Seymour: Three Daughters and a Pianist

At 88 years old, Seymour Bernstein looks more than a decade younger. He lives on the upper West Side of Manhattan in a prewar studio that he shares with his grand piano and momentos of his life in music. He is nothing less than extraordinary As a pianist. A musician. A composer. A teacher. And as a man.

The film “Seymour,” created by Ethan Hawke, is a work of wonder. Far more than a film about music, or the biography of a brilliant pianist, it’s a film about life. How to live it. How to look at it. How to survive it. And how to feel it in your bones.

It begins as Seymour speaks with Michael Kimmelman, award winning author, chief art critic of the New York Times, and a concert pianist himself, who has been Seymour’s student since the age of five. He questions Seymour about his life, and delicately, yet powerfully, this life unfolds before us like a worn, yet gorgeous, silken quilt.

His childhood: “There was no music in my house.” 

His father: “I have three daughters and a pianist.”

His time in Korea: “I hiked 20 miles in zero degree weather. Others didn’t make it.  I kept going. It was the musical mindset that did it.”

When I think of Seymour, and I’ve been thinking of him a lot, since I saw the film last week, he’s a place as well as a person. He’s the Seymour place, where the irritations and difficulties fall away. A place of solitude, grace, and beauty, where life’s detritus is forbidden to make the slightest appearance.

Along with hearing him speak, we see Seymour teach. We see the meticulous practice of a phrase played again and again, until the notes flow, until the slightest failed nuance is addressed.

Despite his success and stunning reviews, Seymour stopped playing in public when he was fifty. He was at the height of his celebrity, but had terrible stage fright — an experience he shares with Ethan Hawke.  It took too much from him. It got in his way when he wanted to give the world and himself something else. Something not so self-obsessed. Something beyond the conceit of a brilliant performance.

Toward the end of the film, there’s a small private concert where we hear him play. He admits that he’s nervous. Yet, once he begins he’s calm. Transparent. He plays like an angel. No drama. No ego. Pure art. Even I could hear it, and I’m no musician.

Life is many things. Love, beauty, connection, happiness, joy, pain, failure and triumph. At this juncture, I can add Seymour. Yes. Life, if you’re lucky, is Seymour. You might enjoy seeing this film. And you might choose to invite Seymour into your own life as well. You could hardly do better.

Note: A friend pointed out that Ethan Hawke was “the shy boy,”  in Dead Poets Society.” In a way, he remains that boy. Wondering what it’s all about; how to relate to life in a more genuine way. Here, he looks to Seymour, as his character did with Robin Williams in that long ago film. But Seymour is a better bet. He’s real. And he chooses life at every turn

Home on the Range: Parenting Without Borders

The Washington Post, my default paper since I left New York, ran yet another story this week about Free Range Parenting. Until I wrote this blog, I was up for grabs on it. Now, maybe not.

In case you haven’t heard, Free Range Parenting is a term conceived by families who permit  their children to navigate their home neighborhoods without chaperones at their heels, going hither and yon with the intention that they do so freely and fearlessly  While letting children roam a bit was not an issue when I grew up in the Bronx, or when my daughter walked to school on her own by the time she was seven, and my eight year old son took two busses from East 20th Street to Greenwhich Village five days a week, solo, it is now. A big one!  Not just for the families themselves but for those who choose to become self-appointed guardians of other people’s lives by way of reporting these events to police and social services like some suburban SS force — never directly to the parents themselves. Why get involved?.

There’s trouble, and people are taking sides.

When this past week, two children aged ten and six were dropped off by their parents at a neighborhood park behind my building in downtown Silver Spring, an area where kids play all the time, someone saw them walking home and called the police. The police took the bait, convinced the kids to get into the squad car just two blocks from their house, and held them there for three hours without letting the parents know that they had them in tow. Clearly, punishment due (though not labeled thus by the authorities) for the parents having already transgressed in this way once before.

Okay. Enough about police tactics and naive parenting over which we have no say. These parents need to do two things:

1. Find another way to deal. Just being “right” doesnt cut it.

2. Create a different name for their parenting program (this one reeks of idiocy).

Children are not chickens. Best not to set them free to be scared silly by ill trained cops who stuff them in a squad car, refuse to let them go to the bathroom, fail to give them somthing to eat, and neglect to notify their parents, But this is the world we live in. Pretending or wishing it otherwise won’t make it so.

I once asked a friend,from the rural midwest what he did in the summer while we New York kids went to camp. “We got up, ate breakfast, got on our bikes and didnt go home until dinner time,” he said.

Indeed. The world has changed.  A few years back,,police would not have gone looking for these kids unless the family called in a missing child report. But lets not react by sticking our heads in the sand. I hate to say it, but: it is what it is.  And though we can’t reverse time, we can exert a good bit of influence by the way we think, behave, and live our lives.

Form Children-ing Groups

My solution is this: there’s safety in numbers. Instead of “parenting groups” form “Children-ing” groups. Have the kids walk in packs like teenagers. How many of them could they possibly stuff in a squad car then?.