Tuesday, March 30, 2010

My Great grandparents, Mr. & Mrs. Jacob D. Epp, ca. 1860

When I am an Old Woman, I shall Wear Purple. The book was published in 1987 by Papier-Mache Press, and is an anthology of poems, essays and stories about getting/being old. The title piece was written by Jenny Joseph and includes some memorable lines on the subject: “I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired/And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells/And run my stick along the public railing/And make up for the sobriety of my youth.”

What will we do when we are old (like tomorrow) to make one last attempt at flair, particularly if we never dared to be ourselves in the public square before? Will we be 80 before we “learn to spit?”

I chatted with the owner of an auto repair shop this afternoon as the insurance assessor was analyzing the dent I’d stupidly put in our brand-new Ford Focus. We got around to the subject of age and nursing homes when I told him that my mother-in-law’s cousin had died two days ago . . . at age 105. “We haven’t gone to the nursing home since my mother died,” he said. “My wife’s afraid of death.”

“Aren’t we all,” I replied.

“Oh, but she’s different. She chooses denial as a way of dealing with it, and nursing homes make her very uncomfortable.”

We watched a few episodes on video of the British sitcom, Waiting for God, with friends on Sunday evening. It’s set in a retirement home and concerns an aging man and woman living next door to each other. She’s playing out a cynical last act to a cynical life, and he’s compensating for his frustrations by taking trips of fantasy into a world of adventure, romance and grandeur, a life as different as is imaginable from his forty years as a functionary in a large accounting firm. Together, they find new ways to be old. They are two people who in their final years begin to dare to “ . . . go out in slippers in the rain/And pick flowers in other people’s gardens . . ..”

I don’t want to romanticize old age, anymore than I want to perpetrate the myth of the noble savage or energetic youth. At the same time, I want to keep in mind that although aging bodies decay and gradually fail, they are often the vessels for “young” souls and minds betrayed by the perverse cynicism of mortality.

Driving to Edmonton a few weekends ago, it suddenly occurred to me that I would turn 70 on my next birthday. I told Agnes that I’d just done the math and it felt like I’d lost a year of my life somewhere between Lloydminster and Vermilion. She corrected me, of course, and I realized that I’d taken 2011 as the current year (I’d just worked on some budget figures for 2011 at the Station) and just beyond Vermilion going west, I got my year back.

“ . . . I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Homecoming - a book commentary

Schlink, Bernhard (translation from German by Michael Henry Heim). Homecoming. New York: First Vintage International Edition, 2009

ISBN 978-0-375-72557-9

260 pages

I expected a book by the author of The Reader to be a gratifying experience, and I enjoyed what I was reading ‘til about page 200 or so when the whole thing fell apart for me. There’s a peculiar syndrome that sets in near the completion of a long project—like writing a book, building a house, circumnavigating the globe in a bathtub (I suppose)—and manifests itself in the urge-to-finish overwhelming the desire to maintain the standard of quality with which one set out. A second factor is, of course, the fact that an author of fiction is as in-the-dark about the ending of his work as is the reader, and sometimes you can almost feel the point where the “how am I gonna wrap this project up and get on to something more interesting?” phenomenon kicks in. The Homecoming, to my mind, reached that point on page 200 where the protagonist ends his Odyssian journey to find a certain author and philosopher—who happens to be his father—by crossing the Atlantic and taking up his sleuthing in New York City. This particular plot “wrap-up” is simply deficient by every standard I can think of.

Homecoming purports to be about, well, homecomings. There is plenty of text about soldiers coming home from POW camps to find their wives married to other men. What do the participants in such a homecoming do? Our protagonist reads Ulysses, and the wanderings, trials and homecoming in that instance become the motifs for this entire story. Unfortunately, these motifs dangle over top of Schlink’s plot rather than supporting it. There’s plenty to learn from the idea of unusual homecomings (like where is home, after all, and can it be owned and bartered away) but this novel tries to do too much altogether, and from page to page, the author loses control of the various threads.

As he does in The Reader, Schlink again grapples—somewhat lightly—with the themes of complicity, evil, goodness and the ubiquitous, haunting consciousness of a holocaust that can’t be undone. Peter Debauer has a ghostly father somewhere in the world, a father who did not die in the war as he was led to believe, but who abandoned Peter and his mother when the boy was still a toddler. This father has left a trail of his meandering thoughts on paper, and Peter—a book editor by trade—becomes obsessed with following that trail.

Central to the father’s philosophy is a theme most pungently described as the replacing of the golden rule with the iron rule: whatever you are prepared to endure yourself, you have the right to inflict on others. Thus, he proposes, evil can be harnessed to serve the good. Thus, many a villainy can be rationalized as an exercise in reaching a “good” objective utilizing a means normally considered “evil.” It’s a mindset where truth and lies become interchangeable, where experimentation on unwitting humans becomes acceptable, where abandoning one’s child has no moral baggage attached.

I haven’t read Homecoming in the original German, and it’s risky to make many judgments about style when a book is filtered through the talents of a translator. I was amused by the comment on the cover of the book, by a writer for The Economist, who (in my opinion) didn’t know what to say about this book and ended up writing: “A beguilingly oblique novel . . .. Despite its intricate, mazelike progression, Homecoming has surprising narrative thrust.” Another cover quote from The New York Times Book Review is similar: “Sensitive and disturbing . . .. The reader’s mind opens to the story like a plant unfurling its leaves to the sun.” Who am I to argue with such erudition?

Well, maybe it’s a great novel. I’m reminded of the warning that when one examines a painting and fails to understand it, assuming that there is nothing there to be understood may be a colossal error. On the other hand . . .

Sunday, March 07, 2010

An Ounce of Nard

An Ounce of Nard

Sunday School this morning. The theme was the Matthew version of the anointing of Jesus with expensive perfume. The different gospels have this event occurring in the house of Simon the Leper, a Pharisee’s home or the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha in Bethany, just east of Jerusalem. Sometimes she pours oil on his head, and in Luke, she washes his feet with her tears and then anoints them with myrrh. In every case, the event involves personal sacrifice and an expression of deep affection.

I spent a long time considering how I might approach this passage, and then decided that it was really one of a number of incidents in which Jesus tries to teach his disciples to avoid categorical thinking . . . fundamentalism, if you will. The disciples, you see, rebuke her in Matthew for wasting the expensive perfume when it could have been converted into cash and benefited the poor. Jesus rebukes them in turn for “bothering” the woman, who has done something wonderful for him.

Because of the variations in fact across the gospels regarding the anointing of Jesus, it clearly falls into the category of legend. It’s what happens in oral traditions where a story may be repeated over decades and may travel long distances. Details evolve, places and times shift until the actual facts are clearly no longer reliable. Amazingly, though, such legends seem to retain a strong similarity in what they are attempting to communicate. In every case, male persons look down their noses at a woman’s act of love and are brought up short by Jesus. Every version has this in common.

I wonder how a director would choose to render this scene in a movie? Take Luke’s version: Jesus is eating supper at Simon the Pharisee’s table, possibly with a group of men. They’re seated on the floor around a low table set out in the courtyard of Simon’s house. A woman known to be a prostitute enters the gate and is unnoticed amid the laughter and conversation. She comes up behind Jesus and wraps her arms around his feet, weeping and wailing. Servants of the Pharisee begin to drag her away and some mutter “If Jesus was a real prophet, he’d know that he’s just been grabbed at table by a whore!” Jesus jumps up and fends them off, shouts at them to leave the woman alone. They reluctantly resume their seats and Jesus tells them the parable of the two men who are unable to pay a debt, one of fifty silver pieces and one five hundred. The point he’s making is that the one who is forgiven the most will love the most; they get that when it’s cloaked in the arithmetic of dollars and cents.

The woman languishes at Jesus’ feet for the rest of the meal, a thorn in the host’s side. She opens a flask of myrrh and anoints his feet with it. The aroma wafts through the air and it’s all the men around the table can do to restrain their desire to throw her out.

I think it could be a great scene.

We, too, can be such Pharisees from time to time. To me, the arts are the myrrh (the spikenard in Matthew) that cannot feed or clothe, but that is capable of blessing the world with an aroma of love. Women seem to get this more easily than men. 2/3 of the people at concerts are women; many come without spouses; there’s a hockey game on TV, or there’s work to be done, or they “just aren’t interested in that stuff.” Categorical thinking. The fundamentalist’s plague. Adopting a singular attitude toward life precluding all others.

An aside. Agnes and I were invited by Persephone Theatre to attend the opening night of Billy Bishop Goes to War on Friday. It’s basically a one-man show with a supporting musician and is a powerful rendering of both the chutzpah and the tragedy of war. The actor was a surprise to us; he also plays the nerd in the A & W commercials. He’s brilliant in this version of this gem of a play. Unforgettable. I’m still spending half my reverie time sorting out the meaning of the play. That doesn’t happen often.