“…Or you can love…”

The hand that reaches down to save you is never the one you expect. The salvation we seek looks so very different from how we’ve fashioned it in our imaginations–how we’ve worked over its edges and smoothed them with our memories and reflections of time.

A world without Edd Hendricks is a sad world for me. For the many days after I learned of his death, I cried uncontrollably at moments not of my choosing. It’s mornings I still fear most. Edd and I were morning creatures during these past few years. With his health issues and his young children and my career as a teacher, the early morning was time we spent together. We’d get bagels and coffee and during the winter months, it was dark at 6:00 am and the cool morning air and dew or light rain from the Pacific punctuated our meetings.

I loved these mornings more than I ever admitted to myself. I valued Edd’s friendship deeply and though we were unable to spend as much time together as we would have liked owed to schedules, Edd’s health issues and the like, a bagel and a coffee will never be the same for me. I haven’t had one since he passed–and I don’t know when I will again. I can’t bring myself to walk in the Old New York bagel shop in Camarillo. I’ll see him sitting there, I know I will. He’ll be scraping off the excess cream cheese, making a wry comment about something or other, giving me the latest joke from his dad, Tom–or talking about taking the kids, he called the “Bacon and the Egg,” to school.

I began to have meta conversations with myself at the end of May, wondering if grief continued to look this way. A friend at school likes to say, “grief is a tricky fellow…” and it’s the understatement of the year. I think about Leanne and Bacon and Egg all the time, still. I imagine that their grief makes mine a pale and shallow copy. And I know that a loving God is here somewhere looking after them, after me–after all of us who feel the pain of Edd’s passing so very deeply.

As I’ve explained previously, Edd made me into a musician. I always liked to perform–at least, I used to. I was always on the fringes of it, never taking it seriously enough to pursue it with gusto and sometimes lamenting that. But now at 50, I don’t find regret in my choices. There’s a bit of performance in every teacher and I’ve had unique, wonderful and magical experiences as a teacher and a journalist. I’ve been able to speak to large audiences, travel the west coast for stories, play small parts in little plays and write–and write. I like to think Edd was proud of me for writing. We talked about it a lot and he was interested.

But it was an e-mail from Michael Arndt, seemingly from nowhere, that changed the tenor of it all. Michael is the founder and creative director of the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company and we’ve been acquainted, been friends, for as long as Edd and I have. Michael is a professor at Cal Lutheran University and was when I was a student there. I learned Shakespeare, grudgingly, from Michael’s passion. I was an English major, tightly wound up in analysis and historical reference. Michael taught me to love the performance.

In 2006, I was teaching Othello to my high school students and Michael had come out to talk to them about the Bard. It was later on that he asked me to play the small part of the Duke of Venice in the Kingsmen production and when I did, I learned more in the six weeks I spent on that show than ever I learned at the feet of English professors and notes. I teach Shakespeare differently in my own Shakespeare class as a result. I teach the written word as performance and the character as key to understanding.

This time, 10 years later, he was mounting a production of Henry V, a play I also teach and know well. He needed someone to play the King’s old friend, Bardolph, and running out of options, he asked me. I was both frightened and thrilled. More than anything, I was sad and defeated and I needed Michael’s guiding hand more than he needed me. So, for the past 6 weeks, I have once again lived the life of an actor, mounting a production and learning new things, creating new worlds and foraging for ideas while collaborating with wonderful, talented people.

But more than anything, what Michael did was allowed me to distract myself in my grief. I still go to bed every night and wake up every morning thinking of Edd.

Last night was the final performance and, like so many great enterprises, great collaborations–it changed me. It gave me purpose when I was seeking it and it distracted me to with creativity, love, purpose and soul. Henry V allowed me to gather again with old friends and make many new ones, too.

But more than anything, what the cast and crew of Henry V taught me was that creativity is at the heart of the world. Edd knew this-it was his passion AND his dream AND his life AND his living AND it’s what he did, as Michael Faulkner said in the person of Captain Fluellen in the play.

And it goes on. My eloquence is waning–but my heart is full today.  Now-and recent months, have brought grief to the doorstep of so many, but now I know and I can assure you–there is love, creativity and life in this world. If you need reminding, allow me to introduce you to the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company.

“Pick up the weapon, marry it give it your name. Define yourself by it….Or, you can love.”–Steve Hogarth, Marillion.

 

 

Everything has changed. And nothing has changed.

It is a first, I’ll admit–at least it is for me. It has to be the first time in my lifetime–and certainly the first time in my adult-life–that I just don’t care.

I don’t care about Mr. Trump. I don’t care about Mrs. Clinton. I don’t think either is good for the country–nor do I think it’s the end of the world. I am, for want of any better term–ambivalent. There is enough going on in my own life to keep me busy and there are enough things going on that interest me that I can keep my attention elsewhere. The election has lost any real connection to me.

As a country, we’re preoccupied with people’s sexual identities and bathroom choices while watching reality television shows that have nothing to offer other than getting into the trials and conflicts of other people’s lives.

We use social media for the simple matter of proclaiming ourselves better than others and telling them what they should believe–as though even strangers hang on our every pronouncement like we have some special knowledge about the future. We are Willy Lohman-and attention must be paid.

Our finest universities sport student bodies who want an end to the First Amendment because people’s feelings might get hurt and those same colleges are asking outrageous tuition that is bankrupting the whiny generation.

Young American warriors are being killed abroad as they attempt to keep ISIS and Al-Qaeda in check and the recent attacks in Europe have been met with fecklessness and indecision.

Where I live, in California, 1500 square-foot homes are back above half a million dollars and developers continue to submit bids to build them, even as the state runs out of water in the south, the Governor continues a boondoggle of building a high-speed rail network that will connect none of the largest population centers and more people come to the state even though jobs are scarce and getting more so.

Large corporations continue to mass billions of dollars in profits, while paying employees less to do more. The U.S. government, having delved into medical insurance, have wrecked it to the point where insurance companies are going bankrupt and refusing to continue to partake in the government’s exchanges.

Speaking of the First Amendment, the news media-ever loving lap dogs for Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton, now fill online pages with the kvetching of people wondering how these two got the nomination–smart people are actually wondering how it happened–and yet, every web-page, every news show, every conversation is about Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. They never even paid for the air-time they got.

So, let’s check off the list: terrorist attacks killing both innocents and American warriors, feckless responses from nearly every quarter, whiny millenials who don’t want free speech, corporate greed, government incompetence, real estate bubbles and politically influenced water shortages, political correctness, an orgy of stupidity in everything from the classroom to the White House. Liars, damned liars, lying liars and young people obsessed with sexual identities and bathrooms.

And I’m supposed to think that Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton are the most important problems we face? Please….

Onward.

 

Heresy

I thought I was a geek. I saw Star Wars IV: A New Hope 22 times before I quit watching it. I owned all the little action figures. I had the X-wing, a tie-fighter, a Bespin Twin Pod and a land-speeder. I had Luke, Han, Leia, Chewy, Threepio and R2. I had a Star Wars poster on my wall and a The Empire Strikes Back poster and a Return of the Jedi poster.

I got into film-making and read George Lucas’s biography “Skywalking.” I made 8 mm movies with my friends, wrote story treatments and scripts, got fascinated by history and used it as an impetus for story-telling and craft. To this day, my love of writing and teaching is born of a seed that started back there in 1977, somewhere amid Wookies and droids, star destroyers and rebellion.

I considered myself an expert on Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s films. I had the Time Magazine with Lucas on the cover and I kept it in a plastic sleeve and read it continually. I bought a book, whose title now escapes me, of the art of The Empire Strikes Back–a vast high-gloss paperback retreat where I looked at pictures of otherworldliness with escapist joy and wonder.

The day after I graduated high school, I got on a plane and flew to Philadelphia to live with my dad until college started. It was a boondoggle that wound up with me back in California three months later. In that time, I contracted mononucleosis and moved from California to New Jersey to Massachusetts—and every step of the way, I had the Star Wars posters with me. They adorned my bedroom wall in three states and they were a constant companion to me during a tumultuous and difficult time. As my heart broke, I wrapped myself in the Star Wars trilogy (and the Indiana Jones films) and read “Splinter in the Mind’s Eye” and other Star Wars themed books. I was the target audience–and the target was bright, clear and lucid on my back.

So when I went today to see Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, I went chastened by the last three films (I, II III), which I found simply unwatchable and at some point, grotesquely bad. I didn’t have high hopes, but the hopes I did have I pinned on J.J. Abrams. Star Trek in his hands was wonderful–and a film he produced called Cloverfield, ranks as one of my favorites of the past 10 years.

But Star Wars VII succeeded for me on only one level. I enjoyed seeing Han Solo again and I enjoyed that Abrams stayed true to the story of Han and Leia. I thought they were great to watch and that they have a son didn’t surprise me at all. And that’s it. The rest of the film dragged under its own weight with one-dimensional main characters who seem to be rushing through their hero’s journey story so they can join the Star Wars franchise in its merchandising fecklessness that belittles everything it touches and mocks the very children it seeks to attract as a fan. Star Wars cereal and Star Wars car ads. Star Wars fast food and Star Wars noodles. Star Wars occupies everything–it’s no longer fun and exciting to be a part of. You don’t have to work at it–in fact, you have to work to avoid it.

The film is slow–I found myself day-dreaming through it. I didn’t care a whit about Finn and Rey as characters and their sudden friendship, born in less than a few minutes in circumstances that required hardly any effort, is unbelievable. The story of their entrance to the franchise is incapable of clarity and while Abrams deftly handles his obvious love of the franchise by giving purpose and place to the characters as he sees it, the story never suspends disbelief enough to allow me to see what’s next.

Han Solo appears almost out of nowhere–the near incredible confluence of Finn’s, Rey’s and Solo’s life is unfocused and almost silly. But Harrison Ford, whose career I continued to admire all the way through it, is so good and so worth watching that I could not help but be enthralled. His reunion with Princess Leia is understated and written with restrained passion and I admired that.

But the last half hour of the film leading to a 45-second glimpse of Luke Skywalker, who doesn’t speak at all, is where it all fell apart. Abrams copies the plot of Star Wars IV: A New Hope and it’s simply the same story with new characters reliving what happened 38-years ago. Luke is Obi-Wan now–the good seem to retreat to a place of safety until enough people have died to get them to come back–and that is obviously where the next film will go. I’m left with more answers than questions–and the questions I do have are perfunctory and plot based.The beauty of Star Wars has always been that for the “geek,” the questions were about who was who and what was what. That has been resurrected somewhat with the question of Rey’s identity–who’s child is she and what is she about? But other than that, she is flat, one-dimensional and uninteresting. I never believed she cared for Finn and I never believed Finn could have cared for her. Both actors were fine–the acting was very taut in the film. No, the actors were not the problem. The story was.

I speak heresy and I know it. I will indeed watch the next installment of the film in a year. I’ll look forward to it and I’ll relish the chance to awaken my love of the story and its power to speak to all of us about rising above circumstances and evil and believing in something greater than one’s self.

But I’ll do it with the balance of age, perhaps. Maybe I’m no longer the geek I used to be. Maybe I’ve lost the connection to the story I once had. After all, Star Wars spoke to me about all those things when I needed it most. My own life unwinding as my parents divorced and the center of my universe just simply spun out of control, Star Wars was a reminder that one could balance faith in a Force greater than one’s self and be a beacon of good and kindness. But I am no longer that person and either I’ve forgotten what that felt like….

Or it has.

Onward.

A game of Faith’s Perfection

With apologies to Gus Van Sant, Sean Connery and Rob Brown, last night’s Pittsburgh Pirates at Los Angeles Dodgers game was for me, a distinctively faith-based enterprise.

I’m relatively new to baseball mania. As a kid, I went to a few games, my first was at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh in 1974. The Cardinals beat the Bucs 3-2 in that game and I remember being somewhat disappointed, though not heartbroken.

When we moved to Los Angeles in 1975, dad had season tickets to the Dodgers and though I never grew to be a fan, I loved going to Dodger Stadium and watching that line-up: Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, Ron Cey, Steve Yeager. But other things caught my attention in adolescence and I fell away from baseball for a very long time, only occasionally keeping an eye on what the Pirates were up to. I didn’t know players or scores and I didn’t know stats or histories and I didn’t care.

So it was as much a surprise to me as it was to anyone when a couple of years ago, I found myself caring again about baseball. I’m not even sure when or why it happened. It did coincide with the Pirates making the playoffs in the past couple of years, but that’s as distinct as I get.

I don’t know what spurred me in May of last year to grab tickets to a Pirates v. Dodgers game and invite my dad along. He accepted and the two of us went and had a great time together. The Pirates won that game 2-1.

Interested enough in the baseball experience by now, though not sold on the expensive and crowded Dodger Stadium games, I opted to expand my southern California baseball stadium experience and go to see the Angels in Anaheim play. It’s a longer drive to Anaheim, with traffic (and there’s always traffic) it can be close to three hours in the car. But my friend Scott and his sons and Shannon and I headed down to see the Angels play Baltimore. We had seats in the outfield along the third base line for less than $20 and that included a hot dog and a soda. Parking was cheaper and easier and the stadium is really quite beautiful–nicer than Dodger stadium, if not flecked with the same kind of history. And the Angels are a championship team in general, though not this year. The Orioles won that game 5-0.

Emboldened by the experience, I saw on the Angels’ schedule that the first place Toronto Blue Jays were due to play the Angels and I bought the same tickets I had previously along with Sue and my friend Brett. The Blue Jays did not disappoint and while I rooted for the Angels, I went home disappointed with a 12-5 blowout of the halos. My baseball interest was being properly tempered by the truism: You can’t win them all.

The Bucs came to San Diego in May this year, it happened to be one year later to the day when dad and I saw them in L.A., so I invited dad again and to my unending surprise–not only did he come along, but so did Sue and Shannon and we met Sue’s brother and his wife’s brother at the game and completed my southern California stadium experience at Petco Park. Once again, the Bucs won and I was two for two on the west coast. I watched later via the Internet as Pittsburgh swept the Giants in a three-game series and while they weren’t scheduled to play the American league teams on the west coast, they’d made a clean sweep of the National League.

Last night, the Bucs were at Dodger stadium, game two of a three-game stand and the Friday night game was a typical Dodger blowout. The first place Dodgers are an impressive looking team and they beat up on Pittsburgh 6-2. I was given tickets to the game by my former principal, Glenn Lipman, who is a Dodger season ticket holder. I learned only on Friday night that the great Clayton Kershaw would pitch for the Dodgers against the Bucs southpaw Francisco Liriano. It was my chance to see one of the great MLB pitchers in action, though I wouldn’t be rooting for him, and the seats Glenn gave me were spectacular–loge section along the third base line.

Kershaw did not disappoint. He is truly a marvel to watch. Tall and lanky, he was built for the job and when he winds up, he pulls his left arm back and digs into some reservoir of speed and fear and timing and he bullets the ball toward home plate with a kind of eagerness that isn’t really apparent on any other team.

I’m not a sportswriter–but come to think of it, that would be a cool gig. I’m a writer though, and it would be hard not to describe the game. Dodger Stadium has loyal, loud and boisterous fans. The energy is electric and since the stadium is so large–holding more than 50,000 people, the thundering and persistent power of fanatical waves of blue and white are overwhelming for a guy wearing the other team’s hat.

The Dodgers scored first and did so in style as Justin Ruggiano scored on a smash to right field by Howie Kendrick. But while they scored one more point in the seventh inning, the Bucs scored two when Andrew McCutheon whacked a double in the third inning driving home Mercer and Liriano. The Pirates scored one more time in the eighth inning and held the Dodgers to two. The 9th inning had me on my feet, biting my nails and yes, even praying–as the Bucs’ Mark Melancon took the mound and in flawless fashion pulled three up and sent three down. Note: I don’t recommend praying for your team–I know people do. But it didn’t feel right to me.

The electric energy spun into a deafening whir as Corey Seager grounded out to third and the hordes let out a collective sad sigh–and headed for the parking lot. In deference, and perhaps out of misplaced fear, I doffed my Pirates cap until I walked out of the stadium. But I never stopped smiling–and my faith in the Pirates—in baseball—was bolstered.

Onward.

The Instability of Clouds

The sunsets have been fiery and full of impossible colors that whirl through the western sky and dance off over the horizon. January has not been a good month-but the sunsets have been promising pink and purple, blue and lavender, gold and orange.

Control is a cruel and unhappy taskmaster. It cannot be a mistress, for at times a mistress gently strokes your cheek and tells you all is well. The need for control never does that. It cracks a whip in the dark hours of single-digit a.m.’s and whispers a raking, crackled reminder in your ear when you’re in the midst of living. It demands attention and as Willy Loman said, “attention must be paid.”

You work at it, seeming to “let it go” and singing the new and now famous Disney song in your head if you’ve been introduced to it. In a way, it brings peace because you ask the Still Small Voice to intervene and He does as long as you allow Him. But your mind always creeps back there, like a treasure you’ve locked away and only you have the key so that every once in a while, you peek in to see that the treasure is still there; that He is still holding it for you.

The illusion, however, is that it is a treasure at all. Control is the illusion. We simply set the wheels in motion of our days, our actions, our work, our play and we assume we know how it will go. Our society pays people hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars to predict how it will go. Will there be enough? Do we have the edge? Can we take advantage now? All questions that vanish like smoke through the sky.

Retreat is not surrender. Counting costs is not an attribute. We cannot know the cost of these things if we count them in currencies, whether those currencies are money or material goods or emotions or feelings. The thin thread of faith, deceptively thin and strong, cable-steel strong, is the only reality. Once all the material is accepted for what it is, an illusion that gives us the cold comfort that we are in control, all that’s left is the understanding that we are wonderfully, perfectly made.

The instability of clouds is a wondrous thing. At given points in time, the sky changes and creates spiraling, vaporous, magic pictures of abstract clarity. They are there one minute and gone the next. In our 21st century world, the sky is even punctuated by jet planes and helicopters, rockets and satellites. Yet the more we see those things, the more they merely highlight the spectacular expanse of a sky painted with impossible dreams of color and imagination and we look up again only to be attracted to the thing that was there all the time.

Breaking Faith

Sometimes the warm embrace of Christmas carries with it weight of such unbearable charge that it’s hard to be happy, jolly or even optimistic. The biting years gather at night and they climb the walls, drowning you in a cold chill of memory and time, age and decay.

You learn to survive, of course. You have to. Otherwise the slow but sure petrification of the edges of your heart start knocking at the outer reaches of your own life. The harder you become, the harder it is for others to love you. The ice-cold stone that outlines your heart protects you, yes. Cold comfort in hot winds of turmoil, grief and despair. You can take it and overcome it. You need not feel it. You need not relate it–only let it deflect off of you, living in the more shallow reaches of what makes it easier: possessions and position.

I fight it, as do you. I work at the edges-a stonemason chipping away the sharp edges of hard rock working diligently not to hit the soft tissues, keeping the blood flowing to the right places, but not overflowing. Not a sculpture. A reckoning.

So much sin and loss. So much hopeless and hapless confusion and so little time to order it, organize it and place it on the proper shelves in the neglected attic of memory where it can do no more harm. Pelted by the cold hail of familial brokenness and whirled like a leaf in the hot winds of Autumn and Winter that are remorseless, relentless. Where to begin? Where to chip away at my own slabs of broken and hard edge all the while rolling away the stone of life and love, memory and time.

That still small voice gets lost and aggrandized all at once. It becomes the message and not the messenger and media images, voices of digital reassurance in a graceless age where even the Almighty’s one gift that makes all of this remotely possible, is lost amid the noise. Patriotism overwhelms faith. A culture of selfishness permeates and pulls us into the folds of its warm tentacles and we don’t even resist–nor do we embrace. In fact, our biggest sin is that we don’t do much of anything.

And then a note arrives. A slice of music, a fragment of poetry or memory. A timeless gift that allows us the opportunity to glimpse one thing. It’s not the latest gift or the the leaving piles of wrapping paper. It is the chance to connect with one other person or more than one. It’s a chance to reach across years, miles, loneliness, mistakes, neglect or brokenness and feel the glory of broken humanity. In that moment, we bury the regret and tumult of the stupidity of our own smallness, our own mean-minded regret and a thaw begins. The shale and hard-formed places around our hearts fall away.

Christ seeks this. He has to, doesn’t He? We know there is too much soulless black space. We know there is too much scoffing defiance and wonder-wounded failure. Christ doesn’t simply ignore it. He heals it–he pulls it away, allowing us to see the work He is doing if we will only look at Him. But in our shame, doing so means admitting that what we’ve done thus far is hurting us. Yet in that moment of hurt, acceptance and embrace of all that faith can mean is left to flow through the moment and we exercise it at that moment and freely allow it to flow over us.

The stones of years pulverize into the cosmos and the sadness of days is ethereal and elusive.

May the glory of Christ’s light be with you all. May you fall into it and embrace it and let His care for you subsume you in all that He wants for you.

Merry Christmas

A race built for rats

When the sky darkens, as it must inevitably, the whole world is full of fire. News of epidemic outbreaks, ceaseless war and all of the thousand natural shocks that come each morning with the daybreak, are constant topics of discussion and constant sources of impotence to stop or change them.

Our own world was rocked this week with senseless loss at the high school. The dark tunnel of adolescence, so fraught with misunderstanding, misconception, bad judgment and on and on, is sometimes too great a burden to bear and we lost an innocent soul to that negative energy. How can there be hope and how can young people process such madness, such chaos?

It’s as though the path is laid out before us and we feel an inexorable pull down its length, knowing full well that we must turn from it-that we must find some way off of it. We know this path, its endless straightness. We know that its end is in shame and hopelessness and we know that there are other paths, but we awake with the coffee and turn our minds to staying ahead of others in this black night of a road.

But hope isn’t an off-ramp from this place and faith is not a rest stop. And they are not easily encouraged when the competition to simply be better on this road than the last person is constant and the encouragement comes from the same sources all the time: the television, the Internet, the radio, the magazines, the media. “You can be cooler than everyone else,” they say. “But to do that, you have to struggle with them and fight with them. You have to be seen by them and stay in this dark place.”

We don’t, though. We do not have to languish in cellars created out of our dark hearts. We grab onto possession and position as though they are the only things, the one thing that will bring us joy. It is in release that we will find grace and healing. It is in walking off the path and forging our own that we will end the competition.

The grace of a loving God is at the center of all things in the universe and we are loathe to accept that when we can’t seem to find the love and grace we want for ourselves right here and now. When a living soul hurts, we are apt to think that the pain is existential and necessary rather than assuming that it is part of our own fallibility. When disease happens, we are apt to think that the world isn’t fair and that we have lost to fate.

Love is a constant and it sometimes swirls around us and we cannot feel it nor see it. Love is what makes us thrive, even when we feel loveless and hopeless. And in the absence of a clear signpost telling us to move off of this cold and lonely road and find love and warmth, peace and friendship, grace and hope, we continue to find ways to advance in a race built for rats.

Onward.

My Daughter’s Hundred-Foot Journey

Writing now in the post European adventure era is a little more daunting than I expected. What can compare to journeys abroad into parts unknown and experiences that, in moments, changed our lives? Well the answer surprised me, too.

Last weekend, Shannon and I had a daddy-daughter night out while Sue and friends had Bunco night, the ethereal and mysterious ritual that only women seem to know. Still, off Shannon and I went to dinner and then to a movie–but not to a typical daddy-daughter movie.

When Shannon was as young as three, I would take her to movies. In the summers when I wasn’t teaching, the local theater would do free children’s movies in the late morning and off we’d go to see Jimmy Neutron or Milo and Otis. Sometimes, we’d even make it through to the end of the film.

That tradition has lasted and it is still one of our favorite things to do. Most of the time, we see a kid’s movie or at least one innocuous enough not to frighten her or bore me. But last week was an exception and it was one of those, “where did the time go?” moments that was so poignant and everlasting.

The Hundred-Foot Journey was playing and I wanted to see it so I showed her the trailer and she agreed, it looked good to her. I was both elated and intrigued. All of a sudden, the little girl with whom I saw the Smurfs and Santa Clause’s One, Two and Three and all of the other Disney favorites including every Pixar film to come out since she was born, wanted to see a movie with some complex themes and even some difficult and violent moments.

This is not a film review, so I won’t go into too much detail but the Hundred Foot-Journey was so rich and so spare all at once. Lasse Hallstrom succeeded in weaving together a tapestry of rich cultures, complex ideas and timeless themes in which circumstances create experience, but emotion, connection, love and transcendence create relationships and it is a joy to watch.

Shannon soaked up everything from the French, British and Indian accents to the textured and gorgeous landscape shots of rural France and India and the subdued, even constrained food shots that allowed titillation but not obsession. It’s so easy to make “food porn” as it’s called in films and the Food Network has helped see to that. Hallstrom reigned in the film crew just enough to allow the audience to imagine the fragrance of the spices and the short in-motion shots of food as people dine stirred imaginations instead of indulgence.

She was enthralled by the moving portraits of people from different places learning to live together. It must have fed her soul, somewhat, after she’d just returned from Europe where she experienced so many things that were alien to her. I cannot tell if I enjoyed the film more or watching my daughter experience a film with depth and power beyond the basic ‘overcoming the odds’ and simplistic hero’s journey renditions of children’s films. My baby is growing up.

Eighth grade began for her this year and before it’s over, Shannon will be prepared for high school and will travel with her class and without her parents across the U.S. to the east coast to experience American History. She’s running for office in her school organizations and she’s struggling mightily with advanced math (as does her father). She’s now been fortunate enough to experience travel abroad before she became an adult, something neither her mother and I ever did and she’s applying all of these life lessons and finding her own joys, passions and interests.

Sometime in the very recent past, my little girl embarked on her own hundred-foot journey. She’s walked out of the corridors of early childhood and begun embracing both an exciting maturity and a clear-eyed acceptance that the world’s beauty can be tainted by ugly things. She’s having to choose which one will win her over and she’s allowing experience to blend with love, conscience and the frail grasp of all human things into a 21st Century that has not yet decided how it will choose to go.

Perhaps she’ll help decide.

Onward.

 

Austria X: The End of it All

“and so there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it…” Huck Finn.

Well, actually I’m not rotten glad of it. We’ve been home now well over a month and we’re back in our routines. Shannon and I are back at our respective schools and I’m writing several stories for various publications–Sue has clients to see and Aunt Laurie is back at the office. The dogs are glad we’re back and so are we–to a point.

Much like having children, no one can ever tell you what to expect when you go to Europe for the first time as an American. We had a different experience than many in that we had friends there who took time out of their lives to introduce us to their way of life, their city, their hometown and their environment. It was magical.

ShanVicky

I still can feel the seats in the 747 as twilight fell across the Canadian tundra while we sped toward London. I never did fall asleep that night and I was fine until we got on the next plane to Vienna. By then, I was exhausted–as was Shannon who fell asleep on the two-hour flight from London to Vienna and we had to wake her up after the plane parked at the gate.

I can still taste the delicious meal that Michaela prepared that first evening, July 2 and Wednesday by the time we arrived. It was cool and rainy and we got to the Englisch family’s home and there was a delicious and local caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes and veal in tuna cream, a favorite of theirs they said. I had just celebrated my 49th birthday and so they made a birthday cake with candles and all. I slept so soundly that night.

There are too many highlights and that is the purpose of this travelogue, of course. I laid them out in posts I through IX. Reflection is a delicate thing. I don’t want to lose what we all did in Europe, the connections we made and the time we spent. But I also don’t want overly romanticize it, either.

Perhaps like so many things in memory, it’s best to look back on what you liked most-what you cared about. For me, the history stands out from everywhere we were–and so does the natural scenery. But more than that, what stands out are the people. From the Englisch family to Rudi Pichler, Pia Pfneisl, Markus Kirnbauer and Gerald Baumgartner-the extraordinary winemakers in Wachau Valley along the Danube and Deutschkreutz respectively. Harry and Denise, Rainer’s friends and their neighbor, Andres.RHR

I think often of the Ebner family, Michael and Brigitte and their two sons who ran the beautiful bed and breakfast in Fuschl Am See-and all of the lovely people in the restaurants and along the lake who made our five days there so memorable. I remember the big finger-wagging Hungarian hotelier who, in broken English, informed me I’d broken protocol and didn’t sign my receipt in the restaurant properly…and I went back to my room’s balcony and watched the rain fall on the lush Hungarian landscape.

Hungary

I’m reminded of the kindness of the stranger in London who helped Sue and me when we were lost and the very kind police officer at Westminster Abbey who directed us to the Sanctuary, the London pub we loved so much, we went twice. What was sweeter still was getting to see Sofie, our first foreign exchange student from 2007/08 while in London. I’m reminded too of the kind cab driver who picked up first Sue, Shannon, Laurie and me and took us to his favorite pizza joint after we asked for a recommendation. He then drove back the two miles he drove us to pick up Sofie, Kristien and Justine and brought them to us–a trip based entirely on trust.

I still remember the comfort of the bed in the new Best Western hotel near Heathrow Airport. It was our last night in London, our last of vacation in Europe altogether and we were feeling melancholy and bittersweet. We wanted to go home and were ready to do that–but the experiences we had, the food we ate and the people we met were richly intertwined with our lives. We hadn’t had air-conditioning in the flat Rainer arranged for us in London and while it was a lovely place, we were ready to be in a cool environment.

And then I remember the plane ride home–10 and a half hours watching movies, reading, eating, nodding off here and there and finally, descent into Los Angeles.

Like that–we’d been planning for a year. It’s all we thought about, what we sacrificed for–it was Christmas and birthday presents, Easter and spring break all combined into one. For a year leading up to the trip, we pinched pennies and ate out less–we eschewed Disneyland for a night on the patio and some inexpensive wine. We dreamed about it, thought about it and prepared for it–and now it’s over. Now, we sit and talk about all of it–how much we miss it, or parts of it that didn’t go as we’d hoped. It’s a memory now.

And it’s onward marching toward the end of 2014 and headed toward Fall thinking about what this year will bring-what new opportunities will arise. But we’ll be forever colored by the Austrian journey and the blessing of reaching out to a broad and wide world–and occasionally, we’ll start talking about heading back to Europe someday–a five-year plan to see Ireland, France and Belgium. Who knows?

Who knows indeed?

Onward.

 

 

Austria IX: Leaving for London in the Sunset

The day before we left for London, 650 miles to our east, a small group of Russian separatists or rebels–the media has different names for them depending on who they like on a particular day–targeted a Malaysian airliner as it flew en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Whether or not they knew it was a passenger airliner is unclear. They fired a BUK surface to air missile and the plane exploded in-flight killing nearly 300 people.

We were having the time of our lives in Fuschl, Austria in a fine bed and breakfast on a lake. Shannon, already a nervous flyer-did not know about MH-17 and we aimed to keep it that way. It would do no good to let her know what happened and it would just worry her needlessly. We were doing a good job of it until we got to Schwechat Airport in Vienna. Television screens everywhere lit up with the investigation and the inept response from our own American government. Adding to it, the aircraft before ours at the gate was a Ukraine International 737 bound for Kiev. The terminal, a hustling and bustling place of activity was a bit quieter–and reporters were rushing, cameras, voice recorders and press credentials in tow, to make the plane. The cat was out of the bag and Shannon knew…

Our flight to London was beautiful. In fact, our flight from London to Vienna on July 2 was also beautiful. Both legs were operated by British Airways and both on aircraft not quite full with great flight attendants, a decent organic ham and cheese sandwich and a quick two-hour flight time.

Leaving Austria was harder than we expected, though we knew it wouldn’t be easy. Tears flowed and goodbyes were long. I knew we had stayed as long as we could and that Rainer, Michaela, Conni and Vicky would be happy to have their lives and home back-but it was no good being rational. This wasn’t about logic. We missed them before wheels up–and we continue to do so.

We arrived in the evening to tighter security and passport controls but even so, got through in less than an hour from gate to street and into the MPV that carried us to 24 Lancaster Gate, Hyde Park, London. Rainer arranged for us to stay in a time-share flat that his company uses frequently and with the exception of the fact that there was no air-conditioning, it was perfect. A note to Londoners-I know you don’t think you need it, but air-conditioning would really make a number of the buildings in the city a lot better. And as the keepers of the mantle of western civilization, air-conditioning would make your city a far better place.

It was a quick trip and Saturday morning, Sue and I were up looking for a few groceries. Predictably, we got lost, but a very nice Londoner took good care of us. “It looks like you’re lost,” he said.

“Hate to admit it, but yeah-we are,” I said.

“Oh, well,” he said after we told him what we needed. “You want to go down this way over by Lancaster Gate to the Wait Rose. The place you’re looking for, quite frankly, is shit. Don’t go there.”

He was right, too-and I still think about the kindness of many of the Londoners–combined with the overwhelming number of Burqa-clad women and Arabic speaking men. There is a book called Londonistan. I see what that was about now.

Before we left on the trip, I finished the book The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. In it, he writes about the relationship between Mark Twain and Brett Harte among others. At the end of the book, he writes how Harte, who faded in fame after captivating the west with stories like The Luck of Roaring Camp, went to London to lick his wounds and never return. While Sue and I were out that Saturday morning, we passed by a building sign near Lancaster Gate. I didn’t get a photo, but it is indelible in my mind’s eye: “Francis Brett Harte, American Writer, Lived and Died here.” I got the chills. I felt at home–and far away, all at once.

But then, we were off and walking across Hyde Park to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guard. It was a grand–and very crowded–affair. Shannon wanted to get a closer look and the two of us crossed the street while Laurie and Sue stayed back. We got a good view, but not before some poor young Czech chap (we knew from the language he and his family spoke-and we’d heard the language around Vienna and were schooled on the various Slavic languages in the area) blew chunks all over the sidewalk. We got fragged. It wasn’t pretty–so from then on, Shannon referred to Buckingham Palace as “Puke-ingham palace.”

pukingham

From there, it was on to the Whitehall, Big Ben, the London Eye–all of them on a giant walk. It was hot, humid and we were getting tired. The Abbey was too crowded on Saturday and so we didn’t go inside that day. I asked a kind British police officer for a recommendation for a pub in walking distance that didn’t feature people like us: tourists. He was more than happy to oblige and congratulated me on my bright choice–and off we went to The Sanctuary. It was our first of two visits–great beer on tap, Fullers London Pride among others, at cellar temperature, and great food. Everyone in the joint had a lovely British accent and while it might not be Shannon’s vote for favorite place, the three of us loved it.

londonpride

We wound up at part of the Imperial War Museum’s Churchill War Room and what a find. One of the bus tour-guides, a very nice guy with whom we traveled on Monday, said that he and his fiance, a museum curator, believed it was the best curated museum in all of Great Britain. It would be hard to disagree.

We spent more than two hours in the war room, the place from where Churchill ran the war. For me, a natural history and literature buff, it was exceptionally invigorating. Having toured the Salt Mines in Salzburg, a few kilometers from Berchtesgaden and Hitler’s Eagle’s nest, it was exciting to round out the trip by looking at the Allied side of things.

We saw Churchill’s war cabinet room with the wooden chair where he sat when the group met. The Prime Minister and his cabinet met here for hours on end making plans, drawing up defense and attack positions and debating the politics of each move. Every guest was given a handheld digital audio device, just like in Westminster Abbey, and you could go through the rooms at your own pace. On it, they not only include an audio guided tour, but samples of things like WWII era London air-raid sirens and re-enactments of Churchill and his cabinet debating.

warcabinet

There was Churchill’s bedroom where, strangely, he didn’t sleep that often. Most of the time, even at the height of the war, Churchill would return home knowing the risks involved–but then, as you’re told repeatedly when you’re down there, if one of the German bombs had hit the government buildings above, there was very little chance that anyone would have survived. It wasn’t fortified. The Brits got lucky for lack of a better word.

churchillsbed

Sunday was the British Museum and I was astounded and ensconced by the Sutton Hoo exhibit with its quotes from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf all over the exhibit. It brought the entire epic to life for me–the Anglo-Saxon masks and the gold jewels, the armor, the swords. I was a child again, I really was. This has been my quarry for a few years now, this Anglo-Saxon and Medieval English literature–from Beowulf to King Arthur feels like Disneyland to me–it’s an escapist world where you’re left to draw your own conclusions. At first, the morals seem very clear–black and white, but when you analyze who Grendel is and what his mother must have been, you get a different take.

suttonhoo

The same happens in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when Gawain simply does what his creed tells him to do–but then, in his quest to accomplish the task set before him, is tempted and challenged in ways he never believed possible. And his survival is not only to his credit, it’s a symbol for something beyond winning–it’s a holy crusade–of which all people are capable-and somehow, Gawain, the youngest knight of the round table, Arthur’s nephew, achieves immortality by admitting his flaws, accepting what he thinks is his fate. It’s remarkable.

It’s also England–an England that existed for a thousand years. But as you visit the island, you’re left thinking that it may be in its twilight now. In its mad imperialist rush to conquer the world, it has reaped a bit of what it sowed and now, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Sikhs–all of them have come here–and many of them are simply resentful, some revengeful and still others are vicious and seeking a way to strike back. London is a big, bustling, crowded city, a seething cauldron where civilizations are again colliding. Who knows where it will lead?

The best part of London, I saved for last. It was Sofie, our first foreign exchange student from 2007/08 who came to visit us with her sister, Kristien and Kristien’s daughter, Justine. What a gift! We spent two days with Sofie and her family and we ate together at the Hard Rock Cafe and a perfectly quaint pizza joint that our cab driver favored near the London Zoo, at Regent’s Park. Sue, Shannon, Sofie, Kristien and Justine went to the zoo while Laurie and I sat in Regent’s Park watching the people and enjoying the fine weather.

shanjustine

We talked for hours together, catching up on our lives. When Sofie lived with us, she was 18 years old and the past seven years have seen her grow into a fine young woman with a real estate career, her own apartment and a life she loves. We agreed to a five year plan and we will return to Europe then, going to Sofie’s home in Antwerp, Belgium as well as France and maybe Ireland. If I had the means and my way, I’d leave tomorrow.

On Monday, we took the hop on-hop off double decker bus touring London and finally made our way to Westminster Abbey and took the tour. On the audio-phone we were given, we punched in the requisite numbers and heard the grand and unmistakeable voice: “Welcome to Westminster Abbey….I’m Jeremy Irons.” It was incredible.

abbey

Essentially a functioning church most famous as the venue for Royal family weddings (with the exception of Charles and Diana), but in fact an indoor cemetery, the Abbey’s grave markers are those of western civilization: Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Henry V, Elizabeth I, Henry VIII. Poet’s corner is a dream for English teachers: Wordsworth, Chaucer, Dickens, Auden, Dryden, Shelley, Owen–the list is endless. The place is one of somber grace and glorious memory. It’s hard not to walk by the most decorated central grave marker of the Unknown WWI Soldier and not see in it the metaphor for this “warlike state.” Great Britain in its prime was an imperialist global force that fought and conquered around the globe. The island nation still celebrates that history, all the while coming to slow realization that the chickens are coming home to roost and its empire is no more.

Photography of any kind is prohibited in the Abbey and one sees why: it is, after all, a place of remembrance and faith. Still, it was hard to resist–and I may or may not have taken a photo of my favorite English author’s grave…

Dickens

Cramped, crowded and hot as we were–we were given many gifts in London: from Sofie and her family to the British Museum to Big Ben, the Abbey, the Sanctuary pub and the original Hard Rock Cafe with Eric Clapton’s Fender stratocaster–the first item donated to the Hard Rock Cafes around the world–to Winston Churchill’s war rooms–we ended our vacation soaking up the essence of the beginnings of western civilization.

bigben

How could we ever have done better than that?

Onward.