Sunday, March 30, 2014

Brother Love

I have a unique relationship with my brother, Rhett Preston Kirby. I don’t mean that in the sense that he’s better than other brothers, or that he does and provides what other brothers do not, though I feel that those things are true. I don’t place much value in comments of the type: “My brother, father, mother, wife, school, country, teacher, cat, chili recipe, etc. is the best that ever was!” Because, could a person  ever really know? It’s meaningless for me to say he’s the best, without offering solid evidence. I’ll pass on the superlatives and just say why he is what he is in my life.

So, what’s so unique about him, anyway? First of all, unique defines his role in my life. Rhett is the only person I’ve ever known who is like him. Sure, you say. So he’s a unique individual. Aren’t we all? Well, it’s deeper than that. And here’s why. My brother and I are about as different as brothers can be. We have different likes, inclinations, personalities, ways of engaging the world. We have different skills and foibles, different things we strive for. We’ve carved out our places in the world using wholly different tools and maps. You could even say that, with all our differences, we inhabit different worlds, and that would be substantially true. What it comes down to is that, without the accident of having been born into the same family at approximately the same time, there’s little chance I’d ever have come to know him. And, it’s why I’ve never really known anyone like him. Which is what makes him so unique to me, as I believe I am to him.

It took me a couple of decades to realize this, and to begin to appreciate Rhett in a very special way. In the sphere of my life, he has perspectives on things completely unlike those of friends, colleagues and partners I’ve attracted over the years. And, because I love him, and he me, I am able to interact with this alien intelligence in ways deep and intimate enough as to instruct, enlighten and inspire me.

Of course, I exaggerate our differences. We come from the same parents, were born in the same city into similar circumstances, and through most of our pre-adult years, our physical and social journeys were parallel. And all these similarities, all that we share, is essential to the love and bond between us.

That bond has always felt absolute and unconditional. We have our disagreements; we used to fight often enough. As adults, we’ve mostly lived far apart, sometimes not seeing one another for years at a time. We’ve hardly ever exchanged Christmas or birthday gifts, and the odd time that something is given, one to the other, it never sets a precedent of creates any kind of expectation.

But emotionally, or, maybe deeper than that, even... on the level of who we are, we are bonded. Maybe it’s on the level of the “story” we believe ourselves to be living, how we situate ourselves and each other in the world of “meaning”. On that level, in that place, we are deeply connected, mirrors of one another, alter egos, each a kind of harmony to the other’s melody, the chorus behind one another’s center stage. We are joined, in simple fact.

He’s been with me from my beginning and populates my earliest memories. In one of them, he’s bent over on the sidewalk in front of our house, retying my shoe lace, teaching me how to do it myself. In another, he’s rescuing me from a tree down the street. With his encouragement, I’d mustered the confidence to climb up it, but wouldn’t come down again. There’s never been any doubt of our connection. And we’ve both noted, as we’ve journeyed through life, our surprise at how few other siblings seem as solid and sure, as quietly passionate about their bond, as we are of our brotherhood.

I came to realize, as I learned to ponder the whys and wherefores of my life, that there were reasons for all of this. Our mutual commitment got serious reinforcement when we moved from Detroit to New York, when I was five and he was seven. For a few weeks or months we were shuttled here and there, sometimes with our father, sometimes both parents, occasionally with strangers, while our parents tried to settle on some place and some way for us to all live together. We changed schools and neighborhoods a few times through the next few years, and so often, we were each the single familiar face in one another’s world. This shifting went on, in one way or another, until we entered our teens. At the height of our life as wanderers, we found ourselves in East Germany, where our mother sang in night clubs and stage shows, on a series on month-long contracts. We stayed in small hotels, and my brother and I would meet the local kids, and learn their games and a few new words. Once we taught a group of boys how to play baseball, in an empty lot in Leipzig, and a small crowd gathered to watch.

Our parents were there with us, but much of the time Rhett and I felt like it was us two against the world. Not ‘against’ in the sense that there was any painful struggle to it. Merely in the sense that everything outside of us was different, and only we knew who we were and where we’d come from. And no one else could ever understand all that. Why even try to explain. We had each other. And it was wonderful! We grew up feeling that, despite any differences, we were sharing one journey, one adventure, one perspective on the big world that lay ahead and all around us. It was one long adventure, and the two of us, the ever successful protagonists in some epic saga.

We moved and moved again, lived with one parent then the other, watched them become disaffected, then divorce, all the while sharing our whispered conversations in our bedroom when the lights were out, our speculations about our fate and what lay ahead. And all the while, Rhett was my protector, my biggest fan, my confidant, my guide.

At one point, we were in a couple of professional stage plays, sharing the same rolls on alternating nights, and bringing our very different energies and personas to the roles. That experience is a great metaphor for how we felt about our connected destinies. However different we were, we knew that we shared a path unique to ourselves, and not translatable to others. Trust, devotion, love. I learned the depths of those emotions from my brother, through those years of growing up.

Eventually, our lives settled. We wound up back in New York, with our father. A few years in the same place led to a renewed sense of home, to new friends who became old friends. We began to develop in our separate and individual ways. Rhett played basketball. I joined the school orchestra. I read books. He caroused with his buddies. So there came a point during our teens when my brother and I didn’t have much to do with each other. We were each too involved in finding and furnishing our niches in life. I remember feeling that he just didn’t fit into mine very well. I went away to school first; he did the same, a year or so later. And that was when one of the differences in us really began to assert itself.

My response to, first, leaving the extended family behind in Detroit, and then, the dissolution of our parents’ marriage, was to try to divorce myself from family altogether. I decided to go it alone, to let relations with family weaken and fall away. But Rhett’s response was to develop a love and commitment to family that’s stronger than in almost anyone I know. He simply didn’t let me drift away. For years, no matter how ‘uppity’ and distant I got, he called, he tracked me down, he visited. He remained “Big Brother” – and friend, fan, supporter, guide. The comforting and mythic reality of “Us against the World” survived everything that might’ve pulled us apart.

I just turned sixty, and in July, Rhett will be sixty-two. And the bond between us remains as it ever was. Rhett Preston Kirby is the deepest expression of love and family that I know. He will forever be the most unique person in all my life. He is my only brother, so of course I have no basis of comparison. Yet and still, the heart has grounds for making claims that no logic or reason can undercut. I assert it because, in this life I have lived, it is true. Rhett is and has been the greatest brother I could ever have had. Without him...well, I just can’t imagine.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

This New Hour

When my sixtieth year began, just about a year ago, I found myself playing with the metaphor of my entire life as a single hour, each year represented by a minute on the clock. By that reckoning, last March I was entering my hour's final minute, and I approached the year with the intent of completing some things. I know that some of my friends were horrified by this analogy, seeing in it some morbid anticipation of death, but no such thing was intended. Rather, the image helped me to focus my priorities and set goals. It also helped prepare me for turning sixty, which I feared might otherwise come with a heavy psychological load.

Well, my hour ended two days ago. I didn't achieve nearly all I'd hoped to. The clock was an appropriate but daunting image to engage with, as all year I was acutely aware of the ticking away of those precious seconds, despite that my expanded time frame stretched each of them to almost a week. And yet, it was also a joyful minute, during which I was able to appreciate the breadth and richness of what's been a wonderful life.

I don't make much of my actual birthday anymore, and Tuesday was a pretty regular day, aside from a deluge of well wishes on Facebook and some other, more personal acknowledgements from friends. It was a good day, with lots of small reminders that a milestone was being passed. I was struck, in particular, by the realization that my thirtieth birthday, which was special in a number of ways, had passed half my lifetime ago! There were lots of jokes about loss of vigor, and my Ponczka finished off a long-standing joke between us, by announcing that she'd changed her mind, and was in fact not going to trade me in for two thirty year olds.

The great surprise though, came the next day, when I thought back to my analogy and realized that I was now into the first minute of my second hour. What a shift in perspective that brought. Suddenly, I was no longer summing up, trying to bring closure to a lifetime of intention. Now, the minute hand was starting down the other side of the clockface. Now, I was looking forward again. And looking forward, my view didn't feel nearly so populated with plans and goals and intention. I can take on anything I'd like. Time and space for something entirely new. In fact, the future feels pretty wide open.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

X Times Seven Equals Life

It's one of the best research documentary ideas ever. And it makes for some of the most fascinating television I've ever watched. I wish I had a similar record of my own family, my own communities. Apparently the model has been copied in several countries around the world, including the US, Russia, and South Africa, but until doing a little web-surfing for this blog post, I’d never heard of any of them. Certainly it’s a model worth copying, as it offers up a treasure trove of insights into the journey through life and the human condition. And talk about “reality television”!
What I'm referring to is the 7-Up series of documentaries that began in 1964 in England, a product of Granada Television’s World in Action series  ( Seeking to explore the truth of the maxim: "Show me a child at seven and I will show you the Man", Michael Apted, then a twenty-two year old researcher, selected a group of seven year olds, from the privileged and the underprivileged classes. Apted has noted his regret that he chose no strictly "middle class" children. Also, there are fewer females than males, and except for one bi-racial boy, no minorities were represented. He says that at the time he “wanted to make a nasty piece of work about these kids who have it all, and these other kids who have nothing.”
The children were interviewed, asked a range of questions about money, class, race, whether they wanted marriage and children, and where they saw themselves in the future. It was conducted with the view to catching a glimpse of what British society might be in the year 2000. It was originally conceived as a one-off, though apparently the original show included this post credits narration: "If you want to know what happens to these children, watch Granada Television on Tuesday 2nd May in the year 2000.”
What actually happened proved way more interesting than even that thought-provoking tease. Because, when 1970 rolled around, Apted, now in the role of director, tracked down the children – now fourteen – and interviewed them again. By 1977, at the third go-round, the potential and promise of the exercise really began to show itself. Some of the twenty-one year olds were exactly what their seven year old versions had hinted at, but others were startlingly different. I won’t spoil it for you, but seeing the change in Neil, from 7 to 14, then on to 21, can’t but make you wonder what happened in his young life to cause such a transformation.
Apted, who eventually moved to Hollywood, where he directed such fare as “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, “Gorillas in the Mist”, “Thunderheart” and “Nell”, returned every seven years to track down the fourteen children and create another episode in the Up series. From time to time, one or another of them has refused to participate. One of the 14 hasn’t participated since he was twenty-one, though, ironically, he’s become a documentary film-maker himself.
The series has continued right up to the present, the latest episode, broadcast in 2012, catching up with the “kids” at age 56. I can’t recall for certain whether I was introduced to the series when the participants were 21 or 28, but being just two years their senior, I feel as though I’ve been taking my life journey right alongside them. One can’t help but contrast and compare, not only them against one another, but also against one’s self. But I imagine that this is the case whatever a viewer’s age.
Despite Apted’s original, incendiary intention, the series did not mature as a political piece. While there’s certainly lots of room for partisan or sociological analysis, it stands as a much more personal exploration of life’s challenges and rewards, its small joys and the abundance of sacrifices it demands of us. Watching the show, you develop affection for some, perhaps judgement of others. You empathize, mourn, smile along with. You understand.
I’ve missed episodes through the years, but have always caught up when I had the chance. And now, the entire series – except for the very last episode – is available on Netflix! A great feature of the presentation is that each episode contains clips from all of the previous episodes. This is an invaluable aide when several years separate viewings. When binge-watching the entire series on Netflix, they can become pretty repetitive. But even with that small drawback, I can’t recommend this series strongly enough. Though its diversity is limited in being set within the mono-culture of a single, European country, there is a deep universality to this series. It will give you much to think about: How much are we all conditioned to live the lives we lead? To what extent are we free to remake ourselves, and to what extent are we subject to the whims of circumstance? To the extent that we have choices, what have we made of them? How might we have done better, or worse? How have we touched the lives of others, and how have our lives been touched by them? And, the one that is ever present, for us and for the fourteen kids of 1964, on and off the screen, what lies ahead?