Reminiscing on my violent, alcoholic father

It has been more than 35 years since my adoptive father died of health complications that followed years of destructive behavior and a losing battle with alcoholism.

Though he has long been buried in a cemetery plot in the Cleveland suburb of Rocky River, Ohio, next to his father and mother, his impact on my life and my family lived on long after he passed away.

Even today, I frequently am forced to confront my long-buried memories of this often violent yet aextremely intelligent man who was an ordained Lutheran minister.

A shot taken with my adoptive father and sister in our home.

For the last seven years, when my adoptive mom was on her long and difficult journey with Alzheimer’s disease, my adoptive father’s memory frequently came up in our conversations. When I visited her in her home in University City, Missouri, flying out from my home cities of Seattle and then Portland, we spent endless hours talking about the past and her memories that grew dimmer over time. She could recall snippets of her past life and share them with me. She frequently repeated ideas or hazy recollections. She repeated two things more than any other during these seven years.

First, she told me, I have the greatest husband in the whole world. She was referencing her current husband and full-time caregiver, my stepfather, who cared for right up until her final day. Second, she told me, my first husband used to beat me. That was a reference to my adoptive father and her first husband, from the summer of 1958 through their divorce in the summer of 1973. During that time they lived in Detroit, moved briefly to Boston in late 1965 and 1966, and then moved to the metro St. Louis area, where my mom lived out the rest of her life.

My adoptive parents in front of their west Detroit home, likely in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

When my mom’s memory was sharper in the early years of her Alzheimer’s, she repeated constantly how often my adoptive father would hit her. She said the doctors told her the violence could have contributed to her awful and prolonged brain-wasting disease. I can still remember those incidents as if they happened hours ago. I too can never forget them.

I would always reply during these countless recollections that, yes, mom, your husband—my stepfather—was the best husband in the world. I would say nothing about her comments on her years of domestic abuse at the hands of my adoptive father—her former husband. These conversations continued until the second-to-last time I saw her alive, in September 2019.

In the end, my adoptive mom had two distinct memories, one of violence and one of love, which she likely had little control over because of her deteriorated state from Alzheimer’s.

Making Sense of my Adoptive Father

Though my life with my adoptive father in a nuclear family lasted eight years, I spent another five more visiting him, first in the St. Louis area and then in the Huntington, West Virginia and Chesapeake, Ohio metro area, where he resettled after the divorce.

Those trips with my adoptive sister to stay with him several times a year, as part of the divorce custodial settlement, were as bad if not worse than the times when we lived as a family under one roof.

I tried to reconstruct those years from memory starting about five years ago, as I began to write my memoir as an adoptee. I remember the day I wrote out the first outline to my memoir on a hot July day on a river beach. I then started with a chapter exploring my childhood and younger years with my adoptive father.

I wrote that chapter first. It proved to the hardest one to do because I had to dredge up memories that were neatly buried.

I also needed to revisit the places of my childhood and youth, in Huntington and Chesapeake, letting me remember things I had forgotten, perhaps as a way to carry on with life. I took a road trip there in September 2015.

My adoptive father lived for several years in this house, owned by the next door Lutheran church, where her served as a minister in the 1970s.

I published an essay on that trip on one of my blogs. I wrote about my childhood trips to see him: “I had no choice in the matter. I had to go there. I had to visit my father. It was bad to awful, and sometimes downright terrible. But when you are young, you are flexible and stronger than you think. You actually can do impossible things, and still come out at the end of the tunnel with a smile. I did. Despite the odds, I really did.”

When I finished the revised text to my memoir in late 2017, I left my first chapter on my adoptive father out. That decision came easily. I decided it was too personal about a relation that shaped my life. No one else would understand that journey but me. By that time in my life, into my fifth decade, I also realized I had become more like the generations who preceded me, who were reserved, not someone who wanted to “tell all.”

I also had come to a deeper realization about living life and finding meaning. I was able to see my unpleasant times with my adoptive father through a completely different perspective, shaped by my life and the knowledge I had gained from life.

Rudy Owens’ memoir on his experience as an adoptee and on the U.S. adoption system.

I described my later life’s wisdom in the introduction to my book, which I published in May 2018: “My adoptive father, a Lutheran minister, was abusive and an alcoholic. He had a serious drinking problem before I was even placed in his and my adoptive family’s middle-class, two-story brick home in metro Detroit. He treated my adoptive mother, my adoptive sister, and me very poorly. At times, when he was drunk, he could have killed my sister and me on more than a dozen occasions—when he would drive us in a total stupor. My adoptive family’s struggles were not pleasant, but they are also things no one could have predicted, and their meaning and purpose may still not even be clear to me. However, the way I confronted these challenges was uniquely my own, and I own how I addressed my reality and the conditions of my life. No one else is responsible for that.”

The Impact of Living through Domestic Violence Never Goes Away

As I continue to reflect on my life, I remain honest that the impacts of my adoptive father’s actions never fully disappeared. I see that most clearly when I read and learn about how domestic violence impacted others in their youth and their eventual journeys in life.

Patrick Stewart in his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard on the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series and film franchise.

I only recently learned that the fine British actor Patrick Stewart, known to the world as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series, also grew up in a home marred by domestic violence. I had always felt something raw when watching Stewart’s performances, as Picard, as Ebenezer Scrooge in his version of A Christmas Carol, and his lesser and earlier roles in films like Excalibur. He always had bursts of rage that felt like a smothering volcano, but controlled just barely.

By accident this month, I found his essay published in November 2009, in The Guardian (Patrick Stewart: the legacy of domestic violence). In it, he laid bare what he and his mother experienced at the rough hands of his World War II hero and domestic-abuser father. He wrote in the bluntest of terms how his father badly beat his mother, especially when he was drunk. He described the terror of living under the shadow of a violent person, who put their lives at risk.

“Violence is a choice a man makes and he alone is responsible for it,” Stewart wrote. “No one came to help. No adult stepped in and took charge. I needed someone else to take over and tell me everything was going to be all right and that it wasn’t my fault. I wanted the anger to go away and, while it stayed, I felt responsible. The sense of guilt and loneliness provoked by domestic violence is tainting—and lasting.”

Everything Stewart described echoed eerily what I had written in 2016, without ever reading Stewart’s essay, penned six years earlier.

In the section of my book I deleted, I wrote: “In those frequent drunken conditions, the ordinary looking man could transform into frightening malevolence, and you never quite knew how he would erupt. The well-worn expression walking on eggshells is actually a perfect match for what my mom, sister, and I faced for years around him.”

I also described the ravaging effects of alcohol, which I internalize to this day, as a survival mechanism. “In those intoxicated moments, my father’s ordinary appearance would be transformed by alcohol. His speech would slur. His left eye would slant behind his glasses. It was the mark an alcoholic I learned to spot instantaneously in others the rest of my life—one of the weird outcomes of growing up around someone with this affliction. To this day I can spot a problem drinkers with Spiderman-like quickness, usually in the first five seconds of meeting them. And my self-defense response kicks into a state of hyper readiness, just in case.”

On some days, like ones I have had this month, I revisit my life’s decisions that still leave sorrow, including my decisions to live a life that eschewed anything resembling domestic normality and middle-class happiness. I still associate these with my adoptive family and father.

Like all of us, we have to confront ourselves and decisions. There are days it is hard, when I might see families that appear “normal,” and I can observe a father who acts compassionately around others without toxic masculinity or the effects of alcohol. On those off days, these apparently normal activities allow me to play “what if” games in my mind.

In the end, I let those thoughts go, because I own this path and my thoughts entirely.

In the chapter I cut from my memoir, I concluded with a meditation on restorative justice. I described how embracing forgiveness means letting go of the power the offense and the offender over a person. It means no longer letting the offender and their actions control you anymore. Without this act of healing, the wound can fester and can control one’s actions indefinitely.

Like Stewart, I cannot entirely let go of the memories of a violent man who failed as a father. But I have found a path to becoming a better person and the person I wanted to be. I never followed in my adoptive father’s footsteps. For that I take credit. I accomplished more than I knew I ever would.

A Chance Meeting with Ike

Every one of us has a mother, and that can bring together strangers. (Sculpture in front of the St. Louis Art Museum, taken three weeks before my mother died in early February 2020.)

In mid-February, I flew across the country from Portland to St. Louis. My trip came suddenly, but not as a surprise. After more than seven years of battling Alzheimer’s my mother finally passed away.

My plan was to write a eulogy on the long flight I would have from Seattle to St. Louis, the second leg of my journey. My tale was meant to focus on young woman, who was raised in a scrappy New Jersey town just outside of New York City.

That’s what I thought at least.

I ended up writing two stories. One I published after I returned. The other I put aside. It was a story I never intended to have, but had to be told. I finally am telling it now, at the end of May 2020, in the middle of a pandemic and protests occurring nationally in the United State against racial injustice and much, much more.

Perhaps by fate, I think my mom decided to play a funny trick on me on the way for me say goodbye. The experience allowed me to recall her wisdom and share it with a stranger.

On that trip, a stranger crossed my path. However, it was up to me to do something with this opportunity and make sense of it. My mom’s passing gave me a window.

Wakanda PatchOn the escalator coming out of the Airport shuttle tram at SeaTac, Seattle’s international airport, I spotted a large African-American man in a red and black checkered shirt. He must have weighed 225 pounds. He stood about 6’2” and had a massive chest and arms for linebacker.

I didn’t really think about him until I spotted two items pinned to his backpack.

One said, “Wakanda is not a shithole country.” The other was a medallion with the Latin words “Memento Mori,” or remember that death comes to all. During the period of the Roman Empire, the phrase would be whispered in a mighty Roman emperor’s ears by a slave as he entered Rome. It reminded a mighty emperor of his mortality and that he, the mightiest person in the world, face the same ultimate fate as slave behind him.

When I read the Memento Mori medallion, I decided I had to introduce myself. I recently had found myself drawn to Stoic ideas, from ancient Greece and Rome, which are embodied in the words carved on that medallion.

I said, “Hi. I’m Rudy.” He replied simply, “Ike.”

I asked about his backpack decorations. We laughed about Wakanda.

I told him I recognized the Stoic medallion, and he said, yes, it’s sold by Ryan Holiday. Not by coincidence, we both followed and liked Holiday’s blog called The Daily Stoic. Both of us obviously found something in these ideas that connected with us.

I could hear a West African accent in his voice and asked about his background.

Soon I learned Ike originally hailed from Nigeria, the son of political refugee parents. He told me his mother arrived in Boston with just the shirt on her back and four kids while his father rotted in a jail back home.

I then discovered we were on the same flight. He was on a business trip from Seattle to St. Louis.

I told him about my family, being raised in a family of three with a single mom in St. Louis. I said I was flying to St. Louis to attend the funeral of my mother.

Ike commented how important funerals were in Nigeria for the Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa-Fulani ethnic groups. Ike called them festive occasions where the life of a person was remembered as a joyful thing.

Rudy and Ike

Rudy and Ike, connecting over mothers, death, funerals, and remembrance during a chance meeting at SeaTac in mid-February 2020. It is sad knowing we can’t enjoy the friendly embrace of strangers anymore for a long time amid the pandemic.

He said as a child, he wasn’t afraid of death because funerals were always so fun. Only later did he learn of the sadness that also accompanies the loss of a loved one. But first he learned that death was not a thing to fear and that it was a part of life.

Somehow we began to talk about how our mothers raised us and what life skills they taught us. Ike said his mom, and dad, always taught him he had to fight, because nothing in life came without some sort of struggle.

He said they never spoiled him or pampered him or over-parented him. If he was hurt, without requiring a hospital visit, he was expected to overcome his circumstance, because he if wasn’t gravely injured, he would be OK. He said it was the right thing to teach him, and he later understood the importance of this teaching. It helped to make hi successful.

I said my mom was the same way. She understood good luck and bad luck. Like everyone, she had her share of both, and maybe in stronger doses that she deserved at times. I said, she could handle a strong wind and not snap. She would bend back. I said she had raised me not to be blown down during storms, even if I wasn’t aware of this when it was happening. Like her, I had to learn on my own to let storms pass and then come back up, stronger. Maybe I was more successful at this than she bargained for.

I also talked about my mom’s battle with Alzheimer’s and how it had given me a chance to learn about things that frighten us all—our mortality and death. By the end of this journey, watching this illness take my mom, I had grown. I had become less afraid of the end that awaits us all (“Memento Mori”). I simply did what I could do for my mom, mostly in a way that worked.

I told him that in the end, my mom always had an ability to see goodness. She could find something good amid something terrible, including her illness. Though she despised it, and would rightly say, “I hate this. I can’t stand this.” She also said one line all the time, right up to the end. “I have the nicest husband in the whole world, “ she would tell me, again, and again, and again, and again. I must have heard this hundreds of times in the past seven years.

It was one of the last things she told me on the phone, the last time we had a conversation during the Thanksgiving 2019 holiday. I remember replying to her the way I always did, with utmost sincerity: “Yeah mom, you do. He’s a great husband.”

I reality, my mom had said this for all 37 years of her marriage. She was speaking a truth about what the second half of her life was like with her best friend and husband.

“I got so lucky,” she might add. “Yes, mom,” I’d reply. “You got real lucky indeed.”

At that moment, in telling Ike my mom’s story, I started to feel my eyes water up and looked away. Here I was, crying to a man I had never met, telling him about the passing of my mother. He gave me a hug. “It’s OK, man. It’s part of the journey of life.”

Ike and I took a selfie and I gave him my card. I don’t know if I will see him again. He lives in Seattle with his wife. He’s not even sure how much time he has, having just had a heart attack on Jan. 18. He told me it was almost a blessing, because it reminded him of how precious life is and how important his wife and health are.

I think my mom would have loved to meet Ike. She could have easily found herself talking to him, like I saw her do countless times before whenever we travelled, or went to the Missouri Botanical Gardens, or the St. Louis Art Museum, or on a holiday. She was always warm and welcoming with strangers, of any race or background—always eager to hear about their lives and talk about their families and especially their kids.

In some ways, I felt my mom somehow played a serendipitous role that crossed my path with Ike’s, and therefore my mom’s story with his mom’s story, and the story all of us have with our mothers and the lessons they teach us, so we can pass them on to others, the way all people do, in the USA, Nigeria, or any other place.

Yes, maybe there was a reason I would be in an airport tram on that very day, at that very hour, at that very second, with an imposing looking man next to me, who just happened to have a reminder that captured the wisdom of a long journey my mom just completed. In some ways I felt that was her reaching from beyond through a stranger letting me it would be OK.

Remember to always get up and welcome a stranger into your life, I think she’d say. It was something her long and abiding Christian faith had given her until the very end.

Letting go of the living

During the last six years, I have been forced to confront the collapsing health of my family. Not by coincidence, my reflections on these changes and death itself led me to writers like Viktor Frankl and branches of thinking such as Existentialism and the Greek and Roman school of philosophy known as Stoicism.

The Stoic philosophers from ancient Greece and Rome provide a roadmap that remains remarkably relevant today. The most famous ancient stoics—Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius—did not focus on abstractions. Rather, they wrote about the most pressing realities of life and issues of what define us and how we live each day.

At this point in my own life’s journey, I found comfort in old ideas that embraced questions about death. As Seneca wrote, “A man cannot live well if he knows not how to die well.” Stoic ideas helped me think about how all of us can prepare ourselves for misfortune and navigate through the worst possible events, in order to confront what inevitably lies ahead.

My journey, with my family, was now one confronting inevitable loss. This chapter of my life story, with my family, will perhaps soon end in the death of the remaining two members of my nuclear family—my mother and sister.

Losing my Mom

My father died in 1985, when I was 20, and I can scarcely remember him as a person. He was an alcoholic and unimportant in my life. I unfortunately lost my mother more than six years ago, but this loss is ongoing.

In 2013, she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The illness has been especially cruel to her husband, my stepfather, who saw his intimate partner and best friend of 30 years slowly lose her mental abilities and her ability to function as an independent adult. I have observed her slow decay, mostly during short visits and on phone calls that always got worse with each week, month, and then year.

My mother changed from being someone with a razor-sharp mind and who loved crosswords to a woman who could no longer remember the names or even faces of her neighbors and family.

On this last trip to St. Louis in September 2019, we were alone. I asked her, “Who am I?” She gave me a long look with that blank stare, created by the destruction of her neurons and the accumulation of amyloid plaques in her brain. She replied with my stepfather’s name. I said, “No, mom, it’s your son, Rudy.” She didn’t reply. She then asked me a question she had asked half a dozen times earlier in the last 15 minutes.

I have spent these last six years flying back and forth from Seattle and then Portland to her home in the St. Louis area. My trips were motivated by personal concern for her and her husband caregiver and a sense of duty to help as her son.

I have shed tears. I have felt anguish. I have gnashed my teeth. I have cursed scores of times to myself as I walked alone after work, daylight or dark. I have felt powerless. I have felt my desires for my own dreams bend and be extinguished, just so I could be there for her, albeit from afar.

When I read about my friends’ lives, involving travel or a life where the future is filled with promise, I compare it to my stepdad’s world. His involves non-stop and constant care for my mom.

I have, in the end, simply abandoned thoughts of vacation and time alone that don’t involve flying halfway across the continent, so I can spend time with her. On past trips we have held hands and took walks. We could even squeeze in visits to the St. Louis Art Museum and Missouri Botanical Garden. Even those stopped on my last trip.

On this trip, like the ones before, she asked me questions she had asked dozens of times before: Where do you live? Why do you live n Portland? Why won’t you live here? Do you have a girlfriend?

My mom often chastised me, saying, that’s too far away, you should be closer, even when she has no idea who I am or that she even had a son.

Losing my Sister

During these last six years, and for at least a decade earlier, I have also watched my sister slowly spiral out of control.

She has battled addiction, obesity, mental health issues, a long spell of homelessness, and finally the collapse of her body. Her obesity finally made it nearly impossible for her to walk. After living on the mean streets of St. Louis for months, and then in an unsanitary drug house in a very unsafe St. Louis neighborhood, she rebounded with the help of my mom and stepdad. My sister found a low-paying but stable job with Missouri’s welfare office.

Yet each visit, from 2000 on, turned into a portrait in loss. By the last time I saw her in January 2019, just before she had a heart-attack, she was out of her job, living in squalid conditions alone, and having no contact with anyone or any person except a former drug addict neighbor in a poor south St. Louis suburb.

Each time I came, her apartment looked dirtier and more cluttered and chaotic. I am choosing not to share the details. They are too depressing and also private.

Finally, in July 2019, she called for first responders who discovered her collapsed on her apartment floor, unable to walk. She had deep and open pressure ulcers and was immediately taken the emergency room at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. From there the hospital managers and social workers placed her in skilled nursing facility in the city that accepted Medicaid eligible patients. She moved into the facility that month and has been bedbound and no longer able to walk.

Her new home is a facility for indigent patients, all eligible for Medicaid-paid care. The population is a mix of mostly older African Americans and fewer whites. When I visited in September 2019, more than half appeared bedbound. Patients with mental illnesses wandered the halls, without interference from staff. The front door was coded, and no one but staff could get out without the punch key.

To me, it felt like a madhouse from the Victorian era, with staff unconcerned with the patient wards in their care or visitors from the streets who could walk in the facility without even signing in.

No staff member required me to present my ID or sign in. So I could wander the facility without interference, startled that no one cared who I was. In one of the community rooms, I saw silent, elderly, and sick patients gaze blankly at their television. Others sat in the courtyard, silent and hunched over. Still others in their rooms lay silent, with their televisions blaring reality shows and their faces staring blankly at the blue light. I imagined this was like hundreds of others similar facilities nationwide.

My sister looked like she had aged 10 years. She had lost one of her front top teeth. She had a bad rash and dirty, unkempt hair. She remained unable to walk.

The hardest part of my trip was visiting my sister’s cluttered, dirty apartment that had long gone to hell. Amid the clutter that littered each room, I found evidence of her past life. I located her diaries she had kept from the time she was in her 20s, still with dreams of living a good life, even as it was slowly going sideways from her substance-abuse problems. I found her jewelry she made as a hobby for years, as her mobility began to decline and her world closed in on her.

I spent about two hours finding all of her legal documents and her writings. That was my plan from the start. I put those in a pink plastic tub and filled another with her nicest dresses, pants, and shirts, even though I knew she likely would never wear them again.

We had a falling out when I refused to help her rent a storage locker to put her stuff. She cried, feeling betrayed. I knew from all I had seen she would not leave this place or another. She still believed she could walk again and live on her own with her public assistance.

On my last morning in St. Louis, I visited her room again. Her roommate, who is in her 30s and likely had a mental health disorder, was there. I held my sister’s hand and said I was happy I had come to see her. She looked at me, and said, “I love you.” I responded the way I always had in the past, with a smile.

I then left her room and found one of the young, African-American nurses dressed in purple scrubs. She smiled, punched the code, and the door opened. I walked out into the fresh-smelling fall morning and the sunshine on a beautiful St. Louis day. It was time to catch my flight and leave behind this warehouse for the infirmed.

The Art of Surfing

I truly believe that new ideas and inspiration happen for a reason. The trick is to recognize when your thinking and interests turn a new direction. Great creative minds have often worked that way. Robert Greene’s book Mastery beautifully documents this. It’s a study of the creative process and the mastery of skills. He shows how these changes emerge and how accomplished persons, past and present, responded to those vicissitudes.

I recently had breakfast with an old friend of mine, whose father is one of the premiere avant-garde artists from Taiwan known as the Blue Moon Group. My friend said his father was constantly changing and exploring new ideas. I think this is true of successful people in any field–and unsuccessful people who aren’t recognized by their peers.

I am feeling a lot of changes lately, relating to the ocean, my response to circumstances in life, and my lifelong passion for combining physical activity with seeking contemplative spaces to find that quintessential balance in life. Surfing lately has been a space that makes sense right now. I am not questioning it. I am listening to the muse. I am seeking out its siren call. So far I have been richly rewarded, including new friendships and perspectives.

This shot was taken two years ago in Leucadia, in San Diego County. It was an epic trip that combined major breakthroughs with my first serious foray into surfing as a way of life. I do not think that was an accident. Hoping you all catch your wave and take it for a ride.

After three decades, and there was nothing

We all die some day. I too will pass away, and I hope my wishes are honored, and my ashes are scattered when I do.

I recently visited the tombstone of a man who died three decades ago and who I never really knew. It was the first time I stood over his bones.

He impacted my life and that of my family in ways that I never could control as a kid, but what I could do was determine how I wanted to live my life at a very, very young age.

I also  decided that I would not carry a name given that did not reflect who I was in any way, and instead I would choose my own name, which honored my past and ancestors.

Others will judge how well I succeeded in being better than the family name on this headstone. I have worked at this for decades, and every day I ask myself, how am I doing? Am I living the life I intended to live and not making the mistakes I have seen around me? No one will ever really understand this quest but me, and there will be no rewards for this quest, for that is called living your life.

I also continue to be questioned by many who will never understand why I made my choices to not bear this name when I part from this life to whatever awaits us all. I am comfortable with that. I have been questioned for decades about my choices, and anything worth doing will upset people who do not have the imagination to comprehend a world they do not live or understand.

My ode to my former home, Alaska

In August 2010, I packed up everything I owned and headed south to my new life, back in the Lower 48. Leaving the Great Land (Alaska) was among the most bittersweet things I have ever done. I cried. I sighed. I thanked the fates for giving me such amazing experiences and friendships.

Rudy Owens Leaving Alaska

Taken in August 2010

Because of circumstance or design, I followed the exact same path returning to my old home in Seattle that I took coming up. I drove the Alcan Highway from Anchorage to the turnoff to Haines. At Haines I took the Alaska Marine Highway ferry to Prince Rupert, B.C. After being humiliated by some overzealous Canadian border officials (that was funny, since I personally knew the head of that border post from my last job), I drove to Prince George, B.C., on Highway 16, Yellowhead Highway. From that junction, I took the Highway 97 again south, back to the Canada Highway 1, and turned off for the border at Sumas, Washington.

Every place I passed brought back memories of my trip up in August 2004, when this adventure in my life began. It was pouring rain as I rolled back into the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. And thus the new chapter in my life began, and I started a new journey.

I wrote this poem on the ferry ride. I still look at it from time to time when I want to connect with the feelings that only Alaska created in my heart. Thanks again, friend. I appreciate every moment we spent together.

Missing Alaska
Aug. 23, 2010

Waves of sadness, tears of sorrow
Emotions tapped, I fear tomorrow
Leaving Alaska, heart hangs low
A land of rawness, joy, and woe
Mountains strong and beauty sweeping
Oceans teaming, rivers streaming
The bears and wolves I loved the most
Cruelly hunted, I heard their ghosts
Ketchikan, Kodiak, Kaktovik
Kotzebue, Barrow, Anchorage
Skiing trails pure perfection
Running Arctic, path to heaven
Moose abounding, daily sitings
Ravens, eagles, seagulls fighting
Running races, feet alighting
Found my stride, crashed, time abiding
Then life aquatic, laps and polo
Westchester walks, though mostly solo
Missing dearly Chugach mountains
Always lovely, next to heaven
Sharp memories that still cut deep
I’ll guard them close, forever keep

Riddick, this ain’t nothing new

The power of resilience remains as one the bedrock storytelling themes since humans first swapped tales around the campfire. It appeals to all of us and our desire to find inspiration to confront the challenges that life throws in our way.

Vin Diesel Riddick, 2013 Film

Vin Diesel plays the anti-hero Riddick in the 2013 film of the same name–a classic story of resilience against all odds.

To my surprise, one of the most creative and gripping versions of the thousands-year-old storytelling trope came packaged in the 2013 sci-fi action drama Riddick, starring Vin Diesel. Riddick, for those who are not diehard fans, is an interplanetary outlaw, hunted by mercenaries, evil empire and evil religious despots called Necromongers, and baddies who either want him killed or captured.

The film opens with a shot of a hand sticking out of rocks on a god-foresaken landscape. A flying vulture lizard lands on rocks and starts gnawing on the fingertips.

In the background, Diesel’s gravel voice mutters, “Don’t know how many times I’ve been crossed off the list and left for dead. Guess when it first happens the day you were born, you’re gonna lose count.” Then the hand grasp’s the creature’s throat until it thrashes and dies. And we know at that instant that our hero is going to show us that no challenge will stop him from achieving his goal of leaving that planet, alive. “So this, this ain’t nothing new,” he says.

So starts the 2013 reboot to the franchise, which began with muddled and bloated 2004 Chronicles of Riddick that is best forgotten.

Opening Scene of Riddick Photo

The 2013 film Riddick opens with a memorable image of a man’s single-minded goal to survive anything that comes his way.

But, I simply love the beginning to the latest installment. Everything about it is fresh, mythical, and ancient at the same time. (See the first 10 minutes on YouTube.)

You have your classic hero story. Having been nearly killed by falling off a cliff after a double-cross by the intergalactic religious power maniacs called Necromongers, Riddick crawls with a busted leg on a desert floor to a pool of sulfuric water. Unable to drink it, he escapes a pack of giant hyena type carnivores by diving in the pool. “Just me and this no-name world. Gotta find that animal side again,” he says.

He resets his broken leg in a brutal fashion, screwing in armed plates into his flesh to act a cast. He then encounters a species of bear-sized, two-legged mud demons who have giant scorpion-like tails and giant mandibles that are poisonous. They block his path, and he has to go through their pool to a better place. “There are bad days, and then there are legendary bad days,” Riddick says after nearly getting eaten by one. “This was shaping up to be one of those. Whole damn planet wanted a piece of me.”

For the first 20 or so minutes of the film Riddick embraces the man vs. nature and man vs. beast storylines flawlessly. You don’t really care that this is a sci-fi action film at this point. You basically care about a guy who is unfazed when the odds are stacked against him. You admire his resilience to not only overcome the planet’s hostile nature, but to even grow as a person.

Vin Diesel as Riddick and Jacka Dog Photo

Vin Diesel’s character Riddick survives challenge after challenge in the 2013 film of the same name, with his short-lived friend, a jackal-like dog.

Riddick does get through the mud demons, befriends a puppy wild jackal-like creature who becomes his sidekick, defeats two crews of mercenaries who land to capture and kill him, fights off countless other mud demons when he’s left for dead, and leaves the planet. A survivor to the end—pure Riddick. Never a moment of pity, never a moment of whining. He just accepts his fate and finds a solution.

I can point to countless books I have read and loved that follow this same storyline and outcome, and they are among my favorites. They include The Endurance, about Ernest Shackleton and his crew of the Endurance and their survival from disaster in Antarctica in 1914 and 1915, and Escape from Auschwitz, by Rudolf Vrba, about his incredible escape from the German death camp in 1944 with fellow prisoner Alfred Wetzler. They are great yarns because they deal with human ingenuity and strength that withstand unimaginable challenges. Those are also hallmarks of great people and true leaders.

Stories like these will always be retold, and relived. I think they speak to something powerful inside all of us, which rejects misfortune and turns it into growth and conquest.

So give the film Riddick a chance. You might be surprised you have read or seen the story before but find its telling good enough to inspire you when a few bad days and legendary bad days cross your path. Remember folks, that ain’t nothing new.

Tribal loyalties run far and deep

In the United States, we use many methods to define ourselves and our loyalties. Race, religion, ethnicity, and geography are common ways we come to understand ourselves and our circles. Groups we belong to, and schools we attended, also seek to capture our loyalties, and help us navigate the world.

In my case, I was adopted into a Lutheran family. My father was a Lutheran minister. I was brought up as a Lutheran by my mother. I was confirmed as a Lutheran as a teen. I attended a Lutheran church until I was 18 years of age and old enough to leave home forever. Today, when I hear Garrison Keilor on his show, A Prarie Home Companion,  affectionately make fun of and celebrate Midwest Lutherans, I know the world he speaks of.

Bob Dylan wrote this line in his haunting ballad, With God on our Side, in describing the world he came from in northern Minnesota and also of who we are as Americans:

Oh my name it is nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that the land that I live in
Has God on its side

Well, the country I come from is the Midwest, and whether I wanted them or not, I became one of them–a Midwest Lutheran. It is not a bad thing. It is just is part of who I am, regardless of what I believe about faith.

(Click on the photo to see a larger picture on separate picture page.)

Reflecting on tragedy and making hard choices in life

Earlier in 2014, one of my high school classmates, Jeremy Nemerov, was murdered at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. Nemerov was reportedly killed almost as soon as he arrived for allegedly being a “snitch,” according to some reports. I have no idea if that is true or not.

The Facebook page photograph of Jeremy Nemerov,  who was murdered in a federal prison while serving a drug sentence (a non-violent crime).

The Facebook page photograph of Jeremy Nemerov, who was murdered in a federal prison while serving a drug sentence (a non-violent crime).

He was clearly a victim of violent crime for serving time on a non-violent drug offense–the type of charges that are filling our nation’s prisons and bankrupting all forms of government. Nemerov was also, by all definitions, a drug addict, according to confessionals that were written about him on his still bizarrely functioning Facebook page. Addiction, in the end, ultimately led him to a trail that ended in a violent death in the worst possible place. (This story paints a bleak picture of his lifelong battles with drugs.)

I really did not know him well, and in the end not at all. I remember him from high school, mostly as a person who had amazing gifts bestowed upon him by luck and birth. First, he was born in the richest country on earth. He was from a racial group that has some of the best health and education outcomes in our country. His father, Howard Nemerov, was a former celebrated poet and Washington University professor. His aunt was famous photographer Diane Arbus.

He lived in a big, comfortable nice house in a nice neighborhood, and he also drove a Porsche given to him as a gift by his family during his teens. And still, he got trapped by drugs and personal choices he made every day of his life, just like the rest of us.

As someone who believes that we all are responsible for our life choices, regardless of our circumstances, I am not one who is feeling great anguish, but mostly because he was not my friend nor a family member. However, I have seen drugs and alcohol destroy all kinds of people, some close to me, and have seen drugs victimize too many innocent and better people who pick up the pieces left by the abusers and addicts or even who die sometimes violently at their hands.

At some point in life, all of us will confront hard choices, even demons. We ultimately will be measured by our actions, even if circumstances are cruelly unfair, particularly for those who were not born with the incredible gifts Nemerov got dealt early in life.

One of Nemerov’s peers, someone I also knew decades ago, wrote a remembrance of him, focussing on Nemerov’s addictions and his own failures to intervene on a road trip with Nemerov when both were 15: “If I could go back in time, I would have spent those four weeks trying to warn Jeremy of his budding demons.
… I will focus on the amazing boy that I knew in the 80’s.”

Viktor Frankl two years after he was released from German captivity, which helped him develop ideas to provide meaning in life, captured in his book Man's Search for Meaning.

Viktor Frankl two years after he was released from German captivity, which helped him develop ideas to provide meaning in life, captured in his book Man’s Search for Meaning.

None of us can go back in time. What we can do is focus on our lives in the moment, daily, and respond the best we can. I am choosing to spend my energies focussing on those who are working to help others and themselves. When it comes to those with addictions, I believe the person who ultimately will make a change is the person who really has the ultimate power–the person making the choices with life’s often unfair hand.

As one of my favorite thinkers, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, noted: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”