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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Yesterday I heard this statement and wanted to quip, "They use TP, don’t they?" The man meant that 'the M's' use the cloud, drop box, and other electronic means to document existence. Ironically, outmoded me is "keying" these words while listening to a tangible CD.

And on Friday night, I watched Robert Altman's movie, Short Cuts, on a DVD, another material object. It was only the second time I'd seen this film, based loosely on Raymond Carver short stories. My first viewing was in 1994, in a movie theater in Caracas, Venezuela. Next to Los Angeles, Caracas was even a crazier place to live. I will say this. I prefer the film's title in Spanish: Las Vidas Cruzadas, which fits the aerial views of L.A.'s interconnected network of freeways, seen at the film's beginning. This title matches the movie's depiction of crossed lives, of complicated intersections that its characters might or might not recognize.



Earlier this Monday morning at 5:00, I sat on a stool in the kitchen, elbows on the black granite bar, reading the end of Raymond Carver, A Writer's Life. It is a thick hardcover, a gift from my friend Gloria, as mentioned last week. The biography's final pages discuss the legal fight between Carver's first and second wives over renewal rights to the literature, including Robert Altman's purchase of nine stories and one poem. Although Raymond Carver's world was the Olympic Peninsula, Altman transports him south to Los Angeles, City of the Angels, and a movie set in the early 1990s. No matter if you have or haven't read Carver. He was called The American Chekhov, and Ray's creed like Anton's was simple. Human beings have a hard time of it, and we ought to love them because of this, and count ourselves among them, even if we have been lucky not to have hardscrabble and disenfranchised lives.


The movie begins with a squadron of helicopters flying over Los Angeles, as if Frances Ford Coppola were directing another Vietnam war epic. Only this time it is malathion being sprayed to destroy a citywide invasion of the medfly. Then a viewer is inside a pay phone booth, a white limo, concert hall, coffee shop, nightclub, track house, to mention only a few places. The other night I looked over and saw my husband's face, as if he were lost in the dizzying void of downtown L.A. without GPS. "It's a confusing film," I said. "Just keep watching."

Yes, for three hours and 22 characters and glimpses into the real nature of their fragmented lives. It is audacious and daring what Altman does to splice this and that from Carver's stories and assemble such a remarkable cast of actors. At the Venice Film Festival in 1993, it was apparently under consideration to give the whole cast the 'best actor' prize. A few of them include Jack Lemmon, Lily Tomlin, Tim Robbins, Frances McDormand, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and others. I could say a lot about Raymond Carver and Robert Altman, both deceased, who left literary and cinematic marks. Briefly, Carver died at 50 from cancer, having stopped drinking at 40. Altman was a Hollywood outlier and completed his last movie shortly before his death. Who can forget his early film, Mash, and his 1975, Nashville? Then a fallow period before The Player and Short Cuts. So much of this movie stayed with me from the viewing 28 years ago. Two of Carver's stories came to mind in this movie with no discernible plot. "So Much Water So Close to Home," is about buddies on a fishing holiday who find the naked body of a young girl in a stream." And "The Bath" is about a boy struck by a car on his birthday. This story binds the movie from beginning to end, poignantly and painfully, through a suburban mother, her successful TV commentator husband, their son Casey, age 8, and a baker who made a cake for the boy. In a movie that begins with one disaster, it is bound to end with another, which I will not mention!


Beside me this morning in the kitchen was Carver's collection, Where I'm Calling From. The words that preface the book are from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. "We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come." This seems a perfect statement for Short Cuts, a movie about events that shape lives, and which are not understood.



I hope you'll stream the movie or order the DVD, which can be held in your hand! Until next Monday…








Marianne,

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Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One (novel and movie) turned death and the mortuary "business" in Los Angeles into his subject for a bitter and mocking satire. Maybe it takes someone from Southern California to appreciate how biting and humorous his depictions of So Cal are. Maybe someone needs to have wandered in Forest Lawn with its kitsch to "get" Whispering Glades Memorial Park with its "loved ones." Or maybe it takes being a So Cal native, who eagerly left the lower half of the state, to know how "ahead" that region always has been in the USA. I suspect this goes for pet cemeteries, which Waugh calls in his satiric novel, "The Happier Hunting Ground," and where his British-born protagonist works.



But today I will leave the satiric and irreverent to write of a place characterized by solemnity and reverence. At Arlington National Cemetery these are not outmoded words. A year ago, on January 6th, 2021, was a day that will live in our history like 9-11, as horrific and not to be forgotten. Yet this January 6th, 2022, I attended the funeral of Lt. General William Earl Brown.



His daughter had read my posting last week and contacted me. Although the reception had been cancelled because of the latest Covid variant, I learned that we could attend the ceremony. This meant that I and husband Mike, and our daughter Michelle in her army uniform, were there for a funeral that included the highest honors for an officer of William Earl Brown's rank.





I will not describe it all, only say this. Nothing was missing except a fly-over of fighters from Andrews AFB, to honor a pilot who flew 225 missions in two wars. Yet airplanes were taking off from Reagan National; and during the ceremony at the burial site, a flock of geese flew over. Then at the very end, four of them returned in formation. A woman in black attire near me commented, "That has meaning," referring to the four geese passing over head. I mention this because solemnity prevailed in dress on Thursday. This in contrast to a funeral attended months ago, where I looked outmoded in black among older and younger women in sleeveless sundresses, their arms flapping as if torn awnings in the wind. Someone pointed out later to me that it was no longer "correct" to wear black to a funeral. Really? That was not true on Thursday, and it wasn't because of the weather.


The Honor Guard detachment at Fort Myer exudes a dignity that must be seen to be felt. To watch these soldiers of the historic old guard, fold a flag with precision, then have it presented to the widow, Gloria Brown, is an image I will remember. The assembled army personnel at the first stop with the casket & caisson & horses, and later the Air Force band on the grass near the canopy and casket, were all soldiers and airmen without coats, and each was standing solemn and still on a cold January afternoon. This image will remain with me, too. Most of all I felt then and feel now, a deep gratitude for having the hollow in my heart filled because of a solemn and reverent ceremony, one marked by tradition and hallowed respect.


On the three-hour drive home, I found solace in knowing that William Earl Brown was not alive the year before on January 6th, to witness that infamous day across the Potomac in Washington, D.C.



Next week: Raymond Carver, A Writer's Life, a book that Gloria and Earl Brown gave me.

Along with The Loved One, the movie Short Cuts, made of Carver short stories, is one to see.


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Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One is a short satiric novel about the Southern California (L.A.) funeral scene for pets and people. On this first day of 2022, I will watch the film version tonight with family & friends and next week write about it. Today I wish to honor a man whose funeral we were to attend on January 6th at Arlington National Cemetery.


I had learned about Earl Brown's death the day I came home on June 5th, 2020, from having a knee replaced. Right before the surgery I knew about Earl's broken hip and his hospitalization, which disallowed Gloria (because of the pandemic) from visiting her husband in the hospital. And that June afternoon, the phone in my hand, I realized why Gloria had called, and I could not talk to her and handed the phone to Mike. Anything not to hear words that E.B, a true prince of a man, had died.


Many who knew Earl called him E.B. With me this involved a private joke. I first met Earl and Gloria in 1980 when the children were small. Then, I often read books to Michelle and Bonnie by E.B. White. And Earl, like the famous writer, was the quintessential storyteller. For this reason, I thought of him as E.B., substituting in my mind, brown for white. What does daughter Michelle remember to this day about William Earl Brown? That when he was the two-star, major general, living at the Sembach Air Base in West Germany, he showed her his new Rubik cube one day, and they tried to solve the puzzle together. I had gone to their quarters to leave something for Gloria, and the next thing I knew, Earl was showing Michelle his new toy! Then, a decade later when we were back in the D.C. area, after Mike's tour in Malaysia, Bonnie faced a problem in eighth grade. Students in her junior high had to accompany a parent to work one 'school' day. I was not teaching that year, and Mike at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) could not take Bonnie there with him. Who stepped in to help? Earl, who gave Bonnie a special tour of the Air and Space Museum and took her to lunch in the employee cafeteria. I won't forget that day either, which Bonnie remembers fondly.



June 2020 brought another painful element to the pandemic. Earl's funeral at Arlington National Cemetery would be delayed. But one day it would include a fly over to honor a pilot who flew 225 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam. In my mind and heart, the delay of the funeral kept me from accepting William Earl Brown's death. For the past few months, Mike and I, and our daughters, have waited for January 6th, for the four of us to attend the funeral of this remarkable man, who retired as a three-star general in 1984. But the other evening, Gloria called to let me know that because of the Covid variant, and so much illness everywhere, that only immediate family would be able to attend Earl's service this coming week.


And now, when I most want words to come to me, sadness silences them.


That is why, earlier this New Year’s Day, I located a book in my library, Burning the Days by James Salter. I had remembered that in 1997, Earl went to Politics and Prose in D.C. to hear Salter talk about his "recollection," as he called his memoir. Earl and Salter (though the writer's name was different then) had flown the F 86 Sabre at the same time in the Korean war. Salter went on to fame as a writer. Yet Earl too, like Salter, was one of the finest storytellers I've met in life. And today, I thought how Earl would agree with Salter, that "all is foolish except honor, love, and what little is known of the heart." Earl would have seconded his fellow pilot in this way, too. Salter wrote that the ancients believed the greatest things to be seen are sun, stars, water, and clouds, though Earl would have added snow to this. In his retirement, he taught skiing at Liberty near D.C. Next to flying, he loved skiing, and his beloved Gloria and their three children. E.B. also served for many years as a docent at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, featured there in an exhibit on black aviators, though he was not a man to mention this, as a Washington Post journalist told me, who had taken Earl's tour one day. One of his Smithsonian lectures was made into a small book, "The Story of a Fighter Pilot."


William Earl Brown had the gliding grace and verbal elegance that characterized President Obama. And my regret is that I failed to gather the anecdotes I heard E.B. tell from 1980 until the last time I saw him in 2019. Always calm, this exceptional man, as if observing life from a higher, wiser, and more virtuous place than we mortals, left his contrails in me and so many others. And there is solace in knowing that soon we will be able to visit his grave in Arlington National Cemetery. And on January 6th…Mike, Michelle, Bonnie, and I will be there in spirit with Gloria and her family to honor the finest of men.



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