Friday, January 24, 2014

Old Old Friend

For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.

Most of what floats through my head would be too embarrassing to publicly share but every once in a while I find myself nearly mouthing this final line from Rilke's “ Archaic Torso of Apollo” Since the spawn have departed Mr. Rilke has kicked into endless loop. The acting upon it, trips to the East Coast, London, and Denver, has been satisfying but without a winning lottery number travel can only be life changing in small doses.

I make another impulse trip to visit Chris and Bob in the Santa Cruz area and then catch the final day of the David Hockney show “A Bigger Exhibition” at the DeYoung in San Francisco. I arrive in Mount Hermon in the afternoon and the moment I step out of the car I drink in the redwood aroma of what for us is always a happy place. I travel quite a bit and leave Himself to fend for himself with Tupperwared meals but somehow, being in Mount Hermon without him feels not quite right. I miss him particularly but he has work and is no fan of Hockney. I purchase his 3rd bonsai, a Chinese berry named Nestor from the stand off Highway Five on my way back to L.A. I jabber during a football game that Bob says is an important one, Seattle vs. San Francisco. I insist we watch the new show Looking because I know that despite quite good reviews, Bob will surely hate it. Unfortunately, the quality is indefensible. The show is dull and merits no spirited discussion whatsoever. One fewer thing to watch.

My old lady driving puts us behind schedule for our arrival at the Hockney exhibit. The City is jammed and the parking in Golden Gate Park impossible. We idle, waiting for a man to load infinite bicycles and children into a van. We meet my friend Blanche at the entrance and are fortunate that she's already seen the massive exhibit with a docent so she can ably navigate. It is the last day and a holiday to boot so the show is as overcrowded as the sunny park. My expectation is a retrospective but actually most of the work is recent, some apparently hung before the paint was dry. At 77 Hockney still has fire in his belly and is breaking ground in an astonishing number of medium. There are oils and watercolors, portraits and plein air. A few of the pieces remind me of Stanley Spencer, an artist Himself and I are so passionate about that we blow a big chunk of the sprat's inheritance to fly to London for an exhibit of a dozen or so paintings. I'm afraid it's my imagination but I discover that Hockney was so smitten with the artist that he bribed his brother to visit Spencer's home in Cookham and plead for an autograph.

Hockney is largely associated with nailing the light and color of Southern California in his works of the 1960s and 1970s. He is known too for stage design and a series of cubist inspired Polaroids. The DeYoung exhibit includes portraiture, landscapes, video and a series of drawings made using the Brush program for Ipad. There are blown up Ipad sketches of Yosemite and paintings and videos that capture the same sliver of Yorkshire countryside in each of the four seasons. A case of Ipads demonstrate stroke by stroke how drawings are completed, the fluidity suggesting filmed animation.

I am usually bored by artsy video. There is a longish video shot with multiple cameras from a convertible with four passengers traveling through desert terrain. Except for struggling to identify the location (perhaps Glendale Arizona) the piece evokes memories of suffering through Andy Warhol's Sleep in a filthy airless London art center nearly four decades ago. The revelation of the day though is another multi-camera work called “Cubist Movies.” Jugglers, hoola-hoopers and disc spinners are photographed with multiple cameras and in front of different backgrounds. Suddenly an entire art movement, that's always eluded me, makes perfect sense. The Hockney is one of the finest exhibits I've ever seen but because it all boils down to me, the prolific artist's work ethic and daring makes me feel slothful and ashamed at how little I've actualized my own creative ambitions.

Traffic to and from San Francisco gives me and Bob a chance to catch up. We met while teaching adult school, which was one of the most satisfying things I've ever done. Bob, I discover via Google, is a much bigger honcho adult ed-wise than he's let on. There are big changes afoot and he is a member of a small workgroup charged with creating a blueprint for adult schools and community colleges to collaborate, per Assembly Bill 86, which comes into effect next year. California Adult Education has been virtually decimated in the past few years and after devoting 40 years of his life to this often neglected student population, Bob's taken it personally. I almost want the situation to improve more for his sake than for that of the students he serves.

Bob comes a Free Methodist family.  I am sad to have never met his mother, who lived the Gospel and read Kirkegaard. Bob is Harry Robert but is "Bob" because is father is Harry too.  Harry the Elder spoke at our wedding.  His commitment to his creed resulted in a life of service performed with humility.  Coming from an areligious, wily household I envy those who were raised in the sweetness of faith.  But then again, there is the onus of having parents so good you'd rather die than displease them.  Nevertheless,  Bob will always be Harry to me.

Bob is one of a very few people who knew me intimately when I was in my 20s and still has anything to do with me. I share how rudderless I feel now without the kids around. I've become a compulsive bargain shopper. I scald my hands unloading the dishwasher the moment a load is finished,unable to bear a looming task.. Entire weekends are spent organizing cupboards. I watch Masterpiece Theater. I regularly scan obituaries for people my age. I whine to Bob that for all the things I wished for, I have become my mom. His response is one of the most reassuring and tender things anyone has ever said to me. “You're more self aware than your mother ever was.”

After spending a weekend with my favorite adult educator (and the one who introduced me to Rilke), I return home and receive a call from a local adult school. L.A. schools have laid off hundreds of teachers but some funds have been freed up and there are a few open positions. It 's been over 20 years since I taught for L.A. schools but using Bob and another old adult ed friend as references, I brazenly apply for a couple of jobs. I am summoned for an interview. This is the first time I've been interviewed for a job in about 35 years. Bob e-mails, trying to get me up to speed and I try to familiarize myself with the current curricula. The campus is as shabby and charmless as the schools I remember. I am subjected to a structured oral interview. Three administrators, seated around a conference table, read from a list of nine questions, all of which presuppose I've taught in a classroom recently. I fumble through but apparently my references and my honest expression of how much I truly love to teach seem to have made an impact. It comes to light however that I will need to be re-processed by the school district. It has been years since new teachers have been processed and my situation befuddles them.

I make a call downtown and am informed that as a “legacy” I am eligible indeed to be processed again. I have communicated this to my interviewers so there is a chance I will return to part-time teaching. My heart palpates a bit when I think about standing in front of a classroom. Much has changed in 20 years and getting up to speed poses a huge challenge. But what is the same is the opportunity to nurture students and encourage them to value the lives they've lived, and the experiences they've experienced, enough to propel themselves into the lives they wish to live.
From all borders of itself, burst like a star.

Friday, January 17, 2014

And the Nominees Are...

Joe College and I sip martinis at Musso's before he returns to school. Pokemon crap was a lot less expensive than mixed drinks and red meat. We cross the street to see 8 ½ at the Egyptian. Years ago my dad took me there to see My Fair Lady. By the 1960s Hollywood had already gone to seed but the elegant fountain lined walkway of the Egyptian Theater is my most vivid impression of what had gone before. My Fair Lady was one of the last of the great American musical. The saturated color of the Covent Garden Flower Market is as potent a memory as the foyer of the grand old theater. Fellini, like my pop, was born in January of 1920 but my old man's only appreciation of “art films” was for the rental revenue they generated for his library. I saw most of Fellini's films while in college. At the time I was taken with Eisenstein for his remarkable, borderline grotesque, tight close ups of human faces. This technique is mostly what I remember from Fellini's oeuvre as well. The name “Fellini” always first conjures a chin with protrusive bewhiskered mole. It is interesting to revisit this seminal film with my 21 year old son as he studies the same thing (film) and at the same place (Johnston College) that his mom did nearly forty years ago.

At 21 I think I liked what I was supposed to like, essentially anything that purported to be counter-cultural. I think Joe College's observations are still a bit self conscious but it takes years to truly hone your own critical sensibility. I have no memory of what I made of 8 1/2 when I first saw it. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made and perhaps suffers from this onus. The film has been so imitated and parodied that half a century after its creation it is almost a cliché of itself. I imagine how wildly unconventional it must have seemed in 1963 but the list of American productions from that year, upon my review, actually has gravitas too. Films nominated for Oscars include To Kill a Mockingbird, Sweet Bird of Youth, Manchurian Candidate and The Days of Wine and Roses. The avant garde had yet to, if it ever really did, inculcate American popular films but there were definitely a spate of social issues being tackled and Hollywood was starting to rebound from McCarthy and the Red Scare.

The past year in film is one of the best in decades. We watch the Oscars religiously and the time between the announcement of nominations and the actual ceremony is referred to as the “high holidays.” Often however, my choice for film of the year is “none of the above.” I have had this year fortunate access to Academy screeners. (Note—I have only viewed these in the company of the Academy voter to whom they were mailed and watched merely to help him/her make appropriate voting decisions and NOT for my own personal enjoyment.. Per instructions, I witnessed the physical destruction and disposal of said DVDs immediately after viewing.) Before the ceremony I only need to see Dallas Buyer's Club, Gravity (which I have no interest in but will see for the sake of completion) and Twelve Years a Slave (which Joe College has promised to watch with me to fast forward through all the disturbing portions which means I'll see at least ten minutes of the film).

The year is so excellent that a few films that would have been contenders in lesser years are totally passed over. I loved the Bling Ring and was disappointed it didn't at least merit a screenwriting nod. While it wasn't my favorite Terrence Malick film, To the Wonder was too good to be completely overlooked. Other films that suffered the consequences of an excellent year, not spectacular but certainly worth seeing are Ain't Them Bodies Saints, What Maisie Knew, the particularly good Aldomovar I'm So Excited., The Place Beyond the Pines and Mud. Perhaps the saddest omission is the smart and charming Enough Said which should have rated nominations for screenplay and/or directing for Nicole Holfcener, posthumous actor for James Gandolfini, actress for Julia-Louis Dreyfus and supporting actress for Catherine Keener.

My favorite documentary of the year, The Stories We Tell, was ineligible, having been broadcast on cable t.v. and the excellent Saudi Arabian film Wadjda was denied a foreign language nomination. Both are don't miss in my book. In terms of the big guns, I haven't admired a Woody Allen film as much as I do Blue Jasmine in decades. Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins are both spectacular. The opening scene with Blanchett chatting to her seatmate on an airplane is among my all time favorites.
American Hustle is wonderful entertainment and I can only fault it for being a bit over the top in the wig department. All of the performers really stretch and the film is well paced and consistently funny. The other scammer movie of the year, Wolf of Wall Street also has a fantastic look and lots of laughs. At over three hours it might have been 20 minutes shorter but 20 extra minutes of Scorsese isn't a real tragedy. I adored Before Midnight, the third installment of the Richard Linkletter, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke collaboration that drops in on the same smart sexy couple once every decade.

I am less enamored with favorites Inside Llewyn Davis and Nebraska. I have a tortured relationship with Coen Brothers. Each of their films has brilliant moments, to wit, the cat on the subway in Llewyn Davis. But often, there's a self indulgence and lots of extraneous material. John Goodman hams it up as a snarky heroin addict but as fun as he is to watch, the character adds nothing to the film's arc. Consistently, the brothers seem to resist tying things up in any sort of meaningful fashion. I don't know if this is arrogance or ineptitude but for all the gorgeous little moments, the sum of all parts merits a mere shrug.

My other disappointment is Nebraska. I am a huge Alexander Payne fan, Citizen Ruth and Election being among my favorite films. I was excited about this film because it was purported to be an homage to Payne's much beloved home state and interestingly is shot in black and white. However, early on the script becomes its own worst enemy and locks the film into an inevitable and predictable ending. Some of the buzz suggests that the role would have been better played by a more nuanced actor than Bruce Dern, and perhaps this is true. Will Forte, who plays Dern's son, however is a revelation. He does this weird thing with his chin that I could watch forever.

Again, I haven't seen Twelve Years a Slave, and when I do see it, it will be greatly redacted. Of the films I did see, Her was my great favorite. I am not a Joaquin Phoenix fan. I found his performance in The Master over-the-top to the point of ludicrous. The best I can say about his role in Her is that the performance is innocuous. Despite my Phoenix phobia, the film is a masterpiece and perhaps as provocative for our times as 8 ½ was back in 1963. I presume everyone is familiar with the conceit of a lonely man falling in love a computer operating system which is programed to actually develop human qualities. Our awe at the astonishing pace of technological advance combined with Spike Jonze' deft approach makes Her feel imminently real. The film is set in the near future and will inspire discussion, about whether technology will improve or decimate us, into the far future I suppose. We yearn for this future and are horrified by it at the same time.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Notes to Teach By

The college I attended, and that my eldest attends now, is so puny that instead of class reunions, current students and alumni gather to celebrate the anniversary of the school. The 45th is coming up in February. The school was founded with the objective of fostering life-long learning and educational offerings for alumni have always been part of the package. A series of mini-courses are slated for the next reunion. The event is actually called “The Renewal” but that is too airy fairy for my taste and definitely not worth losing weight for. Because of our involvement with the Aleph Foundation which matches pen-pals with Jewish inmates we decide to present, as a family, a session called “Prison-Real and Imagined” to challenge the images of prison as portrayed in film and television. One of our three pen-pals has shared some very cogent thoughts and additionally provided contributions from two other inmates. My personal frame of reference is limited to the visiting room at Tehachapi and the accounts of my three pen-pals. I also watch the MSNBC series Lock Up and National Geographic's Lockdown which are filmed in actual prisons. These reality shows tend to distort the amount of violence and mental illness endemic at any given institution. My understanding is that the most pernicious and typical malady of prison life is boredom but that doesn't make for very good TV.

Years ago I visited the Woman's Prison in Frontera. This is a state facility, and while the recent series about women in prison, Orange is the New Black, is set in a federal institution it seems accurate in some ways. The savagery of staff and inmates is way over the top but the depiction of inmates being completely stripped of personal freedom feels authentic. Another show, Rectify, is about a death row prisoner who is released. There are harrowing prison flashbacks but the show is brilliant in the depiction of the post prison experience of a man who was convicted as a teenager and released into the world in middle age. The show affirms what I believe to be true of most prisons. Rehabilitation is a hollow buzz word and what actually transpires is the polar opposite.

Almost every depiction of prison focuses on brutality but watching The Shawshank Redemption and then Labor Day with Kate Winslett and Josh Brolin, I notice another literary device. What is referred to as the “magical negro,” proffering sage wisdom and miracles for the benefit of white characters has become a stock character in American films. Shawshank has Morgan Freeman in the “magical negro” role although in Steven King's book, the character was Irish. Both Shawshank and Labor Day idealize inmates and these protagonists are portrayed as “magical convicts.” The Tim Robbins character in Shawshank lobbies for a library, dispenses financial advice and teaches a young inmate to read. The escaped convict played by Josh Brolin in Labor Day rescues the chronically depressed and agoraphobic Kate Winslett by completely repairing her decrepit house and cooking up a storm. The action takes place over a weekend but in the coda, decades later, Winslett's son has opened a successful bakery after being inspired by the “magical convict's” expert assembly of a peach pie.

My objective in proposing the little course is to shed some light on the genuine prison experience by debunking the depiction in popular culture. Inmates are evil monsters or pure and innocent. Guards are power hungry sadists. But, many shows and films actually do get some things right. The reality shows are exploitative and sensational but laudable for showing inmates who well represent a cross section of society. Orange is the New Black, despite more than a little gratuitous lesbian sex, does explore the experience of losing every freedom that one takes for granted. Rectify paints a vivid picture of how ill prepared most inmates are to return to the free world.

The prison mileau is an excellent backdrop for exploring themes of brutality, isolation and retribution. These are indeed components of the prison experience but facile metaphors perhaps distract us from facing the truth that the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. And, the recidivism rate is over 40%. All of the shows and films I mention are good entertainment but it is important to pause and take in that much of what is realistic is real. That there a million and half unique individuals incarcerated in America and many of those who are released are predestined to return. Indeed, prison is a goldmine of literary fodder but this entertainment should also remind us about the real human beings who languish in our prisons.  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Keep an Eye on Dad and Me Too

For the first time in months I am sitting by myself with a bowl of popcorn with Judge Judy on the screen.  With the start of the first work week of the New Year I presume I’ll resume the popcorn and Judy routine.  Spuds returns to school tonight on a red eye.  Joe College and Girlfriend are here for just another week.  Himself returns to school after a three month sabbatical.  Again, Spuds is flying at a time of bad weather. When he returns for Thanksgiving there is a huge storm and I am apoplectic that he might be sprawled on the floor of JFK instead of eating my turkey dinner.  Now there is a blizzard.  His flight, as I write this, has not been cancelled but even in good weather I fret about him navigating the airport by himself and then taking public transportation to Penn Station to catch an Amtrak train to Rhinecliff where finally he will take a taxi back to campus.  He arrives in L.A with only a denim jacket.  I note this and he shrugs it off and says he won’t be outside much on the trip back to Bard.  As of yet there has been no showdown but if he leaves without one of his father’s coats it will be over his poor mother’s corpse.

Spuds’ two weeks at home has flown by.  I accept that his friends are more fun than I am (i.e.-the fuss I am on the verge of making regarding the coat).  In other cultures kids mostly attend colleges that enable them to continue living at home.  Both of my kids are more mature and self reliant for having lived quasi-independently.  Joe College is close enough to see at least once a month but Spuds will not return home again until the end of March, and then only for a week.  I approve of the college away from home path and the benefits this confers but in some ways I am jealous of families whose kids live at home until they marry and then move next door.

Before the arrival of Girlfriend there is a Manson Family documentary that I haven’t seen on the television.  My particular interest in all matters Manson is well known to my family.  I put dinner on the table and take my plate to the couch to continue watching.  Himself, who never missed an episode of Dexter, and Joe College who at age ten recommended the show to us, start griping about the Manson show ruining their dinner but it is too good to turn off.  Joe College, like his mother and grandmother, sometimes has a penchant for indignation.  Spuds confronts big brother with this in the middle of the Manson brouhaha.  My instinct is to intervene before they start throwing punches but the show has lots of interview footage that I’ve never seen.  Instead of the big bust up that this exchange might have incited, the boys work things out like they’re reciting dialogue from an anger management textbook.

My kids’ maturity makes my inevitable mortality less bitter a pill.  Himself’s ancient phone has finally died and he spends hours on the Verizon site pouring over possible upgrades.  He does comprehensive research on all of the free upgrade models and makes a decision.  When he finally logs on to actually order the phone, the offer has expired and the phone is no longer free. 

Himself’s parents made a big stink when we announced our plans to marry.  Once it became obviously a done deal, they decided to make the best of their Jewish daughter-in-law and took to calling me whenever they had financial or legal concerns.  Having run a business for many years honed my negotiation and fiduciary skills more than my ethnic heritage but I was just happy that they didn’t hate me anymore. I suggest to Himself that he call Verizon and ask if given our long (and expensive) relationship with the firm they might extend the offer and cut him some slack.  “You do stuff like that…”he begins, leaving the sentence unfinished. “If you really want the phone, call and ask.  The worst they can do is say ‘no.”  I busily involve myself in other activities, making it clear that he is on his own.  Finally he dials and is indeed offered an extension of the special offer.  The salesman chats him up however and points out another deal for a far superior phone.  Himself spends hours reading reviews of this better phone and is excited about it.  We log on to the Verizon website to order the phone.  Once the phone hits the shopping cart however we are advised that by ordering this phone we relinquish the unlimited data plan we’ve had for years.

I suggest Himself call his Verizon pal back and see what can be done.  I struggle to couch Himself’s reaction in more delicate terms but for the sake of accuracy I most report that Himself was whining.  “Pleeeeeease call for me, “ he pleads,  “You’re much better at these things.”  I take pity and get him his phone without losing our unlimited data plan.  “You know,” I admonish him, “I’m going to die some day.”  Himself responds desultorily, “Then I just won’t have a phone.”

I demand that Spuds text me on every leg of his journey.  Joe College and Girlfriend are here for another week and I will probably be able to wheedle some Mom time.  Then, it’s back to the empty nest.  I’ll still try to nurture a bit of assertiveness in Himself in between Judge Judy and true crime documentaries but after half a century of grumbling vs. acting I recognize the Sisyphean nature of this objective. I suspect the kids leaving thing will become less devastating as years wear on.  For now, we will return to simple meals of sardines on toast and audio books of the Alexandria Quartet.  I miss the hubbub and house full of kids but am starting to cherish the quiet a bit too.  I tear up when I think about what menches the kids have become.  It comforts me too that they’ll always keep an eye on us as time shifts that parent child balance and we need our kids just like when they used to need us.