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Don, the Romantic

I'm sitting here at my computer listening to Howard Hanson's Second Symphony (aptly subtitled "The Romantic"), and I'm transported to Ames, Iowa. It's September, 1968. I'm driving my Volkswagen bus across the Iowa State University campus near sundown, when the university radio station WOI is signing off the air with just this theme. The sun skims across the still green lawns and through the huge elm trees, a glorious Technicolor dreamscape. Iím enchanted.

I have thrown up a good job and sold our home in Cincinnati so that I can attend school again, searching for meaning in my life. In the midst of civil rights and anti-war demonstrations and a new flowering of folk music, it seems the rest of the country is doing the same thing. I feel swept up in a very human movement of vast scope, full of hope and fear at the same time. It's a romantic time (are romantic times always full of violence?). Suddenly, it seems, I'm aware of feelings I'd kept stifled for years as I pursued my career. Passions well up inside me; at forty years old, Iím in love with love. I've pulled my family halfway across the country, torn them from their roots to live in student housing for two years while I look for who I might be.

The next few years proved to be as wonderful for meóand as awfulóas they were for our country. Endless roller coasters of passion and conflict, tenderness and grief, hope and horror. A pity none of it ever became really resolved, but only settled slowly into "reality," the mud that's left on the lawn after a flood. Nothing to do but simply continue, sort through the debris and go on with what's left. Stumble, fall, and do it again. Learn to love again, learn to hope again, learn new names and new places and learn how to let go.

The trouble with romanticism, I think today, is that it keeps me from being awake now, in this moment. That gold and green memory of driving slowly across campus listening to incredibly sweet music was only a few moments thirty years ago. My life today is a hundred times more satisfying, and a hundred times more real. Iíve shown myself who I am, and just as clearly who Iím not.

Then, though, I'd never heard of Howard Hanson, or Johnny Rivers or Pink Floyd for that matter. "Romantic" to me before then had meant Tchaikovskyís Romeo and Juliet, or Johnny Mathis or Jo Stafford. Neat, carefully scripted romance, trimmed of ambiguity or loose ends. I was discovering again how it felt to be caught up in a world of green and gold mist, earthy and unpredictable.

Maybe it was just that: a psychedelic age, more brilliant than real. But it still haunts me, sometimes. Something about that time seeped under my intellectual armor and warmed me. I would never feel quite the same about life. Iíd be nagged forever by questions like, "Why does Pink Floyd always remind me of church music?" The Grand Mystery itself had infected me.


Donald Skiff, May 6, 1999, revised March 16, 2001

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