Tuesday, February 27, 2007

My brother's books

Before my brother died, he kept all of his books on a shelf in his bedroom closet. He was a history major at Seton Hall, so it was mostly nonfiction. After he died, they remained untouched (over eighteen years now) as a sort of unacknowledged memorial to him. Except for photographs and some articles of clothing, scattered and gathering dust in a couple other closets in my parent's house, the books were the last material reminder of my brother's life (I still don't know who got rid of the other unacknowledged memorial: a sizable collection of beer caps tossed by my brother into a Molson Golden Ale box on top of the refrigerator; three of my brother's favorite activities were drinking beer, watching the New York Mets, and reading history and it wasn't unusual to find him doing all three at once).

Over a week ago, my mother informed me that my older brother had boxed the books and was throwing them out. I don't know what prompted this. My brother was on a cleaning purge and he decided it was finally time for my brother's books to go. Well aware of my difficulty to part with books, my mother correctly surmised I would intervene (I could tell by her voice that she didn't want them to be thrown out, but didn't want to get into an argument with my brother about it). So, for the past week, a very heavy box containing my brother's books has occupied the back seat of my car (I'm still waiting for a good parking spot to open up in front of my building so I won't have to carry them so far).

And, of course, I've already got a place for them on a shelf in a closet in my apartment. Does this make me a sentimentalist? Maybe. We all remember the dead in our own private way, I suppose (I could probably count the number of times I've visited my brother's grave on one hand while my parents visited every Sunday for years). I'd rather remember my brother as he lived. And, if it's very unlikely I'll ever read that textbook on the history of Poland, maybe one day I'll check out Robert K. Massie's "Peter the Great," or Robert Conquest's "Harvest of Sorrow," or Steven Runciman's "A History of the Crusades." That will be my brother's legacy to me.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The oscars

There was a time when I actually looked forward to watching the Oscar awards ceremony. That was a long time ago. As much as I like movies, they tend to disappoint me more often than thrill me these days (which only makes sense since I'm no longer the target audience for most movies--plus, I think that after you've seen a lot of movies the novelty begins to wear off and you get the sense that the movie industry is just recycling proven formulas for the next generation of young moviegoers). But I still make the effort to try to see the movies that have garnered a consensus of critical acclaim (even though this year that wasn't always much of a guarantee) . So, without further ado, here are my two cents on the nominees.

Best Picture: I've seen all of the nominees except Babel (I'm still steeling myself for that overwrought experience). Of the ones I have seen, I enjoyed The Queen and Letters from Iwo Jima. Scorsese is one of my favorite directors, but The Departed was a let down for me. I thought there were serious problems with the plot and Jack Nicholson's antics didn't help (also, I always have a bit of a problem taking babyfaced actors like DiCaprio, Damon, and Wahlberg serious as grown men; they always come across as kids playacting as adults to me). I still can't believe that Little Miss Sunshine was even nominated. It was mildly diverting at best. I wouldn't mind if The Queen or Letters from Iwo Jima won, but if I had to pick between the two, I would go with Letters from Iwo Jima because it was more visually stunning.

Best Actor: the only nominee in this category I've seen is Ryan Gosling in Half-Nelson. He does a decent enough job as an out-of-control addict/teacher (must every serious actor play an addict at least once in their career? is it on a checklist or something?), but I didn't buy the story at all (and one listen to the director and writer on the dvd commentary was enough to tell me why--you can tell that neither of them were personally invested in the story, basically they were just slumming; a lot of well-heeled white people seem to think the poor and the addicted live more fascinating lives and nothing could be further from the truth). So, I'll stick with the favorites in this category Forest Whitaker (crazy dictator, now that's taking it up a notch!) and Peter O'Toole (because he's always good even when I saw him years ago, visably drunk, walking, or should I say being guided, down 8th Ave.)

Best Actress: Judi Dench and Helen Mirren were both good (I haven't seen the others). I'll give the nod to Judi Dench because her character was much more unlikeable than The Queen, so she had to work that much harder for you to feel sympathetic towards her.

Best Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin is the only one I've seen. His character was ridiculous, so I have no idea why he was even nominated (I wonder if he's feeling slighted for his role in The In-Laws now?). I'll go with Eddie Murphy because everyone seems to like him (let's not forget the Oscars are also a popularity contest).

Best Supporting Actress: I've only seen Cate Blanchett and the kid from Little Miss Sunshine. Between these two, I'd go with the kid only because she had to humiliate herself more (although Ms. Blanchett on the bowl was a valiant effort). But everyone loves American Idol, so Jennifer Hudson will win.

Best Director: Of the four nominees I've seen, I'd go with Clint (this would be more deserving than the overrated Million Dollar Baby). Frankly, I think it would be a shame if Scorsese won for The Departed as a consolation prize for not having won for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas etc. With his body of work, who cares if he's never won an Oscar?

Best Screenplay (original): I'll go with The Queen.

Best Screenplay (not original): I'll go with Borat for remaining so faithful to the book (I didn't think they would be able to pull off the naked wrestling scene, but they did it with aplomb!)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The worst thing

One of the topics on last night's Best Show on WFMU was "What is the worst thing someone has ever said to you?" Strangely, I didn't think of the worst thing (the denial of death in action?), but a more comical instance I've never forgotten from my youth.

Once, when I was around 12 or so, my not particularly mechanically-inclined father enlisted my older brother and me to assist him while changing a tire. Neither of us had ever done this before, so we were hardly any help. Instead of the touching scene of a father demonstrating how this is done to his sons, things disintegrated quickly when my father screwed up something in the process and turned on his sons in the middle of a temper tantrum: "You two are as useless as tits on a bull!" My father is a certified hot head, but surprisingly he's not partial to barnyard epithets. I can honestly say I can't remember him ever dropping the "F Bomb" in my presence. Not only was the comment shocking in its dismissal of us as worthless and in its symmetrical use of the word "tits," a word we had never heard him use before (or since), but it was also kind of funny (although he was clearly not joking around when he screamed it at us). Of course, my brother and I could barely contain ourselves from laughing which only made things worse for us.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Bartleby the Gamer

Intervention is my current favorite television show (A & E, Sunday nights, 10 pm). Usually alcoholics and drug addicts are featured, but every once in a while they mix it up a little. A couple of weeks ago they devoted a show to a video game addict. I thought it was going to be lame, but it turned out to be pretty interesting. He was a young guy, recently out of high school, relatively smart; he even had an attractive girlfriend. Apparently his parents' divorce screwed him up when he was younger and he began spending his entire day playing video games. Video games, it seemed, offered a safe refuge from the unpredictable and scary adult world. He agreed to go to rehab after the intervention, finished the program, but returned to "gaming" as soon as he got home. The show ended with a haunting image of this guy, sitting on a couch working the video game controller, eyes wide, staring into the glare from the TV screen, hollowed out and completely lost. It sort of reminded me of Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener."

This is what I like most about the show. You never know how it's going to end. Sometimes the happy ending you think you've just witnessed (the addict agreeing to go to rehab) turns on a dime to complete heartbreak in the update that accompanies the credits (relapses, arrests, even death). No Oprah or Dr. Phil-orchestrated happy endings here. And when there is a happy ending, as in last week's episode when an alcoholic/crack addict finally got his shit together, you feel it all the more intensely.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Fact and fiction at the movies

I saw "The Queen" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" this weekend (I saw "Notes on a Scandal" as well--pulling the old two-for-the-price-of-one-sneakeroo when I noticed it was playing shortly after "The Queen" in the theater right next door at the Bayonne multiplex; don't worry, the theater got its money worth out of me when I made the mistake of getting a small popcorn and soda that cost me more than the price of my ticket). All three are worth seeing, but "The Queen" got me thinking about how truthful it was to the actual events. As far as I know the screenplay wasn't based on memoirs from any of the principals, so does this make it a fictional presentation of real events? There are some harsh words attributed to people who are still alive (and some who are dead). Is this OK? The movie left me wondering what the Queen or Tony Blair would think of the movie. Although the events may approximate the truth as played out in the British media, does this give a writer the latitude to put words in real peoples' mouths? I don't know. All I know is that, although I enjoyed the movie very much, I felt a little funny afterwards.

My brother felt the same way about "Letters from Iwo Jima." I don't know how truthful Clint Eastwood's account of the Japanese defeat at Iwo Jima is either. I suspect in the interest of telling a compelling story, he may have diverged somewhat from actual events (I wondered in particular about a scene that seemed to be included mainly to make the point that Americans do terrible things during war, too). For some reason this didn't bother me as much as it did in "The Queen." Maybe because the events are a little more remote. I'm not sure.

Judi Dench is the main reason for seeing "Notes on a Scandal." She does a terrific job in making you feel sympathetic toward a character most people would avoid at all costs in real life. The old ladies who I share the audience with at the Bayonne theater when I catch a matinee (they came out in droves for "The Departed" which made me think that they may be a bloodthirsty bunch) hooted loudest during a scene when Cate Blanchett's character is shown wiping her ass. "That wasn't necessary," I heard one mutter and I had to agree.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


I'm always reading that spontaneity is an attribute women find attractive in men. I've never understood this. Frankly, I prefer to keep my distance from people who are very spontaneous. Being spontaneous, in my mind, is just asking for trouble. Although I would never describe myself as being particularly spontaneous (a hit man would have it easy tracking my daily routines), I have been around "spontaneous" guys in the past. Jerry D., a good friend of mine while growing up, was pretty "spontaneous." You never quite knew what you were in for when you went out with Jerry. One night in our never-ending pursuit of female companionship we ended up at a hotel bar (I got to hand it to Jerry, he was always pursuing new avenues, no rock went unturned; one week we could be hanging out at an AMVETS club with old ladies and the maimed and the next week we could be trolling the Marriott during "Happy Hour"). Anyway, on this particular spontaneous evening out, I had returned from the men's room to find my seat at the bar occupied by some other guy, a stranger. Since Jerry was engaged in a conversation with him, I assumed Jerry knew him. No problem, I'll wait. I didn't have to wait too long because the next thing I know Jerry has this guy backing up, turning tables over along the way, while he threw one punch after the other at the guy's face (as a kid Jerry had received boxing lessons from Pat the Barber and always delighted in putting them to use; having been on the receiving end of such blows myself, I can vouch for his exceptional training). The place erupts. Bartenders are screaming for assistance. A couple other guys and myself try to break it up which we do after Jerry gets off a couple more shots to the guy's head. We make a hasty retreat to the men's room where Jerry can clean up his bleeding knuckles. He's exhilarated now, of course, but I still don't know what just happened. "He took your seat and he said he wouldn't move." Really? And that was enough for you to pound the shit out of him? Wow. I guess I should be honored. Of course, Jerry had a few drinks in him when this ocurred and that was probably the main inspiration for his spontaneous behavior. I'd seen it before: the time he decided to tear up the fields around our high school doing "donuts" in his mother's beat-up Impala, the time he drove up Rt. 9 with another drunken friend hanging on for dear life on the hood of the very same vehicle, the time he started a food fight with a former girlfriend's birthday cake in her parent's basement, and on and on. All very spontaneous, no? Borderline criminal, crazy drunken behavior, is this what women really desire in a man? Or do I not even know what "spontaneous" means? Clue me in.

btw Jerry is much less spontaneous today. He's married and has a couple kids. Although I may be wrong, I suspect he hasn't punched anyone in the face for quite a while.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Fear of shit

One of my co-workers is deeply afraid of shit (or piss or the more elusive "germs"). How else would you explain the necessity of building a toilet paper nest every time you take a dump? Listen, if you think a layer of toilet paper between your ass and a public toilet seat is going to help you live longer, more power to you. Knock yourself out! But if you're going to indulge in this neurotic behavior, please have the courtesy to dismantle your nest once you're finished. Leaving your nest behind for someone else to deal with is just plain rude.

This isn't the first time I've had to deal with bathroom neurosis. A few years ago, another co-worker approached me at my desk with panic in his eyes. After a lengthy description of the design of the toilet seat in our bathroom (it's not a complete oval, there's a gap in front that exposes the rim of the toilet bowl--a fact that I had remained oblivious to until this incident), he revealed that his ass had somehow come in contact with "moisture" in the gap in the front of the seat. Five seconds into this conversation, I realized I was talking to an insane person. What I always do when I find myself in this situation (and it's happened more often than I would like to admit) is go with it. In this case it was easy. I had a germ nut on my hands. "Should I go to a doctor to be tested for HIV?" "Of course," I said, "that makes sense to me." I mean, if you're going to flip your lid, why go only half-way? The most important thing is to move the crazy person out of your vicinity as quickly as possible.

At my previous job another co-worker went nuts with toilet paper, but in a different manner. We dubbed him The Draper because he valued his privacy in the stall so much that he draped toilet paper over the thin cracks along the stall's door frame. He didn't clean up his neurotic mess either. If you didn't know it was The Draper ("The Draper strikes again!"), you would have thought a bunch of kids, out on a Mischief Night lark, had passed through the men's room.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Unmanned by the copy machine

Yesterday while standing at the copy machine, I was overcome with deep feelings of shame and embarrassment. The copy machine is located near the office kitchen area and it was around lunch time, so there was a fair amount of traffic around me while I made a copy of a manuscript. A few of the people who passed were attractive women. Their mere presence was enough to inspire my shame. Why did something I've done for years suddenly seem so unbecoming and undignified? I wasn't sure. I was sure, though, that John Wayne or Steve McQueen probably never touched a copy machine in their lives (although after seeing this Charles Bronson ad for Mandom, I could be wrong). The only example of a grown man making copies I could think of was The Copy Guy from the old Saturday Night Live bit, the imbecile who coined unlikely nicknames ("The McStingster") and kept repeating the line, "makin' copies," like an idiot whenever he was at a loss for words. Did I fear that others would assume I was a moron like The Copy Guy because I was just "makin' copies," too? Possibly. I know I have judged other men, perhaps irrationally, for sucking on a lollipop or eating an ice cream cone in public. I remember once, on the bus, the rising anger I felt when a man my age took a seat at the front of the bus and spent the entire trip smiling ear-to-ear at nothing in particular. By the time I got off the bus, I wanted to clobber him.

Maybe there is something wrong with me.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Ballad of Easy Rider

I listen to music all the time, but I have to admit it's been a long time since an album has really grabbed me to the point that I want to listen to it every day for consecutive days. Last Sunday as I was heading out to visit my parents I grabbed a cassette tape for the car ride (yes, I said "cassette"--it sounds just as good as a cd and you can get more music on it!). Anyway, since it was a Sunday morning, I wasn't looking for anything loud or fast (this has been a habit of mine for many years--my brother even remarked on it once by calling it my "Sunday music"). I hadn't listened to The Byrds in a while, so when I saw the tape labeled simply "The Byrds," I grabbed it on my way out. Another habit of mine is not to go into too much detail on the cassette label, so I wasn't even sure what was on the tape. While driving across the Casciano Bridge, the title song came on and hit me just right. Jesus, this is great, I thought, what album is this? I didn't know. I vaguely remembered borrowing some Byrds cds from a guy I used to work with and taping a bunch of them (some I had on vinyl, but others I had never owned). Now, at least six years later, I was finally getting around to listening to it and enjoying it immensely (thanks, KJ!). Is there anything better than listening to great music while driving alone in a car? It's almost like a religious experience with me. Maybe it was just the right album at the right time for me, I don't know. Who understands the mysteries of music and our connections to it? I just loved the flow of the whole album, but the title song in particular has become a personal obsession. I've listened to it every day since Sunday.

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