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My books can be purchased as e-books for only $1.99. If interested, just click here: Books.
Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life in the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure.
In case anyone is interested in any of my past posts, an archive list can be found at the bottom of this page.
My newest novel, Happy Valley, can be found here.

Monday, December 31

New Year's Eve


We’re on the eve of another year, and I can’t wait to see what 2013 will bring us. We’re about to tumble off the fiscal cliff, and despite the dire warnings, I don’t think anyone will get very hurt when we hit bottom. It may sound worse than what will be. Somewhere down the road congress and President Obama will take care of it. Also somewhere down the road, we’ll see new legislation regulating guns. It won’t take away the handguns and rifles the NRA hold so dearly, just the big stuff no honest citizen needs. I don’t see this sort of legislation as threatening the Second Amendment. The stock market will stay solid; the world economy will become more steady. All will be right with the world. Now, if we could just get those Middle Eastern countries to stop killing each other.

Rosalie and I are going to have a safe and sane New Year’s Eve, just as we always have. We’ll have a nice meal of salad, baked potato, New York strip steak, and a piece of Sara Lee’s apple pie to top it all off. Then we’ll try to stay up for the ball drop in New York. That will be 10:00 here. And that’s about as long as we can make it, old folks that we are.

This will be my 630th post over the three and a half years I’ve had this blog site. When I began I never dreamed I’d find enough to write about for over 600 blogs. Just goes to show how verbose I am. But I’ve enjoyed it, and enjoyed the readers from all over the world who may have stumbled onto my Doggy-Dog World. Thank you. And if any of these readers whom I don’t know would like to write to me, I’d love to hear from you. My e-mail address is jertrav33@aol.com. If you write, I’ll answer.

Meanwhile, happy New Year. Prospero año y felicidad.

Sunday, December 30

Django Unchained

The end of another year and lots of movies we’ve seen or still want to see. Our latest choice was to see what Jamie Foxx would do with his role as the slave Django in Django Unchained. Quentin Tarantino apparently set out to out-Western every Western ever made, and out-bloody every bloody shootout ever filmed, Western or cops-and-robbers or whatever. It was a humorous satire with an underlying moral theme. The humor was seen in the outlandish outfits Django chose to wear, especially the Blue Boy suit he picked out when Dr. King Schulz (Christoph Walz), Django’s savior, lets him choose anything he wants as his new wardrobe. More humor in the choice of background music as stereotyped by all the Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns of yesteryear, the incompetent band of KKKers who decide to forego their head bags because they can’t see what they were doing, the overblown scenic views too perfect to be real (the mountains, the rocky campsites, the bar with beer taps and glass mugs, the unlikely number of plantations underlings who respond to the shooting in the plantation mansion at Candyland, the amount of horrific bloodshedding in that final shootout, the high-stepping routine Django goes into with his horse as he shows off for his wife Broomhilda at movie’s end. But always, beneath the humor and satire, is the indictment of an institution like slavery, an institution that too many antebellum whites could condone, could unthinkingly, inhumanely, believe that a human being could be owned, a piece of property to whom the owner could do anything with impunity. The acting was excellent—Walz as the ex-dentist bounty hunter, DiCaprio as the effeminate Calvin Candie, Foxx as the “fastest gun in the South,” and Samuel L. Jackson as the truly evil reverse “Steppin Fetchit” house slave. But Christoph Walz is the best and will probably receive a nomination is the Oscar race.

In reviewing this year’s trends in film, I keep seeing too many action films that rely too much on improbable high speed chases through crowded streets with cars and trucks exploding by the hundreds, too much dialogue laced with ear-singeing profanity, too much needlessly graphic violence and bloodshed. Why can’t more films create their tension in simpler situations? I remember Speilberg’s directorial debut in Duel, where Dennis Weaver (remember him from Gunsmoke?) is trailed by a faceless semi driver who’s out to get him as Weaver journeys west to California—simple plot, amazing tension. I remember Cornel Wilde in The Naked Prey, a safari guide who must flee for his life from tribal warriors who have been offended by white members of the hunting party—simple plot, amazing tension. I remember Spencer Tracy as Santiago, the old man in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, as he first battles the huge marlin he’s hooked, then the sharks that come to take it away from him—simple plot, amazing tension. And even in Westerns of old, when Alan Ladd in Shane has just one climactic gun fight with the villainous Jack Palance, we don’t have or need hundreds of bodies in multiple gunfights with blood and gore all over the place, just Brandon DeWilde pleading with Shane to “come back!” as the wounded gunslinger rides off into the sunset. Simple plot, amazing tension. Do we really need all that mayhem and profanity today? Look at some recent offerings that didn’t need either: The Gray, with Liam Neeson fleeing a pack of wolves across frozen countryside; 127 Hours with James Franco fighting his head and his arm in that Colorado chasm; Life of Pi with Suraj Sharma battling the sea, befriending Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger with whom he’s sharing the lifeboat; The Inside Man with Denzel Washington trying to decipher Clive Owen’s actions in the bank.
We saw a handful of previews before Django, with the latest in the Bruce Willis Die Hard saga the one that most represents all I find unnecessary in today’s films. Even from the preview clips our ears were offended by the cacophony of the car crashes and explosions and the blueness of the language, our eyes were offended by the improbability of the physical feats of Willis and his son. Who needs it? I’ll take more Inside Men and Pi’s.

Monday, December 24

Guns, Guns, and More Guns

Another comment about guns and gun control. In McBain’s Mischief, written in 1993, the author, tongue in cheek, had this to say, “Sixty-one percent of all the murders in this city were committed by firearms, but that was no reason to take guns away from people, was it? After all, in eight percent of this city’s murders, feet or fists were the weapons, but did anyone suggest amputation as a means of control? Of course not.” That sounds like the sort of skewed logic Wayne LaPierre, NRA lobbyist, might make. "If it's crazy to call for putting police and armed security in our schools to protect our children, then call me crazy," he said recently. Well, Wayne, then you’re crazy. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” they constantly say. But people who kill people find it way more difficult to complete that act if they had only fists or feet or a knife or a rope or a baseball bat, or even a vial of strychnine. And that could only be done one at a time, slowly, not twenty or twenty-six at a time, rapidly, as with those damned weapons capable of firing multiple bullets in only a few seconds. Here’s what the Second Amendment says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Where, in that statement, does it suggest that our citizenry needs to bear automatic weapons? Nowhere. It’s now way past time to tighten our controls over what arms we people have the right to bear.

Sunday, December 23

The Way

I've posted a few more pictures of Charlie on The Caterwaul. He'd love to have you check him out.

Netflix sent us The Way, with Martin Sheen hiking 800 kilometers through spectacular Spanish scenery. El Camino de Santiago, the “way” referred to in the title, is a pilgrimage beginning in France, then through Basque country and the rest of Spain. The story was simple; the scenery behind the story made that long trek worthwhile, for both the pilgrims on their way as well as for the viewers of the film. I was so entranced that, if I were a wee bit younger and a whole lot more fit, I’d love to make that same journey. As with Charucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, those on this modern pilgrimage had their stories to tell. Tom (Martin Sheen), an American ophthalmologist, has learned that his son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) was killed just as he was beginning el camino. Tom decides he will make the trip in his son’s place, scattering Daniel’s ashes along the way. He meets several others on the journey—Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), a Canadian trying to stop smoking; Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a Dutchman trying to lose weight; and Jack (James Nesbitt), an Irish writer suffering from writer’s block. The four form a loose bond, at first with some antagonism, especially from Tom when he’s questioned about why he is on the journey. But the four come together more and more as they move through Spain. As I said, the story is simple. The screenplay was written by Sheen’s son, Emilio Estevez, who also directed. This movie was in the Valley for only a short time, shown exclusively at a Harkins theater way over in the East Valley, there and then gone, as happens with too many films with limited appeal to the mass audience. If you haven’t seen it, go to Netflix. It’s a trip you’ll find well worthwhile.

I’m rereading some of the McBain 87th Precinct novels, and stumbled onto this joke. McBain loved to insert jokes in his stories, and this one broke me up.

This guy is giving a lecture on supernatural phenomena, and when he finishes the lecture he asks the crowd if any of them have ever been in the presence of a ghost. The hands go up, and he counts them, and he says, “That’s about right. I usually get a response of about fifty percent to that question. Now how many of you who just raised your hands have ever been touched by a ghost?” The hands go up again, and he counts them, and says, “That’s about right, too, sixteen, seventeen percent is what I usually get. Now how many of you have ever had intercourse with a ghost?” Well, this old guy in his nineties raises his hand, and the lecturer asks him to please come up to the stage, and the guy dodders to the front of the auditorium, and climbs the steps, and the lecturer says, “Sir, this is really astonishing. I give these lectures all over the world, and this is the first time I’ve ever met anyone who’d actually had intercourse with a ghost.” The old man says, “What? Would you say that again, please?” And the lecturer yells, “THIS IS THE FIRST TIME I’VE EVER MET ANYONE WHO’S ACTUALLY HAD INTERCOURSE WITH A GHOST!” and the old guy says, “Oh, excuse me. I thought you said intercourse with a goat!”

And here’s another from my brother Bob:

If you had purchased $1,000 of Delta Airlines stock one year ago, you would have $49 left. With AIG, you would have less than $15 left. With Fannie Mae, you would have $2.50 left of the original $1,000. But if you had purchased $1,000 worth of beer one year ago, drunk all of it, then turned in the cans for the aluminum recycling refund, you would have $214 cash. Based on the above, the best current investment advice is to drink heavily and recycle. It’s called the 401-Keg. A recent study found the average American walks about 900 miles a year. Another study found Americans drink, on average, 22 gallons of alcohol a year. That means, on average, Americans get about 41 miles to the gallon.

Happy Christmas Eve eve, everyone.

Saturday, December 22

Killing Them Softly & The Guilt Trip

Killing Them Softly was . . . interesting. Very simple plot. The premise seemed to be that mob violence and mob business is just like any other business, turning on budgetary concerns about how much certain products cost. And Brad Pitt, although as easy to watch as ever, could hardly be said to be soft about his killing. Hardly. There was blood all over the place, up close and personal. The use of the camera was the most interesting thing about this film, allowing the viewer to share in the experience of a heroin high as one of the loopy thugs who had robbed a mob poker game of about $200,000 shot up and spiraled into a narcotic buzz, taking the viewer along with him. The language throughout was enough to burn these tired old ears, and the settings, like the aftermath of WW II blitz bombings, depressing enough to make us all thankful to be living anywhere but there. This was a most forgettable film. In fact, I’ve already forgotten it.

I’ve always admired Barbra Streisand’s voice, and I’ve loved her acting in any number of films, especially The Way We Were and Prince of Tides. Not so much so in those two bombs about the Fockers. But in Guilt Trip she was again on track. In fact, her performance as Andy’s mother was about as good as anything I’ve seen this year. Andy (Seth Rogen) is trying to promote his product, an eco-friendly all-purpose cleaner called Sci-O-Clean, unsuccessfully promoting it to various corporations around the country. His mother, Joyce, agrees to accompany him from New Jersey to San Francisco as he pitches his cleaner. Andy has asked her along because he wants to reunite her with an old boyfriend, a businessman in San Francisco named Andy Margolis, the man she’d named her son after. The comic scenes along the way are low-key but satisfying. In fact, the relationship between them, both mother and son as well as Rogen and Streisand, are the glue that holds the whole thing together. And, how satisfying to see a film without the usual slew of toilet humor and four-letter barrages. Thank you, Seth. Thank you Barbra.

My brother sent me this bit of Christmas cheer, a bit of holiday doggeral, and, even though some of you may have already seen it, I offer it to those who have not. Thanks, Bob.

My husband and I fought constantly.
Why I married him, I'll never know.
For all those miserable years I said,
"My husband's just got to go!"

I tried poisoning his cakes, stripping his bed
And salting his pork chops with lime,
Wiring his chair and igniting his hair
Even though arson's a crime!

But I failed at each plot
" 'Till I suddenly thought
Of a way that would set me free!
I got rid of him for good and, know what?
They couldn't do a thing to me!

I took him back to Wal-Mart!
They'll take anything back, you know.
They said they couldn't recall selling him,
But they must've if I said so.

They just credited him to my Visa and said,
"Ya'll come back now, ya hear?"
They were so nice, so polite, so pleasant and so,
I think I'll take back his mother next year!

They'll take anything back at Wal-Mart,
Though it's broken, rotten, or sweet.
You know what else? This time of year,
You don't even need a receipt!

Friday, December 21

Brenda's Cafe

I had a date with an ophthalmologist this morning, so we drove to Sun City to Brenda’s Café for breakfast. Brenda’s is a tiny place within a tiny shopping plaza on the edge of Youngtown, serving only breakfast and lunch and closed on Saturdays and Sundays. The place was jammed with old folks chowing down, six booths, eight tables, and a counter with six stools. And every booth and table was full. But two fat old people got us just as we arrived, and we took their booth. When I say “fat old people,” I’m not exaggerating. It seems like there’s an inordinate number of oldies who are nearly double the weight they should be. Both Rosalie and I are overweight, but we’re not even close to the ones who can barely hoist their fat butts out of a chair or booth. We watched one such make her ever so slow approach to the counter where she plunked herself down beside what looked like her daughter, who was sitting there like a mountain shoveling down eggs and bacon and home fries and toast and more bacon and more home fries. I would have thought she might have trouhle removing the stool from her fat butt when she finally got up. But she didn’t, and there was no loud pop as she rose from the stool. But aside from all the obese butts, Brenda’s is maybe the friendliest place I’ve ever encountered. All the waitresses (all seniors) and Brenda seemed to know all the customers, hollering at them as they left, “See ya Monday, Charlie (or Mabel or Sis or Hank)! Merry Christmas!” And everywhere you looked were small Christmas figures that sang and danced when you squeezed their hands or punched their bellies. All over the place, one or more in each booth or on each table, propped up in various shadow boxes, sitting on the backs of the booths. There was even a four-foot Santa outside the entrance that went “Ho, Ho, Ho!” when you got near him, and then sang a Santa-like version of “Jingle Bells” as he rocked up and down in time to the jingling bells. And after a fine breakfast of coffee, eggs, home fries, a bacon strip, a sausage patty, and a biscuit downed with honey, we paid our really modest bill and waddled out to the accompanying shouts of “Thanks for comin’ and have a Merry Christmas!” Yeah, maybe the friendliest place I’ve ever seen, and you bet, Brenda, you’ll see us again.

Then on to see Dr. Eva Marie Chong. After all the preliminary eye checks, it was determined that I shouldn’t have been using Viseine’s Redness Relief drops because they restricted blood vessels in the eyes and were exactly the wrong remedy for anyone with dry eyes. Okay. Then she told me I had cataracts in both eyes, causing the burning and blurred vision I was now experiencing. I could, she told me, either ignore it and live with it or I could have cataract surgery and intraocular lens implants in both eyes. I agreed to the surgery since Rosalie had had the same procedure done with no ill effects and considerably better vision. I’m beginning to feel like a bionic man—new teeth, new eyes. Now, if I could just figure out how to get an entire new body I’d be all set.

Wednesday, December 19

Annie

We saw Annie at the Arizona Broadway Theatre last night and, as usual, enjoyed it. I can’t get over how this small, local dinner theater continues to improve with every show. Annie isn’t one of my favorite musicals, with “Tomorrow” the only song I knew. But the singing and dancing were again stellar, especially that of the eight orphans. The dog that played Sandy was delightfully professional; the girl that played Annie (Morgan Goldberg) was good but not great, without much of a voice; Miss Hannigan (Johanna Carlisle) was very good as the drunken head of the orphanage; Daddy Warbucks (David Simmons) was good, although he looked more like a 50-gallon drum than a Thirties billionaire. His was the most barrel-like of anyone I’d call barrel-chested. But the best feature of the production was the set design, especially the one in the Warbuck’s home—a New York skyline outside the window, a carpeted staircase, and an eight-foot lighted Christmas tree. We’re so lucky to have such a good venue for musical theatre here in the West Valley. Too bad more of our Sun City West neighbors don’t take advantage of it. Next up is Hello, Dolly in January.

Tuesday, December 18

Guns Again

It’s time to talk about guns again. In light of the twenty children and six adults shot and killed in Newtown, Connecticut, it’s way past time to talk about guns again. I’m not opposed to the Second Amendment; I’m opposed to its application in a modern society. The Founding Fathers correctly protected the rights of individuals to own guns—rifles, shotguns, handguns—weapons they needed to hunt game for the family table, needed to fend off varmints both animal and human (sometimes one and the same) that threatened them and their families. This was a time when there was little police presence to protect them. And, the Founding Fathers thought it might again be necessary for a civilian army to rise up to battle invaders from Britain or Mexico or even Canada who threatened our borders. That was then. This is now. Why is it now necessary to protect the rights of individuals who want to own assault weapons with high capacity magazines, or even weapons more lethal than that—grenade launchers and mortars and bazookas, maybe even a tank or two? We now have armed police forces all around us to protect us from most varmints. We have military forces to guard our borders. We have National Guard units to protect us. We have militia groups (heaven help us!) to supposedly guard us from invaders within. Sportsmen and hunters and gun collectors don’t need fully-automatic or semi-automatic weapons that fire as many or more than thirty rounds in fifteen seconds. Jared Loughner fired 31 shots in about fifteen seconds in Tucson from his Glock 19. James Holmes in July of this year had a 100-round drum magazine in that Colorado theater, killing twelve and wounding fifty-eight. Why would Nancy Lanza, ardent gun collector, not have kept her “collection” more safely locked up, knowing she had a son with mental issues? Where is the sport in having such weapons? What hunter needs such weapons to bring down a deer or moose or elk or bear? Or even an elephant, for that matter? Why did we allow the 1994 law against high-capacity magazines to expire in 2004 and not renew it? Let’s keep the right to bear rifles and shotguns and handguns. Let’s renew a ban against high-capacity magazines. Let’s require background security checks for anyone wanting to buy such weapons. Let’s tighten controls over gun sales at gun shows. Good God, let’s stop the mass killings in our country.

Sunday, December 16

Great Acting

How could I have forgotten comedies and romantic comedies? It’s a Mad Mad Mad World has to be at the top of the comedies, and Pretty Woman at the top of the romantic comedies, followed by Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally. There, that’s done.

Now, what about actors and actresses? In the past, there were so many men and women who had pure star power, but they weren’t necessarily good actors. Look at this list of male stars—Paul Newman, Cary Grant, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, John Wayne, Clark Gable. Of this list of super stars, only Paul Newman stands out as a great actor. The best of American and British actors has to be Marlon Brando and Laurence Olivier with Orson Wells a close second to Brando. Modern screen stars are Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and Tom Cruise, but no one would say any of them is a great actor. So, after Brando and Olivier, the rest of the good ones, past and present, are Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Sidney Poitier, George C. Scott, and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The women stars of the past are Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Greta Garbo, Liz Taylor, Grace Kelly, Vivien Leigh, Marilyn Monroe, Catherine Hepburn, Betty Davis, and Joanne Woodward, with the last three the best actresses, Joanne Woodward the best of the best. Of the modern stars, the best are, in descending order, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman, Frances McDormand, and Charlize Theron. I’m sure I must have overlooked some great ones, but I can’t think of any. For example, Holly Hunter is a sleeper that most of us don’t think of because she’s been out of the spotlight for so long, but has she been very good in everything she’s been in.

I love movies and the people who star in them. What would I do in my old age if I didn’t have darkened theaters to go to, a place to watch beautiful men and women create other people and other places on the big screen?

Saturday, December 15

Best Movies


My consideration of the best Christmas songs led me to other bests, naturally best movies and books. I’m good with movies, having seen damn near every film ever made. Lots of critics think Citizen Kane is the best ever, but I have to confess I’ve never seen it, so I can’t really rank it. Others say Casablanca, and again I must confess I’ve never seen it. How can that be for a rabid film viewer to have never seen either of these films? I don’t know. Maybe I’d better Netflix them. Aside from those two, here’s my list for straight drama in descending order: On the Waterfront, Gone with the Wind, From Here to Eternity, The African Queen, Picnic, and The Graduate. You’ll notice that none of them are from the last thirty years. I know there have been some great movies in that period, but they’re still too close to me. Best musicals? An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain. That’s it, no more. Best horror—what else but Psycho, followed by The Innocents and The Uninvited. The many many horror flicks in the last thirty or forty years are based too much on buckets and buckets of gore. That much blood and too many masked villains leaping out of closets don’t make for great films, sometimes not even very good films. War movies—Saving Private Ryan, The Bridge over the River Kwai, The Great Escape, Schindler’s List, Mash, and Stalag 17. Again, All Quiet on the Western Front is always mentioned, but again, I’ve never seen it. Science fiction—2001, a Space Odyssey and Star Wars. What about a genre that’s almost forgotten, the western? Okay, Shane, Stagecoach, Red River, and The Searchers. You’ll notice I’m leaving out High Noon. That’s because when I saw it a year or so ago, I realized just how hokie it was, despite Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. Now I’m at the bottom of my categories, prison flicks. The best of these has to be The Shawshank Redemption, The Bird Man of Alcatraz, and The Green Mile.

I know I must have left out a bunch that I simply didn’t think of. Let me know if you think of any that should be included. Let me know if you agree or disagree with my assessment. And tomorrow I’ll move on to actors and actresses and books.

Friday, December 14

Christmas Songs

I’m listening to Christmas carols and songs. Or is that redundant? I think of carols as being about Christ and his birth, and Christmas songs as being about the season and Christmas and trees and getting together with loved ones. Anyway, that started me thinking about which of the carols and songs are the best, the greatest, and which great ones are best versions sung by best singers. First, let me get rid of all the really irritating seasonal songs—out goes Elvis’s “Blue Christmas,” ditto for Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad,” and so long Gene Autrey’s “Rudolph,” bye bye Burl Ives’s “Frosty,” and now we can forget those irritating little kids who want two front teeth and saw Mommy kissing Santa, and most obnoxious of all, Randy Brooks’ “Gramma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

Now, back to the best. I’d have to rank Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song” as the best and his the best version, although there are a bunch of others who have sung it well. “Jingle Bells” may be the most often sung, but it’s too much a jivey little thing to be considered a great song. And if you want to hear a really frenetic version of those bells, Barbra Streisand’s triple-tempo will grate on your nerves for the entire season. One of the least well known but best songs is by Faith Hill, “A Baby Changes Everything.” Then there’s the old Claude Thornhill band’s theme song, “Snowfall.” And the very best version of this one is by The Manhattan Transfer. So many of the songs we know and sometimes love have been sung by so many different artists, it’s hard to pick who’s the best. But here are some suggestions: “The Little Drummer Boy” by Faith Hill, “River” by either Dianne Reeves or Madeleine Peyroux, “I Wonder As I Wander” by Barbra Streisand, “Some Children See Him” by Kenny Loggins, “White Christmas” by--who else?--Bing Crosby, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas’ by Johnny Mathis, “The First Noel/Mary Mary” by Sarah McLachlan, and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” by Andy Williams. Nearly every singer worth his/her salt (and some not worth even two grains) have put out at least one Christmas album. So, which do I recommend? I go old school and pick Sinatra’s oldie, Andy Williams’ oldie, and Barbra Streisand’s not so oldie. Everybody’s got an opinion. Let me know what you think.

I’ve included a YouTube selection by a YouTuber, some of which I agree with, some I don’t. Again, what do you think?

Wednesday, December 12

Merry Christmas


I’m no Ebenezer Scrooge, but the older I get the more I think about Christmases past and present. They all seem to be shrinking, getting smaller and smaller, simpler and simpler, with less and less anxiety about money and what to buy for children who no longer need toys or clothing.

We used to put up lights around the ceilings of the living and dining rooms, over the fireplace. The trees were seven feet tall, and always were much prettier once we got them up and decorated than when we bought them. One year I brought home a blue spruce and Rosalie puffed up like a balloon. She had a severe allergic reaction to it and we had to undress it and haul it away, replaced by a northern pine. It was always such a pain to untangle the light strings, find that one damn burned out bulb that kept the rest of the bulbs unlit. Then the garland and tinsel and many colored-balls and school-made ornaments from one child or another, placing under the tree all the packages to one another and our children. Finally we could sit back and admire our accomplishment. But then Christmas passed and we had to reverse the process, dismantle the tree and rewrap the light strings and garland, put back in boxes all the balls and ornaments, haul the now tinder-dry tree to the street for pickup with needles shedding all over the house like cat dander. And every year the trees grew smaller.

We continued with live trees after we got to Arizona. And I strung lights outside along the front eaves, wrapping strings around the trunks of the two pineapple palms. That lasted only three or four years until we both decided that outside decorations were foolish and unnecessary.

After seven or eight years I got the bright idea to hang strings of lights from the ledge above our mirrored wall to the floor, sort of draping them in the shape of a tree, anchoring them to the floor with various heavy objects—the fireplace firepot from Donna and Larry, the brass cats I bought in North Carolina, a complete works of Shakespeare I used in college—then circling it all with garland, hanging the balls and ornaments, placing the fewer and fewer packages around the base. Turn out the house lights, turn on the strange tree. And there it was, a Christmas tree without needles. And the cats loved it. They would take turns getting inside the light strings to sit and watch us watching them. That lasted three or four years until I got tired of climbing the ladder to attach the strings of lights. Rosalie was sure in my dotage that one day I’d fall and break my neck.

Instead, we bought a small, artificial fiber-optic tree from Ace Hardware which we now have on a table in front of the mirrored wall, with several lighted Christmas houses at the base, two lighted balls outside, one hanging from the front door light, one hanging from the light near the garage door, and a fiber-optic snowman on the stereo. That’s it. Simple. We’re now at that stage in our lives where we have almost no presents under the tree. Rosalie and I need no more “stuff” in our lives, so we told the kids never to give us anything that wasn’t consumable—a box of candy or a bottle of Scotch or a gift card to Red Lobster. Presents to our kids are now money-filled envelopes. Simple. No more Black Fridays or Cyber Mondays, no more encounters with hectic crowds at the mall, no more wishing away the season only to get to a New Year, when the three hundred and fifty-nine days to the next Christmas will seem more like a hundred. I think we now need to put Christ back into Christmas. And so should most of the rest of the world.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Monday, December 10

Golf & Football

I got up to wind and cold, and on to the golf course for a 9:30 tee time. Oh, my, was it cold. I had four layers of clothes on and I was still cold. And I paid good money for a very bad round. I keep thinking I've sunk as low as I can get in terms of golf scores, but I keep sinking lower and lower. Or, in the way of golf scores, sinking higher and higher. That's rather paradoxical, but then, so is my game.

All of which reminds me of the Cardinals. They have taken ineptitude to a new level. They're no longer losing close games--they're losing by distant numbers. Fifty-eight to zip at Seattle yesterday. I'm embarrassed to say I'm a Cardinals fan. The only good thing that can come from this miserable season is for them to lose the rest of their games and get an early draft pick, a quarterback who can actually throw the ball to poor Larry Fitzgerald. But then they also have to find three or four offensive linemen to allow that quarterback some time to throw and to open up a few holes for a running back that they'd also have to draft. I'm not sure they'll have enough draft picks to find all the people they need. I wonder if they can draft a new coach while they're at it. Ah, well, as we used to say in high school after a bad season, "Just wait'll next year."

Sunday, December 9

Two Reviews: Pi & Hitch

We saw Life of Pi a week ago and were impressed, especially with the young man who played Pi Patel, who had to share a lifeboat with several creatures from his father’s zoo. We went to the non-3D version, but I would guess the 3D would have been more spectacular—animals leaping, fish flying, waves rolling. The plot is quite simple, with young Pi and his family and all the family zoo animals on a Japanese cargo ship bound for Canada, where Pi’s father intends to reopen his zoo. But in a violent storm, the ship capsizes and Pi finds himself in the water, then into a lifeboat, where he discovers his boatmate under the canvas at the rear of the boat, a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. They are later joined by a zebra, a hyena, and an orangutan, soon after to be provisions for Richard Parker. Pi (Suraj Sharma) takes refuge on a makeshift raft that he keeps tethered to the lifeboat. The 227 days he spent with the tiger are as much a spiritual journey as a lesson in survival. The two form a tenuous alliance for most of the journey. It was a strangely moving story, and young Sarma made us believe in the indomitable spirit of man as we make our difficult journeys through life. And I now believe that one day, movies will be made with digitized characters instead of real people. It was hard to tell when the animals were real and when they were digitized, especially the tiger. If they can fool us with animals, then why not with people?

Yesterday, we saw Hitchcock, both of us wondering what they could do with a story about the corpulent, head-cocked director of suspense films. We found out. It was 1960 and Hitch (Anthony Hopkins) was adamant about making a film focusing on Ed Gein, an infamous serial killer of the day. Almost no one, even his wife Alma (Helen Mirren), thinks this is a good idea. When Paramount refuses to make it for him, he decides to finance it on his own, risking his reputation and nearly all the money he has. The story seems to be lighter in tone than one would expect from a movie about the making of Psycho, maybe the best and best known horror film ever made. The story involves two strands, the making of Psycho and the many facets of Hitch’s character, his love of, his inattention to Alma, his predatory fascination with beautiful women, especially the women he chooses to star in his films. And Scarlet Johansson, as Janet Leigh, is especially fascinating.


One of the funniest moments comes at the first showing of Psycho, as Hitch anticipates the audience reaction to the shower scene, with its iconic shrieking violins. Hopkins had fun playing with his role as Hitchcock, but it was Helen Mirren who stole the show as Alma Reville. Welcome to the Bates Motel.

Wednesday, December 5

Happy Holidays & Weight Loss

My Florida friend Larry sent this to me, and if you haven’t yet seen it, see it now. It’s delightful. Well, even if you've seen it elsewhere, see it again. Thanks, Larry.

And here’s an exercise for you to try if you put on a few extra pounds over the holidays. It seems to work, at least it did for me.

EXERCISE FOR PEOPLE OVER 50
Begin by standing on a comfortable surface, where you have plenty of room at each side.
With a 5-lb potato bag in each hand, extend your arms straight out from your sides and hold them there as long as you can. Try to reach a full minute, and then relax.
Each day you'll find that you can hold this position for just a bit longer.
After a couple of weeks, move up to 10-lb potato bags.
Then try 50-lb potato bags and then eventually try to get to where you can lift a 100-lb potato bag in each hand and hold your arms straight for more than a full minute.
After you feel confident at that level, put a potato in each bag.

Tuesday, December 4

Car Troubles & Cell Phones

I just got home from a most unusual trip to Barnes and Noble. I should have known that the area would be mobbed. And it was. I went into B & N and found a copy of Golding’s Lord of the Flies to give to my grandson for Christmas. And when I went out to drive away, I didn’t drive away. The car seemed to be frozen and I couldn’t budge a thing, no key turn, no gear shift, no anything. At first I thought maybe I’d gotten in the wrong car. Nope, it was mine. Still no key turn. So I went in search of a public phone. I may be the last cell phone holdout in the country, but this made me realize how handy one would be. There seem to be no, NO, public phones anymore. For years I’ve railed against the almost universal explosion of the little buggers, cell phones, that is. Now I think I’ll buy two cheapies, one for in the car and one for home. I’ve never felt so helpless as I did today. I walked to Target and asked if I could use the phone at the customer service desk. They said yes. I tried to call KIA and got busy signals each time I tried it. I called Rosalie and told her my problem and that I’d call her again whenever I could contact KIA. After an hour of this, I tried one more time, and--hurray!--it finally turned and the car started and I drove home. Just as I was pulling in, I caught Rosalie as she and a friend were about to drive away to go to Target to find me. Someone up there must have been looking out for us, to have me catch her before she left. I wouldn’t have known where she’d gone and she wouldn’t have found me. We might have spent all day trying to find each other and trying to get the damn car started. Oh, yes, and my jaw dropped when I paid for my little paperback copy of Lord of the Flies—just under $12 with the tax. I hadn’t realized book prices had gone that high. I guess I’ll just have to buy a Kindle and buy e-books instead of hard copies from now on.

Monday, December 3

Football II

Yesterday I watched the worst football game I’ve ever seen. Even the word “inept” is too “ept” for what they were doing. How about “in-cubed-ept?” I’m talking about that fiasco between the New York Jets and the Arizona Cardinals. Man, was it awful. Both teams were awful, the jets just a little less so. The Cardinals defense has done all it could to win the first twelve games, and the offense has done everything it could to lose the last eight. Talk about an offense that’s really offensive, and I mean stinky or stenchy. And poor Larry Fitzgerald, one of the best if not the best wide receiver in the game, deserves better. He caught one pass in the first quarter and that was it. All other passes somewhere in his direction either skipped off the ground or were ten yards over his head. He’s beginning to look like a deer in the headlights whenever the camera picks him up coming off the field after another of the many failed third-down conversions. He deserves to be traded to a team with a quarterback that can throw the ball to him. Almost any other team and any other quarterback would be better than what he has here.

More on what to do to improve NFL and college football and to make the game less dangerous. Have you noticed how long it takes for officials to blow the whistle when the play is obviously over? Instead they allow that pack of defenders and offenders to shove each other around like they do in a rugby scrum . . . with the poor ball carrier somewhere in the middle of the mess, with defenders all ripping at his arms to get the ball loose. So, referees, blow the whistle sooner. My other suggestion is to eliminate tackling. Just play it as a two-handed touch football game—no tackles, no slams to the ground, no grabbing, no late hits—just touches.

Sunday, December 2

Football

I see the demise of football on all levels within the next twenty years, maybe even the next ten. Don’t get me wrong. I love football, as do millions of fans and players around the world. But the game has changed so dramatically in the last half century that no amount of equipment improvements and rules to protect players will do any good. When we’ve seen enough horrific injuries—players carted off the field on stretchers, broken backs and necks and legs and arms, spinal damage leading to partial or complete paralysis, concussions that either kill players on the spot or lead to their deaths by dementia at age fifty—parents and fans and players will all agree to give the game up, ban it forever.

Fifty years ago, the game was played at half the speed we see in games today. And I’m not talking about just the NFL. High school players are bigger and stronger and faster than they were half a century ago, partly because of weight programs that pump them up but also because every generation is bigger than the last. Nutrition, exercise, genetics, whatever—each generation is bigger and stronger and faster than the last. Many college teams are as good as or better than most of the NFL teams fifty years ago. Quarterbacks are almost all 6-3 or 6-4 and weigh 225 to 245. Offensive lines average 300 or more, defensive lines only slightly less but are faster than lightning. And the hits are much more severe. Remember in the old days? Whatever happened to the “quick kick” on third down, or the old “Statue of Liberty” play, or the quarterback who would leap in the air to throw a pass to be sure to get it over the defensive line, or the triple reverse? All of them required time that in today’s game just isn’t available. And the quarterback who would jump to make a throw would be cut in half today. Granted, equipment is much better today, especially the reinforced helmets with visors and facemasks. Granted, rules are being made to protect not only the quarterbacks but all players—no helmet to helmet hits, no blocks to the knees, no late hits after the whistle, no horse-collar tackles. But does a fifteen-yard penalty save a player’s life after the infraction? Or an NFL fine? No. I have one solution that might prolong the life of the game. At all levels, holding could now be called on virtually every play, but the officials can only see so much or go so far on that one. All right, why not allow holding? If a defensive player can’t free himself from a hold to get to the quarterback or running back, so be it. If a tight end or a wide receiver can’t separate himself from a defender to make the catch, so be it. That could make for an interesting game and could result in fewer injuries.

Saturday, December 1

ABT's Mural

Last Thursday evening we attended a dinner at the Arizona Broadway Theatre commemorating the unveiling of a giant mural in the lobby. It was a 14 x 84 foot depiction of Broadway in the 1930’s, including the New York skyscrapers, all the main theaters of the day, and 50 women and 50 men who were celebrities of that era from Broadway to the Silver Screen. What a classy affair.

We arrived at 5:30, were greeted at the door by a woman handing out nametags and giving us our assigned seats at one of the fifteen tables set up in the lobby. Near the front entrance was a 1931 tan and ivory Duessenberg sedan convertible that had to be worth several hundred thousand dollars, maybe more. Classy. Just inside the entrance was a jazz trio playing Broadway hits of the past. Classy. We went in and ordered cocktails at the bar and munched on hors d’oeuvres before sitting down at our table. The entire second floor lobby wall was shrouded in a cloth covering the mural, which only a few people besides the artist had ever seen. The meal was scheduled for 6:15 to be followed by presentations by one of the theater owners and the artist, explaining how the mural project came to be and how much time the actual painting required. We had more hors d’oeuvres—shrimp cocktail, tiny meatballs, coconut shrimp, spring rolls. We met our table companions, Larry and Jenny, Ken and Karen. We had another cocktail and conversed. Then we were served our salads, with ABT’s homebaked hard rolls and cornbread muffins. And then a meal that would rival any meal at any of the best restaurants in Scottsdale or Phoenix—salmon topped with sundried tomatoes and capers in a cream sauce, beef medallion in a red wine Bordelaise sauce, potato cake, and baby carrots and asparagus, that followed by a dessert of fruit tart and coffee. Whew! But a very classy meal.

After the opening presentation, we were served glasses of champagne, classy, for a toast to the artist, Penelope Klaphake, and then the mural was disclosed. Mrs. Klaphake told us that from start to finish, it took her nearly a decade to complete the mural--all the research of Broadway at that time, a preliminary smaller painting, and then the mural itself, one section at a time. We could only imagine what impression it would make on future audiences entering the lobby. We had a wonderful time at a wonderful venue for theater in the West Valley. Now we no longer have to spend an hour on the road to go to the Gammage Theatre in Mesa. All in all, it was a very classy evening.

Here’s what this season’s lineup of shows awaits us. We’ve already seen Oklahoma, but we have the rest to follow. I’m especially looking forward to Sondheim’s Into the Woods, what I consider one of the best musicals ever produced.


Here are a few closeups of some sections of the mural. Mrs.Klaphake explained that at forst she sketched NYC skyscrapers and Broadway theaters. The idea for adding 100 people—including the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter, Noel Coward and Gypsy Rose Lee--came later. I'm not sure who that is hanging out the window of Erlanger's, but I'm pretty sure the lady in the skimpy outfit is Gypsy Rose Lee. And the fellow at the piano is Duke Ellington. Mrs. Klaphake told us that the baby in the foreground is Carol Burnett, who wasn't born until 1933, but the artist felt that she just had to be included in the mural.
Any ideas as to who are the two ladies doing the high step? I'm guessing the one on the right is Carmen Miranda with all the fruit on her head. But what about the blond on the left?
There must be quite a story about the two ladies fighting in front of the car. I'd like to hear it. Mrs. Klaphake told us that she’s working on a book featuring a story about each person she painted, and information on the buildings too. She said it will take about three years to complete the book, which will also include images of the mural.

Anyone living anywhere in the Valley of the Sun who hasn't yet discovered this dinner theater doesn't know what he's missing. He's missing a very classy evening on the town.

Wednesday, November 28

Silver Linings Playbook

Anyone who reads my blogs knows I see a lot of movies, I mean, a LOT of movies. So what I’m about to say may, at first, seem extreme. In the past, my first favorite movie was An American in Paris, which I saw four times in a row, memorizing all the Gershwin and falling in love with Leslie Caron. Then my new favorite was On the Waterfront, and Brando was my favorite actor (but I didn’t fall in love with him). Then I bailed out for East of Eden, which I saw four times in a row, studying James Dean to see how he was able to mesmerize so many people, falling in love with Julie Harris, who mesmerized me. Then I saw (though it wasn’t really my favorite of all time) The Three Faces of Eve, in which Joanne Woodward wowed me with her acting, so much so that I saw it four times in a row to see how she did it. But I didn’t fall in love with her until later, in The Long, Hot Summer, but Paul Newman, old Blue Eyes, won her away from me. Then I skipped a bunch of years until Braveheart won my heart, despite its gore and because I loved Mel Gibson despite his being such a schmuck in real life. But now I have a new favorite movie of all time, beating out all that came before—Silver Linings Playbook. The entire cast was great, but especially great were Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, who both gave amazing performances as two psychologically broken people looking for Excelsior. Black humor in plays and novels and film is sardonically, ironically, blackly, Catch 22ishly funny. Silver Linings was darkly funny, painfully funny, and both Cooper, as the bipolar Pat, and Lawrence, as the despairing, morally loose Tiffany, make us laugh even as we experience their pain. I wept for them, I laughed at and with them. An amazing performance. And Robert DeNiro, as Pat’s OCD father, gave probably his best performance since Awakenings, or maybe even Raging Bull. I don’t know if they were all so great because they all just decided to be great or if it was because David O. Russell directed them to be. He was also pretty great as director of The Fighter. In any case, I’ve fallen in love again (I'm so fickle), this time with Jennifer Lawrence, she of the oddly beautiful face.

I have an added Christmas t-shirt saying thanks to my daughter Jeri: “Baroque—when you’re out of Monet.” And we all may be baroque and out of Monet when this Christmas is over.

Monday, November 26

Christmas Quotes & Bill Gates

A month or so before every Christmas, we get in the mail catalogues with all sorts of clever items just waiting to be ordered and then given as gifts to loved ones. Many of the items are t-shirts and plaques with clever sayings. I decided to steal some of them to share with you. I especially like the first one.

“Listen” and “Silent” have the same letters. Coincidence?

I dream of a society where a chicken can cross the road without its motive questioned.

To save time, let’s assume I know everything.

I don’t expect everything to be handed to me. Just set it down anywhere.

If it moves, it’s biology. If it stinks, it’s chemistry. If it doesn’t work, it’s physics.

There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.

“Let’s eat Grandma.” “Let’s eat, Grandma.” Commas save lives.

Grammar Police: to correct and to serve.

“Their,” “There,” They’re not the same.

Sarcasm is the mind’s natural defense against stupidity.

“Quondo omni, flunkus mortati” (“When all else fails, play dead.”)

“Irony,” the opposite of “wrinkly.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I don’t know when or where I got this, but it seems relevant today, as it must have seemed to Bill Gates, who gave a speech at a high school, about eleven things the students did not and will not learn in school. He talks about how feel-good, politically-correct teachings created a generation of kids with no concept of reality and how this concept set them up for failure in the real world.

Rule 1 – Life is not fair, get used to it.

Rule 2 – The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

Rule 3 – You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won’t be a vice-president with a car phone until you can earn both.

Rule 4 – If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.

Rule 5 – Flipping burgers is NOT beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping, they called it opportunity.

Rule 6 – If you mess up, it’s not your parents’ fault, so don’t whine about your mistakes, learn from them.

Rule 7 – Before you were born, your parents weren’t as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes, and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So, before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parents’ generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.

Rule 8 – Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they’ll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Rule 9 – Life is not divided into semesters. You don’t get summers off and very few employers are interest in helping you find yourself. Do that on your own time.

Rule 10 – Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Rule 11 – Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.

Thursday, November 22

Happy Thanksgiving

The verb “to quash” is too often today, by writers who should know better, mistaken for “to squash.” Although they’re related, the two verbs shouldn’t be interchangeable. “To quash” suggests doing away with a plan or course of action whereas “to squash” suggests a physical crushing or squeezing.

Funny how "Petraeus" sounds so much like “betray us.” Funny how so many men in positions of power can’t seem to keep it in their pants. Is a momentary dalliance really worth it? Are we all still so obsessed with carnal desire that we’re willing to destroy our lives and the lives of those who love us for that momentary physical pleasure? Maybe someday it won’t be so—no more pedophiles or rapists or prostitutes . . . or generals or politicians or coaches or priests who can’t seem to keep it in their pants. I’d like to squash them all, to quash their plans for that midnight rendezvous.

Here it is, Thanksgiving, and it seems to me we have much to be thankful for . . . besides the cornucopia of sports events that will crowd the tv programming, that is. We should be thankful for the ease of living we have today. Even the poorest of the poor have it better today than the poor of the past. We should be thankful for the bounty of our tables on this day and for nearly every other day of the year. We should be thankful for the easing of the terrorist threats here and around the world. Maybe I’ll live long enough to see the end of such silliness, see the beginning of world peace and prosperity for all the peoples of the world, see the hand of friendship extend across all national borders. I hope so. And I hope that any of you reading this have a wonderful day of giving thanks for all we have.

Wednesday, November 21

Dust Bowl & Lincoln

We’ve had two history lessons this week—Ken Burns’ four-hour PBS examination of the Dust Bowl decade and the recently released Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis not just portraying Abraham Lincoln but actually becoming him.

First, the Dust Bowl. I was a young lad in South Dakota throughout most of the 30’s, and I vaguely recall how hot and dry the summers were, how the dirt would whistle down the unpaved streets in winds that never seemed to end. But I don’t remember anything as horrible as the drought and dust storms that went on and on in Texas,, New Mexico, the Oklahoma panhandle, southeastern Colorado, and southwestern Kansas.
The mountainous clouds of dirt and dust and sand that billowed up and over those regions must have been horrible, making the air nearly impossible to breathe, darkening the days to a black that was blacker than any eclipse could cause. The years of drought, of failing crops, of dropping prices for those smaller and smaller crops must have been awful. Nature and poor farming practices were to blame for the conditions, with greedy farmers and corporate farms plowing under the sea of native buffalo grass that had for centuries held the soil in place, held the moisture in the ground until drought conditions passed. Yet many of those people, according to Burns’s story, held on and on to what little they had left. Until finally, many of them made their way west to what they considered the land of milk and honey, California, only to discover their mistreatment there was nearly as bad as what the drought and dust storms had done to them back home. They were products of the Great Depression, all labeled “Okies” even though many of them were from places other than Oklahoma, most of them looked down upon as tramps and paupers and given jobs in the California fields for paupers’ wages. I learned that although Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath won all the popular acclaim for dramatizing this era in our history, a woman named Sonora Babb had written a similar novel just ahead of Steinbeck, a novel that took 67 years to find publication—Whose Names Are Unknown. I think I may need to find this novel and read it, see if, in fact, Steinbeck didn’t steal this idea from someone who lived it instead of someone who only investigated it and then wrote about it, winning a fame that might have more rightly belonged to Sonora Babb.

Then there’s the story of Lincoln’s efforts to get the 13th Amendment passed at a time when the Civil War was nearly ended and the certainty that the amendment wouldn’t pass if the southern states, reinstated into the Union after the war, were allowed to vote on its passage. Interesting. Enlightening. I never knew about the chicanery he had to resort to for the needed twenty yes votes in the House of Representatives, the legal and not so legal bribes to congressmen to win their votes. I didn’t realize that Mary Todd Lincoln suffered from severe headaches, that she was considered by many to be mad. I didn’t fully realize how much he was loathed by those who opposed his efforts to emancipate the blacks, or how much he was loved by those who sided with him, admired him for what he had done to save our nation and make slavery illegal. Stephen Spielberg’s film is long, dark, filled with dialogue and essentially actionless, yet very important in making statements that reflect on our past as well as our present. Daniel Day-Lewis has a very good shot at winning another Oscar for best actor. Tommy Lee Jones, as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, despite his growing ugliness as a person but not as an actor, may also win for best supporting role. Go see it, if not for the acting, for the history lesson we could all use.

Sunday, November 18

Thanksgiving 2012

Only four days until Thanksgiving. And then we have Black Friday. And then, suddenly, it’s Christmas. And then, almost immediately, it’s 2013. Time is fleeting. This will be my eightieth Christmas. That’s a bunch of Christmases. And I’ve decided to forego Christmas cards this year and in the future. In this cyber season, hard copy greetings don’t make much sense. Besides, too many people just sign a card and send it. Who needs that? And too often those that include letters simply send twelve months of what the kids and grandkids did, trips they took, etc. Who needs that? I’m always amused by the corner the writer paints himself/herself into. The writer doesn’t want to use the first person “I,” so he/she refers to himself/herself as Sally, or John, or Fido, or Jocasta. And I still say we need to introduce a new pronoun to take the place of he/she, such as “hesh.” And for him/her, “himer.” And for the possessive his/hers, “heshes.” But enough of grammatical conundrums. The relativity of time is conundrum enough. Why is it that the 30-second commercial seems to last forever, and the story segment that follows seems to last only thirty seconds? ‘Tis a mystery. Why is it that these last ten years feel like only one or two? How in the world did we race into another holiday season when only yesterday it was the Fourth of July? ‘Tis a mystery. Why does the time we spend in a doctor’s office waiting for the doctor feel like an hour? Probably because it really IS an hour. But that’s a pet peeve of a different color. In case I don’t get to say this before next Thursday, HAPPY THANKSGIVING, EVERYONE!

Friday, November 16

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I’ve never before sat in a movie theater all by myself, watching a movie all by myself. It felt strange. But I sort of liked it, made me feel special. I went to see The Perks of Being a Wallflower, all by myself, ate popcorn all by myself, never once had to scowl darkly at an impolite cellphoner or growl at a nearby chatterer, laughed as loud as I wanted, wept with no fear of being noticed by a fellow moviegoer. I sort of liked it. Did I sort of like Perks? Yes, quite a bit more than sort of, yes, even though it was a story directed more at a young audience than an old. I guess I must still be young at heart because I didn’t feel at all discriminated against. I could identify with the themes of being an outsider yearning for acceptance, of feeling the pain of first love, of finding friends and loves and then losing them to the vagaries of time and life. Been there, done that. What I couldn’t identify with is the picture of life in a modern high school. It’s certainly different from the high school I attended or the high schools in which I taught. These kids seem so much wealthier and more sophisticated than I was, more advanced in their studies than I was, than any of my students were. Charlie is given books to read that I would never have given any of my freshman students—Walden, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, to name only a few. Charlie (Logan Lerman) is the freshman wallflower of the title. He’s very introverted, sensitive, intelligent, wants to be a writer someday, but he can’t seem to fit in anywhere in his new school. When Mr. Anderson, his freshman English teacher (Paul Rudd), tells him “If you make one friend on your first day you'll do good,” to which Charlie responds, “If my English teacher is the only friend I make today, that'll be sorta depressing.” His alienation continues until two seniors notice him holding up a wall at a school dance. Sam (Emma Watson) and her step-brother Patrick (Ezra Miller) coax him onto the floor to dance with them, then accept him into their group, their “island of misfits.” Naturally, he falls in love with Sam. Naturally, she’s dating a fellow senior. Sam asks him just before she leaves for college if he’s ever kissed a girl. He tells her no. She says, “I just want to make sure that the first person who kisses you loves you. Okay?” They kiss. A silent tear from me. The story plays out in a series of brief flashbacks that explain themselves only at the end of the movie. I would recommend Perks to any and all wallflowers out there. And I pity all those who chose not to join me today, I being the only wallflower in attendance.

Thursday, November 15

Skyfall & Pickles

I’ve been an Ian Fleming fan for years, having found him in the seventies, after most of the 007’s had been written and quite a few of the early films already come and gone. I found all the books in the series and ate them up like popcorn. I hadn’t seen most of the Bond films in recent years, but I thought I’d give Skyfall, this latest one, a try, especially since it got such great reviews. After two hours and twenty-three minutes, I don’t think I quite agree with those great reviews. It was good, not great. But the cinematography was excellent. Shanghai at night looked like a futuristic fairyland, and Bond’s old family castle, Skyfall, out in the Scottish boonies was starkly beautiful. The action was as violent and exciting as ever and the cast were all good, especially Judi Dench as M and Javier Bardem as the oh so blond, oh so vile Silva and, of course, Daniel Craig as the aging agent 007. This was no country for old agents, and 007 was weary and felt outdated, just as M and the entire agency was outdated. But someone had stolen a computer that held the entire list of agents in deep cover within terrorist organizations around the world. Thus the reason for Bond and his young fellow agent Eve chasing the thief through the streets of Istanbul. It seems that auto and motorcycle chases through Istanbul are a required ingredient for many current action films. And this one was almost a carbon copy of Liam’s Neeson’s pursuit in Taken 2 and Jeremy Renner’s Manila chase in The Bourne Legacy, lots of smashed autos and flying fruit and who knows how many people killed in collateral damage. I’m willing to follow Coleridge’s dictum of willingly suspending my disbelief, but Skyfall asks me to hang from a suspension bridge as high as the one Bond falls from into the river below. No one, not even James Bond, could have survived such a fall. But he did, and only a little worse for wear. There were also too many questions left unanswered, too many details that, although maybe not nonsense, didn’t make a lot of sense. Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), head of the Foreign Intelligence wing, would cast out the old relics in the agency, especially M, in favor of the new, younger people like Q (Ben Whishaw), Bond’s new quartermaster, who tells him they no longer use all those high-tech gadgets from the past. Now it’s all cyberspace and computer wizardry. And Bond, although not what he once was, seems fated to return for another fifty years.

Here's some more cat truth from Pickles:



Monday, November 12

Starlings

We have a starling that sits on our eastern neighbor’s antennae every evening just before sundown, cooing and gurgling as only happy starlings can do. He or she seems so overjoyed to see another day end with no calamities, sort of like me in my November days. Starlings are such funny little creatures, ugly yet beautiful, awkward little bodies, short tails, sharp little yellow beaks. But oh how they can coo and gurgle and chirp. I remember our little starling family back in New York, living in a hole in our garage roof. Living there whenever they could take occupancy ahead of the squirrel that also wanted to call it home. Every spring, they’d return to clean it out before having their little starling babies. The female would sit in a nearby pine and simply sing her heart out before laying the eggs and then sitting on them until the little gluttons appeared. Then she and her husband would spend all day going back and forth catching bugs and worms to give to the tiny heads sticking out from the hole. And then, one day in late spring, they would all be gone, the parents off to wherever starlings went after the child rearing was over, the children off to raise their own families. We never saw them leave. Maybe they made their exits in the dead of night. Maybe the squirrel finally shooed them away. Or maybe they all joined the others in their amazing starling flights when thousand of them would all get together to perform for groundlings. If you’ve ever seen this amazing sight, you know what I mean by a performance—thousand of starlings cascading back and forth, in intricate sheets of flight, like smoke billowing and swerving and twirling. Better than talking about it, why not just look at it in this video on YouTube.

Sunday, November 11

Hugs & Cloud Atlas

Hugging is therapeutic. I don’t mean the kind where two people bend at the waist and pat each other on the shoulder. I mean full body hugging. More therapeutic than a kiss, especially the kiss on the cheek or forehead. Most men don’t feel comfortable hugging another man, but I do. The hug is comforting, saying by the act how sorry we are at the bad news the other has just received. Or how much the hugger loves the huggee. The world would be a much better place if we all gave each other a hug occasionally, or better yet, a hug often. So, dear reader, please assume that I just gave you an internet hug. There, don’t you feel better?

I went to see Cloud Atlas yesterday and was very impressed . . . and very confused. Almost three hours of Cloud Atlas. And I left the theater after nearly three hours just as confused as I was at the beginning. I felt like I’d just seen six separate stories all glued together in bits and pieces. The film tells us that everyone is connected in time and space. The Korean clone Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), when her interrogator asks her if she is afraid of death, explains that death is just a door. When the door shuts, another door opens, and we move through time as though through the chambers in a nautilus, back and forth from one chamber to another, all connected. The six main characters and their stories overlap as their lives play out, with each of them assuming different roles in different times. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and Doona Bae all play up to six different but related characters spanning times from 1849 to 2346 and a postapocalyptic primitive society (Hanks as a nervous goatherder) and visitors from a distant planet (Berry as emissary). It’s sort of fun guessing which actor is playing which character. The critics are all over the map in their assessments of this movie, either hating it or loving it, very few taking the middle ground. New Yorker movie critic Richard Brody called it “synchronized banality.” Roger Ebert thought it was so good he saw it twice and was looking forward to seeing it a third time. He says, “But, oh, what a film this is! And what a demonstration of the magical, dreamlike qualities of the cinema. And what an opportunity for the actors. And what a leap by the directors, who free themselves from the chains of narrative continuity.” I guess I’ll go along with Roger and see it again, and maybe even again. Maybe I won’t be so confused after the third time.

Saturday, November 10

Book Sale

I noticed as I drove by the Johnson rec center this morning that they were having a giant book sale. Naturally, I had to go in, just to see what was there, paperbacks for two bits, hard-bounds for a buck. This is just after I spent a week trying to get rid of my own books, giving a third of them away and then sending the other two-thirds to a charitable organization. And there I was, browsing through the many tables filled with books, people everywhere, silently browsing through the books. So I browsed along with them, examining titles and authors, thin books, fat books, old books, new books, touching books spines, then pulling my hands back as though from an electrical shock. Here a Koontz I’d never read, there a King I’d never read, here a Grisham, there a Grisham, everywhere a Grisham Grisham. I still have about a hundred books at my house I’ve never read, and there I was, considering books to bring home to join the hundred. How stupid. Finally, after any number of electrical shocks, I left, bookless. Other bibliophiles will understand this odd compulsion of mine, the need for books, the need to have books available around me even though I may never get around to reading them. Non-booklovers won’t have a clue as they compulsively text friends and acquaintances, fingers and thumbs flying like caged canaries, eyes down, mesmerized by their tiny devices, oblivious to the world around them, the people around them, the people hidden in the many books on those many tables. Hmm, now that I see my words, I realize how anyone lost in a book is just like that cellphonaphile. Oblivion can come through reading as easily as through texting. But I'd never trade my books for a cell phone.

Wednesday, November 7

Oklahoma & Obama

Arizona Broadway Theatre’s production of Oklahoma didn’t disappoint. The voices were all great (except possibly for Jennifer Molly Bell’s Laurey, whose voice was a bit too shrill for such a small venue). The sets were interesting, the costuming excellent as usual, the choreography better than one would expect of a small local theatrical group. And, best of all, nearly all the songs were familiar to most of us—“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey With the Fringe on the Top,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” and the huge closing “Oklahoma.” But even the less well known were familiar to me, since I had played the original score over and over again in my youth. I remember from the movie version in 1955 Gordon McRae and Shirley Jones as Curly and Laurey, Gloria Grahame as Ado Annie, and the nasty Rod Steiger as Jud Fry. And best of all? We didn’t have to listen to all the political garbage concerning the elections.

Speaking of which, at last it’s over and President Barack Obama can now get back to attempting to pull us out of the financial hole we’re in. He won’t be able to do it in his final four years, but if we exhibit patience, he’ll get us started on the road to recovery. And Obamacare is here to stay, causing needless heartache in all the conservative Republicans who keep telling us it will drive us to rack and ruin instead of national health. If it does what it’s set out to do—bring down ridiculous hospital, doctor, and pharmaceutical costs, allow medical help to all—it will be well worth it. All right, folks, just sit back and watch the value of the dollar go up, unemployment go down, the reputation of the U.S. as a world leader go up, heinous acts of terrorism go down . . . and down. We won’t achieve peace throughout the world in my lifetime, but it looks possible somewhere down the road.

Tuesday, November 6

Flight & Elections

I remember Ray Milland on his Lost Weekend binge. I remember Frank Sinatra as the Man with the Golden Arm. And I will always remember Denzel Washington, the drunken coke shooter, as he fled from himself in Flight. What an amazing performance. I think tour de force applies here. Although it’s not a one-man show—John Goodman plays the cocaine supplier for Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) and plays him very well, Kelly Reilly plays the addict Whip meets in the hospital and later brings to his farm to live with him, and Don Cheadle plays the lawyer who defends Whip, even though he doesn’t much care for Whip and his addictions—it may as well be. Washington brings it all to this role and his audience is fascinated to watch him create this cocky, arrogant, deceitful alcoholic airline pilot who manages to save most of his passengers when the plane he’s flying goes into a dive. This scene, the flight and subsequent crash landing, takes place early in the movie. But it’s easily the most realistic and frightening plane crash ever filmed. The rest of the movie shows us Whip, the bad alcoholic as well as the good person he might be. If alcoholism is both genetic as well as environmental, we see it in the apparently recently dead father who not only taught Whip how to fly but also how to drink. We never get to see exactly how Whip became what he is, now middle-aged and divorced from a wife who could no longer take his drinking, estranged from a son who hates him for what Whip has done to his mother. Yes, tour de force is appropriate. And I’d be very surprised if he isn’t nominated for best actor, surprised again if he doesn’t win it.

I think we all must echo the very loud YYYESSS! In today’s B.C. The winning or losing is no longer an issue. We’ll know the results soon enough. But oh my are we all happy to see it nearly over.
And the disappointing enlightenment expressed in Non Sequitur says exactly what I think about the Electoral College. It’s an archaic system that should be shit-canned.

Saturday, November 3

House & Electoral College

Another step in the process, straightening out the mess in the garage. Had to put into kitty litter containers all the books by authors I wanted to keep. Had to put away all the extra golf clubs. Had to sweep and sweep and sweep. Finally, it looks like a garage again. I don’t know what else I’ll have to do to finish this putting-my-house-in-order. It seems like it’s now pretty orderly. Maybe in another three or four years I’ll feel obligated to get rid of more stuff. Amazing how we all spend our entire lives accumulating stuff, only to try to get rid of it as we get old. And, oh my, does my back ever tell me I’m old.

Finally, only three more days before the vote is in and counted. Finally. I hate what the newspeople keep saying, that the winner will be decided by Ohio. What in the world does my vote and the votes of all the people in the other forty-nine states mean? Apparently nothing. But if I lived in Cleveland or Cincinnati, I’d feel proud as a peacock that I and my other Ohioans would decide who our next president would be. Two things that need changing in the future—get rid of the Electoral College in favor of the popular vote, and put a limit on what presidential candidates can spend on their campaigns. I think it’s stupid that the one who has the most money to spend can virtually BUY an election. Come on, Tuesday.

Wednesday, October 31

Halloween & Orderly House

Halloween, 2012. Good riddance. And in six days, the election of one or the other. And then, good riddance to the election and the negative campaign ads. I no longer care which one wins, but I’m still guessing that Barack Obama will be serving another four years. I hope those four years are better than the last four. We’ll see.

And what have I been doing this past week? Rearranging my back room where I have my computer. I carted away all the books I no longer wanted, took out one of the tall bookcases I was using as a wall to hide my workplace, unhooked all the stuff I have attached to my computer and removed the hardware so I could pull out my cumbersome desk, took the desk apart and hauled its remains to the garage, spent a painful four hours putting together a new desk, much smaller than the old, moved all my books out to the edge of my driveway and stacked them onto tables for the drive-by public to see and respond to a FREE BOOKS sign. I left the books out there for three days and got rid of about a third of them. Then I called Benevilla, a senior help center that was having a book sale, and offered them my leftovers. They came and took away all of them, some three or four hundred books. Good riddance. Now I have a back room that actually looks like a room again. And I’m body-weary from all the unaccustomed labor. But I’m mentally happy with the change. Just another step in the process of putting my life in order, simplifying my life. Henry David Thoreau would be proud of me.



Monday, October 29

Ed McBain's Widows

I know some of my readers must get bored whenever I talk about a writer’s style, but the old teacher in me just can’t resist. What follows is a long segment from Ed McBain’s (rest his soul) Widows, a very good episode in the 87th Precinct series.

Gloria Sanders was covered with blood.

This was ten o’clock on the morning of July twenty-fifth in the nurses’ lounge at Farley General Hospital, down on Meriden Street. Her white uniform was covered with blood, and there were also flecks of blood in her blonde hair and on her face. They’d had a severe bleeder in the Emergency Room not ten minutes earlier, and Gloria had been part of the team of nurses who, working with the resident, had tried to stanch the flow of blood. There’d been blood all over the table, bed, blood on the walls, blood everywhere, she had never seen anyone spurting so much blood in her life.

“A stabbing victim,” she told Carella and Brown. “He came in with a patch over the wound. The minute we peeled it off, he began gushing.”

She was dying for a cigarette now, she told them, but smoking was against hospital rules, even though the people who made the rule had never worked in an emergency room or seen a gusher like the one they’d had this morning. Or the kid yesterday, who’d fallen under a subway car and had both his legs severed just above the knee. A miracle either of them was still alive. And they would let her smoke a goddamn cigarette.

Arthur Schumacher’s taste for blue-eyed blondes seemed to go back a long way. His former wife’s eyes were the color of cobalt, her hair an extravagant yellow that blatantly advertised its origins in a bottle. Slender and some five feet six or seven inches tall, Gloria strongly resembled the one daughter they’d already met, but there was a harder edge to her. She’d been around a while, her face said, her body said, her entire stance said. Life had done worse things to her than being bled on by a stabbing victim, her eyes said.

“So what can I do for you?” she asked, and the words sounded confrontational and openly challenging. I’ve seen it all and done it all, so watch out boys. I’d as soon kick you in the groin as look at you. Blue eyes studying them warily. Blonde hair bright as brass, clipped short and neat around her head, give her a stern forbidding look. This was not the honey-blonde hair her daughter Lois had; if this woman were approaching you at night, you’d see her a block away. She reminded Carella of burned-out prison matrons he had known. So what can I do for you?

I wish I’d written that.

Note the effect of the first lone sentence to start the chapter.

Note the structure and punctuation of “There’d been blood all over the table, bed, blood on the walls, blood everywhere, she had never seen anyone spurting so much blood in her life.”(the movement from table to bed, then repeating “blood” to introduce the next two phrases; the use of a comma to hook the next sentence in instead of a semicolon or a period)

Note the author movement to interior omniscient in the paragraph beginning “She was dying for a cigarette . . .” (not using quotation marks for what she told them, the way he makes it sound like what she would be saying to herself even though he keeps it in the 3rd person) Note also the two fragments written as sentences (they’re both noun clusters)

Note the use of “blonde” as an organizing device (blood in her blonde hair, blue-eyed blondes, then a description of it as “blatantly from a bottle, blonde hair bright as brass, not the honey-blonde of her daughter,” then the image of her hair like a beacon in the night)

Note the cadence of “She'd been around a while, her face said, her body said, her entire stance said. Life had done worse things to her than being bled on by a stabbing victim, her eyes said.” (the position and repeating of “face said,” “body said,” stance said,” and then the clever echo of it in the next sentence, “her eyes said”)

Note the opening and closing of the final paragraph (the first question actually spoken and in quote marks, the final question only Carella’s mental repeating of it to illustrate the sound of her challenge)

Note the way he uses suppositional dialogue to get at the character of Gloria—her question in the last paragraph suggests that she might have said to them, “I’ve seen it all and done it all, so watch out, boys. I’d as soon . . .”

I hope I haven’t bored any readers. But this is a very instructive passage, and oh so very well said. McBain (Evan Hunter) may have started out as a writer of pulp fiction in the early books in the 87th Precinct series, but about a third of the way through he began writing much more carefully constructed stories. If you tackle the series, you’ll see what I mean.

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