Sunday, February 28, 2010

Recent Unexpected Touchstones

What I Have in Common with Paul Krugman

I minored in Economics in college. But that’s not it.

From Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile in the New Yorker:

“I still get a frisson in Penn Station when I hear them announcing the Babylon-line trains,” Krugman says. “It’s like ad jingles from your childhood, you remember it always.”

You have to be from the South shore of Long Island to truly bond with that sentence. There is something very special about the Babylon line train stops. We can all say them from memory.

Rockville Centre
Massapequa Park

The cadence of the syllables is alluring, the doubleness of the Pequas is musical (even if it's not your hometown). And when the sense of “home” is attached to the string, it is seared into the heart. Maybe the people of the Port Washington or Hempstead branches feel the same way about their stations. We just haven’t heard from them about it.

Brel on Ice

I had the Olympics on in the background on Saturday night, not really paying attention. The last moment I had focused on it was the snowboarding, and then I was engaged in conversation, when suddenly a musical voice pierced my ear. The skating gala exhibition is on, and Evgeni Plushenko is skating to Jacques Brel.

That voice. There is none like it. If you have ever had a Brel phase you know that he is like a drug. You can’t get enough of it. You want to live forever in the depths of that searing, knowing pain, of that tantalizing sexuality, his occasional moments of lightness before he descends again into the primal place of extreme consciousness of the human condition, of Man/Woman.

And now the exquisite Russian is ice dancing to Brel singing “Je Suis Malade.” It makes my heart skip a little beat. And it makes me long to hear the song that for me, tops them all.

What a surprise to later hear the distinctive downbeat chord of the piano, and then that haunting tinkling opening.

The Swiss heartthrob Stephane Lambiel is skating to “Ne Me Quitte Pas”—a song Brel wrote when he was going through a divorce. Its mournful refrain, “don’t leave me, don’t leave me, don’t leave me” a perfect match to Lambiel’s emotive, dramatic moves. Best of all, he was allowed to use the entire song.

What I learned about Brel is that I can’t live in that hyper-emotional space. In my twenties it almost burned me out completely. But when the universe decides to bring me back there for an unexpected moment, I don’t mind. I sing along in French with conviction, tear rolling down the cheek like Yvonne in Casablanca joining in “La Marseillaise.”

Here’s Lambiel from Russian coverage (the commentators do stop talking, and the video quality is excellent).

Ne me quitte pas
Il faut oublier
Tout peut s'oublier
Qui s'enfuit deja
Oublier le temps
Des malentendus
Et le temps perdu
A savoir comment
Oublier ces heures
Qui tuaient parfois
A coups de pourquoi
Le coeur du bonheur
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas