Monday, February 28, 2005

Mama's Boy

Over the short 35 years I got to know my Mom I learned to respect her opinions on most matters. Thus when Mom made an occasional movie recommendation to me I quickly learned to pay attention. She never steered me wrong whether it was Friendly Persuasion or The Spirit of St. Louis, or Pride of the Yankees. Not only did Mom have great taste in movies but she also knew what kind of movies I would appreciate.

Back when Mom was growing up and going to the movies, the quality of a film often was closely linked to its star. Not to say Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn never made a bad movie but generally if you watch most of the great films from the 1940's and 1950's there is a great actor or actress involved. Thus it was no surprise that many of the movies Mom recommended starred some of her favorite actors including Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart.

There was a running joke in my family about one of Mom's other favorite actors. For some reason she really liked Clint Eastwood. Mom was a quiet, reserved and extremely peaceful woman so we had to kid her about watching Dirty Harry or The Outlaw Josie Wales where Clint blows away anyone who crosses him. Those movies were even too violent for me and Clint's squint hard and say little method of acting didn't really do much for me.

When I was in college I'd often go home during the weekends and I remember coming home Saturday morning to Mom writing her weekly letter to my sister while Rawhide was on the TV in the background. The 1950's TV series features a very young Clint playing the volatile Rowdy Yates. The best thing for me about the show was its catchy theme song but I think Mom watched because she liked the guy who played Rowdy.

Last Monday I went to see Clint's latest movie, Million Dollar Baby and I came home desperately wishing Mom could have seen it. The movie features my favorite Clint performance to date- even though he is pretty much playing the same character he has played for the past fifty years. His character the boxer trainer, Frankie Dunn, is a grizzled cynic who is more than a little worn down by life. Something unspoken has happened in Frankie's past. He sends letters to his daughter on a weekly basis only to have each and every one come back marked "return to sender."

Frankie reads Yeats and knows how to speak Gaelic and goes to church every week even though he hardly seems to believe in much. His quiet dispassion seems to be a marker for a man who doesn't quite understand the world around him but has entrenched himself in something comforting enough that he is able to get by.

His life and world change when a young female boxer comes along and pesters him to train her. Hilary Swank is great in the role of the spunky yet never been swankier, Maggie Fitzgerald, not at any time hitting the wrong note in the entire movie (she's down right Swanky!). Morgan Freeman whose character, Eddie Dupris, runs the gym is also pitch perfect.

More and more as I watch Clint's movies, and particularly the ones he directs, I understand why he is such a lover of jazz music. His world view isn't about flashiness or being a technical virtuoso. Rather he's more interested in hitting as few notes as possible knowing that the less that is said, the more effective something is in playing the human heart's everlasting desire to want to fill in the missing pieces. His movies tend to be leisurely paced yet their internal rhythm add to the intensity of the story being told.

There's a scene near the end of the movie where Frankie is facing a heartbreaking moral decision and is seeking the counsel of his priest. Frankie knows what he is going to do even if he doesn't know how in the world he can manage to find the strength to do it. He's looking for someone to absolve him of the consequences of his decision but that isn't going to happen. When Clint's voice wavers, and he lets the tears finally flow, the years of strength and stoicism take on such a great significance. His weathered face isn't glamorous but it certainly is authentic.

Million Dollar Baby is a very sad movie. It skillfully uses the sport of boxing as a metaphor for life- that to be effective you have to learn to throw a punch when taking a step back, and sometimes dodging punches means moving in a direction that isn't where it makes logical sense to move. The best thing I can say about the movie is it made me come to appreciate Clint Eastwood in a way I'm sure my Mom had to know that one day I would.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Wrong Eyed Jesus

Words don't suffice. They may have once but that stopped at some point, at some time that I don't even remember. I've been feeling dead inside since right around the time Buffy's mom died. A series of events both real and imagined left me overwhelmed and the end result is you don't feel way too much to handle as you might expect after some big life events, but rather as a necessity you don't feel anything at all.

And I don't think I'm alone in this. As you get older and life beats down on you there are times you just have to shut down and let your defenses take over. Living in a time when no one seems to get upset that our news media has fallen in such a state of disrepair that phony news is now accepted as being OK and that phony reporters who ask phony questions at White House press conferences don't set off any more alarms than news columnists paid off to shill a political agenda. Hopefully this is a temporary state of affairs and the bone deep cut doesn't end up as an I've fallen scar.

And you know what I've found? That the little things I might have once taken for granted now mean a little bit more to me. A couple of weeks ago the coffee place across the street from my house began selling sushi. Of course it's not the stuff you can get at a good Japanese restaurant- it's mostly fake crab meat or tofu wrapped in tasteless rice served with mild wasabi and stale ginger. Still I find myself wandering over there quite a bit more than I used to and whenever I do I end up happily purchasing the new product. One package doesn't quite make a meal for me so I eat it with a serving of those really cheap ramen noodles you can buy at any chain grocery store.

Maybe it's my feeble attempt to feel just a little bit more Japanese but I'm quite enjoying my new diet. There's little raw fish (an occasional piece of the coffee shop sushi has a little piece of raw tuna in it) and my favorite pieces contain cream cheese so along with the cookie cutter (probably really bad for you) grocery store ramen it's not like I'm going to authentically turn Japanese any time soon. But nonetheless it sure beats a Big Mac or a Arby's roast beef sandwich any day of the week.

The other thing going on in my life that makes me more aware of the soulless funk I've been in (and being way too aware of the state of things) is that I think I may be falling in love with music all over again.

It started when my family bought me an iPod for my 40th birthday last fall. Yes I've heard all the criticisms of the device- that it steals your soul, that owning one is giving in to the corporate sellout to the almighty Apple god, but I don't care. I've loaded most of my favorite CDs and all of my favorite songs and I hit the shuffle button and am in an all day "I love this music" atmosphere. How wonderful is it to be at work and have a Sarah Vaughn song come up next to a Liz Phair song right after Willie Nelson segues into Outkast?

That said, with the unveiling of Minnesota Public Radio's 89.3- The Current!- I must admit I'm just about ready to say that my iPod is so yesterday. Those same wacky juxtapositions of a variety of eclectic artists has become the station's greatest quality (among many to choose from). In my stupor state of mind I have noticed a couple of politically related things: that people with John Kerry bumper stickers are some of the worst drivers and; that most of MPR's attempts at being funny are really annoying. (With the occasional exception of Garrison Keillor and the all the time exemption of This American Life). The network's quiz show Wait Wait Don't Tell is an excellent example of this. It is perhaps the least funny thing I've heard in my life as hard as they try.

Thus I wasn't holding out much hope when MPR announced that they were going to be changing one of their classical music stations to an "alternative music" format. I feared an attempt at being hip would fall equally on its face as the awful attempts they make at humor. But the station plays all the time in my car now. The best thing I can say about 89.3 The Current! is not that it's great that they play Devandra Banhart, but it's great that I'm not surprised that they play Devandra Banhart.

So I've stopped listening to the news and rediscovered how great a great song can be. This may mean I will become temporarily less aware of what is going on in the world but it also means I will likely become more aware of what is going on inside of me and I think that for awhile that is a tradeoff I'm willing to make.

Addendum: I've even started playing the piano again on a regular basis. The newcomer to these premises, Theo the Third Cat has quickly let me know what he thinks of my piano playing. Every time I bang out a Barry Manilow song Theo climbs inside the piano and sits on the hammers so the felt covered devices can't rise and fall upon the dreadfully out of tune piano strings. This effectively brings a quick end to the cacophony and my impromptu midnight performances.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Crash on the Levee or Three Cool Cats

This week I was going to write about how at last week's Ike Reilly show that it dawned on me that great songs can come to mean something entirely different to you depending on your place in life. I had heard Ike's "Put a Little Love in It" a hundred times yet at the First Ave show the line, "Hang on to your spit for the flames inside your home" struck for the first time as being brilliant. It's a great way to say that one shouldn't bother wasting energy on things that don't matter in the end that there are always current troubles at home that need all one's attention.

Why hadn't I really heard that line before and why did it slice into me so deeply this time? I thought about that all week and was going to sit down and fill up this space with my thoughts on the matter.

That's when tragedy struck not once but three times.

The first bit of bad news was the death of a mentor of sorts- Ms. Marge Christianson- Moogie- the former Hennepin County Elections Manager. Marge was the one that taught me what matters in the end isn't the end count, the final result, what most often matters is the counting process itself. If that operation isn't right then nothing that comes afterwards is worth a hill of beans. There were times Marge took me under her wing and those times I felt quite special- as if what limited talents I do possess- really did matter.

Marge let me know she was a Sinatra fan. She loved "My Way," and "New York New York." So when I heard the sad news of her death I made sure to listen to Sinatra's great "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" and thanked my lucky stars that Marge and my paths crossed when they did. She meant a lot to me.

The second bit of bad news of the week was a bit unexpected. I knew that bringing in cat #3 into the household would raise the hackles of the existing roommates and cause a bit of stress for a while. What I didn't see coming was that one of the two boyz, Mr. Thompson would not stay angry but rather he would get depressed. Being an involuntary expert on depression I should have seen it coming. I had thought by bringing in a soul to ward off future sadness caused by loss the worst result could be one of anger turned hissy fits. I should have known better. Anger turned inward is depression. Depression turned outward is one of life's largest lost causes.

I came home one evening and Thompson clearly wasn't himself. He skipped dinner. He lay on my bed, ears turned down and wouldn't move. Usually quite vocal he was silent and would barely look at me. A couple of times he also let out a solitary hack as if something was caught in his throat. I almost hoped his behavior change was the result of something physical not psychological. I flashed back to the time I had hit some skids and was lying hopelessly on my parent's couch when my Mom said she couldn't stand to see me the lethargic way I was. It wasn't until after I repeated those exact words to Thompson that the tears really did start flowing from one of us. I ended up taking him to the vet. I recognized the woman at the records desk almost immediately as a high school classmate. I didn't want to let her know that I recognized her however for God know whatever reason. When I told her my name she identified herself and told me she had seen my name in the files. She asked what I was up to and I told her I worked for Hennepin County Elections. She shocked me by saying she had looked for my name on last fall's ballot because I had told everyone in our high school that I was running for president in 2004. I couldn't believed she remembered that.

The next day Thompson lost his voice so being a rather vocal cat things around here seemed sadly quiet. He opens his mouth to let out a meow and nothing comes out. It's the same thing I have seen for two years now when I get home and see him looking out a window and I peer in at him and he lets out a meow that I can't hear. Only in this realm there is no glass between us and my heart sinks wondering what is going on.

For the third bit of bad news I was at work and came across a name that reminded me of one who tortured and turned on me 19 years ago, the one I spent so much capital trying not only to forget, but to forgive for turning our relationship into something much worse than it ever was until she turned it into something 10 times worse than anything I'd ever dealt with before- that one- her name turned up on the missing CNN Americans Tsunami list. I shouldn't have had mixed emotions but I did. Legally I shouldn't have any emotions at all- but I was stunned to see her name again. The end all those years ago was sudden enough but this seemed ten times worse.

Sad to say I stopped being a praying man but I must admit I did say a prayer this week for all those who strayed across my mind. In the end that part about saving spit for the flames inside my home seemed like an eerie foreshadowing for a week that just wouldn't let go.

Monday, February 7, 2005

The Founding Member of the Unabashedly Anthropomorphic Society of America

"It's the animal instinct in me..."
-the Cranberries

"They never let poor Rudolph, join in any reindeer games..."
-Gene Autry

Support for my decision to adopt a third cat has been mixed at best. My thinking and so called logic has been dissected and picked apart by friends and family and co-workers and the same people that poisoned that Ukrainian's president's soup, and though I've had a history of questionable decision making this one seems to have been more universally summarily dismissed as a poor one than most. Granted I'll admit I've long been the expert at placing myself in unwinnable situations. One person went so far as to suggest that this latest decision is all about an overarching aversion to building an actual family (of the human kind). But you know, maybe I just have a really high albeit near paranoid intolerance for mice. Is that too Howard Hughesian?

So the burning question is why can't we all just get along? Or rather another way to state it is why cat we all just get along?

I've never introduced a new cat into an atmosphere where others already tread so to learn about the process I did what any of us now do when we need information. I googled it on the Internet. And then I ended up talking to some people who had been through the experience. What I learned is that you are supposed to keep all the fur legs and glares separated and segregated physically if not socially while myself trying to remain a comforting presence to all involved The new cat establishes a safe room where he can get used to all the new sights and smells and the resident cats get to wonder what the hell is going on behind that locked door.

After awhile you're supposed to switch their places so they can all acclimate themselves to the smells of each other. (Hopefully the overwhelming stench of the sole human inhabitant doesn't interfere with this busy twitchy nose process.) After even more of awhile when you think that the antenna of the agitated nerves is somewhat receptive you allow everyone to see each other. Expecting a full fledged brawl at this point I was happy that the two resident cats acted like they didn't quite know what to make of this new intruder while the intruder, a fourth of their size looked up with his big round eyes and let out the tiniest of mews- as if to say, "Hi guys, wanna play?"

It's never easy being the new kid on the block. Growing up in Roseville there were three junior highs that fed the two senior highs. All the Fairview kids went to Alexander Ramsey. All the Capitol View kids went to Frank B. Kellogg. Us Parkview kids were split between the two high schools. Thus many of my friendships for all intents and purposes cam to a screeching halt after the ninth grade and my first year of high school was spent trying to find my way among a bunch of people who pretty much had gone to the same schools all their lives.

I remember sitting in hour one of my homeroom class in 10th grade hardly recognizing another face in the room. It took me all the way back to kindergarten- feeling like everyone was in on something I knew nothing about. The same feelings came flooding back during my freshman year at college. I ended up with a group of jocks and drunks and sex crazed hipsters (I learned none were mutually exclusive clubs) that left me feeling like I grew up on Neptune.

So excuse me for feeling more than a little bit of sympathy for cat #3's first week in his new home. Dubbed "Dribble" because being a mostly black cat with a white chin that makes it look like he dribbled a dabble of milk out of his mouth, he had come from a foster home where he lived with six other cats. Thus being introduced to a new place he had to figure that the other two feline figures would understand and be sympathetic to his confusion. They were not.

When his absolute period of isolation ended and the doors were opened a bit where all involved could get a peek at each other for the first time, the anxiety in the air could have been sliced with the force of a swipe of an unclipped cat's paw. The newcomer wanted to explore- the veterans didn't want him in any way to violate their territory.

The newcomer couldn't have been more friendly towards me. Purring seems to be his natural state and when he stops it seems odd. He also turns out to be a great head-butter- seemingly seeing my head as one great big soccer ball.

At the same time it was time to come up with a permanent name. "Dribble" seemed like a good kitten name but long term it just wouldn't do. I remembered a book about the making of the original Star Trek series where the creators of the show ran through a list of names for the Vulcan- everything from Spook to Speck ultimately settling on Spock. I did get a glimpse of what new parents must go through in selecting a name for their baby. I wanted something that capture his essence yet it had to be something others would remember and accept as appropriate. I've long wanted to name a cat after something musical- the long lost great Stephanie Jane won me over by telling me she once had a cat named Jazz. "Dylan" would have been an option if not for Beverly Hills 90210.

I ran through several musicians' names from Duke to Thelonious, from Wyclef to Hank (Sr.) but I just couldn't decide. I then settled on Eliot after Elliott Smith only with one "L" in deference to T.S. Eliot only the short name to that would be "Eli" and I had a friend who named one of her cats "Elijah" (a wonderful kitty name) and thus calling him Eli (that cat unfortunately was killed in an accident) made me feel sad (or sadder than usual).

I just about settled on Cecil after jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. Indeed I called the newcomer that for a day or so but it just didn't seem to fit. So I came back to one of the first names I thought about- Thelonious- Theo for short. I ran it by my friend. She liked the name Thelonious-san Monk-Maeda. I did too.

How to get Thompson and Diego-san to accept little Theo... There were no fisticuffs when I first opened the door all the way. Theo took some steps toward Diego-san who could sit on Theo and flatten him to nothing. Diego-san, who runs this place, glared menacingly but when Thelonious got near ultimately retreated (as is his nature). Thompson proved even more surly. If Theo got within two feet, Thompson growled. If Theo got within a foot, Thompson hissed. If Theo got any closer Thompson ran away. One time Thompson sat perched upon his favorite piece of cat furniture when Theo tried to climb up. Thompson took his one front paw and rapped Theo hard on the top of his head. Theo didn't quite get the message and the process was repeated again until he quit his attempt.

But tonight detente has finally been reached. Thelonious lived up to his name and pranced upon the piano keyboard. Diego-san, himself quite the piano player nodded in approval. Thompson looked over and seemed to accept things as they now are. Thelonious has bundles of kitten energy and the other boyz look on both out of curiosity and seemingly with the message- "you'll learn better one day, kid..."

Yes maybe all this is a bit too remindful of the only piece of work to make both my all time favorite book list and movie list, William Wharton's Birdy, a story in which the title character finds that being a human is a bit too frightening so he chooses something else- but I must say that I'm learning more and more from my exposure to all things feline. As I feel my way forward all I've encountered has an inherent (and often written about) sense yet I love how all the cats have their own unique personalities. Trying to decipher what all that means has proved to be endlessly rewarding and I'm sure little Theo will end up teaching me as much about things as those who came before him have already done, God bless him.

What Ever Happened to the Girl in Me?

News last fall of the closing of First Ave didn't make me as sad as it maybe should have. It's not a venue I've ever terribly enjoyed seeing a show at, from being jostled and groped and surrounded by really bad dancers and people who think their conversations are more important than the music on the stage, to the dark and smoky atmosphere, it's a place that I'd always tolerated watching a show more than anything else. If it weren't for the intimacy of the place- and the quality of acts it attracts- and the historical significance of the club- I'm not sure I would have missed it all that much if it never opened again.

Sure I've seen plenty of memorable shows there- from L7 in 1993 to Freedy Johnston in 1998 to the Jayhawks, Liz Phair, Wilco, and Lucinda Williams in various appearances but I'd never seen a great show there until last Friday night.

Growing up we had a term for rock music that was sonically impressive. We said it blew the roof off the dump. Friday, the Ike Reilly Assassination blew the roof off the dump during a scorching set that had everybody boppin and singing along.

From the opening reflective "St. Joe's Band" to the chaotic closing cover of the Pogues "If I Should Fall From Grace with God" where Ike did a passing Shane MacGowan imitation (right on down to being in a rather lubricated state), the IRA never let up with penetrating rocking good guitar based music that held your soul hostage and proved if nothing else great rock and roll music is as good a reason to exist in this world as anything else.

Reilly is as charismatic a performer as he is a songwriter, a nearly impossible trick to pull off. In song after song he creates a world of chaos and disorder where drink, drugs, and attitude help make some sense of politics, women, and all the trouble lacking (and sometimes having) money can cause. His music makes one want to get into the car, crank up the tunes and live the life of whatever is to be, no matter where the road ahead leads. In recent years I've come to use Ike as my standard to judge how good a music store is. If they carry his CDs I can proceed to shop. If they actually have his CDs in stock, they clearly are paying attention to what they need to be paying attention to.

The first highlight of the show packed with so many was the second song that may have been new (or really old) which had a refrain about maybe how an assassination could be OK if you apologize afterward. Reilly poured his heart out in the bit about how the union girls didn't like paying their dues that were put towards buying uniforms especially since shortly after the factory closes down. With an unexplainable lack of business success the working class message in many of Ike's songs takes on added authenticity.

My favorite song of the evening however was a cover of Dylan's "From a Buick 6." Reilly has covered the song in every show I've seen of his and each time the song gathers more and more power. It's the only Dylan cover that for me is better than the original and the original is darn good.

I also particularly liked the version of "Holiday in New York" my favorite song from the latest CD, Sparkle in the Finish. The song takes us on a typical Reillyesque journey of lusting after a toll booth worker and some sexual difficulty to a cynical look at a particular Memorial Day experience to an ultimate drug based encounter with an old friend. The refrain of the song "It's starting to look like a con game to me now..." was sung with stinging sincerity.

Before launching into "Last Time" Ike explained the band was against two things- racism and sexual malfunction (or at least one of the two for the past four days). He said the song was about the importance of always speaking your mind and then the band managed to raucously live up to that revelatory introduction.