Veterans’ Day 2019: Remembering All Who Have Served (especially my uncle)

Arthur Feiertag

To all our veterans, wounded warriors, first responders, their families, and others who serve or have served: thank you for your sacrifices and dedication. I can’t pretend to understand what you have given or given up for our country, but you have my gratitude and respect. If any of you care to write about your service, I will read your accounts.

Many years ago, I sent my uncle and aunt a notebook and a pen each. I wanted to know about their lives, to learn the stories they hadn’t told. My uncle had been trained as a medic in World War II (he went on to become a fantastic optometrist), been captured by the Germans almost as soon as he arrived, and like many of his generation, had refused to talk about his experiences. I hoped a notebook might elicit some more of his history.

I didn’t hear back from either my aunt or uncle about the package until I was visiting my parents and my dad called his brother. And here let me mention that my uncle was from New Jersey, and he exemplified almost every stereotype about denizens of the Garden State that are known to humanity. Generally speaking, anything that popped into his head, popped out of his mouth. Once, when he and my aunt were on vacation with my parents, a tour bus pulled up and let out a group of Japanese tourists. In a move that made my father want to sink into the earth, my uncle took one look at the new-comers, marched over to the nearest visitor, held out his camera, and demanded to know if it was a good one. Fortunately, none of the group seemed to understand English — or my uncle’s version of it anyway — or were polite enough to pretend they didn’t. And now you know why my father moved away from “Joisey.”

So that day at my parents’, I got on the phone with my uncle, who lit right in: “LISTEN! WHADDYOU SENT ME THAT NOTEBOOK FOR? Nobody wants to read about my life. Nobody wants to hear about that stuff. Nobody wants to hear about…” and he then spent about an hour telling all the “stuff” nobody would ever want to hear. I was completely unprepared, had no paper, no writing instrument, no way to record all the personal history he rattled off at warp speed. 

The central story of my uncle’s war is that of his capture. It happened within a few days — maybe even the first day — after he was sent over. When he and the other POWs were brought to the prison camp, a British officer was helping process the new arrivals. When my uncle approached the table, the officer asked for his name, rank, serial number, and, as was usual then, his religion. My uncle said, “Jewish.”

“No, you’re not,” the officer told him. My uncle wasn’t stupid, but he was young, and didn’t understand at first. So he replied,

“Yes, I’m Jewish.” The officer looked at him hard and repeated,

No, you’re not. Lose your dog-tags!” That officer saved my uncle, and I suspect a lot of other young men, from dying in a gas chamber.

I wish I knew that officer’s name. I wish I knew what happened to him. I hope he made it home and managed to live well and happily. My uncle did. (Despite his foibles, my uncle was a decent guy. He and my aunt lived a few blocks away from my grandparents, took care of them, raised a daughter, ran a business, and was gregarious and out-going.) He died a little less than a year ago at the age of ninety-six. I wish I had managed to write down his history that day on the phone. 

Anyone wishing to support and honour those who serve or have served might consider writing a letter to one of these folks. An e-mail from Endless Pens reminded me about Operation Gratitude, an organization that collects letters for deployed troops, veterans, new recruits, wounded heroes, caregivers, and first responders. Read the instructions carefully — there are rules — and if you write, maybe you’ll get someone’s history in reply.

The Those Click-Bait Ads…

We’ve all seen them, those click-bait ads that promise if we do just ONE simple or weird thing, we can transform ourselves for the better. Well, here’s one thing we can do to help change our world:

If you live in a state like North Dakota or Georgia or Kansas, voting might not be simple. It might be weird or even difficult. But please vote. Remember if anyone tells you that can’t vote, you are still entitled to a provisional ballot. Demand one and a receipt for it and vote. Democracy only works when we, the people, are willing to rule and to remind our representatives that we will take the lead.

And, in case you’re wondering: yes,

Hello Good-bye: Shakespeare’s Birthday, Deathday, and Lasting Legacy

23 April, 2018

         Today marks the 454th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday and the 402nd anniversary of his death. To mark the day and continue to celebrate Poetry Month, I was reading a few of my favourite bits and pieces from the oeuvre of the Man from Stratford, fragments that remind us how much we can learn from someone who lived and wrote over four hundred years ago and that I shall share here, with you.

Issues of friendship (usually complicated) pervade Shakespeare’s work. Hermia and Helena; Hamlet and Horatio; Rosalind and Celia; the Prince, Claudio, and Benedick; Beatrice and Hero; Anthony and Enobarbus; Hal and Falstaff; Paulina and Hermione (not Granger) — these friendships have trials and separations, misunderstandings serious and silly, but throughout his plays and poems, Shakespeare recognizes that friendship is essential to humanity. Sonnet 29 describes the way a steady and loyal friend can save us from the depths of despair and self-loathing.

Sonnet XXIX

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, 
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state, 
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
    For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
    That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

While sometimes we need to look to others for support or inspiration, Shakespeare also urges us to examine ourselves to find what qualities lie within that we can, that we mustshare with others. Our awareness of how we depend on others becomes balanced by the realization of what we owe the world:

Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.
Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ‘twere all alike
As if we had them not.

 Measure For Measure I.i.29-35

Of course, it’s all fun and games until somebody is looking to be the next king of England. In Henry IV, Part 1, Hal contemplates how his companions use him and how he intends to use them in turn to solidify his claim to the throne that his father usurped (though I will say, I think with good reason) from Henry’s cousin Richard.

I know you all, and will awhile uphold 
The unyoked humour of your idleness: 
Yet herein will I imitate the sun, 
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds 
To smother up his beauty from the world, 
That, when he please again to be himself, 
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at, 
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists 
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him. 
If all the year were playing holidays, 
To sport would be as tedious as to work; 
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come, 
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents. 
So, when this loose behavior I throw off 
And pay the debt I never promised, 
By how much better than my word I am, 
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes; 
And like bright metal on a sullen ground, 
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault, 
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes 
Than that which hath no foil to set it off. 
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill; 
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Henry IV, I. ii

We could pause here to debate whether Hal is a clever politician or a rotten blackguard, if his companions deserve such a reversal, whether Hal is reluctant to do what he knows must be done or gleefully anticipating pulling the rug out from under Poins, Bardo, and especially Falstaff (“No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world”), but if anyone wants to have that discussion, let’s save it for the comments.

Back to the sonnets for a finish. In the thirty-third fourteener (that’s for any mountain climbers who might be reading), Shakespeare employs much of the same imagery he put into the mouth of Hal. The imagery works differently in the sonnet. We could, I suppose, maintain that 33 makes an argument for the benefits of recycling, but besides that important lesson, this poem also provides us with a thought-paradigm that can lead us to being forgiving of others and maybe even of ourselves.

Sonnet XXXIII

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride 
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendor on my brow; 
But out, alack! he was but one hour mine;
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.
    Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
    Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.

None of us is perfect, but all of us are connected. Shakespeare lived a long time ago, but his works remain to make us think, to question, to push ourselves to become better people with broader minds and more expansive souls.

Happy birthday, Bill, and may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

 

P.S. Because Shakespeare and Cervantes share a death-day, here’s a sonnet from Don Quixote, one that touches on many of the same themes as the passages above:

When heavenward, holy Friendship, thou didst go
 Soaring to seek thy home beyond the sky,
 And take thy seat among the saints on high,
It was thy will to leave on earth below
Thy semblance, and upon it to bestow
 Thy veil, wherewith at times hypocrisy,
 Parading in thy shape, deceives the eye,
And makes its vileness bright as virtue show.
Friendship, return to us, or force the cheat
 That wears it now, thy livery to restore,
   By aid whereof sincerity is slain.
If thou wilt not unmask thy counterfeit,
 This earth will be the prey of strife once more,
   As when primaeval discord held its reign.

 

Sonnet Starvation

“I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love,” said Darcy.

“Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

        Poetry has indeed acquired a reputation for being a conduit of romance and rhyme (moon, June, tune, spoon, loon), but it isn’t always pretty pictures and cajoling cadences. Sometimes it’s just plain nasty, and can be impressively so, as in this sonnet by William Shakespeare:

SONNET CXLVII

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly express’d;
    For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright,
    Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.*

      Shakespeare uses sick-room imagery similar to that Drayton employs, but where Drayton maintains a playful, lightly melodramatic tone, Shakespeare’s speaker is bitter and vitriolic. Both the body and mind of the lover have been poisoned and infected, though the poem gives no indication that the beloved has done anything worse than reject the speaker. For that, the object of the speaker’s desire is reviled. 

I suspect that if the person to whom this poem was addressed had any lingering affection for the speaker, this one sonnet would starve it entirely away.

 

* https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/sonnets/sonnet_view.php?Sonnet=147