October 14, 2008

I should be asleep by now. In fact, I should have been deep in slumber an hour ago, ideally two. Instead, I lie here in bed, my mind spinning, my head full of conversations that may or may not have occurred, in a language I barely understand, but, tonight the cadence of which stresses and unstresses in the recesses of my imagination. I could blame the sugar I consumed earlier for this bout of insomnia, sleeplessness. The cans of cane sugar-sweetened soda, the snack-size candy bars, the still-warm from-a-box-mix brownies served with two scoops of French vanilla ice cream. No. All that glucose, sucrose and high fructose corn syrup has already metabolized.  Instead I just find myself thinking. Thinking too much.

The past couple of weeks have been filled with a string of unknowns. Some of those unknowns have been answered. Others have yet to be settled. Still others have reached a point where due to their intangibility they must just be accepted, reckoned with, made peace with, allowed to remain a question mark.

And so began a blog entry that I did not finish at the time. But I will finish it now. At the very least append it. -And apologize for “stresses and unstresses in the recesses”.

Those opening and closing paragraphs were written during a very dark hour, literally and figuratively. It was around 3:40 in the morning, just hours before my mom was about to go in for heart surgery. I will gloss over the details for the sake of the privacy and out of respect for my family, but I will say that at that moment I was scared.

Dealing with the “concept”(?) of someone dying – even just possibly dying – is daunting enough, but when it comes to the mortality of one’s parents, there really are no words to fully describe that feeling, that fear, that possible, tangible and intangible loneliness. Otherwise flowery language gains weight, credence, even solemnity. I was scared. And I never imagined that I could feel that so deeply.

Fast forward a few weeks later:

November 30, 2008

I’m having lunch across the table from my Mom, deciphering the Vietnamese lunch she just ordered, and talking about her upcoming trip to New York City in a few weeks.

One question answered – along with a litany of prayers. One unknown now resolved.

*****

October 24, 2008

Dona nobis, nobis pacem,
Pacem dona, dona nobis,
Nobis pacem,  pacem dona,
Dona nobis, nobis pacem,
Pacem dona, dona nobis…

Each time the refrain of the “Agnus Dei” would repeat, it would not only increase in volume and texture, but in passion, despair, anger, resignation and retaliation. I just sat there and let the waves of sound and instruments and voices wash over me and surround me. I could feel my pulse quickening along with my breathing, as if I was trying to stifle an eruptive bout of sobbing.

It had been almost 30 years – 27 to be exact – since I first experienced Bernstein’s “Mass”.  I still have the VHS tape that I used to record the PBS broadcast of the 10th Anniversary presentation at the Kennedy Center.  At that time and at that age, I was more intrigued by the scale of the project, the seemingly disparate musical and theatrical elements, and, of course, being a “good, Catholic boy”, the controversy surrounding the treatment of the Eucharist at the climax of the piece.  I remember wondering how the boy soloists got chosen to sing on TV, let alone at the Kennedy Center. I was singing in my church’s Children’s Choir, and had never been approached about possibly singing elsewhere, and I didn’t know anyone else who had either.  Even my knowledge of Bernstein at that time was basically limited to “A Great Musical Figure”, “Someone Important”, the composer of West Side Story.  But something caught my eyes and ears in the promos for that initial PBS broadcast, enough to make me tune in and tape it, and watch it repeatedly until no amount of tracking could ever clear up the picture.  27 years later in Carnegie Hall it would all become clear again.

From the opening tape loops going into “A Simple Song,” to the final “The Mass is ended: go in Peace,” it was a most special evening. There was definitely a Sense of Occasion.  Not only was I there with a good friend, but I also happened to know a couple of the performers, and had cursorily worked with the conductor, Marin Alsop, years before she was chosen to lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (which she was conducting that evening). Admittedly, there are moments in Bernstein’s “Mass” that mark it as a product of its time, but, like all great pieces of Music, there is just so much there that transcends musical categories and compositional languages.  There were passages that made me feel like a wide-eyed, open-eared 13-year old again that night, but I was also reminded of the education and experience that my Life has brought me during the intervening 27 years.

We’re fed up with your heavenly silence,
And we only get action with violence,
So if we can’t have the world we desire,
Lord, we’ll have to set this one on fire!
Dona nobis, Dona nobis.

*****

November 2, 2008

Last year, there were 39,265 runners in the ING NYC Marathon, and my youngest brother, Jay, was among them.  He had wanted to don his running shoes again for the course through all five boroughs, but due to his work schedule, he was not able to apply for this year’s race.  However, he was able to head to New York City to cheer on and support his girlfriend, Maria, who was one of the lucky 38,832 runners selected to run in this year’s race.  And just like I did last year with Jay, I was able to track Maria’s progress via SMS alerts and on the marathon’s website – from the comfortable warmth of my apartment – before heading to down to the Finisher’s Area along Central Park West.

I remember being struck by the scope and variety of everyone gathered along Central Park West last year, and this year was no different.  With 38,800+ finishers, that meant that there were at least that many people trying to meet and greet them as they made their way out of Central Park. Family members, friends, co-workers, spectators, fans, fellow running enthusiasts, police, guards, medical technicians, tourists who just happened to be in town the same weekend as the race. My eye was repeatedly drawn to the finishers who were making their way through the Crowd, wrapped in their silver-blue-orange-white mylar blankets.

Some people had obviously had a much tougher race than they had planned, or ever thought they would, but their limp and hunched backs were happily betrayed by the finisher medals around their necks and the smiles on their faces.  A “DNF” was not an option. Then there were all the people who just kept looking and looking for their friends and family.  They would catch my glance, I would catch theirs, smile hopefully for a moment, and then once they realized that I was not whom they were looking for, they would move on to the next cluster of people holding up flowers and homemade signs of “Congratulations” and “You Did It!”.  And then there were those who walked along Central Park West with their heads up, their eyes down.  Not looking for anyone, no one meeting them at the finish line.  Perhaps they had not even told anyone of their plans for that first Sunday afternoon in November.  They had just ran the 26.2 miles for themselves. I Did It!

*****

November 4, 2008

A very different sort of race.  A very different sort of finish line.

Seconds after the race was called that night, I started to hear car horns and people cheering outside, fireworks. I ran to my front door… People were leaning out of their windows continuing to spread the news at the top of their lungs… Waving American flags as they drove by in their cabs… Hugging their neighbors and strangers alike on the sidewalk. I stepped into the street, and let out my own joyful noise…

YES!

*****

November 11, 2008

I’m back at Carnegie Hall:

Zankel Hall

Jeremy Denk, Piano

IVES – Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840–60”
BEETHOVEN – Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106, “Hammerklavier”

As I said before: “Monster program!”

I’m not even going to attempt to explain the musical importance of these two works, especially since Mr. Denk has already done so quite beautifully and intelligently: Program Notes.

As for my opinion of the evening’s musical proceedings, there’s really not so much more that I could add to my previous “Bravo, Jeremy Denk!  Bravo!” Suffice it say, it was one of those rare times when I was able to sit back in my seat and just Listen.  Insightful, intelligent, thought-provoking, dazzling, coloristic piano playing, music making. A few weeks later, I still want to Listen.

*And for a very interesting and entertaining discourse on the “Hammerklavier” and “Reaganian Counterpoint” – as well as to tie this entry into the previous one –  I highly recommend:  The Interview.

*****

November 16, 2008

I had not really heard much about “Slumdog Millionaire” before I decided to see the movie.  I knew that it was set in India. I knew that Danny Boyle was the director, and I had read the headlines of a couple of reviews, but none of their content. After being very pleasantly surprised by Boyle’s previous “fairy tale”, “Millions”, I decided to take a chance on it. In a way, I guess I followed some sort of self-created “buzz”. I’m so glad I did. It’s been a while since I’ve cheered and cried tears of joy(!) at the end of a movie.

*****

December 6, 2008

1:09pm

I’m back at MoMA, and, yes, I’m making way through the Van Gogh exhibit for the umpteenth time.  I basically race through the rooms, except for a brief stop in front of “The Stevedores in Arles”, a truly fascinating painting, all yellows, ochres and greens. I make my way to the final room of the exhibit, the display of books, Van Gogh’s literary inspirations, and find myself drawn to the excerpt from Victor Hugo’s “L’Année Terrible”.

He does not complain. Proud before the filthy mob,
He laughs, since heaven is given to those who lose the world,
And since he has this hospitality for shelter,
And since –O joy! O infinity! O liberty!
Conquering fate, facing evil, piercing the veils,
Driven out by men — he can lose himself in the stars!

7:05pm

“Milk” at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square (in theatre 25).  I basically start to cry as soon as the Coming Attractions finish, and the movie proper begins.  Two hours and eight minutes later and after crying a few more times, I’m once again reminded of Everyone who has gone before me.  Thank you.

9:38pm

It’s snowing! I’m in Times Square. I’ve stopped crying, and the smile has returned to my face. I can’t stop giggling as I walk up Broadway from 42nd Street to Columbus Circle.

First Snow 2008/9 in Times Square

*And, as an added bonus, an express train pulls into the station as soon as I get down to the platform. Yes!

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