Thursday, October 29, 2020

Collateral Beauty

Collateral Beauty is the name of a not-very-good-despite-the-cast movie, but I am nevertheless intrigued by the title. Most of us, I think, are familiar with the phrase “collateral damage,” referring to such things as accidental civilian casualties in a military operation, side effects for medications, or perhaps tooth decay as an unintended consequence of eating too many sweets.

 

In the movie, the main character (played by Will Smith), following the death of his daughter, learns profoundly obvious lessons about Love, Death and Time. Not much, as I recall, about Beauty. I’m more interested in the way an appreciation of beauty can be triggered as a collateral reward to getting old.

 

Here’s what Shakespeare thought about it:

 

        Sonnet 73

 

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see'st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire,

Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.

This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

 

Forget, for a moment that he was only 33 when he wrote it. He’s saying, “I’m gettin’ old, baby, so you better love me now, before I’m gone.” But let’s turn the camera around: If the speaker is getting old, he’d better “love that well which thou [or he] must leave ere long.” The love that he experiences is collateral beauty, a side effect of aging.

 

In other words, pay attention, and appreciate, while we can. We can look where “yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang,” and maybe even take a photo.

 


Visual Metaphor


Me with Yellow-Leaf Age-Mates

And we can capture where the sweet birds sang:

 

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, singing "Thanks for loading the feeders."



Stunned by the Beauty of Fallen Leaves and Birdseed


We don’t see “sunset fadeth in the west” because our view is to the east,

but the sunsets can still be spectacular.

 

 

Is the world more beautiful because it is collateral to our getting old?

Is our love more appreciative?


I think so. Thus: collateral beauty.

 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Nope

            A Sixty Minutes piece on the Lincoln Project featured a poster image of President Trump with the word “Nope” in large print. The image led me to think about the difference between “no” and “nope.”

 

            Both words are a consequence of making a yes/no choice, but there’s more to it. At its simplest, “nope” has more swagger. More than just saying no, “nope” rejects the whole universe to which the nope-speaker is responding. As in:

 

            “So, are you going to get off your lazy ass and get a job?”

 

            “Nope.” 

or:

            “I dare you to take off all your clothes and go outside to feed the birds naked.”

 

            “Nope.” (Except I actually did this – on Kim’s dare. I was younger – much younger.)

or:

 

            “Let’s all us guys sit down together and discuss our deepest feelings about each other, no matter how hurtful that might be.”

 

            “Nope.”

 

When you respond with “nope,” you are rejecting a whole system of values, not just a specific choice.

 

            So, now is the time for a moral gut-check. To what do you say “Nope”? It’s easy, by the way, to come up with a list of affirmatives to which you say “yes” – nature, love, peace, etc. – ho-hum. Negatives, I think, are more telling. Let me get started.

 

What I say “no” to:

·      liver (though Kim has a way of disguising it with onions)

·      most assholes (some have compensating virtues)

·      horror movies (with very few exceptions)

·      smoking

·      threesomes (not that I’ve had an opportunity to say no)

·      lies (with very few exceptions)

 

What I say “nope” to:

·      bungee jumping (had a chance, in Auckland)

·      heroin (“Just say nope.”)

·      fist fights (so far)

·      torture

·      malicious lies

·      malicious truth-telling

·      bow ties (except for bow tie pasta)

 

            Is there an equivalent super-affirmative version of “yes”? Here in Northern Michigan we have “Heck, yeah,” but it’s usually said so flatly that it comes off as about 5% more intense than a simple “yes.” In some parts of the country you have “You betcha,” which carries the same low weight.

            “Yep?” No, that word does not have the intensity of “nope.” It has some sort of rural overtones to it as well, without “nope” swagger. “Yep” feels a bit more tentative.

 

            How do I know this? Have I conducted extensive research? Nope. 

 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Conversation

 

            “Sometimes, Kim, you know how to say just the right thing.”

 

            “Really? Thanks. When were you thinking of?”

 

            “Last night. When you said, ‘I think I’d like a little bourbon.”

 

            “Well, sometimes you say just the right thing, too. The last time was about ten years ago. I can’t remember what you said.”

 

            “I can’t remember, either.”

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Joe

            Joe is our neighbor. A 96-year-old former WWII fighter pilot, he lives by himself. His heath is failing, though his mind is sharp. Friday he was taken to the hospital because of extreme weakness – he was unable to get to the toilet from his couch, where he spends most of the day sleeping. After several falls during the past month or so, Joe has started wearing a First Alert wrist band, and this last week he has used it almost daily, mostly because of falls. Anyone who has seen Joe, and there are several of us, does not expect him to last the week. He has recently agreed to forego further medical interventions for his heart and other problems, and instead to enter hospice for palliative care.

            Joe does not want to continue to live. He has made this clear. When I gave him some of his prescription pills for the extreme swelling in his feet, he told me that he wished they were strychnine. He has asked how many aspirin he would need to take to kill himself, and he somehow came up with the figure 100. Connie Lu, his niece, has removed his guns from his home.


            Joe, as I said, lives alone, though it’s more complicated than that. During the summer months his son and daughter live next door to him, but they have no contact with him. I’ve been told that his daughter has not spoken with him for seven years, a consequence of something Joe supposedly did that I do not want to know about. He is also estranged from his son, who recently confiscated Joe’s money to “protect” him from “parasites” who might take advantage of him. This has to sharpen his aloneness. He is visited regularly by his niece, Connie Lu, who lives nearby, and by Marshall, his longtime friend. Both bring him food, which he nibbles, and more recently Gatorade after they found him severely dehydrated and unable to make it to his refrigerator. But most of the time he is alone, sleeping in his recliner or watching CNN. His son has discouraged other visitors and has threatened me.

 

            We first met Joe when we were building our house. He invited us to come into his home, whether he was there or not, to sit on his porch or use his bathroom. Kim was recovering from her back surgery at the time and not moving well, so we especially appreciated his open-heartedness, especially as our other new neighbors were less than welcoming. As Joe’s health has declined, he continues to treat us with warmth and generosity. He’s offered us books from the extensive library littering his house (we accepted a few), his large billiard table (no, thanks – no room), and his large collection of dried seaweed snacks (no, thanks). He also advised me on a cannabis company stock purchase, so I bought some at $.45 a share – now trading at $.10. Before the pandemic we welcomed him into our home, most memorably to celebrate our birthdays, Joe’s being one day after mine. Despite whatever he may have done in the past, I am happy and proud to count him as a friend.

 

            How must Joe be feeling now? Alone, obviously. His friends include Marshall and Connie Lu, and his ex-wife #3, Judy, who says he was a rotten husband but much better friend. And Kim and I, though Kim, because of the pandemic, is reluctant to venture into his home, though sends me down with scones instead. Joe also has a young wife in California, a woman who he never sees but whose work with rescued pets he admires enough support her financially. Are we a good substitute for the family who is supposed to be at his bedside? I guess we will have to do, though we all have lives of our own. And from everything we have heard, hospice people are wonderful, though that can’t be the same as family.

 

            I visited Joe in his home on Friday, before he was taken to the hospital, he soiled his Depends several times. I offered to help him walk to the toilet or shower to get cleaned up, though I was not sure exactly what I was getting myself into. Joe declined, probably embarrassed and ashamed. We talked for a while, and then I left, knowing that Connie and a nurse would be arriving in an hour or two. So there was Joe, sitting alone in his own piss and shit, unable to do anything about it. I felt helpless, but this was nothing compared to Joe’s helplessness.

 

            I struggle not to have that lonely helplessness be my lasting impression of Joe. He has published two books about fighting MiG jets over Korea, and in the first, Not Quite a Hero, we see him at his best – not just the flying, but also his insistence on having his fellow Air Force officers do what is right. I choose to live with an edited version of his life, omitting what caused his divorces and alienated his children. I imagine what it would have been like to be with Joe years ago, discussing politics, philosophy, religion, education (for a guy who graduated at the bottom of his high school class, he is exceptionally bright, with an engineering degree from Purdue). And Richard, a local guy in his 80s who I just met, described Joe flying a P-51 Mustang low over the surface of Torch Lake. That’s a Joe I prefer to remember, even though I never saw it.

 

            Joe died, peacefully, Monday night.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

I Can't


            Kim and I have found ourselves watching a lot of British movies and television lately, starting, I suppose, with Downton Abby – mainly because we have been watching a lot of movies and some of them happen to be British. I have a broad definition of “British,” one that includes Australia and New Zealand.

 

            I have noticed, as we watched, how often a character says, “I can’t,” usually pronounced “cahn’t.” Most often, as I recall, this is said because of some social restriction rather than a physical limitation, such as “I can’t run a four-minute mile,” or “I can’t leap over tall buildings in a single bound.” No, in British movies it’s more likely, “I cahn’t wear that dress to the party,” “I cahn’t run away with you,” or even “I cahn’t marry you.” This makes me think of William Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles” where the restrictions are, primarily, self-imposed after being socially programmed.

 

            I don’t notice these “I can’t”s [note punctuation triumph – a first for me] in American movies, stereotypically with our can-do optimism. That’s why we have super-heroes. And our heroes, at first glance, are directly tied to winning, rather than, say, sacrifice. They are heroes because of what they can do.

 

            So, where do I stand on “I can’t”?

 

            My “mind-forg’d manacles” seem to be tied to the old-fashioned and overlapping fields of love, duty, responsibility and commitment. I am bound by love, duty, responsibility and commitment to Kim, to my kids, stepkids and grandkids, and I can’t escape from these bonds because I don’t want to. I don’t experience these ties as “I can’t” experiences. As Kim would attest, I pretty much do what I want.

 

            No, my “I can’t” experiences are a bit scattered.

·      I can’t cure Kim’s cancer (though I can drive her to her monthly infusions and google “cancer fatigue”).

·      I can’t help the love-life of my kids and grandkids (though I can sit next to Kim and nod when she is giving her wise advice).

·      I can’t solve climate change (but I can turn off some lights, drive less, and vote).

·      I can’t put on a shirt properly.

·      I can’t open a cabinet without leaving a smudge on the wood.

·      I can’t go back in time and get some do-overs (but I’m not sure that I want to).

·      I can’t solve a Rubik’s cube.

·       I can’t get no . . . satisfaction (not true, but I can’t help myself).

·      I can’t be late (though this sounds more like a British “I can’t.”)

·      I can’t bring back friends who have died (except through memories – mine and other people’s).

·      I can’t find a missing key.

·      I can’t be open and vulnerable, face-to-face.

·      I can’t establish a relationship with my father (unless I go back in time, which I can’t).

·      I can’t get our garage clean (though I may have to do it soon, or Kim will).

 

to name a few.

 

            Missing from the list above are sentences that begin, “I can’t believe . . ..” There are so many amazing things going on in our world, from computers to sunrises, from Kim’s scones to classical guitar, from birdsongs to simple and surprising acts of kindness.

 

            I have to admit that my background is vaguely British, as my father was Ontario-born and carried a British reserve that I inherited – though I suspect that Dad violated a few of his inner “I cant’s” over the course of his life. As have I, though I can’t tell you what they are. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Telos

            This week I encountered a confluence of ideas:

·      Constantin Stanislavski, the founder of “method” acting, on desire as central to our human         condition,

·      Aristotle on telos, the purpose or end or goal inherent in a person or thing, and

·      a video celebrating Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year, sent to me by Rabbi Peter Rubinstein (“Best wishes for great 5781. (It either traces back to creation, or when Jews discovered Chinese food.”)) Here’s a link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxyO_bxBej0

 

            Is desire the driving force of character? Stanislavski thought so. He felt that desire is central to our human condition, whether or not we truly understand what we want. For this reason, desire is the key to great acting and great dramatic writing. Perhaps, but Is desire really central to our human condition? And can introspection lead you to understand your deepest desires? Can an analysis of your actual behavior – the choices you make – lead to an understanding of your deep desires, your central self? By the way, Stanislavski felt that the key to any relationship is to understand what the other person wants, and that strikes me as a useful insight. But what do we think of people who are driven by desire – a word that, unfortunately, brings to my Puritan-laced mind some negative connotations? On the other hand, sometimes it’s desire that gets me up in the morning.

 

            The concept of telos suggests another perspective. The term, as defined by Aristotle, means the full potential of a plant or animal – what it was made for. Trees, for example, seem to be made to grow, produce fruit/nuts/flowers, provide shade, and reproduce. Thus, these are all elements of trees' telos. That’s well enough for trees, but what about people? Do we all, as a species, have the same telos? Aristotle says our human telos is happiness (eudaimonia), which seems, if I may take issue with the world’s greatest philosopher, not very helpful. Yes, other goals (wealth, health, pleasure, generosity, service) are all means to the end of happiness, but really, “happiness,” unless the translation from Greek is lame, seems a bit shallow. And does my life have the same telos as others of my species, say, Donald Trump? Not to get too political, but is his inherent purpose or end or goal the same as mine? I beg to differ. I don’t see “happiness,” as we usually use the word, as a worthwhile telos. Sorry, but we can do better.

 

            As an American, with our probably unhealthy devotion to individuality, I choose to believe that we each have our own telos – the “best self” or “full potential” of which we are capable. We may have more than one: Kim as wife, Kim as mother, Kim as artist, as homemaker, as sage, to mention a few. These are, I suppose, all “desires,” and all ways to achieve Aristotle’s happiness. I suspect that Stanislavski’s “desire” or “want” often may be more an obstacle than a means to fulfilling our telos, which might be why it often leads to good drama, and we approach, and perhaps discover, our telos through conflict with our wants and desires. For some people, however, their wants and desires are their simple core. Desire often wins.

 

            This brings me to Yom Kippur, a holy day that I, as a goy, can only observe superficially from the outside. Peter’s video presents the Jewish New Year as an opportunity to make choices to help us commit to our full potential, our telos. The video uses the term “reset,” with encouragement to “wake up” (visually done in Starbucks green!) to your purpose, that which “cries out for your service.” What really strikes me is the invitation to make an active choice, something that an apple tree does not do when fulfilling its telos. And then there is a sense of joy, expressed through the music, associated with awakening and choosing. The video also presents the warmth and support from being part of a community making these choices. Happy New Year! Compare this with what I usually see associated with the arrival of the New Year – staying up late, drinking, kissing somebody, then watching football on television while starting to dump your resolutions. 

 

            This is the place in my essay where I should probably offer wise advice. Sorry – I’m not there yet. I welcome any advice you can offer. Perhaps the answer has to do with small daily moments rather than anything as grand and sweeping as telos. Maybe “wake up” is the most worthwhile goal.

 

            Kim “wants” rocks. From time to time I “wake up” to her desire and choose, as my telos, to help her achieve her eudaimonia (happiness) by driving to a local excavator to pick out a few for our yard. Then, after lunch, we found a few Petoskey stones on our beach. Then I took a brief nap, followed this afternoon by some reheated coffee – eudaimonia!

 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Meanwhile . . .

    I wrote last week about Kim's current experiences with pain and fatigue. At the same time, the pandemic rages, along with the western wildfires, a hurricane, and political ugliness. Meanwhile, we realize every day what we see here while sheltering in place. Sunrises are especially significant, but only if you are paying attention. Get out there and look.