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March 2012

Finding the Palace Beautiful

March 18, 2012 12:47

I'm in the middle of reading a book about Introversion, called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that can't stop talking, by Susan Cain. I'm also in the middle of re-reading Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. It's always been normal for me to be reading several books at once, and the problem seems to have just gotten worse since I got a Nook last Christmas. Although in my defense, I'm reading Little Women to my daughter, aloud at night before bed. It's something we started when she was a baby and still do now that she is 12. I don't know how much longer it will last, probably not into high school, but I still treasure this time.

By chance, I saw on Facebook that a friend of mine is also reading Little Women. To herself, not to her daughter. My friend's first name is Amy, and she was named for Amy March, the youngest sister in the book. She was involved in a St. Patrick's Day project to shave her head for the St. Baldrick's Foundation, a foundation that raises money to help kids with childhood cancers. I immediately thought of Jo March, who sold her hair, her "one beauty," to a wig maker to help her mother pay for a ticket to Washington to care for her injured husband. My friend Amy, whose beautiful long blond hair is now also being made into a wig--for a child with cancer--has more than one beauty. Nonetheless, our conversation on Facebook turned to Jo. Even though she's named for a different character, Amy's favorite is Jo. The Director of Religious Education at my church loves Jo too, and has written academic papers on her. Jo is also my daughter's favorite. And when my daughter asked me who my favorite was, even I pointed out that there was something pretty cool about moving to New York and meeting and marrying a German guy (which is what I did myself 15 years ago). These days I think it's almost impossible to be a bookish girl of a certain age (or almost any age) and not admire Jo. Modeled on her creator, Louisa May Alcott, Jo became a wildly successful author in a time when most women did not have careers outside the home. And, at least in the book, she appears to have had fun doing it. Louisa in fact supported her own family for many years through her writing.

But upon re-reading a book that I last read about 30 years ago or more, I'm stumbling on some uncomfortable truths. I remember now that it took me a few tries to get through that book at all, when I was a kid. The tone is a little too preachy, and everybody--even the supposedly flawed and temperamental Jo--is a little too sweet and perfect.

What's most remarkable to me, though, is that while as an adult, I admire Jo and consider her an interesting and appropriate role model for my own spirited daughter, I'm remembering now that when I first read the book, my favorite character, the one I identified with the most, was not Jo at all. It was Beth. Quiet, introverted Beth--even then, an outlier in a world that couldn't stop talking. Jo, by contrast, was a little scary, and the opposite of me: she was jolly, and extroverted, and talked to boys easily.

Many days I envied Beth that she was allowed to be homeschooled. I liked that she petted and favored and was comforted by a beat-up old doll. More than anything, though, what I liked about Beth was that she was a musician, a pianist who played for herself, her family members, and her friends. Mr. Lawrence, her wealthy next-door neighbor, let her play their fancy grand piano every afternoon, when she thought no one else was around, or listening. Beth reminds Mr. Lawrence of his beloved granddaughter, who also played the piano and passed away while still a child.

There has been some scholarship on Beth. One commentator points out that Beth is a version of a 19th century stock character, the "Angel in the House," a character that Virginia Woolf wrote had to be killed in order for women artists to assert their creative independence. Louisa, by having Beth die in the second half of Little Women, appears to have largely agreed, perhaps foreshadowing Woolf. I never quite forgave Louisa for killing off Beth. Why not let her grow up and become a beloved piano teacher, lavishing all the love and care on her students that she lavished on her dolls? I took Beth's death a little personally. I never looked at the book quite the same way again.

The commentators are right in one way, at least: society doesn't seem to know what to do with introverts. It's certainly viewed as a tidier and more dramatic story if the quiet ones are pushed off the literary stage one way or another, leaving the real, interesting business of literature to those who heroically take risks and self-actualize. From reading Cain's book, it appears not much has changed, in literature or anywhere else. If anything, the pro-extrovert bias has gotten stronger in the 20th and 21st centuries. In situations from school, to work, to church, people are exhorted to "put themselves out there" and work collaboratively in large groups. Introverts are called anti-social, shamed, and weeded out in job interviews by misapplied Myers-Briggs tests.

Reading Cain's book, I, like many others, felt a shock of recognition. I almost felt like I could have written the book myself. In particular, it described virtually my entire early career on the violin: dislike of performing, not wanting people to hear me play--a desire, like Beth, to play music alone or only for people I knew rather than strangers. And the subsequent shame and feeling of being defective since I didn't fit society's “Extrovert Ideal — the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.”

But I didn't write the book, and in my relief at having my basic introversion validated in print, at first I missed an important part of Cain's thesis: that introverts and extroverts complement, and need each other. What's out of balance in modern times is that the extrovert ideal is taking up too much space. Rather than merely saying defensively that introverts are too just as good as extroverts, Cain makes the case that introversion, with its allowance for and consideration of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, provides a much-needed check on overreaching. Cain points out that throughout history there has always been an important creative tension between thought and action, between the philosopher and the king. She highlights the working relationship between introverted Rosa Parks and extroverted Martin Luther King Jr. as a particularly meaningful partnership in the civil rights movement. Introverts, with their tendency to look before they leap, are less likely to make bad investment decisions, and are more likely to be able to see and avert impending disasters. In fact, Jo March knew this too. Jo describes Beth as "her conscience" and has a special, close relationship with her of mutual respect.

A particularly important and damaging myth that Cain takes on in her book is the perception that introverts are anti-social or don't care about others. She provides many examples of introverts rising to the occasion and creating something meaningful in a relationship: a beloved college professor who has touched many of his students' lives but lives a solitary life with his wife and wants to be off when he's off, Rosa Parks, and a young lawyer who manages to negotiate a deal with a particularly difficult and egotistical client. And she also makes the case that introverted artists with their self-awareness and sensitivity can make great performers if they choose to, and if their gifts aren't squelched by damaging labels applied to their personalities.

In Little Women, at the end of the chapter, "Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful," Jo suggests, as a joke, that Beth go over and thank Mr. Lawrence for his kindnesses. To everyone's surprise and delight, Beth too rises to the occasion.

"she went and knocked at the study door before she gave herself time to think, and when a gruff voice called out, come in! she did go in, right up to Mr. Laurence, who looked quite taken aback, and held out her hand, saying, with only a small quaver in her voice, I came to thank you, sir, for. . . But she didn't finish, for he looked so friendly that she forgot her speech and, only remembering that he had lost the little girl he loved, she put both arms round his neck and kissed him . . . Beth ceased to fear him from that moment, and sat there talking to him as cozily as if she had known him all her life, for love casts out fear, and gratitude can conquer pride."

I hope that now, in the 21st century, for Jo to succeed, Beth no longer has to die. Both Beth and Jo deserve better.

20 replies

Musical Fables and Folktales

March 1, 2012 08:53

The first concert I ever performed with the Arlington Philharmonic, in 2008, was that year's Family Concert. Every year at the Family Concert we have a young soloist, the winner of the year's Young Artist's Competition under-18 division. This year's soloist turned 12 between the first and second rehearsals.

For the first time since I've been there, the competition winner played a piece I have actually played myself, although not performed, Saent-Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. I was learning that piece during the year I lived in Germany between high school and college. I lived in a 3rd floor bedroom, where I practiced, sometimes looking out the window as I did so, over the neighborhood and the little fenced-in yards. Although I didn't look at it that way at the time, I have to agree that the piece is, as even our wonderful conductor said, "arrogant." Back then I had a recording--on vinyl--of Heifetz playing it, that I listened to. He takes the last page lickety-split. I could never match his tempo, but our soloist does, without even breaking a sweat. I would, later upon returning to the US, have a disastrous audition playing that piece, an experience that led me to put the violin virtually out of sight and out of mind for a while, an experience that cast a pall over the beginning of my freshman year, an Icarus-like experience of arrogantly flying too close to the sun, and then crashing. But here, sitting in the orchestra, with that particular burden of soloistic perfection on someone else, I'm back in Berlin, just listening. My favorite part has always been the Introduction, the part that you don't need to take lickety-split. It brings to mind the warm spring evenings as I looked out into the twilight while I practiced.

I don't know how long the Family Concert has been scheduled for the second Sunday of school vacation week, but since the orchestra has been around for 78 years, it's possible that it's been 78 years. That first year I was a member I was driving back from visiting my parents near Buffalo, NY. I left at 5 am and made it with time to spare for a 3 pm concert.

I visited my parents for this year's vacation, too, but came back in a more sane time window: in time for the dress rehearsal on Wednesday. And I left at 10 am, not 5. That morning, in the rush to get going, I cut my left middle finger while using a knife to cut a bagel on a cutting board. That brought to mind a story I read on, about Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who had an almost career-ending accident while cutting something on a cutting board. Fortunately, I just missed the finger pad and the wound is superficial. I wind a band-aid around my finger, and, as I drive, I drum the fingers of my left hand against the steering wheel in violin-fingering patterns. It doesn't hurt. I'll be able to play.

That night at the rehearsal I drove 8 hours to get to, I get into an argument with a friend about page turning. She is right, the page turns in one place during the Saint-Saens are too loud, and distracting. But the way she expresses herself leaves a lot to be desired. "It's your job!" she yells at me. "You need to say something. You need to fix it!" She's in her 80's, a long-time member of the orchestra, someone who could tell you a million stories (and who sometimes does) about soloing as a teenager, about playing with the Boston Pops. She knows my violin teacher and played with her in another local symphony many years ago. Later, before the concert, we will hug and make up and walk on stage as friends. But right now, she's just here haranguing me about a page turn. I have a headache and I'm not really processing what she's saying. I want the princess' calm. Even more, I want a nap:

Like a good orchestra member and volunteer, I put up these posters at work and around town. This one is beautiful as always, but there is something about the princess. For one thing, she's kind of mature. For another, her hair seems too contained. It's short and it's not unruly. I keep looking at her, ostensibly sleeping her way through eternity, in the elevator, in the store window, on the Philharmonic Society's Facebook page (which I am in charge of). Then there are those discussions about concert publicity we have at board meetings: "Do we need to keep sending out flyers by US mail?" According to the survey we did last year, our audience demographic is skewed toward females over 65, many of whom still read newspapers and other print media. I am asked, "How's the Facebook page doing?" It turns out that some people didn't even know we had a Facebook page. I dutifully send around another group email announcement, and am gratified to see the "likes" climb over 100. There are online bulletin boards to be posted to, little local newspapers, community media centers. We made the list of "Family Fun things to do in Boston," metrowest suburbs. (I know, I got the email.) The princess, well, she just sleeps through it all.

On the concert day, I notice, again maybe for the first time, that I'm not the only one who is anxious. Our conductor, an utterly charming man with a droll sense of humor and one of the best conductors I've ever worked under--well, the top of his head is a little shiny under the town hall lights. My stand partner, a kind and generous spirit who always has an encouraging word for everyone--she put our stand way up high and, like me, left the pencil back in the room where we left our cases (although I did remember to xerox, print out, and tape in, the music to fix the offending page turn). The amazing, Heifetz-like 12-year-old soloist--her nails are bitten down to the quick. All of them. In case I needed confirmation that our stand is too high, during the first piece of the warm-up, while we're playing, the principal cellist walks over, behind the conductor while he's conducting, and tells us to put the stand lower. She can't see us. This non-plusses me for a second; I'm still not, at heart, used to people wanting to see me. And I'm still not, at heart, used to seeing other people as having their little anxiety "things," the way I do. In my mind, I'm the only one who screws up Saent-Saens, who cuts her important-for-the-violin finger while making breakfast, who puts the stand up too high. But really, I'm not.

The concert itself is a relief, maybe even a triumph. Things are loud, I have to say, and a little chaotic. This is the free concert advertised in the "Fun Family things to do in Boston" section of the e-newsletter, not the BSO, the NEC, or the Boston Pops. As an introduction to the Grieg, the conductor shows the kids two little Scandinavian trolls that have significantly more hair than he does. They are a big hit. I manage to hit most of the notes in the Hall of the Mountain King, extended 7th position section. At one point during the performance, I see out of the corner of my eye, a toddler come toddling up to get a closer look, followed by his mom who is kind of crawling after him. The soloist does so well that she plays an encore, Kreisler Tzigane, to a second standing ovation. Afterwards, when the audience comes up to mingle with the musicians, I introduce my daughter and her bass-playing friend to some bassists. And two delightful girls who are just learning Suzuki have some questions for me. They are in 3rd grade and doing the dreaded Twinkle Variations. One of them in particular seems more interested in playing in the orchestra than soloing. She lights up visibly when I tell her that I have played solo sometimes but that I really like playing with a group better. Another one, a violist, wants to know if the violas ever get any good parts or if it's always just the violins. I tell her about Mozart's viola quintets, in which there are two violas and the violas are on an equal footing with the violins and the melody is shared and passed back and forth. "Mozart played the viola," I tell her. She seems to like that answer too. Sure, it's a cliche to say it's all worth it, but it is. Each concert is its own little Musical Fable.

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