Saturday, May 26, 2007


This is Memorial Day weekend, the traditional beginning of summer and a time for remembering, mostly of the dead but also the past. I don't know how the holiday powers that be decided that summer's debut and death fit nicely together, but they did. And so it's my cue for looking back (something I said the other day that I did not want to do, but consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, dontcha know).

The cemetary above is in Stowe, Vermont, and I took the photo last October during my journey in New England to see family, friends and the Fall leaves. The bones of the dead rest comfortably there, forgotten by all but amateur genealogists bearing their surnames. Why, in our culture, do we bury bodies? Why not burn them like the Hindus and the Buddhists? Probably because Christians believe in the bodily resurrection of the dead, and that's why we love to be scared by skeletons. The Thais believe in ghosts but their specters in filmed tales look more like fugitives from "Dawn of the Dead" than boney remains. I don't know about you, but if God is going to resurrect me on the Last Day, I'd like to look a little better (and younger) than I will on my own personal last day.

Cars were clogging the roads into Santa Cruz yesterday afternoon in anticipation of the three-day weekend. Most head to the Boardwalk (celebrating it's 100th year) for fun on the roller coaster, a dip in the frigid waters of Monterey Bay, or a sugar rush from cotton candy. But the fog rolled in on its little cat feet last night and this day looms gloomy and gray. Inland, the temperatures will rise into the 70s, prompting people to get into their cars to drive to the seashore, where -- surprise! -- it's foggy and cold. Someone somewhere has a sense of humor about this.

I'm remembering my use of the word "expatriate" in yesterday's blog, and was reminded by a friend of an alternate spelling (or misspelling) -- "expatriot." Yes, of course! But I've long been an ex-patriot. I'm in agreement with Samuel Johnson that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." And with Thomas Jefferson that "dissent is the highest form of patriotism." And with James Branch Cabell, “Patriotism is the religion of hell.” For a long time, my email signature has included a shorter version of this from G.K. Chesterton: “'My country, right or wrong' is a thing no patriot would ever think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying 'My mother, drunk or sober.'” Dontcha just love Google? (for more pithy sayings about patriotism, click here). So no, I am not now, nor have I ever been, an unthinking, knee-jerk, flag-waving, rabidly ethnocentric patriot. But I do love the land that Woody Guthrie sang about (strange now that right-wingers regularly quote from that radical "This Land is Your Land" written by a dedicated socialist), and I'm going to miss it. We should all be ex-patriots.

And I am remembering Julie Christie. I have seen her several times in the past week, on the big screen in "Away From Her," which should easily win her the Academy Award this year, and twice on DVD: in "Darling" which brought her an Oscar in 1965, and in a splended recent film, "The Secret Life of Words," where she had a bit part as a counselor for women tortured in the Bosnian war. Ah, Julie Christie! Who can forget her as the mystery girl in John Schlesinger's 1963 film, "Billy Liar," the one whom Tom Courtenay in the title role spied behind every corner? I harbored a secret crush on her for years because of that part. If that's not enough to inscribe her in my heart, Ms. Christie was Lara, the heroine of Boris Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago." It's reported that she sacrificed her career in the 1970s for a liason with Warren Beatty (who wrote the part in "Reds" for her but, when Diane Keaton took the role, dedicated his film to her). But in the last few years she has shined in a few choice cameo appearances, in "Troy," "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" and "Finding Neverland."

And now "Away From Her," a film about Alzheimer's, but not in the way you might think. The focus in this film is on how her husband handles the loss of his wife's memory, and about the meaning of love when the past is overwritten. The husband in this film of an Alice Munro story is sensitively portrayed by Canadian actor Gordon Pinset. It was directed by Sarah Polley, an actress in her twenties (who starred in the above mentioned "Secret Life of Words") who told an interviewer she thinks of Christie as her surrogate mother (her own died when she was 11). The multi-talented Polley could easily become a successor to Christie (don't miss her performance in the amazing "Secret Life of Words" which is directed by another outstanding new talent, Isabel Coixet from Spain).

But it's Christie who haunts me. I have grow up, and old, with her. Born in India, the daughter of a tea planter and his artist wife, she is two years younger than me. In my youth, I lusted after her with Billy Liar. In my middle years she was the glamorous movie star, Lara waiting for her physician lover, always out of reach. And now that I am poised on the brink of senility, she comes along as the beautiful victim of Alzheimer's, still with that voice that could crack walnuts and soothe savage beasts, ministering to the needs of the man she thinks she loves. Ah, Julie! I hardly knew you!

And I've been remembering John Wayne, who would have been 100 years old today (now THAT would be a corpse to resurrect). I think my childhood began with "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." God, I loved that film. I used to think my father was a little like John Wayne (impossible to call him either "John" or "Wayne"), a commanding presence, a little overbearing, and a bit dim at times, all presence with a small dash of intellect. He provided a model of macho masculinity that nobody could match, or embody. I didn't care much for his Republican politics, or his friendship with that B-movie politician, Ronald Reagan. But he had courage. He smoked 100 cigarettes a day until he was diagnosed with cancer, and then he switched to little cigars. He wasn't afraid to play a old one-eyed fat man. In later life, he reportedly said: "I stopped getting the girl about 10 years ago. Which is just as well, because I'd forgotten what I wanted her for." One of his lines in "True Grit" was: "Come up and see a fat old man sometime!" John Wayne was the unimitatable brand. He's the patron saint for elderly men, like me, who still long to be heroes.

I should say a few words for the dead this Memorial Day weekend, but the movies are often more real to me than my memories. Earlier this month I eulogized my pal, Mikesell. And I am constantly remembering my parents, Homer and Peggy, and the legacy they left me (besides my charming physique and personality, it is the money they left that will enable me to become an expatriot in Southeast Asia). Peter remains a presence in my life, living as I do next to his former in-laws. My uncles and all but one aunt are gone now. A few friends are up there in years and will not be around much longer.

As for me, who knows how much longer I will last. Looking over my shoulder for the Grim Reaper has become a habit, and I regularly read the obituaries to see whom I've survived. With any luck, I should retain my marbles for another decade or so. After that, it's a crap shoot.

Don't forget those immortal words of Alice Cooper: "School's out for summer!"

No comments: