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Music Man

music-manRecently I stopped by a music store in town to buy banjo strings. I hadn’t been in the store for at least ten years. I remembered it as a hive of kids and grown-ups trying out guitars, pianos, and clarinets, browsing through racks of sheet music and instruction books, going in and out of the back rooms for lessons. This time, it was almost empty—partly the result of the guitar mega-store that had opened on the highway.

The owner himself had also changed. He had slowed, gained a tremor, and lost the steadiness of his speech. The change in him, along with the decline in his business, shook me. I realized that I had expected during those years that he and the store had remained as bustling as they once were, immune from time.

As I left I wondered what the music man’s recent life had felt like. What had been the satisfaction, the worth of it all, as he became ill and his business dropped off? In life, did aspiration and effort always lose out this way to decay?

But such sympathy comes with risks. It can distort our picture of another person, or a group. I knew almost nothing about the music man or his life. For years he had been teaching music to people of all ages, a legacy to be proud of—though whether he was or not I didn’t know. And he had music itself as a source of joy, presumably. Compassion can overgeneralize. Perhaps there were many ordinary satisfactions that sustained him. Perhaps there were none. I just didn’t know.

Still, I couldn’t put down the question that the music man had handed me: what is the value, the worth, of our lives if they always end in decline? Our inner voice tells us that we matter. Do we? We may have our protective attitudes; I certainly have mine. But these can be rocked when we come face to face with someone who has weakened from disease or the passage of time.

There is another “Music Man.” The 1950s stage musical of that name describes a charming con man, Harold Hill, who arrives in an Iowa town to sell musical instruments and uniforms to the kids, promising he will teach them to play and will organize a band. Hill and the town librarian fall in love. She knows he is a fraud but keeps it to herself. Hill is finally exposed and is being put in handcuffs just as the instruments and uniforms arrive. The children appear in their uniforms, magically playing Beethoven and then the rousing finale of “Seventy-Six Trombones.” All ends well.

The  poster for “The Music Man” shows the smiling couple flying skyward, arm in arm, Hill playing a trumpet. The musical is a romanticized Christian answer to the dilemma of frailty and decline. The sinner is redeemed by love, death is defeated by grace. But I prefer the lesson I learned in the music man’s store.


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  1. Brock, this is an interesting post and the questions you raise are well worth pondering. As a person in my sixties whose body is becoming something of a daily ache fest, I feel I can say a word about this. First, though, I want to comment on your line “the sinner is redeemed by love,” which you posit as a Christian answer. In Christianity a person is redeemed by God’s love. The idea that people can be redeemed by romantic love is a secular idea that has its roots in medieval chivalry. In an odd way, though, it may have become the true religion of the Western World. It is certainly the central theme of our literature. Romantic love can be a wonderful thing, but it is also a rather fickle thing.

    Being redeemed by “God’s love” is perhaps a more interesting idea. If we conceive of God as something like a bigger than life person and God’s love as something like a father’s (or mother’s) love for a child, it is kind of an attractive, sentimental idea, even if also rather ridiculous.

    But “God’s love” is not just an idea for people, it is an experience. It is an experience of something greater than our individual self that is at the foundation of our self — something that stays constant amid all the change. The experience that the Christian’s call “God’s love,” I call “immersion in the Tao.” Immersed in the Tao, I do not experience my life as an aging, aching senior citizen, I experience it as a constant spring – an up-pouring of ever refreshed waters of life.
    This is what all the great spiritual traditions say – there is more to you than you think – thou are That. As Emerson wrote in his essay Nature, “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.” For the word God, we can substitute Tao, Buddhanature, the Great Mother, the Process of Nature, or any other term we wish.

    Or from a naturalistic point of view, we can recognize that what we call our ego or self is the result of a complex neural mechanism. That neural mechanism is part of a much larger mechanism, the nervous system, which in turn is part of a larger system, the body, which in turn is part of a larger system, the biosphere, which is part of the earth, which is part of the galaxy, which is part of the cosmos, which is part of “?” – the Great Mystery of Being. Thou art That.

    For those older people who have learned to float on the “currents of the Universal Being,” the loses and pains of aging are greeted like old friends. It means we are still alive and able to enjoy the ride. Hopefully your music man knows something of all that.

    • Thomas, thank you for filling out the varieties of the somethings-larger that can help us make sense of decay. Remembering back to the music man over earlier years, I have a faint sense that he was a practicing Christian, and maybe this helped him. For me, the something-larger that I feel a part of is the long flow of life on earth, where everything is born, grows, declines and dies, including me. I can make some peace with that but not, as you can, as yet, greet losses as old friends. But I think the important message is for people to cherish the something-larger itself under whatever name, in whatever specificity they can grasp it. Thanks again.

  2. I don’t get it.

    • Hi, Jack. What didn’t you get? The theme of the article?

      I would call it “living in the now”. In a more Buddhist sense, that comes out of accepting the impermanence of life and enjoying life in that larger context.

      • That’s the gist of it. Jack, feel free to ask questions. What part puzzled you the most?


        • One perspective I think fits into your article on this comes out of a systems philosophy, too that considers the first law of thermodynamics of “heat loss” or entropy that’s inherent in any system. The fact that something pushes the other direction, that Gregory Bateson calls negative entropy / “negatropy” or information, I believe in “Mind and Nature: A Necessariy Unity”. Just an interesting way of looking at this all involving why any order exists at all when it seems like everything seems to moves towards disorder. It’s entirely possible I misunderstood this, too. Maybe. 😉

          • I just found this article that summarizes about what I remember, so maybe I didn’t completely misunderstand reading him.

          • I looked over the article and can follow it only generally, but thanks for sending it along and maybe some others who are more familiar with the topic will read it.

          • I’m not really trying to find out if my interpretation of Systems theory is correct, Brock, just putting it out there. Being a little self-deprecating in the process. 😉

  3. “immune from time”. That is one advantage that Harold Hill has over your music man (as long as we have the electricity and the equipment to play that movie, that is).

    Reminds me of another movie we will all be watching again soon: Its a Wonderful Life.

    Hope your music man, and all of us, can keep in our minds the positive effects our existence has had on so many others.

    • Amen to your last thought, Charlie. Thanks for the note.

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