Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Cue up the Harry Chapin...

Not to get maudlin, but a thought hit me the other day. My wife had been in contact with St. Vincent's College in Latrobe, PA. She sent me a text to let me know that all of the preparations had been taken care of for an overnight visit for my oldest son, who has been accepted, and wants to decide if St. Vincent's is for him. The thought that hit me squarely between the eyes was that my son was looking at a college. This is one of those moments that causes a cinematic flashback, as the years scroll forward from the moment he was born through to a vision of his graduation from high school. 

I want to see him still as the little person I held in my arms. Who would walk up to me, holding out his arms and saying "up". That's who I remember. I remember his first word ("light", pointing at a street lamp), I remember the first night he slept through the night and scared the hell out of his mother and I. I remember when he vomited on me, and the shock I had looking at the amount that he spewed out. I still think he brought some in from somewhere, there is no way it all sat in his stomach. 

I remember being told by his pre-school teacher that he had read every book in the classroom, after trying fruitlessly to teach him to read; he just picked it up himself somehow. I remember how he devised animal nicknames: my father was a Lion, my sister was a giraffe, his little sister was a bear, his uncle was a wolf, and his little brother was a little wolf, sister number two was the mouse. There was no rhyme or reason why these names were apportioned, they just fit. 

I remember when we learned that he had been diagnosed as a high-functioning asperger's child, and working through what that would mean. And how much working with him would ill-prepare us for the more comparatively normal adolescence of his younger sister. I remember marveling at his depth of knowledge of Star Wars and Walt Disney, how he had his dinosaur phase like any young boy, and how quickly he picked up fire building in Boy Scouts. 

Looking at him now, he is taller than me, built more like his maternal grandfather than me, with thick dark hair like his mother. He is thoughtful and quiet, but will often say things that catch you by their originality. He makes up jokes. He writes constantly. He has a propensity for puns. He knows his faith. He knows how to do laundry. He can fry an egg and, when pushed, clean up afterwards. He does his best to guide is baby brother, sometimes well, sometimes not. 

I look at him now, and I am amazed that I am his father, and I hope that  I can take some credit for it. Years ago I was struck with another stunning realization: the organic nature of families. Looking at my baby, I realized that, at some point, he would be a man, with a family, and he would teach them the things they needed to know to move out into the world and form families of their own. He would go from being a son to a father to a grandfather, and our family would continue. I will die, my wife will die, my children in their time will die as well, but our family will continue, branching out and reaching places we haven't yet envisioned. 

At this point, he stands on a threshold, ready to make a first big decision: where to go to further his education and prepare himself as an adult in the world. He will make new friends, he will see new things, unfiltered by the input of his parents. He will build up experiences that will shape him as an adult in this brave new world. I debate within myself who will have the hardest time with this, my wife or I. At this point, on a snowy evening in February, thinking of the days to come, I feel nervous at letting go of that little hand that so often sought mine out. When time comes to let go and see him become a man, I fear I won't have the courage. 

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and Us

We all know it. That iconic opening and soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. It is a cultural touchstone, especially for movie lovers. In the opening scenes we're introduced to the three characters who will form the center of the drama. Tuco, "the Ugly", Angel Eyes, "the Bad", and Blondie, "the Good". The movie follows these three as they hunt down a hidden supply of Confederate gold in the American West during the Civil War.  What makes this movie interesting beyond the action-movie level is the insight it gives into three basic human types: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Watching the movie, we can see how the different types of person respond to the various challenges that come their way, and we can see something at the heart of human nature.

To begin with Tuco, "the Ugly", we see a human being at his basest level. He acts on instinct and appetite, with little consideration for others, and with little dignity. He is clever, but not intelligent. He can act kindly, but he is not kind. In one scene, as he is facing the hangman's noose, Blondie is waiting to shoot the rope to free him and listens to a recitation of Tuco's given name and calls him "The Rat", pointing out that animalistic character.

According St. Thomas Aquinas, when a man behaves as an animal, he is worse than an animal. By surrendering our dignity and reason, and instead living at the level of an animal, we betray those qualities that make us most human. When we look around these days, it is relatively easy to see those of us who have sunk to the level of "the ugly" (an occurance made easier through reality TV).

The second type, "the bad", is personified by the character of Angel Eyes. The name alone is ironic, given the nature of the character. Or perhaps it  is symbolic, as it points to the the nature of the character as a demon, or fallen angel. His character is graced with intelligence, but no compassion. His reason is cold and uncompromising. In a scene early in the movie, Angel Eyes tells a man he is about to shoot that "he always sees the job through", regardless of circumstances. In a later scene, he supervises the torture of Tuco in order to extract the location of the Confederate gold. During the torture scene, Angel Eyes's expression never changes, there is always a look of slight bemusement, as he watches another human being suffering, and suffering needlessly. This delight at the sorrows of another is emblematic of the demonic. For him, it is a tool used to accomplish an end, regardless of the agony of the human being before him. When we look at what makes a truly bad person, it is that lack of human connection, the acceptance of the suffering of the other. In that sense, few of us are truly bad, merely selfish, or stupid, or careless. The truly evil among us are unique.

Our final type is "the good", Blondie. He is never cruel for its own sake, rather he makes an attempt to act in as kind a manner as a situation warrants. Yes, he does take part in a confidence game with Tuco, bringing Tuco in for a reward, then shooting the hangman's noose before Tuco is strangled to death, then "capturing" him again and bringing him in for the now slightly higher reward. But this form of employment for Tuco is different, as no one comes to harm. Even Tuco comes out ahead.

In a later scene, when Tuco has taken Blondie to a monastery for treatment for exposure and heat stroke, Tuco meets his brother, and, far from a touching reunion, the elder brother fights with Tuco and casts him out. On the road out, Tuco attempts to cover his shame and loss by making up a story about how his brother begged him to stay, and offered his welcome whenever he would come, all of it obvious lies. Blondie knows all this is a lie, but lets it be, even offering a cigar to Tuco, as a perfect ending to a meal.

Another scene which shows this quality is when Blondie meets a dying confederate soldier, and offers the dying young man a smoke. There is nothing to be done, he can't save him, but he does offer some comfort to someone in need. And this seems to be the point of a good man. He acts with compassion for those around him, taking pity on suffering, and never seeking to capitalize on those in need.

So which one are you?