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I have made a decision to apply for the Fulbright Fellowship to France next year. If accepted, I would leave for Paris, France October 1, 2024. Only approximately 16 percent of applicants from Northwestern University win the fellowship, so wish me luck, if you’re so inclined.

I hope to hypothesize that Samuel Beckett’s life influenced his work more directly than he acknowledged. He maintained that his life had little to do with his fiction, but scholars have found a correlation more direct than previously anticipated. James Knowlson wrote a seminal journal article, titled, “Samuel Beckett: The Intricate Web of Life and Work” that traced very specifically references to real people, experiences and events in Beckett’s life to his plays and novels.

Also quite helpful has been John Calder’s The Theology of Samuel Beckett. Beckett, a diehard existentialist, nevertheless drew on the religious tropes of his upbringing. Experientially, religion profoundly influenced Beckett’s oeuvre even though he ultimately rejected traditional religious concepts. Most presciently, Calder acknowledges, “Much of [Beckett’s] talent as a humorist went into mocking or making fun of the absurdities of many conventional beliefs, but he cannot be described as a believer, a non-believer, an atheist or even an agnostic. He disbelieved with a large doubt or disbelieved reluctantly or, more accurately, he kept the belief and disbelief poised in his mind, always unresolved, while he went on consciously speculating about the nature and existence of God” (The Theology of Samuel Beckett, John Calder, p. 13).

I have gone through my own existential crisis lately. My mother’s cousin Sheila Donoghue, who, by the way, paid for my education at both Northwestern University and Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, has become quite ill and succumbed to senile dementia. She nearly died from a urinary tract infection and in the process, to use a less than technically correct term, completely “lost her marbles.”

She and I have spoken each and every morning for the past eight years while she has resided in Tillars Nursing Home in Oswego, Illinois. To say we are close is a vast understatement.

At any rate, I called today at the nursing home as usual, and her television was blaring. I asked her if she could turn it down. She said she couldn’t. She said, “I’m not at the library; I’m at a restaurant–it’s the entertainment.” Then she said she would call back when she got home after eating out.

I’m beyond sad, and all I can do is hope not to “lose it” on the phone while speaking to her. It has caused a major theological crisis in me. Whereas I had always put my faith in God, I wonder know about the very existence of God.

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*What follows are my late night and early morning musings, somewhat random in nature, in the hope that I can someday craft a compelling nonfiction memoir from my disorganized, discursive thoughts. I hardly ever know what I am thinking until I see it on paper, and even then, I still sometimes do not know.

When I desperately begged my mother in either second or third grade to be the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz for Halloween, she wanted badly to support my creative request, but she worried about what the other kids would say, so she dissuaded me, against her better judgment.

To her, I was her Golden Boy; that’s what she called me, many a time. I had lovely golden blond hair and perfect blue eyes and I was, according to my mother, somewhat vague and dreamy, though she meant that more as a compliment than a critique. Not completely of this world, I think she thought.

My two very favorite films, growing up, were It’s a Wonderful Life, starring the inimitable Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, and, naturally, as a burgeoning young gay man, The Wizard of Oz. In truth, I thought that The Wizard of Oz was perhaps nearly everyone’s favorite film, except if the boys wanted to fit in throughout grade school, they could not admit it. Only later did I learn that many kids preferred the Spiderman cartoons to what I considered the high art of Judy Garland as Dorothy, acting alongside Ray Bolger, Burt Lahr, Jack Haley, originally cast as Buddy Epstein who got poisoned by the silver paint of the Tin Man, and, naturally, Margaret Hamilton in the iconic role of the Wicked Witch.

I was, at the time, and to a degree today, afraid of the dark which I chalked up as being, on some level, afraid of death itself. Get it? The dark: the close of day, the unknown, death itself. I think I probably was a kid ahead of his time in being titillatingly terrified of the Wicked Witch of the West. Her evil sister/Doppelganger twin from the East was destroyed without much fanfare by the arrival of Dorothy in Munchkinland. And if one extends the analogy, the Wicked Witch hails from the west, where the sun sets.

To be continued. . .

With all the violence in the world today, as Ukraine battles desperately to maintain democracy and freedom, I finally discovered a necessary and important topic to study for a PhD in English.

I have been pondering the topic of fictional representations of the 1916 Easter Rising for a while now in relation to Irish theatre and literature and their connection with violence expressed theatrically. For those not familiar with Irish history, the 1916 Easter Rising, organized by a seven-man military council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), began Easter Monday, April 24th and lasted six days. Irish Nationalists took over the General Post Office (GPO), holding up all communications between Britain and Ireland as well as other communications with the outside world. The seven signatories of the proclamation undoubtedly understood that they were signing their death warrant as all seven were rounded up and executed. The British Tribunal raised the ire of the Irish public during a protracted series of military trials and executions, extended well beyond two weeks. Britain had ruled over Ireland, at that time, a total of almost eight hundred years and though there had been previous uprisings, this one led to a nationwide movement and proved successful eventually. Note, the year: 1916, smack dab in the middle of World War I. I contend that one of the reasons this Irish revolution finally succeeded had to do with the British preoccupation with the Great War against the Kaiser.

As part of my investigation into theatrical and fictional representations of violence, I intend a close study of James Moran’s foundational compendium, Four Irish Rebel Plays, featuring the plays of Thomas MacDonagh, Pádraic Pearse, James Connolly, and Terence MacSwiney. Three of the four were executed in 1916 and the later, MacSwiney, died during a seventy-four day hunger strike while imprisoned for sedition.

One of the academicians I most admire, Dr. John Brannigan, head of the University College Dublin (UCD) English department, commented one time to me in an email, “There was a recalcitrance on the part of contemporary southern writers to be seen endorsing violence.” More modern novels and plays, such as At Swim Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill, A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry (Specifically about the conundrum of World War I and Irish soldiers divided in their allegiances), A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle, and The Red and the Green by Iris Murdoch.

(More later, I’m tired, so I’m publishing this unfinished. I couldn’t sleep. I’ve been up since 2am and it’s now 5:43am in the suburbs of Chicago)!

One of my closest friends in the suburbs of Chicago where I live is a heterosexual white male who attends a conservative Baptist church with his late-in-life wife and two young boys. I believe he was approximately forty-three when he married and he had two children under three. For all that it matters, he has never had a drink of alcohol in his life and he was a virgin when he married. He is one of my moral heroes even though he struggles to understand my personal moral perspective as a middle-aged gay white male.

Nevertheless, we have found much common ground and I started an online literary book club that meets every other month. This month we featured Rebecca Makkai’s foundational, seminal work on the AIDS crisis in Chicago, circa 1985 through 2015, published in 2018. The novel, The Great Believers, was a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist and Rebecca Makkai remains a current judge for the upcoming National Book Award.

Tim Nelson and I do not see eye-to-eye on political issues. He remains a diehard Trump supporter and I, although I support some Republicans such as former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, cast my lot most often with the Democrats. I voted, in fact, in the 2020 primaries for current Vice President Kamala Harris for President and then, proudly, for President Joe Biden. While I respect both United States political parties, Republican and Democrat, I identify more with John F. Kennedy’s adage, “A rising tide lifts all boats!”

My literary book club, and Tim Nelson is an active member who reads primarily, almost exclusively, the top 100 Modern Library Association’s Best modern novels, is quite successful. Our next meeting for the every-other-month club meets US Central time, 2pm, Sunday, April 24th, to discuss The Brothers Karamazov. We currently have 15 active members from around-the-world, including friends in Ireland from my two years earning a Master of Philosophy in Irish Literature from Trinity College Dublin, friends in Brazil, Seattle, and elsewhere, as well as, of course, the suburbs of Chicago, where I currently reside. Feel free to privately email me at michaelanson@rocketmail.com for a Zoom link to the next meeting in April.

At any rate, my book club is nonpartisan, though I do find it highly ironic that our next book is by Russian literary heavyweight Fyodor Dostoevsky, Russian author extraordinaire, ironic given our current horrific clash with Russia over Ukraine.

All of this is a long lead to my subject: the nomination for Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. My good friend Tim is baffled as to why President Joe Biden vowed to seat a Black woman on the Supreme Court and limit his search, excluding straight white males.

As far as I know, there has never been a gay white male or lesbian female nominated to the Supreme Court so perhaps we, as Robert Frost states in his eloquent poem, “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Miles to go before we sleep!” To Tim, the nomination of Justice Jackson, almost certain to get approved, smacks of partisan politics and “reverse discrimination.”

There have been, in history, 114 Supreme Court Justices, all but six have been white males. I really, truly think that fact stands, sadly, for itself. Straight white men are terribly afraid, these days, of having their white privilege stripped away.

As a gay white male, myself, in my very early 50’s, I say, having lived through the Reagan years and the AIDS crisis, although I remain HIV Negative, I say it is high time that straight white male privilege be dismantled in favor of a more equitable distribution of wealth, privilege and power. Let us start, simply, with white male privilege, and begin to level the playing field.

Rant over! See my work also at http://www.irishamericanattrinity.wordpress.com.

Best wishes on this beautiful early Monday morning,

Michael

michaelanson@rocketmail.com

My Pandemic Boyfriend

I’ll be the first to admit that my proverbial biological clock went off. Kind of like a rodeo where the cowboy lassoes the steer, I lassoed James, staking my claim, almost as though I were saying, “There, I choose you.”

Probably listening to Etta James belt out, “At last, the skies above are blue. My heart was wrapped up in clover, the night I looked at you,” is not the best remedy for a broken heart.

I proposed to him for God’s sake! I was planning to do it during our book club, but I owe several friends a big thank you for dissuading me from such a public forum. He didn’t say yes; he didn’t say no; he asked to think about it and yesterday, many months later, yesterday in fact, he got to me to indicate that he did not see a romantic future for us.

I had not hallucinated the many times we were on a drunk Zoom call and he would say, “If we get married someday. . .” It simply seems to me I was his pandemic boyfriend, convenient for video calls on lonely Saturday nights when Ireland in general, and Dublin in particular, has been, in effect, shut down for all intents and purposes.

I attended Trinity College Dublin from 2019 until May 8, 2020 when I returned to Chicago and graduated, during a pandemic, long distance. James and I met February 8, 2020 so most of our relationship was long distance, but I loved him intensely, perhaps too intensely for a now-thirty-year-old.

I would say, I love you, and he would indicate how fond of me he was, but I deliberately deafened out the lack of “I love you’s” in return.

Worst of all, I compromised my values when it came to allegiance to Ireland versus England. This may seem like a matter of small consequence to Americans, but in Irish pubs this can start of as gentle ribbing but evolve into a more heated discussion. I had always proudly claimed my 8 % Kerry/Cork heritage and dismissed my much more prevalent English heritage. My best friend in the world Steven Patrick Quinn hails from near Waterford and with his soft burring dulcet Irish tones convinced me that Irish Nationalists would always have moral superiority over the Monarchists. I allowed James to persuade me that the atrocities of the English over the Irish and many other subjects were mere aberrations in history. James hails from the North; Steven from the Republic, established in late 1921. I became, in my allegiance, a traitor to Steven and to my independent American values system.

Bitter Almonds

Gabriel García Márquez writes in Love in the Time of Cholera, “IT WAS INEVITABLE: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”

Let me put it this way: I have smelled the scent of bitter almonds more than once in my life.

We have this kind of optimistic Americanisms that if one simply tries hard enough, you are guaranteed to succeed when the reality, for the vast majority of us, remains less rosily optimistic.

Many of us will not only scent bitter almonds at some point in our lives, but we will taste the slightly acidic aftertaste as well. When I was 29 years old, I had a nervous breakdown and was subsequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Within just a few years, I had put on approximately 100 lbs, partly due to an intractable depression at my former Hollywood dreams crashing and burning on the roadside of life, partly due to a reaction to the medication prescribed.

I’ve had to fight and claw my way to some semblance of normalcy and, after a serious miscalculation about what I wanted to do with my life, I have reoriented my objectives, heading to Northwestern University in order to earn a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing after being awarded a Master of Philosophy in Irish Literature and Writing from Trinity College Dublin.

I fell in love, first with my best friend Steven, then later with Trinity College itself. I first attended that great Irish institution in 2017-18, but was somewhat disorganised in my thought process and had to leave before graduating. I returned, after a year “off the books” and much more successfully completed my studies, graduating with a respectable Level II.1. I learned how to write an academically rigorous dissertation, titled, Celtic Utopia: Lady Gregory’s Interlacement of History and Mythology that earned a 68 in the Irish marking system, the equivalent of an A.

Nevertheless, I underperformed on a few essays earlier and relate completely with James Joyce in his mediocre course achievement at UCD (University College Dublin). I am still in the process of fully embracing a creative life and establishing good working habits. Many writers I know write early in the morning.

I am hoping by emulating good work habits, solid material will emerge.

There is, if I am honest, a residual sadness to my life, but that really is simply the shadow life I might have had if I had never been diagnosed mentally ill. Another form of bitter almonds.

Photo by Mark Dalton on Pexels.com

I could have chosen an image of the Cliffs of Moher, yet instead I chose to focus on conscious living in a city setting, particularly in the cobblestone Temple Bar District of Dublin. It seems the ultimate challenge. The Dalai Lama resides on a mountaintop in India, focusing on the individual and particular moments in time while praying for the collective. How much more difficult is it to appreciate each moment of time passing while life rattles and noisily whirrs by on street corners below my hotel room at the Temple Bar Hotel.

Self-consciously American, wondering if that was something for which I needed to apologize, I arrived in Dublin September 3, 2017 to begin my studies. I had no idea I would later meet my best friend Steven a mere six days later much less my love interest, the man to whom I eventually proposed, James Gallager when I returned to Ireland in 2019-20.

Life does not so much feel random to me; rather, it appears as a series of opportunities strung together. My heart, whether or not I end up with James, belongs in Dublin and Ireland. I feel like I came fully alive when I arrived in Dublin in a way that I had not lived in the US.

Conscious living has taken on a new imperative during this pandemic.

Writers often relish having an adversarial relationship with the publishing business in attempting to claim artistic freedom without the pressure of finding an audience. Much of the book business nowadays, however, consists of at least a modicum of self-promotion, yet writers are reticent to get their hands dirty.
 
Having said that, it nevertheless remains true that good writing is still about the writing. It’s nice, though, to have an audience of readers and that’s where businessmen like James Daunt figure. Nicknamed “The Bookstore Wizard” by the Sunday business section of The New York Times, Daunt revolutionized book buying at Waterstones, Britain’s largest bookstore chain and has now set his sights on the US as the new CEO of Barnes & Noble.
 
The biggest chains, including Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, and Borders (now defunct) have been trapped in a death spiral for some time now and independent bookstores have scrambled to fill the gap with personalized recommendations. Amazon is all well and good and for convenience cannot be beat, but James Daunt banks on the idea that a readers are more likely to treasure a book they have chosen or have been recommended by a bookseller off the shelf. According to the August 11, 2019 edition of the Sunday New York Times, “Defying predictions that chain bookstores were doomed in an Amazon world, the privately held Waterstones returned to profitability in 2015, Mr. Daunt said, and earns a steady 10 percent margin on sales of roughly $500 million.”
 
He worked to personalize the book buying experience and believes buying a book in a store makes it better. Unlike Barnes & Noble which traditionally follows trends predicted by publishers, Daunt acts as a tastemaker. The Times also noted, “Though Waterstones doesn’t take money from publishers to push specific titles, its headquarters still chooses books to promote, and it anoints a book of the month and a book of the year. Those selections almost always become bestsellers.” He especially liked The Essex Serpent by Sarah Parry, made it book of the year, and it sold 100,000 copies. His power in making recommendations is exceeded thus far only by Oprah.
 
He ditched the traditional store planograms and gave bookstore managers more freedom in designing their store and including more books of local interest. The gamble paid off. At the time he took over Waterstones, twenty percent of inventory was mailed back to publishers, but by taking a proprietary view of his stores, he slashed that number to just four percent.
 
James Daunt entry into the US market is a really good thing for the book business and individual authors as well.

Source: The Advantages of Getting Lost

Each of the ten plays and musicals I saw in New York touched me in various ways and none, other than A Bronx Tale, disappointed me, but the one that stands in the forefront of my mind as the most personally influential has to be Sunday In The Park With George, or as my friends and I joke, Sunday in the Park With Jake Gyllenhaal.

A meditation on love, loss, disappointment, and the role of art in society, Sunday in the Park With George details the life and times of George Seurat, the painter who virtually invented pointillism and created a new, modern kind of impressionism, focusing on the importance of virtually every detail in a painting as it relates to the whole.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the moody painter George Seurat and Annaleigh Ashford backs him up as his love interest Dot, someone with whom he is ill-suited, but who captures his attention nonetheless. Jake deftly commands our attention, but I have to say that Annaleigh deftly backs him up, proving a formidable match. She loves George, but doesn’t love the artistic life and eventually a baker named Louis offers her a life of what seems to be a life of quiet contentment. Nevertheless, to the end of her life, she pines for the kind of vibrancy and artistic excitement that George Seurat offers her, and she wonders if she’s compromised herself beyond repair.

After Dot, George seems emotionally crippled. Through it all, Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics soar, painting a picture of people diminished without love in their life. His work emphasizes the compromises one makes to lead an artistic life, lessons I’m still learning. My only sadness: there probably won’t be a soundtrack to this revival, but if you happen to be in the New York area before April 23rd, catch this five star revival.