Tuesday, September 24, 2013

25 Years from the Most Important Moment


It's been brought to my attention, and in retrospect it's amazing I didn't sense it on my own, that this week marks 25 years since the day that I and 30+ other Notre Dame and St. Mary's students left on a Pan Am jet for the small village of Maynooth, Ireland.

I would travel to every bend of the country during that sophomore year of 1988-89, sometimes carrying nothing but a backpack, a journal and my thumb. But I also extended my travels to the continent and beyond. At the age of 19, I found myself skiing the Alps, gazing up at the Glockenspiel, walking among the ghosts of Masada, viewing the despairing slums of Gaza from the comfortable remove of a U.N. bus, swimming (I should say floating) in the Dead Sea, lighting a candle inside St. Peter's Basilica, riding the street cars of Budapest, staring in genuine awe at the Mona Lisa, and busking on Dublin's Grafton Street (and once on a boat to the Aran Islands).

Yet, despite the fact that I recall this year as often as one remembers a departed family member, these aren't the things I think about. What I really remember are the walks. 

The house that I shared with fellow Americans Pat, Bryan and Trace was two miles from everything: the college, the grocery store, the laundromat, the pub ("The Roost"), the ATM, the phone booth, the chipper. You couldn't even get a shower without first taking a good walk (and thus needing it even more). The first leg of the journey took you out of our bland, cookie-cutter housing development, Cluain Aoibhinn ("Kloon Even"). The bulk of it sent you along a narrow road marked at the halfway point by a "News Agent," at which I bought no newspapers but many Cadbury Dairy Milk bars. As you neared the school, you took a stone bridge over a small canal that ran along a horse pasture. Then finally, after nearly 20 minutes, you spied the castle ruin marking the entrance to St. Patrick's College. I made this walk every day, at least twice a day, for eight months.

I have no real recollection of what I thought about on these daily journeys, sometimes completed with my roommates, more often alone, sometimes on the way to the main road where you hitchhiked to Dublin, often late at night after The Roost had finally closed its doors. But I do remember one particular morning. It was midway through the year. I'm sure the air was laced with co-mingled coal and peat moss smoke rising from every house chimney. I was likely sporting worn black suede shoes with slightly detached soles, and wearing three layers of denim and flannel underneath my favorite maroon-and-black-checkered jacket.

I crossed that stone bridge and stared at the frost underneath the hooves of the horses, and at that moment, something washed over me that I've always found impossible to describe. Pete Townshend writes about hearing gorgeous music in his head as boy while on the sea one day--strains he's never been able to adequately recreate (though he says he came closest in the introduction to "Baba O'Reilly"). I can equate my feeling only to the correction of an astigmatism, like images that had always been split, fragmented and malformed finally coming together into perfect, sharp focus. But the images were me. And in that odd, glorious moment, it was as if I finally felt some kind of defined place in the universe: right, comfortable, genuinely spiritual. So overwhelmed by the feeling, I stopped and inhaled its euphoria along with the coal, peat and chill. And then, just as quickly as it had come, it vanished. I wouldn't be surprised if everybody on that program experienced something similar in their own way. It's the reason why I and the handful of others on my return flight cried in silence the second our plane left the ground in Shannon and headed west to bring us home.

I still bemoan never being able to conjure that cosmic ecstasy in Maynooth 25 years ago, but over time I find myself letting the wanting go in favor of hoping that others, especially my son, have the chance to feel something similar. I partly owe my Irish experience to my father's insistence that all of his children study abroad. And since his sudden death in May, I find myself wondering if his 77 years ever delivered him a comparable, magical moment. I imagine that if it did happen, it was while he was in college or grad school, before he chose the path of taking responsibility for other people and institutions, maybe when he was a newspaper reporter in St. Louis or Minneapolis--some point in his life when he was young and idealistic, doing what he truly loved, and able to accept the universe's generous offer of a unique place, just for him, just for that moment.  

Friday, November 16, 2012

Another Meditation on "The Vault"

I've already written in a previous post about the long-standing symbolism of seeds as units of potential, and intellectualized about the human condition and whether we possess the ability to realize any kind of potential other than technological. Now that I'm finally putting pen to paper on this script, today's Friday meditation is more personal: How do we feel the expectations of our parents when we are children, and how do we place expectations on our children when we become parents?

As children, parental expectations produce all kinds of complex and contradictory effects. The biggest insult would be to feel that your parent(s) have no expectations of you whatsoever, which means that you're simply untalented and incapable. The biggest stress is to feel that your mother or father has gathered all of life's perceived failures into a giant heap and placed it on your shoulders--the "Tennis Dad" run amok. I recall recently reading an article ... probably in reaction to the "Tiger Mom" controversy ... about adults who as kids were pushed into prodigy. The lasting image was of a former virtuoso child pianist who now lives in a house in which a grand piano is suspended above him in the living room. Needless to say, he no longer plays, and probably has more than a sliver in his budget pie set aside for therapy.

As kids, you feel that expectation, for better or worse. You need to feel it. It needs to be there. And at some point, you decide whether you will embrace it or rebel against it. If you're lucky, your true ambitions match well with your parents' expectations, and you will be comfortable in your own skin. More likely, they won't be a perfect fit, and you will choose either to appease in exchange for approval, or reject (and face disappointment) in exchange for freedom. As a parent, I constantly think about those sacred cows I probably don't even realize I have, and the possibility that my only child might one day reject them (e.g., he'll not only reject the notion of studying abroad while attending a liberal arts college, he'll reject the entire notion of "college" as antiquated, and the concept of "liberal arts" as quaint, trite and no longer relevant).

And how will that make me feel? Disappointed in the rejection of what I value? Or pride in the fact that he is choosing to be his own man?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Taking Inventory

I've now finished the mandatory book-and-movie research phase of "The Vault." In theory. Sort of. Not really. Anyway, I thought it would be fun to list everything I've seen or read in the last few months to immerse myself in the strange realm of science fiction, dystopia, and um ... botany. Here goes, in no particular order, and probably missing a few:

Movies
Metropolis (original)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (original)
Little Shop of Horrors (original)
Wings of Desire
Silent Running
Prometheus
I Am Legend
Contagion
2001: A Space Odyssey
Blade Runner (supposedly the definitive director's cut, no VO)
The Thing (John Carpenter version)
Forbidden Planet
E.T. (okay, that was really for James)
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Children of Men
The Matrix
Soylent Green
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
The Grey
Solaris
Moon

Books
"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" Philip K. Dick
"Collected Works of Philip K. Dick"
"Childhood's End" Arthur C. Clarke
"The Denial of Death" Ernest Becker
"Stranger in a Strange Land" Robert A. Heinlein
"At the Mountains of Madness" H.P. Lovecraft
"Botany for Dummies" (seriously)
"The Private Lives of Plants" Richard Attenborough

And the article that started it all
"Food Ark" National Geographic

It's been fun, but now it's time to mash it all up and bake a new cake.