The Music Man

Recently I stopped by a music store in town to buy banjo strings. I hadn’t been in the store for at least ten years. I remembered it as a hive of kids and grown-ups trying out guitars, pianos, and clarinets, browsing through racks of sheet music and instruction books, going in and out of the back rooms for lessons. This time, it was almost empty—partly the result of the guitar mega-store that had opened on the highway.

The owner himself had also changed. He had slowed, gained a tremor, and lost the steadiness of his speech. The change in him, along with the decline in his business, shook me. I realized that I had expected during those years that he and the store had remained as bustling as they once were, immune from time.

As I left I wondered what the music man’s recent life had felt like. What had been the satisfaction, the worth of it all, as he became ill and his business dropped off? In life, did aspiration and effort always lose out this way to decay?

But such sympathy comes with risks. It can distort our picture of another person, or a group. I knew almost nothing about the music man or his life. For years he had been teaching music to people of all ages, a legacy to be proud of—though whether he was or not I didn’t know. And he had music itself as a source of joy, presumably. Compassion can overgeneralize. Perhaps I was unaware of the ordinary satisfactions that sustained him.

The music man who lives happily ever after. (ovrtur.com)

The music man flies up to a happy ever after.
(ovrtur.com)

Still, I couldn’t put down the question that the music man had handed me: what is the value, the worth, of our lives if they always end in decline? Our inner voice tells us that we matter. Do we? We may have our protective attitudes; I certainly have mine. But these can be rocked when we come face to face with a man or woman who has weakened from disease or the passage of time.

There is another “Music Man.” The 1950s stage musical of that name describes a charming con man, Harold Hill, who arrives in an Iowa town to sell musical instruments and uniforms to the kids, promising he will teach them to play and will organize a band. Hill and the town librarian fall in love. She knows he is a fraud but keeps it to herself. Hill is finally exposed and is being put in handcuffs just as the instruments and uniforms arrive. The children appear in their uniforms, magically playing Beethoven and then the rousing finale of “Seventy-Six Trombones.” All ends well.

The  poster for “The Music Man” shows the smiling couple flying skyward, arm in arm, Hill playing a trumpet. The musical is a romanticized Christian answer to the dilemma of frailty and decline. The sinner is redeemed by love, death is defeated by grace. But I prefer the lesson I learned in the music man’s store.

Non-Theists, God’s Love, and Evolution

One of the benefits that believers gain from religion is the feeling that their deity cares for them. Mainstream Christians, Jews, Moslems generally believe either that god loves them and intervenes actively on their behalf or that god keeps a distance but always has a plan for them. One way or the other, believers believe that a higher being is paying attention and is nudging them down the best path.

God's love image

The promise of monotheism (gracewalkministries.blogspot.com)

Non-theists see this perception as superstition. They think it is the result of projecting our human situation on to the universe and imagining an active agent behind the good or terrible things that happen in life. But is there, for the non-theist, any equivalent in a godless universe to this reassurance that is rooted in a higher power? Is there any way that non-theists can find a benevolence, a grand-scale inclination towards the good, in evolution’s transformations?

On the face of it, no. Atheists, naturalists, secular humanists may find the universe inspiring and beautiful, but they don’t make any claims that it cares about individuals in any way. Natural selection is nothing other a mechanism that favors survivors. When it comes to the place of humans in the cosmos, according to the non-theist, what we see is what we get: individuals are on their own except to the extent that they connect with each other to make life less difficult and more meaningful. There is no entity above us that is deliberately hurting or helping us.

chimps hugging

The  roots of love (hypersyl.com)

But there might be an exception. Our capacity to love is a product of evolution. Its roots lie in the maternal and parental bonding that was vital in raising offspring who required years of nurturing and protection. Today, love is no longer moored just in the survival needs of children. It morphs into attachments that range from caring for other people to “loving” certain foods or clothes. So while we can’t say that evolution loves us, we can say that our emotions of caring, of passionate commitment, of feeling cared for, have a source in evolution.

Critics might argue that attributing our capacity for love to the process of evolution is as illusory as imagining a powerful being in the sky. It is only another example of our unwittingly projecting ourselves on to events outside us, another step closer to personifying evolution as a purposeful “Mother Evolution” of some sort.
But I think this risk is exaggerated. We feel all kinds of emotions about nature–calmness at a quiet lake, anxiety about intense wind and rain, awe at the stars, fascination with the formation of our planet–without always making up tales of superior beings operating behind the scenes. As for love, while reminding ourselves that only we humans (and perhaps some animals) do it, we can appreciate, and even feel a gratitude of sorts, that the process that brought our species here brought love along with it.
vet and dog

The flowering of human caring (vetmed.ucdavis.edu)

The Brown Sisters: 35 Annual Portraits

Brown sisters 1975

The Brown Sisters, Nicholas Nixon, 1975 (popneuf.wordpress.com)

In 1974, Nicholas Nixon photographed his wife together with her three sisters, their ages ranging from 15 to 25.  He published the photo the following year, took a second that year, and then another photo every year after that. In front of Nixon’s 8 x 10 view camera (see the shadow in 1996), usually in New England, the Brown sisters stand outdoors always in the same order.  The photographs capture, in the words of a Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth commentary, “the sisters’ growing familiarity with the camera, as well as the effects of a lifetime of events on their relationships with each other.”

The Brown Sisters, Nicholas Nixon, 1985 (metmuseum.org)

The Brown Sisters, Nicholas Nixon, 1985 (metmuseum.org)

Looking through the portraits, it’s difficult not to become curious about the lives of the women and their relationships to each other. Who seems to be feeling close to whom? Why does one seem to need, or want to give, a hug (1980)? Who seems affectionate, who a bit separate? Is one pregnant (1992)? Why is one sister looking away from the camera (1992, 2004, 2005, 2006)? What did they think of the portraits? Did they look forward to the day each year when the next one would be taken?

Brown sisters 1994

The Brown Sisters, Nicholas Nixon, 1994 (whitmanhansonphoto.wordpress.com)

In a few of the pictures Nixon closes in on the faces (1986, 1994). To me the women looked shoved together in these portraits. I prefer those where we can see their body language and clothes.

If you look through the whole sequence of photos, the camera captures, in addition to their interactions with each other, a second kind of animation . We see the sisters age. Youth gives way to maturity as smiles soften and postures relax. Then the first wrinkles under eyes appear, and looser skin around the mouths. Thinner lips. And a new serenity.

Brown sisters 1999

The Brown Sisters, Nicholas Nixon, 1999 (artblart.com)

As with any great art, we are both pulled in to the work and enticed to look beyond it. We see so much while at the same time imagining much more that we are not seeing. We may think that the moods of the sisters are available to us, yet in reality we are as distant from their consciousnesses as we are from that of the Mona Lisa. No wonder the prevailing emotions of looking at the pictures are, to me, the contradictory ones of empathy and isolation.

I suggest that this duality of engagement and distance is any person’s situation in trying to understand not only other people but any living thing. We see a little, we may think we can see more, but we cannot enter into other heads.

Be that as it may, for now sit back and enjoy these beautiful portraits of four beautiful women. Or scroll steadily through all 35 years and watch life flowing by.

Brown sisters 2010

The Brown Sisters, Nicholas Nixon, 2010