Saturday, November 23, 2013

November 22, 1963 -- November 22, 2013

 President Kennedy's Grave
with the Lincoln Memorial in the background
   I knew this year would be worse than last year or eleven years ago or forty-three years ago. I knew the media would fill the days leading to my birthday with questions and comments and constant reprise of the Zapruder film. That's right. My birthday.
   Sometimes Thanksgiving falls on my birthday, but the anniversary of President Kennedy's murder always falls on my birthday.
   November 22, 1963, my sixteenth birthday. My world was already dangerous. We were in the middle of the Cold War. My best friend's father had flown in the Berlin Airlift several years before and we had been afraid a Third World War would start then. President Kennedy had threatened the Soviet Union if they did not remove their missiles from Cuba. And we had been afraid of nuclear war then. Women's magazines had recipes and diets and articles about home bomb shelters. We had tornado drills at school and bomb drills.
   Fear was already a backdrop for my life. But like other almost-sixteen-year-olds, backdrops are just that. Mind catching each time they change, but quickly moved to the background as the activities of  life took center stage. And each time the scary moment passed, somehow my sense of security was recovered and all the dangers of the world receded.
   And then a man murdered President Kennedy. An English-speaking, white American whom I would not have recognized as different from my neighbors or me had I met him on November 21, 1963. And he did it in Dallas, Texas, a city more like my Oklahoma City than any other major American city. It was too close to home. It would not recede into any background.
   The murder of President Kennedy was the end of my sense of security, just as Pearl Harbor must have been the end of my parents' and the murder of President Lincoln must have been for Walt Whitman's generation and the burning of Washington, D.C., must have been for the young people of the War of 1812.
   Each of us must surely come to the realization that the concept of 'security' is false. That the concept of ideal is illusion. For me it came with the assassination of JFK. For my son it was probably the Oklahoma City bombing. For my daughter, fifteen years younger than my son, it was September 11. I don't know what it will be for my grandchildren, but it will surely happen. And the event will be just as shocking and just as threatening. It will not recede into a backdrop but become the next layer of tragedy on which our human condition rises.
   For every tragedy that reminds us how fragile and flawed we humans are, there are countless triumphs. The English burned our capital city, but with each generation we come closer to achieving a class-free society. And truly, so do those English and the rest of the world. President Lincoln was murdered and freedom and equality for all may have been delayed, but with each generation we come closer. And Pearl Harbor did not begin the end of human civilization, but began the end of another in the list of tyrants who would subjugate humanity. A long list that each generation faces.
   I gave up on security and ideals a long time ago. Fifty years ago, to be precise. But I do not give up on humanity. And hope is a great replacement for security.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

On Re-reading The Wheel of Time

I do not have a history as a re-reader of fiction. Nonfiction, certainly. But there the point of re-reading is obvious. To check a date, to confirm a fact, to pursue a deeper understanding. But fiction? I do not feel the need to recheck fictional facts or fictional dates. And, for that matter, if I didn’t understand it the first time through, I only read it because of some obsessive-compulsive need to complete the damned book once I started it and I surely was not going to start it again. There are too many good novels out there and too little time. And I have not historically considered fantasy very high in that endless list of good novels.

But something is different about The Wheel of Time. The first time I read it, I was in such a hurry to find out what happened next that I missed the construction of the plot. I did not consciously appreciate the character development. I was only dimly aware of the author drawing me into an addictive relationship.

The story-line is straight forward. The hero grows to young adulthood in The Two Rivers, a simple agrarian society. An egalitarian culture that respected work and common sense. Where social status was determined by an individual’s contribution to the community. A narrow society that had little contact with the wider world. The hero and his hometown friends are pulled away from their comforting and comprehensible way of life and thrown into the fascinating, exciting, and always dangerous rest of the world.

The fourteen volumes of the series add up to one long chase scene. The author chivvies us along as the characters flee certain death or chase dangerous villains. From battle to battle with no time to rest, until we miss our reasonable bedtimes and delay our real-world duties. Until we get to Tarmon Gai'don, the final battle, and find out if the good guy wins and preserves The Wheel of Time and saves the whole world.

Simple. Typical American, Abe Lincoln story. No high-born hero necessary.

But the plot. It’s only during this re-reading that I appreciate the true superhero of this story. It’s the author, Robert Jordan. Not only did he construct a coherent world, invent characters in numbers of which Cecil B. De Mille would have boasted, and imagine more daring exploits and dire circumstances than I can comprehend (even after having experienced them vicariously during the first read through) but he got me to read fourteen volumes of fantasy.

His characters are introduced in the first book. So many that during my first reading I forgot their names and their faces until they appeared again and again throughout the story. Now as I read, I remember what they will do, who they will prove to be. I see how the author has drawn them in 3D and full-color. It’s no wonder I cared so much about them.

Their own individual stories weave and wind, over, around, and through each other. When I read it before, I would be frustrated when Jordan left whatever character we were following to follow another. And then again, when he would leave that character to follow yet another. And then again and again, until they came together only to move apart again. A dance of stories, sometimes a stately minuet, but more often, a square dance that I would have to follow without a caller to say what the next movement would be.

This time, I do not worry about what will happen next. I watch the intricate steps and recognize the changes in rhythm. I see the story as though it were a dear friend’s face, at once familiar. And still intriguing as the light plays across angles and planes reflecting all manner of thought and emotion.

When asked in the past to name my favorite novel, I would say John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. But I think now I must say The Wheel of Time is my favorite novel, though it be fourteen books long.