A long time ago in Armenia

April 22nd, 2015

Recalling a visit to the most holy place I’ve ever been.

With the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide happening this month,

I’m re-sharing my personal experience at the memorial to its the slain citizens.

This story appeared in my first book, Spiritual Wanderer, from which this website gets its name.

The trip was exhausting. We were behind the Iron Curtain and at the mercy of the official Soviet travel agency, Intourist. It was 1984. The Cold War was showing no real signs of flaring up or calming down, and my intestines were wracked with what I liked to refer as the commie crud. I sat in a hotel in downtown Moscow, across the street from an enormous statue depicting Russian space flight and all I wanted to do was bend over the toilet. I felt worse than the embalmed body of Lenin who laid in state just down the street.

Our church peace mission, to come visit the USSR, was going along wonderfully up until that point. We were traveling to several different republics including Soviet Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. But what struck me as odd, as totally incomprehensible, was the bizarre fact that here I was with my borscht coming out both ends and all the while American missiles were pointing directly at my butt as I heaved yet another peace offering into the politburo porcelain. I couldn’t get over the fact that I was one renegade soldier in South Dakota away from witnessing Ground Zero up close at the beginning of the end of civilization as we knew it. Then I puked again.

Earlier in the trip — or later, I can’t remember when — my priest-friend Ron and I were walking near Vladimir Lenin’s tomb singing John Lennon songs. It was surreal as we strolled along Red Square knowing we were some of the only Americans the Russian citizenry had seen up until that point. And there we were singing “Back in the USSR.”

Imagine!

Our trip was meant to be a non-political journey through the lands of our mortal enemy in order to meet normal everyday folks and say, “We don’t really feel like bombing you. Do you really wanna destroy us?”

Everywhere it seemed, I had to explain that all of us weren’t like our president. I became quite good at uttering my favorite phrase at just the right time, “Reagan nyet, Mir da!” Which roughly translated to “No, I’m not a Ronald Reagan fan and I prefer Peace to its alternative.”

It was a jolly good time, really. Knowing that I was probably being watched every minute of my journey. One guy tried to buy my pants, but I think he might have been a KGB agent just testing to see if I would dip my toes into the infamous black market. One night up in Leningrad — with the sun not really setting and it being light until after 11 pm — I ventured out into the public square around the hotel. After meeting some kids my age and giving them a few trinkets, including a “Say Yes to Michigan” t-shirt, the doorman at the hotel wouldn’t let me back in.

“Nyet, Ruskie,” he said pointing at me, implying that I was Russian and somehow not welcome in. I had heard about this earlier and knew that Soviet citizens weren’t allowed in the official tourist hotels due to some weird fear that perhaps we’d influence their thinking. Or that they’d try to rip us off. Anyway, the doorman was adamant about keeping me out even when I showed him my room key. I’m not proud of this, but the only thing I could think to do was repeat an old car commercial to show I was, like in the old war movies, a Yank.

“Look, I’m an American,” I pleaded. “Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet … you gotta let me in!” I think that swayed him. No Russian kid would be that silly. He waved his arm gruffly and allowed me to walk in.

 __________

The highlight of the peace mission, though, was our trip to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. The city was beautiful and the people were very nice to us foreigners. Throughout our entire stay, Mt. Ararat was visible outside the bustling city. The mountain is the mythic final resting place of Noah’s ark and its rightful boundaries were hotly disputed between the Turks and the Armenians.

Outside of Yerevan, on one of the many hills surrounding the city, was a memorial to the slain Armenians. The early part of the 1900s was a rotten time for Armenia and our guides explained to us that 1/3 of the population was killed by the Turks, 1/3 emigrated and only a third remained in the country. This memorial was a powerful shrine to those who died.

In Yerevan, the monument symbolizes the national rebirth of Armenians. Twelve slabs are positioned in a circle, representing 12 lost provinces in present day Turkey. At the center of the circle there is an eternal flame. Each April 24, hundreds of thousands of people walk to the genocide monument and lay flowers around the eternal flame. Photo by Rita Willaert, Belgium

In Yerevan, the monument symbolizes the national rebirth of Armenians. Twelve slabs are positioned in a circle, representing 12 lost provinces in present day Turkey. At the center of the circle there is an eternal flame. Each April 24, hundreds of thousands of people walk to the genocide monument and lay flowers around the eternal flame. Photo by Rita Willaert, Belgium

It was an impressive structure that looked like an enormous unfolding flower, with giant stone or concrete arms where the petals would be. Inside, where the bud might be, was an eternal flame burning in remembrance. You could walk inside the memorial and stand around the fire.

Our group did just that, about 20 of us or so. And there — the furthest point I’d ever been from home — I felt the most powerful, otherworldly feeling I’ve ever experienced. It wasn’t just me either. All the people in our group, those my age up through retirees, felt the same phenomenon. We were standing there and the most overpowering feeling of sadness hit us all. A young seminarian in our group broke into a spontaneous prayer and later he was escorted out, arm in arm, by an old white-haired woman who was normally the life of the party. And they were both crying.

It hit us pretty hard, just how mournful that place was. Sure, we were acutely aware of war and genocide; after all, that’s why we were on the mission in the first place. But there was something more. The deep, internal, visceral sadness that swept over us was an undeniable message that we were in the presence of something bigger and more powerful than ourselves. Sure, the horrific events that the memorial stood for had happened 70 years prior, but the emotion swirling around the grounds was as real and pervasive as if the genocide had just occurred.

I still haven’t come to understand exactly what we were feeling that day in Yerevan, but I haven’t probed too deeply either. I imagine other people have witnessed the same effect either there or in other holy shrines around the world. My guess is that the best thing to do, is honor those remembered by such shrines and then not stick around for too long afterward.

There was a sense, inside, that we were somehow intruding. But we were also forced to experience something that we weren’t expecting, or used to feeling.

In the end, the message I got — soft yet clear — was if we don’t fully remember our abhorrent past in all its shameful detail, we’re more likely to repeat or simply gloss over our tragedies.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever experience such a powerful, otherworldly emotion. I’m not sure if I want to either. But I feel lucky to have had such an experience.

April 24, 2015 marks the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of Armenia’s Genocide.

To read more about it, visit the Wikipedia page addressing the issue of the 1.5 million slain Armenians.

 

Go Rent Better Call Saul

April 3rd, 2015

You’re lucky; you can binge watch it instead of waiting for each episode like I did!

Jonathan Banks plays Mike Ehrmantraut to Bob Odenkirk's Saul Goodman (Jimmy McGill).

Jonathan Banks plays Mike Ehrmantraut to Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman (Jimmy McGill) in Better Call Saul.

 

Anyone else watching Better Call Saul?

The spinoff from Breaking Bad is sort of a prequel to all the hullabaloo surrounding Walter White and his shenanigans as he broke from being good to being very, very bad. Except he’s not in this at all.

Yet.

But several of the people Walter associated with in Breaking Bad are here, depicted several years earlier. First up, there’s Saul Goodman, obviously, the ne’er do well lawyer. Bob Odenkirk plays Saul, but he is now called Jimmy. Or, he was called Jimmy; we’re dealing with the past here.

We get a quick glimpse of him in present day (hint: remember back in “Bad” when he went on the lam and said something like, “best-case scenario, I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha?”). But then the first season is taken up with his back story. And it is riveting television. We even get a hint as to how he got his new moniker, Saul Goodman.

Vince Gilligan, the creator of both shows employs his old wonderful cinematography to wonderful affect. The long, slow pans, the color palette, the dead space between dialog, all of these and more make for great, iconic storytelling.

Michael McKean

Michael McKean

I want to say that if you miss Breaking Bad, watch this show. So I’m going to. If you miss Breaking Bad, watch this show. It’s definitely not as dark, certainly not as evil. And there’s a lot more fun mixed in with the drama too.

Jonathan Banks reprises his role as Mike  — everyone’s favorite stoic, old, disgraced cop. His past is poignant, deep and serves as a duel narrative throughout this first season. I can’t get enough of the guy.

There is at least one drug dealer we remember from earlier (or, uh, later) and rumors abound as to cameos by several other Breaking Bad figures. Odenkirk was a bit cagey about who’d show up — but what else would you expect from “Saul,” telling CinemaBlend:

“Here’s what you need to know: the writers have a board in the writing room, and it has all the characters from Breaking Bad on it. Like, little characters who just walked through or were referenced. So if you go into that world, I think you’ll see four or five of them. I don’t have the number in my head, but you’ll see more, or hear about more. Sometimes it’s just a reference.”

Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn

Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn

New characters show up as well. Michael McKean is Saul (or Jimmy’s) brother. He isn’t quite part of society, but he used to be. It’s a far cry from his days as Lenny on Laverne & Shirley, or even his rocker in Spinal Tap.

Rhea Seehorn is fantastic as Saul’s friend Kim. You may remember her from the short-lived Whitney, but she’s been in lots of other things too. Smoldering is the best adjective for her, but it’s a smart, suffering, creative smoldering.

There’s a ton to see and yes, even feel in the first ten episodes. Surely they will be re-shown and available for more viewing after the season finale this Monday. It’s already been renewed for a second season and I just can’t wait.

Do yourself a favor and binge watch this show. It’s addictive as its meth-fueled predecessor, or, uh, successor.

Go Rent Hector and the Search for Happiness

March 16th, 2015

Don’t listen to what others say; this is a funny and meaningful movie.

hector-and-the-search-for-happiness

Simon Pegg stars in the comedy/drama Hector and the Search for Happiness.

 

I think I have failed you, dear reader. And for that, I apologize. In my “best of” movie list for 2014, I left out a film I hadn’t seen yet. Granted, it was released in a very limited run — later in the year and didn’t really hit the DVD/rental market until a few months into this new year — but still, I could’ve done better.

If you haven’t guessed by the title of this blog, I’m referring, of course, to The Lego Movie. No, just kidding. Though I did wait until 2015 to see that particular film, I encourage you to go rent Hector and the Search for Happiness.

The plot line is pretty easy to follow. A London psychiatrist, played by the normally quirky British actor Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dean, Run Fatboy Run) counsels patients in his successful practice, but doesn’t truly know what it means to be happy. Even though he has a lovely girlfriend (played by Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike), a fabulous home and lives in an amazing city, Hector just isn’t feeling — well — happy.

So instead of taking antidepressants or just suffering in quiet desperation, he makes the unlikely choice of abandoning his normal life indefinitely and flying around the world, researching what makes people happy. His plan is to but it in a book so it might help others.

Do your best to ignore the fetid 35% score from the Rotten Tomatoes movie review website. I normally think “Tomatoes” is a pretty good indicator of a film’s worth. Even though they take an aggregate score of all the movie reviewers out there — in this particular case — all the movie reviewers out there are wrong.

I dare you to watch this movie and not feel good about yourself afterward. My wife and I felt great after watching it. We even had a conversation as the credits were rolling about the times in our own lives when we were happy. A movie that stimulates thought and discussion is worth far more than a lousy 35%. But wait, the audience score on that same website almost doubles to a modest 60% of viewers enjoying the movie.

Aha! Maybe the journalists writing the reviews aren’t happy! Maybe their own narratives of a collapsing industry keep them from feeling truly fulfilled. I should know, right? Been there, done that.

Hector and the Search for Happiness

Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike.

The movie, a comedy/drama, is based on a novel by the same name. Written by Francois Lelord, the professional book reviews are equally as bad as the films. Publishers Weekly writes, “it is far less a novel than a maudlin self-help guide that substitutes pat aphorisms for development.”

I think the same issues plaguing the movie reviewers were badgering the folks over at Publisher’s Weekly. Yes, they too have been experiencing the travails facing all journalists; their company being bought and sold, job losses, etc.

A while back, The New York Times wrote, “Like the industry it covers, Publishers Weekly has suffered from a downturn in the retail economy.”

And like with Rotten Tomatoes, actual real-life readers of the novel gave the book far more gracious scores. Amazon customer reviewers gave it pretty close to four out of five stars.

It’s important to note here that I may wrong. I know, I know, that’s not possible, right?! My hypothesis, though, is that if there’s such a discrepancy between professional reviewers of the book/film and the readers/audience, then something must be amiss somewhere. Maybe it’s not the collapsing industry surrounding journalists that’s keeping them from being happy. But maybe it is.

Hector is a wonderful, fun, full-spirited movie with enough to keep you watching and great little twists that you rarely see coming. Plus — and I can’t stress this enough — the cinematography is absolutely lovely.

My assessment that journalists may be too jaded to appreciate this movie falls flat on its face, though, when I read the following review. The Chicago Sun-Times has experienced some of the worst of what journalism has been dealing with and yet, their reviewer, Bill Zwecker, had this to say about the movie. “This film is a winner. It will not only entertain you, but also make you think about what it takes to bring happiness into your own life.”

I’m sorry that I left Hector and the Search for Happiness off My Favorite Films of 2014 list. My excuse is I don’t get paid to do this; I just love movies and love sharing my thoughts about them. It’s part of what makes me happy, and has for years.

Hector search for HappinessBut shhhh, don’t tell anyone. I’m going to sneak down a few blogs below and surreptitiously add this movie onto my list somewhere, in case future readers stumble through Google, looking for a good weekend rental.

We all make mistakes. Hector sure did. But it makes me happy that I can correct this minor one.

The Big Lebowski vs. Charles Bukowski

March 2nd, 2015

Perhaps you thought Bukowski and Lebowski were the same person.

    Jeff Bridges, left, played the title role in The Big Lebowski. Charles Bukowski, right, played the role of Charles Bukowski.

Jeff Bridges, left, played the title role in The Big Lebowski. Charles Bukowski, right, played the role of Charles Bukowski.

I just want to say at the outset, that I’m not always as smart as I like to think I am. This surely comes as a shock to virtually no one, not the least of whom me. Heck, I don’t even know if I constructed that previous sentence smartly.

But what I do know is that up until today — the beginning of March, 2015 — I confused Charles Bukowski with The Big Lebowski.

Since I’m both a writer and an avid movie fan, my ignorance is even more ridiculous.

You probably all know Charles Bukowski was a German poet and novelist who made Los Angeles his second home. He wasn’t fictional. Time magazine called him “a laureate of American lowlife.”

The Big Lebowski was a Coen Brothers film about a guy who also lived in Los Angeles. Jeff Bridges played the title character, a downtrodden man whom Bukowski may have written about, if he weren’t fictional already.

Maybe you can forgive my confusion. Probably not though.

I have heard references to both Lebowski and Bukowski for many years. I saw the movie in 1998, four years after Bukowski died of leukemia. I just mixed the two up in my brain and apparently wasn’t too curious about by why people were so reverent about the Jeff Bridges character. Obviously they were referring to Bukowski not Lebowski.

Both were cult heroes. Both had alternative lifestyles. Both lived in LA. But there’s one more thing. They both kind of/sort of looked alike.

Granted, that’s no excuse for me being a moron. But I’ll bet I’m not the only one. I just found out there’s a Big Bukowski Facebook page. It mashes the two up. Apparently the similarity isn’t lost on others. But whereas I confused them unintentionally, others riff on the likenesses. There’s even a rapper named Larry David Flow who writes, “Big Lebowski and Charles Bukowski are the reasons I’m not angry when you call me Kowalski.”

I’m trying to do more research on their similarities, but my browser feels a bit let down by me too. It has seemingly joined their downtrodden masses and refuses to follow my search requests.

“Rodney,” it appears to ask, “did you really think all those cultural references over the years were to the Jeff Bridges’ Lebowski role and that there wasn’t someone else they were mentioning?”

My browser is right. I shouldn’t be allowed to continue searching this nonsense, hoping that others were as confused as me. So in lieu of proof, I offer up this very tenuous possibility.

Other people fall into one of three camps:

⚫ Those who are fully aware of two separate individuals, Lebowski and Bukowski.
⚫ Those who have never heard of Bukowski, Lebowski or both.
⚫ Those like me who had them confused.

Here is a pie chart, better illustrating my point.

Bukowski:Lebowski pie chart