“Like Tears in Rain”

Several weeks ago, actor Rutger Hauer passed away at the age of 75. He was known for a number of stand-out roles, but the most famous was his portrayal of replicant Roy Batty in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. His performance as Batty is extraordinary – a dynamic and truly visceral depiction of an extremely dangerous, unpredictable, and intelligent “person.”

And the highlight of his performance, and of Blade Runner in its entirety, is Hauer’s “Tears in Rain” monologue, given by a dying Batty at the end of the film. Some consider the scene one of the greatest in science fiction film history, if not in film at large.

It’s difficult to write something new about this monologue, since it’s been addressed, discussed, and analyzed ad infinitum since Blade Runner’s release in 1982. Hell, it even has its own Wikipedia entry. But at the risk of repeating what others have (likely more eloquently) said before, I’ll say my piece on it too. The more the merrier.

I’m assuming that most people reading this have already seen Blade Runner. If you haven’t, though, I strongly suggest you watch it before reading further. (The short story it’s based on, Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is worth a read, too.) Or maybe this brief essay will serve as a modest introduction to its power. Either way, here’s some context, either as an introduction or as a refresher, before looking at the monologue:

The year is 2019. Earth is almost completely industrialized, and the Tyrell Corporation has made a fortune creating “replicants”: synthetic humans used as slave labor on off-world colonies. They are virtually indistinguishable from “real” humans, save for a slight glow in the eyes when viewed from a certain angle, or when subjected to the “Voight-Kampff Test” – a series of questions asked in order to assess emotional response.

Replicants are, for all practical purposes, perfect; the Tyrell Corporation’s motto is “More Human Than Human.” Because some are therefore stronger and more intelligent than most humans, a “fail safe” has been built into their genetics in case a replicant goes rogue: their lifespan is only four years long.

Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, is a retired, Los Angeles-based blade runner – a police officer whose specialty is hunting down and “retiring” (killing) rogue replicants. He is called back to active duty when his former supervisor informs him that four replicants – Roy Batty, Leon, Zhora, and Pris – have successfully (and violently) escaped the off-world colonies and made their way to Los Angeles. Roy Batty in particular is a profound threat, since he is a “Level 4” replicant: highly intelligent, adaptable, and possessing super-human strength. Deckard’s job is to track them down and “retire” them before they disappear…or kill again.

And that’s exactly what Deckard does throughout the course of the film. He dispatches Zhora, Leon, and Pris, which leaves only Roy Batty. Batty’s goal was to confront Tyrell, his creator, with the hope of finding the key to a longer lifespan. After Tyrell tells him this isn’t possible, Batty kills him. This failure, coupled with Deckard’s execution of Pris – Batty’s partner – seems to leave Batty resigned to his fast-approaching death…but he still has one final goal: killing Deckard.

Thanks to Hauer’s brilliant performance, Batty is a fascinating character. He is charismatic, violent, inquisitive, intelligent…but also, at times, child-like. Nowhere is this more apparent than when he finally speaks with Tyrell, his “father,” and admits he has done “questionable things.” He is furious, desperate, sad, and ashamed, both due to his violent acts, and the circumstances that he feels forced him to commit them. His emotions, just like those of a child, are almost beyond his ability to control. When he learns that gaining more life is impossible, he kisses Tyrell on the mouth…then gouges out his eyes with his thumbs, killing him. He is a grown man who is quite literally four years old…and about to die.

So when Batty goes after Deckard following the death of Pris, what follows is an almost surreal cat-and-mouse chase through a derelict high-rise. Deckard is hopelessly outmaneuvered by Batty, whose emotions run wild. He taunts him, toys with him, pulls his arm through a wall and breaks two of his fingers, releases him, howls like a wolf, slams his own head through a wall to taunt him again…and continues the hunt.

It is during this chase that Batty’s body, having reached its four year limit, begins to shut down. The muscles in his hand seize up, but muttering “Not yet,” he pulls a nail out of the floor and forces it through his palm and out the other side, shocking his system and allowing the muscles and tendons to function again.

He then follows Deckard up onto the roof of the high rise. And there, in the pouring rain, Deckard realizes he is trapped. In desperation, he attempts an almost impossible jump to the roof of another building, but can’t quite make it; he’s left hanging from the edge, utterly vulnerable.

Thus begins the “Tears in Rain” sequence. Batty picks up a roosting white dove, crosses his arms, thinks a moment, then effortlessly leaps the gulf between rooftops, rising up over the prone Deckard, whose grip (with two broken fingers) is starting to give.

Batty looks at him inscrutably, almost inquisitively, then says, “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” He smiles, apparently satisfied to witness Deckard’s impending death.

But then something extraordinary happens. Deckard loses his grip and starts to fall – but Batty, using the hand through which he forced the nail, grabs him by the wrist, lifts him up, and throws him down safely on the rooftop.

Then, still holding the white dove in his other hand, Batty sits calmly down across from Deckard and delivers the famous monologue, his blood mingling with the rain. For all its power, it is surprisingly short; proof again, if any is still needed, that quality over quantity is key to just about everything in life. Here it is, in its entirety:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

In an instant, the killer has transformed himself into a savior. And Deckard, a hired killer, has become a witness to his savior’s last words. Roy Batty, the child-man, has realized, late but not too late, that an act of mercy through free will is the only way to prove – to himself as well as Deckard – that he has learned what it truly means to be human. Until that moment, Deckard has not. No one has. Every single “real” human being in the film walks through life under a burden of routine, of oppression, of world-weary resignation. In many ways they have become machine-like through the very society they have wrought. But Batty, out of everyone, chooses to rail against the system – and then, in the hour of his death, defies the system’s expectations and does the right and unexpected thing.

As for the monologue itself, it can’t help but fire the imagination. In the screenplay it was much longer (and far less effective), but Hauer took an editing pencil to it the night before the scene was shot, and added in the “tears in rain” line himself. We can visualize the attack ships, each of us creating them differently, yet vividly, in our mind’s eye. We have no idea what C-beams are, nor the Tannhauser Gate…but it doesn’t matter. Our imaginations vivify the words with images, with motion, with story. Epic battles. Majestic interstellar locations. The vast, sublime beauty of places we can only dream about. Roy Batty has seen them all. The memories are his.

And with his death, they will die too.

He was a witness to life, just like every other person who has ever lived. And like every other person, his death is a loss – a precious mirror of the universe covered over forever. In sharing that understanding, he expresses his self-awareness, his uniqueness, and his inherent value.

He also expresses his fragility. For life is nothing if not fragile.

The “Tears in Rain” monologue reminds me of a poem by Chidiock Tichborne, written the night before his torture and execution in 1586. Untitled, the three-stanza poem concludes with this:

I sought my death and found it in my womb,

I lookt for life and saw it was a shade,

I trode the earth and knew it was my tomb,

And now I die, and now I am but made.

The glass is full, and now the glass is run,

And now I live, and now my life is done.

“And now I live, and now my life is done.”

“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

The beauty and sorrow of life: here for an instant, then gone forever. A universal state shared by all who have ever lived. Including Batty.

I love Batty’s expression after he says “…like tears in rain.” He glances at Deckard with something approaching (perhaps self-conscious) pride. Earlier in the film he shows an interest in poetry, and now, at the time of his death, he creates several lines of his own to stand as his requiem.

And then he dies, and the white dove — the soul he was told he did not possess — flies off into the sky and is gone.

*

Two final things:

I never had the opportunity to meet Rutger Hauer. He had been scheduled to appear at two upcoming conventions this month, in Boston and Toronto, and I was seriously considering making the drive up to Toronto in order to rectify that. Alas, it was not to be. But several years ago he made an appearance at a convention in the UK, and I mailed this in for a friend to get signed for me. I’m looking at it now as I write this. I keep it framed on my wall:

Rutger Hauer 11x14

And finally, as I recently read online:

In 1982, Rutger Hauer played Roy Batty, who passed away in 2019.

37 years later, Rutger Hauer himself passed away. In 2019.

Bittersweet, but also somehow perfect.

Just like this scene:

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Our Perfect Days

I’ve written about this subject in passing before, most recently in a short essay I posted here called “When the Sun Shines Brighter,” but in the last few days I’ve felt inclined to expand on it…maybe because this has been a challenging year and I’ve gained greater personal perspective about certain things, maybe because I’ve had moments this summer that approach what I’m about to describe, or maybe simply because it’s July again.

Regardless, during my first year of college at Penn State, over 20 years ago, I had a perfect day.

It was on July 4th, and I spent it with my girlfriend. That morning, early, we went out and had breakfast at The Corner Room, on the corner (fittingly) of Allen Street and College Avenue. I remember sitting across from her in the old wooden booth as we sipped our coffee and talked (probably repeating ourselves, because, as Kurt Vonnegut once said so accurately, “Lovers do nothing but repeat themselves” – especially, I should add, young lovers), and thinking, simply, “That’s my girl.” Outside, the sun shone down through a cloudless sky, the morning began to warm, and people began staking out their spaces for the parade on College Avenue.

That afternoon, skipping the parade, we drove a short way out of town to one of my favorite places: Spring Creek Park, where, when I was little, my parents used to let me splash around in the stream and clamber over the hollow castle blocks in the playground. In 1976, two years before I was born, Boy Scouts built a covered bridge across the creek. To this day, it’s still there, and still looks exactly the same as it did when I was a kid.

Together we waded in the stream, sat beneath the Weeping Willows, and kissed on that covered bridge before I added our initials to those already carved there.

Then, as darkness began to fall, we set off sparklers in the back yard, walked up to the Bryce Jordan Center with a picnic basket and a blanket, found a spot on the evening-damp grass, and joined the throngs for the fireworks. I had never seen a fireworks display that close before – actually, I haven’t since either – and it dazzled. Like everyone has at one time or another, I tried taking some pictures of it…and like everyone has at one time or another, I later looked at them and sighed. A universal truth is that no one ever wants to see pictures of fireworks – not even the people who take them.

Thankfully, I remember more: damp grass, a blanket around our shoulders, my arm around her shoulder, her hand on my knee, the sparklers, the glimmer of fireflies under the bleachers off to our left, the screams of kids chasing each other, the smell of picnic lunches, and the static of megaphoned radio station voices followed by synced music and blazes of gunpowder created only to entertain.

Finally, once it was all over, we walked back home for ice cream and late-night TV, and I was hit hard by the realization, even then, that it had been a perfect day. I didn’t want it to end, and I was fully, almost profoundly aware that even as the clock struck midnight and the day passed away into the next, the experience – and recognizing it – was an occurrence both rare and precious.

To this day, my memory of that particular July 4th, now over 20 years in the past, remains vibrant – untainted by future context, and largely unfaded by the vicissitudes and relentless passage of time.

*

I’ve taught The Great Gatsby in my English class for 17 years. It’s the only book in the curriculum that never gets boring. It always maintains its “melancholy beauty.”

And the heart of the book, the great revelation of everything that makes Jay Gatsby tick, that drives him and has driven him toward his goal for years, can be found at the end of Chapter 6. Gatsby has invited Daisy and Tom to one of his “little parties,” since Daisy never appeared at one by chance. There’s a reason she hasn’t…It isn’t her scene. Gatsby, having grown up in poverty, and therefore without an understanding of the social class difference between Old and New Money, doesn’t grasp that, so is frustrated and upset when she obviously doesn’t care for it. It had been for her – all of them had been for her – and she’d left “appalled.”

So after all the “sparkling hundreds” have departed, and night gives way to a vague notion of approaching dawn, Gatsby asks Nick Carraway to remain behind to talk. And it is during this quiet exchange, as Gatsby attempts to work out what went wrong and what he can do to fix it, that we are graced with one of the most beautifully-written sequences I’ve ever encountered in fiction. Nick reminds Gatsby that “You can’t repeat the past.” And Gatsby, with the universal optimism that made him great in Nick’s eyes, disagrees.

He then describes his one perfect moment, five years before, when he kissed Daisy Buchanan for the first time as the dying autumn leaves fell around them in the white moonlight of a crisp Louisville evening.

This is the moment he wants to recapture; the moment that has motivated him and given him purpose for half a decade. And ultimately, of course, he fails in his goal. For even as he’s kissing Daisy, the symbols of Time’s inevitability – the autumn leaves – cascade from the surrounding trees. And even as he looks back on that moment and says, “I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before…She’ll see,” he walks over “a desolate path of fruit rinds and discarded favors and crushed flowers.”

You can’t stuff streamers back in a party favor. You can’t fix a peeled orange or mend a crushed flower.

Gatsby’s failure – his naïve, magnificent, and heartbreaking failure – is his inability to realize this…or at least accept it.

Moments can be treasured, but not, as Nick well knows, repeated. Nick notices the fruit rinds and party favors and crushed flowers. Gatsby does not. But even Nick, pragmatic and down-to-earth, feels a shiver of Gatsby’s noble ambition, “an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words,” and is moved by it.

*

That is one of the bittersweet truths of living. The greatest things life has to offer can be aspired to, prompted, and proactively sought – but they can never be forced. Nor can they be kept. And they can never, ever be relived.

They can, however, be remembered.

Another hard truth is that for all life gifts us, it also harvests us for tragedy. That is the price that has to be paid. And the longer we live, the more we are harvested, in ways both big and small.

When we pass through those times of hardship, whether minor or calamitous, one of the great sources of comfort, inspiration, and hope is the first-hand knowledge that life can also be beautiful. And in order to know that, we need reminders; glimmers of light flickering in the darkness.

Each of our perfect moments is a candle, giving us direction and helping us find our way forward. And once we do, we will, at certain unexpected times, experience new days that awe us with their beauty – both different and unique from those that have come before.

Would we really want it any other way?

*

In Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road, McCarthy sparingly shares tiny but powerful slivers of the unnamed father’s pre-apocalyptic memories as he and his son trek toward the shore of an unnamed sea. But very close to the beginning of the book, he describes a slightly longer and much more significant one, which also coincidentally (or perhaps not) takes place during a long-ago autumn: going stump hunting for firewood with his uncle on the bank of a lake at dusk. McCarthy devotes about as much space – a page or so – to this memory as Fitzgerald devotes to Gatsby’s. And it is, like Gatsby’s is to him, one of the lynchpins of The Man’s life.

As it concludes, McCarthy writes, “This was the perfect day of his childhood. This the day to shape the days upon.”

It is the one great memory – the most precious treasure from his past – that The Man takes with him when the end of the world comes.

And after the world ends, The Man, refusing to end with it, continues on with his son, carrying with him the fire of hope.

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“Here to Then”

Just a short entry this time. I haven’t written a poem in years, so here’s something unusual. Be gentle, because I haven’t the foggiest idea how to judge its worth, except to throw it on here to be read. There’s definitely a bit of e e cummings in it, and a nod to Robert Frost. Beyond that, I guess (and hope) it speaks for itself.

“Here to Then”

We are not the fallen hopes,
The great regrets and rocky slopes
Of everything we could have done:
The drink undrunk, the race unwon.

We are not the sorrows deep,
The miles to go before we sleep
That glitter on the edge of night,
Always beyond us, pins of light–

Nor all the things, both great and small,
That bother us now, then not at all.

We are the hopes we birth with talk:
The voices of many (a timeless walk
That leads us through from here to then,
And brings quick with us an end to when).

We are the names we touch with Do,
A daring bridge from Me to You
That spans the gorge from birth to gone,
And finds beyond it the world redrawn.

We are far more than thought and mind.
We are all that we leave behind.

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A View of a Room

Back in 2010, I had my garage fully converted into a library. It’s something I’d hoped to do for years, and I finally had the means to do it, so I did. I’d always wanted a single room where I could store, display, and enjoy all my stuff – where everywhere I looked, I’d see things that represent what I truly care about.

Since then, I’ve turned the room into exactly that. 16 bookcases, three display cabinets, various tables and stands, and every inch of free wall space are now packed with things both big and small that represent my interests, my passions, my past, my aspirations…in other words, who I am. Taken as a whole, it’s a reflection of my life; a place where everything you see represents every aspect of who I am, and reminds me of people, places, events, and interests that make me happy, and give me strength.

A very general snapshot: standing in the doorway, I see photos of my sons, three shelves of my childhood toys, four bookcases filled with the works of Ray Bradbury, and eight others crammed with favorite books by other authors. I see a shelf packed with books that once belonged to my old friend and professor, John Buck, still marked up with his hieroglyphic notes and backward checkmarks. I see three shelves beneath it brimming with books and knick-knacks that belonged to my grandparents. I see a photo of me with Brian May of Queen, a photo of me with Harrison Ford, and a photo of my grandfather in his World War II uniform. More photos: of close friends both here and gone, of the Venice Beach pier, of Snoqualmie Falls, and of the bridge at Spring Creek Park. I see scores of items in display cabinets, along with stuffed animals, a lamp, and masks, all of which once belonged to Ray, who kept them in his library and house, and which I am now deeply gratified to have in mine. I see a set prop from one of the new Star Wars films that a friend from the UK somehow acquired and sent to me, sea shells from every beach I’ve visited, a pair of Roger Taylor’s stage-used drumsticks from Queen’s 1977 tour, and handprint art my sons made for me. I see gifts and postcards from former students, a trowel signed by Kyra Schon from Night of the Living Dead, and a little plaster frog my grandmother painted for me when I was a little boy. I see a grandfather clock my great-grandfather built, mementos from Indian Caverns (which closed for good two years ago), and an unopened bottle of amontillado that my friend and editor Anne Hardin sent me after we finished Darkness in the Valley. I see the bench, red hutch, and stool from my grandparents’ kitchen. I see two shelves holding copies of my own books, magazine publications, and anthology appearances. I see a hand-drawn birthday card from my friend and illustrator John York, a lace doily hand stitched for me by the grandmother of one of my first students, and stones from a riverbed that remind me of one of my favorite days.

That’s all in a glance. There’s far, far more, but you get the idea.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “They’re just things….possessions.” And that’s absolutely true. If the whole place blew apart tomorrow, I’d be fine (unless I was in it at the time), because of course all my experiences, all the relationships I’m fortunate enough to have, and all the people I care about are the only things that are truly priceless. But at the same time, things – the right things – can hold immense value…not monetarily, but (for lack of a better word) intrinsically. They can reflect who we are, yes…But they can also inspire future actions by reminding us of our past, trigger (not always a bad word, even in the 21st century) our deepest emotions, and comfort and give us strength when life is difficult by reminding us how exciting, precious, and beautiful it can be at its best.

That said, keeping it that way sometimes requires work. Certain parts of the library are constantly evolving, so while the vast bulk of what’s in there will remain as long as I do, I also have clear outs every once in a while. Sometimes memories that were once special become negative due to shifting circumstances, certain doors in life shut while others spring invitingly open, interests change, and priorities shift.

So last month I spent two hours pitching things into trash bags, one headed for a landfill, one headed to Goodwill. On top of that, I boxed up five dozen books and took them down to Half Price Books. It was extremely satisfying…as if I’d given everything else in the library room to breathe. The cleanouts remind me of life – of the need to jettison what’s no longer necessary, what weighs us down, what no longer works, and what hurts rather than helps. In doing so, you make room for more of the good stuff.

Because in short, what I really want to see when I look around my library is love. And anything that doesn’t make me feel that has to go.

Every day should be spent, at least in part, by doing something we love. And the physical objects that really matter should remind us of the many ways we do that, and suggest other ways still to be tried. They’re catalysts. To surround ourselves with reminders of what really matters in our lives also reminds us of our own great worth. It reminds us of who we are at our best. It reminds us of what we are capable of achieving. And it reminds us of just how much there is to celebrate during our brief, transitory time on earth.

What you see should be an inspiration, because inspiration is the wellspring of identity.

Inspire yourself to know yourself. Know yourself to inspire yourself. And use love as the engine to do it. In this way, a self-perpetuating cycle is created that will never, ever let you down. It isn’t always easy, and you won’t always succeed. But we must always strive to keep that cycle going.

It is the only way to truly live well.

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Getting Out of Your Own Way

I lost an old friend to lung cancer late last year…never smoked a day in his life, but it hit him hard and fast. That said, he survived several years longer than his doctors expected, and died in his sleep, at home, just hours before a planned trip up to Penn State for a home football game…He hadn’t missed a single game in over a decade, and since it had to happen, the way he went was best: at home, bags packed, anticipating a PSU win.

The indignities he suffered without complaint are too many to list, but so are the people whose lives he enriched through his kindness, compassion, drive, and desire to make the world around him a better place. Every damn thing he did involved helping others, even when he was extremely ill…It was extraordinary to witness. He lived well and he died well. I’m a better man for being able to say he was my friend. His name was Thane J. Fake.

Only twice did I see a spark of anger well up in Thane during those last years. Of course he got irritated every once in a while. Who doesn’t, especially when dealing with issues like that? But real anger? Only twice. And it’s the cause behind one of those two instances that moves me to write today.

What set him off was seeing one person too many make excuses for why they couldn’t do something – why they couldn’t show up for work, why they couldn’t finish a project, why they couldn’t keep a job, why they couldn’t see things through. At the time, he felt the only reason he was still alive was because he pushed himself to complete what others said he couldn’t or shouldn’t even try. He got things done, because giving up was an unacceptable option. Death could take him, but it would have to catch him first…and considering how busy he kept, he forced it to give good chase.

So basically, what he hated were quitters. He was being forced out of life halfway through it. Meanwhile, others were being given far more time on earth, but doing far less with it, and only because of their own lack of character.

Ray Bradbury always said, “Get out of your own way and let it happen.” That is, push away your worst impulses and let your best strengths shine through to meet your goals. Unfortunately, I’ve lately had more encounters than usual with people who have chosen to ignore this advice, and the results have been predictable.

One person in particular comes to mind. I’ve known her for years. She had a promising life – did well in college, earned two degrees, and was virtually guaranteed success, so long as she remained patient and showed fortitude. Nothing insurmountable stood in her way…except herself. After her pursuit of a career in her field hit a few temporary obstacles, she simply gave up on it – even after others provided her numerous opportunities to get her foot in the door. A couple of setbacks, and she was gone. The career is now dead. The degrees are now worthless (though of course the debt is still there). The opportunities have passed her by. On top of that, the attitude that caused this failure has come to dominate other aspects of her life, too. She is now just a shadow of her former self…bitter, stagnant, and living below the poverty line. There is no shame at all in poverty – or, for that matter, in failure, which is perhaps life’s greatest teacher – unless it is self-inflicted and nothing is learned from it. That was the case here. She could have continued to try, but she gave up. Great things, in every avenue of life, are worth fighting for. Somewhere along the way she forgot that, and it has cost her dearly.

In the 1920s and early 30s, my grandfather worked in the Sagamore coal mines to put himself through college. He ended up becoming a teacher, then a high school principal, then an assistant superintendent. By the time he retired, he had made a positive, lasting contribution to his community and family. Those early years working in the mines killed him half a century later, after he developed Black Lung, but I am certain he wouldn’t have traded the opportunity – or the life he lived – for anything.

No one else in his immediate family had ever gone to college. In fact, my great-grandmother was illiterate. All, including him, had known much deprivation, hardship, and loss. My grandfather’s degree was an immense source of pride for him, and he was well aware that earning it was not only due to his own work ethic, but also the help others gave him along the way. Fulfilling his potential after receiving it was not only a matter of honor, but of obligation, and a task that he enthusiastically and successfully pursued.

What a disservice it would have been to him, and to everyone else in my family going back generations, if I, too, had gotten my degrees, then given up on pursuing a career in them at the first sign of difficulty. Choosing a trade over college is fine. Switching majors is fine. Changing careers is fine, and sometimes even healthy. But completing a college education — something millions of other people would give almost anything to have – only to ignore it entirely and settle for a low-paying job that doesn’t even require a high school diploma, is unconscionable to me…as it would have been for Thane, and as it would have been for my grandfather.

My latest bout with depression, along with some other recent events, really brought this topic to the forefront for me. One of the ways I worked through them was by always doing my best to be productive and positive, even when those were the last things I felt I could be. To a certain extent, my circumstances gave me a sense of perspective that I had been sorely lacking for some time. I came to understand that what we often complain about is barely worth mentioning; that what often seems like a hardship is barely a bump in the road; and that those who can’t get past playing the victim will often become one of their own making.

And I have also come to realize that relationships on whatever level with such people are destined to become toxic. Advice, support, and even love can be offered, but if they are all denied or taken for granted, and no changes are made, sometimes the only option left is to move on. Just as we cannot allow ourselves to become a victim of own own making, we also cannot allow ourselves to be dragged down with others who have already done so.

Misery loves company. So does failure.

But the same, thankfully, can be said for happiness and success, even if finding them takes more fortitude.

Choose wisely.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise

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So here it is, the last of my thoughts on some of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s major works, and right in time for summer. It was a true pleasure to re-read these again and write a bit about them, and thank you so much for the positive feedback. I haven’t had a chance to do something like this in a long time.

This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s first novel, is the work that catapulted him to fame at the very tender age of 23. While it’s obvious from the first page that it was written by a young author, …Paradise also clearly showcases his developing brilliance.

Here, Fitzgerald flexes his abilities in numerous ways. Stylistically and structurally, he throws everything but the kitchen sink into the book, telling it through third person narration, poetry, letters, and even sections structured like plays. It isn’t tight or subtle like his best writing, but damn, it’s an extraordinary sign of things to come. And taken within the context of the time, it not only provides a nuanced reflection of the social and cultural era of the young, post-war generation…it helped to shape it. For that reason, its importance to American literature can’t be overstated.

The book was published 99 years ago (I still can’t believe it…or that it’s almost the Twenties again), but despite that, Amory Blane’s college odyssey at Princeton still strikes very close to home…His self-importance, constantly shifting enthusiasms, and self-conscious displays of “transformation” all remind me of the vast majority of undergrads I knew in college…including myself. When you’re young, in an environment that encourages growth, and trying to discover yourself and your place in the world, everything has meaning…Everything has significance…It’s all important. Amory believes all his experiences, all his philosophies, all his realizations, and all his relationships are milestones worthy of public reflection. And, of course, he therefore shares those reflections with everyone around him, whether they want to hear them or not.

That said, Amory isn’t a true narcissist, even though some scholars disagree…He’s just young, naïve, full of himself, and for those reasons is convinced that he is destined for future glory. But after he graduates from Princeton, serves overseas in World War One, and returns home, he learns (often painfully, through breakups and death) that his previous “wisdom” isn’t as sound as he originally thought. A true narcissist, on the other hand, never learns…narcissists are often clever, but never wise.

In particular, Amory learns that self-understanding doesn’t come when willed, but when life provides the opportunity for it to be grasped. He has five relationships throughout the book, all youthful, all passionate, all doomed…but it is only after the war, when his relationship with Eleanor collapses, that he stops using girls and women as props to reflect his own ego. His relationship with her allows him to finally, truly see himself, and when he loses her, he recognizes an important truth: not only does the world not revolve around him, but he is also not, by default, the hero in his own story. That must be earned, and he has not yet earned it.

Only when he acknowledges this, reflected in the famous last line, “I know myself…but that is all,” does he truly exhibit real, hard-won wisdom. And that kind of education, of course, comes not only from living, but from recognizing, through living, that there is much that we don’t know, and more work to be done.

That’s a hell of a motif for a 23 year-old to tackle. But Fitzgerald did head-on, and the book was an overnight sensation. Its success convinced Zelda to marry him. It made him one of the great, shining lights of the Jazz Age. And unfortunately, it also set an unrealistic precedent of success that he fully expected to maintain…and which eluded him for the rest of his life. This often happens when artists explode into mainstream popularity at a young age. Maintaining that level of success simply isn’t plausible, and when it hits very early on, the shifting of public interest that inevitably follows can be extremely hard to bear.

Fitzgerald’s popularity peaked around 1922. When The Great Gatsby was published a mere three years after that, it only went through two printings (the second had not even sold out at the time of his death 15 years later), the general public – perhaps worse than condemning it – just shrugged its shoulders, and he spent the rest of his life trying in vain to somehow repeat that first, early wave of success.

The irony, of course, is that while his reputation stumbled and his finances began a precipitous decline, Fitzgerald’s skills only increased, and his work only got better. Yet much like so many of his famous characters, he would spend the rest of his days trying to recapture the great flush of youth that “year by year recedes before us” – and that haunts us and motivates us for the duration of our lives.

Favorite quotes:

“I don’t want to repeat my innocence. I want the pleasure of losing it again.”

“Experience is the name so many people give to their mistakes.”

“The great tapestries of trees had darkened to ghosts back at the last edge of twilight. The early moon had drenched the arches with pale blue, and, weaving over the night, in and out of the gossamer rifts of moon, swept a song, a song with more than a hint of sadness, infinitely transient, infinitely regretful.”

“…it was only the past that seemed strange and unbelievable.”

“Her philosophy is carpe diem for herself and laissez faire for others.”

“Selfish people are in a way terribly capable of great loves.”

“Those days are over. I have to be won all over again every time you see me.”

“It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.”

“When Eleanor’s arm touched his he felt his hands grow cold with deadly fear lest he should lose the shadow brush with which his imagination was painting wonders of her. He watched her from the corners of his eyes as ever he did when he walked with her – she was a feast and a folly and he wished it had been his destiny to sit forever on a haystack and see life through her green eyes.”

“Beauty and love pass, I know…Oh, there’s sadness, too. I suppose all great happiness is a little sad. Beauty means the scent of roses and then the death of roses…”

“For years afterwards when Amory thought of Eleanor he seemed still to hear the wind sobbing around him and sending little chills into the places beside his heart. The night when they rode up the slope and watched the cold moon float through the clouds, he lost a further part of him that nothing could restore; and when he lost it he lost also the power of regretting it. Eleanor was, say, the last time that evil crept close to Amory under the mark of beauty…”

“Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a reverie of long days and nights, destined finally to go out into the dirty grey turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”

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Coming Home

For various reasons I’ve been visiting Maryland a fair amount over the last few months, and this summer I plan on spending a lot more time there, too – starting with another trip in just two weeks. Especially lately, the more I’m there, the more content I feel.

I lived in Ellicott City from the age of 9 to 18 (1987-96), so even though I was born and spent my early childhood in State College, I also consider Maryland “home” in many ways. Those years  there are when I really grew up, and many of the formative events and relationships that shaped who I am, took place during that time and in that place. So even though my parents haven’t lived there since ’96 either, I still feel a deep-rooted connection to my home town.

Many aspects of the 250 mile drive down from Pittsburgh bring a lot of happiness – hitting the Maryland border after passing through Breezewood, feeling the slight increase in heat and humidity, seeing the hills give way to flatter land, and coming in range of my favorite old radio station, 98 Rock, which, because it’s become more of a retro station, STILL plays all the songs I loved in high school when they were new (there’s nothing quite like coming back to the place where you were a teen in the ‘90s and hearing “Plush” kick in as you’re driving down the old familiar highways).

And then I arrive, ready to spend time with old, dear friends who shared those days with me and somehow remained in touch…or, in one amazing case, with an old, dear friend who recently came back into my life after over two decades as if it was the most natural thing in the world – which, in fact, it was. Those relationships are what make these visits really work, because going “home” isn’t possible unless you can still share it with people who were there with you – people who can remind you of things you did together that you’d forgotten, or can finish the endings of your stories for you because they lived through them too.

So a return, as long as the experience is shared, can be a very special thing – a blending of the past and the present, a mix of old memories freshened and new memories waiting to be made. Home isn’t just a place, and isn’t just a time. It’s also circumstance. And when circumstances are right, despite what Thomas Wolfe said, you can go home again. Sometimes it’s still there after all, just waiting for you to come back.

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