Comparisons

It’s not that today’s creative people are not turning out worthy projects, too many to count, really. But I am finding taking a personal journey back through films and writings that once made major impressions on me to be so interesting that I am having trouble finding time for the new stuff.

It’s taking navel gazing to new depths, or heights, whichever way you want to look at it. For instance, back when one needed to have read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to be considered a person worth talking to in the small area of society that I occupied, I liked it enough that there are still passages that I can remember almost fifty years later. But when I tried to get into it recently it did not move me, and I never finished it. I’ll have to give it another shot, I think.

According to Edward Abbey, the book is a fictionalized autobiography of a 17-day journey that Pirsig made on a motorcycle from Minnesota  to Northern California along with his son Chris. The story of this journey is recounted in a first-person narrative, although the author is not identified. Father and son are also accompanied, for the first nine days of the trip, by close friends John and Sylvia Sutherland, with whom they part ways in Montana. The trip is punctuated by numerous philosophical discussions, referred to as Chautauquas by the author, on topics including epistemology, the history of philosophy, and the of philosophy of science.

Wikipedia: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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The Studs Lonigan trilogy by James T. Farrell lit up my life back when I was a twenty-something. If you haven’t read it, it’s a story of a young tough growing up in Chicago in the Twenties.

Farrell chose to use his own personal knowledge of Irish-American life on the South Side of Chicago to create a portrait of an average American slowly destroyed by the “spiritual poverty” of his environment. Both Chicago and the Catholic Church of that era are described at length and faulted. Farrell describes Studs sympathetically as Studs slowly deteriorates, changing from a tough but fundamentally good-hearted, adventurous teenage boy to an embittered, physically shattered alcoholic.

Wikipedia: Studs Lonigan

When I first read it, I was the same age as the character Studs Lonigan was in the first novel and a young not-too-tough growing up in Minnesota. Now I am older than the character was at the other end of his life. I liked the books both times, but the effect on me reading it as a young man was all enveloping at a time when I had no idea who I was going to be. I could so relate to Studs and his struggles in that first novel.

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Last evening I re-watched the movie Key Largo. A fine film and each time I watch it I notice different things. This time it was that some of the lines they gave to Lauren Bacall and to Lionel Barrymore seemed stilted, forced, not how I think people would really speak at all. The movie was a stage play first before it was made into a film, and those lines would have seemed apropos in that setting, might have been expected, actually. It wasn’t really a distraction, but it’s where the difference between the stage and screen productions shows up.

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The book Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, was published in 1985. I came across it a couple of years later, and have re-read it several times since then. It was one of those books about an era that hit me as how the West might really have been. It seemed real. Of course, how would I know?

McMurtry himself eventually expressed dissatisfaction with the popularity of the novel, particularly after the miniseries adaptation. In the preface to the 2000 edition he wrote: “It’s hard to go wrong if one writes at length about the Old West, still the phantom leg of the American psyche. I thought I had written about a harsh time and some pretty harsh people, but, to the public at large, I had produced something nearer to an idealization; instead of a poor man’s Inferno, filled with violence, faithlessness and betrayal, I had actually delivered a kind of Gone With the Wind of the West, a turnabout I’ll be mulling over for a long, long time.”

Wikipedia: Lonesome Dove, the novel

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Another one that seemed real, even though my wartime service was 8500 miles from any battlefront, was Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes. His story of the experiences of a Marine officer in Viet Nam was unforgettable. Without having any direct knowledge of my own that was in any way similar to his, I got the sense that this was how it was most powerfully. Again, how would I know?

The book is set in Vietnam in 1969 and draws from the experiences of Marlantes, who commanded a Marine rifle platoon. The novel looks at the hardships endured by the Marines who waged the war on behalf of America. It concerns the exploits of second lieutenant Waino Mellas, a recent college graduate, and his compatriots in Bravo Company, most of whom are teenagers. “Matterhorn” is the code name for a fire-support base in Quang Try Province, on the border between Laos and the Vietnamese DMZ. At the beginning of the novel, the Marines build the base, but later they are ordered to abandon it. The latter portions of the novel detail the struggles of Bravo Company to retake the base, which fell into enemy hands after it was abandoned.

Wikipedia: Matterhorn (novel)

Anyway, it’s been an enjoyable exercise so far. BTW, I have read War and Peace three times over the past forty years, and it was a fine journey each time. At each of those readings, when I turned the last page I didn’t want the story to be over. (I wonder if there are any podcasts by Tolstoy out there, I have questions for him … did he make any, do you know?)

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A Dick Guindon cartoon

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Some years back, I was watching a television news program that contained an obituary of a famous person who had just passed away the day before the program. It was so well done, containing bits of video, quotes from contemporaries etc., that it was obvious to me that it had to have been prepared well in advance of the person’s death. It seemed just too polished to have been done in less than 24 hours.

Looking into the matter, I found that somewhere in the bowels of large media organizations there are workers whose job it is to prepare these things. And to keep them updated in cases where the subject is inconsiderate enough to continue to live on and make more history for themselves. There have been times when the author of an obituary has died before the subject did.

It’s not an important topic, just one of those little weirdnesses of life. If I were such an exalted personage as to have my obit on file somewhere, I think that I might ask the media outlet to let me edit the darned thing, just to get it the way I liked it. Polish it up, add a little rosy glow to the prose. I could pass along a couple of selfies as well.

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I’m not at all certain that the larger world is ready for this photograph, but I can’t always protect you, you know. Sometimes you must take life on life’s terms.

This is me in my intern’s outfit. White for purity, pocket jammed with pens and pencils, and with my oldest daughter Kari being forced to act as ornamentation. You can see how happy she was to be included, poor thing.

This would have been taken in 1966, at which time there were few self-respecting university students who didn’t have a bookcase made of pine boards and bricks in their apartments or homes. They were inexpensive to put together and lent a certain rustic charm to the dwelling. Their only drawback was that they were heavy and unmoored so that the structure could fairly easily tip forward and crush anyone unlucky enough to be standing close by.

Baby Face by Little Richard

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A Dick Guindon cartoon

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When Robin was away this past weekend, I went to the web and watched Apocalypse Now: Redux. It’s the version that put back 49 minutes of film that had been edited out the first time around. This made an already long movie way longer (153 versus 202 minutes) and was not to its benefit. What had been a strange and depressing film was now even stranger, more depressing, and right there on the outskirts of depraved.

I won’t be re-watching any versions in the future. I think that I’m finally done with it.

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Finally, this morning’s NYTimes included a stunner. The wreckage of the ship Endurance, which sank 106 years ago in the Antarctic, has been found by some intrepid folks. It’s the latest chapter in one of the best shipwreck stories ever. Following this link will get you to the article and a short video that stirred what scrap of adventurer I still have left in my soul. Might do the same for you.

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