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Gravesite

There’s something about my recent trip to Ireland which has haunted me, namely the importance of marking one’s ancestors as part of one’s heritage, something about the continuity of time that I found reflected in the gravesite of William Butler Yeats. I had never been much of a grave site enthusiast, had never really made a point of visiting the graves of famous authors or personages, and I sometimes find some’s morbid fascination with the dead to be a bit bizarre, but in this case, I felt like I was visiting my literary heritage and literary legacy. I cannot possibly hope to accomplish as much with prose as Yeats did with poetry, but I nevertheless struggle on to leave my own little mark in the world.

Rosie and I arrived in Sligo coincidentally on Yeats birthday, June 13th, and the whole town was up to its nipples in Guinness in celebration of the big day. The sky was azure blue and nearly cloudless, yet his statue in town wore an impertinent rain slicker and held aloft an umbrella, I suppose as a way of recognizing that the weather in Ireland fairly often fails to cooperate.

We met a true Irish lass, Kerry Cunningham, who oversaw the Yeats museum and who took us on a tour before inviting us to go out back to the patio courtyard for refreshments. A more perfect day there has never been. After listening to youthful Irish bands sing out their plaintive tunes, we headed to Drumcliffe Church, the proper burial site for W.B. Yeats.

His tombstone is emblazoned with one of his most famous poems”

“Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by”

To me, the gravestone wasn’t the most remarkable thing about Yeats, though it was certainly memorable. To me, what stood out was the lifelong passion Yeats maintained for the Irish Nationalist Revolutionary Maud Gonne. He proposed to her four times before her marriage to someone else, and proposed yet once again, a final time, after her divorce. She must certainly have been one of the most independent-minded women of all time to turn down the man who had immortalized her in his poetry, but she lives on as an example of yearning and passion and unrequited love (though there are many rumors that Maud Gonne and Yeats did finally, one time, consummate their relationship).

To me, it serves as an example that we don’t always know what in life is best for us, and is a study in missed opportunities. Yeats, near the end of his life, married a woman named Georgie Hyde-Lees, and it is Georgie who rests at the foot of his grave, with a small marker of her own.

Yeats died at age 74, but he couldn’t have had a fuller life if he had lived to 100, and I myself was grateful to come away with a greater appreciation of the man beyond the legend.

Creative Hack

I didn’t have all that much interest in seeing the new movie, The Interview, before the latest controversial threat, seemingly coming from North Korea, that anyone is goes to see the film faces consequences similar to what happened on September 11th, 2001. The film comedically explores the idea that two US citizens traveling abroad could assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, and in the fallout controversy, Sony Pictures’ computer system itself was attacked and hacked, and private emails and information was leaked to the press.

The Sony company is based in Japan, and the studio portion of the company have decided not to release the film anywhere in Japan, citing Japanese citizens who are currently being held in North Korea, and Seth Grogan, one of the films stars, has cancelled his press promotional tour for the next few days.

This whole fiasco reminds me of the controversy over the freedom of creative expression. Books such as Ulysses, by James Joyce, and To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, have been banned in the past in an attempt to keep people from being exposed to ideas or expressions of ideas that challenge the norm. This is, in all likelihood, a forgettable spoof that would have otherwise disappeared shortly after its release, but it’s now garnering more attention than it would have otherwise, simply because the North Koreans take even a comedic attack on their leader as a serious provocation. My mind casts back to the time when Salmon Rushdie’s life from the Ayatollah of Iran for writing a book called, Satanic Verses.

I think we must work to retain the right to artistic freedom as one of the most fundamental, basic, and important freedoms we have.

Til Death Do Us Part

As someone with manic-depression, I find myself wondering, at times, whether part of my illness stems from an inability to accept death. Certainly, mental illness is inherited genetically, but I also believe it is, in part, a maladaptive response to life stress. I feel I have to be careful not to blame myself for my illness, and I work hard to take care of myself by avoiding alcohol for the last seven years, get enough sleep, try to workout on a regular basis, eat right, and continually challenge myself intellectually. That last bit is an important, often overlooked element of mental well-being.

Nevertheless, I find the basic human condition painful in that it inevitably involves loss, at the very end that loss including the loss of self. As I drove on vacation to northern Wisconsin yesterday, I heard on the Wisconsin Public Radio a program talking about the new phenomenon of lasting tributes to Facebook users who have died. That number now includes over one million people with Facebook pages who have died.

People have long communed with the dead in ways as varied as going to the cemetery, praying, even, for some, holding seances, but Facebook offers a new way for people to communicate with those who are no longer able to respond directly. More than just in memoriam, this is an active way for people to grieve and continue to celebrate the presence of those who have passed on. I like to think that people who continue after me will still celebrate my life. I like to think that my life has mattered, both to me personally and to others around me.

It’s nice to think that the world is a better place for my having been here. With that, I wish you a happy holiday season.

Michael

Black Lives Don’t Count

My best friend in the world is an African-American woman who teaches at a city college in Chicago, and when I asked her what she thought of the verdict in the indictment of Officer Darren Wilson, charging that he used an unlawful amount of lethal force against Michael Brown, a boy who stole cigars from a convenience store, she said with some bitterness, “Black lives don’t count.” She later called back, and tempered her response, still not negating what she had previously said, but acknowledging that we need to find a peaceable way to protest injustice.

The fury driving minority communities seems to be the recognition that they are not seen as fully human, deserving of the recognition afforded any white citizen in the community. Shortly after the verdict, President Obama spoke to our citizens, saying, “We are a nation built on the rule of law, so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.”

Indeed, we have come a long way since the 1960’s, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have miles to go still, seeking equality for all in terms of how we are treated. St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, in his lengthy statement, never once mentioned that Michael Brown was unarmed, and his whole presentation style came across as belligerent, self-serving, and inflammatory. While any decision of this kind doesn’t justify a violent response, it’s pretty clear that people who are not so privileged as to be born white are frustrated with their second-class citizenship status.

The jury of nine whites and three blacks met on twenty-five occasions over the period of three months, but it seems to me that the system is still fundamentally broken. Watching the tear gas canisters spread through the crowds made me feel that I was in a different time or even in a different country. I don’t know how many people reading this remember the black and white images from the sixties of black men and women being sprayed with firehouses or having German Shepard dogs sicced on them, but suffice it to say that things got out of control, and fast. There were 61 arrests in Ferguson for burglary and trespassing, and again, I in no way condone that response, but I understand the feeling that we are simply not all equal under the law.

Officer Darren Wilson made an impulsive decision in the flurry of the moment, and no doubt, given the public outcry, he probably regrets the degree of force he used. He will have to live with his decision to take a life over a couple of stolen cigars, but I personally believe in the Maya Angelou dictum: “We do the best we can, and when we know better, we do better.”

Let’s hope that Michael Brown’s death wasn’t completely in vain because I fear it was.

The measure of success

About a month ago, I celebrated my forty-fifth birthday, vastly different from my twenty-fifth. I remember I ushered in my mid-twenties with a drunken night that started out at my house, but migrated to the bars so as to be seen by as many people as possible. I used to count my level of success based on how many people I knew, and how many people I could cajole into coming to my birthday celebration, but the times, they have changed. In April I celebrated seven years sober, and though I threw myself a birthday party this year, it was more about the quality of friends I had in attendance, not the quantity.

There’s a great little independent bookstore near me that hands out bookmarks with your purchases, and on that slip of paper is a saying by someone named A. Cowley, “May I have a few friends and many books, both true.”

I’ve also been reading a book by the Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones about the history of Chicago theater, titled, “Bigger, Brighter, Louder, and it said, “We make a great stir upon our individual ant-hills, and try to convince ourselves and our fellow ants struggling along with their burdens that there never was such an ant as we, but somehow, when some bright day we go out of sight under the hill we have piled up, the other ants don’t mind it much, but go trudging along over us just as usual.”

I think one of the very hardest things we have to reconcile ourselves to is the inevitability of our own mortality. For me, I believe we are only truly dead when no one no longer remembers us. It’s important that we make our time matter in ways that are individually meaningful. And if we can live our lives with a sense of style in the process, all the better.

All right, I admit it. I started listening to Christmas carols in the car, shortly after Ellen DeGeneres advertised her new Christmas cd, available only at Target, aptly titled, The Only Christmas Album You’ll Ever Need, Volume One. After listening to Stevie Wonder’s rendition of One Little Christmas Tree a number of times, I branched out and bought the new Motown Christmas cd as well as the Mary J. Blige Christmas cd, featuring a great rendition of Mary Did You Know?

I have friends who consider me a bit of a simpleton to still believe in God. To them, the concept of God is similar to Santa Claus, something you outgrow as you mature. It’s kind of frowned upon by some intellectuals who seek an answer within rational determinism. One acquaintance considers people who put their faith in a power greater than themselves weak for their lack of self sufficiency.

I find, however, that what matters in the grand scheme of things is my interconnectedness and interdependence on others, and I still find myself startled into silence by a starry night. I feel blessed to have been given the gift of life, and blessed to have others with whom I can share my joy.

It may be a little early to crank up the Christmas tunes. It’s even possible, according to some individuals, that Jesus was born in April, not December, and that what has been co-opted is a pagan mid-winter festival holiday, adopted by Christians to better mark the season leading up to Lent, and to better differentiate Christ’s birth from His resurrection.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter too much to me whether we have the exact day correct on our calendar. What matters most to me is that we enter the winter season with a spirit of generosity in our hearts, and that we are open to receiving the grace of God, and the many blessings of the Christmas season.

What’s in a Name?

I had my very first Italian lesson this past week at the ItalCultura in Chicago, probably more commonly referred to as the Italian Cultural Center, and I made my first blunder within seconds of opening my mouth. I enthusiastically greeted my instructor, Giovanni, only to discover that she much prefers the feminine version of her name, Giovanna.

In general, I fluster easily and am mortified by silly mistakes, but what I learned, more than how to say my name, is that mistakes are inevitable when learning a new language, and when you make a gaffe, apologize and get over it. We talked about how some people in group classes are inordinately shy of speaking up unless they are certain that their pronunciation is perfect, and Giovanna reassured me that this is not the best way to proceed in mastering a new language.

Italians, from my understanding, are a vociferous, talkative lot who freely employ gestures to better make their point. Part of cultural immersion involves letting go of behaviors that handicap us in communicating more effectively. I have, in high school and first year and a half of college, taken French which is another romance language, linked in many ways to Italian, yet quite distinct. It remains to be seen whether my partial mastery of French will help or hinder me in my quest to become familiar with the Italian language and culture.

I hope one day to travel there, and though this remains at this time a pipe dream, I’ve nevertheless learned to plant seeds if you are to have any hope of growing a garden.

Buon Giorno,

Michael

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.

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