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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 is 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, you can find an archive list at the bottom of this page.

Friday, October 30

Happy Halloween

It's hard to believe how popular Halloween has become in this country. Of all the days of the year, I always most disliked October 31. I think it had something to do with my fear of a house-egging by some of my students. No eggings ever occurred, but I still dislike this day then and now. So here I am in my old age, curmudgeonly descrying a day that kids all love . . . for the wrong reasons. "Candy,candy,candy!" they cry. I thought it would be appropriate for me to put my Halloweenish tale here. Some people (probably arachnophobes) think it's scary. I think it's hilarious. What do you think?

THE HOWLING

"Oh, oh, oh! Ohhh!” my wife moaned, the oh’s rising in pitch and volume. She came bursting out of the bathroom to stand in front of me in our bedroom, her hands making little fluttering motions in front of her face, terror in her eyes. She’d been about to brush her teeth before coming to bed, and she still had the brush clutched in her right hand.
“What? What?” I asked, thinking maybe she’d stepped on the scale and been horrified by the numbers.
“There’s a HUGE spider in there! Oooo!” she said with a shudder that started at her hunched shoulders and ended in a flutter of cheeks. “I just hate spiders!”
My wife’s no coward. She’s lived long enough to know that practically nothing we fear as children ever really comes to pass or is nearly as life-threatening as we’d imagined in that child’s world when we had to look up at everyone and everything. But spiders were horrors of a different color. Logic and reason didn’t stand a chance.
Here we go again, I thought. The old “Get the Tissue and Squish the Big Bad Spider” routine. Probably a daddy-longlegs and Miss Muffet’s spazzing out. Big deal.
I went in the bathroom and followed her quavery directions from where she stood just outside the door. “He’s right up in the corner by the medicine chest,” she said. I looked up in the corner by the medicine chest. There he was all right. Just sitting up there in the corner by the medicine chest. Just staring back at me, all six or eight or however many eyes spiders have just staring back at me. No daddy-longlegs, not this fella.
Okay, I thought. Guess I’ll go get a paper towel or two. Go out to the kitchen and get some paper towels. Tissue won’t do. No Siree, this was going to take something a little tougher. So I went to the kitchen, my legs feeling strangely like rubber, my wife right on my heels. I pulled one, two, . . . three paper towels off the roll and then went slowly back to the bathroom, my wife hanging back a bit. Odd how fast my heart was thumping. I peeked around the door casing and looked up in the corner. No spider. Where’d he go? I couldn’t have just imagined him, could I? No, not if both of us saw him. Besides, he was too big to imagine.
You have to understand, he wasn’t easy to overlook. When my wife said a huge spider, she wasn’t kidding. This sucker was big. I mean BIG, reaaaly BIG. When I first saw him up in the corner by the cabinet, me staring at him, him staring back at me, I felt that lump in my throat, the one writers are always writing about but which I’d never experienced firsthand and never really believed. The writers were quite accurate. It did feel like a lump as my throat constricted.
He was brown. His body was a figure-eight about as long as half my little finger. He must have had some kind of markings along the body, but I was too numb to notice. His legs were long, but not the little threadlike stilts of a daddy-longlegs. Oh no, these were the legs of a spider iron-pumper or NFL linebacker--heavy, thick legs like thorns. And my mind sort of glazed over as we stared at each other.
“Well, I don’t see him now,” I said somewhat uneasily. “We’ll just have to keep our eyes open.”
I coaxed my wife toward the bathroom pushing her gently in the back.
“I don’t really need to brush my teeth,” she whined.
“Oh come on now. Brush your teeth. He’s gone.”
I returned to the bedroom and she went slowly in the bathroom, her eyes, I’m quite sure, wide open.
About ten seconds later, “Oooooooh!” she moaned in a rising quaver. “He’s here!”
I went around her as she was backing out of the bathroom pointing at the medicine chest. “He’s . . . he’s in . . . in between the . . . the . . . the . . .” (She couldn’t seem to get enough air) “the wall and the cabinet,” she finished in a rush.
I leaned forward from the waist and looked along the wall and into the crack between the wall and the medicine chest. Brown legs hooked around the edge of the cabinet near the middle hinge. Big brown legs. Hmmm, I thought. Tissues were always out of the question. And paper towels no longer seem up to the task. Maybe a gunnysack . . . or a whip and a chair.
“Don’t we have some insecticide under the kitchen sink?” my wife asked from outside the door.
“Yes, I think so. That sounds good. Uh huh.” I went quickly to the kitchen, my wife a tight shadow behind me. I rummaged around among the furniture polish and half-empty bottles of ammonia cleaner until I found the can. It felt uncomfortably light, but I shook it and it sounded like there was enough for the task. We returned to the bathroom armed for battle. My wife didn’t come in with me.
Uh huh, good, I thought. Legs still there. I directed the nozzle at them and pressed the button. No spray, just a thin line of insecticide that splashed weakly along the wall and cabinet near the legs.
Legs vanish. Almost immediately the spider is above the cabinet and pressed in the corner where walls join ceiling. Some part of my mind uneasily registers the fact that he appeared above the cabinet in Olympic time--the Usain Bolt of spiderdom. I direct the thread of insecticide at him and immediately he’s over the mirror above the counter. I shoot again. He drops to the counter.
Ah hah! I gloat to myself. He’s groggy! Oops! Wrong! Both thoughts almost simultaneous. With no perceptible pause (and certainly no grogginess), he zips to the counter edge, plummets to the floor near my feet, and before my foot can even begin to react with a stamp he zooms to the heat vent in the corner and disappears therein. I bend and direct the stream of insecticide generously into the vent and hear the scrabbling of his legs on the metal duct as he speeds away. Then nothing.
I crouched there, breathing like a sprinter, the skin tight across my cheeks, my mind casting back over what I’d just seen. I was stunned, amazed at the speed he’d demonstrated, appalled by what gave every appearance of animal cunning, a malevolence that seemed almost human. He knew exactly where he was going from the moment he dropped to the counter and then to the floor, and he got there in a flash.
I flipped the lever on the vent, and the metal louvers snapped satisfyingly shut.
“Did you get him?” my wife asked from somewhere outside the door.
“Well . . . not exactly.”
“What does that mean, ‘not exactly?’ You either got him or you didn’t. Which is it? Which?” I could hear a rising panic in that last "which," a kind of unreasoning anger at my spider incompetence.
“Uh,” I began, trying to be casual. “Uh . . . he went down the vent in the floor.”
Silence from the hall. A five second pause. “You didn’t get him,” she said flatly. Another pause. “Well, did he act like he was dying, or sick, or, or slow . . . when he went down the vent?”
“Noooo, I’d say he was going pretty fast when I last saw him, heard him.”
Silence again. I could imagine her out there thinking about what I’d just told her. And I, along with her, explored the possibilities. I followed in my mind the vent pipe as it went down from the bathroom floor and then bent to run along the basement ceiling toward the furnace, two other pipes right-angling off, one to the kitchen, one to the dining room, the furnace itself having a number of other main arteries running to other rooms. Our early fall weather hadn’t yet required the furnace, so heat wouldn’t impede him.
“Don’t you think you should--”
“Oh boy, yes!” I said, cutting her off. I left the bathroom and made a hurried trip through the house shutting all the vents, my wife right on my heels.
But the burning question: Had I shut them all before he’d exited somewhere? He was fast, oh my, was he ever fast.
Nahh, I thought without much conviction. He has to be either dead, dying, or one very sick spider. Doesn’t he? Yeah, certainly, I said to myself, not at all certain.
The next day I went to the library to try to discover what sort of beast we had lurking in our heating system. I mean, one of the most important elements of warfare is to know the enemy. And this was, as far as I was concerned, war.
I learned: that most spiders are web spinners, or at least use their silk mainly to capture prey; that all spiders are venomous, but in the temperate zones not to a degree dangerous to man with the exception of the small brown violin spider and the black widow, and even these two cause death in less than 5% of the people bitten (Why did I find 5% not a very reassuring statistic?); that spiders are not insects at all but of the order Arachnida, another member of which is the scorpion (Why was I not reassured by the fact that I sprayed insecticide on a non-insect?); that there is a small group of spiders, the genus Lycosa (Greek for “wolf”), called hunters, which rely on speed to capture prey, the best known member of which is the tarantula (Why was I not reassured by the fact that a possible cousin of my foe was a tarantula?); that the picture of one such hunter, looking remarkably like our tenant, was called a Brazilian wolf spider.
At that point my mind froze with all the implications: Brazilian? Not a creature of temperate zones then, and therefore potentially hazardous to my and my wife’s health. How did he get here? On a banana boat? And nowhere in the literature did it ever say that hunters and wolf spiders live anywhere but outside in nature. So why did this one choose to live in a house, especially my house? And what if he’s not dead? And in only a short while the weather could change and the temperature drop, and we’ll have to turn on our furnace and open the vents . . . or freeze to death . . . or move.
And what if the insecticide not only didn’t kill him or make him sick, but only made him angry? And what if, as I was staring at him, he was staring at me and etching my features in his lupine mind? And what if a Brazilian wolf spider has the memory of an elephant?
And what if he’s not a he, but a she, and she’s going to have babies? Hundreds of babies. And she raises them all with a vengeance?
I have to learn more, find a bigger book, one that’s all about wolf spiders. Because every night now, all night long, I hear her howling in my dreams, howling in my heart, howling in my heat vents . . . and it’s nearing the end of October.

Wednesday, October 28

West Side Story at ABT

Anyone who’s been a sports fan for the last thirty or forty years knows how most of the games have developed, evolved. This is especially true of basketball and football, not so much of baseball. Newer, better equipment accounts for some of that change, but most of it is simply that athletes are now better, bigger, faster than ever before. The same might be true of musical theater. Not that those on stage are bigger or faster, but they certainly seem to be better—better singers, better dancers. We just saw the Arizona Broadway Theatre’s production of West Side Story which admirably demonstrated the truth of what I just said. West Side Story first appeared on Broadway in 1957, fifty-eight years ago, with Carol Lawrence as Maria, Larry Kert as Tony, and Chita Rivera as Anita. From what I remember of both the Broadway version as well as the movie that came out in 1961, ABT’s version was better on almost all counts. The voices of the three principals were better than the voices of the originals, especially when you consider that Natalie Wood, who played Maria in the film, was voice-dubbed by Marni Nixon for all her songs. Eat your heart out, Chita Rivers; Melissa Rapelje was better as Anita—in voice, in dance, in looks. Larry Kert may have been a good Tony in 1957, but Jesse Michels was better vocally with a pure, powerful tenor that soared on “Maria.” And Brittany Santos as Maria came out about even with Carol Lawrence in voice and looks. I keep banging a bass drum for this local dinner theatre here in the Valley, about how it’s gotten better and better with each season, with each production, with each performance. Well, here I go again. Every theatrical aspect of their West Side Story was superlative. The lighting and set design was original and effective, with a surprising trio of drugstore stools in one set. Where in the world did they find these dinosaurs? Thank you, Jim Hunter, for your theatrical imagination. Thank you, James May, musical director of that wondrous 8-piece pit band that somehow managed to get through the complex Leonard Bernstein score without a hitch. And thank you, Kurtis Overby, for giving us a delightfully difficult balletic choreography for this show. I can’t believe that any dance company anywhere in the country could have done it better. I also believe that Leonard Bernstein, God rest his soul, and Stephen Sondheim would both agree that this production did them proud. There, enough drum banging. Now I can’t wait to see ABT’s Carousel in January. Sorry, Jan Clayton (on stage) and Shirley Jones (in film), sorry, John Rait (on stage) and Gordon MacRae (in film), they’ll probably find a better Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow for the ABT production.

Tuesday, October 27

Dog & Cat Diaries

I wasn't able to find out who authored this comic look at dogs and cats. So, whoever you are, thank you. My three boys would not be pleased with it, but then they don't have very good senses of humor.

Excerpts from a Dog’s Diary . . .

8:00 am – Dog food! My favorite thing!
9:30 am – A car ride! My favorite thing!
9:40 am – A walk in the park! My favorite thing!
10:30 am – Got rubbed and petted! My favorite thing!
12:00 pm – Lunch! My favorite thing!
1:00 pm – Played in the yard! My favorite thing!
3:00 pm – Wagged my tail! My favorite thing!
5:00 pm – Milk bones! My favorite thing!
7:00 pm – Got to play ball! My favorite thing!
8:00 pm – Wow! Watched TV with the people! My favorite thing!
11:00 pm – Sleeping on the bed! My favorite thing!

Excerpts from a Cat’s Diary?

Day 983 of my captivity. My captors continue to taunt me with bizarre little dangling objects.

They dine lavishly on fresh meat, while the other inmates and I are fed hash or some sort of dry nuggets. Although I make my contempt for the rations perfectly clear, I nevertheless must eat something in order to keep up my strength.

The only thing that keeps me going is my dream of escape. In an attempt to disgust them, I once again vomit on the carpet.

Today I decapitated a mouse and dropped its headless body at their feet. I had hoped this would strike fear into their hearts, since it clearly demonstrates what I am capable of. However, they merely made condescending comments about what a good little hunter I am. Bastards.

There was some sort of assembly of their accomplices tonight. I was placed in solitary confinement for the duration of the event. However I could hear the noises and smell the food. I overheard that my confinement was due to the power of “allergies.” I must learn what this means and how to use it to my advantage.

Today I was almost successful in an attempt to assassinate one of my tormentors by weaving around his feet as he was walking. I must try this again tomorrow—but at the top of the stairs.

I am convinced that the other prisoners here are flunkies and snitches. The dog receives special privileges. He is regularly released—and seems to be more than willing to return. He is obviously retarded.

The bird has got to be an informant. I observe him communicating with the guards regularly. I am certain that he reports my every move. My captors have arranged protective custody for him in an elevated cell, so he is safe. For now . . .

Thursday, October 22

The Red Fox Restaurant

A few years ago (but probably quite a few more than a few, tempus fugit, you know) my wife and I took an Amtrak trip with Kaye, Rosalie’s sister, going from Tucson to L.A. and then up the coast along Hwy 1. Wonderful scenery. We de-trained in San Francisco for a trip to Yosemite by rental car. And we spent the night in a motel in Mariposa, a small town just before one heads into Yosemite. On the advice of the motel clerk, we dined at a place called The Red Fox Restaurant. I have since gone to their website to see what others had to say about it and found that most of the reviews were bad. I guess the ownership must have changed since we were there because I’d have to give it six stars out of five for quality of meal and service. Here’s what I had to say about it a few years ago (but probably quite a few more than a few):

“The road to Mariposa was paved with really bad intentions, that is, steep drop-offs and u-curves. The ladies refused to look down, held their breaths all the way to the bottom. We got to the Comfort Inn at 2:00, checked in, and explored the city. Well, not quite a city. Mariposa, which means butterfly in Spanish, consists of a valley with five parallel streets, the central being Main. When we got home I looked up Mariposa in the atlas and found that it had just under 15,000 people. I can’t for the life of me figure out where that many people lived because I couldn’t see them. After a cocktail at 5:00 we went to the café the motel ladies had recommended, The Red Fox. It was an unpretentious place, seating for maybe thirty or forty people, paper napkins on the tables, standard décor. Shortly after we ordered, the waitress brought a tray of hard rolls, sourdough twists with a crust of poppy seeds and salt, homemade, absolutely delicious. Then our salads. Huge, visually appealing, elaborately laid out according to colors and textures. The outer layer was what looked like cabbage leaves, slight purple touching the dark green, inside mostly romaine lettuce holding carefully structured piles of shaved carrots, bean sprouts, sliced black olives, mushrooms, quartered tomato, flowered radishes, sculpted cucumber slices, and even two thin slices of strawberry, purple onion circles atop the whole. And the dressings were all homemade. The ladies both had honey dijon, I had blue cheese, with huge chunks of blue cheese. The waitress even asked me when I was halfway through if I’d like more dressing. Naturally I nodded with full mouth. I had the strip steak, Rosalie the linguini with grilled Portobello mushrooms, Kaye the coconut-fried shrimp. And the entrees were presented to us, not served. Our dishes were visually splendid. The outer edges of the plates were speckled with parsley flakes, the mixed vegetables were sliced carrots, cauliflower, zucchini, pea pods, and broccoli, flavored most obviously with garlic. They each had the red potatoes and I had the whipped garlic potatoes, all again heavily favoring garlic. We all ate our dinners in near silence, too busy eating to chat. And we all three agreed the meal was the best we’d ever had . . . anywhere . . . any time. Wow. Our waitress asked us if we’d like dessert and we all said yes. I had hot fudge sundae, Rosalie the fried bananas with ice cream and brandy sauce, Kaye the cheesecake with strawberries and sauce. We all agreed they were the best desserts we’d ever had . . . anywhere . . . any time. Even more amazing was the price. Twenty dollars apiece covered the meal, dessert, and tip. Oh man, it’s too bad The Red Fox is so far away.”

It’s also too bad that the place has fallen on hard times . . . and bad meals and service. I guess most diners simply want simple meals for simple prices. But, oh, how I enjoyed that meal I had quite a few years ago.

Wednesday, October 21

Bridge of Spies & Two Others

It’s amazing how far Tom Hanks has come since that time in his youth when he was a “Bosom Buddy” on television. He was Sleepless in Seattle, he was Cast Away, he helped Save Private Ryan, he made us all learn his Forrest Gumpisms, he Got Mail on the Green Mile, he was taunted by DiCaprio with, “Catch Me If You Can.” And now, in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, he’s the pudgy lawyer who in 1960 negotiated a deal with the Russians and East Germans, one spy for one spy and a student. Tom Hanks becomes a loveable Jim Donovan, the lawyer who, against all odds and all public opinion, defends Rudolph Abel and convinces the judge not to execute the man for espionage. He would later use Abel as a pawn in the exchange that took place on snowy Glienicke Bridge between East and West Berlin, Rudolph Abel for Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot who was shot down over Russia as he was spying on Russian installations, just as Abel was spying on U.S. capabilities. The movie was interesting in its return to that awful time when the world was fearful of nuclear war between the world’s two powers, when that awful wall was built in Berlin, when we see again the killing of those who tried to scale the wall from east to west. The movie is owned by the two main players, Tom Hanks as lawyer Donovan and Mark Rylance as Rudolph Abel, and both will be in the conversation regarding best actor and best supporting actor. And the movie for best movie as well as Spielberg for best director. I mean, it’s Spielberg, right? It was a great movie, even though a little heavy-handed in spots, like when it showed the brutal way Gary Powers was treated in the Russian prison and when almost immediately it showed the humane way Abel was treated in the U.S. prison. Rylance portrayed Abel as a quiet, unassuming man who loved to paint between his spying errands. Donovan asks him during the trial, “Aren’t you worried?” Abel responds, “Would it help?” Funny. Human. He says that Donovan reminds him of a man he once knew. The authorities kept beating the man for information he supposedly had, and after each beating the man would stand again, passively waiting for them to beat him again. Finally, the “standing man” won and the authorities gave up. Donovan, he said, was like that, a “standing man.” I think the film was a “standing movie.”

Two quickies we saw on Netflix, The Road Within and Frontera.

The Road Within was a comedy about three young people being treated for mental disorders—Vincent (Robert Sheehan) who suffered from violent episodes of Tourette’s syndrome, Marie (Zoe Kravitz) from anorexia, and Alex (Dev Patel) from extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder. Doesn’t sound much like a comedic hook to hang your story on, does it? Well, it was and it wasn’t. The three sort of band together by stealing their doctor’s car and make a madcap journey to the Pacific Ocean to deposit therein the ashes of Vincent’s dead mother. The comic elements involve their misadventures along the way, the chase that Vincent’s father (Robert Patrick) and Dr. Mia Rose (Kyra Sedgwick) give them, and the subsequent bonding of the three misfits.

Frontera was a low-budget examination of the problem we have on our Southern border, the illegals brought into the U.S. by corrupt coyotes, the brutality of their treatment by those coyotes as well as by some Americans who try to solve the problem with rifles, the despair of those who are seeking a better life. Roy (Ed Harris) and his wife Olivia (Amy Madigan) own land In Arizona that borders Mexico, easy access for illegal entry. They represent the humane attitude. When Miguel (Michael Peña) meets Olivia in a dry wash on her land, she offers to help him. But three young men on a nearby hillside decide to scare them a bit by shooting at them, not intending to hit them. Olivia’s horse throws her and she fatally hits her head on a rock. Roy hears the shots and comes looking for her and sees Miguel holding the horse’s reins. When Miguel calls his father-in-law to tell him he’s in jail and being held for murder, Miguel’s wife Paulina (Eva Longoria) hires a coyote to take her into the U.S. to help Miguel, though I don’t know what she thought she could do. We see then an example of what too often happens to those brought in to this country, those who suffocate in abandoned trucks or who get raped by the coyotes. The film may be understated in its message, but it was for the most part an honest assessment of the problem.

Thursday, October 15

BREAKING NEWS!

For years I’ve ranted about local tv stations interrupting regular scheduling for what they call “Breaking News.” They too often consider what I think is trivial news for their break-in. Why can’t it wait for regular news coverage? Why must a new fire near Flagstaff require us to know about it and to watch the flames? Or a car chase in downtown Phoenix? Or Kim Davis hugging the Pope? Some news is important enough for such breaking interruption, like the recent shootings in Oregon. But most of it isn’t. I remember when John F. Kennedy Jr’s plane went missing in 1999. He and his wife and his wife’s sister were on their way to Hyannis Port and Martha’s Vineyard for a wedding of one of his cousins. He was the pilot and they were supposed to arrive sometime late at night, but as of the following morning nothing had been heard of them. I’m not an insensitive person. I feel for the death of any person, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind,” as John Donne put t four centuries ago. But I feel that the news people are a bit ghoulish when it comes to news of important people dying or missing. I could just imagine them the next morning when the news first broke about the leading figure in America’s royal family. They must have been washing their hands and nearly salivating over the meal that lay before them. Things to do, old Kennedy film to round up, people to interview, clever commentary to write. So they took over the air for nearly the entire day, hashing and rehashing the same facts and details. They interviewed the JFK biographer; they interviewed Barbara Walters; they had the ABC aviation editor on to tell us all about the kind of plane Kennedy was flying and how it worked and what it looked like and other details we really had no need for. They brought in yards of old Kennedy film, most of which was unrelated to anything except the Kenned mythology, even that old chestnut when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you.” We watched several times the footage of JFK Jr. announcing the start of his magazine George. We watched minute after minute of aerial shots of the open sea out from Martha’s Vineyard. We learned about the locator box designed to be triggered on impact, sending out a signal to rescuers. They went back and forth from one reporter to another, each looking more and more smug as he or she reported his or her particular tidbit of Kennedy background. It always strikes me that reporters try to report too much. They always claim the public’s right to know. But does the public have to know EVERYTHING about a story? They cover a bloody homicide and go into peripheral details the public not only doesn’t need to know, doesn’t care to know. They cover a horrific accident and then interview virtually everyone who ever knew anything at all about the victims. With the Kennedy story I kept checking to see how long they’d keep at it and if went on all day and into the night. You can plow the same ground only so many times before the crop fails.

Wednesday, October 14

The Walk

If you weren’t already an acrophobe before seeing The Walk, you certainly were afterward. I can only say how thankful I am that we didn’t choose to see it in 3-D, because I’d have certainly had to leave the theater before spitting up all over my shoes and other shoes around me. I nearly did exactly that in the non-3-D version. Terror in a film can build when the viewer isn’t sure how a scary situation will resolve itself. In The Walk, we already knew the outcome and we still put deep finger impressions in the arm rests. The first ninety minutes showed us the young, ambitious Phillipe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as the Paris street performer—magician, unicyclist, mime, juggler—only later as a fledgling wire-walker seeking advice from Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), a world famous wire-walker and father of wire-walking sons. When Petit first sees a depiction of the planned Twin Towers in New York, he becomes obsessed with the idea of walking on a wire between them, even though it would be illegal and wildly dangerous. He gathers a small band of companions who agree to help him with his plan—Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), a street musician in Paris who shares his bed; Jean-Louis (Clement Sabony), a photographer Petit meets in Paris; Jeff (Cesar Domboy), Jean-Louis’s cousin and math instructor who is a raging acrophobe; J. P. (James Badge Dale), a transplanted Frenchman who sold them the wireless radios they needed to communicate from tower to tower; and two doofuses who served as grunts to transport equipment to the top of the first tower. The back story details were necessary but not great. It was the final half hour when they encountered problems getting the wire across the void and when Petit finally began his walk that had the audience holding its collective breath. Then there’s the rather remarkable performance of Gordon-Levitt. He had to learn how to ride a unicycle, juggle flaming dumbbells, and walk on a wire, all that in addition to learning French and honing a French accent. A loud huzzah to you, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Two tiny observations: Last week, Entertainment Weekly had a little teaser about the next episode of Blindspot, funny, but oh so true. While at the CDC, the team decodes a hidden message in one of Jane’s tattoos that could lead to a global catastrophe. The message reads: “Donald Trump 2016.”

I remember a news story from a few years ago about a 92-year-old lady who had walked across the country from California to D.C. to show her displeasure with what was going on in the Oval Office. She was interviewed about how she had withstood the rigors of her walk and she said, “The days go by and the miles go by, and before you know it you’re there.” Wow! That pretty much defines life, although the destination isn’t D.C.

Monday, October 12

English Lesson 1

I’ve been thinking about all those old pedantic rules of English grammar that I used to teach, most of which I told my students to ignore. But I thought they should at least know what they were before they ignored them.

First, don’t split infinitives. That’s when you put some adverbial stuff in between the sign of the infinitive, “to,” and the verbal itself, like “Try to never listen to old English teachers.” Un-split, it becomes, “Try never to listen to old English teachers.” A little awkward but okay. But sometimes there’s no better place to put an adverb than right there between the “to” and the verbal. For example, “Life is too short to totally behave yourself in studyhall.” Can “totally” go anywhere else? Even, “Shoe” can make fun of this silly old rule.
Second, don’t end sentences with prepositions. Winston Churchill famously had this to say about that: “This is a form of pedantry up with which I will not put!” When a writer tries too hard to avoid the prepositional ending, the sentence can come out sounding too stuffily formal. For example, “The Red Cross was the charity they chose to give their fortune to.” Switch it to, “The Red Cross was the charity to which they chose to give their fortune.” A little stuffy, right? Now look at this sentence in which there’s no way to avoid the preposition at the end: “The trip committee decided it was the best direction to come in from.” Lousy sentence, yes, but the only way to fix it leaves “The trip committee decided it was the best direction from which to come in.” Okay, okay, maybe it should have been “The trip committee decided it was the best way to enter.” But we still have the American verb “to come in” equal to “to enter.”

Third, there’s the old dictum to never begin a sentence with “and” or “but,” and to always write in complete sentences. But I’ve already broken that one three times thus far. Also, two split infinitives in the sentence above. Also, a sentence fragment in the last sentence. Also this one.

Fourth, don’t let your modifiers dangle or get misplaced. A dangler usually refers to a word group at the beginning of a sentence that should be referring to the subject of the main clause. Such an error can lead to misunderstanding or sometimes even hilarity. For example, “Flying over the African plain, the elephant herd looked majestic.” That would require a very large plane. Another: “Smashed flat by a passing truck, my dog Rowlfie sniffed at what was left of a half-eaten Whopper.” Poor Rowlfie. And one example of a modifier that got misplaced, maybe even lost: “The body was discovered by a hunter with a gunshot wound to the head.”

Fifth, don’t engage in superfluity, excess, repetition, prolixity, wordiness, or redundancy. That sentence is a good example of what not to do. Here are a few much shorter examples: a pair of twins (Does that mean there are four or only two?), surrounded on all sides (Does that include above and below?), consensus of opinion (One of the few things I learned in my high school Latin class was that “consensus” already means “a unity of opinion” and that only dumb dolts would ever say “consensus of opinion.”)

There, that should be enough English lessoning for the day. But one last comment about the vagaries and complexities of the English language. Look at these pairs of words that drive foreigners as well as natives crazy: "discomfit" & "discomfort," "sacrilegious" & "irreligious," "squash" & "quash," "rife" & "ripe," "complimentary" & "complementary," "effect" & "affect," and "slow up" & "slow down." These last two are crazy Americanisms that are but shouldn't be synonymous.

Friday, October 9

Korea & GOP Dummies

I’ve been watching the Presidents Cup golf for the past two days, being contested in a country I visited sixty-three years ago, in a war most people would rather forget, a place that I would never have believed could now look so lovely and prosperous, that back then looked so backward and desolate and devastated. Korea then, Korea now. These views of the Jack Nicklaus designed course in Incheon, with the majestic bridge behind and the towering skyscrapers of Incheon on the horizon, make me feel good about the future of worldwide golf and the efficacy of democracy and free enterprise in those nations that choose to go that way.
Do I see any golf courses and prosperity in North Korea? No. Do I see them in Syria or Palestine or Iran or Afghanistan? No. But they both—golf and a democratic system—seem to be increasing around the world. I watched the LPGA tournament in Malaysia, at the Kuala Lampur Golf and Country Club, where the Malaysian queen had a bit of fun on the putting green. Who would have envisioned such a sight half a century ago? No one. And the two ladies near the top of the leaderboard after the first round, Xi Yu Lin and Shanshan Feng, are from China. Who would have ever envisioned that? No one. My wife and I and all those others of our vintage have lived through a really remarkable number of changes in the world, some not so good, but most a sign of positive things to come. We’re presently teetering on the brink of harmonious world peace/prosperity and the possibility of cacophonous destruction of the earth by terrorism or natural calamity. I hope I live long enough to see world-wide peace/prosperity. I hope I live long enough to see Tiger win his 19th major. I hope I live long enough to see golf as a major sport in Turkey or North Korea.

And, by the way, I hope I love long enough to see Hillary Clinton as the next U.S. president. Or any other woman, for that matter. I want to see the end of senseless racial and sexual discrimination. In the meantime, I want to underline what was recently reported by Grammarly regarding the grammatical intelligence of those people who commented by Facebook on the various candidates now running for president. Here’s how they did it: A random sample of 180 comments (all negative comments first filtered out) on each candidate’s Facebook page were examined for grammatical errors (misspellings, punctuation) and then calculated on the number of mistakes per 100 words. Republican average was 8.7 errors per hundred, Democratic average was 4.2 per hundred. Fiorina and Clinton were tied at 6.3. And the winner (or loser?) on either side was Trump, with 12.6 errors per 100 words. I guess that must say something about the intelligence of those who would support The Donald as our next president.

Thursday, October 8

Sicario & The Martian

Two recent films may not win the Oscar for best picture, but both will certainly be in the conversation. Both are built around extreme tension, Sicario involving the grim war being fought between U.S. agencies and the Mexican drug cartels, The Martian (based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name) involving a race to rescue an American astronaut stranded on Mars. But where Sicario leaves the viewer scratching his head and wondering exactly what actions are justifiable in this drug war, The Martian shows us a positive view of the future with plausible science in the future of space exploration.

In Sicario there is no Geneva Convention to control the combatants’ behavior in the war being fought on both sides of our southern border, no code of ethics or morality to control those we like to think of as the good guys, the U.S. lawmen. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, a tough but naïve FBI agent out of Phoenix. As the film opens, she and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) are heading up a kidnap response team that moves on a drug house in Chandler, Arizona. We see it in gritty, grainy overhead camera shots, not quite sepia, but close, a washed out yellow reflecting the desolation surrounding the house and the houses around it, the ethical desolation of the drug traffickers as well as the agents fighting the battle. After a tense shootout between the agents and the druggies, over forty bodies are discovered inside the walls of the house, standing upright and side by side in plastic sheets, like freeze-dried tv dinners. Who were these dead people and why were they killed and why were they there? Questions not answered. Emily Blunt would seem more likely to play one of Jane Austin’s females than a kick-ass FBI Agent, but she manages the action quite well. When a bomb is accidentally detonated in the Chandler house, she suffers a head wound and two of her fellow officers are killed. Later, she’s invited to sit in on a task force meeting, supposedly an interagency group that wants to pick up a drug lord being held in Juarez. They want this third-level member to lead them to the second in command in the Juarez cartel who would then lead them to the top man. Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) heads the meeting, but it’s never clear who these people are. Are they Department of Defense, DEA, CIA, or a combination of all three? After a brief vetting by Graver, Kate is asked to volunteer for the task force. She says yes, but she isn’t sure exactly why they want or need her or what they’ll be doing. There is also the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, looking almost as menacing here as he did in No Country for Old Men) sitting in on the meeting. Who is he? she wonders. The audience also wonders. We're informed early on that "sicario" is Spanish for "hitman," and Alejandro certainly seems to fit that bill. The tension builds as the group, in five black SUVs, heads into Juarez, naked bodies seen dangling from overpasses, victims of the cartel’s brutality and evidence of their control of the city. They get the man from the prison and head back to the border, but they’re stalled in traffic, and both the agents and the viewers just know they’ll be involved in some kind of shootout. And they are. When Kate expresses her concerns about the groups’ bending of the law, Graver, to justify their actions, says, “Until someone finds a way to stop the 20% of America from putting this shit up their nose, order is the best we can hope for.” And that’s the message director Denis Villeneuve seems to send, that too often the good guys resort to the same lawlessness and brutality as the bad guys. It becomes painfully clear to Kate that the only reason she was brought in to the group was to view what they were doing and then sign off as FBI agent that what she witnessed was legal and aboveboard. Powerful movie, great movie, but one that gave us no answer to the dreadful drug situation we now face.

Then there’s The Martian, a film that was about as feel-good as that perennial favorite It’s a Wonderful Life. The tension was there, but from the very beginning we all knew that astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) was not going to perish on the Red Planet. It was tense, it was quite funny at times, it was gorgeously filmed, it was a wonderful glimpse of what may be in store for the world in the not too distant future. We had three locations for the story—the red, desolate landscape of Mars; Mission Control; and the Ares-3 space ship returning from Mars without Watney, whom they assumed had been killed in the violent storm that caused them to flee the planet. A really good director in Ridley Scott; a really good cast of people: Matt Damon as Mark Watney, Jessica Chastain as Ares-3 commander Melissa Lewis, Jeff Daniels as NASA head, Kristen Wiig as Annie Montrose, Michael Peña as Rick Martinez, Chiwetel Ejifor as Vincent Kapoor. But Matt Damon owned it. He’s funny, he’s admirable, and he’s so much the kind of Matt Damon we want to see instead of the bad astronaut Matt Damon we saw in Interstellar. We see him for more than half the film as he attempts to stay alive until he can be rescued, solving all kinds of problems—how to grow food, how to let NASA know he’s alive, how to generate water for his potato plants, how to stay warm enough and not run down his batteries in the ATV-thing he has to drive around in, how to keep his sanity with no one to talk to or nothing to listen to except for the dreadful disco tracks that Commander Lewis had provided for them. He says to the camera taping his activities, he’s going to “science the shit out of it.” And science the shit out of it he does. It was a thrilling examination of what it might be like on our nearest planetary neighbor as we shared Mark’s isolation and desolation there (filmed in the Wadi Rum region in Jordan). It was a realistic look at what it might be like for future astronauts on long space voyages as we defy gravity and float with the six astronauts aboard the Ares-3, moving from one compartment to another and then into the gravitied living quarters. I almost stood up at film’s end and gave a shout out and frenzied clapping for what I’d just seen. I think I may have to go see it again.

Monday, October 5

Mortality

I keep thinking about my remaining days and how precious each one is becoming, you know, September Song thoughts. I find them going too fast, and I hate it when I feel like I’ve spent one unproductively. Scares me to think that I have only a few years left. Maybe more, but not necessarily. And even if more, would they be good years? As long as I can keep reasonable physical and mental health, I can always be happy. But if unreasonable, then I’d rather be dead. I really must look into a cyanide capsule I can get fitted into a back tooth, for that time when I want to go and about all I can do is bite down hard. But knowing my propensity for error, before it was time, I’d probably be sitting in a darkened theater, eating my popcorn, and bite down on what I thought was an old maid, and that would be all she wrote.

About a decade ago every now and then I’d get this wave of depression at the thought of my own mortality. It was never an intellectual thing, something to ponder. One moment I’d be thinking about what I was doing that day and then suddenly thoughts of my demise would overwhelm me and I’d feel this rush of emotion about what it actually will mean when I die. This long (all too short) practical joke will be over and what will my existence have meant? Then the feeling would go away for several months only to pop up again when I wasn’t paying attention.

I’m still a non-churchgoer and have been for most of my life, so church faith doesn’t help me in my bouts of depression. I’m too much an outsider and disbeliever to feel comfortable in churches of any order. I envision Christ on the cross and Eve offering Adam that expensive apple. I find both to be powerful images, but I don’t find much about either that I believe. I guess my skepticism must be traced back to my mother’s half-hearted Episcopalianism and my own questioning of formal Christian religious beliefs. I can relate to Adam’s preference for reading, but I can also understand why he finally put down his book and took that fateful bite.

Figuring I have five years left, that leaves me slightly more than 1800 days. Not that I plan on dying at eighty-seven, but the quality of life may not be too high beyond that time. So 1800 days may sound like a lot right now, but I know how fast they can be spent, like gold coins in profligate hands.

Saturday, October 3

Modern-Day Dunces

I’ve been out of the classroom for over twenty years now and I remember before leaving, I had second and third and fourth thoughts about the state of student writing, about the future of writing in English among the students who would soon be running the country. Those thoughts had to do with their carelessness with spelling and vocabulary and sentence structure. I feared what I saw happening with the way young people wrote e-mails. And now we have texting and text-speak, an even more abbreviated version of e-mail shorthand, and emoticons to simplify what they’re feeling instead of taking the time to actually write about their feelings. All the shorthand and disregard for capitalization and spelling and diction and punctuation. Their response: “But if my reader can understand what I’m saying, what difference does it make how it’s spelled?” I care! And anyone else who cares for the value of well-written sentences and thoughts. In my teaching career I watched the slow death of the apostrophe. And, except for the keepers of the language, the writers and journalists, the apostrophe is as dead as a beached flounder. Now, I can’t read newspaper articles without seeing professional writers misuse words. A few days ago I saw someone who should know better say, “Crime is ripe in the slum areas of our cities.” He meant “rife!” Today, in an article by a USA Today writer about the Oregon killings, he said, “Authorities confiscated 13 weapons associated with the shooter, six at the sight of the killing and seven at his apartment.” Okay, was that a case of the ubiquitous spell and grammar checker making an error or was it the writer? And if the writer, why didn’t he go back and check his own copy? Or maybe he doesn’t really know it should have been “site.” I’ve already pointed out the difference between “squash” and “quash” and the people who don’t know the difference. The list of diction errors goes on and on. The number of young people who make careless writing errors goes up and up. Sloppiness in language suggests sloppiness in thinking. And today and in the future we can’t afford sloppy thoughts. Too much is at stake.

Friday, October 2

Frank Sinatra

I’m beginning to realize just how full and influential a music life Sinatra had. The number of albums he has out is mind-boggling. I thought at one time I had nearly all of them. Not even close. I now have 63 albums, eight of which are multiple disc albums, one of which is a 20-album compilation of all the songs he recorded for his company, Reprise Records. I think I may have about three-quarters of all the albums he’s done, many of which are no longer available. I own very few of the pre-Capitol records, mainly because I don’t think his voice was very good in those early days when he was the bobbysocks heartthrob of the nation’s girls and women, singing with the big bands, especially Harry James and Tommy Dorsey. It was just too thin and reedy, sort of the way he was built back then.
For a while at the end of the Forties and into the early Fifties, he sort of disappeared, and then reappeared with a bang when he played Maggio in From Here to Eternity. His career in movies and records went up and up with roles in The Manchurian Candidate, The Man with the Golden Arm, and Young at Heart, and his move from Columbia Records to Capitol when he first teamed with Nelson Riddle, then later with Gordon Jenkins and Billy May, beginning with Songs for Young Lovers. He was all over the news with his marriages (Barbara Barbato, Ava Gardner, Mia Farrow, and Barbara Marx) and antics at Caesar's Palace with his Rat Pack buddies, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop.
And there were stories of his Mob connections that hurt him. In the Fifties, his voice took on that depth of maturity—vocal abuse, cigarettes, and booze—that gave him that distinctive Sinatra style.
Of course, he always had a unique talent for vocal timing. But it’s the voice I find so interesting. Then in the Sixties and Seventies when he was really aging and getting fat and still abusing his voice, the quality got even richer. Even into the Eighties he was still the King as far as I’m concerned. His audience diminished because he wasn’t able to win over many of the younger generation, and the public appearances went down and the recording slowed. Then in the Nineties, lo and behold, he came out with the Duets, I and II, and they sold like hotcakes. Too bad, because they’re more curiosity pieces than quality productions, curiosity over the aging Sinatra and a voice that now sounded very much like a seventy-five-year-old man, one who’d spent the majority of his life smoking and boozing. Some of the old numbers he tried to do on the two Duets are downright embarrassing. But when he was good, like on the vast majority of numbers he’d done in a lifetime of song, he’s so good it makes me want to cry for the loss of life and talent, his as well as mine.

Thursday, October 1

Puns & Other Word Play

I don't know where I got this, but it's dated from ten years ago. This first set contains some of the funniest puns I've ever seen. The second set demonstrates why English is so maddeningly difficult for even native speakers, let alone the poor people trying to learn it as a second language.

Those who jump off a bridge in Paris are in Seine.
A backward poet writes inverse.
A man's home is his castle, in a manor of speaking.
Dijon vu - the same mustard as before.
Practice safe eating - always use condiments.
Shotgun wedding: A case of wife or death.
A man needs a mistress just to break the monogamy.
A hangover is the wrath of grapes.
Dancing cheek-to-cheek is really a form of floor play.
Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?
Condoms should be used on every conceivable occasion.
Reading while sunbathing makes you well red.
When two egotists meet, it's an I for an I.
A bicycle can't stand on its own because it is two tired.
What's the definition of a will? (It's a dead giveaway.)
In democracy your vote counts. In feudalism your count votes.
She was engaged to a boyfriend with a wooden leg but broke it off.
A chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion.
If you don't pay your exorcist, you get repossessed.
With her marriage, she got a new name and a dress.
When a clock is hungry, it goes back four seconds.
The man who fell into an upholstery machine is fully recovered.
You feel stuck with your debt if you can't budge it.
Local Area Network in Australia: the LAN down under.
He often broke into song because he couldn't find the key.
Every calendar's days are numbered.
A lot of money is tainted - It taint yours and it taint mine.
A boiled egg in the morning is hard to beat.
He had a photographic memory that was never developed.
A plateau is a high form of flattery.
Those who get too big for their britches will be exposed in the end.
Once you've seen one shopping center, you've seen a mall.
Bakers trade bread recipes on a knead-to-know basis.
Acupuncture is a jab well done.

1. The bandage was wound around the wound.
2. The farm was used to produce produce.
3. The dump was so full it had to refuse more refuse.
4. He could lead if he would get the lead out.
5. The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
6. Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
7. A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
8. The dove dove into the bushes.
9. He did not object to the object.
l0. The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
11. There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
12. The buck does funny things when the does are present.

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