Friday, October 9, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 4 - Bolton Street Synagogue - Part 4 (Part 3)

For five years after college, we lived in the same city, but we might as well have lived on opposite coasts for the amount we saw each other. I was in the Northwest of Washington DC with my friends from AU, and Kelly was in the center of the city with her friends from... well, wherever she had her friends from - college, workplace, Meetup... I don't really know. Occasionally we would run into each other in bars and catch up. For all the craziness of the high school years, she was still, in her way, a good friend for whom I always had a soft spot in my heart. And in that way that old friends who are weary of each other and relieved they didn't have to spend too much time with one another anymore, it never cost us much to feel affection toward one another so long as it remained in small doses.

Such was the way I tried to feel about the rolodex of the Schechter overachievers who gradually trickled their way into Washington DC. If you were a smart middle class or upper class kid from Baltimore looking to make your name in the world, Washington, not Baltimore was the place to properly make your mark. Our parents slaved away so that we could have better opportunities than they ever did, but the Baltimore of our generation provided no such opportunities. Washington was the Kingdom of The West Wing, Baltimore was the Failed State of The Wire. To settle permanently in Baltimore would be to acknowledge that we'd given up on ambition.

We would all make a point of getting together once every few months. I would dread going to those hangouts days in advance and almost inevitably left with a horrible taste in my mouth, because the supercilious attitude from our days in Schechter still pervaded their manners. I don't know why always went except perhaps for a pathological desire for approval from them which I knew I would never get. I could never get over the idea that I was the weird fuckup they were burdened to see occasionally by social obligation. I don't doubt that I read a lot into this from my own insecurities, but I couldn't possibly have read it all. There were just too many jokes at my expense, too many side glances when I spoke, too much laughing when I did something that seemed peculiar to them. Furthermore, I'm sure that my anxiety around them made me seem still more peculiar than I otherwise would have been.

But something truly odd happened as time went along. The other kids at Schechter began surpassing Kelly. Not exactly surpassing - none of us ever looked poised to become masters of the universe, not nearly, not yet at least, and not that this rat race should ever matter in which we compare ourselves like prize stallions in a horserace. I doubt it would matter to anybody but her and maybe me, and if it does, there is still decades of time yet to jockey for position. But in our twenties: Saul Rosner, who 'merely' went to Northwestern for undergrad, got into the Georgetown Security Studies program, from there, it was pretty much a straight shot to a job at a think tank. Meanwhile, Kelly, who didn't have a radical bone in her body, had to 'settle' for the Georgetown Social Justice program. Aaron Smilowitz went to Georgetown Law and then clerked for a major circuit court judge, his future as a distinguished lawyer was assured. Shifra Zilber got a lucrative job doing PR in the corporate world that required her every few years to move between New York and DC. And all of them got married with children seeming to sprout up everywhere. A bunch of more adventurous souls from our class lived the single life of New York and Finance, and still more adventurous ones married outside the faith and live in the far flung corners of the country or even in Europe.

By the time Kelly Liebe came back into my life, she probably felt extremely down on her luck, and relatively speaking, she probably was. She was temporarily unemployed, she had no boy in her life, she always looked wan and tired - like a regular person. There was a little bit of time in that inlet when life would seem to have derailed an extraordinary person in an extremely ordinary way.

But there was clearly something different about Kelly. For years she was always impeccably dressed and made up. She was now going around in sweatshirts and jeans. Sure, the old competitive edge was still there, it'll never go away, but there never seemed to be an edge of resentment or anger about her, as though I was no longer the spongy loser friend taking up valuable time.

All things in this life are short-lived, but when you want to believe something, you will believe it against your better judgement. When Kelly came first back into my life, I had roughly $50 to my name, I was not speaking to my father, I was living on the couch and charity of friends in a house in Takoma, and I had the bad luck of partially snapping out from a four-year-long (eventually roughly seven years) crippling post-college depression, just in time for the Great Recession. I applied to more than a hundred jobs, received callbacks from two, and got an offer from one, which turned out to be a pyramid scheme.

But like Kelly, I maintained my dreams and a little bit of pride through every humiliation. The humiliations didn't slake my ambition, it ballooned my hunger for achievement exponentially. As Hitler said, the poor man doesn't dream of bread, he dreams of caviar, and every new defeat made me dream of triumphs that grew ever bigger in my mind that would blot out the stench of defeat and make all the suffering worthwhile.

The first true opportunity of my adult life came four years after I graduated college, and my delusions of grandeur made a complete hash of it - not that it was that great an opportunity, but a desperate man will do everything within his power to turn obstacles into opportunities.

In the summer of 2008, I joined to middling chorus in DC. In the span of a year, I'd 'risen' through the ranks to become their assistant conductor, and then the heir apparent when the conductor left DC for grad school. It's not like I had anything better to do...

DC is the choral capital of America - where seventy choruses created musical homes for the musically talented and untalented people of DC's community-minded civil service. Ours was an organization comprised mostly of recent Ivy League grads with musical talent who were looking for a place to sing serious choral music. It was a pretty good chorus - we certainly weren't Accentus or The Sixteen, but we gave thoroughly adequate performances of serious, difficult music. The conductor, however, may or may not have been a psychopath: a giant Aryan blond who studied political science at Yale, but who probably made so many enemies in his few years doing DC politics that he decided to retrain as a conductor, where his temper might be written off as 'artistic.' He was not a bad conductor, and he certainly was a wonderful voice teacher, but like me, conducting was the playground where he could indulge the giant delusions of grandeur he set for himself.

He was clearly determined to charm and bully his way into creating good performances. I was both disgusted by his methods and begrudgingly admired his seriousness. When he wasn't plying us all with flattery, he was flipping his lid, and lost it badly at nearly every rehearsal. He once literally said to the chorus, "Sometimes I want to KILL you." It's amazing that most of the singers didn't simply walk out mid-rehearsal and never return. On my 27th birthday, he nearly got me arrested for possession of his weed, and shortly before one concert, he screamed at me so loudly that I literally feared for my physical safety. Never in my life have I claimed to be a easy person to get along with, but even my temper didn't hold a candle to his.

When he left DC, there suddenly was a $4000 gap in the chorus's bank account. I'm sure that most of the money was his own, but the way he withdrew the funds created a gap in our accounts that set our application for non-profit status potentially by two years. It's almost as though he wanted us to fail.

I was and remain an organizational imbecile who has no idea how to run my life, let alone an organizational body. A few of my more organized school friends heard of my trouble and offered to help by sitting on the board of directors, but once they were there, they, of course, did nothing at all to help out.

Perhaps their jobs were simply too stressful and important to be bothered with such trivial concerns as my life, perhaps they thought I should be able to organize myself a hell of a lot better than I could, and it wasn't their job to do it. True as that second statement particularly is, it was an impossibility in my case. I was left completely in first gear with an organization I had no idea how to get off the ground, and I was ready to give up before it even started. In retrospect, it would have been the best thing I could have done in the situation.

"What can I do to help?" was the first thing Kelly said to me when she heard about it. To my astonishment, and to my skepticism, Kelly Liebe, the most important friend and life coach I ever had, seemed back in my corner, behind me every step of the way to street fight my life out of yet another impossible situation.

"Please, before we even get started, tell me if you can't be there all the way." I said to her.

"Of course I've got your back! How can you even say that?" She responded, obviously offended that I would ever impute that her loyalty was anything but ironclad.

And so, with as much time elapsed in our lives as we'd ever had during the first period when we seemed so crucial to each other, the reset button was placed upon our friendship.

With my last ounce of youthful hubris, I spent the vast majority of 2010 trying to get a group called Voices of Washington off the ground. There are some men in the world for whom nothing is written, and it was my final chance to be the man of destiny that my mania always thought was my divine right. I was and remain a musician in my bones, and I wanted to create an organization that would revolutionize everything about the way music was played and listened to. I wanted a revolving door of the sixty best amateur singers in Washington to form a chorus for the ages that could equal the greatest professionals in the world, performing the best music in the world - music for classical chorus or transcribed into choral music by me from any other genre. I never much liked singing in choruses or a capella groups, so it would sing half classical for singers who thought a capella groups were too frivolous, and half a capella for singers who thought classical music was too pompous. We would get great composers, local composers, and young composers, and all the same for songwriters from other genres, to write other music for us. We would become a champion of unknown musicians to audiences unknown to other classical organizations. We would take our musicmaking into the poorest pockets of Washington DC to play for its most impoverished citizens, and also gala-ready to sing at national events and fundraisers. We would franchise ourselves to every city in America to create similar organizations. Classical music would come back into people's everyday diet, pop music would stop being stupid, and music would be a force again that unites people rather than dividing them. And such still is the hubris and outsize ego in my up moments that were I the same person but as organizationally competent as I am musically knowledgeable, I think there's a chance I could have done it.

In my manic ups, I have an idea like this every day, but whether up or down, I usually don't even have the organizational knowhow to show up to rehearsals on time, let alone put these dreams into reality.


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