Tuesday, March 23, 2010
The Best Years Of Our Lives - This is the greatest war/post-war/anti-war movie ever made. It is an indictment of war that is so subtle, I don't think it counts as a traditional anti-war film. Samuel Goldwyn, the producer, famously said "I don't care if the film doesn't make a nickel. I just want every man, woman, and child in America to see it."
It is the story of three men returning from World War II with new realities waiting for them. One of them will return to his former life, unable to recognize it. One will return to a reality no one would talk about. The third will return literally as a different man, and face a world that doesn't change. It is a quiet, persistent film that gives me hope on so many levels. Given the current circumstances in my life, that says a great deal.
Fredrich March plays Al, a bank executive who enlists and serves his time as a foot soldier in the infantry. Dana Andrews as Fred, a soda-jerk, becomes a decorated Captain in the Air Force. Harold Russell plays Homer, the all-American kid, who serves in the Navy where he loses both his hands and returns with hooks that he has learned to utilize proficiently. They are not received as heroes or villains, just three men needing to proceed with their lives.
Al, by far the older of the three, has a family waiting for him. He reemerges in his environment humbled by his experience, and with a completely different perspective on his profession. He understands the intent and potential of the GI loan program, and battles with his bank to fulfill it. He is aloof, and has great difficulty reintegrating with his family. For the first time in his life, alcohol becomes a coping tool, and he flirts with self-destruction.
Fred had married a young woman while he was an officer in training, and now the prospect of living with this unskilled guy with few prospects isn't very appealing to her. It isn't long before her contempt is obvious, and her efforts to hide her indiscretions aren't even half-hearted. The skills he acquired in the Air Force are of little use for him now, and competition for even menial positions is tough. Fred looks for work, and has to return to the drugstore with whatever dignity he has left, knowing that medals don't shine on a cuckolded hero.
Homer returns to his loving parents, and his childhood sweetheart right next door. I can't begin to convey the pathos in these scenes; not having any idea how a writer imagines such things. I can only say, it is at once the most humbling, tender, and uplifting interaction I have ever seen on film. Despite the predictable issues, this young girl is solid in her conviction that she loves him, not a martyr, just a loving wife. At one point, Harold takes her into his room to show her how helpless he is when he removes his prosthetics, to face her future if she chooses to honor her childhood commitment to him. I am crying now as I write this.
All three men find their way eventually, and they do so by supporting each other. Three men who would have never crossed paths in a meaningful way if they hadn't been transported halfway around the world into a nightmare. Tragically, the nightmare pales in comparison to the waking world they return to. That is the indictment of war, not of the cause, not of the means, but of the unsanctified reunion the nation provides for these men. We would learn this lesson over and over again, to the point that even the most rabid dove extols the differentiation between the evil intent and the obliging tools (i.e., "I am against the war, not the soldiers"). I am not sure this pedantic advocacy is any more comforting than the benign neglect Al, Fred, and Harold endured.
Once again, the appeal of this movie for me is in the dignity of the characters involved. Simple, true, and unwavering devotion despite long odds and short options. I realize from time to time, that I have overcome some relatively stark circumstances, but certainly not with the dignity I would like. I relate to the goodness in these men, feel it inside me, just wishing that I would temper some of the less attractive aspects of my nature that have chased me since childhood. Instead, I think, I allow myself the simple entitlement of survival, that self-pitying albatross that was placed around my neck those years ago, that I am too stupid to remove. There are no more excuses, I am at the point in my life where I am looking forward with blessings and favor, not misery and misfortune.
*Postscript: Harold Russell is the only actor to win two Oscars for the same role. Not expecting his Best Supporting Actor recognition, the Academy awarded him a honorary Oscar "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance." Sadly, years later, he would sell one to pay for his dying wife's medical bills.
Monday, March 22, 2010
Goodbye Mr. Chips - In the greatest year in cinema history (1939), an actor playing a mild-mannered teacher beat out Clark Gable (Gone With The Wind), Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights), Mickey Rooney (Babes In Arms), and Jimmy Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington) for the Oscar. Robert Donat, in possibly the only bildungsroman perfectly adapted for film, gave a monumental performance that is timeless and mythical. At once, he was everything I knew I should be, everything I could be if learned my craft, and learned how to love people.
This movie taught me about legacies, human and intangible. In a profession where nothing concrete emerges by the end of the working day, teaching can be disappointing if one needs direct feedback other than the ephemeral nuances the learning cycle produces. A smile, that momentary look of epiphany, the apple left on the desk, are not always enough to fuel a lifetime of passion and dedication. This movie elegantly expresses the true potential of schooling, the human intercourse that changes student, teacher, institution, and society alike. Hope and glory through simple daily gestures. Dignified and noble endeavors, diligently pursued from tedium through devastating circumstances. It is a movie that teaches patience and the virtues that follow. I can't think of any other movie that moves me as this one does.
Robert Donat ages sixty years in the movie. As a young man, the movie made me ponder my grandfather as a young man, wondering what path molded him into the man he was. It gave me hope that there was time for me to evolve, for my few virtues to triumph against my vices, for me to become a good man with a great legacy. For the first time, I envied a boring life(not for long, but romantically so). His graceful acceptance of failures, his perseverance through the worst tragedy imaginable, and his undaunted sense of propriety were so foreign to me. I doubted I could ever be that majestic (a new form majesty for me), but I could try. And in my way, I have tried, and I have changed for the better. But at this rate, I will need to live a few decades longer than Mr. Chips.
Greer Garson, in her first film, set the standard for all future women in my life. She was unfathomably attractive, gentile and practical. Her character is the perfect embodiment of a woman - intelligent, intuitive, attractive, and compassionate. She was certainly out of her husband's league, but completely devoted to him. I have never been as devastated by a scene as I was when Mr. Chips leaves the bedroom where his wife and newborn child have died. The scene was quick, it wasn't drawn out, and it nearly killed me I think.
And perhaps the greatest impact of the film on me was the message of tradition, duty, and honor. To that point, I had little affection for such things as they reminded me of the class variances I grew up in. My step-father fought the world and it fought back with disdain and prejudice; my siblings and I were guilty by adoption. I disliked authority and and what I saw as pretenses of normalcy. I never related to The Waltons, Happy Days, or any other family oriented shows. I should have come of age in the Sixties when sentiments like mine were common and heralded. Ten years later, my discontent was neither noble or purposeful, it was just aimless and painful. But I saw what those students in that school walked away with, and I saw the resolute and dignified process education can be.
Today I find that I cling hard to educational traditions and practices. I see kids like me that rebell against everything institutionally driven, to their own detriment. Holding them to a path, as I was eventually held, is their only salvation. Consistency is fairness, it does promote justice. I don't know how often I have heard minority students criticize their more liberal instructors for their inconsistent actions. Deep down, we all need to know there is a system we can rely on, a system that will treat the same behaviors from anyone equitably. Changing ideals and guidelines on a whim for every student that appears unconventional only leads to the chaos that probably created the student in the first place. I am not speaking of unjust practices or mindlessly repetitive gestures aimed at differentiating and destroying diversity and dissent. I am speaking of a culture, a tradition that might connect me to my peers, my ancestors, and my progeny.
I am often asked what my favorite movie is. I never have a definitive answer. I have been worried about it lately, knowing that I should have a favorite movie. It would tell people a lot about me, spur countless conversations, and point me towards some blog or society for friendship and nerdy mirth. I need to have a favorite movie!
Seriously, I do love movies, always have. I love movies from all eras, and all genres (although I haven't been attracted to comedies much in the past few years). I remember movies, the actors, the directors, the related trivia. People accuse me of studying credits - movies are living, vibrant entities, every aspect of them fascinates me. All the more reason I should be able to articulate that/those movies that I love best.
I sat around one day, trying to decide on some criteria on which to base my final decision. After a long, fruitless analysis, it struck me that I was looking in the wrong direction. Instead of thinking about the qualities of the movies, the theme, the message, the significance etc., it occurred to me that my favorite movie/s were those that I watched over and over again. A movie that I would stop to watch no matter what I was doing, no matter how many times it showed, no matter if I had seen it the day before. No matter if it did not appear on anyone else's top ten list anywhere in the world. Three movies immediately came to mind: The Great Escape, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and The Best Years Of Our Lives. That was it, job done. Well, it wasn't. Now I realized I had just reversed the natural order of things, and was morally obliged to articulate why I would watch them over and over again. So to my chagrin,I was back to qualities, themes, message, significance, etc. Anyway, here is my attempt to explain why these movies enthrall me so much:
The Great Escape - This one was relatively easy, but disturbingly painful. As any film fan knows, this movie is not usually compared to the other two in serious discussion. I was about ten years old, in the Boy Scouts. For some unfathomable reason, my step-father was nominated to be a den leader, and he managed to hold the post for a few weeks. We had some large function, and he was to be the MC. I was terrified that he would show up drunk or embarrass me. The evening went well, and I got a glimpse of that charming side of him I never ever saw. He stood up near the end of the evening and announced that he was cutting the program short, as he realized everyone in the room wanted to get home to watch The Great Escape (evidently it must have been the network premier). There was a loud cheer, and I was actually proud of him. We went home together to watch the movie...I wish I could tell you there wasn't an explosion later in the evening, but at that age, I took what I could get. Now the movie itself is excellent, and probably underrated. A group of men, fighting impossible odds, supporting each other, adhering to duty above all, even life itself. Something I wasn't experiencing in the late Sixties. And I dare you to tell me there has been a cooler character than Steve McQueen, or a more riveting scene than his motorcycle romp through no man's land.
Honestly, I don't know how good the movie is, maybe it just represents a moment in time when I felt normal, close to my step-father, proud of my family. Good enough I guess.
When I left Peace Corps Jamaica, I discovered that I was entitled to one free counseling session. I thought long and hard and decided to pursue it. I didn't have any pressing issues or goals, just was a little intrigued. I made an appointment and gave it little more thought. I showed up a few days later to a small office in a small complex. I met the psychologist and followed him into his office. He looked just like I thought he would - beard, sleeveless sweater, pipe, etc. We sat and chatted for awhile and he gave me a few tests. The only test I remember was an instruction to draw a tree. Not being very artistic, I was not thrilled but tried anyway. When I handed it to him, he looked at it, glanced up at me, turned back to the picture and said "aaah." I knew I was in trouble.
I had drawn a tree that looked like an inverted umbrella, long straight trunk and a cup-shaped canopy. This two minute exercise spawned a thirty minute diatribe. It turned out that I was a misanthrope of sorts, ruggedly alone, suspicious of strangers, preferring my own company above all else. I can't remember all the other attributes he inferred from my artwork, but he was quite pleased with his analysis. He asked me what I thought, and I mumbled some sort of consent, not having the heart to tell him what I was thinking - I had drawn the picture of a tree that grew in my yard in Jamaica, as it was the only tree I could picture.
When he finally got around to asking me questions, his insight did improve. He challenged one of my answers in a way that has never left me. It was one of the few confrontations that impacted me immediately. He had asked me about my friends and associates, and when I was finished, he asked me if I saw any patterns, any similarities. I didn't, so he pointed them out to me. Many of my friends were "less fortunate" than I. There were three from an adult home who I took bowling each week, and accompanied to the local and state Special Olympics each year. And then there was Rick, who I befriended at the hospital I worked at. As a child, he had suffered from encephalitis, and was left with the intellect of an six-year old. He was an amazingly loyal friend, and we could spend hours doing nothing. We went fishing, sat around talking about his hotwheels collection or his hooked rugs. I always laughed when I called him, because I could never get him off the phone. Every time I tried to wrap up, he would say "so what have you been up to?" He and his mother (ages 50 and 70 respectively) had come to visit me in Jamaica. To this day, he smiles and claims I tried to kill him. On the first day, I took him to the beach and he scraped his ankle on some coral and got a sunburn. Later that night, he ate some Jamaican food that upset his stomach. The next day, I took him out in the yard, climbed a tree to pick some fruit. I slipped out of the tree and he broke my fall. It was the same tree I later drew for the psychologist!
As I talked about my acquaintances, the psychologist asked me why so many of my friends were "special." I thought about it long and hard and realized I didn't care why, but it was a curious pattern. He went on to confront me about my self-esteem, my feelings of inadequacy, etc. Almost as if it was a deficiency, a short-coming in my make up. He irritated me, but I was determined to think about what he had said. To this day I still collect "special friends" and some not so special.
I have always wanted to help people since I can remember. I would give any money I made from washing dishes to whatever school drive was going on. I never needed for anyone to notice, I just felt good dumping the change in the can. Years later I was doing a presentation in Ohio for librarians, when a young man approached me after the session. He introduced himself and told me we had been at the same high school together, fifteen years before. He told me he wanted to thank me. He had been the team manager, and was pretty much abused by most of the athletes. He told me that I had always treated him kindly, and had once interceded when an older boy was trying to humiliate him. I barely remembered him, and did not recall the incident at all. It remains the best compliment I have ever received.
I had always wanted to join the Peace Corps, had always known that I would end up in a profession that helps people. I didn't connect it to any sort of altruism or spirituality, it was just something that made me feel good. Now, years later, I was made to feel bad about it by a shrink with lousy smelling tobacco. I came to a conclusion on the way home that day (a day before I reenlisted in the Peace Corps), that I would continue to help people whether or not it was born from a suspect motive. After all, who should care? I don't need to be with people less fortunate than I in order to feel better about myself - it's simply that these friends accept me, care about me simply because we spend time together, simply because we respect each other. It is a bond that is so simple, it's pure. I can't describe it better than that.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
I suppose drinking was always held a self-destructive motive for me. I never craved alcohol, never kept it around, never thought much about it. When I did go out with friends, I would drink. If I had enough money, or charity, I would get drunk. From the beginning I lacked that bio-feedback mechanism that lets you know you are disoriented or have had too much. A little felt good, more felt better, too much felt great. Being raised in an environment where no one was allowed to discuss my step-father's drunken behavior, I guess a back-to-zero policy was my default. When I went out to drink, it never occurred to me that bad things would happen, though a simple retrospective journey would have made it very possible, even inevitable. Instead there was an odd sense of adventure, of anything happening. I felt a youthful sense of power in that. What confuses me to this day is not my own willingness to step out into the darkness, but that others would repeatedly follow me.
The morning after would bring a deep sense of dread. I didn't always remember the events of the evening before, and could never be quite sure I hadn't forgotten something. Waking up in my own bed was always a good thing; it meant that I hadn't done anything too bad or stupid, or that I hadn't been caught. Often I would wait for colleagues to reveal the details, that is if I let them. Being drunk was a license to be confident, arrogant, aggressive, decisive, unrepentently so. I am sure there were some people who feared or respected me for this, sadly. I never understood the darkness that came out, the anger. I didn't feel those things when I was sober, and my only experiences with alcohol were violent, so I guess I believed it was the alcohol itself, never having to face the demons inside that it released.
I didn't drink often, and I didn't drink because I was happy or sad, it was more a matter of opportunity. I never put it altogether, never connected the dots until I was in my thirties, expecting my second child.
I was watching a show about atheletes and alcohol (not by choice) and I listened to Dennis Eckersly as he explained why he quit drinking. He had never had the problems I did, he simply watched a video of himself from a party. At the time, he thought he was charming and witty, later all he could think was "please God don't ever let my children see me that way". He quit drinking on the spot. So did I.
That was seventeen years ago, and I have never been tempted to take a drink. I have dreamt of drinking and the resulting problems, almost sobbing with relief to wake and find it only a dream. Lately though, I have come to understand why someone like me would choose to drink. From Hesse: "The god of wine...he invites those who are dear to him to feast and builds them rainbow bridges to blissful isles. When they are weary, he cushions their heads; he imbraces and comforts them like a mother when they become melancholy. He transforms the confusions of life into great myths and plays the hymn of creation on a might harp...the known world shrinks and vanishes, and the soul hurls itself with fear and joy into the uncharted distances of the unknown where everything is strange and yet familiar; and the language of music, of poets, and of dreams is spoken." Peter Camenzind
There is a special kind of romantic who has no business romanticizing anything - he has never loved, nor allowed himself to be loved properly, so he opines a sugar-sweet soliloquy that serves as a thin veneer for his self-pity. And even in his own deluded state, he recognizes the hollow tone of the song he sings. But when he drinks, his melancholy contrivances gain flesh and sinew, and that which never existed breathes and brings him pain. Alchohol constitutes the lie so well, it mocks the sincerity of truth. He wallows in the manufactured pain, and eventually drinks, he thinks, to escape it.
I don't always know what to do when I am down, or when I feel that sense of dread that follows me out of my sleep to haunt the beginning of the day. Worse, when that apparition appears in the daylight, or early in the evening, I have no consistent way to cope with it. I know if I can distract myself, it can be temporarily abated, but it will return. Sleep is no bargain either, as it is often intermittent, and the residual effects are often more intense than the malady I fled. So I try to cope, to face the underlying issues that create my malaise. But I know, it's always in the back of my head, that I could take a few drinks and everything would transform. I can almost feel the exhaulted sense of self, the swift turn around of emotion and perceived fortune, and the false happiness produced from virtually nothing. I understand why people turn to this form of therapy.
I won't drink. For I was lucky enough to see the ravages of alcohol long before I heard the seductive promises. I have done enough soul-searching to know I don't want to contribute to my own self-destruction, and that any temporary illusion kills some part of my soul. I have learned to think about prayer differently though, having listened to a recovering alcoholic: "It's not that I pray I won't die if I take another drink; I pray that I will."
Then there is the love you let into your heart. It must have been created by a bipolar deity - it is euphoric and crushing in its power, and it is the only kind of love that breeds hatred. I don't know how the children of alcoholics learn this love, how they learn to trust it, how they cope with it. I guess it is a lot like alcohol itself: Warm and inviting in embrace, fun and giddy in abandon, and cruel and vicious if abused or neglected. Only the bravest of those whose family love was beaten into them endeavor such a risky venture. Trading a familiar, dull pain for the cruelest enmity of all - betrayal.
Imagine the child, surviving, learning how to protect herself, how to withdraw from the daily nightmare no one else knew, growing up to offer that untouched heart, that virgin portal to her soul to a stranger. Imagine the risk. And he will come offering, begging for access in the name of love and unity. She will open her heart and learn the pleasures and peril of that level of trust. She will learn new emotions, new forms of insecurity that only come from fear of losing that which you could never hope to hold. And if she prevails, doesn't sabotage her own desperate desire with caution and distrust, she may gain what so few of us seem to obtain. But if she does allow him in, gives him every ounce of her heart, and he betrays that gift, the pain she suffered in her childhood will pale in the shadow of the carnage to come.
I don't know how these children learn to love, learn to trust, learn to share. I don't know how they survive intact, willing to open themselves fully to the possibilities of love and life. I do understand the friendship of loneliness, the security of a consistent, familiar pain.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
I have taught the class several times, and on each occasion, I prepare myself with the following exercise: I imagine what my concept of the world and the nature of the humans in it would be if I had never left the environment I was raised in. It isn't that my upbringing was bad per se, it's just that it was so narrow, so insulated in its own peculiar way. I then examine the discrepancies from my current views, and in the lee of an academic exercise, I try to imagine what experiences, what lessons eventually broadened and changed my perspectives. What were these experiences that shook my core, and what were the subsequent lessons that kept me from returning to the center of my imagined world? These are the questions I ask myself before I endeavor to take a group of students on a correlated journey.
For the next few posts, I will take a look at my evolution in regards to some basic questions that define human nature, and in the process, try to circumscribe what I now see as the hope and potential of our race. This renewed optimism is essential in my ongoing battle with the darkness that remains in my soul. I will begin with the most important issue, in my mind, that of human freedom.
Do humans have free will? I suppose I never believed that free will was possible. To have free will, one must have viable choices, and the consequences should be consistent and evenly applied. No such conditions existed in our household - chaos and mayhem were more familiar to me than logic and order. It never occured to me that I could change what was happening around me, that I or my mother or my siblings really had any choices at all. Nothing we would do would alter the coming events significantly. My step-father's actions dictated my universe, yet even he had no choices, no freedom. For as my mother would remind us constantly, he was a product of his illnesses, he couldn't help what he did. I learned not to plan things, not to expect anything positive. Only to cope the best I could at that moment with whatever resources were available to me. There was no sense to it, therefore no need for justice. There was only survival. Even that was no choice - I hadn't yet learned from my mother that there was an alternative to surviving.
Once on my own, I discovered a completely different reality. I found individuals, groups, institutions that honored their commitments, and demanded the same of me. I found that if committed to a course of action, I would receive support and encouragement. If I deviated, I would receive feedback and redirection. For the first time, my universe was no longer ruled by caprice, I could navigate it with some efficacy. I made a lot of mistakes, but they were clear, identifiable and I could learn from them. For if there are no rules, there are no mistakes, no correct actions, no virtue, no truth.
I should mention that these individuals, groups, and institutions were there in my childhood, but I was exempted from the dignity of their conventions: I was the child of that family, couldn't be expected to be anything other than I was. I had to reemerge, appear to be from a different context before I could be afforded the chance to be free. So if you ask me now, I would say yes there is free will, if you are lucky enough to find it.
Friday, March 12, 2010
I quit drinking before you were old enough to see and understand the ugliness that follows. I did that for you. I worked hard to provide for you, and to make a stable household for you. I have been very proud of everything you have accomplished and the young women you have become. I have never been ashamed of either of you, and I love you both equally.
Honestly, I am still amazed that you love me, for it hasn't been easily. I am sure that it appears to you that I am often friendlier to others than to you. I left you here with your mother to work in other places, and I regret that now. It wasn't my intention the first time I left, but things didn't work out, and you couldn't follow me. I am sorry for the time I missed in your life.
I don't know how long I will be here before I will have to take another job, but I want you to know that I am working on things, that I love you, and that I want to work on our relationship. I really do. I need to ask you to forgive me, and to help me. It will not be easy, but I think I am ready to make the changes I need to make. Your love is the most precious thing I have. I don't want to lose it. I would love more than anything to make you feel the love that you show me. I will try.
The last thing I ever connected to my upbringing was my own capacity to love. My anger when I drank, my distance from most people, my need to confront things and issues, and my urge to keep moving from place to place, job to job all made sense to me in this context. I never examined my ability to love others, either women, my family, or my daughters. It never dawned on me to suspect that love wasn't an intrinsic gift independent of my environment or the conditions I was raised in. I guess I thought it was something so pure, so natural that anyone could summon it and make it work.
My mother was loving in her way. She hugged us, tried to protect us from my step-father, and she professed her love often. But the emotional blackmail that followed negated those overtures. When things didn't go well, she would retreat into her "illnesses" or into a deep depression. And the lesson I learned most about love from my mother was that she loved my step-father, and it was her job to repair whatever damage he would do to us. It was also her job to let us know he loved us, for he never told us, other than a few times when he was in a drunken stupor. No, I don't think I ever had a chance to experience or understand love in a healthy way.
By the time I left the house I thought I was ready to love others, to engage in intimate relationships. But I was wrong. I never, ever let anyone too far in. I didn't share my feelings, other than anger and occasional playfulness. I never allowed anyone to understand me, to share my life. I didn't know how.
I believed that working hard and providing for my family was my job. I did so, and continued to keep those people I loved at arm's distance. Subsequently, I am now 50 years old and realizing that no one knows me. Yes, people love me, God knows why, but no one knows me very well. And despite the fact that I have realized this, I still have no idea how to reach out and let those around me in. There is a peculiar kind of loneliness that follows this revelation, but not a terrible kind. You can hurt people by letting them in, and maybe I just don't like what is buried deep inside me. So my form of love has been protecting those around me from myself I guess, and I never understood that (though I listened to thousands of complaints over the years about my remoteness) until I saw the film Affliction. The movie was familiar, the story much like my own. But it was the film's final narration that really that made things clear for me. Men like me, who are raised in violence, retreat from those we love, knowing instinctively that the violence is deep inside us well. Our job is to protect them from our inheritance, subsequently hurting them in a completely different fashion.
The job at hand for me now is to take a hard look at the inside, try to separate it from the ugliness it was formed in, and find me. When I do, I have to make peace with whatever is there before I can truly love anyone the way they deserve. It is a frightful journey, as I suspect I have my doubts that I am any better than my step-father. I just know I cannot live the rest of my life this disconnected from the people who love me.
Monday, March 8, 2010
Sunday, March 7, 2010
I started to play golf when I was twelve years old, notice that I didn't say that I learned to play golf, that hasn't happened yet. I didn't come to the game in the usual way, I came in the back door, or more precisely, the kitchen door. My step-father had gotten to know a local golf course owner, and he would sometimes work in their kitchen. Soon my mother was helping as a waitress, and eventually, I would be washing dishes. I think I made $1 and hour. The owner's kids got me out on the course, I loved playing golf. I loved the course - it was a nine-hole public course owned by a Mexican-American family. I sometimes washed dishes, sometimes cleaned the clubhouse, and occasionally helped out on the course. I played a little bit of golf, and romped around the course - it was great. In the evening, we would go out to a pond on the course and wade in barefooted finding errant golf balls. It is amazing, the things I did for fun then that they couldn't pay me to do now! If I hadn't worked there, I doubt I would ever have picked up the game. I kept playing throughout the years when I could, and I still love the game.
Ten years ago, I learned about a local course that was a hidden treasure. It is Clearview Golf Club, the only course designed, built, owned, and operated by an African-American - William Powell. I was doubly thrilled when I found out that Mr. Powell's daughter Renee (the second African-American to play on the LPGA Tour), ran a girl's golf program. I called the course, talked with Renee, and packed my two girls in a car and rushed down. The course was just outside a small town on a lonely road that once was the pathway across the country, Highway 30 - Lincoln Highway. We got to the course, and Renee sat with us for 45 minutes. She was very gracious and excited to see my daughters. Mr. Powell came by and chatted with us as well. I was so honored, I don't think I have been as thrilled to meet anyone before and since. We felt like we were at home.
In the intervening years, I have slowly gotten more involved at the course. I have helped at outings, served on committees and as a volunteer project manager. More importantly, my family and I have become close with the Powell's and it has been very incredible. Sadly, we lost Mr. Powell this past New Year's Eve. He was a remarkable man who always, always treated me with dignity and respect. I will continue working with the course, helping Renee and Larry Powell in anyway I can.
I was lucky that I found golf, or that it found me. It is amazing to get out on a course, walk, talk, swing, swear, and just lose yourself for a few hours. No matter what is in your life when you pull up to the clubhouse, it is gone for several hours. There is no place like it on earth. To be involved with two family-owned courses has been a seminal lesson for me. To watch them love and toil, to provide access for all us to this game we can play all of our lives is truly special. They have created living monuments, something very incredible for those of us who work with ideas and thoughts. I truly envy them.
Saturday, March 6, 2010
Friday, March 5, 2010
Thursday, March 4, 2010
I have found these experiences to be very humbling. They were simple, authentic moments with great people.
This turned out to be an involved process - not only did I need to itemize my sins, I had to quantify them and find feasible alternates that were just a touch worse. This was of course a great precursor for when I taught Human Nature and Ethics courses forty years later. It went on for a few months until I realized I was spending more time on this exercise than I was on my homework each week - I gave up both endeavors.
At eleven, I began my brief but heated battle with the Catholic church. I don't think I started the fracas, but once it started it did not end until my inevitable ex-communication (from Catechism class anyway). It began with a lesson on Hell, and ended with a debate over Jesus and the concept of sacrifice. I can honestly say I was trying in the beginning, but I think the devil made his way into the mix eventually, and it all became too much fun. Unfortunately, I continued to enjoy this kind of activity for far too long.
Hell - During a discussion about Hell one day, it occurred to me that the priest had insinuated that my mother might not be going to Heaven as she had been divorced. This offended me on many levels: One, I was upset that he seemed to believe that my mother was going to Hell and agreed with the judgement; and Two, I couldn't understand why he would believe I would want to go to Heaven without my mother. He tried to explain that I should be concerned with my own afterlife, and I just stared at him. Things were to get worse.
Jesus and Sacrifice - The concern over my afterlife continued with a reminder that Jesus had suffered and died for my sake, and that alone should make me want to go to Heaven. At that point, I made the mistake of doubting the level of the sacrifice. I had seen graphic images of the Vietnam war on television, and it had a profound effect on me. I told him that I didn't understand the sacrifice, as Jesus was back in Heaven at God's side after a short period of time (relatively speaking) on Earth suffering much of the same torture that millions of people had before and since. I knew my logic was flawed, but I couldn't stop myself. It was the last conversation I had with him, and my last Catechism class.
I learned two things from those encounters: Unyielding dogma is a tool from the past, there are better ways to influence and guide people, and the more specifically you spell out your faith, philosophy, or politics, the easier it is for someone to question and attack it. I continued to confront ideas and people with the same type of questions, thinking myself clever. It took me many years to realize that questions have more utility when they are designed to enhance and strengthen ideas, not to destroy them. And as Karma often dictates, it wasn't long before I was on the other end of this dynamic as a teacher, administrator, and parent.
Epilogue - Years later, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I worked with many Catholic missions in countries like Jamaica, Yemen, and Tanzania. My experiences were fantastic, and the priests and nuns I worked with were far different from the priest I had dealt with in my youth. I learned about compassion, real sacrifice*, and social justice from these people, and I will be forever grateful.
*As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Yemen, I would leave my remote village every few months to go to the larger seaport town of Hodeida. There I would unwind and spend time with friends. Every other visit or so, I would go down to the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa's order) to lend a hand. The nuns there were incredible! They were humble, austere, and passionately dedicated to the destitute Yemenis in the area. I would come by and paint a wall or fix some wheelchairs. The were very polite and pleasant, but too busy to socialize. I admired the people I met there, and hoped I could ever gain that much dignity and poise. Eight years later, a gunman attacked and killed three nuns, Sisters Tilia, Anetta, and Michaela as they were entering the compound after returning from the local hospital. He believed they were working to convert Muslims in the area. I know different.
The Maudlin Mist of Morning
I, like the fog
Was born with a veil
On my face.
I frolicked with shadows
Through the dark corridors
Of my soul.
I saw what others could not see
In the maudlin mist of morning.
I wept. And the fog and I,
From our eclipses,
Mourned the sun.
This poem now carries a second level of significance for me, it speaks to me of depression (or is it schizophrenia, just kidding). I have discovered, to my dismay, that my mother left me with one tangible gift, a semblance at least of her profound depression. I didn't recognize if for a long, long time, but I see and feel it now. And it is worse in the mornings, in those early hours as I am almost awake. It comes as a sense of unease, of dread for nothing specific other than some ort left over from a disjointed dream. It is very real, and is immune to the particular circumstances of my life - good, bad, whatever, and it has been there for a long time. I can't imagine how my mother dealt with her depression, perhaps that is why she killed herself.
My mother committed suicide, Stephen King would say she used a "flexible bullet." She contracted a treatable form of cancer then refused medical assistance until it was too late. Medical issues had always been her form of attention-getting. She had been in and out of hospitals for physical and mental problems all of her life. She did teach me one thing, from beyond the grave - she taught me that repressed memories are real, or are possible. She had made a tape recording for me a few months prior to her death. I was angry with her for her selfish act and didn't listen to it for a few years. When I did, I learned that I don't have as much control over my mind, my memories, and my coping systems that I had once believed.
Her message was long and rambling. She was apologizing for many things, and for once wasn't making excuses for my father, abandoning her primary vocation - that of his enabler. She and my step-father invented the co-dependent concept. They were both constantly out of commission, but never, ever at the same time. Anyway, she got to a point in the tape when she began recounting a particularly terrible incident when I realized that I had forgotten or blocked it since it occurred. Suddenly, with great clarity, the memory came flooding back very vividly. It was if it had happened the day before. I was back in the bathroom trying to hold my mother's cut wrists (they must have been superficial cuts, but there was a lot of blood nonetheless) while I directed my four year old sister to go for help. I don't remember what happened next, but that memory is back with me and will never leave.
So now, I must deal openly with this legacy of depression I have inherited. It casts a pall on much of my day. I am not profoundly sad, I just don't have the excitement and sense of accomplishment that I once enjoyed. Work had always been my escape, and I could bury this malaise with projects and challenges. But now I need to deal with it. I have learned that I have not hidden this condition as well as I thought I had over the years, and that it affects the morale of those around me. No great leadership lesson here, just that a negative affect in the workplace can be far more influential than a positive one! I can no longer kid myself believing that I compensate with the other attributes I bring - I and those around me are diminished peculiarly by this phenomenon, it cannot be ameliorated.
The Maudlin Mist of Morning
I, like the fog
Was born with a veil
On my face.
I frolicked with shadows
Through the dark corridors
Of my soul.
I saw what others could not see
In the maudlin mist of morning.
I wept. And the fog and I,
From our eclipses,
Mourned the sun.
This is one of only two poems that stabbed my heart the minute I first read it. I was in a small tent in an Eritrean refugee camp reading an anthology of Black Poets when I discovered it. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Yemen, I had worked hard to get myself placed in the camp as my primary assignment. I taught English in the nearby village, and helped another volunteer build a school in the camp. For two years I lived and worked with these refugees, eating what they ate, suffering from the same health issues (typhoid, malaria, and hepatitis), and sharing their heartache as they faced a bleak, uncertain future.
I knew immediately that the poem was about the anonymity of being black in the USA. I also knew it resonated with me because of the situations of the refugees, and women in general in this Islamic country - veiled, moving silently about like shadows. But what I didn't account for was the depth of the personal connection, at least not for several years. Not until I realized that I had worn a veil all my life. This veil had kept others out and prevented me from seeing and feeling the world in its natural state. I don't think I have ever really belonged anywhere. I have enjoyed fleeting connections with others, and I am certain that I love my family, but I have never felt that I was where I belonged.
I don't attribute this lack of belonging to the experiences inside my household growing up. This uneasy truce with the world comes from the way the world perceived me as I grew up. I know how we appeared to the world then: Those half-dressed children living in the run down rental at the end of the street, dirty with snot running down their noses. Children from the house that exploded frequently in a frenzy of domestic violence. Children of a family that was best avoided. Children that made you feel better about your parenting skills, no matter who you were.
I am sure I didn't notice the way some people looked at us, but I am also sure it affected me. From an early age, I didn't appreciate authority and I came to view the USA negatively as an entity early in my teens. And although I have met many people since who did not judge me thusly, I believe I have continued to project this pity or loathing or disgust onto them, and maybe onto society itself. Consequently, I have found that I have always related to people and groups who have been marginalized somehow by society. This has made me a good advocate, at least half and advocate, for you can't advocate for others if you do not relate to those you are petitioning. I am amused by the fact that I still carry this around with me. I have been out in the world for thirty-three years, and I am no longer identifiable as that poor kid from the crazy family.
I have learned that no one should be invisible, no one should have to look at the world as a place they don't belong. I need to remember to acknowledge everyone I deal with, not just those who I feel deserve my attention. As a leader this is doubly imperative - I probably rememeber every gracious gesture given me by my supervisors/superiors over the years. These gestures shouldn't be rationed out as "bones", nor should they be used to exploit people (Paulo Freire). They don't make we weaker or vulnerable as a leader. They are more than just gratuities: They are the tools that humanize the workplace and create an inclusive enviroment for everyone.
Obviously the key issues here were stability and consistency. But it runs much deeper than it appears: It wasn't just the lability of moving constantly, it was the anomie of everyday life that developed. When I woke up in the morning, I never knew what to expect from the day. I didn't know if my step-father would come home drunk, and if he did, if he would be in a good mood or be violent. I didn't know if my mother would be happy or deeply depressed. I didn't know if she would be going to the hospital that day, or if she would we be musing suicide. I didn't know if creditors were coming to repossess cars, household belongings, or even Christmas presents (if we got them that year). I didn't know if I would be eating steak or cornmeal mush. I did know I didn't want to be awake when my step-father got home, no matter what his mood - it would inevitably change in an instant.
I was the oldest child of three, and soon found myself taking the brunt of my father's rage, but my siblings were by no means spared. In some ways, it was probably much worse on my sister, but I will not go into that. My mother tried to defend us, and I was never beaten terribly, but I was smacked around and punched, and was subjected to an enormous amount of verbal abuse. Out of this hell arose the only rule of the household though - no matter what happened, it disappeared the next day, we never talked about anything once it subsided. To bring it up would be to invite an episode even worse.
We tried to do family things, but they almost always blew up. More often than not, family outings would be cancelled, as the money would be spent the previous night at some bar. There was never any sense of normalcy, just the occasional relief when things were quiet.
I mentioned in an earlier post that mental illness is never funny. Nor is drunkenness and violence. Sure, I see them portrayed as such in the media, but I can attest to the carnage they produce.
The legacy of this upbringing has been interesting to say the least: I kept moving once I left, working around the United States and the world. My younger brother and sister have stayed exactly where they are since they left the household those many years ago. And although I have kept moving, my two daughters have only known one house and one school system. This was important to me.
A good working enviroment should be consistent. Once people know what to expect, they can act efficaciously without fear. Too often, I think, we worry about what is right or wrong living in the moment of the decision. Relativity is just another form of inconsistency. Hope and fear dance erratically in an inconsistent system, one energizing the other until they both collapse. A consistent environment includes consensually derived goals, clear rules and guidelines, and a communicative feedback system that doesn't forget about yesterday. Most importantly, a supervisor needs to be concerned with his/her own consistent actions before attempting to standardize the actions and behaviors of others.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
My mother had married my father when she was 17, pregnant with me. I have been told she had mental issues from an early age, and that the marriage was an act of rebellion on her part. Evidently, they had four very tumultuous years. I have very few memories or images of my father, other than a tall man fishing with me. One memory, or pseudo memory came from my maternal grandmother. She told a few years later that I had saved my mother's life. She said I had gone into my parents' room to find my father putting pills into my mother's mouth as she lay unconscious. I asked him what he was doing and he told me he was saving her life. Evidently I went into the other room and called my grandmother extolling his deeds. She called the police and an ambulance, and my parents were divorced a short time later. Now I can visualize this event clearly in my mind, but the construction of the event seems far too mature for a child of 4 or 5. My mother had a breakdown and ended up in the aforementioned institution, and I don't think I saw my father again.
Meanwhile, up the road a bit, my step-father was having his own issues. My mother told me years later that he had come home to his family (wife and two kids), and flew into a violent rage. He began beating his wife, and in order to stop him, his brother came over and shot him in the leg with a rifle. He was divorced shortly thereafter. He was a large, violent alcoholic who suffered from his own demons. He ended up in the same hospital for different reasons.
My mother and step-father got together soon after arriving at the hospital, and I do remember visiting them both. On one occasion, we could not see him as he and his roommates had seized control of their dorm (a bloodless coup that was quelled quickly) and hung a sheet from a second story window with the words "F Troop" written on it. It was twenty or more years before I appreciated the irony of that metaphor.
What I have learned from that amusing gesture (a group of mentally ill men adopting the moniker of a slapstick sitcom) is that no matter how cute or poignant the manifestations of mental illness can be, they are never funny. The sometimes charming rogue who led his peers in revolt would become a real life entity in my life, and he brought no humor to me for the next twelve years.
So, the manic-depressive alcoholic met his depressed suicidal second wife, and the fun was about to begin.............