The blaze of glory

Hail Galileo

A job well done
And you’ve earned your rest

Though you end your days
Far from your native soil,
You go out on a blaze of glory.

All the things that you’ve seen
All the miles that you’ve traveled
Have been observed and noted.
You have been immortalized.

Thanks for the memories.

Cheers for self-serving service to others

I spent this morning making phone calls for the TeleCare program, something I’ve been doing once a month for almost four years now. When I began as a volunteer, I was told as by the director of the program that one of the benefits for me is that I would feel wonderful about myself whenever I make these calls. I remember dismissing the comment, saying that feeling good about myself was not the reason I was going to volunteer.

Now, I see how arrogant my reaction was. This morning I arrived at TeleCare rather down again. However, as I talked to dozens of resilient, mostly elderly folks who were cheerful, courageous, funny, and vibrant — in spite of the very real physical pain or emotional isolation they may experience day in and day out. My job was to check in on them, make sure they are ok, and bring a bit of warmth and care into their lives. But in reaching out, wasn’t I also being ministered to as well? Of course.

Now I’m thankful to be doing volunteer work that is both useful and emotionally rewarding. Such a combination enables me to sustain my participation in the program these last four years. TeleCare is one of my favorite organizations. Don’t be surprised if I get a lump in my throat if you ask me to tell you about it. Indeed, our volunteers love the program so much that they generally keep volunteering until they move away or pass away. (Our longest serving volunteer has been faithfully making calls for over thirty years!)

So true

A cartoon from the Sept 22, 2003 issue of The New Yorker made me laugh. A man says to a woman who is looking at his bookcase:

“I’ve had those books for years. They represent the person I once aspired to be.”

Little politics on my blog lately

I used to write about politics or at least quote some of the latest political stories on my blog. I’ve fallen silent because I don’t know what to say these days. It’s certainly not that I think things are going so well that there’s nothing to comment on or nothing to advocate for. Rather, of the many, many issues out there, I don’t know which of the few I should focus on. Hence the current silence. Maybe I should stay silent and listen instead.

(I will say, however, that when the latest issue of The New York Review arrived in my mailbox, I read Mark Danner’s Iraq: The New War and thought of the debate between Danner and Christopher Hitchens staged on campus those many months ago.)

I’m back (sorta)

Well, I’m back (sorta). Did you miss me? Those of you who follow my blog closely will have noticed that I wrote an entry on the 12th reflecting my sadness and then promptly stopped writing. A lot of things had been bubbling in me — and all of a sudden, they came together to utterly drain me of my usual hope and optimism. Various flaws that I saw in myself became damning comdemnations. The loneliness that I often felt but would normally shake off transformed itself into a dreaded suspicion that I was indeed unworthy of love, let alone simple affection. Waking up on Saturday morning with a cold and a sore throat did not help the situation, though the physical discomfort in some way did take my mind off what ailed my heart.

I suspected that the dark fog would eventually lift and that while it was painful to experience such sorrow, I had much to learn from it. (I knew that trying to rationally account for all that I had to be thankful for as a way of slapping some sense into me — and there is so much to be thankful for; I have little to complain about in the grand scheme of things — wasn’t going to work.) I deeply appreciated all of you who read my blog, wondered whether there was something wrong, and checked in with me, invited me to hang out, listened closely to me, and sympathized with me. I love you all. Part of me feels ashamed that I used my blog entry from Friday as an indirect cry for help and attention. I could have just said, “Help me! I need my friends to pamper me a bit.” Will you forgive me? Teach me how to ask for help? Thank you for indulging me.

Some I’m back (sorta). I’m thrilled to have the energy and desire to write once more.

When sadness descends like the fog

I wish that I could write you a happy story, a fond remembrance from childhood. I have plenty of those left to recount. But today, I am just sad. It is not a rational sadness with which I tussle — on the cosmic scale, I have no reason to be sad. Yet it’s the little things that disappoint, and sting, and deflate, and demoralize, isn’t it?

I have little doubt that some sleep — a lot of sleep — will help me recover a sense of normalcy. And after I awake to a newer world, maybe then will I regale you with tales of snow, love, and simple wonder.

I fell asleep watching TV last night

I didn’t blog last night because after cooking dinner and cleaning up, I decided to watch Art:21, which Chris had mentioned. Unfortunately, I was so tired that I fell asleep on the couch while the TV was on. My doing so says more about me than about the series which seems to be really quite worth watching. (I hope to tune in tonight for parts 3 and 4). But when my body isn’t properly engaged, I conk out. (I remember feeling awful about falling asleep in the middle of a performance of The Goldberg Variations in Hertz Hall. How could I fall asleep on Bach? Maybe it’s true that Bach had written the Goldbergs to cure someone’s insomnia….)

A quote about Wallace Shawn

Wallace Shawn fascinates me. He played Vanya in Vanya on 42nd Street
but I first saw him as Vizzini (Mr. “Inconceivable”) in The
Princess Bride
. There is a lot to say about Wallace Shawn, darling of radical
theatre by day/Hollywood actor by night — but a description of his childhood
in Fintan O’Tool’s essay about Shawn, The
Masked Avenger
, (from The New York Review of Books ) resonates with
me. (A description of exactly why will have to wait until another day.)

Wallace Shawn, his father, and his grandfather could be the subject of a
trilogy of novels, telling the story of America from the thrusting energy
of the self-made man in the first generation to the absorption into the East
Coast establishment in the next and finally to the rage, disgust, and disillusionment
of the third. His grandfather, Benjamin Chon, known as Jackknife Ben, was
an embodiment of the immigrant drive for material success. The child of Eastern
European Jewish immigrants, he set up as a street peddler, sold knives and
later jewelry in the Chicago stockyards, and made a small fortune. His children
grew up in a house with servants and a billiard room, and were triumphantly
assimilated into the American upper middle class. His son William, his surname
safely Anglicized, became, as the revered, long-serving, and famously fastidious
editor of The New Yorker, one of the presiding figures of the postwar
liberal literary establishment. And then along comes his son Wallace,
haunted by the conviction that to be born into American abundance is to have
a soul marked with original sin. Guilt, not gratitude, is the keynote of Wallace
Shawn’s reflections on the luxury of his childhood. In his opening monologue
in Louis Malle’s film My Dinner with André, in which he plays himself
in a long conversation with the director André Gregory, Shawn recalls his
privileged childhood in Manhattan, where he was born in 1943:

I grew up on the Upper East Side, and when I was ten years old, I was rich,
I was an aristocrat, riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and
all I thought about was art and music.

In his theatrical monologue The Fever (first performed by the author
in a New York apartment in 1990) there is an indication that this recognition
of privilege was accompanied by the uncomfortable awareness that he belonged
to an elite. Shawn carefully avoids any indication of the age, sex, or nationality
of the speaker in the play, and it would be crude to conclude from the fact
that he performed it himself in the apartments of his friends that it is straightforwardly
autobiographical. There are, nevertheless, clear parallels with his own life,
and it is hard to mistake the crippling consciousness of having been both
blessed and cursed by gratuitous advantage:

I was born into the mind. Lamplight. The warm living room. My father, in
an armchair, reading about China. My mother with the newspaper on a long
sofa. Orange juice on a table in a glass pitcher….

And my friends and I were the delicate, precious, breakable children, and
we always knew it. We knew it because of the way we were wrapped-because
of the soft underwear laid out on our beds, soft socks to protect our feet.

And I remember that my darling mother, my beautiful mother, my innocent
mother, would say to me and my friends, when we were nine or ten, “Now be
very careful, don’t go near First Avenue. That’s a bad neighborhood. There
are tough kids there.”

Uncle Vanya: An American Play?

This morning, in looking at the Fall
Arts Preview (Part II)
in the SF Chronicle this morning, I noticed that
Uncle Vanya is being staged at SF
State from Nov 20 – Dec 6
. Wow, yet another performance. I’ve been surprised
by the number of times that Uncle Vanya been been staged. Is the play
being performed disproportionately often in the U.S. and Canada? Maybe it’s
because my obsession with the play makes me look out for it, making it only
seem more popular than other plays.

I ponder this question as I wonder whether I’m the only one who is so into
this play. Clearly there are people with a much more serious investment in the
play, such as anyone who has participated in any production of Uncle Vanya.
I’m thinking of folks like myself who come at the play as an amateur.

Today, I got the sense that no, I’m not the only person out there who has heard
the play speak to them, when I found a new translation by Curt
Columbus
that was commissioned for the (apparently famous) Steppenwolf
Theatre Company
in Chicago. Eureka was my reaction to the prefatory essay
by Columbus. Let me quote a bit of it (p. 4):

Of what are considered to be Chekhov’s "four major plays," Uncle
Vanya is unique — a lyrical, claustrophobic character study that takes place
over a short period of months on the Serebryakov estate. Gone is the sweep
of years that moves the plots of Seagull and Three Sisters.
The issues of class and wealth that pervade the other plays have no importance
in this drama. There are no grande dames of the stage here, no general’s daughters,
no wealthy landowners. This is a petty squabble over an inheritance, an issue
of a few hundred rubles a month. These are a handful of little people–a country
doctor, a simple farmer and his niece, a retired professor and his too-young
wife–who are trying to find some meaning and some romance in their little
lives. Strangely, it is these very qualities of ordinariness that give the
play such enormous resonance with modern American audiences.

"Uncle Vanya is an American play," a Russian director once told
me. "Family members come for a visit, they fight, they scream, someone
fires a gun, and then everyone makes up and says, ‘See you next Christmas.’"
This overly simplistic assessment gets at the core of why the play engenders
such interest, such passion in America in the late twentieth and early twenty-first
centuries. After one has experienced the claustrophobic poetry of Tennesse
Williams’ fire escapes and tiny rooms, Chekhov’s estate seems all the more
vivid. After one has witnessed the works of Sam Shepherd, a handful of little
people squabbling over an inheritance seems overly familiar. After one has
watched the films of Woody Allen, Uncle Vanya feels like an old, amusing family
friend, appearing both funny and tragic at the same time. Today’s American
audience feels finally what Chekhov spoke so succintly a hundred years ago.

I don’t know much about Tennesse Williams or Sam Shepherd myself — but this
essay encourages me to explore these playwrights.