Thursday, January 31, 2008

Honey, I Couldn't Help It

A recent post on one of my favorite blogs, Megaloi, listed Michael's favorite movies of 2007. One of the things I love about blogs is how they serve as a way to discover new movies, music, or books. But, it wasn't Michael's post that brought "What the Bleep Do We Know!?" to mind; it was actually one of the comments to his post.

A woman my wife often runs into at work loaned her a copy of "What the Bleep Do We Know!?" It was while my son's godfather was visiting, and one night, after Dylan had gone to sleep, Rhonda asked if we'd watch it with her. She looked at us two dudes and dished out a stern set of conditions: "No laughing, and no smart-ass remarks."

Now, my wife has worked in male-dominated workplaces for her entire adult life. You think she'd know better than to tell two guys who went to high school together "no laughing, and no smart-ass remarks." That said, I tried, I really did. I made it about three minutes into the thing before the oh-so-earnest way a woman looked into the camera got me snickering. Claus immediately burst out guffawing, and quickly, I was doubled over with tears running out of my eyes. Sheesh, my ribs were sore the next morning from laughing so hard.

Rhonda called us several names, which did nothing to stem the laughter, then took "What the Bleep" out and stuck in a disk of "Six Feet Under."

Hey, I'm actually really interested in "What the Bleep." I'm just afraid I'm gonna have to watch it alone. Interpersonal dynamics, y'know. Or as Rhonda said, "I should have known better than to try to watch this with two guys who act like hyperactive ten year-olds in church."

I felt so bad. Really. (It's hard to type with your fingers crossed.)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Regrets, I've Had More Than a Few

This morning, I dropped Dylan off at his school. He asked me if I'd stay with him for the morning. (His school encourages parents to spend time with their kids in the classroom.) I had to tell him that his godfather, after a visit, had left his cell phone behind, and that I had to FedEx it off to him. "Can't you do it tomorrow, Daddy?" I sighed. It's my first school day at home, and I always try to hang out with him at school when I get home. "Well, Punkin', he's flying to New York for his job Wednesday, so I have to ship it today." A flash of disappointment flashed across my little guy's face. I hugged him, kissed him on the head (okay again, since he learned that his friends think it's cool that Daddy is a helicopter pilot), and watched him run off to play with his friends. I thought there was a subdued quality to his body language. Maybe it was my imagination. Gosh, I hope so.

I wanted to write today, but I couldn't think of anything that wanted to travel to my fingers. Then I re-read a blog post here, by a guy named Mike. It got me thinking of the regrets in my life. Funny, I have plenty to feel ashamed of, to feel embarrassed about, to want to forget. But what came to mind this morning was one little moment from when I was five years old.

My grandmother, my dad's mom, worked as a private nurse. One of her clients was a wealthy widow who lived on a ranch estate outside of Thousand Oaks, California. She would invite my grandmother to bring the family by now and then to use her Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Usually, at least a dozen family members would show up: my mom, dad, little sister, a few among the seven of my dad's brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts. Everyone seemed to have a good time.

Now, my dad wasn't a perfect dad. Neither was he neglectful or abusive. Like most dads, he was somewhere in the middle. He did one hell of a better job being a dad than his father.

I never really knew my grandfather, my dad's dad. I only remember meeting him once, when I was seven. He and my grandmother divorced shortly after I was born.

I always felt that my dad carried a lot of sadness with him. Even as a kid, I assumed it was because of his upbringing. My grandfather was an on again, off again professional gambler, and was absent through much of my dad's childhood. His mother was often severe and unloving.

But that day in the pool, my dad seemed very happy. He was cracking jokes, and had the whole family in stitches of laughter. Even my grandmother was laughing and having a good time. I don't remember that happening so often.

My dad watched me jump into the shallow end of the pool, then climb back up again. He laughed, then lunged up to grab me. One of my uncles bumped into Dad, and as he dropped me into the pool, my chin bumped the edge. Not very hard, really. It didn't hurt so much as startle me, but I began to cry. I tried to hold back as I saw the look in my dad's eyes change from joy to concern, and maybe, guilt. I tried to laugh as Dad checked out my chin. "You okay now?" "Yeah Daddy, I'm okay."

The pool party went on, and everyone continued to have a good time. My dad kept cracking jokes, but the light I'd seen in his eyes earlier was gone.

I remember watching him, and feeling as though I'd taken something away from him. Why did I have to be such a crybaby? I desperately wanted God to grant me a do-over, so I could see that joy in his eyes again. He deserved more joy.

But then, I was only five. Maybe the change I saw in his eyes was only in my imagination.

Gosh, I hope so.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Haunted by the End of the World

As I get older, I tend to feel more drawn to non-fiction than novels. Life and parenthood have a lot to do with it. Nonfiction is just easier to put down when a flight or something else to do pops up. And, when I get engrossed in a novel, even just an okay novel, I don't want to do anything else. I've always had a tendency to live in my head anyway, and when combined with my ability to suspend disbelief--Hollywood writers no doubt wish everyone was like me--relating that I get immersed in a novel is probably an understatement.

So, my novel reading has been episodic throughout adulthood. It's just too hard to put them down. I might read a novel or two a week for a few weeks, but I've also gone months without picking one up.

Still, like many of my gender, I've always enjoyed science fiction. In particular, I've liked post-apocalyptic fiction since, oh, junior high or so. When I was fifteen, I saw The Omega Man twelve times. (Yeah, I thought Rosalind Cash was hot, but that only had a little to do with it.)

My late brother-in-law, Nolan, had the biggest collection of post-apocalyptic novels I've ever seen. (Actually, he had one of the biggest collections of paperbacks I've ever seen, period.) Yeah, he had most of the classics of the genre, but also lots of cheesy, pulp kinda stuff. Stuff you'd be hard-pressed to find nowadays. Stuff that was prone to being thrown out by wives and moms. It was wonderful. He was one of the most intelligent and insightful people I've ever known, but the twelve year-old inside him never went away. We had lots of fun talking about end-of-the world novels: Warday; Alas, Babyon; Lucifer's Hammer; On the Beach; The Stand; Earth Abides; I Am Legend; The Postman. And, of course, all of those cheesy, pulp kinda novels in his bookcase that I'd never heard of.

I would sometimes reflect on why I enjoyed the genre so. Was it because I enjoyed the idea of the human race being nearly wiped out? Nah. I like people, for the most part. I suppose what attracted me most to the stuff was much the same as what attracts folks to westerns: the rugged individual prevails against overwhelming odds, and preserves hope for his town, his country, or humanity itself. It was the adventure element of the genre, and the underdog standing of the typical post-apocalypse protagonist that lured me.

But then, I always wondered: Why doesn't the end or near end of humanity bother me, even in a fictional context? Am I secretly anti-social? Or, am I simply a mean bastard wrapped in a veneer of civility? I harbored a mild conflict between enjoyment and vague guilt when reading or watching the end of the world, but I suppose that conflict only added spice to the allure.

There was, and is, another element: the need to face my fears, especially fears that lurked in the shadows. I grew up in a time when nuclear conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was an all-too-real possibility. I remember the drills in elementary school, and I remember the thoughts that would come to me as I sat beneath my school desk. They were thoughts like, "If this was for real, I might never see my mom, dad, sister, or dog again."

How much did those years emotionally brand folks of my generation? What lingers in the heart and the guts? I don't know. But I do know that I feel sorrow that we had to spend our childhoods with an awareness that we could be incinerated before the day ended. How very sad. Our biggest worry should have been whether we'd get grounded for some misdeed upon returning home from school.

My wife once gave me some good-natured ribbing over my fondness for the end-of-the-world stuff. Maybe my mild but undeniable fixation on post-apocalypse stuff is a little warped. All I know is that things that scare me are even more scary if I leave them in the shadows.

Several days ago, I was browsing through Amazon, reading customer reviews of a few post-apocalyptic novels I've yet to consume. While reading about The Last Ship, I noticed a link to a book by Cormac McCarthy, The Road. I knew I'd heard McCarthy's name bandied about, but I wasn't familiar with him. I soon learned, thanks to Amazon, that he wrote No Country For Old Men, recently released as a movie.

McCarthy, it seems, is held up by the cognoscenti as a beacon of modern-day American literature, a "living master," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. He's written eleven novels, and has won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Road was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Here's the topper, though, the one that I'm sure inspired McCarthy to do handsprings: The Road earned a spot on Oprah's Book Club.

Now, I'm a bit of a contrary son-of-a-gun. I've never rushed out to buy a book upon learning it was awarded any prize, and I don't like it when Oprah tells me what to do. But sheesh, a post-apocalypse novel winning the Pulitzer Prize? How does that happen? I ordered the book from Amazon.

From the back cover of The Road:

A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.

That hooked me, but also sounded a faint alarm: most post-apocalypse novels I've savored were read before I became a dad. Did I really want to take on a novel involving a father and son in an apparently doomed world? Did I really want to read it while away from my wife and son? When the book showed up at work one afternoon, I almost left it in the lounge for someone else to pick up. I have moments when I wish I'd done just that.

But, I have Scottish in my lineage, and since I'd paid money for the book, I was damned well going to read it. Yeah, I'm sensitive, but I'm cheap.

Again, I didn't know much about McCarthy before buying The Road. So, I was distracted by his tendency to avoid punctuation, flout basic rules of grammar, and leave out quotation marks in dialogue. My thought was, "Sheesh, I guess I'm really lacking in sophistication. This guy is held up as a 'modern master,' but to me, he comes across as effin' lazy. For cryin' out loud, is it really that much harder to type can't instead of cant?"

Further chapping my hide was the author's lack of character development. Little is revealed about the father and son. We don't even know their names. We don't know the boy's age, although I found myself seeing him at eight or nine. Also, little is revealed about what's happened to the earth, other than it's largely scorched.

"Hm," I thought, maybe 30 pages in. "People smarter 'n me think this novel is utterly brilliant, but it's lost on me." I felt a little like the guy standing in a museum, looking at a lauded abstract painting while thinking, "I just don't get it."

What carried me along, though, were contrasting elements of the story. The man and boy struggle to survive in a grey, desolate world where the only food available is what can be scavenged. They're heading south, because the man knows that he and his son cannot survive another winter in the north. The world seems utterly without hope. And yet, hope lives, tenaciously, in the love between father and son. The brutal, horrific portrayals of the world and its remaining inhabitants only serve to spotlight the connection between the boy and his dad. McCarthy writes, "Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other's world entire."

When I returned to the Amazon listing of The Road, I noted that McCarthy seldom uses quotation marks in dialogue in any of his books. That bugged the hell out of me early in the book. By the middle of the book, not so much. By the end, I hardly noticed the lack. Here's a passage of dialogue between father and son.

He was a long time going to sleep. After a while he turned and looked at the man. His face in the small light streaked with black from the rain like some old world thespian. Can I ask you something? he said.
Yes, of course.
Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now.
And we're still going south.
So we'll be warm.
Okay what?
Nothing. Just okay.
Go to sleep.
I'm going to blow out the lamp. Is that okay?
Yes. That's okay.
And then later in the darkness: Can I ask you something?
Yes, of course you can.
What would you do if I died?
If you died I would want to die too.
So you could be with me?
Yes. So I could be with you.

I read that passage during a slow day at work, while sitting in the flight planning room. I suppose it was that passage that prompted me to give Mr. McCarthy a break. In fact, I sat there with tears in my eyes, on the verge of weeping. That would have been embarrassing. I mean, I like most of the guys I work with, but I ain't necessarily comfortable crying in front of 'em. But geez, what dad could not identify with that dad's feelings? "If you died I would want to die too."

There were times, during the reading of the book, that I found McCarthy's word crafting just remarkable. There were other times I thought he came across as amateurish. What propelled me through the book, though, was how the love between father and son emanated a thin ray of hope in a dying, hopeless world.

I won't reveal anything about the ending, except to divulge that it ain't stock Hollywood. I finished the novel with conflicting feelings. The story was compelling, and yet I had some regret that I'd even started it. Through much of the book, the writer's disregard of grammar rules and conventions was distracting, and yet it somehow added to the bleak tone of the book, to the sense of utter desolation. McCarthy wasn't motivated to make this an easy read, especially in an emotional sense. The reader never gets off the hook. Escapist fare, it isn't.

Upon finishing the book, I took another look at the Amazon listing for it. I noticed that opinions on the book are more divided than your typical best seller. As I write this, there are 1,228 customer reviews of the novel. Here's an example of a five-star review:

In a barren, ashen landscape that was once the United States of America, a weary man and his young son are traveling south in search of the ocean. They scavenge for food and shelter, and they must constantly avoid marauding bands of fellow survivors who would prey on them. The one thing that sustains them on their way is their ferocious love for each other. THE ROAD is the story of their heartbreaking journey. Every now and then, when we need reminding, a great writer shows us one possible future for our species if we continue on the path to self-destruction. In 1957, Nevil Shute gave us ON THE BEACH, and now, 50 years later, Cormac McCarthy has given us an eloquent new version of the same cautionary tale. We didn't listen then. Perhaps we can learn something now. I have rarely been so moved by a work of literature. To call this the most important novel of 2006 is an understatement. Read it and weep. Read it and be uplifted. Just read it--before it's too late.

But then, another view from an Amazon customer:
No, I don't buy into the "Oprah chose it, so it must be good" thought. Neither do I think the Pulitzer prize means much these days. The truth is that this book did not impact me like it apparently did others. The dialogue is so overtly simple that it's painful and the descriptions are so repetitive.(Question: How many times do they say OK? Answer: As many times as he talks about the ash.) His style is so easy to copy that one wonders, "what, then, is the big deal?" This is like modern art (You know, those splatterings of paint on a canvas that people call "art" and they read into it any artistic interpretation that comes to mind, when in reality it really is just blots on canvas). This book is like that, to me. If you want to overanalyze it and call it "profound", that's fine, but the reality is that this is a poorly told story with little or not literary value. I've read "The Border Trilogy" and wasn't too thrilled with those books either. I guess I'm done with McCarthy. BLEH.

Truth be told, for much of the novel, I tended to side more with the two and three-star reviewers than those who gushed over the novel. But time has changed my perspective. When I finished the novel, it was a glass half-empty. Days later, it's a glass half-full.

I can't recall a novel ever staying with me the way The Road has. I finished it four days ago, and when I'm not flying, I find myself thinking about it, even when I don't want to think about it. It was painful to read. For all of the horrific portrayals in the book, none were more horrifying than the father's desperation. When you're a dad, what could be more terrible than the thought that if you die, your child will be left to face a nightmarish world alone?

If I were to be so long-winded about what is, after all, a book report on a blog, I kind of wish it could be about some obscure book by an unknown author. Instead, I'm haunted by a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize, has been recommended by Oprah on national TV, and is rated at number 30 in Amazon sales. Damn. That doesn't appeal to the contrary side of me. But then the central premise of the story--a father and son struggling to survive in a nearly lifeless world--has grabbed my heart.

I can't help but ponder what kind of dad I'd be in those circumstances, y'see. I can't help but wonder if I'd have the strength to keep hope alive. I can't help but pray to God that you or I will never be put to such a test.

I reflect on what I'd miss the most should I find myself alone in the world. Would I miss helicopters? Driving? Cell phones? Culture? Art? The newest iPod? Oprah's Book Club?

No. I'd miss love. I'd miss wrestling with my son. I'd miss the way my wife kisses me in the middle of the night. I'd miss sharing a beer or coffee with a friend. I'd miss the kindness of strangers. I'd miss shared experiences. I'd miss so much about this crazy, silly little life than things.

Is The Road a good book? Do I recommend it? I don't know. I really can't say. It's haunted me too much to be objective about it.

Since I've read it, I think often about when my son was a newborn. He was born healthy and robust, but suddenly, I became hyper-aware of how much I had to lose. Worries of SIDS and other agents of the Grim Reaper circled about in my mind, like vultures with blood-soaked beaks. He slept with us as an infant, and I would often sit awake at night and watch his little chest rise and fall, all the while thinking, "Please, God, just let him keep breathing."

Sometimes, I still do that, and he's seven, for cryin' out loud. Sometimes I sit awake, and just watch him breathe.

I've been cursing The Road since I finished it. But last night, I started reading it again. Over the space of a few days, that glass half-empty has become one half-full.

And, I need to chase away those shadows, y'know.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

My "Homesick Grumpy" Fix

Sheesh, have I ever been homesick, grumpy homesick, for the last week. My normal homesick state while at work has been aggravated by, of all things, a novel. More on that later. Anyway, thanks to my buddy Algernon, who posted this on his blog, I have a video antidote for the grumpies.

Monday, January 07, 2008

On Popular Culture, Music, and Age

Fellow northern California resident Uncle E recently wrote this in his blog:

So, here’s the thing.

I’ll be turning 40 in February, and it got me to thinking; at what age does one, SHOULD ONE, stop listening to ‘new’ music?

Is my passion to discover new bands going to wither away like my eyesight or is my interest going to continue to expand like my once 32 inch waistline did?

When I was 20 there was nothing more pathetic than seeing a ‘middle aged guy’ (read: 30 years old) blaring AC/DC in his Volkswagon Jetta out of his Blaupunkt speakers . Or seeing some ageing hipster with a grey ponytail wearing a “Neds Atomic Dustbin” tee shirt under his brown, corduroy sports coat. When you’re an arrogant little punk in your teens or early 20’s, you think that music, really good kick-ass subversive rock & roll music, should be reserved for the ears of youth.

My question is: is that true?

My answer to Uncle E is, naw, really good kick-ass subversive rock & roll music should not be reserved only for the ears of youth. That said . . .

I'd like to claim that I'm really up on new groups on the horizon. But, the fact is that my grasp of popular culture, especially music, seemed to quickly wither when I let my subscription to Rolling Stone die about eight years ago. (And, of course, Rolling Stone was already being derided in some quarters as "the magazine for middle-aged rockers.") I sometimes joke that I think of Counting Crows and the Foo Fighters as new groups. Sheesh, truth be told, maybe it's a stretch to claim that I'm joking.

In my case, is middle age bringing the affliction of mellowness? Hm. I have to admit, more acoustic stuff gets played on my iPod nowadays, stuff like Alison Krause, Tommy Emmanuel, Nickle Creek, John Gorka, Richard Shindell, Leo Kottke, Nanci Griffith, and John Prine.

But then, I'm not spending much time searching out new, er, mellow artists either. I still love good music, but with the passing of years, rediscovering stuff from my past seems more fun than uncovering all those up-and-coming artists.

Thanks to blogs, though, I'm not completely closed off to new artists. With input from some of my "regular" blogs, I still manage to get a new album on my music player from time to time.

I simply don't feel the need to keep up on the latest and greatest anymore. That doesn't just go for music, but for popular culture in general. I really don't care how many times Britney has been in rehab; I'm more concerned with how many times the neighbor down the road has been in rehab.

As for the "mellowing" thing, well, I may have given in to it somewhat, but I ain't surrendering. I still listen to stuff like Steve Morse and Dream Theater, especially at the gym. Loud, too. Those guys may be many years past the senior prom, but they know how to rock.

Hey, I'm fifty-one, but the rowdy soul within ain't dead.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to find a heating pad for my shoulder.