This morning, when I returned from playing tennis, I mustered up the energy to take a shower and officially start my day. What is it about when I’m all sweaty and exhausted, and the beautiful stream of warm water cascades down my body? At once I feel rejuvenated and as if I am in my mother’s womb. Everything beyond the shower curtain is far, far away. I am deep in thought.
40 years ago, I was taking a trumpet lesson with Jimmy Maxwell, and he had a little black box on the table next to him. He told me that it was an ionizer, and that it replaced the ions in the air that were removed by all the electronics in the room and beyond. I read up on this. It seems that rushing water sheds huge amounts of free ions into the air. Those ions invigorate us and help us to think clearly. Niagara Falls is one of the greatest natural producers of ions on earth. In fact the Indian name “Niagara” means land of great thought. So, on a smaller scale, standing under the faucet in my shower is clearing my head and helping me to think.
I often remember dreams from the previous night during my morning shower. Sometimes I figure out solutions to pieces of music that I am writing. It just happens spontaneously as I soap, shampoo and rinse. I’m not forcing anything. It’s spontaneous. Today, out of nowhere, I remembered a terrifying moment from my teenage years—something I haven’t thought about since it happened.
From the age of 13 through 17 I went to summer camp in upstate New York near the Ashokan Reservoir, which supplies water for New York City. The reservoir is huge. It’s against the law to swim in it, but you can row boats and canoe. One day when I was 15, the boys in our cabin rowed our boats to the other side of the reservoir and then proceeded to walk to a nearby town. I can’t remember if it was Boiceville or Phoenicia—one of those towns. I think it was Boiceville. They had a pizza parlor.
We walked alongside the railroad tracks. After a while we got to a spot where the tracks continued for about 50 feet across a great chasm that was hundreds of feet down to the bottom. The ground ended right there. There was nowhere to walk except on the wooden ties that supported the rails. That was it—just rails and ties. Nothing to hold onto.
I took one look at this and prepared to turn around. One of the other guys put his ear to the rail, and told us that there were no trains coming. Not that we didn’t believe him, but we all listened for ourselves. We couldn’t hear anything, so it seemed reasonable to think that no train would be coming anytime soon. At this point the others started walking from tie to tie across the divide. There was about a foot of air between each of the ties. Being afraid of heights, I felt sick to my stomach and could feel my legs quivering. They all yelled back at me, “C’mon.” They saw my panic. “Just don’t look down,” they said. I understood that if those ties were sitting on the ground, I could walk across them 100 times without missing, but knowing that if I screwed up in any way, there would be an awful mess to clean up 200 feet below. My mother hated messes. I don’t know how I did it, but I made it to the other side. The rest of the trip was uneventful. Somehow, I recovered enough to eat a couple of slices of pizza. But then, I realized that going back to camp would be the same ordeal.
Honestly, I can’t recall if we went back the same way, or if I convinced them that we needed to find a different route. Just remembering this story in the shower and telling this story on my trusty iMac brings back all those feelings in my stomach and legs.
This is the sort of risk-taking that kids will do. No sane adult would do such a thing without the aid of copious amounts of alcohol or hallucinogens. When you are young, you can’t see around corners. Things don’t look as risky as they are. Or maybe (I read an article once about this), kids are willing to risk more than adults. If an adult sees that there is a 2% chance of getting killed, most likely he/she will say, “Forget it—too risky.” But 98-2 are pretty good odds. I’d bet every dime I have on odds like that in a poker game. But I won’t parachute out of an airplane. Too risky.
I think this willingness to take risks is attractive. At least, when I was younger, I was attracted to women who took all kinds of risks. I also admired men who took risks. Being a good athlete involves risk taking. You throw your body around and see if it doesn’t break. Sometimes it does. I’ve had my share of broken bones from sports. It goes with the territory.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the Yankees brought up one of their top prospects from AAA and put him in right field for his first game in the majors. Almost immediately, one of the batters on the other team hit a fly to right. The kid ran like a bat out of hell after it. The ball went foul and landed in the second or third row of the stands, just out the reach of the kid. He neglected to slow down as he got near the short wall and fell into the stands just as his knee hit a hard surface lower down on the wall. He got himself up out of the stands and then crumpled to the ground before being carried off the field. He completely messed up the cartilage of his knee and will need an operation and a year to recover.
The poor kid never even got up to the plate. I’ve seen players get injured in games before, but this one really shocked everyone—the fans, the players, the coaches, the umpires and managers. You’d think that the older guys would have seen stuff like this hundreds of times, but this one really got to them. The combination of him going full speed and that this was his first game—those are big parts of it, but I think that he was such a young kid. Recently, when Jacoby Ellsbury ran into the wall in centerfield and got a concussion, it was no big deal. But this kid shocked us all. It was sickening to watch. We think that youth is invincible. It’s not. To top it off, yesterday, the Yankees traded him away to another team. He never got to bat in pinstripes.
We live in a youth culture. It’s not just athletes. It’s movie stars, pop stars, models, and anyone without wrinkles and grey hair. When I was young, the saying was, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Now it’s, “Don’t pay attention to anyone over 30.” In the arts and show biz, youth is everything. In politics, not so much, and look at how screwed up our government is. I wouldn’t entrust the country to a bunch of 20-somethings, but honestly, could they do any worse than the bunch in there now?
I wish that I appreciated my youth more while I was living it. I hadn’t yet learned that it’s not the destination that makes life sweet, it’s the ride getting there. The combination of insecurity (would I ever get to my goals) and self-criticism (I magnified all my flaws and shortcomings) kept me from looking around and seeing that I had the wonderful experience of playing music with my heroes and very talented contemporaries on the way up. It never occurred to me that any of them would die. Now that most of them are no longer around, I miss them. I feel cheated. I was unprepared. When you are young, you don’t think you will ever die. In fact, I didn’t think anyone else would die either
When Benny Goodman died, my trumpet teacher and guru, Jimmy Maxwell, told me that he regretted never having thanked Benny for teaching him to be a lead trumpet player. When Gerry Mulligan got sick, I wrote Gerry a letter thanking him for the profound musical effect he had on me. Then when Maxwell started to fade, I sent him a long letter.
About 20 years ago, my father had a couple of small strokes that left him unable to speak. He still understood everything, but he had slowed down. He needed a quadruple bypass, so I flew down to Florida a couple of days before the operation. My mom left me alone with him for 2 hours the night before he was to go under the knife. I knew that he couldn’t speak, so here was my opportunity to say all the things that I had been storing up for nearly 50 years.
Sure, he said and did a pile of pretty terrible things to us as kids, but that night I couldn’t think of one of them. I told him that the best day of my childhood was when I was 7, and he took me to Ebbets Field to see our beloved Brooklyn Dodgers play the Cincinnati Reds. The green expanse of grass and the beautiful young athletes 20 feet away from us was overwhelming. Half way through the game, my favorite player, Duke Snider, booted a ball in centerfield, and then the Reds’ hot new rookie, Frank Robinson, hit a homerun out of the park and across the street. The Dodgers lost that day, but I was never happier. Ever. It wasn’t just that I loved baseball and the Dodgers. It was that I got to share it with the man who taught me the world. He wasn’t always right, but he did the best he could. That means a lot. Plus he got some very important things right that have made me who I am.
So, I thanked him for two solid hours. Tears were streaming down my face while he listened intently. The nurse came in and told me not to upset him—he needed to think positively going into the operation. I told her to go away. I wasn’t upsetting him. This wasn’t about my fearing that he would die, although, somehow I sensed that this was probably my last chance to connect with him. As it turned out, he came out of the operation just fine, except for one thing—he slipped into senility. He lived five more years not knowing who I was.