Everybody’s Neighbor

On April 19, 2002, just as I was finishing my M.Ed. and internship in Secondary Education at Penn State, Fred Rogers visited campus to give a lecture. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of National Public Television, a field my father also worked in for many years before and during his career in Distance Education at Penn State. Mister Rogers was the keynote speaker, his speech the capstone to a week of various events held to celebrate the milestone.

2002 was a challenging year for me – I think that all periods of transition, uncertainty, and change are inherently stressful, no matter who we are or what our circumstances happen to be – and on this particular evening I’d already taught all day, I had papers to grade, and I’d just started working on my final project for grad school, even as I was wrapping up my internship and beginning to think (or, more accurately, worry) about where I should apply for a permanent teaching position.

So I almost gave the lecture a pass, although the tickets were sitting right there on my desk. But due to some persistent encouragement, at the last possible moment I agreed to go. Of course I loved Mister Rogers, and of course he’d been one of the great heroes of my childhood…I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who grew up in the United States in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, or 00s who wouldn’t cite him as a childhood hero. But I went, not begrudgingly, but certainly without the automatic enthusiasm one might expect.

The auditorium was packed by the time I got there, and I ended up standing in the back. It was wonderfully full of people from all walks of life: PSU students, professors, and administrators…but also others, of every age and background, who had driven in from all over the eastern seaboard to see him.

And then Mister Rogers stepped up to the podium, and proceeded to give one of the greatest speeches I have ever heard in person. This isn’t hyperbole on my part, or a rose-tinted memory. I’ve re-watched the speech since, and it still resonates with immense power.

What I realized during the hour or so that he spoke is what everyone who met him or saw him in person quickly realized too: the Mister Rogers on the show is the real thing, and off the show he spoke just as empathetically, sincerely, earnestly, and meaningfully to anyone, from anywhere, and of any age, because none of it was an act…not a single bit of it. The added (and essential) beauty of this is that Mister Rogers never spoke down to children – he never spoke down to anyone. What he did do was kindly, clearly, and thoughtfully speak his mind, impart his wisdom, and defend the importance of care, love, and empathy, as well as the avenues for conveying it…in this case, public television, which served as the bedrock upon which his career flourished.

Because of this, as he spoke I saw caustic administrators, know-it-all college students (myself included), and jaded professors all let their guard down. How often, especially in public, does that happen? And all at once, too? It was extraordinary. This was a truly good man who, just as he refused to condescend, somehow calmly, kindly destroyed any condescending attitude that might be leveled at him, just by being himself. Within minutes, the auditorium was a great sea of attentive faces, reflecting honest emotion…the shields were lowered, the masks removed. Everyone was suddenly vulnerable – vulnerable, but safe.

The most moving element of Mister Rogers’ speech was something he often did, and which has now become famous, in large part due to two recent productions: the excellent documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, released in June of last year, and the major motion picture, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers, currently in theaters.

He asked us all for one minute of complete silence, which he personally timed, during which he requested that we think about all the people – living and “in Heaven” – who helped us to become the best versions of ourselves…people who “…loved us into being.” The silence was complete, the time graced with the weight of deep personal reflection. And at the end of the minute, Mister Rogers said, “Whomever you’ve been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made.”

How typical, during an event largely honoring him, for Fred Rogers to honor others instead. It was deeply moving…something everyone present could take part in and share together, through the silence of individual remembrance and appreciation.

To the best of my knowledge, this was the second-to-last major speech Fred Rogers ever gave…the last was at Dartmouth College, his alma mater, a short time later. In February 2003, just ten months after he spoke at Penn State, he passed away after a brief battle with stomach cancer.

I look back on that special day in 2002 with deep gratitude…Gratitude primarily for Mister Rogers himself, but also for the fact that someone made the effort to repeatedly encourage me to attend, and was so convincing that I actually got off my butt and went. I feel that what we don’t do often haunts us more than what we do. It was largely due to this close call with Fred Rogers’ lecture back in 2002 – my God, what if I’d missed it! – that I began to consciously recognize the importance of taking advantage of opportunities both big and small. I’d already started trending in that direction, but this particular event allowed me to articulate to myself how important it is to actually do things you want, rather than just talk about doing them. That way, later on, you won’t find yourself saying, “I wish I’d gone,” but, instead, “I’m so glad I went.”

Three months later, I was offered a full-time high school teaching position in Pittsburgh – Mister Rogers’ adopted home town, coincidentally — accepted it, and moved there. In the almost 18 years since, I’ve done my best, over and over, to take advantage of every opportunity of interest that comes my way, and see it through, whether it’s attending a concert or lecture, going out with friends, cultivating love, spending time with loved ones, completing a new writing project, exploring a new hobby, teaching a new course, creating a new lesson, visiting a new place, or meeting new people.

With very few exceptions, I have never regretted pursuing any of those opportunities, even the ones that didn’t work out…and the few regrets I do have are easily overshadowed by the overwhelmingly positive and fulfilling experiences that have filled my life. Mister Rogers helped me realize the importance of living by that philosophy…just by being himself.

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Earlier I mentioned the new film about one man’s friendship with Fred Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. As I write this, it is still in theaters. It’s a beautiful film, based on a true story, and heartfelt and meaningful without becoming trite or sappy. In the last 18 months, the film, the award-winning documentary I mentioned earlier, and a new biography by Maxwell King, The Good Neighbor, have all been released to fine critical praise and warm public reception – further testament that the legacy of Fred Rogers is still as healthy and far-reaching as ever…and at a time when our society is certainly in great need of kind hearts and wise advice.

On a (very) incidental note, I had the pleasure of being an extra in the film, in a scene with Tom Hanks. The production spent the month of October 2018 filming here in Pittsburgh, and a few months earlier, on a whim, I “auditioned” (I use the term loosely, since it was basically waiting in line for hours with two thousand other people, getting my photo taken, and filling out  a couple of forms). After seeing the huge line, I almost turned around and left – but, due in large part to the lesson I learned back in 2002, ended up staying and seeing it through.

As the days of October passed by, I heard nothing from the studio…It seemed as though a fun and unique opportunity wasn’t going to pan out, and sometimes that’s just how things go…No problem, at least I tried. But then, at the very end of the month, two days before filming wrapped, I was called in.

I ended up being cast as a WQED crew member, and appear in the scene when “Mister Rogers” is filming a segment for his show with a string quartet. I like it because there were very few of us in the scene – just Tom Hanks, the string quartet, and maybe eight of us extras. We went through makeup, wardrobe, the whole works, and were on call for about seven hours. When it came time to film the segment of the scene in which I participated, they only needed four takes, but the whole thing from beginning to end was fascinating, and also a great deal of fun.

Even more incidentally, I did make the final cut. Twice, they show wide shots of Tom Hanks/Mister Rogers watching the quartet play and asking them questions, and you can see me in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. It’s more or less the back of my head, I might as well be a cardboard cutout, and if you blink you’ll miss me, but who cares? There I am, on screen with Tom Hanks for five or ten seconds. That’s a great little bonus, but the chance to see an excellent actor like him work, in person, is what makes the experience significant for me. He’s been one of my favorite actors ever since Big came out when I was a kid, and I can happily attest that not only is he a consummate professional, but also a very nice guy. (I know, because he caught me using his dressing room bathroom – I had no idea it was his, I swear – and was totally cool about it.) Between takes he’d joke with all of us, sit quietly off by himself texting, or compliment the musicians, and every single time he did a take, he nailed it.

So what a special opportunity, to see Tom Hanks portraying Fred Rogers in person. Somehow, a lesson I took away thanks to Fred Rogers’ speech in 2002 led me to another unique association with his life over 15 years later. I never could have anticipated that, but at the same time, I’m not really surprised. Sometimes elements in life, both great and small, come full circle…and all you have to do to allow that to happen is make the effort and show up.

Anyway, I hope you’ll go see the film, and enjoy what is, among other things, a fine tribute to a man who loved others more fully, more wholesomely, and more selflessly than just about anyone who has lived in modern times. It was his great purpose to make a positive impact on as many lives as possible…and he continues, through the legacy he created, to achieve that purpose to this very day.

What an extraordinary gift he had.

What an extraordinary gift he still gives.

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My parents at a reception with Fred Rogers shortly before his speech, April 19, 2002

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Me with David Newell (Mr. McFeely), shortly before Fred Rogers’ speech on April 19, 2002. I’m holding a photo he signed for me back when I was five, along with another one he signed for me that day, 19 years later. Just this past August, 17 years after this photo was taken, I met him again when he gave the opening day speech at the high school where I teach.

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Crows at Twilight: Revisiting Some Old Friends

I am very pleased to announce that Crows at Twilight: An Omnibus of Tales, which collects my first two books of short stories, Scaring the Crows and On the Edge of Twilight, is now available in a brand-new Kindle edition, to complement the paperback edition that has been available for several years.

This omnibus, which includes all 43 short stories from the original books, is the definitive edition of those two earlier collections, with some small corrections made, John Randall York’s original interior illustrations now reproduced as full-page pieces, and everything fully reformatted. I’m very proud of how it turned out, and moving forward, it will be the only place where the stories from those first two collections will be available. You can pick it up here.

I hope you’ll check it out…and, as always, that you enjoy it. While proofing the book, for the first time in a number of years I re-read those stories, many of which Ray Bradbury critiqued as I wrote them between 2004 and 2012. Every single one brought back fine and special memories, and some reminded me of certain things I hadn’t thought about in a long time…but which, of course, will always be a part of who I am. There I am, right there on the page, my younger self speaking to my current self…and to whoever else wants to listen.

And now, after a brief look back, I continue on with my next projects: the third book in The Uncanny Chronicles, and a collection of essays entitled Coming Home. Slowly but steadily, the work continues. And it remains as fun, rewarding, challenging, and fulfilling as it was during the years when Ray Bradbury was there to prompt me on with enthusiastic demands of “Onward!” and “Now go and write me a new short story.”

So now I’m going to go and write a new short story.

Onward.

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Here and Now

Over the weekend I took my sons to State College to visit their grandparents. A few months had passed since we’d last seen them, and on Saturday afternoon and evening there was an Autumn festival being held up on campus at the arboretum…Going to it has been a tradition for several years, but the previous year we’d been rained out, so we really wanted to try and make it this time.

The boys and I left Pittsburgh in the driving rain, and I felt certain it wasn’t going to work out. That was OK. I figured if all else failed, we’d simply have a quiet day hanging out with  my parents.

But then, as the miles passed, the rain let up, and by the time we arrived, blue sky was visible through the shifting, dissipating gray clouds. It ended up being a beautiful Autumn day, the kind you always hope for and want to enjoy.

Even so, I felt a bit off. It had been a long week, and I was tired. More importantly, someone very close to me had suffered another in a series of health setbacks, and I’d been preoccupied with that for the last few days. So Halloween, always my favorite holiday, was feeling a bit unimportant as a result.

Nonetheless, the morning gave way to afternoon, and the afternoon to early evening. The sky, now completely clear, was a deep, brilliant blue; wide and vast the way only October skies can be. So my dad and I took the boys up to the festival as planned.

But I still just wasn’t feeling it. We went through and checked out everything: the jack o’ lantern contest, live music, apple cider and popcorn stands, the maze. Then we explored the children’s area of the arboretum: winding paths accentuated by waterfalls, streams, rock stations, artificial caves, exotic trees and plants, pumpkin patches…all the stuff that usually gave me the old thrill of the season. Even so, none of it really seemed to help much.

I don’t know exactly what it was that, toward the end, snapped me out of my funk. Maybe it was a combination of all of it: the sky, the paths and streams, the jack o’ lanterns, the scores of happy kids running around with their parents. But I think, more than anything, it was that mix, plus the fact that my kids were there, along with my dad. It took a while, but suddenly everything clicked into place.

My sons, Sam and Andy, were jumping across a stream on cement lily pads. Instead of worrying they’d fall, I went and joined them. Soon after, my dad started taking pictures. I stepped up beside him and started taking some too.

And just like that, I was far more present and far less pensive. I was standing in a Halloween-themed festival in October with my dad beside me and my kids playing around me. Who on earth cares about being tired at a time like that? And even though, no matter what we’re doing, we certainly never stop worrying and caring about the health of those we love, I was still able to appreciate all the good that particular moment had to offer.

I also thought about some of the important people in my life who have passed away. I often do that when I need to kick a bit of appreciation back into myself for all the extraordinary things I have to be grateful for. I thought of my grandfather, who died in 1988 when I was nine – Andy’s age – and how much he would have enjoyed being there with us. And of a number of other friends and family members, also gone. And of Ray Bradbury, whose favorite month was, of course, October.

Once, years ago, when I told him about some small October adventure I was going on, he said, “Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be there with you. But I will be, you know. I’ll be right there.”

And so he was. And still is. They all are. In one way or another, all of my loved ones who have passed away are still very close. That late afternoon, as I stood with my father watching my sons play, I realized that I was, to some degree, their eyes and ears…A continuation of what they started, still gratefully alive. So why not celebrate, as they would?

Beyond that, I realized, My sons will never be here, at this festival, with me and their grandpa, exactly like this again. They’ll never be 9 and 11 years old again, never have weather and circumstance and family together, here and now, exactly like this, on October 12th, 2019, again. And, of course, the same was true for me and my dad. That particular sunset, those particular feelings, all of us together in just that way…it all deserved to be enjoyed. The world can be a hard place, unexpected things can happen to us, and Time is always ticking forward. A smile with genuine joy behind it is the only thing we can offer up to challenge that truth.

For the beauty of life must be appreciated, even as its difficulties must be dealt with. Acknowledging this may not cure the sick, solve all our problems, or diminish the daunting issues we all have to face…but it does give us strength – as well as a reason to use that strength.

So I smiled.

And meant it.

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“Once More Into the Fray…”

Every few weeks, an old friend and I chat for an hour or two on the phone, and without exception, at some point the conversation shifts to movies. When we spoke two days ago, the topic somehow meandered over to Gareth Evans’ 2011 film, The Raid. It’s an Indonesian film (and one of the best action films I’ve ever seen), and my buddy mentioned there’s a US remake in the works, to be directed by Joe Carnahan.

“I know that name,” I said.

“Oh yeah, he directed some episodes of Blacklist. And also The Grey.

Well, there it was. That’s how I knew the name. The Grey.

The Grey came out in the winter of 2011, and according to my ticket stub I saw it on Wednesday, February 2nd. I remember why.

I can tolerate winter in Pittsburgh until the day after New Year’s. On January 2nd – exactly – I’m ready for it to end. Unfortunately Pittsburgh’s winter weather lasts about five months – well into April sometimes – so there’s no getting rid of it that fast. By February 2nd I was thoroughly sick of the cold and dark, and everyone I worked with – both students and teachers – felt the same. We were all kind of crabby and irritable, sick of scraping car windshields, the powdery snow that gets sucked into your car when you open the door (leaving your ass wet for an hour after you sit on it), colds, flus, and the general feeling of cabin fever that eventually descends on the entire state. I also suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, so that had kicked in big-time and wasn’t doing me any favors either.

So out of the blue, following a mind-numbing hour spent grading Scarlet Letter quizzes, I decided, on impulse, to jump in my car and go see The Grey. It would give me a couple hours of escapism, hopefully lift me out of my funk, and I’d be home by midnight (I’m a night owl, so no harm there).

I chose The Grey for one reason. A few years earlier, in 2008, the first Taken movie was released. And, of course, everyone likes Taken…There’s nothing quite like spending two hours watching Liam Neeson beat, stab, and shoot the living shit out of people who are asking for it. The whole thing is escapism at its finest: fluffy, gratuitous, and easy to follow. And in its trailers, The Grey was presented as a variation of that film: Liam Neeson attacking man-eating wolves, vowing to take them out “one by one” as he and a small band of men attempt to escape the Alaskan wilderness following a plane crash. The trailer was full of fast cuts, emphasizing action, adventure, and violence.

The Grey trailer

Perfect.

Since it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, I went alone. I drove the 17 miles to the theater just as darkness was starting to fall, fortified myself with popcorn, took a seat in the back of the theater, and settled in. (I’ve never had a problem going to movies — or just about anywhere else — by myself now and then. I think there’s something to be said for feeling comfortable on your own.)

Anyway, the movie started…and less than ten minutes in, I began to wonder what, exactly, I was watching. Neeson’s character, John Ottoway, a marksman protecting oil workers from wolves in Alaska, finishes writing a letter to his apparently estranged wife, staggers out of a bar and into a snowy field, and puts a rifle in his mouth. The howl of a wolf stops him, however, and the following day his plane, filled with fellow workers, crashes in the Alaskan tundra, leaving only a handful of them alive. The man who was just seconds away from ending his own life the previous day now assumes a leadership role among the small group of survivors.

Thus begins one of the most harrowing dramas I’ve ever seen. It is not an action movie…there is occasional action, but it is of secondary importance, often muted, and never truly glorified. And it certainly isn’t fluffy or even slightly gratuitous. The trailer, obviously constructed to cash in on Taken’s success, no doubt purposefully misrepresented the film. Instead of Neeson and his band of survivors taking on and successfully battling a pack of wolves, Aliens-style, we are treated to a striking, profound, and deeply unsettling look at what happens when we have no choice but to look death in the face, knowing that its shark-eyed stare will not blink first. In the entire film, only one wolf is killed…an apparent turning point for the survivors that fills them with temporary hope, only for that hope to then be brutally, systematically stripped away again.

These are men in extremis: starving, lost, freezing, wounded, and hunted. They have accidentally encroached on a wolf pack’s territory, and are desperately trying to move beyond it, where they would still have to face great hardship, but perhaps not the certain, violent deaths the wolves begin to dole out.

They fail. Immediately following the crash, when Ottoway helps a mortally-wounded man face his own death by matter-of-factly informing him that he is going to die, then guiding his thoughts toward peace as he bleeds out, The Grey begins an examination not of human ingenuity (although that is certainly on display at times) and triumph over the natural world, but of the meaning we find (or don’t find) in our lives as we face challenges that may well be insurmountable.

One by one, the survivors, trying to move toward and through the presumable safety of a nearby forest, succumb: to injury, to exposure, to drowning, and to the unrelenting wolves that continue to hunt them. At the time of the film’s release, a bit of a stink was raised by certain animal rights groups about the depiction of wolves in The Grey. Real timber wolves, they argued, simply don’t behave so aggressively, aren’t as fearsome as depicted, and most certainly aren’t as large as some of them appear. But that’s missing the point. The wolves the survivors face are not just wolves; they are Death incarnate: inevitable, unrelenting, and at times terrifying as all hell. They aren’t meant to be realistic. They are meant to be unstoppable.

Close to the end of the film, Ottoway’s last surviving companion, Hendrick, drowns in a near-freezing, fast-flowing river. Dragging himself to the bank after failing to save him, ice congealing on his face and clothes, hypothermia setting in, Ottoway curses God, railing against his inaction, his lack of care, his refusal to intercede. This scene also roused controversy, but again, those who find it offensive miss the larger point: it is Ottoway’s final words in this sequence that truly matter. He waits a moment, the rant met only with the silence of the gray, overcast sky, then says, “Fuck it. I’ll do it myself.”

“I’ll do it myself”

Throughout the entire story, Ottoway, once so close to suicide, has been a guide to others — trying, but failing, to keep them alive. Through his brief relationships with them, along with witnessing their unique reckonings with death, he ironically finds a renewed purpose in his own life: simply trying to stay alive, even when he no longer has anyone to look after. Left alone, the chances of survival now virtually hopeless, he nevertheless gets back to his feet and struggles on.

God, one may argue, helps those who help themselves. Or perhaps God has nothing to do with it at all. Regardless, the message, if not the means, is clear: in our darkest hours, we must turn to our own courage and will. What inspires that is both subjective and personal. As it should be.

The ending of The Grey remains haunting, even after repeated viewings. Bleary-eyed, freezing, Ottoway staggers through a forest of close, identical saplings. Eventually, exhausted, he kneels down in the snow, opens his backpack, and removes a plastic bag full of wallets…Every time one of the men died, the survivors would collect his wallet, so that all the names of the fallen would be documented, and with the dwindling hope that whoever made it out alive would be able to turn them over to the authorities.

Now Ottoway goes through every one, looking at photos of dead men with wives and girlfriends they will never kiss again, children they will never hug again, or in one case, simply at a man’s driver’s license, since he had no one else. Silently he honors them, placing the wallets in even stacks. A monument, however impermanent, is still a monument; in the grand scheme of existence, a dandelion placed lovingly on an unmarked grave is just as meaningful as a pyramid that lasts for thousands of years. Perhaps Ottoway realizes that. Or perhaps it is simply the most he can do.

Then he looks up. Animal skeletons litter the terrain. The timber wolves have surrounded him. The spot where he has collapsed is their den…the heart of the very place he was trying to leave behind.

More criticism upon the film’s release stemmed from the fact that Ottoway’s plan is thus flawed from the start…In trying to lead the men out of the pack’s range, he ultimately leads them directly toward its center. Is Ottoway that inept? It hardly matters. Again, I see this as part of the film’s message: all paths in life lead, eventually, to a reckoning. It is unavoidable. And this is where, and when, Ottoway will meet his. The only variable that remains, as it did for all the fallen men who survived the plane crash only to die on the journey, is how he will choose to meet it. The focus of The Grey isn’t on what kills us, but how we deal with death when we face it. Do we give up? Or do we fight?

The alpha wolf, massive, black-haired, and yellow-eyed, closes in, and all the other wolves in the pack retreat in deference. If Ottoway does choose to fight, it will be with a true monster.

An elegiac, melancholy piece entitled “The City Surf,” by Jamin Winans, begins to play. Ottoway folds his letter to his wife into his wallet, then flips over to her photo. He flashes back to a memory we have now seen several times: of them lying in bed, and her cupping his cheek and telling him, “Don’t be afraid.” But only now do we finally see the full context: they are in a hospital room, and an intravenous drip is connected to her arm. His wife didn’t divorce him. She died. And his reason for living died with her.

And only now, finally, do her words resonate: “Don’t be afraid.”

Falling to his knees and going through the wallets suggests Ottoway had reached his breaking point and was preparing to give in. Yet in a subtle, beautifully-acted moment, resolve now floods his face. The alpha steps closer. Ottoway stabs his knife into the snow and dumps out the remaining contents of his backpack. This includes several sample-sized glass whiskey bottles from the airplane, along with a watch that sports a small but functional tracking beacon. All along, the watch has probably been useless; in fact, at one point Ottoway argued it was. Nevertheless the men kept it, passing it from one to another as their numbers dwindled. Now Ottoway himself puts it on: a tiny, faint hope, but a great, profound gesture. He tapes the bottles to his left hand and breaks them against a rock, then tapes the knife to his right. He’s going to fight.

He then flashes back to his childhood, when, in a rare moment of tranquility, his abusive, alcoholic father put him on his lap and showed him a poem. And for the third time in the film, Ottoway recites it:

Once more into the fray…

Into the last good fight I’ll ever know.

Live and die on this day…

Live and die on this day…

Ottoway’s eyes narrow. He tenses. He lunges straight at the camera…

And the screen cuts to black.

The Grey – ending

As the credits began to roll, I heard at least half a dozen people in the audience say, “What the fuck?” A low, collective groan went up. “That’s it?” someone said. “We don’t even see the fight?”

Believe me, I felt the same. And this is when, once again, the trailer does the film a disservice: at the very climax of the trailer, generic action music pumping, Ottoway is shown charging forward in a sprint, the broken bottles taped to his hand, as the alpha lunges toward him in an opposing shot. The movie ended literally seconds before this; none of the final fight, even though it was filmed and partially shown in the trailer, made the final cut.

I left the theater. It was almost midnight, and the parking lot, packed before I went in, was now almost empty. A thick but gentle snow, just like in the film, had started to fall. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered. What I’d figured would be a fun, energetic action film had left me pensive, reflective, and kind of down. It was a lonely, dark ride home, and the whole experience had accomplished exactly the opposite of what I’d hoped.

Yet The Gray stayed with me, especially the ending. And over the years, away from the misplaced promotional material that influenced (at least to a degree) public opinion, the film has gained a newfound respect among many viewers.

Even driving home on that very bleak February night, I knew it was something special – much more than I had expected, even if it wasn’t what I wanted at the time. There is something profoundly moving in the act of fighting on even when the odds are greatly stacked against us. And when Death itself is the adversary, the outcome all but guaranteed, to fight against it is one of the noblest acts of all.

Ernest Hemingway wrote, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” Taking the quote at face value, I disagree. I’ve known many people who have been defeated by life yet live on for decades in such a state. But perhaps, in that Hemingway-way of his, he was actually saying that if you’re a real man, you don’t ever give up, regardless of the stakes. Replace “A man” with “The brave,” and the message becomes even clearer.

Certain challenges in life can teach us to live again, even if the challenge itself means we only have a short time left to do so. Ottoway’s wife comforted him when she was dying. And at the end of his own life, he finds that same wellspring of strength in himself. That’s why the ending fight between Ottoway and the alpha simply doesn’t need to be seen. The fact that he’s willing to fight is what’s important…not the outcome.

“The fray” could therefore be a synonym for life itself: “Once more into life.” And that, despite the situational darkness of The Gray, is profoundly inspirational.

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PS – there is a very short final shot after the credits. But it, too, is open to interpretation, and doesn’t change the message of the film.

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Looking Back and Moving Forward

Well, another summer has come to an end. Last Thursday I went back to work – to department meetings, professional development, beginning-of-school year speeches, classroom setup time, jammed photocopiers, and a brand-new curriculum for a class I’m teaching for the first time. But while I valued every moment of my summer break, I’m also content to return. My students, who materialize tomorrow, help keep me young and remain a (mostly) constant source of inspiration. I don’t think many people can keep a career for eighteen years and say, almost without hesitation, “I’m happy to be here.” But I still love what I do for a living, even during the darkest, coldest February mornings, even when I grumble and mutter, and even when I’m teaching the damn Scarlet Letter.

I once knew a person who said, with complete seriousness, “I can never see myself settling into a routine. There’s no way I could do the same job year after year. I just want to travel and do new things all the time and see where life takes me.”

That’s great, but the stability of at least a somewhat normal routine can also be profoundly beneficial. There’s a difference between a rut and a pattern: one is limiting, the other beautiful. And if you do good work, worthwhile work, and work that you enjoy, then the pattern necessary to afford that travel, and to do those other things, won’t seem like a burdensome routine, but an essential method of putting your talent, whatever it may be, to meaningful use.

So some of what we have to do can also be what we want to do. Having a career you can take pride in is always something to be grateful for, even when the pressures mount or you have a bad day, week, or month. And I still take pride in mine.

That said, it’s also worth taking stock of what I did, didn’t do, and learned over the last nine weeks, when I was much more free from my traditional routine. It’s healthy to take a brief look back now and then and get a “track record” for how things worked out. That way you can (hopefully) grow from what you find, and move forward with a bit more confidence and wisdom. I think this conscious process is always a good idea, but even more important when recovering from something like a depressive episode, which clouded late winter and all of spring for me.

To begin with, I created daily and weekly goals for my summer writing routine…I wrote, on average, six out of every seven days for nine weeks straight, no breaks, no excuses. I’m at my most productive when I become a creature of habit, so chose to do most of my writing in the evening at the local Starbucks…I remember mentioning my plan to do that in an earlier post, and that’s exactly what I did. (In fact I became so habitual that every one of the employees there now knows exactly what I order. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I couldn’t say.) So no matter what my daily plans were, if I was in town and had nothing else to do in the evening, I’d be there writing. And if I did have evening plans, I’d write in the morning or afternoon instead. One way or another, the work got done. I can’t write much during the school year, so that summer schedule is precious.

And I should add that I do view my writing as work…I love it, but it isn’t something I ever take on casually, or without total dedication. The reason I don’t write during the school year is because I can’t devote the time and concentration to it that it deserves and demands. The results would be sub-par, and I won’t allow that. Just like teaching, it’s good work, worthwhile work, and work that I enjoy. And just like teaching, it must be taken seriously and undertaken with rigor.

In total, I calculate I wrote just over 32,000 words this summer. That includes nine new stories for the third Uncanny Valley book and eleven essays for this blog. I enjoyed every minute of the process, and the more some of the stories challenged me, the more I gained from creating them. Again, good work is rewarding, and “difficult” can also mean fun.

But I also made sure that plans with friends and loved ones came first. If someone invited me to do something, I always did my best to go. And if I found myself with some free time, I did my best to fill it with the presence of others. I feel that over the last few years, for a variety of reasons, I’d slipped up on really being present in the lives of a lot of people I truly care about, and also didn’t work hard enough on forming relationships with new people. So that’s an area I’m now doing my best to focus on, because nothing matters more than spending time with people who really care, who can really be counted on, and who make your life better just by sharing theirs with you.

As a counterpoint, I firmly cut ties with some people who proved toxic to my life. I simply won’t pursue or cater to personalities like that any longer, regardless of whatever past experiences we shared. Now they get less of me – or none of me at all – rather than more. A sad truth I’ve come to recognize is that some people are like ghosts. They have no lives of their own, so haunt those who do, and do their best to drag you down to their level in the process. Those are the ones you have to exorcise completely, leaving them behind to haunt others instead. It’s a hard-won lesson, but I’m better off having learned it. Let those bridges burn, and don’t look back.

Finally, I also like to travel. The trips are not usually to exotic places, but that doesn’t matter, and this year I really amped up those “little” visits, starting in late-spring and continuing all through the summer. Among others, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Seattle, New York, Annapolis, Gettysburg, Cincinnati, Richmond, and my old home town of Columbia, Maryland are all places I’ve connected or reconnected with over the last four months. I went to each for various reasons, but they all ultimately boil down to one: when we travel for pleasure, it’s to deepen our well of experience and have some fun doing it. That says it all.

But now that I’m back to work, each of those areas – writing, time with people I care about, and travel – will be affected. I won’t have as much time or energy for any of them. Even so, I still plan on making those three things more of a priority – to even the balance a bit more than in years past – not only during the coming school year, but indefinitely. Back in May, in the midst of my episode of depression, I shared a favorite quote by Ray Bradbury: “Doing is being.” At the time, I forced myself to write, to spend time with people, and to travel a bit. I did this not because I wanted to – I really, really didn’t – but because I used to want to. I had a tiny bit of hope, in the gray haze that hides and buries hope, that doing what usually made me happy would eventually lead to being happy again.

And holy shit, it was hard. Brushing my teeth was hard. Talking was hard. Opening the front door was hard. That’s what depression does – it’s a goddamn Dementor straight out of Harry Potter. But slowly, eventually, it actually started to work. Then kept on working.

And now that I’m enjoying those things again and being more proactive in pursuing them, I’m determined to never again slip back into complacency. Sometimes it takes a difficult time or crisis, in whatever shape or form, to make us realize just how much we take for granted and miss when things are relatively stable, and how important it is to embrace opportunities when they present themselves. I’ve always tried to be proactive…to work hard, do the things I really want to do, and achieve my goals. But everyone can backslide a bit, and I won’t let that happen again.

Most of us have heard the famous lyric from The Doors, “No one here gets out alive.” There’s also a darkly hilarious Onion headline I sometimes think about: “World Death Rate Holding Steady at 100%.” It’s never something we like to dwell on, but facts is facts. With that in mind, the last 18 months have witnessed a number of deaths and serious illnesses of friends and family – the list is longer than I care to think about. And what I’ve realized is that by saying I don’t want to take what I enjoy and value for granted again, I’m actually saying I don’t want to take life – precious, unpredictable, and brief – for granted again. Because it’s all life. All of it. And the pain we often have to live with and through isn’t overwhelmed by inaction, but by doing what you love, and with the people who care about you, whenever and however you can, while you can.

So, that’s what I did this summer. And that’s what I learned.

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“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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