Monday, April 29, 2002

The One with an Extra "L"

I don't know if we're still allowed to read books now that Oprah has unilaterally dissolved the little exclusive society that came complete with an enchanting secret handshake. Even though it felt good to finally feel like a part of something, perhaps it's for the best- it just gives me more money to spend on my Botox treatments.

I did decide that if I'm not allowed to read anymore that it technically might be OK to have someone read to me. Thus when it was announced David Sedaris was coming to town to read some of his work at the Ordway, I knew I had to go. Sedaris is one of those writers that I have a true admiration for while at the same time harboring a dose of jealousy equal to the amount of fat content of your average Krispy Kreme doughnut.

He is a remarkably witty writer with a keen sense of observation. He can make the absurd sound hilarious and make the mundane sound absurd. His opening piece compared the American Christmas saga (Santa and his elves) with Holland's (St. Nicholas and six to eight black friends). It was wickedly silly and it was a wonderful social commentary, an admirable mixture. Sedaris was later asked by an audience member if it had always been an ambition to be a writer. He said that at first he wanted to be a visual arts artist until he found out he had no talent in that area. He tried dancing and then he tried acting only to again discover he lacked the ability. He thus began writing because it was next on the list.

I'm sure everybody in the audience with the possible exception of the charismatic visionary with a most intriguing mind sitting beside me could relate. Those of us who have bounced around enough to lose some of our elasticity along the way (the red rubber ball that just couldn't bounce back) have come to learn, if not justify to ourselves, that part of the marvel of life is learning you're just not good enough to do some things. (I am after all the guy who came up with the return of home grocery delivery service years before that yuppie scheme, but failed to cash in on my idea.)

Let me make a few confessions here. Besides being a baseball player and the host of the Tonight Show the only thing I've truly ever wanted to be was a writer. With an inability to hit an overhead curve ball, and a serious lack of verbal know how, the third option seemed too to be as far away as the (day before) full moon. The connection between the three ambitions was as simple as a single word that begins with "L." From the time my Mom introduced me to baseball I was hooked. Even though I didn't understand all of Johnny Carson's jokes, I always thought he was the coolest. Through the rush of emotions that accompanied junior high school my day never seemed complete until I could come home and write about it all. I was nothing if not prolific.

Not too long ago my sister-in-law asked me now that I do a lot of writing for my living if I ever just write for fun still. I thought about it for about three seconds and answered no. She, having a talent for drawing, and now responsible for running her own graphic arts business seemed to understand exactly the weight of her question and the significance of my weary response. When you are paid to do the thing you always loved doing, who has the time or energy to actually enjoy it? And by golly are you supposed to?

And yet my evening at the Ordway with my still breath of fresh air best friend, who remains a true heart's inspiration, was a nice reminder of keeping some perspective. There have been times over the past few years that I have felt a million miles away from her (and sometimes deliberately so) as close to her as I once felt (and that's probably closer in many ways than I ever felt to anyone else) often with the two of us seemingly thinking about something else during our conversations. But it was nice to see we can still relate. My favorite Sedaris essay of the evening was one about how his family deals with his chronicling their many eccentricities for all the world to read.

Afterward when the two of us walked through the brisk air back to where she had parked (and she of course noticed the increasing stumble to my walk) she too mentioned that particular essay. For her it meant something meaningful having recently struggled to deal with some difficult family matters. For me the piece was a keen observation of crossing a line of the first rule of writing- write about what you know - and the discomfort of family and friends who read about themselves in something you've written and take some discomfort in what you have chosen to share or how they are portrayed. And I know she won't be entirely OK with me writing this, but it was nice identifying with her again if on a somewhat different plane.

She told me it was the first book reading she had attended and she was glad I asked her along. It was a different way of sharing what writing means to me but you know what? Her enjoying the evening made me finally feel that I can go to my grave glad to do what I have done.

Monday, April 22, 2002

Bullock Bitten by a Baboon!

To be Frank Burns, "nerts to you." To be frank otherwise, if Sandra Bullock did not star in the new movie Murder By Numbers, I'd probably have never seen it. If it starred Ashley Judd, or Jodie Foster, or Julia Roberts, or J. Lo, I'd probably have gone and seen The Scorpion King instead. Nothing against any of those people, indeed some of them might even make my personal "pantheon" of actresses but I consider it somewhat my duty to watch whatever Bullock does.

That is the only excuse to why I forced myself to watch the dreadful ABC sitcom, The George Lopez Show the other week. Bullock is an executive producer of the show and she made a guest appearance as "Accident Amy" whom George didn't want working at his factory because they were trying to achieve the safety record for the number days without a mishap. Sandra gave it the old plucky effort but with the canned laughter and cliched situational writing it was an embarrassment particularly when compared with other mid-season replacement shows like Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and Watching Ellie that should get some kudos for at least trying to be something different.

Not that Murder By Numbers is a bad movie. It actually was better than I thought it would be having read negative reviews from both of our local newspapers and having seen the trailer that made it look like a bad Seven knock off. Bullock plays Cassie Mayweather sort of a feminine Humphrey Bogart, down on her luck, borderline alcoholic, cynical crime scene expert cop. Cassie has some serious scars, a difficult past that influences the way she approaches her latest murder case. She's brittle and broken, a little out of control yet the consummate professional.

What makes the movie something better than your average CSI or Matlock episode are the two villians (Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt) who give nice performances as creepy high school kids who murder just because they want to see if they can get away with it. At one point Pitt confesses that he just can't feel anymore as if to suggest he took the life of another because it made him feel something. It is something Cassie seems to relate to.

The movie makes a somewhat familiar convincing argument that once you take the suicidal plunge and decide that it doesn't matter whether you are alive or not, there will forever be a part of you that can't recover, that will forever remain dead inside. Both the boys and Cassie do some desperate things that aren't as much cries for help as they are self affirming acts of self pity. These characters have long since passed the point of caring about what others might think of them.

The movie's deliberate pace, played out like a fine chess match as Gosling and Pitt leave clues for Bullock and her partner (played by Ben Chaplin) to figure out, is ultimately betrayed by a contrived climax as Cassie confronts the alleged killer face to face, hand to neck. In the end it all seems a rather cookie cutter thriller made by the numbers.

Yet it is a departure for Bullock. This time around we are supposed to like her character in spite of her flaws instead of because of them. It's a diversion of a movie, something that the masses either will or won't go to in acceptable numbers because it is on par with whatever else is out there. Like all of her films this one doesn't exactly strive to be Academy Award winning stuff. It settles for being something between workwomanlike and slightly more artful than conventional fare. And while that's not necessarily a bad thing, after reading recent interviews with Sandra it seems a tad disappointing that none of her movies live up to the compelling spirit that obviously exists. Still sad from the death of her mother two years ago, everything written about her conveys this light that is the appeal to her work and yet the other layers of a rare woman who knows the value of spending the final moments on a foreign shore finding the perfect rock to give to another in need of something to hold on to, is sadly absent.

The Nightmare of Sleeping with Cameron Diaz

"If the world really looks like that I will paint no more!"
- Claude Monet, flinging away a pair of glasses for which he had been fitted to correct a severe astigmatism.

I had a friend who didn't know much about art but knew enough to know she liked Monet's paintings. I had another friend who believed some movies were more real than reality and thus would be wiped out and would go off the deep end for awhile if he saw one that he related to too closely and let seep in too deeply. I had another friend who chose not to write his novel in the first, second, or third person but rather in the fifth person. Thus every sentence began, "I had a friend who had a friend, who had a friend who heard from a friend that..."

I could relate to all three of them I guess. I guess in the end that's why we have friends. Friends relate. I'm not sure where any of these once significant and near souls are today but I do know all of them would have liked the Tom Cruise film Vanilla Sky. Indeed after seeing the movie last week I wistfully felt like I had been with my friends once again. It's a challenging movie that asks some serious questions about the nature of our dreams, our realities and how art interacts and intercedes with our perceptions of both.

The movie starts off fairly conventionally with Cruise awakening from a snooze (his alarm clock coos, "open your eyes" which coincidentally is the name of the Spanish movie that Vanilla Sky is a remake of) and lumbers over to his vanity mirror to marvel at his own good looks. But things veer off when we soon learn through a visually eye popping and amazing (when you think about it) scene that things aren't exactly as they seem to appear. And that sets the fluid tone for the rest of the film.

Like a certain person I knew (or thought I did) Cruise's character, David Aames, gets involved way over his head with an insane woman (Cameron Diaz) who falls into a category slightly lower than a proximity infatuation, and who drives them over the brink of disaster. David ends up either blamed for things he did or did not do or at the very least ends up blaming himself for things he had a hand in but had no control over (though he selfishly thought he did until it was too late). They lock him up to diagnose things apparently too to find a cure but a question arises about whether the cure is worse than the disease.

Just before a disfigured David loses himself behind a mask (or because he loses himself behind a mask) he meets the last guileless woman in New York City (Penelope Cruz). She's the type of woman who has the inner stuff to make him feel more true to himself than he's ever felt and better yet inspires him to feel that is a good thing. She's also the type of woman you probably would never meet in the real world (if one actually exists), although I swear I did a few years back. She's a keen observer making David smile at a party with a remark about another woman, "She's the saddest looking woman to ever hold a martini..." Also frustrating him after the accident with a cryptic but equally endearing comment after he inquires what is bothering her, "I'll tell you in another life when we are both cats." Their actual relationship is all too brief but changes him and lingers inside in ways he never thought possible.

At one point David reveals to the psychologist (Kurt Russell) trying to analyze his shattered state of mind that his dreams are like jokes that taunt him to the point where he doesn't want to sleep anymore. Unfortunately what he soon learns is that what is actually in front of him (again, in this so called real world that in this case is just a movie) is much more difficult to face then the haunting images that flow over and through him.

Vanilla Sky isn't a flawless movie. The end tries too hard to explain the rest of the movie which in the world it creates defies a coherent explanation. This is Cruise's best performance however, as he plays off his own image in such a scathing manner that it adds to the eeriness of the storyline. Diaz too creates a character both psychotic and irresistible. When I first heard Paul McCartney's theme song performed at the Oscars, I thought it was McCartney at his worst- meandering and trying to be clever. But as I sat in the dark after the movie was finished and the credits were rolling by, Paul's song perfectly captured the mood of the film: sweet as it is sour. Scarred soulless like a John Coltrane hologram, superficially penetrating, restrictive to an increasingly silent and solitary world. An unequivocal plea to abre los ojos.

Monday, April 15, 2002

Time Out of Mind

"We marched along in columns of four/Living and seeing the horrors of war/And when a man fell along the way/A cold bayonet would make him pay/For those four months he fought on Bataan/Then they'd kill him 'cause he couldn't stand."
-Jesse Knowles, a Bataan Death March Survivor

"Streamers between the clouds, lakes of light, capes of cloud, ribbons, curls, flakes, and continents of cloud/Although there is a ceiling of purple cloud almost all over, at the western end of the sky a yellow ragged window abides."
-Delmore Schwartz, a notable serious drinker

Even though happiness has become my default position, I thought I had my heart broken again this past week but it turned out to just be a case of burning indigestion from a spicy Chipotle burrito or maybe it was the bag of wasabi covered peas inhaled during the day, or perhaps it was some leftover spilled and not to be consumed Pad Thai. I was caught a bit off guard, as guarded as I've learned to be, because my system has developed a certain immunity over time. My confidant, the green-belted kick boxing home builder, sent me out to pick up Mexican food in the corporate Lawson Software building a mile or so away in the heart of our Capitol city's refurbished downtown minus a Bad Habit sans Library Night. Though I was a bit cranky after being volunteered to be the office lunch delivery guy, I figured the walk might do some good. At least it couldn't hurt.

My route from the Capitol downtown took me past the Veterans' Building. This happened to be the day that there was a dedication ceremony of a plaque commemorating the Bataan Death March. I walked through a group of veterans, of survivors who were forced by the Japanese during World War II to make a 55 mile trek in which they were bound, beaten and bayoneted if they should happen to stumble from exhaustion. Nearly sixty years later to the day, I'm sure these men, proudly wearing their military sweaters, medals, and caps, were delighted to see a little hatted Japanese looking guy armed with a bag of burritos walking through their stately service. Let's just say that I felt horribly out of place (more so than usual), and as conspicuous as a member of the Oprah book club who has paid lifetime dues.

I'm sure from an outside perspective it must have been quite an odd jarring juxtaposition, and a strange commentary on how time heals all wounds as often as it reopens old ones. Time is a gas, you can't stop it but it really isn't much of an option to walk away from it either. It doesn't ask you to understand it or even appreciate it; lay down and die and it rolls right over you. But events can leave a lasting scar (not even Vitamin B removable) and leave you stuck in a moment that you can't get out of. Not to do any injustice to what was once suffered, needless to say I can't directly blame myself for the cruelty inflicted 60 years ago nor can I deny that it still might influence the way somebody sees me. The day ended almost appropriately and somewhat reassuringly: as I walked out to my car, a young woman flagged me down and asked if I'd give her a jump (I figured she was talking about her car).

I maneuvered my gray 1990 Honda Civic next to her white 1995 Honda Accord and with hoods ajar my little vehicle gave temporary new life to another. The woman was grateful "I owe you one" and I felt better about things as I drove away noticing all the little Japanese made cars now noticeable on the road. My only hope was she made it home safely and on time.

History has its consequences. Ask the surviving standing soldiers. Ask the car battery left on all day. Ask a burning burrito sitting in the belly. Maybe I'm just a wee bit tired and weary from extra long work hours but it occurred to me after the most peculiar day that something said, written, or done today may come back to have some unintended significance years down the road. Something else done, written, or said tomorrow in a vacuum may touch someone not known and out of sight and reach, without notice. Whereas in youth one not only hopes, but can't wait for the day that dreams become reality, what time ultimately teaches is whatever one thought life might become as a child is truly rarely ever meant to be, and it is with some squalor that with dreams comes responsibilities and it isn't even about competition or impatience of waiting for it all to unfold. Things don't always work out the way you had them planned and we all may never be able to afford to have our own personal dental daily hygienist to clean the stuff out between the cracks but as beat up as you come to feel, like a disappearing fish in an orange homemade and soothing tank, if you can learn to accept the simple lesson that we all must move at our own pace then you can always accept another hole or two from time to time to the heart.

Friday, April 12, 2002

Why is it Though She's the Door She Can't Be the Door?

Not to sound like all those athletes who after winning the big game pronounce that no one thought they could do it, that the entire world was against them but they believed in themselves and look who got the last laugh... well maybe to sound exactly like them, but I know it's difficult for some to believe I wasn't always the winsome, suave guy you see today. You need not go back much further than thirteen years ago to this very week to have seen quite the difference.

Back then, most people would have believed the best I could end up being would be something like a presidential pre-pretzel chewer rather than a city homeowner, who has quite the collection of bobblehead dolls, a drooling kitty, and who continues to be privileged to be the friend to the most beautiful woman in the world. So what changed? Something rather significant happened that we need not go into detail here (if you must know read the newsletter Vol. 1 No. 1 to Vol. 11 No. 14). Suffice it to say that though I haven't been quite the same since, it changed things in such a profound way that I'll never be quite the same again.

Prior to this "thing" we're not going to talk about there was a period that was like being on a bus going over 50 miles per hour (down a dead end street to boot) rigged so that if it drops below that speed, the whole thing blows up. Fortunately an emergency driver emerged who, not quite being properly equipped having her license recently revoked, somehow manages to steer things right and saves the day.

The lesson one might take away from the experience is how dangerous things can be (even if we all can't agree on the definition of a terrorist we all might be able to agree on what terror feels like) and end up shell shocked, absorbing too much and withdrawing into a shell of a former self. But another lesson that might eventually sink in is that there is a spirit (not necessarily our own) that knows what it is to be beat up yet is still able to keep the chin up and keep bouncing back by realizing that we are all ultimately here to feel that spirit and share it with others. Or in other words (and other times) forever seeing the soothing wonderful head boppin hair swirling of one who knows enough to check with the sun, carry a compass to help you along, knows that your feet are going to be on the ground and that your head is there to move you around.

Thirteen years later I sometimes slip and forget about what I remember. About a year ago I got a call from an organization offering magazine discounts in return for a contribution to the American Cancer Society. I usually hang up on telemarketers but even though contributing towards cancer research may feel like too little too late, it is something I'll probably do from here on out. The phone solicitor read off a list of magazines I could get and I had a difficult time picking out one I might actually read. Finally just to get off the phone I agreed to a subscription to Biography published by the A&E cable network with a show with the same name.

Issue after issue arrived and I glanced through them but rarely read much. Then last month's issue arrived and it had Sandra Bullock on the cover. Unfortunately my copy arrived all ripped up, a victim of a defective postal handling. The one issue I would no doubt have kept in a special place was a tattered mishap. I took it harder than I probably should have if I was a normal human being.

Fortunately to offset the blow I discovered a symbolic convenience. A few weeks after I bought my house, which has two entrances/exits- one in the kitchen and one in the living room- I broke the doorknob on the kitchen door. Thus whenever I enter or leave my house I have to walk all the way around to the front door. It's a bit of an inconvenience but not one that has motivated me to fix the doorknob. A friend, a recent home buyer, got on my case about this. And while not exactly addressing her point of contention I did start using the side door on occasion. For some reason it never occurred to me that I could easily enter the house because it requires pushing the door open and thus a doorknob isn't necessary in the maneuver. Exiting however requires pulling the door shut, a difficulty without a functional knob.

Rediscovering this new way into my house seemed to be a metaphor to getting out of a mess or looking at things in a different manner. And in the end I think that makes for a better cliche than the woebegone athlete example a tired lad might use to write about a quiet little anniversary celebration.

Monday, April 1, 2002

Tanning in Phases

Economically it's time to tighten the proverbial belt, cut the fat from the bone, separate the nice from the necessary. As the Legislature contemplates a ten percent cut to its own budget the thought has crossed my mind that it's not a bad idea to prepare for the possibility that the state will decide that my carefully chosen, and sleep deprived philosophical prose isn't essential to the smooth running of government and I will have to search for someone else to pay my rather meager paycheck.

Not that I've heard anything and not that I haven't proven in the past that I have a rather papilionaceous spirit. If I've learned one thing in my life (and believe me I'm not sure I can even live up to that standard) I've learned the importance of separating my self identity with what I do for a living. And believe it or not I've gotten by this far not by my looks but by my winsome personality. In other words unlike J. Lo you won't exactly find me taking out a $1 billion insurance policy on my body with a $300 million provision specifically for the booty (indeed a certain candle giver made mention of my diminutive arse the other day).

If I am forced to make a middle age career change I've come up with a couple of different possibilities. Possibility number one came to mind through an awkward social etiquette question I stumbled into and have been pestering the brilliant and beautiful minds around me for an answer.

The first day of the legislative session as I drove up the parking ramp next to my office I noticed they hired a young man whose job it is to sit in a little booth at the entrance to make sure those entering the ramp have the proper sticker displayed on their car. Not everyone is allowed to park in the ramp; nope it takes some seniority or the voice of the people through an election to secure a spot. As I pulled into the ramp I was ready to roll down my window, pull out my passport, birth certificate, and any other security related identification papers when the young man waved me through.

The next day I slowed down as I was entering but the young man didn't wave. I didn't want to stop so I waved at him and drove on by. He didn't come running after me so I figured all was OK. Since then our waving routine has been somewhat irregular if not a bit awkward. Some days neither of us wave; some days both of us wave; some days he waves and other days I wave. It's long since moved beyond whether or not I should be allowed in the ramp- rather it now is a gesture of friendliness and familiarity. Often I'm one of the first to arrive at work and I like to let the young man know that I'm wishing him a good morning and bless him for waking up extra early to make sure only those who have a sticker are leaving their car where it should be left. And yes it's nice the days when he looks up from the book he's reading to wave at me as if to say, "welcome to another day of work!" Somehow it just gets the day off to a little nicer start.

So I have come to the conclusion that one day I'd like to become a parking garage attendant. Yes, they may be taken terribly for granted, and yes their position has little actual authority with little power to do something if someone violates the rules other than call someone else to take care of the situation, but it would be nice to have a job where a mere wave of the hand can make a little bit of difference or all the difference in the world.

The other job I'm giving some consideration to is a washing machine repairman. Not that long ago I was doing a load of laundry and lying comfortably on my couch with my feline roommate resting peacefully on my chest when all of a sudden a dreadful, most awful screeching noise bellowed out from the basement. Kitty's ears perked up but his eyes remained shut. I, being rather tired let the sound continue as long as I could hoping it would correct itself all the while realizing such an awful noise could not be a good sign and likely would be one of those things that a hundred dollars later would be a memory evoked when glancing through a bank statement.

The screeching continued so I scampered on down to check it out. I rearranged the load of clothes and went back upstairs. No sooner had kitty re-situated himself comfortably on my chest when the noise repeated itself. This time I let it go. The wash cycle completed and I went down to find my load of clothes much wetter than they normally are. I threw the load into the dryer and loaded up some more clothes into the washer. I started the new load and waited a few minutes when the screeching noise returned. I turned the machine off. When the dryer was done I brought my clothes up and began folding them. I happened to notice that my favorite pair of boxer shorts, the one that my friend bought at the same time meaning whenever I wear them I think of her (some compliment), was missing. I went back downstairs to discover that the shorts had lodged themselves between the tub and the machine. Thus the tub wasn't turning right and it was letting out a yelp to let me know so. I removed the shorts and put in the next load and the lack of a squeal was music to my ears. It was one of the few home repairs I've been able to make but I was proud nonetheless.