Snow Day

It had started snowing late the night before, and it continued through the Saturday morning, ending just about noon.   All told we got about three inches of the stuff.   I was 23 years old, and we were living in the upstairs apartment on 18th Avenue at the time, and we had nothing to do and nowhere to go for the rest of the weekend.

Shortly after noon, after it stopped snowing, I put on the old army fatigue jacket that Jack Anderson had given me about three years earlier, a stocking cap, a pair of gloves and my rubber boots.  On the back landing, just outside of the entrance to our apartment, I grabbed the little metal snow shovel and began clearing off the steps of the stairway.   It was cold but not too cold, probably in the low twenties.  It felt warmer when the clouds moved out and were replaced by the bright January sun.  The snow was light and powdery, and I felt good as I moved to the bottom of the steps.

Next, I cleared the little gravel driveway we shared with the woman who rented the downstairs apartment.  Once I had finished that, I started on the sidewalk in front of the house.  Compared to the rutted gravel of the driveway, the sidewalk was a breeze, and I was able to quickly get to the end of the property line.  The house the apartment was in bordered a vacant lot that was the corner of 18th Avenue and 45th street.   I had been outside only a few minutes and had cleared the back steps, the driveway and the sidewalk in front of our house.  I felt good and had nothing else to do, so I figured, what the Hell, I may as well keep going.

I cleared the sidewalk to 45th street, then, heading east, I cleared the 45th  street side of the corner lot.  When that was done, I found myself in front of another old, two story house, with sidewalks and a driveway hadn’t been cleared yet.  I felt good, and I didn’t want to stop, so I kept going, and started on the sidewalk in front of the house.  About halfway thru, the front door opened.  An old, frail man I had never seen before  stood in the doorway.

“Thank you”, he said.

“Don’t mention it”, I replied.

“Would you mind doing my driveway, too?”

“Sure, no problem”, I said, quickly surveying the short, cement two care driveway.  With the snow this powdery and light, I figured I could knock it off in a few minutes.

“Thank you so much”, he said, and went back inside.

I quickly finished the sidewalk in front of his house, and it didn’t take me long to do his driveway.  Every now and then I’d glance to the window, and each time he was standing there, stooped over, watching me

I finished the driveway and turned my attention to the short cement walkway that ran from the sidewalk to his front porch.  I made quick work of it and just as I was finishing up, the front door opened again. My guess was that he was going to offer me a few bucks for my work.

“Thank you again,” he said.  “When you finish up, why don’t you come inside for a few minutes”

I nodded my head and he closed the door.  It was only a couple of more minutes when I finished.  Standing on the steps to the front door, I was just about to knock when it opened.

“Come on in, come on in.”  I stepped in, and he took my coat and I took off my boots.  He motioned for me to sit in a chair in his living room. Then he went to the kitchen.  He came back with two glasses filled with a golden brown liquid. 

“Cold out there, huh?”, he said, handing me a glass.

“Not too bad”, I said.

“Well, drink some of this, this’ll warm you up.”  He sat in a chair across from me.  It was warm and very good.  I was able to recognize it as brandy. 

We sat there in the warmth of his living room, surrounded by framed photos of what I assumed to be children and grand children and great grand children.  The room looked like it belonged to a bygone era.  We talked about the cold, we talked about his health – there was something wrong with his lungs that made breathing cold air difficult – but mostly he talked about brandy and how whatever kind it was that we were drinking was top of the line stuff.  When the first glass was finished, he bought me a second glass, this one of a different, more famous make of brandy, and he explained to me why the second one was inferior to the first.  I didn’t know anything about any of that; I just knew they were both warm and good. 

We sat and drank brandy and talked for about a half an hour.  After I had finished the second glass, he offered me a third, which I politely declined, saying if I drank any more I might not be able to find my way around the corner to home.  I got up and put my boots and coat on, and as he thanked me again, I took one last look at his living room.  It was so warm and comfortable.  There has always been something sacred, something even holy, about people’s living rooms, especially the ones belonging to strangers who invite you in.

It was about 3:00 when I left and started back for home, feeling a little bit of a buzz from the brandy and a contented ache in my bones from the work and the cold air.  The sun was still out but lowering in the west.  I grabbed my shovel and walked back home.  I was 23 years old, and the future lay out before me like an undisturbed coat of fresh snow on an endless city sidewalk, waiting to be uncovered.

Parkinson’s and Grief vs. Self Pity

“Grief is a process where nothing remains the same, even the big stuff, and none of it, sadly, fits back inside that old, comfortable box.”   – Peg Rousar-Thompson

 A few years ago, fearing that I may be suffering from the depression that is common with Parkinson’s disease, I went to a therapist for a brief time.   This was about the same time I had started to write, as a way to fill the hours I suddenly found myself awake for in the middle of the night.  After a few sessions, the therapist and I agreed that I wasn’t depressed.  If anything, I may have been suffering a slight case of anxiety, and by writing I was probably already engaged in the most effective therapy.

Our time together was extremely helpful anyway, if only for a very revealing exchange early in the first session.  I was trying to explain what I was going thru, when I said “I don’t want to sound like I’m feeling sorry for myself, but …”

She stopped me in mid-sentence.  “Why don’t you want to feel sorry for yourself?”

I stuttered and stammered, when she said, “Why wouldn’t you feel sorry for yourself?  You’ve got Parkinson’s disease.”

I was stunned.   It’s not that I hadn’t felt sorry for myself before; I had, plenty of times.   After all, I was only in my mid 40s when I received my sentence, my diagnosis.  It’s just that it hadn’t occurred to me it was okay to feel sorry for myself.   I think this was when I started to understand the difference between grief and self-pity.

They say then that one of the first things people go through after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s is a period of grieving, or mourning.  I think this is common for the diagnosis of any chronic disease.  Suddenly you are flawed, and the image you held of your future self is dead.  With a sentence of Parkinson’s comes the awareness that things are going to be different now, and that the days still left will be days of diminishment and loss.  It’s only natural to grieve for these losses.

There are also the expectations of how one is supposed to behave under these circumstances.  To understand these, one only needs to stand in the line at the supermarket and read the headlines of the National Enquirer.

One of the stories the Enquirer has been most successful with over the years has been the famous celebrity stricken with a terminal disease.  The story always follows a similar arch – how tragedy strikes when least expected, often times just as the celebrity has finally found some peace in their life, then on to the courageous and inspirational struggle, complete with some short-lived triumphs, followed by the shocking photos of how the once-beautiful icon we all remember has decayed once that struggle goes south, through to the brave final days, followed by death and memorial.  These stories are as sadly predictable as they are inevitably true –whether it’s Patrick Swayze, Christopher Reeve or all the way back to John Wayne.

The reason these stories sell so well is the meaning we derive from them.  It’s the same story that we see played out amongst those we’ve loved and lost.  Whenever someone close to us is sentenced to a prognosis of a terminal or incurable disease, we react the same way the Enquirer acts – we rail against the senselessness of it all and then take inspiration from their “brave” fight or their “positive attitude”.   It’s all a part of our attempts to find some meaning, to make some sense out of what appears to be evidence of the chaotic randomness and fundamental meanness of existence.  It’s the same reaction to the awareness of our own mortality that drives us to the belief in an afterlife and the creation of personalized images of Heaven.

Then comes the time when this “senseless” and “tragic” fate becomes our own life sentence.  Having seen this story play itself out countless times before, it informs the expectations we have of ourselves, and also the expectations of those around us. It doesn’t take long to realize what a burden these expectations add.  And, if we stop and think about it honestly, we’re surprised to admit how much importance we place on how we are perceived by others.

In the first days after being diagnosed, I promised myself I’d approach my newly defined fate with courage and dignity, resist the urge to ask myself “why me”, maintain a good attitude, and make the best of my remaining good time.  This sounds great, but in reality, I was a wreck, completely overwhelmed by and obsessed with my condition.  I anguished and brooded over the appearance of every slight symptom, such as the subtle and constant presence of a small amount of saliva inside my right cheek, attaching levels of importance to them that now seem laughable.   But the zenith of my self-absorption was reached when I realized how impatient I had become to having to listen to the seemingly insignificant problems of friends and co-workers.  As I half listened to them, I found myself thinking so you’re going through a divorce – it could be worse, you could have Parkinson’s – so you have advanced Rheumatoid Arthritis – at least you don’t have Parkinson’s like me.  I finally listened objectively to myself and realized what a pathetic self pitying ass I had become.  First, it was so early in my diagnosis that the disease was little more than a minor annoyance, and second, I realized that just because of my so-called personal “tragedy” that the rest of the world didn’t stop, and there were still real people out there with real problems, living real lives.  This may sound painfully obvious, but it came to me as a major epiphany, and jolted me at least partially out of my dark clouds of self-absorption.  Unfortunately, I landed in the even darker and more dangerous clouds of denial. 

This denial was manifested in my approach to work.  I found myself in charge of a large project that wasn’t going well, and, in fact, needed to be halted and re-evaluated.  But I was going to be damned if I let that happen, and, despite having an hour long commute at the time, I was the first of my team in the office in the morning and the last to leave at night.  I invested so much of my time and energy that when things didn’t go well, which they most frequently didn’t, I’d find myself awake at 2:00 AM on my laptop working until 4:00 A.M.   This was at the same time I was early in my diagnosis and my neurologist was attempting to determine the right mix of medications. The primary drug in the early stages is any one of a variety of dopamine agonists, drugs that are intended to trick the brain’s dopamine receptors into thinking they are still receiving signals even though Parkinson’s has destroyed the transmission.  These drugs can have significant side effects, and only through trial and error can the right dosage of the right medication be determined.  Chief among the many potential side effects of dopamine agonists are sudden and frequent attacks of daytime drowsiness, and feelings of dizziness and nausea.  I remember on several occasions, shortly after taking my morning dosage of Mirapex, the first dopamine agonist subscribed for me, shutting the door to my office and putting my head down on my desk and closing my eyes, waiting for the room to stop spinning.   This plus the daytime drowsiness that was already evident by short nights of sleep and an hour long commute made for a bad time to be in denial.  

Then came the inevitable moment that the project, despite my best efforts, reached what in hindsight was the only logical conclusion it could have reached:  it was cancelled.  My reaction was devastation and depression, and, after a couple of weeks when I was finally able to put some distance between the project and myself, I realized was about more than just the project’s cancellation.  I realized that all the work, all the stress, all the obsessive attention I paid to it were ways of not thinking about Parkinson’s, and I realized that not only was I in danger of working myself to an exhaustion that had no possible good ending, I was also spending months of valuable time obsessing over something I had no control of – as a means of not obsessing over something else I had no control over, that being Parkinson’s.

So if self pity was turning me into an unfeeling and insensitive ass, and denial was threatening to kill me, some kind of balance needed to be reached.  This is where the therapist helped me, and when I think I started to understand the difference between self pity and grief.

Grief, I think, is a natural and healthy response to loss.  It is the questioning of how and why, and even when the answers that come may not be satisfying, maybe aren’t what we want to hear, it is a necessary component of finding the truths buried within our losses.

Pain is a byproduct of loss, and self pity is a natural response to temporarily dull the anguish it causes.   But wallowing too long in self pity is to treat the symptom but not the disease.

When I started writing, I understood none of this.  I was just trying to find my way through the darkness of those sleep deprived nights.  I still don’t understand much about pain and loss and grief and self pity except, I think, that each are naturally occurring phenomenon and need to be dealt with.  I now understand that writing was and is, for better or worse, my way of dealing with these things, and, it turns out, of dealing with just about everything else.  I now find myself compelled to write, usually without understanding why or what the Hell I am trying to accomplish.

Writing has at least provided me with a mechanism for framing some of the questions – whether I eventually stumble upon any answers remains to be seen.  I make no claims about the quality of my writing and have no illusions about uncovering any profound truths – heck, half the time I am challenged to put even one coherent sentence together – all I know is that, for now, at least, this is what I do.

Happy Deep Brain Day

Getting nothing but static/Getting nothing but static/Static in my attic                                                                       – The B-52s                                          

This past Saturday marked the two year anniversary of the most surreal event I have ever experienced – the implementation of electrodes in my brain in part one of the procedure known as Deep Brain Stimulation, to treat many of the symptoms of my instance of Parkinson’s Disease.

Two years later, I have a better understanding of what DBS has and hasn’t done for me.  First and foremost, it has been a wonderful blessing, smoothing out many of the peaks and valleys that were, prior to the surgery, becoming more and more debilitating.   I sleep better and longer at night.

There have been some side effects from the procedure, and some symptoms of the disease that it is apparently unable to address.  The side effects include impacts to my speech and my handwriting.  Frequent and severe and sudden episodes of daytime fatigue still hit me, and I have to be careful if I am driving. Stress exacerbates other symptoms, including tremors that make working a computer keyboard or mouse temporarily impossible.  Because of these symptoms, primarily the fatigue (and repeated episodes of falling asleep in my office and behind the wheel on the drive home), I no longer work.

But make no mistake about it – the DBS has been a success, and I would recommend it to anyone in a similar state.  If it wasn’t for the improvements DBS gave me, I would have stopped working well over a year before I did, and I’d be unable to do the things that give me great joy now, especially writing.

So to mark the occasion, I went back and looked through journal entries and notes I have written over the past two years about my DBS experience.   Here are some excerpts:

Thursday, January 14, 2010:  I wake up and I am half sitting up in my hospital bed in a large room.  The heavy metallic frame that was screwed into my head earlier in the morning has been attached and locked into some larger metal base that I can’t see.    I can hear the usual blips and beeps of hospital equipment, plus a low hum of static.  It’s chilly in here, and there are people in scrubs milling about.  One of them notices I am awake, and the next thing I know my neurosurgeon, Dr. R., is in front of me, and he tells me the static I hear is in fact my brain talking, the impulses it creates converted to audio, and that they’ll be listening to it and talking to me as they prepare to install the first set of electrodes..  The fact that my brain waves sound like static is somehow not surprising to me.

 …   I wonder, as they are poking around in my brain, if they see anything that surprises them.  I have had dreams where they open my brain to find, undetected by the MRI and CAT scans, discolored sections that are rotting and stinking with gangrene, or that large populations of maggots or insect larvae are happily thriving up there, having eaten away a good chunk of my grey matter.   The thought of scientists poking around in my brain and finding the secrets locked inside is intimidating enough – what if, behind that curtain, they have a television screen that is hooked up to my sub conscious to display what is stored there?  What if they could see all the women I had secretly lusted for over the years, or those dark secrets I had hidden from the world, like the time when I was a kid and ate the last of the package of Oreo cookies, only to blame it on my little sister?   What if they poked around up there and realized that this brain, substandard and inadequate, isn’t worth the effort?

 …  Every Parkinson’s patient is familiar with the concept of “on” and “off” periods.   “On” periods are the times when the medications are working and symptoms are minimized, “off” periods are the times when the medications have either worn off or haven’t kicked in yet, periods of time when the symptoms are most exacerbated.  The primary medication for PD patients is some form of Sinemet, or a combination of carbidopa and levodopa.  For me, at the time of the DBS surgery, I was taking a 200 milligram dosage of Stalevo (a dosage of 50 milligrams of carbidopa  and 200 milligrams of levodopa  and 200 milligrams of entacapone) every three hours, with the “off period” beginning about 45 minutes before I’d  take it and lasting until about 45 minutes after, meaning that for every three hours, close to an hour and a half, or 50% of the day, was spent in varying degrees of being “off”.  These periods would usually announce their beginning with a very slight tingling in my toes, followed by the rigidity that would slowly spread until it inhabited every inch of my body.  By the time of the surgery, at the peak of these off periods, on the worst days, the resulting discomfort would become unbearable.   Even at its peak, my rigidity isn’t the sharp and agonizing pain that people with Rheumatoid Arthritis, for example, feel; rather it’s an all encompassing discomfort from which there is no escape.  It feels like what I imagine rigor mortis would feel like, like you are turning to stone, like you are being converted to a living statue of yourself.  The natural reaction to this discomfort is to seek a position that will ease it, by either sitting or lying down or shifting your weight one way or another but you soon realize these attempts are futile, and all you can do is take your pills and wait for them to kick in.  For me, it got to a point at work where, at the time of the surgery, I’d wander from my downstairs office upstairs to the nurse’s station and lay down on her bed in the back, not because it made me more comfortable but because I was out of view of the public there and could shuffle and squirm in privacy until the pills started to kick in.  At the time of the surgery, I was hitting the nurse’s station two or three times a week.

  During these rigid off periods, when walking, my gait would become a slow and unbalanced shuffle.   During my on periods, I walked pretty normally.  I wondered with some amusement what those workers in other departments, who didn’t know me or my condition, would wonder when I would shuffle past and then, an hour or two later, walk by normally.  “He must be hitting the bottle again”, I imagined them saying to each other. 

 …   November was spent making sure everything healed from the salivary gland surgery, and in December I started testing so the DBS could proceed in January.   I had consults with my neurosurgeon, the extremely likable Dr. R.  He has a great sense of humor and comes across as a regular guy, someone I’d enjoy having a beer with at some neighborhood tavern.  Of course, the guys I usually have a beer with are the last guys I would want operating on my brain.  He is a transplanted New Yorker and an avid sports fan.   The morning of my surgery, he came in my room and visited me, and Sports Center was on the television.  With the impending procedure just a couple of hours away, we briefly talked football and baseball, about the (football) Giants and the Yankees, just like we did the night before when he stopped in my room and checked on me.  I remember thinking, this guy is just like me; we have a lot in common, and on some level found this to be disturbing.  My preconception of a brain surgeon was some genius scientist whose own brain was filled with too much brilliance and eccentricity to have time for such trivial pursuits as sports.  I know the limited capacity of my brain is overflowing with stats and figures and opinions related to batting averages, earned run averages and completion percentages to the degree that I can’t remember to take the garbage out, let alone differentiate between the basal ganglia and the substantia nigra.  The night before the surgery, as he left my room, I suggested that he spend the night in a Holiday Inn Express.  He laughed, which I found disappointing, meaning he was familiar with the television commercials I was referencing.  Truth be told, he’s a good guy, and I felt comfortable and at ease with the idea of him poking around my brain.

  The night before, after Dr R left, I took the last of my allowed dosage of meds at 9:00 and quickly fell asleep.  As usual, my meds wore off after about three hours and I woke up around midnight.  This was the time I’d normally take my nighttime Sinemet tablets, dissolvable and quick acting, and eventually fall back asleep.  However, for the surgery, it was required for my system to be clean of meds, so there would be no nighttime tablets.  I was unable to fall back to sleep and spent a very rough night awake and uncomfortable with nothing to do but watch television and twist and turn in my hospital bed for six and a half hours, and wonder and worry about the next day’s proceedings.   Prior to the salivary gland operation, the only operation I had ever had was minor surgery for a torn meniscus on my right knee.  I remembered that before they put me out, someone took a black sharpie and marked a big “X” on my right knee, so they didn’t operate on the wrong one.  I wondered if, in preparation for to the DBS surgery, they would put a big “X” on the top of my skull, as over the years the precise location of my brain has been an object of frequent speculation, with some convinced it was located somewhere on my backside, and others certain that I did most of my thinking with another, more private part of my anatomy.

 The big day began promptly and on schedule at 6:30 A.M. this morning.  The first step was to have Dr R.’s team of residents admit me and shave the parts of my head that were not already bald in preparation for the surgery (suffice to say at this point in time they were ahead of schedule).   Next was the installation of the metal frame, which I had understood to be like mounting a large vice grip to my head.   They brought the device out and it looked exactly like I expected it to look, and they plopped it on my head, with one of the residents leveling it, and another marking spots in my forehead and in the back of my head to clamp it on.  It is at this point we must pause to reflect on how far modern medicine has advanced, and the many miracles that have been achieved by technological and scientific advances, making most procedures as painless and sensitive to the patient’s experience as possible.   This procedure unfortunately is not to be included in that category, as the device and the technique to install the frame apparently remains unchanged from when first introduced by the either the Marquis de Sade or the grand inquisitor.  It begins with them prepping the areas with a shot of Novocain – and, just like when you go to the dentist, you are left wondering if the shots of Novocain are actually more painful than the resulting procedure would be, as it involved a resident sticking a needle into four points in my skull and shooting the Novocain in.  Then they put the frame back on (which was heavier than I had anticipated) and it was time to clamp the device to the head.  Just like a vice grip, as one resident held the frame in place, another began screwing the clamps in until they were to meet the points where the Novocain had been injected.  It didn’t take me long to realize that these weren’t the type of clamps I used in my workshop when doing wood working projects, what the resident was screwing in were actually spikes that would penetrate skin and skull – I know this because not only could I feel them penetrating my cranium, I could also hear the sound of skin tearing and skull breaking – and as the first one was installed, I hunkered down thinking, only three more to go, by the time they get to the other spots, the Novocain will surely have kicked in more – take comfort in the fact that the brain is capable of these rationalizations, just don’t expect them to be true – each of the four spikes was in fact more painful than the others. 

Then they wheeled me down the hall for one last CAT scan, where they lifted me off of my bed onto another bed that had more metal attached to it.  They positioned my head so that the metal frame latched in with the frame on the other bed (it loudly clicked and locked into place), then wheeled me back to a waiting room, where, with the frame now firmly attached, I was allowed to visit with my wife and the anesthesiologist, who explained to me how they would be putting me out and bringing me back during the day’s events, which would likely last until 3:30 or 4:30 PM  (it was just after 7:00 now).   While I was having these conversations, Dr. R. and his team were looking at results of the CAT scan and a brain MRI that had been taken five days earlier and planning out the procedure, figuring out where to open my head up and install the electrodes that would act as receptors for the neurotransmitters that would be installed later.  Then they were ready and began rolling me to the operating room, asking me to count backwards from 100 or say the alphabet backwards or recite the Gettysburg Address backwards or whatever they asked, I don’t recall, as I was already out. 

Next thing I know I’m awake in the operating room, listening to the static my brain is broadcasting as Dr R. and his guest star neurosurgeon complete the task of installing and testing the electrode and associated leads in the right side of my brain.  This goes on for a couple of hours, and as I sit there awake and the anesthesia gradually wears off, I become aware of the pain in my head, which is becoming more and more unbearable.   At some point I actually start moaning.  “Almost done, bear with us”, Dr. R. promises several times, and when he finally tells me that he is done with the first side and they start putting me under again, I am happier than ever before.  

Then I am awake again.  They are ready to do the other side.  Now I know what I’m in for, and the novelty of being awake while someone is poking around in my brain has worn off.  I’m thinking there is no way I can go through this again.   The pain is there almost from the start.  Fortunately, and to the pleasant surprise of even Dr. R., they are able to very quickly isolate and find the second spot and implement the electrode, and when they put me out for the last time, it’s 1:30 in the afternoon.   I’m about two hours ahead of schedule.

I wake up a couple of hours later in ICU, where my wife is waiting for me.   I proceed to spend a long night in ICU drifting in and out, but by Friday morning I have most of my wits about me.  Aside from the incredible pain in my head, I feel pretty good.  My head is bandaged up so that I look like, as Dr. R. describes, a “human q-tip”.  By Friday afternoon the pain in my head quickly subsides to the point that I stop taking pain medication.  Late Friday I’m moved out of ICU back to my regular room.        

Saturday morning they remove my bandages.  I’m startled by the size of the scars and the number of staples in my head.  By 1:00 I’m free to go, resting comfortably in the front seat of my Prius as my wife navigates the hour and a half trip to our home in Pleasant Praire, Wisconsin.

DBS Part one is complete, and I now have two electrodes implanted in my head.  Two weeks from now, in DBS II, the sequel (“just when you thought it was safe enough to go back in your brain”), they will run the wires under the skin down to a point in my chest, where they will install the neurotransmitter that will eventually send the signals to my brain that will drown out the noise created by Parkinson’s Disease and minimize if not eliminate my symptoms for some period to come.  I am sore, but I am optimistic and eager to reap the benefits of this surrealistic experience.

List O Mania: Movies of the 1950s

The 1950s were a conflicted and confused time in our history.  Having vanquished evil at its most powerful in World War II, the United States emerged as the world’s greatest military and economic super power.    While most of the world was rebuilding, we were flourishing, producing goods for the world and fueling the long awaited post depression prosperity that for the better part of 20 years had been longed for.  Great value was placed on the “modern” material conveniences that we couldn’t afford in the depression and war years.

We may have been experiencing peace and prosperity, but underneath it all was the uneasiness of the cold war and living in the atomic age.   Mass culture at the time emphasized conformity and blandness, and was supported by the paranoia evidenced by the McCarthy hearings and the term, “un-American.” (which , if you really think about it, is in itself just about the most “un-American” term).  The threats of communism and the cold war resonated with the public, who had grown up in times of sacrifice and belt tightening, and naturally felt uneasy with the new found prosperity.  The result was a mass culture that comforted and reassured people, with music by the likes of Perry Como and Mitch Miller being popular.

The emphasis on blandness and conformity, of course, lead to rebellion in nearly all of the arts.  It’s no accident that rock and roll, which has always had at its core themes of rebellion and sex, became immensely popular.  In literature, Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg and William Burroughs were leading the “beat generation” to places American literature hadn’t gone before, while novelists like Norman Mailer and James Jones were churning out gritty and authentic accounts of their experiences in World War Two and its aftermath.  In theatre, playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller were producing their greatest works, and the Lee Strasberg Actor’s Studio revolutionized the art of stage and film acting.

Hollywood, still under strict control of the production code, was especially impacted by McCarthyism, with Joe McCarthy’s famous list of supposed communist sympathizers leading to the House Un American Activities Commission subpoenas and black-listings.   As a result, the output from Hollywood was more cautious and conservative than ever before, and more bland and boring.   Hollywood instead focused on technological advances such as Cinema Scope and VistaVIsion and advances in Technicolor as reasons to put people in the seats.  Big budget Bible pictures (The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, The Robe) with their casts of thousands and wide panoramas were presented as showcases for these new technologies, and they were politically safe.  The western remained the most popular genre.

New fears  about the atomic bomb and threats from the cold war lead to an abundance of bad, low-budget science fiction films – these films were cheaply and quickly made and prayed upon the public’s fears of radiation, with mutant monsters like The Blob and The Thing and The Creature of the Black Lagoon becoming immensely popular.   A few of them, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, tapped into the underlying paranoia of the times.

Rock and roll fueled teenage rebellion, which fueled fears of gangs of teenagers run amok, which fueled a new teenage rebellion sub-genre, with films like The Wild One (with a great Marlon Brando performance)and The Blackboard Jungle scaring the snot out of parents everywhere.  There were also attempts to sympathetically portray the teenage rebel as a misunderstood victim of the stagnating culture, such as Nicholas Ray’s expressionistic Rebel Without  a Cause, with the great James Dean, in which the adults were portrayed as so physically and morally weak that they were worthy only of contempt.

As the 50s went on, it seemed that popular culture was about to pass Hollywood by.   Things were moving fast in music and literature, and Hollywood, bogged down by the production code, its investments in technology, the studio system and its inherent conservatism, seemed unable to keep up with the times and often times came across as anachronistic.  Where rock and roll, for example, was dealing directly and bluntly with sexuality, Hollywood was forced to use the same euphemistic language it had been using for the past thirty years.  Even the greatest of Hollywood’s directors had to play these games – for example, Orson Welles could only get the brilliant Touch of Evil made by agreeing to cast Charlton Heston (!) in the lead role of a Hispanic detective.  John Ford’s western masterpiece The Searchers attempts to deal with serious issues of racism and frontier justice, yet he is only able to imply and insinuate many of the specifics.  Alfred Hitchcock made some of his most personal films dealing with his own confused sexuality (Rear Window and Vertigo), but had to rely upon heavy handed symbols to represent his own obsessions.

It’s no accident then that some of the best movies of the decade were made overseas.  While Hollywood was struggling to keep up, European cinema was experiencing a renaissance, with Bergman and Fellini at the peak of their powers, and the French new wave auteur movement introducing such giants as Godard and Truffaut.

Here then is my list of favorite films of the 1950s:

14.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), directed by Don Siegel

13.   Bad Day at Black Rock (1955),  J. Sturges

12.  Shane (1953), Stevens

11.  Night of the Hunter (1955), Laughton

10.  Sunset Boulevard (1950), Wilder

9.  Touch of Evil (1958), Welles

8.  Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock

7.   An Outcast of the Islands (1952), Reed

6.  The Quiet Man (1951), Ford

5.  The 400 Blows (1959), Truffaut

4.  The Searchers (1956), Ford

3.  A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Kazan

2.  The Seventh Seal  (1957), Bergman

1.  La Strada (1954), Fellini

Lonely are the Free *

(* – Note:  The title is taken from a great Steve Earle song I just discovered – somehow it seems to fit)

Six years is a big difference when you’re only seven years old.  It’s an eternity, it’s a lifetime, it’s the world lived and experienced and known.

I remember the time my second grade teacher, Miss B., at the end of her rope, was disciplining me, had me out in the hallway, holding me firmly by my shoulders and pushing me up against the lockers, yelling something at me, when I saw, at the end of the hallway, you and your eighth grade class heading out to somewhere.  I couldn’t conceal my glee at seeing you, my big brother, which only added to Miss B.’s frustration.

Then it’s four years later, a warm spring night.  The front door opens and you walk in, dressed in a suit and tie, with a pretty girl in a pretty dress.  You introduce her to us, she is the preacher’s daughter, and she laughs, and you laugh at some stupid thing I say, but your laugh and your smile are so warm and real, and I know you are responding not just to what I said but rather the accumulation and the entirety of our time as big brother and little brother.  You are still six years older than me, and with girls and proms and suits and ties you are running interference for me, leading the way down life’s long and winding trail.

Nights later that summer you and your friends are in the basement.  From the living room upstairs I can hear the thumping bass of the music, usually the Doors, and I can hear pool balls crashing into each other and the deep laughter of you and your friends in voices that no longer belong to boys.  And I long to be down there, to be welcomed in the company of men, and I creep down the stairs, and you in your anger that was always so imposing bluntly make it clear I am not welcome, that I am not ready for this part of the journey yet.

Then a couple of years later you are in the army, home on leave after basic training, your hair razor short.  We pick you up at the airport, where you flew in from Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, which to me feels like it is on the other side of the world.  Then a couple of weeks later, Mom and Dad take you back to the airport, where you’ll head out first to Fort Dix, New Jersey, then on to Germany, which really is on the other side of the world.  By the time you get out, I am almost 16, but you are still six years older than me.  Still the big brother, you still lead the way, the trail now taking you across oceans.

Then you are home again, and we share a room.  At first it is great, I tease you and we joke around constantly, we wrestle, and you make me laugh like I haven’t laughed before, and I make you laugh.   You teach me about music and books and movies.  But eventually things change, and we start to fight.  I am 17, 18 years old now, and you are still six years older than me, but I don’t understand you anymore, and I no longer recognize the path you are taking as one that I want to follow.

I remember one night in our shared room, when we weren’t getting along very well.  I came to bed late, and you were already lying in your bed, and the light came through the window, and I saw that you were still awake.  It was only for a moment, but in your eyes I saw something I had never seen before.  I saw vulnerability and maybe a trace of despair.  For a few minutes before I fell asleep, it occurred to me for the first time that maybe you didn’t know any more about getting along in this big and frightening world than I did, and that we shared not just the same blood but maybe the same doubts.  But that spark of recognition was quickly put out by my own cold and damp inaction.

Flash forward about twenty years and you are living in the small house on the dirt road in Northern Wisconsin.  It’s a warm and overcast summer day.  You and I are sitting at the picnic table outside your house, and we are talking about the Packers and baseball and philosophy.  You are explaining string theory or chaos theory to me, and I am trying hard to keep up.  I ask questions and you answer very patiently, and you let me know when I’ve asked a good question, when I’m getting it, and I feel so proud that I am almost keeping up with you.   After a while, I have to leave, return to my wife and children, who are waiting for me to take them swimming.

It’d be a few years later, on a Friday afternoon, when I’d get the news that you are gone.  There was and is so much I felt and so much I didn’t and never will understand.   But tonight it occurs to me that you are still out there and still my big brother, and it occurs to me that I’m still following the trail that you were always blazing for me.  The only thing is that now I realize how lonely it had to be for you at the front of that trail, and I cannot comprehend the emptiness you found at its end.  For all those years, for all the light you shone on my path, I remained blind to your darkness and pain.

I continue my journey, the trail marked by dark stains from tears of regret.   I can only hope that someday, when I catch up to you, I can thank you for all you gave me, and shine enough light to make you see what a beautiful soul you have always been.


List O Mania: Movies (Part Two)

In my last list of favorite movies, I claimed to be quite the film buff, and that I’ve made a whole bunch of lists related to movies.  In case you didn’t believe me, here is further evidence of my movie geekiness.   I have, for some strange reason, made lists of my favorite films by decade. Today I present my lists for the 1930s and 1940s.  The number of movies listed is arbitrary – there are 13 in the 1930s for example because these are movies I love and that seem important enough to mention.

So here goes:

My Favorite Movies – 1930s

13.  The Wizard of Oz (1939), directed by Victor Fleming   

12.  Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Whale

11.  King Kong (1933), Cooper

10.  Wuthering Heights (1938), Wyler

9.  Freaks (1933), Browning

8.  Stagecoach (1936), Ford

7.  A Night at the Opera (1936), Wood

6.  Bringing Up Baby (1936), Hawks

5.  All Quiet on the Western Front (1931), Milestone

4.  Modern Times (1936), Chaplin

3.  M (1931), Lang

2.  The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Ford

1.  Duck Soup (1933), McCarey

Before there was the rating system (G, PG, R, X, etc), there was the Production Code.  Established in 1930, it began to be enforced in 1934, and imposed a strict set of rules and morality that Hollywood had to obey.  These rules had a profound impact on films for the next 30 years, forcing directors and screenwriters to address sexuality and violence in largely symbolic terms.   It wasn’t just sex, it was general morality – the language that was allowed to be spoken, and images that suggested crime did pay or cast the government in a bad light were censored.  This plus the fact that the country was in the throes of the great depression lead to an abundance of escapist films, with an abundance of extravagant musicals (which I could never get into) and “screwball” comedies (which I grew to love) – fast paced and silly movies (examples – Bringing up Baby, His Girl Friday) often involving upper crust members of high society being silly and stupid.   Crowds also escaped the hard times through great fantasy films like The Wizard of Oz and King Kong  It was also a popular time for horror movies, with the introduction of Dracula and Frankenstein and The Wolfman.  Romance was also big, with Wuthering Heights and the biggest film of the decade Gone With the Wind.

It wasn’t all escapism – many films dealt directly with issues of the time.  Frank Capra made a series of films that dealt directly (and sentimentally) with the depression and the plight of the American everyman (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).  With fascism on the rise, the German director Fritz Lang made the classic exploration of mob rule and vigilantism, M, while John Ford’s beautiful adaptation of Steinbeck’s great American novel The Grapes of Wrath told the story of disenfranchised and exploited migrant workers.  Finally, my favorite film of the decade, the Marx Brothers triumph Duck Soup, captures the surrealistic insanity of a world gone mad.   A broad comedy that is funny from first frame to end, to me it is comparable to Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove in its ability to make us laugh at the impending apocalyse.


My Favorite Movies – 1940s

19.  The Philadelphia Story (1940), directed by George Cukor

18.  The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Wyler

17.  Sullivan’s Travels (1941), P. Sturges

16.  The Shop around the Corner (1940), Lubitsch

15.  The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), P. Sturges

14.  Dead of Night (1945), Cavalcanti and Chricton

13.  Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchock

12.  Black Narcissus (1947), Powell and Pressburger

11.  The Ox Bow Incident (1948), Wyler

10.  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1949), Huston

9.   Odd Man Out (1947), Reed

8.   My Darling Clementine (1946), Ford

7.   The Magnificent Ambersons (1946), Welles

6.   Citizen Kane (1941), Welles

5.   Casablanca (1943), Curtiz

4.   The Third Man (1949), Reed

3.   The Maltese Falcon (1941), Huston

2.   Bicycle Thieves (1948), De Sica

1.   How Green Was My Valley (1941), Ford

A decade of profound pain and change and ultimately triumph, the 1940s saw cinema become a vital part of the global modern culture.  What emerges from the decade are many of the greatest films ever made.

Many of the greatest directors (including Ford, Hawks and Huston) were recruited by the government to make documentaries supporting the war effort.   When not churning out propagand, with films like William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Live and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, Hollywood tried to address serious cultural issues – despite the heavy handedness of the approach; they were often effective, especially in the heart wrenching performances of Dana Andrews and Harold Russell as vets returning home in The Best Years of Our Lives.

The 40s are the decade in which a number of the true masters of the art form (Ford, Welles, Huston, Reed, De Sica) were at the peak of their abilities, using the studio system to produce a number of intensely personal films.   In Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, Joel McRae plays a Hollywood director of popular comedies (not unlike Sturges himself) determined to make a “serious” film that speaks to the painful real lives being lived by his audiences.   Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons were stylistically unlike anything to come before them, Reed’s Odd Man Out and The Third Man gave us unsentimental and very real glimpses into dangerous worlds (from James Mason’s IRA agent in Odd Man Out to the post war ruins and black markets of Vienna in The Third Man) that are typically neglected by Hollywood .  Huston turned introspective with his examinations of human greed in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon, while William Wyler examined mob rule in The Ox Bow Incident.  Meanwhile, John Ford made his two most personal and poetic films, My Darling Clementine and How Green Was My Valley.

Next time:  Hollywood struggles to overcome the blandness of the 50s, and films that are core to the cultural revolution of the 60s.

Forgotten and Waiting

(This is based upon my memory of real events and places and people from my childhood.   I’ve changed some of the details (mainly the fact that the school and the playground have already been torn down), the chronology may be off, and his name has been changed – but Ethan and our moment were very real)

The old elementary school is abandoned now, dark and empty and silent, still formidable in its red brick.  The three stories that comprise the original building still dominate the neighboring landscape, and the one story wings that over the years were added to its east and west sides center and buffer it, making it resemble a fortress.   Behind its  front, between the wings, the large playground, with its fading black pavement cracking from neglect and the monkey bars and jungle jims and swing sets and slides having all been removed years ago, is also empty and silent, waiting for the bell to ring and for children to emerge from behind the locked doors.

For more than 80 years, since it was erected in 1925, the old school has sat in the center of the small town, on the corner of 14th Avenue and State Street.  It was where all the town’s kids prepared for high school until 1967, when, in response to growth caused by the post war baby boom, the middle school was built on the south side for sixth through eighth grades.  In 2002, construction of the new elementary school, near the middle school, was completed, just in time for the old school, obsolete and in need of extensive repair, to be condemned.   There’s been a lot of talk about what will happen to the property – various private investors have expressed interest in various development projects, such as an apartment complex, or a senior center – but it’s a given that whatever becomes of the property, the buildings will have to be torn down.

But the old school doesn’t know anything about any of this.  It just stands there, silent and proud, patiently waiting.   It waits for plastic crates filled with little chilled cardboard cartons of “white” and chocolate milk, the smell of freshly mimeographed work sheets, film strips and record players, workbooks, three ring binders and pocket folders.  It waits for crayon and water color drawings to be hung on its walls, and for spring jackets and winter coats to be hung on hooks in its classrooms.  It waits for someone to unfold and open up the tables that transform the gymnasium into the cafeteria.  It waits for teachers and administrators and janitors.   Most of all it waits for its purpose, the children, for their laughter and footsteps and voices to once again echo down its halls.

For only six of the nearly 80 years the school was open, from 1963 to 1969, I was one of the thousands of kids to pass through its halls.  As I passed today on 14th Avenue, it occurred to me that any trace of me, any mark I may have made there, has long been worn away.   Then I turned north on State street and I saw the fenced in little white house that stands next to the school, and for the first time in years, I remembered the tragic and mysterious Ethan Carter.  It was the first time in years I had thought about him, but it wasn’t the first time I had forgotten him.

Each year, Ethan would be present during the first few days of school, long enough to make us remember him, and then he’d be gone.   Born with a defective and weak heart, everyone knew that he was dying.   He was thin and frail; his skin was a pale shade of gray, almost translucent.  His face was gaunt and hollow and small.  His nose looked out of place compared to his eyes and mouth – it was a normal nose, but it stood out, the only part of his body that wasn’t underdeveloped.   He moved slowly.  I don’t remember ever seeing him run.   Still alive, he already looked like a ghost.

The only time I ever really interacted with him was on the playground, during recess, on a warm September day in the beginning of the fourth grade school year.   I found myself with a baseball glove on my left hand, playing catch with him.  He was standing with his back against the tall woven wire fence, not far from the slides.  It was warm out, but he was wearing his jacket.   We were standing closer together than two fourth graders normally stand to play catch.  He couldn’t throw the ball very hard, or very far, and I’d softly lob it back to him, almost underhanded.  He’d open his glove when the ball arrived and try and cover it up with his right hand.  He missed about as many as he caught, and I’d wait patiently as he’d shuffle to the fence to retrieve the ball.  I was afraid that if I threw it too hard I’d destroy him.

“I live here”, he said, pointing to the other side of the six foot tall woven wire fence that towered above him and marked the east-west boundary between his yard and the playground.  The south side of his yard butted against the northern edge of the west wing of the school and was marked by a shorter woven wire fence, about three foot tall, as was the northern border of the yard.   Inside the fence there was a small white house and garage, and a small back yard, with a sandbox that sat in the shade of a large maple tree. Unaccustomed to fences, the property reminded me of a prison.  I remember replying something to the effect that I’d sure hate to live next door to school.

That was on a Friday.  The following Monday, he wasn’t there.  His desk was empty.   I remember him being in school a couple of days in the two or three weeks that followed, and then he wasn’t there at all, as the fall turned into winter and winter turned into spring.

For a while, during recesses, when I’d walk by the slides, I’d think of him, and I’d glance through the woven wire fence to the empty back yard on the other side.  Sometimes I’d wonder if he was inside, laying awake in his room, weak and lonely and sad, listening to the sounds of the children on the playground, and I’d feel sorry for him.  Sometimes I’d think about him and that he was going to die, really die, and I’d get scared, and I’d make myself think about something else.  Eventually, as time passed and the memory of our couple of minutes playing catch faded, he was forgotten.

Then one warm spring morning, a week or two before the end of the school year, he was back.  He was sitting at his desk, as if he hadn’t been gone, unaware that he had been forgotten by his classmates.   He looked about the same as the day early in the year when we played catch.  No one made a big deal about it, he was just back.  He frightened me.

He frightened me because I knew he was dying.  He frightened me because he had missed the whole year, and couldn’t possibly have been caught up with us, but he sat there anyway, not having done his assignments for all that time, and it didn’t matter.  It didn’t matter because he was dying, and even though we were small children and there was so much we didn’t understand, we understood that death was bigger than anything, bigger even than school and our teachers and bigger than our moms and dads.

He was there for a day or two before the end of the school year, and he was there for only a couple of warm days early the next fall, our fifth grade year.  Early in our sixth grade year, in my classroom in the middle school on the other side of town, word came that he had finally died.  It wasn’t a surprise, and it wasn’t even big enough news for anyone to talk about much.  No one had seen him in over a year, and the sum of our total experience with him was no more than a scattering of school days over the years.   Soon after, in death, as in life, he was forgotten again.

This time he’d remain forgotten, until on a whim today I decided to take a detour and drive through the town I grew up in.  The site of the empty and abandoned school was powerful enough to release a flood of memories and emotions, but it took the small, fenced in white house on State Street to make me remember him again, and think about the boy I barely knew, and the brief moment we shared together in the handful of brief moments that made up his life.  It occurs to me that although that moment was buried in my memory, forgotten until today, it has come into view more vibrant and real than any other memories of the school.

Today, more than 40 years later, the school still stands, proud and defiant, waiting for the children, unaware of its pending and inevitable demolition.  In the quiet autumn midday, Ethan Carter emerges from the walls of the small white house next to the school.  He is, as he will forever remain, still a child.  Unencumbered now by illness or physical boundaries, he silently passes through the woven wire fence to the empty playground, his baseball glove ready, waiting for the children whose laughter he used to hear through his window, the children who in life he was too weak and frail to be a part of.   He waits for them, and he waits for me, if only to play catch with for a couple of minutes.