james gandolfini ~ forever with the wild things

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The-Sopranos-wallpapers-The only non-book on my bookshelves is the Sopranos DVD collection. Apropos that it sits among some of the most compelling stories ever told because, as Gary Shteyngart says, The Sopranos isstorytelling for the new century.” And, a good story lasts forever.

Every night at 8PM my husband used to ask me, “So are you ready for Tony and the boys?” and we would tune in to HBO to watch, again, a re-run of an episode we had seen before, knowing what would happen but lured nonetheless by James Gandolfini’s charisma. So it is still surreal to watch his Tony Soprano fight about money with Edie Falco’s Carmela, knowing he died in Rome three summers ago.

Before the creation of Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini was playing the part. As he said in a 1999 interview, he was growing adept at playing thugs, gangsters, murderers,

the roles you’d expect a guy who looks like me to get.

Brilliantly. I had seen the makings of Tony Soprano in Eddie, the hitman hired to keep an eye on Demi Moore’s character in The Juror, and Gandolfini may as well have been auditioning for The Sopranos as Virgil in True Romance. In the latter, Gandolfini’s performance crackles with the kind of murderous intensity that makes Tony Soprano the perfect villain. Vicious and violent, I could barely watch the scene with Patricia Arquette where Virgil meets his end – quintessential Quentin Tarantino. Still, even though I know Tony’s capacity for unimaginable brutality, I have been – and continue to be – charmed by his playfulness, the smiling eyes, the sheepishness – duped, like many of his victims, by a relatable and likable vulnerability. Tony Soprano remains invincible and untamable. Immortal. I suppose that is what makes it so difficult to accept that James Gandolfini was with us for the briefest sojourn, dead at 51.

The actor and what he left behind for his baby daughter, poked those well stashed thoughts about my own mortality. My daughter does not read this blog often. So young and wise, she tells me that because we are here for only a short time, her plan is to save my writing for later.  When I am gone, she will open the jar. This beautiful strategy to counter the missing of people likely to go before her, reminds me of the frail yet fervent 83-year old Maurice Sendak‘s final interview. Illustrated in this animated film by Christoph Niemann, is the purest expression of mortality I have ever heard, Sendak’s impassioned entreaty:

Live your life, live your life, live your life.

Hearing Maurice Sendak tell the interviewer,

Almost certainly I’ll go before you go, so I won’t have to miss you . . .

is especially poignant knowing that he died just over a year before James Gandolfini left us. I think Maurice Sendak would have missed the man with an appetite for life, the actor whose best and most heartsome performance may have been as the voice of Carol in the film adaptation of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, the story of Max whose punishment for behaving badly, is being sent to bed without any dinner. Subsequently, he sails across an ocean to a place where wild things roam. When he returns home, it is to a happy ending, with dinner waiting and still hot.

As the disembodied Carol, the range and inflections of Gandolfini’s voice, are as masterful and nuanced as hose that flutter across his face as Tony Soprano or any of the other wild things he has portrayed. Like grace notes. As Carol, however, he is a different kind of monster,  the very embodiment of the complex figments of a child’s imagination, those of Max who has run away from home. I suspect that every child knows where the wild things are. In my case, I remember my mother telling me not to let my imagination run away with me when I fretted about the dark, or death, or disappointments big and small. Fueled by these wild things, I sailed off by myself many times, but always found my way back home. Just like Max.  

And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all

1016636_640475832646822_1236994437_nBitterly disappointed, raging at Max for not being king, for wanting to leave, Carol chases him, lunges at him in one of the scariest scenes of the film, “I’ll eat you up!” he roars. Carol loves him so, but Max must go.  Thus, the heartbreaking farewell as Max sails away from the solitary giant on the shore, howling its grief in the voice of James Gandolfini, a voice silenced too soon.

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has anybody seen my old friend, America?

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I often feel guilty for having left my Northern Ireland. I often wonder if perhaps the better thing or the best thing would have been to stay, to stay and strive to see far beyond the images that flickered on our television screen at six o’clock every night. But I didn’t stay. I fled. I became an immigrant in an America I no longer recognize, and turned my back on the vulnerable, tiny country that shaped and scared me – my lovely tragic Northern Ireland.

Not much older than my 18 year old American daughter, I spent most of the 1980s planning my escape. It was a turbulent and traumatic time in Northern Ireland. We lived and worked and played and prayed within a national crucible of doubt and suspicion, a half-empty glass. I suppose I always anticipated the worst; as such, I was rarely disappointed.

In such a small place, it makes sense that so many of us would know somebody directly affected by The Troubles. According to the Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN) from 1969 – 1999, “3,568 people died. There were over 35,000 shootings, 150,000 bombings, and over 40,000 people wounded. Surveys say half of the population knows somebody killed or injured.” What did I do? Nothing. I left.

Weary of the bombings and killings and the hatred and the sense of hopelessness that seemed to seep from every corner of my wee country, I came to America. Ardent and young, I believed the likes of Tom Wolfe who said that

America is a fabulous country, the only fabulous country; it is the only place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time.

But this quiet Sunday morning, following a week of murder in these United States – the fatal shootings of two more African American men, Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, and a sniper attack on 12 police officers  at a peaceful protest in Dallas by a military veteran who had served in Afghanistan and who authorities say “wanted to kill white people,” I don’t recognize this picture of America. I find myself catapulted back to our living room in the housing estate on the Dublin Road. I am watching the news and wondering what will happen next and if it could possibly be worse than the last time. I am 18 years old again. The Republican Hunger Strikes in the Maze prison are coming to a head, and ordinary people are afraid. What will happen next?

What of America? What will happen next?  From where I sit this morning, it is a place where murder happens all the time, where innocent black men are slaughtered all the time, where schools or churches or movie theaters or grocery store parking lots or peaceful protests become killing fields, where hate appears to be winning – all the timeAmerica is now the place where my 18 year old daughter has learned what to do in the event of a school shooting: 

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This is not the America of my dreams, nor is it the America our President aspires to:

There is sorrow, there is anger, there is confusion about next steps. But there’s unity in recognizing that this is not how we want our communities to operate. This is not who we want to be as Americans.

No. It is not who we want to be. Now what are we going to do about it?

The Cure at Troy” by Seamus Heaney

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.

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America – Another Year Older & What Have You Learned?

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Every Fourth of July, when fireworks flash and fly across a desert sky, I find myself transported back to a twilight over Slane Castle shimmering with music and the notion of America. So very young, and had I not been awake, I would have missed it

. . . the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence:
Had I not been awake I would have missed it

~ Seamus Heaney


 

My first rock ‘n’ roll concert at Slane Castle was in 1982 for The Rolling Stones “farewell tour.” Seriously. The Stones were saying goodbye. Goodbye. Warming up for them were the J. Geils Band, The Chieftains, and George Thorogood and the Destroyers.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 6.45.44 PMThe Rolling Stones kept saying goodbye, and two years later, I found myself back at Slane to see UB40, Santana, and Bob Dylan. Too, there was the sweet surprise of Van Morrison  joining Dylan on stage to sing “Tupelo Honey.” As I recall, Bono showed up as well and in front of all of us – and Bob Dylan – he improvised, making up his own lyrics to “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Honest to God. bob-002

But on June 1, 1985 – where I find myself every Fourth of July – America came to Ireland when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band made their Irish debut. The previous summer, I had been in the United States, when the Born in the USA tour was in full swing and was lucky to have been upstate New York at the same time as Springsteen. I saw him perform at Saratoga Springs and again in September, when a trip to Niagara Falls with an American cousin included a show in Buffalo. I knew Ireland was in for a treat, and when tickets went on sale, I also bought one for my little brother. It would be his first concert – a seminal moment in his musical education. bruceticket

Imagine it. Close to 100,000 of us making a pilgrimage through the sleepy – and disapproving – village of Slane to see The Boss. Between assurances of increased security and a promise – as yet unfulfilled – that this would be the last rock concert to disturb them, the residents had been placated. Even the weather cooperated with the kind of sun-drenched day we Irish pray for. Some said it was the hottest day on record in Ireland.

Everybody was young, even the weather-beaten old farmers who let us park on their fields, and when the band burst on stage with a thunderous “Born in the USA,” everybody was Irish, even Bruce. When he turned his baseball cap backwards and bragged, “I had a grandmother from here,” the crowd erupted.

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Although we all basked in his pride, the reality was that our weather was rarely that sunny, and thousands of us would be forced out of Ireland as economic immigrants, collectively the “brain drain” of the 1980s. Across the water, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister; farther afield, the Berlin wall was still standing; and, in Ireland, divorce was still illegal and condoms had barely become available without a prescription.

But on that glorious day, in spite of the economic and political truths of Ireland, and the ever-diminishing possibilities before us, a defiant Springsteen held us aloft, and we believed in America.

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He’s a rocker, yes, but he has also always been there for people like me, people in search of the dream of America. I have always known I could count on Bruce more than any of the presidential contenders who convince me – daily – that the idea of America is unraveling. What do I know? I am not a politician or a rockstar. I’m just a girl with bad hair and a fearless heart and a conviction that we have lost our way.

Springsteen once told a reporter that he wasn’t cut out for the traditional school system:

I wasn’t quite suited for the educational system. One problem with the way the educational system is set up is that it only recognizes a certain type of intelligence, and it’s incredibly restrictive — very, very restrictive. There’s so many types of intelligence, and people who would be at their best outside of that structure get lost.

The Boss is on to something, but we know that Bruce Springsteen will never be an elected official. And we know he will never be a politician who would vilify immigrants or the working poor.

In A Nation of Immigrants, John F. Kennedy wrote that

 Immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.

Half a century later, such a policy remains elusive. Why is that? Why? And, which of the would-be presidents will step up and show us they understand the difference between the right to do a thing and doing the right thing? It remains to be seen.

While we wait, we have Bruce to lead us in a singalong, a proud and public celebration of the undaunted immigrant spirit:

I am proud to be here today as another hopeful wanderer, a son of Italy, of Ireland and of Holland and to wish God’s grace, safe passage and good fortune to those who are crossing our borders today and to give thanks to those who have come before whose journey, courage and sacrifice made me an American.

~  Bruce Springsteen, Recipient, Ellis Island Family Heritage Award,2010

Remember who you are, America.

There’s treasure for the taking, for any hard working man

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For My Granda on the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme

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My grandfather died on June 22, 1977, a decade before the Enniskillen bombing. Had he been alive on that day, he would have been wearing his pressed suit, with medals and poppy attached to the lapels, not unlike those pensioners gathered respectfully at the Cenotaph where at 10:43am, with chilling choreography, an IRA bomb exploded, killing eleven and wounding 68. I cannot think of the First World War without also thinking of Enniskillen, so as we prepare to commemorate the one hundred year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme – in which my grandfather fought – I am also remembering those old men gathered in remembrance at the Cenotaph in County Fermanagh.


My Granda never forgot the wars and the men who fought beside him. Never.  He made sure I remembered too. Because of him, I have always known that “the war to end all wars” ended in 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. He told me so many times on our walks down the Moss Road. At just 25, he had been part of that “template of civic cooperation.” As Private James McFadden, No. 15823, he enlisted as a volunteer soldier with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Following his training at Finner Camp in County Donegal, he was promptly shipped off to France, where he fought, scared yet brave, in the Battle of the Somme and at Passchendaele. For untold miles, he crept through the muck, weary, thirsty, lost, and far from home. One of too few who survived the battle at Passchendaele, Granda carried to safety another young soldier, Sammy Campbell, who hailed from The Upperlands, a village outside Maghera. Granda told my mother the story many times – lest she would forget. Too, he told of the raging hunger that drove him to steal chickens from a French farm, of the thirst and weariness that almost broke him.

My grandfather did not belong in the muck. He belonged on the banks of the Moyola River, fishing, or cutting turf at The Moss. It saddens me to picture him far away from the bluebells and foxgloves that once lined winding lanes to houses along the Broagh road.

By the time I was in my teens, doing O-level English and learning by heart much of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est,” I had already committed to memory my grandfather’s own story of  the “war and the pity of war,” and how it had been fought on faraway fields, in particular, of a dark evening that found him and his brothers in arms, afraid, parched with thirst, their billy cans empty. Crawling on their bellies through a field somewhere in France, I imagine they felt something close to euphoria when they came upon the little stream, followed by a horror that would haunt my grandfather into old age. I shudder to think of him on his knees by the edge of the stream, reaching into it and cupping the water in his hands, bringing it up to his face, and then noticing its red tinge because flowing in the foreign water was also the blood of a young German soldier who had died close by. Phlegmatic, my grandfather recounted those details in a voice I can still hear. I can see him. I can see his beautiful eyes, twinkling the same blue as mine, his trademark checked shirt, and the tweed cap he twirled in the fingers of his left hand. As he tells the story, he pauses to drink tea.

Granda liked his tea with only a drop of milk – just enough to color it – and two spoonfuls of sugar.  Increasing the odds that it would be strong, his was always the last cup poured from the pot. Often with two Rich Tea biscuits impossibly balanced upon a saucer, the delicate china cup somehow belonged in his elegant hand. To cool his tea, and to my great amusement, Granda sometimes poured it into the saucer from which he subsequently drank with a little slurp. He wore cable-pattern vests my aunt had knit for him pulled over his signature checked shirts – his favorite was red and white. My mother is convinced those checked shirts were his way of remembering what he wore, how we was, as a young immigrant in America. The timing seems right, given the rise to popularity of Pendleton plaid shirts before World War II. My mother also tells me that the plain blue shirt he wore to my grandmother’s funeral seemed as out-of-place as he must have felt in a world without her.

Before his world changed, Granda and I spent part of so many Sundays on long walks. At the top of the lane, we always stopped and looked right, looked left, looked right again, before turning left towards the Moss Road, along which gypsies were occasionally encamped. Sometimes, as a treat for me, he carried barley sugar sweets deep in his pockets. He taught me to look out for nettles and the big broad docken leaves that were supposed to soothe their sting.

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As a girl, my mother had been sent by my grandmother, down this same road, to deliver sandwiches and flasks of tea to her father and the other turf cutters. I often wonder what they would have made of the young Seamus Heaney who lived just down the road and often sped by on his bicycle, sandy hair blowing in the wind. Could they ever have imagined the smallness of their world enlarged for global audiences through “Digging” and other poems that pulled taut the stuff of life and those who lived it within and beyond the banks of the Moyola River:

“My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf.”

And so on this day when we commemorate one hundred years since the first day of Battle of the Somme, in which nearly 60,000 British soldiers were killed, I am remembering my grandfather, all that he fought for – what was gained and what was lost.

 They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

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