Monday, June 28, 1999

And Also With You

My nine year old nephew Eben is a great kid. He is the type of kid who gives you his box of Milk Duds because he remembers earlier you told him how much you liked Milk Duds. He's sweet, thoughtful and sensitive. Unfortunately none of those traits tend to go unpunished in this world and he has already faced his share of abuse from classmates. I promised him for his birthday last January that I would take him to a movie of his choice. What better present than getting the honor of spending an afternoon with me? It seemed like an "uncly" thing to do. Well, being the great uncle that I am it only took me six months to deliver on my promise. Last week we went and saw Star Wars- The Phantom Menace together.

Now I'll have to admit when Eben told me what movie he wanted to see, I did everything I could to talk him into another choice. I had zero interest in seeing the latest Star Wars movie mainly because the last one was so horrible. It was a damn Muppet movie for pete's sake. But Eben's heart was set on his selection and we chose a day and time to go. To get ready for the event I began referring to myself as Dave Maul, and to my feline roommate as Jar Jar Max. I had to do something to get in the spirit of things. I refused to lower myself into further dweebdom by watching the first three installments of the series in preparation as I heard several people say they were going to do, including the most thoughtful person I know. I did however prepare myself in other ways. When I was driving around I often closed my eyes and tried to use the force to help me navigate the vehicle and avoid any obstacles (i.e. other cars and people) that were in my way.

My reluctance and lack of interest to see the latest in the Star Wars series also had to do with the over enthusiasm some showed in counting down the days until the opening and camping out in front of theaters to be among the first to see the movie. There is something a tad disturbing about people's devotion to the pseudo-fable/mythology of the Star Wars philosophy. The near religious like need to accept another myth seems silly when there are plenty of other myths and beliefs on this planet that are in need of debunking. The Star Wars culture is now over twenty years old and has attained a scary status beyond mere entertainment.

So it was with more than a bit of trepidation that I found myself in that movie theater merely hoping I could endure and not get too fidgety during the two hours. First off I must say that the movie is loud. With all the laser shots, light saber battles, and flying saucer sound effects, it almost became necessary to cover my ears so as to save myself for the next rock concert I go to. There aren't a lot of quiet moments in the film. Still, the little pod race sequence is among the most exciting moments of the series and I must say I quite liked the queen, played by Natalie Portman. (Ms. Portman provided one of my favorite interviews on David Letterman a few years ago. When Dave asked what her father did for a living, she replied, "He's a fertility specialist." To which Dave said, "That's great because there certainly aren't enough people in this world...") Throughout the movie Portman displays a cool authoritative detachment that reminded me not so much of what I find so endearing in my favorite mother of two, but more the ever present smile in her eyes. On the other hand the young Anikan Skywalker, played by Jake Lloyd, is just what this series doesn't need, another cute little Muppet. Lloyd is a way too smug and self aware and it is easy to see why the little twerp eventually turns to the dark side.

The film also lacks the presence of a strong villain character. Darth Maul with his cheap devilish looking make-up looks like he just stepped out of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode (the film could use a heavy dose of that series' witty writing). Without a strong villain the movie doesn't exactly live up to its title. We do get the pleasure(?) of seeing C3PO naked and also Yoda with hair.

Phantom Menace does make it easy to get lost in the world it creates. The underwater planet is sublime, and the movie is skillful in making you believe that this other place does in fact exist. As I looked over at Eben who was taking it all in with the wonderment of a ten year old, I too dropped my cynicism for a moment and truthfully must say I enjoyed the movie a heck of a lot more than I thought I would. By the time the movie reached its climatic centerpiece, the land battle with the army of skinny little robot soldiers I was almost completely won over. The battle scene is terrific, remindful of the frightening skeleton attack scene in Jason and the Argonauts. Though not quite as intense as that particular scene (still perhaps the scariest thing I've ever seen in a movie) the seamless technology used to create the battle is quite impressive. The best movies have the ability to take you to another place or another time. Phantom Menace took me all the way back to looking at things through the eyes of a ten year old. That is a galaxy far far away.

Monday, June 21, 1999

Still Crazy After All These Years

Great pieces of art come along with the same regularity of say, your friendly neighborhood nervous breakdown. You never know when the next one might appear, but when it does you've wondered why it's taken so long for it to arrive. Both are inevitable but can come few and far between. Despite the sometimes excruciating delay I would normally say that it doesn't do much good to allow the modification of a masterpiece simply because the next great one has yet to come along. Great art should not be retouched, enhanced, or modified. It shouldn't need it. Still it is hard to quibble with Columbia's recent decision to release one of the all time great records, Bob Dylan's Street Legal, remixed and remastered.

Being somewhat of a fan of Mr. Bob it is sometimes difficult for me to understand why people whose opinions I most respect fail to see the man's genius. I have made tapes for people, taken them to Dylan concerts with me, emailed them a set of lyrics, pointed out a particularly stunning vocal performance, and yet they still seemed unconvinced. Street Legal isn't exactly the record you want to play to convert the unconverted. It is one of Dylan's most confusing records, most difficult records, and utterly void of any kind of joy. As released, the sound of the band (complete with horns and female back up singers) is muddied and often it is difficult to discern one instrument or voice from another. Dylan's singing is the most pinched of his career. He truly sounds as if he's in pain. The whole sound is tight and tinny, compressed and coupled with some indecipherable lyric writing it creates the closest thing to a recorded nervous breakdown I've ever heard.

"Fortune calls. I stepped forth from the shadows, to the marketplace. Merchants and thieves hungry for power, my last deal gone down. She's smelling sweet like the meadows where she was born, on midsummer's eve, near the tower."

It was one of Dylan's first records nearly universally panned by the critics. Rolling Stone's review called it "fake Dylan" and said it was Dylan going the Elvis/Vegas route. Their review was so harsh that it was later retracted with the editor rewriting it and giving a slightly kinder review. Coming at the same time as negative reviews for his current concert tour, and some truly harsh criticism over his first effort at producing a film, Renaldo and Clara, it was a low point in Dylan's up to then, rather respected career.

What makes Street Legal so special? It is music from a man beyond the brink of despair. The type of music one might create if one was licking the wounds left from depending on someone no longer there, with the added pain of knowing that the departed person made the right decision. Conversations and company much missed. "Bullets can harm you and death can disarm you. But no, you will not be deceived. Stripped of all virtue as you crawl through the dirt, you can give but you cannot receive." It is music from one desperately reaching out to another just as that other is turning their back. The lyrics are densely descriptive yet they serve to conceal more than they do reveal what's in the writer's heart. "There's a lion in the road, there's a demon escaped, there's a million dreams gone, there's a landscape being raped. As her beauty fades and I watch her undrape, I won't but then again, maybe I might. Oh if I could just find you tonight."

The music is moody and bitter and overwhelmingly confusing. At one moment Dylan reaches out tenderly, "If you're looking for assistance babe, or if you just want some company. Or if you just want a friend you can talk to, honey come and see about me." The next moment he sings with a straight face and with much self pity and a soul that has totally lost all faith and given up any hope of getting better, "All right, I'll take a chance, I will fall in love with you. If I'm a fool you can have the night, you can have the morning too. Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow? Do you understand my pain? Are you willing to risk it ALL or is your love in vain?" He is at the end of his rope and doesn't have the energy left to fight the demons. "Let's disconnect these cables, overturn these tables. This place don't make sense to me no more, can you tell me what we're waiting for Senor?" The concluding song, Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat) is equally as disturbing as it is beautiful. This is a great writer writing great. It's edgy music and it comes from way deep inside. "There's a new day at dawn and I've finally arrived. If I'm there in the morning, baby, you'll know I've survived. I can't believe it, I can't believe I'm alive. But without you it just doesn't seem right."

The remastered and remixed version sounds wonderful. The instruments and vocals are clear and separated. It sounds current and it sounds great. Still, a lot of the power of the original mix is missing. What added so much to the effectiveness was the whole thing was so damned compressed- the closed in sound added to the claustrophobic feeling of the lyrics. What stands out about the re-release is the skill of Dylan's singing, some of the best of his career. The vocals are now clearly at the front of the mix. This is a man going down with his last breath and the urgency of Dylan's vocals convey that quite effectively. At the very least perhaps this will finally give Street Legal the long overdue recognition and listen it deserves.

The Great Stapler Incident

Early in the week I was preparing some important documents to mail. One of the documents was several pages in length so I decided I needed to fasten the pages together. Unfortunately I did not have a stapler at home. So I moseyed on across the street to the drug store carrying with me only a five dollar bill figuring that would be more than enough to cover the costs. I soon discovered the only stapler the store had was one that cost $5.49 (a bright pink one!) so I scampered back home, grabbed some change and went back.

Sure, the cost seemed a tad pricy but you don't have much of a choice when you have to try and hold something together. After bringing my newly purchased stapler back home I opened it to discover that it didn't come with any staples included. I didn't especially want to go back a third time to the drug store so I pondered my options and since I needed some groceries I hopped in my badly fender dented car and drove down to the grocery store hoping they would have what I needed. I had a difficult time locating staples but I knew the store carried some office supplies. I couldn't even find the Scotch tape so I knew I hadn't found the right area. When I finally found the right aisle I saw a lot of empty racks. The only staples they were the tiny kind, not sufficient to fit in my big shiny bright pink device.

After further contemplation and a bit of cursing I decided the entire project could wait another day. So the next day I went back to the drug store, bought some staples, brought them home and opened up the stapler and the box of staples only to discover they too were the wrong size. All this trouble for one measly staple, one piece of tiny metal merely to hold it all together!

For a moment I thought I might try something a little radical, show some initiative and build my own homemade staple. Being a history major I knew that back in the olden days, before the invention of fancy contraptions like a stapler, documents were either tied together, bound, or held together by a pin. (Is there any connection between the word "staple" and the one of the functions of the device- to stabilize/hold together?) (Does anybody know who DID invent the stapler? The Oakland Raiders used to have a quarterback named Kenny "the Snake" Stabler, but I doubt he had anything to do with it.) I searched my house for a pin but came up empty. I tried to think of other thin metal strips I might be able to use. It finally dawned on me that the time I was wasting trying to be innovative was probably better spent at the drug store. Plus the document I wanted to send was of some importance and a good professional look was important. A person can certainly undo a lot of work contentwise with a sloppy presentation.

So again I got into my sad looking car and went to Walgreens (which is a mile from the trusty neighborhood drug store across the street). There I found a multitude of staples, but the size I needed only came in a big whopping box. Now at a point of near desperation I bought the box, way more than I needed, because I never wanted to have to go through the experience ever again. When I got back home I stapled my document with more than a little gusto. I marveled at how far our stapling technology has come over the years. Many staplers give you that two option system, either the conventional staple with its ends bent neatly inward, or the more eccentric option of having the ends bent towards the outside. Streamlined and thin, you hardly ever see people take the time to admire a good stapling job.

Operating on a staple thin budget these days, the whole purchase process probably wasn't the most efficiently conducted. Maybe one single trip to say, OfficeMax would have sufficed and saved me time and money in the first place? Now I'm left with many extra staples and it makes me staple happy wanting to get my money's worth and affix all my many papers together. At the very least I can comfort myself with the secure knowledge that if that Y2K thing affects staplers, I'll have a healthy stash so things won't completely fall apart anymore than they tend to naturally do.

Monday, June 14, 1999

Graduation Day

Class of 1999, I am here before you speaking not only as your friendly neighborhood newsletter editor, but also as a replacement for your valedictorian who has a date with President Clinton. That by the way, is the first and last joke I will ever do about the President. Back when I was in school we used to whine about having to learn algebra and physics... "When will I ever use this in real life?" I guess you too must look at real life lessons like accountability and self responsibility and wonder if what's on the page in front of you has any practical application.

But I digress. As I look out among you, I see the usual crowd of proud faces tinged with a certain uncertainty and sadness, enthusiasm marked with a smidgen of skepticism. You have indeed accomplished much in your years of hard work and yes, you do have so much more in front of you. We hear so much today about the bad things about the youth of America and we hear just as much about all the difficulties you will face in the future. Yet I have had the pleasure of getting to know two of you specifically and I have nothing but the utmost respect for both of you. I have watched you grow up, make a few mistakes along the way, yet I'm proud to call myself an uncle to one of you (Nathan Michael Trygg) and a friend of the family to another (Jessica Rose Deutsch). You both are outstanding young adults who I have absolutely no doubt will continue to add so much to your community as you continue to grow.

The only bit of advice I can possibly offer is whatever you end up doing, don't do as I did. I don't say that as yet another example of self depreciation, but rather it is a life lesson that is important to learn. If I were a teacher or professor the last test I would give to my graduating students would be a test that has no correct answers and at the same time no wrong answers because essentially isn't that what life ends up to be? None of us has the answers and we all discover different things we need to know along the way. What works for me, won't necessarily work for you. We all must find our own paths.

Graduation day is full of bittersweet feelings. You should be proud of what you have achieved and remember fondly the memories along the way. You also should acknowledge those feelings of sadness and uncertainty. You will never see many of your classmates ever again. There has to be a certain feeling of insecurity in many of you because you aren't quite sure what is ahead. That, girlfriend, is stressful to the extreme. Graduation is that odd combination of endings and beginnings all intertwined together.

If there is one other thing I might pass on to you is that I have seen no matter where I have been, no matter what situation I find myself in, happiness is more often linked to what you give, not about what you get. What you do for others is ultimately more satisfying than what others do for you. I say this as I remember another graduation day of sorts 13 years ago, when I stood in my dorm room and my neighbor came over and as we had for the past few weeks, we got into a fight. It was a relationship that at the time I felt like I put in a lot more than I got back. Now I see what she left still circles inside and puts the balance squarely in her favor. Unlike many relationships this one ended with a dramatic explosion and this particular scene was a signpost along the way. It reached a point where every encounter was draining. I was responding to something my neighbor said when she said to me, "You can't always make a joke about everything. Some things are serious..." More than any of her other criticism of me, this one hurt most. Perhaps because deep down I knew it to be true and knew it to be a particular weakness of mine. Not that I can't be serious, I can be seriously serious among the best (and worst) of them. Just that as a defense my first reaction often times is a joke. Thing was, I wasn't joking. She said she never knew when to take me seriously, and when to take my words at face value.

Until recently I always thought the most difficult thing about the end to that particular relationship was that we never had a chance to say good-bye to each other. Things got so crazy in the end that it just wasn't possible. I always felt that if we could have sat down and quietly said good-bye, it would have been better for all involved. I am finally beginning to see I was just fooling myself. Endings are never easy. Moments like graduation give you plenty of opportunity for closure and yet no matter what you say, no matter what you do, nothing can quite prepare you for the impact and the aftermath. I don't think most of us are too good at saying good-bye. We all just kind of uncomfortably fake our way through things. It is often painful but seldom malicious. Indeed, I have come to see that my long lost neighbor had it right a time or two. There are moments when the jokes cease working. After the laughter stops and the smiles disappear sometimes all you are left with is that awful empty spot deep inside and you know your heart will never quite be the same again. Most of the time there is comfort in knowing that with an ending comes another beginning just around the corner. Most of the time. But there are times when you have to take a moment and appreciate not so much what was or might be but what you have now. It doesn't always last.

Monday, June 7, 1999

As the Crow Flies

Just because a fellow finds it is becoming increasingly difficult to leave his house doesn't mean his struggle with agoraphobia is worsening. Nope, it can mean, and in this case it mostly does mean, that he has a pair of big black attack crows in his backyard. Thems are scary birds.

The two birds with wing spans the scope of the darkest lunar eclipse, fly from house to house, yard to yard, telephone wire to telephone wire, and as they do so they make the loudest noise, not really a cackle as much as a caw, with increasing intimidating volume. As soon as I step out of my humble little house, the two birds start circling overhead like buzzards or vultures and with each passing circle they get closer and closer to my lil' head.

Now granted I'm not exactly a morning person but it isn't as though I need any help getting started before eight o'clock a.m. Nope, I'm quite fine getting myself to wherever I may have to be usually early rather than late. So it's certainly not as if these two birds who seem to think they own the neighborhood, are doing me a favor with their ritualistic cacophony of noisy phantasmagoria. But every morning my heart gets an early rush of adrenaline from the mean spirited behavior from these two monsters. I'm more than willing to leave them alone if they agree to leave me alone. If they have a nest in the area all they need to do is let me know where it is and I'll promise not to go anywhere near it, or do anything to endanger their young. I have no motivation to agitate these birds. Makes me wonder why we all can't just get along.

It's gotten to the point where I nervously look over my shoulder any time I step outdoors, and a couple times I even sort of made a mad dash for the garage when the two crows began their circling act. One morning I even thought about bringing Mr. Max out with me for protection, but these birds are large enough that they could probably swoop down, pick him up and carry him away before he even had the time to so much as start to meow. I can see it in my mind, my little buddy being carried off somewhere in the distance with a stunned and a little scared look on his lovable little face, not sure what hit him.

Last week, I took my first aggressive action. As one of the crows began diving closer to my head, I stopped in my yard. No longer was I going to stand for this constant intimidation. I looked up (praying to God the bird wouldn't either peck out my eye, or decide to let go of some excrement) and started barking at the top of my lungs. Quite to my surprise it kind of worked. The bird didn't get as close as usual, and eventually ended up perched on the nearby telephone line where it remained until I got to my garage. As soon as it left the wire I barked again. Again, it stayed clear of me. At this point my neighbors probably all were looking out their windows at me, either alarmed at this rather anti-social behavior, or quietly applauding me. The crows have been nondiscriminating with their annoying noisy act. They have even frightened the kind elderly next door neighbor who loves to hang her laundry outside to dry.

Of course the aforementioned Mr. Max has been curiously watching all the action from his favorite window that gives him quite the front row observation post. He has left me wondering how the same kitty who gets worked up if any other cat innocently meanders within fifty feet of our yard can sit there so passively when he is watching these two monsters try and takeover all of the Como Park area at the same time they are coming ever so close to the very head of the same being who is responsible for putting out his delectable meal every day. I'm not so much disappointed in him as I am curious to know how he picks his irritations. Doesn't he even care that the crows have certainly limited the variety in what he sees? Their presence has impacted the amount of sparrows, robins and other birds we are used to seeing. He acts as if this is just yet another example of flaky behavior from the one he has lived with for the past eight years. Maybe I shouldn't take it so personal, what with the recent steamy weather and all maybe he's just wondering as I am, when in the world we moved our house to downtown Manila.