Friday, July 23, 2010

Gran Torino and My Window on Life

Over the last couple of days these thoughts have been pouring through my head, and I wanted to share them with the patrons of JGAH, if for no other reason to let you know I'm still alive... its been a while, I know.

Back one Friday evening earlier this year, my wife went to bed ahead of me, which is rare... I'm generally the early to bed, early to rise guy. I flipped through the channels and found the move Gran Torino from 2008 starring Clint Eastwood just underway on HBO. When I finished watching the movie I knew I had an all-time favorite on my hands. I've since DVR'd it in JGAH and have watched it, in excerpts and in total, an embarrassing number of times. Its just that good, I highly recommend if you haven't seen it, take the time to do so. Its a fun and powerful story.

The synopsis goes like this. Eastwood is Walt Kowalski, a bigoted Korean War vet, scarred and toughened from the combat he saw there, gruff and jaded about life ever since. Kowalski's character is one of the best triumphs in cinema in my lifetime: he's an amalgam of all of the great Eastwood Characters over the years; Dirty Harry, Philo Beddow, and Gunny Highway, all rolled into one old retired war veteran. Compounding his difficult personality is the fact that his wife of many years had just passed and the loss, you can tell, eats the hell out of him, yet he's too grizzled to show the emotion outwardly.

Another factor that eats away at Walt is the changing demographics of his neighborhood. Walt and his late wife Dorothy bought their house in the neighborhood after Walt had returned home from Korea, and it was something that he took great pride in maintaining. The neighborhood, had, over the years, changed into one that largely became a haunt of displaced Koreans referred to as Hmong people. You can imagine the impact such a change has on a bigot like Walt.

Through a strange series of events, Walt realizes he can no longer ignore his neighbors and slowly develops a friendship with Thao, a young boy in his late teens, as well as Su, his outgoing sister. Initially in the movie, Walt calls them "Toad" and "Dragon Lady", respectively. Eventually, as the movie wears on, he grows close to them, and becomes very protective not only of Thao and Su, but of the whole family next door - especially when a violent gang terrorizes the family. There is one scene that is especially sweet - Walt beats the crap out of one of the gang members in classic Dirty Harry/Philo/Gunny Highway fashion, pointing a .45 in the bloody kids face and telling him to "Stay away from Thao, or he'll be back and its gonna get real fucking ugly." Probably my favorite scene in a great movie. I tried to embed the YouTube with the fantastic theme song, but embeds have been disabled. Here's a link, its a powerful theme, especially if you've seen the movie.

Over the last couple of weeks I've, on more than one occasion, found myself in JGAH, watching the movie on the DVR, smoking a cigar and just really enjoying it, sometimes ad nauseam. I've long had a penchant in my life, dating back to my pre-teen years, watching certain movies incessantly. Here I am, almost 40, still doing it with Gran Torino. I couldn't understand why, I was just fascinated with it.

Then a couple of days ago it hit me. Because, sans the racism and bigotry, I am starting to identify with the cynicism and feelings of helplessness surrounding world events that Walt felt.

I really don't want to go into much detail about my personal life over the last year and a half, but suffice it to say the economy, such as it is, has absolutely punished me personally and financially. I'm grateful that my wife has been very supportive and our bills are very manageable, but... none-the-less, it has led to a lot of introspection about the career paths that I've taken over the years. I'll be very blunt: I have a wealth of business experience and what I feel is a superb resume.... yet recruiters want absolutely nothing to do with me.

Its very difficult to swallow, looking at the world right now. I can vote, I can read up on the issues and share my thoughts with those close to me... there is all kinds of civic activism at my disposal, I understand that. But I've been struggling with the realization that I'm one guy, with a blog and an opinion and one vote, yet it will take so much more than that to right our course as a nation. I came of age in the 80s, I remember the tail end of the Carter years, the malaise, and I remember the robust recovery and prosperity that followed once the full force of Capitalism was unleashed thanks to Reaganomics. The 90s were good as well, Capitalism roared on, despite attempts by the Left to derail it. What's more, our enemies around the world, at least until the latter half of the 90s, knew we meant business. For the last 30 years, with some recent exceptions, I've lived in an America that had blips of grief and weakness, but on balance created a world where someone with heart and ambition could live safely and not fear, in a macro sense, for the future. I have to tell you, I am not so sure I have that feeling of security anymore. Our national debt is spiraling out of control, our enemies are nuking up and smelling weakness. Our dollar is fading fast and the Left seems either unwilling or unable (I'll bet on the latter) to stop it. Meanwhile, we have a government that is using ignorance and class envy to take apart the very Capitalist system that has created the standard of living we enjoy today. We have a government that seems unwilling to secure our border, bringing waves of people into our system that are more interested in bleeding it dry that becoming a legal and responsible part of it. Health Care in this nation, based on the course we are charting, will soon be a product enjoyed in quality only by those with political connections. We even have people in power telling us to get used to America in decline. An our enemies are plotting for a world without a powerful United States of America. This is a world that I'm not used to, and to tell you the truth, its not one that I want to be a part of.

So that brings me back to Walt Kowalski and why I've been so drawn to this movie.

Walt's frustration comes about because of the world he finds himself in: alone, a stranger in the neighborhood he's known and been comfortable in all of his life, watching what was once home to him become an infestation of violent gangs and dilapidated houses. And it eats away at the lining of his stomach. It makes him more and more bitter. Walt's last real friend, at the outset of the movie, is his purebred yellow lab, Daisy. Walt finishes his chores for the day, sits on his front porch in a lawn chair with an old Coleman cooler full of Pabst Blue Ribbon, reads the paper and talks to Daisy, who's sitting at his feet. You can tell its his last refuge in a world that seems to be failing him.

That's a perfect metaphor, almost a perfect parallel, to where I find myself now. Seeing the country that I love, the Western Way of Life, and my personal career prospects just pissing away, its turning me into a Walt Kowalski. I love the movie because I understand the feeling of despair the character feels (again, liberal trolls, I'm not saying that I identify with his bigotry or racism). I do everything in my power to improve my life, and my country. But at the end of the day I struggle with a sense of helplessness, and bitterness because we, as a country, do not have to suffer like this. Our government doesn't have to absorb and control health care in this country. We don't have to spend ourselves into oblivion, we can cut taxes and regulation on businesses and create real incentive for hiring. We have it in our power to get back to the roaring prosperity we've known most of my life. And I just get the feeling like there is a political class of people in this country, a very powerful group, with allies within and without our borders, who have no interest in doing these things.

So truthfully, I often find myself, when my chores for the day are done, in JGAH, a fridge full of Miller Lite and a $3 Arturo Fuente, and yes, my yellow Lab, Esther, a big daddy's girl, at my feet. And I just wonder where life is heading. I'm with you, Walt.

Pray for this nation. Pray that we return to greatness. Vote and be involved. There's no reason for us to end this way as a nation.