Monday, April 25, 2011


I've already taken crap here for admitting that I like James Taylor music,* and this is probably going to lead to more of the same. But I've had a stanza of a song rattling around in my head intermittently for a few months now, and I need to try to get it out.

I'm a lonely lighthouse, not a ship out in the night 
I'm watching the sea 
She's come half-way round the world to see the light 
and to stay away from me 

I was in Naval Junior ROTC in high school, during the closing years of the Viet Nam war. We marched, polished our shoes and belt buckles, and learned to do all that "right shoulder arms" stuff with fake rifles. I was second in command, so I got a sword. And yes, it was exactly as cool as you think to carry a sword.

We also learned to navigate, which was my favorite thing. I was the best in class at navigation, probably because my father was both an architect and a lover of maps, so most of the tools were very familiar to me. Before there was GPS, navigation involved occasionally figuring out where you were, comparing that with where you thought you were, and then determining what direction you needed to go to get back on course. You would repeat this process until you tied up at the dock.

The "figuring out where you were" part often involved sighting two or three landmarks and triangulating your position from the angle to them. Lighthouses were built specifically to be these kinds of landmarks for navigation. Mistaking  the distance to these landmarks often caused ships to run aground. So in the end, maritime navigation really is (or was) a process of finding something and staying away from it.

There's a metaphor here somewhere. We all need fixed points in our lives to help us find our way.  Without them, we are just sailing around with no direction or purpose. Religion, politics, adventure, love, sex, and career can all serve this purpose to some degree, and at different times. But if we become too attached to one or another and fix our gaze on it, we risk crashing at the feet of the very thing that was supposed to save us.

How do we find the right balance? How the hell should I know? To paraphrase a line later in the song, just because I'm standing here doesn't mean I won't be wrong this time.

Happy sailing!

* The early stuff, before he went commercial.**

** That's a joke from on my former self. You know, the one that bought the Flying Machine album and pretended it was as good as those that came later. But I really haven't bought anything he's done since 1980.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Movie Sunday: Restrepo

Image from here

I don't usually write about documentaries, and Restrepo may seem like an odd choice for Easter Sunday. But I'm sure you heard that Tim Hetherington, one of the two directors of this film, was killed in Libya this week. And as Biscuit said, when the soldiers helicopter into Afghanistan, you feel like you've stepped into the Bible.

Restrepo is the story of one Army platoon's fifteen month deployment in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. The movie and the remote outpost where most of it occurs are named after Juan "Doc" Restrepo, a popular medic killed shortly after the platoon's arrival. It's a different kind of war movie. There are firefights, but these mostly consist of American teenagers blasting away at distant unseen enemies.

For me, this is a story about the futility of war in general, and this war in particular. We see a group of young men endure a year in the most remote, foreign, and dangerous place imaginable. We see them wander through these villages, not speaking the language, unaware of the culture, trying to learn from inevitable mistakes that end up costing lives. The most disturbing thing personally was watching how the individuals change over their time at the end of the world, losing bits of innocence and humanity day by day.

Having said all of that, it's not really a depressing film. The scenery is beautiful, and we almost immediately start rooting for these boys, not necessarily for victory, but that they will survive all of this without losing too much. And I think if you live in this country and pay taxes, you should probably see it.

Restrepo is a beautiful and heartbreaking film, and like Easter, seems to be at least partly about the endurance of hope in the face of hostility and fear. We have been deprived of someone special by the loss of one of its makers.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

It's a bird; it's a plane...

A former boss and friend is a native of South Florida, West Point graduate, and child of the 70's. So of course, he's a huge Dolphins fan. T married a retired Hooter's waitress about the time he got out of the Army, earned a Master's degree, and immediately started to conquer the business world.

His marriage was what a mutual friend called "a fair fight." One of the first nights I was with him away from work was poker at a colleague's apartment. He brought a gift set of tequila -- bottle in the box with crystal classes and margarita mix -- and drank most of the fifth during the night. His wife J called around 7:30 pm, shortly after he arrived, and I heard him assure her that he would be home shortly, and would stop at the grocery store to pick up chicken to grill for dinner. He left at 1:30 am, and said she woke him the next morning by hitting him in the stomach as hard as she could. As he described it, he "folded in half like a rollaway bed." That's the only physical violence I ever knew of in their marriage. Mostly it was a blend of true tenderness, yelling, co-dependence, and farce.

The phone was a big part of their relationship. Her job seemed to consist mostly of calling him seven or twenty times a day at the office to get advice on crises large and small, inform him of her latest car accident, or offer observations on the day's events. T's role was to hang up on her repeatedly after telling her he was too busy to listen to her crap. Though on at least half of these occasions, before he could hang up he would  get pulled into some conversation about a bird on the patio, or something of equal import.

One night T ordered a Dan Marino commemorative plate from the Home Shopping Network. Don't ask me why, I still don't get it. I suspect more tequila was involved. But of course the moment it arrived in it's octagonal package, J called to let him know.

"You got something in the mail. It's a hepadon!"

I was sitting in his office when this particular call came in, and when he said, "A hepadon?!," visions of some six sided pterodactyl sprang to my head. He naturally responded to her, "Funny, I don't remember ordering a dinosaur."

Alas, their marriage lasted only a dozen years or so after that episode, and the end was as messy as the rest. I hear T suffers from terrible gout, and J is likely working as a barfly somewhere. They are long gone from my life, but for some reason I really can't explain, I will always clearly and fondly remember the day I saw a hepadon.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Movie Sunday: Mystery Science Theater 3000

Image from here

I know what you're thinking.  "MST3K is not a movie, it's a TV show," you say.*

"Aha!" I respond. "There was a movie! It was released between seasons six and seven." And, I don't even remember what it was about. Okay, it was This Island Earth, but I take your point. I doubt anyone saw the movie that didn't watch the show.

But I don't care. I'm a MSTie still, a dozen years after the show's run has ended. And I haven't watched any movies this week that are worth writing about. Take The Social Network, for instance. I'm not sure why everyone thought this was such a great movie. It was like critics thought if they were effusive enough, Zuckerberg might drop a billion on them. I mean it was fine, but I didn't find anything particularly outstanding about it. Maybe it's because I spend every day with computer geniuses, but I think it's more likely that it's just an average movie.

I got a new office at work a couple of weeks ago, with walls and a desk and a door and a bookshelf all of my own. I haven't had an office with walls and a desk, etc., in about four years, so this is kind of a big deal for me. I started bringing in a book a day, and the occasional piece of personabilia to make the place feel more like me.

One of the first things I brought in was a Mystery Science Theater coffee mug. It doesn't have any text -- it's emblazoned with a scene from the show featuring Joel and the bots. I put whiteboard markers in it and stuck it on my round conversation table, where it acts as a sort of litmus test of visitors. Those who know what it is are in the club. Those who -- like our purchasing agent -- pick it up and look quizzical, are not.**

If you're not a fan of MST3K, then you've undoubtedly stopped reading by now. If you are, go back and watch a couple of old episodes.  It's still a really enjoyable experience, and many of them will stream from Netflix. Some of my favorite episodes are The Crawling Hand, Prince of Space, and Time Chasers. And you should definitely save Space Mutiny. It features the fieriest golf cart crash ever, as well as a lack of continuity that is astounding.  Maybe you could even watch the movie.

* You know who you are. And so do I.

** He never had a chance. He's twenty-three and a purchasing agent. And he wears a goatee with no mustache, so he might be an Amish kid on rumspringa.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Movie Sunday: The Commitments

Image from here

When I was a kid, pretty much all we had to listen to was AM radio.* My hometown of Little Rock had exactly two stations that didn't play country or what I've come to think of as Vegas music. One was KAAY, one of the nation's 50,000 watt monsters that covered a good portion of the nation. They were strictly Top 40 in the daytime, and at night turned more subversive.**

The other was KOKY 1350, the self-described "black spot on your dial."  This is where I learned to love rhythm and blues, soul, and a little later, funk.  The Beatles, Grand Funk, Steppenwolf, and Three Dog Night I heard on one hand was no more important to me than the Marvin Gaye, Supremes, Temptations, Four Tops and War that played higher up on the dial.

This is one reason I really liked The Commitments. I also like just about anything Irish. Oh, and it's a good movie. The Commitments is the 1991 story of a group of working class Dubliners who form a band. It's a glimpse into the depressed Ireland of the 80's and early 90's, before the "Irish miracle" that led to the current "Irish bailout." The characters are engaging and rich, the plot is tight without seeming spare, and the music is great.

The film was directed by Alan Parker (Midnight Express, Fame, Mississippi Burning), and despite a largely untrained cast, was voted the Best Irish Film of All Time in a 2005 poll.  So if you like old soul music, and you've been missing pink lipstick and spiral perms, you should definitely check out The Commitments.  It's magically delicious.

* Shut up.

** Someone from the midwest or deep south will still occasionally talk to me about listening to Beaker Street with Clyde Clifford.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Legend of Panties Galore

Panties was a redhead by trade. She had been raised in a little hick town in Montana, where her Momma bought all of her underwear at the Feed & Implement Warehouse. Mostly burlap, sometimes canvas, but usually uncomfortable. And never very stylish. Panties resolved that some day she would escape small town life, and her unmentionables would be the talk of the Big City.

Panties had panties in every style. Low rise, bikini, thong, granny, boy short and control panel. Briefs, boxers, tap pants and bloomers. Surprisingly, only two colors, nude and black. No one ever really did figure that one out. Bras came in push up, natural, jelly, foam, underwire, strapless, convertible and longline. She had camisoles, bustiers, catsuits and spanks. No style was too exotic; no fabric too easy-care.

Like most of us, the seeds of Panties' doom were sown in her underwear. In the end, she fell victim to exponential marketing. Panties was so obsessed with panties that she couldn't get a Victoria's Secret catalog in the mail without ordering something. And every time she ordered something, she got more catalogs. Before you knew it, the postman was delivering sacks of catalogs and underthings every day, and it was all Panties could do to go through it all before the next shipment arrived. Before you could say "breathable crotch," she was exhausted, broke, and way behind on her laundry.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Movie Sunday: Uncertainty

Image from here

I didn't particularly like this movie. It seemed like a good idea -- a film about a couple who need to make a decision, and we see the consequences of each potential choice. But the decision we examine is not the decision that is really on their mind. Confused yet? Yeah, me too. And if a movie is going to leave me confused for as long as this one, it had better have a payoff at the end. And there really wasn't one.

It wasn't a total loss. There is some decent suspense, and the characters are generally interesting and engaging.  Plus, it's an attractive film to watch, especially for an indy. The New York Times guy really liked it. I have to wonder what size muffin basket he got for that review. 

I respect someone who can make a magic trick of a film. I thought Sixth Sense was brilliant the first time I saw it. An I love a good allegory. In this case, the idea of examining the significance of decisions big and small has potential, but I think they missed by more than a little.