, then said, "Sometimes I see a few of you arriving late. Rushing in after taking too long at breakfast. You have no excuse to be late for rehearsal. But there is one boy in this orchestra who ALWAYS has an excuse to be late, and I will never question if he is late."

The conductor gestured to the boy. It was an awkward moment. (Were we supposed to clap?) The moment passed, and rehearsal continued.

Later in the summer, I stopped to watch the boy attempting ping-pong. (The options for unsupervised recreation were ping-pong, tennis or basketball.) The boy was trying to hit the ping-pong ball based on the sound, and I must say he was doing well. He lost, but he put up a fight. I stood and watched all of this but did not say anything.

When the game was over, his competition asked, "Can I see your eyes?"

"Okay," the boy said.

"Wow, they're all milky. So you can't see at all?"

"I can see light and dark, and some outlines of shadows. They say my eyes are 'non-functioning.'"


Towards the end of the summer, we were taken on a field trip to Point Betsie, about an hour away by bus. Point Betsie was on the Lake Michigan shore and was notable both for its picturesque lighthouse (which we ignored) and its sand dunes. For several hours we ran to the tops of the dunes, jumped off and tumbled down, cushioned along the way by the soft sand. Then we would run back up, stand in line with the other eager boys and jump off again.

At the bottom, I munched on a freshly grilled hot dog, looking down as I splashed my feet in the water. The summer had been a failure for me, I thought. I had set a goal to win enough "challenges" to put me, as a tenth-grader, in the top high school orchestra, aptly named WYSO (World Youth Symphony Orchestra). I never made it, and—to me—the badge of honor that came with being able to say, "Oh yes, [sigh] I play in WYSO," was something I desired more than anything. Suddenly I lifted my head and looked up to the top of the tallest sand dune because I heard a commotion.

The boy was standing on the jump-off point.

The other boys stood around him, helping to get the angle right. Clearly, no one was goading him. He wanted to do this, just the same as anyone else. Once the angle had been agreed upon and without any further prodding, the boy took a fantastically strong leap—as pure a leap of faith as I have ever seen in my life—and he landed about thirty feet below in a thorny bush, having missed his sandy target by a few degrees to the right. The boy was unfazed. He stood, brushed himself off and found his way to the bottom of the dune.

That was the last time I saw him, that incredible jump. Nowadays, every once in a while when I see Olympic diving or ski-jumping I get that feeling deep down I have seen even better.

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