Eerie Pandemic Princeton

Greetings from my living room, work room, practice room, dog playing room, video room, dating room, despair room, recovery room, renewal room, Pilates room, giggle room, thinking room, class room, couch potato room, NY, NY.

Here’s some thoughts mulling around today:

I had a chat with a former piano student last night.  A sophomore at Princeton, he described the weird and eerie realities of undergraduate life at America’s premier Ivy League institution.  When he arrived on campus a few weeks ago, he was handed twenty self-admin covid tests with instructions to spit into a vial twice a week, seal it, stick on one of the 20 scan labels with personal info embedded in it, and drop it into the no-contact campus drop-offs.  This, along with a multi-page contract laying out the covid commandments of conduct is required of all students on campus.  If any covid protocols are violated, the student has signed into the agreement, they will be immediately expelled from campus.  

As we spoke for about 30 minutes, he was walking around Princeton’s campus on a Tuesday evening. America’s most beautiful gothic university, this campus normally bustles with student life, from all-nighter paper writers to artists and scientists quietly and noisily rehearsing or working inside labs of every type.  On this recent Tuesday evening, not a single person crossed my young  friend’s path. Lights on in dorms, ghostly, post Armageddon darkness outside; public spaces closed to all; Campus social life ground to a halt; meals almost entirely takeout with dining halls serving the required pre-packaged larder confirmed to be far worse than could be imagined. A few brave souls venture outside their dorms to sit at great distances from each other as unspeaking zombies. The infamous Princeton eating club parties are no longer. Freshman are allegedly “messing around, of course, after 6 months of zoom jail in High School”,  but no mass expulsions yet reported. Contactless zoom class instruction is everyone’s norm from their dorm cubbies. Gatherings for sports, theater, music, play of any sort are forbidden and any movement around campus is closely monitored and electronically tracked. An Orwellian reality chills the imagination…  This is campus life for college students across America.

Striking to me is the fact that, somehow, in the midst of this year of deprivation and terror, my student continues to burst with creative energy as he has always done. Telling me about his latest gigs at giant heated tents in New Brunswick and his newly setup recording studio above his parents’ garage near campus, he is mixing avant-garde instrumental band music for new albums released throughout the pandemic, and taught himself several new instruments in between the hours spent collaborating through live streaming with band mates on screens.  He reports that his academic challenges with his ever restless body have been greatly aided by zoom classes because he can now pace, fiddle, strum, and riff on a keyboard as he takes in self-muted lectures with greater absorption. He is liberated from the straight-jacket of sitting still for a whole lecture class, worrying about being conspicuous or disturbing classmates as his attention deficits involuntarily take over his body. Is this a true silver lining for the group of high potential individuals, labeled ADD, who are often eliminated from competition because of their liabilities conforming to non-covid social and educational norms ?  A pandemic discovery for the ages that could lead to an explosion of empowered new talent ?

On a day when I was personally struggling, as ever,  with the combined realities of the soon to be anniversary of this dreadful year, I am moved. Feeling defeated and despairing as I reflect on the social isolation, the enormous personal disappointments of multiple cancellations: an exciting new orchestra recording in Prague, a new coaching and teaching position in Spain, the plan to join my piano student in Germany to learn from her discoveries performing under pressure at international competitions, and tickets to a recital in Paris of my revered idol since childhood, Martha Argerich. The reality setting in that all these projects are NOT likely to be rescheduled, EVER.  I also mourn the systematic extraction of my own cherished sources of joy, surprise, and delight, in the rituals and variety of performances in my daily life at home hosting family meals and holidays, planning and presenting concerts, mulling over delicious program possibilities for beloved musicians, and the random amusements and theater of New York street life. I read the daily reports of disproportionate numbers of celebrated musicians throughout the world dying of covid, the indefinite closing of the world’s greatest performance venues, the financial bankruptcy of many of our country’s most talented classical and jazz musicians, and the pandemic flight from NYC of countless friends and family. My losses are soul threatening yet pale amid the global tragedy of countless lives extinguished. It is not surprising that despair is frequently my mind’s resting point.

How can hope remain amidst this carnage ? Until today, I was drawing a blank response to this question. Sleeping on the memory of this young man’s story, I woke up this morning with that elusive sense of possibilities before me: Just as humanity surrounded by despair in millennia past have done, I see that one day at a time, one hour at a time, we find pieces to connect in auto-motions and to our utter surprise we stumble upon a dim vision and a first step. Instinctively wired for survival, hope emerges in the darn-dest corners of serendipity. Thank you, dear undergraduate,  for showing me that despite your clear-eyed awareness of today’s bitter realities, you dare to follow your imagination for what can be and the energetic passion to make it so! May your future remain the blazingly bright bulb it is today and may we all capture a single ray of your light in its wake! Amen.