26 January 2015

When a Working Man Could Beat the System, A Memory of My Dad

I sometimes show half the students in a class a short film scene. The others wait in the hall. Then they come in and the students who watched the scene describe it to them. Then I have the students who were outside explain the scene as it was told to them. Finally we all watch the scene together. We then switch with the first group that was in going out and those who were out watching a different scene repeating the process. It's a good activity for ESL students.

Today I, not for the first time, used the famous steadicam shot from Goodfellas (1990) in which Ray Liotta’s character Henry Hill takes his date, played by Lorraine Bracco, winding through the Copacabana’s kitchen to where they ultimately get a choice table up front. Hill greases the wheels the whole way dishing out big tips to whoever he sees.  I’ve watched the scene many times but on this occasion it brought back memories.

There’s a popular seafood restaurant in Berkeley called Spenger's that was the place to go when I was growing up. It was always packed and the wait for tables was well over an hour on weekends. As a consequence they made a fortune at their bar where customers cooled their heals until their table was ready. My dad was a regular at Spenger's and, although he could be tight with a penny in some ways, was always a generous tipper. He got to know some of the waiters on a personal basis and even did some carpentry work for one of them.

We never waited for a table.

We’d go there on a Saturday night when the wait was as much as an hour and three quarters. Spenger's had a take out section adjoining the restaurant. We'd go in there and dad would lead us through a side door and into the dining area. He’d catch the attention of a waiter and we’d snake our way to the bar. After five, ten minutes tops the waiter would find us and lead us to a table. I always thought that it was about the coolest thing in the world to get a table while all the suckers had to wait. On top of that we got first rate service, sometimes drinks were comped or the wine or appetizers and of course my dad left his usual humungous tip. I think what was especially nice about getting the royal treatment was that we weren't royalty or rich. It's like we got away with something, we were getting treated above our station and it may have technically been unfair but -- come on -- we weren't initiating a global financial crisis or taking money out of the poor box.

Those were different times. My father was a carpenter back when one salary could support a family. Mom was a housewife, we had a car and a truck, owned our own place and never wanted for anything. My dad was a working class stiff who could afford to go on the town with his wife or with friends. Men had fat wallets with big loads of cash in them. Nobody was paying for anything but gasoline with a lousy card. There were no ATMs. You made sure to hit the bank before it closed or you knew a place to cash a check. Men's pocket's jingled with change. Hell, you could actually buy something with coins then.

My dad was doing all right. Especially for someone who came from rural Finland. He had plenty of friends and even relatives, including a brother, to work and play with. There was no swagger among them, just a great sense of fun. Their chests would be puffed out a little after showering and putting on clean clothes at the end of a hard day’s work. They felt good about themselves and having the freedom and wherewithal to go out and spend some of their cash. Most, like my old man, could hold their liquor. Most, again like dad, would flirt harmlessly with pretty women, but would never philander no matter how much they might boast about their success with the ladies. They were great kidders and enjoyed as many belly laughs as possible. The humor was never mean spirited nor too raunchy. They could wax philosophical about politics, work, family or keys to happiness, but never dug into religious or existential questions. Sports was always a frequent topic of conversation.

My dad never thought of himself as a big shot. That would have been a form of self inflation that he didn’t believe in. He spoke admiringly of guys who were and looked forward to the day that I was a big shot. (I don’t think I ever qualified as such in my dad’s eyes but he didn’t love me any less as a result.) You don’t hear the term big shot much anymore. Nor do people work for an outfit. I was always hearing things like: "he’s a big shot for some outfit in San Francisco….” Being a big shot didn’t cut much ice with my dad if you weren't a decent fellow. He knew plenty of big shots who were jerks. The important thing for men was to be "a real gentleman."
Dad, like his cronies and kin, liked going to restaurants and loved going out on the town and loved to have parties and to go to football games, baseball games, track meets, ice hockey, soccer and basketball. They went hunting, fishing, camping and out on boats. It’s exhausting to think how they never sat still. Weekends, holidays and vacations were packed and this on top of solid 40 hour work weeks. Often there was overtime to boot. These were men who didn’t believe in phoning in sick even if they were on life support. They simply showed up. (This is an ethic that I’ve ascribed to and I’m constantly amazed at how many people I work with do pretty much the opposite.) All this on top of maintaining their own homes which always had something that needed fixing or adding to. My dad was a perpetual motion machine, which is largely why he lived to be 92 and would still be going if it weren't for an accident.

Another thing that comes to mind is how revelry was not reserved solely for weekends. If someone’s birthday fell on a weeknight the celebration was not delayed. It was not out of the ordinary to go to my uncle's house -- for example -- for a cousins’ birthday on a Tuesday night. For that matter we’d go out sometimes on a school night just to visit. Occasions were taken advantage of but not required.

Today people have TV shows recorded and movies shipped to their homes and computers to stare at and iPhones with which to send messages and photos and videos (some people still use them to talk with too). And they can always Facebook and Instagram. The personal touch has largely gone missing.

It was a hurried life but I don’t remember people complaining about it or being stressed with how hectic everything was. No one bragged or complained about being busy. They were glad for the ceaseless activity and anyway that's just the way it was. To live a sedentary life was unthinkable. There was too much to do. Although it was unconscious, a lot of it was because they'd come through a war alive and nothing was ever going to be as trying as that. Some aspects of all this were unique to Finns, but a lot of it was that generation. They'd come out of the war and before that the depression. Eking out a living had been difficult and now hard work was actually rewarded with a good living. There wasn't the cynicism that's prevalent today. There was also the sense that problems could be solved and the government was an actual source of strength and not an embarrassing place of non stop bickering.

Of course memories are selective and I was just a kid then and I’m leaving out of this narrative the whole business of my mother’s insanity. The Cold War had everyone a bit nervous and Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement  and the Hippies were creating some unease for the older generation just as the protest and counter culture were inspiring us kids.

Anyway I got to all this by remembering beating the system at Spenger's. You know as I think of it, it seems symbolic. Here was democracy at work. My old man, the regular joe who worked his tail off, could beat the system. Not because of being "somebody" with influence. He tossed some bills around, sure, but that was cash he worked hard and honestly for and besides it was as much about the relationships he built with the waiters as the dough. It's nice to think that a guy like my dad could be a big shot sometime. 

22 January 2015

As is My Want to Do I Comment on Various Things Including Gender, Commuting, Salaries and Homophobes

I’ve noticed recently the difference in the way women and men enter or sit. Men veritably barge into a room while women slip in. Men plunk themselves down while women ease into a chair. I was running on a treadmill one day and the adjoining one was out or order though no sign had been put up. So people kept getting on it, realized it didn’t work and got back off. I was too focused on my own running to warn people. What I noticed was that mean stomped on threw their keys into a cup holder banged on the buttons and got going. Women on the other hand I didn’t notice. Suddenly they were just there. On the subway or bus when a man sits next to you they drop themselves heavily into the seat. If they’re big enough it can make an impact and disturb your reverie. Women gently lower themselves into the seat and you’re barely aware of them.

I guess all this is why I’ve found myself so bothered by this woman who has sat next to me twice in the past few days. Yesterday she seemed to fall to the seat from a great height and even made contact with me as her ample ass collided with the seat. I was startled and looked up. To her credit she apologized. No gender is perfect, I guess.

Speaking of commuting I’d like to encourage you to immediately start crowding onto a subway car once it’s doors opens. Please don’t bother with such niceties as letting people exit. Just push past anyone trying to leave the car, forcing them backwards is always nice. It's important to get on as soon as possible because....Well, there must be a reason.

Hey this was weird. Yesterday in Starbucks there was a guy ranting and raving at no one and he was doing it in Japanese. How often do you see that? You get crazy white people, black people, hispanic people, but Japanese? Love the diversity.

I’ve got another sarcastic suggestion: make a mean-spirited comment at the end of an article on the internet. Smart ass or snarky are good. And for the love of god make sure that it serves no purpose other than perhaps rile someone. And do it anonymously or with a pseudonym that can’t be traced back to you. Don’t own anything you put on the internet. Another thing you can do is write a really bland meaningless purposeless comment.  Like: "good article." You can do this for product reviews. If you got a book from someplace like Amazon use the review space to comment on the shipping, don’t bother with whether you read the book or not. You probably can’t read anyway. Another suggestion: when you've finished a news story read all the comments. It's a great use of time, especially if one a comment really gets under your skin. You might want to fire back a comment of your own because its sure to put the other person in their place and correct the error of their ways. Ad hominem attacks are effective.

You know the NCAA? It oversees college sports in this country. College sports are played by college students. Some of them receive scholarships and most get meal money but the whole deal is non profit. Yet in 2012 the president of the NCAA earned $1,700,000. No one needs to make that amount of money in a year unless they’re curing cancer or lessening the effects of global warming or ridding areas of disease or feeding starving families (actually those are the kind of people who don’t expect to be paid $1,700,000). So yeah, maybe some people should make buckets full of money, but not the president of the NCAA. Not even close. The NCAA is an obscenity that needs to be smashed into a thousand little pieces. I’ve now introduced a topic I could go on and on about. I won’t.

Here's something that I've said before that bears repeating and re-repeating and re-re-repeating. If you are one of the people having cell phone conversations in public, like while in line or on public transportation, please stop. Seriously, shut the fuck up. Is this going to stop? Get worse? Stay as it is? Imagine the mindset of people who gab on the phone within a few feet of other people. No don't its too depressing.

Did you see the story about the bakery that refused to make a bible shaped cake with a homophobic slur on it and is consequently being sued for religious discrimination? Supposedly they are violating the religious rights and beliefs of the people who want the cake because they practice a version of christianity that espouses hating people based on their sexual preference. Well guess what (that's rhetorical you don't really have to do any guessing). I've started a religion that has a basic tenet the belief that if you encounter a homophobe you must strike that person repeatedly on or about the face with a rake. You better not try and stop us -- religious freedom!!!!

11 January 2015

Dreams and Fantasy, A Mirror into Reality, Like Bergman Did it

Sometimes before falling asleep I’ll see myself on the roof of the house I grew up and I’ll be on the edge looking down ready to fall to my death and sometimes I’ll see myself fall and sometimes I’ll start to fly before hitting the ground and soar through the Berkeley air of the 1960s. My arms will be akimbo and there’ll be birds alongside me and I can go wherever I want and perhaps — don’t know for sure — do whatever I want. I am as free a being as ever lived. But sometimes I just fall flat. Splat.

I always get a sense of vertigo when I have these internal visions and so try to shake them off though this is easier thought then done. When I was a kid I used to climb way up a redwood tree in our backyard and the very thought of it today makes my hands clammy. Literally. If I think about it long enough.

I do not ever want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge or any other high place and when I think about doing it I usually envision the whole business of flying. Not of dying.

Of course I have a lot of dreams in which I have the power of flight. I say of course because it just seems so obvious to me that I would. If you knew me you’d think it rather obvious too. I like my dreams and that I dream so vividly. None of them, not even the bad ones, scare me or worry me or bother me in the least. They perplex me for sure but that’s okay. Being a little confused from time to time is a really good way to go through life. I notice the people with the most certainty are the ones who are most confused. Maybe they don’t dream enough or don’t remember their dreams or they don’t try hard enough to. Or maybe they don’t like dreams. They are, after all, in some senses impractical. Especially when you’ve got a big business meeting the next morning or are worried about an investment or are trying to squeeze extra pennies out of some poor sucker.

Why do some people revere the non dreamers? The ones who live to earn at whatever the consequences to their fellow humans? I don’t know either.

But I was writing about dreams. Some are pretty clear. Those I don’t spend a lot of time. Dream interpretation has no time to waste on the easy ones. There’s the bizarre that deserve scrutiny. But I also have day dreams to deal with. Okay I know what you’re thinking. Day dreams are created on a conscious level. Well, not always. Not mine, always. Sometimes I just turn off one part of my brain — can’t really say which — and turn on another — can’t really say which — and just let whatever happens happen. And it does. Now the typical day dream — mine, anyway — usually has to do with sex or glory or revenge or other things that make me happy. I am a heroic figure in these day dreams. A great lover, a rich man a famous man a revered man and my enemies are smited. But other times my daydreams take all manner of twists and turns and defy easy labels. I’m doing all sorts of crazy things that — like sleeping dreams — defy all logic. They are populated not only with gorgeous super models, but famous people from the past and present and relatives and friends from past and present. The cool thing about such day dreams is I can intervene at anytime if I don’t like the direction they’re going in or see a possible writer’s embellishment that will make them more fun. It’s like I’m a film director. How cool is that? Pretty cool.

I like what the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman does with dreams and fantasies and visions and mental illness in his movies. Sure sure there’s a lot of symbolism going on but its more — I think — about the mood and the feeling and the mind of the characters. He also tosses in ghosts which I don’t think he believed in. I don’t believe in them but I like the way he uses them and I’ve used them myself in some of my humble writings. They can be great vehicles for story telling. Which is really what Bergman was: a great great storyteller.

I’ve recently enjoyed several of his films like Cries and Whispers (1972) and Winter Light (1963) and Face to Face (1976) and Fanny and Alexander (1982) and From the Life of Marionettes (1980) and The Devil’s Eye (1960) and Virgin Spring (1960) and more.

I guess you and I could get along if you weren’t a big Bergman fan but I’m not sure you’d understand me or that I could explain my world view very well. But we could try. Maybe over coffee sometime. I like talking to people over coffee. I’d talk over drinks but I’ve been off the sauce for quite awhile and the world doesn’t need me back on. I’m crazy enough.

Anyway Bergman had a way of shining a light on reality by focusing a lot on fantasy and that’s a really cool, smart thing to do though not so easy. I think it is through our dreams and our fantasies that we can really begin to see and understand our reality. If you just look at life straight on all the time and take every thing at face value, you’ll go nuts.

So that’s what I had to say today.

08 January 2015

Confessions of a Cineholic

My name is Richard and I am a cineholic.

I submit as evidence the events of last Saturday evening.  Having earlier in the day enjoyed a seven mile run and then attended a college basketball game, I returned home to watch a movie. But I could not stop at one. I watched a second. I know what you're thinking, then he watched a third. No, nothing like that at all. There was no third film. Oh I've watched three films in a day before, I can handle my movies. I'm sure I could do four in a day and that rate I'm going that's likely to happen someday (cineholism is a progressive disease, you know).

What was so unusual -- some might say sick -- about my little binge was the combination of films. I did some hardcore genre mixing with extreme brands of each. Here's what I watched: Frank Capra's You Can't Take it With You (1938) followed by Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972). Good luck finding movies that are more dissimilar.

One is schmaltz hokum and sentimentality. In the other a person is dying and its not an easy death. I mean for crying out loud one is pure uncut Capra and the other is high grade undistilled Bergman. Who watches one after the other. And who watches the depressing one second?


I also recently watched The Wild Bunch (1969) and Duck Soup (1933) on the same day. Peckinpah and the Marx Brothers are an interesting mix. Belly laughs and bullets. Blood and guffaws. Groucho and William Holden. Harpo and Warren Oates.

This can't be normal. Normal people watch a movie and let it sink in and then maybe watch a second related one. Like two Preston Struges films or two romantic comedies or two Bond films. Not me. Line up and let's go. I just want excellence and the more the better. My Netflix and Hulu queues are longer than the phone book. (They still make phone books?) I own over 200 films and I'm forever DVRing movies on TCM and HBO. I mainline films. Work weeks are brutal for me offering virtually no movie watching time. I have to binge on weekends.

One thing in my defense is that I go for the high quality stuff. No cheapo Adam Sandler stuff for me, none of that Transformer crap. It's the likes of Bergman and Bunuel and Rossellini and Cassavetes and Chaplin and Renoir and....I could go on.  Point is I don't go slumming. There's an endless supply of high grade films to mainline. I can watch them on my laptop, I can watch them on my high def TV, I can watch them in theaters. Streaming, DVD, recorded what you got. Any time any place. Just make me laugh or cry of think or feel. Inspire to me to write maybe inspire to watch more definitely. Lately I've been binging on Bergman, before that it was Powell, earlier it was Coen Brothers, maybe next it will be Kaurismaki. Dinner is ready? Keep it warm. Family is out there? Tell 'em to wait. The Super Bowl is on? I'll read about it tomorrow.

Do you wander if you're a cineholic too? Answer these questions:

1. Do you watch film when you are disappointed, under pressure or have had a quarrel
with someone?
2. Can you handle more films now than when you first started to watch?
3. Are you more in a hurry to watch your first film of the weekend than you used to be?
4. Do you sometimes feel a little guilty about your movie watching?
5. Has a family member or close friend express concern or complained about your film watching?
6. Do you often want to continue watching movies after your friends say they’ve had enough?
7. Have you tried switching genres or directors to control your movie watching?
8. Do you try to avoid family or close friends while you are watching movies?
9. Do you sometimes feel uncomfortable if films are not available?
10. Do you eat very little or irregularly during the periods when you are watching movies? 

If you answered yes to four or more of these questions, then brother, take a seat and let's watch a movie together. How's about a little Fassbinder?

02 January 2015

A Visit to the Dentist and its Aftermath and My History with Dentists is Here Briefly Addressed

One goddamned little unpopped kernel of popcorn.

That’s what I was thinking in the dentist’s chair this morning. I had implements in my mouth, was numb and there was a lot of racket going on. Occasionally I’d wince in pain and of course there was always the anticipation of perhaps more pain to come. One never knows.

It all started on the first day of my recent two week vacation when I was enjoying some popcorn while watching a movie. Oldest daughter had warned me that  there was something a bit off about the popcorn (she had made it) but it was passable so I was munching away. Suddenly something was amiss. It wasn’t so much pain as it was the feeling that something was not quite right on the lower right side of my mouth. I’d broken a tooth. On a popcorn kernel. There was no pain, assuming I did all my chewing on the other side of my mouth. I was able to get into the dentist two days later and a temporary was put in. Today I got measured for a new crown. It was an hour of fun.

There’s a certain surrender that takes place in the dentist’s chair. Your mouth is wide open, you are half sitting half laying and totally helpless. The dentist is in complete control and she can do anything she damn well pleases. For all you know you could be murdered or made giddy although the most realistic outcomes are some pain and discomfort. Whatever it is you’ve got no say in the matter. You have to trust that the person with all the sharp tools is not going to do you harm. I have a fantastic dentist who I trust completely, but I’d still rather avoid being in that chair. I had a colonoscopy and was put into a half sleep yet felt more in control than I do sprawled out on a dentists chair with a full construction job going on in my open yap.

I have a pretty high pain threshold. A background playing sports helps. But I’m as nervous and fearful in a dentist chair as a five year old. I attribute this to the horrible husband and wife team who were my dentists when I was a lad. They were better suited to be butchers. By comparison the Marquis De Sade was a massage therapist. The Thompsons were also a decidedly ugly couple and each had — and this is unpardonable — the breath of a garlic loving rhino. They were forever shaking me as punishment for moving as they were practicing their delicate form of torture and when I did manage to sit still would continually say “that’s a good boy, that’s such a good boy.” I hated these people behind any measure yet was compelled to see them regularly due to my constant consumption of candy and my steady diet of sodas. I suspect they're no longer alive and would assume that if there is an afterlife they occupy a room in the netherworld.

It is only since I stopped drinking alcohol and soda that I have been cavity free. I believe it’s been 20 years since I needed a filling.  In any event a visit to the dentist is both rare and utterly unterrifying. It’s more just a nuisance. As I write this my mouth is still a bit numb. When I got home the missus said I looked liked a stroke victim. She's got a way with words that one. I get to go back to the dentists in two week for the crown.

Because of one goddamned little unpopped kernel of popcorn.

31 December 2014

My Top Ten Films for 2014

1. Birdman

2. Under the Skin
3. Boyhood
4. Venus in Fur

5. The Skeleton Twins
6. Top Five
7. Gone Girl
8. Whiplash
9. The Grand Budapest Hotel
10. Foxcatcher

Honorable Mention: The Imitation Game, Pride, Palo Alto, A Coffee in Berlin, Locke, Only Lovers Left Alive.

Best Actor: Michael Keaton (Birdman) Honorable Mention: Benedict Cumberbatch (Imitation Game) Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)

Best Actress: Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) Honorable Mention: Reese Witherspoon (Wild) Emmanuelle Seiger (Venus in Fur)

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Best Supporting Actress: Emma Stone (Birdman)

The gaps are intentional. Birdman was a lot better than the second best film and the top four were miles better than the rest.

30 December 2014

12 Films You May Have Never Heard of that I Recommend -- I Also Provide a Brief Synopsis

Silence of the Clams
The story of very quiet shell fish.

Dear Hunter
A letter is sent to someone tracking wild game.

Wild Brunch
A late morning meal gets out of hand.

Hog Day Afternoon
A large pig’s adventures from noon to sundown.

Taxi Diver
A person who looks for sunken yellow cabs.

The Rubble With Harry
Harold carries around debris from demolished buildings.

The French Confection
A delicious pastry from Paris.

Shitty Lights
Some really bad lamps.

Laid Runner
A sprinter finally gets lucky.

Picnic at Hanging Clock
Some people dangle a timepiece off a cliff and eat sandwiches.

A Bite at the Opera
An audience member snacks during an aria.

Hannah and Her Blisters
The story of a woman and her overworked feet.

29 December 2014

A Guy By the Name of Pike

“Name’s Pike,” the old man said as he shook my hand. It was a big strong hand that had done a lot of work. A weathered and muscular hand that was both warm and tough.

His voice was rich and deep and it seemed that everything about him was sturdy. He could have been an old cowboy or a farmer or a cop. His clothes were those of a working man but they were well taken care of and clean.

I told Pike my name and offered to buy him a beer. He accepted graciously. We drank a few beers together and got down to business. Pike had been referred to me because I was looking for someone to take care of our house while my wife and I were in France for a year. I wanted someone who was reliable, strong enough to do chores, could be trusted and didn’t have family obligations.

Pike told me he’d had a wife once but “she got the cancer.” He’d had several careers and I wasn’t surprised to learn that one of them was in construction or that another was on an oil rig. He’d also made sergeant in the army, been a park ranger and served as a bodyguard for some actors that you’d have heard of.

The terms were easy enough to agree on so Pike and I drove up to my house in the Berkeley Hills. We’d be gone for almost all of 1963, leaving January 10 and returning a week before Christmas. Pike would stay at the house. He’d collect mail, pay the bills, tend the garden and see to the upkeep of the house. It needed a little work and Pike agreed to see to it, either himself or by hiring some help. In return he’d stay in the house rent free — and it was a nice place with a spectacular view of the San Francisco Bay — and be paid $400 a month. There’d also be an expense account for the bills.

Pike had shown me a half dozen letters of reference all of which attested to what a fine man he was. The last question I had for him before shaking on the deal was whether he thought he might get bored just looking after a house for a year after all the adventures he’d had. Pike assured me that he’d be fine, that at his age — 63 — it was time to slow down. He had some reading to catch up on and was going to take advantage of living in a place with a TV set for the first time in his life. Plus he had a nephew across the bay to visit from time to time and a couple of army buddies who lived in the area.

“I’ll just be fine. More than enough to keep me occupied. Plus I aim to catch up on some sleep I haven’t had the last 45 odd years.”

Confident that the house was in good hands my wife Marcie and I began making final preparations for our trip to France. Marcie was from Paris so was looking forward to time with her family and I was being sent by the University of California — where I was a professor — to do research.
Marcie was a few months pregnant so our first child would be born in Paris. My only regret was that as a consequence he or she could thus never grow up to be president of the U.S. Not that there was much chance of that anyway, but still a guy can dream.

The day after I met him Pike came by again and met Marcie. Pike had an easy charm that Marcie appreciated. She later said he was the most American man she’d ever met. I showed Pike around some more more and we talked a bit. He’d lived all over the country, mostly in California and Texas but he was born in Delaware which would have been about my last guess. Most of all he thought of himself as ex-Army but was proud of every job he’d had.

Pike came again on the morning of the 10th. We gave him the keys and made sure he knew where everything was, last second stuff. He talked us out of taking a cab to the airport and drove us in our Oldsmobile which he’d have use of. Gentleman that he was, Pike walked us to our gate. He seemed surprised when Marcie gave him a hug.

We got on the plane for the long flight content that all was well and our house was in good hands.

It was in mid July, right around the half way point of our stay, when we found out what kind of hands are house had been in. To that point everything had seemed fine. We’d received regular letters from Pike in his rudimentary handwriting and with his poor spelling and grammar. He’d updated us on the house and his daily doings and told of his an added expense here or their to replace a broken garden tool or have a gutter fixed. My cousin Larry had been by to check on things a few times and gave us glowing reports on what a great job Pike was doing on the house and the property.  Then just after Bastille Day in France we got a call from the Berkeley Police.

The connection wasn’t great but I got the gist of it. They had Pike in custody for receiving and selling stolen property. The man who had repaired out fence was himself a fence. A couple of days later I flew back to California. Jet lagged, frustrated, angry and yes, not just a little curious I checked in with the Berkeley police. It turned out that Pike was exactly who he said he was. His references were all correct and he’d served in all the positions he’d claimed. But there was more to him. Pike had several aliases and using those assumed names committed a lengthy list of crimes ranging from burglary to extortion to fraud and now fencing.  What was really news though was that the FBI had been trying to track down Pike for years not only for his crimes but because of his involvement in a militant far right group. One that eventually hoped to assassinate Castro in Cuba and some liberal leaders in the USA. including President Kennedy. Of course Kennedy was assassinated just four months later but the gang Pike was part of likely had nothing to do with it. By November they had been rounded up, thanks in large part to Pike who ratted everyone out in order that he not spend the rest of his natural life behind bars.

Needless to say I was stunned by all of this. You never really know about a person. Someone who seems like the salt of Earth turns out to be an impostor, a crook and an extremist. My faith in humanity took a severe jot.

I managed to get a friend of my cousin Larry’s to serve as caretaker and was able to finish my research. Marcie and I got back home as planned just before Christmas. By then we had a baby girl, Claire. Of course the nation was still mourning Kennedy’s assassination. So were we. Marcie and I had been big supporters of his. That Pike had wanted him dead chilled us to the core.

We heard that in March Pike, who had done enough singing to have his sentence come out to only 10 years, was killed in prison. No one ever found who stuck the shiv in him but by this time he would have had plenty of enemies.

There was something different about the house. Pike’s presence and activities there somehow made it seem less like home, at least less like the place we wanted to raise our family. A year later I took a job at Columbia University in New York we figured we might as well re-settle instead of trying to fine a new place in Berkeley. A new opportunity seemed just the ticket. After fours year in New York we packed up and moved permanently to France.

I sometimes think we might have stayed longer, maybe even permanently in our Berkeley home. But things happen in life, totally unexpected, that can change everything. For us it was Pike.

22 December 2014

Two Women I Observed, Comments After a Party and a Very Brief Synopsis of Recent Films Seen

On the way to the basketball game yesterday I stopped at Top Dog to get a veggie dog. The woman working there was probably in her late '20s. She was efficient, hard-working, courteous and desperately unhappy. She seemed on the verge of tears and on the verge of decking someone. I wouldn’t have bet against her in a fight. She was a burly woman who would have fit in on a construction site. I was taken by how she could handle customers and cooking  despite seeming about to burst into a rage or flood of tears or both. Maybe she could have done a better of masking her feelings, maybe being in customer service she should have put on a plastic happy face. But then again I doubt most people noticed and most that did notice didn’t give a damn It’s not like she’d have driven customers away. People were out Christmas shopping or running other errands or on their way to a movie or the game so couldn’t be bothered with the demeanor of someone cooking their weiner. I just found it interesting is all. There are a lot of important earth-shattering events that bore me silly and a lot of trivial things that fascinate me. I’m like that.

I was fascinated today in a store. I stopped on my way to the gym to buy a post workout snack to accompany my smoothie. I was in line when I noticed a woman in perhaps her late ‘30s of Asian descent —probably Chinese — who was bending down to move or get something from a display. She might have been an employee of the store and was with someone who clearly was. Anyway she was wearing those loose fit jeans and as is often the case for someone bending while wearing loose fit the crack of her ass was showing. This has become normal in the past decade or so. But what was a little unusual was that she was a little older than your usual butt flasher. Plus frankly your typically Asian women — I’m sure this is cultural — do not reveal their ass cracks. But there’s more. That is there was more. She was showing far more ass crack than is normally seen. Almost a third of the entire crack and accompanying buttocks. Well the line was moving and I was disinclined to stare at anyone’s ass crack. But on my way out I happened to glance in her direction again and she was still hard at work moving things about on the floor when she preceded to bend even further forward resulting in a display of fully half — if not more — of the aforementioned crack. Okay let’s be clear on one thing, she has to have known. When that part of your body is out in the wind — so to speak — especially in a public place, you can’t not know. This means one of two things: either she doesn’t care how much of her ass other people see or she gets her jollies out of showing people her ass. I mean when its that much we’re not just being favored with crack but the full moon effect. Really I don’t get it. I’m more than happy to see a beautiful woman’s bum if I must, but when anyone’s butt is displayed in such a sloppy manner it is no great turn on. Or good turn on. Or any kind of turn on at all. Seriously.

Last Friday I went to the annual holiday party held by the good folks who work at the middle school where I plied my trade for a couple of decades. Most of these people I hadn’t seen in over three years, some longer. Some were strangers to me having come on board since my departure. I was asked about my general well being and about the missus and my two young uns who both matriculated at the school. Interestingly there was virtually no curiosity about my doings now, people apparently being satisfied that I’m gainfully employed. I did give a few people assurances that far more than liking, I love my work. There were a few queries about my commute but that was pretty much it. No one seemed the slightest bit interested in what manner of teaching I did there. I did squeeze in a comment or two on the diversity of our student population (I’ve had students representing over 50 different countries) and that was pretty much it. I’ve spoken to quite a few people over the last few years about my new line of teaching and how much I love it but have gotten somewhere in the neighborhood of one question about what goes on in the classroom, how I teach, the curriculum or any other specifics about my work. I do get a lot of questions about my commute. A lot. That’s all anyone seems to care about. Seems kind of weird too me. Unless you’re traveling to work by camel over the Alps the details of a daily commute tend to be pretty pedestrian stuff. What a person does at the end of the morning commute, now that might be interesting. Just not to people I talk to. Mind you I’m not simply dying to tell people what I do all day, you just think after all this time someone, somewhere, sometime would have asked.

Yes I’ve seen a passel of movies since I last checked in but I’m not all that interested in writing about them if you want to know the truth. Maybe you don’t want to know the truth, maybe you’d prefer to be lied to. Maybe you’d rather I said that I wasn’t going to write about movies I’d seen of late because the North Koreans had threatened to cancel Christmas if I did. But you’d see through that. You know I’m not afraid of no North Koreans. I can't believe that Sony Pictures is afraid of them. That’s one of the saddest things that has happened all year. The capitulation to a bunch of saber rattling terrorists. Fuck Kim Jong Un. If he showed up at my door I’d slap his fat face — assuming he wasn’t accompanied by armed bodyguards, of course.

So you asked about recent films I’ve seen (no you didn’t I just used that phrase as a device to segue into this last bit). Okay here goes: The Big Parade (1925) starring John Gilbert directed by King Vidor. A mostly very good picture but featuring the greatest scene ever filmed when the U.S. Army is pulling out of the French town. Just watch the damn thing, its incredible. Then there was Christmas in Connecticut (1945) starring the great love of one of my past lives, Barbara Stanwyck. I think I’ve watched it about seven Christmas seasons in a row and haven’t tired of it a wit. It’s perfectly fun and charming and delightful. Mon Oncle Antoine (1971) I just discovered this — let’s say “holiday treat” — last year. It has been hailed by Canada as that country’s greatest film and who am I to argue? It is set in a very small French Canadian village around and on Christmas. It’s got the whole coming of age vibe but not in a corny way. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) is a Christmas film from my people, it being an export from Finland. Here we have the real story of Santa Claus (or more properly Joulupukki) who’s less about rewarding good children and more about punishing the bad ones. He’s got an army of elves and they are not the cute little imps of other folklore. Rare Exports is almost more horror story than Christmas story but it is altogether a good story that can be enjoyed by anyone, save children, particularly those who still believe in Saint Nick. Whiplash has been in theaters for a few weeks and I had no interest in seeing it until I noted the near unanimity of the critical acclaim it was garnering. Suffice to say that acclaim is well earned. I was impressed both with its star Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons who almost certainly will garner the best supporting actor Oscar. But more than that I appreciated a well crafted story that did not suffer from the usual cliches rife in films about rising young talents under the tutelage of demanding mentors. There was much to the movie including thoughts on talent, genius and life choices. Last night it was time for another traditional cinematic holiday treat, Home Alone (1990). I’m guessing you’ve heard of it. I’ve watched it off and on with the children for years now and still enjoy it and still chortle at various times and still love John Candy’s cameo — polka, polka polka.

I’m out.