Taking Inventory

We have a great many things Tupperware, or Tupperware-like in our home. We have tall and short containers, big and small ones. Some so big, they hold a half gallon of liquid or such–and some so small, they hold enough salad dressing for maybe two salads–maybe one, depending on your dressing enjoyment quotient.

We have a number of cell phones in our home, though only two that operate-Sue’s and mine. We have an old Blackberry Pearl that belonged to Sue and we have an old Motorola ‘Razr’. We have a T-Mobile Dash somewhere around here and an old Nokia that Peanut uses to play with. She plays with the others, too.

We have a number of dog collars. Scoop owned one of them, of course. But as he is gone and sorely missed, it didn’t feel right to put his collar on Simon. So, we have walking collars, choke chain collars, pinch collars, tag collars. Between Lucy, Simon and my good old pal, Scoop, we have more than our share of collars.

We have no less than five working computers, though only four are hooked up and working. We have two working televisions and we have numerous music CD’s, well over 200 of them. Maybe more. We have an assortment of some dozen types of crackers and we have several different generations of business cards between Sue and me.

There are myriad cans of paint in the garage, some we bought, some left over from the previous owner who left them here for us to do touch up. There are a number of cans of bug spray to kill all kinds of little vermin.

We own two rat bait traps and an electric rat zapper.

We have a bag of charcoal and two propane canisters as well as literally dozens and dozens of pill bottles, some full, some not.

We have 7 different bookshelves, most of them straining at the ends, bringing threats from my wife that I need to find a different hobby that doesn’t involve so much space. She mentions the word, “library” a lot. I don’t know what she means.

We have a bunch of extra tiles from when the previous owners retiled the downstairs of the house and we have a dozen or more board games. There are jars of pasta sauce and canned tomatoes and we have extra filters for the hepa air filter we own. We have three different types of laundry detergent, three different laundry baskets, two hampers and three flameless candles.

We have a nebulizer to administer inhaled medications and we have an infusion device so Sue can take her vivoglobin infusions each month. We have two mail holders for bills and the like and we have three filing cabinets, four desks, two big fruit dishes and more than 30 framed pictures.

We have more than 30 bottles of wine (it fluctuates), two bottles of limoncello, one bottle of gin, one bottle of vodka, one bottle of Tequila, one bottle of Scotch and one bottle of orange liqueur.

We have two picnic tables.

We have three ice chests.

So, if you ever hear me complaining that I don’t have enough–slap me. Hard.

Because with all that, what we really have–is each other and we love each other so much. And I’m glad we do.

Onward.

On a Sunday Evening

Rain came today and it was welcome. We’d had one of those common and nasty heatwaves with Santa Ana winds last week and the temperatures soared well into the low 80’s. A lot of So. Cal folks like this. I don’t. But, I write too much about weather and weather is decidedly something over which I have no control.

It must have happened yesterday, though I can see a thread of it for the past couple of months now. I was walking Simon on our creek walk here that bisects our city. He was off on a sniffing jaunt and I was merrily strolling along and I felt the twinges build in my left hip. It didn’t come on suddenly, like it does sometimes, but gradually. I felt the pain build and then my back went out and I was done. I mean done. Couldn’t sit well, still can’t. Can’t stand well. Motion in small amounts, walking mainly, seems to help. As I write this, it feels as though someone is attempting to pull and peel the muscles off of my left hip bone and yank the lower left back fascia tissue with it.

Last night, I fell asleep OK, but as is my wont, I awoke around 3 in the morning, got up and did my biz–and then headed back to bed sort of awake, sort of not. I thought merely about climbing into bed, but my body wouldn’t comply. I could not lift my left leg high enough, the pain being too intense, and settled on a kind of incremental sliding under the sheets that began with me just sitting on the bed. Luckily, Simon was sleeping in his bed on the floor. He does tend to sleep on our bed and I imagine if he had, he’d have protested my rather laborious and lengthy attempt to get back in.

On top of this, Peanut still has a cold, albeit not so bad now–Sue has gotten hit with a bad one and Aunt Laurie too is down for the count. It’s pretty much me and Simon and the fish at this point. Peanut, as I said, isn’t so bad and we made and ate dinner together while Sue slept and we played Mariokart and we kind of had a daddy/daughter afternoon which was quite grand, actually.

At this point, though, the girls are in bed. Even Simon has succumbed and is sleeping upstairs. I’m up fiddling and faddling. Tomorrow starts spring semester and that’s a shocker for me. The time is going awfully fast and as this is my 20th year of teaching,  I find myself nostalgic and looking back a lot. There have been so many changes in my teaching career and all of them are forgettable. I’ve met so many people, done so many things and I’ve been provided with unique opportunities that I would otherwise never have gotten. I’m grateful. It seems there are many more hills to climb, too and I look forward to those as I move forward. Pretty good for a guy who, after three years of teaching, said he wanted to quit and find something else to do.

Well, screaming back pain is causing me to cut this one short. Currently, it is as though a powertool with some degree of velocity is being used to drill into my lower left back and then, snake like, it turns down into my left hip–blood spewing and muscles tearing as I writhe in pain.

Advil P.M., here I come.

Stick-to-it-ivity

The week that was was finals week and the previous post details my thoughts on that. Yesterday was a student-free day and so the workload at the school was light. I brought all of it home with me and sat over sheafs of paper reading essays, grading, updating and calculating grades. Most of that I did on Thursday night. Yesterday was a full-court press of stories for the paper and two-thirds of them (I did three) were about area entrepreneurs.

These are my favorite stories to write. I get a kick out of meeting people who have done something unique, invented something or created something, that fills a niche. In this case, two divergent cases of that breed. One, a young man, 39, who upon leaving the Navy created a logistics company that is essentially a small defense-contractor providing technical services in communication, telemetry and administration, of live fire ranges–one of which exists here in Ventura County at Point Mugu Naval Air Weapons station.

The other gentleman invented an app for the iphone and the Android that is remarkable, but I am not liberty to discuss it here. It’s a story that will probably be all over the “wire” in a matter of days and I may get to write about it more than just for the paper. It’s extraordinary the talent that exists in America. Mind you, this is little old Ventura County and in one day, I met two people who’ve done creative, fascinating things–and done so at a time of economic recession and even distress. Their companies are thriving because they are providing goods and services that people need and that’s  a very cool thing.

This seems a natural outgrowth for me of my interest in wine and food. Invariably, the winemakers and chefs and restaurant owners I’ve met are people who in their hearts are entrepreneurs. They started their businesses because they wanted to work for themselves, create something and provide a service to people. Whether it be food, wine or iphone apps or defense contractors, these are people with the drive to dream a new future for themselves, for their families-even for their communities, their country and the world.

Yes, there are monetary rewards for doing such a thing, as there should be. Our country thrives on that. But each one of these people I’ve interviewed from yesterday going back to 2001 when I started writing about wine and food-has failed or stumbled, lost money, thought about giving up. Each one of them has struggled through years of trying. The defense contractor I wrote about succeeded in landing a navy contract that he’d been chasing for 5 years. The iphone app inventor was rejected by Apple no less than 6 times before he finally got it right. 95% of restaurants fail in their first year.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? Never stop. Never give up. Keep going. Failure is an option-always, but it’s not the best option and when it happens, you learn from it and you move on. I think I know something about this.

I’ve been a freelance writer for almost 20 years. My “success” if one can call it that, came to me within the past three years. That’s about 16 years of trying, dreaming, writing, scrapping, reinventing, rethinking, remodeling.

And I’m just saying…

Crucibles.

Finals week at school. Payback time, as I like to call it. Normally, of course, that’s just a silly little thing to say. This year, rather unfortunately, it seems true.

I am disheartened by the number of students I have who either willingly, or simply through serious neglect, have failed the class. I have never had so many F’s in one semester in my career. The number has been increasing every year, but it plateaued last year and, as I recall, even went down. Kids tried a little harder. I have no less than 10 kids who will fail various classes of mine this semester–all through faults of their own. Not one time mistakes, not a couple of missing assignments–but a pattern of prolonged neglect that is now coming back to nip them.

It’s not just frustrating, it’s sad. This is the part of teaching that isn’t being written about. This is the part that is screaming for serious attention, too. P.J. O’Rourke said it best at a speech he gave in 2008. Why the speech isn’t given more attention, I’ll never know. He said:

“The problem isn’t funding or teachers unions or lack of vouchers or absence of computer equipment in the classroom. The problem is your damned kids.”

That’s the point and he’s right on a lot of levels. Now, P.J.–and I, for that matter, will tell you that teachers unions and lack of vouchers and other things are indeed problems–but they aren’t the problem. It’s time that nonsense ended. And if you’re a conservative who has been espousing it, you need to walk a mile in my shoes. You need to come into a classroom and see what I’m talking about: It’s not the unions.

I’m going to paste here the rest of an unpublished article I’ve written called, “I am Superman.” It was in response to the documentary film called “Waiting for Superman.” I haven’t seen the film. I don’t need to–I know the premise already and while I would like to see the film, it is missing the point. Here’s part of what I wrote:

We’re a nation of entitlements, now. We expect that our children never do anything wrong and when they do, they must have been encouraged to do it by some tenured, unionized teaching thug who wants nothing more than a stiff drink and a cigarette in the break room while writing “F’s” on your child’s paper.

Of course, there are bad teachers. There are also bad lawyers, bad construction workers, bad accountants, bad railroad workers and bad cement mixers. But if your kid wants to learn, wants to put her brain to uses other than thinking up new and shorter acronyms for texting, “the guy sitting next to me is hot. I think he digs me,” she can. So can the guy sitting next to her.

What’s required isn’t some sweeping educational reform or, in Guggenheim’s words, “Superman.” What’s required is that you and your children-and me and mine for that matter-suck it up a little bit and teach the kids about personal responsibility. We haven’t done that very well, at least not to the past few generations, and so we’ve ended up with things like “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top.” Well, the fact is, some kids need to be left behind and in that race, some will come in last.

In Jay Matthews’ book, Work Hard, Be Nice, he writes about the founders of the K.I.P.P. schools, the Knowledge is Power Program. Anyone interested in education should read this book. Matthews writes about two young teachers who take kids from the poorest of neighborhoods in the most fragile of homes and help them succeed. How do they do it? What magic do they possess? They demand and model excellence. They stay in the students’ faces and even call them at home, show up on their porches and check on them. Late homework? Not at a K.I.P.P. school. Can’t come to school today? We’ll come to you. What do you need? The teachers model the behavior they want to see-they work hard, so the kids work hard.

Now, you say, that’s the point. Most teachers don’t work hard. Well, no-that’s not true, either. Once again, I cannot speak for everyone, but the teachers I’ve known in 20 years of teaching work very hard indeed. Some of them do nothing but work hard. Some of them don’t do much else. Are there slackers? Of course. Are there teachers who don’t provide good feedback? Sure. When this happens to your child-should you use it as an excuse as to why your child is not successful in his or her pursuits?

Forget Superman. He’s not coming. The very title of the movie is offensive—we need someone to take care of us. We need someone to rescue us. We were once a nation of individualists and pragmatists. We worked hard and taught our children that hard work would be its own reward. We taught them not to look for excuses. Now, we teach them that someone else is to blame for their failings. Now we tell them that it is someone else’s fault that they didn’t succeed. It stands to reason, then, that we would want to blame that monolith of education. Like so many other things, we like to affix blame on someone else; if that someone else is a faceless institution, so much the better.

I’m not running for office. I’m not interested in popularity, so I’ll tell you the Truth. The problem is us. The problem is our kids. The problem is schools have gotten busy with telling them that the earth is warming, that they need to recycle, that equality is the goal and that being better than someone else at something may make them feel bad and you know what? The kids bought it. They believe it. And when our children are 20 years old living on our couches and watching our TV, using our Internet to Facebook (a new verb they’ve learned) their friends about their ennui, we can’t understand why.

If you want to watch a good movie on education—watch Dead Poet’s Society. It’s a film about standing up for yourself. “Boys, the longer you wait to find your own voice, the less likely you are to find it at all,” says Robin Williams as English teacher John Keating. “Thoreau said most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Don’t be resigned to that. Dare to strike out and find new ground.” The essence of the film is to man (or woman) up, take responsibility for your actions, find your voice, stand your ground and bask in the glow of your own reward. It’s also a film about the tragic consequences of what happens when you are unable, unwilling—or afraid to do so.

I’ve got a few years left in my classroom and I still care about it. But come to think of it, I have to stop telling you that I am superman. I’m not-at least not for you. You are your own superman. Your kids can be their own supermen and women, boys and girls, too. And if we lose sight of that, no educational reform will ever bring solace, no politician will ever deliver relief. It’s time we stopped waiting for superman and went about the business of being superman.

So, if you want to tell me that in order to reform education, we need to end the teacher unions, I say look at home schooling-and how it is succeeding. If you want to tell me schools need more money, I say look at Charter schools–less money, more control, more results. I could keep going. The point is this–the quality of students, by and large, has changed and not for the better. Students are more interested in immediate gratification, technological breakthroughs, like iphones, that they see as their right-nevermind that they have no idea how the device works and couldn’t duplicate it if they wanted to, and are looking for the quick and easy way out. I had a student just today who has done almost nothing all semester long ask me how he could get an “A.” I simply laughed.

Yes, our education system is broken-but there is really no need for deep soul searching. As the article above notes–look at the K.I.P.P. schools. They work because they don’t allow excuses-and students who refuse to live up to the expectations are shipped out. The one big fix in education-particularly at the secondary level, would be that very thing: You don’t want to be here? There’s the door. Have a good day.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Navel Gazing

At the core of a very busy life is…well…a very busy life. No, seriously. At the core is what drives us to it–the delicate balance between paying homage to the god of money and understanding that it is no god–it is a tool. And like most other tools, it takes a bit of practice to learn how to use it effectively.

I suppose I have been on that path for some time. I’m still a young man. At 45, I have a young family and plans for the future. But I have also been a school teacher for 20 years and a part-time journalist for nearly as long. For the past 3 years, I have been a very busy part-time journalist and I have noted that, in the twists and turns along the path, I have come to love writing stories as much as used to love teaching. The beauty part is that I still love both. I am a fortunate soul.

Or am I? I’ve been considering this as well. The fact that I am able to do both of these things is not luck. In no way did luck play nearly any role in what I do now. Or rather, as Sam Shoen said: “I believe in luck. The harder I work, the luckier I get.” It was not luck that I became a teacher. It was a principled response to my career. I was in radio-it wasn’t going well, I was broke and I needed to find gainful employment. I earned a teaching credential in direct response to that.

It is now as I am seeing some semblance of success that I begin to see a long line–a “tether” as my friend Stacey has referred to it in her blog–that ties me back to some basic things I love. I still love to talk, to read and to write. Those are the things that drive me and I often think about what other careers I am suited for. There are many, of course. I could do marketing or sales. I could role the dice again in the radio market or try my hand at acting-something I always loved, but was afraid to try. I could be a musician or a shrink (though, I highly doubt it) or any other number of things.

But I chose these things–worked at them. Hard. I used to sit and write stories day in and day out. There is a tether of writing that leads me back to when I was 9 years old living in Pennsylvania and sitting over a yellow legal tablet with my friend Ron Freedman, writing a play about the Civil War. That tether goes through the years and finds me at 18, dealing with mononucleosis and having nothing to do but sit at a typewriter my dad got me and tapping away at stories I wanted to tell. I wrote a lot. Some of it I still have in old notebooks and journals.

This post is for posterity more than anything. I doubt very much whether readers other than me will glean much from it. But if you do, it is meant to be this: I suppose you could get me to believe in overnight success. I’m sure it exists, though I have never known it to and never met it. What I have learned in my life is that success is a series of actions that take a long time to bear fruit. I remember the first check I received from a major magazine in 2002. Christianity Today published a piece I wrote, on spec–just for the heck of it–on how I came to faith and how reading, writing and literature played a role in that. They paid me $300 for that piece. The editor’s name was Mark Galli, and while I had some e-mail conversations with him after that, I have not worked with him since. But that was the beginning of success as a writer for me. 9 years ago, when my daughter was an infant, I set down to write a piece about why I believe in God and why I have faith. Now, I write daily for newspapers, magazines, websites-because I love it and because I pursued it for years and years.

I’m not yet making a living at it. While I would like to do just that, the fact is it is still a second sort of part-time job for me. What it means is that I put in 13-15 hour days nearly every day and grind it out as best I can. It pays the bills. We live a comfortable life-but we have debt. We have issues. We have car payments and those payments are not on brand new German-made automobiles. Money is a tool-not a god.

There is more to this, I know. Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Outliers about the complex cultural ways that success manifests itself. One conclusion he comes to is that there really is no such thing as “the self-made man.” David McCullough says something similar. I saw him speak some time ago and he said that studying and reading history have taught him that there really is no such thing as a “self-made man.” All people have benefited from the relationships they create and have and all people can point to someone in their life who have given them more, whether in knowledge, love, friendship or whatever–that helped propel them. I’m no exception to that.

Your parents were right. Hard work does pay off. You just have to keep doing it. Even when you don’t want to…

The King’s Speech

I am, at heart, a bit of an Anglophile. Just a bit. I have affection particularly for British literature and I love Shakespeare, teaching a course on the Bard every spring. So, when I get to see English movies, it’s always a bit of a treat for me and if it is a movie based on some historical or literary truth about England, giving a glimpse into one of the Island’s many eras, so much the better.

I fear writing about The King’s Speech. I fear it because there is no way to do it justice with the mere words I can type here. It is, perhaps, one of the very best movies I have ever seen. It is definitely in the Top 10 of my favorites, the rarefied air of which includes films like The Godfather parts I and II, Last of the Mohicans, Seabiscuit, Citizen Kane and others.

It’s also a difficult movie to write about precisely because it is so elegantly simple. The story is all character driven, set in the years preceding WWII when King Edward VIII (known by the Windsor family as David), abdicated his throne so that he could marry a divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson. His abdication set up a Constitutional crisis in England and the government of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin threatened to quit if the King married.

King Edward’s abdication cleared the way for his younger brother, Albert, to ascend the throne, a choice he made reluctantly and with a great deal of fear. Albert, known as George VI, knew what was happening across the English channel in Europe. He knew that Hitler was rising and that appeasement would not work. But Albert also has many personal issues, ones that he did not talk about publicly because that is not what Royals do. Albert had a severe stammer.

Eventually, he turned to the treatment of an Australian man living in London who had a love for Shakespeare and a penchant for drama. Lionel Logue became one of George VI’s, “Bertie’s” as the family called him, closest confidants. He was present for every major speech the King ever gave and was knighted in the Victorian order.

Geoffrey Rush is masterful as Logue, a kind of classic Dickensian character who loves his family, works hard and is loyal, but is, after all, an outsider-an Australian in England during a very nationalistic time.

It is, however, Colin Firth, who mesmerizes on screen. Firth’s in-depth study (for what else could account for a stammer so natural, one expects to see Firth with one when he is interviewed about the film) of George VI-of “Bertie” is so clever, so insightful, one cannot help but watch him with all the concentration of master craftsman. He’s a reverse train-wreck-you still cannot turn your eyes away, but what you’re seeing isn’t destructive, it’s simply beautiful.

Firth looks like George VI and sounds like him and it is that sound that adds force, eloquence and elegance to his performance. He’s at first annoyed by Rush’s Logue, then intrigued, then fond of this “commoner” who had the ability to teach him to stop stammering. In one of a wealth of candid personal scenes, Bertie, still Duke of York and not yet King, admits to Logue that he’s never had any friends and never really spoken to any commoners. His devotion to his wife, one assumes, is borne not just out of Royal convenience or even of the love he very obviously had for the woman who is now Queen mother. It is because there simply is no one else he can confide in. Logue is the first man to come along, without looking for Royal favors, without pandering, to tell Bertie what he needs to hear–not what he wants to hear. “In here, I demand strict equality,” says Logue. “No titles, no Royalty. Just Bertie and Lionel.”

The mythical qualities of the story are just as important–a reluctant King who, nevertheless, does his duty for his country, knowing that his human imperfections could scuttle the entire thing. “The King can’t levy taxes, can’t form a government…” says Bertie. “What he can do is unite the country with words. And I can’t speak…” A weak England would have proved irresistible to Hitler early on. Without Bertie’s true transformation into George VI, a name suggested to him in the film by none other than Winston Churchill, he won’t have to worry about speaking English. His daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, would have to learn German soon enough.

Director Tom Hooper, who made beautiful films for the Band of Brothers series, brings much of that art to bear here. Hooper’s work on Band of Brothers used gritty reality shots of a WWII backdrop while simultaneously using close ups and unique individual shots to provide intimacy, so that it is not a wide panorama of a Nazi concentration camp we see in one B.O.B. episode, but the reaction on the faces of the American soldiers who see it for the first time. Their faces are a wealth of emotional information. Hooper lets Firth and Rush command the screen with such intimate moments, like when Logue is turned down at an audition for Richard III in a community theater.

The film is simply perfect. There is nothing like it out today, nor has there been for some time. The audience is captivated not by suspenseful moments or masterful effects, but by sheer emotional energy and raw human power that in real life, required a reluctant King to find his voice and a commoner to help him do it. What is so compelling is that one becomes aware that the historical reality that ensued is played with extraordinary and detailed mastery-and one cannot help but think that Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth are two of the finest actors who ever lived.

A winter of discontent

Awash in the glow of a Friday night fronting a three day weekend, I make my humble apologies for essentially taking the week off from blogging. I had work to do, gentles. I was not loafing. Could I not have taken the time to simply regale with a tale of this or that or t’other?

Sigh.

Yes, I suppose I could have, but I was writing in other venues that have paychecks attached to them and it was hard to walk away from that. I am, at heart, a profit motive animal. I cannot help it, nor do I want to. I actually enjoy making a few bucks here and there and working for a living. It’d be nice if the checks rolled in without working for a living, but they don’t for the most part–so, I work.

Note: The author thinks the above paragraph so obvious, that it is hardly worth reading. Hell–it was hardly worth writing.

As one of the class of villified public employees, I have to keep a lower profile, you know? Perhaps this blog thing needs to end…Look at me, after all…living a hand to mouth existence with a towering mortgage on a five figure salary. Shameless. And don’t get started on the pension. All I have to do is work another 20 years and I’ll make 91 percent of my current luxury salary. Man…

OK, let go of the sarcasm now. I actually see the need for pension reform and think it long overdue. But what bugs me is that no one is talking about the fact that the pensions would by and large be OK, at least the teachers’ pensions would, if the governors of this state going all the way back to Ronaldus Magnus, hadn’t raided it. That’s a lot of what has taken place, here. Politicians during good times said, “let’s just have some of that pension money and put it to other uses.” Now they wonder why they need to reform the pensions? How about starting with–it’s a pension for a teacher-or a police officer or a firefighter. Leave it alone.

Too much to ask, I guess. As I say, I see the need of pension reform and it is a big need. The problem, however, isn’t the teacher’s pensions. The problem is basing first responders’ pensions on overtime and holiday pay. Doing that has greatly increased the pensions of a lot of people to the point where California is no longer an innovative state where unique businesses are born. It’s a swamp of government jobs and paybacks and kickbacks that are bleeding the state from all it has. Soon, California will simply not be able to compete.

The weather here is beautiful. The climate here sucks.

If the people of this state vote for continued high taxes, I’ll be surprised. If they don’t, then drastic cuts will need to take place. It may well be that the budget Governor Brown adopted works and that people will vote for it. If so, they will be voting to perhaps balancing the budget–but in the process, they’ll be killing job creation, driving more and more people out of the state.

Here’s a thought–many teachers I know who are close to retirement are either considering or have already decided to leave the state. See that? They made their living here–and that living was made with tax dollars—their pension is from here, again, California tax dollars–and they’re taking it to Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado–you name it. So-more money leaves the state. More people refuse to pay through the nose to enjoy January sunshine.

Just sayin’.

There was a billboard in Seattle during the bust years of the 1970’s that said, “Will the last person to leave Seattle please turn off the lights?” It was a sarcastic reminder that jobs were leaving Washington, Boeing was tapped out and the recession of the 70’s took a heavy toll on the state.

California may not yet be at that point. We don’t really need to ask the last person to leave to turn off the lights. The lights are going to shut off without us doing anything because no one here will be able to afford the electricity bill.

True Grit

I imagine that before lines are rehearsed or props are set, before cameras are turned on and trained onto marks and before actors walk onto the set-that Joel and Ethan Coen spend days, weeks-even months or years, pouring over language in their scripts.

I’m not a Coen follower, per se. I’ve seen a few of their movies and the first I saw was Fargo followed by The Big Lebowski, then Oh Brother Where Art Thou and then No Country For Old Men, which I watched at home-on cable. It didn’t have the same punch, I’m sure. But from the first time I saw Fargo, I knew that words-and the way they sound and are pronounced, meant something to the Coens. Their latest film, the compelling True Grit, is no exception.

All of the accolades pouring in for young Ms. Hailee Steinfeld, a resident of Venutra County, where I live, are much deserved. Her presence on camera as Mattie Ross is innocent and strong, naive and powerful. She captures the dialogue that the Coens laid down and turns it into something of a delight. Her negotiation with the man who sold her murdered father some horses is one of the more entertaining moments of film I’ve seen. It’s just long enough to be uncomfortable, enough to see the seriousness of the character without giving in to the young bereaved girl. She drives a hard bargain-for everyone she meets.

Of course Jeff Bridges’ rendition of Rooster Cogburn, U.S. Marshal, is effortless. The man is a rock of an actor-look no further than this film for proof. Cogburn “pulls the cork” a few too many times, but he gets his man and it is he young Mattie turns to for vengeance.

Tom Chaney killed her father and her mother is too busy with her baby brother and her grief to do anything. It’s up to Mattie to get justice and one never has to be told that Mattie gets what she wants. The film spills out into a near post-modern epic, which is what the Coens like to do. Their films have few redemptive moments or rather, the subtlety of redemption is easy to lose against the whir of one more bullet, the sting of one more body on a growing stack of them.

Matt Damon, a Texas Ranger who has no taste for Cogburn’s rough edges, is nevertheless a faithful and honorable man who  has been seeking Josh Brolin’s Tom Chaney for months and falls in with Cogburn and Mattie reluctantly but skillfully. Damon is a perfect foil for Bridges as their acting, like the script surrounding it, is so effortless. It’s the equivalent of a rock and roll super-group with Jimmy Page on guitar and Danny Carey on drums. The seasoned-even grizzled veteran lays down a riff that is nuanced and driving while the younger but accomplished professional colors the music with new and complex layers. All the while, Steinfeld’s Mattie is the strong new vocal presence that binds the two together and they do indeed make beautiful music.

It surprised me that Steven Spielberg was the Executive Producer of the film. When I think of Spielberg, a hero of mine throughout my adolescence and onward, I think of the perfect symmetry of sunset in Raiders of the Lost Ark as Indy and his loyal band of Egyptians dig for the lost Ark near the well of souls. The sun sinks low in the center of the screen and as the wind picks up, Indy is silhouetted with his trademark hat sitting firmly atop his head. Spielberg makes beautiful-even perfect scenery.

But he’s not directing here and so it isn’t his scenery, it’s the Coen’s. The landscape is bleak, treeless in the lowlands and cold and snowy as thin wisps of twiggy trees rise out of the beige ground in the mountains. The landscape is the movie-there is nothing redemptive here, there are no gorgeous sunsets foretelling of a new dawn. There is cold and there is hard and they are endless, like Mattie’s desire for justice for her father.

Tom Chaney waits here near a river cutting through the mountains and he is not what Mattie expected-nor what we expect. He’s mean, contemptible, stupid and even a little slow. He’s not evil or at least if he is, he doesn’t know it and doesn’t own or love it. He’s just making a living-and Mattie’s father got in the way, an easy target on his way to something better or bigger. Mattie’s own true grit is in play when she shoots and wounds him and he takes her prisoner, forcing Cogburn to negotiate terms for her release.

But it is the language that makes the movie intense. While I’m imagining the Coens thinking about dialogue, I’m also looking at the essays I assign my students. One of the rules of formal essays I assign is to avoid using contractions when possible. There is, of course, some argument about this, and I am not a purist on the matter, but by and large it’s a good idea to say “it is a good idea.” The Coens pick up on this from the novel by Charles Portis and I noticed that one of the primary things that sets the language apart is its sparse use of contractions. There are a few-but mostly, the Coens favor throwing them out. Thus, when Damon’s Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf has had enough of Mattie, he says:

You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements. While I sat there watchin’ I gave some thought to stealin’ a kiss… though you are very young, and sick… and unattractive to boot. But now I have a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.

Not, “you’re very unattractive” and not, “I’ve a mind to…” It is that formality of language that makes the characters more interesting, more certain of themselves and thus more powerful. If the scenery is sparse and spare, the language is rich and dense.

The film too is rich and dense and worthy of thinking about after its over. It’s not a complicated story, but it does allow for complicated thinking. If redemption can be found at the end of a gun, then Mattie goes a long way to find it. She is not sentimental or sappy about it and there are no moral remonstrances from an older, wiser and drunker Cogburn. In this film, “some people need killin'” is indeed a fair and workable philosophy. One sheds no tears for sympathetic bad guys.

The western didn’t really need reviving in Hollywood. It gets awakened every so often like when Lawrance Kasdan made Silverado and Clint Eastwood made Pale Rider and The Unforgiven. If True Grit is a successful movie, it won’t be because it is a re-imagining of the western, it will be because a good story can be put on any canvas as long as the characters are strong, the writing is tight and the tale needs to be told.

One Era ends, Another begins

Yesterday was a good day. It was a straight line of joyful moments, flecked here and there with sadness and anger, the kind of day that seems to mimic a life-the day imitating life, a moment for each person to live their individual personality, to see and feel it, and then to slip slowly into the evening, content with their role.

The morning was rude. Awakened from the dream and alluring sleep of too much wine, the hangover began early-around 4:00 A.M. I thought I could handle the headache, it wasn’t the thunderstorm that most of my headaches can be, merely a passing storm it seemed. By 7:00, the thunderclouds had gathered and so I came downstairs to brew coffee and take Excedrin Migraine strength. The stuff works. Within an hour, I was feeling more myself.

We packed the dogs and the four of us, Sue, Peanut, Aunt Laurie and me into the car and headed south toward Agoura. When we got about a mile from the house, I’d forgotten the most important passenger and asked Sue to turn around and head back to the house. We were going to spread Scoop’s ashes at Paramount Ranch, a U.S. National Park where many westerns were and are filmed and a wonderful set of trails where good dogs can run along and turn off in the grass to chase the scent of squirrel and rabbit, bird and raccoon.

I walked into the garage and picked up the bag with the sad contents packed inside. I sat back down silently, putting the package on the floor at my feet, a place where Scoop lay many times during his life. He was never the most affectionate dog, but his unconditional love was clear. He’d established it with us-and he had nothing left to prove.

The headache gone altogether, still a little slow and foggy-like the weather that hung around the coastal hills of Paramount Ranch, we walked off past the western town facades left over from so many Hollywood imaginings and up into the hills. The trails were still soggy from the recent rains and we found ourselves walking off-road, as it were, to get away from the deeper mud puddles. The dogs were under no such constraints and Lucy and Simon went exploring, Lucy moving a bit slower than the younger, more agile Simon.

We talked and ambled along, reminiscing about the time a year ago, January 10, 2009 when we had one of the best hikes we’d ever had. Sue stopped Peanut, Scoop and me and took a picture that she keeps on her laptop still.

Now, a year later, we carried the sad remains of our dear dog to his final resting place. It’s not that we hiked endlessly at Paramount, not at all. But we’d been there three or four times and it was there that Scoop was off-leash and seemed at his best, his happiest. He was, after all, a hound-dog and hundreds of years of breeding had built an olfactory system in him that even he was helpless to restrain.

Simon too seemed in his element. Running through the brush, sniffing for everything that moved-and some that didn’t, he would disappear into the high grass and behind trees so that all that was left was the sound of his jingling collar and the occasional whimper that pointers make when they’ve found something of interest.

About a mile in, we came across a small grove of oak trees in a clearing where the trail widened. When Scoop was alive, we’d stop here and sip water, regain our strength and then carry on. Scoop would get a drink, come and get a pet or a scratch and then walk around sniffing the perimeter. It was here that we chose for his final resting place.

Sue stood back to take some photos and Laurie and Lucy stood with her while Peanut and I went up just above the trail and spread Scoop’s ashes. While I emptied the container, Peanut read the poem Rainbow Bridge. She did a beautiful job of it and we were all so proud.

The wind and rain will carry Scoop into the soil there. He’ll become as much a part of the park as the trees under which he resides and we’ll always know he’s there.

We walked on, a few tears, a little sad-but resigned and released. Time has moved on. The era of Scoop in our lives has drawn to an end and it’s now the era of Simon.

In some way, we’re convinced that Scoop had a paw, if you will, in sending Simon to us. He came to us less than two weeks after Scoop’s death and he has, as Sue says, “filled a void that needed filling.” He is well tempered, well heeled, loves to be petted and sleeps with Peanut at night. While she is old enough to have memories of Scoop-Simon will, God willing, be alive well into her teen years, maybe even until she goes to college or whatever she chooses to do. For her, Simon will be her dog.

But Scoop, though he was a family’s dog, was really mine. He followed me home on a walk and while it was Sue who convinced me we should keep him, Scoop was mine and while I will miss him, I am living with the warm thought that I gave him a good life and he gave me unconditional love in return. I did the best I could for him and while he may have lived as much as another 4 years or so, he lived a wonderful life filled with all the happiness a domestic dog could want.

At 4:00 P.M. yesterday, we went down to the SCIART art gallery where my friend Bonnie Mills, an art teacher, was hosting an exhibit of her students’ work. Her students are my students and so I got to spend some time with the kids and see their artwork. But our real reason for going was because one of the pictures was the one Iris Jiang, one of Bonnie’s best and mine too, painted of Scoop. It was hanging in the art show and I was able to get a picture of Iris with it.

It was the perfect ending to a perfect day.

An addendum:

As we finished the hike, a couple of Park Rangers stopped us and told us that dogs were not allowed off leash in the park. Now, I had been letting a dog off the leash in that park for over a year, some three or four times and never been bothered about it until now. Apparently, there is a $75.00 fine for doing so. This, of course, is a by-product of the nanny state which California has become. We are afraid of everything, including a dog running in a field and we have to have laws to prevent such things from happening. Never-mind that it goes against the dog’s very breeding. Never-mind that the law was made so that dogs wouldn’t come into the park at all.

But it also seemed a fitting end. Of course, spreading Scoop’s ashes was probably illegal too. But, the deed now done, we didn’t want to exacerbate our crimes. The rangers were kind enough and didn’t fine us for our malfeasance. But since the law is in place and since we have been warned, we won’t be bringing the dogs back to the ranch. We may go there ourselves sometime, to visit the place were Scoop’s ashes are, to see the grove of oaks and reminisce about the wonderdog who brought so much to our lives. But its Scoop’s park now. Simon and Lucy will have to find another.

2011: Week 1

The last post was number 1240 and I just enjoyed looking at the even number, so I didn’t post anything for about five days.

OK. That’s a lie.

I had every intention of posting the other night when, hands over the keyboard, I looked at the clock on the Fios box and it said 9:58. The next thing I knew, it was 10:47 and I was head down, hands poised over the keyboard and ready to type. Alas, sleep came heavily and I gave in.

Mom has been here for two weeks and she goes home tomorrow. I always like when she comes. It’s such a kick to have Peanut and she together. Peanut loves her grandma so very much as do we all and she likes being here. Simon approved of her immediately and within a night or two, he would put his paws up on her leg and try to sit in her lap.

This is something he does with me, too. It’s a behavior Scoop had when he was young, too. Scoop would walk up to my chair and put his paws up, then jump up in the chair, usually a recliner, with me and lay in my lap.

Simon has the same behavior, only Sue won’t let him do it. I’m more lenient, which is probably why he respects Sue more. But anyway, he climbs into my lap and just lays there with me. He doesn’t put his whole body on, just the front end torso. The back legs stay on the ground usually.

He got his stitches out on Tuesday and is back to his old running self. He goes to the park every day, first with Sue, then with me and gets off the leash. He’s a heck of a runner and it is the one thing that really wears him out. As Caesar says, “A tired dog is a good dog.” Yessir, brother. I can attest to it.

The first week of the new year nearly behind us and I am already quite tired. Back has been hurting, too. Not the everyday garden variety thing, either. It’s a pretty constant low backache that causes me to hunch over at times-especially at night. It’s happened to me before, of course. I had back surgery in 1996 and so I’m no stranger to the weakness and the pain. Luckily, the legs aren’t involved anymore, so that’s good. I mean, there has to be an upside, yes?

The fall semester is drawing down, too. It’s been a long and bumpy one and I reckon spring will be a little bit better. It depends. I’ve written before about not gelling with some classes, and that is certainly the case with my juniors this year. For whatever reason, the bond I usually develop with my kids has not really manifest itself with them yet this year. It may not at all at the rate things are going.

Still, there are some bright spots in the class and kids who go above and beyond. I appreciate that in them and they seem to recognize that. It’s one of those things about teaching I love so very much–that when it works, you can create a symbiotic relationship with the students you teach that feeds on the education process. I’ve done this with last year’s and this year’s composition classes–particularly last year’s. The connection we all have is one that rivals friendship and because it does, the kids are willing to learn from me–and I from them. The trust builds a kind of inertia that keeps growing–it’s no longer about just “doing assignments” but about being involved deeply in the class.

I figure I have another 20 years before I can make that a habit. Sigh.

Well…

Writing as much as I can, too. A few articles for the paper–some for the magazines and I keep pitching even more.

Onward, gentles.