09 January 2018

My Top Ten Films of 2017 (Is Actually a Top Fifteen)

It was too good a year in films for a top ten so I had to expand my list to fifteen. I've also kept my usual number of six honorable mentions.

1. Personal Shopper (Assayas)
2. Call Me Be Your Name (Guadagnino)
3. The Florida Project (Baker) 
4. The Disaster Artist (Franco)
5. Columbus (Kogonada)
6. I, Tonya (Gillespie)
7. The Other Side of Hope (Kaurismaki)
8. Get Out (Peele)
9. Lady MacBeth (Oldroyd)
10. The Shape of Water (del Toro)
11. A Ghost Story (Lowery)
12. Mudbound (Rees)
13. Lady Bird (Gerwig)
14. The Ornithologist (Rodrigues)
15. Baby Driver (Wright)

Honorable Mention: The Happiest Day in the Life of Oli Maki (Kuosmanen)God’s Own Country  (Lee);  T2 Trainspotting (Boyle)The Meyerowitz Stories (Baumbach); Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri  (McDonagh):  Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a Fixer (Cedar)

Best Actor: * Timothee Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) Also Praiseworthy: Richard Gere (Norman), Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour), James Franco (The Disaster Artist)
Best Actress: Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) Also Praiseworthy: Frances MacDormand (Three Billboards), Margot Robbie (I, Tonya), Brooklyn Prince (Florida Project)
Best Supporting Actor: Willem Dafoe (Florida Project) Also Praiseworthy: Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards), Garrett Hedlund (Mudbound)
Best Supporting Actress: Allison Janney (I,Tonya) Also Praiseworthy: Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird), Catherine Keener (Get Out)

* Note: in the nine years I've posted my top ten films list, the person I selected as best actor has gone on to win the Best Actor Oscar seven times. I think it'll be seven of ten after this year as Oldman seems a lock.

08 January 2018

When All Signs Point to Jumping -- The Story of A Young Man in Despair

They say you’ve got to live each moment or appreciate each moment, I forget which, maybe both, but I’ve had a lot of moments in my life I wouldn’t wish on anyone.  So many in fact that I find myself standing on a bridge ready to jump to my death. You see, I’m in one of those awful moments right not and the worst thing is that it feels like more horror is in store for me. I’ve got no escape, it’s just too painful.

Things started to get really bad the day I saw grandma sitting in a chair in my bedroom. She’d been dead for five years yet there she was plain as day. Didn’t say a word, just leaned forward on her cane and stared at me. I’d been asleep so naturally people think I was just dreaming but I was sure as shit wide awake when I saw grandma. I even pinched myself.

I stared back at grandma for a few seconds but then had to look away because the whole situation was really freaking me out. I was 16 at the time and going through a lot. I was living in a dysfunctional family in which I seemed to be the only normal person. I neither needed nor wanted to be seeing dead people, relative or not. Fact is I never much cared for grandma. She was mean as sin to everyone, including me. She picked on dad all the time and as much as said that she was disappointed that her daughter (my mom) had married the poor bastard. She was no nicer to mom or my sisters (one older, one younger). Every Christmas and birthday she gave me underwear or socks. “I hope they fit,” she would snarl. I’ve no idea why she was so bitter.

Grandma couldn’t bother trying to have a conversation with me or my sisters. The most I remember her ever saying to me was “how’s school?” Then she’d look away like she couldn’t give a damn what I said. So anyway there was grandma — or her ghost, I mean —sitting in my bedroom giving me the evil eye, which come to think of it is the only kind of eye she ever gave. After awhile I couldn’t stand it any longer and got up to take a piss then get a cookie. When I came back to bed she was gone.

I saw grandma a few more times over the years, always at night and always when I was alone. After her first visit I stopped mentioning it to anyone because whoever I told just acted like I was crazy. Little did they know….

Making it to high school graduation was the highlight of my life, well that and getting accepted to a university several hundred miles away from home. Getting out of the house was going to be  — I was sure — the greatest goddamned event of my life. Mom was drunk half the time and argued with dad three quarters of the time. Dad was a spineless worm who never stood up for himself and, though he hated mom’s drinking, never lifted a finger to stop it. My older sister was a drug addict and my parents were too stupid to be able to tell. She was still living at home when I left, going to community college and working as a waitress. She had a series of loser boyfriends who variously cheated on her, hit her or stole from her. Most of them were doing drugs with her too. My little sister was no picnic either. She had attention deficit disorder, was dyslexic and struggled with weight problems. She was always in trouble at school and barely passed her classes. When I got out she was just about to start high school and it was evident that she’d bring more woe to the family.

Happy as I was as I wrapped up high school I was also dealing with anxiety issues. I was pretty much anxious about everything — girls in particular. I was at least as horny as any other heterosexual male but was scared to death of so much as talking to a girl. When one talked to me I stammered — that is if I could think of anything to say. Most of my friends had a girlfriend and had gotten laid by graduation but I hadn’t been so much as kissed. Some of my friends suggested trying liquid courage so that I could talk to girls but having seen my own mother half in the bag so many times I was repulsed by the very thought of alcohol.

My anxiety was present even when girls weren’t around. I’d get anxious before tests, even ones I’d studied for and knew would be easy. I played tennis on the school team and would get anxious before matches. What really made me anxious though was going home. The last few minutes before I reached the house, whether walking, on my bike, on a bus or in car, I’d turn into a nervous wreck. I just never knew would I was going to face when I walked through the door. There was usually a fight, either my parents were at it or my sisters, or mom was too drunk to function or one of my older sister’s deadbeat boyfriends was in the house. I spent as much time in my room as possible even though people were always trying to draw me into their drama. I loved my sisters and parents but only in the perfunctory way you’re supposed to, I guess what I’m saying is that deep down I hated them.

The happiest day of my life was when I left for college. I had a friend, Craig, with a car who was going to the same university so we drove up together. It was my liberation day. The only thing I dreaded was coming home for Thanksgiving, but that was a few months off and  meanwhile I could live a stress free life. Or so I thought.

In college I may not have been living in a dysfunctional family but I was still living in a crazy, fucked up world over populated by morons and jerks. Take for instance my roommates in the dorm. They were foul-mouthed, messy, inconsiderate jerks who didn’t seem to care a wit about classes. I did. I understood that there would be parties and such on Friday and Saturday nights but these guys were at it all the time. It wasn’t just that their noise sometimes woke me up or kept me up, it was just being in the presence of such louts that hit too close to home for me. My anxiety returned.

Stupid roommates wasn’t all. The temptations of young, often intelligent, and sometimes very cute women were everywhere and I was still too scared to approach any one of them. I walked around with a boner half the time and it was driving me crazy. Literally. My nerves were shot, whether from unnecessarily worrying about classes or stressing out about phone calls from home or having to deal with all the morons in the dorm. I soon discovered that more than half the freshman males in the school were — in my opinion — idiots. All they cared about was girls, sports and getting high. They were obnoxious and ill-informed. If they had any views on issues of the day they were either terribly misguided or rife with prejudice. The best any could do was regurgitate their parents’ opinions. I was sick of the whole scene by the second month of school. Was there any place in the world that I could be comfortable and happy and free of stress? It didn’t seem so.

My reaction to the world I was living in was to add something to my anxiety: depression. When I wasn’t focused on school work or wasn’t playing tennis I was either depressed or anxious or both. I even developed a twitch in my face which was obvious enough that some of the rubes in the dorm made fun of me for it. As you can imagine that just made me feel worse. The only source of happiness I could find, the only hope I had, was to get an apartment for my sophomore year. Then, I reasoned, I’d at least be away from the morons in the dorm. Really though it was cold comfort. There was a whole semester and a half to get through yet not to mention summer at home. At times it seemed an eternity.

In early November of my freshman year everything changed. One Friday night I decided to got to a party because Craig and my one friend in the dorm, Tom, were so insistent and I decided that I could do with a night out. Hell, I had to try something. Of course I was my usual anxious self about it all day and was a jangle of nerves as I got dressed to go. As we walked to the house where the party was you’d have thought I was on my way to be executed. It was all I could do to walk. The whole world flipped when we walked in and Craig handed me a cold beer. I’d never had a sip of alcohol and had no intention of starting, I’d seen what it did to mom. “It’s just a beer,” Tom said. “One lousy beer has very little booze in it, if you don’t like it, don’t have another.”

That reasoning was hard to argue with. I took a sip. It tasted okay. I took a few more sips and enjoyed them as well. By the time I finished the bottle I noticed that my anxiety was virtually gone. One more, I reckoned, would wipe out the anxiety and maybe I could have a good time. It sure did. By the time I was half way through my third beer I struck up a conversation with a cute girl. It was like the most natural thing in the world to talk with her. Soon we were dancing, something I’d never done before.

Later I talked and danced with several other girls the last of whom I took a walk with. We even exchanged phone numbers. After the party broke up I walked her home. She kissed me good night. Right on the lips.

I’d had five beers all night and somehow knew that was my limit. I’d discovered a magic formula an elixir that loosened my tongue and eased my anxiety. In reality my feet touched the ground as I walked back to the dorm that night, but I never felt them.

It turned out that a few beers was not really the answer to all my problems. I couldn’t nor did I want to, drink all the time and so still had to deal with anxiety. However I developed — even without so much as a drop — the confidence to talk to girls and was soon going out on dates. Some of which included a few beers and some of which were sober affairs. Meanwhile I survived Thanksgiving and Christmas at home knowing that my stays were temporary and also because I hung out with old high school friends and even called a couple of the girls I graduated who were in town from college too. One girl I called even confessed she’d had a crush on me for years.

When school resumed in January I felt pretty darn good. A few weeks later when I lost my virginity and got my first steady girlfriend, Norah, I was on top of the world. I didn’t stay long.

First there were visits from grandma. Right in my damn dorm room. She’d pull up a chair, often just as I was going to sleep, and stare at me. It was like life was taking a great big shit on my birthday cake. I’d try to close my eyes and ignore her but something would compel to look and she’d still be there with that awful glare. Eventually I’d doze off, of course, so as unnerving as grandma’s visits were they were hardly debilitating. More serious was the full on return of my anxiety and what was worse, anxiety attacks and later panic attacks. Anytime I was outside I was vulnerable to an attack that would leave me out of breath, exhausted and scared for my sanity.

In the Spring I made the tennis team and I was rocking a 4.0 and had Norah was still my girlfriend. You’d think I was pretty damn happy. But the anxiety and the attacks persisted and depression came back and in full force. The tennis season went well, I maintained my perfect GPA and was falling in love. But I was miserable. Plus I was facing a summer in the hell hole that was my family home. At Norah’s urging, (I confided in her completely) I saw a counselor on campus who referred me to psychiatrist who would treated me on a sliding scale. He said I was likely suffering from a form of PTSD because of my screwed up childhood. After a few visits he prescribed some medications, one for depression and another for anxiety. They helped. Initially. Perhaps even better was when I managed to get a Summer job at the campus library that included housing. I wouldn’t have to go home for more than one weekend visit.

I was lonely during the Summer with my girlfriend and pals away but the meds were doing their job and I loved working in the library and having a place to myself. In my off hours I’d play tennis, or read or go for long walks, it all started our great but few weeks into the summer my depression returned and grandma started to visit again.

My shrink tried some other meds and although the panic and anxiety were under control the depression kept getting worse. Nothing helped. As Fall approached I found an apartment for a friend and I to share and Norah got a place a few blocks away. On the surface everything seemed fine.

But here I am today in January at the start of the second semester of sophomore year. I was home for the holidays. My older sister was in jail, busted for selling cocaine. My younger sister was a total mess, failing classes and constantly getting into trouble at school. Mom was still drinking and dad was telling me he was going to divorce her. My visit was a return to hell.

My depression is constant no matter what meds we try and I even get panic attacks still. Norah and I broke up. Well, she broke up with me, her reasons were vague but it seems certain she met another guy who she likes more. And yes, grandma still visits from time to time as mean and ugly as ever.

So I’ve had it. Sure I’m only 20 but I can’t take the pain. There has been so much heartache and disappointment and unhappiness in my life and it seems that it will just continue for as long as I’m alive. Why go through it? Everything is hopeless. What good is being a college tennis player and getting a degree and having friends if there’s so much suffering and misery that goes along with it? What if things go wrong? What if something bad happens? If I feel this bad when on the surface all is well, imagine my life if I hit some bad luck. If I told anyone or called a suicide hotline they’d tell me to stick out, things will get better, I have a lot going for, the usual bullshit. But I can’t see it. I can’t feel it. This pain has a sense of permanence to it. It is unyielding and malignant. When there’s no escape, what choice does a person have?

So I think I’ll probably jump. Well, okay, maybe not this time, maybe not today. But I can’t say for sure I won’t soon. Wouldn’t you?

30 December 2017

Odds and Ends at the End of an Odd Year

I ran ten miles today making my final total for the month of December 108 miles, a personal best for one month. Not bad for a man of 63. I'm ending the year on a high note which is especially nice given what a mostly shitty year it was for me. Two of my best friends died, I had an allergic reaction to some meds that caused a horrific rash that lasted for months, I was depressed more often than not and the news ranged from awful to horrible. On the bright side the missus and I enjoyed a fabulous European vacation and I continue to be surrounded by a loving family, both immediate and extended, I derive great satisfaction from my work and I'm physically as fit as a fiddle. So there....

Today I saw yet another in a series of examples of how Americans are unclear on the concept of the sauna. Raised in a Finnish family I know something about saunas, especially since we had one in our house during my childhood. A sauna is place to sit and sweat, either naked, with a towel around your waste or in bathing trunks. One might chat a little bit but mostly it's about sitting and enjoying the heat. Today there was an older gent in the sauna wearing a tee shirt and sweatpants and he appeared to be grading papers. He had several type written pages that he was marking with a pen -- in the sauna. People hang there trunks in the sauna, tee shirts and once I even saw a pair of socks. They treat it like a damn laundry room. Then there are the folks who forget that the whole rest of the gym is for exercising and do all manner of calisthenics. Sit ups, push ups, stretches, yoga, even running in place.  I've seen people bring books into the sauna, listen to there iPods and once someone sat there and rapped. Jesus wept....

In a couple of weeks I'll be posting my top ten films of 2017 and folks, it ain't gonna be easy. This has been a banner year. Yesterday the missus and I saw I, Tonya. It's energetic and fun and insightful and you could just tell the filmmakers were having a grand time making the damn thing. It's a quintessential American story charting the rise and fall of figure skater Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie) who was not your average glamour puss skater. Far from it. She was more akin to what one might call trailer trash and what one would definitely call abused. She had a foul-mouthed abusive mother (Allison Janey) and married too young an abusive man with an incredibly bizarre best friend. Before that we saw Call Me By Your Name, a beautiful, intelligent, challenging film, the type that inspires you to think, to feel and to remember.  These are but two examples of how good a year it's been, cinematically....

So what's in store for 2018? Nuclear war? Trump indicted? Mass demonstrations in major US cities? More famous men exposed as serial sexual harassers? More devastating weather events? More mass shootings? Terror attacks throughout the Western world? Peace on Earth (just kidding). It figures to be an "interesting" year and a pivotal one in U.S. history. For me I'm hoping the resistance remains strong and that the Democrats retake congress and Trump's dirty dealing with the Russians is fully exposed. I also hope that this year my depression fades and I continue to run and teach and enjoy family and that I get that damn novel finished....

19 December 2017

The Joy of Museums, the Horror of the Tax Scam and the Joy of Christmas

A photo I took today in the museum.
The depressing thing in museums is those people who have to stand around bored half to death making sure no one touches any of the exhibits. The standing in one spot has got to be draining and the blank stares on their faces attest to the tedium of their assignment.

That’s about all that I can find about the museum-going experience that is anything but joyful. The missus and I went to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA) today. I had been in one of my low moods when we arrived but strolling around a museum is an actual cure for the blues.

We’ve wandered around together in museums in Paris, New York, London, Helsinki, Berlin, Rome, Amsterdam and Berkeley to name but a few locales and I invariably come out feeling inspired, optimistic and energized.

Today our main objective was to see an exhibit of Walker Evans’ photography — he is best known for his Depression Era and post war urban photos including his work with James Agee on Let Us Know Praise Famous Men. We also some Pop Art including some of Andy Warhol’s in addition to paintings by Diego Rivera, Henri Matisse, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Georgia O’Keefe and some up-and-comer named Picasso.

So what, you ask, is it that fills me with so much hope and joy from a museum visit. It’s not just seeing great works of art but the very idea behind it. People creating, using artistic expression to the fullest of their ability. Exposing the world and themselves, baring their souls artistically. Expressing ideas. Sharing themes. Bringing brightness to the world. Art museums are chock full of some of the best and noblest ideas of humankind. Not in the form of rhetoric or politics but through visions and feelings and interpretations of the world.

I similarly feel good in bookstores and libraries where one — at the risk of being obvious — is surrounded by books, many of which are another form of artistic expression while others are meant to educate, explain, and elucidate. Movie theaters are more of mixed bag with so many films not being artistic at all, but merely cynical ways to enrich the filmmakers. But to read literature or watch a film can help one develop a greater appreciation for the capability and desire that many people have to warm and brighten the word and make it a more interesting and fulfilling place. So to the museum.

I write this at a time when cynicism and crass, greedy profiteering are on full display in the halls of the US Congress where Republicans are enriching themselves and the very richest among us at the expense of masses — particularly those in greatest needs. And this at Christmas! Republican Congressmen no doubt watch It’s A Wonderful Life and root for Mr. Potter and hope that in A Christmas Carol Scrooge will remain unaffected by the visits of the three ghosts. The US today is afflicted by the most rapacious and morally repugnant government in its history and I hope to all that is holy there is hell to pay for those no good bastards.

It is an unimaginable state affairs in a country in which in  past politicians at least used to be more subtle and less aggressive about robbing the people blind. People who claim this is the greatest country in the world (a preposterous notion to begin with) had better explain how it has allowed itself to be run by such a group of immoral louts. And I haven’t even gotten to the low grade moron who occupies the Oval Office. He continues to disgrace the office of the presidency in ways that nincompoops and crooks like Nixon, Reagan and George W couldn’t have even imagined. He’s made the US an international laughingstock and if left at the reigns much longer the country will become a pariah.

There is hope. Mid term elections are less than a year away, the Mueller investigation continues apace and most importantly the resistance is strong, organized and determined.

As for me I enjoyed 13 days without depression and it was marvelous. To be happy, very happy, day-after-day, for nearly two weeks was a welcome relief from the mental misery that had marked so many of my days. Lamentably the good times crashed to and end and gloom descended again although today seems to be a possible swing back in the right direction. The curative visit to the museum was preceded by a pedicure and manicure which did wonders for my mood. As I write this I’m in a sort of limbo between the usual feeling of high or low. Bi polar disorder is my lot — along with PTSD, addiction recovery and acute panic disorder — but it hasn’t killed me. I don’t believe that it’s necessarily true that that which does not kill me makes me stronger but I do believe that what we can survive and endure can be a source of strength, comfort, humility and even inspiration. Anyway its Christmas and I’m expecting a visit from Santa Claus soon that will have us all feeling a bit more jolly. Our tree is up, it’s cold outside, my Christmas shopping is done and some much needed rain is on the way. Plus there are more museums. More art. More life. More hope. Here's hoping there always will be.

13 December 2017

My Exclusive Interview With Santa Claus (Joulupukki)

Last weekend I flew Finnair to Santa's workshop in northern Finland. Because my late father was a close friend of Santa's, I was granted this exclusive interview with the great man. It is well know that Santa -- though an outgoing, avuncular man -- is reticent about giving interviews, especially during this, his busy time of year. (For purposes of this story I am referring to him as Santa Claus as most of my readers are English speakers, however his real title is Joulupukki as he is in fact Finnish.) I consider myself very lucky indeed to have procured this exclusive. Enjoy.

Me: Thank you for taking time out from your hectic schedule, I know this is your busiest time of the year.
Santa: Frankly, I needed a break. I’m pretty much going 24/7 from early November through Christmas Eve and this gives me a chance to put my feet up for a bit. Plus you’ve been a good boy this year. Ho ho ho.
Me: About that, do you really know who has been naughty and who’s been nice over the course of a year?
Santa: Ho ho ho. Of course I do. But I’ll tell you, I’m pretty easy going about the whole thing. There’s a lot of gray area, lot of people are nice some of the year and naughty some of the year and there are a lot of borderline cases but I tend to give the benefit of the doubt.
Me: How do you do it? How can you possibly know about every single person on the planet?
Santa: Ho ho ho. First of all we only check on the people who celebrate Christmas. For example it never mattered to me that Osama Bin Laden was so naughty, he wasn’t into Christmas anyway. So that significantly reduces the number of people we have to keep track off.
Me: That’s still a lot of folks.
Santa: Ho ho ho. I’ll tell you the truth, we outsource a lot of that. It’s pricey but it saves my elves from having to comb files and peek through a lot of keyholes. We’ve got some good people, very discreet.
Me: But I assume most people are nice and get gifts.
Santa: Not Donald Trump. If we really did put coal in stockings — which by the way is a myth — he’d get a barrel full. What a tool. Ho ho ho.
Me: You’ve been doing this a long time. What’s the secret to your longevity?

Santa: Lately I’ve been doing pilates, which has helped. But I’ve always maintained a good diet, lot of root vegetables and hardly any meat, plus I’m too busy to get sick.
Me: That big round belly can’t be good for you though.
Santa: Never really had one, that’s all padding. Ho ho ho. People expect me to be rotund but I’m actually quite slender. The only sweets I eat are the cookies kids leave out for on Christmas Eve. Ho ho ho.
Me: What are working conditions like for the elves?
Santa: Talk to them, they’ll tell you how good they’ve got it. Their unionized and only ever work more than an eight hour shift in the last couple of weeks before Christmas Eve and they get time and half for it. They’ve got full dental and medical and six weeks paid vacation plus holidays. Ho ho ho.
Me: You say “ho ho ho” an awful lot.
Santa: What’s your point?
Me: Anyway, tell me about your facilities here.
Santa: Ho ho ho. It’s great up here in northern Finland. The Finnish government leases the land to us at a reasonable rate. I know, I know, people think we’re at the North Pole but that’s another myth. I’m actually a Finn, as you know,  as is Mrs. Claus. Most of the elves are too but others come from, well all over. We’ve got Swedish elves, Polish elves, Nigerian elves, Cambodian elves, you name it.
Me: I’m impressed at how clean and modern everything is here and how much room you’ve got. You live here year round?
Santa: Ho ho ho. No just during the busy season, the missus and I have an apartment in Helsinki and we travel a lot in the summer. We especially like Tahiti.
Me: I think another thing people are curious about is how you can get to all those homes in one night.
Santa: Ho ho ho. First of all let me just say thank goodness for time zones or we’d never make it. Listen, the reindeer are pretty damn fast, you’d be amazed and I’m no slouch. I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m in an out of those places in a wink of an eye.
Me: But it still seems impossible.
Santa: Ho ho ho. I’m not saying its easy, plus there’s a little magic involved that I can’t tell you about because it’s a trade secret.
Me: Ever miss a house?
Santa: How can you even ask that?
Me: Sorry. I’m impressed at how perfect your English is. Obviously you’re fluent in Finnish, what other languages do you speak?
Santa: Ho ho ho. It would be easier to list the ones I don’t speak. I’m fluent in most. Some I struggle a bit with. I can just get by in Iroquois, for example and my grammar in Tagalog is pretty weak.
Me: Do you actually make any toys or is that solely an elf thing?
Santa: Ho ho ho. I’m in more of a supervisory role but I like to get my hands dirty from time to time, especially with something new. Ho ho ho.
Me: I notice you’re wearing the red suit. Do you wear it all the time?
Santa: Once the calendar hits December I do. Other than that, no. Mrs. Claus shops for me at Banana Republic. Ho ho ho.
Me: How do you feel about all the department store Santas and the people who dress up like you for Christmas parties and family celebrations?
Santa: Ho ho ho. They’re doing me a huge favor. After all I can only be at one place at a time. I do actually appear on Christmas Eve at a few houses like, as you know, your family’s.
Me: We appreciate it too.
Santa: Well your dad was a good friend of mine so I’m glad to do it. Ho ho ho.
Me: One more thing, what role does Mrs. Claus play in your operation?
Santa: Ho ho ho. She’s a retired psychiatrist so she’s our resident counselor. There can be a fair amount of stress here. Plus she likes to do some traditional things like mending sox and knitting.
Me: Do you take any interest in world affairs? Political issues?
Santa: Where do you think most of naughty list comes from? Ho ho ho. You’ve got a lot of Scrooges in your government these days — none worse than those idiot Republicans — that have been trying to line their own pockets at the expense of everyone else. They won’t get so much as a stick of gum from me.
Me: Again I can’t thank you enough for your time. I learned a lot and my appreciation for you has grown. Anything else you’d like to say?
Santa: Ho ho ho. Also tell Sofia, Teo, River, Edvin, Aila and Matilde that I look forward to seeing them on Christmas Eve he ovat hyviä poikia ja tyttöjä (they are good boys and girls). Hauskaa joulua kaikille. (Merry Christmas to everyone.)

05 December 2017

A Revealing Interview I Did With Myself

A fairly recent picture of yours truly (actually not at all recent, but cute).
Me: How’ve you been?
I: Better. On a new med that seems to be working and I’ve been getting in some really good runs. Ten miles last Saturday. Plus I’ve got vacation time coming up and it’s Christmas season — which I love — and youngest daughter will be in town for the holidays.
Me: How are you handling all the bad political news?
I: It’s really discouraging and depressing. Republicans have sold their consciences to the highest bidders, like the Koch brothers. The tax plan they passed is downright cruel and any simpleton can see that, in addition to the harm it will do the poor, the elderly, students, the infirm, pretty much anyone who isn’t already filthy rich, it will devastate the economy. Also you’ve got Trump slashing the sizes of Bears Ear and Grand Staircase Monument and the Supreme Court okaying the Muslim ban and the pedophile running for Senate in Alabama being endorsed by the RNC. There’s a lot of horrible shit going on.
Me: Any coping mechanisms?
I: Well, I can’t avoid the news, as awful as it is it’s so compelling and I’m a news junkie as it is. But I do find solace in the strength of the resistance. There are so many well-intentioned and well-organized groups that are fighting tooth and nail to oppose the horrors that Trump and company are trying to inflict on the country. There was good news out of the recent off year elections and poll numbers across the board are favorable. Mid terms aren’t that far away. One thing — and I know this sounds odd — I take comfort in is reading about Watergate. I just finished re-reading All the President’s Men and have started on The Final Days. Previously I’d read a bio of Nixon and a book by John Dean. I’m not sure how, but that helps. Maybe because we drove the bastard Nixon out of office. Maybe, as bad as it was, it wasn’t as awful as what we’re dealing with today. On top of that it’s just damn interesting stuff.
Me: You must be excited about Finland’s 100th anniversary of independence.
I: Yes I am. And proud too. On Sunday I went to the Finnish Brotherhood Hall in Berkeley for a celebration. I’m very patriotic about my homeland and with good reason. I’ll provide a couple of links below* to buttress my case. I’m particularly proud of Finland’s human rights record, it’s green policies, how safe it is, its great educational system, its cleanliness, the freedom of its press and its lack of corruption. It’s just a gorgeous country too with very nice people.
Me: Pretty long cold winters, though.
I: Nothing’s perfect.
Me: Getting back to your depression, it seems you had a pretty bad spell recently.
I: Awful. Lasted about seven days and after a brief respite came back in full force. The last few days have been good though, there’s just never a guarantee how long it will last. When I’m depressed it seems like a permanent, intractable condition but like now when I’m feeling fine it feels temporal. Maybe if I can sustain a long period free of depression I can shake the feeling it will come back.
Me: Ever feel suicidal?
I: Yes, but not to the point where I start planning anything. I’m always able to combat it because I’m just so damn lucky with the way my life has turned out. I’m married to the woman of dreams, I have two beautiful, successful daughters, extended family, friends, great physical health and a job I love. If those things weren’t in place then suicide might — at the darkest of times — seem like a viable option.
Me: Anything else in the news that you find interesting or disturbing?
I: Yes — and I’ve mentioned this before — the recent spate of accusations of sexual harassment. I tend to believe the women who in most cases have nothing to gain by lying. Plus if one woman levels a charge against someone you can turn it into a he said she said situation, but most of these awful men have multiple accusers and many with evidence or witnesses. It’s difficult for me to imagine what’s going on. I’ve never even considered some of the sick stuff that men are doing (not that I’m perfect, there are doubtless some actions from my younger days that I should apologize for but even then I’ve never done anything like grab an ass, whip out my penis, jerk off in front of a woman or give a sex toy as a gift). It’s thus difficult for me to imagine what women are going through. We’re only really hearing about famous men, one shudders to think of all the other cases that go unreported or unnoticed. By the way, I’m very proud of the manner in which John Oliver (already a hero of mine) confronted Dustin Hoffman. That — at the risk of sounding sexist — took balls. This is what we need, men have to call out other men for their actions.
Me: How’s the world of sports for you these days?
I: What? You want to send me back into depression?
Me: Sorry I —-
I: That’s all right. I don’t take it too hard. I’m always optimistic about the next game, the next season. There’s always hope. I’ve managed over the years to keep sports in perspective. It’s not the losing that bothers me so much as the absence of the win. That pure joy that can accompany a big win by your team.
Me: So you really like Christmas.
I: I always have. As a child, a teen, a young adult, and now as an old geezer. I like the break from the sameness. The colors, the songs, the trees, the decorations. And of course there’s time with family and the exchanging of gifts. Lot of good food. It always makes me feel good, happy, warm. It also coincides with when a lot of good movies are hitting theaters and this has already been a pretty good year from films.
Me: Plus there’s the Christmas themed movies, several of which I know you really like.
I: Absolutely. It’s a Wonderful Life, Christmas in Connecticut, Home Alone, Elf, The Shop Around the Corner, A Christmas Carol (the one with Alistair Sim as Scrooge), Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, The Man Who Came to Dinner, the original Miracle on 34th Street. Plus there’s the TV specials like Charlie Brown’s Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and so many of the Simpsons’ Christmas episodes.
Me: I’m glad you’re doing better.
I: Thanks. I’m trying to enjoy it. Taking it one day at a time.
Me: Thanks for your time.
I: For you, anything.

18 reasons why Finland is the greatest country on Earth

Ten Fantastic Things to Come out of Finland

Finland is # 1 in Governance

21 Things to Love About Finland

27 November 2017

How am I? How was My Weekend? Funny You Should Ask

Back at work after a four-day weekend people asked me how I’m doing, how was my weekend and I said I was fine and my weekend was great or that I was great and my weekend was fine and truly my body feels fantastic and on the weekend I celebrated Thanksgiving with various family and I went to a basketball game and to a movie and had runs of seven and nine miles and all that was all good but lord did I suffer.

Depression. The whole time. Managed to distract it at times for a time but it was there always and persistent like being in pain and that pain is still with me and is awful and the experiment of not taking meds is officially over that shit did not work as I can tell by my monumental sorrow and misery that has been all encompassing for five full days non stop thank god it allows me to sleep and to have nice dreams and I was able to teach today like I was the world’s happiest man which I’m not unfortunately: “Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light, You've known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight” sang Jackson Browne but that song was not about the unceasing pounding of melancholia and the way depression wraps its tentacles around your brain and surely this cannot go on forever but I’ll be damned if I can remember what happiness feels like.

Happiness. There is that in the world. I have that vague memory of genuine smiles and laughter that lingers and kisses and leaping for joy and holding your precious and sitting comfortably content. Ahh contentment. Just to be satisfied to be sated to be all right. To really be able to say you feel “fine” and mean it. But this….I want out of this. Escape.

Running fast it can’t catch me and I can outwit it and I can slap it hard and knock it down and subdue it and conquer it and prevail and live on with out stalking me. Liberated. A free man. Maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe. Some day. Soon even. Gone. Only me and the real feelings not the artificial sorrow created by this monster.

Have to believe, have to conceive. Have to. Have to. Have to. Remember the good times and the hope and the accomplishments and the gifts of life and the ability to dance metaphorically and be me and feel good about it.

This can’t last. Or I won’t. Reckoning coming. The big showdown. Me versus the miseries. No more grappling. Just winning and grinning. Gotta happen.

21 November 2017

Exiled From Shangrila

Tracy Stetson
There was a bowl of guacamole on the patio table and an open bag of tortilla chips. Flies were starting to make themselves comfortable around the unattended food. Next to the guac was a pitcher of Kool Aid that had been spiked with LSD. Tracy Stetson was sprawled on a lawn chair wearing nothing but a bikini bottom. Her mouth was open and she was making gurgling noises in lieu of snoring. Her brother — my friend — Russell Stetson was sitting across from me almost at the edge of the pool. His eyes were closed but he was awake. I knew this because every so often he’d say something. “Herringbone is overrated but I’d take it Christchurch, New Zealand with me, grglfph,” was his is most recent utterance. It was part of a steady stream of gobbledygook he was intermittently spewing. I drifted in and out of consciousness. I was pretty sure it was dawn but I had so many different drugs in my system that I wasn’t entirely sure of my own name, which I can now assert is Peter Laine.

We were at Tracy’s and Russell’s parents house in the small, exclusive Marin County community of Woodacre. There were assorted other friends including Stetson cousins inside the house, likely asleep. The parents were in Europe so our generation had the run of the place. Russell referred to the large ranch style house and adjoining property as shangrila.

I clung desperately to my friendship with Russell. As his friend I could stay at shangrila and get high and eat for free and continue my desperate attempts to bed Tracy. Russell and I had met during our just completed freshman year at UC Davis. Russell was one of the most intelligent people I’d ever met and certainly the most charismatic. People were drawn to Russell but I was among the chosen few he selected to spend time with. Deep down I knew that I should loathe Russell for  an effete snob and a total hedonist who cared nothing about anyone save himself. I’d grown up in Berkeley raised by parents and schools that preached social justice. I’d entered Davis trying to decide between going into environmental law, social welfare or teaching. Yet here I was cleaved to a nihilist who only wanted to enjoy his parents’ wealth. For all my admirable ambitions I was still only 19 and had developed passions for getting high and getting laid and those passions were predominant. When Russell invited me for the weekend and I met his sister I fell instantly in love. Okay, lust. Russell was handsome — devastatingly cute to women, as several told me — and his younger sister was even more beautiful. Tracy was not just sexy as hell but wise beyond her 17 years. Unlike her brother, Tracy also had a conscience and did not speak contemptuously of everyone outside her circle.

When the school year ended I’d had an open invitation from Russell to “come hang out.” I think Russell liked me because of my sense of humor and my ability to keep up with him when he started drinking and using. At his house I had to put up with more of the stupid, sexist, borderline racist and classist things he said. I hated myself for it but the alternative was going back to Berkeley and either working with my mom at the juice collective she ran or helping dad at his small law practice where he was setting world records for most pro bono cases. I'd had enough of the non stop political discussions that had had dominated my upbringing, I just wanted to have fun. No one could see to that like Russell, who for all his faults was also a wit.

Worse than Russell were his friends and cousins. There were eight to ten different ones of them around at any given time and each was more shallow and insipid then the next. I only liked one of them, a female cousin, Charlotte, and her only because she was so cute and at all times wore the skimpiest bikini ever made.

But I couldn’t tear myself away from Russell and Tracy and the steady flow of booze and drugs. There was an endless supply of everything  including a garage refrigerator that was filled with nothing but foreign beers. Visitors were always bringing over drugs, cocaine, acid, marijuana, magic mushrooms, uppers and downers. It was heaven and hell all at once.

I was making a little progress with Tracy. Virtually every other guy who came by flirted with her too but I was the new guy so she’d never heard my patter before and I was, as she herself said "different than the usual bozos who come by."

Trying to be fully awake was proving difficult. I managed to stand up and find my watch which, to my great surprise, indicated that it was 9:00. I was physically wobbly and mentally hazy. The only solution was to jump into the pool. First I stopped by the lounge chair and looked at Tracy’s tits. They were perfect. I didn’t remember her taking her top off so this was my first conscious look at them.

“Stop looking at my sister’s tits while she’s sleeping!” Russell shouted. I was so startled that I jumped into the pool without removing my shirt. Ten minutes of swimming made my muscles ache but my head clear. When I got out of the pool Russell handed me a Bloody Mary. “You’ve earned this, my friend. For meritorious service in the face of the hated enemy, sobriety.”

An hour and three Bloody Mary’s later most of us were in the kitchen preparing an enormous breakfast of scrambled eggs, potatoes, toast, fruit and coffee (spiked with expensive whiskey, of course). Russell never helped cook meals or do any chores around the house. He acted put out if asked to pass the salt. He couldn’t even stand to watch others work — “it bores me something fierce to watch anyone labor” he once told me. Russell would instead curl up on a sofa making fun of whatever sitcom, soap opera or game show he could find. “What a bunch of idiots!” Was a constant refrain while he watched TV. “You people are so sad it’s nearly delicious,” was another. Russell seemed to hate everything and everyone, maybe, I later theorized, himself most of all. He had not a drop of sentimentality and was perfectly cynical about everything.

At this meal Russell sat next to Charlotte who was sporting her usual flimsy bikini. She was about 5’11 which made her a an inch or so taller than Russell and I, had remarkably pale skin for someone who never covered up much of her body. But that skin was without blemish and I fantasized about tasting it. She had long blonde hair reaching the middle of her back. Charlotte had not an ounce of fat anywhere that it did not enhance her figure. If I weren’t so smitten by Tracy, I’d have made a play for her. Charlotte was clearly flirting with Russell, many women did — as did some men — but he was oblivious to flirtation and never reciprocated. In fact Russell never spoke of women or sex at all except to make fun of couples, of course. Initially I’d thought he was gay but he showed no interest in men either.

After brunch we lounged by the pool and commenced to get really high. This particular day, lines of coke were on the menu chased by tequila or beer. I choose the latter. The conversation was variously silly or philosophical and there was some local gossip bandied about that I of course knew nothing about. I started feeling genuinely excited about life (thank you, cocaine) and bored senseless by the conversation. When Tracy got up to go inside I followed her.

She left the bathroom door open and so I boldly stood at the doorway and watched her pee. “This a big thrill for you, watching a girl pee, Peter?”

“Watching you do anything is a thrill.”

“Aren’t you sweet,” she cooed as she flushed.

“You bring out the sweetness in me,” I replied.

“Okay,” she said with smile, “let’s get this over with, let’s go to my room and you can have your way with me.”

I was aroused by the offer but said “I hate to think it’s something you just want to ‘get over with.’”

“Don’t take it the wrong way. I mean let’s get the awkwardness of the first time out of the way.”  Tracy took my hand and led me to her bedroom and queen sized bed. I had never known such exhilaration. She took off her clothes in the blink of an eye and just as quickly got under the covers.

I did not hesitate to join her.

I’d only been with a few girls before, starting with Sarah Kowaleski in high school. Tracy was several hundred times better on more levels than I can count. (Modesty forbids explicit details.) There was nothing about her performance in bed that suggested a 17 years old. There was no awkwardness the first time nor the second nor third which quickly followed. After round three we slept in each other’s arms for a few hours and awoke to yet another two encores before rejoining everyone else, which he did while holding hands in the way only lovers do.

Most of the ensemble barely nodded at our approach but as we sat down Russell stood up and glared at me. “Did you just fuck my sister?” He demanded.

“God, shut up Russell, you’re such an asshole,” Tracy said.

“You stay out of it,” Russell said without even look at her. “You did, didn’t you? That’s the only reason you’ve been hanging out here so you could fuck my sister.”

It was the first time I’d seen Russell angry and frankly it was pitiful. He seemed pathetic and lost. As if his anger was something staged that he had to go through.

I glared back at him, still holding Tracy’s hand.

“Answer me!” He screamed, and threw his glass against the house where it broke into pieces many of which flew back towards us.

Now Tracy stood up and screamed in her brother’s face. “What is your problem you fucking asshole, you’re ruining everyone’s good time!”

Russell looked away from me to his sister and slapped her across the face. Hard. I did not think. I stood up. I punched Russell in the face. Very hard.

Russell put his hands on his face, then cupped his nose. He was bleeding. Someone gave him some paper towels. “Get the fuck out of my house, you fucker, you hit in me in my goddamned face.”

“You deserved it,” Tracy sobbed.

“The jig is up,” I said with resignation. I knew my time at shangrila was over for good and all. Within ten minutes I was hitchhiking back to Berkeley.  Tracy had walked me part way toward the freeway entrance and slipped her phone number into my back pocket. She apologized half heartedly for her brother and confessed that this was not the first time he’d lost his cool publicly.

Later that Summer Tracy visited me in Berkeley and one weekend when Russell was away I visited her.

Russell did not return to Davis. I heard that he went to UC Santa Barbara. Tracy and I stayed in touch for awhile but then she got into what she called a “serious” relationship and went to college back east.

I graduated with a degree in Sociology from Davis and ended up moving to Seattle where I got a job doing community outreach. I also eventually got into 12 step programs for my drinking and drug use.

It was shortly after moving to Seattle, six years after hanging out at shangrila,  that Tracy contacted me. She was moving to Seattle to do graduate work at the University of Washington. She also informed me that Russell had committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. He’d never graduated college, never had a job, never had a girlfriend or boyfriend. He’s also never stopped getting high. Tracy told me that Russell used to speak of me but depending on his mood he’d either express regret over the way he’d acted or angrily say he should have killed me that day. Tracy said she never figured her brother out and for that matter neither did he. “He always was surrounded by friends but was never close to anyone. No one ever knew him, not even me,” Tracy told me. I did not find myself at all shocked by Russell's suicide, it seemed like a logical step for him, a person who believed and loved nothing, especially not himself.

Tracy and I became lovers again for awhile. But it didn’t last. I don’t know what does. I honestly don’t.

14 November 2017

Larry Has a Problem

If Larry had a gun he’d a shot himself sure as shit cause last night he got Debbie Gloucester in bed and couldn’t get it up Debbie Gloucester was the cutest girl in the school by far and Larry’d had a crush on her since 7th grade when he first noticed girls and how come he had no trouble getting it up for Lottie Thomas and Carrie Woodbine the other two girls he’d been to bed with and it would have been so perfect cause that day that very day he’d scored the winning goal to lead North Point to the championship and now they were eligible for state and his being a hero was now wiped out because of a limp dick which was maybe because he was so tired or so excited to be seeing Debbie Gloucester naked and it would be so bad if she told anyone even just one person and Larry felt like his life was over and he was not yet 18 and wouldn’t be for another couple of months but what was the use if he couldn’t take advantage of Debbie Gloucester actually liking him and liking him so much that she’d let him have sex with her.

Larry just laid there in bed feeling the worst kind of awful a whole new level like he’d never known even when his Uncle Frank had died suddenly right in front of everyone at the July 4th picnic last Summer. This was worse not that he didn’t miss Uncle Frank and feel bad for Aunt Helen and his cousins and all but that was just some other guy dying and this was like his world ending and damned it just made it worse that now way later way after when it was too late he was as hard as rock thinking of how he’d been so soft earlier that evening with the actual naked body of Debbie Gloucester and she was so much prettier naked than he’d ever been able to imagine and now she’d probably do it with some other guy some big football player because Larry had blown his probably only chance when he hadn’t realized until the party that very night after the soccer game when they won the championship that Debbie Gloucester had a crush on him like she said she did and boy when she said that he’d gotten good and hard but back in her bedroom it had been a big failure and he never thought it would happen to him at least not until he was really old like the people in the Viagra commercials because he couldn’t even imagine not being hard for some really cute girl like Debbie Gloucester.

It was 3:00 in the morning and Larry couldn’t sleep and wondered if he ever would and would his parents make him do his Saturday chores the day after they’d won the championship because it didn’t seem they really gave a shit oh sure they acted happy but it was that phony kind of adult smile and congratulations and I’m so happy for you that parents are always doing for their kids especially his parents who didn’t seem to give much of a shit about him caring more about his brother Randy in college the asshole cause he was going to get into law school and so they bragged and talked about him and of course his baby sister Leia because she was autistic but doing so well and everyone was so proud of her and Larry guessed that was understandable and all and she was a pretty cool kid especially for someone who had autism but he was the ultimate forgotten middle child plus they heaped so much concern on his cousins Markie Tina and Kayleigh because their dad his Uncle Frank had died last Summer and their poor mom his Aunt Helen was struggling with it so much being depressed and raising the kids on her own and maybe drinking a little too much and everyone was thinking it was soon to be about time she maybe tried to meet someone else as hard as that was with three small kids and all so everyone’s sympathy and pride was in other directions and Larry just got forgotten like now when they gave him their perfunctory congratulations for being the hero of the championship game.

Larry wished there was someone he could talk to about his bedroom failure with Debbie Gloucester but there was no way he was going to admit that to anyone not even his psychiatrist who he’d been seeing for a couple of months since he’d had a couple of panic attacks although Larry didn’t really think he needed a shrink he went anyway and talked anyway because of course his parents were paying for it and they expected it and he did kind of like talking to the psychiatrist even if the psychiatrist barely mumbled in return and maybe he would have to tell the shrink about his failure with Debbie Gloucester as embarrassing as it would be because maybe there was some psychological thing going on that if he knew about he could prevent it from happening ever again and then he’d feel confident and maybe get another chance with Debbie Gloucester of course he could get another chance with her anyway maybe she seemed okay about it not mad or embarrassed or anything probably disappointed but they did kiss a lot and she sure seemed to like it when he kissed and licked her breasts and she said she’d like to see him again so maybe it wasn’t all so bad maybe it would have been her first time and she was nervous anyway after all she’s only a junior and only turned 17 like two weeks ago and maybe everything was all right and Larry should try to get some sleep he could always call Debbie Gloucester in the morning  and see how that went and he’d definitely talk to his psychiatrist on Tuesday about what happened more like didn’t happen.

Gradually Larry’s thoughts grew more confused and mixed with fantasy and he fell asleep and his thoughts/fantasies became dreams and he slept very well all the way until 11:00. After a couple of bowl of cereals he called Debbie Gloucester and they had a really nice conversation and she went out of her way to tell Larry not to worry about last night because it would have been a bad idea anyway because they hadn’t had any form of contraception which Larry never thought about until she mentioned in the phone conversation so he was almost relieved that he didn’t get it up and was downright ecstatic when Debbie Gloucester said that they’d have to try it again and she was sure Larry would do just fine and was so glad they had finally connected because she’d had a crush on him for over a year now and when Larry heard that he was over the moon with joy and imagine feeling so awful the night before and contemplating suicide that was just ridiculous and then Larry did his chores and hung out with his autistic baby sister Leia who was pretty cool and talked on the phone with his brother who was going to go to law school next Fall and his parents took him to his favorite Italian restaurant for dinner than they went to see his Aunt Helen and his cousins and that was a nice time and the next day was Sunday and he met Debbie Gloucester in the park and they walked and talked and walked and talked and when they stopped walking and talking they kissed and Larry just knew next time would be different with her.

And it was.