1 In the fall of our final year, our mood changed. The relaxed atmosphere of the preceding summer semester, the impromptu ball games, the boating on the Charles River, the late-night parties had disappeared, and we all started to get our heads down, studying late, and attendance at classes rose steeply again. We all sensed we were coming to the end of our stay here, that we would never get a chance like this again, and we became determined not to waste it. Most important of course were the final exams in April and May in the following year. No one wanted the humiliation of finishing last in class, so the peer group pressure to work hard was strong. Libraries which were once empty after five o’clock in the afternoon were standing room only until the early hours of the morning, and guys wore the bags under their eyes and their pale, sleepy faces with pride, like medals proving their diligence.
2 But there was something else. At the back of everyone’s mind was what we would do next, when we left university in a few months’ time. It wasn’t always the high-flyers with the top grades who knew what they were going to do. Quite often it was the quieter, less impressive students who had the next stages of their life mapped out. One had landed a job in his brother’s advertising firm in Madison Avenue, another had got a script under provisional acceptance in Hollywood. The most ambitious student among us was going to work as a party activist at a local level. We all saw him ending up in Congress one day. But most people were either looking to continue their studies, or to make a living with a white-collar job in a bank, local government, or anything which would pay them enough to have a comfortable time in their early twenties, and then settle down with a family, a mortgage and some hope of promotion.
3 I went home at Thanksgiving, and inevitably, my brothers and sisters kept asking me what I was planning to do. I didn’t know what to say. Actually, I did know what to say, but I thought they’d probably criticize me, so I told them what everyone else was thinking of doing.
4 My father was watching me but saying nothing. Late in the evening, he invited me to his study. We sat down and he poured us a drink.
5 “So?” he said.
6 “Er … so what?”
7 “So what do you really want to do?” he asked.
8 My father was a lawyer, and I had always assumed he wanted me to go to law school, and follow his path through life. So I hesitated.
9 Then I replied, “I want to travel, and I want to be a writer.”
10 This was not the answer I thought he would expect. Travel? Where? A writer? About what? I braced myself for some resistance to the idea.
11 There was a long silence.
12 “Interesting idea,” he said finally.
13 There was another long silence.
14 “I kind of wish I’d done that when I was your age.”
15 I waited.
16 “You have plenty of time. You don’t need to go into a career which pays well just at the moment. You need to find out what you really enjoy now, because if you don’t, you won’t be successful later.”
17 “So how do I do this?”
18 He thought for a moment. Then he said, “Look, it’s late. Let’s take the boat out tomorrow morning, just you and me. Maybe we can catch some crabs for dinner, and we can talk more.”
19 It was a small motorboat, moored ten minutes away, and my father had owned it for years. Early next morning we set off along the estuary. We didn’t talk much, but enjoyed the sound of the seagulls and the sight of the estuary coastline and the sea beyond.
20 There was no surf on the coastal waters at that time of day, so it was a smooth half-hour ride until my father switched off the motor. “Let’s see if we get lucky,” he said, picked up a rusty mesh basket with a rope attached and threw it into the sea.
21 We waited a while, then my father stood up and said, “Give me a hand with this,” and we hauled up the crab cage onto the deck.
22 Crabs fascinated me. They were so easy to catch. It wasn’t just that they crawled into such an obvious trap, through a small hole in the lid of the basket, but it seemed as if they couldn’t be bothered to crawl out again even when you took the lid off. They just sat there, waving their claws at you.
23 The cage was brimming with dozens of soft shell crabs, piled high on top of each other. “Why don’t they try to escape?” I wondered aloud to my father.
24 “Just watch them for a moment. Look at that one, there! He’s trying to climb out, but every time the other crabs pull him back in,” said my father.
25 And we watched. The crab climbed up the mesh towards the lid, and sure enough, just as it reached the top, one of its fellow crabs reached out, clamped its claw onto any available leg, and pulled it back. Several times the crab tried to defy his fellow captives, without luck.
26 “Now watch!” said my father. “He’s starting to get bored with this game.”
27 Not only did the crab give up its lengthy struggle to escape, but it actually began to help stop other crabs trying to escape. He’d finally chosen an easy way of life.
28 Suddenly I understood why my father had suggested catching crabs that morning. He looked at me. “Don’t get pulled back by the others,” he said. “Spend some time figuring out who you are and what you want in life. Look back at the classes you’re taking, and think about which ones were most productive for you personally. Then think about what’s really important to you, what really interests you, what skills you have. Try to figure out where you want to live, where you want to go, what you want to earn, how you want to work. And if you can’t answer these questions now, then take some time to find out. Because if you don’t, you’ll never be happy.”
29 He paused.
30 “So you want to travel?” he asked.
31 “Yes,” I replied.
32 “Better get you a passport. And you want to be a writer?”
33 “I think so.”
34 “Interesting choice. We’ve never had a writer in the family,” he said.
35 My father started the motor and we set off back home.
1 We all listen to music according to our separate capacities. But, for the sake of analysis, the whole listening process may become clearer if we break it up into its component parts, so to speak. In a certain sense we all listen to music on three separate planes. For lack of a better terminology, one might name these: (1) the sensuous plane, (2) the expressive plane, (3) the sheerly musical plane. The only advantage to be gained from mechanically splitting up the listening process into these hypothetical planes is the clearer view to be had of the way in which we listen.
2 The simplest way of listening to music is to listen for the sheer pleasure of the musical sound itself. That is the sensuous plane. It is the plane on which we hear music without thinking, without considering it in any way. One turns on the radio while doing something else and absent-mindedly bathes in the sound. A kind of brainless but attractive state of mind is engendered by the mere sound appeal of the music.
3 The surprising thing is that many people who consider themselves qualified music lovers abuse that plane in listening. They go to concerts in order to lose themselves. They use music as a consolation or an escape. They enter an ideal world where one doesn’t have to think of the realities of everyday life. Of course they aren’t thinking about the music either. Music allows them to leave it, and they go off to a place to dream, dreaming because of and apropos of the music yet never quite listening to it.
4 Yes, the sound appeal of music is a potent and primitive force, but you must not allow it to usurp a disproportionate share of your interest. The sensuous plane is an important one in music, a very important one, but it does not constitute the whole story.
5 The second plane on which music exists is what I have called the expressive one. Here, immediately, we tread on controversial ground. Composers have a way of shying away from any discussion of music’s expressive side. Did not Stravinsky himself proclaim that his music was an “object”, a “thing”, with a life of its own, and with no other meaning than its own purely musical existence? This intransigent attitude of Stravinsky’s may be due to the fact that so many people have tried to read different meanings into so many pieces. Heaven knows it is difficult enough to say precisely what it is that a piece of music means, to say it definitely, to say it finally so that everyone is satisfied with your explanation. But that should not lead one to the other extreme of denying to music the right to be “expressive”.
6 Listen, if you can, to the 48 fugue themes of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavichord. Listen to each theme, one after another. You will soon realize that each theme mirrors a different world of feeling. You will also soon realize that the more beautiful a theme seems to you the harder it is to find any word that will describe it to your complete satisfaction. Yes, you will certainly know whether it is a gay theme or a sad one. You will be able, in other words, in your own mind, to draw a frame of emotional feeling around your theme. Now study the sad one a little closer. Try to pin down the exact quality of its sadness. Is it pessimistically sad or resignedly sad; is it fatefully sad or smilingly sad?
7 Let us suppose that you are fortunate and can describe to your own satisfaction in so many words the exact meaning of your chosen theme. There is still no guarantee that anyone else will be satisfied. Nor need they be. The important thing is that each one feels for himself the specific expressive quality of a theme or, similarly, an entire piece of music. And if it is a great work of art, don’t expect it to mean exactly the same thing to you each time you return to it.
8 The third plane on which music exists is the sheerly musical plane. Besides the pleasurable sound of music and the expressive feeling that it gives off, music does exist in terms of the notes themselves and of their manipulation. Most listeners are not sufficiently conscious of this third plane.
9 It is very important for all of us to become more alive to music on its sheerly musical plane. After all, an actual musical material is being used. The intelligent listener must be prepared to increase his awareness of the musical material and what happens to it. He must hear the melodies, the rhythms, the harmonies, the tone colors in a more conscious fashion. But above all he must, in order to follow the line of the composer’s thought, know something of the principles of musical form. Listening to all of these elements is listening on the sheerly musical plane.
10 Let me repeat that I have split up mechanically the three separate planes on which we listen merely for the sake of greater clarity. Actually, we never listen on one or the other of these planes. What we do is to correlate them – listening in all three ways at the same time. It takes no mental effort, for we do it instinctively.
11 Perhaps an analogy with what happens to us when we visit the theater will make this instinctive correlation clearer. In the theater, you are aware of the actors and actresses, costumes and sets, sounds and movements. All these give one the sense that the theater is a pleasant place to be in. They constitute the sensuous plane in our theatrical reactions.
12 The expressive plane in the theater would be derived from the feeling that you get from what is happening on the stage. You are moved to pity, excitement, or gaiety. It is this general feeling, generated aside from the particular words being spoken, a certain emotional something which exists on the stage, that is analogous to the expressive quality in music.
13 The plot and plot development is equivalent to our sheerly musical plane. The playwright creates and develops a character in just the same way that a composer creates and develops a theme. According to the degree of your awareness of the way in which the artist in either field handles his material will you become a more intelligent listener.
14 It is easy enough to see that the theatergoer never is conscious of any of these elements separately. He is aware of them all at the same time. The same is true of music listening. We simultaneously and without thinking listen on all three planes.
1 It was snowing heavily, and although every true New Yorker looks forward to a white Christmas, the shoppers on Fifth Avenue were in a hurry, not just to track down the last-minute presents, but to escape the bitter cold and get home to their families for Christmas Eve.
2 Josh Lester turned into 46th Street. He was not yet enjoying the Christmas spirit, because he was still at work, albeit a working dinner at Joanne’s. Josh was black, in his early thirties, and an agreeable-looking person, dressed smartly but not expensively. He was from a hard-working family in upstate Virginia, and was probably happiest back home in his parents’ house. But his demeanor concealed a Harvard law degree and an internship in DC with a congressman, a junior partnership in a New York law firm, along with a razor-sharp intellect and an ability to think on his feet. Josh was very smart.
3 The appointment meant Josh wouldn’t get home until after Christmas. He was not, however, unhappy. He was meeting Jo Rogers, the senior senator for Connecticut, and one of the bestknown faces in the US. Senator Rogers was a Democrat in her third term of office, who knew Capitol Hill inside out but who had nevertheless managed to keep her credibility with her voters as a Washington outsider. She was pro-abortion, anti-corruption, pro-low carbon emissions and anti-capital punishment, as fine a progressive liberal as you could find this side of the Atlantic. Talk show hosts called her Honest Senator Jo, and a couple of years ago, Time magazine had her in the running for Woman of the Year. It was election time in the following year, and the word was she was going to run for the Democratic nomination. Rogers had met Josh in DC, thought him highly competent, and had invited him to dinner.
4 Josh shivered as he checked the address on the slip of paper in his hand. He’d never been to Joanne’s, but knew it by reputation, not because of its food, which had often been maligned, or its jazz orchestra, which had a guest slot for a well-known movie director who played trumpet, but because of the stellar quality of its sophisticated guests: politicians, diplomats, movie actors, hall-of-fame athletes, journalists, writers, rock stars and Nobel Prize winners – in short, anyone who was anyone in this city of power brokers.
5 Inside, the restaurant was heaving with people. The head waiter at the front desk looked at Josh as he came in.
6 “Can I help you?”
7 Josh replied, ” Yes , I have an …”
8 “Excuse me, sir,” the head waiter interrupted as two guests arrived, “Good evening Miss Bacall, good evening Mr Hanks,” and clicked his fingers to summon another waiter to show them to their table.
9 “Now, sir …,” said the head waiter. “… do you have a reservation?” He shrugged his shoulders. “We have no spare tables whatsoever, as you can see.”
10 “I’m meeting a Ms Rogers here tonight.”
11 The head waiter looked at Josh up and down, and asked, “May I have your name?”
12 Josh told him, and although the waiter refrained from curling his lip, he managed to show both disdain and effortless superiority with a simple flaring of his nostrils.
13 “Let me see,” said the head waiter. “Well, yes, we do have a table for a Ms Rogers, but will she be arriving soon?”
14 Josh had encountered this doubtful treatment before but was not intimidated.
15 “I’m sure she will,” said Josh. “Could you please show me to her table?”
16 “Come this way, sir.” The head waiter led Josh through the restaurant to a table at the back, and pointed.
17 “Thank you. Could you get me a Martini, please?” said Josh. But the head waiter was impatient to go back into the heady swirl of New York society, everyone clamoring, or so it appeared to him, for his attention.
18 The table was close to the bathroom and right by a half-opened window, apparently positioned where an icy breeze from the Great Lakes, passing down the Hudson Valley, would end its journey.
19 Suddenly there was a moment’s silence in the restaurant, only for the noise to resume as intense whispering.
20 “Senator Rogers!” said the head waiter. “What a great honor it is to see you at Joanne’s again!”
21 “Good evening, Alberto. I’m dining with a young man, name of Lester.”
22 The head waiter blinked, and swallowed hard.
23 “Yes, senator, please come this way,” and as Senator Rogers passed through the crowded room, heads turned as the diners recognized her and greeted her with silent applause. In a classless society, Rogers was the closest thing to aristocracy that America had. Alberto hovered for a moment, then went to speak to a colleague.
24 “It’s good to see you again, Josh,” said Rogers. “Let’s have something to eat, then I’d like to talk to you about a business proposition.”
25 Alberto returned, bent half double in almost laughable humility.
26 “Senator, as this table is so cold , so uncomfortable, I was wondering if …”
27 Senator Rogers waited and then said quietly, “Go on.”
28 “I was wondering if you’d like a better table, in the middle of the restaurant, so you have a better view of everyone.” So everyone has a better view of you, he might have said. “You’ll be much more comfortable, and …”
29 Alberto paused. Senator Rogers looked around.
30 “I agree, this isn’t the best table in the house. But you brought my friend here, and I guess this is where we’ll stay. We’ll have my usual, please.”
31 After two hours, Rogers and Josh got up to leave. There was a further flurry of attention by the staff, including an offer by Alberto to waive payment of the bill, which Rogers refused. As they were putting on their coats, Rogers said, “Thank you, Alberto. Oh, have I introduced you to my companion, Josh Lester?”
32 A look of panic, followed by one of desperate optimism flashed across Alberto’s face.
33 “Ah, not yet, no, … not properly,” he said weakly.
34 “Josh Lester. This is the latest recruit to my election campaign. He’s going to be my new deputy campaign manager, in charge of raising donations. And if we get that Republican out of the White House next year, you’ve just met my Chief of Staff.”
35 “Absolutely delighted to meet you, Mr Lester, a real privilege, I’m sure. I do hope we’ll see you both again in Joanne’s very soon,” said Alberto.
36 The Senator looked at Alberto.
37 “No, I don’t think that’s at all likely,” replied Senator Rogers.
38 Rogers and Josh stepped out together into the cold night air. It had stopped snowing.
1 It’s that time of the year when the world seems to be caught in a trance – the trance of end-of-year celebrations. End-of-year, I said.
2 The problem seems to be exactly that. Why should we in China refer to the week between December 24 and 31 as the end of the year when ours (according to the lunar calendar) is at least a month away?
3 We do so apparently because Christmas and New Year have become global festivals, not because they (especially Christmas) are essentially Western in nature and spirit, but because we can relax during those few days.
4 Nevertheless, some scholars and students have expressed concern over the increasing influence of Christmas on oriental, particularly Chinese, culture. Their fears may be justified to a certain extent. In fact, we Chinese do seem to attach a lot more time and attention to Christmas today than we did even a couple of decades ago.
5 For good or bad, the world has possibly undergone more changes in the past two decades than it did in the past two centuries. We have used more resources, burnt more fuel, caused more pollution and killed off more animals and plants as we have come closer to each other to form a truly global village. Television, we thought, was the last uniting factor till we got a feel for the Internet.
6 All these changes have made us take a different look at the world beyond and our home within. Nothing comes without a rider in this global market. If we want to be part of the dazzle and comfort that the West is known for, we had better accept some of its anomalies, too. This is not to say that festivals mean something else to the West.
7 Be it on the mainland or in the highly developed West or in the poorest of societies, a festival carries the same meaning. People across the world celebrate them with their family and friends. The basic concept is the same too, sharing a feast or a humble meal (with a few drinks in some societies like ours and the West).
8 We celebrate an occasion to vent our feelings, to relax and enjoy a break from the everyday skulduggery that life in these times has become. It’s apparently no different from the break our ancestors enjoyed from the mundane affairs of their daily lives.
9 Most of the world follows the Gregorian calendar, including us, in their day-to-day lives. So the festivals and special events in that calendar are bound to influence us. That we, like many South, Southeast Asian, Middle East and perhaps some indigenous American people, follow the lunar calendar for our festivals is a different matter altogether.
10 We cannot afford to be left untouched by the festive spirit of the West, which doesn’t mean we follow the West blindly. Not everything about their culture may be good, but decadence is not the sole preserve of the West. No culture in the world is free of decadence and that includes Chinese culture.
11 So the problem is not Western culture, or what we generally associate with it. The problem is those who are blinded by everything Western. We have to find out why more and more Chinese, especially the youngsters, feel at one with Western festivals as much as they do with the Chinese ones. But thankfully our festivals have lost none of their charm. And here is where the alarm bells sounded by scholars and students come in.
12 I can understand the zeal of these people. They want to conserve our culture, and that definitely doesn’t make them what we generally refer to as “conservatives”. They have a point. But they, or for that matter anybody else, cannot save any society from the influence of a world getting smaller by the day.
13 So instead of trying to shut our eyes and ears to Western festivals, we should accept the goodness they offer and practise what they stand for. And let’s not forget that Jesus was not born in the West but the East (the Middle East, to be precise), and he preached love for mankind and help for the poor.