There was a time in my life when my birthday meant gifts, a party, special food, a cake, and hopefully some fun.
Now? I don’t need gifts, parties don’t seem as important as they once did, and I’ve limited my diet to the point that I can eliminate at least 80 to 90% of whatever is on a restaurant menu before I even look at it. Cake? I’d rather have some dark chocolate and maybe a spoonful of peanut butter.
Fun? Fun?? My wife and friends will tell you that I don’t believe in the concept of fun.
These days I view my birthday as a time to reflect. To take stock. To think about the past, and plan for the future—a future that has a very different tone and texture that it did in past years.
So when my birthday arrived last week, I didn’t spend any time celebrating. This is not to say that I did not appreciate the many kind emails, phone calls, and Facebook greetings that came my way. I did.
But what I mostly did on my birthday and the few days preceding and following it was to reflect.
Self-reflection is an activity that some might view as self-indulgent. But I think it’s probably a more acceptable behavior if done on your birthday. If you walk into a restaurant and the hostess says she’ll be right with you, I recommend that you smile and tell her it’s your birthday. It’s a game-changer.
My good friend Will Adams tells me that when his young co-workers ask what he did on his birthday, he always tells them that he mostly sat quietly, thought, and reflected on his life. This brings wide-eyed responses of awe—particularly, he says, from the young women.
But me? Given the choice of awed responses from young women in the office or remaining retired, I choose the latter. Awe is overrated, anyway.
So, on to reflections.
I love to hear something described as, “It’s both a blessing and a curse.” This wonderful phrase can describe much of what life brings, including life itself. Marriage. Children. Education. Work. Money. Home. Religion. Love. Sunshine. Rain. You name it. It’s a blessing and a curse, all of it.
Although I spent 37 years in another profession, many people know me as a musician and composer. That’s how I view myself. (What about the 37 year career, you might ask? The purpose of that was to allow me to lead a middle-class life and help send my children to college. Mission accomplished. I know I did some good along the way.)
But talent? Music, art, dance, drama? Sports? Show business? Talent will bury you alive, and it’ll bury you when you’re dead. Trust me. There are some talented people, I’m sure, who are truly happy and content at the end of their careers. Sinatra might have said that he did it his way. But for every Sinatra, there’s a Robin Williams.
And once you’re in the game, it’s snared you. You can’t let it go, try as you may. It brings you to higher heights and lower depths than anyone can imagine. Simply said, living a life in the arts is a blessing and a curse.
Me? I’m no Sinatra or Robin Williams, or Cole Porter, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, or anyone of that caliber. And if you know the biographies of many such great talents, you know how they lived and died, their lives full of blessings and curses.
So, what can one hope for? What can I hope for—me, a relatively well-preserved man with some semblance of musical talent, as I approach the road to 70?
Here’s where gratitude comes in. I am blessed with a good wife, Sharon, who has tolerated me for over 34 years. Even my mother did not have to put up with me for that long.
I was certainly blessed with good parents, Michael and Pearl, who provided me with a solid suburban (middle-class) upbringing, a Jewish home, and the benefits of education that allow me even now to realize just how much I don’t and can never know.
I am blessed with two children, Marna and Adam, each married, independent, and pursuing their own lives (with children of their own), each generally prepared to deal with the blessings and curses that life throws his or her way.
I am blessed with musical friends and colleagues who enjoy performing music we love. (If you haven’t come to hear Catherine deCuir and the Bob Schoen Trio perform at one of our regular gigs, well, why the hell not?)
I am blessed with a wonderful sister, Eve, and other family members, friends, acquaintances, thousands of former patients (from my 37-year former life), rabbis and teachers past and present, and a few mentors (may their memory be a blessing), all of whom helped make me what I am today.
And finally, I have been blessed with three remarkable cantors who have created and lighted a path for me to follow as I developed as a musician and Jewish composer.
Little did I know that Hazzan Charles Davidson, whose first job out of the seminary was cantor at the newly-formed Wantagh Jewish Center and who trained me for my bar mitzvah, would go on to become a luminary in the world of Jewish music, composition, and scholarship?
As an adult, I had the pleasure of being in a congregation that featured Cantor Cory Winter, a protégé of composer Max Janowski. Cory was the first cantor I’d met who introduced complex jazz voicings into the service; that certainly caught my attention! I thoroughly enjoyed the few years he was cantor at Beth El in Berkeley.
But to Cantor Ilene Keys at Temple Sinai in Oakland, I owe my greatest offering of gratitude. I remember one morning, when I—a freshly-minted, 59 year-old graduate in music composition from California State University—sat at her desk and said, “Cantor, you know, maybe I could write something for you and the choir. What do you think?” She did not hesitate as she gave me the gift of what turned out to be a commission to set Psalm 118 for choir, organ, and soprano soloist. That was the beginning. Since that time I have set 20 more Psalms for voice and composed several more songs for the cantor and choir. And when I later approached her with the idea to compose a Friday night Shabbat service using traditional Hebrew text set to all new Bossa Nova melodies, she did not hesitate. Two years later, Bossa Shabbat was premiered to a capacity Temple Sinai Friday night congregation. Ilene’s enthusiasm and love of music fills every room she walks into. She is indeed a blessing to me and all who know her. I am constantly amazed at all she does.
Thus, I lead a life full of blessings.
That said, do I not have major and minor issues? Do I not have problems, complaints, grumblings, health concerns, stress, and a multitude of worries? Do I not constantly wish that my music was performed on a regular basis? Of course I do; ask anyone who knows me.
But as I reflected on my birthday—and continue to reflect every morning I wake up alive (often at 2:00 or 3:00 am, but that’s another story), the blessings outweigh the curses.
And that’s a good thing.