Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Hadron Collider....Sicilian Odyssey...Shelter Dogs--Short Takes for Tuesday

Three seemingly unrelalated posts on wildly disparate topics.  What they have in common is how they each have shaped my thinking and outlook over the past six months, and how eager I am to share my observations with my readers.  Enjoy!

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Scientists are earnestly studying the origins of the Universe, bringing their expertise to bear on replicating conditions that may have produced the Big Bang and analyzing the results for clues to the creation of, well, everything. 

Last night in Geneva Switzerland, the Hadron Particle Collider succeeded in colliding protons at record energy levels. Scientists gathered in Geneva, at Cal Tech and other locations world-wide, eagerly waiting with pizza and camaraderie, all night, to observe the collision.  Soon, a lot of data will be analyzed.

"Researchers were waiting for the promised flood of data that would come as protons from two particle beams from the 17-mile-circumference collider smashed into each other.   Several experiments using the particle accelerator could help test for smaller particles, dark matter, other dimensions, supersymmetry and other theories in particle physics, researchers said."  Click here for a full article from the Los Angeles Times.

I have followed this story on and off for several months.  I remember discussing it with a good friend months ago; my interest was renewed afer reading physicist Michio Kaku's book on Physics of the Impossible.  I wonder, though, if any man-made collider could withstand a reaction as strong as the actual big bang.  Probably not, although the prospect of the world exploding from a physics experiment took my breath away for a second or two.  I have a lot of catching up to do, science-wise.  But I do find it exhilarating, and fascinating, as I never expected....  One of the unforseen benefits in my efforts at personal re-invention.

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As I commemorate my Grandparents' 100th Birthdays, I have immersed myself in the culture and language of Italy.  This allows me to feel the presence of these two people who I miss awfully, especially now. 

My Italian class is a transport for me, more than a mere language course.  I feel as though, speaking the ancestral language, I have made an archetypical connection; spoken loudly and properly, I am speaking operatically.  It's a connection to history and culture that are in my very blood. 

I started reading a book called "Sicilian Odyssey" by Francine Prose (what a perfect name for a writer!).  Her "Reading Like a Writer" was a huge inspiration to me as a budding writer and as a vertan, hungry reader. "Sicilian Odyssey", published in 2003, is part history of its culture and art, part modern travelogue, part affectionate appreciation of  its people.  Her description of the Sicilian termperament mirrors my own life observations:  

"Though Sicilians have a a reputation for dourness, for severity, for short violent tempers and an agonized religiosity, the fact is that almost every casual social interchange we have is characterized by sweetness. "
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The shelter was busy tonight, and the dogs were extremely affectionate.  My heart belongs to a new arrival, an 8-month-old chihuahua; and also to Hickory, a friendly (and vocal) overweight brown and white Cocker Spaniel; Trooper, an alert and playful German Shepherd mix; Casper, a quiet and massive Golden mix with sore hips; Roxi, a deaf German Short-Haired Pointer who is spotted like a Dalmatian; and Chuck, a very shy but loving Black Lab.

Of all of the changes I have made, becoming a part of this Shelter at the Buddy Foundation has been one of the most significant.  Nothing excites me more, or calms me more, than the satisfactions of easing the lonely existence of these creatures, and helpng connect them with good-hearted people who have a place in their homes.

I heard a rumor that there will be a delivery of some Bassett Hound puppies soon.... If so, then Mark and I, as well as my readers, will be in big trouble!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

"Up" Is A Classic--A Personal Review

From a capsule review found here on March 23:

"Up"... A Masterpiece, in my opinion......I am going to review this artful, wonderful and, yes, buoyant piece of work. Having now seen it twice, I can hardly find words to express my appreciation for its artistry, originality, and generous and loving observaion of people on the fringe...and its spot-on characterizations of dogs. This is what animated films are all about...."Up" could not exist in any other way but as an animated film, and it packs more genuine emotion, excitement, and laughs of recognition than most any other film this year. The Oscar-winning score is a carnival, a Chaplin movie,... a Fellini circus, a banquet, a dying flower....a perfect marriage of sound to film.
Actually, this is as succinct and complete a recap as I could hope to replicate here.  But there is so much to appreciate about this terrific work that I must make mention of and give a deeper voice to my reactions.

I arrived late to "Up", due to timing, and did not see it on the big screen, to my chagrin.  My two viewings were on a widescreen high definition TV, and although I prefer my initial viewings to be theatrical ones, there was something comforting about enjoying "Up" at home.  It called to mind similar pleasures I enjoyed as a child, eagerly anticipating favorite televised movies that were so inventive, colorful, exciting and moving, that they immediately ceased to be viewed as films but as some kind of life experience, more personal, more enduing.

The characters and settings, and the very recognizable and honest sentiment created by the world of "Up", are as familiar to me now as Oz.  In fact, I may even prefer this world, for its humor, its gentility, and its fantasy tempered by real, human concerns. 

In fact, there are a few subtle similarities to "Wizard of Oz".  The balloon-buoyed storm-tossed house recalls the thrill of Dorothy's tornado. The broken voice translator on the most vicious of the dog pack makes him sound, incidentally, and hilariously, like a munchkin.  And the the elderly Carl and his motley trio-- Russel the lonely and eager scout, Dug the lovably dumb and energetic dog, and "Kevin", the large jungle bird wanting to return to her babies--are even more antic, hilarious and adventuresome than those characters encountered on the Yellow Brick Road. 

Except for the laughs and tears, most of the similarities end there.

"Up" is successful on so many levels: an adventure story, a technical marvel, a comic fantasy, a bittersweet love story, an affectionate study of dogs, kids, and the elderly.  With every detail in its design, every perfectly crafted sequence, every cleverly-written exchange of dialog, and richly scored montage, "Up" is clearly a labor of love by talented artists and craftsmen who are first of all human beings, who have observed life around them and infused this picture with the best of those observations. 

We leave this film feeling energized, inspired, creative, and in touch with a spectrum of feelings often missing from more "sophisticated" movie fare.  There is none of the rouguish innuendo so often tacked on to "family" pictures as a wink to the adults in the audience.  There is adult material here to be sure, but delivered in direct, gut-level situations that don't disturb kids, but that will hit mature audiences in unexpected ways. 

For a surprisingly substantial film, it is breezy and fun. The inventive screenplay is packed with character detail and action, yet achieves its effects economically.    Just watch how, in one shot during an early wedding scene, we learn everything we need to know about the families (and early life) of our protagonist, Carl, and Elly, his bride.  Later, in a few brilliantly efficient lines of dialog, Russel's home life is revealed, as well as Carl's reaction to it.  And in the most famous sequence of all, Carl's and Elly's married life together, in all its sweetness and loss, is presented without dialog in what must be the best cinematic chronicle of a marriage since  the breakfast scene in "Citizen Kane".

We first meet our elderly protagonist, Carl, as a shy young balloon fancier who dreams of exotic adventures.  He meets, and later marries, his tomboy neighbor Elly, who makes Carl promise that they will have adventures of their own some day.  As life moves them in unexpected directions, Carl, alone, becomes a bitter old man who must vacate his home to developers.  Soon, in the most fanciful bit of imagination, he hatches a plan to lift the house off its foundation using thousands of balloons, in his attempt to carry it off to a spot near a mythical South American waterfall they dreamed of as kids.

Both times I viewed "Up", I was determined to pay minute attention to the detail of the effects, the decor of the house, the look of the jungle, the way movement and depth were achieved;  but both times I was too captivated by the adventure.  Later, as a pack of comical dogs pick up the scent of "prunes and denture cream",  I was shocked to discover that Carl had stopped seeming like an old man to me.  He was now a grandfatherly protector, an adventurer, and a lover of dogs and birds. 

Inadvertently, and then with a lovely blessing from his Elly, Carl had reinvented himself. 

(In a very personal way, it was like having my own grandfather, Sam, comically, teasingly, humanly alive.)

Finally I must make mention of how accurately all the artists responsible for this wonderful piece of popular art captured the movements, expressions, and goofy exuberance of dogs.  The character of Dug was a perfect rendering of the facial expressions, the hanging head and look of worry when scolded, the immediate joyful forgetting and forgiveness, even the way his body moved when he breathed.  Only true dog-lovers could have achieved this spirit, and by creating a device by which the dogs could actually"speak" without needing to lip-synch the words, we even get a remarkable and warmly funny look into how these creatures' brains must work, the easy distractions ("Squirrel!"), the obsession with play, and the constant and eager expression of affection.  My favorite line of all:  "I was hiding under your porch because I love you."

Brilliant. Joyful.  Sentimental.  Perfect.  A movie I will enjoy repeatedly, and share with friends, for a long time to come.

Friday, March 26, 2010

"Up" Next!!

First: See the entry below for a new way the Post Office is helping feed Shelter Animals

You Can Help Shelter Animals!--Friday Journal

If you love pets, but are unable to adopt a shelter animal, or volunteer at your local animal shelter, the Post Office, along with Ellen Degeneres, has created an easy way for anyone to help these creatures, with a great campaign called  Stamps to the Rescue.

Ellen is a devoted animal advocate who is passionate about finding homes for sheltered animals.  Co-owner of Halo: Purely For Pets, a holistic pet food company, Ellen helped create this campaign to raise awareness of the almost 8 million cats and dogs that stay in shelters; sadly, almost half of these are euthanized every year. 

The stamps will officially go on sale at Post Offices nationwide on April 30, following an official stamp dediation ceremony in Hollywood.  Leading up to the launch, stamps are available to pre-order, with Ellen and Halo donating one million meals to shelter animals across the country.  
Veteran Stamp photographer Sally Anderson-Bruce found these beautiful, adopted pets in her hometown of New Milford, Connecticut. Each of these animals was given a good home thanks to animal rescue shelters and the families who adopted them. --click this to learn more about each of these animals pictured on the stamp series, all of whom were successfully adopted in New Milford.
Postage stamps have been used many times to raise awareness of and support for many philanthropic causes. From the United States Post Office Web Site:

"Animal Rescue: Adopt a Shelter Pet is the Postal Service’s 2010 social awareness stamp. Past social awareness stamps have highlighted important issues such as children’s health, literacy, breast cancer awareness, organ and tissue donation, philanthropy and Alzheimer’s awareness."
Dogs and cats have appeared in previous campaigns as well.  This is the first time Animal Shelters have received the benefits of this campaign.

Believe me, it is worth it.   I wish all of you could join me at the Buddy Foundation each week as I feed, soothe, medicate and walk the dogs. Not only would you be amused at how easily these canines have trained me, but you would also find a bond, the warmth of which is hard to describe, and I know you would help these creatures. 

I am happy to be able to ask you to help shelters in an easy way by purchasing something most of us still use.  Won't you help feed some cats and dogs who are waiting to find their new homes?  CLICK HERE

My new Buddies will thank you......

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Upon voting in support of the Health Care Bill, after being assured an executive order would prevent federal funding for abortions, Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak received messages from supposed Right-to-Lifers...

"Congressman Stupak, you baby-killing mother f***er... I hope you bleed out your a**, got cancer and die, you mother f***er."

"There are millions of people across the country who wish you ill, all of those thoughts that are projected on you will materialize into something that's not very good for you."

A fax with the title "Defecating on Stupak" carried a picture of a gallows with "Bart (SS) Stupak" on it and a noose attached. It was captioned, "All Baby Killers come to unseemly ends Either by the hand of man or by the hand of God."

Sarah Palin, the woman who could have been our current Vice President, used her Facebook page to model life-affirming behavior for her constituents by posting a map dotted with gun crosshairs, asking folks to "unseat" the Democrats from the districts who voted for the Bill.
Palin called for her supporters to both "reload" and "take aim".

We heard a lot of sanctimonious speeches from Republicans in Congress on the eve of the House vote, decrying the Bill for not respecting the sanctity of the unborn.  Is there no sanctity for the already-born?  Do we want babies to be born to people like this?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Some (Not So) Final Thoughts on This Years' Academy Award Winners

I have been catching up with my friends here in the blogosphere, and have observed with amusement the many opinions offered on the outcome of this year's Academy Awards. It would seem as though I have given short shrift to my own viewpoint, what with the Arizona travel and the whirlwind of activity that swept me up upon my return from the land of deserts and cactus.  So I would now like to contribute to the conversation with a few semi-final words on the winners and contenders.  There are no final words....

"Inglourious Basterds."  I was frankly surprised by the film's strong showing in the nominations. It was well-written at times but lumpy and oddly paced; ultimately frivolous, weighted only by some outrageous brutality amid the casual offhandedness and strained atmosphere of slapstick. Christof Waltz was strong and creepy and original; honestly though, I believe that if I saw this before any talk of awards, I would not have immediately said, "wow, this is Oscar material".  I think Waltz, interesting as he is, truly had the benefit of a somewhat forgettable field.

"Precious".  Being confronted by ugliness and despair makes most of us uncomfortable.  One  triumph of art is to distil an essence of humanity from something ferocious and ugly, and discovering some beauty in that which we may callously write off.  "Precious" shows us a hideous existence, yes, but does so in a singular way as to not cast a whole demographic in this light. We often refuse to admit that life in all of this sorrow can really exist; we would rather not know. "Precious" not only presents this world, but moves us within it, jars our senses with it, and provides a catharsis that brings us in touch with the potential for good in our own humanity.  Mo'Nique left me with no doubt that here was a portrayal of the ages, deserving of any amount of recognition.  And Gaby Sidibe did what few young actors have done recently: she performed with raw honesty, convinced me that this character was alive, and reduced me to tears; I could not help react to her despair, nor to her teacher's advice to keep writing to overcome her sadness.     Its Screenplay victory was among my biggest cheers of the evening.

"Up"... A Masterpiece, in my opinion.  Tomorrow I am going to review this artful, wonderful and, yes, buoyant piece of work. Having now seen it twice, I can hardly find words to express my appreciation for its artistry, originality, and generous and loving observaion of people on the fringe...and its spot-on characterizations of dogs.  This is what animated films are all about...."Up" could not exist in any other way but as an animated film, and it packs more genuine emotion, excitement, and laughs of recognition than most any other film this year.  The Oscar-winning score is a carnival, a Chaplin movie (thanks Mark), a Fellini circus, a banquet, a dying flower....a perfect marriage of sound to film. 

"Avatar"....Certainly deserved all three of its wins.  I did have one nagging question during the telecast: why did we not see clips associated with the nominees for cinematography?  That was a disturbing irony, to me, that we missed representative work from the most visual category.  I was a little surprised that "Avatar's"  huge popularity did not carry it to a Best Picture win.   I guess it peaked at the wrong time, or that the usual success-resentment backlash had set in during the voting period.  But then again, could many voters have seen this film only on a 2-dimensional screener CD?  The awe of its effects would certainly have been diminished in this format.

"The Hurt Locker"  This is a visceral character study that made voters feel noble.  To be fair, however, it is an excellent and effective little suspenser that was impossible to ignore.  While I was not a proponent of its rather cliched visual style, I admired its staging and capturing of movement and brilliant cutting.  In many ways it is as mysterious in its ascribing of motivation to its central character as was "Lawrence of Arabia".  It wisely sidestepped any political argument in favor of forcing the viewer to focus on the activities of Jeremy Renner's dangerously obsessed yet likeable character.  That is the key to my wanting to re-visit this intense world again soon.  This was a worthy choice for best Director and Picture.

I have already reviewed "The Blind Side" and "Crazy Heart" on these pages.  Neither one would have been my choice for Leading Actor/Actress accolades, even though both did very well with badly developed material.  I wonder if we will be talking about these performances next year with the same fervor and enthusiasm with which many of us remember....Slumdog Millionaire?

Ah well....  more about the movies as the year rolls on.....


Great writing last week by Ben (Runs Like a Gay), Tom (Sophisticated Lunacy), Ultra Dave,  Bill Up Close, Russ (Blue Truck Red State),  Walter (The Silver Screening Room), Adam (The Oscar Completist), Andrew (Encore), Cathy (Cinema Style), Reality Zone, Charles (Do Something  Fun), and Steve (Holy Queer).

Euphoria Mixed With Foreboding as Health Care Passes---Monday Journal

Passing the Health Care Bill was euphoria mixed with foreboding, as though we were going on an exciting and long-overdue vacation in the car, but were not convinced that we had enough  fuel to get us to our destination, and no guarantees of finding a filling station along the way.  Just hold our breath and get started, wishing for the best. 

(Hmm, an energy metaphor.....it's probably all connected in similar ways, anyhow....)

Several weeks ago, disheartened as I was with the mounting absurdity, and seeming futility, of the process of providing universal, single-payer health care in America, I wrote here that I would say no more on the subject until something significant occurred.

Last night a Bill was narrowly passed by Congress.  Mr. Obama seemed finally convinced that a bipartisan agreement was useless; and so, seeing the approaching dusk (literally and metaphorically), he rolled up his sleeves (literally and metaphorically, again) and did the required hard work of rallying his own team. 

Is's now time for us to do the hard work of educating ourselves in what this all means, and when this all takes place.  Some benefits, like assistance for the uninsured with pre-existing conditions, will be available within a few months, and will continue (if the "filling station" turns up) until the State Health Exchanges are operational in 4 years.

You can read the Bill...it's only 2,407 pages long.  Or, there is a pretty good summary which outlines the Bill from many different angles.  This summary, posted on-line by the Democratic Policy Committee, provides a nice primer to understanding, allows us to guard ourselves against the doubletalk as the sell-job continues, and enter intelligently into the conversation, while others simply drink tea and spew mind-blowing hate.  Please click on this link....and refer to it often:  (For the purists and legalese-lovers, the bill itself is also found here):


It is not universal care, nor a single-payer system. It's not what many of us came in fighting for.  It's unfortunate that there is still such opposition to our adopting a system that is working so well in so may other industrialized countries.  

Even so, it's hard to see why this particular bill has stirred up so much anger.  Then I have to remind myself that it is something bigger than health-care coverage itself, something more insidious, more dangerous, and it will take generations to educate it right out of the fabric of our culture, if that is even possible.  From the NPR News Blog, Frank James, March 21:

It's sad but not surprising that some of those protesting Saturday against health-care overhaul legislation literally spit on at least one congressman and shouted racial and homophobic epithets as well. Some of us have long suspected that at least part of the opposition to the overhaul is part of the free-form hostility some Americans feel towards the political ascendancy of people who don't look like them or who have a different sexual orientation. When anti-overhaul protesters start abusing African American lawmakers with the "n" word or gay lawmakers with the six letter "f" word, then it starts to appear that at least some of the opposition is rooted in something other than philosophical differences over individual mandates

But the Bill is just enough, (and timed just right), to provide a good argument for re-electing Democrats to the next Administration, in order that all of this hard work won't be overturned by a zealous and organized Republican machine. 

It is a start, maybe even a good start, and perhaps, with the wheels on the ground, the movement forward toward a more positive and exciting direction, one in which the Bill can be improved, may be yet to come.  (Do I see a filling station up ahead?)

Monday, March 22, 2010

In Which Disney, St. Joseph, San Juan Capistrano, and Birds Are Connected

Yesterday, I wrote anecdotes about the traditions, and personal recollections, inspired by the Feast of St. Joseph. Many of these traditions about food and helping the less fortunate are still observed by Italians and others all over the world.

There is one other legendary tradition connected to St. Joseph's Day, and that is the annual return of the Cliff Swallows from their winter home in Argentina to  the San Juan Capistrano Mission near San Diego, a migration of over 6,000 miles. This is a cause for a week-long celebration in its own right, as reported in stories such as this one from Wikipedia:

"According to legend the birds, who have visited the San Juan Capistrano area every Summer for centuries, first took refuge at the Mission when an irate innkeeper began destroying their mud nests.....The Mission's location near two rivers made it an ideal location for the swallows to nest, as there was a constant supply of the insects on which they feed, and the young birds are well-protected inside the ruins of the old stone church..."

In 1939, a live radio broadcast of the swallows' return inspired Leon RenĂ©  to write a song, "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano", and over the years it became a popular standard:

           "When the swallows come back to Capistrano
           That's the day you promised to come back to me
           When you whispered, "Farewell," in Capistrano
           'twas the day the swallows flew out to sea"

Not to be outdone, the tiny city of Hinckley Ridge Ohio celebrated its own annual migratory homecoming: the return of the Buzzards on March 15.  According to this amusing recent story in USA Today:

"There will be free tours, live bird presentations and buzzard-themed activities, such as throwing stuffed birds through a hole, says Cleveland Metroparks marketing specialist Dan Crandall. 'It's kind of like Groundhog day … it's really cool.'
"No one knows for sure why buzzards flock to Hinckley from their southern sojourns. Some say it results from an 18th-century hunt that produced tons of carcasses; others believe it has more to do with a hospitable habitat for the scavenging birds."

By way of update, it appears that the swallows are beginning to abandon their tradition of returning to Capistrano (almost none showed up in 2009 according to the Boston Globe) but the buzzards did not disappoint, as reported in the above-referenced USA Today piece.

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This all brought to mind a 20-minute Oscar-Winning Short Film from the year (you guessed it) 1969, called "It's Tough To Be A Bird."  I wonder how many readers have ever seen it, or remember it.  Here's an article devoted to the film.

Although it had a great deal of live-action footage, Disney took home the Oscar for this film in the Short --Cartoon category.  I seem to recall it double-featured with a Kurt-Russell Disney Feature called "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes".

"It's Tough To Be A Bird" was part bird-documentary and part animated comedy.  It succeeded brilliantly in providing huge amounts of information about bird history, anatomy, and ecology and delivered it with great humor, at times silly and often surprisingly sophisticated.  To me it's one of Disney's most entertaining efforts in the short animated film form.  Today, it seems to be all but forgotten and unavailable. 

Happily, I found the entire thing on line, in three parts, and I have included the links below so you can share in the fun (embedding was not allowed, just click on each link).

Informative and good natured, it certainly inspired more respect and affection for our feathered friends (whose reputation at the time was still reeling from the Hitchcock treatment).  In typical Disney fashion, great live nature footage (for its day) was combined with breakneck animation, especially from our hapless narrator, pictured, coincidentally here, in St. Joseph's Day red.  The final animated montage is breathtaking in its hilarity, its animated images from pop culture and mischievous musical score positively Python-esque!

The film is very much a part of its time (the styles, the technology, the music, should produce groans and giggles) but the sentiment, and the fascination with these creatures, is timeless, and universal.

What I seem to recall most clearly, what stuck in my child's brain all these years, is the segment of the film devoted to the buzzards' return to Hinckley Ridge, accompanied by a song performed by Ruth Buzzi (of "Laugh-In") in a Mrs. Miller-style tremolo. 

Here are the links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=al_Zxx6HUG0&feature=related    PART 1 --Why birds have it tough

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zv6Z6m2WCM4&feature=related  PART 2--History, and flight

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtQ1etI3zhA&feature=related  PART 3 --Buzzards, etc.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

St. Joseph's Day---Food, The Color Red, and Real Estate--A Humorous Saturday Journal

Buon Giorno di San Giuseppe!!

This will not be a devout history, but a lighthearted look at  St. Joseph's Daya little-known holiday, always right after St. Patrick's Day, and its connection to my family of origin. 

Yes, I am continuing my brief series to commemorate my late Grandparents' 100th year.  Some might find this to be empty sentimentality.  To me, it's a way to keep the two of them alive, in the minds and hearts of new friends....perhaps the giddy sense of happiness they gave me will rub off on some unwary reader, who might come away with the same sense of energy they inspired in me...They would have enjoyed knowing that.

The custom, the devotion and the feast, originated in my Grandfather's country of origin, Sicily. It is not a totally solemn occasion, but one of much revelry, food, and gently humorous rituals. It brings to mind childhood feasts, relatives, the reminder that we need to laugh at ourselves affectionately, for keeping traditions long after we remember why (if we ever knew in the first place!)

The Italian community the world over celebrates St. Joseph's Day as ardently as Irish (and many others) celebrate St. Patrick's Day. St. Joseph is the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In the Middle Ages, the people of Sicily, faced with a severe drought and famine, asked their patron Saint Joseph to intercede with God to bring rain. When the saving rains came, the people promised to show their appreciation with a series of feasts, festivals, feeding of the poor, and the Wearing of Red.  Why red?   Some think it's the closest color to the vestments worn during lent; others claim it's a lighthearted challenge to the Irish and their Green. Again, we're not REAL sure, but it feels right, and the tradition is comforting, so we keep it.


Entering the Arizona Condo where Sam and Lucy lived their final years, one notices their absence, the unusual quiet in the rooms;  yet, the two of them are everywhere there.  They are at once there and not there, like the optical illusion of the goblet morphing into two silhouettes....

In my imagination, the air is still filled with the warm scent of tomato sauce simmering, pungent and sweet. My mouth still waters at the mellowness, owing to their secret concoction of garlic and onion, tomato sauce and paste, a heady blend of seasonings, tender neck bones, a pinch of baking soda to take out the bite and extra acid, and the pinch of sugar to enhance the sweetnes of the tomato.

Under that aroma would be the all-pervasive, summery scent of greens with a simple dressing of olive oil, sweet red wine vinegar, fresh lemon juice, and oregano.

Lucy, my grandmother was the Queen of sauce and salad, and the recipe known as bracciole, the rolled round steak stuffed with breading and hard boiled egg, wrapped in bacon and tied with string.

When Sam, my Grandfather, was in the kitchen (he spent a lot of time there), he was the Master of Baking.  Pizza crust made from scratch always had the warm smell of beer as the dough was being punched and kneaded.  He even ground his own sausage, and stuffed the casings, which looked like enormous condoms when they were strewn across the cooking table.  Sam was also known for his cream puffs, and all kinds of breaded vegetables, like squash, and mushrooms.  (Later I'll relate his experiences as a 30-year employee of Nabisco.)

Sam and Lucy didn't have to wait until St. Joseph's Day to celebrate its spirit all year. The fact is, they never went to anyone's house empty-handed.  They lived to feed the ones they loved, and those who loved them, and we were an army.

One of the Sicilian staples was (and is) fava beans, which are still used in the Minestrone and other dishes for this holiday.  (See?  even Hannibal Lecter is in the spirit of the holiday, wearing his red..... )  Fava beans were considered lucky because during the drought, they thrived while other crops failed.  Using bread crumbs on top of certain pasta dishes brings to mind sawdust, to commemorate Joseph the Carpenter.

In fact St. Joseph  is the Patron Saint of carpenters, house buyers and sellers, fathers, pastry chefs (appropriately), wheelwrights, and working people.


Maybe due to his being a carpenter, home-sellers have asked for his intercession to bring on buyers.
One of the goofiest traditions connected to St. Joseph is the burying of a statue upside down in the yard of a home that is for sale. You can even buy a kit for this purpose!

"When petitioning St. Joseph for help in selling a home, a believer is expected to bury a small statue of the saint upside down in the ground, facing away from the house but near the "For Sale" sign....The statue is dug up once the home has been sold and then taken to the seller's new home, who then must place the statue in a location of honor, in recognition of Joseph's help in making the successful move possible. According to some, failing to take that final step will have future repercussions, making it difficult to sell the new home when the seller decides to move again."

What are St. Joseph's Pants?  Click on this link for a recipe for special cookies filled with ground sweetened chick-peas (fava beans), a St. Joseph's Day staple in Sicily and elsewhere. 

Next up:  Another St. Joseph's Day tradition that nature lovers appreciate...and how it reminds me of an old Academy-Award-winning Short Film.....

Thursday, March 18, 2010

From the Arizona Notebook--Flight, Films, and Rain.... A Tuesday Journal

Before attending to weightier issues, it seems fitting to revisit last week's travels, to keep the spirit of Phoenix alive for a while longer....Especially since the weekend weather report in Chicago calls for (*gulp*) sleet and snow....

--March 6: On the flight to Phoenix I re-read a chapter in a wonderful book by Michael Pollan called "The Botany of Desire", which I received from our good friend in Maine.  The book is an unusual take on the evolution of plants, and how plants may have actually "used" human desire to thrive and multiply: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes, a motley quartet, are analyzed in depth.  The chapter on marijuana and the way it helps one filter out extraneous stimuli, focus on objects and sensations as if for the first time for an intoxicating effect, seemed relevant to my mindset on the anticipation of our trip:

"I will seek to actively 'forget' my stored-up impressions of past visits and take in the Arizona landscape with fresh eyes, and let it inspire me. I can keep work and home responsibilities out of my consciousness, and exist in each moment.  Of course, it is part of the fun to revisit moments and places I enjoyed before.  This time I  will look at them as though for the very first time."

--March 7: Oscar Night, and not a moment too soon because it rained most of the day, so we welcome an exciting indoor activity.  Ironically, on a night ostensibly meant to honor a photograhic medium, Mark and I took no photos today:
"The word for today was rain---rain, and cool air and clouds.  Better than snow and dreary gray: at least here all is green and not so bitter that walking outside is uncomfortable.  In spite of the disappointment of a sunless day, we share optimism and sheer enjoyment of being here and 'living the life' ,  not as tourists, but as we might in a blissful, self-sufficient, life of leisure without a nine-to-five obligation.......Oscar night was entertaining for the most part, and there were some laughs, if few surprises, save for "Precious" and its screenplay, and an "Argentinian film copping the Foreign language statuette..."Hurt Locker" was a surprisingly predictable win, a worthy, "serious" victor....We watched the film the following night, and it improved with the second viewing...it worked well on the small screen, where the busy camera-work was easier for the eye to follow, and the characters were easier to identify...Jeremy Renner impressed, grabbed my attention.  He has a regular-guy appeal mixed with a mysterious, excitingly dangerous streak...."

Tomorrow:   A few more anecdotes...and a look back.... The fig tree was my Grandfather's prize...and Lucy sat here and greeted the neighbors....

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Your Humble Italian Oscar-fan and Arizona Traveler is back...A Look at What's Coming Up!

Buona Sera!

Arizona, like they say, was like a dog's nose last week:  cold and wet a lot of the time.  Although the weather was somewhat unusual (some areas have already had their annual rainfall for the year!) the trip allowed me to rest and recharge my battery for writing, power-reading, and getting on with life. 

Here's what's up in the next couple weeks' worth of posts:
--Pages from my Arizona Journal, especially my musings on old family connections that my trips to Phoenix always  inspire.
--These will no doubt lead to flashbacks to life in a family of Italians...
--On that line, I just started my Italian class, and hope to spice up these humble posts with old-world phrases and charm
--Oscar night!  Somewhat late, I know, but there were a few very happy moments, and a couple of genuine surprises.
--Some short takes...a second viewing of "Hurt Locker", my first viewing (long delayed) of "Ingluorious Basterds".

I also need to weigh in on some ticklish situations in Congress...and the health care vote and how my idealism has been eaten away.... and thoughts on new books, anecdotes from Chicago, and words of greeting and appreciation to my friends here in the blogosphere (and other followers).

Many of you have posted some great stuff..I have a lot of great reading to catch up on.

(There often is no better way to end a sentence than with a preposition!

Mark and I hated to return last Saturday. We had some rain delays in the midwest that got us home rather late....and getting back to work and adjusting once more to the routine, along with losing an hour (or two) for daylight savings time, has left me rather ragged each night this week.

I hope to share some of my writing with all of you from my hand-written journal (still the best way for me to compose...I guess it's hard-wired to my creative brain).

Not only have I continued to fall in love with the new homeless dogs at the shelter, but I have established some significant human friendships there as well!

Anyway, I look forward to my return to Arizona some day soon....In the meantime, I hope to honor your visits with some good writing, interesting thoughts and anecdotes, and a picture or two to elicit smiles.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Arizona Bound--And Logged Off-- See you next week

No computer, no e-mail, no blogs....  Just the TV for Oscars and the paper for news.  Hope to have some good stories to tell on March 15.....

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Oscars: Predictions; If I Had A Ballot; Likely Upsets?

Before I leave for a week in Phoenix Arizona, where I will be enjoying (or cursing) the Oscar show on Sunday in the cozy living room of my late grandparents' condo, I have my predictions, my preferences, and projections for possible upsets. (If you missed 'em, check out my take on the Expanded Best Picture Categoryand my traumatic Oscar Night from 2005.)

PREDICTIONS:  There will be no big surprises in the Top 5 Categories.  Even though Hollywood is doing its best to create some suspense (Will the new Best Picture ballot allow a dark-horse to win?  Will there be a "Hurt Locker" backlash? ), I think those expected to win since the nominations were announced will, in fact, take home Oscar gold;  and a week later,we will all wonder why we expected otherwise.

"Avatar", Jeff Bridges, Sandra Bullock, Mo'Nique, and Christof Waltz are going into the record books.  So is Kathryn Bigelow, who should become the first woman to win in the Best Director category.

Yes, even with the convoluted ballot, I just think that "Avatar" will have the edge in popularity, critical acclaim, and a larger volume of voters who worked on the film.  It would be the second year in a row that the Best Picture received no acting nominations.  Seems like a trend, even though the Actors Branch has the most members. And, as we saw in 2005, a film can win all of the precursor awards that point to an Oscar victory, and still fall in defeat. 

I hope I'm wrong!!! I love a worthy upset.

First, IF I HAD A BALLOT, here are my picks:
Best Picture: Of the 8 films I have seen, I loved "Up" the most.  I would rank it first.  In order after that, would be "The Hurt Locker",  with "Up In The Air" and "Precious" in a virtual dead heat, followed by "An Education", then  "Avatar", with "Serious Man" and "Blind Side" in my lowest rankings.  (I just purchased a used copy of "Inglourious Basterds", in case there's time to see it before Sunday).

Best Actor: Colin Firth--no surprise--I have written extensively about "Single Man"

Best Actress: Meryl Streep--Yes, she is exquisite, even in a lightweight drama.  It has been 27 years since her last win.  No one who saw her Julia Child has forgotten it.  

Best Supporting Actor: I have seen not one of the nominees in this category; this has never happened before! A combination of lack of interest or bad timing kept me from the films in this category.  Well, many Academy members apparently vote without seeing all of the films.  Based on the trailer, I'd champion Woody Harrelson in "The Messenger".

Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique.  No doubt about it.  An unforgettable performance in a once-in-a-lifetime role.  I did, in fact, see all of the nominees in this category.  Monique's turn in "Precious" is far and away the best, and probably the surest thing come Oscar night this Sunday.

Upsets and oddities to look for:

--If the Best Picture balloting does in fact create an unexpected win for a dark horse, it could be the first time since "Grand Hotel" in the 1930's that a Best Picture Oscar will be the film's sole victory.

--There's a higher likelihood that, if the numbers come out a certain way, there could be a tie for Best picture.
--There is no love for "Nine" this year, but I would still like to see it win for Best Costume Design at least, a category for which is has its best chance at an Oscar win.

--Sandra and Meryl could cancel each others' votes.  Gabourey Sidibe could benefit.  That would be a pleasant surprise.

--Lee Daniels has a very outside chace of becoming the first Black winner of the Best Director award.

--Tired of the hype, and splitting hairs, voters choosing a "slate" could result in a sweep for either "Avatar" or "Hurt Locker". 

Enjoy the show..see you all in one week! 

Thursday, March 4, 2010

La Boheme, "Moonstruck", My Grandparents, and Arizona

A wedding picture from 1929. My maternal Italian grandparents, Sam Triolo and Lucy Salvati, occupy my thoughts lately. This year, both of them (had they lived) would be 100 years old.  Married at 19, theirs was a life filled with humor, roaring discord and passion, extended family, food (ah!---long, long tables filled with food), and fierce love for their grandchildren, especially me, for that is how it felt then, and now.

This photo was used on the invitation to their 50th wedding anniversary in 1979. My cousin Peggy and I, both of us creative, with dreams of stardom, presented a skit in which we played the roles of our grandparents on their wedding day.  Sam worked for many years at Nabisco in Chicago; in the skit, my wedding present to Lucy was a bag of Oreo cookies.

Some say that I resemble Sam in his youth, and share his restlessness and volatile temper and humor.  Lucy was regarded as a saint by those who knew her.  I had the good fortune to have been singled out by this quiet, good-natured woman as the "apple of her eye".

I want to remember them in all of their many ages and moods, all of the good sense of safe belonging in the fellowship of colorful and eccentric friends and relatives, the times when hearts were broken and losses were suffered, but mostly when laughter was heard, and everyone talked all at once, and loudly, to my youthful amusument.  I want to share Sam and Lucy with you.  In doing so, I will reveal more of myself, and chart the path from my origins to my chosen roads to reinvention.

This weekend I will travel to Scottsdale Arizona, and stay in the modest home thay made, which they gave to my mother on their passing.  Lucy and Sam's spirits are strongly felt there.  I can hear my grandfather teasing Lucy, making jokes, talking on the phone, and shouting at the television; and see my grandmother playing cards, wearing her sweater even in 110-degree heat, and laughing at Sam's antics.  Being there will allow me to remember them more clearly.

Many brief stories will be posted here in the weeks ahead.  My journal next week (all hand-written, as I am unplugging and leaving my laptop at home) will recall their presence, even as I record our activities and my impressions of each day.

It is easy to romanticize their lives, which had more than their share of hardship.  But whoever I am now, I owe to their genetics, their history, their example, and even their prejudices.  Mostly, I just loved them, and they, me.  Lucy was direct in her expressions, with hugs, or more food.  Sam, always on the go, always with friends--he had a lot of friends--showed his love in a teasing way. 

Their stories will also inform my new-found love of opera, my lifelong obsession with movies, and my attempt to capture and preserve my heritage as I study their native Italian language starting later this month.

Emotions...listening to the Metropolitan Opera's live broadcast of "La Boheme" on the radio on Saturday; remembering how it was used in the movie "Moonstruck" with such mischief, and loving emotion; and how the family portrayed in that film was so much like the characters in our family and myriad friends.  The music was so beautiful it made me cry...and the menories it invoked made those tears nostalgic, and tender.  I will soon review La Boheme, and especially "Moonstruck", one of my favorite films of all time.

And then I remembered with excitement that the trip would be soon....

Tomorrow...my Oscar pics, and thoughts on possible upsets.

In the meantime, enjoy the trailer from "Moonstruck", featuring Puccini's lushly romantic and sentimental aria:

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My Oscar Love-Hate Story--A Personal Anecdote

All of you friends who visit my journal, and movie fans everywhere, know that the Academy Awards will be handed out on Sunday March 7.  While I don't think there will be too many surprises, even with the new balloting in the expanded Best Picture category, there's always a chance at a shocking upset, an unforgettable moment.

Before the week is over, I'll write here about my predictions, as well as how I would vote if I had a ballot.  Also, I will recall some of my biggest upsets or surprises, good or bad, and ask readers to remember their own.

Tonight...the Oscar moment that shocked me like no other, made me think I would never follow Oscars again, and forced me to confront how I defined myself.

This is a personal remembrance, confessional, what have you.  I appreciate those of you who come along with me on this journey of personal discovery....

_     _      _      _     _

Growing up, I lived for movies.  I used Oscars as a way to understand what the industry thought was good filmmaking, justify my own opinions, gain access to forbidden adult-themed films, and impress friends with my knowledge of Oscar facts.  As I began making my own films, I copied techniques from sequences I loved from Oscar-winning movies. 

When I stood alone in my enthusiasm for a difficult film, Oscar often vindicated me with a win, or at least a handful of nominations.

As I followed Oscar movies and contests over the years, I often championed a film that was not a front-runner.  Most of the time I truly liked another film better, and had to resign myself to seeing another picture take the big prize.  By Oscar night, the probable winners were predicted and discussed repeatedly, and all of the other indicators (Guild Awards, Golden Globes, critics picks, and betting lines) usually had historical accuracy in pointing to the victorious film.

Sometimes a favorite, something that I closely identifiied with and held dear, actually won.  Having one of my favorites held up as an example of excellence for world acclaim and recognition, felt,by extension, like a personal reward, and I was proud in those thrilling moments: Bob Fosse snatching Best Director for "Cabaret", "Annie Hall" improbably taking Best Picture, "I'm Easy" from "Nashville" winning for Best Song, "Babe" for Special Effects; "Silence of the Lambs" sweeping the Top Five.  These worked on me like jackpots to a gambler. They kept me coming back every year.

Then, in 2005, I saw a movie that came together for me like no other: impeccably directed, beautifully adapted from a powerful short story, inhabited by its performers rather than acted by them, photographed gorgeously, with a subtle, delicate and haunting score.  It was a movie that portrayed a part of the country at a time in our history that hardly appeared in American movies, with characters I had never seen on screen before.  It told a story about people, a simple story with a still-unusual twist. The love between these men was real.   

I understood every nuance, every half-formed thought, every tentative gesture of affection.  It unfolded without political comment, romantically, with humor and honesty, to an inevitable and heartbreaking conclusion, with no histrionics.  It filled the screen like art in a gallery, but lived and breathed like the rugged sheepherders who fell in love one summer on "Brokeback Mountain". 

Ang Lee accomplished a subtle choreography of hidden glances and furtive affection, culminating in a startlingly intense episode of passion. "Brokeback Mountain" took viewers on a tour of an emotional landscape, one of hopeful companionship and desperate loneliness, at turns lush and austere. None of the characters was perfect. Each had recognizable noble features and tragic flaws. No one was a villain.  All were victims of forces none could articulate.  It felt true; the actors knew these people; and so did I, on many levels.  Like others who embraced this film, we finally saw ourselves, and our emotional truths, portrayed on screen by characters we knew had existed, and still do.

The idyllic opening sequence on the Mountain represented the big, open longing and freedom of Ennis and Jack, who found love for each other, only to see their worlds get smaller as they met the expectations of their limited environments, worlds that would not allow a loving partnership between two men.  They tried over the years with increasing desperation to go back to that magical time with each other.  Toward the film's conclusion, a scene depicting Ennis' visit to Jack's parents' home is as hypnotic and artistic a sequence as has been achieved by any dramatic film.  The image of the pathetic remnants of their great friendship and love, a postcard and two shirts, still haunts me.

It was everything I looked for in a film...to me, it was a perfect movie.

Had "Brokeback Mountain" passed under the awards radar, and quietly appeared and disappeared, I would have loved it just as much, but would never have placed so much of my own identity into its every victory on the awards circuit.

But it began winning awards (see a complete list here). And it started to clean up, winning everything from the Venice Film Festival, New York Film Critics, Golden Globes, American Film Institute, Broadcast Film Critics, BAFTA, Independent Spirit, and many others.  It cleaned up at the Writers, Directors, and Producers Guilds.  Ang Lee was the director of the moment. The film became a cultural phenomenon; but because of its nature as a "gay love story", the acclaim often became ugly. 

In spite of it winning all of the precursors that normally guaranteed a victory as Oscar's Best Picture, a campaign seemed to be underfoot to unseat the film.  Many conservative celebrities (and Oscar voters) were on record as claiming they refused to see it. 

Soon it was whispered, and then discussed, and finally built to a crescendo, that a small film called "Crash",  that had little Award cachet, was the most likely competition to Brokeback, which many considered the natural front-runner.

Finally...a movie that I loved....a movie that I identified with, was clearly the front-runner for the Oscars.  It almost couldn't miss......I would finally be the guest of honor at my own party...

And on March 5, 2006, this happened:

All I could do was moan the word "no" over and over again.  Clearly, this was a campaign of organized homophobia.  A segment of the Academy must have agreed to use "Crash", a self-important film about the pervasiveness of racism, as a weapon to ensure that no movie which portrayed a gay relationship went in the Oscar record books as Hollywood's best.

I felt like I had been unceremoniously shown the door.  I actually felt depressed for days; I was sure that the sad, sad, story that was "Brokeback Mountain" would find its sweet conclusion with Oscar glory, and that all of my life-study of film, all of my close scrutiny of Oscar lore and history, would finally pay off in a moment of sweet personal triumph.

I swore I would never watch Oscars again (even the following year when Ellen Degeneres was tapped as the Host of the telecast, a blatant ploy to bring back disgruntled gay fans, I thought.)  And for a year or two, I honestly believed that I was through with Oscars, and movies.  I needed to put that part of me to rest. I had lost my perspective.

Needing support, I started to read the internet, and found a wonderful blog by writer Dave Cullen, devoted to the Brokeback experience, called The Ultimate Brokeback Mountain Forum.  I soon discovered that there were hundreds of others who felt as I did.  It was also the first time I ever committed my own words on a blog.

I still hate what happened in 2006 with "Brokeback Mountain".  But the lure of the Academy Awards, as an enduring (if now less sacrosanct) historic record of American Popular Culture, has me in its grip once again.

The best thing this passionate Italian learned from the experience, as I sought to reinvent myself, was to trust my own view, and love a film (or not) as though awards were never given.  And to laugh, have fun, and not have to point to an award as justification of my own opinion, but to write my own argument, and stand by it, and re-evaluate it in time.

See you on March 7th!