Talking With Hank

“I am dying here,”  he said with a quiet fury, sitting across from his pretty wife in their small, Brooklyn apartment.  He looked into her deep, brown eyes and hated her calm composure as he tried to express the sense that his world was caving in around him.  The tears that streamed down her cheeks were the only evidence that she too could feel his despair.

“How could you possibly understand?” he railed. “You emigrate from India and in five years are vice president of R and D for a telecom giant.  I went to Columbia, earned a degree in literature, and I have reached the lofty position of being a chief claims adjuster for an insurance conglomerate.  My boss is a fucking gecko!

“I literally do nothing for a living, and you’re working for the people who are going to be ruling the fucking world.  Hell, they probably already are.  You are a part of the storm troopers that are going to ruin everything.”

He got like this at times.  She breathed deeply and vowed to let him finish venting.  She knew he wanted her to give him advice he could reject, and she refused to do anything other than listen, lovingly, attentively.

“That’s it?” he yelled at her. “You’ve got nothing for me?”  He looked wildly about the room, as if there were an escape hatch somewhere, before he rushed down the hall and disappeared into their bedroom.

She could hear him slamming open the closet and rummaging through his drawers.  He carried a bag into the bathroom, threw in some toiletries and came back to the living room, packed and wearing his camping jacket. He moved toward the door, and she came to him and put her hand on his arm.

“Jack, I wish you wouldn’t.” Her voice always sounded like liquid caramel.

“I have to get out of here.”

“But where will you go?”

“I-I don’t know.  I just have to do something–go somewhere.”

***********************

It was 3 AM when he finally pulled into the empty parking lot of the Walden Pond State Reserve in Concord, Massachusetts. As a student, he had always admired the writings of Thoreau and his decision to abandon civilization for the simple living he hoped to find by withdrawing to cabin that he had built from scrap here on the pond, growing his own food, living a solitary life, and writing volumes of journals that later became his book about his two years here at the tiny lake.

He climbed over the gate and made his way along the shore by the light of the moon, to the stone pillars that marked where Thoreau had built the cabin.  Nearby was a pile of rocks where pilgrims like him left a token of their visit.  Jack sank down on the ground and rested against one of the pillars, turned up his collar and vowed to sort out just what he was going to do with his life while he waited for the sun to rise.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when he heard the click of a single rock hitting the top of the pile.  He looked up into the dim grey of the moonlight and saw a portly man dressed in a worn winter coat and wool cap.

“Oh, sorry, buddy.  Didn’t even see you there.  Not many folks here this early.  I don’t sleep much these days and kind of like visiting this old pile of rocks every morning.  Nice place to watch the sunrise, if you don’t mind me joining you.”  He circled around next to Jack and perched on a nearby tree stump.

“No, it’s fine.  I’m Jack, by the way.”

“Hank.  Nice to meet you Jack-by-the-way. Ha!”

The fog in Jack’s brain started to clear and he stared at the grey-bearded stranger.

“Hank, as in Henry?’

“Yes sir, Hank Thoreau, at your service.”

“You are Henry David Thoreau?”

“Afraid so.  And yes, this pile of rocks is right about where I built that damn cabin a few years back.”

“I’ve read everything you wrote about that damn cabin and the years you spent out here.”

“Oh, Lord, you’re not an acolyte I hope.  I wrote a lot of bullshit back then.”

I recited from memory, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not…”

“…when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” Hank interrupted. “Yes, that part–that’s not half bad.“

“Well, I’ve utterly failed to live a meaningful life. It’s why I came here.  I was looking for some kind of answer. I work in all day in a cubicle, talking on the phone to people suffering through tragic circumstances, trying to figure out ways to help them as little as I possibly can because that’s what my bosses expect of me.”

“Sounds bad,” he said, chewing on a reed he had plucked from the ground.  “Not exactly sucking the marrow out of life are you lad?”

“I’m an asshole is what I am.  I’m angry all the time because I feel like I’ve wasted my life.  I have an amazing, beautiful wife, who I left crying at home when I said a lot of stupid things and then stormed out of the house to come here.  I…”

“Stop, please.  Look.  You can see the pond now.”

Jack looked up, and sure enough there was a pink tinge around the surrounding hillside and he could just make out the grey shadows of the loons beginning to scoot across the pond.

“Look, Jack.  I don’t have the answers for you.  I wrote a lot of stuff a long time ago.  I was true to some of it and some turned out to be utter nonsense.  This whole living in isolation thing?  It was a lonely life.  Why don’t you get back home, make up with your amazing and beautiful wife and then quit that horrible job.  You feel trapped by it, yes?  You can’t even see how very young that you are.“ He got up from his perch and stood directly in front of the younger man.  “You have time.  Time to start again.”

He sighed.  “And I am out of time.  I think I might be able to sleep a bit now.” He reached out and shook Jack’s hand.  “It was nice talking with you, son.”  He began to walk away but then turned.  “Jack!  One thing.  Read less, and do more.”  And with that he walked away into the morning mist.

Jack watched as Hank strolled down the path that would take him the rest of the way around the pond.  He got up, dusted himself off and walked in the opposite direction, back to the parking lot and his car.  He climbed inside, pulled out his phone and called his wife.

“Jack? I’ve been worried.  Where are you?”

“I took a long drive.  I’m about four hours away. I had some time to think. I-I met someone.  We talked a while.”

“Are you OK?

“I’ve been such an idiot.”

“Yes, I agree completely.”

He smiled, “I think I can do better.”

“Why don’t I take the day off and you can try to show me just how much better you can do.”

“You can take a day?”

“We storm troopers have excellent benefits.”

“I’ll be home by 10.”

“Make it 9:30.  I promise to pay all of your speeding tickets.”

To Do: Revise Bucket List

“It won’t be long now,” the pilot shouted over the roar of the rattletrap plane’s single engine.  His voice had a macabre cheerfulness direct at me and the three other fools who were dressed in heavy jumpsuits and harnessed tightly to one of the experienced jumpers.  We were so tightly bound together that I wondered if he would want to share a smoke with me afterward or if he expected dinner out maybe.

The plane reeked of sweat from past and present as the whine of the engine increased and the plane nosed ever higher.

My God, I thought.  What on earth inspired me to pay $150 to purchase three minutes of sheer terror–much less than three if the chute never opened.  Three minutes of plummeting toward the earth at an ungodly speed.  I mean, why not just jump off a cliff for free?

How did this ever make my bucket list?  My heart was pounding, and I wondered if people ever actually died on the way down, heart just bursting from the full realization of one’s cowardice–a cowardice you knew darn well had been there your whole life and yet you waited nearly 70 years to confront it.

Confront it?? I’m not confronting anything.  I just can’t bear the shame of backing out at this late moment. Death by embarrassment, like that day as a kid at the pool when I got to the edge of the high dive and stared and stared at the water so very far below and had to make my way back down the ladder past the eight kids who were already eagerly climbing up because I couldn’t bear the thought of taking the plunge that day.

The plane is level now, the pilot picking out the perfect spot for the leap of death.  My partner can feel my tension through the harness apparently and pats me on the shoulder.  “It’ll be a great ride, buddy, I promise.”  Buddy, my ass, I think.  It’s his job to push me out the door if I hesitate, even for a moment, to contemplate my imminent death.

It’s my turn now, and I’m feeling the brisk fall air as I make my way toward the exit.  I’m struck by the cruel irony of having decided to do this during the fall as my partner and I leap into the abyss.

Note:  The author has not yet completed his first parachute jump, but it is still on his bucket list and he is looking forward to accomplishing it in the fall of 2019–or not.

Baseball Stories: The Kid

The batter kicked the dust off of his cleats and settled into his stance and put on a face that he hoped looked like a glare as he faced the monstrously large pitcher standing 60 feet, 6 inches away.

He was no more than a kid, just two years removed from high school, playing ball in the low minor leagues.  When he was told he had been invited to spring training with the big-league club he was ecstatic, but realistic.  As he stood in to face the veteran pitcher, he knew he was considered more of a “suspect” than a “prospect.”  His game was on a practice field far from where the major leaguers were working out.  It was little more than a scrimmage.

But all that mattered to him, was this moment, this at-bat.  It was the only thing he could control.  He set his hands and saw the pitcher move into his wind-up and felt, more than saw, the image of the ball whiz past him.

“Strike one!” called the umpire.

The ball had smacked the catcher’s glove before the kid had even been able to focus on the pitch.

“Nice one, kid,” the catcher said, gently taunting the rookie as he flipped the ball back to the pitcher.  “You almost got the bat off your shoulder.”

“I can do this,” he thought and squared himself up and studied the pitcher who wandered off the mound rubbing the baseball and staring into the catcher for the sign.

“Go ahead,” he thought.  “Bring the the heater again–you think I can’t hit it.  I’ll see this one.”

The pitcher wound up and reared back and the kid picked up the ball coming out of his hand as he had been taught, the same spin, the same scorching fastball, and this time he swung as had all through high school, his sweet, natural swing, perfectly timed but just an inch or two low and the foul ball ticked high off his bat to the screen behind home plate.

“Aww, that was close, kid.  Hey, Kirby,” he yelled to the pitcher, “he almost got you on that one.  Let’s step it up my brother.”

The pitcher just shook his head at the catcher’s incessant chatter, looked in for the sign and rocked back and fired another fastball, the hardest one the kid had seen yet.

But the ball sailed high and the kid could hear the pitcher curse his own wildness as he stood at the edge of the mound facing the outfield and the deep, blue sky of another spring–another spring of having to prove himself against a new crop of goddam, wet-behind-the-ears kids.

“You shouldn’t have gotten him pissed off like that kid,” chided the catcher.  “He’s likely to drill you with the next one.”

The kid could see the irritation on the veteran’s face, but he calmed his mind.  “See and react,” he said to himself as he swung a couple of lazy, practice swings.

The pitcher’s arm reared back and suddenly it was as if everything was in slow motion for the kid.  He could see the pitcher’s wrist curl forward and snap the ball as he had not done before and he watched the ball spinning fiercely as it arced toward his head, but he waited, waited, and yes–the curveball began to dive toward the middle of the plate.  He swung effortlessly and when he connected, he could barely feel the impact, but he could see that he had caught the ball on the sweet spot of the bat and sent it soaring toward the outfield.

He dropped the bat and ran toward first because he knew that he should, even though he desperately wanted to watch the ball.  He rounded first and, without breaking stride, glanced over his shoulder to watch the ball drop over the fence and on to the lawn in left field as fans swarmed to grab a souvenir.

He glided around the bases on the hot afternoon with his head down, respectful of the game, trying to act as if he had done this before, and as he touched home plate he felt the catcher tap his behind with his glove.

“Nice hit, kid.”

The kid grabbed his bat and trotted back to the dugout.  It was a home run in a meaningless game on an Arizona practice field both miles and years away from the major leagues.  Today, though, it meant everything.

The Silence and the Dark

The coyotes that roam the canyons begin their serenades in outcast moments.  They keep no schedule.  For a while they deserted me and roamed, haunting other streets and other canyons with their cries.  I almost didn’t notice their return with my headphones on late and my double-paned windows keeping me isolated from nature.

But the weather is warm and the windows are open, and neighbors regularly sound the alert on our neighborhood internet bulletin board with every coyote sighting, as if they had spotted a spacecraft or an honest politician.  They agonize over every pet who has been terrorized or has disappeared suddenly, blaming the coyotes, not thinking maybe the cat or dog is an escapee.

We are not there yet, but summer is on the way, and there will be hot August nights when I lie in bed and feel the sweat trickle down my back, and the silence will get deeper even with the windows wide open. In that silence, I love to hear their song begin– one and then one more and then the chorus builds to a manic crescendo that sometimes stops in a moment as if the strict maestro has whipped his baton across the horizon.

With them gone, I feel loneliness creep in and wonder if this will be a night when insomnia is my only companion, and if I will while the night away with only the silence and my thoughts.  I lay still for an hour and then pad to the kitchen in the dark for water and to stare out the garden window where the moonlight provides weak, liquid light that spreads across the yard.

I strain to listen, but the choir has packed their things and gone home.  I’m left alone with the silence and the dark.  I let them fill me as they do so many nights.  Solitary man.  One can learn to love the silence and the dark.

Danger Everywhere

I know too much.

I can’t stop reading NYT and scouring my newsfeed on my phone for clickable articles that seem important for me to know MORE about.  I’ve started watching TRMS almost every night because I feel smarter after Rachel explains stuff to me.  I can unplug for short periods of time, but inevitably someone says, “Hey did you hear the latest about…” and I’m right down the rabbit hole again.

Doctors have drilled into me the need to take a daily aspirin “as a man of my age.”  It’s essential.  And then a couple of days ago, I read that now it’s not recommended, that the risks actually outweigh the rewards.  That is, unless you have a previous heart condition which I kinda sorta have had now and then but not currently.  I am beset by uncertainty.

And knowing that I needed to stop drinking, I sought out healthy alternatives and now I enjoy a hot cup of tea in the evening.  I really like having that tea.  But I’m going to enjoy it a little less after reading this morning that if one drinks their tea above a certain temperature, you DOUBLE the risk of esophageal cancer.  I mean, who makes tea or coffee (I’m sure the hot coffee study will follow close behind) and then says, “I’m going to give it ten minutes, so it’s nice and tepid while I drink it and so I can enjoy the last few sips as a cold beverage.”  Of course, if my actual chances of getting esophageal cancer are .0001% then I can afford to double it.  Yeah, I’ll put that on my list of things to get checked out.

This morning at Starbucks, they asked if I wanted a little stopper in my cup and I really did want that sucker because I get my very hot coffee with “no room” because I need all 20 ounces of caffeine first thing in the morning.  But I say “no” because I’ve just read about the dead whale who was discovered to have consumed 88 pounds of plastic when autopsied, and I’m sure that 80 pounds of it were Starbucks lids with little green stoppers in them. And I’ve also read that most of our plastic isn’t getting recycled anyway and that many cities are close to giving up on curbside recycling because they just can’t find takers for all the crap we produce.

And now I’ve started to notice just how much paper, plastic and cardboard comes wrapped around every item that I buy.  I’m noticing EVERYthing.

And so since I know that the kitchen sponge is the germiest item in our house, I dispose of them regularly and I’m fully aware that they are 100% non-recyclable.  I researched an eco-friendly replacement and discovered there is dish scrubber made out of coconut husks that reviews said was completely worthless.  And these were reviews by people who really WANTED the damn thing to work.

Plastic poisoning, aspirin, hot tea, kitchen sponge–take your pick.  The world is just a fucking dangerous place.

Wellbutrin: Say Goodbye

On January 31, I said goodbye to Wellbutrin.  After being my internal houseguest for the past 12 years or so, I decided it had overstayed its welcome.  It was time for it to go.

Starting on an anti-depressant felt like a momentous decision at the time.  But then, I was subject to deep funks when I’d be overwhelmed as a teacher with stacks of ungraded papers and grades coming due.  I was struggling with the transition as my wife and I became empty-nesters.  Retirement was on the horizon and I was concerned how I as going to handle not working for the first time since I was 13 years old.

When I began taking the drug though, I couldn’t really tell if it was helping me or not.  Maybe the ups and downs smoothed out a bit.  Maybe some of those transitions were a little easier.  Maybe when I hit stretches of depression, they were shorter and shallower than they would have been without the medication.

But back in March when I began having prolonged problems with dizziness, I began to examine every medication I was taking and eliminating any drug or supplement that I wasn’t absolutely sure that I needed.   I banished a couple of herbal supplements and an over-the-counter antihistamine, my melatonin was long gone, and the last remaining target was the Wellbutrin.

I knew I’d need to consult with a Kaiser psychiatrist about the process of tapering off which I imagined to be a lengthy process, but it turned out to take only two weeks.  In week one, I split the dosage into taking 1/2 a pill twice a day; week two eliminated one of those doses and by week three, I was off.

I would love to tell you that I’m sailing through the post-anti-depressant period without a hitch, but its affected me about as much as I feared it might.  I mean, I had it on my mind for over a year to take this step, but kept talking myself out of it because I did not want to invite any new difficulties into my life that the pills might be (without me being entirely aware) fending off.

After a week or so, I noticed that I felt a bit like an exposed nerve.  I felt a heightened sensitivity to people and situations around me.  I was more irritable, more negative.  Any kind of slight, real or perceived, hurt like a paper cut.  I could feel myself withdraw and felt even more invisible than usual as I moved about my little world.

My sense of loneliness increased.  Not critically.  It’s just easy, as a quiet person, to become a little more quiet.  Another 5%.  Maybe 10%.

Its been a over three weeks now, and I’ve learned that I need to give my body and mind time to adjust.  Three weeks isn’t much, and I’ve asked a lot out of my body, mind, and spirit over the past fifteen months.  Quitting alcohol, ending the anti-depressants and other medications–it takes a toll. I’ve learned that I need to be patient and let the changes roll through me.  I need to stay steady and not drift too far from the people and the practices that sustain me.  I know that it can take months–not just weeks.

I’m reading a book right now called LaRose by Louise Erdrich who describes one fragile character’s waking moment this way: “Every morning, she floated to consciousness on that same disintegrating raft.”  I was so struck by that image that I wrote it down not wanting to lose it.

My raft is in better shape than that.  I know I have people looking out for me and every day, I work to take care of myself.  I can just feel the raft being a little more shaky these days.

Why I’m Off The Deep End Over “A Star Is Born”

Warning:  There are many spoilers in this article

It’s embarrassing to admit that as of this afternoon, I’ve spent at least $50 of my hardly-earned money to watch the film A Star Is Born in the theaters.  Four times now, I’ve gone off to watch this melodrama on purpose.  The last time I went, I got inspired and dashed out to catch a 9:45 showing–one that turned out to be a private viewing.  I was the only soul in the theater until after midnight.  I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to go a fifth time, but as I sat down to write, I did check to see that it just happens to be showing at 6:45 tonight at a nearby theater.  Just in case.

The last time I went to the theaters to see a film four times was in 1964. I was 11 years old and the Beatle’s film  A Hard Day’s Night was all the rage among teens and pre-teens.  It was a badge of honor to brag about how many viewings you had attended.

I’m not bragging about this one.  I have mentioned it quietly to a friend or two–in confidence.  I felt better this morning when I stumbled across an article by Christopher Rosa that appeared in Glamour Magazine on January 11.  In it, he detailed how he had spent over $100 viewing the film 8 times!

The big difference between Mr. Rosa and me is that he is a huge Lady Gaga fan and speaks about her with the kind of reverence that some people only use for their mothers or certain sports figures.  I, on the other hand, know who Lady Gaga is, and I’m pretty sure I saw part of her performance at the Super Bowl.  If you showed me a list of her 10 greatest hits, I would not recognize any of them.

That’s not Lady Gaga’s fault at all.  My musical tastes have gone through periods of fossilization, and there are scores of popular artists who are a mystery to me.

I went into the film with the lowest of expectations.  I had a sketchy idea of what the film was about knowing only that it was a remake of a remake about a star in decline falling in love and being eclipsed by the lover he has mentored and nurtured.

I’ve been trying to pinpoint the precise moment in the film when I knew I was hooked, and I think it may have been in the drag-bar scene where Jack ( Bradley Cooper) sings a ballad to one of the queens while Ally (Gaga) looks on, and I could feel the chemistry really begin to cook between the two of them.  After all, she stands off to the side watching him, a famous, grizzled country/rock star, sing and play for one of her drag-queen friends, both respecting a place that she loves and at ease with himself and her friends.

You could put Gaga in a sack and she’d look glamorous, but her down-to-earth, girl-next-door look through the first half of the film made me love her even more.  Punching a cop in a cop bar and being carried out by Jack who then nurses bruised hand with tender care did nothing but add to the feeling that I was watching a great love story develop and I am a total sucker for watching two likable characters fall in love.

Up to this point in the film, I realized that I was identifying entirely with Jackson Maine.  I’m falling in love with Ally right along with him and feel the same sense of despair when he says his first goodbye to her a dawn out in front of her house and mumbles something to the effect, “I think I might have fucked that up” to his erstwhile driver, Phil (Greg Grunberg).

Minutes later, the point of view completely shifted for me. I realized that suddenly I was seeing everything through Ally’s eyes.  As Jack woos her by having his driver Phil follow her from place to place with his limo while a jet waits for her at the airport to whisk her away to his next show, I’m right there with her feeling the rush of amazement and overwhelmed by the “grand-gestureness” of it all.  Sure, it makes perfect sense to quit her dead-end job, jump on the jet, and join the roadies backstage who all seem to already know her name.

Then comes the most ridiculous and wonderful moment in the film.  As they sat in the parking lot the night before, Ally sings two disjointed scraps of a song she might write some day. Maybe. The very next night, he calls her out on stage.  Somehow, he has finished the song, arranged it, rehearsed it (all without her mind you), and she takes the leap and kills what we are to believe is the very first performance of the song “Shallow.”

As she walks up on stage and takes the mic, tears involuntarily burst from my eyes–I kid you not.  It’s the only moment in the film that made me cry.  Even on the third viewing, that moment gave me chills. The risk she takes, the reaction of the crowd, the pride in Jack’s eyes as he watches her win the moment, just did me in.

Watching their relationship develop and the artful weaving in of the concert performances carry the middle part of the film.  Her performance of “Always Remember Us This Way” rivals “Shallow” for being able to create that visceral connection with the audience.

But shortly thereafter she falls into the evil clutches of super-agent Rez (Rafi Gavron), and I find myself  becoming just another person watching the film.  Maybe it’s a defensive posture, knowing that my buddy Jack is going to continue to spiral both personally and professionally, and that Ally is going to rise to stardom, now transformed into a pop diva.  These two things have to happen because that is the story of A Star Is Born.

Gaga’s stirring finale, her performance of “I’ll Never Love Again” is worth waiting around for, even if your are the only person in the audience in a theater after midnight.  But by then, I’m already looking forward to the next time I’ll get to go on this emotional rollercoaster.

And yes, there will be a next time.

Top Five Films About Music

The thing about doing a “top five” review of any pop-culture genre is that it easily can turn into frustrating, time-sucking exercise that absolutely none of my 12 readers will agree with me about.

I know from experience.  Way back in April of 2014, I did a piece on the top five television detectives.  It took five full days of writing and research and ended up being 4,000 words long.  You can find it here, if you are a fan of detective shows.

Nonetheless, I’ve discussed before how much I like the sub-genre of films that are about music, musicians, or the music industry.  I’m not sure why it touches such a nerve for me. I think it is because I view a love for music as such a universally unifying force. When a film that portrays that well, and throws in a great concert scene where the band or the performer connects in some kind of magical musical moment, it takes me back to when I’ve been in such a crowd.  Those are some of the happiest moments that I can think of.

So when I first discussed this topic with my wife, she asked the question I was avoiding:  What criteria are you going to use?  I wanted my criteria to be just two things

1.  I’ve seen the film

2.   I liked the film

But given the list of 20+ nominations that came in when I opened the topic up to my Facebook friends, I knew I’d need something to winnow down the list.  What I decided I was looking for were the films that both captured the raw passion of a love for music and managed to keep music as the main focus of the film.

The more I thought about it, virtually every good music film is a hybrid of some sort. A pure “focus on the music” is pretty rare.  But, I said I’d pick five.  Here they are:

#5–Searching for Sugar Man

This documentary almost fell of my list just because the first half leans heavily on making it a mystery film.  However, the story of Sixto Rodriguez, an artist known almost entirely by his surname, is so remarkable that it bears a careful look.The 2012 film, written and directed by Malik Bendjelloul, recounts the story of Rodriguez, a Mexican rock singer and composer who played in small clubs in his native Detroit and impressed a record studio enough to release his first album (Cold Fact) in 1970 and his second (Coming From Reality) in 1971.  Despite the enthusiasm of the men who had discovered and cultivated Rodriguez, the albums went nowhere.  His Dylan-like style and dedication to social justice, his anthems that spoke for the working poor, died on the vine.  He went back to a simple life of doing construction demolition to make ends meet at the same time that lurid stories began to circulate that he had gruesomely killed himself during a concert performance.  He simply drifted into obscurity.

The bulk of the film is dedicated to the search performed by two fans from South Africa where, unknown to Rodriguez, he had become wildly popular by the mid-90’s.  His music of rebellion against social norms resonated deeply with the oppressed people of the region.  Even though he was virtually unknown in the US or in his own hometown, he had become “bigger than Elvis” in South Africa.  The film unravels this discovery slowly (perhaps too slowly) and documents Rodriguez traveling to South Africa in 1998, stunned by the greeting from adoring crowds at six sold-out shows.

I chose this film because it proves that music, like The Dude, endures.  HIs songs of protest and change caught fire in a country where they were banned and where apartheid was used to oppress the masses.  The masses heard his voice and brought his music back to life.

#4–Love and Mercy

There were a number of fine bio-pics (“Ray,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” come to mind) to chose from, but the Bill Pohlad film was the one that stuck with me. Before I saw the film I considered the music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys to be nothing but fun-loving, pop music that was the background of my adolescence even though I never drove a “woody” or spent anytime close to a surf board (regretfully).  Nothing wrong with that.

Wilson’s story weaves back and forth between the young Wilson (Paul Dano) and his older self (John Cusak).  The adult story line is compelling enough, as Cusak’s character tries to escape the smothering presence of his uber-manipulative agent and keeper (played creepily by Paul Giamatti), but far less interesting than the parallel story of the younger Wilson.

The core of the movie develops as Pohlad unfolds the musical brilliance that was behind all of that fluff.  The story he tells is of a young genius, who eschews the limelight of performance and touring to spend hour after hour working with studio musicians creating the sound of the Beach Boys.  In one such scene, Wilson passes out a single sheet of music to his crew who all go to work trying to interpret it while he bounces from the drums, to the cello, to the keyboards, coaching them along, assembling bits of music that are mostly in his head, and improvising on the fly.  The viewer has no chance to figure out what song is being assembled until the scene builds to the addition of the vocals and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” emerges, sounding like an entirely different song than the one I grew up with after witnessing it’s construction and Wilson’s incredible creative process.

The film builds around scenes like these, and I wish there were more of them.  There are enough though to paint the picture of how a person with a creative vision can pull together all the disparate pieces needed to create beautiful music.

#3–Once

One critic described Once (2007) as “a musical for people who don’t like musicals.”  I have to admit, I never thought of it as a musical, but director John Carney describes it that way, so I’ll have to take him at his word.

Set in Dublin, Once tells the story of a guy and a girl (they are never named–something else I never noticed) who come together as musicians and almost (but not quite) as lovers.

The guy (Glen Hansard) is a street musician and songwriter, and we are immersed in his songs and his dedication to music from the opening scene as he stands out on gritty Dublin streets singing for donations.  He meets the girl (Marketa Iglova) who stops to comment on his songs and toss a coin into his guitar case.  They chat and it turns out that she too is a musician, a pianist.  It only takes the film 14.5 minutes to get the two of them into a music store where she is allowed to play piano during the owner’s lunch break.

In this scene we get one of those moments of “musical magic” that is pure fantasy.  They decide to play one of this songs together.  After a 20-second tutorial, the pair seamlessly, without a single misstep or mistake, soar through Hansard’s lovely “Falling Slowly” a rendition so good that they will eventually win the 2008 Oscar Award for Best Original Song for it.

Yes, it is musical fantasy, but the gorgeous kind that gives me chills when the music is that good.  The guy and the girl are now “falling slowly” in love, not yet aware of the obstacles that will end up keeping them apart.  But they begin an unlikely collaboration as she shares some of her original work with him, and he asks her to begin to write lyrics for some of his work.  Their work with lyrics allows them to express their feelings about love and loss in ways that they just can’t through words alone.

The guy’s songs lament his lost love a former girlfriend who has left him and gone to London and bend between anger and longing and regret.  We learn later that the girl has left a husband behind in the Czech Republic and her songs are full of haunting lyrics that evoke loneliness and alienation.

We get a generous dose of music throughout, but it culminates in a weekend session in a recording studio with the guy and the girl and three other street musicians that they’ve talked into playing with them. The goal is to produce a demo disc that the guy can use to launch his career in London where he hopes he might win back the love he has lost.  The more they play, the better they get, and soon they’ve made a believer out of the bored studio tech as they push through the marathon recording session.

Once tells the best kind of love story, the bittersweet kind in which two lovers find each other in the wrong time and place. However, it never loses its focus on the music and the camaraderie that it brings, and the hope that it inspires.

#2–Almost Famous

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”  Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).

Here’s the dilemma about writing a piece like this.  I want the focus to be “films on music” where some element of music is really the driver of the film.  For example, Walk the Line is a fine film about an iconic musician, but isn’t it mostly a story of enduring love and the struggles with addiction and recovery?  Same with A Star is Born, a film I absolutely loved (for the first hour and ten minutes).  See what I mean?  Every story is a hybrid.

Almost Famous could be filed away under “coming-of-age story” where the real focus, reflected in the quote above, is on our never-ending desire to fit in.  However, watching it again and reading up on it, made me feel very comfortable having it on the list, and under the sure-handed writing and direction of Cameron Crowe, it makes its way to the number two spot.

Set in 1973, fifteen-year-old William (Patrick Fugit) has been raised by a mom (Frances McDormand) who has tried to insulate her children from the corrosive effects of pop culture, especially its music.  She catches her daughter Anita (Zooey Deschanel) smuggling a Simon and Garfunkel album into the house, which she declares is “the music of drugs and promiscuous sex.”  The scene prompts Anita to run off with her Ken-doll boyfriend but not before leaving a box of albums behind for William.  As he flips through his new collection of Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell he opens a familiar looking Who album where she has left him directions on a post-it: “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you’ll see your whole future.”

The film is held together by the quest for “cool.”  Anita’s gift is supposed to reassure him that some day he will be cool, but it is his dedication to rock and roll, and his rock reviews for a local underground newspaper that launch his career into the coolest adventure a fifteen-year-old could imagine–getting invited to join the tour of the mythical band Stillwater as they bounce from city to city on an old bus–getting to be “with the band.” He strives throughout the film to get his critical interview with lead guitarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), as he sits behind the scenes watching the tensions grow in this, “mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom.”  One minute he is a trusted friend; the next he becomes “the enemy”–the keeper of all of their secrets.

Ironically, the band in this film is not portrayed as particularly dedicated to their music, seeming much more concerned with status, fame, and being allowed to live a life of excess.  But for William and all of the other band followers including the “band-aids” (don’t call them groupies) lead by Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), the love of the band and the love of their music and the experience of each concert is something that they have come to live for, a drug more important than any of the drugs that get passed around at the never-ending parties.  Sapphire, one of the “band-aids” sums up passion that draws them into this life when she says, “They don’t even know what it means to be a fan.  Y’Know? To truly love some silly little piece of music or some band, so much that it hurts.”

Even through betrayals and reversals and the initial rejection of his article by Rolling Stone magazine, William persists and finally returns home.  In their unexpected reunion near the end of the film, William finally corners Russell for this interview.  The first question:  “So Russell…what do you love about music.”  And the guitarist finally answers, “To begin with…everything.”

Cameron Crowe has a lot of stories to tell in this one semi-autobiographical film, but his affection for rock-and-roll creates the core around which this film is built.

#1–The Commitments

This 1991 film directed by Alan Parker just barely broke even at the box office, but has gathered something of a cult following and produced an absolutely killer soundtrack.  It is the story of music fanatic/entrepreneur, Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkin), who develops a passionate love for American soul music while living on the rough-edged north side of Dublin, Ireland.

Jimmy is living his dream of assembling a band that will bring soul music to Ireland.  Along the way, he has to do a lot of convincing, to both his musicians and his audiences that there is a reason that this music is something that will connect with the people of Dublin.  Once he has the core of the band collected, he lectures the group enthusiastically, telling them that, Soul is the music people understand. Sure it’s basic and it’s simple. But it’s something else ’cause, ’cause, ’cause it’s honest, that’s it. Its honest. There’s no fuckin’ bullshit. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart. Sure there’s a lot of different music you can get off on but soul is more than that. It takes you somewhere else. It grabs you by the balls and lifts you above the shite.”

Predictably, the group begins with many squabbles and stumbles as they try to master a musical style that none of them have grown up with.  Rabbitte tries to build the bridge between their experience and the music during one session when he tells them, The Irish are the blacks of Europe, Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and the North Siders are the blacks of Dublin … so say it loud — I’m black and I’m proud!”

The band gets better as the crowds become larger and increasingly enthusiastic.  Before long, they are belting out the music of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and the Marvelettes with passion and sophistication.  It appears as though Jimmy was right all along–American soul is the perfect expression of the north Dublin working man.

The character of Jimmy Rabbitte’s unwavering belief in the magic of soul music and his devotion to the goal of bringing it to the consciousness of the Irish working man imbues this film with a joyfulness that is untarnished by all of the chaos that comes with trying to  manage an unruly and undisciplined group of musicians.  Watching them catch fire as a group and wow their audiences in the latter part of the film, makes every minute worth watching.  It may well be the best film about music that you have not yet seen.

Ok, that’s it.  That’s MY list.  Which of your favorite films about music did I miss?  Lay it on me!

Trying Out Sobriety–One Year Later

It was one year ago today that I was sitting in my doctor’s office and he said to me, “I think you should give up alcohol–entirely.”  I’m sure it was the stricken and horrified expression on my face that forced him to add, “…for at least two weeks, until you can come back for a re-check.”

I had come in because I was having repeated bouts with atrial fibrillation, and while I had realized some time before that alcohol could be a trigger for a-fib, I had refused to admit that it might be the trigger.

I told him, “I really don’t know if I can.”

I did not and do not consider myself to be an alcoholic, but I certainly had become alcohol dependent.  All I could think about, sitting with my doctor, was how much my life would have to change if I gave up my nightly “beer time.”   But suddenly, I had a very concrete reason to abstain.  Suddenly, it seemed like I was besieged by commercials promoting a-fib medication that reminded me that “a-fib is the leading cause of heart attack and stroke in men over 65.”  Since I was two months away from turning 65, I felt like the ads were mocking me–rubbing salt in the wounds.

I made it through two weeks and sure enough, my heart seemed to be settling down.  Two weeks became six and on December 20, 2017 I wrote a piece called Trying Out Sobriety reflecting on what I had learned after six weeks of abstinence.  Today, makes it fifty-two weeks since I gave up alcohol.

Last Monday, I was meeting with my addiction medicine therapist, a woman who has been an invaluable source of care, insight, and support throughout this process.  She asked how I intended to celebrate one year of sobriety.  I told her that I didn’t plan to do anything.  Making a big deal about sticking it out for one year sounds like something an addict would do.  “Celebrating” makes me think about rewarding myself with a 22-ounce Double-IPA, thank you very much. So, no celebrations don’t seemed called for.  I did tell her I felt I needed to write about it.  That means if you are reading this, you are celebrating with me, and thank you for coming (cue fireworks!).

I don’t want to recount everything I wrote about last December. You can read about that here.  However, one constant has been my therapist’s admonition that I needed to shift the focus of my thinking to concentrating not on what I had lost or given up, but rather on what I had gained.

Some gains I have made are quantifiable, but we need to do the math.  Let’s say that I used to drink 300 out of 365 days per year.  That would mean I took roughly 65 days off per year due to illness, guilt, or hangover recovery.  On the days I drank, I drank between 2 and 4 beers, so let’s call it an average of 3 beers a day.  That means I consumed about 900 beers per year. At roughly 150 calories per beer, I can approximate that I saved 135,000 calories over the course of the year.  Now, if I had eaten a lean diet and not replaced some of those calories by indulging in pastries and chocolates of all kinds, I’d probably be down to 75 pounds.  However, I have lost a solid 10-12 pounds and the ever-growing beer gut has vanished.

I never used to keep track of how much I was spending on beer between the six-packs I’d drink at home and the tabs I would pay at a bar.  I really didn’t want to know.  However, if a beer from a 6 pack ran 2-3 dollars and from a bar was 6-8 dollars, let’s just guess that my average cost per beer ended up being $4.  That means I saved $3,600 over the past year.

Best of all, I feel healthier and happier than anytime I can remember.  Yes, I’ve struggled through some depressive periods over the past 12 months, but I revel in the changes I have made in my life.

I go to bed every night knowing that I will not wake up with a hangover and the guilt that would come with it. I can almost always remember exactly what I said and did the night before, something that increasingly would elude me on drinking nights.  I feel stronger as I’ve pushed myself into more challenging hikes around the county and trying to be on the trail two to three days a week. I practice yoga and meditation 5-6 days a week and marvel at how the importance of that practice has grown for me over time. There seems to be a part of my brain that was always thinking about drinking that gets to rest and dedicate itself to other things.

Do I miss it?  Yes–every day.  I still feel jealous when I’m surrounded by drinkers at a bar or a restaurant, and I’m making may way through another bottle of Pellegrino.

Back when I wrote the initial article, I was already hedging–assuming I would cheat occasionally.  What could it hurt, right?  But, it’s just been easier to stick to my new habit and continue to build on the gains I have made as a person.  Nothing about alcohol ever helped me be stronger, smarter, or kinder.  I think I’ve made some strides in those areas.  I don’t want to give them up now.

Thanks for celebrating with me! (cue balloons!!)

 

I Am A Moron

Before I sat down to write this I pulled on a pair of sweatpants.  Backwards.

I could just stop there, but there’s more.  Anyone can make a simple mistake.  Recently I have been on a quest for more thoughtful and sophisticated ways to screw up–like two months back when I was doing the bills, and following my system, I wrote down the amounts for all of the bills I pay on-line carefully in my checkbook.  Somehow though, I never made it over to the computer to actually get into the “bill pay” page and get the payments sent out.  I sussed it all out when “past due” notices began to sprout from my mailbox like an unwelcome weed infestation.  There are also some months where I pay all my bills twice.  It just helps to round things out.

I know what you are thinking.  He’s losing it.  Dementia.

Normally, I’d go straight for that diagnosis also.  That and brain tumor are my go-to thoughts if I get anything worse than a hangnail.

But at the time all of this happened, I was struggling with chronic dizziness (probably a brain tumor, right?).  It isn’t incapacitating, but I can feel kind of “foggy” at times.  It’s one reason I haven’t been writing of late.  I first went to see my doctor about it in April, but I’d been having problems for at least a month before.  It’s not the first time I’ve had this issue, but it was being so persistent that I decided to get my doctor involved.

That started a marathon round of appointments.  He checked me over and sent me to a head and neck specialist and recommended I see a vestibular physical therapist (yeah, who knew there was such a thing).

The head and neck specialist did a couple of tests and deemed that whatever was causing it was probably cardiovascular or neurological.  The physical therapist spent two sessions making me do a series of bizarre exercises trying to make me dizzy (or more dizzy than I was at the moment) and failed miserably.  Shrug.

Went back to my primary care doctor who thought I should go see a head and neck specialist (wait, didn’t I already do that?).  I ended up seeing exactly the same woman, who did exactly the same test, and came to exactly the same conclusions. I decided to check in with my neurologist.  He suggested I go to the head and neck department.

I sought help from my acupuncturist who concluded there were clouds of smoke in my brain and that I needed to stay away from television, politics, basically, the world.

My local health provider held a small ceremony for me where I was given a certificate of achievement for my tenacity in unsuccessfully trying to find the cause of the problem.  There was cake and everything (I’m making that part up).

Finally, I decided to quit listening to everyone and pulled down the box where I keep my daily meds and started looking at everything I was taking to see if there was anything I could eliminate, anything that might be the culprit.

Most of my meds are “old dude” regulars for blood pressure, cholesterol, and a couple more exotic ones.  I take some Chinese herbs from my acupuncturist also, you know, for the whole “smoke in the brain” thing.

Oh, and I’d been taking Melatonin.  When I stopped drinking nearly a year ago, I had trouble sleeping though the night.  I was waking up more and more often at odd hours and finding it impossible to get back to sleep.  Two in the morning is just not a fun time to find yourself awake and yet still groggy and exhausted.

When Mary suggested Melatonin, I thought, sure!  It’s over-the-counter and therefore “safe”.  It worked great!  Magic!  Later, when she mentioned that maybe I wasn’t supposed to  take it continuously, I dismissed the suggestion.  Pssssh.  After all, I bought it at Sprouts. It was doing exactly what I wanted it to do.  I didn’t even read the label until the day I began to examine all my meds.

Yes, the label that stated “If any adverse reactions occur, immediately stop using this product and consult a doctor” and “Limit use to two months with a break of one week.”  I was checking out this information, written clearly on the bottle, after taking it every night for, oh, ten months straight.

It gets worse.  I googled Melatonin and looked up possible drug interactions.  Under “serious interactions” I found one of my daily medications.  Possible side effects–dizziness.  And the timeline fit.  The dizziness had begun shortly after I started taking it.  I just never made the connection.

MOTHERFORKING MORON!

So I quit taking it right away and the dizziness did not go away immediately, but at least the insomnia returned.  It actually took three weeks before I was symptom free.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t do any permanent brain damage or anything although, you never know.  I enjoyed 4-5 weeks of mental clarity without the low-grade sense that my brain was slowly rocking or spinning occasionally.  I was quite proud of myself for chasing down my own stupidity.

And then the dizziness came back (“heavy sigh”).  What are you gonna do?  I’m just going to enjoy the ride for now.  I’ll go through the pill box and see if I’ve got something else I can toss out.  Maybe I can put my yard blower up against one ear and see if I can blow out some of that smoke on my brain.