18 November 2014

The Sad True Story of a Misbegotten Romance

This is not here but pretty close.
Forever on edges never able to settle in those soft yet solid places most people seemed to find in life. I did not drift so much as bounce. Erratically from one sad misadventure to the next. Perplexing everyone who knew me especially as I so wondrously spread all manner of verbal gymnastics to justify the next step over the cliff. How did I keep avoiding bottom?  Always bruising and boozing and never stopping and musing. So I was. Ruled by impulse and governed by my own mindless caprice. Terms and conditions ever changing.

The deep lined face of the old Chinese man across from me on the bus. His leathery skin and dour demeanor. The sadness of those eyes. The sorrow and heaviness in his countenance. The desperate quiet of his posture. On the verge of shrinking within himself and perhaps hoping too.

I carried my glories around in pants pockets. The real mingled there with the imaginary. It could be difficult to distinguish what I had done from what I wanted to have done. I was at the mercy of the next thing to come out of my mouth.

I was 30 and she only 19. Her name was Kristina and she was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever laid eyes on. She had long luscious blonde hair cascading down from her head and I wanted to swim in it. If only I could stop getting lost in her deep blue eyes. Kristina had been on the swim team in high school. She’d swam competitively enough to have a lean fat free body but had not been good enough to become muscular. That is to say she had what most men — and believe me I was most men — would consider a perfectly proportioned body.

Kristina was young, innocent, and not just virginal but a virgin. She practiced a form of christianity that I never understood but learned preached sexual abstinence before marriage. I was a seasoned lover by this time and in fact had a permanent girlfriend who I hoped to (and eventually did) make my future wife. But at the time she lived hundreds of miles away.

I met Kristina at a large gathering of Bay Area Finns. Like me she was American born of Finnish ancestry. I wouldn't have approached it were not for the fact that I was fortified with enough liquor to be courageous but not so much that I slurred my words. She was taken by my wit and charm as many women were. Plus she was too innocent to see through me.

One question that immediately arises is: what did I hope to achieve in a relationship with this sweet kid? I was really only attracted to her because of her physical appearance and perhaps to a very pretty voice and I suppose to that overwhelming purity. But I had no end game. This was a relationship that had nowhere to go. Yet I pursed this dead end avidly and felt love sick to the very pit of my stomach.

Kristina and I had a few dates spread out over the course of several months. It was difficult to get together owing to conflicting schedules and the fact that I required a lot of my free time for drinking, drugs and carousing. Smitten or not.

Dates with Kristina were of course chaste affairs with barely any hand holding and not a hint of a kiss. I flattered and regaled and she was just aw shucks cute. Actually she was stunning. Kristina had not the slightest pretense. She was good and pure and to tell the truth a deathly boring individual whose sole allure beyond physical beauty was that she was totally enamored of me. Me! This beautiful girl thought the world of me — though not nearly enough to consider tossing religious convictions to the wind for a roll in the hay. For all our dates I remained stone cold sober which for me then was the ultimate sacrifice.

Matters finally settled themselves when I invited to her the company Christmas bash. It was a big meal in a fancy hotel and there was an open bar that damn it all I wouldn’t be able to take full advantage of.

I proudly squired Kristina to the soiree. Eyes everywhere turned to peep this devastating blonde on my arm. I strutted about like a peacock. We settled into our table and awaited the coming feast. There were bottles of wine at each table just to taunt me. Then the miracle. Kristina asked me “shall we be a little naughty and have some wine?” My heart soared. I said I thought that it would be all right. We had a glass. Actually I had two. What harm could it do? But the bottle was done and that was that and I’d have to carry on the rest of the evening with only a slight buzz that would soon fade.

Soon the dancing commenced but before we took to the floor I needed to visit the little boy’s room. My walk there took me by the open bar.  Resistance was futile. I’d been down this road before. No stopping at one. I ordered a double brandy which I took down in a couple of swallows on the way to pee. On the way back I stopped for another double brandy.

Back to Kristina now feeling a proper glow, we had a dance. Then another. Then Kristina had to powder her nose and I took the opportunity her absence provided to zip over to the bar and order a couple more of those double brandies. I was now drunk.

We danced some more. Then I explained to my date that I had to go schmooze for a bit with a senior co worker. Of course the babe in the woods bought this bogus line and I went over to the bar and schmoozed with some more double brandies.

The rest of the evening was a blur. I remember walking around the city and going to the top floor of a building where there was a bar with a magnificent view of the city. I doubtless had a drink there. I also recall Kristina dropping me off (yes, she drove) and that I futilely tried to kiss her goodnight. She fended me off with an arm as I recall.

The next morning I woke up with the inevitable hangover worsened by the terrible fears of what I might have said and done in those hours I didn’t remember and how Kristina was feeling about me after having to ward off my attempted kiss. This was true torture. Sure I'd had morning afters before and plenty of them and I'd dealt with that awful feeling of missing hours and speculating on what I had said and done. But this was the worst yet because I'm sure I must have ruined my chances with Kristina. (what those chances were I couldn't have told you.)

I waited a day before calling her. It took all the nerve I could muster to dial the phone. I was ready to offer the most heartfelt apology of a lifetime and any excuses I could muster. Somehow it didn't strike me until well after the call and well after it was all over with Kristina how cheerful she was during that phone call, who glad she was to hear from me how she positively rhapsodized about our evening together. I heard the words but they didn't register. I was not satisfied. I had to get some idea of what I had said and done. Kristina was too good and pure to be sullied by my drunken actions or words (never mind that she said she'd found me and the evening perfectly wonderful). I had to know. I can't exactly tell you why from the vantage of all these years later but I had to bloody well know what had happened.

A few days later I called trying to get more details. Kristina seemed perplexed. Because she was not forthcoming with any tales of a man gone wild I made up a canard, a terrible one.  I said that I was under doctor's orders not to drink hard liquor due to a medical issue and that the doctor now insisted that I learn of my actions that evening so that I could report them to him. Kristina seemed most uncomfortable with all this. She was clearly finding my questions disquieting. All the poor girl could do was assure me that nothing bad had happened. I was relieved but Kristina barely spoke above a whisper.

When I called Kristina again a few days later, now confident that all was well, she informed that me she was now "seeing someone." I didn't believe her because it seemed obvious I'd scared her off but I did believe her because it seemed inevitable that she would find someone or someone would find her. To tell you the truth though my dominant feeling was one of relief. To have such a massive crush on someone with whom I had zero future had been a crushing burden. It seemed like I'd been pursuing something with Kristina because she was a beautiful woman who liked me and what able bodied cad does not pursue such an opportunity? I know, one who realizes its a waste of time.

A few years later I was married and a father and sober. I was at the grocery store with wife and baby one afternoon. I looked up an aisle and saw Kristina. She had gained a considerable amount. It was neither here nor there to me.

15 November 2014

Its Not the End of the World or the Beginning, It's Likely Somewhere In Between and I've Written in Several Parts About Sanity, My Father, and Youth

Some have it nice
Fat and round, flash, paradise
They're very wise to their disguise
Trying to revolutionize tomorrow
- From "She Has Funny Cars" by Jefferson Airplane

Is sanity really something one tries to hold on to? As in “I’m losing my tenuous grip on reality?” I certainly feel that way at times, like I’m just holding on to something for dear life lest I fall into the abyss of madness. I cannot relax my grip, or else. When I have waves of anxiety — the super strength variety that feel more like abject terror than mere nervousness — I often remind myself not to let go, not to succumb, not to believe the voices in my head that say, “this is it, the jig is up, you had a nice run but it’s over.”

Actually far worse is the notion of living in that kind of pain for more than a few seconds or minutes or hours. Hours is brutal. Days would be unimaginable. Moment after moment that feel like  the apocalypse. More than a few minutes is very bad. Despair uranium enriched.

But I’ve gotten to the next day and all is well. That first bit was written yesterday and it helped to put it on paper — so to speak. Always helps to write. To articulate thoughts and feelings is cathartic. Some form of expression is essential.

Recently I was remembering an occasion when I was a teenager strolling down the street with a friend. He nudged me and indicated a woman on the other side of the street walking in the opposite direction. “Isn’t that your mom?” he asked. The woman was having an animated conversation with herself. The woman was indeed my mother. The friend at once realized that my mother most be bonkers but had the discretion not to pursue the subject any further. I was mortified enough as it was.

Far worse was  when I was about nine and a school chum had been over to the house and seen my mother in what can best be called rare form. The next day on the playground during recess he gleefully shared my mother’s bizarre behavior with the whole gang who laughed and wondered at someone having a mother who acted weird. Kids can be so cruel.

We weather a lot of storms in this world. We’ve little choice. Oh there may be some years of drug and alcohol addiction and countless hours with a string of psychiatrist and there may well be depression and anxiety and medications but we can still come out ahead. I was about to type: if we’re lucky. And I suppose that’s true to an extent. Luck plays a big factor in any success we enjoy in life. But sometimes it takes something special to get through the worst of it. And I suppose I was endowed by a certain spirit. Principally by my father.

Dad was a carpenter. He got up everyday and went to work. Through the worst of it with my mom he didn’t stop. And he took care of me. Always. Oh sure he was a raging co-dependent who married an awful alcoholic woman after shedding himself of my mom, but he was one tough sonuvabitch.  The man did not complain, least of all about anything that was happening to him. And my god but he was cheerful about 90% of the time. I honestly don't know how he did it. Maybe fighting in wars and being on ships that were strafed by enemy planes and torpedoed after growing up in freezing cold northern Finland and working almost from the time he could walk did it. I remember his imperfections quite clearly too. He said some things I wish I'd never heard and his attitudes and opinions sometimes betrayed his lack of education but all that was more than offset by his basic decency, honesty and kindness.

So Tonight Gotta Leave That Nine To Five Upon The Shelf
And Just Enjoy Yourself
Groove, Let The Madness In The Music Get To You
Life Ain't So Bad At All
If You Live It Off The Wall
From Off the Wall by Michael Jackson

Yesterday coming home on BART I saw four people -- two men and two women -- in their late teens or early twenties off on some adventure. They were happy chatty and laughing and it was Friday early evening and they were heading off to do something or everything or nothing. I was envious. I wanted that sense of possibility. The feeling of wonder about the world and the optimistic sense that it was knowable. That sense young people have that amidst any schooling or work or chores that must be tended to there is one big worldwide party going on that they are part of. There are young people everywhere with whom they can connect and share the mad whirl that is life. And the anticipation that early evening salivation over the cornucopia. That's the thing.

One time when I was about 25  and still single and carefree I was visiting my dad and most hated step mom. My late great big brother lived nearby with his wife and their first daughter who was at the time just a few months old. It was a Saturday and brother, sister-in-law and baby came to dad's house in the early evening. It was an opportunity to get better acquainted with my niece (who today has young 'uns of her own). I spent some time holding her and cooing and gushing and chatting with the family. But then a friend from college came by with a his then girlfriend and the girlfriend's sister. It was early evening on a Saturday and I was 25 and there was a friend and two women. Without hesitation I said my goodbyes before heading out for an evening of reverie. I still remember that my brother frowned. I understood the frown. I had cut short a rare visit. But seriously, the girl was beautiful the night was young and the world was my oyster.

It's taken until Saturday night to finish this what with interruptions for work, sleep, the gym, films and meals. It is early evening. I have no plans. Both daughters are here. I think I'll probably relax.

11 November 2014

Remembering the Hunting Trip I Didn't Go On and Listening to the Women Talk

When I was about 15 years old I went on a hunting trip with my dad and uncle. Only I didn’t hunt. I stayed at the house with the women folk. I remember spending a large chunk of the day sitting in the dining room where they were having coffee and pastries and listening to them gab. Tell you the truth I felt kind of queer — in both senses of the word — staying behind with the ladies while the men went off being manly. But I had no interest in sitting in the woods stalking deer and even less interest in shooting at one. At the time there were few ideas that were less appealing to me.

I’d gotten a BB gun for Christmas when I was nine and loved shooting it. We were in Tahoe that Christmas and I went out into the woods and shot off a lot of twigs from tree branches. I became a pretty good shot. I pretended to be a solider in World War II killing Nazis. For a couple of years I loved that gun more than anything.

Then one Summer we were in Napa where we had some property and a boat by the Sacramento River. It had been my maternal grandfather’s getaway. There was a small shack that served as living quarters. It was in a very sparsely populated area. I would march around with that BB gun and slay imaginary enemies or shoot at targets. Then one day I saw a small bird some distance off. I took aim and fired. Bullseye. I’ll never forget the sight of that bird — instantly killed — cartwheeling softly to the ground. My dad had just happened to see the shot and ran over to congratulate me on my marksmanship. But I felt sick. Poor bird, I’d killed it. I never wanted to kill a living creature again and to this day haven’t — save some insects in unavoidable situations such as spiders that have menaced my daughters.

So of course killing deer was out of the question. I didn’t mind if my dad did. In this case it meant getting out of the city for the weekend. We were up in beautiful area of Northern California about a half hour drive inland from Mendocino. We were staying with some Finnish people in this small -- and I mean very very small -- town called Comptche which has the distinction of being the place where I lost my virginity — but that’s a story for another time.

The population of Comptche had to be somewhere around 100 and a chunk of that total were in three houses in the same neck of the woods — one small, one medium and a large one where we were staying — occupied by people of Finnish ancestry. The occupants of one of the houses and his brother rounded out the hunting party that day. In later years it was a great place to go and party as my cousins and I became of partying age. (Partying in this case being a euphemism for getting high.)

Anyway there I was listening to women talk. Much of it was frightfully boring being about the most trivial matters a teenaged boy could imagine, such as domestic chores. But all of it gave me some insight into the world of adults. I was at an age when I was sorting out the world and grown ups were becoming more than either simply parents or authority figures or the hopelessly square. Listening to the women yak was giving more dimension to these strange creatures, even if much of it was sadly dull. I do recall one of the women — probably the youngest among them — discussing her husband’s sex habits. She made it sound as if if sex for her was a chore akin to having dinner ready. Something she did out of obligation whenever it was required. For all I know she quite enjoyed a tumble herself but it wasn’t apparent from her description of knowing her man’s needs and complying with them. I did not let this effect my anticipation of my own forthcoming participation in the sex act which I was eagerly anticipating (although it seemed like it might be hopelessly far away -- it wasn’t).

Occasionally I would leave the ladies — I doubt they noticed or cared whether I was there or not although they reflexively offered whatever was being served while I was there — and stroll around in the great outdoors. I was always a thinker and there was nothing like a walk in the woods to facilitate a good think. There were hills aplenty, some of the foot variety and others approaching mountain status. I always hoped to encounter some sort of wildlife, preferably a bear. In retrospect this was a quite stupid wish. I could wander around for hours but the lure of treats in the house kept me from going too far for too long.

Back at the house I’d settle into a comfy chair and open a book but again be distracted by the palaver of the women. There was something comforting about listening to women talk as opposed to men. I grew up in a masculine environment and while I abhorred the very idea of hunting I took to fishing, skiing and of course playing sports. I was good at most everything I tried but excelled in soccer. By my early teens I was well versed in locker room talk. I could cuss with the best of them, discuss girls at great length, and boast and spit and do what guys do. It was my milieu. Over the years as I’ve spent much time with the and married the love of my life — a woman as it happens — and had two daughters, I’ve come to prefer the company of women. I coached all boys teams, all girls teams and co-ed teams. Girls make much better teammates. They are more supportive of each other and while they can be as competitive as boys they are not so ego driven.

Also I’ve been in many a car ride to a game and the difference between a car full of girls and a car full of boys is quite striking. Boys are louder, more obnoxious and sillier, I could even add stupider. I’ve also noted in my teaching career, both at the middle school level and now teaching young adults from all over the world, that most of my really good fun classes have female majorities and most of my difficult classes have male majorities.

Because my mother had serious mental problems for most of my childhood and my only sibling was a brother, I grew up without hearing many female voices. The one I regularly was anything but comforting. Mom was a right screamer when off her nut. That, I suppose, helps explain how soothing I found the women’s chatter that Saturday.

Eventually the men came home from the hunt and I believe on that occasion they were empty handed. Either way was fine with me. I didn’t fancy driving home with a dear carcass and I was no great fan of deer meet. On the other hand I knew how happy it made my dad when he bagged a buck. Given the sad case of dear ole ma, my dad and I were heavily invested in each other being happy as often as possible.

Despite the failure to kill a deer, a festive evening followed replete with a big meal and alcohol flowing for the grown ups. I retired early and was finally able to read. The women now had their men to talk with.

Its a curious memory to cling to but I often think back on that day. Fondly I might add.

09 November 2014

The Curious Passerby

When I got home I said to the wife, “George Vine went nuts before I did.” I was excited and delighted and barely even kidding around. I had just walked right by ole George and not only did he not acknowledge me, he never stopped talking — to himself. And he was having quite an animated conversation.

Time was that Georgie thought I was pretty close to being off my nut. He even suggested that I might want to “start talking to someone.” Best of all he offered himself as  someone I could “sit down with anytime.” I never did so much eye rolling in my life as when he said that. Imagine the gall of the man.

See George and I were co-workers at the time. I was always barely hanging onto my position and he was a real hotshot. I’d bolt out of work come quitting time and he’d always burn the midnight oil and come in on weekends.

I was having trouble at home then and it was spilling over into work and I can well imagine that people were speculating when I would get the boot. I was moody and sometimes took out my frustrations on people at work and George was so involved in everything that he took notice. One day I had made the mistake of confiding in George about an argument I’d had with the boss. This was a boss who most everyone hated and wanted out, so I felt pretty safe bitching to a co-worker about him. I was amazed and disappointed when George took the boss’ side and suggested maybe I take some time off. I didn’t talk to him for awhile after that.

We never fought or argued but it was pretty darn clear that he didn't hold me in very high esteem. It can hurt a little bit to know that someone you work with thinks so little of you, especially someone so highly thought of. But at the same time I knew that my work was adequate -- sometimes superior -- and I wasn't actually stealing money by showing up everyday like I did. I got along just fine with most of the rest of the crew at work and they with me. No I wasn't the most popular person at work -- I'd say George was a candidate for that honor -- but I wasn't despised either.

Eventually I left that job before the powers that be could drive me out and George was real nice to me whenever I saw him for years after. He acted like we were old friends. I always figured, what the hell George never meant anyone any harm and you had to give him credit for working his tail off and caring so much about others. I never knew a man to be so diligent so conscientious and so devoid of ego. Ole George never wanted any recognition, no pats on the banks no testimonials, nothing. He just wanted the whole operation to run smoothly and everyone to be happy. I admired the hell out of him at the same time that I found a bit too much. It’s easy to respect but hard to like someone who such a damn hard worker. Especially since I was just doing enough to get by — a day’s work for a day’s pay was my motto.

Truth is I’ve not spent very much time these past few years thinking about George or that job. Things at home are fine now, in fact they’re fantastic, and I’ve been in a job I love for several years. Why think about darker times? Those days seem long past now and when I reminisce I’m actually far more likely to find myself thinking about my youth or young adult years.

Still I get a chuckle thinking about George chattering away to himself. And the way he looked! He’s aged a dozen or more years since I worked with him. His hair is a weird combination of black, gray and white and his face is lined with deep wrinkles. His clothes were rumpled and he was stooped over as he shuffled down the street. He’s lost weight and George has never been a guy with any to spare. Working so hard must have caught up with him. The mind and the body have both gone and I wonder does he think all the hard work was worth it what with his facing old age prematurely. Then again if his mind is shot he may not be thinking lucidly about any such thing.

Mind you I’m not taking any sick satisfaction over Georgie’s condition — whatever the hell it may be —I don’t wish ill to any man or woman least of all one I used to labor with. It’s just ironic is all. Here I am mentally sharp as ever and a regular runner in top top shape and feeling reborn in a fantastic career and there he is….

Well I just had to write about it. Part of life you might say. Funny how things work out. Lot of the time you just never know.

05 November 2014

The Biggest Square I Ever Met -- Remembering an Old Friend's Uncle Earl

My friend Carl had an Uncle Earl who actually used to hang around with us when we were kids. I can’t tell you why. It’s not like he was baby sitting Carl and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a pedophile, he was just around all the time.

When I was about 13 years old Earl was maybe 40, 45. It’s hard to tell exactly how old a grown up is when you’re still a kid. Earl lived alone in a little apartment in El Cerrito. We were in Berkeley which is the next town over. Uncle Earl — we all called him that, he kind of liked it — was single and for all I know was gay before it was acceptable. I kind of doubt it though because he was always looking at women and there wasn’t anything effeminate about him. He had short, dark slicked back hair. He must have put a pound of hair cream in his scalp everyday. His face was tanned and wrinkly not the least bit handsome but not exactly ugly either. He was kind of short for an adult and skinny as hell. Earl was the most average dresser you ever saw to the extent that I can't tell you what he ever wore except that it was ordinary. Actually I do remember that he wore a windbreaker. Didn't matter if it was freezing cold or burning hot, he had on this tan windbreaker zipped to to the top. Kinda weird.

Uncle Earl chain smoked Tareyton cigarettes. He was always sipping a coffee, a coke or a beer depending upon the time of day. I can’t recall ever seeing Earl without a drink in his hand except when he was driving and even then he might have a beverage. Speaking of the car, Earl drove this old beat up Oldsmobile. He used to brag about how well it ran and how much better it was than those "fruity foreign makes that everyone raves about." I remember the interior of his car stunk of stale cigarette smoke. There was always junk on the floor of the car and the exterior always looked ready for a wash.

Earl was always around, like I said. My friends and I hung out a lot at Carl’s house because he had a big backyard and lived near the school. I guess Earl had a job but I don’t know what it was. If I had to guess I’d say plumber or mechanic. It seemed like he always had dirt under his fingernails and I know he often fixed stuff at Carl’s house. Earl used to always ask us the same stuff like how are day was and if we had girlfriends yet and what we thought of the Giants or Cal’s football team. He kind of spoke sarcastically to us like we were just dumb kids, but then again he did seem genuinely interested in our answers. He always shared his dumb opinion on sports and you could tell he was just repeating what he read in the sports pages. I knew ‘cause by that time I was reading the sports section front to back. Earl’s comments were kind of annoying but he was an adult so there wasn’t much we could do about it. The worst was when he made fun of “that so-called music” us “nutty kids” listened to. Ole Earl thought that the Beatles and all the other popular rock groups of the day were nothing but a lot of noise and that we would eventually grow out of liking them. I could never figure out why he cared what we listened to. Oh and another thing he did that chapped my hide was to always tell us that we needed haircuts. This was in the late Sixties and everybody was growing their hair out. Earl was the kind of grown up who was somehow offended by hair covering ears. And you never wanted to let him get started on hippies or the peace movement. He'd give you an earful on what bums they were "especially those damn dirty beatnik types." Earl had to be as square a guy as anyone ever met.

The nice thing was that Earl would sometimes take us to a ballgame. He’d never spring for the tickets but was always good for buying everyone a coke. Carl and I knew more about baseball than Earl and it was irritating that he was always offering dumb opinions -- mostly negative things about the Giants. He was even worse at Cal football games. Cal was really bad in those days and Earl was always yelling at how awful number 27 or number 80 was. He never bothered to remember or learn anyone’s name. Same with the Giants. Other than the big stars like Mays he couldn't barely remember anyone's name. I was pretty sure that Earl wasn't a smart man and looking back I see no way he could have gone to college. I doubt he ever read anything besides the newspapers and maybe TV Guide.

The one thing Earl knew a lot about was horse racing. He was always going over to Golden Gate Fields or Bay Meadows and betting a wad of dough. “I love to play the ponies,” he said like a zillion times. I think Earl won big and lost big in equal amounts. I don’t remember him ever coming back from the tracks talking about breaking even. Earl said he bet using his gut although didn't mind getting what he called insider information from some guys he knew who worked at the tracks.

As I got into high school I started doing different things and kind of drifted away from Carl and that whole gang, we still saw each other and were friendly but my days of hanging out at his house were over. This, of course meant I wouldn’t be seeing his Uncle Earl anymore. The truth is that I never gave his Uncle Earl another thought during high school after the last time I saw him at Carl’s house. Somehow I remember it pretty clearly too. Earl didn’t greet me like he usually did. He was just sitting on the backstairs smoking a cigarette and staring off into space. I give him a weak sort of “hi” and he barely looked up and just nodded his head. I had a lot of other things on my mind and was sure as hell not going to give Earl’s unusual behavior a second thought. Grown ups were a different race as far as I was concerned and were beyond comprehension.

Four years later I graduated high school and a few months after that I was off to college. The first time I came home was for Thanksgiving. I got together with a friend the day after and went to a movie downtown. When we came out of the theater I saw Carl who was likewise in town from college. We chatted for a little while and had already wished each other well when for some reason I thought to ask: “hey, how’s your Uncle Earl doin’?” I hadn’t though of Earl in probably five years and it was a miracle that he popped into my mind.

Carl frowned and slowly shook his head. He paused about five seconds before telling me that Earl had committed suicide a few years back. Just got into a hot tub and slit his wrists with a razor. Nobody found him for like a week owing to his lack of friends. Earl hadn’t left a note or anything so no one knew the reason. I felt bad and let Carl know how sorry I was. Carl said it was okay and water under the bridge and all. I thought about Earl for a minute or so but was distracted by my friend and our catching up on things.

Over the years I’ve thought of Earl sporadically. Sometimes it’ll be because of a reference to horse racing, other times I’ll see a guy who looks like he did or I’ll see some poor sap outside smoking. For some reason a ham sandwich will remind of me. Don’t ask me why, maybe cause Earl said how much he liked 'em once or something. I was reminded of him the other day when I heard a fan at a Cal game yelling at a player just like he used to do. It was then I realized that I was almost certainly older than Earl ever got to  be. That felt weird for a minute but then I realized that’s the way of life. Old Uncle Earl, what a character.

03 November 2014

Lullaby of Birdman That's What I Always Hear When you Sigh Never in My Word Land Could There be Words to Reveal in a Phrase How I Feel

I don’t have any idea what life is about but I’m thoroughly enjoying the experience. I don’t know what the film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is about either but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of watching it.

I’ll have to see it again before I can attempt to write about it intelligently because god forbid I should write stupidly about anything. But I will comment generally about it now.

Yesterday I went to see another film which I may or may not discuss at greater length in another post (Gone Girl). Before said movie there were a series of trailers for mindless drivel. It should come as no shock that  Hollywood is continuing to spew out mindless drivel. Variations on the same damn thing done the same damn way often with the same damn actors (that robert downey jr. has become a total whore). One of the trailers I saw yesterday was for a film starring Liam Neeson in which his wife is killed, he’s arrested and escapes and he must find and protect his daughter. Fortunately he has years of training in explosives and combat and spying and all that cool stuff. He’s got the FBI, CIA, every cop in the US and the dog catcher chasing him. Yes folks he's gone rogue. One man against the government’s minions. Q: Where have we seen this before?  A: Countless places. He’s got a buddy on the inside who almost certainly is trying to talk him into giving up and probably says at one point something like “I can’t protect you anymore.” There’s a lot of pithy dialogue on cell phones and dumb people getting killed while trying to get their mitts on our hero and a pounding sound track and 1,001 other cliches.

It’ll make money.

Humans like patterns, they like predicability. They like familiarity. They like answers. They like nicely wrapped packages handed to them. They don’t like to be intellectually challenged. Thinking hurts. They want their packages to come with all the latest bells and whistles. They want it cool. They don’t like old or foreign or ambiguous or challenging or open-ended. A little mystery is okay but only within boundaries. They don’t like to have to wonder what will happen next unless that question will be answered in the sequel. And boy do they love sequels because there’s even less to figure out and the main characters are already familiar.

A movie like Birdman could be a great disappointment to the hoi polloi. What the hell is going on? Is that part supposed to be really happening? Why did they do that? Why did he act that way? What’s going on with all this stuff and for the love of god what the hell is that ending all about?

Forget the aesthetics of the journey, there are too many mysteries along the way that Agatha Christie wouldn’t have a chance with. More structure please.

We are a plot obsessed culture. Traditional linear story lines that take us from point A to point Z only stopping along the way in alphabetical order. We want moral certainty and empathetic answers — yes or no variety — to any questions posed. Remember the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)? That’s as far as most people will go with ambiguity and only because everything else was so crystal clear.

Birdman will confuse the hell out of a lot of people. Ya know for that matter it confused the hell out of me but I like to be confused. Like is reckless and random and infinitely unknowable so having a movie like that is just fine with me.

Religion provides a lot of answers for people. Hell for some people it has all the answers. Nothing to see hear folks no need to examine life just accept that we’ve got all the answers and go on about your business. Opiate indeed.

Critical thinking is one of those relatively recent education buzzwords and it draws a lot of fire, particularly from conservatives. Of course it does. It’s a call for teaching young people to think for themselves, draw their own conclusions through a careful examination of the facts. It says that making up one’s own mind is a much better way to go about learning than accepting the latest or predominant dogma. Teachers don't force feed answers but teach students to find the answers for themselves.

Part of the resistance to critical thinking is that it can make things so messy and uncomfortable. All these truisms found not to be true. All these challenges of the status quo. The potential that people will try to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted. The kind of people who do their own thinking are the kind of people who don’t always want a movie that is so fucking predictable. Or even knowable.

Birdman does far more than confuse. You can have some idiot spouting gibberish on screen and confuse the hell out of everyone but it wouldn’t be art. Birdman encourages and inspires thinking and feeling. It helps that Michael Keaton in the lead gives the performance of a lifetime in a role that he was made for. It further helps that the supporting cast — and what a supporting cast — of Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis and Andrea Riseborough are all excellent. Most importantly director Alejandro González Iñárritu -- who also co-write the screenplay -- knows how to create a cohesive narrative -- of sorts -- within a movie that approximates a psychedelic roller coaster ride.

Here's something: Keaton's character used to play a super hero called Birdman (just as Keaton himself used to play Batman) and now he's trying to put on a play based on a Raymond Carver short story. He wrote, is directing and starring. It's not easy what with...well now I'm getting into the area of plot points which is kind of misleading.

It's just the best new film I've seen this calendar year and this, so far, is a helluva good year for films, despite all the garbage being cranked out. Oh yeah and I liked Gone Girl too but in a very different not flying off a cloud way. Hey!

31 October 2014

Sweet Dreams are Made of This

“Dreams, you know, are what you wake up from.” -Raymond Carver.

Woke up again today. And here I was. Day off. Breakfast. Went to gym. Walked in the rain. Crossramp, treadmill, stair master, weights. Home for smoothie. Then to movie. Watched. Stopped at bookstore. Bought. Home again. Dinner. TV.  Now writing. These are the words I’ve written and they come in the wake of thoughts that I’ve entertained.

Now I can hear our neighbor. A relentlessly cheerful young man with three young children. His wife is a very nice woman with an unfortunate nasal midwestern voice. They are leading around a group of small children who are loudly and happily trick or treating. Some people don’t like Halloween or Valentine’s Day or Christmas. They want everyday to be March 18th. The same. Heaven forbid young people go cavorting about in costume enjoying something different. And they call me a curmudgeon.

More trick or treaters at the door. My wife handles the candy distribution. She enjoys it. Me, I’m happy for them to come but I sit out the festivities. The downside to Halloween is all the left over candy that I eat, even before it is left over. Like the overwhelming majority of people in this country today I have a rather sizable sweet tooth.

It’s been a bit of a struggle in recent years to keep myself away from sweet fattening foods. I indulge in ice cream when there is cause for celebration provided by the world of sports. I had a mighty big cause for whooping and hollering and leaping about two days ago when my beloved baseball team, the San Francisco Giants, claimed their third World Series title in five years. As a friend said, it never gets old.

The phrase walking on air best encapsulates how I felt yesterday and that euphoria has only a faded a whit today.

The Giants playoff run lasted almost all of October. That was a solid month of pacing and fretting and fist pumping and dancing jigs. When the World Series made it to a 7th game I was a wreck and could barely watch. When with two outs in the ninth inning a Royal reached third in a one-run ball game I feared the worst. When he popped out I broke into a happy celebration that included lifting oldest daughter perilously close to the ceiling. As much as joy, I felt relief that it was all at last over and that on top of it ending the outcome was perfect. Madison Bumgarner is an amazing baseball player and will live forever in World Series lore.

Sports spectating can be cruel. I have learned over the course of decades of following my favorite teams not to let a loss of any kind ruin my day. I’m pretty good about this now. I don’t throw hissy fits or collapse into depression when my teams falter no matter how excruciating the defeat. (Cal football has provided many tests of my resolve, twice this year alone.) But a World Series run stretched out as long as it is and with games lasting well over three hours each starts to gnaw at one’s nerves no matter that ice water runs through the veins.

Sports has done irreparable damage to players, fans, economies, psyches, budgets and communities. But it has also been a great healing force and a means of enrichment for all of those as well. I refuse to argue sports with people. I refuse to tease or taunt other fans or be teased or taunted and I refuse to be sucked into following every sport and every team under the sun. I reserve my viewing and attending to the Giants and Arsenal — an English soccer team — and Cal’s football and women’s and men’s basketball teams. I no longer follow the NBA, tennis, the NFL or any other college teams or sports. ( I do occasionally check on the San Jose Sharks of the NHL.)

There is far too much else to do.

But I love when sports causes strangers to high five and acquaintances to hug and people to relieve some of the stress of their day and escape into a game. I love the beauty of athletes making incredible plays and teams succeeding through cooperation and spirit. I love the roar of a home crowd.

I've been planning or writing about the best ever film about being a sports fan and promise to do so in November. A month which the calendar tells me will start tomorrow. I may also write about the film I saw in the theater today. It was damn good and well worth scribbling about. Happy days.

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!