When I lived in Japan I spent an inordinate amount of time talking about living in Japan. I’d get together with my friends on weekends and one of us would ask, “Do you think we made the right decision coming to live here?” I kept that up for some twenty years before I bailed out. And they’re still doing it.
And now I’m asking the same question about living in Berkeley. We live six blocks from the Oakland city line and I met an Oakland cop the other night at a dinner party who I asked about the latest political flap where mayor Jean Quan fired the police chief because he wouldn’t follow her party line. “If you had any idea how many seriously dangerous criminals there are roaming the streets of the city, you’d run like hell,” he said. I got the feeling it’s not just a policeman’s perspective. There’s stuff seriously wrong with this place, and much of it has to do with our inability to deal with poverty and crime and with our belief that we have enough money to fight unjustified wars, but not enough to give every American kid the kind of access to education that might help head off this misery. Rent Waiting for 'Superman' sometime.
But don’t get me started, as they say.
Taku bought a beautiful vine some time ago. A passion fruit. It grew and grew and grew and before we knew what happened it had completely taken over the loquat tree in our back yard, and then jumped over and taken over the neighbor’s trees, as well. For the longest time we didn’t do anything about it. It had such beautiful flowers and I used to just go to the window to stare at it. Taku had to shake me out of this vale of ignorance and remind me if we didn’t pull the vine off the trees, they would die.
So we finally got around to hiring a handyman who worked like a team of oxen pulling this vine down. Hours, it took him, and when he was done we had a mound on the back patio that covered more than half of it. I spent so much money on the handyman I decided we had to finish the job ourselves, so Taku and I spent the day (he took maybe two breaks in eight hours; I took twenty-five) stuffing that damn vine into plant debris bags. What a day’s work. Taku could barely stay awake that evening, and I got exhausted just feeling his exhaustion.
It didn’t help that I had woken up some days ago with a kidney stone and had Taku take me to emergency where I wailed the whole day through except when the drugs knocked me out or except when I was doing things with my body no person with an ounce of dignity ought to be caught dead doing. Good news is the stone appears to have passed and the day in hell was but a 24-hour sojourn. Not that I didn’t use it as an excuse to take naps for several days afterwards.
So there’s my existential state, living in Berkeley. Crime, sirens, thugs, loud student parties, overgrown vines, kidney stones, disillusionment with the world at large and the United States in particular. What’s a guy to do?
The answer is to walk up the street till you get to Zellerbach Hall, walk in and say you want two rush tickets to hear Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra do Tchaikovsky’s 2nd and 5th Symphonies, thank you very much.
Then walk across the street to the coffee shop that does fancy shmancy dinners on concert nights, have some polenta with crimini mushrooms and a glass of white before settling into the orchestra seats you’ve snagged for fifteen bucks (senior, rush - Taku paid more) and surrender yourself to this glorious music by a passionate Slav my gay chauvinist friends always want to lay claim to despite the fact he probably viewed his sexuality the way I view kidney stones.
But why be distracted by such nonsense. There you are, sitting in row 7, looking at this bunch of gorgeous young men and women – some actually appear to be in their 30s, pulling their bows across their violins and cellos and making me forget all about plant debris and crime and democracy gone off the rails. I have never enjoyed a concert more.
My mind went back to army days, when I was at the Russian Language School. It helped that I had read conductor Valery Gergiev was a friend of Putin’s and godfather to his son. Never mind that he has ardently denied that. It helped that the people to my left and right and front and rear were all speaking Russian. I was a few feet from a stage filled with world-class artists from the Kirov Theater in St. Petersberg, and they were beautiful men and women and they were making such beautiful music I never wanted it to stop.
At the language school there was a prince of the Romanovs. He had the tremors. Whether it came from drinking too much – we were sure that was the reason – or whether it was a nervous disease, the poor man vibrated constantly. We began calling him Shakey Jake. Young people have always been cruel, and the man deserved better. But we never underestimated him. We laughed when Minnie Mouse would curtsey at him and call him “prince” and make him scowl and look like he was about to swat her one. She was the wife of the Russian Orthodox priest and would go on endlessly how happy people were before the Bolsheviks took over and disturbed the peace.
Shakey Jake was an expert on Tchaikovsky, and by the time I had been there nearly a year I was able to enjoy his lectures, even in Russian. Didn’t do all that much for my music appreciation, but I got off on the fact that the world was in the middle of a cold war and here we were listening to somebody who was related to the Czar somehow and he was telling us about one of these composers I loved at the time and making it sound as if he had known him personally.
The thoughts just kept coming. The music flowed, and I studied the faces close up of kids not even born when I was listening to this Romanov prince tell me about the composer of this music they were now playing. They could be dying in Afghanistan or Chechnya, but they weren’t. They were playing beautiful music in Berkeley, California. Shakey Jake might have lost his head when his relatives did. Instead, I got to watch him walk across the campus at the Monterey Presidio, always wearing a blue blazer and an ascot, always looking like he might fall down at any minute. But safe to grow old and lecture about his great love, Tchaikovsky.
Пётр Ильич Чайковский. Tchaikovsky. The name ends in –ski. That means it’s an adjective, even though it’s a proper name. That means it’s declined like an adjective. I love the music (of) Tchaikovskovo - I know some secrets about Tchaikovskom – have seen a memorial (to) Tchaikovskomu – would like to go on a picnic with Tchaikovskim. And that’s only the singular guy. If he’s with his brother, or that other composer named Boris Tchaikovsky (no relation), there are other endings. Like the house of the (three) Tchaikovskikh.
I sat there surrounded by Russians and remembered musing about how brilliant Shakey Jake was that time when I was sitting in his audience and grooving on the fact that he could reel off a bunch of Russian composers' names in the dative - Tschaikovskomu, Shostakovichu, Rimskomu-Korsakovu, without a declension chart in his hand, and how when he went from Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka in the nominative to Mikhailu Ivanovichu Glinke in the dative he knew how to switch from masculine adjectival endings to feminine noun endings at the last minute for Glinka/Glinke and never skip a beat.
And I sat there last night and I marveled at how I remembered not a word about the content of that lecture nearly fifty years ago on Tchaikovsky, but I do remember marveling at Shakey Jake's ability to handle the grammar of his native language, and then I was reflecting on how I could reflect in a nanosecond on what a tragic world we live in that Russians who looked so beautiful and played even more beautifully could have ever been anybody's enemies – and in the next nanosecond how I could remember a thought so impossibly trivial after all these years, when I realized Taku next to me, who wasn't even born then, was now sleeping through some truly gorgeous stuff and missing the fact that the first violinist's bow was coming apart and how happy I am to be alive now, post kidney-stone, in this crime-ridden city only a fifteen-minute walk from where the Kirov Orchestra, now the Mariinsky, could play such beautiful music and make me feel all's right with the world.
Now this is, of course, 2011 and you don't need to go to Zellerbach to hear Valery Gergiev conduct the Mariinsky. You can go to YouTube. It ain't live, but it's lovely all the same, and remember while you watch this man's funny hand movements that he's a brilliant pianist and that may explain it. Remember also that there was once a Cinderella type working as a janitor at the Mariinsky who somehow found her way to Gergiev, who became her voice coach. Her name is Anna Netrebko, and if you've never heard her sing, you don't know love. Just get a small idea of her, if you don't know her already, singing "O mio babbino caro" or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu.”
And that man right there up on the stage tonight not twenty feet away from me with those fluttering hands helped make that happen. Watch this trailer. And maybe this one, too.
Some days are just better than others.