Sunday, November 29, 2009

An Evening on the Magnificent Mile..And Upcoming Shows!...Sunday Journal #2

In my first Journal entry today, I took pride in having avoided the shopping hordes in the suburbs on Black Friday.. Last night, however, we joined the crowds in the City...and had a mervelous experience.

We started out in what is becoming our favorite Caribou Coffee in the city (outside of our local Mt. Prospect hangout), to look in on our friend Charles.  He was still away for Holiday Break, but we were treated well by Chad and her crew, and so we stayed a while, attempting to look for theater tickets on line.

Since we had nothing pressing at home, we decided finally to get our tickets in person.  We drove south to the Loop, the heart of Downtown and the Business and Theater Districts, and  parked the car in a garage.  Then we walked to the theaters, where the box offices would surely be open.

We entered the Oriental Theater and got tremendous service from a ticket agent there.  She worked with us on dates in whch we could find the best seats available.  She was even willing to sell us tickets not yet available individually.   I am thrilled to say that we secured great seats to "August: Osage County" in February, and "Billy Elliott" in April.  You will definitely hear more about these shows at those times.

For late November, the evening was fairly warm and mild, and it seemed that everyone was out walking, to take advantage of another last gasp of Indian Summer.  Mark got us set for a long, scenic walk up State Street and near the Chicago River toward what used to be a fashionable Greek Taverna.  What we found instead, connected to the  Embassy Suites, was a charming Italian pub and pizza house called Osteria Via Stato (which translates from Italian to Tavern on State Street).   We enjoyed authentic pizza on paper-thin and crispy crust, a variety of olives and salads, and the attention of our gracious host, Daniel.

Instead of remaining for dessert, Mark whisked me off on a wonderful, crowded, festive and light-filled walk up and down Michigan Avenue, known as the Magnificent Mile, for its upscale and international shops, restaurants, hotels, and landmarks (Like the Water Tower, John Hancock Center, The Michigan Avenue Bridge, and The Wrigley Building.).  While we were disciplined enough not to enter any shops, we did stop for dessert at Ghiradelli Chocolates, for their world-famous hot chocolate.
Having been to New York recently for the first time (see posts the weeks of October 5 and 12), and feeling the overwhelming energy of that city, I proudly looked around Chicago and felt a renewed sense of pride, of the beauty and vitality of this city of ours...The crowd was every bit as dense as those walking down Park Avenue, or 8th Street, but here, people were more laid back, enjoying each other as much as the sights and buildings around them. 

We met with a group of gay men who were visiting from Huston Texas and parts of Oklahoma.  There was a complete sense of both reaching out and belonging, as we took each others' photographs.  We met with the Concierge of the new Wit Hotel (open six months as of yesterday) and got a good description of the place---the exterior looks fractured, as though it has survived an earthquake) and, possibly, an excellent rate for one of our theatrical evenings coming up.

I continued on my plan to get to know Chicago as well as a tourist planning on returning often, experiencing, viewing, tasting, and loving  and learning as much as possible, and taking nothing for granted.

Photos here are all by Mark Johnson. 
(Here's the Wit hotel, with the "crack" down the front...)

A Day With Elk, and Dogs...Sunday Journal #1

It seemed appropriate this holiday weekend to escape the hordes of shoppers at the spririt-numbing suburban malls, and spend some soothing and reflective time in the company of some of our animal friends.

On Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, we decided to visit the Elk Preserve.  We live in Elk Grove Township, near a Chicago suburb called Elk Grove Village:

"Elk Grove was mainly settled by German immigrant farmers......(The) Busse family owns and operates the last farm in Elk Grove..... This land was once considered for a new Chicago Bears stadium, but the idea was withdrawn. .....A herd of elk is also kept in the Busse Woods (Ned Brown) Forest Preserve at the intersection of Arlington Heights Road and Higgins Road."

These elk were brought over from Montana by the Busse family in the 1920's.  As very small children my sister and I were taken to see them occasionally in their large fenced area on the edge of the woods.  As they have developed through the years, the elk have become comforatble with their human visitors, and on Friday they were very cooperative.  The late-afternoon light was wonderful, and we got some nice photographs.....

Immediately after our visit to the Preserve, we drove an additional 2 miles to visit the new Shelter for a dog and cat rescue organization called The Buddy FoundationMark and I were there for each other to give emotional support, for we both knew how much we miss having a dog, and we were there to help prevent each other from entering into a hasty adoption. 

We looked at all of the adoptable dogs, and played with a room filled with sibling puppies.... It was an afternoon of nostalgia and quiet emotion, of many laughs, and soothing words, of barking and wagging tails, and face licks....

The Foundation was selling Christmas Tree Ornaments to raise money for the facility, and for every purchase, a star is devoted to a pet, living or dead, to hang on their tree.  There were no Basset Hounds, so as a way to commemorate last Summer's trip to Boston, we chose a Boston Terrier Ornament.

We both sobbed a bit upon leaving....missing our girl, wishing we could take all of the homeless dogs with us, yet grateful that this energetic group of people cared for them all so well.  In the meantime, I am going back to fill out the papers to become a volunteer.  It should be a new adventure, and might result in our eventually taking a needy creature home with us.  I should have some stories about the experience.  In the meantime, here are some pictures of the dogs ready to be adopted:

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Journal for Saturday: "Precious", Lady Gaga, Popular Culture and Going With The Flow

I am committed to self-change, and in these pages I examine and chronicle my attempts at self reinvention, share them with you, and invite comment. 

I often worry at my reluctance to embrace certain trends in poular culture.  Shouldn't someone as interested in change be open to all things new, to developments in movies, music, media? 

Why do I feel left out when I express a difference of opinion against a popular consensus; why do I feel irrelevant when I try to maintain a certain standard against which to measure a piece of creative work?

Some might tell me that my standards are, in the end, subjective, and that they need to stay flexible to flow with the times.  I might reply that their standards, too, need to change, and fast, to keep up with swiftly changing tastes and demographics, especially in the motion picture and popular music industries; and that those who dismiss me as closed-minded might know, even sooner than I ever did, the rejection of finding their favorite artists being regarded as out-of-date. 

 One thing I react against is a kind of hyperbole I see in discussions of new films, often having nothing to do with an honest appraisal of the movie and its strengths or flaws.

After I saw the trailer for "Precious" two months ago, I was impressed by its power. I told myself that I wanted to see the film, even though I wondered  if any movie could live up to the complete emotional experience delivered by the trailer. (I suspected I had already seen the best parts of the movie during the previews and could skip the actual harrowing experience.)  I read some reviews; most were glowing, but a few (like the New Yorker) questioned the way the film manipulated the audience, and objected to its graphic depicitons of incest and abuse.
Since then, I have read quite a few on-line reviewers hailing the movie as the most astonishing work ever committed to celluloid...and I started to feel that once I actually saw the movie it would be a letdown.... 

There are a lot fewer serious-minded movies released today, and so we can all be forgiven for overreacting to the few that happen to slip by the corporate machine and get distributed.

I'm sure the reviewers of "Precious" were honestly moved, but instead of dealing with how the film created these feelings, they appeared to want to be among the first to jump on an awards bandwagon, as a way to vindicate these strong feelings...rendering this just more awards fodder..... And as more pictures are released in the next two months, each deserving of honest scrutiny, I'd wager that these reviewers, instead of meeting these other films on their own merits, will make completely irrelevant comparisons to "Precious" .  Reviews like these treat the work as merely an entry in a year-end competition. I still want to see "Precious", but am preparing to be disappointed, as I fear the hype may carry the film to a slew of awards, while the real issues raised by it will be lost.

The second thing I find troubling is an almost irrational allegiance some pay to acts by some artists who have been packaged and processed and who know how to play up to these fans.

Lady Gaga is a curious phenomenon.  Here's someone who clearly has musical talent---she has played the piano since age four, written songs for popular acts, and has captured the imaginations of those who prefer glitzy theatrics and "fashion" to meaningful lyrics and music. She dithered on the topic of her own bisexuality, and thanked "the Gays" twice, once while accepting an MTV Music Award and once at the National Pride March, as thought gay people were a single-minded sitcom family. I have watched some of her TV performances and a video or two with amusement, and would have been happy to meet her on those terms, as an artist who parlayed real talent into a fascinating freak show and got rich quick and faded into relative obscurity

...until I heard people defend her as though she were the most original artist ever, and why, as one who appreciates art and theater, didn't I give her more credit? 

Well, quite simply...she hasn't moved me, or completely won me over, yet....she made me smile, and if fun is all, then her appeal has had merit for a time, and I enjoy it on that level,...but how can I truly embrace something which moves so quickly and changes so often, let alone defend her dubious, even disguised, talent? 

Pop culture is supposed to be fun, and it's a way to unite people in common enthusiasm or shared exasperation, a way to identify one's cohorts, to give signal to our chosen emblems of attractiveness and cool. 

But it must also stand the test of time, after which it mellows into something worthy of serious discussion, of recognition of true artistry, of ground-breaking theatricality....

I have abandoned a lot of popular culture, especially movies and pop music, only because it seems to move so fast through the public consciousness as to be easily forgotten and irrelevant...For aesthetic and personal pleasure, I tend to explore more traditional forms of creative expression....opera, classical music, literature, even theater...which seem to adhere to universally accepted standards of excellence, and which have thus proved lasting, and yielding almost endless treasures.

And yet...and here's the crux of my conflictedness about all of this.....It's lonely not to feel cool...

Sure, I could always go with the flow, for the sake of being a part of something.... Some fans get so defensive over that which should be fun....I know I could lighten up a bit...and I know we all hold favorite movies and music and books to our hearts and personally identify with them....but can we allow each other to remain outside of the mainstream on some forms of culture without feeling condescended to?
For every "Precious" there is a "Slumdog Millionaire" a "Dark Knight", a "Little Miss Sunshine"--all of these burst on the scene, created excitement for a month or two, were fiercely defended by vocal fans, won the awards they were groomed to win, and are now nostalgic footnotes.    For every Lady Gaga there is an Amy Winehouse, a Gwen Stefani, a Christina Aguilera;  I wonder, who will be listening to their voices and responding to their lyrics in ten years? in five? 

Sure, pop culture is meant to go with the flow and change to reflect--or create--style.  But if you want to fiercely defend that which will quickly fade and use artistry and originality as your defense, then I am afraid I for one will stand against that.

It used to be that with the traditional, although limited, media available to dispense information and desseminate culture, there was much more that was shared.  Now, the audience has been is "created" for  "markets" of consumers, and as long as these segments keep buying what corporate hacks produce, they don't care if "the product" crosses over....   

Before we bestow kudos for originality, consider:  today, it's "Precious"; before, it was "Sybil", or "Charly" (see photos above).  Today it's Lady Gaga, yesterday it was Elton John or Madonna. 

Will "Precious" or Lady GG have enough time to enter the consciousness of a fickle public?  Will they appeal to a cross section, or just a small portion,of that public?   I hope that their recognition will be for true talent and honest engagement with the emotions and aesthetic pleasure of their fans, for providing us with true beauty without pandering, for making us think without exploiting our basest curiosity.  I hope "Precious" will live up to the praise and be the compelling emotional experience the trailers promised; and I hope Lady Gaga will some day just sit at her piano and sing something of such beauty and originality, with clear and strong conviction, that I can not help but move to her corner. If either this film or this artist honestly accomplish these things, I will also be their champions.

And so, I will remain open.....while not abandoning the standards with which I greet creative work, with excitement.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks.....

Thank you......

....To all of my readers, and especially those who stop a minute to comment.   I am lucky to have your support, and I hope to continue to earn it.

...To old friends, who have maintained permanent place for me in their lives, who still enrich my life with their interests, and are ready to laugh and cry with me as needed.

....To new friends, who provide me with endless inspiration and encouragement,  fresh ideas and things to learn and explore, and who willingly accept what I try to give to them...

....To the many dogs in my life, past and present, who each have unwittingly put me in touch with the best part of my humanity.

....To language and words, especially words of comfort and encouragement.  Cynics dismiss these as mere platitudes....but if words can persuade us, or arouse us, or make us laugh, or incite us to express an opinion,-- then certainly a well-turned, simple and eloquent phrase can soothe a hurt, calm an anxiety, inspire an extraordinary deed, or remind us that we're not alone.....I saw one such phrase on a white board at, of all places, the health seemed particularly appropriate today...

“You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

....To my partner, who accepts me, flaws and all, loves me anyway, and has done everything to give me the room I need to grow and re-invent myself.  I couldn't ask for more, and can never adequately express my gratitude.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

An Exciting Day for Readers: NATIONAL BOOK AWARDS 2009 (and an Oscar Rant)

 I look forward to the announcement of the National Book Award Winners, as well as the Pulitzer Prize Winners, every year, and to me it is every bit as exciting as Oscar Nominations, and perhaps more meaningful.  To be sure, there are great films worthy of recognition, but isn't it time we raise the public profile on great Literature?  Wouldn't it be terrific if all the Literary Awards were televised amid great fanfare?  I would bet that if entertainment media created excitement around these, they would gain more legitimacy with the public and...maybe... people would read more good writing, and not rely solely on the ghastly Best-Sellers  just to stay current with trends....much the same way that others MUST see all of the nominated films before Oscar night. 

So for my fellow readers (and as quick a reference to myself !) I have listed the 2009 Winners and Finalists for Fiction and Non-Fiction at the end of this post,.

(MOVIE TANGENT...I was a big fan of the Oscars for most of my life, and I must say I still get excited the day of the nominations, much more than on Oscar night itself.  I was so obsessed growing up, that if you picked a year after, say 1937, I could tell you the Best Picture Winner, and most likely the Acting Winners ....even, some years, all of the Best Picture Nominees.......
In the last several years I have become disenchanted with the quality of films selected for Oscars, and since the fiasco of 2005, when the most artistic, hands-down-deserving best film that year was subject to an organized snub, exposing Hollywood's disappointing homphobia, Oscar night has become downright depressing.  Now I feel like a previously honored guest who has been unceremoniously shown the door, so the festivities could proceed without me.  "Milk" last year did much to bring me back to the fold....but the fervor over "Slumdog Millionaire" was a disappointment...)

Since I have been a better and more voluminous reader since 9/11 (see my post from September 12, How 9/11 Made Me A Reader Again), I have read a lot from these lists of award-winning fiction and non-fiction.  Along with the NBA and Pulitzers, I follow, among others, the PEN/Faulkner Awards and the Booker Prizes. They all have helped me to identify well-respected literature and non-fiction, which have further exposed me to quality authors and subject matter, that in turn helped me amass a portfolio of great books and a legacy of reading that I have listed in a journal...a personal biography through my books, as it were.

So, I am excited to find out the winners and finalists each year.  In reviewing this year's National Book Awards, I must admit I am not familiar with any of them...and if awards have any merit at all, it is in helping direct people to what is good, or at least original and new.  I hope to sample some of these in the coming year.

The National Book Award Winners, at least those I have read, tend to be edgier, more challenging and difficult, than the Pulitzer winners, taken as a whole (although there are, of course, marked exceptions).  I found last year's NBA Winner, "Shadow Country", repetitive and repulsive...long and descriptive and ugly.  I also disliked "News From Paraguay" and "The Corrections".

However, I loved  "The Echo Maker" "Three Junes" "Europe Central" and "Waiting", along with many others from earlier years like "From Here to Eternity"  "Goodbye Columbus" "The Wapshot Chronicle", "The World According to Garp," and "Sophie's Choice".   I am about half-way through the fiction list, and have a way to go yet in the non-fiction realm. 

I just re-read the titles in the above paragraph....many have become part of the common lexicon, recognizable, almost household names....I wonder which of this year's winners will achieve that staus in time?

In April I will discuss the Pulitzers in a lot more detail.

So much to read.....
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House) 
Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press) 
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf) 
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

FICTION JUDGES: Alan Cheuse, Junot Díaz, Jennifer Egan, Charles Johnson, Lydia Millet

T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Alfred A. Knopf)
 David M. Carroll, Following the Water: A Hydromancer's Notebook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 
Sean B. Carroll, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt)
Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy (Princeton University Press)

NONFICTION JUDGES: David Blight, Amanda Foreman, Steve Olson, Camille Paglia, John Phillip Santos

Monday, November 23, 2009

Journal for Monday November 23: Decry Irrationality! These People Work For Us!

I object to the asssumption of public officials that I will blindly, quietly accept the irrationality and lies put forth by our government, members of which are, in effect, our employees. 

I observe in utter disbelief the way large segments of the population agree to have their emotions, fears, and supersitions appealed to, and are led willingly to make choices against their own best interests.  Power-seekers have perfected this ominous art, and we see the results...our public discourse, or at least that which gets covered in the popular media, is filled with mistruths and wrong-headedness.

A couple of my friends in the blogosphere have posted intelligently and eloquently on the more visible manifestations of this blight on our political and social discourse. Torqopia discussed the irrationality of politics, citing an example, with video evidence, of the way our political parties, especially the RNC, will defend their own against all common sense.  And the amazing Sophisticated Lunacy wrote a brilliant original essay on the lies being told to stop health care reform simply to derail ANY initiative sought by our current President, even though it could further destroy our economy and put citizens in real jeopardy.

(Interesting that in both, Sarah Palin is the poster child for these outrages.)

My own incredulity was aroused last week during Attorney General Eric Holder's appearance before a Senate Judiciary Commitee to defend his decsion to try accused 9/11 terrorist Khalid Sheik Mohammad in Civil Court in New York.  Opinions differ strongly about whether bringing the trial to Manhattan is prudent. Apart from that debate, however, I was troubled by this incredible exchange (from an article in the New York Times):

"....Senators of both parties also pressed Mr. Holder to say what would happen if Mr. Mohammed or another detainee considered to be a dangerous terrorist was acquitted on a technicality or given a short sentence. Mr. Holder has said he will direct prosecutors to seek a death sentence in the Sept. 11 case.
Other Justice Department officials have said that even if Mr. Mohammed is acquitted, the Obama administration will keep him locked up forever as a “combatant” under the laws of war. But Mr. Holder largely sidestepped such questions, instead simply asserting that he was confident that Mr. Mohammed would be convicted.
“Failure is not an option,” Mr. Holder said...."

As much as we may believe that KSM is guilty and deserves prosecution, to assert from the start that any outome other than prosecution will not be tolerated would seem to fly in the face of the rationale for holding a civil trial in the first place: that is, it “shows the world that this country stands firmly behind its legal system and the Constitution.” (Russ Feingold, D, Wisconsin).

There was a time when I would have turned the other way, resigned to the fact that our government is irretrievably corrupt and that there was no point troubling myself.  But I can't, in good conscience, allow our elected officials and those who work for them to continue to insult people of good will and useful intellect. This journal is one of the best methods I have to continue to reinvent myself, and I hope it to be another tile in a global mosaic of positive change.   

I applaud those who speak out on their journals and blogs and in the public arena.  And when our media keep distracting us from these issues by sending out pseudo-alarms about Adam Lambert on the American Music Awards kissing (oh! the moral outrage!) another man, we must cry foul and force the news outlets to bring their attention---and that of their audience---back to what matters.  Our lives depend on this.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Joni Mitchell: Her Art, Her Poetry, and the Movies

When I was old enough to notice Joni Mitchell and distinguish her from other artists populating the radio airwaves of my youth, her music and her reedy, soaring voice had a different impact on me from other music....I liked her not for the pounding syncopated rhythms or catchy tunes of the bands that formed the soundtrack of my restless boyhood--the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Four Seasons, Supremes--but for something more delicate and in tune with the rumblings of change that I saw taking place in culture, and especially film, my obsession at the time. 

I studied movies and learned all I could about the treatment of new and serious subjects formerly taboo on movie screens, the new forms of cinematography and montage, used to explore adult subject matter, and the power of music for irony and shock.  I bought soundtrack albums to help recreate the moviegoing experience, especially for the movies that I was barred from viewing owing to the new rating system, which was strictly enforced, at least in our household. 

And so, in the same way, Joni's music gave me  similar excitement and aesthetic pleasure, and stirred my imagination, in much the same way as the soundtrack music from Lion in Winter, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, Zabriskie Point, and many others.

Through college, I bonded with friends who loved Joni's music, and so I listened more fervently.  Not many of her songs were appealing enough to the masses to make them hits, so her radio airplay was limited.  It was when I was introduced to her albums, by my friends Ben and Larry, and others I remember fondly, that real appreciation began.  I always enjoyed the profound and simple poetry of "Both Sides Now".  The dreamy "Help Me" and liberating "Free Man In Paris" fed my romatic longings as I navigated my own emotional attachments as a student in Iowa City.   

But as I listened to the anguish and strength of "Blue" and "A Case of You", the sadness and resignation of the now-standard Christmas anthem "River", the unusual shifts in key and chords in songs like "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire", and the perfection of the lyrics in "Woodstock" and "Circle Game" and "Cactus Tree", I felt as though I were training my mind and heart for a new way of expressing myself.  

I identifed Joni Mitchell with those around me who, like me, had creative yearnings, and through her music I felt myself entering my own place of creativity.  It is in my nature to resist change, and often react against new knowledge (admittedly, a defense mechanism I have outgrown) until I can incorporate it into my intellectual repertoire.  And so it was, too, that I felt momentarily lost as Joni moved away from the romatic themes and Laurel Canyon folk sound, and moved into experimental and jazz realms, used full orchestras and synthesizers, and created an impressionistic feel, which is something I loved about her painting, ironically. 

Very soon, though, I learned to love all that about her music, too, because she was filled with the joy of sharing these new forms.  There is nothing exclusive or snobbish about her....just the exquisite satisfaction of creating, and sharing the work with an appreciative audience. It suffuses everything she does.

Then came the album "Hejira", a work that took me through many periods of lonely desperation and rainy nights, with only candles lit and the sound of her voice warming the room. The songs on this album  did not insinuate themselves into my brain right away (like, for example, her classic hit "Big Yellow Taxi"). Instead, they invited me to return, and listen again, and promised new comfort, and mystery, until very soon these songs-- the hopeful and plaintive "Coyote", the questioning "Refuge of the Roads", the exotic (and erotic) "Strange Boy", the jazzy "Blue Motel Room", and the mesmerizing "Amelia" and "Song for Sharon", --became a part of my own language, a protection against the hurts and insecurities of life as a young man wanting to fit in yet terrified of who I was.

Just as Ingmar Bergman stirred in me the excitement of new possibilities in cinema, and Pauline Kael stood as a standard bearer in critical writing, so Joni became my model for a new kind of honesty and subtlety, a way to use personal feelings and experiences, and by going deeper than one's zone of safety, create work of unusual beauty and complexity that comforts with its immediacy and inspires with its ambiguity and originality.

It occurred to me that two of the art forms I loved, Joni's music and serious filmmaking, were, for me, running on parallel tracks, and never really met.  Considering the brilliant imagery of her lyrics, and how well her songs might be used on screen for complement and counterpoint, it was amazing that I could remember almost none of her songs that were used in a narrative movie, either to advance the plot or enhance a mood. 

Quite a few movies used her songs in the background, like "Love Actually", or in credit sequences, like "Woodstock" (the documentary).  But one film does stand out for me, in which a song was performed as an integral part of a scene---

It was "Alices Restaurant" (1969), the freewheeling counterculture hit based on Arlo Guthrie's 17-minute spoken-word single.  After a character tragically succumbs to his drug addiction, and as the hippies and other members of Ray and Alice Brock's commune gather for the funeral in a silent snowy cemetery service, Joni Mitchell's "Songs to Aging Children" is played and sung by a character in the film (a woman named Tigger Outlaw).  What a lovely, indelible moment. It was used brilliantly to describe these characters, as their dreams begin to fade, and they stand at a crossroads of choice and change.

"Songs to aging children come...Aging children, I am one...."

You can read all of her lyrics, and learn more about this creative, strong, literate, inspiring, and remarkable artist, on her web site:    

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Favorite Film: "Harry and Tonto", 1974


Sending out thoughts of comfort tonight for a friend who is nursing his poor beloved cat...and anyone else who may be struggling with the loss of a pet... A review of a lovely little film from 1974, "Harry and Tonto".

Our local PBS station showed this tonight, and I am always happy to revisit it.

This has been a favorite since my first viewing in its initial release.  As much as I admired Jack Nicholson's performance that year in "Chinatown", I was thrilled that Art Carney took home Oscar gold for his portrayal of the spunky and courageous Harry Coombs, who travels on a wonderful odyssey across America with his companion, Tonto, an orange cat.

It is dated, yes.... its dialog and vernacular, its cast, its color scheme, its pseudo-documentary "look", and its observations of American culture, are all rooted firmly in the 1970's; yet the sweetness of the relationship between Art Carney's Harry, and his beloved orange cat Tonto,  is timeless. In an opening scene, Harry talks to Tonto about the past....and Tonto does what cats do, wandering from room to room, scratching at the litter box, eventually nuzzling Harry's hand, while Harry talks himself to sleep. The scene, with its tender, sad piano score, nostalgic monologue, and simple direction, moves me to tears....

Harry, after being evicted from his condemned New York apartment, travels to visit his three children, in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. It is a funny, touching and wise road picture, a mild take on Shakespeare's King Lear (which Harry references as he begins his journey.)

Tonto is Harry's dependent as well as confidante. It is to the film's credit that the Tonto does not dominate the picture, yet we, like Harry, are always aware of his presence.

Along the way, Harry meets with some unforgettable characters: a gruff but kind-hearted Italian who shares a hero sandwich with Tonto on a bus; a teenage girl, warm and wise beyond her years, who is hitchhiking with Harry's grandson, as they all drive through Arizona; a Native American medicine man who cures Harry's bursitis from inside their jail cell; and various cab drivers, car dealers, hookers, and old friends, while Harry dispenses common sense and ribald tales alike.  I won't give away the film's many small and soaring pleasures. But I will wager that when Harry reunites with an old flame in a nursing home, you'll not mind shedding a few sentimental tears, for the romance and the nostalgia of the scene, for the beauty of the details as they are observed, and for the perfection of the performances.

I am reminded of my grandfather...about cats I have known and loved...and I am thinking of all of you pet owners and animal lovers. Those of you who have sick pets should talk to these creatures, in an intimate, personal way. Remind them of those things you did together that gave them pleasure. They will respond to your tone, and it will comfort them, and it will comfort you too.

I see Tonto as a part of Harry's soul...his inner youth and strength....his curiosity about life....So that later, when he loses Tonto, it seems fitting, although we can't explain why, that Harry finds a woman who attracts cats by the dozens....[just as the little boy in "The Red Balloon", after the death of his beloved companion, is visited---and literally carried off---by "all the balloons of Paris".]  

In his final road trip, Harry reinvents himself.  Although we are spared any scene of his death, Harry ends up on the beach at the ocean, a Felliniesque symbol of the end of Harry's road. He gets there by following a renegade cat, and we leave him in the company of a young girl, as he helps her to build a sand castle.


(*NOTE ON THE ODDNESS OF THE MPAA RATING SYSTEM:  Movie ratings have kept many of us scratching our heads for years.  Although there is adult material in "Harry and Tonto", there was nothing in the film that would have warranted more than a PG rating in 1974 (maybe PG-13 today).  Why was it rated R?  For the use of one four-letter word, a vulgar term beginning with the letter C, used to describe a part of the female anatomy.  In versions I have seen since, this word has been overdubbed by the more "family-friendly", TV-acceptable, "bitch".  Go figure. )

Friday, November 20, 2009

Music in my Life...A Brief Personal History--Friday Journal

As a small boy I heard and observed my father play the piano almost every day.  One music book in paricular, Everybody's Favorite Piano Pieces, contained piano compositions by famous composers, along with brief biographies and pictures of each. So obsessed was I by this book of music, that I can still recall most of the composers and the order in which they appeared: Handel, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Tchaikovski, Brahms, Mendelsohn, Mussgorsky, Rachmaninoff, fact, here's a photo of the very same book...This takes me back....

I was mesmerized by how my father could translate the little dots on the lined pages, and press the piano keys to create musical sounds, sounds which were prolonged when he stepped on the right pedal near the floor (he almost never, to my recollection, stepped on the left or middle pedals.)

While my father, who studied piano from boyhood, created music for the living room, my mother had her own musical interests and passions, at the time ubiquitous on the radio and television.  Hers were the popular tunes, the modern standards, the music of her high school days, her romances, her youth.  I frequently came home from school (afternoon kindergarten, mostly) to find my mother watching American Bandstand....often while she ironed shirts!

I practically memorized the composer biographies. I thought I could "compose" too, so I would huddle at my desk in my room, with lined paper I pilfered from school (the kind with 3 lines we used to learn how to print) and drew dots with handles and flags, little "o"s, and  all the symbols I could remember from the pages of the music book.  Then I would ask my father to play these songs.

Of course, it was difficult at best for him to know which three lines on the musical scale to use, but he made the attempt, and it always made me laugh to hear the outcome of my innocent effort.

As a youngster, I tried at one point to play the piano, but quickly lost interest, preferring instead to write "stories", and play outdoors.  Now, it has become somewhat of a back-of-the-mind passion, meaning that I want to try it again, and if I succeed in convincing myself to actually do it, I would plunge into the attempt!

We always had the radio on, in the days when WGN 720-Chicago offered a variety of programming for everyone, and not the shrill pseudo-conservative pandering it has become. (If it were not for Chicago Cubs broadcasts, I would permanently delete it from my channel selector.)  In the afternoon, one show played all of the Billboard top ten for the day. There were few "specialty charts" then, so we were likely to hear Petula Clark, The Four Seasons, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Peter Paul and Mary, The Beatles, Vicki Carr, or Perry Como all on the same program.  In the evening, Music Unlimited played classics, show tunes and other standards....its theme song was the theme from the movie "The Apartment".   One of my favorites: "Try to Remember", from The Fantasticks.

We also had an old-fashioned record player, the kind with the top lid and record changer, all up on four legs with the speaker in the front,  We heard lots of concerts, opera, and occasionally, movie soundtracks.  I learned to recognize the tunes, but it would be a long time until I acquired the interest to actually identify them....except for the movie tunes, which interested me immediately....

More later on about my love affair with movie music...including the only Joni Mitchell songs I know that were used in movies.....

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Journal November 19--A Prelude: Music in my Life

I have developed a newfound appreciation for Opera.  I have always liked classical, orchestral music, and listened to opera at home enough to recognize various set pieces and arias, and have acquired a small library and list of my own favorites.   Perhaps because I have friends who are very close to opera (a woman I work with, for example, has a son who is an intern with Chicago's Lyric Opera), I have started to follow this art form in earnest.

Lately I have listened carefully to some works, especially by Puccini and Verdi.  I have a lot to learn about different genres, current performers, the distictions between opera companies and theaters, and the librettos (libretti?) of famous works.

I did a close study of Puccini's "Turandot" (I welcome comments on the pronunciation....does one pronounce the final "t", or no? /not?  LOL....).  This is an example of "verismo", which, from what I gather, is the treatment of more realistic subjects in reaction against the typical romantic, tragic or comic subjects that prevailed at the time.  But after actually reading the translation while listening, I was surprised at how violent it is! Long stretches are devoted to descriptions of executions, beheadings, etc. (and those are from the comic characters, I believe!). And the irony is that the music is some of the most beautiful I have ever heard...the Nessum Dorma aria is one of my favorites.....The experience must not be too unlike moviegoers in 1971 viewing Kubrik's "A Clockwork Orange",  who saw unspeakable violence scored to the beauty of Beethoven or Rossini, or the romanticism of "Singin' in the Rain".

My unease with this art form has always been that the sheer awesome beauty of the music, and the power of the voices and orchestrations, is in service to  banal, over-the-top"plots" and incidents that don't deserve such beauty as is provided by their musical interpretation.  Ah well...something to study, and to learn, in order to fully appreciate the works in their historical contexts.

We have, in Chicago, one of the best public radio stations in the country, devoted to classical music (as well as folk, another favorite genre, but more later).  WFMT FM:  here's a link to it, and I hope some of you will check in.  I encourage more discussion here about wonderful music, a balm to soothe the wounds of healthcare reform, Afghanistan, human rights, "Going Rogue", bans on gay well as our own personal struggles with careers, relationships, loss..... the list goes on.

I mentioned before that, in my opinion, great art (all of it, music, film, painting, architecture, writing, etc.)  reminds us to focus on what is in front of us, and the beauty we can find there; or to stimulate and change our patterns of thought and our angle of vision, and inspire us to take some positive action in our chosen causes, even personal ones, refreshing us and creating within us good energy to do well, and do good, one more day.

What interesting ends of the musical spectrum I love!...Joni Mitchell, on one side, Opera on the other...and both inspire me in different, creative, and interesting ways.

Lots more tomorrow, and in the weeks to come.  Your favorites? ...hope to hear from you!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A New Photographic Talent... A Guest Post

Lately I have been introduced to a number of new talents in the local arts scene.  I posted last Friday about a gallery show in the city by an arist whose work I loved.  A few weeks ago, I attended a new friend's performance in his classic rock and roll band, The Wild Ones (a review is coming soon).  Many writers of the on-line journals I follow...and those who have commented here....display breathtaking facility with words.

But sometimes real talent exists right under your own roof.  So it is that I have discovered, and I am happy to introduce, my partner Mark Johnson and his photographic art.  Of course I knew that he had a good eye and talent for framing a shot.  Recently, though, he came back with a few pictures he took while walking to his office in Chicago, and I felt they, and he, deserved exposure. 

Mark selected this photograph of the Willis Tower (formerly The Sears Tower), next to his office (also pictured) as his "debut". Willis Tower is on the left. Mark provides commentary about the inspiration for this shot and what it represents in his life:

"For 4 years in the early 80s, I worked on the 33rd floor of Sears Tower. I wrote retail ad copy for Sears. You know, three or four dinky lines of content about high-capacity microwave ovens, plush toys, sporting goods, power tools. It wasn't all that stimulating (what a surprise), but it was my first professional communication job and I made some great friends there. More than 25 years have passed. During that time, I've raised two sons to adulthood, built a good career, and navigated my way through countless peaks and valleys.

Today, I pass the newly christened Willis Tower (it will always be ST to me) on my way to my current job right next door. When I took this photo, I imagined the millions of visitors who crane their necks to photograph this site each year. What a challenge -- getting it all in the frame! So why not through a barren tree across the street on a bright November morning. The bottom line? There's some comfort seeing the Tower each day -- knowing that through all of my life's reinventions there is some constancy. And, it's still a long way up!"
~Mark Johnson

Monday, November 16, 2009

Journal: A New Week--Amusing Autumn Reflections

Re-Invention in Re-View:
(and a bit more lighthearted)

I begin the week gratified by the regular response of my friends here, and for your patience and indulgence as I strike out in new directions with my posts.  Sometimes it's hard to justify writing about art or animals or film or music when the events of the world are so thank you for allowing me to clear my head....and this space is designed as a safe place for anyone to do so....
I blurted out to Mark on the way to the gym that I am filling my life with activity, trying to re-emerge as a re-invented individual, because I have finally learned to enjoy the world, and make up for the time I lost being too complacent or too low in my view of life to care. And the result is going to be fabulous, and I am happy you, readers, (especially Mark, and Charles, and  Tom of Sophisticated Lunacy) are on this journey with me. 
 I fear that some day advanced age or failing health will force me to admit that I can no longer keep writing, or learn to play an instrument, or study a new language, or travel, or care for my dogs, or feel enthused about creative pusuits....So my furious levels of activity can be excused as a new growing pain, or staving off mortality, or simply enjoying the possibilities that are there for me as long as I am able to reach for them.

~I saw the first Christmas Tree of the season! It was in the third-floor window of a tall apartment building in downtown Arlington Heights.  I happened to notice the lights as I was in the car on my way home.   Had this occurred three weeks hence, I might have had the same rush of excitement at seeing the first robin of the Spring; but today, it struck me with the same sort of annoyed panic one feels when the first guest arrives at a party three hours too early. 

~Basset hounds are notoriously hard to train, and that includes housebreaking: 
"........How are they to train? Bassett Hounds are not the easiest breed to train. In fact someone said that you can train them to do anything as long as they want to learn it. They can be stubborn and slow to learn. The best thing you can do is start to train them young and be very patient. Also, rewards are a must in their training. They respond to treats even better than most breeds....."
Our error in bringing Maggie home in October was that the weather soon became too nasty to allow her to linger outside to learn the beauty of a grass surface  As a result Mark and I spent a lot of time paying attention to her bladder and bowel needs, and saving our floors and carpets.  Soon she learned that she would be taken outside whenever she waited by the back door...and, sly as she was, she often waited by the door not because she had to go, but because she wanted to get outside to eat june bugs, or chase squirrels, or lay in the warm sun, or put her snout deep into the snow...once inside, she would curtsey on her little rug....!  Annoying as it all was then, I would do it all over if she were back....and now, I hope she has a patient guardian of some kind, wherever she might be...

~Speaking of squirrels, they are so entertaining this time of year. The hole ten feet up in the trunk of our maple tree has been re-occupied by a nest-building mother.  Thick fur I noticed on the tails of the squirrels as they dash around storing food in the yard (and destroying the lawn!) indicates another cold winter.  We plan to set "squirrel food" (raw corn kernels) in Maggie's old bowl on the patio.  Sometimes as many as five of these creatures will feast together, then bury the remains everywhere.  We had a corn stalk grow in a flower bed this summer---even produced a couple of good ears!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Journal #3 for Saturday Nov. 14--We've Lost a Common History

Rambles....we all need to clear our heads....leave a comment and do the same:

--The US is mired in Afghanistan.  We can't expect fast and easy answers from the current administration.  But we can't ignore the fact that we are in a Vietnam-like bog there, and it will need more resources to finally get us out without a tragic collapse.  I've heard said that we can't step in the same river twice....that Afghanistan is NOT Vietnam....I prefer to think that the river always flows in the same direction, even if what we "step in" is different "water".

--It's ominous to consider how to send tens of thousands of more troops to Afghanistan, and maintain a presence in Iraq and other parts of the world, without a draft.  The Head of Veterans affairs, Eric Shinseki, gave a compelling interview on NPR in which he applied the physical phenomenon of the delta of resilience to multiple deployments:
 "Since 2001, more than 1 million new veterans have come into a system that is being stretched thin. And one thing they'll need a lot of help with is their own peace of mind.
In particular, Shinseki has been concerned with what he calls "resilience." Shinseki, a former engineering student, describes what happens when a ball is suspended in air and then dropped. The ball will bounce, he said — but it will not rise to the same height from which it was dropped. And if the ball continues to bounce, it progressively gets lower and lower. "This also describes the multiple deployments" that American soldiers have experienced in the past eight years on tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Shinseki said. "Quality of resilience is affected."

--We have done a poor job learning from our own history. Young people especially are not active or vocal in protest against our military actions, because unless they are among the military volunteers, nothing is at stake for them. There would have been no anti-Vietnam War movement among students in the '60's and '70's had there not been a draft.

--Anecdote: in conversation with a young friend of mine at the college in which I'm employed, I dropped the title of the movie "The Deer Hunter" to illustrate a point.  He never heard of it. The Vietnam War was such a troubling part of the American psyche, and the film, a Best Picture Oscar-winner (1978), was so controversial for years that it is unfathomable to think it may have slipped out of the national consciousness.   In itself, that doesn't mean this very articulate young man is willfully ignorant. I happen to believe that, ironically, with so much communication gadgetry at our disposal, we have fragmented ourselves, and no longer seem to share a common culture.  And we seem not to share a common history either.

--History is most often written by those who were not around to experience the period about which they study and write.  We accept it, though, as gospel.  Today, more than at any time in history, provocative, persuasive, wonderful ideas are expressed by the millions, in writing published over the internet and elsewhere every day.  Will it do some good?  Can a piece of writing still change the world?  Can such writing be recognized among the millions of others? Historians will have a monumental amount of firsthand information and will they possibly interpret all of it, and by extension, interpret us and how we lived? Will future historians see us as concerned and active? Or will we be characterized as having too much to say and no time to do anything?

--The stories that could be covered in the news, that may outrage us enough to take some positive action, are glossed over (bad for ratings?  people might become activists?) while we distract ourselves with our games and music and sports and entertainment, and corruption runs amok around us.  Drones are killing innocent people in a classified CIA program with no restraint from the military.  Films showing the horribly tragic human aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been hidden for decades. The Goldstone Report meets with vitriol from the UN and garners little support from the current administration, ignoring the role that Israel may have played in possible war crimes in Gaza last January.  Lawmakers thoughtlessly delay any meaningful action on health care, choosing instead to compromise it into impotence; what's more, the  RNC wants to block any plan that covers abortion, even though the Republican insurance plan covers it.  Amusingly, a lot of resources are committed to prove that the 1969 Apollo moon landing was a hoax.  Meanwhile we have yet to put enough people to work to improve our infrastructure and give the economy a natural "stimulus".

--A manual by the general Services Administration shows that of the top 10 Government Agencies by annual spending, the Department of Defense, at #1, spends over 160 Billion Dollars a year.  The Department of Education, at number 10, spends only 3 billion.  Wow.  What more can one say about the character of the country, our priorities, and where we may be headed? 

Journal #2 Saturday November 14--My Time with Shayna

Often I stay at the homes of traveling friends in order to care for their pets, many of them dogs, and the occasional cat.  These dog-loving travelers are, like me, averse to leaving their canine friends in unfamiliar boarding facilities. We are sensitive to the fact that dogs feel emotions deeply, and without the benefit of language, these creatures can't  really understand why we are leaving them, why they are lonely and away from home, and whether we will return to them at all.

By keeping the dogs at home, with someone (like me) who has become a familiar presence in their lives, living with them in their own surroundings, the animals remain more calm,  more healthy, better-off emotionally, and able to adjust to the absence of their primary loved ones.

Shayna is a sweet, intelligent, and amazing Border Collie, 11 years old, who I have known and cared for for nealy six years.  We know each others' routines, we eat supper together, we enjoy long walks, and we play rough-and-tumble, she with unwavering energy, while I just try to keep up with her. 

The family members who entrust me with the life and safety of this beloved friend, not to mention their home and all their belongings, have been generous to me as though I were a member of the household.  After an amazingly busy week, it will do me good to refresh myself in the company of a simple creature who wants nothing more than to play with me and show her fierce loyalty and affection.

And that is what it is really all about. Dogs (and cats) remind us of the simplicity of living, of life's immediacy, and that there is nothing more tender and soothing to the constant blows to our self-identity than the uncomplicated, direct, and simple love we receive from these creatures.  

I am among those who have no doubts that animals feel emotion, and that they show us their love in many ways: the squealing, joyful greeting (or the hound-howls of joy) when we come home; the unrestrained and helpless wagging of the tail at the sight of us or the sound of our voice; the face licks, the paws on our laps; the willingness to perform for us, to make us laugh; the entreaties for food, water, treats, hugs, and belly rubs; their pride at being with us on our walks; the energy of their play; the sudden calm at our bidding; the innocence of their simply being themselves, often to our great amusement; the cat who jumps on our shoulders and allows itself to be carried; the dog who sits attentively near us, looking on with curious concern, when life may cause us to shed tears......

Friends of mine who are otherwise reluctant to open up, who are guarded because of the betrayals they have known at the hands of their friends, or maybe who just have difficulty with common expressions of emotion and affection, confess to me that they miss their animals more than anything else when they are away.  I understand these people.....maybe as much as I understand the nuances of my canine friends.