on enjoying the aftertaste

We’re off on vacation for a week, so just a brief insight for you this afternoon. Then you can go back to your high-end haircuts and green tea matcha lattes. (No week is complete without the New York Times Sunday Routine.)

A week into my freshman year of college, I made the impulse decision to forego a career in chemistry and major in theater instead. (Kids: this is the kind of thing that happens in college. Watch out.)

What I didn’t realize was that the full name of the major was “theater and dance.” What I couldn’t have realized was that, when they said “dance,” they actually meant “movement.” Like this. “Students, I want you to pulse in and pulse out…” That sort of thing. Frying pan to the fire, in other words.

Dave was not happy. I’ve grown to love that stuff, but it had to be chiseled into me. Boy, did they have to chisel.

At the end of one semester, our not-dance professor tasked us with putting together a ten-minute final piece from scratch. Ten minutes? That wasn’t going to be nearly enough for me. I had things to say! I had resentments to unfurl! How else would everyone know that I was not interested in all this pulsing? So my friend and I put together a twenty-minute parody of everything that frustrated me about the major. It had a soundtrack, but instead of the expected Brian Eno and Philip Glass it featured the likes of Queen and the Beach Boys. All the stops were pulled, I tell you.

At my end-of-semester review, I walked in to get my beatdown, and it came. Not for the reasons I expected, though. My professor didn’t say a thing about my bad attitude, the (not all that clever) parody, or even the fact that we messed up most of our music cues: “Look, that bit where you were surfing was some of the best physicality you’ve displayed all year. [Ed. note: Yes, she actually complimented the surfing part.] But don’t you see that, by the time you were finished, no one could even remember the other pieces?”

This was not intended as a compliment. Her point was that, by putting on an overly long, ridiculous extravaganza of jokes and posturing right after a series of short, thoughtful movement pieces, I’d flushed everyone’s lingering aesthetic impressions down the toilet. If a tree falls in the forest and you follow it up with a fart joke, did the tree even make a sound?

This lesson stuck with me. It made me extraordinarily conscious of the aesthetic “aftertaste,” that layering of impressions and sensations that stay with you after experiencing a work of art. I still remember the solo walk I took after watching Memento for the first time. That movie shunted me into a different headspace altogether. I’m grateful to this day that I had the opportunity to walk home along the Hudson River afterward and really bask in it. Grateful that a little message didn’t pop up over the end credits telling me that my queued episode of Real Housewives of Potomac would start playing in ten seconds.

If you experience a masterpiece of film and immediately switch over to some loud pop garbage on Netflix, you’re essentially killing off all those beautiful little neurological buds forming in your brain. Twenty years ago, you’d have the walk home from the concert hall, theater, or cineplex to let those impressions settle in. Today, we watch and listen to our masterpieces and our loud pop garbage on the same devices, one right after the other. If you’ve never deliberately created the space to digest a work of art before, it’s possible you’ve never really fully appreciated that piece. You may not even realize what you’ve been missing.

I learned a lot in college, but this lesson stands above the others. When I read or watch or hear something special, or even experience a truly special conversation, I do my best to give it space and let it linger in my mind. I get quiet and let the work and all its associations filter through me. I let the work breathe.

Then, and only then, do I switch over to some loud pop garbage.