What Have I Done?

For my upcoming 50th reunion at Lakewood High School, I was asked to summarize my life. What have I done? Who was I? What I would say now would not be what I would have said ten years after graduation. At 28, there were goals, dreams, possibility. At 68, reflection, realization, assessment. Thing done, not done. Happiness, disappointment. What I could not anticipate, what I could. Dreams fulfilled or foreclosed. At 68, goals are necessarily different than they were at 18. We speak of last things, not first ones.

“When you grow to be twenty-eight,” Charlotte Pressler, vocalist for the Cleveland band, Pere Ubu, writes, “and realize that you have been living a certain way for ten years now, and that you are likely to go on living this way for the rest of your life, because you can no longer imagine what it is like to live any other way, you naturally begin to ask yourself how this happened.”

The seminal band for Pressler during those early years in Cleveland between 1968 and 1975, was The Velvet Underground – the La Cave house band Pressler recalls – and, in particular, Lou Reed. “Reed’s guitar had shown [us] what music could be.” The music went against the grain. When an early manifestation of Pere Ubu played at teen dances at the Lakewood YMCA, it insisted kids could dance to their music. “The Lakewood teens,” Pressler notes, “repl[ied]with their feet they could play it all they liked; they didn’t have to listen.”

Such moments are decisive. If we have a dream, a goal or vision, we perfect it and take it to others. If others like it, we go home and continue to follow and perfect it. If they don’t, we have to decide whether to continue to follow our vision or find out what others like. How do we respond when we are silenced?

One of the albums Pressler may have heard in the time Lou Reed played at La Cave was “Berlin,” which was universally condemned as pretentious and overwrought when it came out in 1973. This December, Reed resurrected it 33 years later at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. It now could be heard, and those present not only understood it in a way they could not have in 1973, but also saw how much of a piece his music has been from the beginning. Reed put his ear to the tracks and heard the train we finally saw. (Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, published in 1851, was not read and understood until after World War I.)

“Berlin represents,” Maurice Blanchot writes, “the problem of division – of fracture – as Berlin poses it not only to Berliners, not only to Germans, but, I believe, to every thinking human being.” Blanchot is writing of the time Berlin was a city divided by a wall between East and West, what that problem posed in particular, i.e., in Berlin, but also how the problem of division – fracture -- divides us. We live with division. Lakewood is a divided city. I always knew where the Wall was. We are also torn, live with fissures inside ourselves. I know where the cracks are. Ich Bin der Berliner Kennedy said at the Berlin Wall. We are all Berliners facing our walls

Fifty years on, we take our measure. Did we put our ear to the tracks – hear the sounds only we could hear, knowing we could make others hear – and keep it there? Did we say yes when we should have said no? Did we pound our head against the wall of our limitations, or give it up? I will only say I was not 20 until I was 30. Not that I’m still catching up. Just that the order of things got tilted.
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Volume 3, Issue 1, Posted 11:11 PM, 12.26.06