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Monthly Archives: September 2011

I guess I’m dying. No new news here. We all are, little by little. I’m always trying to find a way to make sense of it all. Of course, the more I think about it, the more elusive the answers.

Every so often, when the world has taken it up a notch by falling further into dire straits from a combination of war, disaster and economic turmoil, I’ll recall a graphic religious tract from 30+ years ago depicting society in chaos and unrest. It ends showing a family man over-worked, struggling to make a day’s wage consisting of a loaf of bread. Once he has the loaf in his hands, he decides not to share it with his family. “It’s all mine. After all, I worked for it.” The message, of course, is how, during ‘The End Times’, people – even family members – will turn on each other, and the only path to salvation is through Jesus.

I still find that tract both disturbing and hopeful. I like to think that under such disturbing circumstances I would not be so selfish and, instead, hope to do the altruistic thing. But it takes a great deal of faith to accept one’s Earthly ending.

Achilles in the epic movie “Troy” makes the assertion that the gods are jealous of us humans and our mortality. He suggests life is so fleeting that we’ll never be as beautiful or as vibrant as we are at this very moment. Because of their immortality, the gods can never experience a slow demise.

Speaking of mortality, do you ever wonder what will become of some of those things that define you? Pictures of you? Letters written from you? Your own memories of you? All the things you will share, have shared, with others who might be asking the very same question – what will become of the essence of who I am? Can you imagine a world where you’re never thought of ever again? There is this constant ebb and flow between what makes life joyous and what makes it intolerable, and in the middle, a sort of stasis, where one can so easily be caught up in the questions surrounding mortality.

With some envy, I will read stories or watch dramatizations of well-known artists who have struggled through life while creating a vision to share with others. There is no end to the vision. The vision is eternal, but the body, the instrument by which the vision is created, decays. The Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, an accident victim at a young age, suffering painful relapses all her life, demands that her “Judas of a body” be burned rather than buried. Most artists paint visions or dreams, whereas a number of Kahlo’s paintings depict her own suffering.

Perhaps this is what Achilles is referring to. Imagine the gods envious of someone fading away, day by day, while trying with every ounce of his/her fiber to give life meaning. To be honest, I’m not buying it. I don’t believe any god would ever want to be dead.

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“Young Man With a Horn” stars Kirk Douglas as Rick and Lauren Bacall as Amy. He’s a damn good trumpet player and she’s the mistake he married. Music’s no longer a business to him after he wises up and leaves her, and then ups and quits playing for a big-time band to strike out on his own. Amy does some things well, but not great. She even likes to try new things, like marriage and ruining Rick’s life. On his way out he tells her she’s filth, if you can imagine Lauren Bacall as filth.

Call me “The Mid-Lifer With a Novel”. Writing a novel is something I’ve always wanted to try, but knew I wasn’t going to be great at. Nevertheless, like Amy tells Rick, “You never know until you try.” Besides, just like Rick’s damn good trumpeting, it’s still a damn good story, an historical fiction piece, loosely based on a great woman – my mother’s aunt, who served and died as a WWI nurse in France. I’ve tried to write a story that makes sense to me, first, and everyone else, second. In other words, marketability was not a high priority during the process, as is the case for established authors.

Near the end of the movie Rick is washed up. The loss of Amy leaves him empty and disillusioned. He can’t hit that high note, the one that borders on perfection. He ends up smashing the hell out of his trumpet. I’m pretty sure my novel won’t reach the heights of Shakespeare or Tolstoy. But it’s still my voice, unique and immortalized both in print and in the virtual world. And unlike Rick the trumpeter, I won’t be destroying my novel.

My wife Tory both encouraged me to pursue this dream and helped edit my manuscript. I spent eight months writing and re-writing. Afterwards, I sent out the grand total of one query letter. That’s right. I wasn’t going to waste a lot of time begging agents and publishers to give me a break. I’m too old and lack patience. After it was promptly rejected, I decided to go with Tate Publishing. They helped with proofreading, conceptual editing, creating a cover, designing the layout, and marketing the finished product.

At the end of the movie, a singer by the name of Jo, played by Doris Day, saves Rick by pointing him in the right direction. The trumpeter and his savior. A nice combo. Sort of like my wife and me, the writer and the woman behind the writer.

If I’ve piqued your curiosity, feel free to click on the link to the right “The Spirit of Nora, A Novel”. Here endeth the hard sell.

In the movie “Before Sunrise”, Jesse and Celine agree on “milkshake” when asked by a beggar to provide a word so he can write them a poem in exchange for money. The chosen word struck me as both simple and whimsical, yet apropos for a couple whose relationship is barely a day old.

The real test for the beggar poet would be that of a couple whose relationship has seen ups and downs over the years, or even just over the course of a shared day, either doing mundane tasks or out on the town. Unless they’re totally in sync, the odds of them finally agreeing on one word might strain the beggar’s patience. If they’ve had a bad day, the word might be divided between “fool” and “nag”, or they may eventually settle on an agreed word – perhaps “insufferable”. But none of these words would help give life to the poem, let alone provide the couple with a positive moment of both unity and clarity regarding their relationship status.

Jesse reasons the beggar has a ready-made poem, and the only word not included is the one provided by the couple. That said, the beggar might struggle less from the indecisiveness of a seasoned couple by asking each for a word. It might be interesting to see how the two words would appear together in that one line in the poem. In any case, both words need to be spontaneous, rather than thought out, in order to give the exercise credibility. Probably easier said than done.

Most couples, invariably, fall into a groove where each person’s orbit intersects with the other out of routine, like a mechanism created from the safest parts imaginable and lubricated with something of a consistency of repetitiveness. Once in a while, there needs to be words, granules of a certain spice, that challenge the gears, providing a hiccup in the mechanism, and begging the couple’s attention. I’m sure those words could be as absurd as “milkshake” or “platypus”. But in the case of two people with a history dating back to days of struggle and success, pain and joy, shouldn’t those words represent a glimpse of the sum total of a mutually-constructed identity?

As I write this, I know I’m over-thinking the words I’d like my wife and I to share, should ever the occasion arise. But for now, and as incongruous as they might appear in the poem, the quite shallow and carnal part of me knows I would always find favor with “Agreed!” in response to “Wow!”.

Daydream delusion, limousine eyelash
Oh baby with your pretty face
Drop a tear in my wineglass
Look at those big eyes
See what you mean to me
Sweet-cakes and milkshakes
I’m a delusion angel
I’m a fantasy parade
I want you to know what I think
Don’t want you to guess anymore
You have no idea where I came from
We have no idea where we’re going
Lodged in life
Like branches in a river
Flowing downstream
Caught in the current
I carry you
You’ll carry me
That’s how it could be
Don’t you know me?
Don’t you know me by now?

If you’re vacationing in Door County along the shores of Sturgeon Bay and you meet a born-and-raised Chicagoan in a local tavern, in his late-fifties, a long way from his recent life as a “Yankee” in Texas, and longing for a wife named Jan who loved movies much more than he should have, you’ve probably crossed paths with a tall, lean, half-spent man nicknamed Woody.

Woody’s white, swept-back hair symbolizes his wisdom and sense of humor more than it does his age. He spoke to my wife Tory and me under a high early-afternoon sun on the patio of the Harbor Beach Resort with both a zest and earthiness that matched his drink combo – a sophisticated sip from a tumbler of Scotch followed by a laid-back draw from the longneck of a Budweiser – and all the while expressing thoughts cultivated from an ordinary man who had supposedly lived a middle-of-the-road life. Woody, like everyone of us, has had crosses to bear along the way. I sensed financial concerns. But bigger than that, his wife recently passed away, and his father more recently passed away. Yet Woody still managed to express with both satire and “kidding” the simple profundity that “there are others worse off”.

In the telling of the bits and pieces of his life story, it struck me as obvious the reasons Woody the widower had decided to return to Sturgeon Bay, a place where he enjoyed summers as a boy and where a few of his relatives still reside. I suspect there may come a time in every man’s life when the desire to share with someone the sprawling experiences of the world is replaced, sometimes forcibly, with the need to find sanctity in the past. Such a place is where we know our youth remains vibrant, innocent and wide open, frozen in a snapshot in time.

As Tory, Woody and I sat there, he chided me, jokingly, about my late-summer sunburn, observing how no one other than a wife would be interested in providing salve. I suspected he knew this from experience. Longing and envy seemed to hover, imperceptibly, above his chuckle while his eyes scanned the other side of the bay, perhaps in search of his young “me” from long ago. Or perhaps he was merely wishing he’d spent more time sharing with Jan her love of movies.

The rocky, sandy beach showed the signs of a summer near it’s end. A sand pail missing a child’s grip and a row of empty beach chairs all stood idle while a northwesterly wind created soft whitecaps. A lone fishing boat challenged the waves near the center of the bay as Woody considered his next move. A job perhaps, if only to fill the days with something other than tavern-hopping. The move might seem almost irrelevant as, whatever he decides, it would still mean soldiering on without the love of his life.

There’s a cemetary shaded by tall, old trees in the middle of the small town of Freedom, Wisonsin, right next to the St. Nicholas Church. The names represented on the headstones are that of the typical American fare – Smith, Green, Murphy – but with an emphasis on Dutch descent, including the likes of Vanderburg and Van Asten. The Dutch are further represented around town by well-maintained yards, sprinkled with ‘Dutch boy kissing girl’ lawn ornaments. The town’s name speaks of something inherent in the American spirit. And the Dutch, like so many other foreigners over the centuries – forced by various reasons – immigrated to America to find real freedom. It’s simple to imagine so many people, finding happiness through both industry and community, finally retiring and ending up in a graveyard where the struggles and pleasures of living are all at once muted. Did they truly, all their lives, appreciate the town’s name? Or did it all end abruptly, perhaps like the little Dutch boy unable to stop the bursting of the dike because of a cramping finger?

This coming Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of 9-11. There was a flight that day that illustrated the struggle of the American spirit. The passengers on flight United 93 were unaware of the fight they would have to endure in order to protect their right to freedom. Men like Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, and Tom Burnett, grew up in towns like Freedom, a place where parents take pride in the things their children do, and the children take pride in themselves. No doubt not one of them imagined having to stand up one day for their freedom, for their community, or for the nation, in a way that would shift the balance of their lives from that of every-day-living to that of forced, desperate heroics.

I’ve never seen the movie “United 93”. I’ve always believed it would be far too depressing to sit through. The panic that must have made up those first moments would undoubtedly have been overwhelming for those passengers while, at the same time, straining each one’s perception of reality. The thoughts of possibly never seeing loved one’s ever again or the stress of stepping from life into death would seem insurmountable while testing the boundaries of faith, not to mention the irony of making peace with God just prior to a violent ending. But now I think it’s time to feel the anguish, the desperation, felt by the passengers of United 93 that day. After all, freedom shouldn’t be just a name of a town, but also a concept to be both appreciated and understood, which, I can only imagine, can only be accomplished through struggle and loss.

Ty Webb: Just be the ball, be the ball, be the ball. You’re not being the ball, Danny.

Danny Noonan: It’s hard when you’re talking like that. – from the movie “Caddyshack”

My wife’s and my Havanese is rarely excitable. He’s not much of a morning dog and, if allowed, tends to sleep in on the weekends. “Outside”, “ball”, and “treat” solicit the most enthusiastic responses. His once bushy, matted tail – now shaved nearly down to the hide – will wag across his back like the menacing arm on a Richter scale. Except for that tail, his puppy cut gives him the look of a curious Jack Russell. But like most dogs, his curiosity comes in spurts. He’ll bark at images of animals on the TV, perhaps in search of a companion to wrestle. Or he’ll attack the fence line when either a rabbit skitters by or bird swoops down too close.

Outside, he’ll track down an airborne ball with both quickness and determination. But once retrieved, he’ll let the ball lie on the ground while incessantly sniffing all around like a chicken pecking at scratch. My wife and I wonder when the day will come when he’ll suck something harmful up his nose, and us rushing to the vet to find out why he’s sneezing up blood. It’s not his fault. He’s a dog, so he doesnt know any better. So the ball lies on the ground, waiting to be picked up and brought back for another toss. I know I’m shifting gears here and giving reference to an inanimate object. And I know little dogs are cute, but so are fuzzy lime-green tennis balls. Or at least they once were. After only so many tosses, it becomes slimy and dirty.

Back to that little dog. Sometimes he’ll chomp at the air as a sign that he wants to play rough. Sometimes he’ll just chomp on the neck of one of our cats, though softly, waiting for a playful response. But the cat will lay down, beaten, in surrender mode like a tennis ball submitting to it’s fate. There’s times when I wonder how nice it would be to have no responsibilities or to be oblivious, like a dog, to fate or chance. Or to be as empty headed, empty hearted, as a ball. “Be the ball, Danny.”? But it’s hard when I’m thinking like this.

“We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet!” – Sean Parker from the movie “The Social Network”

Not sure I’m ready to live on the internet, insulated from the outside world like an embryonic egg, but I seem to be doing a pretty fair job of doing just that. Like most people, I’m always online checking to see who’s contacting me or the latest news updates. I guess it could be worse, i.e., I could be quietly cocooned and fed intravenously like the “sloth” victim in the movie “SE7EN”, which, when you think about it, is only a few steps from my current existence of driving back and forth in a capsule to stare at a screen in my prairie dog hole, aka the office cubicle.

Novak Djokovich, the world’s #1 ranked men’s tennis player, finds relief after a workout by spending time in a hyperbolic egg chamber. It’s pieced together and shaped similar to the one Lady Gaga emerges from on stage where, like a Grade double-A yolk, she emerges, oozing with as much sex appeal as an “Alien” hatchling. For years the tanning gods have found peace and tranquility while basting in brightly lit pods. And Japanese travelers have holed up for an economical, good night’s sleep in hotels filled with rows of coffin-sized drawers in morgue-like stacks.

Of course, it’s not necessary to be confined to some sort of apparatus to accomplish a pre-natal state of existence. Thanks to technology, today’s youth is able to disappear into all sorts of devices, from an iPhone to an XBox. I have nephews who, though they are somewhat active in organized sports, tend to allow themselves to while away their free hours in front of the big screen TV playing video games. It’s as if the outdoors has become foreign to this latest generation. We Boomers never had the destructive benefits of overbearing technology. (By destructive, I mean, a sedentary existence emphasized by a recent report foretelling that 50% of Americans will be classified as obese by 2030.) I remember a day when the TV and radio were the only sources of technological diversion. And unless you were a grownup, you had little control over what was watched or listened to. Instead, we youngsters found ourselves outdoors, roaming and chasing around, engaging in a neighborhood sporting event, or fishing along the river.

These days, you could be on your last leg, old and decrepit, but if you have fingers and a decent set of eyes, you can always pretend you’re still experiencing life via surfing the Web. Imagine the addiction to such technology as the final link between the here and now and the final resting egg as you tweet your last thoughts for the whole world to read. And whoever said we die alone?