Not ready for this yet! But the front yard was undeniably magical, which I got to enjoy for about 30 seconds before I left for work…
I remember seeing Clerks for the first time – must have been 1995 or so. It had just come out on cable or DVD. At first glance, it shouldn’t have been appealing to me, as I was diametrically opposed to the lifestyle of the main characters. I was in graduate school, toiling away in classes and in the lab, where I was conducting research for my thesis. I was a rather dedicated, if not stellar student. I had goals, a plan. I intended to go places. I was not in a dead end job, working weird hours at a convenience store like the hapless heroes featured in the movie. Yet here these genial if vulgar slackers tapped into a well-concealed reservoir of doubt and discontentment within me. I saw that despite the jocularity between the characters, uncertainty always lurked beneath the ribbing and the jests, the banter distracting from the aimlessness afflicting them. When the protagonist Dante cries out in frustration “I’m not even supposed to be here!” I smiled and nodded. Sure it was whining, but it was also poignant – an admission of failure and a plea for mercy. For like Dante I also was too much in a rut to “stick it to the Man”, lacking the resolve to “escape the system”, so I was deeply sympathetic to that slow-motion floundering that characterizes the lives of so many 20-year olds, regardless of achievement. And as someone in my early 20’s at the time, I felt a kinship with these slouching, unmotivated wisecracking ne’er-do-wells.
Then there was Gross Pointe Blank, with its quirky, glib, but deadly protagonist reluctantly returning to his hometown for his ten year high school reunion (as well as to carry out a conveniently located assassination contract at the same time). The reckoning, the taking stock, the awkwardness, that surreal confrontation between the man you’ve become and the protean, larval version of you that still lurks in the minds of one’s peers were all perfectly on display there, only slightly augmented by the inclusion of gunplay and hand-to-hand combat. No, I was nothing like the protagonist, really. Neither a borderline sociopath with a talent for violence nor a loser in high school, I nonetheless shared that same wistful questioning, the equivocation of if I should make a change and embark on a different path. Sure, unlike the slackers in Clerks cruising on autopilot, the two of us had committed to something – but was it the ”right” something? And was there still time to alter course?
And currently, The World’s End, which when it came out on cable I watched three times in the first week alone. It features a group of middle-aged men who have made their choices and stuck by them. But a certain Gary King, played by the charismatic Simon Pegg, has apparently made the wrong choices, and belatedly realizes that he has paid a price for it. His internal crisis is mirrored by an external crisis where the characters’ hometown is taken over by aliens who have displaced the original inhabitants and assumed their identities. Part of the genius of the film is how perfectly everything is mirrored and distorted – faulty recollections versus actual occurrences, childhood versus adulthood, aspiration versus actual achievement, duty versus liberty, the freedom to do versus the necessity to conform, etc. As a 42 year old man this cannot help but resonate deeply within me. The movie challenges me to consider my circumstances and pick a side, to choose a course, rather than merely follow the path whose route was laid out years before by a rather uninformed young man and not well-scrutinized since.
I have not had, nor do I think will have, a proper “mid-life crisis” (something for which the Wife is keenly grateful). Mind you, I’m not ruling out any kind of break-down accompanied by drastic change inspired by some tragic, life-altering event, but the mid-life crisis thing is something I shall not fall prey to, principally because the inspiration for it – the sudden realization of lost youth and a new appreciation of one’s mortality – is something I have been constantly aware of at least at some low level my entire adult life. So I have been inoculated against it, as it were.
But the struggle between obligation and freedom, and what to DO with the freedom that one does possess, are topics that I certainly find compelling. To overcome the wistfulness that comes from self-indulgent reminiscing, leave the past in the past, and instead of wallowing, embrace the future and determine to shape it as best as I can to my liking – THAT is my current challenge. Sadly, there is no one who seems qualified to advise me on this matter.
What do I want? “I want to be free, to do what I want to do.” In a very real sense this yearning – and the awareness of our mortality - are what elevates us above the animals, believe it or not.
"My sense of indignation is becoming palpable."
“OK, stop. Now you’re just embarrassing yourself.”
“Don’t you ever get tired of being wrong?”
"I'm currently attempting to conceal my intense disgust. Is it working?"
“Make me proud. Or at least, less ashamed.”
“Now, now, I didn’t say that to patronize you. I’m just trying to establish the boundaries of your ignorance.”
“I just wanted to take this opportunity to say that I hate you all, and hope you die by drowning in the blood of your loved ones.”
Consists of racing towards
(And through) yellow lights.
I have a long, somewhat troubled relationship with the classic rock world. For decades I have likened listening to rock radio to panning for gold: sifting tediously through tons of dross to get to the actual precious material. So for every “Sultans of Swing” (Dire Straits) there are 10 songs like “Take Me Home Tonight” (Eddie Money). The hope is that the pleasure I derive from a chance broadcast of something like “Time” (Pink Floyd) will outweigh the crushing wave of “meh” that all the other songs played during the same hour inspire. I realize that people have different tastes, and mine are a bit more rarified, but my primary objection at this point is not only do I not care for most of the songs played, but my antipathy is magnified by the fact that I have heard these songs many, many times before, and continued exposure to them is like an allergy where each contact produces a more progressively adverse reaction until hospitalization is required.
The sad part is that a certain portion of the songs that I now regard with distaste are, objectively speaking, actually good songs. Take “Hotel California”, for example. It’s not just a good song – it’s a great one. The structure, the mood the piece evokes, the groove it settles into, the slightly surreal and disquieting lyrics, and the guitars; I’ve seen the sheet music, and there are literally eight different guitar parts, tastefully arranged and superimposed.
But I’m OVER it. I’ve just heard this song so many damn times that hearing it again makes me gnash my teeth and roll my eyes. In fact, somehow I have heard it three times just in the last month. And it was so played out that even in high school it was cliché, as evidenced by the fact that the entire busload of my classmates returning from the infamous 1989 Junior Year Washington D.C. Trip sang it all the way through, regardless of social status or musical predilection.
The most regrettable aspect about this is that it makes me hate the artist that produced the song, rather than the real villain here, who is the radio station or the musical industry it serves as a mindless minion. I mean, Deep Purple might be a fantastic band, and some of the things I’ve read about them make me believe I might even dig some of their material, but when all one ever hears is “Smoke on the Water”, how would one come to know that? Why can’t you hear other selections from their catalogue broadcast on the radio? I mean, it’s not like the radio stations are all still using the original vinyl singles with an “A” and “B” side, are they? They must have entire albums on compact disc. How about broadening the horizons a bit? Maybe instead of counting on some nostalgia-based and diminishing pavlovian response of their listeners by playing the same crap over and over, the stations could expose people to thousands of great songs that have remained effectively undiscovered. But in order to do THAT, you would have to strike some of the overplayed pieces from rotation forever. And so I composed a list of just such songs. The followings songs from the 1970’s should never be played by radio stations ever again, on pain of dismemberment:
Margaritaville (Jimmy Buffet)
Hotel California (The Eagles)
Radar Love (Golden Earring)
Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple)
We Are the Champions (Queen)
It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (The Rolling Stones)
Fly Like An Eagle (Steve Miller Band)
Layla (Derek and the Dominos)
Any Way You Want It (Journey)
Cold As Ice (Foreigner)
Dust In the Wind (Kansas)
Reelin’ In the Years (Steely Dan)
China Grove (Doobie Brothers)
Ramblin’ Man (Allman Brothers Band)
Give a Little Bit (Supertramp)
Sweet Emotion (Aerosmith)
Go Your Own Way (Fleetwood Mac)
What’s Your Name (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
Roxanne (The Police)
Turn the Page (Bob Seger)
Two Tickets to Paradise (Eddie Money)
Just The Way You Are (Billy Joel)
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (Diana Ross)
This is merely a healthy and necessary culling of the herd. So you could still occasionally hear “Life in the Fast Lane” by the Eagles, and “Night Moves” by Bob Seger (if you must). I dare you to debate the inclusion of any of the above songs, and I welcome suggestions for additions to the list (there should probably be several more by the Steve Miller Band in there). And certainly, another list could - and should - be compiled for the 1980’s as well. And I can tell you right now, Billy Idol, Bryan Adams and John Mellencamp would definitely be represented on it.
Summer of ’69 (Bryan Adams)
Take Me Home Tonight (Eddie Money)
White Wedding (Billy Idol)
Hurts So Good (John Mellencamp)
Janie’s Got a Gun (Aerosmith)
Free Fallin (Tom Petty)
Born in the U.S.A. (Bruce Sprinsteen)
Sharp Dressed Man (ZZ Top)
Girls, Girls, Girls (Mötley Crüe)
You’ve Got Another Thing Comin (Judas Priest)
Karma Chameleon (Culture Club)
Hit Me With Your Best Shot (Pat Benetar)
Danger Zone (Kenny Loggins)
Here I Go Again (Whitesnake)
You Give Love a Bad Name (Bon Jovi)
Sweet Child o’ Mine (Guns N’ Roses)
With or Without You (U2)
Maneater (Hall & oates)
Sussudio (Phil Collins)
Invisible Touch (Genesis)
Addicted to Love (Robert Palmer)
In Your Eyes (Peter gabriel)
All Night Long [All Night] Lionel Richie
Total Eclipse of the Heart (Bonnie Tyler)
Don’t Stop Believin’ (Journey)
Panama (Van Halen)
We Built This City (Starship)
Her grave marker has now been installed. I had no idea what it would look like – she picked it out herself and ordered it before she died. She was always practical when it came to such matters. After locating it I stood there for a while, fidgeting in the noon sun. It was just about the size, shape and style that I would expect her to select – even to the choice of the pinkish granite. Someone had put a pot of begonias in front of it. I was sad but not ravaged with grief – I have done my share of mourning already. I was dismayed, however, when I looked down and saw how the grass planted over the grave was a much darker green than the grass around it, and that highlighted the fact I was standing right on top of her remains. I quickly moved back several more feet.
Eventually I looked about the area – the “new” addition to the cemetery, that I was not as familiar with (the original part hosting the graves of my father and his parents). A few rows over I recognized a last name, and went over to get a closer look. It was the grave of the grandparents of a long-lost high school friend of mine. There were other names I recognized, too. And nearby was the grave of a guy I actually graduated with. In fact, his glossy black gravestone was emblazoned with a medallion that had his senior year photograph on it, which I have never seen done before. I had no clue he was buried there, but had already known he was deceased – he died right before my 10-year class reunion, committing suicide in a Las Vegas hotel room. Some serious story there, obviously, but one we will never know. Wistfully I remembered the last time we were in class together – the 7th and 8th grade gifted class that substituted for regular English in junior high at the time. I recalled him sitting at the back of the room, clowning around. He seemed happy-go-lucky then. Geez, what happened?
I wandered around for a bit more before I left. When I talked to my brother later I asked if it was he that had brought the flowers, and he said no, it was one of my mom’s long-time best friends. He claimed she goes there literally three times a week (though considering she is very Catholic and European, her habits regarding graveyards are culturally much more old-school than the average American’s). When telling this bit to my wife when I got back, I unexpectedly teared up a bit. Such loyalty. And to think my mom could inspire it… It’s hard to imagine what visiting the graves of my friends would be like. But, assuming I am “lucky”, that is what I will be doing eventually…
Let me tell you a story. See the above photo of the toy wooden train? As a child I would pass by it daily; it was placed on a rather high shelf in our living room. It belonged to my mother, oddly enough, and I wasn’t allowed to play with it, even though I was occasionally permitted to pick it up and examine it. I suppose when I was little I never questioned why my mother would have a little toy train, considering that she wasn’t sentimental and frowned on the entire notion of keepsakes, but then again, we tend not to question the things we see every day; they just become part of what the world is. It wasn’t until I was in college that I was told its provenance.
But I have gotten ahead of myself. For the little train is actually the end of the story, not its beginning.
Here is the beginning: Near the end of World War II, in the western portion of Germany, there was a forced labor camp near where my mother lived. Its population consisted of Russian prisoners of war. As the war began to draw to a close, the Allies drew closer and closer to the location of the camp. The guards began to grow nervous. They knew that very soon they would have to retreat and abandon or close the camp. They were understaffed, and didn’t have enough men to prevent the prisoners from escaping while they were on the road, and they couldn’t very well turn enemy combatants loose (an offense which would certainly have merited a court martial in the eyes of their superiors). So, the pragmatic solution – and how often during war is the pragmatic solution also the most inhumane? – was to machine gun them all, and withdraw after the killing had been carried out. Such acts had already been performed who knows how many times during the war...
My grandfather happened to be in town at the time – not a common occurrence, as you will see. Although already middle-aged when the war began, eventually he received the dreaded summons to report for duty in an artillery unit on the Russian Front. But unlike millions of his countrymen, he refused to go along with the dictates of the State. He said to his wife, “no one is going to shove a gun into my hands and force me to kill another human being”. So he failed to report for duty, went AWOL, and reluctantly left his wife and two young daughters. At some point he fell in with a group of forgers who could make the documents the Nazis required for anyone who traveled. He returned home when he could, using a forged copy of a permit saying he was a soldier on leave, but he could do this only rarely so suspicion would not be aroused, because one could never know who might report you to the feared Gestapo.
It was not in his best interest to speak out. Just calling attention to himself was dangerous. The resulting scrutiny might uncover his subterfuge. But he couldn’t sit by and watch an atrocity without trying to do something to prevent it. It was not in his nature. The details I was given are quite sparse, so I have to mentally fill in the blanks – I envision the Russians shuffling out to the side of the road to stand in a ditch or a nearby field, and lining up, waiting to be shot, with a handful of soldiers toting their automatic rifles stoically getting into place. My grandfather approached them and pleaded with them not to do this; it was wrong, it would be immoral to just slaughter all these men - even wars were not to be conducted in this way. The guards were not swayed by his arguments – the Russians were loose ends that had to be tied up or else they would be risking themselves.
So my grandfather proposed an alternative: he offered to escort the prisoners, numbering three hundred– by himself – on an overnight hike to the next town, which still had facilities that could hold them. It would take all night to get there on foot, but he guaranteed that he would transport them all without any escaping. The guards told him that if any escaped, he would be the one held responsible, and then granted his request.
Grandfather had the prisoners gather round, and told them, “Fellows, I am going to guide you and we are going to march on over to the next town tonight. I gave my personal assurance that none of you would try to escape – if any of you do, I will probably be killed. Do you all agree to stay together and not try anything?” They immediately agreed. So Grandfather – the lone German and unarmed - and the prisoners set off and walked through the night, and the next day he showed up at the neighboring camp with all three hundred men accounted for, not a single one missing. It’s a little hard to believe that none slipped away in the darkness, or worse, tried to kill him. It would have been so simple to do. But somehow there was enough trust and rational self-interest on the part of the prisoners, that they recognized that he had provided them their best chance to survive.
When the Allies did come through a relatively short time later, they successfully liberated the prisoners and they were all able to return to their homeland. But before they did, they expressed their heartfelt gratitude to my grandfather, who made their survival possible. They had next to nothing to give him, of course, but a few of the Russians who were skilled at woodworking made some toys in the camp workshop and said to my grandfather that these were gifts for his children.
And so this little wooden train was made by a captive Russian for my mother, who kept it all her life. It is the only remaining proof of a good deed done by a brave man who could have turned his head and looked the other way. And this post is, to the best of my knowledge, the only record of this deed. I wrote it to prevent it from being forgotten altogether and lost in the fog of the past. For tales must be told, else they fade away forever.
The bigger the war, the more heroes it typically produces, and WWII certainly is no exception. During the struggle untold numbers of people performed great deeds, as well as unmentionable ones. My grandfather did not participate in any historic battles. He never took out an enemy pillbox, or carried a wounded comrade to safety, or tossed a grenade into a tank, or shot down a fighter plane. Nevertheless, he was a hero all the same.
Still, occasionally a term from der Vaterland sneaks through into common parlance because it is just so succinct and apt in distilling a concept to its essence. And that is the strength of the German language: its precision. A German word always means one thing, and smaller words can easily be combined to refine and modify that thing so that it is exactly described. For example, there's the word Verbesserungsvorschlagsversammlung, which is a meeting held to hear suggestions for improvement. Furthermore, German pronunciation is always the same, unlike English, which can be context-dependent and has a multitude of exceptions to every rule. (There’s no equivalent Germanic confusion inherent in our words like “wound”, “wind” or “lead”.) Latin may contribute a lot regarding the law, and French may be well-suited to describing social situations of unusual complexity, but nothing beats German when it comes to framing concepts. Take Zeitgeist, for example. Or Angst, Realpolitik, and Weltanschauung (‘world-view’).
By now, most everyone knows Schadenfreude, the feeling of joy one has at another's misfortune. Less well known, but just as useful to me personally, is Weltschmerz: the sadness one feels when contemplating how far the real world is from the ideal world. A recent term I’ve learned that has become a favorite is Sehnsucht – an ardent yearning that is rooted in the inconsolable longing for a far-off or even unearthly land that might best be considered a golden, idealized version of home, a perfect place where presumably you would feel at peace and happy, but which ultimately is an unattainable utopian state. In order to feel this you must be discerning enough to realize the incompleteness and imperfection of reality, so it is an affliction that only torments the sensitive and perceptive. In other words, people like me, because Lord, I don't even know how many times I've felt that…
But my latest discovery tops them all: “Backpfeifengesicht” means “a face in need of a slap.” Really – how often could you have used that term in the last month alone? And the example I found on a German/English website:
Der US-amerikanische Politiker Joe Liebermann hat so ein Backpfeifengesicht!
“The American politician Joe Lieberman has a face you'd just like to punch!”
Man – a face in need of a slap. I can’t believe I didn’t learn this years ago. Clearly my mother was holding out on me, which is odd because she did more than her fair share of slapping.
And now the magic happens. Behold! Patches of sunlight filtering through the partially seen leafy canopy are actually composed of three layers of paint, as the first layer was too golden, the corrective second coat made it to too blinding white and a third coat, of just the barest amount of black (smudged on with my fingertips) was required to get the desired quality of hue and texture. The light plays along the surface of the tree, accentuating its curves. At first glance this comes close to achieving that impossible dream of the stunning illusion: the planar surface inexplicably transformed so that it possesses the THIRD DIMENSION.
The middle ground issue – which has proven so prickly to me in the past that I have deigned to omit it from compositions altogether - has been resolved in a way that makes sense, although it brightens the painting more than I would like. But hey, if you are going to get a rainbow, you need strong, direct sun.
The fat black cat, now obviously revealed to be a portrait of our cat Mickey, is done with an effort to communicate his characteristic solemn sensitivity. I am satisfied this image captures at least part of his exquisitely complex nature. His brother Chester, is seen lagging behind (and distracted), as befits his timid yet youthful nature. How many times have I stared at his fur to discover the secret to that tabby coloring?
Note the subtle additions to the rainbow: in an attempt to make it seem translucent I gingerly painted OVER the rainbow to make it seem you are seeing through it to the objects BEHIND. That effect came out rather better than expected, although I wish I had been able to achieve softer edges to the rainbow. And damn it, the different pigments making up the spectrum certainly have different intensities that I was unable to equalize, as I was primarily concerned with all the colors being geometrically proper and parallel to each other along the arc.
There was a conceptual tug-of war that simmered throughout the entire process: should all the vibrant colors be reserved for the rainbow alone to make it more stunning, or should other colorful elements be added elsewhere to provide a balance? As painting went on I veered from the former to the latter. I mean, no forest scene is complete without a fungal representative, and if I am going to put in toadstool, it is darn well going to be red. And then the fern intended for the foreground become a flush of bluebells. It IS spring after all. I will leave it to the viewer to decide if this decision was the right one.
So it’s done. Or rather, I’m done with it. The working title is “The Feline Forest Adventure”. Not a bad effort overall. Reasonably successful, despite some flawed execution, here and there. But why should I expect art to be different from any other activity or outcome in life?