Saturday, December 17, 2011

Thought of the Heart

This is the season when the famous dead of the past year are remembered again, in a group.  I've checked many such sites on the Internet, replete with photos, but none of them include James Hillman, who died in October.  I will make my usual remembrances from the year past on other blogs, but since my last two posts here have involved Hillman and his work--and he's been key to earlier posts--I feel it's appropriate to give him this stage entirely.

It's also because I didn't know he'd died until I started these searches by going through the month by month lists on Wikipedia.  Somehow I missed this news on that October day, which I suspect wasn't hard to do.  As Thomas Moore says in his tribute at Huffington Post (which I no longer frequent)   "People don't generally know his work too well because it is so subtle and steeped in traditions of philosophy, religion, the arts and especially in the intricacies of Freud and Jung."  I've never claimed to understand all of his work, just as I don't understand all of Jung.  But Hillman speaks to me directly with some frequency, on levels beyond intellect.  I recall in particular a strong emotional response to one of his lesser known works, two talks collected as Thought of the Heart & Soul of the World.

Moore, who knew Hillman as a friend over many years, continued: "James's many books and essays, in my view, represent the best and most original thought of our times. I expect that it will take many decades before he is truly discovered and appreciated. He changed my life by being more than a mentor and a steady, caring friend. If I had to sum up his life, I would say that he lived in the lofty realm of thought and yet also like one of the animals he loved so much. He was always close to his passions and appetites and lived with a fullness of vitality I have never seen elsewhere. To me, he taught more in his lifestyle and in his conversation than in his writing, and yet his books and articles are the most precious objects I have around me."

Moore suggests he may write more about Hillman for more general readers, and that would be a blessing.  So would a real biography or two.  In his writings and lectures, Hillman was mostly silent about his own life, although he did tell some tantalizing stories in his last book, A Terrible Love of War.  Several years ago I emailed Michael Ventura, Hillman's co-author of one of his more popular books, We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse, asking if he knew if there was a Hillman biography in the works.  He emailed back that he didn't think so, and that Hillman felt his life was less important than his writing.  But I admit to being fascinated to know more, if only to add more human dimension to his books.  And now I read that indeed there's a two-volume biography in the works, with the first volume due in April.

Meanwhile here's a link to other Hillman tributes.  The "Turning 65" and "Turning 60" posts here at this blog are my real time testimony of how important Hillman has been to me in imagining and living my life.

Monday, August 29, 2011

On Turning 65

me and my grandfather, my First Communion.  Ignazio Severini was around 60. 

Again, in terra incognita for baby boomers, the 60s generation.  Though since turning 65 at the end of June, a bunch of others have done it, including Bill Clinton and George Bush.  So obviously it's different for all of us.

It's been a more ambiguous and perhaps a more sobering milestone that 60, which may have something to do with the fact that I've waited almost two months to post this. Emotions specifically around this birthday were definitely muted. It was no big deal, and that in itself says a lot. 65 used to be retirement age, when you got a retirement dinner and a gold watch. It was a rite of passage, acknowledged and celebrated by family and friends. None of that happened.

Besides the fact that I’m not “retiring” in the sense of quitting my paltry-pay jobs, there was no retrospective beyond what happened in my head, which actually wasn’t much.

In the weeks and months leading up to the day I did feel some sadness and even anger about the lack of honor and recognition for the good work that I’ve done. A feeling of being taken for granted, or more specifically, of being ignored. I have no place—let alone an honored place—in this community, or in any other. And even though I have acquaintances of varying degrees here, I can’t say I have friends. I don’t think there was anyone here who even knew about my birthday, unless it was a friend of Margaret’s.

But when the day came, I was happy to spend it quietly with Margaret, hiking by the ocean, enjoying this quiet life. I am aware every day—in fact, it worries me how aware I am—that all of this can turn on a dime. The last five years have been notable for nothing happening—nothing earthshaking or terrible. In our families there have been births and marriages and a break-up, but no deaths except for one of Margaret’s aunts. A week or so before my birthday, her mother visited. She’d just turned 90.

My family in Pennsylvania is healthy. Margaret is healthy. I am healthy. Pema the cat is healthy, though a worry. So far our lives haven’t been economically threatened. But any of that could change at any time, and all of it will change at some time. That (along with regrets about the past that emerge from dreamtime) wakes me up early with anxiety at times, and at times postpones my falling asleep.

Part of life has become the lived ironies of being this age—all the cliches, of always being young in dreams and in my head, to the point of seeing people who probably are younger than me as older. Of never knowing how people will react or respond—person to person, or person to the paradigmatic old person. Individuality disappears from our persons as we all start to look alike: men with white beards, red cheeks, no mouths; small, tentative, distant eyes.

James Hillman

When I turned 60, my touchstones were Michael Ventura’s essay on “saying goodbye” and James Hillman’s book, The Force of Character. Saying goodbye is a continuing process, though it is saying goodbye to possibilities. I just watched a DVD about the reunion tour a few years ago by Sting and the Police. I must always be saying goodbye to the dream of enthralling an audience like that, let alone leading to their ecstasy after more than 20 years of their devotion. Not that this is a new thought, but it is renewed, with different emotions each time. Which of course is not to negate the fantasy, while playing into the silent night.

I’ve already said goodbye to much of contemporary culture, though that is a continuing and not complete process. And anyway, much of it has said goodbye to me. I have entered more fully that melancholy area where you know you have perspective to contribute, but no one cares to ask for it. I guess it’s a fairly common observation of “elders.”

I don’t know what to say goodbye to in my work. In the past year I began to say goodbye to even completing another book, but now this summer I’m not so sure. I’ve got focus and energy for a project that seems clarified.

Which leads me to my touchstone this year, and it’s James Hillman again. But this time it’s his work on Puer and Senex. I came across a moment on YouTube from a seminar he gave just last year about it. It spoke to me, so I looked up what’s available. It turns out his definitive edition of his Senex and Puer work was published in 2005, and is already out of print. The university library, notoriously buying few if any books these days, has no Hillman past his early work. There were DVDs for sale of this seminar, but they were pricey. Still, as a birthday present to myself, I ordered them.

I have some of the essays, notably in The Puer Papers from the late 60s, and a key one in Picked-Up Pieces. But I wanted to see what he had to say now, now that he is of Senex age, and he’s out of the puer paradise of the 60s.

Though the DVDs have too little of him, too much of the crowd’s questions and comments, it was worth it. He’s still vital, and though showing his 80s, his voice is strong. Puer (Latin for boy) is a particular archetype of youth, as Senex is for old one. He championed the Puer in any age, and talked about the union of puer and senex. He talked about the puer flights, the longing that is its own reward, and how that must be honored even in the senex age.

I was a pretty classic puer type, leavened with some senex (the melancholy, the seriousness, and some need to be organized, etc.) but clearly the women in my life saw the puer dominance—the impatience with ordinary life, the anxiety, the looking down on it all from an imagined height. The devotion to the dream, and to the vision that was too far, too high, too big. Plus all the wounds and failures.

The puer inflated ego is no longer a problem for me. The outside world has injected plenty of humiliation over the past 15 years especially, with little compensating affirmation or confirmation. Together with aging and the receding of dreams, the weakening and diluting of visions, and given my status and precarious and vulnerable position in the world, I’ve been humbled.

So combining my particular circumstances with the senex qualities that naturally emerge, a certain fatalism adds easier vulnerability to hopelessness. Given the human prospects as made clear in just the past year or so, the larger world of time only adds weight to that side of the scales.

Hillman offers just about the only straw to grasp, in his idea of the senex and puer union. He points out all the similarities in the two archetypes, and says (as I interpret it) that the senex qualities of organization and discipline, and even the depths of soul (the sadness and the perspective) can be applied to the puer vision, to be true to the calling.

To paraphrase Hillman: The recovery in the senex is the recovery of the puer—the freedom that was once there...the recovery of the range of thought, of imagination. But the senex can have the greatest range of all, like Beethoven’s last quartets. “He recovered something in the midst of disability by letting his imagination go. But that imagination had spent many many years working his gift...staying faithful to the original vision. That’s the important thing—it isn’t being related to your partner, or to all the things we use relationship for and drive the puer man to a frenzy of anxiety, but related to the calling, whatever that strange thing is, that wounds him and names him.”

The calling, the vocation is one article of faith I retain from my Catholic schooling. So I respond to this idea. Even if it’s more about soul-making than destiny, unless they turn out to be the same thing.

I’m monitoring my abilities and except for a sometimes unpredictable fluctuation in energy (which is perhaps different in quality from the fluctuations I’ve always experienced), I don’t have a lot of disabilities of age. I’ve kept my writing sharp through use, if only with moronic work for hire and these bolts into the nothingness on my blogs. But I don’t know how deep I can still go anymore, or how high. That’s the challenge. Even there it may not be a matter of ability as much as why put in the effort, why turn everything else upside-down (as I did often enough in my puer years to disrupt my life, leading to financial vulnerability now) to try and once again fail? And what would success be anyway? As a writer in the marketplace, I may as well be already dead.

But I’ll grasp at any straw I can find that can convince me even for part of the day, so I’ll take Hillman to heart, in my 65th year.

Being faithful to the vision is an end in itself. Whether something comes of it is not entirely up to me. Pretty much nobody accomplishes anything as difficult as writing a book (let alone publishing it) without help. Without the faith of others, there’s only a faith in the future—as part of the vision, if it is such—that motivates towards expression or completion. That, and for the fun of it. Of having done it.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Faithful to the Calling

This piece of James Hillman's talks on the archetypes of Senex (Saturn, old age) and Puer (youth) has something very moving and apropos to say to me, that today I want to share.  It's about fidelity to your calling.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Boomer Revolt

Here is what GOPer political strategists probably thought they were doing with the Ryan budget proposal to kill Medicare: by exempting those 55 and older, their proposal would not touch and therefore not interest much of the Baby Boomer population. Those hitting 65 wouldn't care because their Medicare is unaffected, but those more than a decade away wouldn't even be thinking about it yet.

But various polls show that it didn't work. Boomers in their 60s and boomers in their 50s and even 40s are united not only in opposition but in revolt against the GOPer proposal. They were the ones speaking angrily about it at GOPer town halls, and they still are.

The family values GOPers didn't reckon with actual family values. Elders don't want their children to be without Medicare. Those approaching old age don't want their children to have to be responsible for the inflated expense of medical care and nearly worthless insurance, even if you can get it.

Boomers who aren't elders are quite possibly caring for elder parents in some way. They know just as well as elders do what Medicare means.  The threat to destroy Medicare unites older and middle aged boomers in revolt.

I'm about to apply for Medicare myself. What I've learned so far is that Medicare is not really free. There's Part A, that's akin to what we and our parents used to call hospitalization. That's "free." But Medicare Part B covers costs of doctors, and for most elders that requires a monthly payment of more than $100, which just a few years ago was a reasonable premium in the private insurance market. Medicare Part C is the vaunted private insurance, and it's something of a minefield as far as I can tell. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, May 05, 2011


This didn't make the headlines, not in bin Laden week--not that it would have anyway.  But since it's a report to be delivered at a big international conference, maybe it still will.  The report by Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program says that the ice in the Arctic and Greenland is melting much faster than previously predicted, and is likely to result in a much greater rise in sea level this century: five feet.  Some believe this is even too conservative an estimate, as it doesn't factor in other contributing causes to sea level rise.  But it's a very significant rise.

There were a couple of thousand comments to this AP story.  One said something to the effect that old age is looking better all the time.  That's a common enough response.  Another response was posted as a comment, but it has the look of  an often-emailed piece that's made the rounds.  Still, early boomers may be the last who recognize most of this from at least their childhood's:

" In the line at the store, the cashier told the older woman  that plastic bags weren’t good for the environment. The woman apologized to her and explained, “We didn’t have the green thing back in my day.”

That’s right, they didn’t have the green thing in her day. Back then, they returned their milk bottles, Coke bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, using the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled. But they didn’t have the green thing back her day.

In her day, they walked up stairs, because they didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. They walked to the grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time they had to go two blocks.  But she’s right. They didn’t have the green thing in her day.

Back then, they washed the baby’s diapers because they didn’t have the throw-away kind. They dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts – wind and solar power really
did dry the clothes. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their  brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that old lady is right, they didn’t have the green thing back in her day.

Back then, they had one TV, or radio, in the house – not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a pizza dish, not a screen the size of the state of Montana . In the kitchen, they blended and stirred by hand because they didn’t have electric machines to do everything for you. When they packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, they used wadded up newspaper to cushion it, not styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap.

Back then, they didn’t fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. They used a push mower that ran on human power. They exercised by working so they didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she’s right, they didn’t have the green thing back then.

They drank from a fountain when they were thirsty, instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time they had a drink of water. They refilled pens with ink, instead of buying a new pen, and they replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull.  But they didn’t have the green thing back then.

Back then, people took the streetcar and kids rode their bikes to school or rode the school bus, instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. They had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And they didn’t need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint.

It’s a crying shame that we didn’t have “the green thing” back then! " 
All of that is familiar to me.  And while I remember that push mowers were no picnic, it does speak to a few things some of us have noticed: with greater prosperity and larger populations came greater complexity and much greater waste.  Things were in some sense simpler and slower and less cluttered, though our choices were also fewer.  English muffins were foreign food in the 50s, and you'd be considered weird if you wanted one.  
So I think we know that losing a certain amount of "choice" however false and artificial is likely to be part of the price of survival in the future.  The costs that have been ignored, and the costs that are unsustainably low (transportation of goods certainly) are going to be exacted on the future.  But we're still here to say that a life that's more modest, more thoughtful and more sustainable, is possible.  We had one.           

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

For As Long As We've Got

Power Shift 2011 is a gathering of 10,000 or so mostly young people organizing for action to confront the Climate Crisis and related environmental crises.  Leaders of the group met with President Obama, and the report of this at Climate Progress elicited the usual political grumbling and the inevitable debate on whether the Baby Boomers ruined everything.  A bit unusual however was that it appeared boomers were taking both sides.

While one commenter wrote "my generation has failed, and too many of us have become indifferent or selfish." Another:  "If there is to be a future,the youth of today are going to need to shame us grey hairs into making difficult decisions by staying in our faces forcing us to confront the truth. If our Youth are to have a life, then us Grey Hairs from Presidents & Legislators, Business Leaders & Faith Leaders, Opinion Makers & Everyday People need to be confronted with the facts that how we live in the present is consuming their ability to live in the future. It is encouraging to see our Youth refusing to let us steal their future."

But another commenter countered: " I think we deserve more credit than “failure”...  That the fight took longer than any of us realized in the 60s and on does not mean we have failed. Look around. Civil Rights. Gay and lesbian rights. Women’s equality. Human rights around the world. Respect for the environment. And so much more. I agree none of the above is complete and can be considered a total victory but all are far from failure. The battle lines are getting closer to “Black” and “White” and that is why the rhetoric is sharper. Guns get drawn quickly. A cornered foe fights dirty. Big money spent hundreds of millions of dollars to control the power and the best they could muster is the Tea Party with an uninspiring IQ average. Yes, we have not won, but we are far from losers."

My own point of view is that while this also sounds like a dialogue within a single conscience, there is plenty of "failure" to go around.  As much as I'm heartened by this organization and this conference, I've heard a little too much nonsense about "powerful" organizing techniques, and I'm afraid there's lots of evidence that artistic efforts and "messaging" haven't been very effective yet in furtherance of Power Shift's goals.  That doesn't mean they should stop trying.  It just doesn't make their efforts automatically superior, or the final answer.    

And I also point out that the techniques these young people are using--including the theatre of large-scale demos--were pioneered by my generation during anti-war demos in the 60s and 70s.  (Check out those puppets.)

While I regret many things in my life, I don't think I've regretted for a moment not going to one more demo.  I did what I could, and I still do.  All the good fight is a process, and we all have our parts to play in it.  And if we follow the reference I'm pointing towards--Jacques' speech in As You Like It-- one determinant of our roles is age.  We did what we could when we were young.  I think we did a lot.  Some of this "selfishness" later on was people concentrating on raising their families, seeing their kids through the tumults of the crazy 70s and depressing 80s, etc.  And what we were part of did change things.  And some of it backfired.

But now we're older, and some of us are old.  We have perspective and specifics from our experience and history to contribute, if anybody cares to listen--and lumping us together with the people really responsible for "failure" isn't going to help with that.

  And we can help with things like courage and perseverence and lasting.  And that above all is what this is going to take. 

Bill McKibben pretty much said so in his heartfelt and cogent address to Power Shift.  He didn't mince words about the power that immense amounts of money has in this society right now.  And he didn't mince words about our chances, or what it would take.  He finished this way:

" So far, we’ve raised the temperature of the planet one degree and that’s done all that I’ve described, it’s melted the arctic, it’s changed the oceans. The climatologists tell us that unless we act with great speed and courage that one degree will be five degrees before this century is out. And if we do that, then the world that we leave behind will be a ruined world.

 We fight not just for ourselves, we fight for the beauty of this place. For cool trout streams and deep spruce woods. For chilly fog rising off the Pacific and deep snow blanketing the mountains. We fight for all the creation that shares this planet with us. We don’t know half the species on Earth we’re wiping out.

And of course, we fight alongside our brothers and sisters around the world. You’ve seen the pictures as I talk: these are our comrades. Most of these people, as you see, come from places that have not caused this problem, and yet they’re willing to be in deep solidarity with us. That’s truly admirable and it puts a real moral burden on us. Never let anyone tell you, that environmentalism is something that rich, white people do. Most of the people that we work with around the world are poor and black and brown and Asian and young, because that’s what most of the world is made up of, and they care about the future as anyone else.

We have to fight, finally, without any guarantee that we are going to win. We have waited late to get started and our adversaries are strong and we do not know how this is going to come out. If you were a betting person, you might bet we were going to lose because so far that’s what happened, but that’s not a bet you’re allowed to make. The only thing that a morally awake person [can] do when the worst thing that’s ever happened is happening is try to change those odds.

I have spent most of my last few years in rooms around the world with great people, many of whom will be refugees before this century is out, some of whom may be dead from climate change before this century is out. No guarantee that we will win, but from them a complete guarantee that we will fight with everything we have. It is always an honor for me to be in those rooms. It is the greatest honor for me to be with you tonight. No guarantee that we will win, but we will fight side by side, as long as we’ve got."

So instead of fighting over who is responsible for failure, we pick each other up and we fight the good fight together.  And if there is anything that getting older teaches you, it is the meaning of "[for] as long as we've got."

Monday, April 11, 2011

Growing Nice

This annoying little quote has been hanging in my virtual file for awhile now, but I'm still in the mood to refute it.  It's from a salon review of a TV series I've never seen.  Here's the assertion:  "The older you get, the less cool you are. The less cool you are, the nicer you are. This is why old people are so nice to each other."

I won't argue with the observation that older people are nice to each other.  I don't necessarily buy it, but actually I'd like to.  But if it is true--let's say when it is true--it has absolutely nothing to do with coolness, whatever that may mean these days. (Especially in this context--it is cool now to be mean to each other?)

But it does make sense to me that the older you get, the nicer you are to each other.  There may be something in what the rest of the review says--that it stems from the sense of regret or recognition of failures relative to hopes and expectations, goals and attempts, even the expectations you have of others.  Life does humiliate you eventually, and if you deal with that successfully, it simply humbles you.  And this may increase your empathy, and give you a focus for what you're empathetic about--the same boat you're in, basically.  Then it's more than recognition--it's support for staying brave through the process.  And it's also the corollary: you rejoice in the good fortune of others, after all they've (we've) been through.  Somebody ought to be having some good fortune.  Good for them.

But I think there's something else, having to do with memory.  I've noticed this in myself, and I've especially been struck by it in other people even older than me:  You increasingly remember when people have been especially nice to you.  Of course you get blindsided by specific regrets--how could I have been so dumb, such a jerk, etc.--and by moments of trauma, though I find that while outcomes can still inspire anger to rise in me, the sting of specific wrongs has lessened.  It all gets a bit fuzzy.  But I do recall when people have been particularly helpful, encouraging, inspiring; nice to me.  Even from long ago.  Especially from long ago.

I've noticed this also with my uncle--my mother's younger brother, and the last surviving blood relative on that side of the family older than me.  I've see him on my trips back to western PA, and on the last two I made a point of talking to him more than the usual social moment amidst a family occasion.  It struck me on both of these trips in the past two years, he's made a point of mentioning how he's been thinking a lot about my mother, and how kind she had been to him.  She was about 12 years older.  He remembers that when she worked in a factory during World War II, she bought him a football so he and his friends could play using a real one, instead of whatever substitute they had.  Or that she made him lunch every day when he worked in a drug store near her first apartment after she was married.

Something like that was also prominent in the memory of my Aunt Toni, the middle child between my mother and uncle.  I guess it was about 15 years ago now when I talked with her about her father, my grandfather.  Her strongest impression of him was how kind he was.  His acts of kindness were what she remembered.

Maybe kindness is not the same as being nice.  But being nice can be seen as an act of kindness.  It may take less effort, but it's in the ball park. 

As we get older, we remember acts of kindness.  They are like small beacons come upon suddenly in a murky street, a dark wood.  And so, perhaps realizing how important these acts of kindness were, we understand how important they are.  We're nice to each other because we know what it means, not only in how people live their lives every day, but in what they will remember.           

Monday, March 14, 2011

War on Age

Among the many targets of the Rabid Right in Washington and the state governments they control--and those targets include children, women, the poor, the sick, the arts, public transportation, public anything, various ethnicities and religions, the non-wealthy in general--is the fact of aging.

For many years, to be old in America almost always meant to be poor, but certainly to be helpless. Then over the past 60 years or so, that prospect of poverty and suffering with untreated ill health was addressed by public programs like Social Security and Medicare, and by retirement funds, often set up as the result of collective bargaining by labor unions. In all these cases, people contributed part of their earnings when young for their needs when they were old and unable to earn at their prior level, either because of incapacities or because they weren't considered suited for the work anymore.

Now all of that is suddenly and violently under very serious attack. Republicans are engaged in busting unions in many states, specifically to get at the pensions of working people. In Washington, Republicans are attacking Social Security and Medicare. They are doing so in both cases by slandering those who paid for them and might benefit from them. Public employees, who by contract agreement earn less than they would in the private sector in exchange for better pensions, are vilified as greedy. (These people include those who do difficult work that no one can do without, like teaching children, taking care of the sick and fighting fires.) Those who have contributed part of their life's earnings to Social Security and Medicare are characterized as selfish and lazy freeloaders.

The latest such attack came from a former U.S. Senator from PA, Rick Sanctimonious. He told a Rabid Right audience that entitlements take away people's initiative, and makes them passive and dependent.

This pernicious point of view is possible only if you believe that people can choose not to get old. Though I work at being healthy, and I hope to keep my wits about me as long as possible, I find it beyond my ability--even with a hell of a lot of initiative--to prevent myself from getting older.

People are helpless against the helplessness that happens, gradually or suddenly, as they age. Social Security, Medicare and retirement funds are insurance to deal with the effects as much as possible. I believe punishing the helpless is generally considered to be cruel. Taking away insurance already paid for as contracts stipulate, is theft on top of it. Try as they might--by taking away these earned benefits from the non-rich to further enrich their wealthy masters, by setting the besieged young against some obscene caricature of their elders, or one set of workers against another-- Rick Sanctimonious and his ilk are not going to win their war on age. Age happens. It's not something that gives me endless delight. But it's something we must face. We really don't need further insults and injuries on top of it. These people are shameful.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Return of the Boomers

Box office of what used to be the Manos Theatre in Greensburg, PA, where I was a regular at Saturday cartoon show/double creature feature matinee marathons. It's now called the Palace Theatre, and does live shows--which in fact is how it started, before it became a movie theatre. But that ticket booth is the same as in my 50s childhood.

Taking the pulse of the motion picture industry in the run-up to the Oscars, the New York Times announced that a number of surprise box office hits could be explained only by the fact that older people were going to the movies.

Zounds! You mean the demographic that no self-respecting advertiser pays attention to, except to make fun of in the hopes of currying favor with the disposable income rich youth market? But they respect the numbers--older moviegoers up 67% since the mid 90s, and..."And the first of the 78 million baby boomers are hitting retirement age with some leisure hours to fill and a long-dormant love affair with movies." Yes, you can hear Hollywood salivating, and it ain't because of the popcorn.

It seems that kids are into all these other choices, like watching movies on their phones, apparently. Meanwhile, the 60s Now generation grew up in movie theatres. They lured us away from Saturday morning TV shows to Saturday matinees--a score or so of cartoons at noon, some old short comedies and serials and a newsreel, and then a double feature. This is how we saw everything from westerns and war movies, comedies (Francis the Talking Mule to Martin & Lewis), Disney animated classics and new films, westerns (silver bullet giveaways crisscrossing the screen during The Lone Ranger movie, waves of coonskin caps for Davy Crockett, but also John Ford's Rio Bravo) to science fiction and creature features (War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet, This Island Earth, Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Space Children, Them!)

Those afternoons in the movie palace--in this ruined temple, which was the largest and most ornate public space in our town outside the Court House and the First National Bank, a place at once linked to boundless fantasy, a suggested past and for years the most modern place (the only one with air conditioning)--linked us to several generations past, to the very people making those movies who grew up in just this same way, with movie-crazy Saturday afternoons.

And with the summer drive-ins factored in (falling asleep during the second dull love and adultery feature on family night to teenage forays), it was the movie theatre we returned to, for models of young love (Jane Fonda and Anthony Perkins in Tall Story), for rock and roll movies and movies of rebellion--Rebel Without A Cause.

Once the film buff enthusiasm from France came to the rest of us via Manhattan and it was cinema, and it was art, we may have seen Godard and Truffaut poorly projected in the college theatre presented by the Cinema Club, but it was the theatre experience. And for most of our lives, apart from the films sliced and diced on television, the theatre was the only movie experience. If you wanted to see a movie again, you had to find out where it was playing and when, and go there. Thus did I see Help! and A Hard Days Night 16 times, in at least four different states. When I wanted to see all the Truffaut films in one week, I had to go to the film festival showing them. (This had the added advantage of meeting Truffaut, but that's another story.)

I admit I was one who went a bit overboard, having virtually lived for several years in the Orson Welles Complex in Cambridge, which ran two films in each of three theatres simultaneously. I routinely saw 20 movies a week, and once saw 10 in one day (and immediately became deathly ill.) But I doubt I was alone in finding solace and support in the movie theatre, particularly when I was back in PA working very much alone on writing, some of which became a book. By then I had to drive out to the mall theatres, but it was pretty important to me to see movies like Annie Hall, the French Lieutenant's Woman, the American Film Theatre movies of A Delicate Balance etc., or Sting's Bring on the Night. Or even going to the county art museum series, which is where I first saw Olivier's Henry V.

Well, I do go on, but you get the point. When there are movies good enough for us to want to see them, the natural place for us to want to see them is the movie theatre. Except...

The Times story continues with the as usual lame ideas the movie exhibitors have for catering to older viewers: seat-side food and cocktail service, fancy sandwiches. They never get it. Never.

What do older viewers want in a movie theatre besides good movies? Good popcorn helps, and I've always been fond of good coffee and red licorice. But they always miss the absolute basics and it drives me crazy. Here they are: adequate restrooms (old movie theatres were usually great at this), comfortable seats, and above all--well-projected movies. Forget trying to save money by dimming the light behind the image! Give us movies we can see!

This is a big reason I haven't been part of this march back to theatres. My viewing experience is much better at home, via DVD. I venture out occasionally for a movie "event," like the latest Harry Potter. But our early evening theatrical experience at the latest one was a disaster--not only was the theatre bone-chillingly cold, but the picture was so dim as to be barely watchable. It's a dark movie, granted, but it's not supposed to be under an invisibility cloak!

Sight is especially an issue in the older demographics. And crisp sound helps--not booming into insensibility, but clear, and big, as we remember sound in movie theatres. The rest is bonus, like film series and discussions that speak to our experience. And you know, we can still probably do a double feature! But since the average age of movie execs these days is about 10, probably nobody in the movie business even knows what that is.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

When the Trumpet Summoned Us

President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous Inaugural Address fifty years ago today. Here are some excerpts that usually don't get quoted but should:

"The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required -- not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.

Now the trumpet summons us again -- not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need -- not as a call to battle, though embattled we are -- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation," a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Except for the numerologically inclined--and a classical music radio host in desperate need of a theme to organize her broadcast hours--I'm not sure anyone took much notice of the 1/11/11 of today's date. Especially since it's been little more than a week since 1/1/11.

But I think these dates have more of a spooky novelty to those of us who grew up in the latter half of the 20th century, when they were less frequent. I remember Huntley-Brinkley noting 6/6/66 on the evening news--a rare departure from serious world affairs in those days, and with no mention of the Satanic tie-in left to our more enlightened age to discover. The next such date would have been 7/7/77, some 11 years later.

But that's the nature of numbers when the years get past those ending in 12, the number of months in the year. Whereas those born and/or bred in the 21st century, with its tiny numbers, are much more used to these symmetries, beginning with the century's first day (at least according to some) of 1/1/1. There's been at least one of these every year since. This year we have a bonanza of four: there's 11/1/11 and 11/11/11 still to come. But next year we'll just have 12/12/12.

And then that'll be it for awhile. In fact, quite a while. Until February 2, 2022,  if I'm not mistaken.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

When We're 65--whoo!

It's 1/1/11 and the first official baby boomers turn 65 this year, including me. There's a wearily and maddeningly cliched piece on the subject on the front page of the New York Times. Here's the online link, but don't bother unless you click on to the comments as well. There you will see the hostility behind the supposed irony of the piece expressed directly as generational resentment, with the promise of generational war. But more often you'll also see booming self-defense, a lot wittier and more trenchant than the piece itself.

One would have to be a fool not to note the practical considerations of this milestone--the relationship to Medicare and Social Security being paramount for many. Whatever the historical circumstances of our generation, we have lived these lives in these times, and it's everybody's right once they actually reach this age to think about every possible aspect of this past and our lives, as well as our relationship to the present and future.

We feared getting old as young people do. That illustration above comes from about 1969, purporting to show the Beatles as old men. It scared the hell out of me, but I put it up on the inside door of my room at the University of Iowa the semester I was at the Writers Workshop there, though I was mostly trying not to be sent off to kill or/and be killed. I suppose it was to scare myself into making good use of my time then, to not wait to accomplish something. Time's winged chariot sort of thing.

(But being disappointed that we didn't accomplish more in our lives is according to the Times piece another characteristic of our "self-absorbed" generation. Maybe this guy should have been in the car with me when I was 20, listening to an older farmer in Illinois talk about how little he'd done with his life. Regret--or as Richard Ford put it, "searing regret"-- is not exactly a boomer invention.)

Today of course this image means other things. First, most obviously, is that two of the Beatles didn't live to get that old. A second might be that the surviving two don't actually look like that. We do have a different sort of 60s (the age, not the decade), and gauging that is part of our task now.

Still, we are acutely aware that we're not here for all that much longer. And of what we may face between here and there. This image of the boomer generation holding all the cards is less than laughable, it looks like part of the problem. We're watching pensions disappear for those who predicated their lives on earning them. We're watching medical care costs skyrocket and insurance falter. And that generational resentment added to a more general callousness. A resentment that seems to hold a lot of projection. No, we probably can't expect much, not even what used to be called decency. We're dealing with the luck of the draw at each significant moment.

And the idiocy of our drug-dependent, for-profit and perversely regulated health and care systems puts us in the way of cruelty masked as care. Another Times piece today--the one with the most hits--is about "new" approaches to caring for Alzheimer's patients. Care that is little more than common sense: well-lit rooms are more cheerful, especially when they allow old eyes to see. Instead of drugs and feeding tubes, give them food they like, with good feelings attached. Chocolate works better than Xanax.

Care along the lines of Beatitudes--what a great name, too--is proving more effective and also costs less. It helps patients and caregivers. And it's loving. I'm sure everybody who reads this piece sees its wisdom. But when chocolate is substituted for Xanax, drug companies don't make outrageous profits. Thoughtful and courageous administrators and caregivers may cost more than minimum wage workers--although rules (by for-profits as well as government) probably prevent even badly paid caregivers from doing what they know is better. So while the Beatitudes approach may spread, there's a lot of power likely to be marshaled against it.

While it did take a certain creativity to discover that emotional memory may last even in those whose cognitive memory is eroded or short-circuited, it also takes the kind of close attention that family members give, as well as formed the basis for many of the insights of early psychology--Jung for instance. Today psychology is all about drugs and administering clever little tests to undergraduates and making big claims for the findings.

Paying close attention to others is not the opposite of paying close attention to yourself. It can be part of the same process. For example, a writer who doesn't precisely divulge her age--and how could you, at Salon--offers an observation that older people are nicer to each other, and she offers an opinion as to why that is, which is, if I might summarize it thus, we know to what extent we're all bullshit.

To which I'd add, we know to what extent we're all vulnerable. But there's another reason, an additionally heartening one. I saw my uncle at my niece's wedding last month. He's now in his late 70s, and he told me (as he did the last time I saw him, more than a year before) that he thinks about my mother a lot. She was his oldest sister, there was about 14 years difference in their ages. He says he doesn't remember a lot anymore, but he remembers her acts of kindness. It reminded me of the last conversation I had with his other older sister, my aunt, who was the middle child. In talking about her father, she remarked on how kind he was.

So kindness is remembered. And we can all accomplish kindness, and so be remembered for that.