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Whistling Past the Graveyard 

Morale exercises and other pitfalls

The Sun Valley Summer Symphony is having its season again. Julie and I have begun our pilgrimages over Galena Summit to its concerts. We're hoping to attend six or eight of them this August, as lawn people rather than as amphitheater people.

Lawn people stay outside the Sun Valley Pavilion. They bring their own chairs and blankets. They stand up and wave at friends and neighbors. They listen to the music over loudspeakers, and watch the musicians on Sun Valley's late-model jumbotron, all the while eating from picnic baskets and drinking wine.

Amphitheater people are more serious. Inside the Pavilion, they see the performers face-to-face and hear them instrument-to-ear. Nobody talks during the solos. They dress better and drink less. They leave their children's and grandchildren's small children at home. They study programs like scroll fragments. They know the musicians, as the musicians often stay in their guest houses and attend their parties. They come later and they leave earlier.

It's hard to say which group has the better experience. Julie and I have tried both. We prefer the lawn except when it's pouring rain. The wine and food are factors. So are the wandering, laughing children; the inappropriate lawn-person applause between movements; and the occasional lawn person's really inappropriate relationship with Spandex and Lycra. We stay after the concert, watching people until lawn and amphitheater are empty. Then we drive to the Ketchum Grill for dessert before heading back over the summit, doing our wary best to avoid the 10 or 15 deer that cross the road in front of us on the way home.

It's a morale-building exercise. The music incarnates the beauty and generosity and genius that humans reach when they're given the chance. When I look at the world-class artists on the Pavilion stage, I think that every one of them was once a beginner--a lucky beginner, one with tendencies toward self-discipline and self-denial and hard work, one with loving family members in a culture dedicated to education. In a present where war and political corruption deny billions of children food, families and the slightest dream of an education, these terribly accomplished people demonstrate a path to a brighter, better future.

(An aside: Few of the musicians are products of Idaho education. Draw your own conclusions. My conclusion is that real education is more expensive and dedicated to music, arts and the humanities than Idaho's priorities reflect. Idaho has the ability to educate our young people for excellence, but won't devote the effort, thought or resources to do it. Instead, we channel huge sums to football, getting for our efforts NCAA mid-major status, brain-damaged kids, a population dulled to mediocrity by bread-and-circuses, and an annual spectacle of rape and assault charges.)

Back to morale. One of my great joys at a Sun Valley Summer Symphony concert is that I'm not as old as most of the audience, many of whom are evidence that you can get to 90 or 95 and still get out and enjoy life and have your wits about you.

Not all brains turn to cottage cheese upon retirement, although I suspect that wealth, education, supporting family and friends, and a deep interest in the world have a lot to do with how old, sharp and happy these folks are.

(Another aside: Old folks, sharp or not, happy or not, worth it or not, demand huge chunks of a society's resources. Unlike children, they often have the political power to get them. The enclave of Sun Valley wouldn't exist as the world's finest geriatric ski resort/golf course/concert venue/spa if this weren't true.)

I leave the concerts with a spring in my step and a tune in my head. At such times, I'm grateful for the additional decades of graceful aging--if any--the future holds for me.

A dark spot in this picture: On our way to and from the concerts, we pass Ernest Hemingway's grave. The cars of other, less euphoric and more purposeful pilgrims are in the cemetery's parking lot, and if you know where to look you might see two or three of them standing grimly around the author's slab, which is often as not littered with half-full Jack Daniel's bottles, wildflower bouquets, gaping Gauloises packs, empty shotgun shells, sprinkler-sodden blank books. These are offerings, each with its element of perversity, but each no doubt sincere.

It's safe to say Hemingway didn't age gracefully. As someone years older than he was when he put the final punctuation mark on his work, I can also say he was at his best in his 20s and early 30s. In his later decades, his writing got self-indulgent and fame-conscious. Even The Old Man and the Sea bears marks of having been drafted decades earlier.

Even before his shock treatments, Hemingway must have gotten weirded out by the people who worshipfully followed him around Ketchum grocery stores, buying the same items he did. He must have wondered what it meant to be a fixture in Sun Valley publicity materials. He must have awoken to lucid 4 a.m. moments where he saw that his paranoia, however justified, was making his life a prison.

The question, for those who aren't willing to leave the field as Hemingway did, is how to enjoy living as artists and humanists, still seeking skills and knowledge and still reaching for excellence, all the while recognizing the terrible enormity of life. It's a serious inquiry, even for lawn people. There are people in Sun Valley who are posing some answers. They're playing music, and they're worth going to see.

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