OPERATING SYSTEM

We increasingly use the language of technology to talk about ourselves as humans.

“I need a reset.”

“We should hit the pause button.”

“Does he have the bandwith for that?”

Along these lines, I was thinking the other day about my personal operating system. What are the rules, beliefs, and instructions governing Kit Troyer performance?

I looked especially for negative beliefs, with an eye toward re-programming.

OLD OPERATING CODE

  1. I need to hurry.
  2. I need to try my hardest.
  3. I need to be productive and efficient.
  4. I need to know what will happen in the future.
  5. I can’t make mistakes.
  6. I need to make others happy.
  7. I need to say the right thing.
  8. I need to take care of others.
  9. [Loved one] won’t recover, will die.
  10. If I slow down and think too deeply, I’ll get depressed.
  11. My brain is deteriorating.
  12. What others think about me is important.
  13. I need to know the answer.
  14. I should not upset others.
  15. My inner voice should be set to: Critical, Exacting.
  16. I wasted a lot of time and talent.
  17. I can’t be happy or healthy unless the people I love are happy and healthy.
  18. I made critical errors as a parent.

 

Here are new parameters I’d like to import.

NEW OPERATING CODE

  1. I have plenty of time.
  2. I can slow down and think deeply or “non-productively” without becoming depressed.
  3. Negative moods and emotions are temporary. They flow through me naturally. I can let them arrive and depart.
  4. What other people think about me is unimportant.
  5. I’m a good person, without doing anything. It’s my essence.
  6. [Loved one] will recuperate and be healthy.
  7. Everything is exactly how it’s meant to be, as improbable as that seems, as uncomfortable as it may feel. This moment can teach me.
  8. Buddhist principles and Stoic philosophy can help calm me.
  9. I don’t need to be perfect. Mistakes bring growth and improvement.
  10. There may be a Great Spirit (or Tao, Logos, or God) which precedes — and informs — all life, matter, experience.
  11. Everything turns out okay.
  12. Wherever possible, I should not harm other beings.
  13. I can be quiet and just listen.
  14. I don’t need to know the future.
  15. I don’t need to have the answer.
  16. Bearing witness for others is sometimes enough. In fact, it can be crucial.
  17. I can support people without trying to control them.
  18. Aging is natural and beautiful. There are benefits, such as wisdom (and not having to attend junior high school again).
  19. Dying is just a transition. If reincarnation theory is true, then we die over and over, just like we go to sleep each night. Even if there is no reincarnation, death is a natural, eternally recurring fact of life.
  20. Telling the truth as I see it may upset others. That’s okay.
  21. I am safe.
  22. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. We do the best we can.
  23. My inner voice may be set to: Gentle, Encouraging.

Neither list is complete.

The second list is almost completely aspirational. I haven’t mastered any of it.

The changes won’t happen overnight like an iPhone update.

That said, I believe I’ll be happier as I start moving toward 2.0.

Posted in SELF HELP, SPIRIT | 8 Comments

BUTCH AND SUNDANCE

Even though I watched The Spy Who Loved Me nine times as a child, that was a drop in the bucket compared to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The 1969 western with Paul Newman and Robert Redford was basically on loop in our household. Our father revered the movie, and we kids grew to share his love and fascination.

Even 50 years later, we sprinkle our conversations with Butch and Sundance quotes, some fairly obscure. It’s a nice shorthand to have — beloved, time-worn phrases which can be applied across hundreds of situations. It’s also a nice reminder of when my siblings and I were young, when our lives were in front of us.

Below are some of my favorite quotes, followed by context, quotability, and ways you can still use the lines today.

 

“Hell, the fall will probably kill you”

Butch and Sundance are trapped on the side of a mountain. Their only escape is to jump into a river below.

Sundance doesn’t want to jump.

Butch is impatient, pointing out it’s literally their only chance for survival.

Sundance grudgingly reveals a secret which apparently embarrasses him greatly. He doesn’t know how to swim.

Butch erupts with laughter. He points out that swimming is the absolute least of their worries. “Hell, the fall will probably kill you!”

Quotability: High

Application: A friend or loved one is stressing out about small things when a much bigger problem is about to materialize. You point out that disaster is likely, no matter what. So fuck it, give it a rip.

 

“Small price to pay for beauty”

Butch is doing reconnaissance on a bank which he and Sundance plan to rob. It’s one they’ve stolen from before. As Butch watches from across the street, he sees that modifications have been made to increase security.

“What happened to the old bank? It was beautiful,” he asks a passer-by.

“People kept robbing it,” the man says.

“Small price to pay for beauty,” Butch grumbles.

Quotability: Moderate

Application: Use this quote when an improvement has been made which was logically necessary and sound, but it didn’t serve the narrow personal purpose of the speaker — that is, you.

“Why can’t we take as many donuts as we used to? That was cool,” you say.

“People were taking, like, three or four at a time,” says your co-worker.

“Small price to pay for coolness,” is your subdued, defeated answer.

 

“Prayer”

Sundance is playing poker with several men. He keeps winning, hand after hand. Someone points out the winning streak and implies that Sundance is cheating.

“What’s the secret of your success?” the man says.

“Prayer,” says Sundance.

It’s a tense moment. An accusation of cheating typically leads to a gunfight. Sundance’s sarcastic non-answer demonstrates his composure in a tight spot. It also suggests he has a figurative ace in the hole, something the other men — and we the audience — don’t know about. In this case, it’s his skill as a gunfighter.

Quotability: Low to moderate

Application: “Prayer,” as a humorous response, is appropriate when you’re asked why something unexpected has happened, or how you managed a result which appears unlikely or suspicious.

“Wait, how did you wind up with literally half the cookies?”

“Prayer.”

 

“Morons! I’ve got morons on my team!”

Butch and Sundance travel to Bolivia to evade law officials and seek legitimate employment. They are hired as security for a mining operation managed by an ex-patriate American played by Strother Martin.

On their way down the mountain, Butch and Sundance are tense, looking out for bandits, bickering with each other.

Martin turns around and asks what the hell they’re jittery about.

They explain they’re on the lookout for thieves.

An exasperated Martin says: “Morons! I’ve got morons on my team! Nobody is going to rob us going down the mountain. We have got no money going down the mountain.  When we have got the money, on the way back, then you can sweat.”

It’s an unusual position for Butch and Sundance to be in — rookies who need to be schooled in the ways of the world. It’s their first job on the right side of the law. They are accustomed to playing offense, not defense.

Quotability: Extremely high, unfortunately

Application: You can use the Morons quote roughly 90% of your day, at home and at work.

 

“I say … THIS”

A sheriff is trying to raise a posse of volunteers to pursue Butch and Sundance. He gives an impassioned speech to townfolk. But the speech falls on deaf, or at least skeptical, ears. People aren’t eager to risk their lives.

The sheriff winds up his appeal with the rhetorical question, “What do you say?”

A man steps forward and addresses the crowd, “I say … THIS!” And then he shifts to a completely unrelated topic — bicycles. He wants to sell them to the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, meet the future!” the salesman says, rolling a bike front and center.

The sheriff is confused and annoyed. But the crowd is definitely more interested in the bike than in chasing violent robbers. Indeed Butch himself, watching from a hotel balcony above, winds up buying the bike.

Quotability: Weirdly high

Application: You’d be surprised how often you can deploy I say … THIS! Use it when someone invites your opinion and your goal is to change topics altogether. By delivering the line quickly and forcefully, you buy time and space while you roll out the figurative bike and start the unrelated pitch.

 

“I’m better when I move”

Butch and Sundance are applying for the job in Bolivia. Strother Martin wants to test Sundance’s shooting ability.

Sundance starts his normal routine, with the guns holstered.

Martin stops him. He wants Sundance just to hold out the gun, aim it, and shoot. No pulling from holsters, no moving around, no big production.

Sundance tries shooting this way, with sub-optimal results.

Martin, unimpressed, starts to walk away.

“Can I move?” says Sundance.

“What the hell do you mean move?” says Martin.

Sundance puts the gun back in its holster, then yanks out both guns, starts blasting away as if in a shootout.

This time the shooting is pinpoint accurate. He shoots a tiny target multiple times even as it bounces away from him.

Martin is amazed.

“I’m better when I move,” says Sundance.

Quotability: Low

Application: This one is theoretically usable when you’re being forced into a more rigid protocol or process than you’re comfortable with. You explain that you need room to operate. “I’m better when I move.” This is the same genre of situation which prompts others to say, “I like to get my hands dirty,” or “I like to color outside the lines.”

 

“You just keep thinking, Butch. That’s what you’re good at”

Butch is hatching one of his many plans.

Sundance, in a rare moment of easy humor, starts laughing.

“You just keep thinking, Butch. That’s what you’re good at.”

The outlaws are like an old married couple here. Sundance knows that Butch’s schemes are both his strength and his flaw. And Sundance is okay with that. He is along for the ride, to the end.

Quotability: Variable, depending on whether you include the word ‘Butch’ in your restatement

Application: If you include the word ‘Butch,’ it’s definitely a head-scratcher for listeners not named Butch. (But also a good way to filter for hardcore fans of the film!) If you omit ‘Butch,’ then it’s a versatile remark. The key is the delivery. Your tone needs to indicate you are both needling the other person, but also ultimately supporting her. You’re on the same team. “You just keep talking, Leeny,” I might tell my talkative wife. “That’s what you’re good at.”

 

“I don’t want to sound like a sore loser, but when it’s over, if I’m dead, kill him”

Butch says this before a knife fight. He is facing a bigger, stronger opponent, a man who has worked for Butch and Sundance for years.

If Butch loses, he is asking Sundance to kill the man.

Sundance looks over at the guy, smiles. Under his breath he tells Butch, “Love to.”

Quotability: Low

Application: Usable when: you’re in a knife-fight, your best friend is watching, and he’s a deadly gunfighter. No, actually the useful part is the beginning, “I don’t want to sound like a sore loser, but ….” After that, you fill in whatever the current circumstances are, and then you ask your friend to do something which clearly demonstrates that yes, you are a sore loser.

“Not to be a sore loser, but if she decides to go home with him instead of me, slash his tires for me, okay?”

 

“Don’t sugarcoat it … Tell her straight”

Sundance’s girlfriend wants to join their voyage to Bolivia.

Sundance warns her, “The minute you start to whine or make a nuisance, I don’t care where we are, I’m dumping you flat.”

The cold, caustic remark stops the conversation.

Butch breaks the tension by saying, “Don’t sugarcoat it like that, Kid. Tell her straight.”

Quotability: High

Application: Say this when a person tells the truth in such an abrupt, direct way as to cause discomfort in others, especially third parties. The sugarcoat line helps lighten the mood, keep the peace.

 

“For a moment there I thought we were in trouble”

This is basically the final line of the movie. Butch and Sundance are surrounded by hundreds of armed police and will soon die in a hail of gunfire. But they don’t yet know the full magnitude of the peril.

Butch asks whether Sundance saw a well-known lawman named Lefors among police outside.

Sundance says no.

Butch is relieved. “For a moment there I thought we were in trouble,” he says.

The outlaws absolutely are in trouble. They will die seconds later.

Quotability: High

Application: Use in dire straits. There is nobility in gallows humor.

 

“Next time I say, ‘Let’s go someplace like Bolivia,’ let’s go someplace like Bolivia”

Butch and Sundance are in a jam. They don’t know if they’ll get out alive. Butch starts musing aloud about a road not taken, specifically Bolivia.

Quotability: Pretty high actually

Application: Sure, if the quote is repeated word for word, then there is the same random non sequitur problem as with You just keep thinking, Butch. But if you think on your feet and swap out the relevant details, this line is useful.

For instance, my wife — hypothetically — could say, “Kit, next time I tell you, ‘Let’s think twice about our kids playing travel ice hockey because it could take over our lives,’ let’s think twice about it, since it did take over our lives.”

In this example, my wife knows there will be no next time, she’s just pointing out, ‘I told you so.’

She may also be reflecting wistfully on the passage of time, on roads not taken.

Actually Butch is the one doing that, in the movie.

In real life, my wife is just saying, “I told you so.”

 

“Ask us to stick around”

Sundance is accused of cheating. A gunfight is about to occur.

Butch, arriving late, tries to mediate.

Initially unsuccessful, he addresses his partner somberly and makes a point to use his nickname. “I can’t help you, Sundance.”

This word clues in the bad guy that he is facing off against an acclaimed gunfighter. The bad guy is suddenly unsure of himself.

Butch, always light on his feet, seizes the moment and scripts an exit plan which all parties can live with. He tells the bad guy to invite both Butch and Sundance to stick around and keep playing cards. Then Butch and Sundance will politely decline and leave, Butch says.

That’s what happens. All parties survive.

Quotability: Low to moderate

Application: This can be used when someone is trying to finish a meeting, a conversation, possibly even a relationship. On your end, you feel rushed, disrespected, or hurt. Using Ask me to stick around indicates that you are offended, but that you’re willing to bow out if a certain script is followed. Provide the rest of the script. Tell the person exactly what you need to hear in order to get lost.

 

“Everything’s always gotta be perfect with you”

Butch and Sundance are wounded and surrounded. They are bandaging each other, re-loading guns. They’re about to die in a blaze of glory. These final moments are full of poignant lines. The scene shows the men as they are, at their core — funny, brave, loyal, stoic.

Butch discusses Australia as a possible next spot for bank-robbing.

Sundance — breathless, wincing with pain — asks a series of questions.

“It’s far away, though, isn’t it?” he says.

Butch, also in pain, snaps at him. “Everything’s always gotta be perfect with you!”

Quotability: Extremely high

Application: You’re talking to someone about a decent idea, but they start picking away at it. Put the jackass in his place! Everything always has to be perfect with this guy. This is a him problem, not a problem with your plan.

 

“I figured secretly you wanted to know, so I told you”

Sundance tells Butch to keep his stupid ideas to himself.

Butch holds his tongue, for a moment. But then he can’t help himself.

“Australia!” he says. “I figured secretly you wanted to know, so I told you. Australia!”

Quotability: High

Application: Say this when nobody wanted to hear your dumb idea, but you have blurted it out anyway.

“We pivot, we make our app … a cat-sitting app!”

“What?”

“I figured secretly you wanted to know, so I told you. An app that helps you find cat-sitters for your cat!”

 

I could list other quotes. But if you have gotten this far, you are either: such a diehard Butch and Sundance fan that you already know all the lines; or an extremely patient, borderline masochistic reader.

Arguably Butch and Sundance is the best ‘buddy movie’ of all time — a blueprint for later films like Midnight Run, Thelma and Louise, Beverly Hills Cop, and BlacKkKlansman. But on a more personal level, the movie was beloved by my father. The dialogue became part of our family lexicon, part of the shared experience across decades.

Dad is now on the cusp of 87 years old, still living at home in Chevy Chase, Md., with his wife of 62 years, my mother Sally.

For him, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid represents the American West, where he took us every summer for vacation, where he was at his happiest and most relaxed. The movie also represents humanity at its best — both the intelligence and humor of William Goldman’s script, and the qualities of love and friendship which are on display throughout the film.

Yes, Butch and Sundance get exasperated with each other. They hurt each other’s feelings. They bicker over strategy. They worry about the future. They differ in temperament. But they know each other, completely. They trust and love each other. They stick together to the end, when their luck finally runs out.

 

 

Posted in MOVIES, SAYINGS | 3 Comments

SIX HOURS

One day in Lebanon in the 1940s, Marie Simonian set out for the boarding school attended by her oldest child.

Something was wrong, she could feel it.

She walked six hours to reach his school. She arrived exhausted, dripping sweat.

She was told that her son had been burned in an accident. He and another student were jumping over a campfire. They collided. Her son fell in the fire. Mrs. Simonian was led to the school infirmary to see him.

There is no rational explanation for how she knew about the injury. No one had sent for her. It was mother’s intuition.

And strong intuition, at that. She didn’t walk six hours on a mere hunch. She knew.

Claims about psychic visions and extra-sensory perception are common. Perhaps many of the claims would collapse under rigorous examination. But in my own experience, some are legitimate, and startling.

I once met the psychic medium Laura Lynne Jackson, who wrote The Light Between Us and Signs. Without knowing anything about me, she looked at the scar on my right arm and began telling me details about the day I nearly died as a 3-year-old. She told me about the elderly neighbor who saved me, about the tourniquet he tied at the top of my arm.

A shiver went through me as I realized she was receiving information from … well, I don’t know where.

A few other examples:

I was working as a waiter one day in New York City in 1997. A co-worker stopped me in the middle of our shift. She asked my permission to share a message she’d just received.

I was startled.

“Uh … I guess so?”

“You don’t think you’re attractive because your mother didn’t think she was attractive. That came from your mom. That’s not real.”

My mother did indeed grow up believing that her sister “got the looks,” while my mother “got the personality.” And it was true that I myself had never felt particularly attractive, desirable, or important. But what startled me in the moment, what got my attention, was this concept of information arriving out of thin air, a dispatch from the ether.

In The Light Between Us, Jackson describes doing a reading once for a New York City couple named Charlie and RoseAnn.

Jackson was accustomed to relaying messages from dead humans to living ones. This time she received messages from dead cats, dogs, a bird, even a whale, and a bee.

Each time she would mention a particular animal, the elderly couple would smile or laugh, and then tell a story connected to that animal.

They’d once joined people near the Verrazano Bridge who were trying to help the Coast Guard steer a 30-foot humpback whale back toward the ocean.

They’d removed a bee from the crowded boardwalk at Jones Beach.

They’d fed and taken care of a stranded pigeon on a cruise across the Atlantic Ocean.

All these animals, one by one, were now popping into Jackson’s field of consciousness and expressing love and gratitude toward Charlie and RoseAnn.

Whatever you may think of this account, it changed my life.

As my annoyed wife and children will attest, I stopped killing anything in our house — flies, spiders, any of it. Overnight I resigned from my prior post as Exterminator in Chief.

I still occasionally intervene by trapping and relocating an insect or lizard. But I try not to kill anything.

Which reminds me, by the way, of a funny scene in the 2012 movie Wanderlust. The actress Kathryn Hahn plays a member of a rural hippie commune visited by yuppies Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd.

One afternoon at lunch, Rudd casually kills a fly. Hahn goes berserk.

“This man has a FETISH FOR VIOLENCE!”

I realized the other day, I’ve become like Hahn (minus the unbridled rage and 1970s-era jewelry). I can’t kill a fly.

Unlike her character, though, I don’t actually care if others kill a fly. That’s up to them. I just don’t want to participate.

Okay, so it’s not Muhammed Ali refusing to serve in Vietnam. But you have to start somewhere.

img_5553-1

my best friend Boomer

I suppose the logical next step for me is vegetarianism because, speaking of things which don’t withstand rigorous investigation, factory farming of animals seems especially horrible if one puts any credence at all in the psychic reading which Jackson did for Charlie and RoseAnn.

That is, if animals have spirits, if they can later thank us from the other side, I don’t even want to think about the way we routinely treat millions of them, daily, in captivity, on death row.

As a teenager, I went to a Quaker high school in Washington D.C. The school was chosen for me; it was the same one where my siblings had gone. We weren’t sent to it for the Quaker religion and values, but for the academics. Still, the simplicity and logical integrity of Quakerism appealed to me. There weren’t a lot of rules, rituals, head-scratching parables. The emphasis was on connecting to spirit.

It was gratifying to learn years later that my family tree is littered with Quakers and Mennonites from the 1700s and 1800s, and with Anabaptists before that. One dissenting ancestor was killed for his beliefs in 1529 in Bern, Switzerland.

So maybe there’s some religious fervor and radical pacifism baked into me.

However, in more distressing genealogical news, I used to brag to friends about my great-great uncle Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who carved Mt. Rushmore.

Turns out, he was in the KKK.

So much for that brag.

I don’t know what to think about the current debate over Mt. Rushmore. Just from an environmental perspective, I’d hate to see any large-scale activity which changes the ecological stasis.  On the other hand, it would be appropriate and inspiring to see Dr. Martin Luther King added.

One more ghost story:

My nephew Bruno Zicarelli lost a friend years ago to a fatal accident in the Pacific Northwest. The friend disappeared during a wilderness outing. The body was not found for months.

And then one night, Bruno had a dream in which the friend appeared and said, effectively, It’s all right, Bruno. They found me.

Bruno learned the next day the body had indeed been found.

To me, there’s no explaining this, other than to take it at face value. When we die, our spirit lives on, somewhere. The body is just a shell, an incarnation.

Posted in SELF HELP, SPIRIT, THE ARMENIAN IN-LAWS | 10 Comments

LET IT BE MESSY

A couple days ago my wife and I received the 30th-reunion book from our college. It’s a thick red paperback with updates from hundreds of classmates.

I looked up friends. I looked up the guy who seemed during college to be either bat-shit crazy, or a genius (or both). How had he turned out?

I looked up a woman I didn’t know during college, but whose writing in the intervening years has interested me. I wondered where she lived, how she saw the world now.

I flipped randomly through pages. I tried to guess which classmates had chosen not to participate. Often I was right. For them, there was only name, date of graduation, and which dorm they’d been in — no news about job, kids, second homes in Colorado, a late-life love affair with ballroom dance.

Then I spoke to classmate Camille Landau, who was looking through the book herself.

She gave me two questions to ask, for any entry.

First, who was the entry written for?

Was this person writing with his fellow doctors in mind?

Was that person writing for her friends?

Was still another person writing for her immigrant parents, crafting an entry she hoped would make them proud?

I asked Camille to read my entry and tell me who I seemed to be writing for.

“For your friends,” she said, “no question.”

Which I think is true. (I’ll paste my entry below.)

The other question Camille asked: was the entry dead or alive?

That is, did the writer come across as a person in progress, a person still learning, a person who still got confused, or curious, or excited, as someone still living?

Or did the entry instead conjure a person who had already made up his mind about everything and was now just playing out the string?

This reminded me of the line in the Bob Dylan song It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) — “he not busy being born/Is busy dying.”

It also reminded me of the Netflix show Nanette, in which stand-up comedian Hannah Gadsby reflects on the structure of comedy and storytelling.

Gadsby takes a hard look at her lifelong habit of self-deprecating humor. She examines the whole concept of a punchline, of tying up a story with a bow, of closing it, sealing it, making it consumable. There’s something fundamentally untrue about it, she suggested.

In contrast, I thought of my classmate Natasha Shapiro, a New York City artist, therapist, and writer. One of the things I like about her writing is that it’s extremely open-ended — sometimes messy, sometimes funny, sometimes depressing. It’s a journey. She’s trying to find her way. For me as the reader, tagging along with that person is interesting, even inspiring.

In my own writing, I very much see the habit of wrapping up stories with a bow, trying to make them consumable. For material, I gravitate toward the past, whether my in-laws’ experience of the Armenian Genocide, or my childhood in Maryland in the 1970s.

I think on some level, I choose the past because it’s safer. Even if the episode I’m describing was messy or painful, I get to analyze it now with the benefit of time, experience, maybe some wisdom. There’s a cushion between me and the pain. And from a distance, I can try to measure how big a wave was sent across the years.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote for the 30th reunion.

I was a stay-at-home dad for seventeen years. It was a sweet gig. And I underestimated how wrenching and disorienting it would be to say goodbye to the kids. But I am also excited to see what the next chapter is for me. I’ve worked as a journalist, as a lawyer, as a dad. I’m curious to find out what comes next.

A careful reader might stop at the words “wrenching” and “disorienting.”

Clearly there are stories and details underneath those words, a mess of some kind.

I suppose that’s the story I would need to tell now, if I wanted to be as courageous as the above mentioned Gadsby, Landau, Shapiro, and Dylan.

No promises.

We’ll see.

 

 

Posted in COURAGE, SELF HELP, SPIRIT | 13 Comments

WHERE’S FEKKESH

1977 was a great year for movies.

Star Wars was released, along with Annie Hall, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever, Julia, The Goodbye Girl, and The Turning Point.

It was also the year I saw The Spy Who Loved Me nine times.

This was before streaming, obviously, so I made nine actual trips to the theater, plunking down $1.50 each time. Why my 8-year-old self needed to see the movie so many times remains murky to me, years later.

For those who haven’t seen the film, it’s a James Bond movie about a billionaire who plans to destroy the world and then survive the aftermath in a sprawling undersea world he has built.

In one memorable scene, Bond drives his car off a pier and straight into the ocean.

Unbeknownst to the audience — or at least to those of us who weren’t seeing the movie a ninth time — the car can transform into a submarine.

The loud stress of the car chase is thus interrupted by a sudden, rapturous, silent underwater seascape, which Bond — and we — experience from inside the miraculous submersible.

Another selling point, and this was likely the main factor for me — international travel.

The movie starts in the Austrian alps with a breathtaking skiing sequence, then moves to Egypt. A fight scene on a Cairo rooftop was so riveting that when I wasn’t at the theater re-watching Spy that summer, I was usually at our local swimming pool reenacting the scene on the high diving board.

In the movie, the bad guy clings desperately for life at the edge of the roof, holding onto Bond’s necktie.

Bond keeps asking the same question.

“Where’s Fekkesh?”

“WHERE’S FEKKESH?”

When the bad guy finally divulges the whereabouts of said Fekkesh — “Pyramids!” — Bond crisply separates the man’s hand from the necktie. The bad guy plunges to his death.

At the swimming pool, I would play out this sequence high above water, my back to the pool, my heels inching farther and farther off the board.

“Where’s Fekkesh?”

“WHERE’S FEKKESH?”

And then … the fading screams of a skinny fifth-grader, followed by an unremarkable splash, a slow paddle to the pool ladder, and then right back in line so I could do it all over again.

Though Spy Who Loved Me is regarded as a strong Bond movie — and certainly as Roger Moore’s best effort in the role — I think any Bond movie would have sufficed. All contain the same elements — exotic locales, fascinating gadgets, thrilling escapes, beautiful women.

The beautiful woman in The Spy Who Loved Me was a Soviet agent played by Barbara Bach. She was initially Bond’s rival, then his ally, and finally, of course, the love interest.

There was an extra spark to the affair because she was Soviet. In the real world, tensions between NATO countries and the Soviet Union were high. I was intrigued by Soviet and British agents working together, falling in love.

I was an excitable kid. I could get obsessive. Outside I tried to project Andy Griffith; inside I was definitely Don Knotts. I was in love with Barbara Bach that summer. I was awed by her beauty and by her apparent effectiveness at espionage even in heels and evening wear. I was entranced by the Carly Simon song which played over closing credits — “Nobody Does It Better.”

img_6925

Even movies which would not normally scream “exotic foreign locale” kept taking me back to Europe that summer.

Herbie, the self-driving VW Beetle, fell in love with a gorgeous Lancia named Giselle during a car race from Paris to Monte Carlo in the straightforwardly titled Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo.

The dog Benji got lost in chaotic, high-energy Athens in For the Love of Benji.

I vowed some day I myself would travel to Europe. Such crazy things happened there! Dogs got lost, and then found. Waiters mixed up orders and lost their temper. Mountain roads didn’t have guardrails. Dusty archaelogists went looking for ancient relics (In Search of Noah’s Ark).

img_6918

And then there was Smokey and the Bandit. Oh boy was there Smokey and the Bandit.

True, it didn’t take place in Europe, but it competed with James Bond for airtime in my imagination. When I wasn’t in a dark, air-conditioned movie theater or at the pool screaming, “WHERE’S FEKKESH,” I was riding my brown Schwinn around Chevy Chase and Bethesda, Md., pretending the bike was Burt Reynolds’s black-and-gold Trans Am.

img_6924

My friend Robbie and I were generally on our bikes anyway, but after that movie we were constantly on them.

We were always making a cross-country cannonball run to bring back 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana to Georgia — or at least some Bubble Yum from the convenience store at Leland Street and Wisconsin Avenue.

Wherever we rode, we were always being chased by Sheriff Buford T. Justice. And we were always just barely getting away from him. It was thrilling, and exhausting. Summers in D.C. were humid as shit.

The only time I took a break was when a classmate’s mother one day reported a psychic vision of me getting hit by a car.

The woman told my mother that under no circumstances should I be allowed to ride a bicycle for the next two days.

It was a strange and intense piece of information, from a woman we didn’t know well.

My family tended toward rationality and skepticism. We weren’t fertile ground for psychic reports. Just the same, I had escaped an actual brush with death at 3 years old.

So Mom said, sure, it wouldn’t hurt for me to take a break from bike riding.

I adhered to the two-day ban, even though I could easily have violated it. I was the fourth of four kids; I was supervised loosely.

Looking back, it amazes me that my friends and I never were badly hurt on our bikes. We did not wear helmets. We regularly rode no-hands, even down the steep grade at Thornapple Street. At the bottom we’d blow right through the stop sign.

Who knows, maybe Jeanette’s mom had seen me blowing through stop signs. Or maybe she indeed experienced a vision which, when shared with us, saved my life. That’s a whole separate trip to think about.

But in the short run, what was two days? Even without my beloved Schwinn/Trans Am, I could still go see The Spy Who Loved Me again.

 

 

 

Posted in DUMB SHIT I'VE DONE, MOVIES, MY CHILDHOOD | 6 Comments

LET US NOW PRAISE LORI McKENNA

I remember being shocked by the ending of Rocky.

It was 1976. I was 8 years old. I didn’t know from sad endings.

That this shy, courageous, kind-hearted boxer would lose the fight had not even occurred to me. I’d seen the poster, maybe the trailer too. I’d figured, It’ll be a close fight, maybe he’ll get knocked down. But for him to lose? After we’d just spent two hours watching him train? Running up and down the steps, eating all the raw eggs? After we’d just spent two hours FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE MAN?

I thought about the movie for days. I used my precious record-buying money to go out and buy the soundtrack. The film had been so powerful, I wanted to see if some of that spirit lived in the music, too.

Rocky was one of my first encounters with the idea that a person could be brave, noble, and heroic … and still lose.

In my mind I connected the boxer in the movie with my brother Ken, nine years older than I was, and my personal hero. He too was the strong, silent type — big heart, sensitive nature. After the movie, I took a second look at him. I was horrified at the idea that life might turn out wrong for him. A tragic viewpoint slipped into my consciousness.

This week I was looking back and trying to determine when I first fell in love with country music. On the surface, I guess the answer is Victorville, Calif., in 1990. But I wonder, was it actually 14 years earlier, when Rocky lost?

My friend Haroula Rose gave me a beautiful gift a few days ago. She told me to check out the music of Lori McKenna. How this particular songwriter had escaped me till now, I have no idea.

McKenna, a native of Stoughton, Mass., was a late bloomer, career wise. She married her high school sweetheart and raised five kids before finding her calling — writing and performing songs about the passing of time, the fading of love, the aching goodbye to children who have grown up and are ready to move on.

One of my favorite songs is “People Get Old.” But there are forty more like it, and I’ve just begun the exploration.

McKenna is from a working-class Boston suburb, not typically fertile ground for country artists.

Another example of wrong-zipcode country artist is the late Steve Goodman, a middle-class Jewish kid from the Chicago suburbs who wrote “City of New Orleans” and “You Never Even Called Me by My Name.”

Country music isn’t where you live, clearly. It’s your take on life, especially the low moments, or at least the bittersweet ones. The take can be humorous, like George Strait’s “You Know Me Better Than That;” or defiant, like Travis Tritt’s “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares);” or wistful, like Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me.” It can be misery-soaked, like the Webb Pierce classic “There Stands the Glass,” or heartbreakingly generous, like Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” A great song may traverse several of these attitudes.

Of course, “country” is itself a problematic term. A fan once tried to pin down Kris Kristofferson on the genre of “Me and Bobby McGee.” The tune had elements of folk, rock, and blues, but it also sounded almost … country?

Kristofferson told the fan to trust his gut.

If it sounds country, man, that’s what it is. It’s a country song.

Folk, country, Americana … who cares what label we slap on the song? The more important question is, does the song drill down into your soul? Does it lodge there? Does it keep you company? Does it color the way you see the world, the way you experience a place, a relationship, a surge of emotion? Can it conjure a surge of emotion? Can the song make you feel both awful and exhilarated at the same time?

Lori McKenna’s songs do that for me. Already they do, just a few days in.

So does Bruce Springsteen’s “One Step Up,” and Mick Jagger’s “Evening Gown,” and John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery.”

And so did the movie Rocky, back in 1976. The ending was harsh medicine, for a fourth-grader. But it primed me, it tuned me to a signal I would pick up again years later from Johnny Cash, George Jones, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson.

For Spotify users, here’s a short list of McKenna tunes to check out.

And here’s a playlist with the other tunes mentioned above.

 

Posted in MOVIES, MUSIC, MY CHILDHOOD | 3 Comments

THEIR SHIP DIDN’T COME IN

Toward the end of World War II, when my mother-in-law was 11, her family decided to move from Lebanon to Armenia.

Her father closed up his shop in Beirut. Furniture was sold off. Essential belongings were packed into several big shipping containers and brought down to the waterfront. A ship would take the family east — via the Dardanelles, the Bosphorus, and the Black Sea — to the Soviet Union, of which Armenia was part.

But the ship never arrived. It was attacked and destroyed before reaching Beirut. Hundreds of Jewish refugees died at sea.

When my mother-in-law and her family got the news, they were stunned.

And perplexed.

They had nowhere to stay, nowhere to move the shipping containers.

The parents discussed the problem. None of the options seemed great.

“For now, we stay here,” the father said.

He opened the shipping containers, removed contents, and made a rough living quarters for his young family in the big wooden boxes.

My mother-in-law can’t remember how long they lived in the shipping containers by the waterfront. A couple of weeks anyway.

Eventually local nuns found a place for the family outside the city. They started life all over again, staying in Lebanon.

Over the years, I’ve tried to figure out which ship they were waiting for. Possibly it was the MV Mefküre, a Turkish motor schooner carrying about 300 Jewish refugees. That boat was attacked by a Soviet sub in August 1944.

Really, though, it could have been any of dozens of ships. The list of maritime disasters in the 1940s is stunningly long. Nine thousand people died when the Gustloff sank in 1945. Seven thousand died when the Goya went down, also in 1945. Another 7,000 died when the Soviet hospital ship Armenia was destroyed by German aircraft in 1941.

The number of high-fatality ship disasters during WWII is breathtaking and heartbreaking.

When working on my own family history, I often think about the vast, three-dimensional web funneling down — across decades, centuries, millennia — into the single dot of time which is each of us, and about the similar, thready vortex spreading out in the other direction, into the future, away from each of us.

If the ship had not sunk, if hundreds of Jewish refugees had not been killed in the Black Sea, then my mother-in-law Cecile would not have stayed in Beirut. She would not have met and married Dr. Kevork Keshishian.

I would not have met my future wife Aleen Keshishian on our first day of college, 42 years later.

Our children Lulu and Jesse would not exist. Not as Lulu and Jesse anyway, not as the children of Aleen and Kit.

If the ship had not sunk, if hundreds of Jewish refugees had not been killed, my mother-in-law believes she would eventually have landed in a Soviet work camp.

By nature an assertive, outspoken person, she tends to stand on principle and challenge authority.

“People like me were sent to Siberia,” she said.

After WWII, word started to filter back to the Armenian diaspora that the ancestral homeland wasn’t such a great place to be. Even though a massive Armenian repatriation effort was being organized and financed by the Soviet Union, the reality on the ground, for those who arrived, was stark. Living conditions were especially jarring for those accustomed to cosmopolitan places like Beirut.

“We would get letters saying, ‘It’s great here, there’s plenty of food, plenty of work. We see Dr. So-and-so all the time,'” said my mother-in-law. “But Dr. So-and-so was already dead a long time. In this way we would know, they are sending a message. They are telling us, don’t come.”

Over time, the Simonian family grew thankful that their ship had not arrived, that the children were educated in Beirut, that they could later immigrate to the United States.

Monuments to the Mefküre dead still stand in both Romania, where the trip originated, and Israel, where the refugees had hoped to settle. The ship was attacked in the black of night around 2 a.m. on Aug. 5, 1944. It was headed for the Bosphorus straits. The ship caught fire during the attack. All but a handful of passengers died.

It gives me a shiver to think of the awful final moments for these passengers, the confusion, the fire on deck, the cold blackness of the water, the screams for loved ones and children.

It gives me a shiver to think my own history, my own good fortune is connected to the event.

 

 

 

 

Posted in THE ARMENIAN IN-LAWS | 5 Comments

GUEST BLOG – Aris Janigian – A Brief History of My White Privilege

“Dirty black Armenian” or “low class Jew” — or worse, “Fresno Indian” — is what they called us back then.
— Read on mirrorspectator.com/2019/09/11/a-brief-history-of-my-white-privilege/

I’m re-posting this essay by Aris Janigian because I loved it. Not only is it beautifully written and richly detailed, but it hits home for me because my wife is Armenian. (And our children, obviously, are half-Armenian.)

For me, seeing Armenian culture up close these last 30 years has been an intense, daily lesson on this basic fact: horrendous atrocities against a race don’t just go away. Effects of trauma keep manifesting, over and over. Maybe that’ll be my own next essay – the effects of genocide which I can see even today in my wife, my in-laws, and my kids, even though the genocide happened 100 years ago.

This idea of trauma getting passed down onto successive generations is relevant right now. Slavery was outlawed 157 years ago, but it was followed up with a ferocious reign of terror against black people. The effects of both slavery itself and the ensuing regime of segregation, intimidation, torture, terror, and killing — those effects will keep manifesting for a long time, in my opinion, if we don’t get serious about: acknowledging in detail what was done to black Americans; apologizing for it; and slowly starting to try to make matters right.

Anyway, I’ll step off the soapbox and let you read the Janigian essay.

-kit

Posted in THE ARMENIAN IN-LAWS, UNIQUELY AMERICAN BULLSHIT | 4 Comments

EVERYTHING TURNS OUT OKAY

When I was three and a half years old, I went crashing into a glass door on the first floor of my family’s home in Chevy Chase, Md.

The worst damage was not from my arm going through the door, but from it coming back out. A shard of glass, still fixed in the door frame, entered my arm at the armpit and then, as I fell backward and down to the ground, sliced open my arm all the way up to the wrist.

I suffered complete severing of my radial artery, and total or partial transection of the radial, ulnar, and median nerves, and of various muscles.

I nearly bled to death right there on the carpet in front of my horrified mother. I was saved — at least in part — by the quick thinking of an elderly neighbor who heard Mom screaming. Mr. Shepard ran into our home, found something to use as a tourniquet, tied off the top of the arm. He kept me alive till the ambulance arrived.

Most of my life I had no memory of the event, apart from the physical reminders — the long nasty scar from armpit to wrist, the slightly diminished use of arm and hand.

Through the help of a skilled and patient therapist, however, I was recently able to relive the accident.

I didn’t expect the recovered memory to be anything other than horrifying. But I wanted to do it anyway, under the theory that it might help me move forward, might make me a better writer, or person.

But as it turned out, reliving the accident wasn’t disturbing at all. The parts which came back weren’t the pain, blood, and broken glass. Instead I relived a stunning, blissful sensation of floating between life and death.

I was dimly aware of background noise — the ambulance siren, my poor mother screaming. I could feel a medical worker’s hand on my chest. But if anything, these were just minor annoyances. I was focused on the extraordinary feeling of floating, the spectacular visions, the peaceful knowledge that no matter how scary and confusing events might be, everything turns out all right.

A thought occurred to me as I floated.

Dying is no big deal. We do it over and over. It’s not the end.

I survived the accident, obviously (although in the therapy session I did have a recurring fear that I actually had died and that the intervening 48 years were the dream of a ghost, as happens to Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense). 

After the accident, I wound up with a couple hundred stitches in my right arm and a long process of recovery.

I got rid of my security blanket because, according to my mom, I didn’t like the way it felt anymore, being held in the unfamiliar left hand.

I got pretty good at throwing left-handed.

My family would occasionally instruct me, Palm down! — or for short, PD! This meant that I shouldn’t curl my right hand inward, shouldn’t rest the back of my wrist against the floor, chair, desk, whatever. That posture wasn’t good for recovery, supposedly.

I was taught exercises for my fingers, to help my hand recover.

I went for periodic nerve-conduction studies. A doctor would give me electric shocks at one end of my arm and then measure how fast the signals traveled. I guess that’s what she was doing. All I know is, I dreaded those tests. (As Wikipedia helpfully tells us, “The test is not invasive, but can be painful due to the electrical shocks.”)

One thing I lost, as I moved through life and into adulthood, was the memory of the otherworldly wisdom and peace which I experienced, unexpectedly, right at the height of the bloody, screaming mayhem.

It all turns out okay. Dying is no big deal. It’s not the end.

I have since read about the near-death experiences of others. Different people report different sensations and visions. An interesting one to me was Kyle Buller, who suffered a severe snowboarding accident as a teenager. He reported some of the same feelings which I experienced.

One bummer about intense trauma isn’t the accident itself, but the long slog of recovery afterward and then the drudgery of daily life.

Once you’ve had a vision of heaven — or whatever I saw that day — it’s hard to get excited about baseball cards.

Or math.

Or cleaning up your room.

But that’s okay. Nearly dying as a toddler gave me a sneak peak, a shocking glimpse of radical bliss. For a few moments, I felt such indescribably beautiful feelings. And then remarkably, I was able to experience the feelings once again, all these years later.

Reliving the accident didn’t solve everything.

Nothing solves everything.

But it was fascinating. And it gave me a memory which I can try to plug into now, when I start drifting toward fear and obsessiveness.

It’s okay. Everything turns out okay.

 

 

Posted in DUMB SHIT I'VE DONE, SELF HELP | 2 Comments

GUEST BLOG – Scatter My Ashes at Moon Juice – Russell Brown – Medium

I used to work but I don’t anymore. I would get emails and texts and solicitations that I didn’t even want, but now I don’t. I used to be an acupuncturist, but my job required me to touch people all…
— Read on medium.com/@russell_30445/the-death-and-life-of-wellness-4ce1a8058c75

So many good ideas in this essay by Russell Brown. He connects Covid19, “late-stage capitalism,” optimization culture, the potential benefits of giving up hope, and — always — our “fucked-up, codependent relationships with pocket computers,” i.e. smartphones. This essay makes me think about what I want to do differently on the other side of the pandemic.

Posted in POLITICS, UNIQUELY AMERICAN BULLSHIT | Leave a comment