Sunday, August 17, 2008

On the Lam

Friday night I looked at my wife and said, "We outta' get out of town." I just felt the need to scram. Thankfully, she was willing so Saturday morning we hopped in the plane and set out for Kentucky. The flight down was about as perfect as they come. We flew at 7,000 feet above a scattered layer of big cotton ball cumulus clouds that were drifting along about 1,000 feet below us.

As we made our way south, some of the clouds started to push their tops up to our altitude and by about the Indiana/Kentucky border we were punching in and out of the bases of some. We arrived in Jamestown at about noon where Grandma and Grandpa were waiting for us.

We didn't do much of anything except relax. That was the only agenda item. How we relaxed was entirely left to our whims. It was great. Saturday night we decided to drive into Somerset for dinner and to get a few groceries. We ate at the infamous Golden Corral buffet--an experience that I imagine could be likened to an ancient Roman food orgy. Only instead of good looking Italians in togas, we dined with a lot of tourists and locals in NASCAR T's and cutoff shorts. I have to admit, for a buffet, the food was really good. I know now why my father and brother speak of it with some reverence and awe. It will destroy your waistline.

Today we got up and had coffee and rolls on the screened-in porch while we listened to the woods come to life. That hour alone was worth the entire trip. In fact it was what prompted me to fly down in the first place. All my best memories in that house revolve around coffee on the porch in the morning.

I also spent some of the afternoon in K-Mart buying some fishing gear that I can keep down there. Next time I go down I'll be set. Just need to see if I can corner my cousin Crowley so he can show me where the monsters are. He's a championship bass and striper fisherman. Spending just an hour with him on the lake would be like getting and hour's worth of free investment counseling from Warren Buffet.

After dinner with Mom, Dad and the grandparents we took off and headed home. The flight back was punctuated with a really cool 10 minutes or so above a thin layer of clouds that were illuminated by the full moon. It looked (and felt) like something straight out of a dream. Or the opening credits of Highway to Heaven. I'm still not sure. We touched down in Champaign about 9.

All in all a successful escape. Here's to more.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Goodbye Oleg

Yesterday a voice was silenced. But not by the people that sought to silence it before it could expose them. I learned this morning that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn passed away in his Moscow home yesterday at the age of 89. He died a free man who had taken the worst that the Soviet regime could throw at him and lived to watch it die. He is one of my greatest heroes. And while I knew this day was coming, it’s hit me harder than I thought it would.

Like any favorite author, he was as much a friend as a literary figure to me. I became acquainted with Solzhenitsyn during a very lonely period in my life. I bought a copy of the Cancer Ward after reading excerpts that had been used in another book. The main character, Oleg Kostoglotov, is a former prisoner of the Gulag who, after serving a "tenner" (Soviet slang for a 10 yr. sentence), had been sent into "perpetual exile" from his friends and family to the Kazakh Republic. The novel opens with Oleg sitting in the waiting room of a cancer ward in the Uzbek Republic after having been diagnosed with stomach cancer.

I realize that to some that might not sound like the right novel for a lonely person to be reading, but I think I identified to a small degree with Oleg's isolation. I too was thousands of miles from family in a place where few people knew me. When not at work I was almost always alone. Yet, what drew me most to Oleg was the fact he didn't let any of the adversity that life handed him define who he was or dictate his happiness. He was the perfect picture of a truly free man. A man who had been stripped of everything by the State and, as a result, had nothing further to fear from it. The material world had become immaterial and he was free to dwell on the things that truly mattered.

After finishing the Cancer Ward I wanted to know more about Solzhenitsyn. In doing so I learned that the character Oleg was, for all intents and purposes, Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn had served a tenner for some disparging remarks he had made about Stalin in a letter to friend during WWII. After completing his sentence he had been sent into perpetual exile. While in exile he contracted stomach cancer. As with all fictionalizations some characters, times and places had been altered, but for the most part the Cancer Ward was a chronicle of his experiences.

After that I devoured anything by him that I could get my hands on. I read "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and then "The First Circle". I discovered rare collections of short stories and speeches. Strangely, I didn't get around to his most famous work, "The Gulag Archipelago", until about eight years ago. I've yet to finish it. With the exception of C.S. Lewis, I would say no other author has shaped my current worldview more than Solzhenitsyn.

Tonight, my sadness at his passing is tempered by the knowledge that nothing in Aleksander Isaevich’s life happened by chance, even his death. He was sent to prison as a young man so he could use the powerful voice he was given to speak first hand about an evil that millions silently endured. He was exiled to the West in the 70’s so that he could warn us about our complacency in the face of such evil. And today, in one of the tragically few articles I was able to find about his life, I saw God’s hand even in the timing of his death:

In a bookstore in central Moscow, a selection of his most famous books was put on display beneath a large black-and-white portrait of the author.

Television channels and radio stations ran constant solemn reports on his life but some younger Russians confessed they knew little about his work.

"He is very famous. I'm just starting his works," said Viktoria Danilova, a 17-year-old in central Moscow. "Unfortunately I haven't read very much yet."

I can think of no better time for the young men and women of Russia to pick up Solzhenitsyn than now as Putin and his puppets seek a return to the Soviet glory days.

If you are interested in Solzhenitsyn, I suggest starting with “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. It's a quick read. If you like that, follow up with “The Cancer Ward” and then “The First Circle.” These novels are, in my opinion, his best works but they might be a bit long for someone who just wants to get a taste. Another good place to start is "The Solzhenitsyn Reader" that was just published a year or two ago. This is a collection of political essays, novel excerpts and even some poetry. And if you can find it, check out “Warning to the West” - a collection of speeches he made shortly after his exile to the United States.