28 January 2015

Time Overlaps - Dad and I on a Saturday Afternoon Many Years Ago as if Now, Maybe it is

“Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years. The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time.” 
-- From Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe

Eight years old in the backyard on a Saturday morning winning imaginary World Series for the Giants or Rose Bowl for Cal or perhaps re-winning World War II for the Allies. My father appears on the back porch and says he’s going to the hardware store do I want to go with him. By way of answer I’m in the truck before he finishes the question.

Sitting high up in the cab of the truck next to Dad makes me feel impervious to anything the world could dish out. We ride towards downtown with the radio on, a ball game being broadcast. Dad smells like fresh lumber. He always does. Never like sweat or dirt no matter how hard he’s worked. He's a carpenter and can build or fix anything. In my mind he builds houses single handedly. We talk — as usual — about everything, anything, nothing. Dad tells a story from being a kid himself, in Finland and another of his sailing days. I share my mad dreams of a great future.

When we get to the hardware store I follow dad wherever he goes. The store itself bores me to tears but I’m with my old man so all is right in the world. He sees someone he knows. Dad introduces me as if I am someone of great importance, not just some snotty little kid. (It was always like this with my Dad. It makes quite an impression on a child to be treated like an equal among grown ups. I wasn't just part of the scenery or a novelty but another living breathing human being who just happened to be much younger than the other people. Also my father didn't keep secrets from me. As soon as I was old enough to handle the truth of something he flat out told me. When I was little I just thought that he stayed in Buenos Aires for six months during his time as a merchant marine. But as a teenager Dad told me that the reason he stayed for six months was that he shacked up there with a woman. Well it was the truth so why not tell me. That's the way Dad looked at things and that's why I've always leveled with my own children.)

So Dad completes his transaction at the hardware store and as it's near lunch time so we head down toward the Berkeley Pier for lunch. It's a treat to go out to lunch with Dad. Mom and my big brother are somewhere else so it's just us. I've got the old man to myself. This makes me feel special. Dad has a way of making both my brother and I feel -- at various times -- as if we're special. I guess cause he figures we are. When someone treats you like you deserve good things it makes you feel all warm inside and worthy of any fortune that finds you. (I went on to take some bad bumps and almost ruin my whole life a few times but one thing that got me through was that Dad believed me and I wanted to live up to his faith.)

After lunch we watch the fishing boats come in. Again, not my idea of great time but I'm with the old man so safe from all the harm and cares of the world. He talks to some of the men coming off the boats, many of whom he knows, and arranges to go fishing the next weekend maybe with me in tow. "Okay sonny boy," he says at last, "let's get going."  We head to the truck and the drive home.

I resume my imaginary backyard heroics and dad disappears back into the house. Big brother comes home and obliges me buy tossing the football. It's cool to have someone slinging the ball to me, especially since my brother is a strapping lad six and a half years my senior. He's way up in high school and has a deep voice and reads big books and knows a lot of new stuff. Owing to our age difference there's little competition between us. I'm sure he resents me a little bit since I can be such a monumental brat and one who's been spoiled by the old man more than he's been. But most of all big bro is protective of me and proud of my spirit, guile and unabashed sense of humor. That means a lot to me too. I've got these really neat older males looking out for me. You can't beat that.

Now we all gather around the dining room table to noisily and quickly inhale a meal. There isn't a lot of chitchat, just noisy smacking and the clatter of utensils and plates colliding. After dinner we sit around the TV in time for Jackie Gleason and plenty of yuks. I struggle mightily to stay awake long enough to watch Have Gun Will Travel too. I doze a little toward the end of the program.

I'm only be pretending to be sound asleep when Dad carries me to bed. I like the ride. Mom tucks me in and I quickly fall into a deep contented sleep.

26 January 2015

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

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

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

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

We never waited for a table.

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

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

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

My dad never thought of himself as a big shot. That would have been a form of self inflation that he didn’t believe in. He spoke admiringly of guys who were and looked forward to the day that I was a big shot. (I don’t think I ever qualified as such in my dad’s eyes but he didn’t love me any less as a result.) You don’t hear the term big shot much anymore. Nor do people work for an outfit. I was always hearing things like: "he’s a big shot for some outfit in San Francisco….” Being a big shot didn’t cut much ice with my dad if you weren't a decent fellow. He knew plenty of big shots who were jerks. The important thing for men was to be "a real gentleman."

Dad, like his cronies and kin, liked going to restaurants and loved going out on the town and loved to have parties and to go to football games, baseball games, track meets, ice hockey, soccer and basketball. They went hunting, fishing, camping and out on boats. It’s exhausting to think how they never sat still. Weekends, holidays and vacations were packed and this on top of solid 40 hour work weeks. Often there was overtime to boot. These were men who didn’t believe in phoning in sick even if they were on life support. They simply showed up. (This is an ethic that I’ve ascribed to and I’m constantly amazed at how many people I work with do pretty much the opposite.) All this on top of maintaining their own homes which always had something that needed fixing or adding to. My dad was a perpetual motion machine, which is largely why he lived to be 92 and would still be going if it weren't for an accident.

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

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

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

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

22 January 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 January 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that’s what I had to say today.

08 January 2015

Confessions of a Cineholic

My name is Richard and I am a cineholic.

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

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

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


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

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

One thing in my defense is that I go for the high quality stuff. No cheapo Adam Sandler stuff for me, none of that Transformer crap. It's the likes of Bergman and Bunuel and Rossellini and Cassavetes and Chaplin and Renoir and....I could go on.  The point it's the good stuff for me. There's an endless supply of high grade films to mainline. I can watch them on my laptop, I can watch them on my high def TV, I can watch them in theaters. Streaming, DVD, recorded what you got. Any time any place. Just make me laugh or cry of think or feel. Inspire to me to write, maybe --  inspire  me to watch more, definitely. Lately I've been binging on Bergman, before that it was Powell, earlier it was Coen Brothers, maybe next it will be Kaurismaki. Dinner is ready? Keep it warm. Family is out there? Tell 'em to wait. The Super Bowl is on? I'll read about it tomorrow.

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

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

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

02 January 2015

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

One goddamned little unpopped kernel of popcorn.

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

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

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

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

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

Because of one goddamned little unpopped kernel of popcorn.