Friday, February 25, 2011

George Harrison, born February 25, 1943

 I have written a lot about George Harrison, but nothing compared to the hundreds of hours I spent thinking about him when I was a child--maybe until I was about 24 years old. It may be ridiculous to say that a complete stranger, a celebrity, changed your life, but it can happen--it happened to me. I first saw George on the Ed Sullivan Show less than three weeks after my father died, and all the love I had left in me that was suddenly going nowhere, going only into space, I was able to give to George. (I suddenly had an intense memory as I wrote this of the first weekend I didn't go see my father--the deep disorientation of staying home, of feeling my body want to be elsewhere. Completely confusing days, weeks, years.)
I was too young to have romantic feelings toward him. He was my brother. Every quality in me that my mother found exasperating were things he liked; how excited I got, how chatty, how I followed her (him) around. He wanted to take me everywhere with him! I toured the world with the Beatles and made sure Paul gave George credit for his part in the songs. I had bad dreams about Paul--which all showed up later in the Let It Be sessions.
It's an odd thing to love a celebrity. It has never happened to me again. Of course it is a matter of projection, but what relationship isn't, at least in the early stages. Yet the tug of war between projection and love, projection and love seems to deepen one's self knowledge in a way nothing else does--if you stay in long enough. I learned from George that I don't suffer fools gladly. I could feel that impatience in him, that streak of judgment that sat right alongside his spirituality and his true desire to be enlightened. It seems these aren't contradictory impulses, if Jesus is any example. I have come to think that they are layered emotions existing at different levels of defense. George wanted real love. You want that, and you're going to feel a lot of anger sometimes. Love is so so easy, until you find out what it means; until you discover that it is going to show you all the parts of yourself you have kept hidden, and it is going  to disappoint you if your loved one doesn't have anything in him very deep down. To be in love is to make someone up. To love is to be hammered on an anvil.

I dearly love the photos of George and Patti Boyd. I didn't love her when I was a girl; I didn't want to share. I love her now, though. The two of them together are so beautiful. There is obliviousness to them in all their pictures that has the allure of otherworldliness. A funny thing about the Beatles is that millions identified with and loved them, imagined that they would be finally understood if only they knew them, but to really take these photos in is to understand that even by this age, early twenties, they were already living a rarefied life unimaginable. I've read of George that he never carried a wallet or any money--just as the royals don't. This may or may not be true, but the story says how above the world he was, how it was his privilege to move along pathways open to only a few--the eruvs, the exceptional routes, of the rich and famous. I never imagined this when I was young. I thought him normal, and overwhelmed. But the photos of his house at Surrey where he lived with Patti Boyd show the graffiti he and friends painted on the walls, wild style in the 'burbs, where it was surely an eyesore to some. He dolled up his Mini Cooper with his own signs and symbols--you could see him coming. Patti left him to marry Eric Clapton, though it seems Patti was virtually pushed away by George's transformation into a religious person, his celibacy. I never blamed Patti for leaving. It's hard to blame any rock wives for whatever they end up choosing. It can't be easy, following the boys around.

George is my style icon. He has a chic based on thinness and confidence. If you go through hundreds of pictures of him, you see him dressed in a lot of farfetched get ups, but there's always something there that holds the eye, some sense of a comfort with being a body in the world that, like the impatience, is a bookend to his desire to be "free from birth." None of the other Beatles had this chic; few do. The three photos here are so different, yet all revealing. The disguise photo with the large sunglasses, the bushy mustache, the hippie coat--who wouldn't notice this striking person? The costume with the collar turned up just so, and the hat set on the thick brown hair at exactly the right spot to crown the beautiful face--a deep artless self-awareness. The picture of him in the green doorway defined for me forever how to dress. Faded jeans, a dark blue linen shirt, run down blue espadrilles, messy hair...has anyone ever done better? This photo was taken in the Bahamas when the Beatles were filming Help! I have another one in this series on the wall in my writing room, for everyday inspiration. Absolute glamour. 

It is hard to say now what has meant the most to me about George. I think, in the end, it was his stubbornness--his knowing he had a voice, and his determination to have it be heard, even while competing with two of the great geniuses of the 20th century, John and Paul. I continue to live with tender feelings toward him, begun when I was a very sad child. Thinking about him today hurts my heart, but he helped. 
Thank you, George.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


This blog was originally called Walks With Dogs, a title I dropped because I was no longer walking with my dogs the way I used to. I have missed my routine, and that walking meditation. The dogs have, too. My foot has gotten better now, though, enough so that I can walk on it briefly. I wanted to get back to normal. So last weekend I tried to take the dogs up to Mills Reservation. I haven't been up there in months; a combination of snow and my foot injury had prevented it. But it was 68 degrees outside!

I saw we were in trouble when we pulled parallel to the parking lot. The snow had been melting for a few days at my house--now I faced true winter again; ice, thick, white-blue, a landscape in miniature of rolling hills, glowing even under gray light. There were two cars in the lot, though, so I decided I'd join them, and try for a walk. The car crunched over the ice pack, cracked its back. Melt from up the small mountain cut channels through it, and cold clear water sluiced with great force toward the bare street. We began our way up the hill. Immediately I began to slide around--the ground was still sheer glass. (I'd worn sneakers! It was spring at my house.) Tuffy, a snow dog, leaped over all the impediments of slipperiness; I took tiny cautious steps, afraid to fall as I was still recovering from a car accident concussion. Jesse's little feet immediately turned dark with wetness, and the cold shivered upward to her ears. She turned around frequently to give me dirty looks; sorry, girl, I'll make it up to you!

I could barely inch forward. Even on the side of the gravel pathway, on the snow, the crust was slippery. Tuffy could tell his companions weren't enjoying this as much as he was. He turned down a side path and looked back to see if that was okay. I'd try it. Crunch crunch, we were on the equivalent of the frozen surface of a pond. The ice occasionally gave way, and my heels tipped down. I half enjoyed it--sensations from childhood, the first delight of breaking ice, the strange disconnect between mind and body as the shoe fills with cold water. The memory of how exciting it was not to know the world, to be in a constant process of discovery of the rule of cause and effect, and learning that nature is in charge.

Then the ice became even less stable, and soon I plunged through and was up to my calves in cold water. Time to go home. I called to Tuffy, who'd run ahead. He turned around and looked at me with some alarm--mirroring my own alarmed voice. I'd picked up freezing Jesse--we must have looked forlorn to the eyes of the dog up the hill. I calmed my voice to coax him down. He came reluctantly,  and we walked back to the car, through ice water. Tuffy was disappointed at the brevity of the adventure. Jesse was glad to be back in the front seat, with heat pointed at her. I was exhilarated, but also flummoxed by the hostile conditions. I had imagined spring.

During this whole adventure, I was still thinking about Olive Kitteredge, Elizabeth Strout's book of connected stories. I'd taught it over a couple of classes as part of the course that pairs with our reading series at Rutgers-Newark. One of the most striking features of the book is how Olive is portrayed. Often, she isn't the protagonist, yet she isn't a peripheral character either, except in a couple of stories, where she is basically a walk on, a character in the town.  She frequently occupies the unusual role (for the eponymous character) of being the complication. In classic story plotting, after the character's goal is set, there is a major complication, an overriding oppositional force. This is very often Olive herself, and the ways in which she complicates a story reveal who she is.

For example, in the story "Incoming Tide," a young man called Kevin has returned to town with a plan to shoot himself under a tree at the house where he grew up. He's sitting in the car looking at the bay when Olive Kitteredge gets in and sits next to him. Most of the story is taken up by their conversation. We don't go in to Olive's thoughts, but only see her through Kevin's eyes, and therefore can't quite be certain of why she is so persistent with him, why she won't move on. She brings up the subject of suicide; she knows Kevin's mother had committed suicide. She tells him "that was the case with my father." A bit later Kevin asks:

"How'd he do it?"He rubbed his hand over his thigh.
"My father? Shot himself."

She goes on to describe how her father left no note, and how hard that had been for her mother. The conversation gives Kevin the mental space to remember the existence of the world outside himself.

At the very moment Kevin became aware of liking the sound of her voice, he felt adrenaline pour through him, the familiar, awful intensity, the indefatigable system that wanted to endure.

He quickly turns away from this temptation, but Olive still persists with him, won't leave him alone. She's still stubbornly sitting there when the opportunity arises for him to save the life of another--always a redemptive act, in fiction--and she urges him to move, to step up. For all her prickliness and her blunt speech, she has become his conscience in that moment--undepresssed, and sane.

In a similar way we get other aspects of her in other stories. She is characterized by the effect she has on a particular situation. This is very smart, and works to allow us to know her well, so that by the time we come to stories where she is the protagonist, she is a fully rounded character. This strikes me as being an economical and effective way of putting together a connected of connected stories. Her acerbity and no nonsense ways also serve to counterbalance the deep sweetness of some of the events. Olive provides relief from our own urge to sentimentalize the stories. Perhaps she served as a stabilizing force for the author as well.

In my anecdote above, I have a goal of taking a walk with the dogs in the reservation. The major complication is the abiding presence of winter, even on a warm day. The temporary spike in temperature cannot get around it. If I were writing this as a story, I'd render the description in ways that would have the ice take on symbolic value, and the dogs' varying responses to the environment would acquire meaning.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


When an accident happens, and you are a mordant person, ever at the ready to laugh at your own small vanities, you might remember the sense of industriousness you had that morning when you set out to work exceptionally early, your bags packed with all your work, carrying a few more items to decorate your new, wonderful office, and two meals, as you would be there until late. 
Industrious! Well, that was smashed to humility.
I had a car accident. I stopped at a red light and a car plowed into mine from behind. He "wasn't paying attention," and hadn't seen the light. We were in Newark. I signaled to a police car and was given a central accident number to call. That voice on that line told me police don't come out to accidents unless an ambulance is needed. Neither of us was badly injured. I wrote down his information, and we parted ways.
I stayed at work, though my colleague Tayari told me tales of brain injury and urged me to go home. By evening I knew she had been right. I had a bad headache, felt very sick at my stomach, and doubt I made much sense in class. 
The next morning I went to the body shop--both kinds. The doc confirmed I have a concussion and should rest my brain. Just when I had the notion that I could watch French and German movies and understand them without subtitles? Killjoy!
The headache and nausea remain. I have misplaced my insurance card. The back of my car looks like a jack o' lantern mouth.
But Egypt...Egypt...Egypt...