November 21, 2014

Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize...or on what?

So, yes, we're in Portland now; have been for a week or so, after a great road trip with our fine son all the way up the Cali coast--pretty awesome country, even for those of us accustomed to daily doses of awesome country. Man!

Portland, of course, is entirely different. It's gray and rainy most of the time, and for the next several months it'll be just like that and then some. It's not for everyone. I understand. I, too, prefer bluebird skies and lots of Old Sol, bless his forgiving heart. Yet, I go outside and start walking and, well, it's just the way I am. It's hard for a lot of people--hard for me, in fact--to understand (or believe) that I really don't mind the weather here, because of the pay-off. Go out on the street, and every day it's another world. That's what makes horse races.

So far as I know, there is not a rude person in Portland. Maybe it's my age. Everyone--mostly young people, who work, not old people, who don't--treats me like I wish I deserved to be treated. Nice, in a word. And it helps us, to pick up the pace, don't you think? As in, we joined--YES! Joined--an athletic club (one more thing I said I'd never do, but did). If there are nicer, more helpful, more decent young people anywhere, I'd prefer not to know about it. This one here is more than I can handle.

What's so cool about that? The give and take between the young and old, for one thing, and, too, there is the constant promise of opportunity to learn something we'd otherwise never know, as in, signing up at the front desk, the young woman in charge--at least 6' 2" tall and clearly in shape and beautiful and, here's that word again, NICE--was struggling a bit, trying to find our important numbers or whatever. Standing there, the music on the radio caught my attention. I'd never heard it before. It was that "kind" of indie music, I guess you might call it--light, kind of a catchy tune, a few words that meant about what the other words in other songs meant (a lot like rock 'n roll, in other, uh, words)--I don't know, it's music that, like all genres of music, just has its own sound. I thought to myself, how can anyone even begin to know this music, the words, the... Then, I noticed the young woman at the desk was singing along! It's HER music, not mine, but perhaps, just by being around her (and others her age), I might get the hang of some of it, as well as catch up to just a bit of the other stuff I have no other way of ever knowing.

Life.

Life? Here's MY brief history of LIFE: We couldn't, then We could, now We can't. And it's OUR story, all of us. Read it and weep--or, better, read it, think about it (for maybe 2 seconds), then do something about it. Life is still out there and will be out there, which is and will remain somewhere away from us, unless WE go out there.

Power to the good people!


November 20, 2014

The "In" Crowd

Wednesday afternoon, we saw "Skeleton Twins," a weird, black, dark "comedy" with SNL alums Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig. I think I mentioned it in the last post. Since, however, I've thought about it--remembered something I'd read about it, actually--and wanted to bring it to your attention. It's another chapter in the ongoing saga of, I don't know, rural vs. urban or "in" vs. "out" or whatever. In other words, it's this:

In a review of the film, no doubt in The New York Times, I read that "Skeleton Twins" was just about the way I put it in the first paragraph. The reviewer wrote at some length about the stars, of course, then, about one of the supporting roles, he wrote something like, "Luke Wilson is good as the lunkhead husband." Well, to stay in movie context, he had me at "lunkhead."

If you see the film, you'll see that Wilson's character is the only "decent" person in the whole film, the only character who is "regular," who isn't wallowing gloriously in his messed-upness. EVERYONE else is off the charts goofy, and harmful to others, really. Throughout, Wilson maintains a good old solid All-American husband persona. He thinks only good of people, only wants to help, etc. But he's the "lunkhead." or he's the "lunkhead?"

I suggest here that the reviewer's snap judgment, that, hey, Wilson's character is not interesting. He's just a regular guy. He means no harm. He's just the kind of guy we can count on in whatever weather. And that makes him a lunkhead...I suggest that's typical of big-time critics, who not only expect, but demand, irony from the films and the actors they see. After all, they are themselves ironic and cynical and want to prove themselves so, which equals "smarter than the rest of us," and way ahead of us, and in the same league with the stars they write about--grovel at the feet of, basically.

Well, too bad. "Skeleton Twins" is a movie I enjoyed. I don't recommend it to anyone necessarily, nor do I NOT recommend it. It's just one of those films that do not require viewing for any reason other than there is not much else to do, or we like picture shows and this one looks interesting. It's basically a take-off on the tired rom-com genre. The only reason to see it (other than, you know, let's catch a movie tonight, that kind of thing--or for some of us, let's see this and put it in our files because that's, uh, just the way we are), I thought, would be to watch two very funny and talented actors--Wiig and Hader--do what they do. They did it. Some of it was good, some wasn't. When it wasn't so good, were they "lunkheads" or could the reviewer relate to their (it can be argued) self-willed craziness?

BTW: I saw another film I forgot to mention in the last post. It is "Kill the Messenger," the story of Sacramento Bee reporter Gary Webb and his life-absorbing (and ultimately life-destroying) effort to get, and write, and have published the story of the Iran-Contra scandal. It's a good movie. Jeremy Renner is, as always, good as Webb, whose own editors and publishers turned against him after the "big time" media--the Times and The Washington Post, etc.--trashed him and questioned the veracity of his work in front-page stories because THEY missed the story entirely. Very sad, but very good. Big Media is, in fact, a pile of horseapples and can kiss my grits.

Or thereabouts.

November 19, 2014

TCM Movies and Robert Osborne

Sorry not to have posted in so long. Been on the road, then without Internet until yesterday evening, blah, blah, but here we go again--just to make contact, really, and keep this thing alive, which we continue to do...somehow. Let us hear from you now and then--particularly the recent birthday boy Steve R., who changed jobs AND emails, which means we've been thwarted in our efforts to wish him Happy You Know What.

Like you, no doubt, I love TCM movies, the classics, unaltered and unadvertised. This New York Times story about its host, Robert Osborne, is interesting and, in my view, inspiring. I hope the link works all right, but if it doesn't, you can find it.

In the meantime, we just saw Skeleton Twins. I liked it. Very dark comedy. SNL alums Bill Hader and Kristin Wiik are good, and so is Luke Wilson, who is the reason we went to the movie. We saw The 100 Foot Journey last night (for $3). Good. Interstellar the night before. Good. And we hope to see Pride tomorrow, which I bet will be...Good. Have not seen a loser lately. Holding my breath.

Anyway, Portland is cool as always. The weather hasn't been bad. We have a car this time, so I've been driving, and am about finished with it. Rode the bus tonight downtown to the movie and back, and I liked it. I'll be full time public trans again very soon. We've been shopping for STUFF for this empty pad, which requires a car...you know, etc.

So, here is the story. I'll have more to write about as soon as I get settled. Right now, no desk, but very nice stuff we've been buying. It's fun to be rich, huh?


Robert Osborne Is the Face of TCM

November 2, 2014

Why It's So Hard to Quit Reading All this STUFF!

For years now, I've subscribed to The American Scholar, the official magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Say what? Uh, no, no, I'm not. It's a nice little magazine, but one I've thought over the past year or two I'd stop taking. I just have too much to read. I know you know the feeling. I skim over so much--flip through so much, actually--in the Scholar as well as others I take that I think, you know, I don't really need this. I have other, far more important things to do, to read (like what? tough question).

Then, I take a moment and find: "If one could find the irredeemable madness of America (for we are a nation where weeds will breed in the gilding tank) it was in those late afternoon race track faces coming into the neon lights of the pari-mutuel windows, or those early morning hollows in the eye of the soul in places like Vegas where the fevers of America go livid in the hum of the night, and Grandmother, the church-goer, orange hair burning bright now crooned over the One-Armed Bandit, pocketbook open, driving those half-dollars home, home to the slot.
        "Madame, we are burning children in Vietnam."
        "Boy, you just go get yourself lost. Grandma's about ready for a kiss from the jackpot."

Just take a minute and read that again, hear the poetry in it, the truth. I've read it before, in my Forms of Nonfiction class in the MFA program at Portland State--Norman Mailer's "Armies of the Night"--but reading it in brief in The Scholar like that? Really stands out. Worth reading twice.

Or, less than a page later: "I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened by the old ones." That's John Cage, the "uber modern" musician, composer, telling it the way I feel it to be within too great a portion of our society today. People frightened to the point of not being open to "new" ideas, even though those ideas are not really ideas but facts, facts that we need to know about and understand, and then act upon, but won't.

There is so much more, of course. In a review of "The Copernicus Complex" by Caleb Scharf, Owen Gingerich tells of Scharf, concerning the misapplied use of the Copernican principle to raise expectations of finding extraterrestrial life, writing this: "One can easily argue that there has never been any data at all on the presence or absence of other life in the cosmos. I don't want to make this sound too depressing, but it's true--which is why we're lucky we've discovered beer and chocolate to console ourselves."

And from that same issue, I clipped two pieces on music that I sent to my daughter, teaching about all things musical in Massachusetts (though I'll be surprised if she doesn't already know more than I sent about these tid-bits; she always does), and another couple were dropped in the mail to a friend in Dallas, who loves Terrence Mallick's "Days of Heaven" so much, AND will soon photograph Ian McEwan for a book she's working on.

From The New York Review of Books, another publication I love but think, Hey, do I really have time for this? I pull--this is sometime back now--a "special." It's a compilation of pieces that appeared in TNYRB 50 years back--the first edition. Imagine, reading now a "current" review of Salinger. Well, that's what I read--Steven Marcus' rather scathing take on "Seymour, an Introduction." Marcus puts the whole enterprise down, in part like this: "Seymour, we are told, `was wild' about his sister Boo Boo. `Which isn't saying a great deal, since he was wild about everyone in the family and most people outside it.' This is not only intolerably affected but reeks with falsehood. It is almost as if for three hundred years the literature of Western culture had not, so to speak, conducted a campaign to demonstrate that the middle class family is about as close as we have come to achieving hell on earth." I mean, how about that!

No, I think I'll keep on keeping on with my STUFF I flip through. The thing about it--one thing about it, at least--is that it fires me up. Reading interesting writing, smart writing, well-written writing, inspires me to try to do better my ownself. One of these days, it might work.

And whether it does or not, how wrong or misguided or time-wasting can it be to read ONE MORE TIME, John Updike's coverage of Ted Williams' last at-bat, when The Kid closed out a long and often-contentious career in Boston with a home run: "He ran as he always ran out home runs--hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted, `We want Ted' for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledgte us in some way, but he never had and he did not now. Gods do not answer letters."

That, of course, is "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," published in The New Yorker in 1960. I have it somewhere, the original, somewhere in my files--files of all this STUFF. But I just read it again right now in my American Scholar. Time well wasted, don't you think?

October 30, 2014

A Mind Decidedly Not Like Ours

After less than an hour of being severely brutalized this morning, I, recuperating, just now read this in a little book on "description," one of the primary concerns in writing (voice, tone, time...are some others), by Mark Doty: "When our imaginations meet a mind decidedly not like ours, our own nature is suddenly called into question. We place our own eye beside that of the fish (in the Elizabeth Bishop poem, "Fish") in order to question our own seeing. Consciousness can't be taken for granted when there are, plainly varieties of awareness..."

Hmmm, "a mind decidedly not like ours?" When I read that little bit, I had an epiphanic moment: the dentist!

I won't go to great length here, about who in the world would WANT to be a dentist, or about dentists always ranking at the top of per-capita suicides, regarding occupation. No, in fact I like this dentist, or I like the person who is this dentist. I was in Rotary with him for quite awhile. He's a good, hardworking man, clearly dedicated to the job, and he's good (pretty hard to determine what's "good" in this context, however). Nor will I go into the "work" I had done; too gruesome. I will only say that, of all the encounters and experiences I've had in my long life that fit into the "physical" category, this was not the worst. No. But it was in the top five, and I am not sure it would not be more accurately placed in the top three. Rugged.

And that lofty ranking is not bestowed here because of pain; it's something other than pain. What pain he delivered was exceedingly minor, and even now, eight hours after the attack, I'm not in pain, not really. I think that it's that I feel I've been abused. Helpless, shot full of Novacaine, on my back, people with power tools looming over me, so forth and so on, TENSE--as tense as Jodie Foster in that dark house with a lunatic in "Silence of the Lambs." I came out of there flat-out whipped. Numb, and I mean all over, head to toe, inside and out. Maybe it's like being hit by a truck, and living, lying crumpled but breathing and aware--not fully aware, no, just off the edge of full awareness. Just not right.

And I haven't been "right" all day. I'm coming around, took a slow walk on this perfect late day--made it just a few blocks, and, tired, stumbled back inside, wilted, and feeling disoriented, not exactly like, but something like, James Caan waking up and finding himself tied to Kathy Bates's bed in "Misery."

I swear I will never do it again. The dentist, who believes, brother, in his product--"I am so grateful we've done this ("we've"?). It will so improve your life. You will live longer for having done it..."--talked me into it. He sold me on it just two days earlier, like "Glengarry Glen Ross." As I left, I asked if he had a beat-up old car I could buy.

So, returning to my premise--how to accurately describe a thing with words. In his little book, Mark Doty, continuing the thought that opened today's tragedy, wrote: "...a relief, is it not, to acknowledge that we do not after all know what a self is? A corrective to human arrogance, to the numbing (!) certainty that puts a soul to sleep." If, after this morning's one-hour smash-mouth how-to-endure-and-survive-torture practice, I had even a smidgen of the "arrogance" I might have been plagued with at 16, it's a malady that, today, underwent a "corrective." My "soul"? Well, no, it's not "sleeping," just drilled full of holes.

What do you think? Have I delivered a pretty decent description?

October 28, 2014

As Texas goes, so goes...

The New York Review has a very interesting piece, "Texas: The Southern Baptists in Power" (Oct. 9, 2014) by Thomas Powers, in which I learned, among many other things, that H.L. Mencken coined the term "Bible Belt," and that a map of the Bible Belt and a map of the Confederacy are pretty much the same, and why? "The unbending defense of slavery by Southern Baptists before the Civil War--something everbody in the Bible Belt knows but most ignore, dismiss, or deny."

Southern Baptists, in Texas, at least, rule. "A big fact of American history: three of the last nine presidents have been Texans, and Ted Cruz and Rick Perry think they have a chance to be the fourth. Cruz is a Baptist, Perry, brought up as a Methodist, now attends an evangelical megachurch."

What else? Hmmm. The two largest churches in the country are in Houston, one has 43,000 members, the other 23,000 (both are Baptist, though the bigger one has begun calling itself "nondenominational charismatic"). And from the time of the notorious J. Frank Norris, the old Ft. Worth firebrand Southern Baptist minister, Texas Baptists' "evangelical zeal" is designed "to make America more like Baptist Texas while ensuring that Baptist Texas did not become more like the rest of America."(I cannot avoid noting that Norris was twice tried for, and acquitted of, serious crimes--in 1912, for burning his own church; and 1926, for shooting to death an unarmed man in Norris' own church office. Norris claimed that the victim made "the hip pocket move," as if to reach for a gun, and the jury bought it. Don't you love it, "the hip pocket move?")

Powers writes that, in politics and religion, "Texans appear to have a low tolerance for difference. They are prepared to change but only like starlings, at the same time in the same direction and all at once." They have, for instance, voted overwhelmingly Republican since 1976, the last time they voted for a Democrat for president--Jimmy Carter. "He was a Baptist and a southerner," Powers writes, "but in the Texas view not the right kind of either."

And I think he's got a good point, as in, now, the country is closely divided, yes? Texas? No, not even a little bit. Powers: "At the moment Baptist Republican Texas is for election of a president in 2016 who respects traditional verities and is a guilt-free white male straight Protestant Republican who believes the final word is not yet in on man's role in climate change."

This was not news to me: "Religion is a growth industry in Texas, which has twice as many Baptists as any other state." Texas is, after all, bigger--I have never been able to remember that Alaska is a state. Who says so?

That's NYRB. This same month, Texas Monthly magazine's cover story is about Baylor University in Waco, the biggest and most influential BAPTIST university in the world. Who is its president? Kenneth Starr--yes, THAT Kenneth Starr, who, it turns out, is quite the evangelical Baptist himself, running around in shorts and a green and gold shirt (Baylor's colors), high-fiving incoming freshmen. Non-Christian professors will not be hired at Baylor; it is an open policy. The way to revived glory and sparkling new campus and larger enrollment? Football! (All sports, reall. The women's basketball team has been a national powerhouse for quite some time now.) Baylor has a huge, new stadium, built right near I-35 so it can be the beacon for Waco, an advertisement seen by countless thousands of motorists on their way through town. (Tuition at Baylor is now $35,000 a year.)

Texas is, and always has been, just flat out bigger in every way than anyplace else. How tall IS Lyndon Johnson? people would ask. "We don't know, really. He's just taller than anyone else." LBJ called his male member "Jumbo," and probably for good reason.

I grew up a Methodist in a very small West Texas town, but I had more fun at the Baptist church a block or two away. I add a caveat: I never went to the Baptist church until its summer revival came to town. Then, I'd go, to see the great preachers AND to watch my classmates, Baptists, be baptized--in a white robe, dunked in a glass tank behind the altar, whoo, boy! That was something to see and laugh about. We Methodists just sprinkled. (There is a joke about that difference, but, you guessed it, I forget.) I've yet to forget, however, attending those spirited sessions as an outsider, a teenager to boot (and booting is what I had coming, more often than not). Homer Martinez? Angel Martinez? Those names ring a bell? I think I'll Google them to see if they're still around. They'd be old, in their eighties at least, even more, but Baptists, I believe, though my studies thus far are inconclusive, that Baptists live longer than the rest of us, so...

The Martinez revival preachers, brothers (there is a name for revival preachers, but I can't think of it just now--EVANGELISTS, of course) were handsome, charismatic, really funny and cool--and they were believers, brother. You can believe ME when I tell you. One would come one year, the other the next, and I'd never miss a meeting; they'd always hold a youth meeting, before the main event. I loved to banter with them, though I certainly won't say I was a match. Both of them knew the Bible by heart. We'd call out a book, chapter, verse, and Homer or Angel would recite it, word for word. They never failed. I was blown away--

just as I was blown away one night about that same time in my life at a community gathering at the school auditorium; a magician put on a show. The place was packed. I'd been to these kinds of things before and knew that, at some point, he'd ask for a volunteer from the audience: "Who is bold enough, brave enough to volunteer for an experiment?" and 20 hands would shoot up. But it wasn't a large auditorium. I figured if I played my cards right (to stay in context), I had a good chance. I wore a bright, red shirt, sat up close, and, yes! I was picked, annointed. I'm fuzzy on the details of the "experiment," but it did involve my tying the magician's wrists with a rope--tight--then follow his orders, to look out at the audience, holding the rope--and "whack!" he'd tap me alongside the head, the audience would laugh, I'd jerk my head, look at the rope, pull on it--tight!

It was as mysterious as the story of Jonah and the whale--still.

October 26, 2014

Books and Movies and Life

I am sitting right now, looking at a photo of Henri Matisse, with his scissors, cutting out "shapes" = "the radicalism of Matisse's cutouts," according to The New Yorker. My friend, Pamela, will be in New York in a few days to see the "cutout" exhibit at The Museum of Modern Art. How cool is that going to be? What a treat! And I read online somewhere just today a piece by--no, it came in an email from Pamela--John Richardson, who apparently was best friends with everyone who's ever been anyone in the art world, noting that when he was 26 and an art critic he visited Matisse in his Paris hotel room--many rooms, in fact--where the master, in bed for several years already, was perfecting his cutouts. Matisse was 82 and because of very painful ailments in his I don't know where-all, he'd just taken to his bed and stayed there. At this point, he was cutting out his art with scissors and whatever. Amazing. Because, imagine, those "things" Richardson--just 26!--saw the great maestro creating are now being shown in all their glory right here--or there--in New York!

I don't always go to sleep when I get in bed, but I'm liable to. For sure, I don't pick up my 12-foot-long bamboon pole and poke my assistants to "get it right!" like Matisse did. I guess I would, if I had such a pole and had any idea about art. I read that the one diversion Matisse would allow was Picasso's 3-year-old son, who would come in and--hey, like ANY 3-year-old--jump up and down on the bed.

You know, when you think about it, a guy like Matisse, 82, bed-ridden, fat, but still "with it," and going right on doing whatever he had to do to "work," well, do you think Matisse was worried about the hereafter? Don't go OFF on me here. I just thought of that as I was typing. But, really, did Matisse even THINK about the hereafter or wherever? I mean, he's basically on his death bed, but instead of calling in St. Francis or somebody and getting right with God, he takes his scissors and a long bunch of paper and starts cutting out, well, not paper dolls, not like you and I might cut out, but ART. Interesting.

I think that, while I've known quite a few very accomplished and successful artists in my day, there are those who are just out there, above there, off in space there, wherever "there" is, and everybody, even the best of the "regular" sorts of artists, knows it. Matisse was out there, brother. He was in his bed, whipped physically, 82, on his way out, and he didn't give a damn. He was still working, creating art. Painting in bed was a little sketchy so he took to just cutting out paper, and that paper, after all these years, is on view today in New York City, and it don't get any bigger than that. Matisse. My man! A million people, minimum, will go to whatever lengths and expense to see those paper dolls.

And to Matisse and writers who go blind--Milton, et al--and continue writing by dictating (in Milton's case) 10,000 lines in perfect pentameter, well, hey, here's to you. They don't make 'em like you no more, or maybe they do and I just have not stumbled onto them, but have stumbling on them to look forward to. You are all a formidable example and benchmark and I'm out to not do you one better, but just to be a small part. To begin with, way to go, and thanks.

Power to the good people-ism,