Thanksgiving Day 2012

This was sent to a group of men, ages 50s to 90s, some who have played doubles tennis together for three decades.  A few of us, from two to ten out of the twenty plus who play, get together at the local McDonalds to talk afterwards, which is what I refer to in this missive.  

Poinsettia Tennis Group

For the moment there is a suspension of the ongoing conflict that surrounds the Gaza Strip that could have been the fuse for a clash of civilizations between the Arabic world and Israel and its western allies. From such sparks -- the assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 comes to mind -- have come unimaginable global carnage. That murder lead to WWI, which sowed the seeds of revolutionary Communism which bred the fascist response that included the murderous antisemitism that resulted in the Jewish homeland-- with displacement of the indigenous population to a place called Gaza.

And then there's the occasional conflict that we experience while playing tennis in the courts of Carlsbad California. Voices are raised, tempers are lost, and there is a place deep in our brain that lights up in the same way as those who last week felt the explosions in that contentious land on the Mediterranean coast, including the family of a member of our group.

While this part of our primitive humanity can emerge even in our public playground, so does another side, the ability to transcend differences to form something that enriches us all. Among this informal group are those whose childhoods were blighted by political movements that defined the twentieth century; ironically by both arch enemies, Communism and Fascism. One man spent a good part of his youth in a Japanese displacement camp in Indonesia, others under the most oppressive phase of Soviet Communism, and some of us on different sides of the Jim Crow line that was an echo of this country's original sin.

We are Christians, Hindus, Agnostics, Jews and Atheists; staunch conservatives and dedicated liberals. Married, single, widowed--some who have known the joys and the sadness of parenthood and others with no family at all. Some of us with careers that have provided personal and financial rewards and others who for an array of reasons have not, and some who can really play this game of tennis like a pro, and others like myself who don't come close.

Some have experienced our country's wars, from the "good one" that united the country after that day of infamy to those that followed that divided us then, and have perpetuated the political animosities that are still so searing to this day. Scars of war, whether shrapnel embedded in flesh or images embedded in memory, last a lifetime, as are the emotional scars that accrue just in the process of being alive.

It is the pain of such injuries that can be alleviated, dispelled if just for a moment, as we concentrate on sprinting to that lob that may land in bounds and returning it for a winner. So, I give thanks for this game, and the people whom I play with who make it possible, and this brief moment of, if not world peace, at least the glimmer of hope that such a thing is achievable.

Al R.

Film review: "A Late Quartet"

There is a scene of Christopher Walken, playing the older declining cellist Peter Mitchell recounting an audition with the great Pablo Casals, where he said his rendition of a known classic was "just awful, nothing but mistakes" but the Maestro praised it with evident sincerity. Mitchell had remained disturbed by the seeming lack of candor, until many decades later, when both were at the top of the pack, over a glass of wine he asked him about it. His response is a lesson for reviewing this film and beyond.

"I heard those mistakes, but I also felt your passion, your conveying it in strong sensitive lyrical phrases that others rarely achieve. Those critics who keep track of every wrong note are missing out on what music and life has to offer."

And so I will leave the defects of this film to others, and there are many elements that deviated from what I write about, a rare sensitive exploration of life, using a string quartet as exemplar and metaphor. I only went to the art house showing this expecting it to be, based on the reviews, a bad movie that happened to be shot in my old neighborhood of Lincoln Center area of New York. My wife is an amateur violinist, and always came home from her week long SummerTrios camp with the glow from playing in groups such as this film depicted.

After seeing this film I understand why. This depicted consummate musicians, who rather than the solo careers available to them chose to become a single instrument, one that required that most human ability of merging of individuality into something that can only be achieved by--the word for it is "symbiosis" different organisms uniting in a common goal. While the conflicts of ego, sexual attraction, fame and glory may seem hackneyed, it is because this is the universal challenge of making any such group-from a marriage to a nation-long endure.

In my old neighborhood, a young world famous violinist bought into our coop building. We lost touch when I moved to California a decade ago, and wondered why with unlimited solo bookings he had joined a chamber group. This film explained why, not only from a musicological level, but from the human desire to be part of something beyond our individuality. That is the element of this film that transcends music.

You see, I also play in quartets, but they are doubles tennis with two people on each side ostensibly playing against each other. Yet, for it to work, for it to give the same type of pleasure that my wife and soloist friend got out of chamber music all four have to work together, enjoying the virtuoso movement of any of the foursome, no matter which side of the net they are on. And like in this magnificent film, the ego that makes for the excitement, when taken too far, to the point of questionable line calls, leading to animosity, can destroy the entire experience.

And like a quartet playing off each other in an "allegro" passage, in tennis a flurry of volleys, with a running get that is returned for a winner, can bring joy to the performers and the audience. This perfect miniature of a film, like all great productions, is only achieved by such seamless excellence that no one can tell where one individual's contribution ends and the other's begins.

This is about the the most sublime entertaining lousy flick I've ever seen.