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.

23 September 2014

Have an Extraordinary Day Or at Any Rate Do the Best You Can


"I have tried to know absolutely nothing about a great many things, and I have succeeded fairly well."
- Robert Benchley

The missus and I were checking out at the supermarket Sunday evening. The young lad bagging the groceries told us to "have an extraordinary day." Excuse me but that's setting the bar awfully high. Plus with only seven hours left on a Sunday before a work day and about two of the hours set aside to sleep it's a daunting task to try to have an "extraordinary day." "Nice" we could do but "extraordinary" was beyond reach. I had a mind to find the store manager and complain. "Tell the bagger to tone it down a bit. He's overzealous in his duties telling people to have extraordinary days. Have him stick to 'nice' or 'good'." But I didn't want to bother. After all if there was any chance that I could in fact have an extraordinary day I had to get on it without wasting another minute.

We loaded the groceries and headed for home and dinner and Boardwalk Empire and preparations for the coming work week and a bit of a read then to bed. Altogether rather ordinary. Best that could be done, really.

I have had my fair share of extraordinary days and fully expect to have more. It's actually pretty extraordinary that I'm ambulatory and conscious during my waking hours and have rudimentary powers of the intellect. These are not things that I take for granted given my somewhat checkered past. Who am I kidding with somewhat. It was a damn checkered past is what it was. That's not to say that there wasn't a whole lot of ordinary mixed in as well. I did used to spend (perhaps waste is a better word) endless hours pouring over my baseball card collection. Not just as a wee tyke but as an adult. I also wiled away far too much time watching some truly banal television shows. In some instances it was because I was at the end of a long drunk and couldn't muster the energy to do anything more than change channels and there were also times when I was too hungover to contemplate any type of physical or mental exercise. TV is damn good at not taxing a person and I still maintain that it is ideal for surviving a really nasty cold or the flu. Then again there are some things on it worthwhile such as English football (soccer to Yanks) Letterman, The Daily Show, Colbert Report, The Simpsons, a few shows like Breaking Bad and of course movies. Sometimes I'll have a Giants game (baseball) or Sharks game (ice hockey) or college football game on but not to sit and stare at, just occasional company.

There was another thing I used to do to excess, sit and watch sports events. This can be a real brain drain especially when there are constant commercial interruptions which there are unless you're watching soccer or you've DVR'd the game. I watched the Cal football game last Saturday. If you didn't hear about it...oh god. The heavily under dogged Bears went into Arizona and built a massive lead only to allow 36 fourth quarter points culminating in a hail mary on the last play of the game to lose by 49-45 despite not having trailed until the final gun. Agonizing. It was the type of game that used to be able to ruin my weekend if not a whole week. Not anymore. It's not exactly water off the back of a duck -- there's a little wiping involved -- but the recovery process is swift and sure. I've got too many riches in my life to let what happens on a college athletic field ruin more than ten minutes of my life. I'll derive as much joy and leaping about as I can from sports spectating but my days of brooding after a narrow defeat are long over.

There's the thing about getting older. If you are a deeply flawed individual like myself you get the opportunity to work out some of your foibles, miscalculations, flaws, errors, oversights, glitches, delusions and blunders. Lord knows I've made enough mistakes to learn from. You could fill a library with the mistakes I've made and if I'd learned from half of them I'd be the wisest person on the planet. But I've done okay in any case. There is a sort of sink or swim nature to life. Sort of. That's kind of sad that I used sort of. And its sort of sad that I used kind of. This whole paragraph has sort of kind of gotten sad. Ya know what I mean? Ya know what I'm saying? Uh. Ya know? But I digress....

We are all lucky to be here. You might say it is "extraordinary" to be alive. I once read that the odds against you being born are greater than the odds of you becoming president once you are born. But then consider some of the idiots that have beaten the odds and become fully formed human beings. You have a look about and realize its not such elite company. Here you are having experienced the miracle of birth and you share the planet with car salesmen, Fox News commentators, people who watch golf, jihadists and public school administrators. Makes you wonder what all the fuss is about. Miracle indeed.

Someone might consider my words and conclude that I'm something of an old curmudgeon. Well what of it. I'm a law abiding citizen (okay I've been a law abiding citizen for most of the last half of my life) and I contribute to society in various ways and I've got friends and relatives among them two children who are pretty swell human beings. I'm not looking for a pat on the back but I am saying that there are worse among us.

Anyway the point of this post is...damn, I actually don't know, do I? Fair enough. Not everything is required to have a point. Let me just do that full circle thing and wish you all an extraordinary day. Hey, no pressure.


21 September 2014

The Heiress: A Shocking Tale of Cruelty and an Inspiring Tale of Growth

"She saw that the people of this world moved about in an armor of egotism, drunk with self-gazing, athirst for compliments, hearing little of what was said to them, unmoved by the accidents that befell their closest friends, in dread of all appeals that might interrupt their long communion with their own desires.” - From The Bridge or San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

(WARNING: THIS POST IS RIFE WITH SPOILERS)

The Heiress (1949). It is in some ways shocking. Such mannered cruelty directed towards a decent young woman. A cold distant father who thinks more of his late wife than his daughter. Much more. He is a wealthy doctor who by occupation cares for fellow humans but cannot bestow upon his own progeny much more than contempt -- albeit cloaked in the good manners of his day.

It is mid 19th century New York. The prominent doctor, one Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) is a man of perhaps 50 years. His kindness is part of the social graces of his day and place and station. The daughter Catherine Sloper (Oliva De Havilland) is socially awkward painfully shy and seemingly without suitors. There is her aunt too (Miriam Hopkins) a widow who is solicitous of both Catherine and the doctor. She wants nothing more than for everyone to be happy and for everything to work out well for all concerned. Absent cynicism and ego she flits around trying to please.

Then along comes a young man one Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). He is handsome glib charming and seemingly very much in love with Catherine who is most certainly very much in love with him. The good doctor does not approve of their plans to marry. He sees in Morris a fortune hunter. A man who has squandered his inheritance has no prospects and surely must see in Catherine only the $30,000 a year (then a princely sum) that she is heir too. Why else, the doctor concludes, would such a charmer fall for his dull daughter whose only talent lies in embroidery.

It's a fascinating movie. Director William Wyler made some very good movies but I consider this his best work. The framing of some shots are reminiscent of the best of John Ford. This is particularly so either when two people are talking or it is dramatic moment or when the two -- as they often do -- meet. Wyler was also known to coax great performances out of actors and De Havilland's Oscar winning turn here is a prime example of that. Richardson received a nomination for supporting actor and it was well deserved. He may be the best actor too many people have never heard of. He does more with an inflection or his eyebrows than most actors do with a soliloquy.

The Heiress would all be rather sad if it weren't for the manner in which Catherine responds. Particularly in light of her father's cruel assessment of her in which he sites only embroidery as being among her gifts. For in life we cannot always control what happens to us but we can control how we respond to it. Catherine could have folded. I was expecting that she might plunge into despair or be enveloped by insanity or compromise herself. But she grew. She grew a backbone and became resilient and knew herself. Despite the ill treatment she suffered, Catherine became a strong confident woman who would not be taken in by easy charms. She was a feminist.

De Havilland reportedly lobbied for the role quite aggressively after seeing the stage play. Indeed she did so at the intermission of her initial viewing of it. She evidently saw a meaty role and one that she was ideally suited for. It is remarkable to see Catherine's subtle changes along the way to becoming the fully realized woman she is by the end of the film. The power with which she rejects Townsend's attempt at reconciliation, especially in light of the way she toys with him first is powerful cinema in itself. Her father -- who saw through Townsend and threatened to cut her off if she married him -- has died and the fortune is hers. Townsend had initially abandoned her when he realized that his courtship of Catherine would not yield financial security. But now he is back slick patter and all. But Catherine is a little older and infinitely wiser. Battered by her father's cold cruelty and horribly stung by Townsend's sudden departure for the West on their elopement night, she is no longer an innocent. She is a confident singular woman who will not be hurt or taken in by any man.

At the end of the film there is a magnificent shot of Catherine ascending the long stairway of her New York home candles in hand and a small confident smile on her face. Meanwhile Townsend is banging fruitless at the bolted front door calling her name over and over. Catherine, once so shy and demure, once the victim of a thoughtless father, once easy prey to a charmer, is now a strong confident woman who neither needs nor will let herself be hurt by something so insignificant as a man.

Yesterday was my first viewing of The Heiress. Amazing that so fine a film escaped for so many years. But oh what a blessing to have discovered it at last.


15 September 2014

Good Night Bassington A Comedy in About Three Acts

The man in me will hide sometimes to keep from being seen
But that's just because he doesn't want to turn into some machine
Take a woman like you
To get through to the man in me- From 'The Man in Me' by Bob Dylan

Survivor's guilt. Not good enough. Not nearly. Haven't measured up yet. Owe so much more than can be repaid. An anniversary a few days ago for cleanliness of sorts. Dry as a bone. Mind more muddled than ever in some respects. But clearer about how to see the world. Appreciate it and thus to know my limitations. Have trouble seeing tomorrow -- those next days are so unpredictable. Yesterday becomes clearer and it often hurts to look at it. Bad bad days perpetrated by -- let's face it -- a bad bad man. Today is something I do, not something I see. But I like the notion of it for sure. There's a measure of control in today. I can see those thing that are in my power to alter.

Sometimes.

"I'm here now. I was there before." Those were my words many decades ago as I entered a clearing coming out of a wooded area in Tilden Park. I was very high on LSD. A stunned family gawked at me as if I had something quite insane. Well really I had. But today I say those same words -- often, mind you -- and they make perfect sense. I have seen things. I have been things. And oh how I have done things. I was there and now....

Today on BART. Blind man gets on my car at MacArthur Station with his seeing eye dog. Next stop is Ashby and a blind woman gets on same car also with a seeing eye dog. The canines sniff each other but as they are well trained there is no rough stuff. The owners tug at their pooches and eventually start to chat. Soon the man moves toward the woman and the dogs are sitting together happily smelling one another. The man and woman discuss their dogs and where they got them and what their names are and how much they weigh. The man reaches towards her for an introductory handshake which takes some effort to accomplish but gets done. I look around the car and others are, like me, sitting beaming with great big smiles watching the scene. The dogs are both handsome. The man gets off at Berkeley station and there is a nice-to-meet-you exchange. Sometimes I like what public transportation brings me.

I watched Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932) over the weekend. In some ways she was not particularly beautiful but in every way she was totally adorable and sexy as hell and funny and smart in wise acre sort of way. What a treasure to have her old movies around to look at it. Red Dust is perhaps her best but Bombshell (1933) runs a close second. Red-Headed Woman (1932) also is quite good. If I could time travel...well you know where I'm going with this. Hell, I think the wife would understand. Speaking of women of the past, Red Dust also features Mary Astor and the combination of Astor and Harlow I mean the contrast of those two. So different and so wonderful to watch together. Astor was what was in her day called a classy broad by some. She was the smart, sophisticated sexy and of course a damn good actress or haven't you seen her in say The Maltese Falcon (1941) or The Palm Beach Story (1942) or Dodsworth (1936). Clark Gable was in Red Dust too. I reckon it not too far fetched to say he was the George Clooney of his time. Or Clooney is the Gable of his time, which by the way, is now.

Watched Design For Living (1933) over the weekend too, it's a deliciously deviant pre code film in which Miriam Hopkins (speaking of sexy) beds both Frederic March and Gary Cooper. March and Cooper play best buds, a playwright and an artist respectively. March writes a play the title of which found its way as the header for this here post. DFL is an uneven film (despite being directed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch) but worth your time. Gay icons Franklin Pangborn and Edward Evertt Horton are in the cast (okay they weren't icons but they were gay). Also re-watched a silly comedy written by and starring Steve Martin called Bowfinger (1999). Eddie Murphy co-stars and is frickin' hilarious. In a critical sense it is a raving mediocrity of a movie but any film with such huge belly laughs has earned its place. You could do worse than watching it if you're in need of a pick-me-up.

I'm picked up. I worked long and hard today but that's a good thing to do when you like your labors. The missus is making spaghetti and I reckon I'll eat me some.


10 September 2014

Children of the Rainbow

Left school crossed the street heading up to where I catch the bus to BART. There was re-modeling going on in a building I was passing under. The work was being done on the artifice several floors up. I heard a noise and looked up to see a large object falling towards me. It had just passed a scaffold. I could instantly tell that I was about to be hit but it was all so fast I had no time to react, I was not even able to register any fear or speculate as to whether this would seriously injure me or even bring about my demise.

The very next instant the object struck me full on in the head and I started to feel terrific pain before all went black and I thought and felt and was no more. Just like that I ceased to be.

There hadn’t even been time for my life to pass before my eyes. There was, after in an indeterminate time but probably no more than seconds, the very real sense that my soul was escaping my mortal physical body. As if from above I could clearly see my body sprawled on the sidewalk with my head a bloody twisted pulp. Oddly this was not at all upsetting. It was more in the manner of seeing a cloud in the sky. Just something there. I could see, too, people rushing towards my body and there was even a co-worker of mine among them. Former co-worker that is.

I thought of how everyone at work would feel. They would be horrified, shocked, saddened. They would talk about me and about how full of life I had been that very day. They would tell stories about me and swap reminisces and a few tears would be shed. Perhaps some sort of memorial would be held. But I quickly passed over these thoughts and instead considered my family and how they would be devastated by this. Especially, of course, my wife and daughters. I felt a profound sadness deep within my soul. But it too passed and the realization that this was just the way of the world spread throughout me. At some point or another we all must shuffle off this mortal coil. My passing was perhaps a few decades earlier than one might have expected but hardly the stuff of tragedy. Life would go on for those left behind.

I also felt a great loss for what I might have done. The stories and poems yet to be written, the lessons never to be taught, the insights I would never share, the humorous jibes that would never be told. I thought too of all that I had left unread, unlearned and unseen. The movies, the books, the places and most of all the people never to be experienced. This pain was overwhelming but temporal. Soon I was very light and I was free of pain or suffering or worries or anger or confusion. Indeed all was a perfectly marvelous clarity as I ascended ever higher enveloped in a euphoria that would have seemed impossible moments ago or for that matter ever. I was experiencing for the first time in my existence true freedom and a resultant exhilaration that propelled me ever high in greater and greater jubilation.

I gradually lost all thoughts of my mortal life. What I had so recently experienced became distant memory then vanished entirely. I was whole and new and joyous and something entirely fresh and I was all set to begin again.

A new adventure awaited.

07 September 2014

The Films That Sustained During Recent Tribulations (Actually it Wasn't So Much Tribulations as Ten Days off From Work)

It's not that all I ever do is watch movies, it just seems that way to my family, friends and anyone with whom I have a passing acquaintance. With ten full days off from my labors and no trip to take, I was left pretty much at home to write, read, make trips to the gym and watch films. Not one to waste an opportunity, I managed to squeeze in 14 films. If you look very carefully you will find below a few comments on each of these movies.

The Departed (2006) This was my third time watching, I was showing it to youngest daughter whose cinematic tastes have greatly improved of late. I like it well enough but it represents a problem I have with the great director Martin Scorsese. Among his earlier work are some of the classic films of American cinema. Among his later work are some pretty good films but nothing to match the brilliance that was on display in Raging Bull (1980), Taxi Driver (1975) or Goodfellas (1990). The Departed is an example of how his raw, powerful and innovative story-telling power has given way to sometimes bloated over done star studded spectaculars. Departed has a big star or two or three in every scene and I believe that's part of the problem. There's Matt Damon, oh look it's Leo, now here's Nicholson, and Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Mark Whalberg. What Clark Gable wasn't available? They all fill up the screen with big star performances. The Departed is too much of what it is. Just watch Scorsese's first major film, Mean Streets (1973) and you'll see how story telling has given way to the kind of excess that made The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) an overly long mediocrity.

Adaptation (2002). I really like Charlie Kaufman the screenwriter. He doesn't just think outside the box he builds a new damn box and goes in there to think. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), which he wrote, is a brilliant film. Adaptation is the very clever story of a screenwriter struggling with a script and then becoming a character in it and yes of course Kaufman based it on his struggles with the screenplay. Although here he has a twin brother/doppelganger. Nicholas Cage plays the boys and Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Tilda Swinton head the rest of the gang. It's all a lot of fun and thought provoking and clever but in a way that just feels too obvious for me. I like the film and appreciate the effort but I'm not gaga.

The Strawberry Statement (1970) This is the worst film that I love. While it is a generally shoddy bit of film making it also manages to encapsulate the campus unrest of the late Sixties/Early Seventies. It makes me damn nostalgic is what it does. The music, which includes songs from Neil Young, Buffy Saint Marie and those one hit wonders, Thunderclap Newman, is the perfect accompaniment to this story about a young man who falls into his university protest and falls in love in the process. There is every bit of the feel of that time and I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the time period and what the protest movement was like. I would not however recommend it to anyone studying cinema. Look for a very young Bob Balaban in the cast and a pre Harold and Maude (1971) Bud Cort. Kim Darby (I had a crush on her at the time) is the love interest and Bruce Davison the star. Seeing this film upon its release was de rigueur in my circle and I reveled in it. All these years later it has a different but not less powerful meaning. Yup, those were the days.

Hearts and Minds (1974) Speaking of those times, if you want to understand American involvement in Vietnam you could do a lot worse than starting with Hearts and Mind which I consider the best documentary of all time. There is so much here about the experience of the US soldier in Vietnam, about the attitudes of the generals and political "minds" who crafted the war, about the feelings of those back home and most importantly about the impact of U.S. involvement on the Vietnamese people. An important historical document that of course our leaders haven't learned a wit from.

Blade Runner (1982). I not only love the look of this film from director Ridley Scott, but Harrison Ford's performance as the oh-so-vulnerable titular character. His name is actually Deckard but he is a blade runner, those brave souls of the future who go about terminating cyborgs who wonder back to the planet to potentially cause trouble. Deckard essentially gets bested by them all in battle but wins out by luck, help from his friends and his foes' cockiness. Rutger Hauer is brilliant as public enemy number one and good gosh but I wish they still made Sci Fi films like this.

Inglourious Basterds (2009). What is most striking after repeat viewings of Tarantino's masterpiece is the theme of deception and pretending. The opening scene -- one of the greats in all of film -- sets the tone with the evil Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz) pretending he doesn't suspect there is a family of Nazis cowering below the floorboards. Meanwhile the interrogated farmer must likewise pretend there's no one below. In this film people pretend to be Nazis, Italians, gentiles, you name it. In the famous rendezvous bar scene people are playing a game in which they don't know who they are but everyone else does. We all pretend to be someone else except when we're the only one who doesn't know who we are. Most everyone pays for their lies including that evil Col. Landa. Brad Pitt's performance as Aldo Raines gets better with each viewing and director/screenwriter Quentin Tarantino's script is more brilliant with each viewing.

The Silence (1963). I mentioned The Silence in a post a few days ago and have written an entire piece about it as well. Ingmar Bergman is my favorite director and this film ranks in my personal top ten of his works. The child, the porter, the sisters the unnamed Eastern European country, the heat, the looming war, the sex. Sex. Sex and heat. The lack of communication. The symbolism. Oh yes and the circus troupe of midgets. I would never dare try to make sense of it all. Just bits of for me. Bits at a time are such a feast.

The Big Lebowski (1998). What a great re-discovery this has been for me. I've written about this one a couple of times recently and probably will again soon. My appreciation for the Coen Brothers has skyrocketed since I recently re-watched all their films and yes I should soon be writing a lengthy post about them. They of course write and direct as so many of the greats do. They write great parts too, sometimes for the wonderful John Goodman, as here. Jeff Bridges and Steve Buscemi and for that matter the rest of the cast got some juicy roles too and dove write in. The Coens, also like many of the greats, know how to use music not as part of the background to the story but as an integral part of it. But its the dialogue that keeps you coming back. The Dude: "Let me explain something to you. Um, I am not "Mr. Lebowski". You're Mr. Lebowski. I'm the Dude. So that's what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing." You've got to love a movie with lines like that.

Synecdoche, New York (2008). Once again kudos to Charlie Kaufman in this case not only for writing but directing. Many people greatly admire this film, the late great Roger Ebert named it the best of the decade. Ebert argued that the film was about life itself. Well I for one admire the hell out of the movie but don't particularly love it. It's about as subtle as an electric guitar solo. While Bergman carefully crafted his stories with messages aplenty for viewers to wonder about and contemplate, this is one loud shout. Its a most worthy endeavor and I have no quarrel with those who love it. Just not my thing.

The Man Without a Past (2002). This was the first film from the great Finnish director, Aki Kaurismaki that I ever watched. I have since seen all that are available and he has become one of my favorites and no not just because I am a fellow Finn. This is a good place to start with Aki. Like all his films it steers away from any kind of excess. The characters are placed in situations and work there way through. There is no glamour just honest stories with subtle humor but void of overt sentimentality. Understatement can be a most powerful kind of statement.

Joan of Paris (1942). This is one of a slew of propaganda pieces Hollywood churned out during the war. Some of them were great films like Casablanca (1942), some of them stunk to high heaven like So Proudly We Hail (1943) and many more were pretty good films like this one in which Paul Henreid and Michele Morgan star. Henreid was no stranger to such movies having featured in the aforementioned Casablanca. Morgan is best known for her role in Marcel Carne's Port of Shadows (1938). Henreid is nice enough but in Port she played upset the great Jean Gabin. Here she is a woman named Joan who is living in Paris (hence the title!) and she falls in love with Henreid and helps him and his fellow flyers escape from the evil Nazis. The Gestapo co stars as the evilest of the evil. Not a bad film.

Melancholia (2011) The apocalypse never looked so beautiful. Another of my favorite films of all time. It is so rich in themes and moods and talking points. Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg are sisters and the world is about to go kablooey. Although no one is certain that the planet heading in their direction will really wipe out Earth until the day the feared event happens. Dunst struggles mightily with sanity but then becomes both calm and omniscient and it is sis who is cracking up. Lars von Trier directed and did a superb job.

On Dangerous Ground (1951) We now live in a world in which too many people have never heard of Robert Ryan or Ida Lupino. The two star in this fine film from RKO, labeled a noir but not so easily classified. Lupino also did a bit of directing including filling in for Nicholas Ray on this one. This is one of those films from the time period which were short and sweet and for my money too short. It clocked in at 81 minutes and is a taut interesting story about a big city police detective (Ryan) struggling with the reality of his job and the lowlifes he sees everyday and his lonely home life. He's sent up into the snowy country to help with a murder investigation where he encounters the killer's sister (Lupino) who has her own struggles. Ward Bond plays the victim's dad and is quite good. But this is a movie that could have done with some fleshing out. Sitting through another 20 minutes or so wouldn't have killed anybody and in return the characters could have been more fully realized and the film so much better.

Where Eagles Dare (1968). This was my first ever viewing of the only collaboration between Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. There's a screen odd couple for you. Speaking of odd this is an odd one in that it has surprising  plot twists that can cause momentary confusion but make for a compelling storyline. But at the same time the action scenes are ridiculously excessive with stupid Nazis charging like Indians at a stagecoach in earlier film and getting gunned down ever so easily. Meanwhile our heroes seem impervious to bullets save one that nicks Burton's hand. I tell ya I would have loved this movie as a kid and can't believe I never saw it. While there is plenty of shooting and explosions and chasing there is an interesting story to boot. The locale is magnificent with all but a few scenes set in the the gorgeous Austrian Alps. Our plucky heroes are sent to a Nazi mountain stronghold for reasons that shift from time to time. This shifting is a good thing as it keeps this from being just another run of the mill World War II action/adventure flick as were so many in the Fifties and Sixties. It was a long film at nearly two and half hours but there's nary a yawn in it. A favorite of the Coen brothers and Steven Spielberg.




05 September 2014

I Walk Through My Childhood and Note How Everything is the Same Only Different

My childhood backyard today. There are still marks on the redwood tree from where my fort was.
Walked to Nina’s on Shattuck for a 9:00 am haircut appointment. She gives the best haircuts West of the Pecos. They’re fairly quick too and the conversation is light and easy. From Nina's I went for a long stroll down memory lane.

First stop was a few blocks south of Shattuck at my childhood residence. From ages four through 17 I lived at 1426 Grove Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Way). For the first half of my time there we lived in what my brother and I later referred to as “the old house." We always said this with some longing for we loved the place. It was a cozy abode with a living room, fireplace, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms, bathroom and large backyard. My dad built a tree fort for me when I was about five. This was not just a platform of two by fours, this fort had four walls, a roof, floor, and window. Initially there were stairs to access the fort from but that made it too easy for unwanted kids to sneak up there so my dad took out the stairs and the only way in was via a rope that hung from a branch above the fort. You might not be surprised to learn that I loved that fort.

The backyard also featured a garden and plenty of grass. It was heaven for a little kid. The house itself felt like the home you grow up in should feel. There was a large picture window looking out on the street that I would gaze out sometimes especially on rainy days. I also remember waiting for my brother to come and looking out the window to see him coming. It would be hit or miss after that as to whether he'd play with me.

But my dad didn’t want to leave well enough alone. Against my brother and my futile objections our parents decided to raze the house and replace it with a four unit apartment building, with us living in one of said units. As I’ve detailed here before my father was from very humble beginnings in rural Finland. After seeing the world as a merchant marine, he married, settled in Berkeley and worked as a carpenter during the post war building boom. This was at a time when a union carpenter’s salary could easily support a family of four, with a house and two cars and vacations and without need for a second income. My father saw a way to increase the family income by replacing the home with rent-generating apartments. So we went from our typical white picket fence type middle American home to living in a big apartment building. The tree fort remained but the rest of the backyard was concrete parking space.

As a minor consolation my dad put up a basketball hoop and I had myself a backyard basketball court. Also our basement featured a sauna for our personal use only. Our apartment offered a terrific view looking out toward the Golden Gate and the bridge of the same name. So it wasn't all bad. Also the apartments were quite modern by 1960s standards.

I wandered to the backyard. The fort is long gone but the redwood and walnut trees are still there. I got dizzy looking at how high up them I used to climb as a reckless child. There was the ten year old me throwing the football with my brother.  There was the 16 year old me getting high in the fort. There were all the friends I used to play with. Mark, Robin, Mike, Thornton, Douglas, Jeff….
The old neighborhood hasn’t changed a whole lot. Most of the same dwellings looking pretty much as they did. There are condos on the corner where the Flying A gas station used to be.

I then took the same walk I did for many years to Jefferson elementary school. It boggles the mind that in those days it was nothing for a child to walk 15 minutes to school. A parent who let their child walk half that distance today would be deemed insane. The world hasn’t gotten any more dangerous for kids since the Sixties, we are all just a lot more paranoid. You never see kids walking the streets like we did. You also never see kids organize their own baseball games as we did in the Summer. We never needed play dates. For the life of my I don’t know why children do today. Parents provide way too much structure and don’t allow nearly enough time for children to just be and think and play and use their own imaginations. But I digress.

On the way to Jefferson I boldly walked under a tree that I avoided for years. Within a day of watching Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) for the first time, I was walking under that tree and a crow swooped down and buzzed me. Although I’m sure there was no ill intent on the bird’s part the timing couldn’t have been worse. I ran in desperate fear the rest of the way to school. And henceforth never, as a child, walked beneath that tree.

My grandparents' house.
I got to Jefferson and it looked remarkably similar to how it did when I attended there from kindergarten through the sixth grade. Of course the gates around the school have locks now and are shut tight, presumably to keep predators at bay. The jungle gym is in the same place. I was standing under it one day when I saw a girl get hit by a car. I still remember seeing her flying in the air and blood spraying from her. As I recall she suffered no major injuries.

It was recess when I was walking outside the school with happy, yelling children at play. I saw one boy off by himself swinging in circles on a tire swing. That would not have been me, I thought. Then I noticed a baseball game in progress and a little blonde boy whacked a line drive into left field. That, I thought, would have been me. The big screened backstop looked the same, I doubt they've repaired it in 50 years, nor needed to.

I also saw the area where my brother punched a bully so hard he broke a bone in his hand. We were all so proud of him for that. I also saw the spot where I karate chopped a bully that my friends and I called The Choker because he tried to choke kids. His name was Mark Furman, yeah same as the cop in the OJ Simpson case. I did not break a bone in my hand when I karate chopped him but he never bothered me again.

I circled the school and looked up at the windows I used to gaze out of. The houses I would have looked down on when I was on the second floor in 5th and 6th grades are the same. I recalled one of my most incredible memories, one that you might find hard to believe but I swear to be true. I still was sitting in the classroom on the first day of 1st grade and think achingly that I had 12 more years of school to go. I remembered it depressed the heck out of me, or as much as a first grader can be depressed anyway.

From Jefferson I walked the block and a half to my grandparents’ old house on Sacramento Street. It was where my mother grew up starting from about age six, which would have been in 1926. I, like my brother before me, attended Jefferson even though Whittier was closer because Grandma lived so near Jefferson (or Yefferson as my dad called it). Everyday I would avoid the horror of elementary school lunch and go to grandma’s for a home cooked lunch that I enjoyed with her golden retriever (he got what is now called halfsies from me). One day as I sat down to lunch and turned on the TV, the usual fare, The Donna Reed Show, was preempted by live reports of the assassination of President John Kennedy.

When I returned to the playground for the last part of lunch that day I informed one and all of the news. Of course, no one believed me. Then after lunch a teary eyed Ms. Phillips came in and informed us the president had been killed. We were all thus excused for the day. On the way out all who had disbelieved me acknowledged their mistake.

Grandma’s house looked ever so much smaller than I remembered it. I suppose its been a long long time since I stood outside it. There are now trees on the front lawn and the house has been painted a garish color. It was a great place to have grandparent’s living. There was a huge dining room for Thanksgiving dinner and extra bedrooms and a big backyard with a doghouse built into the backstairs. Grandma would sometimes sit in a lawn chair and pitch baseballs to me. She also always had cookies made and would gladly prepare pancakes in the middle of the day if I so requested. Jenni Kurki belongs in the grandmother's hall of fame.

From there I walked home. Total time elapsed since I left was two hours. Or a lifetime depending on how you look at it.