Sunday, September 22, 2013

Our Town, Our Lives

Thornton Wilder wrote the play in 1938. It doesn't have much of a plot. Not much happens. There are no great conflicts, few soaring emotions and even fewer surprises. Yet the play is rightfully considered a Great American Play, consistently performed over the past 75 years. 

And for good reason. It has never lost its meaning, its power. If anything, it has gained in relevance, as those simple, quiet days of the early 20th century in Grover's Corners recede further into the distance of time and memory.

I saw a wonderful production of "Our Town" last night, presented by The Insight Theatre Company in the beautiful theater of Nerinx Hall in Webster Groves. The talented cast understood their roles to their very core. The third and final act still hits me in the gut and leaves me lingering in my seat long after the house lights have come up.

What happens in Grover’s Corners? Not much. The first act is a day in the life of the town. Much like our lives. We wake up, brush out teeth, fix a pot of coffee, a bowl of yogurt or Shredded Wheat, throw on a pair of jeans or shorts and a tee, move through the day. And suddenly it's 11 at night, we're brushing our teeth and getting into bed. 

Just as quickly, it's Friday again. And summer is over. And you're attending your 40th or 50th or 60th high school reunion.

Think back on your yesterday. Or day before. What do you remember about it? Chances are, not much. What about last week? Last month?  We pass through our days as though we’re on a float trip, daydreaming, watching the trees and shore pass by, and we're suddenly close to the end of the trip. Thornton Wilder understood how fleeting it all is, and how we never arrive at a satisfactory answer as to what it was all about.

Near the end of the play, a young woman says to her mother, pleads with her mother:
    "But, just for a moment now we're all together. Mama, just for a moment   we're happy. Let's look at one another." The young woman has died and has been permitted to return home. Her mother can't see her. Their time together has passed.

That's the point. The time has passed. As it does all too quickly for most of us. How seldom we don't "look at one another." We take for granted there will always be another day. Most of us take life for granted, seldom stopping to appreciate just how precious it is. Even as I write this, I know that an hour from now I'll be right back in that stream, letting it slip by unnoticed. But maybe if I just force myself to consider what "Our Town" meant to me, I'll remember a little more of what makes this day, and the next, and my life, so extraordinary. 

It's amazing what two hours in the theater can accomplish.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Going, going...but not gone

I couldn't let this moment in history pass without pausing to look skyward.

The article, from the Associated Press, was in today's paper on page 11. The headline read "Voyager 1 probe has left the solar system." Left the solar system!! That's not the kind of event you read about every day. NASA actually thinks it might have left our solar system a year ago but they couldn't be sure until now.

That's the kind of event I used to read about in short stories and novels, a long row of books that sat on the shelf in my bedroom. Stories by Heinlein, Van Vogt, Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, Leinster, and others. Stories set in some distant time and place.

But now, in my lifetime, something had been sent from Earth and was now moving through interstellar space. The article states, "...the spacecraft has escaped the sun's influence and is now cruising 11 1/2 billion miles away in interstellar space."

That's a great word. "Interstellar." I can just hear Ray Bradbury saying, "See? I told you.

So where is it going? you might ask. According to some experts, it's headed for Alpha Centarui, the nearest star. That should take about 40,000 years,  which will be about the same time the Cubs win the pennant. 

When Voyager 1 lifted off and headed for space, the year was 1977. Aboard was a gold-plated record which contained, among other sounds, some representative music of Earth. So whoever finds the ship, in whatever galaxy, in whatever eon, and unforeseen dimension, will have to have a turntable. If they do, they'll hear Bach's Bradenberg Concerto #2 in F (just the first movement. Too much Bach is not a friendly gesture); Chuck Berry singing his classic "Johnny B. Goode;" Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven with "Melancholy Blues" - not sure why they chose that tune - and Blind Willie Johnson with "Dark Was the Night." 

No rap, no Pit Bull, no theme song from "The Sopranos." See how far we've come in the past 36 years? 

Next time you look up at the night sky and see the stars - assuming you can see through the urban haze - think about Voyager 1.
Imagine this cold, metal disc hurtling through the space between the stars. A hopeful hand reaching out from Earth, perhaps eventually to tap some alien life form on the shoulder and say, "We're here with you." Then, with a stroke of luck or technical ingenuity, that distant being will put the disc on a turntable, drop the stylus into the groove, and hear Chuck Berry's opening guitar licks as he moves into Johnny B. Goode. 
And that being will say, "Cool. I wish I could play like that.
"Chuck & "Johnny B. Goode" on Soul Train 1973