In Remembrance of My Dad

Very recently my father died. While we’re all still in a bit of shock about it, and we’re working to pick up the pieces, below is the first draft of a eulogy for him. This was delivered, actually, as-is on the occasion of his first memorial service this past weekend. Nothing was changed from when it was written on the plane ride down.

When he is laid to his final rest at Arlington National Cemetery in a few months, this will be expanded upon and include more perspective. The benefit of time will allow us to write something collaborative that will better encompass what the man meant to us, and so many others.

But these are the words we had in order to give closure to his friends and family in Florida. I’m sharing them because I’ve spent so long memorializing my mom, it’s only right that I commemorate my dad. I hope whoever reads this gets a better understanding of him and why, at the end of the day, I loved him so darn much.

My father was a man of contradictions. Beautiful, masterful contradictions.

He was not overly expressive all the time, but he was a passionate man. He definitely passed that on to his sons.

He was a compassionate man capable of deep forgiveness and overwhelming generosity, but he was also a man who believed – deeply – in the importance of following the rules. He may have left the Marines but they remained in his very marrow.

He believed in discipline though often had a hard time being disciplined himself. How many times we told him to go to the doctor, just for a check up. “OK, OK,” he’d say. And that was the end of it, until next time we’d bug him. But trust me, if he wasn’t going to listen to our mom about that, he wasn’t going to listen to us.

He was lost without her in many ways, and though he rebuilt his life I know he never went a day without thinking of her. He once said to me after her death, “I went 19 years without her, and I’ll go 19 after.” He believed he had a time limit defined by these eras of his life – a trilogy of existence. His final act seems to have been cut short, but he did manage to continue a full life here in Florida.

There are shades of my father indelibly marked on my brother and me. Our childlike enthusiasm for the small things stems in no small part from his passion for model trains. My brother still loves comic books and my well-established love of all things Star Wars stems from him. They are our model trains.

Our love for the escapism of movies is unavoidably “Dad” to me. He thrilled to movies and enjoyed classic adventures. And every year he watched every version of A Christmas Carol he could find. Once he had them all, Christmas shopping for him became inordinately more difficult.

He was unafraid to be seen as child–like, sometimes to the shock of us and our mother. I could spend days recounting funny stories of him; we will spend our lives recounting them between ourselves. I hope we can all share those happy moments with each other in the coming years.

He seems to have given these memories to people even we didn’t know about. We know that they’re grateful for him, and we were loved by him in his own way. He tailored that love to each person. It was his way. But my brother and I had the unique experience of Dad without a filter; and we are the happier for it.

My father was not perfect and he understood that he wasn’t. There is nothing to gain from recounting whatever small shortcomings he had. But they were few and they are not worth remembering here.

He was humble to a fault. I like to believe that he knew his gifts but remembered that pride was a sin. He was grateful for what he had and what he had done. This man had worked from the baseline and went all the way to the executive level at Ma Bell…later C&P…later Verizon.

He instilled in our family through example the cardinal lesson that “book smarts” and “wisdom” are two uniquely different things. He was no man for an ivory tower, though he could have built them himself. He was intensely smart, and I’d throw my dad against any Ph.D. Any day of the week, he’d teach them something. And if there was something he didn’t know – he’d learn it. This is what consumed him and why my brother and I still obsessively buy books – he showed us without saying a word that we had to learn outside the confines of academia.

Heavenly Father, we commend your son Thomas Henry – Tommy, Tom, Dad, Father, Pop, and a host of other nicknames – to your eternal care. Let him know Your love and that ours will be forever with him.

Doors Week: The Most Awkward Memory

I know I promised the blog about how much I hate Oliver Stone tonight, but I got stuck in two and a half hours of traffic coming back from Baltimore, so you’re getting this one instead.

But it’s still wonderfully awkward and terrible to remember what I’m about to relate, so that’s got to be a win for the haters out there.

They do seem to thrive on unhappiness and difficulty after all. Anyway…

Awkward Moments

The Doors, being such an integral part of my young life, were also the source for some awkward memories.

My mother didn’t care for me putting up the text for Celebration of the Lizard on my bedroom door, because after reading its rather saucy text, she insisted that it was her house and she didn’t feel like reading things like that. My loud protestations of “But Mom, it’s poetry!” fell to deaf ears.

In retrospect, it was one of my stupider arguments. However, battle lines were being drawn at that point. The innocent little straight A student to which she’d been accustomed was changing into something weirder and harder to define. The worst part being, I still did well in school, so she didn’t have that as a bargaining chip.

I remember listening to Live at the Hollywood Bowl on tape with my dad in the car, and his horrified reaction as Morrison did a live poetry jam during Light My Fire wherein he said a girl “got drunk and balled the dead.” Dad didn’t like that all too much. I said that he meant she was arguing with the dead (presuming my father wouldn’t be bright enough to realize I was lying); my father then, red–faced and ashamed, made it very clear he understood what the text really meant.

Oops. (Side note: this sorrowful interaction happened on a sunny Saturday at the intersection of MD Rte 29 and Randolph Road).

However, this did not come close to the most awkward moment.

The Most Awkward Memory

My folks liked to take trips and I was forced to go along.

I didn’t mind so much, to be honest. It was probably good to unplug their little wild child with his self–destructive streak and isolate him from troublesome situations.

Also, there was no television. I therefore learned to love reading.

But sometimes, my grandmother would come with us.

My grandmother was a complicated person. I know that she loved me, and I loved her. But the insurmountable personality gulf between us would be highlighted when I was forced to share a back seat with her on a car trip.

My mother thought she would out–smart me and let me play one of those Doors tapes on the trip. At the time, I was fixated on Strange Days, which features the immortal classic People Are Strange. The song still makes me smile because, at one time, my mother sought to correct the core philosophy of the song to assure me that when you’re strange, people most assuredly remembered your name.

Anyway, my mother’s gambit was that, faced with playing the music in front of my grandmother, her and my father, and being pressed to defend it, I would fold.

The album progressed and got to Horse Latitudes, a bizarre piece even by fan standards.

Seeing her opportunity to contribute, my grandmother offered her opinion that it was a bad piece of music, made no sense, and I didn’t need to listen to such garbage.

I turned and told my grandmother, rudely, to be quiet since she didn’t know what good music was to begin with. Even in the moment, it was a pretty bad feeling. Seeing my mother turn and stare me down, I knew that this battle had been lost for all involved. I made her lose face in front of her own mother. There was nothing for her to do but eject the tape and let me sulk.

My father fixed me with a rear-view mirror glare that told me speaking was now a luxury I shouldn’t indulge. I apologized to my grandmother, but I’m pretty sure she never really let go of that one.

So yeah, awkward.

The Christmas Blogs: Stealing Hay

All right, I’ve written about this in passing before, but recently after Mass I saw the Nativity set up and had flashbacks that made me simultaneously chuckle and choke up. I felt that called for bringing it up in its own blog. Because these memories belong now to no one but me (and Mom), and that’s it.

I think that I cherish these memories because it was the one time of the year that I did what Mom asked. I knew how important it was to her, and as much as I might get churlish and snarl about having to do it, I showed her that I really loved her and would do anything for her.

I wish I’d shown her that more often. I always will.

Christmas Hay

Our very special tradition was that I would accompany her to the late 12:30 p.m. Mass on Christmas Day at St. Camillus, the “first church” for our family. Because the perfect way to cap off a morning of eating, presents and sleepiness was to go Mass one more time. Of course, the funniest bit is that now, I understand it. An hour when no one can ask anything of you, save for The Lord? Totally down with that. Even if you’re not devout, you get to shut out all the demands of the world for an extra hour.

Part of the traditional visit, though, was to satisfy a superstition my mother had.

She believed that if she took some of the real hay from the creche in which they laid the figure of the baby Jesus, then our family was going to be all right in terms of finances. It was a strange custom and one I’ve never encountered since. I think someone once told me that they’d heard the same thing, but The Google turns up nothing.

But imagine being a young “man”, convincing yourself you’re being “forced” to go with your mother to do something.

I remember the first time, though. That dawning horror that I had to desecrate a church display so she could get her hay.

We ran into people we knew as Mass was letting out. It was a family my mother knew, and the daughter – Lisa – was someone I had dated for a short time.

Flash Forward

Years later, in a way that still blows my mind, Lisa passed very briefly into my oldest daughter’s first days of life. See, Roo had turned in the birth canal and escalated to a C-Section, but not before getting a hematoma on her head. So Nervous Daddy was standing above her, fretting as they told me they had to do a scan to make sure there wasn’t a skull fracture.

In walks the nurse to care for my newborn daughter, and it’s Lisa. Funny how things tie together.

Flash Backward

Back to that moment, Mom chatted pleasantly. The whole time, I’m figuring out how to get out of it. But though he would fight, in the end, I never could say no to my mother. Frankly, I loved her too much.

So after everyone cleared out I had to walk up to the little fence, which was there to keep people out of the display, reach in and grab hay for her. Then grab more to get the amount she wanted.

So the next year we go and the Mass has converted to a Spanish-only service. They closed the Mass with Feliz Navidad and my mom sang and danced while I look over at the display and realize, “Oh Lord, they’ve moved the infant Jesus farther away from the fence.” This realization is coupled with the fact that this will in no way dissuade my mother from asking me now not to reach past the fence and grab hay, but rather step over and into the display. You can imagine how thrilling an idea that was.

Moore’s Law of Christmas Hay

It kept escalating every year like that. I’m pretty sure in retrospect that someone was seeing me do this every year and their Christmas tradition was watching me lumber through this sacred scene to get magic hay. I hope they found it as funny as I didn’t.

Then, of course, there was that last Christmas.

My mom had gotten pretty sick and we were all confused and I’m sure handling it all the wrong way. It happens. Mom kept insisting it would work out, and any arguments or regrets at this point are just something that need to be let go.

But she was really sick. Really thin, wasn’t processing food correctly. Very emotional, I’m sure she sensed things were very wrong.

I got her a Winnie the Pooh that year. Winnie the Pooh was our special connection to when I was a cheerful little tub of love for my mother. She opened it and started crying. Really, truly crying in a way that I didn’t usually see my mom cry.

The Moment of Truth

I was deeply involved with my girlfriend at the time, and made clear to my mother that I was ditching Mass because Erin wanted me to spend time with her – Erin and I had argued about it and I gave in. My mother was clearly upset but took it in stride.

I was wracked with guilt. I called my girlfriend and things got shifted.

I raced out to my car and broke every speed law I could to get to Mass. I rushed into the church and my mom looked over to the door from over a sea of heads, to see her son barge into the place. It wasn’t Hollywood, but it was noticeable.

I walked hurriedly over to her pew and when I sat down next to her she was crying. I suppose I’ll never be able to convey that terrible feeling to anyone properly, because my mother was such a strong person that for her to truly cry in public like that took something. In that moment, I think it was the first time that I understood on some primal level that it was the last Christmas I was ever going to spend with her.

So if anyone is still reading by this point, let these be the lessons I pass on to the world. Pull close those you care about and those who care about you. If someone cares about you but they irk you in some way, try simply to treat them twice as good as you think they deserve. In the words of the Ghost of Christmas Present from the 1970 Scrooge,

There is never enough time to do or say all the things that we would wish. The thing is to try to do as much as you can in the time that you have. Remember Scrooge, time is short, and suddenly, you’re not here any more.

Indeed. Hold ’em close, tell ’em you love ’em and be happy that you can.

My Honest Reviews of the Star Wars Films: Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Attack of the Clones came along at a very transitional time in my life. I’ve gone over the emotional connection I have with one traumatic scene before. I also had a great time seeing it at a midnight showing with my cousins.

As a result it’s often gotten treated with kid gloves when it comes to criticism through the years. But now it’s time for the Clones to be dissected. Honestly, fairly and without kid gloves.

Here’s Where the Fun Begins

Much like its predecessor, Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones is an imperfect film. Thanks to a change in the editing booth, though, it’s a step closer to perfect than The Phantom Menace. It’s apparent that bringing Lucasfilm sound editing mainstay and part-time director Ben Burtt into the booth gave Lucas the opportunity to speak in the shorthand he needed. It’s obvious that Burtt understood the nature of these films a little better (go figure, he’s been with Lucasfilm since the beginning) and the result is a tighter pace that “feels” more like the originals’ tenor.

This doesn’t diminish Episode I, but merely acknowledges that Episode II is when things start to feel more relaxed and maybe even a little more inspired. A bit more slapdash action, quicker transitions between spectacle and a little more polish on the effects.

Quick plot synopsis: A fallen Jedi starts some trouble, Padmé gets targeted for assassination while trying to stop the war and a clone army has been created for the Republic without (good) Jedi knowledge. Anakin falls in love, Obi-Wan gets sleuthy and the war starts, which makes Yoda sad.

Unsurprisingly, it was better received.

Clone the Love, Love the Clones

And there’s a lot to love here for both fans and non-fans alike.

Instead of evoking a cold world ruled by disciplined warriors, this film feels more like a youthful adventure. Frankly, there’s more heart.

Interestingly enough, this film—the second in this trilogy—evokes Lucas’ own second work, American Graffiti. Anakin and Obi-Wan pursue a villain in what amounts to a spaceship version of John Milner’s hot rod. The design sensibilities on the capital planet are a bit more Art Deco. There’s even a 1950s-style diner with a big four-armed guy who may as well have been called Mel (his name was Dexter Jettster, and he remains one of the brightest points in the picture.)

This sets an interesting arc as you can see echoes of THX-1138 in The Phantom Menace and so if you progress along, either Lucas is using his previous films to be evocative of the growth of emotion, or after his long absence from the director’s chair we’re watching his literal artistic rebirth as he progresses from the overly intellectual to the blatantly emotional. I’d love to get inside his brain and see if he’d done it purposely or just repeated history.

And then of course, there’s Baby Boba and Daddy Fett.

After decades of absurd devotion to a semi-minor, though admittedly cool, character introduced in The Empire Strikes Back, we meet his father, Jango Fett. As played by Temeura Morrison, this Fett was mask on and mask off a total joy to watch. In a notable scene where he stares down Obi-Wan Kenobi, it’s pure gunfighter swagger.

Jango serves as the genetic template for the Clone Army that’s a source of such consternation in the film. So Clones also gives fans precisely what they wished for years, which was an army of Fett. But instead of doing it in a completely lame way, Lucas gives the fanboys a partial “f*** you” by making Fett into the antecedent of the stormtroopers, who have been reduced in fan circles to the equivalent of the Keystone Cops.

Lucas completes his collection of Revered B-List British Actors of Yesteryear by adding Christopher Lee to the ensemble, who ironically played Dracula to Peter (Grand Moff Tarkin) Cushing’s Van Helsing.

All basso bravura, Lee brings a vigor to a brief role as the first indicator of a great Jedi’s ability to fall (hint-like Anakin will).

The backdrops also evoke the American paintings of the Frontier era, when hyper-realism portrayed an idealistic yet brooding sense of grandeur.

Lucas posits some interesting philosophical questions here, as well. Is murder ever understandable? Is the military a tool of the ruling class, so long as its members are more devoted to the military structure than to being citizens? Is it possible for a Jedi to fall in love as quickly as Michael Corleone and Apollonia Vitelli?

Clone the Hate, Hate the Nerds

Of course, the film isn’t perfect. The love story is admittedly rushed and, going back to the editing beef I developed, about half of the speeder chase in the beginning of the film could have been cut in favor of at least one more scene showing Padmé and Anakin getting to know each other before their frolicking in the meadow.

There is precisely one line in the film that’s a complete train wreck, and unfortunately it takes away the power of one of its best scenes. When this film was released in IMAX®, they cut that line out and the scene played much better. Then it was back in on the DVD. Go figure.

The effects are tremendous on the whole, and the cinematography must have been a technical nightmare; however they did get a bit too ambitious for a few things and could have been well served to know when to develop the digital matte paintings with a bit more depth and detail.

It would have been nice, as well, to see a scene in there that I know was filmed that provided context for how drastically radical it was for Count Dooku to have left the Jedi Order. That back story is wildly relevant and would have at least kept Dooku fresh in our minds before the end of the film.

Sidious also gets short shrift; after dominating the first film, it would have been nice to see him in more than one scene at the end. Although, arguably, you do: but I mean with the cloak. I like him better with the gravelly voice and hood.

The Final Analysis

Still, Attack of the Clones remains one of my favorite films to pop into the DVD player and watch. There’s a tremendous sense of fun to it, and it takes itself far less seriously than The Phantom Menace. The choices are a bit more natural; of course, in context this fits because it’s another step closer to the actual story we grew up watching. We’ve moved from the Cold Golden Age to the Civil War and we’re on our way to the Wild West.

And typically, I hate “bridge” stories. They are by their very nature unresolved. They are not the beginning of the story where the important foundation is laid. They are not the thrilling end when secrets are revealed. They exist only to prep you for what comes next. I hated Matrix Reloaded. Back to the Future Parts II and III were tremendoulsy misguided. Star Trek III exists merely to exist (as frequent commenter Frylock Bodine has accurately illuminated).

But this one is different. It’s enjoyable enough that you don’t mind a lack of resolution because if this is the set up, you can’t wait for the punch line.