The Constancy of Stars

When I was seven years old, my parents and I moved from our small house in Lemont, Pennsylvania, just outside of State College, and into State College itself, to a house on a street called Old Boalsburg Road. For the first time in my life we lived on a street with sidewalks, so my dad would often take me on walks around the neighborhood after he got home from work.

In the winter, with night falling early, his work day ended at dusk, so we could only walk after dark. That’s when he would point out the constellations to me in the cold, frosty air. His favorite, and so my favorite too, was Orion.

When we moved to Maryland two years later, and everything seemed new and strange, it was odd and comforting to see Orion in its same place that winter, completely unchanged, although so much else in my life was different.

And now, over 30 years later, with just about everything different from the way it was when I was a kiddo holding my dad’s hand, listening to his stories as we looked up at the sky, I still find great comfort in the constancy of the stars…especially when Orion rises up over the trees in the winter night, still hunting.

So I think the reason why one of my favorite poems is “Winter Stars,” by Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), will become clear very quickly. Here, for what it’s worth, is my reading of it:

Although very popular in her time, Teasdale’s work is often unjustly overlooked today, and she deserves more recognition. Ray Bradbury used her most famous poem, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” in his haunting short story of the same name. I highly recommend her collected works, which can be found here.

Thank you for all the emails and tweets about my previous post, and for the unexpected but very welcome poetry recommendations! I’m enjoying them, and I’ll try to use some in the future. I’m also going to continue to post these readings once or twice a week, until things calm down a bit and some normalcy returns…or until enough people tell me to shut up.

In the meantime, take care and stay well.

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Certainty in an Uncertain Time

Well, here we are, and all our lives have quickly changed in many ways both big and small – hopefully temporarily, but I think we’re beyond presuming to know what will happen next, or how long it will take before the crisis fades and we can truly take stock of things. Meanwhile, for the time being, and for the first time in our lives (at least to this extent), we are living in oddly repressed conditions, with degrees of fear and concern always casting long and shifting shadows over us. Being less active than normal has seldom been so hard.

During times of difficulty, such as we are all sharing now, I think we tend to desire the basic pleasures of normalcy more than anything else – the little things so often taken for granted because we don’t, at the time, think they can ever really be taken away. Then they are, and we want them back: a visit with a family member, a cup of coffee at a café, a romantic dinner out, a drink downtown with friends, a casual trip to a “non-essential” store…or maybe a day at work around colleagues, an open business, a hug or handshake without hesitation, or a paycheck.

Yet we adapt, temporarily or otherwise, to whatever the occasion requires of us. And as we all do our best to adjust, I’ve noticed a trend on social media over the last week that has provided a much-needed emotional break.

People are posting photos of their favorite paintings. Reviews of their favorite movies. Recommendation lists of their favorite books. Playlists of their favorite songs. Pics of their collections. Details about their hobbies. Collections of their favorite quotes. Small performances and readings. On his website, Brian May of Queen is posting daily “MicroConcertos” and other things from his home – guitar solos, snippets of Queen songs, brief tutorials, daily thoughts, and good, reasoned information on the pandemic – and they are a wonderful, warm comfort.

All of these are passions, both large and small. And sharing them allows us to stay connected to each other by focusing on what we love in the midst of difficulty…which is exactly when such passions really matter the most. It is gratifying to be reminded that art and artistry, in all its many forms, can always, always be counted on to comfort and inspire us…and also bring us together.

For the last week and a half I’ve been teaching my classes online, and I miss seeing my students every day. Much of what made me want to be a teacher is the enjoyment I receive simply by being around people, and it looks as though we won’t be together again in an actual classroom for a long time. But two days ago I started using QuickTime to record mini-lectures and respond to their questions…It seemed far more organic and natural than trying to type everything out. The response was very positive, so I’m now getting into the routine of making daily recordings for them. Again, it’s creating a form of connection.

This led to another idea, also related to the topic above. I thought I’d try reading and recording some of my favorite poems and short stories – pieces by some of my favorite writers that I’ve gone back to time and again over the years – then post them here every few days. It’s something, like the recorded mini-lectures, that I’ve never tried before. Now seems the right time.

I’m starting out with a piece by Alfred Lord Tennyson, called “Nothing Will Die.” David Lynch used a portion of it at the end of The Elephant Man, and ever since I first heard it there, it’s been a favorite. It also seems appropriate.

Wishing good health to all, until the next time. And remember, “Nothing is worth more than this day.” — Goethe

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Happy New Year!

Amazing! Here we are, on the cusp of a new decade. Personally, 2019 began in a very uncertain fashion and definitely had its ups and downs, but ended on several exceptional high notes that are hopefully just a prelude of things to come in the new year and beyond. I also had some fine adventures along the way. So, farewell 2019, and bring on 2020. Happy New Year, everyone! May you experience much love, health, prosperity, and happiness in the year (and decade) ahead. Life is beautiful.

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PS — It’s almost the ’20s again! I can’t wait to see three-piece suits and bobbed hair make their long-anticipated comeback.

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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 good opportunity 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 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 depiction of 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 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 Grey 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 Grey, 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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