Beyond All Endgames: A Mother’s Love

Many have praised Avengers: Endgame for a range of accomplishments: its spectacular special effects; its light touch in being so spectacular; its deft use of cameos; its fast and loose, serious and ridiculous, forays into the logical binds of time travel; its narrative economy in wrapping up a franchise with story lines mind-bogglingly diverse and intertwined; and the list goes on. My response has been curiously personal and “off topic.”  An unexpected reunion scene amidst the frenzy of the endgame struck me deeply and oddly, articulating for me something larger and more dramatic and more complex than the intense storylines of the Avenger franchise—namely, the power of what it means to be a parent. I was left nodding, yes, yes—easily and gratefully and tearfully—if those things can exist side-by-side—for a depiction of love and grief and transcendence, and all their resonance and possibility, distilled to a stolen moment, out of time and eternal.

How does one serve up such a poignant moment? Recipe: Start with an archetypal relationship—here, a mother and son. Put them in a difficult, relatable situation involving loss, separation, a reunion after drastic changes, a stolen chance for intimacy, and an effortless “moment” of being together, without frenzy, without agendas, without judgments, without urgencies. Next, enact the moment with perfect pitch, as though there had been no separation. Pack in several archetypal dynamics—parental advice, childish submission, a mother’s acceptance, a child’s need for the mother’s recognition—and through it all maintain the effortlessness of just being together. Make it lighthearted and comical. Deliver it in a rush amidst chaos, in a slow calm so it can be what it is, so it can transcend the rush and rise into the realm of truth and beauty. Fold in a lot of setup.

Parenting and good storytelling are all about setup. Telescoped into each moment is all of its past, all the drama, disappointments, joys—all the history that makes the moment a universe of its own.

This reunion is between Thor and his mother, Frigga. Thor has come from the future, and he has a chance to see his mother, on the day he knows she will die, no less. He sees her, but he cannot speak to her. Thor is a time traveler, and there are some strict rules here. You can’t interfere with the past to change the future, etc., etc. So Thor has to keep his cover, not attempt to save his mother, or change her fate. But all the rules get thrown out the window when Frigga sees Thor. She knows him and loves him instantaneously, and registers no surprise or fear or confusion whatsoever, despite his extremely unusual appearance. Her ease of encountering him is the most magical moment of this blockbuster film, with all its special effects. The acting by Rene Russo as Thor’s mother puts to shame all the CGI flight and fight and thunder, even Thor’s, that fill most other moments with unrelenting action and crisis. This is the acting of a “parent’s transcendence of all the mess,” and just knowing, and being grateful for, and being sublimely calm about this chance to connect in the most uncertain of circumstances.

A little more on the setup: The actor who plays Thor is Chris Hemsworth, an apt candidate to embody the Scandinavian God of Thunder. His portrayal was built over several previous movies, and we have come to know him as a boyish, lovable, good-hearted kind of god, prone to rash acts at times, though always with good intentions. Above all, he was so powerful and beautiful, and completely without ego, this god among humans, just breezily being godly. And the voice—a god’s voice, with something of a slur, deep and resonant, and completely unpretentious. Hemsworth originally had to get completely buff to play the role, adding 30 pounds of chiseled muscle to ripple and pop when he held the mighty hammer and channeled the lightning of the universe to show his power and achieve his ends.

But that was all in better days. The current Thor in Endgame—and this is a true spoiler for those who love the godly Thor—has put on a few pounds (70?), as an effect of his, and the earth’s, loss after Thanos’s finger snap had obliterated half of the universe’s population at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. Thor has let himself go, in beer drinking, video-gaming, and general bro behavior. He’s somehow managed to keep his jaunty, comical demeanor through the devastation of both his chiseled body and the general universe. And that is why we are struck at Frigga’s no-surprise reaction to seeing Thor.

While unfazed, Frigga does notice something is wrong with Thor’s right eye. We know it had been put out in an earlier movie, and then restored completely in a later movie. Of all the changes in this broken god, she has zeroed in on the one that is all-but invisible. But the eye is the window to the soul, and his mother knows. She looks at him lovingly and says, “You’re not the Thor I know at all, are you…? The future has not been kind to you, has it?”

Our hearts break, for at once she recognizes what her son has been through, and it doesn’t matter, and her broken heart, if it is broken, is healed by the love she feels, and this opportunity, after so much loss and grief, to look upon, yet once again, the son she lost and had to learn would have such a difficult path ahead. Of course, it’s only we who know all that, but now she knows it too, and we feel her grief and joy, all the more accentuated by the other knowledge we have—that this is her end—and this is Thor’s final chance to be with his mother, a fact he knows all too well.

Thor denies that he’s from the future. This god has powers, and he puts up a good front—for about a second, till he breaks down and confesses, like an errant teen, “I’m totally from the future.” Hemsworth’s comic delivery never lapses here or elsewhere, as he completely avoids the self-pity or loathing that might stem from his fallen nature. But it’s not Hemsworth that brings the emotional focus or magic to this unexpected scene.

It’s the acting of Rene Russo, as Frigga looks so lovingly into Thor’s eyes, without judgment, without worry, without anxiety, and just drinks in this chance to be his mom and talk with him and hold him, in a kind of serene acceptance of what the moment could afford. Despite the transcendence here, she keeps it real, asking “what are you wearing?” She cuts through the nonsense of her child’s excuses saying she was raised by witches; she injects sibling dynamics into the exchange saying he should leave the sneaking to his brother Loki—and on it goes, with a little slapstick humor thrown in. But none of it registers beyond the calm union here, the manifestation of parent-child love, in circumstances that, if absurd, are irrelevant. Love does conquer all—be it death, disappointment, fear, grief, uncertainty, time travel confusions, and the rest. And this subdued scene of love displayed in such a serene and automatic way, despite such distractions, is enough to make Endgame, as a movie, a true “marvel,” all on its own.

Parable of the Farmer and the Mule

Each day the farmer would marvel at the work his mule accomplished in the fields—plowing the soil, pulling wagons, removing stumps, and generally contributing to the welfare and efficiency of the farm.

Then the farmer had an idea: “If I wasted less money on grain and oats to feed the mule, I could increase the efficiency of the farm exponentially.”

So he decided to cut the daily portion of the mule’s feed by one quarter. The mule still went to work on the reduced rations, pretty much as always, though with some extra words of encouragement from the farmer. In all, the mule seemed to adjust to the change with little or no sign of discomfort.

And so the farmer persisted with the new regimen for an entire week.

Then the farmer had another thought: “Since my first adjustment went so well, and I’m saving all this money on feed, why don’t I eliminate even more wasteful expense, and reduce the mule’s feed by an additional quarter?”

And so it was done.

For the first day on the new diet, the mule seemed a little angry and sluggish, but he eventually got the usual work done.

The farmer continued to have ideas about efficiency. Week after week, he made adjustments, till finally one day, he went to his barn to feed the mule. He entered the barn carrying his handful of grain to feed directly to the mule out of his hand. When the farmer entered the stall, the mule looked at him, looked at the handful of grain, looked back at the farmer—and proceeded to topple over, dead on the spot.

The farmer, in amazement and frustration, exclaimed, “Damn! Just when I had him trained!”

Ang Calls Customer Service: Some Context

I’m grateful to Gen for publishing her outtake clip of me telling the story of Ang’s customer service call. Gen did her usual editing masterwork, making me sound coherent and fluent. It’s a good story—people have told me so!—and I’m a bit proud of the way I was able to capture it. Of course, I have some edits I would make. I would want to relay more of the one-sided discussion. If only I could remember! It was the music scene that got me. They were in different cities (I think the rep was in Texas?)—but there were some common music happenings between the cities, or ones soon to take place. To hear Angelo talk, it seemed this was his most casual, oldest friend—someone he had spoken with yesterday, and thus could just pick up with where they left off about the plans and to-do list.

But I get ahead of myself: I’ve been fearing the task of trying to capture that tone of voice. There’s an essence there I want to share; it’s so important right now to get it right. I know I will get it right for the “club”—the “no explanation needed” group, those who had firsthand experience with Ang, and with the phenomenon I’m trying to capture. They will recall such moments, and say, “yeah, yeah”—and probably with a tear, like the one I’m shedding now.

Let me approach it from another angle: Angelo could be exuberant. As Terry described him, he was bullish—a bull in the china shop. In the documentary, my favorite characterization of his exuberance comes, appropriately, from James. His words, his exasperation, his matter-of-fact narration, with commentary, of Angelo on the fast-break bricking it off the backboard creates such a vivid image of the out-of-control energy that was Angelo and his approach to life. Angelo’s ebullient smile, his off-key singing, his driving, his general bursting-at-the-seams entry into wherever—were widely known—to intimates and casual acquaintances alike. But there was another side, another disposition, that those who loved him and spent time with him would see on occasion.

It manifested itself in a very subdued and serious voice. It was a reasoning, an analysis, a what? a soulfulness? It was, quite simply, a presentation of ideas in the most gentle, “out-of-time” manner, in a voice that was beyond striving and argumentation.

I heard this voice, actually, the last time he spoke to all of us on the phone from Thailand. It was a very long call, on speaker, with the whole family. That call was one of those gifts we got from Ang in the last few weeks of his life. My general approach to phone calls from Thailand could be summed up in one word: expeditiousness. I didn’t want to take up his time … didn’t want to have the call reach the point where he felt awkward to cut it off. So I was always cutting it off. But this time was different—and God bless Loretta, she never had scruples about the call getting too long. So we talked at length—and somewhere—15 minutes or so into the call, there it came—the voice I am trying to convey here and now. He began talking—in response to some questions I had asked him about the educational system in Thailand. He spoke in a manner that was tinged with regret and resignation. There was a problem: kids were being left behind, in a way that both recognized and ignored the need; the system wasn’t working, and apparently there was little initiative to address the problem or even to acknowledge the problem existed. He didn’t speak with zeal or indignation—just a kind of wise sadness about it all—an acceptance that such was the lot of the educator/educated in Thailand, and an acceptance to work around the limitations, towards doing whatever good could be done in such circumstances.

I say all this simply to try to convey a demeanor of peace, understanding, concern, love, easiness, resignation, and acceptance that was present in his voice in his observations about teaching in Thailand. In his calmer discussions—about politics—and even sports—I had also heard those qualities. And I reference all such moments to say I heard that same tone, mirabile dictu, while he was on the phone with the AT&T customer service rep!

It was in the long middle of the conversation—after the transaction part (very early on) had been completed. Ang would speak in phrases, quietly, and then with long pauses, as undoubtedly the person at the other end was talking. I am so grateful to Gen for bringing back this story—but as I hear myself tell my story (even though I kick ass!)—I notice immediately that my voice and tense way of talking are so completely the opposite of the quality I am trying to relay about Angelo’s voice that day.

Till this moment, my memory of Angelo’s tone was a completely private memory, a cherished moment I didn’t even know I had in my store. But now I have it as a distinct entity, a treasure I could share with others—or at least those for whom “no explanation is needed.” And there are many such people, thank God, who loved Angelo as much as we do here.

It’s so ephemeral—those moments of peaceful talk with a stranger/friend in Texas, those 25 years of being and acting. But God has his way of radiating into our lives, and I think of Angelo’s quiet voice as those times when God would touch his exuberance, and channel it into His own kinds of expression.

That customer service story is great for the lessons of “lightening up” I spoke about in the clip—but for me it’s far greater for the sound of God’s touch coming to me through a voice I hear now, and marvel at, and love with all my heart, though in memory.

The Delicate Balance

Much of what Charles Dickens wrote deserves to be quoted here, but all I’ll offer for now is a snippet from David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber’s reflection/advice to David on economic matters:

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

See also:

This NPR Story, “A Tale Of Two Economies,” from Morning Edition, November 4, 2008.