Saturday, July 25, 2015

Mr.Holmes: Fleshing Out a Most Extraordinary Fiction in His Dotage

Sherlock Holmes became a very real man to me this afternoon.

I have always been a fan of "The Great Detective". As a teenager or young adult I gobbled Conan Doyle's stories as well as the films mostly those starring the late Basil Rathbone. I saw Crucible of Blood on Broadway. The Seven Percent Solution with Nicole Williamson and every half-baked expansion of his character on celluloid. I always have particularly loved the modern day effort to sculpt the personality of the somewhat one dimensional character of the 19th century.  That brilliant mind, that cocaine addiction, the inability to love all came from somewhere I imagined along with many a screenwriter and stage writer. I was not content that he be a sociopath, or victim of Asperger's.  There was too much dynamism and charisma on paper and on stage and on film and television. Jeremy Brett played him fuller and not so quietly tormented. I enjoy the variations of a 21st century Holmes, either on American Television or interpreted by the dreamy Benedict Cumberbatch for the BBC. The only version I have hated, positively hated, was the Robert Downey, Jude Law abomination conceived in an era of CGI, unrealistic action and an iconoclasm that renders interesting characters banal.

I had seen Holmes young and middle aged, and I had never considered that he could be an old man, with a long passed past and an increasingly diminishing capacity. And I never hoped that something of his very soul would be revealed. No one, if he or she lives long enough, is spared the confrontation with death and loss, of our family, and friends, and of course, ourselves.

I forgot as I watched Brian Condon's movie about this previously unconsidered version of Holmes that he was in fact a fiction interpreted by an actor, Ian McKellan.

So much food for thought.

It is 1947. Holmes is 93 and living in the country as a gentleman bee farmer., with mysteriously dying bees. He is attended to by a housekeeper and shadowed by her precocious and admiring son, Roger, to whom Holmes teaches the particulars of bees. There are sparks of the genius remaining. He can still size up people and their whereabouts, a technique he applies to his housekeeper, who is not much fond of him because her son's hero-worship that makes her less in the boy's eyes. But Holmes' body, and worse, his mind, is failing. He has key signs of dementia. He cannot remember most names, a condition that is worsening, such that he has to write them on his shirt cuff. He loses concentration and in trying to retrieve memories, especially of his last case, in 1917, he is given to long stares into space, another hallmark of the shrinking brain. That last case was chronicled by his friend and assistant, Dr. John Watson, but its particulars were changed and exaggerated as Holmes notes was done in all of the stories. After all, they were penny dreadful, stories for the people, like our own movies and their stars, and Watson took liberties, especially in the creation of some of the hallmarks of the Holmesian persona, the deer-stalker cap and the pipe.

That non-fictionalized turn of the last case is what drove Holmes to retirement, but he cannot remember the truth of it any longer. It involved a married woman, who had two miscarriages, and seems to be descending into a madness both natural and induced. In order both to stave off the deterioration and to generate memory, Holmes has tried all sorts of natural remedies, the last of which is something called "prickly ash" that can only be found, apparently, in the Japan post Hiroshima, in Hiroshima.  A young man there seems to be Holmes' facilitator and host, but that young man has an ulterior motive--he blames Holmes for the abandonment by his father to England during the war. Holmes, of course, does not remember the man; he can barely remember the family's surname without prompting. 

Three mysteries of the ordinary kind, the dying bees, the case of the sad wife, and the man who left his wife and child in Japan suddenly and without any further contact, occupy the Holmes sliding into life's sunset. And, worse, his burgeoning relationship with the boy, Roger, may well be interrupted because his housekeeper intends to leave for another position far away. This Holmes can no longer hold in abeyance his emotions. This housekeeper, however much she is at odds with him, and the boy, they are all that he has left. Watson and Mrs. Hudson are long dead; his brother Mycroft has recently died. The solitary is alone.

But there are moments in which he finds clarity, prompted by Roger's questions, and words and an artifact, a single glove belonging to the woman Holmes had followed at the behest of her husband during that last case. Relationship, albeit somewhat rocky, is the potion more effective than bitter tasting jellies in tea.

I don't want to deprive the reader of how these stories--which I disagree with some critics are slight plot points--resolve. Most mysteries in life turn out to be simple as to their facts, but complicated as to their contexts. Holmes has both succeeded, and failed, in his life, just like all of us.

There is, sort of, a happy ending. His life goes on, and, from my sense of it, he is not alone any more.

As for me, I can't wait for the DVD.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

I Did Exist, I Have Existed, I Still Exist

This Fourth of July is a bit of a study in contrasts. This morning and well into the afternoon I spent my time with Veronica, the lady who has become a surrogate mother, or rather, to whom I have become a surrogate daughter, at the nursing home at which she now resides. It was my first, but the home's annual celebration of the founding of this country, complete with music and barbecue and flags and root beer floats. The location of the place at the highest point of Culver City made the afternoon idyllic, for me at least. View, sun and breeze. It was magical.To me, objectively, of course, it means better care in a less crowded atmosphere, and that is good. But to them, the flowers and the breeze are only something that can be enjoyed  only between the moments of pain and confusion. Still, there are those betweens when it becomes clear that who they were still peeks through for the rest of us to see. And they so enjoy those specks of time.

I saw several today. A volunteer played many of the old time tunes, I mean, really old, like "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" or every military anthem that used to make people proud, every Good 'ole American Yankee Doodle Dandy tune.  There was 101 year old Audrey, who seldom speaks, and eats even less (except for nuts that are on her walker's shelf) without prompting, a former ballerina and dance teacher waving her arms delicately to every song layer on the portable piano. And Neal, who actually isn't resident, but is, at 93, a donor and the husband of a woman who used to reside there before she died, showing us pictures of himself and his wife from the 1940s. He still comes and spends dinner time with the residents, though he is able to be independent, and still plays golf and drives. There he is in his Navy uniform looking exactly the same, except for the loss of that heavenly head of hair, next to a woman perfectly dressed and coiffed as all were in those days, the woman he would soon be marrying. Then a picture some 50 years later when they were celebrating either a birthday or an anniversary. They are all in his wallet, these pictures, a little dog eared, but proof of a life well lived, and a past that promised a future now already had and gone.

Then there is Nana. Also 92.  She never speaks at all, and has difficulty swallowing when she eats. Her eyes tell of a woman once articulate, bright and giving, still absorbing the universe around her but not understanding it any more, mostly. And then her daughter brought out a photograph from 1945. Nana was in the Navy. She was one of the rare WAVES during the war. She had even been a pinup runner up. I could not stop darting my eyes from the picture to the woman in the chair, and then I said something about this beautiful girl in the photo, whose eyes still are beautiful, and she smiled so broadly that it seemed the dementia (or whatever) that has ravaged her would retreat, just for a moment. And let her be who she was.

Now I am sure why I like photos and memoirs, or journals, even the most flimsy of them. Because they are a reference point, from then to now, to posterity. If it were up to me, every photograph of every life would be stored in some safe place. I lament privately that photos I have (and many were lost to a damp garage some years ago) I have of my family will end up in a junk heap when I die, since my Father's line ends with me. I have photos of other people not even my family, whose own families are either not interested or gone. Veronica had photos of a woman and her family who apparently are gone now.

Perhaps in the cosmic scheme of things it does not matter if there is proof of our existence in this world after our memories fade, or our lives end, for as a religious person, it is only Eternity and God that make the ultimate difference. But as a human being, here, now, existing today, there seems to be something of a matter of honor to create some legacy of each person here, to prove that they existed, each and every one. And, so many of them away from daily life as it used to be lived, a moment for the rest of us to stop and acknowledge that they had these full lives and are still here to be accounted for. Or something like that.

I said that this day was a study in contrasts. My second Fourth of July event will be to the Hollywood Bowl, Smokey Robinson and Fireworks. Very much in the present. Not so wistful an event, but certainly to be well enjoyed. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Please Donate--Oh, but we Have a Few Conditions

My life's path has had me orchestrating in the downsizing of several apartments over the last nearly a decade. The first such effort was sifting through and clearing my Father's condo in 2008, the one into which I finally moved in 2012. There have been two other sorties since that time, each of them taking months to conclude, and so, in a way, rolling and merging in terms of the expenditure of effort, both physical and emotional, one into the other. I finish one, it seems, and there is another. Oh, the task of clearing someone's apartment isn't just about that. It is first about the death, or relocation that generates the need to cull and clean, and those events consume the heart and mind of themselves, but then there is the dig through lives.  And the question?  Where is this stuff going?  Who wants it?  Who is going to want it?

Oh, if there is a will or something, some pre-planning (which many people alas still do not do) some of the treasures that have been collected over a life time, are still seen as treasures by family or friends and become happy additions to another household. They may be such treasures (also valuable in the Antiques Roadshow kind of way) that families and friends even fight over them, for years, and years, perhaps.

But then, there is the "other", the stuff of daily life. A couch that is useful, but not particularly beautiful and definitely not ever to be eyed by any collector. An old TV. Out of date purses, that will be in vogue again perhaps, but not for the next twenty years. Shoes. Blankets. Large and small they overwhelm you. But, you say to yourself, "Well, they may not be priceless, but they are useful, and in good shape, and someone in need will surely be able to use them.".

And there are many large organizations which advertise--you know them, both religious and secular--their enormous need for the things that you happen to be needing to divest yourself of on your behalf or on behalf of another.

But as in all things of modern life, the desire to help has been compromised.

Yes, there is great need out there, but, there are conditions in your being able to make a successful donation. I want to thank the lawyers out there (and I am a rather embarrassed member of that profession I must disclose) whose lawsuits have assured that someone else is always to blame for my injury for generating the need for some of these conditions.

I have a couch. I want to see that though my loved one can no longer use it, it goes to that someone in need. The couch is not torn. It was only reupholstered last year, and it has many years in it to seat a growing family, or a newly married couple whose finances are a little short. I would love to see someone make good use of it, in a sense, give the couch a new lease on life. And I will be helping too, doing some good in this too often no good world. So many people have wanted to do that, give to another.

Oh, good, the charity has a truck!  Purportedly this is for large items and many boxes they hope to receive to help their communities. And then you make the call.

"What kind of building is it?"

You say, for example, "A four unit building."

They ask, "What floor?"

You reply, "The second."

And then the question that dooms the enterprise of your giving to those in need and their taking for those in need, "Does it have an elevator?"

No, there is no elevator you must reply.

"I'm sorry.  The pickup crew can't take the items from the apartment if there is no elevator.  You'll have to bring it out to the street.  We can call you thirty minutes before they're coming."

I understand, sort of. I mean, if someone is injured on the job, there will be worker's compensation, or a civil suit ending in a settlement of three times the meds, or a dog might bite the guy coming down the stairs, or he might trip on his shoe laces. Thank you, lawyers. So, no one, even the charities, will take a chance on going into a house or apartment where there are stairs, to take those items for which there is great need. One of those enterprising junk companies will do it, for a price, but for the needy, nope, nada, can't do it.

I agreed to the terms with one group in a recent cleaning of an apartment.  Yes, I will get the material downstairs. How? I had no idea, but if I had no other option, that was what I was going to do. Call some friends and hope they didn't have jobs to go to that day. Or were willing to take off. Or be an idiot and try to do it myself (likely). And I hoped for another solution.

In the nick of time, someone told me about a church in East Los Angeles.  I knew of it, because our parish takes up collections for them. It is a large church with lots of families. And I called the director of their social services. And she, they, were willing, even it seemed happy, to take things from a second floor of a building without and elevator.

Two guys. I don't think they were delighted by the stairs. Again, I understand.  I have been up and down them repeatedly with various items in my hands, heavy, though admittedly not a couch.

I helped them with boxes.  Lots of clothes, nice clothes. (That's another tale for these pages. Try to sell clothes to these trading companies, or for that matter records--they will give you a dollar and then charge market price to a young urban dweller.)  I made just about as many trips as they did. As to the couch, a little maneuvering, the two of them, they got it down and a few other lesser size pieces of furniture. There was one item even they did not take.

Well, this time, some things are going to storage as well. The moving company is more than happy to go upstairs as they are going to get paid to do it. And I guess they are all licensed and bonded and have workers compensation in case someone falls down the stairs.

But the toll these conditions by charities might take? That those who want to give will simply not. Maybe the charities have a glut now, so it won't hurt much, for a while. But in time, the calls to ask whether they want grandma's used, but still good couch, will cease.

They can't really need grandma's couch that much, right?

As for me, I will be happy to help in downsizing or clearing out down the road, but I won't be orchestrating. Anyone planning to ask me to be in charge, don't.  Been there, done that. I will leave others to hear about the conditions and the final words, "That's just our procedure."

I really mean it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Big Picture

One of my favorite movies is one that very few people saw. It might have been in the theatres for a very short time and then went to VHS. Yes, that is how old the film is; it was made during the time of VHS. In the 1980s. To hear the plotline, one might think I was crazy to love this film. But, aside from having as its star, my long time favorite (see earlier blog entries on that subject) Peter O'Toole, there was something not only profound about the tale, but downright misty eyed producing. It's about a professor of the sciences at an unnamed bucolic campus who "hires" a graduate student, played by the then very young and very hunky Vincent Spano to be his research assistant as he grows his long dead wife in a test tube in a shack behind his house. No, really, I mean it, get it, watch it, and you will see that somehow it is a cohesive romantically philosophical and spiritually satisfying film, even if a tad complicated. It is complicated because the graduate student meets a girl and the professor meets a girl (Mariel Hemingway, who in her autobiography writes that the making of the film was a pleasure). Spano's girl nearly dies, but doesn't. O'Toole's girl is, way too young for him in years, but is the voice of reason and wisdom regarding the foolishness of trying to bring back the past, in the form of a regenerated wife. She is convinced that if only Dr. Wolper (the character O'Toole plays and the name she calls him even once she has fallen in love with him) lets go of his obsession in favor of the "big picture" of life and love that he otherwise espouses, he will find the happiness he has been trying to re-create. Says the Hemingway character, "You are not creating life here, you are creating death."

There is a scene in which the emotionally strained Spano asks O'Toole, demands of O'Toole, in the face of the possible loss of his new love (played by an also young, Virginia Madsen), "I'll take my big picture now.". He wants to know what the big picture is for him. For any of them.

The Big Picture. Birth to death? All that stuff in between?  Speaking of the 80s, I was listening to a bunch of 1980s radio songs as I left the nursing residence where my elderly friend now resides. You know,  One song I had never heard, or just didn't remember, came on, by Laura Branigan, called "How Can I Help You Say Goodbye." All the songs before put me in mind of my early days in California, when all I could think about was getting my life started, not merely preparing to get it started. I saw a long road ahead of me. The songs of the 80s were the songs of my young present. And as I heard them in my present of 2015, I was amazed at how short the road had become. But here is the thing about the day. Even as I sat with my friend amid the resident with their various levels of decrepitude of body eating their dinners in the activity room of the home, I realized that I had still felt enormous possibility. In a way I could not articulate but could only feel viscerally such that tears of recognition fell on the drive home, I was seeing the "Big Picture."  A week or so ago  I noticed a man sitting at the head of a table polishing off dinner, more capable physically than most of the residents, and given to a parade of Bob Hope like jokes he never repeats, get up, and say goodbye to the staff.  They asked if he were going home.  Home?  "This must be home," I thought. But it turned out that this man's late wife had been a resident until she died last year. He continues to the home every day for dinner, breezing in via his SUV.  He is 92. Yesterday, he brought in photos of his wife, and him, from around World War Two. He was a sailor. The same face, except then, with thick curly hair, and a youthful swagger and the beaming smile of love. And she, dark haired with the perfect eyebrows and fresh face. They were married 68 years. He is still in love. And I shared his past in his present. His past had become my present. And this present was alive.

I entertained my friend by interacting with the three cockatiels of the home, one of whom is clearly responsive to me. My past, my present, my friend's past, which I am seeing as I clean up her apartment and peek into a life before I knew her (simply in seeing photographs some I have brought to her), the past of A, once a ballerina, and W, who now can only clamor for food, and Fr. J, who was once the pastor of a parish, all of it was life affirming. It wasn't stuck in the past. It was part of something forward looking. Despite the pain. Despite the suffering. Or maybe in some odd way growing out of both of these.

There is the spiritual stuff that I think about more and more, too.  All of it a quick glimpse of "The Big Picture." I was sad. I was happy. I was both at the same time. And it was all good. Even if at the end there is a goodbye. For now.

Or another way to look at it, as Laura Branigan wrote, and before her a bevy of philosophers, "Life's about changing; nothing ever stays the same."

Oh, and if you care to, watch "Creator".

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Singing 'Puff, the Magic Dragon' at the Skilled Nursing Home

I know. I have been away for a while. 

It seems that, since my forced retirement, in 2011, I have worked in what may not be an entirely other field--after all, as a prosecutor of unethical lawyers, one might say I was doing "God's work"-- but now definitely my toil is more in the line of "works of mercy". I wish I could say that I have embraced the tasks thrown at me. I have done them. I have done them with my brand of passion. But I have felt a level of anxiety that I thought I would no longer be impressed on me after I left a regular job in trial management.

I helped wrap up the estate of one friend. I found myself sustaining several friends with a listening ear and/or more substantial material assistance over the last two years. I have nearly as many files as I did as an attorney, even though I am doing work that non-attorneys are permitted to do to help families and friends. The legal background has helped me navigate the morass of bureaucracy that is pretty much any government agency, federal or state. I cannot imagine what it must be for people without my training--as it has been the devil enough for me.

The latest, and I admit to hoping, the last of my tasks was to facilitate the physical and emotional shift of an elderly friend, from her upstairs, non-elevatored apartment of who knows how many decades to a Catholic nursing home. It had to be Catholic, not because I have anything against the secular or other religious versions, but because this is someone for whom the faith is as much as oxygen for her soul as the real thing is for the lungs.  I can say that, for all my running around, and it was at a 'Roadrunner' pace, it was definitely Providence that placed her where she is, among nun administrators and more caring than I have ever seen anywhere else of its kind. It is paradise compared to the Dante hellish rehabilitation facility--better than most if you have had the misfortune of comparisons--that helped her to get back on her feet just over a week ago after a fall.

But it is a nursing home, which means that the residents are in various stages of decline. My friend is actually more functional than most, although she seems not to realize it as she reminds her visitors of how ill she is. Objectively, though, she is less ill. I have begun to think that what she is unable to describe is something more existential. She has said it many times, and not in a form of depression, but in the fullness of her belief, that she waits for the Lord to take her to be with Him. Her earthly body is just worn out and she stands on the precipice, or in the waiting room of Heaven.

Me? I realize that I am sort of in the outer room of the waiting room of Heaven. And sometimes, I join my friend in the waiting room, along with the others. Despite the outbursts, and the stone stares and the nearly crying of some, I find that I am not sad. I think of Shakespeare and the Bible and those verses about the reality of age since the beginning of time, which I only paraphrase, without mind, without tooth, without everything, being led by others where they do not wish to go, and still, I am not sad. I am, in a way, arming myself, wondering which one of these I will be if/when I make it another 30 or so years. Will I be the woman with the two stuffed animals unable to speak but whose eyes refuse to surrender? Will I be the woman who blurts out the funniest malapropisms with utter seriousness? Will I be the one with my head leaden on my chest asleep?

Or, will I be like my friend, whose memory is failing her suddenly and apace, singing along with the blues tunes and country and western songs, and trusting in God?

Not sure how "Puff the Magic Dragon" got in there. Kind of folk/country.  And there I was the baby boomer right behind the generation gathered in that activity room singing along with my friend.

And, here is the thing, I was enjoying it. Maybe I was enjoying the fact that I am young enough to get up and walk around, to play with the cocktatiels hooting in their ample cage, where the others mostly could not. Maybe it was realizing that if you don't embrace the present moment, it is gone and the present can become a kind of prison.  There they are in this bucolic setting, but they cannot go outside on their own, if at all, and enjoy the wind, the sun and the birds. Or the view.

I never seem to get it, that I don't have much time to seize the day, to seize the moment. If this doesn't get me there, not sure what will.

My friend says, often, amid her loop of stories, "Life is just a breath".  I was maybe 14 when Puff the Magic Dragon was a hit. Now I am over 60. I have had a good life, but I have feared too much and so limited myself. There is still time. Isn't there?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Whiplash. Whew!

J.K. Simmons is a gem of an actor. He deserved that Oscar, if only for turning his film, television and public image of "the nice guy" on its head. And, his intensity was, to me, attractively masculine, and hard for me not to admire.

But this movie just plain disturbed me. No, not exactly that, exactly this:  It put me in a two hour state of cognitive dissonance.  There is no way in  H-E-double sticks that this sort of so called teacher would be allowed to function anywhere in the twenty first century. Maybe he would have fit nicely, and even then it would have been a stretch, into the form of authoritarianism, a nice word for "abuse" that existed prior to the revolutions of the 1960s. He is not merely manipulative of his charges, young men who wish to be jazz musicians like the greats of days gone by, like Charlie Parker (aka "The Bird"), but he is verbally and physically beyond the pale. I mean, he is just one step away, and a very short step, from making these kids "assume the position" and using a cane. He slaps students. He calls them names that were schoolyard cruel even before the enlightenment of political correctness. He throws chairs (in emulation of an apocryphal story about Parker). Oh, he does get fired, but it takes a great long time and he remains a well regarded role model for the kids that were terrified of him.

I had heard only good things about the film and I wondered if what I was feeling had been the subject of any comments by internet reviewers.  It was. And, some pointed out that the ending, where the student finally conquers the wall of pain imposed from within and without to perform flawlessly, was simply ridiculous.

If this type of teacher is working anywhere in the United States in any kind of program for any kind of skill intellectual or manual, I want to know where he (or she) is.

Why does the character have to be so--vicious-to get the point across? Tour de force of acting for sure, but something in me winced throughout, alternating with the desire to punch the guy in the face. In the real world, this emotional terrorist wouldn't have one person in his class. Except a masochist.

Not that the student, who given his often bleeding hands from practice, was such a prize. He is the perfect masochist for his idol. I guess we have a movie of dueling narcissists, one of whom has the power, and the other of whom does not.

I suppose we could think of this movie as a kind of "Karate Kid" except without one ounce of heart.

The movie put me in mind of my brief music career, albeit hardly as overtly traumatic.  I had two teachers during it. The first was a nun, Mother Regina, herself a creditable pianist, who took me from age 9 to about age 14 through the basics of a baby grand, one each in about four rooms in the old convent portion of my Bronx girls' school. I liked her a lot. With her as my guide, though practice always came hard to me because of my perfectionistic impatience, I thought that maybe it would be a lifelong activity. Then she retired and I became the pupil of Mrs. Cullinan, who along with my mother, had plans of my becoming a virtuoso, whether that was my plan or not. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I seem to remember her mentioning Julliard as a possibility for me. By now, teenage angst had been added to all the childhood angst and practicing became even less attractive. Every year there was a recital and until I was 17 I managed to make a reasonable effort not to embarrass anybody. But that last year, I told Mrs. Cullinan and my mother that I did not wish to participate in the recital because I simply had not practiced enough and, since we had to play without the music in front of us, I was not satisfied I would remember the pieces well enough. My mother apparently deferred to Mrs. Cullinan and Mrs. Cullinan was not going to relieve me of the public appearance.

The Mount Auditorium was pretty well full.  It was probably the second or third of the pieces that it happened. I could not remember the next portion of the piece. Some poor little girl was tasked with bringing me my music so I could make the best of a now shameful moment. I remember to this day the click-click-click of her heels as she made her interminable journey to me. I never looked in her direction. Had I done so I would have run from the room.

The prim and proper Mrs. Cullinan, whose teaching talent I will admit today did not seem to match that of my prior nun-instructor, ended the proceedings by thanking the gathered and noting pointedly that it was clear who had practiced and who had not. I was defeated. There was the coup de grace. I might as well have gone in without telling her I hadn't practiced and asking to be relieved since I received the same level of remonstration. I don't know what my mother thought of the comment, but my father was outraged. One of Mrs. Cullinan's adult daughters apologized to him for her mother's action. That was the last time I played in public. A fear of making mistakes became a full blown phobia. Over the next years my finger memory faded on pieces I had known, and my desire to learn new ones became perfunctory at best.  I cannot imagine what I would have ended up doing had I a teacher like the one in Whiplash. Oh, I take it back, I can imagine. I'd be the student off stage that committed suicide, just like in the movie. 

The film posits the question of whether what J.K. Simmons character does is valuable, or efficient in weeding out the truly brilliant from the rest, the competent, the barely competent or the dilettantes? The truly gifted and driven will push through it all is one view. Another view is that a sensitive, though gifted, would simply stop doing what he or she loves because of the soul murder. The really sensitive, or psychologically disabled, will kill himself.

But on a less dramatic scales, even when Mrs. Cullinan upbraided me, purportedly anonymously, although I was the only student who forgot her piece, did she contribute to my final decision not to continue taking piano lessons?  From my utterly subjective point of view, she did indeed. Perhaps she saved the world from more mediocrity. But to me, whether it be a character or a real person, an adult took advantage, with good intention or ill it does not matter, of the fragility of a child's or young adult's still forming ego.

Maybe in the Marines, where the youngster is going to be going to war, that makes sense. There a life, many lives, will perhaps be saved by separating the worthy from the unworthy, but in matters of culture, or taste, or talent is discipline to be equated with carving up a psyche?

You might not believe it from this reverie, but a part of the cognitive dissonance in watching this movie is that I was also mesmerized. I was mesmerized by the couple of pieces that got played in part or in whole. I was in awe of the idea of such profound talent at young ages. I have always had this little attraction to the drums and I loved the manic riffs. I wondered why I don't listen to jazz more. I used to when I was younger.  I actually thought about buying an electronic 88 key piano. I am still thinking about it now. (As you know my childhood piano which I had brought from place to place without using it bit the dust).

This is a movie I will watch again. So something seemed good in it. Interesting in it. Something sparked in me. But kid, if you meet a teacher like the one in this movie, run. Or call the police.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Leonard Nimoy Defined Spock; How Spock Spoke to This Baby Boomer

I once told someone that the television fictional Star Trek crew, but in particular, the character created by Leonard Nimoy, Mr. Spock, were my "friends" when I was growing up an only child in the Bronx. So, when Mr. Nimoy died this week and I did not make an immediate acknowledgement of it on Facebook that same someone was surprised. And then tonight, he seemed to anticipate a blog entry about him. As I said to him, I hadn't planned on it. I hadn't because the memories are both pleasant and painful and there is much I am not yet prepared to reveal of the experience. I wrote about it all in the memoir draft I finished and then put aside. It still remains aside, but is almost back in the forefront of my mind and will require a major re-tooling but I am just not at the "let it all hang out" stage.

But as midnight passes and I can't find anything to watch on my 400 or so channels before I go to bed, I find myself reconsidering and beginning an entry. I am not sure how it will form itself.

Much of my sensibility no doubt will accord with that of many an erstwhile child of the sixties. Mr. Spock was an alien within and without, to himself and to those who tried to understand him, even to become close to him.  But I am getting ahead of myself, though I have no idea where I am going.

So, let me begin with my discovery of the show, and the character. A number of the 30 little girls of my seventh grade class had adopted as their alter egos as many of the characters of the Bridge crew of the Enterprise as were available. So, for example, though I don't remember most of who adopted whom, I do remember that Janice Mitchell was Spock. I hadn't seen the show, but this Spock seemed interesting. He was, as I understood it, a half human, half alien member of the crew. The honor of being one of the lesser appearing crewmen, Lieutenant DeSalle, a navigator, was bestowed upon me.

Well, now that I was a crewmember of sorts, one 1967 night I must have convinced my parents to watch it with me on our small-ish black and white television. We had not yet ventured into color having experienced the all too bright orange that seemed to merge into every other color on the screen of the one we sampled in my cousin's apartment, just over the roof from us (our buildings were connected). We came in half-way to the episode.

Here was my first view of Mr. Spock.

I was a bit confused because though he clearly had the face of the logical alien I had heard about, he was acting more like a human being, telling his commander that he should join this throwback 19th century like community on Omicron Ceti III that had been infected by spores that made everyone feel love and belonging and safety--and protected them from lethal radiation that was bombarding the planet.  Mr. Spock had been able to express his feeling of love, ("I love you; I can love you.") long suppressed along with all other feelings forbidden to him despite his half human side, for a young woman, named Leila, he had known six years before on earth. In this episode, he had been freed from the rigidity that usually defined his existence and he, along with the whole crew, were resisting their duties. They had no needs under the influence of the spores. The captain, up to here, had not been exposed to the spores and he was fighting to keep his ship. And he wasn't having any truck with this paradise manufactured by the spores. He went so far as to say that man wasn't made for paradise., but was meant to fight and claw for everything.  I was coming into the show seeing a Spock that usually didn't appear on screen..

The Captain was ever so briefly under the influence of the spores--which sprayed on him as he quietly lamented his fate on the bridge. They had been beamed up by the affected crew thus infecting the rest of the crew and leaving the ship with no one to man it. But, being the primary star of the show, the Captain had to throw off the effects without any outside aid, and becoming angry suddenly about giving up the ship he loved, he came back to himself. Strong negative emotion--that's what would defeat these benevolent marauders. Every time I watch the show, and I did today, a day after I began this entry to remind myself of what I first saw when I was just a little girl of 13, on the edge of puberty and already in the great struggles that transformation engenders, I feel a pang of deep sadness at what Captain Kirk does to his comrade and friend so he can get the help he needs to restore the Enterprise crew and to relocate the colonists. He lies to the Vulcan who waits with Leila on the planet surface. He says he needs help to bring a few things they might need on the planet. And when the peaceful Vulcan who has embraced his human side courtesy of a symbiotic relationship created by the spores beams to the ship, he says horrible things to him to goad him into an anger that will cause the spores to flee. He calls him a traitor from a race of traitors. He goes after the Vulcan's parents, a human mother, who was a teacher and an Ambassador whom we have not yet met born of the planet Vulcan. And then he pushes harder, calling him an overgrown elf with a hyperactive thyroid who has a nerve to make love to Leila. Spock is stronger than most humans because of his Vulcan side and he attacks in an anger he rarely ever expresses any more than love. And with the spores gone, he begins to help the Captain rig something that will cause the crew on the planet to come to their senses and leave a peaceful, calm, but ultimately, unproductive (in the larger sense) life aside.

Leila senses something wrong and Spock knows he cannot protect her from reality, that they will never be together. She comes off the transporter platform and puts her arms around him, and as many years before, he does not respond. He explains how the spores are defeated.

"And this is for my good?" she says rhetorically. She begs him to come back. They couldn't be happy on earth, they couldn't be happy anywhere except here.  What he says to her in what I have always felt was among the best underplayed but intense depth is this, "I am what I am Leila, and if there are any self made purgatories, mine can be no worse than someone else's.". She asks if it is all right that she still loves him. She asks for a first name that he has never given her. He wipes a tear from her eye, with a slight smile he allows without the influence of the spores, and notes, "You couldn't pronounce it.".

The status quo is restored. The Enterprise is out there again exploring the universe. Whatever brokenness within any of the crew, within Mr. Spock himself, is also restored. Asked by the Captain why he has said so little about the adventure, he admits something we all regret he has lost, ", , ,for the first time in my life, I was happy.".

And so introduced to Mr. Spock, I was hooked.  There had also been a peek at the good old country doctor, McCoy, that I would come to love as only second to Spock. The cowboy Captain Kirk played by the now single surviving major star of the series, William Shatner, was a necessary bridge (no pun intended) between the two characters I loved most, Spock and McCoy, although as the series and the movies developed what has been called the "bromance" between Spock and Kirk tended to be the focus (those of you who are Trekkers or Trekkers, or whatever you are as fans will remember the line quoted all this week, "I have been and always will be, your friend." )

And yes, they were my friends too. I was entranced and even a little motivated by their integrity, their passions, their sense of mission. I felt connected to them when the kids at school "pretended" to be part of the crew. I felt a sense of belonging that I did not feel at home. There was a time that I looked to others to explain that feeling. These days it no longer matters. It is only a fact that I felt, probably as many kids feel at that age, as I had always felt that some part of me was forbidden to be expressed to the world. Those of you who know me well know that for years I believed that my mother did not much like me, let alone love me. I always had the sense that, after nine years of marriage, my sudden arrival after my parents took a rare trip--to Montreal--was an accident, and for my mother, not a happy one. My dad, always the master of ambiguity once said to the only direct questioning I ever offered on the subject said, "You weren't not wanted in that sense." I came to understand that she was a deeply disappointed soul, who probably married too young and wanted an entirely different life than the one she had. I also realized she did love me, but like Spock himself, she could not express it, except by providing for me and demanding of me. Oh, there were lots of psychological tides and eddies and I spent a lot of time in my room escaping--again not unlike many other kids--but a little too wrapped up with my "friends" of television.

As Spock wanted to be without the mask,  largely of his own creation, but couldn't do it, so did I want to be without my mask, ultimately largely of my own creation and I couldn't do it. Where closeness and intimacy were problems for him, they were problems for me.  My very name refers to a creature that is not human, that is often a changeling, left in place of a human child. I hated the name as a child, and yet it was entirely apt.  When I got into my teens I wasn't part of the thrills of the Woodstock generation, though I was nominally one of them. I wasn't making love which I was told was de rigueur now that we had thrown off the fifties and were in the enlightened sixties and seventies. I wasn't even managing dates.

Leonard Nimoy's Spock would appear from time to time, either reminiscing about his days on the too quickly cancelled series, or as the late seventies arrived, reprising the role that in the recesses of my being I probably felt sustained me at some level. Let's say, stabilized me. I would find some very real people who did that for me, and I would engage in a lengthy period of therapy that allowed me to accept myself, but Mr. Spock and Leonard Nimoy's understanding of him and portrayal of him, development of him--to moments of his own self acceptance--were pivotal to this baby boomer.

My guess is many baby boomers have their versions of Spock's influence on their lives as developing adults. This is a bit of mine.

The actor and the character he created had an indelible effect on the culture, on the planet. Look at all the NASA tweets, all the men and women who wanted to become astronauts, or engineers, because of Star Trek, because of Mister Spock, the outsider with whom they identified.

The phrase "Live Long and Prosper" is a perfect greeting and perfect farewell. For after all that is the thing we try to do, and in the guise of our better selves, wish for others.