This past Sunday at 2:00 a.m., we Illinois residents pushed back the clock an hour. I mention Illinois because I know some states don’t mess with this twice a year ritual. And no, I didn’t stay up until 2:00 to adjust the clock. It’s one of those annoying yet satisfying tasks I tackle bright and early upon awakening, satisfying because it feels like I’ve been given a fresh start, a reboot.
But there’s something peculiar about the resetting. For example, I keep the clock in my car eight minutes fast. When I “fell back” on Sunday, I changed only the hour. While I was at it, I could have easily adjusted the minutes too. It’s not as if, when I glance at the clock in my car, I’m fooled. I know precisely how fast and I make the quick calculation each time I look at it. I suppose the illusion of an extra eight minutes provides some level of comfort. Or maybe this is a throwback to a time when clocks ran a bit sluggishly with each passing day, and I’m trying to stay ahead of that? My little insurance policy.
But when I reset the clocks in my kitchen, I made sure that those were set to the correct time. Which is a bit tricky with the digital stove clock. I checked the correct time on my phone, set the time on the stove, then had to press ENTER for the clock to begin its “ticking.” But by the time I pressed Enter, what if time had advanced a minute? Then my stove clock would be a minute slow. Which would cause some consternation. Think about it: do you know anyone who intentionally sets their clocks too slow? I could just set the digital kitchen clock one minute fast, or eight minutes fast for that matter, and do the mental subtraction that I perform in the car, but I feel this compulsion to keep the kitchen clocks accurate. And I don’t know why!
About ten feet away from the kitchen, there’s another clock in the living room, but because it uses double A batteries, the time is always a little off, so I usually set this one about three or four minutes fast. But I never care that this clock is unreliable. As long as I’m aware of its unreliability, I’m okay.
My wife’s alarm is set 40 minutes fast! She presses the snooze button about five times before dragging herself out of bed. According to my logic, if the time on her alarm were more accurate, she’d be able to gain an extra 40 minutes of uninterrupted sleep. But logic, as I’ve described above, plays little role in how we feel about time.
Throughout the day on Sunday, whenever I glanced at the clock, it was always, well, about an hour earlier than I expected. This was a warm luxury, an unexpected gift. I could kick back and spend a few more minutes reading the paper and filling in the crossword puzzle, and when I was done, I still had plenty of morning left.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman has conducted clever studies on our perception of time. You can find his site HERE. (Look for the New Yorker article that featured him.) And psychologist Philip Zimbardo has delivered a TED Talk on how our attitudes toward time affects our happiness and success, and you can find that link HERE.
Right now I feel as if I’ve spent enough time thinking and writing about this. I’ve read that sitting too long is not good for the body. Also, I’m looking forward to marching upstairs to find myself a snack. This looking forward has certainly altered my perception of how long I’ve been sitting here. And my perception, of course, would be altogether different if I had to march upstairs to grade a set of papers. This logic I understand.
I trust I’m not the only one tired of and disgusted by the most recent round of campaign ads on television and the radio. From both sides. As soon as the ad begins, my skin crawls, and I leap for the remote. I’ll change it to the TV guide channel, C-Span streaming an empty Senate chamber, a black screen, anything but another insipid ad. And the same ones appear over and over, maybe ten times each hour, though it feels like far more.
They’re all the same and fall under one of these types:
1. The family endorsement, which is particularly grating, not to mention unconvincing. So, you get your sister (or your wife or your dog) to vouch for you, to say you’re a good guy. Big deal. Why is that even a consideration? It’d be pretty sad if your own family didn’t support you.
2. The rhetorical question, dripping with sarcasm. “Did you really think no one would find out?”
3. The dramatic background music, ominous when referring to the opponent, which shifts dramatically to light, tinkling piano when the ad turns to the endorsing candidate. With no transition between the doom (if you elect the other guy) and hope (me me me).
4. The one where the candidate is shown in a factory or school, surrounded by a group of supporters all nodding in sync—and nodding more enthusiastically than you’ve ever seen anyone nod.
5. The dramatization, in which a husband and wife speak about their worries of the future and how a certain candidate in office would mark the end of civilization. Or when one woman calls another woman who calls another woman to share their concerns on women’s issues, as if all women automatically agree with one another.
6. The ones that pair footage of tragedies with the policies of a candidate.
7. The innuendo ad, in which “politician” is a dirty word. Aren’t all elected officials politicians? And if these politicians have been in office for a long time, the ads equate longevity with corruption. Can’t 30 years in office simply imply sincere commitment?
8. The leisurely ads that discuss the other candidate’s attack ads, while ignoring the ones that they’ve aired and endorsed.
9. The newspaper quotes, some of which are accurate, but mostly taken out of context.
I have a few proposals. Let’s stop all these ads. Instead, networks can grant each side a block of time to lay out its argument. If networks need to break up this block with commercials for soap or soda, I’m okay with that. It’s not like this will make the process any less dignified than it already is.
Under the present system, how much time do elected officials actually devote to raising money? (Devote, as in devotion.) Quite a lot, if the frequency of television ads is any indication. If politicians didn’t have to devote all this time stockpiling cash to get elected, maybe they could actually govern and get something done.
Or maybe there’s some middle ground. Since politicians are so adept at raising money, let them keep scrounging and then broadcasting their petty ads, but at least half of all the money they raise must be earmarked for city services or bridge repairs or donated to a food pantry—or something other than promoting and tearing down candidates.
Or let’s try this: the frequency of the ads must decrease proportionally to the frequency of early voting. That would have driven me to the polls weeks ago.
No matter what movie Bill Murray stars in, he’s always Bill Murray. For most actors, this would pose a great problem, but not for Murray. Maybe because he doesn’t allow a role to restrict him. He does more or less whatever the hell he wants for fun—both on and off the screen. He doesn’t have an agent or a publicist. He doesn’t even use a regular phone for business but an 800 number that might or might not get through to him.
This live in the moment spirit fits his most recent role in St. Vincent perfectly. He plays Vincent, the cranky old neighbor with a soft side, who becomes so desperate for cash that he sits for the new neighbor’s kid next door. Sits meaning, he takes him in his beater of a car wherever he goes: to the racetrack, bar, or hospital.
The movie’s opening scenes start off a bit clunky, but the movie soon settles into an easy rhythm that pulls you along. You know where you’re going to be pulled, as the storyline is predictable, but you don’t mind in the least because Bill Murray is leading the way. Following a script for sure, but clearly adding his own nuanced improvisations. The other two improvisational actors, Chris O’Dowd, brilliantly cast as a Catholic priest, and Melissa McCarthy, as the neighbor, bring a spontaneity that also helps to downplay the predictability of the story. Naomi Watts plays a vital role, and she does fine, but her character is thinly drawn and easily forgotten. The neighbor boy, played by Jaeden Lieberher, about ten years old, has some remarkable moments. I suspect that name will sound familiar to many in a few years.
The movie’s not going to win an Academy Awards, but it’s a solid effort, sweet, funny, touching, and very enjoyable.
As the credits rolled, Bill Murray sits on a lawn chair playing with a hose, clearly for his own amusement. No one in the theater left, no one even stirred. To understand why so many of us are mesmerized by this guy, pick up the November 6 issue of Rolling Stone. I had a few minutes to kill before the movie and happened to see the magazine at Target and read it afterward. I could quote the entire article, but I’ll limit myself to this story in the opening paragraph.
While in a cab, Murray finds out the driver is a saxophonist, who never has time to play. So Murray tells him to pull over, to get his sax out of the trunk and play, while he, Murray, drives. Then they pull over at a BBQ place so the cabbie can play for a crowd. Read the entire article. It’s inspiring.
Coincidentally, I’m also reading Live from New York, the 2002 edition about Saturday Night Live, featuring short interviews of the main players and writers and producers, nearly all of them compelling. Bill Murray comes across not only as wildly creative and spontaneous, but articulate and insightful as well.
Chevy Chase left the show after his first year, stirring resentment among some. When he returned to host, he and Murray, minutes before a live show, got into a scuffle, prompted by other cast members, mainly Belushi. Murray was hoping to throw off his timing, which didn’t work. But he did manage to bring Chase’s ego down a notch, a big head being one of the few sins in St. Vincent’s, or Murray's, world.
Question of the Day. Do I point out the mistake to the cashier at Dunkin Donuts? If so, I'm sure we would have a long discussion about the irony of the sign, about mistakes seen elsewhere, how maybe the mistake fits in with the Dunkin mode of spelling, about the laxity in public discourse and how this will lead to the fall of civilization...
At the very least, I'm going to begin a gallery of such signs and post them here. Feel free to add your own.
So what do you think: point out the mistake or no?
I go through spells when I ignore fiction. Then I ache for a novel I can savor. Well, I have found one: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. I found myself handling the book gently, reading slowly, pausing, flipping back to previous sections. This is a masterful work.
The narrative switches back and forth between a young blind girl living in occupied France and a German cadet in training with the Third Reich. The chapters are short, the drama is intense, the truths are precise. A lovely book.
In nonfiction, I just finished Robert Hilburn’s biography, Johnny Cash: The Life. I haven’t read much about Cash, so I can’t say this is the definitive bio, but it’s damn good. The details are so richly conveyed that Hilburn doesn’t need to offer psychological theories about what drove Cash. He doesn’t need to provide lofty sociological frameworks. He simply tells the story and trusts the reader to understand why Cash was so driven and often lost and always taken with the downtrodden in our world.
I didn’t realize that some of Cash’s best known hits were recorded when he was in his 20s. I did know that some of his best work was recorded during the last few years of his life, and the section on his collaboration with Ric Rubin is especially fascinating. Even if you’re not a big Cash fan (and if not, just listen), you will still enjoy this story.
After I finished the book, I happened to catch Walk the Line on television. I liked the movie when I first saw it, but after reading the bio, the movie strikes me as caricature. Read the book. And listen to When the Man Comes Around or his version of Hurt.
Five books under $8. The Julian Barnes book is a signed first edition.
The news about Robin Williams still haunts.
Yesterday, Mary Smich in The Chicago Tribune cites a few lines from a poem by Galway Kinnell that he wrote to help a student during a dark time:
Wait, for now.
Distrust everything if you have to.
But trust the hours.
carried you everywhere,
up to now?
Pass these lines along to someone who might need them.
If you haven’t heard about Richard Linklater’s newest film Boyhood, you need to check it out. He began filming when the main character, a boy, was five years old, and every year for 12 years, he assembled his cast for a few days to shoot additional scenes. As the story unfolds, we watch the boy grow into a pensive teen.
A few questions arose while watching, to which I didn’t know the answers because I avoided any behind the scene glimpses. For now, I still don’t want to know. I’m still awash in the magic of the transformation, and that’s good enough. But here are my questions. When Linklater selected this particular boy, Ellar Coltrane, how could he know that the boy would be a convincing actor 12 years later? I think about Ron Howard, who was wonderful as Opie on the Andy Griffith Show, but who became cringe-worthy much later on Happy Days. Also, how much of the script was planned? As they saw how Coltrane actually matured, did they use his looks and demeanor to fill in the storyline? I don’t think I’m ruining anything by mentioning the changes in hair length throughout the movie. Was the hair a real length every year, or did Linklater say, “Hey, kid, next time I see you, look like a hippy.”
Although the boy is the main character, the movie could have been called Fatherhood or Motherhood because not only does the boy grow before our eyes, but so do his sister and parents and step-parents. And since we understand the boy so well, we also understand those around him.
When the mom, now divorced, hooks up with a man we know is wrong for her, we also know why she needs his stability. When the dad, who sees his kids only on weekends, can’t get his kids to open up, we understand both sides. Years later, when the dad mellows, shown via high-hitched trousers, we understand this too well because we’ve seen this in ourselves or our friends. Well, not me. I’ve been fairly tame my whole life. I feel as if I need to break out the other way and get me a Harley.
I’ve been thinking about why this movie has stayed with me for days now. Have you seen the Youtube video of this little girl, about four years old, bawling because her infant brother will one day grow up? She shrieks! She doesn’t want him to grow up. It’s hilarious because it such a mature sentiment coming out of this toddler, and it’s a pain we’ve all felt. Well, you feel similarly as you watch this movie. You know the boy is going to age 12 years. (This much I knew ahead of time.) You know there’s no halting the years. You have to sit back and let time pass, holding at bay your sometimes intense curiosity about his future. By the end of the movie, you want more. You’ve been sitting there for nearly three hours, and your curiosity doesn’t simply end when the movie does.
For the past few months, I’ve been experiencing a similar type of wonder. I’ve been transferring old home movies onto DVD. In order to do this, I have to watch the old VHS tapes in real time, watching my three girls as infants, then toddlers, and I’m now up to the little girl stage. It’s 1994, and I know what’s going to happen in the next 20 years. Yet I’m still searching for clues about why they turned out the way they did. And I can identify with the Youtube girl, screaming to freeze time. I can’t. I wouldn’t if I could. I love what they’ve become. But it’s all too much to take in sometimes.
The movie, in the end, does provide pointed perspective on all this, which is a comfort actually. A thing to savor.
Not long ago, we had to move my mother-in-law, Marilyn, into an assisted living facility. The place is warmer than the word facility suggests. It’s run by Catholic nuns and a battalion of Slavic women armed with mops and towels over their shoulders to wipe their brows. When I mention the move to others of a certain age, they usually nod in understanding. They know firsthand how hard this can be. They know also about the challenge of dealing with the loved one’s belongings. Their stuff. We talk about estate and garage sales. The many trips to Goodwill. The claiming of particular things by family and friends and neighbors.
I’ve been most fascinated by this last challenge. What items are taken, what becomes a discard. Since I’m mostly retired and not working in the summer, I’ve been the one driving to thrift shops for The Stuff’s final destination after it’s been picked through. No, we don’t want that cup, that paper shredder, that rickety ladder, that Christmas tree. But as I’m loading boxes, I find myself unwilling to part with certain things. Not so much because I want them, but because at one time or another they meant something to Marilyn or her husband, Marty. At least this is what I imagine.
My favorite item I’ve taken is a spatula. Just an ordinary kitchen tool. But I picture Marilyn, who loved to wait on others, poking at wedged potatoes or turning an omelet for Marty, who loved to be waited on. In this sense, they had a pretty darn good marriage! She probably didn’t pay much attention to the utensil in her hand, but I do now, dearly. I imagine the fluid deftness of her movements, the care she attached to what she was making.
When I had to clean my parents’ home two years ago, it’s no surprise that I came away with a couple of similar utensils from their house. I don’t use them often, but when I make taralli, this is what I dig out of the kitchen drawer:
I also took a few dish towels from my mom’s house. I’m reluctant to admit that years ago I stuffed one towel into a mason jar to retain its aroma, reluctant because this strikes me as a little desperate. At the same time, I’m glad to know the jar is downstairs, waiting for me to unseal it one day.
I took a few saint statuettes, too, and have them scattered around my house because I knew what they meant to my parents. I took a large spool of thread and scissors from my father’s tailoring supplies. I can’t bring myself to throw out their canes, though I want to. I spent the winter after they passed wearing my old man’s coat, which I’ve written about before. I took a salad bowl we use often and a bowl for Romano cheese for when guests come over.
Speaking of dish towels, Marilyn had, I’d guess, 200. I imagine her in Montgomery Ward’s back when keeping house was something like a calling for her, browsing through ribbed cotton towels and apple-patterned softer ones, deciding and thinking, Yes, I could use another towel. Did she realize how many she already owned? Would she ever have enough? What did her collection mean to her? I did save four or five of her towels, stuck them under our sink to use, but towels are not that distinct to me, and I’ve already lost track of which ones are hers.
I took some of Marilyn’s jazz CDs, too. When I play one, I imagine the contentment she felt as she sang along, but only when Marty wasn’t home. He was a gifted musician who could not stand his wife’s off-pitch wailing. The irony is that Marty rarely listened to music and probably never played piano, at home, for himself, which probably smacked of work. When he had guests over though, he and that piano came alive. His daughter now has his piano, and I wonder about her sentiments toward this instrument she sees every day.
I also saved a painting of a violin that hanged above the piano, not that Marty probably took much notice of the painting. Still, it was something he took in each day, at some level, and I want to continue to see that same image.
I took a wide sauté pan that no one claimed. My fervent wish: that Marilyn could stand next to me now, warning me about the height of the flame and suggesting when to add oregano and pepper and when to let food simmer undisturbed.
I’ve been wondering about my own things, too. What will my garage sale look like? Which of my things will my family want to keep—or discard without a second thought? Would their choices surprise or appall me? Let’s see, I don’t write in my books, so I doubt that many of my books will be kept in the way I describe here. Besides, there are too many, and most will have to be given away. While I don’t mark up books, I do often write on jumbo note cards that I use as bookmarks. Maybe there’s some random note in one of the books they’ll want to keep? I don’t have a favorite mug, I don’t wear slippers, I don’t feel a particular connection to any kitchen item. I’m glad I won’t have to make these decisions myself.
These legacies of daily life can be powerful, tapping into grief that seems to be right there without notice, or joy or nostalgia or a number of other feelings. But it’s probably best not to think too long on your own things and what they might mean to others someday.
It comes as no surprise that I feel compelled right now to march downstairs to clean our so-called storage room, but also dread.
If you like books, you really need to get to downtown Chicago next weekend, June 7/8. You can find a schedule online, download an app too. And it's all free. Meet writers, shop used books, talk to people at booths, weave in and out of crowds, make a new friend.
I'll be moderating a panel of writers at noon on Saturday at Jones Prep Academy. The writers: Charles Finch, Maya Lang, Joshua Max Feldman. All great writers. And this is their first book. Come out and hear how they did it!