30 December 2017

Odds and Ends at the End of an Odd Year



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

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

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

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


19 December 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 December 2017

My Exclusive Interview With Santa Claus (Joulupukki)



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

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

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

05 December 2017

A Revealing Interview I Did With Myself

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

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