Wednesday, May 31, 2006


For some reason, my brother and I got into a debate about the old seventies kids' show Make A Wish. Specifically, about the tag line...Oh, never mind. It's not important.

Make A Wish was hosted by earnest, denim-clad folk singer Tom Chapin (then as now, best known as Harry Chapin's kid brother), and every episode would consist of two segments in which we'd take some object--corn or fish or hot dogs--or some abstract concept--like dreams--and examine it through rapid fire montage of old film clips, occasional talking head interviews and vaguely psychadelic animation. At the end of each segment, Ton would offer a song about the topic.

That description makes it sound weirder than it actually seemed at the time. Watching it as a little kid, I always thought of it as what Sesame Street would be like without the muppets. In other words, boring.

Of course, my problem with it may have been that it aired on Sunday mornings. If Saturday morning was cartoon heaven for a kid, Sunday was, at best, purgatory. If memory serves, ABC was the only one of the three networks that even scheduled kiddie programming on Sundays. Unfortunately, they seemed to operate on the TV-should-be-good-for-you theory, with not only Make A Wish, but such later shows as Animals, Animals, Animals (gee, what could that have been about?) and Kids Are People, Too. Plus, ABC was the home of Schoolhouse Rock, which by its very name announced that it was going to teach you stuff. On the weekend? Dude, no way.

Hey, at least ABC tried. Mostly Sunday morning TV in the seventies (and keep in mind, I lived on a farm, so that even by the late seventies, cable was only a dream) consisted of syndicated stuff. My favorite among these was Insight, a vaguely religious anthology show that kind of played like an Afterschool Special for grown-ups. Martin Sheen was such a frequent guest star on this show that the first time I saw Apocalypse Now, I remember thinking, This is the weirdest episode of Insight ever.

There were also locally produced shows, including kiddie shows that, I'm sorry, I can't imagine any kid actually watched. (I certainly didn't.) Mom always served Sunday dinner in time for Bill Riley's State Fair Talent Search, which was about as entertaining as it sounds, the greatest thing on earth if you're into baton twirling.

The real problem with enjoying Sunday morning TV was...well, it was Sunday morning. Which led into Sunday afternoon, then evening...then time for the nightmare week of school to start again. There was always a feeling of impending doom hanging over Sundays. So even if the TV schedule had consisted of non-stop Warner Bros. cartoons, it still would have had a feeling of a last gasp of glory, a delicious final meal before the slow walk to Old Sparky.

But at least it would have been better than Make A Wish.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Of all the movies raked over the coals by the Mystery Science 3000 crew, the films of Roger Corman probably deserve a special place of honor: he was easily MST's most-ridiculed filmmaker, beating out even such stalwarts as Ed Wood and Coleman Francis.

Fair enough. None of the Corman pictures that played on MST were actually, you know, good, and some (The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent) were stupefyingly bad. Still, all of the MST pictures were early Corman. He really would get better than that.

Corman's best-known and most celebrated work would probably be the loose, florid Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he made with Vincent Price, particularly The Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death. These were stylish, enjoyable pictures which revealed some of Corman's real and considerable talent, particularly his casual mastery of wide-screen composition. But except for Masque, which is a terrific movie by any standard, even the best of his sixties pictures were plagued by all too obvious budgetary considerations. Corman may have been the King of the Bs, but for his fans, there was always the regret that he never quite made it to the A list.

Except once. In 1967 Corman landed at a major studio, 20th Century-Fox, to take his best shot at the big time: the gangster epic The St. Valentine's Day Massacre. This stylish, detached retelling of the events surrounding the most notorious gangland slaying of the 1920s, just out on DVD, really does show what Corman could do. With a keen spatial sense and a perfectly judged sense of just how long to let each scene play, this is one of the best gangster movies ever made, with a rogue's gallery of character actors giving memorable performances right down to the bit parts. The only real drawback is the picture's semidocumentary format, complete with an overbearing narration. Still, there are just enough sidelines, brief digressions from the main narrative, to keep us interested in the people, not just the events.

The efficient storytelling and sharp, easily-read visuals of Massacre recall another low-budget filmmaker of the period, Don Siegel, who was also graduating to the A list at about the same time. Siegel would go on to make Dirty Harry and other box office hits. Oddly, Corman returned to the world of B pictures, making only a few more films before retiring from directing. In the seventies he started his own distribution company, hiring young film school grads to make women-in-prison or monster movies.

And that's probably a good thing, since two of the kids he hired, Jonathan Demme and Joe Dante, would turn out to be among the best directors of their generation. Both of them tend to use Corman in bit parts in their pictures. Demme's (needless) remake of The Manchurian Candidate gives Corman a lengthy scene opposite Meryl Streep.

And he outacts her!

Monday, May 29, 2006


Memorial Day.

I don't need a day to remember the dead. I live with the memories every day. Memories that seem to live in the here and now.

My oldest brother Keith, for instance, gone from us for ten years now, the victim of a freak accident. When I was little, he and I were very close, and his impact on me was profound. He was a fountain of knowledge on Hammer Films and Warner Bros. cartoons, he introduced me to the music of George Gershwin and Aaron Copland and Charles Ives, he loved musicals and pulp fiction authors and Peter Sellers. And he took me to see Stanley Kubrick's 2001 for the first time, the single experience which changed me from the person I was to the person I am.

He not only knew stuff, he could explain it to me. He knew which Warner Bros. cartoons I liked best, and I discovered they all had one name in common, Chuck Jones, but I didn't know what that meant. He told me Jones was a director, and also an artist, and I responded to his stuff for the same reason I liked certain comic book artists, simply because I liked the way they could draw. But, he reminded me, most of Jones' cartoons had another name in common, writer Michael Maltese. Those jokes don't come out of nowhere, somebody had to write them. He took me to see Return of the Pink Panther and while going on about the genius of Peter Sellers, also explained, while we were watching the movie, how director Blake Edwards was setting up the jokes.

As I got older, things changed. Keith had a short temper, and an increasingly pronounced cruel streak, and it became harder to ignore this and harder to forgive. There was no big break, no spectacular outburst, but gradually he and I stopped talking. He got married, had kids, lived his own life. Even later, at infrequent family reunions, when I was myself married, we didn't talk.

When Mom called to tell me Keith had died, my first thought was, oh, we never reconciled. But then I thought, no, there was no need for reconciliation, because we'd never really broken apart in the first place. Each of us got what we needed from the other, then we drifted apart.

Not a day goes by without a Gershwin tune drifting through my mind. Many of my everyday catchphrases are old Michael Maltese lines. I have a shelf full of nothing but Peter Sellers movies.

I could go put a flower on Keith's grave today, but I won't. Just living my life seems tribute enough. There's no way I'd be the person I am today if he hadn't shown me the way.

Sunday, May 28, 2006


She's so kind sometimes, and I forget about the million reasons why we can't be together. Our tastes are incompatible, and she's short-tempered, furious at me for a thousand imagined slights. She gives me no room to move, to breathe, to be myself. I must be what she wants me to be, but what that is even she doesn't know.

Still, she's there, and I'm lonely. She issues invites I foolishly accept. We'll go out, or maybe we'll just stay at her place and watch TV. Sometimes we make love, sometimes we don't. We decided--well, I decided, and sometimes she remembers--we could be nothing more than friends, that this was all it could be. There is no relationship here, never can be, but any physical contact between us muddies those waters, at least in her mind. I can handle a "friends with benefits" situation but she clearly can't. Yet she will offer herself to me and I will accept. I shouldn't, it's not fair to her.

But I'm human. Things happen.

She wanted me to come over this weekend sometime. She called Friday night, and I told her not now, I was tired from working long days all week, I needed some down time alone. How about Sunday, I asked. She thought that would be okay, but why not Saturday? Well, I could come over Saturday night and we could just hang out, and I could crash there, then Sunday we could go to a movie, get something to eat, just have a day.

Oh hell. What did I do? I suggested spending the night. I should have known how she'd take it.

Nothing happened, nothing sexual. We laid on the floor watching videos. She'd drift off to sleep occasionally, waking up and apologizing. No problem, I said, I'll just go lay down on the bed and get a good night's sleep.

So I fell asleep and she woke me up before too long, apparently wanting me to do things with her, but I was so far gone it took me awhile to come to, and she stormed off, angry that I was ignoring her. (At least, I think that's what happened. I wasn't fully awake.) I went back to sleep, and she woke me up again.

"This isn't going to work out," she announced. "We sleep at different times. You'll be getting up about the time I'm going to bed."

What? I pointed out that she was already asleep in the other room.

"That was just a nap. I hadn't gone to bed."

Sorry for not knowing the difference, I continued, but we were going to a matinee, so presumably you'd be up before noon. I brought a book to read, I thought I could head out for some breakfast--

"Well, if you were going to do all that, you could have just done that at your place. Why even come over here if all you're going to do is sleep?"

Sorry. Um, but you were the one sleeping--

"I told you, I was just napping. You know I don't go to bed until two or three AM--"

Which is one of the reasons why we could never make it as a couple--

"You always say that! You just can't change. You just won't change. No wonder why your wife left you!"

Okay, maybe I should go--

"You always want to leave. You never want to stay and talk things through."

Uh, you told me to leave. Also, this whole situation is getting weird. There's a real Play Misty For Me vibe going on here.

"I don't know what that means. You're always saying all these weird things nobody could ever understand."

Lots of people would understand it. You don't, and that's okay, but you're not everybody.

She starts to say something else, but by this time I'm to the door. I tell her not to call me anymore, that this time we're all through, and I leave without saying goodbye.

But I don't slam the door as I go, and there are no tears in my eyes.

Saturday, May 27, 2006


78 to 15.

That was the vote in the senate to confirm Michael Hayden as the new head honcho of the C.I.A.

78 to 15.

One brave Republican, Arlen Specter, voted against Hayden, citing his record as head of the National Security Agency, where Hayden was in charge of the warrentless eavesdropping program that official Washington expressed grave concerns about for, oh, about a day. Then the press stopped hammering the story, and Mr. Bushie said heck, he'd never do anything against the law, and everyone believed him and everything was sunshine and lollipops.

Next time you hear John McCain described as a maverick, a senator bucking the system, a guy who says what he thinks no matter what--and you'll probably be hearing that load a lot, since another presidential run for the guy seems certain--just remember, he's had a habit during the Bush years of expressing mild indignation about some of the president's more outrageous schemes, then turning around and voting for them anyway. He's a career politician, and if he ever had a soul, he lost it long ago. Don't vote for this guy.

But the real question about this vote is, What's the deal with the Democrats? Hayden is a career military guy up for a job running a supposedly autonomous, civilian agency. He defiled the constitution by spying on U.S. citizens without warrants, an act for which he offered no regrets and basically promised to do again. (Apparently, we must destroy our civil liberties in order to preserve them.) At this point, the fact that he was hand-picked by Bush should itself raise a few hundred red flags, but only 14 Democrats had a problem with him.

Is it the Stockholm Syndrome? Have the Democrats been beaten and reamed up the ass by the Bushinistas for so long that they've decided they like it?

How else to explain the fact that the party is giving serious consideration to anointing either Al Gore or Hillary Clinton as their next presidential nominee? Gore already lost once--a sitting VP to a relatively popular president couldn't convincingly trounce a flyweight nobody like Dubya Bush. And Clinton carries with her that scent of patrician disdain for the commoners, so that no matter how many rodeos and weenie roasts she attends, she'll still seem as out of place as...well, John Kerry.

This is a time for bold action on the part of the Democratic party. Bush is absolutely out of control, and the damage he's already done to the nation is permanent. This is not the time to roll over. But sadly, it's the only trick they remember.

Friday, May 26, 2006


You want to think that there's a sense of balance in the world, some sort of cosmic justice that sets things right. Two stories currently in the news suggest this may be the case, but read between the lines. Will the guilty really be punished?

Let's start with Enron. Like many corporations, it was essentially corrupt from the get-go, formed not to provide a legitimate service but to make huge sums of money. They lobbied congress hard to pass legislation allowing them to sell energy at market prices--meaning whatever they said it was. They could charge any outrageous amount, and did. But the money they were making through these morally bankrupt but technically legal shenanigans was just chump change to these guys, so they started to lie, claiming they were making more than they were. Books were cooked, and when things started to go south, head honcho Ken Lay sold off stock that he knew would soon be worthless and publicly told his employees everything would be alright. But it wasn't alright, his empoyees got screwed over big time, and Lay landed in a heap o' trouble.

Lay and his co-conspirator, Jeff Skilling, were found guilty of fraud and conspiracy yesterday. Lay claimed total innocence and said he ws shocked--shocked!--by what was going on. Even after the verdict, Lay played the piety card, saying, "We believe that God in fact is in control and indeed he does work all things for good for those who love the Lord."

What a douchebag.

Problem is, these guys probably won't spend a day in jail. Despite being found guilty, they are free on bail, and their sentencing isn't even scheduled until September. How much you want to bet they file appeals before then? How much you want to bet they delay the sentencing indefinitely? Lay and Skilling may never be able to find legit work again, so they'll just have to use their vast wealth to lead lives of leisure. Poor bastards.

The Enron case is depressing but abstract. The other story to discuss is horrifyingly direct: U.s. marines apparently murdered women and children in Iraq. There may or may not have been mitigating circumstances--as if killing children is ever justified--but what's scary is, how often does this happen? This time there was an investigation. But what about other times?

The reason I'm asking is, Iraqi citizens have been complaining since the beginning of Mr. Bushie's intervention that innocent citizens have been killed in suspicious circumstances, that alleged military targets are in fact merely houses or restaurants, that the coalition forces are nothing but roving packs of uniformed thugs.

The notion that we should support the troops unconditionally has always struck me as well-intentioned but misguided. I know, I know, what they're going through over ther is something I can't even begin to imagine. In their situation, just getting up in the morning constitutes an act of courage.

But they're human beings, folks. In any cross-section of people, you get good people, crazy loners, back-stabbing weasels, sociopaths. Mostly you get people who are morally neutral. But if you put people like that into extraordinary circumstances--circumstances involving intense heat, absence of loved ones and long periods of extreme boredom mixed with occasional spikes of overwhelming fear and euphoria--then it's hard to stay in the gray zone. If someone tells you to pull a trigger or push a button, you do it, and you don't think about morality anymore.

In this case, the killings in the Iraqi city of Haditha, the facts seem clear: rogue marines just killed people for the hell of it. And yet, even though Iraqi witnesses were claiming that from the beginning, the military's official story initially was very different, claiming at first that a bomb blast had killed them, then later saying they'd been cught in a crossfire. They must have had some suspicion from the beginning, but official lies were more important than these people's lives.

Make no mistake, the guys who pulled the trigger in this case deserve to be prosecuted, and if the current reports are true, deserve their own reserved spot in hell. But the higher-ups who initially cooked up the bullshit cover stories--will anything happen to them? Making excuses for murder may not be as bad as the act, but it is inexcusable. In the wake of Abu Ghraib, it's hard to keep from thinking something else is going on here, that there's something we don't know, can't know, will never know. We may not know, but we'll always suspect.

I don't want to sound like a crazy conspiracy guy, but the thing about America in the Bush era is even the most paranoid fantasies can't match the horror of the truth.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

IT'S NOT EVEN FIVE IN THE MORNING... why am I on the computer? More random thoughts from a mind that really should be at rest right now. I sense this will be a semi-regular series.

1. Suddenly, my cats are scared of thunderstorms. Monika heads for a corner and trembles, Delmar wanders around yowling frantically. This is new behavior for them. Not a big deal, but man...I put up with tons of eccentric, bizarre and sometimes downright aggravating antics from these clowns, all for those rare, few moments of actual affection they give me, now this. More weirdness. Thanks, guys.

2. Dating sucks. The whole process: You talk, you meet, you talk some more. Do we have sex, do we not? If we do, does it take the relationship to a new level or does it diminish it? If we don't, what the hell's the point? Do I like this woman, or am I just lonely? If a relationship results, will it lead to happiness? Or just settling?

Or should I just move into a cave somewhere and never have to interact with members of the opposite sex ever again?

3. Smart people, dumb people, people you'd trust, people you'd avoid, frat boys, mechanics, office workers, laborers...Almost everyone I know loves Mike Judge's movie Office Space. It's a brilliant satire, sharply written and beautifully observed. Judge could be a major filmmaker, but his latest film, completed about a year ago, is still on a shelf somewhere awaiting release. But Mission Impossible 3 and Poseidon open in thousands of theaters at once. I realize the movie business is, well, a business, but come on folks. Can't you once in awhile make a movie just because it's good? And then let people see it?

4. Okay, it's not thundering now, and Monika and Delmar are both sitting at my feet, staring up at me. Delmar's stump of a tail is thumping on the floor. Their food and water dishes are full. What do they want? Should I be scared?

5. It doesn't matter if I go to bed at 7 PM or 1 AM. Along about 2, 2:30 AM, I start stirring. If I sleep after that, it's fitful. Usually I'm awake from 3:00 on, and the whole following day I'm tired. My sleep patterns have always been odd, but things have gotten even stranger in the wake of my mom's death. People have told me that's part of the grieving process, it's normal, don't worry about it.

But hey, now I have this forum, a place to blather on whenever I can't sleep. That way, my suffering becomes your suffering. Nice of me to share, don't you think?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


It's Tuesday, which by my newly-established tradition means I should be recomending a new release on DVD. Today, however, inspired by the massive botch that is The DaVinci Code, I'm instead going to take a look at a movie that's long been available: Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 classic North By Northwest.

Comparisons to The DaVinci Code are unavoidable: Both movies are about a man framed for murder, who sets off on a cross-country odyssey in which he must not only prove his innocence, but determine why he was set up. A big difference between the two films is their tone: North By Northwest is light and breezy, though the film is not as insubstantial as it at first seems. The DaVinci Code is dark and ponderous, and a good deal dumber than it thinks it is.

Hitchcock had a device he called the McGuffin; it was a plot device, the thing the bad guys wanted that the godd guys (often inadvertantly) possess. A good example of a non-Hitchcock film using a McGuffin would be Raiders of the Lost Ark: Though the Ark of the Covenant figures in the climax, what with its awesome ability to melt Nazis and all, for the most part it's just a plot device, the thing everybody's chasing.

The McGuffin in The DaVinci Code is a scroll which would prove that Jesus Christ was married and had children. Okay. Not a bad premise; people would kill for something like that, and the hero is plausibly clueless for much of the running time. It's a perfect Hitchcockian setup. But then this cheesy plot device takes over the whole story, and we're forced to watch bad CGI-rendered historical recreations that look like something from a basic cable cheesefest and any forward momentum the plot has just dies.

North By Northwest is all about momentum, and it features Hitchcock's most ingenious McGuffin: the hero himself. Our protagonist is a bored businessman mistaken by sinister foreign agents for another man, a double agent, a man who does not exist and was created by an equally sinister u.S. government agency. Our hero will be beaten, left for dead, shot at, find romance (but can he trust her?), unravel secrets and, since he's played by Cary Grant, be cool, unflappable and elegant the whole time.

Everything here is absolute perfection: the cast (besides Grant--the very definition of a Movie Star--you get James Mason, Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau), the cool blue cinematography of Robert Burks, George Tomasini's editing and especially Bernard Herrmann's score. Yeah, there's some bad rear projection and a painfully obvious miniature airplane crash, but their phoniness doesn't distract because Hitchcock clearly wasn't going for reality here. This is a movie that revels in its artificiality.

As someone who tends to be depressed by nature, intellectually I prefer Hitchcock's bleaker films, like Shadow Of A Doubt and Vertigo. But they're not fun. The high spirits of North By Northwest are infectious, and it's better than therapy. Watch it, and you immediately feel better.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


The usual small talk with some guy I met at work. "How about this weather?" he asked, and I agreed it was very nice. "Yes," he said. "Things are growing, things are thriving. It's such a beautiful day to be alive."

I felt like crying.

How can things thrive when my mother isn't here to appreciate them? How can I celebrate being alive when she isn't? Shouldn't everything just stop? Why is the world going forward while I'm still grieving?

Growing. Thriving. Beautiful.


My whole life up until my late teens was spent on a farm. It had been a working farm until shortly before I was born, my family raised cattle and chickens, corn and soybeans. By the time I came along, dad still had a soybean crop, but mostly the farming days were past. So the whole place, the barn and the corncrib, the pasture and the fields, all were part of my private playground.

My most vivid memory of the farm, or at least the one I most often turn to for comfort, is of the row of tall evergreens that ran in a straight line west from the barn. Their trunks were thick, and the branches from the different trees had seemingly fused together, and the ground beneath them was covered with dead needles. It was a wide path under the trees, and the branches hung so low and so thick that very little direct sunlight would hit the ground under them, and that which did had a shimmering emerald tint. If the rest of the farm was my playground, this was where I would go to find peace.

The older I got, the more dissatisfied I was with country living. Bored, frustrated and depressed out of my mind, I wanted to drop out of school and just leave, take off for anywhere else in the world. Mom broke down at this notion, crying and hysterical. "I don't think I could live with myself if you did that," she sobbed. "I don't think I could stand it if I didn't know where you were."

She had a point, of course--I was, what, fifteen, sixteen?--but when I think about it now, I think there was a subtext to what she said. What she really meant, maybe, was How dare you go explore the world when I haven't?


My dad died ten years ago. He had been in failing health for some time before that, and Mom had essentially been reduced to a caretaker role. A series of strokes had essentially robbed him of his motor skills, and he had a colostomy bag which needed changing regularly, so she literally had to be there for him.

His death was something she saw coming, and she'd prepared herself emotionally. In fact, it turned out to be a liberating experience for her. Suddenly she had time to do things, to start living the life she'd misplaced somewhere along the way.

She started working. She stopped smoking. She could go on trips and be gone overnight, or for longer. My sister Ann took her along on several cross-country jaunts, to New Orleans and Memphis, and other places Mom probably never dreamed she'd see. As she hit her seventies, suddenly the world was hers. A lifelong cynic and fatalist, she was seeing life in a whole new way. There were times when she was downright giddy, which was a little disorienting. She was supposed to be cranky.


But through all her life, Mom sustained herself by appreciating the simple, temporary beauty of nature. Weeping willows, rainbows, snowflakes--a cornball list, but I saw all of these things make Mom cry. She could be transfixed forever just watching clouds race across the sky, and their shadows prowling on the ground. She'd call me with daily reports describing the blooming of her neighbors' flowers.

When I go out today, I'll be doing the things I normally do, concerned with the usual things. In a world of flowers and trees and grass, earth and water and sky, I may not notice all the things that surround me.

But they'll be there anyway, and they'll still be beautiful.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


Well, it was Friday night and I didn't have anything better to do, so when my neighbor said he felt like going out to a movie, I said sure, I'll go along,

Oh, the shame of it. I paid money to see The DaVinci Code.

And hey, here's a surprise: It sucks.

By sucks, I mean it will crush your spirit, and allow time to simultaneously stand still (while you're stuck in a theater viwing this inert object) and move forward (in a CGI-rendered sequence of people doing great things and having wonderful times, all things you are not doing because you're stuck in a theater). Still, it will make you ask profound spiritual questions, such as, "Jesus Christ, is thing ever going to end?"

The premise, in case you haven't heard, is that...ah, man, do I have to go into this? Blah, blah, murder, blah, blah, conspiracy, blah, blah Opus Dei...Let me save you the trouble. It turns out Audrey Tautou is the living heir of Jesus Christ. This is presented as a stunning revelation as the movie finally approaches an ending, but any viewer with the IQ of a pillow will have guessed it by...Well, I was going to say anyone could have guessed it in the first fifteen minutes, but again, time has no meaning in this movie. Let's say I knew where this thing was heading before I looked at my watch the first time. And I looked at my watch a lot.

Of course, The DaVinci Code is based on a big, fat best-selling novel, and part of the problem with the movie is that you can sense the filmmakers wanting to be as faithful as possible, without reinventing the book in cinematic terms. I haven't read the book, and my guess is that it's awful, but awful books frequently make great movies. The Godfather, Jaws, The Shining...hell, even The Bridges of Madison County was watchable. What all these had in common were strong directors able to pick and choose what did and didn't work in the books and go from there.

Here you only have the auteur of Cocoon and Willow, Ron Howard, who's usually at his best with comedy, and come to think of it, The DaVinci Code has numerous laugh-out-loud moments. Unintentional, of course, but it's as close as it gets to entertainment. And in fairness to Howard, it would seem to be impossible to find the right tone for a story that pretends to deal with serious matters of faith but which also features a gun-wielding albino monk, an outrageous character that would be far more appropriate as a skulking henchman in a James Bond picture.

The monk is played by Paul Bettany, one of many terrific actors (Ian McKellan, Alfred Molina) who appear here to absolutely zero effect. A miscast Tom Hanks has the lead as a dashing, world-famous expert in symbology (In what world does this take place?), and while he's not bad, exactly, he's uninteresting and looks uncomfortable.

Is there anything worthwhile in this movie? No. But my evening wasn't a total bust, since afterwards we stopped by The High Life Lounge, so far as I know the only bar in Des Moines that serves Grain Belt. And as I listened to my neighbor spout his drunken theories on dating, I realized he's a misogynistic jerk. So hey, at least I learned something.

Friday, May 19, 2006


Maybe it sounds too much like people complaining about horseless carriages or those newfangled talking picture boxes, and yeah, they've been around long enough I should be used to them by now, but seriously: every time you use a cell phone, Satan's grip on the human race becomes a little bit tighter.

Granted, I have no theological proof of this. But evil tends not to appear in grand, flamboyant ways. It's the little things, small examples of assholiness run amok, that give aid and comfort to the Prince of Darkness. Whenever some pinhead veers wildly from one lane to another because they're driving and talking on the phone at the same time, Satan (who I'm pretty sure resembles the late actor Laird Cregar) smiles. (As opposed to Sara Smiles, the Hall & Oates song, which was itself recorded by two of the devil's minions.)

You want more evidence? I was driving through Yuppieville the other day and I saw an annoyingly well-dressed, severely thin suburban housewife standing outside, ostensibly watering her lawn, while also talking on a cell phone. The thing is, her conversation was apparently so important to her that she was unable to pay attention to her other task, so she stood forever in one spot, the hose hanging limply in her hand, but still running, needlessly watering the hell out of one spot.

Okay, first of all, we've had plenty of rain recently. Did the lawn really need to be watered? But more to the point, didn't gardening used to be a relaxing, solitary activity? Wasn't it a nice way of getting some fresh air and sunshine, unencumbered by the hassles of modern life? By introducing a phone into this Edenic setting, aren't you a) depriving yourself of the opportunity to relax, and b) doing Satan's bidding? Yes, and yes.

More evidence? How about when I drop fifty, sixty, a hundred bucks for concert tickets, only to find myself stuck next to some jerkwad phoning his buddy two songs into the show. "Yeah, you should be here, man. It's fucking AWESOME!" Yeah, you know what would really be awesome? If you weren't here, pal. Why don't you call this guy after the show? After, you know, you've actually listened to the music instead of talking through it?

Has it really come to this? Has the human race actually lost the ability to just enjoy something without offering a running commentary on how much we're enjoying it?

Yeah, yeah, I know, cell phones are good to have in emergencies. I had car trouble on a back road the other day. If I'd had a cell phone, I could have called for help. Instead, I did what human beings used to be able to do--I just dealt with it. A gross simplification? Maybe, but the way people are tied to their phones you'd think the human race couldn't have functioned without them.

A recent proposal by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to ban cell phones in public schools--because kids were talking on them incessantly, totally blowing off their teachers--was met by indignant protests from parents. Without cell phones, how will we know where our kids are? How will we know if they're safe? What if there's another 9/11?

Ah, 9/11--is there anything it can't be used to justify? No, there's not, which leads to one more point: when people are used to using their cell phones in public, blathering on about intimate details in front of total strangers, or using cameras and recorders on those phones to record the behaviors of people they don't know, our sense of privacy erodes. So it's easy for the federal government to seize this opportunity to start eavesdropping on private conversations without bothering to get warrants.

Twenty years ago, an administartion pulling crap like that would have been brought down by public outrage. Now--feh. Privacy, schmivacy. Let them listen. We're happy with our cell phones. We have no secrets anymore. It's kind of a thrill, really, like when we talk loudly in a public place and everyone has no choice but to listen.

And they are listening. And Satan is smiling.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


For no good reason, I saw Poseidon this past weekend. I have no defense for this action, but I did it and I'm only moderately ashamed. For one thing, it confirmed something I think we've all suspected: Hollywood can't even make Big Dumb Entertainment as well as it used to.

All we have to do is compare the ruthlessly efficient, utterly personality-free Poseidon to the movie that inspired it, 1972's The Poseidon Adventure. Now regarded as something of a camp classic, much in the original earns that reputation: awful, exposition-heavy dialogue, hideous seventies clothing, a funny performance by Leslie Nielsen before he started doing this sort of thing for laughs.

But considering The Poseidon Adventure as camp is a little unfair. Even one of the things everyone remembers as a joke--Shelley Winters' overwrought performance as a nice, fat Jewish lady--is at least an individualized character, someone we're supposed to care about. All of the characters were vividly drawn, and if the acting tends to the hammy, at least the ham is well-cured: Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Albertson, vivid actors all. Plus Stella Stevens shown in her panties a lot.

(Okay, a bit of a digression here. I saw The Poseidon Adventure theatrically in a 1973 reissue. It was a family outong, and I was eight. As soon as I realized this thing had Stella Stevens--I'd seen her previously that year in the obscure horror comedy Arnold, in which she's very briefly glimpsed nude--I had to excuse myself and go sit alone, the better to, um, appreciate the wonders of Stella. And her panties.)

As Big Dumb Entertainment, The Poseidon Adventure works just fine. The story of survivors of an overturned ship struggling to survive pulls you in, the special effects and production design are convincing, the broadly-drawn characters squabble entertainingly, and are killed at regular intervals to keep us interested. And it's not entirely soulless: At the very end, when the survivors are rescued, they climb out of the ship and onto a helicopter wearing grim expressions, reminding us that they've been through something and that there lives will never be the same.

At the end of the new film, the survivors are all giddy as obviously CGI-rendered helicopters come to their salvation, although one of these characters just saw her father die only minutes earlier. No matter. No obsessing over life and death here. This is a Summer Blockbuster.

Which means everything we've come to expect from modern Hollywood: Tons of special effects, oppressively loud sound effects, thin characterizations, a fanatical devotion to momentary sensation over coherence or credibility. In place of the cornball dialogue of the original film, we're given...well, more cornball dialogue, but not as entertaining. Terrific actors like Kurt Russell and Richard Dreyfuss are given nothing to do, and "promising" newcomers like Emmy Rossum and Freddy Rodriguez get lost in the flood, more or less literally.

You'd think there'd be something here, a stray poetic image, a frisson of post-9/11 dread, anything. Nah. Not even gratuious panty shots.

The good news is, Poseidon flopped big-time in its opening weekend. Coming on the heels of the smaller than expected grosses for Mission Impossible III, this suggests the beginning of a promising trend. If America can just pull together and make The DaVinci Code a flop as well, who knows? Maybe Hollywood would have no choice but to actually make good movies.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


We'll smash down your doors, we don't bother to knock
We've done it before, so why all the shock?
We're the biggest and toughest kids on the block
Cuz we're the Cops Of The World, boys
We're the Cops Of The World
---Phil Ochs

Okay, there are times when even I get sick of bashing the Bush administration. And yet, they just keep doing wacky, wacky stuff. The National Guard is stretched way thin with way too many members serving endless duty in Iraq, but hey, now we're going to send them down to defend our borders from...what again? Oh right, illegal Mexican immigrants. Um, how are they a threat to national security again? If we're going to send people somewhere, shouldn't we maybe try to capture Bin Laden?

Add this to a long list that already includes bugging reporters' phones, leaking information in violation of the constitution--hell, pretty much doing everything in violation of the constitution--giving needless tax breaks to those who don't need them, running up the national debt, and, oh yeah, the ongoing mess in Iraq. This administation's sense of morality is so twisted tht there's probably no point in even trying to sort it out.

The thing is, though, it's not like they could do this alone. I'm not talking about Bush's enablers in congress, although I'm sure there's a reserved spot in hell waiting for the lot of them.

(A special shout-out here to the Democrats who voted for the war resolution regarding Iraq and who now claim they were duped by the Bushinistas: Fuck yourselves. Any reasonably sentient being could have seen through the crap they were dishing out. I certainly could, and I didn't have access to the information you guys had. Isn't asking questions supposed to be part of your job? Have you no shame?)

No, the problem is us. Every day a new report of power and greed running rampant, every day the constitution is weakened further, every day America loses a little more of its soul. And what do we do? We roll over and take it some more. Beat a dog enough and eventually it fights back. We as citizens apparently have less collective intelligence than a dog.

Why are we so indifferent? How do we let this happen? How will history judge us? Why doesn't anybody ask these questions? Why do TV news shows devote more time to manufactured controversies over The DaVinci Code than they do to the real, terrible truth of what's becoming of this once-great nation?

Okay, enough with the rhetorical questions. It's not like I'm taking to the barricades, demanding Bush's head served up on a platter. I'm as complacent as anybody. But at least I have enough of a conscience to be troubled by my complacency, to feel that I haven't actually sold my soul.


Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Out on DVD today is one of my favorite movies from last year, The Producers, adapted from the wildly successful Broadway musical which was itself adpted by Mel Brooks from his 1968 movie.

A few biases I might as well admit: Mel Brooks is one of my cultural heroes, I consider the '68 original to be one of the greatest film comedies ever, I loved the stage show and musicals are one of my favorite genres. So I guess you could say I was predisposed to like this, though it certainly doesn't blind me to its flaws.

Nathan Lane (who goes over the top and keeps climbing) plays flop Broadway producer Max Bialystock, who hits upon a scheme idly proposed by accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick): a producer could make more money from a deliberate flop than from a hit, since investors wouldn't have to be paid back. Suffice to say, in their efforts to produce the worst show imaginable--Springtime For Hitler--complications ensue, involving a Nazi writer (Will Ferrell, very funny), a flaming director and his "common law assistant" (Gary Beach and Roger Bart, both indispensible) and a Swedish secretary named Ulla (Uma Thurman).

In its new form, The Producers loses the crueler edges of the original film, while simultaneously ramping up the stereotypes: all Jews are money-grubbing backstabbers, all germans are Nazis, all theater people are flamboyant queens and all cops are Irish. None of this is offensive, of course, because its all presented with a knowing wink. And the script for this version, closely following the book Brooks and Thomas Meehan wrote for the stage version, may actually improve on the original. And kudos to Brooks for his score as the songs are not only very funny but genuinely melodic.

The weak link here, sad to say, is director Susan Stroman, who so brilliantly directed and choreographed the stage version. This is her first effort as a film director, and she seems to have very little idea of what to do with a camera. She had to restage the dances for the movie, but has no idea how to film the results, using the camera to simply record what's there, not making it an active participant. It's easy to see what she's going for at times--a Fred-and-Ginger-styled number for Broderick and Thurman, for instance--but it's also easy to see she can't quite make it work. None of the numbers are bad, and some are terrific, but as a choreographer turned filmmaker, Bob Fosse she's not.

So The Producers isn't quite the reinvention of the movie musical. But it's hugely enjoyable all the same, and I suspect it might get better through repeated viewings. So go pick up a copy, already. Do it for Mel.

Monday, May 15, 2006


I turn forty-one today.


However I might have liked to spend this day, what I did was sit for three and a half hours at an auto repair shop. A tire blew out on my yesterday, and the lug nuts were on so tight, the stud holding one of them snapped off while I was changing it. (Which is the better porno name--Stud Lugnuts or Lug Studnuts?) I hoped the tire could be repaired, at least, but no, I needed a new one, and a gear for the axle, which I knew was bad, had reached critical mass.

So I sat, reading a two week old issue of Time, listening to a local easy listening station. In the time I waited, I heard two different Tony Orlando songs, drank two cans of soda, listened to some asshole middle management guy "run some numbers by yuh" on his cellphone, and saw the parts guy twice deliver the wrong stud for my car.

Happy Fucking Birthday.

It's not like I had better things to do. Well, I should have been working, earning the money (four hundred bucks!) to pay for this. But no, I figured I should be at the garage in case I had to sign off on anything. And it's not like I'll be doing anything after this. I don't feel much like celebrating.

Both of my parents died before they reached eighty, so I figure at my age, my life is more than half over. My social life doesn't exist. There's nothing I feel like doing, no private ritual I must perform to mark this occasion. I'll probably go have some Chinese food and read The New York Times, then maybe swing by the library. Excitement, she wrote.

But I had a pretty good weekend--except for the blown tire--so I shouldn't complain. As I take stock of my life on this day, it's had more lows than highs, but it hasn't been a bad ride. Good things continue to happen when I least expect them, so there's no reason to despair for the future. I can't say I'm doing well, but I'm not doing badly.

So again, yay.

Happy Birthday, Me.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


This looks familiar, vaguely familiar
Almost unreal, yet it's too soon to feel yet
Close to my soul, yet so far away
I'm going to go back there someday
--The Great Gonzo

The sun shines today, and the wind's gone down some. It's been overcast, rainy and miserable for the last few days, and chilly. Maybe today will be nice. I want to believe it, but it doesn't matter what the weather's like. It's Mother's Day, and my mother has gone.

It was snowing and cold on the day she died. The week had been beautiful until then, but the forecast for that Thursday was for ice and snow and bitter cold. She'd gone into the hospital Wednesday, and something told me not to got to work the next day. Maybe it was the weather. Maybe it was something else.

She'd been in the hospital a lot the previous summer. She'd had major surgery. All that time, she never looked frail. She looked frail now. She looked small and lost, yet somehow peaceful. There was something she seemed to know, something she wasn't telling us, someplace she had to go.

Hold me in your thoughts, take me to your dreams
Touch me as I fall into view
When the winter comes keep the home fires lit
And I will be right next to you
--Warren Zevon

Of the many things I miss about Mom, more than anything I miss discussing music with her. Her tastes were so wide-ranging, and she was always open to new things. I was always taping new music for her that I thought she'd like. I was surprised by how much she'd like certain things--she loved Sparks and the Bonzo Dog Band and Was (Not Was), all pretty weird and esoteric--and constantly shocked by what she didn't like. She didn't like Neko Case because her voice and phrasing were "too country" for her. Odd, since Mom loved Loretta Lynn and June Carter. There were always surprises.

She didn't know Warren Zevon as a songwriter, she just knew him as that guy who showed up on David Letterman a lot. And she thought he was funny. But she was heartbroken when he announced he was dying of cancer. I taped his final album for her, and she called me as soon as she'd heard it. She was in tears. "It was just too much," she said. "People shouldn't die."

Well, no. They shouldn't.

I'm going to the cemetary today. I haven't been there since we buried her ashes, and on that occasion I was surrounded by family. I'll be alone when I go there today. I'll be reflecting on things I'd hoped I'd never have to consider, and going to places in my head that have remained unexplored.

I still haven't had the big breakdown I should have had by now. Crying jags, sure, little things that remind me, songs heard on the radio. But no big, prolonged period of unbearable sadness. Maybe I'm growing up. Maybe I'm just learning how to grieve.

I miss you but I know
I won't miss you but a million years or so
--Roger Miller

Saturday, May 13, 2006


As I get older--I turn forty-one Monday--my inability to sustain a relationship grows ever more troubling. Specifically, why am I so drawn to messed-up women. My own mother said I might as well have a sign on my forehead that says "Emotionally troubled women welcome." Why is this? Is it me? Is it them?

The answer came from my cat Delmar.

Delmar is troubled. He has a scary mean streak, okay when directed at toys or stray bits of paper, but sometimes directed at me; he's ripped my flesh on numerous occasions, and I frequently show up at work with gashes on my face from where he's attacked me in my sleep. When I'm sad and I need the simple comfort a pet is supposed to provide, he usually avoids me, and sometimes is openly hostile. He has a weird yowl and frequently wakes me up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason.

He's also amazingly intelligent--for a cat--and I've watched as he's actually opened cupboard doors and put his toys away, then shut the doors behind him. And he is affectionate and even loving, but his attentions have to be earned. He's hard to read, but when he does hop on my lap and purr it feels like it has meaning.

Delmar is the coolest cat I've ever known.

He's not a blandly cute, fuzzy-wuzzy, pet me-pet me-pet me cat. He's not a fade into the background like a piece of furniture cat. He's never just there. Hell, he's barely even a pet. He's complicated. He's been in my life for nearly four years now, and I still haven't figured him out. I probably never will.

I could sleepwalk through my life. It's easy for me to let things happen, to shut myself off, emotionally, intellectually, and drift, living my life the way it's always been. Delmar won't let me do that. Engagement is necessary here. I don't own a cat, I participate in his life, and his life enriches mine.

So it is with most of the women I've dated. Whatever issues they had, they've all been living their lives on their own terms. And they've forced me to become part of their lives, to enter their madness and look at the world in new and exciting ways. They've allowed me to see that certain things that I thought mattered to me really carry very little meaning at all.

But it's tricky, because inevitably the very things that attract me to them are the things that drive me away. Their dark sides tap into my own. The nature of their lives dictates that relationships can't be sustained, so confrontations are forced, and everything falls apart.

Delmar sits on my lap as I write this, purring but glaring every time I shift my weight. He'll stay here for a few more minutes, then I'm sure he'll leave. He lives his life in my apartment, but it's his life, not mine. There's an owner-pet bond that we just don't have. We don't choose to be solitary. We just are.

Friday, May 12, 2006


So I was talking to my ex last night, and she mentioned that a friend of hers has deduced, from reading this blog, that I'm still in love with her.

My first reaction was, Someone's actually reading this thing? But instead I asked how this friend has decided this.

"Well, you're always writing about me."

Huh? I think I've spent as much time writing about Phil Silvers.

"Oh, come on. You wrote that whole thing about me. It was one of your first posts."

Well, it wasn't really about you, it was about being married. Since you're the only person I've been married to--

"Yeah, but you mention me a lot."

In passing.

"But do you mention any other women?"

I haven't been married to any other women.

"But you've been with other women. You dated a stripper, for crying out loud."

I didn't date her, I got fucked by her. In more ways than one. Why would I mention that?

"Well, you might get more people visiting your site that way. And what about that lesbian chick?"

She wasn't a lesbian, she was bi. Um, and there's been more than one of those. There are, let's say, advantages--

"There, see. That's what you should be writing about."


At this point, mercifully, the topic shifted. (Sadly, I think it was because I brought up Phil Silvers.) The point is...Man, I don't know what the point is. If you can sluice out any meaning from this, let me know.

In the meantime, while ostensibly writing about my dating history, I've really just written another entry about my ex. D'oh!

Thursday, May 11, 2006


A new poll shows a majority of Americans have a negative opinion of Tom Cruise.

Ordinarily, the mere existence of a poll such as this at a time like this would cheese me off. Why not ask Americans how they feel about black room ops, Halliburton or the latest round of tax breaks for the wealthy? No, ask them how they feel about the crazy movie star instead.

But Cruise's increasingly nutty behavior and dangerously irresponsible public ramblings have made him an authentic, if minor, news story. So the fact that the public has now decided that they don't like him based on his personal behavior is kind of gratifying. My only question is, Why did they like this guy in the first place?

I realize he became a star back in the Reagan era, the smiling, can-do star of Republican wet dreams like Risky Business and Top Gun. But even then he was a bland presence, the type of actor that made you long for the nuanced performances of Tab Hunter or Troy Donahue. He was just another Hollywood pretty boy as far as I could tell, albeit one with a certain whiny, petulant quality.

But even his slightly arrogant mien didn't make him terribly compelling on screen, and his choice of scripts certainly didn't help matters. Looking over his entire filmography, I can only find two films I admire whole-heartedly, Eyes Wide Shut (in which Stanley Kubrick cleverly cast him as a blank slate) and Magnolia (in which he plays a preening, arrogant celebrity). Otherwise, his movie career is pretty much Dumb Entertainment, occasionally watchable (The Firm, A Few Good Men), mostly embarrassing(Cocktail). His attempts at more substantial work, such as Born On The Fourth Of July, mostly falter due to Cruise's performances--he can't act, people.

Hollywood is reacting with mild panic to the fact that Cruise's latest, Mission Impossible III (or, in studio parlance MI:3) has opened to far smaller grosses than expected. Okay, let's analyze this for a second. Despite the fact that there were two previous Mission Impossible films, do you know anybody who actually liked them? They weren't horrible in a Xanadu kind of way, they were just sort of there, the kind of movies where, halfway through, you start thinking about stopping by Target afterwards to price lawn furniture. I've seen both of them, and I couldn't tell you anything about them, except tht the first one has the distiction of being Brian DePalma's least interesting film ever. (And I've seen Mission To Mars.)

Cruise himself seemed to acknowledge this in his buildup to the new one. The first two were all about action, he'd say--I'm paraphrasing--but Mission Impossible III is about the characters. This time we learn who Ethan Hunt is.

Wait. Ethan Hunt--wasn't he married to Uma Thurman? Honestly, did anyone know Cruise's character in these things had a name? Wasn't he just Generic Spy Guy? And why should we pay money to explore Generic Spy Guy's character?

Apparently, the American public felt the same way. After months of sitting through the trailer--car chases, explosions, grinning or pissy Tom--they pretty much decided they'd already seen it before and had had enough. Finally, a popular vote I can agree with.

It's tough being a celebrity. Sooner or later, your time passes. The eighties are over, Tom. Find a new trick or get off the stage.

And for God's sake, keep your mouth shut.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Waking abruptly at 2 AM means one of two things. The more benign possibility is that the cats have knocked something over and the noise startled me. But both cats are curled up on the bed.

Which means it must be the second choice. My subconscious has awakened me again, preventing me from going someplace in my sleep from which there may be no return. When I drift off to sleep, my ego, superego and id are free to wander where they will. Fortunately I seem to have a built-in censor, something that blocks it when it gets too bleak. The problem is, I wake up like this, vaguely troubled, without knowing why.

There are the usual reasons. My mom's death, to go with the obvious possibility. Mother's Day is coming up, and the next day is my birthday. Those two days are sources of dread, not joy.

Dread. That's what I'm feeling now. A sense of hopelessness, feeling adrift.

Of course, I am adrift. A crappy job, a small apartment, no relationships to sustain me. I go to work, I come home, I go to bed. This is my life.

Then again, that's basically everyone's life. Work, home, sleep. We try to embellish it, to stuff it with extraneous details, but that's basically it. Maybe I'm just having an existential crisis. It's not that my life is pointless, it's that life itself is pointless.

What a relief.

Wait a second. If I'm finding comfort by embracing nihilism, thtat's not good, either. Nihilism by its very nature denies comfort. And really, I don't think life is pointless. True, it's a game we can never really win--no one gets out alive--but it can still be fun to play.

Fun. Play. Ah, that's it. That's what I'm missing. But what am I going to do about it? Go fly a kite?

Okay. Now it's 2:15. Where would I have gone if my subconscious hadn't awakened me? Should I go back to bed to try to find out? Or should I write some rambling post exploring my poor, fragile psyche?

The answer seem clear.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


I've recently decided to add some vague sense of format to this site. While my postings most days will continue to be about whatever pops into my head, Tuesdays will be New Release Day, in which I'll drone on about whatever new DVDs are worth your time.

(Okay, I sort of started this two weeks ago when I celebrated the release of It's Always fair Weather on DVD. But hey, at that time I hadn't decided this would become a regular thing. Now I have. It's a new feature, dammit.)

Anyway, today I have two recomendations, both TV related. First up, one of the best comedies in TV history. The other...well, it's not good, exactly, but...I'll explain later.

The big news for me is the new three-disc Sgt. Bilko box set. This show can make me laugh out loud as much as any sitcom in TV history (The Simpsons might have a slight edge), and it's an interesting relic of a time and place, too.

The time, of course, is the fifties, when the series was made. The place...well, although it's set in an army base in Kansas, this show is pure New York, where it was taped before a live audience. As a result, Bilko tends to have the flavor of a good stage farce, in which the performances (by such wonderful comedic actors as Harvey Lembeck and Paul Ford) are pitched ever-so-slightly over the top.

The writing is excellent, too, despite the fact that every episode is basically a variation of the same plot. (Bilko screws some poor shnook over. Occasionally, Bilko gets his own comeuppance...but not too often.) There's a really cynical edge to all this, a feeling that the world is basically divided into cheaters and chumps, that other people basically exist to be taken. Setting this corrosive worldview in the army--suggesting that the military represents the biggest con job of all--could almost be taken as subversive, at least by the standards of fifties TV.

All of this is well and good, but the main attraction in Sgt. Bilko is Bilko himself, the late, great Phil Silvers. The character was tailored to his already-established comic persona, a fast-talking wise guy. But Bilko was such a pure creation, it felt brand new. Words are inadequate to describe the genius of Silvers at work. His needling voice, the perfect rhythms of his delivery, his queasy, insincere attitude, his wonderfully expressive body language...Nope, words can't describe it. You have to see it for yourself. And you can, eighteen episodes of comedy heaven.

Another mainstay of TV comedy figures in my second recomendation this week. As a kid, I always enjoyed I Love Lucy, but as I got older it began to seem dated, its sexual politics something out of the dark ages, its farce strenuously frenetic. And I began to have less affection for its stars, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Her mugging seems strained and mechanical, while he seems cold and aloof.

So it may seem odd that I find The Long, Long Trailer, a 1954 attempt to transfer their TV fame to the big screen, well worth seeing. But it is. Just not in the way it was presumably intended.

Ball and Arnaz play newlyweds who have, um, a long, long trailer, an RV that they'll drive cross country and will be a source of numerous wacky mishaps. That's the premise, but the movie spins it in a memorably odd way: The whole thing is related by Arnaz in flashback, as he's headed for a reconcialtion with Ball. Yes, it begins with America's favorite couple on the outs, and the main body of the film will, in essence, chart the failure of their marriage. Yeah, they get back together at the end, but considering the mutual misery they inflict on each other, how can we expect it to last?

The performances by Ball and Arnaz are pitched pretty much at the TV level, and the movie's gags are mild and, at times, more irritating than funny. Still, if you're a hardcore fan of director Vincente Minnelli (and I am), there's much to admire here, aesthetically-speaking. Generally admired for his sense of color and design, Minnelli has always been underrated for his sheer mastery of stagecraft. He stages the gags with great elan--he can't actually make them funny, but at least he's trying. Many of his visuals, all overripe color and tawdry settings, recall his great melodramas Some Came Running and Home From The Hill. It's a comedy that wants to go to darker, more interesting places. It never quite gets there, but the journey is far more interesting than you might expect.

Monday, May 08, 2006


Light streams in through the cross-shaped windows. A light layer of clouds is visible in the sky, gray but not gloomy. My sister Ann is on one side of me and my niece Rachel on the other. They are participating fully in the rituals of this ceremony. They are believers. I'm just there.

Ann and I were visiting my brother John and his family this weekend. Our nephew Matthew, recently in a serious car accident, was appearing in his school play, and our niece Sarah was being confirmed in her church.

It was a good weekend, good to spend time with family, and there was much laughter. But hovering over it all, though only occasionally mentioned, was our mom.

Sarah is the youngest of my brother's four kids, the last to be confirmed. Mom had been there for the other three; Sarah's was the first since Mom died. I'm sure Sarah was aware of that, but it wasn't brought up.

But now I stand or sit according to the rituals of the church. John and his wife sit in the pews reserved for parents of the confirmands. Ann and I sit with the other kids. Mom's presence--or the lack of her presence--starts to overwhelm me.

I'm surrounded by believers. Well, of course; I'm in church. But as an agnostic, I neither believe nor disbelieve. Certainly I don't believe in organized religion, or the literal truth of the Bible. But sometimes I think there is an order and purpose in the universe, an order that might have been decreed by what, for lack of a better term, could be called God. Other times I think no, there is only chaos, there is neither purpose nor point to anything we do.

Mom's views were even more extreme. She believed in nature, and the cycle of all living things. She believed that all living things had their purpose, but that purpose was only to live, to be, to have that moment in the world, and then to move on. She firmly did not believe in any kind of afterlife. "You don't exist before you're born," she said, "and you don't exist after you die."

So why, in this holy setting, am I thinking of her?

Maybe her beliefs were right, in a literal sense. But I look at Sarah, her white robe setting off her newly red hair. I look at the banners and the crosses and the clouds outside the windows. I watch as everyone else goes up for communion, and I wonder what sarcastic comments Mom would mutter if she were here.

Of course, just by wondering that I realize: She is here.

Saturday, May 06, 2006


Three items of interest regarding powerful Republicans. Two of them suggest a party that's headed for a major fall, the third makes it clear that the fallout from the current administration will be felt for a long time to come.

1. Porter Goss resigns.

As of my last perusal of CNN's website (about a half hour ago...then I got distracted looking for photos of actress Debbie Rochon...but never mind), we still don't know exactly why Goss abruptly resigned from his cushy gig as head of the CIA. Press coverage has rather blandly pointed out that Goss' tenure has been "marked by controversy"--but what member of Team Bush hasn't had drama? Bush will stand by people he's appointed no matter what kind of crazy shit they've pulled, so for a thing like this to just happen out of the blue...Something's up. Is there a dead hooker involved?

2. The hundred dollar misunderstanding.

A very interesting story in yesterday's New York Times detailing the genesis and collapse of the Senate Republicans' scheme to give taxpayers a hundred bucks apiece to make everyone forget about high gas prices. Since the idea was met by either ridicule or outright hostility, our elected leaders just sort of let it die on the vine.

My favorite part of the story are the comments from Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum. Even though he was one of eight senators crowing about this thing when it was first proposed, he's now skulking about in the darkness, claiming he knew relatively little about it ahead of time. "It came out of the leader's office," he said.

Hey, we all do stupid things, but these guys can't even step up and admit they did something stupid. It was someone else's fault, um, we can't talk about that, um...We're boldly going forward with an energy initiative that will...ah, well...oh yeah, it's all the Democrat's fault!

What a bunch of douchebags.

3. America--fun while it lasted.

The Boston Globe reported recently that Our Exalted Leader Bush has issued over 750 "presidential signing statements." Like many terrible things, signing statements are a legacy of the Reagan years, a scheme that basically lets a president ignore new laws as they're passed.

So we have now a president who repeatedly signs legislation into law and at the same time declares his intent to ignore that very law. A president who literally considers himself above the law. A president clearly willing to shred the Constitution and scatter the remnants to the four winds.

But this isn't a president. Presidents don't grant themselves absolute power. Emperors do that, and dictators. We elect people to congress to keep the president's powers in check. When he declares he is not bound by acts of congress, he is essentially saying our will has ceased to matter. He has declared himself king.

This is a very dark time for our country. So dark it seems we may never again see daylight.

Friday, May 05, 2006


My cat Delmar has OCD. This is what I conclude from watching his behavior in the litterbox. He digs his neat little hole--it has to be perfect--he squats, positioning himself just so, then once he does his business, he covers his mess.

For five minutes!

He scratches, scratches, scratches at the litter, stops, sniffs the area, scatches some more, turns to leave, thinks about it, decides to scratch some more, scratches the outside of the litterbox, scratches the papers underneath it, stops, turns to leave, starts to leave, then comes back for one final scratch.

When he does this at, say, three-thirty in the morning, it wakes you up. ("What? Huh? Is the fabric of the universe unravelling? Oh, wait, it's just Delmar tearing up papers again?") And when I wake up at three-thirty, I start writing rambling posts about either something that is currently annoying me or something that makes me happy.

Delmar is both of these.

He's sitting at my feet right now, slowly raising and lowering his head and making this weird little moaning sound. He does this a lot, and I'm not sure what it means. It's not the same as his hunger meow, which is loud and strident and usually punctuated by chomps on my leg. When he does his little moan, I reach down and scritch his head, and he purrs and seems to genuinely enjoy it for about twenty seconds, then he bites my fingers and storms off.

Did I mention I'm convinced he's bipolar?

Now he's wandered off--oh, he's chasing a bug. Bugs frustrate Del, because they exist outside his world. They're beyond his control, and when he goes after them it's like watching Charles Bronson waste punks--we're talking righteous vengeance here. "How dare you even exist," he seems to sneer, as WHAM WHAM WHAM his paw of justice repeatedly slams down.

Either the bug is dead or interest has waned--Delmar is back at my feet. And since he's here, I might as well let him have the last word. Anything you want to say, Del?


Oh man, he's in the litterbox again. This could take awhile.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Awakened initially at 2 AM by a cat vomiting, as I tried to go back to sleep after cleaning up, it begins.


The lady in the apartment above me has another gentleman caller. This sort of thing hasn't happened for awhile, but she was banging away up there Saturday night, and she's doing it again now.

creakcreak--then a male voice,"Ohhhhhhhuuuuhhh," then nothing.

It didn't even take two minutes.

I don't really know the lady above me. I've seen her, I know of her, I know she lives alone. But apartment living is anonymous by nature. There are two people in this whole building--five floors, several apartments on each floor--I know by name. There are a couple more I know by sight. The rest are just here and gone.

On my floor alone there was the good-natured, heavy-drinking Russian guy. The hot lesbian couple, who would occasionally stop by to use my phone. The thirtyish divorcee who was moving in around the same time I was, and who, for reasons I still don't understand, I never tried to get to know better.

They're all gone now, replaced by people who will be gone soon. Or by people who will stay aound for awhile, but still exist in a state of permanent anonymity. Apartment dwellers are like that.

I used to live in a house. I mowed the lawn, I walked my dog, hell, I even cleaned my gutters. (Once.) There was freedom there, the freedom to turn my music up loud, to paint the walls however I wanted (gray and black), to live my life my way--I didn't have to share.

I briefly dated a woman who lived in an apartment, and it seemed so constraining. She was a typical black-clad, spooky artist type, and I couldn't understand how she could stand to live in a place where she wasn't allowed to paint the walls, or crank her music. The apartment life is not for me.

Then Sue Ellen. She lived in an apartment, too, but hers was immediately inviting. For one thing, it was cluttered--it looked like someone actually lived there. Her cat liked me immediately. Maybe apartment living wasn't so bad.

So I moved in with her. We got married and moved into another apartment. She got a promotion, we moved across country to yet another apartment.

And in all that time, all those places, we never knew our neighbors. We lived in the same place in Iowa City for three and a half years, and barely knew anyone in our building by sight, much less by name. No nodding aquaitances, no "Hey, how ya doing?", nothing.

Surely people knew of us. For one thing, we had a weird habit of breaking into spontaneous production numbers, and when we'd sing, we'd sing LOUD. There was dancing, too, which usually involved something getting knocked over--more noise. You'd think with all the commotion, somebody would have knockd on the door and asked us to keep it down, or even ask for requests, but no. Nothing.

Since Sue Ellen and I split up, I've lived three different places. This apartment--good Lord, I've been here three years. It still doesn't feel like home. Maybe it never will. It's a place for me to sleep, a place for now, it'll do until the next place. And I'm sure there will be another place, and a place after that.

Home? The idea doesn't exist for me anymore. I'm an apartment dweller.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


So if the gap between rich and poor is gets wider every day, if the rich and powerful few are using immigration reform as an excuse to create a permanent underclass, where does that leave the rest of us?

Two personal anecdotes:

In 2001, my (now ex-) wife, Sue Ellen, who was working for a well-known insurance company, put in for a promotion that would require a transfer to the home office in the D.C. area. She got it, we moved. Her official job title was licensing paralegal. Her starting salary was $35, 000 a year. Not a lot, but respectable.

Meanwhile, being the blue-collar guy that I am, I wound up with the very sort of job our president says Americans won't take: I cleaned houses. Prestige-wise, this job would be the lowest of the low.

But here's the kicker: In terms of actual take-home pay, Sue Ellen was only bringing home about a hundred bucks more a week than me. Once deductions are considered, 35,000 a year doesn't amount to that much. And shortly before we split up, she got a raise which put her closer to 40,000 a year--which means she was bringing home a hundred and fifty more a week than me.

So for our time together on the east coast, we were making between 50, 000 and 60,000 a year. Two people (okay, and a cat) should be able to live comfortably with an income like that. And while we were doing okay, our heads weren't too far above the water. And when we split up, Sue Ellen had to immediately scramble to find a room mate, because there was no way she could afford to pay the rent on her salary alone.

You could argue that if Sue Ellen had been making, say, 50,000 a year, the difference between her check and mine would have been considerably different. But my point is, the difference between 35,000 and 50,000, in terms of take-home pay, isn't that great. At this economic level, where so many Americans dwell, we're all wage slaves, one devastating financial hit away from ruin.

Which brings me to anecdote number two.

Upon hearing that both of my parents had colon cancer, my doctor said flatly, "Well, that's it. No question. We'll set up a colonoscopy." It could take a while to sat up, he told me, they're backlogged, blah, blah, blah...and oh, he said, be sure to call your insurance company and make sure this is covered.

First thing the insurance guy wanted to know was, Is this a routine procedure or a medical procedure? Well, I wondered, isn't it a medical procedure by definition?

No, he explained. Is it just part of a routine exam, a preventative measure, or is it medically necessary, as in they suspect they're going to find something and it's a probable prelude to surgery?

Because in the first case, I'm fully covered. In the second case--in which my life could literally depend on getting this done--I'm screwed. When insurance would most be needed, that's when it would not kick in.

Fortunately for me, it's routine. But what if it wasn't? What if my life depended on something I couldn't afford? And how many people routinely have surgery done, assuming their insurance will cover it, only to discover afterwards there's some exception in their coverage? How many people's lives are ruined every day?

Of course, these are just anecdotes from my life. They have nothing to do with the real world. It's not like we're living in a country ruled by a power-mad cabal, openly hostile to the rights and needs of the individual, concerned only with giving more to those who don't need it, tax breaks to the wealthy, and power to the already powerful. It's not like gas prices are soaring and supposed economic growth is a house of cards built on quicksand. It's not the middle class is caught in a dream of success it will never achieve. It's not like more people become homeless every day.

it's not like that at all.

Monday, May 01, 2006


In 1966, the British film company Hammer Productions, purveyors of splendid low-budget gothic horror, unexpectedly displayed a leftist social awareness with their wonderfully titled opus Plague of the Zombies. The story involves an investigation into a series of deaths in a small Cornish village. There are no outward signs of illness, just sudden, unexplained death. The only people dying are the solid, hard-working citizens of the town, decent family people the lot of them, though lately they've run into financial problems, since jobs at the local mine have become scarce. The town's upper crust, frequently and unsubtly decked out in fox-hunting finery, aren't affected by this plague at all.

Of course not, since it turns out there is no plague. The wealthy mine owner has employed a voodoo priest to put the town's citizens into a state of seeming death. Once they've been buried they are awakened as zombies, fodder for the mines. They are able to work until they drop, with no need for doctors or unions or even payment. A permanent underclass.

Which brings us to George W. Bush's plan for immigration reform.

You've got to say this for the people who favor building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, who want all illegal immigrants deported, no questions asked: They are at least honest. If you want to see them as a bunch of racist crackers--which they are--well, they don't seem to have a problem with that. At least they aren't pretending to be something they're not.

Bush, on the other hand, pretends to be a friend of immigrants. Sure they're illegal, but they're here, and they're willing to take jobs Americans won't, so let's grant them (extremely) limited rights and let 'em stay. At least until the landscaping's done.

This idea has more holes than--well, I was going to say than a Dick Cheney hunting companion, but that would be cheap. But its a truly ugly plan, for any number of reasons. First of all, it's a myth that immigrant labor is "willing to take jobs Americans won't." Sure, many of the jobs in question are physically demanding, but with decent wages and benefits, many people would be happy to take them.

Ah, but that would cut into profits, and that's the bottom line. What Bush is proposing is to give undocumented workers just enough rights to stay in the country and do grunt work for little pay, but not the right to demand anything better. The promise of a better life but the reality of a living death. A permanent underclass. A plague of zombies.