Archive for October, 2017

Return to Vietnam

Ken Burns’ PBS Vietnam documentary featured twelve heart-reaching episodes that must have been excruciatingly painful for veterans of that combat as well as for their civilian contemporaries who watched the war at home on their television sets as those tragic years unfolded while others took to the streets in protest. I was one of those college students who marched on Washington, D.C. of 1967, but returned to campus, disgusted, that those peace demonstrators were exhibiting the same violent behavior they sought to oppose. I was conflicted. I saw many of those demonstrators as children of privilege, of the eastern establishment, who had no experience of poverty or oppression. The country has elected to office the last group of people who lived through that tempestuous period and to have preserved in their memories both the idealism of the period and the subsequent disillusionment with government policy both domestic and foreign. Ironically, the nation has a Commander-in-Chief in 2017  who neither served in Vietnam nor marched against the war. When great issues face a nation in any era, the sideliners and bench-warmers are not the ones I look to for leadership in the future. In that respect, I admire both Senator John McCain and former Secretary of State John Kerry who has the distinction of both serving and protesting.

Watching the documentary reminded me of the question that I had posed previously to Vietnam veterans I know. I asked them if they would ever return to Vietnam in order to see what the country is like now and to revisit the places they remember. One man answered succinctly “no.” I did not prod him further. The other veteran replied that it was a beautiful country and if given the opportunity he would go, but really had no great urge to do so.  The third veteran unhesitantly affirmed he would go. Burns’ Vietnam documentary interviewed a few veterans who return, meeting with Vietnamese they had fought with. Before I saw this documentary, in a short story I had imagined an aging Vietnam veteran who intended to return to the scene of combat to fulfill an item on his bucket list.

It is well-known that many World War II combat veterans have returned to the Normandy beaches and visited the American graveyards in Belgium and France, a painful pilgrimage, but one that they felt necessary in order to sooth their souls. Their youth perished on those battlefields. They left something of themselves behind on that bloody ground as well as their fallen comrades. Death will get us all in the end. Before that we must make peace with ourselves and everyone who has ever touched our lives. That is what I think a soldier does when he goes back to the killing fields.

Here is the short story I wrote before watching the documentary:

April

It was her husband’s birthday. They were having a small dinner party and the invited couple would be arriving soon. Marian did not feel in a party mood, but she put a good face forward not to dampen the celebration. He was wearing a fresh navy-blue polo shirt with a white stripe across the chest. San Francisco was stitched on the left corner diagonal to where his heart would be.

“Why are you wearing that shirt? You haven’t worn that in a long time,” she said.

“No reason. I can change if you don’t like it.”

“No … don’t. It’s just that Claudia gave you that shirt … remember … when I went with her to California.”

Why of all times did he pick that shirt of all the clean shirts in his closet? She burst into tears. Through her tears, she said, “Nothing happens for nothing. You subconsciously picked it in memory of her.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to remind you.”

“Why do all the people I love die in April when everything comes to life again?” she looked out the dining room window where a few piles of snow lingered along the long driveway to the road. Juncos and red-breasted nuthatches flittered around the bird feeder suspended from a tree limb.

“Who was it,” her husband asked, “said ‘April is the cruelest month of all’?”

She folded like a paper parasol into the easy chair. “I knew her since I was eight-year’s old. She was a second mother to me. She was always there for me—when my parents died, when my daughter took her own life. Why couldn’t I be there with her niece and nephew holding her hand when she closed her eyes for the last time?”

“Because you live in Washington and she lived in Illinois. You have a job you couldn’t leave. Be thankful you made the last trip with her to Germany.”

“Oh, that was prophetic!” Marian daubed her eyes. “When I awoke New Year’s morning and I had the vision that I must visit her native country and celebrate her eightieth birthday with her in Dusseldorf after making one excuse after another for years why I couldn’t travel—the kids, my job, no money—I always had something.”

“Marian, if you’d rather not have this party …”

“Ridiculous. We can’t call it off now. They’ll be here any minute. I just can’t believe she’s no longer on this earth. And to die on Good Friday at three o’clock in the afternoon.”

“She had cancer throughout her bones and lungs. Did you want her to suffer longer?”

“No, it’s not that. She went too fast—diagnosed in October and gone in April—a month to the day after her 81st birthday. It’s like the end of an era.”

“We are at the age when this sort of news will not be unusual until it’s our turn.”

Marian fell silent. Her husband had spoken the unvarnished truth. To be born was to begin to die. Vince, the realist, was trying to console, unaware the balm he thought he was applying to her fresh wound was really salt.

But she was a survivor herself, a realist too after her own fashion, and the show must go on as long as there was a live audience to play to. Life was full of ironies and synchronicities. After the party there would be time to grieve alone. We die alone. No one can do it for us, she thought. We can’t hire someone to do that dirty work. She could not then expect anyone to participate in this grief for a woman who had first treated her as an adult, who had first opened the world up to her, and talked to her about history and politics with the passion of a university professor. Claudia had experienced first-hand the crucible of war in Europe, the bombshells, the sirens, the air raids and the hunger that the drawn-out battles brought. She told stories of how her and her neighbors had hid Jews. Crossing through a forest behind her family’s house, she discovered a downed British pilot and escorted him to her home where her father, a doctor, had treated his broken arm and sheltered him in the cellar until April 1945. Touring Belgium and western Germany some vestiges of war remained—the grass-covered bunkers and the cemeteries of row upon row of white crosses. But by-and-large the countryside had returned to orderly fields bordered by well-pruned trees. The cities, cleared of rumble, had been rebuilt. Pleasure boats plied the Rhine River and the Gothic churches welcomed tourists. Perhaps time heals all wounds, Marian had thought, as she knelt before the ornate altar in the Cologne Cathedral.

Claudia met and married an American serviceman stationed in Paris where she had been studying economics. After his Army discharge, they came to live in the United States. In 1965 they moved next door to Marian, who first met her when she was a freshman in high school. That’s when her education really began about the outside world. Claudia spoke with a heavy foreign accent never mastering the English diphthong th either in its voiced or voiceless variant.

The doorbell rang. The birthday guests, Joe and Sylvia Martin, had arrived. Vince and Marian had known the Martins since they had moved to Seattle twenty years ago, becoming fast friends as soon as they discovered they shared similar ages, political opinions, and interests. Marian put on a cheerful face and welcomed their friends into the living room while Vince poured two glasses of wine.

“Here’s to a happy birthday and many more,” Sylvia toasted, raising her glass. Decked out in jewelry from her ears to her fingers, she sparkled as always with geniality. A bracelet on each wrist, rings on almost every finger, Sylvia valued taste in fashion and hair style, proving that with the correct accessories and cosmetics a short, plain woman can be transformed into a beauty queen. Jim, her consort, reserved flashiness for his wife, preferring a subdued, unostentatious white polo shirt and tan slacks. His face was unassuming—a male face similar to any other in the crowd of business men with short, clipped greying hair boarding a commuter train for a downtown office. In short, he was a tall, lean, washed-out looking man about ready for retirement.

The table was already set. The white layer cake, one fat candle, stuck in the cream cheese frosting, captured Joe’s attention.  Although his slimness belied the fact, Joe possessed a sweet tooth of huge proportions. Regarding the cake, he said, “No room for sixty-two candles.”

Sylvia sidled over to Joe and poked his side. “But you’ll find room for a slice, won’t you?” she said.

“Chicken cacciatore is ready,” Marian announced from behind the kitchen counter. “Everyone take a seat around the table. Help yourself to salad and vegetables,” she said as she placed the serving dish in the middle of the table. Of the foursome, Marian preserved a younger appearance in contrast to Sylvia’s well-made up face, salon-tinted hair, and flattering dress. A slight streak of gray colored her right temple but otherwise her shoulder-length brown hair had not faded. Her complexion had an outdoor glow, which she had no need to embellish with cosmetics. She wore no lipstick. Meeting Marian for the first time, a person would not call her pretty, but rather think she was unremarkable, perhaps lost in a crowd, likely to happen as well to Joe.

But not Vince, who was robust, full jowls, broad-chested, meaty with a full head of salt and pepper hair brushed back from his forehead, making it difficult for Marian to conceive he was sixty-two. Where had the time sped? Surely, it was rushing past them as they, passengers on a train, watched through the window. Fasten your seat belts, Marian thought, the ride was going faster and faster every year. Hadn’t her grandparents and her parents told her it would seem so the older she grew?

“I imagine you’ll be retiring this year?” Joe remarked to Vince.

“No, I don’t think so; I’ll just drop dead at my desk one day.” Vince laughed, and then added, “Hey, I love my work. I’m not ready to throw the towel in yet. We’re still working on a new passenger jet design.”

“Well, I’ve notified management that I’m retiring,” Joe said. “I’ve had it. I’ve hated corporate finance since I started with the company. I’m sick of the office politics and the finagling. I did what I had to do to make a good living. Any time left I have, I want to spend on the golf course.”

“Good for you, Joe. Congratulations. We all have to make choices. If it’s right for you, go for it,” Vince said.

Marian studied Sylvia’s face. From what she observed, Sylvia’s smile testified to her concurrence with her husband’s decision. Vaguely, she wished that Vince would follow suit. He appeared as vigorous and as healthy as ever, but she wished for their lives to slow down. She felt as if life was flowing too fast through her fingers. It seemed as if they had just finished celebrating Vince’s birthday last year and here it had rolled around again. She hesitated upon voicing her opinion. After some reflection, she decided to give it.

“Vince, that’s not a bad idea. I wonder if you shouldn’t start thinking about retiring also.” She brightened and said, “The four of us could travel together. See more of the world before we kick the bucket. Wouldn’t that be great?”

Sylvia gleefully agreed. “That would be a blast. Count me in. I want to take some cruises. Joe can golf his way around the world.” She laughed.

“Sounds like great fun,” Vince said, “but I’m not quite ready to call it quits. I want to work just a few years more.”

Marian stood up. “It’s time to cut the cake and sing Happy Birthday.” The celebration continued with more good conversation and wine. The evening ended with the two couples agreeing to meet for dinner next time at their favorite restaurant.

After Joe and Sylvia left, Vince grew somber. His glum expression perplexed Marian. How in a space of a few minutes had his mood changed from happy to morose? She peered curiously at him and was about to ask him what was bothering him when he took her by the hand and led her to the sofa where they both sat down. He looked seriously at her and began to speak slowly and deliberately.

“I didn’t what to spoil the party with bad news.”

“Bad news?” Marian stared at him perplexed. “What bad news?”

“This could be my last birthday party—”

Marian cut him off. “Don’t be silly. I know we’re all thinking we’ve lived pretty long so far, but—”

“No, I’m not being melodramatic. I’ve been keeping this news from you because I didn’t want to upset you, particularly, with your thinking so much about Claudia lately.”

“What does Claudia have to do with anything?”

“Everything.” He paused, took a deep breath, and continued.

“Marian, I have pancreatic cancer. The doctor couldn’t give me more than a year.”

“Oh, my god, you should have told me.” Consternation then denial rapidly reflected in her eyes. “No, it’s not true. You’ll beat the odds. He’s wrong.”

“Of course, I intend to fight this thing. It will be treated aggressively. But facts are facts. I didn’t want to tell Joe that I have put in for retirement. I had to wear a good face today. Our friends will know soon enough.”

“What’ll we do?”

“All that we can.”  He put his arm around her. “Chin up, girl. There’s nothing we can’t survive together, right?  What does anyone do in a case like this?  Make the best of the time they have left. I intend to do exactly that.”

“What do you mean?” She looked quizzically up at his oddly happy face.

“I’ve had it on my mind for some time. I want to see Vietnam again. I want to see the country I was sent to as a young man to fight something I did not understand. The jungle had its beauty and dangers. The beaches were gorgeous. They say the ravages of war are gone. They say the people hold no animosity toward Americans.”

Marian was plainly shocked. She had thought Vince was one of those Vietnam veterans who were able to put the war behind them and live normal lives without visible signs of post-combat trauma. He had not forgotten his youth. Who could not forget his youth, those formative experiences that shaped and colored his life ever afterwards?

“I’ll visit Vietnam, north and south, before I die,” Vince affirmed, making it indisputable to Marian that he would fulfill this wish. She sat quietly, absorbing the reality of Vince’s terminal illness and full import of what he desired to accomplish in view of his prognosis.

Both of them sat silently, finding speech difficult. What words could express the enormity of what loomed and how drastically the birthday mood had altered? After a while, Marian took her husband’s hand and whispered, “I’m going with you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cultural Trends

Fiction writers explore and define cultural trends in specific times and places. A novel such as The Great Gatsby defined jazz age society in and around New York City. William Faulkner famously explored post-reconstruction life in Mississippi. Both are classics of American literature.  The novelist rivets a big round glowing eyeball on characteristic attitudes that contribute to the over-all current of events on a larger historical scale. The fictional characters inhabit a particular moment in history and a definite cultural milieu. As such the characters’ statements, opinions, and actions help to also characterize a region or country.

I have been reflecting upon what I consider the preponderant cultural trends in the United States today. What first comes to mind is the ascendancy of informality in many aspects of culture. Increasingly over the last fifty years or so, casualness in dress has taken over. Hats, gloves, heels, and suits are no longer the standard attire for church attendance. Travelers board airplanes in sweatshirts and jeans. In many offices, men are no longer required to wear ties to work. Speech has taken a colloquial tone, the folksy replacing the elegant style. Titles are discarded for the preferred usage of first names. What results is a blurring of the lines between work and play, between what is dignified and undignified in a way that tends to make distinctions between tastelessness and grace difficult. Americans have come to love the casual, the common, the predictable, the unnuanced, and the pedestrian.

Our thinking has become bland and conformative also. In the love of the casual, the masses have accepted the opinions and tastes foisted upon them by the television, movie, and music industries. Casual thinking results that skims the surface and that is easy to wear–wash and wear just like our casual clothes; no ironing required. In fact, we don’t need to iron out our thinking or differences in opinion. Stream of consciousness–let it flow writing–is encouraged in high school, replacing rigorous rhetorical formal essay-writing. Students cut and paste their way through assigned term papers–the easy way, the casual way. In the political arena formal debate has evaporated, replaced by name-calling, insults, lies, and logical fallacies. It is easier and more casual than critical thinking.

We like fast food and informal dining on paper plates with plastic forks and spoons. Throwing together easy meals in a microwave oven is a popular preference. Why even sit down to a dinner around the table when the family can eat standing up and then run to the kid’s soccer game in a jiffy?  Who has time to linger and discuss the daily news or Salman Rusdie’s latest novel? We prefer to brag about how many touchdowns junior scored on the football field than to mention another child’s accomplishment on the debate team. It is easier to talk about sports because everyone else loves sports. It makes for casual conversation.

I realize I am making massive generalizations, but that is what finding trends is all about. Informality, undeniably, is a trend in American society, transferring to multiple facets of our customs and beliefs.

We see this trend most graphically in the 2016 presidential election that catapulted a casual, undignified personality into the Oval Office–a product of pop culture, the impresario of a reality television show. Ironically, the clown likes to cover his naked informality by usually wearing a business suit and tie. He is the culmination, the embodiment, of cultural trends long present in American society. Like the Loch Ness monster he emerges from the lake. Unlike the Loch Ness monster, he remains above for everyone to constantly view. Everything tawdry, debased, tasteless, and undignified has bubbled up from the depths of the national psyche.

It is not a pretty sight.

The Sorrowful Exuberance of Thomas Wolfe

The 2017 movie Genius about the relationship between the editor Maxwell Perkins, played by Colin Firth, and the novelist Thomas Wolfe, played by Jude Law, prompted me to dive into his sprawling novels–Look Homeward Angel, Of Time and the River, and The Web and The Rock. In my twenties these books, purchased from a book club, were in my library. I don’t think I completed the reading of any of them, because as a young woman they were beyond my comprehension and a bit on the boring side for my taste in those days.

I stuck with my task this time, starting with the last novel The Web and the Rock published in 1937, next reading Look Homeward Angel published in 1929, and ending with Of Time and the River published in 1935, on which I mulled over the longest.  Sequentially, as a trio of bildungsroman novels, Look Homeward Angel chronicles the youth of Eugene Gant, the main character, in Altamont, North Carolina; Of Time and The River continues his college years in North Carolina and his move to New England for graduate study at Harvard where he discovers New York City and then travels to England and France. The Web and The Rock focuses on New York’s social and cultural life as Eugene struggles as a young playwright and carries on a long love affair with an older married woman.

Instantly, the flood of description and the sheer power of his verbal virtuosity overwhelm me. His monolithic attempt to grasp every sensory impression, milk every observation, and encompass the essence of everything American reverberates like the sonorous cataloguing of Walt Whitman’s poetry. Many sections of his fiction resound like prose poems, particularly in his eulogizing of the crowds and scenes of New York City, in fact, of the entire panorama of America–its rivers, its bridges, its mountains, and what he repeatedly terms its “man-swarm.”

His older brother Ben, who will die young, gives Eugene a gold watch for his twelfth birthday to keep time with “the sorrowful silence of the river.” Throughout every theme and motif of the novel Eugene’s exuberant joy in life is tinged with sorrow, the poignant realization of the inexorable passage of time, a sense of loss and loneliness, and the inevitability of death, while the river ceaselessly runs into the sea. This sentence encapsulates Wolfe’s work: “They knew that they would die and the earth would last forever.”

There is a push and a pull between Eugene’s northern and southern heritage. His father’s roots in Pennsylvania draw him to the north; his mother’s southern roots in the North Carolina hills inhabit his being. The memory of the Civil War haunts the town where he grew up, and the ghosts of all the dead soldiers roam the woods. The web metaphor recurs in all his novels and is associated with his mother’s line and his southern childhood; the rock metaphor, in contrast, is linked to his vision of New York City as the foundation stone of America and of his father who is a stonecutter. One of Wolfe’s outstanding talents as a writer is his brilliant descriptions of his characters’ physical attributes. For example, in describing the stonecutter, he writes, “as if the great strong hands had been unnaturally attached to the puny lifeless figure of a scarecrow.” From the choice of the surname Gant, the connotative significance of gauntness emerges. Similarly, in his mother’s family name Pentland, he captures the acquisitiveness that drives the family to accumulate more and more real estate and in doing so they become pent-up personalities never quite realizing their desires.

There exists as well in his characters a larger sense of the national character. Wolfe perceives Americans as always seeking, always searching, restless, on a quest for gold beyond the next mountain, perpetually a wanderer, never finding that door open. He writes of “the great colony of lost Americans”- those looking to achieve success in one form or another. Not surprisingly, then, he depicts the dissolute life of Eugene and his three companions in post-World War I in 1924, the year Eugene is twenty-four, capturing the spirit of the lost generation that Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others of the era first evoked.

Somewhat frustrating in Wolfe’s style is his interesting portraits of new characters only to not carry through with them in the story, such as with Mrs. Potter and Bascom Pentland.  They become cameo roles that do not go anywhere, appearing and disappearing at times, but not adding significantly to a strong narrative line. In fact, plot development is not one of Wolfe’s strong points. However, a fair critic considers how this method lends itself to Wolfe’s purpose, which I see as a kaleidoscopic scope to the chronicle of Eugene Gant’s coming of age. Wolfe wants to record each and every impression on that journey into mature manhood so that every encounter no matter how brief leaves its indelible mark on Eugene’s consciousness. Therefore, whether a character remains for the entire journey or not is immaterial. People, sights, and sounds come and go. All form a part of the web of life and Eugene’s spiritual and intellectual make-up.  In my estimation, he does capture youth’s impetuosity and arrogance–that high-flying period of life when we believe we cannot die.

Equally well he captures the unsavory aspects of America. Drinking has been part of American culture since colonial days. The drunkenness of fathers destroyed families, explaining the rise of the temperance movement and prohibition, which Eugene directly experienced–the New York speakeasies and his father’s own alcoholism. The image of America as lost and seeking solace in alcohol is a constant motif. Francis Starwick is another alcoholic in Of Time and the River. Eugene is his binge buddy in Paris. He and the two women who accompany them in their revels typify the idle rich, a nihilistic set that Wolfe counterpoises with the wealthy Hudson River society represented by Joel Pierce’s family at whose house he is invited to stay for a weekend. In more than one regard, Wolfe touches upon the major cultural trends and historical events of the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Another element that Wolfe portrays of  the early twentieth century is the increasing industrialization and mechanization of society, symbolized by the train. Its speed, brute force, and ability to cross a continent transport Eugene to Boston, enabling him to peer into the windows of houses as he passes along the way and forms a major metaphor throughout his novels. The train was Eugene’s ticket out of small-town America and everyone’s golden rail to success. Speed is a feature of the automobile. Eugene goes on a joyride with his alcoholic friends and ends up in a South Carolina jail. Wolfe describes cars as great beetles of machinery. He senses that something had changed in the face of America and also in the faces of the people; the metal and the speed had affected them. The automobile would change the scenery of the country, its architecture, and social life.

Thomas Wolfe sensed his own genius and imbued his character Eugene with that same ebullience. It was an unbridled genius that neither Maxwell Perkins nor later editors satisfactorily reigned in.  Despite their editorial efforts, the novels still are over-written and repetitious. Sometimes the repetitions are purposeful poetic refrains and other times they are overdone. More pruning is necessary to make his works masterful and totally pleasing like the well-wrought poem on the Grecian urn that John Keats immortalized. Without diminishing the power and strengths of his language and themes, I recognize his weaknesses and where his writing falls short of greatness without denying his significant place in American literature. Simply, too much fat remains for trimming. Individual words are overused or repeated in close proximity to each other for no discernible purpose. The practice of poetry could have given Wolfe a handle and a harness on his diarrheic prose. His style produces the type of weariness at hearing a great orchestra play glorious symphonies too long. The senses become overloaded. A performer needs to know when to stop, to recognize that point where the auditor is still in awe and has not become bored, overcharged, and surfeited with genius. Wolfe consistently overplays his hand. This has been said before by many critics, who also laud his genius while acknowledging its limitations. In sum, his writing is over-heated and over-cooked–a meal that some may not stomach. Those gluttons for luscious language and sumptuous sentences will gorge on Wolfe’s prose.

The qualities of sorrow and exuberance intertwine and permeate Thomas Wolfe’s ambitious vision incorporating Eugene Gant’s individual experience with the American ethos.