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Map Reading

In February of 1942, Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked all U.S. citizens to go out and buy a durable map in preparation for his first address to the nation following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He wanted to speak to the nation about the challenges facing it just after the U.S. had entered World War II. As he talked in positive, upbeat tones about the victory that was certain to come, a victory that was far from assured at the time, he let us know that we would also face innumerable challenges that would require sacrifice.

Millions went out and bought maps in advance of what became known as the Fireside Chats, and 63 million adults tuned in February 23rd to listen to the president. What interests me is the way FDR was able to capture the imagination of the public and galvanize our citizens into action. Automobile assembly lines were retrofitted and made into naval battleship and armaments factories, women went to work, men enlisted, and the vast majority of the adult population tuned in to hear what FDR had to say to the nation.

It’s unfortunate that it took a war of such great consequence to bring U.S. citizens together, and I certainly wouldn’t wish for any more major conflicts, but I have to confess I can’t imagine anything, even events as momentous as an entanglement in the Middle East, bringing us together in the same way. I see, in my mind’s eye, U.S. citizens, sitting down as a family in front of the ubiquitous radio to listen to FDR, and I imagine the support he enjoyed by the average man. I just don’t see our nation rallying together in support of any cause, and we, I fear, have become rather isolationistic in regard to our interactions with each other.

Leave well enough alone seems to be the motto these days, and I find myself, on this early autumn afternoon, wishing there would once again be more to unite us than divide us.

The Trip to Italy

No indeed, I have not been to Italy yet, though I hope to remedy that in the coming few years, but I recently saw the film “The Trip to Italy,” starring Steve Coogan from “Philomena” and British humorist Rob Brydon. I have not seen the original movie, “The Trip,” on which this sequel is based, but one key element to any successful story is whether you would want to spend two hours in the company of the main characters, and in this case, I can answer with a resounding, “yes.” Their impressions of actors Christian Bale, Al Pacino, the Godfather Marlon Brando, and Robert DeNiro are spot on target. I have heard, however, that many of the impressions are retreads of those done in the original movie and they might not seem as fresh the second time around, and also, there is not enough plot. We learn about the main characters’ individual penchants and foibles, but much of the screen time simply follows them aimlessly around. In some ways, it’s meant to be a meditation on life and death, and a crucial scene takes place when Coogan’s character meets his son and a woman who join them on their journey at a burial site, attendant with shrunken heads, and references to Hamlet.

I was also not particularly taken with the anti-gay slur/attempt at humor in the first few minutes of the film, and found it off-putting. I don’t think two men should feel compelled to justify spending time together or taking a trip together without first establishing that they are clearly heterosexual.

Maybe I’ve read too many plot driven narratives lately–I’ve been immersing myself in murder mysteries as I prepare to write one–but this movie came up short in terms of a compelling storyline. One of the main plot points is that Brydon’s character, doing his best Godfather impersonation, lets Steve know he really, really wants to go to Sicily, yet he abandons this interest abruptly when Steve’s son promises to fly overseas for a familial reunion.

I have to admit, though, that in terms of tone, “The Trip to Italy” succeeds brilliantly, and reminded me a bit of the “Before Midnight” film series, starring Ethan Hawke, only more humorous. It’s worth two hours of time to be entertained by these two engaging characters, but I wish they had drawn more conclusions about what it means to suffer with existential angst.

Trust Issues

I was walking my Akita and Beagle this afternoon, and a slightly rusted blue van with a harried, somewhat disheveled woman pulled up next to me. She said she was lost, and asked if she could use my phone?

Something made me hesitate. She hadn’t asked for directions, just the phone, and she seemed quite rushed and frenzied, and something just didn’t feel right so I lied after automatically reaching into my pocket and said instead that I didn’t have my phone on me. She sped off in the same manner in which she had come up on me from behind.

I felt bad, but I’ve learned it’s important to trust your gut instinct. Still, I hate that we live in a world where we can’t even hand over our phone to a stranger. I live in what is a pretty safe subdivision in the western suburbs of Chicago, and I think the crime rate is fairly low in comparison to other areas, but we’ve had a lot of construction, and re-roofing of houses lately following a storm earlier this year, and there have been a lot of strangers here, there, and everywhere.

I have no proof that she wanted to steal my cell phone, just the gut feeling that “something wasn’t right in the state of Denmark.” This, however, is not the same world in which I was raised. Where I grew up, we rode big wheels, then later bicycles, up and down our streets without fear of strangers, and I believed in the basic goodness of my fellow citizen, yet something has changed in the intervening years.

While on many fronts regarding civil liberties we have made great progress as a nation, we have, as individuals, become more isolationistic. Gated communities have become even more gated to outsiders, and I’m not certain I have an answer to this fear of strangers. Facebook may have brought us closer in some ways to those we’ve never met, but our one-on-one interactions have remained hesitant and untrusting. I’m the first to admit it. I have trust issues.

Spooked

I’m not sure why people are still sometimes afraid of that which is different. My friend Rosie and I recently toured Ireland, and the trip was, for the most part, a great success, but one incident stands out in my mind and continues to haunt me.

Rosie and I ate an amazing dinner at the Market House restaurant which is adjacent to the Abbey Hotel in Donegal, but the restaurant told us that to use the restroom we would have to head over to the lobby of the hotel. I myself have the bladder of a squirrel, and had already made two trips to the restroom during our extended, leisurely dinner on one of the longest days of the year, but after I paid for our meal on what happened to be Rosie’s birthday, she excused herself, and I followed her over to the hotel.

There was some kind of emergency medical technician arriving on the scene, and the hotel clerk looked at me and said, quite distinctly, that the Abbey Hotel was having a “spook” alert. I’m quite certain I did not hear her wrong, and I stood in silent shock, first hand witness to true Irish racism. Rosie is African-American, and I am white, but I’d never before been confronted with true hatred based on one’s skin color. I have, while in the midst of a gay neighborhood, been called a fag by a passing car, but most of the time, I live out my days without directly confronting prejudice. I think part of the reason the quite recent police shooting of African-American youth Michael Brown stirs up so much controversy and strong reaction is that living with prejudice is a reality for a certain subset of our citizens.

During the first five days of our trip, people kind of assumed that Rosie and I were an interracial couple, and we were greeted on the west coast with a kind of curiosity–we definitely stuck out in the very heterogenous white population–but no one said anything, and we were treated courteously. That changed in Donegal, a small fishing town, and I staggered out of the hotel like a drunk, even though I don’t drink. I’m left reminded of the Robert Frost poem, that we have “miles to go before we sleep.”

During my most recent 10 day trip to Ireland, I had the good fortune to visit Blarney Castle and kiss the Blarney Stone (I have the pictures to prove it). I had ridiculed those who rushed to kiss the stone, figuring they were suckers of a good tourist scam, but I have to say that seeing the grounds turned out to be one of the major highlights of my trip. The grounds, including the Poisonous Gardens and the secret wishing well, were beautifully laid out, and we explored the castle grounds over the course of two and a half hours.

As happenchance would have it, the day Rosie and I visited, gay choruses from around the United States were also visiting, including groups from Atlanta and Minnesota, who were also making a trek to kiss the Blarney Stone. A transsexual named Ann introduced herself to us and volunteered to take our pictures, incorrectly assuming that we were an interracial couple, facing the same prejudices she did as a man who lives as a woman. Unfortunately, Ann was not exactly blessed with the ability to “pass” as the other gender, but probably faces a fair amount of prejudice and ridicule on a daily basis. I’ve been told by some that I’m not apparently or obviously gay, and that I can live among heterosexuals invisibly, and this is both a blessing and a curse. At times I’m probably more obviously gay than others, but living in the western burbs of Chicago, I’m careful not to throw my sexuality in the face of others. It’s a Bill Clintonesque “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

I had imagined the Blarney Stone as some kind of boulder or rock outgrowth, and didn’t really envisage it as part of the castle, but it was great fun to stretch out backwards and kiss the stone while being held by a handsome redheaded Irishman. In a strange twist, just before Rosie went to kiss the stone, the guy in charge thoroughly wiped down the wall. It was done with some measure of good humor on his part, and I would have thought, had he been truly prejudiced, he would have scrubbed the wall after she kissed it, not before. We did experience prejudice while on the trip, but that occurred more during the later half of the trip. The Irishman in charge did wipe down the wall after each kisser, but didn’t seem overly concerned with “disinfecting” it, except as some kind of blarney joke. There was a rather ribald humor to the whole expedition, and all the GLBTQ choruses from around the United States dominated the scene, scouting out camp photos in the cavernous rooms as we climbed the stone staircase en route to our thirty second smooch designed to guarantee we would always be blessed with the gift of blarney. I have yet to see how completely I will be blessed with this gift.

I did, however, realize how lucky I am to live in America at this particular time in history. As a nation, we may have “miles to go” yet, but I’m aware that I’m afforded the liberty to “live out loud” if that is what I choose. It may cost me some friends, but it likely won’t cost me my life.

Turgid

I’ve heard certain bodies of water, in particular parts of the Mississippi River, described as having turgid waters, meaning distended and overflowing. The primary definition of turgid is in reference to something that is pompous and overcomplicated, but to me, the word has always had a different connotation, as something that is muddied or unclear, but perhaps I’m thinking of the wrong word.

Using the word turgid in the way to which I have become accustomed, I have to say that since my 10 day trip to Ireland in mid to late June, my world has been somewhat, although not altogether, muddied and unclear. At first after I got back, I simply slept, and jet lag, I’ve discovered, is a very real thing. And since I had six sessions of ECT–Electroconvulsive Therapy, in October of last year, I’ve put on 35 to 40 lbs, and with the body slowing down, so has the mind. I’ve heard that ECT is supposed to reboot the brain, and that it is quite effective, and may indeed prevent future hospitalizations, but I’ve had to get used to things being different in how I function.

With ECT is expected some short term memory loss, and indeed, much of October and November of last year are a haze, but I’ve had some difficulty retrieving older memories as well, and I even developed a bit of a stammer, a kind of stuttering that comes out when I’m overtired, overstressed, nervous, or just overwhelmed. They just don’t tell you these things when you sign on to have an electrical current passed through your brain, that after you’ve had six carefully controlled induced seizures there might be serious side effects in how you think and process information. I do, however, remember them bringing me upstairs just as soon as the anesthesia had worn off, and having them get me to practice writing my name. For someone who hopes to be a published author someday, this activity has stuck out in my brain as being especially relevant.

The good news is that I’m once again hopeful about my future, hopeful that with effort and determination, I can achieve my goals, graduate from Northwestern with an MFA in creative writing, and indeed finish and publish a novel. At that time I had lost that faith in my abilities and had become overwhelmed by trying to care for my older, handicapped cousin who is wheelchair bound and morbidly obese, unable to take care of those activities of daily living that you and I take for granted. The phrase, “Physician, heal thyself,” has seemed especially pertinent, and I’ve realized that if I don’t manage my own health and well being, I won’t be able to be there for someone else. Fueling the fog of my thought process was my feeling that I just couldn’t cope with the responsibilities of being able to care for my cousin who had become reliant on my for her well being.

I’ve slowly crawled out of the turgid waters of my brain, and resumed my place among students, hoping that I can regain my abilities to think my way through a plot, even if it’s only to plot my own trajectory through life.

The Asian Equation

I went to play tennis yesterday, and the guy I was playing with managed to make fun of both me and Asian-American culture at the same time. As I mentioned in my last blog, I’ve gotten a bit out of shape, more out of shape than I’m comfortable with, so in between games, I was running lines. For those not familiar with the exercise, what’s involved is that the player starts off on the far side of the court touching the outside line, runs, bends over and touches the next line, and runs the distance of the whole court that way. Since two courts were available, I ran two sets of lines at a tennis club called Tanglewood while an Asian family played tennis on some other other courts that were closer to the swimming pool. The kid playing was good. His serve was especially good. He served with deadly accuracy.

“Whatta happen? Why you try so hard?” My friend mock joked, teasing me being winded, out of shape, and for trying to be extra diligent about getting back in shape.

There are many cultural stereotypes out there, and one of the most persistent is that Asian-Americans simply work harder than the rest of us, that they’re more dedicated, better pianists, better students, harder workers. Why should this be a problem?

I think this becomes a problem because there’s a subtle pressure in our culture not to stick out, a pressure to blend in, and fit in, even if that means being average in each and every way. There are repercussions for more than just Asians. It means that others among us, including the dominant Caucasian culture, are taught that it’s not okay to be a high achiever, and to me, that’s not okay.

In the meantime, we need to be just a little more careful with what we carelessly say.

Weighing Me Down

Over the course of the last five months or so, I’ve somehow put on 25 to 30 lbs, and trust me, not all of it has been muscle, so it begs the question, what exactly is going on? I’m convinced that stress, both good stress and bad stress, can pack on the pounds.

Of course I’m responsible for what I eat, and probably having that pint of ice cream late at night isn’t helping, but one pint doesn’t translate into thirty lbs, and, as my friends know, I’m a pretty active guy. I workout at the gym a minimum of two times a week, and I walk my two dogs at least one to two miles each and every day. Basically, I try to lead a really active lifestyle, but I think, if I’m being honest, that having gone through a major depression this past year really set me back. It’s almost as though my body is reacting six months after the fact. I’m no longer depressed, and in fact feel pretty darn great, but having struggled mightily in October, November and December, my body simply said, enough is enough, you’re shutting down. You’ve been severely depressed, and now your body is going to reflect that fact back to the world.

I’m listening to Nina Simone singing the song, “Feeling Good,” right now, and she cries out, “Birds flying high, you know how I feel. Sun in the sky, you know how I feel. Breeze drifting on by, you know how I feel. It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life for me, yeah, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good.”

Making matters worse in here in Chicago is that we’ve had one of our worse winters on record. So many grey, gloomy days, so many snowstorms, so many bitter cold afternoons and evenings that even turning on the TV felt like a chore. The good news is that we have a beautiful spring and summer on deck with lovely summer weather, and the opportunity for lots of outdoor activities.

The frustration is this weight problem didn’t happen overnight, and can’t be solved overnight. Like they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s a Day at a Time program, and I get the opportunity to make better choices a day at a time. The key, however, is, to the best of my ability, to be happy where I’m at, because, after all, that’s is where I’m at.

Boozy But Beautiful

Veronica Lake made a splash in Hollywood in her breakthrough role in the 1941 war drama “I Wanted Wings.” During filming, her trademark blonde hair slipped over her eyes, creating her signature peekaboo look.

She struggled mightily with stardom, however, and fame was a fickle friend. Alcoholism and mental illness dogged her career and marred her legacy, and she faded into ignominy later in life.

I worked at E! Entertainment television between 1997 and 1999 on a little known show called Mysteries and Scandals, and we used to do profiles of all the old Hollywood legends, covering, of course, all the greats, such as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Spencer Tracy and Lana Turner, but we also focused on lesser known figures like dancer Isadora Duncan, comedian Fatty Arbuckle, actor John Barrymore and, naturally, Veronica Lake.

Veronica Lake made several films with the five-foot five stature-challenged actor Alan Ladd, including the memorable “This Gun For Hire,” and the lessor known film noir classic, “The Blue Dahlia.” Ladd was known for his height, or lack thereof, and Lake was known for her hair and smoldering eyes. She later became a pin-up girl for soldiers during WWII and sold more than her fair share of war bonds.

Unfortunately, alcoholism, and later, mental illness, took its toll. The two in combination proved deadly, and she died of hepatitis and acute kidney injury at age 50. In reality, Lake ran through her money, and was forced to stay in a series of low rent motels, barely able to pay her bills or put food on the table. When fans tried to send her money, though, she turned down their offers of assistance, insisting that she was still able to make ends meet, and that she was doing just fine on her own, thank you very much.

In our Mysteries and Scandals TV feature at E! Entertainment television, we hinted through a bizarre interview clip that Veronica Lake may have had a lobotomy, but this idea was never substantiated, and in fact, her behavior, strange though it was, could probably have been chalked up to tipping back one too many drinks, one too many days in a row.

I’m reminded of the Marlon Brando quote from the film, “On the Waterfront,” where he shouts out, “I coulda been a contender.” Veronica Lake coulda been a big star, but her career careened off-course, and she never really dealt with the personal demons that haunted her.

Broken Dreams

I don’t read much poetry. I find it an art form somewhat inaccessible to our modern age, discordant to our modern ear, and yet of late I have been much drawn to the work of Irish poet and Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats who lived between 1865 and 1939.

A pillar of the Irish literary establishment, Yeats wrote traditional verse poems about Irish fairy tales, Irish legends and folklore and was much interested in such taboo topics as the occult, but who nevertheless simultaneously concerned himself with politics, serving as a senator for the Irish Free State. He’s not only one of the greatest Irish writers ever to have lived, he may indeed be one of the very greatest poets ever to walk the earth as well.

I was fascinated, in particular, by one of his poems, “Broken Dreams.”

It starts:

“There is grey in your hair.
Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath
When you are passing;
But maybe some old gaffer mutters a blessing
Because it was your prayer
Recovered him upon the bed of death.”

. . .

“Your beauty can but leave among us
Vague memories, nothing but memories.
A young man when the old men are done talking
Will say to an old man, ‘Tell me of that lady
The poet stubborn with his passion sang us
When age might well have chilled his blood.’

“Vague memories, nothing but memories,
But in the grave all, all, shall be renewed.

“The certainty that I shall see that lady
Leaning or standing or walking
In the first loveliness of womanhood,
And with the fervour of my youthful eyes,
Has set me muttering like a fool.

“You are more beautiful than any one,
And yet your body had a flaw:
Your small hands were not beautiful,
And I am afraid that you will run
And paddle to the wrist
In that mysterious, always brimming lake
Where those that have obeyed the holy law
Paddle and are perfect. Leave unchanged
The hands that I have kissed,
For old sake’s sake.

“The last stroke of midnight dies.
All day in the one chair
From dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged
In rambling talk with an image of air:
Vague memories, nothing but memories.”

The line that repeats, the line that recurs is that memories are vague, that all we have to hold on to is nothing but mere memories. It is the work of the poet to conjure these insubstantial images and spirits and memories to live on in the minds of others as the read the poem in later years.

W. B. Yeats had a lifelong love affair with Maud Gonne who started out more political than Yeats, and in fact, later in life, married Irish republican John MacBride who was executed for his participation in the 1916 Easter Uprising. Yeats steadfastly maintained his love for Gonne, proposing to her four times before their marriages to other people, and he made her the focus of several poems, including, in fact, the beautifully constructed “Broken Dreams.”

I really liked the image that men might no longer catch their breath at the sight of you, yet something lives on, even if it is so insubstantial and vague as a memory.

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