Thursday, October 30, 2014

Thoughts on Books: Frankenstein

All Hallow's Eve has come again and, to commemorate the holiday, the Thoughts on Books novel is a Halloween classic, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Which brings up another important landmark, we are featuring our first woman author on the blog! We've talked about her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, before. You can check out his post here. I can't imagine what this couple's life must have been like, writing all the time and running around Europe. They had two distinct and profound minds.

Mary's gothic novel was groundbreaking. She titled it Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a titan who fought with Zeus against the other Titans in the great war, the Titanomachy. It seems likely that Mary referred to one of Prometheus' specific exploits against Zeus for her book. As the story goes, the titan stole the fire from Olympus and brought it to the benefit of mankind. In retaliation, Zeus cursed Prometheus for all eternity. Most of his stories focus on the theme of a non-god challenge the authority and sovereignty of the almighty Zeus.

When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she was a very intelligent girl with an original twist on a classic idea. There had been several creator myths prior to her novel, but she may have been the first to put man in the creator role. Exploring that motif was a fascinating development for her time period and has traveled through time as a classic. When it was published it must have been completely scandalous. She first published it anonymously. Even now, the true story of Frankenstein, can be jarring.

First of all, Frankenstein 101. This monster is not Frankenstein. Frankenstein is the last name of the scientist who created the creature that popularly absorbs his name.

This is not Frankenstein's monster. The cutesy, smiley, adorable creature completely negates the most important idea of the novel: the creature was so hideous that humans instantly abhorred and reviled him.

There are probably a thousand different and important themes from the book to discuss, but after seeing a theatrical production of the story, one idea has stuck with me more than any other. It goes right back to Mary Shelley's original intention and Prometheus stealing the fire from Olympus: the moral conflict between creator and creation.

Mary wrote the novel at time when she was likely at odds with the parent-child mechanism. After running off with Percy Shelley abroad from England and becoming penniless, her father refused to see her. She was confused. Her father had always been a proponent that marriage was oppressive. Her amorous relationship with a married man should not have bothered him, and still he refused her.

Soon after she became a parent herself; however, the child died while still very young.

Lord Byron's house, where Frankenstein was conceived
Under this psychological pretense, Percy and Lord Byron's, Mary's friends, asked her to come up with a ghost story. She got the idea late one night, saying the idea possessed her so completely that she couldn't go to sleep.

The big question of the novel is this: what responsibilities exist between a creator and its creation?

The book makes a very strong case that a creator, by necessity, must live up to a higher standard than its creation. Frankenstein's creature, like many children, is adept at identifying the hypocrisy of mankind. Eventually this leads him to the question, "If my creator has this, why can't I have this?" When the creature thus dethrones the sovereignty of his creator he finds himself at a moral standstill.

What makes Frankenstein unique is that man creates man. The question the creature asks is paramount to creation. What rules can possibly govern a creation if there is no hierarchy in primitive ability between creator and its creation?

Mary Shelley felt this hypocrisy when her father forsake her. Her father, whose very words seemed to advocate her decision to pursue love at any cost, condemned her behavior. Did her father's words carry any weight without the authority of a respected fatherly relationship?

The book continues to be a classic today because it still has important themes to explore. If there were ever a time that the common man or woman was exalted to a high pinnacle, it is today. But if mankind now reaches new heights, what principles can possibly govern it? We often turn to past minds for moral guidance. Philosophers of ages past and books from times long gone are more important now if ever. But how can that make any sense? Surely, access to information and intellect is more available today than ever before.

What happens when someone realizes, "Hey, I'm not that different from the men who wrote the laws. Why should I follow something made by one no more powerful or wise than I?"

The need for a creator more powerful than ourselves is irreplaceable. The worst thing we can do as a society, is to replace the rules that govern us, whether they be abstract concepts of justice, or the idea of God. Without governing principles, everything would melt into chaos.

Mary Shelley grasped this idea when, to come up with a ghost story at the request of her loved ones, she stumbled upon a horrific scene at midnight. In her words:

"I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world."

If you haven't read Frankenstein, it's not long, and it's a perfect book for Halloween.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Wisdom for My Son: The Man at the Tower Gates

"If my dad doesn't make it, can you help me get his body back to the United States?"

No one had ever asked me that before. In front of me stood a fifty year old man sincerely asking for my assurance.


It all started about a month before. I set off on a trip in mixed company made up of three generations. We left on a boat from Fort Lauderdale in Florida to head across the Atlantic ocean. It was my first time cruising and I had no idea what to expect. As we set off from port, waving goodbye to the folks on land, I couldn't help but feel a surge of excitement. We were traveling across the Atlantic by boat, just like so many brave souls before us hundreds of years ago. Sure, we had endless supplies of food, medicine for sea sickness, never-ending entertainment, electricity, running water and a swimming pool that could have floated the Mayflower and her sister ships... but still! We would see the ocean waters between the once impassible barrier between Europe and the Americas.

We were, in fact, headed to Europe, where we would spend a month touring Portugal, Switzerland, Spain, Italy and France. It was the trip of a lifetime. In our group was an elderly couple, around the age of 80, parents of another of our traveling companions, who we will call John. John's dad looked like a young boy as the boat raised anchor. He lived in a small town in the middle of Arizona, where he enjoyed life as a pig farmer. Although he had traveled before, his excitement shone in his face. For him, this really was the trip of a lifetime. He'd waited 80 years to see some incredible Parisian buildings and art, Swiss countryside, Italian food and culture... and the Tower of Pisa.

On the boat we all grew close. Although we all had our own dossier of activities during the day, we dined together every evening. John's father, who we will call George, admitted he often got lost trying to find his wife on the big boat.

"My favorite part of the day was the rendez-vous with my wife," he grinned once at dinner. We all laughed because we'd seen him wandering around like an old hound on the hunt.

The two week voyage went wonderfully and we were all smiles when we disembarked for our Euro tour. But, as we started the more strenuous part of our vacation, it didn't take long for me to see the first real signs of George's age. Almost immediately after we stepped into a foreign country, travel fatigue started to take its toll on the pig farmer.

I can hardly blame him. Traveling as we were, with three week's worth of luggage, hopping on and off trains, finding rental cars, walking up narrow staircases to hotel rooms--it's enough to make anyone tired. Unfortunately, though, as the trip went on, I saw George get wearier and weaker.

We drove through the countryside for hours at a time. We got in a fender bender in a small French town. John almost got assaulted by a drunken Spaniard in early morning hours. We accidentally spent the night in a terrible, crime-ridden area of Barcelona. With every exciting encounter and every passing day, George's steps grew slower.

His excited exclamations about the countryside like, "Boy! What a beautiful crop!" steadily diminished into deflated pleadings about city features like, "It looks like there are some beautiful benches out there."

Yes, he was tired. He just wanted to spend some time to sit down. At his age, after almost a month of traveling, I think anyone would feel the same. But there was still one thing on his decades-old bucket list that he didn't want to miss: The Leaning Tower of Pisa.

When we talked about it I saw the embers in his eyes flare up. I could almost see the years of longing and curiosity he had for a building so peculiar and magnificent. When the day finally came, he was up first, ready to go. However, we had a several hour drive ahead of us to make it to Pisa, and the miles took their toll on George's spirits.

When we got to the site, John dropped the group off and went to find parking. George decided to take a seat and wait for his son. A few of us went ahead and, with a five minute walk, we saw the gates which housed the famous tower. I walked through and, seeing it for the first time myself, lost my breath. The Tower of Pisa really does lean. It looks like it should fall down. It is awesome.

We had a great time taking forced perspective pictures of each other trying to hold the tower up, or eating it from the top down. After a good hour or so, the initial wonder started to subside and we decided to go find the others.

As we went through the gates, about fifty yards away, we saw George sitting on one of those beautiful Italian benches he pointed out so many times before. The gates and surrounding walls blocked his view of the tower. We waved and headed into a little café to grab something to eat, where we found John.

And that's when he asked me.

"If my dad doesn't make it, can you help me get his body back to the United States?"

I was floored. Surely George wasn't that bad off. Maybe he was a bit travel weary, but weren't we all?

"Please?" He knew I spoke Italian and he wanted me to help translate to deal with the logistics of... George... should the case arise. I nodded, but assured him that his dad would get back to the states sans casket.

Don't skip ahead in the story. George didn't die. He is still doing well to this day.

But, it turned out that John had to help George walk all the way to that bench, fifty yards away from the gate, where the old man simply could go no further.

After decades of anticipation and a month of travel, George came fifty yards short of the Tower of Pisa.

We waited around for a while, giving him plenty of time to regain some strength so he could finish the walk to the gate, but he never quite recovered. John got the car, stopped at the curb and we helped George to his seat. As we drove away he craned his neck to look out the back window, shading his eyes with the postcard John got for him at the gift shop, and he caught a few glimpses of the leaning building before it vanished behind the beautiful Italian cityscape.

I've often thought about George sitting at the tower gates. He was so close to his goal and yet he came away with nothing more than a postcard. His story makes me feel sad.

I owe him a large debt, though. Since I was able to witness firsthand this extraordinary occurrence, I've learned some priceless lessons.

1. Although George did not see the tower, he made it to Pisa.

We all have dreams and goals. Some are realistic and attainable. Others might be fanciful. The pursuit of our goals are the real substance of our life. The achievement of a goal, in many respects, can be demotivating and unhelpful. Goals give us direction and energy so we can take unorganized desires and concentrate them into positive change. In many ways, goals are like the north star. When we have a goal set, we can fix our course in its direction. When the goal is accomplished, we suddenly face new crossroads, and often a feeling of aimlessness. For example, say a person wishes to lose twenty pounds. They concentrate and exert effort daily to accomplish that goal. But, when the glorious day comes and the pounds are gone... what then?

It may be hard to keep the habits up when there is no progress to measure, no novel benefit, and no excitement of discovery. In George's case, his desire to see the tower of Pisa transported him across an ocean and showed him wonders of mankind like the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of David. Was his goal really to see the Tower of Pisa, or was it to experience the culture surrounding the tower?

2. Sometimes the goal really is to see the tower, and the last fifty yards will always be the hardest.

I don't know what it is, but the last tiny bit of any project always seem to be the hardest to finish. It's a familiar scenario: the workweek has been crazy, you've been plagued with a never end list of projects. When Friday comes along, suddenly, although a thousand other things during the week got done, the last task of the week feels like Mt. Everest, and you've got a broken rib from coughing, and the oxygen tanks are low, and you're all out of food...

The last fifty yards will always seem like five hundred. Finishing requires grit, sweat and effort. Sometimes that requires a calculated cost. George knew when he couldn't go further, and had he gone ahead, he may have had some serious health consequences. For most of us, we can, and should, pound out those last fifty yards.

3. Dreams move on swift feet

This is the sad, brutal truth. Dreams don't wait for us; opportunity is a fickle mistress. If we aren't ready when the chance comes, then fortune can pass us by. In George's case, he took an opportunity, but international, lighting-speed travel was a younger man's game. I don't know if he had a chance earlier in his life to go see the Tower of Pisa, but, unfortunately, he didn't have a chance to see it later in his life either. Procrastination is a devil. Carpe that diem.