This incident probably says more about the ornery sonofabitch I’ve become than anything else.

I saunter up to the bank teller the other day, and before I reach her, she calls out, “How may I assist you?” Which strikes me as formal and a little stiff, which—I know, I know—should not in itself annoy. But she does this every time. Mostly I’m annoyed because I’m approaching with a check made out to me and a deposit/withdrawal slip that I’ve dutifully filled out. In a second she will lay eyes on this slip, which will clearly tell the story on how she can assist me.

“This is all I’ll need today,” I tell her. But I know she has not heard.

She presses a few keys, unlocks that mysterious hidden drawer, and begins to pull out cash. She’s assisting me! She turns to me and counts out bills, then coins. But before she plops down the coins, she says, “And last but not least…” I’m thinking, last AND least. This is one case in which the coins ARE less. This same person who is so concerned about the distinction between may/can, suddenly wants to be chummy. But I ain’t buying. Though I don’t say anything.

Here’s the clincher. She has assisted me. She has been excessively polite. As I’m gathering my bills and coins and receipt, she asks, “Is there anything else I may assist you with?” Why, yes, what a capital idea. Let me return to the counter near the entrance for another deposit slip because that would be the most efficient way for me to conduct business, one transaction at a time.

“No, that’s it.”

“Have a wonderful day,” she tells me.

“Thanks,” I growl. 
 
 
I’m teaching a Beatles class!

I still can’t quite believe, that twice a week, I get to meet with about 40 students at a local community college to teach a Beatles class. Co-teach actually. With author and good pal, Greg Herriges, a founding member of the 70s band Athanor, who is suddenly garnering attention for reissues and new songs, which is remarkable and beyond exciting. You can find info on Greg and his band/books at Herriges.net.

What reminded me to finally post something about the class was this Chicago Tribune article that ran today: Beatlemania.

The article was also picked up by an international Beatles fan site: Beatlesnews.com. So Paul and Ringo should be reading about us any minute now.

To give you some idea of what we do in class, here’s what we recently covered. We devoted an entire class period, about two and a half hours, to the theme of Place. We first analyzed Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey poem, his reverential ode to this peaceful locale in nature he once visited five years prior. Then we read Billy Collins’s parody of Tintern; maybe parody is too strong a word, but his take is much lighter, which provided some relief to Wordsworth’s gravely serious tone. Then we discussed Bruce Springsteen’s My City of Ruins, which became an anthem for NY after 9/11. We finished with a lively discussion of Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane. Finally, we had students write their own short poems about the place where they grew up.

Are you jealous? I’m teaching the class and I’m feeling a little of that. Maybe not quite jealousy. But a feeling of contentment washes over me fairly frequently as the music pours out of these concert speakers we have in class. Before I started teaching the class, I worried that this immersion would dull the music in some way. But the contrary has happened. Slowing down to read each line of Eleanor Rigby or Revolution has only infused the songs with a newness that rekindles my fascination with the magic that is the Beatles.
The Tribune article mentions a story that I read in class on our Sergeant Pepper’s day. It’s actually an excerpt from a novel I hope to publish soon (soon is a relative term in publishing; my soon does not resemble theirs in any way.) Anyway (did you see how any way became Anyway? Reminds me of the Beatles song, It Won’t Be Long: “It won’t be long…till you belong to me.)…Anyway, a while ago, the same Chicago Tribune ran that excerpt in their Printers Row Sunday supplement, and they’re offering for sale a collection of the stories they’ve printed these past several months. It’s a pretty impressive list of authors, and I’m honored to be part of that. You can find the collection here: Short Stories from Printers Row.

Or you can read the excerpt if you sign up for the Beatles class next term. How lucky am I.
 
 
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve read about the magic that is Writers Week at Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois.

Twenty years ago, my good pal, Gary Anderson, and I, with a hearty budget of $250, invited a few local writers to speak, convinced a handful of students and teachers to bare their souls on stage, and ran blindly with the idea of celebrating writing. I remember calling teachers the night before, begging them to bring their classes to the auditorium so we could fill more seats. I remember us sheepishly handing $15 checks to writers to reimburse them for transportation expenses. I remember us writing letters to administrators afterward, trying to convince them to extend the week the following year to all periods and not just lunch hours.

Twenty years later, because of generous support from our boosters, our budget runs into the thousands. About 90 students take to the stage each year, along with nearly 20 faculty members—and not all of them are English teachers. Every period, for eight periods, all week, the auditorium in packed. Gary and I have spoken with teachers from other schools across the country, and there are now a dozen or more schools hosting their own Writers Week.

All of this is pretty cool and beyond gratifying. But what had me beaming last week, as I hung around school for WWXX (I recently retired), was this assurance that, with Gary retiring this year, Writers Week will be in able hands.

I feel as if Gary and I have been mowing this lawn for twenty years, and each year the swaths have become greener and lusher, only because so many others have contributed tirelessly, trimming and edging—yes, this has been a community pasture—but we always wondered about now, after we both moved on to graze other pastures (OK, enough with the grassy metaphor already; can you tell I’m aching to see green?), and I couldn’t be more pleased that this simple idea of providing a forum for voices to be heard will continue to thrive. Not merely continue, but thrive, baby. Thank you, Gina. Thank you, Russ. Thank you all who stepped up and who will continue to step up.

If you want to peek at a video archive of WWXX, click
HERE.

If you want to read Gary’s blog about WW, it’s
HERE.

The Twitter hashtag: #wwxx.

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It was 20 years ago today...

Or something like that. 

Gary on left.

We haven't changed at all.

 
 
If you’re tired of winter already, if you gaze out your front window at great mounds of grungy snow and know that another six inches will fall that day, followed soon after by a thaw that will produce slippery slush, followed by torrents of rain threatening to spark flash floods, followed by ripping 50 mph winds—yes, we had all that this week in the Chicago area—here’s your prescription.

Pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training, and you need to put yourself there by reading Roger Angell’s classic, The Summer Game.

The book includes plenty of history of the 1962 season, but Angell also shows why baseball commands such a hold on us. For instance, he explains why the Mets, a team in its infancy back then and who suffered legendary losing streaks, inspired diehard fans who wouldn’t quiet cheering, even when their team trailed by double digits.

I’ve always believed that the sports pages often include some of the best writing in most newspapers. While not a newspaper journalist, Angell combines the best of that type of lively writing with the close observations one sees in fiction and poetry. Here’s Angell on 44-year-old knuckleball pitcher, Hoyt Wilhelm: “The ball sailed up, made a sudden small swerve, like a moth in a hallway, and flumped feebly into the catcher’s glove, as the fans cried ‘Ah-hah!’ in unison.”

We won’t be seeing green for quite a while, but this book leads me there.

 
 
A peculiar thing happens when one lends a book. Are you already nodding? Do you already know what I mean?

Here’s what I mean. The borrower, with the book now in his possession, begins to believe the book belongs to him! Not right away. But the act of seeing the book on his desk, then on a nearby table, then maybe on a shelf, tossed there loosely but later tucked vertically between other volumes, creates a blur of ownership. With each passing week, the book takes on squatting rights.

The reason I know this so well is that I’ve been both lender and borrower. I still have a handful of books I’ve never returned, mainly because I lost contact with the owner. But between borrowing the book and losing contact, there grew a period when I had the opportunity to return what did not belong to me. But I didn’t. Mainly because I envisioned a day when I’d sit in the backyard and leisurely pore through this book that had been so generously recommended and lent. (I’ve read somewhere that when we buy books, we’re really buying the time that we will devote to reading it.)

For this reason, I’ve always been reluctant to lend out books. I’m in touch with some of the people who still have my books, but I never say anything. Maybe because I know how they feel. If I asked them to return my book, which now feels as if it belongs to them, they’d become resentful. And I wouldn’t blame them.

I have gotten better about lending books. Now, when I do, I try to imagine that I’ve given the borrower not the book but the gift of time. In fact, I don’t expect to ever see the book again. When it is returned, as sometimes miraculously happens, I’m always a little surprised. In most cases, I’ve forgotten the book was gone. Gazing upon a forgotten friend like this is a little exhilarating.

Lately what I’ve been doing is shedding, giving away books, something I could not have imagined years ago. It’s liberating. I’m freeing up not only my shelves but also my time. But the process of choosing which books to loosen from my clutches hasn’t been easy. I started with books owned for many years but never read, the ones I grudgingly admit I probably never will read. I’ve now moved to books read but with only moderate interest. Just because I wasn’t crazy about these select “duds” doesn’t mean others won’t devour them. I’m also giving away paperbacks that I liked but are not worth saving. I have hundreds and hundreds more that fall into the category of personally meaningful, and I can’t imagine parting with these quite yet—or ever. I think the key will be to find a dear friend or family member who will treasure the books as much as I do. I have to know that they’ll find a good home, that someone will be as stingy with them as I have been.

 
 
A few days ago here, I wrote about how a movie seems to become better or worse for us over time, like either milk or wine. What I’ve been wondering about today is how our appraisal of a movie changes, even before we’ve seen it! What judgmental fools we all are. I’d been hopeful about Walter Mitty, but when it finally came out, there was one collective shrug from both critics and friends of friends of friends, and I did the same. Another Martin Scorcese movie with Leonardo DiCaprio seemed like a sure shelling out of $9, but I still haven’t seen Wolf of Wall Street, and I’m not sure I want to, even after the Best Picture nomination.

The same thing happened to me with Saving Mr. Banks. Seemed like a promising concept, though I’ve never quite watched Mary Poppins from beginning to end and didn’t feel any particular connection to that movie. I like Tom Hanks, but talk about overexposure, which I also wrote about a few days ago. And I have mixed feelings about the Disney brand. For these and other mostly irrational reasons, the movie quickly lost its luster for me.

But yesterday I came across a movie gift card I’d forgotten about and just wanted to see a movie, a near-daily impulse, and said, what the heck, Disney it is. And what a pleasant surprise. (Maybe that’s the key. Lower expectations. Marketers should try this. Instead of the booming trailer guy’s voice, let Woody Allen do the voice-overs. “The movie’s OK. It’s really really OK. Maybe not Ten Commandments OK, but it’ll do in a pinch. If you want to sit for two hours, you might as well sit in front of this picture.”)

One of the questions I ask myself: Is this a movie that needs to be seen on a big screen? That was another strike against Saving Mr. Banks because I decided, No. Again, this is before I’d seen it. But the movie is stunningly beautiful. Don’t wait to watch it at home, even if you have 3-D, Hi-Def with 24K gold plated cables. I’m shocked that the movie didn’t get a Best Picture nod or a Best Acting nomination for Emma Thompson, who is remarkable in this.

The movie flashes back and forth seamlessly between Australia 1906 and London / Los Angeles 1961, an ambitious ploy that works extraordinarily well. Thompson’s character, Mrs. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, wary of a Disney adaptation of her book, is impossible to please, which will have you smiling throughout because Thompson is so good. As the cause of her surliness unfolds, via the flashbacks and Disney’s persistence, the movie comes together powerfully and movingly. This movie should soar to the top of your list for movies to see.

Confession. The movie began at 7:10. Wolf of Wall Street began ten minutes earlier, so I poked my head in and was ready to abandon Disneyland for Wall Street if I was drawn in. The first five minutes are pure Scorcese, with the camera swiveling around expertly and the sudden freeze frame with the voice over, but I’d had enough. The main character was doing something with a straw and a woman’s posterior and drugs(?) that I didn’t need to see. It might be blasphemous to suggest this, but I think some of Scorcese’s work is overrated. Slap another director’s name on this current movie and replace DiCaprio with a no-name talent, and no one pays attention to this movie.

 
 
What do four guys talk about on the way home from a Chicago Blackhawks game? Among other things, fast food. Nate recalled the times he would be drawn to Taco Bell, McDonald’s, or KFC. We passed a White Castle’s and everyone groaned, only Brian not ever having tried that particular delicacy. Karl insisted he had to try it, to torture himself at least once. As I sat there, I realized I NEVER have a yearning to pull into any of these fast food emporiums.

But I do have one weakness. When I was a kid, Mama made her own red gravy, pasta, and bread. If we’d had a cow, she would have milked the cow every day and pasteurized the milk between loads of laundry. So it’s not that she banned fast food. The prospect simply never presented itself. But one time when I was in 7th grade, on an after school field trip I think, the chaperone decided to stop at Burger King, and that’s when I tasted my first Whopper. My mouth still waters when I recall that first delectable bite, the best thing I’d ever eaten, I thought. As anyone who has eaten a Whopper knows, however, the last bite is never quite as good as the first, and that last swallow is always filled with tangy regret. But that initial memory has stayed with me, and every now and then, maybe once a year, I pull into a Burger King drive-thru, unable to tear myself away, lured into reliving the thrill of my first time.

This is not a paid endorsement. Or an endorsement of any kind.
 
 
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I went to see Her today. It’s a strange and evocative movie that dares you to get sucked in by the premise that a man can have a relationship with a computer. You resist at first, but not for long because the setup is gradual and clever, and Joaquin Phoenix is vulnerable and likeable and you want him to be happy. And Scarlet Johansson’s voice of the operating system is pretty alluring. I’m still not sure what to think of the movie, but I liked it and it got me thinking about how honest we really all are with each other, and even when Phoenix’s character does become more honest because, after all he’s interacting with a computer—why not?—he still fumbles, which spurs your thinking about human nature and grip of the past on us all. It’s quite a lot to think about. And the near future is rendered so realistically, you don’t feel like it’s that far into the future—or that unrealistic. Maybe we’re already there in important ways, always gazing a few feet in front of us at a screen rather than toward each other.

About midway, Amy Adams appears, and my first reaction was, Really? I mean, I like Amy Adams. I think she’s talented and cute and convincing. There was a time when people complained that there weren’t enough quality women’s roles in movies. I haven’t kept track, but there seems to be a spate of good movies out there lately with strong female characters. But does Adams have to play them all? Her role in this movie seemed minor at first, but the more screen time she had, the more I had to admit that she was a solid choice, even at the risk of overexposure. At least she chooses good movies to be in. I can list scores of other talented actors who seem to consistently take on roles in horrible movies. Care to offer any names?


 
 
I’m not quite sure why this happens. You see a movie, you laugh and cry and your heart throbs a little more insistently while jawing on popcorn. Some change occurs. You leave feeling good and you recommend the movie to friends. Then, time passes, and you begin to feel less enamored of the movie and decide you didn’t enjoy it as much as you first thought. You still recall the immediate enjoyment you had, but the film begins to pale. Some version of the opposite happens, too, of course, though less frequently. Not that I can recall ever being swayed from hating a movie to loving it. But what happens is this: the movie stays with you, it grows on you, you replay some of the scenes as you’re walking down a hallway maybe, taking on the cockiness of one of the characters or feeling his pain. And the movie becomes…better.

Any thoughts on why this happens?

My daughter recently told me that this just occurred to her with American Hustle, which we saw together and enjoyed. As soon as she said it, I harrumphed in agreement. Or hmmmm-ed. Yes. I felt the same way. For her, she worried that it might beat out 12 Years a Slave for Best Picture Oscar. And that started me thinking. About why our reactions change. Because of other movies we see? Because movies need to spark some primal emotion in us? Because movies need to be more than just entertainment for them to haunt us? (By the way, I want to be haunted, and doubt that a movie like Anchorman will ever achieve that. Now, Caddyshack? A whole different story.)

I guess I don’t want to think about this too much. But I would like to hear other theories.

For me, I can’t stop thinking about the Coen Brothers’ new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, which should win Best Picture Oscar but won’t—mostly because people (marketers?) insist on labeling it a comedy, which it ain’t, though there are plenty of light moments. I’d heard the film was about fame, why some achieve it while others are left wanting. And yes, this seems to be the main theme. But the roadblocks that appear on the way to fame are gray. Luck certainly plays some role. But how complicit are we in the process? It’s an intriguing question, and the answers the movie suggests are, well, haunting. And now the music has gotten into my head. Only the music at first. But as I’m listening to the soundtrack on headphones during walks, the lyrics too. And this character Llewyn is real, and I think I have to go see the movie again. 

 
 
Woody Allen did not show up of course to receive his Cecil B DeMille Award at yesterday’s Golden Globe Award ceremony. I suppose one can view his continued absence at such awards as modesty, stubbornness, indifference, pomposity. But however you regard the behavior, you have to admit, he’s consistent. I mean, it’s a huge honor, and still he didn’t show. Here’s his reasoning, as quoted in the Chicago Tribune on January 12, 2013, which seems like a useful way to view one’s artistic pursuits, whether the product is a song, a book, or a casserole:

“I realized the less preoccupied you are with yourself, the better you do. You don’t want to read that you’re a genius, you don’t want to read that you have no talent, you don’t want to read how gifted you are or what a lowlife you are. The best thing is to just work.”