30 September 2012

Yes, I Know, Life Goes On

I just finished one of those highly acclaimed modern novels that is supposed to be a biting commentary on contemporary society, particularly consumerism and blah blah blah. Critics loved it because it is so easy to admire for its satiric wit and noble intent. I found it as subtle as a jab in the ribs. But it's what passes for smart in American culture. Overblown, easy to create characters who are as unbelievable as their eccentricities and constant philosophical musings. Time magazine named it one of the 100 best novels of the century. But to me it is one of those cookie cutter novels with the facile protagonist in a small college town surrounded by what are supposed to be a collection of quirky characters but are ultimately unbelievable and annoying. Post modern American literature reads like some wise ass precocious teenager making fun of his neighbors. There is insight without wisdom and pith without pathos. Intitialy you feel like you're feeding your intellect by reading one of these novels but by the end you see it as merely witty and a good read. (When someone tells me a book is a "good read" I know it is empty calories.) No thanks. Will read Thomas Pynchon next. There's always a cure.

A burial. A memorial. Endless hugs and tears and comforting and being comforted and being offered sympathy. Grieving is exhausting. Just moving on is simple enough but hard earned and there will be pangs of grief and remembrance forever and yes life goes on. I only got the one brother and now he's gone. All stages of grief checked off. Lately people have said to me: "you and your family are in our thoughts." What exactly, I wonder, am I doing there? What if I want out? I feel a sense of discomfort being in other people's thoughts. How do I know what they're thinking while I'm in there? I'm troubled enough by being in my own thoughts. I think. All right I grant you it seems I'm being flip about very sincere offerings of sympathy. I'm not. Just a little fun with words is all. But I've also heard "may god comfort you..." If  there is a god, why the deuce did she/he take my brother's life in the first place? Then I wouldn't need her/his comfort. Surely an omnipotent god could have let him live longer. He'd have seen his first grandchild for a few more years and could have met his second who will born next March. I have, no pun intended, grave doubts about this god and how capricious it is. This is my thing and I have no quarrel with anyone who has an abiding faith in an almighty. I am an ardent supporter of religious freedom (which includes being free of religion) so long as that religion is not a weapon to oppress. I thank everyone who has offered kind words these past two weeks and neither my wordplay or my strong doubts about a higher power should be seen as any rejection of these heartfelt offerings. My brother was a pious man. I'm just difficult.

I watched Amarcord (1973) last night. I did not really need another reminder for why I love cinema or why I love Fellini, but there it was. A cornucopia of a film positively brimming with memorable characters and situations. Amracord is like a reaffirmation that life is filthy rich with the amusing, the unpredictable and the beautiful. Beautiful not in the sense of physical attractiveness but in the discovery of wonderful, amazing, exciting moments. Characters who pulsate with the excitement of being an active member of the human race. The father who threatens to kill himself and proceeds to simultaneously pull his upper jaw up and lower jaw down. The teens who spontaneously sway in the wind to unknown music. The mental patient on a family outing who climbs to the top of a tree and shouts that he wants a woman. The town beauty who is proud to be ogled by one and all as she sashays around town with a big grin. The local historian who offers the town history into the camera despite hecklers aplenty. What a fine madness! There are sweet little films, there are taught thrillers, there are hilarious comedies, there are moody noirs, and then there are bombastic audacious swirling and shambling and rambling delights like Amarcord. Oh it does't flinch from anything. There are fascists, there is a premature death there is unrequited love and the insane. In other words there is the rich stew of life. Sup, everyone, sup. You must because time is fleeting. We come we go we are left we leave we must enjoy. Bellissima!

18 September 2012

Goodbye Big Brother

Robert leading his youngest daughter up the aisle two months ago.
I cried on the cat. She was very good about it. I held her tightly and finally sobbed as I'd wanted and needed to do for several hours. Ever since I found out that my one and only sibling, my big brother Robert had died.

Robert Hourula was one month shy of his 65th birthday. He had four fantastic children and one grandchild. He was as good a big brother as anyone has ever had. I feel so alone and so....

All I now know is that Robert died in his sleep. He'd been plagued by various ailments for years and was hoping to avoid any further prolonged hospital stays. He hated hospitals. He won't have to deal with them anymore. But I don't get to see him on Thanksgiving or Christmas or at barbecues at his house. I called him yesterday and left a message because I wanted to see if we could have lunch Friday, my last weekday off until Thanksgiving.


The older I get the more people I know who die. This is not unusual in human experience. It particularly afflicts people with friends and families. I do not have either a huge family or a whole lot of friends but there are enough that every so often someone close to me is gone. Forever.

But only one of them was my big brother. We used to toss the football back and forth when I was a kid. He was a lot older and traveled a lot and would bring me presents. When I was an older teen I would visit him and he'd buy wine and drink with me. I could talk to him about most anything and did.

Actually we didn't have a lot in common. He inherited the fishing gene from my dad and I inherited the sports fan gene. He became a Christian and I became an atheist. But we always got along. In later years we would reminisce a lot about childhood, the Berkeley we grew up in and of course family. He seemed to love telling stories and was becoming as accomplished at it as my dad was.

Of course this is what your supposed to do, happily remember  a person's life and not simply mourn their death. Death can, after all, be the exclamation point on a life well lived. Robert's life was a decade two too short but he made the most of what he had. A family that loves him so is sufficient evidence of that.

I miss you, big brother and am shocked that you are gone so abruptly. I'm damn sorry I didn't tell you how much I loved you and how much you meant to me. Maybe I never fully realized what a positive impact you had on my life and what a great example you set for me. Just like a big brother should.

10 September 2012

"No! I'm not like you. I don't feel like you. I'm Sister Alma, I'm just here to help you. I'm not Elisabet Vogler. You are Elisabet Vogler." Thoughts After Watching Bergman's Persona

Solitude and the desperation of lost chances. The unforgiving nature of time. Tick.

I think a sign of real intelligence in human beings is the ability to listen to and ask questions of others. You'll note that the especially empty headed will ramble on obliviously saying nothing, hearing nothing, asking nothing. It's an apt metaphor for their lives that they try to fill with work and chores until they burst, because the alternative is to face reality. Then too, some people go to religious services and there imagine that by giving themselves to the infinitely unknowable they are answering all of life's mysteries.

I saw that the fat guy who is governor of New Jersey said at the republican convention that his party loves teachers but not the unions. Translation: we want you to continue educating our children for little renumeration but we don't want you to have any protection or security while doing that work and by the way, shut up!

So I was trying to be useful today on a Monday of a week I have off. Trying to do things. Be productive. Make full use of my time. But I was having trouble. The impulse was to fiddle about doing a little of this and a little of that, none of which was going to "accomplish" anything. No sustained tasks at all. I was contemplating this inability to be "get going" while sitting on out back deck. There beside me was our cat. Sprawled out in the sun, not a care in the world. I realized she had it right. The old fleabag is an adept mouse slayer and is skilled at keeping laps warm, especially those watching a movie. She is also quick to grab a bite to eat and to crawl into boxes and explore paper bags. But when there's nothing else that catches her fancy, she is more than content to just flop somewhere. This is not laziness, this is living. She makes no apologies for spending hours upon hours in complete lethargy, nor do we expect her to. Yet, when I allow myself some time to "do nothing" I feel the guilt of a thousand pilgrims glaring at me. Enough. Some days were meant to be lazed away and by god I mean to do it (which doesn't account for me busily typing right now).

"I don't know what to do with my tenderness." - Mr. Vogler, from Persona.

I watched Persona (1966) today as is obvious from the title of this post. Ingmar Bergman films have the effect of making me feel better about being alive. They are like deep meditations on the nature of existence and the lives we lead. They help us explore our perceptions and our quest for meaning. They don't so much force as allow us to examine the unique human capability of questioning. Our innate ability (too often repressed out of fear or religion) to ask: why?

God's silence is a theme in many a Bergman film but in Persona it is the silence of the actress, Elisabeth  (Liv Ullman). She is with a nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson) at a rustic island retreat recuperating from a mental breakdown that has robbed her power of speech. Elisabeth and Alma, Alma and Elisabeth, become intertwined as they share the confines of a house and the vastness of the outdoors and more than that, as they share life. One talks and talks the other listens and listens. Symbiotic. Bergman even morphs their faces at one point. Symbiosis.

Elisabeth is that most compelling of film characters, the emotionally disturbed. It seems that people who have or are suffering some sort of emotional or mental crisis are not just interesting, but they are on to something. Isn't their psychosis evidence of a fundamental understanding of reality? Can't insanity or mental instability be a sign of someone who has reached a higher truth that renders it difficult if not impossible to dwell in the world as most others do? When reality is understood at such a basic and deep level, the trivialities of life and the tedium of so much of existence is rendered impossible to comprehend.

But in Persona we are talking of two people. The duality. Twins. As Alma talks and talks and Elisabeth listens, as Alma violates confidentially by reading a letter Elisabeth has written, as Alma threatens to throw boiling water on Elisabeth, who is the stable one? Who is in charge? Who is the nurse and who is the patient?

Questions always from Bergman. Challenges. As we see with the opening sequences of the film that reappear in an abridged form in the middle. At times quizzical at times disturbing at times maddening. Carbon, film breaking, sheep, a child, a heart an erect phallus, a woman's face. It means everything of course just as it means nothing, because it is so very much up to us to determine why. Because we have the capacity to do so.

Great films are to be watched again and again but a film like Persona demands it on another level. Because in repeat viewings we see so many different things, view the same through such different lenses depending upon where we are in our life and out thinking and our understanding. It is a film that especially lends itself to the power of wonder.

So much in the world to wonder at. So many ways to do it. So lucky to think of any of it at any time. Chance.

02 September 2012

Will Did You Evah?

You ever know someone and at one point think: this guy drives a car? Hard to imagine. Then one day you catch a ride with the person and it makes you really question the wisdom of his having a driver's license then you question the notion that in the US driving seems to be right rather than a privilege then you get to thinking that way too many people drive which is a major cause of global warming and traffic deaths and congestion and noise and that less people should be able to drive and more people should want to use public transportation which would increase the demand for busses and trains and subways and maybe create more routes and an increase in service so you're much less likely to stand around for 30 minutes waiting for a bus. And then do you think that if you brought this up in some sort of forum that conservatives would start hollering about another assault on individual freedoms and you're reminded how conservatives equate freedom with being able to do whatever the hell you want to and that there seems to be a growing chasm between liberals and conservatives that is getting to be tribal and intractable and making for more hostility and less of a likelihood that anything can get done in this country? That ever happen to you? Cause the thing is that it happened to me. Seems a lot of things get me thinking about the polarization of American politics and culture. In some ways I feel sort of not involved because I feel less and less vested in this country especially as a self identified socialist but at the same I live and work here so I should really be concerned but then I feel there's so little I can do aside from living my life as an example of my values. Values. My....

Belief system. Which is not necessarily connected to or for that matter separate from the man I was. Who was. Different. The theoretical. But I am trying and am conscious and I do think of the insanity of all these cars and people driving a few blocks when they could walk and is it any wonder obesity is such a big fat problem in this here country. I work in SF in an area lousy with tourists and one way you can tell the Americans from foreign is waistlines. Nine times out of ten an overweight person will not have a foreign accent unless you consider Alabama foreign which in many ways it is from the Bay Area. Dig it.

You ever know someone and at one point think. Yeah, me too.

But getting back to the rift in this country...I saw a comment on a non political online forum from a conservative who said republican women were prettier than democratic women who, he said, tend to be "butt ugly." You see that? Us/them. And THEY are not only wrong politically but bad all around, even their women are ugly. It's like when Ann Coutler said that "our blacks are better than their blacks." We don't have different political parties or philosophies, we have different breeds. It's like the Crusades, man. It's like football rivals. Beat em!

Where do we go from here?

"I go to bed with horror on my wings. In my pillow is sad comforts." - Jack Kerouac.

There are the unchained voices of yesterdays sorrows that visit from long lost travails. They whisper to us of how and why and we ignore them at our own loss. This is our sad burden as empty nights go by and we clamor for a dream that we never even had. America the confused. Desperate to climb some holy hill without taking so much as a single step. The easy path. The easy answer. The simple mind. The lost and the loss of those who venture to challenge. Stuck in the mire of dead end minds. Braying at us from TVs. Promise us everything. Every. Thing. You promise. With no plan on how to give it. We --

The sarcastic laughter and ineptitude of our scholarship are evidence of bereft intellects and a swollen pride all out of proportion to any accomplishments.

All that is asked is hope.

I get into cars and see so so many others and die a little bit each time. It's all very tired.