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.