On Children

familly

The recent welcome news that I am to become an aunt for the seventh time has brought these poignant verses to my mind…

On Children

 
 

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Kahlil Gibran

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An Ode to the Nameless Heroes

Ambulance

“All’s well that ends well,” declared Shakespeare in about 1605.  Six weeks ago Tuesday, when I returned home from the local Emergency Department, I was inclined agree.

All might not have been well, however, without the ministrations of Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) from the Madison Fire Department and the cool-headed competence of a 911 operator.  I am told that a fire truck, a police car, and an ambulance all showed up at my house, although I never saw the fire truck.  Parked as it was immediately in front of the house, it somehow escaped my notice.

I remember seeing the fireman, the policeman, and a number of EMTs.  I don’t know any of their names.  I couldn’t even tell you exactly how many there were.  Such was the state of my consciousness.

I do remember their focused and efficient care.  A wonderful, warm-hearted, and terribly concerned fireman (thick-set and very good-looking too, although that was completely irrelevant) started proceedings by asking me if I knew my name.  When they had ascertained that I had sustained no head injuries, two of them carried me from the top of the stairs to a spot near the bottom where I could sit as they worked.  One EMT, a woman, continued asking questions from my left as she took my blood pressure (something ridiculously low, along the lines of 67/40) and other vital signs.  On my right, a man worked swiftly and in near silence to measure an instant blood glucose level from a fingerstick.

This continued for probably five or six minutes.  My ability to measure time was compromised.

While awaiting the EMTs’ arrival from a seat at the top of the stairs, I had heard a rush of white noise in my ears.  By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs, the white noise had abated, but my view of the scene was breaking up, as though I were seeing everything reflected in a shattered mirror.  It seemed that my brain could not assemble a complete visual picture and had to settle for a collection of discrete sections divided by pale, wavy boundary lines.   I decided that my most important – and perhaps only – job was to maintain consciousness.  Toward that end I devoted all of my energy, so I never saw the fire truck.

Two strong men strapped me into a chair and carried me down the front steps to a gurney waiting at the top of the driveway.  They pushed me on the gurney down the at-times-inconveniently steep driveway and loaded me into the back of the waiting ambulance, where the competent and confidence-inspiring lady EMT started me on a bag of intravenous fluids.  I asked whether she could do anything for some pain and nausea.  She said no about the pain but gave me an IV push drug that stopped the nausea almost immediately.  After she had called ahead to alert the Emergency Room of our imminent arrival, we departed.  I had never realized how bumpy my street was before riding over it while lying on my back.

Later, my mother asked whether I had noticed the three neighbors on the next-door driveway watching as the ambulance loaded and left.  I replied that I hadn’t even noticed the next-door driveway.

The Emergency Department physicians and staff were terrific.  Excellent bedside manner was the rule of the day.  Three hours later I was back home with normal vital signs, no new medical problems, and notes about how to make sure the crazy events of that afternoon would never recur.

All of the drama had come about because of blood loss and some very poor judgment on my part, most likely as a consequence of the blood loss.  One lesson I draw from the whole affair is that someone under the influence of heatstroke, blood loss, or dehydration cannot be trusted to make sound decisions.

I knew on that Tuesday morning that something was wrong.  I should have gone to pains to replenish fluids but did not, so I became, unwittingly, quite dehydrated.  In the early afternoon, I decided to see a doctor but wanted to grab a quick shower first.  That turned out to be a mistake.

I had at times in the past been lightheaded in a shower, but never as badly as this.  I turned off the water and stuck my head into cooler room air in an unsuccessful attempt to catch my breath.  At about this time I decided that although a bathroom floor isn’t normally a salubrious resting place, a lie-down on the floor was very appealing.  Then followed waves of nausea.  My mother knocked on the door in alarm. “Are you all right?  Should I call an ambulance?”

“I don’t need an ambulance,” I slurred defiantly, my judgment completely gone.

I felt a great need to get ready to see the doctor, but I was literally too weak to dry off.  So I sat for a couple of minutes before attempting to stand.

I realized before long that I had been dreaming and decided that I must have put my head down for a moment.  Gradually I became aware of my mother’s voice.  She was on the phone with a 911 operator.

“Please don’t call them now,” I thought, “I can’t possibly be ready before they arrive!”

“Cynthia, stay down,” my mother called, but all I could think of (judgment still gone) was wanting to be ready to meet the ambulance crew.  I defied my mother’s eminently sensible advice and started to move.

“You can wear a robe!” my mother called.

“A robe,” I thought, “Great idea!”  It never occurred to me to wait for my mother to fetch it for me.

Off I lumbered into my room, which is fortunately carpeted and devoid of sharp furniture.  After an immeasurable passage of time, I again became aware that my mind had been transported to an altered state.

I came too, stood, and chuckled at what had transpired.  “I think I passed out,” I declared with a laugh.  A burst of euphoric energy carried me to the top of the staircase, where I needed to sit again, and where the rushing sound started in my ears.  I noted the arrival of the emergency crews as though it were happening in a movie.  All of it ceased to be funny.

I had fainted twice, the first time in the bathroom with my mother downstairs.  She later said that I had sounded like a large sack of potatoes spilling onto the ground.  The second time I fainted was onto the carpet in my room.  My mother saw that happen and said I had collapsed straight down like a rag doll.

Somehow I had managed not to strike anything on the way down.

My energy level returned to normal after about ten days.  I know what to do to prevent a recurrence of the fainting.  I can safely consign that unpleasant episode into the past, but I keep thinking about the First Responders I met that day.

Every face I saw that afternoon was a portrait of concern.  (It is quite an experience to meet a group of strangers and have each of them scrutinize at one with deep concern.)

To a man or woman, everyone was calm, determined, and focused on the tasks at hand.  They worked together like components of a machine.  There were no wasted words.

They were a team completely dedicated for that moment to one job – the preservation of my life.  They do this again and again, day after day, for people they don’t know and the outcomes of whose stories they might never hear.

I wish I could let those First Responders know that everything here turned out OK.  I would like to thank them, all five or six or seven of them – however many there were, from the bottom of my heart.

 

Quotes for Today

I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er: — MacBeth in MacBeth, Act III, Scene 4

If thou wouldst fain feint with fate, i’ faith, feign a faint. – Anonymous

Revisiting Brideshead, Remembering Love, Recovering Hope

Castle_Howard_and_Fountain Castle Howard in Yorkshire

How does one in middle age recover the lost joy, innocence, and love of youth?  Is this possible?  Where does one start?

Such a quest frames the narrative of Brideshead Revisited (1981), one of the most highly acclaimed British miniseries ever produced.  Adapted from the novel by Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited centers on 40-year-old army officer Charles Ryder as he reflects upon his past in search of meaning.

JI_Soldier  Jeremy Irons as the 40-year-old Charles Ryder

Bored, apathetic, spiritually moribund, and middle-aged in every sense of the term, Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) finds himself unexpectedly billeted in 1944 at the grand country house, Brideshead, where he has known his happiest moments and greatest loves.  Serendipitously reintroduced to Brideshead, Charles embarks upon a voyage of recollection.  Most of the series’ narrative is presented in flashback.

Charles is introduced to Brideshead during the spring term of his first year at Oxford.  Through a series of memorable events ranging from the redolent to the sublime, Charles meets Lord Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews), the second son of the aristocratic Roman Catholic Flyte family.  Smitten with Sebastian’s golden-haired beauty and warmth, and overwhelmed by the Flytes’ wealth and sumptuous surroundings, Charles becomes Sebastian’s closest friend and constant companion.  Together they share holidays at Brideshead, where Charles becomes acquainted with Sebastian’s family.

JI_AA_Beautiful Charles and Sebastian at Oxford

The Flytes’ Roman Catholicism affects each member of the family differently and profoundly.  A self-consciously passive observer, Charles nevertheless finds himself embroiled in the family dramas.

Sebastian’s mother, Lady Marchmain (Claire Bloom), inherited Brideshead as the sole surviving heir.  She is a devout Catholic whose primary concern is the family’s welfare.  Whether Lady Marchmain utterly fails to understand Sebastian’s character, or whether she understands him only too well, is a central question the series leaves unanswered.

CB Claire Bloom as Lady Marchmain

Sebastian’s father, Lord Marchmain (Laurence Olivier), converted to Catholicism in order to marry into the Marchmain family.  When we first meet him, he has fled England and the Catholic church and set up housekeeping in Venice with his beautiful Italian mistress.

LO_2 Laurence Olivier as Lord Marchmain

Sebastian’s older brother, Lord Brideshead, or “Bridey,” (Simon Jones) is a serious Catholic intellectual who is thoroughly content shaping his life around his Church.  Bridey’s fluency with Catholic principles and his inclination to introduce them into casual conversation are alternately fascinating and frightening to the defiantly Agnostic Charles.

SJ Simon Jones as Bridey

The glamorous Lady Julia Flyte (Diana Quick) is a fallen Catholic.  When we meet her, she has just finished her first London season.  Acutely aware of the limits her Catholicism imposes on her marital prospects and of the restrictions the Church places on women, Julia struggles to reconcile her desire for a modern life with the dictates of her ancient faith.

DQ Diana Quick as Lady Julia Flyte

Lady Cordelia Flyte (Phoebe Nicholls) is a 13-year-old convent school pupil when the series begins.  She is a fervent Catholic who eventually answers the Church’s call to service during Europe’s chaotic 1930s.  Cordelia is also the only character in the story who understands Sebastian and possibly the only one who loves him.

PN_1 Phoebe Nicholls as Lady Cordelia Flyte

Sebastian is the emotional center of Brideshead Revisited even when he is absent from the screen.  Anthony Andrews infuses the character with such beauty, grace, and poignant vulnerability that the viewer falls in love with Sebastian as Charles does.   Sebastian’s burgeoning personal struggles through the series’ first several episodes are devastating to watch.  His absence from later episodes is an inevitably painful void.

AA_Seb_SadAnthony Andrews as Sebastian

The source of Sebastian’s anguish is never made clear.  Having seen the miniseries several times now, I am inclined to agree with the adult Cordelia’s belief that all of Sebastian’s problems stem from his resistance to his true vocation.

Sebastian’s heart is riven by diametrically opposed impulses, one, a longing for the comforts, rules, precepts, and promise of redemption offered by the Catholic church; the other, his rejection of Catholicism and its proponents in his life – most especially his mother – that drives him to destroy the repository of his Catholic impulses, himself.

Because Charles is not a Catholic, and because (as we learn in the series) he is markedly lacking in compassion, he is ill-equipped to understand Sebastian’s behavior.  Sebastian’s gradual alienation from his only friend exacerbates his misery and accelerates his decline.

When we last encounter Sebastian, he has fallen into a perverse living arrangement that enables him to indulge simultaneously his penchant for Catholic service and his impulse for self-destruction.

JG  John Gielgud as Edward Ryder

The Brideshead Revisited miniseries is an artistic masterpiece.  Its writing is outstanding.  The acting is uniformly excellent.  Especially noteworthy are John Gielgud‘s wickedly funny turn as Charles’ passive-aggressive father Edward Ryder and Nickolas Grace‘s portrayal of the flamboyant Anthony Blanche, voluptuary and sage.

NG  Nickolas Grace as Anthony Blanche

The production spared no expense in presenting a visual cornucopia of settings, costumes, vintage cars, trains, and Art Deco interiors.  Brideshead’s stand-in, the stunning Vanbrugh-designed Castle Howard, is a character unto itself.

Here Sebastian introduces Charles to the Brideshead estate during a magical summer holiday.

 

In this scene set in Venice, Lord Marchmain’s mistress, Cara, tactfully cautions Charles about the Marchmains and Sebastian.

 

At least as indelible in memory as the series’ lavish settings is its plaintive, iconic chamber music score composed by Geoffrey Burgon.  An except of the score is presented here.

 

Brideshead Revisited is somewhat unusual among dramas written in first person in that the narrator is not a completely sympathetic character.  As the story unfolds, the viewer sees that Charles can be cold, selfish, cruel, standoffish, and judgmental to an extent to which he himself is apparently unaware.

As an aside, Charles Ryder is the first in a long line of obsessed characters portrayed on film by Jeremy Irons.  (See The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Damage, M. Butterfly, Die Hard with a Vengance, Lolita, and Longitude.)

The Brideshead Revisited miniseries is available in a new 30th Anniversary DVD or Blu-ray collection.  Complete episodes are also available on YouTube.

Since this snowy winter promises to linger for weeks to come, I strongly recommend Brideshead Revisited as a sumptuous, heartwrenching, and thought-provoking viewing experience.  I promise you will never forget it.

AA_DQ_JI_House

 

Beware the Self-Anointed Saint!

Self-styled_Saint

Beware the self-anointed saint, be he a global icon (such as Dr. Albert Schweitzer or Dr. Tom Dooley) acclaimed and venerated for his charitable works or a relatively unknown local figure who “lives to serve others.”

Whenever I hear of accolades heaped upon a so-called exemplar of “public service,” what I always want to know is this: how does he treat his family and the people close to him?

Although a public figure’s private behavior is usually obscured from public view, it is the private acts that define the person’s character.

Some of history’s most prominent public benefactors – Theodore Roosevelt leaps to mind – have been driven by personal demons to make grandiose compensatory public gestures at the expense of those to whom they owe primary responsibility.  The brilliant German novelist Hermann Hesse (1877 – 1962) illuminated this phenomenon in his Treatise on the Steppenwolf, a groundbreaking essay in which he asserted that some men with genius-level intelligence feel socially isolated and compelled or obliged, as “natural superiors,” to work for the improvement of society.

If a person generally regarded as a walking saint is unkind to his wife or neglects his children, his public “good deeds,” such as they may be, not only pale into insignificance but also, by contrast with his private failings, become grotesque parodies of true goodness.

One notable recent example of the self-anointed saint was an American physician who, having already donated his right kidney, sought publically to donate his left.

So far as I know, his family’s understandable outrage ultimately prevented him from sacrificing their well-being as well as his life.  (Reductio ad absurdum.)

As I mentioned in my recent essay ‘“Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility,’ contemporary Western culture assigns charity toward strangers greater importance than it accords the proper treatment of one’s own family.  One can see this in the relatively new community-service requirements high school students must satisfy in order to qualify for honor societies.  Such requirements penalize good students who have family obligations – whether for the care of relatives or for contributions to work in a family farm or business – and explicitly reward students who neglect their families in favor of strangers.

I think it would be better to give young people a timeless, empowering, and socially constructive message: take care of yourself and your family first.

Charity begins at home.

 

Quotes for Today

“But how shall we expect charity towards others, when we are uncharitable to ourselves?” – Sir Thomas Browne, 1642

“No matter how fast you run, you can never run away from yourself!” – Aldo Vanucci (Peter Sellers) in After the Fox

 

 

This is the fourth in a series of posts on seasonal philosophical themes.  My first post in the series was ‘Giving “Giving Back” Back to the Propagandists of Newspeak.’  The second was “Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility.‘ The third was “Reflections on Apology, Forgiveness, and Clarity of Thought.”

Reflections on Apology, Forgiveness, and Clarity of Thought

TROTPS The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt

Raise your hand if you will join with family to celebrate a holiday sometime this month.

If only all such gatherings could be harmonious!

In consideration of the fact that even in this season of hope and light old and new grievances are likely to touch the lives of many of us, I would like to say a few words about two phenomena whose manifestations in popular culture have become unmoored in recent decades from their classical meanings: apology and forgiveness.

 

Apology

Since I cannot claim to be an expert in either etymology or semantics, I would like to base my definition of “apology” upon common sense.

I think an apology ought to be a genuine and heartfelt statement of remorse for a specific action expressed directly by the individual offending party to the injured party.

The following are not apologies.

“I’m sorry if you were offended.”

This is not a statement of remorse for one’s behavior.  It is at best a statement of regret about the injured party’s sensitivity.

“I’m sorry if you were hurt by anything I did.” 

This is too general to be an expression of genuine remorse for a specific bad act.

Also, an apology ought to begin with “I’m sorry that…” – which is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing – rather than, “I’m sorry if…” – which is a dodge.

“I’m sorry that you see things that way.”

This is at best a backhanded swipe at the injured party’s point of view.

“I’m sorry for that bad thing that somebody else did.”

Person A cannot apologize for the actions of Person B, because Person A is not responsible for Person B’s decisions.

Such a perversion of apology, the likes of which politicians are known to indulge in from time to time, is a meretricious act of self-aggrandizement and hubris.

Person A can express regret – along the lines of, “It’s too bad that Person B did that bad thing.”  One can legitimately apologize, though, for only those acts for which one is personally responsible.

“We’re sorry for this bad stuff that the group of us did.”

I do not believe in collective responsibility or collective guilt.  Each individual – even each individual in a large body of wrongdoers such as Nazi Germany – bears responsibility for only his or her own acts (or failures to act).

 

Ideally, an apology is conducted person to person – face to face, by phone, or via written word – in a form such as this.

“I am sorry that I did X.  It was wrong, and I regret having done it.”

An expression of contrition cannot undo the wrong, but it is a necessary step toward remediation.

 

Forgiveness

What is forgiveness?  I see it as the clearing of a debt.

To me, “I forgive you,” means, “I release you from any obligation to make further restitution to me for your wrongdoing, and I commit the memory of that wrongdoing to the archives of history, where after sufficient time has passed it will probably be forgotten.”

Note my use of the phrase, “further restitution.”  It makes no sense to me to forgive someone who has never expressed remorse for wrongdoing and never attempted to make amends.

As I see it, forgiveness requires that the offender acknowledge wrongdoing, express contrition, and make restitution.  Only after completion of these three steps is forgiveness healthy, or even practically possible.

“Wait!” you might say, “What if an apology isn’t forthcoming?  What if apology and restitution are impossible?  Do you contend that in such a case the injured party should nurture his or her grievances in perpetuity, effectively prolonging and exacerbating the injury, rather than issuing forgiveness unbidden?”

Definitely not.

I would never suggest that an injured party do anything to compound his or her injury.

I am very much in favor of letting go of grievances – i.e., refusing to allocate to grievances space in one’s psyche.

But one cannot forgive someone who has not acknowledged wrongdoing or asked to be forgiven.  To do so would indeed compound one’s suffering, because of the implicit lie.

Contemporary Western culture tends to pervert the concept of apology and to pressure the aggrieved individual to “forgive” in the absence of legitimate apology and restitution.  It seems to me that recent semantic changes serve to deprive individuals of personal responsibility and autonomy.

Life is so much easier – and much more fun – when things make sense.

 

Quote for Today

A vocabulary of truth and simplicity will be of service throughout your life. – Winston Churchill

 

This is the third in a series of posts on seasonal philosophical themes.  My first post in the series was ‘Giving “Giving Back” Back to the Propagandists of Newspeak.’  The second was, ‘“Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility.

 

 

From Forward Roll to Starring Role: Cary Grant’s Conscious Creation of Himself

CG_as_a_Boy

He was born Archibald Alexander Leach on 18 January 1904, in the industrial port of Bristol on the west coast of England, to Elias James Leach, a garment worker, and Elsie Maria (Kingdon) Leach.

It is difficult today to know how many other children were born to the Leaches.  What is clear is that Archie was the only child of Elias and Elise to survive infancy.  What is also clear is that the depression Elsie suffered as a result of her losses affected her son for the rest of his life.

When Archie was nine years old, his mother disappeared one day while he was at school.  Elias first told Archie that his mother had gone on a “long holiday” to the seaside.  Some time later, Elias told his son that that Elsie had died.

(Only on his deathbed 22 years later did Elias confess that he had had Elsie committed to a mental institution.)

When Archie was ten, his father remarried.  Details of Archie’s life with his father’s new family are sketchy.  By all accounts, young Archie felt excluded and lonely.

After his expulsion from school at age 14, Archie moved to Brixton in southwest London to join the Bob Pender Stage Troupe, with whom he trained as an acrobat, mime, juggler, and stilt-walker.  The troupe sailed to the United States in 1920 when Archie was 16.  He never returned to Great Britain to stay.

Archie fell in love with the United States during his two-year tour with the Pender Troupe.  When the troupe returned to England in 1922, Archie remained behind, supporting himself with odd jobs as a vaudeville mind-reader, a necktie hawker, and a Coney Island stilt-walker.  He landed his first Broadway role in 1927, after a brief stint on the English musical stage, and never looked back.

In the autumn of 1931, 27-year-old Archie Leach drove his second-hand Packard across the United States in order to sign his first Hollywood contract with Paramount.  When pressed by the studio to rename himself, Archie suggested “Cary Lockwood,” the name of his most recent stage character.  ‘No,’ said the studio boss, ‘There’s another actor named Lockwood.  Pick one of these.’

From the proffered list of surnames, Archie chose, “Grant,” in part because Clark Gable had enjoyed so much success with the initials “CG.”  Thus was born the internationally beloved and unforgettable Hollywood personality we know as “Cary Grant.”

Over the course of 74 films from 1932 through 1966, Cary Grant cultivated an indelible and fabulously successful public persona.  The boy who began life in poverty and unhappiness became famous as an adult for his grace, beauty, wit, and glamour,

CG_2

his perfect posture, broad shoulders, and trim physique,

CG_5

and his breezy and apparently unshakeable confidence.

CG_7

Cary Grant defined the term “debonair.”  He always looked magnificent in his clothes.  People flocked by the millions to see his films.  Women swooned over him; men envied him.  Ian Fleming is said to have modeled his .007 agent James Bond after him.  As Grant himself said, “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant.  Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

Archie Leach applied himself to the development his film career (and to his concomitant transformation into Cary Grant) with conscious study, careful planning, and discipline.  He observed Hollywood’s most urbane celebrities, such as Noel Coward, and adopted some of their mannerisms and stylistic idiosyncrasies.  Possessed of a fine intelligence, he read voraciously.  He cultivated a public love for baseball, the era’s National Pastime, supporting first the New York Yankees and later the Los Angeles Dodgers.  In June of 1942, he became a U.S. citizen, in the process changing his name legally to “Cary Grant.”

A highly professional practitioner of his craft, Cary Grant became a master verbal comedy (demonstrated here as he forces his acquaintanceship upon the fiancé of his ex-wife in His Girl Friday);

 

physical comedy (shown here in a famous scene with Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby);

 

character comedy (here in one of the funniest scenes of Alfred Hitchcock‘s funniest thriller, North by Northwest);

 

and drama (here again in North by Northwest, as he and Eva Marie Saint engage in mutual seduction over dinner on a speeding train).

 

Grant was capable of portraying darkness, such as in the arguably homicidal gold digger in Suspicion, but Hollywood refused to permit him to play a villain.

 

In some of his films, such as Holiday, Grant displayed his acrobatic skills.

 

Although never formally recognized during his career for his acting skill, Grant was a wonderfully subtle actor.  Because of his perfected persona, Cary Grant never disappears into his roles. One is always aware that one is watching Cary Grant, but each of his characters – from the unworldly paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby, to the wartime cargo pilot in Only Angels Have Wings, to the hard-driving newspaper editor in His Girl Friday, to the charismatic jewel thief in To Catch a Thief – is different from each of the others.  In the uproariously funny Monkey Business, Grant successfully plays characters aged 35, 20, and seven.

Grant retired from films in 1966 at the age of 62, citing his belief that audiences would not want to see “Cary Grant” grow old.  In retirement, he shifted his professional attention to the business world, serving on the boards of several corporations, and devoted his personal time to his only child, daughter Jennifer, who was born to his fourth wife, Dyan Cannon, in February of 1966.

Grant was a philanthropist throughout his adult life.  He donated his $137,000 salary for The Philadelphia Story (1940) to British War Relief and his $100,000 salary for Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) to U.S. War Relief.  During the War, he traveled to entertain the troops.

Publically, Cary Grant was one of the most successful American figures of the 20th century.  Privately, he was haunted for his entire life by the central trauma of his childhood: the mysterious disappearance of his mother.

When he learned, at the age of 31, that his mother was alive and in an institution, he traveled immediately to England to secure her release.  He then moved her to California and supported her for the rest of her life.

The adult Grant was plagued by insecurity and was always fearful of losing the women in his life.  He resorted to using LSD in the early 1960s – at a time when it was legal – hoping that, as he said, “it would make me feel better about myself. I wanted to rid myself of all my hypocrisies.”

It is possible to see in the histories of Cary Grant’s five marriages the long, sad shadow cast on his life by the loss of his mother.  Of his first wife, Virginia Cherrill, he said, “My possessiveness and fear of losing her brought about the very condition I feared: the loss of her.”  Of the four wives who divorced him, he said, “They all left me. I didn’t leave any of them. They all walked out on me.”  For explanation, one might consult the revealing memoir penned by his fourth wife, Dyan Cannon, about her life with Grant.  She describes scenes of Grant’s explosions of temper and hyper-controlling behavior which, I think, can be explained – though not excused – as desperate attempts to control his personal life and thereby avoid pain.

Grant’s incompleteness did not elude frequent co-star Katharine Hepburn, who offered this insightful comment on the lacunae in his private persona: “Cary Grant, I think, is a personality functioning, a delicious personality who has learnt to do certain things marvelously well.”

Cary Grant died of a stroke on November 29, 1986, while on a speaking tour in Davenport, Iowa.  He was survived by his devoted daughter, Jennifer, and his fifth wife, Barbara Harris.

He died with a $60 million estate, a testament to his financial acumen, his determination to succeed, and decades of focused hard work.  Pretty good for a boy who started as a motherless Cockney acrobat.

Cary Grant’s cinematic legacy is a veritable treasure trove.  Many of his films are available in their entirety on YouTube.

One can hardly go wrong in selecting a Grant film to watch on a cold winter evening.  Here are ten of my favorites, listed in no particular order.

  • The Awful Truth
  • My Favorite Wife
  • His Girl Friday
  • North by Northwest
  • Gunga Din
  • Notorious
  • The Philadelphia Story
  • Penny Serenade
  • Suspicion
  • The Bishop’s Wife

Quotes for Today

“My screen persona is a combination of Jack Buchanan, Noel Coward and Rex Harrison. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be, and, finally, I became that person. Or he became me.” – Cary Grant

“I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant, unsure of each, suspecting each.” – Cary Grant

 

 

How to Break the Ice? Make a Game of It.

OnTheKennebecIII (Ice Jam by gothictile.com)

Family relationships can be minefields whose navigation requires courage and careful thought.

What does one say to a sibling, or a parent, or a child, whom one has not seen for many months, or even years – especially if the relationship’s history reads like a battle diary?

SalmonriveverDotCom (Photo from salmonriver.com.)

Several years ago my family of origin was in crisis.  Misperceptions and deeply-rooted resentments, reflexive to some of the principals while opaque to others, had nearly destroyed the family unit.  Trust, honest communication, and good will were in short supply.

To address the situation, the five of us – who at that time were spread over seven thousand miles – agreed to convene at my mother’s house for a long weekend in February.

Realistically apprehensive about what might transpire at the meeting, I mulled over how to approach the weekend and how to ensure that we said what we needed to say while maximizing the chances of constructive solutions.  The meeting needed an organizing instrument that would accomplish three goals: (1) to help each participant to organize his or her thoughts about our family system in advance; (2) to break the ice, i.e., lay the groundwork for honest and straightforward communication; and (3) to apply a congenial structure to a discussion which otherwise would surely be fraught with difficulty and might result in even further estrangement.

I remembered that some of us had had great fun with the game of Balderdash, a riotously funny romp whose goal is to guess which players have authored humorous movie plots, word definitions, book titles, etc.

For our family meeting, I was inspired to create a game that blended Balderdash, the board game Therapy, and The Book of Questions.  The new game would center upon guessing the authorship of answers to questions – some light-hearted and meant to teach us about each other, and others, more serious, designed to stimulate thought and conversation about what was really going on in our family.

I created a list of 36 questions, formatted them in Excel with space for answers and authors’ initials, converted the document to a PDF (linked here), and emailed the package to my relatives a few weeks in advance.

Template

Each participant filled out his or her answers on paper, initialed each, used scissors to separate the answers one from another, and brought the answers to our reunion.

The first hours of our meeting, before we played the game, were stiff but well-mannered.  I think it helped ease tension that we all knew that our first group project would center on the 36 questions.  When the five of us sat down to play after a sumptuous, home-cooked brunch, we were all pleased to find the experience to be enlightening, memorable, and genuinely fun.

Here are some examples of the lighter questions.

  • What is one thing that almost no one knows about you?
  • What three adjectives do you hope will accurately describe you in five years?
  • What three adjectives describe you not at all?
  • Write the first draft of your epitaph.
  • What is your favorite topographical feature?
  • Who in this group would be most likely to enter a monastery or convent?
  • Who in this group would look worst with flaming red hair, and who would look best?
  • Name something you have always wanted to do but haven’t done yet.
  • If you could wave a magic wand and change careers, what would you most like to do?
  • Write the first line of the following song: “If Only You Knew.”

Here are the serious questions I wrote for the game.

  • In abstract terms, what do you want from the family members who will gather this weekend?
  • What three concrete goals would you most like to achieve through the this meeting?
  • If you could communicate only one message to the family in February, what would you like that message to be?
  • What are your three greatest concerns about the weekend’s meeting?
  • What role would you like to have in the family one year from now?
  • What personal changes do you think you might need to make in order to improve our family dynamics?
  • In general, what behavior(s) would you like to see more of in members of this family group?
  • What do you think are the two most formidable obstacles to healthy family relationships in the future?

To begin play, one person (the Reader) collected all five answers to Question 1, stated the question, and then read all of the answers aloud in random order.  Each of the other players, armed with a notepad, guessed the author of each of the five answers and wrote those guesses down.  The Reader then announced the answers’ authors.  Players received one point for each correct guess, with a maximum of five points per turn.  The Reader recorded the scores on a scorepad.  The job of Reader/scorekeeper progressed around the group clockwise.

The game served as a valuable tool, helping us to organize our thoughts and identify our feelings, offering a forum in which each of us might raise concerns safely, and providing a metric whereby each of us could see how well he or she did – or did not – really know each of the others.

The game was so engrossing, eye-opening, and downright fun the first time through that we decided we’d play it again when next we met four months later.  For the second round, each of us contributed questions.  It happened that none of the questions was serious.

With family holidays looming over the horizon, I wanted to offer this ice breaker to others who might be anticipating difficult reunions.  The game provided my family a safe, structured, and straightforward forum for sharing thoughts, feelings, and concerns, becoming better acquainted, and having fun together.

(The game works best if every family member participates with enthusiasm and honesty and, to the greatest extent possible, as an equal member of the group.)

Quote for Today

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” ― Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910) in Anna Karenina