What I Watched About Evil: Out of the Past

Out of the Past (1947)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Starring
Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey (Markham)
Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat
Kirk Douglas as Whit Sterling
Virginia Huston as Ann Miller

“Think we ought to go home?

“Do you want to?”

“No.”

Out of the Past begins with a montage of shots of the Sierras. It looks like a series of Anselm Adams’ photographs: stark snow-peaked mountains and high skies cast in rich, sharp grays. The music is sweeping; it befits the landscape. The camera pans down to a small town, Bridgeport, in the shadow of the mountains, and follows a black car as it drives in among the white buildings. The good world, the one we wish for, may be severe in its beauty, but it is beautiful—and natural. Evil, when it comes, comes in human form, wearing a black coat and black gloves.

None of this is surprising or unexpected. It’s almost too easy and too obvious. Out of the Past is a movie that continually works between the obvious and the hidden. The main character, Jeff Bailey, is hiding in Bridgeport, a sleepy little California town with a diner owner who knows everyone’s business. Jeff is the wild card, which draws the attention of the town’s beautiful Ann Miller. She is straight out of a fairy tale. We first meet her fishing in secret with Jeff, he declares, “You see that cove over there? Well, I’d like to build a house right there, marry you, live in it, and never go anywhere else.” She answers, “I wish you would.” Ann comes from a world where wishes come true. Jeff does not.

Jeff Bailey is a marked man—his actual name is “Markham,” and we learn the details of his past promptly as the story progresses. The black-gloved driver has come with a summons for Jeff from a gangster named Whit Sterling. The gangster and Jeff share a past: Whit hired Jeff to find a woman, Kathie Moffat, who stole forty thousand dollars and his heart (although the gangster never admits this); Jeff found the woman and fell in love with her. In simplest terms, Whit is evil.

In simpler terms than that, so is Kathie. Essays about film noir identify Kathie Moffat as the femme fatale par excellence. She is bad. After hearing her story, Ann states, “She can’t be all bad. No one is.” Jeff responds, “Well, she comes the closest.” Before the story of the movie begins, Kathie shot Whit—three times with his own gun. She shoots and kills Jeff’s partner (after Jeff pummels him in a fistfight). She finishes off Whit. And finally, she shoots Jeff. She is bad; she is a killer. But so are most of the male characters in the film—even the “innocent” deaf-mute boy who works for Jeff causes the death of Whit’s black-coated muscleman. Kathie acts out of self-interest, and unlike Jeff, who naively believes that his roughed-up partner will not cause further trouble, Kathie understands what men will do. Jeff barely understands himself.

Jeff is repeatedly called “smart” in this film. It reminds me of how often Iago is called “honest” in Othello. Mitchum plays Jeff with languid rakish charm, and it’s an act so good that it convinces nearly everyone, even himself. Jeff is tough enough to claim, “I’m afraid of half the things I ever did,” but toughness and charm simply ease his way into disaster. His actions lead to the deaths of six characters, including his own. He kills none of them. Joe Stefanos, Whit’s muscle, kills a man to frame Jeff. “The Kid”—who works for Jeff—hooks Joe with a well-placed cast and pulls him from a precipice and to his death. Kathie kills three. And the police kill Kathie. But all six deaths begin with Jeff’s admission, “I saw her—coming out of the sun. And I knew why Whit didn’t care about that 40 grand.” “I saw her.”

Some critics will let Jeff off the hook—an appropriate metaphor in this film because we are introduced to Ann and Jeff while they are fishing—and claim that the film frames Kathie. After all, Jeff acts nobly at the end of the movie, when the Kid tells Ann, in unspoken accordance with Jeff, that Jeff was leaving with Kathie. This clears the way for Ann to return to her old reliable beau. And Kathie did kill three men.

Still, Jeff’s naïveté—the kind of naïveté fostered by an over-sentimental macho ethos—never takes into account the consequences of his actions. He’s halfway smart and gets the lion’s share of great lines, but he doesn’t actually know what he’s saying. The lines just sound good. When he chides Whit, “I sell gasoline, I make a small profit. We call it earning a living. You may have heard of it somewhere,” he doesn’t really believe it, no matter what he tells Ann or anyone else.

“You’re no good, and neither am I,” Kathie insists to Jeff. We may have been charmed by Jeff. She may have found him charming, she may even love him, but most of all, she knows him and knows that the good act that he puts on is his weakness. He is evil—as bad as her, worse because he can neither admit it nor make it work to his advantage. It’s a crushing realization.

The realization that the hero—even the louche antihero played so well by Mitchum—is, in fact, the villain, is not easy to accept. We like the cool character, the slow-eyed machismo wins us over, even while he threatens the fairy tale princess at the heart of the story. Maybe we like him for the same reason that we like the stark gray landscape: the Sierras are neither moral nor immoral. The landscape is beyond good and evil. If the mountain stream can be sublime even though it may be dangerous, then why can’t a person be beautiful even if she—or he—is villainous?

Iago claims that “When devils will the blackest sins put on,/ They do suggest at first with heavenly shows” (2.3.371-2), he points out how we may be fooled by evil. There’s something else though, a willingness to set aside our judgment when the “Divinity of Hell” wanders into our midst. We want to understand, to analyze, and to rationalize, thus casting evil into a knowable and, therefore, acceptable quality. We value our ability to sympathize, no matter what. Do we sympathize with Whit? Or his blunt right hand, Joe Stefanos? Or even the femme fatale, Kathie? I suspect that we do not. But Jeff elicits sympathy. Because he is cool, and maybe, because we want a little of that coolness to rub off on us. No matter the cost.

It’s what we wish for.

“Think we ought to go home?” Ann asks Jeff when we meet them. He answers with a question, “Do you want to?” She says, “No.” Home, this country founded on a beautiful idea that there is no evil—or if there is, it is outside whatever we define as home: the four walls, the property lined with a stone wall, the land we call our own. We wish for home and cousin up to the idea that evil exists outside, that it is a black-gloved interloper, that it doesn’t know how to fish, that it doesn’t hire the innocent deaf-mute boy to pump gas and repair tires. And that if evil does exist at home, it comes in the form of nosiness, petty jealousies and provincial attitudes. It doesn’t look or sound like Jeff Bailey.

Howl

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. 

                                    King Lear V.III

My father and I traded knowing looks when one of our crewmates complained about the weather. Anyone who heads out onto the ocean for anything more than a day sail should understand that the weather will change and, then, change again.

My father, my brother Peter, and me

There is nothing a sailor can do to change the weather. You can alter course when conditions make the way forward nonsensically impassable. You should. Otherwise, onward.

That said, there are days on the ocean when all you want is weather of any sort, when the sea is glassy in every direction, and the horizon is a long uninterrupted line in the distance. The only wind blows in your memory, and even there, it is nothing more than a hot, lazy zephyr. If you chose to complain, your voice would rise only up to an endless and cloudless blue sky.

If you sail to find perfect weather, you waste your effort. Each day—whether bound with boredom or rapt with terror—is a test to match intention (your course) to the conditions. If you really are a sailor, the weather is always already perfect—such as it is. The same holds true for your vessel: the quality of your sails, the weight of your keel, the hull speed. Once you take the helm, you—your intentions, your ability, your fitness–are the only genuine, imperfect variable.

Complaint becomes, therefore, a reflection of the one thing that you can change: yourself.

When Lear unleashes his “Howl,” it demonstrates the dissonance between his internal state—his intellect and emotions—and the external state. He seeks to crack the vault of heaven not only to mourn Cordelia but because Cordelia died as a result of his inability to match his intentions to the world around him.  He rails against God because he cannot reconcile the failure of his plan.

So too, the sailor who complains, “The rain sucks.” Or, “I hate this rain.” No, it’s not quite a “howl,” but what that sailor really means is that she—or he—does not like rain. The rain, in and of itself, does not suck. The lack of proper heavy weather gear sucks (Be prepared, the old Boy Scout proviso). The desire for sunny weather sucks (the Buddhist approach). The pink beaches at our destination would be better (A quick visit to the deeper tangles of Epicurus). But complaint is not grief.

When I drove home after identifying my father’s body on the dock of the Tolchester Marina, I howled in the car as I drove west over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It was a rainy Wednesday night, and a cat had wandered onto the dock while the emergency crew arranged his body between two pylons. They pulled the tarp back, and there he was, sodden and swollen from 36 hours in the water, and torn from where the hook found his body on the silty bottom of the boatyard.

As I drove over the bridge under which I ended my first glorious sail home—making 8 knots on a firm beam reach, nearly a perfect sail in that old Cape Dory—I let loose one long howl, holding it for the length of the span, tears flowing freely. While we, my brothers and mother, all anticipated his death, we still mourned his passing. He was, as we continued to toast him in his absence, “the founder of the feast.”

A younger captain

He was also, over the last decades of his life, a sailor. He had his flaws—there were times when we should not have left port, despite the sacrosanct schedule that he typed up and kept in a folder on the navigator’s desk. But who’s perfect?

We looked at each other and then turned our vision to the horizon, grey and wet in every direction, as of no matter where we sailed, the rain would find us. We were wet beneath our foul weather gear. What did it matter? We are made of water. We never said as much, but we knew. It was perfect.

In the British Virgin Islands, 1972

I was not always a sailor, even though I learned when I was 11. Sailing on the Bay bored me;  even the crystalline beauty of the British Virgin Islands failed to hold my attention until we dropped anchor and snorkeled our way through schools of brilliant fish down to fans of coral 30 feet below the surface. I did not find my way until I was in my thirties, and we were on the ocean in heavy weather. Because I am not perfect, I left those lessons on the ocean for too long. Memory is a boon and a bounty—with each remembered hurt, there is a corresponding gift.

There is a time for grief, and for some, a time for complaint. For sailors, once the course has been settled, there is only the sail and a wish for steady wind. And then, an acceptance of whatever comes. There will be howls.

Sailing Over the Horizon

I don’t know how long I have been preparing for my mother’s death. It has been for some time. The first inklings came by way of my father.

My father had suffered—“struggled” is too valiant a word; he suffered from the diminution of his physical abilities, of a stutter, and drugs that knocked him out—with Parkinson’s Disease over the last ten years of his life. He insisted on driving, even when the autonomous reflexes that make safe navigation of country roads at high speeds had abandoned him. We—his family—worried that his end (and someone else’s end) would come on the road. It did not.

Before the disease, my father sailed. He began when I was 11, and I took lessons with him. He sailed on the Chesapeake Bay, spending weekends looking for wind. When he retired from full-time work, he began to sail on the ocean.

Everyone who has sailed on the ocean has a story of a near-miss. Some idiots sailed onto a reef, and lost their two million dollar boat. Cargo containers, my father’s persistent concern, floated like metal icebergs and ripped through the fiberglass hull of a ship. There was a boat whose hull breached when it was nudged by a whale—“Once the water got into the cabin, the keel pointed it to the bottom. Like an arrow.” Any number of unforeseen accidents could turn a gentlemanly jaunt across the waves into a disaster. Even without the gales and following seas, sailing, for all its trappings, is a dare.

When I sailed with my father, I was folded into the fraternity of casual, privileged risk. It is a different bargain than that made by those who forswear safety for a higher cause. Only a fool invites disaster, tempts it, for what? A dare? An assertion of meaning and purpose? A sunny destination? All those and more. We may have been foolish, but we prepared for the worst.

He was prepared too. He confessed that his trips on the ocean might have to end. He told me that he was contemplating selling his sailboat and buying a motorboat to “gunkhole” around in the Chesapeake Bay. A signal of its own.

And then in 2002, cancer—non-Hodgkins Lymphoma—struck my mother. She was not pleased, just as she had not been pleased with my father’s illness. Disruptions were anathema to my mother. However, her illness stunned my father. Whatever else in his life was uncertain, my mother’s tenacity was inflexible. I drove from Baltimore to the Philadelphia area to take her to chemotherapy sessions, sparing him as much as comforting her. After a few months, her doctor thought she had gone into remission, but then a second wave collapsed on her. Her liver swelled to the size of a football, and her blood became the consistency of maple syrup. We girded ourselves for the worst. And then it passed.

Six months later, my father slipped on a wet dock, fell into the water, and drowned.

Because of this, for the past 18 years, death has been a sometime presence in my relationship with my mother. My mother was nearly 72 years old when her husband died. He was diseased and at risk; the reef was hidden under the waves. We knew the odds.

My mother was halfway through her 88th year when she died. Otherwise, she was not a halfway kind of person. She was a pistol—full of energy and ready to go off in an instant.  She was fiercely independent—a characteristic that could make her difficult, but which also fired her painting. She started making art in her forties. Painting was a source of independence, stability, and consistency in the second half of her life.

While others made paintings that were representational and, well, let’s be honest, commercial, she stuck to abstraction. A quick word about abstraction: while some might imagine that abstraction is easy—just smear some paint on canvas—my mother found a challenge in getting a gesture onto the surface, and then a further challenge in adding a color, a second gesture, then another color. She labored over maintaining control of her gestures and palette and took solace in the layering of decisions that created a finished work.

If you had ever seen our house and its spare, precise decor, you could have seen how she battled chaos. Add to your imagination the rambunctiousness of her three sons, and the knowledge that we were forbidden from several rooms of the house until we were older and more settled. Her artistic life stood against the (self-invited, self-created) disorder of the outside world. She did not take to sailing—to the unpredictability of wind. She would retreat to the cabin when the boat heeled on a beat. She poured a glass of scotch, finding ballast and balance where none existed.

When I visited her with my family in 2014, a copy of Derek Humphry’s Final Exit ( a handbook for assisted suicide) was on one of the side tables. She was 82 and fully in remission, but arthritis made walking painful. She was sending up a flare of dissatisfaction. She had watched her mother linger and die in a nursing home. If my mother was a pistol, her mother was a blunderbuss, sour with nostalgia for a time before her marriage—the good old days. My mother did not want the end she had witnessed there. She put the book out to warn us: I am unhappy, and will not fade out of control.

The intervening years have unfolded with a number of slaps—like a cat playing with a mouse. Small strokes and other ignominies took small but noticeable bites out of my mother. When she gave up her studio—located in a community art building about 20 miles from her home—it was a keen signal.

 The past year she has navigated toward an ending, and I have been, as I often was with my father, a helping hand on the helm. It has been a strange duty. I encouraged her to work because I knew and shared the value of daily work with her. But I also listened to her dissatisfaction. “When I go to the studio, all I do is nap,” she told me. She told me more and told others more as well. She did not withhold complaints.

Last year as my mother began to make this final journey, I had started to date a woman. I told her about where my mother was, and what she asked of me. Rightly or wrongly, this woman noted the possibility of “unhealthy” and retreated. I cannot disagree or blame. I took the helm for my mother the same way I did for my father when he—foolishly, dangerously—kept to a schedule despite the weather. If, in telling the story of my mother’s death, I have returned to my father and his end, it is because they are intertwined—bookends spaced twenty years apart.

I ended my brief graveside eulogy for my mother, “She leaves us with this legacy, and with a vision of how to thrive in the garden of challenges that faces us all. Even this challenge. We go on, making our marks, as she taught us.” While many of my posts have been about my father, my mother was also my teacher. The lessons—both fortunate and unfortunate—that I took from them shaped me and prepared me. For what? For his death? Hers? My father once asked me if I could bring the boat home without him. He was prepared for disaster. I answered, as I must, as was true, “Yes.” These are the sailing lessons.

Risking it all

It is difficult to explain the existential risk that the writer—at least this writer—undertakes when working. It is tantamount to this:

One time we (my father, two crewmates, and I) sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay onto the ocean in a gale. A gale is wind at 40 knots. Already in the bay itself there was 6-8 foot chop, and on this trip, one of the four sailors (a first-time sailor) had slipped into his bunk clutching his life jacket, stricken with an indomitable case of seasickness. We were sailing short-handed into stupid weather.

For the next four days we sailed in 30-50 knot winds, in a sea that was more like a protracted set of sand dunes, the water whipped by the wind into twelve-foot peaks that barely seemed to move. They were moving though, faster than we were in our 36-foot sailboat. The ship sailed up and down these wet rolling hills, making ragged progress toward our goal: Bermuda.

Sensible men would have waited, but for all my father’s strengths (long-range planning, and in the moment decisiveness among them), he had a stubbornness that did not waver. Once he had a plan, he stuck to it. Later in life, this supported him as he battled with Parkinson’s Disease. He suffered with the adaptations the illness forced on him, but refused to be stopped. In the end this led to his death. On this trip, his drive took us into an ocean that would challenge us.

I should also note that when I point to a crewmate who became seasick, I do not cast aspersions. I get seasick, and had each time I had sailed on the ocean before this. It always struck me when I took my first late watch, when the horizon was shrouded in black, and my eyes and inner ear could not properly make sense of the several directions that my body was moving. It is an ugly sickness, driving the guts empty in rebellion until there is nothing left but bile. I never missed my turns at the helm because of it. The nausea would strike, and I would turn my head, and do what I needed. I did not eat or drink while it was on me, and it passed, for me it did, and after 36 hours.

On this trip, in this ocean, I was entirely spared. All my other crewmates, even my father, were struck. In retrospect perhaps the swell of the sea was so distinct and regular, that the three-way (pitch, yaw, and roll) motion did not take grip of me. Or perhaps the danger created a necessary clarity. As with all retrospect, I cannot be sure.

After four days, we finally passed into the fringe of whatever had driven the gale. In a matter of hours, the wind created new swell patterns. Around midnight, the sea that had been a reasonable set of rolling hills, turned, and became more like waves breaking over an invisible reef or sand bar. 18-20 foot waves rose and broke, all headed in one direction. They are called following seas, which means the breakers were rising behind us, and rolling toward us. They were moving faster than we were and lifted our boat to each peak, at which point our boat would slide down the front of the breaker like a sailboard.

That sounds easy enough, but as the boat fell down the surface of each wave, it carved a path driven by gravity and the force of the wave it was riding. Its path down the wave became, temporarily and repeatedly, unmanageable. Pushed by wind, pushed by water, pulled by gravity, the rudder merely suggested a direction. And yet, when at the helm, every suggestion made a difference. Caught at the top of a breaker, the boat could easily go sideways and roll over. Sliding down the side of the breakers, it could turn too sharply and roll over.

A sailboat is not a surfboard.

My father and I took the helm when the sea turned. We held it in half-hour turns, and it was exhausting work that required dense and specific attention. And, we were exhausted after the previous days of sail. Usually, in harsh conditions, one man took the wheel, and the other took refuge propped against the cabin in the leeward side of the cockpit, using the cabin as a wall against the constant water that broke over the windward gunwale. In this case, as we planed down the sides of the swells, the leeward gunwale cut into the water, and the water rushed into the cockpit. This added a new threat. The boat could be capsized, swamped with water if the helmsmen was not attentive. And, because no attention was enough, at the very least, we were soaked, the water pooling in our yellow foul weather gear, which was not designed for repeated submersion.

At 4 in the morning my father looked at me and said, “I can’t do it anymore. I’m going to send another crew member up, but you cannot let him take the helm until the sea settles down. You have to sail until then. The boat is yours.”

I brought a waterproof Walkman on these trips. While I took the helm that night, I listened to an array of the loudest songs I had: Dinosaur Jr’s “I Know You’re Out There,” Medicine’s “One More,” and Sonic Youth’s “Sugar Kane.” Nothing was loud enough. Nothing matched the ocean or my attention. Nothing matched my awareness of what might happen, or when my father relented, what had happened.

I sailed. Every time I turned the wheel, I felt like I was making a decision that could imperil the lives of all of us. We would go down fast, without time to throw the life raft overboard. It would happen in an instant. We were at sea—tempest-tossed as Shakespeare wrote. The end would come quickly. Each time I turned the wheel, each millimeter I moved it to port or starboard, I felt as if I was making a decision for speed and forward motion. It felt, again, as the bard wrote, giddy. Not happy, and not drunk—although I felt as drunk as I could be—drunk with sailing, with water, and with wind—but transported out of my mind, beyond all thought, and into every thought possible. I sailed as I never had before, as I would always want to sail afterward.

Friends ask me if I have been sailing in the years since my father’s death. I have not. But even before he died, I knew that I would not—not because of fear or seasickness (an anti-vertigo drug helped allay that)—but because I had done something then that I would never replicate. Not on the ocean. I have sought it ever since.

I do not know what has ever led me back to safety. I know that what calls me is not simply mastery (I have a Ph.D. in English, I have some level of mastery there), but the exhilaration of being over the edge of control and into the realm of the impossible. To be the captain, which I became that night. Sometimes, too often, I have exercised the caution I faulted my father for lacking. I have stayed controlled, almost too calm. In some measure, this is because I feel a lack of control and a lack of mastery around me. Even the experts profess a quietness or steadfastness, when sometimes what is needed is to go out of one’s mind. To forgo safety. To risk. But also to carry the responsibility for the lives on board. We are, truly, in this together, and must all go out of our minds, together.

I have over-prepared, or tried to know, to tame the ideas in my head, worried that they were unintelligible, or that they were somehow too strange. I feel myself now, at the top of the breaking wave again. And look down into the night sea. This way. Now. Down. For life.

Mothering and Nostalgia

A current meme on Facebook compares what Moms used to say to their kids with what they say now. It is held up as a clarion call to the virtues of yesteryear, when Moms—and their kids—knew what was what. Over and over again, stuff (stuff) like this careens around the internet, in casual banter on news shows, in conversations in my workplaces. Those of us who grew up in the mythical “then” look back with nostalgia, and look at this moment with a jocular disdain. I would like to call “bullshit” on the whole enterprise.

I don’t now what your mother was like. If she was anything like mine, there were highs and lows. My mother stayed at home with my brothers and me. She bowled in a league. Went shopping. Had bridge parties. Took tennis lessons. She was a den mother for my Cub Scout troop, and took us to the Devault Meat Packing Plant, among other places. Her sons were a handful. She scurried us out at a reasonable time in the morning, set out lunch when it was time, and made dinner for the family. She made us Batman capes for Easter one year; she sewed. I remember her stitching up an injury to one of our cats.

Was she happy? Her happiness was never an issue for us. Nor was our happiness overly attended to. We all were content, which, to my gimlet eye, is a horse of a different color. It was only later, some 13-14 years after I was born that she began to explore art, and then took on the work of a painter, and artist. If she found genuine and durable happiness, it was in that work—and the work of making art is not about easy delight, or even contentment (so says her son, the writer).

My mother did what she thought and felt was right. She learned her lessons from her mother and family—and what lessons they were. Some things, she changed. She never leashed us to trees in the front yard. Others were more indelible. I am certain that most of us parent in the same way—sifting through the conscious and unconscious lessons that we received from our parents. What we do, we do almost on a kind of autopilot—in the heat of the moment, dumb memory takes over. Change is hard.

I cannot and will not say that my childhood was perfect. I can recall exceptional moments on both sides of the ledger. Making a judgment seems beside the point. Here I am now, and I go on. There’s a ton of privilege built into that statement, and I fully recognize exactly how fortunate I am to be where I am, and to have traveled to this point in my life. The choices I can make now—and the way I make those choices—are predicated on the choices of my mother and father. And so on. For ages.

I guess that any time I hear someone pass judgment on another’s parenting—and mothering especially so—in that gross, if semi-benign “Look at the snowflakes” kind of way, I want to yell, “Really? Cast aspersions carefully, oh paragons of perfection!” All those old lessons about the log in your eye and casting the first stone ring out loudly for me. Those are the lessons I remember. Besides, the old joke about walking five miles to school in the snow, uphill, both ways, gives the proper lie to ill-kept nostalgia.

Life, and mothering, are hard. No one needs anyone to chide them for the daily duties. The significant missteps require a different consideration. No more abuse, please. But keep the quibbling to a minimum. Please.

In general, and in a larger sense, I distrust nostalgia. Yes, remember, always remember, but without the haze of candy floss. At heart, I am more focused on where we are going, adapting, and learning—and in passing those lessons on. Have I failed? Indeed. I keep at it. I will fail again. So what? I keep at it. Where I came from is a starting point, but not my destination. Eyes up! Here comes life.

Patterns

I don’t believe in fate—providence, if you will. If there is a plan, it does not proscribe outcomes. Rather we wander in and out of circumstances bumping into two sets of patterns—those we make out of our lives, and those that are beyond our immediate control. Life goes out of balance when we cannot get the two patterns to jibe—when we cannot reconcile ourselves to the patterns that exist. Out of balance we can neither accept what has happened in our lives or we cannot break those patterns and create new ones that are made from familiar pieces but reflect possibilities that we had not imagined. Out of balance we fight against the patterns that life provides, missing obvious signs (rising temperatures, repeated cruelties, even the tender messages of love) and careening against the walls of a maze that we cannot perceive and causing damage to ourselves and those around us.

The patterns in our lives start with family. I constantly share Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be the Verse.” There is something reassuring in the thought that we are in a cycle of “fuck you up.” As opposed to Larkin, I think the ways we do it, as we do it, inescapably echo what has happened to us, perhaps a refracted and distorted echo, but if we listen closely the voices of the past are there. Beyond that we try, inexpertly and haphazardly, to shape something new—sometimes in the bounds of that was happened—marrying tin castings of our mothers or fathers—and sometimes creating almost new ones—bouncing from job to job, leaving or being fired, until we find something that makes sense; switching churches running away from one doctrine to another until we find answers to our questions, or questions for our answers, failing in aspects of our lives until we discover paths that lead to understanding and accomplishment.

If we pay attention there are patterns to the world—some are startlingly easy to discern: evolution, geology, philosophy, math, literature. We go to school to learn to recognize those patterns, or at least learn the methods behind those patterns. Maybe—there’s no guarantee—we learn to accept that life does not always follow the neat regular order of all that we learn—like a geometry proof—but proceeds in fits and starts—like punctuated equilibrium. Or that it bears an uncanny resemblance to the cagey repetitions of a Mandelbrot set—a kind of beautiful and frustratingly decoded paisley.

I am writing this, because I can see—but only when I’m not looking straight at it—a pattern. The school where I will teach in the fall is near the junctions of routes 17 and 29—roads that ran through my earlier life. The mountains nearby are mountains on which I hiked when I was twelve. I am now split, three hours in either direction—when the traffic is good—from both ends of my family. These are entirely random coincidences—of that I am sure. However, coincidence when it travels in large numbers begins to wear the shape of a pattern. Perhaps it is a pattern of my own making—I look for affirmation and discover it where I will.

And yet, these days, I find other coincidences accruing—but not coincidences, more like reflections and refractions.

How many times in my life have I wondered how someone significant has entered my orbit—or rather, how has the rogue moon of my existence been captured by another’s gravity? I recognized early on the awful fact that I was chasing those tin castings from my family. Inevitable, and not always destined for failure, yet, somehow, not strangely, I ended up at 58 single.

When I looked through the kaleidoscope of my past relationships, I recognized the shifting bits of glass and plastic that first came present in my childhood. And with each turning, I noticed newer, more original bits. I could see how I was adding to the portrait, or finding, fortunately, new colors and shapes. This bit—a runner who lead me onto the road and into extended jaunts over hills. That bit—a wild heretical sense of magic and religion that helped my questioning soul find new answers. Over there, now sliding out of the periphery—an abiding sense of motherhood that helped me see fatherhood in a clearer light. Here—a love of play and pretending that rekindled my dramatic heart. In the corner—a fervent commitment to words and learning that at least matched my own. Sliding past in a glint of light—a traveler’s heart that would call me away from the familiar and to new destinations.

All these marked shifts away, additions to, and surprises in my vision of who I would walk with down city streets and along autumn trails. Singularly, each one added a variation to a familiar pattern, but that pattern remained dominant. All together they formed a secret wish—not just for someone else, but for the person I wanted to be.

Do we get to pick that person? Are we trapped under years of habit and gentle conditioning? They have carried me this far. What to do with the secret and not so secret longings—dreams set aside for expedience and practicality, or for some ingrained fear or limit? What if I began to write a new story—still with some familiar elements, but now with a center I have let waste in a box kept in a closet, underneath last year’s shoes, out of sight, but never, naggingly, out of mind?

I don’t believe in fate, but what if, instead of providence, I relied on my will to call forth a story, to create a possibility I had turned from year after year? What would happen? Would the kaleidoscope turn to reveal someone, or—by dint of will and willingness to shake my life into new form—would someone appear, almost without request, almost by chance? I don’t believe in fate, but I can see patterns, and can follow stars that have not lifted above the horizon before now.

Onward!

Names

landscape-1435262834-cotswolds-homeI recently swapped the nicknames that we give our kids with a friend. We had both, surprisingly and strangely, settled on “Bug.” I’m not sure that our daughters will appreciate that longer into their lives, but for now, it will do.

The first time I met her, my younger daughter bounded across the room shouting, “Baba”—Chinese for father—and into my arms. I was a goner. The names I am called matter.  When my daughter calls me, “Daddy,” it stamps me in a more definite way–not just as a father, but as her “daddy.” Sometimes when she is in a softer mood, she will call me “Papa,” and I know to take a gentler stance. She will sit next to me in the car, and say, in that drawn out imploring way, “Da-a-a-addy,” to which I volley, “Dau-au-au-aughter.”

Years of being called “Doctor”—which is more reliably shortened to “Doc,” by my students—has turned me from a reluctant, begrudging authority, to a genial, self-effacing curator of knowledge. A “doc,” in the rural veterinary or GP sense. But I still feel a mild shudder, because of my first “Doctor”—“Doctor Groton,” who taught Latin at my high school, and had an imposing, almost menacing presence. Besides, which of my friends with similar degrees who teach in college would ever sidle up to the honorific with less than irony?

Even more powerful are the words we use around someone. I tell my daughter with almost casual splendor, “I love you.” To which she responds, “I love you too.” Recently she has started initiating these exchanges, “I love you daddy,” which is followed before breath is drawn with “I love you too, daughter,” or “I love you too, bug.”

Giving something the imprimatur of “love” is easy, perhaps too easy. Perhaps I should gird on cynicism and protect myself a little more than I do.  Instead, when I feel the connection, which reveals all the connections in the universe (“every atom as good belonging to me belongs to you”), I find love to be the easiest, truest response.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd I do know the other side. I know how easy it is to let upset slide into hate. And I know that once uttered—by an adult, not by a child, because children must experiment with all words and all emotions—it breaks the bonds in a nearly irrevocable way. I have said it, out loud—either in the perpetual external conversation I have with the world or directly the object of scorn—and the immediate thrill is followed by a deep remorse as the tendrils that connected me to another person wither immediately into dried spiked vines, like the hedges of multiflora rosa that grew brown and foreboding in winter. All that was planted must be uprooted. Maybe something can be saved, some sprig, somewhere.

And because love is, well, love, there is fertile soil. The assurance and reassurance that I give and receive from my daughter spreads new life, almost instantaneously. My bug is a pollinator and the fruits are plenty–the golden apples of the sun, the silver apples of the moon.

 

The Captain’s Way

Over twenty-five years ago I started sailing on the ocean with my father. We would leave the Chesapeake Bay in the last week of May and spend five or six days out of sight of land on the way to Bermuda. Some days the weather was lovely. I read The Pickwick Papers on deck during my first trip, lying on the cabin roof in generous sun and a steady breeze. Some days the rain found every gap in the foul weather gear, and every inch of skin wrinkled to a puckered wet mess. There were days when no wind blew, and the foul diesel exhaust clung to the boat like regret, and days when the wind blew too hard to unfurl the smallest triangle of sail.

On every trip save three I got seasick—a miserable thirty-six hours of retching that began during my first 2 am watch on the ocean and ended when the store of yellow bile in my guts was exhausted and my inner ears adjusted to the six-way surprises of pitch, roll, and yaw. If I think hard enough about it, I can churn my stomach while standing on dry land. I chewed ginger, which was tarry and vile. I applied scopolamine patches, which gave me marvelous hallucinations that I used to unlock characters in stories. I went without, which guaranteed predictable suffering. Finally, I settled on an anti-vertigo drug that wrapped my head in gauze but staved off illness.  Only once, when we sailed out onto the ocean in a full gale, and the seas peaked into a landscape of rolling hills, did I avoid either remedy or illness.

I miss sailing.  I miss fighting through unpredictability. I miss sailing upwards of seven knots. I miss storm clouds lit by the night sky. I miss encounters with thousand strong pods of dolphins.  I miss standing watches with my father.

My father rarely complained about anything when we were on the ocean.  He called the weather “shitty” on a few occasions. He swore at the crew once, which has lived down in family lore; “Blanket the fucking jib” has outlived him. He knew that the greatest frustrations on the ocean were not weather, or even illness. He suffered with Parkinson’s Disease when I sailed with him, and except for the times he sent me forward to tie down a loose sail or hold the helm through a storm, he did not express regret about his condition, about what he could no longer do.

He knew that the hardest part of sailing was the proximity of four men on board. It was after I complained about some dreary antics of one of our crew mates that he told me how important variety was.  “If everyone was an orange, life would be boring,” he advised.  He brought his sons to the ocean with him because he knew we would not misbehave.  We laughed. We passed over contretemps with humor; he was the only one who would swear at anyone. He was the captain. But even after swearing, there was time for a scotch and laughter. We may not have all been oranges, but we shared an approach that kept us on course.

I know the world is bigger than a thirty-six-foot sailboat, and so the need to behave well does not always assert itself. People say and do things that would raise the captain’s voice. I realize, as my father must have years ago, that not all families abide with humor, that many live by other means. Years of working with people in school and church have taught me that people bring a variety of approaches to challenge, and that my father’s way is rare. I have also learned that for some, humor is not a balm as it was for us. For some contention and control provide the well-worn ground that makes the world, if not safe, then predictable. And for some, there is safety in that.

I think I gave up on safety a long time ago.  Sailing will do that to you.  You learn to prepare for the unimaginable, and to gird yourself with an attitude that can adapt. In the last weeks of May, I feel the old tug, and miss my father. I long to sail in his affable company again.

What I Watched About Love–Two For the Road

What Marriage Means

Two for the Road (1967)

Directed by Stanley Donen

Starring Audrey Hepburn as Joanna Wallace and Albert Finney as Mark Wallace

I remember seeing Two for the Road before I was 12, and that cannot be right. I was probably 15. I was delighted by the editing—how it jumped back and forth between the five different time periods, from scene to scene and back again. It was like nothing I had seen before, and it made perfect sense to me. And the dialogue was witty to the point of casual cruelty. It was familiar to me because there was a premium on sharp elbows at dinner table conversation in my family. As the boys became old enough to be no longer seen and not heard, we entered conversations by jousting our way in. Later on in life, a woman I was dating asked how we could be so mean to each other. We had learned it early, and it stuck.

More than anything else this one struck deep because of Audrey Hepburn’s performance. She was 37 when this movie came out, an she played a character who ages from about 20 to 30. Finney is meant to be older than her and was 7 years her junior. Besides the simple matter of years, her transformation is the more amazing of the two. She is both more hopeful and more sad over the course of her character’s aging. Finney remains more static, which is one facet of his masculine character.

A note here: I had crushes on a number of actresses when I was younger. I was unable to distinguish between the characters and the people playing the characters. And I only knew the actresses from a limited number of roles. I had no idea that Catherine Deneuve starred in a number of French films, many of which were far from chaste. I had seen none of Audrey Hepburn’s early work (Roman Holiday, Sabrina). There was simply no way to track down the movies. And besides small notices in Time Magazine, I knew nothing of their lives. I watched according to what was on television, and developed infatuations at the whims of unseen programmers.

At the beginning of Two for the Road the Wallaces, now ten years into their marriage, drive past a bride and groom in a car after their wedding ceremony. “They don’t look very happy,” Joanna remarks. “Why should they? They just got married,” Mark answers. The movie dances through their relationship, specifically tracing a series of five car trips through the French countryside as they travel from the north to the south of France. Their banter is breezy, charming, sarcastic, and bitter, building to crescendos of “I love you” before tumbling back into doubt and resentment. Marriage seems like an unresolvable puzzle, especially to Mark, and toward the end of the movie he asks Joanna, “What can’t I accept?” She answers, “That we’re a fixture. That we’re married.”

Hepburn glows when she looks lovingly at Finney. This must be the look every man wishes to receive from the woman he loves. She captures the look at several stages of the development of Joanna’s feelings toward Mark: from naive hopefulness through the first trembling of doubt, to disdainful resignation, and finally to generous acceptance. Did I understand the complexity of her feelings? Not at all, but I recognized the continuity, and as much as the look, how could a man not want to be loved through all his difficulty.

Growing up, I had no idea how relationships worked. My parents’ marriage was simply a fact and a mystery to me. I learned little about love and romance watching them. Nor were we close to my aunts and uncles and their families or the families in our neighborhood. I could not gauge how families were happy or unhappy. And this was never discussed at home. The only thing I knew was me, and I knew, and was told, that I was difficult. I may not have possessed Mark’s arrogance, but I understood early on that men in particular acted one way and felt another, and that to display doubt was nearly unforgivable. Or so I felt taught, and so I acted. I knew I harbored secret flaws—or not such secret flaws—and there was only one person who was going to love me in spite of them, and maybe even because of them.

At the end of the movie, Joanna tells Mark, “But at least you’re not a bad tempered, disorganized, conceited failure any more. You’re a bad tempered, disorganized, conceited success.” He isn’t angry or upset by her comment. He knows it, and ten years into their relationship, he is happy not to keep his secret from her. She is willing, even happy, to keep it with him.

I wonder now how the movie would play if the roles were reversed, if Joanna had been the arrogant architect, and Mark had been the more steady presence. I wonder what less traditional role I may have played had I seen that possibility earlier in life. But as Joanna tells Mark as he asks her his “What if” questions, she answers “I don’t know.” She has learned to live with the uncertainty. I know I have to accept what I am, which is something I struggled with as a teenager, then as an adult. I have begun to accept the uncertainty. And some of the flaws. And I have stopped expecting one person, even one person like Audrey Hepburn, to keep that secret.

The Way Ahead

The way ahead is all clouds, and has been for almost a day.  Somewhere the sun rises, but the day that has dawned is just another shade of dark. From the horizon line straight to the stars, beyond the stars—defying reason and science as they rise as far as eternity—the clouds form a wall.  They neither block the way nor invite us to some hint of a narrow passage—this gap, this lightening in the darkened whole—they simply wait.

My father emerges from the cabin after checking the charts, and notes that the sky behind us is cloudless. “Too bad we aren’t headed that way,” he muses. He is an old sailor and has seen a thousand skies.  When I ask how this one compares, he shakes his head, “We’ll have to wait and see.” He looks at the sails, which bow out in a beautiful arc to transform the wind into perfect forward motion. “We’ll reef in the main at lunch.” I know that he hates to shorten the sails, especially when we are on a reach with the wind crossing us almost at beam, making an honest six and a half knots, but storms have knocked him down before and he will begrudge speed for caution.

When Ralph comes up for air after sleep, he asks, “What did the forecast say?”  The offshore marine forecast broadcast a few times during the day and the computer generated voice compiles findings with forecasts and locates weather events over undersea features: the Hudson Canyon, the Baltimore Canyon, the Hatteras Canyon.  All forecasts point to what our eyes already tell us; when storms come the radio is worthless.  Only during days of extended reckless calm does the radio offer anything like hope.  Somewhere out there must be some wisps of wind to wend us on our ways.  What we see ahead will turn us amphibian.  How fast it does so, and for how long, is a question for men who cling too hard to their most mammalian selves.

My father quietly calculated all night during our watch. He knows that not everyone possesses our raw stubbornness. Some people, even some sailors, are sensible.  The two other men who sail with us have enough experience and desire to head out on the ocean, but they have no need to hazard the dangerous thrills that awaken both my father and me. Because he is older and wiser than I am, and because it is his boat and his crew, he prepares to do the sensible thing: furl the sails and alter course.  “We are gentlemen sailors,” he acknowledges, resigned to doing the right thing.

I cannot help but think of this now, when clouds blot out another horizon.  My mother, who joined us on dry land in Bermuda, but would never set foot on a boat bent for open ocean, is in a hospital bed.  Doctors order tests to discover what has knocked her down. Answers dissolve in the face of symptoms.  If not this, then what has her down?  My brothers and I settle on this and that prognosis the same way meek sailors settle on forecasts.  But we are not meek sailors, we our father’s sons, and we know the way ahead is cloudy.

My father died when he slipped off the dock at a marina, hit his head, and went under the water.  He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a decade, and we watched while he lost the physical ease that had buoyed him on his boats and made him the most reliable hand on board. He slowly changed from a gifted provocateur in conversation to a witness to his sons’ whip cracks of sarcasm and verbal retribution. He hated the stutter that came with his disease. He never told us that he was suffering, and never acknowledged his illness directly.  We knew because our mother kept us informed and because we witnessed him.

My mother hates the idea of loss of control with a greater and more public vehemence than my father ever displayed. She watched illness sap her husband, and before that saw her mother diminish over slow painful years. Fourteen years ago, she survived a harrowing encounter with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Now, living on her own, in a house she bought after my father died, she keeps a copy of Final Exit in her living room. She has set her limits.

I don’t think there is any other course ahead.  The future looms and the possibility of proceeding as gentleman sailors dwindles.  Maybe there will be time enough to furl the sails, and there may yet be some glorious sailing ahead, but the future will not brook a change of course.