Category Archives: Uncategorized

#110 “City Primeval” by Elmore Leonard (#292 on The List)

by Michael Niewodowski

In memory of Elmore Leonard 1925-2013

“Now, now-lay off Detroit.  Them people is livin’ in Mad Max times.” –Moe Szyslak, “The Simpsons”

Image

When I think of gritty crime novels, I think of Elmore Leonard.  When I think of crime ridden cities, I think of Detroit, Michigan.  City Primeval combines these two for the best (and worst) of both worlds.

The novel’s two main characters are Raymond Cruz, a hard-boiled but noble homicide detective, and Clement Mansell (aka The Oklahoma Wildman), a homicidal maniac.  Mansell knows how easy it is to get away with murder in Detroit; with his lawyer, he exploits every loophole in the legal system, most notably a purposefully delayed court trial that allows him to walk free after being convicted of a triple homicide.  For no reason at all, Mansell murders (an infamously corrupt) Detroit judge.  Although there is no personal vendetta between Mansell and Cruz, the Oklahoma Wildman challenges the good cop to a duel; the subtitle of the novel is “High Noon in Detroit”.  Of course, Mansell has no plans to stop killing before the showdown…..

Like any Leonard novel, there are lots of ins and outs, dead ends, twists, and sudden turns. The backdrop is a terrifyingly violent metropolis full of racism, sexual violence, corrupt government, abuse of power, and senseless murder.  Leonard does not attempt to qualify any of this; it simply exists as the backdrop that is Detroit against which he draws his maze.

Although I’ve never been to Detroit, I know something about living in a crime ridden city.  I spent three years in college in Steubenville, Ohio.  An old-school steel town, Steubenville had far passed its prime by the early 1990s, and had fallen into depression and crime.  The Franciscan University of Steubenville, where I attended school, was an anomaly in the city, an isolated group of ultra-conservative, yet charismatic Catholics who seemed more interested in proselytizing than higher education.

My friends and I did not see eye to eye with the fundamentalists or the overarching administration, and we moved off campus.  We soon learned that the Jesus freaks on the hill were not nearly as much of a concern as our new neighbors in the depressed Steubenville area.  Dangerous gangs roamed the streets, a friend’s house was hit by bullets, and we learned to never go out at night alone.  A few years after I left Steubenville, in my former neighborhood, for no reason at all, a pair violent criminals kidnapped and murdered two off-campus University students execution style.

(Respect and love for the families and friends of the victims.)

I have lived in such amazing places as London England, New York City, the countryside of Austria, the Suncoast of Spain, and the gulf coast of Florida.  London England fell quickly on the heels of Steubenville, and it stands out as the most glorious place I’ve ever lived.  Meanwhile, Steubenville remains in my memory as the biggest shit-hole I’ve ever lived in.  I wonder, however, if London would have seemed quite as glorious if it hadn’t followed the bleakness of Steubenville.

Novels like City Primeval show us the darkness so that we may more fully appreciate the light.

 

Advertisements

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

My Father the Superhero

by Michael Niewodowski

Eleven years ago today, my father, Michael Anthony Niewodowski, died.  He had struggled with cancer for more than three years.  He was 57 years old.  

Tonight, I will break from my usual format to publish the eulogy I wrote and delivered at his funeral.  It was written under duress and remains unedited.  It was one of the proudest and saddest moments of my life….

My dearest Family and friends, one of my father’s very favorite things to do was to laugh. If you find parts of this eulogy
funny, please laugh, for his sake. And if you don’t find any of it funny…..maybe you could just laugh for my
sake, to make me feel a little better.

Michael Anthony Niewodowski: a son’s perspective.

As I began to write this eulogy, I quickly realized that I could not give an unbiased account of my
father’s life. My father was no ordinary man. He was more. To me, he was nothing short of a superhero, with
extraordinary strengths. He would stand up to Superman, and laugh at the lesser heroes like Batman or
Spiderman.

The first time I witnessed my father’s superpowers was at a Cincinnati Reds baseball game, in
Cincinnati. I was two years old. A great baseball player, Johnny Bench, was having a bad game. When Bench
approached the plate, my father stood up in his seat and bellowed at the top of his lungs, “JOHNNY
BENCH HAS BEEN!!” Bench flinched noticeably at this summons. The very next day, Bench announced his
retirement, on the grounds that his fans no longer supported him. That day, I realized my father had forced a
great baseball player’s retirement. There was no doubt in my mind that day or any day since that my father
was nothing short of a superhero, possessed with unnatural strengths.

As a superhero, he needed less fuel than we mere human beings. His diet usually consisted of one
reasonable meal a day, a heaping bowl of ice cream with chocolate syrup, and coffee. Lots of coffee. Cream
and sugar? HA!! His coffee was always black and strong enough to float a bullet.

Of course, no superhero is complete without a really cool car. My father’s batmobile of choice was
a white1984 convertible Cadillac with red leather interior. Many of his happiest times were spent cruising
around with the top down.

He ruled his backyard with absolute supremacy. If a tree had the audacity to grow crookedly it
would soon be bound by winches, chains, and pulleys. If a tree dared to erupt it’s roots from the ground and
disturb the grass, or lose it leaves too soon, or bloom at the wrong time, or even so much as give my father a
dirty look, that tree was in big trouble. My father would quickly set about cutting the roots out from under it
with a stump grinder, until even the faintest wind would knock it down. The grass in the yard would never
be anything but the perfect shade of green. If a weed dared to show it’s head, it wasn’t for long.

No superhero is complete without an archenemy, either. My father’s nemesis was an unlikely
villain: a squirrel. A constant battle waged between my superhero father and the squirrel. After all
birdfeeders are meant to feed birds, not furry critters. He spent many a dime on squirrel proof birdfeeders.
He tried boobytrapping the birdfeeders against the squirrels– for example, he used squirrel repellent, greased
the wires to the birdfeeders, and even chased the squirrel around the backyard. However, he was constantly
foiled by the squirrel. It often made me wonder why there were always corncobs, the squirrel’s food of
choice, stashed in with the birdseed!

Just as he ruled his garden, he also ruled his palace. Whether in the house or the motor home, no
single inch went unchecked. To my superhero, the only evil was imperfection. He spent almost every waking
moment assuring that the house was in pristine, perfect order.

He had unnatural physical strength. I once saw him fall from a 10 foot ladder, straight onto his back
on the hard concrete. Any normal human would have been injured and hospitalized. Not my father. He was
up and back on the ladder before I could even ask him if he was alright.

But, even superheroes need rest. What you may not realize, though, is that superheroes do not rest
the same way that normal humans do. Vacations were a string of thousands and thousands of miles traveled.
There were sightseeing projects that would put Clark Griswald to shame. His relaxation was to escape the
everyday grind and to explore new and different worlds. His travels took him to 5 continents, and over 50
different countries. However, he continually told us that the country he loved the most was the United
States. “It is the most beautiful country in the world,” he would say, “Everything you can see in another
country, we have here.” Indeed he should know, during his life, he traveled to all fifty states.

Superheroes, as a general rule, save lives. My father spent his life and work focusing on this. My
father was involved in life saving on a daily basis. He spent his days honoring life and making every effort to
improve the quality of life of those around him. I have witnessed many men thank him for saving their lives.
Even in his retirement, he never stopped doing his job. He volunteered his time and money to perform
surgeries in Ghana, and in Haiti.

The lives he improved the most, and saved most often were the lives of his family. He has saved our
lives upon the sea, on the roadways, and even in our own home. Many times, our house and our family has
been in danger of fire. I have seen the man gather burning logs with his bare hands and expel them from our
house. He literally threw them out the back door! True, it was he who lit the fire in the fireplace, and piled
the logs so high that they came tumbling out of the fireplace, but in the end, he always saved us.

As far as improving the lives of his family, he has done so unquestionably and amazingly. When my
sister and I were old enough to leave the nest, our wings were never clipped. On the contrary, he gave us the
freedom to fly from one side of the globe to the other. My father gave me the opportunity to attend the
finest culinary school in the world, to chase my dreams to London, and to work at the top of Manhattan.

When Michael was inflicted with cancer, he scoffed at it, just as any superhero would. “Live by the
sword, die by the sword” he would say. There was never a day that he let the cancer slow him down. He
fought it for more than three years, even though he was only supposed to live six months. Instead of letting
it slow him or stop him from performing his job, he simply went on. Despite the cancer growing in his body,
he removed cancer from others in Africa and the Caribbean.

My father was a superhero for this reason: not a single day passed that he did not either try to
save someone’s life or make someone’s life better.

In conclusion, I would like to say that I could have never
asked for or even imagined a better father. I never looked up to Superman because to me he was always less
than the superhero I had at home.

If I ever had a hero, it was my father, Michael Anthony Niewodowski

Michael Anthony Niewodowski in Ghana

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

#106 “The History of the Siege of Lisbon” by Jose Saramago (#194 on The List)

Picture 2

by Michael Niewodowski

The History of the Siege of Lisbon is a novel about a single word.

After more than forty years of impeccable service in his profession, Raimundo Silva, a proofreader, intentionally alters a line in a history book manuscript; he changes “During the siege of Lisbon in the twelfth century, the king of Portugal asked help from the Crusaders, who had stopped to re-supply their ships; the Crusaders said that they would come to help attack the occupying Moors” to “the Crusaders said that they would NOT come to help attack the occupying Moors”.  As the proofreader is the last in line to examine a manuscript before publishing, the book was published with the erroneous information.  Silva’s decision is inexplicable: when asked “why?” he responds that he simply had a “Mr. Hyde” moment.  Rather than fire the proofreader, his superior suggests that he write a fictional history of the siege in which the Crusaders do not help the Portuguese.

History, reality, and even life itself can hinge on a single word. In his novel, Saramago questions the validity of written history and shows us how tenuous our understanding of reality can be.  The proofreader’s fictional account is much more interesting and exciting than the “true” history of the siege.  For Saramago, the truth should never stand in the way of a good story, and his-story trumps history.

Most of us can probably relate to Raimundo Silva’s “Mr. Hyde” moment; we all do things that are unprofessional or just plain wrong at work.  When I was a high school teacher, I often used curse words in front of my students. I was teaching Culinary Arts, and I had come from a professional restaurant kitchen environment, where screaming curses is commonplace- even expected. I brought the intensity of my 3 and 4 star restaurant experiences to the classroom, but I knew that it was unprofessional in the high school environment; ironically, this “Mr. Hyde” intensity made me more effective at my job, and my students more engaged and prepared.

Aptly, it was a single word that brought about my demise at my teaching job.

A student accused me of being a bully; if he said “bully” once, he said it a hundred times to any other parents, teachers, or administrators who would listen to him.  This was a student who had become disenfranchised and retaliatory because he had been cut from a competitive culinary team.  Although I NEVER threatened physical violence, it was pretty easy to construe “bullying” from my using curse words, and I was labeled and shamed.

When I was a child, a bully was someone that threatened physical violence to get something from another person (usually lunch money). Now, the definition of a bully is much broader; apparently, you only have to make someone uncomfortable to be considered a bully.  According to Norwegian researcher Dan Olwen (a supposed expert) a bully is someone who “intentionally inflicts injury or discomfort upon another person, through physical contact, through words, or in other ways.”  By this definition, Mahatma Gandhi was a bully: he bullied the English through non-violent civil disobedience, intentionally inflicting discomfort upon them.  By this definition, Jesus Christ was a physically violent bully: he intentionally inflicted physical injury upon the moneychangers in the temple.  (Suddenly, my company doesn’t look so bad…..)  The word “bully” has become a buzz word, and it is thrown around a lot.  I would prefer a definition that does not encompass nearly every man, woman, child, and animal, as Olwen’s definition does.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon teaches us to choose our words wisely.  A single word may change history.

Picture 5

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

#105 “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell (#13 on The List)

Cloud Atlas

by Michael Niewodowski

#105 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (#13 on The List).

“Based on the novel by David Mitchell”

A great film is like a novel delivered in its entirety in about two to three hours.

I saw the film version of Cloud Atlas a few months ago, and I was blown away.  It was a breathtaking, sprawling, and thought provoking film.  After seeing the film, I checked out the novel to see how they compare.

Cloud Atlas consists of six separate stories, spanning centuries and all the stories are interconnected.  The novel begins with the first half of each story- a journal by a merchant at sea on the Pacific Ocean in the 1800’s, a set of letters from Belgium to a lover in the 1930’s, a conspiracy murder mystery story from the 1970’s, an Englishman’s memoirs from the 2000’s, a final prisoner interview from Korea in the 2100’s, and an oral yarn from a post-apocalyptic Hawaii set far in the future.  Then the novel works its way backwards in time telling the second half of each story.  Imagine nesting Russian dolls.  One of the amazing things about the novel is the author’s range- each story is completely different from the others.  The interconnectedness is even more amazing- each story references the one before it: in the letters, the lover reads the Pacific journal and comments on it, the heroine in the murder mystery reads and studies the lover’s letters (as well as searching out and listening to his musical composition “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”), the Englishman reads and later publishes the murder mystery, the Korean prisoner watches the film version of the Englishman’s memoirs, and the people of the post-apocalyptic Hawaii worship the heroine of the Korean prisoner interview as a god.  Furthermore, the main character in each story has a matching birthmark in the shape of a comet.  Are we meant to believe that the main character of each story is a reincarnated version of the earlier?  The heroine of the murder mystery believes so; the Englishman flat out denies it.  The novel leaves that and many other decisions to the imagination of the reader- especially, ‘how may one’s actions affect others, even centuries later?’.

The film version follows each of the six stories faithfully.  However, instead of telling half of each story chronologically, then working its way backwards in time with the second half, the movie continuously shifts from story to story.  Amazingly, this is very effective in telling each separate story as well as connecting them.  I imagine that a great deal of deliberation went into this decision; the producers must have considered telling each story consecutively, and also considered following the novel directly.  For a visual experience, the continual shifting was probably the best decision- it keeps the viewer on his toes to keep up with each story as well as the connections.  Another excellent decision the filmmakers made was to have the same actors play different roles in each story- Tom Hanks plays the main character in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, Halle Berry plays the heroine in the murder mystery, etc; each actor also appears in a supporting role (often unrecognizably made-up) in each of the other stories.

I am and always have been a huge movie fan.  I am ambivalent about book to movie films, however. The old adage is true- the book is ALWAYS better than the movie, but a good adaptation can be wonderful.  In general, I enjoy watching the movie adaptation before reading the book; I have never found an adapted film version that I did not later greatly enjoy reading the book.  However, if I read a book first, and then see the film, I am often disappointed by the changes and disparities.  Many people disagree with me on this point. When learning or teaching a Shakespeare play, I find it very helpful to see as many film adaptations of the play as possible; literary critic Stephen Greenblatt praised Shakespeare for his “extraordinary malleability”.  I have seen dozens of film and stage versions of Macbeth, and I learn something new from each adaptation.

On the flip side, a poor adaptation of a great book can make me furious!  Films like “I Am Legend”, “The Scarlet Letter”, and “Sleepy Hollow” are travesties.  Any viewer would be far better off spending the money and time reading the actual book instead of watching the film adaptation.

Book to film adaptations can be tricky: I thoroughly enjoyed “Life of Pi”, even though I saw it after reading the book.  “Les Miserables” is a book to stage musical to film version- it worked for me; for many others is was a ‘miserable’ experience.  I am far more enamored with The Hobbit novel than the recent movie.  “Cloud Atlas” stands out as a film to rival Cloud Atlas the novel.  That’s a rare feat.

Cloud Atlas 2

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

#102 “The Temptation of St. Antony” by Gustave Flaubert (#845 on The List)

by Michael Niewodowski

Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Antony is a religious hallucination.  St. Antony of Egypt (cir. 251-356) was an ascetic monk that lived in the Libyan Desert; he is said to have experienced supernatural temptations. In Flaubert’s novel, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Greek gods, Lust, Death, demons, heretics, science, the Sphinx, and others tempt him.  Like the many paintings that St. Antony’s story has inspired, Flaubert’s work is surreal, spectacularly visual, and nearly impenetrably dense.

There are some pretty fantastic highlights.  The Greek gods appear in all their glory, with Hercules holding up Mt. Olympus; eventually Hercules is crushed by the weight of the mountain, and all the gods perish.  Later, Antony rides on the horns of the Devil as they fly into space, past stars and galaxies while the Devil argues science and reason.

When I was twelve years old, I went on a religious pilgrimage to the small village of Medugorje in the former Yugoslavia (now Bosnia/Herzegovina), where supposedly the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared to six children since 1981; this has not been confirmed nor denied by the Catholic Church.  While I was there, many other pilgrims experienced religious hallucinations: one person reported an out of body experience, others said their rosaries turned to gold, and yet others said that the mountainsides were lit up at night by brilliant supernatural lights.  I didn’t see any gold rosaries, and the mountains looked dark to me.  One American family claimed to see the ‘miracle of the sun’ in which the sun dances, splits, and changes colors and shapes.  I was sitting very nearby this family while they were experiencing this hallucination; I looked at the sun, but didn’t see anything.  I prayed and prayed to see what they were seeing, but the sun didn’t change.  I asked my father why I couldn’t see it; he told me, “If you stare long enough into the sun, you’ll see all sorts of strange things.” (Indeed, each member of the family described seeing a different version of the dancing sun.)  I felt like something was wrong with me- that my faith was not strong enough because I did not experience any of these ‘miracles’.  Later, I came to realize that I was a lot like the child that recognized that the Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.  One of the things I did notice about all the pilgrims that experienced religious hallucinations- they were all quick to brag about the ‘miracles’ they had experienced, like it was a status symbol of their faith.  My own mother, the most religious person I know, did not experience any religious hallucinations on that trip.

At the end of The Temptation of St. Antony, Antony, having defeated all temptations, sees the face of Jesus Christ in the disc of the sun.  Finally at peace, he makes the sign of the cross and returns to his prayers.

I no longer hold resentment towards the pilgrims that experienced religious hallucinations.  Many members of other religions put themselves into altered states through asceticism like St. Antony to have religious hallucinations.  They seem to experience a great deal of joy from the ‘miracles’.  After all, the people all cheered with joy when they saw the Emperor’s new ‘clothes’.  I just hope that that American family didn’t experience permanent eye damage from staring at the sun for so long.   I choose to keep my health and wits instead of hallucinating to get closer to God.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

#100 “Aesop’s Fables” by Aesopus

by Michael Niewodowski

#100 Aesop’s Fables by Aesopus (#1001 on The List)

And the moral of the story is……

Human beings are problem-solving animals.  In a purely physical fight with any animal of equal mass, a human is sure to lose; what really sets us apart is our capacity for complex problem solving.  In Aesop’s Fables, many animals are given human problem solving characteristics.  The animals in the fables can to teach us a great deal about ourselves.

Many of the fables and lessons are familiar: The tortoise and the hare = slow and steady wins the race; the goose that lays golden eggs = don’t ruin a good thing; the boy who cried wolf = you can’t believe a liar even when he tells the truth.  However, what struck me while reading these fables is that many of the morals are in disagreement with each other.  One teaching that is universal, however, is that a person’s true character cannot be changed; for example, in the fable of the crow and the swan, the crow takes up residence in the water in hopes to wash away the black and become as white as the swan = although you change your habits, you cannot change your nature.

Aesop’s Fables originate in ancient Greece, and many of them deal with the Greek gods and goddesses, including creation stories.  We tend to dismiss the ancient Greek beliefs as mythology, although it is evident that most of the ancient Greeks took the gods quite literally.  Nowadays, we are much more intelligent and educated. We all know that death is a natural and inevitable phenomenon, and not a personified supernatural being; we know that the earth revolves around the sun, and that Apollo doesn’t drive the sun across the sky with a chariot; we know that Zeus didn’t create the animals and give them all their characteristics.  Right?

I believed in creationism until I was in my twenties.  This was not ‘intelligent design’, but full-on creationism- as in God blinked the humans, the animals, the earth, and everything in it into existence in six days.  Although I was raised Catholic, I attended a Fundamentalist Christian school.  We were taught from books called Evolution: The Big Lie and others.  Our World History teacher assured us that there was irrevocable evidence of ‘the great flood’, and that the proof that humans and dinosaurs co-existed is many cultures’ legends of dragons.  I was taught and believed a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis.

My own father tried to educate me on this issue; I prayed for his soul.

When I finally learned and accepted scientific fact (thanks in large part to the Discovery Channel) it was a huge shock to my system.  Evolution was not a vast secular conspiracy to tear Christians away from their religious beliefs as I had been taught indoctrinated to believe.  I started to question all the truths and beliefs I had held so closely.  I am no longer resentful of this experience; rather I am thankful that it instilled a questioning and problem-solving nature in me (although, if we are to believe Aesop’s Fables, I ALWAYS had that questioning nature).

The Dalai Lama recently said, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.”*  Wouldn’t the world be a much better place is all religions followed this tenet?  To their credit, the Catholic Church has made huge strides on this issue (I think they learned a lot from the Galileo affair), however, they have a long way to go, and progress is slow.  The Fundamentalists, and many other religions, dismiss or re-write science, history, and reality to accommodate their beliefs, all while praying to the heavens for knowledge, wisdom, and guidance.

Aesop’s fable of the wagoner is a story of a man whose cart gets stuck in the mud.  He prays to the gods to help him; finally a god comes down and tells him to start pushing the cart, saying, “If you won’t lift a finger to help yourself, you can’t expect the gods or anyone else to come to your aid” = heaven helps those who help themselves.  If we ourselves are not willing to educate ourselves and sharpen our own problem solving skills, we deserve the ignorance so many of us are mired in.

.

* http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/12/opinion/12dalai.html?pagewanted=all  The article is well worth reading.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized