Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Country Boy

I've been reading Edmund White's memoir City Boy, an account of his young years as an aspiring writer from the Mid-West, poor and gay in the scrappy, scruffy New York of the 1960s and 1970s. It is a fit companion to Patti Smith's memoir of the same scene, Just Kids, which I read a few years ago.

Anne was there, then, living the bohemian life of a young artist in a run-down, third-floor walk-up apartment on the Lower East Side with bars on the windows and a police security bar on the door. I visited her there, and didn't know whether to be inspired or frightened. She was part of a revolutionary culture I knew nothing about.

Two years older than Anne, I was a creature of the 1950s. I got married right out of college, soon started a family, and pretty much missed the entire drug/sex/music/anti-war/feminist/civil rights upheavals. If it hadn't been for Anne's reports from the front lines, I would hardly have noticed that the 60s and 70s happened.

My world was one of physics and domesticity. I got my thrills from Maxwell's equations and the residue theorem of complex analysis. I was boggled by the way the spectrum of hydrogen unfolded with a cool elegance from Schrodinger's wave equation. Soon, I was sensing a murmur of mathematical magic that suffused all of creation. The epic events of my young adulthood were the discoveries of the DNA double helix, the cosmic microwave background radiation, and plate tectonics.

My creative period started at about the time the world described by Edmund White and Patti Smith was winding down.

What did Motown mean to me? At the time, I didn't know it existed. But now, half-a-century later, when we dance in the kitchen at dinner time it is Motown we listen to. I haven't thought about Schrodinger's equation for a long time, but I still subconsciously sense that mathematical music animating nature. I'm a child of the 1950s who missed the revolution, but finds himself satisfied to have inherited the best of both worlds.