Monday, December 25, 2000

No More Ms. Nice Gal

Back before we ever considered Chad a four letter word, back before we elected a president who received over 500,000 less votes than his opponent, I won the ultimate popularity contest in my fifth grade class at Central Park Elementary School. My classmates voted me "Citizen of the Year" and it wasn't even close enough for a recount.

What had I done to deserve such an honor? Had I organized a student movement to clean up school yard litter? Nope. Had I led a protest over having to wear those standard ugly blue uniforms in gym class? Nope. Had I demanded higher quality school lunches that actually tasted and resembled actual food products? Nope. Did I lobby the teachers to ensure less homework? Think again Pepe. I was just a nice little guy that everybody seemed to like. Could the lesson therefore be that to be a good citizen is as simple as being as nice and popular as you can be? Hmmmm. Call me Mr. Congeniality.

Speaking of which, Sandra Bullock is a likable enough actress. I don't know of anyone with the exception of my pal Spunky who dislikes her. You may not like her movies and you may have no feelings about her whatsoever but in general I don't think there's anything about her screen personality that is all that unlikable. One of her first movies, Love Potion #9, ironically enough was written by Spunky's cousin, Dale Launer. In it Sandra played a nerdy scientist with a nerdy boyfriend. When they get their hands on a magical love potion they become irresistible to members of the opposite sex. But the lesson of the movie was that it wasn't only the chemicals that changed things. With a new found confidence both Sandra and her boyfriend developed the inner strength needed to be attractive to others. Sandra broke out of her cocoon by shedding her big glasses and protruding teeth. Beneath that waif of a person was a beautiful woman waiting to emerge.

Her new movie, Ms. Congeniality, isn't merely just a repeat of that previous film, it is a disappointing step back. If the new film didn't star Bullock and didn't feature some fine supporting performances by Michael Caine, William Shatner, and Candice Bergen, it would be in a word, dreadful. But somehow the cast is able to rise above the inane plot of a tomboy FBI agent who must find her feminine side in order to work undercover at a beauty pageant.

That Bullock served as the producer of the film suggests it may be time for somebody to take her aside and say, "Sandra my dear god love ya, but you can't live off your popularity forever. Someday if you keep choosing the same scripts over and over there are gonna be more people who side with that prophet Spunky. You my friend need to start making a better class of movies or risk a future in some lame TV sitcom."

There's a certain underlying sadness about Ms. Congeniality. Bullock's character, Gracie Hart, is a tough but lonely 30ish woman. Her most endearing quality besides her biting sarcasm might be her chuckling snort. She admits she has only had a couple of dates over the past several years excusing her obvious loneliness by saying her job is taking up all her time. Neglect those around you long enough and you end up drowning your sorrows with a pint (of Ben and Jerry's that is). But Gracie obviously has a big heart as she helps the lacking in self confidence Ms. Rhode Island believe in herself enough to have a chance to win the pageant.

The best part of the film is that Gracie does let down her shield and actually starts to like her fellow pageant members rather than looking down at their light bulb screwing waves and pleas for world peace. She sees that at least they (unlike her government thug colleagues) sincerely care about what they are doing and only in the end want to make the world a better place. No matter how shallow that wish may be is it such a bad thing to want?

Perhaps the point of the movie is that despite the makeover, despite the sexier wardrobe the made up Sandra really isn't any more beautiful than the rough and tumble never get a second look from her fellow FBI pigs true self. It is her sense of humor, her disengaging smile, her aggressive saunter that warms the heart more than any low cut cleavage revealing outfit can ever do. Beauty is in many ways skin deep as we are constantly bombarded with images of what we should and should not be attracted to. But after you peel all that away, after you wash away all the makeup what is truly beautiful is the heart that can find the way to give itself to others. Call it congenital congeniality.


10) When Madonna appeared in her little girl cowboy outfit on the Late Show with David Letterman she looked tired- the kind of tired that comes from raising two kids (Lourdes and Rocco) and trying to rev up a professional career again. It had already been a good year for her beginning with a wonderfully subdued cover of "American Pie." The refrain of the song, "the day the music died" asked a question that her terrific CD, Music answered. On her new CD Madonna proves that despite the changes in her life, music is still what matters most to her and through its healing ability- it hasn't died. Music is in many ways a return to her dance days with a nod to a more contemporary sound- the French techno style so hip with the kids these days. On the Late Show however she agreed to perform an acoustic version of the new CD's strongest song, "Don't Tell Me." She said she was just beginning to learn how to play the guitar again and she brought out her guitar teacher and humbly asked the audience not to laugh at her if she flubbed things up. What followed was a very moving version of the simple song- and a demonstration of the artist's innate musical abilities. Yes she was a limited instrumentalist and yet somehow she used the lack of experience to bring out the powerful emotions of the song.

9) Tubby Esquire, the 2000 Minnesota Music Award winner for best polka band, opened their set at Mayslack's on May 26 to a rather unenthusiastic looking group of people. A couple of the band's friends sat at the table nearest the dance floor in front of the bar's cramped stage. I sat slightly behind the two and to the right. Behind me was an elderly couple that looked like they had been in the bar since the day it opened. A few stragglers came from the main area to the back room once the music started but they invariably didn't stay long. The country and polka music sounded good but unfortunately few were listening. The band began to take requests- everything from the "Beer Barrel Polka," to Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." When they struck up Hank Williams' "Dear John," a group of younger people meandered into the area and began dancing. They were joined by an obviously intoxicated young man that danced by himself doing some rather interesting if not obscene gestures. It was a scene straight out of the oddest novel and I can honestly say I've never had and may never have a better time listening to polka music.

8) My sister, who is in the process of earning her Masters Degree in writing with a focus on personal essays, gave me a high compliment the other day. She said she is impressed that I have been able to write this weekly column for so long. Truth be known the major lesson I've learned in trying to write something interesting every week for the past eight and a half years is that writing personal essays is about the most difficult thing in the world. Finding worthwhile material is bad enough but the process of openly sharing yourself and still connecting with potential readers can be akin to taking a fist in the gut every so often. That's why I was so impressed with Sarah Vowell's collection of essays, Take the Cannoli: Stories of the New World. Vowell, a regular contributor to National Public Radio's "This American Life," has a sardonic view of life that she shares with a razor sharp acerbic wit. Take the Cannoli is a constantly entertaining read, and the two essays on Sinatra are priceless.

7) In the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer a demon can jump out at you at any moment. The way to defeat the demon usually requires staking it through its heart. Rest be assured however that there will always be another demon just around the corner. Overnight your best friends can turn into the ones that drive you mad. And those that are dead don't always remain that way (Buffy herself was killed the first season; Angel's tormentor Darla returned this year having been staked by the big guy himself). Those that are apparently alive are often dead and without a soul. As the characters explore their darker sides they often see that the only way to get through is with a witty one liner. Maybe this has nothing to do with the world you see around you but it's a fairly fair reflection of my world (and we don't even have to mention that poor Angel lacks a reflection altogether).

6) The Minnesota Twins drift ever so perilously and sadly towards becoming not just a symbolic Triple A baseball team but an actual one and last season was yet another discouraging effort. Indeed the current state of affairs can be summed up by the fact that the undisputed highlight of the year, the thing that got the fans most interested was the giveaway of four porcelain bobblehead dolls. Through a lot of work and planning my friend and I were lucky enough to get all four. As they sit atop my desk those noddin' stars of the past mockingly bob their noggins as a reminder of better days.

5) Early in the year I stood underneath a speaker with tinny sound in a dollar store in the Burnsville Center. I was killing time waiting for my wardrobe manager to arrive to help me pick out some new work clothes. Out of the clatter and chatter and bumping and jostling came a familiar voice singing his new song that I had yet to hear. The song's jaunting melody and sardonic words were enhanced by that wonderful voice. "I used to care but... things have changed," Bob Dylan sang. It was a perfect moment coalescing anticipation and appreciation. I find it difficult to believe that one can say he doesn't care anymore yet still is able to write such a cutting, observant song. A few months later I was standing in the second row next to the stage watching Bob sing the same song. He was no more than twenty feet from me when he looked into my eyes. The artist whose work has touched me like no other was looking directly at me. In the immortal words of that Mike Judge character, "...uh... cool..."

4) The one-year anniversary of my Mom's death was dreadfully approaching. My friend had agreed to come over and go with me to the cemetery, the place I was finding it increasingly difficult to visit. Prior to our trip out I bought an Azalea plant. The plant had an abundance of pretty lavender flowers. I figured I could clip a flower a day and bring it out to Mom. Mr. Max being the vegetarian he is was quite curious about this new addition to our house. I put the plant out of his reach to squelch his curiosity. But every morning I moved it near a window so it could get some sunlight. I carefully constructed a blockade to try and discourage Max. One day I found he had skillfully maneuvered his way past the barricade and was contently munching on the dark pointed green leaves of the plant. I scolded him and chased him away. Later that night he was acting more sluggish than normal so I looked up information on Azaleas on the Internet. I was horrified to find out that the plant was listed as one of the most toxic for cats. I immediately called up an animal poison center (who knew such a place existed)? and was told to bring Max in to his vet. As I dropped him off after watching them poke and prod him, and seeing him shivering in fright I stepped out to the hospital's parking lot and called my friend. She thought I sounded so shaken that she came out to be with me. The next day I was told Max probably had about a 50/50 chance of making it. I visited him on my lunch hour and as the vet's assistant retrieved him and brought him out I saw my faithful friend had a tube attached through his nose. Not once during the half an hour I held him would he look at me. The smell and sound of sick dogs surrounded us. When I finally was able to bring him home, my perspective of our friendship, always held in the highest regard, was even more appreciative.

3) Looking back it was probably more insipid than I thought at the time and at the time I thought it was pretty damn insipid. But Survivor was also pretty damn compelling TV. How can watching a group of people put in a silly and contrived situation saying bitchy things about each other be compelling? In the same way that watching any group dynamic where people have to work together to achieve a goal that will most benefit one individual is. The silly tiki torches and solemn ritual of voting the others off the island added to the wonderfully over the top, we know this is silly but we are taking it seriously, approach of the show. The end result with the most conniving of the group winning by being the only one keeping in mind it was always a game, was perfect. So was Sue, the truck driver's scathing monologue against her former best friend, Kelly Wigglesworth. They couldn't write stuff this good.

2) Some of my closest and dearest friends are election officials. I'd trust them with my life. But when did we start following Stalin's rule of law, that it doesn't matter who casts the votes, it matters who counts them? It was astoundingly absurd and disconcerting the way we went about electing a President this year. For years people have complained about not having any choices to vote for. For years people have also complained about the dwindling voter interest and participation. Little did we know we'd ever reach a point where our next President would be chosen by a difference of one vote (5-4).

1) For 36 years of all the things I've learned and tried to unlearn, for all the things I have seen and heard and have tried to remember and forget- the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds is probably the single moment of expression that in many ways sticks with me most. And if somebody would have asked me along the way what is the one thing that you in your wildest dreams would never believe for an instant you'd ever see happen, I probably would have said seeing the writer of that wonderful song cycle perform those songs live. So last fall when I indeed had the privilege of seeing Brian Wilson perform the LP in its entirety it was with some trepidation. What if it didn't live up to what I thought it would be and how could it? But it did. I don't believe I've ever smiled wider than when Brian raised his hands in a football referee's touchdown signal at the end of "I'm Waiting for the Day."

Monday, December 18, 2000

Chris Clouser We Hardly Knew Thee

Years back KSTP-TV, the station with regularly revolving anchors, hired a man named Randall Carlisle who loved to open the newscast with a question. One night the newscast's lead story was of a salmonella outbreak involving some local dairy products. Randall dutifully opened the show with the wonderfully profound, "How many of us have ever had cheese?"

I never much appreciated Randall while he was here. But now I'm beginning to see the wisdom of the philosophy of living life by thinking in questions rather than declarative thoughts. I used to think that it was the not knowing that made people mad. Now I see that sometimes it's what you don't know that won't hurt you. Was it Plato or Socrates that used to ask so many darn questions?

My week began by receiving a check for $48 in the mail from Hennepin County. It came completely from out of the blue and the only note were a few words written on the stub- "Non- negotiable" and "Restitution." I appreciated the unexpected windfall all the more by using the Carlisle approach to life. How many of us like getting a surprise check in the mail?

To find out what it was about I called a nice young fellow at the county as soon as I had the chance. It was as I suspected. Back on election night 1998 I was doing contract work for the county. My car was parked on the deserted late night streets of downtown Minneapolis with thousands of dollars of election equipment inside, and somebody busted the passenger door window. The $48 restitution check was a result of the perpetrator being sentenced and slowly but surely paying his debt to society (five others and myself). How many of us have ever had to pay back an unwanted debt?

Actually if truth be told, the county owes me much more than that if we want to talk about just restitution. Who among us always gets what we deserve?

Certainly not new Texas Ranger shortstop Alex Rodriguez a.k.a. "A-Rod." Rodriquez was rewarded for his standing as the world's greatest baseball player with an astounding $252 million contract. To put the state of the game in perspective the local team is struggling to sign journeyman Ron Coomer to a $1.7 million contract. Rodriquez now will make more by himself than the total payroll of twelve teams. This turn of events now makes even those most ardent in the support of building a new baseball stadium scratch our heads. Can the game survive such obscene disparities?

With the current state of affairs it's important to keep in mind that dealing with disappointment is all a part of life as the poets tell us. We live in a land of tainted beef and presidents so it's important to remember a principal principle of writing- in writing it is better to "show not tell." How many of us wouldn't be better off living the life of a writer?

One answer to that question is that those who live in movies (or "la la land" as someone I'm quite fond of once said) are often better off not living the life of a writer. I imagine it would be much less stressful being a full-blown movie star. 'Cause we all know what all movies are ultimately about- sex. What is sexy?

It's an unfortunate Hollywood cliche' that many of our biggest starlets worked their way up through the ranks by taking bit roles in some pretty lousy movies. Of course one of the unwritten duties of unknown starlets in unmemorable pictures is to do the obligatory sex scene. The apple peach of my mind's eye, Sandra Bullock, unfortunately was no exception. Who needs to see the girl next door naked?

In 1991 Bullock "starred" in a Roger Corman film called Fire on the Amazon. The film was completely forgettable. Co-starring Craig Sheffer as an obnoxious American photographer, Bullock plays an activist fighting the destruction of the Rain Forest in some Amazon country. One of the leaders of the cause is brutally murdered (arrow through the neck witnessed first hand by a young daughter). A local native is arrested for the murder and commits "suicide" while awaiting trial of the apparently open and shut case. Bullock and Sheffer are the only two who believe the accused has been conveniently framed by the local authorities. Who says all third world countries are full of corruption?

The movie seems to have its heart in the right place- sort of. There is a message about ugly Americans bringing their unwanted arrogant judgments to other cultures that they don't understand. There's a message about the need to stop the destruction of the Rain Forest. It's just that it's all approached on a somewhat superficial level- and comes across about as effectively as your average late night cable USA network offering. Still the essence of Sandra's appeal is readily apparent. She's plucky, she's smart, and she's immensely likeable and familiar. Isn't this true of all her subsequent roles?

In some far off stretch Fire on the Amazon reminded me of the classic Rita Hayworth film Gilda. That film was a pretty standard exercise, a love story revolving around a political thriller. Both films feature plots about corrupt men dealing in a precious earth element. In Fire on the Amazon it's the rubber barons who are the bad guys. In Gilda it's the men trying to build a monopoly on the world's supply of tungsten. In the center of both films are climatic sex scenes. What movie would be complete without one?

And it is here where the "show don't tell" approach is proven way wrong. The sex scene in Fire on the Amazon comes out of nowhere. Bullock's character views the Sheffer character with disdain and rightfully so. He's selfish, single-minded and has annoying hair (even the local police notice that). They venture deep into the Amazon and are captured by an angry local tribe. So of course what is the first thing that they do?

They have wild jungle sex. The scene itself was graphic enough to earn the film an NC-17 rating. For those scoring at home so to speak, we get to see lots of skin and lots of bodily movement but not much anatomy. So therefore it's a treat for us Sandra Bullock groupies right?

Not necessarily so. Her sex appeal isn't her greatest appeal to some of us. And that's not to say on the other hand that it's her wholesomeness that attracts some of us either. For some, Sandra's appeal has always been rooted in her cloned believability- a reminder of a limper from the past, the giver of a lucky rock- a Siskel to my Ebert- the rare one who enjoyed the movie "experience" as much if not more than I. If I can't enjoy her company next to me at the movies anymore it's always nice to be reminded of her up there on that big white screen. Movies as life, life as movies etc. Isn't it hard to separate the two?

Fire on the Amazon was the last movie of Bullock's film catalog remaining for me to see. And I wavered in my decision of whether or not to see the film. I'm a completist by nature and I'm now quite proud to say I've seen all her movies (I even have the made for TV movie The Bionic Showdown on tape). I'm the first in line to see her new movies (and plan to be there December 22 when the ironically titled Ms. Congeniality opens). Yet I know Sandra tried to block the video release of Fire on the Amazon for obvious reasons. Is my devotion only skin deep?

But back to the heady and admittedly not too fair comparison with Gilda. The sex scene in that film is one of the most famous film moments and to my eyes probably the most erotic bit of filmmaking I've ever seen. Ironically the sex of the scene isn't between Hayworth and any man but rather between Hayworth and the camera. The movie establishes that her character Gilda isn't exactly the most stable woman around, but she is a free spirit with a devilish mind. Entrapped in a manipulative marriage she is literally imprisoned in a casino owned by her husband (played by of all people Glenn Ford). One night in a sly effort to break out she protests her entrapped state of being by seducing a captive crowd of men with a stunning version of "Put the Blame on Mame" much to her husband's discomfort. It's a smoldering performance that leaps off the screen in an apocalyptic way. Decked in a shimmering dark dress the dangerous carnal appeal of Hayworth's performance is greatly enhanced by the black and white photography. We're not sure what color the dress is only that it clings at all the right times in all the right places; we're not sure what color Gilda's hair or eyes are only that they have to be the color we desire them to be; and that voice (though not really Hayworth's but singer Anita Ellis) oozes sensuality. It is a clear example of how some things are better left to the imagination rather than explicitly lay bare. Tell don't show. Share don't hold back. Trust don't worry. What we see often is not as powerful as what we think we might see. And it all depends on what the definition of "is" is. In between the darkness and light lies some mighty confusing gray hues. When is a vote not a vote?

So leave it to Sandra's character in her constant comforting way to offer up the ultimate intimate wisdom. "Promise me one thing, write about what you feel not what you see..." she says fading away after earlier offering up the fitting and insightful question, "How far will you run when you have nowhere to hide?"

Monday, December 11, 2000

How My Chad was Dimpled

We look before and after
And pine for what is not;
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought


I got my car back from the shop, the dang dings and dents and dimples all polished and removed. I'm hoping it can stay in this shiny condition for at least two weeks this time. I told Abra friendly receptionist Sue, a former high school classmate, that it looked as if I was becoming a regular of her establishment. She asked if I was married. On the radio on my way home I learned that Colonel Klink had died on Pearl Harbor day. I tried my best to figure out the meaning. Maybe it was connected to Shaq missing all eleven free throw attempts in one game; or the cost of sharing and sending a written word increasing by another unaffordable copper coin; or the Iron Chef finally being defeated by a challenger. All end of the world stuff. I remembered another not so long ago time I thought the apocalypse was upon us.

Sitting on the rug in front of my couch, legs stretched out underneath my coffee table, the TV was tuned in to Dick Clark's Rockin New Years Eve. The shade to my front picture window remained open allowing the flickering street light across the way to interfere with the darkness level of my living room. Max (henceforth known as Mr. Dimples) paced about as I tried my best to keep his natural curiosity from messing up the project in front of me.

Ever since Thanksgiving I had been working on the project- attempting to paint an oil portrait of the picture of beauty burned inside my heart congruent with the enhanced image (and memory) in my mind's eye. Actually I was cheating a bit with an inspiring photo available that I was relying on heavily to sketch out the details to the painting. The painting was not going well- the colors weren't right and my attempts at getting the eyes and smile right were equally futile with my attempts to get the proportions correct. The absence simmered more overwhelmingly than the times of her presence.

I got up and headed to the bathroom where I shut off the water that was filling my tub. I wasn't drawing a bath but rather as the clock approached the new year I figured the bathtub was my largest storage vessel and it was prudent to be somewhat ready. I had already filled all my empty bottles with water and gotten out my flashlights and candles. If this truly was going to be my last night on the planet I figured at the very least I should go out prepared.

I must say having attended several legislative hearings over the past two years on the potential Y2K scenarios I thought myself a bit more educated than the average citizen. Paraphrasing a Barbara Mandrell song, I knew what Y2K was before being Y2K compliant was cool. Deep inside I kinda hoped the world was going to explode. It wasn't so much because of my acknowledged fatalist tendencies, but rather it was more rooted in my journalism background. If this was really society's end, I wanted to be there to witness the biggest story of all. Selfishly I didn't want others to eventually see something I wasn't around to see for myself.

The phone rang and my sister in Los Angeles was on the other end. We chatted as the big hand of my Japanese clock edged ever so closer to the midnight hour. I turned down Dick Clark but didn't dare change the channel since he is the closest thing we have to father time. The Times Square ball hit its appointed spot and all the bells and whistles sounded. My sister asked if my electricity remained on. And it did leaving me feeling foolish for having nothing but a tub full of fear drawn water to celebrate with.

Yes I felt a bit daft for falling victim to the hype. But it had all seemed at least a bit plausible to me that because computer programmers hadn't planned ahead and had used two digit year indicators in many of our programs that there would be some computer glitches somewhere- the severity of which we couldn't really know in advance. I could very much believe our end would be caused by a reliance on science over our own spirituality.

But nothing happened. Our technology wasn't the end of us. Or so we thought.

On November 7 those of us still interested in the notion of civic duty went to our polling places to supposedly elect a president. There are a lot of myths involved with the importance of elections: that there is that much difference between the two major political parties; that every vote counts; that our system is so strong that it can handle any apparent crisis in a fair way. What seems a tad ironic is for years much of the nation has used voting systems relying on technology that was literally invented in the 1800's. That this year's election hinges on whether or not a ballot with a hanging or pregnant chad should or should not be counted makes those Y2K doomsayers seem absolutely ahead of their time- only they got their centuries a little mixed up.

Friday, December 8, 2000

Nobody Loves You When You're Six Feet Underground

It was twenty years ago today when I was at the end of my well established getting ready for bed on a school night routine. My mom and I were watching Johnny Carson's "Best of Carson" monologue when NBC News broke in with a bulletin that John Lennon had been murdered. A feeling of loss like I'd never felt before welled up inside. I was sad at the world losing a great artist. I was even sadder having read many recent articles on John's musical return, how he had finally been able to find some inner peace against the demons that he had so courageously always shared in his music. It seemed doubly tragic that just as he found that peace somebody took his life away.

John and Yoko had newly released their first LP in five years, Double Fantasy (which I dutifully went out and purchased on its day of release). Listening to the LP today is a bittersweet experience- the music is happy and free, laying the foundation to a new beginning. John had taken time off to raise their son Sean, and his return to music making was much appreciated by a fairly new Beatlemaniac. I had become a Beatles fan two years earlier in eighth grade band. Our director, the sleepy eyed Mr. Kelly had us perform a medley of Beatles songs, "Michelle," "Eleanor Rigby," and "Yesterday." My new best friend Steve Olson and I soon began to collect all things Beatles. When I fell head over heals in love with our first clarinetist Susan Weiss, it was the Beatles' songs that walked me through the incredibly wondrous inspiration inside, and the eventual heartache of seeing her hold hands with another.

Steve and I always used to argue which one of us in our friendship was Paul and which one was John. We both wanted to be Paul because who wanted to be the "weird" one? At that stage of my life I would never have forced "Revolution #9" on my fans. And what was the deal of appearing nude with Yoko on the cover of Two Virgins? I loved John's cockiness and sense of humor but Paul's charming accessible appeal seemed quite the ideal for an increasingly depressed adolescent trying to find his way through the hallways of junior high and high school.

My most Lennonesque moment came on a bus ride home from a band field trip at the end of ninth grade. It was a dark and stormy night and we had just delivered a perfunctory performance of our unique reading of Dvorak's New World Symphony at another school. I don't exactly know what came over me that night, maybe the giddiness of performing, maybe the fear of knowing that Steve and possibly Susan (who lived on the border) were going to the "other" high school in our district, the dreaded and hated Alexander Ramsey Senior High, rather than my proud alma mater, Frank B. Kellogg. How was I possibly to survive without my partner in crime, the guy who understood my sense of humor and point of view better than anyone else ever had? How was I going to live without the girl who made my heart beohyoingoyng like it never had before? So I began to sing every Beatles song I knew (and I knew them all) not quietly either, but at the top of my lungs with my voice cracking quite audibly on the upper notes of my register. Call it a spontaneous primal scream therapy session. Steve soon joined me and Susan couldn't hide her amusement at our performance. Some of our bandmates on the bus joined in on the songs they knew. Others seemed more than a tad bit upset at our impromptu concert (especially that evil french horn player Janice Kinney who had always thought I was a bit immature).

This was before I knew of John's own cleansing therapeutic scream LP, his self titled album that followed the Beatles breakup. It remains perhaps the most emotionally devastating music I've ever heard (and respect). The LP is a harrowing listening experience- as John tears up his past, everything that's hurt him and everything that has made him who he is- from his mother's death to Elvis and Dylan to the Beatles. He spares nothing and no one, certainly not his fans. Painful in its vulnerable self expression and heart bare sparse backing, an elegiac musical pall is cast. The naked vocal performance on the LP is astounding. Ranging from a near whisper, to an agonizing howl, to the stark confessional cathartic cry in "God" it is a stunning oral tour de force.

Perhaps John's most endearing quality was his nonchalance about making an ass out of himself. If he believed in something whether it be world peace or his love for Yoko, he always took things to their fullest absurdity. With the news of his assassination my mom said she felt sad knowing how deeply John's music had touched me. I tried to say something about his devotion to family. It was that devotion that stirred in me a new found appreciation for my own family. My first nephew Nathan had been born just a few months before and watching the miracle of this newborn child's awareness of the brand new world always tempered my seeping blues. It was an odd (and perhaps indulgent) connection to feel with John but it was one I felt nonetheless. "Before you cross the street/Take my hand/Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans/Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful boy" John once said that unlike his former partner, he himself did not believe in yesterday. Unfortunately all too soon that became all that remains.

Monday, December 4, 2000

Little Green Man from Alpha Centuri

The other night as Mr. Max and I were watching the bickering boys and girls on the McLaughlin Group an odd looking light flashed outside our front window. Then there was a whirring noise like unpopped kernels at the bottom of a popcorn maker. Suddenly out of nowhere a little green man appeared. Mr. Max looked half ready to pounce half ready to sprint away, but seemed too paralyzed in curiosity and fear to know exactly what to do. I turned down the sound of the television.

"Take me to your leader," the little green man with a protruding forehead and pencil thin nose said.

I shrugged not knowing how to answer him and who to point him to. "Hmmmm, you are the third human who has given me that unresponsive response tonight," he said. He muttered underneath his alien breath something about civic responsibility and disappeared into the dark night.

"Well that was kinda peculiar," I said to Max who looked up at me with a "when ya gonna feed me" look in his attentive feline eyes. I took another swig of my Old Weller whiskey, pulled the quilt Grandma Maeda made me further over myself and turned my attention to Eleanor Clift who was chastising a visibly bothered Michael Barone. We thought the excitement was over but it was not.

Poof, the little green man reappeared. He carried in his hand a piece of paper. "There are things you just should not take for granted," he said as he tossed the paper at me. I looked at it. There were names with arrows to the left of some and to the right of others. Perforated slots ran down its cleavage. It was by golly a butterfly ballot.

Just as I thought that the long national nightmare was never going to end the paper transformed itself into a caterpillar about 1 4/5 inches long. Then it began to pupate into a pale green golden spotted chrysalis. It remained in that state for only a moment when a small creature began to emerge. I looked over at the little green man who had a look of disdain on his face as if he really didn't have the time to spend teaching me whatever lesson was forthcoming.

What now appeared was a familiar member of the Danaidae family (order Lepidoptera) a butterfly with distinctive coloration, orange brown wings marked by black veins and a black border with two rows of spots. Forget that it was the most beautiful monarch I'd ever seen. It's graceful flutter was perhaps the most picturesque spiritual silhouette I'd ever shown my heart to. It flew around about a foot above my head. Max sat up and followed its every move closely. His tail thumped impatiently. The little green man remained very still.

There was familiar clanking in the basement as the furnace coughed up and kicked in. I remembered my lessons from school how butterflies hated Minnesota's cold and migrated every fall down to the otherworldly sands of Mexico. I was lost in my thoughts, in my dreams when the little green man finally spoke up.

"Sometimes you humans have the ability to convince yourself there is no choice even though a choice is apparent," he said. "You complain at times of having to choose between the lesser of two evils but that's more out of your own laziness than any actual empirical study." He pointed out that a rudderless ship would only lead to disasters like insurance companies giving breaks to SUV owners because they have the safest vehicles despite the danger they cause all around them on the road.

I had no real idea what he was talking about but I had a vague understanding of where he was headed. "You think that is a monarch butterfly don't you?" he said chidingly. I nodded. "Well taste it," he said as the butterfly floated into my mouth. I knew the coloration served to warn predators of its bitter taste but this butterfly was anything but bitter. It left the sweetest memory inside my mind.

"That was a viceroy butterfly," the little green man sneered. And the deceptive butterfly reappeared. It sauntered into the palm of my visitor. Max looked at me as if expecting me to do something about things. I knew enough about nature to know that viceroys cleverly imitate the monarch's color so its own enemies won't touch it. It may look like a monarch, our state's 13 state symbol, but it's an imitator like the difference between love and heartache. Great lights of Zetar my brain's bulb burned a little brighter. The little green man smiled and left me to concede that you can always come back but you can't always come back all the way.

Monday, November 27, 2000

Sound of a Not So Comforting Pain-o

"And if I said I really knew you well what would your answer be? If you were here today. Well knowing you, you'd probably laugh and say that we were worlds apart. If you were here today."
-Paul McCartney "Here Today"

Accidents happen. That's what I told the fur coated elderly lady that ran a stop sign and plowed into my car. Physically no one was injured, emotionally we both left a little shaken. She was pulling out of a church parking lot after having attended the funeral of a dear friend. Looking at the mess in front of us- snarled up pieces of metal and plastic- she said she didn't know what to do. She scratched my name and number down on a bag that held her recently purchased medicine. "Please have the insurance company deal directly with me and not my husband," she said. "He's been very sick."

My initial reaction to the accident was one of anger and resignation. What else can happen in this year of unrelenting sadness and loss? But after talking to this woman who saw when I got out of my car that I was visibly angry, and hearing her circumstances I found myself comforting her. "It's only an accident. At least we're not hurt," I said as she hugged me.

If this had happened a year ago it almost would have been welcome. For over a year I drove around with a badly dinged (more like smashed) fender, remnants of smacking into the side of my garage one wintry evening. Slightly embarrassed with the appearance of my car I nonetheless drove around kind of hoping someone would hit that side of my car so I had somebody to blame other than myself. This past summer my father helped pay for a new fender and shiny new hubcap covers. My car looked great. I proudly drove around, showing it off to all my friends as if it were a symbol of my own mental health.

But that particular slippery slope is as up and down and unpredictable as the icy streets of Minnesota. Indeed you might say my frame of mind seems to be increasingly hinged upon the beat of a few mechanical musical notes (and memories).

"But as for me, I still remember how it was before. And I am holding back the tears no more. I love you. What about the time we met? Well I suppose that you could say that we were playing hard to get. Didn't understand a thing, but we could always sing. What about the night we cried? Because there wasn't any reason left to keep it all inside. Never understood a word but you were always there with a smile."

It was an overcast shadowy winter day and Mom was driving me home from my piano lesson in our 1974 Pinto. From my passenger side of things I was busy thinking about which one was more fiery- the explosive flammable car we were in or the version of "Fur Elise" that I unleashed that day on my poor unsuspecting teacher, the aptly named Mrs. Good. We were at the intersection of County Road C and Western Avenue in Roseville about to take a left turn about a mile from our house. I was feeling snug, smug, and secure in that Pinto, perhaps my favorite family car- with its phony wood paneling, ever spreading rust, four-speed stick and clutch, and wonderful stereo (with both AM and FM), when all of a sudden Mom lost control and we spun in a circle.

I participated in hundreds of piano lessons from fourth grade through high school but this sidebar moment is the one I remember best. I'm sure Mom was quite panicked in our skid, trying to regain control of the car before we hit anything or anybody, but for me it was an unexpected entertaining ride. It seemed as if we were turning in slow motion and I got a perspective of the intersection I had never had before. Luckily we ended up facing the right direction as Mom regained her composure and control of the Pinto.

After lying in bed the other night following another increasingly unsound night of little sleep I decided to get up and take out some of my frustration on my badly out of tune piano. As I was singing "Let it Be" I thought about Mom, and how she was amused whenever I was over at my parents' house playing Mario on the Nintendo and I'd get upset about my inability to conquer part of the course and losing another Mario life, and then I'd stomp over to the piano and bang out a tune. (I'm probably the only musician ever who produced his best work intensely inspired by what that computerized little Italian guy could or could not do.) In my dimly lit living room as my current version of music tumbled from my hands and voice I also thought about how glad I was that Mom encouraged me to take piano lessons and stick with it through some pretty discouraging hours of practice and lessons. It was perhaps the best direction Mom gave me with the possible exception of the summer of typing classes she signed me up for (thus allowing me to jot down these words you are now reading).

I don't play my piano much these days. The sound seems to rattle Mr. Max who often gets very wound up darting from room to room. Sometimes he even joins in- howling at yet another mangled McCartney tune. But I can't entirely put the blame on his aging yet still sturdy shoulders (do cats technically have shoulders?). Somehow the music just makes a heavy heart even more melancholy. There is an important pair of listening ears missing. Because I don't play or practice much my already limited ability is further hampered. Thus what was once a cathartic activity becomes more work.

So besides being a dust and cat hair collector my antique turn of the century upright piano serves mostly as a conversation piece. Last month an inspiring survivor, the mother of the cutest little bumblebee was over on Halloween night. She looked at my desperately uninspired, lacking in a woman's touch home decor, and was impressed by my piano. She asked if I played. I shot her a skunk-eyed look. Why, pray tell, would I have a piano if I did not play? But then again perhaps she somehow sympathetically and intuitively knew these days I play only once or twice a week.

I almost volunteered to play a tune for my rare captive audience. I'm not exactly one who likes to make a spectacle of himself in public, but I've been known to show some visible eccentric showmanship a time or two. But I wasn't quite up to it. The songs are the same only the sound is more hollow. My own personal fenders are still a little beat up.

"And if I say I really loved you and was glad you came along then you were here today. For you were in my song."

Monday, November 20, 2000

She Stayed When We Were Finished

One week after the election that proved there are elections with no winners except weary election administrators, an interesting question arose. How can there be a pregnant chad if there was no penetration? And in the most surprising development yet, it turns out through what can only be described as a technical snafu, or bureaucratic glitch, it has been determined that we have somehow elected Rutherford B. Hayes to be our next President.

But seriously, enough of the blue material. Last Tuesday night proved to be a welcome night for anxiety ridden scared out of their wit TV observing dwellers. First was the calming appearance of a local election official/brand new media star who in her nowadays fading best gemutlichkeit voice- assured her biggest fans that what is going on down south in the clouding sunshine state can't happen in Minnesota. Our technology won't allow it. Wouldn't be prudent. She was a true shining star amidst all the muck.

And then later on in the evening we were treated to a very special Buffy/Angel crossover that more than lived up to that title. Both shows featured flashbacks (back to the days of a previous Rutherford B. Hayes presidency) that provided insight and definition to why the characters are as neurotic as they are. We learned Buffy has a death wish (all slayers do because no matter how many vampires they kill, the numbers are overwhelming and the odds constantly stacked against them; the fight is never ending so at some point why not give up?). We learned Spike in his human days was a sensitive poet (albeit not a very good one) who gained eternal life through an entirely accidental bumping into with Druscilla.

We also learned Angel and Darla have this weird dysfunctional partnership that asks multiple questions: Is it better to have a soul and eternal life but be tortured because the soul absorbs all the mistakes and hurt caused by life? Eternity can seem like a pretty long time for someone with unrelenting anguish and grief. Is it better to have eternal life and no soul and thus be free of any guilt of how our actions effect others whether we choose to deny it or not? Is it better to have a soul and be mortal or is it better to have never been born at all?

For those of us who are more and more convinced that Buffy is perhaps the most intriguing and well written show that has ever been aired on network television it indeed was an entertaining night. These aren't questions that get asked on other TV fare like Friends or Ally McBeal. Josh Whedon, the mastermind behind Buffy and Angel, is so adept at writing fluid storylines- we never quite know what direction the shows are going to go. This season we were introduced to Buffy's younger sister Dawn, who we never knew existed. The way she was worked seamlessly into the plot without the viewer feeling at all manipulated is just one example of how well the show works. As we delve deeper into the characters' past we are constantly rewarded. It is the most emotionally absorbing and observant show I've ever seen.

Thus far Buffy has had a rough year as she is learning more about parts of herself she never really knew existed. She has learned fighting inner demons can be much more challenging than fighting demons sent from the hellmouth.

Last week's episode ended with her finding out her mother is going to spend the night in the hospital. Her mother has downplayed not feeling well all season long. Buffy who has been worried is thus freaked out, her world falling apart at the seams. She kills vampires with her bare hands and has withstood a scarred heart from falling in love with the only spirit among the spiritless, but the prospect of losing her mother is more scary than she can possibly handle. So who appears to comfort her? The incapacitated villain Spike who having had his heart re-broken is headed over to Buffy's house, rifle in hand, intent on killing his tormentor. But seeing her tears he reaches out. She's hesitant over his sudden offer of friendship- but the offer seems sincere. Spike, the soulless demon- is still a poet inside.

It was a gentle but gripping scene. In a world of sadness sometimes it's those who we least expect things from who can get through and touch us most. A simple reaching out- a barrier breaking moment of tenderness and care can make all the difference in the world for one in despair. The real world as portrayed on TV can be beyond belief (see the election). Likewise fictional worlds created for TV can seem more real than reality itself. Great art expresses what you yourself can't put into words. Great art can also be the best at hearing the words of the unspoken heart.

Monday, November 13, 2000

The Day I Became an Old "Man"

It's an astounding mandate and the people have clearly spoken. In a country where a dead guy can get elected senator and where fickle out-of-towners can calculatingly select the stepping stone state they're gonna represent in Congress, Y2K voters have sent an explicit message. And I got to bear witness to the ringing clarion call from the front lines.

Of course the overriding issue this year was the ever widening gap between the haves and the have nots. I was given an underscoring reminder of this a couple of weeks ago when I attended a seminar at the St. Paul Hotel. As I entered the posh lobby I headed straight for the men's room where I literally saw something I had never seen before. Inside each one of the urinals was a substantial pile of ice. I thought perhaps a party had ended and they had extra ice they needed to get rid of. But when I returned to the men's room around noon I saw a gentleman refreshing the ice piles in the urinals (how do I go about getting that gig?). Not everyone can afford to stay in a place so fancy that along with its wonderful truffles it is able to afford to keep their urinals so cool and fresh.

Meanwhile there are others out there struggling to make a difference in their community. Waking up at four in the blessed a.m. on Election Day with a solid three hours of sleep I braced myself against my kitchen counter shivering as I impatiently waited for the automatic drip coffee machine to drip its last drop. With thoughts of the saving Social Security and Medicare drug payment debates swirling in my head I began whipping up a batch of scrambled eggs to go along with my onion bagel. I knew it was going to be my last meal of the day and I could just sense that something big was about to happen. I tried analyzing the chances of it being a successful day- and those chances seemed about as remote as the Vikings losing a game on an implausible ping pong pinball bumper pass. The best I could do was minimize the stress- it was going to be present no matter what I did. Like a good baseball umpire or basketball referee I knew the best job I could do was to remain as unnoticeable as possible.

I opened the door into the dark and the brisk nip of the changing air stung my nostrils. I meandered out to my newly hubcapped car and headed off to a destination somewhat unknown. It wasn't so much a sense of civic duty that called my name, rather it was a self challenge- a test to see just what these bones are still capable of doing. Greeted in the ungodly early morning black stillness by a group most of who probably cast their first Presidential vote for Herbert Hoover, I tried my best to fake an air of authority. I knew not what I was doing but these people didn't need, or didn't want to know that. I'm willing to wager that I was the only one in the group who had watched with a wide goofy grin Madonna's Friday appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman. Looking a little older than the last time I'd seen her (I heard being a mother can do that) she did a wonderfully heartfelt beginner's acoustic version of "Don't Tell Me" from her brilliant new CD. It was poetic in a nonlyrical sort of way.

As my peers and I began setting up the polling place, the uneasiness in my stomach was a constant companion, my unrelenting pal. As the clock struck seven I opened the doors to a horde of anxious looking voters. The stream of people was steady until well past ten, and picked up again once the noon hour began.

I spent much of the day registering new voters so I got to be the fortunate one to turn away those without the proper identifying documentation or those in the wrong precinct. I found a belligerent few who found it difficult to abide with the decisions of an official official. They didn't believe I wasn't making up stuff on the fly but actually attempting to follow the state's complex election laws. One young woman was particularly incredulous that I wouldn't allow her to vote without properly proving she lived in the precinct. Her desire to vote was admirable but I was not going to commit a felony and allow her to commit one too. Later in the evening she returned with a current utility bill along with an old driver's license and I registered her. She walked away from my table defiantly as if she had somehow gotten the best of me. Actually I was glad that she was able to vote.

Sitting in an old church basement with a group of concerned citizens, one almost feels the obligation to be social. Perhaps this was what I had feared most- having to actually converse with people. But I was at my absolute irrelevant best. From out of nowhere the old self came out of the shadows like the groundhog and the ever leaky confidence was bolstered if only for a short while. Those struggling to fill out their voter registration cards got to hear the gentle chiding classic- "This isn't a quiz you know." Boy I got a lot of mileage out of that one. The perplexed look on the face of one young gentleman who had come in slightly frazzled and who sat staring into space trying to figure out what school district he lived in elicited from me the ultra funny (at least he thought so)- "Would you like to use a lifeline?" I was dipping into my "A" material big time.

My somewhat forgotten and disappearing demeanor reminded me of a friend who once said she enjoyed talking to me because she learned something every time she did. It remains perhaps the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me (well in the top two anyway) although it has since proven to be a false impression. (Enjoy? Talk? Learn?) Maybe it truly is the dawning of a new era in America, an era where even the scarred can be quite adept at the art of small talk. I guess you automatically get good at it when that's all you have been able to do for the past year.

At eight o'clock I dragged in the flag and shut the doors. We scrambled to tally the votes, reconcile the number of signatures on the roster with the ballot receipts and the number of ballots issued. Several of my peers looked more than a little worn out and weary, like battered graduates of the Electoral College. I myself found it difficult to do simple arithmetic. I was able to add up this however- I had actually enjoyed myself. I enjoyed witnessing and participating in the process. It was reassuring to see so many people cared, so many people who thought it all mattered. The loyal crew and I stumbled out into the ice and snow congratulating each other that we had survived an eventful day. We had crossed party lines, age differences and had bonded in a common goal.

As we parted ways they headed towards their homes and their normal lives. Forever changed, I was tempted to get in my car and drive a long ways away. There was an urge to trade in my Honda in exchange for a big Caddie. I wanted to head to a similar place where I can at last cozily fit in- to the land where I can be around such a fine group of peers all the time, a place that on this particular night made all the difference in the world- sunny retiring Florida. With a knick knack paddy wack I may have finally found the role I was born to play- the old cranky geezer.

Monday, November 6, 2000

Becoming Bosley- Haunted by That Disemboweled Voice

Last week I found myself standing in the middle of my front yard under the billowing oak tree, wads of pink Kleenex stuffed in my ears, blowing(!) multiple shaped and colored leaves into a manageable pile. As the cars slowly drove by on Hamline Avenue, and as the leggy runner with the big dog passed by across the street, it only seemed as if everyone was looking at me. The whole scene seemed a tad absurd, a bad David Lynch movie. I didn't create this mess I merely bought the responsibility. It wasn't exactly the glamorous and prestigious image I envisioned when I was in the process of becoming a homeowner. Raking to me is an exercise in futility. No matter how efficient your equipment, no matter how diligent your work, the yard will never be entirely clean. And depending on which way the wind blows, a day later the neighbor's leaves might be strewn across your yard rendering all your relentless tiresome work ultimately fruitless.

A couple of days later the ghosts, goblins, fairies, and bumble bees appeared. Frightened and agitated Mr. Max and I tried our best to ward off the ever exhaustive demons. And then the next day Halloween came. It only took an hour of feeble knocks on my door (mixed in with giggles and timid little voices outside my head) for me to finally figure out that my doorbell wasn't working. And the kids didn't seem all that happy with the jumbo sized jolly ranchers I was handing out- they truly did suck.

This isn't exactly the portrait of the docile domesticity I imagined as a kid, and I had to wonder as the last knock knocked, when or where was the point that my life took a decidedly downward turn toward predictability and a loss of dreams (with a corresponding lack of sleep)? There was never a doubt in my mind that when I grew up I'd be much more like Starsky and Hutch than John Bosley. I was a doer, the leader of my pack, not somebody else's lackey. I was to become the suave and sophisticated, sweeping my soul mate off her feet with my dashing debonair heroism, not the perpetually overlooked bridesmaid.

As a twelve-year-old boy I was as big a fan of the TV show Charlie's Angels as anyone else in my class. I firmly believed I could become the fourth Angel. My favorite of the trio was without a doubt Kris Monroe (Cheryl Ladd) the wacky, goofy one from South Dakota. Looking back I'm not so sure there was all that much a clear distinction between any of the Angels (although Kate, Farrah and Jaclyn stick in my mind much more nostalgically than Tonya and Shelly). Ms. Ladd however was to my wide open eyes much more bee-yew-tih-phul than the others (a fore runner of sorts to my favorite wedding planner). Plus she was talented and versatile - with two LPs that I quickly added to my record collection sacrificing weeks of my hard earned allowance money.

I have to admit when I heard that "they" were making a big screen version of the TV show I was anxious to see the end result. This despite the fact that I loathe the trend toward making movies out of the mediocre TV shows from our youth. Somehow the TV we watched while growing up now not only augments our childhood memories, it has in some cases insidiously replaced them. Was there really a need, or was it a good idea to make movies based on the Mod Squad or Wild Wild West two shows that merely enjoyed marginal success during their TV runs? And did the producers of the Flintstones Viva Rock Vegas really think they were adding something positive and necessary to our culture?

The case can be made however that Charlie's Angels was a distinct and somewhat groundbreaking show. True the so called social significance isn't as great as the pop culture revisionists now have us believe, but still it was more important by any measure than say, Hello Larry or Mr. T and Tina, and a natural and worthwhile progression from the Flying Nun. The show was among the first to feature strong female leads, beautiful and brave who proved even those without a gun could beat the bad guys. The Angels were as gallant as they were glamorous. Little boys might have watched to see three fabulous babes in provocative situations and clothes but little girls for the first time had action heroes to emulate, as innocuous and comic book as the counterpoint male figures that dominated the TV landscape for many years. Charlie's Angels was the pioneer in equal opportunity television. Thus the show can almost be forgiven that it had to have a necessary omnipotent male figure as the all-powerful boss; at least there was a subtle message that men were better heard than seen.

Snap crackle pop- you just gotta love a movie where two of the main characters are named Alex and Dylan. With splashy wall to wall action packed eye candy, the film is a highly entertaining effort with more than a few laugh out loud moments. The plot as it is takes back seat to the impressive Matrix-like special effects and the oh so easy on the eyes attractiveness of Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu, and Drew Barrymore. These Angels are a tad more sophisticated, high tech, and cocky than their TV counterparts.

It takes a while to warm up to the frenetic breathtaking pace- and tongue in cheek (sexual innuendo intended) style. The movie is a spoof, but it's never sure or quite clear what it is making fun of. Equal parts Matrix and James Bond with a little Mission Impossible thrown in, Charlie's Angels walks the line of titillation and empowerment. Yes the Angels are fiercely capable and independent but the movie doesn't hide the lingering camera shots of Diaz's bouncing behind, Barrymore's ample cleavage, and Liu's enticing arms. But by the end it doesn't really matter that the story is trivial and that the movie is more than aware that it is about style over substance. It is entertaining just by its sheer kinetic energy. And it doesn't hurt that Diaz's smile and shimmering MIAC soccer player of the year's eyes are stunningly irresistible- delightfully lighting the screen whenever she is present.

Perhaps the most disappointing part of the movie is Liu's undeveloped character. By far the most charismatic of the three actresses, her character is given little definition other than being the technical expert. She is sadly underused here, even though it is apparent that of the three, she is probably the one that is the most interesting off screen. Bill Murray's Bosley too seems almost an afterthought. The scenes of him trying to break out of a prison cell and hamming it up with a false mustache while playing the tuba in an Alps outfit seem almost written in from another movie. Yet his typical mocking personae make those scenes somehow enjoyable. A hidden treat is Crispin Glover's hair sniffing silent villain who is more than a little handy with a sword. Glover is a long lost quirky actor that is constantly hilarious to watch with his goofy grimaced looking facial expressions.

As people continue to look back a decade or two to find some sort of answer, some sort of antidote to our current cultural state, it is somehow refreshing how a movie like Charlie's Angels is able to deliver what it has intrinsically promised. It's all pretty campy and kitschy yet it works because it plays proper homage to the TV series while gently mocking it at the same time. It is a film that looks as if it was a lot of fun to make and thus in the end that spirit makes it a lot of fun to watch.

Monday, October 30, 2000

Proud of Our Minnesota Twins

Date: October 23, 2000
To: Caleb Joshua and Micah David Maeda
From: Lil' Uncy Dave
Subject: Proud of our Minnesota Twins

Welcome to the world. You haven't seen it yet, but the foggy drizzly unrelenting gray you have constantly been exposed to thus far isn't what this place is usually like. The world can be full of sun, full of cotton ball clouds, and don't get me started about rainbows. And it doesn't take much to make a difference. Your arrival in the blah fall Minnesota weather certainly brightened things more than a notch or two.

As I look at your peaceful sleeping twin faces I wonder are you dreaming yet? What goes on in those brand new heads cutely kept covered by hospital garb? As you grow up I have one small bit of uncly advice: It's never too early or late to dream. Dream big. Dream small. Dream in color. Dream creatively. Dream in your sleep. Dream while you are awake. Share your dreams. Dream away.

Consider this doozy (and maybe when you're old enough to read this you'll be kind enough to explain it to me) I had just a few weeks before you were born. In my dream I was hired to work in a bright white room at the Como Zoo. I remember feeling a sense of satisfaction knowing I'd finally be able to work in a lab coat- kind of a life long secret ambition. My job was to watch this new exhibit, a pre-historic white looking animal that slightly resembled a mouse. I was told this "thing" was not a fossil although it hadn't moved for millions of years. It was still alive but just not showing it.

As my bosses left the room I carefully tended to my duties. The serenity of the stillness was calming. But alas I began goofing around as I am wont to do when left unsupervised. Singing my lil heart out I was sort of waltzing around when I accidentally brushed up against the exhibit. All of a sudden it began to rapidly transmogrify into an orange shaped duck/bowling pin looking being with one gigantic foot. I was of course a tad alarmed at this series of events but remained in the room. This bowling pin like duck led me out of the zoo into another area of town. It knew exactly where it was going. Waddling on its one foot it took me to a dark room with strobe lights and an expansive dance floor. There it not so gently nudged me into the middle of a circle of four of my friends past and present. One of these people not so meekly edged up against me and was guiding me on to the dance floor when I woke up in a cold sweat.

So what is the meaning of this dream? And could it perhaps be best explained by that can of sardines Max the cat and I shared shortly before bedtime? Well kids, let's break it down. The white room, lab coat and mouse looking relic might represent the view that life is one long laboratory and that we are all part of an unclear social experiment. That experiment is upset however whenever one is bumped into out of the blue. A new direction is cast.

The duckly bowling pin is a bit more difficult to understand. Maybe it's about falling into the trap of following those that aren't always the steadiest (or sturdiest for that matter) guides. Sometimes we follow paths against our instinctive intuition and it's those times we can often end up in an uncomfortable situation. Yet there is benefit in discomfort. It can cause you to think, and as your need to be changed diapers remind you, it can lead to a good cry or two.

You kids have so much in front of you, so much to look forward to. Make no mistake, often life can seem a rather daunting task. Sometimes it's all you can do to roll yourself out of bed. Consider yourself fortunate therefore that you both have a natural partner to help you through the rougher days. Only you will know what it truly means to have a twin (of the true external kind anyway) and I'm sure the bond between you two will be something both of you will cherish. As a child I had a special connection with your father, my brother. Believe it or not I used to have a nearly indecipherable mumbling way of speaking and for a long time he was my translator for the world. As my oratory skills have blossomed my ability to be understood hasn't always followed along. Yet there are days I think being incomprehensible has its advantages. Or in terms already familiar to you, sometimes it's more effective to scream your lungs out when you are tired or cold rather than speaking in a lucid erudite manner.

I'll leave you with one final thought: it is sad that you arrived the year following your grandmother's death. As good as you both undoubtedly will turn out, you would have been better people for knowing her. There'll be others to play Nintendo with you, and there'll be others to explain to you the beauty of the balk rule in baseball, but there won't be anyone who can replace what she would have added to your lives. They say her spirit survives in all of us who remain, the many of us who she touched, and I pray that in the very least you'll be able to share and sometimes see (and feel) that spirit.

When Life Becomes a Memory

There are some movies with a premise so dumb they stand no chance of ever being good (Police Academy 3). There are other movies that begin with a dumb premise but through the skills of the director and the actors the movie transcends its material (Speed). There are some movies that begin with such a great premise that the movie is bound to be worth watching no matter what the director or actors do (12 Angry Men). There are other movies that the premise is great and through the efforts of those involved the movie becomes a classic, hitting full force on all cylinders.

The Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu's (Maborosi) movie After Life falls into the latter category. The premise of the movie is thought provoking and wonderfully original- that after a person dies they spend one week at a way station out in the country where they must choose one single memory from their life to bring with them into eternity. Once that memory is selected the staff at the station help stage a filmed recreation of the memory for the person to forever live in.

Kore-eda provides just the right touch to tell the story. Everything is told in a matter of fact manner. The gray late fall-early winter scenery is alternated with the plain school building that serves as this transitory station. The staff at the station does a workmanlike job with their assignments. This isn't a movie about a pearly gate heaven, or angels with wings. It's not a movie about religion or God. Rather it's a movie about how what we remember changes how we feel, and how we feel colors what we remember. One can imagine what the same material would have been made into if it had been a Hollywood production (see Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze's Ghost).

The dead that arrive each have unique choices to make. One elderly woman with a shy manner and kind motherly smile selects a childhood memory- when her brother bought her a fancy red dress that she could wear in her dance classes. A young girl chooses a trip she took with friends to Disneyland. A seventy-year-old gentleman has a difficult time remembering any happy memories from his life. He is thus encouraged to view videotapes of his entire life to help jar his memory. This in its own way seems like a trip into hell- as he sees the many regrets, the many things he would have done differently all over again with no ability to change any of it. Another younger man refuses to choose- believing by not choosing he's taking more responsibility for his life.

Ultimately After Life asks several intriguing questions about the nature of memories. At what point can we believe what we remember? How much do we naturally embellish our memories, filtering out the pain and the regret to remember selected happier moments? In this manner are our memories any different than our dreams? One woman who in life worked as a prostitute selects a memory with the only customer she knew who seemed to like her for who she really was. Her memory is of a rendezvous they once had at a fancy hotel. When the staff goes to recreate the memory they discover that it didn't happen the way she remembered. The gentleman never showed up.

The notion that in the after life memories must be reenacted on film is also intriguing. The interaction between art and life is juxtaposed as we the viewers naturally think about what memory we ourselves would select. Kore-eda said as he was making the film he remembered his grandfather in the throes of Alzheimer's, unable to recognize his own grandson which reinforced the belief our identities are intermingled with our memories.

We all reach a point in our lives where our memories overwhelm our ability to imagine. Later on as memories grow in number and in depth they even begin to alter our existence. Perhaps the most touching moment in a very touching film is when one of the young women worries about selecting any memories in fear that she herself will be forgotten by others. Her fears are alleviated as she sees a coworker's joy in discovering a long forgotten moment spent with another is what that particular person unexpectedly elected to keep with them when they died. One never knows whose dreams we appear in, whose lives we have unknowingly touched, or whose memories we have made just a little happier.

Monday, October 23, 2000

How I Became a Cheapo Lifer

It was a blustery Sunday spring morning about 12 years ago when I arrived at the Cheapo West store looking forward to a quiet morning shift. I hadn't been working for Cheapo very long but Sunday mornings were definitely my favorite times to work. Often I'd be paired with manager Bill Seeler whose taste in music was impeccable. We wouldn't get a whole lot of business until noon time, mostly regulars would stop in and browse the bins, so we were able to get a lot of work done to Bill's soothing classical selections.
This particular Sunday morning I sensed right away that something was amiss. Maybe it was my ultra-sensitive Inspector Clouseau like instincts or maybe it was the unusual sight of a police car parked in the parking lot next to Al's car. Al has always put in a lot of hours into his business but even back then it was rare to see him at the store on a Sunday morning. Being the man with a perpetually present guilty conscience as I approached the store I wondered what I had done so very wrong. Perhaps they had somehow discovered that I was a closet Barry Manilow fan and they were now going to take me away?
As I entered the store I saw what the problem was. A driver (presumably slightly intoxicated) had plowed his vehicle into the southwest corner of the store right into the easy listening A-K section. The wall was crumbled, plaster scattered all around, and you could actually see into the back of the alley from the steps of the store. Al had me pick up the bigger pieces and vacuum up the rest. I didn't know him very well at that point but I was impressed by how calmly he was taking it all. If it had been MY store I'd be cursing up a storm. Then I realized something. It WAS my store. Part of my own anger toward the situation was that some idiot had recklessly destroyed months of my own work (I had spent at least one morning organizing the easy listening section) and had created a whole bunch of new work for my coworkers and me (and just how many Ferrante and Teicher records had he ruined?).
I appreciated how well Al was taking the matter. His calm demeanor conveyed a quiet inspiring confidence- life constantly throws us the unexpected and the best way to deal with that is to do what you can to work your way through the mess. Or as my last best friend would say it's about taking, "baby steps." I'm one who needs to respect those who I work for before I decide to stick around. This was the very moment I realized I'd be around Cheapo for awhile.
Last Monday I was reminded how sometimes a surprise can make your day and sometimes it's the last thing you need. I was sitting at my dimly lit desk in the State Office Building doing some research feeling like I was getting no where quite rapidly. All of a sudden the fire alarms (one of which is right above my cubicle) began blaring. Not that I was working on anything that vital but I felt annoyed knowing that the chance was it wasn't really a fire but rather somebody had probably left their toast in the toaster too long. I walked outside where I was surprised to see the smiling face of a person I wasn't expecting to see having never seen her at my work place before. She was talking on her cell phone but she smiled and waved. She walked over to me and we chatted and she came back to my office to see my tiny little corner space. She glanced at my picture of Max the Cat, who she has volunteered to kitty sit, and was duly charmed.
Later in the afternoon I got an amusing email from out of the blue from a fellow member of the Buffy fan club. At the end of her message she asked if, "I really worked for Cheapo." In my reply I said yes, but it wasn't as glamorous as it sounded.
Looking back maybe the unusual events were an ominous warning sign. The next morning after a reckless (or is that restless) night of tossing and turning I groggily turned on my computer. This person sent me another email indicating that she had heard on the news that Cheapo may be on fire. I wondered what the heck she was talking about when I opened up my copy of the Pioneer Press to a front page fire photo captioned, "Fire destroys four St. Paul businesses on Snelling Avenue." Talk about being the bearer/barer of bad news.

After a morning meeting I got myself out of the office and drove on over to the store. Figuring they might not be allowing traffic in the area I parked a few blocks away. I could smell the pungent odor of burnt everything. As I approached I noticed the Cheapo side of the building didn't look too bad. Then I saw the front. Home Video's roof was nothing but charcoal remains. It looked awful. I then saw Al, Mary, Steve Brown, and Eric Tell and was glad to see everybody, though in a bit of a state of shock, seemed to be in good spirits. This too is just another something we have to overcome.
There is something intensely sad about looking at the ruins from a fire. The fresh ashes only serve as painful memories of all the dreams and work gone up in smoke. For the past couple of years my nephew has trained to become a fire fighter. I've often wondered why anyone would choose that field. Besides the danger, having to deal with destruction over and over doesn't seem like the healthiest endeavor to me. I've been fortunate though I've been burned, I've never been personally touched by a fire.

Thus my own experience comes from reading a series of Peanut strips in which Charlie Brown safe in bed is awoken by the banging on his door from a panicked Snoopy. Charlie goes out to see what the problem is and we see a distraught Snoopy standing next to his dog house which is ablaze. The story goes on to the ruin- Snoopy has lost his pool table and egads, his Van Gogh. As Charlie tells Linus and Lucy of the extent of the damage all Lucy can continuously mutter is, "He was probably smoking in bed."

The other fire memory etched in my mind comes from the TV show "The Waltons." One of my favorite episodes is where the family house burns down and both John Boy and Grandpa blame themselves. John Boy is feeling guilty because he had just taken to smoking a pipe to be a more sophisticated writer and Grandpa fears he is the culprit because he had fallen asleep with a space heater still a burning.

This time it isn't fiction. Yet seeing Al once again with his sense of humor in tact was reassuring. The end result isn't about who or what we can blame. It's about enduring and digging through the rubble because that is what we have to do.

Sunday, October 8, 2000

How I Almost Became A Father

Floating down the mighty Mississippi on a warm autumn night under the stars, the smell of the river seemed foreign as the boat wavered gently on the wobbly waves. Standing for the most part alone on the bow, I closed my eyes to the flowing wind in hopes I could feel more like Huck Finn and less like Kate Winslet. I peeked to see the caves on the bank of the river looking rather spooky. In a time when it's easy enough to find those who will listen but just as hard to find those willing to hear the all too familiar, I whispered a plea/prayer to the river, secure in the knowledge that the river will always be there. But my voice was drowned out by the simmering sounds from the Bruce Henry Trio that shimmered up to the Harriet Bishop Paddle Boat's deck from somewhere down below. The subterranean Savannah Gatsby ghost jazz brought to mind yet another era as the boat floated back towards the illuminated skyline of downtown St. Paul.

As we docked and my feet struck the familiar land, Huck Finn disappeared. My recently hacked up coif (as opposed to hacking cough) bristled in the breeze. I got home to the enclosing familiar and found history had been written on the WB: Buffy killed Dracula. Not quite reverentially shaken I sat down to finish some long overlooked put off tasks. I finally sent out all my Rosh Hashanah cards. There is something simply therapeutic about the start of a new year. I wished all a happy 5761. But as I paid my bills I found myself writing 5760 on my checks. Then I personally celebrated National Mental Illness Awareness week by putting on a Brian Wilson CD. I thought it may be prudent to note to my best friends and closest rivals- there is something going around that you can't exactly be vaccinated against. I learned that last week those who wanted to "check" into United and St. Joseph hospitals for a little rest were out of luck. The hospitals were booked solid unless you had an ambulance ride.

The week was full of jarring juxtapositions. One day I'm sitting eating lunch with a man from Ghana who seemed to gravitate toward me in a room full of people because I was about the only other person of color in sight. The next day I'm back at my poorly lit desk wondering what can possibly come next. My mind races and my voice is increasingly unsure. I get out. Out and about. Do some searching. I have a mental list somewhere in the back lobes of my brain, somewhere behind the memories and far past the dreams, of all the things I need to get done before I end up on the wrong side of the dirt. And then out of the corner of my increasingly blurry and difficult vision I see something I've been keeping my eye out subconsciously for a long time. A friend asked me to look for a certain sentimental and hard to find CD, and if I found it she promised to give to me her first born child. Thinking joyfully for her I've struck paydirt I naturally stress a bit over my impending fatherhood. Alas it wasn't the right CD. No diaper shopping in the near future.

I stress too over many of the aforementioned bills (debts) that have to do with my house. There is always a project around the corner, always a payment to be made so much so that it's easy to overlook the health of being in the position and able to afford a house. The absolute best revenge of being such an inept homeowner has been my garden. To be able to come home and pick a fresh tomato or carrot to enjoy has been sublime. Taking care of the garden has been hard but rewarding work. Taking care of the yard similarly qualifies. Wanting to fertilize my grass one more time before the hard freeze I get up early one morning to spread the fertilizer (ironically on the same day as the first presidential debate). I set my alarm for 6 a.m. It goes off as I'm in a semi-insomniac snooze. I look out the window to pitch blackness. It tests my meddle- can I walk a straight line in the dark? What is the purpose of daylight savings time? But I get out, and spread the chemicals praying next spring I will be able to distinguish the weeds from the randomly selected.

"You saved me, in a difficult time. I saved you last night. It was at cost of a lie, but I made the sacrifice freely, and out of a grateful heart. None in this village knows so well as I know how brave and good and noble you are. At bottom you cannot respect me, knowing as you do of that matter of which I am accused, and by the general voice condemned; but I bet that you will at least believe that I am a grateful man; it will help me to bear my burden.
-Mark Twain
"The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg"

Sunday, October 1, 2000

The Prodigal Poet

Dave's Dating Lesson: Choose a partner that drives a beat-up old nearly broken down obsolete automobile. That way when you break up you won't be reminded of her every time you see a similar car on the road. In this day of embarrassing prosperity you are less likely to see the broken down types around town (or maybe that's only where I'm hanging out). There is no more sure painful a reminder than seeing a similar car as the one that took the two of you all around and got you to many places you never thought you'd be.

This valuable lesson is similar to another I learned at Macalester College, that heady institute of higher learning. During my freshman year at good ole freaking Mac I was rooming with Dr. Peter Seline of Albert Lea, Minnesota. Dr. Pete and I didn't get along too well. Let's just say that Dr. Pete thought I was the biggest loser he had ever seen and I never quite forgave him for the time he threw up in my heirloom-like waste paper basket.

One of the few pleasant exchanges between us came after I had meandered down to our local Cheapo to buy Paul McCartney's brand spankin' new LP, Pipes of Peace. I put it on our stereo as Dr. Pete and I were at our desks studying (I'm sure he was studying some biology or something that would lead him down the path to his medical degree. I was studying the profound meaning behind Mr. McCartney's new songs). I was a bit disappointed in the LP, the follow-up to one of my still favorite LPs of all time, Tug of War. I expressed my displeasure to Dr. Pete and he actually had some words of kindness to share. Something about how he sort of liked the record (Dr. Pete hated my taste in music and I wasn't too keen on his) and that I should cut Paul a break. It's hard to produce great music every time out especially seeing the impressive length and quality of Paul's career blah blah blah.

This lesson came to mind when I picked up a copy of John Hiatt's newest CD, Crossing Muddy Waters. Hiatt remains one of my favorite writers- and his workmanlike career now spans nearly 26 years of prolific and worthwhile music. Crossing Muddy Waters is his 14th studio LP/CD and like most of his other work, it's an impressive collection of distinctive songs. Hiatt said the sound he was shooting for was a "back porch" sound- and he effectively accomplishes the task. The CD was recorded in four days with two members of his touring band, Davey Faragher on acoustic bass, and David Immergluck on mandolin. The eleven breezy blues songs sound like they've been around forever bouncing around the banks of the Mississippi, echoes just waiting to be heard.

Common themes abound- imagery of cars, trains and riding down the river invoke feelings of whimsical wanderlust and voluntary displacement. Curiously six out of the eleven songs mention either "tears" or "crying" and yet the overall feeling of the CD is one of atonement and the rustic splendor of moving forward. The CD is the type you can put on as background music- bluesy folk with a tinge of bluegrass- the swampy sound is infectious- jangly guitars and Hiatt's loose vocals are enough to get your feet a-tappin. At the same time the deeper you listen the more rewarding the disc is. Hiatt remains a clever and gifted lyricist. It's hard to imagine another songwriter who with seemingly little effort continues to throw us lines like- "red tail hawk shooting down the canyon/put me on that wind he rides/I will be your true companion/when we reach the other side."

In a recent interview with to promote the new CD Hiatt revealed an insight about why he continues to write and why his writing means so much. When asked if some of the raw emotions he has exposed in his music makes it difficult to listen to past songs he responds, "Oh, no. The songs are what got me through. It's kind of like only the song survives. It's not my real life in these songs. It's inspired by bits of it, but it's inspired by a lot of different bits. The songs were my release; the music makes me free. I've always felt like there's nothing I couldn't write my way out of."


My last best college roommate Spunky sells medicine of a different kind than Dr. Pete- being the CFO of a winery. His continued friendship is probably the best thing I got out of my Macalester experience. On Wednesday night Spunky and I hopped on over to the Borders in Richfield to hear Hiatt perform a brief set of his new songs. This definitely was not a "back porch" setting. The standard conglomerate book store layout seemed an odd setting for such personal homilies and yet there was something touching about hearing John alone on his acoustic guitar performing his new songs to an appreciative suburban crowd. Hiatt recently left his old label, Capitol to join the folk label Vanguard. His new CD is also available for download at for ninety-nine cents per song. In conjunction with this new way of getting his music to his fans he also is playing several free shows at different Borders across the country. He seemed in his usual joyful mood this particular night. Concluding the all too brief set with an old song, "Riding with the King" he proved among other things that memories and longevity can be intertwined.

Monday, September 25, 2000

A Resounding Thud

"All history is ultimately local and personal. To tell what we remember and keep on telling it is to keep the past alive in the present. Should we not do so, we could not know, in the deepest sense, how to inhibit a place... We own places not because we possess the deeds to them, but because they have entered the continuum of our lives. What is strange to us- unfamiliar- can never be home."
-Paul Gruchow

Growing up, my sister, the law school attending gymnast, admirably endured many hours of having to listen to my brother, my mother, and I discuss Twins baseball. She knew statistics about the game through simple osmosis. If you lived in our house you knew a lot about baseball even if you didn't exactly like the game. So to repay all those years of spontaneous devotion, I decided that though I had little interest in the Olympics (the patriotism thing bothers me) I should watch the gymnastics competition- since that is my sister's favorite sport. It was the very least I could do (and never let it be said I didn't to the very least I could do...)

I gotta say the first few nights weren't exactly favorable. After watching anorexic girl after girl tumble, stumble and fall, some even injuring themselves, I was all but ready to call for the complete ban of gymnastics. When the game's top performers are starved little girls putting themselves through dangerous routines- it was all so hard to watch. Then a feisty Russian gymnast, Svetlana Khorkina, changed my mind.

Though typically weedy thin, Khorkina is gangly tall for a gymnast (5'5"). But it is her spunky attitude that caught my attention. Now 21-years-old (which is ungodly old for this sport) Khorkina realizes this may be her final Olympics. Thus after a lackluster opening by the Russian team she was visibly upset, barking at her teammates who weren't performing up to expectations. They'd better not blow it for her and by the scared looks on their faces they knew it.

Favored to win the gold for all around performance- Khorkina got set for the first of her individual competitions- the vault. She impatiently yelled at her coach to place the mounting board and mats in the proper location. At full sprint she launched her body onto the vaulting board thingy and landed flat on her butt. Getting up she immediately had tears in her eyes as the commentators said that such a tumble insured that no gold was forthcoming. Her next event was the uneven parallel bars. Once again her performance failed as her deteriorating spirit became more and more evident. She missed the top bar on a move and fell. At this point she was clearly just going through the motions- so distraught at the end of a dream. Then a shocking discovery transpired. The pommel horse had been set about two inches too low of international gymnastic standards. Khorkina's original fall (and those of several other gymnasts) had been tainted.

It's an outrage. The three Romanians who eventually won the medals had won a suspect victory. Who knows what would have happened if the equipment had been properly set? My skepticism got the best of me. As admirable as the athleticism and skills of the performers are- the sport itself seems flawed to me. When's the last time you saw a baseball field set up wrong? Or a basket or goal post set too low? And when you have to rely on human judgment to pick the winner- well I for one don't trust human judgment any more than I trust my ability to do a flip on a balance beam. While there are set guidelines from which the judges are supposed to determine their scores, when the winner wins by a tenth of a point- the chance of one judge being biased or just plain wrong seems too great. Give me a round of Jai Alai any day.

The sport is seemingly based on mathematics and precision. The judges are able to spot a flaw in a twist or a turn or a bent elbow. To the untrained eye- such a judgment seems rather arbitrary. But I guess there exist those who can tell a flower from a weed. (Last week I was watching Mr. Max. He sat looking out his favorite window and a dog sauntered within view. He had no reaction, the same applies for rabbits, squirrels and birds. Yet when another cat comes within yards of our yard he gets all worked up. Is it the smell? Is it he actually recognizes different types of animals?)

I must admit I feel bad for Khorkina although I hate the Commies as much as the next guy. She's a star in her fractured country and the Olympics meant the culmination of an inspiring career to her and her homeland. They deserved better. Thus my attempt to further expand my world and my knowledge hit the ground harder than the gymnasts themselves. I gave the sport a chance and ended up even more disillusioned than before. Perhaps I should just stick with the things I know- stay inside my little isolated world. After all I should feel lucky to live in the land of the free where every one in a million placenta previa child can grow up to be a gymnast (specializing in back flips I'm sure) and further defy the odds by in-line skating her heart out in a Duluth marathon with a superlative time of one hour forty four minutes- the third straight year she has improved her time. Wow.

A Hairy Story

"I like it. To me it's a really interesting character a guy who can't function well in life but who can only function in art. It's sort of sad in a way but sort of funny. All people know the same truth. Our lives consist of how we choose to distort it. Only his writing was calm. His writing, which in more ways than one, saved his life."
-Woody Allen in Deconstructing Harry

I'm not the kind of guy who forgets stuff often. In fact it's quite the opposite: I'd do anything to be able to forget more than I ever knew. Years back I took a cross country excursion with the woman with a limp and when we got back home I wrote a short story about the trip as was one of the implied purposes of the whole arrangement. Her reaction wasn't exactly what I was expecting. She said that it made her uncomfortable that I remembered everything down to how much sugar she put in her tea. With the wind knocked out of me I wasn't even able to point out I made that part up (I think the character in the story randomly put two packets of sugar in her Jack in the Box iced tea) all by myself.

With the power that movies have over me it is even more rare that I forget I've seen a movie and rent it twice. But that recently happened when I rented Woody Allen's 1997's Deconstructing Harry and in the very first shot I realized I had already seen the movie.

I'm glad I did slip up because the film reminded me of a thing or two. Perhaps it was meant to be. Call it unconscious fate. What caught my eye about the film and led to me unknowingly re-renting it was this note in the synopsis: "...when Harry Block writes a bestseller about his best friends, his best friends become his worst enemies." The role writing plays in relationships is something that has been lingering in my mind for a while now.

The first time I saw Deconstructing Harry I liked it well enough but it seemed like the same thing we've seen many times before from Woody. The second time around the film really moved me. It's common with his movies to try and figure out how much of the material is autobiographical. While this isn't exactly fair, Allen brings a lot of that on himself by essentially playing the same role in each of his movies- a self absorbed neurotic whiny but witty sad soul. With his personal scandals well publicized it's even more difficult to separate his life from his art.

Deconstructing Harry plays with that theme masterfully. Allen's Harry Block is a sad despicable figure. Three times married, each breakup caused by his cheating ways he alienates those in his life to a point where no one will even accompany him to a ceremony at the college he attended that's honoring his work. He spends the night before with a hooker and she agrees to go with him. They pick up a friend (who Harry had run into at the doctor's office) along the way and the trio kidnap Harry's son to accompany them.

The movie uses quick choppy cuts to create a jittery feel. In a memorable bit Robin Williams plays an actor who is so lacking in focus that he is actually becoming blurry. One of the film's most interesting devices is that most of the characters are played by two different actors/actresses- one representing the "real person" and the other representing Harry's fictional recreation.

For others it's bad enough the way Harry treats them. It's ten times worse that he uses their life situations to make money and entertain others. For Harry the ends justify the means. His life is his art. His decidedly cynical view of life is that most people are OK looking at photographs of themselves even if that medium can be wholly inaccurate. He would rather look at a painting of a person because a painting represents not only interpretation and perspective, but also expression. Harry isn't writing about others nor is he writing for them, he's writing about himself. He may be screwed up in every way possible but he is quite good at expressing himself (no matter how delusional he may be).

Is Woody Allen Harry Block? Is Harry Block Woody Allen and is there a difference? Are we the audience able to separate the two? Is fiction more real than reality? Can a complete jerk be redeemed by his work? If we are to assume we know an artist by his or her work, isn't that artist entitled to use their life as their work?