Taking Time

A fatal accident in his teens would come to define life for Darin Strauss. Also, from champion skier to acclaimed composer, Steven Mackey has never lost his rhythm.

AIRED: October 22, 2021 | 0:26:46

- [Narrator] Articulate with Jim Cotter

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(calm music)

- Welcome to Articulate,

the show that explores the inner lives

of some remarkable thinkers.

And on this episode, Taking Time,

a fatal accident in his teens would come

to define life for Darin Strauss.

Finally telling his story publicly, provided some relief.

- We all go through life feeling bad about stuff

that maybe we couldn't change but it just hangs over you.

- And from championship skier to acclaimed composer,

Stephen Mackey has never lost his rhythm.

- There's a real kind of musical connection,

having been a mobile skier, there is a certain rhythm

and that kind of like the physicality of that rhythm

is in my music.

- That's all ahead on Articulate.

(inspiring music)

When he was just a teenager,

Darin Strauss accidentally killed a 16 year old girl

called Celine.

He was looking forward to college

and starting life as an adult,

the accident changed everything and he would carry his guilt

and a promise he made to her family for years.

- Her parents said, "we know it's not your fault.

We'll never blame you.

We'll never sue you,

but you just have to live your life for two people."

And that was tough because, you know,

I didn't know what that meant, I was 18 years old,

but I thought, okay, I'm gonna try to do it.

She said, you have to be twice as successful,

twice as happy.

- Born in 1970 in the Long Island town

of Roslyn Harbor in the shadow of Manhattan,

Strauss grew up in a sort of suburban hoe humbleness.

The Strauss men, happily built skyscrapers,

sold real estate, none of them were conventionally creative,

except for one.

- My grandfather wanted to be a writer and couldn't,

I saw that as a tragic thing growing up,

he fancies himself a poet, typical immigrant story.

His father came here with nothing, built up this giant,

successful business and made his son do it

and his son said, I wanna be a poet.

- Strauss' great-grandfather Jacob,

emigrated from Russia at age 13,

with $12 in his pocket and no English.

He went to work at a hat factory.

Eight years later, he owned that factory.

Soon, he started buying real estate in New York

and building high-rises.

He got rich.

- My great uncle's wife called my grandmother and said,

"my husband just died and I found his body

and then I also found a huge suitcase of cash."

And that was the money he stole from the,

he stole a bunch of money.

He embezzled.

So my grandfather thought he was really rich

and wasn't, and so it lost, you know,

lost the house and...

- Didn't get the suitcase?

- Didn't get the suitcase.

- His parents expected young Darin to join the professions.

He wanted to be a writer.

- So I didn't think about being a writer,

but I obviously wanted to do it,

I was telling stories all the time.

So that was there

and I think it was based on my grandfather.

But then I had the accident.

- The accident occurred on an unremarkable day

in May, 1988, days before Strauss

was to graduate high school.

He was driving some friends to a game of miniature golf.

When up ahead he noticed a pair of cyclists off to the side.

Suddenly one of them, a young girl, veered into his lane,

just 10 feet ahead of him.

For Strauss, the next moments would cast an ominous shadow

on his young life.

- And how do they handle this?

What I want to write is, I lay there until morning

with tear stained eyes, tear stained pillow,

a tear stained life.

What can one do with levels of gloom and guilt,

fear and disbelief, of bewilderment

above one's capacity to register?

I think that was sort of the final push.

And really, maybe it was just knowing

that life can throw this curve ball.

So why, why play it safe anyway?

So I went to college and I think really upset my parents

when I said I'm going to try to be a writer.

- And so aged 18,

Darin Strauss found himself with two big problems.

How could he live the lives of two people?

And as he had been instructed by Celine's parents,

be twice as happy.

He now felt compelled to seek success as a writer.

And thus also honor his grandfather's unfulfilled dreams.

But first he had to escape from the scene of the tragedy.

Strauss describes college

as a sort of witness protection program.

He made sure no one would ever know his secret.

And despite his lack of culpability,

he shared with no one and could not talk himself

out of his suffering.

One month into his freshman year at Tufts,

he was told that despite their assurances,

Celine's parents were suing him

for substantial compensation,

they would eventually settle out of court for a trivial sum.

After Tufts Strauss,

headed to the graduate creative writing program

at New York university.

One particular teacher,

the late great novelist E.L. Doctorow

encouraged him to pursue his thesis topic.

The story of the famous co-joined twins, Chang and Eng.

The first 60 pages weren't very good,

but the last 10 offered hope

and would eventually form the basis of his first novel.

- And the entire class said, this is not going to work.

You shouldn't be writing this.

It's not you.

You're never to pull this off, except for the teacher.

And he pulled me aside after class and said,

"Ignore those people.

It's rough, but something is there".

So I was really discouraged.

I was going to give up on that.

- Chang and Eng was published in the year 2000

and was soon shortlisted

for the Barnes & Noble Discover award

and the Pen Hemingway award among others.

His second book, 2002's "The real McCoy"

was based on the life of Charles kid McCoy,

who came to New York in the early 19 hundreds

and assumed a new identity.

He became a championship boxer, but also a jewel thief,

a womanizer and a con man.

- I came to New York, became a writer,

felt like an imposter.

And then the third book was about

the secret that this family had.

- That third book "More than it hurts you"

published in 2008,

told of a family impacted by Munchausen by proxy.

A rarely diagnosed phenomenon where a caregiver,

often a parent, intentionally harms their child.

The family in the novel is forced to confront

a reality that has become a nightmare.

Despite presenting as works of fiction,

Strauss came to realize that all of his early novels

were at least in part autobiographical.

He poured his grief, regret and sense of the randomness

of life into them, without being fully aware of it.

After carrying the guilt of the accident for so long,

he began to work on a memoir.

With "Half a life"

he was finally ready to tackle that defining moment.

- All these things

are me dealing with it without realizing it.

And then I wrote my memoir and realized that.

And so it kind of freed me up to write, I guess,

whatever I wanted to write.

- The act of writing Half life was cathartic, freeing.

And from reader's responses,

he learned a surprising truth,

that by the time we are adults,

most of us carry some sort of guilt.

In 2020s, "The queen of Tuesday" Strauss honors,

his beloved grandfather, Izzy,

another life he had felt required to rectify vicariously.

He builds a story around a speck of truth.

His grandfather's chance meeting with Lucille Ball

at a Coney island demolition,

hosted by the infamous real estate developer, Fred Trump.

Combining biography, fiction and memoir,

Strauss creates a make-believe story

based on what might've been.

- My great grandfather had the hustle came here,

built this thing, you know,

and that's when my grandfather knew Trump's father,

because my grandfather was for awhile

in with all these big, real estate people.

And my grandfather was there for the birth

of the American suburb.

And that's what I thought was interesting too,

that he knew Lucille Ball or at least met her at this party.

So she built American culture in a way,

for better or worse.

And he built the American way of living.

He was there for people who built the American way of living

for better or worse.

- Into the Izzy Lucille saga,

Strauss weaves his own real and imagined conversations

with his grandfather towards the end of his life.

- In my grandfather's hospital room at his request,

I found myself pouring through a briefcase

that sat under a Burberry coat on a chair,

across from the bed.

"Found it" he said, "I think this will be something

you can use".

I pulled out a Manila folder filled with papers.

"No one knows that exists" Papa Izzy said,

"Did you ever hear, I knew Lucille Ball".

- Darin Strauss imagines an intense,

but short-lived love affair that would claim his

grandfather's undying devotion.

On his death bed he replays his time with Lucille

with the frequency of, I love Lucy reruns.

- There is something holy about his feelings for Lucille

and we're all sinners,

is lascivious (indistinct) is

righteous feelings.

It sounds awful to call infidelity

wholly on the Sabbath morning, but there it is.

How can you argue with the Bible?

The Beverly Hills hotel, to him revealed

that the almighty in the everyday

by showing the furthest possibilities for human joy

and yet more and more guilt comes, tastes like regret.

The affair was invented, but I knew with Lucille Ball,

she's so well known that it wouldn't do

to make stuff up whole cloth.

I wanted her fans to be able to appreciate the book.

And then with my grandfather,

I felt I owed him just a respectful telling as well,

just because he's someone I loved.

- Darin Strauss has spent much of his life keeping secrets

on promises and his books.

His characters struggled with destiny, with fate.

They often live double lives as he was forced to do.

His art has imitated his life.

And it would seem that Darin Strauss is now okay with that.

(soft music)

Steven Mackey was just 19.

When an injury forced him to give up professional skiing,

a path he had been pursuing for much of his life.

He didn't step on the slopes again for 25 years.

But when he did the same drive that had propelled

his early training took over.

- I start skiing and I see this gate, you know,

it says caution, experts only, three black diamonds warning.

I don't know what possessed me, but I guess went over,

made two turns, fell, my skis come off.

I tumbled down, you know, 500 feet,

who are you Stephen,

you gotta reign it in.

- It was a foolish moment of hubris,

but only a temporary setback.

After a while his muscle memory returned.

- It came back to me.

The reason I fell on that first run

was my weight got too far back

and my quadriceps are not strong enough to pull me back up.

And so I lost it twice.

Then, you know,

it began a whole renewed passion for the sport.

- Mackey is on the bounds between hard work and audacity,

failure and success.

For much of his life,

he's guided as much by emotion as reason.

And he knows that both are vital.

Around the time his teenage injury

pushed him to give up skiing,

another chance encounter, set him on a new path.

- I remember driving around with my older brother

and he had an eight track cassette, eight track tape deck.

You know, we were always putting in music

and he put in Beethoven's last string quartet Opus 1 35

and (indistinct) movement of that

has this sing song, a tune,

and then it hits this it's an F major.

And then it hits this E-flat cause.

(demonstrates singing notes)

- Hits this note. That's the wrongest note.

The bluest note I'd ever heard.

It was like, wow,

these people are writing music for people to listen to.

And they're trying to distill all of life

into a listening experience.

- At the time, Mackey was also playing guitar

in a rock band.

- I was also beginning to tire of, you know,

play the Doobie brothers,

you know, as my band was playing our aspirational originals,

you know?

And so it just felt like we were playing music

to get drunk by, to dance to, to seduce by,

to do the laundry, to,

to do, you know, all reasonable things.

But here was music that was meant to

take aluminate the human soul.

And it just, I just like,

I that's what I wanna do.

- In the years since that car ride with Beethoven,

Mackey has channeled that moment of revelation

into a lifelong determination,

to understand music and explore its limits as a composer.

Now, a professor at Princeton with a happy home life

and a worthy house band consisting of his wife

and fellow composer, Sarah Kirkton Snyder,

and their two kids, Dylan and Jasper.

(band playing)

Mackey has won a Grammy award and his compositions

are much performed, but as expected,

it wasn't a straight shot from rock and roll skier

to internationally recognized Ivy league composer.

Mackey decided to venture into classical music at an age

when most musicians already have years of experience.

Still what he lacked in time, he made up for with Verve.

- Yeah, I was very naive.

I went to the head of the music department

at the university of California

where I was a student and said,

I decided I want to be a composer

and I'm going to be a music major.

And he said, well, that sounds good.

We'll have you audition. What instrument do you play?

I say, I play the guitar.

He said, well,

we'll have you site read some things

and play some prepared pieces.

And I said, well, I don't know how to read music.

And he said, he just laughed.

He said, you know, you seem like a nice kid,

but there's just no way at your age that you can do this.

You can't catch up.

I walked out of his office,

looked in the newspaper for classical guitar teachers

and figured that would be the way to do it.

I'll study classical guitar. I have the left hand.

I was, you know, I was a dedicated guitarist.

I mean, I practiced as much as any violinist practiced.

I practiced six, you know,

in the summer when I didn't have to go to school,

I practice six, eight hours a day.

- The commitment paid off.

Mackey graduated Summa Cum Laude,

and continued to dive deeper into the underpinnings

of music.

Eventually earning a PhD from Brandeis university,

but academic accolades were never the goal.

(guitar music)

Just like that blue note in the Beethoven string quartet,

he was chasing powerful musical moments

and willing to endure whatever it took to get there.

Like the reaction he got when an orchestra finished playing

one of his early pieces,

eating greens at a European music festival.

(orchestra music)

- Dead silence, then boom, and a couple of people,

bravo, and then a little,

(soft clapping)

I mean, just like you could hear the individual applause.

I mean, there was no kind of ambient applause

and that it hurt.

- But Mackey didn't dwell on this discouraging response.

On the contrary, it drove him.

- My greatest fear in a way

is not standing for anything

because just being brand, I guess, you know,

that's my greatest fear is just being, yeah,

not gonna hurt anybody, you know.

If I love that so much,

and those people hated it so much,

I must therefore stand for something, you know,

so I'm gonna soldier on

because I really believe in what I'm doing.

And I really liked it.

- What he was doing was going against everything

he had spent the last several years learning.

Mackey's graduate work focused on 12 tone music,

a method of composing that came about

in the early 20th century.

Typically music is written using a scale

with one tone as the focal point

that gives us the key of the composition.

12 tone music pushes against that.

One tone is more important than the other.

Instead a work is composed by putting the 12 tones of the

chromatic scale that used by most

Western musical instruments, into an order

that is the main guide.

- You would lay the notes out in a row

and that's order was supposed to be maintained.

So you don't get to number two before you have number one,

you could have one and two together as a little cord,

and then you can have three and then you can have

four or five, six and seven together as a chord,

and then you can have eight.

So that was the coin of the realm.

When I was in grad school, that was what people were doing.

And in college I had been a physics major, you know,

before I switched to music.

So math, that kind of thing of charts and structures

and that kind of thing came easy to me.

- But once he finished school and had his degree

easy wasn't satisfying.

When Mackey arrived at Princeton, a colleague,

musician and composer, Jim Rondell

learned he had a background in guitar.

He suggested the two of them put together recordings of

improvisations, round, lump, piano,

and Mackey on electric guitar.

- It struck me that all my favorite bits

violate taboos that I learned in grad school, you know,

all the things that really oh, yeah.

That excites me.

Those are all things that I had learned not to do

in grad school.

One of my big influences, the jazz pianist,

Thelonious Monk,

man, I'd like to joke of Thelonious finishing the gig.

And he's kind of down in the dumps as his buddy comes in

and says, what's wrong.

And he says, ah, I played all the wrong,

wrong notes tonight, you know,

I'm really interested in the right wrong notes.

In order to have wrong notes,

there has to be a context of rightness,

you know, at the basis,

which is the problem for me of 12 tone music

as a blues guitar player,

12 tone music that then I was so occupied with, you know,

ultimately, you know,

I understood why I wanted to move away from that.

It's because there are no wrong notes in 12 tone music.

- As he searched more and more for the right way

to be wrong, Mackey's, iconoclasm expanded

beyond rebelling against the music

theory genre of the day.

He wrote a pizza delivery into an orchestral score


and incorporated unconventional instruments

into his compositions.

(guitar music)

- I wrote a piece for electric guitar and string quartet.

And the review said, combining the electric guitar

and string quartet is a terrible idea

and Mackey does it terribly.

The only good thing about being present at this concert

is the knowledge that this will never happen again.

- But Stephen Mackey doesn't feel

he's a contrarian rebelling

against musical conventions.

Instead he sees himself as part of the lineage that develop

those conventions.

- Classical music, when you look at the tradition,

Mozart, for example,

Mozart is a combination of Austrian folk song,

Turkish, military music, sacred music, Italian folk song,

an Italian opera, 18th century counterpoint.

All of these things put together in his day,

he was a mutt

- And he was also a punk.

- He was, he was a punk, but you know,

it was 40 years after his death.

His music was called classical music.

(piano music)

- Mackey hasn't had to wait quite as long

for similar recognition.

In 2015, the magazine music of America

praised his composition Mnemosyne's Pool

as the first great American symphony of the 21st century.

(orchestral music)

The piece is about the role of memory and making music,

it's fitting since so much of Mackey's journey

as a musician has been about reconciling and processing

the different paths his life has taken

as a rock and roll guitarist,

a classic composer and academic,

and even his years as a skier.

- There's a real kind of musical connection.

Having been a mobile skier, there's a certain rhythm,

you know, anything went.

And so you just were putting on a show.

And so I didn't have to go through the moguls.

I could go pick up a ball

and that kind of the physicality of that rhythm is in my


- But even as he's carved his own path into music,

Mackey still thinks he's something of an outsider.

- I still feel like I read music as a second language,


Unlike, you know, a cellist,

you put music, printed music in front of a cellist.

And from the beginning, you know,

cellist in the Philadelphia orchestra, they're interpreting,

you know, it's like giving a script to an actor, right?

I'm decoding still.

I cover it up pretty well.

People think that I'm musically literate,

but I'm not a native speaker.

(guitar music)

- Still the aim for Steve Mackey was never to take on the

cadence and accent of the native speaker.

Instead, he's finding his own vernacular

creating musical moments

that he or we haven't even imagined yet.

(guitar music)

- There's times where the music that kind of just,

I stumbled into has some, you know,

flavor of some human experience.

And I don't, you know,

I don't know what it is yet, but that's my job

as a curator of my own music is to you know,

to find that so that it is as close to being as powerful

as that as possible.

Yeah. I can hear some human experience in there.

Let me get, let me sharpen that up until then.

Now, you know,

I'm three quarters of the way through with the piece.

Now I know what this piece is about.

- Just as in his music,

Stephen Mackey embraces the beauty of harmony

and dissonance in life.

He knows our most uncomfortable moments can also become our

most transformative.

Sometimes stumbling sometimes soaring.

The key Stephen Mackey has learned, is to just keep

sliding forward.

(soft music)

- For more articulate,

find us on social media or on our website,

On the next articulate singer songwriter

Valerie June has been knocked down,

but never knocked up by heartbreak,

illness and financial misfortune,

and now in his early sixties choreographer.

Stephen Petronio has built a life and the body of work

by fighting to control whose rules he's prepared to follow.

I'm Jim Cotter, join us for the next Articulate.

(soft music)

- Articulate, with Jim Cotter is made possible

with generous funding from the

Neubauer family foundation.


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