Walt Kowalksi and Strength

First and most importantly: happy Ides!

It’s the Ides of March. The Ides were the day in the Roman calendar that fell at the center of the month, and from which all other dates were calculated.

The Ides of March was the day that Caesar was slain by dozens of conspirators, led into the assassination by Brutus and Cassius.

The Ides of March also has spawned some truly delightful and humorous memes over the years. I’ll share my favorite.


Yesterday was some kind of weird wormhole in the space time continuum too. It was Einstein’s birthday and the day that Stephen Hawking died.

Of course, if the world is the way the world’s most amazing theoretical physicist and cosmologist thought it might be, he’s just chillin’ in some over level of reality that we can’t yet access.

So it’s fine.

Everything is fine.

I’ve been compelled to think hard on the concept of niceness lately.

It’s a huge component of American culture to fetishize strength, and bootstrapping, and independence, and all that other nonsense.

I tend to hate that part of American culture, because it denies the importance of things like compassion and vulnerability and empathy and giving people the benefit of the doubt. And yet.

And yet and yet.

I also have a tendency to inflexibly unleash it on myself.

I haven’t forgotten Tarot Tuesday. I’m just taking a break this week. Part of the newsroom experience is the sudden death of things happening, starting around the end of November to the middle of December. Just like the world under a fresh blanket of winter snow, the newsroom goes sort of still and quiet. Which means there’s not a lot to cover. Public meetings die off and wait for the new year to resurrect themselves. And anything that is going on is very easy to make it to. Then, around now – around the middle of February to the middle of March – I find myself trying once again to find a slot for everything in my calendar. I’ve missed the last couple of ATOD meetings. And I’ve made it to CJAB but not had time to follow up on any stories there.

And I’ve fallen behind on blog features.

I’m sorry. I’ll get back on the wagon next week. I already drew the card I want to write about, and photographed it, and stuck it under my monitor so that I can think on it throughout the day. But it’s a bit of a difficult one for me.

It’s card 8. It’s Strength.


Strength for me is a sort of muddy concept. Because, like most Americans, I evaluate my own strength on criteria like independence and integrity. Integrity is often mixed in with the concepts of honesty and forthrightness. They’re also important, and are one legitimate definition of the word, but integrity isn’t a moral thing in my mind. It’s a physical thing. It has come to carry those moral connotations by default, I think. But integrity simply means wholeness. A state of being intact. Complete.

Think of the word “integration.”

A real Jungian biggie if ever there were one, eh?

The meaning of life. The point of it all. Repairing the bridge between the collective and the self. The unconscious of humanity and the unconscious of the individual.

The terminus on the journey of individuation. The final destination.

All that junk.

A thing has integrity if it is intact. By being intact it is able to perform the functions for which it was intended.

Ugh. I’m squirming right now because I’m a Philosophy nerd and my favorite Philosophy teacher is just perfectly implanted in my brain, and he’s standing there, behind my eyes, rolling his eyes and shaking his head, and reminding me that word choice is everything.

Because I’m agnostic, so suggesting that people are “created” or “intended” or “made” is far too slippery a slope for me to have any desire to step foot on. But I think you understand my intent here.

These are the kinds of philosophical quagmires into which I will wade and marinade for days so I want to get out now, or it may be some time before I see the other side of it, but hopefully I’m making myself clear.

Anyhow. If I’m asked about other people I may point to vulnerability as a strength. If it’s present, I certainly will. But my standards for myself are so drastically different and I don’t know why. I recognize that it’s not correct. I recognize that it needs to change. But I don’t know how to do that.

I tend to keep people at a distance by using humor as a shield. I like dark humor. I like taking the power out of the scary stuff by using it in my humor. It’s empowering. And I’m definitely the type of person who, you can rest assured, likes you if I’m being a little mean.

I hope it comes off in a playful way, but I know sometimes it doesn’t. I like to use David Sedaris as an example. God, he can be such an asshole, but he really reserves his bitter, sharp-tongued Juvenalian side for himself and opts instead for the softer, gentler Horatian method of satire to reflect the world. I sincerely hope that I do the same.

But my Juvenalian game is tight, and I have to admit that I do not know how to be nice to myself without also being pretty mean.

I recognize in myself, when it comes to self-talk, a whole host of cantankerous but likeable quasi-villains.

Severus Snape.

Melvin Udall.

One of my very favorites is Walt Kowalski. I watch the movie “Gran Torino” a lot. Because I just really, really love and identify with those cold dead black eyes and that gravel pit voice of Walt’s.

While I think a lot of people recoil from him, I find it easy to scoot right up next to him and cuddle up because I see him. I see who he is, and I understand the motivations behind every nasty thing that comes out of his mouth. And I recognize, above all else, the desire to connect, and care, an be compassionate mixed with the utter dearth of understanding of how to do so. And the fear and the insecurity behind his often off-putting demeanor. I’ll bet you money that Walt Kowalski was a sensitive kid, and the world was rough on him. I’ll bet he felt pain deeply, and what would have been a minor injury to other kids would have left him bleeding for days. And I’ll bet no one knew how to deal with him, so they just toughened him up until they could deal with him. Until they could identify with him. I’ll bet no one met kiddo Walt Kowalski where he was and instead demanded that he get to their level.

Walt Kowalski is a hard man to love, and that’s for a very, very good reason. Walt Kowalski doesn’t have time for any bullshit. And that tough shell of his is there for the purpose of weeding out everyone who can’t be entirely, abjectly with him.

That saying, “if you can’t accept me at my worst you don’t deserve me at my best?”

I know it’s a maladaptive strategy in a lot of ways, but I get Walt’s game. It’s “anyone who is still around when I get done with the vile shit that’s coming out of my mouth right now is legit, and worth the boundless loyalty and love I am capable of bestowing.”

It is a rigorous test. One most people fail.

It leaves Walt pretty isolated. But goddamn, it when Sue just refuses to be intimidated by the dragon man next door? She winds up with a fierce and fearsome ally. And the only reason she does is that she deserves it. Lots of people in Walt’s life deserve it. All of them do. Even his shitty kids and grand-kids, who really are ass clowns.

I mean, really.

They’re awful.

But Sue earns it. Every last drop.

I have plenty of issues with Clint Eastwood.

Like, the “issues” basket is overflowing with ideologies and positions of his that I find repellent. This malarkey about Obama and Clinton, that silly stunt with the chair in 2012. And this whole Donald Trump being “on to something” nonsense? Please. Gag me. Donald Trump is a terrible human being, a malignant cancer of a husband, a complete monster to women, a boor, a braggart, a compassionless narcissist with a mean streak that could put Walt Kowalski to shame.


Just no.

And I don’t care for Eastwood’s whole “damn kids” position. I empathize with it, because it is one to which I find myself going by default as I age. But I need to remind myself that yes, we got spanked as kids and we didn’t wear bike helmets and we weren’t supervised when we played outside and we all survived. And I think it’s absolutely true that many people have swung too far in the opposite direction when it comes to parenting and political stances.

But someone once told me that they felt entitled to own slaves if they so chose because people owned slaves in the bible. And they genuinely had no idea why that was an abjectly horrifying statement to make.

And yes, we were tougher on kids in generations past but that just means that that’s what we knew as a species then. If we’re not willing to grow and change our behaviors when valuable and verifiable and significant evidence against its advisability is presented, then we’re just stupid.

Just because we’ve always done it that way, whatever it is, doesn’t mean we have to (or, more importantly, that we ought to) do it that way forever.

All this to say that his attempt to legitimize racism because “back in my day that wasn’t racist” is bullshit of the highest order.

Just straight up bullshit.

But “Gran Torino,” I think, justifies itself by the characters in it. It is the epitome of character-driven fiction. And here’s a fun little cheat sheet item: stories are literary if they are character-driven. They are popular if they are plot-driven. Tom Clancy’s work is popular. It is plot-driven. It is formulaic, and the characters only exist in service to the plot. To make the plot happen. Flannery O’Connor’s (for example, because she’s one of my favorites and one that I’ve sort of slacked off on reading lately) work is literary. What happens in the story is less important than the characters to which it happens. The story is about the change in character. It’s about watching a character change, for better or worse, (the definition of comedy) or fail to change (the definition of tragedy), through a series of events. It’s about how the characters handle the plot points – the complications and reversals – whatever they are. Tom Clancy can plug any character into any of his stories and it will be essentially the same. And every book boils down to the same plot points.

That’s genre writing.

There’s nothing wrong with it. I know I sound uppity, and I guess I am a little, but it’s fine. I have loved some popular fiction over the years. But genre fiction…it’s candy.

Literary writing is whole grains and lean fats.

Plot is crafted and well-wrought in literary fiction, but it is not formulaic. And the characters are the star of the show. Not the plot.

And there is no way you can argue that “Gran Torino” is not literary.

Walt Kowalski is a brutish and offensive man. He is rough, and mean, and brash, and cold.

On the surface.

Underneath all that is regret. And, closer to the surface, is his grief. The story begins at his wife’s funeral, for chrissakes. We cannot forget to factor in the viper’s nest that is fresh grief when evaluating Kowalksi’s character.

But he learns, through the course of the movie, to be less those things. And he learns how to maximize those parts of himself for the best of all the people he cares about.

I am like Walt Kowalski.

And a lot of people might read that sentence and call that negative self-talk.

I read that sentence and need to seriously ponder whether it’s an offensively, narcissistic thing to say about myself. Whether it’s grandly delusional.

Walt Kowalski is strong. Walk Kowalski has integrity.

He doesn’t reverse through the story. He becomes himself, but better. He’s still offensive, in the end, which I won’t spoil for you if you haven’t seen it but goddamn it go watch that movie now because it’s so worth it.


Do it now.

He’s still offensive. He’s still abrasive. But he’s also enlightened.

And the end is so satisfying.


I feel like Walt’s earned a little bit of his shitty attitude. Which makes me want to cling to mine more, even though I know it needs to get lost.

I don’t know.

Walt Walt Walt.

What will I do with you?

7 thoughts on “Walt Kowalksi and Strength

  1. The wormhole in the universe probably related to Pi Day. Being a famous cosmologist and dying on Pi Day is just street cred. Also, I am usually loathe to diagnose historical figures with things, but Einstein seems like even a clearer case of ADHD than me (And that’s saying something). I cite him in opposition to the idea that folks with ADHD can’t do math.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. That’s the other thing I meant to weave in. Pi Day! Yesterday was just a weird-ass day all around. I like to use my ultimately useless psych background to analyze fictional characters. But I completely see your Einstein ADHD connection. Can you imagine Einstein on Adderall? Jesus. I don’t know if it would end well or in tragedy, but it would be a hell of a thing to see. Ha!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Heh. The trick would probably be to NOT be on Adderall when coming up with the hypothesis, then on it through the plug and chug testing and publication stage. I was always far better at initial hypotheses than getting it together enough to publish. Imagine what gems of ideas were hidden in random notes on his messy desk or kicking around in his brain that he didn’t focus on because he went down a useless rabbit hole. If Adderall had saved a tenth of those ideas…well, like you said it would have either saved us from ourselves or ensured our doom :-p


    1. I would love to know that all of his notes and scraps had been saved and were available for great minds like his throughout time to refer to. I’ll bet there is some amazing seed of something earth shattering in there that he just left behind or forgot about in the chase for another, more attractive, fleeting idea. Thats my greatest fear in writing. I think I write so much and so intensely because the worst feeling in the world is an idea you know you had but can’t get back. I love being medicated. I went a lot of years unmedicated and then improperly medicated and the Vyvanse is just what I need to keep me steady and focused, consistently productive but not entirely without the creative part of my mind. But I do miss the full on creative part sometimes. It’s always seemed to me an incredibly cruel state to have to be in, where you have to pick one or the other to function.


    1. Yaaaaas. Holy crow the amount of shame that goes along with being the only kid in your school cohort for 12 years who clearly doesn’t get simple concepts, but who has complex philosophical revelations that she can’t even explain? During algebra? If I had a penny for every blank stare, “what are you talking about,” and moment of snapping to to realize everyone has been trying to get my attention for five minutes, I would be filthy rich right now. I would give anything to just have a normal, everyday brain. It’s not a study drug, jagoff. It’s a function like a normal-ish human being drug. 😒

      Liked by 1 person

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