Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Grey

The Grey

By Bobby Neal Winters
Mr. Virgil Gantt taught us in high school literature that there were three kinds of conflict: Man versus Man; Man versus Nature; and Man Versus Himself.  One might wonder whether they are all three aspects of the third or if there is a fourth all-encompassing Man Versus God.  Let’s leave that question, at least for now.
The Grey, a movie starring Liam Neeson, portrays all of these conflicts.  While Man does encompass male and female, in The Grey we might well forget that.  In my own personal taxonomy, it is what I classify as a Man’s movie.  
That part of it begins with the cast. Though women are important to the film, there are only two women in the cast who appear other than through memory or anecdote. One is a bartender and the other is a stewardess. The women who are otherwise present are wives, lovers, and daughters.  Their presence is as important to the story as that of the men, but they are present through a man’s perception of them.  They tell as much about the man as they do about themselves.
Liam Neeson plays John Ralph Ottaway whose job is hunting wolves for an oil company in a remote part of Alaska.   He is on the way out of the wilderness with a plane load of other oilfield men when the plane crashes in the mountains.  The group of survivors define axes that illustrate the masculine space: smart/stupid; aggressive/meek; spiritual/godless; wise/fool.
That which follows contains spoilers, so proceed at your own risk.
The could’ve written a movie wherein everyone immediately fell in behind Neeson’s character and after adventures he leads them to safety.  That has been done many times and isn’t bad, but this is not that film.  Most do follow his lead. The ones who don’t die quickly.  Those who do die less quickly.  After a certain point, one realizes that everyone in this movie is going to die. The question is how?
Just exactly like life.
In looking at the group dynamics of the survivors, we are asked to notice how much like wolves they are. They group together to survive; they fight each other for leadership; they establish a hierarchy.  The Romans said, “Homo homini lupus.” Man is the wolf of man.  (They might not have meant it in this sense, but I love the phrase so much, that I am going to keep using it until I use it correctly.)
All of the men carry around the women in their lives with them.  The better the man, the higher he esteems his woman, or is that vice versa?
Neeson’s character is continually flashing back to his wife who we learn through his internal monolog has left him.  We are confused because his memories contain no bitterness.  She is remembered almost as an angel of light and, much like an angel, continually telling him not to be afraid.  It is only in the very last moments of the movie when we see the IV drip and the hospital bet that we understand.
Each of the men meet death.  Neeson’s character the last.
Before his end, he calls to God and curses Him, berating him for a sign, for some help.  This being the movie it is, there is neither.  Neeson gets up then saying, “I’ll just have to do it myself.”
And at that, Neeson meets death remembering a poem taught him by his father, “Once more into the fray / once more into the fray / to live and die on this day / to live and die on this day” and using the skills he’d learned as a man.

Ultimately while this is a man’s movie about men and being a man, it is also about the struggle of life.  There is only one way out.  How do you face it?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Yerba mate

Yerba Maté

By Bobby Neal Winters
The mortar and pestle pounding the maté sounded like horses’ hooves on cobble stones as we walked past the corner and crossed Avenida Estigarribia. We then turned and headed east.
This is our last full day. Tomorrow we began travel home. As my cousin Mary told me, "No hay lugar como el hogar."  There is no place like home.
Asuncion downtown wakes slowly. This is the tropics, and the length of day and night vary only a little from season to season. We are still in winter, but the daily high is already in the 90s. At night it cools off a bit. At night you can move without the burning sun staring down at you. During the afternoon you retreat into the dark buildings with their high ceilings. At sundown, after six, you can emerge from protection and live again.
The morning is pleasant. There is a nice breeze and we try to stick to the north side of the street where the shade is. We are south of the equator and must adjust to our new reality.
Others do the same. And everywhere there are men with their guampas and bombillas drinking maté.  
Maté is made of herbs and drunk in a tea.  It is medicinal. It is ubiquitous. It is Paraguay.
We go to the sidewalk market around the Plaza to buy souvenirs. Jean gets a purse for herself and I get a mortar and pestle. We step out of the shade of the market and there is a teenage girl with a mortar and pestle crushing herbs into maté.
We walk past the fancy pharmacy with a large contingent of rent-a-cops and cross the street heading east. On the sidewalk in front of a fancy clothing store, there is a man sleeping in his own vomit on the sidewalk. No one seems to notice. No one seems concerned. None of the rent-a-cops are rousting him. Who is my neighbor?
We go on past.
We ultimately walk past him several times over the course of four hours.
We go to Plaza de Uruguayana and visit one of the bookstores there. We walk out the south side of the park and--of all things--there is a man with mortar and pestle grinding maté.
It is approaching noon now, we are getting hungry. We go seeking a place to get a lomito and succeed. It is good. It is a restaurant and so the lomito is not as good as the ones you get from street vendors who sell them. My rule of thumb is that if you are not a bit scared, then the lomito won't be as good.
We start back to the hotel and pass were the man had been sleeping. He is gone, but I know it's the right place because the vomit is still there.
We come back to the hotel, where the maté man is gone from his corner, retreated into the cool of some dark building.
We do the same.

Monday, September 09, 2013

On the Road

By Bobby Neal Winters

Living on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath's as hard as kerosene
Townes Van Zandt

I've been on the road for a couple of weeks. First Brazil, now Paraguay. Along with my wife, we are living out of suitcases. The hotels have been nice, so this has definitely not been a canoe trip down the Amazon, but when you are a homeboy, life on the road is a stress.
Currently the contents of my pocket is a mixture of dollars, reals, and guarani. In Brazil, pricing something was the exercise of dividing by two. Here in Paraguay, it means dividing by 5000. The rhythms of the road are different from place to place. Practices which are the law in the states might very well get you killed either here or in Brazil. You must keep you head about you.
In Brazil, the people on the street did not speak English and outside of airports and other tourist centered places, there was very little English; some in Brasilia, but it's a government city. If you know a little Spanish in Brazil, the best strategy is to extrapolate Latin from your Spanish and then imagine how the Portuguese ruined it. It also helps to imagine they ruined some things differently just out of spite. For example, they pronounce the letter r at the beginning of a syllable like an English h. So Renaissance sounds like Henaissance. This is so silly, you begin to think someone is just playing a trick on you, but they are deadly serious. When the plane landed in Río, they said welcome to Hee-oh. So if it is a trick, they really care about it and it's best not to call them on it.
Santo from Spanish is São in Portuguese. They say it is pronounced sow, but it you say sow they will shake their heads. The one thing I know from my reading is that it's not pronounced Say-oh, but if you pronounce it Say-oh, they are happier than if you say sow.
As I said above, there are different rhythms. They eat late here. When we eat ate American times, 6:30 or 7 pm, we have the restaurant to ourselves if the restaurant is even open. In Río and São Paulo, the student fairs went to nine, so we put off supper until then. We felt much less out of place, but eating that late is not really conducive to sleeping well for us.
We've had this weekend off in Asuncion, and I've taken a siesta each afternoon. I've been amazed at how easily that has come to me. The days have been hot, in the nineties. We've walked in the mornings, found lunch at noon, and then come back to the room to crash. It has been a glue that has held me together.
Today I have business. I need to be sharp. Tomorrow the same is true. Then the trip home on Wednesday. Students to teach, students to help, grass to mow, and my own bed.