Sunday, April 6, 2014

Regrets, I've Had a Few

The linked article from Saturday’s NY Times Arts section recounts a music critic’s choice to donate the cello he has owned for more than half his life but has not played in years. It was a moving summation of transition and regrets that for some reason evoked within me pangs of melancholy, nostalgia  and regret ( 

I regret never having learned to play an instrument (and, as a parent, never having insisted my children take lessons). For a short time in my childhood we had an upright piano in our living room. It was for my sister, Lee. The piano teacher came to our home just often enough for our parents to realize it was a waste of time and money. The ability to bang out “Chopsticks” was not a sound return on investment.

My brother, sister and I never took up another instrument, nor, to my knowledge, did any of our friends. Until, that is, my best friend, Lenny Dorfman, worked one summer as a counselor in a day camp after either his freshman or sophomore year at SUNY Stony Brook. To garner larger tips, Lenny had been counseled that he needed a shtick, something to make his campers distinguish him in the eyes of their parents. So he self-taught himself to play the guitar and, this being the summer of 1967 or 1968, the harmonica, which he propped up in front of his cheeks à la Bob Dylan. 

It was a transformational experience. Lenny had entered Stony Brook to study physics. He graduated a music major. He learned to play piano. He grew an Afro. He performed under the name Len Gary, Gary being his middle name.  He wrote his own songs, though he could barely carry a tune. 

One thing Lenny didn’t want to carry was an Army-issued rifle in Vietnam, so after graduation in 1970 he opted to go to Canada to avoid the draft. He taught music in Windsor, outside Detroit, returning to New York only after a draft evasion amnesty had been extended. Last time I checked he was teaching music on Long Island.

Unlike Lenny, or my children, I regret never having the college dormitory experience. Brooklyn College was a commuter school. Most evenings I ate dinner with my parents. My year in graduate school in Syracuse I spent in a rented apartment, not a dorm. I guess I had enough communal living from 15 years of sleepaway summer camp. 

I regret not living in an apartment in Manhattan.

I regret being too timid to cast myself forward for parts in camp and school musicals. I knew the scores of most Broadway shows, but couldn’t overcome my fear of failing to remember dialogue and embarrassing myself. I was on stage just twice, when I was 13. For a camp talent show I sang “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. Later that summer I was Rusty Charlie in the opening number of Guys and Dolls. I was one of three gamblers in “Fugue for Tinhorns” handicapping horses. My horse showed a lot of class; his great grandfather was Equipoise. Only trouble was, I could never learn to harmonize with the other singers. My Broadway dreams finished out of the money. (By a cruel coincidence, The Times also carried an article Saturday on a one-time benefit concert performance of Guys and Dolls performed last Thursday at Carnegie Hall. The article began with a tribute to "Fugue for Tinhorns.")

No doubt there are other regrets I could share, but that’s enough for this post. Besides, for every regret there’s a counterpoint of triumph. Attending Brooklyn College meant I met and married Gilda. No regrets there.