28 October 2014

A Nod is as Good as a Wink to a Dead Squid a Blog Post in Three Parts Written Over the Course of Three Days

Written on Sunday
I swear it smelled like someone brought a dead squid on MUNI the other day. I believe the squid was quite recently deceased and the cause of death was a virulent form of dysentery.

I take the MUNI to BART after work. As I’ve previously mentioned the bus goes through Chinatown and many passengers have just been grocery shopping. Some of their purchases are malodorous. Usually the offending odor can be identified as raw chicken freshly killed, or some variety of raw fish. But there’s never been anything as offensive as to the olfactory receptors as the dead sea creature from Wednesday last.

If you had never walked around Chinatown and just rode the #30 through it on a regular basis you could be forgiven for assuming that 90% of all Chinese people are either over 80 or under 18. The other 10% would seem to be people with foul smelling groceries. I don’t know where San Francisco’s Chinese American hide after their teen years and why they don’t come out again until they're octogenarians — except to tote around groceries — but there you have it.

Of course you have to be careful when writing about people of a particular age, nationality, sexuality, ethnic group, religion or with a handicap — I mean special need. Anything you say about anyone in a group can cause you to be marked as a crypto fascist. You can even lavish a group with praise and be called out for gross insensitivity. Try saying that Asians are mostly all good at math and note how many pitch fork bearing howler monkeys come for you. Oh god I typed howler monkey. There’s no telling how that can be misinterpreted. If nothing else the Anti Howler Monkey Defamation League is bound to be up in arms.

I have been at the forefront sensitivity, tolerance and inclusiveness all my life (well not when I was a toddler, I mean, come on). As a teacher I have preached the value of these noble traits long and loud. But as a society we have gone way too far and a by product of this is that those knuckle dragging conservatives sometimes have a point when they complain political correctness and the consequent diminution of free speech. There is a fine line between exercising free speech and being hurtful and hateful. Unfortunately learning to walk it seems beyond most people in our society.

Salt mines, not where I work
Written on Monday
So now I'm resuming this post a day later and a day dumber. It's nearly ten pm. At one point in the day I thought of some really brilliant stuff I wanted to write about. I had the exact wording and it was clever thought provoking and original. I've since forgotten every word. No clue even to the topic. My Monday's at the salt mine are brutal (its not so much as salt mine as an international language school but you get the picture). I followed my work day by paying the gymnasium a call and proceeded to make myself sweat profusely. This felt good. I then came home to be yelled at by the wife. She didn't actually yell she was really quite pleasant and usually is. Imagine being pleasant to a misanthrope like me on a daily basis. Takes all kinds. I made a fruit smoothie and watched a Simpsons episode then caught up on work. Too much. So I guess I can be forgiven for completely forgetting the best writing since the Gettysburg Address that I was going to produce right here on this blog.

Yesterday included a trip to youngest niece's house to celebrate her first born's first birthday. She and her husband are two marvels of creation as they are more incredibly sweet and smart and fun then can be imagined. Their son is in a good place. (I now boast three young grandnephews ranging in age from two to 18 months and a grandniece who recently turned five years.) There were a lot of people at the gathering. Some of them a I knew including a few who I know quite well as they are kin. But there were a lot of people I didn't know from Adam or even from Eve. And still others I'd seen around before and maybe been introduced but couldn't tell you their name or anything about them for $50. This is not my favorite situation and I figured out why.

I grew up going to large gatherings of Finns, most had been born in the old country. I was comfortable with this and not just because I'd grown up around them. Finnish people just have a way in social settings that I'm comfortable with. There is a pace to the gatherings and a way of serving or getting food and talking or not talking to people. I can't really explain because its just in my DNA. It's clearly no better or no worse than the way any other ethnic group gathers and celebrates we're all different after all. After moving from home I continued to go to social gatherings and did quite well because of course I was lubricated with massive amounts of alcohol. I was a real charmer, unless of course I'd had one or twelve too many in which case I was loud, obnoxious and your very best friend or lover for life whether you knew or liked me or not. Anyway I got through all manner of party or celebration by greasing the wheels, so to speak. When I went off the sauce I had nothing. I didn't -- and still don't -- feel comfortable talking to people who I don't already know and like. Yesterday I spent more time petting and talking to a golden retriever than I did any theretofore unknown human beings. I'm cool with children, the younger the better. I'll chat up a storm with a baby and get along swimmingly with a toddler. Unknown adults however I shy away from.

Written on Tuesday
Strange. I was just in a conversation with a co-worker who I highly esteem discussing a topic of mutual interest. Suddenly she just took over the conversation and ran roughshod over everything I said oblivious to my words, actually being down right rude. Too much coffee? Jealous of my more intimate knowledge of the topic or of my including one of my daughter's in the story? Masking some problem she is having through word diarrhea? I dunno. I've never known her to do it before. Usually when a person is a rude conversationalist its a consistent pattern and I steer the hell away from talking to her or him. This was an anomaly. Just strange.

I really like people. I love my students, for example and am very nice to them. In my evaluations they comment on this. I suppose I just don't like engaging in meaningless blather, small talk. I like big talk, silly talk or no talk at all. Oh I'll have idle banter about the weather and weekends with intimates but I never participate for too long and its just to fill the time before more meaningful conversation. In some cases I care what a person is doing over the weekend but for the most part.....Yawn.

Speaking of odd segues...movies. I watched a few over the weekend and can recommend them all. Midnight Mary (1933) directed by the criminally underrated William Wellman stars Loretta Young at age 20 when she was as beautiful a human being as you've ever seen. It's a pre code film and is thus honest about sex, crime and the ways of the world. Young played the title character, a poor waif who through a variety of misfortunes finds herself in juvenile hall, later in prison and with gangsters. Later she finds love with a rich young lawyer Franchot Tone. The film begins with her murder trial and then we see her story in flashback. Wellman directed many of the best pre code films including Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes for Sale. This ranks right up there with those two.

I also took my first look at Gia Coppola's directorial debut (you may be familiar with her grandfather) Palo Alto which is based on some short stories by James Franco who features in the film. There is no plot, per se, which is fine with me. Traditional story structure can place artificial endings or elements to a film. There are several interconnected characters most of whom are high school students. What impressed me most about Palo Alto was -- as with pre code films -- its honesty. It is a very matter of fact depiction of disaffected suburban youth trying to grow up too fast. The performances are excellent and Gia Coppola has clearly inherited the director's gene. I noted that on the Rotten Tomatoes website Palo Alto did far better with critics than audiences. I suspect that a lot of people went to the movie expecting the usual teen fare and were taken aback by the film's bluntness and unflinching look teen's in perils.

John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) was another film I enjoyed over the weekend. More like loved. Sometimes the recent experience of watching a film is difficult to write about because it was so special. This was such a case. It's  a meticulously made story beautifully shot (in Monument Valley) and centered around a typically strong performance from Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp. It's one of the reasons that I like to own DVDs of my favorite films so that I can watch them anytime.

Okay. Started this post Sunday morning and here it is Tuesday afternoon and I've got work to do before my next class. So.....

22 October 2014

I Go From Sounds Like a Plan to Dead Poet's Society With Stuff About Joking Around in Between

Just got off the phone with the doctor's office. Was trying to arrange a time to come in for a flu shot but I ultimately I had to tell the receptionist that I would have to look at my schedule and call back. "Okay," she replied, "sounds like a plan."

You know what? It is a plan. That's the thing about plans, they generally sound like plans. You could argue that it's superfluous to say of a plan that it sounds like a plan. After all, it is a plan. I told someone once that when Eisenhower outlined the D-Day invasion to his generals one of them said, "sounds like a plan" and Ike shot him. The person who I said this to replied "really?" This person was not previously known to me to be an idiot, but there you go.

I have told the following to a lot of people over the past 20 years. "Mohandas Gandhi used to be a boxer who fought under the name of The Fighting Mahatma. He got a title shot against Rocky Galvano in Madison Square Garden but lost in a controversial split decision. It was such a bloody fight that Gandhi quit pugilism and became a pacifist." The vast majority of people I said this to believed me. People aren't dumb, I must seem so trustworthy and serious.

Just yesterday I was telling someone that Vladimir Putin's brother Craig lives in San Francisco and that he's into organic gardening, hiking and restoring old vans with his partner Horace. "He's a real down to Earth unassuming guy," I added. The person believed me.

I give up.

I guess I'm just really good at making up and especially telling utter nonsense. I had someone believing that I was a paratrooper during World War II (I don't look that old, do I?). It's a gift or a curse and I take advantage of it. I suppose its a good way to fill the time and have fun. Usually I reserve it for people who are going to "get it" and maybe even play along.

Of course there is a downside. Sometimes people don't believe you when you tell a true story. The other day I related the absolutely true story that I once worked with someone whose name was Henry Mary and 20 years later I had a student whose name was Mary Henry. The person I told this to was sure I made it up. That's insulting. I can make up much crazier stuff than that. Sometimes people don't believe you when you relate the details of a dream. Come on. You can't make up stuff you dreamed. Well, you could but what would be the point? Dreams are crazy and random enough as it is.

The other problem is that when you spin a yarn a person may accuse you if lying. This is rude and insulting. Lying is a serious offense, it is an intentional effort to deceive someone, to obscure the truth.  Making up a ridiculous story about how you used to date Beyonce is not lying, its telling a silly story. (Actually its not in my case because Beyonce and I used to be an item until I let her go and set her up with what's-his-face.)

My checker at the market the other day was a former student from my time teaching middle school. She remembered my name and the fact that I claimed to go out with Beyonce. I hope she also remembered something about the U.S. Constitution or Lincoln or Native Americans or the importance of history.

Early in the school year -- again in my incarnation as a middle school history teacher -- I used to take my class for a short walk to this huge oak tree. I said it was the tree of liberty and that the trunk of the tree was the constitution that kept it standing and I spoke of its three big branches as the branches of government and so on. It was pretty effective -- if I could keep the little buggers quiet. I've had a couple of former students tell me that whenever they walk by that tree they think of it as the tree of liberty and remember what it represents. Pretty cool.

Speaking of inspiring teachers, last weekend I watched Dead Poet's Society (1989) for the first time in ages. It had been near the top of ye olde Netflix queue when Robin Williams died at which point a put it up top where it lingered as a "very long wait." For months I waited. Anyhoo it came. It's  better than I remember it being and it actually influenced my teaching, coming out as it did near the beginning of my brilliant career, well my career anyway. Most films about inspiring teachers make me ill. They are generally sentimental nonsense like Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939). The worst was Mr. Holland's Opus (1995) which caused me uncontrollable retching and horrible stomach cramps and a desire to do myself bodily harm. On back to school nights around the time it came out, parents would gleefully ask me if I'd seen it. I would put on my best forced smile and whilst suppressing the rising bile say that indeed I had. If pressed I would even pretend I liked it and then change the topic to anything else at all. My favorite film about a teacher is Half Nelson (2006) in which Ryan Gosling starred as a middle school history teacher and sports coach (sounds like me so far) who is not incidentally also a drug addict (hey, at least I'm just a recovering one).

But back to Dead Poet's Society. There is a reality to it in that it depicts the kind of teacher who believes that inspiring students and firing their imaginations is central to the profession, if not the be all of it. Said teacher also comes into conflict with tired old brain dead administrators who view teachers as assembly line workers whose function is to shove facts into students' brains. Williams gave an excellent performance as the English teacher with the unconventional methods. That whole business about students standing on a desk to see things in a different way....I used that too. Unlike other inspiring teacher films, DPS is never maudlin and is even somewhat dark. But most importantly it focuses on the students and how they are effected and shaped by a teacher.

For the most part our society devalues teachers (a look at our paychecks will bear that out) and often scapegoats us and any unions we may have. At the same time we constantly see one dimensional depictions of teachers as clueless morons constantly outwitted by clever students, or as wise, aging, self sacrificing souls who live off their memories. Hogwash.

I suppose I should further explore this topic at some later date. Hey, that sounded like a plan!

21 October 2014

Sometimes a Stroll Down Memory Lane Takes You Into a Small Room Where You're Really High and a Maniac With a Huge Knife is Keeping You Captive

It really should have been a clue.

You’re in a small room with a friend and two bad guys. A transaction for cocaine has just been completed. You’ve got the the slick well spoken bad guy named Ray who you met once before and have connected to via a mutual friend, Jerry. Then there’s the other guy. He’s what you would call a crazy motherfucker. There’s no doubt that he’s done time. He’s huge, well over 6’4’ and made of muscles. He could squash your head with his hands. He is not a smart man just a dangerous one. The don’t-give-a-fuck type. He’s liable to do anything at anytime, you just don’t know. Worse, he’s got a knife in his hand. A very sharp hunting knife with which he could take off your hand with two whacks, maybe one. You’re also pretty sure he’s got a gun. So there’s that.

You’re with Jake who you don’t know that well, just gotten high with him several times and you’ve come along on this deal as a favor and so that you can get some free blow. Jake is nervous. It’s his money.

The coke and money have been exchanged. It’s time to book. But this monstrous asshole doesn’t want anyone going anywhere just yet. “This ain’t like no regular guys in suits business. We sit, we talk we have a drink we get to know each other a little first. Maybe we find we wanna do business again.” Ray, the dealer, he just sits and nods to this like whatever.

So big dummy pulls out this bottle of tequila. And then four glasses. Not just small shot glasses either. Like regular drinking glasses. Now you can’t even remember where the fuck you are. Oakland maybe. Jake drove. More like weaved. And you’re in this tiny room in these wooden straight backed chairs with one big window looking out on a parking lot. The table is metal. You sit next to Jake and across from Crazy. “What the fuck is this place?” You wonder and realize you’re pretty high already and that’s not a good thing right now. Or its the best. Meanwhile Jake is very nervous and you wonder if this is going to make things worse or is he nervous because he knows what’s coming.

You don’t really think about dying or even getting hurt. You can’t get that far in your thinking. You’re just feeling trapped in this room with some big maniac who has a hunting knife and probably a gun. Like what the fuck did I do to deserve this? Oh yeah I came along on a drug deal, dummy. See because is not you it’s me. Or was me.

The big palooka pours the tequila. “To life!” he says and I know as he upends his glass down his gullet that I’ve got to make a game effort to drink as much of the tequila in my glass as I possibly can in one swallow.

I do.

Glasses hit the table hard. The soft burn works its way up from my stomach. A few seconds later my head jimmy jacks around and I feel god damned good. Then I kind of shake my head and I’m still in the room and so don’t feel so good.

“We really need to get going,” Jake says, his voice coming from some another galaxy.

I endorse this notion and start to get up. The big ape puts a paw on my shoulder and slams me back down. “There’s no fucking rush!” he shouts. Oh hell, now he’s angry. But that passes quickly too and he smiles.

The other guy says “calm down, Snake, take it easy. No need to shout the boys ain’t goin’ anywhere yet. Right boys?”

We nod but all I can think is: Snake? Seriously? That’s when I notice the snake tattoo on his arm. It just seems too fucking obvious. It may seem a bit funny but his size and strength is no joke. Me I'm about 5'7" and as an ex athlete I'm in decent shape but don't match up so well against Snake. As for Jake he's my size only really skinny and doesn't look like he ever so much as played checkers let alone lifted a weight. So the two of us together are over matched by Snake. By a long ways.

“We have another round!” Snake proclaims. At this rate I’m going to pass out before we get to the car and Jake is going to have none chance of driving.

Thankfully Snake doesn’t fill the glasses all the way this time. Maybe half way. We drink to life again. There’s conversation now and I’m part of it. But my consciousness is deep in my brain and all the words are echoing and I don’t know exactly what I’m saying and sure as shit don’t know what anyone else is saying. But I see myself there. Talking nervously about some shit. I wonder for a second if Snake maybe will kill us and take the money back. If so is he just fucking with us now? But Snake is telling us what fine men we are. How cool and stand up we are how he likes us and feels we're trustworthy. We're like real men. "You're not a couple of pussies like I though you'd be." Gee thanks, I think and can't imagine how we've earned such praise. Meanwhile he keeps fiddling with that knife. He loves the sucker. And Ray over there sitting as cool as you please seemingly bored by it all. Will he save us if Snake turns on us or let him slice us to bits? Ray just doesn't seem to care what happens. He's on a whole other high where earthly matters are of no concern.

Jake has to pee.  Ray leads him to a toilet and I’m left in the tiny room with Snake. I wonder what Snake does for fun. I wonder if he has a girl. I wonder about his parents. I wonder what Snake was like as a little kid and if he’s killed anyone and if he finished high school and if plays the violin. I don’t know why I wonder about the violin. Maybe because I’m an idiot. I have to be an idiot to be here.

Snake talks the whole time. No idea what he said. The single light in the room glistens on his perfectly bald head.

I decide that Snake is a complete moron and that it sucks worse than anything that I’m totally in his power.

Ray and Jake come back. Ray looks really scared. Or is that my imagination or the tequila or what I was drinking earlier in this evening when I was safe in sound in Kip’s -- a Berkeley bar -- waiting for Jake and thinking there was nothing to going to a coke buy.  Of course the coke we sampled when we got here may be playing a part in my paranoia. Not as much as Snake’s knife but still.

“I don’t feel so good.” Jake says.

“You mean like your stomach?” I ask. Now I’m worried on another level. There are levels of worry I’m dealing with. Along with outright paranoia and mild concern and pure terror and stark raving fear. It is raving, boys.

“Maybe we should go,” I say.

“Stay!” Snake hollers.

Ray says: “You ain’t gonna be sick in here are you?”

Jake looks in his lap and shakes his head no.

I have no fucking idea what’s going to happen next.

“This’ll help,” says Snake and pulls out — from where I don’t see — the biggest blunt I’d ever seen.

“This shit’s for real, man. Panama Red.” He proclaims.

Ray closes his eyes and nods like there's mellow jazz playing in his brain.

Panama Red is some nasty weed. It has much more of a kick than regular grass. We’re fucking in for it now, I think.

Snake lights the fucker up and we’re all toking away following Snake’s lead by taking deep long drags.

Now my head is all over the place bee bopping around the room. He stabs me with that knife I won’t feel a thing. But I’m scared shitless just the same. I detest Snake with every fiber of my being and like him like an old friend. I’m hopelessly devoted to Snake because the only way out of this room is to make nice with him. Fucking Stockholm Syndrome.  God, or whatever is out there, let me out of this and I’ll finish my goddamned masters degree. Be a boy scout all the way.

Now Ray is babbling like a maniac. On and on about women. I want to go home. I want out. My sphincter is inhaling and exhaling and has a life of its own and I’m not 100% sure its still part of my body. Jake looks so far out of it that I doubt he can ever be brought back to Earth from whatever part of the solar system his brain is occupying.

I fantasize about snatching Snake’s knife and cutting his throat. I fantasize about a field of daisies. I can’t tell if my right hand is still part of my body. I look at it in wonder. At least Snake hasn’t cut it off.

Snake. He is the worse human being in the world. And when he reaches over and hugs me and holds my head in the crook of his arm I am willing to do anything he asks. Because I’d have to. I’m totally enraged and servile and a baby rabbit in a tiger’s maw. Help me, god or whatever.

He releases me and it feels like a reprieve but I also he realize he can grab me again and this time twist. But then…

“Man I gotta go. I need to find me some bitches.” The speaker is Snake and this feels like the happiest moment of my life. The volatile behemoth has suddenly remembered the farer sex and wants to defile some poor woman.  My relief is indescribable but is tempered by the feeling that he may insist we join him or he may change his mind or he may kill us before he leaves or maybe Ray is going to shoot us. Who knows.

Snake no sooner stands up then he collapses into a heap on the floor.

“That motherfucker could never hold his shit, man,” Ray says. “You put any amount of booze and weed in him and the big asshole folds up like a cheap tent. Shee-it.” Ray stares at him with disgust.

“I better get Jake home, he’s about to go himself,” I say. Ray barely looks at us as we go out the door.  I keep expecting a bullet in the back as we walk out into the cool night. We’re in the industrial part of Oakland. It takes us 20 minutes to find where we parked even though its just half a block away from where that tiny room was. We are in a panic the whole time. Jake constantly seems about to cry and I want to squat and shit right there. Out of bald faced fear.

I don’t know how the hell Jake drove us back to Berkeley. But he did. So what we do? We went up to Kip’s and drank until closing time. And man I had another four years of drinking ahead of me. Imagine that.

18 October 2014

Just in Time for Halloween Polanski's Venus in Fur

It was a dark and stormy night.

After my second viewing of Roman Polanski's Venus in Fur I am convinced that what the great director has created in this film is a classic horror story. Witness the beginning of the movie where he telegraphs his intentions. It is the prototypical horror film opening. Thunder, lightening rain along with an appropriate jaunty but ominous soundtrack. The camera leads us down a Paris street and into a theater. There is but one man in the theater talking on his cell phone He has bad a most frustrating day that is thankfully coming to an end. Soon he will be back home. Warm and cozy. Despite the man's frustrations it is all a perfectly ordinary experience and quite innocent. So starts many a horror film.

Enter a woman. She seems fairly normal though somewhat eccentric in speech and manner and perhaps a bit lower class. This contrasts with the man who is a sophisticate. Indeed he is the adapter and director of a play and his frustration stems from an inability to find its leading lady. The woman is there to audition though she is much too late and anyway he can see that she is quite wrong for the part. However we can quickly tell from their ongoing conversation that this is going to be one of those cinematic gambits where one character insists upon something and the other resists but you know that second character will eventually relents. Then it gets strange.

Gradually we discover certain things about the woman. For example her name is Vanda which happens to be the same as the character whose part she is reading for. Also Vanda has mysteriously gotten a hold of the entire script. The adapter/director, Thomas, is surprised by certain of Vanda's revelations but he is also taken by how well she reads for the part. Has he at last found his leading lady? Vanda has come very very well prepared not only knowing the play backwards and forwards but having brought costume changes for the audition.

Thomas and Vanda read together. Not just a scene but several. And Vanda doesn't just know Thomas' play, she has a story -- a seeming concoction -- about knowing his fiancé. There actually is no doubt she has met her, but the details of the meeting seem preposterous. This only adds to the mystery. It is a part of how their reading mixes the story of the play with the story of Thomas and the relationship he is forming with the ever more mysterious Vanda.

Just where and when they are reading the play and where and when they are taking to one another gets confused. We delight in this confusion. It is spooky great fun. Their relationship is fascinating series of twists and turns.

And what of this play? It is based on the novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch whose name has given us the term masochism. And in fact the play and the relationship of Thomas and Vanda are concerned with a masochistic man and the woman he loves and loves to be servile to.

The lightening and thunder continue to strike at various times always to accent the action in the theater. That all the action is between these two people in a theater does nothing to diminish how compelling a story we are watching. Venus in Fur is a masterpiece of intellectual drama. It is constant battle of wits between two people, one of whom is unarmed. Vanda holds all the aces.

Just who she is and how she comes to posses so much information is a fascinating mystery but of secondary importance to the manner in which she wraps poor Thomas and -- not so indirectly -- us, around her little finger.

I'll not spoil the ending, of course, but suffice to say it is satisfying in its consistency with the story as a whole. There are no cheap tricks here. Just mind games.

Emmanuelle Seigner is Vanda and Mathieu Amalric is Thomas and they are both up to these meaty roles. I've no doubt that Polanksi himself would have played Thomas had he made this film when he was younger but Amalric is an excellent actor who should be familiar to film goers.

Venus in Fur is a film that positively begs for repeat viewings and for me twice is not nearly enough. For one thing I haven't even begun to sort it all out although I will contine to try and won't mind failing at the effort. It will be well worth the time. Venus in Fur now available on Netflx Instant and I can't recommend it enough particularly if you're looking for some spooky yet intellectually challenging viewing for your Halloween season.

08 October 2014

The Skeleton Twins Two Peas Outside the Pod

“We are stupid, stupid — that’s the main thing about us. We don’t doubt enough, we, form too many convictions, like idiots we live by them.It’s far better that, instead of perfecting our attitudes, or perfecting our position in the world even, we would spend time perfecting doubt — develop a perfection of doubt.”  - Jack Kerouac in letter to Allen Ginsberg August 26, 1947.

Life can be a bitch. Dreams very often do not come true. People let us down. We make mistakes that can't be undone. And sometimes figuring out what we want is nigh impossible. It's a bloody miracle that it works out as well as it does for some people. Some.

Many of us press on in the face of crushing disappointment and ceaseless uncertainty. Usually its because we have a support system. Loving family or a devoted spouse or true friends can make all the difference. Of course some or all of the these types of people are no guarantee of a smooth ride. The road of life is riddled with potholes. Some of which sport teeth.

Few recent films have done a better job of exploring the vagaries of modern life than The Skeleton Twins. Directed by a relative newcomer in Craig Johnson, it benefits greatly from terrific performances from Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. The two are Saturday Night Live alums who are, of course, best known for the comedic talents. Actors who do comedy routinely step into dramatic roles and give brilliant performances. Bill Murray, Robin Williams and Jim Carrey are a few examples. Wiig and Hader are allowed to flex their comedic chops in a film that wisely mixes humor with dark themes such as suicide.

Wiig and Hader play siblings Maggie and Milo who have not seen each other in ten years. Maggie is married to a perfectly amiable chap Lance (Luke Wilson) the quintessential super nice guy. He's active, fun and able to get along with anyone and everyone. He easily takes to Milo who comes to stay after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Milo is gay, which always adds its own special drama to family dynamics and life in general. Maggie loves her husband but not quite enough to have a child with him.  Plus there is that uncertainty. Her love seems genuine but is not deep. That's good enough for some people but not someone like Maggie whose thinking is so uncertain she needs absolute clarity whenever possible.Milo has not succeeded in his quest to become an actor. He seems to have had a failed romance too. He's been a waiter in L.A. and like a lot of people who had or has big dreams is having a hard time coping with reality. Meanwhile Maggie is a dental hygienist. That's okay but while it is satisfying and pays the bills it doesn't help a seeker find answers.

Wilson's Lance is a wonderful contrast to the twins. Everything is cool with him. He takes life at face value. He asks few questions as he wolfs down a frozen waffle or ice cream or drinks a beer or watches TV or works or plays or talks. Lance is the kind of guy who has a lot of friends. He's who everyone else refers to as "a great guy." Life is fun and easy for Lance. He's like a loyal puppy dog for Maggie. Unquestioning, cute and loving.  Lance is in so many ways the mirror opposite of his wife and brother in law. Without him The Skeleton Twins would just be skeletons rather than the fully realized characters they are. And what they are is full of doubt.

Doubt often creeps into the minds of people who did not have ideal childhoods. Without providing spoilers, suffice to say that Maggie and Milo were not blessed with idyllic formative years. Like many of us they find refuge in humor. Here is where Wiig and Hader's comedic backgrounds pay off. But fortunately The Skeleton Twins does not divert its story with easy laughs instead letting the yuks come naturally.

The humor is critical because it helps the film's harder truths go down easier. There is the touching, wrenching story of Milo's first love that raises some serious and even disturbing questions about romance and the rules of relationships.

Maggie and Milo have fun with each. They fight with each other. They confide in each other. They need each other far more than they consciously realize. They are a delight to watch because they reveal so much and their story gives us so much room and license to think to wander to doubt. The Skeleton Twins has many gifts for audiences. Of that there is no doubt.

04 October 2014

A Tale of Two MUNI Rides: Ghosts of Beat Writers and We're Having a Heat Wave

Burroughs and Kerouac.
He wasn't that old and he didn't seem all that insane. Mild insanity isn't such a big deal ya know. He didn't smell and he was carrying a few bags of groceries that I couldn't but think that he'd just purchased the contents of -- maybe he was given them, I don't really know. He was hunched over in a manner that gave him an odd and sad appearance. His clothes did not suggest that he was poor or anything else about him for that matter. Nondescript I believe is the word. He shuffled onto the bus and stood. There were empty seats he could have had but he choose to lean in the nook between the front and back of the bus reserved for wheelchairs. I was sitting right near him.

He spoke to me. I was just finishing a game of Words with Friends on my iPhone that I'd started while waiting for the bus. He asked about it. His voice must have been exactly what William Burroughs sounded like on his deathbed. I don't imagine Burroughs' voice faded all that much even at the end, though I can really only guess, not having been there.

There was something in the man's manner and the way he asked the question that made me shy away from responding. The bus was noisy enough and there were enough people around that it wasn't extraordinarily rude of me to ignore him. I simply didn't feel like engaging with him. Sometimes after working all day and being at the beginning of an hour long commute on a hot day you don't feel like exchanging pleasantries with some old kook. And kook he was for my failure to answer his query did not deter this gentleman from talking what they call a blue streak.

He went on and on about this and that and then about that and this, oblivious to the fact that not a soul was responding let alone listening. I can't tell you what he was saying because I'd move on from my iPhone to a book that I'm quite enjoying (The Blue Star by Tony Earley, if you must know). His chattering was just more of the background noise one grows accustomed to on busy city busses.

After only a few blocks he got off seeming to have no trouble with his groceries or with keeping his running monologue going. I kind of liked him actually. He was different. Really how many people who are talking to themselves carry bag of groceries? How many look as ordinary as he did? And how many sound like Burroughs?

At the time the bus was in the general vicinity of North Beach and City Lights Bookstore and thus the general area that the Beats of the San Francisco variety congregated. So Burroughs' voice kind of fit in. I just wish Kerouac or Ginsberg had been with me so that I could have compared notes with them about the guy's voice. They heard Burroughs up close and in person.

I always like when the bus goes through North Beach. I can feel the presence of the Beats and I thus long to be pounding out novellas on an old Royal typewriter taking breaks to listen to jazz with Jack and Allen.

The hottest recorded temperature that a human being has ever survived was on a crowded MUNI bus.  MUNI does not do heat. San Francisco does not do heat. I do not do heat. Riding the 30 through North Beach and Chinatown on a day of record breaking temperatures is as comfy as wearing a hair shirt in a sauna, only this smells worse. Some passengers in Chinatown take it upon themselves to bring fresh kill from local markets on the bus with them. I believe someone was transporting a recently slaughtered zebra yesterday. Needless to say there is no air conditioning on buses. Unless one counts a slightly ajar windows that let in hot air and flies.

The bus yesterday had a wonderful combination of high school students, tourists, the elderly and infirm, the homeless (who bring their own special aromas with them) and the recently deceased -- or so it seemed. I swear there were a few cadavers on this bus, not to mention a several others who died en route.

On a hot bus ride there is absolutely no doubting that an enormous person whose waist measurements are in triple figures will sit next to me. If by some miracle this does not happen it will be because that space is occupied by a person who is fundamentally opposed to bathing. Of course yesterday I hit the jackpot and a 400 pound behemoth who eschews all manner of soap wedged himself next to me. My joy was complete.

To make it a perfect ride, the driver was passionately in love with the breaks and delighted in slamming them every few seconds. Bodies flew about the bus and backs were thrown forever out of alignment. When the bus arrived at my stop I knew who POWs feel when the armistice is signed. I was free at last to navigate the hot streets of San Francisco in a mad dash to get to BART and a train home.

I zig and zag from near Union Square to the BART station passing through all the construction going on and the shoppers and workers and dealers and schemers and tourists. The BART station was nice and toasty but fortunately the train was not long in coming and felt fairly arctic relative to where I'd been. Almost home.

29 September 2014

Hey Everybody, Let's Name the Moon!

Why doesn't the moon have a name? It's like if we called Earth, the planet. The moons of Saturn all have names and there are seven of them.  You trying to tell me we can't name one lousy moon, the only one we've got? I'm calling bullshit on this.

Saturn's moons are named for Greek and Roman Gods which to me suggests that route has been done to death. We might one to give a shoutout to other cultures like one of our own Native American tribes and name the moon for one of their deities. The Lakota have a deity named Whope. How's Whope Moon strike you? The Inuits sky god is called Torngasoak. Now there's a name for a celestial body. We have a quarter Tognasoak tonight, people could say.

My fear is that there's going to be a bidding war by big corporations one of which will win the naming rights. It'll be like sports stadiums. Coca Cola Moon? Virgin Atlantic Moon? Wal Mart Moon? The mind boggles and recoils at the possibilities.

Maybe cooler heads will prevail (yeah, right) and there will be a contest to name the moon. I could totally see it being named for the first man to walk on it. Armstrong Moon, anyone?

Hey, I'm just spit balling here.

Of course there's no reason why the moon has to have an English name. I suppose this whole thing is a can of worms. There could be a helluva squabble over the name. Then again maybe each language can have its own name for the moon. Perhaps a universal word that can easily be translated into every language. Actually there's a word you hear in almost every language: okay. Does Okay Moon work for any of you?  Didn't think so.

Well frankly I'm tapped out. But I think it's an issue that needs to be addressed. Really what else is there of such importance that doesn't have a name? The sun has a name, it's a star called the sun. We don't call it the star. Come on, let's be the generation that names the moon. I mean look at the mess we're causing on this planet. Coming up with a name for the moon is the least we can do.

Hey, how about Ralph? No one calls their kid that anymore so no one is sick of it. And in the famous TV show The Honeymooners, Ralph Kramden was always promising to send his wife there. Ralph Moon looks beautiful tonight. Or, just the Ralph is full tonight. Or, the coyotes are howling at the Ralph. Or, the cow jumped over the Ralph. Or it was a beautiful Ralphlit night. Or, look that kid can do a Ralphwalk just like Michael Jackson. Or, those drunken frat boys Ralphed us. Or, I ate too many Ralph pies last night.

This time I may be on to something!

28 September 2014

I Am Not Trying to Make Fetch Happen I'm Just Writing About Mean Girls

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They're quite aware of what they're going through.
-from Changes by David Bowie

Youngest daughter calls me Geezer or Geez for short. A beloved co-worker -- who is one of the coolest people on the planet -- asserts that anyone who can quote Mean Girls (2004) so extensively can't possibly be a geezer. It is a question for the great minds of our time to ponder and discuss. There can also be a rather lengthy discussion about why a person of my gender and advanced years is so familiar with the film. Well for one thing I like the damn movie and make no apologies for that. For another I use it in my teaching.

(You know you've got a great job when in the course of performing your duties you get to show Mean Girls.)

Mean Girls is funny, smart and rich with themes. Students from all over the world -- but especially those from Europe -- have either seen or heard of Mean Girls. Female students generally are excited to watch it, males not so much. But when I stop the film the males are just as likely as the females to beg to see more.  On Friday I showed a class the first half hour of it.  Then I put them in groups and assigned two topics for them to discuss related to the film. Those topics were: 1) Your first day at a new place 2) Feeling awkward 3) Making friends 4) Social groups 5) Life in high school 6) First romance 7) Pressure to fit in 8) Popular people. We then had a whole class discussion about each. These discussions could have taken up the rest of the class and a whole other period and maybe the weekend.

These are all universal themes that people from all over the world can relate to. Mean Girls is not a documentary about the high school experience but it's not far off either. Come to think of it could damn near could be a documentary. The massive girl fight in the hallways aside it's all perfectly plausible. Cliques in schools are rampant and it can even be argued that in some ways they make a mockery of integration (this is not to minimize the obvious benefits of integration). There are social levels at schools and they are not all based on upper and lower classmen. Students identify or are pegged as jocks, rah-rahs, nerds, druggies, geeks etc. and I do mean etc. etc.

Middle and high school has proven to be a living hell for many adolescents. Going through puberty, discovering sex and sexuality, figuring out who you are and what if anything you believe and facing academic and peer pressures are a mad brew that can mess with the most stable of young minds (wait, are there any stable young minds?). If you enter the scene while dealing with a difficult family situation and feel pressured to win acceptance to a prestigious university and are involved in extra curriculars such as sports, music or drama you are basically on a runaway train into the Grand Canyon. Its no wonder students celebrate high school graduation. They have survived life's cruel hazing process. Many leave high school with emotional scars that take years to heal or are permanent.  It is a testament to the human spirit that many of these same people leave high school with a plethora of happy memories.

Mean Girls is an adept telling of the high school experience. Cady (Lindsey Lohan) has the added burden of a new school and indeed being in a school for the first time after being home schooled in Africa. (Karen: If you're from Africa, why are you white? Gretchen: Oh my God, Karen, you can't just ask people why they're white.)

In working with young people for the last several eons I've developed a social theory which I call the geography of the human body. In his seminal work Guns, Germs and Steel the eminent geographer Jared Diamond expressed the importance of geography in determining the fate of societies and cultures. The same can be said of people. We are born with certain body types and physical features over which we have minimal control. The manner in which we respond to being naturally beautiful (like me!) or tall or large or skinny or short determines the type of life we have. I've noted over the years the different ways -- for example -- that young women respond to the way they are viewed for their physical appearance. Ultimately beauty comes from within no matter how you look. But still, dealing with how people perceive us based on sight alone can effect the way we sees ourselves.

Cady is a "regulation hottie" which gives her entree into the female social elites who at their midwestern are, unfortunately, mean girls. "Evil takes a human form in Regina George" who is their queen bee. But Cady's heart lies with others who are more her type and she falls in love with a boy who once dated Regina so she can't go out with him because "that's against the rules of feminism." Cady ultimately leads a double life which can arguably be the case for anyone in high school who is self aware. Hell when I was in high school I hung out with and was a card carrying member of jocks, hippies, intellectuals, political radicals and any other group that I identified with at the time. Half the time I didn't who the hell I was and the drugs I took didn't help. Cady has more heart than the mean girls and even excels at math. She is warned that joining the mathletes is "social suicide." There's another thing Mean Girls sheds a light on, how awkward it can be to be smart. To far too many young people brains aren't cool. Superficiality, following trends and not sticking out for anything other than athletic prowess or physical features are the way to get by.

In Mean Girls lessons are learned and seemingly by everyone, which is maybe the most unreal thing about the film. But it makes it a complete story. At the end we see junior plastics, the next generation of mean girls so the story will go on. This is a film that hasn't aged a day in ten years and I suspect it won't in 20. It's got the feeling of a classic to it.  Principally because it is eternally quotable ("I gave him everything! I was half a virgin when I met him.") its characters are not stick figures but fully drawn and its themes are universal. Plus its funny.

I've shown all our parts of Mean Girls many times and don't tire of it.  This is in great part because students respond to it so well and are so comfortable with and happy to discuss it. Even an old geezer like me enjoys discussing it.

And a final point to remember: "On Wednesdays we wear pink."

24 September 2014

What's His Story; I'm Fine Thanks and You?; And Again I Complain About Motormouth

“Of course I talk to myself. I like a good speaker, and I appreciate an intelligent audience.” - Dorothy Parker.

You see that guy over there? The one with the porkpie hat on? Looks like he might be your classic hipster? Yeah him with the goatee, wearing the glasses. Wonder what his deal is. Maybe he’s recently engaged to be married. Or maybe he can’t get a date to save his life. Maybe he’s recently completed a successful business deal or perhaps he’s on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. Could be suicidal or on top of the world. Seriously, he may intentionally overdose on prescription drugs tonight. You don’t know.

I suppose that statistically the greatest likelihood is that he’s part of that great middle. He’s doing okay.  Has what he needs but there’s plenty out there he wants. He’s screwed up a few times in a big way but also made a success of several things. But you don’t know. You just don’t.

There’s a man who frequently rides on my morning train who is unfailingly jolly. He’s an older gent — or at least looks to be — maybe in his late sixties. Gets around with a cane. Has a large belly. Doesn’t dress particularly well but it seems more a matter of choice than a function of his circumstances. He doesn’t have much hair left. He could be the type of person who has eschewed exercise since childhood and has a desk job. I don’t get the impression that he’s very healthy. I’m not sure if he’s always as happy as he seems. How could I be? Some people are very cheery in public, friendly and gregarious, but behind closed doors they are beset by a pervasive gloom. Could be the case with this guy. Maybe he lives alone with a cat. Then again maybe he’s got a wife at home and grown children and regularly sees his grandkids. Who knows.

He’s always got a friendly word for everyone and always seems to find a person to chat with during the train ride and not just the same person each day. I’ve never had an exchange with him as I only see him on early weekday mornings before the first cup of coffee. I don’t suspect that we’d have a lot in common but can’t know that for a fact. I like that he’s around because of his genial manner, although I never like seeing overweight people. Overweight older people who get around with canes could be depressing -- although I don’t let it bother me too much.

We go through our lives presenting facades to one another. Everything is fine all the time. What percent of the time do we answer the how are you question with the word fine or a version thereof? It’s got to be in the upper nineties. It’s automatic. “I’m fine thanks how are you? “Just fine.” We’re all fine. I remember once an acquaintance asked me the old how are you and I revealed that I was suffering from a mysterious illness. I refrained from giving a lot of detail but said it was in the nature of a cold. He stared at me in stunned silence as if I had just described a recent bowel movement. Then he abruptly went on his way. I was about 24 years old then and in the intervening years have never made the mistake of telling anyone save intimates when I’m under the weather. Actually, owing to my Finnish ancestry, I don’t particularly like anyone to know when I’m less than 100%. This was a characteristic of my dad too who always claimed robust health (usually because it was the case) and would be mortified if anyone knew he had so much as sneezed recently. There was nothing phony about my father but like most Finns he put up the old everything is peachy keen front. Not only that everything always was and everything always will be. He developed a selective memory and in later years could not recall a single instance of my brother or I being anything other than perfect children. I can sense the same thing happening to me. My recollections of my children's younger years are pretty much an unending series of delights with both walking around under halos. My wife has tried to remind that this was not actually the case. Point being no one needs to know if I've got dengue fever or beri beri or amoebic dysentery or yellow fever or typhus or cholera or ringworm or bacterial meningitis.

I have a co worker whose mouth is in irritatingly constant motion and I once heard him tell a teacher who had just started about a recent illness he had suffered. It was not even in answer to a question. He just let fly with the details as a conversation starter. Actually that’s quite inaccurate for he wasn’t starting a conversation, he was merely beginning to bore someone else with a nonstop monologue. I am continually perplexed by people who babble incessantly. How a person can be unaware of the fact that they are doing 70-100% of the talking is beyond my comprehension. I should think that when the person you are talking to falls asleep it might be a clue. But he is more than happy for someone of very recent acquaintance to know the A to Z of his recent medical history. That they don't care is of no concern. I avoid him like the plague that he is. My grunts and shrugs in response to his comments to me have convinced him to find easier prey. Someone new on the job is vulnerable. They are trying to be nice to everyone and don't yet realize that this guy has all the style grace and sophistication of a broken spatula.

As a teacher there is for me the constant temptation to prattle on and on. Especially when I’m on a roll and students are interested or chortling or furiously taking notes. You can be seduced by the sound of your own voice. This is dangerous. For one thing you’ve got to leave on a high note. Doing so means a greater likelihood that what you said will be remembered and that the effect of any entertainment you provided will not be sullied by over staying your welcome.

Over staying your welcome. That’s what I’m about to do if I don’t put a sock in it right about now.