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 our 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 jolt.

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 find 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 a fella named 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 twenties. 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 thirties 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 it's 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.

16 December 2014

There's No Surprise Like a Pleasant Surprise -- I Am Pleasantly Surprised by Two Films: Wild and Top Five But First There is a Unrelated Preamble

(This beginning bit was written Monday morning.) It’s raining. I’m off work. I have to go to the dentist in two hours. I ran eight miles yesterday. I’m writing short sentences. This is one of them. Here is another. However this is a longer sentence which reveals that I’m feeling a bit odd right now. I feel very good and a bit melancholy. I am wistful and anxious and content. How is it to feel just one way at a time? To have one over riding emotion? How is it to be totally unambiguous about yourself? There must be a kind of sickness in being so sure, so unequivocal about — of all things — yourself. That’s a special madness all its own. To be without doubt. Like  a mountain lion. I don’t imagine that mountain lions engage in much rumination. They go through life without questioning. Or knowing for that matter. We all know things and learn and grow and evolve or stay mindless conservative republicans.

Christmas is in ten days. I have loved Christmas for as long as I can remember and never because it supposedly celebrates the birth of god’s only son. (By the way, what was the whole point of getting a virgin pregnant? Why not just send an emissary down from heaven? Why have a son and put him through all the crap he had to endure? Why let him die on the cross? Some father. I see a child of mine suffering like that and I’d do some smiting. You hear religious people say that god works in mysterious ways which simply means they have no idea what the fuck the almighty was thinking. Christians can offer explanations — of sorts — for a lot of things but for a lot of others they have no effing clue.) But like I was saying before all that stuff in parenthesis, Christmas has never been a religious holiday for me. That’s what I like about the holiday, you can look at it in so many different ways. I think a lot of people write it off as strictly a christian deal or being too commercial when in fact you can enjoy it without god and without buy, buy buying. If you’ve a mind to. If not…well that’s your deal. Just don’t go around being a sourpuss thinking its okay for you to rain on other peoples’ parades.

One of the great joys in life is having your expectations exceeded. I never go to a movie unless I think I’m going to really enjoy it which makes me picky and results in me mostly seeing films I end up liking. Twice in as many days I’ve gone to a movie theater anticipating a movie worth my $8.50 and not much more and twice in two days I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

Yesterday I saw Wild starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed and directed by Jean-Marc Valle who did a nice job last year with Dallas Buyer’s Club. It's one of those movies that makes me want to do things. I wanted to go for a long hike and finish my current novel and start another and read a lot of poetry and become a better person and hug my wife and kids. This is a sign of good film -- the whole making you want to do good things stuff. Or good stuff thing. Anyway. Reese Witherspoon plays a woman who wants to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the top of Mexico to Washington. It is an effort to cleanse herself of a nasty past featuring heavy drug use, sleeping around and unfaithfullness.

The solo hike is interspersed with flashbacks including many with mom and little brother and ex husband and some with multiple lovers and heroin needles and booze. It could have been a corny journey of self discovery story but instead is a believable realistic journey of self discovery story. Of course our heroine faces many obstacles along the way which is best not to spoil for you although it it should not be a surprise that they include terrain, the elements and other people. But what makes this an effective story is that the biggest obstacle for Cheryl is Cheryl herself. In the course of one's life the biggest enemy is generally that idiot in the mirror. In large part the movie excels because Witherspoon is up to the task. She is surely one of our most gifted actresses and Valle is proving to be a good director from whom we'll continue to expect more.

Today I saw Top Five written, directed and starring Chris Rock. Speaking of top fives and Rock, he would make my top five all time comedians list. What a delight to discover that he can make a film that, while replete with chuckles, is more than just a comedy. Indeed it is an intelligent film which draws inspiration from the work of Woody Allen. Rock plays Andre Allen a highly successful comic and star of comedy films who is tired of being funny and wants to do serious work. His first effort is a film about the Haitian rebellion in which he stars. Meanwhile he is about to have a very public wedding to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union). Top Five follows him on the day of the film's premier which is also the eve of his wedding as he is being interviewed by a New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson). Lo and behold both interviewer and interviewee are recovering alcoholics in their fourth year of sobriety. (Hmmm two films about people struggling with addiction, no wonder I liked them.)

Dawson and Rock have the requisite chemistry to make their relationship work -- wherever it may or may not go. Good sized laughs are interspersed throughout the film but they are never forced. After all this is the story of a very funny many who happens to be surrounded by some incidentally funny people so guffaws are inevitable. Mostly however, Top Five is a look at the artist and the choices she or he has to make and the consequent public reaction. Add to the mix the issues of recovery and love and you've got a recipe for a good movie. Rock the writer and director was up to the task and Top Five -- like many of Woody's films -- asks questions and poses situations amid the laughs. I now have a whole new level of respect for Rock heaped onto the one that already existed.

14 December 2014

Olivier, Kerr, Chaplin, Groucho, Capra, all Featureed in the First Six Films of My Holiday Season Viewing Binge

According to a noted Christmas Carol, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.” No argument from me especially in light of me having two weeks off from work and thus many extra hours available for — what else — watching films. My vacation started Friday afternoon though I got a little practice on Thursday as school was closed due to a power outage. With a solid two weeks still to go I’ve watched — thanks to Thursday — six movies. A sluggish start I admit but I’m sure things will pick up as I get into a good groove.

I thought I’d favor readers (both of us) with periodic posts in which I said a few words about the movies that have entertained or inspired or bored or enlightened me this fortnight. And so I begin.

Marathon Man (1976). Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman. That's pretty much all you need right there. The two of them could just be chatting over a game of checkers and you'd have a movie. But Marathon Man is a smart thriller and Olivier plays one of the great cinematic Nazis of all time in Christian Szell, albeit one we meet many years after the Third Reich has crumbled. Hoffman plays a grad student and the eponymous runner who stumbles into international intrigue in large part because his big brother (Roy Scheider, no slouch either when it came to acting) who is a spy. There is a Seventies style sophistication to the story along with a strong dose of paranoia. It's a damn good movie and there's a lot more going on then just admiring Olivier and Hoffman.

Black Narcissus (1947). Who was that idiot that didn't like this film the first time he saw it? The same blockhead who only kind of liked it the second time. That would be yours truly. Anyway after this, my fourth viewing, I finally recognize it as a classic. I know, what took me? It still -- you should excuse the expression -- blows my mind that this was not actually filmed in the Himalayas. Nope, all shot at studios in the UK. The legendary Jack Cardiff was the cinematographer and he is one of the three or four greatest to ever get behind a camera. BN is an absolutely exquisite film to look at. Technicolor has never looked better. Of course there's a story being told and Deborah Kerr is in it and she made every film better for her appearance. But there is also Kathleen Byron as the nun gone wild. My goodness but she is creepy and effecting and even beguiling. I can only wonder that she wasn't a bigger star. I can also only wonder that it took me so long to appreciate this masterpiece from Powell and Pressburger.

The Gold Rush (1925). Charlie Chaplin came as close as anyone could to making a perfect film. And he did it several times. Gold Rush is one such effort. Let's all say it together: Chaplin was a genius. It's long been a cliche which doesn't make it any less true. But the proof is in his films where the comedy is meticulously choreographed. Chaplin took his time between and on film projects and it shows. There's not a wasted screen second. Georgia Hale as the love interest is on the most striking leading ladies in all of Chaplin's films. And this ranks right up there among his five best.

The Small Back Room (1949). I've been working my way though the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and have found some real gems and only a few clunkers (I'm looking at you Colonel Blimp) but this one falls squarely into the mediocre category. I wanted to like The Small Back Room and ultimately thought it okay but goodness it dragged in parts. Kathleen Byron was in this film too but in nowhere near as juicy a part. David Farrar had the meaty role as the tortured bomb disposal expert, Sammy Rice. He's lost a leg and is hoping not to lose a struggle with drugs or with his love and on and on and its a helluva story idea but not quite pulled off. The film is also known as Hour of Glory but I'm going with the original title.

Duck Soup (1933). When I cranked out the first ever list of my favorite films of all time some 20 plus years ago, I shared it with a co-worker. She scoffed at my inclusion of this, the greatest of the Marx Brothers' films. Let the record show she was -- and likely still is -- an idiot on a number of topics. Truly this is a great film. GREAT. Not just a great Marx Brothers film, not just a great comedy, a great film. It may well be that I've seen Duck Soup more than any other film and I still laugh throughout and I still enjoy every minute of it. The kind of non stop wit that comes from Groucho isn't heard in films anymore.  Three examples: 1) "Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honor, which is probably more than she ever did." 2)"Clear? Huh. Why a four-year-old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can't make head or tail of it." 3) "You're a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember, while you're out there risking your life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in be in here thinking what a sucker you are." And I rest my case. Kudos to Leo McCarey who directed.

Meet John Doe (1941). I like Gary Cooper and am head over heels in love with Barbara Stanwyck.They are the two stars of this very Capraesque Frank Capra film. But if you want to see some scene stealing check out James Gleason. I'm not going to recount the whole movie, after all you've seen it a dozen times or more like I have, right? But as a refresher, Gleason played the editor of the paper where Stanwyck concocted the John Doe stories. He's the stereotypically cynical, tough as nails, bottom line type of boss that is quite common both on and off screen and were a particular staple of movies of the Thirties and Forties. It's all pretty standard fare though a cut above most characters until a scene in a bar when he drunkenly professes to John Doe (Cooper) his love of country and bitterness at what is being done to it by the likes of the evil D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold). It's a powerful bit of acting and the scene marks a critical turning point late in the film in which Doe realizes that evil and powerful political forces mean to usurp the John Doe love thy neighbor movement. It's one of my favorite film scenes of all time.

01 December 2014

I Must Have Been Crazy to Not Have Seen Silver Linings Playbook Until Now

Wild man's world is crying in pain
What you gonna do when everybody's insane
So afraid of fortune, so afraid of you
What you gonna do?
Crazy on you, let me go crazy on you
-- From Crazy on You by Heart

It’s difficult for me to trust people who would profess to be perfectly sane. Imagine the type of individual who considers their mental and emotional states to exist in a state of perfection. Now that is true insanity.

Of course most people will gladly discuss their physical imperfections at great length, detailing their operations, ailments and aches and pains. But try bringing up and addiction or a psychosis or delusion and people clam up instantly. What’s the big deal? Why the stigma? After all abnormality is normal in the body and the mind is ever so much more complex.

I can go on and on and in on this most public of forums about my struggles and depressions and panic attacks and decades of experience with psychiatrists, but in normal chit chat with colleagues or acquaintances any such topic of conversation is strictly avoided. Meanwhile Bob or Lisa or Chris will feel free to ramble on about their lumbago or skin rash or cataracts. Seriously, what's more interesting, hearing about someone detail their struggles with constipation or with paranoid delusions? That's no contest.

When twelve steppers gather they may make mention of lower back pain or an allergy but they are just as likely -- actually much much more likely -- to discuss their psychotic episodes or obsessive compulsive disorder. That's more like it.

Films have often done an excellent job of showing characters suffering from the ravages of all manner of psychological trauma or disorder. Some shining examples are The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Blvd (1950), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Two Seconds (1932), Requiem for a Dream (2000), Blue Jasmine (2013). Just recently I saw for the first time -- a full two years after it hit theaters -- Silver Linings Playbook (2012) which I'm now sorry I waited on for so long. Any film in which characters discuss a litany of anti-depressants they've taken and I have personal experience with several of them is automatically okay in my book.

Bradley Cooper as Pat and Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany brilliantly portray the experience of being emotionally unwell. Theirs is a broader more public form of mental illness than I've grappled with but it is easy to relate to feeling: just fine thanks, no I'm kinda messed up, what's wrong with me, its everyone else who has a problem, please help, I'm the only person who feels this way, fuck the world, give me drugs, I don't want to be medicated, tell me what I want, don't say anything to me, leave me alone, listen to me.

SLP is not so much about how people struggling with mental illness act, but how they cope with their illness -- or don't -- and how they cope with others around them, the "normal" people. It is also adept at revealing just how unnormal normal people really are. For example Pat's dad (some guy named Robert De Niro) would qualify as a perfectly normal chap to most, he's not needed any medications or had to visit a shrink and has certainly, unlike Pat, never been institutionalized. There is, however, the business of his being a gambling addict, clearly suffering from OCD and having been banned from Philadelphia Eagle home games for violent behavior. Pat's mom (Jacki Weaver) is a classic American mother which is to say she's a raging co-dependent and his brother (Shea Whigham) is a successful lawyer but is such an unconscionable jerk that he compares his lot in life with his brother. The one just out of a mental hospital. But like I said he's "normal."

Pat has bipolar disorder and Tiffany has borderline personality disorder. The perfect couple. They meet -- are actually set up -- at a time when they both are extremely vulnerable. Having gone ballistic and nearly beaten his wife's lover to death when he found them showering together, Pat served time in a mental institution. He is out and at home with his parents and determined to win his wife back --despite a restraining order. Tiffany's husband was a cop. Was because he is dead. She responded by having a seemingly endless string of one-night stands and now every man who knows her, whether he "got some" or not, wants a turn. After all she is young and attractive.

The reason they have to "hook up" is the stuff of Hollywood movies as is the film's denouement but it is all a small price to pay for a movie so rich in ideas that films so rarely touch. Indeed the cinematic cliches help the medicine go down and I certainly found watching SLP to have medicinal usage. When SLP is awkward and difficult to watch for its content it is still compelling and entertaining because the characters are so well drawn and so fully realized by the actors. We are in the habit of rooting for the central figures in movies and in some films its because we want to see them overcome adversity. For me Pat and Tiffany are especially deserving of good things because there is a generally ugly reality to what they have gone and continue to go through. They aren't fighting bad guys, just the demons within and the prejudices without.

Most films that deal with mental illness either mock those who suffer by making silly caricature's of them or use them as showpieces for performers to chew the scenery. Certainly the likes of Ray Milland, Gloria Swanson, Vivian Leigh, Edward G. Robinson, Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto and Cate Blanchett from the films mentioned above delivered brilliant performances in worthy films, and so for that matter do Cooper and Lawrence. While SLP is not quite on a par with those films, it does stand alone in its depiction of sufferers from mental illness as often being quite aware of what they're going through and mindful of how they are seen and treated by others. Bout time.

Is it a good film or am I just crazy?

30 November 2014

When I was 13 It was a Very Odd Year

Tonight at dusk I looked out my bedroom. It had been a cold rainy day and it was dying hard. Light was fading and the sky was a heavy gray. A deep sense of melancholia enveloped me. I saw myself at 13 on such a Sunday late November twilight. Outside playing basketball. Taking one more shot and then another and then another until it was too dark to see the basket. Then I would go inside where dinner would be almost ready. Dad would be back at the Sunday paper, searching for one more story to read. Or maybe he’d be getting around to the National Geographic that had come earlier in the week. Mom would be in the kitchen. Stern faced, grimacing with anger as the voices inside her head raged. I would see her and look away, only hearing her final preparations for our meal.

I would slump on the living room sofa as if my hours of play outside constituted a full day’s work. I would start a conversation with dad about football or ask him about his sailing days. He would always oblige my desire to talk and would put down whatever he was reading. When the conversation’s momentum died down I’d go to my room and play a Beatle’s album until the call for dinner came.

It might be meat loaf and potatoes and string beans and I’d have a few glasses of milk. I barely tasted the food, it was really just fuel. I looked forward to some ice cream for dessert. After dinner I’d turn on the TV and maybe even have a dispute with dad about what to watch. The TV would occupy my mind until bedtime. I might read a few pages from a James Bond novel or perhaps my book of H.G. Wells short stories before turning off the light and quickly falling asleep.

I was a generally happy young teen although I was forever suppressing the truth of my mother’s insanity. I looked away from it just as I physically looked away from her when reality was all too obvious. I had no great ambition at that age just wild and unfocused dreams about future fame and glory, perhaps as a rock star or a professional athlete or a best-selling author. School was frightfully boring to me because I was overwhelmed with a rich imagination that made the dull routine of studies seem ridiculous and square and wholly out of touch. Plus I was smart enough to pass classes with good grades without straining myself or for that matter without learning much in the process.

It was the late Sixties and The Beatles were still ruling Western culture and  the anti-war movement was in full swing and I was living in Berkeley, one of the epicenters of student unrest and a rising desire for a greater consciousness. I was starting to see that the world outside of school was rich with excitement and ideas and possibilities. I wanted to be part of it somehow and hated that I had to bide my time before having more freedom from school, home and rules. I saw the "establishment" in all it's forms as the enemy. One that could not be trusted. But at the same time my passion for sports kept me from growing up to fast. I had always been pretty good at any sport I tried and had found that I was very very good at soccer. My uber competitiveness, along with my physical gifts, made me a natural at the game. The fact that I was far better than most inspired me to see soccer as a way to now and future glory. And indeed there would be some.

My attention was also shifting increasingly to the fairer sex who in turn were noticing me and my pretty blue eyes and long very blonde hair. However I didn’t know where to begin, what to say or what to do. I would be a late bloomer when it came to romance and would need to be fueled by alcohol before really getting the hang of it. For now I just looked and fantasized and was paralyzed by shyness.

Thirteen is a bad age for most people. I spent 20 years teaching people who were or were 13 or about it to be or just had been. The awkwardness of early adolescence can be crippling. You are no longer a child but very from being an adult and not yet in high school where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Your body is going through strange changes and your wants and desires are going in all different directions. You are trying to tear away the apron strings and be your own person but you’re also afraid to. Your emotions shift radically but don’t stay one way for long. You are starting to question adults and the world at large but aren’t prepared for follow up questions when you do get a straight answer. You want to live on your own and crawl back into the womb and you’re just beginning to understand about sex and my goodness that’s a mind fuck.

My experience being 13 was as bad as most people’s and might have been worse because mom’s insanity was coming out of the closet. For years I was the only living sole who knew that mom had angry conversations with people who weren't there. That was a helluva thing to carry around. But now she had gone full on bonkers in front of everyone. Well I could have looked at it as sharing the awful burden but I was just embarrassed and sorry that dad and big brother and everyone else in our extended family had to know the god awful truth. Plus now she wasn’t just acting crazy in front of me. There was no protection when anyone was around. Holy fuck that hurt.

Some of us are pretty damn resilient. Thankfully I was (am). Mom had done permanent damage to my psyche but I nevertheless soldiered on and more often than not went to bed feeling good about the day I’d just had and looking forward to the one forthcoming.

As I finish this the rain has started again. I’ve always liked the rain. Oh occasionally it’s messed up plans for a day or caught me unawares and thus given me a soaking.  But it always seems like is giving to us. It’s giving life. Grass. Creeks. Rivers. Crops. Flowers. It might have started raining that night when I was 13. I would have enjoyed that.

18 November 2014

The Sad True Story of a Misbegotten Romance

This is not her but pretty close.
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 her pretty voice and I suppose to that overwhelming purity. But I had no end game. This was a relationship that had nowhere to go. I was never going to marry and absent doing so I was never going to make love to her. 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 her and regaled her with stories. I loved being with her. She was not only physically stunning but Kristina had not the slightest pretense. She was good and pure but 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 her to 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 fade quickly.

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 put on a considerable amount of weight. 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 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 but 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 heard 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 tip 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 friends 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 Earl used to. 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

Another Championship

“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, a 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 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.....