Even though I’ve never felt inclined to watch the three most recent Star Wars installments, I plan to see the newest one. Someday. When the crowds thin. Maybe in 2017.
In the meantime, if you’re like me and want to avoid the crowds and long lines, here are two movies worth seeing.
This first one I’ll call a film, a beautiful, expansive drama that shifts easily from Ireland to Brooklyn. When you hear expansive, you might assume that the film spans generations. But the time here can be measured in months, about a year in all. By the end, you can’t believe how far these characters have come. Which is a testament to the craftsmanship behind the camera and to the fresh faced actors on the screen, Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen. The change in Ronan as the Irish born character Eilis is transformative and inspiring. And you’re with her every step of the way, cringing at her missteps but fully understanding them. And while Cohen, as Tony from Brooklyn, changes not at all, he pulls you in with his smirk and unassuming delivery. He is a young Marlon Brando. You will hear both their names again. And maybe one day I’ll be able to spell hers.
Ah, the latest Bond movie. Yes, this is a movie. Heart attack fast and Aston Martin sleek and smart, even when you don’t know what the hell is going on. But I don’t think you’re supposed to follow the story too closely. You know who’s sinister, you know his motives, you know it’s global. On the other side, you know that Bond will prevail, that his escapes will be thrilling, and you know you shouldn’t analyze anything he does too closely. For instance, and I don’t think this will ruin anything, there’s a scene when he needs to catch up to some fleeing bad guys, and suddenly he’s flying a plane. For a second, and only a second, you wonder, how the hell did he get a plane so quickly? But you have to dismiss this and just watch with your reptile brain. I don’t know if I’d say this is a great movie, that it will stay with me for any meaningful length of time, but I don’t want to think about that either. The film is a carnival ride, a dazzling feast for the eyes.
I’ve been teaching this sixties & seventies film and literature class, and while the focus is squarely on themes such as rebellion and civil rights and war and the changing of women’s roles, I’ve been most struck by all the sounds that have disappeared from those decades. When Benjamin from The Graduate barrels into a gas station near the end of the movie, an intense sequence, my students, oh so young, can’t understand the satisfaction I feel upon hearing the little dings that signal his arrival. I’m sure they don’t even notice. Back when those dings were commonplace, I’m sure I took them for granted myself. But now, I want to stop the movie and ask, Did you hear that? When Benjamin dials the rotary phone, the sprockety ratcheting the phone makes, especially when the disk reverses direction and returns to zero, sounds glorious to me.
Actually, maybe I didn’t take sounds for granted when I was a kid. I remember plugging my ear to a cold street light pole on hot summer nights and marveling at the buzz of electricity inside, a subterranean sound that both frightened and thrilled me.
Anyway, here are some of the other sounds from the sixties & seventies that I heard these past few months and that I miss.
An obvious one. The clacking of a manual typewriter. Those arms catapulting toward the paper. Even the electric ones with the steel ball had their own distinct slap, clean and succinct. I don’t recall hearing teletypes in my past, but when you hear them in All the President’s Men, they seem both officious and quaint.
Oh, and that lovely chatter from cash registers. Part typewriter, part vending machine, part pinball. Clattering and sighing and ringing. Which reminds me of the subtle shrrinjj sound from the knobs of those old cigarette machines. I never bought a pack of cigarettes in my life, but I never passed one of these machines when I was a kid without pulling on the taut knob, like it was vacuum packed.
Even squad car sirens sounded different back then, more shrill and urgent, though I may be mistaken about this one. Watch Serpico again and decide.
Maybe most glorious is the drop of a needle on a record, the initial pop and hiss while the needle gains traction on the first track. It’s no coincidence that I purchased a turntable a few weeks ago. Now, I’m finally able to play all those LP’s I’ve been saving for decades. Elton John and Rod Stewart and the Stones and The Beatles. And the records really do sound richer than CD’s.
As I finish typing this, I pay attention to the sounds around me now. These laptop keys beneath my fingers emit a soft patter, fluid and clackety. I might miss this. My phone, quiet now, includes an array of sounds I may someday yearn for. Though I doubt this. It seems that the sounds coming from our devices today have been manipulated; some attention has gone into their creation, whereas the sounds of past decades, with exceptions maybe, were more functional and unapologetic, full of character and attitude. “You talkin’ to me?” asked the cash register. “Shut up,” answered the typewriter.
I hope this post sparks some of your own sense memories. What sounds do you miss?
Question: Should you correct people’s grammar? Since I’m posing the question, you probably assume I have a clear answer. But the question creates a murky mess. First, you have to be pretty confident in your own expertise. And just about everyone struggles with some rule or other. Second, you don’t want to annoy. Third, who the hell do you think you are monitoring others’ mistakes? As long as the message is clear, that’s all that matters. Right?
But maybe the person wants to know. Maybe the person would appreciate a friendly correction. Maybe you’re doing your part to preserve the English language, sturdy as it may be.
I usually say nothing, I admit. Life goes on. Everyone is content. But I can’t stop myself from correcting the mistake. In my head. A fleeting mental murmur. Let it go, let it go. But I can’t. Nothing more than mild OCD, I suppose.
Anyway, here are a few mistakes I’ve heard lately.
1. “Between you and I.”
Corrrection: “Between you and me.”
We’ve been scolded so often for beginning a sentence: “You and me should go…” No, no, it should be You and I. So we apply that to every construction. But you wouldn’t ever say “Between you and we,” right? (which is essentially the same as “You and I.”)
2. “My head literally exploded.”
Did it? Literally? And you’re still here, speaking? Unfortunately, the usage gods, the panels that monitor dictionary changes, have capitulated. It’s now okay, they say, to use “literally” for emphasis. But “literally” is often useful. Sometimes we need to know that some extraordinary event actually happened.
3. I saw this restaurant ad on a highway billboard: “Ever wonder why there’s so many Italians in Chicago?” No, but I do wonder how you can spend big bucks on a sign with such a glaring mistake.
4. Studio Movie Grill features these words in giant block letters: “Eat. Drink. Movies.” For some reason, this one doesn’t bother me so much because it’s effective. To correct it would be burdensome: “Eat. Drink. Watch Movies.”
5. “I feel badly.”
We hear this so often that it sounds correct. What you’re actually saying is that your sense of touch is poor. “I feel bad,” while it sounds incorrect, is right.
6. The last example brings up a tricky one. And I’m already second-guessing myself. Which is correct? “I’m good” or “I’m well”? Nearly everyone understands that an action is done “well,” as in “The guitarist played well.” So we tend to change every use of “good” to “well.” But I would argue that “I’m good” is correct, as in “I am good.” It’s a state of being, and “good” acts not as an adverb but as an adjective or noun.
Exceptions about. Correctness sometimes is a drag. For example, I’m rarely bothered by mistakes in lyrics, probably because they serve a sound purpose. I also love how slang slaps grammar sick.
I happen to be one of those people who wants to be corrected, who wants to discuss the nuances of good and well, so please comment on any disagreements on the above or raise other questions. I promise not to be annoyed. For example, I struggled with punctuation at the end of #1 above. Not exactly a grammatical concern, but related. I’m still tempted to move the period to the very end.
Anyway, have a good day, and do good. Yes?
A Slant of Light
This remarkable book, set in western New York at the end of the Civil War, reads like Shakespearean tragedy. The descriptions are rich with the precision of poetry, the sentences often twisting in unexpected ways that leave you wondering how the writer is going to resolve this one, and then he does. Perfectly. Even the dialogue is crafted in this way. My typical reaction: people don’t speak this way. But in this case, the dialogue works beautifully. Plot? Plenty. Something dramatic happens on page two, the suddenness of which causes you reread it. The rest of the book shifts back and forth from the source of the drama to its consequences. I’m being intentionally vague as usual to avoid spoiling your reading pleasure. Trust me. This is one of the best books you’ll read this year. I’ve never read any books by Jeffrey Lent. Now I have to read them all.
Sick in the Head
When he was in high school, Apatow worked at the radio station at his school, which gave him license in his mind to call up comics for an interview. Not just any comics, but the biggest names in the business, including Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Allen, the guy who invented the late night talk show format. When he called, he conveniently never mentioned his age or how many listeners tuned in to the radio station. His questions even at that young age show his passion for and immersion in comedy, and he has continued these interviews into present day, collected in this book. The interviews are fascinating, full of wisdom and candor, not only about the life of a comedian, but about life.
Our Souls at Night
This is Haruf’s last book, published posthumously. And it is a gem. He returns to his usual theme: the ways we form ties and establish community with others, through kindness and grace and honesty, the kind that unfolds haltingly but that sticks. You can finish the book in one sitting, which I did. I so enjoyed spending time with these characters that I began reading it again. Immediately.
The Confessions of Frances Godwin
I’ve been reading Hellenga for a while, and this is one of his best books. You will love spending time with Frances, who is a retired Latin teacher, a loving wife, and a protective mother of a daughter who is dating an asshole. And she’s a criminal. And, oh, she speaks to God. Which creates this strange sense that you’ll find out a few secrets of the universe. At the very least, you’ll learn about Latin and music and science and Rome. This book will take you far.
The High Divide
This is about Ulysses Pope, who suddenly leaves his wife and two young sons. He abandons them. It’s 1886, Minnesota, a time when everyone needs to pitch in just to survive. The sons pursue him. Their mom doesn’t even know where they’ve gone. In the meantime, she has to pacify creditors at home. So there’s plenty of adventure, and it feels like an old fashioned Western, but ultimately it’s a sweeping story about survival and sacrifice and love. Written with a keen eye for details, the language always precise, this is a great pleasure to read.
H is for Hawk
This is an unusual memoir that may not appeal to everyone, but it’s written so well that I want to include it here. In the aftermath of her father’s death, Macdonald, as a way of dealing with her grief, buys and trains a hawk to feed from her glove, to fly and return to her, and to complete a multitude of other tasks. The training process is often arcane—and sometimes tedious for Macdonald—but always fascinating in the telling. I do wish she’d have devoted more time to her father’s life. But this is a wise, instructive book on patience and discipline and grief.
I recently spent a few days in Nashville. This is what the main downtown strip looks like at night.
Reminded me of Vegas. But less crass and more earnest. Though unlike Vegas, it’s a place I’d want to visit again. Inside every bar rocked talented musicians, who were earning their tips with long sets and strident wails. Not a false note anywhere.
Walking these streets reminded me also of Orson Welles’s movie, Touch of Evil, because every few steps you’re assailed by a torrent of different sounds. (It’s a 1958 movie, probably not on your radar, but if you get a chance to watch the first six or seven minutes, it’s one spectacular shot, minus today’s computer gimmickry.)
Everyone down there in Nashville, from waiters to taxi drivers to tour guides, are hoping to break into the music world, it seemed. I did wonder if the regulars playing in bars had given up their big dreams and remained content to eke out a living playing covers, which would make a good movie. I think I’ve seen that movie a few times.
And the dreams begin young.
One night, a crowd of young people was herding into the arena where the Nashville Predators play hockey. We asked a radio station worker at a booth what was going on. And why the handful of protesters were trying to block the entrance, hollering that the people marching in were going to hell. When the radio guy handed us some free tickets, we decided to check it out for ourselves. It was a Christian mega-concert, a little heavy handed with its message, but innocuous and even inspiring at times.
We stayed for about an hour, then moseyed 100 feet down Broadway Street and found a piano bar called The Big Bang. The wait staff wore shirts that said Bang This. And the piano player was imploring one patron to “Show me your boobs.” Also innocuous. But quite a contrast from the arena.
One day we took a tour of Barbara Mandrell’s old house, which is now a museum of sorts. I didn’t have any particular interest in Mandrell, but the house was supposed to be spectacular, which it was. After learning about Mandrell, I grew to admire her talent and the way she kept her family grounded in the midst of wild success.
When she was twelve, she was a prodigy on many instruments, so talented at steel guitar that Patsy Cline invited Mandrell to join her band. Her parents feared this would interfere with her education and kept her home. Shortly after, Cline’s plane crashed. It’s likely that Mandrell would have been on that plane. It’s a chilling story that has stayed with me. But I also started wondering. It’s possible that had twelve-year-old Mandrell joined Cline’s band, maybe that would have prevented the crash through some odd coincidence. Maybe Mandrell couldn’t fly that day because of a fever, an ear ache, something, and maybe the rest of the band would have postponed the flight. Not likely. But possible.
At her house, you were allowed to touch the books, sit in the chairs, and pick up the instruments. Here’s me with Buck Owen’s guitar.
Look for my upcoming album on vinyl, Italian Country.
One Movie That Didn’t Get Enough Attention
Love and Mercy, the story about the genius and the demons driving Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. I’ve never been an avid Beach Boys fan, but their music always made summer nights fuller and winter days less chilling. If I had known back then about the battles waged to create the music, I wonder if the songs would have seemed any less comforting. Because sometimes it’s better not to know. But all these years later, the music knotted firmly in the American psyche, the story of Wilson’s trials only serves to heighten your appreciation of little deuce coupes hugging California highways and surfboards building to safari pitch. Though what I liked best about this movie was the attention paid to the craft of music making itself.
One Movie That Got Too Much Attention
Jurassic Something. I’ve never been interested in any of the Jurassic movies, though I can’t quite explain why. The premise is intriguing; the special effects are dazzling, or so I’ve heard; I like Spielberg. But even he once admitted that after working on Schindler’s List, Jurassic seemed frivolous. Anyway, I didn’t see this current installment either. All I know is that it came out the same week as Love and Mercy and sucked the attention away from what everyone should have been seeing.
Hard to believe it’s been a week since my mother-in-law, Marilyn, died. The best mother-in-law I ever had, as she would kid.
She suffered from Alzheimer’s, an agonizing disease that disorients not only the sufferer but the family as well. Everyone’s memory is robbed. And the decline is swift, yet gradual enough that you become accustomed to each new version of the person, a process that interferes with your lifelong perceptions and memories of the person you love. A cruel trick that extends the mourning for years. You miss not only her old, healthy self, but the self from just a year ago, when she would recount over and over again how her sisters smoked and drank. I’d be happy to hear those stories one more time.
As we watched Marilyn decline though, there was a goodness at her core that remained pure. Not even Alzheimer’s could touch that. She smiled to the end, danced when she could, and just before her ability to speak finally failed her, she was left with three words: “I love you.” For weeks, that was all she could say, and she said it generously to everyone she encountered. I’m sure these were her last words because soon after she couldn’t speak at all. I don’t know what my last three words will be, but I’m fairly certain they will echo with complaint. Marilyn had every reason in the world to complain, but she never did.
That she left us with such simple eloquence is ironic because Marilyn had a tendency to mangle the English language. If someone was choking, you should do the “Heineken maneuver.” My daughter, running gracefully down the basketball court, ran like a “gazebo.” When a tsunami struck the Phillipines, she talked about that “awful salami.” Toy Story for her included the famous character, Bud Light Year. She’d tell us to look up things on “the Google,” and referred to Facebook as “see my face.” We’d laugh at these mistakes. How could you not laugh? But Marilyn was always a good sport and would laugh harder than anyone.
Even during her regression, Marilyn left us all a lasting gift. At first, we ignored what she was trying to teach us. We couldn’t see it. The disease punctured her inhibitions, and she found it hilarious to ask strangers if they wanted to marry her or wash her back in the tub or perform dozens of other inappropriate tasks. We of course would try to discourage this, not only for the sake of the strangers, but for Marilyn, who we thought we were protecting. And for ourselves as well, I suppose. We held on to the dim hope that maybe she’d take our cautions to heart, that she would change. But once she was moved to a Catholic home for the elderly, I finally recognized her lesson, that we should accept people as they are, not how we hope they will be. Soon I began asking her if she wanted to marry me, which she found doubly hilarious. I won’t pretend I’m good at this, this unqualified acceptance of others, but I’m working at it, with Marilyn as my guide.
People in high places must be reading this blog. A few weeks ago I wrote about the idiocy of one-size-fits-all, standardized, #2 pencil testing and specifically mentioned the newly installed PARCC tests. Don’t worry about what the acronym stands for. I spent over 30 years in education dizzied by all the acronyms spewed out every few years that didn’t really mean anything. Anyway, newspapers reported recently that the frequency of the parcc tests (there, I’m going to deCap it) will be severely reduced next year. See, I have some power.
But enough about tests. I want to describe an inspiring alternative teachers can implement to counter the deadening effect of filling in bubbles. I witnessed this at Fremd High School a few weeks ago, the school where I taught, the school that’s been hosting Writers Week these past 20 years, five days in which writers from around the country converge on our campus to read and discuss their work. And students look forward to the week all year.
As a sort of adjunct to that week, current coordinators of Writers Week, Gina and Russ, had a genuinely inspiring idea: Write Nite. On a Thursday evening in late May, when most teachers are wiped out and are more concerned with finding the tops of their desks than motivating young folks, Gina and Russ organized a stellar event of friendly games and exercises in the library, all designed to showcase student and faculty writing. A haiku tournament, a story battle, sing-offs, and a non-writing element that didn’t hurt in packing the place: pizza. For nearly three hours, the room was buzzing. Over writing.
If you’re a teacher and want details about the activities, my good pal, Gary Anderson, wrote about it on his BLOG.
I’m not sure how much “learning” happened at Write Nite, in terms of objective measurements. But I know the results will be far reaching. I witnessed a true sense of camaraderie and community, along with a hearty appreciation for language, word play, and argument.
Here’s a test question for you. “If on this night in the library, you had dropped in some random student from anywhere in the country, and also dropped in a different random student into a testing center that allegedly measured reading comprehension or vocab or writing, which one would be more likely later to pick up a book or a pen on his or her own?” I wish you could have been there that night to witness the power of that obvious answer.
I’m reading David McCullough’s fascinating biography, The Wright Brothers. The Wright children were allowed to stay home from school if they had good reason, and reading a book sometimes was reason enough. Orville says, “…the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always encouragement to intellectual curiosity.” The parents didn’t need to identify and quantify and measure the worth of what to most people is an obvious educational pursuit. And their two boys, Wilbur and Orville, didn’t do too poorly for themselves as a result.
Those of you who stopped by to say Hello at Printers Row Lit Fest this past weekend: Many thanks. Nice to see you.
One of the sessions I attended featured poet Elizabeth Alexander, who read from her fine memoir, The Light of the World. It’s the kind of a book, when you hear about the subject matter, that you may decide you don’t want to read. It’s the kind of book Alexander wishes she didn’t have cause to write. It’s about her 16 years with her husband, Ficre, who died suddenly in their home recently.
At the session, she talked about how she and her two boys support each other, how they suffer together, how they find strength—and through all this, you can feel the goodness of Ficre, how he still inhabits their lives. She writes about how when she was with Ficre, “there was suddenly enough time: to talk, to read, to think, to sleep, to make love, to drink coffee or tea, to practice yoga, to walk.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, part of a beautiful and eloquent tribute to a man you wish you’d met.
It’s a sad book but ultimately uplifting because it captures Ficre’s abundant and free spirit. I highly recommend this!
I never quite know what to make of reviews of new music. I usually enjoy reading them. I admire the effort. But describing music with words seems a little pointless. Either you like the music or you don’t, and it doesn’t take much sampling of an album to realize that a critic’s hearty endorsement rings hollow. For you.
Yet. I keep reading them.
Given that paradox, I’m reluctant to write about George Miller’s Mad Max, Fury Road because the movie breathes like a symphony. It’s orchestral and pulsating and dreamlike, bringing to mind both the quaint past and the dusty future. This is heavy metal amped by diesel bass engines and dirty oil. This is punk grunge armed with spiky treble. This is a brass and string concerto played on a craggy, mud strewn stage. And just when you think a note will be resolved, another flurry of sound ignites and pulls you into a more cavernous mosh pit of tumbling images. I found out afterward that much of the tumbling was stunt work, not computer driven, and now I have to see this again.
The script, the actual speaking parts, is pretty bare. But this only adds to the symphonic impression. And with Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy as nimble band leaders, their movements, their eyes, speak powerfully.
The story is simple. A few hold power over many. And that ain’t right. And enough is enough.
This is not the kind of movie you want to watch at home. You need the giant screen and the concert speakers. I did not see this in 3-D because I don’t like to be yanked around by what the technicians decide should be in focus at any one point. But I don’t think this movie needs additional dimensions.
So settle in with a big tub of popcorn for a couple of hours, which makes for a long movie, but you’ll wish there was more.