Gutsy People: Thoughts About A Movie, A Book, And The Wider World

When I comment about movies on these pages, I try to be a good guy by not revealing all, especially endings. I mean, for anyone with an itch to see a certain flick, that itch might damn near disappear if they become privy to too much telling information.

But a spoiler alert ain’t needed for Free Solo, a documentary profiling the great rock climber Alex Honnold that was released in September and is still in some theaters. That’s because the beans already have been spilled in every review and article that has been written about this movie. In other words, hell yeah, he made it to the top! To the top of El Capitan, that is, the monster, vertical wall of granite in California’s Yosemite National Park. And he reached the top, about 3,000 feet above ground, by climbing El Cap without ropes, a harness or safety equipment of any sort. And without a climbing partner or partners. That’s what free solo means. The only item, other than clothing, that Honnold wore while becoming the first (and, so far, only) person to accomplish this superhuman feat on El Cap was a small bag on his back that contained chalk, a substance he’d periodically coat his hands with, the better to grip the rock. (Others had scaled El Cap over the years, but always with ropes and additional equipment.)

What any rock climber does seems pretty well off the charts to me. Shit, I would make it about two feet off the ground on El Capitan’s face, maybe three. Which isn’t bad actually. Only 2,998 or 2,997 feet to go. But what Honnold did on June 3, 2017 was so far off the charts as to be laughable, in a magnificent way, and nearly inconceivable. The film crew that captured his exploits agree. Skilled rock climbers themselves, they are shown in the documentary, nervous as can be and totally awed by what was taking place in front of their eyes.

For anyone who has a taste for danger and suspense, this is a movie not to be missed. If possible, watch it in a theater rather than at home. Whatever the venue, the bigger the screen the better. My wife, brother and I went to see Free Solo in early November. We sat in the sixth or seventh row of a cinema, nice and close to the action. We were captivated. You will be too.

By the way, when I mentioned for anyone who has a taste for danger and suspense a few sentences ago, I meant to include and an appreciation of guts. As modest and unflappable as Alex appears in Free Solo’s interview segments, there’s no denying that he is in possession of an oceanic amount of guts, and I for one find his courage to be very inspiring, And although not too many people are going to try and scale giant rocks, it’s of course true that in less dramatic ways many or most of us display courage throughout parts or all of our lives. And that’s inspiring too. Hell, for much of humanity, simply getting out of bed and facing the day is a brave act, considering the nasty, even horrific, realities facing them.

I read the late novelist Kent Haruf’s final book, Our Souls At Night (it was published in 2015, the year after Haruf died), a few days after watching Alex climb. There are a variety of ways in which to look at Our Souls At Night, as there are with Free Solo. It’s about love and the lack thereof. It’s about emotional pains that do not fully heal. And it’s also about the guts shown by a man and a woman, each around 70 years old, who throw aside their normal inhibitions and begin a relationship with one another.

Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both widowed, are longtime neighbors who are acquainted only slightly. They live in Holt, Colorado, the fictional town that is the setting for all six of Haruf’s novels. But, as becomes apparent, Addie has had Louis on her mind for some time. One day she pays Louis a visit. Here’s some of what Haruf writes on Our Souls At Night’s second and third pages:

You probably wonder what I’m doing here, she said.
Well, I didn’t think you came over to tell me my house looks nice.
No, I want to suggest something to you.
Oh?
Yes. A kind of proposal.
Okay.
Not marriage, she said.
I didn’t think that either.
But it’s kind of a marriage-like question. But I don’t know if I can now. I’m getting cold feet. She laughed a little. That’s sort of like marriage, isn’t it.
What is?
Cold feet.
It can be.
Yes. Well, I’m just going to say it.
I’m listening, Louis said.
I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.
What? How do you mean?
I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.

Wow! Addie has guts. An abundance of it. Don’t know how many folks in her age bracket would do what she does. Couldn’t be a lot. In any event, Louis accepts Addie’s offer. They begin their affair — a platonic one at the start — cautiously. And, finding that they are getting along just fine, take it to higher levels. They become a strong and true couple, telling each other their life stories, opening up more than they did to their deceased spouses.

Addie and Louis do not go unnoticed in Holt. Snide and angry comments and actions come their way from the small-minded, which includes Addie’s adult son Gene. How do Addie and Louis end up? Hey, unlike with Free Solo, I’m not revealing the conclusion, a conclusion that I found to be wanting in relation to what had preceeded it. Still, I give Our Souls At Night a thumbs-up. Haruf, as is clear from his words above, writes beautifully. His style is direct and unflowery, and the book’s characters feel real.

Alex Honnold doesn’t boast about courage in Free Solo. Neither do Addie Moore or Louis Waters in Our Souls At Night. In fact, the three barely talk about it. But they each own courage and use it for their personal betterment, and in manners that bring no harm to others or to the natural world.

(As always, comments are welcomed. Thanks.)

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When Opportunity Knocks: A Book (Falconer), A Movie (Leave No Trace), And Me

Last month I read a good novel (Falconer, by John Cheever), and two weeks ago I saw a very good movie (Leave No Trace) at a local theater. Wanting to write about both I racked my brains for themes common to them. No doubt there are any number waiting to be discovered, but in the end I realized that I’d be better off limiting my focus, so as not to enter rooms that I wouldn’t explore properly and likely would never find my way out of. Therefore I’ll take a look at just one key point made in the book and in the flick: Some folks have the ability to recognize when a meaningful opportunity is at hand, and they act upon that knowledge.

And while I’m at it, I’ll work myself into the discussion. As I noted once before on these pages: If I don’t write about myself, who the hell will? Hey, the answer is a six-letter word that begins with n and ends with y. And the middle letters are obod. Shit, I’m ordinary as hell, but that’s never stopped me from throwing a few details about my life into cyberspace!

In his day, John Cheever (1912-1982) was a celebrated and popular writer of fiction, an examiner of the American scene and psyche. Not sure how well-known he is anymore. Falconer, which hit bookstore shelves in 1977, was the fifth of his six novels. I’ve come across articles online that proclaim it a masterpiece. I wouldn’t go that far, as I found it to be a little too loose at some of the seams, but I enjoyed the heck out of the book.

Set in the 1970s, Falconer tells the tale of one Ezekiel Farragut, an upper middle-classer who, in a fit of anger, murdered his brother and, as a result, found himself deposited in New York State’s (imaginary) Falconer State Prison. Cheever plays flexibly with time in his book. It’s possible that I missed it, but I didn’t notice any mention of the length of Ezekiel’s sentence nor of how many months/years went by on the novel’s pages. This open-endedness clothes Falconer in gauzy mystery. You never can be sure what’s coming next, an approach that pulled me in.

Falconer struck me as an extended dream, a workaday one at times, transcendent at others. It contains many beautifully written, near-hallucinatory sequences. Cheever’s words often drift and float, meant I think to represent how difficult it is for constricted individuals — prisoners — to keep their heads on straight, what with their activities being limited and each day being not much different than any other for them. And even when his passages are direct, they sometimes are dreamy nonetheless. And often heartbreaking too, such as these lines from an inmate who opens his soul to Ezekiel.

In those days I was the kind of lonely man you see eating in Chinese restaurants. You know? Anywhere in this country and in some parts of Europe where I’ve been. The Chung Fu Dynasty. The One Hung Low. Paper lanterns with teakwood frames all over the place. Sometimes they keep the Christmas lights up all year round. Paper flowers, many paper flowers. Large family groups. Also oddballs. Fat women. Square pegs. Jews. Sometimes lovers and always this lonely man. Me.

Yes, Cheever could write.

Okay, then. What about answering opportunity’s call? Farragut is good at that, without even trying in most instances. His prison mates feel comfortable around him, due to his unthreatening demeanor, and unburden themselves to him, as the excerpt above shows. Farragut is open to the opportunity to allow his peers to find a bit of peace of mind.

And in the book’s ending pages, Farragut takes a plunge that he hadn’t been consciously contemplating. A window of opportunity, heavily camouflaged, opens for a few seconds. Farragut sees it, seizes it, and takes the steps that might lead to a better life for himself. We’ll never know how his actions ultimately pan out, as the book concludes only hours after Farragut’s entrance into the unknown. But, as they say, he did what he had to do. And that’s important.

Taking the plunge is a major component of Leave No Trace, one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2018. Directed and co-written by Debra Granik, it is a quiet, contemplative work.

The story begins in a heavily forested state park in Portland, Oregon, and eventually moves to even denser forest lands in Washington state. As far as I could tell, it’s a present-era tale. The movie’s main characters, war-veteran father Will (portrayed by Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (played by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) have been off the grid, societally and electronically-speaking, for years. Will, wanting no part of regular life, has chosen to live by his wits in the woods, and Tom is just happy to be with her dad. The film provides very little back story. That’s not a problem. What matters are Will and Tom’s present circumstances.


In the film’s opening scenes, they cautiously are going about their business, doing their damndest to not be seen or heard in the state park. Theirs is a life of basics. Foraging, chopping wood, cooking, eating, sleeping in a small tent, playing chess and reading. They are content to different degrees, Tom much more so than Will, who is inflicted with emotional demons from his stint(s) in an unspecified war. Probably he served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Will and Tom are incredibly close, dependent and reliant on each other.

But their way of life always is in peril, what with park rangers and hikers and joggers rarely too far away. Eventually they are discovered and gently brought into the social service system. Life opens up, potentially anyway, when Will and Tom are relocated to normal housing. The second half of Leave No Trace depicts how they handle the possibilities, opportunities some would say, that subsequently present themselves. Is it better to be among people rather than not? To learn a trade and earn money rather than perpetually scrounging for food in the woods? To become more than what one has been?

Leave No Trace faces those questions. The answers might not surprise you, but the telling ways in which they are revealed will.

Now, getting back to me, let me say this: I wouldn’t be pecking out this essay at my writing perch, in a wood-paneled den on the ground floor of a cozy and comfortable suburban house, if I hadn’t grabbed an opportunity available to me back in 1977. Can’t imagine where I’d be if I’d let the chance pass. Very likely nowhere particularly good.

I’d been floundering for much of the 1970s, a big-time non-success story following my college graduation in 1969. After a series of going-nowhere jobs, I moved to Philadelphia in 1974 to work as a caseworker for Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare (DPW). Idiotically, I quit the job after little more than one year. My hormones must have been totally out of whack for me to do that, along with my mind.

Anyway, during the aforementioned 1977, unhappily spinning my wheels, I applied for reinstatement with DPW, an option that I’d been resisting. They hauled me back aboard. Hallelujah! Mama Mia! Things began to work out swimmingly. My income improved dramatically, I made friends and in 1990 met my wife-to-be. And I stuck around DPW for 33 years . . . damn right I’d learned my lesson. All of which proved that it’s never too late to answer the door when opportunity is trying to get your attention. Do I hear an Amen?

(As I always say: Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Gracias.)

Two New Movies That I Liked A Lot: “American Animals” And “RBG”

As I’ve mentioned a few times before on this publication’s pages, I go out pretty often to the movies. So far this year I’ve caught 20 of ’em. Maybe early in 2019 I’ll do a nice, big writeup on the flicks that passed before my eyes and ears during this, our current year. But for now I’m going to limit my focus and write briefly about only two. I saw both very recently and they agreed deliciously with my delicate system. Okay, away we go.

By the time you read this essay, American Animals may be gone from the theaters. If it remains in one near you, however, I urge you to drop whatever you’re doing and go to see it. Or do likewise in the comfort of your home whenever it materializes on Netflix or HBO or whatever. (But note the caveat several paragraphs below).

What we have here is an indie effort that struck me as near-perfect filmmaking. The movie is entertaining as hell. Its plot unravels tantalizingly. Its screenplay nails the way that people talk. The acting is excellent. And you’ll be sweating bullets when the going gets rough. Hey, you get the idea. I’m an American Animals fan!

American Animals tells the story of four college-age guys who, in 2004, attempted to steal rare and valuable books (including an early edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds Of America) from the special collections department of Transylvania University’s library. Believe it or not, there really is a Transylvania University. That institution is located in Lexington, Kentucky. And believe it or not once again, the story that plays out in American Animals really did happen. Writer and director Bart Layton constructed the movie by cutting between reenactments of the crazy story lines, using professional actors, and interviews with the real-life perpetrators. The latter offer fascinating commentaries on what was going through their minds at various points in the heist’s planning and execution.

It would be wrong, wrong, wrong for me to spill any more beans about American Animals. You’ll thank me, should you view the movie, for not being a spoiler kind of individual. And so I’ll end my discussion of Animals by noting that anyone who wilts and/or takes shelter from barrages of F-bombs should stay away. As for everyone else, I believe that this one’s for you.

Oh wait. There is another thing or two: I’d never heard of Bart Layton before, and knew but one member of Animal’s cast (Blake Jenner), but so what? The movie proved to me, as numerous others have, that the world is awash with very talented though hardly famous individuals. I’m totally down with that.

RBG, a hit documentary that entered a sizeable number of American cinemas in May, and is still in quite a few, was not on my to-be-seen list. I don’t know why, but I decided that I wasn’t all that interested in learning about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the oldest (age 85) of the nine justices who comprise the USA’s Supreme Court, the highest federal court in the land. But my wife Sandy badly wanted to see it and, peerless spouse that I am, I capitulated. Off we went on a miserably hot day to watch the film in downtown Philadelphia.

I’m here to report that I was wrong. RBG (directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West) is really good. Justice Ginsburg has led a remarkable life, one devoted to her family, to the advancement of human rights and to the intricacies and necessity of the law.

This movie might not be up the alley of those who, like The Donald, are narrow-minded, mean-spirited and eager to restrict and oppress. But if you believe in respect and equality, then I imagine you’ll become an admirer of Ruth. Hell, you probably already are. Unbeknownst to me, without trying in the least she became a cultural icon and a judicial rock star over the last 10 or so years. This was quite an unexpected phenomenon, since Ginsburg is a quiet, unassuming sort. But millions of Americans have become captivated by her steadfastness, by her support of abortion rights and of gender rights. And by the slight twinkle in her eye and shy smile on her face that she often wears. She’s endearing. No other justice on the high court has a devoted fan base like hers.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is smart as a whip. She graduated from law school in 1959 and began to make her name in the legal world in the 1970s, co-founding The Women’s Rights Project and ultimately arguing six gender-rights cases before the Supreme Court. Little did she know that she herself would become a member of that court in 1993, after Bill Clinton nominated her for the job.

Now, I’m anything but a jurisprudence expert, but I’m being more than decently accurate, I think, by describing Ginsburg’s philosophy on the high court as liberal but cautious, common-sensical and mindful of people’s needs. She has taken her job extremely seriously, as well she should, working enormous numbers of hours. And she has no plans to retire. As she says in the film, she won’t step down until she feels that she is unable to keep up her full-steam-ahead pace. She’s a source of hope and pride for many in these right-wing crazy, Trumpian times.

(As I always say: Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay on good ol’ social media.)

The Oscars Are A-Comin’

I’m very well acquainted with some people who wouldn’t watch the Academy Awards telecast if the fate of the world was hanging in the balance. They can’t stand all the pomp and the self-congratulatory aura that the show is partially dressed in. Well, if the fate of the world was hanging in the balance I’d watch anything, you know, even brain-dissolving entities like The Maury Show or Chrisley Knows Best. That’s the kind of guy I am. Looking out for humanity and nature and all that, you dig?

You’d hardly have to twist my arm, though, to get me to turn on the Oscars, a broadcast that I’m pretty well addicted to. I like seeing big cinematic stars on the Academy Awards’ stage and in the audience. I like the good gags that often fly from the mouths of the hosts. I like holding my breath every time a high-heeled and flowingly-gowned actress heads uneasily toward the podium, doing all she can not to trip in front of a billion viewers worldwide. And, more than anything, I enjoy keeping alive a personal tradition that dates back to when, eons ago, I began watching the Academy Awards with my mom. She was an Oscars lover of a high order. She’d be happy to know that I’ve missed nary an Oscars presentation since those days of yore.

Well then, as surely we all know, the big day is nigh. The Academy Awards extravaganza takes to the airwaves on Sunday, March 4 at 8 PM in the USA’s Eastern Time Zone, the area in which yours truly resides. My wife Sandy and I will be glued to the boob tube. She, like me, wouldn’t miss the show.

And I’ve decided that I shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to jot down a few remarks about the Oscars. I’ve given a fair amount of thought as to what I might say herein. If I had it in me, which I don’t, I’d churn out thousands of words right now about great performances by actors over the years and about brilliant screenplays and spot-on directing. However, I’m someone who, knowing his limitations, tries to keep things manageable. Thus I’ve made the command decision to limit my realm of discussion. Seeing that the Best Picture category probably is the one that most people pay the most attention to, I will fill up the remainder of this essay by paying attention to it too.

This year there are nine nominations for Best Picture, all of which, needless to say, came out in 2017. A film-going dynamo of sorts, I hit the cinemas 46 times last year, a spree during which seven of the nominees passed before my eyes. The two that I didn’t see (Call Me By Your Name and Get Out) I wouldn’t presume to comment upon. As for the others, I shall, but not before mentioning that, of the flicks I took in last year, I thought that the un-nominated The Florida Project was the best (you can read my review here). It is a work of fiction that feels like real life, which is something I cannot say for many movies. The Florida Project is delightful, poignant and troubling. It will test the emotional strength of your heart. I highly recommend it.

Back to the subject at hand. In alphabetical order, the seven nominated films that I caught are: Darkest Hour. Dunkirk. Lady Bird. Phantom Thread. The Post. The Shape Of Water. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

That’s a sturdy and imposing list. Very fine movies reside on it. But not every one. The Post, for instance, isn’t a very fine movie. A retelling of the Pentagon Papers crisis during Richard Nixon’s presidency, The Post seemed to me to be not much more than standard filmmaking. The Washington Post newspaper (from which the film derives its title) without question stepped up to the plate for democracy by publishing, against enormous legal pressure, leaked government documents (the Pentagon Papers) that showed that the Vietnam War likely was unwinnable. But the movie has far too many preachy moments. They bring an artificial flavor to the proceedings. Director Steven Spielberg has been involved with considerably better work (Jaws, Schindler’s List and Lincoln, to name a few).

Nor is Phantom Thread top-notch, to my way of viewing things. I definitely liked its oddness, its peculiar charm, but felt unsatisfied in the end. It’s the tale of a fastidious and successful British fashion designer (played by the fabulously talented Daniel Day-Lewis) in the 1950s, a gent of 60 or so who marries a lady much younger than he. They feel each other out, they sometimes butt heads and worse . . . but their mental and emotional states, the whys behind what is happening between them, were never clear to me. Way too much understatement for my tastes. I have relatives and friends who rave about Phantom Thread, though, so what do I know? Give it a try.

Ah yes, Lady Bird, the saga of a discontented California high school senior (portrayed by Saoirse Ronan, one of the numerous non-Americans who have no trouble nailing American accents) who is fumbling her way toward whatever her destiny might be. The girl’s given name is Christine but, in trying to become her own person, she demands to be known as Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig, herself an actress, wrote and directed the movie, a double-barreled feat that she pulled off most admirably.

No, it wouldn’t be an upset if Lady Bird grabs the Oscar for Best Picture, but if the decision were up to me, I wouldn’t hand it the award. I didn’t find myself being drawn deeply enough into the movie, probably because Lady Bird/Christine is not a particularly likeable individual. Still, this is a quality film. You won’t go wrong by spending time with it.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the Battle of Dunkirk, in May and June of 1940, for the British and other Allies. Imperiled in their positions on French coastlines, the Allied forces, several hundred thousand strong, seemingly had little chance against advancing and surrounding German fighters. Rather amazingly though, most of the Allied troops were safely evacuated.

The movie drawn from the struggle, Dunkirk, is a powerful one. It reeks gloom, fear and claustrophobia, Anyone interested in history or human nature will want to see it. My only gripe about Dunkirk is that many of its sequences, even the ones in open water, don’t capture the scale of the events taking place. Enormous numbers of boats and planes were in action during the battle, but often only a smattering are pictured in the movie. This was by design, I know, an attempt to describe the big picture in small strokes. Still, I left the theater feeling pretty shaken.

Darkest Hour takes on some of the same subject matter as Dunkirk, as it is the story of Winston Churchill during his early days as Prime Minister of Great Britain. Churchill took office about two weeks before the Battle of Dunkirk began. He was a powerful presence, a leader who refused to compromise with Germany, who did his damndest to instill and elicit strength and courage from the Brits in the face of incredible danger. Gary Oldman is fabulous as Churchill. The movie is all his in a sense. But, then again, it’s not all his, for Darkest Hour would be far less than the excellent production that it is were it not for a screenplay, cinematography and direction that come from the top of the barrel. If Darkest Hour wins the Oscar, it deserves it.

Next up are our final contenders, The Shape Of Water and Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing, Missouri. I liked them both very much. The Shape Of Water is a dreamy fantasy, a story about many things, including how love can develop most unexpectedly. The movie has an element of the supernatural, in the guise of a mythical type of creature that has been captured in the Amazon jungles and brought to the USA to be studied. And it has the radiant Sally Hawkins. She plays a joyful individual, a mute, who works as a janitor at the science facility to which the lizard-man has been transported. Hawkins, through fluid body movements, subtle gestures and expressive eyes creates a loveable character, a person of true depth. Hawkins is an astonishing talent.

There are sublime sequences in Water that carried me away. And there also is a good guys versus bad guys theme (with “I’m gonna get you” scenes and the like that you’ve seen a million times over the years) that I thought holds down the movie. As good as Water is, it might have been better.

Finally we come to Three Billboards. What we have here are a taut plot and superb acting from its main players. You’re not going to find performances superior to those turned in by Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson. Three Billboards is a high-power meditation on evil, tragedy, bigotry and redemption. And I’m certain I’m leaving out other big subjects that it tackles.

All of that takes place in a dusty Missouri town where hard-as-nails Mildred Hayes (McDormand) is determined to prod the local police to find her teenage daughter’s killer, as the crime has gone unsolved for many months. She goes to unusual means in this pursuit, taking shit from nobody. Three Billboards will grab you by your collar. If you’re not wearing a collar it will find something else to grab you by. My guess is that the Oscar will end up in its hands. And I will have no complaints if that turns out to be the case.

Nor will I moan if Darkest Hour takes home the gold. Like Billboards, it is gritty and packs a wallop. To me, those two films are equally good. And totally Oscar-worthy.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece on Facebook, Twitter and such. I thank you.)

Love, The Lovers, And The Race Street Pier

There are coincidences, and then there are coincidences.  The latter type are so weird and unexpected even a fervent skeptic such as myself might be led to murmur a mighty “Mmmmm, I wonder . . .

The most potent examples of unusual coincidences that I’ve personally come across began making their appearances not long after my wife Sandy and I moved into our suburban Philadelphia home. We set down stakes here in 2005 and soon met quite a few of the occupants of other houses on the block. Some of the adults lived alone, but most were couples of the heterosexual variety, with children. Proverbially happy couples, I believed. That’s why you could have knocked me over with a sturdy feather when next-door neighbor Tony [his and all other neighborly names have been changed to protect the innocent and/or guilty] told me in 2006 that his wife Diane had moved out and that they were divorcing. Huh? Well, you rarely really know what’s going on behind closed doors, right? I was sorry to see Diane go.

A few years later things went south fast for the next-door folks on the other side of our house. Tom and Nicole each let me know that they had decided to divorce, but that in the interim they would remain within the same abode. That arrangement went on for a while. Then Nicole moved away. The finalized divorce followed. Sandy and I scratched our heads, amazed that a second couple had gone down for the count.

Well, four years ago love disintegrated once again on my street. The victims were Bob and Yvonne, the pair living directly opposite from Sandy’s and my front door. They too remained within their abode, how I don’t know, while the wheels of divorce spun. A year later they sold their house, each moving elsewhere. Their divorce became legal soon after that.

Holy crap, what was going on? Had Sandy and I moved into Divorce Epicenter? Well, maybe, because the pattern continued. The new occupants of the house directly across the street saw to that. A year and a half after moving in, Horace moved out. Joan is still there. But there’s little chance of the two getting back together. They have divorced.

Incredible, no? But what can you say? Love is a complicated emotion. It ain’t easy to manage. It can be strong as granite. Or not.

A new movie, The Lovers, is a shining example of all of that, except for the granite part. Sandy and I watched it on the big screen a few weeks ago. It isn’t playing in many theaters anymore, but if it hasn’t yet made its way to Netflix and the like, undoubtedly it will before long.

Azazel Jacobs, who has had a nice cinematic career but has yet to hit it big, wrote and directed The Lovers. In the movie, Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) are a very confused, long-married couple that has grown apart. They have tired of one another   Yet they live together. And, strangely, they sleep together, though on opposite sides of the bed, never touching for most of the movie. Each has found romance outside the home — Michael with Lucy (Melora Walters), and Mary with Robert (Aiden Gillen). Both Michael and Mary have promised to their flames that they will move in with them. But first they will have to spill the beans to their legal mates. That process is slow. Painfully slow. And it becomes complicated by the fact that far along the way Mary and Michael rediscover some smidgeons of the feelings that ages ago had brought them together.

Now, I liked The Lovers. But it sure paints a cynical picture of the human heart. Love comes. Love goes. Love can’t make up its mind. Love roils and muddies the waters. Is this the way it is out there for a hefty percentage of people in the real world, or merely a broad and comic exaggeration? I’m not someone with good answers to those questions. But I will say this: Twelve years ago I sure as hell wouldn’t have believed it possible for four couples living within spitting distance of me to call it quits.

That’s enough about love partly or fully on the rocks. It’s time to turn our attention to that which might have the power to keep love whole. And in Philadelphia I know of no better medicine for such than a visit, at night after the stars have come out, to the Race Street Pier. It’s a former commercial dock that has been repurposed and transformed, an example of tax dollars well-spent. Now it’s a public park, full of trees and lawn areas and wide walkways. It opened six years ago. The Benjamin Franklin Bridge, which spans the Delaware River, connecting Philadelphia with Camden, New Jersey, towers above the park. When darkness has fallen the bridge looks magnificent, glowing with thousand of lights that decorate its length. What a sight.

Race Street Pier and Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

Sandy and I were on the pier a few weeks ago with our pals Cindy and Gene. The skies were clear, a perfect breeze tousled our Sassoon-worthy hairdos, and the bridge presented a commanding presence. For an hour we chatted while looking at the bridge, the boat traffic on the Delaware River and the lights in Philadelphia and Camden.

Race Street Pier is mutedly lit at night, and it’s not overrun with visitors. A more atmospheric and romantic urban place in which to spend some moments you’d be hard-pressed to find. The four of us fell under the evening’s spell, that’s for certain. And the spell was powerful, irresistible. Eventually, though,  we had to leave, what with early morning hours fast approaching and our internal gas tanks running a bit low. We said goodbye to Race Street Pier, till next time. The two couples then bid one another adieu and made their ways to their respective homes.

(Don’t be shy about sharing this article or about adding your comments. Thanks.)

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

Guilty As Charged!

It’s rough out here in the blogging world. I tell you, it’s rough. After what happened to me this past Friday I think I might have had enough. Possibly this will be the last story I compose for quite a while. I can’t say for sure. But this I do know: My nerves are badly shaken. Yours would be too if you had been rigorously reprimanded and questioned, as I was, by the president of BAFFF (Blogging Ain’t For Fools, Fool).

Friday began quietly and propitiously before turning nasty. After breakfast I retired to the living room where, deep in dreamland on the sofa, I made the most of the next several hours. I was ridding The States of zombies and vampires when suddenly I was awakened at 11:30 AM by a series of powerful, rapid knocks on the front door. “Open up, Neil, at once! This is Mal Practiss, president of BAFFF. I’m here to give you a good talking to.”

I opened the door and let Mal in. As a card-carrying member of BAFFF I had no choice but to do so. Silently, I took his coat and led him to the dining room table. There, we took seats.

“Neil,” Mal said, looking straight into my eyes, “I’m certain you realize that, as a blogger, you are expected to meet stringent standards. One of BAFFF’s purposes is to monitor all of America’s bloggers, making sure they write when they should be writing and that they are telling the stories that cyberspace needs to be filled with.”

“Neil, it has come to my attention that twice — I say twice — in the past two weeks you failed to pen articles that would have fit your blog’s pages like the finest of gloves. Like most of your output, they would have described somewhat accurately your barely second-rate mini-adventures in life. First, you and your wife Sandy went to Philadelphia to see the movie 20th Century Women and followed it up with dinner at Panorama, an acclaimed restaurant located in a part of town that dates back to when Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson strode manfully through the streets. Wasn’t there a story in all of that?”

“And nine days later you and Sandy went to a house concert in Media, Pennsylvania to hear Ben Vaughn and his group. Ben Vaughn is a talented songwriter and musician who has been doing his offbeat thing for decades, and house concerts are intimate gatherings that the majority of your handful of readers probably don’t know a thing about. Neil, as with the first instance, it is unacceptable that you failed to commit a blog piece to that night out. Sir, and I use that term loosely, you better have good reasons for your neglect. If not, your blogging privileges are in jeopardy.”

“Humma, humma, humma,” I stammered admirably. A few moments later I finally was able to ask the obvious questions. “Mal,” I said, “how in the world do you know about all of this? Are you related to Kreskin?”

“Kreskin? Are you kidding? The evidence was there for me to see. I know you saw 20th Century Women because the photos you took at the theater are up on the iCloud, which needless to say I have full access to. And my access extends to OpenTable’s database, on which your Panorama reservation resides. As for The Ben Vaughn Quintet’s concert, luckily somebody videotaped the first number they performed that night and put it on FaceBook. The back of your goofy head, three feet away from the accordion player’s left elbow, is unmistakable in that video. Are my answers sufficient?”

I reluctantly nodded my goofy head yes.

“Good,” said Mal Practiss. “Now, explain yourself.”

I gathered my thoughts as best I could and took a deep breath. “Mal,” I then said, “I fully expected to write about the movie and dinner. But 20th Century Women disappointed me so much. I was sure I was going to like it, but uh-uh. It was slow and seemed almost like a hodgepodge of scenes sewn together. And I couldn’t have cared less about any of the five main characters. They were dull. Anyway, when the movie ended I didn’t see the point of writing about it.”

“Yeah, maybe I should have written a report about Panorama,” I went on. “It’s a real good restaurant. The food tastes and looks terrific. But it’s a given that any blog story about a restaurant should be stuffed with photos, and Panorama isn’t the kind of place where you whip out your phone and snap pictures of each dish. I’d have felt like an idiot doing that. What can I say?”

Mal nodded his head in sympathy, or so I thought. Then he said, “That’s unacceptable, Neil. A good story was there for you to mold, and you left it lying on the table. Let’s move on. Talk about Ben Vaughn.”

“Mal,” I said softly, “this is a different situation. I had no intention to write about that show. I’d have felt stupid sitting there jotting down notes on the music and taking photos. I mean, house concerts are special affairs — a small crowd pays to see a show in someone’s home, for crying out loud — and I didn’t want to disturb anyone sitting around me.”

“But, Mal, I’ll say this. The Ben Vaughn Quintet was really good. Vaughn’s songs are wry and understated. The band played maybe 25 tunes, including nearly every one from their new album, Pièce De Résistance, which is a winner. Ben’s a good singer and guitar picker. And how many rock bands include both a saxophonist and an accordion player? Hardly any, that’s for sure. The band was cool.”

There was little more I could add. Fortunately, a few seconds after my speech ended Sandy entered the room. Mal’s expression softened when he saw her. “Mal, Sandy. Sandy, Mal,” I brilliantly stated.

Mal sent a subdued but warm smile Sandy’s way. “Sandy,” he said, “as I imagine you know, your husband’s judgment leaves, shall we say, much to be desired. He doesn’t seem to understand the basics of blogging protocol. But I’m a reasonable man. I came here expecting to put a temporary or permanent stop to Neil’s blog. But I won’t. As long as he wises up in the future, that is. Neil, do you agree that you insulted the standards of the blogging community with your recent inactions?”

“Mal, I’m guilty as charged.”

“Yes, you are. This has been an unpleasant meeting for you and me. And it’s almost time for me to leave. Before I do, though, let me remind you that your BAFFF membership is due for renewal. It’s $500 for the upcoming 12 months, as you know. And worth every penny of it. Get your checkbook. I’ll wait.”

 

Click here for Panorama’s website.

Click here to watch The Ben Vaughn Quintet perform at the house concert.

Click here for Concerts At Sixth Street’s website.

Click here for Ben Vaughn’s website.

You can listen to The Ben Vaughn Quintet’s new album by hitting the Play button below:

 

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La La Land: Now, That’s A Great Movie!

The answer was staring me in the face, but it took a while before registering with me. There I was the other day, pawing through the nooks and crannies of my mind in search of the next topic for my blog. I was in the mood to write another of the impressionistic, ruminating pieces that have been rolling off the assembly line pretty regularly the past few months. Trouble is I hadn’t had any mini-adventures of late that I could wrap any impressionistic ruminations around. That’s when I turned my thoughts in a different direction, a cinematic one. My wife Sandy and I had taken a trip recently to a local theater where we sat close to the screen, figuring that doing so would help us become one with the movie’s charms if what we were about to see turned out to be as good as we were hoping it would.

img_1260Which is a longwinded introduction to my announcing that I have some thoughts to impart about La La Land, a musical that came out at the tail end of 2016 and now is in wide release throughout the States. This, to me, is a great movie. An example of near-perfection. An alluring and enticing creation that deserves the viewership of all who have good hearts and soft spots therein.

Yeah, I’m prone to gushing. That’s OK. There are worse ways to be. And when it comes to La La Land I’m not the only gusher by a long shot. I don’t read a lot of movie reviews, but the reviewers whose words I took a look at fell hard for this one. Sandy, who is more tuned in than I to a lot of things, confirmed that seemingly everyone carrying the title of critic had pointed their thumbs upward after watching La La Land.

What, then, do we have here? La La Land is a girl-meets-boy story. And, when well done, that template is boffo, isn’t it? Hey, I hear a few of you in the back of the room murmuring “nah.” Get out! Class is dismissed for you.

img_1334La La Land’s girl is Mia (Emma Stone), an aspriring actress caught up in the confidence-squashing eddies of the audition mill. The boy is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a sensitive-fingered jazz pianist scrambling to make a living while dreaming of the day he opens his own jazz club. Mia and Sebastian first cross paths on a Los Angeles freeway. The freeway, witness to a traffic jam from Hell, becomes the stage for the movie’s opening sequence, a lilting and athletic song and dance routine unfurled by scores of traffic stuckees who exit their vehicles to sing and jump and prance giddily on car roofs and hoods, making the best of what normally would be a real bad situation. Finally, the tangle of metal and tires begins to ease up. But Mia, slow to gun her engine, becomes the victim of relentless horn blasting from someone in a car behind hers. Sebastian. To which she responds by flipping the bird at him as he pulls out and breezes by. Take that. fella!

Needless to say, things become better between Mia and Sebastian when, as fate absolutely would have it, they unexpectedly meet again and again in The City Of Angels and realize that they are meant for each other and destined to fall in love. Which they do. But will love endure? La La Land, though bright and frothy much of the time, isn’t that way all of the time, so the answer to the question is far from a given. Damien Chazell, La La Land’s writer and director, throws more than a few dollops of darkness and pain into the mix. La La Land is a colorful, romantic bonbon laced with the realities of life.

img_1337It didn’t take long for me to fall under La La Land’s spell. Stone and Gosling possess the type of feels-right screen chemistry that often is elusive. Their Mia and Sebastian banter easily with one another, before the day arrives when cracks open in their relationship, and the two stars sing and dance in a sweet and natural manner. The songs (music by Justin Hurwitz, lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) that they and others emit are strong and tuneful. And sometimes piercing, as is the case with the stream of consciousness-like Audition (The Fools Who Dream), sung by Mia/Stone at a, natch, movie audition. And La La Land is filled with sequences so gorgeously done I felt honored to be watching the flick. Especially when Mia and Sebastian, at Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory, take each others’ hands and begin to dance, soon lifting from the floor to merge with the cosmos projected on the observatory dome’s underside.

You don’t see a whole lot of original movie musicals, which La La Land is, anymore. Or musicals based on stage productions either, for that matter. Both varieties used to be a staple of the film industry, but that was eons ago as measured in cinematic years. Don’t know why they’ve faded away. I mean, who doesn’t love The Wizard Of Oz, Singin’ In The Rain, An American In Paris, Cabaret . . . ? In any case, I left the theater thinking that La La Land is up there with those titans. You have to give it to Chazelle, who also scripted and directed 2014’s Whiplash, a nerve-wracking, music-themed opus that decidedly isn’t a musical. The guy has immense guts to have attempted La La Land, not to mention the vision and skills to pull it off. And he’s only 32. My God, when I was his age I hadn’t even mastered tying my shoes yet. Come to think of it, I still haven’t.

Well, I could go on but I won’t. You get the idea. If you haven’t already seen La La Land, make a date.

 

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Arrival, Moonlight, The Edge Of Seventeen: Three Movies Face The Jury

Film commentary used to be a big part of the publication that you presently are gazing upon. Which is why I’m on my bended knees right now, begging the movie goddesses and gods to forgive me for not seriously evaluating any cinematic creations in oh so long a time. A quick look tells me that it has been three months since I last delved deeply into any. Three months? Man, hundreds of movies have been released in that time. And I’ve taken in a fair number of them, 20 or so. It’s not that I didn’t want to spin a review or two or three. I did. But, being a dumb f**k who seems to be getting dumber by the day, I couldn’t figure out anything meaty or nifty to say about most of the fare. Or figure out their plots half the time either, to be embarrassingly honest. Hey, not all of us are destined to inherit the mantles of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert.

So far today, though, my dimness factor has not been deplorable. I therefore have decided to share some thoughts and observations about three movies that my wife Sandy and I caught on big screens recently: Arrival, Moonlight, and The Edge Of Seventeen. Here we go.

Two of these three films, Moonlight and The Edge Of Seventeen, are lovingly-crafted and expertly-scripted examinations of the human condition. (Arrival is a different animal altogether, one to which lovingly-crafted possibly applies, but expertly-scripted doesn’t). They are coming of age stories that couldn’t be more different in their feels and approaches. The former, an engrossing downer that places a magnifying glass over the marginalized side of American society, is relentlessly gritty and roiling. The latter, on the other hand, is buoyant and breezy. It’s full of yuks and carries a smart, sarcastic swagger, yet is kept real by swift undercurrents of unease. Each in its own way rocks.

moonlight_2016_filmMoonlight, which unfolds in three separate segments, follows Chiron, a neglected and insufficiently loved gay black male, from his preteen years through his mid 20s. Life never is easy or a comforting experience for Chiron (played expertly, in chronological order, by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), who is raised in poverty by a cocaine-addicted mother who loves her son but maybe loves her drugs as much or more. Compared to Chiron, pretty much any of us who thinks he/she has problems should think again. Just the basics, such as finding food and shelter, are frequent challenges for Chiron, whose less-than-wordy personality is a result of the many stones that life tosses at him. Never has he been bolstered by more than a couple of willing and able supporters. And, on top of all of that, his homosexuality confuses and frightens him. He’s uncomfortable in his own skin.

img_1266The environment presented in The Edge Of Seventeen is a far more materially comfortable one than that displayed in Moonlight, but that doesn’t mean that life is splendidly manageable for the film’s protagonist, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld). It isn’t, not by a long shot, though Nadine’s woes, compared to Chiron’s, look like nothing more than toe bruises. Nadine, a high school junior who has struggled all her days to locate self-confidence and to forge friendships, is a funny wise-cracker. She also spends a lot of time being sad, letting the slings and arrows get to her. She’s on the verge of what? Not quite despair, but something close to that. Most fortuitously for Nadine, familial and social support systems, and opportunities, are at hand, as might be expected for a middle-class white girl living in a well-stocked house with a mother and brother of good quality, and attending a good school. It’s a question of how, or if, she’ll take advantage of what’s around her.

img_1265Do Moonlight and The Edge Of Seventeen, as different as they are, have anything in common? I think so. A two-pronged theme that runs through both is human connections, and the lack thereof. Chiron and Nadine do not find it easy to locate the pathways that might bond them with others. They are hungry to connect, but their internal mechanisms (not to overlook outside forces, especially in Chiron’s case) get in the way. But they try. And they become better at the game as time goes on.

I’ll say little more about these two films, as I’m usually reluctant to provide data in quantities that might spoil another’s movie-going experiences. What I will mention is that the acting in both is excellent all around. Besides the leads in each movie, a tip of the hat to Mahershala Ali, whose portrayal of a very decent-hearted drug dealer who partially rescues Chiron from a totally disastrous existence, is heartbreakingly fine. Likewise to Woody Harrelson. He shines as a teacher who feels, really feels, in a most understatedly wry yet wise way for Nadine and her plight.

Connections, to my mind, is also a formidable motif running through Arrival. I’m not fully confident saying this, though, because what in the world Arrival actually is all about is significantly beyond me. And, I might add, beyond four or five other reviewers whose analyses I’ve looked at. Nevertheless, a few of those reviewers pretty much swooned over Arrival. How do you swoon over something that leaves you puzzled? Beats me. I guess that the movie’s atmospherics and high aims were enough to please them.

img_1298Anyway, Arrival is a sci-fier that definitely wants you to put on your thinking cap. Good luck with that, as I just mentioned. It is a present day aliens-visit-Earth affair. The aliens land simultaneously at 12 locations around the globe in sleek vehicles, two creatures per craft. (Spoiler alert, of sorts. I’m about to spill more beans than I did with Moonlight and The Edge Of Seventeen). They don’t speak any human languages, not unexpectedly, though it sure would have been keen if they did. But they do grunt and bellow in their own tongue. Unfortunately, what those noises mean no human ever figures out. But all is not lost, as they also have a written language, one composed of ink-blotty symbols. And — eureka! — eventually a couple of real smart humans decipher it, taking alien–human connections to a better level.

The visitors, super-giant octapi types that never leave their space ships, in my opinion don’t explain all too well (after the point in which their ink blots become understood) why they landed on our orb in the first place. That’s a big gripe that I have with the movie. Explain to whom, you ask? Why, to Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics expert and one of the aforementioned real smart humans. Upon the aliens’ arrival, Louise had been hauled out to meet and greet two of the huge beings, at their States-side landing site, by a befuddled and nervous U.S. military. Somehow, if I’m not mistaken (and I could be), the aliens knew in advance that they would hook up with Louise, clairvoyantly understanding that Louise is just what the world needs to help reduce high-running tensions among nations. To bring the world closer together, in other words. She’s a connector, see? Yup, the long-limbed animals are promoters and harbingers of peace, and real heroes, in my iffy interpretation of things.

There’s an unusual misty and mystical charm to Arrival that you won’t encounter every day. That’s a good thing. And a reason to check it out. There also are too many scenes loaded with clichéd actions and reactions, and dialog that frequently clunks heavily. If your movie-going time is limited, my suggestion is to put Arrival on the back burner. It’s a different story for Moonlight and The Edge Of Seventeen, though. Those you won’t want to miss. They are primo.

 

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Not Your Average Family: A Review Of Captain Fantastic

IMG_0844A few weeks ago my wife Sandy and I ventured out to see Captain Fantastic. It’s an oddly named movie and quite a good one. Captain Fantastic is a tale about a family, the Cashes, that for many years has been living in semi-seclusion deep in Washington State mountain wilderness. Why? Because Ben and Leslie Cash, early in their adult lives, walked out mainstream American society’s exit door. They were turned off by, and wanted no part of, the USA’s big business and big government, and the wasteful and extravagant lifestyles of many of their fellow citizens. Self-sufficient and resourceful in their wooded paradise, they have grown their own food, hunted animals and fruitfully made their way. And, via unorthodox and vigorous home schooling, they have passed on their beliefs, skills and knowledge to their progeny, all six of them, the oldest of whom, a son, is about 17. Part hippies, part isolationists, part radical thinkers, Ben and Leslie have helmed what ain’t your average family, to say the least. Average, no. Smart, book-loving and full of spunk, yes. In other words, very likeable.

Give Me The Simple Life is on this album.
Give Me The Simple Life is on this album.

I wanted to write a story about Captain Fantastic shortly after seeing it. The story definitely was inside me, pawing to get out, but it just wouldn’t congeal. Still, I kept thinking about Captain Fantastic a little bit now and then while hoping for the arrival of a special something that would set a zippy analysis of CF in motion. Such occurred recently when I heard a song on the radio, vocalist Annie Ross’ 1959 version of Give Me The Simple Life, an All-American standard recorded by many over the years (click here to listen). Harry Ruby and Rube Bloom wrote this number around 1945, meaning it to be a paean to modesty in one’s approach to living, to being happy with a small abode, basic possessions and the ones you love. As such, it would make a fairly decent though incomplete theme song for the Cashes. But Annie Ross took big liberties with the Ruby-Bloom creation. Someone, maybe she, penned some additional lyrics that turned the original song on its head. Turns out that Annie had been playing with us. “Here’s what I really want,” she in effect sang in the tune’s closing verses. “Plenty of dough, a Cadillac, caviar and really nice clothes.”

Ben and Leslie Cash, had they ever heard Annie Ross’ take on Give Me The Simple Life, would have shaken their heads knowingly. “That’s the American way.” they’d have said. “F*ck that. This mountain is where we belong.”

Ah, if only things were that clear. If they were, life would be a breeze (and there’d be little for moviemakers to make movies about). But, duh, circumstances change and situations develop. And people, if they are wise and with it, choose to or are forced to adapt. Or at least contemplate the possibility of adapting.

At the start of Captain Fantastc, we see seven of the eight Cashes in action. All but Leslie, who has been away from the household for several months, a hospitalized victim of mental and emotional disturbances. In her absence Ben is fully in charge, leading his troops through the same rigorous activities as when Leslie was present: killing deer, climbing rock walls, reading and discussing books, to name a few. The Cashes, if anything, are, with exceptions, very well-rounded. One day, though, bad news reaches Ben. Leslie, his soul mate, took her life. Apparently troubled for a long time, she had soldiered on till the pain grew too intense.

Leslie, in her will, left specific instructions as to how her death is to be observed and how her body is to be disposed. The Cashes’ quest to honor her wishes takes them off-mountain, where they ram hard into modern American life. For the Cash offspring, supermarkets and video games and big houses, all of which they encounter, are disorienting. And for Ben, the temporary immersion in society makes him look at his kids anew. He and they love their mountain home, but is it ultimately a prison for the children? To truly blossom might they need to live among their countrymen, at least in some modified manner?

Plot-wise, I’ll say no more. Now it’s gripe time, which I’ll keep very short by mentioning only one of several quibbles: Maybe I missed something, which is likely, but I didn’t come away with a good understanding of when or why Leslie’s mental problems developed and grew. I thought that the presentation of this subject was more than a little confused and hard to follow. Like me.

Which awkwardly leads me to note that for eons I’ve been amazed by how many good movies are written and/or directed by persons whom I’ve never heard of before. That’s a reflection of the amount of talent out there, and also shows that I’ve got miles to travel if I ever hope to get back in the loop. All of which is a delayed way of saying that Matt Ross wrote and directed the good Captain. As for actors who do a great job, well, everyone shines in Captain Fantastic. Viggo Mortensen, whom I do know about, gets far more screen time than anyone else. He has no trouble revealing the many moods and facets of Ben Cash. And George McKay too is wonderful. Previously an unknown to me, he plays Ben and Leslie’s sweet and low-in-certain-life-experiences oldest child.

Movie fans, that’s a wrap.

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Me And My Muse: A Cry For Help (Hers, Not Mine)

Planet Earth contains over seven billion humans who are pushing hard to raise that number to eight billion. Of that multitude I’d estimate that 20 or 25 persons might recall my story from a few months ago about Erratica, one of the Greek goddesses and, more to the point, my wondrous muse (clicking here will make the tale appear). Clearly, my readership’s growth curve has almost limitless room to expand. That’s a positive, isn’t it? Go get ’em, cowboy! Yeah, you can do it!

Oh, Erratica, Erratica. She has helped me immeasurably since I took up blogging last year. Nearly every week she has materialized in my home to guide me, to prod me into getting my thoughts in order. Without her this blog would be nothing. Come to think of it, though, it’s kind of nothing anyway. Aww, shit.

Erratica
Erratica

Yes, like clockwork for the most part, Erratica has appeared on Thursdays. Except during my vacations, that is. She and I have an agreement that she won’t pop in on me when my wife Sandy and I are away, as we were for part of last month. But after we returned home, Erratica missed her next scheduled appointment. I didn’t give that much thought, figuring she had gotten my vacation dates wrong. But I began to worry the following Thursday when again she was a no-show. What was going on? Had Erratica abandoned me? If she had, I was staring the end of my blogging career in the face.

This past Thursday evening, as usual, I sat in my suburban Philadelphia home’s library. Decked out in hot pink cargo pants and my favorite bright blue t-shirt emblazoned with Wazzup, Dawgie? in neon green letters, I dazzled. Worn out from worrying about Erratica, sleep began to overtake me.

“Oh, Neil. I’m so glad to see you. I’ve missed you. It seems like weeks since last we met,” an unsteady voice said, quickly awakening me. Erratica was in the house.

“My goddess, where have you been? I’m overjoyed that you are here. The last two weeks without you turned me into a nervous wreck. Miraculously I was able to write articles, but it was a struggle.”

I stood up and looked Erratica in the eyes. Something was very wrong. A handful of tears slowly made their way down her cheeks. I had never seen her like this. She needed a seat. I brought a chair from the dining room and placed it next to mine. She took it and opened up her heart.

“Neil, I’m so lost. I don’t know what to do. You know my dad? Zeus?” she half-sobbed.

“Well, I’ve never had the pleasure. But I know of him,” I said. “Is he ill or something?”

Ill?” she cried. “He’s fitter than a fiddle, that old guy. He’s indestructible! But something has come between us. He can’t tolerate the way I’ve been performing my job . . . my bad attendance record, my lack of patience with my charges, the sarcastic barbs that I throw at them. Neil, I’m supposed to help unpolished writers like you, and for millennia that’s exactly what I did. But I’ve been failing them of late, including you. So, my dad has done the unthinkable . . . he has put me on probation. ‘Daughter, you better get it together fast, or you’re out!’ he said to me this morning. Neil, you are the first pseudo-scribe I’ve visited since he uttered those words. I need your help!”

It took me more than a few moments to process what I had heard. Then I took a deep breath, not knowing what words would tumble from my mouth.

“Erratica, somehow you have it all wrong. You have been a lifesaver to me these past many months. Sure, you can be crabby and mean, but so what? The bottom line is that your kicks to my ass have been productive. Because of you I’ve turned out a load of stories. Without you, I’d spend my writing sessions with fingers frozen to my computer’s keyboard.”

“But I need to become more reliable and customer-friendly, Neil, like I used to be. Somehow I got worn down by all the griping and whining that you and your amateur tribe are famous for.”

“Erratica,” I said, gently placing a hand on her left shoulder. “The world, on a human level, is a tough place, filled with negatives that make griping and whining seem like pablum. And I think that all of those real problems have gotten to you, even though you’re not human. If I tell you about a few good things that have been going on, might that help?”

“It might,” Erratica said quietly. “It might.”

“Okay,” I said. “Here goes. As you know, Sandy and I went to Paris and Amsterdam last month. We had a superb time. They are such great places. We did a lot and were with a couple of our friends for most of the trip. It was primo fun. For instance . . . ”

She cut me off. “I’m familiar with the details. Believe it or not, I read your stories about the vacation. I’m one of the few who did.”

“And you liked them?” I asked, wary of the forthcoming answer.

“Uh, they were okay. You’re not exactly Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux, though, are you?”

“Be nice, Erratica.” I said. “I’m your friend.”

“Forgive me, Neil. It won’t happen again,” she said. And for some reason I believed her.

IMG_0793 (2)“And very recently we went to the movies to see Hunt For The Wilderpeople. It’s delightful. Taika Waititi, who I never heard of before, wrote and directed it. The flick takes place in New Zealand. It’s about a 13 year old who has spent his whole life in the child welfare system being passed around from one foster care family to another. At the start of the movie he looks and acts like a sullen bag of trouble. Doesn’t talk to people, dresses like a gangsta-in-training, which he fancies himself to be. Then he gets placed with a back-to-nature couple living in bush country, and his world changes. His sweetness and innocence begin to emerge, don’t ask me why considering everything he’s been through. Probably he barely knew himself that they were there. It’s a wonderful thing to watch the transformation. And he’s not the only person who changes for the better. I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, so I’m not going to tell you anything else. Erratica, do yourself a favor and buy a ticket to see Hunt For The Wilderpeople. We all need a healthy dose of healthy emotions these days, and this movie will give that to you.”

The sofa that Erratica eyed.
The sofa that Erratica eyed.

Erratica’s face brightened. She looked at me and smiled. “Thanks for the boost,” she said. “Sounds like a good movie. And sounds like you’ll be banging out a story about it for your blog.” She paused for a second. “Neil, I’ve been in a bad way for a long time now. But I’m going to try hard to get back on track. My father’s a no-nonsense sort and means what he says. If he kicks me off of Mount Helicon I’ll have nowhere to go.” She walked into my living room to take a peek. I followed her there. “Could I crash on this sofa if it comes to that?” she asked. “It looks comfy. Oh my, how the time flies. There’s a nitwit in Vermont who I have to visit now. For kicks he gets a colonoscopy every week and writes narratives about them for his blog. The blog’s called Checking Up On My Innards. And it’s actually pretty interesting, a lot better than you’d expect. Somehow he doesn’t run out of things to say. Neil, I’ll see you in a week.”

And in a poof she was gone.

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