Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Look Homeward, Angel

Thomas Wolfe stated ... "You can never go home again ..."

But this past weekend, I tried to do just that. I went home. In other words, I traveled to my hometown of Valparaiso, Indiana. I'd moved away almost 25 years ago now. Strange to think that I've spent less time in the place where I was born and raised -- the place that I still refer to as Home -- then the place where I settled.

Why then do I still find myself calling it "Home?" 

My parents moved away from Valpo (its nickname) many years ago so I had no reason to go back. My last time there was my 20th High School Class Reunion. I spent the weekend with my best friend Tiffany but didn't explore old hangouts or places. We slumber partied at her parents' house -- just like we used to do -- and her dad cooked us breakfast -- just like he used to do. But this past weekend, I traveled to Valpo to attend a Memorial Service for a long-time family friend. And in doing so, found myself in a town that I didn't know anymore.

Driving down I-94 was fun. Returning to my roots was exciting. But Valpo has changed. It's grown. There are new suburbs, new buildings, new businesses, new homes. In some cases, businesses are bigger or have new names.  And people and places which I knew are scattered and missing. It's not bad ... just ... different.

There's a bypass into the town now so I missed seeing some of the familiar sites --  like Lakewood Park where I learned to ice skate, Mink Lake where I golfed and the 49er Drive In. The town has a roundabout at Vale Park instead of a 5-way stoplight. The County Seat Mall where I shopped and hung out at Dairy Queen and Shakey's Pizza with my friends is pretty much abandoned. The Downtown area looks similar ... I like that. But Lowensteins and the Court restaurant are long gone. 

Over time Valpo and the things and people in it have changed. Of course, I've changed too. And when my brother and I pulled into a Starbucks on a street that was once a field, I acknowledged the truth of Wolfe's statement. I mean, there were NO Starbucks when I was growing up anyway. And to find one in a part of town that wasn't even a part of town when I was a kid provided a poignant reminder that life has momentum -- that you can't return to the confines of your previous way of life. It's a flashing sign saying that reliving youthful memories is alright for a time but it can never sustain you. You must keep moving forward and avoid dwelling too much on the past.

Wolfe wrote a book entitled You Can't Go Home Again after a conversation with writer Ella Winter, who had said to him: "Don't you know you can't go home again." He asked permission to use her phrase as the title of his book, a title that reinforced the conclusion of the novel when the main character realizes: 

 "You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time -- back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."

Not everything in Valpo has changed. And I confess that I'm glad that the town is thriving. I enjoyed a glimpse of the new blended in with the old. One of my favorite childhood haunts -- Brown's Ice Cream -- still stands next to Von Tobels Hardware Store. It's been altered over time and when I walked in it didn't look as I expected. But once I found my way beyond the surprise, I settled in and celebrated the moment. Sitting there in that ice cream parlor was a homecoming for me. A celebration of the joys of my childhood that have led me to where I am now. And I was just glad a piece of that puzzle was still there and available to both me and other families and kids.

Oh I am sentimental. I get nostalgic for the Premiere Theatre and Perkins Restaurant. I was happy though to see Binder's Jewelers and the courthouse on the downtown square. And I smiled when I caught a glimpse of Thomas Jefferson Junior High School (sure it's a middle school now but I ignored that!), Valparaiso University and Tony's Pizzeria. 

My purpose of visiting led me to my family's church. It wasn't really My Church. See, my church was condemned and torn down in the late 80s. But, it bears the same name and holds many faces I remember from my growing up years. It was neat to talk to people I still refer to as Mr and Mrs. Plus, as a bonus, I even had a few moments to talk and catch up to an old friend ... Tammy.  And, it was neat to sit around a breakfast table with my parents and brother ... catching up like we used to at the kitchen table at 304 PowderHorn Drive. 

Despite all that is different, there are joys to be found in the change and wonderful memories to be honored.

Valpo was my first home. It's my childhood home. And the people and places there retain a special, glowing image in my mind and heart. 

Perhaps Dorothy in the musical The Wiz expresses my feelings best ... the reason Valpo will always hold a special place in my heart ... in the song Home: "When I think of home, I think of a place where there's love overflowing." And there was. Oh sure, there were growing-up challenges, but that was just part of Valpo's charm as it shaped me into the person I grew up to be ... and then sent me on my way.
                                                                                             -- Jenni

Friday, June 26, 2015

On Having or Having Not with an Old Man and the Sea

Dear Ron ... I read Hemingway. 

I'm not sure why that gives me such a sense of accomplishment. I've read quite a lot of classics in my life. I'm not stuck on pop fiction or romance novels.

Somehow, though, this one really made me feel like I've earned a new star on  my reading log.

As I've written, I'm part of a Classics Challenge and this month's assignment was to read a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Originally it was a Nobel Prize winner hence the reason I read TWO books. But I won't dwell on that .... just please make a decision about your reading assignments BEFORE I start next time Ron! :)

Hemingway is like no author I've ever read before. He's gritty. He's direct in his descriptions and observations. He wastes no words. He's blue collar authentic. He's not grand or elegant or affected in his language. He's just real. And, his life and writing have always intrigued me. Not sure why it took me so long to actually read something he wrote.

When it came time to select my book, I'd originally selected To Have or Have Not. I liked the title. I liked that it was a story about a man from Key West, which I'd recently visited. And it was written by a Nobel Prize winning author. When the assignment changed, I just returned to the library to pick up another Hemingway, since he won both. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Old Man And The Sea. (I actually picked up Farewell to Arms as well, but only finished these two at this point.)

Overall, my key discovery about Hemingway is that his books seem to start in the middle. I started all three and felt like I'd missed two or three chapters. I actually flipped back to see if pages had been removed or I'd not noticed a forward. Perhaps Hemingway didn't feel a need for lengthy exposition. His writing simply went straight to the heart of the matter. This is a fascinating writing style but a little abrupt for me personally. 

In To Have or Have Not, I met Harry Morgan and various other let's just say shady characters. Harry starts out as a law-abiding deep sea fisherman captain who is taken advantage of by a client. This becomes the influencing factor leading him to a life of "crime." Well, it's more smuggling and murder and sundry disreputable stuff but it leads ultimately to his death. (spoiler alert, sorry)

The book is written using various narrators, which was a bit confusing for me. I was fascinated though by Harry's fall from grace and his passion for his wife. And as he reached his final moments , he was floating near a cruise ship of "haves" who didn't seem to be any happier for all their wealth or "good lives." Made me think and examine who actually was the Have in this story ...

Harry's key observation -- perhaps a commentary on grand social issues of his time -- "No matter how a man alone ain't got no blood fucking chance." That's how it was written. I didn't leave out words in my typing. Hemingway goes on to add: It had taken him a long time to get it out and it had taken all his life to learn it. Overall, not a nice endorsement of the human condition or the life and times in which we live.

Onto Old Man And The Sea.  This was a quick read but one with lots of great stuff. If you are a guy who likes fishing, perhaps you'd enjoy it more. But, I appreciated it ... especially the fact that Hemingway has a very natural flow to his dialogue. Straight to the point. Simple. But a dialogue that gives a visual imagery and captures the characters quickly and fully.

This story is not a Melville Ahab issue. It's about a fisherman who has lost his luck. But he's determined to keep on doing what he loves to do, despite all that. So he goes out and makes the big catch ... only to lose it and his life in the end (another spoiler alert, sorry!) 

The story is told beautifully fundamentally through the old man's conversations with himself and the descriptions while he is out on the sea. From the beginning, Santiago (the old man) was struggling against defeat. I was cheering him on ... this old man refuses to be defeated. He is determined to make that one great catch ... find that one great fish. And he lands "the" marlin. Well done!!! 

Sadly for those who love happy endings, it doesn't conclude with him carrying home that marlin and getting his photo in the local paper. 

Several arguments suggest this book is about man's struggle with nature. But I choose to see it as the story of man's place within nature. Both Santiago and the marlin display qualities of pride, honor and bravery. And, perhaps Hemingway was trying to say that though death is inevitable, man -- and animals -- can refuse to give in to its power and instead fight 'til the very end. Squeeze the most out of every moment. And in this struggle, man and animal show their worthiness. 

On Hemingway ... he starts in the middle. He doesn't waste words. In Farewell to Arms, it took me to the third chapter to clarify the fact that Henry (the narrator) was actually an ambulance driver in the Italian army during World War I. I KNEW that, but Hemingway didn't waste words giving me that information directly. His exposition is subtle and made me feel like I was part of the story and not just reading it. That was an interesting discovery. And I'm sure his choices weren't accidental.

I kinda think Hemingway writes more for men and his style probably appeals more to men. I plan to finish Farewell to Arms at some point. But for now, I'm happy to have finally read two of Hemingway's great works. 

I've visited his house. Seems only right to read something he wrote there ...
                                                                                                                       -- Jenni