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!

Don’t Want to Burn Out; Don’t Want To Fade Away

I don’t enjoy reminders of my age although it’s hard to miss the signs when I face the mirror every morning.  I certainly never used to keep my very own blood pressure monitor tucked behind my laptop on my desk just so I can check it every now and then for my entertainment.

I don’t feel as old as the calendar tells me that I am.  I have a few limitations on my physical activity, but most of them are mental limitations–fear of failure or injury.  Learning how to surf sounds like fun on some days.  On others days it sounds like an invitation to the emergency room.

I can’t seem to shake the tendonitis that I have in both hands which may hamper or end my days as a guitarist although that career was always teetering on a lack of talent and a certain laissez-faire attitude toward actually practicing.

But speaking of the guitar, I do still admire the skill of others and so last night when my wife and I were enjoying the warm evening at one of our local go-to restaurants, we were pleasantly surprised by the live music on the patio.  The artist was an older guy, probably our age, who looked like a refugee from the ’60’s. He was just a gentle soul with long, blonde hair who sang simple folk songs that all sounded as if they came right out of the playlist of my teenage years.  Every now and then he’d ramp up a cover of a song by Neil Young or Bob Dylan and rouse the friendly group who had hung out to listen to him through the end of his second set.

Toward the end of the evening he began playing a song I had never heard, but as I listened to the lyrics it felt as though the writer had ripped a page out of my life and thoughts over the past months. The guitarist told me after the show that the song was “If We Were Vampires” by Jason Isbell and that it had been voted 2018 Americana Song of the Year by someone.

The song is a reflection on growing old with someone special so as I sat listening to it with the girl I met when we were 16, the girl I didn’t begin dating until after high school, and the woman to whom I’ve been married for almost 45 years, the words were poignant (although they lose something without the music, I suspect):

It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever

Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone

Maybe we’ll get forty years together

But one day I’ll be gone

Or one day you’ll be gone

If we were vampires and death was a joke

We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke

And laugh at all the lovers and their plans

I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand

I don’t wake up and begin my day by dwelling on mortality.  I mostly think about how good that first cup of coffee is going to taste, and how I really need to get down to the shop and get new tires put on my car.  But I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t noticed that 65 is a big number, and that I’m increasingly aware of the very finite nature of life.

I always imagine I’ve got maybe 20 or so good years left and let’s face it, that’s a lot of years. But that number seems smaller when I realize I’ve already burned through three times as many plus a few.

The song concentrates on the relationship and how it has sustained the couple and it made me think how meaningless life might have been for me this past 40 years without the life I’ve had with Mary and about how I would not want to grow old alone:

Maybe time running out is a gift

I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift

And give you every second I can find

And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

I actually like finding music that hits too close to home.  It’s nice to know that others think about these things.

It’s nicer still to hear her working in the room next door as I’m writing this.  And that she’ll be nearby when I fall asleep tonight.  And that hers will be the first face I see tomorrow morning and in the many mornings left to come.

Let’s Not Arm Teachers

I’ve rewritten this piece in my mind repeatedly trying to discard phrases like “monumentally stupid” and “moronic”  After all, I know there are some very fine people on both sides of the gun debate, and some friends of mine who I love and respect have expressed that they feel this is a good idea.

Clearly, I do not.  First of all, the shootings at Parkland were horrific, and I applaud the activism that they have spawned.  But, since that horrible day, hundreds of Americans have lost their lives to gun violence.  I fear that the conversation in some quarters has narrowed to school shootings, and that we are in danger of losing focus on the bigger issue of gun violence nationwide.

But let’s look at the school safety suggestion that Trump has championed.  If we are going to give teachers “a little bit of a bonus”, a gun, and a training course, we are going to make a massive, nationwide investment that does absolutely nothing to further the education of our kids.  One estimate suggested that if we selected just 10% of teachers to train and arm we would be talking about 1.4 million educators.  How can we justify the money that it would take to fund such an effort when states, even in a booming economy are not funding schools adequately?

His other proposal is to “harden” school sites making them more inaccessible to active shooters.  Apparently he used the word “harden” over twenty times in one statement although there were no particular details on what that would mean.  Students absolutely need to feel safe, but they also crave a warm, caring environment, not one that feels like a prison.

Here’s the other thing that I can say with some certainty as a former high school teacher.  You can give me a gun and give me some training, but as much as I love and would want to protect my students, I sincerely question my ability to draw down on someone, probably a young person, and execute them.  Clearly in the Parkland shooting, trained deputies had the same problem.  Well-trained and adept soldiers sometimes never recover completely from killing another human being.  I can’t imagine that teachers would be very good at it.

The focus on school shootings, long overdue no doubt, ignores that mass shootings are happening in the streets, in our churches, in movie theaters, in night clubs and at concert venues.  How are we going to “harden” our churches to make them more safe?  Are we going to arm and train pastors, the kid who sells you popcorn at the movies, bartenders, and concert security guards?  Do we really want pistol packing preachers?  Do you want to go to the movies knowing the teenaged usher may be carrying a Glock under his jacket?  We have to think about the problem more globally.

I’m not sure why I would bother to end this by making suggestions of what should be done.  We all know exactly what Congress will do about this issue: absolutely nothing. So rather than reiterate the same proposals that come up after every new outrage (banning assault weapons, limiting the size of ammo magazines, or creating a truly efficient method of background checks) let me suggest just one thing.

Make owning a weapon more expensive.  Slap a 25% surcharge on every gun and every bullet sold in America.  Say to people that no matter what the NRA tells you, no one is coming for your guns.  However, if you really want it, you’ve got to pay more.  The government could collect this surcharge and put it to any number of uses.  We could create a fund for the victims of gun violence.  We should absolutely fund research into gun violence as a national health problem as soon as Congress removes the ridiculous law that bans such funding.  We could provide free gun locks to any gun owner who wants one.  Hell, let’s give every gun collector a free gun safe.  Then maybe we could prevent a few first graders from accidentally shooting their playmates on the playground of their “hardened” school campus.

There is plenty of precedence for this approach.  We do the same thing with tobacco.  If your product creates a burden on society, you have to pay more to help offset that burden.  Tobacco taxes are used to help fund anti-smoking campaigns and study the effects of the way in which tobacco is marketed.  No one is ever going to take away smokes from those who want to use them, but when your pleasure becomes a burden on society, you need to contribute to easing that burden.

Let’s at least try this before we become Fortress America and turn every school into a Green Zone.

“Retired, Not Dead” Turns 100!  My Ten Favorite Posts: A Retrospective

It never occurred to me that if I just kept writing, I would end up publishing 100 articles in this blog, but this entry will be #100.  For this landmark, I decided to go back and select 10 articles for which I had a particular fondness.  If you are a regular reader or have just accidentally stumbled across the blog for the first time, I hope you will take time to browse a few of my favorites.  Please drop me a comment if you are inspired to do so.  I love to hear from my readers.

My first post was on March 5, 2014.  These are listed from oldest to most recent:

“Thank You, Paul McCartney” recounts my introduction to French kissing and I am forever grateful to the young woman who introduced me to it so kindly.  The moment coincided with Paul McCartney’s song “Maybe I’m Amazed” which is why it is dedicated to him.

“Just The Facts, Ma’am–The Top 5 TV Detectives”  I loved this project.  Once I decided on my list I spent a full day on each one–reading up on them to collect background, watching clips for memorable moments, and at times watching whole episodes each morning.  After all, I was doing research.  Right after lunch, I’d start on the detective’s profile and get it posted by the late afternoon, building the article in serial fashion, posting detective #5 on Monday and #1 on Friday.

“Dish Bitch”  wherein I complain bitterly about being the only member of the family willing to empty the dishwasher and then slowly come to terms with my fate.

“So, Hypochondriacally Speaking…”  This one explores my own paranoia about my health and how I seem to overreact to every odd fleeting symptom that comes along.  I might have picked this one just because I liked the play on words in the title.

“Dude, I Said I Was Sorry”  This one tells the story of my encounter with an angry bike rider who claimed I had almost run him over when I actually had never even seen him.  In this one I played with a technique used by Joseph Heller (Catch 22) where the character’s thoughts sometimes become part of the on-going dialogue.

“Watching Icebergs Go By”  This is a story from my teaching career where I was once again reminded of how little I actually know about the lives of my students.  One particular student makes a heart-breaking revelation in the very last class on the very last day of the school year.

“Competitive Backpacking”  Yes, one would think that backpacking is the ultimate team activity, but when my friends and I were active in the 1980’s there were always contests to one-up each other, sometimes with very funny consequences.

“Men: Why It’s Important To Keep Your Mouth Shut”  The complexities of communication between men and women is a source of constant fascination for me.  Over time, I think I’ve learned when it is most important to shut up and listen.

“A Day In The Life”  I think some people might skip over my blog, assuming from the title that it is a record of the glories of retired life.  However, those kind of entries make up a small fraction.  This one, however, tries to answer the question I get from working people who cannot fathom a life without work:  “Just what do you do to stay busy?”

“Honestly, I Lie All The Time”  Honesty should be simple, but in this one I discover times where I had to evaluate just how often I tell “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

“Grumpy Old Man”  I’m better now, but I went through a few months where everything seemed to annoy me.  In this one, I describe both my symptoms and a possible cure.

OK, so I picked 11 and couldn’t decide which one to cut.  So, shoot me.  I find that I was much more anxious to reprise articles that made me laugh than the ones that were more serious.  The serious ones are in the archives if you feel like exploring them.

Thank you to everyone who has been so encouraging and who regularly leaves “likes” and comments and to those who pushed me to start off on this journey 3 plus years ago.  I’m looking forward to more writing ahead.

Let’s Elect a President Who Has Already Been President

I really have resisted for as long as I could. It is simply not possible to be a writer and not long to comment on the 2016 presidential campaign, especially as it becomes weirder and more unpredictable by the day.

As of today, the front-runner on the Republican side is reality star/businessman Donald Trump, who almost daily spews out some kind of new outrage, continually lies about what he has said in the past, and stomps all over any kind of decent political discourse. Most disturbingly, his clone-lets across the country continually mouth his rhetoric about “making American great again” and profess their loyalty because “he’s someone who tells it like it is!” even though he never actually says anything.

And on the Democratic side there is the surprising candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who I thought simply wandered into the race by accident. He is from a state that is about as big as my garage, but he has a strong, idealistic, and completely unrealistic agenda that is capturing the imagination of yuuuuge numbers of young people pulling for the old dude to upset the presumed coronation of Hillary Clinton.

You can’t make this stuff up. It’s beyond what fiction would allow. Every day that I read the paper, I feel like I’ve stepped into a Dali painting. It reminds me of how I felt in 2003 when California, in the midst of a deep energy and economic crisis, recalled Governor Gray Davis and replaced him with an Austrian weightlifter—and then we kept the Governator on the job for 8 more years!

So nothing seems particularly outlandish to me anymore and I am ready to unveil my radical proposal. Let’s elect someone for president who has already been president!

No, I’m not suggesting we bring back Bush, Bubba, or Barack. Let’s choose from some of the fine actors who have pretended to be president in film and TV because, after all, isn’t being president all about pretending that you know what you are doing most of the time?

So, let me suggest the following five candidates, in no particular order chosen based upon two criteria. One, they showed the ability to give a great speech, one that inspires and unifies, and two, that they showed the ability to get something done.

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 As far back as I went in my research, America’s first African-American president was not Barack Obama, but rather Tom Beck, played by Morgan Freeman in the 1996 film Deep Impact. Personally, I’d feel very comfortable with Freeman at the helm given the air of thoughtfulness, honesty, and wisdom that he shows in this film. After all, he faced an oncoming ecological disaster (a comet racing toward earth) without pretending that it didn’t exist or that it was no big deal (see all Republican candidates re:climate change). Not only that, he came up with not one, but two plans to see that life would continue on earth after the catastrophe and helped to calm the nation both before and after.

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Kevin Kline also gets my endorsement as a candidate for his role in the 1993 film, Dave. Kline is uniquely qualified because as an actor he has already pretended to be a guy who is pretending to be the president! Kline plays Dave Kovic, a look-alike for the sitting president, Bill Mitchell who takes over the role when the president suffers a catastrophic stroke. Not only is he able to stand up to his scheming chief of staff, he works cooperatively with his cabinet to cut ridiculous appropriations to save his not-First Lady’s pet homeless shelter project, and launches an ambitious jobs program. He addresses Congress by owning up to the sins of his predecessor and summarily exposes all of the corruptions that had been allowed to flourish. His ability to pretend to be warm and honest would serve him well as our president. I would have no problem endorsing Kevin/Dave/Bill for president.

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My third potential candidate would be Dennis Haysbert who played President David Palmer from 2001-2004 (in season 1, he is candidate Palmer) in the action series, 24. During his presidency, he faced an unprecedented series of potentially catastrophic terrorist attacks, supported by CTU, possibly the most inept counterterrorism unit ever created. I realize they needed to keep the crisis going for a full 24 episodes, but honestly, not once did a CTU leader say the words, “you guys cover the back in case the terrorist decides to sneak out the back door when we storm the front.” Just never occurred to them. Despite this, Palmer inspired calm and confidence and managed 3 full seasons without ever being shot or tortured by Jack Bauer, no small accomplishment. And through every potential disaster, he kept it quiet that he had our back—he had an Allstate Insurance policy lined up for the entire country.

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My toughest-to-make endorsement goes to Kevin Spacey who has now completed two seasons as President Frank Underwood in the Netflix series House of Cards. Sure, he is unprincipled and ruthless, but those certainly have never been presidential disqualifiers. We have seen his ability to work behind the scenes to push legislation through, cajoling, charming, threatening, and occasionally murdering individuals that might resist his agenda. Frank has also shown to be modest and compelling in giving a speech, even as he lets us, the audience, know that he is dishing pure, undiluted bullshit. Kevin would have to reign in some of Frank’s rough edges to get my full endorsement, but let’s face it, there are scarier people than Frank Underwood who are currently being taken seriously as candidates today.

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My final recommendation is certainly my most heartfelt. From 1999 to 2006 on every Wednesday night, I could comfort myself that for one hour my president was named Josiah “Jed” Bartlet played by Martin Sheen on the immensely popular television series, West Wing. Bartlet showed toughness, compassion and a strong intellect as president. As long as writer Aaron Sorkin was nearby, he was never at a loss for a speech that was comforting and forceful. Maybe his most important contribution was helping me to hold faith in the American political process while suffering thought eight years of George Bush. For seven years, Jed Bartlet was my president. I’d have no problem voting to give him another four or eight.

Fanciful? Maybe. But look at the five remaining candidates and tell me if you think that the primary winnowing process has produced the five most trustworthy and qualified people to lead our country. Tell me you have complete confidence in any of them. Now, look at my five candidates, each one of them with extended experience in being a pretend president. I’m not even sure where the write-in box is for the presidential vote, but I may be looking for it when November rolls around.

 

 

 

 

 

Jazz Hater

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I suspect that I would be infinitely cooler as an individual, if I could say that I knew jazz, that I got jazz, that I loved jazz—but in truth, I just don’t. I really wish that I did. I’m sure I’d be considered more suave, more debonair if I could talk jazz instead of baseball.

I don’t think I could even name 5 jazz artists depending on how you define jazz. Let’s see, there’s John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and……er, ….. yeah, not even five. So there’s the problem. There is a big gap in my musical education.

I can actually name only one jazz classic, Brubeck’s Take Five which is a perfect example of why I hate jazz.   It opens with a tight, memorable melody and then wanders away into a confusing maze of solo performances that don’t sound anything like the opening, that don’t complement the opening, that sound as if the musicians have forgotten what song they are playing, until they swing back into that great, memorable melody to end the song. By the time they get there I’m likely to have missed it because I’ve dozed off.

I had two recent experiences that reinforced this antipathy. The first was on my annual pilgrimage to see the Dave Matthews Band at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater. I had read that they were going to feature Herbie Hancock (OK, there’s my fifth) and I was kind of excited to see how they were going to integrate him with the band. Dave opened his song Mercy at the keyboards and then gave way to Hancock who proceeded to go into his own riffs. Within seconds, he had lost me. Even though the band bobbed their heads, and tapped their toes, and just looked delighted with Hancock’s contribution, he was playing something that didn’t sound anything like the song that Dave had started.

It’s my problem with solos in general. They just seem so fucking self-indulgent. The artist is allow to just wander off into a musical Neverland, playing whatever the hell he wants regardless of the structure or integrity of the actual song he’s supposed to be playing. Hancock basically hijacked the show for about half an hour. Whoever thought that was going to be a good fit had badly miscalculated. It was like trying to integrate Riverdancers with a ballet company.

The second and more miserable of the two experiences was when Mary and I visited a jazz club in Montreal, one that had been recommended to us by a local, a local who clearly hated American tourists. Ever since then the words “jazz club” have become synonymous in my mind with “dentist office” in terms how I feel about the possibility of having to go to one.

It was a cute space and I always like live music—honestly. I was predisposed to give the music a chance especially given the local endorsement of the place. The group consisted of a man who played trumpet and a woman who played bass. Once they began to play, I realized that once again, I had entered jazz hell. Occasionally it seemed as though they were playing the same song, but mostly it felt like they teamed up just to get in some practice playing whatever melody (and I use that term loosely) came to mind. I could not distinguish one song from the next. It pained me to watch some of the patrons nodding their heads, sometimes with their eyes closed, clearly grooving and getting something that I simply could not hear. I started to hate them unreasonably. The saving grace was that the bar served a strong, American IPA that I liked and the musicians eventually took a nice, long break that I enjoyed much more than I had their musical performance.

I should probably take a “History of Jazz” or “Jazz Appreciation” class at our local community college and see if I can expand my musical knowledge. Hopefully, it will contain lessons on how to properly nod my head in time to the music.

 

If It’s Friday, It Must Be Barry White

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To be honest, I think most of Barry White’s music is pretty awful. That being said, two songs—“Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe,” and “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything”—belong right up there in the Catchy-Ass Music Hall of Fame.

I first got hooked on just how great these tunes were when I noticed that one of the sports guys I listened to on the radio as I was driving home from work every day,  ended his program with a small clip of “You’re the First…” and with the words, “Hey, if you ain’t getting any, it ain’t Barry White’s fault.” The words made no sense, and had nothing to do with sports, but I loved the fact that he did the same thing every day. It was his send off. His ritual.

I’m not sure when I started incorporating music into my classroom (I taught English) but it came from noticing how often some periods began with such lethargy that I felt I was lifting a boulder of boredom before I even got started. So, I started picking out two or three songs to play from the start of the passing period until I had shaken hands with each of the kids, taken roll, and was ready to start the day. When the music went off, kids knew it was time for class to start. I created playlists I thought they would like, made them listen to some international music like Manu Chao, Mexican fusion from Los Lobos and Ozomatli, and lots of Beatles and Motown—basically anything that I liked. Occasionally my son or daughter would advise me to slip in something current, just to keep the “cool factor” up, so I’d surprise the kids with that.

But Fridays were always reserved for Barry White. Monday through Thursday was  a mixed bag, but every Friday was a Barry White Friday. I didn’t explain why, or tell the story about how I had come upon it. I just wrote on the board on the first Friday of the year, “Today is a Barry White Friday.” For some kids, it took months to even notice. Some picked it up right away, that Fridays were different. Fridays were to be celebrated.

Kids are so immersed in so many things that I had to laugh at the number of times I would crank Barry up, and I’d hear someone exclaim, “Oh, my god! It is Friday!” Dancing would then sometimes ensue.

At least two or three times a year, I’ll get a text or FB message from a student telling me about how they were walking through a grocery store or listening to the radio and one of his songs would come on, songs that I had played for 36 almost-consecutive Fridays, and they would be flooded with the memories of senior year.

I don’t think anything about Barry White made my kids better students, improved test scores, or fundamentally changed the arc of their lives. It was just one of those very little things that made our class a little different, a little special. Something that their friends in other classes wouldn’t get, and would never quite understand.

 

 

 

 

Compulsively Bad Taste

Gould: Look, we all go way back, and I owe you from the thing with the guy in the place, and I’ll never forget it.

Clooney: That was our pleasure. 

Pitt: I’d never been to Belize.

This is dialogue from my favorite scene in the film Oceans Eleven, one of the movies that I’ll stop and watch in it’s entirety if I just happen across it when channel surfing, a film I’ve seen at least a dozen times.

Gould’s line is so absurdly funny and Clooney and Pitt respond in lines that mean absolutely nothing to the audience. We really have no idea what they are talking about. The capper is Gould’s comment that “I’ll never forget it” even though he cannot remember any of the details of this previous encounter. I wish I could write like that.

The thing is, I can watch films like this over and over again and not feel like I’m “wasting time” or that I should be doing something more significant. Because essentially, who is to say what actually has meaning?

Even with this proclivity, I stay active. I’m not a couch potato. I’m just entranced by certain actors, certain films, even critical moments in some films.

I can put on the film Once just to watch the first 12 minutes up to the point when Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova make their way to a quiet music store and perform the lovely duet of “Falling Slowly” which earned the pair an Academy Award. On some days, I’ll put in my disc of that film, just to see that scene—once or twice or three times. Then I’ll pull out my guitar and try to master the intro to that wonderful song.

And then there is Tom Cruise. That’s right—I’ll admit it. I’m a fan. I don’t care if he’s a freak personally; he has made a bunch of films that I like. Top Gun has a place in my heart that I’ll talk about later, but lately I find I can’t resist watching Jack Reacher or the futuristic Edge of Tomorrow and reveling in the writing and execution of the films. I hope the guy never ages—and it makes me happy to know that at 5’8”, I’m apparently taller than he is according to my sources at Universal Studios.

And then there is Denzel. He’s done important films like The Hurricane and Training Day but seeing those once was enough. While I’m writing this I’m watching Man on Fire for probably the 20th time, and I just ordered my own copy of The Equalizer only because I recently subscribed to Amazon Prime and can get stuff shipped to me for free. Both are stories of both revenge and redemption, themes I find irresistible. And then there is the very underrated film, Déjà Vu, where Washington excels as both an action hero and romantic lead.

In a pinch, I can plug in any of the three Bourne movies with Matt Damon and escape happily into a world of action and intrigue.

Most of my day is filled with hiking, yoga, gardening, home maintenance, and marriage maintenance. However, I have no problem taking a break to watch something on TV—over and over again.

 

 

Montreal Afternoon

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On a recent trip that included a visit to Montreal, my wife and I stood outside the Basilica de Notre Dame trying to decide if it was worth 5 bucks each to go inside and look at a church. As we rested, standing together near a fountain in the church square across the street enjoying the shade on the warm and humid day, I started to notice a street musician with his electric guitar hooked up to a practice amp. He had just begun singing a song that I recognized, but did not know the title or the original artist.

The song (I later found out) was Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game, and as the tune echoed out over the square it began to lift me as I took in the milling crowd, the façade of the church, the feeling of my wife’s hand in mine. It was as if I had entered a movie where time had slowed and everyone around me was moving at half-speed. The warm breeze was a caress as the tune soared and echoed and leaves from the trees fluttered down over us. My wife didn’t understand when I refused to move until he had finished the song because, of course, this my moment. The song had made that fleeting moment perfect for me and there were no words that were adequate to explain.

I felt a longing for the song to go on, for the moment to continue, but of course, it did not and life sped up again and the momentary magic disappeared. When he finished I went over to drop a couple of bucks in his guitar case and tell him that I had enjoyed the song, but it was an inadequate tribute.

If I had heard the same song on Wednesday night instead of that Tuesday afternoon, or if I had been walking through a subway tunnel instead of in front of the church, it might have been distracting or annoying. If it had come on the radio, I might have changed the station.

But sometimes music has the power to simply stop me in a moment, to define that moment and freeze it in my memory. For me, a Montreal afternoon will always belong to a mournful song and a solitary singer.