Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fathers Day

When I get angry, or a find some significant piece of my world view collapsing around me, I work. I can't help it, it's one of those things I got from my father. We're passive-aggressive white protestants, what can I say? So, when on this fine Father's Day I found myself ready to tackle a serious project, I headed outside and my gaze landed on the plastic pond that the old man had given me several years ago. Like much of what I've gotten from him, I didn't ask for it, didn't particularly want it, but didn't seem to be able to leave it behind anywhere.

The "pond," two plastic basins and a box of pumpy stuff, has been with us for about a decade, stuffed in the corner of the shed for most of that time, more recently leaned against the fence. After Hurricane Gustav I noticed that the larger piece was a fair fit for a hole left by the uprooted gum tree that took out the old shed, and I dragged it up there to check. I even dug around a little at one point, but mostly it's just been sitting there, a big black vinyl reminder of my endless to-do list.

I thought I might dig around for a few minutes and make a little progress before going on to other things. There is very little that is more grounding than digging a hole. It is both physically demanding and undeniably objective. There are no shades of grey -- just a growing cavity and a matching pile of dirt.

So a few minutes turned into all day, and at the end of it both basins were (more or less) in the ground, filled with water, and the pump assembly was miraculously complete and working, despite having knocked around in an open box for ten years. There is, of course, much more to do. Landscaping and rock work, plants, and maybe a goldfish or two. I've actually made my to-do list longer by crossing off one thing. But it's a thing, and sometimes doing a thing has to be enough.

It will look better with some plants and stones. 
Hey, is that a tomato pergola in the background there?

The strangest thing about the whole episode is that I was out there at least four hours before it ever occurred to me that there might be a link between the day and my choice of project. I would be tempted to dismiss it as coincidence, but the tie is so clear that it's hard to buy. Fathers Day has been a strange sort of occasion for me since my father passed away, and I'm apparently still finding my way through this. Minds are awfully strange things, and I often suspect mine of being stranger than most.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Movie Sunday: Billy Jack

Image from here

When I put Billy Jack in my Netflix queue, I expected to enjoy an hour and a half ridiculing everything about it. For the most part, that's what I got. The costumes, dialog and plot are cheesy, the acting is mostly horrific, even by the standards of the day, and the sound quality is so bad that entire scenes are indecipherable. Most of the characters are so flat they could easily be replaced with cardboard cutouts. What surprised me was that the heart of the film, the thing that made it such a big deal during my early teenage years, more or less survived the forty years since the film's release.

Billy Jack is a time capsule from the 1960's, told without Woodstock or Apollo. It is a sober reminder of the open hostilities that once existed within our culture, with racism fueling many of the individual conflicts. I was transported back to a time when I often felt physically at risk because of the length of my hair, and knew there were places I could not go with some of my friends. I can't help thinking that we may be closer to that sort of widespread violent confrontation today than we have been at almost any time since. Except most of us no longer have the physical courage to get involved.

Billy Jack, played by Tom Laughlin, is a half-breed karate expert war hero pacifist shaman trainee who protects wild mustangs and a school full of hippies on an Indian reservation. Laughlin also directed and co-wrote the movie. Laughlin's real-life wife Delores Taylor plays the director of the school, defending her misfit and cast-off students against the local townspeople. The local townspeople are portrayed as a surprisingly diverse group, with opinions ranging from sympathetic to openly stabby and rapey.

The theme of pacifism and non-violence that supposedly makes up one side of the argument seems ridiculously naive today, and the idea that anyone could even believe it could work gave me a little twinge of nostalgia for the innocence of youth. Much of the critical pasting the film got in its time was because it's theme of non-violence was embedded in what was essentially a kung fu movie, before there were kung fu movies. All the lines I remember people reciting were about kicking dudes in the head, and trying (unsuccessfully) not to go berserk.

There were some bright spots. Taylor was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance, and legend has it that Marlon Brando stood up and stopped a pre-release screening to tell the audience that her performance in one scene had set the bar for emotional realism and depth. It's hard to believe today, but watch a few movies from the time and it gets easier. And even as I laughed at the hair and the clothes and the characters, I found myself caring just a little about what happened to them, which I really didn't expect.

Oh, and Howard Hesseman has a mid-sized role in the film. So that was fun. It only took about five minutes of "who is that guy?" before I figured out it was my old friend Johnny Fever from WKRP.

Even if you don't see the movie, I think you owe it to yourself to check out the official Billy Jack website. I was afraid to click on anything, but it's definitely entertaining. Do it, or I'm going to take this right foot and put it upside your head, and there is not a thing you will be able to do about it.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Airline Wars 2: The Royal (Dutch) Treatment

The day after our hellish American overnighter from Honolulu, we set out across the opposite ocean for Europe. After an hour and a half commuter flight to Atlanta, dinner at Arby's, and killing some time marveling at how big a bag of M&M's one could purchase at the Duty Free, we reported for our 10:45 pm KLM flight to Amsterdam.

The difference between KLM and American was apparent from the first second we saw the flight crew. All twelve or fourteen of them showed up as a group, as confident and purposeful in their powder blue raiments as if they were headed out to nuke a rogue comet. You could almost hear the theme music playing as they strode up the concourse, nodded to the swooning gate agents, and disappeared down the jetway.

The music stopped suddenly with that scratching record sound when we started to board, and my boarding pass triggered the little red light that said I wouldn't be sitting in seat 41G with Biscuit after all. We had booked the flight with Delta, and one problem with these international partnership arrangements seems to be that the reservation systems don't work together worth a damn. Fortunately, Biscuit batted the baby blues at the young man sitting in my former seat and he agreed to swap with me. The music was back on, especially when the doors closed and we realized that there was no one between us in our little cluster of three seats.

The economy seats in the Boeing 777 were not what I would call spacious, but there was three inches or so between my knees and the seat in front of me, which was three inches more than I had on the American 767. And the sides of the headrests could be pulled out to keep one's head from rolling side to side when trying to sleep. There was a pillow and blanket waiting in each seat when we got on the plane, and before the doors closed, the flight attendants distributed clip-on headphones to everyone for use with the video system in the seat back in front of us. There was a remote control embedded in each armrest, and after the safety briefing they explained how to use the remotes to watch movies or television, or play games. I watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and Hall Pass, as well as bits and pieces of a couple of other things, just to see if I would like them. This kept me busy and entertained for well over half the flight. Between movies I would tune in to the "where are we and how fast are we going" channel, which was fun and educational.

Just after we took off, and before each of the two hot meals we were served, the flight attendants distributed hot towels for a quick wipe-down of any road grime. Granted, the towels were paper, and not the scrubby little washcloths I remember from JAL back in the day, but it was still a welcome treat. Dinner was a sort of beef stew or chicken medallions, with veggies, bread, butter, crackers, cheese, and dessert. It was airline food, but some of the best airline food I've had in a while. Soft drinks, beer and wine were all complimentary. The beer was Heineken and the wine came in a carton, but it was still free.

Dinner was followed by a course of coffee or tea and biscuits (cookies to us Americans). The flight attendants retired after all the rubbish was collected, but quietly cruised the aisles every half hour until breakfast with trays of water, juice, and soft drinks. There was also a collection of snacks at each galley to which peckish passengers could help themselves. I snagged some cookies and a couple of little Twix bars on my mid-flight trip to the lavatory. As you might expect by now, one on one encounters with the flight attendants elicited expressions of helpful curiosity, in contrast to the hostile glances I received two nights before.

About an hour and a half before we landed, the crew started the process of waking us with another round of hot towels and beverage service. Hot breakfast came next, followed by more coffee, tea, and biscuits.  The little cookies were these awesome cinnamon shortbread numbers like you get on domestic flights sometimes, but with two of them stuck together with caramel. I liked them a lot. One smooth landing and short taxi later, we deplaned in Amsterdam, tired but amazed at how different two flights could feel.

KLM showed us that they didn't just rock the transatlantic flights when we took a 737 to Oslo a couple of hours later. They fed us each two sandwiches for lunch, as well as the same two rounds of beverage service and tea in a little less than two hours. And narrated the whole thing in three languages. I've been trying to figure out ever since this flight how I can get more of my domestic trips to connect through Schiphol airport.

Next Time: Delta tries to keep up

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

American: Love it or leave it

I have endured four plane flights of over eight hours* in the last two weeks, and I feel like I had a rare chance to directly compare the current state of a few of the major carriers. Or at least the type of experience that their customers can expect. The first two legs were American from Dallas to Honolulu and back, the third was KLM (Royal Dutch to old farts like me) from Atlanta to Amsterdam, and the final leg was a Delta return from Amsterdam. The middle two were overnighters, which I found the most telling.

In the interest of full disclosure, I swore after several experiences in the late 70's that I would never fly American Airlines again if I had a choice. The general erosion of service in the airline industry led me to adopt the view that all of the domestic carriers are pretty much the same, but this last experience may cause me to renew my earlier vow.

Our first overnight adventure started at the Honolulu American counter, where we stood in line for almost an hour just to drop our bags. I will never understand how it took so long, but it set the tone. They told us at the gate before we boarded the American Boeing 767 that the flight was completely full, so we had that to look forward to. I was in seat 33C on the left aisle in the center section, and was struck not only by how little legroom there was in front of me, but how the footroom for the aisle seats was narrower than the others. I would inevitably have either a foot or a knee projecting into the aisle. It was not going to be a comfortable flight. Which is when the 750 pound couple (split more or less evenly) sat down in front of us. He pushed the seat onto my knees without even touching the button to recline, but of course he would recline the seat as far as it would go once the plane took off, crushing my legs unless I twisted sideways in my seat. I felt like I should be shampooing his hair, and there was no way for me to sit normally.

The flight attendants offered to sell us earphones so that we could hear the entertainment that would be displayed on the screens mounted every dozen rows or so in the center of the cabin ceiling. We were also given the option of purchasing snacks, from a $10 Boston Market sandwich to $3.50 for the one tennis ball size can of Pringles. Blankets and pillows were also available for purchase ($8.00), as well as beer, wine, and the right to board the plane early (which I would have to have selected at check-in). After serving the obligatory soft drinks -- with not so much as a tiny bag of pretzels -- they showed Cars II and a couple of episodes of some sitcom (I forget which), and shut down the entertainment for the duration. We are now about three hours into an eight hour flight.

Other than being admonished by the flight crew to keep our window shades down lest we see the sunrise, we didn't see or hear from the crew again until about an hour before landing. On the one occasion (about five hours in) that I extricated myself from my seat to wait 25 minutes for one dude to get out of the bathroom**, I found the flight attendants ensconced in the galley, gossiping merrily away. They looked at me as if I might be disturbing them, and I got the distinct impression that no one was going to vacate the jump seats for me cross to the starboard lavatory, no matter how long I stood there.

When we were about an hour from Dallas, the flight attendants came through the cabin winging little 3 oz. foil-topped containers of juice at everyone. I got two, but they were still frozen pretty solid. Biscuit only got one, but her's was at least liquid all the way through. They had a quick round of trying to unload the leftover snacks from the night before, and then turned on the seat belt sign and returned to the galleys. I'm not sure what they were doing back there. Maybe preparing to cross-check, whatever that is.

During the entire flight, I'm not sure I saw one of the flight crew smile, or say or do anything particularly nice to any of the passengers. In general, they seemed bored, tired, and a little pissed about the whole situation.

We landed without incident, flew home on a blissfully uncrowded commuter jet, and prepared to do it all over again.

Next Time: Dutch Treat

* Plus eight shorter legs of one to two hours thrown in for good measure. But it's the longer trips that really tell the tale.

** I was afraid to go in after he came out, lest some foul vapors overwhelm me. But this was not the case.  Actually, I don't know what he was doing in there for so long. I think he may have been joining the Mile High Club: Solo Edition.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Movie Sunday: Get Low

Image from here

What do you mean where have I been? We'll get to that later. It's movie time. Get Low is a strange story, and I'm still not sure whether I like the way the plot progresses. I won't say much more about that, because I think it's either sloppy or really clever, and if it's clever I don't want to ruin it for you.

Anyway, with the acting in this joint it doesn't really matter. I could watch these people for hours. I don't know how Robert Duvall can make a movie anymore without winning an Academy Award. He is simply brilliant in this role, bringing layer after layer of complexity to a character that seems at first to be a simple archetype we all know. And Sissy Spacek keeps up. The scenes of the two of them together are marvelous, and often painful to watch. You can see individual facial muscles twitch or relax as they react to each other and their own internal dialogues. It's the kind of control that surely can't be voluntary, but is undoubtedly purposeful.

Lucas Black (the kid from Sling Blade and American Gothic) may not be the most versatile actor on the planet, but when he finds a character that matches his sensibility, he fills it up. He plays the young idealist Buddy Robinson perfectly, and the intensity of his goodness even penetrates the lifetime of bitterness that Duval's character has steeped himself in. As Duval says at one point in the film, "For every one like me, there's one like you, son. I about forgot that."

Bill Murray rounds out the core cast, in a role that seems made for him. He has become an accomplished dramatic actor, even though I still have trouble believing it sometimes. I'm sure younger people who didn't have to suffer through his years on Saturday Night Live, and didn't see Stripes* multiple times, don't have this problem.

Get Low feels a lot like some of Clint Eastwood's films, Unforgiven and Gran Torino coming specfically to mind. It also reminds me a little of Paper Moon, though I couldn't tell you why. I don't know if we are seeing more of these life retrospective type films because audiences and fimmakers are growing older, or if I'm just noticing them more because I'm not as young as I used to be. It's subject matter that I think was once primarily the domain of playwrights. In fact, this film could easily be done as a play. It reminds me a little of an Edward Albee play I did a scene from many years ago, though the title escapes me at the moment.

If you are looking for car chases and stuff blowing up, this is probably not the right film for you. I noticed several of the IMDB comments were from idiots people who watched it based on good reviews, and found it boring or not funny. One guy complained that the photography was "too pretty for the story." I will agree that it was not particularly funny, but since it's a drama that didn't really bother me.  But if you are in the mood to watch some great acting, I definitely recommend Get Low.

* I haven't been able to look at a spatula the same since that movie.