Thursday, August 28, 2008


Most of us have five senses, the elemental capabilities that form the barriers of our lives and deliver to us the emotional enrichment that takes us past humdrum existence as an amoeba. Some of us lack on of those senses, and compensate by ramping up the other four. A blessed few have a sixth sense, can see or feel into the past or future, perhaps both for better and for worse.

I've long felt that each of us has one sense that is dominant over the others. For subs it might be the sense of touch. For an artist, it's the sense of sight, the ability to translate from what the eye takes in to manual performance. For Her it's the sense of smell, and I can watch Her travel far away when we enter an old apartment building in the city, and we smell the smell of old people. Neither of us knows what that smell is, a pleasant slightly lemony or perhaps talcum powdery odor, and She's gone, instantly transported far way in time and space, back to her grandmother's walkup apartment in the Village, knowing that her grandmother will feed her Arnold bread buttered toast with orange marmalade, and accompanied by tea with milk and sugar. I watch Her stand stock still entranced by the aroma.

Or we'll come home late at night, and the commercial bakery down the block is in full swing, the entire neighborhood awash with the smell of rising yeast and marzipan. Or we'll go into a bar, and suddenly we're both sooo many years younger, overwhelmed by the lingering odor of spilled beer and stale cigarette air, melancholy for the times that were and envious of the smell that's no longer ours.

For me the triggers are auditory. Certain music evokes uncontrollable washes of emotion, overpowering feelings of joy, longing, depair. The emotions don't necessarily follow the content of the music, either the lyrics or the music itself. As I was out and about this morning, doing errands with my Ipod buds stuffed into my ears, I listened to the song Graceland by Paul Simon. I had seen the Graceland tour when it first came around, went to see Paul Simon and friends recreate the concert this past spring at BAM. The music itself, even just the intro, the rhythm setup and the ringing guitar played by one of the African musicians, fills me with uncontrolled joy, and I play it over and over and over. I'm no longer walking in a straight line but swerving back and forth on the sidewalk, an unpardonable sin for a New Yorker.

And there are pieces of music that work in just the opposite direction. I can no longer listen to the Mendelssohn Octet for Strings, because it makes me sad beyond belief and weep uncontrollably. It's not a sad or tragic piece of music, but something in the tonal structure works its way to the core of my soul, fills me with a profound sadness and sense of loss.

I went to a high school that was essentially an experiment in the arts, organized by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia during the Great Depression, where we spent half the classroom time studying either music or art. And so, when we graduated from high school, in Carnegie Hall no less, the processional wasn't Pomp and Circumstance played by the marching band, it was the overture to Die Meistersinger by Richard Wagner, played by the senior orchestra. And I realized during the playing of that piece, sitting in what I now call The Big House, that high school was truly over, that I wouldn't see most of the faces int he future that I had seen for four
years. And so, when I hear the piece, I walk taller, but with an unerring sense of disaster ahead of me.

I'm interested to know about other people's sensory triggers, what sights, sounds, smell, touches, transport you instantly into another space and time. I don't often solicit responses, but if you read this post let me know.

PS-Despite what you might think, there's just a bit more to tell in Playing With Old Friends, but as I told someone earlier today, I have to write it right...and that takes the right mood. Patience, please

Earworm-Graceland, Paul Simon

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